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Archive for January, 2010

Semi finalists in the Champions Trophy, a victory in the ODI seies and draws in the Twenty20 and Test series.  You would be hard pushed to find an England fan that would have been disappointed with that three months ago.  In fact, 12 months ago you would probably have been sectioned for suggesting that it was even a possibility.

Yet we are still no closer to knowing how good this England side is.  There have been far too many false dawns in one day cricket to truly believe that a corner has been turned, and the Test team still seems to have too many square pegs in round holes to look like a real force.

Even Andy Flower doesn’t quite seem to know the right way forward.  The incredible supporting cast of cricketers on this tour is evidence enough of this, including (but not limited to) Carberry, Wright, Plunkett, Davies, Rashid and Tredwell.  Wright has occasionally been seen on the field in 12th man guise, Tredwell pops up with a drink for the batsman every now and then while Plunkett seems to have spent 8 weeks dicking about with a walkie-talkie on the boundary edge.  Not bad work if you can get it.

The feeling is that some of this motley crew might have to actually play soon.  It is still hard to work out which batsman is first in line to be dropped – in all honesty, Trott has managed to catapult himself from first name on the team sheet to next in line for the chop in three short tests.  Pietersen looks dreadful, but then his batting style isn’t exactly one which will look great if he is not in good touch, as opposed to Paul Collingwood who generally looks the same whether in or out of form.  He has surely built up enough credit to get some time.  Alastair Cook can’t be dropped, Collingwood won’t be, and to drop Ian Bell after he has finally looked like toughening up would be akin to taking his bat away and banning him from playing cricket ever again.  So England will probably, for the third time in a year after Shah and Bopara, drop the guy they have bought in to shake up the batting order.  He may not even be saved by the fact that Andrew Strauss has decided he needs a break from getting 20’s for the past two months.

As for the bowling, it is again a strange story.   Not even in the side 18 months ago, suddenly everything hinges on Graeme Swann which is impressive and worrying in equal measures.  It is hard to remember when an English spinner had a better 12 months, and to follow that will be even tougher.  Jimmy Anderson looks knackered, yet England decide to rest the man who bowled the least overs out of all of them for the last test.  As for Stuart Broad, one decent spell in the middle of a sea of mediocrity is starting to become a running theme, and he has never looked less like a number 7 batsman.

Where England go from here is intriguing.  Bangladesh should be despatched home and away, despite their recent improvements.  Pakistan might be a decent series, with much depending on what side they put out and, as ever with them, what frame of mind they are in.  Then it is the Ashes again.  Really, decisions on whether the likes of Carberry and Plunkett really are good enough to challenge for a place need to be made quickly.

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What is it with these two?  Every time England play South Africa, it is angry, aggressive, bad-tempered, borderline over the top but, most importantly, tremendously great fun.

This series has been no different.  Somehow, England are in a position where they cannot lose the series.  Being English, I of course know that they are not going to win the series, but to come back with a 1-1 draw from South Africa would still be no mean feat.  After The Ashes, Andrew Strauss famously commented that when England were bad, they were very, very bad, but when they were good they were good enough.  In this series, it has been more that when they have been good, they’ve been very, very good, and when they’ve been bad they’ve had Graham Onions.

All of which infuriates the South Africans.  You feel that being better than the other team is all they have.  Like a man with a peanut allergy eating a bag of Revels, you know that they are going to choke – it is just a matter of when.  England have been under the cosh twice, and have twice dug themselves out of it.  South Africa had pressure applied once, and fell in a heap.

This is where all the hot air that has emanated from the South African camp has got them into trouble.  First, England ignored them which was irritating in itself.  Then, the human irritant Jonathan Trott got under their skin.   I have no doubt that South Africa are the better cricketing side in this contest, but England have played a very clever game.  Any South African barbs about team selection have been met by a slight smirk from Andrew Strauss, while Mark Boucher gets hot under the collar as soon as Trott marks his guard for the second time.

Then comes the ball tampering issue.  The accusations levelled at Stuart Broad are laughable, while the ones aimed Jimmy Anderson’s way are less so.  South Africa may have had a point in his case if they had gone through the proper channels, but to tell everyone their opinion then fail to back it up is poor form.  Worryingly, the comments from AB de Villiers after the matter was supposedly closed shows that there is no party line.  What cricket does not need now is another in the endless line of scandals that marked the last decade, and both teams need to ensure that the phoney war does not escalate.

On the cricket side, another exciting aspect to this series is that finally it seems that England, India, South Africa and Australia are pretty close together.  This could not have come at a better time, just as various people who should know better are calling time on Test match cricket around the world.  The Test Championship, which seemed entirely pointless a few years ago when Australia were destroying all and sundry, now has a mouth-watering appeal.

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I have to be honest, the ODI tournament between India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh has been about as appealing to me as getting out of bed has over the past week.  In case you missed it, India and Sri Lanka have just played each other in a turgid run spree of a series.  Yet  the authorities, in their infinite wisdom, decided that what we really needed was a repeat performance with the international whipping boys thrown in for good measure.

Why are these meaningless tournaments now the norm?  India and Sri Lanka cared so little about the last series that they rarely bothered to put out a full strength side.  Scores of 300 were chased down on dull pitches with ridiculous ease.  Only once did the entertainment liven, and that was only because of the wicket at Delhi which defied physics so much it looked like it had come straight out of the pages of The Beano.  Even then they spoiled our fun by calling the game off early.

Annoyingly, this craze is starting to spread out from Asia now.  For reasons which are yet to be explained, England are playing five ODI’s against Australia next summer.  Apparently playing each other 8 times in little over a month in 2009 and no doubt at least 5 times next winter is not enough.  I would imagine that we will be sick to death of Australia by this time next year, and not only because I fully expect them to kick our teeth in for most of it.

One vaguely interesting aspect of the tri-series in Bangladesh is how The Best All Rounder In The World TM has got on.  Shakib-al-Hasan now has captaincy to add to his superhero credentials, and you have to say that with the amount he now has on his plate he has not done badly.  Unfortunately for him, while he needs to be playing the likes of India and Sri Lanka all the time, the rest of his team are more suited to endless bouts with Zimbabwe and Kenya.  All of which means Shakib will stay top of the world in the rankings, but unfortunately may never get the chance to actually prove himself.  In all honesty, his success at Worcestershire as the first Bangladeshi to play county cricket should be more of a marker than his performances for his nation.  Which is hardly a ringing endorsement for ODI cricket.

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I don’t think many people would have seen that coming this time last year.  When was the last time England last had a world-class spinner and keeper in the same side?  Probably the Tufnell and Stewart combination of the late 90’s, and even then you could argue that Tufnell was a bit of a waster and Stewart was a converted batsman.

For all the silly quotes, rock music and cameos with the bat, it is still quite easy to forget that Graeme Swann is a seriously decent spinner.  While no more talented than some of his counterparts, what is setting him apart at the moment is a wonderfully intuitive cricket brain.  Thus far, the South Africans have tried to block him, and have lost their wickets.  They then tried to attack him, and still lost their wickets.   Now, he suddenly has the aura of a spinner who makes things happen. 

This “aura” is an interesting thing.  Of course, it is all in the batsman’s head.  Yet it is a spinners most powerful tool – after all, how many batsmen were defeated by Warne before he even bowled a delivery to them?  Swann is no Shane Warne.  Nor, incidentally, is he the third best bowler in the world, but that is a route I shall ignore for now to avoid ranting on about the ICC rankings yet again.  However, he has enough about him that makes things happen, and that will do quite nicely to be getting on with.

Then to the less feted hero of the tour so far – Matt Prior.  It is likely he is quite happy to be out of the spotlight for a change.  Interestingly, his two most telling moments would have been jumped on merely 6 months ago.  Firstly, he dropped a catch at Durban.  There was an audible gasp, but what followed it wasn’t the usual call for Chris Read, James Foster or Alan Knott to be reinstated.  There was a short silence while everyone tried to remember the last time he had made a mistake.  It was then that the penny dropped that actually, Prior is not half bad.  He seems to have slimmed down a touch, and is certainly more agile than the early iron-gloved days.

The second moment was with the bat at Cape Town.  For the first half hour, he batted like Stevie Wonder trying to hit a piniata.  By the end of the England innings, he had top scored.  Without those runs, England would almost certainly have lost the test match.  Learning to score ugly runs is another tick in his box, and it is almost coming to a stage where there are not many players in the world you would swap him for, let alone the country. 

That is something I honestly never thought I would say.

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