Opening Gambits

When it emerged yesterday morning that Australia had dropped Philip Hughes, there was a strong temptation to write a piece castigating their selectors for replacing him with Shane Watson when there appeared to be better and more obvious alternatives, such as Mike Hussey, who learned his trade as an opening batsman.

Now, in the light of what happened between 5 and 7 yesterday afternoon, I'm glad I didn't, although the arguments against Watson still stand, and it's difficult to envisage him staying at the top of the Australian order for very long.

Yesterday afternoon, though, England did their level best to make him look good, bowling with poor consistency and concentration in front of what sounded like a boisterous and over-hyped crowd. The two may not be unconnected; England have a tendency to believe their own publicity too readily, and, with the cheers of the Lord's crowd still ringing in their ears and supplemented by those of Edgbaston, they looked like a side lacking focus.

James Anderson, of whom a lot was expected in this series, and Stuart Broad, of whm a lot was hoped, are particular concerns, and they and their team-mates need to show a lot more when play resumes in three hours' time.


Turning Point?

For anyone who watched KP limp his way through the Lord's Test, today's news that he won't be playing for England again this summer will have come as no surprise. And, even though he hasn't been near his best form recently, as a proven big-game player with the ability to turn bad form into good at the drop of a hat, he's a big loss to England.

It seems highly probable that Ian Bell will be his replacement. This isn't necessarily bad news; too many people appear to have forgotten that Bell is a player of very considerable talent and excellent technique who has made 3000 Test runs at 40 with 8 centuries. Okay, he was kept in the side for time beyond endurance while continuing to fail, and the concerns over the resilience of his temperament are entirely justified, but please don't write him off before he's had another chance.

It's a pity, though, that there isn't exactly a long queue of other contenders. Robert Key? Recent runs, but really an opener and the suspicion is that his face doesn't fit. Joe Denly? In my opinion a great prospect with good runs against Australia, but an opener. Jonathan Trott? Getting closer all the time, but unlikely to be considered ahead of Bell yet. Owais Shah? Never going to happen. Mark Ramprakash? Ditto. Marcus Trescothick? Don't even go there.

Whole series have turned on less.


Been There, (Not) Got The T-Shirt

As the Andrew Flintoff Farewell Tour gathers momentum (someone really should produce a T-shirt), it seems like a good time to ponder on a few questions which England's performance threw up.

Firstly, while we can see how well Freddie is coping with his rebellious body (and, God willing, he'll make it to The Oval, although you certainly wouldn't bet on it), what of KP?

In the latter stages of his second innings he was struggling to run, and you could sense Collingwood's frustration as he tried to up the scoring rate. This didn't, couldn't, happen until the superb Prior came in, following which Collingwood himself was the one struggling to keep up.

Furthermore, Pietersen's 44 in the second innings was among the scratchiest efforts of his entire England career, raising the question of whether his continued lack of fitness has begun to affect his form with the bat. For perhaps too long England have regarded him as indispensable - and, at his best, that's obviously what he is - but you've got to wonder how long it'll be before someone on the medical side of things starts to question the wisdom of repeated injections and simply advises him to stop playing.

And then, while Andrew Strauss's form with the bat over the last year has been as good as that of any opener in the world, his captaincy at Lord's, with a lead of more than 500 in the bank, was often disappointingly defensive. Outstandingly though Clarke and Haddin played on Sunday afternoon, their partnership was allowed to gather momentum by Strauss's insistence on placing men on the square boundaries on both sides of the wicket, seemingly relying on the batsmen becoming frustrated by the relative difficulty of hitting boundaries. While this might work in county cricket, it's hard to see it working on players with the technical rigour and nous of Clarke, Haddin, Ponting or Katich.

But this is, perhaps, churlish. The correct way to do things - and the best way of slowing the scoring rate - is to try to get people out, and Swann and the majestic, irresistible, Flintoff did a pretty good job of that yesterday morning.

It was an uplifting, almost moving, experience to be there, with the rapid finish allowing a reflective afternoon in one of London's best pubs and the welcome discovery that cricket was back on the front pages.

Happy days.


Leaving Nothing Behind

I've found it hard to get too concerned about the story which has been preoccupying the media these last few days, and which has only just been supplanted by the announcement of Andrew Flintoff's retirement from Test cricket.

England were clearly out of order in doing what they did, at least as far as the oft-quoted 'spirit of the game' is concerned (although, significantly, neither umpire appeared to say anything), and it's hardly surprising that Ponting told Bilal Shafayat where to go when he arrived in the middle on Sunday night. But his comments once the match had ended and the dust had settled were, in reality, relatively moderate, and it took the good old British press to turn a disagreement into a controversy.

Neither side can reasonably claim any moral high ground. England did what they did and Australia - as Nathan Hauritz admitted - would have done the same if they'd needed to. Anyone who has had the misfortune to read Duncan Fletcher's autobiography knows that he is never ever wrong about anything (at least in his own mind), but, when he starts sticking his oar in, you tend to feel that it's time to move on.

Which bring us to Flintoff, who, for once, has shown some timing and good sense in taking a decision which has come to seem inevitable as his Test career has blundered on in fits and starts over the past few years.

The valedictions can be saved for later; in the meantime, let's hope he makes it through the last four five-day games of his life.

One thing is certain: He won't be leaving anything behind in the dressing room.


Always in Control

I watched the latter stages of the Cardiff rearguard on the clubhouse television at the County Ground in Taunton. A relatively small, tense, occasionally ribald crowd counted the overs down until the draw which England never looked like getting or deserving had been achieved.

For me what stood out wasn't the iron will of Paul Collingwood - this is now a commonplace - or the unlikely straight-bat poise of Monty (aided by Ponting's strange use of his bowlers at the end), or the guts of Graeme Swann. It was Jimmy Anderson.

Clearly he's been working hard on his batting - he's always had ability but suffered through never having served a long county apprenticeship - but the key to what happened yesterday is the increased assertiveness which he's developed as a result of the way in which his bowling has come on over the last year. Despite the circumstances he always looked in control, and, in retrospect, you could find yourself thinking that the outcome was never in doubt.

England go to Lord's level and I'll be there. I doubt if Monty will, but what he was involved in yesterday will be a memory he can fall back on in times to come.

Let's hope it helps him to rediscover some of what his bowling's lost.



I said something before this Test started about what ultimately mattered being what actually happened, not what people, seduced by rampant hype and nostalgia, thought might happen.

What has happened since then is that Australia have, unlike England, taken the fullest advantage of a pitch made for batting. Their patience and skill have emphasized the ineffectiveness of the England attack, and their desire to turn the screw today contrasted sharply with the desultory nature of some of the England fielding this morning, which looked like the product of a side that seemed to simply be playing out time until the inevitable rain came. Trouble was, the rain was late.

Whether they win or not - and with a full day's play tomorrow you wouldn't bet against it - Australia's intention, successfully accomplished, has been to lay down a marker to England for the rest of the series. To let them know that the West Indies are long gone and they're now facing a real cricket team.

You want nostalgia? We'll give you nostalgia. Nostalgia for 1989, 1993 or 2001.

Plus, win or draw, we'll see you later in the week on a ground where we haven't lost since before the Second World War, and where the doubts will all be yours.


Keeping on Coming

Test match days are long - at least six hours, or 90 overs, depending on who's counting - and so much always depends on which side's players show the most stamina.

Often it's not just about physical fortitude (though God knows you need that), but mental as well. The ability to take the knocks but retain your original level of focus and desire into the last session of the day.

Something I've liked about Peter Siddle ever since I first saw him has been his ability to just keep on coming, regardless of what type of day he's had. Today it wasn't great, but he was still bustling in late in the Cardiff afternoon and was rewarded with the late wickets of Prior and Flintoff, scalps which left honours all but even.

Kevin Pietersen, by contrast, didn't stay focused, and it cost him and his side. His misjudgements at Edgbaston and Kingston were, perhaps, debatable, but today there can be no argument. His moronic stroke was central in allowing Australia to sneak back into a day that was drifting away from them.

It's one thing having the strength to hang in there, but often it's opponents' weaknesses which give you the chance to show it.

Today, for Australia, was one such day.


Almost Time

These days, as a result of what happened in 2005, Ashes series played in England seem bigger than the game itself. As the commencement of battle gets ever closer you can't dip your toe into any branch of the written or broadcast media without coming across people's memories of that great series. And many of them, you suspect, are people who hadn't taken much interest in cricket before and haven't since. Especially during the summary decimation in late 2006 and early 2007 which now seems to have been airbrushed from the collective consciousness of English cricket in a manner of which an old-style totalitarian regime would have been proud.

It's good to have them along for the ride, but, after a while, you just don't want to read any more previews. People can talk for as long as they want about what might happen, what could happen, what should happen. In the end, though, all that matters is what does happen.

With the two sides looking evenly-matched there's every chance of another fine contest.

Let's get started.


Back in Contention

If your first-class career is still in its early stages and you're averaging nearly 70, scoring just 7 and 8 in a match must pull you up a bit short. All in all, it's unlikely that Phil Hughes's double failure at Worcester will have a serious effect on his confidence, but the manner of both his dismissals - caught close in dealing poorly with short balls - is sure to cause some interest among England's bowlers and some concern in the Australian camp.

The bowler who delivered both those balls, Steve Harmison, is another man in an interesting position. After a distinctly average winter it was assumed in some quarters that England's future lay without him, and this may still be the case. But with what he's done at Worcester you wouldn't be at all surprised to see his name at least in contention for a place in Wednesday's side, although, as Harmison himself has said, if England do play two spinners it's hard to see how he'll fit into the team.

Others, such as Graham Onions, would offer more consistency but less pace and hostility, but Harmison has laid a powerful marker down over the last few days at Worcester.

The trouble, as ever, is that no-one can be sure how he's going to bowl on any given day, but that might just be a risk worth taking.


Very Good

How good would England be if they had an opener of style, elegance, adroit footwork and finely crafted techinique who could take Australian bowling attacks apart, seemingly at will? And what if they could also keep wicket and were just twenty years old?

The answer is that they'd be very good. In fact, 'they' are very good.

Her name is Sarah Taylor.

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