Archive for May, 2011

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!

The Untalented Mr. Shankar

Saturday, May 28th, 2011

“I always thought it would be better to be a fake somebody than a real nobody.”
The Talented Mr. Ripley

In the film based on Patricia Highsmith’s novel, Tom Ripley, a young man down on his luck and making a meagre living as a men’s room attendant in Manhattan, manages to con his way into a hedonistic, moneyed European lifestyle through the expediency of a borrowed dinner jacket, a case of mistaken identity, and a talent for three things: lying, pretending to be somebody else, and forging signatures.

As his lies grow ever more convoluted, his desperation to maintain the world he has inveigled himself into and the identity he has built for himself rises accordingly. Morality becomes blurred, murder becomes a means and everything becomes subservient to maintaining the illusion. In this, he is successful. While there are a few instances where his luck and ingenuity almost desert him, he is never caught.

Adrian Shankar’s luck seems to have run out for good last week, when the Worcestershire batsman had his contract terminated because of doubts surrounding the documents he presented to the club upon signing with them.

While many inconsistencies have emerged regarding his background, with questions being asked about certain dubious achievements – junior tennis prodigy, member of the  Arsenal youth academy, prolific run-scorer in a Sri Lankan T20 tournament over the winter which conveniently no-one can find any records for – it is the mystery surrounding his age that seems to have landed him in hot water, and which has now led Worcestershire to contact the police.

Shankar, studying Law at Queen’s College, Cambridge, first played for the university cricket club in 2002, and captained it in 2003 and 2004. His figures were modest, with a score of 143 against Oxford being the only time he ever made more than 40, and marked him out as being of no exceptional ability.

On his profile page on the university’s website, his year of birth is given as 1982. However, when he signed for Worcestershire in May of this year, he presented the club with a photocopy of his passport which gave his year of birth as 1985, and 26 was the age duly mentioned in the club’s press release announcing their new star acquisition.

Shankar is supposed to have come to the club’s attention over the winter, where he is purported to have played in the Sri Lankan Mercantile League T20 tournament in which he was leading run-scorer and averaged over 52. According to Shankar’s Twitter feed, now deleted, he does seem to have been abroad this winter, and the league in question does seem have existed, and matches do seem to have been played.

However, it was a breakaway tournament unsanctioned by the Sri Lankan cricket board, and with players unpaid and legal proceedings ongoing, the league’s website has been taken down, conveniently making it impossible to check Shankar’s scores or whether he even participated in the tournament at all.

Shankar is not the first cricketer to lie about his age. Basil d’Oliveira also pretended to be three years younger when he signed for Worcestershire back in 1964, to help sway the England selectors. In the subcontinent, the practice of fudging a cricketer’s age is allegedly rife.

But what has made this particular episode rather more serious is that the ECB awards incentives to counties fielding young England-qualified players and Shankar, by giving his age as 26, seems to have slipped in under the threshold. It is perhaps concern at possible accusation of complicity in this that has prompted Worcestershire to report the matter to West Mercia Police.

And thus has ended a ten-year cricket career, in which he has played 2nd XI cricket for Middlesex, Lancashire and Worcestershire along with his early appearances for Bedfordshire School and Cambridge University, and with the odd game of club and Minor County cricket along the way. It is a path he now seems to have been helped along with the aid of untruths, unverifiable achievements and spurious testimonials. The latter includes a glowing quote from Cambridge coach Chris Scott in the Lancashire press release in which he is supposed to have called Shankar the best batsman seen in the Cambridge side since John Crawley – Lancashire removed the quote when Scott called them to protest he had said no such thing.

One does wonder why Shankar was ever made Cambridge captain at all, especially given Scott’s recent damning assessment that the bowling he faced during his innings of 143 was “unbelievably bad” (amusingly, the bowling attack contained future England and current Middlesex player, Jamie Dalrymple).

I would be lying if I said there was a part of me that doesn’t admire Shankar’s chutzpah. His record as a cricketer is average, sure, but one could point at more than a few players of underwhelming ability currently treading water in the county system; the difference being of course that they may not have used subterfuge to get there.

Would Shankar’s lies have been more excusable if he had been more talented? D’Oliveira’s dissembling about his age seems a very small thing in the light of the great significance of what he went on to achieve. If Shankar had somehow bloomed as a batsman and scored several hundreds for Worcestershire before his lies caught up with him, would we have found it easier to forgive him?

A young man  – though not quite so young as we were led to believe – of average ability, but of above-average intelligence, it seems that in the end Adrian Shankar seems not to have been smart enough.

We all of us have dreams. Plainly some of us will go to greater lengths than others to achieve them.

Enthusiasm: curbed

Friday, May 27th, 2011

If yesterday was a day shortened by rain then today was a very, very long one indeed.

Not just in terms of time, in that it went on till 7:30 to try to make up time lost due to yesterday’s weather, but also because it bloody felt like it.

Albeit on a pitch so flat you could slap white lines down the middle of it and call it an Autobahn, Sri Lanka managed to make exactly 400 without meaningful contributions from their two superstars, Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara. Wicket-keeper Prasanna Jayawardene in particular was quietly impressive, playing such a disciplined, unflustered innings that it was almost a shock to look up at the TV and see he was on 99. How the hell did that happen?

It was that kind of day. Maybe it’s the weather, or the underwhelming attendance figures at the SWALEC, but this barely feels like the first Test of the summer should. Even the fielding side could barely seem to muster any enthusiasm, with heads down, boundaries relinquished through sloppy fielding, and half chances going begging in slips and gully. I think my own reaction to the last in particular is telling – instead of shaking my fist at the telly with barely-suppressed rage and yelling something unrepeatable when Alastair Cook dropped a thick outside edge after tea from Perera off Broad, I could only sigh wearily and pine for the days of Collingwood.

It does not help that Cardiff is not really “coming to the party” when it comes to putting forward a case for being a Test venue. It passed its first examination, an Ashes Test in 2009 which gave it the inbuilt safety net that if any operational glitches occurred no one would mind too much as it was the razzmatazz and the on-field action (Monty! Jimmy! Bilal Shafayat and the Fat Physio!) that took centre stage.

This year, with pissing rain, a support act in terms of opposition (India being obviously this year’s main attraction) a flat wicket, a malfunctioning scoreboard and a flapping white cloth in lieu of a sight-screen, well, it’s all been a bit of an anticlimax, hasn’t it?

Tomorrow could very well be more of the same, given the strength of England’s batting (surely Jonathan Trott could ask for no better wicket than this one), though it was a good piece of bowling by Suranga Lakmal that did for Andrew Strauss in the day’s last over. Sri Lanka will be buoyed up by this, as well as with their performance with the bat, when they take the field tomorrow.

But if it’s a classic all-out head-to-head between bat and ball you’re after, the chances of that look exceedingly slim, and I can’t help but feel that this series will only really start once we get to the Big Smoke and Lord’s.

I’m sorry, Wales, but there it is.

Underdogs confound expectations

Thursday, May 26th, 2011

He may not smile like Pygocentrus nattereri, or scent blood, or sink his teeth into a bowling attack.

But Tharanga “Piranha” Paranavitana batted through a truncated first day of play in the First Test at Cardiff today to show that Sri Lanka are very far from the pushovers everyone expected them to be.

While opinion swam between “clear underdog” due to an inexperienced attack and “perhaps a slightly tougher opposition than first assumed” after the win when following on at Derby, it seems the consensus of most seasoned observers seemed to founder on the shoals of “a side that is expected to struggle” as the Sri Lankan seamer injury count escalated.

Granted, this was only the first day – and a short day at that, given that play eventually started at 3:30 due to persistent showers – but the fact that the visitors went to stumps on 133-2 may cause those who doubted them to re-evaluate their opinion.

Though really, why anyone would write off a team containing Sangakkara, Mahela Jayawardene and newly-anointed captain Tillakaratne Dilshan seems to me as foolish as it is illogical, and the cricketing gods have punished better teams than England for such brazen hubris, though to be fair Strauss has paid the opposition all due respect in the lead-up to this match.

Granted, there is no mistaking the fact Sri Lanka have a long tail. Of the two men at the crease, Paranavitana and Mahela Jayawardene, only one of those has to fall for the Lankans’ prospects to look distinctly less rosy.

But this is the side that was blown away in their first innings at Derby, followed on and then bowled the England Lions out to win by 38 runs. The moral of this story could be: don’t put Sri Lanka in a hopeless situation. It only makes them angry. Already their dander will be up after Kumar Sangakkara was contentiously given out caught behind on review when arguably the evidence proved hardly overwhelming enough to justify it.

Paranavitana will resume tomorrow on 58, scored off 154 balls – a predator more than willing to wait and let the prey come to him than to squander his wicket for the sake of rash pyrotechnics. He has already amassed two centuries on this tour, and judging by the chat on Twitter today, a whole new host of fans.

Everything could yet go pear-shaped, but Sri Lanka can feel pretty pleased with their performance today.

I like it when reality confounds expectation.

Morgan wins out

Sunday, May 22nd, 2011

I have a lot of sympathy for Ravi Bopara.

But I also think the England selectors made the right decision in choosing Eoin Morgan instead to fill the no. 6 position for the upcoming first Test against Sri Lanka, which starts at Cardiff on Thursday.

There has been much conjecture and rumour in the last few days regarding who would make the cut, and the possible pros and cons for each man.

The IPL has been named as a reason why Morgan may be looked on askance when it came to a final decision – both his having participated in it, instead of playing for Middlesex, and his statement that should he not be picked one option was to return to India and to his Kolkata team.

Three Test centuries and runs for Essex – despite early-season moaning about the heavy roller and Tiflex ball – have been cited by those in Bopara’s corner as to why he should be given another chance in England colours.

In the end, the selectors decided to stick with Ashes squad continuity – and there is nothing wrong with that. Morgan was in Australia as batting cover, though was not called on to play during the Tests. To not include him in the side now would be penalize him when he has done nothing wrong.

The fact he has been playing in the IPL may be a black mark against his name with some, but if Ravi Bopara had been snapped up in the January auctions and if fatherhood had not intervened, who is to say he also would not have played?

In the end, the selection process was a good one. Both men were included in the England Lions team that played against Sri Lanka, and in the end it proved to be a straight shoot-out between them (it was only ever going to be between these two, as there are still doubts over Samit Patel’s fitness, and it is deemed probably still too early for James Taylor).

Chief selector Geoff Miller said before the match: “It has been very pleasing to see many of the players selected for the England Lions squad last winter make good starts to the domestic season and they have been rewarded with an opportunity to play a strong Sri Lankan side and push for further international honours” – an indication that Bopara’s county runs had been recognized and rewarded.

By the time the final decision for the Test squad had been made, Morgan had made 193 in the Lions’ first innings. Bopara scored 17. It would have been interesting to ponder the outcome had the fortunes of both men been reversed in the 2nd innings, but one cannot help thinking that doubts remain regarding Bopara’s ability to perform under pressure and under the eye of those who could guarantee his future. Talented though he is, there are holes that could be picked in Bopara’s international form – and how much does a tally of three centuries against a weak West Indies side tell us, anyway – but ultimately, the only man who can guarantee Ravi’s future is himself.

And on the day that it mattered, he failed.

Limited overs, limited interest

Tuesday, May 17th, 2011

I am having a bit of trouble getting into the IPL this year. Blogging cheerleaders aside, it hasn’t really grabbed me. God knows I’ve tried to take an interest, but considering match 67 has just been played and the competition is still in the group stages, well, that is quite frankly taking the piss. And folks complained about the World Cup being long.

Of the players participating, the gulf in talent and ability between the internationals and younger, inexperienced players seems to have widened. The likes of Gilchrist, Gayle and Sehwag have produced entertaining innings, sure, but off such piss-poor bowling that you feel impelled to append an asterisk next to their innings with attendant qualification: “filthy full tosses; dropped twice; given out lbw when ball would have missed second set of stumps”.

Everyone seems to have changed teams as well, which doesn’t help. I suppose this is less of an issue if your allegiance is based primarily on regional criteria; but for the rest of us it is pretty farking confusing. And from a purely aesthetic stand-point, you know the competition has reached the point of no redemption when the Kolkata Knight Riders’ team colours look positively restrained compared to the rest. Christ, Kochi… my eyes!

If Test cricket is the sport’s Grand Old Man, then T20 is the kid with ADHD whose parents maintain is “special” but who really just needs Ritalin and a slap upside the head, Sreesanth-style.

From one pointless competition to another: Leicestershire have now lost five of their six CB40 games this season. The latest and most comprehensive battering came at the hands of Warwickshire this Sunday past, and this was a Warwickshire sans the services of Ian Bell, Jonathan Trott, and Chris Woakes – not that their absence made the slightest iota of difference as to the result.

Not all the arguments against the 40-over format are entirely fair, in my opinion: the one that says we should be playing 50-over cricket to develop our players for ODIs doesn’t really wash – South Africa don’t have a domestic 50-over game and they seemed quite decent at the old One Day stuff last time I checked (propensity for clutching defeat from the jaws of victory aside).

Crowd numbers at Grace Road have been noticeably good, but the uncomfortable feeling among the faithful is that the Foxes have written off this competition already. Granted, it is prohibitively and ridiculously difficult to progress to the semi-finals – first-placed team in each of the three groups go through plus the best second-placed side – and given Leicestershire’s record in this form of the game, we were always likely to be on a hiding to sweet proverbial.

But the tendency to rest key players has not gone down well with many fans, though one must look at this pragmatically and given that we do not have a large squad this year, players who are carrying niggles must be rested and the CB40 series has obviously become “designated recovery time”.

Pragmatism, though, can only take you so far in trying to swallow the sight of an inexperienced second-string bowling attack being pasted round the ground by Varun Chopra and Will Porterfield. Leicestershire are now second bottom in their table above Scotland, the only team they have beaten so far. With any hope of advancement well and truly gone, I guess they can stop now even pretending to give a tinker’s cuss about it.

Problem is, the spectators could very well stop caring, too.

That Leicestershire seem to be putting all their eggs into the Championship and T20 basket is understandable, certainly in the first instance, considering we were in with a chance of promotion last season.

But the fact we still seem to have our hands cupped under the arse of the T20 goose waiting for it to lay the golden egg is rather more worrying. Last year, the egg ended up on another part of the club’s anatomy entirely when unrealistic expectations went unmet to the tune of a £403k loss. FPT20 receipts were £55K down on budget.

Granted, times are tough for all of us, financially. But T20 seems now to have jumped the shark. The IPL is too wrapped up in its own razzmatazz to realise this yet, but it will. Viewing figures are reportedly down 20 percent on last year.

The windfall-that-never-came bit most counties on the arse last year. Leicestershire recently renegotiated the covenant on its Grace Road ground with Leicester City Council to “give some tangible security to its bankers in respect of working capital facilities”. Not long after this, new chairman Paul Haywood stated that he wanted to increase Leicestershire’s playing budget. The club are currently in negotiations to sign Indian all-rounder Irfan Pathan for this year’s T20 campaign.

Pathan is no longer a regular in the India team, but has acquitted himself pretty well in the IPL for Delhi; he will not come cheap. Financially the club are stretched to the limit. You do not need to be Alan Sugar to deduce that throwing big money after one player who may or may not make a difference is a gamble we can ill afford to take.

But as long as the T20 circus continues, we will all keep following that rainbow, praying for that one big pay day. There is one piece of good news. India will be at Grace Road on the August Bank Holiday Monday for a T20 game. Tickets are reportedly sold out. Given that Leicestershire’s advertising in the past for tour matches has been almost non-existent, this is good news, but then you’d have to think if they couldn’t sell out a game featuring some of the best players in the world to a population with a large Indian contingent, then you’d have to be doing something wrong.

The India match aside, financially and results-wise it looks like being a case of same-old for Leicestershire, given there are the same amount of T20 matches this year as last. The T20 novelty has gone, and apathy has set in.

There is something else that traverses quickly through the innards of a goose, and it isn’t always an egg made of gold.

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.


Wednesday, May 4th, 2011