End of an Era (Part Two)

Have just got up and discovered that Glenn McGrath has indeed retired (or will do so after the World Cup).

The instant thoughts are that Lee and Clark have got some stepping up to do and it's a pity England won't get the chance to play Australia without Warne and McGrath until 2009.

In the meantime, what's the SCG going to be like at the end of the Fifth Test?


End of an Era

Not much to say about Warne here and now that hasn't been said already. Except to point out (unoriginally, I'm sure) that, for someone who's shown such poor judgement in so many areas of his life in the past, he got the timing of his decision to retire absolutely right.

That and the fact that he's still got two Tests to go which gives me time to write a more extensive valediction before Sydney, where Warne's leaving promises to make that of Steve Waugh look as though it never happened.

I'm going away for Christmas over the weekend and may not be posting again until early 2007. Unless, of course, Glenn McGrath retires or England win in Melbourne...

Happy Christmas everybody.

Fletcher Must Go

Typical. You take a few days off from the blog to get ready for Christmas and let the dust settle after the end of the Ashes and, far from settling, it continues to swirl around you like the fog that's been blanketing much of Britain this week. The past, present and future of English cricket is debated to death, and, just by way of variety, another crackpot squad emerges from the brains of the England selectors. Oh, and Shane Warne retires.

Virtually everything you can think of (and a few things which you can't) has been said about England after Perth. And most of it carries a fair bit of truth. They were under-prepared, the Brisbane and Adelaide teams were badly selected, Australia have wanted to regain the Ashes more than England have wanted to retain them, and Fletcher has reached his sell-by date. All that and a one-day squad with Paul Nixon in it.

One of the better analyses of England's situation came from Christopher Martin-Jenkins in The Times earlier in the week, which allowed for the fact that England have played some good cricket at times by pointing out that the genesis of England's defeat lay in one really bad day in each game - the first in Brisbane, the last in Adelaide and the second in Perth - but also mentioned the older but more far-reaching errors which conspired to put England in a position from which retention was going to be much more difficult than redemption. The loss of Troy Cooley to his native Australia, the failure to prepare properly, errant selection, going back to the inclusion of Giles and Trescothick in the original squad ('an element of trying to recreate the old rather than trusting the new'), the decision to make Flintoff captain 'just as Strauss had grown into the job'.

It was a balanced critique and I agreed with most of it. It appeared to stop short, however, of calling for Fletcher's head, as most of the British tabloids have been doing, and, having thought over the series, while not denying how well England have played in parts or Fletcher's seminal influence on the improvements shown by the England side since 1999, I'm inclined to feel that we need to look elsewhere when the dust really has settled after this winter.

Justification? Well, we'll leave Monty out of it and return to the old Jones-Read debate. Thanks to Fletcher's misplaced confidence in the increasingly hapless Jones, we're now left with a situation where, if Read returns to the side in Melbourne (and, such is Fletcher's apparent obsession with Jones, I'm still not convinced that he will), he will do so in the knowledge that his own coach doesn't rate him at all, which can only have a negative effect on his confidence. So, we'll be left with two keepers who know that they're not first choice, a fact which was emphasized further yesterday when England's squad for the post-Christmas ODI series was announced. It contained the name of Paul Nixon, the elderly Leicestershire keeper who went on an England tour a few years ago but was generally felt to have dropped off the radar. I'll leave my favourite, Steven Davies, out of it for once; he's been with the academy in Perth and may not have done as well as was hoped. But what about James Foster? He was looking absolutely excellent late last season and is a hell of a lot younger than Nixon. Madness.

And then you have the inclusion of Vaughan. Okay, he's standing up, but he's only got three failures against Western Australia seconds behind him and his record in one-day cricket isn't very good anyway. Another example of trying to clutch at the straws of 2005 rather than moving on.

Past readers of this blog will know right well that, although I've known about and watched Chris Read for a long time, I'm not one of those people (most of whom live in Nottingham, I find) who think that he's the best keeper who ever drew breath. I even sought to try to understand Fletcher's selection of Jones at the start of the series (mainly because I just wasn't suprised), but, with hindsight, I was wrong.

With everything else left aside (Giles v Panesar is history), for his utterly shameful treatment of Read and his clumsily mistaken faith in Jones alone, Fletcher must go.

We'll look at this again when it's 3-2...


Done and Dusted

I've got too much going on with work and Christmas preparations to post much here tonight, but I'll come up with some more extensive and coherent thoughts about Australia's win and England's defeat later in the week. In the meantime, Tim de Lisle has summed things up typically well here.

And, in Johannesburg, the victorious Indians deserve at least as much credit as Australia. After more false dawns than I can remember their main challenge now, much like that of Australia, is to keep it going.

For Australia it's desirable; for India it's essential.


Rage, Rage Against The Dying Of The Light

Apart from Cook's maiden Ashes hundred, the signature themes of the day included another excellent contribution from Ian Bell (although one which, as usual on this tour, ended too soon), some typically ordinary captaincy from Ponting (excessive reliance on Warne and a lack of faith in Stuart Clark) and a late burst from McGrath which brought Australia decisively back into the game.

I don't know how familiar McGrath is with the writings of Dylan Thomas, but one of his most famous lines could have been written with his current situation in mind.


Perhaps surprisingly, England go into the final day in Perth still afloat.

I've written enough complimentary things about Alastair Cook (such as this for example) for me not to want to go into his virtues in detail again, but one of the things which makes him stand out from the majority of young English batsman is his patience. He's always prepared to wait for as long as it takes for the bad ball to come along without getting frustrated, while a lot of other young players start fretting if they don't hit at least one boundary every over.

He'll go far.



Readers may remember that I extolled the virtues of Sree Sreesanth back in July.

Well today he was at it again, taking 5 for 40 as India bowled South Africa out for 84 at the Wanderers in Johannesburg. There's some way to go in the game but India have the upper hand.

I think he's great and it's difficult to decide on his greatest asset. I'll settle for his seam position. If there's a better, more consistent one in world cricket I've yet to see it.

Almost Gone

Things haven't worked out for England in Perth over the last couple of days. But it wasn't unusual and it wasn't a surprise. On this tour, with the exception of the Adelaide first innings, they never quite have. They didn't get enough runs yesterday on a relatively blameless track and today they were massacred by a heady combination of Mike Hussey's incessant accumulativeness, Michael Clarke's impregnable mixture of flashy strokeplay and technical rectitude and the one and only Adam Gilchrist's coruscating hitting. The Ashes are almost gone and the game and the series just need to be played out.

The exceptions to the rule as far as England are concerned have chiefly been Kevin Pietersen and Monty Panesar. Pietersen with a brilliant 70 and Panesar a revelatory 16 not out yesterday and three good wickets before Gilchrist took a liking to him today. After the close yesterday, the following pieces from Cricinfo caught my eye. In the first, Peter English discusses the problems which Australia are having with Pietersen in this series, which, in themselves, confirm what an extraordinary batsman he is, and in the second, Andrew Miller uses Panesar's successes in this match to lacerate England's selection policy. We all knew Monty could bowl, but his poise, his common sense and some of his strokeplay yesterday (a straight drive off, I think, Stuart Clark, was one of the shots of the game) revealed that much of the talk about the incompetence of his batting has been exaggerated and ill-conceived. I see Fletcher's already talking about reviewing his place in the order and, if his batting continues to improve, it'll make his place in the side even more secure. He's going to be around the side for the next ten years unless something goes drastically wrong.

England's successes yesterday were few and far between, but there was even less to cling to today. Monty bowled well at times but the cracks in Flintoff's captaincy have started to show. Matthew Hoggard, England's most consistent performer in the series so far, has been under-bowled, and Sajid Mahmood, Flintoff's Lancastrian compatriot, has been almost completely ignored. Okay, he currently looks about as far from being a Test match quality seamer as it's possible to be, but why on earth pick him if you're not going to bowl him more? Why not just stick to your four bowlers and give Ed Joyce a game instead? Just don't go back to Jimmy Anderson.

Much the best thing about today was the astonishingly powerful and fluent century from Gilchrist which took Australia to their declaration. Doubts have rightly started to be raised about his future in the side over the last year or two, and he can't go on for ever, but this was a throwback to his greatest days - think Edgbaston 2001 or Johannesburg 2002.

It's doubtful that there's ever been a cleaner hitter of a cricket ball or a better wicket-keeper batsman.

We may never see his like again.


Normal Service

I said here about a week ago that I could understand why England had begun the series with Giles batting at eight in order to shorten their tail. This was largely true, but perhaps I was trying just a bit too hard to see things from Duncan's point of view. Because, deep down, like virtually every other England follower, I was wondering why the hell Monty wasn't there. Today, normal service was resumed. Normal service which, with every trademark wicket celebration, made you realise just how important a figure Monty became to the side during last summer and just how ridiculous it is that England have gone through two losing Tests with him kicking his heels on the sidelines.

I may also have read a bit too much into the fact that Monty hadn't taken many wickets in the games outside the Tests. Okay, he didn't bowl as well or as economically as he can, and he had some luck, but I think today showed that he's one of those priceless people who perform better the higher the standard of game they're involved in. England have had more than enough players over the years who have done the exact opposite for that to be reason itself to choose him virtually every time. I reckon he might just be there to stay.

It was also great to see Harmison getting his act together. Intensive practice, a bit of life in the pitch and the early wicket of the invincible Ponting seem to have done the trick, in the short term at least. A confidence player.

With two down by the close it's now up to the batsmen to confirm the advantage which England won in the field. It won't be easy, but Strauss is overdue a big one and there will be opportunities tomorrow for Pietersen, Flintoff and Jones to atone for their last day errors in Adelaide. Colly will fancy his chances, too.


Stating The Obvious

I came out of work today, turned the car radio on and found that Ian Healy (now there was a keeper, especially to Warne) had become the latest person to suggest that England came into the series under-prepared.

Damn right they did.

Next thing you know somebody will be saying that they need to start playing well to get back into the series.


Pulling No Punches

An interview with Rod Marsh in The Guardian:


Quite a lot there that plenty of England fans would agree with.



I realised today that I forgot all about Steve Harmison in my haste to write about most of the other members of England's 'attack'. Of course, most of the criticisms of Anderson and Giles apply to Harmison, although my instinct at the moment is just to err on the side of leniency because of what we know he's capable of. He needs some wickets at Perth, though.

Tim de Lisle, with a bit more time at his disposal (I don't know whether he has a day job like me, but I have my doubts), has analysed the issues involved in the selection of the England team for Perth very well here.


Gathering Shadows

So much has been written and said about team selection, Duncan Fletcher, Ashley Giles, Monty Panesar, Andrew Flintoff, Michael Vaughan and the past, present and future of English cricket since the Adelaide capitulation last Tuesday that it's easy to lose track of where your own opinions begin and where those of other people end.

Personally I could understand the logic of starting the tour with Giles in the side, if only because his presence shortens the tail to a far greater degree than that of Panesar (or Anderson or Mahmood for that matter). And it must be remembered that he made useful contributions with the bat in the first three innings of the series. However, it was asking a lot of someone who has never been a consistently threatening bowler at Test level to return to the side after a year's absence and prove penetrative on unresponsive wickets against some of the best players of spin in the world. And so it has proved. Giles has been handled with ease by all the Australian batsmen and with disdain by their two best players, Ponting and Hussey. Overall, though, there's little question in my mind that two spinners should have been played at Adelaide, and, if only one was required for Brisbane, it should have been Panesar. The batting problem could have been eased by playing Sajid Mahmood instead of Jimmy Anderson, who's also looked utterly impotent. Mahmood has had an inconsistent England career so far but he's a better batsman than Anderson and could hardly have been more innocuous with the ball.

With all that said, I'm very dubious about the hype being attached to Panesar by the perenially impulsive British media, many of whom (who never gave a damn about cricket until August 2005) seem to feel that he's a panacea for all England's problems. He's an extremely promising bowler, England's best spin discovery for generations, but his figures in the few games he's played in Australia have not been especially impressive, indicating that he's taking time to adapt to conditions which are alien and unhelpful to him. Also, in case anyone hasn't noticed, he's a rather limited batsman (if more talented than he's given credit for) and the main reason England lost in Adelaide was because the batting failed on the final day. It's important that his potential value to the side is kept in perspective or the age-old tendency of the British media to build people up with excessive and unjust praise before knocking them down with withering and unjust criticism will come into view again.

A further aspect of this which has been doing the rounds in Britain is the story that Duncan Fletcher, who has hitherto taken all the blame for the omission of Panesar, in fact wanted him in the Adelaide team but was overruled by his captain. Nobody - except Duncan and Freddie - knows the exact truth of this, and we'll have to wait for Duncan's autobiography to (perhaps) find out, but, if that was the case it points to a classic blind spot of the modern English cricketer - the way in which seam bowlers, however mediocre, are valued more highly than spinners.

And Flintoff has history here, don't forget. Last May, in Panesar's first Test in this country, he gave him just 27 overs out of 199 in a Sri Lankan total of 537, while at the same time bowling himself into the ground. All Panesar's successes later in the summer came under the leadership of Andrew Strauss. Even allowing for Fletcher's sometimes grudging attitude towards Panesar last summer, it may just be Flintoff, and not Fletcher, who has a blind spot when it comes to Monty's potential.

Whatever the case, it's hard to escape the feeling that the shadows are gathering on Fletcher's term of office as England coach. It's virtually inconceivable that the Ashes can be retained now and further humiliation awaits at the World Cup. Fletcher has been an incredibly influential figure in the renaissance of English cricket these past seven years, but am I the only person who feels that we may be at the point where England require a little more than his grim-faced, pedestrian conservatism?


Elsewhere on Planet Cricket...

Shoaib Akhtar and Mohammad Asif saw their drugs bans waived on appeal, Damien Martyn decided to jump before he was pushed, and New Zealand beat Sri Lanka before what looked like a few men and their dogs in Christchurch.

I haven't followed the ins and outs of the Pakistan case very closely so I can't really comment, but the decision didn't come as a surprise. Nor, of course, did Percy Sonn's reaction, although whether that means he can do anything about it is another matter. Expect them both to be taking wickets again at an ODI venue near you soon.

Martyn was the most understated member of the great Australian sides of recent years, and he did his best work in Asia, so the memories of this Englishman are limited and hazy. He was at his best in England in 2001 and I recall seeing him make a typically elegant 176 not out against Somerset at Taunton, although the lasting impression is of an innings which was just too easy to be truly captivating. Wisden reveals the Somerset 'attack' to have been average to say the least, but one vague point of interest is that Shoaib was 'guesting' for Somerset. He took two early wickets (Justin Langer and Simon Katich, since you ask) before disappearing from view and leaving a group of tyros to take a hiding from Martyn.

Planet cricket can be a small world...


With England in such a mess I decided to lie low for a few days to let the dust settle. Not that it's done anything of the sort.

The media are blaming Fletcher, Fletcher's blaming the batsmen, the supporters are blaming Giles (and Fletcher) and Flintoff's not blaming anybody. Apart from 'one bad hour', Adelaide went quite well. Sure, Freddie.

All a bit messy, and then there's Vaughan as well. Andrew Miller has made a valiant attempt to make sense of it all here.


On the Money

Whatever's going on in the cricket world, it's always worth seeking out what the one and only Gideon Haigh has to say about it. This is his latest contribution to his Cricinfo blog:


Right on the money by my reckoning. I too got fed up with the bullshit that Flintoff was spouting yesterday about 'one bad hour', and, as Gideon suggests, they're probably missing Vaughan's captaincy more than has previously been suspected.

Whether they'll ever get it back is another matter.


A Different Feel

Well, I said on Sunday that the series now had a much more even feel to it. That was premature, but it certainly has a different feel now. It feels like Australia are 2-0 up and an odds-on bet to regain the Ashes.

After following the action from the early hours via radio and television I'm too tired to come up with anything massively analytical or coherent, but I did see enough to realise that, well though Warne bowled, a series of England players (notably Pietersen, Flintoff and Jones) contributed to their own downfall and the humiliation of their side with poorly-conceived and badly-executed strokes.

It's something Flintoff does again and again. It's a habit he must kick (and fast) if he's not going to seem more and more like an outstanding seam bowler who can slog a few rustic runs on a good day, rather than the pedigree all-rounder he is capable of being.

Jones we know all about. He's chiefly in the side because of his batting. Which is a pity, as his batting continues to plough the furrow of mediocrity which it has occupied since the Lahore Test a year ago. But he needn't worry. It's clear that his place in the side is safe for as long as he wants it. Which, of course, is part of the problem.

And it's best not to get started on the team selection. Jimmy Anderson currently has two wickets in the series at an average in excess of 150. I reckon Monty would have done a bit better than that.

Try telling that to Fletcher, though. Who, of course, is part of the problem.


New Maturity

It was good to see that Hoggard got his five wickets. In fact he made it seven, extracting more life from a moribund surface than any of his colleagues.

Nice also to see Michael Clarke make a century. At times on the 2005 tour it was easy to see why he was so highly regarded in his homeland, but the period since then has been difficult for him, with his repeated failures to convert good starts and flashy half-centuries into match influencing hundreds leading to his eventual omission from the side. The word is that he displayed a new maturity in this knock and it seems certain that he will stay in the side for Perth, probably at the expense of Damien Martyn, if Shane Watson is fit to provide the extra bowling option which Australia feel they need. Not that England will lose any sleep.

At some stage in the early hours Christopher Martin-Jenkins said on TMS that Michael Clarke reminded him of Kim Hughes. This struck a chord, partly because there are certain clear similarities, but also because Hughes is a bit of a forgotten man, regarded as a representative of Australian cricket's darkest years and chiefly remembered for resigning the national captaincy in tears. I saw plenty of Hughes in England in 1980 and 1981 and he was a stylish, aggressive and individualistic batsman. Perhaps a bit more spontaneity and flair than Clarke, but I have a feeling that Clarke will end up doing better in Test cricket.

With England finishing the day on 59-1 the draw still looks the best bet and would probably be a fitting end to a match played on a pitch too bland for the bowling attack of either side. The game has reminded me a bit of the Lord's Test between England and Pakistan last July - plenty of decent batting to enjoy but not enough of a genuine contest between bat and ball.

More pace at Perth, please (time was, you wouldn't even have to ask).



A quick mention for Matthew Hoggard, who bowled superbly today.

He had a very tough tour of Australia in 2002-03 and is now demonstrating how much additional skill and maturity he's acquired in the intervening four years.

Here's hoping he gets his first five-wicket haul against Australia tomorrow.

Emerging Themes, Changing Times

Three days down in Adelaide and certain themes are emerging. Australia had a better day on Sunday, with Ponting and Hussey again knitting their reply together, but Hayden and Martyn both failed, as did Langer the previous evening. This, together with the hammering which Warne and McGrath took at the hands of Pietersen and Collingwood, has started to get the world's hacks and bloggers questioning whether this is the beginning of the end for this great Australian team.

I think some of the comments, especially those directed at the bowlers, are premature, but they do highlight the fact that, slowly, inexorably, the times are changing for Australia. I didn't see many people questioning McGrath after he took 6 for 50 in Brisbane, and he's clearly not fully fit in the current game. I think there's probably still plenty of bowling in both him and Warne and some runs in the side's senior batsmen. Where things are on the turn is that, in this match, each of them has come up against a younger opponent with too much vitality and commitment (Flintoff), skill and persistence (Hoggard) and sheer effervescent genius (Pietersen) for them to handle. In itself it's a sign of how quickly and effectively England have turned things round after the Gabba and of how difficult a transition Australia are going to have to go through over the next few years. Warne is clearly irreplaceable and so to is McGrath (though Stuart Clark and perhaps Mitchell Johnson will try). In the batting ranks Phil Jaques will be one new opener and Hussey could move up the order, Michael Clarke may consolidate his position in the middle order (perhaps starting tomorrow), but there are few other candidates demanding immediate inclusion. Some dark days lie ahead.

This Test still seems most likely to be drawn and Australia to go to Perth one up. The series, though, has started to have a much more even feel to it, and, if England could manage to pull off a win, they would hold a considerable advantage going into the remaining games.

Maybe it won't be over by Christmas after all...


Nocturnal Activities

Ashes series in Australia are tough, unrelenting affairs. They sap the will and force you to draw on every ounce of mental and physical stamina. Blood can be spilt, sweat can be shed and tears can be wept. At the end you're left in a state of drained exhaustion, thanking God (or perhaps Bob Woolmer) that you won't be involved in another one for four years.

And that's just those of us back in Britain.

I've been doing this sort of thing a long time (since the Brisbane Test of November 1974 to be precise) and it doesn't get any easier as you get older.

Take last night: Bed at 9.30. Up at 12.30 to hear Collingwood reach his hundred (though can't quite muster the energy to go downstairs and watch it). Sleep for a while, hear Pietersen reach his hundred, sleep for a bit longer and have a vivid and extremely enjoyable dream. Wake up at around 4.30 and realise that Collingwood's now gaining fast on 200 and decide it's time to stagger down and see it happen. Break into impromptu applause (heaven knows what the new neighbours think) when Collingwood lofts the ball for four to get there and remain rooted to the sofa until close of play.

Shave, shower, get dressed, switch on computer, type this and prepare for the rest of Saturday in the knowledge that, though England have had their second dominant day in a row, the pitch remains good and it's hard to see Australia capitulating quickly tomorrow. Which means I might get a bit more sleep.

And the players think they have it tough?


No Frills

Well, even allowing for their ridiculous team selection (and I'm sure you can guess what I'm referring to), it wasn't a bad day for England. In fact, in the context of the way things have generally been going so far, it was a good one. Especially for one player.

The first time I really paid any attention to Paul Collingwood was during my first - and so far only - visit to the Riverside, in September 2001. Durham were playing Worcestershire and I caught the back end of a Collingwood century. He'd made his ODI debut for England earlier that summer but hadn't achieved much and I wasn't really sure what to make of him. What was clear, however, was how much affection he was held in by the Durham faithful, whose shouts of 'well played Colly' echoed around the broad acres of the new ground.

Of course, I now know a whole lot more about him, as do an increasing number of the world's bowling attacks. And I must hold my hands up and say that as recently as last summer I still had doubts that he was a player of Test quality (with the bat - his peerless fielding is another thing entirely), but those have all gone now. Similarly, before Brisbane I would have joined the ranks of the critics who felt that Pietersen, and not Collingwood, ought to be England's number four.

But then again, what do I know? Steve Waugh always liked the look of him and he, as much as anybody, knows that you don't get any marks for style in Test cricket. With characteristic level-headedness Colly's moved on instantly from his self-destructive dismissal on 96 at the Gabba and made an assured 98* on the first day in Adelaide, which will hopefully be converted into his first Ashes century tomorrow morning. Then he has to go on.

As for the others, neither Strauss nor Cook has properly found his feet yet. This time Strauss looked to be undone by the pitch and Cook by an intense spell of seam bowling from Stuart Clark. Bell was typically sound and was just starting to move up a gear when he skied a return catch to Brett Lee. Pietersen was Pietersen. Hyper-confident, more than a little unorthodox but touched with genius to a greater extent than any England batsman since…well, who? David Gower?

And if we're making historical comparisons, who was the last England player with a similar combination of no-frills technique and ironclad temperament to Collingwood? My money's on David Steele.


Ashes (Part II)

Two and a half hours to go before it all starts again at Adelaide. There's nothing to say (that hasn't been said many times before), except, whether they win the toss or not, England must have a good day today.

The fate of the series could depend upon it.

Praise be to Allah (and Bob Woolmer)

Leaving the Ashes to one side for a further minute, one of the most interesting features of international cricket over the past year has been the way in which the man formerly known as Yousuf Youhana has gone from being a very capable international batsman, but one who'd never really pulled up any trees, to being the most formidable damn run-machine on the planet (with the possible exception of Ricky Ponting).

After his outstanding exploits in England last summer, Mohammad Yousuf has simply gone on churning out the runs in his graceful, understated, but largely unstoppable way, to the point where, today, he passed Viv Richards' record for the most Test runs made in a calendar year, which had stood since 1976. Richards made 1710, Yousuf has made 1788.

Yousuf doesn't bowl, tends to struggle in the field and doesn't say much. When he does talk it's usually just to thank Allah for his munificence. On this occasion he went slightly further, publicly thanking Bob Woolmer for his influence on his glorious journey.

It's nice to see one English coach is doing something right...


Vaughan is Back (Well, Sort Of)

In a week for straw clutching I suppose we should all rejoice at the news that Michael Vaughan has finally made it back on to a cricket field, for the England Academy against the Western Australia Second XI.

Apparently a few of members of the press corps decided to pop over to Perth from Adelaide to see the great man and were rewarded by seeing him get out for a duck.

It was earlier reported on Radio Five Live that he'd left the field while fielding but that the good old ECB media management department had stated that there was 'nothing to worry about'. Doubtless so, but you just know that they'd still say that if he'd just had his leg amputated below the knee in the dressing room, so it's pretty hard to tell what's going on.

Vaughan is making optimistic noises but I'm sure we won't see him in the Test series (Fletcher has said as much). Best just to let him get on with his rehabilitation and hope to see him in the VB series in the new year. Indeed, England are such a poor one-day side that even someone with Vaughan's mediocre record in the short form of the game might improve their chances.

We'll see. In the meantime, the Cathedral End beckons...


Indian Signs

Getting away from you know what for a minute, an excellent article from Cricinfo on Indian domestic cricket - in fact Indian cricket culture - and its effect on the development of players who can excel at international level:




With the Brisbane Test gone the way of all things it seems that the main question that should never be asked of an England cricketer at the moment is whether or not they think that they were under-prepared. It seems obvious to virtually everyone outside the squad that this was the case, yet they're having none of it.

Not that the ECB could have done much more amid the stifling claustrophobia of the current international calendar, but more - and more meaningful - warm-up matches would surely have given England a better chance of competing at the Gabba, especially when the number of long-term casualties in their attack is taken into account. Giles? Out injured for a year. Anderson? Out injured for the majority of the 2006 English season. Flintoff? Ditto. Harmison? Fit, but with his outstanding bowling at Old Trafford during the summer fading from memory and seeming more and more like a mirage.

To clutch at straws, the signs on the fourth day were better, and, with some adjustments in selection (Panesar for Anderson to start with, which would hardly lengthen the tail) and a miraculous rediscovery of form from Harmison, they could yet compete at Adelaide and in the rest of the series.

Personally, though, I wouldn't bet on it.


Digging In, Getting Out

A better day for England, with Collingwood and Pietersen both making runs impressively enough to concern Australia a bit, if not about the prospect of defeat, about the prospect of what their media will say if they fail to win.

At the risk of sounding like Geoff Boycott, who's doing a very good job of sounding like himself on Test Match Special, I was disappointed with the way in which Collingwood, and especially Flintoff, got out.

Boycott regularly bemoans the fact that nobody is prepared to play the type of long, attritional innings which is required to secure draws in Test cricket from the type of position which England found themselves in after the third day, and the way in which Collingwood and Pietersen were playing when I got up (with Collingwood on 92) seemed more in keeping with the later stages of an ODI.

It all looked a little bit too frantic and it wasn't that surprising when Colly got himself stumped on 96. Which brought Flintoff to the crease. Having got to 16 with the aid of some superb shots (one cover drive on the up off Lee was vintage Freddie) he carved an ugly hoick to Langer at long on off Warne. For a player with his talent, Flintoff remains depressingly prone to this type of dismissal, and it seems to me that he needs to become a bit less prone to it if England are really going to compete in the series.

With all that said, they have at least shown that they can compete, and, with KP still there on 92 there's a wafer thin chance that they can get out of Brisbane with a draw tomorrow.

But the new ball beckons, and so does England's fragile tail, so it's still odds against. Time for young Geraint to produce the runs which Duncan always seems to be expecting?



With three days gone at Brisbane, England are out of the game. They have absolutely no realistic chance of winning the Test and only a slender hope of saving it.

Most of the talk this morning has been about Ricky Ponting's decision not to enforce the follow-on, even though Australia were 445 runs ahead on first innings.

One of the most perceptive comments about this was made by ABC's Tim Lane when he pointed out on Test Match Special that many players in the Australian side, Ponting included, were mentally scarred by their experiences in Calcutta in 2001, meaning that they're more aware than most that to enforce the follow-on does not always mean certain victory. It can spell defeat and humiliation. Never forget, also, that Australia are the only team ever to enforce the follow-on in a Test match and lose. And they've done so three times.

So these considerations can always cloud an Australian captain's horizon, even when they seem absurd.

It's also obvious that Ponting and his team want to put the distresses of the 2005 series behind them by putting an under-prepared England side firmly in its place as swiftly and decisively as possible. If they feel it needs a sledgehammer to crack a nut, they'll use one. And they are.

As they trooped off the pitch this morning England's players already had the look of defeated men, but, as Nasser Hussain said on Sky, they need to bear in mind how Ponting is going to feel (and how much stick he's going to get from the Australian media) if they manage to draw the game.

The pitch is clearly still playing well so it should not be beyond England to survive for what will be less than two full days.

Somehow, though, you tend to feel they won't.


Let's Get It Started

I've had enough of all the articles, interviews, previews, trailers, memories, predictions, highlights, lowlights, books, magazines, newspapers and websites.

I've had enough of all the waiting.

The Ashes series starts in about five hours.

Lara Man

Somebody once said that when it comes to the two greatest batsmen of the modern era you're either a 'Lara Man or a 'Tendulkar Man'. Well, ever since I saw him make 152 against England at Trent Bridge in August 1995, I've been a Lara Man.

I haven't written about him here before as he hasn't been doing much since I started this blog in July, but his 216 against Pakistan in Multan is resonant confirmation that, with his 38th birthday on the horizon, he remains as potent a batting artist as ever.

With Tendulkar you get as much technical quality as you could possibly want and a good many shots which are so sublime that nobody else around (except possibly Lara) could play them. Lara, though, exhibits an even more remarkable brand of brilliance, distinguished by the priceless ability to play really large innings when they're most required, comprising periods of studied defence and coruscating attacking shots, all emanating from the most distinctive backlift in the game. It's possible, occasionally and if everything goes right, to keep Tendulkar relatively quiet. It's much, much harder to do so with Lara.

I'm old enough to have seen Viv Richards, Greg Chappell and Gavaskar at their best, but I firmly believe Lara to be the greatest batsman I've ever seen and it looks likely that he'll be back in England again next spring.

I will certainly be at Lord's and possibly Chester-le-Street. I hope he's there too.


The Oval, 12th September 2005

With it all about to start again I thought it would be good to post some of the pictures I took at The Oval last September. I was also thinking about writing something about that day but I can't find the time to do it justice at the moment. Another time, maybe.
If anybody fancies paying me to go to any of the forthcoming Tests and take some similar photos (perhaps without the element of English triumph), please get in touch.


It was good to see England finding a bit of form against South Australia in Adelaide, the main beneficiaries from time at the crease being Ian Bell and Paul Collingwood.

You tend to feel that Collingwood's temperament is so strong that he'll do okay wherever he bats but the loss of Trescothick has thrust more pressure on to the slight shoulders of Bell.

It's clear from reading around the web and the print media that quite a few people still have doubts about Bell, largely based on his diffident and ineffectual performances during the 2005 series.

I'd like to be able to say that I don't have any doubts at all, but I can't. However, I am firmly convinced that Bell is a world-class player, and, with a bit of luck and a following wind (the 'Fremantle Doctor' perhaps) he could do very well indeed.

For England's sake he needs to.


Mind Games

There's not much I can add to Peter Roebuck's superb summary of the Trescothick situation in the Sydney Morning Herald here or to what David Foot says here.

All very sad, and doubly so for those of us who've followed Marcus's career since he was a lad and thought that the outwardly balanced insouciance of his temperament would make him an unlikely candidate to suffer this type of problem. But that probably just illustrates how little we know both of him and his condition.

In hindsight there was always a good chance that this would happen, so the decision to take him to Australia must be questioned; I suppose nobody (including Marcus himself) really knew how likely his condition was to recur, but, having done so once, it's bound to be regarded as likely to do so again, making it unlikely that the selectors will be prepared to take any risks with him in the future. And, if he can't tour, then there can be no point in picking him for home Tests either. There must be a very good chance indeed, therefore, that his Test career has run its course, just over a month before his 31st birthday.

That's as maybe. If it has, well, he's done okay. Bloody well, in fact.

Myself and a good few others down here in the west will be hoping that he can flourish once again for Somerset, and, with his family near at hand, there must be a good chance that he can. I spend a large part of every summer in the Ian Botham Stand at Taunton, and we haven't seen Marcus round that way too much in recent years.

As and when he takes the field again in a Somerset sweater, I hope I'm there.


I've felt for a long time that there was a good chance that the concerns about Australian crowds behaving in an abusive and even racist manner towards Monty Panesar would become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The news that he was apparently abused by an isolated spectator during the England game against New South Wales doesn't bring this any closer to reality but does indicate the possibility of further problems down the line. Hopefully the Australian authorities are on top of it.

In the meantime, the person (and I'm assuming it was a man) who abused Panesar deserves the widest possible castigation for his sheer stupidity. According to Cricinfo the Sydney Daily Telegraph reported that the spectator had derided Panesar as 'a stupid Indian' and had asked 'What are you doing playing in the English side? You're not English'.

If you ever want to borrow my Playfair, mate, you're welcome to it. It will show that Panesar was born in Luton (Bedfordshire, England) on 25th April 1982 and is therefore, demonstrably (we'll assume Monty was telling the truth when he filled in Bill Frindall's last questionnaire) English. In fact, he's a damn sight more English than one of his team-mates, who was born in Pietermaritzburg, which, last time I checked, was in South Africa.

Not that I'm inviting you to have a go at KP. Best just stay well away from cricket.


Debate Or No Debate?

I haven't been around for a few days and already things have moved on. As anyone with enough interest in cricket to be here will know, England duly lost to John Howard's team in Canberra and have since moved on to Sydney where they are currently making a slightly better fist of a three-day game against New South Wales. I don't think it was necessary to lose too much sleep over the Prime Minister's game as it's normal for England touring sides to struggle in the early stages of tours, although, as the preparation time before the first Test in Brisbane is so short (with just four playing days left), it's been good to see that things have gone better at the SCG.

I was amused to hear Andrew Strauss's sideways reference the other day to the fact that 'Gatt's team' (the successful 1986-87 party led by Mike Gatting) were described as having only three things wrong with them before the first Test of that series - 'they can't bat, they can't bowl and they can't field'. Strauss used this as an example of the type of jibe that's traditionally wheeled out by the Australian press when England teams arrive on their shores but he had clearly forgotten (or, as he was just nine at the time, probably never knew) that that famous aside was penned by an English journalist, Martin Johnson, who made his name with The Independent in the late eighties by employing a deft range of sarcastic wit.

But that's beside the point. Of far greater significance in the overall scheme of things is the fact that Fletcher came out and confirmed what most people had assumed already, namely that an early decision had been taken that Geraint Jones was going to go into the series (and doubtless finish it) as the England wicket-keeper. I wouldn't want to say that I told you so, but I always had the feeling (and wrote so here) that Chris Read was selected for the final two Tests of the English summer despite rather than because of Fletcher, and I always felt that Jones would be back for Brisbane. Of course, the fact that Jones is felt by Fletcher (and apparently Flintoff) to be the better batsman has been advanced as the reason, but it seems unfair to judge Read on his poor displays with the willow in India when he actually batted quite well (and at least as well as Jones had been doing for the previous year) when he played against Pakistan at Headingley and the Oval. Also, although Jones was ostensibly sent away to score runs for Kent, he didn't do so. This said, I agree with Will Luke at The Corridor that Read's keeping wasn't that great, especially in India, although part of the problem is that a myth grew up around him when he wasn't in the Test side that he was a really exceptional keeper when, although he's a conspicuously more natural gloveman than his rival, he's not, and never will be, a Jack Russell, let alone a Bob Taylor.

I also agree that Jones's more orthodox technique and experience of growing up in Australian conditions make him more likely to make runs in the series.

It's a huge vote of confidence for Jones but he'd better make damn sure he keeps as well as he can and makes some serious runs, or I can see the whole debate starting again by Christmas (although I have no doubt that, in Fletcher's mind, there's no debate). Either way, I tend to take the view that they're both just keeping the seat warm for Steven Davies and, if Jones fails in the Ashes series, we may be seeing him in the side sooner (against West Indies next spring) rather than later.

In the meantime we'll be able to amuse ourselves by going back to thinking about Giles and Panesar. With those two you just know that in Fletcher's mind there is a debate, whereas in the minds of most England followers, there simply isn't.


This Way Madness Lies

Well, it all starts tonight. Somewhat unexpectedly Sky are carrying coverage of England's game against the Prime Minister's XI from Canberra, so I reckon I might tune in to some of it. Come to think of it, it's not that surprising, as Sky have been hyping the Test series for weeks and, as this represents the start of the preliminaries to the first act of the main event of the most eagerly-awaited Test series since the dawn of time (and possibly before), I suppose they were always going to be tempted to show something that may well turn out to be just another one-day match. It would be nice, though, for England to start with a win, in which case it probably won't seem like just another one-day game (as England usually lose those).

Is it just me, or is anybody else currently filled with foreboding about what the series may bring? It's been built up to such an extent that reality seems bound to fall short of expectation, and Australia, from where I'm standing, currently look like firm favourites.

Even more so if England do what Fletcher seemed to be pondering earlier in the week - playing Ashley Giles instead of Monty Panesar to strengthen the batting because an extra bowler will be required to cover the fact that Flintoff's not going to be fit to bowl his share of overs, at least in the early part of the series. Tim de Lisle marshals the arguments against doing this very well here.

All very hard to argue with, unless, of course you're Duncan Fletcher. It's hardly a secret that Fletcher has his favourites. Ashley Giles is one, Geraint Jones another.

What price Panesar and Read for Brisbane?


Mark Vermeulen

My first reaction, on reading on Cricinfo that Mark Vermeulen was being questioned by Zimbabwean police in connection with arson attacks on the Zimbabwe cricket academy and the ZCU offices was to laugh. Not because it was remotely funny, but because I could hardly believe that he - even Mark Vermeulen - could have done it. When I read that he'd been charged (which looked inevitable) and got to grips with some of the background to what's been going on in his life over the last few months, I felt very sad.

When he hit the news after he threatened members of the crowd while playing in the Lancashire League last summer it seemed to be just another example of the suspect temperament which had hindered the deveIopment of his Test career, but his latest actions (if, as seems likely, he was responsible for the fires) have taken things into an entirely different realm. As Martin Williamson wrote on Cricinfo, Vermeulen's behaviour has apparently been extremely erratic recently, even by his standards, and all the evidence suggests that he is suffering from a depressive illness, which may have been caused or at least exacerbated by the two serious blows on the head which he received earlier in his career. For the time being it is good news that he has avoided jail, but, in the longer term he may not be so lucky and one can only fear for where he might end up.

Although Zimbabwean cricket has been pushed to the brink by the actions of a self-serving and perverse governing elite, the academy was apparently an excellent facility which was going to have an important role to play in the context of the country's attempts to regain its former status. It seems truly outrageous that the actions of a player who has tasted Test cricket could do such harm to the chances of younger players whose only aspiration is to follow in his footsteps, but one can only hope that there are mitigating circumstances and that Vermeulen gets the help which he surely needs.

The Drugs Don't Work (But Your Hair Always Goes In The End)

Well, maybe they do. But, as nobody ever admits what they've taken, you can't be sure.

What we can be sure of, after the actions of the PCB last week, is that we won't be seeing Shoaib Akhtar and Mohammad Asif around this way for a while. In the case of Shoaib, it may be that his career in top-level cricket has come to an end. Mohammad Asif, apparently treated more leniently on account of his rural upbringing and consequent lack of awareness about drugs, will be seen again. He's far too good to go missing.

It's been what Pakistani cricket followers (and players) might regard as a bittersweet week. They've lost the services of their two best seam bowlers but their umpiring bete noir (Darrell Hair, in case you hadn't noticed) has been fired from the ICC Elite Panel.

I wonder if they'd agree to Hair continuing to umpire them if they could have the two bowlers back?

I think that's what's called a rhetorical question...

Nine And A Half Weeks

I haven't been around much over the last couple of weeks - work and rugby trips to Gloucester, Cornwall and up the sunlit Exe Valley to Tiverton have seen to that. Having dissected Gloucester's Heineken Cup defeat against Agen over a post-match beer at Kingsholm with my Welsh mate Alan, our thoughts turned to the Ashes series. We were both fairly pessimistic (this was before we'd heard that England had managed to beat the West Indies in the dreaded Champions Trophy but somehow I don't think that knowledge would have altered our views all that much) and the eventual consensus of the ideas, issues and theories which we tried to get our heads round as the wind picked up and the gloom descended was that England could win the series and retain the Ashes, but that it would depend on various pieces of a large and currently very messy jigsaw falling into place.

Where does the average England fan's mind go to when thinking about the Ashes? Unless you're trying very hard it goes straight back to the late summer of 2005, that's where. And the single most important factor in England's win was the outstanding form of Andrew Flintoff. Sure, there were valuable contributions at one stage or another from a wide range of players, some of whom weren't even on the plane which has just landed in Australia (Michael Vaughan, Simon Jones), but Flintoff, with his prodigious ability and guileless charisma, was always at the heart of things.

Which is why, as Brisbane beckons, England need, more than anything else, Flintoff to prove his fitness to bowl long and penetrative spells and produce innings that feature the type of boisterous power which is second nature to him, while also displaying a degree of rationality in shot selection which has often seemed entirely foreign.

In India the signs weren't hopeful. He didn't bowl much and made few runs, looking for all the world like someone who hadn't played properly for several months (which he was). And now he has just two warm-up matches in which to rediscover some semblance of the form which made him everyone's favourite cricketer just over a year ago.

Of course, other players also need to 'step up to the plate' (as Duncan Fletcher might say). Harmison needs to quickly re-discover the reverberating hostility and pace which made him the world's leading bowler in 2004, England's batting tyros, Ian Bell (the new - and very welcome - ICC Emerging Player of the Year) and Alastair Cook, need to find their feet immediately against Warne and the rest, Marcus has to start batting as we know he can at the top of the order, Monty has to drop it on his usual length and find his usual turn and whichever wicket-keeper survives the selection process (and I'm convinced it will again be Jones) has to hold everything and make some runs as well.

If most of this happens then England will have a decent chance of retaining the urn, even against an Australian team with home advantage and which will be more strongly motivated than ever before.
If some or none of it happens England are in trouble. The signs aren't great, and my current feeling is that England are going to be in trouble.

As somebody once said, though, 'a week is a long time in politics'. The only problem here is that we're talking about cricket, but experience has taught me that nine and a half weeks (as somebody once called a film) is a long time in cricket.

See you at the SCG in early January. It's going to be an interesting ride.


Walking the Walk

Ian Botham, Sydney, March 1992

Photograph: Mark Ray (Copyright)

This piece on Cricinfo caught my eye during the week.

Makes you wonder why Botham's never been knighted, either for his services to the game or charity (or both).

I somehow doubt if he's bothered, though.

The Playing Mantis

One of the few good things about the Champions Trophy is that it's given me the opportunity to enjoy once again the remarkable commentary of Jeremy Coney.

To those of us who've been following world cricket for a while, Coney (aka 'The Playing Mantis', or so his autobiography was called, I must read it sometime) will always be familiar as the doughty batsman, crafty dobber and intelligent captain who led New Zealand during its 'Golden Era' in the mid-eighties.

My first memory of him as a commentator rather than a player is of him attempting to liven up the commentary box during one of the most boring overseas Test series England have ever been involved in. Until Coney recited a speech from The Tempest as the Wellington rains blew across the Basin Reserve in March 1988 nobody had performed Shakespeare on TMS. It's a fair bet, also, that nobody (except possibly Coney) has done so since.

A quick Google search came up with this.

A very interesting and entertaining man.

Australia 1 England 0 (but how much does it really mean?)

I think the most percipient comment made during England's abject defeat by Australia in the Champions Trophy yesterday was that of the Cricket Correspondent of The Sun, John Etheridge, who made the point during his commentary stint on Five Live Sports Extra that whoever won (and I think this was before England collapsed) would say that the result had some bearing on the outcome of the Ashes series (if only in terms of boosting that side's confidence), while whichever side lost would maintain that it meant nothing at all.

I can't comment on what happened in the game as I saw virtually nothing of it, but I don't think it did very much other than confirm that England aren't very good at one-day cricket (in fact they're dreadful) and Andrew Flintoff's short of match practice.

Fortunately England are pretty good at Test cricket and so have a reasonable chance of pitching up at the 'Gabba on November 23rd and doing okay. Which may be enough.

Unfortunately Andrew Flintoff has just two 'first-class' matches before the first Test to try to get himself into the type of shape which he needs to be in.

Which may not be enough...



My first reaction, when hearing the news yesterday morning that Shoaib Akhtar and Mohammad Asif had failed drug tests, was 'What?!!'. Then, when good old Malcolm Speed gave his first reaction to the latest drama to confront both Pakistan cricket and the wider world game and pointed out that the drugs involved were not recreational but 'performance enhancing', my first reaction was 'Performance enhancing? You mean someone's invented an illicit substance that helps you bowl a good line and length? Give me some of it now and the village batsmen of Devon will have to watch out next season.'

Of course, the truth was somewhat different.

Nobody has come up with an easy route to the seam bowler's penetrative nirvana of a tight off-stump line and just enough pace, deviation and bounce to trouble any batsman. All you can do is find yourself a body and an action like Glenn McGrath's and work like hell. Then you might just get somewhere.

And, even, if there were such a drug, there's no evidence to support the idea that Asif would need it. At times, after regaining his fitness for the latter stages of Pakistan's tour of England in the late summer of 2006, he looked for all the world like one of the most skilled young bowlers to hit the international scene in many years. Line and length, plus enough pace, movement and bounce to trouble virtually anyone.

As for Shoaib, like Asif he hardly needs any drugs to improve his bowling. He has as much if not more raw speed than anyone else who's ever laced up a bowling boot and the ability to land it in the right place as much as necessary. His only problems have usually been his head and his body. Which is where we came in.

It soon became clear that both Shoaib and Asif had tested positive for Nandrolone, a substance which, as those in the know queued up to tell us yesterday, enables players to train harder and recover from injury quicker than would otherwise be the case. Both players were injured for the majority of the England tour, before making late recoveries, so are we to suppose that they might not have recovered so quickly and made those comebacks if they hadn't been taking something they shouldn't have?

Who knows? It's been stressed ever since that the players' 'B' samples have yet to be tested but these rarely contradict the results of the initial tests, so it looks as though we have another 'cricket crisis' on our hands. The talk is of two-year bans, and, when Shane Warne got a year for taking a diuretic given to him by his mum, that's probably about right.

Shoaib has protested his innocence but everybody who's ever tested positive for any substance in any sport has done that. Which doesn't mean that he's guilty, merely that we need to ignore what both he and the media are saying until the second samples have been tested.

Just when Speed thought he'd managed to shift the fallout from The Oval off his desk another pile of dirty linen has been deposited there.

And, for once, Darrell Hair's nowhere to be seen...


Normal Service Is Resumed

England have lost a One-Day International to India. Forgive me if I don't get too excited or too downcast, but I simply can't manage to stir myself into any sort of emotional response to the news from the Champions Trophy.

It's good to see Flintoff back where he belongs and it looks as though England at least managed to avoid a complete thrashing.

But it's happened before and it will happen again. England simply aren't very good at one-day cricket.

And do I care? Well, not really. Sure, I'd like them to do better, but I won't lose any sleep over it (that's reserved for live coverage of Ashes Tests later in the winter).

Which may, as some have suggested, be part of the problem. Perhaps I exemplify the fact that people in England just don't care enough about one-day cricket. We prefer that strange, slow-burning, multi-dimensional form of the game called Test cricket. I think most of the players do too.

Lose a Test match, lose a Test series, lose the Ashes, and it hurts. Lose a prosaic, formulaic ODI and there'll be another stack along next year to lull everybody into ever greater extremes of ennui.

Bring on the Aussies (and I mean in Brisbane, not Jaipur).

All Our Yesterdays

Over recent months I've been watching a lot of cricket on ESPN Classic (it's on Sky 442 for anyone who hasn't heard about it yet). During the summer they showed highlights of most of the England-West Indies Tests from the 1973, 1976, 1984 and 1995 series in England, and, as the 2006-07 Ashes series approaches, they're currently showing England-Australia matches of a similar vintage.

One of the best things about watching the ancient BBC highlights packages (apart, of course, from laughing at what Richie Benaud was wearing in the 1970s) is that the images and voices, especially the sublimely evocative tones of Jim Laker, take me back to (and sometimes beyond) the very edge of my cricketing consciousness. While I can remember bits of the 1972 series between England and Australia (for years I had a hazy memory in my head of a bowler with a ridiculously curved run-up and had no idea who it was until, during an eighties rain break, the BBC showed the highlights of Lord's '72 and I realised it was John Price) my memories of the 1973 series against the West Indies are more limited (trying to impersonate Gary Sobers in the garden after my father and elder brother had told me I was watching the best all-rounder of all time). So it was pretty shocking and more than a bit amusing to see Geoff Boycott repeatedly trying to commit suicide at Lord's before finally hooking the ball down Rohan Kanhai's throat with the sort of ill-judgement which would make him apoplectic today. And then there was the unbelievable hostility of the West Indies attack and the coolness and stoicism of Edrich and Close at Old Trafford in 1976, Richards at The Oval in the same year, the peerless Greg Chappell at Old Trafford in 1977, the pace, rhythm and class of John Snow and the young Dennis Lillee. The one and only Malcolm Marshall at Headingley and The Oval in 1984 and Botham (not the best commentator but hell what a player) trying his best to fight fire with fire.

It's been great.


And If They Don't, the ICC Will

Despite the fact that the last final, played between England and the West Indies and ending in near-darkness at The Oval in September 2004, was quite good, and that Cricinfo has been carrying a range of articles designed to convince me that it means something, I still think the Champions Trophy, coming just five months before the World Cup, is a massive waste of time.

However, someone did remind me at a cricket club committee meeting during the week that England's win over Australia at Edgbaston in the 2004 competition paved the way for their glorious performances in 2005, and we are going to see Andrew Flintoff back on the field and at England's helm. So perhaps it's not all bad.

Time, I suppose, to check out the Sky schedules and plump up the cushions.

The winter's viewing starts here.

If It Ain't Broke, The ECB Will Fix It

Although the weather in this part of the UK is still comparatively mild (almost warm, in fact) the English cricket season has long since disappeared into the darker recesses of the memory. I'm not fortunate enough to be personally acquainted with any professional cricketers, but I would imagine that most of them (with the obvious exception of Mark Ramprakash, who's dancing on television) are on holiday and some of them (Ian Blackwell) are on honeymoon.

It all seems quite a long time ago now, but, if you really try to remember, you can recall that Sussex won the County Championship and the re-vamped (aka ruined) Cheltenham and Gloucester Trophy, Essex won the First Division of the Pro 40 League, and Leicestershire won the Twenty20 Cup. The two first-class counties I follow most closely, Middlesex and Somerset, finished bottom of most of the competitions they entered, although my Minor County, Devon, did very well.

My lasting impression, though, is of what an unholy mess the county season's become. Okay, it wasn't much cop beforehand, but what really gave the ECB the peculiar idea that changing the C and G from a knockout competition into a group-based one where most sides lost interest after the first couple of games would be of benefit to English cricket? Not to mention getting rid of the Minor Counties, who rarely won and usually lost heavily, but whose participation in the competition had given people in many parts of the country their only opportunity to watch first-class cricketers in live action.

And then we had the re-launched Pro 40 League, which simply involved lopping five overs off the old Totesport League and pretending that a 40 over league was a radical new departure for cricket in this country. Well, maybe all the people who run the ECB are younger than me (the visual evidence suggests otherwise although I doubt the same is true of its marketing department) and don't remember the halcyon days of the John Player League, but it had obviously escaped their notice that the first league of that type actually began in 1969.

So, less a radical departure and more an example of re-embracing an old idea because you feel like altering things and can't think of anything original to do.

Anyway, that's all over and it's time to get on with the winter's cricket which certainly won't be devoid of meaning.

Oh dear, what's that? The ICC Champions Trophy has just started?

If it ain't broke...


A (Young) Man in a White Coat

Many thanks again to Will Luke at The Corridor, who pointed me in the direction of an excellent interview with the former Durham and England Under-19 batsman Michael Gough at Patrick Kidd's blog for The Times, Line and Length. Gough retired from the game at the end of the 2003 season, aged 23, and is now hoping to forge a new career as a first-class umpire.

As with most players who come out of the England junior ranks, I kept a close eye on Gough over his first few (and, as it turned out, only) seasons in county cricket. As Kidd explains, he had some initial success, going on an England 'A' tour in 1999-2000, and reached a peak in 2002, when he averaged over fifty in first-class cricket. But it was never enough.

With admirable candour Gough stated that he never enjoyed playing cricket for a living and was constantly thinking 'there has to be more to life than this'. Elsewhere in the interview, though, he emphasized how much he loves the game. This apparent paradox set me thinking.

When you watch county cricketers going through the motions, perhaps towards the end of the season, you sometimes find yourself wondering how many of them really enjoy what they're doing. And, if they do enjoy it, whether their enjoyment is suffused by the kind of emotional bond with the game that is customary to those of us who spend most of our waking hours following it. The answer, of course, is probably not, because, for all county pros, the game is their job. If and when they ever stop to think about it, most - at least those with enough runs or wickets under their belt to secure their next contract - would probably say that they enjoy what they're doing and are aware of how lucky they are, but you'd expect them to stop short of saying that they genuinely love the game. You tend to feel that those that enter the professional environment with an authentic love of the sport soon feel it wane under the remorseless pressure of earning their living from it. Which in turn may mean that those who stand the best chance of coping with those pressures are those who were a bit more ambivalent about it all to start with. Those who only ended up playing cricket for a living because they were good at it and it was always going to be more fun than working in an office or driving a van.

With all this said, though, one of the things which is drummed into you by youth coaches when you talk to them about young players and whether they'll 'make it' or not, is that it's very difficult indeed to sustain a professional career in any sport, and only those that really 'want it' (as well, of course, as having the necessary level of basic ability) will even make it to the bottom rung of the ladder.

The answer, I suppose, is to want it like hell until you get there but then be able to cope with the disappointment of it all being a bit more mundane than you expected. A bit, I suppose, like adult life.

Professional cricket clearly didn't suit Gough and he should be given credit for recognising this while he was young enough for it to be easy for him to switch his focus and still stay in the game.

He deserves to succeed and it'll be interesting watching him try.



Falling asleep in front of the Ten O'Clock News is probably one of the first signs of getting old. It still doesn't happen to me that often but it induces a level of disorientation that is often surprising. That's made even worse when you wake up to see an ICC Match Referee (in this case Ranjan Madugalle) passing judgement on the events of a Test match. What? Cricket on the Ten O'Clock News? Have England regained the Ashes or something?

Nothing that exciting, but The Oval, August 17th-20th 2006, was, as we know, no ordinary Test match.

Without going into everything again, I think the ICC got it about right. It was clearly felt that there was no visible evidence of tampering to the ball, and that Hair (and Doctrove don't forget) were mistaken. That's fine. But, as big Darrell apparently said yesterday, '…I know that if I make any mistake when I umpire, I make it in good faith'.

While Madugalle's statement (available on the ICC website here) clearly implies that he did not believe that the actions of Hair and Doctrove were either 'perverse...or involved bad faith' and emphasizes that it was '...no part of his [Inzamam ul-Haq's] defence to these charges to suggest that any of Mr.Hair's decisions were taken in bad faith or dishonestly', there are many in the Asian cricket firmament who take a different view. One of those is of course Shaharyar Khan, the PCB chairman and an annoyingly self-righteous presence throughout, who persists in maintaining that Pakistan's whole stance on the issue has been vindicated.

Well, not exactly, since Inzamam was found guilty of 'bringing the game into disrepute', in case you hadn't noticed. This was also about right as teams can't be allowed to refuse to play if they don't agree with an umpire's decision. That way anarchy lies.

Amid so much hot air, the sanest voice of reason belonged to Bob Woolmer, who reiterated his view that Law 42.3 urgently requires reform. How, in all logic, can polishing be allowed while virtually any other means of altering the condition of the ball is expressly prohibited?

In many ways, the most interesting and sensible clauses of Madugalle's judgement are the final ones, which state that:

'This was an unprecedented situation. If (one hopes not) such a situation were to recur in international cricket, I would hope and expect:

(1). The Umpires would do everything possible to try to defuse tensions in the dressing-room by explaining that a team is entitled to raise any grievance through the ICC but that it is not in their interests, or in the interests of the game, for the team to interrupt play.

(2). The Umpires and other officials should do everything possible to ensure the resumption of play. And they should not return to the field of play and then declare the match to be forfeited unless and until they are absolutely sure that the team is refusing to play the rest of the match. All other options should first be exhausted, involving discussions with the team captains and management.'

There is a clear implication here that Madugalle feels that Hair and Doctrove abandoned the match prematurely, and possibly also that Mike Procter, the Match Referee, did not do enough to try to defuse the crisis.

It also emerged from the hearing that Doctrove initially favoured a more moderate approach, advocating that he and Hair should spend a few further overs observing what was happening and trying to see if they could positively identify the 'culprit' before changing the ball. If that course of action had been followed and no culprit had been found, it is of course possible that the decision to change the ball may not ultimately have been taken and all this could have been avoided. One's feeling, though, is that Hair was dead set on changing the ball and awarding the penalty runs from the time of his first suspicions, so it would probably all have happened anyway.

We'll never know, though, so let's move on.


Weekes Away

I'm grateful to Will Luke for mentioning on The Corridor that Middlesex's Paul Weekes has announced his retirement. This had passed me by, and Will's summary of him is absolutely accurate.

It means something to me as I grew up supporting Middlesex and Weekes was just about the last young player to come into the Middlesex side before I left London to live in Devon in the early nineties. Since then, I've become more closely associated with cricket in Devon and Somerset, but I keep an eye on Middlesex and get to games whenever I can. With Middlesex's impending relegation from Division One of the County Championship they'll be playing Somerset again in first-class cricket for the first time since the competition split into two divisions and I reckon I might just be at Taunton (and possibly Lord's) for their matches next season.

In my early years in the south-west I still regarded myself as an exiled Middlesex supporter and went to a lot more of their games than I've managed in recent years. I have a particular memory of being at Worcester in August 1991 and seeing Weekes make a self-possessed and gutsy 57* in a poor Middlesex innings. This marked him down as a player who looked as though he'd be around for a while, and so it has proved. Apart, I think, from just one England A tour, wider recognition has eluded him, but he's played many more resolute innings, as well as a good few brilliant ones, especially in one-day cricket. Throw in some handy spells of off-spin and you have a very useful cricketer indeed.

At Bath in June he seemed happy to play the part of modest elder statesman in a young Middlesex side, and, seeing him field in the gloom as Somerset self-destructed, I got the impression that his career was beginning to wind down.

Cheers, Weekesy.


Darren the Great

It's the dream of all elite sportsmen to go out with a great performance, but few manage it. Even fewer can turn one on at will just when they need it. Only the very best can do that. Darren Lehmann, who has just made 339 in his final match for Yorkshire, is one such player.

His international record, though good, doesn't do him justice. For a variety of reasons, his career at the top level started too late for it ever to do that. But, as anyone who has followed Yorkshire over the past decade will tell you, this was a truly great batsman.

I didn't see enough of him live myself, although the mind's eye dwells on a good many televised dissections of impotent bowling attacks. One innings, though, was enough.

In August 2000 I had the good fortune to see Lehmann bat for Yorkshire against Somerset at Taunton, and I've never forgotten it. Mainly because I've never seen another innings in which one professional made batting look so easy against another professional team. It really was like watching an experienced adult cricketer play against a team of children. It all seemed so easy for Lehmann that the only surprise was that he didn't give his wicket away through boredom before he got to fifty. He made it to 56 before it all became too much.

This is a player who, thirty or forty years from now, probably won't be all that well remembered. When discussing great Australian batsmen of the end of the twentieth and the start of the twenty-first century all the obvious names will be there - Ponting, Hayden, Langer, both Waughs, Gilchrist.

If I'm still around I have an uneasy feeling that I'll be the old bloke in the corner who says 'Ah, but you should have seen Darren Lehmann bat...'

Central Contracts

There were some obvious decisions among the new round of England central contracts announced today - deals for Cook and Panesar for starters - but also some wishful ones - Simon Jones and Michael Vaughan - and a downright odd and potentially counter-productive one, which is covered very well by Tim de Lisle here.

As I've said all along, despite Read's generally excellent keeping and batting in the last two Tests against Pakistan, and the fact that Geraint Jones has made very few runs since he's been back at Kent, don't be surprised if Jones lines up in Brisbane. He will always be Fletcher's favourite and I can't see him being properly removed from the scene until Steven Davies can't be held back any longer.


Ashes to Ashes

The announcement of the Ashes party last Tuesday was big news, but I can't say I got too excited about it. There was little about it that was unpredictable or annoying. I would have liked to see Stuart Broad go instead of Liam Plunkett, and I'm really not sure what Ashley Giles is doing there when he hasn't bowled properly for a very long time, except to confirm many people's uneasy feelings about Fletcher's devotion to him, possibly to the detriment of the blessed Monty. And while Tim de Lisle was right to raise the question of whether Trescothick, after being ruled out of the Champions Trophy by 'stress-related illness', should have been considered fit to go on what will be an infinitely more stressful tour of Australia, I always knew he would be there.

As for the captaincy, well, it's usually good to have consistency from selectors, and they've at least been consistent in picking Flintoff, having originally announced that he would skipper the side in Australia prior to the Pakistan series. I do, though, have my doubts. Although Flintoff captained the side well in India, he was guilty of drastically over-bowling himself in the first Test against Sri Lanka at Lord's in May, and the only other serious contender, Andrew Strauss, did little wrong against Pakistan (apart from that delayed declaration at Lord's, which still annoys me). A difficult choice, but I would probably have gone for Strauss.

It'll all come out in the wash later in the winter. And it'll sure as hell be fun.


Major Minors

Last Tuesday was a big day for cricket. The world tried to come to terms with England winning a second consecutive ODI, the England squads for the Champions Trophy and the Ashes were named, and, most importantly (in my house, anyway), Devon won the Minor Counties Championship outright, beating Buckinghamshire in the final.

Most Minor County sides are an uneasy combination of weary old lags from the first-class game (Bucks' Keith Medlycott performed this role very ably when I was at Exmouth last Sunday), club cricketers who were never quite good enough to make it to county cricket and, in some cases, young home-grown talent from within the county borders. The Devon side which won all six of its Western Division games on the way to the final had all three sorts of player, but with a welcome accent on young players born, schooled and coached in the county. Devon's captain, Bobby Dawson, fits into at least two of the categories, having been born and educated in Exmouth itself and played for the county's junior sides prior to a lengthy period on the Gloucestershire staff in the nineties. For the last few years he's been captaining his native county with a potent blend of experience and tactical nous, and is a very good focal point for the younger players under his command. The only other player in Devon's victorious side with first-class experience was Ian Bishop, who had periods with both Somerset and Surrey but largely seemed to miss the boat with both. Having seen him bowl a majestic spell of controlled fast-medium outswing to run through the Wales side at Exmouth last month (he took 9-35), it was hard to understand why. Then you have the range of young players who have come through the county's excellently organised youth system, including the powerfully built seam bowler Trevor Anning, from whom much more will surely be heard around the Minor Counties circuit, the slight but powerful batting all-rounder David Court (who I once played against when he was sixteen - I doubt if he remembers) and the stylish and technically sound batsman Neil Bettis. And then you have the ones who don't fit into either of those categories, such as the excellent young wicket-keeper, Sandy Allen, who migrated south to Exeter University from Warwickshire when it became clear he wasn't going to make it there, and the county's two principal spinners, Andy Procter, an offie, and the leading championship wicket-taker this season, and Arwyn Jones, the former Oxfordshire left-armer who bowled Bucks out on the final's last day. Best of all is Neil Hancock, a New South Walian who came to Devon in the nineties, stayed, became naturalised and has repeatedly proved himself this season to be the outstanding batting all-rounder on the circuit.

Since moving to Devon at the start of the nineties I've watched a lot of the county's cricket, my early years here coinciding with the club's golden era under the captaincy of Peter Roebuck. Over recent seasons playing demands have meant that I've seen a lot less, but it's been a real pleasure to get back into it in 2006.

I reckon I might be seen at a few Devon games again in 2007.

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