Autumn Questions

Travelling back from London on the train late yesterday afternoon, with the sky darkening and the wind getting up after a truly sublime weekend's weather, it was hard to avoid the feeling that autumn was setting in. Of course, another sign that time's moving on is the fact that the English first-class season's over (and congratulations to Durham, by the way) and tour parties are being announced.

There were few surprises in the England squads; I was pleased to see Shah selected ahead of Bopara (and Swann of Rashid), and it had already been leaked to the media that Vaughan, despite his renewed central contract, was set to be 'rested'. James Foster was, of course, completely ignored. This was predictable, but still hugely disappointing. While, on balance, it looks fair enough to give Matt Prior (much the best batsman of the available keepers) another chance, should we not be looking beyond Ambrose for an alternative?

A few years ago Chris Read was in a similar position, but he at least got another chance (even if it was against the coach's better judgement) before being jettisoned for good. It seems very much as though Foster, not seen in England colours since 2002 and an immeasurably better keeper than he was then, isn't even going to get that. Foster's made the standard noises about going back to his county and working hard, and I'm sure he will, but the signs are that none of it will ever do any good.

By contrast, the news that Vaughan isn't going looks like a brief triumph for common sense, although it still seems as though the likes of Geoff Miller (whose opinion matters) and Darren Gough (whose doesn't, frankly) feel that it's only a matter of time before normal service is resumed.

But why? Might there not at least be a chance - which nobody seems prepared to admit - that Vaughan, rising 34 and with a chronic injury history, is past it as a batsman and isn't coming back?


Life in the Old Dog

I'm going away for the weekend tomorrow to London and Hertfordshire - beer will be drunk and rugby will be watched - so I made sure I got along to the County Ground in Taunton for the first day of the match against Lancashire yesterday.

Two things stood out - one a mature piece of defiance from the previously peripatetic home-grown all-rounder Peter Trego, and the other a virile spell of new-ball bowling from Andy Caddick which turned the clock back to his greatest days like nothing else he's produced in the last few seasons.

Caddick will be 40 in November but intends to play next season. For a seamer he's old, but all the indications are that he wants it as much as ever. With it looking likely that Somerset will fail to secure the title, Caddick will be pawing the ground when next season starts.

If Wednesday's anything to go by, he'll be worth watching.


Hard Frost

Whatever people think about it, English county cricket continues to throw up good stories.

For me, comfortably the best of this season has to be that of Tony Frost.

Tony Frost, of Warwickshire, was a journeyman wicket-keeper who quit the game at the end of 2006 and went to work on the Edgbaston groundstaff, leaving his county's gloves to Tim Ambrose. With Ambrose gaining a place in the England side this season, Frost came back and has had an astonishing time, culminating in the innings of 242 not out which helped his side towards the victory over Essex at Chelmsford which took them back into the First Division of the Championship.

In that First Division things still look quite tight, although Notts, having thrashed a hapless Surrey side, are clear favourites to secure the title. I'll be going along to Taunton on Wednesday in the hope that Somerset can beat a Lancashire side that's belatedly given itself something to play for.

I hope that Somerset can pull something out of the bag, but, with the seemingly incessant rain and gloom of August and early September having finally given way to sunshine just seeing some cricket will be enough for me.

It's a long winter.


Going Quietly

It was a pity - certainly for all those people who'd chosen to travel in search of the end of an era - to find Graeme Hick invalided out of his final game in first-class cricket with a recurrence of the elbow problem which has punctuated his last season.

Some photos on Cricinfo this morning showed that he was present on the familiar territory of his old home ground at Kidderminster, with nothing more ferocious to contend with than a queue largely composed of the type of slightly oddball middle-aged autograph hunter who proliferate at county grounds.

But it was perhaps fitting, with the benefit of hindsight, that his career came to an end at Worcester on 8th August, with a final century against Derbyshire under his belt.

He was saying in one of his recent interviews that he'd rather have gone out quietly.

It now looks as though he did.


In the Swing

A nice post by Mark over at The Reverse Swing Manifesto.

I agree with Mark's views on Vaughan. I should think that the decision to renew his England contract probably went through on the nod as those responsible wouldn't have been able to get their heads round the idea of cutting Vaughan out of the charmed circle and would have been concerned that to do so would have been seen to have sent a message that his career at the highest level was finished.

Yet that need not have been the case. If he made a shedload of runs for Yorkshire he'd have been worthy of a recall to the side, although probably not until next season, as he's running out of time to do anything this year. His big problem is that he's never made a shedload of runs for Yorkshire; he didn't do so when he was young and fresh, so he's going to find it even harder at 34 and with a dodgy knee.

As it is, the selectors are probably dead set on taking him to India, regardless of whether he's made any runs or not. Which I'm not sure is right, as it adds further weight to the justifiable allegations of cosiness which have been directed at the side this year. I'd rather see Joe Denly there.

I also agree with Mark that it might not be a bad thing if Samit Patel started to put some pressure on Monty next season; in all but very helpful conditions you might not lose too much in the bowling stakes and you'd gain a huge amount in fielding and batting terms. Not very likely, though.

As for the Stanford squad (and the game), well, I couldn't care less.


Crash Hot

With the international season over and much of the country under water, now seems like a good time to take stock of where England stand.

As most of us have observed over the last few weeks, things are obviously looking a lot better than they were, but you only have to go back to the conclusion of the Edgbaston Test on 2nd August for a time when the future looked a good deal more bleak. And the present wasn't all that crash hot either.

Allowing for what's happened since, I think a little caution is in order, as Pietersen's England are, and will remain for some time, a work in progress, but, as a few people seem to have noticed, Pietersen suddenly looks right for the team and they look right for him. Why?

I think that team success depends a lot on finding the right captain for the stage a team's reached in its development. When Nasser Hussain took over in 1999 England had been one of the poorest sides in the world for years; in partnership with Duncan Fletcher he restored the team's respectability and left it ripe to be taken over and brought to fruition by Michael Vaughan in the years following 2003. Where Hussain was confrontational, Vaughan - at least on the surface - was consensual. With Hussain having dragged the team kicking and screaming to the surface, it required a fresh - and more tactically adept - approach to bring them fully into the light.

Now, with England having stagnated and declined since the Ashes were won in 2005, a fresh approach was required again, and Pietersen's exuberance and confidence, much of which appears to have infected his players, has appeared to be just what they need. Throw in his un-English ability to defy convention and accentuate the positive over the negative, and you have a recipe for success, at least in the short term.

The challenge now is to keep the momentum going. For what it's worth, we'll find out if they can in Antigua in late October.


A Worcester Institution

Graeme Hick plays forward during his 100th century for his county. Worcestershire v Northamptonshire, Worcester, June 2006.

The impending retirement of Graeme Hick is more significant to me than most, as, in the very dim and distant past (it must have been 1984), I latched on to Hick's name. He kept making huge scores for Worcestershire seconds and I thought he might turn out to be a useful player. From then on I kept an unusually close eye on his career, getting in touch with his parents about his early cricket and following his progress innings by innings.

Like someone who's genuinely mad I can still dash off the highlights of those years without going near a Wisden: 230 and 192 in successive innings for Zimbabwe in England in '85, the double centuries for Worcestershire in '86, a thousand before the end of May (including the 405) in '88, a largely unbroken upward curve all the way to the England debut in 1991. From there, of course, things were never quite the same, but, for me, there were always plenty of highlights, some of which I even managed to see in person. The most memorable of these was probably his hundredth century for Worcestershire in 2006; a freezing June day at Worcester, a moderate Northants attack and utter domination, with one stroke living especially keenly in the memory. I'm not sure of the bowler, but I'll take a punt on Ben Phillips. He dropped a fraction short and Hick, as he'd done a million times before, simply stood tall and hit the ball back past him for four with a stroke of rare dismissiveness and command.

This though, was the problem with Hick; at his best (say late eighties, at Worcester) he could achieve a level of dominance and intimidation which few batsmen from anywhere in the world have managed in the last thirty years, but it was all underwritten by a current of personal diffidence which undermined him fatally when it came to the pressure-cooker of Test cricket.

For all the coruscating innings there were technical weaknesses too; a certain stiffness of movement, often an inability to respond to the moving ball, especially at the highest level. I think it was John Bracewell who originally coined the term 'flat-track bully' to describe Hick and, in retrospect, he had something.

This said, I've always tended towards the view that if Hick had been able to play Test cricket when he was at his youngest and most fearless (between 1984 and 1990), he would have achieved much more. A lot of people have pointed to the time Atherton declared on him at Sydney, but, in truth, his early veneer of impregnability had gone by then; the likes of Ambrose, Waqar and Hughes had shown the way to see him off and he was always playing catch-up from then on. He did better in the one-day game, but his overall international statistics must always be regarded as disappointing for a player with his level of ability and potential.

At Worcester, though, he was an institution. Visits there will never quite be the same again.

If you get the chance to see him play between now and the end of the season, take it.

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