Ring Out The Old

Best wishes for 2011 to all my regular readers and anyone else who's dropping by.

Having enjoyed The Old Batsman's take on the year's best innings, I've been mulling over what I've seen.

The innings I can't get out of my head is Jonathan Trott's 184 in the final Test against Pakistan, which I watched from the Warner Stand. Deliberate no-balls or not, he came in on as difficult a batting morning as you'll ever see at Lord's with more than a few people still wondering if he was the best England could do at number three. Hours later he left the field with Stuart Broad to a standing ovation. Just before he went up the pavilion steps he raised his bat and looked back towards the Grandstand with a broad smile on his face. He belonged.

This is what I wrote at the time.


The End of the Beginning

While England's success in Australia hasn't been especially surprising, the same can't be said of the way in which it has been achieved. Leaving aside Perth as an exception which proves the rule (that England are the better team), Adelaide and Melbourne have seen England dismantle and humiliate Australia in ways that would have been completely implausible just a few short years ago.

They have been assisted by Australia's timidity and confusion, both on the field and in the selection rooms, where there are deluded people who think that Steve Smith is a Test match number six batsman, or that Ryan Harris is a number eight, or that Xavier Doherty and Michael Beer are better cricketers than Nathan Hauritz. This was a team which used to set the standards for the whole world. At times these past few weeks they have been a shambles.

And, as Andrew Strauss made certain to acknowledge in his post-victory interviews, much of England's achievement can be attributed to that satisfyingly familiar cliche, the 'team effort', to which everybody contributed. This is broadly true, but some players contributed more than others.

Paul Collingwood has many virtues, but these cannot obscure the fact that he is the only one of England's specialist batsmen who has failed even to make a single half-century, and much of the time he has batted with the elegance and sure footedness of an inebriated man trying to walk across an ice rink. Not that you ever went to him for elegance - just resolution, unquenchable spirit and the best damn catching ever seen in an England shirt - but this must have been one of the last great days he will ever know in England whites.

Today has been a clammy, foggy day in the English Midlands and Stuart Broad's thoughts will, of course, have strayed far from his
Nottingham home. Unlike Collingwood, though, he will have further opportunities to be part of triumphs such as this, for the England team forged by Strauss and Flower will have many more days like these before they're done.

Two contrasting players. One old, one young. One in Australia, one at home. One at the beginning of the end, the other at the end of the beginning.

Now that the MCG cheers have faded, a penny for their thoughts tonight.


Confronting Mortality

There are aspects of all our lives which we know we're good at. And there are things we think we're good at, but which, in fact, we can't do as well as we think we can. And, eventually, our capabilities are changed and diminished by the vagaries of time, age and misfortune.

Ricky Ponting knows he's a great batsman and has probably always fancied himself as a pretty good captain too. He would be unlikely to admit that it was his good fortune to find himself in charge of a team which, at its best, could make anyone associated with it look good. The innate psyche of a great sportsman will always be reluctant to admit to inadequacies and failures. You don't spend 152 Test matches breaking the best bowlers of your generation by having a clear sense of your own weaknesses.

Eventually, though, everyone has to confront their mortality. In Ponting's case, the runs have dried up, his team is a pale shadow of what it was and a permanent reputation as the man who lost three Ashes series is staring him in the face.

Bearing all that in mind, as well as the fact that he's got a long list of previous convictions, it's no wonder he gave Aleem Dar an extended piece of his mind earlier today. This is not to excuse it. He got off lightly, but this was a man simply raging against a dying of the light over which he has little control.

When Ponting turned his attention to Pietersen, the batsman's face signified a mixture of astonishment and humour, but no real concern. He knows that he will still be playing Test cricket long after Ponting has gone.


Ricky Ponting's Barmy Army

These are confusing, possibly distressing, times for the Australian cricket follower. If you are one you would have to be in your early thirties, at the very least, to have any conscious memory of a time when your national side was as poor as it is now, and, even if you're older and were around in the days of Murray Bennett and Andrew Hilditch (I wonder what happened to him?), there's a good chance that you've forgotten what it's like to see your side repeatedly humiliated at home by superior opponents. The fact that the team raised your hopes by beating the very same opponents with ease in the previous match probably just serves to increase the feeling of disorientation.

And it's no better for the players. The last time this sort of thing was going on Punter was playing for Mowbray under-10s and Steve Smith and Philip Hughes hadn't even made their debuts in the human race.

So what, as a spectator, when your flagging, toothless team needs your support more than ever, do you do?

Well, if the first day at the MCG is anything to go by, you decide before tea that you can't take any more and you simply walk out of the ground.


Real Test Match Batting

In a week when England bit the Perth dust again, the one and only Sachin reached a milestone which once would never have seemed possible and another all-time great, Jacques Kallis, reached his first double-century in Test cricket, it could have been difficult to decide what to write about.

But to me the biggest story in the cricket world these past few weeks has been the form of Mike Hussey. A man who had been virtually written off as an international batsman but who has kept his team in the series with as measured a display of batting technique as you could ever hope to see.

Technical rigour, patience and stamina are unfashionable virtues these days. Relentless innovation and the hitting of boundaries can often seem to be all that matters as the more impulsive charms of the shortened forms of the game engage the senses of its newer acolytes more rapidly than Test cricket can. But this, from Hussey, has been real Test match batting: the advance selection of an appropriate gameplan, the persistence to see it through to its conclusion, and the shotmaking skill to bend England's often naive bowlers to his will.

At 35 Hussey is no tyro. But, while he is only a few months younger than Ponting, he belongs to a different generation of Australian cricketer. The generation who could never break into the Test side during the glory years and who instead were forced to earn their living abroad. While Hussey's basic skills were forged on the quick tracks of Western Australia they were polished on the English county circuit; at Wantage Road in Northampton, in the shadow of the Jessop Stand at Bristol, and at the Riverside. Holding poor sides together and piling up huge scores.

Hussey's batting over the past few weeks has been that of a man reluctant to give up something which he had to wait a long time to achieve. England have yet to discover an effective way of attacking him, but, with the series in the balance and Melbourne almost upon us, they need to do so soon.

Because, given the chance, he will bat, and bat, and bat.


A Chill Wind

There's something supremely enjoyable and evocative about listening to Test Match Special as you walk through your home town in a snowstorm, with the pale light of a freezing December morning slowly making itself felt and the cold stinging your face like a sharp catch stings the hands. Christopher Martin-Jenkins, sheltering from the Perth heat, dutifully said something about welcoming listeners waking up on 'a frosty morning in England', but round my way it was a bit more severe than that.

Things were similar in another part of the WACA. A few hours before, a chill went through an England dressing room which has barely missed a beat since Brisbane, as Mitchell Johnson finally remembered what he was supposed to be good at. Six rapid victims later and match and series had taken on a different hue. A few of us - a bit like it used to be with snow itself in the days when English winter after English winter would go by without a hint of the stuff - had forgotten in three weeks that Australians could actually play cricket.

The characteristically fluent 62 which Johnson made on the first day was vital. An interview with him in the last Wisden Cricketer revealed him to be sensitive about his failures in England in 2009 and the type of player whose confidence needs regular regeneration. While the nets with Troy Cooley will have assisted with the mechanics of his technique, the reminder of his capabilities and the justification of his place which his runs gave him will have helped him to conquer his anxieties and bowl as he did.

England will need a supreme effort tomorrow to haul themselves back into the game, but this is not to say that all the Australians have left their demons behind. While his team suddenly look stronger on the back of a good day, the future for Ponting still looks clouded with an uncertainty which only a series victory and major runs will dispel.


Start the Car

The world of cricket was rocked to its foundations this afternoon when, with just 35 overs gone in the third Ashes Test at the WACA ground in Perth, Western Australia, the 41 year-old international poker player and cosmetic dentistry model, Shane Warne, made a shock decision to come out of retirement.

Although there had been calls for Warne to rejoin the Australian side after their humiliating defeat in the second Test at Adelaide, he had given no indication that he was prepared to make a comeback. However, with England on 242 without loss, and both Andrew Strauss and Alastair Cook choosing to bat right-handed in order to combat what Strauss later described as 'the mind-numbing tedium of scoring huge totals very quickly against people who can't bowl', Warne could take no more.

Warne, who has been working for Sky Television, suddenly stood up in the commentary box, removed his jacket, handed it to his co-commentator, the former England captain Mike Atherton, and said, simply, 'Hold that, Athers, I won't be long'.

Warne strode out to the middle, grabbed the worn Kookaburra from a startled Ricky 'Punter' Ponting and began setting an eccentric attacking field which included seven close fielders. The sense of expectation throughout the cricket world was palpable, but Warne's first delivery in Test cricket for almost four years proved to be a disappointment. It failed to spin and was very short, inviting the wide-eyed Strauss to pull it ferociously. The ball cleared the boundary by some 50 metres and was seen on TV to be heading towards a dark haired man with numerous tattoos and a strong resemblance to the discarded Australian player Mitchell Johnson. Johnson was on his ninth beer of the day, but interrupted his thirst-quenching routine to make an unavailing attempt to catch the ball, which rebounded from his right hand and nearly hit the former Test cricketers Ian Botham and Ian Chappell, who, in accordance with time-honoured cricket tradition, were fighting each other in the corner of the bar.

Warne threw his hands in the air in disgust and was heard to mutter something about Australian fielding not being 'what it used to be in the days of the great David Boon'. 'And Boonie could drink. If Johnson could hold his grog he would have caught that no worries'.

Warne returned to the commentary box, arriving just in time to hear David Lloyd deliver an uncomplimentary dissection of his bowling which concluded with the familiar but meaningless phrase 'start the car'.

At close of play England were 654 for 2 off 90 overs, with their coach, Andy Flower, expressing some discontent with the way they had 'let their advantage slip' after tea.

Don't do it, Warnie.


A Full House of Negatives

Whatever happens as this game plays out, things look truly grim for Australia. Grim in a way they haven't against England for a quarter of a century.

One of my favourite memories from the summer before I went to university is the day Gooch and Gower flogged a pallid Australian attack all over Kennington. Today, with the hapless Xavier Doherty playing the part of Murray Bennett, and Shane Watson as Simon O'Donnell, Cook, Trott and Pietersen did much the same.

For the majority of the twenty-five years which have elapsed since that day, the Australian cricket team has had it all. It still has, only now it is a full house of negatives: a threadbare, poorly selected attack; batsmen who are ageing, or lack form, or both; fielders who cannot take catches which should be routine at Test level.

It's still possible, given the benign pitch and the possibility of rain later in the game, for Australia to escape defeat in Adelaide, but the psychological damage being done here is huge.

Australia's glory years were really over as soon as all the greats had retired, but full confirmation of what this has meant on the pitch has taken a while longer to come.

Now, though, it is over. And there is nothing that anyone - least of all Ponting - can do about it.


All You Need to Know

Ricky Ponting comes to the crease. He has won the toss for his side and chosen to bat, but, in the first over of the match, they have already lost a wicket and are yet to score a single run.

Jimmy Anderson pitches the ball up, compelling Ponting to play forward. He does so, hurriedly, and the ball moves just enough to take the outside edge of his bat. Graeme Swann, at second slip, makes a difficult catch look profoundly easy.

This single delivery, one of 521 bowled in the day, tells you all you need to know about the relative strengths of the two sides.

God, England look good.


Don't Believe The Hype

I don't usually bother reading the British tabloids. They're occasionally amusing - sometimes intentionally, sometimes unwittingly - but what they write rarely bears much relation to the real world.

So I had to laugh when I happened to catch part of the sports slot on BBC Breakfast this morning and Chris Hollins showed the back pages of various papers to the camera.

One (I think it was The Sun but I couldn't swear to it) appeared to be describing Alastair Cook's innings (which deserves credit for being made, initially, under huge pressure, but which ended as an exercise in filling his boots against a poor attack on a bland pitch) as 'The Greatest Innings Ever'. There was no question mark.

Er, not quite, lads, in fact not even close to the top 50. But thanks for the laugh.


Hard to Love

I began writing here in 2006, just a few months after Alastair Cook came into the England team, and, in the first few years I was writing, I mentioned him a lot.

Over the last couple of years I haven't written about him so often, as for much of that time he's been battling a range of technical demons and his runs haven't been as plentiful or consistent as they were in his early days.

He's a player, and person, of contradictions. Still young, boyishly good-looking, often uncertain of manner, but with an old pro's patience, steely determination and hatred of getting out.

He can be hard to love, but when he plays like that it's not hard to see why his record's so good.

Tomorrow morning he and his partner, Jonathan Trott, can take the game right away from Australia.


Deja Vu

As Hussey and Haddin took the game away from England in the small hours of this morning, it was Michael Vaughan, on TMS, who first mentioned the feeling of deja vu. This was roughly thirty seconds after I and millions of other English cricket followers had thought it. As the crowd noise rose and the scoreboard started to revolve at a pace which England could do nothing to contain, the only thing that could be thought was that it was just like every other Ashes series in Australia that you could really remember.

I deliberately didn't comment here yesterday as I wanted to see how many Hussey finished up with, but his batting on the second day was a timely reminder that while advancing age always affects people in ways that can't be easily felt or defined, it doesn't always whither the way in which they do their job. Hussey has always been a pleasingly compact and technically sure player, and here his fortitude under pressure, judgement and footwork were of a calibre which it's hard to see anyone on the England side, with the possible exception of Ian Bell, who's in the best form of his entire career, matching.

Now, though, at least two of them will have to if England are to avoid defeat. The pitch could be a lot worse and the Australian attack could be a lot better.

But it will be tough.


Welcome to Australia, Welcome to Sleep Deprivation

The start of Ashes series can be captivating, exciting and emotional. This can lead to a strange type of nostalgic reflectiveness.

As I climbed into bed this morning, three overs in, Strauss already gone and CMJ broadcasting to the world, I found myself thinking about the fact that I'd been doing this sort of thing since before anyone from either side was born. When England pitched up at Brisbane to be sacrificed to Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson in November 1974, satellite television hadn't been invented and radios were still sometimes called transistors. I loved it. Still do.

Conclusion: I started bloody young, I'm getting older, and it's a good job I wasn't playing. There are many reasons for this - not least the fact that I'm not a very good cricketer - but also the awareness that too much emotion can affect the way you play.

It's hard to say whether this was a factor in what was, for England, a poor day, but if anyone had become even slightly carried away with the favourable predictions and lavish publicity, today's events will have brought them sharply back to earth.

Australian sides come, and Australian sides go, but they always, always, compete very hard. Today Peter Siddle was the embodiment of this attitude - fast, direct, immune to pressure and frequently successful. No matter what you have going for you (and England are currently very fortunate to have Ian Bell), going to Australia and winning Test matches is never easy.

Judgement is suspended until both sides have batted once, but, with one day gone, Australia hold the aces.


On The Edge

There's currently a lot - and I mean a lot - of writing about the series in the English media. Most of it tells you things you already knew, or things you didn't want to know, or draws conclusions you could reach yourself if your life wasn't so crowded that a man can make 333 in a Test match (and another can make 278 not out a few days later) and you can barely find the time to think, let alone write, about it.

This, by David Hopps, is different and brilliant.

There's a very real feeling that Ponting stands on the edge, and the ground underneath his feet, in the shape of the Australian cricket system, is less firm than it's been for many years.

Such was the evidence of Hobart, where, if you looked past the sublime quality of Ian Bell, the Australian second team fielded some decent players. But in amongst them were a good few - chiefly Mark Cameron and Steven O'Keefe - whose levels of experience, when set against their ages (rising 30 and 26 respectively), were pitiful.

With everything changing, it may be that what was once held to be one of Australia's strengths - the lack of a professional career structure and the seamless relationship between club and first-class cricket - has now become a weakness.

Similar But Different

It's always risky to draw inferences and parallels from phoney wars, but over the past week I've found myself thinking about the months leading up to the Rugby Union World Cup in the English autumn of 2003.

Clive Woodward's side was the best in the world and had laid many a marker down over the preceding years. The passage of time was against them but all that remained was for them to win the biggest prize in the game in the backyard of the world champions. In those days I had real faith and throughout that summer was telling anyone who would listen that they would do it. They did, but it was the final act of a team which rapidly broke up and cast the side into a period of headlong decline from which they've only really started to emerge in the last six months.

Flower's England is similar - tough, talented, highly professional, increasingly ruthless - but different in that they are a less dominant force on the world stage. But they are also younger and will not break up once the impending contest is over, victorious or otherwise. On this occasion it is their opponents, and their captain in particular, who are feeling the chill winds of change.

This time I haven't felt the same type of faith. Years of humiliation and defeat on the cricket ovals of Australia have a tendency to sap the confidence, and, unlike the players, I've been there before (in mind and spirit, if not body), time and time again.

I still say that it will be close, but one's feeling, as the cold and gloom of an impending English winter draws down, is that this England team has what is required - as much skill as their opponents and as much, if not more, confidence - to do the job.

The first few days in Brisbane will be telling.


On Its Knees

The first time that virtually anyone in this country became aware of Zulqarnain Haider was when he came into the Pakistan side for the first time for the second Test against England at Edgbaston in August. After a first innings golden duck and a lucky first ball escape second time round, he made a resourceful and gutsy 88 in the second innings to prolong Pakistan's ultimately forlorn fight for survival.

This was clearly a cricketer of some substance, and, while we don't yet know the truth behind his flight from Dubai, it was repulsive and revealing that a representative of the Pakistan authorities condemned him as strongly as he did yesterday.

Yes, he chose not to inform the team management of his concerns before he fled, but that was a choice he was perfectly entitled to make.

With attitudes like that, no wonder cricket in Pakistan is on its knees.


The Right to Review

Although they ultimately lacked the power to drive home their advantage, it was a significant achievement for New Zealand to push India as far as they did in Ahmedabad.

The Black Caps came straight from an unprecedented 4-0 ODI series defeat by Bangladesh (which I never found the time to write about when it happened, so belated credit to the Tigers) while India were sharpening their claws by winnning both their Tests against Australia.

For all Harbhajan's deserved maiden century, the most significant moments of the final day were the two transparently incorrect lbw decisions given by Steve Davis which put Dan Vettori - a man who's done most things - on the verge of what would have been one of the hollowest Test hat-tricks of them all.

It was a pity, because Davis has always looked to me to be an excellent umpire, but it threw into sharp relief the fact that we still have certain series being played without any form of Decision Review System while in others it increasingly appears to be working as its proponents intended. With India still choosing to lag behind the thinking of most other countries on this issue, it's salutary to think of what might have happened if they had lost the game as a result of those decisions, something which could also easily have happened in the first Test against Australia.

It would be interesting to know what VVS thinks, but, then again, it was only a (very) dodgy lbw decision and he's already passed three figures sixteen times in Test cricket.

If the rumours doing the rounds have anything in them, Zulqarnain Haider had a bit more to worry about.


Never a Truer Word

Thanks also to Andy Bull for having spotted and pointed up this apposite quotation (hidden away at the end of the column) from Dan Vettori, speaking about Sachin Tendulkar:

"He has been in form longer than some of our guys have been alive."

As Andy says:

Dan Vettori wasn't even joking. Sachin Tendulkar made his Test debut on 15 November 1989. New Zealand's Kane Williamson was born on 8 August 1990.

And, as I write, he has a Test debut century under his belt and New Zealand, against every set of odds you can think of, have India on the ropes.

You simply have to love Test cricket.

Looking Forward, Looking Back

As autumn sets in in England and everyone's attention turns to what is and isn't happening and what might or might not happen in any one of a number of cricket-related locations around the globe, sometimes it can be educative and not a little perplexing to turn one's mind back to events and people which everyone seems to have forgotten about in a world which turns too fast for its own good.

Andy Bull's columns in The Guardian are often wry and well-crafted, and are encapsulated in The Spin a weekly e-mail to which I subscribe. When this dropped into my inbox last week it really made me think.

At a time when one of the key off-field sub-plots involves what will happen to the Pakistan Three, it was a timely reminder of the fact that other people have drenched cricket in disrepute many times before.

At times the whole Stanford debacle seems like a bad dream. I wonder if Giles Clarke feels the same?


Time Passing

Talking of the phoney war, it was great to listen to Michael Vaughan, Gladstone Small and Allan Lamb reminiscing about past Ashes series on the radio during the week.

The fact that, prior to their triumphant Test series in 1986-87, Mike Gatting's side only had three things wrong with them* has passed into English cricket folklore. So it was great to hear from Small that there were reasons for this. From the sound of it the side spent most of the first few weeks of the tour enjoying themselves, only putting their minds to the main objective of the trip the night before the Brisbane Test, which they went on to win handsomely. The clear implication was that the odd alcoholic drink was consumed.

This time, unlike the last time they were in Australia, England have the opportunity to prepare properly. But I suspect their methods of refreshment might be a little different.

Such is the passing of time and the change of eras.

* According to Martin Johnson, writing in The Independent, England's only faults at the time were that 'they can't bat, they can't bowl and they can't field'.


Of course, in this time of phoney war, the headline focuses on what he said about the possible outcome of the Ashes series, but this interview with Sachin Tendulkar by the outstanding Donald McRae is much more interesting and wide-ranging than it appears at first.

Among many nuggets is the following:

'I'm really focusing now on how I can get to the next level as a batsman. How can I get even more competitive? How can I get even more consistent? How can I get better?'.

As McRae says, he speaks with the aspiration and focus of a young professional, and, such is Tendulkar's famed modesty and lack of artifice, I've got no doubt that the comment faithfully reflects where he stands in his twenty-first year as a Test cricketer and his thirty-eighth on earth.

Of course, as a player ages, everything depends upon his physical faculties, and, good as the signs are, no-one can say how long Tendulkar's body will last. But the desire to go on and on is clearly there.

We haven't seen anywhere near the last of this great batsman.


Let's Get Ready to Rumble

The news that Jimmy Anderson cracked a rib during England's 'boot camp' about a month ago was as depressing as it was belated.

It's about time the sainted Mr. Flower realised that:

A. There's no need for England to imitate what Australia do any more. Australia aren't very good.

B. Cricketers training for cricket by doing other sports they're no good at - football, boxing - tend to get injured. Best just to leave them playing cricket.

C. Players who've been playing and travelling together for months on end don't need to 'bond'. They need to bond with their friends and family instead.

D. If you do insist on cricketers fighting each other, think about matching people according to height and weight. According to a good source (Michael Vaughan) Anderson was boxing Chris Tremlett, who, for all his famed lack of aggression, is a huge bloke.

No wonder someone got hurt.


When the Music Stops

Ricky Thomas Ponting is, in more ways than you can count, a typical Australian Test cricketer. Indeed, he embodies the emotional makeup of virtually any successful professional sportsman. He doesn't do sentiment, or regret, or wistfulness. Such feelings are the privilege of the retired player, who can afford to look back at his career in anger, sorrow or pride with the certain knowledge that it can't blunt the sharpness of the competitive response that's vital for survival at the highest level of the game.

But Ponting wouldn't be human if he didn't reflect a little on the way things have changed for Australia in recent times. This is a man who's played nearly all his career in a team without peer; for much of that time he has been its leader and its best batsman. Now, as the autumn of his own great career draws in, he finds himself in charge of a team which just can't do what it used to. He knows it, his team-mates know it, and now other teams know it too.

Ponting said back in the English summer that he was relishing the different challenges that captaining a lesser side presented. I've no doubt he meant what he said at the time, but that was before they were beaten by Pakistan at Headingley; their two recent defeats, the second ultimately comfortable, to India have nailed the coffin lid shut on the invincible years. The music has stopped, and Ponting is still holding the parcel. The only trouble is that he doesn't know what to do with it.

While the batting is still respectable, it is far, far more vulnerable than it ever used to be, and his attack is too dependent on a spinner he doesn't trust and a quickie so erratic that it would be a shock if he really trusted himself. For all the optimism, promise and doggedness of Watson, George and Hilfenhaus, they're just not good enough to carry an attack, especially in unfamiliar conditions. There are alternatives - Bollinger, Siddle, Lee, Smith - but nobody capable of intimidating opponents with their sheer excellence in the way that was second nature to Warne and McGrath.

For me the outcome of the Ashes series still appears magnificently uncertain. Home advantage will tell, and, as everyone knows, Australians are never beaten. England's batting is a concern, but they will have seen nothing whatever to worry them over the past two weeks.

For every uncertainty, though, there is a certainty. While today's outstanding innings was Cheteshwar Pujara's first fifty for India, it sure as hell won't be his last.


The Art of Cricket

I've always followed the county game closely.

Every season new names come along. They make a few runs or take a few wickets, and you notice them. Sometimes they go on to great things in the game, at others they fade from view and you forget all about them, perhaps occasionally wondering what happened to them when you flick through an old Wisden and their name catches your eye.

So it is with Elliott Wilson.

In 1999, Wilson, an opening batsman, broke into the Worcestershire side, making his maiden century against Middlesex at Worcester as the season's end approached. He followed this with two further tons in 2000, and, if the world wasn't quite at his feet, a career seeing off the new ball in the shadow of Worcester Cathedral beckoned (and that, my friends, strikes me as a pretty great way to earn your living).

Then it all went wrong. Wilson, in Australia to spend the winter playing grade cricket, sustained severe damage to his back as a result of a badly-administered injection. There were serious complications and he never played first-class cricket again.

Elliott Wilson is now an artist, and the gallery on his website reflects the depth and diversity of his talent.


Gould Will Live

Ian Gould is a friendly, avuncular man. I've been watching him around cricket for more than thirty years and he's always been like that. He likes a joke, and, despite the odd recent howler (of which more below), he can umpire bloody well. Players like him, and he's been one of the best recent additions to the ICC Elite Panel.

However, while allowing for his obvious and unquestioned impartiality, he would barely be human if he didn't feel a small hint of reflex pleasure when India flopped over the line yesterday. If they'd lost after he wrongly sent Ishant on his way then he would really have needed his sense of humour to deal with some of the stick that would have come his way.

He, and India, and Ishant, and the glorious Laxman, live to fight another day.


Ifs and Butts

When English cricket summers end I usually experience a feeling of disappointment and regret. Not this time.

Not just because of what's gone on in the past month, but also because this has been a messy, badly constructed season. England switching formats and opponents as frequently as Eoin Morgan switches hands. A needlessly divided and therefore denuded County Championship, a Twenty20 tournament expanded to the point of meaninglessness and another competition of a length, as Neil Kinnock said twenty-five years ago this coming week, 'irrelevant to the real needs'. For someone who loves the game but has an increasing number of competing demands on his time, it is becoming harder and harder to follow what is going on, let alone write about it. But the love will endure. It always does.

Talking of irrelevancies, a final word on Ijaz Butt, who's been making all the headlines this past week and will probably find himself on the receiving end of a writ before long. It would be interesting to know what the Pakistan players think of him, given that his statement simultaneously undermined the diligent efforts of the Pakistan team (especially the outstanding Umar Gul) and gave extra motivation to their opponents. Not much, I would guess.

England go to Australia in good shape. For the first time in many years they have the world's leading current spin bowler in their ranks, and they have a decent - I wouldn't put it any more strongly than that - chance of retaining the Ashes. I'll be with them in spirit, if not in person.

With or without the shadow of corruption, the endless carousel that is modern international cricket never stops (which, of course, is part of the problem), and Australia are now in India for a short series which will supply some further pointers as to what may happen in November and December.

See you soon.


The Glorious Uncertainty of the Unrefined Talent

My first clear memory of Andrew Flintoff dates back to a Test match between England and India at Lord's in 1996. David Lloyd, then the England coach, had invited the likely lad from Lancashire to act as his country's Twelfth Man. I stood and watched for a while at the gap between the Allen Stand and the pavilion and soon became aware of a looming presence next to me, blotting out the light. I'd seen his picture so knew when I looked up that I was literally being overshadowed by Andrew Flintoff. Despite regular exposure to the behemoths turned out by the professional Rugby Union academies, he remains one of the biggest eighteen year-olds I've ever seen.

Just two years later he was in the England side; raw, over-promoted, destined to take a very long time to rise and an equally long one to fall. But for a relatively short time his best was as good as anyone's around, and my favourite memories all come from that brief heyday between 2003 and 2006: Dispatching South Africa in an ODI uniform at Edgbaston in partnership with Michael Vaughan, July 2003, one sublime cover-drive instantly awakening memories of Ian Botham; raging against the dying of the light at Lord's and The Oval, same summer; repeatedly turning games in partnership with Geraint Jones, a contrasting man if ever there was, but someone he always seemed to bat well with, in 2004 and 2005; that over to Ponting and a wealth of other moments from the summer the Ashes came back.

Other than in one specific area of his game - his bowling in one-day cricket - Andrew Flintoff wasn't a truly great cricketer. Simply a very good one whose greatest individual Test series happened to coincide with what was perhaps the greatest Test series of all. But, to the average English cricket follower, his huge popularity owed far more to his image as an outwardly unsophisticated, often gauche everyman who embodied and fulfilled people's hopes while retaining an endearing sense of vulnerability. The British tend to be wary of self-conscious sporting excellence, preferring those who succeed in spite of themselves and who routinely appear to be only a step away from failure. The glorious uncertainty of the unrefined talent.

One image to leave: It is September 2003. Makhaya Ntini bowls, and the coiled, vengeful power of Flintoff's drive lofts the ball upwards, seemingly destined for space. It only makes it as far as the upper tier of the Oval pavilion but no matter. This is something we've waited since 1985 to see. It is special, he is special, and we want more.

Flintoff's future also has more than a tinge of uncertainty about it. But he, and we, will always have his past.

Seeing is Believing

A recurrent theme in the first few years of this blog was the discrepancy between Ian Bell's transparently exceptional batting ability and his failure to establish himself in the England team. I well remember writing a sentence which began 'if Ian Bell ever realizes how good he could be...'.

Over the last year the disconnect between potential and performance has become less noticeable, largely as a result of his batting in South Africa last winter. After an injury-interrupted home season, his return to the Test side for the start of the forthcoming Ashes series appears a formality. At last, in his 29th year, there are signs that he's finally started to really believe in himself. And there's plenty to believe in.

Yesterday evening, as Bell steered Warwickshire to victory against Somerset in the final of the Clydesdale Bank 40 at a floodlit Lord's, he put together an innings which served both as reminder and confirmation of what he is capable of. Mark Turner is a journeyman seam bowler. He's just been released by Somerset and is joining Derbyshire, the team cricketers join when they can't go anywhere else. So, when he came on to bowl the 38th over of the Warwickshire innings with Bell facing, things didn't look good. Six balls later, with Bell having creamed Turner for twenty runs and the Warwickshire win assured, things looked even worse.

But, in fairness, it probably wouldn't have made much difference who was bowling. Bell was playing with such a potent mix of command, assurance and even, whisper it, arrogance, that many another more talented bowler would have gone precisely the same way. It looked to me suspiciously like the work of a player who finally knows how good he is, and that, my friends, is very good indeed.

Of course, attempting to hold together the England batting in the febrile cauldron of the Gabba, or amid the brutal partisanship of the MCG, is a different thing. We will see, but the signs are good.

The 'CB40' feels like an unloved competition, and Ian Bell has frequently appeared an unloved batsman. Defending his corner against the doubters has often been difficult; more than once I've given up and embraced the majority opinion.

Ian Bell won't be giving up any time soon. Last night he showed the British cricket community what he can do, but it's time he showed the world.


To Tweet or Not to Tweet

I tried 'Tweeting' for a few months late last year and early this. I tried to be the Tweeter with the fewest followers in the world until the pointlessness of it all became clear and I gave up participation in favour of seeing what people more famous and interesting than me had to say about their lives.

Most of the people I follow are involved with cricket in some way, and are well-known. Graeme Swann's Tweets are ebullient and slightly childish. David Lloyd's reflect his humour and wide range of passions. Jimmy Anderson's tend towards the dull and worthy, but are notably well structured and punctuated. It's clear, unlike some, that he went to school. Agnew's reflect a life so utterly wonderful that he must wake up every day thanking some higher authority (the BBC Appointments Board, I suppose) for its munificence. Michael Vaughan is a late adopter who shows promise.

Something worth keeping in mind, though, is that if you put something on Twitter, more or less anyone, anywhere, can see it. And if they don't see it for themselves, someone will tell them about it.

If someone's responsible for selecting a cricket team that you'd like to play in, it's best only to refer to them as a c**t (or even a k**t) or a w****r in private. People generally don't like that sort of thing, and if you give them another reason not to select you, well, as good old Devon Malcolm apparently once said, 'you guys are history'.

Don't expect a call anytime soon, Dimitri.


On Reflection

It's hard to believe that it's barely been three days since the only story in town broke. It already seems like weeks, but the dust has barely settled.

The best moment I've had over the last few days was reading on Cricinfo yesterday - while loitering around Horse Guards Parade, of all places - that the ICC has scope for leniency when it comes to the imposition of suspensions for activities such as 'spot-fixing', and that, should it come to it, they'll be able to take into account Mohammad Amir's youth and possible naivete, which may mean that he could end up with a ban of 'only' five years rather than something much longer. Immediately after the event I got caught up in the prevailing mood which seemed to be suggesting that a life ban was the only acceptable outcome, and the thought of that happening to Amir was starting to genuinely upset me.

So, the future may not be quite as bleak for Amir as it may seem. Or, then again, it might.

Salman Butt and Mohammad Asif appear different. They've been around for long enough to really know the implications of what they were doing, and for all my deep admiration for Asif's bowling, if it's shown that they were complicit in this I'll be happy to see them both out of the game for good.


History Repeated as Tragedy

On a grey, slightly chilly, autumnal morning, Lord's, on this of all days, was a strange place to be. The air of confusion, regret and uncertainty was tangible, and more MCC members were reading the News of the World than can ever have been the case before. Buying it felt a little dirty, but it had to be done.

Although Umar Akmal finally showed his true colours, defeat came quickly, but the ramifications of what may have been done in the course of that defeat will take a lot longer to play out. On the face of it, the evidence is strong, and, if it's as solid as it appears, the ICC will need to hit this one hard to stand any chance of rolling back what may, in the Indian sub-continent at least, be a rising tide of corruption.

No matter the lifelines it's thrown, it seems as though Pakistan cricket will always find a way to drag itself back into the mire. But, as it sinks, individual images linger.

From Lord's I'll go with the haunted, shuffling figure of Mohammad Yousuf, dismissed twice in an afternoon on Saturday and looking for all the world like a shattered man. This was someone who lived and played through the last great series of Pakistani match-fixing scandals, and, in retrospect, you have to wonder whether his crushed demeanour reflected the fact that he had discovered that history was repeating itself.

And then you had Mohammad Amir, striding off after succumbing to Graeme Swann for his second duck of the game. If things go badly for him it may be the last thing he ever does on a Test match field.

For Test cricket to lose a player of his staggering ability so soon would be little short of tragic, and, for his career to end prematurely would be unutterably sad. This time, though, people really need to hang for this, and if the case against Amir and others is proved, there should be no coming back.

We move on. Or we try to. This, like a partnership between Jonathan Trott and Stuart Broad, will run and run and run.


A Sense of Belonging

Until today there was an uncertainty about Jonathan Trott's status in the England side. Of course, there was a nerveless maiden century in the deciding Test of an Ashes series, and a double century at Lord's, and a record-breaking ODI partnership, but there was also the timewasting fussiness of his guard-taking ritual, more than a hint of strokelessness under pressure and an innate lack of charisma and batting elegance. Earlier in the season it began to look as though many in the media wanted him to fail, simply so as the sainted Eoin Morgan could be welcomed into the Test side.

Today, though, he resoundingly came of age with a truly magnificent combination of patience, technical rigour and impeccable shot selection; as good a century as has been made in England colours in the past couple of decades.

And Stuart Broad, for once rejecting hubris in favour of simply showing what he can do with a bat in his hand, was equally impressive.

As the runs mounted, their body language between overs reflected the way in which their partnership moved from uncertainty to realisation to fulfilment. By the end they were pumping each other's hands like long-lost friends, and they resume tomorrow at 11 requiring a further three runs to break a record which has stood for 79 years.

If Jonathan Trott lives to be 79 he'll never play better.

This is a player who really belongs.


(Raining) Cats and Dogs

I'm in London for the Test, just down the road from Lord's. It's raining cats and dogs. Even with the famed Lord's drainage, early play tomorrow looks a tall order indeed.

If I was Graeme Swann I'd probably tweet about it. And if I was him I'd be staying in a better hotel.



International cricket - all international sport, in fact - is a cloistered world, inhabited by privileged people. People, on both sides of the boundary and touchline, with the talent and good fortune to be able to earn what, by most people's standards, are huge riches, while doing something they'd happily do for nothing if their lives had turned out differently. Not that everything (unless, perhaps, you're a member of the media) is wine and roses; playing professional sport well requires a high level of discipline and far more hard work than many people realize.

Perhaps it's because of this - the fact that their own lives are so pleasurable and absorbing - that people in sport often seem so unaware of what's going on in the outside world.

Like my fellow blogger at the idiosyncratic and excellent Down at Third Man, I've been surprised and concerned (to put it mildly) that there's been very little mention of the Pakistan floods during the media coverage of the Test series. Pakistan is nothing if not a country at the heart of the world cricket community, and one which required a huge amount of solidarity and support from the rest of that community even before the latest disaster came its way. Now it needs even more.

As I type, TMS is doing its bit to redress the balance by interviewing James Caan, who's heading a fundraising campaign on behalf of the British Pakistan Foundation and is about to travel to Pakistan, but much more can, and should surely, be done.

Watch this space, and, in the meantime, visit Third Man's Facebook page here.


Chaos Theory

More often than not Twenty20 finals day ends in thinly-veiled chaos.

Saturday was one of those days. It ended at nearly 11 p.m. with the faintly surreal sight of a middle-aged man with a pot of paint and a big stick emerging into the glare of the Rose Bowl floodlights to paint a couple of white lines on a strip of turf as many thousands of cricket fans laughed, drank, cheered and looked at their watches. Oh, and wondered who out of Hampshire and Somerset would end up winning the thing.

The cricket wasn't bad either, with Jos Buttler showing a wider audience the virtues which those of us who inhabit Gimblett's Hill at Taunton have known about for a while. A technique both unfussy and innovative, backed by the iron temperament of the natural finisher. No sooner has the world started to recognize the remarkable ability and potential of Eoin Morgan than someone else comes along with many of the same qualities.

And then there were two of the most naturally rhythmical left-arm spinners you could ever wish to see. For once, though, Murali Kartik was put in the shade by Hampshire's highly-impressive 19 year-old from the Isle of Wight, Danny Briggs. In a snatched post-victory interview Briggs said something along the lines of 'I didn't know this many people watched cricket'.

You'd better get used to it, Danny, because, where you might be heading, they assuredly do.


Rebuilding Respect

Regardless of what happens now - and as I write England are well on the way to victory - there was, in a counter-intuitive, old-fashioned, slightly grim way, something uplifting about yesterday afternoon's proceedings at Edgbaston.

After their shambolic displays with the bat and in the field on Friday and Saturday, and with Graeme Swann wheeling away with a venom few in the current international game can match, Pakistan needed something different, both to preserve their own credibility and to revive a series which was beginning to look like a barely-twitching corpse a matter of days after it had started.

The combative, brave and occasionally stylish batting of Zulqarnain Haider, Mohammad Aamer and Saeed Ajmal, did just that, providing a template for their supposed superiors at the top of the order (although much of the devil seemed to have gone both from the pitch and England's bowling by the afternoon) and showing that all is not lost. On a ground that currently resembles a building site, this was the brick-by-brick rebuilding of Pakistan's self-respect.

God, they need to learn how to catch, though.


The More Things Change...

In a performance which, in the field anyway, went beyond the realms of mere competence and into those of outright brilliance, James Anderson was England's stand-out player.

It was time. He's had an uneasy few months in the one-day game, omitted entirely from the T20 triumph in the Caribbean and intermittently expensive in the ODIs against Australia and Bangladesh. But he remains a bowler of talent, ingenuity and skill, best suited to the rhythms and attacking imperatives of the five-day game, especially when the conditions weigh as heavily in his favour as they did at the weekend.

As Vic Marks has written, he's the best exponent of genuine swing England have had since the heyday of the young Ian Botham, who, for anyone too young to remember him at his best, could really, really bowl. From visual memory (no speed guns then), Botham wasn't as quick as Anderson usually is, although, when riled by a batsman, an umpire, an Australian or any combination thereof (which was often) he could really charge in. Though attacking by nature Botham at his best probably had a slightly more consistent command of line and length than Anderson, reflective of the era in which he played and a parsimonious Westcountry cricket education at the hands of Tom Cartwright.

Plus ca Change. For Ian Botham at Lord's, June 1978, knocking over a range of hapless Pakistani batsmen like so many skittles, read Anderson at Trent Bridge, August 2010.

But sterner challenges, presented by the batsmen, pitches, cricket balls and climate of Australia, lie ahead.


Go Back To What You First Thought Of. And Ignore It.

On balance, it's probably a good thing that I didn't write what I was thinking of writing before the Trent Bridge Test began, namely that Jimmy Anderson 'needed a big performance'. I've learnt from experience that the immutable Law of Sod as applied to blogging means that as soon as you write something like that it's rendered redundant by events which, in retrospect, have a terrible inevitability about them.

With this in mind, I won't be writing anything similar about Kevin Pietersen (for a week or two, anyway).

I'm not too sure about the Pakistan team, though. They, with bat and in the field at least, are really struggling. And I'm not sure that they're capable of proving me wrong.


The Great Lost Bowler

The excellent short series in England between Pakistan and Australia was a contest of contrasts. Pakistan youthful, unavoidably inexperienced, slightly disorganised but hugely talented. Australia, inevitably diminished, ageing in important areas, but innately professional and as naturally competitive as ever. One side raging against the injustices and political complexities which compel them to play all their Test cricket away from home, the other against the passing of time and a cricket generation.

The lasting impressions include the manner in which Pakistan recovered from the Lord's defeat and its anarchic aftermath to stagger over the line at Headingley, and the fact that, with the coming winter ahead, Australia look to be vulnerable in a way they haven't been against England since Mitchell Johnson was in short trousers.

The abilities of Mohammad Aamer are so self-evidently extraordinary as to require no elaboration, but some of the spells and deliveries bowled, at Headingley in particular, by Mohammad Asif, set the mind rolling over Pakistan's lost years.

When he came to England for the first time in 2006 I was very impressed by Asif, and, for a time after that, he looked like taking his rightful place at the top table of world seam bowling. It never quite happened, mainly because he simply hasn't played enough, and his marginalisation carries echoes of the way in which Pakistan cricket as a whole has been confined to the shadows these past few years.

He looks slower now - presumably by choice, for he's yet to reach 28 and has, amazingly, only played in 19 Test matches - but his memory is good. He still knows how to probe a batsman's weaknesses around off-stump with a precision and control rarely seen from anyone since Glenn McGrath retired. It's a commonplace in most sports that in order to be regarded as truly great you have to play for a long time, but it's not an iron law. Mohammad Asif may be one of the exceptions.

In Pakistan cricket little is ever clear or transparent, but one thing currently is. Over the next few weeks Pakistan's attack will test the England batting to its very foundations.


Time and Circumstance

With Australia and Pakistan engaged in a virile exchange of punch and counter-punch at Headingley, in the quieter surroundings of Taunton the home side came up just short of a victory which would have enhanced their claims to a title they've never won.

Central to Somerset's attack was a 33 year-old Indian left-arm spin bowler called Murali Kartik, whose enchanting blend of persistence, aggression, variation and variety was as impressive and elegant as anything anyone will see on the playing fields of England this summer.

For someone who appears to embody all that is traditional and great about Indian slow bowling, Kartik has had an uneven, unfulfilled career. Eight long-forgotten Tests, with unspectacular, journeyman's results; thirty-odd ODIs for a high average in an era when they were ten a penny. Sporadically outstanding county cricket for Lancashire, Middlesex and Somerset.

As with many a cricketer, Kartik will forever lament that he was born at the wrong time, for the twin shadows of Harbhajan and Kumble, together with the more gaudy attributes of any number of mystery spinners, have hung heavy over his career. For all that, to watch him bowl from the River End at Taunton, unchanged for an afternoon, was to be educated, captivated and reminded of the skill and beauty of the spinner's art.

Orthodox in conception and practice, Kartik's spin comes from an action that appears as natural as breathing. While he can turn the ball prodigiously in the right conditions, the aspect which really stood out at Taunton was the way in which he consistently gave the ball air in a manner that is rarely seen these days outside the movies. In consequence the average young - and not-so-young - English batsman who faces Kartik is forced to play outside his comfort zone in a way he can barely understand, let alone execute. He gets out.

As I wrote earlier in the week, with Warne and Murali gone, Panesar faded from view and Mendis supplanted, the world of spin is now a less colourful place. Time and circumstance mean that Murali Kartik is highly unlikely to play any part in its regeneration at international level; that will be left to the likes of Swann and Vettori, and, in India, to his younger compatriots, Bhajji himself, Pragyan Ojha, Amit Mishra, Piyush Chawla.

In England, Monty will continue to have his days but the future looks uncertain, Adil Rashid continues to look good without taking the decisive step forward his talents deserve, and Hampshire's Danny Briggs looks to have many of Kartik's qualities.

Kartik, though, is special. Enjoy him while you can.


A Passing Era

In a saying that's been repeated so often that it's become a cliche, when Fred Trueman became the first man to take 300 Test wickets, in 1964, he remarked that anybody who beat his total would be 'bloody tired' (or something like that). It seems reasonable to suppose, therefore, that Muttiah Muralitharan, who retired today with a round total of 800 wickets under his belt, is feeling a bit sore just now.

Statistics and experience show that Muralitharan is - was - a great bowler. But there will always be an ambivalence about his qualities and achievements of a type which never accompanied the retirements of Warne, or Kumble, or McGrath. It's become less common to hear people talk openly about the deficiencies of his action as the years have passed, but there are many, many people who were never quite able to accept that he didn't throw the ball.

This suspicion, in its turn, seeped into the minds of those who weren't ever quite sure what to make of the wizard of Kandy (myself included, if truth be told), meaning that his achievements have often received less than their due, at least outside the Indian sub-continent.

But all this is to obscure the point. He was judged to be legal, therefore he was legal, and, in the golden years when the muse was with him, nobody on earth could take wickets like he could.

And, unlike his fellow modern greats, he played for a country with only ten years' Test experience when he made his debut, meaning both that he was under greater pressure and that his wickets carried deeper significance. He, more than anyone else - although the huge contribution of Chaminda Vaas should never be forgotten - showed that Sri Lankans could do more than just pile up runs.

With Murali's retirement a magnificent era has all but passed. The world of spin bowling is a more conventional place, with mystery and innovation increasingly the realm of batsmen, and it'll be down to the likes of Harbhajan and Graeme Swann - two of the most combative and optimistic cricketers you could ever come across - to try to re-establish the hegemony of spin.

It'll be fun watching them try.


Put to Bed

As ever, the modern cricket world moves rapidly on. With Australia and Pakistan locked in what looks like it has the makings of a decent match at Lord's, I'm going to hark back to the way in which England secured their short ODI series with Bangladesh on Monday, especially the contribution of the England captain.

Not very long ago many people were questioning whether Andrew Strauss continued to merit his place in the England one-day side - too one-paced, too conventional, not innovative enough outside his natural scoring areas - but his 154 at Edgbaston showed how hard he's been working to develop his game. Several magnificent lofted sixes were coupled with the usual drives and cuts and a leavening of reverse sweeps to comprise an outstanding innings, regardless of the relative weakness of the Bangladesh attack.

At 78 his ODI strike-rate is, without being outstanding, highly respectable, and it's obvious how highly his team-mates respect him.

Any doubts about his place in the side should have been put to bed for the time being.



Everyone else has lost to Bangladesh, so, in the end, it was bound to happen to England. A performance that hinted at complacency, coupled with a courageous display from the Tigers, ensured that Bristol, 10th July 2010, will always have a special place in Bangladeshi cricket lore.

For me, the most memorable aspect of the day was the appearance of the injured Ian Bell, batting at number eleven for England. As has often been said, Bell tends to cut a modest, slightly reticent figure, characteristics which haven't helped him to get the most from his undeniably exceptional ability, and English crowds haven't always warmed to him.

So it was nice to see him limp down the steps while being cheered onto the pitch like a conquering hero, with the expression on his face showing that he had picked up on the strangeness of it all.

In all probability, the next time he plays for England will be at Brisbane in November. The crowd there might not be so pleased to see him.


Less is More

Although he's best known as a football writer, I regard Martin Samuel as just about the best sportswriter currently working in Britain; intelligent, clear-thinking and unafraid to tell it as he sees it. I try not to make a habit of reading the Daily Mail, so I haven't seen much of his stuff recently, but this caught my eye yesterday.

I don't agree with all of it, but the central thrust - that the expansion of the English T20 competition this season has all but ruined it - seems to be me to be pretty accurate.

Because of work, the World Cup and other commitments, I haven't seen as much as in previous years, but the overall impression is of a competition which is just going on and on and on, without many people really knowing or caring where it's leading.

Twenty20 has many virtues - brilliant fielding, an inbuilt focus on innovation - but much of the excitement it generates is repetitive and, ultimately, can be monotonous.

Sports administrators, especially when they've got witless marketing people shouting in their ear, always have trouble understanding that less can sometimes be more.

It'll be interesting to see where they decide to go from here.


Words of Caution

The coverage of the England-Australia ODI series highlighted the short-termism of much of the mainstream media, although I'm happy to admit that they don't have my advantage of being able to wait until the end of the series before choosing to write something about it.

After three convincing victories England were suddenly the best limited over side in the known universe; after his blistering spell at Lord's Shaun Tait was going to go through England during the Ashes series (providing Punter could persuade him to play); and after a few cheap dismissals Ponting himself was suddenly fallible, with his advancing years catching up with him.

Words of caution are required. For all the coruscating excitement of his Lord's performance, bowling ten overs - in two or three over spells - in an ODI is a world away from bowling in a Test match, especially for someone with the fragile body, mind and technique of Tait. Australia's pace this winter is likely to have to be supplied by Johnson, Harris and Bollinger, the last two of whom showed during the series that they have plenty to offer both in terms of speed and craft.

And, while there may be signs that Ponting's mastery could be fading slightly, it would be as well not to underestimate his ability to recognize this, recast his technique, adjust his strokeplay and go again. A burning desire to regain the Ashes will do the rest.

The greats make their own rules. So be very, very careful before even suggesting that Ponting is ageing. And make doubly sure that he doesn't hear you doing it.


Faded Grandeur

If you were thinking about rating the most picturesque arenas in world cricket, Gloucestershire's County Ground, in the mundane suburbs of northern Bristol, would come well down anyone's list. No Cathedral spire to enhance the view, few trees to provide shade from the sun, and, on a warm Tuesday in late June, with the schools still in and the new age of austerity well under way, a scattering of spectators for the second day of a County Championship Division Two game between the home county and Middlesex. An atmosphere heavy with the pervasive air of long faded grandeur, aptly exemplified by the names - undeniably glorious but oh so old - used to distinguish different parts of the ground: Grace, Jessop, Hammond.

Twenty years ago, when a team containing Gatting, Haynes, Ramprakash, Emburey and Tufnell used to dominate the county game, I'd follow Middlesex around the country. The hot summer of 1990 saw me watch them at Derby, at The Oval, at Uxbridge on a killing day when the temperature was nudging thirty degrees by ten in the morning and Jimmy Cook batted long, and, finally, as autumn drew in, winning the title at Hove. A few months later I moved to Devon, and, after some transitional years when I held a torch for the Seaxes, settled for life in the outer at Taunton.

There are still times, though, when you feel like going back.

But the county game has changed for ever and the gap between the two divisions has long since started to bite. At Bristol the county's current side, an uneasy mixture of bitter experience and callow youth, struggled through the day with an insipid combination of bland bowling and often shoddy fielding as two exiled Kiwis, Hamish Marshall and James Franklin, and an under-rated Englishman, Alex Gidman, put them to the sword. In the mid-afternoon heat, with the game rapidly going away from his side, I found myself wondering about the thoughts of Owais Shah; less than a year ago a member of the England side, and now reduced to this.

When we left the game wasn't over, but the next afternoon saw it to a close, Gloucestershire - a moderate side themselves, in truth - winning by ten wickets and condemning Middlesex to the bottom of the table.

Despite some signs of promise in the limited over game, one of the heroes of 1990, Angus Fraser, now the county's Director of Cricket, has a job of work harder than many of his thankless Test spells on his hands if he is to restore the club to its former eminence.

It was that type of day. Throughout the escapist netherworld that is the English county game the resounding echoes of former glories are a commonplace.

Sometimes, though, they resonate just as loudly on the pitch as in the stands.


Feeding a Delusion

Owing to a surfeit of things going on in my life - the main one, unfortunately, being the requirement to earn a living somewhere where I can't watch cricket* - Eoin Morgan's latest tour de force largely passed me by. But, to a certain extent, however good it was, the innings shouldn't have told anyone anything they didn't know about the man and his exceptional ability and potential. The fastest-rising one-day batsman on earth? England, yes, that's England, have him, and the confidence generated by his presence and the World T20 triumph continues to course through the side. You could, unless you were someone with experience of watching England over many years and a sound grip on reality, think a new era had arrived...

Elsewhere in the world things are a bit less exciting. South Africa and the West Indies, with a mere five days at their disposal, could only stagger to a draw on a St.Kitts shirtfront. While games such as this may serve to briefly foster the illusion that the West Indies can still compete with the best the world game has to offer, they're feeding a delusion and doing the wider sport damage at the same time.

It's been said before, but I'll say it again. Pointless Tests such as this will send Test cricket to the grave faster than a decade's worth of Twenty20 matches.

Over to you, ICC.

* I understand that all over England people are being given permission to watch the England football team play Slovenia in the World Cup this afternoon. Personally I'm happy to miss the game, but, with a precedent thus set, I look forward to the mass absenteeism that's certain to greet England's next Test series. Oh, sorry, I forgot. It's cricket and it's not the Ashes, therefore nobody in their right mind would ever be interested...


Harsh but Fair

You know how it is. You get on a bus and sit down, minding your own business.

Soon after you've taken your seat you become aware that the bloke behind you is taking part in a loud mobile phone conversation, which you can't avoid listening to. It's usually banal, but sometimes it's interesting and sometimes it's amusing. Rarely, in England, will it feature anything whatsoever to do with cricket.

Most of today's was about horses and horse racing, which have never done much for me, but then the conversation turned to the ridiculous performance of the England football team in last night's World Cup game against Algeria in Cape Town.

Talking about the reaction of one of his friends to the circus which was unfolding before their eyes, I picked up the words:

'He said it was worse than watching Graeme Smith bat'.


Market Forces

If there's one thing West Indian cricketers do consistently these days, it's losing. In Port of Spain, the Test side were thrashed by South Africa, while in Leicester their A side went down to an India A attack led by an eighteen year-old who'd never previously played in a first-class game but who took 13 wickets in the match.

Kieron Pollard probably wouldn't have helped either side very much, but then he never had the opportunity to, having decided to forego the A tour in favour of a T20 contract with Somerset. With fast runs, wickets, a six which damn nearly cleared the Lord's pavilion and a brilliant run-out as part of an improbable Somerset win at the Rose Bowl on Friday night, the county doubtless view his salary as money very well spent.

The West Indian authorities aren't impressed with this, seeing it as an indication of the fact that, for a young West Indian cricketer, the opportunity to wear the crimson cap isn't the peak of his ambition. Regardless of the fact that Pollard had apparently signed his Somerset contract well before the West Indian tour party was announced, his decision encapsulates the changing priorities of many within the game. For all its tradition, complexity and lost glory, West Indian Test cricket can't provide the rewards that an IPL franchise or an English county can, added to which it's bloody hard work to get to the top.

In the matter of Test cricket, as with anything else, market forces pay no respect to tradition. Players like Pollard are in the position which all of us would like to be in. Less work for much more money. Who could honestly say that they wouldn't do the same?

What is more concerning for the future of the longer game is the question of how the future is viewed by players who are yet to make it to the top. Will they regard Test cricket as the summit of their ambitions, or will they prefer the money available elsewhere for comparatively little effort? I don't know, but I have a suspicion that many will choose the latter option.

Kieron Pollard's decision may be the thin end of a very large wedge. Never mind the West Indies Cricket Board, all those who love and respect the first-class game have more than enough reason to worry about the future.


A Giant Amongst Pygmies

All the talk on Radio Five Live this morning - largely thanks to what Geoff Boycott and Michael Vaughan said on TMS yesterday - appeared to be about the future of Bangladesh as a Test playing nation.

True, Bangladesh were abysmal in the final two sessions of the Old Trafford Test, and, once Tamim was out early yesterday afternoon in overcast, seaming conditions, it was only a matter of time before the end came. But, in the short attention-span world of the media, it's easy to forget that they're improving (albeit very slowly) and it would make no sense to downgrade or remove their Test status after just ten years. Vaughan's lazy comment that a Test-class batsman only had to concentrate to make a century against Bangladesh didn't say much for the 'concentration' of most of England's batsmen, but Boycott made a worthwhile contribution with his commonsense suggestion that the ICC should pay for Bangladesh to tour the world playing domestic sides in unfamiliar conditions. Not that that's very likely to happen.

So, for the time being, Bangladesh are stuck with having to rely on a timid, ineffectual bowling attack and an order propped up by the mighty Tamim. In him, they at least have a batsman of world-class behind whom they can rally. However, as opposing sides begin to probe his weaknesses and the pressure of carrying the side begins to weigh him down (if it ever does), they're going to need others to step forward. No wonder Jamie Siddons doesn't have any hair.

As the Third Man highlights here, a good start might be for the others to do what Tamim, for all his gifts, apparently feels he does better than his less talented compatriots.

Work harder.


Good Impression

When he was first drafted into the England squad at the start of this year, I had my doubts about Ajmal Shahzad, and expressed them here. I hadn't heard of him doing much in county cricket, and instinctively had my doubts about someone who, at the age of 24, had only played twenty-odd first-class matches and had never taken more than four wickets in an innings.

But then I'd never seen him bowl. Someone with a lot more knowledge of what to look for than me had seen something they liked, and off to Bangladesh he went. Until yesterday, though, he'd barely been seen in an England shirt, so we were all still guessing.

After a short, nervous contribution with the bat, he bowled his first spell during Bangladesh's Tamim-inspired opening onslaught. Once more he looked like someone who wasn't really sure that they belonged - hardly an unusual sentiment for a Test debutant with a limited and uneven record behind him - but in his second spell of the day it was finally possible to see for ourselves what the England hierarchy have seen in him.

A technically-correct but whippy and fluent action, sharp pace and a hint of swing was enough to see off three members of the lower order, and confirm Shahzad's place among the long list of bowlers who, while far from automatic choices, could well play a significant role in England's Test series against Pakistan and beyond.

And with uncertainty about the fitness of two other members of that group - Graham Onions and Tim Bresnan - Shahzad could be closer to playing a central role than he would, for all his obvious confidence, have believed a few days ago.

As and when the weather relents, his big challenge will be to build on what he did in the last hour yesterday, and it's going to be fun watching him try.


Here to Stay

The last couple of days of the Lord's Test were all I managed to see, but it was enough to forcefully remind me of the talents of two young players of very similar ages, but vastly differing backgrounds and abilities.

Tamim Iqbal is the best batsman Bangladesh has produced in the decade since it became a Test-playing country. As an attacking Asian opener he will inevitably be compared to Sehwag, but as the pundits were saying yesterday, a more precise comparison, on account of his stature, his left-handedness and his penchant for the hook, would be with the late Roy Fredericks. Tamim is the player around whom Bangladesh can build their improving batting for a long time to come, but for the moment it'll be enough to for the rest of us to enjoy the brilliance of his strokeplay and the spontaneity of his celebrations, for there will be many more to come.

Steven Finn, of course, can really bowl. But the comparisons with Glenn McGrath which everyone seems to have been drawing seem to me to be the product of wishful thinking, based partly on Finn's self-professed admiration for him and the fact that Finn's so tantalisingly good. For me, a better comparison is with Finn's county coach Angus Fraser, although time will surely reveal Finn to have been the quicker and more penetrative operator.

Finn also comes across in interview as confident, mature and articulate, with the type of self-deprecation which is bound to endear him to English audiences. After receiving the match award this afternoon he said something about only filling in for Stuart Broad, and implied that he thought he might not be selected again in a hurry.

Steven, I've got news for you. This was only the start. You're going to be in the England side for a very, very, long time.


The More Things Change...

Brian Brain was a seam bowler who played county cricket, for Worcestershire and Gloucestershire, from 1959 until 1981. Just before he finished playing he published a diary - Another Day, Another Match - about Gloucestershire's 1980 season, and his part in it. It is a fine book, recording the life and opinions of a county journeyman who had begun his career in a time that now seems like something from cricketing pre-history, and it laid the ground for similar publications which came later, such as Peter Roebuck's It Never Rains, published in 1984, Eight Days a Week, by Jonathan Agnew (1988), and Ed Smith's On and Off the Field (2004).

In May 1980 he wrote this:

I've yet to see a bad South African cricketer over here. It must be a combination of learning the game on good wickets, strength of character, competitive instinct and natural ability.

Brain was writing with Allan Lamb in mind, and also his colleague Mike Procter, but his summary of what makes South African-raised cricketers good still holds true today for the likes of Kevin Pietersen, Jonathan Trott, Craig Kieswetter and Michael Lumb.


Flower of England

Whatever one's views on the composition of the England team, there can be little doubt that Andy Flower has played a blinder since he took over.

He gives every impression of combining the original mind of Fletcher with the technocratic approach of Peter Moores. And, if you throw in his truly outstanding international batting pedigree and experience of galvanising his old Zimbabwe side, it's clear that England, in a slightly roundabout way, have come across an outstanding coach.

A number of members of the eleven which triumphed in Bridgetown on Sunday are going to be around the top of the English game for a very long time. With what he has brought in a relatively short time in the job, you have to hope that Flower will be too.

His job is far from finished. In fact, in so many ways, it has only just begun.


Impossible to Deny

On the face of it Gimblett's Hill, at Craig Kieswetter's adopted home ground, was the ideal place to go to reflect on England's first win an ICC competition, even if the atmosphere (and the temperature) was about as far removed from the Kensington Oval as it was possible to get. The sun shone, and Yorkshire's young opener Adam Lyth looked deeply impressive, but the sort of reflective glow which you can't help feeling the morning after an Ashes win just wasn't there.

In part I think this was because I didn't see very much of the competition, but it's impossible to deny that England's win simply doesn't mean as much to me as it would if four of the most important members of the team hadn't learned their cricket in other countries. While I've regularly paid tribute to the brilliant KP and Eoin Morgan (who has no realistic alternative way of fulfilling his talent), the addition of Kieswetter and Lumb just feels a bit too much like a shift towards a road I'd rather the team didn't go down.

Not that I, or anyone else, can do a lot about it. The potent South African combination of hard, true wickets, sunshine, new world attitudes and a selectorial environment which many find unjust will continue to react with simple economics and a tolerant qualification system to ensure a steady flow of players who are better than most of what the English system will produce.

It's best, I suppose, just to embrace it and relish the success, but, when the inevitable Australian jibes start, well, you kind of know that they have a point.

Incoherent Thoughts

I said England needed to start well, and they did. The rest is history.

Anything more coherent at this hour is difficult, but I intend to mull things over today on Gimblett's Hill at Taunton and return later in the week.


Start Well

For one reason or another - too much work, too much living to do - I haven't seen a huge amount of the World Twenty20. A Kevin Pietersen on-drive here, a Cameron White bunt for six there, frequent catches which at one-time would have been regarded as show-stoppers but which are now almost commonplace.

And now it comes down to England against Australia. While, given the precarious position which Australia occupied against Pakistan, this may have surprised some, nothing about Australia ever surprises me. I've written before about how Australian sportsmen are never, ever, beaten, until the contest finishes. Add to that the formidable technical skill and balance of the side which they've taken to the West Indies, and the fact that they're now taking twenty over cricket seriously, and it all adds up to a tough task for England.

The contracted nature of the T20 game means that it has much in common with sports like football and rugby, where the key in tight games is always to start well.

If England can do that they may be okay, but, if not, a hard afternoon beckons.



Within 'traditional' cricket circles (and those are probably more firmly established in England than in most other parts of the cricketing globe) it's still fashionable to express one's dislike of Twenty20 cricket. If you take your place among a group of members at a County Championship match and say that you 'hate Twenty20' nobody will think you strange and most of the people within earshot will wholeheartedly agree. For many, who may by now have grudgingly accepted coloured clothing, white balls and floodlights, it's simply that the excess embellishments - the music, the dancers, the sponsored six-hits and time-outs - are too much to take, and I have some sympathy with that view. But for anyone who takes the narrow-minded view that these things simply render the game worthless, I have no time.

It now seems almost trite to suggest that T20 has encouraged innovation, but it's undeniably true, even if it's only been the acceleration of a process which had begun elsewhere. To see Eoin Morgan reversing his hands and scooping the ball over the infield in a way that demands ingenuity, reflexes, strength, timing and confidence is to see a game which, unlike virtually any other ball game you can name, is evolving in a fundamental, technical way, as opposed to just a tactical one.

When did someone last invent a completely new stroke in tennis, or a different way of passing the ball in rugby, or a new way of kicking a football? In those sports you have what you have, and, however good you are, you largely have to work within an established framework. Modern cricket is different.

England didn't deserve to lose yesterday, but those of us in a position to watch someone as gifted and groundbreaking as England's young Irishman are all winners.


Truly Remarkable

In their first crack at cricket's first world Afghanistan came off a comfortable second best, but the fact that they looked largely out of their depth was as irrelevant as it was unsurprising.

The simple fact of their being there is as remarkable a sports story as has been seen in many a long year.



Balancing Lives

As usual, there's been some great stuff in the cricket pages of The Guardian over the past few days. I particularly enjoyed Donald McRae's interview with Claire Taylor, especially her reflections on the trials and tribulations of balancing her career as a cricketer with a life that has inevitably been more complex, crowded and compromised than that of most male sportsmen of similar stature.

It leaves you wondering how the average male cricketer of even county standard, let alone Taylor's world-class, would be able to cope with an income so tiny that it meant that he had to live with his parents in his late twenties. Not well, I suspect.

With all this said, the almost touching modesty, magnanimity and balance of Taylor's closing words give a further clue as to the reasons why she's been so successful:

"If you look at the men, you have to acknowledge that they have come through as the best of 400 professional cricketers in this country. Their evolution into Test players is so different from ours. In the women's game if you're a good 17-year-old you can be picked for England. So you don't go through the same process as the men and perhaps there is a correlation between that and what they earn.

"But I don't play cricket for money. I play to be the best I can be and because it's a brilliant game. It's a game for everyone."


A Game of Contrasts

A Sunday afternoon in England with a decent TV and a functioning remote control was - in the absence of a ticket to the games and the means to be in two very remote places at once - as good a way to chart the diversification of the game as any.

On ITV 4 you had the IPL final from Mumbai - a riot of noise, colour and atmosphere, a floodlit stadium packed to the rafters and the Chennai Super Kings deservedly winning the third IPL title.

On Sky Sports 2 it was Worcestershire at home to Sussex in the new 'Clydesdale Bank 40' - a few hundred people, some hazy early season sunshine, and Worcestershire sliding to defeat in front of the most beautiful backdrop in English first-class cricket.

I know and love cricket at Worcester, but the IPL final was a compelling visual and sensory spectacle, which, for all its air of calm and the annual re-emergence of a timeless ritual, an early season game in England simply couldn't match. Unfortunately the transmission of the game also had too many adverts and the intensely irritating commentary of Danny Morrison, so that when it all became too much (every five minutes or so) it was necessary to take refuge in the more reserved ruminations of Nick Knight and Paul Allott.

For the third year running I've seen hardly any of the IPL, so most of this was new to me. It strikes me that you're better off being there, as you stand a reasonable chance of watching the game without being interrupted, just as long as Danny Morrison isn't sitting next to you.

County one-day cricket has its virtues but it has a bit less of everything. Fewer games, fewer spectators, less money, less colour, less interest.

Oh, and probably less corruption too.


New Kid on the Blog

Enjoying a welcome Saturday afternoon at home - for once away from work and the lure of the rugby touchline - I decided it was time to undertake a bit of housekeeping.

The main result of this is that there's a new blog on my blogroll.

Down at Third Man has the look of something excellent, which could run and run.

I hope it does.


Few Tears Shed

There was a time when Surrey were the team which set the standards in county cricket. Not just in the 1950s, when they were the most potent team the championship has ever seen, but, more recently, in the era of Stewart, Thorpe, Butcher, Lewis, the Bicknells, the Hollioakes and Saqlain Mushtaq, when they won plenty of games but few friends.

Now, though, things are different. As a general rule, if Derbyshire thrash you at home, you are really struggling.

This, though, is the reality of life for Surrey as the 2010 season begins - some decent signings, the greatest English batsman since who knows when, but a 22 year-old greenhorn as skipper and a team that looks very far from being the sum of its parts. With Ramprakash failing to score in the second innings and Derbyshire's brilliant Australian accumulator Chris Rogers piling up the runs at the other end, Surrey's hopes of a successful start to the season rapidly disappeared into the deep blue ether over The Oval.

Chris Adams will ponder and fulminate, and, in all probability, they'll start to get it right before the season's over.

But, outside their own membership, few tears will be shed.


Playing Long

I never saw Sir Alec Bedser bowl. He retired from first-class cricket more than five years before I was born, and, by then, his outstanding Test career was a distant memory. I only remember him as a somewhat curmudgeonly chairman of the England selectors, making it known after Ian Botham resigned the England captaincy in the early summer of 1981 that he would have been sacked anyway, and unwittingly laying the ground for some of the most inspirational individual performances in Test history.

But his passing matters to me because of what it says about what English cricket was and what it has lost. Bedser was a product of an era before limited-over cricket - even of the 65, 60 or 55 over variety, let alone 20 - had been introduced to the professional game. The only way to play was to play long, three or five days, engaging the physique and the brain against the best the opposition had to offer. And the mature Bedser was a key player both in the greatest domestic team English cricket has known and in the England side which came closest to dominating the cricket world in the way we have since seen other teams - from the Caribbean and from Australia - do.

Bedser embodied, as few alive still can, an era when the game was far more central to the English way of life than it is now, or ever will be again. A time when England produced truly great cricketers, and truly great teams.

Of course, much of the change which cricket has gone through, and is still undergoing, has, for all its artifice and embellishment, been vital in widening the game's appeal. A modern sport cannot exist forever in the sepia-tinged glow of elderly men's memories.

But they'll do for now.


Up for Grabs

Various people seem to be getting uptight about the fact that the opening match of the English cricket season is taking place in Abu Dhabi. I can't say I'm hugely bothered, especially as the weather round here today is about as far from suitable for cricket as you can get.

The last time I watched cricket in April, let alone March, I went down with a mild case of hypothermia, so the idea of playing it somewhere warmer appeals, but then I wasn't going to go to the game anyway.

If I was one of those loyalists who regularly attends the season opener at Lord's I've no doubt I'd think differently, as I certainly do about the crackpot suggestion apparently being made last week by the new bloke in charge of the PCA (can't remember the name) that several rounds of the championship could be played abroad each season.

But then most aspects of the English first-class season suddenly seem to be up for grabs and open to question, with some others apparently seriously considering abandoning the two division championship in favour of three randomly drawn conferences, an idea which sounded dreadful and pointless when Lord MacLaurin was peddling it about thirteen years ago and which hasn't improved.

David Hopps of The Guardian has set up a Facebook page opposing the idea. I'm not sure how much good it'll do but it's the first Facebook page I've ever signed up to.


Exchanging Congratulations

As the congratulations were exchanged and the hands shaken at the end of the Mirpur Test, one's thoughts inevitably drifted to those of the players. Michael Carberry, who looked happy but perhaps a little wistful, will have known that there's a good chance that his Test career has ended almost as soon as it began, while James Tredwell, well though he acquitted himself over the five days, will have known that it might be a long time before he's seen again in England whites. A few romantics may talk about England playing two specialist spinners, but when apart from in the sub-continent (and then rarely) is it ever going to happen? Barring a serious loss of form in all areas, Graeme Swann is destined to remain England's sole spinner for the foreseeable future.

Tim Bresnan's sentiments will have been different. A big bear of a Yorkshire lad with a winning smile and an instinctively confident attitude, he looked, with his ability to extract occasional but potent bounce and movement from the most soporific of tracks and his uncomplicated batting, like a player who could stay in England's Test match mix for a while. Having troubled the Bangladesh batsmen on their own dead surfaces, he's sure to do so in this country, and the fact that Graham Onions' back injury is worse than first thought may mean that he gets a chance to do so. For his ability to look as though he was enjoying the hard work and for maintaining his equanimity in a way that the increasingly annoying Stuart Broad would do well to copy, you don't need to look far beyond him as the quiet success of the trip.

The batting was as good as it needed to be. Cook was outstanding and KP showed that rumours of his demise (so persistent that I stupidly started to believe them myself) were greatly exaggerated. Trott, as The Old Batsman writes, is a potential complication, but an interesting one. With his obvious mental resilience he has a good base on which to build; his Warwickshire colleague Ian Bell should now go from strength to strength (although I've said that before).

Bangladesh, though much improved, are still weak, but with the heat and the dust it's a tough tour. Whatever the deficiencies of their tactics and the limits of their ambition, England deserve credit for emerging unscathed and remaining the only major country that's yet to lose to Bangladesh in any form of the game.

And, for that, Eoin Morgan, currently engaged on IPL business, must be thanked.


Player Development

Tamim Iqbal has possibly been Bangladesh's most impressive player during their short series with England. This typically excellent piece by Andrew Miller offers plenty of clues as to the reasons for his success.

Talent, of course, but an obvious level of self-awareness, confidence and ambition which sets him apart from many of his colleagues.

With his imposing presence and natural power, it's easy to forget that he only reached his twenty-first birthday a couple of days ago. It's going to be very interesting to watch him develop over the next few years.


Mad Bob

One of the most priceless aspects of Sky Sports' coverage of Test cricket is the increasingly eccentric and amusing contributions of Bob Willis.

He has always seemed to me to be the most boring (and bored) commentator in history, and his appearances behind the microphone have become rarer in recent years as Sky have correctly judged that his mad genius flowers best in a studio environment.

Now, though, with the likes of Hussain and Gower opting out of the Bangladesh trip, he's back in the box, this morning's signature contribution being a classic rant about England players failing to tuck their shirts in. Even though the mikes were down it was easily possible to discern Mike Atherton collapsing into the fit of uncontrollable laughter which was the only credible response.

Later on I came back into the room to find him moaning about the fact that batsmen weren't required to 'save the game with the ball' when the likes of Graham Onions had to do so with the bat.

Twas ever thus, Bob.


While I don't think I was completely wrong to write of Bangladesh's relative improvement, they haven't looked particularly strong opponents over the last three days. Their bowling lacks penetration, their fielding has often been poor and their batting has been variable. Tamim Iqbal, Mahmudullah and Mushfiqur Rahim have shown decent technique and more than a little class with the bat, but others in the top order have looked ill-equipped to deal with the England seam attack, especially when Stuart Broad pitched the ball short.

For this reason, England's tactics have looked over-conservative in the extreme, playing just four genuine bowlers and failing to enforce the follow-on this morning, something which condemned the game to a prolonged period of stagnation. It would have been far better for them to emphasize their superior class by putting Bangladesh in again, but their approach has been at one with the over-prepared caution which seems standard fare in modern Test cricket.

Cook's batting was a lot more impressive, his authoritative and entertaining hundred confirming his return to his best form, and Pietersen has also showed that he's close to being back in the groove. It was only a matter of time, and it may be that my own judgement was as cautious and orthodox as England's when I started to question his confidence.

We've also seen one of the most impressive pieces of ground fielding by an England player for many a year. Whatever the duration of his career in Test cricket - and it may well be a short one - Michael Carberry has at least made a lasting impression in an area of the game in which he really excels.

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