Wednesday 13 June 2012

Bell selection makes sense...

Monday was bittersweet for Ian Bell. Where the wretched Birmingham weather had contrived to dash any hopes he may have harboured of scoring the additional 24 runs required to ensure he became the first Warwickshire player to score a Test century at Edgbaston, the rather more soothing news that he had been restored to England’s One Day International side as an opener offered some consolation. 

Many, perhaps even Bell himself, had felt that the Warwickshire batsman’s limited overs career was all but over after being dropped prior to the Pakistan ODI series at the beginning of the year, a series in which England seemed to make great strides as they cantered to a 4-0 victory. 
So often Bell's ODI story...
Bell has been somewhat of an enigma in ODI cricket, yet whilst the England management’s multi-lingual talents have not been called upon they are hitherto to succeed in unravelling the mystery of how such a wonderfully gifted batsman has managed to muster such decidedly mediocre returns (how modern history might have differed had Chancellor Hitler been granted access to an Ian Bell). It will have been a source of great frustration. An average of 34.04 at a strike-rate of 73.31 in ODI’s, with one century and 19 half-centuries, does little to warm the cockles. 

Perhaps such underwhelming ODI returns can be ascribed to Bell’s key scoring areas being cut off. That delicious late cut to third man, cover drives not so much dripping with class as haemorrhaging and a crisp clip through the square-leg region have brought Bell considerable success in Test cricket, yet defensive field settings oft encountered during ODI’s tend to remove those from his spectrum. For a player that attains a high percentage of his runs in boundaries it presents a sizeable problem, much as Test wicket-keeper Matt Prior has discovered in the shorter formats of the game. 

As an opener, Bell’s prowess diminishes further (he has played 28 of his 108 ODI’s as an opening batsman), where his average reduces to 33 and his strike-rate to 70.69. Far from inspirational, yet if there is a place for Ian Bell in this side then it is limited to such a role. As opener, Bell has the freedom to play classically during the initial powerplay overs when the aforementioned scoring areas remain unattended, and possesses the lofted straight shots necessary to combat spinners outside of them. 

The wisdom of a top three containing Alastair Cook, Ian Bell and Jonathan Trott has been questioned in some quarters, and admittedly on paper looks to present all the aggression of a tranquilised kitten, but in those three batsmen England possess a solidarity that provides the perfect foil for their stylistic preference. Where many sides look to score heavily whilst fielding restrictions are in place, England appear to have reverted to the old fashioned ethos of building steadily and keeping wickets in hand for an assault at the death. A scrupulously ungenerous bowling attack renders this a possibility. It isn’t spectacular, it isn’t exhilarating, but if performances in the UAE are anything to go by, it is effectual and more importantly suits England’s personnel. 

So many doubts, yet Bell finds himself in sublime form. Averaging 111 in the recently concluded Test series against the West Indies, and with 82 runs to his name in the CB40 competition for Warwickshire just last month, confidence will be sky high. In fact, confidence will be rather fearful that a chap named Ian Bell is threatening to usurp it from its throne of haughtiness, thus ending a reign last interrupted by the mindset of Moses moments after his successful parting of the Red Sea. A new ball from either end should prove an advantage for Bell, too, where his sweet timing and placement ought to bring full value for his shots. 

There will be no more chances, though, should this latest experiment fail. Bell is not merely visiting Last Chance Saloon, rather embarking upon a desperate struggle to cling on to the bar rail as an irritated doorman hauls him out after receiving his ticket, but where stepping in to the shoes of the now retired Kevin Pietersen may once have rendered the unassuming Bell a mere rabbit in the headlights, and though his current record suggests otherwise, there is an inkling he may just prove a revelation.

Tuesday 5 June 2012

ECB - What have you done?

I have been away for the past week sampling the delights of camping across various rain stricken sites in England and Wales, so you’ll hopefully forgive me for this rather late piece on the Kevin Pietersen retirement debacle. I must also apologise for another piece on the inventor of the switch-hit, alas it seems noteworthy occurrences and Mr Pietersen come very much as a package. I’m a huge fan of KP, and have made no bones about it in past articles, so you can only imagine my horror when after minutes twiddling thumbs as my ancient iPhone 3 strove heroically to gain a modicum of reception I was given the news by my trusty ESPNcricinfo app.

Twenty20 will miss the switch hit..
The One Day International retirement in itself wasn’t the cause of the horror. I saw that one coming, albeit perhaps twelve months or so down the line. Pietersen isn’t the first English cricketer to make noises suggesting that all is not well with the players when it comes to the deluge of 50 over cricket pencilled in to their calendars. The likes of Graeme Swann, another key performer across all three formats of the game, have mumbled their misgivings, and it is easy to sympathise given the vast amount of time spent away from their young families each year as they don the three lions in all corners of the world. It was the seemingly desperate handling of the situation by the ECB that provided the greatest cause for concern, not to mention blindingly obvious double standards.

The ECB inform us that their strategies across the two limited overs formats are closely aligned, and hence require the same personnel to be available for both. Despite being an utterly ludicrous statement, given that the difference between ODI’s and Twenty20 cricket is every bit as vast as the difference between Test cricket and ODI’s, do the ECB believe we have forgotten that, up until last year’s world cup, Andrew Strauss played ODI cricket despite having already announced his retirement from Twenty20 cricket?  Likewise, England’s ODI strategy is very much based around the solidarity of Alastair Cook and Jonathan Trott at the top of their batting order, yet neither name features on England’s Twenty20 teamsheet. Players of such a style can find success in ODI cricket, but an ability to nudge the singles fetches little reward in the shortest format. Why, then, must Pietersen be available for both or none?

Have the ECB forgotten that Pietersen remains the number one ranked batsman in the world in Twenty20 cricket? Have they also, in their hour of lunacy, overlooked the fact that shorn of Pietersen (man of the tournament as England triumphed four years ago, lest we forget) England hold two hopes, slim and none, of retaining their world Twenty20 crown in Sri Lanka later this year? Oh, and in the words of boxing eccentric Don King, “slim’s outta town.” Without Pietersen, England’s side begins to look all too ordinary.

Pietersen retiring from ODI’s isn’t ideal - losing a world class player and your best batsman in each and every format never is - but the needs of the individual need to be considered. The ECB have shown appalling man management in issuing their abrupt ultimatum. The question of whether they would have acted similarly had it been another member of the side is a delicate one, but perhaps worth asking. Tensions do, after all, run high where the ECB and Kevin Pietersen are concerned. After a series of run-ins commencing with the captaincy and Peter Moores saga, through to a brace of confrontations over Pietersen’s use of the social networking site Twitter (he aimed a barb at the ECB after being dropped from the Twenty20 team to face Pakistan in 2010, and more recently was hauled over the coals for a slur against Sky commentator Nick Knight), and now a falling out over Pietersen’s participation in Twenty20 cricket after announcing his retirement from ODI cricket it would be of little surprise if the ECB were reaching the end of their tether as far as any dealings with the middle order batsman go.

What must be remembered, though, is that Pietersen has often been in the right throughout the aforementioned confrontations. Pietersen saw first-hand that Moores was not the right man to lead England forward, taking a risk that ultimately cost him his position as captain in order to voice his concerns. Since that moment England have enjoyed unparalleled success in the Test arena. Likewise, use of social networking sites is a touchy subject amongst many in the England camp, depending on who you speak to, and whilst players would perhaps do well to censor some of their innermost thoughts on such public platforms it would be wrong to discourage its use, within limits. Pietersen may yet also be in the right with regard to his ODI retirement. The ODI schedule for England’s cricketers, indeed worldwide, is hugely excessive. As players age their priorities will change, and it appears that Pietersen’s have now done so as he approaches his 32nd birthday. As his team-mate Jonathan Trott says, it is of little surprise.

The worry now, of course, is how the ECB will deal with any future lulls in Pietersen’s Test form. Previously, with England’s tour of the UAE being a prime example, Pietersen was able to regain form after an abject Test series in the subsequent ODI series, where he scored back to back centuries. He will no longer have such a luxury. Could the forthcoming series against South Africa be Pietersen’s last for England? Given how the ECB have treated their premier batsman in this latest episode it would come as little surprise, should Pietersen fail to perform against the country of his birth.

England fans will hope that the differences can be reconciled between Pietersen and the ECB. After all, England needs Pietersen at both Test and Twenty20 level. It is disappointing to see one of England’s greatest middle order batsmen handed such an ultimatum but, regardless of the fallout, let us hope that it doesn’t contribute toward curtailing an already magnificent Test career. It isn’t just England that needs KP, it is the sport of cricket and the entertainment business that does, too.

Wednesday 16 May 2012

Windies at a Cross-roads...

When Darren Sammy awoke from a slumber filled with English-conquering dreams earlier this month, he would have donned his maroon robe, picked up the St Lucia Express from the doormat and read that England’s green and pleasant lands were officially in the midst of severe drought. The pocket hand warmers, a perpetual companion of a West Indian on any England tour, would have been speedily removed from his suitcase to make room for a pair of reflective sunglasses the likes of which Pokemon’s Squirtle would afford a nod of approval. Sammy, a nervous flyer, may even have boarded the plane across the Atlantic with a degree of optimism.
Time for Sammy to start a rain dance?

Hours later, arriving on English soil to bear witness to biblical downpours last encountered by Noah as he hastily put the finishing touches to his ark, Sammy could perhaps have been forgiven for thinking that the English definition of drought was wildly out of touch with sanity.

The impression that modern West Indian touring sides abhor visiting England sadly endures, yet it hasn’t always been the case. Where the God-like players of yore encountered the very same chilled winds, wet early English summers and unfavourable batting conditions, they opted for a scorched earth policy. Once lush outfields were left bare as the mighty projectiles launched from the bats of King Viv and co reduced each blade of grass in their path to mere cinders, whilst keeping the precipitation at bay through fear of their wrath should it dare to make an appearance. Darren Sammy’s charges combat the elements in a very different manner, and it doesn't provide quite such impressive viewing. During a recent warm-up fixture against the England Lions at Wantage Road the only West Indian without deeply pocketed hands was wicket-keeper Denesh Ramdin. How times have changed.

Haphazard mismanagement by the West Indies Cricket Board has ensured that Sammy's side will attempt to compete against Test cricket's number one team bereft of star performers Chris Gayle and Dwayne Bravo, who are both on Indian Premier League duty, whilst young spin-wizard Sunil Narine remains with Kolkata Knight Riders in the same competition. Rather bizarrely, and even more so after a fine century for Leicestershire in the County Championship today, middle order batsman Ramnaresh Sarwan has been omitted from the squad entirely.  It may be a decision that the selectors are beginning to rue, and it doesn't bode well for the West Indies that in all possibility a West Indies team superior to the eleven that will be walking out at Lord's tomorrow could perhaps be mustered.

Despite a courageous effort against Australia recently, a series in which they were ultimately defeated 2-0, the West Indies, for all their promise, displayed a propensity for capitulating just as victory looked to be a possibility. Winning is said to be a habit, but so is losing, and like a chain smoker that had progressed on to nicotine patches before reverting to 40 a day they are finding it rather difficult to walk away from. A shaky top order, ably reinforced by the indomitable but beleaguered Shivnarine Chanderpaul, can expect little charity from an English bowling attack that is simply lethal in their own conditions. The West Indies bowling unit possesses no shortage of pace and fire in Fidel Edwards and the impressive Kemar Roach, but it remains to be seen if they are able to gain mastery over the swinging ball, a bowler's greatest asset in such conditions.

In truth, Darren Sammy may well be hoping that this English drought continues. If rainfall akin to that which has fallen since a hosepipe ban was enforced across many parts of the country continues then his side may well come away with the unlikeliest of series draws. It seems unlikely, but sadly it is in all likelihood their sole hope.

For the West Indies, this series is about progress. They will of course retain hopes of causing an astonishing upset, but only the most pessimistic of English fans would be fearing such an outcome. After competing against Australia there are signs that this cricketing giant is slowly beginning to re-awaken having lain dormant for the best part of two decades. This series is an important cross-roads in the re-emergence of West Indian cricket. If they can remain competitive against an England side that are often rampant in their own conditions it will be a considerable feather in the cap of the West Indies, and another sure step along the road to recovery. A crushing defeat would keep such a recovery firmly in Sammy's dreams.

Tuesday 1 May 2012

Me, Myself and the IPL...

Until recently the Indian Premier League had been to me what protecting Gotham City has been to Batman for the past 73 years; fun on occasion, but swiftly becoming tedious and largely irrelevant. Where the Dark Knight had to contend with new, increasingly cunning and malevolent super-villains shortly after deposing his previous arch-enemy, I’ve had to deal with the excessively excitable IPL commentary team augment amplified exaggeration and hysteria in to their appraisal of the action as each season passed. It’s debatable as to who has had the tougher assignment.

When the concept of the Indian Premier League was first announced it appeared, to this sceptical purist at least, little more than a glorified domestic Twenty20 tournament utilising the vast cricketing resources of the Indian sub-continent to create the greatest money-spinner the sport has ever witnessed. The pioneers behind the competition have certainly achieved that. I was wrong to underestimate its significance.

I remain very much a traditionalist when choosing cricket à la carte. Where Twenty20 provides a tasty starter to whet the appetite, Test cricket is the main course. One Day International’s are very much for dessert; a painful addition to the meal that you don’t really need when you’ve already reached saturation, but ultimately indulge regardless. It is no surprise, then, that I have cared little for the incessant stream of cringe-worthy advertising emanating from India ahead of each and every IPL season.

MS Dhoni's forward defensive
Yet, strangely, I might just have been won over. Perhaps those annoyingly histrionic adverts reminding me that the IPL is the 21st century’s very own Roman gladiatorial games are effective at gaining viewers as well as inducing involuntary vomit in one’s mouth, after all, and like a vessel heeding the call of a particularly mischievous siren I’ve been lured in; whether in to rocky waters or new lands ripe for exploration only time will tell. Thus far, progress has been satisfyingly serene.

The turning point, it would seem, has been the rather agreeable sight of a selection of the world’s finest Test match performers wreaking havoc in the competition, proving that the cream does indeed always rise to the top. We have heard the term “Twenty20 specialist” banded about aplenty, but the fifth edition of the IPL has witnessed these ‘mercenaries’, as I tend to call them, convincingly eclipsed.

It has been a joyous sight indeed to watch cricketers of unsurpassed ability, Virender Sehwag, Kevin Pietersen, AB de Villiers and Dale Steyn in particular, unfurl their full array of talents in an environment where innovation and daring is applauded rather than admonished. Such is the awe in which I have observed their genius that I’ve even begun to develop an immunity to those highly irritable phrases in the mould of “and there’s another DLF maximum for Kevin Pietersen”. Really, Mr Shastri? However you endeavour to accentuate the shot and lace it with frills it remains a six, but never mind, I have access to an IPL television viewer’s greatest companion – the mute button. It’s no bother.

In addition to the child in a sweetshop demeanour of the commentary team, I still cast many an aspersion at the IPL, let that be clear. Cheerleaders at a cricket match? What next, popcorn vendors and shoe shiners? Whilst those good women are undoubtedly talented in their dedicated field, and provide an arm-chair letch like myself with many an eye-opener, some might argue it pales in comparison to the majesty of a Kallis on-drive. And players being wired up to the studio enabling a mid-innings chat – shouldn’t their undivided attention be on fielding in the one format of the game where each and every run is so often critical to the outcome? The world’s finest Twenty20 cricketers have a duty to entertain the cricket loving viewers, not impress them with previously unbeknownst oratory skills. I'm also against English cricketers playing in the IPL when their county is in action back home, though money is of course king in cricket, as it is with every profession.

I digress slightly. The above are, after all, only minor gripes. I’ve followed IPL season 5 in a greater capacity than I have afforded any of the previous seasons. Consistent displays of extremely high quality cricket – admittedly more from the big name Indians and overseas stars than the younger cricketers that the tournament is supposed to benefit – have made for compelling viewing. I thought I had borne witness to every cricket shot and delivery in the book. I hadn’t. Nothing that these players do on a cricket field surprises me anymore, such is the rapid rate of innovation in Twenty20 cricket, and the infectious atmosphere and adulation given to the competitors by a rabid Indian crowd at each and every venue only adds to the enjoyment.

Despite putting up admirable resistance, I’ve finally succumbed to the IPL bug. What’s not to like about it?

Sunday 15 April 2012

Porterfield and Patel Power Warwickshire to Victory

Sunday 15th April
Warwickshire, 243 & 262/8, beat Somerset, 147 & 354, by two wickets.

William Porterfield struck an eye pleasing 84, aided by some tail-end pyrotechnics from New Zealand’s Jeetan Patel, as Warwickshire completed a two wicket victory over Somerset at Edgbaston.

Victory will be of great relief to Warwickshire, who had found themselves unexpectedly staring down a Thatcher’s Gold branded barrel after a middle order collapse of five wickets for 17 runs in 47 balls; prior to that they had required just 69 runs to win with seven wickets in hand.

Jeetan Patel spared the blushes of his captain, Jim Troughton
Nobody will be more relieved than Jim Troughton. The Warwickshire captain, renowned for being a safe pair of hands in the field, had inexplicably dropped the simplest of catches at mid-off with Jos Buttler, who proceeded to make 93, fresh to the crease on 7. Troughton did gain a measure of redemption by hitting the winning runs, but remains somewhat indebted to Patel who contributed 43 toward their 55 run partnership.

In a game that ebbed and flowed from day one both sides had found themselves in winning positions  only to relinquish with all too apparent haste. Porterfield, having played quite beautifully for his 84, was perhaps the prime example as he miscued a ghastly front-foot pull to Craig Kieswetter behind the stumps.

Somerset had earlier manoeuvred themselves in to a position of relative strength in the match courtesy of steady accumulation from second innings centurion Nick Compton (133) and the powerful stroke play of Buttler, of course with no small thanks to Jim Troughton. Warwickshire seamer Chris Wright, who was immensely impressive throughout and comfortably out-bowled South African counterpart Vernon Philander, returned to put an end to a stand of 167 and leave his side requiring 258 runs for victory.

 After losing the early wickets of makeshift opener Neil Carter and Varun Chopra, Warwickshire made serene progress through Porterfield and Ian Westwood before the latter strangely offered no stroke to a straight delivery from Philander and was adjudged lbw, thus ending a stand of 102 between the pair. Former Bears captain Darren Maddy provided much needed impetus to the chase, but after falling lbw to the impressive Peter Trego unforeseen madness swiftly ensued.

Following the ungainly dismissal of Porterfield, who fell three runs short of his highest score in a Warwickshire shirt, former England wicket-keeper Tim Ambrose offered a return catch to fall for a golden duck and leave Trego on a hat-trick. His next delivery proved to be a no-ball, though Trego’s spell of three wickets in seven balls for no runs had by now managed to suppress the earlier raucous din periodically emanating from some individuals residing in the members stand.

Rikki Clarke came and went, as did Keith Barker who was bizarrely out hit-wicket from the bowling of Trego. Barker, hopping about as if he were facing a prime, genetically modified Allan Donald, was hit on the ear piece of the helmet by a Trego bouncer and duly trod on his stumps. One suspects that won’t be the last short ball Barker will have to contend with this season.

Enter Jeetan Patel. Warwickshire’s overseas signing, with the club for a third consecutive season, had bagged a duck in the first innings and offered little hope to the hardy souls dotted around a chilly Edgbaston. Yet, with 52 still required for victory, the New Zealander launched an astonishing counter-attack that stunned Somerset. Swatting sixes over long –on and third man, off the bowling of Trego and Philander respectively, Patel set about rapidly reducing the requirement. Somerset captain Marcus Trescothick introduced spinner Dockrell to the attack in an attempt to lure Patel in to a false stroke, only to be met with another six and two fours before Patel took a single allowing captain Troughton to spare his own blushes with a back-foot drive to the boundary to secure victory.

A thrilling County Championship match, yet one that was witnessed by disappointingly few. Warwickshire, without key bowlers Chris Woakes and Boyd Rankin, and with England batsmen Ian Bell and Jonathan Trott returning imminently, may just be ones to watch in this year’s title race.

Saturday 14 April 2012

Warwickshire v Somerset - Edgbaston: Day Three

Saturday 14th April
Warwickshire, 243 and 123-2, require another 136 runs to beat Somerset, 147 and 354.

One Warwickshire member proclaimed during the lunch interval today that Jim Troughton dropped catches were “collector’s items.” Jos Buttler soon revealed himself to be an avid hoarder. Troughton, having inexplicably shelled a chance that would have been snapped up by Kevin Pietersen circa Ashes 2005 in a straitjacket at mid-off with Buttler fresh to the crease, could only watch on in horror as the Somerset youngster combined with unbeaten overnight stalwart Nick Compton to build a partnership worth 167 runs.

It would perhaps be unfair to brand the Compton Buttler axis a case of beauty and the beast, but the contrast in both timing and power was evident between the two as Compton, resuming on 61, re-assumed the familiar barnacle-like existence so familiar to Warwickshire supporters that sat (or slept) through his six-hour vigil six years ago, bringing up his century from 189 balls. Interestingly, his first 50 runs had taken just 61 of those.
Compton - Watchful century

At the other end Buttler drove and swept with aplomb, duly reaching his own half century from 68 balls; each boundary only serving to deepen the shade of puce marking Troughton’s face. The impressive Chris Wright returned to trap Buttler lbw, playing across a straight one on 93 to leave the pair just nine runs short of equalling the record Somerset sixth wicket partnership against the Bears and sparking a flurry of three wickets for five runs in less than two overs.

The match remained very much in the balance with Warwickshire requiring 259 to win in their second innings and both sides confident of victory; Somerset wicket-keeper Craig Kieswetter had suggested that a lead of 180 was defendable during a visit to the Edgbaston press box earlier in the day.

After failing to impress the watching Geoff Miller yesterday, Warwickshire opener and England hopeful Varun Chopra did little to enhance his claims, top-edging a ghastly pull shot off the front-foot to be caught by Kieswetter for 10 shortly after surprise makeshift opener Neil Carter had perished attempting to drive left-arm spinner George Dockrell through extra cover, Jos Buttler completing a smart catch.

The decision to promote Carter to open the innings proved a shrewd one as the all-rounder set about removing the lacquer from the new ball in typically robust fashion, his 26 coming from just 17 balls. The left-hander has never been the most competent player of spin, though, and the trend continued as it took Dockrell just three balls to get his man.

Ian Westwood and William Porterfield are two players likely to be looking over their shoulders with the return of England batsman Ian Bell to the Warwickshire fold next week, but the duo saw out the remaining overs of the day to leave Warwickshire well set at 123-2, requiring a further 136 for a victory that had looked unlikely in the aftermath of Troughton’s fielding horror show.

Porterfield, ending the day with an unbeaten 57, was particularly impressive as he produced an array of scorching straight drives to blunt an eager Somerset attack and deny a baying slip cordon.

It was an irony that will be lost on few of the Warwickshire faithful that Troughton later took a marvellous catch diving backwards at mid-off to remove first innings top scorer Philander, though it did little to atone for his unwilling contribution to what could yet prove to be a match winning partnership. Of all the Warwickshire captain’s collector’s items, this one might just fetch the highest price.

Friday 13 April 2012

Warwickshire v Somerset - Edgbaston: Day Two

Friday 13th April

Somerset closed day two of their LV= County Championship fixture against Warwickshire on 127-4, a lead of 31 runs.

Warwickshire had earlier resumed their first innings on 111-3 with Darren Maddy, unbeaten overnight on 24, immediately displaying aggressive intent with a sweetly driven four through the covers off the bowling of South African maestro Vernon Philander. In contrast, Varun Chopra looked to have adopted a vastly different approach to the obdurately watchful demonstration of technique and concentration that saw him reach 40 not out at the close of day one. Driving loosely at his first delivery of the day Chopra was comprehensively beaten by the outswing of Steve Kirby, though the looks of anguish on Somerset faces were soon replaced with delight as the Warwickshire opener duly edged his third ball faced to second slip off the same bowler.

Warwickshire v Somerset - view from the new media centre at Edgbaston

Former England wicket-keeper Tim Ambrose and Darren Maddy steadied the ship, before Maddy was next out with Warwickshire still six runs adrift of Somerset’s first innings total at 141-5. After making an impressive 42 the former Warwickshire captain fell lbw to Philander, who had looked perhaps at his most ineffective since announcing himself so spectacularly on the world stage for South Africa.

A hint of variable bounce had kept Somerset’s seamers interested throughout the morning session, though captain Marcus Trescothick wasted little time in turning to the left-arm spin of Irish youngster George Dockrell , conqueror in chief of Middlesex in Somerset’s season opener at Taunton last week. Warwickshire all-rounder Rikki Clarke, having replaced Maddy at the crease, had little intention of letting the 19 year old settle, advancing down the wicket to crash Dockrell back over his head for a brace of boundaries.

Ambrose came and went swiftly, driving on the up off the bowling of Dibble, who had consistently generated appreciable swing, to offer Jos Buttler a straightforward catch at extra cover. That brought Keith Barker to the crease and the all-rounder immediately looked to continue the policy of aggression toward Dockrell, who had lacked the assistance from the pitch that was so freely on offer at Taunton. Clarke had moved comfortably on to 27 at the other end, though his own attempt to dominate ultimately proved his undoing, bottom edging an attempted pull to an innocuous Trego delivery on to his stumps.

The lead by now was approaching 50, and with Somerset desperate to limit their deficit Arul Suppiah fumbled a regulation run-out opportunity against the dangerous Neil Carter. The mistake was not to prove costly, as Dockrell removed Carter with a relatively tame caught and bowled dismissal in the following over. Jeetan Patel came and went for a second ball duck, bringing Chris Wright to the crease at 196-9 and offering Somerset an opportunity to promptly wrap up the Warwickshire innings.

It proved to be an opportunity they were loath to take. Wright displayed many of the necessary batting qualities conspicuously absent from a number of top order batsmen throughout this match; solid in defence and intelligently rotating the strike with the recognised batsman Barker. There are few sights that provide greater frustration in cricket to a fielding side than a tail-end batsman stubbornly resisting, and tempers were visibly beginning to fray. Barker had offered a simple caught and bowled chance, had Kirby kept his footing, but with the bowler stumbling on his follow through the ball was able to land safe. Kirby, never one afraid to conceal his emotions, vented his anger by hurling a piece of debris from the pitch.

Warwickshire’s highest tenth wicket partnership against Somerset was a stand of 75 by Dermot Reeve and Tim Munton in 1990, but any designs of Barker and Wright to eclipse that effort terminated on 47 when Kirby returned to rearrange Barker’s furniture. Of particular interest, and no doubt encouragement, to England’s batsmen was the comfort with which Wright played Philander armed with the second new ball throughout his unbeaten 18.

Trescothick and Suppiah strode out to the middle to begin Somerset’s second innings looking to erase a deficit of 96, but hopes of doing so were soon dashed. In a repeat of the first innings Trescothick looked ill at ease against the left arm seam of Keith Barker, taking 13 balls to get off the mark before missing a straight one shortly after reaching double figures. There was still time for a solitary over from Jeetan Patel prior to the tea break, and the former New Zealand spinner drew four false shots from the six balls bowled, finding appreciable turn and simultaneously reminding his team-mates that they don’t want to be chasing too many batting last on this pitch.

Somerset went in to the tea break at 36-1, and upon the resumption of play Nick Compton opted to counter-attack and swiftly brought up his half century from 61 balls. Somerset reached their hundred and looked to be reasserting themselves in the match until a comical mix-up between the wickets saw Suppiah run out for 33. Suppiah played the ball toward silly mid-off and set off hurriedly. The resulting throw at the stumps missed, but some shrewd backing up by Neil Carter saw him gather the ball and throw down the stumps with an underarm dive in a fashion not quite befitting of his stature.

 James Hildreth completed a rotten match on a personal level as he found his middle stump uprooted by a beauty from Neil Carter for 3 to go with a golden duck in the first innings, and England limited overs wicket-keeper Craig Kieswetter also succumbed late in the day as he was bowled through the gate by the impressive Patel. Somerset withheld the more attacking minded duo of Peter Trego and Jos Buttler, sending night watchman George Dockrell out to the middle who duly held firm despite a host of Warwickshire fielders surrounding the bat.

Somerset, effectively 31-4 in their second innings, will be wholly reliant upon the aforementioned Compton, who remains unbeaten on 61 after displaying the kind of stoicism too easily neglected by his team-mates, and the lower order batting of the likes of Trego, Buttler and their first innings top scorer Vernon Philander. Warwickshire remain on top, but won’t want to chase much in excess of 180 on a pitch that is offering turn and a hint of variable bounce. The morning session on day three is likely to prove pivotal in the outcome of this intriguing contest. It may well be a case of who wants it more, and on the evidence provided thus far it is still rather difficult to be sure.

Monday 9 April 2012

Time to cut Pietersen some slack...

It’s taken five Tests, a great deal of soul searching, unceasing running repairs to increasingly damaged reputations and a dose or two of severe humiliation along the way but England have succeeded in winning a Test match in Asia for the first time this winter, seizing their final opportunity to do so in a performance reminiscent of the rise to the summit of world cricket that garnered such widespread acclaim.

Numerous reports and blogs have already surfaced covering the issue of whether England have actually learnt to play cricket in the sub-continent - the conclusion to which with the bat at least is still very much contentious – so I’ll steer clear of the particular debate and instead focus upon the indubitable protagonist of England’s eight wicket win in Colombo, a resplendent Kevin Pietersen.

Pietersen - Imperious in Colombo
Pietersen, lest we forget, arrived in Colombo having scored a paltry 100 runs at a rather unbecoming average of 12.50 across England’s overseas winter tours, and under more pressure than any of his colleagues with the sole exception of his captain Andrew Strauss, in the eyes of many observers. Such a suggestion may superficially appear a little perplexing, given that Pietersen had spent the best part of 2011 laying waste to the bowling attacks of Australia, Sri Lanka and India when amassing 821 runs at a shade over 82, but swift and unremitting criticism has proved a perpetual companion of the South African born batsman at the first hint of failure throughout his England tenure.

It is an unfortunate facet of Pietersen’s England career, the source of which is difficult to pinpoint. Pietersen possesses many a characteristic that is at odds to those associated with the quintessential English cricketer. Unequivocal self-belief, little fear of failure and a demeanour suggestive of being the very best at what he does are just some of those, and when coupled with a willow wielding style that is conspicuous by its absence from the MCC coaching manual it is plain to see why more than just a handful of English traditionalists have failed to acquire the Pietersen taste.  

Perhaps it is merely the South African name. We live in one of the most diverse multi-cultural societies in the world here in Great Britain, interacting with fellow human beings of differing race, religion and background on a daily basis, all of whom are widely embraced as British citizens. An acquiescent isle we may be, but that fails to avert the reservations of many over the number of players of South African origin bolstering the English ranks.

It is true that Pietersen is not alone within the current England setup. Andrew Strauss, Jonathan Trott and Matt Prior are all affiliated with other cricketing nations in conjunction with the three lions under whose banner they proudly ply their trade, yet scarcely a fraction of the vitriol aimed at Kevin Pietersen upon losing his wicket is afforded to those players. That suppresses the South African argument, then.

In reality, a combination of the above likely contributes to the amplified scrutiny Pietersen experiences at the first sight of a flaw. Some may indeed resent the South African association, whilst others undoubtedly dislike the outward displays of bravado. Hitched up sleeves presenting Pietersen’s powerful, tattooed limbs and a propensity for adding an element of extravagance to even the most rudimentary of strokes are all intended as a demonstration of purpose to a fielding side; this is Kevin Pietersen’s stage, not theirs. There will never be a "good morning, my name's Pietersen” in the manner of a gentlemanly Colin Cowdrey. It hasn’t always sat well with the older generation unused to such pageantry and bluster; plenty are quick to label Pietersen a ‘show pony’ only interested in limited overs cricket, yet it is widely acknowledged that nobody puts in more hours of practice.

Preceding his exhibition of imperious magnificence in Colombo an undercurrent that Pietersen was perhaps operating on borrowed time had existed. Having endured a miserable winter one wouldn’t have had to search too far afield to find an observer firm in this belief, despite the heroics of 2011. An impressive Test record boasting 6,654 runs at an average hovering a shade below the Holy Grail of 50 with 20 centuries – just three away from becoming the most of any Englishman – is seemingly superfluous to many Pietersen critics.

That very issue alone would suggest, at least, that the volatile reaction to Pietersen in almost any innings in which he fails to contribute may just be a direct consequence of his lavish talent. Few batsmen in world cricket are as naturally gifted, though many return similar statistics. Teammates Alastair Cook and Jonathan Trott provide two immediate examples, neither of whom can claim to possess comparable ability to Pietersen yet average very much the same per innings.

With Kevin Pietersen there remains an underlying feeling that there is so much more. Such a comment may appear outlandish given his excellent track record, but it serves to highlight the enormous talent that Pietersen possesses. On numerous occasions there has been a sense that Pietersen has ‘thrown his wicket away’, perhaps trying to dominate a particular bowler in yet another show of bravado and paying a heavy price. Without those Pietersen would arguably already be England’s leading Test century maker with an average comfortably north of 50.

There is little doubt that Pietersen is capable of becoming an all-time great of both English and world cricket, such is his extraordinary talent. To silence his staunchest critics, though, the soft dismissals would need to stop. But would it be the same Pietersen without the risk? Anything can happen at any moment in a Pietersen innings; suicidal run outs, bizarre dismissals and an outrageous array of strokes are always on the agenda, making Pietersen conceivably the most watchable batsman in world cricket.

The choice is Pietersen’s alone. Greatness is within his reach but cricket may become a duller place should he attempt to grasp it. For now though his place as England’s number four should not be doubted. Here we have one of the most successful and entertaining batsmen to don the three lions in many a year, an astonishing talent likely to have smashed all English Test batting records by the time the curtain falls on an illustrious career.  His tendency for combining the sublime with the ridiculous will likely continue to frustrate, but innings such as those in Colombo are a timely reminder that Pietersen remains a match winner for England, and a batsman that is deserving of considerably more slack than he is currently afforded.  

Kevin Pietersen is a genius. A flawed genius, yes, but a genius nonetheless that will continue to win Test matches for England. Enjoy him whilst he is here.

Monday 2 April 2012

Inter-Galactic Test - Part II

In the first instalment of this inter-galactic Test championship back in February, Earth XI gathered (and in some cases, resurrected) a fine set of cricketers to head out to the Planet Teesra. Keeping the gifted extra-terrestrial spinners at bay and utilising the Martian conditions very much to their advantage, Earth XI upset the odds with a two wicket victory.

Our be-tentacled friends had clearly never bowled at anyone quite so imperious as Sir Donald Bradman or encountered any batsman with such steely resolve as Rahul Dravid, and even their own fearsome spinners failed to hold a candle to the peerless Shane Warne.

Atherton v Donald : Test cricket at it's best
Earth XI’s stunning upset reverberated around the universe, arousing the interest of many a cricketing planet. Indeed, such was the resounding nature of Earth’s triumph that an envoy hailing from the Planet Beamer soon got in touch. Of course, with these extra-terrestrial cricketers clearly preferring the cards stacked in their favour, Earth XI are to compete away from home once more. Regardless, the hardy human race accepts, and following some fine reconnaissance work from the Hubble Telescope it becomes eminently clear that conditions on the Planet Beamer will provide a whole different challenge.

The Planet Beamer is devoid of the dust experienced on Earth XI's previous tour, and is home to incredibly green, hard and fast tracks that are liable to crack rather significantly as the match progresses. If that wasn’t enough, the Hubble Telescope has also managed to espy natives practicing in the nets. These newly discovered aliens are taller than the previous lot; standing anywhere between six and seven feet in height, it would appear that they have a terrifying battery of fast bowlers at their disposal. In fact, the Hubble speed gun is clocking their deliveries at anywhere between 90-100mph.

Being rather more advanced than their Earthling counterparts the aliens of the Planet Beamer, in one of their more sporting moments, are to make the same technology available for this one off Test, whereby the Earth XI selectors will possess the ability to resurrect any former greats that they feel are required to confront such a challenge.

So, as selector, who would you pick to combat the aliens of the Planet Beamer in incredibly hostile fast bowling conditions? Here is the Silly Point(s) XI:

Sunil Gavaskar – against high quality fast bowling there are two key attributes required for success: a perfect, compact technique and enormous powers of concentration. Gavaskar possessed these in abundance. With wonderful balance and being an expert judge of line and length, Gavaskar’s defensive play was amongst the finest in the history of Test cricket.

Michael Atherton – when you think of great duels between opening batsmen and world class fast bowlers, Atherton vs Allan Donald in 1998 immediately springs to mind. As Lawrence Booth once said, Atherton “made batting look like trench warfare.” A master in defence against fast bowling, Atherton proves the perfect companion for Gavaskar.

Sir Don Bradman – we can’t leave him out, can we? If Bradman had any weakness at all, and that is debatable, it was against spin bowling. Some will inevitably point to the Bodyline series as reason enough to omit The Don from this line-up, but even then he averaged an impressive 56. I’d take 56 in this Test.

Greg Chappell – Chappell enjoyed unparalleled success against the fearsome West Indies fast bowlers of his day. Scoring 621 runs at an average of 69 during five World Series Cricket “Super Tests” in the fast bowling paradise of the Caribbean in 1979, Chappell displayed incredible resilience and skill to negotiate some of the most hostile fast bowling ever witnessed.

Stan McCabe – a short, stocky batsman McCabe may not seem the ideal candidate to face terrifying fast bowling, but in reality was quite the opposite. An expert driver and hooker of the ball, McCabe used sublime footwork and incredibly flexible wrists to enjoy great success against fast bowling. As Wisden told us, “he was at his best when facing bowlers of pace.” When speaking of McCabe, Sir Don Bradman once said “I wish I could bat like that,” praise enough for anyone, you would think.

Sir Garfield Sobers – almost missed out to Jacques Kallis, but hangs on to the all-rounder spot. Whilst Kallis perhaps at his peak possessed a little more pace and a sharper bouncer than Sobers, thus proving a more threatening bowling alternative, he has on occasion shown weakness with the bat against high class fast bowling; namely that of Andrew Flintoff.

Adam Gilchrist – always kept well to the pace of Brett Lee and Shaun Tait, and takes the wicket-keeping spot through batting prowess. An aggressive number seven proves the ideal foil to a solid top order.

Harold Larwood – a fast bowler whose name alone induced terror in opposition batsmen during his pomp, Larwood is renowned for his pivotal role in the infamous Bodyline series. Perhaps the one man to render Don Bradman a mere mortal, Larwood’s express pace, razor sharp bouncer and unerring accuracy suit conditions perfectly. Rumoured to have bowled in excess of 100mph, and with an endless list of injury victims during his reign of terror, Larwood would prove somewhat of an unwelcome guest.

Jeff Thomson - one of the most aggressive and fastest bowlers to have played cricket. Possessing a fearsome bouncer and no shortage of variation, Thomson’s slingy action and hostile approach to bowling make him a certainty for selection. Thomson often provided equal threat with the old ball as he did with the new, and the sheer explosiveness with which he delivered each and every ball would undoubtedly prove to be the most hellish of experiences for the opposition batsmen.

Bill O’Reilly – ‘Tiger’ makes it in to the side as the sole spinner, though that is a word to be used lightly. To quote Wisden once more, O’Reilly “gripped the ball in his enormous right hand and released it at a pace that could be almost fast-medium. It would then bounce ferociously on the hard pitches of his time and, on occasion, knock wicket-keepers off their feet.” O’Reilly’s combination of fast, bouncing leg-breaks, top-spinners and googlies should enjoy great success in such conditions.

Joel Garner – standing at 6ft 8 inches tall and with the capability of bowling at searing pace, ‘Big Bird’ was an intimidating prospect for the very best of batsmen and completes the Earth XI line-up. Possessing an uncanny ability to produce deliveries that would rear up alarmingly from an almost good length, Garner would be in his element. A devastating yorker only added to the menace of this West Indian great.

Thursday 29 March 2012

Sri Lanka Defeat England in Thrilling Test...

Well we hoped for a while, didn’t we?

As Jonathan Trott and Matt Prior expertly marshalled England to a score of 233-4 chasing an improbable total of 340 in what would have been the biggest successful run chase in the annals of English cricket, even the most pessimistic of England supporters, myself included, had begun to harbour a trace of hope. 

Herath - Destroyer in Chief
Bookmakers had by this point installed England as odds on favourites to claim victory, clearly more confident than those Englishmen simultaneously chewing fingernails to the bone and worrying that one more wicket would spark a batting apocalypse the likes of which only England are capable of initiating. 

The pessimists, as they tend to be when discussing England in the sub-continent, were of course correct. A collapse of stock market proportions circa 1929 ensued upon the rather unfortunate dismissal of Prior, resulting in the last six English wickets falling for a meagre 31 runs.

There were positives to take from England’s doomed run chase at Galle, an effort in which they ultimately fell short by 75 runs; not least the manner in which Trott and Prior vigilantly accumulated runs and successfully rotated the strike without undue risk against Sri Lanka’s spinners. Trott in particular highlighted the value of patience, technique and supreme concentration in such conditions. Such an approach was worryingly absent in the UAE at the beginning of the year, and there had been little evidence to suggest that had altered during the first innings here at Galle. The pre-meditated sweep shot in particular proved the downfall of many an England batsman.

It is surely now time for England’s batsmen to stow the broom away in the cupboard until bowlers request it to be used. A feature of the UAE humbling by Pakistan was England kindly offering an over-excitable pitch cleaning service that swept profusely and came free with ten wickets. It appears to still be in existence. 

The sweep shot should not be abandoned, as some are suggesting, and is a key weapon against spin bowling, indeed the great Muttiah Muralitharan despised being swept, but it is a dangerous shot to play to a ball pitching on middle stump. England’s batsmen were again all too keen to pre-meditate the shot here, and once more it proved costly.

As alluded to previously, Prior was perhaps the unluckiest of those to fall as a result of the sweep shot. Connecting well, he could only look on in incredulity as the short-leg fielder Thirimanne showed tremendous anticipation in covering the path of the ball, followed by commendable bravery in taking a blow to the midriff and instant reactions (to add to his rapidly expanding list of accolades) to hold on as it rebounded from his body.

Hope, now diminished from a trace to a mere wisp, still clung on by its fingertips. Debutant Samit Patel boasts a very healthy first class batting record, and being a competent player of spin offered some optimism that he could pick up where Prior had left off. The fact that he got out after reaching only 9 to a rash shot, perhaps borne of inexperience in such a pressured situation, firmly hammered the final nail in to England’s hastily constructed coffin. 

Credit where it is due to Sri Lanka, who relied upon a collection of magnificent individual performances to win this Test match. Captain Mahela Jayawardene batted superbly as others fell around him during a mammoth first innings knock of 180, and his un-related namesake Prasanna kept wicket with distinction along with making a crucial unbeaten 61 in Sri Lanka’s second innings as they endeavoured to set England an unreachable target. Most praise should perhaps be reserved for the unheralded Rangana Herath, though, whose twelve wickets in the match ultimately proved England’s bane and earned him the man of the match award.  

England must now win the second Test in Colombo starting next week if they are to take a share of this series and avoid being usurped by South Africa atop the Test rankings. Evidence compiled across the last four days at Galle would suggest that it may prove a rather difficult task, but the application shown by Trott and Prior on the final day should offer some encouragement that this rotten run of four consecutive Test defeats can be arrested.

What we have seen from England in 2012 thus far is not befitting of a side entitled the world’s finest, with many labelling Andrew Strauss’ side a flash in the pan. They now have one Test to prove otherwise and repair battered reputations, and Strauss himself may not have too much time to convince an increasingly sceptical public that he has what it takes to play international cricket any longer.    

Monday 26 March 2012

With Apologies to Mahela Jayawardene...

I've erstwhile been guilty of underappreciating Sri Lanka’s Mahela Jayawardene, and probably still am to an extent. Perhaps it is that he averages a modest 37.94 overseas in contrast to a rather more imposing 64.60 on home soil. Perhaps it has something to do with circumstance; after all, there is a similarly diminutive batsman just across the water in neighbouring India that persists to put the achievements of his competitors firmly in the shade. Whatever the reason, the performance of Jayawardene in Galle today was a stark reminder that it is high time I began to form an appreciation. 
Jayawardene - Oozed class

After winning the all-important toss Jayawardene, back as captain after initially resigning the post in 2010, had little hesitation in sending his charges out to bat and make first use of what looked to be a typically flat Sri Lankan first day wicket. Entering the fray with his side ailing at 15-3 inside four overs and having to negotiate a hat-trick ball from the magnificent James Anderson was not what he would have intended. 

Such situations are where great players distinguish themselves from very good players. That propensity for knowing when to dig in, knowing when to seamlessly switch between resolute defence and strategic aggression and more importantly possessing the mental strength to remain steadfast in the face of adversity are all major elements of a batsman’s game under such circumstances. Jayawardene has all of these in spades. 

The phrase “a captain’s innings” is one habitually referred to in cricket. If there is such a thing, then this was it. Captaincy evidently brings out the best in Mahela Jayawardene, averaging a lofty 70.75 when leading his country. Few in the history of the game have revelled in the responsibility to such an extent. 

From ball one the deep thud of leather meeting the middle of Jayawardene’s willow was every bit as rhythmic as the incessant musical ambiance conveyed from the terraces. Technically flawless defence complemented an assortment of classy strokes, combining poise and placement with power to send the ball sailing over the rope on three occasions, and racing across the outfield on many more. 

Jayawardene’s majestic 168 not out by stumps on day one was not without chance, being dropped on 64, 90, and then rather more fortuitously by the hapless Monty Panesar on 147 and 152. Regardless, it was an innings in which his domination of each and every England bowler was absolute. 

Watching Jayawardene in full flow today was a timely reminder that this is a cricketer worthy of great recognition. The inferior overseas record is a black mark against his name when comparing his achievements to those of other modern greats, and the key reason as to why I personally rank him slightly beneath the very top tier of greatness, but it certainly isn’t one to be scoffed at – just ask Michael Atherton. Jayawardene reminded the cricketing world today that he has the every bit the temperament, array of strokes and resilience of his fellow greats. I’m learning to afford him greater appreciation, and I can only apologise that I didn’t sooner.

Thursday 22 March 2012

England in Sri Lanka: 2nd Warm-up Report and Series Prediction

As England’s second three day warm-up match of this two Test ‘mini-tour’ of Sri Lanka culminated in an unexpectedly exciting finale, thus averting one of those all too familiarly insipid draws so often associated with this beautiful isle, a sense of foreboding ahead of the upcoming five day stuff had still managed to lodge itself deep within my admittedly negative psyche.

Up against a Sri Lankan Cricket Development XI containing plenty of experience in the form of Test capped Chamara Silva, the SSC stadium in Colombo produced a pitch that can only be described as a road, and as roads go this belonged more in the Autobahn category than cobbled side street. Had it not been for two rather generous declarations from the Development XI this fixture may well have been devoid of incident for its entirety. 

England's bowlers toiled
You will hear few complaints from struggling England captain Andrew Strauss, who went on to register a solid first innings century before retiring out. Having last returned a first-class three figure score in the first Ashes Test of 2010, Strauss will have been mighty relieved to spend some time in the middle. Jonathan Trott, Strauss’s makeshift opening partner in place of the rested Alastair Cook, also looked assured in reaching his own century. Trott, one of England’s consistent performers since his introduction to the side, will be quietly pleased after having his own somewhat less documented struggles than his captain of late. 

Kevin Pietersen looked in good order when making brisk contributions of 26 and 52, with the trio of Ravi Bopara, Samit Patel and Matt Prior all providing significant assistance. England’s key concern remains the recent form of Warwickshire batsman Ian Bell, who made just 14 and 11 following his second ball duck in the first of the warm-up fixtures. After enjoying a stellar 2011, Bell’s start to 2012 has been a forgettable one thus far, though it would be somewhat of a surprise should his name be absent from the line-up come the morning of the first Test in Galle on Monday. 

England’s bowlers, without the rested James Anderson and Monty Panesar, had struggled on day one as the Development XI scored with unabated ease. A lack of assistance from the benign wicket coupled with soaring temperatures in Colombo was largely to blame; Matt Prior kept wicket without pads such was the heat. Chamara Silva prospered at England’s expense, stroking an effortless 163 before eventually falling to Steven Finn. 

England’s management are probably quietly satisfied with their charges being made to toil in unfavourable conditions. Acclimatising to the heat and humidity is so often a key factor in a tour of Sri Lanka, and the dogged perseverance of England’s bowling unit paid tribute to the superb fitness regime currently in place under the stewardship of Andy Flower. 

The Development XI found life no easier upon taking to the field on day two following a sporting first innings declaration at 431-6. England’s openers coasted to 197 without loss before Strauss retired out in altruistic fashion. Indeed, if events in Colombo on Wednesday were anything to go by, England may have more than just their Sri Lankan humanoid counterparts to contend with. Clearly sympathetic with the plight of the Development XI in the field several local critters gallantly offered their services. At one moment, with Jonathan Trott just having reached three figures, the Development XI were aided by a monitor lizard fielding at point, along with a rather surly looking cobra sweeping the boundaries edge. 

My sense of foreboding happens to extend beyond the admirably loyalist local fauna, though. Sri Lanka is dubbed ‘the home of the draw’ for good reason, and pitches like that at the SSC in Colombo are a prime example as to why. In short, Test cricket does not need draws. Furthermore, Sri Lanka as a nation does not need draws. 

The travails of Sri Lankan cricket have been well documented of late. A country in the midst of civil war and subject to ineffable atrocities, cricket has so often awarded temporary solace to many, but with inner turmoil and players going unpaid for lengthy periods of time its captivating power may be on the wane in this cricketing hotbed. 

Scores of 600, inevitably resulting in drawn Test matches, will do little to re-captivate that audience. Competitive wickets with a propensity for nail-biting finishes are vital to re-igniting the fervour so often witnessed during the halcyon days of Muttiah Muralitharan. Muralitharan had within his person the power to unite a nation, and whilst no current Sri Lankan cricketer can claim to possess the widespread appeal of the legendary off-spinner, it is within the remit of the curators to produce pitches conducive to exciting cricket so that similar levels of interest snare the attention of the masses. 

Unfortunately, I speak in hope. The reality is that the atrocities are likely to continue, the country will remain divided and Sri Lanka’s cricketing hierarchy have some way to go before their own house is in order. Test cricket has the ability to restore a degree of national pride and unity, and it is for that reason that competitive wickets are essential in the forthcoming series. 

If recent fixtures tell us anything, England can expect to be playing on featherbed pitches offering little assistance for the bowlers of both sides. In such heat and humidity the cricket is likely to be of an attritional nature; one batting collapse or inspired spell of bowling could win or lose a Test match. For what it’s worth, my own prediction is a dull 0-0 draw across the two Tests. 

England’s batsmen, having shown good form across the warm-up fixtures, should prosper against an attack that is notably weaker than that of their Pakistani tormentors in the UAE. Sri Lanka’s own batsmen are naturally well adept in their home conditions and perennial stalwarts Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene may prove particularly difficult to dislodge. 

Both sides possess genuine match winners, but will the wickets produced make victory a possibility? England certainly hope so, and for the beleaguered nation of Sri Lanka there may be wider reaching effects than purely the result of a Test match.

Tuesday 20 March 2012

Mohammad Amir: Not Quite Time to Forgive, or Forget…

Watching the fascinating interview between former England captain Michael Atherton and disgraced former Pakistan fast bowling protégé Mohammad Amir last night stirred a number of emotions. Renewed disbelief that such events actually unfolded was just one, accompanied by anger that here sat one perpetrator of corruption within the most gentlemanly of games and of course sadness that one of the greatest fast bowling talents of a generation has been all but wasted.

Mohammad Amir
For those that missed it, watch it, or cast your eye over one of the many transcripts readily available online. An enlightening interview at the least, Atherton accompanies Amir through his early career, unparalleled success as a Pakistani teenage sensation and ultimately to that fateful day when those two pre-arranged no-balls were bowled at Lord’s.

Amir produced a polished, if at times imploring performance throughout. My rather more cynical side says that Atherton’s questions could well have been vetted and pre-observed by Amir, such was the clarity of response and forcefulness of expression. A shred of liberal consideration that I somehow managed to retain countered that Amir’s prison sentence allowed for reflection enough to have his story well regimented in preparation for further inquisitions.

A prevailing sense of empathy dominated the interview, a luxury Amir would unlikely have been afforded had the inquisitor been a skilled QC in place of understanding, sympathetic former cricketer Michael Atherton.

To my mind, forgiveness is being dished out in exceedingly heavy doses from too many quarters. Yes it has left me saddened, not only at the corruption of the sport I love but at the demise of a potential superstar, yet for me the focus is all wrong. Age, nationality and ability should be redundant in such circumstances, with many claiming that the young, naïve Amir was misled. Maybe he was, but maybe Mervyn Westfield was, too, and you’ll see no such clamour for the lifting of Westfield’s ban.

One interview in which Amir, to his credit, tried to give reasoning behind his actions and explain how and why he was manipulated by more malevolent figures does not warrant forgiveness, nor does a short custodial sentence and a temporary ban from cricket. Indeed, many would argue that a lifetime ban and nothing less would have been a more suitable punishment.

One could perhaps be excused for buying much of what this young man from such humble origins told us. After all, Amir isn’t the first sportsman to have fallen after a swift and meteoric rise, and the sense that he was subject to manipulation persisted throughout. Despite much of this being true, Amir’s words were not without their flaws. Atherton enquired as to whether he had received any money for agreeing to take part in spot-fixing, a suggestion that Amir categorically denied. Further digging unearthed the revelation that Amir had provided a mysterious contact known only as ‘Ali’ with his bank account details, a rather strange gesture if the transfer of money was not on the agenda, one would think.

Likewise, Amir’s attempt to portray himself as a scared, naïve and altogether unwitting youngster amidst a world of adults fell somewhat short. Amir was happy to admit that he knew that his involvement was entirely wrong and cheating the game. The very definition of naïve suggests that this should not have been the case. Rather than express his fears to the team management, Amir opted to proceed, knowing exactly what he was becoming involved in, but not stopping for one second to consider the implications or indeed the possibility of being apprehended. It doesn’t instil a great deal of forgiveness, does it?

Compassion and forgiveness play a significant role in human society. The complex and diverse nature of the human being, so often confronted with bounteous choice, and possessing an unrivalled intelligence to act upon that choice, inevitably brings about mistakes in all walks of life. Most of those mistakes are forgiven, or the perpetrator given an opportunity to atone.

Amir is undoubtedly remorseful for his involvement in this spot-fixing saga. And why wouldn’t he be? A rare talent placed this young man with the cricketing world at his feet, the fledgling hero of a nation. Corruption spat at those same feet, and the cricketing world swiftly decided that they were no longer a place under which it wished to reside.

As mistakes go, this ranked at the catastrophic end of the scale. The inner workings of human nature will one day see the majority decide that Amir is ready to be forgiven. Some have already done so. For me, if he is indeed on the road to rehabilitation, Amir must now see out his cricketing ban that runs until 2015, and only then by virtue of his actions and not pleading, remorseful words may this ghastly affair receive some closure, and forgiveness be imparted. 

Friday 16 March 2012

Sachin Tendulkar: The Untouchable Feat

As my heartbeat begins to settle down to something resembling its regular rhythm I am eventually able to put in to writing what the cricketing world has witnessed today. Sachin Tendulkar, record breaker extraordinaire and demi-god to over one billion fanatical Indian cricket enthusiasts, became the ultimate centurion.

Tendulkar - Relief personified
One hundred international centuries; catch a breath and take a moment to absorb the magnitude of such a feat. Stupefying, isn’t it?

A shade over one year had elapsed since the ‘Little Master’ was last sighted removing his helmet, looking to the skies in gratitude and basking in the approbation of a doting nation. Today the wait was brought to an end with a clipped single beyond square leg, and as Tendulkar’s bat went up in to the air, so did a collective sigh of relief from all in the cricketing world. After all, had a Tendulkar innings passed by without mention of that Holy Grail ad infinitum?

Pressure has been a steadfast companion of Tendulkar since first making his bow in international cricket at the tender age of 16. The teenager hailing from Bombay entered international cricket amidst great fanfare of a prodigious talent, a messiah of Indian cricket ready to lead the fightback against the dominance of legendary Pakistani seamers Waqar Younis and Wasim Akram between the nations.

It is often said each time Tendulkar strides to the crease that he is “batting for a billion”, and the crushing pressure of such great expectation would have been sufficient to derail most mere mortals. Tendulkar might just be a tenuous descendent of Sir Donald Bradman, though, because he has emulated ‘The Don’ by laughing in the face of mortality, scorning the audacity of its very presence.

The Little Master was but 17 years of age when notching up the first of his century of centuries, and as the legend grew so did the expectation. Time and again he delivered. To the average international cricketer reaching three figures brings a release of pressure; a surety that their place is all but secure and a moment to bask in the ensuing plaudits. Tendulkar, as with many aspects of his career, was an exception to the rule. Century by majestic century only served to increase demand; Tendulkar’s failures have forever been more than just a personal chagrin. They have failed an adoring nation, too.

Cricket has never bore witness to as complete a batsman as Tendulkar, perhaps the peerless Bradman aside. If the rare ability to play every stroke in the manual with efficient aplomb, maintain perfect poise and balance at the crease and seamlessly switch between defence and attack has been the supercharged engine powering this inexorable run machine, the mind behind the diminutive batsman has undoubtedly provided the steering. Experts will often champion the importance of a clear mind when looking to score runs, and that Tendulkar has been able to do so despite such tribulations makes the man - and this extraordinary feat - all the more remarkable.

Retirement is looming, whether it be this year or the next for the most ruthless run scorer in the long history of cricket, and when that day comes many more eulogies will no doubt be lavished upon this most magnificent of careers. For now we should concentrate on a feat that, in my view, will echo through the ages every bit as much as Bradman’s 99.94, and for once load all of the plaudits that we can muster on to those little shoulders that have been carrying the weight of the world for the past twelve months, and the weight of India for so much longer.

Congratulations, Sachin, and may there be many more.