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)

Vaughan (c)
Stewart (wk)

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?