Archive for the ‘the oval’ Category

South Africa’s best laid plans make mice of England’s men

Wednesday, July 25th, 2012

South African cricket writer Neil Manthorp told a wonderful story on Sky’s Cricket Writers on TV the other day.

He told how, on the Proteas’ tour of England four years ago, Morne Morkel, stressed, worried, and having a bit of a rough time of it with his bowling, knocked on Hashim Amla’s hotel room door.

“What can I do for you, Morne?” said Amla.

“Nothing,” Morkel said. “Can I just come and sit in your room?”

He did nothing for the next half hour or so but sit quietly in Amla’s room, watching while the devout Muslim South African batsman of Indian descent prayed. Morkel would say later that the calmness and serenity exuded by Amla helped settle him, made him feel less anxious.

I imagine batting with Hashim Amla must be equally as calming. Manthorp said: “If you’re in his presence, your worries just disappear.”

He certainly made the ball disappear, during his marathon 13-hour innings of 311*, running England’s below-par bowling attack ragged as they failed to live up to their pre-match reputations.

Amla is all soft hands, swivelled wrists and perfect timing, “minimum of effort, maximum of effect”, as CB Fry once said about that other great stylist, Victor Trumper. Regardless of whether or not you have Amla’s level of faith, just watching him on television is an experience spiritual  enough to confirm cricket as your religion; his batting makes converts of us all.

Gary Kirsten said before the Test that preparation isn’t about runs and statistics and warm-up matches against counties. It is about mental readiness. It is about the focus and intensity that is only experienced in Test matches, and can only be honed by playing international cricket at the highest level. Amla is the most conspicuous example of this focus; captain Graeme Smith, an impressive, imposing individual who leads from the front, personifies its steel, and if you want an example of intensity, look no further than Dale Steyn’s scream of celebration when Graeme Swann became his 5th wicket on the last day.

So much for an “undercooked” South Africa. With the exception of the first day, the rich fare they served up proved too spicy in the end for England’s weak stomachs.

The sheer extent of England’s capitulation at the Oval – and a comprehensive defeat by an innings and 12 runs is even worse than it sounds, and is about as humiliating as it gets if you’re the world’s No. 1 ranked team – was surprising, and if you’re an England fan, not a little worrying, especially when you consider that of the nine Tests England have played since beating India and attaining top spot, they have lost five of them. That, beyond the specifics of this Test that make especially grim reading, is concerning. Andrew Strauss talks a good game, and is always careful to warn against underestimating the opposition, but a few of us will have considered the possibility of complacency, before hastily smothering that thought, lest voicing that accusation make it true.

The simple fact is that a batting surface that Matt Prior called “attritional” and on which he hoped England’s bowlers would get wickets “in a cluster” proved the most benign of surfaces for South Africa’s batsmen, and while Dale Steyn steamed in like the last rhino in Africa faced with the poacher’s rifle and determined to make a fight of it, England’s quicks looked down on speed and devoid of aggression. South Africa took 20 wickets; England could manage to take only 2 over the course of the five days. Graeme Swann, worryingly, is having a dismal summer: in home Tests this year he has taken only 6 wickets for 433 runs. That is only 2 more wickets than his South African counterpart, Imran Tahir, took in this Test.

It’s too early to panic, of course. We wanted a competition, and we’ve got one. England have not ascended the Test tree without showing they have their own inner steel and the mental fortitude to bounce back from setbacks, as they demonstrated after their drubbing in the 3rd Ashes Test at Perth.

“One of the things we pride ourselves on is being a pretty resilient bunch,” said Strauss at the time. Subsequent events were, of course, to prove him right.

The Proteas may have made mice of England’s men at the Oval, but now these mice must roar at Headingley.

If they do not, then might be the time to start panicking.


Hashim Amla in action at the Oval

Hashim Amla in action at the Oval

England and the Turkey Baster of Test Supremacy

Tuesday, August 23rd, 2011

It’s cool that you get an actual trophy for being the world’s number one Test side.

That the ICC, in its wisdom, found it suitable to bestow on the reigning table-topper a mace which looks more like a tent peg, majorette’s baton, turkey baster, or artificial inseminator used on a cattle farm, does admittedly tend towards a more “what the heck is this?” reaction, rather than, “wow, this’ll look great on the ECB mantelpiece”.

This is of course not helped by an image of Kevin Pietersen, in the England dressing room at yesterday’s close of play, brandishing it whilst clothed only in a towel and not looking at all camp in the slightest.

Anyhoo, England are number one. Day 5 at the Oval, the last day of the English Test summer, proved to be a slightly tense affair, at least during the morning session. For the first time this series India, following on, managed to last an entire session without losing a wicket, but when Amit Mishra finally fell after lunch for a valiant 84, the end was swift in coming.

Graeme Swann, who has already had the death knell sounded prematurely on his career by at least one journalist alert to his relative paucity of wickets lately, roared back into the spotlight he so adores with a six wicket haul. England’s batting had again been rock solid as the batsmen made the most of a flat deck prior to its last day disintegration and Swann’s rampage.

Sachin Tendulkar, more likely unsettled by Mishra’s wicket rather than the prospect of being out in the 90s for the ninth time in his Test career, fell on 91 to a brave lbw decision given by umpire Rod Tucker, who even now is probably fleeing the country having changed his name to “Todd Rucker” and wearing comedy beard and glasses to avoid recognition. It was a marginal decision, but the correct one – even had lbw referrals been allowed in this series, Hawk Eye would have shown the ball clipping the top of leg stump.

While not quite as invested in the cult of Tendulkar as so many are, I have to admit to mixed feelings on the Little Master failing in his bid to bag that hundredth hundred in these Tests.

Had he reached that ton, the talk would have been on nothing else. It is, fundamentally, a contrived statistic – “52nd Test century” would not have sounded as significantly monumental – and scored in the context of a series lost 4-0, especially when placed against Rahul Dravid’s epic, battling first-innings 146*, it would have meant very little.

Coming at the end of a Test series in which India managed to score 300 only once – exactly that and no further – as one player after another fell by the wayside due to injury and unfitness, as the world’s erstwhile number one collapsed like a bloated behemoth under the weight of its own hubris against a side hungry, honed and ready for the kill… a Tendulkar milestone under these circumstances would have provided only bathos in a series that’s been nothing from India’s point of view but a long extended failure.

Worse, it would have overshadowed the bright light of Rahul Dravid’s star which has shone undimmed through this series, along with flashes of spark from Praveen Kumar (what a lion-hearted character he is). No doubt it would also have been used to go some way towards papering over the cracks of India’s many failings.

Good umpiring, as Rod Tucker demonstrated, is no respecter of reputations. And neither is this England team.

I can’t help, though, but wonder whether this is simply a blip on India’s part, or the outward manifestation of a more insidious decay. While the team is on the verge of straddling that uncomfortable territory known as “transition”, with its galacticos looking towards retirement sooner rather than later, and its young hopefuls still inexperienced and making their way, I doubt anyone could ever have foreseen them being on the receiving end of such a thorough hammering. Kris Srikkanth, India’s chief selector, has been quoted as saying of his selection committee, “I can proudly say that we have done a good job” – uncomfortably reminiscent, not only of the band playing blithely on while the ship is busily humping an iceberg, but of Andrew Hilditch’s similarly self-deluded sentiment in the wake of Australia’s last Ashes drubbing.

While the England lads are no doubt nursing well-deserved hangovers, there remains a salutary lesson in all of this. Ian Botham thinks England can be number one for at least the next 8 years. The fall from the number one spot may come sooner than one would like, due to reasons entirely outwith England’s control: South Africa have Test series coming up against Australia, Sri Lanka and New Zealand, the first two of which will be at home. England do not play another Test till January.

There is also the small matter of ODIs, a format England have hardly excelled at of late. Prior to a five-match series against India, England play Ireland on Thursday, with many senior players being rested, including the captain, Alastair Cook. It’s understandable that the bowlers, especially, should be given a break, and I’m excited at the fact James Taylor has received a call-up, but the inexperienced nature of the squad (Mike Atherton, in an understandable slip of the tongue, referred to it the other day as the Lions squad, ten of whom have been included) has rather pissed Ireland off.

This is not surprising when not only are England resting Cook and other key players, but Eoin Morgan, an Irishman, will be captaining them. The match also seems to be a glorified fitness test for Jonathan Trott, who appears to have recovered from his shoulder injury. All this on top of the fact England were soundly thrashed the last time these two sides met, and you could forgive the Shamrocks for thinking that the latest England tactic consists of “thinly-veiled insult”.

This match has “banana skin” written all over it. As long as Taylor gets a ton, I’m not too fussed.

But if you are an England fan, you’re already resigned to England being shit at ODIs.

By the grace of Flower’s canny management and the team’s superlative performances, it seems England have ascended to the lofty heights of Test supremacy. Rather than fret over hyperbole, ODIs, talk of “sporting dynasties” and what may happen in the future, I am content, at least for the next couple of days, to savour the fine wine of victory and watch endless repeats of the highlights.

It’s still a daft looking trophy, though.

Less sackcloth, more Ashes

Thursday, September 23rd, 2010

Well, thank Christ that’s over. Watching England’s joyous, enthusiastic celebrations at the Rose Bowl at the end of the current ODI series against Pakistan last night felt like the breaking of a fever, or the lancing of a boil – the relief is bliss, but you would rather the disease didn’t come back any time soon.

Don’t get me wrong, the cricket itself was fascinating and the fact it went down to the last game made it more so, but much of the fascination was from a morbid, rubber-necking car-crash perspective, given the background of spot-fixing, scandal and Ijaz Butt. I’m not going to go into all that again because I am really just glad it is over, as I’m sure you all are, as I’m sure the England team is. The only thing left to say is that I would love to welcome back a Pakistan team, bursting as it is with talent, but not until all corruption has been cleansed from its ranks. Signs are this is not likely to happen soon, but we live in hope. I am not one of those who advocate the scorched-earth policy of banning Pakistan entirely from the world cricket arena, but something tells me this is the last England-Pakistan series we will have seen for a long time.

Anyway, enough of all that.

2:30 this afternoon at The Oval gave us the ridiculous scenario of Mike Atherton, standing in front of a big screen, ready to introduce a film clip naming this year’s England Ashes squad, a clip produced with all the slick bombast the ECB could muster and giving us a list already in the possession of news editors ready to click “update” on their websites on the stroke of 2:30 while the great ignorant unwashed were still digesting the news.

In brief: Chris Tremlett and Monty Panesar are in; no room for Adil Rashid or Ajmal Shahzad. Shahzad is in the Performance Squad; Rashid is not. Another notable absentee – from both squads – is Ravi Bopara, who will be playing first class cricket in South Africa. I am very pleased to see Tremlett given this opportunity, as I’ve been a fan of the guy since I saw him at Trent Bridge in 2007, where he took 3-12 in India’s second innings when they only needed 73 to win. He got a lot of applause from the fans in the stands that day, and seems a bowler reborn this year after moving to Surrey after criticism that he wasn’t aggressive enough: I’m hoping his prodigious height and ability to bang it in will pay dividends on the hard, bouncy Australian wickets.

Monty Panesar is also back, and will add backup to Graeme Swann should they require two spinners at Adelaide or Sydney. He acquitted himself well at the WACA in 2006, taking 5-92, in a series that turned into a relentless drubbing for England. Australia are not the team they were back then, but England will still need to pull out all the stops to beat them; this will be no cake walk.

In other good news, Leicestershire’s own wunderkind batsman, James Taylor, has been included in the Performance Squad. I would have liked to have seen Nathan Buck picked as well – perhaps it is still too early for him – but Taylor will be in Australia, during the Ashes, and well, given an injury or two, who knows?

The countdown to the Ashes starts now. Am I excited? Oh hells yes.

Chris Tremlett bowling at Trent Bridge, 2nd Test against India, 2007

Chris Tremlett bowling at Trent Bridge, 2nd Test against India, 2007

England: Just Good Enough

Monday, August 24th, 2009

England won the Ashes yesterday.

I can’t begin to describe how awesome, yet surreal, this is.

We were told before this series that Australia, without McGrath, Warne, Hayden, Langer and Gilchrist, were a weakened side. We were told England had a good chance of regaining the urn. But England lost in the West Indies, and Australia beat South Africa on their own turf and were the number 1 Test rated nation in the world.

What happened in this year’s Ashes series was so up and down and bizarre that the fact England won has still to sink in. In truth Australia are indeed a weakened side, and one going through transition trying to replace the greats who have departed (Hauritz for Warne) and nurturing young talent that is not yet firing consistently (Johnson, Hughes).

Collingwood and the amusingly stubborn partnership of Monty and Jimmy Anderson saved England’s bacon at Cardiff. Freddie bowled like a Viking god at Lord’s. Edgbaston was buggered into a bore-draw by both the rain and excitement-killing knocks by Pup Clarke and Marcus North (I had tickets for that day but poleaxed by swine flu I drifted in and out of consciousness on the couch all day and didn’t miss much). Headingley, oh Jesus, Headingley – the crowd chanting “We’re shit – and we’re 1 nil up” as the batting disintegrated summed up the utter direness of England’s performance. Good god, the batting was dire. Most Test teams have one god-awful collapse a year: England manage it once a series.

Australia’s collapse in their first innings sealed it for England – but even then, never say never: I’d not have bet against Australia chasing down a massive total because it wouldn’t have been the first time England bowlers have bottled it.

Ricky Ponting said during the presentation that looking back over the stats in this series (by which he means lack of hundreds by England batsmen as opposed to Australia’s and the fact the Aus bowlers have taken more wickets), he couldn’t figure out how England won. That was perhaps a tad ungracious, and got some boos from the crowd, but he has a point. If England had performed like this against the McGrath/Warne juggernaut of 2006/07, they’d have been shafted ten ways till Sunday – again.

As it was Hughes, the much vaunted wunderkind, failed to deal with the short ball and was promptly discarded, Nathan Hauritz bowled well at Cardiff but Australia still didn’t really give a fuck about him to the extent of leaving him out of the squad for the Oval, to their cost; Mitchell Johnson’s radar went AWOL and suggestions of “Midge! Phone your mum!” from the Edgbaston crowd may not have been entirely helpful; Bing didn’t play and Stuey Clarke was mystifyingly damned with faint praise by chief selector Andrew Hilditch after taking 3-18 at Headingley and really should have played in every Test.

Still, Shane Watson, called in to replace Hughes, more than coped at the top of the order. He scored three half centuries in five innings and more importantly managed to roll out of bed each morning without breaking something. Michael Clarke was Australia’s best batsman, and Marcus North put his hand up in with innings of dogged defiance at No 6 while chipping in with the ball. Midge got his mojo back and Hauritz’s performance at Cardiff made me think that Australia should shut the hell up about looking for a new Warne and look to go forward with this guy because he’s sure as shit better than Beau Casson. Hauritz must feel like the young second wife whose hubby can’t stop going on about his stunning first wife who was his one great love and who he still carries a torch for. It sucks and I felt sorry for the guy when I read he’d been avoiding reading the newspapers with their endless “is this the best Australia can find?” coverage.

England had their own travails to deal with. Fred’s knee packed up and KP’s achilles decided it had had enough. England were without both players at Headingley, and this was really one in the face for those who said England perform better without Flintoff, and that Pietersen should be dropped as punishment for giving his wicket away in the 90s, because without them England sucked. They were without Flintoff’s heart, and without the sheer bloody-minded determination Pietersen brings to the middle. I’m of the opinion Pietersen made a pretty good captain, and in time could have been a great one. Strauss decided to pursue a career in cricket rather than in the City, and somewhat appropriately, he captains like an accountant. Don’t expect any daring declarations from this guy. But his batting was solid, which was more than could be said for a few of them. Bell was infuriating – again, he didn’t step up when England needed him to, and the explosive potential of Ravi Bopara seen earlier in the year against the West Indies fizzled meekly into nothingness. Cook for some reason seems to have escaped scrutiny, despite posting one big score of 95 in this series and then nothing of note thereafter.

Bopara’s replacement, Jonathan Trott, was awesome. A century on debut in the deciding Test of an Ashes series takes some beating. He doesn’t have the insouciant brilliance of Pietersen or the outrageous, showboating talent, but boy he can bat. KP reckons he and Trott will get some flack from the South African crowds when they tour there this winter. The SA crowds can go fuck themselves. With KP’s strutting aggression and Trott’s steady robustness I can’t wait to see these two together out in the middle come December.

Of course, England will be without Fred. All the bowlers stepped up at various points, be it with ball or bat, but most of the attention was on Flintoff. I was at Lord’s on the day he won that Test for England and it was magical, amazing, something I’ll remember for the rest of my life. This wasn’t quite Flintoff’s Ashes, but the big man gave us all something to remember him by.

The highlights of Day 4 at the Oval are playing on the TV behind me as I’m writing this. Earlier this morning Flintoff held a press conference. He told how he had a quiet meal with wife Rachael last night and that the celebrations this time around were more poignant than the full-on alcoholic debauchery of 2005. He goes into surgery tomorrow morning to get his knee sorted and will be out for 9-12 months. Get well soon, Fred.

Andrew Strauss summed up the series best when he said during the presentation: “When we’re bad, we’re very bad; when we’re good, we’re good enough.”

Yep. “Good enough” may not be full-on awesome, but compared to the hiding England took in 06/07, it’ll do for me. It’ll do for me, and for every other England fan, for now. But if England want to keep hold of that urn come 2010, “good enough” won’t be enough when it comes time to jump on a plane Down Under and face a team who are at their most dangerous when they’re wounded.

Enjoy it, lads, because the hard work, that’s just beginning.