Monday, 14 December 2009

Ashesinsomniac becomes cricinfo insomniac

The reason why this blog has been as empty as an Alastair Cook interview is because I have managed to persuade the sages at Cricinfo to employ me.

Should anyone be interested, in order of excitement here a few articles:

An all-time marking-the-moment-in-style XI

Owais Shah lets rip at the England selectors

Graham Thorpe on why Luke Wright can fill Andrew Flintoff's shoes

Courtney Walsh talking about redemption

Hopefully I can keep this blog going with a few more opinionated pieces.

Cheerio

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Do it like Belly...

I am the only one worried that England's A-grade talents will be coached by Ian Bell? Presumably he's there to work on 'body language' and 'presence' (for their walk back to the pavilion after a well-made 15).

Thursday, 8 October 2009

England set to call time on Harmison

The England selectors will today reveal their Test and one-day squads for the winter tour of South Africa with Steve Harmison’s international future and the balance of the Test side the pressing concerns.

Ever since Duncan Fletcher’s reign, England have been wedded to a policy of playing five frontline bowlers. A luxury that most other sides can rarely afford, it is a strategy that captain Andrew Strauss and coach Andy Flower are staunch defenders of.

While England’s top six have misfired for a few years, Jonathan Trott’s assured century in the last Ashes test and Kevin Pietersen’s expected return to the side, means Ravi Bopara is the only batsmen likely to miss out. Bopara’s career is drawing unwelcome comparisons with fateful figures of Mark Ramprakash and Graeme Hick. Joe Denly, meanwhile, has promised enough in his recent one-day outings to tour both as a backup batsman and a possible challenger to opener Alastair Cook.

With Flintoff now retired, concerns linger over pairing Matt Prior and Stuart Broad at six and seven against a strong quartet of South African pacemen. It would mean bringing Tim Bresnan or even Liam Plunkett in at eight to bulk up a lower-order that was so instrumental to the Ashes success. Both are worthy triers and enjoyed good domestic seasons but lack class with the ball and appear better suited lower down the order in Test cricket.

The pace and bounce of the pitches seen in South Africa during the Champions Trophy have drawn calls for Harmison’s inclusion. But he insists he won’t travel as a backup and guaranteeing a starting spot for a notoriously bad tourist could prove a gamble too far. Dropping Harmison would end a frustrating career and signal a commitment to the future.

James Anderson, Broad and Graham Onions each had their moments this summer, proving dangerous when conditions suited but none are natural enforcers in the way Flintoff was and Harmison should have been. This lack of incisiveness is what makes a fifth bowler attractive. Yet a dearth of obvious candidates means Ryan Sidebottom will probably tour as a backup seamer. Sidebottom was fortunate to receive a central contract and has done little over the last year to counter suggestions that he is a spent force at Test level.

Test squad (possible): 1 Andrew Strauss (capt), 2 Alastair Cook, 3 Ian Bell, 4 Kevin Pietersen, 5 Paul Collingwood, 6 Jonathan Trott, 7 Matt Prior (wk), 8 Stuart Broad, 9 Graeme Swann, 10 James Anderson, 11 Graham Onions, 12 Joe Denly, 13 James Foster (wk), 14 Tim Bresnan, 15 Adil Rashid, 16 Ryan Sidebottom.

ODI squad (possible): 1 Andrew Strauss (capt), 2 Joe Denly, 3 Jonathan Trott, 4 Paul Collingwood, 5 Eoin Morgan, 6 Owais Shah, 7 Matt Prior (wk), 8 Luke Wright, 9 Stuart Broad, 10 Graeme Swann, 11 James Anderson, 12 Graham Onions, 13 Ryan Sidebottom, 14 Tim Bresnan, 15 Adil Rashid.

Monday, 5 October 2009

Champion Disappointment

A short tournament with the world’s best teams seemed just what one-day cricket needed after a pitiful England Australia series. Yet with just the final remaining, the only remotely close finish the Champions Trophy’s 13 matches has produced was Australia’s last-ball victory over Pakistan last Wednesday.

Read the rest over at The Wisden Cricketer blog

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Agents need regulating as Flintoff goes freelance

Flintoff’s rejection of an England central contract is another triumph for private capital over national good. It was the England and Lancashire teams that nurtured his development into an international star worthy of private interest, yet as he’s auctioned-off around the world it's Andrew ‘Chubby’ Chandler who collects the rewards.

There is nothing new about mercenary cricket. After all, the sport developed with wealthy English patrons hiring freelance ‘professionals’ in the 1700s. Of course back then the game was also defined by gambling and match-fixing. But in today’s post-crisis age of austerity it is particularly galling to read Chandler gloating about the deals he is to make.

Yet concerns that freelance cricketers embody a final ‘globalisation’ of the sport remain unfounded.

Developing a gifted child into a world-class athlete is a lengthy and risky investment. Even now the ECB pays for Flintoff’s rehabilitation. National boards have to realise that they remain central to the developing world order. Young players must still learn in domestic cricket before getting the chance to play abroad. They should use this power to ensure a cut of the deals and protect the interests of the national team.

It’s time to regulate the agents and ensure successful cricketers return money to the people that made them instead.

Friday, 28 August 2009

Writing history - Cricinfo's all-time XI

It's said that control of the present brings control of the past. With the Cricinfo all-time XI project announcing the selection of the all-time England team, the internet has cemented itself as the primary voice of cricket - present and past.

The flexibility and global reach of the internet is ousting the elite position of print throughout the media, and cricket, hardly the most global sport, has embraced the internet like no other.

As cricket’s online HQ, Cricinfo has a responsibility to foster interest and education on the sport's history. The all-time project is clearly a recognition of this.

It is a pity that all members of the selection panel were English, it would have been fascinating to see how English cricketing history is filtered through India or Pakistan, for example.

Nevertheless, the chosen England XI has already sparked debate on the blogs. Predictably, most posts are from people who, like me, began their obsession in the 1990s. Yet it has given us the forum to carry cricket’s past into the future.

My All-Time England XI* (*Since 1993)

Trescothick
Atherton
Vaughan (c)
Thorpe
Pietersen
Stewart (wk)
Flintoff
Swann
Gough
Fraser
Hoggard

12th Man: Nasser Hussain
Coach: Duncan Fletcher

Monday, 24 August 2009

Ashes win boosts the FTSE

Apologies for not posting. I have spent every waking hour squeezing 15,000 words out of myself for a masters dissertation on financial speculation due next week.

Amusingly, today The Guardian reported that the Ashes euphoria had hit the stock markets. Traders, carrying the heady Sunday feeling into Monday's morning, had apparently 'renewed their confidence' in the UK economy.

It's as solid as a 'renewed confidence' in Ian Bell.

Friday, 21 August 2009

The 'Golden Age' of batting exposed

Day 2 - Close

In years to come, today’s play will form delirious memories and nostalgic ad campaigns.

Thirteen wickets fell in two sessions to leave England within touching distance of a glory that yesterday seemed to have eluded them.

The day shed light on the so-called ‘golden age of batting’. Never before have so many batsmen in the world averaged in the 50s, never have so many runs been scored so quickly and so often.

Yet today exposed how the flat pitches that dominate Test cricket are entrenched in the mental and technical make-up of batsmen. When confronted with a remotely sporting wicket, they folded instantly.

No batsman fell to a grubber, no ball leaped off a length; instead wickets were earned through a spell of quality seam bowling, lively spin bowling and some questionable decisions. It’s difficult to believe more defensively equipped players, like Rahul Dravid or Shiv Chanderpaul, would have crumbled in the same way.

If Test cricket is to really live up to its name, more fair pitches should be prepared. Scoring runs should be a challenge not a formality.

As Strauss and Katich showed, the gremlins today were more in the head than the pitch. Ashes pressure, so often England’s undoing, proved Australia's nemesis. But it was Stuart Broad, timing his coming of age to coincide with Flintoff’s retirement, that unleashed the doubts in Australian heads.

Australia's three wickets gives them a sliver of hope, but the series now is England's to lose.

Thursday, 20 August 2009

It's Cardiff, all over again

Day 1 - Close

It's been a month and 12 days since the series began at Cardiff. On that day England squandered a strong position to finish 336/7 with Broad & Anderson the men in. Today, their batsmen repeated the same careless strokeplay to gift Australia pole position, closing 307/8, with the same two batsmen at the wicket.

The symmetry with Cardiff was also replicated in Australia's bowling. Unable to match the flair of Headingley, they reverted to the muted, hard-working approach of the first Test. England were not so content to stick-in - they flayed aimlessly as batsmen got in, got bored and got out.

Collingwood, Cook and Bell possess the same frailties they showed two years ago, which says little for Andy Flower and the selectors. However, Miller's team can be relieved with the debut of Trott. The certainty of his strokes, if not his technique, brings a much needed spine to England's middle order. He'd make a decent partner for England's missing talisman.

Pietersen was left on the sidelines as Freddie received standing ovations for walking in, playing a daft shot and walking out again. Being a champion batsman is clearly no route to becoming a people's champion in England.

Ponting will feel satisfied with the game situation, if not quite the performance of his bowlers. With Australia ahead already, the Oval pitch has displaced Freddie as England's great hope. But before getting carried away with the cries of dust-bowl, we should again remember Cardiff, where everyone apart from Swann found purchase.

The series now hangs on Australia's first innings. Should day two mirror Cardiff in the same way, England's Ashes campaign will be over.

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Where have 10 days gone?

It's common for us to bemoan the back-to-back international schedule that rules cricket today. But thanks to England losing in three days, we've been treated to a rare period of reflection.

With no Ashes cricket on offer, Ashes selection has been the only thrill to latch on to. Selection is a tough job - or so we keep hearing - so much so that Miller’s panel have given up selecting all together. Instead they roll out largely the same team that has been mediocre for years. Cook and Bell have made no progress since the last Ashes series and should be dropped. The selectors inertia over the past three years is why England have a debutant replacing Bopara for the ‘Biggest Test Ever’. It reeks not so much of bad planning as of an absence of planning at all.

With one hand on the urn and a batting pitch, Australia will feel inches from a goal that seemed miles away on Day 4 at Edgbaston. England, as underdogs are back in their familiar comfort zone. Without clouds it is difficult to see where England could find inspiration. Harmison won’t bowl teams out and Flintoff, even when fit, never has.

The Oval promises to be an emotionally charged, feverish clash of attritional cricket. The fairy-tale finish seems out of England’s grasp, but first innings runs and swing for Anderson would make a good game.

Monday, 10 August 2009

Can the media shape a Test match?

With a climatic deciding Test a whole ten days away, the stage is set for rampant media speculation. On Saturday Alec Stewart merely had to wonder how Ramprakash might fair at the Oval for a national campaign to have emerged two days later.

As Gideon Haigh's brilliant lecture reminded us, t
he media plays a crucial in role shaping our game. When Shane Warne began the series with a withering attack on Ravi Bopara's temperament he was laughed off. But his continued media statements seemed to chisel their way into Bopara's mind. It's not simply Warne's ability to read the game that was his genius, it is his capacity to script it too.

The unpredictability of this series has left pundits gasping about 'momentum' - as though it offered some clue as to why each side has ventured from sublime to pathetic in days. Momentum is certainly another media made concept. Uninhibited by developments on the field for the next 10 days, the media has a monopoly on building momentum about the state of each side.

Any hopes of a decent contest at the Oval rest on England genuinely believing they can win. Given the pivotal role the media will play in this,
there's no coincidence that the Langer dossier was leaked when it was. It's facilitated the suspicion of panic in the England ranks. How England manage their public image amid the media clamour will be crucial.

Saturday, 8 August 2009

Harmison: the new Hick

Day 1 - Close





Rarely have an England team put in as dismal a performance as today. In less than two sessions they played themselves out of the game and possibly the chance of regaining the Ashes.

It was a throwback to the worst days of the 90s, not just in the scorebook but also because a talented discard had returned. Steve Harmison’s comeback was imbued with the same unreasonable expectation and resigned inevitability that accompanied Graeme Hick’s periodical returns into Test cricket.

Both men are remarkably similar: towering, touted, gifted and ultimately too insecure for Test cricket. The English obsession with Hick through the 90s was symptomatic of their lack of world-class batsmen and the preoccupation with Harmison today is born out of the same problem with the bowlers. B
urdened with the ‘great white' hopes of a nation, perhaps the pressure was too much for such fragile temperaments. It seemed the English selectors thought so as Harmison was left out all series.

But, like Hick, he got better with every Test he didn’t play. Thundering the shires, he was just too good to be ignored. And so, like that failed relationship, we gave it ‘one more go’ before, predictably, swearing never to do so again.

Friday, 7 August 2009

Bad pitches or bad bowlers?

Given all the talk of 'chief executive pitches', high scoring and inflated averages, I wondered how the best bowlers a decade ago would have managed today.

Darren Gough reckons the pitches are the same but the bowlers worse. I'll leave you to decide.

Top 10 Test Bowlers Today
  1. Steyn- 844
  2. Murali - 830
  3. Johnson - 770
  4. Ntini - 741
  5. Clark - 737
  6. Harbahjan - 735
  7. Anderson - 710
  8. Harris (!) - 669
  9. Zaheer Khan - 650
  10. Lee - 634

Average - 736

Top 10 Test Bowlers today 10 years ago

  1. Donald - 885
  2. McGrath - 874
  3. Pollock - 870
  4. Ambrose - 840
  5. Murali - 805
  6. Walsh - 785
  7. Kumble - 779
  8. Akram - 776
  9. Streak - 740
  10. Saqlain - 724

Average: 808


Monday, 3 August 2009

Is this series being decided in the skies?

Day 5 - Close
Match Drawn

After three Tests, the weather is all that separates these sides. When the sun shines, Australia are solid and unerring. Under dark skies, England look a class above.

Today the scene was set for another Edgbaston epic but under bright skies, we had a return to Cardiff. England’s impotent bowling met Australia's impenetrable batting.


Michael Clarke has been the best batsmen on either side this series. His twinkle-toed progress over the last four years when compared with Ian Bell betrays volumes about the two men and the systems that produced them.

For a day brimming with potential it was frustrating how flat the atmosphere was. Strauss maintains admirable composure as a captain but lacks inspiration. Quite why Jimmy Anderson, England’s best bowler today, was held back over an hour is a mystery.

As ever, questions must be asked about the pitch . Once the ball refuses to deviate off the straight, the game becomes more a Test of patience than skill. Nevertheless, bowlers must develop other options. After all, Glenn McGrath, Zaheer Khan and Mathew Hoggard have proved that there can be life beyond swing.

With barely a moments reflection the party moves to Headingly this Friday. For all the agonising over team selection, the outcome will probably be written in the skies.

Sunday, 2 August 2009

Is Finger-Spin Back?

Day 4 - Close

It's a measure of Ricky Ponting’s quality that his battles with Flintoff (2005) and Ishant Sharma (2008) are part of cricket's folklore. Today’s compelling confrontation with Graeme Swann was worthy of addition.

While Warne and Murali reigned over international cricket, finger-spin was the sport's dustbin category: the preserve of triers, not achievers.

But now, it seems, finger-spin is back. Mendis bowled Sri Lanka to the T20 World Cup final, Paul Harris is ranked 8th in the world, and Swann is castling the game's premier batsman.

While wrist-spinners can call on zooters and flippers to deceive, the finger-spinner must rely on nous and personality, which Swann has in bucket loads.

With the loss of Katich, it was this zest Ponting had to counter. Added to
a charged Edgbaston crowd, circling fielders and an enticing gap at cover, the situation was set for the contest that may have defined the series.

The match is now delicately poised. Australia will need to bat two sessions to secure a draw. Their chances, as ever, will depend on the first hour. Throughout the series wickets have fallen in the morning and runs have been scored in the evening.


With the situation demanding heroics, could this be the time for finger-spin to turn a series?

Friday, 31 July 2009

Does mongrel make a difference?

Day 2 - Close

Sport is one of those things that makes 'experts' of all us. Armed with little more than an armchair and a pint we're transformed into the love-child of Brearly and Warne.

Today, experts from the pub to the media centre unaminously unravelled the mystery of Australia's limping tour: misplaced 'mongrel'. No doubt related to that slippery aura they can't locate, Australia apparently have lost the agression, fire and filth that made them a great side.

But do body language, sledging and Jelly Beans really matter? If you have the tools, probably not. Warne & McGrath could have bowled sides out without uttering a word. That they did sledge, and to great effect, was still product of their talent. But if you have a side lacking world-class ability, inspiration needs to come from elsewhere.

When Hussain and Fletcher took charge of England, their first effort was charged at improving the physical presence of their team. They stuck a backbone into a flaccid team by insisting on stronger body langauge and stronger words.

To win games you need to exert your character and belief over the opposition. Today Australia failed to do that.

Thursday, 30 July 2009

Watson tucks in...

Day 1 - Close

Opening the batting was once the hardest position in Test Cricket. In heady days when pitches were prepared for cricket and not chief executives, the position demanded patience, technique and stubbornness. Gavaskar and Boycott.

These days Shane Watson will do. With a Test average of 19 and a first class record of 9 opening the batting, he looked a curious option. Yet England dished up a buffet of long-hops and half volleys and Watson tucked in. Adopting, like Trescothick four years ago, the gung-ho approach that a one-nil deficient affords, he powered Australia to a strong position.

For a team as mediocre as England have been in recent years, they are inexplicably complacent. Time and again they get ahead and promptly lose interest. It is a relief they didn’t bat first today.

Strauss retreated to his conservative worst as he reproduced captaincy clich├ęs. When Graeme Swann’s effervescence brought a wicket, the spinner should have bowled for the rest of the day. Instead Strauss returned to Anderson, who suggested again that he is primarily a grey-weather bowler.

Ponting looks imperious and on a flat pitch if England are still napping tomorrow he could punish their carelessness.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Rest Day..

The series is deliciously poised. England's injuries and Ponting's mongrel could make for an intriguing Edgbaston Test.

Over the next eight days however, I have to salvage my masters dissertation - on the politics of financial speculation - from the torrent of Ashes cricket that threatens to destroy it forever.

Which is a long way of saying, thanks, I'll be back for day one of the third Test...

Monday, 20 July 2009

Flintoff touches greatness

Day 5 - Close
England win by 115 runs


In a contest between evenly matched teams, results can be determined by the briefest moments. The first hour this morning was one of those defining periods.

With England’s jitters and Clarke’s belief, you felt that between Australia and the history books stood only the new-ball spell from Andrew Flintoff. Having announced his retirement from an unfulfilled career, the pressure was on body and mind to demonstrate they could rise to these occasions.


Duly, they did. It’s only the great players who possess the ineffable ability to claim crucial moments as their own. Shane Warne, for instance, could turn entire series with the sheer strength of his personality. Today Flintoff touched that greatness once more as he bowled England to a one-nil lead.

It was a sight to cherish - the appalling state of Test pitches coupled with an unrelenting schedule threaten to kill off express-pace bowling altogether. Yet Flintoff, a high calibre casualty, produced one of the great hostile spells. Running on one-knee and buckets of adrenalin he took three wickets bowling unchanged for 13 searing overs. Again he dared to go full and again he was rewarded.

Few get the privilege of leaving top-level sport on a high, and Flintoff still has three games to go. But victory, the man-of-the-match and the Lord’s honours board is quite a way to launch the farewell.

Sunday, 19 July 2009

England and Australia close in on history

Day 4 - Close

Momentum is a precarious category in sport. A seamless explanation for a run of play, it suddenly loses all relevance when that run of play changes.

England began the day with the momentum propelling their historic mission. Flintoff, in what may yet be his last Test for England, finally located the length that eluded his entire career. He pitched the ball up sufficiently to find, rather than pass, the edges of Katich and Hughes.


As Swann found a verve that Panesar couldn't last year to reduce Australia to 128 - 5, the 'momentum' was firmly with England. And then nothing. Michael Clarke's silky footwork and breezy confidence found a willing partner in Brad Haddin as Australia fought back. Gently and with growing certainty they dominated England. It was a measure of how flat England had become that Andrew Strauss felt compelled to call an emergency huddle before the second new ball.


England, haunted by Chennai, looked increasingly panicked as the second new ball failed to deliver the wicket. Such was their control, Clarke and Haddin would have been tempted to stay out there when shadows stopped play for the day.


With rested bowlers and 200 runs still in the bank, their lead is surely 'too big to fail', but we've thought that before. Modern pitches and Australia's unwavering belief make anything possible. England, though, will take heart that with just one wicket, the 'momentum' will suddenly be theirs again.

Saturday, 18 July 2009

Absent...

Sadly, I was unable to see any action today since I was playing cricket myself. I bowled too many full-tosses.

Seemed like a good day for England but be wary. The declaration should allow for three new balls, might just be key.

Friday, 17 July 2009

Dark skies lift England

Day 2 - Close

It had to be now. James Anderson has been in and on the fringes of Test cricket for six years. Having promised much for the past year, this was the series he had to deliver.

He is a complex character, Nasser Hussain found it “impossible to get into his head”, the hardest person he ever captained. Nass needn’t have bothered: the answers were in the skies.

Jimmy is a Burnley lad and, fittingly, nothing cheers him up more than grey skies. They bring the swing that transforms his game. Earlier today he again had to reprieve the England batsmen. His unassuming presence off the field can mask his steel. The Cardiff heroics were today followed by a clever, counter-attacking stand with Graham Onions. It was apparent in his shot selection that he understood the game situation. Given the conditions yesterday 425 was horridly below par, under dark coulds however, it looked a lot brighter.

Many felt before this series that if England were to be successful, Anderson had to be key. Over his punctuated career he has been unable to find the consistency and wickets that define leading bowlers. As ever the margins are decided in the head. In the past year he’s had the responsibility of leading the attack. Forcing an introverted character, under the glare of Test cricket, to carry a weak attack was a decision forced on England. Yet it has worked wonders for Anderson.

Today, he never more than threatened swing, but maintained control and changed the angle from the crease well. He was aided by some loose batting from Australia. Hughes, Clarke and North will be disappointed with their dismissals.

The question that could decide this Test and possibly the series, is what Anderson can do when the skies clear. England have had much the better of the conditions so far. Should the sun shine on Ricky Ponting tomorrow, England, haunted by the memories of Chennai, will be praying Anderson can lift them.

Thursday, 16 July 2009

England refuse to learn

Day 1 - Close

It appears England are unwilling to learn from their mistakes. Following their careless first-innings in Cardiff they were subjected to lesson in flint-eyed desire from Ricky Ponting.

Today it was Andrew Strauss, every bit as determined, who showed them the way. Again, they refused to follow. Gifted a platform by their openers and some indifferent Aussie bowling, England reverted after tea to charity cricket, donating their wickets with carefree abandon. Australians don’t need help to win games and if England fail to get past 450, they will consider themselves on top.

England can take heart from another under-whelming performance by Australia’s strike bowler, Mitchell Johnson. He arrived on these shores touted as the worlds best quick and potentially the difference between the sides. Much like Dale Steyn last summer and Brett Lee in 2001, he's failed to match the billing. It was left to the impressive Hilfenhaus, fast becoming the best bowler on either side, to carry the attack.

Steeped in history and grandeur Lord’s is, in some sense the true ‘home of cricket’: it epitomises the smug and snooty atmosphere that once defined the sport. Much of the crowd were disinterested in anything beyond sunglasses and champagne. The reception offered to Kevin Pietersen, as he arrived at the wicket, was as icy as it was ignorant. Perhaps it’s this most ugly side of Englishness here that inspired Australians over the years to hammer the poms.

Tomorrow much will depend on how Australia use the new ball. With Strauss and a strong lower order, England can yet command the game, but an early strike and Australia will feel confident of emulating Cardiff.

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Freddie Departs...

It seemed, as Flintoff creaked into his 35th over at Cardiff, that his captain was bowling him to an injury. Worse, Strauss succeeded in bowling Flintoff into early retirement.

Truth be told, this was on the horizon for a while. His fitness and form since 2005 has been a travesty. Time and again the cycle of injury, gloom, rehab and hope gripped the England side's perennial search for 'balance'.

It was Lawrence Booth, in his insightful weekly column, who first questioned the point of it all. Now journalists and punters alike readily cite the fact that England win more games without 'Fred' than with him. Statistics, though, are full of quirks. Flintoff struggled through the top sides - South Africa, India, Australia - but was left rehabilitating as others gorged on West Indies and New Zealand.

This however, cannot mask the fact that Flintoff only ever flirted with greatness. For three years under Michael Vaughan, culminating in that series he was possibly the most valuable cricketer on the planet. Since, he has failed to be the force on the field that he is off it.

While in an England shirt, Flintoff couldn't prevent forcing his body beyond endurance. He carried not only his colossal frame, but a toothless attack. Yet off the field, the riches from 2005 and frustrations of injury led to an increasingly public presence away from cricket. Perhaps the fire that drove him to the top was fading as he sought fortune and entertainment elsewhere.

The tragedy is that this series had appeared to light the embers once more. He was better prepared than any since 2005, was batting well and thundered in bowling faster than ever. Alas, his body duly resisted.

He deserves a vintage performance to close his Test career and could yet inject himself to fitness for the remainder of the series. Sadly public figures, sportsmen especially, rarely get the exit they desire. Whatever happens, Test cricket, shorn of Flintoff's brutal brilliance, will be a poorer sport.

Sunday, 12 July 2009

2009 finds its voice

Day 5 - Close
Match Drawn

For five days Australia outplayed their opponents, yet it's England who end celebrating. On an extended day, England had to defy the Aussie bowlers and themselves in their bid to salvage a result from a pitiful performance.

It's the sort of situation that defines the English sporting psyche: backs-to-the-wall defiance, almost irrespective of outcome, is always more romantic than clinical victory. Forget 'Jerusalem', 'The Great Escape' is our national sporting anthem.

Despite affinity to the idea, escape is something England rarely manage and it took the iron will of Paul Collingwood to give them a glimpse. He batted with desire, skill and plenty of nous to carry England to Lord's unscathed and deserves all the plaudits that will come his way.

Yet beyond relief there are only doubts for England to take from this match. Ricky Ponting, on the other hand, should carry no concerns to London for the next test.

From the outset Australia capitalised on inexplicable complacency from England. Their planning and execution in England's first innings, aided by the charity of the England batsmen, made for an attack stronger on grass than paper.

England's top order has spluttered since the end of Duncan Fletcher's reign but again, it's the bowlers who will feel the selectors axe. Monty, finally a hero finishing a game for England (sadly only with the bat), should give way to Graham Onions. Andrew Flintoff, the one-time national treasure, continues to bowl too short. We can gasp as he passes the outside-edge all we like, but until he draws batsmen forward he won't get the wickets his talent warrants. England cannot afford to carry him and Stuart Broad in their attack. Though the latter should survive to Lord's, his potential needs to be matched with wickets or the case for Steve Harmison, another perennial underachiever, will become irresistible.

Australia will commiserate and England will celebrate, but both should take satisfaction that this series, so often drowned in the fanfare of 2005, has found its voice.

Saturday, 11 July 2009

England wait for rain as Australia march to victory

Day 4 - Close

It has taken just four days for anticipation to turn to despair. It sounds familiar but unlike the last Ashes series, talent doesn't separate these teams. So what does?

Test cricket is an examination of skill, fitness and ultimately desire. Unlike the shortened format there is no defined escape, no artificial breaks and no contrived opportunities. You are subjected solely to the will of the opposition. If, like Australia, they are intent on remorseless punishment, then that is what you receive.

Batting first on a flat pitch England had an opportunity to boss the game. All the batsmen made starts and none made a hundred. Pietersen rightly attracts attention and, as I said at the time, his dismissal could decide this test match, but all the batsmen were at fault. Prior and Flintoff’s breezy partnership was enjoyable but never match winning. The England players and supporters were content to see a dash to 400, rather than a grind to 600. Four years ago it made sense, but this Australian attack does not demand a gung-ho approach. The England batsmen should have the belief and desire to bat Australia out of contention.

Today England left their hearts and brains in the dressing room waiting for rain while Haddin and North tore them to pieces. Ponting may not match Warne tactically, but he inspires his team and has out-manoeuvred Strauss by a distance.

Before the post-mortem, England has an opportunity exert their character on Australia tomorrow. A final day pitch soaked in pressure is always full of gremlins, but England need to demonstrate their desire for this contest. Their approach has to be positive and as ever, a lot will fall on the shoulders of KP. It's not without irony that Nathan Hauritz, much derided, presents their biggest headache.

Thursday, 9 July 2009

The Insatiable Mr Ponting

Day 2 - Close

There is a remorselessness to everything Ricky Ponting does. His demeanour may endear few but his record should inspire many.
With just a single century in his previous 21 innings, murmurs about his form and a sketchy performance in the field, Ponting arrived at the wicket in need of runs.

Test cricket ruthlessly reveals the inner-most character of its protagonists, exposing people for public consumption like no reality show ever can. This innings proved, as if we needed reminding, that Ponting is cut from nothing but steel.

If he had any doubts about himself or his team, which following England's plucky lower-order hitting would be understandable, they did not show. Every movement had utter certainty, which, when added to his instant judgement of length makes for a formidable batsman. The conviction and unrelenting purpose that Ponting brings to his talent separates him from Pietersen and could end up separating these sides.

England's bowlers toiled but neither of their celebrated "two spinners" could turn the ball as much as Hauritz. Should the new ball bring no reward, Australia could march into a commanding position. A deficit of 200 on the final day would leave England praying for a Ponting of their own.

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Australia edge a the day of almost

Day 1 - Close

With the eyes of the world watching the first day of the Ashes 2009 unfolded by stealth. The backdrop of 05 loomed throughout the build up and continued into today. Beyond its marketing prowess its constant presence does little to help the game.

Sky’s coverage is a bit like an ageing parent trying to be in with your mates. Despite the stream of video montages to Oasis and other household forgettables, they failed to capture the anticipation or magnitude of the moment. And for a series defined by its history, Cardiff, which has seen no part of it, was the wrong place to start. The cricket, it seemed, would need to write its own story.

The day ebbed, flowed and meandered like only Test cricket can. Australia’s attack, impressive but charmless characterised the new Australia. This era is patient and conservative, rather than brave. Ponting’s defensive fields will be criticised but he will feel justified by the fact England never got away. England’s approach had a shades of the do-or-die Vaughan era, but this Aussie attack didn’t warrant it.

Much will be said about KP’s shot. Despite his protests, limp paddles are not ‘the way he plays’. I would much rather he slogged to long-off.

Batting first England should want 400 and would feel unsatisfied. Anything below 360 tomorrow and its advantage Australia.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

One more sleep... An(other) Ashes Preview

First Test Preview

These moments, before hope gets blunted with experience, are among the purist for sports fans. Every prediction, even McGrath’s five-nil ritual, carries significance, every outcome possible and every history yet to be made. Anticipation may, just, be even more thrilling than even victory.

With just one more sleep until the action starts the teams could not look more equal. Gone, with Warne, McGrath, Hayden and Gilchrist, is Australia’s wall of impossibility. Gone, with the progress of Strauss and Flower, is England’s air of hopelessness.

The “chief-executive” pitch at Cardiff promises an attritional rather than spectacular start to the series. Despite cunning plots and hours of hawk-eyed analyses, one prediction remains certain: the outcome will, as ever, be decided by which team bats, fields and especially bowls better.Yet, one of cricket’s many pleasures is how the flair, skill and enterprise of the individual affects the fortune of the collective. Johnson’s struggle with Pietersen and Anderson’s with Hughes will be captivating viewing and could prove decisive to the series.English sports fans suffer from a curious optimism before any big event, and I am no exception. At home, and with a more varied attack, I expect a slow, tight series that England wins 2-1.

Come 11am tomorrow, bounding white figures will pepper the unfamiliar turf of the Cardiff and completely engulf our minds. The smallest deviation of the ball will move both the batsmen and millions of people around world watching it.

Finally, for us fans, the time for talk has begun.

Thursday, 25 June 2009

Empower women, not Npower Girls

The brilliance of women’s cricket in England has brought them success and respect, so why does Npower insist on reducing women to sexed-up props?

England now hold the World Cup, the Twenty20 World Cup and The Ashes. They are the best women’s sports team on the planet, and in Clare Taylor, have the finest batswoman in the world.

Even the mainstream sports pages brim with praise: Michael Atherton writing, “Women's cricket in England is an outstanding success story. It shows what can be achieved when a governing body matches rhetoric with funding and when a bunch of talented individuals place the pursuit of excellence at the heart of everything they do.”

So why can’t we extend this respect from the field to the presentation ceremonies?

There can be few more unedifying spectacles than, just hours after the women’s victory, the presentation ceremony of the men's world cup. Giles Clarke and ICC president Haroon Lorgat, introduced by name and applauded, joined a stage where two anonymous women were paraded as Npower’s furniture. While the players dutiful shook hands with administrators, the ‘Npower Girls’ stood by unacknowledged and non-existent.

Standards and attitudes to women in cricket have progressed, it is high time the sponsors caught up.

Thursday, 11 June 2009

England Flop

South Africa have been accused of being a robotic and mechanical team. Today was no exception as they efficiently swatted an ineffective England team aside, and marched on as tournament favourites.

The danger of Twenty20 cricket is that, like its 50-over cousin, the result can be decided early on, leaving the rest to unfold as a formality. Once Pietersen had joined the openers back in the dugout, at 25-3 off 5 overs the game was up.

South Africa have better tools than England for the Twenty20 contest, but England's tactics have to be questioned.

Winning the toss and choosing to bat places pressure to set a total. Too often England batsmen can't cope with this. Denied a quick start it was visible that Shah and Collingwood were unable to asses a good total. They were indecisive over whether to attack or regroup and in the end did neither. While Foster is an excellent keeper, Prior at six would bring much needed runs and, crucially, would help unclutter the minds of England's top order. South Africa's tight bowling brought poor shot-selection as England struggled to find any momentum.

Defending 111 was always going to be difficult, but in offering 46 singles, England did themselves no favours. Kallis led the gentle stroll to victory, leaving England with a lot of work to do to progress.

Wednesday, 29 April 2009

2009, it’s the new 2007


With a new coach and untried attack today’s squad feels like a new era for English cricket. But haven't we said that before?

Should they opt for a quartet of quick’s alongside Graeme Swann, the bowlers would have just 55 caps between them. This would be their most inexperienced attack since Anderson was joined at by Sidebottom and Tremlett at Lords two years ago to skittle India out for 201.

Back then England had a new coach in Peter Moores and an attack with pace, swing and bounce that felt capable of challenging Australia. Finally, it seemed, England had left 2005 behind. Two years, one coach and two captains later it seems the new dawn of 2007 was not quite what many imagined.

But Flower is not Moores and it shows in the way both Bell and Harmison, despite thier good form, were resisted. While both may feature at some point this summer, they need to prove their hunger in the shires for a while longer. Bopara at three offers confidence that exeeds his perfomances at international level, but perhaps that is just what the position demands.