Thursday, 30 November 2006

England’s three keys: Mahmood, Panesar and the toss

A lot of people have written pieces on how England can level the series. Almost all of them involve a) winning the toss and batting first and b) playing Monty Panesar. I need hardly add that, for either strategy to be a success, England need to post 450 in their first innings.

England have been in defiant mood since the Brisbane anti-climax, though they would have undeniably benefited for a warm-up game between Tests. If Glenn McGrath misses out through injury, then, besides the inevitable Edgbaston comparison, England will face either fiery left-armer Mitchell Johnson or explosive tearaway Shaun Tait. A seam attack of Brett Lee, Stuart Clark and Johnson or Tait, on the relatively docile Adelaide pitch, hardly appears the stuff of nightmares.

For England, James Anderson will certainly be dropped. Despite Australia refraining from selecting Stuart MacGill, England may well play two spinners. Panesar, who offers both attacking threat and enormous control (his Test economy rate is 2.58), has the mental strength to cope with being attacked by Australia’s batsmen, and must play.

But Ashley Giles shouldn’t. Though he scored 47 runs in the first Test, he took just a solitary wicket; meanwhile, his bowling average crept above 40, which should only emphasis how lucky we appear to be to have discovered Panesar. What is the point of playing two left-arm spinners when one is as palpably unthreatening as Giles?

It may weaken the batting a touch, but I would select Sajid Mahmood, who offers a reverse-swinging threat and genuine hostility, in addition to Panesar. In doing so, England would bring in two of the four most likely match-winners they have in their squad, imperative considering they are 1-0 down and another potential match-winner, Stephen Harmison, is less GBH and more harmless.

England will be dreaming of winning the toss, batting first, reaching 300-3 after day one before topping 500. But, if they lose the toss once more, they will be happier in the knowledge they have Mahmood and Panesar in their ranks.

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Tuesday, 28 November 2006

In defence of Harmison

Steve Harmison is the ultimate enigma - a player who can frustrate and exhilarate in equal measure. When he is on song his bowling is often unplayable, with even the greatest of Test batsmen falling by the wayside. Yet he can be, as he amply demonstrated at Brisbane, a wayward, even woeful, bowler, whose form and technique seem to simply disappear.

As has been said on many occasions cricket is a sport where psychology is as important as technique. How a player approaches a match mentally can determine success. The game is littered with examples of players who had wonderful ability, but could not translate it into good performances on the field and players who had average technique, but used all their mental strength to make what little they had go as far as possible.

Harmison, ever the paradox, has plenty of ability and mental strength, but they can desert him at a moment's notice. This is never more true than when he is on tour, deprived of his home comforts. It is then that he can appear at his most abject, as was the case this week, a solitary figure lost in a place no longer familiar to him.

Consistency is another yardstick for measuring a player's quality. Praise is heaped on those cricketers who can perform well for long periods, who can sustain their form and be relied upon by their Captain and team. Other, more mercurial, players are usually praised one week and vilified the next. Harmison is a prime example of such a player.

Just four Tests ago he was being universally acclaimed for his destruction of Pakistan at Old Trafford, a match in which he took 11 wickets for just 76 runs. His bowling was extraordinary as he blasted Pakistan's strong batting line-up away, firing unplayable deliveries down the pitch at will. There was no shortage of confidence or venom in Harmison in that match, a far cry from Brisbane.

Yet the clue is in just how recently Harmison was able to perform so well. There is no way that huge technical flaws have suddenly afflicted him. It is just that well catalogued inconsistency, which has plagued him throughout his career. Just as he is written off he comes up with a bowling performance like Old Trafford or Lord's the year before. He could just as easily do so again at Adelaide.

It is for this reason that Harmison should not so readily be discarded, as many commentators have suggested. He is a proven match-winner, a player who has the ability to bowl better than most. Yes, he can bowl appallingly badly and embarass himself and his team, but that is the enigma, and England cannot afford to take to the field at Adelaide without him.

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Will Michael Vaughan play in this Ashes series?

Michael Vaughan will tomorrow play for an England side again. As low-key comebacks go, a one-day match for the England Academy against Western Australia 2nd 11 is right up there. But, suddenly talk of him appearing in the Ashes doesn’t seem so fanciful.

The Melbourne Test begins on 26th December, exactly a month from now. Playing a Test match, even one in the Ashes, after a month of being fit doesn’t seem the slightest bit ludicrous.

If Marcus Trescothick was available, Vaughan’s chances of selection would appear only negligible. Yet the lack of an experienced batsman, together with England’s woeful opening Test performance, means the chances of the 2005 Ashes-winning captain appearing down under this time must be considered very real, even if he is palpably still odds-against to play.

Vaughan, of course, has brilliant memories of Australia, having scored 633 runs in 2002/03 playing some of the most authoritative and elegant shots ever seen in Australia; his handling of Stuart MacGill in the last two Tests was particularly memorable.

He is still officially England’s captain (though Andrew Flintoff was appointed for the tour itself) and, at 31, could conceivably play for another Ashes cycle. His batting may have been consistently disappointing of late – he averages less than 30 in his last 12 Tests (excluding Bangladesh) – but his tactical dexterity, together with his undeniably batting grace, could yet be an important part of this series. And, whether he plays in this series or not, Michael Vaughan has not played his last game for England.

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England must readdress the balance of power soon

As feared the first test of this latest Ashes series has gone the way of the old enemy. Unfortunately this does not come as that much of a surprise to many seasoned fans. England were woefully under prepared for this series and the problem is no more evident than in the fast bowling department where a lack of match fitness, rhythm and form were fully exploited by what can only be described as a masterful Australian batting line-up, anchored by the brilliance of Ricky Ponting, aggressiveness of Justin Langer and resilience of Mike Hussey.

Australia have learnt lessons from the 2005 Ashes series and have adjusted their side accordingly, bringing in the unerring accuracy of Stuart Clark and the solid rock of the middle order that is Hussey. Two quality additions to an already quality side. Whilst there are question marks over the two openers reactions against a swinging and seaming new ball as they age, England have not asked them. This has so far proven to be disastrous with Ponting, currently the best batsman in the game, able to come to the crease facing a softer ball and a demoralised attack.

The Australian Captain can not be afforded such comfort, or he will score and score heavily. England must be on the mark from ball one in order to exploit Matthew Hayden’s tendency to waft outside off stump and prevent Langer from making such booming starts. England must attack Ponting with that new ball and make him uncomfortable, in the process exposing Damien Martyn early, who is looking over his shoulder nervously at Michael Clarke, as he nears the end of his career.

The Australian side is not without weaknesses, but England are not currently exploiting them and are allowing the Australians to make hay in the sunshine with ease. If England can get into the middle order early as they did in 2005 then we have seen that Australia can succumb to pressure. Adam Gilchrist still looks a shadow of his former self and whether it be Clarke or Shane Watson at six, neither are assured of their place and are under pressure. England must make them feel that pressure more.

From a batting point of view England have started to find some touch, albeit belatedly. One can not help but feel that Andrew Strauss would not have given his wicket away so cheaply twice had he had the responsibility of captaincy resting on his shoulders though. He averages around fifteen more runs for Middlesex when captain and visibly rises to the occasion. He would also perhaps not have missed quite so many things in the field as the weary Flintoff did.

Flintoff’s captaincy is based more on leadership than tactics. Had England played two slips and two gullies from that start at the Gabba, a traditional field there, then Australia could have quite easily found themselves three down at lunch, deprived of Hayden, Langer and Ponting, as numerous balls flew through gully in the air.

Ian Bell is yet to prove himself against Shane Warne, but there were positive signs from him when he glared back at Brett Lee. Alistair Cook meanwhile seems to be settling into the familiar role of opener and looks relaxed at the crease. One further crumb of comfort is the possible return of Michael Vaughan in the fourth test, although things must improve long before then.

The batting order remains something of a mystery. Paul Collingwood produced a wonderfully crafted innings against Australia and was fully deserving of a century, but as was shown in the first innings, he does not have the best of techniques early on in his innings against the moving ball. He is undoubtedly, like Graham Thorpe, a man for a crisis and should be providing stability at five rather than being offered up to quality seam bowling at four, to help engineer that crisis.

Kevin Pietersen is undoubtedly England’s best batsman, especially against Australia. He can comfortably bat at four and seems to have learnt how not to give his wicket away early on in his innings. Moving Pietersen back to four would also split himself and Flintoff in the line-up, which Fletcher seems keen to do. However, as I have well documented before, Flintoff has not performed with the bat in the one day side for a long time and he is not a consistent test match run scorer either and is simply not making the runs required of a number six.

It is a definite worry for England who may now have to consider playing an extra batsman. When Vaughan finally returns he is the obvious choice to slot in as opener or at number three. For the time being though Ed Joyce is an extremely capable county batsman who is eager to test himself at the highest level.

The resilient and flamboyant Middlesex batsman would relish the chance of playing for England in Australia and could perhaps provide some stability at the top of the order coming in at either three or four, to push Pietersen back down to his more preferred position of number five and more importantly extend the batting line-up with Freddie moving to seven and a seemingly rejuvenated Geraint Jones to eight.

This move would negate the need to play Ashley Giles and allow England to play the more attack minded Monty Panesar, who proved over the summer that he can bowl unchanged for lengthy periods as part of a four man attack and provide an economical and wicket taking option. England could then rotate the brilliant Flintoff, along with Matthew Hoggard and the third seamer.

My take on Stephen Harmison is that he hasn’t been himself for over a year now. He has never been the most consistent of players, but now he appears to have lost his game mentally and technically. It is hard to see how such drastic flaws can be resolved over a period of just three days. England could not afford to play an extra batsman with Harmison in the side as they just do not know what return they are going to get from the big Durham man.

Therefore it is likely that Giles and not Joyce will line up in Adelaide. However, if Harmison is not selected, which seems more than reasonable when one considers the threat of going 2-0 down if he performs as he did at the Gabba, then who could England turn to. Liam Plunkett faces the same problem as James Anderson and Harmison himself in that he just has not played much cricket over the last six months. Sajid Mahmood is pacey, but similarly prone to hitting the leg side.

Attention then shifts to the Academy squad where Stuart Broad and Chris Tremlett linger on standby. Both have the required attributes to succeed in Australia, with their height and mid-80’s pace. Broad is very much in the mould of Stuart Clark and Glenn McGrath who have experienced and will undoubtedly continue to experience, great success on the wickets of Australia.

Tremlett is more like Harmison, a hit the deck bowler, who has worked on his aggression levels this year and has proved his fitness over the back end of the season. Tremlett too can have his good and bad days though and ultimately both are untested at this level and would be risky picks, especially as part of a four man attack.

Australia have built their success on a four man attack though, with a wicket taking spinner, rather than a containing one, negating the need to play an extra quick bowler. England can now follow this model, with Pietersen and Collingwood providing back up options, but they must find the right fast bowler to back-up Flintoff and Hoggard.

With the lingering threat of losing the little old urn that was recovered just eighteen months ago, England must surely look to do something to readdress the power balance, which has visibly shifted towards Australia and that might just mean moving away from the old tried and tested and taking a gamble on the future of English cricket, sooner rather than later.

Chris Pallett

Monday, 27 November 2006

England's performance ratings

After the heavy loss in Brisbane here are the marks out of ten for England's players:

Andrew Strauss - 3 After making two good starts Strauss was caught playing the pull shot in both innings. He played the shot in the first innings too early, before he had assessed the bounce of the pitch, and he mistimed it horribly. In the second innings the stroke was better executed, but he managed to pick out the fielder at fine leg. As it is one of his favourite shots and one which brings him many runs Strauss should not be put off playing it - he just needs to be more certain of the pitch before doing so.

Alastair Cook - 5.5 In his first Test innings in Australia Cook was unfortunate to receive a top class delivery from Glenn McGrath, which ended what had been a promising start. Second time around Cook showed his maturity and class in making 43, only to be found out by the other Australian maestro, Shane Warne. But Cook is a quick learner and over the rest of the series he should be able to build on the decent foundations he has laid in Brisbane.

Ian Bell - 6 A strong and resolute half century in the first innings revealed just how far Bell has come since his traumas of the last Ashes series. While everyone else fell around him he played with grit and no little skill. Unfortunately, he was unable to repeat the performance, falling for 0 to Shane Warne in the second innings.

Paul Collingwood - 7.5 He struggled in the first innings, never really coming to terms with the pitch and seemingly realising many people's fears that he would not be able to adjust to the bounce of Australian wickets. However, all these negative thoughts were banished by his magnificent, gutsy second innings 96. Deprived of a deserved century by a misjudged charge down the wicket to Shane Warne, he can still be highly satisfied with his display. Allied to his usual top class fielding, which included two fine catches, Collingwood was one of the pluses in England's defeat.

Kevin Pietersen - 8 Playing against his natural game in the first innings, Pietersen only succeeded in prolonging his agony, eventually being trapped lbw by McGrath. Clearly he was not impressed with his effort and strode to the wicket with much more of his customary swagger in the second innings. His batting was superb at times as he unleashed his wonderful array of shots, particularly targetting Warne. That he dominated the Australian bowlers for long periods is testament to his quality. Like Collingwood he failed to reach three figures, falling for 92, but the manner of his play will have left its marks on the Australian attack.

Andrew Flintoff - 7 While all the bowlers around him were struggling against the Australian first innings assault, Flintoff played a lone hand in stemming the runs and taking wickets. His return of 4 for 99 in the opposition's mammoth 602 was magnificent. Sadly, his batting was poor, as he followed a first innings duck with just 16 in the second innings, falling to a badly timed hit across the line to Warne. His captaincy was generally good, though he lacked inspiration when things were at their most difficult and he is still unsure when to bowl himself and for how long.

Geraint Jones - 6 A faultless display behind the stumps, in which he conceded only 2 byes over the two Australian innings and held the one chance that came his way. His batting, which was what got him back in the side, was good. In the first innings he seemed to have found some form only to be caught on the crease by a McGrath delivery which nipped back. With England facing defeat Jones played some excellent shots in his second innings, only to play on to a ball which kept low. It was shame as he was going well and might have made that bigger score that has eluded him for so long.

Ashley Giles - 5 Controversially selected ahead of Monty Panesar, because of his superior batting and fielding, Giles did not disappoint in this regard. Two handy innings of 24 and 23, despite being rusty, showed that he could still handle a bat against strong bowling. However, his own bowling was no more than adequate and did not offer Flintoff the control he would have wanted. Giving the ball a little more air and bowling slower than usual Giles managed to induce a poor shot from Damien Martyn, but that was the high point of his efforts with the ball, as the Australian batsmen came after him. In the second innings he only bowled 5 overs.

Matthew Hoggard - 5.5 Could not get the new ball to swing in the crucial Australian first innings and was pretty ineffective as an attacking force. However, Hoggard has more than just swing in his repertoire these days and he managed to keep the runs down with his subtle variations. In one superb over he got Ricky Ponting and Adam Gilchrist out lbw, giving England faint hopes of restricting the Australian total. Sadly, it was too little too late and Hoggard was unable to find much swing in the second innings.

Steve Harmison - 3 An abject start to the series for England's number one strike bowler. His first ball, a wide to second slip, summed up his effort. Whether he was under-prepared, froze on the big occasion, or simply lost his rhythm, Harmison was embarassingly ineffective. His display has been dissected by everyone and his technique questioned. It is not the first time he has struggled on tour and failed to lead England's attack. He needs to find some form quickly, as neither he nor England can afford another similar effort.

James Anderson - 3 Though his bowling was not as bad as his awful figures suggest, Anderson was poor in this match. He was unable to find any consistency in his line and length and rarely threatened the batsmen. He gave away far too many boundaries and applied no pressure on the opposition. Flintoff could not rely on him in any way and his lack of swing, conventional or otherwise, was a worry. His selection ahead of Sajid Mahmood looks like a mistake, though Anderson had shown form in the warm-up matches. It is a shame as Anderson has fought hard to get fit, but Test cricket is a harsh place to gauge your form, especially against Australia in their own back yard.

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Sunday, 26 November 2006

Necessary risks

I've read a lot of reports about England's fightback at the Gabba yesterday, suggesting it was good, but should have been much better. That three of the wickets were given away and they should be walking out today, just three down rather than five down. I beg to differ.

Fighting back in a Test where you are 648 runs behind with nearly two days to go is tough, to say the least. England could have tried to grind out the time, playing defensively and taking no risks - just the approach the Australians hope for, as they put men around the bat and pressure batsmen out. Fortunately, England decided to play their natural game, to take on the bowlers and, in Kevin Pietersen's case, to dominate them. This approach is to be applauded, though it necessarily entails taking risks.

Playing aggressively means playing shots, but does not mean being reckless. However, it is a fine line between the two and Pietersen walks it every time he strides to the crease. For every one of his glorious attacking strokes there is the potential for him to mistime and end up back in the pavilion. Yesterday, he survived some scares, especially a mistimed hit to leg which went straight up in the air, but fortunately landed safely. It was a similar shot to that which saw the end of Andrew Flintoff, but went unremarked in the press.

Granted Flintoff's dismissal was a poor one, but it came as England were trying to stay on top of the Australian bowlers. If he had timed his shot better it may well have flown to the boundary and the applause would have rung out as loud as the criticism. Likewise, Andrew Strauss has been vilified for getting caught playing the pull shot for the second time in the match. Yet, how many runs has he scored with that shot in his Test career? Perhaps, this time it was the wrong shot to play, but maybe he just executed it poorly this time, something which can happen to any batsman.

Of the three 'giveaway' wickets, Paul Collingwood's was the most unfortunate. On 96 he charged down the wicket and was stumped. It looked bad and he would have been mortified, but everyone ought to remember how many similar shots he had played to get to 96. It was by playing aggressively, especially to Warne, that he reached that score. That he failed to make the three figure milestone is a shame, but it does not detract from a wonderful innings.

England know that they were over cautious in their first innings and died in the hole. They were determined not to make the same mistake again. Facing such a huge deficit they decided to throw off the shackles and try to strike some psychological blows of their own. If they lose the match, which seems likely, it will not be because of some over-aggressive shots in the second innings, it will be because of the nervous, defensive mindset they showed in the first, as well as the similarly negative selection policy and bowling displays.

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Do England know how to save Test matches?

Considering their cataclysmic first three days, England can be content with reaching 293-5 on the fourth day. It is, rather prematurely, being lauded as the start of England’s attempts to retain the Ashes. England’s endeavours were certainly an improvement. But they didn’t bat in the manner that saves Test matches.

Three of England’s wickets were lost to reckless shots, the sort that would attract light criticism even in limited overs games. Andrew Strauss was caught pulling for the second time in the game; Paul Collingwood, after a fine innings, was stumped; and, most inexcusably of all, skipper Andrew Flintoff played a suicidal shot, caught trying to hit Shane Warne out of the state. It was more reminiscent of his pre-2003 batting, characterised by a lack of coherent thinking.

Though defiant, England’s batting was more Edgbaston 05 than Johannesburg 95. Rattling along at 3.66 an over, England were responsible for a day of exhilarating cricket. Yet their emphasis seemed to be on taking the game to Australia, rather than saving the game themselves.

It is an indication of modern Test cricket that the art of saving games has been lost. Batting time has been replaced by belting.

England have long since been a victim of ‘100 and out’ syndrome; indeed, Collingwood would never have attempted such a reckless shot had his score been anything other than 96. We only need to look at the Australians – Ricky Ponting was devastated to have missed out on a double ton, having made exactly 100 more than the Durham man.

Collingwood’s feisty knock deserves enormous credit, and has surprised many, myself included. But he must realise that, the moment he put century before the match, he ended England’s hopes of salvation. His partnership with Kevin Pietersen constituted the most uplifting facet of England’s performance.

At 244-3, Australia were searching for their next wicket, and there was a very real chance England would save the game. Alas, England gifted it to them.

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Saturday, 25 November 2006

Bell begins to right his 2005 wrongs

The irony of this situation will not have been lost on Ian Bell. 14 months ago, when England were recording their most impressive and memorable Test series triumph for 24 years, Bell recorded a pair. Timid and somewhat overawed, hindsight shows it was a mistake to pick the Warwickshire batsman ahead of the notoriously phlegmatic Graham Thorpe. In short, Bell was one of the least deserving MBEs of all time.

Yet England persevered with him. His talent as a classy, correct player had long since marked him out as England’s next big thing. In Pakistan, he began the series as England’s spare batsman, but ended it with two fifties and a century. But, in India, he averaged only in the low-20s and was rightly dropped for Alastair Cook. Yet Duncan Fletcher and co had seen enough in him to keep him above Owais Shah, so impressive in making 88 on debut, in the batting pecking order.

When Andrew Flintoff was declared unfit in the home series against Pakistan. Bell was the above candidate to replace him albeit in an unfamiliar position of number six. He responded with three beautiful hundreds, each innings more authoritative than the last. Number six will palpably not be his long-term position; but it helped him grow in confidence and develop as a Test player. The position had similar effects on the consummate Test number three, Ricky Ponting.

When Marcus Trescothick was forced to withdraw from this series, the general feeling was number three was England’s problem position. One could handle the apparently mentally scarred Bell occupying a spot at four or five, but for a man with an average of 17 against Australia to bat at three down under caused many to worry.

At Adelaide, Bell remained Thorpe-like phlegmatic despite the carnage unfolding all around him, ably handling the challenge posed by Messrs Warne, Lee and McGrath. He has certainly improved technically since the last Ashes, especially when facing balls in the corridor outside off-stump and against spin. Yet there is no doubt his biggest improvement is in the mind; even McGrath said “he looks a lot more confident out there, especially against Shane.” If this innings is a sign of things to come, my prediction that Bell could just be England’s most successful batsman down under may even prove correct.

Bell’s 160-ball vigil epitomised the qualities the selectors regard so highly; if the rest of the side can display such grit in the second innings, it is not inconceivable this Test will end in the most unlikely of draws.

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Damage limitations

Though they find themselves in deep trouble in the first Test, England should still have hopes of drawing the match. It will take a monumental batting effort to do so, but is not impossible on a pitch which is still giving little assistance to the bowlers. Aiming for a draw must be the first priority, but there are other important targets for England.

With the Adelaide Test starting just a few days after this one ends the more overs England can make Australia bowl the better. Even if they are all out twice and lose this Test England must try to tire the Australian attack as much as possible. Glenn McGrath, in particular, will not want too heavy a workload with the second Test coming up so fast. If England can dig in and make Australia work hard for every wicket they may well reap the benefits at Adelaide.

England must also attack Shane Warne, a policy which worked very well in the last Ashes series. Though the veteran leg-spinner collected 40 wickets, his economy rate was higher than usual and his herculean effort did not prevent England from making good first innings totals. Ian Bell and Geraint Jones have been very positive against Warne in the first session of day three, an approach which must be replicated throughout the rest of the innings and England's second innings.

Shot selection is key against accurate bowling and England must temper their desire to dominate and score quickly with judicous choices of strokes. Andrew Strauss started the rot yesterday when he played an ill-advised pull shot. At the time he and Alastair Cook were in control against McGrath and Brett Lee. Strauss' wicket gave McGrath confidence and he produced a great delivery straight afterwards to get rid of Cook. Paul Collingwood soon followed and the die was cast on England's first innings. England were better this morning, though Kevin Pietersen was dropped playing a similar mistimed pull shot. Bell and Jones have both showed excellent judgement so far and they must continue to do so after lunch.

If they can come out of this match with some positives and make Australia work for a win England will at least carry forward some momentum to Adelaide. Of course, if they can force a draw they will feel like they've won the match and should gain a huge amount of confidence. The alternative is to capitulate and allow Australia to gain a serious psychological advantage for the next match. It is to be hoped, from England's point of view, that they fight hard and show that this Ashes series is well and truly alive.

Thursday, 23 November 2006

Fear of failure

After winning last summer's Ashes largely because of their positive approach to that series, it was sad to see England show their caution and negativity before a ball had even been bowled in Brisbane. To select Ashley Giles ahead of Monty Panesar gave a clear signal that they were afraid of losing, rather than going all out to win.

Panesar has shown in his first 10 Tests that he is wicket-taking spinner, who has such control that he can bowl attacking lines, but can also bowl with great economy. He is a natural talent, who exerts pressure on batsmen, causing false shots and is capable of bowling unplayable deliveries. He is the spinner that England has been crying out for for so many years. Yet, through no fault of his bowling he has been discarded for what would have been the most significant match of his career.

The reasoning behind this decision is that he does not bat or field very well, though he is improving in both departments. His replacement, the ever reliable team man, Giles, is a good number eight batsmen and an excellent fielder, particularly in the gully. Yet, Giles has not played Test cricket for a year and has only just come back after a serious hip injury. Even at his best Giles is not as good a bowler as Panesar and tends to bowl negative lines, frustrating opposing batsmen rather than attacking them.

Granted, Giles bowled quite well on the first day - steady without being spectacular. He managed to induce a poor shot from Damien Martyn, thus claiming one of only three wickets England managed all day. Yet, I cannot help but wonder what Panesar might have done had Flintoff been able to throw the ball to him. What pressure could he have exerted on the flat, but bouncy, Gabba pitch? It was a question which haunted me for the whole day, and one which will remain unanswered forever.

The cautious mind-set which England adopted from the moment they selected their XI translated itself into their play. From the very first ball, when a nervous Steve Harmison bowled a wide to Andrew Flintoff at second slip, England were on the back foot. The Australians, who had spent so much of the last series under pressure, smelt the fear and pounced on their opponents. At times, especially when Justin Langer was in, they scored at 5 plus runs an over. Yet, they were content to end the day having scored at just under 4 runs an over, for the loss of just 3 wickets, knowing that tomorrow they have a great chance to build an unassailable lead.

Fortunately, the current England team have a healthy tendency to bounce back after bad days, so tomorrow will, hopefully, see a better attitude and better results. However, they cannot change their team even if they manage to change their attitude. Batting depth may save them on occasions in this series, but they will only win matches by taking twenty wickets. It is to be hoped that this will be more seriously considered when they pick their team for the second Test.

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Wednesday, 22 November 2006

Can Flintoff shoulder England’s burden?

Andrew Flintoff was simply phenomenal in last year’s Ashes. Scoring 402 runs while taking 24 wickets, he responded magnificently to a disastrous first Test. But can he do it again?

In 2005, Flintoff was astutely managed by sagacious skipper Michael Vaughan, who got the best out of him under pressure in his fundamentally relaxed environment. This series, however, it is Flintoff who is the main man. His ‘follow me’ style of captaincy has actually been criticised for being too ‘matey’, especially against Sri Lanka when he seemed incapable of refraining from sharing jokes with his friend Muttiah Muralitharan.

It proved a tremendous success in Mumbai but, in handing him so much responsibility, England risk total disintegration if their talisman under-performs.

In Duncan Fletcher, Andrew Strauss and perhaps even Michael Vaughan, Flintoff has an array of talented tacticians to whom he can turn for advice. It will be intriguing to see whether he over-bowls himself, as against Sri Lanka, and how perennial enigma Steve Harmison fares under him.

But, for all the talk of the captaincy clash between Messrs Ponting and Flintoff, the decisive factor in the fate of the urn may simply be which of the two stars performs better individually; neither are master tacticians but, if Flintoff is able to go close to repeating his 2005 ebullience, that should be sufficient to claim a draw.

The opinion of many seems to be that Flintoff is not a Test number six; his average of under 33 appears to back this view up. Yet, in his last 41 Tests, since the start of 2003, he has averaged 40 – which is certainly adequate for a number six. The chief criticism is that he has converted just four of his 24 scores over 50 into hundreds in this time. In India, his batting hinted at a new maturity; will it continue this way down under, or will we see hard-hitting 50s ended with soft dismissals, as is too often the case?

Despite reasonably encouraging endeavours with the ball in England’s warm-up games so far, it does not seem as if Flintoff will be able to bowl the gargantuan spells of last summer, such as his 17-over marathon at The Oval. Nonetheless, he has a major role to play as an impact bowler, especially to Adam Gilchrist. His pace, bounce and sheer accuracy mean that, in spite of not seemingly being at peak bowling condition, the notoriously astute bookies have installed him as favourite to be the side’s leading wicket-taker.

If England are to retain the Ashes, they will need Flintoff at his very best in at least one discipline. It is asking a lot of a man who has never played a Test for England down under before. But he is a superlative player who demands respect, admiration and – in the case of Australia – fear. Knowing so much relies on him, expect his batting to show the maturity it did in India, though it remains to be seen whether he can do this while retaining his inherent ability to dominate.

And, Flintoff will know that, if he can ensure the urn he did so much to win back is not relinquished at the first rematch, greatness, unquestionably, is his.

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Monday, 20 November 2006

The form guide

Everyone knows that since the last Ashes series Australia have been on a tear in Test cricket, winning 11 of the 12 Matches they have played. This included home and away series wins against South Africa, as well a crushing defeat of the West Indies at home and a series win in Bangladesh, though the first Test was trickier than anticipated.

Meanwhile, England have struggled to just 5 wins in the 13 Tests they have played since winning the Ashes, losing 4 and drawing 4. The two tours of the subcontinent turned out to be just as tough as expected, with England surprisingly losing 2-0 in Pakistan and drawing 1-1 in India. The latter was a triumph for a young team under the leadership of Andrew Flintoff. However, it was followed by a disappointing 1-1 draw at home with Sri Lanka. The only series they have won was against Pakistan at home, which ended in controversy, though the 3-0 result is in the record books, nonetheless.

However, what is less heralded is the form since the Ashes of the individual players who will contest the forthcoming Ashes battle. The pattern that emerges from the stats is of an Australian side dominated by the amazing feats of three of its batsmen and all the bowlers, whilst England have few leading lights, just a strong batting line-up and and a steady bowling unit.

Matthew Hayden, back to near his best, scored 1287 runs @ 58.50 in 12 Tests, with 5 centuries. Mike Hussey, in his debut season, clocked up 1139 runs @ 75.93 in 11 matches, including 4 tons. However, both were eclipsed by the extraordinary form of Ricky Ponting, who blitzed 1483 runs @ 78.05 and an astonishing 8 hundreds in just 12 Tests.

Amongst the rest of the potential batsmen for the first Test only Damien Martyn has scored a century - just one solitary hundred and an average of 39.33 in 4 Tests. Justin Langer, injured and lacking his usual resolve, managed just 392 runs @ 32.66 in 7 matches. Worse still for Michael Clarke, 119 runs @ 19.83 in 5 Tests, and Shane Watson, 50 runs @ 16.66 in 2 matches.

In contrast all of England's batsmen have shown consistent Test run scoring. Alastair Cook leads the way with 761 runs @ 54.35 in 9 Tests, including 3 centuries, closely followed by Ian Bell with 819 runs @ 51.18 and 4 tons in 10 matches. Paul Collingwood is not far behind having accumulated 921 runs @ 48.47 in 12 Tests, scoring 2 hundreds, and Kevin Pietersen maintained his Ashes form with 1124 runs @ 48.47 in just 13 matches, including 4 centuries.

Andrew Strauss, though not quite up with the other batsmen, has added 881 runs @ 40.04 and 3 tons in 12 Tests since the Ashes. Only Andrew Flintoff out of the top six has an average under 40. His 486 runs @ 30.37 in 10 matches, with no hundreds, reflects the drop in his batting form this year, though his stats are very respectable for an all-rounder, who has taken many wickets.

Neither of the wicket-keepers who will play at Brisbane are in good form, though Adam Gilchrist has been in better nick than Geraint Jones, who was dropped at the end of the summer. Gilchrist has managed just 491 runs @ 28.88 in 12 Tests, scoring only one century. This is not a terrible record, but way below his normal level of performance. Jones, who was picked primarily for his batting, has only scored 306 runs @ 19.12 in 11 matches since the last Ashes series, without registering a single hundred.

The home bowling attack have been on fire since their Ashes defeat. Shane Warne has bagged 62 wickets @ 26.16 in 12 Tests, whilst Brett Lee has claimed 52 scalps @ 27.15 in his 12 matches. Glenn McGrath, despite a long break to look after his wife, still managed 24 wickets @ 27.16 in 7 Tests. Stuart Clark, who may well be the fourth bowler at Brisbane, has taken 21 wickets this year @ 18.76 in just 4 matches.

The English bowlers have done well this year, especially considering the very different pitches they faced in Pakistan and India. Andrew Flintoff, as has been his wont over the last couple of years, has led the attack since the Ashes with 43 wickets @ 28.04 in 10 Tests. Just behind was Steve Harmison, who, despite the usual barrage of criticism, weighed in with 41 wickets @ 29.87 in 10 matches. Matthew Hoggard, the epitome of the steady opening bowler, took 49 scalps @ 30.22 in his 13 Tests, while James Anderson took 6 wickets @ 13.16 in his solitary match. Sajid Mahmood, up against Anderson for the fourth seamer's spot, managed 15 wickets @ 33.20 in his first 5 Tests.

The spinner issue should be clearcut, given that Monty Panesar bagged 32 wickets in his first 10 Tests @ 32.40, including some of the world's finest batsmen. This, including making his debut in India, that graveyard for even the greatest overseas spinners. It is a little unfair to hold Ashley Giles poor return of 3 wickets @ 82.33 in 2 matches against him, as he was carrying an injury, but he has not played a Test match since and should be ruled out of the first Test.

Whether recent form will have much of a bearing on the forthcoming series is impossible to gauge. However, it is one of the few pointers to the possible outcome of a series. If the stats I have detailed can be relied upon at all this Ashes battle will be too close to call and should be packed with top class performances.

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Sunday, 19 November 2006

Harmison’s withdrawal mars England’s encouraging endeavors

England’s game with South Australia was certainly another encouraging step in their preparation for the Ashes. Runs for Ian Bell and Paul Collingwood, together with wickets for Matthew Hoggard and a heartening display from Andrew Flintoff, ensured the side are shaping up well for the First Test.

However, Steve Harmison had to pull out of the tour match with a side strain. Though it seems certain he will be fit for the First Test, after he was able to field for much of the last day, he is palpably not at his best. But, if he finds his rhythm at Brisbane, a pitch that certainly suits his enigmatic talents, he could easily prove a match-winner. His replacement, Sajid Mahmood, scored an aggressive 41 but was wicketless while going for more than four an over in the match, proof that, for all Mahmood’s undoubted potential, James Anderson certainly deserves to play in the First Test, especially as reports suggest the Gabba will be conducive to swing.

In Harmison’s absence, Matthew Hoggard bowled terrifically on the opening morning to restrict South Australia to 25-4. Yet he was unable to claim any victims thereafter, suggesting his effect with the old ball may not be great during the series.

Duncan Fletcher professed he would pick his Test side for this game, though this aim was ended by Harmison’s injury. If he is true to his word, then Monty Panesar will play ahead of Ashley Giles. Panesar’s endeavors in this game were respectable enough; but, in 35 frugal overs, he claimed only two wickets. Nonetheless, Panesar offers a much greater threat than Giles, and it would be a travesty if his batting and fielding, which are both improving, prevent him playing the First Test.

The runs made by Ian Bell and Paul Collingwood mean each of England’s top six have made a half-century in the warm-up games; number seven Geriant Jones made an pugnacious 33 in this game. Bell’s 132, made against Jason Gillespie and the impressive Shaun Tait, bodes well for the task he faces at number three in the Ashes.

England are not yet in peak condition but, after the horrendous start to the tour, they have progressed nicely in the last two tour games. How frustrating, then, that both games have been bereft of potentially intriguing fourth days.

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Saturday, 18 November 2006

So many questions

One of the most intriguing aspects of the forthcoming Ashes series is the number of unknown quantities. The starting XIs are still undecided, despite Duncan Fletcher's suggestion that the England team that are currently playing in the last warm-up game against South Australia would be the line-up for the first Test. The England coach has added more fuel to the debate over which spinner will play by saying that Monty Panesar's selection is 'not set in stone', though it should be as the young slow left-armer is a potential match winner.

The Australians are in even more disarray with the very balance of their team undecided. If Shane Watson is unable to play, as seems increasingly likely, Australia will have to contemplate a return to their four bowler policy, which served them so well for so many years, but which is now considered risky, as it demands too much of McGrath. The alternative would be Andrew Symonds, whose bowling can be containing, but offers little wicket-taking threat. Dilemmas, it seems, for both teams.

Even more interesting, though, is speculation on the form of several key protagonists. Steve Harmison, Andrew Flintoff and Glenn McGrath are all returning from injury and have played little Test cricket recently. None of the England batsmen have played a Test Match in Australia and they have had little time to adapt to conditions there before the first Test. Fortunately, Kevin Pietersen, Ian Bell and Paul Collingwood have scored some runs in their few opportunities and gained some invaluable confidence.

Matthew Hoggard is a much better bowler than when he last made an Ashes tour, but questions will still be voiced over his ability with the Kookaburra ball on Australian pitches. Brett Lee has been excellent at home this year, but his average against England is poor. It will be interesting to see whether his current form can be translated against a side who have usually scored freely against him.

Ricky Ponting, who has been in the form of his life in Test cricket since the Ashes defeat, averaging 78.05 in 12 Matches and smashing 8 centuries, has been oddly out of form recently. One suspects he will rise to the big occasion, but his average against England is surprisingly low compared to his overall average. Add to that the weight of captaincy and the expectation of the home supporters and one can only imagine what pressure Ponting is under.

Much has been made of the age of the Australian team, with seven of their probable first XI being over 35. Whether their experience and proven Test records will count for more than their ageing limbs and slowing reflexes is anyone's guess. What is certain is that when age catches up with a Test player their fall can be spectacular.

Shane Warne, for one, does not seem to be diminishing with age. He may not spin the ball as much as he once did, but his guile and cricketing intelligence make him as dangerous as ever. More doubts will be cast over McGrath, whose nip and stamina are not what they once were. Whether his ageing frame can withstand the toil of five Tests in as many weeks is one of the key issues of the series.

Matthew Hayden has been in fine form since his disappointment in England and Justin Langer is a pugnacious as ever. Damien Martyn, recalled and likely to play, injury permitting, has also been in good form recently, though his concentration is still apt to wander, something England will look to exploit.

Adam Gilchrist, however, has struggled over the last year, despite playing every Test for a winning Australian team. When he faces the England bowlers who tormeted him last time around he will not have the confidence of runs in the bank. He is still a fine player, but no longer the fearsome destroyer he once was. England will not treat him lightly, but they will not be in awe of him, as they were last time they played in Australia.

Conversely, many of England's players are inexeperienced in Australian conditions. If they fail to adapt quickly they will surely lose the series. In Panesar they have a match-winning spinner, whom the Australian's will be concerned about, but he has never bowled in a Test Match on Australian pitches. Though the pace and bounce is likely to suit him it is by no means certain.

Harmison, Hoggard and Flintoff are proven performers, though not in Australia. And as none of the English batsmen have played a Test in Australia, they will all be making a journey into the unknown against a team who have not been beaten at home for 13 years. How they fare will be one of the most important factors in deciding the series.

All these imponderables have made for a fascinating build up to this hugely anticipated contest and how they are borne out will surely be extremely interesting. I, for one, cannot wait to see that first ball bowled and for all those questions to be answered.

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Wednesday, 15 November 2006

The right Joyce?

Ed Joyce is an excellent, stylish left-hander. Once it became clear England had no intention of recalling either Mark Ramprakash or Mark Butcher, it amounted to a three-way choice between Joyce, Owais Shah and Rob Key.

Key, despite his undoubted guts, has never really struck me as a Test-class batsman, so I was relieved he wasn’t selected. Shah certainly has: undeniably classy and a dexterous player of spin, he has already shown he can thrive at Test level. He scored 88 and 38; but I can’t help thinking that, had he scored 100 and 0, he would now find himself in the side.

But, for all Shah’s merits, Joyce averaged 21 more – 58 – for the same county in Division One last summer. Shah can count himself very unlucky, but Joyce has been a consistent, accomplished county performer for some time; his first-class average is 47. Additionally, the perceived notion that Shane Warne is less effective against left-handers may also have counted in favour of Joyce.

Like Shah, he has just turned 28 which, as players such as Andrew Strauss and Mike Hussey have shown recently of late, is far from too late to build a highly-profitable international career. In his three ODIs so far, all as opener, Joyce has only scored 31 runs. But England no longer make sweeping judgments based on the odd innings – which would have also counted against Shah – and he has clearly impressed the coaching team in that time.

If he plays, Joyce’s role will not be as an opener but in the Graham Thorpe role in the middle order. The Irishman is a phlegmatic character who will relish the opportunity if he gets it. But the fact none of England’s top seven have played a Test in Australia before does make you question the decision not to select either Butcher or Ramprakash.

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Anderson shows his worth

England’s encouraging endeavours in their warm-up game with New South Wales have been somewhat overshadowed by the dramatic withdrawal of Marcus Trescothick. The match didn’t descend into the farce it had threatened to. As much as 14-a-side warm-up games can be, it was highly competitive and, after a poor first day saw New South Wales reach 325-5, ultimately rather encouraging for Englishmen. But it is baffling England are not playing a four day encounter before the First Test.

James Anderson, confirmed before the game began as above Sajid Mahmood and Liam Plunkett in the one-day pecking order, took 5-85 in the match, bowling with skill, accuracy and swing. If his was the game’s most uplifting performance, it was closely followed by the century stand between Kevin Pietersen and Andrew Flintoff. Pietersen, playing authoritatively and reassuringly well against the short ball, scored 122, the first hundred by a batsman on tour.

New South Wales’ four Australian international seamers – borderline selections Nathaan Bracken and Stuart Clark, and established stars Brett Lee and Glenn McGrath – were generally played well by the top order, but destroyed the tail with worrying inevitability.

As expected, Geraint Jones was selected ahead of Chris Read. In my earlier piece on the subject, I advocated selecting Jones above Read, on the basis of his greater batting prowess – particularly on Australian pitches where the pull and cut are especially profitable – and his improving keeping. He only scored 13 in this game, and, after keeping well in the first innings, missed a stumping chance in the second innings. Wouldn’t it be nice for him to score 50 in the South Australia game?

Ashley Giles recorded better figures than Monty Panesar this match, although the latter was very unlucky. Giles seems to be improving, and is also a more-than-competent batsman. But, would you accept him repeating his Ashes 2005 exploits: 20 with the bat and 57 with the ball? Picking Jones over Read is fair enough; picking Giles over Panesar would be a depressingly negative mood. As Tim De Lisle put it, Don’t do it, Duncan.

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Tuesday, 14 November 2006

Who will replace Stresscothick?

My worst fears regarding Marcus Trescothick have been realised. His play all summer-long had been unconvincing; and, it touched the confines of lunacy to suggest he would be fully recovered for an Ashes tour despite not being able to participate in the ICC Champions Trophy a month earlier. So it now seems increasingly likely that Trescothick’s final international appearance will be a first-ball dismissal against Pakistan in a one-dayer. He has had a fine career that included 26 international hundreds – although just a solitary one, in a ODI at Headingly last summer, against the best team in the world.

But, although his excellence is beyond doubt, he seldom thrived against Australia, who frequently exposed his notorious lack of footwork. Though the loss of his experience is a blow, it allows Alistair Cook to move up to his natural position as opener; Paul Collingwood is a gutsy cricketer who should do ok at number five. Trescothick’s withdrawal then, does not weaken England greatly.

Clearly, a replacement is imperative, and will be announced within the next day or so. Robert Key appears to be a front-runner. He is a man who, it seems to be universally acknowledged, showed character and earned the respect of the Aussies in 2002/03 – all this while averaging just 18. Key is a good batsman, but ultimately too prone to careless dismissals; and he only averaged in the mid-30s for Kent last season. If he is selected, it will add to the feelings of some that Andrew Flintoff is rather keen to include his mates in the side.

Owais Shah averaged little better than Key last season. But his class as a batsman is beyond doubt; the ease with which he took to Test cricket in India last winter – scoring 88 and 38 and having the nerve to charge Harbhajan Singh on numerous occasions - certainly merits another opportunity. His county teammate Ed Joyce also has a case for selection, though he has not yet shown he can thrive at international level.

Trescothick’s absence means Andrew Strauss is now the side’s most experienced batsman. The chances of a Vaughan welcome sometime this series have increased, but he will palpably not be ready to play until the 4th Test.

The amiable Mark Butcher has a very good chance of selection; he has scored three Test hundreds against Australia, two of them down under. His form for Surrey was most encouraging last season, while he was only dropped from the England set-up due to injury. Indeed, in his second incarnation as a Test cricketer, from 2001, Butcher’s grit and sweet offside play resulted in an average of 41.

But, if you are going to pick someone on their performances in the last domestic season, it is hard to look beyond Mark Ramprakash; persuading him to leave Strictly Come Dancing for an Ashes tour should not prove too problematic. People will point to his Test record and age as evidence of why he shouldn’t go. But, at this stage of his career, he really would have nothing to lose; equally, this most classical of batsmen remains an impressive fielder (certainly superior to Messrs Shah and Key.)

Ramprakash’s technique has already earned him success against Australia, at home and away – he averages 42 in 12 Tests against them. Having averaged in excess of 100 for Surrey last season, thanks to a series of gargantuan hundreds and his unrelenting professionalism, Ramprakash is in the form of his life, while his character, once a problem, has mellowed considerably. He could slot in seamlessly to number three, filling the void of a classy, attractive and experienced batsman who has excelled in Australia before. Whether Duncan Fletcher is prepared to sanction such a controversial selection, however, remains to be seen.

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Monday, 13 November 2006

The anonymous man

Liam Plunkett was a borderline selection for this Ashes trip. His Test record so far is mediocre, averaging close to 38 with the ball and just 8 with the bat – appalling considering his batting is supposedly Test number eight standard.

I would have preferred to see either Stuart Broad Chris Tremlett, both of whom are at the Academy, to fill the role of back-up seamer. Broad is just 20 but showed in the ODIs against Pakistan he has a big-match temperament, while he is also at least as good a batsman as Plunkett. Tremlett has an excellent record at first-class level; his pace, aided by the bounce he generates from his huge 6ft 7in frame, is ideally suited to Australian conditions.

But England went for Plunkett. Though just 21, he has already displayed a maturity at Test Match level and has very seldom been overawed. He generates good pace and seam movement; but for a bowler who supposedly builds pressure primarily through economy, the 3.6 runs an over he goes for in Tests are palpably too many. In short, Plunkett is a good young bowler who appears to have been catapulted into the international scene too early.

It doesn’t really matter. Barring a injury list of cataclysmic proportions, Plunkett’s role in the fate of the urn will not extend beyond enthusiastic drinks carrying. At this stage in his career, England fans will prefer it that way.

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Sunday, 12 November 2006

Anderson could be England’s surprise package

Duncan Fletcher’s assertion that Sajid Mahmood is still too erratic to be trusted in an Ashes Test makes it near certain that James Anderson will play in the 1st Test. This is no bad thing; Anderson appears fully recovered from his injury. And, when he last played a Test, Anderson bowled with tremendous nous to claim match figures of 6-79 to help England level the series in India, claiming Messrs Dravid, Tendulkar and Sehwag along the way.

Of course, Anderson made his name on England’s tour to Australia four years ago; his wicket-taking ability in the VB Series was one of very few positives. After the premature media hype that followed his match-winning exploits in the World Cup match with Pakistan, his career stumbled somewhat. Following Simon Jones’ return, he became the perennial 12th man, bowling willingly in the nets but palpably lacking match fitness when occasionally called upon.

Throughout all this, Anderson’s wicket-taking knack – his penchant for bowling very good balls – was never in doubt. His consistency and ability to refrain from delivering four balls was. But the more mature Anderson, though still just 24, has certainly improved this. His pace and swing, when aided by the ability to tie batsmen down, can prove deadly, as India’s illustrious players would no doubt confirm. Amidst all the talk of the effect England’s other bowlers could have, Anderson could be England’s wildcard this winter.

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Saturday, 11 November 2006

GBH or Harmless?

The sheer abjectness of Steve Harmison’s bowling in the ICC Champions Trophy reawakened fears England’s enigmatic bowler would not live up to his lofty billing in Australia this winter. Whatever happens down under, one thing seems certain. If England retain the urn, Harmison is likely to be a key man.

For England fans, that may now appear a terrifying thought. But they should be reassured that Australians will also be fully aware of his pace, bounce and capability to cause destruction. Only two English bowlers in the last 15 years – the misunderstood Andy Caddick and the highly erratic tearaway Devon Malcom – could conceivably have recorded 7/12 in the Carribean, as Harmison did, or 6/19 at Old Trafford, as he did this year. At his best, he has all the attributes to be the world’s best bowler.

But we all know that. And that, perhaps, is what is so infuriating about Steve Harmison. Consistency remains elusive at the age – 28 – when he should be at the peak of his powers. As against Pakistan this summer, he seemingly turns a corner only to return to his own frustrating ways. There is also the distinct suspicion that he bowls better on pitches that suit his attributes; given his personality, it is certainly not inconceivable that the Durham man thinks “this isn’t my pitch” before the first ball has even been bowled.

If that is the case, then it is Australians – rather than Englishman – who should most fear the exploits of Harmison this winter. Australia’s pitches will certainly suit his style; if all goes well, we could see a return to the Curtly Ambrose comparisons. Harmison has a tendency to drift in and out of form, so we shouldn’t necessarily be too distressed by his recent poor run. He will doubtless prove expensive in a few spells. But, in at least a few others, Australia should be given a reminder of his sporadic brilliance.

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Friday, 10 November 2006

Can Hoggard thrive down under?

Matthew Hoggard won’t have fond memories of Australia. When he toured in 2002/03, Hoggard’s inability to swing the old ball meant he was easy meat for Australia’s batsmen; he claimed just one wicket in the two Tests he played while the Ashes were live. He took five wickets in England’s consolation victory at Sydney, but Australians remained unconvinced by his ability. 16 wickets at 30 in the epic 2005 series went some way to changing the perception. But, to truly get the credit his 222 Test wickets merit, Hoggard will have to do as well as he did in 2005 this winter.

Crucially, Yorkshire’s simple soul is a vastly improved bowler than in 2002. His consistency has improved many times; he has now got out almost all of the world’s top players. But the most crucial difference is Hoggard now seems capable of reverse-swinging the ball, as he proved by taking 6-57 on a docile Indian track in March.

However, his last three Tests against Pakistan yielded just five wickets, amidst whispers England’s Mr Consistent was no longer. But he is not yet 30 and, having enjoyed a few months of rest, should now be in a peak physical condition.

The first two Tests will tell us whether Hoggard really has gone off the boil, and whether he is able to extract reverse-swing from the Kookaburra ball. If the answer to one of those questions is in the negative, they may find themselves taking the ruthless decision to drop their king of new-ball swing.

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Does England's loss matter?

So England didn’t just lose their first warm-up match. They were annihilated in every department. But does it matter?

Clearly, England would have preferred to have got their tour off to the perfect start. But England losing – even in a manner such as this – is a not uncommon scenario during tour matches. Most of us have given up paying too much notice to them. And this, after all, was only a one-day match.

The most worrying facet of this defeat was the bowling of Sajid Mahmood. His nine overs for 97 were a reminder that, for all his ability, there is always a chance he will be pulverised. On this occasion, his bowling was reminiscent of Steve Harmison’s infamous sea of wides in lilac Hill four years ago. Does it matter? We will probably see whether his confidence has been truly tarnished when he bowls against New South Wales in the next game.

Worryingly for England fans, Ashley Giles bowled his full quota of overs, while Monty Panesar bowled just three overs. Are the selectors actually contemplating picking a half-fit Giles over Panesar, already such a thrilling exponent of the old fashioned attacking left-arm spinner’s arm? For England, such a decision would be egregious. Duncan Fletcher, seemingly so keen on his spinner offering containment, would do worse than remember Panesar, despite having a better average and strike-rate than Giles, also has a superior economy rate.

Of particular note was Geriant Jones’ decisive dropped catch. He did take an excellent catch, of course, but the fact Phil Jaques went on to score a fantastic century was a reminder of how costly his errors can be. England’s mistakes were plentiful. Save for the facet Andrew Flintoff was able to bowl his 10 overs and Andrew Strauss continued the form he showed in India, they can take nothing positive from this game. Yet things will only begin to get serious if their play is equally poor against New South Wales.

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Thursday, 9 November 2006

England's secret weapon

Sajid Mahmood is certainly an unknown quantity. Though 24, he is invariably liable to lose his radar and, as he has proved by going at over six an over during his 15 ODIs, can certainly be hit out of the attack. But he improved gradually over the summer and, in impressing against Australia at the ICC Champions Trophy, has given himself every chance of playing in the Ashes.

Mahmood, tall and with the ability to generate swing to supplement his express pace, has all the raw attributes required to be a fantastic fast-bowler. His wrist, which has been identified as a reason for his chronic inconsistency, is slowly becoming less crocked. Bowling the full length that so memorably accounted for Messrs Gilchrist and Ponting in India, Mahmood, if selected ahead of James Anderson, will fundamentally be Simon Jones’ replacement.

With England seemingly almost certain to begin the series with five bowlers, Mahmood could well come in at six wickets down. Although this is probably a place too high for him, Mahmood’s aggressive batting has sealed England’s last two victories in ODI cricket, and he could score some useful runs.

Any doubts over Mahmood’s temperament were surely put to rest when he responded to Pakistaini fans calling him “traitor” by taking 4-22 to seal series victory for England last summer. The Australian pitches certainly suit him; if he can refrain from bowling boundary balls, Mahmood will go a considerable way to filling the shoes of Simon Jones.

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A Vaughan Welcome?

It seems that Michael Vaughan’s fitness battle is going most encouragingly; he today said he would be ready to play in the Third Test. The mere prospect of him participating in the Ashes is intriguing; he is, after all, the only current player, save for Mark Ramprakash, to have had success in Australia. His exploits in 2002/03 were nothing short of superlative. Batting with trademark elegance and taking the fight to the Australian bowlers, Vaughan plundered 633 runs and was named Man of the Series despite the fact that England were palpably outclassed.

But what of the captaincy? He still officially remains the England skipper, despite having not played for 11 months. Yet Andrew Flintoff has been chosen to lead the side’s Ashes defence. And, if Vaughan were to play but not be skipper, would he be a ‘sleeping skipper’, just as Shane Warne was last summer?

While undeniably England’s classiest batsman, asking Vaughan to play a Test Match with just three days of tour cricket (just before the Third Test) behind him is perhaps too much, though if he could spend time with the Academy then the Boxing Day Test would appear a possibility.

If there are injuries in England’s batting line-up and doubts over some of Collingwood, Bell, Cook and Trescothick, then who people to call upon than a man with such pedigree against Australia? In such a scenario, it would be unfair to take the captaincy aware from Flintoff, unless England were performing egregiously. Vaughan’s tactical nous (even if he wasn’t captain), in addition to his experience of excelling against Australia and sheer class, could conceivably prove decisive in the final two Tests.

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Wednesday, 8 November 2006

Who will be England’s keeper come Brisbane?

Chris Read’s three impressive innings for England at the back end of last summer appeared to settle matters once and for all; he, rather than 2005 Ashes winner Geraint Jones, would take to the field for the First Test. But then along came the ICC Champions Trophy.

Three disastrous innings later, including a second-ball duck against Australia and humiliation at the hands of Dwayne Bravo’s slower ball, and Read may just have played himself out of the Test team. Equally significantly, Read’s keeping evoked memories of Jones circa 2004. Jones, himself a pundit for Sky TV, was perhaps England’s chief beneficiary from the tournament.

Jones, lest we forget, performed simply atrociously in his final nine games, scoring just one half century. Though his glovework was improving steadily, he was palpably not scoring an acceptable number of runs; and, as such, he deserved to be dropped.

It looks increasingly likely England will employ four specialist bowlers in addition to Andrew Flintoff. One of the two, therefore must bat at number seven. Read at number seven remains decidedly unconvincing; though he scored a vital 55 against Pakistan in the Third Test, he enjoyed considerable luck; in the Champions Trophy, he looked largely out of his depth. Can he handle Shane Warne? Is he good enough to handle either the metronome-like accuracy of Glenn McGrath or Brett Lee’s fusion of short-pitched bowling and yorkers?

Of course, we don’t know the answer to either question, even if his performances in India suggested the negative. Jones, however, has played two fantastic innings against Australia in the past, scoring 85 at Trent Bridge in the Fourth Test and 71 in the Natwest Final last summer; the latter constituted over a third of England’s runs. Clearly, his best is better than Read’s best.

Call me fickle, but the affection I developed for Read while watching him score a peerless 150* for England A against Pakistan has slowly dwindled. Jones’ recent batting performances for England have been diabolical; but he could benefit from a few months out of the international scene and the chance to escape the relentless grind of international cricket. Geraint Jones has been relatively successful against Australia; whether it is rational or otherwise, I would prefer to see him walking out down under. I suspect the inherent Jonesite Duncan Fletcher will think the same.

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Tuesday, 7 November 2006

Will Collingwood get his chance?

Australia will respect Paul Collingwood for his mental toughness; but saying they fear his dogged batting at Test level is simply a fallacy. Regularly included in the squad, but not the final eleven, until a year ago, Collingwood has found a niche for himself in the side as a tenacious batsman to go in between Messrs Pietersen and Flintoff. In this time, the 30-year-old has done much to shed his reputation as a one-day specialist, averaging 53 in his last 11 games.

Although an inventive accumulator in the shorter format of the game, Collingwood’s role in the Test side is to provide grit, guts and reliability; his current strike-rate is just 41. His qualities may not be particularly glamorous but Collingwood’s technique, perhaps surprisingly, has prove more than able to cope with the rigours of Test cricket so far. Games in the sub-continent and against Asian sides in England have brought several vital innings. Whether he can replicate them against the bouncing Australian ball and the guile of Shane Warne remains to be seen. For Collingwood, however, the immediate question is whether he will get the chance.

Given that England have only selected six batsmen for their main touring party, it seems unlikely Collingwood will play in the First Test. His will feel frustrated at seemingly being the ‘fall-guy’ yet again; but the selectors will remember his struggles when he batted at four in ODIs against Australia last summer and, especially, his Matthew Hoggard-esque exploits in the Fifth Test. If England are struggling, there are few better men to bring in than Collingwood; but, if things all go to plan, than he appears unlikely to feature.

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Monday, 6 November 2006

Can Pietersen keep his machismo in check?

No one on either side will attract more attention than Kevin Pietersen this winter. His flamboyant and brash personality mimics his batting. Throw in his intriguing relationship with Shane Warne, and it is clear KP will never be far from the spotlight this winter; being the man he is, he will doubtless relish it all.

But how will he fare? The Champions Trophy game was surely an indicator of where Australia’s fast bowlers plan to target him. Short and hostile bowling, followed by full balls outside the off stump, will be the order of the day.

Providing he uses his head, Pietersen should enjoy considerable success down under. If he lets arrogance get in the way of common sense, he will try and hit sixes of Warne and Brett Lee; this will prove successful a few times before Pietersen tries it once too often. However, if he is prepared to play in a subtler manner, then he will find Australia’s big outfields to his advantage; after all, he does not need to take risks to score at a more-than-satisfactory rate. Australia, on the back of his exceptional 158, certainly fear him; several men will be put on the boundary. But will he be able to keep his machismo in check?

As is his wont, Pietersen, if and when he falls in a seemingly reckless manner, will hide behind the unsatisfactory excuse of “that’s the way I play.” It seems very likely his idiosyncratic way will yield at least a couple of vital innings in the Ashes. But, if he mixes his characteristic offensive brilliance with the nous he seems to be slowly learning, then he could conceivably be the single most important player on either side, as well as the most talked about.

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Sunday, 5 November 2006

Not looking for a repeat performance

In 2005, Ian Bell was bafflingly picked in the Ashes side ahead of Graham Thorpe. Save for a pair of impressive fifties in the Third Test at Old Trafford, his series was a disaster: seven single scores from 10 innings amounted to an average of just 17.

But thankfully, Bell’s scarring summer does not look as if it will have long-term implications. The boyhood prodigy has grown in confidence (he believes body language is key) since his rather traumatic series 14 months ago. Playing classical and increasingly authoritative shots all round the wicket against Pakistan, he recorded three consecutive centuries to secure his place on tour and, almost certainly, selection for the First Test.

Australians will believe he is easy meat. But they will be surprised. Bell has matured and, providing he can assert himself against Shane Warne (he strike rate was just 31 against him last year), he should prove many Aussies wrong. Bell’s chief problem against Australia last summer was in his mind. If, as it seems, this facet of his game has been improved, then Bell could just be England’s most successful batsman down under.

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Saturday, 4 November 2006

Not the captain, but still vital

Andrew Strauss was narrowly overlooked for the captaincy on the Ashes tour. But he is nonetheless an invaluable member of the side; indeed, he was the only player on either side to score two hundreds in the epic series of 2005.

In just 31 Tests, Strauss already has 10 Test Match hundreds; this is testament to his remarkable conversion rate (he has three more hundreds than fifties at this level), as well as his unerring consistency.

The player who gave Strauss the most trouble 14 months ago was Shane Warne. The phenomenal leg-spinner dismissed him six times; Strauss, who improved as the series went on, scored 120 runs. Having since played in both India and Pakistan, one would expect England’s vice-captain to improve somewhat against Warne.

Two hundreds in England’s Test series win over Pakistan proved that Strauss is currently near to his Man of the Series form against South Africa two winters ago. He will play in his trademark minimalist way and, aided by a fantastically calm temperament, should enjoy some success. England certainly need him to: with Marcus Trescothick’s many worries, he is the closest they have to a ‘banker.’

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Friday, 3 November 2006

Phlegmatic Cook can be a huge star

Most Australians won’t need much reminding who Alastair Cook is. In a warm-up game last summer, Cook blazed a remarkable double century for Essex against the tourists, alerting Australians and Englishmen alike to a prodigious talent. Those in the know, however, would not have been too surprised: he has progressed seamlessly through age-group cricket and has long seemed destined for international stardom.

Yet, though that phenomenal innings suggested otherwise, Cook will not be doing much blazing in Australia. He will play with a straight bat, remain remarkably unfazed by any sledging and not seek to engage in scoring shots unless he is totally at ease; indeed, Cook’s strike-rate in Test Match cricket is a distinctly un-21st century 44. If a bowler is foolish enough to pitch the ball on his legs Cook, as he does, will, inevitably, flick it away in the classiest of manners.

There have very seldom been better 21-year-old batsmen than Cook. Unexpectedly handed a debut in India last winter, he responded by scoring a hundred; he added two more - 105 and 127 - against Pakistan over the summer. Yet, despite an outstanding average of 54 from nine Tests against sub-continental sides, lingering doubts remain over his ability to handle Shane Warne; he has a tendency to push too hard at the ball and get caught around the bat. He has doubtless been using his extra time at home to work on this slight technical glitch.

Australian supporters may view Cook as Ian Bell 2005 Mark 2. But, with far more experience at Test level than Bell then, and an admirably phlegmatic temperament, that would be wishful thinking indeed.

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Thursday, 2 November 2006

The trouble with Trescothick

As the Ashes approaches, I will be assessing every Englishman’s chances of success down under. I will start with Marcus Trescothick.

Trescothick pulled out of the ICC Champions Trophy on account of his stress-related illness, though he has since professed to being in perfect mental condition ahead of the Ashes.

But I am not overly hopefully. Since his 193 in Pakistan last year, things have gradually deteriorated for Trescothick. If he is truly in peak condition, he should benefit from the absence of nemesis Jason Gillespie and the apparent decline of Glenn McGrath and enjoy a triumphant winter, especially given his aptitude playing spin. But, if my fears are correct and he is unable to focus entirely on the cricket, then Trescothick’s average will be considerably nearer the 26 in 2002/03 than the 43 he averaged in England last year.

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Wednesday, 1 November 2006


Contributors to this site are primarily English, so we shall inevitably feature much on English cricket.

Sub-sections that have been categorised are:

England Test ratings - This features detailed, by-marks out of ten for all England Test series.

England ODI ratings - This features detailed, by-marks out of ten for all England ODI series.

County cricket - The county games receives scandolously little coverage in the mainstream media. Hopefully our weekly reviews, and extensive season reviews, will go a little way to providing ample coverage for the county fan.

We also will feature categories for every England series. Obviously, we refrain from doing conventional match reports, but invariably do many pieces analysing events.

England v India - 2007 Tests and ODIs

England v West Indies - 2007 Tests and ODIs

World Cup 2007 - Featuring preview articles, pieces on old tournaments, and post-mortems after England's inevitable humiliation.

CB Series 2007

Ashes 2006/07 - Relieve the series in all its horror with our 50+ pieces previeweing, analysing and reviewing the series.