Friday, 28 March 2008

Wandering Wonder Warne

No sooner has the season preview gone up and the captain has deserted his ship, giving his employers just three weeks notice that he will not be coming back for one third of the season after all. Still, you can’t stay mad at Warney for long. He has been fantastic for Hampshire, although he must surely regret never having won the Championship, despite coming so close back in 2005. I doubt that David Fulton will go down in history as one of Warne’s closest friends but that is all in the past. Under Warne Hampshire learnt how to win and rose to the top echelons of both limited and unlimited overs cricket.

He joined the club back in 2000, becoming captain in 2004. In his near eight year association with the club he took 276 first class wickets at an average of 25.59 and even chipped in with 2040 runs. A fine record indeed, but it will always nark Warne that Mushtaq Ahmed has a better record and has enjoyed more success with Sussex. He also appears to have outlasted him.

However, it wasn’t just bowling, vital lower order runs and exemplary slip catching which Warne brought to Hampshire though, he also brought with him an amazing enthusiasm for the game (not perhaps Twenty20), cunning tactical awareness and a winning mentality. That winning mentality played a big role in 2005 when the Hawks lifted the C&G Trophy, minus Warne.

The reigns now pass to Dimitri Mascarenhas, who captained the club during the Twenty20 campaign last year. However, Mascarenhas will miss the start of the season because of commitments in the IPL and will undoubtedly go on to make more appearances for England over the summer. He inherits a young and fairly inexperienced side, especially in the bowling department.

Liam Dawson will now be given the chance to impress over the entire season, which is fantastic news for both himself and England. Greg Lamb may well get a bit more of a bowl this year as well, whilst Shaun Udal is surely regretting his decision to leave the county of his birth for Middlesex. It will be interesting to see who is brought in as Warne’s replacement come the latter stages of the season, with an extension to Shane Watson’s contract extremely desirable.

Ultimately Rod Bransgrove has delivered a fitting summary; “Hampshire Cricket has been hugely privileged to have enjoyed the unstinting loyalty of this living legend since 2000. The most effective and entertaining bowler of all time, Shane was also a brilliant leader and strategist. As our captain, his influence was instrumental in the development of Hampshire into one of the country's top sides and he enriched the game wherever he played.” Good luck Shane, county cricket will be poorer for your loss, but oh so much richer for having shared in your story.

Thursday, 27 March 2008

England Ratings

For the first time in over three years, England managed to win a Test series away from home, even if the quality of the opposition means the 2-1 margin is no more than satisfactory. Here are the series ratings:

Alastair Cook 5
A series of starts - but a top-score of 60 tells its own sad story. His temperament is not in doubt, and if he can tighten up outside off-stump a fine career awaits.

Michael Vaughan 4
The skipper struggled due to a combination of good new-ball bowling, a technical fault - to play too square on and, sometimes, slightly to leg - and bouts of rashness. His captaincy was fairly impressive, however, as he showed a willingness to use bowlers in long spells when they were displaying an aptitude for the fight. An equally poor series with the bat at home, however, and the vultures will begin to hover.

Andrew Strauss 6
Looked woefully out of form in the first five innings, as one would have expected from a man whose recall did not exactly espouse true meritocracy. A career-saving 177 was hugely admirable, but it comes with the major caveat of being on a supremely flat track against an understandably jaded and limited attack. Clearly, he still needs to prove he can score runs against the best which, mentally fatigued and with a technique bowlers had closely scrutinised, he painfully struggled to in the year before being axed.

Kevin Pietersen 7
Exploded into life with a magnificent hundred that saved England from a depressing defeat from the miserable depths of 4/3. Will be hungry to regain his consistency, and the Kiwis will be apprehensive about what he could do in the forthcoming Test series.

Ian Bell 6
His century in the final Test was an innings of supreme confidence and majestic timing, and could not have been in starker contrast to his passive 58-ball nine in the first innings, ended with a confused swipe at a long-hop. Has the ability to become a run-scoring machine if only he can find more of a relish for pressure situations and end his infuriating ability of failing to capitalise on sweet starts.

Paul Collingwood 7
Dependable and dogged, Collingwood may never look a truly Test-class batsmen but, while his determination and resilience are so strong, that won't matter. Add in five cheap wickets - his bowling has improved tremendously in the last year - and he is a vital part of the side.

Tim Ambrose 7
A good first series on all counts. Ambrose struck a crucial, momentum-seizing century in only his second Test, but his challenge will come when opponents learn not to feed his cut shot. With the gloves he was excellent, and a marked improvement on Matt Prior, even allowing for a couple of misses in the second Test.

Stuart Broad 8
Had a quietly brilliant Test in the decider, with five wickets earned from a sterling, marathon spell in either innings, complemented by 73 vital runs for once out and brilliant fielding to boot. His promise has long been known; England did not throw him in too soon, and should reap the rewards over the coming years. With his multi-faceted skills and improving accuracy on even docile tracks, already a guaranteed starter.

Ryan Sidebottom 10
Let us recite the raw statistics, for they do justice to the indefatigability, consistency, aggression, adaptability and skill he displayed all series long. Twenty-four wickets at an average of 17; a five-wicket haul in every game; a ten-wicket haul; and a hat-trick. And to think, dear Duncan would sooner pick Messrs Plunkett and Mahmood.

Steve Harmison 2
Under-prepared? Almost certainly. Lacking heart? So said many. Bereft of peace? Yes. Have most fans had enough? Yes. Has he? That is the great question, for if Harmison can allay the doubts over his mind and make some technical tweaks, there is no English bowler international batsmen would less like to face.

Matthew Hoggard 3
That imperceptible nip had gone, and he was discarded, somewhat unluckily, for the second Test. Hopefully it was merely a blip although, in his last 12 Tests Hoggard had taken 31 wickets at an average of 41.

Monty Panesar 7
Monty should learn from Vettori - his variations in pace, flight, angle and delivery. All that may be true, but Panesar is a more naturally talented spin bowler and, after eight Tests of contributing very little, delivered the match-winning performance I had hoped for.

James Anderson 4
Oh, Jimmy, Jimmy. How can you bowl so devastatingly - approaching 90mph, with devilish late swing outside off-stump, only to revert to bowling rubbish next game? Ultimately, his inconsistency is simply a liability: match figures of 1-153, in just 24 overs, when considering he also went for 7.4 an over in the ODIs, prove as much. Sadly, he may not have much of an international career remaining.

The Verdict
This was an enthralling series at times, and England showed admirable character to respond to their Hamilton humbling. But this was a tentative step forward at best. The run-gorging in the third Test should not disguise the fact England have had appalling collapses in each of the last four Tests. 81 all-out; 100 all-out; 79/0 to 136/5; and 36/4. These are not the batting stats of a side whose top-order is satisfactorily functioning, and the series win should not be allowed to ignore these uncomfortable figures.

Wednesday, 26 March 2008

2008 Season Preview: Sussex

2007 in a nutshell:

Retaining the Championship and a first appearance in the Twenty20 finals day added up to another good season for Sussex. In the other one day competitions, a couple of poor losses killed of a useful Pro40 challenge and hopes of a second shot at the 50 over title were over shortly after the tournament began. Much of the hard work was again done by established stars but both Chris Nash and Andrew Hodd showed signs of having what it takes to make it at county level and Luke Wright made a surprising impact with the bat in all formats, if still unconvincing with the ball.

2008 prospects:

As of now, the main issue is whether the ECB will accept Mushtaq Ahmed’s registration, though the recent development of the PCB confirming the issue of his NOC, it is hard to see that they have any option but to let him play. Assuming that this is the case, the prospects for Sussex look good for another strong showing in most competitions.

Batting:

The return of Matt Prior strengthens what was already one of the better middle orders in the county scene. More will be expected of Mike Yardy who didn’t really regain form from a broken finger in the season’s opener against the MCC until late in the season and the hopes will be for the usual level of performance from Murray Goodwin and Chris Adams. The main issue is the replacement of the retiring Richard Montgomerie and this seems to be a choice between Carl Hopkinson, who did the opening job in the 2006 season and Hodd, who showed great technique and temperament when replacing Prior at No6.

Bowling:

Aside from Ryan Harris replacing Rana Naved, the bowling attack will be the same as usual for the Championship, albeit another year older. Young left armer Chris Liddle is natural cover for Jason Lewry, for whom this is likely to be the final season, and should also get more outings this season. If Mushtaq proves to be as durable as ever, chances will remain limited for the three young spinners on the staff. James Kirtley will again feature mostly in the shorter formats of the game and is probably behind Liddle when it comes to Championship selection.

Probable side:

Championship

Nash, Hodd, Yardy, Goodwin, Adams (capt), Prior (wk), Wright, Martin-Jenkins, Harris, Mushtaq, Lewry

One day and Twenty20

Nash, Wright, Goodwin, Adams, Prior, Hopkinson/Hodd, Martin-Jenkins, Yardy, Harris, Mushtaq, Kirtley.

Key Man:

Mushtaq Ahmed will be key again. In all five seasons at Sussex he has been the highest wicket taker in the County Championship.

Rising Star:

Luke Wright will be looking to capitalise on last season’s superb batting performances and surprise call-up into the England one day side. He still has a long way to go with the ball to become effective in the all-rounder role but will hopefully get more chances to improve this aspect.

Captain and Coach:

No change in the major roles is expected with Adams remaining captain and Mark Robinson as head coach.

In response to comments:

We were really pleased about Hodd's return and I think Surrey have missed out by not giving him much of a run in his time there. I know you have Batty and this year the signing of Afzaal helps solidify the middle order but in 2007 it seemed that once either Butcher or Ramps had gone, there was a certain frailty and someone like him at 6 would have shored things up very nicely. He is in a bit of an odd position as Prior will be first choice with the gloves, even though there is no doubt that AH is the better keeper, and coming up behind is Ben Brown, who he acknowledges as being the best keeper on the staff. Fortunately he has been phlegmatic about it and is happy to try to make the side on batting alone, which is why I think he would be ideal for the opener spot.

It is tricky to know where to put Wright in the order. Obviously his ability suggests that he could fill a position like 4 or 5 in the order and would do in many county sides but then you look at who is already there and at 6 too and it looks like the only place. Had he not been involved with England, he might have made an interesting candidate for opening but I think we would go with someone who is likely to be around all season in our attempt to find a long term partnership.

2008 Season Preview - Yorkshire

2007 in a nutshell:

Following the turmoil of the previous winter when Chris Adams joined and then left, Anthony McGrath left and then rejoined, and Jacques Rudolph came out of nowhere, the early season had a wonderful momentum to it and Yorkshire led the pack for much of the season. However, with the weather playing a part injuries forcing changes in an otherwise very settled team (eleven players played in ten games or more) at the end of the season, the team faded away. Still in with a shout of the title going into the last game, the eventual sixth place reflects how tight Division 1 was last season. In the shorter version of the game, Yorkshire somehow managed to get into the quarter finals of the 20:20, as Leicester had most of their games washed out. However, the One Day games were used more as a means of giving experience to the youngsters and resting older legs.

2008 prospects:

Both of the overseas players have gone and while both were good club men, neither had the impact that the team wanted. Jason Gillespie in particular was tight rather than threatening. However, with the position of Rana Naved still unclear as the overseas player, it may be down to the local talent to bowl teams out. Morne Morkel, who is touted to be the replacement if Naved doesn’t show up, isn’t anything like as threatening although he would undoubtedly strengthen the One Day side.

Chris Taylor has returned from Derbyshire, probably as a replacement for Craig White at the top of the order, who may concentrate on One Day cricket. However, it is the crop of youngsters coming through who will make or break the season for Yorkshire, with Andrew Gale, Adam Lyth, James Lee and Oliver Hannon Dalby looking to make their breakthrough this season.
Division 1 could be even tighter this year than last as Somerset and Notts look to be better teams than Warwicks and Worcester. However, I would still expect Yorks to be in the hunt on the last day of the season. In the one dayers, promotion may be a reasonable objective in the Pro 40.

Batting:

This is probably the strength of the team. Last year, of the eleven players who played in ten games or more, only Gough and Hoggard didn’t score a century. With Tim Bresnan batting at eight, there is a long line up, which will be looking to capitalise on the Boycottesque qualities of Joe Sayers at the top of the order. McGrath and Rudolph will be looking to score heavily again and the Kolpak in particular has the ability to take the attack to the opposition at this level. Adil Rashid and Gerard Brophy will swap places at 6 and 7 respectively, leaving the number 5 spot open to one of the emerging batsmen – with Andrew Gale likely to get the first opportunity, although Adam Lyth and Greg Wood will also be pushing for the place. Oh and there’s some bloke called Michael Vaughan who may want the occasional game.

Bowling:

England’s dropping of Matthew Hoggard means that he should start the season in a mood to prove the selectors wrong and itching to get his test place back. This should help to kick-start the pace attack which otherwise would be reliant on the aging legs of Darren Gough and the 23 year old veteran Tim Bresnan. The loss of Rana Naved would be a huge blow, with Morkel being nothing like as threatening with the ball. However, Ajmal Shazad showed promise in the matches he played and in James Lee and Oliver Hannon Dalby, there are two bowlers of immense promise looking to make their breakthrough.

Yorkshire have more strength on the spinning front, with the highly rated Adil Rashid looking to kick on again after a successful Lions tour, and David Wainwright and Mark Lawson waiting in the wings. A dry summer could mean Yorkshire taking to the field with more specialist spinners than seamers, a far cry from the steady pace attack that used to frequent Headingly.

Probable side:

Chris Taylor (Michael Vaughan when available)
Joe Sayers
Anthony McGrath
Jacques Rudolph
Andrew Gale
Adil Rashid
Gerard Brophy
Tim Bresnan
Morne Morkel
Darren Gough
Matthew Hoggard

Key Man

To win games, you need to take 20 wickets, so the key man has to be Adil Rashid. He topped the wicket takers last season with 40, despite the weather not being conducive to spin bowling. He was one of the few Lions to come out of the India trip in credit, out bowling Monty Panesar at times. He shouldn’t be needed by England this summer but should be looking to get the second spinners spot on the winter tour.

Rising Star

There are plenty of candidates for this including Greg Wood, the England U19 wicket keeper who is likely to be second in the pecking order should Brophy be injured. However, the rising star isn’t someone I have included him in my probable side, but the batsman likely to be the next in. Adam Lyth played for England U19 last season out scoring more established county players like Billy Godleman and Ben Wright, with a fluent century. He is highly rated at the club and should any of the top five struggle this season, he could make a big impact.

Captain and Coach

There’s not a lot to be said about the captain that hasn’t already been said. However, it is likely to be his last season and it would be unrealistic to expect him to play as much this year. Martyn Moxon was responsible for keeping Anthony McGrath at the club last winter and I’d expect a smooth transition from Gough to McGrath as the season progresses.

Monday, 24 March 2008

2008 Season Preview: Hampshire

2007 in a nutshell:

Disappointment on all fronts pretty much. Hampshire failed to significantly challenge in either the County Championship, the Pro 40 League or the Twenty20 Cup (again). The highlight was of course reaching the final of the Friends Provident Trophy, although the ultimate defeat to Durham was representative of a sub-standard season for the Hawks. Michael Carberry continued his rise towards full England honours, following in the direction where Dimi Mascarenhas and Chris Tremlett had gone for a large part of the season.

2008 prospects:

Well, it may get worse. Leaderless for in excess of two thirds of the season Hampshire may well also find themselves without an overseas player for the opening part of the season, courtesy of Shane Bond’s involvement in the rogue ICL. The arrival of Shane Watson for the Twenty20 Cup should signal the beginning of a Hampshire challenge for the crown for the first time since the formats’ inception though. In the County Championship it is hard to see Hampshire finishing above midway again. The bowling will be worryingly thin in the absence of Warne, replacement Bond and James Bruce, who had been developing into a very dangerous opening bowler over the last two years. Furthermore, it is hard to see how Chris Tremlett, between injury and international duty, will be available for more than half the season. Factor in Dimi Mascarenhas’ absence with England for a substantial part of the season and the Hawks will be relying on the youth of David Griffiths, James Tomlinson and Liam Dawson, who will be the prime spinner in Warne’s absence. Greg Lamb could also find himself involved a lot more this year in both formats for a change. Don’t expect any silverware this year Hawks fans.

Batting:

Carberry averaged in excess of fifty in the county championship last season and Hampshire will need more of the same this time around. Evergreens John Crawley and Nic Pothas will once again be the rocks around whom the others bat. Michael Lumb will look to improve on a solid first season, whilst James Adams, Michael Brown, Sean Ervine, Chris Benham, Greg Lamb and possibly Kevin Latouf will be vying for the remaining spots. Latouf and young wicket keeper Tom Burrows should both see some more action this year in a side whose batting is too often frail. With the absence of runs from the tail of Mascarenhas, Warne and Udal the top order will have to take responsibility, but it is a real doubt as to whether they will be up to it or not. Watson will carry the Hawk’s hopes in the Twenty20 Cup when he arrives.

Bowling:

As already touched on above, Hampshire are thin on the ground in the bowling department this year. What used to be the county’s strength is now perhaps its biggest weakness. How ironic that Shaun Udal chose to join Middlesex during the one season he could have captained his side for the majority of. Youth will be the order of the day and they may well be up to the task. Griffiths impressed last year when involved, as did James Tomlinson. David Balcombe is also lurking on the periphery and Billy Taylor will be hoping for more than one day cameos. Sean Ervine and Greg Lamb may well also be charged with more responsibility with the ball in the allrounder’s role when Mascarenhas is on England duty. Liam Dawson will be the premier spinner and after his promising performances at England U19 level it will be fascinating to see if he can make the step up.

Probable side:

Championship

Carberry
Brown/Adams
Crawley
Lumb
Benham (Watson upon arrival)
Pothas (wk)
Ervine
Mascarenhas (c) (Tomlinson/Griffiths/Lamb in his absence)
Dawson
Tremlett
Bond (Griffiths/Tomlinson when he leaves)

List A / Twenty20

Carberry
Lumb
Ervine
Watson (Benham/Crawley when unavailable)
Benham/Crawley
Pothas (wk)
Mascarenhas (c)
Lamb
Dawson
Tremlett
Tomlinson/Griffiths (Bond early season)

Hampshire will likely play a very different side in limited overs cricket to that in four day cricket. There should be plenty of opportunities for the likes of Benham, Latouf, Griffiths, Tomlinson and Dawson, whilst young wicket keeper Tom Burrows should gradually gain more exposure to first team cricket in the place of elder statesman Nic Pothas. Brown and Adams will be fighting it out for the second opening birth and along with Crawley will be limited more often than not to four day cricket. The focus this year will be the Twenty20 Cup I feel and Watson will be core to this aim. Along with Carberry, Ervine, Lumb, Pothas, Benham and Mascarenhas Hampshire should have the batting power to mount a serious challenge, but they may well fall short in the bowling department, with Dawson and Lamb the only spinning options.

Key Man:

It will not be Warney for once! With three overseas players split across the season it is likely to be a domestic player. Whilst I believe that Shane Watson will play a key role in the sides push for the Twenty20 Cup my key man for the season is Michael Carberry. He will be looking to break into the England squad for limited overs cricket, although Andrew Strauss’ mini revival may have delayed his entrance into the Test squad.

Rising Star:

Liam Dawson is the man I am going for. Many a young bowler will turn out for Hampshire this season, but none will be as important as Dawson, the leading spin bowler in the side for years to come we hope. His slow left arm bowling has been effective at England U19 level and he showed some glimpses of his talent at the end of last season. In Warne’s absence, both now and in the future, the club will need Dawson to step into the breach and I believe he will do so and with able aplomb. He can also bat to a reasonable level and will be a decent number eight.

Captain and Coach:

Well I don’t know quite how good Warney is at poker so it is hard to pass comment! John Crawley is the most obvious candidate to take the role on, although Nic Pothas volunteered last season on more than one occasion with varying degrees of success. Chris Benham has been touted by Warne himself as the long term candidate. As for Paul Terry, he is desperate for the County Championship but better Hampshire sides than this one have fallen short. His best hope and focus I believe will be in limited overs cricket, starting with the Twenty20 Cup for a change.

Edit: Dimitri Mascarenhas has been appointed captain to replace Shane Warne. Mascarenhas captained the club during the Twenty20 campaign last year, however, he will miss the start of the season because of commitments in the IPL and will undoubtedly go on to make more appearances for England over the summer. He inherits a young and fairly inexperienced side, especially in the bowling department and it will be interesting to see how his attacking instincts translate over into his captaincy style.

Saturday, 22 March 2008

2008 Season Preview: Essex

Exasperated by England's travails in Kiwi? Well, then let the gentile delights of county cricket refresh your senses. Yes, it's season preview time again...

2007 in a nutshell:
A season of great promise for the Eagles once again petered out to nothingness... so no surprises there then. As well as missing out on promotion from County Championship Div2, we suffered the ignominy of throwing away our top flight status in the Pro40, despite beginning the campaign as title-holders. This was particularly disappointing after a strong showing in the Friends Provident Trophy which was ended in the semi-finals at the hands of eventual winners, Durham. The Championship was something of a mixed bag, with several wins being garnered in spite of poor performances; however, the losses of Ronnie Irani, Andy Flower and Darren Gough eventually told, and the team fairly limped their way to fourth sport, well off the pace set by Somerset and Nottinghamshire. Inconsistencies aside, Essex did share an incredible run haul with Notts in a record-breaking match played out at the height of the summer: both teams reached 700 in their first innings, with rival England 'keepers James Foster and Chris Read each notching a double-hundred, the latter's being a career first.

2008 prospects:
Essex always seem fairly industrious over the close season, and, having brought in a couple of seasoned pros and blooded some youngsters on tour, there are reasons to be cheerful. Jason Gallian has arrived from Notts, and can be expected to open the batting, possibly allowing new captain Mark Pettini to drop down the order. Fast bowler David Masters will hopefully prove a more successful signing than Darren Thomas did last year, while bits-and-pieces youngster Christopher Wright may find opportunities to develop on the Chelmsford greensward. Graham Napier could be set for a watershed season after performing with some success in New Zealand over the winter, while Tom Westley, who took 7 for 131 in an U19 Test and hit 72 late last season against Somerset is an exciting prospect. As ever, escaping the Div 2 monkey knife-fight will be the goal, as well as thrashing it around in the short form. Some Twenty20 success would go down like warm milk and cookies...

Batting:
Normally Essex's trusty redoubt, we were disappointingly scratchy out in the middle during 2007. After Ronnie Irani had blazed his way to more than 400 runs at an average of 116.25 in the first four Championship meetings, his retirement left everyone else to muddle along, with the result that no one reached 1,000 runs for the season. Ravi Bopara returned a Championship-best 900 runs at 60-odd, and Ryan ten Doeschate impressed low down the order with 845 @ 42.25 but too often the recognised batsmen failed.

The form of opener Pettini was woeful, his high-score of 86* coming during an engineered result against Leicestershire, and taking on the demands of captaincy at just 23-years-old clearly had a stultifying effect on his batting. With Alastair Cook on international duty for much of the summer, Varun Chopra struggled to cope in his first full campaign, and it was frequently left to the likes of Foster, still pressing an England case, and overseas star Andy Bichel (who averaged 60.25, with two fine swashbuckling centuries) to ease the team out of trouble.

In one-day competition only Bopara contributed regularly, totting up more than 400 at an average of better than 40. Good performances in the FP Trophy - where even Chopra and Pettini crashed hundreds, in a nine-wicket win over Middlesex - tailed off when the Pro40 defence began, to the point that only four half-centuries were scored by Essex batsmen in the six contested matches.

Bowling:
While our two main imports from 'for'n parts' collected 115 wickets between them at a little above 20 apiece - Danish Kaneria, 74 @ 22.2; Bichel, 41 @ 20.53 - the next highest return was James Middlebrook's 24 at a price of 40-odd. In fact, nine other bowlers, including Andre Nel in his brief spell and the on-loan Martin Saggers, took just 75 wickets between them, costing more than 40 each.

As in recent seasons, the load fell heavily on the bouncing frame of Kaniera, who sent more than his fair share of teams to defeat and finished a remarkable third in the PCA's inaugural Most Valuable Player ranking. Unfortunately the 'spin twins', Middlebrook and Tim Phillips (who Essex seem intent on turning into a batsman, despite a first-class average of 19), could only provide intermittent support. The bowling highlight, skittling eventual-champs Somerset for 152 in a match we would surely have won but for a lost fourth day, was down to Bichel's 6fer - but no one other than him, Kaneria and Saggers managed five wickets in an innings.

The one faint spark came in the final Championship fixture against Middlesex, where an attack deprived of both the Pakistani leggie and the Aussie allrounder took 20 wickets for 400, Tony Palladino's match analysis of 6-for-97 the pick. In the one-dayers, several players chipped in despite the ultimate disappointment, with Bichel and Kaneria once again to the fore and Bopara, Napier and Ten Doeschate all claiming respectable figures.

Probable Championship side:
Gallian
Chopra (Cook when not on England duty)
Pettini (capt)
Bopara
Ten Doeschate
Foster (wk)
Middlebrook
Phillips/Napier
Tudor
Masters/Palladino/Wright
Kaneria

It seems likely that Essex will build their batting around a hardy middle-order of Bopara, Ten Doeschate, Foster and Middlebrook, while Graham Napier and Tim Phillips will probably compete as utility allrounders depending on whether the pitch is taking spin or seam. The bowling line-up is by no means settled, and Mervyn Westfield or Jamaica-born Maurice Chambers could come into contention. Pettini should drop down to accommodate the pressures of the captaincy, while Kaneria's contributions will again be vital. Expect some experimentation in the short game, with possible appearances from the veteran Grant Flower and young quick Jahid Ahmed.


Key Man:
Although the obvious choice is Kaneria, who bettered his 2004 return with last summer's performances, I'm going to plump for Ravi Bopara. After a tough winter in Sri Lanka with England, where his Test career did not get off to the most auspicious of starts, Ravi will have to hit his straps back in the county milieu in order to prove his reputation again. He needs to plunder runs in the four-day format, and chip in with more wickets than he did last year (11 @ 45), while continuing his development as a watchful, wristy one-day batsman who can also knock over a couple of the opposition's top-order with the cherry in hand.

Rising Star(s):
Tom Westley is the name on Essexonians lips (well, it should be anyway) and the lad looks set to feature in the Championship sooner rather than later. Already averaging just over 30 from a handful of first-class innings, it would be a pleasure to see him in action at the County Ground in his first season since signing on full professional terms. Other prospects include Jaik Mickleburgh (batsman) and Adam Wheater (wicketkeeper/batsman), who both played on the recently completed pre-season tour to Dubai.

Captain and Coach:
Mark Pettini has struggled to combine both the tactical and man-management aspects of the captaincy with an effective personal contribution, and this season will be an important test of his mettle. As the county circuit's youngest captain he will need to rely on new head coach Paul Grayson's experience to ensure a successful partnership through 2008. Much is required, but expectations should probably remain modest. Graham Gooch, who has ploughed funds into Essex's scholarship scheme, remains as batting coach, while there may even be a few words of wisdom floating over the boundary rope from the sainted Ronni Irani at some point...

Trescothick leaves a terrific England career behind

Confirmation of the end was sad but inevitable. Marcus Trescothick has seemed a tormented man for two years, weighed down by problems far superseding anything that occurs on the cricket pitch. So it was somehow fitting that he did not go out in a blaze of glory, but a low-key announcement that he was officially retiring from international cricket. For he has been a man not entirely comfortable with the intense media glare international cricketers are now subjected to, preferring to go quietly about scoring runs than chase headlines or the England captaincy.

For six years from his debut in 2000, Trescothick was a fearsome sight at the top of England's order. Commentators frequently bemoaned his lack of foot movement, but he developed a highly effective 'stand and deliver' method that relied on fantastic hand-eye coordination and, above all, an uncluttered mindset that focussed on hitting the ball cleanly. If that sounds a little demeaning, it should not, for it takes a fiercely single-minded individual to have trust in his method and succeed with a technique that many believed was fundamentally flawed, and could not succeed over an extended period against the best.

Trescothick was very much Duncan Fletcher's pick, selected not for any sterling county deeds but largely for an innings of 167 against Glamorgan, whom Fletcher was coaching at the time, in 1999. The knock displayed his uninhibited talent, his ability to play his natural game even as others around him were losing confidence in theirs, and a power that could intimidate the world's finest bowlers. He was a tremendous team-man, too, whose selflessness was exemplified when he compromised his batting in accepting the challenge of keeping wicket for England in the one-day series in New Zealand in 2002.

Trescothick was at his best when he stopped worrying about technique, and allowed his rich natural instincts and belligerence to come to the fore. These were the hallmarks of some of his most memorable Test knocks, including his momentum-seizing 90 in the 2005 Ashes and an epic 219 to help England square the series with South Africa two years previously. The latter was particularly noteworthy, as it came at a time when his technique was under exceptional scrutiny. But he succeeded in freeing his mind from technical jargon, displaying admirable resilience aided by the less glamorous attributes of selectivity, patience and sheer determination in his nine and-a-half hour masterpiece.

The finest and most valuable of his innings was indisputably at Johannesburg in 2005. A pulsating match - and series - was decided by Matthew Hoggard's 12-wicket haul, but it was Trescothick's brilliance under pressure that set-up victory. He scored 180 out of England's second innings 332, launching a fearless assault on the South African attack while team-mates floundered. This was vintage Trescothick: driving powerfully; pulling audaciously; treating the spin of Nicky Boje with disdain; and steadfastly refusing to get bogged down by the pressure team-mates were succumbing to.

It is for knocks like these that Trescothick deserves to be remembered. While his technique was to some extent found out by Gillespie and McGrath, he had the faith to stick with it and play a vital part in the 2005 Ashes - though failing, sadly, to score his first Test hundred against Australia. While he can be pigeon-holed as a thrasher of trundling medium-pace, the truth is Trescothick was a wonderfully adaptable player, who excelled himself against South Africa but, utilising his long reach and slog-sweep, was also a close second to Graham Thorpe as the most successful Englishman of his time in the sub-Continent. His vigil of 193 in Pakistan in late 2005, when he had reluctantly accepted the captaincy, seemed to signal a time of renewed productivity, when he would consistently combine patience with his natural free-hitting skill. But it was not quite to be.

Trescothick was the consummate team-man, and deserves to feel no guilt for walking out of the Ashes tour. With 26 international hundreds, he was a high-class international batsman, and one of the finest openers England have ever possessed in ODIs, the man behind countless daring assaults during the overs of fielding restrictions.

At 32, he could have still had his best international years in front of him. It is not to be but everyone will hope Trescothick will replicate his form of last season for several more years with Somerset, the county of his birth and, in these days when international superstars seldom turn out for their counties, almost nostalgically close to his heart. If he does, he may yet achieve something just as satisfying as the 2005 Ashes win: a first county championship for Somerset.

Friday, 21 March 2008

Ch-ch-changes

Just a quick word about a change on the site - I've added a list of 20 or so of the best (least bad) pieces on Third Umpire for your viewing pleasure. With 375 posts to date, hopefully this'll be somewhere for new visitors to start.

As ever, any feedback on the site - what you think about the way we're, or what you'd like to see (or any 'best pieces' I missed out on - would be much appreciated. Incidentally, we'll be starting our county previews in the next couple of days, so, if you aren't a regular but would like to do one for your side, do drop me a comment or email - cricketingworld(at)hotmail.com

Tuesday, 18 March 2008

Marshall the greatest bowler - by one criteria anyway

There's a very interesting statistical analysis of bowlers on Cricinfo.

It rationalises bowling analyses in a manner that reflects the quality of the batsmen who were dismissed. The best bowlers by this criteria are those who dismiss batsmen for the greatest margins under their career average. The method's is explained as this:

In the wickets column of scorecards there is the bland pronouncement that a bowler has captured x number of wickets. There is no information on whose wickets he captured. This analysis seeks to secure such information.

The computation is simple. Every wicket captured by a bowler in the 1865 Test matches played so far is analysed, and the sum of career batting averages of the batsmen dismissed is calculated. It is then divided by the number of wickets captured by each bowler and a Batting Quality Index (BQI) arrived at. It's a simple but exhaustive calculation, which is impossible manually.

However let us seek to address this situation by looking at two other measures. The first is the difference between BQI and the career bowling average for the bowler. While it is true that having a high BQI means that the bowler has picked up better quality wickets, it might be more than offset by a high bowling average, which means the bowler has conceded a lot of runs for each wicket captured. The difference between these two figures will give a clear indication of the bowler's quality. The higher the difference, the better the bowler.


And two of the top three - Marshall and Ambrose - made my Greatest Test XI, which is nice. What is very intriguing is how spinners fare. Murali and especially Warne are lower down the list than you would expect, reflecting the fact many of their wickets have been against low-quality players (Bangladesh and Zimbabwe in Murali's case, tailenders in Warne's). But while there are a plethora of spinners in the lower echelons of the list (most not too surprisingly), there are two spinners in the top seven: O'Reilly and Laker. As ever, the capacity of cricket to find fascinating statistics is astounding.

Monday, 17 March 2008

New-look atack - but too soon to declare a new era

So it seems England can play cricket after all. They performed commendably to square the series, but we should not lose sight of the fact this is a side England were expected to beat.

Nonetheless, there are real causes for optimism - at last. Tim Ambrose played a pugnacious and decisive counter-attacking innings of 102, displaying the temperament to thrive at international level. His keeping, typically and infuriatingly, did not match the standards he displayed in the first Test, however.

England's bowling was reinvigorated after dispensing with Messrs Hoggard and Harmison. Ryan Sidebottom gave another exemplary display, indefatigable, relentlessly consistent and truly incisive with the new ball. But he has performed so well since his comeback that such displays are now expected.

Of greater cheer were the showings of James Anderson and Stuart Broad. When conditions offered swing, as they did at Lord's against India last summer, Anderson was superb. But only for so long can he can get by on the occasional fine showing. On the flatter pitch that we will see at Napier, he needs to display improved control, so batsmen do not run away when wickets are hard to come by. Stuart Broad was not flattered by his figures but provided another sign of his readiness for international cricket, probing away and delivering the key wicket of Stephen Fleming.

Yet this was far from the perfect performance: for one, the fielding deteriorated alarmingly from the phenomenal catching on-show at Hamilton. And, yet again, the top-order displayed their depressing propensity for getting in then out - alarmingly, none of the top six have even hit 70 all series. Andrew Strauss probably did 'just enough' to remain in the side, but it is an indictement of the current set-up that a scratchy 40 every game, together with fast-fading memories of innings from the past, are sufficient for a man to retain his place.

One suspects England will not take the clear-sighted view that he patently looks no more like succeeding than he did when he was dropped. When he does go, the belated inclusion of Owais Shah may act as the catalyst for other batsmen to get out of the 'comfort zone' that seems to be afflicting them.

For England to seal the series on a pitch that will be less conducive to seam-bowling than this, more is needed from Monty Panesar, who averages 48 over his last eight Tests. It is now time for him to regain the vivaciousness and sheer joy he brought to his early Tests.

England Show Bouncebackability

It’s a curious fact, but under Michal Vaughan has never lost two test matches in a row as England’s captain. That record may have been put under threat had he been fit to lead the team to defend the Ashes last winter, but it’s also probably fair to say that the defeat wouldn’t have been so marked had he been in charge rather than Andrew Flintoff. This seems to suggest that while he is very good looking to “take the positives” and “learn from our mistakes”, his platitudes to the press are actually being taken on board.

Certainly England batted with more purpose in Wellington than they had in Hamilton on a pitch that was giving much more help to the bowlers. However, they were indebted to Paul Collingwood and the increasingly impressive Tim Ambrose to take them to a score probably a hundred runs above par. The reshaped bowling unit, however, was the most impressive aspect for England, with James Anderson in the first innings and Ryan Sidebottom in the second taking five each and Stuart Broad bowling much better than his figures gave him credit for. It is also encouraging that Vaughan is confident enough to turn to Collingwood to fulfil a role as the fourth seamer giving the side a much better balance

So England go to the final test with renewed confidence and some momentum. I would expect the team to remain unchanged, although Andrew Strauss needs to convert his starts into a major score if he is not to be jettisoned at the start of the English summer.

Wednesday, 12 March 2008

Hoggard and Harmison unceremoniously dumped

After their abject humiliation in the first Test, England had to make changes. The surprise is not the axing of Steve Harmison, who has much to do if he is to play another Test. It is the decision to drop Matthew Hoggard, who has proved his great skill and heart since last being dropped, in December 2003.

Some see this as simply absurd. Harmison is being dropped for three bad years; Hoggard, seemingly, for one bad game. However, such thinking is a gross exaggeration. For Hoggard, who once played 40 consecutive Tests, has recently been injured with alarming regularity. Moreover, his performances are not what they once were. He was wayward in the extreme in the first Test, and may have lost that imperceptible attribute - 'nip' - which is so crucial at Test level.

In his last 12 Tests, stretching back to July 2006, Hoggard has taken 31 wickets at an average of 41. While dropping him appears harsh, the problem is more with who is replacing him - James Anderson, fresh from a mauling in the ODI series and 2-95 for Auckland, and averaging 40 after 20 Tests. A better replacement would have been Charlie Shreck, who is faring excellently for Wellington and, unlike both Anderson and Hoggard, is on fine form and has been bowling plenty of first-class overs of late.

At 31, Hoggard may not have much international cricket left, but, with the goodwill he has earned from a career of relentless dedication, English fans will be willing him on to get back to his best and prove a Test force once more. With Harmison, alas, it seems everyone has long since given up.

Tuesday, 11 March 2008

Sting in the tail

England were beaten by 189 runs in the first Test. After losing their sixth wicket, New Zealand scored 185 runs more than England in the game. England’s loss was not just the result of this, clearly: negativity and a total lack of assertion amongst the batsmen and a lack of incision from three-quarters of the bowling attack are equally significant reasons. Nonetheless, why is England’s tail still so inadequate?

The infamous defeat to New Zealand at The Oval in August 1999, when England’s bottom three compromised a Test match number 10 (Andy Caddick), two 11s (Messrs Mullaly and Tufnell) and a number 12 (Ed Giddings) seemingly signalled the end of the ‘six out, all out’ days. Duncan Fletcher’s reign began with the next Test and he placed tremendous influence on developing a tail of tenacity and technique, who would cling dearly onto their wickets.

His policy was a considerable success. Ashley Giles developed into a very good number eight, while others made the odd vital contribution bashing (Steve Harmison and Simon Jones) or blocking (Matthew Hoggard).

Now England’s tail, once more, consistently falls abjectly. Hoggard’s batting has regressed, with his use as a nightwatchman increasingly absurd. Harmison has had moments when his batting appeared set to make good progress, but even fluky 15s are increasingly rare. Monty Panesar plays the odd delightful stroke but a Test average of under 7 (about the same as Hoggard’s) is frankly hopeless. That leaves Ryan Sidebottom who, as in everything he does, has been wholehearted and single-minded in his quest to fill England’s berth at number eight. His defence was admirable in Sri Lanka, but a first-class average of 12 – less than that of Stuart Clark, 11 in Australia’s last Test - shows he is probably ultimately just a willing number ten.

If England are going to improve they clearly need to squeeze every run out of their tail. Batting coach Andy Flower may be partly at fault because, as Glenn McGrath showed, even walking wickets can improve to the point of playing a part in invaluable partnerships, Chris Martin excepted. Given all the attack, except Sidebottom, are failing to deliver with the ball either – England have not taken 20 wickets in their last seven Tests - there would be considerable logic merit in selecting men like Stuart Broad as Graeme Swann, who could hardly bowl worse and would add much-needed sturdiness to the lower-order. It would be a largely defensive move, yes, but pragmatism is needed if England are to get out of their rut.

Sunday, 9 March 2008

England's new low

England have stumbled from one disappointment to the next post the 2005 Ashes, winning just two series out of eight. But the humiliation by New Zealand in this Test really is something else: a new low for the England side.

New Zealand played very well, without doubt. They batted with immense patience and pugnaciousness, seizing the game with the 150-run stand between Ross Taylor and Daniel Vettori. With the ball, they were relentless in their discipline, bowling cannily and with great skill on a docile track.

But still. This is a side who are ranked seventh in the world for good reason. Their best bowler by far, Shane Bond, has been scapegoated and banned for signing up with the ICL. Their bowling lacks any x-factor; even Dan Vettori averages in the mid-30s. Before this game, no one in their side averaged under 32 with the ball, or more than 40 with the bat, even allowing for a number of games against Bangladesh.

For their part, England were meek and timid. They were overwhelmed by fear with the bat as, save for some gorging on the awful West Indian attack, they have since Adelaide 2006. Scoring at 2 an over over 173 overs in their first innings defies belief in the modern Test game, especially against an attack not unreasonably considered toothless. Yes, New Zealand are perennially written off, but, for all their ODI qualities, they play fewer than half the number of Tests England do. Against South Africa - a side England would doubtless claim they would expect to beat - the Kiwis were twice pulverised, failing to past 200 over four innings in the series.

In the first innings England's batsmen exhibited their all-too-familiar tendency of failing to reach a hundred (or even 70) despite being well set. Crease occupation has been a big concern, but the real problem was their overwhelmingly defensive mindset, paralysed by fear on a slow, low track against an attack that, for all their endeavour, are no world-beaters. In the second, they were simply pathetic, collapsing in time-honed fashion like a pack of cards. On both occasions, judicious batting with a sensible, positive mindset would have insured against alarms. Paul Collingwood encapsulated the depressing timidity, crawling to a 50-ball two.

There seems to be a collective loss of self-belief and conviction, even afflicting Kevin Pietersen, that has engulfed the entire set-up, suggesting 'change for change's sake' may actually have some merit. Michael Vaughan's captaincy - though not his batting - has failed to impress since his return to the side. But on raw skill levels, too, England's deficiencies are increasingly apparent, despite their superlative catching in this game.

With the ball, England were equally pathetic, with Ryan Sidebottom's skill and tirelessness unable to cover up for the lack of incision elsewhere, with even Matthew Hoggard seriously off the pace . Most people have long since had enough of Steve Harmison's little-boy-lost impression on tours, and he has run out of excuses. So, indeed have the side, who have truly hit a nadir.

Yet the same was said when they were bowled out for 81 in Sri Lanka. While Shah, Broad, Tremlett and, especially, Ramprakash and Caddick would be in the ideal XIs of many, the grim truth is that this is more or less the best England have. Don't discount more horrors to come.

Friday, 7 March 2008

About / Contacts Us

Third Umpire is a group cricket blog focussing on international cricket and the county game (as well as some historical musings). We have been running in some form since September 2005. By April 2008 we have almost 450 pieces on the site - so there should be plenty to satisfy all cricketing tastes! For some of our better pieces do check out the 'highlights' on the left menubar.

If you fancy contributing to the site, on international cricket, the county scene or just about anything else to do with the game, do email cricketingworld(at)hotmail.com

We are always on the lookout for contributions to our county preview series, as well as anything else cricket-related. So if you see yourself as a budding journalist, do get in touch, and we can offer you an account allowing you to post directly onto the site!

For other comments, do use the comments feature below articles, as contributors really appreciate feedback and views on their pieces - and we are all for good debate. And do leave a comment or drop us a line if there's anything you'd like us to write on, or any series you think we should have a crack at - we'll do our best!

In the meantime, happy reading all!

Tuesday, 4 March 2008

How Sachin turned it around

India’s enthralling victory in the final CB Series is a fitting end to a summer in which they have battled fiercely with Australia, matching them from the second Test onwards. Controversially opting against selecting any of Dravid, Ganguly and Laxman for this series, India’s triumph was one of youthful vigour, testament to their aptitude for the fight and their mental resilience. At the centre of it all, however, was Sachin Tendulkar.

There is so much to admire about Tendulkar, forced to handle fame when just a boy yet a man who has retained humility and decency whilst playing international cricket for 18 years at a phenomenal level. In so much as it is possible, the pressures of batting for a billion do not appear to have greatly affected him. Yet what is too eagerly overlooked is the manner in which the master has reinvigorated himself so spectacularly after what was a form slump that appeared terminal.

That is not overstating it. Over three years from April 2004, Tendulkar’s returns in Tests declined alarmingly, although his diminishing returns were hid by some gorging on Bangladesh. The figures say it all: a paltry average of 28 over 22 Tests against the major nations. His one-day international figures were much better but, even so, there was a danger that Tendulkar would damage memories of his resplendent strokeplay with these years of rather undignified struggle.

The nadir was reached with a dire World Cup: a painful 26-ball seven against Bangladesh contributed to India needing a win against Sri Lanka just to qualify for the Super Eights. As he came out to bat, with his side teetering at 43/2, Cricinfo asked: “Is this going to be the defining moment?” Three balls later, we knew the answer: bowled for nought, his sad trudge back to the Pavillion seemed to betray a man who could no longer live up to his reputation. Brilliant innings of yore were an increasingly distant memory.

Yet somehow, Tendulkar found a way to turn it around, beginning with a pair of 90s against South Africa in a low-key ODI series in Ireland. Slowly and almost imperceptibly, Tendulkar began to rediscover the panache that characterised his brilliance of the 1990s. In the Tests in England, he patently appeared a great player wrestling against the advancing years; he played some vital knocks, though his strike-rate of 43 was indicative of strokeplay less dashing than had once been the case. The following ODIs marked further steps on the road to recovery; Tendulkar seemed free of burden – until he reached the 90s, when the weight of expectation would descend once more upon him.

Against Pakistan, he was superb Рbut the qualifier was he was playing against a modest attack in docile conditions. Could he do it against the best once more, and in Australia at that? Oh yes he could. Tendulkar seemed a man more at ease with his ability than for some time; his movement was as quick as in his youth; and the joie de vivre was back. His batting encompassed the élan of his youth and the nous that comes with being 34, as he masterfully adapted his game depending on the circumstances. The results were phenomenal: two scores of over 150, a series average of 70 and, tellingly, a strike-rate as high as 65. Australia will be aware of the onerous task facing them on their return tour in the autumn.

The majesty of Tendulkar's batting is there for all to see. His two innings in the finals – 117* to lead India to a comfortable run-chase, and 91 when India were batting first in the second game – were paced to perfection. He batted with a wonderful fusion of freedom and responsibility, and Australia had no answer. A year ago many believed the contrary – and with good reason – but Tendulkar's looks set to remain in international cricket for some time yet. He has rediscovered the joy he found batting in his youth. This, allied with his copious experience, mean that, once more, Sachin Tendulkar’s wicket is the most prized in the game – and don’t Australia know it.

Sunday, 2 March 2008

Only victory is acceptable for England

England have the nucleus of a pretty good Test side, but the time for excuses has long gone. New Zealand were twice thrashed when they toured South Africa recently, and are much worse at Tests than one-day internationals, suffering from a lack of potency - magnified by the departure of Shane Bond - and from a brittle middle-order. If England are to have any hope of regaining their number two ranking any time soon, they should win this series by at least a 2-0 margin.

In theory, England’s pace attack should prove decisive. Matthew Hoggard and Ryan Sidebottom, in conditions that should be very conducive to their brand of swing, will be eager to attack a line-up in which there are major deficiencies. Their canny swing, subtle variations and consistency will test the techniques of the Kiwi batsmen to the hilt. And, if Steve Harmison can find his groove on pitches that are expected to offer some bounce, New Zealand’s scorecards could resemble those in South Africa, when they failed to pass 200 in four innings, in which case Monty Panesar, who needs a good series, may be marginalised.

With the bat, the controversial selection of Andrew Strauss, who had done nothing whatsoever to merit a recall, means there will be a re-jigging of the batting order. The promising Vaughan-Cook opening pair will be persisted with, and Strauss will bat at three, for the first time in his Test career. He could be a bad series away from being dropped on a more permanent basis although he played reassuringly well in making 104 in the last warm-up game and his technical flaws should not be over-exposed by a fairly toothless attack. It is led by Chris Martin, a worthy and experienced bowler but averaging over 35 if Bangladesh and Zimbabwe are excluded. Daniel Vettori is a brilliant ODI bowler, but is perhaps a little over-rated in Tests, and claimed just three wickets in South Africa.

Ian Bell will, correctly, bat above Paul Collingwood. It is a wise move because, ultimately, Bell should be a better Test batsman than Collingwood, while, as his one-day pyrotechnics showed, Collingwood may be the better man to bat with the tail. Either way, against moderate opposition Bell should be looking to make a hundred – and a big one at that. Kevin Pietersen should enjoy the bowling providing he manages to keep his ego in check, particularly against Vettori.

As so often, however, all eyes will be on England’s number seven. Tim Ambrose will be making his debut in almost as low-key a setting as Test cricket allows. It is almost unanimously agreed that his keeping is a significant improvement upon that of Matt Prior. His batting, previously his weak suit, improved to the point that he averaged 45 in Division One of the championship, as well as 70 in the Friends Provident Trophy, last season. From what I know, Ambrose appears to be the best man for the gloves in the Test side. He has an important role to play as England begin the road to recovery after a dire run of Test form that has seen them win just two of their last eight series.