Monday, 30 June 2008

A series for the quicks

As England's one-day side folded all too familiarly I couldn't help but turn my attention to the upcoming Test series against South Africa.

The merits of the shorter game, be it 20 or 50 overs have been trumpeted repeatedly recently. Test cricket though, especially between evenly matched teams presents a different kind of drama.

Without the restrictions on bowlers, field placing and overs for batmen, Test cricket leaves players naked. Every nuance of technique and character is explored. Hoping to triumph for the first time in England since 1965 Graeme Smith brings a buoyant South African side to Lord's next month.

Since re-admission South Africa have never quite managed to assert themselves on the world game. Branded chokers following habitual World Cup semi final losses they have never been a threatening force in Test cricket.

Cautious at best and outright boring at worst, their cricket was too often epitomised by Jacques Kallis. Despite his impressive statistics he has never had the belief to impose himself on oppositions and turn matches. It's a negative outset that for many years held back South African cricket.

But now united under a captain who demands respect without having to shout his mouth off, and free of the shackles of selection quota system, South Africa are playing vibrant cricket.

Dale Steyn has added dynamism to an attack that since Allan Donald's retirement has been little more than steady. How his skiddy pace adapts to English conditions could determine the outcome of the series. When a youthful Brett Lee arrived on these shores to a similar fanfare in 2001, he was taken apart by a hopeless England side.

England, following their hesitant triumph over the three-match series against New Zealand, are being brought nicely to the boil under Michael Vaughan. As always much depends on the fitness of Andrew Flintoff. If fit he lifts England's attack to another level backing up the likes of Ryan Sidebottom, Stuart Broad, Monty Panesar and Mr Mercurial James Anderson.

Abandoning reason and assuming Flintoff does return he magnifies England's biggest concern - their wobbly middle order. If they take the jump and play five bowlers, one of Paul Collingwood and Ian Bell would miss out, and Tim Ambrose's runs will be closely monitored. It places huge responsibility on the top four, but you feel the aggressive approach gives England their best chance and will make for a thrilling series between two strong bowling sides.

Given their recent form South Africa must start favourites, but if England's top order can conquer Steyn then the road for the Ashes may yet be paved with gold.

Friday, 27 June 2008

Brett Lee is the worlds best smiling assassin

(This article also appears in

Sport, like religion and politics rarely leaves room for consensus. One of the greatest joys for a sports fan is raging to defend your favourite player, trying to achieve the impossible task of proving that your player is better than another. Cricket, with its vast bank of statistics offers the greatest armoury for scientific proof.

So when South Africa arrived in England last week with claims to having 'the best fast bowler in the world', pubs and message boards across the cricketing world erupted in debate. Dale Steyn is the name that will dominate the England team talks and who Graeme Smith's team will be hoping can prove the difference between the two sides over the next few weeks. With pace, late swing and a menacing glare he has had a phenomenal year yielding 78 thrilling wickets in 12 games at 16.24. The statistics indicate a bowler in the form of his life.

Interestingly, the last time these two sides met it was England who had the pace sensation. Somebody called Steve Harmison had just completed a barnstorming year, prompting Stephen Fleming to hail him as "a more dynamic, threatening version of Glenn McGrath". Harmison went on to take only nine expensive wickets in the five-game series. His career has never really recovered and it will be a surprise to see him at all this summer. This demonstrates, as if we didn't know it already, the futile nature of predictions in sport.

Unlike almost no other in the game, the sight of a fast bowler steaming in intimidating batsmen is truly exhilarating. Alongside all the technical skills, fast bowlers need presence - a personality that crushes batsmen as much as a searing yorker. Curtly Ambrose barely had to whisper a word, but his was a chilling presence that many could never overcome - just ask Graeme Hick.

With too much one-day cricket on too many flat pitches, today's crop seem a tamer bunch. Pleasingly, there are a number of promising youngsters around the world, but they still have plenty to prove. Following Steyn in the ICC rankings are the Australian pair Stuart Clark and Brett Lee. Despite lagging far behind in the rankings, Andrew Flintoff's early season barrage moved Justin Langer to declare him the very best fast bowler around. Until Fred can actually get on the field for England, however, we'll have to forget about him.

Lee is now the complete package. Handed the mantle of leading Australia's attack following McGrath's retirement, he has transformed himself and bowled with hostility, accuracy and a guile that Steyn can yet only dream of. Added to his remarkable talent is a heart and enthusiasm which would fuel him through a brick wall. In an age where sporting spirit is continually undermined, Lee has lit up grounds and newspapers with his Colgate smile and vibrant personality.

Statistics can always tell a story, and leading an inexperienced attack against good batting sides, he has taken 58 wickets in nine games over the last year at 21.55. With his stealth like new-ball partner Stuart Clark, he is hoping to carry Australia into the next generation. There's no column in the scorebook for it, but inspiration here would be the mark of a truly great fast bowler. As ever the facts can't reveal the entire truth. But that's just my opinion.