Friday, 29 December 2006

England's performance ratings

After losing by an innings at Melbourne here are the marks out of ten for England's players:

Strauss - 6.5 Finally managed to make his first fifty of the series in the first innings, but could not go on and convert it into a more significant score. He tried to play the anchor role in the second innings, showing patience as well as some of his trademark fluency. However, his efforts were in vain as he consistently lost partners at the other end and eventually succumbed himself, caught behind off Brett Lee. Even the phlegmatic Strauss must be feeling the frustration of getting so many starts and looking in good form only to throw it away or have it taken away by poor umpiring. If England are to have any chance in the last Test Strauss will need to find his form and sustain it over a long innings.

Cook - 4 After his heroics in the last innings at Perth he reverted to his previous failings at the MCG, nibbling at a ball outside his off stump in the first innings and getting bowled in the second. It should have been worse for the young left-hander in the second innings as Rudi Koertzen inexplicably turned down a plum lbw decision against him early on off Glenn McGrath. Given this life Cook played a few nice shots before being bowled by Stuart Clark. He will need to remember how he applied himself to make his century at the WACA if he is to have an impact in the fifth and final Test of the series.

Bell - 3 Two failures, both trapped lbw, made him appear more the player of 2005 than the resilient figure seen earlier in this series. It is becoming clear that number three is too high in the batting line-up for Bell, especially with the consistent failure of England's openers. He is exposed to the new ball too early and has been unable to bat through it when the ball has been moving off the seam. The three centuries in a row against Pakistan seem a distant memory. Granted they were against a weaker bowling line-up, but more significantly they were scored when he batted at number six, a position he appeared far more comfortable with.

Collingwood - 5 Showed all his usual grit and fight, but never looked like making the big score England needed. Like his fellow batsmen he failed in the crucial first innings, unable to convert a start into an innings of substance. Again questions must be asked of his ability against better bowling and on pitches with bounce or movement. His technique, so good against slower bowlers or on slow wickets, has been exposed since that magnificent double century at Adelaide. Determination and fielding prowess are admirable attributes, but they are no substitute for consistent run scoring.

Pietersen - 4 His first failure of the series and, more worryingly, signs that his head had gone down. The usual ebullience and energy were lacking in the field and the swagger had gone from his batting. Having thrown his wicket away in the first innings slogging with the tail, he played a poor shot to an excellent delivery from Clark in the second. It was a shame as Pietersen had finally agreed to bat at number four, the position he batted against Pakistan last summer, but which he had been reluctant to take in this series. That he should play loosely in his first outing at four was a bad sign. Hopefully, for England's sake, he rises to the challenge in his usual manner at the SCG.

Flintoff - 6 After another failure with the bat the captain made amends with a fine bowling performance. Taking the first two wickets in a fiery spell at the end of the second day he continued in the same mode removing the ever dangerous Ponting early on the third. As England rallied, reducing the Australians to 84 for 5, Flintoff looked like his old self, chest pumped out and vocal in the field. Unfortunately, after lunch when England desperately needed some inspiration from their captain he was unable to supply it and Australia romped away again. He has also been criticised for batting first having won the toss. This is unfair, as he would have been villified if he had put Australia in and they had scored heavily as they have done for most of the series. It was a tough call and Flintoff backed his batsmen, who failed once again. In his second innings he tried to launch a counter attack, but was trapped lbw after hitting a few lusty blows. It is better that he goes down playing shots than vainly trying to defend, but in his best form Flintoff can play proper innings.

Read - 8 The match started poorly for him as he was caught driving loosely in the first inings. However, after that he barely put a foot wrong, taking 6 catches in Australia's innings in an exemplary display of keeping. He also stood up well to Matthew Hoggard, preventing Matthew Hayden from batting out of his crease. In his second innings he showed the kind of resolve and shot selection that ought to have been true of all of England's batsmen, ending his vigil unbeaten. However, he will need to build on this display and score runs in the first innings at Sydney when England really need them.

Mahmood - 7 Given the opportunity to show what he could do this time Mahmood responded well. His bowling display was typical - wickets, but at a high economy rate. Given plenty of short spells with both the new and the old ball he extracted some bounce and seam movement, as well as a bit of reverse swing. It was a shame he could not sustain his best line and length and cut out the poor deliveries, which were ruthlessly put away. His batting, which has great potential, was abject as he bagged a pair, picked up by McGrath in the first innings and Shane Warne in the second. However, an encouraging match for a very promising player and something which he can build on in the last Test at Sydney.

Harmison - 7 His best bowling performance of the series, which deserved more of a return than just two wickets. Finally showing the control and pace that make him such a dangerous bowler, Harmison was also miserly, allowing only 2.46 runs per over. None of the Australian batsmen were able to settle against him and were forced to keep him out rather than score off him. It was evidence, if any were needed, that Harmison is a rhythm bowler, who needs overs under his belt to perform at his best. He bowled 28 overs in the innings, by far the most of any of England's attack, a testament to his stamina when he's in the groove. A tragedy that it has taken until the fourth Test for him to look like England's spearhead.

Panesar - 4 A difficult match for the young spinner, who was only given 12 overs on a seamer friendly pitch. He should probably have been bowled more against Hayden and Andrew Symonds, whose massive partnership took the match away from England. When he did bowl they attacked him, but Panesar should have claimed Symonds when he was on 52, having a very good lbw shout turned down. Like most quality spinners he likes to bowl long spells and Flintoff should have given him more overs. Promoted to ten in the batting order he unleashed some fine shots in the second innings, showing off the hard work he has put in at the nets. Once again his spirit was evident and he could be a key figure in the last Test as England try to stave off the dreaded 5-0.

Hoggard - 5.5 Bowled without luck in Australia's innings, having two excellent lbw shouts against Hayden turned down early on. He finally showed that Mike Hussey can be got out, bowling him with an excellent inswinger. As the ball got older and Hayden and Symonds started to dominate he was an increasingly peripheral figure, unable to break the big stand. Though he continued to run in and give his usual effort he could not recapture the accuracy and penetration of his first spell. The changes of pace and variety of deliveries Hoggard has acquired since his last tour of Australia ensured that he was not hit to all parts of the MCG, but he could not conjure up the wicket England so desperately needed.

Thursday, 21 December 2006

Control and penetration patently lacking

Post-mortem (2): England’s bowling

The unrelenting threat of England’s four-pronged seam attack in 2005 was probably the decisive factor in their series win; indeed, Australia never passed 400. This time, however, they have pulverised the English attack in four of their five innings, averaging almost 60 runs per wicket.

It all started so ominously with Steve Harmison’s horrendous opening ball landing at the feet of his skipper. Like Phil Defreitas’ opening delivery in the ‘94/95 series, it revealed much about English anxiety. Harmison finally came good, bowling with hostility and consistency, at Perth; but, by then, England were 2-0 down and defeat was inevitable. Harmison, who has now retired from ODIs, is remarkably unpredictable and mentally frail for one who was once ranked the world’s finest fast bowler. If he fares poorly in the next two Tests, then his place will come under enormous scrutiny, especially if Simon Jones returns.

The most damning indictment of Harmison came when Andrew Flintoff opted to give the new-ball to the out-of-form James Anderson ahead of him. Anderson’s selection for the first two games was largely down to his terrific bowling during England’s Test win in India last March, but he was never able to bowl accurately, let alone penetratingly. One of the reasons for his initial selection ahead of Sajid Mahmood was seen as being his superior consistency, yet his economy rate is an appalling 4.78 an over. Once the golden boy of English cricket, Anderson has to develop consistency of line and length and threat on docile services.

There is no man better for him to ask advice on improving these facets of his game than Matthew Hoggard, who suffered a miserable time down under four years ago but has responded with greater discipline and new tricks – such as, crucially, being able to swing the ball both ways. His 7-109 at Adelaide was testament to his improvement over this period, and surely proves he is currently England’s finest seamer.

A year ago, that title was Andrew Flintoff’s. He has been hampered by an ankle injury, it would appear, yet has still bowled almost as much as is normally the case. Although wholehearted, he has lacked a certain threat. If 2005 was Flintoff’s crowing glory, 2006, in spite – or maybe because of – him being made captain, has been a disaster. He averages just under 30 with the bat but, more alarmingly, 37 with the ball, figures that barely justify his place in the side.

His Lancashire colleague Mahmood has understandably let his frustration at being continually over-looked in the last Test be known. Is his skipper’s lack of faith such that he could justify giving him just two overs from the first 73 in Australia’s innings? If so, why was he playing? Mahmood has the raw attributes necessary to be a superb bowler, but, while his Test economy rate stands at 3.79 an over, he is too much of a gamble.

Monty Panesar, apparently, was too much of a gamble too, which is why Ashley Giles appeared in the first two Tests. Predictably ineffectual, he also failed with the bat on the sole occasion his contribution was significant and dropped Ricky Ponting en route to a match-turning century, before learning of his wife’s illness. It’s all gone horribly wrong for Giles, a fighter and genuinely amiable team man. If truth be known, it is unlikely he will play Test cricket again.

But Monty Panesar will, thankfully, play both Tests and ODIs, such is the impression he made at Perth, where he took five wickets in the first innings and bowled better than figures of 3-145 in the second suggest. His loop, turn and calm when being attacked mean his place in the side is now beyond doubt. England’s seam attack was never going to be as effective as in 2005 but, had they selected Panesar form the start, they would at least have offered a genuine wicket-taking threat with spin.

Time for a breather

Thursday was the day for cricketing news. The biggest news of course was that Shane Warne is retiring from international cricket following this Ashes series. Only four more times will us England fans sit there staring despairingly at our television sets as the chief magician bamboozles our batting line up.

My initial reaction was one of relief, relief that this will no longer happen and also that he plans to play on for Hampshire for a further two years. However, then I began to wonder, is international cricket about to become a whole lot more boring and the answer is undoubtedly yes. Those nail biting moments emanating from the pressure cooker environment which Warne creates are not going to be replicated again during my generation I fear. He has been the best and likely will be forever.

Thursday also brought the announcement that Stephen Harmison was retiring from One Day Internationals, just three months before the 2007 World Cup starts in the Caribbean, a region in which Harmison enjoyed his best form. This is a bold and justifiable decision by Harmison who undoubtedly recognises that he needs to play more first class cricket for his county if he is to maintain his place in England’s test side.

The Durham pace man has left England in a spot of bother though with such a major tournament so near. It is unlikely that he would have been selected for the World Cup squad anyway based on current form, but had he bowed out a few months earlier England could have conducted a more thorough search for a replacement. Now though, time is of the essence, which may have counted against Stuart Broad and his lack of experience. Whether this is the correct decision remains to be seen.

The third piece of news that broke on Thursday was of course the announcement of England’s ODI squad for the forthcoming series against Australia and New Zealand. The absence of Broad is a disappointment. However, much to my pleasant surprise I actually quite like the look of the bowling, if England select the correct five. Andrew Flintoff is a given. Jamie Dalrymple and James Anderson have probably also done enough to be in the side.

Following the dismal performance at the Champions Trophy I argued that a new approach was needed, that England needed to play two spinners in the Caribbean and that they had to play Monty Panesar. Michael Yardy looked troubled with the bat and average with the ball in his handful of appearances in an England shirt. If England are to play two spinners, one must be a wicket taker and Monty is certainly that. Four parts of the jigsaw are now in place.

Finally, I also argued that Chris Tremlett should be in the side. Surprisingly he now gets his chance following a year of troublesome injuries. However, he must play. Tremlett spent a lot of time working on the mental side of his game with Warne over the past two years and he has emerged a more threatening bowler. He will not let England down and has good control unlike Sajid Mahmood. He can also bat to a reasonable standard. Perhaps Broad could have had more success than Anderson in the Caribbean and on the current Australian pitches, but bringing in three new bowlers would have been a big change with the World Cup so near.

Ultimately, Anderson is a seasoned campaigner and knows the one day game well. Jon Lewis performed fantastically in England, but it remains to be seen whether he is up to standard abroad. Mahmood still needs more county cricket to develop, whilst Plunkett has not played for nearly two thirds of a year. In summary then I am happy with the bowling, but would have campaigned for Broad’s inclusion in the squad, along with Simon Jones when fit, for Plunkett and Mahmood.

To the batting now and I am also reasonably satisfied. Michael Vaughan will hopefully open and bring a lot to the game with his captaincy, though England must be certain of his fitness. He should though retire from ODI’s after the World Cup to prolong his Test career. I suspect that had Trescothick been fit Vaughan may have done so already. With Vaughan back there is hopefully a shot maker in the top three, with Strauss and Bell looking to build their innings more.

England will though miss the power of Trescothick and may regret not looking at players such as Owais Shah and Mal Loye. Kevin Pietersen, Paul Collingwood and Flintoff are givens now, along with Jamie Dalrymple in England’s middle order, but they must be played in that order. That means no more experimenting with Flintoff at three. He is needed for the last ten to fifteen overs. Collingwood and Pietersen are the best players of spin, hence their positioning in the middle order, whilst Bell and Strauss are the most likely innings builders at the top.

Vaughan must though play some shots to get England off to a quick start. That is likely to be the key position. Ed Joyce is a quality player but offers little different to Alastair Cook, who has performed well when involved. England are probably a bowler heavy and a batsman light, which indicates their doubts concerning the bowling attack at the moment. They may well rue the omission of an aggressive top order player though. However, all in all I am sounding reasonably happy so far.

Now we turn to the wicket keeping situation. This completely baffles me. Why England have turned back to a thirty-six year old really is beyond me. Paul Nixon is a good one day player and especially proficient at Twenty20 cricket. However, having named Chris Read as the number one wicket keeper I fail to see the point in calling up a short term player as reserve.

This was the perfect opportunity for the England management to take a look at the two academy keepers, Matthew Prior and Steven Davies. They have not done so and this is my main criticism, unless of course they plan to usurpe Read once more and play Nixon at the World Cup, which would still be a backward step. Batting at number eight though, England can afford to select the best glove man, whoever that may be.

In conclusion, England have made a better fist of selecting a competitive one day squad on this occasion. Gone are the likes of Vikram Solanki, Rikki Clarke and Michael Yardy. However, it remains to be seen whether or not they select the right eleven to take to the field and then play them in the best order. By selecting the best spinner though England have finally sent a message. They are going to look to be more positive in their one day cricket and about time too.

Andrew Strauss (vc)
Michael Vaughan (c) (Marcus Trescothick/ Mal Loye/ Owais Shah)
Ian Bell
Kevin Pietersen
Paul Collingwood
Andrew Flintoff
Jamie Dalrymple
Chris Read/ Paul Nixon (wk) (Matthew Prior)
Chris Tremlett
Monty Panesar
James Anderson (Stuart Broad)

Chris Pallett

Wednesday, 20 December 2006

Normal service has been resumed!

Well ladies and gentleman, that as they say was that! Having held the Ashes for the shortest time in the history of the series England should rightly be dejected and disappointed with the manner of their defeat. On the other hand however, everybody must take their hats off to Australia after one of the most ruthless and focused performances in the history of cricket.

The debate about selection will no doubt rage on for a good while yet, but now is the time to be honest. Even with our best side it is doubtful if England had the ability to beat Australia on their own soil. Ricky Ponting, Michael Hussey, Stuart Clark and of course Shane Warne have been absolutely marvellous. Whilst there have been weaknesses in this Australian team the performances of these men have made it very questionable as to whether or not England ever had a chance, even with their best eleven on the field.

Ponting has captained superbly, nobody knows how to get Hussey out, whilst Warne and Clark have known precisely how to get England’s batsman out. When the promising performances of Michael Clarke are thrown into the ring, along with the contributions of the untameable Adam Gilchrist, resilient Glenn McGrath, attritional Justin Langer and dominating Matthew Hayden, you really can see why this team are ranked as the number one side in the world and by some margin.

The sad truth of the matter is that of six Australian innings, during which some sixty wickets were up for grabs, England have only taken thirty-nine. When batting they have failed to pass two hundred and fifty on three occasions, twice in the first innings. That simply is not good enough to win Test matches and even with Monty Panesar in the side the consistent bowling threat has just not been available from both ends, as on the Australian side.

Of all the England players the only one who has performed on a consistently comparable scale is Kevin Pietersen. Still though the talismanic player has received criticism for getting out for seventy when batting with number ten at the crease. This attitude must stop now. This man has been playing test match cricket for just eighteen months. He is still a relative baby compared to the likes of Ponting, Warne and McGrath, yet he has done his best to carry England.

Pietersen is currently rated as the seventh highest England Test batsman of all time. He is still only 26 and averages 52.50 from forty Test innings, during which he has scored six hundreds and nine fifties. He has played with common sense and grace in Australia and has not tried to hit every ball out of the ground as many wrongly feared. This man is no “Boom Boom” Afiridi, he is pure and consistent class.

Injuries did indeed hamper England of course. Michael Vaughan’s captaincy, Simon Jones’ reverse swing and Andrew Flintoff’s all round displays were the key reasons behind England’s success just sixteen months ago. In the current series we have lost all three of those trump cards, with the former two out of the side through injury and Flintoff overburdened, possibly unfit and perhaps overrated. The current England Captain has suffered a collapse of batting form and even his bowling has appeared laboured, with little consistent pressure available at the opposite end.

As a selector, Flintoff appears to have had the overriding vote to start with and I remain certain that Fletcher selected him, rather than Strauss as Captain, as much for his appreciation of Geraint Jones than anything else. The England management will tell you that hindsight is a wonderful thing, yet for the majority of us the team selection was wrong from day one.

Ashley Giles, who, as one of the nicest guys in cricket, does not deserve the current illness which faces his wife at this supposedly joyous time of year, should never have been selected above Monty Panesar, who had performed so admirably to become the world’s “leading finger spinner.”

Geraint Jones’ selection was more expected and indeed slightly more justifiable given the assumed advantages of his batting on pitches upon which he grew up on. His glove work has been reasonable, not exceptional, but his batting has been atrocious. His England career is surely now all but over.

Chris Read can consider himself slightly unfortunate to be dropped, especially in favour of Jones, but it still remains doubtful as to whether the man who averaged just 27.41 in the LVCC1 could have scored the mega runs which England required, what with the horrendous form of their number six.

A dismal Champions Trophy performance, during which he was dismissed by an out of sorts McGrath, was poor with the gloves and racked up scores of 2, 0 and 4, helped to explain his axing. Whilst he scored runs against Pakistan it must be taken into account that that was against a Pakistani attack missing their three premier strike bowlers, Shoaib Aktar, Mohammed Asif and Shabbir Ahmed.

His performances in the ODI series against Pakistan also did little to help his cause as he ended with scores of 0, 30, 21no and 4. What I am saying here is not that Jones should have played, but that maybe it was not Read who should have taken his place and should do so now. For the last year I have wanted to see somebody else given a chance. There is no shortage of talent with Matthew Prior and Steven Davies currently working with the academy squad.

Prior averaged 46.70 in first class cricket last season as Sussex lifted the championship. Surely he is deserving of a chance. The young prodigy Davies, who has already been hyped up unfairly as the next Adam Gilchrist is a splendid glove man. Beyond these two James Foster and Phil Mustard continue to go dutifully about their business in county cricket. One can only imagine how depressing it must be to be continually discounted because of this nonsensical tug of war between Jones and Read, which has only served to detract attention from the splendid performances of some of England’s future wicket keeping talent. If none of the aforementioned are considered along with Read it will be a sad loss for English cricket.

Of England’s batsman Alastair Cook has proved himself, but Ian Bell is still working his way there and as such looks unsuited to such a crucial position as number three in the batting line up. When Vaughan returns I hope he comes back as an opener where he has played his best cricket for England. Cook dropping down to three provides England with such a calming and stabilising presence, whilst Bell could move down in to the middle order, where he played so brilliantly against Pakistan, racking up three consecutive hundreds.

The aggression of Vaughan and Trescothick has been missing from England’s opening three and with it back England will look a more dominating side. Pietersen has played fantastic cricket at five, but maybe if he came in at four once more we would see some bigger scores from the man who is equally adept at playing pace and spin bowling, with aggression. Bell has a fantastic temperament ala Graham Thorpe and looks very good against spin. I believe that he could anchor the side at five and dropping him down the order removes some of the pressure on the man and importantly gets him away from the new ball, against which he can look suspect.

If Flintoff is to continue to play as a number six, there must be a rapid improvement. His streaky innings on the final day at Perth seemed merely to confirm that he can no longer be considered worthy of a place on batting alone. With that being the case he should not be batting in the top six. His career Test average is equal to that of Shaun Pollock, standing at 32.00. Pollock is a fantastic bowling all rounder who bats at number eight, as is Flintoff. Flintoff is no Jaques Kallis with the bat and similarly Kallis is no Flintoff with the ball. England must recognise this fallibility at number six and rectify it.

Pushed down to seven Flintoff could afford to play his aggressive innings ala Gilchrist, without the pressure of knowing that big runs are expected of him every time he goes out to bat. The question of who bats at six now becomes tricky though. If England want to maintain a five man attack without Flintoff in the top six, then they must select Prior, who is capable of scoring major runs at six. He is the best batsman of all the wicket keeping options.

This may be something that England have to spend a lot of time thinking about given their inability to take twenty wickets in a match at present. This would still give England a very long tail though, with Hoggard, Harmison, Jones and Panesar to follow, but hopefully the top seven batsman would be up to scoring the required runs. Stephen Harmison’s position can not be safe though. Of his five wickets at Perth two were McGrath and Clark, numbers ten and eleven. He is still not the bowler he was in early 2004 and has no consistency whatsoever.

Stuart Broad must now come into serious consideration as a replacement. Hyped up yet again, as the next McGrath, the Leicestershire pace man has the potential to be a great bowler and what’s more he is a consistent line and length bowler, with bounce, a bowler England currently lack. The son of former England opener Chris Broad, he can also bat and would solve the current number eight problem, with his inclusion going some way to shortening England's tail. With Simon Jones an almost certain returnee because of his ability to swing the ball both ways, that may jeopardise Matthew Hoggard’s position in a four man attack, although it would be harsh to drop England’s best bowler on tour so far, currently ranked sixth by the ICC. If that were to happen though it would open the door for the best wicket keeper, perhaps Chris Read or Steven Davies to bat at eight, with another batsman coming in at six.

That man would surely have to be Paul Collingwood. His two hundred shows that he has class and concentration. His ninety-two showed us he has guts. Unfortunately these two innings also demonstrated that whilst he can score on a flat deck, he is troubled by seam bowling outside his off stump on result pitches and this has proved to be his undoing so far in his international career. For this reason I do not believe that he should bat at four and at best should come in at five. He is though a talented player and worthy of a slot if England want to bat down to six, although he must watch out for the flamboyant Irishman, Ed Joyce, coming over the horizon, along with Marcus Trescothick. The experiences of fellow double centurions Brad Hodge, Jason Gillespie and Rob Key demonstrate that a cricketer is never safe and rightly so.

England must consider the above issues carefully and adapt the make up of their side for the future. Ultimately, England must focus on ending the batting collapses and consistently taking twenty wickets, if they want to become the best side in the world. At present they can’t do either against the undisputed leader of world cricket. It has been a lesson in ruthlessness and class that the Australian’s have dealt out and unfortunately it looks set to continue for the next two months. In time for the next domestic season, England must make some changes to their strategy and start building for the future. They must select a side for the summer which can bring England success in the next Ashes series in just two and a half years time.

Andrew Strauss (vc)
Michael Vaughan (c)
Alastair Cook
Kevin Pietersen
Ian Bell
Matthew Prior (wk) (Paul Collingwood)
Andrew Flintoff
Stuart Broad
Matthew Hoggard (Steven Davies/ Chris Read)
Monty Panesar
Simon Jones

Chris Pallett

Monday, 18 December 2006

England's performance ratings

Having handed over the Ashes at Perth here are the marks out of ten for England's players:

Strauss - 5.5 Hard to be too critical of a batsman who received two poor decisions in the match. In the first innings he looked in good form, not for the first time in the series, only to be given out caught when he clearly didn't touch the ball - a decision which deprived him of turning his 42 into something far more substantial. In the second he was adjudged lbw to a ball that would have gone over. True he didn't play a shot, which is always risky, but the umpire failed to take into account the exaggerated bounce at the WACA when raising his finger.

Cook - 8 A wonderful century in the second innings more than made up for his low score in the first. Showing immense patience and determination, Cook fought through the difficult times, especially the torment of Warne's wily leg-spin, to register his maiden Ashes ton and his fourth overall. Once again his maturity at just 21 was staggering and his capacity to learn and improve plain for all to see. It is a shame that he has had to learn his trade in the spotlight of an Ashes series, but it will serve him well in the rest of the series and in the bright future he clearly has.

Bell - 7 Out to an absolute peach of a delivery in the first innings, he responded with an exhibition of timing and sumptuous strokeplay in the second. Taking on Warne as soon as he come on Bell unleashed some mighty blows, including two sixes. The only shame of it was that he drove loosely 13 short of a deserved hundred. Overconfidence had got the better of him, something which would have been unthinkable just a year and a half ago. He also continued to show his prowess at silly mid-on, taking a great catch off Panesar.

Collingwood - 3 Sadly, the suspicion that he would struggle on bouncier pitches was confirmed as he followed his fantastic double century at Adelaide with two low scores here. Both times he failed to come to terms with the surface and his technique was exposed. No-one could doubt his fighting spirit, but when his team needed runs and momentum he stagnated and simply had no answers. His catching and fielding were as sharp as ever, but could not atone for his lack of runs.

Pietersen - 8 Left to play for a long time with the tail in the first innings and stranded on 60 in the second, Pietersen showed the strength of his temperament as well as his class. At times he looked like he simply could not be got out, an idea confirmed by Ricky Ponting's ultra defensive field placings. For a while in the first innings he seemed unsure how he should play with the tail, especially when Hoggard was with him, but his decision to play positively was the right one, though it ultimately led to his demise, as he played a poor shot. In the second he tried to bat time, while keeping the score ticking over, which worked for a while. Unfortunately, he was unable to protect the tail, who fell cheaply.

Flintoff - 4 A shadow with the ball throughout the match and with the bat in the first innings, he finally showed what he is capable of with an attacking cameo in the second innings. It was too little far too late and did nothing more than postpone the inevitable loss for his team. Bowling at reduced pace, presumably because of his injured ankle, Flintoff went wicketless in the match. His captaincy was okay, but he lacked inspiration in Australia's second innings which was the decisive one of the match. It may be that little could have been done to stem the flow, but it is at times like those that the best captains find a wicket from somewhere.

Jones - 2 The abject nature of his batting display in this match defied belief. After throwing his wicket away for nought in the first innings, chasing a wide delivery, Jones managed to be run out in the second because he left his foot on the line playing forward to Shane Warne. It was a sharp piece of fielding from Ponting, but a batsman in any kind of form would have managed to get his foot back in time. Add to that the desperate dropped catch and missed stumping and you have a truly awful allround performance. It is a shame for any player to finish in a such a way, but surely this is the end of the Test road for Jones?

Mahmood - 2 Underbowled in the first innings when Steve Harmison and Monty Panesar did most of the damage, Mahmood was given only a few more overs in the second to show what he could do. The lack of faith shown in him by his captain must have dented his confidence and could not have helped when he was finally thrown the ball. In the 17 overs he did bowl in the match he failed to show control of length or line and was dispatched to all parts of the field. His batting was little better, though he was under immense pressure both times he strode to the crease. It was sad to see such a talented young player on the periphery of the match, given little chance to show his ability.

Hoggard - 5 Bowled well with the new ball in both innings, but was unable to find the edge of the bat. His delivery to get rid of Langer in the second innings was superb, but it was his only wicket in the innings. As usual he gave everything, despite the scorching heat, and another day he might have had more reward for his efforts. He stayed with Pietersen for a long time in the first innings, fending off everything the Australian attack threw at him. Sadly, he was exposed in the second, bowled by a wonderful yorker from Glenn McGrath.

Harmison - 7 He finally came to the party in the first innings, bowling with fire and extracting steepling bounce at times from the WACA pitch. Yet, it was his control of length which got him his wickets as he pitched the ball up. None was more important at the time than Ponting, who he trapped lbw in the first innings for just 2. Unfortunately, he was unable to repeat his performance in the second innings, when, like Hoggard, he failed to get the edge with the new ball and was put to the sword later in the searing heat. A wonderfully fiesty 23 in the first innings showed Harmison had come to fight, but there was little he could do against Warne in the second when he was out first ball.

Panesar - 9 A stunning return to the side, claiming 8 wickets in the match, including a five wicket haul in the first innings, when he ripped through the Australian line-up. Strange to say he can bowl much better, but there was an infectious enthusiasm in his performance which carried him through that incredible bowling spell. The Australians seemed to be in his thrall as he extracted bounce and turn from the first day pitch. Even when Symonds went after him there was an inevitability that he would eventually get him out. In the second innings Panesar continued to bowl well, though the Australian batsmen were under less pressure and able to attack him. He was caught in the whirlwind that was Adam Gilchrist's quickfire hundred, which ruined his economy rate, but came out of the match as England's best bowler, justifying the cries for his selection. He even managed to show he could bat with a well crafted 12 not out in the first innings.

Does 2009 start here?

Well that's just great isn't it?

For the 1,000s of us packing our shorts and suncream, ready to jet off this week to the other side of the world, the scoreline we have dreaded has come about. 3-0 down with 2 to play.

Little to play for except pride and a pathetic rebuttal of the Aussie taunts from the Immigration Official and the girl in the sandwich bar.

So what does the future hold, both for Melbourne and Sydney, and for the next few years?

Before that, let's get one thing straight, this Australian side is one of the finest Test teams ever, and in Warne, McGrath and Ponting, they really do have 3 of the all time greats. One day, we will all look back and be proud to say we saw them play.

But what of England?

Let's start with the positives. Cook looks as though he's there for the long haul. Bell is a much better player for the experience of the last year. Pietersen is more than the show pony many feared he was. Collingwood won't let anyone down. Hoggard is a captain's dream with the new ball. Panesar has justified his popular choice as first choice spinner. And well...

Strauss holds his own for now on the basis of some lousy decisions received. Harmison will surely come again.

The negatives? By common consent, the nonsense of Geraint Jones being picked on the basis of being a No.7 batsman is over. Chris Read take your chance. If you don't Jamie Foster will. It's also goodbye and thanks to Ashley Giles.

Also looking over their shoulders will be Mahmood and Anderson, with Plunkett also having much to prove.

Perhaps then the 4th and 5th Tests can form the start of what we may see in 2009 at Edgbaston, Lord's, Sophia Gardens, Headingley and the Oval.

Firstly, if Michael Vaughan is fit, and he's told Boycott he is, what are we waiting for? Either he's our captain or not. Surely now is the time for him to come back. After all, he's there with the squad.

Secondly, if Flintoff's ankle is "f'd" as he reportedly said to a journalist, then get him home and sorted. If he needs a year out, so be it. He is no captain anyway, and if Vaughan isn't quite ready, then Strauss can pick up from where he left off in the summer.

Thirdly, we are simply a batsman light and a bowler top heavy. We have capable 'filler in' bowlers for the odd over before lunch and tea in Pietersen (underrated), Bell and Collingwood.

Basically, what I am saying is that we need to think about who's in the plan and who's not.

I have a vision of team for Ashes 2009 which is like this:

Vaughan (we hope)

Clearly, circumstances will dictate whether Harmison lasts the pace, whether Simon Jones will makes it back, and if Trescothick is seen again (I doubt it). Also, don't forget that we won't see McGrath over here again nor Mr Warne (or will we?)

But for now, some of us have Boxing Day to contend with, and, before then, that blasted Immigration Official.

Lack of batting experience telling

Post-mortem (1): England's batsmen

In 2005, Marcus Trescothick and Andrew Strauss consistently got the innings of to a fine start, invariably attacking from the off. A top three consisting of Strauss, Cook and Bell were always going to seek to give England the advantage by batting time; but they have palpably failed to do that. Until their sixth innings of the series, England were always 50-2, or worse. As a result, the attacking axis at five, six and seven regularly came in with England struggling. Kevin Pietersen has majestically risen to the task, but Andrew Flintoff has seemed overburdened and Geraint Jones feeble.

Alistair Cook is a player of palpable quality, but he inevitably found an Ashes tour at 21 highly-challenging; however, his 116 at the WACA proves his worth and he will only improve. Andrew Strauss, thanks to some injudicious strokeplay and a trio of poor umpiring decisions, has failed to pass 50, although he has always appeared in fine form. Ian Bell has hit three fifties, displaying an increasing maturity and confidence, especially against Shane Warne, though his wait for an Ashes hundred continues.

Of 18 completed innings, England’s top three have only twice passed 60. Experience of Australian conditions, be it in the shape of the stylish batsmanship of Michael Vaughan, the technical class of Mark Ramprakash or the resilient qualities of Mark Butcher, has been badly missing; however, I do not think Trescothick's withdrawal was hugely significant. Given the ineffectualness of England’s fifth bowler, hindsight tells us that one of Butcher or Ramprakash should have played at three, Bell should have been moved to six, where he was so excellent against Pakistan, and Flintoff should have played at seven.

Paul Collingwood has displayed fighting qualities reminiscent of Butcher, and exceeded all expectations in making 200 at Adelaide. Nonetheless, the suspicion remains that the finest player, Pietersen, should be allowed to bat at four. Many were worried Pietersen would be unable to control his impetuosity, and would regularly be caught trying to hit sixes on the huge Australian outfields; instead, he has batted with wonderfully maturity and got the better of Warne and especially McGrath.

At six, Flintoff’s batting has been characterised by a lack of coherent thinking; until his second innings at the WACA, he was too tentative but was still dismissed to rash shots; it seems the captaincy has overwhelmed him. There was a time when he and Pietersen were considered roughly equal as batsmen; while Pietersen is fulfilling his talent, it touches the confines of lunacy to suggest Flintoff would even be considered as a batsman only – which proves he should not bat in the top six. His friend Jones has been reasonable with the gloves, but calamitous with the bat. He seems incapable of playing long, disciplined innings, and he should not be selected for England again.

There are a number of positives to take from England’s batting endeavours – Pietersen’s brilliance, Collingwood’s feistiness and genuine fight and application from Cook and Bell on occasions. Yet, they suffered one cataclysmic collapse in each Test and, from six onwards, the resistance was negligible. Duncan Fletcher, then, was right to be concerned about England’s tail. So why did he select non-bowling number eights Giles and Mahmood ahead of a sixth specialist batsman?

Sunday, 17 December 2006

Cook shows he is not Ian Bell 2005 Mark 2

A lot has been said about Alastair Cook being Ian Bell 2005 Mark 2. After a highly difficult opening half to the series, the 21-year-old displayed courage, patience and no little skill in battling to a superb maiden Ashes hundred. The great shame, however, was Glenn McGrath getting him in the third last over of the day. Inevitably, the decision to utilise Matthew Hoggard as a night watchman backfired, leaving England five wickets down overnight.

Cook’s 116 encapsulated the courage and determination necessary to save Tests, an art seemingly lost in this era of gung-ho batting. His century was his 4th, the highest number ever by an Englishman prior to turning 22. He had huge trouble against Shane Warne, but his patience and willingness to play within his limitations, aided by his phlegmatic character, saw him to a fantastic ton.

One silver lining in the wake of Marcus Trescothick’s tumultuous exit from the tour was seen as being the presence of Cook, better against seam than spin, at the top of the order. In fact, Cook has had problems dealing with balls angled across him from McGrath and especially the excellent Stuart Clark. But Cook, whose Test average now sits at 49, certainly proved today that the initial hope will prove justified.

His partnership with Ian Bell, who brought the authority and confidence he displayed against Pakistan in the summer, left Australia largely clueless as to how to take wickets. Such a shame, then, that overconfidence overcame Bell before reaching a deserved first Ashes hundred. He has made five fifties against Australia; but, alas, still no hundred.

Cook now has, and the duo will surely be invaluable at the top of the order for years to come. But, with both dismissed, it will fall on the less attritional skills of Kevin Pietersen and the chronically out-of-form Andrew Flintoff to keep England in this series.

Thursday, 14 December 2006

Panesar highlights the lunacy of Giles’s selection

Monty Panesar was, incredibly, dropped from the England side for the first two Ashes Tests. While he was away he was prematurely lauded as England’s saviour. Remarkably, though, his endeavours on his first day of Ashes cricket more than merited the hype.

Ashley Giles deserves enormous credit for his generous applause after each of Panesar’s dismissals. But the fact remains that it is scandalous he was ever selected on this tour. Giles has experience, spirit and is what Duncan Fletcher would call a ‘multi-dimensional cricketer’. He is the sort of player always described as “doing a job” and one of his virtues is deemed to be that “he won’t let anyone down”. His mediocre, though generally tidy, bowling had a place when England’s pace attack was at its peak, and he contributed well with the bat and in the gully. But his efforts were put into perspective by Panesar’s efforts, while Giles is currently not even fully fit.

Giles’ batting has improved to the extent that he has averaged 24 over his last 15 Tests. This is testament to his invaluable contributions from number eight, though, tellingly, he has only passed 32 twice in his last 26 innings. He almost invariably contributes, but very rarely makes a huge impact with the bat. His fielding has regressed as his injuries and age take their toil; but, most significantly of all, his bowling is a shadow of its former self. In his last 13 Tests, his bowling has yielded just 23 wickets at 63. Any argument over the Warwickshire player’s merits must end there.

What Panesar brings to the side, beside considerable turn, flight, bounce and pace, is an infectious enthusiasm for the game. His misdemeanours in the field must be tolerated; he is certainly progressing both here and with the bat; more pertinently, his mere presence appears to lift morale in a manner which solid, dependable Giles cannot.

Panesar has impressed greatly in his ability to cope with onslaughts. Ricky Ponting promised Australia’s batsmen would attack him. The end result was Panesar was considerably more expensive – 3.83 an over against a Test economy rate prior to this game of 2.58 – but recorded better overall figures than anyone dared to dream. The passage of spell in which Andrew Symonds attacked Panesar was enthralling; was I alone in being confident throughout of England’s cult hero coming through?

Taking five wickets on the opening day of a Test match is a phenomenal achievement for any spinner. For a man who was risibly England’s second-choice spinner when the series began to do so merely highlights the folly of the selection policy that saw him omitted from the first two Tests. We can only wonder what might have been.

History will rank Giles’ selection over the Luton-born spinner on a par with Nasser Hussain’s decision to insert Australia at Brisbane four years ago. But we can only live in the present; England, thanks to Panesar and the excellent Steve Harmison, have responded impressively to the Adelaide fiasco and edged the first day.

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Sunday, 10 December 2006

Play to win

The negative mind-set that has suffocated England's cricket in the Ashes series so far has to end now. When the team steps onto the field this week in the third Test at Perth they must do so without fear. That is not to say they need to be reckless or gung-ho, but they need to stop worrying about losing the Test and concentrate wholly on winning it.

From the moment the England team was selected for the first Test a dangerously cautious approach was revealed. Players who had been in form only weeks ago in England's 3-0 series triumph over Pakistan were discarded in favour of former regulars returning from injury. This seemingly crazy policy saw the captain (Andrew Strauss), the second best performing bowler (Monty Panesar), the wicket-keeper (Chris Read) and a promising new talent (Sajid Mahmood) replaced.

To do this for the next series, especially one of such importance as the Ashes in Australia, is ridiculous and showed the muddled thinking that had overcome the England selectors. There were certainly some sensible reasons for making some of the changes and the decisions they faced were tough ones, but to make so many alterations to a winning side was foolish.

It was not the tough calls, such as selecting Andrew Flintoff ahead of Strauss, that were so questionable, but the negative selections, most notably the replacement of Panesar with Ashley Giles. This could not help but send a wave of negativity through the England camp as the top six were seen to be in need of support from number eight. It also gave the Australians the scent of fear in their opponents and worst of all took away one of England's key bowling weapons.

Whether Panesar would have prevented England from losing the first two Tests is impossible to know. What is likely, though, judging by the ability he has shown in his first 10 Tests, is that he would have threatened the Australian batsmen, kept the run-rate down and given Flintoff the ability to bowl himself and the other quick bowlers in short, attacking bursts from the other end. This tactic would surely have yielded better results than the 602 and 513 runs Australia amassed in their first innings at Brisbane and Adelaide, respectively.

Questions are also emerging over Flintoff's faith in Panesar, a bowler who he underbowled in the series against Sri Lanka, and who he apparently preferred to see sidelined in favour of Giles. This poor judgement contrasts with Strauss' use of Panesar as an attacking bowler and to lock down one end, allowing him to rotate his quicks from the other. Though it was a close call as to who should be captain of England, perhaps some sway should have been given to Strauss for his use of the four man bowling attack against Pakistan, and his faith in Panesar, particularly.

If England are to have any chance of winning at the WACA this week Flintoff will need to take a leaf out of Strauss' book and back Panesar. Any ideas of retaining Giles must be banished, as England look to unleash a bowling attack capable of taking 20 wickets.

James Anderson's fiery spell in the recent tour match against Western Australia have rekindled his seemingly lost chances of retaining his place. However, stern questions must still be asked of his appalling showings in the first two Tests before he is too lightly retained ahead of Mahmood. Perhaps, it will be the ailing Steve Harmison who will be sacrificed for the perceived good of the team, allowing Panesar to come in ahead of Giles, Anderson to stay and Mahmood to play his first Test in the series.

I have always supported Harmison, despite his ebbs and flows of form, but I have to admit he cuts a sorry figure at the moment. There is little in his bowling efforts so far on the tour to recommend him being retained. However, he is an enigma and could still click into top gear and be a key part of England's attack. My gut feeling is that he should stay in the side and be used as a strike bowler, bowling short spells at full pace. If he is expected to bowl at reduced pace for long spells there is little point in picking him. It is when Harmison is told to go for the opposition's throats that he is at his best.

I would drop Anderson, whose good bowling in the tour game is no proof that he will be able to suddenly get Test batsmen out who have been slapping him around the park in the Ashes series so far. Mahmood is an erratic performer, capable of bowling brilliantly and badly in equal measure. However, he offers a genuine threat at his high pace and can reverse swing the ball. Like Harmison (and Flintoff himself) Mahmood should be used in short, fiery spells, encouraged to bowl as fast as he can. Matthew Hoggard can bowl a long spell with the new ball and Panesar long spells with the old.

There is no guarantee of success with these tactics, but at least England would go down fighting, rather than with a sad whimper. With Australian confidence sky high England must go for them and inject some doubts into their opponents. The psychological blows inflicted in 2005, must be rekindled while the series is still alive. It is no good covering over the cracks, as Paul Collingwood and Kevin Pietersen's wonderful partnership did at Adelaide. This time England must go for the throat for the full five days and not make excuses that somehow they only lost because of one hour of bad play.

It was the negative mind-set that had pervaded the team that did for them at Adelaide, not a couple of rash shots and a silly run out. To keep the series alive at Perth they must adopt the positive play that served them so well in 2005.

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Farewell to the king of style

Damien Martyn was an extremely elegant batsman, often appearing almost nonchalant. But his style did not reflect the tremendous endeavours needed to revive his career, after he was outrageously made the scapegoat of Australia’s six-run defeat to South Africa at Sydney in 1994, at the age of 22.

Having made a vital 59 in the first innings – the second top score by an Australian all game – Martyn, seemingly paralysed, took 59 balls in which to reach six. Australia, chasing 117 in their fourth innings, reached 110-8 before Martyn’s judgement failed him. His cover-drive off Allan Donald was caught; if Glenn McGrath had not been out one run later, Australia’s selectors might have been more forgiving. But, alas, his impressive first-innings knock against a heavyweight bowling attack was forgotten.

Martyn was always seen as a definite future star, like Michael Clarke, ironically the player who ultimately did much to convince Martyn the end was nigh. Australia, notorious for giving batsmen their first chance when they are nearing 30, first picked Martyn at 21.

His first seven Tests brought seven fifties, respectable enough considering six were against the might of West Indies and South Africa, but that failure of nerve in 1994 convinced the selectors that he was not mentally stong enough for an Australian cricketer. So, after three one-day failures, he was mercilessly dumped and thrown back into state cricket.

What followed was a tumultuous six years. Made Western Australian skipper to toughen him up, Martyn proved unsuited to the job. Indeed, after a torturous 21-game run without a first-class 50, he was even dropped. The prodigy was in grave danger of becoming a huge enigma.

Thankfully, Martyn got his act together. He spent a few years on the periphery of the one-day side, but that would never have remotely done justice to his talent. An injury to Ricky Ponting gave him three Tests against New Zealand in 2000 in which to prove himself; his two fifties suggested a man finally coming to terms with his talents.

He had to wait over a year before getting a chance to truly establish himself – on the 2001 Ashes tour. He breezed to a hundred in the first Test, scored another later in the series and was finally established in the Australian side. Over four calendar years from the start of that tour, Martyn scored 12 hundreds in 45 Tests at an average of 53. His cycle of dominance ended, as it began, with a tour to England. This time, however, he was victim to a number of erroneous umpiring decisions and endured a miserable season against England’s fine pace attack.

His runs were always scored in a graceful manner, such was his innate sense of timing. Martyn’s hallmark shot was the square cut, delivered with minimal foot movement and apparent ease. Martyn had an idiosyncratic tendency to cut the ball in the air behind the wicket; he is one of very few modern batsmen to whom fly slip was not a redundant position.

But it must not be suggested that Martyn lacked application or skill against more disciplined bowlers. His 101 at Johannesburg in 2006 was the game’s sole century, scored over five concentration-fuelled hours, though, in being dismissed before victory was secured, he was not quite able to completely right his ’94 wrong. But he more than compensated in other aspects of a wonderful career.

2004 was Martyn’s year, producing six regal Test hundreds; of his four in seven Tests on the sub-continent, three were made in the second innings, when he had arrived at the crease with Australia still behind. It is rare for Western Australians to show such dexterity against spin, but Martyn gradually worked out a method – which primarily involved playing off the back foot wherever possible, utilising his wonderful hand-eye coordination to play the ball late – and it came, stunningly, to fruition. He was the outstanding batsman of the year, and his mastery over Harbhajan Singh, Anil Kumble and especially Muttiah Muralitharan is the abiding memory of his career.

A majestic 88* in the World Cup Final, despite a broken finger, will be fondly remembered, too, though it was largely anonymous – just the way Martyn, a low-key man, likes it. As a one-day player, he was outstanding till the end, averaging over 40 in 208 one-day internationals. The recent Champions Trophy, in which Martyn played decisive roles in three of Australia’s four wins, showed his apparent decline did not extend to the one-day game. While Australia have an abundance of excellent batsmen vying for his Test spot, it will prove impossible to find a man with such experience, and so adept at accumulating in the middle overs, in time for the World Cup.

Due to his ease on the eye and penchant for finding quirky methods of dismissal, Martyn has long since been compared to Mark Waugh. The relative injustice of Martyn playing just 67 Tests is shown by the fact that Waugh, who was more inconsistent and averaged five runs less, played 61 more games.

It is highly unusual for players to retire in the middle of Test series, let alone Ashes ones. It is, surely, testament to the fact Martyn is content with his career’s work; history will remember him as a rare stylist in an era of hard-handed bashers, not the enigma he once threatened to be. Like many boyhood stars of such talent, he took time to adjust to the rigours of international cricket. But his grace and proven quality against all types of bowling ensured that, while he could have achieved even more, he did rich justice to his talents

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Saturday, 9 December 2006

Harmison still lost

Steve Harmison bowled 21 overs today. They went for 99, and he picked up only one wicket. Given that he was comfortably out-bowled by both James Anderson and Sajid Mahmood, is his place in the Third Test really a given?

Harmison has does nothing in this series to remotely suggest he can bowl match-turning spells; when England needed fine bowling to save the last Test, Andrew Flintoff turned to Ashley Giles ahead of him. While it is true that he has a tendency to drift in and out of form without warning, can England actually afford to risk selecting him for a Test they cannot lose? And, if they decide against playing Harmison, will he even play again?

It is not as stupid a question as it may seem. Harmison’s body language suggests a man lost; the truth is he has been far too inconsistent since the end of the 2004 English summer. We thought he was the next Curtly Ambrose. Then we thought he was the next Andrew Caddick. Now he looks nearer to the next Devon Malcolm.

On a pretty encouraging day, with the exception of Harmison’s bowling, Western Australia reached 309-8. England need to see Harmison do more bowling to see if he is ready for the Third Test. Thanks to the folly of playing only a two-day game, they won’t. We are about to see the extent of the management’s faith in his mercurial qualities.

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Thursday, 7 December 2006

The death of the tour game

England are playing three consecutive days of cricket in preparation for the Third Test. Some hard-fought days would appear perfect to boost the morale before the next Test.

Unfortunately, they are playing two games, against a Chairman’s XI and then a two-dayer against Western Australia. And, rather than take the former game seriously, England have chosen to play a mixture of squad and Academy players, in addition to a trio of retired men – Alec Stewart, Robin Smith and Adam Hollioake. What exactly is the point?

I can see the logic in playing those men on the periphery of the Test side, in case they are called upon later. But selecting three ex-players ahead of those who could do with the confidence – such as Alastair Cook and Andrew Strauss – is rather bemusing. Perhaps Duncan Fletcher’s sole priority is avoiding a humiliating loss against a series of unknowns. If the side do lose, he can point to the fact that none of the 11 who played the first two Tests are participating. So England are effectively writing off one of their three days in preparation for Perth.

Nonetheless, it will be intriguing to see how Monty Panesar and Sajid Mahmood fare, two men who could well play at Perth. And Jon Lewis is being mentioned in dispatches as England’s answer to Stuart Clark; a strong showing could even lead to an unlikely Ashes debut.

Michael Vaughan, who has made only nine in his two innings for the Academy to data, looks set to play in the two-day game against Western Australia. Given Alastair Cook’s poor form to date, he will know that a big score will give him a decent shout of playing in the Third Test. And, certainly don’t listen to Fletcher’s assertion that Vaughan has no chance of even appearing in the last two Tests. His mere presence would shock the Australians; some may perceive it as a sign of desperation, but England are desperate and need his calming figure.

The problem with a two-day game, of course, is it is near-impossible for batsmen and bowlers to spend a satisfactory amount of time in the middle. The dream scenario would be to bowl Western Australia out with an hour of the first day left, then bat till the end of day two. But, given the way the tour has gone to date, what are the chances of this happening?

What England need is a chance to test fringe players at Lilac Hill before a competitive four-day game against Western Australia, in which the likely Test 11 would play. In a bygone age, such matches were genuinely worthwhile affairs, and offered some sort of compensation to those not fortunate enough to secure tickets for the Tests; Australia’s clashes with Yorkshire used to be called the ‘Sixth Test’. No longer.

Typical in an era when coherent thinking is replaced by expediency – in this case, keeping tour games to a minimum to slightly reduce players’ bloated schedules – the players have been denied the match time they so patently need.

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The faces that fit

Before the series the task ahead of England looked challenging, now it appears impossible. Whilst Australia have changed their side and moved forwards, England have taken a backwards step. “Stuck in the past” seems to be the best phrase when it comes to England’s selection policy. Through desperately trying to re-field the winning Ashes side of 2005 England have destroyed any hope they had of retaining the Urn.

Eighteen months is a long time in international cricket, especially if you have not played much cricket over that period of time. The simple fact of the matter is that James Anderson, Ashley Giles and most importantly, Stephen Harmison, were not ready for England’s biggest test series in two decades. Australia is also a much different arena to that of England.

Against Pakistan at home the benefits of having a batsman at number six were obvious with Ian Bell racking up three consecutive hundreds. When was the last time England had such a return from Captain Freddie? The talismanic all-rounder played quite possibly one of the worst situation shots I have ever seen on Tuesday morning. It was like watching a right handed early version of Marcus Trescothick. With no foot movement whatsoever, the Captain had a wild thrash at a ball over two feet outside his offstump.

Geraint Jones’ shot was even more infuriating, although one could understand what they were both trying to achieve as they attempted to put more distance between themselves and Australia. Whichever way the subject is approached though, the runs from below number five in this series have been noticeably lacking. When Pietersen failed on Tuesday it was inevitable that England would lose as England have not been able to rely on lower order runs from Andrew Flintoff and Jones for a long time, especially when they have been in a real bind.

Including Monty Panesar and an extra batsman would solve the problem, but this is a difficult route for England to now take as they chase the series. Meanwhile, the inevitable calls for Jones’ head are unfounded. Chris Read would not have saved England on Tuesday, nor has Jones made horrible mistakes with the gloves. We saw enough in the Champions Trophy to know that Read would not last long against the accuracy of Glenn McGrath and Stuart Clark.

Jones has the technique to succeed in Australia and performed well at Brisbane. Whole sale changes are not required as Paul Collingwood rightfully states. Whichever keeper plays we are not going to see a torrent of runs or mistakes. Matt Prior would be my selection with five bowlers based on his ability to score runs, while Steven Davies would be my future selection, along with four bowlers, to end this nonsensical tug of war between Jones, Fletcher, Read and the other selectors. However, I digress.

England fans witnessed a shambolic display in Pakistan following the last Ashes series before they performed commendably in India to rightfully earn a draw. Panesar and not Giles was of course the slow left arm spinner in that side and once again it was Matthew Hoggard and Flintoff who caused the main problems over the winter, showing their quality in all conditions.

Hoggard and Panesar were key to the England bowling attack over the summer against both Sri Lanka and Pakistan, whilst Flintoff’s absence from the bowling line up was naturally felt. However, Harmison was also amongst the wickets, most notably at Old Trafford and Sajid Mahmood had his good moments as well although he was far too inexperienced to be part of just a four man bowling attack at that time.

England’s two bowlers to have performed so far in Australia are again Hoggard and Flintoff. With Harmison out of form and Panesar out of the side the two next most likely wicket taking threats have not been at the party. Anderson and Giles have done little to justify their selection twice on the spin now.

With England now trailing 2-0 and seemingly out of this contest they can hardly go in to the next test with just four front line bowlers, a ploy I recommended at the start of the series. Or can they? If a side has four quality bowlers, all of whom are consistent performers, then four bowlers is quite enough, as Australia have once again proven.

With Shane Warne wheeling away for 85 overs of the 240 overs that Australia bowled, the three fast bowlers were able to rotate at the other end, ensuring that England were always under pressure from fresh bowling, not allowing England to score rapidly as in the last Ashes series. Monty Panesar could quite comfortably fulfil this Warne roll, bowling offensively, or defensively if required.

Whether England have the third seamer of consistant quality is doubtful however. Surely one of Sajid Mahmood or Liam Plunkett will play in England’s next tour games and one may well play in a five man attack in later in the series. Counting for them is the fact that they can both bat a bit! Neither currently has the consistent ability to form a key cog in a four man attack though.

Harmison could be the third cog, however he went wicketless in Adelaide of course and his selection must come into question especially with Perth considered now to be similar to Adelaide with its slow low pitch. England don’t appear to have a good enough third seamer to go with a four man attack and they will unlikely call up either of Stuart Broad or Chris Tremlett who could fulfil the role in the future.

Maybe Giles will get a reprieve in Perth, with Panesar the only change, coming in for an ineffectual Anderson, but the question England have to ask is does Panesar’s inclusion not make Giles redundant especially when Kevin Pietersen turns the ball further than the veteran Warwickshire man and offers variation with his offspin? Either an extra batsman or an extra seamer could then play, the current situation would seam to dictate that it be a seamer, most probably Mahmood.

So we arrive back at the team that was argued should play at Adelaide, with a five man bowling attack consisting of Hoggard, Flintoff, Harmison, Mahmood and Panesar. England must now take 20 wickets. As commented throughout these blogs, Panesar and Mahmood offer the bigger threats to Australia compared to Giles and Anderson. Compared to Giles, Panesar has a better bowling average, strike rate and economy. The selection issue here is surely the equivalent of a non-brainer, well, for all but the England Coach it seems.

Duncan Fletcher has undoubtedly been brilliant for English cricket, well Test match cricket at least. He does however have “his” players, the faces that fit, as John Emburey would have it. It has created a tight knit and resilient cricketing unit, but has also shut the door on many promising players. This is a major weakness of the Fletcher regime, especially now.

The “these players got us in to this and they can get us out of it” line has been heard too many times from the England camp, no more so than in the one day arena, but that is for another day. It should be obvious now to Fletcher that these players got us into this mess and are therefore not good enough to get us out of it. One can only hope that the traditional line is not on the England Coach’s lips come the 14th December.

Tuesday, 5 December 2006

England's performance ratings

After capitulating to a humiliating defeat at Adelaide here are the marks out of ten for England's players:

Andrew Strauss - 4 Threw his wicket away in the first innings, but finally showed some form in the second, only to be wrongly given out. It was a cruel blow, but the kind of thing that happens when a player is struggling. He has failed to adapt to conditions in Australia so far and has shown poor judgement. He will need to improve greatly in both areas if he is to make any impact in this series, which has nearly gone from England's fumbling grasp.

Alastair Cook - 3 Has developed a bad habit of nibbling at deliveries outside his off stump that he should leave alone. He is not the first left-hander to suffer in this way and he is unfortunate to have come up against the extreme accuracy of Stuart Clark, but he ought to have learned his lesson by now. England cannot afford for him to keep failing, as the pressure on the middle order is too great. It is time for Cook to step up and show the class and ability that he clearly has.

Ian Bell - 6 Another very good half century in the first innings, though he was out to a poor shot, when three figures was beckoning on a benign pitch. Like the rest of the England team he scored painfully slowly in the second innings and was then invloved in a comedy run out, which saw his demise. He has still not been entirely convincing at number three in this series, though he is much improved from the timid player that suffered against Australia in 2005.

Paul Collingwood - 9 Hard to criticise a man who made such a magnificent double hundred, but Collingwood was too defensive in the second innings trying to save the match. In compiling his double century he showed his class as well as his grit and vast powers of concentration. He didn't score quickly, but he did keep rotating the strike, never allowing the bowlers to get on top of him. He also showed that he could play Shane Warne, as well as the pacemen, unveiling some wonderful strokes. Sadly, he was unable to repeat this in the second innings, where his long vigil was more reminiscent of the great stonewallers.

Kevin Pietersen - 8 It is to be hoped that he will be remembered more for his electrifying 158 in the first innings than his 2 in the second. He dominated all the bowlers in making his wonderful century, none more so than Shane Warne, who looked at times like he had no idea how to bowl to him. In fact, he was reduced to negative bowling into the rough in an attempt to stem the flow of runs. Yet, having seemingly earned huge psychological points over the master leg-spinner, he was ironically bowled behind his legs by him in the second innings.

Andrew Flintoff - 5 Under the severest pressure as Australia chased victory Flintoff's captaincy showed serious flaws. He was unable to find successful fields for his bowlers and could not stem the flow of runs, let alone bowl Australia out. He also struggled with the bat, only managing to score at the end of England's mammoth first innings. When he was needed in the second innings he was caught between playing his natural attacking game and defending. The hapless compromise he found was sad to see. He bowled with fire in the match, but lacked the cutting edge he had shown at Brisbane. It is to be hoped that this was not because of his ankle injury.

Geraint Jones - 3 Did okay with the gloves for most of the match, but dropped a fairly easy chance on the last day and let a few byes through. His batting can only be described as woeful. After a poor first innings, he hung around for a while in the second, even managing to get into double figures, only to give it away with an awful shot. It seems that the reasons why he was dropped still prevail and his only real saving grace is the vocal support that he gives the team while in the field. However, this will not be as vocal as the calls for him to be dropped.

Ashley Giles - 2.5 Brought into the side because his batting and fielding were superior to Monty Panesar's, Giles failed to maintain his usual standards in either. He dropped Ponting in the first innings when he was on 35, which was the turning point in the match, then fell for 0 in England's second innings when they needed him most. His bowling, as at the Gabba, was ineffective, as he failed to apply any pressure on the Australian batsmen, who milked him for easy runs.

Matthew Hoggard - 9 His bowling display in Australia's first innings was a monumental effort and worthy of the man of the match award. Toiling away for 42 overs, Hoggard dug out seven wickets, in what amounted to a one man show. His control of line and length was impeccable and he gleaned what he could from the new ball. Fearful of what he might do in their second innings the Australian batsmen attacked him from the start. He still managed to claim one victim, taking his tally to 8 wickets in the match. Truly outstanding on a lifeless pitch.

Steve Harmison - 3 Showed some improvement in control from his terrible outing at the Gabba, but lacked penetration and consistency. There were no gifts from the Australian batsmen and England's premier strike bowler went wicketless in the match. Flintoff did not give him the new ball, which was testament enough to the travails that Harmison is going through. Without any kind of rhythm or sharpness it was unlikely that he would do much damage on such a lifeless pitch. England supporters must be hoping that something will spark him into life, as only wins matter from now on in this series.

James Anderson - 3 Another lacklustre performance on his comeback trail. Like Harmison he was unable to find any consistency or penetration on the benign surface. The reverse swing, which was one of the reasons for his selection, eluded him and the Australian batsmen found him too easy to play. He also continued to deliver too many four balls. In Australia's run chase he went for six an over in a short spell and was wisely not bowled again. It will be sad if this is the last action he sees in the series, but he has done little to justify his selection.

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How to lose a Test match

Just over a week ago, frustrated by England’s reckless shot making while trying to save the Brisbane Test, I asserted that they were too positive to master the art of saving Tests. Today, they went to the other extreme: from too attacking to far, far too defensive.

Yesterday, the general consensus was that, if England batted for just over half the day, a draw would be guaranteed. They batted for 54 overs today, and a reasonably respectable total of 73 overs in their second innings, but could only muster a painstaking 70 runs on day five. Had they scored at even two and a half an over, they would have added 135 runs. And it is highly unlikely that even Australia would have had the temerity to dare chasing 234 in 36 overs.

Andrew Strauss, after his most convincing innings of the series to date, was wrongly given out. Strauss and Ian Bell had added 10 in 11 tedious overs; had they survived the same period of time again, there is no way England could have lost. Bell, finding runs at an absolute premium, was run out in kamikaze fashion two overs later.

And Kevin Pietersen, having refrained from slog-sweeping Shane Warne for the entire duration of his majestic 158, was dismissed when trying it for the first time in the game. Pietersen is undoubtedly a first-class batsman who is constantly improving; but, until his judgment matches his talent more regularly, he will continue to frustrate in situations such as this. His wicket was also key in two last-day dismissals against Pakistan last winter.

All the while, Warne was bowling wonderfully. But it is easier to bowl that way when players – save for the over-exuberant Pietersen – are set on mere survival. This series to date has proved two things about Warne. The first is that, unlike in 2005, he seems incapable of greatly affecting proceedings in the first innings. The second, proved by his twin four-wicket hauls England’s second innings, is that he remains superb at twisting the knife in the latter stages of games.

Andrew Flintoff and Geraint Jones were both dismissed by Brett Lee; Flintoff’s rather hapless innings, ended by a waft outside the off-stump, was not that of the archetypal Test number six. But they can hardly demote him to seven when they are incapable of taking 20 wickets in a Test and he is not yet fully fit. The trio of Ashley Giles, James Anderson and Steve ‘Harmless’ Harmison have claimed cumulative series figures of six for 852 to date. Monty Panesar and Sajid Mahmood will not solve England’s many problems, but they are young and offer genuine dynamism that will provide the attack with much-needed penetration.

Paul Collingwood, amidst all the mayhem, managed to stay till the end, if only just. His 22* epitomised England’s endeavours in that his sole goal was survival; but, when it began to be patently obviously England would be bowled out, where was his innovation, his refusal to do more than wait for the inevitable?

England’s efforts to save the match amounted to this: extreme timidity mixed with occasional recklessness. The fate of the urn is now as good as decided.

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Sunday, 3 December 2006

Hoggard keeps England fighting

The day’s most significant moment, undeniably, was Ashley Giles’ dropped catch off Ricky Ponting. After all the talk of Giles being the superior batsman and fielder to Monty Panesar, how ironic it was that he should drop such a crucial catch. Australia, who would have been 80-4, fought back through Mike Hussey and the inevitable Ponting to reach 321-5 at stumps. They still have hopes of winning this Test; without the remarkable endeavours of Matthew Hoggard, they would have none.

On a flat, unresponsive pitch, Hoggard proved more Stuart Clark than Glenn McGrath, praise indeed. Bowling 22 overs on day three, he proved relentlessly accurate, showing the extent to which he has improved on flat tracks in recent times. His spell late in the day to remove Ponting and Hussey ensured England can still harbour aspirations of victory.

Of the 97 overs in Australia’s innings, 49 have been bowled by Hoggard and Andrew Flintoff. The improving Steve Harmison deserved to bowl more than 13. And, the fourth and fifth bowlers, James Anderson and Ashley Giles, bowled 30 between them; their combined series averages are now 175.

I advocated selecting Monty Panesar and Sajid Mahmood ahead of these two; both men would offer increased attacking verve and unpredictability, while Mahmood has showed batting promise in international cricket.

Yet, if Duncan Fletcher is adamant England’s number eight must be able to score runs, why not simply select Ed Joyce and Panesar ahead of Anderson and Giles, and replace two ineffectual bowlers with a man with a first-class batting average of 48, and a better bowler than Anderson and Giles?

Panesar would be ideally suited for this game; would Australia, having professed they would attack him, keep to their word when trying to save a Test match? And, the control he has shown in his 10 Tests to date – his economy rate is a frugal 2.58 – in addition to his love of bowling, mean he could conceivably bowl almost 30 overs a day, thus fulfilling the quota of both Anderson and Giles.

While Giles’ lack of impact with the bowl mean Panesar’s chances of selection for the next Test must have increased, it will be very hard for England to win this game without a match-winning spinner. However, if Hoggard bowls as well as he has for the remainder of the game, and both Flintoff and Harmison can cause damage in short bursts, Australia will be seriously threatened.

England need to bowl Australia out for 400, score 250 at four an over and set Australia 400, preferably with at least 10 overs bowling with the second new-ball. But, unless Adam Gilchrist and Shane Warne produce phenomenal performances tomorrow, England are guaranteed the better of this draw.

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Saturday, 2 December 2006

In praise of a superb stand

The magnificant 310 run partnership between Paul Collingwood and Kevin Pietersen will have done much more than lift England into an unassailable position in the second Test. It has wrested the initiative in the series from Australia and gone some way to banishing the mystique and menace of McGrath and Warne.

It was not just the amount of runs the two English batsmen compiled, but the manner in which they got them. Collingwood's feat alone would be worthy of countless plaudits, being the first English batsmen since the peerless Wally Hammond to score a double hundred in Australia, but when it is added to Pietersen's relentless domination of the Australian bowlers it attains a far greater significance.

Collingwood's long apprenticeship in the England batting line-up has been well documented, as has his expected difficulty in dealing with the pace and bounce of Australian pitches. That he has now cemented his place in the line-up by batting impeccably on those surfaces is testament to the mental strength of the man. Granted the Adelaide pitch has been a batting paradise, with barely a delivery, other than Warne's biggest rippers, deviating from gun-barrel straight. But to score such a big innings against the Australians on their own turf, even on a benign surface, is a huge feat.

The maturity of Pietersen's innings should have silenced the doubters who still deride his temperament. After getting out for 92 so early on the fifth morning at Brisbane, Pietersen was unfairly criticised for having blown England's chance of grabbing an unlikely draw in the first Test. That his positive batting was largely the reason England had even had a chance of drawing the match was somehow forgotten.

In his innings yesterday Pietersen showed that he had deep reserves of concentration and excellent judgement as well as his natural flair and strokeplay. His destruction of Glenn McGrath and domination of Shane Warne was astonishing. There have been few batsmen, if any, who have forced Warne to adopt such negative tactics. Sure, Warne has bowled around the wicket since his first appearance on the Test scene, but that was an attacking line, ripping the ball viciously out of the rough, and he varied it with some over the wicket bowling to keep the batsman guessing. Yesterday, Warne bowled ball after tedious ball around the wicket with little concern other than to stem the flow of Pietersen's runs.

Pietersen patiently waited for the odd bad ball, putting most of them away, and outlasted Warne, who was simply unable to find a way to break through. It was a masterclass in how to play legspin and it will be interesting to see how Warne responds in the rest of the series.

Mcgrath's toothless bowling display was probably the result of several factors, the most important being that he no longer has the nip to take wickets on benign pitches, unless they are gifted to him by the batsmen. His sore heel and ageing body must also have played a part. Ricky Ponting may well be cursing the selection of his premier fast bowler, wishing he had had the raw pace of Mitchell Johnson or Shaun Tait, or the attacking wiles of Stuart MacGill.

What should not be forgotten, though, is how ruthless the England batsmen, and Pietersen in particular, targetted McGrath. It was reminiscent of the way Australian batsmen have gone for key opposition bowlers in their years of cricket dominance. There is no better way to make big innings than to nullify the best bowlers your opponents have to offer. To do so in the first couple of matches can dent confidence for a whole series and it will be fascinating to see if McGrath is able to regain the form he showed at Brisbane.

England supporters will be hoping that Collingwood and Pietersen are able to continue the rich vein of form they have found batting together in the last two innings. If they can achieve a few more partnerships just half as good as the superb one we witnessed yesterday England will not be far from posting the kind of scores they need to win Tests and retain the Ashes.

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Friday, 1 December 2006

England miss a trick... or two!

The idea touted by England behind their selection for the second Test is that there will be variable bounce and reverse swing on this pitch later on.

Two key problems lie behind the selection of Anderson therefore. He bowled poorly and expensively at Brisbane and will not extract the bounce that Mahmood gets. Mahmood hits the deck hard and at pace and will get more variation in bounce therefore than Anderson. So too would Liam Plunkett.

Secondly, Mahmood is a proven reverse swinger of the ball, where as Anderson is more of a conventional swing bowler. The higher the pace, the more reverse swing you get and Mahmood bowls over 5mph faster than Anderson. He also bats of course, a key factor in Fletcher's selection policy it seams, well for Spinners at least!

So surely it should have been Mahmood who lined up for England yesterday night at the expense of Anderson, if of course England truly believe their own reasoning! If not then surely it should have been Monty who is capable of 5 wicket hauls on fifth day pitches against the best players of spin.

Monty and Mahmood could even have played in the same team to cover both the possibility of a corksrew wicket and an up and down track, at the expense of Giles and Anderson, without demonstrably weakening the batting.

Now though we have to wait and hope that the Australians get themselves out against the likes of Anderson and Giles, rather than vice versa. One can only hope that England haven't missed a trick, or two on what is currently a very flat and slow paced track.

Chris Pallett