Too Long For Its Own Good

Not much time to post this morning as I'm off to play cricket in the wilds of mid Devon, but it won't take long to point out that in the end the World Cup got the final it deserved - one-sided, interrupted by rain and too long for its own good. The farcical scenes at the end, when some of the finest cricketers in the world attempted to play in the dark when they needn't have been playing at all, just about summed up a tournament which has been too long and has lacked the type of verve and drama which used to be synonymous with one-day cricket and West Indian cricket.

It's all been said before about Australia and Adam Gilchrist, but it can, and will, be said again. After Gilchrist's century at Perth during the Ashes series I described him as the finest wicket-keeper-batsman of all time and then spent some time mulling over whether I'd gone too far. I now have no doubts at all.

And, in the end, Australia were just too good for anybody. It's now up to the rest to try to catch up.


End of the Road

So, after about seven weeks (I really can't be bothered to count) and goodness knows how many matches (ditto) it's all come down to Australia and Sri Lanka.

One of the few aspects of the tournament about which one can be unreservedly generous is that its best two sides have ended up in the final. And, if anyone stands a genuine chance of turning Australia over, Sri Lanka do.

That said, Australia are playing so well, are so motivated to win their third consecutive World Cup and to send Glenn McGrath, the competition's outstanding bowler, into retirement on the highest of highs, and are so collectively immune to pressure, that I'll be surprised if they fail to do so.

I hope they don't though, and I'll be backing Sanath, Mahela, Kumar, Murali and the rest all the way.


Prior Engagement

With Australia and Sri Lanka safely in the World Cup final (of which more later) the domestic news was made today by the so-called 'England Performance Squad'.

Of course it's good to see Tres back in there (and Owais Shah), but the identity of the wicket-keepers was its most interesting aspect. Sure enough, Nixon is there, and, after his performances for England over the last two months he deserves nothing less, but he's joined by Sussex's Matt Prior. It's a finely balanced thing but I think Prior will (and probably should) start at Lord's.

With his former county coach Peter Moores in charge and a pretty good England A tour behind him it's hardly a surprise, but it emphasizes again, nearly four years after Alec Stewart retired, how England are still searching for a regular wicket-keeper.

Regular readers will know that I strongly favour Worcestershire's Steven Davies to be the long-term occupant of the role, but I'm happy to see Prior get a chance.

As much as anything else it'll mark the change from Fletcher to Moores, as I'm sure Fletcher would have gone for Nixon.

Maybe Moores will, but I'll be slightly surprised if he does.


Lara at the Last

Long day, yesterday.

For one thing England and the West Indies fought each other to a standstill in the World Cup's best game. The fact that it was a contest between two of the competition's most uneasy and mediocre teams didn't matter as we at last had a match which encapsulated everything which people hoped for from the West Indies' first World Cup but which it has almost completely failed to deliver - noise, atmosphere, colour, vibrancy, brilliant strokeplay from Gayle, Samuels, Vaughan and Pietersen, passionate athleticism in the field from Collingwod and Bravo, further obvious signs of promise from Ravi Bopara.

And then there was Brian Lara. Run out for a staccato 18 in a mix-up with Samuels, unable in the end to stem the tide of England's run-chase, and finally gone for good from cricket in a welter of flash bulbs, autographs and snatched handshakes.

When I woke up on Friday morning and heard that Lara was going to retire I was surprised but also saddened. At the very first it was selfish personal disappointment as I was looking forward to seeing him bat in person for the last time at Lord's in May, but later it evolved into a wider awareness that cricket currently stands at one of those tipping points in its history when a range of pivotal figures slip from the international stage and we're left to wonder who will take their places. In the past few months Warne, Lara, Langer and Woolmer have gone, McGrath has one or two games left and even Sachin's once unimpeachable seat at the head of the game's top table looks vulnerable.

I've written before about how I was always a Lara man. It started with the 375, which I followed on the radio as I didn't have Sky then, went on through the 501, his destruction of Australia in an ODI at the Queen's Park Oval in March 1995, then to Trent Bridge that August and just about the greatest work of genius I ever saw in person. And on to the peerless 1999 series: 213 at Sabina and his finest hour of many, the undefeated 153 in Bridgetown that saw his side to the narrowest of victories. And on to Antigua again, to the world records, to a walk-on part in his team's 418 in the final innings against Australia in 2003, and the 400 not out against England in 2004. And on into retirement.

The essence of Lara can be hard to capture in words, but the inimitable Alan Ross, in Green Fading Into Blue, did better than most:

'He keeps very still at the wicket and is stillness personified. Alert as a gundog, scenting something, giving nothing away. Leaning on his bat between overs he may be dreaming, perhaps doing mental arithmetic.

The bowler approaches and now everything works together in harmony, the bat an extension of the arms, the legs and feet as in the first steps of a dance, abruptly halted.

In defence he is classically correct, body and head aligned, something of the martial arts in his position, pose held just long enough to be admired.

Runs appear to flow from him rather than he make them. He is anticipatory, a sixth sense making him ready, even before the bowler lets go. He strokes not hurts, times, caresses, even in moments of aggression melodious.'

And Rahul Bhattacharya does pretty well here.

I'm not going to say that things will never be the same again as it's the oldest cliche in the book and they probably will be, one day.

But who will take his place?


Fletcher Has Gone

In the end there was no way out. For the best part of seven years he did little but good for England but, from the time he went back to Giles and Jones in preference to Read and Panesar, he was destined to be history if it didn't work out.

The Ashes series didn't and the World Cup was never going to.

A good summary of his life and times by Andrew Miller is here.



The only conceivable surprise about South Africa's slaughter of England yesterday was that it was quite so quick. Let's face it, with a few notable exceptions (Sharjah 1997, Champions Trophy 2004, CB Series 2007), England have been useless at one-day cricket for years and years and years.

I'm going to take a back seat and let the dust settle for a few days before I say anything else, but most of the British papers seem to be calling for Fletcher's head and, having first done so back in December, I can't see myself bucking the trend now. It's encouraging also that there appears to be widespread recognition that Vaughan's ODI career, never very distinguished, has also run its course. I'm instinctively dubious about the concept of having different captains in Test and one-day cricket, but England simply can't go on like this.

Having seemingly played most of the tournament with only one proper batsman, it was always going to be tough for England when he failed. Throw in a complete inability to take advantage of powerplays in the way that the better sides do, add the consistently inconsistent - and often utterly dreadful - bowling of Sajid Mahmood and Flintoff's range of form and discipline issues and you have a recipe for disaster.

Looking to the longer term, it's difficult at the moment to feel other than that the only good to come out of England's 'campaign' is the feeling that the whole flimsy house of cards has been brought crashing down and that change is now inevitable.

And Ravi Bopara.


Drifting into Life

With England and South Africa readying themselves for battle in Barbados, there's just time to refer to the fact that the English season has drifted into life.

It was good - and unsurprising - to see Alastair Cook begin his season with a big hundred for MCC v Sussex, and even better to see Owais Shah do the same.

While Shah seems to have drifted back to the fringes of England contention since his excellent debut in Mumbai in early 2006, I firmly believe that he could have a lot to offer England in the future. Like a lot of people, though, he probably needs Fletcher to be shown the exit door to get another chance to show what he can really do.


Pace Like Fire

With New Zealand progressing smoothly to the semis at South Africa's expense and England facing the future with uncertainty (Should Fletcher stay or go? Who will be dropped from the Test team to accommodate Vaughan?), it is Shaun Tait who's made the most vivid impression on me these past few days.

I can always remember where and when I saw the best fast bowlers of the past couple of cricketing generations for the first time:

Waqar Younis at Uxbridge, 1990, Shoaib in the World Cup at Bristol, May 1999, Brett Lee at Perth, December 2000. All typifying the sort of raw speed which makes you suck in your breath and wonder (but not too hard) what it's like to face bowling like that from 22 yards away with a stick of wood in your hand.

So it was when I returned from work on Friday to see Shaun Tait ripping out the heart of the Irish batting in Barbados.

If he can get his fluctuating line and length sorted Australia have an interesting and possibly deadly prospect to help their attack adjust to life after McGrath and Warne.


Where Now for West Indies?

No commentator or journalist from anywhere in the cricket world can speak or write with as much knowledge, feeling or authority about their region as Tony Cozier.

To those of us who take any and every opportunity they can get to listen to him, the extent of his disenchantment with the modern generation of West Indian cricketers has been evident for years. This, from the Trinidad and Tobago Express via Cricinfo, sums up his feelings following the Windies' exit from their own World Cup.

For a number of years now it's been two steps back for every one step forward for West Indies cricket.

Where will it end?

At Their Best?

When I heard Michael Vaughan on the radio this morning saying that England (once again) 'weren't at their best' when flopping over the line against Bangladesh yesterday, my immediate reaction was 'well, what exactly is their best?'. Maybe, just maybe, this is it, in which case they're liable to find South Africa a bit of a

Somebody who would obviously improve their chances is Marcus Trescothick, and, with what I wrote the other day in mind, this, from The Times, made interesting and welcome reading.

Hopefully we'll see him back in England colours before too long, but his return cannot, must not, be rushed, because another relapse would surely mean the end.


High Standards

Although they were a bit below par by their own high standards yesterday, the continuing confidence and competence of New Zealand's displays has cast a penetrating shadow on England's more hesitant efforts. On their current form you'd expect them to push Australia and Sri Lanka all the way and it would be great to see them win it.

Back here in England there's been quite a lot of comment in and around the media about Marcus Trescothick's innings of 256 for Somerset against Devon in a pre-season friendly at Taunton on Sunday.

While it's great to see Marcus back on the field (even if it was one with a very small boundary), it seems to me to be far too early to speculate about what his future may hold. I'd like to think - and I'm sure he would too - that he could have a part to play in the England side at home, but there must be serious doubts over whether he can, will or ought to ever tour again. Meaning, of course, that all will depend on the willingness of Team England to accommodate a 'home only' player, even if they're as good as Marcus. My instinct would be to say that they shouldn't, but that doesn't mean that they won't.

However, even though this would mean that I and my fellow Somerset members would see more of him than we've been able to since the end of the last century, it would be very sad to see such an outstanding player serving out his days in relative obscurity.

Still, much as I admire the Devon bowling attack (see this for example), much sterner tests lie ahead.


Questions, Questions

I think we can say with a fair degree of certainty now that when it comes to England and one-day cricket, normal service has been resumed. The consecutive victories which crowned the CB Series in Australia now look like an illusory mirage when set against the fact that they still haven't beaten a major nation at the World Cup and now require wins from each of their last three Super Eight matches to progress any further.

After some signs of life against Sri Lanka in midweek, yesterday's defeat was a familiar litany of problems - a poor start, encompassing Michael Vaughan's usual failure, a promising recovery which was never built upon, an inept but mercifully brief innings from Flintoff and some patchy fielding and bowling - all of which was never going to be good enough to defeat Australia, even on a poor day.

The only saving graces were that somebody finally made a century (and it was worryingly predictable that it was Pietersen) and that Ian Bell, opening, played a vibrant and occasionally brilliant innings of 77. It was a pity that he didn't progress to a hundred, but one day soon he'll start to realise how good he is and the hundreds will come. As for Michael Vaughan, one wonders where the next run is coming from and there must soon be a reassessment of whether or not England can afford to carry a player whose ODI record is, for a player of his unquestioned ability, shockingly mediocre.

As always with England in the one-day arena, yesterday's game threw up far more questions than answers. South Africa, West Indies and, perhaps especially, Bangladesh, will ask a lot more before the month is out.


Relative Genius

I think I was a bit too cynical and dismissive the other day when I described the World Cup as a 'disaster'. It's been a disappointment, yes, but there's still time for it to redeem itself.

Bangladesh's win over South Africa set the ball rolling very nicely yesterday, confirming the progress which Dav Whatmore's team are finally making and bringing England and West Indies back towards contention for the semi-finals.

Bangladesh have hit upon a nice blend of the solid experience of Habibul Bashar, Javed Omar and Mohammad Rafique and the vigorous seam bowling of Mashrafe Mortaza, the impudence of Mushfiqur Rahim, the hitting of Aftab Ahmed and the relative genius of Mohammad Ashraful. Their fielding's not bad either, and would put that of India and Pakistan to shame.

It's Easter Sunday and the weather in England is beautiful. I'm going out walking today but I'll take a radio to keep in touch with today's game between Australia and England. If England can pick up where they left off against Sri Lanka and draw on the confidence which their frequent wins over Australia at the end of the CB Series gave them they've got a chance. One's suspicion, though, is that Australia are now just playing too well.


Staggering On

So, the World Cup staggers on.

Dull, rain-interrupted games; semi-deserted stadia; a schedule which stretches into the distance with little sign of conclusion, but which will probably just end with Australia winning.

While England's narrow defeat to Sri Lanka earlier in the week was an enjoyable exception - a taut and exciting game in front of what looked like a reasonable crowd, in which Ravi Bopara put his hand up as a potentially significant discovery for England - it's the exception which proves the rule.

Throughout the web and the written media, the ICC is taking some fearful stick. I can't find the piece which Cricinfo was carrying yesterday by a World Cup volunteer, but this by Tim de Lisle, will do just as well.

With the inquests continuing in India and Pakistan (and Chappell gone) the biggest and most-needed inquiry of all - into how this tournament became such a disaster thanks to the ICC's stupidity and greed - should start as soon as the competition has ended (if it ever does).


Optimism, Pessimism

Kumar Sangakkara, one of the finest cricketers on God's earth, sounded sanguine and optimistic when interviewed immediately after Sri Lanka's comfortable victory over West Indies in Guyana. He pointed to the versatility of his team's bowling attack and the quality of their batting, and was right to do so.

West Indies, though, have a lot less to be happy about, as their third consecutive defeat brought them even closer to elimination from their own World Cup than they were before (and that was pretty close).

This, by Simon Wilde, indicates that the side's poor form on the field isn't all that those with the future of West Indies cricket at heart need to be concerned about.

Having never been to Antigua or any of the other countries which make up the 'West Indies' I don't know what it used to be like and I don't know what it's like now. But, if Wilde's piece is an accurate reflection of what's going on on the island which gave us Richards, Richardson, Roberts and Ambrose, it's very sad indeed.



I've always been a big fan of Shivnarine Chanderpaul. Far more so than other more fashionable West Indian batsmen, apart, of course, from Lara.

I'm not totally sure why, but it's got something to do with the contrast between his dissonant, ugly technique and the fact that, when you look past it, he's one of the classiest operators you could ever wish to see.

A particular personal memory is of seeing him leaving the Lord's pavilion after his memorable double of 97 and 128, both undefeated, in West Indies' defeat there in 2004. Close to, he looked like a lost schoolboy, the smallest and slightest professional sportsman I think I've ever seen, yet capable of spending most of the match seeing off Harmison, Hoggard, Flintoff, Jones and Giles.

With West Indies currently struggling to contain Sri Lanka in Chanderpaul's home country, Rahul Bhattacharya's typically erudite account of a visit to Chanderpaul's family at Cricinfo makes interesting reading.

Things Can Only Get Better (Can They?)

Three weeks in (or is it longer?) and I'm still not totally sure what I think of the 2007 World Cup. Certain themes are starting to emerge, though, and it's hard to escape the feeling that the organisers should be a bit concerned about how things are going.

To start with, the coach of a major nation has been murdered. Hardly a great way for the tournament to get under way, and, despite the fact that the World Cup has continued (a decision I was completely in favour of, given that it's surely what Woolmer would have wanted), there can be little doubt that, ultimately, that is what the competition will be remembered for.

Also, two of the highest profile sides in the tournament were eliminated at the first hurdle. Okay, it was nobody's fault but their own, but the Super Eight would be looking a bit more interesting now if India and Pakistan were still around.

Then there's the weather. There's been a lot of rain around and this has detracted from the continuity of the tournament and the visual impression created by it. How many games so far have been played under blazing skies in front of packed houses? Not many.

Which brings me to the question of crowds. Hardly any of the matches - even those involving the West Indies - have been watched by large audiences and it's becoming clear from the media that a number of the decisions taken by the organisers, from building new stadiums in unsuitable locations downwards (coupled with the standard ICC over-regulation of spectators' habits) have created the impression that this is a competition which the people of the region aren't completely sold on. And unless the form of the West Indies improves pretty quickly, things aren't going to change.

On the field it's looking more and more as though Australia are the team to beat, with South Africa, Sri Lanka and especially New Zealand looking like the only sides that can stop them. Ireland and Bangladesh have surely come as far as they're going to, West Indies are staring down the barrel and England give the impression of limping along, untested, unproven and unconvincing, with their old nemesis Jayasuriya and friends awaiting them later this week. In some ways it's reassuring that normal service has been resumed in the one-day world - Australia on top, England faltering, and the rest somewhere in between - but it doesn't make the World Cup any more interesting.

One can only hope that things will get better.

They need to.

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