Thursday, 31 December 2009

Test Team of the 2000s

As the 2000s come to a close, talk of the imminent death of Test cricket is rife. Yet the decade has seen Test cricket taken to a new level: gung-ho openers, ferocious lower-order hitting, reverse swing and arguably the two greatest spin bowlers of all time have ensured there has been plenty for fans to savour.

Here is a composite XI of all those who played Tests in the 2000s. All statistics are for the decade only, not the players’ careers. The five Australian faces are reward for a decade in which, bar the odd blip, they have taken the game to new heights.

Matthew Hayden (96 Tests in 2000s, 8364 runs @ 52.93)
Loathed by many as a caricature of the worst of Australians, Hayden was a brute of an opening batsman. His muscular hitting terrified many an opening bowler, as he amassed 29 centuries over the decade. Whether waltzing down the pitch to Shaun Pollock or slog-sweeping his way to 549 runs in three Tests in India in 2001, Hayden could be relied on to score quickly with his bludgeoning bat. On the rare occasions when he was tamed, as in England in 2005, Australia’s juggernaut acquired hitherto hidden vulnerability.

Virender Sehwag (72 Tests, 6248 runs @ 52.50)
You thought Hayden was scary? His strike-rate of 60 looks sedate when set against Sehwag’s scarcely credible 80. There is no one quite like Sehwag: the hand-eye co-ordination; the blistering bat-speed; the obliviousness to pressure, the opposition and the match situation. Yet, for all that, is not Sehwag’s most impressive attribute his concentration span? He has redefined the art of 'going big', with four 250+ scores, three at over a run-a-ball, in the decade. And he has done it regularly against the best, averaging 51 against Australia. To those who say he thrives only in good batting conditions, Sehwag’s 201*, out of 329, against Mendis and Murali in Sri Lanka was a devastating riposte.

Ricky Ponting (106 Tests, 9389 runs @ 58.68)
Over the decade, there has been no wicket more sought-after than Ponting, who has scored more Test runs and centuries than anyone else. Whilst seemingly eschewing risk, he has scored his runs at a
strike-rate of 62 over the decade, dominating bowling attacks and keeping alive the tradition that a side’s best batsman and captain should occupy the pivotal spot. Ponting’s sheer single-mindedness was epitomised by 576 runs at 82.28 in the 2006/07 Ashes whitewash.

Brian Lara (66 Tests, 6380 runs @ 54.06)
Perhaps perceived more as a man of the 1990s, Lara in fact scored 21 of his 34 Test centuries in the 2000s. Throughout, that x-factor, illustrated by his idiosyncratic high back-lift and scything of bowling through the offside, remained: Lara was a man who consistently demonstrated how thrilling the art of batsmanship could be. Few performances of the modern era can match Lara’s 688 runs in three matches in Sri Lanka in 2001 – though, typically, West Indies still lost every match. There was also the little matter of his 400* against England saw him, astonishingly, reclaim the Test record score.

Rahul Dravid (103 Tests, 8558 runs @ 54.85)
Few nicknames are as appropriate as the one that has been attributed to Dravid – simply ‘The Wall’. Sachin Tendulkar is the great icon of the Indian game, but it is Dravid who has been the key batsman in their crucial victories, displaying mastery of batting’s technical challenges especially when standing out away from home. His 305 runs, for once out, to defeat Australia at Adelaide in 2003 was testament to his mental fortitude. Dravid’s finely-crafted masterpieces are a common thread linking the seminal Indian victories of the 2000s: from Headingley, to Rawalpindi and Kandy via Kingston, Perth and, of course, Adelaide in 2003, when he scored 305 runs for once out.

Jacques Kallis (100 Tests, 8552 runs at 58.97; 202 wickets @ 31.70)
Hailed by Kevin Pietersen as “the greatest cricketer ever”, Kallis’s averages for the decade - 58 with the bat, and 31 with the ball – are extraordinary, especially when considering he played 100 Tests in the 2000s. His batting is perhaps more science than art, but his steady and unobtrusive accumulation has led many a captain to despair. And, as Kallis has proved in recent times, he does have another gear. He is also the consummate fourth seamer; when occasions have allowed, as in his 6/54 at Headingley in 2003, his swing has proved devastating.

Adam Gilchrist (91 Tests, 5130 runs @ 46.63, wicket-keeper)
Gilchrist’s demoralising assaults from number seven will, for many, be the standout memory of Test cricket in the 2000s. Whether he arrived at the crease at 100/5 or 300/5, his approach was the same: audacious, clean hitting that would seize the game’s initiative, most stunningly with a 57-ball century against England in 2006. As Gideon Haigh wrote, “Gilchrist seemed to invent a new cricket variant in which, while everyone else carried on as usual, he thrashed about him with apparent impunity.”

Andrew Flintoff (74 Tests, 3695 runs @ 32.69; 220 wickets @ 32.38)
No one could conceivably claim Andrew Flintoff was a superior cricketer to Shaun Pollock. So why is he in this side over Pollock? With McGrath and Kallis parsimony personified, Flintoff can finally be unleashed as an impact bowler in short spells – like his series changing over at Edgbaston in 2005 - rather than forced into the containing role. When at his peak, Flintoff performed outstandingly in all three disciplines in the Caribbean, South Africa and India – and, of course, his 2005 Ashes performance was one of the finest all-round series enjoyed by any cricketer this decade. He was not only vital for what he himself achieved on the pitch, but the galvanising affect his deeds had on others.

Shane Warne (65 Tests, 357 wickets @ 25.17, captain)
Warne v Muralitharan has been the subject of so many pub debates over the years. And, while Murali’s statistics in the 2000s are marginally superior, he admitted that Warne “had a better cricketing brain than me.” Through sheer force of personality, the Australian could change the course of games on even the least helpful of surfaces. And, so often the symbol of the all-conquering Australian machine, his Herculean efforts in defeat in the 2005 Ashes – 40 wickets and 249 runs in five Tests – provided indisputable proof of his enduring greatness. Widely regarded as possessing the best cricketing nous of anyone who never captained his country in a Test, Warne will have the honour of leading this side out.

Dale Steyn (33 Tests, 170 wickets @ 23.70)
In an era when express pace seemed to be dying a sad death, Steyn has emerged to revive it. Bowling at speeds in excess of 90mph, he has created carnage with his devilish late swing with new and old ball alike. His yorker and bouncer alike have the capacity to destroy, and he was crucial in South Africa’s success against Australia in 2008/09, claiming 34 scalps in six Tests, including ten wickets in the famous MCG win. A more subtle and canny bowler than many of express pace, Steyn was also exceptional in India.

Glenn McGrath (66 Tests, 297 wickets @ 20.53)
It all seemed so simple, didn’t it? Plod up to the wicket, bowling with nip but some way short of express pace, hit a good line and length and perhaps extract a little movement. The most remarkable of unremarkable bowlers, McGrath could be relied upon to raise his game against the opposition’s star, and shared some memorable duels with Messrs Tendulkar and Lara. When there was a little in the pitch, as when he took 8/24 against Pakistan at Perth, McGrath was simply without peer.

With apologies to Shivnarine Chanderpaul, Shaun Pollock, Dan Vettori and Muttiah Muralitharan.

All statistics are based on Tests played from 1st January 2000 to 25th December 2009.

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

The same but different for England at Centurion

You could be forgiven for being optimistic after England’s dramatic draw with South Africa in the first test. After all, the result was remarkably similar to the one last July in Cardiff.

Then, a last-ditch stand by Monty Panesar and James Andersen doggedly kept the Australians at bay and earned England a draw they never looked like achieving in the opening four days of the first test. The rest, they say, is history; England went on to win the Ashes with a 2-1 series win.

Back then the draw was a moral victory for the English and their fans, while Aussie skipper Ricky Ponting was left to reflect on what might have been. In the end it cost them the Ashes.

But fast forward to today and I believe England can’t take such heart from a similar result at Centurion Park. The ‘crazy hour’ skipper Andrew Strauss described saw South Africa steamroller through the England middle order, giving them a sniff of victory that had never seemed likely at the start of the day. Scrap that, even at tea the cricket betting odds were stacked against such a frantic finish with the tourists 169-3.

But the art of the batting collapse is one England seem to have perfected over the past twenty years and that dreaded domino effect was sparked off by debutant Friedel de Wet, who took three quick wickets, with a total of five falling for just 13 runs.

On this occasion the Monty Panesar role was bravely played out by Graham Onions, who survived 12 deliveries, including the final over, to secure the draw alongside Paul Colingwood, whose dogged innings last year set the platform for the rescue act against Australia.

Putting the relief to one side, the game will again provide Strauss with a number of headaches ahead of the second test, most notably the batting. The form of Alastair Cook and Ian Bell is again a worry; England once again found themselves relying on Jonathan Trott and Kevin Pietersen for runs. If they fail then there has to be someone else who will step up to the plate. Cook has apparently been working on his technique to arrest a worrying slide in form while Ian Bell has once again found himself under pressure after a disappointing performance.

They have received the backing of their coach on this occasion and will almost certainly get another chance. But if any more ‘crazy hours’ continue, changes will surely have to be made.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

England could surprise South Africa

Four years ago, England’s Ashes triumph was not the springboard to an era of dominance, but proved the prologue to a period of prolonged mediocrity. As they embark on their long tour of South Africa – they don’t fly back until January 19th – Andrew Strauss will be determined to build on the Ashes win. It would be a depressing indictment of English cricket if beating a side now ranked fourth in the world 2-1 at home represented a glass ceiling.

By any measure, the series in South Africa appears an even sterner challenge. For all their perennial choking in ICC limited-overs tournaments, the Proteas are ranked the best Test side in the world. Though their only series of the year so far saw them lose at home to Australia, in 2008 they recorded a formidable set of results: drawing in India; winning in England, and seeing off Michael Vaughan in the process; and finally a famous series triumph down under.

However, the Tests do not commence until December 16th, by which time the sides will have contested five one-day internationals and the drawn Twenty20s. England have almost invariably been something of a joke in the shorter formats of the game since reaching the 1992 World Cup final. New depths were plummeted in the 6-1 home thrashing by Australia. But then. Something happened.

England went to South Africa for the Champions Trophy perceived as no-hopers, and ended up reaching only their second semi-final in 12 global tournaments dating back to 1992. But more importantly the rhetoric from the camp was for once matched by deeds. England pledged to play a new brand of fearless cricket, after embarrassing themselves in consistently scraping to 220 against Australia. And, in two upset victories before reality kicked in, they managed it.

The triumph over South Africa was brought about by what Andrew Strauss called the best England ODI batting performance of his career. England shelled their inhibitions and trusted their hitting ability, hitting 12 sixes – the most they have ever managed in an ODI innings. Yet the two men together responsible for 11 of those face vastly contrasting circumstances. The diminutive Irishman Eoin Morgan will be given the opportunity to cement his position as England’s finisher. Possessing all the shots in the MCC coaching manual – and a load more developed courtesy of his ingenuity and the dexterity of his wrists – Morgan is a special talent indeed, as anyone who witnessed his 34-ball 67 in the Champions Trophy, or superlative 85* in the first Twenty20, would attest to. But so is another man who will be nowhere to be seen in South Africa.

While England talk bravely of the need to hit sixes in limited-overs games, it seems astonishing that the man who plundered six en route to a brilliant 98 in that game has since been dispensed with. Owais Shah may not be the world’s greatest fielder or runner, but he is England’s highest run-scorer in ODIs since the 2007 World Cup. No one else in England, save for Kevin Pietersen (and Marcus Trescothick), can play such destructive innings.

But his absence does provide an opportunity for Jonathan Trott. Back in the country of his birth, just like Pietersen, Trott has been accused by Michael Vaughan of celebrating with the South African side after they sealed the Test series in England last year. Trott will face scrutiny, for sure, but what really matters is his qualities as an international batsman. He displayed a fine technique and temperament in amassing 119 on debut in the decisive Ashes Test, and will occupy a position in the top three for the ODIs. It is also a big series for Joe Denly, whose international start has been full of style but not substance. The same is true for Luke Wright, fortuitously called-up to the Test squad as a Flintoff-lite.

South Africa have historically been a far better limited-overs side than England, yet in games between the two countries in the 2000s, they both have ten victories each. If England are to continue this impressive run, they will need to contain a batting line-up leaden with power, from the formidable Graeme Smith downwards. The battle between Jimmy Anderson and Smith is of huge significance for the ODIs and Tests alike. If the ball swings, Andersons represents England’s best chance of success; if he is profligate, then expect South Africa to amass huge totals.

With Steve Harmison omitted – something the home players profess to be delighted about – England run the risk of being exposed on flat tracks. The vivacious Graeme Swann will face wickets that are notoriously unconducive to spin. Stuart Broad and Graeme Onions will make up the first-choice pace attack, but opportunities abound for two men discarded after the Duncan Fletcher era. Sajid Mahmood and Liam Plunkett have had three seasons in county cricket to learn the game after having proved that international cricket is no place for on-the-job training. Mahmood is in the ODI squad as England search for middle-over penetration; Plunkett features in the Tests, after a crucial role in Durham’s Championship triumph.

South Africa emphatically start all three series as favourites. In Smith, Jacques Kallis, Jp Duminy and Dale Steyn, they have a quartet of exceptional players. England’s best hope lies in blunting Steyn’s 90mph yorkers, which could then expose a bowling attack that is over-dependant upon him – Makhaya Ntini is ageing and Morne Morkel too erratic. Then there is Ab de Villiers to contend with: good enough to have represented South Africa in several sports, he settled on cricket and averaged 75 over the six Tests with Australia last winter.

The tour promises some intriguing cricket – as England-South Africa clashes invariably do - and will provide a real guage for England’s progress under the Strauss-Flower team. Losing the ODIs 3-2 and drawing the Tests would constitute an impressive result. For even this to be possible, the onus will be on two men with South African connections – the current and former skippers, Strauss and Kevin Pietersen. The two players of proven class in England’s batting line-up, both enjoyed extraordinary tours during England’s visit five yers ago. If they can come close to repeating those displays, England should be able to score a lot of runs.

Friday, 23 October 2009

Is there too much cricket?

As England prepare to embark on another tour, this time to South Africa, questions have again been raised about the number of matches modern day international cricketers have to cope with.

The 2009 English summer began in early May – the earliest start to a home international season ever. There were two test and One Day series, against the West Indies and, of course, the Australians. Then there was the Twenty20 World Cup in June before the Champions Trophy in October. This hectic schedule means some players, such as captain Andrew Strauss, have had a six month summer. Strauss has already revealed he may miss the Bangladesh test series in February and March in order to have a breather.

It’s a good idea because just five weeks after the Bangladesh tour ends, England will travel to the Caribbean to contest the World Twenty20 at the beginning of May. Test series against Bangladesh and Pakistan at home will follow before they attempt to retain the Ashes down under. Added on top of that is the Twenty20 boom and the introduction of the Indian Premier League and the Champions League. Breathless stuff.

Boo hoo those who have limited sympathy for people who are earning good money for their dream job might say. And while I agree with them up to a point it is a concern that the sheer number of matches could lead to players being more selective about games they participate in.

And there is no doubt which form of the game they will choose: the vastly more lucrative Twenty20. We have already seen this with freelance Freddie - England talisman Andrew Flintoff rejecting an incremental contract from the ECB in order to be choosier over the games he is available for. Then think of the supporters. Watching cricket is an expensive business and too many games will prove to be a massive turn-off as well as an insurmountable burden on the wallet.

The players will follow the money, understandably, meaning test matches will ultimately suffer. The longer form of the game may not attract the audiences it used to in many cricketing nations, but it is still the backbone of the game. But it does not offer the rewards of Twenty/20, which is growing in popularity with those interested in cricket betting, and places considerably more demands on the body. 

I’m all for expanding the game and bringing it to new audiences but a balance has to be made. But on this occasion I think you can have too much of a good thing.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Twenty20 Champions League preview

The inaugural Twenty20 Champions League has finally arrived and it is easy to think that the Indian Premier League outfits will be the superior teams. They have home advantage, have just finished a domestic season and, most importantly, have the strongest squads.
They are packed full of international players from around the world, many of whom have just finished an elite tournament in the Champions Trophy. It seems they have too much strength in depth for the teams from Australia, England, New Zealand, South Africa, Sri Lanka and West Indies.
However, Deccan Chargers, Bangalore Royal Challengers and Delhi Daredevils might not have things all their own way. The all-star nature of their squads is their weakness as well as their strength: they have had little time to practice as a unit and are sure to be under-prepared.
This might be costly in a format of four groups of three – four teams will be eliminated after playing only two matches. A good start is crucial and not necessarily easy against well-drilled teams used to playing together.
IPL champions Deccan Chargers will again be tough to beat, as they have two box office players in Adam Gilchrist and Andrew Symonds and are not restricted by injuries as much as the Royal Challengers and Daredevils.
In looking for value from the other entrants, it is hard to give Somerset, Sussex, Otago, Eagles or Trinidad and Tobago much of a chance. They are short on international class and will struggle in the conditions.
New South Wales Blues and Victorian Bushrangers have plenty of in-form Australian stars in their ranks, with the Blues most likely to reach the latter stages and prove why they were domestic T20 champions. Cape Cobras will miss Graeme Smith but are a good bet to reach the semi finals.
The best value might lay with Wayamba, the Sri Lankan entrants. They are outsiders but have players active domestically and a nucleus of international performers, including Ajantha Mendis and Mahela Jayawardene. If they knock out one of Delhi or Victoria in the first round, they could go far.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

England's Champions Trophy ratings

Andrew Strauss 5/10

Showed mettle and nous in the Smith and Mathews incidents, confirming a flourishing captaincy style. 48 runs from four knocks an unfamiliar failure.

Joe Denly 5

The opening partnership did not flourish at all in the ICC Champions Trophy. Wasted a couple of good starts, especially in the semi final against Australia with a poor shot in the middle of a collapse.

Owais Shah 7

Hit himself back into form against South Africa in stunning style. More of this please, as the jury remains out on his innings-building ability at number three.

Paul Collingwood 8

Fluent and aggressive, he represented a team effort to play with more freedom. He took only one wicket but bowled tidily.

Eoin Morgan 7

The team’s Jekyll and Hyde with the bat. At his inventive and explosive best early on, but was becalmed by the tight bowling of New Zealand and Australia. A decent wicket-keeping understudy.

Luke Wright 6

An under-pressure 48 in the semi final has earned him more chances. More consistency needed with the bat, and for that matter, with the ball.

Tim Bresnan 7

His swashbuckling batting effort against Australia suggested an all-round future; his unthreatening bowling did not. Needs to do more with the ball to become a realistic first change option and help improve Englands odds of winning.

Stuart Broad 7

It is hard to argue with 10 wickets from three matches, but the suspicion remains that he is too keen to take wickets. Test batting form yet to be transferred to coloured clothing.

Graeme Swann 4

With the seamers more threatening, he took a backseat role, although he struggled to provide any real control when called upon.

James Anderson 8

Superb against Sri Lanka in bowler-friendly conditions, he was hard to get away when batting was easier – his economy rate was 4.25 from 38.2 overs.

Graham Onions 5

Too expensive with the new ball, he too often strayed from a good line and length.

Ravi Bopara, Matt Prior, Ryan Sidebottom, Steve Davis and Adil Rashid did not feature enough to make a real impression.

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Essex season review

Essex have returned to the top flight of County Championship Cricket for the first time since 2003. Promotion to Division One, secured on the final afternoon of the season in unlikely circumstances, has made the 2009 season a successful one, when it would otherwise have been viewed as a failure at Chelmsford.

This success has been built on the performances of a handful of individuals. Danish Kaneria’s 75 wickets from only 11 matches were the most taken in either division, whilst the batting relied on the middle order of Matt Walker, Ryan ten Doeschate and James Foster, who was again voted player of the season.

David Masters did a steady job as leading seamer, but the rest of the bowling, like the opening batting, was a disappointment. Varun Chopra was a revelation in limited overs cricket but short of four-day runs. Jason Gallian slipped into retirement and Billy Godleman did not feature after arriving from Middlesex.

John Maunders did just about enough to earn another deal, but most hope lies with Tom Westley, who stroked his first ton for the county in the final match at Derbyshire. He will get a good run in the side next season, although Ravi Bopara and perhaps even Alastair Cook will return from the national set-up.

Essex were ‘nearly men’ in coloured clothing, reaching the Friends Provident quarter finals and finishing two points drift of Pro40 Division One winners Sussex. The Eagles just missed out on qualification from the Twenty20 Cup South division, the perennial ‘group of death’.

This represented a welcome change for a team used to near misses in the battle for division one promotion, but it remains to be seen whether Essex have the strength to be competitive in the top tier. The prospective loss of Kaneria does not bear thinking about and the acquisition of a fast bowler is vital.

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Butcher deserves more fanfare

While England were fretting over their perennial problem position during the Ashes, how they could have done with a man fading slowly out the game. Mark Butcher's premature retirement just before his 37th birthday ended the career of a man who England have struggled to replace in the last five years.

Since Butcher's last Test match, in South Africa in 2004, seven number threes* have been tried in 52 Tests. None, however, have come close to matching Butcher's consistent contributions in the most pivotal of positions, as Ravi Bopara's agonising Ashes struggles were the latest reminder of.

At first glance, Butcher's Test average – a shade under 35 – appears distinctly underwhelming. However, he enjoyed not so much one Test career as two. During his first stint in the side, from 1997, he was used primarily as an opener, but, too often loose outside his offstump, Test cricket proved a major step up. Undoubtedly, it could hardly have helped that 23 of his first 27 Tests were against the ferocious fast-bowling attacks of Australia, South Africa and West Indies. Fleetingly, he appeared to be established as Mike Atherton's opening partner, as a priceless, man of the match-winning 116 in the decisive Leeds Test against South Africa was followed only four innings later by the same score at the Gabba. However, his technique disintegrated along with his marriage, and after 22 innings without a 50 he was dropped after the tour to South Africa in 1999/2000, seemingly with little prospect for a return.

But, helped no end by his father-coach Alan, Butcher managed to fight his way back into the side, having managed to alleviate a certain tenseness in his game – apparent in his dwindling strike-rate and his occasionally reckless running. And, after some battling efforts in his new role at number three amidst the wreckage of another Ashes humiliation, Butcher played a magisterial innings to lead England to an extraordinary victory in the Headingley Test of 2001.

Stand-in skipper Adam Gilchrist was lambasted in the press for setting England 315 to win the Test in a little over a day, but the declaration only appears generous through hindsight's lens. Australia, with McGrath and Warne in their prime, had dominated England to the extent that the target exceeded any score they had made in seven innings in the series. At 33/2, a humiliating whitewash appeared inevitable. Yet Butcher unravelled an exquisite array of shots, especially through the offside. He drove with authority and cut with disdain – often employing his characteristic upper-cut – to turn perhaps the greatest Test side of them all into a rabble. His 173*, made at breakneck speed, was arguably behind only innings by Laxman, Lara and Tendulkar in their brilliance against the Australian cricketing superpower at the turn of the millennium. Gilchrist certainly wouldn't have argued, saying “That has to be one of the greatest Ashes Test innings of all time”.

Butcher proved unable to replicate his phenomenal innings – and who could? But, almost as impressively, he was able to achieve a consistency that allowed him to occupy the number three berth for 42 consecutive Tests. Adaptability was a key attribute of his success. When conditions dictated he was capable of playing the aggressor – most notably during that incredible 173*, but also during the 2003 series against South Africa, when seemingly every ball was timed to perfection. He hit a remarkable 68 boundaries in nine innings (amounting to a staggering 67% of his runs) - hampered only by the return of a familiar foe: a penchant for being dismissed by aberrant shots when well set.

However, Butcher was more than capable of playing in the manner of an old-fashioned, attritional number three. On some testing surfaces on the 2004 tour of the Caribbean, he was exceptional, compensating for the failings of England's openers by getting into line, refraining from playing loose shots and being meticulous in his shot selection. And yet, hampered by injuries, he would play only five more Tests (he was never officially dropped), ending his career with a run of 32 innings without reaching even 80 – although this is not to belittle the significance of his hard-earned runs at three. As with another Surrey man, Graham Thorpe, Butcher's Test runs consistently stood out for their importance.

The captaincy of Surrey was an obvious route for such an intelligent mind, though recording victories proved rather more difficult than scoring runs, which Butcher continued to do at an impressive rate. Ultimately, Butcher's 'second career' of 47 Tests yielded the impressive average of 41. Curiously for a man who could counter-attack with relish, Butcher easily holds the record for the most Tests played without appearing in a one-day international (since the introduction of ODIs). Perhaps the selectors felt his style was too orthodox, as also proved the case with Michael Vaughan, and his domestic one-day average of 31 was distinctly mediocre.

The sight of Butcher thumping a ball through the offside, often idiosyncratically down on one knee, was one for Englishmen to cherish. Anyone who saw his two brilliant Headingley Test hundreds would attest to this.

* Michael Vaughan, Ian Bell, Alastair Cook, Ravi Bopara, Owais Shah, Andrew Strauss and Rob Key – plus three nightwatchmen

Friday, 18 September 2009

England's Champions Trophy pre-mortem

England are facing the prospect of a 7-0 NatWest series whitewash. No team has ever lost every single encounter of a seven-match One Day International series, so to say England are in disarray is an understatement. Investigations into disappointing showings at major tournaments are usually done after the event, but such is England's plight, anything other than an early return from South Africa, where they face the hosts, Sri Lanka and New Zealand in their group, would be a major surprise. It is time for the pre-mortem.

England have to make some changes to the current squad. The joint absence of Kevin Pietersen and Andrew Flintoff has been keenly felt, but the constant collective failure of the batting order cannot be ignored. Ravi Bopara, Owais Shah and Matt Prior might all benefit from a break. They are low on confidence and even lower on runs and it should be noted that their poor form is not a recent development - Bopara and Prior have six ODI half centuries between them from 90 appearances, whilst Shah has passed 50 once in his last 12 knocks.

Who to bring in to imporve their One Day International betting odds? Pietersen should bat at three, behind Andrew Strauss and Joe Denly. Eoin Morgan has done enough to earn more chances and Paul Collingwood's experience and all-round skills should not be dispensed with. Jonathan Trott cannot be ignored for the team's next limited overs assignments, but most of the other players demanding selection ply their trade at the top of the order.

Ed Joyce largely struggled in his first spell as an England opener, but he has been revitalised by his move to Sussex and is by some way the leading domestic limited overs runscorer this season. More explosive opening batsmen alternatives are Steve Davis, Phil Mustard and the soon-to-be-qualified Craig Kieswetter. All are good options to replace Prior behind the stumps. Marcus Trescothick power hitting in the early overs is irreplaceable, but the nearest thing on the county scene is Michael Lumb, who has the weight of stroke to clear the in-field.

The bowling situation is less desperate, although the attack is tidy rather than threatening. Ryan Sidebottom has really struggled for incisiveness and might need to be taken out of the firing line, but on the plus side Adil Rashid has done pretty well in tough circumstances. Flintoff's return to the bowling attack can't come soon enough, bungee-jumping or not. There are not many English seam bowlers who have set the county scene alight this season - old-stagers James Kirtley and Dominic Cork have been the most successful

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Freelance Freddie might have finished with England

The suggestion that Andrew Flintoff might reject his incremental ECB contract in favour of becoming a limited overs freelance cricketer has understandably caused a stir. We might just have seen the end of Flintoff’s international career.

It is significant that the comments have come from Flintoff’s agent – the one man in England who wants to see the big allrounder going around the world chasing the money – but his man’s international future is in serious doubt.

There are already serious concerns about whether Flintoff can return at the highest level after his latest injury lay-off, especially as he might not be as motivated in rehabilitation now the carrot of Test cricket is no longer there.

Flintoff wants to play at the next two World Cups and as many ICC World Twenty20s as possible, but as well as the doubts his body has, his former employers will be unsure about his involvement.

Andy Flower expects England players to feature in only three weeks of next year’s IPL if they have toured Bangladesh and it is unlikely that coach and captain will want to plan for the future with a player that opts out of international series, should Flintoff indeed prioritise other domestic Twenty20 events.

Flintoff’s absence from Test cricket will make planning without him easier in coloured clothing, although the team’s current predicament suggests beggars can’t be choosers. The cricket betting odds show that England need Flintoff, freelance or not.

This issue will be unresolved until Flintoff retires from all international cricket. We might not have to wait too long for that announcement.

Thursday, 10 September 2009

Groundhog Day no laughing matter for England

Andrew Strauss said England’s batting in the third One Day international of the current NatWest series felt like Groundhog Day. All the elements of a typically insipid English limited overs batting display were indeed present: regular wickets, no match-defining innings and an inability to take advantage of fielding restrictions. We don’t need reminding that it was another case of déjà vu.

As was so often the case in the Test series, Strauss stood alone as the one batsman able to build a substantial knock. He will be privately fuming at his own culpability in not going on to notch three figures, but he knows the problems lay elsewhere.

This obsession with scoring centurions preoccupies the England camp and the pressure felt by the top order is exacerbating their problems. Ravi Bopara is too patient, Matt Prior too loose, Owais Shah too inventive and Paul Collingwood too defensive.

These traits are also the individuals’ strengths and when in form they are the things that their major innings are built on. They are collectively low on confidence and unable to play freely yet in a controlled manner.

Australia have bowled excellently, albeit with too many extras, but the hosts are incapable of disturbing the bowlers’ lines and lengths, especially in power play overs. The absence of Kevin Pietersen and Andrew Flintoff obviously doesn’t help, but it is questionable as to whether England have the best possible boundary-hitters at the top of the order.

However, wholesale changes are not advisable – we are now closer to the next World Cup than the previous one – and the cure for batting déjà vu is not necessarily new faces, as the revolving door of players is in itself a characteristic of poor England One Day teams.

Joe Denly deserves his chance and Jonathan Trott cannot be ignored for too much longer. England’s recurring batting problems are no longer comic – a 7-0 series whitewash would belong in the horror section.

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Ashes composite team

Much has been made of the superior individual statistics that the Australians possess. Whilst the lack of centuries and wickets by England’s players does not flatter the home side, it does not reflect well on the tourists either. They managed to lose to a team with only one batsman in consistently good form and whose bowlers only occasionally hit the necessary heights.

This composite Ashes team reflects the reliance England had on certain players, but the individual marks given to this combined team shows why England hold the urn; their best players outperformed Australia’s best players.

Strauss 9

His 161 at Lord’s was the highest score of the series, which typified his ability to score runs at crucial times. Captaincy gradually improved.

Katich 5

Faded after starting well at Cardiff – he passed fifty only once more in seven knocks.

Ponting 6

Authoritative batting at Cardiff and Headingley was mixed with some loose strokeplay elsewhere.

Clarke 7

Australia’s best batsman. If his two tons came in first innings rather than rearguard actions, his team might have won the series.

North 6

Wore England down in the first, third and fourth Tests, but paid the price for over-ambition in other innings.

Prior 6

The best keeper on show. His perky batting helped set up the Lord’s win, but England need more than eye-catching cameos from their number six.

Flintoff 7

Produced one of England’s four five wicket hauls (Australia had just two) in a memorable spell at Lord’s.

Broad 8

His stunning burst on the second day was the epitome of a big-match performance and made his disappointing previous efforts irrelevant.

Swann 8

The best spinner, if partly by default, benefitting from faith being shown in him, unlike Nathan Hauritz. Batting efforts a handy bonus.

Siddle 6

Cashed-in on brainless England batting at Leeds, but otherwise lacked consistency. Needs brain to go with the brawn.

Hilfenhaus 7

His elevation to leader of the attack said much about his colleagues’ early trouble. Consistent and accurate, he didn’t quite manage to deliver a killer spell.

England total: 38
Australia: 37

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

No great expectations

The excitement ahead of the fifth Test is not exactly fever-pitch. Unfavourable comparisons with the epic 2005 Ashes might be a contributing factor to the rather underwhelming build-up, but England’s shambolic effort at Headingley is the main reason why the enthusiasm for an Ashes decider is not what it should be.

There were of course 18 years of Ashes hurt waiting to be salved at the Oval four years ago, but England fans are not usually blasé about the prospect of winning back the urn. England were so bad at Leeds that optimism of winning at the Oval is low.

England start as outsiders, as the tourists have more players in form. Australia have five of the six leading runscorers in the series and the three leading wicket-takers. The decider should be just that, a one-off match that can decided by a special individual performance. Few expect it to come from the hosts.

That is just the way England like it. Unused to leading major series, the home side froze at Headingley when the opportunity was there to clinch the Ashes after winning at Lord’s and dominating most of the Edgbaston Test. 

England are once again underdogs, as they were when they arrived at headquarters after being outplayed at Cardiff. It remains to be seen whether England, low on confidence, can play with the necessary freedom to force a win without reverting to reckless attack as they did at Leeds.

The Oval has played host to plenty of draws in championship cricket this season and the lack of faith in England is partly down to the fact that conditions will not favour a positive result. The pitch is flat and a good batting display by the Aussies in the first innings will prove decisive.

However, England should remember that they beat South Africa at the venue last year, thanks largely to the performance of a four-man pace attack that could well re-assemble this week. Whether England expects or not, the Ashes can be won.

There's still time to take a look at the Fifth Test odds before placing any Oval Test bets

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Lessons not learned

Andy Flower was right to criticise his team after the Headingley humiliation. The manner of their three-day capitulation was so reminiscent of last year’s hammering by South Africa on the same ground that serious questions should be asked of the team’s ability to learn from their mistakes.

In 2008 England were bundled out for 203 before tea on day one, with nine batsmen caught against the swinging ball. All 10 were dismissed caught this time around, shortly after lunch for 102. They lasted less than 34 overs.

On both occasions the brainless batting was compounded by terrible bowling displays – South Africa cruised to 522, Australia 445 – and each match was as good as lost by lunch on day two. England failed to learn from their Leeds mistakes last year.

This failure to learn lessons is borne out of an obsession to take the game to the Aussies. It has become England’s mantra since 2005, a fixation with attacking play that does not take common sense into account.

True, Australia are more fallible than they used to be and as susceptible under pressure as other teams, but the key to being aggressive is knowing when to go on the attack. Day one on a flat Lord’s pitch against out-of-sorts bowlers was the right time; a swinging morning and well-grooved bowlers at Headingley was not.

This desire to ‘stand up’ to the Aussies was manifested by the abject bowling display at Headingley. Feeling a bit of pressure to take wickets after being skittled for 102 is understandable, but England lacked patience and intelligence.

Instead of finding a good length and letting the conditions do some work, all the pacemen were drawn into a short-pitched plan of attack that was dealt with with embarrassing ease by Ricky Ponting and co.

England have no chance of winning at the Oval unless they learn from their mistakes. They need to pick the right time to be aggressive, although the Headingley humiliation was so bad that some players might not get another chance. They cannot complain.

Before the start of the next test make sure you keep an eye on the Oval Test odds before any Fifth Test betting.

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

England broadly have the right team

England always have someone under the selectorial microscope. Ravi Bopara’s place for Headingley is safe, despite another failure, so attention has shifted to Stuart Broad. The young paceman’s place is, not for the first time, under severe pressure.

Broad’s chances of keeping his place at Leeds are heavily linked with the fitness of Andrew Flintoff. If England’s talisman is unfit, then Broad must play; his lower order runs are vital for a team defending a 1-0 series lead. Besides, Steve Harmison, his potential replacement, will already be in the team in the scenario of Flintoff missing out.

However, if Flintoff is fit, then there must be a chance that Broad will be replaced. Numbers can be used to tell any story, so the more telling symptom of his predicament is the fact he was not used until 50 overs had passed in Australia’s second innings at Edgbaston.

Andrew Strauss appears to have lost some faith in Broad – he has gone from opening bowler to fourth change in two Tests – and the employment of the young seamer when the third Test was dead can be construed as a final attempt to get him into some rhythm. 2-38 on the final day might just have earned him another chance.

England will be reluctant to change a winning team and the selectors are mindful that the positive set of county numbers owned by Harmison is as misleading as Broad’s negative Test statistics. The Durham man’s recent Test failings hold more sway.

If England do axe Broad – as they did last summer – it should not be for Harmison but for Ryan Sidebottom. Now fully fit he provides a different angle of attack, reliability and genuine swing, the threat the touring batsmen have struggled to deal with. If the ball swings at Headingley, England need Sidebottom, not Harmison. The chances are that neither will play.

For now, keep an eye on the Headingley Test odds before any Fourth Test betting!

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Don't rubbish Ravi

England are one nil up with three to play. Everything seems to be rosy in the home team camp. Not quite true. Andrew Flintoff and Kevin Pietersen are nursing injuries, but the major problem seems to be Ravi Bopara.

It doesn’t take much for the number three spot to be under the spotlight and there are already calls for Bopara to be replaced. Many have decided that he lacks the technique and temperament to flourish at first drop. Please stop listening to Shane Warne.

Just as Warne’s withering assessment of Monty Panesar undermined our most talented spinner of recent years, the Aussie legend has delivered his damning verdict on Bopara, seemingly based on a clash between the pair in county cricket.

The poker-playing commentator might be trying one of his mind games on England for old time’s sake. The likely beneficiary of Bopara being dropped is Ian Bell – Warne’s ‘Sherminator’ bunny – who the Aussie legend would presumably love to see back at number three.

Bell hasn’t scored a single century at number three in 16 Tests, averaging 31. Owais Shah averaged 28.33 from the six matches he was given to cement the role. If Shah was jettisoned unfairly, Bopara’s axing would be even harsher.

True, he is yet to convince in the position in this series, but he has received one bad umpiring decision and a couple of excellent deliveries. His centuries against West Indies do not hold too much credence but should not be forgotten.

Bell was given two full Ashes series at numbers three and four but managed a top score of 87. He faced a far more testing attack than the one Bopara has to deal with, but also struggled to impose himself in the top order against lesser opposition.

Bopara’s tortuous effort on day three of the Lord’s Test, exacerbated by Pietersen’s similar efforts to rediscover form at the other end, suggested a player in turmoil.

He was in fact just facing the best spell of Aussie bowling in the series so far and his frustration at getting out softly to Nathan Hauritz revealed his disappointment at not getting through a sticky spell. He will come through in this series, hopefully at Edgbaston.

For now, keep a close eye on the Third Test odds before placing your Edgsbaston Test bet and, if you want to get in the mood for rivalry, check out Betfair's fanvfan site.

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

The unstoppable rise of the flat track

With the second Ashes Test nearly upon us is it too much to ask for a pitch that offers something for bowlers as well as batsmen?

The First Test at Cardiff ended in the most thrilling of draws, with England hanging on thanks to their last day heroics. Yet, if they had batted well in their first innings the match would have ended as the tamest of draws and a whimper of a start to the 2009 Ashes.

That they did not and chose to come so close to losing is what makes Test cricket so fascinating. But nothing can disguise the fact that the pitch at Cardiff was another in the seemingly endless line of flat tracks that many Test venues around the world seem to be churning out.

Sadly, Lord's is one of the worst offenders with last year's pitch for the Test against South Africa being one of the flattest ever seen. It would have served for a draw over ten days, let alone the customary five. I fear that the wicket for tomorrow's second Test will be much the same, though I would be very happy to be proved utterly wrong. A pitch like that in 2005 would be most welcome.

We only have to go back to the recent series between West Indies and England in the caribbean to see back to back draws on flat tracks, where the side batting last was able to hold out for relatively easy draws. On those occasions it was England who could not find those vital last wickets.

There are still some pitches around the world offering assistance to bowlers, but more often it is overhead conditions that aid them rather than sideways movement, pace, bounce or turn.

I am not advocating a return to the overly helpful pitches of the 80s, though those low scoring matches were much more exciting than the turgid draws that we experience too often these days. All I ask is for a fairer contest between bat and ball.

Let us hope those English groundsmen are listening and that the Ashes 2009 will see a return to livelier pitches and batsmen being truly tested.

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Flintoff muddies the selectorial waters

It's universally acknowledged that Andrew Flintoff cannot be replaced without weakening either the bowling or the batting. It's less universally acknowledged that Flintoff cannot be replaced without strengthening either the bowling or the batting.

So should England really stick with him, especially as there must be severe doubts over his capacity to withstand back-to-back Test matches?

If Flintoff plays as one of five bowlers, he leaves the batting looking a little thin. Furthermore, to compensate for this, England are forced into playing other non-specialists. Stuart Broad, for all his promise, owes a large part of his continued selection down to his run-making ability. But is he really a more threatening option than either Graham Onions or Steve Harmison?

Without Flintoff, there is no need for any compromisng. England would be free to play their best six batsman, leave Matt Prior as an excellent, counter-attacking number seven and select their best four bowlers without worrying about the runs they offer (given that Graeme Swann is one of them).

Broad will surely have a fine England career but a Test bowling average of 40 is simply not good enough for an opening bowler. Without Flintoff, his selection would depend entirely on whether England considered him one of their top three quicks.

Given their apparent refusal to countenance batting changes (Ravi Bopara should be batting at six, not three) England's side for Lord's could look like this:


Ian Bell is a lucky man indeed - he failed twice against Australia for the Lions and his suppossed run-scoring rehabilitation this season amounts to nothing more than two centuries at Taunton.

It would never happen, of course, but England could do much worse than select a bona fida number 3 averaging 90 this season. If they selected Ramprakash (whose fielding still puts Cook's and Strauss's to shame) the batting order would acquire a much better balance. His experience would be welcome in the most important position in the batting order, where Bopara appears more than a little vulnerable. He could then move back to number six, a more suitable position for a man of his experience in an Ashes series.

More realistically, England could do a lot worse than select a third opener, the simplest answer to the number three conundrum. Stephen Moore endured a rough start to the season but two recent hundreds, including against Australia, suggest he could be the man. Moore could open with Strauss, creating a left-right opening partnership and allowing Cook to bat at three, a position he occupied with great success in 2006.

Monday, 13 July 2009

Images from Cardiff

A selection of snaps from the 1st Test at Cardiff, the 100th Test Match venue.

Day 1

Katherine Jenkins belts out the National Anthem (of Wales)

1st over: Johnson to Strauss

Jack Russell

Ravi Bopara

Siddle to Pietersen

Day 2

Anderson to Hughes


Broad to Ponting

A packed house every day

Ricky Ponting

Day 3

Panesar to Ponting

Simon Katich 122

Ponting goes on... 150...

...and out.

Day 4

Panesar to Haddin

Marcus North 125 not out

The increasingly round arm Mitchell Johnson bowls to Strauss

Another 1st: Test cricket under lights in Britain

Bopara lbw Hilfenhaus 1

Please also click here for You Tube clips.

Lessons from Cardiff

The inspiration for improvement that England need for Lord’s can easily be taken from the Australians. The tourists showed the discipline and focus that England lacked in both their batting and bowling, although the hosts can also look within their own dressing room for pointers about how to approach the second Test.

Paul Collingwood’s heroic rearguard action on the final day at the Swalec stadium is the blueprint the batsmen should use when constructing their own innings. In truth the Durham grafter simply placed a high value on his wicket, something the Aussies (Phillip Hughes apart) did throughout.

England fans expect that sort of effort from Collingwood. He thrives in pressure situations and was not daunted by the task. The resilience shown by the tailenders came as more of a surprise.

Andrew Flintoff – still officially an allrounder – adjusted his approach suitably, as did Stuart Broad and Graeme Swann, natural strokemakers themselves. The lower order should learn from their own lessons.

The utter determination to defend their wickets should be in evidence at all times. Why reserve the ‘over my dead body’ persona for final day survival battles? If James Anderson defended as doggedly in the first innings as he did in the second, rather than dancing down the pitch to Nathan Hauritz, then Swann could have carried on attacking.

England’s bowlers of course have more to worry about than their batting. The flat wicket and excellence of the Australian batsmen made things worse, but the bowling unit was badly out of sorts at Cardiff.

Similarly, England are in trouble if they need to regularly rely on tailenders’ runs. Collingwood (and Simon Katich, Ricky Ponting and Marcus North) showed that batsmen need to be prised from the crease.

Australia’s excellent record at Lord’s is well-known, as is the ground’s recent trend for producing high-scoring draws. An England win seems the third likely result by some distance. If it is to be achieved, the home side need to carry on from where they left off in Wales.

For now, make sure you're keeping up to date with the Second Test odds ahead of making a Lord's Test bet and, if you want to get in the mood for a bit more rivalry, check out Betfair's new fan v fan site.

Friday, 3 July 2009

Monty back in the groove

Monty Panesar’s difficulties this season have been well-documented. Short on confidence after being discarded by England, he has toiled away to little effect in the second division, picking up six championship wickets for Northamptonshire at a cost of 86.

He has had his self-belief further eroded by the success of the current incumbent in the national set-up. Graeme Swann is the mirror image of Panesar: self-assured, confident in the media glare and talented in all facets of the game. Swann has flourished with the ball and is one of the first names on the Test team sheet.

Panesar was included in the warm-up match against Warwickshire due to the supposed spin-friendly nature of the first Test wicket at Cardiff.

Far from being under pressure, Panesar’s international career has been given a lifeline at a time when it would otherwise have been interrupted for a long period. England rarely play two spinners at home; Panesar can now look forward to playing a match with nothing to lose.

His place as second spinner has been assured this week. Panesar’s three cheap tailenders wickets at Edgbaston hardly constitute a return to form, but combined with Adil Rashid’s wicketless return from 14 overs against Australia at Worcester it can be taken as the beginning of season spin bowling pecking order being maintained.

Graham Onions, Steve Harmison and Tim Bresnan were all in the wickets at New Road and it is far from certain that England will play two spinners at the Swalec stadium. Ryan Sidebottom has proved his fitness and the home side might decide to go with four seamers, especially if they decide the potential role of spin has been overplayed.

Much was made of Panesar’s struggles at Cardiff last month – he took two for 149 from 44 overs – but he was not the only spinner to miss out. The other four spinners on show took only six of the other 25 wickets to fall and it could be that England will be relying on conditions that won’t prevail if they choose two slow men.

If they do, Panesar will surely return to the limelight. He has had his confidence boosted and will feel vindicated in returning to his tried and trusted method of accuracy rather than variation. Now Nathan Hauritz is the only under-fire spinner who can’t buy a wicket.

For now, make sure you're keeping a close eye on the 2009 Ashes odds before making your Ashes bets. If you need to get in the betting mood, check out Betfair's new fan v fan site!

Thursday, 2 July 2009

Ashes Composite XI

The simplest way of assessing the merits of the two sides before the Ashes is to select a composite eleven, to play in English conditions. It remains to be seen how different it will be come August 24th.

1) Andrew Strauss
Five centuries in his past seven Tests speak of a man in the form of his life.

2) Philip Hughes
A first-class average in excess of 70 almost defies belief. His working over at the hands of Steve Harmison made for very interesting viewing; and it is true that plundering Division Two attacks only says so much. But two hundreds in a Test away to South Africa says rather more.

3) Ricky Ponting
Recent form is decidedly modest - Ponting averages just 36 in his last 11 Tests - but he remains the wicket England will prize above all others, and was phenomeal in 2006/07.

4) Kevin Pietersen
Has not really been at his best for England since losing the captaincy, but his flair and skill is such that he can make Ponting lose control of the game in the field. A third consecutive Ashes averaging more than 50 is expected, though his injury is a concern.

5) Simon Katich
The Australian selectors had decided he could not quite cut it at international level, but some Ramprakash-esque domestic form made them give him another chance, where England's selectors were too stubborn to with Mark. And how they have been vindicated: averaging 53 in the 15 Tests since his comeback, he is now Australia's most reliable batsman. He opens, of course, but could slot in in the middle-order in the side.

6) Matt Prior
Very little separates Prior and Haddin, but Prior's current Test average of 48 - even if it has benefited from feasting on poor West Indian bowling - and improving keeping shade it.

7) Andrew Flintoff
Arguably this place should go to Michael Clarke, but he has never convinced against the swinging ball. So with a certain nostalgia for 2005, Flintoff is in - but he has it all to prove this summer, especially with willow in hand.

8) Mitchell Johnson
Along with Dale Steyn, is simply the best fast bowler in world cricket. How Flintoff would crave his averages of 34 and 28 - which put Johnson into genuine all-rounder territory and, incidentally, are identical to Ian Botham's final career averages.

9) Graeme Swann
England's great find of the past few months, his ebullient batting and aggressive, varied off-spin could have a big part to play in this series. MR SK Warne's assertion than Nathan Hauritz (first-class average 47, four-fers three and five-fers precisely none) is a superior bowler is risible. Unless he is keeping his doosra well hidden from view.

10) Peter Siddle
It's pretty hard to ignore Stuart Broad but for all his rapid improvement he still avaerges 38 with the ball. Then there is Peter Siddle, an wholehearted Aussie seamer from the Merv Hughes school. He can look ordinary, but deceptively quick, he averages just 25 in the two series against South Africa. Underestimate him at your peril.

11) James Anderson
Perhaps the second best new-ball bowler in world cricket behind Steyn, Anderson's growing control nad increased mastery over swing with the new and old ball has been a joy to behold.

So it's pretty evenly matched. England have six players in the XI; Australia have five, though it could so easily have been the opposite had Haddin edged in (or had Flintoff been unavailable for selection, as he surely will at some point this series). And in Johnson they have probably the best Test cricketer in the world of the past twelve months.

What's striking is the relatively weak middle-orders of both sides, as Katich slotting in as an emergency number five illustrates. Michael Hussey has endured a miserable few months, while doubts over Paul Collingwood seem perennial. Michael Clarke had an encouraging Aussie winter but is still yet to truly fulfill his potential, while Marcus North's early-tour form has been terrible. So it may be that the batting strength of both sides lies in the top four, with weaknesses in the middle-order and a real possibility for same late-order tail-wagging from the likes of Haddin, Prior, Johnson, Broad, Swann and Lee.

So what does that tell us? The 2009 Ashes will be worth watching.

Monday, 29 June 2009

Michael Vaughan, England legend

So there will be no fairytale Ashes comeback for Michael Vaughan. His retirement has looked increasingly likely this season, his poor batting form – 159 first class runs at 19.88 – combining with Ravi Bopara’s excellence in the England number three spot to suggest there was little chance of an international recall.

Vaughan’s decision to pack away his bat for good has still come as a surprise to some, most notably the England selectors. Their decision to hand the former skipper a central contract this season meant they hoped he would one day return, with his bygone glories in the Test arena always an allure.

It is this Michael Vaughan that England fans will want to remember, not the uncertain, drained figure who scored 40 runs from his last five Test innings. That final, disappointing series against South Africa last year was why we wanted him to return: to have the opportunity to show why he once was the best batsman in the world.

Vaughan’s golden years of 2002 and 2003, when he scored seven centuries in 20 innings, all against the three best teams in the world, would represent an excellent career in their own right. His excellent, record-breaking captaincy elevates Vaughan’s England career to one of the very best.

He led England to more Test victories than anyone else, recording 26 wins from 51 matches as skipper, losing just 11. Reclaiming the Ashes in 2005 was one of England’s great sporting moments and every England fan knows the size of Vaughan’s contribution. However, as with all great players, it is the manner of the achievements that are significant, not just the facts and figures themselves.

We remember the silky cover drive and effortless pull shot more than the 18 Test centuries, one more than Denis Compton recorded. His captaincy made England tougher and harder to beat than they ever had been. He commanded respect from his players, opponents and commentators and always exuded the calmness that characterised his batting.

England might win the Ashes this year, but if they don’t it will reinforce the sense that Vaughan’s historic triumph in 2005, the defining moment of a fine career, was even more special than it appeared at the time.

In the meantime, make sure you stay up to date with the Ashes odds before making an informed First Test bet and, if you want to get in the betting mood, check out Betfair's fanvfan site.

Thursday, 25 June 2009

Wagging tail will characterise the summer

Duncan Fletcher is not shy of putting the journalistic boot into England, but it is safe to assume that he will endorse one aspect of England’s Ashes line-up this summer: their long batting line-up.

With Andrew Flintoff at number seven and perhaps Adil Rashid at 10 for the first Test (bear this possibility in mind for First Test betting), not to mention Jimmy ‘no duck’ Anderson at 11, the home side has plenty of batting depth.

The same is true of Australia. Mitchell Johnson will one day be considered a genuine allrounder, whilst plenty is known of Brett Lee’s lower order skill with the bat. Lee emphasised the point in scoring an unbeaten 47 against Sussex in the Aussies’ opening tour match after the tourists had slipped to 228-6.

Nathan Hauritz played freely at number nine, racing to 65 not out at the close on day one, doing his chances of inclusion for the series opener no harm at all. Australia’s lower order recovery, albeit against a slightly weakened county attack, has set the tone for the Ashes.

The tension and drama of 2005 is unlikely to be matched, but two long batting line-ups will add to the cat-and-mouse nature of the series. Neither side will rip through the other’s tail and there could well be some more tense run chases and final day finishes.

Fletcher was ultimately vindicated in his demand for multi-dimensional cricketers. England fans shudder at the memory of a tail in August 1999 that comprised Andrew Caddick, Alan Mullally, Phil Tufnell and Ed Giddins.

Rashid and Graeme Swann’s elevation above Panesar in the spin-bowling pecking order is purely due to their better bowling form. Their superior batting ability is a bonus, one which could be decisive in the forthcoming series.

In the meantime, keep up to date with the Ashes odds and, if you need to get in the betting mood, check out Betfair's fanvfan site.

Monday, 22 June 2009

Musings on the first Ashes squads

The selection of a 16-man Ashes training squad, alongside an England Lions XI to face Australia, provides many portents for the summer ahead. The complete omission of Michael Vaughan is the clearest indication yet his Test career is at an end.

However, would it not have been worth selecting him for the Lions, just as England have done with Steve Harmison? He has been woefully out of form, certainly, but if Strauss or Cook were to get injured, who would England call upon as an emergency opener? Would Stephen Moore or Joe Denly (both selected for the Lions) really have a chance of making their Test debuts in the Ashes?

Overall, the squads are hard to overly quibble with. Leaving Harmison out the 16-man squad but allowing him a crack at Australia for the Lions is surely a good move. It is intriguing that Ian Bell has been selected as captain for the Lions - but it could be the making of him.

There is, however, a whiff of Worcestershire bias about the Lions side which will take on the Aussies at Worcester. Vikram Solanki has no chance of playing for England again. He should not have been preferred to Vaughan or especially Owais Shah. Shah's face seemingly does not fit. There are doubts over his Test match temperament, of course, but playing him for the Lions would be a low-risk way of assessing his qualities. He is considerably more likely to play for England again that Solanki, so Solanki's selection just seems like a waste of a spot. Steven Davies's selection ahead of Messrs Foster and Ambrose is slightly surprising, but he is averaging 43 in Division One this season and actually played for England as recently as March.

The spin issue remains as confusing as ever. Before the squads were announced, many felt England would allow Panesar, who the Aussies have seen before, to play for the Lions, while keeping new leg-spinner Rashid 'hidden' for England against Warwickshire. Instead, they have gone down the opposite path. Panesar is hopelessly out of form and should not play in the first Test. If Rashid does well for the Lions, perhaps he will get his first Test cap in the first game of the 2009 Ashes.

Friday, 19 June 2009

What's happened to the magic of Monty?

Monty Panesar has earned cult-status in England - not just for his slapstick batting and fielding, but also because some shrewd judges considered him the finest spinner England have produced since the halycon days of Derek Underwood. But something has gone seriously awry. England cannot select him for the Ashes this summer.

After being dropped in the West Indies, and showing some improved variation when he was selected as second spinner for the final Test on tour, it was hoped Panesar would gain confidence getting wickets for Northants and would have fully regained his confidence by the time he was selected for Cardiff, a wicket that notoriously takes spin. In fact, the opposite has happened - to the extent to which it is probably only his England career (he still possesses a central contract) - that is forcing Northants to select him. The statistics are atrocious, and say it all. From 193 overs in the championship, he has taken six wickets for 520 runs at a cost of 86 apiece. With a white ball in his hand, he has taken two wickets for a total cost of 287.

Where has it all gone wrong? The enderaing, childish enthusiasm seems to have given way to uncertainty and a lack of confidence. Panesar does not seem to feel he belongs. Too often he gives the impression of a little boy lost, unable to think for himself, on his feet. How often has anesar actively suggested a fielding change, rather than passively be governed by his captain? Unintentionally, the man who has displaced him as England's number one spinner provided the most damning assessment, saying "I sometimes wonder how he’s got to this stage without wandering in front of a train or a bus". At 27, Panesar is perhaps suffering from a lack of perspective; in this regard, Grame Swann can almost be considered his anthithesis. How easy it is to say from the outside, of course, but a man whose life has been so governed by cricket may find it particularly hard to react when form falls apart.

England's thinktank, impressed by some admirable performances in the World Twenty20, must recognise Adil Rashid is a better choice as second spinner, if England indeed employ two for the first Test. Rashid would give England an extraordinarily long-tail, with Swann's ebullient hitting perhaps forced down as low as number ten.

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

England's World Twenty20 ratings

Kevin Pietersen 8
England’s over-reliance on their star player was worse than anyone had feared. He was badly missed against the Dutch and made up for lost time with key contributions against Pakistan and India. The tame dismissal against West Indies perhaps cost his team the game, the ultimate proof that England depend too much on him. His strike rate of 152.47 was impressive and you should bet on Kevin Pietersen to make an impact when the Ashes cricket action starts.

Ravi Bopara 7.5
He is yet to solve his problem of getting out when well-set in coloured clothing, but is the only batsman apart from Pietersen who can score naturally quickly without taking risks.

Stuart Broad 7
He bounced back well from his Netherlands run out disaster and enhanced his reputation for quick-learning and aggression, with his round-the-wicket angle of attack an interesting development.

Graeme Swann 7
Mystifyingly left out against Netherlands, he was relatively economical and threatening thereafter. He used all his guile to cope well with any opposition batting onslaughts.

James Foster 6.5
The selectors’ inclusion of the country’s premier gloveman was fully justified, as his lightning-quick stumping of Yuvraj Singh proved crucial in the India showdown. He struggled to find the boundary with the bat, but was hardly alone in that failing.

Dimitri Mascarenhas 6.5
It must be hoped that this tournament has reduced expectations fof the Hampshire skipper. He is a canny medium pacer who bats a bit, not a power hitter who can bat in the top order – his economy rate of 6.42, combined with the fact he hit three boundaries from his 42 balls faced, prove as much.

Adil Rashid 6
An impressive debut series by England’s great leg spin hope. He bowled well under pressure and did his chances of involvement on other formats no harm at all.

Ryan Sidebottom 6
An encouraging return for Sidebottom, who still has some bite to go with his bark. He roughed up the Indians but was otherwise expensive.

Owais Shah 5
106 runs from 98 balls spread across five innings is not a good enough return for a player in the top order. He struggled to rotate the strike but proved he could clear the ropes, so needs to learn that Twenty20 is more than just block and slog.

Luke Wright 5.5
England’s pinch hitter was exposed after starting well against the Dutch and needs to increase his scoring areas. His bowling showed only glimpses of promise.

James Anderson 5.5
England’s in-form paceman was generally disappointing, as he lacked accuracy and a new ball threat.

Paul Collingwood 5
The skipper was dreadfully out of touch with the bat – he didn’t time a ball all week. He must also take some blame for the complacency against the Dutch and strange team selection, although credit is also due for rallying the team against Pakistan and India.

Rob Key, Eoin Morgan and Graham Napier were barely called upon, bringing their selection into question. The total exclusion of Napier by a team which struggled for boundaries was particularly strange.

Thursday, 4 June 2009

England are no more than dark horses

England's hopes of succeeding in the ICC World Twenty20 are on the up.

Only a few weeks ago England’s hopes of succeeding in the ICC World Twenty20 appeared slim. They had no coach, captain or consistent form. A hapless tournament in 2007 and poor overall Twenty20 form suggested the hosts would not feature in the latter stages.

Now, a few wins and managerial appointments later, England are suddenly in buoyant mood. They are in the position that often characterises national teams from this country going into a major tournament, that of unrealistic expectation.

The carnival atmosphere that surrounded England’s warm-up win over West Indies at Lord’s was part Ashes summer fever, part realisation that the home side played well enough to suggest they can go all the way.

It was a crushing win over the Windies, who continue to lurch form one mediocre defeat to another. England presented the key Twenty20 credentials that have eluded them for so long: a fast-scoring opening partnership, wicket-taking bowlers with good variation and efficient fielding that characterises a professional approach.

However, whilst it is true that England have more players in good form than they did in South Africa two years ago, when they won only once, against Zimbabwe, there should still be caution.

A product of that poor performance in 2007 is a difficult draw this time around. The two Super Eight groups of four are arranged according to seeding, not first round performance.

England are second tier seeds and as such will face India, Australia and South Africa (also seeded outside the top four) in phase two, as long as there are no major upsets. Points are not carried through from round one, so the clash with Pakistan is irrelevant, as long as both teams beat Netherlands.

Expecting England to win two of their three games against the tournament favourites is a tough ask, although it safe to say that the prospect is far more likely than it recently was.

Thursday, 28 May 2009

Specialists might have to wait for their chance

England’s squad for the ICC World Twenty20 contains a mixture of central contract regulars and Twenty20 specialists. The selectors have rewarded consistent domestic performers in the shortest format of the game, although the first choice line-up could well end up being similar to the team that turns out for 50 over matches.

There will be a change behind the stumps, as James Foster comes in for Matt Prior. Some might question this move, as Prior is in the form of his life with the bat, but the selectors are right to recognise that superior keeping is as important in this format as others.

The Essex man’s busy batting is perhaps under-rated and he might slot in at number six. Rob Key and Graham Napier are the other men who have forced their way into the squad on the back of their Twenty20 cup exploits.

Both were initially pencilled in for places in the team, but their current form will force a rethink. Key has scored just 66 runs in four first class innings for Kent and has fared even worse in coloured clothing, hitting a top score of 27 from eight Friends Provident knocks. He scored a second ball duck in his only completed Twenty20 cup innings.

Napier has also had a slow start, failing to pass 50 in his six limited overs knocks, although his away swing bowling seems to be in better order. His boundary hitting is the reason for his inclusion and if that is lacking, it is hard to see a starting place for the burly allrounder.

Key’s place at the top of the order will go to Eoin Morgan, who showed all the invention and urgency needed for the role in smashing a Friends Provident 161 from 136 balls for Middlesex against Kent. He is not usually an opener in any format, but Key is simply not in the sort of form to give England the start they require.

With regards to Twenty20 betting, the rest of the team is easier to predict, with Adil Rashid, Luke Wright and Ryan Sidebottom fighting it out for one place if Napier does miss out. Spin is crucial in Twenty20 cricket and this could be the time for Rashid to make his full international debut.

Be sure to bear all this in mind when you look to place your all-important Twenty20 bet.

Possible team: Bopara, Morgan, Pietersen, Shah, Collingwood, Foster, Mascarenhas, Rashid, Broad, Swann, Anderson

Monday, 25 May 2009

England's Ashes ladder (3)

The third installment of the Ashes ladder - and after the demolition of the West Indies England are imbued with a new-found confidence. So who's up and who's down from after the West Indies tour?

1) Andrew Strauss (-)
Rapidly making this ‘his side’, Strauss will have a point to prove after being overlooked for the captaincy and his subsequent struggles in 2006-07.

2) Alastair Cook
Has finally ended his century drought and will be given the opportunity to improve on his poor previous series against the Aussies.

3) Kevin Pietersen
There are justifiable concerns over his recent form and the state of his mind – witness him describing the thrashings his Bangalore side suffered as “fantastic” – but there should be nothing like an Ashes campaign to get him back to his best if he recovers from injury on time.

4) James Anderson
Amazingly, he was left out of the side as recently as the first Test in the West Indies. But he is now England’s premier quick bowler, bowling with skill with new and old ball alike. His ability to move the ball both ways has some hoping he can emulate Simon Jones in 2005 in exposing Australian frailties against swing.

5) Stuart Broad
Andrew Strauss says he now views Broad as an allrounder, and, even though he has too seldom run through Test sides to date, he can expect to open the bowling alongside Anderson. His working-over of Sarwan at Chester-le-Street spoke of a bowler coming of age at Test level.

6) Graeme Swann
Swann has been England’s great success story of the past six months, in particular against left-handers – crucial given that Australia may have as many as five in their top eight. Swann’s control has impressed, but he is clearly a more attacking option than Panesar too. Add in the ebullient batting and excellent slip-catching and England may just have uncovered quite a package.

7) Matt Prior
Doubts over his keeping linger – will they ever go? – but England’s desire to play five bowlers mean Prior’s position is assured. There is simply no other keeper who could come close to convincing at No.6, even if he currently averages less than 30 against non-West Indian opposition.

8 ) Andrew Flintoff
Since his return last summer, he has averaged just 24 with the bat, surely precluding him from batting at six. With the ball he has been parsimonious and wholehearted, though he has only claimed three wickets a Test. But England will want him batting at seven to allow them a five-man attack.

9) Ravi Bopara
Three centuries in three innings have ended the debate surrounding England’s No.3 – for now. Test runs, save against Bangladesh, do not come any easier than against the West Indies at home in May, but Bopara has seized his chance admirably. Expect Mitchell Johnson to test out the theory that he is vulnerable to the short ball.

10) Paul Collingwood
Since being “an absolute goner” against South Africa last summer, Collingwood has been in magnificent form, scoring four hundreds and a 96.

11) Monty Panesar
The one area in which England can confidently say they have the edge over Australia is in the spin department. The two Andys have spoken of liking the balance two spinners provided the attack in Trinidad, and there seems every chance England will employ two in Cardiff and the two London venues. Panesar has not improved his game sufficiently since his extraordinary Ashes debut, and his struggles for Northants are deeply worrying. But his home record – 80 wickets at 27 – is excellent.

12) Graeme Onions (N/E)
Responded to being left out of the Durham side last season by taking five for 38 on Test debut. With genuine pace and the ability to move the ball off the seam, Onions has some exciting attributes – but a series economy rate of 4.40 suggests he has issues with control.

13) Ryan Sidebottom
His call-up to the squad for the second Test, along with his inclusion in both England’s limited-overs squads, shows he remains in the selectors’ thoughts. His case could be aided by a feeling that Phillip Hughes may just have a weakness to left-armers bowling over the wicket.

14) Ian Bell
Seemingly now the first reserve after an impressive start to the domestic season, Bell would certainly have a point to prove if given a chance. If Flintoff were to get injured once more, England may use Bell at six, rather than risk batting Broad at seven.

15) Tim Bresnan (N/E)
His selection for the first two Tests and in the ODI squad shows he is highly regarded. However, would his bowling really threaten Australia in mid-summer?

16) Steve Harmison
After his hokey-cokey winter and an inauspicious start to the summer, few would be surprised if Harmison never played for England again. But if he can find fitness and form for Durham, there will be a temptation to give him one last chance.

17) Michael Vaughan
If only he batted as well as he talked. But, for all the doubts, is probably England’s third-choice opener.

18) Adil Rashid
Took wickets and scored 72 for the Lions against the West Indies. It does not bode well for him that England preferred Gareth Batty for the ODIs in the Caribbean, but, if Panesar continues to struggle, there will be a case for giving Rashid and his improving leg-spin a Test this summer.

19) Tim Ambrose
Very impressive in his one winter Test as a stand-in for Prior, Ambrose, barring a brilliant performance from James Foster in the World Twenty20, appears established as England’s No.2 keeper. But, as we learned last summer, he is not a Test match No.6.

20) Owais Shah
Intensity, cramp and a penchant for suicidal runs saw Shah endure a miserable three Tests in the West Indies. It looks unlikely he will play a Test again.

21) Sajid Mahmood
Has not played a Test since disappearing around Australia in 2006-07, but his pace and ability to reverse swing mean he has not disappeared completely off the radar.

22) Eoin Morgan (N/E)
His raw, uninhibited talent has been likened by many to that of his county college Phillip Hughes. If Morgan impresses for England in the limited-overs games prior to the Ashes, he may have a chance of featuring.

23) Rob Key
The England Lions skipper will view the World Twenty20 as a chance to further his ambitions for a Test recall, though he has not scored the volume of runs to merit one.

24) Matthew Hoggard (+1)
So many feel he was jettisoned unfairly (even if he averaged 40 from his last 13 Tests) and he will be dreaming of a Test on his home ground. But the selectors seem to feel he has lost his “nip” for good.

25) Mark Ramprakash (N/E)
The romantics’ choice. Averages 42 against Australia and still the most prized wicket in county cricket even in his 40th year.