Going Right

When I got back from a weekend away yesterday at 2.35, I turned on the TV in the expectation of a whole afternoon and evening's cricket. Herschelle Gibbs had just been dismissed but there didn't seem to be any reason at that stage to believe that things would turn out as they did.

It was England's most comprehensive and efficient ODI win against a major side since who knows when, but, well though they bowled and batted, some account must be taken of the fact that South Africa, so disciplined and purposeful in the early part of the Test series, don't seem to have been at the races since Edgbaston.

The next thing I know, the game's nearly over, I've got the radio commentary on in the kitchen and Henry Blofeld is rambling on (does he ever do anything else?) about England's chances in next summer's Ashes series, what has made Pietersen such a successful captain, etc., etc. If you allowed yourself to get carried away you could find yourself thinking that England had found the Holy Grail of Cricket in KP, the glorious leader who will take them on to the sunlit uplands of unprecedented success.

Well, just for the moment, I'm not quite buying it. While Pietersen's captaincy record currently stands at played 3, won 3, and he seems to be shaping up really well in terms of both his onfield and off-field influence, one thing I know from too many years of following the England cricket team, especially in one-day cricket, is that if you ever allow yourself to think things are going right they'll very quickly go wrong.

Which is not, of course, to say they will; but let's see where we stand next spring.


Those Who Can, Do. Those Who Can't, Write About It

I thought this was interesting.

I agree with some of what Ryan says - Brearley and Atherton are both fine writers - but I think he might have been better off keeping his powder dry.

While it's easy to understand the professional journalist with a limited playing background being frustrated by the rapid advances of those who could really play the game - especially if they think they can't write - it seems a tad hubristic to set yourself up, as Ryan appears to have done, as some sort of arbiter of journalistic quality and taste.

For a start you leave yourself open to the sort of comment which appears after the article from someone who clearly doesn't think much of Ryan's writing either, and, if you're talking about cricket, I think it's ill-advised to get superior with an ex-Test cricketer. Because, at the end of the day, they've been there and done it (even if they can't describe what they've done very well), while you never did and never will. No matter how much cricket you've watched you're always going to come up short against someone who's played the game at the highest level, even for the briefest period. And many people who follow the game, but who may not be connoisseurs of cricket writing, will set more store by the opinions of someone they've seen play than those of someone they've never heard of but thinks they can write well.

My favourite cricket writers - Alan Ross, David Frith, Gideon Haigh, Scyld Berry, Andrew Miller - don't have a Test cap between them, but I wouldn't dream of dismissing the efforts of many of those who do, especially the superb Ed Smith.

Now, where's my thesaurus?


Striking Fear

For me, the highlight of the D'Oliveira Trophy series was Graeme Smith's epic at Edgbaston, while I also really enjoyed the contributions of Prince, de Villiers and Amla. South Africa were worthy winners and will surely provide us with some rich entertainment when they take on Australia over six home and away Tests later in the year.

For England, despite a well-constructed win at The Oval, the prognosis is more dubious. Strauss's place once again appears vulnerable, while Ambrose's has surely been lost. Monty - stereotyped, apparently going backwards (from the lowest of low bases) with the bat and in the field and vitally lacking competition - is becoming a concern. As, of course, is Ian Bell. The evidence of the last three matches was that I and a few other observers (not to mention Bell himself) were wrong in thinking that his Lord's 199 meant that he'd finally cracked Test cricket. Much of Bell's batting after Lord's hinted at a man who'd sunk straight back into the complacency which often seems to hover just below the surface of a unit which - notwithstanding Collingwood's ultimate renaissance - still seems a bit too cosy.

Two final parting thoughts:

1. It's clear (as if it wasn't before to most people apart from Duncan Fletcher) that Steve Harmison just needs to bowl and bowl and bowl. It's anyone's guess what'll happen abroad during the winter but, for next summer, just let him bowl as much for Durham as he needs to (if there's any space between the Tests). You know it makes sense (and so, hopefully, does he).

2. For the first time in my cricket-watching life (thirty-plus years and counting) England have a specialist batsman capable of striking fear into any side in the world at any time. David Gower was a genius, albeit of a more fragile cast than KP, but he never quite seemed to have Pietersen's extra determination, self-certainty, improvisational flair and sheer balls.

Christ he's good.


Jimmy Jimmy

Whatever happens at The Oval - and with some decent breaks in the weekend weather they ought to win - the post mortems on England's home Test season will soon be under way.

There'll be a few ticks in the minus column but one definite plus has to be the form and consistency shown by James Anderson, who finally, finally, seems to be growing into his role as an international seam bowler.

His over to, and dismissal of, Graeme Smith this evening was a beautiful example of how far he's come. While always a natural swinger of the ball, for a long time Anderson only seemed capable of moving it in one direction, and his effectiveness was further reduced by his regular failure to maintain a consistent line, length and seam position. Here, though, we had him setting up Smith with a series of away-swingers to the left-hander before nailing him stone dead lbw with an inswinger which Smith, having been moved across his stumps by the earlier deliveries, was powerless to resist.

A check of the replay revealed that the position of the ball's seam was perfect; in an age of reverse swing, this was the conventional article at its good old-fashioned deadly best.

For Anderson it seems as though the years of flitting in and out of the side and travelling the world in search of a regular game are over, and, with his improved batting and brilliant fielding, he's starting to look, whisper it, like someone who really belongs in the side.

For a bowler of his type India and the West Indies this winter will prove tough assignments, but he's now sure to be there, and I, for one, will be happy to see him.


Playing On

A nice piece from The Guardian by the long-time Graeme Hick obsessive (hope you don't mind me terming it like that, Simon, it's meant in the nicest possible way) Simon Hattenstone.

And it's out of date already - Hick made his 136th century this afternoon.


Stacking up

The reasons why it could go wrong have been well aired, but I'm happy to see KP as captain. In fact I have a suspicion that if he's allowed to grow into the role he may do very well. The biggest imponderable of all is the question of whether it'll have a negative effect on his batting, and England, who already rely on him to an unsettling degree, can't afford that.

I was also pleased to see Samit Patel's name in the one-day squad. He's a player who's impressed throughout the England age-groups and has steadily found his feet in the Notts side with some good performances in both one and four-day cricket. A glance at his profile on Cricinfo indicates that his stats stack up pretty well.

When I've seen him play he's tended to look a bit rotund but I think I read somewhere that he's worked hard on his fitness, so hopefully, if he gets to play, he won't be exposed in the field.

He does like to hit the ball hard, though, and you can always do with more of that.


So Farewell Then...

Only the other week, at some stage during the three days England spent bowling at South Africa at Lord's, I was watching them in the field and thinking, as I often have in the past, that somehow things just seemed right with Michael Vaughan leading the side, even if they obviously weren't. There was something indefinably reassuring about his coolness, authority and detachment, even if it had started to look as though some of his decisions had moved beyond tactical ingenuity and towards reflexive tinkering.

Things will never quite be the same again. While Vaughan has stated his intention to remain available as a player it would be a retrograde step to take him abroad this winter, and, come next spring, he'll be 34 and fighting it out with a range of younger contenders, at least one of whom may have established himself in his absence. He'll need a lot of runs, and, as Mark Ramprakash will tell you, that's still no guarantee of anything, even if you have Vaughan's past record.

On balance there must be a good chance that he left the Test arena for good yesterday afternoon, and, if so, it's time to thank England's best skipper since Brearley and a batsman who, at his best, could do wonderful things.

The afternoon of 10th August 2002 at Trent Bridge, Nottingham, was, thanks to Vaughan, one of the best times I've spent on any cricket ground anywhere.

Cheers, mate.

Meaning Too Much

It seems obligatory this morning to write something about Mark Ramprakash, who yesterday became the 25th - and almost certainly the last - player to make 100 first-class centuries.

I can't write anything original about the man as it's all been said before, but I'll content myself with saying that when it comes to technical fundamentals, he was the very best English player of his generation, but you need a bit more than an impregnable technique to succeed at the very highest level.

His main problem always seemed to be that it just meant too much.


Although I saw most of his 259 at Lord's in 2003 and he's also the only batsman I've ever seen score 300 in a day, I have to admit that until yesterday I'd forgotten what an outstanding batsman Graeme Smith is. The undefeated 154 with which he took his country to its first victory on English soil since the summer before I was born was a true classic, combining determination, measured strokeplay, good judgement and the priceless ability to ignore what was going on at the other end, namely that a series of batsmen were getting pinned by deliveries which they didn't see.

England, by contrast, go to the last Test of the summer in a mess. At Edgbaston Sidebottom played while clearly still unfit, something which looked uncomfortably like a mistaken attempt to avoid the embarassment of having to consider selecting Darren Pattinson again, and too many players (Cook, Bell and Pietersen in the second innings alone) got out to rash strokes, which again contrasted sharply with the discipline shown by the South Africans.

Furthermore, Vaughan's abysmal run of form continued, with the result that it's now rumoured that he's about to resign from the captaincy and possibly be dropped from the side.

And then, for good measure, you have the fact that Tim Ambrose, neat but unexceptional keeper that he is, isn't a good enough batsman to retain a place in the side and Panesar continues to frustrate. Yes, he's fundamentally still a fine bowler, but yesterday, in helpful bowling conditions, he failed once more to show enough variations of delivery and flight.

It remains to be seen what we'll get for The Oval - some or all of the questions may be answered later - but I won't be happy with much less than the replacement of Ambrose (and it's surely James Foster's turn now) and at least one fresh face among the batsmen.

Oh yeah, and a new skipper...


One of the Best

A player who's never been accused of lacking ability is Virender Sehwag, but he has been dropped, he has been doubted and he has been disillusioned.

He is, though, fit to rank with the very best players that his country has ever produced. Indeed, he's always seemed to me to have an element of truly instinctive genius which the Trinity (Gavaskar, Tendulkar and Dravid) don't quite have.

And, unlike many a fragile genius he bats big. Two triples, countless scores above 150 and now a bat-carrying double against Murali and Mendis.

Many years ago I went on a cricket tour of Australia with a dour Yorkshireman who'd been lucky enough to see Brian Lara's 375 in Antigua the previous winter. He didn't say much about it but what he did say said a lot, if you see what I mean. And what he said then I'll say about Viru now as it sums things up at least as well as anything original I can come up with.

One of the best.


They say that cricket reveals character. And they (whoever 'they' are) would be right.

In the time I've been following the game England have probably never had a player with the iron resolve of Paul Collingwood. He may lack his rivals' abilities, he may lack their range of strokes, he may lack their support from the media, but, when the chips are really, really down, he comes good.

I still think it was wrong to pick him, but credit where it's due.

That was class.

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