Up for Grabs

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

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

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

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

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


Exchanging Congratulations

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

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

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

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

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


Player Development

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

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

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


Mad Bob

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

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

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

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

Twas ever thus, Bob.


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

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

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

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


Certainty Falls

Slumps in form have been around for as long as people have been batting. Better players than Kevin Pietersen have endured longer spells in the batting doldrums and come back stronger.

Fundamentally I still believe that the old saying about form being temporary but class permanent applies, but it increasingly seems as though people are concerned about KP. Obviously the mainstream media are, as they love sudden and unexpected falls from grace (especially when they involve the sort of person he is perceived to be), but I get the feeling that an increasing number of those who once felt he could do no wrong - including, perhaps, himself - are starting to wonder what's happened.

A lot of people who you come across on the county circuit in England have never liked him. Too cocky, too unorthodox, too South African, too great a contrast with the default English setting of self-effacing underachievement to ever be truly embraced. Others, myself included, only saw a brilliant batsman, whose spikiness and unorthodoxy made him what he was. And we didn't make the qualification rules.

Now things seem different. All batsmen are diminished by lack of runs, but players like Pietersen, who exist in their own minds to innovate and dominate, are diminished more than most. Every time he gets out to a modest bowler (that is, to him, almost any bowler) you can almost hear him thinking 'This is wrong. This isn't what I do'. Now, though, it is.

Pietersen may have reached the point where his self-certainty, once so apparently impregnable and his strongest suit, has started to weaken. And that, for a player with his level of conceit, is a confusing and dangerous space to occupy.

In a series that may have been felt to lack sub-plots, the contest between Pietersen and the Bangladesh spinners will be compelling.


Life Below Stairs

Life at the bottom of world cricket's pile is tough and unforgiving. Players come and go, results mostly comprise a depressing mixture of defeats and the odd draw. The world's media are at best patronising, at worst damning.

This is what life has been like for Bangladesh ever since it became a Test playing nation almost ten years ago. A relentless but always cheerful and committed struggle, consistent failure punctuated with brief shafts of glory, as at Cardiff, June 2005.

The signs now are slightly better; a Test series has been won, and recent opportunities to beat England for the first time have been missed through a combination of opponents' brilliance and their own naivete. An outstanding player, Shakib Al Hasan, has been found, and the rest of the side is predominantly young, talented and optimistic.

For Zimbabwe's players things have been slightly different. For well-documented reasons they have usually been the recipients of sympathy rather than criticism; for the same reasons they haven't spent the same amount of time in the firing line as their Bangladeshi counterparts. Their recent victories in the Caribbean have signalled the possibility of a return to credibility, even if the great days of the past - of the Flowers, of Goodwin, of Johnson, of Streak, of Olonga - are gone for ever.

In small ways, things are looking up for both Zimbabwe and Bangladesh.

Unfortunately they can't play the West indies every week.


Starting Out

It's always nice to be able to say that you saw someone play when they were just starting out, and to be able to claim that you knew that they had 'what it takes' before most people even knew who they were.

I can't quite claim that with Eoin Morgan, but I did see him make an impressive unbeaten fifty in his third game for Middlesex, in the C and G Trophy against Somerset at Bath in June 2006. Morgan then was the same as Morgan now; small, wiry, bottom-handed and astonishingly powerful, with two lofted sixes sailing out of the Rec and showing (along with his mature management of the tail) that here was a nineteen year-old who was likely to go places. I can't remember if I declared that 'that boy will play for England' (mainly because I knew he was Irish), but I hope I did.

Now, of course, he's his adopted country's latest star, with the normally deadpan Bob Willis excitably comparing him to an amalgam of Graham Thorpe and Neil Fairbother. Well, yesterday's hundred against a combative Bangladesh side was exceptional - especially the finish - and England would have been sunk without it, but I'm not sure about the comparisons. Although a gritty left-handed nurdler of supreme mental strength (who I really admired), Thorpe never made an ODI hundred and couldn't hit the ball with as much power as Morgan, and, while the comparison with Fairbrother is nearer the mark, Morgan will hope to do better at Test level (should he get there) than the Lancashire man ever did.

People shouldn't get carried away; until he scores more heavily and consistently in first-class cricket for Middlesex it's hard to avoid having doubts about his suitability for the Test side, but things can change. After all, the basic class is unquestionably there.

Yesterday's was one of the best one-day innings for England in living memory. We want - and will surely see - more.

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