Monday, 30 March 2009

Patience with Pietersen wears thin

It’s time to have a word, skipper. If Andrew Strauss hasn’t had a strong chat with Kevin Pietersen already, he urgently needs to do so. Pietersen is currently doing more damage to the England cricket team than good, which is remarkable considering his batting talent.

Pietersen has previous loose-tongued dealings with the press. Some commend him for straight-talking, but he is really inflammatory and unprofessional. He does not think about others before he speaks – did it cross his mind that team-mates and supporters would feel let down by his recent comments?

His unnecessary and hypocritical attack on Shivnarine Chanderpaul was poorly judged and another example of why Pietersen is not, and never has been, the right man to lead England. He exhibits few of the characteristics necessary for good leadership.

Pietersen’s selfishness is hurting England. He is constantly complaining of the hurt the ECB caused him, with no apparent regard for the damage he himself has done to the team; he seems to think a strong conviction condones subsequent action, when actually nothing excuses the back-stabbing of the team’s coach and the development of a dangerous persecution complex.

His successor as captain must feel Pietersen’s jealousy. He bleats about Strauss having everything he wants as captain – really Kevin? The split dressing room, the temporary coach, the sulking star player. Exactly what a new skipper requires – and shows no desire to move on for the sake of the team.

The replacement of Pietersen with Strauss was seen by some as the installation of a ‘yes man’, a unifying presence unable to take on authority. The opposite is true – Strauss is the stronger character, able to drop established players but still improve dressing room harmony.

Pietersen is the frailer character whose famous drive and ambition goes only as far as his own career. The right man is in charge, but he has one remaining task to perform before he makes the position his own, and that is to put his troublesome predecessor in his place.

Monday, 23 March 2009

One-Test wonder membership increases

It is the club no Test cricketer wants to be part of, but it is hard to escape the feeling that it has just received another inductee. Bryce McGain capped a nightmare tour with a nightmare Test debut and is surely destined to finish his career with the unwelcome moniker ‘One-Test wonder’.

McGain began the tour to South Africa by missing the flight out from Australia, which was a sign of things to come. A chastening experience in the warm-up match at Potchefstroom (2-126 from 19 overs) was accompanied by a bout of illness. It also hinted at the manner in which he would be treated by the home batsmen in the Test series.

With the series safe, his chance came in the final Test at Newlands. It ended in heavy defeat for Australia (their first by an innings in 11 years) and surely represents his only appearance wearing the Baggy Green.

The hosts’ batsmen attacked McGain mercilessly from the outset, taking the tactic of not letting a spinner settle to extremes; good balls were hit to the boundary as much as bad, inevitably eroding confidence and increasing the long-hop count.

The only positive to come from his final figures of 18-2-149-0 was that they are only the second most expensive analysis in a Test innings in terms of economy rate. He scored 2 and 0 with the bat to round off a miserable individual match.

There is no first-class cricket for McGain, who is nearly 37, to stake an Ashes place in, so his hopes of a reprieve look slim, despite the bare cupboard that is Australian spin bowling – Beau Casson (10 years younger than McGain but perhaps also a One-Test wonder), Cameron White, Jason Krejza and Nathan Hauritz have all been tried and discarded over the past year.

Darren Pattinson, Kabir Ali, Jon Lewis and Ian Blackwell are One-Test wonders at varying distances away from an England recall plying their trade on the English county circuit. It says everything about McGain’s prospects that each is more likely to hand back their membership of the dreaded club.

Monday, 16 March 2009

England's Twenty20 confusion

England have a habit of turning up at major tournaments in a state of confusion. Every World Cup campaign since 1992 has been mired in poor planning and it is fair to say the team and tactics are far from settled with the ICC World Twenty20 on the horizon.

Sunday’s heavy defeat by West Indies brought back memories of November’s Stanford debacle. Once again an efficient performance from the home side highlighted the deficiencies of an England cricket team that does not know its best starting eleven and is incapable of doing the basics right.

The omission of the in-form Matt Prior was strange and the sight of England’s captain scratching around for runs at number six was one that came as no surprise; Andrew Strauss’ new-found positivity at the crease might well be transferred from Tests to One Day internationals – Twenty20 cricket might be a step too far.

This is just one selectorial headache. The openers continue to rotate with such regularity that the construction of a partnership is impossible – the throwing in of Steve Davies with the tournament imminent is systematic of England’s muddled thinking.

The subject of specialists is always relevant and England have veered from one extreme to the other - Jeremy Snape and Darren Maddy were called-up for the ill-fated 2007 World Twenty20 campaign, but the Stanford squad was dominated by familiar faces in a crude attempt at continuity.

It is surely too late for the likes of Joe Denly and Graham Napier to receive call-ups, so the team that was hammered by West Indies can be assumed to form the basis of the likely starters, with the addition of Andrew Flintoff and Graeme Swann.

England’s best Twenty20 days (Australia at Southampton 2005, New Zealand home and away last year) have been based on aggressive wicket-taking opening bowling spells and Strauss’ men might have to bank on this tactic in June.

The wickets at Lord’s, the Oval and Trent Bridge might have some life in them, suiting James Anderson, Stuart Broad and Flintoff. It isn’t much of a plan, but it’s all England have got at the moment.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

England player ratings

Here are the series ratings for England's 1-0 defeat in West Indies.

Alastair Cook 7
Finally hit his eighth Test century and, along with three half-centuries, allayed any doubts over his position in the side.

Andrew Strauss 9
Thrice hit centuries on the opening day of a Test to put England in control, batting with a new-found positivity to confirm his remarkable rejuvenation as a Test opener. And he convinced as skipper, in tandem with Andy Flower, although he will live to regret the timing of two of his declarations.

Ian Bell 2
Dropped, at long last, after the first Test, Bell should be kept well away from the side until the end of the summer. At which point this supremely talented technician may have found the mental resolve to do justice to his great talent.

Owais Shah 4
Given his chance at long last, Shah sadly disappointed. His running between the wickets was indicative of his confused mindset; how he will regret his run-out when crusing on 57. May yet be given another chance - although his best position, as remarked upon well before this series, is not at number three.

Kevin Pietersen 7
He will be disappointed 15 centuries were posted before his brilliant final Test hundred. But he slipped back into the side with minimal fuss, to his immense credit. With the challenge of the captaincy taken away from him, how about trying your hand as England's number three, KP?

Paul Collingwood 8
Two centuries and a 96 constituted a hugely impressive series. And the doubters, whom Collingwood seems to take such pleasure in proving wrong, have no reason to question his place any longer. His sublime catch almost proved the catalyst for England to level the series - although some of his other fielding, like his bowling, was below his normal standards.

Ravi Bopara 8
Took his opportunity wonderfully with an assured century after an early reprive. But even if he plays 100 Tests, he may not score an easier ton, so it would be pressumptious in the extreme to hail him as the answer to England's problems at number three, as some have rushed to do.

Andrew Flintoff 5
In the two Tests he played, Flintoff disappointed with the bat - yet again - while bowling with his usual parsimony. But the days of him batting at number six have surely passed.

Matt Prior 7
Nine for his exceptionally impressive batting; five for his improved, but still too shoddy, wicket-keeping. But if England want to pursue a strategy of five bowlers, then Prior simply must play and bat at six.

Tim Ambrose 7
Dropped on nought, Ambrose compiled a fine, attacking 76* in his sole innings, to go with some impressive keeping. Prior's place remains safe, however, unless his keeping completely disintegrates.

Stuart Broad 7
Bowled manfully, and with developing variations, on lifeless services to cement his place in the side.

Graeme Swann 8
In any vote for 'man of the tour' Swann would surely win hands down. Unjustly dropped for the first Test, Swann kept his spirits up and responded magnificiently when given his opportunity. he may lack a doosra but impressed with his variations, aided by control and a willingness to toss the ball up in search of wickets. His spell on the series' final day was exceptional.

James Anderson 6
The figures do him scant justice, but Anderson's magnificent reverse-swing bowling in the final Test almost saw England share the series. At times he seemed unable to believe his illfortune - but he emerges from the series as England's new King of Swing.

Steve Harmison 5
Disappointed in his two Tests, without being so poor as to completely burn his bridges. Should have been given one final opportunity ahead of Ryan Sidebottom in the Fourth Test, but he is clearly holding onto his international career by the tips of his fingers. The ODIs are of huge important for his future.

Ryan Sidebottom 2
What was he doing playing when so patently unfit? Wholehearted but sadly toothless, his international career looks over after his 12 months in the sun.

Monty Panesar 5
Poor in the first Test, after which he was rightly dropped. But his return for the final game suggested he has learned new variations and subtleties. England's best chance of beating Australia lies with playing two spinners. After his exploits this winter, however, Swann is the senior twin.

Amjad Khan 4
Playing the final Test, Khan delivered the priza scalp of Sarwan. However, he was weighed down by a serial no-ball problem, and lacked any real control. The next Simon Jones he does not quite appear to be.

The Verdict
England ended the series in funny shape. They suffered a desperately disappointing and unexpected series defeat. And yet there were clear reasons to be cheerful.

West Indies player ratings

The Wisden Trophy is on its way back to the Caribbean and here are my ratings for the players who secured that series win against England.

Chris Gayle – 9 /10

The significance of West Indies’ achievement cannot be under-estimated. England might be a team in decline, but beating them shows how far the Windies have come – since beating India in early 2002, they had won only four series out of 22 (two against Bangladesh and one apiece versus Zimbabwe and Sri Lanka). Their recent steady improvement has been largely due to Gayle’s impressive leadership and his occasionally negative captaincy in the series can be excused. He also hit two fine example-setting tons.

Ramnaresh Sarwan – 9

The numbers tell their own story: 626 runs from six innings with three centuries and a fifty. The draws at Antigua and Barbados were based upon Sarwan’s batting, which has made him look like a different player from the one that struggled in New Zealand before Christmas. A key man in his team’s renaissance.

Shivnarine Chanderpaul – 8

In a series that featured 17 centuries, it is surprising only one came from Chanderpaul’s bat. However, his ton at Port of Spain was as crucial as any of the others and he was otherwise consistent and as hard to dismiss as we expected.

Jerome Taylor – 8

In a series that bat dominated ball, his spell of 5 – 11 at Sabina Park defined the series. He was as pedestrian and unthreatening in the rest of the series as he was devastating and unplayable at Jamaica, but the damage had been done. He showed more glimpses of his batting talent.

Fidel Edwards – 7

Nine wickets at 54.88 do not reflect Edwards’ contribution. He was the only quick man to remain quick on the featherbed pitches and showed all the qualities needed to be leader of the attack in the future. His increased maturity was also reflected in his stubborn batting at Antigua.

Brendan Nash – 7

Chanderpaul’s natural successor as middle-order limpet. One senses the value he places on his wicket has rubbed off on his team-mates and there must be a temptation to bat him higher in the order. He also emerged as an unlikely frontline bowler, but one wicket in 46 overs reveals the threat he posed to England’s batsmen.

Sulieman Benn – 7

A star of the Jamaica victory, he faded thereafter and was sacrificed in the push for a draw in the final Test. He possesses good variation and did enough to suggest West Indies’ troublesome spin-bowling spot has been filled.

Denesh Ramdin – 7

Filled his boots at Barbados and was calm under pressure in the tense finish at Trinidad. Needs to find more consistency in his batting, but his glovework was generally tidy in often difficult conditions.

Ryan Hinds – 5

Struggled against spin and a top score of 27 in five innings suggests he will again be dropped. His slow left arm bowling was purely functional and not as useful as Gayle’s offspin.

Devon Smith – 4

Another player who has been in and out West Indies’ team, he will surely join Hinds on the sidelines. Lacks the temperament to play long innings and his ugly swipe at Graeme Swann in the final afternoon of the series might be his last shot in Test cricket.

Daren Powell – 4

Most of those marks are earned through his brave batting, as his bowling was ineffective. He took six wickets in the whole series and was not trusted with the ball at all in England’s second innings at Trinidad. Another man who might miss the flight to England.

Xavier Marshall, Lendl Simmons and Lionel Baker played one match each. Simmons and Baker did enough to earn other chances and should be in the starting line-up at Lord’s in early May.

Written by Philip Oliver, an online sports writer who blogs about cricket gambling.

Reasons to be Cheerful?

So in the end it all came down to an aberration in the first test match. Despite getting Oh So Close on two occasions and making the running for most of the series, England were unable to force a victory to level the series. However, being the glass half full man that I am, there is plenty to build on from this series, as well as an equal amount that needs to be learnt quickly.

1. The dropping of Monty Panesar has resulted in him coming back with more variation than he has shown in his test career to date. He still needs to learn that his appealing is costing him wickets, but he could again be the match winner England need, rather than the stock bowler he had become.
2. Graham Swann as the other spinner is also a potential match winner and we could see the start of spin twins playing even in home tests.
3. Stuart Broad has tightened up his economy and found a way to take wickets on the flattest pitches imaginable. I seems inconceivable that he and James Anderson won’t get the new ball for the foreseeable future.
4. Speaking of Anderson, he seems to have come of age as the senior quick bowler. He bowled with no luck whatsoever, but almost forced the final victory. He had a much better series than his statistics suggest.
5. Matt Prior is a test match batsman. Could he also be the answer to our problems at Number 3? It should certainly make sure that Andrew Flintoff goes back to being the number 7 batsman he is clearly more comfortable with.
6. Although tempered by the flat pitches, most of our batsmen did cash in on the runs available. Only one batsman missed out, and more on him later (3 below). In particular, Andrew Strauss and Paul Collingwood not only scored runs, but did so in a positive fashion that hadn’t been seen for a while.

To be learnt
1. The dropping of Steve Harmison last year hasn’t had a long term effect on his bowling and along with Ryan Sidebottom, whose body is stopping him from bowling with any zip, his days as an international cricketer should be at an end. This leaves a space in the England bowling attack for someone to break into if England don’t go down the two spinner route.
2. England should take note that their best bowling performance was in the last innings when they had adopted a hugely positive approach to getting a win. Their batting put the WIndies on the back foot and they were able to create pressure and momentum which threw the opposition off kilter.
3. Owais Shah is not a test player. It gives me no pleasure to write that, but he looked out of his depth on the most batsman friendly pitches he will ever play on and his fielding is a liability. England (as ever) have an issue with their number 3 batsman. Ian Bell clearly looks more comfortable when he bats down the order, as does Ravi Bopara. This may leave a space for Michael Vaughan, if he rediscovers his form in county cricket or we may have to look for a more radical solution (see 5 above).
4. Matt Prior is not test class as a wicket-keeper. His batting is as good as any wicket-keeper since Alec Stewart. However, he still needs to work on the keeping side of things.
5. If England are going to go into a series so underprepared as to throw the first match, then they need to learn how to win on unresponsive pitches. In fact, England just plain need to learn to win again.

My fervent hope from this series is that it marks a renaissance of West Indian cricket. They clearly have some talented players and with Dwain Bravo to come back into the fold, they should be a more successful team than they are currently.

From an England point of view, from the South African series onwards, there have been a catalogue of missed opportunities. The results have not matched the performances, but it is the results that the team will be judged on. This needs to be addressed and quickly.

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Referral system dismissed, caught Harper bowled ICC

The third umpire referral system is on trial during the West Indies v England Test series and there can only be one verdict: guilty. It simply cannot be used in the long-term in its current format. Daryl Harper has seen to that.

The system has flaws and leaves room for confusion. Ignoring the fact that it contradicts the moral code of players not challenging the authority of umpires, the system is badly constructed.

Third umpires need irrefutable evidence that the original on-field judgement was incorrect, not an element of doubt that umpire Harper cited when he gave Ramnaresh Sarwan a reprieve at Sabina Park.

This is fine in theory, but the man behind the monitor does not have the tools available to him to make such a decision. Sarwan therefore should have therefore been given out, as per Tony Hill’s original call, just as umpire Harper was right to uphold the dismissals of Devon Smith and Ryan Hinds at Barbados.

However, it is revealing that surely neither Smith nor Hinds would have been given out if they were originally given not out – there was not enough evidence to prove that Graeme Swann’s deliveries would have hit the stumps, that is until Hawkeye confirmed as much by using the predictive element that the ICC has not sanctioned for use in the referral system.

It is not these borderline decisions that TV evidence seeks to police. It is the blatant ones, the missed inside edges and instances where the ball pitches outside leg stump for LBW appeals, the flick of the pad rather than glove for caught behinds. We have not seen many of those in this series, suggesting the problem of bad on-field umpiring is not as bad as many think.

The system is only as good as the people who use it and the final nail in the trial system’s coffin came not when umpire Harper failed to reprieve Shivnarine Chanderpaul when he was hit on the pad by one going over the top, but soon after when he gave Brendan Nash out.

It is worth remembering that Nash had originally been given not out by Aleem Dar. England referred it, as it certainly did look close, and perversely Harper saw enough reason to overturn the decision. In other words, he was 100% sure the ball would have hit the stumps. Hawkeye went on to prove otherwise.

We really do have a problem when the use of technology results in the reversing of a decision that was correct in the first place.

Umpires make mistakes due to human error; Daryl Harper has proved that that factor is not taken away by the extra time TV referrals allow for. If the ICC find umpiring mistakes so unpalatable, they must tighten the third umpire system by making sure its adjudicators know if they are making decisions based on doubt or irrefutable evidence and that they have all available technology to hand.

Written by Philip Oliver, an online sports writer who blogs about Test match cricket.