Wednesday, 21 December 2011

The best of 2011: whitewashes, embarrassing losses and a new number one

Top 5 moments of 2011

5. Leicestershire Foxes win the Friends Life T20 competition
There's nothing quite like a surprising victory to warm the cockles of any pessimistic cricket fan. Finals Day arrived with all its pomp and glory, but the final game between Somerset and Leicestershire offered everything that a cricket fan could want. There was superb bowling, a batting capitulation, brilliant fielding and Somerset were left as the bridesmaids once again as the Foxes lifted the trophy. Equally heart-warming was Paul Nixon's post-match speech. Nixon gave his all to the club for eighteen years, pulled off a stunning catch to remove dangerman Kieron Pollard and spark Somerset's collapse. To see the Foxes win was unexpected, to say the least, but the reaction from Nixon, the rest of the team and the faithful followers was a genuinely touching moment.

4. South Africa v. Australia at Newlands
If there is one thing that joins cricket fans together, it's the delight of watching an Australian defeat - and a heavy one at that. After bowling South Africa out for 96, thanks to an inspired five-for for Shane Watson, Australia came out to bat as the firm favourites. A combination of poor shot selection (the best example of this, or worst depending on your allegiances, was Haddin's wild slashes at everything outside the off-stump. Haddin later went on to say that criticism "wouldn't stop him playing his aggressive, natural game", which is a shame, as his natural game looks more 'mad axeman' than 'world class keeper-batsman'), excellent swing bowling from debutant Vernon Philander and South Africa clinging on to their catches meant the Aussies slumped to 47 all out, only reaching the forties thanks to the efforts of the tale enders. The whole episode made for incredibly satisfying viewing; unless, of course, you're an Australian.

3. England beat India 4-0 and become the number one test team
There was plenty to enjoy in the India series. The crowds came to see Tendulkar make his hundredth hundred (a new drinking game was developed - every time a commentator referenced this, down the nearest available liquid) and saw a calm, composed and elegant Rahul Dravid stand up to the English bowlers. Although Dravid's three centuries were a joy to watch, they failed to compensate for the dismal showing from India. Zaheer Khan was out from the first test, and whilst Praveen Kumar and his amazing array of facial expressions, did an excellent replacement job, India struggled against England. There were the typical big scores from Cook, Pietersen and Bell, an outrageously good hattrick from Stuart Broad at Trent Bridge that had Henry Blofeld squealing with delight, strong bowling from Bresnan and Anderson and England emerged from the series a strong, confident, world class cricket unit.

2. Australia v. New Zealand at Hobart
Maybe I'm a sucker for an underdog. Or maybe I just like to see Australia lose. Either way, the final day at Hobart brought about a result that nobody saw coming. After an indifferent batting performance from the Kiwis, the injured Vettori's performance aside, Australia looked all set to cruise to victory. However only David Warner withstood the Black Caps counter-attack, making an admittedly scratchy 123 as Australia fell at the final hurdle. Once again, the Aussie's shot choice was bizzare - Phil Hughes' horrible problems outside the off-stump continued as he chipped Chris Martin to the slips for the fourth consecutive time, Haddin's determination to make each shot uglier than the last continued and Australia's middle order once again folded, with Hussey and Ponting's careers discussed in terms reminiscent of two old dogs been taken outside to be delivered "to a better place". Martin had been the pick of the New Zealand attack until this point, and he was ably supported by a superb Doug Bracewell. Australia so nearly got away with the middle order collapse; they lost by seven runs as a gutted Nathan Lyon was bowled by Bracewell.

1. England retain the Ashes in Australia for the first time in 24 years
It couldn't be anything else, really. For the first time in what felt like years, England put in strong team performance after strong performance. Bresnan and Tremlett proved the doubters wrong; Anderson and Swann were better than ever. There were runs galore for Cook, Trott and Pietersen - England's ability to keep their heads under pressure reminded everyone that this was a team that had grown and grown over the past four years, and was now beginning to show its potential. There was humour - one wonders if any England fan can look back on this series without humming "he bowls to the left, he bowls to the right..." to themselves - there was agony as England stumbled at Perth, but above all, there was an immense sense of pride as Tremlett took that final wicket to end the series 3-1. All journalistic cliches aside, it was impossible to not look at this England side and feel proud; proud at how they'd grown, how far they'd come together as a team and more importantly, excitement at what the future held for this side. England have all the potential in the world - 2012 will see if they can utilise it against the rivals for their new title.

There are many other moments that I've enjoyed over 2011; Rahul Dravid's debut, and then retirement, in international T20's, Australia's victory over South Africa at Jo'burg, Jonny Bairstow's Cardiff debut, Brendan Taylor's stunning performances against New Zealand and MS Dhoni's fireworks during the ODI series in India. While we've seen the worst of cricket during the spot fixing trials, it's been a thumping year for the game; and there's plenty more to come.

Monday, 21 November 2011

South Africa vs. Australia: believe the hype

Did you know that test cricket is dying? Test cricket has been dying every year since I started watching cricket. It was dying in 2005. It was dying in 2009. It was definitely dying last year when England won the Ashes. The proof of this 'death', apparently, is the ridiculously short series between South Africa and Australia. Two games barely seems to constitute a series, but I'd argue that the cricket we've seen played over two days has proved that test cricket, whilst maybe suffering from some bad planning, is certainly not dying.

A draw is a hugely unsatisfactory end to this series. The first test had everything; batting collapses, copious attempts to remove Michael Clarke's head from it's shoulders and wickets aplenty. Despite only lasting three days, mostly due to some ridiculous stroke play from both teams, it was compelling cricket. There was good and bad on both sides; Michael Clarke's fluent 151 in the first innings was overshadowed by his team's complete capitulation in the second innings, with Hashim Amla and Graeme Smith's second innings tons helped South Africa ease to victory. Shane Watson's five-fer was rivalled by debutant Vernon Philander's five-fer. Dale Steyn was as angry as ever; Mitchell Johnson was as wildly variable as ever.

Poking fun at Johnson is feeling more and more like kicking a puppy when it's down. The occasional straight, swinging delivery is indicative of his talent - it's the 5 other balls in the over that are horrendous to watch. His delivery is not the most visually pleasing, nor is the sight of the ball going wide down the leg side every so often. Johnson's continued place in the team is baffling - how long can Australia honestly validate his place in the side?

Michael Clarke constantly gets a kicking in the media, and I'd be lying if I said I was a fan. I personally prefer to remember him like this. Yet his batting in the first test was outstanding. Despite Dale Steyn's one man campaign to give Clarke concussion, he handled the short ball well, with some gorgeous straight drives and cut shots. As Australia (with the exception of Shaun Marsh), fell around him to some ridiculous strokes, Clarke kept his head and played a captain's innings.

All talk in the second test turned to Pat Cummins. At only eighteen - my life has been utterly, utterly wasted compared to his - he took seven wickets on debut, hit the winning runs for Australia and led an attack that in theory should have been head and shoulders above him. But Johnson's inconsistency, Siddle's failure to hit the right lengths and Watson's injury (take your pick which) meant that it fell to Cummins to grab the momentum. After removing De Villiers to end his dangerous partnership with Amla, who again scored a century, Cummins tore through the tail, the highlight being his delivery to Morne Morkel that smashed into his stumps.

Cummins is hugely exciting for Australia, just as Philander is for South Africa. That's not to say that the youngsters had all the fun. Hashim Amla once again proved what a beautiful batsman he is with cover drives galore. Jacques Rudolph, back in the test team after four successful years with Yorkshire, looked to be in good touch, but failed to convert three reasonable starts into a good score. Ricky Ponting came into the final innings under endless media speculation over whether he ought to make this series his last. Despite still not looking entirely comfortable, there were some hints of classic Ponting, including his glorious pull shot, but it would be a shame to see a great batsman end his career on such a down note.

Whether two or six matches long, both sides have come out of this having learnt something. South Africa have plenty to work on, as do Australia. But the promise is there in both sides, be it in the old or new blood. Despite all the debate about test cricket and its supposedly imminent death, both teams have shown that there is plenty of life left in the longer format of the game.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

England in India: a postmortem

There's a deep pessimism inside every English cricket fan. No matter how many times we try to deny it, watching England being good - and consistently good - at cricket is just bloody weird. Many other fans react with anger when their team loses; England fans just laugh it off as another bad job. Despite England whitewashing India in both the Test and ODI series, their ODI record seemed overly optimistic. Critics were watching and waiting for England to come unstuck in the sub-continent, and they did, in the most spectacular fashion.

It seemed like a little bit of everything went wrong for England on this tour. Firstly, the batting. Partnerships were few and far between across the series, and when one was established it lasted for a few overs before someone holed out. Cook and Kieswetter seemed to swing from one extreme to another; the final game saw them put on a partnership of 129, the only partnership that created any sort of decent impetus in the entire innings, whereas in the second game both were removed for a duck. Without Morgan, England were always going to look weak against spin, and there isn't an uglier sight in cricket than someone attempting a sweep shot with absolutely no confidence and sending it spiraling into the stumps or towards the keeper. The Indian spinners seemed to constantly beat the batsman, either inducing a weak defence that the ball spun through or a hefty thwack that went straight down the throat of a waiting fielder.

Craig Kieswetter has come under a lot of fire in this series, for both his batting and keeping. Although at times it has felt as though Kieswetter was putting on his own one man comedy show behind the stumps, in truth his keeping has been consistently poor. His fantastic acrobatics in the final game to remove Tiwary were outstanding, just as his failed run-out of Jadeja, in which Kieswetter trod on the stumps rather than the traditional method of removing the bails with the ball, was oustandingly bad. As well as getting on the nerves of his increasingly angry team-mates, Kieswetter's batting also took a knock. There seems to be an obsession within most one day set ups of having the keeper-batsman opening the innings, no doubt thanks to Adam Gilchrist opening Australia's innings so successfully, but this only works if the batsman is up to the job.

Kieswetter would surely suit a more middle-order role; he is a natural big hitter and could easily propel an innings in the final few overs. Having him open and then fall so quickly means that a loss of an early wicket puts more pressure on the incoming batsman, and with England's middle order unable to build up any real momentum, it's debtable whether or not Kieswetter is a natural opening batsman. While he opens at Somerset, it's Marcus Trescothick facing him at the other end, a man with nearly twenty years experience to his name. Whilst Alastair Cook has developed immeasurably since becoming captain, he is still learning his trade -just as Kieswetter is.

The other batsman who comes under fire, as he does most series, is Jonathan Trott. Trott isn't the quickest soul on this Earth but arguably his level-headedness when batting is just what this England side need. In the third game of the series, Trott scored 98 from 116 deliveries, with a strike rate of 84.50. It was a calm innings, with Trott going about things the way he wanted, building up partnerships with both Pietersen and Patel. This sort of innings is needed from England every once in a while; they don't need every player to come in and smash the ball about. If the opening batsman fail to make a positive start, like England's have done in all but one of the games, it needs someone who can come in and calmly rebuild, whilst letting the bigger hitters in the team do what they need to do at the other end.

The bowling attack has also come under much criticism. The stats don't make for pretty reading:

Steven Finn: 5 matches. 253 runs, 8 wickets (best 3/45) - 5.27 economy rate.
Graeme Swnn: 4 matches. 191 runs, 2 wickets (best 1/35) - 5.30 economy rate.
Tim Bresnan: 5 matches. 245 runs, 5 wickets (best 2/41) - 5.65 economy rate.
Stuart Meaker: 2 matches. 110 runs, 2 wickets (best 1/45) - 5.78 economy rate.
Samit Patel: 5 matches. 182 runs, 4 wickets (best 3/57) - 6.03 economy rate.
Jade Dernbach: 3 matches. 168 runs, 1 wicket (best 1/58) - 6.54 economy rate.

Going into this series, Swann was the number one bowler in the limited overs side (the tables tend to fluctuate every week) but he had a rough time in India. Taking only two wickets, albeit for a reasonable amount of runs, Swann's frustration constantly showed in his bowling. His attitude towards the other fielders - he's never been the most patient of sorts but this was taking it to the extreme - made him seem more like a petulant two year old than the world's best spinner. Steven Finn was the stand-out of the bowlers, but saying he was the best of a bad bunch doesn't give him the credit he deserved. He had plenty of pace, regularly reaching 90mph with a good mixture of line and lengths. He too fell victim to England's amateur dramatics - his "celebration" of Raina's wicket read more 'arrogant schoolboy' than 'top class bowler' - but he was the only bowler who consistently tested the Indian batsman.

Jade Dernbach had an awful time of it in India. Prior to the series he'd played 10 ODI's for England - all on English pitches, it has to be said - and while the inexperience of the side in general is no excuse for their performance, it was Dernbach's lack of international experience that showed the most. The variations that he had become so renowed for in the county scene seemed to abandon him; his slower ball was once again over-used, the Indian batsman wised up to Dernbach's 'variations' relatively quickly and he bowled far too many wides (in the third match a total of 17 extras - India gave away 3), which the batsman took full advantage of. Dernbach has bowled far, far better in the past than these figures suggest, but on the flat Indian pitches he struggled. Why Finn could get pace where Dernbach couldn't is a bit of a mystery.

Andy Flower summed England's series up nicely when he simply said "it wasn't good enough". That's what this all boils down to. Several times, England had the upper hand in the game, and every time they let it slip. The batting capitulation during the fifth ODI, with 47 runs being scored for 10 wickets, made for true car-crash viewing. The haplessness in the field, the constant over-throws, dropped catches and mis-fields on the boundary edge seemed miles away from the ODI side that clinched the Sri Lanka series 3-2 back in July. England's batting and bowling looked weak at times against the Indian attack in England; on India's own soil they looked even worse. MS Dhoni has not lost his wicket for six consecutive matches against England; his performance behind the stumps has improved immeasurably. His batting has been ruthless, and he constantly looks calm and composed. By comparison England have looked tired, strained and worn out. They've been below par, and apart from a few new faces, it feels like nothing has changed since the last 5-0 defeat in 2008.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

England v. the West Indies: a glorified job interview

The announcement of the England squad for the upcoming, and seemingly pointless, T20 match against the West Indies reads more like a role call for a job interview than an convincing limited overs team. With both captain and vice-captain being forced to watch from the sidelines due to shoulder injuries, it's fallen to veteran Graeme Swann to lead the mish-mash of a squad onto the pitch.

Giving Swann the captaincy makes some sense given that he is the oldest in the team and the most experienced in shorter formats, and therefore will have a better understanding of how to set a field and work with the players strengths and weaknesses. However his appointment seems to directly contradict the selectors initiative of preparing the "young future of English cricket" by giving them authoritative roles and the chance to play in England colours in order to ready themselves for the next world cup. Swann also has the most entertaining personality in the team, and a quote he gave recently about not wanting to captain the side because "I couldn't still be the light-hearted, piss taking guy if I was in a position of authority" speaks volumes. Some have said that because of his personality, Swann won't take the captaincy seriously; I disagree. It's having to change who he is that bothers me the most. Cook, Strauss, Broad; you often feel that these are players who were bred for captaincy. Swann isn't one of these. At the risk of sounding cliched, he's an everyman - a player who works hard but sees nothing wrong in mucking about a bit off the pitch and in between overs. Why should he have to stop this to take on a role that he has spoken about not wanting for two matches that, in the long run, mean nothing?

Without wishing to sound rude, the chances of Swann playing in the next T20 world cup is highly unlikely, therefore giving the captaincy role to one of the younger players would surely have been more practical in the long run. Most surprising of all is the omission of the England Lions captain, and the player most logistically poised to take on Broad's role, James Taylor.

Taylor averages 49.61 in the CB40 championship, and 34 in T20's. He led the England Lions to two victories in the recent one day series against Sri Lanka, scoring 111 from 132 deliveries in the deciding match and outscored several players who were selected ahead of him for the West Indies game. Why is Taylor so consistently overlooked by the selectors? It's obviously not a question of trust; when announced as the Lions captain, Taylor was lauded by the selectors for having a strong and mature head on his shoulders, qualities that any future England captain or player needs to have. Despite his county team finishing bottom of Division Two, Taylor has shone this year in the longer format of the game, and his skill has carried over to the limited overs games, as Leicestershire won the T20 finals only a fortnight ago.

Maybe it is because of Leicestershire's standing in the league that Taylor has been overlooked; the majority of players come from first division teams or the two teams that topped the second division. Warwickshire made a bid for Taylor only a few months ago, which Leicestershire captain Matthew Hoggard derided as "insulting", but as Hoggard pointed out, transferring to a team that has topped division one might improve Taylor's chances of England selection. But why should Taylor have to up sticks just to be in with a sniff of selection? His talent speaks for itself, and that should be enough for the selectors.

Ultimately, though, these T20 games aren't any sort of real competition; they are overhyped try outs to decide who goes to India when the real matches begin. There are some odd inclusions in the side; James Anderson might bowl well on lovely green English pitches but his struggles in the sub-contient have been well documented, and the four pronged spin attack and three wicket keepers implies that the selectors are taking a pick and mix approach to the T20 side. Equally, there are some shrewd inclusions - Alex Hales, Jonny Bairstow and Jos Buttler have all shone for their counties this season, particularly in the short format. There are ups and downs to having a bowler as a captain, just as there are ups and downs to having a young team with a few 'veterans' thrown in for good measure. The real worry is the constant shifting about of the squad; with so few T20 games scheduled, there seems to be hardly any time for the team to gel before jetting off to India, or indeed the next World Cup. Only time will tell how well this team can perform.

Saturday, 10 September 2011

The Woes of Ravi Bopara

Ravi Bopara. Just the sight of his name seems to antagonise most England fans. It's understandable why; having been continuously outscored in the Lions matches, and with the wealth of batting available in the county teams at the minute, it seems a mystery as to why Bopara has managed to retain his place in the England squad for so long. The injury to Eoin Morgan and 'resting' of Kevin Pietersen led to a vacancy in the ODI squad, a vacancy that Bopara has filled. And despite being out in the middle at the death of the last two ODI games and the T20 game a week ago, Bopara has still failed to silence the critics. But why?

Maybe it's because, no matter how hard Alastair Cook tries to change our minds, Bopara just isn't a convincing player in the limited overs format. His last three innings have brought about scores of 2 (from 4), 24 (from 20) and 40 (from 41). They are not statistics that instill faith in the supporters; Bopara bats at number 6, a position that gives him licence to play his shots as well as defending the unplayable balls. But his run rate is often so slow; taking singles when there are two runs available, hitting back to the bowler rather than going on the offensive. Bopara is so often unable to keep up with the pace established by the higher order batsmen, and whilst there isn't always the need to be a big hitter in the limited overs format, he so rarely shows the aggression or 'get-go' of the players before him. There is no doubt that England's middle order is inexperienced against spin, particularly now that Morgan is out of the series. Bopara looked exceptionally uncomfortable against the Indian spinners during the third ODI. His defence was tentative, and despite playing a good back footed attack against Ashwin for four, his stature against the spinners failed to convince. India's spin attack was bang on the money during the game, but there were opportunities for Bopara to score; opportunities that he failed to take.

The other characteristic of Bopara's innings is how a good, strong shot can be followed by a meek swipe a second later. A full toss from Raina was thrashed through extra cover for four; the next ball had a wide swing thrown at it and was nearly edged through to Dhoni. There never seems to be any fluency or confidence to Bopara's innings. It's almost as though the England shirt has a freezing effect on Bopara. Whilst Bopara's latest season at Essex has been up and down, he's had some big scores in an Essex shirt, including a 7 hour stand at the crease whilst captaining the side against Leicestershire. But in the England games, especially in the shorter format, there is rarely a hint of this sort of player; nervy and unsure, he seems to tangle himself up at the crease far more than his counterparts, leading to panic and a cheap dismissal, such as skying the ball down to mid off.

The one skill Bopara has in his armour is that he's a bowler, and a good medium pace bowler at that. He has the ability to slow the run rate down and more often than not incur a false shot from the batsman; he recently dismissed Dravid in the T20 game by bowling a decent length ball that Dravid miscued straight down cover's throat. Bopara's first class bowling averages stand at 5/75, and 5/73 in the 40 over format. But given the wealth of bowling that England seem to have in their ODI attack, and indeed available to them from the county teams, surely this isn't enough to justify Bopara's place in the side?

With Bopara, it all boils down to can he handle the pressure? Every time an England shirt is given to him he appears to fall to pieces. Those who have seen him play at Essex can vouch that he has skill, but this skill seems to desert him when he steps out into the middle. In fact, the majority of the time it is Bopara's bowling that attracts the praise of the critics, not his batting, and with the middle-order of the England squad looking less convincing without Pietersen and Morgan, Bopara is running out of time to convince that he is a suitable number six batsman. With the likes of James Taylor, Jos Buttler, Alex Hales and Jonny Bairstow waiting in the wings, how long can Bopara justifibly keep his place in this England side?

(Interestingly, the day after I published this, Bopara went on to make 96 in the tied ODI game at Lords. Clearly I am a good influence on him. I'm not entirely sure how I feel about that)

Thursday, 1 September 2011

England v. India T20: the good, the average and the ridiculous

Sometimes, often whilst following Yorkshire's campaign in the county series, I think that T20 is a stupid format. Other times I think it's great. It's flashy, it's entertaining, anything and everything can go wrong, and people come in their droves to watch it. The one-off England v. India T20 at Old Trafford was no exception. Around 70% of the crowd consisted of lively India fans; they'd brought cymbals, bells, whistles, signs and flags to show their support and put the embarrassment of the test series behind them. The England fans seemed much more subdued (or maybe the India fans just outvoiced them. They were seriously loud) but they were still there in copious amounts, all of them desperately hoping that England had moved on from the awful T20 game against Sri Lanka.

There were some good signs for England in this game, the most obvious accolades going to Jade Dernbach. Dernbach is by far and away the best death bowler in the side; by putting his slower ball to a much more effective use than in the previous ODI/T20 series, he is able to slow the run-rate down, deceive the lower order batsmen and cause those looking to make a big hitting innings to miscue and send the ball down a fielder's throat. As with the final Sri Lanka game, it was Dernbach who was handed the ball for the final over, and he took two in two, one wicket aided by an excellent bit of fielding from his own bowling. Anyone who has seen Dernbach in county cricket is well aware at how lethal his slower ball can be - couple this with his strong self-belief and confidence in his ability and he has become the perfect death bowler for this England side. Broad and Bresnan clearly thought the best mode of attack was to bowl short at the Indian bowlers, as it was the short ball that had troubled them so much in the test series, yet it was Dernbach's slower pace and the tiniest offering of width that caused the wickets to fall.

Eoin Morgan is so often the stalwart of an limited overs innings, and this game was no exception. He was typically flamboyant; he must have the most amazing slash ridiculous arsenal of stroke play in the game today. His reverse sweep is so incredibly fluid and powerful, yet his ability to just create a new stroke if the ball doesn't swing or land in the way he anticipated is equally as impressive. Morgan, like Pietersen before him, isn't afraid to go on the offensive, but the main difference is that Morgan changes position or batting stroke so quickly that his miscues tend to go farther than the original shot that he intended to play. Pietersen's miscues so often lead to his dismissal, although he was aided early on in his innings by a dreadful drop catch at third man.

India were the favourites coming into the match, and the game certainly seemed to be swinging their way after debutant Rahane wowed the crowds. He achieved 61 from 39 balls in a powerful opening innings - he jumped on the wider deliveries from Bresnan and attacked Broad's short balls. Any chance he got, he took; something which Rahul Dravid also capitalised on. Making his first - and last - international T20 debut (you'd think that all he wants now is a sit down and a nice long rest) he proved a point by smashing Samit Patel for three consecutive, beautifully timed sixes. India's collapse following three loses in quick succession was hugely disappointing given the fantastic start to their innings by Rahane. India seemed too over-eager; they knew that they were squandering what had been a strong position but their efforts to bump up the score - with the exception of Raina, who belted two sixes off Bresnan and a six off a Broad bounder, perhaps wanting to prove a point to the bowlers - just led to a quickening collapse.

Much has been said of England's close run victory, and the way Patel and Bopara carried out their final innings. It has been described as 'brave' and 'cohesive', yet it is almost certain that had the result falling the other way then they would have been criticised for being sluggish and introverted. Both Bopara and Patel fell far too short of the tone set by Pietersen, Morgan and Kieswetter; they were too content with taking singles when there were two runs available and were not at all convincing in the final couple of overs. Unless Bopara is considering a career change - he really is a very deceptive medium pace bowler, as Dravid found out today - then England surely cannot keep him in the side for his batting ability. There was no confidence, no aggression; yes, Bopara is not as extrovert a player as Morgan but he is capable of smashing boundaries in the most unorthodox of places. And whilst India tightened up their bowling, there were several wide deliverers that Bopara, had he taken a gamble, could have easily dispatched for a big score.

There were signs of improvements for both teams; MS Dhoni's wicket-keeping has improved since the Test series, proven by the excellent bit of stumping to dismiss Pietersen, whilst England's bowling attack is starting to shape up nicely. The signs look good for England; although Hales was dismissed for a second ball duck, anyone who has seen him play for Nottingham knows what a natural big hitter he is. The same goes for Jos Buttler, who may have been able to grab the win quicker for England if he'd gone in to bat ahead of Patel. He is an exciting young player who has an array of flamboyant shots to rival Morgan, including his very own Somersetian-Dilscoop. But there are still problems; the spin attack - Patel really came in for a hammering, compared to Swann who is still the best limited overs bowler in the attack - could be livened up with the introduction of some of the young faces from the county sides, namely Scott Borthwick. And despite being out in the middle when the winning runs were hit, Bopara's 31 from 36 deliveries were not convincing by any means.

But the most important thing is that England have won. The old England would have squandered the momentum that was gained from the Test match victory; Broad and his team have continued their good form and will go into the one day series confident of another victory. But judging by the performance of several of the Indian youngsters both with the bat and the ball, we may finally have a proper contest on our hands.

Saturday, 27 August 2011

Finals Day: the ridiculous, the sublime and the fairytale ending

I can sympathise with those who say they find cricket boring. It can be slow; hours can go past with minimal runs being scored, the weather doing a 180 from 'sunny' to 'antarctic', with light relief being provided by Geoffrey Boycott in your earhole discussing the way the pitch turned back when "he was a lad". But this year's Finals Day proved why cricket is such a diverse, bizarre and ultimately, an incredibly entertaining sport.

T20 is an area of cricket that divides the fans; some of them hate it, preferring to watch the purer form of the game. Others love the glitz and the drama that it offers. But Finals Day is one of the most eagerly anticipated days in the calendar. Whether you want to or not, it's impossible not to get drawn in; you subconsciously choose a team, even if you have no obvious allegiances either way, you join in. There was Somerset, the bridesmaids of T20 cricket. Twice into the semis, twice into the finals and always falling at the last hurdle. Lancashire; a team that had been tipped to dominate the CB40 table this year. Hampshire are always strong favourites, having won last year and then there was Leicestershire, the undoubted underdogs of the competition.

I don't want to get all fairytale on this post, but the stage was set for something magnificent for Leics. The day was to be keeper Paul Nixon's last match in England; a true character behind the stumps, Nixon has given twenty three years to the game, eighteen of them at Leicestershire, and the common feeling amongst the players, fans and pundits was that Nico deserved to go out on a bang. The first game of the day seemed to go badly for Leicestershire. They lost early wickets, were unable to get forward to Lancashire's spin attack and despite a strong burst toward the end of the innings by Will Jefferson, they looked as though they had fallen short. But they bowled well; following another rain break not long into Lancashire's innings, the Lanky's seemed to loose all composure, and the effectiveness of Henderson's spin meant that the wickets tumbled.

But it wasn't to be that easy. After smashing a six off the last ball of the game, the scores were tied; we were in Super Over territory. No-one knew what was happening, least of all the umpires, who appeared to be checking the rule books frantically. After an awful lot of messing about - which gave the Edgbaston crowd time to get suitably smashed and make up some inventive chants, my favourite being 'where's Afridi gone? WHERE'S AFRIDI GONE?!' - Lancashire took to the field to amass a bigger score as possible off one over. And it was here where Leicestershire excelled. Henderson, the selected bowler, kept his nerve, despite his first two deliveries being swatted for a boundary and a six respectively, and ended the over on two dot balls. Then, a timely, smart and ultimately big hitting cameo by Jefferson (he hit 15 off 4 balls) meant that Leicestershire were in the final.

After another slightly farcical end to the Somerset v. Hampshire game - Hampshire lost, which gave the crowd something to cheer about - it was very much the battle of the fairytales. The underdogs versus the perpetual runners-ups. The final game had everything that a cricket fan can hope for. There was big hitting; there was stupid hitting. Stunning catches, silly misfields, sledging from behind the wickets by Nixon, who was in fine voice for the entire day, and an tense but unbelievable end result. Leicestershire seemed to have fallen just short of a competitive score, due to the way Somerset tied them down in the final overs of the day. But Leicestershire came out to prove their doubters wrong, and prove they did.

Their fielding was incredible; despite a still fairly soggy outfield, they slid about to stop the boundaries, take their catches and do everything they could to rob Somerset of a victory. Although Kieswetter and Trescothick started to do what they do best - punch the ball every which way around the ground - Somerset never really got started, with the finest moment of the innings coming from Nixon himself. Taking a leaping catch almost at first slip to dismiss Keiron Pollard, one of the most dangerous batsmen in the shorter formats, it seemed only fitting that it should be Nixon who created the wobble that would cause Somerset to topple. The way his teammates reacted to the catch, and the noise that came from the crowd, was incredible; people wanted them to succeed. And succeed they did.

I don't want to get nostalgic, or soppy, but watching Leicestershire come from the position they have done - they were never really in any sort of consideration from the start of the season, as opposed to their three opponenents who were widely tipped as the favourites - was a truly fantastic moment. It was a fitting send off for Nixon, a wonderful win for a little team and ultimately, a great advert for the game and indicative of the talent that England have in the county ranks. And while it was impossible not to feel sorry for Trescothick and his boys, there was not a single fan who could deny that they had seen something incredibly special from the Leicestershire side; a side who have proved that they are as capable as anyone at fighting against the big guns.

Friday, 26 August 2011

Women and Cricket: what is the big deal?

The excellent King Cricket recently posted this article featuring a quote from the ticketing outlet Viagogo about the increase in female cricket fans. Aside from being patronising and borderline offensive, the quote does raise one very important question; why is it still seen as news that women like cricket for what it is?

When attending a cricket game, either on my own or with a friend, nobody sat around me seems to react with abject horror and disgust. No spectator attempts to fling me out of the ground as a cricket match is "not a woman's place". Nine times out of ten, the person sat next to you will engage you in conversation about the game, because that is what every single person in the ground, gender aside, is there for. I don't give two shits if Liz Hurley is watching the cricket with her freaky-faced new boyfriend, quite frankly. I want to watch a team that I've grown up supporting and is finally propelling itself up the international rankings, not gossip about whether her shoes match her jacket.

There are no questions asked or eyebrows raised in the media when children attend cricket matches, so why is it still treated as strange that a woman should want to go? There is no denying that at some point in their cricket watching career, a woman will make a comment about how nice looking one of the players is. But men do this too -my dad once referred to Stuart Broad as a 'fine looking young man', which may go some way to explaining why I feel weird whenever watching Broad bowl. And making a passing comment about a player shouldn't be named as the sole reason for females attending a cricket game.

Every cricket fan is there for the love of the game. Take the last day of the recent England v. India series: the Indian contingency in the crowd was huge. Around 50% of them were women. Why? They'd gone to go watch Sachin, a player they obviously loved and admired, make his hundredth hundred (he didn't do it, obviously. But that's a different story for a different time). They weren't there to admire his backside in his whites, or throw themselves at his feet after he fluttered his eyelashes in their direction. They were there to admire his skill as a batsmen, to cheer every boundary he made, or indeed, every run he made.

Cricket is not a cheap sport to attend, and I don't think for a moment that the comments made were deliberately sexist; more like a misjudged attempt at humour. But for nearly every female cricket fan I've ever met - and there's plenty of them - they pay these premium prices to watch a game, not to hunt out a new husband. There's a distinct lack of female journalism within cricket, something which, as a keen writer and fan myself, I find hugely disappointing. But the women who do write, such as Alison Mitchell and Lizzy are insightful, witty and most importantly, have a deep knowledge and affection for the game. They are most definitely not forging themselves a career just to ogle the men they're writing about.

So there you go. Next time you see a girl at a cricket match, start a conversation with her about the game. She might surprise you. Because it would be lovely to show that at a cricket match, or indeed any sort of sporting event, the gender of the attendees is irrelevant; because what really matters is the sport that is being played.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

The Oval, Day Five: two test giants, the little master and Graeme Swann's celebration face

The atmosphere around the Oval was palpable; the Indian fans were in fine voice, cheering every movement that he made and chanting his name at frequent intervals. They were there for one thing, and one thing only; to see Sachin make his hundred. What they actually saw was the little master, despite a few rare flashes of skill, be outplayed by the man who usually occupies the number eight slot, Amit Mishra.

Mishra's innings surpassed that of a man who usually bats so low down the order. Indeed, it surpassed many of the opener's innings - Gambhir being the most obvious example - and led many to wonder if Mishra and Raina had swapped roles. Brought into the side to replace Harbajhan, Mishra's bowling is best known for its uncanny ability to ball no ball after no ball; a rarity and ultimately a huge problem for a leg spinner. But it was his prowess as a batsman that stood out in this test. His aggression against the spin and his skill at trickling the ball to the boundary, compared with Raina's preferred method of using his arm to defend against short balls as opposed to his bat, was extraordinary, and he was unlucky to fall short of his century.

This innings was Tendulkar's most controlled of the series, yet it was still miles away from the batsman that dominated the international scene for so long. He was a mixture of effective and troubled against the spin; he started off strongly in the morning innings, defending in an orthodox position and occasionally moving down the pitch toward Swann to play a shot, but as the innings progressed he became far too nervous and cramped, often slashing widly at the ball or becoming so hunched up that he was unable to get bat to ball. Tendulkar also became a cat with nine lives; two good LBW shouts that would have been given out had the DRS system been in place, two dropped catches (one of which was Alastair Cook. The controller of the Oval screen obviously does a line in Cook-sadism: the catch was replayed three times to the frustrated groans of the capacity crowd, with Cook looking more and more embarrassed by the minute) and a stumping which had Prior appealed would have been given out. Ironically, it's the least noise Prior has ever made over a genuine stumping.

But it wasn't to be Sachin's day, and rightly so. I have no idea what Bresnan had for his lunch but it worked; the first ball of his post-lunch over was an absolute beauty, swinging back towards Tendulkar and just clipping leg stump. It was tantalizingly close, the tightest LBW shout that England had had - but it was out. The noise made by the Oval crowd was truly astonishing. A mixture of excitement, disappointment, disbelief and genuine happiness. Because for so many of the fans there, this isn't the Sachin that they wanted to remember. A few creamy cover drives aside, this batsman seemed miles away from the figure that has so excited and frustrated English cricket fans for years. This hasn't been "Sachin's summer" - that accolade belongs to Rahul Dravid. A truly class act and the lynch pin of the Indian batting line-up, Dravid has been the only batsman to show any real guts, any real fight - any real motivation - against England.

England were unable to get a breakthrough in the morning session, despite all the bowlers working in tandem together. The cameo "Strauss makes an odd decision" occurred well into the morning session when he tossed Bopara the ball over Bresnan. Bopara's Test bowling average is 212.00, with his best being 39/1. Given Bresnan's ability to get the old ball to swing, and that he has taken a wicket in every innings in this India series, why not give him a shot? Was this a ploy by Strauss to add insult to injury to India's batsmen? Was it a way to wind me up even more? Who knows. But Bopara isn't a bad bowler, not by any means. He's a natural 'run-stopper', and his right-arm medium can be deceptive; it can encourage batsmen to become arrogant and therefore miscue what they see as an easy boundary. There was also the traditional KP innings, an innings which did little more than give Tendulkar and Mishra a little time to loosen up their wrists.

When the breakthrough came, it came quickly. Bresnan was exceptional with the old ball; a truly underrated bowler, he can get the ball after 50+ overs to swing and deceive the striking batsman. Mishra fell to a beauty from Swann, who despite bowling incredibly well wasn't getting the wickets that he deserved, and Tendulkar fell an over later. Raina had to wait an awfully long time to achieve his double pair; watching him against Bresnan's short ball was painful. He was peppered with ball after ball until he became increasingly uncomfortable and missed a Swann delivery that spiralled into the stumps. Dhoni, whose early defensive strokes looked as though he might have remembered to use the batting part of his brain, sent a bouncing Broad delivery skying high into the slips, with Swann taking a magnificent high catch to leave India 269/7.

And then in came Gambhir, the batsmen who usually opens the innings for India. He never looked confident or even bothered at the crease; it was very clear that he had come out because he had to. There was no drive, no desire to win or even to play his shots. He got a bizarre edge on a Swann delivery and Morgan took an easy catch at fine leg. But Gambhir's general attitude - not coming out until India were really on the ropes, not seeming to care wether he hit the ball or not - is almost indicative of the lackadaisical nature in which India have conducted their batting over the summer.

Singh came and went to give Swann his five-fer. Swann up until this point had had a generally disappointing series against India but he was fantastic at the Oval. A player who has grown so much since his debut twelve years ago, he was relentless in the attack, constantly asking questions of the batsmen and always piling on the pressure for India, pressure that they were unable to deal with. His celebration face is also the single best celebration face of any England player; his mouth seems to made of rubber, it can stretch that far wide. Singh was followed by Sreesanth, who is always good value for money. He charged wildly down the pitch to Swann, swatting at every delivery he got and occasionally, somehow, swinging the thing for two. He clipped a gorgeous delivery from Swann onto his offstump to give England an eight run and an innings win, and a four-nil series whitewash.

There is no doubt that India have been unlucky injury wise - one has to wonder how different this series might have been if Zaheer Khan had hamstrings made of steel - but they must ask themselves if they really gave this series their all. Because to the outsider looking in, India often batted, bowled and fielded as if they wanted to be anywhere else in the world but on a cricket pitch. Dravid and Kumar aside, India have appeared lethargic and disinterested; this was in no way the side that so many have enjoyed watching over the years. India simply never turned up to this series. The blame may lie with Dhoni, with Fletcher, with the IPL or with India's general fitness (too many cakes, not enough time on a test pitch) but ultimately, no-one knows what went wrong but the team themselves.

England going to the number one test spot, a fact that has been bandied around this summer almost as much as Tendulkar's hundredth hundred, is hugely indicative of how much this team has grown. They are the definition of the word 'team' - they are a unit in which every player pulls his weight. The bowlers back one another up, the fielding is done in pairs and the batting capability runs all the way through the order. Everyone contributes. Looking at this side five years ago, even looking at this side back in 2009 after 51 all out, not many thought that England would become the #1 test team in the world. But they have done. And for the players, and for the fans, it is truly a cause for celebration.

Friday, 19 August 2011

The Oval, Days One and Two: rain, broken helmets and KP and Sreesanth relive their love affair of '07

Even the most ardent England fan would be forgiven for giving a small sigh of relief when The Kia Oval decided to replay Alastair Cook's Ashes highlights - and cut them mercifully short. Day One at the Oval was ruined by rain. Indeed the most interesting thing that happened was Andrew Strauss's helmet was ruined by a ball from a re-invigorated Ishant Sharma. The shot of Strauss's helmet shattering was replayed in slo-mo, super slo-mo, high definition, low definition, hot spot... it looked at one point as though Ian Botham was going to go on the pitch and interview the helmet itself to get its version of events. But after a morning of good bowling from Sharma, dodgy wides from RP Singh, who (terrible fat joke coming up) looks double the man who came to England in 2007, lovely shots off the pads from Strauss and India looking more interested in the field than they have done all series, the day came to a close on 75-0.

Day Two started with a bang for a much more positive looking India. Sharma continued his good spell of bowling from yesterday with a cracking first over that beat Cook several times, before he eventually edged a delivery to first slip. Sehwag luckily was on the pitch at this point - his headache didn't hit him until later on in the day, when he went for a little lie down - and he took an easy catch, leaving Cook to depart for 34. Sharma was backed up at the other end by RP Singh, who has no real pace about him, something which maybe lured Strauss into over-confidence. He slashed wildly at the first delivery and was lucky not to nick to Dhoni, which led to a much more subdued first hour for England.

Whether through frustration, impatience or a moment of indecisiveness, Strauss chased a Sreesanth delivery that should have been left, and indeed edged to Dhoni. Strauss, the man who has so often been a stalwart of England's innings, bowed slightly to the pressure today; he made two runs in an hour, leaving the field on 40 (from 183, which emphases how improved India's bowling was in the morning session) and failing to get near to the century that he was robbed of at Edgbaston.

Bell was then joined by KP, who had a typical KP-esque start to his innings; streaky, lucky and sailing towards the boundary for four. Bell, whose unusual late cut is one of the cleverest and most aesthetically pleasing shots for a batsman to play, dealt with the tightened India bowling in his usual way, defending in an orthodox position and jumping on any loose deliveries, whilst KP continued to mix the sublime with the absurd; a beautiful slash to third man from Mishra's first delivery instantly followed by a lucky edge that just dropped short of Dravid.

After lunch, India faltered. The fielding that had felt so much tighter in the morning session returned to its usual lacklustre self. Tendulkar had an appalling misfield down at fine leg to get Bell off the mark and to his 50 - unsurprisingly, no-one said anything to Sachin, because, well, he's Sachin. It's times like this you miss Praveen Kumar - and India's bowling, particularly Mishra, became too predictable. India made the fatal mistake of allowing both KP and Bell to become complacent, and ultimately arrogant; the luck was riding all England's (read: Pietersen's) way, who after his 50 became even more ridiculous.

A KP shot off Mishra at the 150 mark was one of the most astonishing shots in the entire match. Was it a slog? A drive? Completely and utterly mind-bendingly ridiculous? No-one knows. But a loose over from Sreesanth led to a domino effect on the Indian bowlers; they couldn't get an edge, they couldn't quite control their line and they began to fade away as the England batsmen regained control.

Bell reached his second 100 of the series after 181 deliveries (it took 104 to get to his half century, which emphasies the topsy-turvy nature of India's innings) - two centuries which he has achieved at number #3. Bell is no longer the uncertain player who occupied the number three slot in 2005. Batting at #5 means that Bell has found his forte, but he can still rise to the challenge when posted higher up the order, a feat that nearly all England's batsmen are beginning to achieve. KP followed shortly after tea with his 100, his second of the series, something which reignited his love affair with Sreesanth.

The chemistry has been there ever since Sreesanth attempted to remove his head with a beamer four years ago. It may have taken six weeks but something inside Sreesanth finally snapped; he threw the ball at KP in frustration, and made to do it again two overs later. It was like watching two children playing kissy chase in the playground; squaring up to one another, all the false hostility and arrogance when really all they want to do is play nicely together. The best thing about this was it brought out the even more ridiculous side in KP.

The way KP charges down the wicket and practically shows off his stumps to the bowlers - "ooh, look at these! You should aim at these once in a while" - is hilarious, especially when he began to do it just to wind Sreesanth up. Arrogant, cocky, ridiculous, stupid, bloody good value; any number of adjectives can be used to sum of KP and his career, but one thing is for sure - it always starts and ends with a bang.

My favourite KP shot is "the whirl". Half ballerina pirouette, half slog - all ridiculous. KP did this and his switch hit a few times - I may be a fan of the reverse sweep but really. What a stupid shot - he sent a catch Raina's way, departing for 175 after giving India's bowlers and the fielders a good old run-around. Bell was then joined by nightwatchman Anderson, a tactic that seems ridiculous. Why send a nightwatchman in? England were in no immediate - or indeed, any - danger from the Indian batsmen, so was this a tactic to add insult to India's injury? Are England intending to bat to 600 and bowl India out in an innings? Or - my personal favourite - does Strauss have as much faith in Bopara as the rest of us do? Who knows.

England ended the day on 457 for 3, with Bell on 181 and searching for his double century. Hopefully there won't be a repeat of his 199 fiasco at Lords against South Africa in 2008. But then the Bell we see now, and the Bell at the crease three years ago, are two completely different players; Bell has matured, and is fully deserving of his double hundred.

Monday, 15 August 2011

England are number one: six years of hard work, humiliating defeats and Ravi Bopara.

Six years ago to the day, 20,000 people stood around Old Trafford cricket ground, trying their best to catch a glimpse of the televised screen and get an inkling of how the final day of the third Ashes test was progressing. England drew the match, largely thanks to an inspired innings by Ricky Ponting, but less than a fortnight later it was two English batsmen who snatched victory away from the Australians, and helped England on their way to regaining the Ashes. The country was gripped; posters of Flintoff, Vaughan and Pietersen adorned the front cover of every newspaper, with critics hailing the series as 'the greatest Test'. There was a collective confidence amongst English cricket fans - this victory could propel England toward becoming the best test side in the world.

It may have taken six years, a few changes in captaincy, 51 all out against the West Indies, the inexplicable continued appearance of Ravi Bopara in an England shirt, the arrival of Andy Flower and a five-nil Ashes whitewash, but England have done it. They are number one in the world. The atmosphere at Edgbaston on Saturday was euphoric; the critics, the fans, the journalists, gripped by the same fever that engulfed the nation in 2005. And watching the players fall into a huddle into the middle of the pitch, surrounded by thousands upon thousands of pissed up Brummies uttering the immortal words 'stand up if you're number one!', it was impossible not to feel a huge sense of pride and achievement. Because this is a side that has been fighting to prove its worth in the test arena ever since Geraint Jones took a scrambled catch on 7th August to dismiss Michael Kasprowicz and took the team level in a series with that then-giant in the test arena, Australia.

The stand-out feature of the last three years of English cricket has been how adept the team are at working together. Everyone pulls their weight, wether it's in the field or with the bat. This has never been more apparent than in the latest India series; India looked disinterested in the field. Dropped catches, chances never taken, a wicket keeper who looked more interested in bowling at the opposition that taking a few catches - the one stand-out in the side was Praveen Kumar, who gave as much in the field as he did with his bowling and his batting, but India needed eleven men of similar stature, not just one.

England's fielding may have been ropey at times - sometimes, you'd see Alastair Cook strolling towards the slips and you'd just pray that nothing went toward him - but their general attitude was much more positive than India's. They went after their catches; they slid towards the boundary ropes in an attempt to stop the runs coming. By working in pairs, the bowling partnerships ran in tandem, with the bowler at one end understanding and capitalising on the progress of his teammate at the other. Jimmy Anderson now is lightyears away from the bowler he was when he first broke into the England side. Stuart Broad is finally proving his capabilities as an all-rounder, and Tim Bresnan and Chris Tremlett; well, let's be honest. When they were called up to the Ashes team in 2010, how many thought that these two were going to be the ones to rip through the Australian batting line up?

Bresnan, who at this point had five test matches under his belt, took a career best 50/4 at Melbourne, getting the ball to swing around and clinching the final wicket at Sydney that retained England the Ashes. Tremlett, who made the 'giant' Mitchell Johnson look like a midget next to him, was playing in his first test match since India in 2007, a series in which England had been humiliated by Zaheer Khan. He then took a wicket in every innings he bowled in, taking 27/4 at Melbourne, an innings which included the dismissal of Shane Watson, much to the sardonic pleasure of every English fan watching. And although Bresnan, Broad, Tremlett, Swann and Anderson are undoubtedly the best men to be in the current English attack, there's a huge array of talent waiting in the wings. Steven Finn and Graham Onions both have an Ashes series under their belts, while Jade Dernbach, Stuart Meaker and Chris Woakes are all impressing for their counties and the Lions.

England's batting line-up is also going from strength to strength. Jonathan Trott and Alastair Cook might not be the most scintillating of batsmen, a point which never fails to get right up Bob Willis' nose, but they're generally the anchors of England's batting line up. And really, flamboyancy isn't everything; not when England are looking down the barrel of a gun and need someone to knock the team back into the game. Strauss, Pietersen and Bell, all survivors from the Ashes 2005, have taken the glimpses of their talent that we saw in that series and converted themselves into some of the best batsmen in the world. And Matt Prior, who was vastly underrated when he broke into the England test side in 2007, and was for a long while the understudy to Tim Ambrose, averages 44.40 with the bat in test matches, with six centuries under his belt. England's batting line up is the most capable it has been since 2005. The lower order are no longer sent out just to defend at one end; they're capable of boosting the score, whether it's to put the team in front or to save them from defeat, and more often than not they can do this quickly and without a lot of fuss.

Luck has sometimes played its part in England's determination to become number one. Glenn McGrath's accident in 2005 - how do you stand on a cricket ball? I mean really, Glenn. Eyes in the back of your head man! - was eerily mirrored by Zaheer Khan's hamstring injury this year. But these injuries shouldn't be typecast as the only reason for England's victories. England, both then and now, were always capable of winning these tests. Yes, the opposition losing two best bowlers may have given England the advantage, but England could have crumbled. They could have become arrogant, or complacent, and we could be looking at a very different result. But they didn't; they fought to get on top of the Australians and the Indians, and prove their credibilities as a Test side. And they've done just that.

To coin a well worked cliche, the future looks bright for English cricket. There's still one more match in the England v. India series, but so far, England have completely outplayed India, just as they outplayed Australia at Melbourne less than 12 months ago. The Indian team that is playing at the minute isn't the India I want to remember; no fight, hardly any spirit. But this England team, and the way it has grown over the last six years, is the one I want to remember for a long, long time. England are number one in the world; the statistics show it but for many English fans they've been number one since they removed the Ashes from the grip of the Australians in 2005.

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Day Two at Edgbaston, in which Sreesanth celebrates his century and England just take the piss

If I were any sort of decent writer, I'd start the review with a clever pun about the wet weather and India's damp spirits, or how the rain reflected the damp spirits of the nation after the recent social troubles. But I'm not, so instead I'm going to start by saying that it absolutely hosed it down this morning, and delayed play by an hour. Despite getting England to 84/0, Cook and Strauss hadn't looked overtly comfortable at the crease, with Cook in particular having trouble getting onto the front foot and making a few wild flashes at the ball that luckily escaped the inside edge. However, their progress this morning was helped hugely by India's inability to maintain any sort of pressure on the two openers, coupled by a lacklustre bowling attack and an almost aloof fielding team.

Both Kumar and Sharma seemed stuck in a cyclical bowling pattern; start off with a full, wide delivery, send the next three deliveries sailing down the leg side with the batsman cheerfully watching them go whizzing past, then end the over with two decent, swinging deliveries, before returning to the field and starting the whole process all over again. Sharma's line and length was off all game; his first delivery gave Dravid some nice catching practice as it went hurtling towards him at first slip (not that it helped Dravid much - but more of that later). While he tightened his line up later on, with he and Kumar generally finding a better length in the morning session than the England bowlers had at midday yesterday, India's topsy-turvy bowling style meant they were unable to place Cook and Strauss under any real hostility.

Strauss and Cook showed, in the morning and post-lunch sessions, the mental agility that has become synonymous with their innings. They only chased the wide delivers when they were too juicy to ignore; they left the more dangerous deliveries and let the ball come to them. The running between the wickets was as good as it ever was; they are two batsmen who understand in each others game, largely thanks to the similarities in their technique and general playing attitude. The morning session sparked their 11th century stand, putting them fourth on the list of openers with the most century partnerships. That's not to say they didn't ride their luck; there were a few lucky edges that slipped past the stumps, but luckily for England, India's lacklustre fielding from yesterday spilled over into today.

The India that arrived in England just under a month ago feel lightyears away from the side that won the last test series in 2007. The slips just looked disinterested - Laxman's hands seemed to be super-glued into his pockets, which puts you at a bit of a disadvantage when the ball comes trundling your way - and Dhoni's bizarre form behind the wickets continued as he decided to start taking catches with his face as opposed to his hands. India also seemed stuck in a single frame of mind when it came to bowling; the ball was swinging away from the left handed openers and barely troubling them, so why not try around the wicket and force them to play? Sreesanth eventually did, but didn't have the best of times. True to form, his line and length went all over the shop, and Cook took great pleasure in sending the ball tumbling to the cover drive.

The other mentality missing from India's fielding seemed to be the aggression. Saker's ridiculous 'enforcer' rhetoric aside, England have Anderson and Tremlett, both of whom are naturally aggressive bowlers; Tremlett, in particular, is like a man mountain steaming his way down the crease. India, obviously missing Khan, couldn't inject their innings with any sort of anger or real power, straying too far wide of the off stump and making simple mistakes in the field. Dravid, a man who has the most catches in Test cricket, shelled two absolute sitters throughout the day; four years ago, he would have taken those catches. Maybe it's age, maybe it's an lack of interest in test cricket, maybe it's just having no motivation, but the India that came out today were incomparable to the team they used to be.

Harbajhan, after having a generally awful time in England, was replaced by Mishra, who set about continuing the awful form of spinners in this series by bowling four no balls in two overs. Cook quickly tired of this and began to look more like that Cook that powered his way through the Australian bowling attack; he adjusted his stance quickly and began to play with the spin, sending the ball spiraling across the pitch. He even got so confident that he broke out the reverse sweep, something which he's never done in test cricket before, and shocked the majority of commentators, who were crowing about Cook's trundling nature, into silence. Strauss attempted to sweep Mishra in a similar manner, but missed and the ball spun back to hit the stumps. It was a saving grace for Mishra who up until this point had appeared fairly non threatening; yet it was a hollow victory, as replays showed the delivery was a no ball, something that was representative of Mishra's innings.

To the relief of everyone, Bopara wasn't plonked back into the side at number three, with Ian Bell instead coming out. Obviously a more attacking and arguably decisive player than Trott - who was watching from the stands, probably bursting with pride at Cook's slow advancement toward a century - Bell's innings began in a skittish manner, with a beautiful crashing boundary off Sharma instantly followed up by a lucky inside edged that just inched past the stumps. There was a bizzare period where Bell tried to slog Mishra back over his head for six, and ended up edging it down point, and painfully past Sreesanth. Once he'd settled down, Bell's innings became far more reflective of his natural game, as he jumped on wide after wide from Mishra.

Cook brought up his 19th test century without a hint of the uncertainty that had plagued the start of his innings. His cut and pull shots are similar to Strauss', but there's so much power behind them that once Cook's hit it, it's nearly always going for a boundary. It was a lovely way to get to a century, despite the ugly start, and represented Cook getting back on form after a difficult few games at the beginning of the series.

Bell was bowled for 34 by Kumar, who was by far and away the pick of the Indian bowlers. This brought Pietersen to the crease, and he opened his innings in traditional fashion; one stupid shot followed by a lovely drive to straight long on. Pietersen's ability to out-think the captain and his field settings was highlighted in lovely fashion straight after tea, when Pietersen's confidence grew and he set about sending Sharma and Mishra's slightly shorter balls to every available area of the field. He made a lovely 50, before being disconcerted by an LBW shout from Sreesanth that realistically, wasn't going anywhere near the stumps. After taking it to India in such grandiose style, Pietersen faltered, instead slashing and swinging wildly at the ball and upset his natural rhythm; a rhythm which is unpredictable at the best of times.

India, with the exception of Kumar, looked incapable of bowling England out; in fact, they looked like they'd rather be anywhere else than on the pitch, to the extent that it felt as though England were bullying them as they set about building a huge score. Pietersen eventually fell LBW to Kumar, but they couldn't get Cook, who made his fifth 150 of the year. India (and by India, I mean Kumar) were obviously knackered by the time Morgan got to the crease. Drop catches, shoddy fielding and general disinterest meant that Morgan and Cook could easily dispatch the ball to the boundary, with Morgan helping Sreesanth celebrate his century by crashing the ball through the covers for four. I have no idea what was going on in Dhoni's head, but it certainly had nothing to do with the game, or boosting the morale of his side; to use an already overworked journalistic cliche, there was only one great team out on that pitch today. And it certainly wasn't India.