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.