Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Australia: The Way Forward

There can be no doubt now that Australia's period of world dominance is over. Having lost their first series on home turf in nearly two decades, to one of their traditional rivals (and some might say whipping boys) South Africa, following its loss to India abroad, Australia's seemingly endless period of victory after victory, with barely a loss to be seen, has ended. Finding itself down 2-0, with one more test Australia needs to not lose in order to save its number 1 world ranking, the result brings to the forefront a boring and tired side, and changes that selectors must make in order to give Australia any chance of coming back.

The only thing stopping one from saying that Australia is not the best cricketing country in the world anymore is the selectors' obvious mistakes. They persisted with an out of form Matthew Hayden and Andrew Symonds, and even picked the latter through injury which ruled the all rounder out of bowling his medium pacers, and hampered him in the field. Their unresponsiveness to the problem of Australia's pace attack is also worrying. From their pathetic performance in failing to bowl South Africa out for less than 400 in the second innings, the selectors' only change was to replace one mediocre off spinner with another (Jason Krejza out for Nathan Hauritz).

Meanwhile in domestic cricket, the top 3 runs scorers for the Sheffield Shield are all currently or have been opening the batting, with Michael Klinger on 900+ runs already after half a season, the ever consistent Chris Rogers still scoring runs for what must be the 5th season in a row, and 19 year old excitement machine Phil Hughes doing magnificently in a poor NSW side. All 3 are capable of replacing Hayden, so one wonders why the selectors have not only left him in the side for the 3rd test, but even went as far as to say that they didn't expect him to retire, rather they felt he could play a role in the future. Furthermore, the selectors' continual recycling of Andrew Symonds can only be interpreted as either incompetence or a need to please sponsors putting Symonds' mug on their products in regular ads during the cricket. Symonds' selection after a handful of games in domestic cricket for Queensland, of which he failed to score a single 50 and had an average only a bowler would be proud of, was wrong enough in itself, but his continual waste of chances and the selectors' failure to respond is just as bad. Even injured ahead of the Boxing Day test, the selectors left out an in form Shane Watson for Symonds.

On the bright side, selectors have brought in a new face to the team, with Symonds finally unable to take his spot, in comes Victorian Andrew McDonald, a genuine all rounder who averages 46 with the bat and 24 with the ball this season. McDonald, at 27, has been named in extended World Cup and Champions Trophy squads, but his selection is almost as surprising and sudden as it is deserved. A key part of Victoria's undefeated season this year, it is pleasing to see selectors finally select an inform 'youngster' rather than recycling older players.

Another key inclusion to the squad is Doug Bollinger, who was unlucky to play no cricket on Australia's tour of India despite being in the squad throughout, who will battle with Ben Hilfenhaus for the spot vacated by Brett Lee's injury. One hopes that the selectors will persist with one of the two swing specialists ahead of Lee, whose recent form has been poor, pace down and penetration almost nonexistent. Meanwhile there are other options too, such as the inform Dirk Nannes, whose breakthrough county season for Middlesex has been followed up with him the leading wicket taker for the Shield, despite missing one match through injury, and being taken out of the attack by umpires for an entire innings after bowling three consecutive full tosses (two of which were beamers). Nannes is almost a slower Jeff Thomson or even Shaun Tait, reckless and unafraid to hurt batsmen, but also picking up wickets. Nannes even knocked out batsman David Bandy with a lethal bouncer just last week.

Australia's key to success from here on lies with its selections. Australian selectors can no longer afford the luxury of giving veterans 'just one more chance' to perform. If Australia does not respond accordingly, it will find itself blown out of the water, and perhaps even lose the Ashes in 2009. A new year dawns, and with it a new era of cricket. Can Australia survive atop the world rankings? Only time, and selectors, will tell.

The new stars of 2008

The cricketing year ended with Australia in disarray, South Africa and India on the up and everyone else failing to move significantly, especially Pakistan, who didn’t play a single Test match.

New Year is the perfect opportunity for sporting lists, and here are my selections of players who have made notable breakthroughs in 2008:

Hashim Amla (South Africa)

Dale Steyn has been the star with the ball and Graeme Smith the biggest influence through his runs and captaincy, but the biggest strides have been by Amla, who finished the year as fourth-highest Test runscorer.

He hinted at what was to come at the end of 2007 but this year found true consistency, scoring notable hundreds in India and England. An elegant player, he, along with AB de Villiers, adds the panache that compliments the resoluteness of Smith, Neil McKenzie, Jacques Kallis and Ashwell Prince – the most productive batting line-up in the world.

Mitchell Johnson (Australia)

A rare individual highlight in what turned out to be a disappointing year for Australia. Johnson made an immediate impact for the Baggy Greens, taking 11 wickets in his first three Tests at the end of 2007 and has not looked back since. Only Steyn took more Test wickets this year.

Injuries to Brett Lee and Stuart Clark have left him as leader of the attack and he will be one of the first names on the team sheet as Australia contemplate their rebuilding job.

Gautam Gambhir (India)

Gambhir endured a stop-start career between 2004 and 2007 but has been a revelation since returning to the top of the order against Sri Lanka in July. He scored 1,134 Test runs in 16 Test innings in 2008, finishing off with three tons and three fifties in his last eight knocks.

His opening partnership with Virender Sehwag is the most exciting in any form of cricket and the reliable platforms the pair set will be a key component of India’s assault on the number one ranking.

Ajantha Mendis (Sri Lanka)

The most exciting spinner since Shane Warne and Muttiah Muralitharan broke onto the scene in the mid-1990s. His array of offspinners, googlies and flippers delivered at medium pace are nearly impossible to read, as 26 wickets in three Tests and 48 in 18 ODIs testifies.

Choosing breakthrough players for Pakistan and England is difficult due to their respective inactivity and closed shop selection policy, so honourable mentions go to Sohail Tanvir and Stuart Broad for maintaining the promise they showed in 2007.

West Indies have relied so heavily on Wisden Cricketer of the Year Shivnarine Chanderpaul that other contributions have been minimal, but Brendan Nash’s successful debut bodes well for the continuation of Windies’ recovery next year.

Jesse Ryder made an impression in the wrong way after making a fine start to his international career in February. His subsequent rehabilitation has been uplifting for those who enjoy watching a chubby sportsman compete at the highest level, although his appearance and occasional destructive strokeplay belies a vastly talented and elegant batsman.

Bangladesh have endured another terrible year and look set to finish with eight Test defeats and one draw. Their solitary ray of hope has been left arm spinner Shakib Al Hasan, who produced enough runs and wickets against New Zealand, South Africa and Sri Lanka to suggest the Tigers have a genuine all-round talent in their midst.

Written by Philip Oliver, a sports writer who blogs about cricket betting.

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

England series ratings

Here are the series ratings for England's 1-0 defeat in India - although the ludicrous brevity of the series makes such an exercise somewhat tricky.

Alastair Cook 5
Two fluent half centuries - but he didn't pass 52 in four completed innings. His conversion rate, so impressive at the start of his career, is becoming progressively more worrying.

Andrew Strauss 9
So criticised by this blogger, Strauss produced what should have been a career-defining performance in the first Test, but was badly let down by his team-mates. Strokeless he may seem at times, but while he is so tight in defence and so adept and nudging the ball into spaces, his place is assured.

Ian Bell 2
When is enough enough? Infuriating to his core, Bell has the technique and range of shots to score 8000 runs at 50. But, now, the best thing would be to drop him - from both formats. If he is hungry enough he will return, like Steve Waugh, more battle-hardened.

Kevin Pietersen 7
Captaining was difficult, and he has received criticism for the in-out fields used in the first Test, enabling the spinners to be milked with minimal risk-taking involved. But he will be a better captain for the expereince, while his 144 was majestic.

Paul Collingwood 6.5
Another century evoked the 'gritty Northerner' cliches once more. Some doubts linger, but his willpower is unquestionable. But what, exactly, has happened to his bowling?

Andrew Flintoff 8
Yet again, Flintoff bowled better than the figures suggest, suffering through dropped catches and dodgy lbw decisions. But, at long last, he managed a Test half-century - and a cultured one at that.

Matt Prior 7
Quietly very effective - which is seldom something that can be said of Prior. His keeping looks to have improved since his horror series in Sri Lanka a year ago, while he remains a very good Test number seven.

Stuart Broad 5
Did a sound job in very difficult circumstances. Despite the mediocrity of his record, is now an automatic selection.

Graeme Swann 7
Easily out-bowled Panesar to finish as England's leading wicket-taker. Displayed much more attacking intent and ability to think on his feet (and for himself) - and deserved a lower average, but for some ill-fortune. Shame about the batting though.

James Anderson 4
Bowled skillfully at times in the second Test, whilst claiming scant reward. But overall his was a miserable tour.

Steve Harmison 4
Harmison disappointed in the first Test, save for one fine spell, but deserves to play in the West Indies.

Monty Panesar 4
A miserable series, showing a complete lack of improvement since making his Test debut in India three yeras ago. Infact, his record on the sub-Continent and against sides other than New Zealand and West Indies is distinctly mediocre. It would be a brave man who bets on Panesar playing the first Test in the Caribbean.

The Verdict
Fundamentally, England were beaten by a superior side. But they can take heart from faring a little better than Australia. Ultimately, a two-Test series can simply never satisfy.

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

What Did We Learn From That Then?

I’ll leave others to do their marks out of ten, but there are other issues that the Test part of the tour have thrown up.

1. Two tests is too short for a tour. Both teams were settling into what could have been a highly competitive series. The first test had one of the finest run chases in history (although not the finest of the last month, bizarrely). The second had a tightly fought draw, which could have been much more interesting had India wanted to make it so.

2. England’s persistence with players is paying off. Strauss and Collingwood both paid back the faith that the selectors had in them during the first test. Both have been teetering on the edge of losing their places, but with three very gritty innings, they got England into a winning position in the First Test. Ian Bell should take comfort from this, although it is only 5 tests since his 199 against the team that is now widely believed to be the best in the world.

3. Alistair Cook needs a long chat with his mentor Graham Gooch. His fifty and out habit is becoming both embarrassing and a problem for the team. I suspect it may be linked to the want to turn him into a One-Day player, or that Andrew Strauss is not the quickest of scorers at the other end. He needs to learn to be patient and build the big innings that England need of him.

4. Kevin Pietersen needs to think more as the captain. His spat with Yuvraj, entertaining as it may have been, nearly cost him his wicket at the start of an excellent hundred. Targeting a player is a well worn tactic, but given Yuvraj’s performances, it is likely that it only spurred him on.

5. England’s bowlers need to learn from history. Or at least have talked to those who have done well on the sub-continent. All out pace isn’t the answer and Flintoff apart, they didn’t pose a threat in those conditions.

6. Matt Prior will be England’s wicket-keeper for the Ashes series. Tidy enough behind the stumps despite the testing conditions and a good 50 in the first test. He looked at least a match for Dhoni in the two matches if not better

7. Monty Panesar may not be England’s spinner for the Ashes series. He was comprehensively out-bowled by Graeme Swann, who must be considered the number one option when England revert to one spinner. The emergence as Swann as an attacking force should also dampen the cries for Adil Rashid to be rushed into the test team.

8 England need to remember how to win matches. In the last two series against SA and India, they have played the best two teams in the world at the moment and have not managed to capitalise on their periods of dominance. At Lords and Edgbaston, England were in winning positions but couldn’t see it through. Likewise in Chennai. They need to discover a ruthless streak and a Plan B.

Overall, and reverting to Vaughan-speak, England can take a lot of positives out of the test series, while being disappointed in the result. After the pounding in the One-Day series and the uncertainty about the security implications, they probably should have won the decisive first test. India are an excellent side, probably second in the world on current form. England have a lot to work on before the Ashes series, but the nucleus is in place.

Sunday, 21 December 2008

The new Christmas number one

In future decades, cricket historians may view December 21 2008 as the day when the era of Australian dominance, which had begun almost fourteen years previously, ended. Losing (and convincingly) in India was one thing - but Australia had suffered defeat there even during their 2001 peak. But failing to defend 414 in a home Test - at Perth at that - feels like a seminal, epoch-ending moment. And it was some failure - Australia were completely thrashed, three-quarters of their bowling attack utterly impotent. Sports pundits are more prone than most to hyperbole, but on this occasion it really does seem justified.

Many have recently rushed to claim India as the world's best side, following winning three and losing none of their last six Tests against Australia, and then exhibiting the confidence and skill to chase down 387 against England with consummate ease. Yet the argument does not stand up to close scrutiny. Sandwiched between their two series with Australia was a scrapped 1-1 draw at home to South Africa and then a 2-1 defeat in Sri Lanka. It seems a little premature to label them number one yet, though the startling recent progress of Gambhir, Sharma and Mishra suggests that they soon could be the world's best side.

Yet just now it is South Africa who have the most right to claim themselves as the new number ones, having so spectacularly defeated Australia on their home patch. It feels like the ultimate knockout blow. And it has been a long time coming - South Africa have won eight of their last nine Test series, including victories in England and Pakistan. Even in the exception, the draw in India, they did themselves great credit, especially in the light of Australia's woes there.

Two of South Africa's recent wins must rank amongst their ten finest of all time. In the remarkable run-chases at Edgbaston and Perth, Graeme Smith led from the front, compiling two masterful fourth-innings hundreds. After his two double centuries against England in 2003 he went five years without reaching 70 against either England or Australia. But with these two centuries in 2008 Smith has proved he is much more than a flat-track bully. Both innings were characterised by a controlled aggression. Smith has mellowed since the humiliating discrepency between his words and deeds during the 2005/06 clashes with Australia. He is a towering presence in world cricket, an innate leader of men.

While there are slight doubts over Jacques Kallis's long-term form (partially allayed by a vital pair of 50s at Perth), there have been vast improvements throughout the side of late. Neil McKenzie is seldom aesthetically pleasing but invariably solid. Hashim Amla, who looked out of his depth during his entry to Test cricket, is now a superb, counter-attacking number three - and one of the game's true stylists to boot. And AB de Villiers, the boy wonder who could have represented his country in any number of sports but wasted many a promising start through recklnessness, is gaining maturity fast. His unbeaten, match-winning century suggests that, after four years in which a lack of patience prevented fulfillment of his promise, consistency may have arrived.

As apparent yet again, there is something fashionable about deriding orthodox left-arm spinners. But Paul Harris made an invaluable contribution to the victory in Perth, claiming five wickets and displaying nous, control, calm - and even the ability to turn the ball a touch. An average of 32 from 19 Tests is certainly nothing to be sniffed at, given the main attacking threat is always expected to come from the quicks. The pace trio have claimed 131 wickets between them this year. Dale Steyn's brand of devishly late reverse swing accounts for his phenomenal career strike-rate of 38; Morne Morkel is sometimes too wayward but clearly has all the attributes to be a superb Test bowler. Makhaya Ntini may not be improving at his rate, but he is playing an admirable role as the senior pace bowler, and has much nous to pass on.

South Africa, then, are clearly a formidable side. And their recent record is surely sufficient to label them the best side in the world. Officially, they will be so if they are to win this series 3-0. That is probably asking a little too much. But with such problems in their bowling attack, Australia must be tempted to try drastic selectorial action to cling on at the top.

In short, we have a new Christmas number one.

Friday, 19 December 2008

England must keep the faith, for now at least

After being dropped in New Zealand last winter many thought Steve Harmison had played his last game for England. But he responded magnificiently for Durham; and, had England recalled him earlier, the Test series against South Africa could conceivably have ended differently. Indicative of his new-found zest for playing for England, he even reversed his decision to retire from ODIs - the single act which had most enraged his critics, led by Bob Willis.

Yet in the four months since his recall, Harmison has already managed to be dropped from the ODI and Test side alike. However, it would be grossly premature to say he is in an equally grim position to in New Zealand. His performance in the last Test was respectable enough, save for suffering at the brilliant Virender Sehwag's hands (and how different the game would have been had Sehwag not been dropped of Harmison's bowling). I would have sooner dropped James Anderson, enduring yet another miserable tour.

In the West Indies, Harmison remains almost certain to play in the first Test. It was there five years ago that he begun his meteoric rise to the world number one spot. For all his faults, he remains England's most fearsome quick when at his best (save perhaps for Simon Jones). England must keep the faith, for the series in the Caribbean at least. Ultimately, Australia's opening batsmen would much sooner line up against Anderson or even Broad than a revved-up Harmison.

Thursday, 18 December 2008

Johnson leader of the lefties

Mitchell Johnson continues to carry the Australian seam attack and confound the critics who write-off the Aussies' bowling strength in the post-McGrath and Warne era.

Mitchell Johnson’s stunning spell against South Africa revealed a bowler in prime form. Johnson has spent most of the last year securing his place in the Australian team but now, 15 matches into a seemingly long and successful career, he has become the leader of the Aussie attack and Ricky Ponting’s go-to seamer.

Johnson is not the only left armer at the peak of his powers. Zaheer Khan is a key part of India’s current success and has been showcasing his mastery of conventional and reverse swing throughout his team’s run of One Day and Test wins over England. With Ryan Sidebottom and Chaminda Vaas also in the top 15 of the world Test rankings, this is perhaps the golden age of the left arm paceman.

With Sidebottom struggling for fitness and Vaas nearing the end of his illustrious career, Johnson and Khan – at the front of respective Australian and Indian batteries of lefties containing Nathan Bracken, Doug Bollinger, Irfan Pathan and RP Singh - are the pre-eminent left arm seamers and two of the bowlers most likely to knock Dale Steyn off his best fast bowler in the world perch.

Khan has been attracting comparisons with Wasim Akram – the ultimate compliment for a left armer – and the England players who have consistently struggled to cope with his pace, accuracy and array of variations would be the first to acknowledge him as the trickiest seamer to face in world cricket.

Flourishing on the subcontinent is the sign of a class pace bowler and Johnson’s promising recent displays in India suggest he deserves to be considered in the same company as Vaas and Khan.

The Queenslander’s unconventional run-up and slingy action disguise a genuine swing bowler whose nippy pace often surprises batsmen. His seven wicket haul on the first day at Perth was a mixture of swing bowler’s dismissals, facilitated by his angle of attack to right handers and wickets captured due raw pace on a WACA surface that isn’t as fast and bouncy as it once was.

The current surfeit of left arm pacemen is not only good news for spinners who appreciate the rough generated by their colleagues follow-through, but also for cricket fans who like constructing fantasy cricket teams – a left-handed 11 would now give a right-handed line-up a really good game and provide the ICC with an alternative to the ill-fated World XI Super Series.

Written by Philip Oliver, a sports writer who blogs about cricket betting.

A Different View on Monty

Monty Panesar has been the subject of countless articles in the last few days. No sentient being who has ever watched an England cricket match could possibly fail to have heard the conclusions that Monty has no variations, his bowling isn't improving (if Shane Warne had royalty rights over his "same Test 34 times" remark, he'd have made another million by now) and that he doesn't take enough interest in his field placings.

Apart from being staggeringly lazy, boring and repetitive journalism, and without in any way trying to suggest that Monty had a good match or has even had that good a year, I'm not sure about these points. And I'm certainly not sure that they should be repeated as gospel truths.

I think Monty's trouble is that he has no idea whether the powers that be want him to be a strike bowler or a stock bowler. Should he be brought on to take wickets, with the risk of a few balls disappearing? Or is he coming on to tie up an end whilst the fast bowlers rotate in strike mode from the other? In my view, he started off as a strike bowler. He was too raw for anyone to expect him to tie down big name batsmen, but they recognised that he spun the ball miles for a finger-spinner. So they threw the ball to him, and told him to see what he could produce - and he produced some sensational spells of bowling that brought him some of the biggest scalps and best players of spin in the game. But then things happened to change his approach.

He was dropped in Australia for Ashley Giles, the very definition of an uninspiring, unthreatening bowler. Monty had spent nearly a year bowling in a way that caused sober analysts of the game (to say nothing of the more exciteable ones) to label him the best finger-spinner in the world. Then he was dropped for England's most important series for a long time for a guy who made a career out of holding up an end, and in some ways he has made himself into a bowler of that type.

One of my abiding memories from watching the car crash of a defeat in Adelaide was the ease with which Giles was milked for four an over on the same pitch that Shane Warne had made look like a minefield. In the same way, Monty was milked by Tendulkar and co on a pitch that actually looked like a minefield. Granted, neither were helped by their inexperienced captains, who set in-out fields rather than forcing the batsmen to take risks by hitting over the top, but the comparison remains relevant. That Test was the last Giles played and if England drop Monty tomorrow, with Swann in situ and Rashid coming through, it may be the last he plays for some time as well.

He has also had to play totally different roles in the team depending on whether he was part of a four-man or five-man attack. Specifically, in a four man attack, he was used to tie up an end so that the pace bowlers could rotate through the innings. In a five man attack, he could be thrown the ball and told to toss it up and see if he could make things happen. In the last year, he has been mostly in the hands of Michael Vaughan, a brilliant, brilliant captain, and one of my personal favourite cricketers - but he was in Vaughan's hands at the worst time, when his captaincy was on the wane. Vaughan used Panesar like Giles, and, again, Monty has responded by trying to make himself into what he perceived was wanted. This says a lot about him as a team man, but I would have preferred him to say "sod you, if you want a bowler like that then get Robert Croft out of retirement - I can actually turn the ball".

I'm not going to make a separate point out of it, because it's well trodden ground, but the same pattern is obvious when you think about Monty and ODIs. In a typical English way, with typical suspicion of unorthodox talent (parallels with Wayne Rooney, anyone?), we have turned an enthusiastic young finger spinner who can turn the ball like a leggie into a typical, dour containing bowler who looks at his economy rate rather than his wickets column to find out how well he has bowled. There aren't many bowlers who can bowl any team in the world out on a good day, and we should celebrate the fact that Monty is one of them rather than complain that he doesn't keep the runs down in the meantime. Hopefully, KP and his attacking instincts will take this approach and take Monty in a different direction.

At the same time as all of this, Monty was forced to focus on his fielding and batting instead of his bowling - again whilst suffering constantly in comparison with Ashley Giles. Hasn't anyone worked out yet that he will always be a terrible fielder and batsman, regardless of how much work he does (and his work ethic is not in question)? Thinking about his bowling, as we should, he didn't come into the team as a hard bitten county pro who had toiled for summer after summer and had learned all that he was going to learn. What he needed was a mentor, one who believed in his talent and who could nurture that talent into full bloom, his Terry Jenner. He still doesn't have that - in fact, England don't even have a spin bowling coach. Why the hell not? How can the cast of thousands that follows the team around not include a spin bowling coach? Is it therefore any wonder that Monty doesn't understand the metagame that should accompany his bowling, and hasn't developed dangerous variations? Where are the stories of him spending hour after hour with pool balls or oranges, seeing what new things he can do with them, or sitting at the feet of the greats of the game, lapping up their insights? Is he supposed to learn his trade by osmosis? If you'll excuse the flood of rhetorical questions, he has been horribly mismanaged by England.

If you want an example of this dysfunctionality, Mushtaq Ahmed was due to be appointed as spin bowling coach - why? Mushy was a great bowler and is an admirable man in many, many ways, but Monty is currently our premier spinner, and he is a finger spinner...so why are we appointing a leggie as his coach? Perhaps David Gower should teach Bell to bat left-handed, and Marcus Trescothick should work on Matt Prior's wicketkeeping. England have a terrible record with young spinners recently - Richard Dawson all but gave up spin bowling after being handled abysmally during a tour of Australia, and Chris Schofield almost gave up cricket after his experiences. Ever since the Gatting ball, we have been searching for so desperately for our own Shane Warne that it has destroyed a number of careers - so god help Adil Rashid.

As one final thought, there is one other spinner in the world who is quiet and a bit eccentric off the field, who seems born to bowl and has help from a quirk in his physique, has had no renowned mentor but has created devastating variations, has always been a rabbit with the bat and a dreamer in the field and who keeps runs down whilst taking hatfuls of wickets. But if we're now criticising Monty for not being Murali, then the world really has gone mad.

Monday, 15 December 2008

Bowling deficiencies undermines magnificent Strauss

England produced a performance of tremendous resilience, but ultimately they simply weren’t good enough. In the final analysis, the twin failures of Ian Bell, Kevin Pietersen and Andrew Flintoff were vital. But what was even more so was a lack of bowling penetration.

Monty Panesar has been under considerable pressure of late, and fourth innings figures of 0-105 will only reinforce this. Patently, he has failed to develop since his debut in India almost three years ago, as also illustrated by him being dropped from the one-day side. His record remains very respectable, but it has been boosted by relatively easy pickings against West Indies and New Zealand. And in seven Tests in the sub-continent, he averages close to 60, showing an inability to thrive when denied the bouncy pitches he benefits from in England.

If he struggles in the next Test, he will be under considerable pressure for his place, especially if he is out-bowled by Graeme Swann once more. On debut, Swann looked to attack far more than Panesar, and was unfortunate not to claim more than four wickets. If Swann can score runs at number eight in the next Test, Panesar’s deficiencies in this department will also count against him.

Andrew Flintoff was skilful and wholehearted as ever, but unable to extract much reverse-swing in the fourth innings. India were able to play him out, and score rapidly off James Anderson and Steve Harmison. Anderson is woefully short of confidence, and should be dropped for the next game. Amjad Khan, with more ability to generate reverse-swing, would be worth a gamble.

With the bat, Andrew Strauss was magnificent. So often the subject of criticism on this blog, Strauss proved his quality with two masterful centuries. Displaying solid defence and the ability to manoeuvre the ball into gaps, especially off the back foot, Strauss arguably enjoyed the best game of any English batsman since Alec Stewart’s epic pair of hundreds in Bridgetown 14 years ago. Paul Collingwood has looked so out of form for so much of the last twelve months, and yet has now managed two centuries in three games.

The failings of Pietersen and Flintoff were disappointing, displaying rash shot selection and a lack of subtlety. But one would hardly be surprised if Pietersen responded with a century next match. It was, however, odd that he did not so much as bowl an over of Collingwood or Ian Bell’s medium-pace, when the rest of the attack so clearly lacked penetration.

More worrying is Bell. His ‘breakthrough’ innings – 199 against South Africa – now feels an age away, as he has returned to his old penchant for infuriating. England would be wrong to continue to ignore Owais Shah, superb in the ODI series and scorer of 88 and 38 in his only previous Test in India. He must have greeted Collingwood’s century with more than a little frustration. After three-and-a-half-days England were in an excellent position to wrap up what would have been a phenomenal win.

A great deal of credit must be paid to the magisterial, albeit immensely contrasting, innings of Sehwag and Tendulkar. If they are to earn a share of this ludicrously short series, England need their wicket-taking threat to extend beyond merely Flintoff and Swann. The bottom line, alas, is England performed admirably – and it is worth remembering that they got closer to victory than Australia managed a few months ago - but were simply beaten, and beaten well, by a superior side.

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Pressure finally off England

England return to India on a wave of goodwill, which is unlikely to change regardless of the outcome of the Test series.

It is fair to say that a lot has happened in the two weeks since India and England last met and everyone involved, for a wide variety of reasons, will be relieved when the first Test gets under way at Chennai.

The match itself is still not being talked about, which shows how significant it is that England even made the return trip to India. A result of a Test match has not been so incidental for a long time.

This, it should be said, suits England. As commendable as their return is, the convincing series defeat that surely awaits them would otherwise have been heavily scrutinised, coming on the back of home Test series defeats to India and South Africa and limited overs disasters in the Caribbean and the ill-fated One Day series that preceded this two match rubber.

Peter Moores’ position is becoming increasingly unstable, with his responsibilities as coach and power in the dressing room seemingly steadily decreasing as Kevin Pietersen’s captaincy develops. Another poor showing might have hastened the search for a successor that will start in earnest if the Ashes are not retained next summer.

However, England’s chances are not as slim as they might have been. The distraction and lack of preparation of the last two weeks has been more of a factor for the home side – the ‘close to home’ phrase used by the England camp after the Mumbai attacks should really be attributed to the Indian players – and if anyone is going to be inhibited and negatively affected by recent events, it is the hosts.

India buckled under pressure and threw away a series lead in the 2006 meeting between the teams, but they are now a more experienced and rounded team that has its eyes on the number one ranking.

England have won just two of the 13 Tests they have played against India since last winning a series against them in 1996 and in ordinary circumstances would not be expected to prevail this time around. However, extraordinary circumstances should not bring an extraordinary result and England can look forward to the rare occurrence of emerging from a series defeat with their reputations enhanced.

Written by Philip Oliver, a sports writer who blogs about cricket betting.

Monday, 8 December 2008

Aussies on the decline, or is it just another tour of India?

Much has been made of Australia's series loss to India, their first in a very long time, and the immediate speculation is of course whether Australia has lost it. No more McGrath, Warne, Langer, Martyn or Gilchrist, no more Australia? It's the question that's been asked more often than any other in cricket, but one that is perhaps a little hesitant.

The first thing to consider is that when any team loses five of its best players (although Martyn was hardly a star at the end), it's going to take some time to adjust. A half-team turnaround is difficult to manage, no matter how good the youngsters are.

Secondly, let's remember the fact that in Australia's period of dominance, they only won a series in India once. Even at home, they have traditionally struggled against the Indians, always finding it difficult to cope with their spin. Of course now, India have found themselves a pretty decent pace attack, with Ishant Sharma one of the most promising young fast bowlers in the world. All in all, it seems that Australia failing its mission impossible for so many years is not something to read too much into. The tour of India has always been Superman's kryptonite after all!

As Australia get ready to host South Africa, once again brimming with confidence at the prospect of knocking off the Australians, we stand to get our best indication of where the other challengers of the crown are at, and where the former invincibles are too. How the Aussies cope with Dale Steyn will be an interesting battle, Steyn the hottest fast bowler in test cricket at the moment, and Australia seemingly vulnerable to the swinging ball, it stands to be a contest to savour.

History has shown, however, that South African confidence can often be misplaced, for many a time have the Proteas travelled down under on a high, in form and ready to pounce, only to be sent packing home by an Aussie side too strong. Graeme Smith has made it a habit of making bold pre-series predictions, perhaps desiring to live up to his former opponents' (McGrath, Warne) arrogant reputations. Smith will be the key to his nation's success, as a captain he will need to stand up and continue his great form, and as an opener he will need to get a solid start to their innings.

With Ricky Ponting under a wrist injury cloud, only time will tell whether he has indeed lost it, and his ability to cope with Steyn will prove telling. His vulnerability against spin was always obvious in India. After all, how many great spin bowlers are there outside the subcontinent these days with Shane Warne gone? Daniel Vettori certainly comes to mind, so the Australians' victory over New Zealand (weak though they may be) will be a relief for many.

It's showtime though, as two of test cricket's best clash down under. Are Australia on the decline, or is it just another case of India-itis? Once again, only time will tell, but if South Africa can shake a monkey off their back and record a series victory down under, it may be more serious than we though.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Struggling New Zealand face up to life at the bottom

All eyes will soon be on the battle between Australia and South Africa, but a potentially more significant power shift might be occurring in a series contested between teams at the bottom of the Test rankings table.

Australia’s one-sided Test series with New Zealand represented something of a warm-up for both teams. The Aussies face a South Africa team that has designs on toppling the world number ones, whilst the Black Caps face West Indies in a more direct winner-takes-all meeting: the loser will be confirmed as the worst Test team after Bangladesh.

It is fair to say New Zealand are in a state of disarray (in Test terms at least – their prolonged malaise in the longer form of the game has had no impact on their ability to punch above their weight in limited overs cricket.)

The protracted departure of coach John Bracewell has destabilised a team that tastes Test victory on the rarest of occasions – they have only won overseas Tests in Zimbabwe and Bangladesh during Bracewell’s five year tenure.

Outspoken Kiwi legend Martin Crowe described New Zealand’s meek surrender in the second Test at Adelaide as his country’s ‘worst moment in Test cricket’, which suggests the only way is up for incoming coach Andy Moles.

Unfortunately this is not true, despite his new charges’ slide to the base of the Test rankings table. They are going in a different direction to Windies, who have been more competitive than the Black Caps since the teams’ last meeting.

New Zealand won the three match series in early 2006 by a 2-0 scoreline but have since been heavily beaten by South Africa, England and Australia, whilst West Indies’ highlights included a Test win in South Africa, a drawn home series against Sri Lanka and a competitive battle with the Aussies.

This is therefore a realistic chance for West Indies to win their first away series against a major nation since 1994/95.

Such a result would be significant for both teams. West Indies would have a tangible reward to go with the feel good factor generated by the Stanford Super Series, whilst New Zealand would be forced to embark on a rebuilding process that has been needed for some time.

Bracewell’s departure follows a rash of senior player retirements, with Stephen Fleming, Chris Cairns, Nathan Astle, Scott Styris, Shane Bond and Craig McMillan all hanging up their black caps in recent years. Moles and skipper Daniel Vettori face a tough transition period and only need to ask their opponents next month about how it feels to be Test cricket’s whipping boys.

Written by Philip Oliver, a sports writer who blogs about cricket betting.