Monday, 26 January 2009

Pietersen to hit purple patch

Not everyone triumphs in adversity, but the former England captain is one player who can be relied upon to produce the goods when the going gets tough.

It is generally accepted that Kevin Pietersen will have no problem in returning to the ranks of the England team. This belief is based upon the fact that the former captain is well-suited to looking after his own game and ignoring the effects of the Peter Moores / captaincy fiasco. Cricket is the most individual of team sports and there is no one quite as individual-orientated as Pietersen.

The ousted skipper showed the necessary single-mindedness in his rapid ton against St Kitts XI to suggest a high volume of runs will be the proof of his rehabilitation. Pietersen claims to struggle with concentration against lesser attacks but focus will not be a problem in the Caribbean. The runs will flow faster than the drinks at the Barmy Army’s hotels.

It helps of course, that Pietersen is in decent nick. His majestic 144 in Mohali was his fifth ton in 10 Tests and so confidence, not usually an elusive run-scoring requirement for Pietersen, will not be in short supply, despite the recent rumours of team-mate back-stabbing.

The effect of confidence on run-scoring cannot be under-estimated. If the likes of Pietersen and 2008 top Test runscorer Graeme Smith can be backed to achieve in adversity, then it follows that less brash and forthright characters will struggle when the chips are down.

Two of the world’s in-form batsmen, JP Duminy and Tillakaratne Dilshan, fit into that category and probably started 2008 wondering if they had international futures.

Duminy, constantly in and out of South Africa’s One Day international middle order, endured a torrid series in England and appeared as far from a regular Test spot as he ever had been.

Dilshan, a more successful Sri Lankan version of Vikram Solanki, has failed to properly display his array batting, bowling, fielding and wicket-keeping skills. Moved up and down and in and out of the team, his confidence appeared at an all-time low during last year’s Indian Premier League.

However, both players enjoyed themselves against poor quality opposition towards the end of the year and went on to produce the best form of their careers against higher calibre bowling.

New-found confidence was the root cause of their respective renaissances and it is for this reason that Pietersen can be expected to produce his best in 2009. He has never lost his confidence, but he will now be more determined to utilise it. Watch out West Indies.

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

Sunday, 18 January 2009

Matthew Hayden – The Ultimate Survivor

If you were the type of cricket fan who didn't like Matthew Hayden ask yourself this – would your opinion of him change if he was playing for your team? You wouldn't want this dominant, aggressive batsman piling on the runs for your team? Turning the opposition into complete disarray?

Hayden was a run-scoring machine and departs the game as one of the most successful openers of all time. What is even more remarkable about Hayden's career is how different it ended compared to how it began. Many cricketers fail to cope at the highest level. Some work their way back, but how many work their way back twice?

22 year old Hayden went on the 1993 Ashes Tour and was competing with Michael Slater for the right to open the innings alongside Mark Taylor. Those who like to have a cricket bet felt Hayden had the inside running but Slater outplayed him in the final warm-up match before the First Test and won the nod. Hayden was still in the frame though and made his Test debut in March 1994 against South Africa when Taylor was injured.

Taylor returned for the next Test and it would be another two and a half years until Hayden next wore the Baggy Green. Six Test matches later the selectors weren't bowled over by the Queenslander. This time, his exile in the cricketing wilderness would last three years. Three years during the prime of his career. This would break many athletes but Hayden responded the other way working even harder on his game. He thrived under the tutelage of John Buchanan and was a member of the first Queensland team to win the Sheffield Shield.

When Hayden was recalled at age 28 in 2000 to replace Greg Blewett, most of the cricket betting was that this too wouldn’t be a long stay but Hayden had served his apprenticeship and was ready.

He was older and wiser and produced the series of a lifetime against India in 2001. 549 runs in three matches saw his average soar from an unremarkable 28 to a more respectable 40. From there it continued to climb, ultimately hitting a high of 58.

In the years 2002-03, he was at the peak of his powers with 2472 runs in 23 matches at an average of 75, including a then-world record 380 against Zimbabwe. Hayden tormented cricket bowlers from all over the world. It wasn't just the fact they he was scoring runs, but the intimidating manner in which he went about it.

Just like Steve Waugh and his side disregarded conventional cricket wisdom, so too did Hayden when it came to opening. Openers aren't meant to drive or score boundaries on the opening morning of a Test match, but that didn't bother Hayden. He was responsible for breaking down the opposition bowlers and was successful in doing so. Eventually tactics came around to try and curb him. Short covers and a straighter mid-off were put in place to cut off his scoring areas and it worked, most notably in the 2005 Ashes Series where Hayden only averaged 35. It would have been even less had he not blasted 138 in the final Test.

Hayden thrived from adversity and often went looking for trouble just to fire himself up. It was this quality which didn't endear him to opposition players and fans. Some labeled him arrogant and some called him a bully, but this was a small price to pay for being a run-scoring machine; for being a useful member of the most successful cricket team in history.

Hayden is very good friends with Andrew Symonds and the two share a number of traits. Their early struggles were linked to insecurity, acceptance and a sense of belonging. Once they over came that, taking on the opposition was nothing.

Originally Hayden wanted to play on through the 2009 Ashes Tour and ease the transition for a side which is going through such upheaval. Once Hayden was dropped from the limited-overs side, a three Test tour of South Africa followed by a five Ashes Tests seemed more trouble than it was worth. Why risk tarnishing the legacy? There was also the chance Hayden could have finished the Ashes tour not as a cricketer but as a tourist. Hayden had nothing more to achieve and can look back on his career with the most immense satisfaction possible. The fact that for so long, Hayden's international career seemed like it was certain to end as footnote makes it even more incredible.

David Wiseman is a sports journalist, who writes about cricket and tennis for Betfair Australia . He is particularly looking forward to the Australian Open 2009 and the Ashes.

Friday, 16 January 2009

South Africa's future is in safe hands

South Africa have enjoyed a stellar 12 months in the Test arena and there is every reason to think they can maintain their impressive development.

South Africa’s Test series win in Australia marked the end of an era. But did it also represent the beginning of a new era, one of South African dominance?

The simultaneous improvements made by India suggest not, especially as Australia will surely be a strong force sooner rather than later. The Proteas have a tough task to consistently hang onto their number one ranking, should they indeed take it from the Aussies in the coming months.

The current team is well-equipped to mount a challenge for Test dominance. They have a young but experienced captain who is at the peak of his powers in Graeme Smith, a youthful middle order of Hashim Amla, AB de Villiers and JP Duminy that is suddenly established as the most promising in the world and a pair of fresh tearaway quick bowlers in the form of Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel.

The retirement of Shaun Pollock and impending departures of Jacques Kallis, Herschelle Gibbs and Makhaya Ntini will not be as keenly felt as seemed likely when those pillars of the side were at their best, nor indeed as much as Australia felt the retirements of their own stalwarts of the last decade and a half.

Similarly, the long-term future of South African cricket is looking better than it has for some time. Their development program has been under close scrutiny since their readmission into international cricket and whilst valid concerns exist over the funding and recruiting of talent from black communities, the fact that Ali Bacher feels the racial quota policy has served its purpose is suggestive of adequate progress.

The South African U19 team was runner-up at the last youth World Cup in 2008 (to India; more evidence of who is likely to battle for seniority at full international level?) and is currently asserting their superiority of their English counterparts.

The senior One Day team therefore has some new talent waiting to be introduced as it continues its transition phase ahead of the 2011 World Cup. The Test team is harder to break into, as it should be having won in England for just the third time and more notably Australia for the first time.

The second decade of the 21st century might not see one team dominate as Australia did for the preceding 15 years, but it will see South Africa be consistently near the top of the tree.

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

Friday, 9 January 2009

England's Ashes ladder

With the 2009 Ashes only six months away, who can expect to play a part for England? Each player has been ranked according to who is most likely to play in the series, from most likely to 25th.

1) Andrew Strauss
The new skipper has returned to form and England will be after some stability at last.

2) Andrew Flintoff
The obvious caveat is injury. But he has responded leaner and fitter since his comeback. His bowling, at least, is as good as ever.

3) Alastair Cook
Indicative of the malaise in the England side, even number three is not quite a certainty. But he did well against the West Indies before and, having invested so much time, England are very unlikely to dump him prior to the Ashes.

4) Kevin Pietersen
Pietersen, surely, would not miss this for the world. But if he plays the IPL instead of the West Indies home series, he might just have to.

5) Matt Prior
May appear a little high for someone whose current Test stint has lasted just two games, but Prior is a fine batsman, vital with England seemingly favouring the five-man attack that served them so well in 2005. Whether they are right to remains another matter.

6) Stuart Broad
A man averaging 45 with the ball in Tests should not be this high. But, with doubts over so many bowlers, his excellent batting makes his selection very likely for the balance of the side.

7) Paul Collingwood
Forever fighting for his place, but Collingwood has hit two hundreds in his last four Tests. His grit is such that England would like him to play, but worrys over his troubesome shoulder - and batting technique - linger.

8) Steve Harmison
Conditional upon him reproducing something like his Durham form in the West Indies. But on his day Harmie the attributes to strike fear into batsmen. Despite his disastrous last Ashes, Australis would probably sooner face James Anderson.

9) Graeme Swann
Monty Panesar's decline is becoming increasingly worrying. The feisty Swann will not be intimidated by the Aussies, should enjoy bowling to their left-handers (who will form at least three of their top six) and will certainly outdo Panesar in his batting and fielding contributions.

10) Ian Bell
Like it or not, Bell has an excellent chance of playing next summer. For all his undeniable class, averages of 25 against Australia - and 19 in his last ten Test innings - suggest England would be better looking elsewhere.

11) James Anderson
It isn't always exactly clear why, but Anderson has played the last 11 Tests. Where swing is expected to play a part then, barring a huge loss of form, he will probably feature.

12) Owais Shah
The perennial drinks-carrier has established himself as England's second best ODI batsman (after Pietersen) but has played just one Test in the three years following his 88 on debut in Mumbai. Not lacking in self-belief and in the form of his life, England must now hand him a run in the side. May, however, live to rue the ODIs coming after, rather than before, the Tests.

13) Monty Panesar
Will be close to selection, if he is not actually in the final XI. If only he could regain his joie de vivre and appear more comfortable thinking on his feet.

14) Simon Jones
Why does a man who has not played for England in almost four years feature so highly? Frankly, it's hard to see which other quicks possess more of a threat. Took 42 wickets at 18 last summer and should have played the Second Test against South Africa, Jones need only have a few good first-class games before the calls from for his inclusion. The king of reverse-swing will not play all five Tests, but, fitness - as ever - permitting, has a very good chance of playing a couple of games. Temptation to pick him will be mighty strong.

15) Ryan Sidebottom
It seems incredible to think now, but in 2008 Sidebottom claimed 47 Test wickets (mainly Kiwi) at just 20 apiece. Has since been ravaged by injuries, however, and has not featured since limping through the Edgbaston Test. But will do everything in his power to come back.

16) Michael Vaughan
Not recalled for the West Indies tour but if he can finally get some runs for Yorkshire he will become, at least, first reserve in the event of a top-three injury or critical loss of form. One last crack at the Aussies and into the sunset?

17) Adil Rashid
As long as he continues his impressive progress, he has a good chance of making an appearance, especially at The Oval and especially if England are struggling.

18) Amjad Khan
A late call-up for the India tour, Khan can generate reverse-swing and has a fine first-class pedigree. Could be finding favour at just the right time.

19) Tim Ambrose
Still the second choice Test keeper, apparently, though no one is quite sure why. But few would fancy his chances of scoring runs next summer. James Foster, in particular, would feel aggrieved if Ambrose is preferred.

20) Ravi Bopara
So far the hype has nowhere near lived up to the international performances. But he remains a talented player and his ODI appearances should keep him in the frame.

21) Robert Key
Passed over for the England captaincy, Key had a bad season for Kent last year at the worst possible time. But he is nonetheless a fine player - England could do much worse.

22) Kabir Ali
Has been in superb form for several seasons - but didn't even make the Lions squad. A far better bowler than when he last played for England - but just doesn't seem to tick the selectorial boxes. Perhaps the new regime will see differently.

23) Matthew Hoggard
It's not going to happen - and an average of 39.72 in his last 13 Tests says why. But a Test at Headingley will keep him hoping.

24) Chris Tremlett
Has seemingly vanished completely from view, and worries about his fitness and temperament have put his impressive series against India three summers ago to the back of everyone's mind.

25) Mark Ramprakash
'Failed' in only averaging 60 last season; a two-match disciplinary suspension hardly helps his case either. But with England's chronic problems at number three his would be an intriguing selection. The romantics should not be hopeful, however.

Bubbling under
Batsmen: Joe Denly, Samit Patel, Eoin Morgan
Keepers: James Foster, Steven Davies
Bowlers: Mark Davies, Sajid Mahmood, Darren Pattinson, Liam Plunkett

Compiling this list, it is striking how few players truly inspire confidence. The fast bowling area is particularly problematic. And I should add that I have been trying to read the selectors' minds - this is what I think their list would look like, not what my list would be.

Thursday, 8 January 2009

Strauss can end England's dependency culture

Well, what to make of that then? Just with Australia finally displaying major signs of weakness, English cricket slumped into a fresh bout of crisis. The twin departues of Messrs Moores and Pietersen were truly embarrassing. Pietersen clearly deserves the vast majority of the blame - though perhaps not so much for his complaints against Moores as the manner in which they were made so public.

Moores is hardly a great loss as coach. And Pietersen, somewhat tactically naive - as even he himself acknowleged - clearly suffered from a complete lack of captaincy experience. Had he continued to be captain, it would have been intriguing to see how his style developed. He does undeniably have a brilliant and instinctive cricketing mind, but the manner in which he sought to advance his favourites - none more so than Michael Vaughan - at the expense of true meritocracy left an uncomfortable taste.

England have not lost a great captain or great coach. Whether they lose a batsman of rare brilliance will determine the ultimate damage from the affair. But if, somehow, Pietersen slips into the ranks as unobtrusively as his character will allow, and the forthcoming Ashes serves to galvanise the squad and make them forget past frictions, then England may yet come out of the whole affair rather well.

No one can argue with the appointment of Andrew Strauss as captain. Intelligent, articulate, calm, experienced and with a resilient temperament that has allowed him to respond admirably to being dropped 15 months ago, he would never be caught in such an ugly public spat. He has been called the archetypal 'safe pair of hands' - actually he is a highly-regarded tactician and a self-assured leader. His quiet determination will allow no one an easy ride; and ensure a meritocracy in team selection that has been conspicious for its absence of late.

Together with Andy Flower (whose appointment as temporary coach only needs to be rubber-stamped) Strauss can offer England something much overdue. Ludicrously overburdened with backroom support staff, England have been big on talk and short on action. Superficially they are the most 'professional' side England have ever possessed. But what is needed, above all, is a more understated approach. Players must take responsbility for their own actions and end the unhealthy dependency culture that has spread within Team England.

Pietersen's personal problems become public property

Kevin Pietersen paid the price for letting his personal issues with Peter Moores lead him, although perversely England are perhaps now better-placed than they were when the crisis hit.

Much mystery surrounds the current England crisis. The Moores – Pietersen furore developed from the fact that the pair did not see eye-to-eye. We don’t know exactly what that means and due to the outgoing coach’s reticence in talking about the affair, we will perhaps never truly discover what made the protagonists’ relationship so unworkable.

How can a coach and captain clash so catastrophically? It should be taken as read that both want what is best for the team, so it follows that neither should take umbrage at how this is achieved.

I cannot believe that there were sufficient ideological differences between Moores and Pietersen as to how the team should be coached, trained, organised and selected to justify the obvious bad blood.

It is reported that Pietersen did not like the coach’s harsh fitness regime and took exception to Moores’ challenging of senior players. The former grievance could be resolved by sensible discussion; the latter prodded the captain’s ego. And this is the crux of the matter; make no mistake, this fallout was personal.

Why else would Pietersen demand a long meeting with the coach to confirm they were ‘singing from the same hymn sheet’ before accepting the job? He simply did not rate Moores as a coach (probably due to the modern obsession with having coaches who played at the top level) and more significantly, did not like or trust him.

Some culpability must lie with the ECB for failing to clarify the roles and responsibilities of each man, but Moores and Pietersen should have found a way to make the relationship work. That they couldn’t reveals much about their shortcomings in their respective roles.

Man-management is often mentioned as a key responsibility of the modern sporting coach and Moores was clearly lacking in this area, with some players (although not as many as was thought) reporting he had ‘lost’ the dressing room.

Pietersen – perhaps as unmanageable as they come – was even less proficient in working with others. The fact that he did not receive universal team support in his anti-coach machinations will come as a massive shock, revealing a lack of judgment to go alongside his characteristics of arrogance, tactical naivety and disloyalty – a checklist for constructing a bad captain.

England are therefore not as badly off as it appears. Andrew Strauss is more than just a safe pair of hands – he is, and has been for three years, the best candidate for the job and has the experience and nous to heal the dressing room rifts, which are at least now out in the open rather than bubbling away under the surface.

Concerns over the One Day captaincy and the prospects of a split role are secondary – England’s limited overs planning was as poor as it ever has been in India and there is hardly anything to throw away in again starting from scratch.

Pietersen will do just fine back in the ranks, as there is no batsman around better-suited to concentrating on his own game and prospering against a wave of Australian sledging.

The team will be better off without a coach that could not help player development and a leadership axis that could not put personal differences aside in the quest for co-operation.

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

Thursday, 1 January 2009

Who Dares Wins

The working relationship between Kevin Pietersen and Peter Moores has been the subject of speculation for some time. Now, however, after a winter in which England have stumbled from one humiliation to the next, rumours suggest it has reached breaking point. Some have even suggested that Pietersen will put it to English cricket’s supremos: him or me.

It is not hard to gauge who is of more value to English cricket. Pietersen is, alongside Andrew Flintoff, the only realistic contender for a place in a World XI in either form of the game. He has shown himself to be a supreme batsman, as well as a fantastic professional, driven by a desire for self-improvement. It is striking that, whilst he has featured intermittently in the gossip columns, in almost four years in the spotlight no tabloid hack has uncovered any story of excess, of the kind Flintoff has been tainted with.

Then there is Moores. He has lost four Test series out of seven, including two at home after England had been unbeaten between 2001 and 2007. Being less obstinate and downright rude than his predecessor Duncan Fletcher may have helped a little with the media’s perception of him, but he has patently failed to impress so far. He is uninspiring in his methods, and has been criticised for aiming to improve fitness over skill levels. And in team selection and tactics he has been distinctly underwhelming, displaying excess loyalty and, especially in the one-day game, a worrying lack of innovation. He blusters the same old platitudes about the importance of keeping faith in players but tangible progress is rather more difficult to detect.

It may be harsh, but ultimately Moores owes his appointment as England coach to Mushtaq Ahmed more than anyone else. Is he the man to lead England to an Ashes victory next summer? Can he conjure up plans to rival those of Fletcher’s? Many are less-than-certain. And crucially Pietersen, whose relationship with Moores was a concern even before he became captain, appears one of them.

It would be almost unprecedented for a captain to precipitate the coach’s exit. And certainly it would provoke major worries about Pietersen’s power, and resentment if he is seen as thinking he knows all the answers.

But England have underperformed for too long, yet they show few signs of changing course, fumbling along with the same players and tactics out of misguided loyalty. Something radical – remember it is three years since England beat a side other than New Zealand or West Indies – may just be the best course. Carrying on with Moores, when coaches of the calibre of Tom Moody lurk, would smack of inertia. As Pietersen believes, who dares wins; if Hugh Morris and co chose Moores over Pietersen the ambition of English cricket would be in serious jeopardy. Whether England stick or twist is a decision that could define their fortunes in 2009.