Saturday, 11 April 2009

Rite of Spring still blooms

With the imminent arrival of the World Twenty20, swiftly to be followed by the small matter of the Ashes, it's hard not to feel the marginalisation of county cricket more keenly than ever. The Twenty20 Cup - the very goose, lest one forget, that spawned the golden egg - has been shifted from it's habitual June fortnight; May will see just one full round of Championship matches. Should England regain the urn in August, domestic results will be relegated to the smallest print known to broadsheets. In the far more likely case of an Australian victory, the corpse of county cricket will be dragged out for its traditional public flogging. As those who paid to witness barely persistent rain ruin the season-opener at Lord's might have felt, it can be hard to win as a county supporter.

But with the attention of the mass media elsewhere, not inconsiderable change is afoot in the domestic arena. New coaches and directors have been brought in to reawaken sleeping giants. Big names, too: Peter Moores at Lancashire, Angus Fraser returning to Middlesex, Chris Adams making what appears - though Yorkshiremen will need convincing - a lasting move from Sussex to Surrey. Moores and Adams know county success, although the needs and wants of two regional heavyweights may press them harder than seaside Sussex, where they needed and were given years to bring about success. Meanwhile, the minnows of a decade ago, now temporary wearers of what was once Surrey's unchallenged crown - rarely Lancashire's, a 'big club' akin to Newcastle United - look to build their own dynasty. A surfeit of seam bowlers, mostly locally nurtured, should boost Durham's chances of retaining their title, while their young turk captain, Will Smith, will have the support of gnarled old-pros Benkenstein and Chanderpaul and perhaps an additional weapon in Steve Harmison, to whom that description can still apply in county cricket.

Past the defending champions, the competition looks tight-knit as has increasingly been the case in the two-divisional system. Nottinghamshire's seam attack is tasty, but they look short of runs, especially if Samit Patel is required by England. Somerset are at the other pole: Langer and Trescothick continue to underwrite any batting deficit, but an attack which has still to move on from 40-year old Andrew Caddick should keep them stronger contenders for relegation than the title. Sussex have shopped shrewdly - bringing in Yasir Arafat and Ed Joyce - but the reality of Mushtaq's lost wickets began to set in last season, and there is no clear impression that they have addressed the issue. Worcestershire look just covered on bowling, but short on batting; fellow promotees Wawrickshire will have to do it the dull way, as was the case five summers ago, but look too anodyne, as exemplified by the unprepossessing acquisition of New Zealand's Jeetan Patel. Yorkshire remain too long detained by the process of bringing through youth; they will not get far unless they can identify a hardy pair of openers, a glaring deficiency in recent seasons, but otherwise the team has a nice balance, and will benefit from a refreshed Matthew Hoggard, eager to jerk the attention of the national selectors, who want to move on.

If Surrey, Kent and Middlesex think turning up will see them out of the Second Division, they could struggle. All are reasonable bets for promotion, but will be pushed hard by the more ambitious of the lower tier's accustomed residents: Essex have a bright-looking squad, albeit slightly lacking the substance for four-day cricket, as opposed to limited overs formats, where they are kings. Derbyshire too are upwardly-mobile, albeit slightly lacking experience in the bowling ranks. The remaining teams look set for continued struggle: some would say that Leicestershire and Northants, pushing the overseas quota as far as it is willing to go, deserve little better. But if some degree of predictability would be a blessed relief to county followers - being able to work out starting times for games without the aid of star-gazing equipment would be a start - the complete uncertainty across all four competitions should keep supporters interested , and the chance to witness the next generation of aspiring hopefuls - in healthy abundance despite the much-trumpeted influx of Kolpaks et al - is sufficient reason to remain hopeful however the national team fares.

Saturday, 14 March 2009

Defeated England out of ideas

Not many people would have expected England's habitually fragile batting line-up to reel off three totals easily in excess of 500; nor the West Indies, having dramatically snatched an early lead, to hold out for another three Test matches and secure a long-awaited series victory. But however surprising the result, a series which featured the odd moment of high drama among much turgid cricket confirmed rather than altered most well-held opinions. West Indies are still a mediocre side, although the excessively flat pitches played to their core batting strength, and capitalised on England's glaring deficiencies.

England possess not one seam bowler who can stride back to his mark all day with the captain's full confidence. The old guard - Flintoff, Harmison, even Sidebottom - all look finished in one sense or another. James Anderson and Stuart Broad both remain on the cusp of genuine utility as Test bowlers, although together they are a serviceable new ball pair, sorely lacking the support of an enforcer, which only Flintoff at full cry - an increasingly distant prospect - is capable of being amongst the present field. In desperation, England gave a debut to Amjad Khan, who brought no-balls aplenty, and more fire in words than deeds. As England cry out for a bowler who can bring express pace or steepling bounce, old Duncan Fletcher nostrums ring loud in the distance. Those who scoffed at his inflexibility in bowling selections, his insistence on ability and potential over domestic performance, may choke now. Look no further than Ryan Sidebottom, the darling of the Peter Moores regime, the anti-Fletcher. England had one good year from him, and in return have carried all winter a battered wreck of a bowler.

And as they finally look to have given up on long-lost causes, Steve Harmison prominent among them, England look around to find no-one ready to graduate to the highest level; somehow the prospects who should have taken flight in the two years since the last Ashes remain rooted to the ground. Where now Tremlett, Plunkett, Mahmood, Onions? Injured, discarded or ignored. Anything but cultivated. And now England are scrabbling on their knees, desperately trying to salvage the scraps of a generation they let slip through their fingers.

England now head into the limited overs segment of the tour with a captain who will don the blue kit by sole dint of the pips on his shoulder, and an acting coach who may or may not soon be permanently appointed to the post. Andy Flower is a demonstrably capable man of cricket, but his links with past regimes and the evidence of the current tour should be enough for the ECB to rule out his candidacy. A new voice is badly needed, a forced re-evaluation of common approach and attitude. The sort of cosy axis Strauss and Flower have apparently formed is ideal in prosperous times, but England in their current state require something more like shock treatment. No matter that there is little time before this summer's Ashes for a new man to make his mark; the resurgence of Ricky Ponting's Australia (that was quick) suggests that ship is well and truly sailing.

Saturday, 17 January 2009

The bowling's the thing

With the calendar rolling over into another Ashes year, English and Australian cricket inevitably turns its gaze towards this summer's anticipated contest. The first batch of pre-Ashes headlines have focused on the batsmen, and administrators: Kevin Pietersen - who, depending on how you see it, either drowned trying to bridge the sea of English mediocrity, or collapsed under the weight of his own ego - was sprung from his throne as England's captain; Matthew Hayden, the last to see he had reached Do Not Pass Go, cashed in his chips. ECB blazers and an Australian lawyer - their Chairman of Selectors, Andrew Hilditch - have come under fire for creating a climate of mediocrity for their relative teams to function in.

Little matter that the two batting units to face-off at Cardiff in six months time could be predicted without too much head-scratching; that England's committee cock-ups are ritualistic; or that it is no surprise the Australians have forgotten good selection is an art, not a process. The unsentimental Australian system will soon have forgotten Hayden; unlike an English equivalent, Michael Vaughan for instance, he will not hang around waiting to be wheeled out again. The Australians have always been rather better at moving on, the process in which they are currently engaged, not without struggle. England, on the other hand, could roll up to the Swalec in six months time with one captain and as many as four old flames.

But as much as batsmen have grabbed the attention recently, increasingly it seems that their less oxygenated counterparts will be crucial to the outcome of this year's big event. In each of the last two Ashes series, the home team has had the bowling attack to make the difference: England's famed pace quartet of 2005 was their best in years, while the combination of experience - Warne and McGrath - and relative youth - Clark and Lee - was irresistible two years ago in Australia.

Among the specialist bowlers, possibly only Mitchell Johnson on either side can call himself a settled option. Peter Siddle has made an encouraging start to his career, but lacks subtlety and variation, if not heart and heat. Stuart Clark will share the new ball if injuries have not sapped him of his potency, which is always a possibility for a seamer heading for his mid-thirties. Their troubles on the spin-bowling front continue relatively unabated, the current toss-up between the accurate, anodyne Nathan Hauritz and Jason Krezja, as much a danger to his own side as the opposition. England can claim no frontline certainties, save Flintoff in the all-rounder's berth. Monty Panesar used to be guaranteed a place by right, but will bowl himself out of the team if he does not arrest his decline in performance. James Anderson and Stuart Broad have both made strides over the last 12 months, but have further to go before they can properly call themselves Test bowlers. Then England are delving into the crocks - Ryan Sidebottom and Simon Jones- and the unreliables - Harmison or Sajid Mahmood. Both sides have six months and a handful of Test matches to work out their best options. And despite what you might hear from the rooftops, it is the team with the more settled bowling attack which will prevail this summer, whatever they think of one another.

Friday, 2 January 2009

The captain and the coach

This is meant to be Kevin Pietersen's year. He now faces a home Ashes series he has to dominate not only as a batsman, but as captain. Then, in an electrifying prospect, he will lead his adopted country to his homeland, where he so stunningly broke into the England side four years ago. Caribbean tours, such as England will undergo in the spring, are rarely dull either, and a resurging if not quite resurgent West Indies side should not be taken for granted. Over the next 12 months, he will begin to define his place in the pantheon.

The men who chose Pietersen to lead England took a significant risk, not only in burdening their greatest asset but by placing power in the hands of an uncompliant character. It appears, with strong rumours circulating of a damaging rift between Pietersen and coach Peter Moores, that they are about to understand what having Pietersen as captain really entails. In the end he will have to have it his way; that could end up with his tenure lasting five years or five months. They should not have promoted Pietersen if unprepared to give him his head, however much that may sometimes cut against the grain. He has rarely done otherwise.

The tension between him and Moores, which has been a problem throughout and preceding his captaincy, may well end up costing the coach his job. Other than creating financial and administrative difficulties, it is hard to see how this hurts England. Moores was to have been a cheerful counterpoint to an increasingly glum Duncan Fletcher; a personable motivator; a new voice on one-day cricket in which England had long struggled. During his 20 month tenure to date, England have won just one Test match in twelve against top-rank opposition; in limited overs cricket there have been some exhilarating successes, offset by equally crushing reverses. Furthermore the impression seems to be that more players have been annoyed than inspired by his methods. With Duncan Fletcher the intentions were clear; you could agree or disagree with his nostrums, and the results, until the last year or so, encouraged the former. Moores seems intangible; he has rarely been much criticised for England's average performances, mostly because the team seems to bear so little of his imprint. Crucially, and in total contrast to Fletcher, he has failed to establish a decent working relationship with any of his captains; without the backing, overt and implicit, of the captain, no coach can succeed at this level. If that truly is the case in the current situation, Moores must be the one to lose out.

That should not necessarily entail a mad rush to install a direct replacement. With such an important year imminent, there is no time for a new face to bed in quietly. And with a captain like Pietersen, one suspects the right man may not be found easily or quickly. A simple solution would be to retain the relevant backroom staff and coaches, with respected manager Hugh Morris to act as a convener when necessary, in lieu of a head coach. Although not in keeping with prescriptive modern fashion, it would be a flexible situation which should suit Pietersen without leaving him isolated and unsupported. Unless someone who has the respect of the captain and his team can be found, it is the best recourse. By rolling the dice and making Pietersen captain, the England management showed faith in an impressive cricketer. Now they must back him.

Monday, 29 December 2008

The victory of mediocrity

Forget Michael Vaughan, whose omission from the Caribbean tour is as acceptable as his selection would have been. It was not so much the identity of the new face that mattered, rather that there be one. Continuing to select Ian Bell as a first XI player, and Owais Shah as patsy, shows that the England selectors have faith in their batting unit. Which has remained virtually unchanged for the last two years and repeatedly failed to attain the benchmark of 400 against the better sides. The latest selection sends out several messages: to the incumbents that they are doing fine; to the challengers that there isn't much point. Neither is healthy or conducive to success. Shah could play, but his hope expired long ago holding its breath. Rob Key, one of few genuine top order options, continues to be fobbed off with the captaincy of the A team. The brave new world of Peter Moores, where the doors of the closed shop were to be thrown open, has been exposed as a fallacy. Australia look increasingly ripe for the taking next summer, but England will get nowhere standing still.

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

England look back to the future

Victory may have finally eluded them, but there was more encouragement to be had for England from two well-contested Tests in India than any number of facile conquests - as they have enjoyed recently over New Zealand and West Indies - could ever provide. In the end, the tour which might never have been worked out well for England. It saw the resurgence of their contrasting Andrews - Strauss and Flintoff - who were so pivotal in 2005 and will need to be again next summer should England engineer a repeat. That Matt Prior's return to the team went almost unnoticed will be satisfaction enough for him, and there was further evidence of the value his trenchant batting adds. Stuart Broad, recalled for the second Test, looked to be hitting the pitch that much harder than this time last year, while the mix of a functioning outswinger with the new ball and discpilined lines with the old one gave indications of the bowler he should become.

While some quietly pushed themselves forward with solid work, the contrasting distress signals were more obvious. Ian Bell and Monty Panesar come most readily to mind: Bell simply does not look possessed of the stature to occupy the pivotal No.3 position yet, least of all against Australia. Exclusion, rather than demotion, would serve him better in the long-run, and also give England the chance to experiment with their top order, with the opening partnership of Cook and Strauss a case of good players in imperfect harmony. Cook could easily slip down the order to accomodate either Michael Vaughan or Rob Key at the top. Panesar, too, struggled: more worrying than his much chronicled mundanity as a bowler was his failure to maintain the basic tenets of his method, continually erring in length, a spinner's cardinal sin. With Graeme Swann looking combative, and Adil Rashid increasingly prominent, Panesar must now fight for his place.

England will now look forward, to the spring tour of the Caribbean, and, inevitably, next summer's Ashes. As much as it is important to focus on the matter at hand, the team for the West Indies should be selected with Australia in mind. This requires a the selectors to set aside some of their favoured notions of entitlement and security. Well as Paul Collingwood played in Chennai, England are well aware of what he contributes to the team; Owais Shah is a less-known quantity at this level, but one who could benefit England next summer. Accordingly, Collingwood should be stood down for the Caribbean in Shah's favour. England must gain a greater awareness of their reserve strength, and it is salutary that the batting line-up which played in India is identical to that which toured two years ago. This suggests a greater stability and consistency of performance than has been the case. The protected world of central contracts has made consolidation too easy an option for selectors, and they drift increasingly towards damaging inflexibility. As it stands, highly talented batsmen are in danger of being forever wasted through selectorial indifference.

As ever, the bowling attack remains more fluid. Anderson and Broad look the safest long-term bets and Steve Harmison is bound to tour the Caribbean with his history there and permanently alluring abilities. Without Harmison, or with him bowling badly, England lack potency once the new ball has lost its shine. Flintoff and Broad are steady; and while the big all-rounder retains his capacity to be outstanding, he has never been a consistent wicket-taker. Extreme pace and bounce or reverse swing are a seamer's three main old-ball weapons. The latter was England's trump card back in 2005 and has enjoyed an extended vogue since, best demonstrated of late by the Indian duo, Zaheer and Ishant. England have strived increasingly less successfuly for it since 2005, Flintoff included. Such shadow chasing has brought England back towards the mercurial Sajid Mahmood and rushed to prominence a Kentish Dutchman, Amjad Khan. Either could feature in the near future if England's mainstays prove too plain. One name which is synonomous with speed and swing is that of Simon Jones, who remains tantalisingly out of reach, if not mind. Only the doctors would want to write him off at this stage, and England will keep a hopeful eye out. The team may finally be moving on under Kevin Pietersen's leadership, but Vaughan and Jones, England's old alchemists, may yet hold the key to Ashes success.

Sunday, 21 December 2008

Smith bridges South Africa's Rubicon

Defeating Australia has been something of an obsession for South Africa in the years since their re-entry into international cricket. The challenge broke a leader as strong as Hansie Cronje, who crumbled on the unsuccessful tour a decade ago. Graeme Smith suffered similarly on his first tour there, forced to swallow his own brash predictions. The Australian outfit his team faces now is significantly reduced, cripplingly so in the bowling ranks, their former failsafe means of controlling the flow of the game. Yet to defeat them on home soil, not least chasing over 400, remains a profound achievement. South Africa, as they had many times previously, sparked early, but looked like being worn away as the Australian lower order, an as-yet unquenced force, twice rallied. Late wickets on the fourth evening also seemed to drag the game back in the hosts' favour. But for once in such circumstances, Australia were outdone: at the crucial moments they blinked; having stacked the odds in their favour they could only watch as their throne was swept from under them.

As is necessary for such a victory, South Africa produced a collective performance built on many individual pillars. AB De Villiers was a deserved man-of-the-match after he guided them home with a fifth-day century. But the undoubted champion was Smith, his two important innings the least part. He has always been a special player: those who captain their country at 22 and score consecutive double-centuries opening the batting in England tend to be. But back then, both his batting and PR were crass; as quickly as he won success he earned enemies and an unenviable international reputation. As a batsman and a captain he has grown immeasurably over the last few years: his technique is now less likely to collapse at the first sign of a swing bowler; following last summer's defeat of England, he spoke with humility and gravitas, in distinct comparison to his counterpart Kevin Pietersen. A bullying figure has become a towering one; beyond all expectation, a desperate punt has turned into a unifying force, encompassing the myriad problems of South African cricket - the tension of racial quotas, the aftershocks of Cronje's disgrace, worrying dips in performance . There is still much work to do for South Africa to make good what remains a single result; Smith should ensure they are not distracted. And if he leads his team past the ailing hosts, he will have helped to heal South African scars not only over Australia, but Cronje.