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.

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