Archive for the ‘Test’ Category

Test cricket: not dead yet

Sunday, November 13th, 2011

On Thursday, Africa’s Western Black Rhino was officially declared extinct.

On the same day at Newlands cricket ground, 23 wickets fell, proving that Test cricket is thankfully still alive and kicking.

A decent pitch combined with incisive bowling and scatterbrained batting led to a veritable stampede of stats as milestones were passed and reputations tumbled along with the timber.  South Africa’s first innings total of 96 was the second-lowest since their readmission to Test cricket; Australia’s 47 all out their fourth-lowest ever and lowest against South Africa. Nathan Lyon’s 14 is only the eighth time a number 11 has top-scored in an innings. Not since 1924-25 have more than 22 wickets fallen in a day’s play; Shane Watson took the second fastest 5-wicket haul, in 21 balls. Vernon Philander, on debut, left Australia with nowhere to hide: his match haul of 8-78 comprises the 5th best bowling figures by a South African in his first Test.

After all of this excitement, Hashim Amla’s elegant, wristy drives through cover and down the ground provided a much needed come-down as he and Graeme Smith calmly saw South Africa home just before lunch on the third day.

Test cricket is magnificent, awe-inspiring, and it deserves saving. But like all endangered species, it needs some help.

Poachers and loss of habitat did for the Western Black Rhino, and Test cricket similarly faces the threat of endless ODI series encroaching on an already packed international timetable and the proliferation of T20 tournaments dangling the big-dollar carrot in front of cricketers for whom the choice to represent their country would otherwise be an easy one.

The format also needs to help itself – over-priced tickets, lifeless wickets, poor viewing conditions and the spectre of empty stands are just some of the things not helping Test cricket’s cause. That a love for the highest form of the game should ever be equated with purist “elitism” in contrast with its more populist forms would comprise not just a dumbing down of the entire sport but a failure of duty in the protection of its long and rich heritage.

What is also plain is that Australian cricket, after the phoenix-like attempt to rise from the Ashes that was the Argus review, must adapt or die. Captain Michael Clarke called the shot selection of his batsmen “disgraceful” and “horrendous”; his own fine innings of 151 he called “useless, a waste of time” in the context of his team’s defeat (a refreshingly honest admission, compared to Alastair Cook’s fatuous assertion that England are “getting close to where we need to be” after India’s 5-0 ODI whitewash).

Ricky Ponting’s career decline looks to be terminal; Brad Haddin is a lame-duck choice for keeper with the likes of Tim Paine and Matthew Wade waiting in the wings; and surely it must be time to knock the Mitchell Johnson experiment on the head: he is the strike bowler Australia want but who rarely turns up. A cull for the good of the herd is very much in order. Not that this should mean a slavish over-insistence on youth – Mike Hussey still has runs in him, and regardless of what you may think about Simon Katich’s handling of his dropping by Cricket Australia, Phillip Hughes’ continued ineptitude at the top of the order must surely increase your sympathy for him.

Those extraordinary events at Newlands were a perfect storm of individual weaknesses and standout performances distilled into one day. That the next match in this Test series should provide the amount of excitement we saw at Cape Town is unlikely. The fact that it is the last in a mere two-match series is criminal. Test cricket deserves better and the message to the boards and administrators is simple: don’t let this beautiful animal die.

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.

Riots, runs and Rahul’s shoelaces

Saturday, August 13th, 2011

“It’s kicking off in Croydon now,” the hospital porter told me gloomily as he brought me back from the X-ray department.

Monday night, well, early Tuesday 1:15AM to be precise. Guest of the Royal Infirmary since 8AM the previous morning due to an ongoing condition that flares up from time to time. Morphine in my system; 40 hours with no sleep, pain by now dulled to something slightly less excruciating.

There’d been a queue for the x-rays: me, teenage lad with broken wrist, old man on trolley. By this point I had no clue as to the day, or the time, but I knew that London was burning.

“There’s a blaze at a furniture warehouse,” said the porter. “A big one.” I felt I should offer an opinion on it, and sensed he was expecting one, but I didn’t have the energy. I just wanted to sleep.

Back on the ward a quick check of Twitter informed me that the riots might be coming to Leicester. I had visions of waking up like the Cillian Murphy character in 28 Days Later, or like a character out of a John Wyndham novel, to a city burnt out and abandoned.

But the main thing was getting home for the Test. Nothing else mattered as much to me. To take my mind off where I was, I’d tried to focus my disgruntlement less on the online rantings of the String ‘Em Up Society and the Moral Decay Brigade than on Ravi Bopara being picked to replace an injured Jonathan Trott ahead of James Taylor. It was a decision I regarded as profoundly bonkers and still do, with Taylor making 106 for the Lions on the same day Bopara managed only 7 being a case of “figures that speak for themselves”.

But then you’d have to say that’s possibly the only thing England have got wrong recently.

This was the Test billed as the big one, the one that could see England ascend to number one status. The staging of it was very briefly in doubt due to the fact Birmingham too had been hit by the riots, with 3 confirmed deaths to follow.

It truly was a case of cricket down the rabbit hole. You could pick a less surreal time to hold a Test match.

It is now Saturday evening. The Test is over because India capitulated far quicker than we would ever have imagined back in May when the Sri Lanka series proved so disappointing. They still have not scored 300 in an innings, or taken twenty wickets. Sachin still does not have his hundredth hundred. Even Dravid could not save them; one of the few Indian players who’s come out of this series with any credit, he was bizarrely given out “hit shoelace”.

Alastair Cook’s batting was better than morphine. Effective but soporific. Hitting the pain that sometimes comes with being an England fan, and that doubled us over in 2006-07 and made us grind our teeth in a cold sweat at the agony of it. Jimmy Anderson’s lethal deliveries were the scalpel that cut away the last of those dead-flesh memories; Kevin Pietersen’s 63 the adrenaline injection straight to the heart.

It’s good to be home, and good to see England complete the recovery that started with Pietersen’s kill-or-cure revolt against Peter Moores in the early months of 2009.

The patient is not only fully recovered, it is kicking arse.

The riots and the looting are over now. Talking heads are occupying the news channels and the blame game is in full swing.

The cricket bat signed by the Lancashire team for Mal Loye’s benefit year remains propped against the wall next to my bed, just in case.

The country’s in a bit of a mess at the minute, but I am home, England are number one, and that’s pretty good to be going on with.

But Jesus, what a weird week.

Test no. 2001 is a Pace Odyssey for England

Wednesday, August 3rd, 2011

In 2007, on the last day of the England-India Test at Trent Bridge, I made use of my complimentary Day 5 ticket to go and watch India rattle off the 63 more runs they needed for victory.

Granted, Chris Tremlett caused them a few hiccups in the form of three wickets that morning, but India were so obviously the stronger side that very few England fans turned up for the inevitable denouement.

Tendulkar had scored 91; Zaheer Khan had taken 5-75, and while England had had the better of a draw at Lord’s, they were thoroughly outplayed by the visitors in Nottingham. Tremlett aside, individual contributions for England were sporadic. Michael Vaughan, the cartilage in his right knee by this time crumbling quicker than a two-week old digestive biscuit, made a magnificent, into-the-breach 124 on the fourth day, but more was expected of other men who did not deliver. With bat, ball and aggression, India were the laser-guided missile aimed right at England’s soft underbelly.

What a difference four years makes. Since then we have had the IPL, fear for the future of Tests (though that hot potato was already being fiercely debated) and the DRS can has been prised open and worms are wriggling all over the damn place.

India have become the number one ranked Test side. England has won the Ashes twice, home and away.

Of more immediate import to a spectator at Trent Bridge this year, there also seemed to be a heck of a lot more wasps about. Buying an ice-cream could possibly have proved fatal.

We’ve already had a cracker of a first Test in this series, the 2000th, no less, which lived up to all the hype that preceded it, but gave us an India strangely apathetic and “undercooked”.

Duncan Fletcher has said in the past he likes his charges to go into a series a little underdone, which makes him sound like an avant garde chef with some strange Heston-Blumenthalesque ideas when it comes to cooking up the right ingredients for a Test-winning outfit. I’m assuming he may have meant something along the lines of al dente pasta rather than salmonella chicken, but such is Fletcher’s inscrutability, it’s impossible to tell. Like I said, I give him a year.

One other thing that’s changed since 2007 is that Stuart Broad is the new Botham. Which may or may not follow on from being the next Botham. And which I could also curmudgeonly extend to a future which contains the phrase “once touted as”, three words filled with gentle regret over lost potential, or a flame that burned out too soon.

But let’s not go there yet – this is NOW, dammit. And it is glorious. England are leading this four match series 2-0 and are one win or two draws away from being the Big Fromage. The Edam of Excellence. The Gouda of Greatness. The Cottage Cheese of Clinical Conquest. The Dairylea of Dominance.

You can tell I am writing this near tea-time.

Broad was given the Man of the Match Award for not only reminding us he can bat, but also for proving his critics right when they said he’d never be successful if he kept banging it in half-way down the pitch with every delivery and with delusions of grandeur about being England’s “enforcer” rattling around in his blond head.

With a little bit of help from the DRS (no referral for the Harbhajan Singh lbw that turned out to be a deflection from bat onto pad so obvious it only needed the replay to see it) the boy Broad bagged himself a hat-trick and the gratitude of a nation, helping us all to feel a little less irritated at his tendency towards petulance and wilful obstinacy, when all it took was pitching the bloody ball up and bowling straight.

Hat-trick ball

Hat-trick ball

Jimmy Anderson chipped in as well with a thunderbolt of an in-swinging leg-cutter that sent VVS Laxman’s off-stump cartwheeling; one of those Jesus deliveries we see every so often from Anderson and that, if you are a worshipper of fast bowling, make the heart sing.

Broad may have deservedly been dubbed Man of the Match, but Tim Bresnan was Man of the Day with his 90 off 118 balls and his first five-wicket haul in Tests; that Bressie-lad did all this on Yorkshire Day must surely prove which side of the Pennines the Great Almighty is more partial to.

While pace won it for England, one batting feat for England is impossible to talk about without mentioning the controversy that accompanied it. In 2007 there was Jellybeangate; in 2011 it was Runoutgate, or whatever the Twitter “hash tag” is that’s been appended to it. Bell’s 159 came not just with a single slice of luck, but the whole damn pie: the Flan of Fortune, if you will.

Of course there have been two distinct, polarized points of view regarding the run-out. First, that Bell was wandering out of his ground and off for his tea because he assumed the ball Eoin Morgan had flicked off his pads had gone for four and that the over had been called, in which case all he was guilty of was extreme doziness and India’s move in removing the bails was a rather sly one.

On the other hand, never do the umpires’ job for them, and never assume. The run-out was legitimate; the umpires followed the letter of the law in giving him out, and well, hard cheese, Ian… you won’t be doing that again in the future, will you?

Uncomfortable memories of the Murali runout in 2006 and the 2008 Collingwood-Elliott incident at the Oval were dredged up; furious debate erupted over the Laws versus the Spirit of the game; the crowd howled its fury and disappointment and Trent Bridge turned into the Terrordome.

So when a small, ginger-haired batsman re-emerged from the pavilion, eyes cast sheepishly down but defiantly practising his forward defensive on his way back out to the middle, the boos that greeted the umpires and the Indian fielders turned into cheers when it emerged MS Dhoni had withdrawn his appeal, after being requested to do so by Andrew Strauss and Andy Flower, and by bending the rule that says you can only withdraw an appeal while the batsman is still on the field of play.

Everyone agreed that India had done A Good Thing. And I’d like to think Paul Collingwood may have benefited from a 20 minute break so that cooler heads might have prevailed after Ryan Sidebottom barged into Grant Elliot.

But I have a couple of issues with all of this. It is all very well citing the Spirit of Cricket, and it is of course a good thing to aspire to decency and fairness in the sport in which you choose to participate, or indeed of any other aspect that constitutes daily life and your interactions with others.

But if it had been, Kevin Pietersen, say, instead of Ian Bell at the centre of this brief but intense shit-storm, would Dhoni still have withdrawn his appeal?

One man’s spirit of cricket could very well represent a lack of killer instinct to someone else. My problem with the admirable but nebulous “spirit of the game” is that in the end it is all down to who, where, when and what – who is at the crease, the match situation, what it means for the series, the risk of having your house burned down back in India versus having missiles thrown at you on an English cricket ground.

We stopped expecting batsmen to walk when they knew they’d nicked it long ago. If you walk, you are regarded as a charming eccentric whose playing career will no doubt come to a premature end because of it. Who’s to say in ten years we’ll look back at what happened at Trent Bridge and wonder, with the Test top spot up for grabs, at the admirable but charming quaintness of Dhoni’s action?

When “doing the right thing” involves the inevitable conflict between morality and self-interest, there is never any guarantee that the “right” decision will be made.

Andy Flower’s assertion that “We felt that Bell wasn’t attempting to take a run and therefore we wanted to ask the Indian side to reconsider their appeal” does not sit all that easily with his admonition to Andrew Strauss after the England captain’s recall of Sri Lankan batsman Angelo Mathews in a Champions Trophy clash in 2009. Mathews was run out after a collision with Graham Onions that was entirely accidental – Onions was genuinely trying to get out of Mathews’ way – but Flower stated afterwards: “I just wouldn’t have done it. I would have sent the batsman on his way. He ran into the bowler. Simple deal.” Hmm.

Pondering a lucky escape

Pondering a lucky escape? Bell in the field on Day 4

I think Dhoni made the right decision but Bell, according to the Laws of the game, was completely in the wrong and his on-camera interview after close of play was evasive and defensive; no doubt he had been coached on what to say, as he could barely give a straight answer to any of the questions.

Perhaps the best thing that can be said of all this ruckus is that England did not win by 22 runs – or the 69 more runs Bell put on with Morgan after the former was reinstated.

International incident narrowly averted. Going by the blizzard of gushing, laudatory press releases that began landing on journos’ desks soon after, Dhoni’s act of chivalry seems to have been seized on with some relief by the various governing bodies at being handed a break from having to deal with the rather more pressing concerns of slow over-rates and the non-use of Hawk Eye in lbw decisions.

Shane Warne referred to the “warm, fuzzy” feel-good feeling that enveloped Trent Bridge after the resolution of Bellgate. While cricket is currently dislocating its shoulders slapping its own back, and enjoying an enthusiastic orgy of self-fellatio, a bigger storm could very well be brewing on the horizon.

Five days and one moment

Monday, July 25th, 2011

If Andrew Strauss sounded a little hoarse in the post-match presentation today, that is understandable. No doubt the result of much appealing, it was probably even more down to celebration, as England made sharp, clinical work of scything down India’s second innings to wrap up a historic 2000th Test match.

It’s been five days of ebbs and flows, ups and downs, and unexpected detours along the way. It’s seen scintillating batting and superb bowling from England and an India weakened by injury and absence and doing the best with what it had only to find England far too strong an opponent.

Above all, it’s shown that rather than the twitching corpse many alarmists would have you believe  Test cricket resembles – and that’s not to say there isn’t rightly concern for its future – it is capable of climbing off the canvas, kneeing you in the balls to get your attention, and making you forget every meaningless ODI and T20 you’ve ever been exposed to.

That’s not to say the shorter forms don’t have their place – and it’d be churlish of me to take too much issue with T20 considering Leicestershire are doing rather well in that format right now – but Test cricket remains the very greatest format the sport has to offer. Preferring Test cricket does not make you boring, uncool or an antediluvian dinosaur stuck in an ivory tower (not, of course, that there is anything wrong with this).

It means you want to see the best cricketers in the world being judged on their abilities to perform at the highest level. It means paying attention rather than instant gratification; it means witnessing moments of greatness or disappointment, or even sometimes moments of farce and anticlimax, but all of these are threads in a tapestry you can only truly admire by stepping back and viewing them in the context of the whole.

If this sounds a tad precious, I apologise. Like most cricket lovers I’ve spent hours trying to explain my love for cricket; sometimes, I’ve even managed to succeed. Tests like this sure make my job easier.

That’s not, however, to say it was a classic meeting of equals. India did not look like the number one side. Undercooked through lack of preparation, missing their star opener, their lead bowler hors de combat and the continuation of Sachin’s Lord’s hoodoo (34 in the first innings, 12 in the second) meant England always looked the better side. With a few exceptions, the galacticos could hardly be described as having performed well as a unit, and they will be hoping Zaheer Khan will at least be back for Trent Bridge where he performed so well in the Jellybeangate Test of ‘07, snaffling 9 wickets and a deserved Man of the Match award.

From the hard slog of Day One, to KP’s all-banners-flying double ton on Friday, with Ian Bell and Matt Prior in support; golden boy Stuart Broad regaining his lustre; Matt Prior’s rescue-mission ton after the wobble caused by a resurgent Ishant Sharma; Jimmy Anderson’s five wicket haul, his 11th in Tests and his third at HQ… We had drama, controversy (oh, for a full DRS!), queues since 2AM stretching down the Wellington Road and Tendulkar causing a near-riot as he came back from a net session before the start of play…

I love Test cricket so much right now, I should probably be served with a restraining order.

Tendulkar in the field, Day One

Tendulkar in the field, Day One

But. India are not the number one team for nothing. They may have the unfortunate habit of losing first Tests in series, but a two-match margin of victory for England is far away still.

India needed only 73 runs in their second innings to win at Trent Bridge the last time these teams met there. Tendulkar scored 91 in the first innings. The year after that, 2008, the new stand went up, with the resultant microclimate helping the ball to hoop round corners. Jimmy Anderson could run riot here, Tremlett has excellent form against India at this ground, and India will be praying Zaheer Khan is fit.

The best is yet to come.

One last thing. If I were told tomorrow that I’d be stricken with total amnesia regarding this match and that I would only be allowed to remember one moment from it, despite England’s superb victory, I’d choose to remember a shot played by a batsman on the losing side. That shot was Rahul Dravid’s airborne punch through extra-cover that took him to 98: daylight between feet and ground, every muscle tensed like a Bernini statue brought to life, a perfection of balance and timing with the added flourish that makes cricket-porn tragics like me take a long, deep and satisfied breath: the hot-spot replay showing the white heat signature bang in the middle of the blade.

The past five days have showcased everything that is great about Test cricket. And sometimes, true greatness comes distilled in a single moment.

Pietersen: grit, graft and genius

Saturday, July 23rd, 2011

I have been present at three of Kevin Pietersen’s five Test centuries at Lord’s.

I wasn’t present when he raised his bat after smearing the ball through the covers for four to bring up his 202*, but I was there to watch him lay the cornerstone, making bricks out of mud and constructing the foundation of a major personal achievement and a big England total through hard bloody graft.

The first day of this Test was a frustrating one for spectators, topped and tailed by rain, runs at a premium, Zaheer Khan and Praveen Kumar threatening with the new ball under a gloomy sky that made it hoop and swing.

I only go to Lord’s about twice a year these days – the provincial on day-release to the Big Smoke – but it’s a magical place even when it’s raining. I’m still recovering two days later due to acute shoulder knack after carrying all the assorted junk needed for a day at the cricket when the weathermen can’t make up their minds as to when it’s likely to chuck it down, and besides, one never knows when one will miss one’s last train back to Hobbiton and be forced to construct a shelter for the night made of sticks, cardboard boxes and a shopping trolley. It pays to be prepared. Add to that the accumulated spoils along the way of newspapers, programme, obligatory book purchased from the Lord’s shop, and I feel like a squaddy who’s done a ten-mile run with a full pack. Maybe I’ll be lucky and regain full use of my arms by Wednesday.

Anyway, while Day One didn’t give us much in the way of action, in the light of Kevin Pietersen’s mighty knock yesterday it’s interesting now looking back on the notes I made when I got home on Thursday. Pietersen looked like the proverbial long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs that day; the ball found the edge of his bat more than the middle, and England didn’t so much look in top gear as they resembled a pensioner backing a Lada Riva estate out of the driveway and onto a busy street via a sharp turn, the cat, and the cunningly placed tricycle belonging to the kid next door.

While Pietersen looked undeniably nervous, there was also a grit-your-teeth determination to him, to make it through the day and grind out the runs now matter how hard, or how ugly, they came. It is easy to say this with hindsight, but I had a feeling today would be the day which, by the application of sheer bloody-mindedness and strength of will, would be the acorn from which a mighty oak would grow.

You could point to the support of Ian Bell and Matthew Prior at the other end while KP was accelerating through the gears yesterday, but to me his most important partnership was with Jonathan Trott on the first day, because that was when runs for Pietersen came the hardest. He finished Thursday on 22*, while Trott outscored him on his way to another inexorable 50. If Trott had departed before play was called off due to bad light, the unsettling effect on Pietersen could have proved disastrous for his search for fluency.

Trott gets his 50

Trott gets his 50

That fluency was in full, imperious flow by the time Pietersen raised his bat yesterday to acknowledge the applause marking his third Test double century. His second came seven months ago in Adelaide, and while it does not feel that long ago, sprinkled as it will remain with Ashes stardust, seven months is an eternity in cricket, and in a batsman’s career.

Forgive me if I’ve gone on about this before, but the public’s relationship with Pietersen proves endlessly fascinating to me. There’s of course been all the ruckus over his vulnerability to left-arm spin, which seems finally to have been laid to rest (Strauss is now the subject of the spotlight’s glare due to his own unfortunate weakness facing southpaws) and the frequently expressed view that no one should be given a free ride due to past brilliance if this brilliance is constantly “on the cusp” of returning.

With KP, though, there’s always the sense of schadenfreude when he’s out of nick, as if he is paying the price for his arrogance, and the urge to kick a man when he is down is a temptation many are too happy to give in to. When Pietersen does well, it is expected of him; when he does not, the glee, the carping over his South African heritage, the barbs levelled at his “ego”… well, it all provides good tabloid fodder when often there is precious little else to write about. So it goes. No doubt he is used to it.

Pietersen’s first 50 runs came from 134 balls; the 50 that took him to 100 from 82. From 100 to 150 took him 85 balls; from 150 to 200 only 25. By the end he was seeing each delivery like the proverbial football; Ishant Sharma the lugubrious, floppy-haired victim of this late and gloriously unrestrained hitting.

I wasn’t present to watch Pietersen in full, triumphant flow yesterday, but on Thursday I saw him do the donkeywork. I missed the edifice’s completion, but I was there when the first stone was laid, and that feels as great a privilege.

KP lays the foundations

KP lays the foundations

Finally, another thing I’ve liked from the play so far has been the relative lack of rancour between the two sides, but we are of course only on day 3 of a possible 20 possible days of Test cricket (16 according to a confused Jonathan Trott in his amusing interview the other day) so there is time yet for a vigorous ejection of toys from prams.

The banter between Pietersen and Praveen Kumar especially has been good to see. These two know each other from the IPL (ex Bangalore team-mates) and the moment in which PK congratulated KP, and vice versa – Praveen having stepped up admirably in the absence of a hamstrung Zaheer to take his maiden Test 5-wicket haul – was a great moment.

Having had a discussion recently with another cricket fan on Twitter as to whether the notion of “the gentleman’s game” has ever been anything other than rose-tinted romantic idealism, it was a pleasant reminder that decency and respect for the opposition does not need to be a casualty in these days of spiralling sponsorship deals and endless arguments over technology.

Still, early days… This series has a long way to go yet.

England v India Lord’s preview

Sunday, July 17th, 2011

If the Sri Lankan series just concluded was a humdrum, monochrome blur – the equivalent, in televisual terms, of a clapped-out black and white portable from Radio Rentals with a vertical hold problem and half its knobs missing – India are now here with a promise to dazzle us in flat-screen glorious 3D technicolour with a kick-ass sound system.

When it comes to a vision for the future of our great game, we all know it is the BCCI hogging the remote, but clear your viewing schedules now because this shit is going to be more overblown than a Cecil B. DeMille epic – though maybe not quite as long, satisfied as we must be with four Tests.

India are the number one ICC Test ranked nation. Their batting lineup is the stuff of legend, stats-porn and “best of all time” lists. If Sachin doesn’t make your World XI list, then I doubt there is anything else we could ever agree on. Some of these galacticos we may never see in England again.

Of course the talk is all about Sachin. The printing presses of Britain’s newspapers are probably looking at an ink shortage after all the articles written about him in the Sunday sports sections. There’s even been the sly suggestion that The Little Master gave the Windies tour the swerve to give himself the optimum chance of his 100th international hundred coming at Lord’s. Given his highest score there is 37, we could be traversing the realms of wishful thinking rather than the cold hard face of probability, but it is nice to dream.

Just as much as I am looking forward to Sachin chasing that impossible dream, I am looking forward to watching Rahul Dravid, a man who has always laboured in Sachin’s shadow. The fact that both India and England have rock-steady, unflappable accumulators as their number 3s appeals to my sense of symmetry and anticipation of close contest. And if VVS Laxman shows us just a hint of the swivel-jointed wristiness that has made commentators purr and opposing nations weep (Australia in 2008, 2004, 2001 etc.) then that will make me exceedingly happy.

Of course, nothing would give me greater pleasure than to see England grab the top spot with a 2-Test margin series victory. The chances of this happening are extremely unlikely, but I believe we have the better bowling attack, and “attack” will be the operative word against a side that will punish anything wayward. Chris Tremlett, with his height and bounce, will be aiming for the jugular. He will be re-entering the arena against some familiar faces. He was impressive against India at Trent Bridge in 2007, albeit in a losing cause, and knows he can give them problems. Graeme Swann, with his flight and guile, has the edge over counterpart Harbhajan, and when the ball swings, Jimmy Anderson is nigh-on unplayable.

As I’m writing this, Andrew Strauss has just scored a century for Somerset against India in the tour match at Taunton. Warm-up matches are of course not the be-all and end-all as far predictors of success go. Taunton’s is the flattest of flat decks, and the Indian bowling is rusty and missing three of its key men. Strauss may not have the strategic nous or the charisma of MS Dhoni, and must reassert his authority after handing over the captaincy reins to Alastair Cook in the ODIs against Sri Lanka, but he is an Ashes winner and one half of the duo, along with Andy Flower, who has built England up to the position of considerable strength they now occupy. He will have to do what Dhoni has rightly become famous for: leading from the front.

The kings of world cricket versus the pretenders to the throne: it is inevitable that proceedings at some point are going to get… tense. Heated, even. On-field decisions will be questioned, there will be trash-talking and sabre-rattling and India’s new coach, Duncan Fletcher, not exactly a “people person”, will no doubt get pissed off at someone. Fletcher has already found himself in the unenviable position of being a staunch advocate of the decision review system while at the same team being national coach for a country that wants fuck-all to do with it. Fletcher’s skill as a coach is almost universally unquestioned, though I can’t help feeling it will all end in tears at some point. In the meantime, I’m sure that a purported pay-cheque of £700,000 is a nice palliative.

The visitors, with much pomp and fanfare, are marching into the valley, but England can gain an early advantage in grabbing the high ground at Lord’s. India have arrived in England on the back of three Tests against the West Indies which many critics think they should have steam-rollered beyond a simple “job done” 1-0 scoreline. Some of their key players haven’t played any meaningful cricket since the IPL, and they are now in the process of chasing 462 at Taunton, with play currently suspended due to rain. As preparation for a Test series goes, it ain’t ideal.

Egos will be bruised, tempers will flare, drama will be ensue, and legends will be written.

Grab your popcorn. Fuck Harry Potter. This is the must-see blockbuster of the summer.


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!