End of an Era (Part Two)

Have just got up and discovered that Glenn McGrath has indeed retired (or will do so after the World Cup).

The instant thoughts are that Lee and Clark have got some stepping up to do and it's a pity England won't get the chance to play Australia without Warne and McGrath until 2009.

In the meantime, what's the SCG going to be like at the end of the Fifth Test?


End of an Era

Not much to say about Warne here and now that hasn't been said already. Except to point out (unoriginally, I'm sure) that, for someone who's shown such poor judgement in so many areas of his life in the past, he got the timing of his decision to retire absolutely right.

That and the fact that he's still got two Tests to go which gives me time to write a more extensive valediction before Sydney, where Warne's leaving promises to make that of Steve Waugh look as though it never happened.

I'm going away for Christmas over the weekend and may not be posting again until early 2007. Unless, of course, Glenn McGrath retires or England win in Melbourne...

Happy Christmas everybody.

Fletcher Must Go

Typical. You take a few days off from the blog to get ready for Christmas and let the dust settle after the end of the Ashes and, far from settling, it continues to swirl around you like the fog that's been blanketing much of Britain this week. The past, present and future of English cricket is debated to death, and, just by way of variety, another crackpot squad emerges from the brains of the England selectors. Oh, and Shane Warne retires.

Virtually everything you can think of (and a few things which you can't) has been said about England after Perth. And most of it carries a fair bit of truth. They were under-prepared, the Brisbane and Adelaide teams were badly selected, Australia have wanted to regain the Ashes more than England have wanted to retain them, and Fletcher has reached his sell-by date. All that and a one-day squad with Paul Nixon in it.

One of the better analyses of England's situation came from Christopher Martin-Jenkins in The Times earlier in the week, which allowed for the fact that England have played some good cricket at times by pointing out that the genesis of England's defeat lay in one really bad day in each game - the first in Brisbane, the last in Adelaide and the second in Perth - but also mentioned the older but more far-reaching errors which conspired to put England in a position from which retention was going to be much more difficult than redemption. The loss of Troy Cooley to his native Australia, the failure to prepare properly, errant selection, going back to the inclusion of Giles and Trescothick in the original squad ('an element of trying to recreate the old rather than trusting the new'), the decision to make Flintoff captain 'just as Strauss had grown into the job'.

It was a balanced critique and I agreed with most of it. It appeared to stop short, however, of calling for Fletcher's head, as most of the British tabloids have been doing, and, having thought over the series, while not denying how well England have played in parts or Fletcher's seminal influence on the improvements shown by the England side since 1999, I'm inclined to feel that we need to look elsewhere when the dust really has settled after this winter.

Justification? Well, we'll leave Monty out of it and return to the old Jones-Read debate. Thanks to Fletcher's misplaced confidence in the increasingly hapless Jones, we're now left with a situation where, if Read returns to the side in Melbourne (and, such is Fletcher's apparent obsession with Jones, I'm still not convinced that he will), he will do so in the knowledge that his own coach doesn't rate him at all, which can only have a negative effect on his confidence. So, we'll be left with two keepers who know that they're not first choice, a fact which was emphasized further yesterday when England's squad for the post-Christmas ODI series was announced. It contained the name of Paul Nixon, the elderly Leicestershire keeper who went on an England tour a few years ago but was generally felt to have dropped off the radar. I'll leave my favourite, Steven Davies, out of it for once; he's been with the academy in Perth and may not have done as well as was hoped. But what about James Foster? He was looking absolutely excellent late last season and is a hell of a lot younger than Nixon. Madness.

And then you have the inclusion of Vaughan. Okay, he's standing up, but he's only got three failures against Western Australia seconds behind him and his record in one-day cricket isn't very good anyway. Another example of trying to clutch at the straws of 2005 rather than moving on.

Past readers of this blog will know right well that, although I've known about and watched Chris Read for a long time, I'm not one of those people (most of whom live in Nottingham, I find) who think that he's the best keeper who ever drew breath. I even sought to try to understand Fletcher's selection of Jones at the start of the series (mainly because I just wasn't suprised), but, with hindsight, I was wrong.

With everything else left aside (Giles v Panesar is history), for his utterly shameful treatment of Read and his clumsily mistaken faith in Jones alone, Fletcher must go.

We'll look at this again when it's 3-2...


Done and Dusted

I've got too much going on with work and Christmas preparations to post much here tonight, but I'll come up with some more extensive and coherent thoughts about Australia's win and England's defeat later in the week. In the meantime, Tim de Lisle has summed things up typically well here.

And, in Johannesburg, the victorious Indians deserve at least as much credit as Australia. After more false dawns than I can remember their main challenge now, much like that of Australia, is to keep it going.

For Australia it's desirable; for India it's essential.


Rage, Rage Against The Dying Of The Light

Apart from Cook's maiden Ashes hundred, the signature themes of the day included another excellent contribution from Ian Bell (although one which, as usual on this tour, ended too soon), some typically ordinary captaincy from Ponting (excessive reliance on Warne and a lack of faith in Stuart Clark) and a late burst from McGrath which brought Australia decisively back into the game.

I don't know how familiar McGrath is with the writings of Dylan Thomas, but one of his most famous lines could have been written with his current situation in mind.


Perhaps surprisingly, England go into the final day in Perth still afloat.

I've written enough complimentary things about Alastair Cook (such as this for example) for me not to want to go into his virtues in detail again, but one of the things which makes him stand out from the majority of young English batsman is his patience. He's always prepared to wait for as long as it takes for the bad ball to come along without getting frustrated, while a lot of other young players start fretting if they don't hit at least one boundary every over.

He'll go far.



Readers may remember that I extolled the virtues of Sree Sreesanth back in July.

Well today he was at it again, taking 5 for 40 as India bowled South Africa out for 84 at the Wanderers in Johannesburg. There's some way to go in the game but India have the upper hand.

I think he's great and it's difficult to decide on his greatest asset. I'll settle for his seam position. If there's a better, more consistent one in world cricket I've yet to see it.

Almost Gone

Things haven't worked out for England in Perth over the last couple of days. But it wasn't unusual and it wasn't a surprise. On this tour, with the exception of the Adelaide first innings, they never quite have. They didn't get enough runs yesterday on a relatively blameless track and today they were massacred by a heady combination of Mike Hussey's incessant accumulativeness, Michael Clarke's impregnable mixture of flashy strokeplay and technical rectitude and the one and only Adam Gilchrist's coruscating hitting. The Ashes are almost gone and the game and the series just need to be played out.

The exceptions to the rule as far as England are concerned have chiefly been Kevin Pietersen and Monty Panesar. Pietersen with a brilliant 70 and Panesar a revelatory 16 not out yesterday and three good wickets before Gilchrist took a liking to him today. After the close yesterday, the following pieces from Cricinfo caught my eye. In the first, Peter English discusses the problems which Australia are having with Pietersen in this series, which, in themselves, confirm what an extraordinary batsman he is, and in the second, Andrew Miller uses Panesar's successes in this match to lacerate England's selection policy. We all knew Monty could bowl, but his poise, his common sense and some of his strokeplay yesterday (a straight drive off, I think, Stuart Clark, was one of the shots of the game) revealed that much of the talk about the incompetence of his batting has been exaggerated and ill-conceived. I see Fletcher's already talking about reviewing his place in the order and, if his batting continues to improve, it'll make his place in the side even more secure. He's going to be around the side for the next ten years unless something goes drastically wrong.

England's successes yesterday were few and far between, but there was even less to cling to today. Monty bowled well at times but the cracks in Flintoff's captaincy have started to show. Matthew Hoggard, England's most consistent performer in the series so far, has been under-bowled, and Sajid Mahmood, Flintoff's Lancastrian compatriot, has been almost completely ignored. Okay, he currently looks about as far from being a Test match quality seamer as it's possible to be, but why on earth pick him if you're not going to bowl him more? Why not just stick to your four bowlers and give Ed Joyce a game instead? Just don't go back to Jimmy Anderson.

Much the best thing about today was the astonishingly powerful and fluent century from Gilchrist which took Australia to their declaration. Doubts have rightly started to be raised about his future in the side over the last year or two, and he can't go on for ever, but this was a throwback to his greatest days - think Edgbaston 2001 or Johannesburg 2002.

It's doubtful that there's ever been a cleaner hitter of a cricket ball or a better wicket-keeper batsman.

We may never see his like again.


Normal Service

I said here about a week ago that I could understand why England had begun the series with Giles batting at eight in order to shorten their tail. This was largely true, but perhaps I was trying just a bit too hard to see things from Duncan's point of view. Because, deep down, like virtually every other England follower, I was wondering why the hell Monty wasn't there. Today, normal service was resumed. Normal service which, with every trademark wicket celebration, made you realise just how important a figure Monty became to the side during last summer and just how ridiculous it is that England have gone through two losing Tests with him kicking his heels on the sidelines.

I may also have read a bit too much into the fact that Monty hadn't taken many wickets in the games outside the Tests. Okay, he didn't bowl as well or as economically as he can, and he had some luck, but I think today showed that he's one of those priceless people who perform better the higher the standard of game they're involved in. England have had more than enough players over the years who have done the exact opposite for that to be reason itself to choose him virtually every time. I reckon he might just be there to stay.

It was also great to see Harmison getting his act together. Intensive practice, a bit of life in the pitch and the early wicket of the invincible Ponting seem to have done the trick, in the short term at least. A confidence player.

With two down by the close it's now up to the batsmen to confirm the advantage which England won in the field. It won't be easy, but Strauss is overdue a big one and there will be opportunities tomorrow for Pietersen, Flintoff and Jones to atone for their last day errors in Adelaide. Colly will fancy his chances, too.


Stating The Obvious

I came out of work today, turned the car radio on and found that Ian Healy (now there was a keeper, especially to Warne) had become the latest person to suggest that England came into the series under-prepared.

Damn right they did.

Next thing you know somebody will be saying that they need to start playing well to get back into the series.


Pulling No Punches

An interview with Rod Marsh in The Guardian:


Quite a lot there that plenty of England fans would agree with.



I realised today that I forgot all about Steve Harmison in my haste to write about most of the other members of England's 'attack'. Of course, most of the criticisms of Anderson and Giles apply to Harmison, although my instinct at the moment is just to err on the side of leniency because of what we know he's capable of. He needs some wickets at Perth, though.

Tim de Lisle, with a bit more time at his disposal (I don't know whether he has a day job like me, but I have my doubts), has analysed the issues involved in the selection of the England team for Perth very well here.


Gathering Shadows

So much has been written and said about team selection, Duncan Fletcher, Ashley Giles, Monty Panesar, Andrew Flintoff, Michael Vaughan and the past, present and future of English cricket since the Adelaide capitulation last Tuesday that it's easy to lose track of where your own opinions begin and where those of other people end.

Personally I could understand the logic of starting the tour with Giles in the side, if only because his presence shortens the tail to a far greater degree than that of Panesar (or Anderson or Mahmood for that matter). And it must be remembered that he made useful contributions with the bat in the first three innings of the series. However, it was asking a lot of someone who has never been a consistently threatening bowler at Test level to return to the side after a year's absence and prove penetrative on unresponsive wickets against some of the best players of spin in the world. And so it has proved. Giles has been handled with ease by all the Australian batsmen and with disdain by their two best players, Ponting and Hussey. Overall, though, there's little question in my mind that two spinners should have been played at Adelaide, and, if only one was required for Brisbane, it should have been Panesar. The batting problem could have been eased by playing Sajid Mahmood instead of Jimmy Anderson, who's also looked utterly impotent. Mahmood has had an inconsistent England career so far but he's a better batsman than Anderson and could hardly have been more innocuous with the ball.

With all that said, I'm very dubious about the hype being attached to Panesar by the perenially impulsive British media, many of whom (who never gave a damn about cricket until August 2005) seem to feel that he's a panacea for all England's problems. He's an extremely promising bowler, England's best spin discovery for generations, but his figures in the few games he's played in Australia have not been especially impressive, indicating that he's taking time to adapt to conditions which are alien and unhelpful to him. Also, in case anyone hasn't noticed, he's a rather limited batsman (if more talented than he's given credit for) and the main reason England lost in Adelaide was because the batting failed on the final day. It's important that his potential value to the side is kept in perspective or the age-old tendency of the British media to build people up with excessive and unjust praise before knocking them down with withering and unjust criticism will come into view again.

A further aspect of this which has been doing the rounds in Britain is the story that Duncan Fletcher, who has hitherto taken all the blame for the omission of Panesar, in fact wanted him in the Adelaide team but was overruled by his captain. Nobody - except Duncan and Freddie - knows the exact truth of this, and we'll have to wait for Duncan's autobiography to (perhaps) find out, but, if that was the case it points to a classic blind spot of the modern English cricketer - the way in which seam bowlers, however mediocre, are valued more highly than spinners.

And Flintoff has history here, don't forget. Last May, in Panesar's first Test in this country, he gave him just 27 overs out of 199 in a Sri Lankan total of 537, while at the same time bowling himself into the ground. All Panesar's successes later in the summer came under the leadership of Andrew Strauss. Even allowing for Fletcher's sometimes grudging attitude towards Panesar last summer, it may just be Flintoff, and not Fletcher, who has a blind spot when it comes to Monty's potential.

Whatever the case, it's hard to escape the feeling that the shadows are gathering on Fletcher's term of office as England coach. It's virtually inconceivable that the Ashes can be retained now and further humiliation awaits at the World Cup. Fletcher has been an incredibly influential figure in the renaissance of English cricket these past seven years, but am I the only person who feels that we may be at the point where England require a little more than his grim-faced, pedestrian conservatism?


Elsewhere on Planet Cricket...

Shoaib Akhtar and Mohammad Asif saw their drugs bans waived on appeal, Damien Martyn decided to jump before he was pushed, and New Zealand beat Sri Lanka before what looked like a few men and their dogs in Christchurch.

I haven't followed the ins and outs of the Pakistan case very closely so I can't really comment, but the decision didn't come as a surprise. Nor, of course, did Percy Sonn's reaction, although whether that means he can do anything about it is another matter. Expect them both to be taking wickets again at an ODI venue near you soon.

Martyn was the most understated member of the great Australian sides of recent years, and he did his best work in Asia, so the memories of this Englishman are limited and hazy. He was at his best in England in 2001 and I recall seeing him make a typically elegant 176 not out against Somerset at Taunton, although the lasting impression is of an innings which was just too easy to be truly captivating. Wisden reveals the Somerset 'attack' to have been average to say the least, but one vague point of interest is that Shoaib was 'guesting' for Somerset. He took two early wickets (Justin Langer and Simon Katich, since you ask) before disappearing from view and leaving a group of tyros to take a hiding from Martyn.

Planet cricket can be a small world...


With England in such a mess I decided to lie low for a few days to let the dust settle. Not that it's done anything of the sort.

The media are blaming Fletcher, Fletcher's blaming the batsmen, the supporters are blaming Giles (and Fletcher) and Flintoff's not blaming anybody. Apart from 'one bad hour', Adelaide went quite well. Sure, Freddie.

All a bit messy, and then there's Vaughan as well. Andrew Miller has made a valiant attempt to make sense of it all here.


On the Money

Whatever's going on in the cricket world, it's always worth seeking out what the one and only Gideon Haigh has to say about it. This is his latest contribution to his Cricinfo blog:


Right on the money by my reckoning. I too got fed up with the bullshit that Flintoff was spouting yesterday about 'one bad hour', and, as Gideon suggests, they're probably missing Vaughan's captaincy more than has previously been suspected.

Whether they'll ever get it back is another matter.


A Different Feel

Well, I said on Sunday that the series now had a much more even feel to it. That was premature, but it certainly has a different feel now. It feels like Australia are 2-0 up and an odds-on bet to regain the Ashes.

After following the action from the early hours via radio and television I'm too tired to come up with anything massively analytical or coherent, but I did see enough to realise that, well though Warne bowled, a series of England players (notably Pietersen, Flintoff and Jones) contributed to their own downfall and the humiliation of their side with poorly-conceived and badly-executed strokes.

It's something Flintoff does again and again. It's a habit he must kick (and fast) if he's not going to seem more and more like an outstanding seam bowler who can slog a few rustic runs on a good day, rather than the pedigree all-rounder he is capable of being.

Jones we know all about. He's chiefly in the side because of his batting. Which is a pity, as his batting continues to plough the furrow of mediocrity which it has occupied since the Lahore Test a year ago. But he needn't worry. It's clear that his place in the side is safe for as long as he wants it. Which, of course, is part of the problem.

And it's best not to get started on the team selection. Jimmy Anderson currently has two wickets in the series at an average in excess of 150. I reckon Monty would have done a bit better than that.

Try telling that to Fletcher, though. Who, of course, is part of the problem.


New Maturity

It was good to see that Hoggard got his five wickets. In fact he made it seven, extracting more life from a moribund surface than any of his colleagues.

Nice also to see Michael Clarke make a century. At times on the 2005 tour it was easy to see why he was so highly regarded in his homeland, but the period since then has been difficult for him, with his repeated failures to convert good starts and flashy half-centuries into match influencing hundreds leading to his eventual omission from the side. The word is that he displayed a new maturity in this knock and it seems certain that he will stay in the side for Perth, probably at the expense of Damien Martyn, if Shane Watson is fit to provide the extra bowling option which Australia feel they need. Not that England will lose any sleep.

At some stage in the early hours Christopher Martin-Jenkins said on TMS that Michael Clarke reminded him of Kim Hughes. This struck a chord, partly because there are certain clear similarities, but also because Hughes is a bit of a forgotten man, regarded as a representative of Australian cricket's darkest years and chiefly remembered for resigning the national captaincy in tears. I saw plenty of Hughes in England in 1980 and 1981 and he was a stylish, aggressive and individualistic batsman. Perhaps a bit more spontaneity and flair than Clarke, but I have a feeling that Clarke will end up doing better in Test cricket.

With England finishing the day on 59-1 the draw still looks the best bet and would probably be a fitting end to a match played on a pitch too bland for the bowling attack of either side. The game has reminded me a bit of the Lord's Test between England and Pakistan last July - plenty of decent batting to enjoy but not enough of a genuine contest between bat and ball.

More pace at Perth, please (time was, you wouldn't even have to ask).



A quick mention for Matthew Hoggard, who bowled superbly today.

He had a very tough tour of Australia in 2002-03 and is now demonstrating how much additional skill and maturity he's acquired in the intervening four years.

Here's hoping he gets his first five-wicket haul against Australia tomorrow.

Emerging Themes, Changing Times

Three days down in Adelaide and certain themes are emerging. Australia had a better day on Sunday, with Ponting and Hussey again knitting their reply together, but Hayden and Martyn both failed, as did Langer the previous evening. This, together with the hammering which Warne and McGrath took at the hands of Pietersen and Collingwood, has started to get the world's hacks and bloggers questioning whether this is the beginning of the end for this great Australian team.

I think some of the comments, especially those directed at the bowlers, are premature, but they do highlight the fact that, slowly, inexorably, the times are changing for Australia. I didn't see many people questioning McGrath after he took 6 for 50 in Brisbane, and he's clearly not fully fit in the current game. I think there's probably still plenty of bowling in both him and Warne and some runs in the side's senior batsmen. Where things are on the turn is that, in this match, each of them has come up against a younger opponent with too much vitality and commitment (Flintoff), skill and persistence (Hoggard) and sheer effervescent genius (Pietersen) for them to handle. In itself it's a sign of how quickly and effectively England have turned things round after the Gabba and of how difficult a transition Australia are going to have to go through over the next few years. Warne is clearly irreplaceable and so to is McGrath (though Stuart Clark and perhaps Mitchell Johnson will try). In the batting ranks Phil Jaques will be one new opener and Hussey could move up the order, Michael Clarke may consolidate his position in the middle order (perhaps starting tomorrow), but there are few other candidates demanding immediate inclusion. Some dark days lie ahead.

This Test still seems most likely to be drawn and Australia to go to Perth one up. The series, though, has started to have a much more even feel to it, and, if England could manage to pull off a win, they would hold a considerable advantage going into the remaining games.

Maybe it won't be over by Christmas after all...


Nocturnal Activities

Ashes series in Australia are tough, unrelenting affairs. They sap the will and force you to draw on every ounce of mental and physical stamina. Blood can be spilt, sweat can be shed and tears can be wept. At the end you're left in a state of drained exhaustion, thanking God (or perhaps Bob Woolmer) that you won't be involved in another one for four years.

And that's just those of us back in Britain.

I've been doing this sort of thing a long time (since the Brisbane Test of November 1974 to be precise) and it doesn't get any easier as you get older.

Take last night: Bed at 9.30. Up at 12.30 to hear Collingwood reach his hundred (though can't quite muster the energy to go downstairs and watch it). Sleep for a while, hear Pietersen reach his hundred, sleep for a bit longer and have a vivid and extremely enjoyable dream. Wake up at around 4.30 and realise that Collingwood's now gaining fast on 200 and decide it's time to stagger down and see it happen. Break into impromptu applause (heaven knows what the new neighbours think) when Collingwood lofts the ball for four to get there and remain rooted to the sofa until close of play.

Shave, shower, get dressed, switch on computer, type this and prepare for the rest of Saturday in the knowledge that, though England have had their second dominant day in a row, the pitch remains good and it's hard to see Australia capitulating quickly tomorrow. Which means I might get a bit more sleep.

And the players think they have it tough?


No Frills

Well, even allowing for their ridiculous team selection (and I'm sure you can guess what I'm referring to), it wasn't a bad day for England. In fact, in the context of the way things have generally been going so far, it was a good one. Especially for one player.

The first time I really paid any attention to Paul Collingwood was during my first - and so far only - visit to the Riverside, in September 2001. Durham were playing Worcestershire and I caught the back end of a Collingwood century. He'd made his ODI debut for England earlier that summer but hadn't achieved much and I wasn't really sure what to make of him. What was clear, however, was how much affection he was held in by the Durham faithful, whose shouts of 'well played Colly' echoed around the broad acres of the new ground.

Of course, I now know a whole lot more about him, as do an increasing number of the world's bowling attacks. And I must hold my hands up and say that as recently as last summer I still had doubts that he was a player of Test quality (with the bat - his peerless fielding is another thing entirely), but those have all gone now. Similarly, before Brisbane I would have joined the ranks of the critics who felt that Pietersen, and not Collingwood, ought to be England's number four.

But then again, what do I know? Steve Waugh always liked the look of him and he, as much as anybody, knows that you don't get any marks for style in Test cricket. With characteristic level-headedness Colly's moved on instantly from his self-destructive dismissal on 96 at the Gabba and made an assured 98* on the first day in Adelaide, which will hopefully be converted into his first Ashes century tomorrow morning. Then he has to go on.

As for the others, neither Strauss nor Cook has properly found his feet yet. This time Strauss looked to be undone by the pitch and Cook by an intense spell of seam bowling from Stuart Clark. Bell was typically sound and was just starting to move up a gear when he skied a return catch to Brett Lee. Pietersen was Pietersen. Hyper-confident, more than a little unorthodox but touched with genius to a greater extent than any England batsman since…well, who? David Gower?

And if we're making historical comparisons, who was the last England player with a similar combination of no-frills technique and ironclad temperament to Collingwood? My money's on David Steele.

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