Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Where to now?

England don't win in India. It's a fact of life, in the same way that New Zealand are the cricketing underdogs and Stuart Broad will appeal for bat before wicket at least three times per innings. But despite an almighty hiccup in Ahmedabad, England have stuck to the task, ground the opponents down and used the whole range of clichés to clinch the series. India have looked threatening in parts, none more so than in the first test, but on the whole, this has been England's series.

What went wrong for India? An over-reliance on England's spin issues has cost them dearly. England do struggle against spin. Say the words 'Ajmal' and 'doosra' in the same sentence and Ian Bell will be reduced to a gibbering wreck for days. But Ajmal was not an ordinary spinner. His variations, the fields he set and the ability to dry up the runs meant that England panicked and made a rod for their own back. Ojha aside, England seemed to work out Indian spin quicker than they ever could with Ajmal. Ashwin's carrom ball was no doosra/teesra/Steve - for players who have seen, and struggled, against so many variations, it was relatively easy to pick and didn't bring him any wickets. India were unable to tie England down. Going in with four spinners wasn't a result of careful reading of the pitch. It was under the theory that England would see four spin bowlers, see one ball spin out of the rough, panic and let history repeat itself.

That didn't happen. The majority of wickets did fall to spin, and while players such as Bell and Bairstow struggled, on the whole, England handled themselves far better than in the UAE. Pietersen was aggressive in the second test, but without the frenzied nature that so frustrates the fans. Cook was outstanding. He will go on to break even more records. Forming a solid partnership with Compton, who on a tough tour impressed with his relative calm at the crease, Cook was responsible for setting the tone of England's biggest innings. Usually when England faltered, it was due to Cook's absence - or terrible umpiring decisions. Root on debut was calm, composed and handled batting with Pietersen (an art form in itself) admirably. Prior goes from strength to strength, if relying too heavily on sweep shots that force the heart to leap into the mouth, and the out-of-sorts Trott looked like his old self in the final test.

India's batting was a different story. The first test was Sehwag's; Pujara's century was composed in the first test and sublime in the second. Kohli showed at the final hour why he is so highly rated amongst the critics. If only the temper could match the classy nature of his batting. The rest struggled. Tendulkar has so long been the king of Indian cricket, and it may be time for the king to fall on his sword. Starts were not converted, he so rarely showed the cover drives and the delicate wrist movement that is associated with him. It was poor, for want of a better word. Gambhir's batting is bizarre. Antsy one minute, mature the next, he wavers from one extreme to the other. His batting with the tail was also costly. Selfish in rotating the strike for singles, rather than protecting the weaker batsman, he was instrumental in India's fold in the second test.

Captaincy, batting and keeping were all difficult for Dhoni throughout the series. Whether arguing (needlessly, as it happened) with umpires, fluffing catches that should have been taken or failing to hit Panesar and Swann out of the attack, Dhoni came under fire from all quarters. But who can India turn to? Kohli is too young and surely too hot-headed; Gambhir needs time to work on his game; Pujara is relatively new to the side and both Sehwag and Tendulkar are happy to offer their expertise on an informal basis. Dhoni's field placings, first test aside, were poor and when India were behind, his fields were too defensive. Cook too goes on the defence far too easily, again as shown in the first test, but as the series continued, Cook grew. Dhoni stalled.

England can take pride from this victory. Winning in India, no matter how poor some judge the Indian team to be, is a huge achievement. There are problems for England, but for now, they should be allowed their moment in the sun. India need to ask questions, and urgently. Prestige and history is no excuse for keeping a faltering player in the side - performances should be judged fairly, not on the strength of one's name. A watering of the fast bowling tree would not go amiss, as would improving the fitness of the team generally (although England, too, could do with a little nudge in this direction). Make no mistake, this series has shown that changes need to be made in India, or this slide will continue. England can hold their heads with pride; India need to pull theirs from the sand.

Friday, 7 December 2012

One debacle after another

Oh, New Zealand. Why must your finger permanently hover over the self-destruct button? A win in Sri Lanka, and a rare win at that, and all of a sudden, the knives are out and the PR machines grind to a halt. Ross Taylor's removal from the captaincy has been public, embarrassing and completely unceremonious. The excuses have come thick and fast, each more asinine than the other, and cricket's year of public relations messes looks to be getting worse.

"[Hesson] had concerns, not about [Taylor's] captaincy, but he felt it would  be better for Ross to focus on his game. It was felt that the work load for a young captain was a lot"

If Taylor is to be believed, Hesson mentioned stepping down from the captaincy at the beginning of the Sri Lanka test series. Taylor's bowlers gave their best performance to date in the first test, before the batsmen imploded on themselves, but the second test saw Taylor score a commanding 142 to help New Zealand to their first victory in Sri Lanka for fourteen years. A man under pressure from above went out and scored two half centuries and led his team to victory. If that isn't proof of his character and leadership abilities, then what is? Taylor's game has always been under question, dating back to before he took the captaincy and there were mutters about his careless approach to batting. But his average has increased whilst he was captain. There are still careless shots in his armour, but doesn't every player have one or two of those up their sleeves?

It is not as though New Zealand suddenly became a bad team under Taylor. As a test nation, they have always had their ups and downs. Vettori oversaw many defeats as captain, yet his place was rarely questioned. Taylor has had eighteen months in the job. It's seen some embarrassing losses but it's also seen some of the most remarkable victories. The win against Australia at Hobart was a testament to the Black Caps determination. Kane Williamson's almighty effort against Steyn, Morkel and Philander earlier in the year saved New Zealand from another defeat. The win in Sri Lanka, which has been overshadowed by this debacle, was a genuine team performance. The bowlers fired and the batsmen played themselves in. A captain can't ask for much more.

Incidents such as these normally occur on the back of a defeat. New Zealand were celebrating a win. That is what makes the whole situation so strange. Young captains have been dropped in at the deep end before and flourished. Alastair Cook has just made five centuries in five tests as captains, as well as captaining the one day team and experiencing his first full tour in the most difficult part of the world for teams to conquer. He and Taylor are made from similar stuff. Their respective games could not be more different, but both have a determination to succeed. Taylor's lackadaisical approach to batting has left people wondering how seriously he takes his role, but as a captain, Taylor gave a lot. In the early days, he turned to Vettori to advice, showing his willingness to learn. And it is a willingness that eventually paid off with the recent victory. Now, the Black Caps have lost not only a captain who was probably just growing into his potential, but the middle order looks rockier than ever. When Taylor put his mind to it, just as any other player does, he often emerged on top. The hole in the middle order will be felt. And when there is another batting collapse, and fingers are to be pointed, who will they land on?

McCullum is not a bad choice for captain. He has lead well in the past and has appeared more willing to experiment than Taylor and Vettori did. But why not appoint McCullum when Vettori first stepped down? Why give Taylor full backing as a 'young captain', celebrate his successes and then dump him when things began to look up? The situation reeks of underhand tactics. McCullum and Hesson's Otago connections will be constantly debated in the press; hardly the solid start that a new captain would be looking for.

McCullum's own place in the team is somewhat of a paradox. Once considered one of the best keeper-batsman in the world, since giving up the gloves in tests McCullum has opened the batting, to little success except against Zimbabwe, dropped down to the middle order where he looks settled one minute and jumpy the next, and as a result, his one day form has suffered. McCullum has received the backing of Hesson because of his 'aggressive' one day mindset - yet his recent one day form, a rip-roaring T20 century against Bangladesh aside, is poor.

Just as the KP text-gate saga before it was, the whole situation is a mess. New Zealand come up against the best test team in the world without their best batsman. Taylor feels unable to carry on with cricket at the moment; and really, who can blame him? Only time will tell who the new scapegoat for New Zealand's poor test performances will be.

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Retiring with Dignity

Most of us revelled in Freddie Flintoff's on-field battles. Whether he was winding Tino Best up or bowling as fast as possible to Ricky Ponting, he was a joy to watch. Now, fans can watch a slimline version of Freddie don a pair of boxing gloves and take on an opponent who, to call him amateur would be an over-statement. It might be the jungle, the dance floor or putting their face to the least embarrassing brand available, it seems that some are incapable of retiring with grace.

Shane Warne was a great leg spinner once upon a time. He wasn't always Mr Hurley, or appearing on the back pages of the newspapers showing his pearly whites and modelling the advantages of Advanced Hair studio. It's sad to think that some will know Warne more for his celebrity girlfriend than his cricketing adventures. Every year, Warne announces a grand comeback; following international retirement, he captained the Rajasthan Royals to inaugral IPL victory, before retiring again in 2011, and then unretiring to act as the fresh ('fresh' is used loosely here. 'Perfectly moisturised' may be more appropriate) face of the Melbourne Stars in Australia. Now he is offering his services to Michael Clarke in Australia's next battle for the Ashes. Does the sideshow ever stop?

Are post-cricket opportunities really that thin on the ground? There are those who have flourished. Rahul Dravid has taken to commentary like a duck to water. Nasser Hussain's TV appearances have made him more likeable than when he acted as captain. Yet figures such as Warne and Flintoff are almost addicted to the limelight. Maybe it's because of the status they earned as players. Flintoff was the face of English cricket for 2005, Warne synonymous with the rise and rise of Australia. When the attention begins to dwindle, the desire to stay in the spotlight is stronger. And the stunts become more ridiculous.

Flintoff's foray into boxing was uncomfortable to watch. He described it as one of the best achievements of his career. This from a man who has five test centuries and over 200 test wickets under his belt? If Flintoff were doing this as a genuine career move, his motives could be more understandable. As it happens, his every move was filmed by Sky, his opponent was relatively inexperienced and appeared to completely back off after knocking Flintoff to the ground, just to allow him to fight back. The whole experience smacked of a publicity stunt. He arrived wearing a Lancashire Lightning t-shirt, Oasis blaring through the speakers; every cliché could be checked off with a big red cross. If it was good for Flintoff, then that's fine. But to try and sell this as a genuine sporting experience? No, thank you.

Warne's face is currently plastered on the side of British buses. Flintoff's adverts for "real men's clothing" are on TV at regular intervals. At one time, they were on TV for entirely different reasons. It's sad, to see greats of the game reduced to selling their names to remain relevant. Their legacy should speak for itself.

Monday, 26 November 2012

India v England, Round Two: Reintegration, You Say?

The weather outside is indeed frightful. The fire inside is no longer delightful because, well, have you seen those heating bills? The majority of people spend their early mornings peacefully sleeping or stumbling home after a more than merry night out. And then there's the others. You know who you are. You're those who crawl out of bed at 4am, switch on the TV, grab the nearest dose of caffeine and stare, bleary eyed, at the TV.

Recently, these early morning excursions have brought little more than annoyance and disappointment to the England fan. The start of the year saw dismal batting performances, and judging by the first test against India, it looked like the year may end on a similar note. But the Wankhede was different.

It didn't begin well. Following a night visualising the coin toss, Cook called incorrectly and the glint in Dhoni's eye grew bigger as he decided to bat. But despite heroics again from Pujara, who is fast moulding himself into the Hashim Amla sized pain in England's backside, India didn't blow England away. Their footwork was poor, the shots loose and for all the talk of England's spin struggles, they looked unable to deal with the differing paces of Panesar. Monty remains one of the most likeable players in the England squad. Hard-working, dedicated and willing to learn, there are few players who embrace playing for their country more than he does. After attempts at tinkering his action, trying to force him into something that he wasn't, Panesar bounced back with the help of Sussex, and his performance was a credit to them.

Following the bowling performance, the 4am fan is still a little sceptical. Yes, we've bowled them out; but after having India 199/5, letting them get to 327 could be costly. And England still had to bat on a pitch that was beginning to turn. And history has a nasty way of repeating itself. It was in no way plain sailing for the batsmen. Only two passed thirty, with the tail that last year was vaunted as wagging harder than any in international cricket collapsing for the grand total of six runs. Success was down to the brilliance of two batsman, poles apart in technique but equally determined. Pietersen's innings was sublime. Not as elegant as the Headingley effort but even more impressive, the derision with which he treated the spinners brought a nostalgic tear to the eye of all those who remember Warne v Pietersen in '05. Cook did what Cook does best. He concentrated. He played himself in. He slashed the loose balls to the nearest boundary. It was a brilliant performance from the two.

413. A lead of 86. Still the fan is nervous. Again, England went beyond expectations. When England sense they are on top, their game automatically improves. The fielders in close take catches that after a few hours in the field they would probably have missed. Bowlers are more attacking; when a waist high full toss to one of India's brightest young talents is smashed straight to the waiting fielder, you know you are part of something special. Cook's captaincy is still cautious at best, but he closed the field in, allowing Swann and Panesar to build pressure and ultimately, spin England to victory.

There are of course problems for England. Broad's form has not just weakened but has deserted him all together, and the middle and lower orders folded a little too easily. But for now, they deserve their moment in the sun. After all the media-friendly talk of reintegration and team unity, England went with actions rather than words, and put in their best performance of the year. And the 4am fan could not be happier. It was worth getting out of bed for.

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Match made in heaven

One is brash, unorthodox and has experimented with the world of hair dye. The other is unassuming, dogged and awkward. One is bosom buddies with Piers Morgan; one spends his spare time castrating sheep. Feel free to work out which is which. 

Differences aside, Cook and Pietersen are one of the best partnerships in the England set-up. Their names are among the highest English scoring batsmen of all time, and both will undoubtedly score more than 22 centuries apiece. When the two come together in tests, England are usually in a bit of trouble; if Pietersen is jittery, they end up in even further trouble. But the partnership at the Wankhede, the highest third wicket partnership at the ground, was different. 

There was an aggression to both players. Pietersen started off frenetic; determined to dominate, but not to repeat the two dreadful shots in Ahmedebad. His defensive technique looked more solid but every so often the veneer would slip and he would strike out to relieve the tension. Cook struck out in the way he knows best - cutting and sweeping the bad balls, leaving the tempters and blocking the straight ones. Together, they were the perfect foil. Pietersen knew he could he could attack without Cook feeling the need to catch him up, while Cook, after guiding Pietersen through the first overs, could sit back and watch Pietersen go.

It was a stunning effort from Pietersen. Refusing to allow the spinners to settle, in particular Ojha and his left armers, his footwork was excellent. There were no switch hits, but cover drives, sweeps and the heave in the air were a regular feature of his innings. Cook barely looked troubled. When he went for the big shots, they were from the classic armoury that had featured in Gooch's game before him. He read length better than any of the batsmen had managed in Ahmedabad, allowing him to sweep with a confidence that the majority of England players had left in the UAE. Pietersen's fondness for quick singles could easily be matched by Cook's constant alertness. Cook never appears tired at the crease, with a textbook block that stays perfect until the very last ball.

The two work well because of their difference styles. Each are comfortable in the way they play, now more so than ever. Cook's century came from 236 deliveries. Pietersen's? A mere 127. Their totals contributed 75% of England's runs; they were the only two to pass thirty and both looked like they could have continued for longer. They built the platform that England's lower order threw away. Without Cook, there are many times when England would have been in sticky situations. With Pietersen, England get their edge back. Combined, the two offer a stability and aggression that can only benefit England's sub-continent campaign.

Monday, 19 November 2012

England in India, Round One: Same Old Story

In horror films, there's always a moment where the badly masked villain is approaching his victim in the darkness. The victim knows what is about to happen. The audience know it too. Yet everyone still jumps in surprise as the inevitable happens.

England's latest horror show, The Atrocity in Ahmedabad, is more than a little repetitive. It's the sequel to January's hit collapses in the UAE; similar players doing irresponsible things and looking surprised when the whole thing blew up in their faces. And this time, there was not even the consolation prize of England's bowling attack standing up to the opposition. A few star cameos aside, this was an all-round turkey of a performance.

At times, it was almost as though England tried to out-rubbish one another. Bell's dreadful decision in the first innings to smash his first ball into the stratosphere was marginally outdone by Pietersen's sweep all around a full length straight ball that subsequently clattered into his off-stump. Patel's full delivery that was nonchalantly launched for six by an imperious Sehwag was little better than Broad and Bresnan's short and wide campaign to the same batsman. England's batting problems are half flawed technique, half mental panic. Their bowling was simply below par. In the UAE, the bowling attack were constantly let down by the batsmen. In this case, neither elements stood up to scrutiny.

There were positives. Cook's second innings fight spoke more about his determination and mental strength then anything else he could do as captain. It showed that the spin England were facing was not unplayable. There was no doosra; Ashwin's carrom ball was relatively easy to pick, and didn't bring him a wicket. Cook was positive. Blocked the good balls, put the good ones away and rotated the strike in sweltering conditions. Paired with Prior, whose controlled aggression on the fourth day had India worried, they showed what was possible. They showed what England had thrown away in the first innings.

Technically, there looks to be very little change from the winter's sub-continent trip. Sweep shots still look uncertain and are not being played to the right length deliveries. Footwork is either static or too over-complicated; Cook is strong off the back foot but got forward to smother any spin in defence, whereas players such as Trott stayed too far in their crease and paid the price. The coaching staff includes two of the best players of spin cricket has created, and Gooch, with his ability to prosper in English and sub-continent conditions, should have begun to iron the faults out. He has done wonders for Cook, but for the rest of the batsmen? They are not children, and Gooch cannot hold their hands and play for them, but he can stop them making the same, costly mistakes time after time.

Mentally, England fear the spinning ball. After being decimated in the UAE, losing the number one ranking to a superior South African side and mediocre performances in between, England look poles apart from their position last year. Broad is down on pace. He looks out of ideas, resorting to ridiculous LBW appeals and short ball barrages that on the slow Indian pitches do nothing but sit up and ask to be hit. His batting, too, is hardly impressive. Bresnan is far better with the bat but he is not the same bowler that tore through India at Trent Bridge last year. Since his elbow surgery his pace has dropped and he seems to have lost the ability to get any reverse swing. Sehwag targeted him on the first day, and he never recovered.

England know they have been outplayed, but they must also know that they hardly helped their own cause. Swann was controlled but after his elbow complaints recently, he cannot be expected to hold up the entire bowling attack on his own. Panesar will surely come in for Bresnan, and replacing Broad for Finn, who may be match fit but has only bowled four overs so far, or Meaker, who is inexperienced but able to achieve the pace Broad cannot, should give the attack some extra potency. Bell's absence opens up a place for Morgan or Bairstow, neither of whom have played test cricket in India and both are suspected to have the same problems against spin. Whether it's arrogance, complacency or exhaustion, England's slide over the last year has been pretty disastrous. And it doesn't look to be stopping any time soon.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

On the rise?

The state of Australian cricket over the last two years has led to despair at home and sardonic amusement elsewhere. Successive Ashes losses were followed by an embarrassing 47 all out against South Africa, a loss to a New Zealand side who were hardly world threatening... it was a miserable two years, before 2011's 4-0 whitewash over a dire India set Australia back on track. Of course, with the Australian press, things are either amazingly good or the team are a national disgrace; probably something to do with the rich history of Australian cricket. But now they're facing South Africa, Australia are arguably on the up, just in time for next year's back to back Ashes.

Any Australian side will always be compared to the greats. Emerging spinners perform well, and they're the new Warne. A consistent fast bowler? The new McGrath. Michael Clarke's side are nowhere near the heights others have achieved, but under his leadership, they are laying the right foundations.

The bowling attack wavers from mediocre to hugely impressive. Hilfenhaus is surely in the twilight of his international years. Down on pace, his ability to swing the ball has all but disappeared, as has the fight that went with it. Siddle is capable of hostile spells but hardly looks intimidating. Australia's future rests on three young fast bowlers; Pattinson, Cummins and Starc.

Pattinson is the most mature of the three. Eons apart from his brother, he has pace and the ability to swing the ball into the batsmen. He is aggressive, and the consistency will come with time. All three bowlers have problems with sustaining pressure. Pattinson is susceptible to no-balls, Starc drops too short and wide when under pressure and Cummins so far doesn't have the body for test cricket. Successive back fractures have pushed him out of the last two international summers, and whether he is a by-product of Cricket Australia's new policy of wrapping bowlers in cotton wool or his body is simply prone to injuries, he has so far played one test for Australia, despite his name being bandied around as one of the most promising fast bowlers. Starc is potentially the most underrated of the three. A spell at Yorkshire did wonders for his line and accuracy, and he is a huge asset in limited overs. The sooner he integrates into the test side, the better.

The batting line up is slightly more fractious. Australia tend to rely on names; Hussey and Ponting have 58 centuries between them and generally perform when the stakes are high. Yet Ponting is looking increasingly less like himself. Despite the 221 against India at the start of the year, it was against a bowling attack as threatening as a shark with dentures, and against Steyn and Morkel, he struggled. His dismissal, pushing forwards to drive and edging behind, was horribly predictable. Ponting is undoubtedly one of the finest players of his generation, but he looks obsolete against quality attacks.

Australia persist with Warner at the top of the order, a player who appears to have two settings: go hard or go home. His partnership with the orthodox Cowan worked well against India but while Cowan dug in against South Africa, Warner couldn't resist the temptation to try and intimidate the tourists. Warner constantly wants to be the aggressor, to make his mark and set the tone of the innings, but against the best bowling attack in cricket, it requires patience and a bit of thinking. Watson is injured, but his inability to get past 50 is well documented, and questions as to whether he is an opening batsman or not have followed his career. He is still incredibly flat footed, and is becoming an easier target to bowl at. Clarke is the in-form batsman; a beautiful player of spin, he may take a while to settle in but he is the classiest of the line-up by far. His leadership is also one of the more interesting in cricket. Trying new field placings and having an understanding of what role each of his bowlers should represent have made Australia look like a more polished unit.

Australia will be hit and miss for a while. That's the way things work - it is difficult to instantly bounce back from successive Ashes defeats and Australia's slide started well before 2009. But at the moment, they look hugely promising. The bowlers are more potent than the batsmen, but when everything clicks into place in the not too near future, Australia will be pushing for Ashes dominance again.

Saturday, 27 October 2012

How to win in India

It's been twenty seven years since England last won a test series in India. England were victorious in 1985, when Graeme Swann was dreaming of playing for England and Joe Root was little more than a twinkle in his parent’s eyes. Since then, England have gone from bottom of the international rankings, to the top, then back to somewhere in the middle, with three Ashes victories, an army of backroom staff headed by the dignified figure of Andy Flower and a fair few cock-ups along the way. But conquering the subcontinent still remains a mystery. Some teams have made decent attempts, but on the whole, England have taken to subcontinent conditions like a duck to tarmac.

Gower's team of 1984/5 covered the basics. Following a defeat in the first test, largely down to some mediocre batting, they fought back with bat and ball, before a stunning 241-stand for the second wicket between Fowler and Gatting helped England secure victory in the fourth test, and with it, the series. Gower looked assured and alert as captain - a first time for everything - and, according to Fowler, team spirit and a genuine enjoyment of each other's company inspired England to victory.

England go to India with a new captain, a freshly reintegrated batsman and a healthy mix of youth and experience. There's no reason why they can't win. Despite some lacklustre performances over the English summer, and a more than forgettable T20 World Cup, England aren't a bad side. They are a side, however, plagued by the psychology of the subcontinent. This year has shown that when faced with a spin attack that they perceive to be deadly, England's batsmen go to pieces. In March, they collapsed to the flighty but orthodox spin of Sri Lanka's Herath; Tahir was gifted more wickets than he deserved over the English summer and the T20 game against India, which saw England collapse to their lowest ever T20 score, did not have violently turning hand grenades but relatively simple bowling that England did not know how to play. They get caught between being over-aggressive, with an over-use of everyone’s favourite, the sweep shot, and playing so far inside the crease it's a wonder they don't tread on their own stumps.

Gooch's experiences in the 80's should be invaluable to the tourists. He was aggressive, hitting out against the spin, but he was clever about manipulating the field. England need to cash in on this attitude. Trott, Cook and Prior showed elements of this sort of game during the series against Pakistan and Sri Lanka, but it is essential that they lead from the front and make a big score, particularly with the presence of three new batsmen.

This is also Cook's first tour as full time test captain. Touted as Strauss's replacement since journalists first glimpsed the hair, the plum accent and the jawline, he will be desperate to prove himself. Tactically, Cook is still a little paint by numbers. A flattering victory rate in England has made Cook's ODI captaincy record look more impressive than it actually is. A captain who doesn't feel comfortable taking risks, Cook is orthodox to a fault; his partnership with Flower will be crucial to England's successes. While Cook can leave the flashy captaincy to the likes of Michael Clarke, he needs to be comfortable in his role. Gaining the respect of the team is another matter entirely.
Strauss was the statesman-like figure from the word go. Affable and at ease with the media, he instantly commanded respect. This is something that will grow in time with Cook. At the minute, one suspects he is still seen as the same old Cooky. It is vital that he commands the respect of the dressing room, and in particular that of figures such as Anderson, Swann and Broad, whose tempers often need reigning in before Cook watches his match fee fly out of his pocket.

The elephant in the room surrounding the tour to India is, of course, KP. But for the time being, that is not important. England need to place more emphasis on making the three newcomers as comfortable as possible. Bairstow's baptism of fire continues; have conquered a short ball problem that was exaggerated more than it needed to be, his ability against spin will be scrutinised from all areas. Root and Compton both bear the weight of expectation. For Compton, it's the legacy of a surname and the desire to prove that he has come of age; for Root, it is to show that youth is just as valuable as experience. Rather than being caught up in squabbles, again, England need to put the showboating to one side, and get back to what is important; batting, bowling and quashing the spin struggles for good.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Saying sorry, the ECB way

" our society we believe that, if an individual transgresses, and the individual concerned recognises that and apologises for what they may have caused to those involved then it is important, and a fabric of our society that that individual should be given a real opportunity to be reintegrated into our society - and this principle is an essential part of having civilised and sensible ethics."

You'd be forgiven for thinking you'd stumbled into the last scene of The Shawshank Redemption. A farcical few months came to a close in the most fitting manner possible. Giles Clarke sat beside Pietersen, fielding questions - all three of them - as the epitome of morality. Pietersen, who has spent the last two weeks looking at ease in a TV studio, appeared uptight and uncomfortable.

It was a strange affair. Clarke compared Pietersen's "rehabilitation" into the England team as similar to reintegrating a prisoner into society. A man who has 21 test hundreds to his name sat like a naughty schoolboy as Clarke spouted soliloquies that may have sounded good but had little substance.

"This is a private matter," Clarke stated. Except it's anything but. This whole saga has played out in the public eye from start to finish. The media have reported every twist and turn; it has been debated endlessly on Twitter and barely an England loss has gone by without someone raising the question of KP. Pietersen's apology was fine tuned within an inch of its life. It was suitably grovelling, as well as media savvy. 

Essentially, Pietersen's career will be decided by his team mates. He will travel a total of 32,000 air miles to take part in the sporting equivalent of marriage counselling  Quite what the sessions will entail is unknown. Maybe Clarke himself, baring his soul over the Stamford debacle that will always hang over his head? Graeme Swann's guide to insulting team mates in a book, but doing it in a hilarious way that will have everyone in fits of laughter? Stuart Broad's guide to social media? The very idea is laughable.

The ECB seem to have forget that they are dealing with a sporting team first and foremost. The time, and expenses, spent on sending Pietersen on his grovelling road trip, would surely be better spent, say, investing time in Ravi Bopara and getting to the bottom of his confidence issues that have been so present throughout his England career. Or just maybe, preparing Root, Bairstow and Compton for the pressure of a test series in India?  

Neither side emerges from this with any grace. It has been a childish affair from the go. Pietersen's ego started the debacle, but the ECB's decision to continue the playground mentality meant a situation that could have been nipped in the bud has gone on for too long. As a result, the cricket has taken a back seat. England were a weaker team without Pietersen, that is a fact. Although his presence may not have had a dramatic effect on England's fortunes in the World Twenty20, he would surely have provided a better counter-attack to spin than the inexperienced Bairstow and Buttler managed. This sorry state has left a sour taste in the mouth, and cricket is a little worse off for the actions of those who supposedly love and protect our game.

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

World Twenty20: fair game?

(Image courtesy of Getty)

A winning streak of 21 T20 internationals. A captain who averages 49 in tests. One of the most elegant keeper-batsman in the game, an aggressive, quick opening bowler and a group of hugely talented fielders. The England women’s team have gone from strength to strength over the past few years, and are now at the peak of the international game. Yet the women, despite achievements to rival the men, are still not given the recognition that they deserve by governing bodies.

Differences in prize money are an accepted part of sport. Tennis is the only sport that offers equal prize money for Grand Slam finals, but the gap in other sports seems to be ever widening. It’s not a concept that sits comfortably, but that is the way it is. Men’s sport is perceived to be more professionalised than women’s, despite the increasing schemes in England to encourage women’s cricket. There is also the fact that, no matter how much we may not like it, men’s cricket draws a bigger crowd than women’s. It receives more media attention; it has more funding and effort put into it; the media is largely based around male experts.

 During the T20 tournament, the men receive £61 a day for living costs. The women, £37. This isn’t about prize money – it’s about day to day living. £37 may be plenty to live from. But that isn’t the point. How can the ICC, on the one hand, say it is doing everything to encourage women to play professional sport, and then on the other still treat women’s sport as lesser to the men?

The Women’s T20 tournament was launched to encourage equality in sport. In 2009, the women’s finals and semi-finals were held on the same day and at the same venue as the men’s competition. Many of the England women gave up employment to pursue a career in cricket. It was only in 2008 that the first round of central contracts was awarded to the England women, with wages that were no doubt lower than those the men received. England’s male team have a deal with Jaguar; player's Twitter feeds are used to advertise their sponsorship campaigns, everything from Red Bull to expensive watches and suits. The women? The Sri Lankan women’s team joined the armed services after failing to find any interested sponsors. Male cricket grows ever more professional. Women’s cricket seems to be crawling towards some sort of equality.

It is not as though women aren’t interested in cricket. There’s a huge disparity between the amount of women who attend cricket matches and those who are involved in the set-up. Gemma Broad is the only female member of England’s back-room staff. The media is crying out for more female commentators. Yet a quick browse through Twitter shows how many women there are who have a huge interest and knowledge in cricket. Why are they, too, not being encouraged to get involved? Incidents such as this do little to persuade women to be involved in cricket. Why bother to work hard, to get to the top of your game, only to still be paid less than others who do just as much work, but happen to be a different gender?

Men’s cricket draws the crowds, and crucially, the money, in. But both sets of players have to get by on a day to day basis. Both train as hard as one another. The standard of women’s cricket may viewed as less competitive than men’s, but that doesn’t mean the women don't put huge amounts of time and effort in to their performances. Standards of women's cricket have risen over the last five years, and they can continue to do so if they are given as many chances as their male counterparts. The women are committed and driven: and they deserve to be shown some level of respect.

Monday, 10 September 2012

The Case of Ravi Bopara

There is an unwritten, but widely acknowledged, rule of English cricket: if it's not Trott's fault, then it is almost  definitely Ravi's fault. Bopara is often England's scapegoat, although his critics have the numbers to support their claims; 13 test matches have wielded three consecutive centuries, right at the start of his career, before tailing off almost entirely. An average in one day cricket of 30.62, the lowest of England's regular top five, with a more convincing ability to take wickets than to consistently score runs.

Now, once again, Bopara is in a dreadful run of form. A two ball duck in the last one day game; a timid showing in the T20 against Steyn, who had difficulty concealing his amusement as Bopara nicked behind. But what do England do? Do they drop him, thereby damaging his confidence further, but giving him a chance to work on his technique away from the eyes of the international circuit? Or do they continue to play him, maybe giving him a chance to play himself back into form, or, more likely, be targeted by an opposition that will feel confident in removing him early in the game?

It's easy to be frustrated with Bopara. Much like the Ian Bell of 2005, he appears fragile at the crease, only ever one false shot away from giving away his wicket. But whilst Bell has grown, Bopara seems to be stuck in a rut. He is not a bad batsman. Anyone who saw him earlier this year in the Australia series can testify to that. He is classically elegant, but it is an elegance that disappears when he is down on confidence. The 2009 Ashes saw him promoted to number three, and subsequently become the whipping boy for Peter Siddle's armoury of short deliveries. Called back into the test side this year, following a successful performance against Australia, Bopara fell to two innocuous deliveries. On the final day, when Bopara had the chance to prove himself, he faltered; bowled by Steyn, he trudged off the field, the sighs of the crowd ringing around the Oval.

It is a relatively unpopular opinion, but Bopara has, at times, been thrust into the England team like a lamb to the slaughter. Two of his centuries came against the West Indies at the number three position. But batting at three against the West Indies is very different, in terms of technique and mental strength, to batting against Australia. Yes, the Australia team who arrived in 2009 may not have been the same as the Australian team of old. But they had a decent pace attack who were capable of bowling hostile spells. In each West Indies game Bopara scored a century, England won an innings or 10 wickets. They were not sustained test matches. Bopara did not have the experience in battling throughout a test match. As a result, he floundered. Short ball after short ball was sent down to test his patience, and crucially, his technique. He was dropped for the final test, whereby a confident, patient Trott edged him out of the team.

There is a sense among fans of Essex favouritism with regards to Bopara. Both Flower and Gooch, Essex stalwarts, have rated Bopara highly. They stood by another Essex player, Cook, when he went through his run drought, and he repaid them in Australia. Despite their words, Bopara's support has always seemed less meaningful than Cook's. There is a sense that he isn't trusted within the team. The words coming from the England management have always sounded empty. The sighs of 'Oh, Ravi' that echo around Twitter and England's grounds appear to be mimicked by the looks of dismay on the faces in the dressing room.

So, England persevere with Ravi. He is in a catch-22 situation: clearly down on form, down on confidence and, one could argue, down on support from the fans. Keeping him in the team feels cruel. Sending him out in front of the best pace attack in the world, when at times he looks like he'd struggle against a medium pace county bowler, and watching him flounder, has become voyeuristic, and not in a good way. Dropping him may damage his confidence further, but realistically, how much more can he take? Viewed by the opposition as a walking wicket, he will be targeted by the bowlers, mocked by the fans and surely, his confidence will plummet even further. Bopara is a talent, but he's a talent that is not being respected by a team that prides itself on man management. Let him go away, and work on his technique. Stop sending him out to face the lions.

Thursday, 30 August 2012

Andrew Strauss, the captain a mother could love

How do you pay suitable tribute to Andrew Strauss?

The facts speak for themselves. A double Ashes winning captain, once down under. 50 games as test captain, with 24 victories and a personal average of just over 40. A stint, albeit a brief one, as the leader of the number one test team in the world. As a man, all the usual adjectives will be rolled out in force. A level header leader; a class act; a courteous, determined player who gave his all for England. But somehow, these don't seem to do Strauss the justice he deserves.

Old Trafford, 2005. Brett Lee was bowling at his fastest and most hostile. Strauss had taken one to the head in the first innings, and was suitably dismissed three balls later. In the second innings, the same happened again. Strauss's bloody ear was patched up, Lee went back to his mark and sent another one straight into Strauss's body. He played it safely away. No panic, no wild slashing - just a calm man playing his natural game. He went on to make 106, with the moment summed up perfectly as Strauss removed his helmet to reveal a bloodied ear, haphazardly bandaged, and a smile stretching across his face. 

A lesser batsman would have backed away after the blow. But Strauss took the attack to the Australians. It was to his credit the way he handled himself throughout his century. In the first innings, he was subdued, and looked lost against Lee. The second time around, Strauss was confident; self-assured. When Strauss's confidence was up, he was one of the most pleasing batsmen to watch. Against Australia in particular, he seemed to prosper. Maybe Strauss took the threat of the old enemy more seriously than any other. 

His performance at Lords in 2009 set up England's first victory against Australia at the ground in 75 years. He picked off the bowlers; dislocating Hauritz's finger, slashing an erratic Johnson to all parts of the ground, greeting Siddle's short aggression with hooks and pulls and carefully playing Hilfenhaus, at that point the biggest threat in the attack, out of the game. Again in 2010, when England were under pressure in the first game at Brisbane, and Strauss was on a pair, he milked the attack for all they were worth, cover driving Australia out of the game and showing the fighting spirit that ultimately would allow England an Ashes victory down under.

Not all Strauss's centuries were easy to watch. His comeback in 2008 against New Zealand, an innings that saved his career, was a prime example of his determination, just as his century against the West Indies was earlier this year. Neither of these were shining examples of the delicacy Strauss possessed as a batsmen. They were gritty, stubborn affairs, that saw chances go begging but a focused batsman pushing onwards, and pushing himself back into form.

Strauss will not be remembered as an innovator. He could be cautious to the point of overkill. But his steady nature did wonders for an England on the brink of implosion in 2009. He was the man in the team that a mother would take a shine to; well dressed, polite, rational and an all round good guy. But Strauss, the player, was so much more than that. He was gracious in defeat, yet aware enough to acknowledge failings, both on a personal level and as a collective. In victory, he was courteous, and the respect which the team held him in shone through. 

The last few weeks will have played their part, just as failures in the sub-continent and a slide in form will have contributed to Strauss's decision to retire. He will leave a hole in the team, not just at the top of the order but as a figure in the dressing room who cultivated calm and dignity. He can leave, however, on his own terms, with his head held high; a suitable manner for a man of such character.

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

What Ifs and Maybes - England v. South Africa

It feels strange that just over a year ago, a new dawn was being heralded for English cricket, with the test team at the pinnacle of its success. This week, they lost the ICC mace, the title of number one test playing nation and, more importantly, a bucket load of pride, to South Africa.

What changed? England didn't suddenly become a bad team overnight. They became something worse than that. They were complacent. Arrogant, even. No matter how many interviews were given that stated England would carry on working hard, and the title wouldn't go to their head, it ultimately did. And they've been brought back down to earth in quite spectacular fashion.

This decline did not suddenly appear as soon as the South Africans touched down in England. It started in January, when England travelled to the UAE, and it has been gently downwards since then. Even the series against the West Indies, which many expected England to walk, and which they eventually won 2-0, pointed to the beginnings of problems that would arise against South Africa. At Edgbaston, England's much vaunted cupboards of fast bowling stock were emptied, with Onions and Finn out to prove that they could step in to Anderson and Broad's rather large shoes. They could, up until a point. Tino Best's 95 was everything from ridiculous to sublime, but it highlighted an important chink in England's bowling armour. They couldn't remove Best. By taking the attack to England, he unsettled them. Finn's radar went haywire, Bresnan was tight but ineffective, a common motif across the summer, and Onions' pace and bounce was negated by the way Best went after everything. When he was eventually removed, England's attack looked short on ideas and down on energy.

One might expect that with Onions and Finn not being regular fixtures in the test team, Anderson and Broad's  returns would sharpen things up. When South Africa arrived, very little changed. By the end of the series, Anderson's 9 wickets came at 40 apiece, and Broad, despite a five-for at Headingley, took 11 wickets at 39 apiece. Anderson's figures are slightly more deceptive than Broad's. He was the most consistently hostile of the attack, and was let down by poor England fielding, particularly in the slips. There had been hints of Broad's problems in the West Indies one day series, in particular a lack of pace, but given his success against India last year, many expected him to come out fighting.

If anything, Broad's pace further decreased against South Africa. He resisted the temptation to continually bang the ball in short, but his short balls lacked any real aggression. He settled for bowling wide outside the off stump, which the South African batsmen could easily leave alone. Given his all-rounder status, Broad's form with the bat was equally disappointing, and one wonders if Onions, who took nine wickets, and was involved in a run out, on the morning of the Lords test, would be a better choice for the India series.

The worst result to come from this series will be the constant what ifs, buts and maybes that England will ask themselves. At Lords, what would have happened if Swann and Prior had stayed together? If Bairstow had hung around? If Strauss and Cook had batted together in a way that is becoming increasingly rare? There is little point pondering these issues, however. The series was already lost at Lords. England's fight back on the final day was heartening to see, and they can take credit from the way the lower order went about their innings, but on the whole, England's all round game has not been up to par.

England will be left to rue the dropped catches that have proved so costly in this series. Amla, South Africa's top scorer and one of the more continually underrated batsmen on the international scene, made big scores of 311* and 120. The sheer weight of these scores already rests uncomfortably on England, but it is made even more embarrassing when one takes into account that Amla scored a total of 390 runs following dropped catches in the field. England's fielding, which has in the past looked athletic and inspired, has suffered throughout this series. Why?

England had become complacent with their position in the rankings; players and coaches have said as much. But throughout this series, they were outplayed at their own game by a better opponent. South Africa ground England down, the way England ground India and Sri Lanka down last year. For all the talk of a battle between Anderson and Steyn, it was Steyn who emerged victorious, and easily so. Despite looking rusty on the first day of the series, his aggression, pace and radar rarely wavered, and he was a joy to watch throughout. In reality, the formula South Africa used was very simple. Score a ton of runs + top quality bowling = victory. And while England at times looked close to toppling South Africa, none more so in the last test where an inspired spell from Finn saw three wickets fall for 29 runs, they never really looked to be on the same level as their opponents.

The batsmen have the most questions to answer. Throughout the series, their performance has been very paint by numbers. Strauss was continually unsettled by Morkel, and his performance as captain was secondary to Smith's. Trott's patience ultimately deserted him. Despite averaging a respectable 38, this has in no way been Trott's finest series. He has looked out of sorts, unsure of when to play and when to miss. His preference to shuffle across the crease cost him, in particular against Steyn, who kept Trott continually on his toes and induced some horrible stroke play that, one suspects, he wouldn't have dreamt of playing two years ago. Cook made a century at the Oval but despite that, has fallen back on his favoured method of dismissal; the flash outside off. There have been some beautiful deliveries bowled in the series, but often, they haven't been the ones to take the wickets. Whilst England produced some mediocre balls at Lords, and some equally horrible strokes from South Africa, they are the ones who have looked all at sea when facing the South African attack.

This series will not just be remembered for the cricket. No doubt the shadow of Kevin Pietersen will hang over English cricket for a long while yet. But, Pietersen or no Pietersen, England have been outclassed by a better sort of opponent. The signs were showing when they were humbled in January against a Pakistan determined to rebuild. They underestimated the power of a rebuilding side, and as a result, none of the crucial components of batting, bowling and fielding seem to have clicked together in a way they have previously. South Africa are the best team in the world, that much was apparent to anyone who saw them against Australia, Sri Lanka or New Zealand earlier in the year. And yet, England are not a bad team. They are a team who lost their way at the worst possible time, and when it would matter to them the most. There are, of course, positives. Bairstow's return was heartening, and Prior has undoubtedly secured his position as the worlds best keeper-batsmen. But on the whole, England have a lot of soul searching to do, before heading off to what will be their second biggest challenge this year - facing the sub-continent.

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

A five step plan to winning at Lords

England have one test match left with which to keep Graeme Smith's overly large mitts off the mace that belongs to the number one test team. With a poor showing at the Oval, and a slightly better, but still flawed, performance at Headingley, how can England win and remain number one?

1. Leave the politics behind
There are personalities in the England dressing room to suit all tastes, from the miserable but self-effacing humour of Anderson, to the polite, media trained veneer of captain Strauss. But the biggest personality of all is Pietersen, who has hit the headlines with startling frequency over the last few weeks. 'Personality' generally sounds insulting when used in conjunction with Pietersen. There is nothing wrong with having a personality; but when combined with the confidence - or shall we say ego? - that Pietersen has, it becomes little more than a disaster waiting for happen. Pietersen's recent comments about the dressing room will stir up tensions, but it cannot distract England. The amateur dramatics should be put aside. For years, England have prided themselves on creating a team spirit that has allowed them to get on top of their opponents. Ultimately, cricket is a job. The workers need to be as professional as possible when at work. England are no exception to this. Pietersen is not the only ego in the dressing room. Despite what some may think, there are certain teammates and superiors who have similar egos and 'personalities', yet for one reason or another their characters are seen to be more acceptable than Pietersen's, and thus they fly under the radar. Pietersen will play no part in the final test of the summer, but his presence will be felt more than ever; it is important that England stay focused and do not buckle under the strain of KP.

2. Goodbye, Steven Finn
It seems harsh, given how hard Finn has worked to break back into the test side. But nothing he showed at Headingley, or Edgbaston earlier in the summer, seemed to justify a permanent role as third or fourth seamer. Finn still goes at four runs an over; the same reason he was replaced in Melbourne by Bresnan. He brings aggression at times, but is unable to sustain any pressure. Whilst Bresnan, and latterly Anderson, have not been overly penetrative, they have been tight. The maidens have continued and the pressure has increased. Finn still appears to be stuck between being an aggressive, fast bowler and a traditionally economical line and length bowler. Whilst dropping him on his home ground will be unfair to some, Onions seems a much better bet, should England still wish to go with four seamers, or alternatively, drop both Bresnan and Finn. Bresnan, whilst out-performing Finn, does not look 100%. His elbow appears to have left him down on pace, and although he still bowls the long overs that England require him to, wickets are not coming with ease. Broad has easily been the most disappointing bowler throughout the tour, but one suspects that his five wicket haul at Headingley, however fortuitous some dismissals were, will have firmly tipped the scales back in his favour. Onions is a more complete package than Finn, and is economical whilst still being a wicket taker - characteristics which are key to Flower's England.

3. Shape up and smarten up
With spills in the slips that even Gambhir and Sehwag would wince at, England's fielding has not been up to par throughout the summer. Send Strauss for an eye test. Remove Cook from the slips and stick him wherever he can do the least harm; there's usually a vacant space at third man screaming for his attention. Pop Trott in there when Jimmy is bowling; hell, provide a towel so he can dry the "sweaty hands" that so offend England's bowlers whenever he touches the ball. South Africa's fielding, despite their best fielder being behind the stumps, has been far better than England's, who have dropped catches that twelve months ago they surely would have took. Maybe  the pressure of coming up against a side who can fully rival England in all elements of a test match is taking its toll. India's fielding was so bad that it bordered on comical; anything England did in comparison was bound to look good. There have been some bright sparks. Taylor's test debut saw him throwing himself around the pitch, replacing Bell at short leg and displaying enthusiasm that has been missing from England in recent times. As it stands, it is an uphill struggle to remove the likes of Smith, Kallis and Amla by bowling alone. If England are not taking the chances when they are offered - and frankly, they're not - it makes for a long day in the field.

4. Attack the personalities
Smith, Kallis, Amla, de Villiers. Steyn, Morkel, Philander. These are the names that are synonymous with South Africa, and they are the individuals that England need to attack. Attacking cricket does not mean stupid cricket. Attacking bowling is not bowling four foot wide of off stump; attacking batting is certainly not trying to smash every Steyn delivery out of the park. It is about being clever. Wearing the bowlers down and exploiting the batsmen's weaknesses. Not every perfectly pitched, on middle stump delivery will sneak through the defences of the batsmen. They will get hit for four, and rather than stomping their feet or yelling like an actress auditioning for a part in Hollyoaks, the England bowlers need to go back to their mark, think it over and try again. It sounds so incredibly simple; and in reality, it is. But it's something that has appeared to elude England so far. At Headingley, Strauss was worked over by Morkel, before finally edging Steyn through to the keeper. No doubt the dismissal at the Oval, and the previous times Morkel has dismissed Strauss, were playing on his mind. Strauss needs to attack Morkel from the go, and attack means to frustrate him into bowling a delivery that will suit Strauss. There is no need to go chasing after the wide deliveries. For a team that prided itself on patience during the Ashes, England look to be in too much of a hurry.

5. Don't be so quick to defend
It goes against every grain of the collective Flower and Strauss body, but England's defensive nature which has benefited them in the past is starting to damage them. The instant a batsman starts to attack, England shirk. Slips are deposited to the boundary, bowlers bowl wide and it feels as though England are waiting for a wicket, rather than trying to create one. There is nothing wrong with being cautious. It's served England well in the past. But this South Africa side is a different calibre to the recent opponents England have faced. Smith is, tactically, a better captain than Strauss. While he too is defensive, he is attacking when it matters, and so far in this series, has had a better grasp on how to take 20 wickets than Strauss has. Team England love a plan. Flowcharts, Powerpoint presentations and visualisations will have been key to England's preparation. They will, of course, want to stick to their plans. But sometimes, it takes something special from the captain. A spark of initiative, an act that he is leading from the front. Strauss needs to take control more. If he thinks something is worth a try, try it. Don't fall back onto being defensive. South Africa have capitalised on this so far. Strauss needs to be more of a presence, both with the bat and his actions on the field.

Monday, 13 August 2012

The real losers

Who are the real losers in the Great KP Saga of 2012?

Is it Pietersen, who by all accounts, has waved goodbye to an England career that he professes to love? Team England, who have a lost a player with the ability to change matches? Or the ECB, who have lost a star who brought a new generation of cricket fans to games across the country?

To be perfectly honest, no. It isn't any of these.

It's the paying customer who loses out the most. Throughout this little lesson in player/power politics, they are the ones who have barely been given a second thought. Neither side has acted with any sort of consistent maturity. Pietersen has made demands that directly undermine his supposed love and commitment to playing cricket for England; however outrageous these demands were, he has a right to make such demands in private, and the leaking of these demands to the press were never going to set future talks off on the right foot. Morris, in his speech on the day of selection, put great emphasis on trust. Where was this trust when Pietersen spoke to the ECB, under the not unreasonable assumption that talks would remain between the two parties?

This is not a case of one side good, one side bad. It has been reduced to an almost playground level of discussion. "He said that/but then they said this/so I said that." Where does the actual cricket come into these discussions? What about the opinions of the fans, those who pay the extraordinary ticket prices, travel up and down the country to see their favourite players? There are those who will side with Pietersen, just as there will be those who favour the stance of the ECB. But whatever side of the argument one falls down on, it is the public who are ultimately been cheated out of the biggest spectacle of all - watching Pietersen in full flow.

Pietersen is a masterful batsman. It is not as though he has developed an ego and a certain edge of prima donna overnight. He has long been a controversial figure. Fans love him and hate him. He frustrates them but so many adore watching him. The ECB were more than happy to cultivate the ego of Pietersen as long as it benefited them. He was their star player; the firepower that drew in the crowds. But the ego has had enough. It has turned on those who pampered him in the past. That was to be expected, and neither party involved has handled the issue with any grace. But both sides have forgotten who really matter here.

Piers Morgan, unofficial president of the Kevin Pietersen fanclub, says that he speaks on behalf of the fans. He doesn't. How many times has Morgan paid for a ticket, queued excitedly all day, just to get a glimpse of his hero on the boundary edge? Morgan's comments make sense in some places, but they are not made out of a love of cricket, or a desire to protect the paying customer. They are made as they always are with him - to stir up controversy and put himself at the heart of a matter that, in reality, has very little to do with him. Morgan claims he is a cricket fan. If he was, he would stop attempting to create a media sideshow around his fury with the ECB, and concentrate on the event that everyone seems to have forgotten about - a must win Test match taking place in four days time.

Sometimes, it feels as though fans, journalists, broadcasters and the like become jaded. We see so much of these players, from on the field, to press conferences, even to Twitter feeds. We forget how special it is for those who cannot consume the amount of cricket that we do to attend a live match and see their hero. And no matter how hard people try to deny it, Pietersen was an idol to so many young cricket fans. At Headingley recently, kids crowded around the boundary to get Pietersen's autograph. His batting has entertained and, one would hope, inspired them. Now, they will lose out on that. There is no winner in this saga, but it is the fans, the ones who Pietersen and the ECB claim matter the most, that lose the most from this sorry mess.

Monday, 30 July 2012

The KP Saga, Vol. 3513

It's hard to know how to discuss Kevin Pietersen these days without thumbing through the well worn book of cricketing clichés. Cliches were invented primarily to discuss KP. He courts controversy. He is the wildcard; he is England's talisman. He splits opinion in ways precious few players have managed.

Recently, he quit limited overs cricket, to spend more time with his young family. And whilst ex-players seemed the most vocal in their criticisms, most writers and fans were sympathetic with his grievances. Now, however, it appears that we have misunderstood Pietersen's motives. First, there was his desire to continue playing in the IPL; fine, he played earlier this year, and returned to England to watch the rain fall in his obligatory county fixture for Surrey. Then came the news that he wanted permission to extend his IPL tenure and thus miss the first test of the cricketing summer. And now, he is linked with two Big Bash franchises, which begins straight after England's test series against India, in India - a place where they have frequently struggled to make runs.

It's hard to know what to be more frustrated by. Pietersen's fluctuating motives and comments to the press.
The predictable, media friendly comments that come from the England camp. Most irritating of all, however, is the overwhelming feeling that we have been taken for a ride.

Are we idiots for thinking that yes, Pietersen did want to spend time with his family? That the England schedule was too busy for a man with a young son? It certainly feels that way. Pietersen's quitting did bring the manic England schedule into the spotlight. So far, we are three quarters of the way through the England cricketing summer, with two test matches to come. Four have already gone, as have eight one day internationals, and five more one day games (and three T20's, for good measure) are to come before England fly to India. Twenty two one day games. A huge amount of cricket in a not especially large amount of space.

So now do we treat all sports figures with suspicion? Are we to assume that when a player wants to spend more time with his family, he is actually sending a green light to overseas franchises to bid increasing amounts of money for his services? Not to mention the effect this could potentially have on the test team. For all the media friendly talk of unity and concentrating on the task in hand, it is a kick in the teeth to watch Pietersen bite the hand that has fed him, and fed him well, for the past five years. And for players such as Bairstow and Taylor, the young up and comers who see test cricket as the pinnacle of their careers, it must be galling to see it treated in such a casual and callous way by a player who has divided opinion but still demands the support of the paying crowds.

People pay to watch Pietersen. That is a fact. And now, paying customers will not see him in the international limited overs games; potentially he will miss the first test of the 2013 cricketing season - admittedly, so will a vast majority of the New Zealand team, again due to IPL commitments, but the sanctity with which so many England fans hold the first test match of the season makes Pietersen's demands seem just that bit more arrogant - and one would imagine he will not foaming at the mouth to turn out for Surrey in the early and mid season. As paying customers, they are cheated out of an amazing spectacle. Pietersen, when on form, and ironically, when his arrogance converts into something special, is a joy to watch. They won't be able to watch him in person, playing for the national teams. But if they switch over to ITV4, they will be able to see him in a $2 million playing shirt, smashing second rate Australian spinners out of the park for fun.

Maybe the most irritating facet of all is that Pietersen's new role as a T20 mercenary glosses over the problems with England's schedules. There is too much one day cricket, and it is placing pressure on the overlapping members of the test and limited overs squads. The recent Australia one day series was fun, largely because England won every game. But Stuart Broad's struggles in the latter half of the West Indies series worsened during the Australia games, and were fully exposed in the first test against South Africa where he looked out of form and out of ideas. Maybe a spell back at his county, which was so effective before the India series last year, would have helped rejuvenate him. But the focus will move away from scheduling problems, and back to Pietersen. Fans do not appreciate being patronised; nor do they appreciate being taken for granted. People are losing patience with Pietersen. One wonders how long it will be before the England management feels the same.

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

England v. South Africa, round one: advantage Steyn

The highs

The Oval is best known for three characteristics; a good batting track, gradual turn and bounce for the spinners on the final few days, and for hating Ricky Ponting’s guts. So when Strauss won the toss and elected to bat, Cook and Trott made good his decision. After Strauss fell early, Cook provided a master class in facing the world’s best bowler. Whilst Trott occasionally prodded outside the off-stump to Steyn’s deliveries, Cook greeted them with cover drives and cut shots. The highlight was a gorgeous drive past the bowler, with a straight bat and minimal exertion on the batsman’s behalf.

Cook’s hundred seemed to have put England in front, but it was the heroics of the South African top order that really put the boot into England. Smith will never be a batsman who people queue to see; the aesthetic part of batting abandoned him on day one. But does it matter, when you’re running the singles and punching anything wide – of which there was plenty – down the boundary? No. Smith’s average in England was already outstanding; following his hundred in this game, it takes it to above 70.

Amla, however, went one better. Arguably, Amla is continually underrated by the critics. Too many remember his debut but don’t take enough notice of the changes he has made since them. He is elegant, patient and a crisp timer of the ball. All clichés aside, Amla has defied expectations and become the first South African to reach 300 runs, spending an amazing thirteen and a half hours at the crease. He has moved away from the nervy, slightly ungainly batsman he was when he began and is one of England’s biggest threats in this series.

Whilst Steyn may have been down on pace on the first day, he undoubtedly made up for it on the second. His opening spell was devastating for England, after he removed Cook first up. He then found the extra pace that he had been missing on the first day to send down a bouncer to the continually under-pressure Bopara, who had a horrid whirl at the delivery and nicked through to the keeper.

There is something incredibly endearing about Steyn. His bowling, whilst similar in style to Anderson, seems to have more rhythm; more aggression. Anderson relies on the verbals. Steyn is verbal when necessary but often the speed and direction of his bowling speaks louder than words. Anderson wears the ‘leader of the attack’ label proudly, and rightly so, whereas Steyn prefers to be seen as an aggressor, rather than a leader setting the pace.

Twice, Steyn didn’t open with the new ball, with Morkel taking it in the first innings and promptly dismissing Strauss with his third delivery. In both innings, however, he produced devastating spells that firstly injured, and then killed off, England’s hopes. His five wicket haul in the second innings included a spell of 8/3, including using the second new ball to end Bell’s hopes of dragging England, however miniscule, into the lead. His celebrations, as aggressive as his bowling, showed that whilst he may not view himself as the leader of the pack, the team look to him for inspiration and energy.

The lows

South Africa did not look good on the first day. After dismissing Strauss through a combination of good bowling and clever captaincy, the bowlers looked short on ideas. Morkel bowled far too wide, which Cook and Trott ignored with the disdain they have been formulating for years. Philander was economical but largely ineffective, and Tahir seemed to struggle with landing the ball on the pitch. The bowling performance was hugely improved in the second innings, with the bowlers finding the energy from the deadened pitch that England could not, but in both innings, the extras reached worryingly high totals of 43 and 39. Tahir is relatively inexperienced with international cricket, particularly in the context of his bowling counterparts, but his line and length wavered far more than the traditionally unpredictable Morkel.

When it came to analysing each side’s batting, there was a common consensus that bowling outside off stump to Petersen, the new opening batsman, was England’s best chances of removing him early. Those who had seen him in county cricket had a different view. Very flat footed, and not keen on getting forward early, Petersen seemed a prime LBW candidate. It was this weakness that Anderson exploited early on, sending down an in-swinger that Petersen seemed to miss completely. It was as plumb as plumb can be, and put England’s reply in a strong position.

Strauss had a horrid game, both as captain and batsman. Morkel continued to make Strauss his bunny by dismissing him third ball, and in the second innings, Strauss swept at a ball from Tahir that kept low. The previous deliveries in the over had turned, and twice already Strauss had tried to sweep, and miss. Final ball of the over, Strauss, down on one knee, sweeps to midwicket and straight into the waiting hands of Philander. It was a ridiculous dismissal, more reminiscent of UAE Strauss than the captain that had scored back to back hundreds against the West Indies and a hundred only a week before in the county game.

As captain, Strauss was also less than impressive. He is always quick to go on the defensive, but this time, he seemed so thrown by the initial partnership of Amla and Smith that he went on the back foot almost instantly. Then, when the second new ball came around, there were no slips; the slips were on the boundary ropes. Of course, a few edges induced by Anderson went flying through the vacant slip cordon, which was hastily filled a few overs later, by which time Smith had settled back down.

The downright ugly

Maybe England had forgotten what it was like to lose at home. Maybe they’d forgotten how dangerous this South African side is. They’ve had a stark reminder.

Pietersen, Bell and Prior need to look at their dismissals and seriously question what they thought they were doing. Bell played beautifully on the last day to give England a meagre bit of hope – before edging the new ball straight to slip. Prior threw it away with a sweep potentially worse than Strauss’, and Pietersen’s dismissals in both innings were gift wickets to the South Africans. Each player came out intent on saving England from the game, but they threw their wickets away and left England in just as precarious a situation as they were at the start.

As usual, it will be Bopara and Bresnan whose places are seen to be under threat. Bopara had his biggest chance yet to prove himself, when he and Bell took to the crease on the fifth day. Despite, rather unbelievably, looking the most dangerous bowler, his batting was below par. An unnecessary, and incredibly ugly, hook shot in the first innings, and a lame inside edge in the second. Despite his insistence to the contrary, there is still a suspicion that Bopara does not have the mental strength to cope with test cricket.

Bresnan’s place is continually under question. Some of the time, the criticism is warranted; this time, it seems a little unfair. Yes, Bresnan was down on pace. He did, however, take the second wicket, admittedly with a rubbish looking delivery, and was the last batsman standing at the end. England’s other all-rounder, Broad, appeared in far worse touch than Bresnan, yet his pass to remain in the side without criticism or question seems to have worked once again. Broad bowled continually too wide, to three batsmen who are known for their diligence at the crease. He looked slow, unfit and completely out of ideas. While he has not yet reverted to the ‘enforcer’ role, one wonders if it is only a matter of time.

The loudest clamour will be for England to play five bowlers, bringing in Finn for Bopara. Given the recent test against the West Indies, where Finn overcompensated and was arguably gifted wickets rather than out-thinking the batsmen, Onions would be a better bet for the fifth slot, particularly on a Headingley pitch that seams and suits pitched up bowling. Incidentally, Finn is cited as test potential because of his recent one day performances; Bopara, whose one day performances were equally outstanding, is rubbished at every opportunity.

Potentially dropping Swann, who was also off radar and ineffective on a pitch that was supposed to suit him, would give England more stability, should they feel the need to have an extra batsman. England have not won a test at Headingley since 2007; South Africa will be looking to repeat their 2008 drubbing on the same ground. England need to buck their ideas up, and South Africa will be looking to reclaim the number one crown.