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.

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