Friday, 30 May 2008

Prior Knowledge

The England ODI side to face New Zealand in one Twenty20 International and five ODI’s is announced later on today. It is rumoured that there is to be a surprise or two. After reviewing the Friends Provident Trophy matches so far this season, I have tried to identify who is deserving of a place in the side.

The first surprise is that Andrew Strauss is being considered for a recall. Whilst Strauss has clearly worked hard to reinvent himself and is deservedly reaping the benefits, there is no doubt that he is not what England need in the ODI arena, especially given the rise of whiz bang cricket and ever higher run rates. Strauss would be best left to focus on Test cricket and constructing solid innings as in the last Test match. He plays best when he isn’t under pressure to score. From this readers could be forgiven for assuming that Alistair Cook would be my pick at the top. Sorry again. Whilst Strauss isn’t going to be taking Cook’s place, somebody else will! Alistair Cook, very much like Strauss, plays best when not under pressure to score. Neither are Marcus Trescothick and playing them in the hope that they one day will be is sheer foolishness. And a Trescothick is exactly what England need up at the top of the order. Cook tried initially, but looked unnatural and kept on getting out attempting to hit over the top. Then he played his way, which brought more runs, but did nothing for the run rate in comparative terms. His first ODI hundred against India at The Rose Bowl was indicative of Cook’s problem. Whilst he did compile a brilliant innings, England could have unleashed the fury much earlier in the match, but Cook was seemingly unable to do so. Indeed, Ian Bell, his partner in crime, was able to do so to a greater extent. Once again England fell short of the mammoth score which they should have made. Of course, it wasn’t a problem in that particular game, but it could well be in the future.

England have also tried to replace Trescothick, most recently with Phil Mustard, who has also taken over the wicket keeping duties, with limited success. Mustard came to prominence during Durham’s run to the Friends Provident Final last season, which ultimately culminated in them winning their first trophy. His exciting brand of cricket was compared to Adam Gilchrist, always the bench mark for a wicket keeper it seems, no matter how unfair. At international level though, and I say this after his limited appearances, he doesn’t appear to be able to convert starts in to the bigger fifties and hundreds which win matches and are the backbone of any limited overs side. His form in domestic cricket this year has also been far from impressive, as those of us with him in our fantasy sides can testify! Jeremy Coney, after his first sighting of Mustard, described him as a leg side bully. It is hard to disagree at times, although he clearly has more to his game than this. Ultimately though, after ten matches, he is averaging 23.30, with only a solitary fifty to his name.

The change which I therefore wish to see and which looks increasingly likely, is the recall of Matt Prior to the ODI side. Whether this be as wicket keeper or not doesn’t really bother me. He clearly has the ability with the bat to cope as a top six batsmen. Whilst he too only averages 22.90 after his return to the side last year, scoring the one fifty, he is without doubt a better batsman than Mustard. He averages 40.14 in Test cricket and is so far the leading scorer in First Class cricket this season, with 473 runs at an average of 67. He has only failed to pass fifty once in fact and in Sussex’s most recent game scored both a hundred and fifty, whilst nobody else was able to even get past forty. His efforts won the game. That record clearly deserves rewarding. What of his wicket keeping though? Well, it is often the unreported facet of the game. Without being there it is hard to judge. Some reports suggest improvement and this would be understandable, away from the scrutiny and pressure of the international arena. In his favour is that he played well as the keeper for England in limited overs cricket and did not make the same volume of mistakes as in Test match cricket, mistakes for which he was rightly dropped. His keeping will need to be at a much higher level before he returns to Test cricket. However, a return to the ODI side will enable him to ease his way back in, set about keeping successfully through fifty overs, rather than two hundred or more over five days.

If Prior is to come in for Mustard, then I may well bat him down the order, where he operates so well for Sussex. He could also open of course, a position he has yet to convince in at international level. Vikram Solanki is the only other real candidate for the opening role, yet he has been in and out of the side over so many years that I doubt he will be selected, despite his excellent limited overs form. My definite opener would be Ian Bell as I feel he is the player England should look to, to bat through the innings. His best ODI innings for my mind was against Australia when he opened. His promotion would allow Kevin Pietersen to bat at number three, where he could better dictate the game for England. This could be the fresh change with Pietersen needs in order to reinvigorate his own game and focus on his strength, being positive. At four would come Owais Shah, as I believe that too much of his ability against spin is lost down at number six, plus England now have better options down the order. Usman Afzaal and Samit Patel could also be in contention for this position in the future, given their impressive allround performances for their counties in the FP Trophy thus far this season.

Five would be the captain, Paul Collingwood, in his familiar role. At six I would have Ravi Bopara who is enjoying a good start to the season. At seven would be Luke Wright (if Prior were to open, it may be worth swapping the two around at some point), as he has so far played his best cricket for England at the death. Eight would be Andrew Flintoff when he returns, until then Dimi Mascarenhas would be a sound choice and the only near replacement which England really have. Nine would be the ever improving Stuart Broad, who looks more at home in the ODI side than the Test team. Ten would be the ever reliable Ryan Sidebottom.

The batting depth of this side would allow England to play Monty Panesar at number eleven should he develop more variety. It can be argued though that he needs the experience of playing in order to develop that variety. His rivals are Graeme Swann, Adil Rahsid and James Tredwell, all of whom could comfortably bat at number nine, or possibly higher if required. For me, building for the next World Cup and given his success against New Zealand thus far, I would choose Panesar, with Rashid as the second spinner.

James Anderson would be the standby seamer and could also play instead of Mascarenhas until Flintoff’s return if deemed necessary. He is still far too inconsistent though and that is why he does not make the final XI. Even in Test match cricket he still bowls a lot of four balls and doesn’t seem to be able to maintain consistent pressure on the batsmen.

I believe that England are working their way towards building a successful and positive limited overs side. The introduction of more positive players has led to an improvement and will continue to do so.


THE XI:

Ian Bell
Matt Prior (wk)
Kevin Pietersen
Owais Shah
Paul Collingwood (c)
Ravi Bopara
Luke Wright
Andrew Flintoff (Mascarenhas)
Stuart Broad
Ryan Sidebottom (Anderson)
Monty Panesar

The Reserves:

James Anderson
Adil Rashid
Dimitri Mascarenhas
Alistair Cook

Doing Geoff Miller's job

With the One Day series around the corner, it’s selection time again. New Zealand are one of the better One Day teams in world cricket and showed that they are a tough nut to crack during the winter. However, England’s two previous series were wins against India and away to Sri Lanka, so the home team can also take some comfort in recent form.

Andrew Flintoff and Simon Jones have not been considered for selection as they continue their recoveries from injury. Otherwise, recent form is a strong factor in the selection of this 15 man squad.

Top Order Batting
The top order should contain one anchorman with the rest being strokeplayers. The England team has plenty of strength in depth with batting due to the number of all-rounders available. Therefore, a more aggressive approach can be taken at the start of the innings. The role of anchorman has been taken in recent games by Ali Cook and Ian Bell (normally in the same match). Both make my squad, but on the understanding that only one will play in a match. The wicket keeper should also be considered to be a top order batsman and with Kevin Pietersen coming in at four, the other specialist batsman should come in at three. Holding onto his place will be Owais Shah, and just seeing off the challenge of his Surrey teammate James Benning for the reserve slot is Usman Afzaal who has had a magnificent FP Trophy.

Middle Order Batting/ Allrounders
Paul Collingwood should continue to captain the side. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that his best moment in the test was when he went into One Day mode to finish the game before the tea interval. Also in the team, primarily as batsmen but possibly to share 20 overs with Collingwood, should be Ravi Bopara and Luke Wright both of whom again are scoring a lot of runs. Sharing 20 overs between batting allrounders may be a risky strategy, so bowling all rounders Tim Bresnan and Dimi Mascarenhas are also be selected

Wicket Keeper
Phil Mustard hasn’t done anything in wrong in the last two series. He’s just not really done anything of note either with just the one fifty in ten matches. Tim Ambrose is also clearly a capable batsman and excellent keeper but with a technique which could be found wanting at the top of the order. Matt Prior is the batsman in form in county cricket as a whole and despite an even more indifferent start to his One Day career than Mustard, he is worthy of another chance and gets the nod here.

Bowling
Graeme Swann is the man in possession and has shown himself to be a good attacking One Day bowler and a better option in this form of the game than Monty Panesar. The three pace bowlers also pick themselves, with only two likely to be used in any match. Ryan Sidebottom and Stuart Broad are the ones likely to make the team, with James Anderson as the reserve bowler and Bresnan providing further cover.

The Squad
Ian Bell
Matt Prior
Owais Shah
Kevin Pietersen
Paul Collingwood
Ravi Bopara
Luke Wright
Tim Bresnan
Graeme Swann
Stuart Broad
Ryan Sidebottom

Ali Cook
Usman Afzaal
Dimitri Mascarenhas
James Anderson

Wednesday, 28 May 2008

FP Trophy Weekly Round-up

There should have been a mountain of games to review this week. However, thankfully from my point of view the weather put a stop to no less than eight matches.

We start back at last Tuesday with Hampshire vs Worcestershire at The Rose Bowl. The Royals were put in and quickly slipped to 66-6, Dimi Mascarenhas (3-37) and Chris Tremlett (2-44) both in inspired form. However, Gareth Batty led a comeback with a spirited 52 and he was well supported by Kabir Ali (28), Gareth Andrew (30*) and swinging Steve Maggoffin (24*) as the Royals made 201-8. Hampshire themselves were soon 65-6, Simon Jones particularly impressive with 2-38, while Maggoffin (2-31) was similarly dangerous. However, Michael Brown (96*), the deputy wicket keeper, made his highest ever List A score and well supported by the captain, Mascarenhas making 56 from 89 balls, demonstrating that he has another side to his game. The Hawks won with thirteen balls to spare.

Steve Stubbings (95) and Chris Rodgers (94) shared an opening stand of 150 for Derbyshire against Lancashire at Derby, as The Phantoms made 288-5. Lancashire were blown away for 188 in reply, Tom Lungley (3-31) and Graham Wagg (2-34) the main destroyers, as only Francois du Plessis (54) offered any meaningful resistance. Lancashire seem to be really struggling with the bat this season and Gary Keedy’s run a ball 33 was evidence that batting was a good deal easier than they made it look.

There was a Twenty over aside game at Bristol where Gloucestershire hosted Hampshire. The Hawks were put in and could only muster 144-6, Michael Lumb (76) and Jon Lewis (3-17) the respective stars. In reply, Craig Spearman (71) did the damage with a typically belligerent knock and it was he and Mark Hardinges (49*) who rescued the side from 27-4 to take them home with two balls to spare, despite Shane Bond’s (3-11) best efforts on his return.

Glamorgan had 31 overs to bat against Worcestershire at Swansea, having been put into bat. They could only make 135-9 in that time, despite Jamie Dalrymple’s 47, Steve Maggoffin (3-19) and Kabir Ali (2-21) doing the damage up front. The Royals made it over the line with seventeen balls remaining, captain Vikram Solanki leading the way with 69.

Glam v Worcs @ Swansea: Simon Jones works up a pace close to 'home', and Vikram Solanki eases Worcestershire to victory again (Pics c/o RTE).

Essex were all out for 215 against Surrey at Chelmsford, having been put in, Varun Chopra top scoring with 79, as Jade Dernbach took 3-31, while there were two wickets apiece for Matt Nicholson (2-40), James Ormond (2-41) and James Benning (2-35), who was less economical. Surrey eased to victory, Scott Newman (52), Mark Butcher (66*) and Usman Afzaal (50*) all scoring fifties.

Defending Champions Durham made 230-6 at The Riverside against Scotland, as Phil Mustard (57) finally showed some form, with Neil McKenzie (68) also hitting fifty. John Blain was once again the pick of the Scottish bowlers (2-34). Brothers Steve (3-39) and Ben Harmison (3-43) shared six wickets as Scotland were all out for 192 in reply, Kyle McCallum making 60.

Scotland were in action at Headingley the following day and made a respectable 244, skipper Ryan Watson (54) and Colin Smith (60) each making fifty, despite the impressive bowling of Darren Gough (2-40) and the much hyped Adil Rashid (2-36). Dewald Nel (2-53) took two early wickets for the Scots to give them hope, but Anthony McGrath (105*) and Jaques Rudolph (82) put paid to any ideas of victory as Yorkshire won with 9.2 overs remaining.

There was a thrilling contest at Trent Bridge, where Nottinghamshire faced Ireland. Put into bat, The Outlaws made 241-6, Adam Voges (82) and Samit Patel (75) the main scorers, with “Irishman” Ravi Rampaul taking 3-40. Patel must be on the radar of the England selectors after his impressive start to the season. The Irish reply was all about Kevin O’Brien (93*), but unfortunately the Irish finished on 240-6, one run shy of a tie, with Luke Fletcher taking 2-41.

There was a much shortened game at Oakham School where Leicestershire welcomed Warwickshire. The Bears were put in and made 187-8, thanks in no small part to veteran Tony Frost (55*). Ryan Cummins (3-50) and James Allenby (2-40) were the best bowlers for The Foxes. At 53-2 from 19.3 overs the rain came and Warwickshire were awarded the victory via the Duckworth-Lewis method by 8 runs.

Our final game takes us again to The Riverside, where Durham opted to bat first against Derbyshire, Michael Di Venuto making 138. Phil Mustard was back to his old tricks, making a quick fire 24 before getting out. Meanwhile, Will Smith contributed 55. Graham Wagg (2-46) was the best Phantom bowler on show. Derbyshire were all out for 181 in reply, John Sadler the top scorer with 46, as Gareth Breese (5-41) ran through the line up.

Player of the Week: Michael Di Venuto certainly deserves a mention for his magnificent hundred, but the player of the week, for his 3-37 and patient 56 not out against Worcestershire in difficult batting conditions, is Dimi Mascarenhas, who will be hoping to be named in the England ODI squad this week.

How do you solve a problem like Matt Prior?

Regular readers will be aware of my interest in wicket keeping and my preference for “real” wicket keepers. However, with the effect that Alec Stewart and particularly Adam Gilchrist had on the position, being just a wicket-keeper is no longer good enough. Righly or wrongly, a keeper needs to be selected on the basis of his batting skills more than his keeping skills, otherwise Chris Read would have been the England keeper for the past 5-6 years.

The current group of wicket-keepers vying for places in the England test team range from the pure wicket-keeping, unorthodox batting of Chris Read to the poor wicket keeping but fine batting of Matt Prior with current incumbent Tim Ambrose and James Foster in between (Phil Mustard has been deliberately omitted as neither his matting nor his keeping are adequate for test cricket). This situation is reminiscent of the early 1990s, and the start of the career of England’s archetypal batsman-wicket keeper: Alec Stewart.

Stewart started out as a batsman in 1990 before replacing the specialist wicket keeper, Jack Russell, during the Ashes series of 1991 as England looked for a better balance to the team. This was in the days of Phil Defreitas and Chris Lewis as the England all rounder, who were essentially bowlers who could bat, so the need for an extra bowler or batsman was critical. The next few series then took a familiar pattern. Russell would start as the wicket keeper, with Stewart opening the batting. However, as the results became disappointing, Stewart would be moved to keep wicket to draft in an extra batsman or bowler. As Stewart’s wicket keeping improved, he spent more time as keeper, playing 82 of his 133 tests behind the stumps. This was also to the detriment of his batting average, which was 46.7 as a batsman, but only 35 when keeping wicket.

Despite these movements in his position, Stewart’s position in the team was never in doubt. He was one of England’s premier batsmen and the wicket keeping was good enough (and improving) while never in the same class as Russell. Indeed, he finished the 1990s as the top scorer in test cricket for the decade, taking over as captain of the side in 1998 with a series victory over South Africa, up to the disappointing World Cup in 1999.

So how does this help us with the England wicket keeping position? The closest that England have to Stewart is Matt Prior. Prior averages over 40 in test cricket and during his last series, away to Sri Lanka finished third in the England batting averages, behind Ian Bell and Ali Cook. The series saw a maturity in his batting, which had been previously reliant on scoring quickly. He scored 19 off 100 balls in saving the 3rd test, while he scored half-centuries during the first two tests, the second being a fine example of marshalling the tail. Despite Tim Ambrose’s fine century in the second test in New Zealand, it is difficult to imagine him playing such an innings for England in such circumstances.

Prior has started the season in blistering form. He is averaging 67 in the championship, in a Sussex team where Murray Goodwin is the only other player to average above 40 and has failed to reach fifty just once. With a test average above 40 (and 5 runs better than Stewart’s as a wicket keeper), he is clearly good enough to play for England as a specialist batsman. As with Stewart, once he is ensconced into the team, his presence will give the selectors the option of using his wicket keeping skills, and he will have the confidence to know that he is being judged mainly on his batting, with the keeping allowing other options in the team selection. He would need to improve his keeping, but the knowledge that this is not the be all and end all of his game should allow him to relax into his role

Alec Stewart was not a great wicket keeper, particularly standing up. He was however, a more than adequate keeper and one of the best batsmen in world cricket. Matt Prior could be the heir to Stewart in more ways than one.

Tuesday, 27 May 2008

Panesar's progress

Monty Panesar has had an amazing impact as both a player and a personality in his relatively short Test career. With his excellent bowling, his exuberant wicket celebrations and sometimes comical fielding it is little wonder that cricket fans, particularly those who support England, have taken him to their hearts. But how good is Panesar as a Test cricketer?

In my view Panesar is a wonderfully gifted bowler, who has already shown himself to be a match-winner, and who can become great if he continues to learn and improve his game. It is fair to say that his batting and fielding are distinctly average, though he has progressed in these disciplines after being laughably poor at the start of his Test career. How much he can improve in them is a matter of conjecture, though with his spirit and willingness to work there is no reason why he can't make himself a decent fielder and show good resistance in his batting. But it is as a bowler that Panesar shows his cricketing class.

Starting his Test career in India, arguably the hardest of all places for a spinner, Panesar showed good heart and no little skill. He claimed some notable wickets, including that of the legendary Tendulkar. Under the heat and pressure of his first series Panesar fell away towards the end, but showed enough to know that England had a rare talent on their hands.

Panesar followed this up with two excellent series' at home against Sri Lanka and Pakistan, taking 10 and 17 wickets, respectively. This was significant because it showed that Panesar could be a match-winner, that he could bowl well against top players of spin and that he could handle the pressure of his home crowd's expectations.

On a high after these 7 successful Tests at home Panesar had every right to believe he would have a crack at the Australians, as England looked to defend the Ashes in the lion's den. Instead, in one of the most foolish of many foolish moves by the England management on that tour, Panesar was dropped in favour of Ashley Giles. By the time Panesar was recalled England were 2-0 down in the series, having just capitulated at Adelaide, a pitch that Pansesar would have loved to bowl on.

Thrown into the action on a bouncy Perth wicket Panesar bowled brilliantly, claiming 5 for 92 in the first innings. Sadly, this wonderful effort was wasted as England failed to get the big first innings lead they so desperately needed and the match was lost as the Australians obliterated England's bowling in their second innings. Panesar still managed to get 3 wickets in the second innings, despite being targetted by the Australian batsmen. The series was lost and Panesar's efforts, like England's, tailed off in a series that ended in a 5-0 humiliation.

Far from suffering any signs of shell-shock after such a heavy defeat, Panesar bounced back in the next series at home against the West Indies. He took 23 wickets @18.69 in just 4 matches, claiming the player of the series award. It is true to say that the West Indies were a weak Test team, but their batting line-up still included Gayle, Sarwan, Chanderpaul and Bravo, all good Test batsmen. It is also worth remembering that Panesar had only played 13 Tests at the time and would be rightly considered to be still learning his trade. To so dominate an international side was a great achievement for a young bowler. It also showed that Panesar could bowl consistently well through out a series.

After his most successful series Panesar faced the most difficult time of his Test career, when there would be unbelievable calls for him to be dropped. It was at home against a resurgent India that things started to go wrong. In fairness, though, Panesar's problems in that series, which England lost 1-0, were mirrored by most of the other England bowlers. He still managed to claim 8 wickets and only really failed at the Oval, which was a bore draw on a ridiculous batting paradise, where even Kumble was able to score a chanceless century.

The next series was a forbidding trip to Sri Lanka, against a team who thrived on home soil and who had the best bowler in the world in their ranks, the incomparable Muttiah Muralitharan. To compare Panesar to such an all-time great as Murali is unfair in the extreme, but that is what happened in the hype leading up to the start of the series. Clearly the Sri Lankan batsmen had targetted Panesar as England's danger man and they attacked him from the start. Early on, though, Panesar bowled well and took wickets, but as the series wore on he struggled more and more.

Unable to take enough wickets against such wonderful players of spin, Panesar started to fiddle with his game and lost some of his confidence. The Sri Lankans dominated England and Panesar could not make the breakthroughs he would have expected to. His economy rate was still good, but the Sri Lankans batted patiently against him, accumulating winning totals. It was a lesson for Panesar on what was only his third tour, all of which had been to places where England traditionally struggled. He certainly did not disgrace himself, though like in India before his performances tailed away, suggesting that he still needed to work on his stamina to keep bowling long spells in the heat and humidity.

Finally, against a relatively weak New Zealand, Panesar regained his verve and form, taking 11 wickets in generally seam friendly conditions on England's tour. He has followed that up with 9 wickets in two matches in the current home Test series against the Kiwis, including a man of the match winning, Test best 6 for 37 at Old Trafford just two days ago.

Those who were writing Panesar off should note that he has taken 101 Test wickets in just 28 Tests, including the tough tours of India, Australia and Sri Lanka. It is also revealing to compare Panesar's record after 28 Tests to that of Warne and Muralitharan at the same stage in their careers. Warne had by then established himself as a match winner for the dominating Australians, but had still only taken 125 wickets @24.35, much better than Panesar, but still not out of sight. Interestingly, Warne had only had 6 five wicket hauls to Panesar's 8, with both of them having had one 10 wicket haul. Murali, however, had only taken 107 wickets @30.64, with 7 five wicket hauls, a very similar record to Panesar after 28 matches.

Now, I am not going to say that Panesar will go on to be anywhere near as great as these two legends. For a start he is a finger spinner and does not have the mystique that surrounds Murali and Warne, nor the variety of wicket-taking deliveries. What I will say is that Panesar should improve and continue to take a lot of wickets for England. That he is a proven match-winner already and that it would be foolish in the extreme to consider dropping him unless his form dips alarmingly for an extended period of time, not just a handful of matches.

Championship Review - Week 6

Away from the excitement of the Test at Old Trafford, in Division 1, the Champions beat the league leaders while in Division 2, Middlesex and Essex hung on for what could be vital draws. And Ramps is still waiting for his 100th hundred…

Division 1
Starting with the leaders, Nottinghamshire had Sussex in all sorts of trouble at 74 for 6 until Matt Prior and Robin Martin-Jenkins put on 142 for the 7th wicket, Prior ending up with 131. Notts scored 251 in reply and with Sussex getting 259 in their second innings, Prior again top scoring, Notts needed 286 to win. With Corey Collymore taking four wickets for the second time in the match, Sussex won by 73 runs as Notts made 212. Notts have had a flying start to the season, Sussex have had a poor start to the season. However, there are now just six points between them as the table closes up again.

Ryan McLaren took 5 for 31 as Kent bowled Somerset out for just 202. Kent then made 273, with Martin van Jaarsveld hitting 95. A Marcus Trescothick century brought Somerset back into the game, and their score of 335 meant that Kent were chasing 270 to win. Joe Denly hit 149, but the Kent effort finished 20 runs short and Somerset record their first win of the season to move 4th with a game in hand on all of those above them.

Bizarrely, one of the teams above Somerset, Surrey, are still to register a win, although their strong batting line-up means that there are bonus points a-plenty. The game against Yorkshire was no different as Surrey declared on 466 for 8, with Mark Butcher scoring 205 and Matt Nicholson 133, the pair of them putting on 231 for the 6th wicket. Mark Ramprakash managed just 29 with 14 in the 2nd innings meaning that he remains on 99 centuries. In reply Jacques Rudolph (121) and Andrew Gale (150) also had a stand of over 200 as Yorkshire racked up 525, thanks also to an unbeaten 84 from Tim Bresnan. Losing three wickets before making up the deficit, Surrey were wobbling. However, Yorkshire were a bowler light due to injury to Rana Naved (Yorkshire’s 5th pace bowler to be injured this season along with Gough, Hoggard, Shahzad and Morkel) and an Usman Afzaal century saw Surrey to safety, closing on 299 for 6.

Division 2
Northamptonshire batted first at Glamorgan an scored an impressive 531 for 8 with Niall O’Brien and David Sales both scoring hundreds, Sales getting 173 of just 151 balls. In reply, Jamie Dalrymple offered solid resistance, with 82 off 212 balls, but the Welshmen were bowled out for 278, well short of the follow-on target. They batted even more poorly second time round, making just 154 for Northants to run out winners by an innings and 99 runs.
Glamorgan feels the South African heat in Swansea.
Northants Nicky Boje and Johann Louw above.

Forever Swansea. Glamorgan's display versus Northants spoilt their annual visit to the old St Helens ground, a fans favourite (Pics c/o RTE).

My pre-season favourites, Middlesex, have started poorly and managed just 297 at Warwickshire, with Darren Maddy picking up four wickets. In reply, the Bears made 438, with Tony Frost top scoring on 90, putting on 152 for the 5th wicket with Ant Botha. Starting their second innings 141 behind, Billy Godleman hit 87 while Eoin Morgan and Shaun Udal had made an unbeaten stand of 117 as Middlesex finished on 335 for 7 and a draw.

The most exciting finish of the week was at Chelmsford where David Masters took 6 for 24 as Leicestershire made just 159, Paul Nixon and Jacques du Toit putting on 86 of these for the 6th wicket. However, Essex did little better, Nadeem Malik taking 6 for 46 as they made 164 for a lead of five runs. In a complete turnaround, the Foxes then made 449 second time round, with HD Ackerman getting a ton and Paul Nixon unbeaten on 92, despite Ryan ten Doeschate taking 5-fer. Needing 445 to win, Essex were always struggling but hung on for a draw thanks to a gutsy lower order resistance, mainly from James Foster scoring 88 from 212 balls, but also Masters scoring just 5 from 87 deliveries, and Tony Palladino with 2 from 53 deliveries.

England Player Watch
Ravi Bopara followed a golden duck with 87 for Essex as the pressure builds on the out of form Paul Collingwood, while his main contender for the next batting place, Owais Shah made 36 and 50 for Middlesex. Joe Denly also started with a golden duck for Kent, but followed it with 149, while Rob Key got two starts with 48 and 26. However, change at the top of the England batting line-up seems unlikely.

Matt Prior kept up his stellar start to the season with a century and a fifty in Sussex’s win, and should be in consideration for a specialist batsman’s role as well as putting pressure on Tim Ambrose. Also keeping up the pressure on Ambrose is Chris Read, who scored a fifty for Notts in the same match and James Foster, whose 88 saved Essex from defeat.

Bowling wise, Tim Bresnan took four wickets on a batsman friendly track, while his good form with the bat continues. However, the more likely next bowlers in line for England, Chris Tremlett and Graeme Onions both had the week off.

Player of the week
Mentions to Mark Butcher for his double century, David Sales for his brutal attack on Glamorgan and David Masters for six wickets and surviving 87 deliveries as Essex saved the game against Leicestershire. However, the player of the week is the second wicket-keeper of the season to win the award. No other Sussex batsman made a fifty, while he got a ton and a fifty as Notts were defeated, the Player of the Week is Matt Prior.

Sunday, 25 May 2008

What to do from here?

How many times have we said that recently? The first 5-0 Ashes defeat for over 80 years? Failing to win a live game against a major Test-playing nation at the World Cup? Losing at home to India? Getting bowled out for 81 in Sri Lanka? Being timidity personified in Hamilton against an admirable but not overly threatening attack, against whom England batted for 173 overs, but scored at a soporofic two-an-over, and then subsiding pathetically in the second innings for 110? Coming on the back of New Zealand being decimated by the IPl and ICL, to whom they essentialy lost half their side including their most valuable player, Shane Bond, that would take some beating.

And yet England have managed it. Scrapping over the follow-on target against the Kiwis at Old Trafford was just about as depressing as it comes. Dan Vettori has bowled with mesmerising guile (much better in fact, than he bowled in New Zealand), while Ian O'Brien has been fantastic. But England have been diffident and pathetic, showing no inclination to hit bowlers off their rhythm, allowing themselves to be trapped in their crease meekly, barely able to hit a run and just wait for their inevitable dismissals. If New Zealand have been fantastic, it is in large part because they have been allowed to be.

With the ball, England were far too loose, once more unable to exploit fairly helpful conditions. The bowlers seem incapable of thinking on their feet. While Ross Taylor played a phenomenal innings, testament to his rare talent, England totally lacked discipline or skill. James Anderson is far too erratic for Test cricket, and must immediately be dispensed with. Monty Panesar's downward curve continues; he is symptomatic of England's struggles when the opposition do something unexpected.

A damning indictement of this side is they have not learned from their feebleness in Hamilton, and have repeated all the same mistakes. The batting was abject once more. It is an oft-quoted statistic that all the top six average over 40, but those averages have been in decline for some time. Furthermore, the averages are boosted both by feasting on minnows and today's generally easier batting conditions. 40 is clearly no longer the mark of a top-class Test batsman. The batting lineup seems fundamentally flawed, and rejigging the pack cannot disguise it. Men of skill and desire, such as Owais Shah and Rob Key (and, given the desperation of the situation and the need to win the next game, rather than plan for some mythical date in the future, perhaps even Mark Ramprakash or his captain Mark Butcher, enjoying the purplest of patches), should be brought in, not just for the quality they possess but for the message it would send. The decision to drop Andrew Strauss and simultaneously hand him a new central contract was a half-hearted signal at best; and he got back in without making a run.

The skipper led by example, eeking out an agonising 133-ball 30. He often talks of helping his players "express themselves"; yet he himself was patently incapable of doing that. Ian Bell's innings surprised no one - a painstaking start followed by a somewhat half-hearted waft outside offstump.Paul Collingwood, for the second consecutive innings, looked out of his depth. He maximises his talent, certainly, but is painfully out-of-form - he has hit just 39 runs in seven innings this season - and, ultimately, is simply perhaps not good enough at Test level, whatever an Ashes double-hundred may suggest. The most depressing innings, however, was played by England's best batsman.

Kevin Pietersen has gradually gone from being a maverick, and a genius capable of decimating the bowling with his idiosyncratic brand of fearlessnes, into a man seemingly lacking faith in his own ability. The transformation was inevitable in some respects (as I have discussed before), and is not without its benefits. Maturity has brought some positive aspects, of course, but it is grim watching the contrast between him and Taylor, surely no more talented, on the same pitch in the same match.

This is, at last in part, an indictement of the England set-up. Are players so well-rewarded, that they are so desperate to cling onto their places that they are paralysed by fear? The culture appears to gradually suck the individuality out of players; they are spoon-fed by legions of support staff, and subsequently have lost the ability to think for themselves. This extends even to the captain and coach, who refrain from indulging in horses-for-courses of any sort - the merits of which were reaffirmed by O'Brien's sterling endeavours here. The stability of central contracts has clearly gone way too far: it appears easier to get into the side than out of it. What to do? Sack the lot of 'em? England need a shakeup of sorts, even if it has the whiff of '90s short-termism about it.

Saturday, 24 May 2008

Australia and West Indies show why Tests are best

For those of us for whom England's 12th consecutive match against New Zealand is a less-than-enthralling prospect, West Indies' Test with Australia has captivated and reaffirmed what we already knew: Twenty20 may come and go but Test cricket remains the pinnacle.

Three days in, the game has showcased cricket at its very best. A majestic century from Ricky Ponting in tricky circumstances, followed by a fine half-century from Brad Hodge, benefiting from a series of ill-fortune to earn a surprise recall. The West Indies then rallied commendably. Australia's bowlers struggled, but were bailed out by Stuart Clark. Exhibiting the virtues of line, length, a touch of seam and the most phlegmatic of temperaments, Clark showed why he has enjoyed such a phenomenal start to his Test career.

West Indies then fought back, before Brett Lee and Mitchell Johnson, having previously suffered from no-ball problems, responded superbly, in a way the shorter forms of the game allows ample time. Lee then hit Shivnarine Chanderpaul on the helmet. The West Indies feared he would go off. Chanderpaul remained resolute, exploding into life and reaching a majestic century. His performances over the last 12 months have been little sort of astounding; his idiosyncratic technique and unrivalled concentration making bowlers the world over thankful for the brittleness of his team-mates. In his last 16 innings, he has passed 50 on 11 occasions, with four centuries and many others denied by being undefeated or resorting to slogging when left stranded, as so often, with the tail. Despite his brilliance, an Australian lead of 119 seemingly made comfortable victory inevitable.

How can a game played over five days change so much in so little a timespan? How indeed. The West Indians were simply lethal on the third evening: Fidel Edwards and Daren Powell were outstanding, hostile and able to swing the ball late - with devastating results. The sight of Michael Hussey's stumps being decimated as Australia slipped to 12/4 was testament to the capacity of this game to produce sport at its most riveting and astounding. Twenty runs off an over simply does not come close to matching the simmering of tension; the personal, sometimes gladitorial, duels; and an even contest between bat and ball.

As the cricketing world threatens to lose all sanity in its approach to Twenty20, a worthy and sometimes captivating game but one that risks saturation, Test cricket has been done sterling service by this match just when many appeared willing to forget its merits. And if Test cricket is to enjoy a resurgence, wouldn't it help if these shoots of a West Indies revival grew into something more substantial?

Wednesday, 21 May 2008

England's favourite homes

Old Trafford, the venue for this week's 2nd Test against New Zealand, has been one of England's favourite grounds in recent years. With this in mind I thought it would be interesting to see which home venues England have enjoyed most Test Match success at in recent years.

The period I have chosen is the 2000s, during which England have played extremely well at home. However, some places have proved happier hunting grounds than others. England's overall record in the 2000s is an impressive 31 wins out of 57 Tests, with only 12 losses and 14 draws.

They have won all 3 matches played at Chester-le-Street, though the opposition have been the weakest in the recent Test arena - Zimbabwe, Bangladesh and West Indies. More impressive are England's performances on their quickest and bounciest pitches at The Oval and Old Trafford, where they have played 8 and 7 Tests, respectively. They have won 4 and lost just 1 match at each ground.

Lord's reputation for lifting England's opponents and not being a favourite ground for the home team is a false one. In 17 Tests since 2000 England have won 8 and only lost 3, drawing the other 6. It is Trent Bridge which is actually England's worse venue in recent years, having yielded just 3 wins out of 8 matches, with 3 losses and 2 draws.

Headingly, long thought of as having the most typically English pitch, justifies its reputation, giving England 5 victories to just 2 losses in 7 matches. It also lives up to its billing as a result pitch, with no draws so far in the 2000s. Edgbaston rounds off the home grounds, producing 4 wins for England out of 7 Tests, with only 2 losses.

On this basis England can look forward to this week's Test Match, but should beware the Third Test against the Kiwis. They should also feel confident about the forthcoming series against South Africa, with matches at Lord's, Headingly, Edgbaston and The Oval.

Of course, Test cricket is never as simple as that, but England's overall record at home in recent years is an excellent one and proof that home advantage is perhaps more prevalent in cricket than any other sport.

Tuesday, 20 May 2008

Does it need fixing?

The explosion in 20:Twenty cricket and the Kolpak controversy has brought forward a run of people all telling us what is wrong with county cricket. Some of these have some merit, but are tinkering around the edges, whereas others are just plain crackers, reversing the positive changes that took place years ago. To my mind, the questions that need to be asked are What is Wrong with County Cricket? And what can be done to fix it?

I started thinking about this at the end of the last county season. It was the most exciting in years for most of the counties. In Division 1 five counties were still in with a shout of the title for the last round of matches, whereas relegation was only confirmed for Warwickshire along with safety for Kent and Surrey in the penultimate week. In Division 2, Somerset and Notts showed their class (and in Notts case continue to show their class) while Middlesex and Essex were both highly competitive.

The performance of Notts was despite losing Ryan Sidebottom to England. Supposedly a county journeyman who wasn’t quick enough to play for England under Duncan Fletcher, he graduated to become England’s player of the year and leading bowler. Proof, if ever it was needed, that county cricket produces players of international standard.

But what of the other counties. Worcestershire were quickly relegated, but the flooding at New Road meant that the season was about survival off the pitch rather than on it. For the counties at the wrong end of Division 2, however, there was little to play for and little interest in their performance. And herein lies the rub. Once you are out of the promotion challenge in Division 2, you are back to the bad old days of single division cricket where players were just playing out the season from July onwards.

Clearly the logistics needed to set up a first class county set up means that relegation from Division 2 is a non-starter. It would also push counties down the short-term fix route of more and more Kolpaks rather than building for the future with their own youth players.

Reducing the number of counties would also not address the issue at the bottom of the pile. The Kolpak ruling means that there are more county standard players to go around, a situation which would be further improved by removing the restriction on overseas players. The game would be improved by more of Jacques Rudolph or Jacques Kallis with less Jacques du Toit. If the ECB structures their handouts to reward those bringing through their own players, while still allowing counties to strengthen from a wide pool of overseas talent would improve the current standards of cricket while encouraging the development of young players.

However, the Kolpak argument doesn’t help to make the bottom end of the 2nd Division more competitive. For that we may have to look to other sports. Rugby and football have both benefited from the play off system in that it keeps more teams interested for longer. It has an inherent unfairness in that it reduces the season to a single match, but if the second promotion place was to be decided by play-offs, 2nd to 5th would be involved in post season action with 6th to 9th much closer to the possibility of promotion to the end of the season.

This would necessitate two extra weeks at the end of the season in Division 2. This could be created by reverting FP Trophy to a knock out competition and a more formal structure to the county structure. Alternatively, it could also be created by having a less even structure to the leagues. A ten team top division, with eight in Division 2 would add two games to the top division by removing off weeks. It would also allow all of the teams to play together at the same time rather than having one team finish early.

In the end, very little is wrong with the county game. Kolpakkers generally raise the standards of a team and removing the restrictions on overseas players would raise them further by allowing higher quality players into the game. However, expanding Division 1 to ten teams, and creating play-offs in Division 2 means that more teams will remain interested in the season for longer, playing higher intensity cricket and becoming better prepared for the international game.

I commend my recommendations to the blog!!

FP Trophy Weekly Round-up

There were ten FP matches this week and so to the round-up…

We begin at Stormont Belfast, where Warwickshire continued their abysmal start to the season against Ireland. Opting to bat first they could only muster a paltry 211-7 from their fifty overs, Tony Frost top scoring with 56. West Indian Ravi Rampaul took 2-53 while there were also two wickets for Gary Kidd (2-37). The Irish made it home with 3.2 overs to spare, William Porterfield laying the foundations up top with a patient 69. James Anyon (2-47) was the pick of the Bears’ attack.

Essex were in buoyant mood at Chelmsford following their demolition of Surrey. Unfortunately they were a bit too confident and were well and truly thrashed by Kent. The Spitfires made 230-7 from their allotted fifty overs, Justin Kemp top scoring with 51. Graham Napier (3-29) and Ravi Bopara (3-49) each took three wickets. That total should have been gettable given the location, however, the Eagles were shot out for just 124, with Yasir Arafat (4-29), Robbie Joesph (3-30) and Simon Cook (2-35) all impressing.

Justin Langer (117) was in sublime form yet again at Taunton where Somerset racked up 278-9 against Worcestershire. He shared in a match winning 100 run partnership with Ian Blackwell (53), whilst there were 3 wicket for Steve Magoffin (3-36) and two apiece for Kabir Ali (2-54) and Gareth Andrew (2-46) against his old side. The Royals were all out for 194 in reply, Daryl Mitchell by far and away the top scorer with 92. Peter Trego followed up his 31 from 16 balls with 3-37, while Steffan Jones (3-36), Charl Willoughby (2-21) and Zander de Bruyn (2-20) did the rest.

Scotland were unable to do to the White Rose county what they had done to the Red Rose county, as they totally only 193-8 against Yorkshire at The Citylets Grange. Darren Gough (2-40) and Richard Pyrah (2-30) led the way for Yorkshire. Craig White was able to take his time and hit 69 not out in reply at a strike rate below 50, while Gerard Brophy’s 61 not out came from just 45 balls, as Yorkshire cantered home with just 3 wickets down, the impressive John Blain (2-17) taking two of them in his economical ten overs.

There was a low scoring affair at Trent Bridge, where Warwickshire looked to be in serious trouble yet again when they totalled only 173 against Nottinghamshire, Ian Westwood’s patient 64 the sole score of real note. It was that man again, Darren Pattinson 4-29, who did the damage, while Samit Patel (3-19) finished things off. In reply though Notts collapsed, with Will Jefferson making 41 in their total of just 121. James Anyon impressed again with 3-6, while Neil Carter (3-25) and Naqaash Tahir (2-47) were also in good form.

Complete contrast now as 657 runs were scored at Canterbury, 337 of them by Kent, for the loss of just three wickets, all of them to Surrey’s Chris Jordon (3-53). Martin van Jaarsveld (113* - can anyone stop him in the FP Trophy?) and Darren Stevens 119* each notched up unbeaten centuries as the Surrey attack was devoured yet again. Surrey looked on course for a remarkable victory after Mark Butcher (139) and Usman Afzaal (74) shared a rapid 126. However, Surrey old boy Azhaar Mahmood (4-40) proved decisive as he did earlier on in the season at The Oval, with four wickets at the death, Surrey carrying a rather long tail. He was backed up by Ryan McLaren (3-75) and Yasir Arafat (2-55) as Surrey fell short, all out for 320 with only two balls left.

Ireland were unable to follow up their victory over the Bears with victory over the Foxes. Opting to field first, hopeful that a repeat performance was on the cards, Ireland could only restrict Leicestershire to 245-5, HD Ackerman (54) and Boerta Dippenaar (69) each making fifties, while Kyle McCallan was this time the best Irish bowler, taking 2-46. The Irish reply was again led by William Porterfield (65), but there was no real support for him as Claude Henderson (4-30) ran riot and the Irish were all out for 164.

The Swalec Stadium saw Glamorgan take on Hampshire (pics below). The Dragons made 229-5 with Michael Powell (114) and Matthew Wood (64) the main men. Dimitri Mascarenhas, back from his IPL excursion, took 2-38 from his ten overs, while Sean Ervine took a more expensive 2-38 from six overs. Michael Carberry led the Hawks’ reply with a rapid 65 and was given good support by Michael Lumb (35), Chris Benham (39) and Michael Brown (35*), as they made it home with ten balls to spare, despite the best efforts of David Harrison (2-46) and Jamie Dalrymple (2-48).






























1. Dimitri Mascarenhas bowls to centurion Mike Powell.
2. Powell reaches a one day ton at last, congratulated by his big pal Mark Wallace.
3. Michael Carberry gets Hants off to a good start.
4. Mascarenhas and Michael Brown see Hants home. (Pics c/o RTE)

Essex were in action again at Chelmsford, this time against Middlesex. The Crusaders made 259-7, Eoin Morgan’s 100 the highlight, while Captain Ed Smith’s 75 was also key. Graham Napier (2-60) and Ryan ten Doeschate (2-57) each took two wickets. Jason Gallian was imperious in reply hitting an unbeaten 111, while Varun Chopra (50) and Ravi Bopara (85*) also found conditions to their liking, as Essex crossed the finishing line just two wicket down and with seven overs remaining.

Our final game took place at The Riverside, where Durham made 205-8 from their fifty overs against Lancashire, Dale Benkenstein (64) and Gary Park (42*) the main contributors, as Kyle Hogg (2-19) impressed yet again and was backed up by youngster Stephen Cheetham (2-39) and Gareth Cross (2-26). Mal Loye led the Lightning reply with 77, but there was no support for him, aside from Cross (48), and they fell short with 199-9 from their fifty overs, Steve Harmison (3-44) and Graham Onions (2-44) reminding the selectors of the talents.

Player of the Week: Justin Langer, Darren Stevens, Martin van Jaarseveld, Jason Gallian, Azhar Mahmood, Yasir Arafat and Claude Henderson all stood out this week with match winning performances. Yasir Arafat’s 6-84 across two matches ultimately make him the stand out performer of the week as he destroyed the Essex top order of Mark Pettini, Ravi Bopara and Grant Flower and then took the key wicket of Alistair Brown in the high scoring triumph over Surrey.


Monday, 19 May 2008

England's quartet of promise

It seems that England have finally found a bowling unit again. After a lot of fiddling around and numerous injuries and losses of form in recent years, the quartet who now hold the England bowling positions are starting to look like they work well together.

Even the usually inconsistent Anderson has started to perform for more than one Test in a row, perhaps starting to fulfil his early promise, though he has a long way to go to completely convince. What is good is that he seems to enjoy bowling with Sidebottom, Broad and Panesar and Vaughan has started to have much more faith in him.

There is little doubt that both Panesar and Sidebottom have firmly established themselves in the team. Both left-armers have the skill and spirit necessary to succeed at the highest level and have produced several match-winning performances.

Broad is by no means the finished article, but has shown the priceless ability to learn with each bowling spell. This continual improvement should take him on the road to success in the five day game, though he will, no doubt, have many stern tests ahead.

England may have failed to push their advantage in the First Test against New Zealand, which ended in the damp and murk today, but the bowlers showed that they can fire, both individually and as a unit. With better support from their fielders and better umpiring they could have forced a serious wobble from the New Zealand line-up and given the England batsmen a late chase for victory.

Roll on the Second Test and another interesting installment in the development of England's new look quartet.

Championship Review - Week 5

The most meaningless game for English cricket takes place in Division 2 while in Division 1, Notts are beginning to open a gap at the top and Yorkshire put in the sort of performance to give my Sunday team a run for their money.

Division 1
Starting with the early pace-setters, Nottinghamshire as they hosted Lancashire without their England opening bowling pair of Sidebottom and Broad. One of the replacements, though, Darren Pattinson, took six wickets as Lancs made just 113, Stuart Law and Steven Croft scoring most of those in a 5th wicket stand of 85. In reply, Notts salvaged a batting point and a decent first innings lead with 202 before Lancs scored 233 second time round, Charlie Shreck taking 5-fer. Needing just 147 to win, Saj Mahmood took three early wickets, but a century stand between Mark Wagh and Adam Voges gives Notts a healthy lead at the top of the Championship.

Taunton looked to have rediscovered some of its characteristics from last season as Somerset racked up 557 for 8, James Hildredth getting a hundred while Neil Edwards was run out for 99. In reply Sussex managed just 202, despite Michael Yardy and Carl Hopkinson putting on a hundred for the 2nd wicket. Yardy and Hopkinson did exactly the same during the follow on before a Murray Goodwin ton led the Champions to safety. Sussex have started the season poorly, but they did last year as well.

Performing worse than Sussex were Yorkshire, who allowed Durham to reach 406 in their first innings, largely due to 184 from Michael Di Venuto with Tim Bresnan taking four wickets. Yorkshire’s total of 194 was something of a recovery, from 50 for 6, with Adil Rashid and Bresnan putting on 85 for the 6th wicket, Rashid making 70 and Graham Onions taking 5 wickets. Durham batted again, declaring on 205 for 6, setting Yorkshire an unlikely 417 to win. In an agonising finish, they ended up just 295 runs short, scoring an abject 122 and losing Matthew Hoggard to a broken thumb.

A much tighter finish happened at the Rose Bowl where all eyes were on Mark Ramprakash and his quest for his 100th 100. Surrey batted first and Ramps could make just 17 as Surrey made 278. Chris Tremlett took 5-fer to put his name in the frame for the 2nd test, although the back spasms wich kept him out of the rest of the match probably put paid to that. Hampshire replied with 227, despite a century partnership between the Michaels Brown and Lumb. Surrey declared on 229 to set Hants a target of 281 to win in 75 overs. Brown’s 94 gave the home team hope, but with Saqlain taking 5 wickets, Hants were holding on for a draw at the end, finishing on 247 for 8.

Division 2
The Kolpakshire derby took place at Grace Road, with Leicestershire scoring 527 in their first innings, Jacques du Toit scoring a ton, while Nicky Boje took four wickets for Northamptonshire. The weather intervened so Northants could only manage 302 for 3 in reply before the end of the match. However, with only nine Englishmen playing in the match, the interest outside of the counties focussed on the Kolpak regulations.

Glamorgan have deliberately gone against the Kolpak route and are putting their trust in their youngsters, a policy that is beginning to pay off. Having restricted Derbyshire to 289, the Welshmen scored 384 in their first innings, with centuries for 23 year old Gareth Reed and 37 year old David Hemp, Charl Langeveldt taking 5 wickets. Derbyshire struggled second time round, but dogged resistance from Dan Birch (43 from 136 balls) and Karl Klokker (19 from 88 balls) and poor weather meant Glamorgan weren’t able to claim the victory.

Finally to New Road where Worcestershire had Gloucestershire in all sorts of trouble at 85 for 5. However, centuries for Chris Taylor and Stephen Snell in a stand of 222 took Gloucester to 444, Simon Jones taking 5 wickets and bowling 24 overs without getting injured. In reply Worcester also had the poor start, but without the recovery, they made just 214. Batting again, they reached 194 for 3 before the game fizzled out into a draw. Stephen Moore scored 84 of these and he is the first batsman to 500 runs this season.

England Player watch
Matt Prior failed for the first time this season with 1 while Luke Wright only managed 3 more. Michael Carberry scored 8 runs, albeit in two innings. Adil Rashid top scored for Yorkshire with 70, and is currently looking like his batting is his strongest suit.

Bowling-wise, the injury to Matthew Hoggard means that there is a chance for someone to get into the next England squad. Chris Tremlett bowled well, but there are doubts about his fitness due to his back spasms. Talking of crocks, Simon Jones took five wickets, but it is far too early to think about throwing him back into the mix. Graham Onions and Charlie Shreck both took 5-fer, while Tim Bresnan is currently the highest rated English player by the PCA ratings. He took 6 wickets and scored 78 runs in Yorkshire’s abject performance at Durham.

Player of the week
Lots of good performances this week, with Tim Bresnan’s virtually solo resistance for Yorkshire, Michael Di Venuto's big hundred in the same game, Gareth Rees’s fluent hundred for Glamorgan and Simon Jones’s five-fer all worthy of a mention. However, for setting Nottinghamshire off on their victory in the absence of Broad and Sidebottom with six wickets, the player of the week is Darren Pattinson.

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Three-day cricket is not the answer

The latest idea to revolutionise the county game comes from Jack Simmons, who wants a return to three-day championship cricket in order to make way for more Twenty20. But it is a ridiculous idea.

Few would dispute that standards have risen in recent years with, first, the introduction of four-day cricket and then the introduction of two divisions. While the plethora of Kolpaks is a major irritant, they have, too, helped to raise standards. The best young players are still making their way; it does them no harm that competition for places is sterner than was once the case.

While there are flaws with the county game, the championship is certainly not one of them. The idea to cut back to three-days, while flogging bowlers into the ground with 120-over days, is clearly designed for no reason other than money. The current system is faring commendably in ensuring players who begin in Test cricket are immediately ready - from youngsters like Panesar and Cook to relative stalwarts like Sidebottom.

Simmons' idea is laden with flaws. Principally, the intensity of the county championship, which many players say has never been higher (certainly in Division One) would clearly suffer. Bowlers could not possibly operate anywhere near full capacity over such long days. Concern would switch from how to dismiss the opposition to maintaining a good over rate. Above all, the county championship would be vastly dissimilar to the model it is meant to mirror. Its number one function should be to prepare future internationals for the Test game. This would be a retrograde step in achieving that goal, and would only serve to devalue the championship.

There could well be scope for increasing the Twenty20 and making county cricket more self-sufficient. However, there are much better ways to do that. Scrapping the Pro40 to make room for more Twenty20, or extending the season into October to allow for both more Twenty20 and rest between games during the season are two possible ways forward. Simmons' suggestion, however, has no merit if England are serious in their intention to become the world's number one Test side.

Monday, 12 May 2008

FP Trophy Weekly Round-up

All eleven games ended in a result again this week. Fantastic! And there were plenty of runs to be had in the sunshine…

Sussex played host to Surrey on Thursday at Hove and were forced to field first. The Browncaps racked up 346-3 off of their fifty overs with a rapid fifty for James Benning (51), a slightly more pedestrian one for Mark Ramprakash (63) and a superb unbeaten hundred from Usman Afzaal (126*). Nobody failed though with Scott Newman hitting 43 and Ali Brown blazing a quick fire 40 not out. Young Left Arm Spinner Thomas Smith was comfortably the best Sussex bowler, finishing with respectable figures of 1-41 from his ten overs. Most of the Sussex line up got starts, but nobody was able to go on. Captain Chris Adams was the top scorer with 40, although four other players made scores in excess of thirty. Jade Dernbach (3-56) was the most successful Surrey bowler as Sussex could only manage 279-8. Afzaal completed a fine allround game with bowling figures of 2-42 from ten overs, while Matt Nicholson also took two wickets (2-59).

Friday’s game saw Gloucestershire pay a visit to Glamorgan, where they opted to field first. The Dragons were soon reduced to 92-5. Young Tom Maynard briefly impressed with a breezy 29, but the real mainstay of the innings was another youngster, Ben Wright, who hit 60 as Glamorgan closed on 202-8. There were two wickets apiece for Captain Jon Lewis (2-29), Steve Kirby (2-44) and Mark Hardinges (2-30). Buoyed by their recovery, the Dragons soon reduced the Gladiators to 16-3, with Alex Gidman, Hamish Marshall and Marcus North falling cheaply. Jason Gillespie was in inspired form and the game looked to be very much in Glamorgan’s favour. However, Craig Spearman (66) and Chris Taylor (66*) rebuilt the innings impressively and David Brown (45*) helped to take them over the finishing line with a cool 5.4 overs to spare.










From left to right: Glamorgan build a respectable but inadequate total, Jason Gillespie puts early pressure on Glos, and Taylor and Spearman guide Glos home under the lights. (Pics c/o RTE)

Saturday’s offering came from Northamptonshire, where the Leicestershire Foxes were the visitors. The Foxes amazingly rattled up 268-6, with HD Ackerman (139) the only man to score more than 23! Johann van der Wath was the most successful Steelbacks bowler, taking 2-41. The Northamptonshire reply was in tatters at 98-5, but Niall O’Brien (95) took his side close. Johann Louw (35*) and Monty Panesar (17*) had too much to do in the final over however and they finished seven runs shy, with eight wickets down. Ryan Cummins (2-35), Nadeem Malik (2-45), Garnett Kruger (2-65) and Claude Hendersen (2-38) all took two wickets for Leicestershire.

And now to Sunday’s action. Hampshire were well and truly trounced at New Road by Worcestershire. Shorn of a number of experienced players, including both of their wicket keepers, Hampshire were only able to post 209 after stand-in skipper James Adams decided to bat. Greg Lamb top scored with 84, having been given his chance higher up the batting order. Simon Jones was in lethal form, taking 5-32, reminding those present of what he is capable of. Worcestershire reached their victory target in just 27.3 overs. Every Hampshire bowler was embarrassed by Vikram Solanki (81), Steven Davies (72*) and Moeen Ali (42*), bar Billy Taylor (1-43). The Hawks remain rooted to the bottom of the South-West table.

Northamptonshire were in action again, this time at Edgbaston, where Warwickshire batted first and made 232-8, largely thanks to centurion Jonathan Trott (120*). It is worth asking just what Northamptonshire are doing for English cricket though (other than Monty) as they used six bowlers, of whom five were ex-South African internationals. The only English bowler was the ageing Jason Brown (1-34). He happened to bowl the least amount of overs and was back up to Johann van der Wath (2-45), Andrew Hall (3-39), Johann Louw (0-43), Nicky Boje (1-33) and Lance Klusener (1-33). The batting display was at least led by an Englishman, in Stephen Peters (97*), but Rikki Wessels (another South African Kolpak) was the other main contributor (78), as the Steelbacks won with 4.3 overs to spare. David Sales, Rob White and Irishman Niall O’Brien were in fact the only other players not of South African origin. Incidentally, Neil Carter (3-31) was the top wicket taker for the Bears, another veteran South African…

Essex chose to bat first at The Brit Oval and they put Surrey to the sword in style. Captain Mark Pettini (who had the dubious honour of making a pair in mid week) smashed 144 from 120 balls and featured in a 269 run opening partnership with Jason Gallian (117). Ryan ten Doeschate (60) and James Foster (46) kept up the pressure with strike rates of 200, as the Eagles made an intimidating 391-5. Pedro Collins was the best bowler taking 2-55, while Jade Dernbach went for 107 from his ten overs. Perhaps Surrey need to think about their policy of playing only four frontline bowlers. They could only make 235 in reply, David Masters (5-17) and Graham Napier (3-41) doing the damage, with only Mark Ramprakash making fifty (98).

At one point it looked as though Durham were going to be the latest county side to succumb to Scotland. However, even though they only posted 181-9 from their fifty overs, the Dynamos achieved victory via the Duckworth-Lewis method by restricting Scotland to 52-5 from17.1 overs, over 40 runs shy of where they needed to be. The stars of the show were of course the bowlers. John Blain (3-31) and Dewald Nel (2-42) impressed once again for the Saltires and were joined by Glenn Rogers (2-36), while Callum Thorp took 2-16 for Durham. Steve Harmison took 1-15 from 4.1 overs.

Nottinghamshire overcame Leicestershire at Trent Bridge in a tight low scoring affair. 197 all out was the best the Foxes could muster and the Outlaws got home off of the final ball of their allotted fifty overs, with just two wickets remaining. For the Foxes there were fifties for Boerta Dippenaar (51) and Paul Nixon (75), while Darren Pattinson was once again impressive, taking 4-35. England hopeful Samit Patel also impressed with 3-34. Despite James Allenby’s (4-27) and Nadeem Malik’s (3-21) best efforts, Matthew Wood (50), Will Jefferson (34), Mark Wagh (37) and Adam Voges (35) scored enough between them to ensure victory for the Outlaws.

Lancashire emerged victorious in the Roses match at Old Trafford via the Duckworth-Lewis method. Yorkshire totalled 204-7 from a reduced 45 overs, Jacques Rudolph leading the way with 65. Kyle Hogg impressed for the Lightning taking 3-27 from ten overs. Lancashire reached their target with an over to spare thanks mainly to Francois du Plessis who hit an unbeaten run a ball 77, to rescue his side from 76-5. Darren Gough (3-45) and Tim Bresnan (2-45) were the best bowlers on offer for Yorkshire.

Sussex lost their second game of the week, this time to Kent at Canterbury, where a score of 218-9 was not good enough, despite Michael Yardy’s fifty (54). Simon Cook continued his impressive limited overs form, taking 3-41, while their were two wickets apiece for Yasir Arafat (2-31) and England hopeful James Tredwell (2-33). Kent made it home with 7.5 overs remaining for the loss of only one wicket. Joe Denly (83*) and Martin van Jaarsveld (109* - another impressive score) were the stars for the Spitfires, against an attack which lacked penetration. Mushtaq Ahmed cannot return soon enough for the Sharks and it is evident just how dependent they are on him.

Our final game takes us to Bristol where Gloucestershire chose to field first against Somerset. Justin Langer brought his impressive midweek form into this game, scoring 112 not out. Late hitting from Peter Trego (56) took the Sabres to 290-6. Mark Hardinges (3-60) and Steve Kirby (2-58) were the main wicket takers for the Gladiators. In reply, Craig Spearman upstaged Langer with an unbeaten 140 and he saw the side home along with Steve Adshead (41*), with ten balls remaining. Steffan Jones (3-53) was the pick of the Somerset bowlers.

Player of the Week: For his unbeaten 126 and 2-42 against Sussex (he also scored a rapid 43 against Essex), this weeks player of the week is Surrey’s Usman Afzaal. I reserve a special mention meanwhile for Craig Spearman (66 and 140*).

Telegraph International Fantasy Cricket

The Telegraph are running a free to play International Fantasy Cricket game for the series between England and New Zealand (Tests, ODI's and T20's). It starts on Thursday 15th May (this week)!

I have created a Super League once again:

League Name: Third Umpire
Password: international

Once again this is free to play, so sign up and good luck (Ashes 09 tickets available as one of the prizes I believe).

Another game will follow for the South Africa series later in the summer.

Championship Review – Week 4

The only thing certain about this year’s Division 1 is its uncertainty. The sun comes out and strangely it’s the bowlers who benefit. In Division 2, Essex march onwards - just.

Division 1
Starting with the early pace-setters, Nottinghamshire as they hosted Kent. Catches win matches, and Kent took ten of them to bowl Notts out for just 202. Kent were struggling themselves at 109 for 7 Ryan Sidebottom taking four of the top five in his 5-fer. However, useful lower order knocks from Ryan McLaren and Yasir Arafat took the Kent total to 238. McLaren then took six wickets as Notts made 279, Chris Read top scoring with 88. Set 244 to win, Kent were again struggling on 173 for 7 until McLaren and Arafat put on an unbeaten 71 for the final wicket to see them home by three wickets. Notts stay top of the table, but will have a severely weakened bowling attack for the rest of the summer as Sidebottom and Broad go on England duty. Kent climb to 4th and with Rob Key to come back in to the team, this result may kick-start their season.

Wickets galore on the first day at Old Trafford as Durham’s Mark Davies ripped through the Lancashire team, taking 7 wickets as the home side made just 143 in another instance of ten catches in the innings. This was enough for a first innings lead though as James Anderson and Andrew Flintoff took four wickets apiece in Durham’s reply of 114. Paul Horton scored a century in Lancashire’s second innings, in a match when the next highest score was just 40, as Lancs made 293. Durham were then skittled again for just 90 with Anderson taking five wickets and Flintoff three as Lancs ran out comfortable winners. I suspect the pitch inspectors may have more to say on this though.

The best bowling performance of the week came at Taunton, where James Tomlinson took eight wickets as Somerset were bowled out for just 126. Centuries for John Crawley and Kevin Pietersen in a stand of 190 took Hampshire to 359. By now though, the Taunton pitch was its normal placid self and Marcus Trescothick (151) and Justin Langer (188) put on 272 for the second wicket to allow Somerset to declare on 654 for 6, Zander de Bruyn falling two runs short of his century. Michael Brown scored a century as Hants batted out the match, finishing on 198 for 1.

Division 2
My two tips for promotion met at Chelmsford, with Middlesex starting on top, scoring 302, Andrew Strauss making 88 of them and James Middlebrook taking five wickets. Essex were then bowled out for just 207, with Daniel Evans taking six wickets. Middlesex managed 202 second time round, to set Essex 301 to win. At 202 for 8 a Middlesex win looked certain, but an unbeaten stand of 99 between James Middlebrook (33*) and Chris Wright (71*) against his old club, saw Essex to an unlikely victory and second place behind Warwickshire with a game in hand.

Top of the table Warwickshire were at Derbyshire where the home side recovered from 128 for 7 to make 270 in their first innings, Jon Clare and Tom Lungley both making 50s. Jonathan Trott then made a century as Warwickshire made 310 in their first innings. However, as elsewhere, batting got easier as the game progressed and Derbyshire were able to declare their second innings on 417 for 6, with Danish wicket-keeper James Klokker making his maiden century. Warwickshire batted out the time with the loss of just four wickets, for a respectable draw.

England Player watch
Andrew Strauss looked in decent form with 88 for Middlesex, while Ian Bell also looked fluent without getting a big score: 48 and 28. Kevin Pietersen scored a century in what could be his only county innings of the summer. Paul Collingwood only managed four runs against Lancashire, although that was four more than Andrew Flintoff and James Anderson managed in the same match. Tim Ambrose scored an unbeaten 34 to continue to fight against the weight of runs being scored by Chris Read and Matt Prior.

James Anderson took nine wickets for Lance, and Andrew Flintoff seven in bowler friendly conditions. Flintoff’s injury make the calls for his recall moot, while Anderson would seem to be in a straight fight with Matthew Hoggard for the final seamers spot. Ryan Sidebottom took seven wickets for Notts, while Stuart Broad took the first three wickets of the Kent second innings to open up the possibility of victory.

Player of the week

It’s a very tough call this week. Paul Horton deserves a mention for his century in a game where no-one else scored fifty. James Tomlinson and Mark Davies both ran through the opposition in their matches. However, for a first innings fifty to keep his side in the game, taking six wickets in the second innings to ensure they had a gettable target and then scoring an unbeaten 37 to see the victory complete, the Player of the Week is Kent’s Ryan McLaren.

Friday, 9 May 2008

Rose Bowl Rocks to Wright!

I was fortunate enough to get a glimpse of the England Lions in action yesterday afternoon against New Zealand at The Rose Bowl. When I turned up England were in trouble at 132-5, but the 34 runs put on since the last wicket represented what was a good partnership so far in the match. Luke Wright was batting with Adil Rashid and I doubt that it will be the last time that these two bat together in England colours. Both are exceedingly promising allrounders, Rashid perhaps more with his leg spin bowling and Wright perhaps more with his explosive batting.


Adil Rashid shows solid defence

Wright looked every bit a class player as he demonstrated maturity in building a partnership with Rashid. Rashid was more circumspect and watchful, but looked a solid and compact player, who combined solid defence with an ability to work the ball around and manoeuvre the field, a good sign for the future of the ODI side maybe. Wright soon reached his fifty, having punished both Iain O’Brien and Jeetan Patel for erring at times in line and length. He hit three fours off of one particular O’Brien over, the first a blistering cover drive, the second a hefty pull and the third a sublime square cut.

video

Luke Wright square cuts for four more off of Iain O'Brien

Jacob Oram was brought on for the tourists and immediately looked dangerous. Indeed it was not long before he had Rashid caught well in the covers by Patel, before Graeme Swann was out, in rather silly fashion, playing a rash shot and adjudged lbw. Meanwhile, as partners came and went, next to fall was Tremlett, Wright went about steadily increasing his own scoring rate. His concentration was excellent and he seemed hell bent on getting that all important century. Matthew Hoggard provided an able foil for the Sussex man, getting a few boundaries down to third man and even clipping the spin of Patel to leg a couple of times. Perhaps Hoggy has his eye on the allrounder role, it wouldn’t be a surprise given his determination to get back into that England side (the same can hardly be said of Steve Harmison from recent interviews). So with able support, Wright was able to complete a fantastic century at a strike rate of around 84. Here he is reaching the landmark with a six (he was on 95).

Luke Wright brings up his 100 with a maximum

That says a lot for the player in my opinion, to have the guts to go for it when he could have just taken singles. He is obviously a confident player who trusts his own ability, which is a key mental attribute at international level.

Wright celebrates with Matthew Hoggard

Once Hoggard was clean bowled by young Tim Southee, Wright was forced to up the anti. He hit a few more boundaries, including a glorious straight six off of Chris Martin, but the England innings was over when, like Rashid, he was well caught in the covers, smashing another cover drive, this time in the air to Oram. Wright had scored 120 of England’s 280 runs, very impressive, and he had effectively rescued them from embarrassment against a much changed and depleted New Zealand side.

Jacob Oram was impressive with the ball

So what of the future for Luke Wright. Well, after this showing one can only be impressed. His excellent cameos for England in Twenty20 and ODI cricket appear to be only the cusp of a wave which is set to roll in over the international scene. Granted this was only against a depleted New Zealand side, but the bowling of Oram, Martin, Southee and Patel can not be dismissed as average and the fact that the next highest scorer in the England innings was Michael Carberry, with a painstakingly ground out 42, shows that ball was dominating bat until Wright came to the crease. His batting is undoubtedly his stronger suit, although his bowling has shown signs of improvement this season and who can forget that over which he bowled during the winter to win the game at the death for England? He clearly is a mentally strong cricketer, who is capable of adapting to different situations. He must be utilised lower down the order, rather than as a pinch hitter, as he has now proven that he operates best around number six or seven. Andrew Flintoff, most definitely now a bowling allrounder, could be well complemented in the future by Wright, a batting allrounder.

Luke Wright, 120

Watch out for Luke Wright this summer, he is coming and he is coming hard and fast!

Wednesday, 7 May 2008

Championship - Week 3

More damp weather meant just the one positive result this week. However, it was a good week for England wicket-keepers past and present.

Div 1
Starting at Headingley where despite the overcast conditions, Darren Gough decided that Yorkshire should bat first against Nottinghamshire. Scoring was slow and Ryan Sidebottom started with a run of seven maidens, although no wickets. A century from Jacques Rudolph helped to rescue the Yorkshire innings from 111 for 5 to 299 all out. The Notts innings followed a similar path and they looked to be in trouble at 115 for 5. However, a stands of 136 between Chris Read (142) and Graeme Swann (68) and 113 between Read and Stuart Broad (53) took Notts past 400 and meant that Yorkshire had to bat out 69 overs for a draw, which they managed with 2 wickets to spare, making 187 for 8. Notts take all of the credit though.

Rain meant that the game at Hove turned into a battle for bonus points, with Sussex making 475. Carl Hopkinson fell 3 runs short of his century, with Murray Goodwin going one run better with 98. In reply Surrey declared on 400 for 5 (century 99 for Mark Ramprakash). Sussex made 13 in 13 overs in their second innings against the testing bowling of Usman Afzaal and Ali Brown as the game petered out.

Div 2
Glamorgan batted first against Gloucestershire, scoring 277. Gloucester then declared on 141 for 4 in an effort to set up a positive result. Some declaration bowling took Glamorgan to 178 for 1 leaving Gloucester a challenging 315 to win. Gloucester lost their first 5 wickets for just 76 runs. A stand of 114 between Hamish Marshall (105) and Stephen Snell (53) gave some hope of securing a draw. However, the veterans of the Glamorgan team, Robert Croft and Jason Gillespie broke through and took the last five wickets for just ten runs and Glamorgan have as many victories in this season’s championship as they managed last time round.

Warwickshire were indebted to two stands of over 150 in their total of 433 for 8 with Tim Ambrose (156*) and Jonathan Trott (82) putting on 152 for the 5th wicket and Ambrose and Neil Carter (84) putting on 157 for the 8th wicket. In reply Leicestershire had a large stand of their own, with Matthew Boyce (106) and HD Ackerman (104) putting on 182 for the second wicket. However, from that promising position, Leicester fell away to 357 all out, with Ian Salisbury taking five wickets. Unfortunately the weather meant that the second innings wasn’t started.

Finally to Northampton, where Northamptonshire capitulated to just 168 all out having decided to bat first. The pitch then seemed to even out somewhat as Worcestershire declared on 400 for 8, with Stephen Moore continuing his fine start to the season with 109. Needing 233 to make Worcester bat again, Nicky Boje set about trying to get the runs on his own, scoring an unbeaten 226. he had plenty of support though, and the game closed with Northants on 514 for 5.

England Player watch
Michael Vaughan wouldn’t have enjoyed Darren Gough’s decision to bat first on a damp Headingley pitch, but his battling 42 and 34 show that he’s in reasonable nick, particularly as the Notts bowling attack is substantially more threatening than the Kiwi attack. Ian Bell scored 45 for Warwickshire, while Matt Prior scored 51, which is his lowest first class score of the season. Prior was outshone by his successor, as Tim Ambrose scored an unbeaten 156, and one of his predecessors as Chris Read hit 142.

For Notts, in the first innings Ryan Sidebottom was very tight, starting with seven consecutive maidens but wicketless, while Stuart Broad was more expensive, but took three wickets, including Vaughan. Both took wickets in the second innings, while their likely partner in the England team, Matthew Hoggard took two wickets in the Notts innings, but also started with four consecutive maidens. Monty Panesar went wicketless for Northants.

Player of the Week
Nicky Boje has had a good couple of weeks for Northants. However, the stars of the show this week were both wicketkeepers. Tim Ambrose is almost certain to be in the test team next week and in good form. However, for taking Notts from a position of potential defeat to a position of strength and almost forcing an unlikely victory, the player of the week is the man who should have been the England wicketkeeper since Alec Stewart retired, Chris Read