Shep in Retirement, Hair in the Spotlight

There was something a little bit unexpected, a little bit interesting, a little bit poignant and a little bit thought-provoking about coming across England's most experienced international umpire on the day which gave us the biggest umpiring controversy to hit international cricket since...oh, since the last time Darrell Hair annoyed an Asian Test team.

David Shepherd, in his capacity as President of Devon CCC, was at Exmouth, watching Devon play Wales in the Minor Counties Championship. As the sun glinted off the water in the bay, the swallows soared and swooped over the ground, and the former Somerset and Surrey bowler Ian Bishop gave one of the best demonstrations of fast-medium outswing bowling you could ever wish to see, the controversy of The Oval seemed a very long way away.

Shep in retirement is still an avuncular and genial figure; he's lost some weight and acquired some glasses. But what, in the position in which the Oval umpires found themselves, would he have done?

He wasn't saying, but it's a fair bet that he might have shown a bit more tact than Hair and had a quiet word with Inzamam before deciding to award any penalty runs. Hair (and, by association, Billy Doctrove) probably got things either slightly wrong (if the damage to the ball was illegally caused) or very wrong (if, as the Pakistan team seem to be claiming, nothing dubious happened at all).

The indignation of the Pakistan team can be understood, as can their perceived need to make a stand. However, when you're playing cricket at the highest level (or any level) it's generally best to get yourself onto the field when the umpires say so.

If you don't, you might just find that they've applied the laws of the game and you've lost a match which you could - indeed should - have won.


Good Arrows, Alastair!

I love browsing The Surfer on Cricinfo to see what cricket stories are around in the world's newspapers. Today they've come up with this.

It has the kind of blandness readily associated with ghost-written pap but there's no reason to believe it's not true.

I can see Alastair Cook as many things (such as a great batsman) but a darts professional isn't one of them. He's just a bit too, well, wholesome for it, and a lurid baggy darts shirt really wouldn't suit him.

I wonder if he's read London Fields?

Hick Stays

The best news of the week for some of us - like me and The Guardian's long-term Hick devotee Simon Hattenstone, who wrote this, was the decision by Graeme Hick to sign a one-year extension to his current Worcestershire contract and stay at New Road until, in all probability, the end of his career. Derbyshire were interested in signing him and some rumours were being circulated that he might have been interested in leaving Worcester, but I could never imagine it happening. Some players stay with counties so long, and achieve so much, that they become virtually synonymous with that county. Hick is one of those, and something about English cricket just wouldn't be right if he played for anyone else.

Some of my reasons for thinking that are here.


Twenty20 Champions

When Somerset's Graeme Smith hammered the Leicestershire attack all round the County Ground in Taunton to make 311 in a day in July 2005, a forlorn Foxes fan in the crowd kept trying to encourage his side's wilting attack by repeatedly shouting 'Come on Leicester, Twenty20 champions!'.

It smacked of clutching at straws, but, at that time they were, indeed, Twenty20 champions, having won the title at Edgbaston in August 2004. And now they are champions again.

Everyone takes Twenty20 seriously these days, but Leicestershire take it more seriously than most. There are few secrets; their game plan is usually to bat first and get good runs on the board, frequently courtesy of Darren Maddy, and then apply pressure with the ball and in the field. Economical pace and movement from Stuart Broad, slow variation from Jeremy Snape and Claude Henderson. It's not original, but it seems to work most times.

And Broad really does look good. But some caution would be wise. It's barely more than a year since he was one of the bowlers being humiliated by Smith, and most good young English bowlers collect injuries faster than they take wickets.

If he can avoid doing that, he's one to watch.


Last Train from Guildford

News of Martin Bicknell's retirement led me to think over the career of one of the best English seam bowlers of his generation.

He was, as everybody has said, desperately unlucky to win just four England caps. I think he was pigeonholed early in his career as just another injury-prone young bowler, an unfair and premature verdict which condemned him to a few more hours bowling in the shadow of the Oval gasholders than he deserved.

Not that he, as a Surrey man through and through, would have seen it that way, and his sentiments about his Test career, as recorded in Jenny Thompson's interview here are admirable and heartfelt.

Because he spent so long ploughing the county furrow when he could have been playing for England I didn't see as much of him as I would have liked but I was in front of a television when he set up Jacques Rudolph with a series of away-swingers before bringing one back to kiss the top of his off-stump as he declined to play a shot.

For me, English seam bowling has never got much better than that.


As The World Turns

It seems these days as though on any given day there's usually at least a couple of Test matches going on somewhere around the world. We've just seen Sri Lanka defeat South Africa by one wicket in what was obviously a thrilling finish, and England draw away to a much more comfortable win over Pakistan.

I didn't see much of either game (well, I didn't see any of the Sri Lankan one) so it's difficult to comment in depth, but it's enough to say that I've always regarded Mahela Jayawardene as a truly special batsman and it's been good to have his greatness confirmed these past few months.

It's also true to say that I couldn't stand Dean Jones as a commentator - something to do with his excessive mateyness and his inability to say anything remotely original - and I won't lose any sleep if he's never heard from again after his, er, 'clumsy' remark during the Colombo game.

Back in Leeds (I can't quite bring myself to refer to the ground as 'Headingley Carnegie'), England were excellent, while Pakistan were very disappointing, capitulating lamely to an England side that played increasingly tight and powerful cricket on either side of the Pennines.

Prior to the series much was made of the influence of Woolmer's coaching, his relationship with Inzamam and the players' discovery and re-discovery of Islamic devotion in turning the Pakistan side from a perennially inconsistent blend of disparate talents and personalities into a lean and mean unit that was good enough to challenge the world's best. While there appeared to be something in this during the last English winter, especially in the home series victory over England, they have fallen away badly on this tour, something which they, and their many followers, must feel very uncomfortable about.

True, they have been denied the services of Shoaib Akhtar, the vaunted Mohammad Asif and the Hove favourite Rana Naved-ul-Hasan by injury, but, unlike England, who, since Lord's, seem to have drawn strength from the absence of Flintoff (and Vaughan and Giles), Pakistan have withered. They have frequently appeared little more than a three man team, relying almost completely on Mohammad Yousuf, Inzamam and Younis Khan (who didn't even play at Lord's), with no opening pair, a pronounced tendency to drop catches and run each other out, and a range of mediocre bowlers (although we all know what Kaneria is capable of and I maintain that much more will be seen and heard of Umar Gul). All in all, in the last two Tests, much of their cricket has bordered on the shambolic.

England's progress must be set against Pakistan's decline, but there can be no doubt that England have rediscovered an intensity and bite to their game which largely went missing in the first six months after The Ashes were regained.

While life is certainly easier when you're playing at home and have a new player who's better than the hitherto established one whom he's replaced (and no prizes for guessing who I'm talking about), England have shown a desire and mental toughness which has been absent from Pakistan's displays.

Strauss must take much of the credit for this - Fletcher has rightly praised his mental strength, as evidenced by his centuries at Lord's and Leeds and his increasingly assured captaincy - but we've also started to glimpse a little of what Saj Mahmood could be capable of, both with the ball and in the field, where his first innings run out of Younis set the tone for some bristling English out-cricket.

I've already said enough about Harmison and Panesar, Bell, Cook and Collingwood, so the final word on Headingley has to go with Chris Read. As I said after his recall here, I was pleased that he'd been picked again but was concerned about how he would cope with such an intensely pressurized situation. I needn't have worried. He appeared to keep flawlessly, and, after some early luck, batted just about as well as could be expected in both innings. I'm still not convinced that Jones won't be back for Brisbane but Chris has at least given himself a fighting chance.

It's all he ever wanted, and with Fletcher even starting to praise Panesar, you never know where it could lead...


Shot, Monty!

A finely poised Leeds Test as we go into the last day, but England should win.

And who can say that Monty doesn't have at least some batting potential after that cover drive?


For Whom The Bell Tolls...

What more to say about Ian Bell? Not a lot, except to say again that it's great that he's shown how good he could be and he'll take a lot of shifting now.

Andrew Miller sums up the situation very well here.


Beware Ramps

Over Easter I was chatting with a couple of members of my family about the prospects for the County Championship Division Two season (my Dad follows Derbyshire, you see). We didn't come to many firm conclusions but I do remember suggesting that Surrey would win it and 'Ramprakash will make millions of runs'.

That was obviously an exaggeration, but I knew that Mark Ramprakash would lay waste to the division's bowlers. And he has. The latest instalment was a career-best 301 not out against Northants at The Oval, an innings which, to me, had a remarkable inevitability about it. He was dismissed on 292 against Gloucestershire early in the season, but I was virtually certain, after he ended the first day on 174, that he'd make 300 this time.

It must be difficult at times, being Mark Ramprakash. To know that for much of the nineties you were one of the best batsmen in the whole world, but that you never managed to prove yourself properly at the highest level of the game, so you've been left to pile up runs against bowlers barely fit to lace your boots. But the runs still have to be made, and, whenever you hear him interviewed, he seems to have reconciled himself with the vicissitudes of his past.

And he's not alone, either in terms of past experiences or the quality of his batting. Down in Southampton John Crawley also continues to pile up runs like there's no tomorrow.

It must be difficult at times, being a county bowler.

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