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December 29, 2008

Vaughan Misses out – and rightly so

Vaughan rightly misses out on West Indies Tour

Former England captain Michael Vaughan has missed out on a place in the England squad for the tour to the West Indies. Some had expected the Yorkshire batsman the nod in place of Ian Bell or Owais Shah, but it wasn’t to be and he now doesn’t have much time to get himself back in contention for the 2009 Ashes series.

To be honest though, I am quite surprised Vaughan was even considered for this tour. What has he done to prove that he deserves a place? It was unfortunate that he didn’t get the chance to impress for the England performance squad, but the reality is that the man hasn’t played any cricket of late.

Had Vaughan been given the chance on this tour, what message would it have given out to the likes of Joe Denly, Robert Key and Ravi Bopara who have been working hard and scoring runs in county cricket?

The only reason that I may have been on board with the Vaughan selection would have been his record against Australia. It is superb. By selecting him for the West Indies, it would have given him time to find his form before the Aussies come to town.

Overall though, the correct decision has been made. Had Vaughan come in and really struggled, it would have left the England selectors in a very difficult situation. The best thing he can do now is score runs for Yorkshire and try and get back in contention at some point during the West Indies test series in England.

Anyway, in terms of the rest of the test squad, there were no real surprises. Ian Bell – who has struggled for form of late – has held onto his place in the squad and Ryan Sidebottom has been included despite recent injury problems. The only other talking point was the selection of Adil Rashid.

The uncapped Yorkshire all-rounder has been called up as ‘extra competition for places in the spin-bowling department’ according to national selector Geoff Miller, but also to allow the coaching team to ‘monitor his development closely.’ Rashid is obviously a very talented young man and England seem very conscious about getting the timing of his selection right.

This is fair enough I suppose, but I have always been a fan of his and I really hope he isn’t just the water boy on this tour. In fact, given the poor form shown by Monty Panesar, I would stick him in straight away. I may be alone in this opinion, but if he is good enough – he is old enough!

With this in mind, this would be my starting eleven for the first test against West Indies at Sabina Park in February:



Alistair Cook
Andrew Strauss
Owais Shah
Kevin Pietersen
Paul Collingwood
Andrew Flintoff
Matt Prior
Adil Rashid
Stuart Broad
Steve Harmison
Ryan Sidebottom

This means the likes of Ian Bell, James Anderson, Graham Swann and Monty Panesar miss out. This may be a bit too drastic in terms of changes from the tests in India, but I actually like the look of this team. Realistically though, I imagine the cricket odds will favour this being the team that does play at Sabina Park:

Alistair Cook
Andrew Strauss
Ian Bell
Kevin Pietersen
Paul Collingwood
Andrew Flintoff
Matt Prior
Stuart Broad
Ryan Sidebottom
Steve Harmison
Monty Panesar

We will just have to wait and see I suppose. Cricket betting suggests that England should win this series, but it will be fair from easy. West Indies have some decent players and will always raise their game at home, so anything could happen.

With just six tests left before the Ashes though, all of which are against the West Indies, it is very important that England start to dominate Chris Gayle’s team sooner rather than later.

By Thomas Rooney – A sports writer who blogs about England cricket


December 23, 2008

Two test matches in a series is such a waste of time

So, the second and final test match between England and India has ended in a draw. After the home side were rather negative in their second innings, they eventually declared on 251-7 to set England over 400 to win the game. This was never going to happen though and with the game destined for a draw, the captains shook hands with the tourists 64-1.

It meant that India secured a 1-0 series victory and that England finished the tour without winning a single match. Not the most encouraging few weeks results wise, but there have been some positives of which I will discuss in a moment.

The thing that really bothers me though is that only two test matches were scheduled for the series. India and England are two of the most cricket mad countries in the world, they are two of the best teams in the world and yet only two test matches are played. Are the organisers trying to assist in the death of test cricket or something?

Not only is it disappointing that the series is shortened, but it also means that once the first game has been won by a team, the second match is more likely to be a dull finish. That’s exactly what happened in this series.

There was some excellent cricket played throughout and the entertainment levels were high, but during the latter stages of the Mohali test, India were happy to play out for a draw. They had won the first test, so it was job done as far as they are concerned.

The series should have been at least three matches long. This way, England would have had the chance to respond again to going behind. I appreciate that I may sound like a bitter England fan, but it’s more than that. For the sake of the fans watching, two test matches just isn’t enough.

There isn’t enough time for the twists and turns that make test cricket so fantastic, or for the one-on-one battles between the likes of Kevin Pietersen and Yuvraj Singh to well and truly develop. Overall, I hope two test match series are a thing of the past.

Unfortunately though, this is not something I will be putting any of my sport betting money on. The significance of Twenty20 cricket is more valid than ever and perhaps shortened test series will become to norm. This bothers me, but there you go.

Anyway, onto the reflection part of today’s blog. Despite losing the series, Pietersen says that he is ‘really proud’ of the team’s efforts and I have to say I agree. So what are the positives to come out of the tour?

The fact they were there – It took great courage for the England players to get on a plane to India again. They have been a credit to cricket and the Indian people will never forget this.

Andrew Strauss – The opener well and truly confirmed his place in the team with two centuries in the first test. Well done Straussy.

Andrew Flintoff – Bowled with just as much heart as ever and his batting is improving. Could he be back to his peak for Australia next year?

Greame Swann – Performed admirably in his first two test matches and should push Monty Panesar for a place against the West Indies after Christmas.

Kevin Pietersen – Ok, it may only have been one good innings for KP, but what an innings it was. This and the way he led the team in a difficult time deserves credit.

So, that’s that for the Indian tour. The England players will now travel home to enjoy Christmas with their families before flying out to the West Indies at the end of January. The sport odds are more likely to favour an England win in this series and it is important that momentum is developed ahead of an important English summer.

By Thomas Rooney – A sports writer who blogs about England cricket


December 16, 2008

A heartwarming gesture recieves a heartwarming response

The English aren't usually an admired nation. Within the UK we were seen as the dominant aggressors over Ireland, Wales and Scotland. Abroad we were one of the largest colonial powers in history overseeing the great British Empire - more often than not in less than favourable manner. This, despite the dwindling significance and reach of the British Empire, has left a sour taste in the mouths of many within the commonwealth. As far as sport (and cricket in particular, being a largely commonwealth dominated game) there is little most nations enjoy more than getting on over the old-country.

I've read on websites like cricinfo.com, commentators saying how much of a bold statement England's return to India to play a 2 Test series in the wake of the Mumbai Terror attacks would be but it wasn't until I read the comments on Mike Atheron's latest article that it really hit me how much of an impact this decision has had on the Indian people.

Here are some examples:

Despite losing England will remain eternally the greatest friend ever of India. Well done Kevi's boys!
You might have lost the test match but you have won the respect and affection of the one billion Indian people for your support of India in its hour of need. Thank you!

R Singh, London, England

It was a great match given the circumstances. People of India will always be grateful to England and its cricket team for standing by its side in need of crisis. And Pieterson, [sic] you are now part of Indian cricket folklore as a hero.

gaurav, Mumbai, India

We indians are overwhelmed by the wonderful gesture shown by the England team by coming back to India after the terror attack. Thank you for supporting us.

Raj B., New Delhi, India

Irrespective of the result, this match will be forever etched in the memory of one billion Indian by the spirit in which it was played.
No words can describe the feeling of thankfulness towards the england's team to be with us in such a testing time

Ashwini, Hyderabad, India

Many Thanks to the English team for coming to India!!
We salute you!!

Ashwani Kumar, Gurgaon, India

Thank You England! Going beyond just the result of the game...we're grateful to the ECB & the entire Englsih squad for coming back and giving the people of India reason to return to normal life post the dastardly acts in Mumbai. Thanks a bunch lads!!

Kartik, Bangalore, India

It was one of the best test matches I have ever watched.

As an Indian, I salute the English team for going ahead with the test series in the current circumstances and they have won the hearts of millions of Indians with their gesture.

Win or loss, Kevin Pieterson and boys are genuinely heroes.

Ratnakar, London,

First of all - Thank you English Cricket team for coming back. It should go down in history as one of the finest off-field decisions.
England should not beat themselves for this loss. This was more an Indian victory than English loss. The only area that merits question is the English run-rate.

Kalyan, Chennai, India


When you consider that the Pakistan Cricket Board is in virtual isolation following their terrorist attacks I'm sure many in India were worried the same would happen to them. England's decision to return will surely have left a lasting mark on the Indian people and Kevin Pietersen, as the captain who had such a key part in ensuring he had a full squad returning with him, has shown he is a strong and principled leader.

It was not just heartwarming to see England walk out to bat on day 1 and the symbolism of it all but it was even more heartwarming to see that the gesture has been very warmly appreciated by the Indian people - in India and abroad.


December 15, 2008

Why Monty Might Want to Bin the Twin


It was often said that Shane Warne didn’t like having a spin-twin. That is, he preferred to be the sole specialist spinner in the line up and not have to share the spin bowling duties. Indeed, this view is vindicated by the statistics – in matches where Warne played alongside Stuart Macgill (his long term legspinning understudy) his bowling average rose from its usual 25 to almost 30. Needless to say, when two spinners were played one would expect the pitch to be conducive to turn and for his statistics to be more favourable, not less. It would not be too outrageous at this point to suggest that the great SK Warne quite possibly has something in common with England’s very own MS Panesar.

When Monty Panesar burst onto the scene in 2006, claiming Sachin Tendulkar as his first Test wicket and started to win matches for England many were filled with hope. One commentator humorously noted that ‘the thing with Monty is, he turns the ball’. Although it is questionable to what extent they intended humour, it was still an odd comment to make. Spinners are meant to turn the ball – it’s what they do. Yet it was indeed true that for years it was something that English spinners had resolutely failed to do.

This is not to say they didn’t put on an England jersey and play with all their heart, Ashley Giles for example took his place in the side with great pride and took criticism very much to heart. Unfortunately though, for Ashley is the nicest of chaps, he wasn’t the most naturally gifted of cricketers and his late-in-life switch to spin bowling from average left arm seamers didn’t help him make the most of the limited ability he possessed.

There have been other England prospects of late that have had more natural ability but have squandered it – Philip Tufnell for example whose attitude and approach to the game rarely found favour with senior members of the set up. Similarly, Chris Schofield was sounded out by Duncan Fletcher as a young spin bowling talent and was even handed one of the first ever central contracts. Schofield was, sadly, poorly managed though – he was thrust into the deep end by making his Test debut at the age of 21, went wicketless for 2 Tests and discarded. Scarred from the experienced, his game suffered and within five years he was dropped by Lancashire and playing club cricket as a specialist batsman.

Monty though is unfortunately shaping up to be a further unfulfilled England spinning potential unless he heeds the advice coming to him from all quarters. Monty’s figures currently stack up quite well – 117 test wickets from 34 matches at an average of 32.58. Not figures to set the world alight but steady figures at least. Indeed when measured up against Daniel Vettori, who is widely regarded as the best left arm finger spinner of the modern age, the stats are actually quite favourable: Vettori currently has 282 wickets from 88 matches at an average of 32.98. in fact, if one compares Monty’s with Vettori’s at the same stage in their careers Monty’s figures are remarkably adjacent to the Kiwi’s – Vettori had 119 @ 32.75. From this many will undoubtedly infer that Monty is on the right track, that he is following in the footsteps of Vettori, that he can be England’s Vettori.

This argument has its flaws though. Monty has more natural ability than Daniel Vettori, who is without a doubt one of the hardest workers and most committed cricketers on the scene at the moment. Monty has massive hands and the ability to get big turn off any pitch. If the pitch is responsive and offers a little bit of bounce as well as turn the Sikh of Tweak, as he is affectionately called, can trouble the world’s best. Monty is a match winner.

The problem though, is that match winners do not average 32 with the ball. Shane Warne averaged 25.

Glenn McGrath averaged 21.

Stuart Macgill – 29.

Anil Kumble - 29.

Bishan Bedi - 28.

Match winners average in the twenties and Monty Panesar averages 32 (and rising). The difference is Monty can be a match winner but he isn’t one often enough. For well over a year now cricket commentators have been comparing, quite rightly, Monty with Vettori because although their figures are very similar the Kiwi left armer is very much the better bowler and troubles batsmen on a more frequent basis.

Vettori, although he can’t spin the ball as big as Monty can nor can he extract as alarming bounce as his England counterpart, thinks about his bowling more. He uses more variation, he changes his pace subtly and isn’t afraid to toss the ball up. The way to extract the bounce that troubles batsmen playing spin is to get the ball to leap up unexpectedly and this is done by flighting the ball up higher so that it falls down more suddenly – more vertically. Not only does the dip make the ball harder to hit, it gives the ball more momentum to bounce back up again.

Vettori’s art of clever variation means that the batsman is always kept guessing; never quite sure how to play the next ball. Monty on the other hand, seldom varies his pace or trajectory. This allows the batsmen to settle into a rhythm, confident that the next ball will do something similar to the last. His stock ball is about 56-57mph when he should be looking to bowl about 52-53mph – a speed he rarely even bowls his slowest balls at. He rarely flights the ball and thus rarely troubles the batsmen with unexpected bounce.

So why make the comparison with Australia’s great former legspinner? Monty has been plodding along as England’s sole spinner for some time now and, despite frustrating many at his lack of variation, has survived on the back of a few bright performances on helpful pitches and the potential everyone sees in him. Yet today Monty played his first test match in tandem with another specialist spinner since the last time England toured India almost 3 years ago. Back then Monty, playing in only his third Test match, was significantly outbowled by 37 year old Shaun Udal who took 4/14 to bowl India out for 100 to win the Mumbai Test by 212 runs. This week, Monty played alongside debutant Graeme Swann and again he came out looking second best.

Back in 2006 the excuse will have been inexperience; today, many will call on his lack of match practice (Monty hadn’t played a first class match for almost 3 months). Match practice cannot be Panesar’s excuse for this is not a recent problem. For at least a year many in the media have been commenting on the metronomic and predictable nature of Monty’s bowling, Shane Warne even commented that Panesar hasn’t played 30 Test matches, he’s played 1 Test match 30 times. It is difficult to believe that the England management do not agree with the almost universal criticism of Monty’s bowling and thus the only conclusion can be that either the coaching staff are not taking it upon themselves to have a word in Monty’s ear and help him vary his bowling slightly or Monty is simply not listening.

One of the most important aspects of improving in sport is to learn from your mistakes, learn from your achievements and learn from those around you. It appears that Monty is not doing this; it appears that Monty looks at his 6/37 at Manchester this year against New Zealand, his 5/72 against Pakistan there in 2006 or 5/78 against Sri Lanka in Trent Bridge and tries to repeat it by bowling as he did there in every match. Unfortunately Monty, this won’t work – to succeed in international sport you need to adapt to your situation.

Daniel Vettori averages 32 but Daniel Vettori averages 32 in a different situation. Vettori plays for New Zealand – a team with, without wanting to allude any disrespect to the black caps, a vastly inferior depth in cricketing talent. One of the keys to successful bowling (and spin bowling in particular) is building up pressure and this is not something that can be achieved alone. Bowling with a below-average pace attack around him, Vettori cannot apply the same pressure to batsmen through his bowling as other teams can simply because as tidily as he bowls, runs will come easily more often than not at the other end.

Likewise, with New Zealand’s batting also leaving much to be desired, Vettori often has fewer runs to play with than Monty has and cannot apply scoreboard pressure nor cramp the batsmen with men around the bat.

It is for this reason that Vettori’s 32 average represents a failure to live up to talent that is a result of circumstances out of his hand but Monty’s 32 average represents a failure to live up to his potential that is a result of his own reluctance to learn from the advice regularly offered to him by very experienced old-pros.

Monty would perhaps prefer to bowl alone as the sole spinner in the England line up in future because, on the few times when he has had a spin twin, he has been shown to be still, after three years, not quite as good. The question is though, next time England play one spinner will that spinner be the left armer or the off-spinner who impressed so much on his debut this week? We’ll have to wait and see...


Slow scoring rate and Sehwag the key as England crash to defeat

"After day one, if you'd said to us we would be defending 250 on the final day, we'd have taken that” These were the words of Kevin Pietersen after his side had fallen to a six-wicket defeat to India in the first test in Chennai.

Instead of the 250 that Pietersen would have been happy with though, the hosts were set a rather commanding 387 target after Andrew Strauss had recorded centuries in each of England’s innings.

Speaking of England’s batting, it is my opinion that the mentality in the latter part of the second innings played a huge part in the tourists losing the test match. The scoring rate was abysmal with Strauss and Paul Collingwood taking comfortably 200 balls to record their centuries.

After England had ensured a first innings lead, there was a real chance to push on when they ended day three leading by 247 runs with seven wickets in hand. Now, I find it hard to criticise either of the centurions even though they were a bit too watchful. It was when these two were dismissed that I became really frustrated.

England should have assessed the situation and opted to attack. Instead, Andrew Flintoff and Graeme Swann decided to take up valuable bowling time by facing 32 balls for a combined total of 11 runs. Did they not want to win this game? Do they not understand the value of momentum in test cricket?

I suppose the only thing the slow scoring rate did was overshadow the fact that England had suffered yet another devastating collapse from 257-3 to 311-9 before they eventually declared. It was such a limp way to go into the fourth innings and it significantly undone a lot of the previous hard work.

Nevertheless, England were still backed by the cricket odds to win the game. It was muted that the pitch had caused the slow run-rate and that India would inevitably suffer the same fate. Hmm…I don’t think so. Up step Virender Sehwag.

The Indian opener completely turned the game on its head with a blistering innings late on day four. He scored 83 runs from just 68 deliveries as India went into the final day run chase on 131-1, 256 runs from victory.

It was an amazing performance from Sehwag and it was the innings that won his team the match in my opinion. Yes, Sachin Tendulkar’s unbeaten century and Yuvraj Singh’s 86 not out were important, but if it wasn’t for Sehwag they would have come to the crease in much different circumstances.

Had it been on 20-2 when Tendulkar walked out or had India been behind the rate, it could have worked out very differently. However, as it was the ‘little master’ came in with the score on 141-2 with plenty of time to score the remaining runs. A perfect setting for the leading test run-scorer of all time, it has to be said.

As for England, well Pietersen has admitted that the defeat was a ‘very bitter pill to swallow’. He does expect them to bounce back in the second test though, even though a series victory is now beyond them.

To finish with for today, let’s take a brief look at the positive and negative aspects of England’s performance.

Positives

Andrew Strauss – Excellent return to form after limited preparation.
Paul Collingwood – Typically battling display in the second innings.
Matt Prior – Looked composed at number seven and was tidy with the gloves.
Graeme Swann – Excellent test debut for him as he took four wickets.

Negatives

Ian Bell – Only 24 runs in the match. Time for a ‘rest’ I think.
Kevin Pietersen – Only five runs in the match and he must have had an influence about the negative strategy in the second innings.
Monty Panesar – Took three wickets in the first innings, but just doesn’t look confident enough for me. Vary it a bit Monty!

Overall, there were some decent individual performances, but the team display in the second half of the match wasn’t good enough. I’d like to see Owais Shah come in for Bell, but to be honest, cricket betting will be favouring a 2-0 India series win whatever happens.

By Thomas Rooney – A professional sports writer who blogs about England cricket


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