Happy Christmas

I'm off to the English midlands to stay with my family over Christmas. I doubt if I'll be posting, but I'll be watching the start of the Australia-India series with a lot of interest.

See you in 2008.


Timeless and Understated

The Galle rains - and some characteristically obdurate batting from the superb Alastair Cook - saved England from a 2-0 defeat, but the truth of the series - that England were more than a little outclassed - wasn't so easily obscured. Michael Vaughan, Peter Moores, and the rest of the 'Team England' hierarchy have a lot of thinking to do before New Zealand.

The player who impressed me the most in the last two Tests was the timeless and understated Chaminda Vaas. A couple of games after his obituaries were being written he was slicing through England with a perceptive combination of low pace, conventional swing and the most finely adjusted line to left and right-handers this side of Glenn McGrath's retirement villa.

Vaas, 33, should now grace Test cricket for a while longer. And, let's face it, if you played in the same side as the great Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara, wouldn't you fancy taking the new ball?


Crashing Down

Touring Sri Lanka is tough, and England have been holding themselves together - often by the skin of their teeth - since Kandy. Today, though, it all came crashing down and there appears little hope of salvage over the next two days unless there's a hell of a lot of rain.

The England bowling attack, apart from Harmison, has looked insipid, although Hoggard is probably short of maximum fitness and Sidebottom has continually been let down by fielders in general, and Prior in particular. The batsmen can make fifties but can't go on to big hundreds in the way that is second nature to Jayawardene and Sangakkara. The fielding is shoddy; all the side's best specialist close fielders - Trescothick, Strauss, Flintoff - have gone from the team and we're left with the ageing (and never reliable) Vaughan, the coltish and mystifyingly poor Cook, and, of course, Prior.

When this game is wrapped up it's back home for Christmas and then off to New Zealand, by which time a few more players might find themselves out of the team.


Radio Days

With two rain-shortened days gone in Galle, England have forfeited any chance they may have had of squaring the series with a lacklustre display of bowling and fielding. I've been too heavily occupied with work and Christmas preparations to see very much of it, but I did get to listen to Test Match Special for a very interesting couple of hours before I left for work this morning.

Readers outside the UK may not appreciate this (although I'm sure there are overseas equivalents), but if you've followed cricket in England over the last fifty years or so, Test Match Special or 'TMS' will have been an important part of your life. You'll have your favourite commentators or summarisers, those you can't stand, and your favourite moments. Sometimes it really hits the mark, other times it misses it like a Steve Harmison wide shooting down the leg side.

This morning was one of the former. During the lunch interval Jonathan Agnew interviewed two former Harrow schoolboys who were playing on the Test ground in Galle when the tsunami struck three years ago; their depth of experience, modesty and articulacy made it a wonderfully informative exchange, and one of the best things I've heard on TMS in a long time. I also enjoyed hearing Christopher Martin-Jenkins (always my favourite commentator) ripping into England's moronic and repetitive habit of throwing the ball at the wicket-keeper from anywhere on the field, with the apparent purpose of trying to intimidate the batsman but with the unwittingly obvious result that their over rate gets even more slow and, as this morning, overthrows can easily result. I first became aware of this during the Tests at Lord's last summer and I've hated it ever since; it's good to hear more people criticising it but if such criticisms find their way into the Team England 'bubble' they're more likely to persist with it than abandon it.

C'est la vie...


Elegance and Time

With India, driven by Ganguly's runs and Kumble's wickets and leadership, wrapping up their series win against Pakistan, I came across this on Cricinfo.

Jaffer's a player I've had a bit of a thing about since his hundred against England at Nagpur a couple of years ago, and I couldn't believe the quality of his Eden Gardens double century.

Australia will be a big test for him but with as much elegance and time to play as anyone now operating on the world stage, it's a challenge he's well-equipped to meet.

Treading Water

After a couple of days of tracking down the Colombo close scores in the internet cafes of New York City I returned home to see the second Test played to its ultimately rather dreary conclusion. Peter Moores sounded optimistic this morning - it's one of his strong points - but, although England were good value for their draw in the end, they look to me like a team that's treading water. Enough batsmen are in form but the hundreds (with Bell, as usual, especially culpable) won't come, and the bowling attack is solid but lacks penetration. If they can get Hoggard back for Galle it will help, and, with the wicket expected to take spin, Graeme Swann's name may be discussed. You also have to wonder about the selection of Bopara when he's doing hardly any bowling.

So, for Galle it has to be a won toss, hundreds from any two of Cook, Vaughan and Bell, and some penetrative spells from Harmison, Hoggard and Panesar.

Should be easy...


Moving On

For the past few days I've been preparing for a short trip to New York - I leave in about an hour - so I didn't see very much of the last couple of days of the Kandy Test. Ultimately Sri Lanka were worthy winners, and, unusually, they didn't rely completely on Murali on the final day. Although, when I left my house an hour after lunch, the TMS commentators were talking about his longest spells without a wicket. When I returned nearly five hours later he'd all but wrapped up the match by removing Matt Prior and Ian Bell, England's points of greatest resistance, with the new ball. Asad Rauf (whose appalling triggering of Sidebottom marred what was otherwise a good performance) and Lasith Malinga did the rest.

Having made the running so well on the first day England must be disappointed by their defeat, no matter how close they got to getting away with it. There are problems with the attack - Harmison or Broad for Anderson looks likely for Colombo - and in the field, and there were a few soft dismissals around, not least Collingwood's on the last day, although he can be allowed the odd one as he normally sells his wicket so dearly. As now seems customary, Bell was excellent in both innings, but he still needs to go on and turn his regular fifties into hundreds if he's going to fulfil his huge potential. I think it'll come.

As for Sri Lanka it's hard to look past Kumar Sangakkara, now unquestionably one of the world's greatest batsmen. This typically outstanding piece by Andrew Miller sums up where he's at just now.

So, the players go to Colombo and I go to the USA.

See you next week, when I'll try not to attempt to give my views on a game I haven't seen at all.


709 Up

After yesterday's rain this was an interesting and even day in Kandy; England gained an unlikely lead, Sri Lanka countered to put themselves in an excellent position with the valuable and possibly definitive advantage of bowling last to come.

Of course, the day was all about Murali and the record. Personally, I find it hard to get very excited about the mere attainment of a numerical target which has been inevitable for years, but, if we're talking numbers, I'm more impressed by the 61 five-wicket hauls than the 709 wickets.

There's little to be said about him that hasn't been said before, and I'm happy to leave the last word to another of the country's greatest players, Murali's long-time colleague Sanath Jayasuriya, whose last Test this is.

Interviewed in the current issue of The Wisden Cricketer, Jayasuriya touchingly sums up the respect with which his fellow Sri Lankan players treat Murali:

'Everywhere we go there is pressure on Murali from other teams. We see him as our unique bowler, our special one. We decided very early on to always give him full support.'


Immaculate Control

I don't know why I got it into my head the other day that Stuart Broad was 'nailed on' to make his Test debut in Kandy. He wasn't and he isn't, although I did get the bit about Ravi Bopara right. England, though, did very well without him, their disciplined bowling and fielding performance on the first day being firmly based on Matthew Hoggard's immaculate control of line and movement and tidy contributions from all the other bowlers.

It looks a benign track with plenty of potential runs in it, but then no pitch is ever truly benign when Murali is bowling on it, and he'll be doing a lot of bowling tomorrow.

Worth getting up early for, I reckon.

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