Wednesday, July 29, 2009

An over rated loss

One of the great mysteries of the game is how a player called Kevin Pietersen is so well spoken of. Apart from being an egotistical mercenary maniac which we shan't go into here, he should not be ranked among the top contemporary players, statistically or otherwise.

Beginning with his average, currently at 49 having dipped below 50 during this Ashes series, places him 40th on the overall list of averages, and only 17th among contemporary players within the last 10 years.

His average and indeed his performance has regressed rather than improved since his debut series in 2005, and he has rarely played the sort of commanding matchwinning innings expected of the team's trumpeted "best batsman". Instead he is no doubt still revelling in the enormous credit bestowed upon him for his chancey swashbuckling 158 in the crucial Oval Ashes Test in 2005. Note that even this was not a match WINNING innings and I defy the reader to find any such Test innings that was not chalked up against bottom dwellers such as West Indies or New Zealand.

For all his flourishing attacking ability, he seems to have reined himself in and no longer advances down the track and swats bowlers across the line or slog sweeps as much as he used to. He seems to be more of an accumulator of runs in recent times. His performance has also never between very consistent match to match, as centuries are frequently interspersed with strings of low scores.

I suspect his great reputation flatters to deceive, and not only is it a case of no other batsmen in the last 5 years really standing out for England, but perhaps the rest of the team has been somewhat submissive to his ego and they have all underperformed in his perceived shadow. I have a suspicion that the rest of the batsmen actually perform better when Pietersen is not in the team, as was shown during the surprising post-Ashes one day series victory in Australia in 2007.

My belief is that England will not only survive without him in this series but actually bat better as a unit and score more centuries than they normally would. So this injury could be quite the blessing in disguise for England as we move forward in this epic series.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Fiery Fred does it again

What a supremely selfish gesture by Flintoff to hog the ball and insist on himself bowling unchanged all morning...:)

But seriously, it was an excellent effort as he turned back the clock and forced at least one hard bitten blogger to eat his unkind words. A top team effort by England, who nonetheless had to scrap it out to the last, and will be wary of the wounded Aussie playing a little better up the road at Birmingham next week...

Monday, July 20, 2009

False declaration or not?

I thought at the time that a few more runs were needed, as with overs to be made up there were 196 scheduled to be bowled, and with a victory target of 522 that equates to only 2.66 runs per over. At the rate the Aussies are scoring, 3.63, it would take only 143 overs or so to get there, meaning the Aussies would only need to bat out a day and a half to win the game, rather than survive the two days remaining in the match. Had Strauss batted on for another hour to reach a lead of 600, it would have meant the Aussies had to bat for longer to save or win the game. In fairness though England did bowl well in the morning session to take early wickets and perhaps the conditions flattened out after that so they did need to get Australia in quickly.

With 209 runs left to win, they will get there in around another 57 overs, quite possibly less if they really attack. So England need to effectively take 5 wickets in less than 2 sessions of play. This could well go down to the wire. Obviously a lot will depend on when the first wicket falls. And on the overhead conditions and whether the ball swings. An enthralling and nervous night's viewing awaits..

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Correct decision not to enforce follow on

Despite what I am reading from sources as mighty as former Ashes winning captains Mike Brearley and David Gower who believe England captain Andrew Strauss should have enforced the follow-on, I am in complete disagreement about this. With a lead of only 210, sunny conditions not conducive to swing and seam (it looked flat all day), and at least one bowler with questionable fitness (Flintoff), Strauss made the correct call.

An important point that I feel hasn't been iterated is that run scoring was much, much easier for England with a starting buffer of over 200. From the outset they looked relaxed and inclined to adventurous strokeplay, none better shown than Alistair Cook, normally an unsure figure at the crease early in his innings who pulled freely and even lofted riskily over the off side field. Consequently thanks to a late burst from Matt Prior England scored at 4.36 runs per over for the day and good use was made of the time taken out of the match.

Batting in that manner and scoring at this run rate would have been entirely a different matter had England asked Australia to bat again first, who while under the gun may well have racked up 400 or even 500 (they scored 674/6 in the previous match remember). England could conceivably have been left with a final day run chase of 200-300 or even more, and the pressure would then really have been on. History has shown that sides batting last rarely scale significant size run chases. Instead, with England motoring away Ponting was right back on the defense and England felt under zero pressure. Australia's only chance of getting back in the game was to bat again straight away, and fortunately for England, Strauss did not give them that chance.

If it is overcast tomorrow England may well win with a day or so to spare. If it's sunny expect this to be a real long haul. But I can't remember the last occasion Australia had to bat for this long to save a Test. Not I suspect for a generation...

As a footnote, Strauss will definitely have been influenced by the Trent Bridge Test of 2005, where Michael Vaughan opted to enforce the follow on, only to see the Ashes almost blow up in his face as England collapsed in their subsequent run chase and only just scraped through.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Happy hookers come to the party

So there you have it. Australia bounced out by short pitched bowling, bounced into complete disarray. A tactic that was co-incidentally suggested in the first post on this blog. 5 out of 8 of the batsmen to fall so far out hooking and pulling. And on top of that Anderson and Onions looked very zippy pitching it full. Goes to show that Australia are very vulnerable nowadays, and that their own bowling attack really were quite rubbish.

Despite all this, I'm counting on many more twists and subplots ahead in the next 3 days action. Should the match in fact last that long...

If I were Strauss I would definitely not enforce the follow on... I would use the large lead as a buffer and ask Australia's demoralised bowlers - one of whom is crook, another with an injured finger, and a third with a virtual case of the yips - to front up again, and aim to declare with a lead of around 550 and about 2 days play remaining.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Fast Freddy puts himself first

Andrew Flintoff's retirement announcement at such a crucial juncture on the eve of the Lords Test will unfortunately go down as a supremely selfish gesture. The timing of it shows that the man thinks he is bigger than the team. The England team now runs the risk of turning into a farewell circus for Fred in this the biggest series of all.

Sadly Flintoff is no longer half the player he was, certainly not a match winner, as England's record with and without him shows - England do VASTLY better when he is not in the team for the past few years. The man is not nearly as good as he, and the rosey glasses selectors are deluded to believe. So now we have the situation of a half-fit no-longer-potent about-to-retire player being selected on sentiment as the team's talisman despite having a negative influence on results.

And the situation is compounded by Broad's similarly sentimental selection, while the true matchwinner Harmison is kept on the sidelines. Only in English cricket... and what's more Flintoff is only quitting Tests so he can make more money for less work playing Twenty20 fun cricket.

Selectors play it safe but will they be sorry

Stephen Harmison should be playing at Lords. Australia will definitely be relieved he isn't. He is the biggest attacking weapon England have right now, and if you aren't going to pick him now on a bouncy wicket when he's in devastating form when will you ever pick him? I feel that England have picked only 3 bowlers and 2 all-rounders in Flintoff and Broad, neither of whom will set the world alight with the ball - I would be surprised if they take more than 6 wickets between them in the entire match. Unfortunately England have fudged it and selected both, not wanting to upset Flintoff by resting him due to his knee injury, or wanting to upset the youngster Broad either, as has been discussed previously in this blog.

England batted very positively and it was noticeable to see the displays of intent, even from Pietersen in his brief knock. But they will need to bowl their socks off with the questionable line-up they've got if they are to break their 75 year Lords hoodoo.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Vaughany and the pants catch

Michael Vaughan's take on the first Test and how he thinks Pietersen should play.

And an amusing aside in the same paper, how Jonathan Trott caught a batsman out in his trouser pocket.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

England's big gun needs to fire

Just watching the video of Botham's classic 149* at Headingley 1981 and can't help but feel that England will need someone to go out and bat in a similar manner. And the player best placed to be able to deliver this would of course be Pietersen. He is the one with the ability, power, and confidence to really go for it.

There was a misconception at Cardiff that his mistake was to play too many strokes, when actually the problem was he was just trying to be too dinky and fancy. Like a man caught in two minds, he wanted to play strokes but felt weighed down by the responsibility on him and felt too inhibited to swing freely from the hip. He should just play uncomplicated natural attacking strokes, as Botham clearly did in that video. Against a novice Australian attack on flat wickets the percentages are very much in his favour, and an attacking century could both take a game away from Australia and demoralize them.

We must not criticise Pietersen for being attacking and playing strokes, but for NOT playing proper attacking strokes. Let's hope he goes back to his basics and delivers the right stuff, playing positive attacking cricket, and that the other England batsmen take a leaf out of his book just as they did in the 2nd Test at Edgbaston in 2005, when their approach on the first day changed everything. We will then have a very entertaining series indeed...

Monday, July 13, 2009

A Classic in Cardiff

Wow... they said they couldn't recapture 2005. Well this was as exciting a finish as it gets. England's ship was sinking all day, looked like they would never quite make it. But they did... and suddenly being outplayed for the past 5 days means so much less, and the teams will enter Lords with the psychological honours round about even.

This was truly one for the ages. Fittingly there were shades of both Old Trafford 2005 where Australia hung on with 9 down, and Adelaide 2006/07 where England were unable to do the same. It was Collingwood and Anderson batting together that day as the time wore down and they tried to hold them off. And it was these 2 who perhaps did the most to avenge that defeat, with the unforeseen fortitude of Monty "Pokerface" Panesar who seemed inhumanly calm. But how the tide can turn in the space of a few mad minutes. Australia will be shattered, with only 3 or 4 days to recover before the next round. One thing that's sure is we're in for more fabulous battles ahead... But have Australia fired their best shot already just as they did in the 1st Test 4 years ago? I can't see how Australia could play much better with the players they've got? England on the other hand...

Bad and Badder

Australia "attacking" with 2 non-spinning off spinners now, who average 47 and 42 in their first class careers... along with a scattergun non-swinging Johnson, and two novices. If England do manage to lose this game it can only be because they have batted with their eyes closed?

Saturday, July 11, 2009

A blonde selection

At this point I have to get a gripe off my chest. The continued selection of Stuart Broad. Broad is now in his 18th Test, and is seen as a promising young pace prospect who is handy with the bat. However, his bowling average is close to 40 and he has one five wicket haul, which are not the stats of a wicket taking bowler. His pace is reasonable at around 140kph, but he is a hit-the-deck type of bowler who does not ever swing it, seldom looks threatening, and also doesn't bowl consistently enough to build pressure, going at almost 5 (!) runs an over so far in this innings.

The worst thing about it is his amazing apparent immunity to criticism in the press. They cut him a lot of slack, perhaps because he's seen as such a promising youngster, vulnerable of temperament, and his dad was a fine player for England. This is utter nonsense. England need to select the best 4 bowlers for taking 20 Australian wickets regardless of anything else, and Broad is not one of these. The Ashes is certainly not the place for unnecessarily carrying youngsters. With Flintoff a similar style of hit-the-deck bowler, more penetrative than Broad but still with only 2 five wicket hauls himself after 75 Tests, England really needed to select another gun bowler who can swing it.

Ryan Sidebottom along with Steyn was easily one of the most successful swing bowlers in the world last year before becoming injured, and I cannot understand why he has not been drafted straight back into the team. Graham Onions was similarly successful at the start of the summer and he would have also been a superior option to Broad. If England really wanted to ruffle Australia with a bang-it-in bowler, an in-form Steve Harmison would have been the more positive attacking way to go. But Broad with his long blonde hair would seem to be the next great white hope of the selectors regardless of his present ability, so I guess team England are going to have to bowl the Aussies out without their best attack.

And don't get me started on one-pace Monty.. :)

Friday, July 10, 2009

Flat pitch, flatter cricket

Not too much inspiring to write home about today. Although the pitch is turning, it is playing so slowly that the Aussies don't look in any bother. They are just nurdling their way forward. The only sparks came in the morning session as the England tail gamely wagged and Flintoff worked Hughes over. Since then neither side has set the world on fire, though a draw can't be counted on when the pitch could yet deteriorate into a real minefield by day 5. Australia will want a lead of at least 100 - they should get there towards the end of day 3 - to put some pressure back on England, who would then need to score at least 350 themselves to feel safe - which would take us to sometime in the first session on day 5, and it would then be a question of Australia surviving the final day as scoring won't be easy. This is how I see the game panning out. The danger for England is if they continue to not pick up wickets they could find themselves with a huge defecit effectively batting last themselves to save the game.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Headless batting vs toothless bowling

An intriguing battle. One question that's already been answered is of the overall quality of the cricket and the skills being executed. It will not match 2005 or probably come close. It will be quite an ugly spectacle at times. Points to note are that this already looks certainly like the most innocuous Australian Ashes bowling attack seen in my lifetime, none of whom have been close to bowling a ball in England previously, and who lack both the accuracy and menace of teams gone by. Nathan Hauritz must rate as one of the most unthreatening "spin" bowlers ever to play for the urn. Despite being treated generally with respect by an uncertain England he still went for 3.5 an over with a bonus wicket gifted which we'll address later.

The overall massively defensive strategies employed by Ponting couldn't go unnoticed. He let most of the middle session drift for long periods with genuinely toothless slow bowling. In terms of field placings, from as early as the first session there were sweepers posted back on both sides of the field, blatantly for bad bowling in some cases, i.e. deep point and deep mid wicket. Even with a feisty Flintoff brand new to the crease there were as many as 3 (!) men back on the leg side boundary. As a result England milked easy singles throughout the day, there were few maidens and consequently one could sense very little pressure ever building on the batsmen. This negative mindset is unfathomable and dare I say un-Australian and will hardly inspire confidence in the bowlers, nor spare Ponting from brickbats should his team lose. To make matters worse when Hilfenhaus started getting the ball to swing nicely away Ponting refused to give him more than 1 slip, and no gully. No surprises then when Collingwood edged it directly through the vacant area :)

The other side to the story is the ludicrous dismissal strokes played by the number 3 and 4 batsmen, supposedly the premier slots in any side. While Bopara's looked naive in the extreme, especially for one groomed on a diet of Twenty20 cricket with its constant slower balls, Pietersen's was utterly brainless and irresponsible, and even looked stubborn in his refusal to bail out of the sweep stroke to the bowler's widest ball of the day. While England did well to play sensibly in the Pietersen-Collingwood partnership and later counterattack through Prior and Flintoff, they will need to play more ruthlessly, and even more smartly to avoid such loose strokes. Even Cook and Collingwood were found wanting through poor judgement.

Overall England are in the better position batting first after boldly selecting 2 spinners and with runs now on the board. As I said earlier, there are runs to be had in this tail and I would not be surprised if they notch 450. Australia have it all to do to win this match, and it will be interesting to see how their recent frailty against spin shows up tomorrow.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

The Ashes, about to rise again...

And I've decided to deliberately adjust my sleep cycle as it is showing here in NZ from 10.00pm to 5.00am, well 5.30am once you factor in Ricky Ponting's over rates :) So now I will sleep until 1.00pm each day before rising to do other things, such as job hunting for that next super exciting IT contract.

As for the cricket, one would have to say it's evenly matched, but who wants to sit on the fence. I am backing the underdog, England, ranked only 5th in the world at present. The 2005 series was truly a masterpiece and not just because the underdog won. There is no reason why this series can't be similarly competitive and compelling. Both sides have declined similarly in the 4 years since, yet one is always wary of that indomitable Aussie spirit which in my memory has always made them faster to the jugular and more tenacious fighting back than their opponents. In short, I can't see Australia playing badly or being easy to beat at any stage - if there are any capitulations it is likely to be England. Australia will always be naturally aggressive while England will have to rouse themselves from their all too regular mediocrity. So while on paper the sides look even, or even slightly favouring England, in reality Australia will be the harder team to beat.

Tactically, England must bowl aggressively, particularly with short pitched bowling and 2 fielders back, an age old tactic which South Africa mystifyingly failed to use in their recent series, and one which would work well on this Australian team, from 1 down to 11, many of whom either look vulnerable to the short ball or will hook in the air regardless of any traps. If the ball is swinging around they should pitch it very full yes, but they must definitely make use of the bouncer. Perhaps Flintoff will be an enforcer in this regard. As for Australia, they will do what Australia does, they will bowl aggressively and unrelentingly. And they will bowl short stuff.

Batting wise England will need to get off to solid starts at the top seeing off the new ball and allowing strokemakers Bopara and Pietersen to accelerate from there. The England tail is going to prove a real headache to the Australians who are without a wicket taking spinner. The Australian batting is bound to pile on the runs at some stage, the key for England will be to make use of early swing to nick out a couple and bounce out a couple more. It remains to be seen whether the conditions permit reverse swing to be a major factor, but England should not count on it.

It promises to be a most absorbing series, and I for one will welcome a few late nights in its honour.