All entries for March 2007

March 21, 2007

A Crucial Conundrum

Much has been talked of the antics of Flintoff and Co. after the New Zealand game and the disciplinary measures put in place by the management. Perhaps the most notable of these is the fact that Flintoff has been stripped of the vice-captaincy. This presents a number of issues: the effect it will have on Flintoff as a player, the effect it will have on the team and who to appoint as vice captain for the rest of the tournament.

Flintoff is a leader, even if not captain he is an inspirational figure within the team and it usually goes that when Fred is doing well, so are England. He loves playing for England and loved being captain. In the lead up to the announcement of the Ashes squad he made it very clear that he really desired the captaincy. It is entirely possible that being stripped of the vice captaincy in this way will have an effect on his game.

If England are to hope to progress in this tournament they will need their talisman firing on all cylinders so England hopes that Flintoff can put the politics to the back of his mind and focus on being one of the best all rounders in world cricket at the moment.

Flintoff is such a liked figure in the England camp that it is also entirely possible that a decision like this could cause fractions within the squad. Even if Flintoff is still 100% behind Vaughan (as I am sure he is), politics can be complicated and it could come about that players find themselves drawn more towards Flintoff than they do to Vaughan or the management.

So to the new vice captain: It is highly unlikely that we will never know who the new second in command is unless Vaughan himself actually does get injured. England have a habit of not appointing official vice captains and the Ashes squad announcement was the first occasion in quite a long time that a captain and vice captain were announced.

It is that vice captaincy choice which presents one of the significant problems here. While in Australia, Flintoff was appointed captain and Andrew Strauss his deputy and although Vaughan returned for the CB series, the matches he did miss due to a ham string injury were captained by Strauss while Flintoff was off the field which indicates that Strauss was an unofficial deputy to Flintoff in the one dayers too.

Vaughan tripped in a pothole yesterday while training and hurt his right knee, the knee which had given him trouble over the past year and kept him out of the Ashes this winter. Although the England management have assured us that he will be fit to play against Kenya, they have told us such things before and have been proved wrong on the day.

Strauss has been left out of the starting team for the four matches England have played so far in the Caribbean (the two warm up matches and the first two matches of the main tournament). It would therefore be very difficult for the England management to make Strauss captain should Vaughan fail to pass fit for the match against Kenya because they would be putting someone in a position of seniority who was not even in the main team the match before.

With Vaughan, Flintoff and Strauss the only names to have been bandied about in captaincy conversations recently it would mean that the job would have to go to someone who is not a natural choice.

A sensible choice would be to give the position to Paul Collingwood. The Durham all rounder is a senior member of the side, he was on panel of selectors as an advisor during the Ashes with a small group of senior squad members, he is one of England’s most reliable ODI batsmen, an excellent and agile fielder and a more than handy bowler.

It is through watching his batting and bowling that it becomes obvious that he is in touch with the situation of the game: as a batsman he is aware of when the need to up the tempo arises or when it will suffice to just knock about the singles and twos; as a bowler he is able to assess the batsmen he is bowling to and is constantly thinking about where to bowl and when to vary his bowling.

It is also important for the captain of the side to set the example in the field, something which no one would deny that Collingwood would be able to do. He has long been accepted as one of the best fielders in England, having substituted for many years in Test matches long before he was an established member of the Test side.

An option for looking to the future could be Ian Bell. In my mind, Bell is the England captain for the next generation. He is a classy batsman who is now coming into his own and growing in confidence and has hopefully established his place in the side after some good knocks.

Again, Bell is a good fielder and one of the best catchers in the England side and his bowling is not to be sniffed at although he seldom gets a chance to show it with Collingwood, Dalrymple and Pietersen usually being the fifth, sixth and seventh choice bowlers.

Giving Bell the captaincy would show a vote of confidence from the England hierarchy which could in turn help his form as a batsman. He has admitted himself that he did not feel like he fully deserved his place during the 2005 Ashes and he had a poor series as a result but he has shown extra self belief of late and has improved with the bat as a result.

A decision to give the captaincy to Bell could of course have the adverse affect, it is quite possible that his inclusion for the 2005 Test series was a season too soon and it could be that if introduced to the captaincy at too early an opportunity he could react to it as a captain as he did in 2005 with the bat.

Perhaps the only other senior established figure in the team is Kevin Pietersen. Although almost laughable at first thought, there are few reasons not to give Pietersen the captaincy. He is by far the best batsman in the side and would hopefully be able to lead from the front with the bat. As a fielder he is again one of the best in the side, despite his poor form in the field in his debut test series in 2005 where he didn’t hang on to a single chance and even his bowling is tidy. In fact, while playing in South Africa in the early part of his career he wasn’t even considered as a batsman and played for Natal as a bowler and batted low down the order.

I am sure that Pietersen would want the job, he craves attention and the captaincy would certainly be a perfect opportunity to gain some of the press coverage and some of the best captains to have ever graced the game have been those who had a real desire to lead their nation.

Does Pietersen hold the responsibility for such an important job? Perhaps one of his flaws as a cricketer is that he can at times appear too arrogant, which could be a downfall of his as a captain. After his successes in the Ashes of 2005 and before the tour of Pakistan in November and December 2005, he expressed that he was keen to give more to the team as a bowler, a feeling which was quickly dampened by the management.

It is entirely possible that given the captaincy he could over bowl himself or be too much of an attacking captain. There are always these risks of course; no one can ever know what type of captain a player will be until they are actually given the opportunity to do the job.

It would be a difficult decision for the management, should they be in a position where they have to make it, so much so that I can’t put my finger on a preference. I would be happy to see Bell, Collingwood or Pietersen leading England out on Saturday (or whenever it may be necessary) as each have their merits. Bell is the choice for the future, Collingwood would be the safe option and giving the job to Pietersen would show that England mean business and would take the game to the opposition.

But of course I suppose it’s all irrelevant isn’t it? Because after all, as the England management have reassured us: Vaughan will be fit to play on Saturday. And the England management have never led us astray over a key player’s fitness before have they?

All fun and Games?

Sports teams today at the highest level play such an intense level of sport and the players are expected to be fitter today than they ever have been. Gone are the days when professional footballers would sit down and have a fried breakfast before a match and even the days when you’d see snooker players sitting beside the table with a cigarette in hand and a mug of tea on the side. Today’s diet includes fish, white meat, carbohydrates and water while red meat, sugar, and dairy products are strictly off the menu.

But is cricket a different game? Shane Warne was famous for his smoking at the breaks during play and it didn’t stop him from being the best spin bowler the world has ever seen. Cricket being the sport that it is though breeds different types of players. The batsmen don’t necessarily need to be fast on their feet (Inzamam-ul-Haq being a perfect example) but it does help with running in between the wickets.

Indeed it is definitely possible for a batsman to play while not being fully fit, although not advisable. Out of determination to be the captain to lift the urn, Steve Waugh did after all scored a brilliant 157* on one leg at The Oval in 2001, after being denied a runner because he entered the match with his injury.

There is more pressure on fielders today than there were on fielders a decades ago, with everyone in the international arena being expected to be an all round fielder. But there are certain fielders on the pitch who won’t be required to make much of an exertion if they can be relied on to catch well. For example the slip fielders or the close-in catchers such as those at silly point will not need to run much or make many diving stops. So it is entirely possible for the less agile to be able to make it at the top level.

What about bowlers, then? Again the variety of the game means that it is entirely possible for there to be a variety in fitness levels. A spin bowler trots in off only a few paces and doesn’t have as far to walk back in between deliveries.

This is not to say that it is not hard work being a spin bowler, spinners are often asked to bowl long and tiring spells but it is more an issue of stamina than physical fitness.

Fast bowlers, however, have to be of the utmost fitness. They often run in off a lengthy run up, regularly bowl over 80mph then walk back and sprint in and do the same again.

So do only fast bowlers need to be at top fitness? Not at all, if a batsman or slow bowler is completely fit he will be able to spend longer at the crease or bowl longer spells, will be less susceptible to injury, will be able to put in that extra burst of running when necessary and will in general give themselves the edge over their opponents.

It is for this reason that it the late night shenanigans of six members of the England squad are not to be taken lightly. By all accounts a group of men are allowed to go out and have fun but they must not forget their responsibilities.

The average footballer will lose seven pints of fluid in a 90 minute football match; I can only assume that a cricketer will lose more than this during a 6 hour ODI in the hot Caribbean sun. The post match pint is a part of cricketing tradition but is it really the best thing for an international cricketer playing in the middle of a World Cup who needs to be at the top of his fitness?

Alcohol is a diuretic, which means that the body will release more liquid in urine than it takes in. This means that drinking alcohol will make the body more dehydrated than it was before drinking which among other things can lead to fatigue and a loss of endurance and stamina.

Alcoholic drinks also take longer to be absorbed into the body than water so will not provide as quick a relief to dehydration as non alcoholic drinks will do in the short term either.

The timing of the late night bender could have been much better too. The night in question was after the England v New Zealand match and after having lost that match it was imperative that the team won their next too matches which were against Canada and Kenya.

With the Canadian match less than 48 hours after the conclusion of the New Zealand match the squad needed to maximise the time they had available to them for training and tactics. The incident involving Flintoff and the Pedalo reportedly took place at 4am which even if not drunk would mean that the players involved would be excessively tired when turning up the next day for training and would not be able to apply themselves fully. Factor in a hangover and the actions prove even more irresponsible.

The issue is made even worse by the fact that two of the team management were involved too, Jeremy Snape and Kevin Shine were both sighted in the nightclub with the 6 squad members and have been asked to submit themselves to voluntary fines by the team management.

Cricket today is an intense game when played at an international level. Fielding sides need to be on their toes to prevent quick singles, to save the two, to take that difficult diving catch. Batting sides need to be fit and agile to make those ones into twos or to play those innovative shots we see today. Such an intense level of play requires and demands a high level of professionalism to maintain fitness and to be able to compete at the highest level.

It can be understandable, even if not forgivable, for the younger members of the squad to be caught doing these things but I would expect better from senior members such as the vice-captain Andrew Flintoff or the coaching staff. If England are going to make a turn around and come good in this World Cup and in ODIs in general they need to get the right attitude towards the game.

Steve Waugh talks in his autobiography of when Bob Simpson and the Australian team management imposed an alcohol ban on the team at a time when Australia were struggling in Test and ODI cricket. This was a move which I am sure, although it would have been unpopular at first, would have contributed to the start of what was the rise of Australia to the number one spot and to becoming the best team to have taken the field in the game of cricket.

March 19, 2007

Supporting the underdog

The World Cup is now well and truly underway and it has already produced a few surprises. Non-Test playing nations have been World Cup cricket since the tournament started with Sri Lanka (not a Test playing nation until 1981) and East Africa invited to play in the inaugural World Cup in England in 1975.

The inclusion of the lesser nations has lead to criticism from a number of senior figures in world cricket, saying that they devalue the tournament and provide meaningless games but they have provided enough upsets along the way to go some way to silencing their critics.

It took the minnows a while to get themselves into winning ways in World Cup cricket. There were no wins for the non test playing teams in the first two World Cups but despite this Sri Lanka did put up a decent fight against Australia in a group match in 1975. Australia lost the toss and were sent in to bat and in doing so attained what would then have been a colossal target of 328/5 from their 60 overs.

Ranjit Fernando got Sri Lanka off to a brisk start as he fulfilled what was possibly one of the earliest examples of a pinch hitting role. He fell for 22 off 18 balls at the score of 30/1 but his partner Sunil Wettimuny battled on and provided an anchor role for the other players to bat around. He eventually finished unbeaten on 53 after having to retire hurt. Sri Lanka eventually reached 276/4 from their allotted 60 overs and lost by 52 runs. It is perhaps not the result that is significant but the margin of it.

The fact that they only lost four wickets in their chase and still reached what would have been a challenging total in 1975 had they been batting first shows that the team had talent and determination.

The 1983 World Cup included tournament debutants Zimbabwe (who didn’t play their first test match until 1992.) There was a sixteen team qualifying tournament (which would later be known as the ICC Trophy) for the main event which took place in England in 1982 and only the eventual winner would be invited to play alongside the full member nations the following year.

It was a very professional and determined Zimbabwe team which came to England in 1982 and finished the tournament undefeated by beating Bermuda (who incidentally are playing their maiden World Cup this year) in the final.

Captain Duncan Fletcher (yes, the very same who is now England coach) hired South African rugby international as a coach and he brought with him a vigorous training program and a winning attitude. In the ICC trophy of 82, Zimbabwe played with a determination to win that meant finishing games early which caused lost revenue and upset crowds.

It was undoubtedly the professionalism that was brought to the Zimbabwe team that allowed them to win their maiden World Cup performance against Australia by 13 runs at Trent Bridge. They lost their remaining matches and didn’t make it through to the semi final stage of the tournament but they showed the potential that led them to be awarded Test status in 1992.

There have been a range of upsets in subsequent World Cups, possibly the most notable being Kenya’s performance in the 2003 World Cup where they reached the semi finals, the furthest that any of the minnows has ever gone in a World Cup.

Kenya’s performance in 2003 has perhaps been undermined by the fact that they received bonus points from a number of teams refusing to travel to Kenya to play for security reasons but they did manage to beat Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe and Bangladesh, Test Nations each of them, during the course of the tournament.

The current World Cup contains 6 associate members, the most there has been in a World Cup tournament and they are of mixed quality. Bermuda, Holland and Canada are not likely to provide any upsets in the tournament (although you can never discount anything in one day cricket) and Scotland also seem to be lacking the sparkle that teams that have caused unexpected results have had.

Kenya and Ireland however, are ones to look out for. Ireland especially are on top form, having tied with Zimbabwe and beaten Pakistan so far and look almost certain to qualify for the Super Eight stage.

The ICC is trying to spread cricket around the world and Ireland have certainly benefited from the ICC’s Associate tournaments such as the Intercontinental Cup which is a first class tournament for the minnows and the International Cricket League which is a One Day Tournament which was set up for the World Cup qualifiers to gain some match practice.

With a decent domestic structure in place in Ireland, as opposed to them relying on fielding a single team in the English one day tournament with the same status as a county, would help the nation develop. Ireland need to have a professional system in place so that their players can devote all their time to cricket and not have to use their holiday time at outside jobs to play for their country as they currently do.

The ICC’s Malcolm Speeds hinted in an interview on BBC’s Test Match Special radio coverage of the World Cup that the ICC would be looking to introduce one or two more nations to test status within the next ten years and if Ireland do implement a strong professional domestic structure they could well be a serious contender for a place at the top level of cricket.

Although not technically a minnow, Bangladesh are on of the lesser teams in world cricket today and have also got a good chance of an unexpected place in the Super Eights after a comprehensive win against India on Saturday. They have shown some promise of late in both Tests and ODIs; only a year ago they ran Australia very close to the wire in the first test of a two match series in Bangladesh.

With the double upsets of Saturday, both Ireland and Bangladesh will have the momentum. For the sake of the tournament and to add a bit of spice to some of the matches in the Super Eights, let’s hope they can carry it on and perhaps make it a World Cup for the underdogs.

Many people, players and commentators, complained about the number of lesser teams in the World Cup this year. It certainly seemed inevitable the structure meant that the progress of teams could be easily predicted. With each group containing two major nations and two lesser nations it appeared that the two major nations would progress and the two lesser teams would fall out but some spirited displays by the minnows have brought another level of excitement to the tournament and will hopefully raise the profile of the game in areas where it is not quite so well known.

March 01, 2007

The Winter of Discontent

The winter spanning 1978 to 1979 was one of the most fractious periods of UK political history. The Labour government’s attempts to implement a cap on pay rises to 5% were met with some resistance from the trade unions and there were widespread strikes in both the public and private sectors resulting near chaos among the public services. Those fateful few months of James Callaghan’s premiership became known as the Winter of Discontent after the opening line of Shakespeare’s Richard III. A general election was called in the spring and a new leader was elected in the Conservative Margaret Thatcher.

Yorkshire County Cricket Club have been having a ‘winter of discontent’ of their own. Towards the end of the 2006 season Yorkshire, then coach-less, received criticism from Anthony McGrath who was a senior player in the Yorkshire squad. It was a few weeks later that Stewart Regan, the club’s Chief Executive stated that he hoped McGrath would stay following some ‘constructive and helpful’ talks with the batting all rounder.

Michael Lumb, the middle order batsman, chose his moment shortly afterwards by choosing not to renew his contract at Yorkshire and announced a move to Hampshire.

Then some bright news appeared to be on the horizon. Chris Adams had announced that he was to leave Sussex, a team he had helped lead to the double of the County Championship and the C&G Trophy. He was due to sign for the club as player, captain and fulfil a role as coach. Adams’ departure was announced with some regret by Sussex on November 1st 2006.

The unsettled McGrath issue reared its ugly head yet again amidst the hype of the appointment of Adams and he announced his intentions to leave the club.

A most unexpected U-Turn from Chris Adams further added to Yorkshire’s woes. Two weeks after first announcing his move to Yorkshire, he claimed it was “too much too soon” and decided to honour the remainder of his contract with Surrey while having the opportunity to move into a managerial role when he felt the time was right.

The move sparked up criticism from fiery ex Yorkshire and England opening batsman turned commentator, Geoff Boycott who slammed Adams’ “lack of moral fibre.” Yorkshire were also left with more gaps to fill, in appointing Adams for his player-come-coach-come-manager role the incumbent director of cricket, David Byas, was practically forced to give up his position.

In amongst all this, McGrath grabbed headlines once again by starting litigation against the club in order to release him from his contract despite being offered the captaincy role in return for staying with the club. As if the county did not have enough on their plate trying to fill a middle order spot, find a suitable captain, appoint a coach and now a Director of Cricket not to mention their money worries that have forced them to move matches to Sheffield after an 11 year hiatus, they now had a legal battle on their hands too.

As with Callaghan’s winter of discontent, however, this one too resulted in a new leader. (This change in command though was probably more popular in Yorkshire than the one at the end of the 78/79 winter.) On the 28th February 2007, Yorkshire County Cricket Club announced the return of one of their favourite sons. Darren Gough was to make a move back to the club after spending three years at Essex and would take up a captaincy role to boot.

And so the future is beginning to look interesting for Yorkshire again. They have a new captain, someone who actually wants the job. Gough famously put his hand up for the role of England captain when no one else was willing while Nasser Hussain broke one of his fingers but the job was given to the unwilling Michael Atherton instead. The managerial situation is looking less bleak now too, the great former South African fast bowler Allan Donald has expressed an interest in the Director of Cricket position and the management are currently in the position of appointing a new coach.

There was once a time when the England Test side was almost indistinguishable from the Yorkshire County side which makes it all the more upsetting to see a team that was once great suffering terribly over the past few seasons (and that is coming from an avid Kent supporter!) Hopefully the upturn in fortunes over the past few weeks can bring about a happier dressing room and a more successful Yorkshire once again.

March 2007

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