Archive for February, 2011

And… I’m spent.

Sunday, February 27th, 2011

Andrew Strauss wasn’t kidding when he said England tend to raise their game against bigger opponents than the Netherlands. Only trouble is, he may as well have added, “We are England, so nothing is ever that that straightforward”.

It seems appropriate that this game against India would end in a tie, given the similarities between the two sides with both bat and ball. Sehwag gave three chances in the first over and then got out for 35; Tendulkar, making history yet again, made his 5th World Cup ton (his 98th international hundred – age shall not dim him, the years not weary him). India were past 300 before Tim Bresnan took 3 quick wickets and they were all out for 338.

In England’s reply, they were level on runs with India after five overs. Pietersen, still working on his strategy as an opener, made 31, while Andrew Strauss played a captain’s innings and then some with a magnificent 158. We were treated to Ian Bell bizarrely playing the Yuvraj role  – chipping in with an aggressive half century and providing able support for his team’s top scorer.

Just when it seemed an England victory was nailed on, and Indian fans were streaming from the ground – the fools – Zaheer Khan steamed in to take three quick wickets and turn the match. A desperate, almighty six from Ajmal Shahzad straight down the ground, two needed off the last ball, and throats being screamed raw at the Chinnaswamy as Shahzad and Graeme Swann ran like Forrest Gump stricken with the shits and sprinting for the nearest khazi. (Which reminds me – get well soon, Stuart Broad.)

All this, and we’re still only in the group stage.

India will be worried by the fact they could not defend 338. Andy Flower, judging by his expression while those around him on the balcony clapped and cheered, will be wondering why the hell England didn’t win.

We are nine days into this World Cup, and while only yesterday I was musing that this tournament has yet to bore me, now, it is properly exciting me.

Is this thing switched on? Why yes. Yes it is.

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.