Archive for the ‘Test’ Category

England’s seven year glitch

Saturday, January 11th, 2014

They say misery loves company, and I’m glad to see I wasn’t alone in being caught flat-footed when, buoyed by England’s performance that first day of the Gabba Test, I saw a fourth consecutive Ashes win for England as the most likely outcome. In my defence, I didn’t get as carried away as some: no 5-0 predictions from this quarter (oh the irony now as regards that particular score!), and I did caution a wait-and-see approach with England’s batting.

Well, wait-and-see became see-it-and-weep. Five Tests; five inexplicably shambolic, humiliating defeats. The casualties included those who left (Jonathan Trott), those who retired (Graeme Swann), those who failed (Matt Prior) and those who were never selected (Steven Finn), or selected and then dropped (Chris Tremlett), despite being part of a much-trumpeted plan involving 6-feet pacemen and bang-it-in bowling. It usually helps if, on the abandonment of one plan, you have another to back it up, but England made the same old mistakes match after match while, as that old chestnut about insanity goes, expecting different results.

Now, the finger pointing has begun, with Andy Flower giving his usual opaque interviews and Alastair Cook resembling a deer in headlamps rather than a leader of men, without a clue as to where England have gone wrong, and short of ideas on what to do about it.

Some in the media have decided once again that Kevin Pietersen’s head is protruding too much above the parapets; a poppy still too tall and in need of pruning despite being England’s top run-scorer. Pietersen’s failure in this series might be thrown into greater relief considering he is on a different level, talent-wise, to his teammates, so it becomes more obvious when he falls below those lofty standards, but the vendetta against him has become tedious and predictable, and in this case downright puzzling since he doesn’t seem to have done anything to merit being made a scapegoat. One could forgive him for concluding there are easier ways to make a living, and should he decide to nail his colours to the T20 mast as international gun-for-hire, we can look forward to a dour, joyless period of English cricket unenlivened by the flashes of brilliance he has brought to the game, punctuated by painful references to “rebuilding”, “hard yards” and “things getting worse before they get better”. Shoot me now.

Pietersen is an easy target, and one can only conclude Andy Flower’s supposed ultimatum that either England’s best batsman goes or he does (something Flower has denied) has been engineered to blow up into this big media shitstorm in order to draw fire away from everyone else in the England setup who failed abysmally Down Under. If this is the case, it seems to have backfired, with public opinion coming down largely this time on the side of Pietersen. As Pietersen might say (to paraphrase WG Grace): they come to watch him bat, not Flower coach.

From a team that managed to rebuild after the shambles of 2006-7, reaching number one in the Test rankings and master of all it surveyed in Australia in 2010-11, to a side that is now turning on itself, caught in a trap of dour unimaginative mediocrity and seeing no other option but to gnaw its own limbs off to get free, it’s been a dramatic and sobering come-down.

To think one series could lay waste to a legacy. All the guff about team spirit that first reared its head the last time Team England fell out with Pietersen looks especially hollow now. We saw in the summer all the cracks in the things that were really important, such as England’s inability for a long time now to post a big first-innings score, the over-dependence on Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad to pull them from the fire, the fact England are an ageing side on the way down while Australia are climbing in the other direction. And make no mistake, the Australia England faced this time around were an angry Australia, stung by a 3-0 series defeat in England where they knew there were chances they could have seized but perhaps did not then believe they could. One thing that should have provided a clue that England were heading for one hell of a wake-up was the fact they saw winning at Brisbane as a real possibility. Visitors rarely win at Brisbane; Australia have not lost at the Gabba for twenty-five years. And while England were rampant on the first day – hell, even I started to have hope – the carnage of the afternoon session on the second day put paid to that, with Mitchell Johnson charging in like some moustachioed demon of almighty vengeance to reduce England’s batting to 94-8 at tea. Having been lulled into a false sense of security by toothless bowling in the warmup games, England had no response to this 94mph blitzkrieg, and after that there was no coming back. A reward for their hubris, and an end to an époque not quite so belle.

I can’t see that any good will come from this, regardless of who goes or stays. Flower as always plays his cards close to his chest; the deep thinker has now become the inflexible martinet. If he should go, it seems likely Ashley Giles, current limited overs coach, would take his place. England’s ODI side too is in a state of rebuilding (oh, for a side of eleven Paul Collingwoods) and it’s too early to say whether Giles could fill Flower’s shoes at Test level. Indeed, a series win for England in the forthcoming ODIs would hardly feel like consolation at all.

The future for England isn’t all a dark, howling void. Ben Stokes, unfettered by pressure, expectation and the international grind that has worn his teammates down, in particular gave England fans something to cheer about. England could do worse than look at India for an example of a side that’s managed to rebuild after the retirement of its ageing superstars with charismatic and combative young talent.

There is light at the end of this tunnel, but they will need Pietersen – who can still put runs on the board and bums on seats, and, more importantly, has the analytical nous to work out exactly where England are going wrong – to help them find it.

Broadside brings blood at the Gabbatoir

Thursday, November 21st, 2013

Well, it was bound to happen, wasn’t it? Speak of the devil, and he appears. Call Stuart Broad a “27-year-old medium pacer” and he takes five wickets.

Tempting fate? Best not to. Schadenfreude? Perhaps just a smidgen. Childish the Courier-Mail’s antics may have been – in a “let’s just ignore him but devote a full front page to him” kind of way, but it was pretty amusing, and to be fair Broad, with his at-times pompous air of self-importance, brings a lot of it on himself (his scathing passing of judgement back in the summer on what constituted “a true England fan” when someone on Twitter dared criticise England’s soporific batting was especially irritating).

But the man can bowl, and yesterday took five wickets quicker than you can say “the Aussies will be a much tougher prospect at home”. That prediction could yet turn out to be true – bitter experience has taught never to assume anything until England have batted – but the Australian batting had the same jerry-built, threadbare feel to it that it had back in England, despite all of Michael Clarke’s bullish talk of a more settled team, a team that picked itself, lessons learned, and all the stuff you’re supposed to say when fronting up to your country’s media on the back of nine Tests without a win.

The wickets of Chris Rogers and Shane Watson bookended the morning session, with the latter likely proving the most disastrous to Australia’s search for a respectable total on an excellent batting wicket, but it was the scalp of Michael Clarke that should worry the home-side the most – all of that work in the nets, practising against the short ball, only to have Broad fire one into his ribs: the Australian captain fended it to short-leg with all the spinal flexibility of a brick smokestack. The wickets of Dave Warner and Mitchell Johnson rounded out Broad’s five; when he’s on a roll – whether on Twitter or the field of play – there is no stopping him.

England’s other bowlers acquitted themselves well, too. A muscle-bound Chris Tremlett, resembling another structure also made of brick, was preferred to Steven Finn for the role of third seamer, and while he has a way yet to go to recall the glory days of 2010-11 after a long injury layoff, he too bowled with conviction and control and was rewarded with the wicket of a potentially destructive Steve Smith. Jimmy Anderson, in his usual default mode of menacing accuracy, deserved more than two wickets.

So far, it’s like Australia never left England. The problems they had there are still in evidence. That they’re having them at a ground where they were expected to prosper – the last time Australia lost here was twenty-five years ago – is even more sobering.

Given that being a target for derision in the Aussie press seems to act as some kind of reverse jinx (see also the media’s reaction to Michael Clarke being made captain in 2010) Kevin Pietersen must now be licking his lips as he contemplates batting on the second day, given he too has been a target for similar nonsense in the papers before they decided to turn their attention to Broad.

Thursday, though, belonged to the Man With No Name. The wicket was good, the batting (Haddin and Johnson’s partnership of 114 aside) was bad, and right now the chances of the home side turning the tables on the Poms look downright ugly.

Memento mori

Wednesday, November 20th, 2013

So that’s it, then. The English summer is over, another Ashes series is only hours away, Sachin Tendulkar has called time on a career as notable for what it said about celebrity, history, and an entire country’s gestalt as for the bare statistical facts of its long, illustrious unfurling, as if that maiden Test ton in 1990 was the start of a red carpet unrolling into infinity, a future in which the image sometimes became indistinguishable from the individual.

There have been many fine pieces written in tribute to Sachin, the best of them describing an isolated moment, an encounter (on or off the field), experienced by the writer and how it affected them, because while many have tried to pin him down as an individual with all the various depths of light and shade that exist in a person, perhaps his greatest legacy is the effect he has had on his country, the Indian people, cricket fans around the world: a force of nature, like gravity, or oxygen.

Driving back from a family funeral in Scotland last week all of this touched me only peripherally, at a distance, though it seemed in keeping with the notion of November as a time of endings and intimations of mortality. The long drive south, through darkness, constant rain, the penumbra of gloom on pine clad hills, seemed depressingly apposite.

Just as you can’t sum up a life in a twenty-minute eulogy, the hype surrounding Sachin’s final bow at Mumbai was so much extraneous scaffolding, and with so many clichés – heart-felt nonetheless – that it drives home the inadequacy of language. But then words are not enough for a lot of things.

Life has a treadmill feel to it at the moment, a one-foot-after-the-other deal. Anything that can be put into words feels glib. It’s been a truly lousy year for people I care about: cancer, heart problems, mental illness, bereavement. At the moment it feels like the next crisis is just around the corner. I don’t like things I can’t control. Sometimes, this life we live, on this small rock, wobbling on its axis, spinning through an uncaring cosmos, seems a little too random for me. Fate, of course, is impersonal, but I’d go so far as to say there are times when the completely random becomes desperately unfair.

I remained relatively untouched by the Sachin hoopla and the Ashes build-up because it felt like sport was trivial when placed against the end of a life. But as I’m finding now, there is welcome distraction in the irrelevant, and it helps to rationalise the struggle when you tell yourself that everything is insignificant when placed next to something larger, because there’s always something larger – therefore everything is equal in its seeming insignificance, and everything matters.

From paying only passing attention to the publicity machine that’s gone into overdrive ahead of the Ashes, from not feeling much enthusiasm for the series itself (I guess it doesn’t help that we’ve only just had one – Ashes series, like buses, etc) I’m starting to feel the glimmer of excitement. It might even be on its way to becoming a bona-fide buzz, even though the weather for Brisbane looks diabolical and more likely to engender disappointment and delayed gratification.

As the toss grows ever nearer, I’m devouring the previews and the predictions, the hype and the controversies. Matt Prior’s calf. Michael Clarke’s back. Michael Clarke’s front in “announcing” England’s Gabba line-up before England did. Kevin Pietersen’s 100th Test. How the pitch will play for the first two hours. How George Bailey will fare for Australia, batting at 6. Michael Carberry embarking on his second time round as England Test opener. How Malcolm Conn, Australian journalist and redoubtable rabble-rouser, thinks England are on the way down and the Poms won’t have it so easy this time around. Stuart Broad as the new pantomime villain.

All petty bickerings, bravado blusterings, preenings, struttings and five-nil predictions. All trivial when placed in the greater scheme of things.

There is comfort in trivialities.

There is comfort in runs scored and balls bowled, the white lines that mark the 22-yard area of combat and the boundary rope that encompasses the whole. Everything outside that rope can be forgotten when an Ashes Test is underway.

This is how we go on. We make the little things matter.

Ashes urn

Durham destruction

Monday, August 19th, 2013

Ashes retained, and now series won.

It’s amazing, how a match can turn on its head.

Australia went to tea on the fourth day of the Durham Test, sitting pretty on 120-1, the match for the taking and with it a salvaging of some pride. Only 179 runs away. Chris Rogers had been the man to go, edging Swann to slip for 49 runs that seemed a continuation of the quietly-resolute 110 he’d made in the first innings. Khawaja was new to the crease, but David Warner’s resurrection from panto villain to Aussie hero was nearing fruition with 57 runs next to his name. The new ball, a spring-loaded hand grenade in Ryan Harris’s hands in the morning, seemed as dangerous as a week-old jam donut for England’s seamers.

By 7:41 that evening, Australia were all out for 224. It was one of those what-the-hell-happened sessions of insanity, where panic and cluelessness in equal measure grip a side by the throat and you couldn’t help but think back to that awful collapse at Lord’s. All those series what-ifs, where Australia have reminded everyone they’re not an easy touch, and Durham was the best opportunity they had of winning, with events entirely in their hands, unencumbered by time restrictions, or the vagaries of the weather: just 299 runs needed and the cool heads and straight bats required to hunt that total down.

A couple of posts ago I wrote that the funeral orations for the demise of Australian cricket may have been slightly premature, and mentioned that they were unlikely to sink to the levels the West Indies did in their post-nineties plunge, but Australia’s collapse at Durham reminded me of something we’ve become used to seeing from the Windies – a team that’s now so used to losing, it freezes when it finds itself in a position from which it can win.

Take nothing away from England, though – whatever was said during that tea-time war conference over protein bars and energy drinks, it worked. Khawaja fell to Swann soon after the break, but it was Tim Bresnan who started the procession of batsmen back to the pavilion with the wicket of Warner. it was one hell of a ball: full, angled across the batsman, seaming away and taking the edge through to Prior. The best, though – or worst, from an Australian perspective – was yet to come.

I’m not sure whether Stuart Broad’s inspired spell, which had roughly the same effect on Australia’s innings as a tropical storm on a trailer park, was one of the greatest of modern times or an achievement of such magnitude that it just serves to throw those days on which he bowls wide, ineffectual dross into even starker relief. I’ll settle for the former for the time being, because however you want to define that elusive “zone” that sportsmen aspire to, that makes them superhuman in the eyes of us more earthbound mortals, Stuart Broad was not only in it, but he had made himself at home, rearranged the furniture and signed a nine-over five-wickets-for-22-runs lease, with Michael Clarke’s scalp as down-payment. Clarke can count himself unlucky to have been the recipient of two best-of-series, destined-for-YouTube, unplayable deliveries – the other, of course, being the thunderbolt sent down by Jimmy Anderson at Trent Bridge.

Broad was deservedly Man of the Match for that performance, but Ian Bell deserves his share of the laurels as well. Even with 17 Test centuries to his name before this series, there have always been niggling doubts about his “ticker”, his appetite for a fight, when his side are up against it and tough runs are required. His three centuries this series have set England back on an even keel when the early loss of their top three has seen them listing to starboard. His partnership with Pietersen was wonderful to watch, particularly with memories of the latter’s magnificent Old Trafford knock still fresh in the memory. If Pietersen is Wagner – batsmanship as bombastic spectacle, all blaring brass and thundering timpani – Bell is a Haydn string quartet, with those legato cover-drives and glissando deflections to third man. Elegant salon cricket at one end, Valkyries and Götterdämmerung at the other.

Bell’s come a long way from his days as Shane Warne’s whipping boy. We may have laughed along with the “Sherminator” jibes at the time, but it looks like the grit was there after all; it’s only now we are seeing the pearl it’s become, and admiring its lustre.

Speaking of Warne, I enjoy his punditry enormously (and his bowling masterclass on Sky was a treat), but his insistent, niggling criticism of Cook’s captaincy on the last day – and in a subsequent article for the Telegraph – was the only bum note in an otherwise enjoyable commentary stint. A crafty attempt to undermine the opposition it may have been, but it also had the slightly desperate tang of sour grapes. I know that, ontologically speaking, true objectivity is impossible, and even with Warne on board the Sky team are still head and shoulders above their Channel Nine counterparts in terms of even-handedness, but it was still a bit much. It’s true that Cook may come off the poorer when compared to the more gung-ho, gut-feel captaincy of Clarke, but the ready-made riposte that it is England who have not only retained the urn but won the series seems hardly worth mentioning.

It’d be remiss of me, though, not to mention two notable performances for Australia. It’s a shame that Ryan Harris and Chris Rogers were on the losing side – how is Ryan Harris even still upright after three consecutive Tests? – but Harris’s career-best 7-117 in the second innings, and Rogers’ redoubtable maiden Test century on the second day were in the end all for nothing. They were let down by their team, and it will have hurt like hell. The challenge at the Oval on Wednesday will be to distil that disappointment into renewed determination. They will need to come out angry, and come out swinging. Pride ain’t much to play for, but it’s still something.

Old Trafford fizzles out, but the Ashes are England’s

Tuesday, August 6th, 2013

The last time England won the Ashes, it was at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, in bright sunshine, with an innings victory.

This time, they retained the urn on a dour, dank, drizzly afternoon at Old Trafford, during a terminal interruption in play, before which they’d been stodgily batting out time in order to avoid defeat – while still managing to lose three wickets. There’s something appropriately British about this scenario. And yet it feels odd.

It feels odd because of the wonky nature of the reality compared with the bullish predictions beforehand; nothing feels resolved. Perhaps it’s because of the brevity with which England have achieved their main objective – this series has been wrapped up in only 14 days of play – but it feels like we haven’t even begun to unravel the readiness of each side for Brisbane in November, or even in relation to each other.

Australia came close at Trent Bridge due to a freakish innings from their debutant number eleven. They then dashed expectations that they’d be a proper threat to England at Lord’s, where they batted like the man in the story by Borges who dreams he’s been tasked with upholding the honour of his family at a historic chess tournament fought regularly between two rival dynasties, only to realise as he takes his place at the board that he doesn’t even know the rules. Unfortunately for Australia, however, Lord’s was one nightmare from which they didn’t wake up.

And now this Test. If Old Trafford had been the first Test in the series, with four more to come, you’d be forgiven for thinking that England were done for. Kevin Pietersen finally answered the call of destiny that invariably rings out when greatness is needed, and Ian Bell’s form has been a pleasant surprise on the back of his recent travails, but with a paucity of runs from such previous stalwarts as Cook, Trott, and Prior, there are worrying gaps in England’s batting form, dry patches on an otherwise lush lawn that suggests this English garden might need some tending in readiness for the harsher climes of an Ashes series down under.

And what if Australia, buoyed by the fact they’d likely have had this match won if not for the rain, win the last two matches at Durham and the Oval and draw the series? England will have retained the Ashes, but only by default.

And, looking even further ahead, Australia’s top order finally seems to be coalescing; it’s reasonable to assume that David Warner, promoted back up the order to open with Chris Rogers in the second innings, will remain there come November, while the disappointing Shane Watson, who still offers something with the ball, will be demoted to six. The only questions surround captain Clarke’s position in the order – his magnificent 187 came at number four, where previously he has averaged only 21.51 – and whether there is still a place in the side for Phillip Hughes, who arguably did nothing wrong before being shunted aside to let prodigal son Warner back in.

The warning to never underestimate Australia hardly bears repeating, but it would seem after their Lord’s defeat, many had started to do just that. England are still, on paper, the better side, but they won the first Test by a tiny margin largely due to the fact they were unable to bag Agar’s wicket until he’d enhanced the scoreboard by 98 runs. England were dominant at Lord’s, and then against all expectation Australia put 527 runs on the board at Old Trafford after winning the toss, and would have won had the weather not intervened. Australia could easily go on and win the next Test. Or they could collapse in a heap the way they did at Lord’s. Nothing is clear-cut. England, similarly, could take their foot off the gas now that the urn (metaphorically) isn’t going anywhere, and a series result of 2-2 sounds a damn sight less impressive than the 5-0 whitewash many were predicting.

This was also the match in which we were given a timely reminder that Michael Clarke and Kevin Pietersen are crucial to their sides. Clarke finally scored a captain’s innings, albeit two Tests too late, and Pietersen helped set up what the weather finished with an innings of 113 when everyone else bar Cook and Bell failed to significantly add to England’s total. In both men the spirit is as willing as it ever was, but the body in each case is looking increasingly rickety. In the case of Clarke, it’s hard not to envision a physio’s folder bulging with X-rays, scans, printouts, rehab schedules and pain-relief dosages. The discs in Clarke’s spinal column have been degenerating since he was 17, probably even before that. You may marvel now at his cavalry-commander, lead-from-the-front batting, the cultured aggression against spin, the ability to fly the flag, on and off the field, for his team, but at what price further on down the line when he’s no longer playing the game? Pietersen too is, by his admission “an old man”, revealing that he had decided to forego surgery on his knee because it would have put him out of action for nine months. While there were still the predictable digs in the press at his perceived short-comings as a man rather than appreciation for his greatness as a batsman, there will never be another like him. The introvert who loves the big stage, the man whose simple attitude to life is made so needlessly complicated by others, the man who, in short, lights up a cricket ground like no other when he is putting bowling attacks to the sword… we should enjoy him while we can because his career, too, is approaching a crossroads in terms of balancing an impossible workload with a worn-out body.

It may have been a damp, sputtering denouement after all the red-hot hype, but if there’s one scintillating memory that remains, it was Kevin Pietersen’s outrageous shot that brought up his hundred, a shot Errol Flynn would have been proud of in his Hollywood swashbuckling pomp; a whirl of the bat above the head, blade angled just so, a flamboyant uppercut that sent the ball sailing over third man, and the crowd surging to their feet, roaring their approval. It was Pietersen’s 113 that dug the defensive moat around England’s castle at Old Trafford, and it was the rain that filled it.

Ashes and sparks

Monday, July 1st, 2013

I have this image stuck in my head. Australia’s new coach, Darren Lehmann, fag in mouth, beer in one hand, reaches towards the switch that will flip into life the shambling monster that Australia has become.

A disparate hodgepodge of misbehaving parts, parts that have been bolted on where they don’t fit, and parts that have yet to show any sign of life whatsoever, it’ll take something along the lines of Dr Frankenstein to reanimate this mess.

Mickey Arthur’s more scientific approach didn’t work. Desperate times call for desperate measures and maybe, with “one of the worst Australian sides ever”, as they’ve been dubbed, a more maverick approach just might be the key. Or maybe Lehmann’s appointment was simply an act of desperation.

The timing, certainly, was curious: sixteen days before the start of the Ashes at Trent Bridge, Twitter was swamped with rumours that Mickey Arthur had been given his marching orders by a board that had finally run out of patience. To England fans, it must have seemed the cherry on the top of the schadenfreude gateau that had long begun taking shape in the overheated oven of Ashes expectation: the chewy base layer of a Test tanking in India, the creamy filling of Homeworkgate, with sprinkles of David Warner’s Twitter spray, dressing room splits, and a ridiculous incident involving Joe Root, a fake beard, and a Birmingham bar. It’s certainly been something to get your teeth into.

As half-baked rumour hardened into fact, it was difficult to know what to make of it all. Mickey Arthur was “a good man” who “tried his utmost”, in the words of Cricket Australia supremo James Sutherland in the first of three pressers. This was a disaster, said some pundits. No, actually, it was a good thing, said others – along with many of those who’d first proclaimed it a disaster but had now had time to think about it. The timing was bizarre, everyone agreed. This could either improve Australia’s chances, or it could destabilise them entirely.

But regardless of who’s wearing the chef’s hat, there’s only so much you can do with a batting lineup that puts one in mind of the contestant who always seems to turns up on Ready Steady Cook with a bar of chocolate, a tub of Philadelphia and a packet of digestive biscuits. “What can you make me with this?” Cheesecake. It is always bloody cheesecake. And the Australian recipe for this Aussie Ashes campaign looks anything but cordon bleu.

Perhaps Lehmann will be the man to bring something new to the mix. “My top three priorities are to win, win and win,” he said at the third of Tuesday’s press conferences. He didn’t waste much time in demonstrating that this is not simply bellicose bluster. Australia, declaring one run ahead in their first warmup match against Somerset at Taunton, signalled a new, aggressive intent: proactive rather than reactive, a readiness to take a risk to go for the win – which they achieved. This was aided by the one component of the squad in which there’s no doubt as to its quality. One statement Mickey Arthur made a couple of weeks back which prompted a fair amount of scoffing derision was his contention that “I honestly believe we can win the Ashes – we have the best all-round bowling attack in world cricket.” Perhaps that “all-round” should have been replaced with “seam”, and perhaps a “potentially” should have been slipped in there to not make it sound entirely ridiculous, but the way in which James Pattinson and Mitchell Starc shredded Somerset’s batting – from 310-4 to 320 all out – suggests that England retaining the urn may not be quite a straightforward formality.

True: the visitors only have one world-class batsman, a captain who must be the backbone of his side while he struggles with his own degenerative back condition. Where Michael Clarke fits into this whole saga will perhaps become clearer over time; he presented a united front with Arthur over Homeworkgate, but as a modern, ultra-professional sportsman, it’ll be interesting to see how his relationship with Lehmann – a throwback to more unreconstructed times when coaching manuals were considerably thinner and “work hard, play hard” just about covered it – develops. What has emerged from Lehmann’s coaching stints with Queensland, Deccan Chargers and Australia A is that he is a man who inspires intense loyalty but also respect – both of which seemed in short supply for Mickey Arthur at the end. While Australia’s precise lineup for the first Test is yet to be set in stone, it’s fair to assume that while the recipe may have its limitations, the heat in this kitchen will present no obstacle for the chef.

It’s interesting, too, that the underdogs are sounding considerably more bullish than the favourites. Lehmann talks about winning; Andy Flower is counselling caution. “We aren’t as good as some people are saying,” he said in an interview with the Daily Mail at the weekend. Alastair Cook, too, has refused to be drawn into anything resembling blustering prognostication, toeing the party line in maintaining that England are focussing on their own preparation and not what’s been happening in the Australia camp. It seemed somehow appropriate that he was at Wimbledon on Friday, watching Andy Murray’s unruffled progress to the fourth round while the Scot’s big-name rivals fall by the wayside through a combination of loss of form, injury, slippery courts and sheer bad luck. Australia may be embarking on a messy rebirth, but never underestimate the destructive power of the random and unexpected. God forbid, if Jimmy Anderson steps on a ball the morning of a crucial day in the field with the series in the balance, à la Glenn McGrath in 2005, it could be England’s hopes that are in need of resurrection. As we speak, Graeme Swann is off for an x-ray after being struck on the arm by Tymal Mills in England’s only warmup match at Chelmsford.

News has just come in, too, of confirmation that Shane Watson and Chris Rogers will open the batting for Australia when hostilities commence on July 10th.

The series is yet to begin, but the contest is already alive. The parts are coming together. Now let the sparks fly.

Flower fulminates while Joe takes root

Thursday, May 30th, 2013

England’s first Test series of the summer is over, with a 2-0 win over New Zealand.

It seems churlish to cavil about it now, but I’m glad I wasn’t the only one baffled by England’s tactics in the Test at Headingley just gone. Having bowled New Zealand out for 174, Alastair Cook chose not to enforce the follow-on. This was disappointing but not completely unexpected; Cook is of the “safety first” school, and with the series as good as in the bag, the fact that the most the Kiwis could reasonably do was draw this game seemed good enough. The gulf between the sides on England’s home soil was stark after the more close-fought encounters over the winter, and England’s bowling attack seems once again revved up and ready to go ahead of the Ashes: Graeme Swann with a fully-functioning elbow; Jimmy Anderson giving us a refresher course in physics with the marvellous things he can do with a cricket ball through the air at high velocity; Steven Finn with his mojo (and long run) restored; and Stuart Broad in new-found “warrior mode” (sounds like sports psychology bullshit to me, but it seems to work for him).

To bat again was one thing, but by the time England ended the third day on 116-1, with Compton gone and Jonathan Trott at his watchful, guard-taking, crease-scraping best (read: slow) one could be forgiven for wondering what the hell was going on. Bemusement turned to irritation as England batted on the next day till twenty minutes after lunch – setting the visitors a monumental target of 468.

The problem with this is that the thinking behind this approach – to not bat last on a turning pitch and to bat New Zealand out of the game, which is bonkers considering the 220 New Zealand subsequently managed to make was their highest innings total of the series – was the fact it seemed to completely ignore the rain forecast for the last day. “I think if you start believing British forecasters you’re in a lot of trouble,” Swann said, grinning, to a query from Sky’s Ian Ward after stumps on Day 3 as to whether he’d seen the forecast for Tuesday. That may have been the case when Michael Fish was on the job back in 1987 and the night of the 15th of October turned out slightly more breezy than was expected (I slept through the whole thing, I remember, which also seems apropos in light of the tedium of England’s batting on the Sunday) but in the UK it’s generally a rule of thumb to assume that when there’s likely to be some rain, it’s time to start piling sandbags round your doorstep.

Hence, the dawning of a very grey, overcast and wet Tuesday, and a very grumpy Andy Flower remonstrating with the groundsmen to remove the sheeting. Aside from the irony of the England coach being annoyed at the groundstaff for time-wasting, the fact that the win now seemed vastly preferable to the draw England had hitherto settled for also raised the obvious question as to why they hadn’t declared earlier. True, England only needed two 11-over stints to win the game, but the weather was so dire they were lucky to get out there at all (and the second stint was played in light but continuous rain, though by that time even the umpires wanted the game over with).

Cook and Flower said afterwards the fact the game had been won was vindication enough, but in reality it was because the weather gave them just enough of a break. It was Lefty Gomez, pitcher for the New York Yankees, who coined the phrase “I’d rather be lucky than good”. It’s just as well for Andy Flower and Alastair Cook that on this occasion, England managed to be both.

* * *

England have had their fun lately, with watching the fallout from Australia’s recent dressing-room ructions, Twitter meltdowns and missing homework assignments; one suspects that Australia are now running the rule over England for any chinks in their armour. At the moment, Nick Compton seems to be the weakest link. Since his back-to-back centuries in New Zealand, he’s posted scores of 13, 2, 16, 15, 1 and 7 – an average of only 9. At Headingley on Sunday he not only resembled a rabbit in the headlights, but one whose only chance of survival is not to move so the juggernaut’s wheels will pass either side of him. Footwork and balance have deserted him, as has his confidence – the self-fulfilling cycle of failure – and Andy Flower’s glowing praise for the batting of Joe Root and Jonny Bairstow, along with a pointed reminder that Compton now has several opportunities to find his form with Somerset before the commencement of Ashes hostilities at Trent Bridge, will have piled the pressure on even further.

I’d like to see Compton succeed as England opener, not only because a settled side is infinitely preferable to chopping and changing, but also because should Compton get dropped it’ll reopen the debate over the standard of county versus international cricket, and there have been enough slings and arrows – whether rightly or wrongly – directed at England’s domestic system recently. I also suspect that if this was ahead of any other series, Compton would be afforded more leeway, certainly more time – but every decision, be it tactics, or who plays or doesn’t play, assumes greater significance when an Ashes series rolls around. The potential for triumph or catastrophe becomes infinitely greater. I think Compton will take guard against Australia, at least at Trent Bridge, but I also think Joe Root would cope at the top of the order, despite his indifferent record against the new ball at five.

One suspects there isn’t much Root would struggle to adapt to, and this too will probably colour the selectors’ decision. His maiden Test hundred at Headingley was the stuff of dreams – his home ground, family in attendance, cheered on by the Yorkshire faithful and with his Yorkshire teammate Bairstow at the other end to congratulate him as he raised his bat. His future seems bright, his place in the team assured.

The main factor in who’ll be batting at Nottingham, of course, will be whether Kevin Pietersen returns. It probably won’t have soothed Compton’s nerves to learn that Pietersen, a batsman who lights up an Ashes contest like no other, is back in the nets and batting without pain. “BOOM,” as the great man tweeted. For Compton, named a Wisden Cricketer of the Year in April, his boom could yet turn to bust.

Broad blitzkrieg blows New Zealand away

Tuesday, May 21st, 2013

You have to feel for Tim Southee. You lead your team from the field an hour before lunch on the the fourth day, having bowled your side to a chance of victory and gotten your name on the fabled Lord’s honours board with your fourth five-wicket haul in Tests and match figures of 10-108. You are only the second player in history to have taken ten wickets in a match at Lord’s for New Zealand. England have crashed from 180-6 overnight to 213 all out. The result isn’t a foregone conclusion – with 239 needed, your team will still have to achieve the third highest fourth-innings run-chase at this ground – but victory is so close now, you can taste it.

A little under two hours of play later and it’s all over, your side incredibly and ignominiously vanquished by 170 runs and your bowling overshadowed by Stuart Broad’s dramatic return to form – 7 wickets at the cost of only 44 runs in just 11 overs – after a lacklustre performance on Friday in which it never seemed to twig that bowling short and wide was doing nothing but feeding run-hungry batsmen. How you must wish that particular penny never dropped. You could be forgiven for wondering what the hell just happened.

Southee steams in at Lord's

Southee steams in at Lord’s

Ah, cricket. Test cricket, more precisely. While those who’d paid £60 for a ticket shivered in the stands on a day which saw more cloud than sun, at least the thought that it was miles away from the IPL and its spot-fixing and assorted histrionics could be guaranteed to provide a little warmth; otherwise Day 1 had precious little going for it. Thursday was moribund batting of the dullest kind, self-preservation at its most dour as England, perhaps mindful of underestimating New Zealand the last time round, seemed to regard any run rate faster than a plodding two an over as the height of extravagant negligence, akin to leaving a toddler alone for a fortnight with a supply of oven chips and Haribo while the parents take off for Ibiza. This is what the fear of failure does to you; it wasn’t just the spectators who were frozen.

It was forecast to be a rain affected draw, but only 10 overs were lost on Thursday; a drizzly end to a day that fizzled out when it had never really got going. Expectations for the rest of the match were for more of the same. How wrong we all were.

Each day after that featured a collapse of wickets as the narrative speeded up considerably, giving us episodes of drama and achievement, and records too, as James Anderson found himself only the fourth Englishman to reach 300 Test wickets, just reward for a bowler who is arguably yet to reach his peak. Amongst the clatter of timbers and the wafts to slip there were fine instances of youthful maturity too – Joe Root temporarily steadied the ship with Jonathan Trott in a partnership of 123 and while he failed to get his name on the board this time, bowled by Tim Southee for 71, that he will do so in the future seems a likelihood close to certainty. New Zealand’s Root equivalent, Kane Williamson, showed the type of cool-headed watchfulness familiar to those who’ve seen him already in county cricket. That he is his country’s vice captain shows that New Zealand Cricket are already thinking along the same lines as England are with Joe Root in planning for the future.

Sunday, though, belonged to Stuart Broad. A bowler who some love to hate, who irritates with his self of sense-entitlement, his dogged insistence on following his own wrong-headed strategies and his petulant confrontations with umpires, he’s blown hot and cold over the last couple of years when it comes to his wicket-taking effectiveness. On Sunday, though, he was scorching: you could have been forgiven if you saw curls of smoke rising up from the ripped-up ruin of Bruce Martin’s wicket –  stump, camera and all wrenched violently out of the ground by an unplayable delivery.

Like a hurricane, Stuart Broad left New Zealand in ruins. The rebuilding will have to be quick. Daniel Vettori, who played his last Test ten months ago, has recovered from a troublesome Achilles injury and has been called up to replace the injured Bruce Martin. England have already named an unchanged squad for Headingley.

That Broad is back to his best constitutes the laying of good foundations for the start of England’s Ashes defence in June. As far as New Zealand goes, however, they have some serious shoring up to do before their next encounter with Cyclone Stuart on Friday.

Foxes and Lions

Monday, May 13th, 2013

There may not have been many there to see it, but when Joe Root raised his bat yesterday to a gloomy, virtually empty Grace Road on reaching 150 against the touring New Zealand team, there was a significance about it that seemed distinctly at odds with the grey skies and the echoing stands. The atmosphere at Lord’s on Thursday will be very different but, like a concert pianist performing in an empty auditorium, he played with all the concentration of a man who had set himself a task to complete and a high standard to meet in achieving it. Shortly after he was dismissed, bowled by Doug Bracewell, the rains arrived with a soggy finality and the match was drawn. But his 179 was an innings that shone through the murk with its maturity and strokeplay and will have given the few spectators who turned up something to remember as they dashed through the rain to their cars. Summer in England? Don’t you believe it.

Joe Root at Grace Road

Joe Root at Grace Road

Summer it is, though – even if the only summer that matters most to cricket watchers this year is prefixed with the word “Ashes”. There have been entire articles written riffing on the culinary metaphors that the two-Test series against New Zealand brings to mind as a support act to the year’s big draw: appetiser, entrée, amuse bouche. England certainly made a meal of their last encounter against the Kiwis, with Matt Prior saving England’s blushes at Eden Park in a last wicket stand with Monty Panesar after they had been comprehensively outplayed over the five days. That 0-0 series draw won’t have been on the agenda, and a similar complacency will surely will be avoided on home turf, though the visitors, led by redoubtable scrapper and James Cagney lookalike Brendon McCullum, will be no tender morsel easily devoured. On the two occasions McCullum has played a Test at Headquarters, he has narrowly missed out on getting his name on the honours board (96 in 2004 and 97 in 2008). Perhaps, for the man Tim Southee refers to as “a born leader”, it’ll be a case of third time lucky.

Joe Root will of course be at Lord’s, along with fellow-Lion Jonny Bairstow, who will be filling in for an injured Kevin Pietersen. Bairstow also batted well at Grace Road, scoring 68 and forming a partnership of 135 with Root. Root captained the Lions on this occasion, and there’s been the suggestion this is to groom him for the England captaincy somewhere down the line – an exceptional bit of forward planning on the part of the management given that Alastair Cook is only 28, but also a clear indication of how highly they think of the 22-year-old Yorkshireman.

One man also at Grace Road, but who won’t be at Lord’s, is a former Lions captain, and once called Grace Road his home. James Taylor led the Lions in March against Australia A and was one of the few England players to emerge with any credit in a series in which they took a downright hammering, but despite a steady start to his Test career against South Africa last year at Headingley he seems to have been unceremoniously deemed surplus to England requirements.

While Taylor may have defected to “the other lot” (Nottinghamshire, if you’re a Leicestershire fan, and I can only be impartial most of the time) one still can’t but hope for the best for him, that his England career revives, or, at the very least, he makes the case for his selection an overwhelming one, especially now he is playing in the first division. Unfortunately, for the watching England selectors who’d hinted heavily that only runs in county cricket’s top tier would impress them, his grand total of 2 on his return to Grace Road won’t have done much to convince them – despite scores of 112 and 97 so far this season in the Championship, with an average of 57.4.

While considering Taylor’s situation, it was inevitable that thoughts should stray to Leicestershire, who face their own challenges this year.

Crippling financial losses, a washed-out season and the departure of key personnel meant that 2012 was a bit of a grim crashing-down-to-earth after the heady heights of 2011’s T20 success but, happily, there is still talent aplenty coming up through the club’s youth academy and age groups – ten players in the current squad have progressed through this system.

One Fox who many feel should have been a Lion this year is Shiv Thakor. Leicestershire’s youngest ever first-class centurion on début against Loughborough MCCU in 2011, he scored his maiden Championship ton earlier this season when he helped the county secure a draw against Kent. His First Class average is currently 53.11; last year he topped both the First Class and List A averages for the club. A batting all-rounder with talent to spare, he has been an England Under-19 captain and idolises Jacques Kallis. He has “future superstar” written all over him.

Already the parallels with James Taylor are appearing. Early promise, blossoming talent, the pundits sitting up and taking notice, the inevitable questions over whether a move to a first division club to further his career already being raised in interviews. There’s an uncomfortable sense of déja vu about it all.

To his credit, Thakor has played an impeccable straight bat to such queries, but we’re all thinking it, aren’t we – it’s surely a matter of when, not if, a wealthier club come sidling onto the scene with their siren-call of riches and a leg-up on the England ladder.

While the Lions were running the New Zealand fielders ragged, with murmurs of admiration from the few who’d turned up greeting young Joe Root’s silky drives through the covers, Shiv Thakor was plying his trade for the Foxes at New Road with yet another half century against Worcestershire. It felt like a world away; county cricket often does in comparison with its glitzier international counterpart.

The start of this season seemed to be greeted with more criticism than usual of the domestic game; and, to be fair, one would struggle mightily to sex up a drizzle-interrupted day of LVCC action at Grace Road mid-week in April when there are other more important considerations, like school, college or holding down a job, or, if you live in Leicester, other sporting attractions such as football and rugby to demand your attention and ticket money.

County cricket may be mocked as deeply unfashionable and in dire need of an overhaul, but England players have to come from somewhere. The question over whether domestic cricket should exist purely to supply the England team, and whether it is also a worthy endeavour in its own right, does not have to be an either/or issue, but it is.

If the England team represents a Ferrari – prone to the occasional breakdown and often in need of tinkering but a blue-chip brand with historic pedigree – county cricket is the jalopy that sits in the corner of the garage that’s cannibalised for parts. In the case of clubs like Leicestershire, that cannibalisation starts early with the snapping up of home-grown talent by richer, covetous neighbours.

Shiv Thakor has extended his contract with Leicestershire to the end of the 2014 season. After that – in terms of the future for him and for Leicestershire County Cricket Club – who knows?

Colossus of Roads

Friday, March 22nd, 2013

Like the giant statue that supposedly straddled the mouth of the harbour at Rhodes in ancient times, Peter Fulton doesn’t move his feet much.

The six-foot-five batsman, the man they call “Two-Metre Peter”, drafted back into the New Zealand side for this series after a period of over three years away from the Test arena, had a typically nervy start to his innings.

Rather than qualifying as one of the seven wonders of the world, his technique is such that you spend the first hour of his innings wondering why the hell he hasn’t gotten out yet. The feet are resolutely planted; balls wide of off-stump are wafted at with shots that constitute neither attack nor defence, with a lot of daylight visible between bat and body – enough space that you could sail a fleet of triremes through if you were an opportunistic invader intent on plunder. This is how he got out at Wellington and Dunedin, back in his crease and poking at deliveries he really should have left alone.

He is the complete opposite of his opening partner, Hamish Rutherford – broad-shouldered and heavy-footed where Rutherford is wiry and nimble, with an almost lumbering rigidity in contrast to Rutherford’s fluid economy of movement. Certainly Rutherford makes more pleasing shapes when batting – the way he leant into a beautiful drive down the ground off Jimmy Anderson, all crisp timing and high right elbow, was a particularly memorable example. Rutherford might have talent in spades but, in a similar vein to his captain, Brendon McCullum, he is also a scrapper, and has the bruises to prove it.

Fulton goes about his business in quieter fashion, a slight frown on his face that suggests perplexity, as though he is grappling with some insoluble problem but determined to battle his way through it nevertheless. Part of this is no doubt nerves, and the pressure that comes with that need to nail down your place in the side. The England bowlers know this, getting in his ear at the earliest opportunity to try to unsettle him.

Then, someone will serve him up a bad ball and the boundaries will start coming and the confidence will start growing. Straight balls will be clipped off the pads; balls outside off-stump will be left alone or pulled to the midwicket boundary, as he starts using his bulk and his slight tendency to lean towards the off-side to his advantage. His physical strength becomes less a leaden weight than a battering ram.

By the time he went to tea on 95, the transformation was complete. Stuart Broad and Steven Finn could only look on in despair, and it’s to Jimmy Anderson’s immense credit that he managed to sustain the aggression with which he ran in on a wicket that gave him nothing. Monty Panesar too, came in for some fearful stick from both Fulton and Williamson, and earlier on from Rutherford, who was the only wicket to fall all day.

I wondered what was going through Fulton’s mind as he approached his maiden Test century. He’s been around the game for a long time. Prior to this, his highest Test score had come in his second match, against the West Indies at the Basin Reserve back in March 2006. He made 75 that day, and lost his wicket with – yep, you guessed it – a prod outside off-stump, feet going nowhere, an outside edge snaffled by the keeper. But all that seemed behind him now. Wiping the sweat from his eyes, forced to wait nine balls on 99, he could be forgiven for looking a little nervous now that that long wait could be about to end. End it did, with a scampered single off Panesar, and a pumped fist in celebration. Whatever the nature of that insoluble problem, maybe this innings will have provided the answer.

Alastair Cook made the same mistake as Brendon McCullum did at Wellington in choosing to bowl first – he was tempted by the siren call of a wicket that was supposed to seam but didn’t; that was supposed to offer more bounce for his quicks but instead gave them deliveries that, even with the new ball in the evening session, died on their way through to the keeper. The only spin on offer was that employed by Steven Finn who reckoned afterwards England had done a good job in “only” allowing New Zealand to put 250 runs on the board in perfect batting conditions. As an attempt to take the positives from a long, frustrating day, it was a pretty desperate one.

Fulton and Williamson’s partnership is currently worth 171; Williamson will resume on 83, Fulton on 124.

It took an earthquake in 226 BC to finally topple the Colossus of Rhodes. With Peter Fulton, it could easily be another ill-advised waft outside off-stump. Until then, and against all expectation, this is one giant who so far has managed to stand firm.