Recovering Composure

Watching England build with composure and patience against a one-man attack yesterday was a reasonable way to spend the time. Especially if you're just starting to emerge from a hideous bout of flu which has rendered your Christmas a complete non-event.

But then, with Cook and Bell having made good runs you're left to ponder (those elsewhere who know me as a defender of Bell may be amused by this) whether you've been giving them too hard a time.

Cook yes, Bell no. Cook merely reminded one of his main quality, and that which sets him apart from almost every other young English batsman you can think of. Patience. With that, a shedload of runs under his belt in Test cricket already (and he's only just 25) and some necessary technical work under way he'll be around for a while yet. No wonder Boycott likes him.

Ian Bell was poised, stylish and engaging late in the day, all the things he tends not to be when the fur is really flying. But, while his unbeaten fifty will have reminded a few people that technique isn't really the problem, his temperament, which is, is highly unlikely to be tested again in this game.

Elsewhere the obvious was reaffirmed. Ntini is finished, but Morne Morkel has the capacity to do some serious damage worldwide over the next few years if he can continue to bowl with the persistence, pace and aggression which he showed yesterday.

Can he back it up, though? It's a problem Bell and Cook know all about.


Closing Over

For me the most resonant news of the week has been the retirement from Test cricket of Shane Bond. A late developer with an injury-prone body to be sure, but one of those players with the priceless ability to lift his team beyond the ordinary by his mere presence.

New Zealand teams (and especially New Zealand bowling attacks) often appear samey and colourless. Not when Bond was around.

A Merry Christmas to all. See you for more of the same in 2010.


The Cult of Personality

From an England viewpoint the main thing which stood out from the game was again Graeme Swann. Finely crafted orthodox off-spin of the type thought to be on the way to extinction a year or two back and some typically effervescent batting, the product of his seemingly boundless confidence. As someone said, he's perhaps the best number nine currently operating in Test cricket and a player it's hard to believe has been playing at the highest level for barely a year.

By contrast Ian Bell and to a lesser extent Alastair Cook cut painful figures, with Bell in particular fast heading into Mark Ramprakash territory: an English batsman of substantial gifts but without the mental wherewithal to make anything of them.

Both may be put out of their misery soon, although it's hard to see how Cook can be adequately replaced from the existing squad, but a point worth pondering is the extent to which Swann's success is as much a product of his mentality as his ability.

Even when he's been doing well there's seemed to be a diffidence about Bell which will never stand anyone in good stead at Test level, and to watch an Alastair Cook interview is to be both confused and irritated by his bouncy inarticulacy and predictability.

Coming from someone who's never met either, these are value judgements, but consistent success in Test cricket owes a huge amount to personality. And if there's one thing Swann has in spades...

Generosity of Spirit

I didn't see much of the first Test live. Work, pre-Christmas socializing and a trip to Plymouth for a local rugby argument took care of that. But then sheltering from the snow on Plymouth Hoe as de Villiers and Amla built South Africa's lead in slightly warmer conditions thousands of miles away had a certain attraction to it, and it'll certainly stick in the memory.

I was around for the denouement yesterday, though, and the main thing which stuck in my memory from that was Graeme Smith's decision to give Ntini the last over. While admiring Smith's generosity towards a fine man whose status as a cricketing icon for modern South Africa has been rightly pronounced all over the world's media these past few weeks, surely keeping the impressive Friedel de Wet on would have given South Africa a better chance of taking the one wicket they needed to complete an improbable win.

As it is, Ntini couldn't get past the middle of Graham Onions's bat, and, unless the South African selectors are as generous as Smith, that over may well be the last he ever bowls in Test cricket.

Steyn at one end and de Wet at the other in Durban? You wouldn't exactly be queing up to bat, even if you were in better form than Ian Bell and Alastair Cook.


Footwork is for Mortals

One of the best things (and there are many to choose from) about Virender Sehwag is that watching him can make you re-consider all that you ever knew about batting. For example, every coaching manual you'll ever read will emphasize the importance of footwork in batting, but is it really that important? Not for Viru.

Sehwag has often shown (and yesterday was surely his apogee) that all he needs is a bowler and a bat. Some of the greatest hand-eye co-ordination and bat speed ever known will do the rest, coupled with under-rated shot selection and defence, insatiable run-hunger and a sprinkling of luck.

In a marginally less astonishing way it's worked for others too. Some very similar qualities have always stood Marcus Trescothick in good stead, and there are others. Sadly I never saw him in the flesh but all the footage of Graeme Pollock I've ever seen gives the impression of someone who'd just stand there and hit the cover off the ball until the bowlers couldn't take any more.

As with all kinds of aspects of all kinds of games, the Greats make their own rules.


Capturing the Tension

With access to satellite TV and unlimited time it's been possible to watch a lot of cricket in the UK over the past week or two - India v Sri Lanka, Australia v West Indies, South Africa v England.

The New Zealand-Pakistan series is the odd one out. While there's probably a way of seeing it here I don't know how, and, well, I haven't lost any sleep about that as I have a life which I occasionally wish to lead. But the first Test in Dunedin was one of those games where it was possible to see from the scores just what a good contest it was. While the Kiwis ended up as worthy winners, the most significant aspect of the game in the long run was the brilliant debut of Umar Akmal, a player who, according to Osman Samiuddin, we're going to hear a lot more of.

This, from Iain O'Brien, captures the vibrancy and tension of the last day superbly from the viewpoint of a member of the victorious attack.


As Good As It Gets

After the first couple of days in Kanpur I was ready to join the chorus of anguish about the future of Test cricket in an age where pitches often seem only to come in various shades of dead. Today, though, we had a reminder that you can still make things happen pretty well anywhere if you bowl well enough. And the man who made it all happen was Kerala's finest.

Back in this blog's early days, in the summer of 2006, I wrote admiringly about Sreesanth's potential. But the volatility of his temperament and some injury issues hindered him to the point where, in the brave new Indian world of the ultra-fit Zaheer and the ultra-promising Ishant Sharma, he seemed little more than a dated afterthought, reduced to earning a crust on the county circuit with Warwickshire in a seemingly vain attempt to bowl himself back into contention for a place in his national team.

His bowling today comprised an alchemic mixture of reverse and conventional swing (sometimes, seemingly, with the same delivery), coupled with a quality of seam position rarely seen outside a coaching manual. The dismissals of Rangana Herath, bowled by a subtle away-swinger to the left-hander late in the first innings, and Dilshan, caught behind to begin Sri Lanka's follow-on slide, stood out, with the latter as good a piece of finely-honed seam-bowling as I've seen since Glenn McGrath, or even Richard Hadlee, retired.

In case anyone was in any doubt, today proved it. This is a man who can really, really, bowl.


Bottling It (and not bottling it)

The pros and cons of Paul Colingwood have been done to death in places such as this these past few years: Resilient batsman, handy seamer, truly exceptional fielder, but, equally, someone who, when out of form, can make the game look very difficult.

Which, in a sense, it is. It's hardly an original view to state that he doesn't possess the innate talent of the majority of his fellows, but I think it's a correct one. Of course, compared to the likes of me his talent is off the scale, but when you think about players like Mark Ramprakash, well, it's a different story.

Not for the first time, I found myself thinking yesterday about what would happen if you could bottle Collingwood's mental strength and imbue more fragile but more talented players like Ramprakash or Graeme Hick, with it.

Of course, you can't. In cricket, as in life, people are different. Colly will do to be going on with.


Where There's Life

Still convalescing after my encounter with the surgeon's knife early in the month (what's usually described as a 'minor' operation, although the immediate post-operative pain was anything but minor), I've had a bit of time this week to follow the first game of the India-Sri Lanka Test series, which was called off as a draw this morning once Sachin Tendulkar had reached his 43rd Test hundred.

It was a counter-intuitive affair; the type of Test which, on the face of it, you'd say was certain to drive another nail into the coffin which the likes of Peter Roebuck have been cobbling together for the five-day game recently: 426 plays 760 plays 412. Too many runs, too few wickets, everyone's bored.

Or perhaps not. Until the last day the scoring rate was excellent and there was a series of innings whose merits went well beyond mere accumulation; Rahul Dravid showing he can still mix it with the best in the world (like Mahela Jayawardene) for both strokeplay, and, of course, concentration, Gautam Gambhir emphasizing again how far he's come and how indispensable he now appears at the top of the Indian order, the one and only SRT, twenty years a Test player and counting, doing what he does best these days, building a ton without fuss in benign conditions and slamming the door shut in Sri Lanka's face. There were even a few people there to watch.

Well, I enjoyed it (even if nobody else did), and it'll do to be going on with, but we, and the Test game itself, will need more if it's to sustain itself into an uncertain future. Much is made of the fact that England's the only country left where Test grounds are routinely full, despite the insane cost of tickets, but it needs to be remembered that usually, in England, wickets fall.

But where there's life there's hope, and this game showed that India's ageing order still has plenty of life. The strands of hope, though, need to be supplemented by a strip with a bit more life in the next match at Green Park in Kanpur.

I'll not be holding my breath.


Half an Eye

Feeling like death warmed up after someone's cut your abdomen open and rearranged the contents (it's okay, the person responsible was a surgeon) isn't a great frame of mind in which to watch any game of cricket, but I managed to keep half an eye on yesterday's events while wondering about my immediate future on earth.

I always thought Suresh Raina was class, and the boy Tendulkar (as an English football manager would say), well, he's got something too.

I'm off for a good lie down. See you in a couple of weeks.


What We Have Lost

David Shepherd, who died yesterday, was a son of Devon.

Instow, in the north of the county, isn't an area that I know well, despite having lived in the county for nearly twenty years, although I have been to the sublime ground among the dunes where Shep learned his cricket, and have also visited the post office which used to be run by his mother and brother. From memory his brother served me, and his mother may have been around. Shep, of course (for it was late summer, 1993), was away umpiring, something he did as well, and with as light and sincere a touch, as anyone in the world in the last couple of decades of the twentieth century.

The Devon cricket community is a small, tightly-knit, proud one. Proud of its team's regular triumphs in the English Minor Counties competitions over the last twenty years; proud of the achievements of such men as Chris Read, who, despite the vicissitudes of his England career, remains one of the outstanding county cricketers of his time; proud of Shep, a modest county artisan who never troubled the attentions of the national selectors but later proved himself an umpire of world renown.

Even after he left the world stage I used to see Shep around. At Exmouth, watching Devon play on the day the umpiring world hit the buffers; most recently, in the spring of 2008, at a memorial service in Tiverton for one of the unsung heroes of Devon cricket.

At the time I noticed that he'd lost a lot of weight, something which I naively put down to a post-umpiring fitness regime. I later learned from the grapevine that he was a very ill man.

Which brings us to today. As Simon Taufel, who knows more about umpiring, and Shep, than I ever could, said:

'A true gentleman, a kind spirit and a great bloke'.


Every Cloud?

I've often written about how closely I've followed Marcus Trescothick's career.

I saw his maiden century at Bath in 1994 and I've seen him make thousands of runs for Somerset since, along with a good few for England.

Like everyone with any heart at all I was saddened, but hardly all that surprised, by the news last night that he was returning early from India.

But I can't help thinking that there might be one good side to it all.

Next time the England batting is failing and everyone is saying Mark Ramprakash should be recalled, perhaps no-one will suggest that England should try to tempt Marcus out of retirement.

For the last time. It will never happen. Leave him to the county circuit where he can do what he's good at for many more years.


What a Waste

The omission of Owais Shah from England's one-day squad last week has been quietly bugging me ever since. I had the feeling at the time that I should write something about it, but I wasn't quite sure what, as, where Shah's concerned, I can see both sides. The outstandingly innovative batting, but also the scarily erratic running and sloppy fielding.

Now Rob Smyth has done the job for me.

Some of Smyth's praise is a little too effusive for me, but the central point - that Shah has been very poorly treated by a succession of England regimes - is well made and unarguable.

The classic - and terminally wasteful - English approach of focusing on what someone can't do rather than what they can is at work here, and the feeling you're left with is that with a bit more trust Shah may have blosommed a bit more often and run with a bit more assurance.

ODI centuries by English players have been as rare as hen's teeth since Marcus Trescothick retired, and with a recent hundred under his belt Shah would, perhaps, have proved harder to drop.

He may be reflecting on those missing two runs at Centurion for a very long time.


Jekyll and Hyde

As the fallout from England's first winter selection begins to gather, I thought this, by Mike Selvey, was a typically thoughtful appreciation of Harmison, whose career at Test level now looks dead and gone.

Selvey may be partially right in that England may end up missing Harmison in South Africa more than they now expect, but what they'll miss will be more the wistfully-recalled Harmy of blessed memory (Kingston, 2004) than the arrhythmic, Jekyll and Hyde trundler of too many recent encounters.

Elsewhere, I can't disagree too much with the selection of Steve Davies, but that of Luke Wright and the bypassing of Joe Denly look dubious.

If there's one thing Alastair Cook needs now it's not promotion (to the ODI squad) but competition.


Photo Opportunity

Regular readers will notice that the photo at the top of the page has changed.

Courtesy of Getty Images we have Tom Shaw's magnificent picture of the moment the final day of the Ashes turned.

To my mind it's one of the finest cricket photographs taken in recent years.



End of the Beginning? Or...

What by now has the feeling of a routine piece in The Independent about Monty, by David Lloyd (no, not that one).

I hadn't been aware until now that he was going to play domestic cricket in South Africa this winter and it'll be interesting to see how he gets on. With the way his form and confidence dwindled last season you wouldn't bet on him doing great things. It may be that a change of scenery, team and opposition do him good, but, given his obvious diffidence and the difficulty he's found in adapting his game to changing challenges in the past, he may well find things tough.

In cricket, as in life, circumstances can change quickly, and, at 27, time is still on Monty's side, but, with nothing in his armoury apart from his bowling, it's sure to be a difficult road back.

What happens for him in South Africa will go a long way towards deciding whether or not his batting at Cardiff in July is destined to be the last act of his Test career or merely the end of the first act.


Leaving It All Behind

The slightly ridiculous (and erroneously-named) ICC marketing vehicle that is the Champions Trophy has only flitted in and out of my consciousness over the past couple of weeks. I've got too much else going on in my life and too little interest in endless ODIs for things to be any different.

Besides, as the British autumn draws in it's nice just to leave cricket behind for a while. It'll be back soon enough.

In the end, for England, normal service was resumed as they were hampered by their age-old failings in the field and were once again taken apart by Ponting and Watson, who's starting to look a bit more than a makeshift opener, an impression he confirmed in yesterday's final win over New Zealand.

The only memorable (and surprising) aspect for me was that I managed to predict the winning side.

Success, of a kind. But a bit like one of those strange periods when England win a few one-day internationals, it can't last.


Death by Numbers

An interview from The Independent which goes over some familiar themes with a familiar player - and a decent man - whose responses are much more balanced than the headline.

One of the things Ramprakash seems to confirm is the fact that his career is going to continue well past the age of forty, largely because he's never achieved the degree of professional fulfilment which most of his contemporaries did. Which means that interviews like this will continue to be published year on year, and most of the questions they raise will remain unanswerable forever.

All you can say is that this was, by modern English standards, an extraordinarily good player, but one who could never quite prove just how good he was.

Games involving precise numerical measurement of individual performance can be cruel. And cricket is the cruellest of the lot.


Eccentric Class

When Darren of The Commentary Position asked me for my Champions Trophy predictions, I didn't hesitate to suggest that England would lose all three of their group games.

Fortunately I was completely, and predictably, wrong, and relished the sight of Shah, Collingwood and the hitherto underestimated Eoin Morgan putting South Africa to the sword yesterday.

It remains to be seen where Colly's Test career goes from here, while Shah's appears finished and Morgan's hasn't started, but in the one-day arena all showed yesterday that they're likely to remain vital cogs in the England 'machine' (not sure that's the right term, really) for a while to come.

With people starting to mutter about his place - and with some of his fielding and running how can you not? - Shah's timely reminder of his huge if somewhat eccentric class was especially welcome. He may often give the impression of a man who's trying to make something which he finds easy look difficult, but he really can bat. While the way in which he started to go into his shell as his hundred approached betrayed the continuing uncertainty of his mentality, 98 made with that degree of dominance and style isn't bad to be going on with, as long as he continues to try to improve his work in the field.

As for the wider reasons for England's resurgence, well, it helps that they're not playing Australia and they're not playing at home. After a long series of defeats a change of opposition usually helps, even if, on paper at least, they're just as good as the last side you faced. And, while the vast majority of England's one-day history has been as barren as the Gobi Desert, their brief periods of plenty - the 1992 World Cup, the 1997 Sharjah tournament, the 2007 Commonwealth Bank Series - have often come away from the capricious conditions and fevered media of home.

Also, England just lost a one-day series 6-1. As another classy eccentric, Bob Dylan, once said, 'when you ain't got nothing, you got nothing to lose'.



As another ODI series in which England haven't even flattered to deceive fades into the gathering gloom of an English autumn, the overwhelming feeling is one of ennui, caused by the fatigue of feeling obliged, through habit and little else, to follow a seemingly endless series of games to their predictable conclusion.

For me the absolute highlight of a forgettable series was Ponting's century in the first Trent Bridge match. England has seen relatively little of Punter at his best these past two tours, but this was the real thing, proof positive that Launceston's favourite son still has it all; iron certainty of footwork, defensive impregnability and the type of shot selection which could make vulnerable bowlers want to give up the game. In a sense it seemed as though the clock had been turned back, and this impression was reinforced a couple of days later when he started throwing the stumps down in the way he used to be so good at before the captaincy years took their toll.

Over recent years in England it's occasionally been possible to forget how great a cricketer Ricky Ponting is. This series hasn't been good for very much, but one game, at least, served as a reminder of how sublime the batsman's art can be.

They should build a statue of him.


Punter on a Plinth

While 'researching' something I'm going to post tomorrow, I came across this.

The idea for the statue seemed a bit unoriginal. A more topical version would feature him throwing the stumps down and a hapless Englishman limping off.


Moving On

Opinion seems to be divided about Andrew Flintoff's apparent decision to become the first (although surely far from the last) international cricketer to 'go freelance', something which people have been predicting since the IPL and its accompanying piles of cash first hoved into view.

I'm fairly relaxed about it and feel that Andrew Miller hits a pretty good note here, although there are, of course, significant imponderables which we won't know the answer to for many months yet.

Can Flintoff regain even the level of fitness required to sustain his putative lifestyle of travelling the globe bowling four-over spells and biffing a few boundaries (and perhaps throwing the stumps down from mid-on occasionally)?

And, if he does, will he be able to go the extra mile for an England ODI team in which more will be demanded of him in terms of both duration and responsibility?

And, if he does, will England want him to do so?

I think the assumption of both Flintoff his agent is that they will, but, while his absence from the current series has obviously not helped England's prospects (although I think KP has been missed more), I'm sure that Flower and Strauss will only want him back on their terms rather than his. Flintoff, once he's fully integrated into the life of the international cricketing cavalier, might not want that.

And, with Stuart Broad around, will they feel that they need him?

With his retirement from Test cricket and now this decision, Flintoff has partially moved on. Sometime England are going to have to do the same.


Deja Vu (x 4)

It was a one-day international. England lost. Next?

Oh, er, Trent Bridge on Tuesday.


Encounters with the Stars

The Old Batsman writes about seeing Shane Watson, Ricky Ponting and Mike Hussey in the street in London.

I can't remember seeing any properly famous cricketers in the street. I don't think Keith Tomlins (of Middlesex and Gloucestershire non-fame) and Kevin Jarvis (the man who once said that if he could bowl at himself it would be 'an amputation job to get the ball out of my hand') really count, although I hope someone out there remembers them.

However, I did once share a Port Elizabeth hotel with the England team and its media pack.

At one point I was walking, alone, down a corridor, and, coming in the other direction, also alone, was Ian Botham. He looked at me, I looked at him. He looked suspicious, I probably just looked sunburnt after a day spent frying in the St.George's Park sunshine. Neither of us said anything, although I had the distinct impression that he expected me to, probably because he was all too used to people thinking they knew him when they didn't and treating him like a lost friend when he hadn't got a clue who they were. I reflected later on our wordless encounter, thinking about the fact that while he'd never consciously seen me before and knew nothing about me, I knew his name, when and where he was born, the names of his wife and children, where he grew up, went to school, and so on and so on. To all intents and purposes I did know him. But then again I didn't.

Another member of my party opened the door of his hotel room to find Bob Willis bowling a tennis ball down the corridor at Mark Ramprakash.

I think he played and missed.


Paying Respects

Even though I think I'd only looked at her blog once before today, I can only agree with what's been said by many others about the death of Amy S.

Patrick Kidd and The Old Batsman alerted me to it, but I think David at The Silly Mid Off put it particularly well.

We're really all in this together.


Stick to What You're Good At

English cricketers like football. Indeed, there was a time a few years ago when it started to seem as though most of them liked it more than cricket. I remember one or two (Michael Vaughan was certainly one) giving the distinct impression that they were only playing cricket for a living because they weren't good enough at the game with a bigger ball. When Freddie Flintoff pointed out that his famous shirt-wheeling celebration in India in 2002 wasn't influenced by football celebrations because he wasn't all that interested in the game, it came as a refreshing change.

So far so harmless, but, like most people with half a brain, I can see that there's no valid reason for international cricketers to warm up by playing football. Injuries, whether serious or not, are an inevitable and demonstrable consequence (just ask Mark Wagh or Jimmy Anderson or Joe Denly), and, as Tuesday night's events at Old Trafford showed, international cricketers never want to put themselves in a position in which they can get injured. Sure, it may be less 'boring' than just running around the ground, but in the general scheme of things I can't see that as a problem. If any of the players had to step out of their bubble and do an ordinary job for a day or two they'd know all about boredom (although I, of course, love my job and am never bored (ha ha)).

I've ranted about this before, and it's clearly one of those subjects that brings the old colonel out in all of us, including Mike Atherton and, more satirically, The Old Batsman.

Strauss made some noises last night which indicated that England may start to re-consider, and it's about time they did, before someone's career is ended by a pre-match kickabout.

Best stick to what you're good at, lads (or something like that).


Just Ask Freddie

The old problem: How to comment on something so transcendent and multi-faceted without simply repeating what everyone else has said. I'll go with this.

As an example of a struggling player fighting to salvage form and possibly career in the face of impending defeat, Michael Hussey's patient, rigorous, technically expert and increasingly fluent century was a minor masterpiece.

Matt Prior's keeping, in difficult, turning conditions, was magnificent. Some more judicious strokeplay might be an idea but if he continues keeping like that the debate's over for the time being.

The series as a whole was good, not great, and the result has a mysterious tinge to it. England played the big points better and the Cardiff escape was pivotal. For that alone it was great to see Monty in the thick of things this evening. With Graeme Swann's superior versatility and the inexorable rise of Rashid, it's going to be a long road back.

It was also good to see Paul Collingwood redeem his earlier errors with a typically sharp catch at slip to get rid of Mitchell Johnson. With a batting shakedown due before the South African tour and his form a constant concern it won't be a huge shock if this proves to be his last Test.

If so, there are worse ways to go. Just ask Freddie.


Verging on Insanity

Even fewer people have credited Ian Bell with being a perceptive cricketing sage than with being a Test class number three batsman, but when he warned at the end of the first day at The Oval that people shouldn't pronounce judgement on England's first innings total until Australia had batted, I decided that he had a point.

A fairly obvious and trite one, granted, but a point nevertheless. I've been caught out too many times in the past (haven't we all?), so, this time, I thought, I'll refrain from commenting. In retrospect I'm glad I did, as England swept Australia away yesterday, with Stuart Broad again providing ample evidence of why he should represent England's future, with bat and ball.

Today was a standard positioning day; England assuming what they will take to be a position from which they're immune to defeat and can strike for victory, Australia embarking positively on the long slog to save - or win - the game and the Ashes.

With the pitch appearing less lively than before, I feel that there's plenty of cricket left in the match. And, while an Australian victory is very, very unlikely, I wouldn't quite rule it out in the impulsive way Jonathan Agnew did on the radio this evening (claiming that he would eat one of Geoff Boycott's many hats if Australia won).

Anyone who's played cricket with or against Australians knows that they have a level of competitiveness and optimism which often verges on insanity. They are, almost literally, never beaten.

I used to play with a Doctor from Queensland who'd grown up with Matthew Hayden and who used to try to exhort his downcast team-mates by shouting 'come on, we can still win it' when the opposition needed two runs to win on a featherbed with eight wickets in hand. We all thought he was mad but he genuinely believed what he was saying.

I hope Graeme Swann spends tonight sleeping rather than tweeting, because he's going to do a hell of a lot of bowling over the next couple of days, and the pressure to succeed will be high.


Elsewhere on Planet Cricket

With the Ashes series going on (and the World T20 before that) I've barely written about anything else this summer. Whole Test series have come and gone, the West Indies have lost to Bangladesh twice over, the ODI record individual score has been equalled, but, although I've been aware of it all, I haven't passed a single comment about any of it.

However, I've just caught up with the scores from the first Sri Lanka-New Zealand Test, which started yesterday, and it was fantastic to discover that, not only was Mahela Jayawardene back in the runs (so far so expected), so was Thilan Samaraweera, some five months after he was seriously injured in the Lahore terrorist attacks.

With the eyes of the cricket world trained on The Oval, it's a timely reminder that some things transcend the game.


No Coming Back

Amid the media-led clamour for the selection of Mark Ramprakash last week, more than a few voices were heard to suggest the name of another player whose international career ended a while ago, this time by his own choice.

For too many people the fact that Marcus Trescothick retired from international cricket for mental health reasons seems to be irrelevant and the reasoning seems to be that if he can still do it for Somerset (and boy can he), he should be able to step up to Test cricket without a backward glance.

Although his illness showed itself at its worst during tours abroad, there's no guarantee that he would be able to cope with the heightened pressure of home Test cricket either, especially after three years out. Like Ramprakash he might want to, but he wasn't - and isn't - ever coming back.

What England are missing was underlined by his batting at Twenty20 finals day on Saturday. Two displays of dismissive power which few modern English players could have matched, three or four more overs of which in the Final would surely have brought his team the title.

It was also great to hear him talk with feeling about how he felt standing in the Long Room on the first day of the Lord's Test, although you suspect that it's truly impossible for anyone to get close to knowing what it's like to have been there before, to know that you're good enough to still be there, but be unable to do anything about it.

Those of us lucky enough to be able to get to Taunton regularly will just have to settle for watching him lay waste to county attacks on Somerset's behalf, hopefully for many years to come.

See you on Gimblett's Hill later in the week.


How it Happens

This is how it happens. Enough people suggest him, Geoff Miller says that 'nobody is ruled out' (not even Darren Pattinson?), the press stick their oar in and suddenly there seems to be an irresistible clamour for Mark Ramprakash to be recalled to the England team.

I go back a very long way with Mark Ramprakash. I'm a little older than him and I also grew up in Middlesex. I first heard about him on the cricket grapevine when he was thirteen. I saw him play regularly during his early years at Middlesex, was cheering him on from the Tavern Stand when he piloted his county to a Nat West Trophy victory in 1988, watched him move on to and through the years of unfulfilment in Test cricket.

Technically he's the best English batsman I've ever seen.

There are things you can't change, though. One is that he's now nearly forty years old; another is that his record in Test cricket is, for a player of his ability, utterly mediocre, although he did play most of his Tests before the era of central contracts (which would have helped him a lot) and against some very good attacks (West Indies 1991, Pakistan 1992, South Africa 1995-6).

Many feel that his achievements over recent seasons in the Surrey side suggest that he's a better player than he was. I'm not totally convinced about that. He always was incredibly good, but it's only in recent seasons, as people have forgotten what his Test career was like, that he's become a cause celebre, with the result that people seem to think that what he's done over recent years at a much lower level of cricket is more important than what he did at a higher level when he was younger and fitter.

If he was recalled the pressure on him would be searingly intense. All the past evidence suggests that he would find it very difficult to cope. Even in these straitened times, with the lack of alternatives positively scary, I don't think I'd pick him. But nobody's going to ask me to.

What will the selectors do?

If changes are to be made - and Bopara has to be gone - fairness and logic suggest that Jonathan Trott should come in, but fairness and logic have never played much part in English selection decisions, and it may be that Robert Key, to whom batting at three shouldn't hold any fears, is a more likely pick.

I'm going to stick my neck out and predict that they won't select Ramprakash, mainly because they'll be too worried about what they'll have to say and do if he succeeds.


Daydream Believer

On a more amusing note, I had a dream last night that I was playing for England.

Or something like that.

The gist of things was that I found myself in a large building (presumably some sort of pavilion) when I looked at my watch and realised it was time for play to start. The England team, which appeared to be captained by Andrew Flintoff, was already in the field, awaiting my presence. I then realised that I wasn't wearing whites and so had to go and get changed.

By the time I'd got changed the game seemed to have disappeared (England must have lost in under ten minutes) and I then found myself getting a lift through the nondescript suburbs of a small town in continental Europe, probably Belgium, perhaps Estonia. And the car was being driven by Paul Collingwood.

What does this mean?

I've got no idea, but it's a bit less confusing than many aspects of England's performance over the last three days.


Notwithstanding the coruscating but ultimately irrelevant batting of Stuart Broad and Graeme Swann this morning, just about the best that can be said about England's dreadful performance at Headingley is that they held their catches. There was little else, apart perhaps from Stuart Broad's six wickets, although these only came after a long period during which large amounts of unrelieved dross were served up to a series of grateful Australian batsmen.

This has been a series of punch and counter-punch, but now Australia have all but floored England, and it'll be astonishing if England can come back to win at The Oval.

Much the strangest and most surprising aspect of this massacre has been the way in which, like some of the first Test at Cardiff, it's felt like being transported back to any of the series between 1989 and 2001 in which Australia routinely humiliated England. The interim contests at Lord's and Edgbaston, in which England carved out an advantage which looked like it might see them home, might as well never have happened.

It always looked as though England might be in trouble if Australia started to bowl well. In this match they have, with the returning Stuart Clark, the resurgent Mitchell Johnson, the resilient Peter Siddle and the redoubtable Ben Hilfenhaus holding the aces. The fact that this renaissance has been coupled with some awful batting and naive bowling by the home side has cooked England's goose very thoroughly indeed.

Underlying causes are difficult to pinpoint at times like these, but, in this match, and at times earlier in the series, the key distinction between the sides has been the level of discipline, maturity and technical expertise displayed, in particular, by the Australian batsmen. They seem to be less inclined to believe their own publicity and they understand the game - and their part in it - in a way which hardly any of England's players (Strauss fully excepted) do. In part this is because players like Marcus North are older and have been around the block (if not in Test cricket) in a way that Bopara and Bell simply haven't. Although, given the way that England players tend to think and react, you wouldn't bet on either of them ever emulating the type of all-round class which North has shown over the past few weeks (let alone that of Ponting or Clarke).

So many words have been written about the contrasts between the countries' systems (most recently by Justin Langer) that I'm reluctant to go there once again, but it's that which is at the heart of England's failure to produce large numbers of players who can perform consistently well at the game's highest level.

Is anything much ever likely to change? Even if you're at Headingley and the bookies are offering you 500-1, don't bet on it.


Quietening the Crowd

Throughout the series it's been hard to escape the nagging feeling that if Australia managed to get things right with the ball - both in terms of personnel and performance - England could be in trouble.

Today they did, and they were, with Stuart Clark leaving everyone to wonder why the Australian selectors took so long to remember what he could do.

Much more of this and everyone will be wondering why the Headingley crowd's so quiet.


Nicely Poised

With the last-day Edgbaston stalemate starting to fade from the memory and eyes turning to Headingley via the current (very shaky) state of Andrew Flintoff's fitness, the Ashes series looks nicely poised. England are ahead on points and look the more potent side, at least as far as bowling in helpful conditions is concerned. However, as more than one person elsewhere has pointed out, when the ball isn't doing a lot, Australia have the batsmen to cash in big, something exemplified by North and the sublimely orthodox Clarke on Monday.

With the ball Australia don't quite have it and it remains to be seen whether they have the faith in Lee's fitness or Clark's ability to make the changes they surely need.

As Matthew Hoggard helpfully reminded people on the radio here in the UK last night, the Headingley pitch isn't the seamers' paradise it once was, and The Oval is never anything other than a batsman's track (although it will reward you if you bowl well on it), so taking another forty England wickets over the next couple of weeks isn't going to prove easy.

If you want to see them try to do it, it may be worth going along to here, where you can get a voucher which'll entitle you to 5% off Ashes tickets bought here.

Mind you, having seen some of the prices people are charging, you'll need it.


What Might Have Been

When I saw Andrew Flintoff's short innings of 30 not out prior to England's second innings declaration at Lord's I thought he looked in good nick with the bat. This was confirmed today, his controlled and powerful 74 belying his clear lack of fitness and setting up a position of strength for his side.

Indeed, for a while, with his Test career staggering, almost literally, to a close, you could see what might have been if he'd spent more time over the years eschewing his innate rusticity in favour of a bit more technique and nous.

It's (understandably) become fashionable to decry Flintoff's own oft-repeated assertion that he's a batting all-rounder. I should know, as I've done it often enough myself, but, this afternoon, in the company of the equally excellent Matt Prior and Stuart Broad, he set England up to push for a win tomorrow while playing in a manner of which many of us had forgotten he was capable.

The farewell tour rolls on, and so do England.


Always There

I spent yesterday watching Somerset, with Justin Langer and Craig Kieswetter to the fore, build a decent total against Nottinghamshire on a typically easy Taunton track, but the Test was always there in the background, buzzing around like one of the many bees which spent the day alighting on the newly-planted flowers on Gimblett's Hill.

England did what they had to do and ended the day in a position of strength. Jimmy Anderson was truly superb, his control of swing as good if not better than anyone else currently operating in world cricket, and Graham Onions, who laid the foundations for England's success with his two early strikes, showed what a useful addition to the side he can be, especially in English conditions.

Weather permitting England will look to build today, but they need to take care; wickets can fall in bunches in Test cricket.

Just ask Australia.


Opening Gambits

When it emerged yesterday morning that Australia had dropped Philip Hughes, there was a strong temptation to write a piece castigating their selectors for replacing him with Shane Watson when there appeared to be better and more obvious alternatives, such as Mike Hussey, who learned his trade as an opening batsman.

Now, in the light of what happened between 5 and 7 yesterday afternoon, I'm glad I didn't, although the arguments against Watson still stand, and it's difficult to envisage him staying at the top of the Australian order for very long.

Yesterday afternoon, though, England did their level best to make him look good, bowling with poor consistency and concentration in front of what sounded like a boisterous and over-hyped crowd. The two may not be unconnected; England have a tendency to believe their own publicity too readily, and, with the cheers of the Lord's crowd still ringing in their ears and supplemented by those of Edgbaston, they looked like a side lacking focus.

James Anderson, of whom a lot was expected in this series, and Stuart Broad, of whm a lot was hoped, are particular concerns, and they and their team-mates need to show a lot more when play resumes in three hours' time.


Turning Point?

For anyone who watched KP limp his way through the Lord's Test, today's news that he won't be playing for England again this summer will have come as no surprise. And, even though he hasn't been near his best form recently, as a proven big-game player with the ability to turn bad form into good at the drop of a hat, he's a big loss to England.

It seems highly probable that Ian Bell will be his replacement. This isn't necessarily bad news; too many people appear to have forgotten that Bell is a player of very considerable talent and excellent technique who has made 3000 Test runs at 40 with 8 centuries. Okay, he was kept in the side for time beyond endurance while continuing to fail, and the concerns over the resilience of his temperament are entirely justified, but please don't write him off before he's had another chance.

It's a pity, though, that there isn't exactly a long queue of other contenders. Robert Key? Recent runs, but really an opener and the suspicion is that his face doesn't fit. Joe Denly? In my opinion a great prospect with good runs against Australia, but an opener. Jonathan Trott? Getting closer all the time, but unlikely to be considered ahead of Bell yet. Owais Shah? Never going to happen. Mark Ramprakash? Ditto. Marcus Trescothick? Don't even go there.

Whole series have turned on less.


Been There, (Not) Got The T-Shirt

As the Andrew Flintoff Farewell Tour gathers momentum (someone really should produce a T-shirt), it seems like a good time to ponder on a few questions which England's performance threw up.

Firstly, while we can see how well Freddie is coping with his rebellious body (and, God willing, he'll make it to The Oval, although you certainly wouldn't bet on it), what of KP?

In the latter stages of his second innings he was struggling to run, and you could sense Collingwood's frustration as he tried to up the scoring rate. This didn't, couldn't, happen until the superb Prior came in, following which Collingwood himself was the one struggling to keep up.

Furthermore, Pietersen's 44 in the second innings was among the scratchiest efforts of his entire England career, raising the question of whether his continued lack of fitness has begun to affect his form with the bat. For perhaps too long England have regarded him as indispensable - and, at his best, that's obviously what he is - but you've got to wonder how long it'll be before someone on the medical side of things starts to question the wisdom of repeated injections and simply advises him to stop playing.

And then, while Andrew Strauss's form with the bat over the last year has been as good as that of any opener in the world, his captaincy at Lord's, with a lead of more than 500 in the bank, was often disappointingly defensive. Outstandingly though Clarke and Haddin played on Sunday afternoon, their partnership was allowed to gather momentum by Strauss's insistence on placing men on the square boundaries on both sides of the wicket, seemingly relying on the batsmen becoming frustrated by the relative difficulty of hitting boundaries. While this might work in county cricket, it's hard to see it working on players with the technical rigour and nous of Clarke, Haddin, Ponting or Katich.

But this is, perhaps, churlish. The correct way to do things - and the best way of slowing the scoring rate - is to try to get people out, and Swann and the majestic, irresistible, Flintoff did a pretty good job of that yesterday morning.

It was an uplifting, almost moving, experience to be there, with the rapid finish allowing a reflective afternoon in one of London's best pubs and the welcome discovery that cricket was back on the front pages.

Happy days.


Leaving Nothing Behind

I've found it hard to get too concerned about the story which has been preoccupying the media these last few days, and which has only just been supplanted by the announcement of Andrew Flintoff's retirement from Test cricket.

England were clearly out of order in doing what they did, at least as far as the oft-quoted 'spirit of the game' is concerned (although, significantly, neither umpire appeared to say anything), and it's hardly surprising that Ponting told Bilal Shafayat where to go when he arrived in the middle on Sunday night. But his comments once the match had ended and the dust had settled were, in reality, relatively moderate, and it took the good old British press to turn a disagreement into a controversy.

Neither side can reasonably claim any moral high ground. England did what they did and Australia - as Nathan Hauritz admitted - would have done the same if they'd needed to. Anyone who has had the misfortune to read Duncan Fletcher's autobiography knows that he is never ever wrong about anything (at least in his own mind), but, when he starts sticking his oar in, you tend to feel that it's time to move on.

Which bring us to Flintoff, who, for once, has shown some timing and good sense in taking a decision which has come to seem inevitable as his Test career has blundered on in fits and starts over the past few years.

The valedictions can be saved for later; in the meantime, let's hope he makes it through the last four five-day games of his life.

One thing is certain: He won't be leaving anything behind in the dressing room.


Always in Control

I watched the latter stages of the Cardiff rearguard on the clubhouse television at the County Ground in Taunton. A relatively small, tense, occasionally ribald crowd counted the overs down until the draw which England never looked like getting or deserving had been achieved.

For me what stood out wasn't the iron will of Paul Collingwood - this is now a commonplace - or the unlikely straight-bat poise of Monty (aided by Ponting's strange use of his bowlers at the end), or the guts of Graeme Swann. It was Jimmy Anderson.

Clearly he's been working hard on his batting - he's always had ability but suffered through never having served a long county apprenticeship - but the key to what happened yesterday is the increased assertiveness which he's developed as a result of the way in which his bowling has come on over the last year. Despite the circumstances he always looked in control, and, in retrospect, you could find yourself thinking that the outcome was never in doubt.

England go to Lord's level and I'll be there. I doubt if Monty will, but what he was involved in yesterday will be a memory he can fall back on in times to come.

Let's hope it helps him to rediscover some of what his bowling's lost.



I said something before this Test started about what ultimately mattered being what actually happened, not what people, seduced by rampant hype and nostalgia, thought might happen.

What has happened since then is that Australia have, unlike England, taken the fullest advantage of a pitch made for batting. Their patience and skill have emphasized the ineffectiveness of the England attack, and their desire to turn the screw today contrasted sharply with the desultory nature of some of the England fielding this morning, which looked like the product of a side that seemed to simply be playing out time until the inevitable rain came. Trouble was, the rain was late.

Whether they win or not - and with a full day's play tomorrow you wouldn't bet against it - Australia's intention, successfully accomplished, has been to lay down a marker to England for the rest of the series. To let them know that the West Indies are long gone and they're now facing a real cricket team.

You want nostalgia? We'll give you nostalgia. Nostalgia for 1989, 1993 or 2001.

Plus, win or draw, we'll see you later in the week on a ground where we haven't lost since before the Second World War, and where the doubts will all be yours.


Keeping on Coming

Test match days are long - at least six hours, or 90 overs, depending on who's counting - and so much always depends on which side's players show the most stamina.

Often it's not just about physical fortitude (though God knows you need that), but mental as well. The ability to take the knocks but retain your original level of focus and desire into the last session of the day.

Something I've liked about Peter Siddle ever since I first saw him has been his ability to just keep on coming, regardless of what type of day he's had. Today it wasn't great, but he was still bustling in late in the Cardiff afternoon and was rewarded with the late wickets of Prior and Flintoff, scalps which left honours all but even.

Kevin Pietersen, by contrast, didn't stay focused, and it cost him and his side. His misjudgements at Edgbaston and Kingston were, perhaps, debatable, but today there can be no argument. His moronic stroke was central in allowing Australia to sneak back into a day that was drifting away from them.

It's one thing having the strength to hang in there, but often it's opponents' weaknesses which give you the chance to show it.

Today, for Australia, was one such day.


Almost Time

These days, as a result of what happened in 2005, Ashes series played in England seem bigger than the game itself. As the commencement of battle gets ever closer you can't dip your toe into any branch of the written or broadcast media without coming across people's memories of that great series. And many of them, you suspect, are people who hadn't taken much interest in cricket before and haven't since. Especially during the summary decimation in late 2006 and early 2007 which now seems to have been airbrushed from the collective consciousness of English cricket in a manner of which an old-style totalitarian regime would have been proud.

It's good to have them along for the ride, but, after a while, you just don't want to read any more previews. People can talk for as long as they want about what might happen, what could happen, what should happen. In the end, though, all that matters is what does happen.

With the two sides looking evenly-matched there's every chance of another fine contest.

Let's get started.


Back in Contention

If your first-class career is still in its early stages and you're averaging nearly 70, scoring just 7 and 8 in a match must pull you up a bit short. All in all, it's unlikely that Phil Hughes's double failure at Worcester will have a serious effect on his confidence, but the manner of both his dismissals - caught close in dealing poorly with short balls - is sure to cause some interest among England's bowlers and some concern in the Australian camp.

The bowler who delivered both those balls, Steve Harmison, is another man in an interesting position. After a distinctly average winter it was assumed in some quarters that England's future lay without him, and this may still be the case. But with what he's done at Worcester you wouldn't be at all surprised to see his name at least in contention for a place in Wednesday's side, although, as Harmison himself has said, if England do play two spinners it's hard to see how he'll fit into the team.

Others, such as Graham Onions, would offer more consistency but less pace and hostility, but Harmison has laid a powerful marker down over the last few days at Worcester.

The trouble, as ever, is that no-one can be sure how he's going to bowl on any given day, but that might just be a risk worth taking.


Very Good

How good would England be if they had an opener of style, elegance, adroit footwork and finely crafted techinique who could take Australian bowling attacks apart, seemingly at will? And what if they could also keep wicket and were just twenty years old?

The answer is that they'd be very good. In fact, 'they' are very good.

Her name is Sarah Taylor.


Gift of Timing

With only one subject in town - for a couple of days at least - it's hard not to be repetitive and unoriginal when writing about the end of Michael Vaughan's career.

The first thing to say that is that it didn't come as a surprise. One of the hardest things in the world for a great sportsman to admit is that the past has gone and he has no chance of reclaiming it. But Vaughan is nothing if not decisive, and once he realised that his time in an England shirt had gone for good there was no earthly way he was going step back on to the county treadmill. The modern England captain's financial and spiritual comfort zone - the Sky commentary box - surely awaits, although, for no obvious reason, I think he might just do a little more with the rest of his life, even if it's only coaching.

Two personal memories, both of which I've mentioned here before:

His 197 against India at Trent Bridge in August 2002 was the first time he'd really loosened his shackles at international level and shown what he was capable of. I was there, and I still regard that Saturday afternoon as one of the most enjoyable of my cricket-watching life. No England batsman, except Vaughan himself, has batted with the same blend of dominance and elegance since.

The other is more impressionistic, but when Vaughan was in charge of England in the field everything seemed right with the world. Like Richard Hill, from another time and another sport, or Shivnarine Chanderpaul, you felt that that was what he was put on earth to do. He was no tactical genius, but there was a permanent air of assured command which led you to believe that if there was a particularly tough question, he would always find the answer.

By announcing his retirement during the relative lull between the end of the World Twenty20 and the resumption of the battle for the Ashes, Vaughan has shown that his gift for good timing hasn't completely deserted him.

Time to reflect on the fact that he'll be a long time gone, time also to think about a future without him.


Pear Shaped

Overall, the England selectors haven't come up with a bad series of selections ahead of the Ashes. There was no logical way to select Vaughan (so it's slightly surprising that they didn't), and, as I thought, Onions is a bit ahead of Harmison, although Ashington's finest has an opportunity to state his case at Worcester next week.

However, no announcement of this type is complete without a little bit of madness, and this time it came in the shape of Vikram Solanki. Someone obviously had the idea that the Lions side had to have at least three Worcestershire players in it to give the locals an incentive to turn up (and if that's true what does it say about the parochialism of county supporters?), and, while Steven Davies and Stephen Moore probably deserve to be there, does Solanki?

A decent, occasionally handsome, batsman, who's in good form. But someone whose unfulfilled ODI career is behind him and who is never, surely, going to play Test cricket. If they felt they really had to have another Worcestershire player then Moeen Ali would have been a better choice.

The only real point to Solanki's selection would seem to be to make Owais Shah aware - if he wasn't already - that his own short Test career is a thing of the past.


After Afridi

What more to say about Pakistan's triumph than to say that it was fully deserved and it showed again what a talent Shahid Afridi is and emphasized what a united and simplyinvolved Pakistan side can give to the world game.

As I said at the time of the terrorist attacks in Lahore in March, it's vital that the rest of the world cricket community stands by one of it's most important, but troubled, members.

There are strong rumours that they'll be playing neutral Tests in England (against Australia) next year and that's a start. I look forward to seeing some of their great fans back at Lord's sooner rather than later.


Suspension of Doubt

With the World T20 grabbing the headlines it's been easy to overlook the fact that the County Championship has been jogging along in the background for the last couple of weeks.

Durham are top, and both Steve Harmison and Graham Onions have been in the wickets. Patrick, at Line and Length, reflects on some of the questions which their successes pose.

I'm not sure that I agree with Patrick about Harmison being 'too soft' (although he really should be wary of saying things like that with the media around). However, doubts about the clarity of his mentality will never be far from the surface when an England team is about to be chosen and the doubts are perhaps stacked a little higher than the hopes these days.

Onions is the coming man, having bowled well against the inept West Indians, but, more importantly, having carried on taking wickets since. I have a feeling that he's probably a little ahead of Harmison in the running just now.

Elsewhere, while it seems perverse to invoke the example of a Twenty20 tournament when selecting a Test team, the fact that Adil Rashid generally showed up well, coupled with the fact that Panesar continues to struggle for his county, means that the Yorkshireman is surely the front-runner to partner Graeme Swann if England do decide to play two spinners in Cardiff.


Get Out of Jail Free

I try never to knowingly agree with anything Charlie Colvile says, so inevitably I have my doubts about the way he was dancing on South Africa's grave with such undisguised relish last night.

For what it's worth I don't think that they choked, merely that their standards had slipped slightly from where they'd been for most of the competition. I'm sure this had something to do with a heightened awareness of pressure on the part of the players and the winner-take-all nature of the contest, but it also reflected the effervescent quality of Pakistan's cricket.

On the day when his erstwhile associate Allen Stanford finally gave himself up to the authorities, Giles Clarke found himself presenting the match award to Shahid Afridi, but, while Afridi and Umar Gul were outstanding, the true highlight for me was the ease and coolness with which Shoaib Malik caught Jacques Kallis to practically terminate South Africa's chances.

In a format which tends to reward erratic brilliance at the expense of relentless competence, Pakistan always had a good chance of winning last night and they'll take that forward to Sunday, regardless of who they're playing.

Stanford, languishing in a cell somewhere in Virginia, probably won't be watching the West Indies take on Sri Lanka later, but I will.


Batting Without Boundaries

As I thought, last night's truncated game at the Oval could have gone either way. Ultimately it was no surprise that it went to the side with the batting line-up which was more suited to the game they were playing, and more fool me for forgetting about the priceless presence of Ronnie and Shiv in the Windies middle-order when I was writing them off the other day.

England's bowlers did a good job of getting them out of jail more than once in the competition, but there's only so far you can go when you have nobody below number four capable of playing with the type of fluency and power which should be a pre-requisite in the second half of a T20 innings. That England went from the eleventh over to the twentieth without a single boundary yesterday says it all.

Not that their selection helped. Why select a capable hitter like Graham Napier for the squad and then leave him on the bench throughout, especially, as yesterday, when Mascarenhas (who had hardly set the world on fire with the bat at Lord's on Sunday) didn't play either?


Games of Small Margins

Hell, that was good.

Whatever India's faults - and the strange decision to bat Jadeja at three really was a glaring one - England were superb, at least from the time their innings ended. At the break I felt as though they hadn't got enough runs after failing to capitalise on a good start, but they bowled to clear plans and fielded securely and often brilliantly to send their opponents packing. Sure, the ultimate margin of victory was narrow, but it felt much more comprehensive than that.

It was a wonderfully evocative evening all round; with the ground rammed, the time ticking on past 8.30 and the lights yet to take real effect, it reminded me of the sort of one-day cricket occasion that used to be commonplace at Lord's (with the 1975 World Cup Final the best example) but which has usually seemed lost for ever these past fifteen years or so.

And for someone brought up on the keeper's keeper, Bob Taylor, Foster's stumping was the most sublime piece of work I've seen from an English stumper since the autumn of Jack Russell's Gloucestershire career.

I'm concerned that England will find it very hard to reach the same heights today. The West Indies are in good nick and will fancy their chances of turning the tables on a side which has had the better of them ever since they arrived here in early May.

It feels like another game of small margins which could go either way.


Normal Service Restored

For years and years James Foster was ignored by England.

His artful stumping of Yuvraj tonight - a vital turning point in a pulsating game which England won well - was the time he finally re-emerged into the light, showcasing his talent and justifying his selection.

It's best not to underestimate the capriciousness of the England selectors but you have to feel that he'll be back to stay for a while, at least in one-day cricket.

And that feels right.

A Stroke with No Name

Just over a week into the World Twenty20 (it seems more like about three, simply because of the number of matches that have been played, rather than their inferior quality), certain themes are emerging.

Batting built on muscular power, but also, on occasion, on timing and innovation. While others have used it sparingly, Tillekeratne Dilshan has made an art out of the backward flick over the keeper's head, a stoke which, as yet, has no name.

Bowling founded on old-fashioned principles - the straightness and reliability of Umar Gul - but also the variety and disguise of Ajantha Mendis.

Fielding which, on the ground, has sometimes appeared vulnerable under pressure (aren't we all?), but, with the ball in the air, has often touched rare heights. In the last week alone we've seen utterly superb catches from Kyle Coetzer, David Warner, Lendl Simmons, and probably the best of all yesterday from good old Shahid Afridi.

The crowds have been brilliant - large, vibrant, noisy and partisan.

Heading into the competition's final week, South Africa look favourites. Their batting has an air of solidity about it which you feel that their main rivals, Sri Lanka, can't quite match, as well as fielding that marries reliability and brilliance, and bowling which has just enough of what's required in all areas. Sri Lanka, on the other hand, have Murali and Mendis, who on his day could run through anyone, although he only has four overs in which to do it.

India and Pakistan - especially after yesterday - can't be discounted. England, New Zealand and Ireland probably can, leaving West Indies as the team which nobody can be sure about. Their wonderful victory over India on Friday night, inspired by the rare talent and competitive energy of the islands' greatest recent product, Dwayne Bravo, showed what they're capable of. The suspicion is that if neither Gayle nor Bravo fires in a big game the rest will be left with too much to do and that, when the pressure is on, their fielding simply won't hold together.

It's been great so far. The slightly worrying thing, perhaps, is that this feels like the future, and Test cricket, even between England and Australia, is going to appear very slow by comparison when it returns next month, although probably none the worse for that.

The game's future can wait for another day. England and India do battle at Lord's this afternoon at 5.30 and I'll be watching.


Looking Forward

One side which, on the basis of its recent performances, would find it very hard to be arrogant would be the West Indies. But this is a form of the game which they can play, and, more importantly, they really want to play.

It might not lead to much, but if you wanted to view the ball sailing off Chris Gayle's bat and into the road outside The Oval as a metaphor for their chances in the competition, you could easily be forgiven for doing so.

Whatever happens - and I found Brett Lee's customary sportsmanship in the face of Gayle's assault as attractive as any of Gayle's shots - I think this is going to be a great couple of weeks for the game.

Dangerous State of Mind

England have been losing one-day matches of varying shades, to varying opponents, for almost as long as I've been alive.

There are always a range of causes (or excuses) for this - too much cricket, too little cricket, too much exposure to the wrong sort of cricket, too little to the right sort, poor technique, lack of application, too much confidence, too little confidence.

One unwelcome characteristic which the typical English professional cricketer has always seemed to me to have in bucketloads is the ability to look down on people who they don't consider to be as good as them; people who play 'club' or even worse, 'village' cricket. Amateurs. Like the Dutch.

True to form I think England took the Dutch lightly on Friday, with their clumsy team selection giving the game away. Why on earth have Robert Key (and an out-of form Robert Key at that), a specialist opener in all forms of the game, batting at six when what was needed down the order was someone who could blast the ball out of the park, such as Dimi Mascarenhas (whom I would favour as he's done it before at international level) or Graham Napier? And why was Rashid playing? He's not a regular in his county's Twenty20 side and I'm sure that in the long term his best forms of the game are likely to prove to be the longer ones.

The answers lie in the fact that England were - perhaps only subconsciously, but that doesn't alter the argument - treating their game against Holland as another warm-up match, a sideshow and a prelude to the matches that really mattered.

It's a dangerous state of mind to get into as it can sap the will to win and affect players' techniques and decision-making, and England, of all one-day teams, ought to be immune to it

Now, if they don't win today, there won't be any more matches.


Recipe for Disaster

It's early on the morning after the evening before and I'm off out, so there's no time for too much detailed analysis of that.

Suffice to say that it's one of the oldest truisms of international cricket that when England are playing one-day cricket they're capable of losing to anyone. Throw in the type of complacent attitude which the English professional cricketer specializes in (and which my post yesterday lunchtime mirrored) and a great all-round effort from the Dutch and you have a recipe for disaster.


A Bang or a Whimper

With or without Andrew Symonds, I've been looking forward to the World Twenty20, which starts, possibly with less than a bang, in about three hours' time.

English cricket always does this. By tradition the season here always used to splutter into life with a range of matches between counties and universities which meant nothing to anyone other than the participants (and little enough to many of them). Now, for the first game of a landmark international competition, the home side are playing, wait for it, the Netherlands (or Holland if you prefer).

Okay, they're trusty old ICC Associates with a decent, if low-key cricket tradition, but surely the start of the event would have more impact if England were playing another Test nation in the tournament opener. The reaction of the average 'man in the street' (in so far as he knows anything at all about cricket) will probably run along the lines of 'Holland?' 'Do they play cricket?'.

All of which is not, of course, to say that an England victory is guaranteed.

But it bloody well ought to be.


Coming In From The Cold

A nice quote from Fidel Edwards at the top of the page.

Very true, and somehow not surprising coming from one of the modern West Indian players who nearly always looks up for it, unlike some of his fellows.

Not that it explains what he's got against Jimmy Anderson.


Wasted Gifts

I last saw Chris Lewis on a cricket field about five years ago, in a club game in Derbyshire. If he'd made more of his ability he could still have been playing county cricket at the time; instead, because of his other great talent, that of wasting his gifts, he was scratching a living as a jobbing pro, increasingly intolerant of the failings of others.

In terms of pure talent there's no doubt in my mind that Lewis could have been a really significant force in international cricket, but, given his clear temperamental failings and the fact that he played all his international cricket in a desperately weak England set-up, it's hardly a surprise that he didn't. To succeed as an England player in the nineties, you needed a bit more than just ability.

Lewis always seemed to be talking about himself in the third person and saying what he was going to do, but, when the chips were down, he rarely, if ever, delivered. To me he seemed to be someone who, deep down, lacked confidence as much as he appeared on the surface to have a surfeit of it.

Now he has at least six and a half years at Her Majesty's Pleasure to reflect on his career and the poor decisions which have left him where he is today. One can but hope that he sorts himself out and comes out able to make the type of contribution to the world at large that could once have been his for the taking.


The Art of Swing

In a few months' time, even in a few weeks, the England-West Indies Test series which has just concluded will probably have been forgotten by all but those who saw some of the action live. The weather's been cold, the crowds mediocre, the cricket crushingly one-sided.

But it has had its uses. It's emphasized how, even allowing for the fact that they were playing away, England should never have lost the series in the Caribbean to a side that's far inferior. However, a combination of early complacency and poor decision-making saw to that.

It's also shown how, if their form can be maintained, England have the makings of a bowling attack which will at least cause the odd furrowed brow in Australian ranks. Stuart Broad, all aggression and thoughtfulness, continues to improve and will do so well beyond this summer. Swann offers a decent spin option and plenty more in terms of fielding, batting and spirit. Onions (as a few people have said, just the tiniest bit reminiscent of Glenn McGrath) shows plenty to work with, while Tim Bresnan, who belatedly got into the wickets yesterday, looks likely to stick around the selectors' thoughts, if not in their first choice eleven. With Freddie and Monty also hopefully coming back into contention, form and fitness permitting, things look okay.

I deliberately haven't mentioned Jimmy Anderson, who now shows all the signs of finally growing into the bowler he looked like being when he took those wickets in Cape Town all those years ago. Okay, knocking over the likes of Taylor and Benn in yesterday's conditions was like flattening skittles with a lead weight, but this was a display of artfully controlled swing bowling the like of which we've seldom seen in recent years, other than from Anderson himself. The conditions are unlikely to suit him as much later in the summer but if he can produce similar form when the Australians are here he could do some serious damage.


A Degree in People

I generally like reading Mike Brearley's columns in The Observer. His intellect, experience and knowledge are unquestionable, although he's never particularly impressed me as a prose stylist.

Yesterday's piece, here, was something else.

For a start I liked and agreed with the points he was making about Alastair Cook, a player who's come to be taken for granted remarkably early in his career and who embodies a lot of old-fashioned batting virtues which can be hard to find these days. And then there's the style, which carries echoes of my favourite old-school cricket writer, the late Alan Ross.


Less for More

With a lot of sorting out to do after my holiday, I'm a bit late posting about Chris Gayle's comments about the future of Test cricket.

Despite some of the predictable howls of outrage and the fact that I love Test cricket, I didn't see a great deal to get upset about. He's entitled to his opinions and there are always going to be professional sportsmen who don't share the views of those who watch them (by no means all of whom can disagree or Test grounds all over the world would be full).

To Gayle, it would appear, the fact that you can earn more by doing less is all that matters, and why shouldn't it? Those of us in more mundane jobs wouldn't hesitate if we were given the chance to work less and earn more, so why should a jobbing cricketer be any different?

Of course, if you were the West Indies board you'd have more than the odd doubt about whether Gayle's the right man to captain your Test side, and the team's performances in the last two games won't have done much to dispel those.

As a Test captain Gayle must be living on borrowed time, but I don't think he deserves castigation for holding what is a perfectly defensible view.

There's plenty of evidence that Gayle's in a minority among his fellow internationals, so there isn't too much to lose sleep over.

For the time being.


Selection Issues

The England selectors' decision to recall Ian Bell and Ryan Sidebottom to the squad for the Durham Test seemed a bit odd, and it doesn't seem likely that either will play.

Bell's made one ton in the Championship and one in the Friends Provident, but, as ever, has mixed in a few abortive starts. Sidebottom has bowled a fair number of overs and taken a few wickets.

Both, though, need more than they've produced so far. Bell requires more and more runs, Sidebottom needs to remain fully fit well into July and be taking consistent wickets to come back into consideration, although, with the suspicion being that a little more experience may be wanted against Australia, he may just be back sooner rather than later.

A player who's already been selected in the England squad for the World Twenty20 and who may start to show his hand elsewhere before too long is Middlesex's young Irishman Eoin Morgan. When I got back from Scotland on Monday morning I slumped on my sofa and watched him destroy Kent with a tremendous display of ingenuity and power and it didn't surprise me at all. I first saw him play at Bath in 2006 and he immediately looked like a classy operator.

While another Middlesex Irishman, Ed Joyce, seemed to me to be poorly treated and prematurely discarded by England, one's feeling - and hope - is that Morgan may be around a lot longer.

Fair Bet

I spent most of last week in a wind and rainswept Isle of Skye, returning home via the highlands and Edinburgh, where the weather was slightly better. With all this said, it was still a very enjoyable trip but one which didn't really lend itself to keeping in close touch with what was going on in the cricket world.

While taking refuge from a storm of biblical proportions on Wednesday afternoon I did manage to hear some of the TMS coverage of Ravi Bopara's hundred and catch a few brief highlights on TV. I was pleased; as regular readers will know I've always had a good feeling about Bopara, not just because of his obvious talent but also because he's generally seemed to have the gumption and confidence which Ian Bell (probably his superior in terms of ability and technique) so obviously seems to lack.

Bopara had a very tough baptism in Test cricket in Sri Lanka towards the end of 2007 but, ever since I saw him make a well-judged, patient 85 in an Essex defeat at Worcester last June I thought he had the makings of a good upper-order Test batsman. With Vaughan struggling for form and fitness, Shah discarded (and chronically out of form) and Bell still biding his time, he looks a fair bet to start the Ashes series at number three.


Test Squad Thoughts

In general I'm happy to go along with what most people have said about the England squad for the first Test. It certainly carries Andy Flower's stamp, and I'm pleased to see Tim Bresnan and Graham Onions given a go. Onions certainly looked the part while bowling out Somerset yesterday.

Ravi Bopara also deserves his start at No.3 - Bell and Vaughan need to do more (in Vaughan's case much more) and Shah, sadly, didn't look the part in the West Indies.

I'm not sure how much I'm going to hear about the game as I'm heading off to Scotland on holiday tomorrow morning and should be somewhere on the Isle of Skye by the time it starts next Wednesday, but I'll try to stay in touch.

I'll be blogging again in mid-May.


Too Good

When the mild 'controversy' blew up a while ago about counties signing Australians in advance of this summer's Ashes series, I didn't make any comment, mainly because I wasn't really sure what I thought. On the one hand it certainly wasn't going to work in England's favour, but on the other it's hard to castigate the counties too much as they have trophies to win and no absolute necessity to consider the Test team when they decide who to employ, even if many would argue that there's a strong moral obligation to do so.

As many people said, it highlighted the differences between English and Australian cricketing culture. The idea of states employing overseas players has never really caught on in Oz, and there wouldn't be a cat in hell's chance of anyone doing what Middlesex and Kent have done in advance of an Ashes series, even if there was a surfeit of players with the required ability. But England is different, and there are many people involved with counties (especially, in my experience, supporters) who appear to care very little about the England team so long as their own county is doing well.

What I'm trying to say here is that Middlesex's employment of Phil Hughes didn't tell us anything we didn't know before.

Of course, the main argument against it was that Hughes' exposure to early-season English conditions for the first time would help him to settle and improve his technique before the Ashes, but the evidence provided by his performances in South Africa and for Middlesex so far are that it doesn't matter. He's simply too good.

With a first-class average well above sixty, two centuries in his second Test and now a couple of tons in his first two games for his new county, it looks increasingly as though Australia have uncovered another 'once-in-a-generation player', and one who could haunt England for the next decade.

By the time he's finished with us the fact that he once played for Middlesex may be long-forgotten.


Making a Ton

I've just enjoyably wasted half an hour looking at 'Tom Redfern's' blog Get a Hundred, which Patrick Kidd mentioned on Line and Length a week or two ago.

'Tom' (the name is apparently a very well-chosen alias*) has been blogging and 'vlogging' (posting videos) about his efforts to score a century for a couple of seasons now.

It's something I can identify with although I've never even scored a fifty and have largely given up hope of doing so now. From the videos 'Tom' looks pretty handy and if he was playing at my level the hundred would be his for the taking.

* Tom Redfern was the non-striker (and last man out) when AEJ Collins completed his innings of 628 not out in a house match at Clifton College in Bristol in 1899, the highest recorded innings in an organised cricket match anywhere in the history of the sport.


Art for Art's Sake

Another player whose international career seems firmly in the twilight zone now is Michael Vaughan, and it was very interesting to read here about his first forays into the world of modern art.

My impression of the finished works is that they're quite original, if somewhat stereotyped, and sadly too expensive for me.

What was even more interesting to me, though, were Vaughan's words, quoted at the end of the Cricinfo piece:

'So far all I've done is chronicle my own career, but this summer I'm hoping Straussy lifts the Ashes in August, and I can ring him and say 'Come on, let's do a five piece collection of your great moments from the series.'

These plainly reveal that Vaughan doesn't expect to be there himself. Given the fact that he hardly ever makes any runs these days, perhaps he's only being realistic, but it's one of the oldest truisms in sport (and often in life) that if you don't really believe you're going to do something, you aren't going to do it.

The King is Dead...?

Twenty20 Hindsight

The news that Andrew Flintoff had sustained yet another injury, while disappointing, didn't really come as a surprise. With Flintoff we passed that point some time ago, and the strong suspicion is that his body has also gone well past the point where he - or we - can rely on it holding itself together when it's most needed.

Of course, in hindsight, perhaps he shouldn't have been playing in the IPL at all, and, as we know, the mainstream media in this country specialises in pillorying people with the advantage of unvarnished 20:20 hindsight, so the fact that he's in South Africa at all has been receiving plenty of negative coverage.

Strangely I didn't notice many people complaining beforehand, and, as somebody said, if he wasn't playing for the Chennai Super Kings he'd probably have been playing for Lancashire and bowling more than four overs an innings. The only advantage he might have had is that weather in England would have been drier and warmer (why didn't they bring the IPL here, despite what idiots like me had to say?).

Fact is that England are all too used to doing without Andrew Flintoff, so another short May series without him won't hurt too much, providing he's fit to return for the World Twenty20 and the Ashes.

Only time will tell, though, and it's difficult to shake the feeling that it's going to be hard ever watching Flintoff bowl again without half expecting him to pull up injured at any time.

And Ashes series (if 2005 is anything to go by, and it probably isn't) are tense enough without that.



I meant to write something yesterday about the achievement of Afghanistan, who, although they failed to qualify for the 2011 World Cup, have attained official ODI status for the next four years, and a lot more besides.

Clearly, for a range of cricketing and political reasons, they're not going to be able to play at home, but I look forqward to seeing the country's cricketers on a tour of the UK soon.

It's no more than they deserve.


The Relative Importance of Cricket Events

I seem to have heard somewhere that the IPL is starting today, although I've just had a look at Cricinfo and discovered that the start of the first game has been delayed by drizzle.

It wouldn't have happened in England, you know.

Like my fellow blogger Rob, I don't subscribe to Setanta so the tournament will largely pass me by.

Indeed, who needs it when you've got the superb James Hildreth racking up a double ton at Taunton?

The Fat End of the Wedge

One of the players whom Flower may have to deal with - or not - is Samit Patel, who, after being dropped from the England ODI squad because he failed to maintain what were deemed to be the required fitness levels, is now trying to make up lost ground, something which was covered in the Daily Mail during the week.

Personally I rate Patel and wonder, from the vantage point of someone who could do to shed a few pounds but whose skills are strictly village, whether the insistence on optimum levels of fitness isn't just a little overdone.

In the last year I and other Somerset followers have seen one of our best and most popular players, Ian Blackwell, forced out of our one-day side and then the club itself as a result of his captain's slavish insistence on particular levels of fitness, and a certain Jesse Ryder hasn't been doing too badly recently, despite the type of figure barely seen in the international game since Colin Milburn's Test career was prematurely ended in the late sixties.

Okay, I'll accept that in the interests of team harmony (and to keep the fitness trainers in a job) players like Patel need to put the same type of work in as anyone else, but my feeling would be that if they're still clocking in a few pounds over they might need to be cut a bit of slack.

Because, in the end, in cricket, it's the numbers that matter, and, at the moment, those of Ryder don't look too shabby.


The appointment this week of Andy Flower as the England team's new 'Director' (what most of us know as a coach) was, on most levels, a further triumph for the potent forces of English conservatism.

I've got no idea whether Flower will prove to be a success or not. Some in the media, such as Mike Atherton, are guarded, others, like Mike Selvey, seem to think he's the best thing since sliced bread.

It's undeniable that Flower was a great cricketer, courageous both on the field and off it, but the main reason behind his appointment seems to have been the fact that he was already doing the job and he gets on well with Andrew Strauss. Precious few of the high profile candidates who were supposed to have been 'headhunted' by the ECB's chosen firm made it anywhere near the final cut, the only exception being John Wright, who was apparently telephoned by the selection panel as a way of making it look less like an open and shut decision.

Personally, given his background and experience, I'd have thought Wright was worth a closer look, but I suppose, after a period of turmoil, you can't really blame the board for choosing what appears to be the safe option, even if his basic credentials (and his performance so far, if judged on results) aren't the strongest.

The last time they made a risky decision - the appointment of Pietersen as captain last summer - it went sour within months.

One can only hope that this appointment lasts a little longer.



Since last week I've been meaning to throw in my ten pence worth on the media debate which was generated by the rather dopey interview which KP gave towards the end of the West Indian tour. I know I'm a bit late, but here goes.

Depending on who you read, Pietersen is either a disruptive individualist detested by many of his team-mates and should be jettisoned quick smart, or simply a man of strong opinions with a profoundly un-English capacity for telling it how he thinks it is and the one man who can save us once Ricky Ponting's band of resurgent cobbers hit town.

Well, much as I'd like to have a contact in the England dressing room, I haven't, so I can't comment on his popularity or otherwise, and I think the impression given by some that Australia, after one Test series win, are now back to their invincible best and are sure to stuff England, who've only got one real batsman, is exaggerated and pessimistic. We've got, oh, two batsmen at least.

Given Pietersen's background and character it's hardly surprising that he polarizes opinion in a country which often seems to reflexively mistrust people who are too successful, take the pursuit of success too seriously, or, worst of all, are too obviously aware of how good they are. Unfortunately for him, Pietersen puts a big tick in all three boxes.

With all this said, he quickly achieved a high degree of popularity with ordinary cricket followers in this country, most of whom know a good player when they see one, and have perhaps been more willing to forgive Pietersen's personal failings because he's so damn good. I've been fortunate enough to see several of his hundreds live, beginning with the Oval 158, and he's never been less than warmly embraced (even if he did have a bloody silly hairstyle then).

Whether that warmth is quite as strong after his unguarded comments remains to be seen. Many (including me) will have found his remarks about being desperate to get home when he'll just as soon be off to South Africa (which, after all, is another sort of home) to play in the IPL a bit rich, while his views about Shiv Chanderpaul, one of the few players in the world good enough to be compared with him, came across as insecure and slightly jealous.

However, while we're not a one-man team, he's the best we've got, and, as soon as he starts making runs in his usual dominant and innovative fashion, especially if Australia are on the receiving end, I suspect that all this will be forgiven and forgotten.

In modern sport pragmatism is everything. But, if the runs ever seriously dry up and the misplaced words don't, it could be a very different matter.

Subscribe in a reader