Thursday, 28 June 2007

Are Bangladesh really progressing?

After their hugely encouraging wins over India and South Africa in the Caribbean, the feeling was that Bangladesh were finally turning the corner. Yet, in their last two Tests, they have lost by an innings and over 200 runs, claiming nine wickets for 1187 runs. Even in this age of ubiquitous “positives”, it is hard to see any encouraging signs amidst such cricketing slaughters.

As a one-day side, Bangladesh have enough flair in their batting and discipline in their bowling to be a competitive side; when players like Mohammad Ashraful or Mashrafe Mortaza are on form, they are perfectly capable of causing upsets, as illustrated in the World Cup.

But, in the Test arena, their batsmen, infuriatingly, seem incapable of playing with any discipline. Their woes are encapsulated by their precious 22-year-old skipper Ashraful, outrageously gifted but unable to bat for the long periods of time necessary to build Test innings; despite his apparent emergence after an excellent World Cup, he remains far too inconsistent and prone to losing concentration.

Their bowling was impressive in the West Indies, with Mortaza providing the penetration – as when taking four wickets against India - and their quartet of left-armers, including three left-arm spinners, proving very difficult to score quickly off on the generally slow wickets. Since then, they have played on slow wickets, in India and Sri Lanka, but, in Test match cricket, their bowlers, Mortaza sometimes excepted, very rarely bowl wicket-taking deliveries and runs are picked off with depressing ease.

In short, for all the hype surrounding their ODI performances which are, undeniably, on an upward curve, Bangladesh have shown virtually no improvement after seven years of Test cricket. They continue to be beaten mercilessly, providing such weak opposition that batting and bowling averages are devalued. They have a young team, yes but, considering all the investment in the game over the last decade, their lack of Test progress is a disgrace. Whether they are gaining more from regular Test thrashings then they would from regular games against A sides, mixed with ODIs and occasional Tests, however, is surely very doubtful.

Wednesday, 27 June 2007

Northern Soul with an Essex Swagger

With England's thrashing of the Windies being of such resounding magnitude that it could be heard all the way to South America, it's the County Championship that may provide this summer's intrigue. And following the Essex lads from afar, I couldn't help but stop a moment to acknowledge the sad truncation of our captain's season. I'd hoped to see Ronnie Irani out in the middle some time during September (when I get back from me travels), as the sun finally set on his time with the Eagles - but a crocked knee has taken him from us early (oh, why do the good always die young?) and it's only in my mind's eye that he'll ever take guard again...

Arriving in Chelmsford from the more northerly environs of Lancashire, Ronnie quickly established himself as a favourite at the County Ground - although he never did manage to shed the accent! A combative allrounder, he was the obvious choice to take on the captaincy in the wake of Paul Prichard's retirement and Nasser Hussain's increased commitment with England, and, I'm sure he'd be pleased to know, he always did us proud. Despite announcing recently that he would hang up his bat at the end of the season, his reign has ended early, leaving a gap in the line-up we'll be pressed to fill.

Whether he was bustling in to unleash his niggardly medium pace, or flaying the ball around at a fair old strike rate with willow in hand, his ability as a player was clear; despite never being quite able to translate this to the international arena. At his best in the one day game, he guided Essex to National League success in 2005 and 2006, as well as the last ever Benson and Hedges Cup final in 2002 (unfortunately not a great day out, as I recall). His strongest international analysis also came in limited overs, with 5 for 26 and 53, in the same match against India. As a Test player, his sum total of three appearances offers little opportunity for highlights, but I can vividly remember railing incandescently against a bum decision thrown Ronnie's way (given LBW, despite being outside the line) in the disastrous 1999 home series against New Zealand.

He didn't need luck so much on the County circut though, and it was as an increasingly accomplished batsman in the longer game that the last few seasons have been most notable for. With knee trouble forcing the right-arm away swingers to be packed up in the kitbag for good, he began performing solely in the top order from the 2004 season onwards, and consistently averaged around the 60 mark; his bankability helping go a long way to making up for the loss of such stalwarts as Nasser Hussain, Paul Grayson and, more recently, Andy Flower. Before making known his plans to retire, Reggie was averaging over a hundred, having hit a career-high score of 218 in the second game of the Championship at home to Glamorgan. Sadly, the knees couldn't quite make it.

With some of the young, talented players Essex have brought on recently, I'm not too worried about the batting (it looks like Grant Flower's staking his claim as 'veteran run-getter' at the moment too), although, as Richard has noted below, Mark Pettini and Varun Chopra could do with a few big scores at the top of the order. The captaincy issue is perhaps a little more crucial, and I'd be tempted to let Pettini concentrate on his game by throwing Jamie Middlebrook, or even Andy Bichel, the proverbial armband. However, it's more as a presence in and around the team that Irani will be chiefly missed.

Always a jovial, friendly cricketer, his captaincy engineered us a few wins we might not otherwise have had, and his honesty and connection with the fans were much respected. I would imagine he'll remain in the coaching set-up, once he's properly back on his feet, and it'd be great to see him standing on the balcony outside the changing rooms when I get along to the ground later in the summer. I'll always enjoy the memory of his clobbering Shane Warne out of the ground in one Warney's first few games at Hampshire; as well as some of the thunderous strokes he employed in Essex's recent one day ascendency. But it's the simple, incongruous-sounding, familiar three sylables in the middle-order of the Essex scorecard that I'll pine for most of all.

Cheers, R. C., you done good.

Tuesday, 26 June 2007

Mystic Richard’s Half Term review – part 3

It’s time to look at the challengers for the title and with just 12 points covering the top 5, this could be one of the closest championship races for many years. Seven teams (covered by 28 points) are still realistically in the hunt.

I predicted 8th and relegation but big wins over Sussex and Surrey leave them comfortably above the bottom two. The emergence of Joe Denly and return to form of Rob Key have been the major factors in their batting, although 8 of their team have made hundreds so far this season. Yasir Arafat has been the major wicket taker with 26 (at 30) with contributions from Ryan McLaren and Simon Cook with 19 and 15 respectively. They still have to play Worcester twice, which should see them move further away from the bottom two, but could see them drawn into the relegation battle.

I predicted top and currently 6th, Hants have been the big disappointment of the season to date. It could have been even worse as they have hung on to draw a couple of games (against Yorkshire and Kent) that they really should have lost. The weakness has been with the batting. All-rounders Nic Pothas and Dimitri Mascarenhas top the averages, but no-one has reached 500 runs yet. Only Pothas and Mike Brown have scored hundreds to date. The bowling has been hugely reliant on Aussie duo Shane Warne (33 wickets at 27) and Stuart Clark (24 at 25) although Chris Tremlett has shown a return to form in the last couple of matches. A collective kick up the backside could still see them challenging for honours. However, injury to one or both of their Aussies could see a very uncomfortable second half of the season.

I predicted 2nd and currently 5th, but closing the gap to the top quickly. It’s a measure of how close the league is that if Lancs had beaten Durham two matches ago, Paul Wiseman facing 92 ball for 7 runs to secure the draw for Durham, they would currently be top. Their batting hasn’t been great this season with only Stuart Law reaching 500 runs so far, although 6 players have centuries to their names. It is with slow bowling that Lancs have made their mark, with Muttiah Muralitheran taking 31 wickets at less than 15, ably supported by Gary Keedy (17 at 21). Two Roses encounters in the second half of the season could have a huge bearing on the outcome of the Championship.

I predicted 7th and a possible struggle. They are currently 4th, just 9 points off the top, although they have slipped somewhat after a flying start. They have also played three matches against the bottom two, so may find the second half of the season more challenging. No-one has reached 500 runs yet, despite Alex Loudon and Jim Troughton both having three centuries to their names. Topping the batting averages is wicket-keeper Tim Ambrose, with Kumar Sangakkara just behind. The bowling has been less potent, with Dale Steyn being the only bowler with more than 20 wickets (23 at 25). The Bears second half of the season last time round nearly saw them drawn into the relegation battle. They are much better placed to challenge at the top end of the table this time round, but need more potency in their bowling attack.

I predicted 6th and they are 3rd, despite losing more players to England than anyone else. Their batting is heavily reliant on Mike DiVenuto, with 822 runs at 75, and Dale Benkenstein with 537 at 60. No-one else has more than 350 runs for the season or hit a century. Steve Harmison’s self imposed exile from the World Cup helped get them off to a flyer and he has 24 wickets at 14. Graham Onions has 26 wickets (at 31) and there have also been useful contributions from Ottis Gibson (19 at 33) and Mark Davies (15 at 21) while Harmison and Liam Plunkett have been on England duty. If they are to continue their challenge, they need a greater contribution from the rest of the batsmen in the team.

I predicted 3rd and they are currently 2nd, although they have played a game more than everyone else. An appalling start to the season saw them beaten twice in the first three matches by an innings and then concede a huge score to Surrey in a game that they held on to draw. Murray Goodwin, Chris Adams and Richard Montgomerie have been the main sources of runs and the only three century makers to date. Like Hants, their bowling is reliant on their overseas players with Pakistani duo Rana Naved and Mushtaq Ahmed taking 70 wickets between them. Second mainly on the contribution of just five players, this could go either way, If the rest of the team fire, then they will run away with the title again. However, if injury strikes, then they could find the second half of the season a struggle.

I predicted 4th, and currently top after a flying start to the season from the momentum of the turbulent winter. Three wins in their first four games (a winning draw in the other), the challenge has slowed somewhat since although they have been on top in most games (the loss to Durham being the obvious exception). Joe Sayers and Jacques Rudolph are both well over 500 runs and 8 players have centuries to their names, including Jason Gillespie and Tim Bresnan who have 19 and 20 wickets (at 25) respectively. With Matthew Hoggard getting 17 wickets in his four games and Darren Gough and Adil Rashid taking 23 and 21 respectively, they have a balanced attack and strength in depth. An indication of this is that Gough is 15th in the batting averages, but his batting average (20) is still higher than his bowling average (18). This time last year they were winless and bottom. In the year from 20:20 to 20:20 they have been the pick of the championship. They need to keep the momentum going though to see off the closing pack.

Monday, 25 June 2007

Mystic Richard’s Half Term review – part 2

Having looked at the teams at the lower reaches of Division 2, it’s time to look at the four teams challenging for promotion, and the two teams that are likely to replace them in the 2nd tier

Div 2
I predicted 4th and in the promotion mix. They’re currently top and looking good. Batting at Taunton has been a dream this season and seven players have scored tons. Marcus Trescothick, Justin Langer, James Hildreth and Cameron White all have over 700 runs so far this season with Langer’s highest score of 315 being more than any Glamorgan player has managed in total this term. As impressive has been the bowling attack of Andrew Caddick (39 wickets), Charl Willoughby (29) and Peter Trego (21) all at an average of 30 or less. It looked as if the Taunton wicket would prevent too enough home victories but big wins in their last two matches have taken them to the top and they will be difficult to dislodge.

I predicted top and they’re one and half points behind in second, having recently gone off the boil with a loss to Glamorgan and being unable to force a win in a day and a half against Derby. On the batting front David Hussey, Jason Gallian and Mark Wagh all have more than 500 runs, while Samit Patel and Chris Read are both averaging over 50 as well. The bowling has been weakened by Ryan Sidebottom’s England call up, but Charlie Schrek (36 wickets at 24), Mark Ealham (25 at 24), Graeme Swann (24 at 30) and Paul Franks (23 at 30) are a well balanced and effective bowling attack. With Stephen Fleming still to come good this season, it should be a battle royale between the top two.

I predicted 2nd and they’re currently 3rd and 19 points behind the top two. Ronnie Irani tops the batting averages, but his retirement will hit the team hard, as did the loss of Andy Flower to England. None of the top six in the batting averages have played every game for Essex this season. Ravi Bopara tops the batting aggregate with 496 runs and Essex must be hoping that his injury isn’t serious enough to keep him out of the 2nd half of the season if they are to challenge. They must also hope for more from their opening pair of Mark Bettini and Vanush Chopra who haven’t score a hundred between them. Danesh Kaneria leads the bowling figures by a mile with 47 wickets at 25 and Essex should expect more from their overseas pair of Andre Nel and Andy Bichel. The loss of Irani may just be too much for them to cope with and their challenge could fall just short again.

I predicted 3rd and they are 4th having played a game less than the top three. Owais Shah, following his disappointing England performance, is making up for it in the Championship, along with the highly promising Ben Godleman, who is pushing for an academy place come the winter break. More disappointing have been Ed Joyce and Nick Compton who will both be looking for an improvement in the second half of the season. Bowling wise, Alan Richardson has 26 wickets at just 18, while Chris Silverwood has 23 and 21, meaning that Chaminda Vaas hasn’t been missed while injured and then on International duty. 35 points behind 2nd is a lot to make up, even with a game in hand, but they will be there or thereabouts come September.

Div 1

I predicted 5th, higher if Mark Ramprakash continued his form, but thought they would have difficulty taking wickets. Well the last part of that was correct at least. Currently 8th and 24 points behind Kent, they are still win-less, despite the best efforts of Ramprakash who has nearly a thousand runs already this season, averaging over 100. Jon Batty has also had a profitable season, but their problem isn’t scoring runs. Nadeem Doshi is the leading wicket taker with 13 at over 50. Mo Akram tops the bowling averages at nearly 40 runs per wicket. If they can’t bowl a team out twice then they will go down and unless they find some young wicket takers, they may struggle to come back up again.

I predicted 9th and that is where they are. Graeme Hick and Vikram Solanki have both scored over 500 runs, but no-one is averaging over 50 and there is little contribution from lower in the order. The bowling is heavily reliant on Kabir Ali (26 wickets) and Gareth Batty (19). There has also been little contribution from the overseas players, particularly Doug Bollinger who is averaging 50+ with the ball and 6 with the bat. Very close to their first win against fellow strugglers Surrey, they do at least look as if they could surprise someone, and I’d fancy them to finish above Surrey by the end of the season.

Mystic Richard’s Half Term review – part 1

We’re at the mid term break as 20:20 cricket takes over. So the question is, where do my predictions from the beginning of the season stack up and how are the teams doing. The teams seem to be split into three groups, with the top seven in Division 1 being well ahead of the bottom two and the top four in Division 2 challenging for promotion. I’ll start with the teams at the bottom of Division 2 and work my way up.

I predicted 9th and they are currently well above my expectations in 5th, despite a horrendous injury list and problems with Ian Harvey’s work permit. The batting has relied on Simon Katich while Steve Stubbings and James Pipe are also having an excellent seasons. Their highlight was at Somerset, where they reached 801 for 8 declared, which is good even for Taunton. Tom Lungley and Graham Wagg are starring with the ball, although Wayne White and Boyd Rankin (my early season tips) have done well when fit, and top the averages. They won’t challenge for promotion this year, but are putting together a strong squad for future years.

I predicted 5th and they are currently 6th and may have been higher if they’d been able to pull off an unlikely victory against Gloucester, losing by 4 runs in the last over of play. Lance Klusener and particularly David Sales have starred with the bat, as Northants also enjoyed their trip to Taunton. With the ball only Steve Crook has taken 20 wickets, and the bowling has continued to struggle. A win against Essex at the start of the season showed what could be possible. Losing by an innings in the return fixture is probably a more accurate reflection of the relative strengths.

I predicted 6th and they are currently 7th, with just the tight win against Northants to their credit. Runs haven’t been a problem with Marcus North, Grant Hodnett and Alex Gidman all passing 500 runs. Gidman’s fine form won him a call up to the England Lions team and will look to continue in the same vein to be involved in a winter tour. Bowling wise, things have been more difficult, with Alex Noffke leading the list with just 15 wickets to date. The loss of Jon Lewis to injury has been a big blow and with Craig Spearman only managing two games to date, they must be hoping for a better second half of the season.

I predicted 8th and they are indeed 8th and the only winless team in the Division. Their batting problems are shown by the fact that Paul Nixon tops the averages and no-one has reached 500 runs yet. HD Ackerman, who Leicester need to score heavily is averaging only 25 and no other team has scored fewer centuries. On the bowling front Stuart Broad has been injured for much of the season, and only Nick Walker and Dave Masters have taken more than 10 wickets. Surprisingly, given their struggles, Jeremy Snape hasn’t been seen in the Championship. The county probably take 20:20 more seriously than any other and must be hoping for a boost for the second half of the season.

I predicted 7th and they are 9th. However, despite being bottom, they have a great deal to be encouraged about, with the emergence of young talent such as James Harris and Gareth Rees. They have played one game less than anyone else, but must be disappointed that no-one has topped 300 runs yet, despite four players getting centuries. Having said that, only three players have played in each of their games (top of the table Somerset have had 8 ever presents). Harris leads the bowling averages and has taken 19 wickets in his 4 matches. Dean Cosker, Alex Wharf and Robert Croft are also well into double figures, while Simon Jones has only managed one game so far. It would be a surprise if they were still bottom at the end of the season.

Sunday, 24 June 2007

Greatest Test XI

The original 56-man shortlist has now been cut to 28. The list now reads as follows:

Opening batsmen (4):
Len Hutton, Jack Hobbs, Herbert Sutcliffe, Sunil Gavaskar

Middle-order batsmen (7):
George Headley, Brian Lara, Viv Richards, Don Bradman, Wally Hammond, Ricky Ponting, Graeme Pollock

Wicket-keepers (2):
Andy Flower, Les Ames
Clyde Walcott, the best batsman of all keepers, only played a third of his Tests as a keeper - but if anyone has some evidence to suggest he was also an excellent gloveman he would be strongly considered.

Allrounders (3):
Imran Khan, Keith Miller, Gary Sobers

Spinners (4):
Shane Warne, Bill O’Reilly, Muttiah Muralitharan, Derek Underwood

Fast bowlers (8):
Dennis Lillee, Ray Lindwall, Malcolm Marshall, Curtley Ambrose, Wasim Akram, Glenn McGrath, Alan Davidson, Richard Hadlee

Regarding the selection of the final XI, this notiional side will play on an unknown wicket - which means players must have proved themselves in a variety of conditions and, ultimately, those who did best in the trickiest conditions they faced will be in a better position to be selected.

Candidates are selected on their performances over an extended period of time but certain players' statistics were damaged by poor performances at the beginning or end of their careers, and this must be taken into account. We should assume players operate at their 'peak' - but this must have been not merely a series or two but a significant duration of their careers.

Statistics are obviously hugely significant, but not overly so - there will be no hesitation in selecting, say, a batsman with a lower average than someone else on the list not included. Particularly important is how players fared during the toughest challenges of their Test careers - it is for this reason that Sir Ian Botham, although he averaged 38 with the bat and 23 with the ball during his first 54 Tests, has been omitted: he was consistently poor against the best side of his era, the West Indies, averaging 15 and 31 during this time span and 21 and 35 overall.

The final XI will be a balanced side with the tools to thrive in all conditions so, for instance, the side would not include four swing bowlers even if they were the best four quicks of all time.

I will begin analysing each facet of the 28 shortly but, first, there will be a few days for appeals to be made regarding the list. Please leave your comments below, and feel free to join the discussion for this Greatest Test XI, already stretching to 10 pages, at the World A-Team forums.

Saturday, 23 June 2007

Another new ODI Era

Paul Collingwood has had very limited captaincy experience, but he is an experienced one-day international player, a fine team man and a thoroughly worthy choice to lead England’s latest ODI era.

Collingwood, when asked for the qualities he brings to the side, once remarked upon his “ginger hair”; his fighting qualities have never been in doubt. He is, some would say, the safe choice but, with Kevin Pietersen having said he did not want the job, he was virtually the only choice. Collingwood’s friendship with Michael Vaughan and the fact he clearly shares the same cricketing values means, insomuch as it is possible, having two captains should cause very few problems.

His introduction will be almost as gentle as they come against a West Indian side lacking consistency with the bat and penetration with the ball.

The road to ODI success will be a long one. England will hope their overhaul of the top three begins smoothly, with the contrasting gifts of Alastair Cook, Matt Prior, who should not think of himself as a ‘pinch-hitter’ but seek to play in the attacking, yet not reckless, manner of his opening Tests and either Ian Bell or the newcomer Jonathan Trott. Trott is an unlikely selection but offers top-order aggression, while it must be hoped the supremely gifted Owais Shah is given a fair chance to showcase his talents – ideally at five, although this is where Collingwood would like to bat.

In the bowling department, Ryan Sidebottom has the chance to do what Jon Lewis has yet to be given the chance to, despite his excellent record, and cement himself as a regular in the one-day side as a stock bowler, England’s Nathan Bracken. Dimitri Mascarenhas has the attributes to be a modern-day Mark Ealham, while the highly promising Stuart Broad has made an excellent earl impression and has the temperament to thrive in the international scene. Liam Plunkett and James Anderson, meanwhile, will be aiming simply for a semblance of consistency.

Friday, 22 June 2007

Glamorgan: Cardiff Ground Development (3)

Glamorgan's investment in their Sophia Gardens ground development is starting to bear fruit, as those who waited patiently in the Cardiff rain on the evening of the opening Twenty 20 game found out.

The progress since I last posted on this in March is significant, and there is a real feeling of a Test ground taking shape, despite the 3rd Ashes Test of 2009 being just over 2 years away. There is more to be done, but the development is on course for its planned completion date of Spring 2008, well ahead of September 3rd, the date of the England v South Africa ODI.

Glamorgan Chairman Paul Russell has spoken confidently this week of bidding for Twenty 20 Finals Day in 2010 and an England Test versus India in 2011.

#1 The site of the new pavilion and members' area (with cushioned seats). This is on the car park /open side of the 'old' ground.

#2 The new grandstand is in 'frame and foundation form' only. It will hold 6,000 fans. It is situated on the site of the 'old' pavilion.

#3 On the left, the Castle Stand provides seating between the new Grandstand and the old 'River Taff End' stand (which is thankfully still there!).

These pics were taken on the evening of Glamorgan's 1st Twenty 20 match of the summer, Friday 22nd June 2007. Persistent rain eventually forced the game versus Gloucesteshire to be abandoned without a ball bowled, despite a sell out crowd of 4,000 (limited capacity).

Thursday, 21 June 2007

Who should England pick for Twenty20?

With the Twenty20 World Cup looming in September, it is time England assemble a strategy to win the tournament. Considering the amount of domestic Twenty20 played, England should be genuine contenders for tournament victory – but not if they dogmatically insist on playing an identical side to the one utilised on one-day internationals.

Here is the side they should pick:

Marcus Trescothick
The powerful left-hander has long since proved himself a superb international player, and has a game perfectly suited to Twenty20; indeed, he averages 55 in the three international games he has played to date.

Mal Loye
Mastered the art of the slog sweep off quick bowlers, an idiosyncratic shot which infuriates bowlers and has been extremely effective, even during his brief ODI career. Loye’s aggressive, fearless style has worked terrifically well to date in this form of the game.

Darren Maddy
Dubbed "Mr Twenty20" by David Lloyd, Maddy was the key man in Leicestershire’s two Twenty20 triumphs, opening the innings to great effect and scoring a match-winning 86* in last year’s final.

Kevin Pietersen
The world’s best ODI batsman is a must pick if England choose to treat the game with the respect it deserves.

Paul Collingwood (captain)
Collingwood is seen as a nudger and nurdler but, as he showed with a 26-ball 46 in the Twenty20 game against Australia in 2005, is very adept at improvising to hit boundaries. He also possesses an ice-cool temperament and his accurate medium-pace bowling has much Twenty20 potential – his 4-22 against Sri Lanka are the best international figures in this form of the game.

Andrew Flintoff
An extremely destructive hitter when his mind is uncluttered, Flintoff’s accurate and fast bowling would surely prove very effective in Twenty20.

Paul Nixon (wicket-keeper)
Matt Prior has done terrifically in Test cricket and is a big hitter but, at the death in the claustrophobic environment of Twenty20, Nixon, with his resilience under pressure and penchant for the reverse-sweep, is an ideal man to have coming in – and his relentless sledging could also be worth a few wickets.

Ian Blackwell
Monty Panesar could prove too predictable in Twenty20 cricket, but Blackwell has fared well with bat and ball in this form of the game. His excellent ODI economy rate – 4.27 – suggests he could tie top quality batsmen down; regulars at Tauntan know he has copious destructive batting potential.

Mark Ealham
Snigger if you must but Ealham’s brand of frugal medium-pace bowling and uncultured hitting have earned extraordinary success in Twenty 20: his strike-rate is a phenomenal 174; his economy rate a mightily impressive 6.8.

Darren Gough
Gough was never granted a satisfactory international farewell but, in Twenty20 cricket, his love of the big stage, fantastic yorker and late-order biffing are deserving of one final international crack – remember he claimed 3-16 against Australia in 2005.

Stuart Broad
Broad revealed his big-match temperament with some sterling exploits in Leicestershire’s Twenty20 triumph last season, taking 3-13 off four brilliant overs against Kent in the quartr-final. An immensely promising quick, he can also bat reasonably well.

Other squad members:
Owais Shah
Shah has done disappointingly for England in ODIs, but he is a richly talented player whose unorthodoxy and flair have come good in Twenty20 - he averages 35 and has a strike-rate of 147.

Ravi Bopara
A Collingwood clone, albeit more obviously talented, Bopara had an excellent World Cup and, despite a modest Twenty20 record, is well suited to this format of the game.

Jeremy Snape
Snape’s nerve and willingness to bowl extraordinarily slow balls - known as 'moonballs' - have served him brilliantly in Twenty20; he has captained Leicestershire to their two titles and also averaged 25 with the bat.

Ryan Sidebottom
Sidebottom brings variety, in that he is a left-armer, control and the crucial ability to swing the white ball. These have certainly stood him in excellent stead in the helter-skelter of Twenty20: his economy rate is an exceptional 6.6.

If Trescothick were unavailable, Shah would replace him - he would bat at three and Maddy would open.

If Flintoff were unavailable, Snape or Bopara would replace him.

On the periphery: Mark Ramprakash, James Hildreth, Matt Prior, Michael Yardy, Dimi Mascarenhas, Monty Panesar

Wednesday, 20 June 2007

Championship – Week 9

A full set of fixtures for the weather to get its teeth into as the Championship goes into its mid season break. It’s getting tight at the top in both divisions…

Div 1
Top played second (and Champions) at Headingley Carnegie, and the early success went to the rain as the first day and a half was lost. When put into bat by Sussex, Yorkshire found the conditions difficult, losing the first 5 batsmen for 26 runs before recovering to 139. Sussex started well in reply, reaching 43 for the opening stand. However, the conditions were still difficult and in the end they managed just 2 more than Yorks. Batting appeared easier second time round, and Yorkshire declared on 284 for 6. However, despite two early wickets, there wasn’t enough time to force a result and the match was drawn.

The result above (with no batting points being collected) gave Durham a chance to take over at the top. They started well with Graham Onions taking two wickets in his first over, and dismissed Hampshire for 232, before replying with 288, built around a ton for Michael DiVenuto. Shane Warne took 6-fer. Hants batted much better second time round, with Warne and Chris Tremlett hitting out to allow the declaration at 309 for 9, setting Durham 253 to win. Warne and Tremlett did the damage, taking 5 and 4 respectively and Hampshire close the gap to the top teams.

Also looking to play catch up were Lancashire, who scored 451 for 5, Brad Hodge getting an unbeaten ton. Kent couldn’t reach the follow-on target and subsided to 272 and 190 in their two innings, with Murali taking 4 wickets in each innings. Lancs did lose two quick wickets, but knocked off the 12 runs required for victory and are now just 12 points off the top spot, in fifth place.

Warwickshire stay fourth despite not being able to roll over their local rivals Worcestershire. Batting first, the Bears scored 343, Jim Troughton scoring a hundred. Worcester replied with 399, with Stephen Moore getting a ton and Graeme Hick scoring his 40000th run in first class cricket. However, with the rain around, there was barely time to start the Warwickshire 2nd innings and the match finished in a draw.

It’s all very tight at the top of the table now, with Yorkshire still ahead of Sussex. However, with Kent in 7th place only 28 points off the top, any of the top 7 could be challenging for the title. Unfortunately, the relegation issue seems to be done and dusted already, with Surrey and Worcester well adrift of the rest.

Div 2
Nottinghamshire looked to bounce back from defeat at Glamorgan and skittled Derbyshire for just 108, with Charlie Shrek continuing his impressive form with 7-fer. Mindful of the weather, Notts then scored a rapid 302 for 2, Mark Wagh getting a ton, at 6 an over. However, with only just over 100 overs available in the match, Derby were able to hang on for a draw and Despite their best efforts, Notts lose top spot.

Somerset were another team not hanging around, and with Andrew Caddick taking 7-fer (and Marcus Trescothick taking five catches, Gloucestershire scored just 121. Somerset declared on 410 for 7 (from just 78 overs) and then proceeded to skittle Gloucester again, this time for 138, Caddick and Charl Willoughby taking five apiece. The 50 extra overs that Somerset had over Notts was enough to take them to the top of the league.

Essex and Middlesex were also looking to take advantage of Notts stumbles. Essex batted first and despite being 97 for 6, they recovered to score 376, with James Middlebrook and Andy Bichel getting hundreds. Martin Saggers then took 5-fer as Middlesex subsided to 177. Second time round, however, they were on 360 for 6 as time was called on the game, Owais Shah getting a ton.

Northamptonshire and Leicestershire were also victims of the weather. Northants scored 251 in their first innings, David Masters getting 5-fer, before Leicester declared on 131 for 4. Northants were 171 for 7 second time round and that was it with barely a day and a half available and only 18 overs possible on the final day. Neither team looks like challenging at the top this season.

The promotion race looks like a good 4 horse race, with Somerset and Notts in the box seat at the moment over Essex and Middlesex. At the bottom, Leicester are still to win a game, while Glamorgan seem to have played less games than anyone else, probably because half of their team have to wait for the school holidays.

England player watch
Stuart Broad took 4 wickets and got some good overs under his belt dodging the showers. Ian Blackwell, however, was just given the one over (a maiden). His batting looks in top form though, with 72 from 68 balls, if the selectors are to give him another go. In the same boat is Jamie Dalrymple, whose batting looks well ahead of his bowling at the moment. Chris Tremlett’s explosive batting and eight wickets is a timely reminder to the selectors. Liam Plunkett took four wickets in the same game, but wasn’t able to stem the flow of runs from the Hants lower order. Tidy stuff and five wickets for James Anderson for Lancs. A similar story for Tim Bresnan at Yorks, with 2 for 14 off 9 overs, and a breezy 27 as the declaration was set.

Mal Loye’s 75 for Lancs should have the selectors taking notice. Alex Gidman missed out as Gloucester subsided to Somerset, while James Hildreth scored 48 and took four catches for the opposition. Owais Shah scored a ton for Middlesex and must surely come back into the England One Day reckoning, possible ahead of Ed Joyce, who seems to be struggling for runs at the moment. Not such good news for Ravi Bopara though, whose injury will keep him out of the forthcoming series. Vikram Solanki scored 41 for Worcester before he leads the England Lions later in the week.

Player of the Week
Shane Warne comes close, with some big hitting and eleven wickets. However, another veteran gets the award this week. He probably thinks he should still be in the England team and his county captain thinks that he has spoken some of the biggest rubbish ever about cricket, but for match figures of 12 for 71 and forcing the victory that takes Somerset top of Division 2, the Player of the Week is Andrew Caddick

Tuesday, 19 June 2007

England Series Ratings

England eased to a 3-0 series victory against the West Indies, but the opposition, with a few honourable exceptions, were no better than a poor county side. How did England’s players rate?

Alastair Cook 8
Two relatively routine Test centuries to take his tally to six – and two 50s to boot – were reward for a series in which Cook grew in confidence and aggression; in doing so, he showed the time is right for him to have an extended run in the ODI side.

Andrew Strauss 3
While his partner flourished, Strauss’ winter struggles continued as both his technique and previously unflappable temperament came under question. Although he made a very good 77 in the last Test, he averaged at least 21 less than all the other members of the top seven and has much to do to prove he has not been found out at Test level.

Owais Shah 1
Shah played two somewhat chaotic innings at Lord’s and, if this immensely talented player is to thrive at Test level, it will probably not be at number three.

Michael Vaughan 8
It was as if Vaughan had never been away. His comeback hundred hardly rivalled those of Boycott in ’77 and Thorpe in 2003, but, nonetheless, it was a highly fluent knock which showcased the best of Vaughan. His captaincy was an important facet of England’s three consecutive victories though both that and his batting will face tougher tests against India.

Kevin Pietersen 9
Pietersen made two fabulous consecutive hundreds, including his Test best, 226, to illustrate he has the patience and temperament to make huge scores at Test level. Despite a series average of 66, there were still a few too many moments of impetuosity.

Paul Collingwood 7
Collingwood looked worryingly troubled on occasions, but he rode some extraordinary good fortune to make 111 at Lord’s before scoring a terrific 128 on his first Test at home to cement his place in the side. At Lord’s, he also bowled well to claim the wicket of Bravo.

Ian Bell 7
Bell scored a rather facile century in the First Test, but his excellent 97 at Old Trafford made in the trickiest batting conditions England faced all series, was testament to his increased maturity.

Matt Prior 8
Prior scored a century on debut and 75 in the second Test, but it was his innings of 40 and 62 in the last two Tests, made under far more testing circumstances, that were more indicative of his qualities as a Test batsmen, although a few dismissals were born of over-confidence. His keeping, while never matching the levels of Read, was agile and is clearly improving.

Liam Plunkett 3
Plunkett took 4-60 in the match at Headingley, but this was in spite of serial inaccuracy. His action, a victim of excess biomechanics, is fundamentally flawed and if England leave him playing for Durham for the remainder of the summer it will help him realise his rich potential.

Steve Harmison 5
Harmison often seemed incapable of hitting the square, let alone the stumps, but he deserves credit for working through his problems, with the help of Allan Donald, to bowl with much more venom in the last three innings of the series. His commitment cannot be doubted, either, after bowling a spell of 17 consecutive overs to help England to victory on his home ground.

Ryan Sidebottom 8
England’s big find of the series, the shaggy-haired Sidebottom claimed 16 wickets at under 20, although he went wicketless in West Indies’ last two second innings, and also biffed impressively. Left-armers able to swing the ball both ways, as Sidebottom, a beneficiary of many years on the county circuit, proved he can, are rare and he deserves the series against India to prove he can trouble the world’s best batsmen.

Matthew Hoggard 7
Hoggard was reassuring, and most impressive, in claiming 5/86 on his return on the final Test.

Monty Panesar 9
Panesar was England’s key man; there were many occasions during the first and third Tests when it seemed as if only he could take a wicket. Although he was perhaps a little defensive in the first three Tests, he bowled with more loop at Chester-le-Street to claim 5-46. Overall, he was fantastic, claiming 23 wickets at 18 to continue his development as a spinner able to both contain and to take top order wickets even in unhelpful conditions.

Monday, 18 June 2007

Vaughan's resignation paves the way for a new ODI era

Michael Vaughan has always been a poor one-day player, and it now appears he will never have the chance to rectify this. But his decision to resign the ODI captaincy must be applauded; it is in the interests of both himself and England.

The nature of the shorter formats of the game is such that the chances of Vaughan receiving an injury would be greatly accentuated. At 32, he is probably one major injury way from retirement, and seriously damaging his knee in ODIs or Twenty20 would be a desperately sad end to his international career.

Vaughan’s aim is surely to regain the Ashes in 2009.To achieve that, he needs an extended run in the Test side, establishing stability so lacking in the past 18 months while proving he can still score runs against the world’s finest attacks. Frankly, it makes no sense for him playing in one-dayers. As he has admitted, he will not be around for the 2011 World Cup.

That in itself was not sufficient reason to dispense with him – Australia continued with the likes of Lehman, Bevan and Bichel after the 2003 tournament – but, moreover, England’s chances of success either at the Twenty20 World Cup this year or the 2008 Champions Trophy are not greatly enhanced (if at all) by his presence. So it is a sensible solution for all concerned for him to resign now, having reaffirmed his hold on the Test captaincy against the West Indies.

People will point to Nasser Hussain resigning in 2002 for evidence of the instability two skippers can cause, but Hussain was far less suited to compromise than Vaughan; they are traits that served him very well as skipper, but he was fundamentally not suited to be a ‘half-skipper’.

Vaughan, however, is more laid-back and, though he can be very stubborn, should not suffer greatly from having someone else lead the ODI side, especially as the most likely candidate – Paul Collingwood – would be unlikely to do things in a very different manner. That said, I would prefer to entrust Kevin Pietersen with the extra responsibility as he is by far England’s best player, has a very astute cricket brain and, in ODIs, attacking captains are almost always the most successful – and, if nothing else, he would surely be that.

See 'One Day Options'

The Bradman of New Road

Thinking of the batting greats of this era, attention, inevitably, will turn first to those who made a big impact on the international scene. But, when people flicking through Wisden see a G.Hick, one of only 16 men to hit 40,000 first-class runs, they will wonder why it is his Test average was only a paltry 31.32.

Graeme Hick, although he was given a generous 65 Tests to prove his worth, can consider himself an unlucky Test cricketer. Having a seven-year qualifying period didn’t help – he is a largely bashful personality and did not enjoy being bandied about as the English Bradman, while his baptism against the West Indies in 1991 was particularly unforgiving. Although his Test career only ended six years ago, Hick played the vast majority of his career in circumstances that bear no resemblance to the plethora of easy pickings available in international cricket today, a point that must be considered in the final analysis.

Moreover, he was perennially a victim of selection upheaval, being dropped no fewer than 11 times throughout his career; he was doomed to continually veering from scapegoat to saviour, and it would have taken its toll on anyone. Shane Warne said he had "really been messed around".

During his only regular run in the side – between the start of 1993 and the end of the ‘95/96 South Africa tour – Hick averaged 45. Yet, testament to the bizarre selection of the era, he was dropped after the second Ashes Test in ’93, despite having scored 178, 47, 68, 26, 34, 22, 20 and then 64 in his last eight Test innings. In amongst it all he played some very fine innings, such as his maiden Test century, 178, in an innings defeat in India and a superb 141 at Centurion Park in 1995. Alas, he never got an Ashes century; Mike Atherton infamously declared him on 98* during the ’94-95 tour.

In spite of his relentless plundering of county attacks, however, his technique did have some fatal flaws, particularly against the short ball. And, it was because he had destroyed county attacks with almost unprecedented regularity prior to his international debut that it was so hard for him to alter his method.

Yet, away from the Test arena, he made runs with unfailing regularity everywhere he went. He has scored over 100 centuries for Worcestershire alone, including 172 against Messrs Ambrose, Patterson, Walsh and Bishop in 1988, at a time when touring games were still treated with respect. And his achievements in, when in his early 20s, being a phenomenal success for Auckland, in ‘87/88 and ‘88/89 and, after a slow start, averaging 49 in the extremely competitive Sheffield Shield in ‘90/91 are seldom remarked upon.

In one-day internationals, where the pressure is great but players are freer to play on instinct, can worry less about technique and the game is generally more batsman-friendly, Hick performed extremely well, averaging 37 over 126 games. Again, however, he was the victim of selectorial blunders, in that he was sometimes, as in 1996, dropped for bad Test form. Even at 36, he surely should have played in the 2003 World Cup.

Yet, throughout all this turmoil, Hick’s run-scoring at New Road remained a constant. To continue playing county cricket with enormous success even after suffering the anguish of international failings has been an exceptional achievement; only once, in ’91, have his international disappointments been replicated on the county stage. Even at the age of 41, Hick has been in terrific form, averaging 47 in the County Championship, including scoring a century off Muralitharan at Old Trafford, and 68 in the Friends Provident Trophy.

Wisden 2007 revealed that only Jack Hobbs has scored more hundreds in all professional cricket than Hick. It is testament to his longevity, his love for the game but, above all, his continued dedication to maximising his wonderful talent. He has, of course, not been the batsman everyone thought he would be when, in those pre-England days, he could do no wrong as he mercilessly put attacks to the sword in a way that was both beautiful and brutal, a fusion of majestic timing, placement and sheer power.

But he has continued, more or less, to do so for Worcestershire; he is unquestionably their finest ever player, owner of their highest ever score and a key man in two of the five Championships in their history. Typical of his unassuming, modest manner he claims that he is “not really fussed” about reaching 40,000 first-class runs. Well, he should be. For 22 years, Hick has been the Bradman of New Road and, for all his failings, cricket will not forget a man whose run-scoring capacity at county level has defied belief.

Sunday, 17 June 2007

The Best of the Rest

The 56-man shortlist for the greatest Test XI of the last hundred years will, inevitably, contain many notable omissions. Here is a ‘best of the rest’ XI selected form those who didn’t quite make the grade.

Bill Ponsford
Ponsford averaged 48 in Tests in the decade between 1924 and '34, while his first-class average is an outstanding 65. He is the only batsman in history to have hit two first-class 400s, and was a fine player of spin, yet there is a feeling he could have been even better. As Cricinfo comments, "In his first and last series, those of 1924-25 and 1934 against England, he made nearly half of his total of Test runs for an average of 64.81, whereas in his other six series he made his runs at under 40." Ultimately, it was this that counted against him.

Graham Gooch
Only averaged 42 in Tests but played his best Test cricket after the age of 35, and succeeded against some of the best pace attacks of all time. A courageous batsman who could counter-attack to great effect, his brilliant 154* against the West Indies at Headingley in 1991 is officially rated the finest Test innings of all time, while he holds the record for most runs ever in a Test match (456 against India in 1990).

Peter May (captain)
May was a hugely graceful stroke-player, and an outstanding captain, winning 20 of his 41 Tests in charge, who symbolised ideals of both elegant batsmanship and sportsmanship. However, his terrible record in his sole series in South Africa (average 15) prevented his selection for the final shortlist.

Rohan Kanhai
An unorthodox and exhilarating batsman, Sunil Gavaskar once wrote “To say that he is the greatest batsman I have ever seen so far is to put it mildly.” Kanhai scored 15 Test hundreds and, after a slow start (he took 13 Tests to register his first century) established himself as a formidable batsman. He was selected in the original list but was edged out by the plethora of terrific middle-order batsmen.

Stan McCabe
Like Kanhai, McCabe was selected in the original shortlist and missed out by the narrowest of margins. He averaged 48 for Australia – although remember this was during the Ashes run gluts of the 1930s – but his fearlessness and thrilling strokeplay was best highlighted by a pulsating 187* at Sydney in 1932. It was, by far, the finest innings played against Bodyline – and one of the best of all time – and it was a great shame that his last Test cricket was played at just 28.

Kumar Sangakkara (wicket-keeper)
Sangakkara is a tremendously elegant batsman who, at 29, still has time to force his way up the pantheon of greats. He has struck 12 Test hundreds, each of them compiled in thrilling style, and shown his qualities as a wicket-keeper through keeping successfully to Muralitharan over an extended period of time.

Andrew Flintoff
Like Ian Botham, only even more so, Flintoff’s spell at the top looks like it will prove disappointingly short. But, over a 30-Test spell period from the start of 2004 to the start of the summer of 2006, Flintoff was perhaps the world’s finest player, averaging 41 with the bat and 25 with the ball; his exploits in the 2005 Ashes, against easily the best side of his generation, were phenomenal. When his confidence was high, Flintoff was a very fine batsman capable of both mature and counter-attackings knocks; and, as anyone who saw that over to Messrs Langer and Ponting at Edgbaston would testify, his consistency, pace, aggression and bounce made him a superb quick.

Shaun Pollock
Pollock’s record over more than 100 Tests, averaging 32 with the bat and 23 with the ball, is phenomenal. Incredibly, he averages less than 24 against all Test opposition, bar one – but against Australia he fares much worse, averaging 37. His sustained excellence is undoubted and few can rival his ability to extract help from a seaming wicket, and Pollock, included in the original list, misses out by the narrowest of margins.

Wes Hall
Hall was a tall, muscular fast bowler who, aged just 21, showed sufficient adaptability and willpower to take 46 wickets at 17 in eight sub-continental Tests. However, it was his terrific exploits against England and Australia during the memorable contests of the early 1960s that secured his reputation, including 9/203 during the unforgettable tied Test. Though his decline began earlier than he’d have wished, he was the first truly great West Indian fast bowler.

Jeff Thomson
For a few years, Thomson, along with Dennis Lillee, was the world’s fiercest and most deadly fast bowler. On quick, bouncy surfaces, he was a partisan home crowd’s dream – but, in the era just before helmets, a truly terrifying sight for batsmen. Injuries took their toll, and Thomson had to adapt, nullifying his effectiveness – but one only had to look at the West Indies’ fearsome pace quartets for proof of his impact.

Bishan Bedi
Bedi was a masterful exponent of the classical art of left-arm spin and watching a duel between him and a fine batsman was invariably intriguing, made all the more so by Bedi’s habit of clapping 4s; it was as if that, in doing so, the opposition were merely being sucked further into the Indian’s web. However, a strike rate of 80 – and an average of almost 40 in 12 Tests in England – is higher than one would wish.

Twelfth man: Jacques Kallis
On raw statistics – an average of 55 with the bat and 31 with the ball – Kallis rivals Gary Sobers as the finest all-rounder of all time. Yet, like Matthew Hayden, amongst others, he is the beneficiary of serial gorging against the world’s weakest attacks, averaging 114 in 26 Tests against Zimbabwe, Bangladesh and West Indies, and only 44 against other nations. Nonetheless, he is a fine, albeit largely colourless, batsman and a fast-medium seamer whose quality was illustrated by a match-winning 6-54 in England in 2003.

Saturday, 16 June 2007

Greatest Test XI - Final shortlist

Having picked my preliminary shortlist, I was met with a barrage of complaints regarding players unfairly omitted. Having taken these on board, and done some more detailed research, the final 56-man shortlist for the greatest Test XI from the last hundred years (1908-2007) now reads:

Opening batsmen (7):
Jack Hobbs, Herbert Sutcliffe, Sunil Gavaskar, Geoff Boycott, Len Hutton, Arthur Morris, Gordon Greenidge

Middle-order batsmen (19):
Everton Weekes, George Headley, Brian Lara, Viv Richards, Frank Worrell, Clyde Walcott, Javed Miandad, Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, Don Bradman, Steve Waugh, Allan Border, Greg Chappell, Neil Harvey, Wally Hammond, Ken Barrington, Denis Compton, Ricky Ponting, Graeme Pollock

Wicket-keepers (4):
Alan Knott, Andy Flower, Adam Gilchrist, Les Ames

Allrounders (5):
Imran Khan, Keith Miller, Ian Botham, Kapil Dev, Gary Sobers
For the purposes of this exercise, 'allrounder' is someone who can bat at seven or above and be one of five bowlers in a 'Greatest Test XI', which is why Benaud, Hadlee and Akram just miss out and appear elsewhere instead.

Spinners (6):
Shane Warne, Bill O’Reilly, Muttiah Muralitharan, Richie Benaud, Derek Underwood, Jim Laker

Fast bowlers (15):
Dennis Lillee, Ray Lindwall, Malcolm Marshall, Curtley Ambrose, Courtney Walsh, Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis, Allan Donald, Glenn McGrath, Fred Trueman, Harold Larwood, Joel Garner, Alan Davidson, Richard Hadlee, Michael Holding

A post on those who just missed out will be forthcoming.

Do leave your views on the list and feel free to spread word of it. The next stage will be to analyse the respective candidates in all fields, and then to drum the list down to 35.

Thursday, 14 June 2007

One Day Options

With the final test about to start, it's time to start thinking of the shorter game. The World Cup disappointment and the fact that the West Indies are also rebuilding means that this is the ideal opportunity to begin building a new One Day team. Here are the options and my team to take the national team forward.

Wicket Keeper
Lets start with the easy one and the one position where we are choosing from strength. Paul Nixon had a very good World Cup, but Matt Prior has announced himself onto the world scene, is 12 years younger and may even get in on his batting alone. In the wings we have Tim Ambrose, James Foster and Chris Read (amongst others) , but at the moment Prior is well ahead of the pack and I'd have him opening the batting.

England's problem at the World Cup was the number of accumulators at the top of the innings, and with Ali Cook also being mentioned, it is time to move away from test batsmen playing ODIs.

Only one of Vaughan, Bell, Strauss, Joyce and Cook should play, as an opening batsman. For this series, this comes down to a straight choice between Bell and Cook. Marcus Trescothick hasn't been considered.

Of the five middle order batsmen we need, three are clear cut choices, with Pietersen, Collingwood and Bopara being our best three batsmen in the World Cup. This leaves two spaces, as Collingwood and Bopara constitute the fifth bowler.

To my mind, in the frame should be Owais Shah, Vikram Solanki, James Hildreth, James Benning, Alex Gidman. Of those, Benning is not in great form at the moment, but his time should come later. The other four should all make the squad and given an opportunity. However, my first two choices will be two who have been tried before - Shah and Solanki. Both are in great form and both will benefit from a more consistent selection policy.

Four bowlers are required. With Flintoff (who should be considered to be a bowler) injured, then Jimmy Anderson is our best One Day bowler. Sharing the new ball with him should be Simon Jones. None of the other pace bowlers used in the World Cup were able to control the white ball and should be left to the test arena.

One of the big surprises of the World Cup was how ineffective Monty Panesar was, and Michael Vaughan was our most effective spin bowler. In the short version of the game, Ian Blackwell was improving his control and I would have him into the team instead of Monty.

For the final bowler, who would normally be Flintoff, I have three options, all of whom offer something with the bat as well as the ball. Rikki Clarke and Jamie Dalrymple have had extended runs in the team, but are both still young and should not be discounted. However, I would give Tim Bresnan another run beginning against slightly more friendly opposition than Sri Lanka last year. He has been solid with bat and ball this season, scoringhis maiden first class hundred, and his bowling pace has increased.

The Australian adage is pick the team then the captain. Vikram Solanki has had a couple of years captaining Worcester now, taking them to an unlikely promotion last season. While Collingwood has his supporters, he has little captaincy experience and should continue to be a key leader on the field rather than the team captain.

Therefore, my team for the ODI series

Solanki (c)

With Rikki Clarke, James Hildreth, Alex Gidman and Graham Onions making up the 15 man squad

Tuesday, 12 June 2007

Ian Bell - a natural number 6

It is to be hoped that any debate about where Ian Bell should bat for England has been put to bed by his continued run of amazing form at number 6. In a career lasting just 26 Tests Bell has played matches as opener and numbers 3, 4, 5 and 6. This kind of unsettling madness is the ideal recipe to destroy a player's confidence. Fortunately, Bell has come through it intact and appears to be thriving now he has established himself as a regular in the team.

The statistics are clear - Bell averages 73.87 in seven Tests at 6, over double his 35.22 in 9 Tests at 3. At 4 and 5 he averages in the mid forties, matching his overall average. Those who call for him to bat at 3 if Strauss is dropped and Vaughan opens should reconsider quickly, not just for the sake of England but out of respect for a batsman who has found his position and is playing exceptionally well in it.

The reasons why Bell is so good at 6 lie in his wonderful ability to play equally well with top, middle and lower order batsmen. He has already shown himself to be a master at milking the tail, as well as featuring in some of England's biggest and most valuable partnerships in recent series.

One must also acknowledge that Bell's weakness outside off stump is most likely to be exposed by quality bowlers using the new ball. Too often in his time at three he was in early, practically playing as an opener. It is worrying to note then, for those who advocate moving Bell back to three, that he averaged just 13.00 in his one Test as an opener.

With England regaining their best form under the masterful captaincy of Vaughan, surely it is madness to move Bell from the number six slot, which he has made his own and which has been so important to the team's success.

Championship Week 8

A good week for the Champions, a big injury blow for the leaders, a huge shock in Division 2, and lots of big scores. Plus all the usual gubbins.

Div 1
It was the battle of the spinners at Arundel as the Mushtaq inspired Sussex took on the Shane Warne led Hampshire. Warne struck first taking 5-fer as Sussex made 341. However, Mushtaq went two better, taking seven as Hants struggled to 202. Neither were as effective second time round, but the damage had been done to Hants. Chris Adams scored a ton, with Murray Goodwin getting 99 as Sussex declared at 360 for 5, before bowling Hants out for 333 and a win that takes them into 2nd place, albeit having played a game more than everyone else at the top.

Yorkshire’s game plan was in effect again against Kent as they built a solid platform, with Joe Sayers scoring a career best 187 and Anthony McGrath getting an even hundred, before declaring on 551 for 8. Darren Gough then took 6 wickets as Kent were bowled out for 292. It came at the cost of a broken hand, however, which will keep him out of this weeks game against Sussex and the 20:20. Following on with Yorkshire a bowler light, Kent reached 383 for 6 at stumps. I say “a bowler light”, Gough did come on for 6 overs and take a wicket despite his broken hand. Jason Treadwell led the rear-guard with an unbeaten 116.

Mark Chilton found some form for Lancashire with a ton in their 367 against Durham. Murali then took 5-fer as the home team replied with 312. Rapid scoring from Stuart Law and Dominic Cork set up a declaration leaving Durham 370 to win. They never looked like getting close, but managed to hang on for the draw, Paul Wiseman facing 92 balls for his 7 runs as they finished on 229 for 9.

It was the battle of the bottom two at Worcestershire, and the home team got on the front foot straight away scoring 701 for 6 declared, with hundreds for Phil Jacques, Steven Moore and 232 (at nearly a run a ball) for Vikram Solanki. A rare over for Mark Ramprakash saw him concede 18. In reply, Surrey scored a respectable 370, with Jon Batty getting a ton, and then following on, like Durham, held out for the draw 9 down, with Mark Butcher dropping anchor taking 142 balls for 29 runs. Five wickets for Gareth Batty, although one more could have made a lot of difference. Both teams remain win-less.

Div 2
Top played bottom at Swansea. It went to form to start with as Nottinghamshire reduced Glamorgan to 193 for 8. However, the elder statesman and youngster of the team then put on a stand of nearly 200, with Robert Croft scoring 115 and prodigy James Harris showing all-rounder credentials with an unbeaten 87 as the Welshmen reached 429. Notts reply got off to a good start, but they then collapsed to from 311 for 5 to 364 all out. Graeme Swann took 7 wickets (and 10 in the match) as Glamorgan managed just 197 second time round. However, this was plenty. Dean Cosker took 5-fer (for 9 in the match) as Notts were bowled out 56 runs short of victory. A first defeat for Notts and a first victory for Glamorgan, although they remain top and bottom respectively.

A strange game at Somerset, where Leicestershire became the first team to struggle with the Taunton pitch, collapsing to 168 all out, Stefan Jones taking 6 wickets. Somerset then showed what could be done on the pitch, declaring on 675 for 5, with each of the top four batsmen (Marcus Trescothick, Neil Edwards, James Hildreth and Cameron White) getting hundreds. Leicester did little better second time round scoring 248, Charl Willoughby being the main wicket taker with 5-fer and Somerset ran out comfortable winners to maintain their challenge at the top of the table.

Also winning big to maintain their promotion effort were Essex, who declared on 649 for 5, with Ravi Bopara and Grant Flower both getting double hundreds, with a stand of 320. Northants managed just 241 in their reply and although they did better with 367 second time round (5-fer Danesh Kaneria), it wasn’t enough to make Essex bat again.

Finally to Derby, where Steve Stubbings scored a ton, and Ant Botha was run out for 98 as Derbyshire declared on 500 for 9. Tom Lungley then took 5-fer as Gloucestershire were reduced to 258 all out, Alex Gidman maintaining his form with the bat with 91. Gloucester did much better second time round, and tons for Hamish Marshall and Mark Hardinges took them to 441. Derby for to 40 for 1 second time round, but there was no time to force a result.

England Player Watch
A big hundred for Marcus Trescothick and a double hundred for Ravi Bopara will increase the pressure on Andrew Strauss somewhat. Also, with the ODIs around the corner, some timely runs for Vikram Solanki and the form of Alex Gidman and James Hildreth may force their names into the frame as England look to build again.

The wicket-keepers continue to impress with the bat now that it’s too late to usurp Matt Prior, with Geraint Jones, James Foster and Stephen Davies all getting 50+ this week.

Graham Onions and Adil Rashid were both wicketless this week (although Rashid did score a fifty and bowled 46 tight overs in the Kent second innings). James Anderson also bowled a lot of overs, 26, taking 2-46. Of the potential ODI bowlers, Tim Bresnan continued his solid form with bat and ball and Rikki Clarke was the only Surrey bowler to emerge with any credit out of the game at New Road, where Gareth Batty took eight wickets to push his claim if England go with a second spinner, although Graeme Swann, who took ten wickets may look to dispute that.

Player of the Week
Despite being bottom of the table, Glamorgan win their second POTW award. Unlucky to Dean Cosker, whose 9 wickets were vital, but for the little matter of a hundred to rescue the first innings and bowling nearly 70 overs of bowling to take four wickets in the most unlikely win of the season so far, the player of the week is Robert Croft

Monday, 11 June 2007

What has happened to Andrew Strauss?

Andrew Strauss, not so long ago, was a model of reliability as an opening batsman. Though seldom spectacular, he made the most of his somewhat minimalistic game. His phlegmatic temperament and fondness of scoring square of the wicket evoked comparisons with his former Middlesex team-mate Justin Langer.

Now, however, he appears to have been found out. It is clear that, if he is denied width, the offside field is packed and bowlers continue to bowl outside off-stump, his run-scoring becomes stunted and, eventually, his frustration will get the better of him. Though this, generally speaking, is a formula that will oust most Test batsmen, Strauss is particularly susceptible because he scores very few runs down the ground, meaning it is too easy for good bowlers to choke his scoring shots.

Above all, Strauss appears mentally exhausted after a winter in which he was worked over relentlessly by Australia; as the senior batsman, much was expected of him. Yet he struggled and, especially worryingly, has continued to do so even against the moderate West Indies attack. He has now reached beyond the point of suffering a mere dip in form; the feeling is that his limited game – once his strength – has been found out.

In 15 Test innings, he has failed to pass 50; he has been equally poor in one-day internationals. Though it was Australia who exposed his flaws, Strauss’ woes have not dissipated against friendlier attacks; rather, they have been accentuated as, while he has continued to struggle, others have enjoyed relatively easy pickings. Strauss is very lucky to remain in the Test squad for Chester-le-Street; and, with a plethora of batsmen pushing their claims, it is not an exaggeration to suggest that, if he fails, his international career could be at an end.

Wednesday, 6 June 2007

The Opening Conundrum

My original 56-man shortlist for the Greatest Test XI contained only six opening batsmen which, in retrospect, was proably a mistake. I therefore feel an extra opener (or possibly two) should replace middle-order batsmen.

Here are four possible candidates:

Gordon Greenidge A hugely destructive and intimidating opening batsman during the West Indies' heyday, who ensured opening sides were almost of fearful as bowling first as batting first. Few who saw it will ever forget his phenomenal last day 214* at Lord's in 1984.

Bill Ponsford Ponsford averaged 48 in Tests in the decade between 1924 and '34, while his first-class average is an outstanding 65. He is the only batsman in history to have hit two first-class 400s, and was a fine player of spin, yet there is a feeling he could have been even better. As Cricinfo comments, "In his first and last series, those of 1924-25 and 1934 against England, he made nearly half of his total of Test runs for an average of 64.81, whereas in his other six series he made his runs at under 40."

Graham Gooch Only averaged 42 in Tests but played his best Test cricket after the age of 35, and succeeded against some of the best pace attacks of all time. A courageous batsman who could counter-attack to great effect, his brilliant 154* against the West Indies at Headingley in 1991 is offically rated the finest Test innings of all time, while he holds the record for most runs ever in a Test match (456 against India in 1990).

Matthew Hayden Hayden has the highest Test average of any of these candidates, and scored 500 runs in three Tests in India in 2001, but the extreme weakness of many of the attacks he plundred runs against counts against him. Hayden embodies power and intimidation in the days of bigger bats, smaller boundaries and weaker bowling, but many believe he would not have thrived in more bowler-friendly eras.

Please leave your views on the respective merits of these candidates, and feel free to suggest other possible names.

Championship - Week 7

Eek! Week Seven already!Surrey’s problems continue, Yorkshire have a good week off, there’s a contender for game of the season in the 2nd division as well as an odd decision at Lords.

Div 1
The only positive result in Division 1 came as Surrey were comprehensively outplayed at home to Kent. Batting first, the home team struggled to just 166, with Andrew Hall getting a 5-fer. Kent then showed how easy batting could be, declaring on 564 for 5, with Martin van Jaarsveld, Darren Stevens and even Geraint Jones getting hundred. Needing over 400 to make Kent bat again, Surrey put up a better fight with Mark Ramprakash getting yet another hundred. However, from 210 for 3 they collapsed to 319 all out and Kent move well clear of the bottom two places. Surrey and Worcester need to turn their seasons around quickly if they aren’t to disappear back from whence they came.

Two top of the table contenders met at Edgbaston, although the weather prevented either from stealing a march on the current leaders. Hampshire were dismissed for just 169 in their first innings, with Warwickshire managing 262, mainly on the back of a ton from Alex Loudon. Hants then looked as if they were struggling second time round on 85 for 4, but a ton from Nic Pothas and support from John Crawley saw them to safety.

The top two teams from last season did battle at Hove, with Lancashire opening with 330 (a ton for Stuart Law), before Murali took 5-fer as Sussex were reduced to 235. Lancs struggled second time round, before declaring on 206 for 8. However, despite another 4 wickets for Murali, there wasn’t enough time to force a result and the result leaves Lancs already 27 points adrift of Yorkshire and in seventh place.

Div 2
Bizarre happenings at Lords, where in a rain affected first day, Somerset declared on 50 for 8, possibly with the aim of depriving Middlesex of a bonus point. The home team faired better in their first innings, scoring 252. Somerset were then struggling again second time round on 50 for 5 before a James Hildreth ton took Somerset to a respectable 339 (Chris Silverwood taking 6-fer). Middlesex knocked off the 139 needed to win for the loss of just three wickets to move above Somerset to second in the table.

The leaders Nottinghamshire did their best to manufacture a result with Leicestershire. Leicester batted first and despite a 5-fer for Charlie Schrek, reached 364, Paul Nixon top scoring with 98. Notts then declared at 102 for 3 and when Leicester did the same at 114 for 3, the leaders were left chasing 377. Stumps (and the game) were drawn with both teams still interested as Notts were 14 runs away with 8 wickets down.

A ton from Gareth Rees helped Glamorgan to a first innings total of 352 against injury hit Essex, for whom Danesh Kaneria took 5-fer. Prodigy James Harris took a wicket first ball in the Essex reply as they struggled to 204 all out. Glamorgan then declared on 174 for 5, leaving Essex to chase 323 to win. They did this for the loss of 6 wickets, thanks largely to 147 not out from Ravi Bopara. Glamorgan remain rooted to the bottom of the table.

The best game of the round and maybe the season so far came as Gloucestershire played host to Northamptonshire. It was all looking comfortable for the home team as they made 394 on the back of tons for Marcus North and Alex Gidman before bowling Northants out for 223. A second ton for Gidman then set up the declaration at 244 for 8, setting Northants a target of 416 to win. At 343 for 4 and 405 for 6, with David Sales getting 99 and Lance Klusener getting a ton, a Northants win looked probable. Into the final over, bowled by Carl Greenidge and Northants needed 8 to win with three wickets in hand. However, Gidman ran out the dangerous Niall O’Brien, before Greeidge bowled Steve Crook and then had Monty Panesar caught on the boundary as he went for the winning hit by who else by Gidman. Gloucester’s first Championship win of the season, by just four runs with one ball to spare.

England Player Watch
Marcus Trescothick was caught up in the odd goings on at Lords, scoring 12 and a duck. His recall this summer is looking less and less likely. Paul Nixon and Geraint Jones reminded the England selectors that they are still around. However, like Chris Read last week, Matt Prior’s start to test cricket has turned it into something of an irrelevance.

Bowling wise, James Anderson looked tidy if not particularly threatening. Saj Mahmood did slightly better but is now off for a hernia operation. With the successful recall of Ryan Sidebottom, his ex-Yorkshire teammate Chris Silverwood may be looking to press his case for another go in England colours, with match figures of 9 for 62. Monty Panesar was the only current England player on duty in this round of matches, taking a couple of wickets in each innings a scoring a 102 ball 20 in the Northants first innings.

Player of the week
Ravi Bopara’s match winning knock for Essex deserves a mention. However, there can only be one winner this week. Two hundreds, a couple of wickets with his medium pace, a vital run out and the match winning catch off the penultimate ball, this week’s player of the week has to be Alex Gidman

Sunday, 3 June 2007

Test star outings in the FP Trophy

If ever a day exemplified the new 'County friendly' era of Peter Moores, then it was surely Sunday 3rd June. With Alistair Cook, Paul Collingwood and Michael Vaughan, amongst others, all having run outs in their county colours (literally), there were plenty of rare sights for local members to enjoy.

But there can have been few rarer sightings than that seen at St Helen's, Swansea, as not only did Hampshire field Australians Shane Warne and Stuart Clark, but there were workouts for Ashes heroes, and good friends, Kevin Pietersen and Simon Jones.

Even more remarkable is that they both batted and bowled against each other, and here's the evidence.

Rare sight

Simon Jones gets hit for 6 over extra cover by Kevin Pietersen.

Rarer sight

Kevin Pietersen's off break gets lifted for 6 out onto the Mumbles Road by Simon Jones

Of more importance is the long term recovery of Simon Jones (above) who bowled unchanged through a 10 over spell, seeming to indicate that last week's 'knee scare' was merely precautionary.

Saturday, 2 June 2007

The Greatest Test XI

Over the coming months, Third Umpire will be engaging in the seemingly impossible task of picking the greatest Test side from all players who made their Test debuts in the last hundred years. It will, we hope, spark great debate, even if picking a side everyone agrees on will no doubt prove impossible.

Statistics will be used to some degree, but they will be far from the overriding criteria - emphasis will be placed on those who changed the game beyond the length of their career. Of great significance will be players' records against the best side of their era (or, if they played in it, the second best side). Records in other first-class cricket will be taken into account, as they can reveal much of a player's enduring quality, particularly when it comes to those South Africans who had their Test careers cut short by apartheid. However, I have decided all candidates must have played a minimum of 20 Tests so there is substantial evidence of a player's durability in Tests, rather than conjecture based on excellence in first-class cricket.

To begin with, I have long-listed 56 players who have a case for being selected in this side, although this list is by no means definitive:

Opening batsmen (6):
Jack Hobbs, Herbert Sutcliffe, Sunil Gavaskar, Geoff Boycott, Len Hutton, Arthur Morris

Middle-order batsmen (21):
Everton Weekes, George Headley, Brian Lara, Viv Richards, Gary Sobers, Frank Worrell, Rohan Kanhai, Javed Miandad, Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, Don Bradman, Steve Waugh, Allan Border, Stan McCabe, Greg Chappell, Neil Harvey, Wally Hammond, Ken Barrington, Denis Compton, Ricky Ponting, Graeme Pollock

Wicket-keepers (4):
Clyde Walcott, Andy Flower, Adam Gilchrist, Les Ames

Allrounders (5):
Imran Khan, Keith Miller, Ian Botham, Kapil Dev, Shaun Pollock
For the purposes of this exercise, 'allrounder' is someone who can bat at seven or above and be one of only four bowlers, which is why Sobers, Hadlee and Akram just miss out and appear elsewhere instead.

Spinners (6):
Shane Warne, Bill O’Reilly, Muttiah Muralitharan, Abdul Qadir, Derek Underwood, Jim Laker

Fast bowlers (14):
Dennis Lillee, Ray Lindwall, Malcolm Marshall, Curtley Ambrose, Courtney Walsh, Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis, Allan Donald, Glenn McGrath, Fred Trueman, Harold Larwood, Joel Garner, Alan Davidson, Richard Hadlee
NB: Sydney Barnes is not eligible

If you can, I recommend you have a look at the profiles on Cricinfo.

Picking XIs such as these are, perhaps, an exercise in futility - but we hope it'll be entertaining. Do leave your comments below - we'd love to hear if any players should be in this list, but aren't, and, especially, who of these brilliant players do not deserve to make the final shortlist.