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.