Archive for the ‘sri lanka’ Category

Reversal of fortune

Thursday, October 11th, 2012

When Sri Lanka’s third wicket fell in Sunday’s World Twenty20 final, Mahela Jayawardene turned his eyes upwards. With 51 runs on the board at the halfway stage and chasing 138, it could have been a plea for divine intervention. It could have been simple exasperation. To all the rest of us watching, it signalled the tantalising – and momentous – possibility that the West Indies’ long, turbulent years in the international cricket doldrums might finally be coming to an end.

It was a notable reversal of fortune from the previous time the two sides had met in this tournament: in their Super Eight game Sri Lanka had won by 9 wickets, with only a 65-run partnership between Dwayne Bravo and Marlon Samuels saving the Windies’ blushes. In the final, it was Marlon Samuels again who stepped up when everyone else – including the big-hitting Chris Gayle – fell around him. From 32-2 after ten overs – an uncharacteristically slow start for the West Indies if ever there was one – he managed to drag his team to a total not only respectable but, as it turned out, defendable. Sri Lanka were all out for 101 in 18.4 overs and the riotous celebrations began. A harsher critic might say that the Lankans bottled it, but it was tough not to feel for Jayawardene when he resigned his captaincy soon afterward; rarely do cricketers come classier than him and, up until Sunday, his team were arguably the best allround side on display throughout the competition.

But nowhere is the spirit of carpe diem more important than in T20, and in a game where moments prove decisive and a well-timed runout or booming six into the stands can turn the game, the Windies seized every opportunity as the Sri Lankans faltered.

While it’s premature to talk about a new dynasty in West Indies cricket, boy was this victory great to see. Marlon Samuels’ continued rise in stature and maturity will come as no surprise to those who saw him in England earlier this year, and Darren Sammy may be a cricketer of limited talent but has proved an inspirational captain, truly the raising-agent in the West Indies’ recipe for success. Both men spoke from the heart in the post-match presentation about how much the victory meant to them, Samuels almost defiant in his jubilation. “We will celebrate as long as possible and enjoy the moment. This is a moment to cherish, and cherish forever. The entire Caribbean embraces it. The sky is the limit and words can’t really explain it. It means the world to us.” Perhaps most encouragingly, he added, “We want to be on top, even in Test cricket, as Test cricket is the best.” While that will take some leap, and considerable domestic and administrative reorganization for that to happen, what is most important is that this is a team that now knows it can win. It has started to believe.

I have to say I enjoyed this year’s World Twenty20. Reservations about the format remain, and while the concerns of the administrators of Associate nations who want their sides to face Full Member opposition more often remain valid – how else are they to improve? – the fact the “minnows” failed to punch above their weight will, sadly, have provided ammunition to those who are against an expanded format. But set against the interminable 50-over version, this was a short, sharp, enjoyable tournament with cricket of high quality. The likes of Chris Gayle, Shane Watson, Ajantha Mendis and Virat Kohli displayed superlative skill and gave us great entertainment.

England, on the other hand, failed to get the pulse racing, with a campaign that, with the exception of their victories over Afghanistan and New Zealand, careened from the merely lacklustre to the downright clueless. Over the last few months, team England has started to resemble a punctured tyre with the air slowly leaking from it; with the absence of Kevin Pietersen their stumbling route to the exit proved a flat affair indeed. Andy Flower tried a few different patches to slow the bleeding, but it all smacked of desperation. Samit Patel, dropped for the New Zealand game because he’d been tonked round the park by Chris Gayle in the previous match and gone for 38 runs, was replaced by slow left-armer Danny Briggs, who ended up being tonked around the park by James Franklin to the tune of 36 runs; Patel, brought back for the match against Sri Lanka, ironically proved to be England’s standout batsman with a fine knock of 67. Equally baffling was the selection of Ravi Bopara who, chronically down on confidence and runs, couldn’t get back to the pavilion fast enough when he was bowled by Jeevan Mendis. Sadly, that ill-timed call-up may have torpedoed his international career for good.

Lasith Malinga was magnificent in that match, putting paid to criticisms that he’s lost his nip, but it was England’s woefulness against spin that had fans tearing their hair out in despair, especially looking ahead to the winter tour to India. The matches against Sri Lanka and India showed England at their very worst: an inexperienced batting lineup unsure whether to defend or hit out in a display akin to a headless chicken running erratically around a farmyard while its executioner calmly waits for it to exsanguinate.

Pietersen impressed as a pundit in the ESPN studios when he should have been playing. It’s hoped he’ll be added to the squad for India, but this is dependent on the results of a “process of reintegration” he must complete before he is welcomed back into the fold. After boggling at the bizarre nature of the press conference in which ECB chairman Giles Clarke compared Pietersen to a criminal being reintroduced back into society – this from an organization all too quick to jump into bed with a crooked Texan billionaire – I was wondering exactly what this process might entail. My eyebrows having been further raised by David Collier’s comment that South Africa “provoked” Pietersen into sending the texts that saw him dropped for the Lord’s Test, it’s not much of an exaggeration to say they fair leapt off my forehead when I read in this week’s edition of The Cricket Paper that Pietersen, currently in South Africa for the Champions League T20, “is set to remain with the Delhi Daredevils for as long as they continue in the tournament, but he is also expected to undertake a potentially exhausting series of long-haul flights to and from the UK, in order to try and make peace with players on an individual basis, possibly with the aid of a ‘trained disputes mediator’.”

One of Pietersen’s supporters through all of this has been Chris Gayle, back destroying bowlers on the world stage after a bitter rift between himself and the West Indies Cricket Board. The Windies are a better side with Gayle in it. England, similarly, are a better side when Kevin Pietersen goes out to bat for them. Surely, it’s time now to move on from all this nonsense.

Staying in the game

Friday, March 30th, 2012

I’d like to know what was going through Mahela Jayawardene’s head when he was given the captaincy of his country for the second time around in January.

Anyone who heard Kumar Sangakkara’s Spirit of Cricket speech last July knows Sri Lankan cricket has been in turmoil for some time now. The mess it’s gotten into hasn’t been as dramatic as that of West Indies cricket, but it’s been an unsavoury tale of internecine bickering, political interference and withheld payments. At one stage the ICC even had to step in to pay the cricketers, since the World Cup team haven’t been paid since last April.

If any of this gave Jayawardene a sinking feeling of “here we go again,” or even, in the words of Danny Glover in the Lethal Weapon movies, “I’m getting too old for this shit,” he hasn’t said. But since he’s regained the captaincy Sri Lanka have played positive, fighting cricket. Tillakaratne Dilshan found the captaincy crown an ill-fitting, weighty burden. He and his batting struggled under it; every time he went out to the middle he seemed to have storm clouds wreathed around his brow. He looked, as PG Wodehouse once wrote, like a man who has searched for the leak in life’s gaspipe with a candle. If ever there was the definition of a reluctant leader, Dilshan was it.

Mahela is cut from a different cloth; he doesn’t suffer fools but at the same time is his team’s even-tempered axis. Though it helps he has experience where this particular gig is concerned, leading by example seems a straightforward, reasonable requirement for the job as far as he’s concerned. When your country calls, you answer. The first Test at Galle in this series against England has been a masterclass of leadership and personal achievement. The prospect of failure becomes no longer an insurmountable obstacle to be crumbled before, but a challenge.

There was never the outright suggestion in the various previews that Sri Lanka would be a pushover for England after their UAE drubbing, but the many comparisons between the bowling attacks of Pakistan and Sri Lanka tended not to flatter Mahela’s men. After England were bowled out yesterday attempting an historic run chase of 340, it’s clear that what we were mostly guilty of was a gross underestimation of England’s ability to learn from their mistakes. The beatings will continue until morale improves. Or not.

Jayawardene may no longer have a Murali to turn to, but the last four days have shown that honest workman-like spin can trouble England just as well. Granted, the wicket was not quite as benign as some would have had us believe, but help for the spinners was more apparent during England’s second innings when they ironically made a better fist of things than in their first, when they were all out for 193 in under 47 overs. Their second innings was at least propped up by a magnificent century by Jonathan Trott – the slowest of his seven Test hundreds, the pacing of which was absolutely necessary – but their first was a baffling, kamikaze rush to disaster; if there was one consolation in seeing England batsmen give their wickets away through a slavish insistence on the sweep and a lemming-like urge towards self-annihilation, it was that at least they seemed in a hurry to put us all out of our misery.

Trott (along with Matt Prior and Ian Bell in supporting roles) aside, if England’s batsmen needed a masterclass on how to build an innings, Mahela Jayawardene provided them with a blueprint. The Baroque flourishes of Dilshan and other pyrotechnicians are not for him; his is a more Palladian architecture, with an adherence to first principles: balance, solidity, adaptability. Ornamentation and exuberance come after, when the edifice is sound. His batting is all clean lines, elegant simplicity, form through function. He came to the middle when Sri Lanka were in dire straits at 11-2, and on the rocks at 15-3; from then on it was a case of standing firm against the storm and keeping his side in the game with a magnificent 180. Of course, it’s not the first time he’s done this. His 115 against New Zealand in the 2007 World Cup – in which he started his innings with watchful circumspection and ended up pasting Shane Bond all round Sabina Park – is a particular standout. In Tests, he now averages 89.64 against England at home.

The components of England’s loss look unfortunate in isolation but disastrous when taken as a catalogue of mishaps, pratfalls and heat-addled shot selection. Mahela was dropped four times, Broad’s front-foot no-ball was revealed with tragicomic timing after the team had riotously celebrated bowling Sri Lanka out, and even England’s second innings seesawed repeatedly between hope and bathos as Jonathan Trott’s marathon innings was punctuated increasingly by his partners at the other end falling by the wayside through their own ineptitude – a Homeric epic interrupted constantly by advert breaks for double-glazing featuring second-rate comedians.

England must win in Colombo if they are to retain their number one Test status. The most worrying thing about this run of Test failures – four on the bounce now – is that while it’s tempting to look forward to a happier summer when England play the West Indies in May, the confidence of some players might be so shot by then, and the pressure on them to justify their selection so overwhelming, that Devendra Bishoo and Sunil Narine may end up causing them a very big headache indeed. After being put through the wringer in the UAE and Sri Lanka, it might just be a case of one spin cycle too many for England’s batting delicates.

The new ruthlessness

Wednesday, February 29th, 2012

Eoin Morgan won’t be accompanying the England squad on their forthcoming tour of Sri Lanka.

While Kevin Pietersen suffered the lion’s share of the critics’ scrutiny throughout the just-concluded UAE tour (has there ever been a modern-day England batsman laden down with so many ridiculously high expectations?) he at least redeemed himself with a return to runs and the old KP swagger. Morgan failed consistently in all formats. So, in the Test series – an ignominious 3-0 loss – did every one else who purported to be a batsman, but unlike Pietersen and Strauss, the slack the selectors were willing to extend to Morgan could only extend so far.

The wafts outside off stump; the dilemma of whether to go forward or back; that increasingly-exaggerated trigger movement of a man lowering his privates into a scalding bath: this is a man who is in desperate need of runs and confidence. Andy Flower has signalled his disapproval of Morgan’s likely decision to honour his IPL contract, but whether it’s a 20-over match in the steamy heat of Bangalore before 40,000 screaming fans, or a cold April day at Taunton, the bloke just needs to feel bat on ball. Morgan’s IPL stint last year had less bearing on his selection for that summer than his 193 for the Lions against Sri Lanka: an innings in which predicted shoo-in Ravi Bopara (who turned down an IPL contract) could only manage 17.

Morgan’s non-selection for the upcoming Tests in Galle and Colombo, however, does signal a pragmatic ruthlessness on the part of the selectors. For once this is not a change born of panic, or a we’re-making-this-up-as-we-go merry-go-round of addle-brained chop and change. Perhaps taking a leaf from Australia’s book, the England management have a goal in view and a plan in mind. Nurture where necessary; jettison the expendable.

In Australia’s case this meant axing Simon Katich from Tests, giving Cameron White the bum’s rush from T20s – both as captain and as player – and ending Ricky Ponting’s ODI career. Regardless of the seeming unfairness of a couple of these decisions, you can’t say new chief selector John Inverarity does things by halves. It’s an approach that has borne already ripening fruit, with a potent pace attack comprising new blood and rejuvenated older campaigners, a gritty opener in Ed Cowan to complement Dave Warner’s freewheeling pyrotechnics, and new keeper Matthew Wade putting pressure on the increasingly out-of-favour Brad Haddin.

India’s future development remains stuck in neutral so long as their selectors refuse to make such bold moves; you get the feeling their re-ascendancy to the top would be under way already if they had a Flower or Inverarity at the helm.

Of course, as far as England and Eoin Morgan go, one wonders whether the IPL is really the demon it’s made out to be. Runs for Morgan for his Kolkata team could come in useful; England after all have a T20 world title to defend in September.

I’ve never been one of Ravi Bopara’s biggest cheerleaders, but I do think it’s right and fair he is given another opportunity, and while Samit Patel will doubtless lose out to Ravi for the no 6 position, his inclusion in the squad signals recognition of a renewed commitment towards playing for England at the highest level and to leaving the hotel buffet and the Bounty bars the hell alone. I liked Samit’s little cameo in the final T20 which included a lusty six back over the head of Saeed Ajmal; I liked too the clap on the back from KP as he went off. The team were apparently informed after this match who would be going to Sri Lanka; by this point Morgan must have known his time was up.

Perhaps a 50 in the ODIs or the T20s could have saved him. Perhaps not. It’s been a back-asswards tour; players noted for their ability against spin (Morgan and Bell) have failed and England were whitewashed in the format in which they are currently the world’s best. They then proceeded to give expectations another hefty kicking when they clean-swept the ODIs, a format the opposition were expected to favour. By all accounts spirits were high when the England team landed at Heathrow today; that might be tempered slightly when, as is most likely, South Africa wrest away that number one spot when they take on New Zealand in the 3-Test series starting next week.

Sri Lanka would seem the easier prospect after Pakistan. England will have momentum, two warm-up games and no Saeed Ajmal to keep them awake at nights. But after this series I’m predicting nothing, only that Andy Flower has no doubt planned for every eventuality.

The true spirit of cricket

Tuesday, July 5th, 2011
Kumar Sangakkara at Lord's

Kumar Sangakkara at Lord’s

Back in June, Vic Marks wrote an article on The Cricketer magazine’s website bemoaning the fact that Twitter has removed all the mystique from our sportsmen.

He speaks of Bradman and Hutton et al. as “distant, glamorous men; they were charismatic partly because we did not know everything about them… Now via twitter we would know precisely what they had for breakfast and which TV programme they watched”.

To dismiss Twitter as all noise and no signal, is, of course, dismissively simplistic. For communicating breaking news it is unparalleled – it takes a lot of skill to pack punchy, useful and immediate info into 140 characters. With brevity, there is often considerable wit. Dismissing Twitter because of its bite-size format is like saying that haiku isn’t a valid form of poetry because it’s too fucking short.

And hey, maybe hero-worship of the kind that Marks writes about is over-rated, anyway. People are, after all, just people. Interesting, however, that Sachin Tendulkar has a Twitter account and that doesn’t seem to have affected his god-like status in the slightest.

True, much of what is posted on Twitter is banal. If I had a pound for every time a cricketer mentioned they’d eaten at Nando’s, I would have been able to buy the bloody company. But I like Twitter. It’s like sitting in a crowded boozer with several conversations going on at once. You can tune out what you don’t want to listen to, and join in the ones that are interesting or entertaining. There are days I can live without it. But I like knowing it is there. Communication, in any form, is useful and serves a purpose.

But some things need a bigger platform. There are some things that need to be said, and that take one man, standing in a room in front of others, and an uninterrupted length of time in which to say them.

And last night, while sitting at my laptop, I listened, live and in real time, to Kumar Sangakkara do just that.

Sangakkara is a remarkable individual. Intelligent in an age in which it is unfashionable to be so, a lover of literature in a world where admitting you have never read a single book since you left school is worn as a badge of pride. All that and a cover-drive, as Christopher Martin-Jenkins memorably said in his introduction, to rival Wally Hammond’s.

As this year’s speaker at the MCC Spirit of Cricket Cowdrey Lecture, Sangakkara admitted there were many things he could have talked about: spot-fixing, the DRS, the future of Tests and various other issues that have featured heavily on cricket’s radar lately.

That he chose to speak about Sri Lankan cricket in its context of an island nation torn apart by war, and his experiences growing up during it, all the way through to the national team’s World Cup triumph in ‘96, the tsunami of 2004 and the attack on the team bus in Lahore, was really nothing less than you would expect from a classy individual who takes his responsibility as a sportsman and as an ambassador for his country very seriously indeed.

During the one hour Sangakkara spoke, he did what only great writers or orators can do: transport the audience from its comfort zone and enable it to experience the unfamiliar, and, in the case of the incident in Lahore, the terrifying.

Sangakkara’s retelling of this was utterly gripping; bullets hitting the bus “like rain on a tin roof”, Sangakkara’s moving his head seconds before a bullet burying itself in the side of the seat where his head had just been, Tharanga Paranavitana, on his debut tour, standing up and yelling that he had been hit:

I see him and I think: “Oh my God, you were out first ball, run out the next innings and now you have been shot. What a terrible first tour.”

It is strange how clear your thinking is. I did not see my life flash by. There was no insane panic. There was absolute clarity and awareness of what was happening at that moment.

I hear the bus roar in to life and start to move. Dilshan is screaming at the driver: “Drive…Drive”. We speed up, swerve and are finally inside the safety of the stadium.

We all sit in the dressing room and talk. Talk about what happened. Within minutes there is laughter and the jokes have started to flow. We have for the first time been a target of violence. We had survived.

We all realized then what some of our fellow Sri Lankans experienced every day for nearly 30 years. There was a new respect and awe for their courage and selflessness.

We were shot at, grenades were thrown at us, we were injured and yet we were not cowed. We were not down and out. “We are Sri Lankan,” we thought to ourselves, “and we are tough and we will get through hardship and we will overcome because our spirit is strong.”

I admit that while Sangakkara was recounting this, there were times during this part that I had to remind myself to breathe.

Sangakkara was also scathingly critical of the damage done to Sri Lankan cricket since 1996 through the self-interest of certain individuals interested only in two things: money, and power.

Accusations of vote buying and rigging, player interference due to lobbying from each side and even violence at the AGMs, including the brandishing of weapons and ugly fist fights, have characterised cricket board elections for as long as I can remember.

We have to aspire to better administration. The administration needs to adopt the same values enshrined by the team over the years: integrity, transparency, commitment and discipline.

This is, of course, particularly relevant given the ICC’s new recommendation that all national boards make themselves free of political interference within two years. Given Sanath Jayasuriya has only recently flown home after being foisted onto the national team for a grand total of two matches by his country’s government, it would seem Sri Lanka has some way to go in this. It has also now transpired that sports minister Mahindananda Aluthgamage “has ordered Sri Lanka Cricket (SLC) Interim Committee to examine the remarks made by Sangakkara during the lecture,” according to the country’s national news agency.

In this respect, it’s not been a great few weeks for cricket.

England’s dire showing in the last two ODIs aside, politics has been foisting its corrupt, immoral and bloated self-interest on the sport too often for my liking. The Jayasuriya affair, the 2009 genocide of the Tamils, the demonstrations outside cricket grounds, hell, even boggle-eyed Eurosceptic and professional little-Englander Nigel Farage made an unwelcome (by me, anyway) appearance in the TMS box.

I’m an idealist, but I am also a realist.

Sport and politics are inseparable: ‘twas always thus, and always will be. Cricket has at various times been the sport of colonial oppressors, an opiate for the masses, and a tool for propaganda, the acceptable face of oppressive regimes to present to the wider global community as “proof” of their reasonableness and fair play.

Sometimes I think we cling to cricket because, like a great number 3 batsman, it provides us with an anchor, something around which this whole crazy and often fucked-up innings called life can revolve and which can get us through to stumps with some respectability. We wish to live our lives the way we would wish to see our cricket played, so we can hold the mirror of one up to the other and not have it break with an almighty crack.

Kumar Sangakkara expressed this more eloquently than I or anyone else ever could when he said at the end of his speech:

My loyalty will be to the ordinary Sri Lankan fan, their 20 million hearts beating collectively as one to our island rhythm and filled with an undying and ever-loyal love for this our game.

Fans of different races, castes, ethnicities and religions who together celebrate their diversity by uniting for a common national cause. They are my foundation, they are my family. I will play my cricket for them. Their spirit is the true spirit of cricket. With me are all my people. I am Tamil, Sinhalese, Muslim and Burgher. I am a Buddhist, a Hindu, a follower of Islam and Christianity. I am today, and always, proudly Sri Lankan.

I admit I am a cynic. I look for ulterior motives in most things. It does not make me paranoid: it makes me prepared.

I know that in reality, there is rarely any such thing as a unifying force for good.

But when Kumar Sangakkara tells me that cricket can be just that, I believe him.

You can listen to Sangakkara’s speech, in full,  and read the transcript at the Lord’s site.

England World T20 champions – surely some mistake

Monday, June 27th, 2011

England were disciplined, relentless, showed no mercy and dismantled their opposition.

Then the blokes came on.

The England women played before the men as a first course to the main attraction, but in terms of performance and results their billing could just as well have been reversed.

Granted, this was not quite the same team that lifted the trophy at the ICC World Twenty20 final in Barbados last year, with four of the 2010 team being, at the time of writing, absent from the game through injury, retirement, omission in the case of the then-captain Collingwood and, sadly, depression in the case of Michael Yardy.

But given both of England’s openers (including 2010 Man of the Match Craig Kieswetter) were out by the end of the third over and with only 12 runs on the board, and the only standout period being the 83-run partnership between Kevin Pietersen and Eoin Morgan, you could be fooled into thinking 2010 was all some kind of bizarre error.

England deserve all the plaudits showered upon them as a Test side (the listlessness of the Tests just gone aside) but in the shorter forms of the game they still veer between the just-about-competent and the diabolically useless, with little in between.

You knew this match had the potential to go very wrong indeed from the moment it was divulged at the toss that Ian Bell would not be playing. When asked to explain this decision, England’s new T20 captain Stuart Broad made some sounds that may have resembled words, but they were so devoid of anything beyond evasive flannel I can’t remember a single damn thing he said.

I do remember what Broad said at the end of the match, when he was interviewed as the losing captain, but I’ll get to that in a bit, when you too, dear reader, can join me in frothing at the mouth in disbelief at the utter non-logic of it all.

We’re not in Barbados any more, Toto.

Anyway, Kieswetter and Lumb slogged their way ignominiously out of the reckoning as far as any meaningful contribution to this match was concerned, and after Kevin Pietersen departed, having finally laid our minds at rest that his horror trot could be over – let’s not mention the fact that Sanath Jayasuriya, who took his wicket, bowls left-arm spin – only one boundary was scored in the last 9 overs.

Samit Patel may have lost (some) weight but it’s not made him any quicker, as he was involved in an embarrassing run-out. Perhaps he’d have been less tardy making it back to his crease if there had been a pie placed on it.

Ravi Bopara dawdled nervously, Luke Wright’s continued inclusion continues to strike me as nothing other than Wrong, and that was all she wrote as England could manage only 136-9.

As only one world-class partnership came to the party for England, so it took the world-class Sri Lankan duo of Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara to take their side to victory with 97 runs between them. Theirs was a partnership of unruffled, assured excellence. They are two of the world’s best Test batsmen, and they played as such, showing that particular ability common to all true greats to pace their innings according to the demands of the format – a skill that seems beyond many of their England counterparts.

If Morgan and Pietersen were the thoroughbreds to the glue-factory rejects that comprised the rest of England’s batting, the bowling proved to be similarly in need of direction, with Jade Dernbach the only man to take a wicket (Jayasuriya, whose politically engineered inclusion in this team is a kick in the teeth for everything that cricket, and indeed democracy, stands for).

Dernbach – 6 feet 2, hair gel, body art – is highly regarded by England bowling coach David Saker. A seamer whose slower ball is the most effective weapon in his armoury, he alone gave the Sri Lankan batsmen pause on their otherwise inexorable march to victory.

It is hard, and perhaps slightly unfair, to judge Stuart Broad on his first outing as captain. But considering Eoin Morgan seemed to be doing much of the field-placing during the latter overs of the game as Broad fielded on the boundary, it may turn out to be a short-lived appointment.

Of course, you could also say Broad really didn’t have a heck of a lot to work with. Considering neither Patel or Bopara made any convincing argument to justify their recall to England colours, are we to assume that T20 is nothing but a training ground in which to blood new or inexperienced players and that the result of the match is worth gambling on for that reason? How much do England really care about T20 anyway? A mostly domestic phenomenon, there are precious few T20 internationals before the next World Cup in September 2012, and they looked a pale shadow of the unit that won in 2010.

You could also say: play your best team. Jayawardene and Sangakkara are prime examples of Test virtuosos who can adapt their games. Ian Bell is in superb form at the moment. He is averaging 331 in Tests this summer.

When asked again, pointedly, after the match was over why Bell had not played, Broad mentioned Bopara as giving them another bowling option (which makes Luke Wright’s selection even more baffling). “But I’m sure he [Bell] will be training hard and fighting to get into the team.”

Because, apparently, scoring a veritable shit-ton of runs just doesn’t seem to be enough.


The madness begins afresh tomorrow, when Alastair Cook will take the reins in an effort not to repeat the 5-0 hammering England sustained the last time these two sides met in an ODI series in England.

With any luck, this time the team selection might make slightly more sense.


Monday, June 20th, 2011

When Sri Lanka look back at this Test series, the number they may well call to mind won’t be the 119 Kumar Sangakkara scored in rescuing his side from defeat on another rain-shortened day at the Rose Bowl.

It won’t be the magnificent 193 new captain Tillakaratne Dilshan made on his way to breaking the record for the highest total by a Sri Lankan batsman at Lord’s.

Nor will it be the 112 runs made by keeper Prasanna Jayawardene, who has been as quietly impressive with the bat as he has been with the gloves in this series.

No: the number which will prove of most significance, which will cause them the most pain and upon which their 2-0 series loss to England can be traced, is 24.4. This was the amount of overs the Lankans lasted in their second innings at Cardiff, and this was all the time it took to bowl them out for 82.

It may be reductive and over-simplistic, given there were other factors at play – a lacklustre bowling attack incapable of taking 20 wickets, and 369 overs lost during the series due to appalling weather, to name only two.

But to a team already burdened by the machinations of cricket board and government, with two of its veterans in Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene resigning their captaincy and vice-captaincy positions and a subsequent “difference of opinion” with Sri Lanka Cricket regarding the timing of their arrival in the UK from the IPL, their woeful collapse at Cardiff meant the difference between drawing the series and losing it.

England have a strong, established batting line-up and it was always going to take something special for a bowling attack diluted through retirement, injury and plain inexperience to make inroads into it.

No one seriously expected the visitors to win this series, and critics wrote them off after Cardiff with the view that this was a hiding they would never come back from. In truth, they showed more fight than some were willing to give them credit for. Sangakkara’s last day Rose Bowl ton, backed up by gutsy contributions from Rangana Herath and Thilan Samaraweera, showed the underdog may have been limping badly, but was not ready to lie down and die.

England, albeit helped by a green, seaming Rose Bowl wicket and a returning Jimmy Anderson, constituted simply too terrifying a prospect with the ball for Sri Lanka’s batsmen: Mahela Jayawardene in particular looked extremely uncomfortable against the aggressive pace and bounce of Chris Tremlett, with a few raps to the fingers for his pains. Stuart Broad predictably bowled better once he was made to relinquish the new ball, showing both a canny psychological nous on the part of the England management, who must have guessed he’d be stung into keeping a more disciplined line and length, and also a praiseworthy and obvious realization that Tremlett is by far the more effective opening partner to James Anderson.

What also will not be forgotten is the downright bizarre nature of this series. As England’s first Test series since winning the Ashes, it was always going to be underwhelming, but with the combination of rain and rumours of Sri Lankan dressing-room discontent at Sanath Jayasuriya being foisted on the team for Saturday’s T20 and the first ODI, it was easy to feel cheated at not being able to see the Sri Lankan team at their best.

England performed sometimes adequately and at times superbly to win the series. Today they seemed a little flat in the field, and as often happens, once it became obvious that the opposition were digging in it was as if they became resigned to having the game dictated to them rather than maintaining the intensity needed to force a win.

Perhaps the rain, the fact Broad and Tremlett were carrying slight niggles, the fact they were 1-0 up, and the strangely low-key atmosphere were to blame for this lull in England’s attack. It is not a luxury they will be able to afford against India.

Andrew Strauss, after England’s comprehensive defeat by Ireland at the World Cup, said that England always raise their game against stiffer opposition. This piece of self-reassurance came a crashing great cropper against Sri Lanka in the quarter finals. Strauss will now take time out to work on that left-arm seam weakness for Middlesex, and the ECB have come to an arrangement with Somerset that Strauss will play at Taunton against India in July’s tour match. Some of the more level-headed commentators are cautious in treating Strauss’s technical difficulties as a full-blown malaise, though I do wonder whether Kevin Pietersen, with his glorious knock of 85, felt free to play at his ebullient, confident best now that the press are no longer focusing on him.

Infuriating, bizarre, underwhelming, anticlimactic. While Sri Lanka will probably look back at that innings in Cardiff and cringe, perhaps they will just prefer to blank it from memory altogether. With a fighting spirit still in evidence, the return of Lasith Malinga, a return to a format they are acknowledged masters at –  and with maybe a few breaks in the weather – hopefully the upcoming ODIs will help them do just that.

Prior breaks pane, but series not exactly a cracker

Tuesday, June 14th, 2011

It was a glove that “ricocheted”. It was a bat handle that “bounced off the wall”. It was, says the culprit Matt Prior, simply that the dressing room window “exploded” when he put his bat down next to the others.

Whatever the explanation behind the broken window at Lord’s, this was the story that dominated the newspapers the day after the 2nd Test against Sri Lanka meandered to a lacklustre draw, and with rain forecast for the Rose Bowl, this is one Test series that – one extraordinary collapse aside – has failed to fire the imagination.

From an England perspective, Lord’s was mostly about the negatives. The bowling was underwhelming: Stuart Broad was undercooked, while Tremlett and Swann did their best on a wicket that gave them nothing. Steven Finn’s line and length were, along with Jimmy Anderson, notable by their absence.

Things were slightly more encouraging on the batting front. Kevin Pietersen was out for a low score in the first innings – thankfully not to left-arm spin this time – but he did take the first steps on the tentative road back to form in the second to the tune of 72 runs. That KP may finally be crawling from the slough of despond in which he’s been neck-deep for the last year or so is a great sign, if only because folk might finally shut up about it.

But while we might finally be Shutting the Fuck Up About Kevin, tongues are now wagging over Andrew Strauss’s current susceptibility to left-arm seam, and the rather serious development whereby he seems to have forgotten where his off-stump is. Strauss relinquished the ODI captaincy to ensure his longevity in the Test format, so this is slightly worrying.

Speaking of ODI captaincy, the new man in the job, Alastair Cook (MBE) carried on carrying on, with yet another Test hundred to his name with an innings for the most part so funereally paced and utterly devoid of flair, I can’t remember a fucking thing about it.

If this had been Jonathan Trott, he’s have been lambasted for being too slow, and if this had been Kevin Pietersen, he’d have been howled at for being too selfish, given that Cook finally speeded up once he’d passed three figures. Whether or not Cook felt annoyed enough at getting out to a soft dismissal on 96 in the first innings and thus was determined to get his century in the second, only he can say – but if this isn’t the definition of selfishness, I don’t know what is, considering England had a Test to win. But then Cook isn’t South African, so that’s okay.

You can tell I’m on the fence about Alastair Cook – of course there is room in cricket for every type of player, and I am thankful for Cook’s current rich vein of form, but I cannot for the life of me understand why his stolid, tentative approach is deemed a virtue at the same time as Jonathan Trott is being beaten around the head with the “boring” stick.

There was one batsman at Lord’s who could certainly not be labelled boring, and that was, of course, Tillakaratne Dilshan, who probably decided that having to face the cameras in a post-match interview after one’s team is bowled out for 82 is an experience one would really rather not repeat, so, with an underdog’s rage, a captain’s heart and helped by some god-awful English bowling, he set about pasting the opposition to all parts on Saturday, which was the day I turned up – fortuitously, as it turned out to be the best day weather-wise.

Explosive in T20s and ODIs, only slightly more circumspect in Tests; Dilshan’s aggression always makes him a joy to watch.

Deprived of an option in the ballot this time around for a seat in the Mound Stand (comfier seating), I was in the cave that is the Lower Edrich, which has a great view of the middle but occupies a blind spot as far as the scoreboard goes, necessitating the use of guesswork, a portable radio, and keeping count in one’s head as each milestone approaches. Suspended from the roof above me was a hoarding commemorating Sidath Wettimuny’s 10-hour 190 in 1984 – the highest Test innings for a Sri Lankan batsman at Lord’s… until Dilshan decided it was going to take something epic to wash away the taste of Cardiff.

It was a long day in the field for England, and by the end of it the lads sitting behind me were simultaneously chanting demands for the Dilscoop as well as pleading hopefully for a wicket.

Dilshan hadn’t broken Wettimuny’s record by the end of the day but he was well on the way to it, being not out on 127 at the close.

Dilshan: more bounce than the England seamers

Dilshan: more bounce than the England seamers

There was to be no Sri Lankan collapse on the last day – a recurrence of Cardiff’s last day dramatics was unlikely, given visiting sides always tend to raise their game at Lord’s – but England are going to struggle badly against India if this is the best performance they can muster.

I dug out the Ashes 2010-11 DVD box-set the other night and re-watched Melbourne. Aside from that rush of nostalgia and recognition through having been there when history was made, I was conscious of watching a switched-on, aggressively turbo-charged England going for the jugular and with the exception of the last few Australian wickets to fall – a typical case of England easing off the gas when they look to have it in the bag – you knew you were watching a side at the top of their game and who were ravenous for victory.

At Lord’s against Sri Lanka, they looked like rather than going for the win, they just didn’t want to lose. Given India are taking their upcoming visit to these shores very seriously indeed – they have sent what is basically a second-string line-up to the West Indies due to resting their major players – and given Strauss’s current travails as a batsman, I suspect the spectre of Zaheer Khan and Co. looming over the horizon is not something England will be relishing.

And so to the Rose Bowl on Thursday for the last Test. The wicket will most likely be flat, and there will most likely be rain. Awesome.

Jimmy Anderson has been named in the squad after recovering from his side strain. His pre-Test workout was supposed to have been Lancashire’s recent rained-off T20 game, though how much 4 overs constitutes a workout of any usefulness whatsoever is highly debatable.

Finn will be the man for the drop; perhaps harsh considering that at Lord’s, in between overs of unutterable filth, he did take wickets, and did improve as the match went on.

I’ve already mentioned the new One-Day captain, but this was hardly a sparkling outing for the new T20 captain, either. Stuart Broad is struggling badly – he currently averages 35.97 runs per wicket – but he is English cricket’s Golden Boy and seemingly beyond censure. I don’t know why this is. He’s a good bowler when in form, but doesn’t seem to have the patience to want to wear batsmen down with McGrath-like, keep-it-simple, top-of-off-stump line-and-length bowling. He tries to be too clever, and often forsakes patience for aggression, occasionally leading to a chat with the match referee and the imposition of some negligible penalty. (McGrath was a far better multi-tasker, showing you could be consistent and a bastard and still take wickets.)

Every seamer should aspire to McGrath-esque precision-genius, but that is just me.

Finn: better than Broad?

Finn: better than Broad?

I know I shouldn’t write off the Rose Bowl, given I made that mistake with Cardiff. But Lord’s hero Dilshan will not be playing due to a broken thumb, and Sri Lanka seem to be regarding these Tests as a warm-up for the ODIs that follow.

That the ODIs promise to be a far more gripping prospect than the Tests sadly constitutes another nail in the coffin of the format all cricket boards should be hell-bent on protecting, but in today’s money-driven reality, it seems to be all about the saying, and not much about the doing.

Test cricket already seems to be marginalized. But again, that might just be me. Sometimes though, when faced with ODI series that never end, and T20 tournaments that proliferate like fungi, it feels like it, and a future without Test cricket does not really appeal to me.

Expect the unexpected

Tuesday, May 31st, 2011

With a first day wicket so flat it looked like the proverbial road to nowhere, this 1st Test instead proved a considerably bumpier affair for the team that found itself on the losing side.

Because yes, in spite of the bore-fest of the first four days, some superb batting performances notwithstanding, this encounter that looked like dribbling to a stale, bloodless, rain-diluted draw ended up anything but.

The moral of this story seems to be, if you are an England fan and you wish to attend the Cardiff Test – only go on Day 5. The first four days will be shit. The last day will be awesome.

In the run-up to the Test the brickbats in the press were reserved for Sri Lanka’s bowlers, but it was the batting that ended up being steamrollered by England yesterday.

A first innings total of 400; England reply with 496 declared (big runs for Cook, humongous runs for England’s Bradman, Jonathan Trott, and a handy ton for Ian Bell) and Sri Lanka all out for 82: more wickets than you could shake a damp umbrella at – all of them in fact, courtesy of Messrs Tremlett, Swann and Broad and the whole thing wrapped up in 24.4 overs, albeit after another late start due to this horrible bloody weather that seems to be paying us all back for the temerity of enjoying an unseasonably early spring.

How much did this bring back memories of this same ground against different opposition in 2009, and how badly must Sri Lanka have hankered after their own Jimmy and Monty double-act?

The bowling by England was too good. Swann made use of the rough outside off-stump that had given Rangana Herath some encouragement, and England team-sheets should now come pre-printed with Chris Tremlett’s name on them as standard. The old days where the latter’s perceived lack of bottle was questioned seem now to be part of some ridiculous alternate reality.

Jonathan Trott continues to astound. I’ve made no secret of the fact I’m a big fan of the bloke, because one of the great things about cricket is that it can provide a happy hunting ground for the oddest of talented eccentrics, and Jonathan Trott surely numbers among them.

Aside from all his scratching and muttering at the crease, and his OCD dressing room habits, there is also something amusingly Hakkinen-esque about his interviews. The great Formula One champion Mika Hakkinen was famed for his laconic utterances and his deadpan statements of obvious fact, all with a barely raised eyebrow that put paid to accusations of a lack of humour or intelligence.

When Trott (unbeaten on 125 on his way to an eventual 203) was asked at the end of the third day what England had to do to win this match, he responded, deadpan: “Score more runs than they do”.

And that is what England did, to the tune of an innings and 14 runs worth.

And that with three bowlers. Jimmy Anderson has been ruled out of the Lord’s Test with a grade one side strain and Jade Dernbach, most likely due to his performance in the Lions match, has been drafted in to the squad – though I’d be very surprised if Steven Finn was not an automatic inclusion in the XI come Friday morning.

There’s been a degree of agitation about the prospect of yet another South African born player pulling on an England shirt – which some folks really need to get over – but it’s another man of South African origin and erstwhile our brightest star who is the real source of concern.

We are talking about Kevin – again. This is the 19th time in Tests he has fallen victim to a left-arm spinner and denying there is a problem will not make it go away. It is real and it is messing with his head and there is going to have to be a drastic resetting of his entire approach if he is going to fix it.

Even before Herath got him, as he tried wildly to chop the ball to the off side with the result that it rebounded from pad onto bat, his footwork had all the assuredness of a stricken animal scrabbling for purchase on the blood-slick floor of an abattoir before the slaughterman puts it mercifully out of its misery. It was truly painful to watch, with a messy, protracted denouement: the on-field decision of not out was overturned on review with the aid of hotspot, which showed a clear mark on the pad together with a side-on view that showed ball hitting back leg before bat.

Pietersen’s mind seems now so scrambled that even the most innocuous left-arm trundler must seem like the devil incarnate. Perhaps he needs to heed Jonathan Trott’s advice – to keep it simple – because these demons need exorcising, and pronto.

What a bizarre Test this has been. Seems I was a bit previous in writing off this match, but then I get the feeling I wasn’t the only one. I like it when cricket proves me wrong. I like it when Test cricket proves me wrong.

To Lord’s!

Enthusiasm: curbed

Friday, May 27th, 2011

If yesterday was a day shortened by rain then today was a very, very long one indeed.

Not just in terms of time, in that it went on till 7:30 to try to make up time lost due to yesterday’s weather, but also because it bloody felt like it.

Albeit on a pitch so flat you could slap white lines down the middle of it and call it an Autobahn, Sri Lanka managed to make exactly 400 without meaningful contributions from their two superstars, Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara. Wicket-keeper Prasanna Jayawardene in particular was quietly impressive, playing such a disciplined, unflustered innings that it was almost a shock to look up at the TV and see he was on 99. How the hell did that happen?

It was that kind of day. Maybe it’s the weather, or the underwhelming attendance figures at the SWALEC, but this barely feels like the first Test of the summer should. Even the fielding side could barely seem to muster any enthusiasm, with heads down, boundaries relinquished through sloppy fielding, and half chances going begging in slips and gully. I think my own reaction to the last in particular is telling – instead of shaking my fist at the telly with barely-suppressed rage and yelling something unrepeatable when Alastair Cook dropped a thick outside edge after tea from Perera off Broad, I could only sigh wearily and pine for the days of Collingwood.

It does not help that Cardiff is not really “coming to the party” when it comes to putting forward a case for being a Test venue. It passed its first examination, an Ashes Test in 2009 which gave it the inbuilt safety net that if any operational glitches occurred no one would mind too much as it was the razzmatazz and the on-field action (Monty! Jimmy! Bilal Shafayat and the Fat Physio!) that took centre stage.

This year, with pissing rain, a support act in terms of opposition (India being obviously this year’s main attraction) a flat wicket, a malfunctioning scoreboard and a flapping white cloth in lieu of a sight-screen, well, it’s all been a bit of an anticlimax, hasn’t it?

Tomorrow could very well be more of the same, given the strength of England’s batting (surely Jonathan Trott could ask for no better wicket than this one), though it was a good piece of bowling by Suranga Lakmal that did for Andrew Strauss in the day’s last over. Sri Lanka will be buoyed up by this, as well as with their performance with the bat, when they take the field tomorrow.

But if it’s a classic all-out head-to-head between bat and ball you’re after, the chances of that look exceedingly slim, and I can’t help but feel that this series will only really start once we get to the Big Smoke and Lord’s.

I’m sorry, Wales, but there it is.

Underdogs confound expectations

Thursday, May 26th, 2011

He may not smile like Pygocentrus nattereri, or scent blood, or sink his teeth into a bowling attack.

But Tharanga “Piranha” Paranavitana batted through a truncated first day of play in the First Test at Cardiff today to show that Sri Lanka are very far from the pushovers everyone expected them to be.

While opinion swam between “clear underdog” due to an inexperienced attack and “perhaps a slightly tougher opposition than first assumed” after the win when following on at Derby, it seems the consensus of most seasoned observers seemed to founder on the shoals of “a side that is expected to struggle” as the Sri Lankan seamer injury count escalated.

Granted, this was only the first day – and a short day at that, given that play eventually started at 3:30 due to persistent showers – but the fact that the visitors went to stumps on 133-2 may cause those who doubted them to re-evaluate their opinion.

Though really, why anyone would write off a team containing Sangakkara, Mahela Jayawardene and newly-anointed captain Tillakaratne Dilshan seems to me as foolish as it is illogical, and the cricketing gods have punished better teams than England for such brazen hubris, though to be fair Strauss has paid the opposition all due respect in the lead-up to this match.

Granted, there is no mistaking the fact Sri Lanka have a long tail. Of the two men at the crease, Paranavitana and Mahela Jayawardene, only one of those has to fall for the Lankans’ prospects to look distinctly less rosy.

But this is the side that was blown away in their first innings at Derby, followed on and then bowled the England Lions out to win by 38 runs. The moral of this story could be: don’t put Sri Lanka in a hopeless situation. It only makes them angry. Already their dander will be up after Kumar Sangakkara was contentiously given out caught behind on review when arguably the evidence proved hardly overwhelming enough to justify it.

Paranavitana will resume tomorrow on 58, scored off 154 balls – a predator more than willing to wait and let the prey come to him than to squander his wicket for the sake of rash pyrotechnics. He has already amassed two centuries on this tour, and judging by the chat on Twitter today, a whole new host of fans.

Everything could yet go pear-shaped, but Sri Lanka can feel pretty pleased with their performance today.

I like it when reality confounds expectation.