Monday, 28 July 2008

Championship Review - Week 12

In all of the 20Twenty excitement, it’s all change at the top of both divisions of the County Championship as Notts and Worcester take their chances, while Lancashire are frustrated/ hang on (delete according to viewpoint) against Hampshire.

Division 1
Only two games in the top division, and with Durham not playing Nottinghamshire had the chance to return to the top – as did Yorkshire, mathematically. Notts decision to bat first looked to have backfired as they were bowled out for 213. However, this was enough for a decent first innings lead, as Yorkshire, missing Antony McGrath who was injured in the warm up, made just 161 with Charlie Shrek taking five wickets. Batting got easier second time round, particularly as Rana Naved picked up an injury which restricted his bowling and Notts made 350, leaving Yorkshire needing 403. Despite an outstanding 132 (his maiden first class century) from Adam Lyth, it was a player at the other end of his career that took the plaudits as Mark Ealham finished up with seven wickets in the total of 290 and Notts ran out comfortable winners to top the table. Yorkshire are beginning to look over their shoulders.

Lancashire could have gone top with a win over Hampshire and started well with 357 in their first innings, Imran Tahir taking five wickets on debut for Hants. A stand of 145 between Michael Brown and Chris Benham rescued Hants from 35 for 3, but their total of 288 still gave Lancs a decent lead. However, Tahir went two better second time round, taking 7 wickets as Lancs struggled to 155, leaving Hants needing 225 for victory in 71 overs. A poor start meant that the chase was more about survival. However, at the close of play they had reached 215 for 7, only 10 runs short of an unlikely victory. They stay in the bottom two, while Lancs move up to 2nd.

Division 2
With Warwickshire having a week off, Worcestershire had the chance to go top against a Middlesex team who’s mind was on the 20Twenty finals. Indeed Middlesex were indebted to a fine 91 from Shaun Udal to get them to 300, Kabir Ali taking 5 wickets. Worcester went 61 runs better, with Ben Smith getting out in the 90s again. In the second innings, it was only a century partnership between Dawid Malan and Ben Scott that got Middlesex to 164, with Gareth Batty taking 5 wickets. Worcester knocked off the 105 needed for victory without losing a wicket to go top while Middlesex’s challenge is faltering.

Also keeping up the pressure at the top are Essex, who restricted Gloucestershire to 275 in their first innings, despite Marcus North getting 98. However, at 109 for 6 Essex were struggling and only a lower order rally, centred around James Foster took them to a four run first innings lead, Steve Kirby taking five wickets. Danesh Kaneria took five wickets second time round as Gloucester struggled to 184. Essex were quickly 7 for 2, but then reached the 181 needed for vitory without losing another wicket, Ravi Bopara getting a hundred with support from Neil Dexter. Essex are 4th, but with a game in hand over Worcester and Northants, who are also still in the hunt.

Northamptonshire stayed in contention with a Kolpakshire derby win against Leicestershire. Northants made 373 first time round with David Sales contributing 151. this was enough for a lead of 200 as Leicestershire struggled to 173. Following on they had reached 92 for 6 before Paul Nixon’s 73 at least meant that Northants had to bat again, ending on 226. Northants lost 2 wickets in their chase of 27, but still ran out comfortable winners to move 3rd in the table.

England Player Watch
Another century for Ravi Bopara who is having an excellent season for Essex. In contrast Owais Shah made just 7 runs in his two innings.

On the bowling front, Adil Rashid is back in the wickets, taking 6, while Matthew Hoggard took five wickets. Charlie Shrek took a 5-fer and given the selector’s current love of Notts bowlers, he time may come soon!

Player of the Week
Not many matches, but some outstanding performances. Adam Lyth deserves credit for his maiden century as does David Sales for his 151. Mark Ealham turned back the years with his 7-fer, however it was another 7-fer that almost took Hampshire to an unlikely victory that wins the award. Last season he played one game for Yorkshire and looked out of his depth. This season he’s started his Hants career with 12 wickets in a match and the Player of the Week is Imran Tahir.

Sunday, 27 July 2008

Shah ensures Twenty20 riches for Middlesex

After 15 years without a trophy, Middlesex certainly picked the right one to end their drought. In winning the 2008 Twenty20 Cup, they have earned themselves riches the envy of all county players. And their victory was utterly deserved: they have been the best side throughout the competition, winning 11 of their 13 games.

Their success has been built on the soundest of formulas. Mixing the accumulating batting style of Ed Joyce and Billy Godleman with the unorthodox flair of youngsters Eoin Morgan and Dawid Malan, the phenomenally-powerful hitting of Tyron Henderson and the tournament-winning brilliance of Owais Shah, their batting line-up was formidable indeed.

Their bowling was expected to be less so. However, in Murali Kartik and Shaun Udal, Middlesex had the best spin pair in the competition, able to suffocate the opposition in the middle overs with their canniness and subtle variations: Kartik’s economy rate was 6.7, Udal’s a brilliant 6.2. Their pace bowling appeared on paper to be their weak link, but Henderson, Dirk Nannes and Tim Murtagh all rose to the challenge throughout, with Henderson's yorker-filled death bowling particularly significant.

Always, they had someone able to take on the responsibility as the county set about improving upon their previously appalling Twenty20 record.

The best instance of this was Malan's extraordinary quarter-final century against Lancashire. At 21/4, the game seemed almost gone yet Malan's knock transformed the match. Driving powerfully against the seamers and treating Simon Marshall's leg-spin with skilful and calculated disdain, Malan provided evidence of a rare talent. He also illustrated the self-confidence and self-expression that Joyce, in tandem with injured club captain Ed Smith, has established.

Yesterday Middlesex certainly showed few signs of nerves in the first Twenty20 finals day. Against the favourites Durham, they stifled them through a combination of the parsimony of the Udal-Kartik duo and some wonderful fielding, leaving Shivnarine Chanderpaul unable to get into Twenty20 mode. Henderson then obliterated Durham's powerful pace attack with a 19-ball half-century, even having the audacity to launch Steve Harmison over his head for six. He was at it again in the final, as Middlesex's bold plan to promote him to number three paid dividends, but was totally overshadowed by Shah.

Called a big-game player by Joyce prior to the final, he proved him emphatically right with a model innings for this form of the game. Shah was able to manipulate the ball into gaps with his wrists, showing his propensity for finding unlikely corners of the outfield. He then launched a memorable assault upon the off-spin of James Tredwell: one would have called it slogging, but the incredible speed with which he hit through the ball and the distance with which three consecutive deliveries sailed over the ropes showed the skill and practise that have gone into the shot. The 34-ball 75 was a superb innings that illustrated the range of skills he brings to England’s limited-overs sides. And he surely deserves more than his mere two Test caps.

As Rob Key and Joe Denly put on 89 at ten-an-over – opening with them for England would certainly be an improvement on the Bell-Wright partnership in the ODIs against New Zealand – Middlesex would have wondered whether their 187 would prove enough. But Kartik and above all Udal, with a relish for a big occasion the like of which seemed in the past when he retired last year, transformed proceedings, helped by Joyce’s run-out of Arafat. Darren Stevens and Justin Kemp took Kent to the brink, but Murtagh bowled a superb, yorker-leaden 18th over to confirm his startling progress since leaving Surrey. Even when Stevens departed, the assault continued, with two moments – Joyce’s drop off Kemp; and Malan’s awful throw gifting two runs – looking crucial as the equation became four off two balls. Henderson’s figures were 3.4-0-0-58, but the South African held his nerve to deliver two superb yorkers. A trophy, at last, was Middlesex’s.

With a richly talented side imbued with self-belief following this victory, Middlesex’s years of underachievement should be coming to an end. But they were thrashed by Worcestershire in their last CC match and remain lurking in Division Two mediocrity. Whatever their grim four-day form, Antigua, and perhaps India too, awaits.

Thursday, 24 July 2008

Twenty20 Finals Day Preview

The bookies can hardly separate the four sides and there appears to be no more than a hare's breath between them...Lef previews Twenty20 finals day.

Essex, Middlesex, Kent and Durham will make up the Finals' Day in 2008 and it's already looking like a much stronger line-up than 2007 when an off-key Lancashire, Kent with Malinga/Walker instead of Kemp/Mahmood and Gloucestershire and Sussex, who could only muster 3 wins out of 20 between them in the 2008 group stages, made up the final four.

Much has been made of "fortress Chelmsford" but Essex have been a pretty dominant one-day side over the past five years - wherever they play. Napier, Masters and the improving Chambers and Ten Doeschaete make for a functional and effective one-day bowling unit and they even have an "X-Factor" in Danish Kaneria who could really mess with a Kent side who struggle to play spin. It has been Essex's batting that has made the headlines and with Pettini, Napier, Bopara and Ten Doeschate, they have the players to put anybody to the sword. Will Napier and Co. be found out away from Chelmsford or will their momentum see them roll on to victory?

If it weren't for an 8-over-slog against Kent and a 6 run defeat against Hampshire, Middlesex would have a 100% record in this year's Twenty20. It's because they have a perfectly suited bowling attack with the leading wicket-taker in World Twenty20, Tyron Henderson, highly effective spin options with Kartik and Udal, and very reliable and consistent options in Murtagh, Finn and Nannes. Middlesex's batting has also more than pulled it's weight and with Owais Shah, Dawid Malan, Ed Joyce, Eoin Morgan and Billy Godleman they certainly have the players to put on big runs. Middlesex have been pretty poor in all the previous Twenty20s so there must be an element of doubt about whether they have completely turned it around or whether Saturday is the day they finally run out of steam.

The reigning champions have had a stuttering campaign but are undoubtedly a stronger side than the side that took the title in 2007. With batting down to eleven (although no.11 is very rarely needed), Kent are a side with matchwinners throughout the side. Whether's it's a fifty from Key or Denly at the top of the innings, a sparkling cameo from Kemp or Mahmood, some strangling mid-innings bowling from Stevens and Tredwell or some potent swing bowling from Yasir Arafat, Kent can never be counted out. Question marks remain over their ability to post scores over 180 and any side that can post this score against Kent will feel quietly confident, on the other hand, any side who allows Kent to post 180+ will feel very concerned.

If titles were awarded on paper then Durham would have swept the board this season. You will find more International players residing at Chester-le-Street than anywhere else in the country and Durham have a lethal combination of power-hitters, proper cricketers, all-rounders, fighters and lethal quick bowlers to unsettle any side in the world - county or International. Durham have been installed as the bookies favourites but we must remember that the same happened in the Friends Provident trophy before they were upsurped by Kent, there has also been another fault in Durham's line-up that has flown under the radar in that they are a slightly immobile fielding unit. Durham will need to use their braun, guile and experience to bully their opponents at Twenty20 Finals' Day.

Lef's tip - I tipped Durham for the FPT and I still tip them for the County Championship but at Twenty20 Finals' Day, I can see Kent prevailing in an eventual 'Champions League' match against Middlesex. Kent have so many match-winners in their line-up and have priceless experience from their win last season.

Lef's 2nd tip - Don't bet any money on this, it's too close to call!

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

How do you solve a problem like… Stuart Broad?

This wasn’t meant to be a series of articles, but the similarities with the previous subject and the problems facing England are just too great to ignore.

Stuart Broad, son of former England opener Chris, has been on the England radar for a number of years now, despite his still only being 23. Formerly a promising batsman, he took up bowling late finding immediate success for England U19s and Leicestershire. He ended up on an England A tour at the age of 19 and has been involved in the England set up since, firstly in the One Day team before making his debut in Sri Lanka in the winter.

Broad has generally impressed with his attitude to international cricket. Unlike other young tyros Saj Mahmood and Liam Plunkett, he hasn’t been fazed by the step up in class and even though Yuvraj hit him for 36 off an over in the 2020 world cup, he has learnt from the experience and is and should remain a vital cog in the England One Day team.

His presence in the team is enhanced by his batting. He averages 21 in One Day internationals and has dug England out of a hole on a number of occasions. His unbeaten 45 against India at Manchester was made off 73 balls and won England the game. This proved that he had the mental composure of a genuine batsman rather than a late order hitter.

More recently his prowess with the bat has been shown in the test team. He has hit fifties in the last three test matches and averages above 40 in test match cricket (more than his father). To put that into context with the archetypal number 8 batsman in England’s recent history, Ashley Giles managed 4 fifties during his 54 match career. He clearly has a talent for batting and adds strength to the England batting line up.

So we have a young fast bowler, who is composed at International level and who’s batting looks like it could move him into the realms of being a genuine all-rounder. So where is the problem? Sadly, and hence the comparison with Matt Prior, it is with his strongest suit – his bowling. Just as Matt Prior’s wicket-keeping isn’t up to test standard, neither is Stuart Broad’s bowling.

While he certainly continues to show promise, that is all it is at the moment. A test match average of nearly 50 with 19 wickets in his eleven test matches is not the return that is needed from a front line bowler (for example in his 18 test matches, Simon Jones has taken 59 wickets at 28, while Ryan Sidebottom has 73 wickets in 17 matches). In an England team that needs to bowl a strong South African team out twice, England need to be picking their top performing bowlers, regardless of the other strings to their bows. And while Broad hasn’t been helped by the muddled thinking of the England selectors in choosing his colleagues, his bowling does not justify his positioning the team.

Broad’s batting should only come into the selector’s consideration if he is deemed to be an equal bowler to other alternatives, or he is deemed a good enough batsman to bat in the top 6. Currently there are bowlers available to England who are more likely to take wickets. Broad himself is still learning what type of bowler he is and should be allowed to do this outside of the test match arena.

As tempting as it may be, it is time to ignore the obvious all round talent of Stuart Broad, to allow it to develop at county level so that he can come back as a top class allrounder. Otherwise he may become another talent which was crushed before it was allowed to fulfil itself.

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Team England; Consistently Confused

In what can only be described as a bizarre twenty-four hours, Darren Pattinson somehow found himself in the England Test starting XI on Friday of last week. From being consistently stupid to just plain stupid could be one way of describing the situation. Consistency had been the word of the moment whilst England were just about beating New Zealand in two series. Unfortunately consistency had nothing to do with those victories, the limited skill of the opposition played the major role. Whilst players like Paul Collingwood and Tim Ambrose were contributing nothing, they were nevertheless assured of their places and were it not for the return of Andrew Flintoff, Collingwood would undoubtedly still be playing today despite series averages of 32.83 (India (h)), 33.00(Sri Lanka (a)), 40.66 (New Zealand (a)), 10.66 (New Zealand (h)) and 7.00 (South Africa (h)) which is plainly not good enough (cumulative 30.71, HS 66). Michael Vaughan though tells us that the whole squad are disappointed that Collingwood is not in the XI, perhaps because they now fear for their own places given their own dwindling averages. Consistency must be applied, but needs to take into account form.

Nevertheless, the message of consistency indeed vanished for this particular test match, well for the bowlers anyway, but then that always seems to have been the case with the England side of late. Batsmen have all the time in the world, bowlers do not. Darren Pattinson was on Thursday afternoon called up as a replacement for James Anderson should he not be fit for the game. Chris Tremlett, who has been following both the Test and ODI squad around all summer, was already on standby in case Ryan Sidebottom came up short on Friday morning. Friday morning came and Anderson was fit, but Sidebottom was not, in you step… Darren! Utter madness! Whilst the Australian roof tiler, albeit raised for six years in England, has had a good county season with Nottinghamshire so far, he has played just 13 first class games and only 6 of them this season in England. He doesn’t even play his cricket at Headingley, the location of the second test.

I have no problem with the fact that he is a self-confessed Aussie through and through, but the usual pattern is that you are born abroad, move to England, confess your love for the motherland and qualify, rather than move away for two decades, immerse yourself in the culture of another country, then come back for a summer and strike lucky. That may sound harsh, but strike lucky is exactly what Pattinson has done. A quick glance at the first class bowling averages for this season will reveal that Matthew Hoggard (22 at 24.31), Simon Jones (32 at 16.03), Steve Harmison (40 at 23.10) and Jon Lewis (20 at 24.85) are right up there with England’s newest addition who has taken 29 at 20.86. These are proven international and domestic performers who for various reasons were sent back to county cricket to prove their fitness and their form. Not one of those can be accused of not having done that. All of the above, bar Harmison, are swing bowlers. Surely one of them should have been given the chance instead of Pattinson if swing was what England were truly after, rather than shock and awe. Even the likes of Sajid Mahmood, Liam Plunkett, Kabir Ali, and Tim Bresnan must be wondering what the hell is going on.

As for poor old Chris Tremlett, what can you say. If Anderson had been injured Pattinson would have played, if Sidebottom had been injured (which he was) Pattinson would have played. They were the two injury doubts from the end of the first test, so what was the point in dragging Tremlett around the country if he was never going to get a look in? I know that Moores as a Sussex man doesn’t like Hampshire but come on, the guy is missing out on form boosting cricket and is being consistently dealt mental setbacks! To make matters worse it was Morne Morkel, exactly the Tremlett type of bowler, who did best in this test match.

The batting woes were the most apparent problem however. Michael Vaughan has averaged 29.52 since the tour to Sri Lanka. His series averages are 35.83 (Sri Lanka (a)), 20.50 (New Zealand (a)), 50.00 (New Zealand (h)) and 11.00 (South Africa (h)). He is forever searching for form it seems and for every good series he has had recently he seems to have had two bad, which can not be sustained forever. His captaincy may be a major positive of his presence, but he needs to score the runs consistently as well. Alistair Cook seems to have forgotten what a hundred is meanwhile. The last four times that he has passed fifty he has been out before reaching 61. Given that he offered very little against the Australians last time round, England must be getting twitchy about how he will fair against them come this time next year. The current top three looks very samey and pretty weak. Tim Ambrose meanwhile is surely on the brink. It is quite comical to think that if you are out of form you should be stuck higher up the order, in a more pressurised position, against a newer ball. He has averaged just 18.78 in 9 test innings since making his maiden test hundred in his second test in New Zealand. His career average is 27.16 and falling after eleven test innings. Even worse, in ODI’s he has averaged 2.50 in five innings and one of those was a not out! Add in the fumbles and is this really the man to take England forward? You would have to say that England in attempting to find a balance between batting ability and keeping ability have found neither and indeed now have the worst of both worlds.

England’s problems are back to the fore it would seem and they need to act fast. If they are going to persist with a five man attack then quite simply Matt Prior has to play at number six. Otherwise the team looks unbalanced and bottom heavy. Only by playing four bowlers can England afford to play the best wicket keeper at number eight, which means either of Chris Read or James Foster. However, given Read’s little trip to the ICL over the close season I doubt India would welcome his inclusion come this winter’s tour. Foster seems to tick more of the boxes in terms of what England are looking for in their keeper, a batsman who can bat low down the order in limited overs cricket and a glove man who can snaffle all of the chances which come his way in test matches and who can offer a score with the bat. Prior on the other hand is not going to take all of those catches, but he will offer the chance to play five bowlers without embarrassment. What England need to decide is if they want less chances, but more takes, or more chances and less takes, I’m glad I don’t have to make that call.

Let’s end on a positive note however and the continued improvement of James Anderson in test match cricket. It will be Stuart Broad and Ryan Sidebottom who will be jittery about the next England team selection, with support growing for Jones and Harmison, but given recent events anything could happen.

Monday, 21 July 2008

Conditions remain dominant

Results so far in the England vs South Africa Test series have largely been decided by conditions. With two slow pitches, where only early moisture and cloud cover have given bowlers hope, the timing of each teams' innings have proved crucial.

In the first Test Graeme Smith won the toss, but was fooled by the wet weather leading up to the match into putting England into bat. He suffered the indignity of watching England exploit a flat batting track to score 593 at a decent lick (3.79 runs per over). To add to South Africa's woes the clouds rolled over Lord's giving England's bowlers a chance to enjoy by far the best bowling conditions of the match. The pitch also offered some turn and was at its fastest, allowing Panesar to show his quality. South Africa were bundled out for just 247.

However, those who expected England to stroll to victory should have remembered the previous 5 Tests at Lord's, all of which ended in draws. As in those matches the pitch flattened out and offered nothing to the bowlers for the last two days. South Africa needed no second bidding to bat, bat and bat. Pretty it wasn't, but highly effective, leaving England's bowlers sore and resulting in the deadest of draws.

Of course, the Match could have been different, as Tests always contain pivotal moments. England were on 117 for 3 when Pietersen and Bell came together at the crease. Just one more wicket might have seen a far lower score for the home team. Likewise, Panesar was cruelly denied the wicket of McKenzie relatively early on in South Africa's second innings by a mistake from Harper. How crucial would such a blow have been, breaking what proved to be a huge opening stand? In the end England, under Vaughan's leadership, threw everything at South Africa, but could not get the required breakthroughs. In the end a draw was agreed with South Africa on 393 for 3.

And so the series moved onto Headingly and heavy cloud cover on the first day. Again Smith won a crucial toss and again he put England in. This time ideal bowling conditions prevailed all day and the South African bowlers fully utilised them. England were loose in some of their shots, but the ball swung all day and the home team crumbled to 203 all out. Certainly this was below par, regardless of the conditions, but it was never easy to bat and England could be forgiven a poor score under the circumstances.

Hope remained for England as the cloud cover stayed until the close of play. In that time England managed to claim three wickets. They should have had four, but Amla was the beneficiary of more poor umpiring. Having walked after being caught by Vaughan he was three-quarters of the way to the boundary when his coach and captain sent him back, believing that Vaughan may not have taken the catch cleanly. Despite the referral system not having been adopted so far the umpires referred the decision the third umpire, who could not be certain. Amla was reprieved and England failed to take any more wickets that evening.

The next day started sunny and stayed sunny and runs were there for the taking. Prince and de Villiers duly obliged, racking up big hundreds and putting South Africa into a great position. By the time they were all out South Africa had amassed a huge 522, a lead of 319.

England wobbled in the tricky evening session, losing Strauss and Vaughan, but fought hard the next day, as the sun continued to shine. Despite expectations they acored 327 and made South Africa bat again, albeit only needing 9 to win.

Again the match was not decided just by overhead and pitch conditions - no Test ever is - but conditions were the major factor in determining the result. South Africa used the cloud cover brilliantly when they bowled and fully exploited the flat pitch when they batted. They were the better team over the four days, but England were the better team at Lord's and only got a draw. Such is Test cricket. Yet, those who think that there is a gulf between the two teams should consider how much conditions and key moments played in the two results so far. They should also have a close look at the averages for each team, which reveal a batsman dominated series, with only Morkel and Sidebottom having bowling averages below 35.00.

But for one crucial innings the pace battery of South Africa has been blunted and England have only managed one coherent team bowling effort, though they have plugged away gamely, giving few runs away. It is, perhaps, this excellent economy rate, which England should gain some hope from. So far South Africa have intelligently applied themselves on wickets offering little to bowlers - scoring slowly, but heavily. Such old school Test batting is fine when there is no threat of wickets. However, such tactics cannot be applied when the ball dominates the bat, as a team will die in the hole.

England must hope, therefore, for pitches at Edgbaston and the Oval which offer a bit more assistance to bowlers. They should also hope that Vaughan wins the toss and is able to exploit any favourable conditions. With just a modicum of luck it could be England holding a 1-0 advantage or, at worst, the series could be tied 1-1.

If England go on to lose this series, perhaps they will reflect on how ill-served they have been by some of the pitches. It would be wise to learn these lessons quickly before the Australians come onto the horizon.

Time for Jones and Harmison?

As many had feared they would be in the first Test, England were comprehensively outplayed here. Once again, England avoided picking their strongest side. For those frustrated with the innate caution in their recent selection, the decision to select Darren Pattinson, out of nowhere, was utterly incongruous.

Pattinson did certainly not disgrace himself, and outbowled Stuart Broad. However, this will probably prove to be his sole Test, for he lacks pace, does too little with the ball and, while accurate, is not metronomic. England would have been better off selecting the in-form Simon Jones or Steve Harmison, both of whom have proved they possess the ability to get out the best batsmen, whilst Chris Tremlett, who performed so admirably against India last summer, must be bewildered as to why England seem so willing to pick him in squads, but so reluctant to pick him in the starting XI.

So the pressing question is: how can England take 20 South African wickets?
Andrew Flintoff should certainly help, and his parsimony with the ball allied to a good second- innings knock, were a reasonably satisfactory return. But, while he is probably amongst England's best four bowlers, the problem of where he should bat persists. Michael Vaughan says seven, with good reason: but Tim Ambrose is emphatically not a Test number six. The problem is compounded by Stuart Broad - while he soon could be, his bowling average after eight Tests is 49. For all his all-round promise, can England afford a man whose bowling is neither overly threatening nor consistently economical?

So the call must go out to Messrs Jones and Harmison. Jones has been back to near his best this campaign: his combination of speed and prodigious reverse swing cannot be ignored now he has gone a considerable way to allaying those inevitable fitness doubts. With Harmison, the problem has always perceived to be mental rather than physical. However, this may just be a case of journalistic over-simplification.

The disappointments of Harmison's performances over the last four years for England, with the odd exception, are well-known. Yet his failures have so often been characterised by a lack of preparation time - think of the South Africa tour in 2004/05; the '06/07 Ashes tour; and even his last Test match in New Zealand. He is a rhythmical bowler, and he has emphatically found that this season. He is the leading wicket-taker in the Championship, with 40 wickets, and has even proved frugal in limited-overs games and Twenty20. He appears confident in himself, having bowled impressively for several months. England cannot afford to ignore his pace, bounce and hostility any longer - especially in light of Morne Morkel's impressive showings - for all the fears over his waywardness.

There is also Ryan Sidebottom, England's best bowler in the last 12 months but seemingly a little jaded. Given his performances have been less impressive of late and he had to sit out the current Test through injury, England should not recall him before he produces some impressive displays for Notts.

The issue is further clouded by the fact none of Jones, Harmison, Anderson and Sidebottom are Test number eights - and are probably not even good nines - which is a major problem given the hopelessness of Monty Panesar's batting. Panesar has been disappointing this series, but England would be loathe to ditch the one clear superiority they enjoy over South Africa.

So there is much for England's selectors to consider in the bowling department. The picture is equally grim elsewhere, with the top three all provoking question marks - Strauss has scored two Test centuries in two years, both against New Zealand; Cook has scored one century in 27 innings and there are increasing doubts over his leaden-footed technique; whilst Vaughan has struggled against Dale Steyn and seems increasingly - and worryingly - vulnerable early on. Tim Ambrose, meanwhile, should be ditched now, especially if England wish to continue with five bowlers, as they probably should. Matt Prior, with reluctance given his keeping displays when in an England shirt, should be granted an extended run at number six.

All is not yet lost for England in this series. But the problems that have been apparent for some time have now come to a head. For six days solid, England have won barely a session - and it will take something special to stem the flow.

Championship Review – Week 11

New leaders (again) in Division 1 as Notts have the week off, while at the wrong end of the table, the bottom two are beginning to come adrift. In Division 2, last year’s relegated teams occupy the top spots after big wins.

Division 1
With Nottinghamshire having a week off, Kent were the best placed team to take advantage. Somerset, however, had different ideas and set off like a train to record 427 all out at nearly 5 runs an over. The three bowling points did take Kent to virtual top spot, but that was as good as it got for them as they were bowled out for 208. Somerset declared second time round on 243 for 8 leaving Kent needing 463 to win, with Rob Key unable to bat for family reasons. Stefan Jones took 5 wickets, Kent made 216 and Somerset move up to second, ahead of Kent, who stay third.

This meant that Durham had the chance to go top as they played Surrey at the Guildford festival. Guildford is normally a batsman’s paradise. However, while Scott Newman didn’t seem to have many difficulties, his 113 was more than half the team score of 220 as Surrey were missing both Marks Ramprakash and Butcher from their middle order. Will Smith, the man most likely to make way for Paul Collingwood, then made an unbeaten 201 as Durham scored 410 for a healthy first innings lead. Surrey did better second time round scoring 323. However, Durham knocked off the 134 needed for victory without losing a wicket and move to the top of the table. Surrey, however, are struggling.

Also struggling were Sussex and Hampshire who met at Arundel. Sussex batted first and recovered from 25 for 4 thanks to a stand of 194 between Murray Goodwin (184) and Carl Hopkinson (106), ending up on 426 all out, James Tomlinson taking 5-fer. Corey Collymore took four wickets as Hants were unable to meet the follow on target, making just 257. They did even worse second time round, scoring 179, Ollie Rayner taking 5 wickets as he bids to keep the returning Mushtaq out of the team. Sussex scored the 11 they required without loss to move up the table while Hants remain bottom.

Division 2
The top two met at Uxbridge, with Warwickshire batting first and making 393, built around a stand of 157 between Jim Troughton and Tony Scott. Middlesex could only make 170 in reply, and then made 3 less in their second innings, Chris Woakes showing his promise with a five wicket haul. The Bears thus won by an innings and remain well set for promotion.

Also pushing hard for promotion are Worcestershire, for whom the match saw Simon Jones facing his old county, Glamorgan for the first time. Batting first, Worcester declared on 457 for 8, with Ben Smith top scoring on 99. Imran Arif then took five wickets on his debut as Glamorgan made 279. Following on, they made the same score in their second innings, with Kabir Ali taking 6 wickets. Worcester made the 102 required without losing a wicket and move into second.

Northamptonshire were also looking to make up ground towards the top of the table. However, the weather, and a flat Northampton pitch meant that their game with Derbyshire could not produce a result. Batting first, Derby declared on 485 for 7, thanks largely to a stand of 203 between Graham Wagg and Jonathan Clare, both of whom hit tons. Clare then turned to his stronger suit and took seven wickets as Northants made 341. Batting again second time round, Derby were in a strong position at 278 for 5, Chris Rogers getting a ton, when the game drew to a close.

England Player Watch
Following the surprise selection of Darren Pattinson, it would seem that any player is fair game. However, I will keep the search to those I believe should be considered rather than Australian wild cards.

Owais Shah had a pretty miserable time with the bat as Middlesex collapsed twice, while neither Rob Key nor Joe Denley were able to put pressure on the England top order. As the wicket-keeper debate starts again, Matt Prior’s runs have dried up. Stephen Davies, however, made 83 for Worcester.

Bowling-wise, Simon Jones had a quiet match against his old county, although encouragingly, he did bowl 21 overs in the first innings (taking 3 wickets). Steve Harmison took 6 wickets for Durham while Liam Plunkett continued his recovery from injury with 5 wickets.

Player of the Week
I normally like the winning player to have had an impact in a positive result. However, despite the double hundred for Will Smith, Kabir Ali’s 6-fer and Chris Woakes’s performance, this weeks award goes to the stand out performer in a drawn game. For an unbeaten 129 and 7 for 74 in the only competed innings of his match, this weeks Player of the Week is Jonathan Clare.

Friday, 18 July 2008

Welcoming the EPL and "Friday night cricket"!

The ECB have taken their time to respond to the IPL, a wise move, which suggests that the planned changes to the domestic competitions are more measured rather than knee-jerk. It was back in May when I last touched upon this subject and suggested that a two tier league structure was the best way forward. As such I am pleased that the new EPL will begin in this form and qualifying will be based on sides’ performances in the 2009 Twenty20 Cup. The major feature of the new EPL is that it will coexist with the current Twenty20 Cup, which will be played later on in the summer, regularly on Friday nights, which may not do much for the alcoholic consumption of your average Twenty20 punter, especially with 19:30 start times, which tends to attract those who are just beginning their weekend. Still, a regular time and place is good for attracting regular supporters and it may free up more weekends for some four day cricket, a revolutionary idea. The fact that the Twenty20 Cup will now be spread out over a couple of months is also good for gate revenues, as it means that people will probably be more likely to attend more matches. At present there is no way that a fan can reasonably be expected to attend all of their sides home fixtures within the three week period. Making way for the newly timetabled Twenty20 Cup will of course be the Pro40, which used to be the big money earner in county cricket, but is now so far outdated and quite frankly unnecessary that it is a surprise that it has lasted as long as it has. I think that these moves are sensible ones by the ECB and will give Twenty20 fans what they want. If you go away for holiday in June you can still watch some Twenty20 cricket now at a different point in the year!

The EPL will be held around the time of the current Twenty20 Cup and will last about three weeks, shorter than the IPL, which has been widely acknowledged to have lasted too long. This will allow England Internationals to feature, in between series, which will give them much needed experience of the format. It will hopefully attract the best overseas players, who will see the three weeks as a nice little earner. The presence of players of such high calibre and class will be hugely attractive to audiences around the globe, which means revenue for the ECB, counties and players. The particulars of the EPL are of course yet to be finalised, but the general understanding is that each county will be allowed three overseas players in addition to the one player they are currently allowed throughout the entire season. The kolpak problem will of course still exist, but this needs to be addressed separately and with more haste by the ECB anyway. The current idea is that overseas players wishing to partake will be contracted to the ECB for the competition and then clubs will bid for players with funds which will be supplied from the ECB after funding initiatives have been put into place. So that needs a little more work, but there is time! Most interestingly of all, the new EPL will feature two overseas teams, one in each division, how that will be decided goodness knows. The two teams are likely to be a Stanford IX and the IPL winners, although that is yet to be confirmed.

Overall, the proposals put forward and accepted by the ECB are good ones and are likely to be successful in this country. It was important to keep the county structure and not go down the alien road of franchises. We need to stick to what we know and what works in England. Whether two competitions is a good idea or not, well, only time will tell. However, the brevity of the EPL will add to it’s success I believe, whilst the sparsely scheduled nature of “Friday night cricket” will still lead to strong gates for the later half of the season, provided the prices are moderated though. Cricket needs to remain accessible and not go down the route of the FA Premier League. These are exciting times for county cricket and in leaving the FP Trophy and County Championship untouched the ECB has done a wise thing. The Pro40 was due to be culled and although some will point to the dangers of Twenty20 overkill I am firmly of the opinion that the ECB are heading down the correct route for the future of the counties and of the England national team.

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

EPL announcement brings relief - and a golden opportunity

So it's finally here. The much-anticipated EPL has been officially announced, with the new domestic structure to come into place from 2010.

Overall the verdict has to be: this could have been a whole lot worse. In retaining 16 CC matches per side, the ECB have ensured there is still much to prepare players for Test cricket - and for connoisseurs of the 'old cricket' to enjoy. The new cricket, whether we like it or not, is Twenty20. The risk of overkill is palpable, but in light of the current lust for Twenty20 cricket, this overhaul could have been considerably worse.

Replacing the Pro40 with a new Twenty20 competition was inevitable and few will mourn its loss. The only shame is, despite being 10 overs less, it probably was a better preparation for one-day internationals than the Friends Provident Trophy. It is ludicrous that the preparation for the ODI game takes place in April and May - in seaming, swinging conditions that deter spectators and six-hitters alike. The Pro40, for all the lunacy of the format not mirroring ODIs was closer to ODI cricket in that it was played in batsman-friendly conditions that replicated the nature of the modern ODI. So England's ODI side is unlikely to benefit from these changes.

The chief mystery of the EPL concerns the two overseas teams. Having a team of 'Stanford All-Stars' would seem absurd - constructing a side from nothing would devalue the tournament to an extent. Yet given the lure of Stanford's dollars that is surely one very likely option. The only satisfying outcome which did not make a mockery of the EPL would be to make the two sides Scotland and Ireland.

If - perhaps through the funds they would receive from gate receipts - Scotland and Ireland had the means to ensure their best players played for them rather than their counties for the EPL, they would be able to muster highly competitive sides. An Irish side featuring Middlesex's attractive pair of batsman Eoin Morgan and Ed Joyce, alongside William Porterfield, Niall and Kevin O'Brien and Boyd Rankin would surely finish no lower than mid-table in the second tier.

And the possibility for bringing genuine good to the long-term development of cricket is one that should not be overlooked. How receptive could Ireland and Scotland be to five home Twenty20s? If they were allowed to field full-strength sides and players dared to put them before their counties - even if just for a three-week spell annually - it could do a great deal for advancing cricket in these countries. This would be in everyone's interests, not least England's, who could one day find a clutch of Celts in their Test side.

So there is still much to be resolved for the ECB regarding the brave new world of Twenty20 they are so keen to embrace. How to distinguish - and prioretise - between the two competitions certainly promises to be a challenge for fans. But after all the speculation, the news that fans of all 18 counties will have a Twenty20 side to support certainly comes as a welcome relief.

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

Championship Review - Week 10

For the first time in ages, last week’s leaders are this week’s leaders as Notts cling on for a draw against Surrey. In Division 2, no-one takes advantage of Warwickshire’s week off. And Ramprakash’s wait goes on.

Division 1
My recommendation of backing a Nottinghamshire defeat nearly paid off as they struggled against Surrey. Having been put in by Notts, Surrey made 403, Usman Afzaal top scoring with 89 and Darren Pattinson taking 5-fer. Mark Ramprakash made 42 to remain on 99 centuries. This was plenty for a substantial first innings leas as Notts made just 218. Following on they were again struggling, leading by just 22 runs with 6 wickets down. However, 134 from Samit Patel in a unbroken stand of 165 with Graeme Swann saw Notts to the draw which keeps them top of the table by a point.

All eyes were on Andrew Flintoff at the Rosebowl as Hampshire batted first against Lancashire. Hants made 327, Chris Tremlett scoring a useful 60 at the end of the innings. Lancs replied with 295, Dimitri Mascarenhas taking 6 wickets. However, despite the promising situation, Hants collapsed to just 130 second time round leaving Lancs needing 163 to win, which they got for the loss of four wickets, Flintoff hitting 39 off 23 balls to finish the game. Lancs go 2nd, one point behind Notts.

A further point back in 3rd are Kent who edged a tight game with Yorkshire. Winning the toss, Antony McGrath and Jacques Rudolph both made tons in a stand of 217. However from a position of 341 for 2, Yorks only managed 410 with Azhar Mahmood taking 6 wickets. Rob Key hit a ton for Kent to hold the top of the innings together in the face of Adil rashid’s first 5 wicket haul of the season. However, it took an unbeaten 90 from Yasir Arafat to give Kent what would become a critical lead of 57 as batting conditions suddenly took a turn for the worse. Arafat then took 4 wickets as Yorks made just 196 to leave Kent chasing 140 to win. At 108 for 7, the game could still go either way, but Arafat and Geraint Jones saw Kent home and into 3rd two points off the top.

Both teams were playing catch-up at the Riverside as rain didn’t allow play to start until the third day. Somerset were best able to take the game on, declaring on 352 for 8, Zander de Bruyn hitting a ton. Durham were then bowled out for 261 and when Somerset declared their second innings at 193 for 5, Durham required 285 in around 50 overs to take an unlikely victory. Somerset reduced Durham to 8 for 2 to scent victory. However a half century from Dale Benkenstein led Durham to safety as the innings closed on 113 for 4.

So two points separate the top three places. Yorkshire were three wickets away from top place, but instead sit 5th, level on points with Durham and 2 points above Somerset. At the bottom, Hants are in danger of being cut adrift.

Division 2
With Warwickshire enjoying a week off, there was an opportunity for the rest of the Division to close the gap at the top. In the box seat were Middlesex, who opened up by declaring on 300 for 8 in a rain affected match with Gloucestershire, Eoin Morgan scoring an unbeaten 137. Dan Evans then took 5 wickets as Gloucester made 189 in reply. Middlesex then declared on 212 for 4 second time round, to leave Gloucester a target of 324. At 147 for 9 with 22 overs to go, Middlesex must have thought they had the win in the bag. However, Anthony Ireland and Ian Saxelby held out for an unlikely draw and a lost opportunity for Middlesex .

Also affected by the rain were Essex and Glamorgan, who made just 132 in their first innings, Danesh Kaneria taking 5 wickets. Essex went past the Glamorgan total without losing a wicket and despite Dean Cosker’s 5-fer, scored 376, Mark Pettini top scoring with 92. The Welshmen made a better fist of batting second time round and were 268 for 6 when the game drew to a halt.

There was another tight draw despite the weather at Derby where Derbyshire made 208 in their first innings, which was enough for a lead of 19 as Leicestershire made just 189. Derby then made an even 200 second time round leaving Leicester needing 220 to win in 58 overs. Derby reduced Leicester to 100 for 6. However, an unbeaten 72 from James Allenby took the Foxes to the brink of an unlikely win. Two quick wickets from Charl Langeveldt put the breaks on the run chase and Leicester finished on 202 for 8, 18 runs short of victory, with Derby two wickets shy.

Despite a plethora of wickets on the first day, rain for much of the rest of the match put paid to a positive result between Worcestershire and Northamptonshire. Worcester batted first, making just 146. Northants were then reduced to 153 for 7 until a stand of 120 between Lance Klusener and Johan van der Wath took Northants to 287. Vikram Solanki’s ton meant that Worcester never looked like surrendering the game which drew to a finish with Worcester on 245 for 6.

England Player Watch
Andrew Flintoff was the main attraction away from the test match and he took a combined 3 for 83 in 32 overs and hit a brisk 39 to finish the game for Lancs. Chris Tremlett looked in better form with the bat than the ball, scoring a first innings 60 but only managing one wicket. Matthew Hoggard started the Kent second innings collapse bowling with control, while Adil Rashid’s 5-fer is hopefully a welcome return to form.

There looks to be less opportunities on the batting front as Paul Collingwood is probably jettisoned for the returning Flintoff. However, of the players in contention, Rob Key continued his good form with a century. Likewise, Ravi Bopara and Owais Shah both made decent scores as their counties looked to force their matches.

Player of the Week
James Allenby’s valiant effort to win the match for Leicester is worthy of consideration, as is Samit Patel’s effort to save the game for Notts against Surrey. Rob Key kept Kent in the game against Yorkshire. However, it was one of Key’s team mates who made sure that they won a tight match and for 109 runs and 6 wickets, the player of the week is Yasir Arafat.

Monday, 14 July 2008

With Flintoff and Ambrose at six and seven, Bell can afford no let up

For all the frustration of the past two days, the first Test turned out better than many pundits had anticipated for England. South Africa began as the most hyped-up side to land on these shores since the 2005 Aussies, but patently failed to live up to their own billing.

Their bowling attack lacked any penetration, with the admirable Morne Morkel the sole exception. If the first Test was anything to go by, they have only half an attack: Paul Harris did not look Test class; and Makhaya Ntini could only muster a pitiful imitation of his brilliant showing at the same ground five years ago, one that was almost painful to watch. And with the bat, only Ashwell Prince displayed the required application and skill in the first innings, although England will be worried indeed that four of their top five have already made centuries in this series. And the exception? Jacques Kallis, Wisden Leading Cricketer in the World for 2007.

The resilience shown by South Africa's batting is compounded by England enduring three solid days in the field, especially given the modern norm of back-to-back Tests. Indeed, Graeme Smith may have had half a mind to bat on rather than accept the draw, extending England's misery further.

It is excellent news that Andrew Flintoff will be recalled for the Second Test: his return should reinvigorate the side, preventing South African momentum developing after their admirable efforts to salvage a draw. One would expect him to come in for the struggling Paul Collingwood at six, although the selectors originally planned to play him at seven, with Tim Ambrose at eight, before injury scuppered his hopes of a recall in the first Test of the summer. Flintoff has not played a Test match for 18 months, and, whatever his run and wicket tallies, he should serve to inspire England, while the South Africans, clearly would prefer not to see him in the side. It is telling that Lancashire have won three and drawn two of the five championship games he has played this season, whilst only managing two draws and a loss when he has been absent.

For all the positives of his Flintoff's return, however, there is no compelling evidence to suggest he merits batting at number six. He has struck some sort of form of late, although the cavalier nature of his recent knocks is not what is generally required from a top-order Test batsman. And it is three years since his last Test hundred.

With this in mind, have England erred on the side of selectorial caution - yet again - in refraining from recalling Matt Prior? Ambrose has an extremely limited batting technique; and against bowlers who do not feed his cut shot with regularity, it is hard to envisage him making important runs. Add his increasingly fallible glove-work and the selectors have had ample time to recognise he is not the man to end the keeping debate. Prior's keeping has many faults - just ask Ryan Sidebottom. But Ambrose's grim run of form - passing 11 just twice in 11 completed international innings - compounded by the uncertainty of Flintoff's batting, lends England's lower middle-order a real sense of vulnerability. All signs suggest Prior has a sufficiently developed game to average 10 more at number six than the 26 Collingwood has managed in his last eight Tests, while his keeping is also said to have improved markedly this season.

So England can be reasonably content with their endeavours in the opening Test, and should not be unduly disheartened by failing to force a victory, given that the previous five Tests at Lord's have also been draws. The Test will be remembered for Kevin Pietersen's superb 152 in a series that promises to be amongst the standouts of his career. Yet Ian Bell's 199 could be of more significance for the development of England as a side. He has always had a fine technique and a classy and extremely attractive game; here he showed he could play match-shaping innings against top-class opposition. With Flintoff and Ambrose directly below him, Bell will know England require more of the same.

Should England's selectors have made more than one change?

Friday, 11 July 2008

Ambrose and Collingwood: why they have to go

It sounds more than a little callous, but for England's long-term development it is excellent news that the 'right men' failed today. Lavish praise is merited for Kevin Pietersen's exhilarating 152; Ian Bell's 199 - the innings that showed him as the classy, technically proficient and aesthetically-pleasing batsman we all know exists, but, unlike on so many other occasions, able to dominate an innings; and Stuart Broad's wonderfully mature 76, indicative of a man who may soon be a viable option at number seven. However, the twin failures for the two most vulnerable members of the side helped to clarify England's selection issues if, as expected, Andrew Flintoff returns for the second Test.

Paul Collingwood has looked desperately out-of-form in the Test side for some time, for all his scrapping qualities: he has averaged 33, 33, 41 and 11 and in his last four series. Whatever the evidence of a double-hundred against Australia, ultimately Collingwood may lack the technique to be a long-term success at Test level. Recently, he has not just failed but - in stark contrast to Bell's typically classy, but too often brief, knocks - appeared out of his depth, lacking the confidence to attack or even defend with authority, his innings characterised by a certain timidity. Even in CC cricket, he has been desperately short of runs. At 32, and with a pressing need for a shoulder operation, this could conceivably be his final Test. That would be a great shame for such a tenacious player, but his shortcomings have been painfully exposed of late.

Tim Ambrose
barely had time to celebrate his superb, counter-attacking hundred in his second Test before the murmurings over his place began to appear. An inevitability of being any English keeper in the post-Stewart era? Perhaps. But, though this is only his seventh Test, the time is right to dispense with him: not only is he low on confidence but his batting technique seems fundamentally not up to the challenges of international cricket. His technique is fragile when denied the opportunity to feed his cut shot, as international bowlers have realised since his Test century: repeatedly, he has been dismissed playing half-heartedly, often with a closed face, to balls outside off-stump. In 12 international innings since that century, he has passed 11 only twice and 31 once - and even that when New Zealand's bowling was extremely loose. Add in the cracks that emerged in his keeping in the ODIs and it seems that Ambrose is the worst of both worlds. If you want someone who can score heavily for England, pick Matt Prior; if you want someone who can snaffle virtually every chance pick Chris Read or James Foster.

So a balanced side England could look to develop prior to first Ashes Test next summer is:

Monday, 7 July 2008

The amazing Ajantha Mendis

After eight one-day internationals, Ajantha Mendis is already established as a phenomenon, a freak and a match winner. Yes, it's more than a little presumptuous. But here is a bowler who is utterly extraordinary.

Cricinfo classes him as 'Right-arm slow-medium' which suggests the most innocuous of bowlers: a trundler best reserved for declaration bowling. Yet this classification could hardly be less apt. Mendis would be better classed as simply 'Mystery Spinner'. He is the bowler of dreams and fantasies, not bound by the parameters that affect other bowlers. How do you play a bowler who follows a googly with a doosra? How indeed. The evidence of raw statistics: 11 first-class wickets at 19; a Twenty20 economy rate of just 5.30; and 20 ODI wickets at 10 suggest the question is a rather pressing one for batsmen.

None more so than the Indians, traditionally wonderful players of spin. In his first encounter with them - admittedly the one-day side bereft of their brilliant batting quartet - he bamboozled and humiliated them. Bowlers with such variety are supposed to be afflicted by chronic inconsistency, unable to go more than a few overs without bowling a delivery that demands brutal punishment. Yet Mendis had no such trouble as he embarked on one of the most memorable ODI spells ever seen: eight overs delivered six wickets for just 13 runs. India were hapless and clueless; they had no idea what to expect, and with good reason.

Mendis has yet to play a Test match, lest we forget. His real test, patently, begins now: when his secrets are out in the open and the video analysts are working overtime. For the time being, however, he is a phenomenon, something unlike we have ever seen before. There are comparisons with the legendary Jack Iverson, except that Mendis has even more variations.

We were told there would never be another Murali. But he has an imitator with, for now, even more mystique. No one could ever have imagined Murali would ever be the second most talked-about spinner in Sri Lanka but that is what Mendis has achieved in his fleeting international career. There are many things that could go wrong, as everyone knows, but at this moment Mendis is the most exotic and exciting cricketer on the planet.

Sunday, 6 July 2008

Crunch time for England

England's series with South Africa is an enticing prospect. The clash is undoubtedly the most eagerly anticipated on these shores since the 2005 Ashes, even if it is a great shame it has been reduced to four Tests. And, for several members of the home side - not just Kevin Pietersen, who will be relishing his first Tests against the land of his birth - it promises to be a career-defining series. By the end of this summer England must know the side they want to take the field for the 2009 Ashes.

Two series victories over New Zealand, during which England showed impressive resolve to extract themselves from positions of difficulty they should never really have encountered, raised more questions than answers. Of the batsmen, only Andrew Strauss enhanced his reputation. Even he is still yet to prove his return to form is durable, whilst the positions in the side of Ian Bell and Paul Collingwood appeared desperately grim after ending the home New Zealand series with a duck apiece. All the signs suggest Bell should be ditched temporarily and Collingwood for good, yet, with depressing predictability, England will play an unchanged side for the sixth consecutive Test (for sure, Chris Tremlett is only in the squad to make up the numbers). If England's selectors are trying to create a sense of calm confidence in the side, they are fooling no one.

The wicket-keeper debate, after the briefest of hiatuses following Tim Ambrose's hundred in his second Test, is again reaching vitriolic levels. Matt Prior is the only one of the keepers whose batting is good enough to bat in the top six of the Test side, as shown both by his impressive record over 10 Tests - averaging in excess of 40 - and an astounding run of batting form this season. He averages 62 in Division One, with the highlight of three centuries being a simply astounding 133* out of 212 against Durham. Yet England would probably be wise to be very careful his keeping has improved sufficiently before recalling him to the side. The only other credible alternative to Ambrose is Chris Read, a terrific keeper and averaging 49 in Division One this season. People will question whether he will ever be an adequate number seven, but he has had only four Tests in the last four years. Only in the last two did he struggle - and that against Australia after being very publicly dumped by his coach Duncan Fletcher.

Ambrose, it should not be forgotten, scored a vital 67 in the last Test. But in the one-dayers his performance was embarrassing with bat and gloves alike. Above all, there are huge questions over whether he can score runs against a side with a battery of outstanding quicks who will be sure not to feed his favourite cut shot. England's selectors must be proactive and ditch Ambrose if he looks out of his depth in the first Test.

With the ball, there is no pressing case, based on the last two series, to drop anyone. But few would suggest the seam attack of Sidebottom, Broad and Anderson is truly the best England can muster. Anderson may be the right selection for Lord's, where he has a good record, but ultimately he is virtually certain to be profligate, given his enduring inconsistency. England cannot afford a bowler who is so often a liability.

This is also a big test for Broad, who has impressed more with his classy number eight batting than bowling in his six Tests to date. South Africa would sooner face those two bowlers than any of Andrew Flintoff, Steve Harmison and Simon Jones, even if one can understand why all three have been omitted. But a pace attack of Sidebottom, Jones and either Flintoff or Harmison would have real venom. Jones, with 26 wickets at 11 in first-class cricket this season, should have been unleashed for the First Test. Harmison, with 29 Division One scalps at 23, is displaying welcome signs of a return to form and, for all his inconsistency, he is a bowler the tourists would not relish facing.

So there is much for England's side to prove as they prepare to face an imposing South African team who, whilst not invincible, rightly start as favourites. If, as on their last three tours, South Africa triumph at Lord's, then it will be time the selectors earned their corn. Because, if England fall 1-0 behind, the bewildering faith in a side who have been so unimpressive of late will look very suspect indeed.

Here is what an ‘SOS’ side picked with England trailing in the series could look like:

Food for selectorial thought, certainly.

Friday, 4 July 2008

England vs South Africa: The form guide

After the seemingly endless round of Test matches between England and New Zealand, the England team finally faces some very different opponents. The South Africans have been on a tear in the last 18 months or so, beating nearly everyone they've come up against. Only the Indians, on their home turf, managed to hold them to a draw.

Since the start of 2007 South Africa have played 16 Tests, winning 11, drawing 2 and losing just 3. England, meanwhile, have been unpredictable in the same period, though they've only lost 4 of the 17 they've played, they have drawn 6, winning only 7.

Both sides have shown great faith in their players since 2007, consistently selecting very similar line-ups. For South Africa the retirement of Pollock and the dramatic loss of form of Gibbs have been the only ripples to disturb selection. England, on the other hand, ruthlessly ditched Hoggard and Harmison and have had the usual issues with their wicketkeeper, moving from Jones to Prior to Ambrose to no real effect.

Seven South Africans have played all 16 matches since the start of 2007, with Steyn and Harris only missing out on 2 and 3 matches, respectively. Five England players have played all 17 Tests, with Vaughan and Sidebottom only missing 2 and Strauss missing 3.

With such loyalty you would be forgiven for thinking that both sides were performing well and the selectors had great reason to pursue the policy of continuity. Whilst this is certainly true of the South Africans, England's selectors should have real concerns over the inconsistent form of some key players.

The individual records of each team since 2007 would make South Africa clear favourites. Their batsmen have a far superior record to England's and in Steyn they have the best fast bowler in the world. However, England have room for optimism. They have home advantage and a very good home record in the last few years. Three of the South African batsmen, Amla, Prince and de Villiers, have not played in England before and McKenzie fared poorly last time he toured. Also only Ntini, of the four first choice bowlers, has played in England and his record is not very good.

Of course, first time tourists of England often fare well, especially bowlers, but the alien Test conditions should not be underestimated. England also have trump cards in Pietersen, Sidebottom and Panesar, all of whom are near the top of their game and have produced match-winning performances in recent series.

Hard to believe though it may be England also have a better tail than South Africa. Morkel (2007 to present average: 10.80), Harris (7.25), Steyn (10.83) and Ntini (5.16) have been relatively easy prey in recent series. Whilst England's tail of Broad (30.14), Sidebottom (16.92), Anderson (12.85) and Panesar (3.77) have shown great fight. Of course, much of this has been down the the failures of the England top order and the need for 8 to 11 to resist, but it is still an important factor when assessing the form of the two sides.

Weighing up all the stats and recent matches each team has played I suggest that the series will be a close one, as is usually the case when these two teams meet. England will need to utilise their home advantage and out of form players, such as Cook, Collingwood, Bell and Ambrose will have to up their game. South Africa will have to adapt quickly to English conditions and will need their experienced players, Smith, Kallis, Boucher and Ntini to make sure the team maintains its fine current run.

Thursday, 3 July 2008

Championship Review - Week 9

Back from the 20:Twenty break and it’s the same old story. We have new leaders in Division 1 (again) as last week’s leaders lose (again) and Ramprakash’s wait still goes on.

Division 1
Leaders Yorkshire were put into bat by Durham and this looked to be a good decision as the home side made just 184. Durham were also struggling in their first innings at 161 for 7 until a stand of 143 between Phil Mustard and Liam Plunkett took them to a total of 347 and a healthy first innings lead, despite Tim Bresnan’s 5-fer. Yorkshire then recovered from 13 for 2 with a stand of 138 between Michael Vaughan and Adam Lyth. However, despite some late hitting from Darren Gough, the total of 273(Callum Thorp taking 5-fer) meant that Durham only needed 111 to win. Matthew Hoggard reduces them to 8 for 2 but they reached the total with no further losses and yet again, the league leaders lose.

Given recent history, I would thoroughly recommend backing a Nottinghamshire loss next week as they moved back to the top of the table. Hampshire batted first and made 293 despite most batsmen getting a start. Notts replied with 354, Mark Wagh and Matt Wood putting on 149 for the 2nd wicket. Hampshire’s second innings was much like their first, with most batsmen getting into double figures, but no-one going on. There total of 248 was helped by a Chris Tremlett 50 but meant that Notts only needed 188 to win, which they reached for the loss of just four wickets. Notts go top, while Hants are in the relegation zone and beginning to lose touch.

In the same boat as Hampshire are Surrey, although they have the benefit of playing the league leaders next week! With Mark Butcher injured and Mark Ramprakash struggling to get past 99 centuries, they were reliant on Jon Batty’s hundred to get them to 397 against Kent. This was enough for a substantial first innings lead as Saqlain took 5-fer to restrict Kent to 270, despite Martin van Jaarsveld’s hundred. Van Jaarsveld then turned bowler and took five wickets as Surrey were skittled for just 130 leaving Kent needing 258 to win. At 28 for 3 they were struggling but another van Jaarsveld hundred got them over the line with four wickets to spare and Surrey, like Hants, are struggling.

All eyes were on the returning Andrew Flintoff as Lancashire took of Sussex. However, it was Saj Mahmood who took the early honours with five wickets as Sussex made 253. Stuart Law (and unbeaten 158) and nightwatchman Gary Keedy put on 160 for the fifth wicket as Lancs made 392 for a substantial lead. It was Glen Chapple’s turn to outshine Flintoff in the Sussex second innings, with 6 wickets as Sussex made 245 leaving Lancashire 108 to win. Flintoff hit an unbeaten 62, his highest score in 18 months to win the game for Lancs with 8 wicket in hand.

So Notts have a 13 point lead at the top while just 6 points separate Lancashire in 2nd and Somerset in 7th place.

Division 2
Gloucestershire made 336 against Warwickshire, thanks in part to a ton from Hamish Marshall while fellow Kiwi Chris Martin took five wickets. However, this total began to look far too low as Ian Bell made a career best 215 and Jonathan Trott an unbeaten 164 in Warwickshire’s 528 for 8 declared, the pair of them putting on 221 for the 3rd wicket. Unfortunately for the Bears, the weather played a part and Gloucestershire had just about seen of the deficit at 189 for the loss of four wickets when the game came to a close.

The weather also put paid to Middlesex’s chances of closing the gap of the leaders. Batting first, Dawid Malan scored an unbeaten 132 in the Middlesex total of 340, Johan van der Wath taking five wickets. Rob White made a ton as Northamptonshire replied with 377. However, a ton from Tony Scott and good support from Eoin Morgan got Middlesex to 401 in their second innings, despite seven more wickets for van der Wath ,leaving Northants needing 324 to win. At 33 for 3 Middlesex were favourites. However, David Sales and Lance Klusener then put on an unbeaten century stand as weather brought a premature end to an evenly poised game.

Worcestershire had a chance to make up some ground on the leaders, particularly after skittling Leicestershire for just 120, with Simon Jones continuing his good recent form with five wickets. Vikram Solanki then hit a century as Worcester made 379 for a substantial first innings lead. Leicester, thanks to 94 for Paul Nixon did at least make Worcester bat again, scoring 346. However, the Pears only needed 88 to win which they made without the loss of a wicket.

Finally to Chelmsford where Ryan ten Doeschate’s ton was the highlight of Essex’s first innings 404. Derbyshire replied with 271, Ravi Bopara mopping up the innings taking the last four wickets for four runs. Bopara then made 71 as Essex made 238 to set Derby an unlikely 372 to win. This time it was ten Doeschate’s chance to prove his all rounder skills with four wickets as Derby made just 226.

Warwickshire are still clear at the top, although they have played more games than anyone else. Behind them, just five points separate Middlesex, Leicester, Essex, Northants and Worcester for the second promotion spot.

England Player watch
Only Andrew Strauss missed out as Michael Vaughan, Paul Collingwood, Ian Bell and Ali Cook all got some useful time in the middle. Owais Shah also missed out while Ravi Bopara got a half century as did Andrew Flintoff, after a torrid time with the bat recently.

The England bowlers were given the week off. Flintoff bowled well, but without wickets, while Matthew Hoggard again lost out to Tim Bresnan in the battle of the Yorkshiremen.

Player of the week
One absolutely outstanding performance this week. Ian Bell’s double hundred, 12 wickets for Johan van der Wath and the all round performances of Essex’s Ravi Bopara and Ryan ten Doeschate don’t even get a look in. For two centuries and a 5-fer as Kent came back to beat Surrey, the Player of the Week has to be Martin van Jaarsveld

A look ahead to the Friends Provident Trophy semi finals

The Friends Provident semi finalists return to the 50 over format this weekend. Which teams can successfully merge the skills required in the Twenty20 cup and county championship to reach the season’s only Lord’s final?

Durham meet Kent in Friday’s first semi final at Chester-le-Street. Both teams topped their respective divisions and will be in Twenty20 cup quarter final action early next week (indeed, all of the semi finalists have reached the last eight of the shorter format tournament).

Proof that this tournament’s contenders are the country’s limited over specialists and both these teams are equipped to pull off the double. Durham claimed their first ever silverware in winning last year’s Friends Provident trophy and I have been tipping Kent for Twenty20 glory since the season started.

Both won their latest county championship assignments, so there will plenty of players in form on display at the Riverside.

It might be a bowler’s day. There have been plenty of low scoring encounters at Durham recently, including their one wicket win over Nottinghamshire in the quarter finals. Steve Harmison has 16 wickets at 20.87 in the tournament to date and could be the home side’s key man.

Kent’s Yasir Arafat is the tournament’s top wicket taker (22 at 13.45) and he is just one of the Spitfires’ many form allrounders. It is a sign of their strength that their century-hitting hero in the quarter final win over Somerset, Neil Dexter, has been loaned out to Essex.

Kent are a well-drilled One Day outfit and this should be a close contest, with Durham my tip for a final place.

Another north vs. south battle takes place at Chelmsford on Saturday as Yorkshire travel to Essex. Both teams are in the Pro40 second division this season and should be expected to be the hunt for promotion, as they have been consistent limited overs performers this term.

Both enjoyed comfortable quarter final wins. Yorkshire eased past Gloucestershire by six wickets with more than five overs remaining, whilst Essex hammered Leicestershire by 118 runs.

That win at Grace Road was based around one of the great domestic one day performances. Ravi Bopara’s unbeaten 201, made off just 138 balls, was only the eighth double ton in limited overs cricket and makes him the man to watch at the Ford county ground.

Bopara played with the freedom that has eluded him at international level and seems to have inspired his team mates with that knock. Graham Napier found some big-hitting form in the Twenty20 cup and in Ryan ten Doeschate Essex have another form batsman capable of clearing the ropes.

However, their bowling is perhaps too reliant on Danish Kaneria and I expect Yorkshire’s experienced line-up, led by the batting of Jacques Rudolph and Anthony McGrath and the bowling of Tim Bresnan, to edge this one.