Monday, 30 April 2007

Still awake?

Finally, after 47 days of predominantly dour cricket – and one overwhelming horror – this World Cup has come to a suitably anti-climactic end. To call it tedious, and bereft of any semblance of Caribbean flavour would be an understatement. It was a lifeless tournament that left its hosts feeling totally detached; only in the last few games were exorbitant ticket prices reduced to levels of normality.

In the words of Michael Vaughan and the whole of Team England, we must try and “take the positives”. I praised the format prior to the tournament, thinking of the initial group stages as ‘pre-qualifiers’ and the Super Eight competition as the main bulk of the tournament (the ‘Super Nine’ format of 1992 is widely regarded as the best format yet).

However, the progress of Ireland and Bangladesh rather threw away the idea of the elite eight nations each playing the other once. Bangladesh’s win against South Africa and Ireland’s triumph against the Tigers excepted, all their Super Eight games were predictable in the extreme. Meanwhile, the ICC cannot be blamed for the West Indies side failing to catch fire, or Australia being so good that none of their games were closely contested. Equally, with their desire to involve the whole of the Caribbean (games were played over eight islands) one could sympathise with the ICC for wanting to extend the length.

But they get it horribly wrong - and, by the end, only the ICC's bank account would have been happy.

Although the ICC may have believed heavyweight clashes in the Super Eights merited being played on different days, and, if Australia had been less good and India and Pakistan had been there, the Super Eights may have been enthralling, a tournament of nearly seven weeks was always going to be too long. But ultimately the Cup was characterised by the ultimate turn-off: endless isolated mis-matches.

See 'How to Host a World Cup'

Saturday, 28 April 2007

Final Preview: Australia vs Sri Lanka

We finally come to the end. It has been that sort of World Cup hasn't it? All the thrills and excitement we were promised have largely failed to materialise thus far and everybody wants this match to be one of the greatest of all time. The good news is that it could well be that!

In a repeat of the 1996 Final, Sri Lanka, underdogs once again, are taking on the Champions elect, Australia. Sri Lanka will not mind their underdog status though as they play some of their greatest cricket when they feel free to express themselves, especially at the top of the order. And of course, it is when Australia are that their most confident that they can actually be at their most vulnerable, as in 1996 and during the recent CB series. They have shown a level of professionalism and focus so far though that few teams in the history of the game have ever matched, if any. The pitch in Barbados should favour pace and do something first up, bad news for Sri Lanka maybe, or maybe not with their pace line-up. It is their spinners who can stiffle games though, so they will be hoping that the pitch is slow when the Aussies bat and that is more likely in the second half.

So we all hope that this equation will add up to one fantastic final, rife with tension, brilliance and ultimately delerium. The team news is good, everyone is fit. Australia will line up as per usual with a formidable batting line-up, backed up by a combination of a strike bowler, evergreen miser, industrious work horse, mysterious spinner and a few bits and bobs. Indeed their opening partnership is a culmination of the success of Sri Lanka's new approach in 1996. Both of these sides really do go for broke in the first twenty overs, hint hint England hey? Sri Lanka meanwhile match up pretty well, with the mystery man himself, a pacey spearhead, two wiley old misers and a few part timers. There batting is prehaps not as strong, but many would say that their bowling contains more wicket takers and options. Overall, this is how they match up man for man:

Ricky Ponting (c) 10
Mahela Jayawardene (c) 9

Matthew Hayden 9
Adam Gilchrist (wk) 9
Michael Clarke 9
Sanath Jayasuriya 9
Upal Tharanga 6
Kumar Sangakkara (wk) 9

Andrew Symonds 9
Michael Hussey 8
Shane Watson 7
Chamara Silva 8
Tilakaratne Dilshan 8
Russell Arnold 7

Brad Hogg 8
Nathan Bracken 8
Shaun Tait 8
Glenn McGrath 8
Chaminda Vaas 8
Farheez Maharoof / Dilhara Fernando 6
Muttiah Muralitharan 10
Lasith Malinga 9

Totals: Australia 93 Sri Lanka 89

Prediction: The toss could prove crucial to the result on this wicket. I want Sri Lanka to win, I tipped them at the start, therefore I can not change my mind now, Sri Lanka, though the brain tells us all that it will likely be Australia.

Key Players: Ricky Ponting, Glenn McGrath, Sanath Jayasuriya and Chaminda Vaas.

Friday, 27 April 2007

England Player World Cup ratings

The dust has settled and having got over the disappointment of going out early, it’s time to review the English performance and rate and slate the England players.

The Team
In all honesty, apart from the Australians, we were probably the most predictable team on show. We lost against all of the top four, but beat everyone else. In the games against the eventual semi-finalists, the Sri Lankan game could/ should have been won, we were undercooked against a New Zealand team that started well but ran out of steam at the end of the tournament, we gave Australia their biggest test (according to Ricky Ponting). Only in the South African game were we out-classed – unfortunately that was the one that really mattered.

If anything, it was probably the manner of our victories that caused the most frustration. Workmanlike rather than comprehensive wins against Kenya, Canada, Ireland and Bangladesh denied the country any sense of excitement or hope of what might be to come. Only in the final dead rubber against the West Indies was there a game to really capture the imagination, and most had given up caring by that point.

Overall, fifth almost by default. Low risk cricket, which became the trademark of the Fletcher era meant we weren’t going to be surprised, in the way that India, Pakistan and South Africa were. However, we weren’t going to do much surprising either.

The Players
Michael Vaughan – 6.
An enigma at One Day cricket. The game against the West Indies showed what he can do. However, the South Africa effort was more typical. He can be a brilliant fielder, but is more likely than most to drop a dolly. Bizarrely, the most consistent part of his game was his bowling, which was a real bonus to England and enabled us to go in with Bopara as the fifth bowler. I think if he wants to continue at One Day cricket, we should persevere with him, but the debate will rage on.

Ed Joyce – 4
Following his hundred in the Commonwealth Bank series, there was hope he could kick on. However, despite good scores against Kenya and Canada, he looked out of his depth against the major teams and is lucky to have kept his place in the England squad for the summer.

Andrew Strauss – 6
An odd winter for Strauss, who started off looking in good form without scoring runs. By the time the World Cup came along, he was out of the team, but eventually got back in as Joyce continued to struggle. A good battling innings against South Africa gave hope for the coming summer, but overall a tournament to forget.

Ian Bell – 7
England’s second best batsman – not that that is saying a lot. There were times when he was batting with Pietersen that England looked in a good position, notably against Sri Lanka and Australia. An accumulator rather than a hitter, he looks the best of the bunch to continue as an anchor in the top order.

Kevin Pietersen – 9
Probably the only player from outside the top four sides who would make it into the team of the tournament. Two hundreds, one of which gave us a competitive score against Australia, the other won us the game against West Indies, and at his best against the bigger teams. Scored more slowly than is usual for him, but this was mainly due to the clatter of wickets going on at the other end. Crucially failed against South Africa, and his presence may have spurred them onto their best performance of the tournament. The best one day batsman in the world.

Paul Collingwood – 7
A disappointing competition in the context of his Commonwealth Bank series heroics, but regularly came in needing to consolidate, and in the knowledge that he would be followed by the woefully out of form Andrew Flintoff. One magnificent match winning innings against Ireland, some tight bowling in helpful conditions and the fielding was up to its normal exceptional standard.

Ravi Bopara – 7
When selected, he was compared to Theo Walcott. At the end of the tournament, he should be seen as a regular in the team and (with Collingwood and Vaughan), part of the fifth bowler allocation. His maiden fifty came in the valiant effort against Sri Lanka batting at 7. At the end of the tournament, he was in at 3, which looks like a much better place for him to bat. He’ll be around for a long time to come.

Andrew Flintoff – 4
Nothing short of a disaster for Freddie. He lost the vice-captaincy and any hope of replacing Vaughan as permanent captain when he retires. He lost his reputation as one of the great all-rounders with a wretched series with the bat and has gone from loveable laddish hero to potential new George Best. Consistent, but not spectacular with the ball, he was still England’s best quick bowler.

Paul Nixon – 8
He would probably still be talking if knocked unconscious. A revelation during the tournament, with his ability to get under the skin of the opposition and to play unorthodox effective innings in trying circumstances. Indeed he played the reverse sweep so much, he may have been better playing right handed, but his 6 off Murali was one of the shots of the tournament. He almost got us home against Sri Lanka. He kept the momentum going against West Indies. A fixture in the England team until the 20:20 world cup.

Jamie Dalrymple -3
No runs and hardly trusted to bowl. This could have been the tournament where he blasted onto the world stage. Vaughan’s bowling shows what should have been possible. However, a wretched start saw him usurped by Ravi Bopara, and he now faces a difficult job getting back into the team. Like Joyce, lucky to have made the England summer squad.

Jon Lewis – n/a
One of our tightest bowlers in Australia before flying home injured, but not selected to play in any of the matches, despite the inadequacies of the alternatives. Left early to support his wife through a difficult pregnancy, he must of wondered why he was there at all. One of Fletcher’s failings in the latter days was his favouritism of players. In the England squad for the summer, he must be hoping for better treatment from Peter Moores.

Saj Mahmood – 3
One of Fletcher’s favourites, picked time and again for his supposed prowess in batting, bowling and fielding, he was found wanting in all three disciplines. Only two runs scores all tournament, one good performance with the ball (against Sri Lanka) and conceding runs at nearly 6 an over. Even his fielding was sloppy. He’s still young, but really needs time in county cricket.

Liam Plunkett – 3
Runs in the first game, following on from the successes at the end of the Australia tour promised of more to come. However, his bowling was even more expensive than Mahmood’s, going at nearly seven an over during the tournament. The performances of Plunkett and Mahmood make the treatment of Lewis even more peculiar.

Stuart Broad – n/a
Only played in the last game, so no rating applies. However, hitting the winning runs will help with his confidence and his bowling was tight in a high scoring match. His reputation has probably been increased by missing most of the tournament, and it would be no surprise to see him start for England in the summer.

James Anderson – 6
Played the tournament with a broken finger, but that didn’t seem to upset his bowling. He at least made sure that things were kept tight at one end at the start of the innings, but wasn’t able to take the early wickets that England needed. Along with Flintoff, he was England’s best bowler and is certainly a fixture in the One Day set up. He needs better support though

Monty Panesar – 5
The fielding and batting are no longer comical, but the joy seemed to have gone out of the bowling as well by the end of the tournament. Tight rather than attacking, he seemed to be doing an impression of Ashley Giles and, in the end, he was probably out-bowled by Michael Vaughan. He’s not played a lot of One Day cricket for Northants, and it showed.

Wednesday, 25 April 2007

What next for Irish cricket?

Ireland playing in the Friends Provident Trophy was a nice idea. But, after their World Cup exploits, it seems completely futile for them to play county opposition.

They would benefit from the experience; but, the problem is Ireland will only be playing a shadow side. Niall O’Bren, Eoin Morgan, Boyd Rankin, William Porterfield and Andrew White are the future of Irish cricket – all are under 26. But each have county contracts, meaning they will be missing for huge periods of Ireland’s games.

Equally, the increasing fixture list the ICC is organising for the developing nations, combined with Ireland’s rise to full ODI member status, means Ireland can have plenty of games to look forward to in the future, starting with a triangular tournament against the West Indies and Holland this summer.

And, obviously, those who haven’t secured a county contract have only a finite amount of times at their disposal. Trent Johnson, though he has since decided to continue, admitted to having doubts due to fixture congestion. Ireland have been playing non-stop since January and there is a limit on how much leeway bosses will give players, and, indeed, how much free time players are prepared to give. And the last thing Ireland need is to force committed amateurs to give up the game.

The future for Irish cricket is undeniably extremely bright. Though helped by their experienced foreigners, the performances of their young, home-grown players was very encouraging, with Rankin and Niall O’Brien both showing they have the quality to become fine ODI players. With Kevin O’Brien, who has the makings of a very useful county one-day player, William Porterfield, who is fighting to gain a contract with Gloucestershire, Eoin Morgan, richly talented but a little overawed at the World Cup, and 21-year-old Gary Wilson, the reserve keeper at Surrey, the talent pool runs deep.

What Ireland need now is to expose their best players to more international cricket. The board should pressurise England into playing, as they did last year, a game against them each season. Meanwhile, it is ridiculous that Scotland, a side who have displayed little of Ireland’s potential (their best players, unlike Ireland’s, are over 30), have a one-day international against a touring side, India, while Ireland do not. Given the reluctance of counties to play their best sides against touring opposition, why not allow Ireland to play them, on days when all their county players would actually be able to play? If Ireland continue to improve, it could also be worthwhile to allow them a first-class game against a nation touring England, which would certainly be a more interesting spectacle than seeing a virtual county second XI going through the motions.

There is now little to be gained for a shadow side playing low-key games against county opposition. This was highlighted by the absurd situation of Ireland’s Niall O’Brien playing for Kent against his country last season.

Semi-Final Preview: Australia vs South Africa

After yesterday's somewhat surprisingly one sided affair fans the world over will be hoping for a closer contest this afternoon. The history between Australia and South Africa is plentiful, the desire to win on both sides strong. Having famously "choked" in 2003 and 1999, against Australia, South Africa will be desperate to win today and put to bed the lingering doubts over their ability to play the big games. Cricket is as much a mental game as it is a technical one, just ask Duncan Fletcher and the mental strength of the Australians is what separates them from the chasing pack. South Africa's batting line-up is almost as talented and long and has the ability to take the game to Australia.

Batting well provides South Africa's best chance of victory here. The Australian attack is not the strongest it has ever been, though it is undeniably mighty. If South Africa bat first and really get stuck in, they can reap the rewards derived from placing Australia under pressure. There are cracks within the Australian team, but you have to be on top of your game and extremely ruthless in order to exploit them. If you don't, then simply put, Australia will nail you! England showed that Australia are not infaliable, but also that if you give them a sniff they will go in for the kill.

South Africa are still bouyed by their victory just over a year ago, when they chased down over 400 to beat the Aussies. It is time though to forget that game, it is in the past, it was a different Aussie bowling attack and it was a one off game. The South African failure in the group stages proved the faliability of opting to chase. If Australia are allowed to set the pace and get above 350, nine times out of ten you will be out of the game before you have started. South Africa must realise that their best chance is to bat and put the Australian batting line up under pressure, especially considering that their attack is so one dimensional when bowling first, on what should be a belter of a wicket. No help for the seamers in St Lucia I'm afraid and it's easier to play the so far mysterious Brad Hogg when setting, rather than under the pressure of chasing.

Australia meanwhile are dominant. Undefeated in 27 World Cup games, spanning 8 years, they look focused, determined and most importantly of all, confident. Over confident? Not a chance. Since the Ashes 2005, this Australian side have risen their game to a new level and after the CB Series surprise, they are all to aware of the dangers which over confidence can bring. They can be beaten, but they won't lose. That is what makes them the best side in the World. With Australia completely dominating this World Cup to date Gill Woolmer has asked South Africa to "do it for Bob", we ask them to do it for the good of cricket!

Prediction: If South Africa bat first they can win this, if not the Aussie dominance will continue. It will be close with recent encounters standing at 3-3.

Key Players: The performances of Graeme Smith, Jaques Kallis, Brad Hogg and Shaun Tait could decide this one. The Aussie batsman rarely fail, so it will have to be their bowlers who do and the South African batsman who make the most of it if there is to be an upset.

Tuesday, 24 April 2007

Telegraph Fantasy Cricket

That time of year is here again with the county season just underway. The Telegraph are again running their popular fantasy cricket competition and as ever I shall be entering and hoping for the best. If four or more other people are interested I'll create a Third Umpire Super League just for a bit of fun! Here is the link: Comment with your interest!


(I'm not revealing my line-up yet!)

Semi-Final Preview: Sri Lanka vs New Zealand

This is likely to be the closer of the two matches, with two very evenly matched sides looking to make it into the final. New Zealand have not made the final from this stage in five attempts, whilst of course Sri Lanka won the competition back in 1996. The recent ODI series and Test series in New Zealand were both drawn 2-2 and 1-1 and having finished second (SRL) and third (NZL) in the Super Eights, these teams are also ranked third (NZL) and fourth (SRL) in the world.

The pitch at Sabina Park in Jamaica is likely to favour the seamers, hence Ireland's success. Therefore you would imagine that the Kiwis have a natural advantage. However, in Chaminda Vaas and the returning Lasith Malinga, the Sri Lankans can more than match what New Zealand have to offer in Shane Bond and James Franklin. The spin department sees Muttiah Muralitharan and Daniel Vettori go to head to head, whilst there may also be roles to play for Sanath Jayasuriya and Tilakaratne Dilshan. New Zealand will have to decide on whether to stick with the impressive young Jeetan Patel, or include the extra seamer, though both Mark Gillespie and Michael Mason were given serious hammer by the Australians. The presence of Jacob Oram, Scott Styris and Craig McMillan, may just tempt Fleming to include Patel, whilst Sri Lanka have a difficult choice to make between Dilharo Fernando, who has been impressive at the death and Farheez Maharoof, who impressed against Ireland and can add a lower order batting threat.

The head to head batting makes for interesting reading for Stephen Fleming. Chaminda Vaas has dismissed him the most in ODI's and has had him for a duck on the last four occassions that the two have met. Kumar Sangakkara meanwhile loves batting against New Zealand, having made 69*, 79, 15, 89 and 36 in his last five ODI innings against the Kiwis. Meanwhile, in the recent Test series he made 4, 100*, 156* and 8. If New Zealand don't get him early they will be in trouble. Two other key players are likely to be the evergreen Sanath Jayasuriya, so key to Sri Lanka setting a large asking rate and Scott Styris, who has been in blistering form so far. Shane Bond knows the importance of getting Jayasuriya before he unleashes his destructive potential and you feel that if he is out for a low score then New Zealand can keep Sri Lanka within reach. Scott Styris meanwhile will be stressing to his team mates the importance of playing Murali with the same poise and composure with which he did in the last meeting between these two, which of course Sri Lanka won.

Prediction: It's going to be close. Win the toss and win I say.

Key Players: Kumar Sangakkara, Muttiah Muralitharan, Scott Styris and Shane Bond.

Monday, 23 April 2007

Championship Tails – Week 1

While England finally show some decent form in the World Cup, albeit a match too late, the domestic season has got off to a bang. In unusually warm weather for the start of the season, there were runs galore and some highly impressive performances.

Division 1
Parochial, I know, but I’m going to start with Yorkshire’s win over Surrey. Runs galore in the first three innings, with Rudolph, Bresnan, Gillespie, Newman, Ramprakash (of course!) and White all hitting tons. However, Yorkshire’s bowling was the difference, with Rashid, Gough and Hoggard proving too much for Surrey to handle and the Tykes ran out comfortable winners.

Sussex also took maximum points as Mushtaq started where he left off last season with ten wickets against Kent. The Sussex batting relied heavily on Richard Montgomerie’s 175, with Naved and Kirtley also chipping in with useful 50s.

The other winners were Durham, where Steve Harmison took eight wickets as Worcester were put to the sword. Hundreds for Di Venuto in the first innings and Blenkenstein in the second, whereas the Worcester batting was disappointing, with only Jacques showing much resistance.

The match between Warwickshire and Lancashire ended in a draw. Warwicks started on top, with Loudon and Troughton scoring hundreds, Sutton doing the same in reply as Lancs were 150 runs behind on first innings. Tight bowing in the Warwicks second inning meant that the didn’t leave enough time to worry Lance, for whom Mal Loye hit a hundred as the match petered out.

Division 2
Notts were the only winners, against Leicestershire, on the back of a great all round bowling performance and centuries for Gallian and Hussey. Only Ackerman offered much resistance as Notts got home by nine wickets.

Runs galore at Taunton, with Middlesex declaring on 600 for 4 (hundreds for Shah, Godleman and Nash). Somerset then made 850 for 7 (another triple hundred for Langer, with tons for Hildeth, White and Trego). Middlesex saw the game out with little fuss (and a hundred for Ed Smith). It could be a hard year for the Somerset bowlers at home, for whom Andy Caddick has signed a contract extension – he may be regretting that if they don’t get a bit more life into the pitch.

A high scoring draw at Chelmsford too, where Derbyshire were on top for most of the game. Hundreds for Harvey, Pipe and Cook, but the declaration didn’t leave enough time for a result and Essex secured a comfortable draw.

England Players
With the World Cup on, there are a few England contenders on show.

On the batting side, Ali Cook hit another century for Essex, while Owais Shah scored had two good innings, 193 and 72 not out on a batsman’s paradise at Taunton. Relatively speaking, Marcus Trescothick should be disappointed in “only” getting 70.

On the wicket-keeping side, Chris Read was run out in the 30s in his only innings, gaining ground on Matt Prior, who scored 14 and Steve Davies who got 14 and 6, but losing out to James Foster who scored 61. Geraint Jones (if he is still a contender) was out in single figures in both innings.

The bowling does look promising, with Hoggard and Harmison both bowling aggressively and getting wickets. Coming on the back off his performance in the Sussex-MCC match, stories about the demise of Steve Harmison may have been premature.

Player of the Week
Sorry, but it’s a Yorkie. Some great batting performances this week, but the award goes to an all-round performance. For scoring 86 (in a stand of 190 with Jacques Rudolph) and taking seven wickets, my first player of the week is Adil Rashid.

Sunday, 22 April 2007

Super Eight’s Going Home Flops

It does exactly what it says on the tin! (NB: Players must have played at least 5 games):

1. Chris Gayle WIN
Inns: 9 Runs: 212 Average: 25.33 HS: 79 Bowling Average: 56.4

- Failed to be the explosive player the West Indies needed. Simply didn't show up and even his bowling was unusually wayward.

2. Shariar Nafees BAN
Inns: 6 Runs: 31 Average: 5.16 HS: 12

- Having showed so much promise in the last twelve months, Nafees just couldn't buy a run, averaging 5 from 6 innings.

3. Michael Vaughan (vc) ENG
Inns: 9 Runs: 209 Average: 23.22 HS: 79

- The similarities with Gayle are scary. Bowling better than batting, top score of 79 in his last match! His captaincy wasn't bad, but was rather dictated by the poor performances of his team mates. Vaughan hardly set the tone for them though, at the crease or in the field. Surely the end of his ODI torture.

4. Eoin Morgan IRE
Inns: 9 Runs: 91 Average: 10.11 HS: 28

- One of very few Irish players to have played county cricket, he failed abysmally and was a real let down. Many expected a lot more of a talented player, especially John Emburey.

5. Habibul Bashar (c) BAN
Inns: 8 Runs: 105 Average: 13.12 HS: 32

- The complete opposite of confidence personified! Bashar simply got worse as the tournament progressed, failing to set an example and having a penchant for the run out. His captaincy wasn't much better, hence why he gains the acrymonious honour of captaining our flop side.

6. Aftab Ahmed BAN
Inns: 9 Runs: 128 Average: 14.22 HS: 35 Bowling Average: 38.0

- Aftab is one of Bangladesh's promising young guns, but he failed to deliver in this tournament and only just managed to score slightly more runs than his captain, a dubious honour.

7. Andre Botha IRE
Inns: 7 Runs: 62 Average: 10.33 HS: 28 Bowling Average: 36.2

- His bowling was economical, but for a middle order batsman his contributions were very poor. Not helped by injury, but Ireland would have expected more from their overseas import.

8. Andrew Flintoff ENG
Inns: 7 Runs: 92 Average: 13.14 HS: 43

- Bowling was good, if a little expensive at times. No-one will question his place on bowling skill, but number six now appears a skyscrapper too high for Freddie. Against the West Indies, Sri Lanka, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa Flintoff contributed just 26 runs from 5 innings, that becomes 11 from 4 if you remove yesterday's effort. That is woeful form and undeserving of even eighth place in the batting.

9. Dinesh Ramdin (wk) WIN
Inns: 6 Runs: 84 Average: 16.8 HS: 52

- Failed to dispel the notion that he is not a wicket keeper batsman. In fact at times his glovework didn't even suggest he was a wicket keeper!

10. Sajid Mahmood ENG
Overs: 48.0 Average: 32.37 Economy: 5.40 Batting Average: 1.0

- Another tale of wasted talent. Has a good slower ball, can top 90 m.p.h. Unfortunately this matters little when it shoots down leg, or is a wide half volley. A batsman's best friend, he really needs a first full season, or two, in county cricket to hone his skills.

11. Jerome Taylor WIN
Overs: 64.0 Average: 51.0 Economy: 4.78 Batting Average: 9.25

- He has failed once before and been dropped. However, he was very young then. Having looked like being back to his best before the tournament, Taylor could not live up to lofty expectations once again and tailed away. Just wasn't the strike bowler the Windies needed, but he was hardly well handled by his coach.

Saturday, 21 April 2007

Preview: The end of an era

An emotional tie today pits Duncan Fletcher against Brian Lara. It would be hard to wish defeat on either of them. There really isn't much else to say, it is all about Lara and how Fletcher can motivate England. There will be some youngsters on view, but all eyes will be on the one legend on the field. It will be a timely reminder to England that none of their players are near reaching that level yet.

Prediction: West Indies win I'm afraid.

Players to watch: Brian Charles Lara and Michael Vaughan.

Friday, 20 April 2007

Some competition needed

After Australia's dissection of New Zealand today, the World Cup is desperately in need of some close and exciting semi-finals and a great final. The tournament has had some surprises and a couple of nail-biting finishes, but has generally been littered with one-sided matches that have been over long before they actually finished.

With Australia sweeping away all before them there is a danger that the World Champions will win their third title on the spin without even being seriously challenged. It is up to the South Africans to finally give them a game and should the Australians triumph then New Zealand or Sri Lanka must make the final a contest.

If not the 2007 World Cup will probably go down in history as the biggest anti-climax in ODI cricket. All the talk of it being the most open tournament in years is already looking foolish, with the gulf between the Australians and the rest widening into a gaping abyss. There is no doubt that the Australians have been by far the best and most consistent team in the competition, but I'm sure even they would prefer to be pushed a little more in pursuit of a third consecutive World Cup. Let us hope that they are and the last three matches provide some cricket to remember.

Moores a sound choice

Peter Moores is hardly a glamorous choice as new England coach, but he has worked his way up the ladder and deserves his chance. An anonymous county player, he moved from captaining Sussex to coaching them – and took them to their first ever Championship, after 164 years of waiting, in 2003. He established such a culture of success that his team’ continued to enjoy success even after he left to become director of the National Academy in 2005.

Moores is a man who has impressed everyone with his outstanding man-management skills and excellent knowledge of cricketing techniques. Former players he has coached speak of his qualities as a person, and the ability he has to gain the trust of his players, but he is no soft touch. And, after a tumultuous winter in which Duncan Fletcher appeared to lose a degree of authority, a harsh but fair coach could be exactly what is needed.

Given his recent stints in both county cricket and with the Academy, Moores should certainly have an excellent knowledge of all prospective England players – something Fletcher had at the start of his tenure but perhaps lost as his reign went on. Part of Fletcher’s problem, in the end, was his disdain for the county game; Moores has greater regard for it and will surely make international players play more for their counties.

Moores has earned his spurs over nine years of coaching and has long since been earmarked as the replacement for Duncan Fletcher. Whatever the tabloids may say, he does not deserve comparison with Steve McClaren.

Preview: Australia vs New Zealand

This should be a cracking game of cricket, but the absence of Jacob Oram will likely hit the Kiwis' hard and Hamish Marshall is no like for like replacement. This would seem to be the second choice final, but you can count on the Kiwis to not rest their best. Shane Bond will be in action with the new ball and he has proven to be an Aussie nemesis in the past. Facing him will be leading run scorer Matty Hayden. Haydos has been in sublime form early on and has really found his way back to his best form since late 2005. He and Gilchrist are still the most feared opening partnership in World Cricket.

New Zealand of course have Scott Styris, another superb performer so far. They will be looking for another big innings from him, the young Ross Taylor and as ever, Stephen Fleming, with late cameos from the likes of Brendon McCullum. In Jeetan Patel and Daniel Vettori they have a wonderful spin attack to complement their quicks and medium pacers, though they may still miss the bounce of Oram. Oram's absence may also mean that New Zealand feel uncomfortable in not playing the extra quick in place of Patel though. Australia's bowling is not quite at the same level, but with the volume of runs that they often score, their bowlers are under less pressure and nobody seems to have read Brad Hogg's googly yet.

Prediction: Australia to narrowly avenge the Chappell-Hadlee Series whitewash.

Players to watch: Matthew Hayden and Shane Bond.

Thursday, 19 April 2007

When strengths become weaknesses, the time is right to go

And so, after seven and-a-half years in charge of England, Duncan Fletcher has resigned. There is a neat symmetry to his reign, in that it ended as it began, with humiliation against South Africa – England being 2-4 then being thrashed by nine wickets. In between, however, Fletcher has done a terrific job.

He benefited from being an outsider; this helped him judge county players on more than mere statistics. Marcus Trescothick, Michael Vaughan and Paul Colllingwood were all plucked from the county scene despite having mediocre records. Fletcher recognised character was vital in developing international players, and placed great faith in those he recognised it in. Yet, in some cases, he found character where there was insufficient cricketing quality – think of Chris Adams, Anthony McGrath and a plethora of one-day also-rans.

Fletcher was meticulous in preparation and, in alliance with Nasser Hussain, began the tough job of restoring England’s credibility as a Test-match nation. An example of this was the enormous emphasis he placed on bowlers being able to bat, in a bid to end the phenomenon of the English collapse.

In the last Test of the pre-Fletcher era, England infamously had three number 12s – Alan Mullaly, Ed Giddins and Phil Tufnell. Choosing Ashley Giles over Tufnell, as he did with the exception of his first series, was characteristic of Fletcher. He had no qualms opting for the less naturally talented bowler, on the basis that he was also able to contribute with the bat and in the field, and was never liable to becoming difficult on arduous tours away from home. And this policy was vindicated as Giles became, in his understated way, an essential figure in the England run of success in 2004-05, culminating in an assured, Ashes-securing 50 at The Oval.

Yet Giles was also indicative of Fletcher’s stubbornness. The coach invariably stuck by players he rated through periods of lean form – Hussain averaged 12 over 10 Tests in 2000, failing to pass 25 in this time – but, by the end of his regime, this admirable policy of loyalty, so rare in previous England regimes, had turned to something dangerously like blind faith. The decision to turn back to Ashley Giles, a consummate professional but one who averaged over 40 with the ball, ahead of Monty Panesar, who had helped England win two of their last three Tests, for the ‘06/07 Ashes will forever be remembered as the moment when it was clear Fletcher’s time as coach was up.

Key to Fletcher’s success was his adaptability, which enabled him to develop exceptional working relationships with both Vaughan and Hussain, profoundly different characters. Hearing either of them say a bad word on Fletcher is almost as rare as the Zimbabwean smiling; yet there are some players who will be pleased to see him go. Think, especially, of Owais Shah, an outrageously gifted batsman who performed very well on Test debut in India but was never granted a reasonable run in either form of the game.

While the 2005 Ashes result is obviously the standout of Fletcher’s regime, the results he achieved in Asia were equally impressive. He was crucial in developing the forward press, which slowly helped eliminate English fear of the sub-Continent. Under his guise, England recorded back-to-back series wins in 2000/01, previously unimaginable.

This was primarily down to the exploits of stalwarts like Alec Stewart, Mike Atherton, Darren Gough, Andy Caddick and Graham Thorpe - all of whom speak not a bad word about their former coach. The manner in which he reinvigorated experienced players was a hallmark of the early part of his regime. The Surrey left-handers Thorpe and Butcher, for instance, both averaged 14 more after their comebacks – Thorpe in 2000, Butcher in ’01.

Ultimately, the two primary failures of Fletcher’s regime were his inability to coax the relatively young ’05 side onto better things, and his aimless running of the ODI team. He never got to grips with the one-day game, using it to try out potential Test players, like Sajid Mahmood, even when they were patently unsuited to the shorter game, and employed an archaic top-order strategy in the 2007 World Cup.

Why have the 2005 side, with the exception of Kevin Pietersen, Matthew Hoggard and series failures Ian Bell and Collingwood, all declined since the spectacular triumph? Some of it may be down to the English psyche, but Fletcher’s loyalty and the “closed shop” that became the England set-up cannot have helped. While he was unquestionably able to get the best out of gritty performers like Butcher, Thorpe, Hussain and Collingwood, his man-management may come into question for his failure to keep Andrew Flintoff and Steve Harmison as the best players of the kind in the world for a sustained period.

By the end of his tenure, Fletcher’s strengths had become his weaknesses, and new thinking is now needed. Even if it may not seem so at present, English cricket is in an infinitely better state now than eight years ago, with central contracts introduced and the set-up far more professional and conducive to playing quality cricket.

Preview: West Indies vs Bangladesh

At first this may appear as a nothing game, what with South Africa's brutal dismissal of England and with them, semi-final hopes of the remaining nations. However, a lot is at stake here today. West Indian circket is at an all time low and Brian Lara will want to bow out of One Day Internationals on some semblance of a high in front of home support. Where the Windies go from here is up for debate, but what is not is that Lara has been a fine player, if not captain and deserves a raptuous and victorious send off in these final two matches.

Standing in the way are of course Bangladesh who themselves have a point to prove. Having lost to Ireland they are now in danger of bowing out on a low. They will want to reassert themselves as a top nation and compete with a team who are not ranked that much higher than them at present. It will still be hard for both sets of fans to get excited about what is now a dead rubber though.

Prediction: West Indies to lift some gloom.

Players to watch: Chris Gayle and Saqibul Hasan.

Wednesday, 18 April 2007

Preview: Sri Lanka vs Ireland

Ireland's final game today and it will be tough going. Having already achieved more than England by beating two Test playing nations, they now look to go level on points with their neighbour.

Sri Lanka will recall Muttiah Muralitharan and Chaminda Vaas - was this not the game to rest them? - it should be one sided, but Ireland have upset the apple cart before. Whatever the result, Irish cricket continues to grow.

Prediction: Sri Lanka but Ireland not to disgrace themselves.

Players to watch: Sanath Jayasuriya and William Porterfield.

The new season

The day after England's meek World Cup exit, the county season has begun. Crowds will be small, media attention low, but it will make a change from the over-hyped World Cup.

What are your hopes for the new season? Who will win the Championship? And which players are set to attract wider attention?

Do leave your views. In the meantime, check out Mystic Richard's Division One and Division Two predictions. And, if any fans want to write on their side's progress, please email cricketingworld(at)

Always Look on the Bright Side

Is the glass half empty or half full? Depends who's buying ultimately, but following the understandable doom and gloom around at the moment, and well articulated by Tim and Nick on this blog, the time has come to look for the positives in English cricket.

Test Cricket
It's important that we don't mix up the One day debacle with the Test team and treat them as one and the same. Last summer, we comprehensively beat Pakistan. Over the past 3-4 years we have dominated teams on the test circuit and we should bear this in mind with the Ashes defeat.

We were beaten by a highly motivated Australian team who are comfortably the best in the world. We couldn't cope with injuries to key players, notably Marcus Trescothick, Michael Vaughan and Simon Jones. Some of the selection choices didn't help, but playing Monty Panesar and Chris Read from the start wouldn't have changed the result.

We have a settled test team, with competition for places throughout the team. It is also a young test team, which could be around for a long time. How we bounce back in the summer will be critical, but we shouldn't panic on this front.

We went into the tournament as the 8th best team in the world. We will finish 5th or 6th, depending on what happens against the equally poor West Indies. Isn't this therefore a good tournament for us ?

South Africa aside, we have looked competitive against the big teams in the tournament. We probably gave Australia their biggest test so far and should really have beaten Sri Lanka. Never mind that we've not looked convincing against the minnows, we have at least beaten them all- unlike South Africa, India and Pakistan.

On the playing side Kevin Pieterson, Paul Collingwood, Ian Bell, Ravi Bopara, James Anderson and Paul Nixon can all come out with reputations enhanced. Monty Panesar has shown that he can be a One day bowler. Andrew Strauss's innings yesterday was a welcome return to some sort of form

However, there are negatives. Michael Vaughan and Ed Joyce played safety first cricket at the start but didn't capitalise on their starts. Joyce in particular faces a fight to continue his international career with England while his Irish former team mates are looking forward to a new phase in theirs. Jamie Dalrymple has gone backwards with his batting and wasn't trusted with the ball. Saj Mahmood and Liam Plunkett let the opposition get off to flyers, despite Anderson at the other end. And then there is Freddy....

What do we do?
On the test side, we carry on with the players we've got and the coach we've got for the summer.
The team below is one that can look to close in on the Australians.

For One Day cricket, we need a new coach and captain. I'd go for Peter Moores as One Day coach, with Collingwood as captain. We need a new approach at the start of the innings and to identify players who have the appetite for the game and the willingness to take the risks required. This should then lead to a smooth transition for Moores to succeed Duncan Fletcher, maybe at the end of the summer.

At the last World Cup, we went out in the group stages and were amongst the worst test teams in the world. We have progressed, but we need to go further and faster.

Tuesday, 17 April 2007

What a shambles

This has been, without doubt, the worst winter in the history of English cricket. It is not overstating things to say that both the Ashes and World Cup could not have gone any worse. In nine games against top-eight opposition, England have lost every game; and only once, against Sri Lanka, did they even achieve an honorable defeat.

The one-day defeat to South Africa was utterly pathetic. England’s archaic strategy was exposed for what it is and, frankly, they were shown to be simply not good enough, lacking in fundamental quality and nous.

The fallout from the winter will be big. Duncan Fletcher, who has done a terrific job, will now surely have to go. Sadly, he has not vindicated those who laughed at Geoff Boycott’s suggestion in October that his time was up. Michael Vaughan, clearly, will have to be pushed aside as ODI captain; he is 32, so has no chance of playing in the next World Cup, and will leave behind an awful ODI record.

Andrew Flintoff, meanwhile, now cuts an increasingly forlorn figure; his batting has disintegrated to the point when number six, in both forms of the game looks ridiculous. More worryingly, his joie de vivre and self-confidence look shattered, perhaps irrevocably. Sajid Mahmood’s woefully erratic bowling, coupled with his laissez-faire attitude and the fundamental mistakes still present in his game – like putting his hand over the ball – are testament to England’s selection policy. Too often, players learn their trade on the international stage; meanwhile, individualism is coached out of them, meaning mavericks like a Lasith Malinga or a Sanath Jayasuriya are increasingly rare.

England were unlucky with injuries, but their continually baffling selection certainly didn’t help. Over the last three years, they have moved aimlessly from one one-day humiliation to the next. Though it is true that England could have had a reasonable World Cup side, had players in form two years ago remained fit and firing – Trescothick, Vaughan, Strauss, Pietersen, Collingwood, Flintoff, G.Jones, Giles, S.Jones, Harmison, Anderson – the selectors are at fault for developing no sort of coherent plan to develop others. Selections were haphazard, with the county circuit’s best English one-day batsman, Mal Loye, continually ignored, and perhaps the second best, Owais Shah, given just three games. They deserve credit for picking Ravi Bopara, and, to some extent, Paul Nixon, but not for “hunches” Bresnan, Ali, Loudon, Yardy et al.

The administrators are culpable too – for allowing a schedule which flogs their players mercilessly into the ground, and sees the World Cup directly after the Ashes tour. Basic flaws, typically, remain unadressed: there are still no Powerplays in domestic one-day cricket. In short, there was no structure in place for one-day success; all hopes were pinned on the freakish CB Series triumph and the idiosyncratic genius of Kevin Pietersen – not coincidentally, a player who learned his trade away from the age group system. England have, remarkably and astoundingly, won just one ODI series out of their last 12. Success in the World Cup would have concealed that. Only after an unmitigated shambles of a winter is there hope for a brighter future.


The humiliating loss to South Africa was a fitting exit for an England team that had offered little to the 2007 World Cup. From the moment they failed to challenge New Zealand in their opening match England have stuttered and stumbled along, showing glimpses of quality, like nearly snatching victory against Sri Lanka and pummeling Australia for half an innings, but generally being consistently mediocre.

Poor selection and preparation has yielded poor performances from most of the team. Only Pietersen and Collingwood have played consistently well. Flintoff has bowled pretty well, but failed utterly with the bat, while Bopara and Nixon have played some fine cameos, as well as those memorable innings against Sri Lanka. Other odd good performances have punctuated the general malaise, but failed to dispell it.

Fletcher, who so brilliantly lifted England from the abyss when he first became coach, now looks bereft of ideas and the end is surely nigh. Perhaps, one more good season of home Tests is all he has left - it would be sad to see him leave now on such a terrible note.

Where England go from here in ODIs is hard to say. They have the nucleus of a good team - Pietersen, Flintoff, Collingwood, Bopara, Panesar and Anderson, but badly need more quality in key areas. Both opener slots are up for grabs, at least one of whom needs to be an aggressive big hitter (if not Trescothick then someone like him). Hopefully the forthcoming county season will yield such players, along with a genuine strike bowler, unless Simon Jones can overcome his injury problems.

The debate over the keeper will rage on, with many calling for one keeper in ODIs and another in Tests. I would prefer to see England select a keeper who can bat for both forms of cricket. My choice would be Steven Davies, though many see him as much more of a Test keeper than one for ODIs. If England do split the role then Nixon has made a good case for himself in ODIs or Prior could be given another go, with Davies in Tests.

Whatever else happens England must learn the harsh lessons given to them in this tournament and start playing ODI cricket in the aggressive manner that the best international teams have been doing for the last decade.

Mystic Richard’s Division 1 Predictions

As the fat lady limbers up on England’s World Cup “campaign”, the serious business of the Championship is about to start. We already know from my Division 2 predictions that Essex and Notts are going to win promotion. Who will they pass on the way down and who will lift the trophy? Teams, as before, are in reverse order.

9 Worcestershire
Promoted last season but about to find out how much tougher it is in Division 1 than Division 2. Phil Jacques is a proven run scorer, but surely the sands of time must catch up with Graeme Hick soon, leaving Vikram Solanki as the other source of runs. The main source of wickets last year, Zaheer Khan, is not coming back though, so Matt Mason and Kabir Ali need to fill the gap. Gareth Batty still harbours England hopes and at 30 should be approaching his prime as a spinner. Also with England hopes is highly regarded wicketkeeper Steven Davies. However, this year will be a struggle and survival has to be the aim.

8 Kent
Only Matt Walker and Martin van Jaarsveld got a thousand runs last year. Amjad Khan was the leading wicket taker with 34, yet Kent finished fifth, showing the importance of a good all round team effort, and the paucity of the four teams at the bottom of Division 1 last season. The teams that have come up are an improvement and Yorks and Durham look much stronger, so Kent need to improve to keep up their unbroken run in Division 1. This won’t be helped by the injury to Amjad which will rule him out for the season or the delay to Andrew Hall joining the team. In particular, Rob Key had a dreadful season with the bat, but it’s going to take more than his resurgence for Kent not to struggle this year.

7 Warwickshire
Runs were the main problem for Warwickshire, with only Jim Trott and the now retired Nick Knight getting over 600. Kumar Sangakkara should help on this front, bit Darren Maddy looks like a short term solution with one dayers in mind. Warwickshire won’t see much of Ian Bell this year, and it needs to be a big season for Alex Loudon with bat and ball if he wants to get back in to the England reckoning. Heath Streak and Dale Steyn will be a real force with the new ball and the wickets they take should win enough games to see them survive.

6 Durham
Paul Collingwood will be missing, but it is likely that Durham will see more of Steve Harmison and Liam Plunkett than they did last season. Add Graham Onions to the list and that is a pretty formidable pace attack. Dale Blenkenstein weighed in with over 1400 runs and if Michael Di Venuto brings his Derbyshire form from last year, then young talent such as Gordon Muchall and Phil Mustard should flourish. They survived by half a point last season. They should be a bit more comfortable this season.

5 Surrey
The great imponderables. If Mark Ramprakash keeps up his form from last season then the rest can go home now. However, Division 1 is tougher than Division 2. Their middle order of Mark Butcher, Ramps and Ali Brown behind an opening pair of Scott Newman and Jon Batty is as good a batting line up as any in the league on paper but youth isn’t on their side and if they do struggle, there isn’t a lot as back-up. However, if Rikki Clarke starts to justify the early promise week in week out with bat and ball, then this team could be challenging for the prize money. The bowling looks much weaker than the batting, with Mo Akram and Azhar Mahmood having little in support. The spin twins of Salisbury and Doshi, backed up by a returning Chris Schofield, will need to match their success of last year or Surrey could end up with a lot of drawn games.

4 Yorkshire
At the start of the year they were certainties for relegation and ninth place. Chris Adams had come and gone. Darren Lehmann had retired, Michael Lumb had gone to Hampshire and Anthony McGrath never wanted to play for Yorkshire again. Then Jacques Rudolph was signed as a Kolpak, Younus Khan was signed as the overseas player, Darren Gough and Martyn Moxon returned as captain and coach respectively and McGrath decided to stay. With Craig White and the promising Joe Sayers, this gives a strong, if untried, batting line-up. And who knows, we may even see Michael Vaughan turning out. Gough, Jason Gillespie, Matthew Hoggard and Tim Bresnan form an experienced, pace attack, backed up by Deon Kruis and a raft of youngsters. The main cause for promise, though is the spin attack with Adil Rashid and Mark Lawson hoping to continue where they left off last season. The lows and highs of the winter have brought a momentum of its own. If that continues, then anything is possible.

3 Sussex
Ironically, the Chris Adams affair may have a greater effect on Sussex than Yorkshire. The Sussex triumph of last season was based largely upon a great team spirit. If times get tough over the season, the effect of the captain trying to leave during the winter may be crucial. Murray Goodwin’s runs will again be crucial in giving Mushtaq Ahmed enough runs to bowl at, and they will also be looking for more runs from their openers, with Chris Nash looking like he’s got the nod over Richard Montgomerie. The loss of Michael Yardy for the start of the season will be a blow and if Matt Prior does get an England call up, his runs will also be difficult to replace. The strength is the bowling attack. James Kirtley and Jason Lewry are still a force at this level and Mushtaq was comfortably the bowler of the English season last year. They will challenge for the title, but will just come up short this year.

2 Lancashire
Like Sussex, the bowling is stronger than the batting, and has been strengthened further by the signing of Muttiah Muralitheran. While James Anderson and Andrew Flintoff likely to be away with England, it would be a surprise if Sajid Mahmood wasn’t available for most of the season to form a pace attack with Dominic Cork, Glen Chapple and the promising Tom Smith. Gary Keedy was tipped by many to be England’s second spinner over the winter and will team up with Murali. The batting doesn’t have the same strength in depth, although with Stuart Law, Brad Hodge and Mal Loye, there should be enough runs scored to make a challenge. However, even if the weather holds off for them, they’re not quite good enough again.

1 Hampshire
Like Sussex the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. But for the feats of Mark Ramprakash, we’d have been talking up the John Crawley revival and with James Adams, Nik Pothas and Michael Carberry, there should be plenty of runs for Shane Warne to play with. In addition to this, Michael Lumb will be looking to recapture the form that got him an A team tour three years ago, moving from Yorkshire. The bowling isn’t just about Warne, with Dimitri Mascarenhas, Chris Tremlett and the newly signed Stuart Clark all likely to contribute in a balanced and potent attack. Third last year, this is likely to be Warne’s last season and no-one in the game (including one IT Botham) has had a better scriptwriter.

Steve Harmison

As the 2007 county season approaches, we will be compiling a list of six men to watch; not necessarily the finest players, but those with particularly significant and interesting seasons ahead.

Steve Harmison (Durham)
After Steve Harmison’s gruesome Ashes tour, he can no longer be considered an automatic Test match selection. On bouncy tracks, like Old Trafford last season, he remains a huge threat. But, since his golden seven months in 2004, Harmison has let England down too often.

Last year, if his 11 wickets at Old Trafford are excluded, Harmison’s average was a pathetic 53. He has all the raw attributes to be a genuine great, but, as epitomised by his ODI retirement just prior to the World Cup, too often seems to lack motivation. He is mentally fragile, susceptible to being targeted and often seemingly resigned to things going against him. In short, he lacks the never-say-die attitude which is a hallmark of many fast-bowling greats.

At 28, Harmison’s career has reached a decisive phase. Should he start the season badly, it is perfectly conceivable England’s Test selectors will have had enough of the enigma. But his dire Ashes series should be notice enough to Harmison that he has many people to convince.

With Simon Jones returning and Liam Plunkett and Stuart Broad exciting many experts, English pace bowling competition will be fierce this summer. On raw ability, Harmison is England’s best fast bowler. But he will need some hostile displays for his beloved Durham to convince the sceptics that he is still worthy of a Test spot.

Preview: England vs South Africa

Big One. The time has come and only one side can progress. It is a contest between the number one ranked side in the world, when the World Cup began, South Africa, and Commonwealth Bank Series winners England. The side that wins the toss in Barbados will hope to bat and put a decent total on the board and then exploit the uncertainties in the pitch in the second half. If Michael Vaughan can remain a lucky tosser (some would say being selected is one such example!) then England really need to make the best of the track once they have seen off the new ball. They will then rely heavily on Kevin Pietersen, playing against his old country, to get stuck in and increase the tempo.

South Africa's bowling line-up has been the subject of much debate, made up exclusively of seamers. Barbados has proved to be a pitch which is slightly more favourable for the pace bowler than spinner though and so their all seam attack may be well suited to conditions. Andre Nel has regularly impressed against England although it is a surprise not to see Makaya Ntini in the side. Given England's struggles against spin and larger degree of familiarity with pace, the South African approach could also play into their hands, especially Andrew Strauss who likes playing them. If England win the toss and bat with composure they should win, with the larger variety they have within their bowling attack. However, if South Africa get off to a flyer, no total, whether setting or chasing, is ever quite big enough. Jaques Kallis has been out of sorts recently though so England have a chance. England tend to rise to the big occasion, are South Africa still chokers though?

Prediction: Dare I say England? I can only hope.

Players to watch: Andrew Strauss and Andre Nel.

Mystic Richard’s Division 2 Predictions

The curtain has been raised, Ali Cook has shown Essex what they’re going to miss this season and flush from my successful predictions for the World Cup, I’m putting my neck on the line for the County Championship. Division1 to follow, but here, in reverse order, is my prediction for Div 2.

9 Derbyshire
Mike Di Venuto was their only player to top a thousand runs last season, and he’s not coming back. There is an enormous responsibility on the shoulders of the three Aussies Ian Harvey, Simon Katich and Travis Birt to carry a weak batting line up. The bowling also looks poor with last season’s leading wicket taker, Stefan Jones, also having left. Graeme Welch will have a lot of bowling to do, but the progression of Wayne White and Boyd Rankin should also be watched with an eye on the future. Anything better than bottom should be seen as success.

8 Leicestershire
The loss of Darren Maddy will be difficult to get over, with HD Ackerman and Darren Robinson now heavily relied upon for runs. Jeremy Snape and Paul Nixon will add experience and grit to the middle order, but the bowling looks light, especially if Stuart Broad ends up playing for England for most of the summer. They did well to contend for promotion last season. This season will be a struggle.

7 Glamorgan
A season of change for Glamorgan approaches, not least with the new Sophia Gardens being built. On the pitch, rebuilding is also required and like Leicestershire, they should lose their main strike bowler, Simon Jones, to England for most of the season (if fit). Their bowling will be reliant on David Harrison and the evergreen Robert Croft. Their batting line up looks much stronger, with David Hemp, Jimmy Maher and Michael Powell all capable of big runs. However, it’s the performances of youngsters such as Ben Wright and Huw Waters that will determine the how the future will pan out.

6 Gloucestershire
The loss of Ian Harvey will be a short term blow, particularly in the One Day games, but in Hamish Marshall, Alex Gidman and Craig Spearman, Gloucester have three proven run getters to go with the all round ability of Kadeer Ali and Steve Adshead. On the bowling front, Jon Lewis will be the key man again, with the erratic Steve Kirby in support. Michael Ball’s retirement reduces the slow bowling options somewhat and they need Ian Fisher to contribute more than the meagre ten wickets he managed last season.

5 Northamptonshire
A big turn around last season with David Capel taking over from Kepler Wessels in mid season and should carry on the progression this year. A strong batting line up, with skipper David Sales, Chris Rogers, Usman Afzaal and Lance Klusner all likely to get over a thousand runs. This will also be bolstered by the signing of the Irish wicketkeeper, Niall O’Brien. Top of the bowling averages last year was Monty Panesar, but he won’t be seen much in Northampton this season. “Replacing” him is new signing Richard Dawson who will be looking to recapture the form that got him an England call up. Overall the bowling looks the weak suit, but Northants are an improving team.

4 Somerset
Bottom last year, with only Cameron White scoring over a thousand runs. This year, they will be bolstered by Justin Langer, who scored a triple hundred in one of his two games last season, and Marcus Trescothick, who will surely not be recalled in to the test team without a great deal more cricket under his belt. On the bowling side they look very strong, with the signing of Stefan Jones adding to Charll Willoughby and Andy Caddick meaning that Richard Johnson shouldn’t be missed. The top four in the division will be tight and Somerset will be challenging for promotion.

3 Middlesex
Relegated last season after falling away at the end of the summer, their bowling was hugely reliant on the previously injury prone Chris Silverwood. The return of Richard Johnson and the signing of Chaminda Vaas should take some of the pressure off Silverwood and allow the impressive batting line up to make a challenge for promotion. Andrew Strauss won’t be seen much, but Nick Compton, Ben Smith, Owais Shah and Ed Joyce will all be pushing for international recognition, as will Jamie Dalrymple as England’s second spinner.

2 Essex
On the plus side, the World Cup and the mid season ODI break means that Ali Cook will play a bit more for his county this season. However, that will be at the expense of Ravi Bopara, who has been one of the plusses for England over the winter. The loss of Darren Gough will be a blow to Essex, but with seven players getting more than 20 championship wickets last season and Andre Nel and Danesh Kaneria coming in, bowling teams out shouldn’t be a problem. Likewise, with the Flower brothers, Ronnie Irani and the hugely promising Varun Choppra and Mark Pettini and World Cup star Ryan Ten Doeschate, runs should be plentiful. It’s also a big season for James Foster, with a prospective new England coach to impress. Just short last year – they should go up this year.

1 Nottinghamshire
Champions one year relegated the next. By half a point. They should go back up comfortably as champions this year with David Hussey and Stephen Fleming scoring heavily. A return to form by Jason Gallian would also be welcome although The signing of the highly rated Will Jefferson and Bilal Shafayat will add good support. On the bowling front, they have a balanced attack, led by Ryan Sidebottom and Charlie Shreck, with the evergreen Mark Ealham and Andy Harris and spin from Graeme Swann. Like Foster at Essex, Chris Read may have another England coach to try to impress, and should spend more of the season with England than Notts.

Sunday, 15 April 2007

England's One Day Headache

England have patently struggled so far at this World Cup and generally in One Day cricket since the end of 2005 at least. We now examine some of the key problems for England and what can be done to resolve them by the summer's end.

Aggressive Opener:

Marcus Trescothick has the ability to take the game to opposition sides at the top of the order in both forms of the game, but it is his ability to plunder the powerplay overs that England have especially missed to date. With no Tresco, there have been no blistering and imposing starts, no centuries from the top, no senior player to turn to and a missing pair of ever-reliable slip catching hands. Once Trescothick is under way he is incredibly hard to stop (just ask Devon!) and his ability against spin makes him a fantastic all round player, capable of pulverising opposition attacks ala Jayasuriya. In his void there has been no reliable replacement. Mal Loye was tried, but in relative terms failed and following that there was no time to find another chosen one. Andrew Strauss, Michael Vaughan and Ed Joyce, for all their qualities, fall into another bracket entirely. Will Jefferson and Michael Carberry are two openers who will look to press their claims further this summer.

Strike Bowler:

Australia have Brett Lee and now Shaun Tait, New Zealand have Shane Bond, Sri Lanka Lasith Malinga. Without Simon Jones England are missing that go to strike bowler, the magical one who is capable of getting a wicket at any stage of the innings, especially during the middle overs, when the ball is starting to show signs of reverse swing. In 2005 Jones was being groomed as the replacement for Darren Gough and how badly they have missed a man who can fill those boots. Without that special strike bowler England have struggled to turn games around, or finish the job. For all the qualities England’s other bowlers have, without Jones and the retired Stephen Harmison, England are, as Michael Vaughan himself stated, a “squeezing attack.”

The Pietersen, Flintoff quandary:

Pietersen bats too low, Freddie too high. It is as simple as that. As the best player in the side KP should be batting at number three, where he can make full use of the fielding restrictions and bat for the nigh on maximum amount of time. We don’t see Ricky Ponting or Jaques Kallis batting at four. It is a point I continue to dwell on though! Flintoff meanwhile has averaged a woeful 22 since the start of the India series one year ago and on that basis would be better suited to playing at seven. The Freddie to open debate is a dangerous one, lest we all forget his failings at number three at the ICC Champions Trophy, just six months ago, against a new ball. His skills are best suited to the last ten overs and that is when he should make his thunderous entrance, not whilst the spinners are on, with quick singles and nurdling required. Flexiblity in the batting order is not though something which England seem to understand however.

Issue for the future:

The wicket keeping situation is still one that will rouse curious debate throughout the nation and indeed world. Whilst Paul Nixon has impressed many with his commitment and desire, at 36 he can not be considered the future, nor groomed for the next Ashes series, ICC Champions Trophy, or World Cup. It is also questionable as to whether he has the technique to survive at Test level. With Chris Read and Geraint Jones seemingly failed men of yesterday now, there are two main contenders for the role and those two players resided within the academy squad over the winter. They are of course Matt Prior and Steven Davies, the young wicket keepers currently playing in the county season curtain raiser at Lords.

Simplistically stated, Prior is seen as the better and more explosive batsman of the two, whilst Davies is seen to have more potential with the gloves and a Gilchristean resemblance (he is left handed!). Prior has already tasted international cricket, albeit on the subcontinent and in positions varying from opener, to number three, to number five. He plays his best cricket for Sussex at six though and should be looked at as a serious contender for the lower order of the one day side at least, given Davies’ younger years. Davies is probably the long-term heir apparent, but may be too fresh to throw in immediately. James Foster is of course another option, but his exclusion from the academy squad would seem to signal that he is further down the pecking order in the race to become England’s first undisputed wicket keeper since Alec Stewart retired.

The line-up:

With Tresothick and Pietersen in the top three, England would be a powerful side to be feared once again. Both are capable of huge innings at fast rates, whilst Ian Bell is a player who would look to accumulate and bat more cautiously, allowing others to bat around him. With a lower order of Flintoff and the aggressive wicket keeper, England would be well placed to also attack those final overs. That leaves us the middle order trio whose jobs would be to milk the middle overs and wristly flick the ball in to gaps, turning ones in to twos and running the opposition ragged. Paul Collingwood is brilliant at this and is also one of the best finishers in the game, but is slightly suspect against serious pace around offstump early on in his innings. Ravinder Bopara meanwhile has shown us that he too could be a brilliant finisher and innovative gap finder, but he is still young. Both are probably suited to coming in against spin, so numbers five and six seem appropriate.

A number four is thus required, someone capable of playing against both pace and spin. Andrew Strauss may seem an obvious choice and he could yet prove to be the answer, he did after all start his promising international career there. However, Owais Shah showed in India, during a crucial innings of 88, that he is a fantastic player of spin, capable of wristy stroke play that many fine players would drool over. As a regular first class number three and one day opener he also has the technique against pace. He has long been a fine domestic one day and Twenty20 player and has really kicked on in the longer form of the game over the past two seasons as well. Given just a paltry three matches at number three in India during yet another woeful one day series for England, he has since dropped back into the abyss, though he lined up for the MCC vs Sussex at Lords on Friday. Rumours abound that Fletcher does not like him much, John Emburey claims his face does not fit. Only such reasoning can explain his exclusion to date. Maybe if Fletcher departs this summer, Shah may finally make the step up.

England’s best one day line-up undoubtedly looks a lot like this, can England get them fit and gel them together by the end of the summer though, in time for the Twenty20 World Cup in South Africa?:

Marcus Trescothick
Ian Bell
Kevin Pietersen
Owais Shah
Paul Collingwood (c)
Ravinder Bopara
Andrew Flintoff
Matt Prior/ Steven Davies/ Paul Nixon (wk)
Simon Jones
Monty Panesar
James Anderson

12th Man: Ashley Giles/ Liam Plunkett

Chris Pallett

Preview: Australia vs Sri Lanka

The tournament favourites meet in Grenada today in what should be a compelling encounter. Both sides are favoured to meet in the final and they will be eager to impose themselves upon each other early on. The pitch in Grenada has been quite slow and difficult to play on so far and it may well favour Sri Lanka's style of play, especially as they are a Malinga down. Whilst Farheez Maharoof is a decent one day bowler, he is still a bowler the Aussies will fancy getting after and so the likes of Tilakaratne Dilshan and Russell Arnold could prove to be crucial with their contributions of part time spin on the slow surface.

Australia meanwhile must decide who to play instead of Shane Watson. Brad Hodge has been favoured to date, but both Stuart Clark and Mitchell Johnson are pressing hard for places in the starting line-up. It is likely that they will again favour the extra batting and the part time spin of Andrew Symonds, Michael Clarke and even Hodge. Along with Brad Hogg, a threat because of his rarity, they have decent slow bowling options to match Sri Lanka. Murali of course has strangely not always enjoyed playing the Aussies.

Prediction: Fascinating encounter. Sides have been getting closer to Australia and it could be time for a reality check. Without Malinga though, Sri Lanka are missing that extra penetration. Australia to win the pre-final, maybe Sri Lanka to save their best for the real thing.

Players to watch: Ricky Ponting and Mahela Jayawardene.

Preview: Bangladesh vs Ireland

The match provides Ireland with their best chance of a Super Eight victory, whilst for Bangladesh it is a real test of how far they have come. They are the favourites to win this game and they will have to deal with that expectaton. Both sides strengths lie in the bowling department and in Boyd Rankin and Trent Johnston, Ireland have two good seamers capable of taking the wickets of the best batsman. Meanwhile, the likes of Andre Botha, Andrew White and Kyle McCallan are capable of restricting sides in the middle overs.

In Mohammad Rafique, Sakib al Hasan and Abdur Razzaq, Bangladesh have a restrictive attack which is always in with an excellent shout on slow wickets. The up front pairing of Mashrafe Mortaza and Syed Rasel are also very capable and all round they are a good one day attack, backed up by youthful and athletic fielding. The inconsistency in the batting of both sides often proves to be their downfall and that is why both sides are in with a chance of victory today. Bangladesh though have more quality when they get it right.

Prediction: Bangladesh to show that they are most certainly no longer minnows.

Players to watch: Mushfiqur Rahim and Eoin Morgan.

Simon Jones

As the 2007 county season approaches, we will be compiling a list of six men to watch; not necessarily the finest players, but those with particularly significant and interesting seasons ahead.

Simon Jones (Glamorgan)
Everyone knows how good Simon Jones is. He can touch 90mph, he has fire and aggression; and he is a masterful exponent of reverse swing. In the 2005 Ashes, he took 18 wickets at just 21, following on from 15 at 26 in South Africa the previous winter.

The problem is that, at 28, he has still only played 18 Tests. A bowler of his skills is deserving of more than fleeting brilliance; but, alas, he has suffered a number of terrible injuries in his career. Jones revealed the strength of his character by returning better than ever after his horrific injury at The Gabba four years ago; now, after 20 months out of the England side, he must do it all again.

It is no coincidence that England’s form has worsened since. A number of bowlers have been tried in Jones’ place but none have, as yet, really convinced. Sajid Mahmood’s intermittent ability to induce reverse swing has been compared to Jones, but he lacks any semblance of control and too often lacks venom.

England need Jones back in their side, for the variety, dynamism and proven quality. They will watch his progress with Glamorgan with much interest, but will also be aware of the folly of rushing him back too soon. Initial signs have been encouraging; if Jones can work himself back to peak condition, England may well recall him for their second Test series of the summer.

2007 Glamorgan Preview

Saturday, 14 April 2007

Darren Gough

As the 2007 county season approaches, we will be compiling a list of six men to watch; not necessarily the finest players, but those with particularly significant and interesting seasons ahead.

Darren Gough (Yorkshire)
Many people expected Darren Gough to retire when, for all his bravado, he was – probably correctly – omitted from England’s World Cup squad. He stalled on a contract offer from Essex before – incredibly – being named new Yorkshire skipper.

With Jacques Rudoph’s signing confirmed and Anthony McGrath opting to stay, Yorkshire, after a highly tumultuous winter, were suddenly all smiles. The failings – and desperation - of appointing a 36-year-old with a suspect knee were badly remarked upon. In reality, Gough will do very well to play in 10 of Yorkshire Championship matches, so either McGrath (who originally rejected the job) or Younis Khan will have to fill-in regularly.

What Gough does have to offer, though, is an infectious love of cricket – particularly Yorkshire cricket – which will be very welcome after a turbulent few seasons. If he can inject a genuine sense of enjoyment and camaraderie, a very talented side should avoid the profound relegation concerns of last season.

As a captain, Gough will surely be instinctive and attacking, for that is how he has always played the game. He has a cannier cricket brain than he lets on, and has vast experience of the county game. But for him to be a success it is essential that his bowling leads by example; if not, his waning on-field powers could undermine his captaincy.

2007 Yorkshire Preview

Preview: New Zealand vs South Africa

Defeat to Sri Lanka on Thursday has left New Zealand in a potentially dangerous position. Should they lose to both South Africa and Australia then they could find themselves tied on points with both South Africa and England. Should that be the case, then net run rate would come into play and thanks to Stephen Fleming's tactical astuteness, the Kiwis are far better placed in that regard. By dragging out the defeat to Sri Lanka for 46 overs rather than going for a do or die approach, the damage to the net run rate was kept to a minimum. Whatever the result here they still have an excellent chance of progressing.

The same can not be said for the South Africans who desperately need victory. With the game against England a virtual quarter final, South Africa need to beat the Kiwis to ensure that they will still have a chance of progressing if they do lose to England on Tuesday. Again, net run rate would come into play, with England's currently superior. Graeme Smith is less concerned with run rate though and more with getting the two victories that will see both South Africa and New Zealand through.

With the pitch in Grenada looking slow, New Zealand will want to include offspinner Jeetan Patel, alongside Daniel Vettori, in order to give the South Africans another trial by spin. Whether Ryan Peterson plays is another matter altogether, with the South Africans favouring their all seam attack.

Prediction: Kiwis to do England a favour, spin and medium pace to be crucial once again.

Players to watch: Jeetan Patel and Jaques Kallis.

Friday, 13 April 2007

Ed Smith

As the 2007 county season approaches, we will be compiling a list of six men to watch; not necessarily the finest players, but those with particularly significant and interesting seasons ahead.

Ed Smith (Middlesex)
Ed Smith has had only brief experience leading in county cricket before; in 2004, he filled in while Kent skipper David Fulton was injured. But his relationship with Andrew Symonds was so fractious that the Australian refused to take orders from Smith. It was little surprise when Smith left for Middlesex at the end of the season.

Since joining, Smith’s form has been steady, though he has not been helped by being used both in the middle order and as an opener. But his weight of runs has been nowhere near that of 2003, when he was the first batsman to score 1000 runs and earned his only three England caps.

At 29, Smith, the owner of a punchy and attractive off-drive, knows time is running out on an international recall. But he claims he has more pressing concerns: leading a hugely talented Middlesex side, which he has just been opened captain of, back to the First Division.

Smith will be certainly taken out of his bubble, which may move his game onto the next level. He must use his analytical mind to achieve similar results to another intellectual – Mike Brearley, who lead Middlesex with great success for 11 seasons. He says he shall be an attacking captain who, similar to Michael Vaughan, encourages players to express themselves. If all goes well then – who knows? – Smith may even be considered a potential national skipper when Vaughan retires.

See Tim de Lisle's piece: From reading to leading

This is particularly interesting:
My hunch is that Smith will resurface, as Nasser Hussain did, twice, after three-year spells in the cold. Part of England's undoing in Australia was that they banked on youth in the absence of Michael Vaughan and Marcus Trescothick; they could do with a Mike Hussey or two. And captaincy, which can take a man out of himself and also give him more prominence, could be the catalyst.

Preview: Australia vs Ireland

Ricky Ponting is looking for Australia to impose themselves once more and Ireland will have a tough time preventing them from doing so. The Aussies have lost through complacency before, but Ireland really are aiming for respectibility from this encounter. Trent Johnston leads his new nation against his old and along with Dave Langford-Smith and Jeremy Bray, he will be looking to prove that he has what it takes to play at this high level.

Ireland have not looked like winning a Super Eight game so far and that is unlikely to change. Unlike Bangladesh they really are out of their depth, although the likes of Boyd Rankin and Niall O'Brien can really look to kick on their careers after this tournament. Ireland will hope that Andre Botha will return to aide their cause. They will need all the quality they can get, even if Australia rest key players. A first game for the talented Mitchell Johnson could be on the cards, while Andrew Symonds will be looking for his first major innings of the tournament if promoted.

Prediction: Australia no sweat.

Players to watch: Andrew Symonds and Trent Johnston.

Thursday, 12 April 2007

Saqlain Mushtaq

As the 2007 county season approaches, we will be compiling a list of six men to watch; not necessarily the finest players, but those with particularly significant and interesting seasons ahead.

Saqlain Mushtaq (Sussex)
Saqlain has had an extraordinary career. He is often acclaimed as the first off-spinner to master the doosra; he has also claimed 496 wickets, and was the fastest ever bowler to reach 100 ODI wickets.

In county cricket, his subtle variations and the desperate unease shown by English batsmen playing spin meant he was undeniably the key man in Surrey’s three County Championship wins of 1999-2002. His brilliance was such that he took 124 first-class wickets from just 19 games during ’99 and 2000 – at an average of 13.

But he over-bowled during his heyday, making him susceptible to injuries and reducing his mystique. Batsmen slowly grew accustomed to his bowling, and began picking his variations more readily. Accordingly, his effectiveness diminished; in ’03, he took 41 wickets for Surrey at 33 and, in his last Test, in March 2004, Sehwag and co plundered him for 204 runs.

He has been a sadly peripheral figure since, after an injury-ruined three years. But he is just 30 – and many spinners have peaked at a later age. Saqlain only needs to look at his compatriot Mushtaq Ahmed for evidence of how cricketing careers can be rejuvenated. If Sussex can reinvigorate Saqlain as they have Mushtaq, the sight of the two Pakistanis whirling away in tandem this campaign will be quite something.

Preview: New Zealand vs Sri Lanka

This contest pits second against third in a potential prequel of one semi-final. New Zealand are rapidly gaining belief, from within and without, that this is the year that they can finally emerge from the shadows and claim a first World Cup crown. Few could argue with their credentials and they could yet pip Australia to top spot.

Sri Lanka meanwhile are also in with an excellent chance of lifting the trophy for a second time and will want to assure themselves of a semi-final spot with victory here. With Australia and Bangladesh also to come, it is not totally inconceivable that they could miss out if they lose here, though that is highly unlikely. Their cause will not be helped by the absence of Lasith Malinga though, who has been especially brilliant with the old ball. Replacing him will likely be Farheez Maharoof, who could prove to be a weak link. They do have plenty of spin options to dig themselves out extra overs though.

Games between these two are rarely dull and they are very evenly matched, having drawn their latest ODI series 2-2 in New Zealand and also having drawn the Test series 1-1.

Prediction: Should be a fantastic game. New Zealand may just shade it if they can conquer Murali.

Players to watch: Jacob Oram and Kumar Sangakkara.

Wednesday, 11 April 2007

Marcus Trescothick

As the 2007 county season approaches, we will be compiling a list of six men to watch; not necessarily the finest players, but those with particularly significant and interesting seasons ahead. Also keep an eye on King Cricket's list.

Marcus Trescothick (Somerset)
Trescothick’s last year has been extremely traumatic, with twin tour walkouts and an international future looking doubtful in the extreme. But he took out some of his anger on Devon in a pre-season game, plundering a phenomenal 117-ball 256.

While he is said to have been in fine spirits during pre-season training with Somerset, his mental welfare will palpably continue to remain a great concern. Even if he scores bucketfuls of runs, the English selectors will obviously need much convincing that he is in a fit state to return. And, despite his assertions to the contrary, does Trescothick really want to play for England again, considering all the pressures of doing so?

In the meantime, pulverising mediocre county attacks in tranquil surroundings should help Trescothick; hopefully, he will revel in the glorious futility of sport. His opening partner and county captain Justin Langer - whom he will form a potentially superb opening partnershp with - could be crucial in helping him recover his focus.

If anyone doubts how much England need him, they should only see their opening struggles in the Caribbean. But a return is a long way off, and we should just be pleased to see Trescothick enjoy a harmonious and productive county season.

Preview: England vs Bangladesh

The first in a run of three massive games for England takes place today in Barbados. It really is do or die for England and given the same situation in the recent CB series, they were able to raise their game. Standing in their way first up is Bangladesh. Rewind to the last time England played Bangladesh in 2005 and this match would have been all but a forgone conclusion. Now it is far from it and that is a credit to Bangladesh, who are developing into a side that is fully equipped to compete at this level.

Mohammad Rafique, Abdur Razzak, and Saqibul Hasan will be confident that they can restrict England to a below par total, especially if they can get Andrew Flintoff in against them early. However, Ian Bell, Kevin Pietersen and Paul Collingwood are fine players of spin and they will be looking to take advantage of the lack of variety within the spin bowling attack, all three are of course slow left arm bowlers.

Bangladesh's youthful and excuberant batsmen are mostly solid hitters of a cricket ball and Michael Vaughan will be very worried at the prospect of the likes of Tamim, Aftab and Ashraful getting stuck into the likes of Sajid Mahmood, who has done little to justify his selection so far. England need to raise their game for this one, because Bangladesh are confident, though past history has shown that the Bangladeshis are at their least threatening when they are confident.

Prediction: Time for England to pick it up. Bangladesh's overconfidence could prove their undoing as in the past.

Players to watch: Andrew Strauss and Mohammad Ashraful.

Monday, 9 April 2007

Preview: West Indies vs South Africa

With Australia, New Zealand and Sri Lanka fairly certain of qualification for the semi-finals, only one spot is left up for grabs. It will be a fight til the death between South Africa, England, the West Indies and even Bangladesh. The first crunch match sees the West Indies look to reinvigorate their campaign against a dumbfounded South African side who lost to Bangladesh last week. The West Indies have won both of their last two World Cup encounters with South Africa and also the last two games in the Champions Trophy.

West Indies will need stella perfromances from their best batsman, especially Chris Gayle, who has so far failed to get the Windies off to characteristicly fast starts. Daren Powell will meanwhile need support with the ball and South Africa will be hoping that the offspin of Gayle and Marlon Samuels and legspin of Ramnaresh Sarwan will not prove to be as perilous as that of Bangladesh's triumvate spin attack. With the pitch at Grenada likely to favour bowling first though, it could be a seamers game, which will suit both sides, South Africa more so.

Herschelle Gibbs will miss the game with the injury which restricted him to batting at seven in the previous match. Loots Bosman is likely to open with Graeme Smith, while AB de Villiers, so far unsuccessful, should drop into a more comfortable position in the middle order. Andre Nel should maintain his place, having been one of the few positives against Bangladesh, while Andrew Hall, mysteriously absent against Bangladesh, should also return at the expense of either the disappointing Justin Kemp or Charle Langevelt.

Prediction: Whoever wins the toss and bowls should win. The tournament and of course England need the Windies to enact the Great Escape. Can South Africa react? Past history says no.

Players to watch: Brian Lara and Shaun Pollock.

A Vain Pursuit

Despite yesterday's first ton for an Englishman at this World Cup, I couldn't shake the feeling that it did more for Kevin Pietersen's sense of self-worth than for his team's chances of winning. With an apparent belter of a strip at his mercy, KP's strike rate declined from around or above a-run-a-ball early on, to something closer to 85 by the time he holed out off Nathan Bracken in the penultimate over.

Australia's intelligent bowling in the last twenty overs had left England becalmed (they only added 83 after Ian Bell's dismissal in the 30th), yet just as his team's hopes of posting a score of three hundred began to evaporate, so too did Pietersen's's sense of urgency. Fair enough, as Mark Nicholas pointed out from the commentary box, he somehow managed to get less of the strike in this period (although, shouldn't he have attempted to rectify that himself?) - but it wasn't until he had calmly trotted through for his first century in nigh on two and a half years that he actually threw the bat at a delivery. And that got him out.

This is the man who hit more sixes in an Ashes innings than any Englishman before him at the Oval in 2005. A cricketer whose brutal approach to batting could probably make Jayasuriya, Hayden and Gilchrist look like dilly-dallyers on his day. However, his only Dorothy against the Aussies was off Michael Clarke's part-time left-armers, and in the latter part of the innings even Ravi Bopara found the fence more times (twice) despite scratching around for most of his innings.

I can't tell if Pietersen was merely trying to make a point to the Aussies, or perhaps justify his place at the top of the ICC's rankings. Maybe he felt that a century would act as a sort of beacon for his team mates, spurring them to greater heights; but with less than two overs to kick-on in after his departure, Paul Nixon's lone six spoke of minimal inspiration. In the field England were fairly sharp, whilst KP's juggling quasi-catch off Andrew Symonds was almost worthy of redemption - but in reality, those three figures next to our star man's name boosted his average and little else. Okay, granted, the score was the backbone of the innings; but beating Punter and Co. required Pietersen to give them a darn good shellacking from gun to tape, rather than run watchful ones and twos on the way to a hundred. If anyone thinks that Nixon couldn't have done as good a job as Pietersen did after Bell (and Colly and Flints) had fallen, then I'd wager they're wrong - and this from a former avowed Nixon-barracker.

Last week Michael Vaughan spoke of the need for his batsmen to finish the job, so to speak, after reaching 50, and maybe those sentiments factored into Pietersen's thinking as the Aussies turned the screw. I'm certainly of the opinion that slating Pietersen for not being quite as excellent as he could have been, when the rest of the team's performance was mediocre, isn't the way to go. But (yes, another one) we needed at least an extra fifty runs to have made things hard for Australia yesterday, and without significant contributions from either Collingwood or a woefully out of sorts Flintoff, only some made-in-South-Africa pyrotechnics were ever going to get us there. After being dropped twice, this was a perfect opportunity to ram some Australian bluster back where it belongs. Unfortunately, KP's fuse appeared to have been dipped in the Caribbean.