Wednesday, 27 February 2008

Strauss' recall defies logic

There is something palpably wrong with a cricket team when a batsmen can underperform for two years, culminating in 25 innings without hitting a century, and is then dropped before being recalled for doing precisely nothing. Yet that is exactly what has happened to Andrew Strauss.

After a disastrous run in the one-day side, for which he averaged 19 in his last 14 games, Strauss was dispensed with after the World Cup. He was then dropped from the Test side for the tour of Sri Lanka, a man who appeared mentally fatigued and, more worryingly, someone whose minimalist style of play had been worked out by opponents, who starved him of width outside off-stump. Unable to score prolifically through the V, Strauss appeared a man whose time at international level was up after outstanding initial success. It takes an excellent player to score 10 Test hundreds, clearly; but to recall him based on past successes, totally ignoring his form, is ridiculous.

Since the 3rd Test last summer, Strauss has not been a man reinvigorated by a break from his international career. Rather, his domestic struggles have been painful. Towards the end of the 2007 season, he could barely score a run for his county finishing with an average some 37 runs behind Owais Shah. For Northern Districts in the decidedly modest standard of Kiwi domestic cricket, he hit a century in his final game, but his overall average was 26. What justification did England have for picking him on this tour?

None whatsoever - except he was a 'safe pair of hands' at slip and, more significantly, he possessed a central contract. That was clearly a big mistake. But two wrongs do not make a right. The favoritism borders on the absurd. In England's first tour game, Strauss scored a painstaking 25-ball four, while his rival for a spot in the side - Owais Shah - hit 96. The perpetual fall guy of English cricket, Shah was inexplicably left out for Ravi Bopara in Sri Lanka and faces similarly unjust treatment here.

Because he has become a member of the 'inner circle' and despite the fact that his recent form is atrocious, Strauss will almost certainly play in the first Test. He will bat at three. It is a wise move to allow the Cook-Vaughan partnership to develop, but a bewildering one to play a man out of his normal position when he is in such dire form. Recalling Strauss evokes the blind loyalties of the Duncan Fletcher era, with the implication that reputation counts for more than consistent failings over an 18-month period. It is a selection which totally ignores any convention of picking on merit. What must the best batsman in England, and consummate number three - Mark Ramprakash - be thinking?

Saturday, 23 February 2008

England Lions Tour Review

For fans angered by England's poor displays in their last Test and ODI Series, the England Lions' recently completed tour of India provided a few encouraging signs. However, in the Duleep Trophy, after winning their opening game England collapsed meekly on the final day of their second match when the final was in their sights. They then won two of their three limited-overs games.

Michael Carberry's career has frequently promised much but he now appears to be realising his potential. After averaging 50 in first-class cricket last season, he struck centuries in both the Duleep Trophy and a one-day game. If he has a successful time opening in the Friends Provident Trophy group stages, he could earn a ODI callback as an aggressive opening batsman. At 27, he is entering his prime years.

Of the other batsmen, captain Mike Yardy hit a big century in the Duleep Trophy but is palpably not international class, while Jonathan Trott did little of note and the great hope Joe Denly struggled. However, Ed Joyce, so impressive in scoring 107 against Australia last year, reminded the selectors of his talents. Overall though this was probably not the best batting line-up England could muster of those not involved with the national side. Rob Key and Ed Smith, both of whom would have been better as captains than Yardy, given that they have greater class and more chance of featuring internationally.

The great England wicket-keeper debate shows no sign of abating, but James Foster endured a miserable tour with the bat which will end his short-term hopes of playing another Test.

With the ball, the veteran Alan Richardson was impeccable, claiming six wickets in his only first-class match, before being unfairly dropped for Liam Plunkett, and doing well in the one-dayers too. However, as he is near 33 it is unlikely he will be called upon, barring a severe injury crisis. Plunkett was most disappointing, and was outshone by Durham team-mate Graham Onions. Onions took 7-39 in a heroic display in the one-dayer England lost and, for want of other options, has a chance of winning a ODI debut next season.

The tour's big winner, however, was Adil Rashid. With six wickets at 18 in the Duleep Trophy, he outbowled Monty Panesar. His batting was fantastic; he displayed tremendous maturity in both forms of the game. For the first time in his career, Rashid made significant strides in the limited-overs game and how England would love him in their ODI side come the 2011 World Cup.

England Ratings

Here is how England's players rated in their disappointing 3-1 series defeat to New Zealand:

Alastair Cook 6
For the second consecutive series, Cook finished as England's top run-scorer. He appears to be going in the right direction as a one-day player but an inability to score a steady stream of singles mean doubts still abound. His 70-ball 42 on the final game bordered on the excruciating; while his 69 in game four, scored at a strike-rate of just 78 despite the perfect batting conditions, was also indicative of his limitations.

Phil Mustard 6
Mustard's 83 in the fourth game showed he has real promise as a pinch hitter - but he too often flatters to deceive, and was out to an aberrant slog in the final game. Encouragingly, his keeping was generally excellent - though, typically amongst English keepers, he disappointed with the gloves after making his top score.

Ian Bell 6
Yet again, the feeling is Bell too often fails to assert himself for an international number three. His 73, before being unjustly given out, was sublime, but he must improve his consistency. At least his strike-rate - 80 in this series - has markedly improved in the last year.

Kevin Pietersen 6
Pietersen's average - 33 - and strike-rate - 73 - were both disappointing. In 20 ODIs since the World Cup, he has averaged just 31 - though they were tentative signs of improvement, England need to work out why.

Paul Collingwood 8
In games three and four, Collingwood played two brilliant innings which should banish, once and for all, the misconception that he is a 'nurdler'. His bowling and captaincy were fairly impressive too.

Owais Shah 4
A very disappointing series, which showed Shah is less-than-comfortable attacking from ball one. His talent is beyond question, however, and it would be well worth giving him the chance to open, as he has for Middlesex.

Ravi Bopara 2
Looked out-of-his depth and desperately bereft of confidence. How much he has been over-hyped for one valiant, but ultimately futile, innings a year ago.

Graeme Swann 2
Unceremoniously discarded after two poor games - though it would never be easy defending such meagre totals - and should have played towards the end of the series, given the excellence of his displays in Sri Lanka.

Stuart Broad 7
Undoubtedly on an upward curve, Broad twice took three wickets in an innings but also suffered from bowling too short at times. But, especially given his batting aptitude - 52 runs for once out in this series - he has established himself as a key member of the limited-overs side.

Ryan Sidebottom 7
Now an indispensable member of the side, Sidebottom is the sole bowler with a full grasp of the virtues of line-and-length. That should not detract from his other qualities, however, and his spell with the old-ball in the fifth game was an example of pacey reverse-swing at its best.

James Anderson 2
Enough is enough. Anderson consistently bowls too many loose deliveries, allowing New Zealand's openers to get off to explosive starts - unacceptable in a side playing only three specialist bowlers. His series stats say it all: four wickets at an average of 67 and an egregious economy of 7.3.

Dimitri Mascarenhas 6
There was a major clamour for his inclusion after his superb Twenty20 performances. 29* of 12 balls in the fifth game illustrated why; but, not benefiting from an apparent lack of confidence from his captain, his 14 overs cost 93. If he cannot consistently deliver 10 overs for 50, even his amazing propensity for clearing the ropes may not be enough to claim a regular spot.

Luke Wright 8
Wright's showing was, in many ways, the most encouraging of any England player. He hit the ball hard and far, scoring 71 in the 47 balls he faced, but his clean-striking suggests a highly encouraging talent - for now, however, he should not be brought back up to open, where he failed ignominiously in the Twenty20 World Cup. And his last over in game four suggests a temperament well-suited to international cricket, and real potential as a fifth bowler.

The Verdict
After twice thrashing New Zealand in the Twenty20 games, this was a humbling series indeed for England. Their batting collapsed pathetically in the first two games, while their policy of including only three front-line bowlers is not sustainable. A more flexible batting order is another area England must work on: too often they lack adaptability in games, though Collingwood's use of Shah with the ball showed they can think on their feet. England's one-day side is considerably better off than when they were humbled by the West Indies - but it is very much work in progress.

Thursday, 21 February 2008

Anderson's struggles continue

Away from the sheer madness of the Indian Premier League, there was quite a game of cricket played between England and New Zealand. Most pundits thought 340 was well out of the Kiwis’ reach; but they reckoned without some mediocre bowling, the short boundaries and some exhilarating batting. For all their problems, especially in the Test arena, New Zealand remain a combative and canny one-day international side. With that in mind, England would be ecstatic if they could salvage a draw from this series.

To do that, they will need to build on their batting exploits. At last, England managed an assertive start. Phil Mustard displayed hitting power and hitherto unimagined subtlety and selectivity in his 83, amassing 158 with Alastair Cook. Cook is undeniably growing as a limited-overs player. However, he still has a long way to go to succeed in emulating Matthew Hayden. With hindsight, his excruciating start – two runs from 17 balls, during which he was dropped – may have cost England the match. Tellingly, England scored an astonishing 227 from the 30 non-Powerplay overs, but only managed a relatively meagre 113 during the 20 overs of Powerplays. Cook’s strike-rate of 78 would be good on most wickets; but not so on the short boundaries of Napier. Still, the opening partnership of Mustard and Cook, two contrasting left-handers, is one that should be persevered with.

Unlike on numerous occasions in the past, England capitalised in the last 10 overs, adding over a century. Ian Bell, Kevin Pietersen and especially Paul Collingwood appear in fine form after failures in the first two games, while Luke Wright bludgeoned quick runs before showing an ice-cool temperament with a brilliant final over of the game.

More worrying is the oft-unfairly treated Owais Shah. His best innings for England, including his 107 against India and 82 at Dambulla, came when given the chance to play a substantial innings before accelerating at the end. He struggled under the requirement of hitting from ball one, suggesting others should be promoted ahead of him in similar situations but, as a supremely talented player who can accumulate and find the gaps with his wristy style, Shah should not be discarded.

With the ball, however, England’s shortcomings were exposed. Besides the exemplary Ryan Sidebottom, bowlers consistently bowled too short. James Anderson is 25 and has played 85 ODIs, but his control is too often found wanting. Given that he has averaged 56, with an economy rate of 5.6, during his last nine games, Anderson needs to impress in the series finale – or he should be dropped.

But what of Dimi Mascharenhas? After two scintillating performances in the two Twenty20 games, there was a clamour for him to be included in the ODI side too. But he has failed to justify the hype, bowling nine overs for 69, seemingly lacking the confidence of Collingwood, and not being given the chance to show-off his six-hitting power. In the right conditions, both his bowling and batting could be of great use. Yet in the last two games, having dropped Graeme Swann, England have been left with just three front-line bowlers, and have subsequently been over-exposed.

But after the humiliations of the first two games, it is testament to England's resilience that they can still harbour hopes of sharing the series.

Monday, 18 February 2008

Self-inflicted pain

Whilst England’s mini-revival in One Day International cricket would appear to be hauling itself back on track after Friday’s victory over New Zealand the focus has been taken off the role of the management in England’s malaise. They have managed to successfully deprive three promising players of any semblance of confidence.

Owais Shah had a fantastic return to International Limited Overs cricket against the West Indians last summer. Finally it appeared as though one of county cricket’s more talented players had arrived on the big stage to stay. Yet he played only five of the following seven games against India as consistency of selection seemed to evaporate. However, Shah scored his first century in that series and went to Sri Lanka in good form. In the second match of that series, with England one down, Shah hit a crucial 82 to win the game. His performances then tailed off in the remaining three matches. However, surely he had done enough to earn a Test recall, especially after his last outing on the sub-continental pitches of India, where he struck a vital 88 and 38.

However, despite his performances and his expertly wristy play of spin, he was overlooked and in stepped a young Ravi Bopara, scorer of just one fifty in his 19 matches to that date. Bopara had experienced a dismal ODI series in Sri Lanka with a high score of 27 not out. Bopara, clearly out of form already, was thrown in at the deep end and how he drowned. He managed 42 runs from 5 innings, including three ducks. His confidence plummeted to its lowest ebb surely. Time for a breather perhaps, not for the England management though. He replaced Dimi Mascarenhas for the first two ODI’s in New Zealand and contrived to lose England at least one of those games, whilst he joined in with the general malaise. Meanwhile, Shah, surely demoralised by rejection after promising performances, has scored just 38 runs from his 3 innings in New Zealand so far. Good work Team England.

Now, for the final part of the puzzle, Mascarenhas. He waited a long, long time for the chance and when it came he eventually grasped it with both hands after an early struggle with the bat against the West Indies, batting in an unfamiliar number seven position. Economical bowling in that series was followed by more of the same plus some wickets against India in the four matches which he played. He also scored a terrific 52 from 39 and 36 not out from 15 in his only two innings. Finally England had a man who could replicate the Andrew Flintoff of old,s death hitting. 31 from 14 and 11 from 7 followed in the T20 Internationals versus New Zealand, coupled with bowling figures of 4-44 from 8 overs. Surely he had secured his place for the ODI’s. No! In came Bopara and Mascarenhas, when he did finally appear in the third ODI, took a bit of stick during his 7 overs for 55, not helped by his captain’s use of him, or the hit his confidence most likely took from being dropped. What are England playing at?!

Friday, 15 February 2008

Captain Colly shows the way

Paul Collingwood's side have rightly been lambasted for a pair of aberrant performances in this ODI series. But it is to his great credit that he led by example in the third game, claiming three wickets and scoring a rapid 70* to put England back on the right track.

Collingwood's pride has palpably been damaged by the first two games. Under his captaincy, the impression that England do not care for one-day cricket has gradually been eroded, as anyone who witnessed the jubilant celebrations upon winning the series in Sri Lanka would conform. Apathy has been a major problem for England in this format; too often, they have been blown away in series that have followed the Tests, with the players all seemingly longing for a return home. That is no longer the case, for Collingwood has made it his mission to make England a respected one-day outfit once more.

His performance today illustrated the good cricketing sense he has come to be associated with. His bowling in this format of the game continues to improve; canny and with plenty of guile, his brand of cutters and slower balls are well-accustomed to Kiwi wickets. With the bat, he was audacious and a little lucky but superb: his 70* from only 50 balls made a nervy run chase into a cakewalk, as he ruthlessly targeted New Zealand's band of medium-pacers after seeing off the brilliant Daniel Vettori.

While they have regained some respectability, it would still represent a major surprise if England produce two more similarly impressive showings. Clearly, they need Phil Mustard to make a significant contribution at the top; breezy cameos are not enough. But, at last, their much-vaunted middle-order lived up to the hype, with Ian Bell playing a fine innings and Kevin Pietersen, though far from his best, making a timely contribution. Collingwood's combativeness evoked the tenacity and skill he displayed in the incredible CB Series win last year. After their thrashings in the first two games, a turnaround England series victory would come close to that for shock value.

Wednesday, 13 February 2008

The rare tour

As huge doubts are cast over next month's tour of Pakistan by Australia it is worth considering the history of this, one of the rarest of all cricket tours.

Australia first toured Pakistan in 1956, playing just one Test against the then fledgling Test nation. Surprisingly the tourists lost heavily, being bowled out for just 80 in the first innings, and eventually losing by 9 wickets.

On the next tour, just 3 years later, Australia restored the balance, winning the 3 match series 2-0. But it would be nearly 40 years before they would taste victory again on a ground in Pakistan. In fact their next win, at Rawalpindi in 1998, was their third and last win in Pakistan. It was also the last time an Australian team toured Pakistan.

In the nearly ten years since that tour Pakistan have played at least one Test series against every other Test playing nation. Sri Lanka have visited Pakistan 3 times, while Bangladesh, England, South Africa and India have each toured twice. It is very odd then that Australia should not have toured at all in this time.

Security fears, which are the reason cited for the doubts over next month's tour, are not to be treated lightly. Yet, every other nation has sent their security teams and then made their tours. To my knowledge no player has been injured as a result of violence off the field on any of these tours. So why are the Australians so reluctant?

It is a question with no easy answer. There is no problem between the teams or their respective boards, as Pakistan have toured Australia twice since 1998. Both teams also played a Test series on neutral grounds when Australia refused to tour Pakistan in 2002, again citing fears over their security.

The issue is not a new one. After their successful tour of Pakistan in 1959, Australia toured again in 1964, though they only played one match. They did not tour again until 1980, 16 years later. Again all the Test playing nations of the time toured Pakistan in that 16 year span, and Pakistan toured Australia several times.

It truly is an enigma. In the entire history of Tests between the two countries, spanning over 50 years, Australia has only played 20 Tests in Pakistan. This was, perhaps, understandable in the early days of Test cricket, but in the modern era with the so-called Test championship, it is an unacceptable anomaly that one country should tour another so infrequently.

It is easy to understand why Pakistan's players, fans and board are unhappy about the prospect of another cancelled tour by Australia. The Australians are, after all, a hugely talented team, rated the best side in the world, and a massive draw for all Test fans.

Cricket watchers in Pakistan might also reflect that in those 20 Tests Australia have played in Pakistan the tourists have only won 3, while Pakistan have won 7. This trend may not have continued if Australia had toured Pakistan more often, but home advantage is huge in cricket, so one suspects Pakistan would have done well on home soil.

It is surely time that the best team in the world shows its class by making the tour that it has struggled with the most. Such a rare event would be a treat for all cricket fans, as well as showing that the Test cricket championship is a fair contest for all, with matches both home and away.

Tuesday, 12 February 2008

Abject England, as weak as water

Having won the first four matches of their tour to New Zealand, England were expected to dominate the ODI series much in the same way as they had done the 20/20 match-ups. However, New Zealand hadn't read the script and have since demolished England in the first two ODIs.

Fans would have been hoping that the abysmal showing of Saturday had merely been a blip on the radar for this young and promising outfit. It was infact nothing, compared to the apocalyptic debacle witnessed at Seddon Park this morning.

Captain Collingwood lost the toss and England were put into bat by New Zealand skipper Daniel Vettori. A few minutes later, Alastair Cook and Phil Mustard made their way to the block to try and make amends for their failings first time around.

For six overs everything seemed to be going according to plan. The batsmen gauged the pace and bounce of the pitch much better and made an aggressive start. However, as he does too often Mustard went for one shot too many and was caught out when he could easily have played the ball along the ground through cover. With experience, Mustard is likely to cut these mistakes out of his game. Next ball, the under-pressure Ian Bell, fell for a golden duck due to an exceptional catch by keeper McCullum. Next in was Pietersen and together with Cook, they seemed to steady the ship. The pair were still at the crease when rain curtailed play for over 2 hours.

Upon the resumption of play, England fell apart. Daft shots and ridiculous run outs caused England to collapse from 90-2 to 158 all out. No dismissal was more farcical than that of Alastair Cook.

Ravi Bopara decided it would be a great idea to hit the ball straight to New Zealand's best fielder (Ross Taylor) and set off for a suicide single. Being the team player that he is, Cook tried to rescue the exigent situation and did his best to scamper up the pitch and try to prevent the loss of another England wicket. He was run out by a mile.

To make matters worse, Bopara played a painstaking innings from there on in and subsequently threw his wicket away. People will very quickly get annoyed with this laissez faire approach and the distinct lack of a sensible thought process.

On the other hand, Alastair Cook again played superbly for his innings of 53. Some would argue that he should have stood his ground and allowed Bopara to be run out. With more experience, he probably would have done so. However, he was completely innocent in his dismissal and one would only hope that Bopara later apologized for denying him a big innings. One can not be sure as to how many Cook would have gone on to make as the rest of the team hardly stuck around. However, had he stayed England's score might well have been upwards of 200; a much greater challenge under the constraints of Duckworth Lewis.

It is good to see that Cook is getting a fair run at the top of the order. He is a good complimenting opener to Mustard as he allows his colleague to take on the bowling. Despite missing out on the 20/20 matches, Cook has put in three very good performances so far on this tour and slowly his class seems to be showing through in the one-day arena. It is little wonder that he is being touted as the FEC. The man is only 23 years of age; yet he is playing with a humility and percipience that is frankly putting his senior counterparts to shame.

New Zealand's openers, McCullum and Ryder, showed no mercy whatsoever in their attempt at chasing down the inadequate total set by the opposition. England bowled very badly and the two batsmen slaughtered the bowling to take New Zealand past the winning post of 165 with 107 balls remaining. England had chances but wasted them; dropping McCullum on 0 and Ryder on 8. They finished on 80 and 79 respectively. Even so, England got what they deserved.

With the next game on Friday in Auckland, it is very hard to see how England are going to be able to pick themselves up in time. A plus for the visitors is that things really can't get much worse. Collingwood seemed keen on keeping an unchanged team for this match but after today's result, changes seem inevitable. Bell and Bopara both seem to be in torrid form and the only players who would be likely to come in for them are Luke Wright and Dimitri Mascarenhas. This would leave a probable batting order like so:

1. Alastair Cook
2. Phil Mustard (WK)
3. Kevin Pietersen
4. Paul Collingwood (Capt.)
5. Owais Shah
6. Dimitri Mascarehnas
7. Luke Wright
8. Greame Swann
9. Stuart Broad
10. Ryan Sidebottom
11. James Anderson

It is the opinion of many that Pietersen should bat at three because he is clearly England's best batsman. He should therefore be exposed to as much of the bowling as possible. On his day, Collingwood is most probably the side's second best one-day batsman, hence making him the obvious choice to be England's number four. Dimi Mascarehnas and Luke Wright both played well during the 20/20 series and would add a much needed impetus to the middle order.

England have talent, there is no doubt about that. They showed that they were made of sterner stuff during the 20/20s; yet their sudden loss of confidence is making them as weak as the rain water that disrupted play in Hamilton today. A promising, young and at times, exciting team they may be. It just seems at the moment, many of those promises are rather hollow.

Feeble England make Mascarenhas into a demi-God

The first thrashing was unexpected but far from shocking: England began their ODI tour of Sri Lanka with a similar shocker, and still won the series. Today's 10-wicket humbling, however, was something else. It is amazing how a side who recorded two consecutive series victories can appear so inadequate and hopeless, lacking in the most basic cricketing skills. For all the talk of England's revival as a one-day side under Paul Collingwood, which seemed palpable only four days ago, there are deep problems with the side.

Phil Mustard is still yet to pass 30 in seven ODI innings, but there are some signs of encouragement in his opening partnership with the contrasting Alastair Cook; 41 in 5.5 overs today is the sort of opening stand England too seldom enjoy. Patently, the problems exist beneath them, in the middle-order previously regarded as one of England's strengths.

With 420 runs at an average of 70 and strike-rate of 90 in the series with India, Ian Bell appeared to be maturing into a very fine one-day number three, capable of dictating the tempo of England's innings and possessing new-found assertiveness. Well, rubbish to all that. Bell has not reached 50 in 11 ODIs (plus two Twenty20 games) and seemingly lacks a coherent gameplan. So much time has been invested in him; and he has promised so much. There is no conceivable alternative at number three for the remainder of this series; but, if he cannot avert his slump with some intelligently constructed knocks soon, he will have to be replaced. Credible alternatives are dificult to find, however.

Kevin Pietersen, once the best one-day international batsman in the world, is undeniably facing the first major slump of his career. He is losing some of his aura following a poor run, as he has succumbed to opposition plans and, on occasions, the fallibility of his concentration. England need him back to his best soon; Pietersen must pay the opposition the respect they deserve and there were fleeting signs of that today. Owais Shah, meanwhile, is still a man who offers much to the side even if he was guilty of serious misjudgements between the wickets in the first game. It would be hard to say the same for Ravi Bopara, however. Over-hyped following a fine innings in the World Cup in which he nonetheless faltered when it mattered most, he has only made one contribution of note since and, following a nightmarish debut Test series, both his technique and mind would clearly benefit from a break.

Replacing him must be Dimi Mascarenhas, who should never have been dropped following the Twenty20s, as many others have said. He is becoming a better player with every game he misses, though, and he will not solve England's ODI problems at a stroke. It is hard to overly judge the bowling after the limp batting displays, but James Anderson, whose control of line and length is astoundingly unreliable, should perhaps be replaced with Chris Tremlett, even if there would be a feeling of 'change for change's sake'.

What is undeniable is England have been utterly inept in their opening two games. Their batting is bereft of a discernible game-plan, too prone to brainless run-outs and collapses, simultaneously lacking assertiveness and caution. Give or take the odd selection, this is more-or-less the best side England have. That is perhaps most worrying of all.

Friday, 8 February 2008

Mustard and Mascarenhas offer much encouragement

England's tour to New Zealand has begun in the best possible way, with consecutive thrashings - in Twenty20 terms, at least - of the hosts. They will now be confident of winning the two more significant series that await.

There is only so much one can read into two Twenty20 victories against a depleted side, but they were further proof of the fine effect Paul Collingwood is having as skipper of the limited-overs side. They illustrated the extent to which Ryan Sidebottom was missed in the Twenty20 World Cup; he continues to impress, even when, as in the second game, there is no swing. Phil Mustard's 61 runs off 37 balls over the two games showed he can score at the rate required of a pinch-hitter, which Matt Prior never did. However, he still needs some substantial scores in the ODI series to justify England's obsession with trying to replicate Australia in opening with their wicket-keeper. Last domestic season, Mustard averaged 49 opening the batting in 40 and 50-over cricket, which shows he deserves a run in the side there. But Tim Ambrose, batting in the middle-order, was explosive for Warwickshire, averaging almost 70, with two centuries.

The exploits of Dimitri Mascarenhas, who mixed frugal bowling with some characteristically brutal hitting, mean he deserves to retain his place, at seven, for the ODI series, meaning 'golden boys' Ravi Bopara and Luke Wright will have to watch from the sidelines. Alongside Mascarenhas, England's line up should include Collingwood, Swann and Broad, a quartet of three-dimensional cricketers who give England real depth with both bat and ball. These are encouraging times for England's limited-overs side, at least: a third consecutive ODI series win is very much expected, even if Messrs Oram and Vettori return.

Monday, 4 February 2008

A brighter future for county cricket...hopefully.

Today, the E.C.B. has announced that £30 million will be ploughed into the county game and upwards of 2000 community clubs across the country. This money is primarily going to be used to update venues of all 18 first-class counties, to ensure that international standard floodlights are installed. For leading county grounds there is the added bonus of improved drainage.

County cricket always takes second place to internationals and rightfully so; but it doesn't need to be as far behind as it is currently. With the advent of 20/20 cricket, the financial benefits and increased popularity associated with floodlit cricket have been further confirmed. More floodlights mean more day-night matches. More day-night matches mean more spectators and more money for the game. This money then can be reinvested into bigger and better things.

As with all investment, it needs to be carried out thoroughly and short cuts shouldn't be considered. Let's for example, take a look at the county ground, Bristol. In 2007, it staged a day-night ODI between England and India (India ending up winners by 9 runs). This match was played with four small floodlights all at one side of the ground. This would be an unacceptable waste of funding if such an arrangement was to be made to make this a permanent. If floodlights are to be installed, they should look to install big towers all around the ground, such as those used in Australia. This would make viewing and playing much easier.

Part of the E.C.B’s long-term county reformation plan will see large international grounds, such as Old Trafford, being entitled to funding for better drainage. It would be good to see this on a par with the standards at Lords. Such drainage would be fantastic and would clearly allow for much more cricket to be played.

Is it fair however, that non-international grounds shouldn't have improved drainage? County grounds such as Glamorgan, Derbyshire and Worcestershire appear to be somewhat neglected due to not being hosts of test matches. This is disappointing to see. All grounds should be improved to allow for as much cricket as possible. It is only right that in this day of sky-high ticket prices and non-terrestrial TV coverage, that the followers of this great game get their money's worth.

Saturday, 2 February 2008

Bond's name must not be tarnished

Shane Bond, when fit, has been an exhilarating sight. His appearances over six years for New Zealand may have been disappointingly spasmodic, but his pace, guile and one of the best yorkers around ensures he leaves many fine memories for cricket fans. But the lure of the dollar has proved too much, and, because of the ICC's draconian attitude towards those who sign up for the Indian Cricket League, Bond will probably never play for New Zealand again - despite the fact ICL commitments would not prevent him playing for the Kiwis in the forthcoming series with England.

It is a ludicrous situation, and will hit the already depleted New Zealand side extremely hard, but it would be unfair in the extreme to blame Bond. Even in a career that only spanned 17 Tests and 67 ODIs, few could deny his place as the second best Kiwi fast bowler of all time. Yet New Zealand are a small country new to the concept of professional sport; their Test crowds seldom exceed a few hundred. Bond has been the victim of copious injuries during his career - at 32, he cannot be blamed for looking after his earning power, which will be several times greater playing ICL cricket. He also claims he wants to play county cricket too - fitness permitting, there are few more desirable players around.

A charge frequently levelled against performers whose success is only fleeting is that they never proved themselves against the best. With Shane Bond, such an accusation cannot hold. In 11 ODIs against Australia, he has a stunning record: 34 wickets at 13. His havoc-wreaking spells of 5-25 and 4-38 during the 2002 VB series helped to ensure the competition was not lost amidst the sea of one-dayers. But his sensational spell in the 2003 World Cup cemented his reputation, regardless of whether he ever comes near repeating the feat again.

It was in this Super Six game that Bond proved on the world stage that, when fit, he is the consummate fast bowler. He had the height to trouble the world’s best with the bounce he generated. But it was his sheer pace and accuracy in pitching the ball up (he resisted the fast bowler’s temptation to bowl too short) that threw the tournament winners into disarray. Bond’s incredible spell amounted to 6-23 reduced Australia to 84-7.

Owing to Bond's penchant for obtaining injuries and the ICC's stubbornness over banning ICL players - the result chiefly of pressure from the BCCI - he will go down as a cricketing enigma, a man who gave only fleeting examples of his talent. Over the course of his career, though, there has been no finer fast bowler in the world. Bond's averages of 22 in Tests and 19 in ODIs are simply phenomenal in an era of bigger bats and shorter boundaries; he lit up two World Cups with his fusion of pace, aggression and an under-rated cricketing brain. It would be a disgrace if his name is tarnished and he is branded a 'traitor' for doing what any rational man would.