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.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Day One at Edgbaston, in which Cooky takes a "catch" and Dhoni remembers which way up to hold the bat

And so it begins: the test that decides who will become the number one team in the world. England began the day with a slight disadvantage, as everyone's favourite trundler, Jonathan Trott, was ruled out with a shoulder injury that had Bob Willis cheering into his cup of tea. He was "replaced" - and I use the term loosely - by Ravi Bopara, a man whose not had the greatest of times in an England shirt. The decision to include Bopara was helped massively by Tremlett's recurring back injury; if Tremlett had been fit, how would the selectors have chosen between Bresnan, Bopara and Tremlett? Flower has made it clear that he favours the four man bowling attack and having an extra batsman, but dropping Bresnan after his 90 runs and five-for at Trent Bridge, in favour of a batsman who consistently struggles to get runs in an England kit, just seems like a backwards step. Tremlett's injury put paid to this decision, but you can't help but wonder if the selectors were secretly thanking their lucky stars.

Strauss, after having woeful luck so far, managed to win the toss, and decided to field first. This seemed to fare well when Sehwag, on his big return after being out with a shoulder injury, fell first ball to a cracker of a delivery from Broad. It was a delivery that marked the first time in since Cardiff that England have used the review system properly; rather than using it to pander to the sulking bowlers (because deep down, Strauss hates to see anybody upset) England used the system to great effect, showing an inside edge that had Sehwag strolling back to the dressing room. In the pre-lunch session, both Broad and Bresnan found a consistent line and length that had the ball darting all over the place. Gambhir fell to a beauty of a ball from Bresnan that sent his leg stump spiralling out of the ground, an action which makes the single most pleasing noise in test cricket. Broad, whose bowling over the past three games has been his best since the five-for at the Oval, snared the wicket of Tendulkar, but it was a wicket that was in part set up by Anderson.

Jimmy vs. Tendulkar is fast becoming the new KP vs. left arm spinners; Jimmy never let him get settled, with Tendulkar very nearly falling to the third Anderson inswinger, and playing at a delivery that he really should have left. Although it was Broad who claimed the wicket, it was Jimmy who took the catch; I wonder how many nightmares Tendulkar will be having about Jimmy Anderson from now on. You have to wonder how much the 'hundred hundredth' (I don't know if you know that Tendulkar is one century away from his 100th hundred. I mean, it's never mentioned by anybody EVER) is playing on Tendulkar's mind. Despite the half century at Trent Bridge, he's never seemed to play with the ease that has become a hallmark of his career.

Dravid, on the other hand, goes from strength to strength. Despite being slightly like India's least favourite son, a man who has spent his career in the shadow of Tendulkar, Dravid always digs his heels in and spends his innings making life difficult for the batsmen. His solid defence is complimented by his natural ability to jump on the wide ball, and send it spiraling through the covers for four. He was, however, deceived by another excellent bit of bowling from Bresnan, which sent his bails flying behind him, and left India at lunch on 75-4.

Laxman and Raina seemed to come and go fairly quickly. Despite milking a few wide Bresnan deliveries for four, Laxman was constantly forced to play by the Yorkshireman, resulting in him skying a delivery to Broad. It was a stupid shot from such an effective, and natural, player, but it was a wicket that was indicative of India's struggles against the short ball. Raina, who looks moderately terrified every time he's faced with a short delivery, now struggles with a pitched up delivery; Jimmy built up the pressure with a few short balls before bowling Rainia with an excellent pitched up delivery.

And then in came Dhoni, a man who has spent much of this series looking like a child whose had a bat thrust into his hands and then been shoved out into the middle. Previous to this innings, he averaged 146 with the bat, in comparison to Prior's 496. And the first thirty minutes of his innings or so were skittish to say the least. Dhoni never looked comfortable; constantly chasing after wide deliveries or defending in such an awkward position that it made Alastair Cook's defensive stance look artistic by comparison, it looked as though Dhoni would be looking at another test failure. He once again struggled with the bounce, but England, who up until this point had worked incredibly well as a unit, decided to exploit India's weakness with the short ball and ultimately took it a step too far.

With seven wickets down, and gradually starting to find more confidence, Dhoni obviously decided that enough was enough, and set about smashing Jimmy and Bresnan every which way around the ground. Wether it was the influence of the IPL, or just the actions of a man who was desperate to find some form and dig his team out of a hole, I don't know, but he was aided massively by some awful short deliveries from the England bowlers. Bresnan in particular couldn't get his line right, sending ball after ball spiraling down the leg side and forcing poor old Prior to leap around behind the stumps like Superman.

India may have struggled with the short ball but the point of a short ball is for it to be used effectively; use it once too often and the batsman get wise to this. Use it badly and runs start to come thick and fast. In the post-lunch session, the short ball changed from an surprise method to snare wickets into a technique that England relied on far too often. Bresnan eventually took Kumar's wicket with a short ball, but not after he'd been dispatched around the ground for plenty of boundaries. India moved from 117/7 to 205/8, with 130 runs added after lunch.

After tea, Dhoni fell for 77, his highest total in this series so far, and an innings that must have come as a relief to him. Ironically it was a pitched up ball that Dhoni decided to play at, and ended up sending it straight into Strauss's hands at first slip. Cook, who has the catching ability of an elephant at times, then surprised everyone by taking the oddest catch I've seen in a while. Sharma sends a delivery straight to Cook, but rather than taking it with his hands, Cook decides to use his chest as a new catching tool and somehow clings on, ending India's innings on 224.

And in came Strauss and Cook. Traditionally, August has been Cook's 'time of the month' - he averaged 23.85 last year in the Pakistan series, and hasn't had the greatest of times in this series. His innings was nearly cut short by some LBW shouts from Kumar and Sharma, both of whom seem to have mis-understood certain aspects of the LBW rule (you can't blame them, it's bloody confusing). Cook seemed uncertain in getting on to the front foot and playing some shots, yet Strauss, whose just had an awful time of it in the last few months, went to town on Sreesanth's wider deliveries and sent them crashing to the boundaries with his favourite square cut.

Strauss's ability to jump on the short ball is reminiscent of Ponting -quickly into position and thrashing it through the covers. After failing to pepper Strauss and Cook with the short balls, Sreesanth seemed to fade away slightly. Despite being such a dangerous bowler when he gets his line right, he was unable to do that today, bowling too short and wide and giving Strauss easy pickings. Cook also got in on the act when faced with Sharma; obviously more comfortable against such a medium pace, he joined Strauss in poking the ball to the boundary.

Strauss brought his half century up in the penultimate innings; his first once since Sydney of January 2011. Not only was it Strauss's highest score of the series, it was the highest opening partnership so far. Whilst that's slightly depressing on some levels, it's also indicative of the talent of England's lower order batsmen; back in 2006/7, England's lower order often crumbled once the big guns of Vaughan and Flintoff had fallen. Now they are capable of holding their own and propelling England towards a big score when the top order fail to get runs.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Tim Bresnan, King of Yorkshire

On the way to Trent Bridge on Day 4 of the second England vs. India test, I got talking to a group of England fans, all of whom were, coincidentally, Yorkshire fans. After spending a good 10 minutes discussing how depressing this season has been for us - "it started off alright, then it got shit, and shitter, and now it's just a mixture of average and bleeding awful" - the talk moved to the current England team. "Whose you're favourite?" I asked, and got the same reply from nearly all of them; "Bres, of course!" The reasons for this adoration ranged from the obvious - a strong batter and a "bloody good bowler" - to the not-so-cricketing related - "he just looks like someone you could have a pint and a laugh wi'!'"

But what they said rang true, because there is something incredibly likeable about Bresnan. The fact that he is extremely good at knowing his own game helps enormously, but on or off the pitch you can't shake the image of Bres as being one of the lads. It's the same 'thing' that Darren Gough or Freddie Flintoff had; a sense of normality and a grounded nature that some sportsmen don't seem to have. He looks like someone you'd bump into in your local, and yet he's one of the most natural all-rounders many have seen in a while. Yorkshire love having a mascot, someone to pin their hopes on to, and Bresnan has been that talisman for the past three or four years. Now the wider cricketing public have come to embrace Bresnan as one of their own.

Unlike Stuart Broad, who is just beginning to embrace his role as an all-rounder, Bresnan has equal skill with the bat and ball. His 90 on day 4 should really have been 100; he mixed classic straight drives and lovely strokes to third man with good old fashioned slogging and thumping hits to the boundary line. He's not an inherently selfish player; drafted into the side due to Tremlett's hamstring and back injury, Bresnan gave everything to put England back on top of the game in the first innings, and then keep them there in the second innings. England needed to build up a strong lead with some big hitting, and together with Prior, Bresnan gave England the huge lead that was needed to ultimately take the game.

He followed this up with his first test five-for, with deliveries that constantly forced the batsman to play, with one ball to Dhoni that looked as though it would send middle spiralling out of the ground, and made Dhoni look a bit of an idiot. Despite getting thrashed around by Harbajhan at one point - he'd clearly got bored of poking around at the tight England bowling line-up and decided to give his arms a quick work-out - he kept his confidence and was rewarded with England's newest favourite substitute fielder, Scott Elstone, taking two good catches to give him his five wicket haul.

Yorkshire fans have known how special Bresnan is for sometime. His breakthrough into the England side came too early in his career, and resulted in him being smashed all around Headingley by the Sri Lankan's in 2006; given time back with his county he was able to develop his skills with the bat and the ball and became the strongest all rounder in the Yorkshire side. He was Yorkshire's youngest debutant in 20 years, and he's proved that the faith shown in him by the county was well placed. When he's been in the team this season, he's taken wickets and he's nearly always contributed highly with the bat. That's not to say he is the sole driving force in the Yorkshire team, but there's no denying that his availabilty and his talent as an all-rounder massively benefits Yorkshire, particularly when they've had such a fraught season.

His breakthrough into the Ashes squad showed how much he'd grown as a player from the Sri Lanka whitewash. Taking 11 wickets, including the wicket of Hilfenhaus that retained England the Ashes, he proved why the selectors had been right to give him his shot. 2011 has also seen him become an integral part of the England ODI squad; a far cry from the uncertain bowler who debuted five years ago.

So there you go. Tim Bresnan, a Yorkshire lad whose making it into the big time. A bloody good player, and a man many would like to sit and have a pint with. There's more to come from Bresnan that what we've seen so far, although if Trott is fit in a week's time, Bresnan probably won't play at Edgbaston. It's a huge shame, there's no denying that, but if his natural game continues to grow as it has over the past 8 years, then Bressy will become more and more integral to the England structure, both in the one day squad and the test side.