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.