Decisions, Decisions

Andy Flower is an outstanding cricket coach. Well-organized, tough, uncompromising, but flexible and sensitive when he feels he needs to be. The latter quality is underplayed but it was evident in the way he spoke about Samit Patel.

It was obvious that England wanted to pick Patel for the World Cup. As Flower said, 'all we were saying was 'get into reasonable shape'. It didn't have to be perfect. In fact, all we wanted to see was an improvement...'.

The fact that Patel will be at home in Nottingham when the World Cup starts, is, therefore, nobody's fault but his own.

I've written about Patel and his fitness issues before here, but I'm less sympathetic now. It's clear that the management were prepared to cut him a small amount of slack but he simply didn't want to do the work.

But, as The Old Batsman says, the inability, or unwillingness, of certain players to conform can be symptomatic of a less tangible fear of exposure at the highest level of the game. In the days when the England team was rubbish and county cricket was a cuddly oasis of mediocrity, the county game was full of players like that. Times have changed now, and Patel, for sure, knows it.

Flower also knows stuff. Like the fact that when you're doing his job you have tricky, sometimes ruthless, calls to make. The decision to replace Davies with Prior was one such, and, while it didn't look too bad when it was made, it's not looking quite so sound now.



Having put it to one side a few days ago, I've finally got round to reading this by Siddhartha Vaidyanathan, about Anil Kumble.

The story which opens it is another brick in the wall of tales of Kumble's legendary modesty, and the later stuff about bowlers' tactics offers a valuable glimpse into the mind which made him such a terrific bowler.

Many in the Anglo-Australian cricketing world have probably forgotten about Kumble already, but, in an understated way, he was something very special.


Faint Praise Be Damned

When I wrote about the sense of underachievement that attached itself to Shane Watson during the Test series, I didn't necessarily mean to damn him with faint praise. As part of the uncertain batting efforts of a poor side, his muscular if unconsummated fifties were valuable as far as they went.

More was needed though, and today he provided it, with a one-day innings for the ages.

Of course, facing a denuded England attack in the artificial environment of a one-day international on a benign MCG pitch isn't the same as doing the hard yards against Jimmy Anderson armed with a red ball, but you still have to make the runs.

In a changed Australian landscape this is a player of quality and high importance, somewhere near peak form, fitness and performance. The more complex and troubling demands of Test cricket can wait awhile.


A Long Road Ahead

In many ways Shane Watson is representative of the difficulties faced by his side, the only diference being that he was (at least while he lasted) in something resembling decent form.

Talented, sincere and competitive, but also lacking in concentration, fitness, and, when it comes to running between the wickets, basic technique, he's made a decent fist of filling one of the openers' berths in the Australian side over the last eighteen months. One's suspicion is, though, that his natural home lies further down the order and that he ought to be bowling more, and with more intent, than he currently does. Given his history of injuries, this is partially understandable, but, watching him over the last couple of Tests, it was hard not to think of him as a player who simply isn't achieving anything like his potential and wouldn't be worth a place in the England side.

He's not alone.

Everyone knew before the series started that Australia were in decline. This impression was confirmed and hastened by some strange decisions by their selectors and the confidence, virility and power of England. For now Watson himself, Khawaja, Hussey, Clarke (who, let no-one forget, is a superb batsman) and possibly Ponting offer the nucleus of a batting order, but Hussey and Ponting will soon be gone for good and the bowling cupboard looks bare. Some extra work on fielding, fitness and running is essential.

All the things that are being said about Australia now used to be said about England. For them it's been a long road back, starting with the appointment of Duncan Fletcher as coach in 1999 and the subsequent adoption of central contracts.

For Australia it will be no different.


The Best of Times

For virtually anyone associated with the England cricket team, and especially the young men talented and fortunate enough to play for it, the 43 days between 25th November 2010 and 7th January 2011 will have been among the best times they will ever know on a cricket field.

For some among them those times have been better - or more memorable for different reasons - even than that.

To many, Alastair Cook seemed destined by virtue of his hesitancy and looseness to be Mitchell Johnson's fall guy. He leaves Australian shores an unlikely hero - still young, undemonstrative, slightly coy - but with a counter-intuitive stamina and toughness which nailed the Australian coffin shut. He may never quite pass this way again, but simply to watch the shape of his body as he defended the ball in Sydney was to see a man at ease, doing what he was put on earth to do.

Ian Bell is a man who, after years of wondering, knows his limitations. He knows that when it comes to batting he has no limitations. With Cook the lingering feeling is that he has surpassed himself in recent weeks, but with Bell there is the certain knowledge that there is much more to come.

Watching Bell these days can be an almost epiphanic experience. This was never true of Paul Collingwood, but few England players have ever made as much of their talent, responded as well to adversity or fielded with as much versatlity and athleticism. His vital role in the development of what could be England's side of sides should never be forgotten.

In a similar way to Ian Bell, James Anderson is now a mature man of high skill who knows his own game and his own mind. And, as with Bell, this should be no more than the beginning.

In 1956, John Arlott, looking back to 1947, wrote of a 'fair-haired, athletic-looking young man with a sweeping run-up and a high, easy, natural delivery-swing. It was as exciting a spell of bowling as I have ever watched and in the poverty of our post-war game, the man responsible for it was a heady promise of resurgent greatness in English cricket'. The man Arlott was writing about was Chris Tremlett's grandfather Maurice, and, at the start of the second decade of the 21st century, his late-flowering grandson exemplifies the future promise of another England side in a similar way.

These have been the best of times. But, for Strauss's England, there will be many more.


Punch Drunk

The Sydney Test will end later today. England will win.

But at least the game will be allowed to reach its natural conclusion.

If this was a boxing match they would have stopped it by now.


Vying for Superiority

Going back to work in January is never great. It's even less enjoyable when it means you have to forsake the TV for the Cricinfo commentary on one of the best day's cricket of the winter.

With Australia and England vying for superiority in Sydney, South Africa and India produced a minor classic at Newlands.

Tendulkar we know to be one of the greatest batsmen of all time. But a few people, especially, perhaps, in England, may not yet have quite realised what a magnificent fast bowler Dale Steyn is.

But not so good that Harbhajan Singh can't drive him for one of the purest straight sixes you could ever see.

With, respectively, two and three days to go, each match is beautifully poised.


Clutching at Straws

One of the central thrusts of the media coverage of the Ashes series is the way in which Australia, with all their obvious problems, are seen as the 'new England'. In other words they resemble the England team of the mid-1990s, with a glaring void in ability, leadership and selection. Whenever a straw comes along, however flimsy, it is clutched for dear life.

This was exemplified today by the response to Usman Khawaja's undeniably promising maiden innings in Test cricket. Such seems to be the shock at seeing Australia's Test number three perform with a modicum of composure and class that even writers as good as Christian Ryan are treating him like some sort of messiah. If ever there's an example of how far Australia have fallen and how poorly Ponting was playing, this is it.

With the game in Australia apparently going to hell in a handcart as a result of the rising tide of obesity, the nation's kids' obsession with computer games and the popularity and financial muscle of Australian Rules Football, it's seemingly the sole responsibility of a 24 year-old Muslim to single-handedly rescue his adopted nation from the wolves.

Get real. He's made 37 runs in his Test career.

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