Archive for the ‘ODI’ Category

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.

England World T20 champions – surely some mistake

Monday, June 27th, 2011

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

Then the blokes came on.

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’re not in Barbados any more, Toto.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Split captaincy for short-of-options England

Thursday, May 5th, 2011

Paul Collingwood is “very disappointed” at being stripped of the Twenty20 captaincy.

Stuart Broad, his replacement, has said, “It’s a huge privilege to be named England Twenty20 captain and form part of a leadership team that I’ve no doubt will work well together with a great deal of synergy,” craftily using management-speak pablum to repeat himself in the same sentence.

Alastair Cook, England’s new ODI captain, looked like a Chinese water deer in the sights of one of his own shotguns as he proffered some flannel about how his one-day form for Essex has improved even though he hasn’t been a part of England’s one-day side “for a while” – not since March 2010, to be exact.

One can understand Andrew Strauss relinquishing the One Day captaincy and retiring from this form of the game. He, along with Andy Flower, have been the prime movers in England’s recent Ashes success but both men have recognized the need to pace themselves. There is the suggestion that Flower, in extending his coaching contract with England, will be able to sit out selected tours, and Strauss, who will be 38 at the time of the next World Cup, understandably wishes to concentrate on Test cricket and the captaincy job he has performed so admirably.

The message today’s split-captaincy announcements seem to send out is that, with the Test team settled, the 2015 World Cup is now the next item on England’s agenda.

The only problem is, neither of these captaincy appointments is ideal and smack of a makeshift approach because of a lack of other options.

Cook’s form in Test cricket is unquestioned. But for a man who has played only 3 ODIs in the last two and a half years to not only be shoehorned into the team but also given the captaincy sounds like desperation. It suggests that since Cook is Test captain-in-waiting he was the only option.

He may very well turn out to be effective in the opening position Strauss has now vacated – I doubt he will perform any worse than Matt Prior did – but leading the team to victory in one series against Bangladesh hardly suggests a CV with any great depth in the captaincy department.

I have bigger problems with Stuart Broad as England’s new Twenty20 captain.

Cook may have captained England in five matches already; Broad does not even have that.

At the start of today’s press conference, England managing director Hugh Morris referred to Broad’s “leadership credentials”. What those are, exactly, remains unexplained. Broad, while being of undeniable value to an England team in terms of his bowling, will hardly be of much use to his country if he is watching from the sidelines because he has clashed heads with officialdom.

Broad, while earning plaudits for his bowling and batting in the series against Pakistan last year, won himself rather fewer fans with his on-field behaviour, and there were many, myself included, who believed the penalty levied against him for petulantly hurling the ball at Zulqarnain Haider should have been considerably stiffer.

Broad says he has “learned from that” and wants to “set a good example and play the game in the right way,” but I am yet to be convinced.

I’m always wary when it comes to setting up sportsmen as paragons of what examples to the young should be, but it’s the idea that the England management have confused petulance with competitiveness – and worse, leadership potential – that worries me.

Personally, I’d like to have seen Kevin Pietersen given another shot at captaincy – in either format – but despite what KP might say regarding being in large part responsible for England’s renaissance after the removal of Peter Moores (and I’d be inclined to agree with him), the fact that Andy Flower was also in his sights no doubt remains a black mark against him.

So now, England will take on this summer’s visitors Sri Lanka and India with two inexperienced captains, a new ODI opening partnership and a bowler-captain who is rightly praised for his ability to take wickets but not for his maturity or anything that would suggest statesmanship or tactical nous.

This has been brought about because the England management have decided there are no other options: hardly a ringing endorsement for the two new incumbents.

Andy Flower has admitted the appointment of three captains is a gamble – “over the next few years we will see if that works or not,” and referred to it as “the most effective use of our resources”.

Such as they are.

No Canucks, Clogs or Irish

Tuesday, April 5th, 2011

If the ICC was a 1950s English boarding house, this is the sign it would now be displaying in its front window.

As of yesterday, the ICC has confirmed that not only will the 2015 World Cup be limited to 10 teams, but that, for the first time since 1975, there will be no qualification system to determine which teams will be allowed to participate.

This means there will be no Associate nations at the next World Cup, nor any system which would allow them even the chance to take part.

The ICC has said there will be a qualification process in place for the 2019 World Cup. To be honest, I will believe this when I see it.

That is eight years away. Eight years is a long time in cricket. Eight years is more than enough for the game to wither and die in countries whose national teams are scrabbling with everything they have, often very little, to gain a toehold on the cliff-face that is the path to Full Member status.

With this move, the ICC has not only denied the Associates this toehold; they have stamped on their fingers, kicked their hands away and spat in their faces while watching them fall.

Kevin O’Brien scored the fastest century in World Cup history when his team knocked a punch-drunk England to the canvas in 2011. In 2015, his record will be nothing but a statistic, a historical curiosity, because his team will not be there.

His team could give any of the Full Member nations a run for their money on any given day.

Meanwhile, Zimbabwe retains its Full Member status thanks to the grace of India. The money it receives from the ICC is requisitioned by a genocidal dictator for his own use. Its cricket generates no money through TV rights, and the team have been beaten soundly by every Test nation they have played against. Touring there is fraught with moral and political implications. Many of its cricketers have fled the country through fear or desperation.

And yet, to the ICC, this is acceptable.

In freezing out the Associates it has succeeded in making the 10 nations who will play in the next World Cup into a cosy cartel. It is a shocking, deeply damaging move made by venal, power-hungry nabobs who are a law unto themselves and accountable to no one.

They should, quite frankly, be fucking ashamed.

Their promise to consider a 12-team format for 2015 was a lie.

Their dangling of the carrot of a qualification process for 2015, to allow even the possibility of the Associates’ participation, was a lie.

Their mission statement, to “continually develop the quality of national team Programmes in order to close the gap between ICC Associate and Full Member playing standards” is a lie.

If you are as disgusted by this as I am, then I urge you to email the ICC at and let them know.

While you are doing that, you might also ask them to lay out clearly and precisely the path a nation’s cricket association must follow in order to progress to Full Member status. I have looked everywhere on the ICC site, but an explanation of this process does not seem forthcoming.

In eight years, cricket in Ireland, Scotland, Afghanistan and other Associate nations could be dead in the water. There will be no incentive to progress, and no perceived reason to give them financial support or assistance with coaching and development.

That the ICC should act in a way that betrays the spirit of the game they purport to protect is rightly seen as unacceptable by the vast majority of those who love this, our most beautiful of games.

Don’t let the bastards ruin everything. Make your voices heard.

The end, finally

Saturday, April 2nd, 2011

43 days and 49 matches, and in the end it still came down to the two best teams.

England entertained us; Pakistan threatened at one point to go on and become World Champions; South Africa crashed and burned. New Zealand, a tournament team if ever there was one, gave hope to underdogs everywhere by once again punching above their weight. Australia lost their chance to go for four straight trophies, and in the process lost their captain. The minnows caused a few hiccups, and some irate Bangladesh fans a few security issues.

The standard of play has not always been of the highest. In the case of some of the more incongruous mismatches, that is being charitable.

The Umpire Decision Review System; the presence of the Associate nations; the role of 50-over cricket as the stale filling in an overstuffed sandwich of Test cricket (loved by purists) and Twenty20 (loved by TV channels ands corporate fat-cats)… all have been subjected to scrutiny and debate.

But when an entire country stops for a cricket match, all of that becomes unimportant.

India played Sri Lanka today in the final because the two sides were the best and most consistent teams in the tournament. The cream always rises to the top, even though in World Cups it tends to take a while to get there.

Gary Kirsten, in watching his team win their first World Cup since 1983, oversaw a triumphant end to his tenure as India’s coach. For some, though, there were no fairytale endings. Mahela Jayawardene must have prayed fervently that his hundred, perfectly paced under great pressure, would be a match-winning one. Muttiah Muralitharan, in his last match for Sri Lanka, the team for which he has become such a talisman, failed to take a wicket. Even Sachin Tendulkar failed in his bid for that 100th international hundred, getting out to the accompaniment of stunned silence for only 18.

But cometh the hour, cometh the Indian captain. Gautam Gambhir narrowly missed out on a century with a gritty knock reminiscent of Jayawardene’s – how spoiled we are to see two teams packed with such talent – but this was MS Dhoni’s day. In an unexpected and bold act of proactive captaincy, he elevated himself up the order above the in-form Yuvraj Singh and proved himself the engine of his team, powering himself and his partners at the other end in 40 degree heat towards a total that, from Sri Lanka’s point of view, must have started to look entirely  inadequate as the runs ticked remorselessly over.

His 91* was a timely response to the critics who have been questioning his lack of runs so far in the tournament, and his leadership was exemplary.

Of course, a final wouldn’t be a final without a few cock-eyed decisions. Why Sreesanth was included in the Indian XI is unclear, given his reputation as a loose emotional cannon on a hair-trigger and with bowling to match, and his performance today did nothing to challenge that reputation. Similarly, Kumar Sangakkara’s decision to bowl Nuwan Kulasekara when India needed only 27 off 24 deliveries proved puzzling and costly.

But there was much to admire about both teams, and the way they played their cricket today. Quality teams and quality cricket: you cannot ask for more than that. And while India’s win in the end was a comprehensive one, in no way did this feel like an anticlimax.

I enjoyed this World Cup more than I expected to, given the format and those nightmare memories of 2007. On the rare occasions on which there was no cricket I found myself wondering with some alarm what the hell to do with my day. In these times of packed international schedules, though, that’s not something I’ll have to worry about too often.

After all, the IPL starts in just under a week…

Business end could prove to be sharp pointy stick for England

Wednesday, March 16th, 2011

England have been beaten by Bangladesh and Ireland. They have tied with India.

Graeme Swann’s pissed and moaned about having wet balls, Jonathan Trott’s been criticised for his scoring rate and been blamed for the national debt, global warming and the fact Wagon Wheels are not as big as they used to be, and Kevin Pietersen’s had enough and fucked off home.

If England do not beat the West Indies tomorrow, their 2011 World Cup is over.

It’s all gone horribly wrong. But to be honest, I’m having a real problem getting steamed up about it because that would presuppose I ever thought England had a real chance in this tournament anyway.

Paul Collingwood said the other day only 4 wins stood between England and WC glory. I love you, Colly, with an indecent passion reserved for gritty ginger Northerners, and am mourning what looks to be the last days of your England ODI career, but this is less a case of “cheerful optimism” as “having a fucking laugh”.

It’s not all bad, of course. Eoin Morgan marked his return to the side in the match against Bangladesh with a palate-cleansing 63. A batsman who thinks outside the box and takes the bowling on, it is good to have him back. His compadre in England’s only notable partnership in that match, Jonathan Trott, has proved England’s most consistent scorer, yet still receives criticism – unjustly – from some quarters for not scoring quickly enough.

Aside from that, it is easier to list where England have been woeful.

Jimmy Anderson has not just hit the wall: he has crashed into it full tilt and brought the whole edifice down on top of him. The seemingly endless stream of leg-side wides he bowled at the end of Bangladesh’s successful run-chase was excruciatingly tough to bear for an England fan; it was like watching a man whose foot is nailed to the floor but who has no idea why he is going round in circles. He looks gaunt, exhausted, and a shadow of the bowler he was in the Ashes.

Kevin Pietersen showed signs of starting to gel with Andrew Strauss at the top of the order, and his departure from the tournament to seek an early date with a surgeon to fix a hernia has seen Matt Prior return to the opening spot – with the result being as underwhelming as it was when he was in the role previously. There has been the suggestion that Ian Bell or Ravi Bopara may be pushed up the order.

And it’s not just fatigue that is sweeping through the squad – Stuart Broad is another who has shipped out because of injury, but not before being stricken down by the usual, delicately-termed “stomach complaint” and twice at that, losing 5kg in the process. Within the last couple of days Andrew Strauss and Graeme Swann have been similarly afflicted, and now Ajmal Shahzad as well.

Strauss is recovered, Swann was at training today though not yet one hundred per cent, and Shahzad is a serious doubt for tomorrow. This is a real blow, given that England got the ball to reverse swing at Chennai when they played against South Africa.

The form is dodgy, the omens  – and players – are ill; England have ensured that by failing to string together a convincingly coherent performance with both bat and ball that their fate is not only in their own hands but in those of others.

Ultimately, should day 27 of this World Cup prove to be their last, they will have no one to blame but themselves.

Green does not mean go for Associates

Thursday, March 3rd, 2011

Oh, Bengaluru.

First, you give us a thriller that ends in a tie. Then you give us this.

Kevin O’Brien (big lad, ginger, knows how to hit a cricket ball) out Kieron’d Pollard, out Viru’d Sehwag and eclipsed both Sachin Tendulkar and Andrew Strauss in cracking the finest innings yet seen at this World Cup, and the fastest World Cup ton ever scored, off only 50 balls.

O’Brien fell for 113 and it was left in the capable hands of John Mooney (who also took four wickets) and Trent Johnston to finish it off with 5 balls to spare. Alex Cusack also deserves a mention – his sixth wicket partnership with O’Brien was worth 162 and set Ireland up for the win.

Cue much rejoicing, and probably a fair few sore heads this morning.

This is two matches in a row that England have scored over 300 and failed to win. It’s not the batting that is the problem – though the mini-collapse at the end of yesterday’s innings was slightly worrying – but the fielding and bowling have been beyond diabolical.

Dropped catches, lousy fielding, “gimme” balls served up on a plate for batsmen to paste all round Chinnaswamy Stadium – the daft thing is, they played exactly like this against the Netherlands before raising their game against India. No doubt they’ll pick themselves up, dust themselves down and give an account of themselves against South Africa on Sunday more in line with expectations that usually surround an Ashes-winning team.

Whether it be tiredness, complacency, or a mixture of both: England cannot keep fucking up against, what is, on paper at least, lesser opposition.

Should they make it to the quarters they will not have the luxury of being shit one match and then perfectly up for the challenge the next.

But focusing on England’s failings is to unfairly take away from Ireland’s street-fighting victory. Kevin O’Brien is one tough bastard. He spent one season playing Twenty20 for Nottinghamshire but it didn’t take; before that, though, he was Ireland’s hero in the 2007 World Cup, chipping in with bat and ball and helping his side to a famous win over Pakistan.

This team is up for a fight and they know how to scrap. They were 111-5 at one stage and Strauss admitted “things were looking pretty comfortable”. Not for long. Give Ireland a chance to get back in the game and rediscover the have-a-go hero inside them, and you will be in the shit. They will take you on and if you let them, they will rip your testicles off, and then smear them all round the ground. If you want to help them out with some shitty bowling, and Barnum and Bailey Big Top fielding, well, that’s fine – thanks very much.

But in the great scheme of things this doesn’t mean a heck of a lot when it comes to advancing the cause of Associate cricket in this tournament, certainly not where the ICC is concerned.

I’ll agree, the “minnows” have, based on results, not exactly provided much in the way of an argument to the contrary.

The Netherlands may have given England a scare recently, but they were rolled comprehensively in their match against South Africa today. Kenya seem to have gone backward since making the semi-finals in 2003. Canada and Zimbabwe have had brief moments where they’ve had their opponents on the back foot, but in the unforgiving cauldron of 50 overs against Test-playing nations they have struggled.

The ICC obviously regard the Associates as a diseased limb that needs to be excised from the main trunk of the tournament to maintain its health. They point to criticism of the 2007 event, which was regarded as too long and with too many meaningless matches.

But when you look at the change that has been made for the next World Cup in 2015, this is transparent bullshit. The teams will be reduced from 14 to 10, but this will not mean the tournament will be dramatically shortened – 49 matches will be played this year, 48 in 2015 – so the idea that the tournament will be “streamlined” is patently nonsense.

A sop was thrown to the Associates with the announcement that the Twenty20 World Cup would be expanded to 16 teams in 2012. For most cricketers, though, their ambition is to play Test cricket, still the pinnacle of the sport, and no nation will ever be promoted to Test status on the back of its Twenty20 results.

The international 50-over format is currently the only way Associate nations have of advancing towards Test status. From 2015 that will exist no longer. When the decision to reduce the teams was made back in October of last year, the ICC “announced it had asked its governing council to examine the issue of qualification for ICC global events, as well as opportunities for Associate members to play ODIs, and make recommendations to the board”. So far, nothing has come of this, and one could be excused for thinking this does not seem to rank very highly on the ICC’s ladder of priorities.

What does seem to matter, however, are full stadiums, as little chance as possible of India exiting the tournament early, and a Full-Members-Only Club that is closed to outsiders who constitute too much of a gamble when it comes to providing publicity or ticket sales.

There are those who would say that being bludgeoned into the ground by stronger opposition does the smaller teams no good, that they will learn nothing from being comprehensively outplayed. Sri Lanka’s Mahela Jayawardene disagrees: “The more games they play at this level, the more they will improve. For us, it is always good to have these countries playing in big tournaments. That was how we learned. Hopefully, they will do the same”.

The development and growth of Associate cricket is essential for the sport. In 2015, the ICC has virtually ensured it will be all messed up and with nowhere to go.

Batsmen save sloppy England’s blushes

Tuesday, February 22nd, 2011

Before today’s game, Andrew Strauss said of England’s opposition: “The Netherlands have nothing to lose. We need to play smart cricket. You cannot afford to slip up.”

Prescient words by the England captain. With debate already raging about whether the so-called “minnows” of international cricket have a place in the World Cup, the Oranje did indeed play like they had nothing to lose, with star batsman Ryan ten Doeschate batting quite magnificently to make 119 out of an eventual total of 292 and give his team heart.

The slip-up, however was all England’s, and it very nearly cost them.

While ten Doeschate – South African-born, plays for Essex, sadly no desire to qualify for England – gave a wonderful display of beautiful, calculated aggression, England came apart. Jimmy Anderson, finding no swing, allowed frustration to get the better of him and began bowling beamers. A catch that should have been easily taken fell harmlessly to grass between two fielders staring helplessly at each other in wordless blame.

Filth was served up, the short-ball over-used against batsmen quite capable of countering it; Stuart Broad’s two wickets were, in contrast, from deliveries that were full and straight. Michael Yardy was bafflingly left out for Ravi Bopara, who, equally bafflingly, batted in Matt Prior’s erstwhile number six position.

Thankfully, on a pitch conducive to runs and against a standard of bowling at odds with the batting that had preceded it, England got home with eight balls to spare.

This isn’t T20, in which associate teams are more likely to pull off upsets (see Lord’s 2009 between these same two teams), where isolated moments can change the game dramatically and David has a chance to send Goliath crashing.

England had all the time that should have been required to bowl the Dutch out or keep them to a modest total, and perhaps, in truth, they believed they could do so easily. Perhaps it was this underestimation that helped boost Dutch courage and helped ten Doeschate to play with the glorious freedom he has so often shown for Essex.

Whatever the reason, sloppiness infected the fielding side like a virus, and India, England’s next opponent on Sunday, will have been watching this with considerable interest.

The World Cup may have started for England, but it seems they are still to get out of first gear.

Bring on the Rickshaws

Thursday, February 17th, 2011

Ah, opening ceremonies, god love ‘em.

Synchronized activities involving a local mode of transport; slightly sinister mascot; off-key musical number by a washed-up rock star paying the mortgage; more money than the national debt of Venezuela going up in smoke in a gloriously over-the-top fireworks display to put a merciful end to the cringe-inducing proceedings.

I bloody loathe ‘em. But then there will only ever be one Fatso the Wombat.

More importantly though, now that that’s over, we can concentrate on the meat of the action  – though unfortunately, that comes after the group stages, which Mark Waugh has predicted England will not advance beyond.

This is because England are failing abysmally in giving the impression they know what the hell they’re doing when it comes to 50-over cricket.

“Their form has been ordinary,” Waugh says. Oh, it’s been worse than that, mate. The CB series – well, who gives a rat’s proverbial about some limited overs series after the Ashes? Hang on, there’s a World Cup just around the corner? Thank Christ we were able to leave the country with that little terracotta thingy.

Waugh also helpfully added: “I think Eoin Morgan is a huge loss for them; he’s their best one-day player.”

Ouch. Yeah, y’see, about that… Morgs, trying to be the brave little soldier, insisted it was merely a bruise and played another two ODIs. England decided it was rather worse than that, and decided the stricken digit would need surgery. Last week, Morgan announced on Twitter the injury was not that bad and no operation was needed. “Pretty much healed..will be back sooner than expected!!”

Cue red faces at the ECB and one hell of an own goal all round. Having said this, Morgan’s form in the Australian one-dayers, even allowing for his injury, was someway below his scintillating best. Now, though, the only opportunity he will have to show he is still the one-day side’s most devastating batsman is through injury to a current member of the squad.

But that’s only the half of it. Unfortunately, two batsmen are needed to open; a source of much hand-wringing for England over the years. Matt Prior was the latest poor sap to be “volunteered” for the position of opener, with decidedly mixed results.

In their warm-up match against Canada on Wednesday, Andrew Strauss opened the batting with… Kevin Pietersen. An England spokesman announced just before the match started that this was to be their strategy for the World Cup. Alrighty then!

KP didn’t quite get round to hitting the ignition switch – he was out for 24. But after the boggling in disbelief finally subsided, this move by England makes a bizarre kind of sense (if you discard completely the sneaking suspicion this was an act of knee-jerk desperation of the “We’ve lost Morgs; Matty’s not cutting the mustard at the top of the innings; Jesus, we are doomed” variety).

Pietersen is struggling for runs and confidence. Spin is the factor that will win a World Cup on dustbowls that would test Rommel. Spin, especially of the left-arm variety, has a tendency to make Kevin a bit twitchy. Matt Prior has been a fish out of water at the top – he has never looked comfortable and usually gets out with a rash shot because he feels he has to get the scoreboard moving.

KP opening, however, just might work. He denies he has been given the role of pinch hitter, but after a week in which rumours abounded that he was planning to retire from one-day cricket after the World Cup – eminently plausible but which he denied – this could be the galvanising factor needed to kick-start his comeback, both as regards his talent and his ego.

I love opening batsmen. They are the first in the line of fire, the ones who go over the top, who face everything an angry quick hopped up on aggression can throw at them. It is a challenge tailor-made for Pietersen, and with Morgan absent, something drastic was needed to shake up England’s currently moribund batting. So I’ll be watching this latest experiment with interest.

Pietersen might not have made an immediate impact in his new position, but Matt Prior’s innings of 78 at no. 6 saved England from an even bigger embarrassment than beating Canada by a meagre 16 runs.

This is where Prior should be batting – he is excellent at judging a match situation, responding to it, and saving it. While wickets fell at the other end, he cracked on at a brisk rate to get the England total more in line with expectations that accompany a match against a perceived minnow.

The minnow gave the bigger fish a bit of a scare, though. I confess feel partly responsible for this: before this match started I’d picked Canada as my chosen Associate nation (read: gutsy underdog, not a hope in hell) to support in this World Cup. While Rizwan Cheema was going berserk and scoring 93 out of his side’s eventual 227, it did wearily cross my mind that it was typical that Canada would have one good match, and bloody inevitable that it would be against England.

I’d like to be more optimistic about England’s chances. Maybe that’s a good thing though, as I won’t be disappointed, and I will be able to pen at least a couple of expletive-laden rants about it.

In other, more encouraging news, Leicestershire’s own little Little Master, James Taylor, continues his march towards an England place. Narrowly missing out on a double ton for the England Lions against Barbados, following on from the 96 he made against the Leeward Islands, it is surely only a matter of time.

England’s next warmup match, against Pakistan, is on Friday. It is not against an Associate nation, so England should be okay, though I have the sneaking feeling Pakistan could go on to win the whole damn thing. We will see.

More chore than challenge

Tuesday, February 8th, 2011

England’s run-chase at Perth ended 57 runs short, with Jimmy Anderson skying a top edge that plopped obediently into the gloves of Brad Haddin. And so this interminable ODI series ended, with a tired whimper of the “please make it stop” variety.

If ever England needed a salutary reminder that Australia are better than they are at the one-day stuff, this was it. But on the evidence of this Chinese water-torture of a series, that really isn’t saying much. While the hosts may have won 6 games to England’s solitary Australia Day victory at Adelaide, the standard of cricket on show from both sides was – with the exception of isolated individual performances – pretty damned excruciating.

In terms of England’s preparation for the World Cup, this series seems to have achieved nothing aside from crippling half the team, muddling team selection, and filling us all – players and fans alike – with a leaden sense of weariness at the prospect of a World Cup tournament that presents more of a chore than a challenge.

And that is just the start of a crazy, fucked-up international schedule more over-crowded than a Mumbai commuter train and dreamt up by some sadistic lunatic at ICC Towers yelling “more cowbell” while manically trying to shoehorn yet another meaningless one-day series into the one or two gaps left on his “Future Tours of Doom” spreadsheet.

I’m as guilty as the next man who, on waking up at some godforsaken time in the morning, wistfully ponders the possibility that there must be a cricket match going on somewhere in the world, and is duly rewarded with the thrill of impatiently stabbing the refresh key on a sporadically-updated scorecard of Ireland vs. an Uzbekistan XI. But then I’m not the one who has to schlep round the world doing this for a living while being spared the odd couple of days reacquainting myself with the wife and kids who have forgotten what I look like before I jet off half way round the world for the next tournament.

It is very easy to react with scorn, as many do (Ian Botham, to name but one) to players’ fears of burnout. “Whining, overpaid bunch of prima donnas”; “playing for one’s country should be a privilege”, etc, etc.

But this is ignoring the bigger picture – one of quantity over quality, of TV rights and quick-fix entertainment, of players burning twice as brightly but only half as long before their ailing, over-extended bodies land them on the international scrapheap, or  – worse still – depriving us of young talent that needs time to bloom, and, in cases of injury, to heal.

Eoin Morgan is a case in point. Disappointing in the series just gone, he will now not play a part in England’s World Cup campaign due to a broken finger sustained during the 4th ODI in Adelaide. That he continued playing must have been not only through the determination to play through any discomfort in the belief the injury was not serious, but surely, it must also have been motivated by the biggest fear a young player can have: that of being dropped from the team. As it turns out, the finger was not merely bruised: he will now need surgery, and Ravi Bopara will take his place on the subcontinent. As Andy Flower said during the announcement: “No one is irreplaceable”.

Morgan aside, the roll-call of England’s injured runs thus: Paul Collingwood (back spasms); Tim Bresnan (calf strain); Chris Tremlett (side strain); Ajmal Shahzad (hamstring) and Graeme Swann (knee and hip). Stuart Broad, whose side strain was not incurred during the Commonwealth Bank series, also faces a race against time to be fit.

Not that Australia have fared much better. Nathan Hauritz and Mike Hussey have been declared hors de combat due to injuries suffered in the ODIs. Hauritz, finally readmitted to the side at Hobart, went down with a right-shoulder dislocation while fielding, and Hussey is recovering from surgery to a hamstring ruptured while batting at Melbourne. Other ODI injuries currently being monitored are Brad Haddin (knee) and Steve Smith (groin).

They at least have the consolation of a rejuvenated Brett Lee and the fact that Ricky Ponting is confident he will be fit (though whether Ponting is still the one-day player he once was is another question entirely).

But for England especially, the prospects of World Cup success look distinctly bleak.

Kevin Pietersen, never backwards in giving his opinion,  has already expressed his dissatisfaction over the over-crowded international schedule, and the elongated format of the World Cup in particular.

“It’s far too long. How can the England team play once and then in six days’ time play again, and then in six days’ time play again? It’s ridiculous but there’s nothing we can do about the schedules. I wouldn’t say we’re going to be knackered because it’s going to be the World Cup and we all want to win this World Cup.”

Knackered, though, they will be. And while Pietersen may try to sound like he is not complaining, it does not exactly give the impression of a team firing on all cylinders and relishing the challenge ahead.

A weary England team arrived back at Heathrow this afternoon. On Saturday, they fly off again, to Bangladesh. While the important fact remains that England have won the Ashes, and that no one will really remember the 6-1 drubbing that followed, it’s the long term consequences to the well-being and success of the international team that will prove the most worrying.

Enjoy those three days on the couch, Kevin. They are the last you will enjoy for some considerable time.