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...

...to 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.