Monday, 29 November 2010

What do we make of that?

517-1? Really? That is one of the more absurd England cricket scorecards I've had the fortune to wake up to. A truly herculean performance from Trott and Cook, Strauss should be ashamed of himself, managing 25 runs fewer than the next highest scorer in the second innings...

So what to make of it? I won't be getting carried away, there's still some issues that warrant worrying about, but we have on our hands one of the most resillient batting orders I can recall. The steel and grit the top seven has in Strauss, Cook, Trott and Collingwood is extraordinary. Add to that the flair of Pietersen, Bell and Prior and you have a wonderfully balanced top order - and a tail with plenty of runs in it beyond that.

Yes, we were seen off for 260 in the first innings and yes we did let Haddin and Hussey take the match beyond the point where England could win it, but the team who will take the most heart from this game is unquestionably England.

There is talk that awaiting the teams in Adelaide is a pitch even flatter than this. I'm not sure that's technically possible, but I doubt it'll be fizzing around batsmen's ears or turning square at any point. Its going to be another hard slog, Broad, Anderson and Finn bowled 120 overs between them in this game and unlike their Aussie counterparts they can all count on playing on Thursday night. Hopefully Graeme Swann can find his mojo sooner rather than later.

However the most encouraging thing from an England perspective to come out of the Brisbane test is the Australian team. Good on Mike Hussey for proving the doubters wrong, and Haddin is under-rated no more, but there are issues abound for the Aussie selectors if they cast their eye around.

Shane Watson continues to flatter to deceive at the top, I think he must tire himself out holding the pose when he hits those admittedly gorgeous straight drives, they don't seem to be able to bank on him to score big. Katich is a fighter but past his best, North is all over the place and the bowling looked toothless in a way that an Australian attack has not done for a very, very long time yesterday. That they appear to be prepared to select North as the frontline spinner for Adelaide says a great deal.

England will rightly be wary of dismissing this Australian side out of hand. Bollinger and Harris are two quality performers who will boost Australia if they come in, but the suggestion that England are the better side will persist even then and Australia have it all to do.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

England's bowlers need to wrestle back momentum

After what has felt like decades, Ben Hilfenhaus finally got the Ashes underway on the stroke of midnight last night, and two balls later the skipper was back in the hutch.

Not the best of starts then, but after his departure Trott and Cook, though a little nervy at times, didn't look in too much trouble, Hilfenhaus and Johnson gave them little to worry about and I was in bed before Doherty got a bowl. Obviously I therefore missed the first big moment of the series, the Siddle hat-trick. He was by all accounts the only one of the seam bowlers to hit the right length and he's got six wickets in his pocket as reward. So what is the lie of the land?

England's total is below par, probably by 100-120 runs, but all is not lost. A wicket before the close of play would've been terrifically helpful, but twas not to be and Katich and Watson will reappear tonight. England are capable of bowling out Australia for under 300, they're as liable to lose wickets in bunches as we are these days (though we should probably not expect another three-in-three), all it takes is a little bit of magic.

Broad and Anderson have to come out willing to attack, all guns blazing, because we need to wrest that momentum back and show them what we're about. Their batting is full of good players and a great one, but we've got four cracking bowlers in our ranks.

What we don't need is blazing sunshine and sky high temperatures; another day like today would be nice please, a bit of cloud, a bit of a breeze, and a comfortable 25 degrees or so.

Two things are absolutely critical for tonight: firstly, an early wicket to get the tails up, if the partnership sails towards the hundred mark heads will begin to drop. Secondly, Ponting has to have his wings clipped early on, preferably by a short ball to feed the speculation that his ability in that area is firmly on the wane.

If both of those things happen, and they're 60-2 or so, its game on and England need to move in for the kill.

Monday, 22 November 2010

Kevin Pietersen is a Surrey player

That brings Surrey's total number of players on the Ashes tour to three, level with Middlesex. Excellent news.

Seriously though, what exactly does this mean for the club? Well firstly its a good bit of business, he won't cost much, if anything thanks to his central contract, and he might attract a few more casual supporters to the Twenty20s. I suspect the marketing people at the club are already designing the T20 advertising with his face all over it.

The reality is though, he won't play that much at all. He has his IPL duties to fulfil, and as much as we need a number three, I don't think he'll forgo $1.5m or whatever it is to help us out there, and since he signed that contract before he signed for Surrey, there's no reason he should anyway. There's the World Cup before that which he'll play a big part in and then England play Sri Lanka in May and June, and India and July, August and into September. At best he'll play a Twenty20 here and a CB40 there.

In the long term it is in the ECB's best interests to ensure that England players are more readily available for the Twenty20 Cup matches, but the schedule is set in stone for 2011 so Pietersen in a Surrey shirt will be a rare beast indeed.

I'm happy he's joined the club though. He's a world beater and any time he can spend at the club, with younger players aspiring to play for England, like Roy and Hamilton-Brown will be immensely valuable. I don't buy the theory that his ego makes him a bad role model, his work ethic and sheer talent make him the best possible role model in my view. If this crop of young players can develop the thirst for runs that KP has, we'll have some serious talent on our hands.

Ultimately this changes little for KP and Surrey. His commute is cut significantly, which is nice, but not a great deal else will alter. As much as I'd like to play it terribly cool and pretend it makes no difference, it was a thrill to watch him bat in a Surrey shirt and it will be every time England let him off the leash in 2011 and beyond. Welcome to Surrey Kevin.

Friday, 19 November 2010

Up a creek without a Ramps...

News reaches me that Mark Ramprakash has damaged his anterior cruciate ligament while having a Saturday morning kickabout. Obviously the injury requires surgery and typically sportsmen do not return for at least six months, and Ramps is no spring chicken these days. At 41, it could take even longer for the injury to heal satisfactorily.

Lets set aside the anger that the club's most valuable asset has seriously injured himself playing a (presumably) meaningless game of football, though doubtless many supporters will be fuming at that - me included. Where does this leave the club?

Well as I've said above, we're up a certain creek without our biggest paddle. Our batting was brittle but occasionally brilliant last summer, the brilliance largely on the back of a big innings from Ramprakash, almost every innings up and around 400 was built with the help of a Ramps Special.

We have made no signings and Afzaal and Evans have departed the club, two players who would probably have been asked to step up in the absence of Ramprakash. That leaves us with the prospect of a top seven comprising:

Jason Roy
Michael Brown (if recovered)
Tom Lancefield
Arun Harinath
Gary Wilson
Rory Hamilton-Brown
Steven Davies

Mercifully the World Cup in Asia will probably be over in time for the start of the English season (if it wasn't we'd be without Davies and Wilson), and none of them currently have concerns about the Indian Premier League (though Davies is a possibility I suppose), but that is still a hugely inexperienced top seven without Ramprakash to bolster it.

Combined they have played 261 First Class matches (an average of 37 each), 181 short of Ramprakash alone, they have have scored 14,060 runs, 40% of Ramprakash's total career runs and their average age is 23, 18 years short of Ramps. Between them they have 22 career hundreds, I don't think I need to mention how many the big man has, and only one of them (Davies) averages over 40 in first class cricket. To say that Ramps leaves a hole in the batting is something of an understatement...

I think this will probably leave Chris Adams having to reassess his desire to sign a 'mystery spinner' as his overseas player for 2011, as the need for a senior batsman is now more pressing than ever before. Mark Cosgrove may well be available after Glamorgan controversially went for Alviro Petersen as overseas and captain. Cosgrove would be an excellent addition as an opener and he's available throughout - but I fear his face does not fit with Adams' fitness regime. Presumably there is no cash for anyone else so we are just going to have to hope and pray that no one gets injured and England go off Davies and Tremlett.

There is of course the option of loan signings as well, but I don't think counties will be offering up top class batsmen for loans. The idea of offering Chris Benham, currently without a county after leaving Hampshire, some sort of deal is now also looking more attractive if we can scrape together a few pounds.

The prospect of gaining promotion now seems a distant spot on the horizon and another season of disappointment beckons. I am hopeful that our youngsters will do us proud, and the pressure on them to do so is now enormous, but its not looking good for 2011.

Monday, 15 November 2010

Chris Gayle - underrated?

After his quickfire double hundred today, the third double hundred (he's also got a 197 in there) of his test career and thirteenth hundred in total, I got to thinking, is Chris Gayle a bit underrated as a test match batsman?

He's infuriating, of that there is no question.  You always get the impression that he isn't quite making the most of his undoubted talent because he looks like he doesn't really care all that much.  If you saw his celebration today you'd probably put to bed the theory that test runs for the West Indies don't matter to Christopher Henry Gayle. Having said that, he doesn't do much to counter the theory, saying after Windies' three day defeat to England at Lord's in 2008 that it "wouldn't be so bad" if test cricket withered and died.

So maybe he isn't as committed to tests as a Sachin Tendulkar or a Ricky Ponting, but does he deserve to be held in higher regard?

When you look at his stats they don't jump off the page.  89 tests and a batting average of 41.  In these days of lifeless pitches and mammoth totals that is by no means a great average.  However when you look at his numbers compared to his West Indian contemporaries it is surprising just how important he has been to their batting for the last decade.

Since his debut in 2000 only two men, Brian Lara and Shivnarine Chanderpaul, have scored more runs for the West Indies and while Shiv plodded along at a strike rate of 43, Gayle has comparatively raced along at a strike rate of just under 60 in collecting just 500 fewer runs than his senior colleague.  Admittedly Chanderpaul has played more gritty innings and dug his team out of the mire more often (he's been not out in a staggering 17% of all his knocks), but Gayle's knocks at the top of the order shouldn't be overlooked.

Indeed only 13 batsmen in all of world cricket have scored more runs since January 2000 than Chris Gayle, only five have scored faster than he and only four are openers.  He averages 50 from 5 tests in Australia and 55 from 5 tests in South Africa, no mean feat either of those.  He's never had one of 'those years', like Yousuf had in 2006 or Tendulkar is having this year, but he's scored plenty while not many of his team mates have been able to hold a place in the side, never mind score 6,200 runs.

His double hundred today away in Sri Lanka would probably not eclipse the 165 he scored in carrying his bat against Australia in Adelaide last December but its a big achievement nonetheless - only four other non-Sri Lankans have registered doubles in Sri Lanka.

I'm not suggesting Gayle is one of the greats, he isn't and he almost certainly never will be.  But is he a it underrated?  Maybe just a bit.  In a time when West Indian batsmen have not been setting the world on fire, he's been not-so-quietly getting on with the job, and doing it pretty effectively too.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Why do I love the Ashes?

Due to start on the 25th of November, the Ashes sees the fourth and fifth best teams (out of nine...) in the world begin a five match test series taking us over Christmas and well into 2011. To some, this might sound like the most interminably boring thing imaginable, but to cricket fans (well, a good chunk of them) its pure heaven.

But why? For me, a simple English fellow, there's something extra special about the Down Under version of the Ashes. There's something alluring about stretching your sanity to breaking point by pushing ever further into the depths of the night your bedtime, and who doesn't love drifting off to sleep with Jonathan Agnew's dulcet tones ringing in your ears. Then there's those few seconds when you wake up, completely in the dark even when you're no longer in the dark, before you manage to log onto your iPhone or Blackberry and see who took the initiative while you were dozing. 

I'll then spend the rest of the morning gorging myself to the point of breaking on the goings on of the night before - the broadsheet reviews, the Cricinfo take, and of course what Twitter made of the whole shebang. Chances of getting any work done before lunch in December? Not good I'm afraid. And of course there's the Christmas and New Year tests, where I can get away with not going to bed at all. 

Watching Ashes cricket at four in the morning while bundling the inevitable pairs of socks I got for Christmas? I can't think of anything I'd rather be doing. So it might not be the two best teams in the world going toe-to-toe, we have to wait for India v South Africa in December for that pleasure, but its England and Australia, in the middle of the night, for a tiny little urn filled with the remains of a burnt bail. You can't beat the thrill of the Ashes in Australia for me.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Ashes: the cricket finally starts

I've been resisting blogging about the Ashes, there's a million and one bloggers out there debating the whys and wherefores of the next few months, but I can't contain my excitement that with all the guff out of the way, the cricket is about to begin.

At half two tomorrow morning, when I will be fast asleep, England will take to the field with either bat or ball in hand to face a pretty decent Western Australia side at the Waca.  And despite the boxing efforts of Chris Tremlett and Jimmy Anderson, it'll be a full squad that Strauss has to choose from.

Whatever side they go with, and presumably it'll be the one that ended the series with Pakistan but for one difference, Ian Bell slotting into the middle order in place of Eoin Morgan. And unless someone has a real mare over the next three weeks, that'll probably be the side that starts the first test in Brisbane, despite Sachin Tendulkar recently naming Eoin Morgan as a potential key player.

So come tomorrow morning when I finally rise from my slumber we'll have the first idea of how England are shaping up for probably the biggest series of their lives.  Western Australia will field a few classy players, North, Marsh, Ronchi, Pomersbach and lets not forget ex-Surrey man Steve Magoffin so they'll be no pushovers.

Will Anderson be able to put what feels like the most oft-quoted stat of all time (his bowling average of 82 in Australia) behind him?  Will Steve Finn continue his meteoric rise?  Will Kevin Pietersen score any runs - and will he get out to a left arm spinner?  There's basically another one of those to go with pretty much every player bar Graeme Swann.

Whatever happens, tonight's goings on will be picked apart relentlessly by hacks either side of the equator so I'll enjoy absorbing all that tomorrow.  I just hope England score a ton of runs, or take a bag of wickets - and most importantly - avoid any injuries!