Tuesday, 31 March 2009

From Kabul to Centurion?

It began as a beacon of hope for refugees returning to a war-torn region. When an Afghan XI then thrashed a touring MCC team in Mumbai in 2006, there was excitement at the promise of swashbuckling opening batsman and legspinner, Mohammed Nabi, and fast bowler Hameed Hassan, immediately recruited as MCC Young Cricketers. Though a successful tour of England followed later that year, with the Afghans undefeated in matches against some strong county 2nd XIs, none could have foreseen the national team's whirlwind series of promotions through the divisions of the World Cricket League, with tournaments won in Jersey (Division 5), Tanzania (Division 4) and Argentina (Division 3) in 2008 and January 2009.

They are now in South Africa, one of 12 teams competing for 4 places in the 2011 World Cup - qualification would spark scenes of delight on the streets of Kabul, since cricket is the Afghan national game, having persisted even under the Taliban. Hardened by a month's training in Pakistan under the auspices of the great Javed Miandad, the team start the competition this Wednesday morning, with a must-win game against Denmark, one of its weaker teams. Realistically, they also need to beat at least one of Kenya, Holland, Bermuda and the U.A.E to qualify for the tournament's second phase, where they will face the likes of Ireland, Scotland and Canada, habitual qualifiers for the main tournament. Few would expect them to reach that stage, but then again few expected them to reach this one - find out here how far the Afghans' momentum can carry them.

A fuller preview of the tournament as a whole can be found courtesy of Will Luke at cricinfo, everyone's 2nd favourite cricket website, and the Afghans' progress can also be followed through star man Hameed Hassan's blog. The tournament's official site may also be of use..

Sunday, 29 March 2009

Suggestions for England's next coach?

As I write, a Dimitri Mascarenhas-inspired England are fighting back well in the first innings of the 4th one-dayer. It is worth noting, in passing, that Mascarenhas' ODI batting strike rate of 96.41 is the best in the England team and his economy rate of 4.53 second only to Flintoff's (in spite of the Chris Gayle pasting in the last match) and far ahead of his next best teammate - the statistics aren't the full story, but Shane Warne's perennially high estimation of Mascarenhas' potential in international one-day cricket may perhaps be justified.

The main significance of this match, though, is that it may determine whether Andy Flower can really be deemed a credible candidate for the vacant England coach's job - especially if, as seems very possible, the series ends today. With only one victory over the Windies this winter - and that largely down to the Duckworth-Lewis miscalculations of his opposite number, John Dyson - Flower can surely not compete with seasoned international coaches such as John Wright and Mickey Arthur, tipped for the job in the Sunday Times by John Stern, editor of the Wisden Cricketer. The (much-cited) strength of Flower's relationship with Strauss is all well and good, but how hard can it really be to get on with the affable England captain?

Yet I share Scyld Berry's scepticism that Arthur, on the brink of bringing South Africa to the pinnacle in both forms of the game, would choose to leave that challenge behind. In Arthur's interview on Radio Five Live this morning, he doesn't quite rule the possibility out (the very fact of giving the interview might be viewed as putting himself in the shop window), but seems to stress that he sees the England job as something he'd like to do further down the line (most probably after his contract with SA ends in 2012).

John Wright and John Dyson have had some success with India and Sri Lanka respectively, but both are at early stages of projects with New Zealand and West Indies. Stories of Wright's often confrontational dressing-room approach - he once took Sehwag by the collar after a reckless dismissal - might also work against him. With Graham Ford also ruling himself out and John Buchanan evidently enjoying the prospect of managing the Kolkata Knight Riders, it is hard to see what precisely the head-hunters' options are...

Any ideas?

Thursday, 26 March 2009

The great uncapped and life following art

Though it is, sadly, too late to make an entry for the Wisden England's Greatest Uncapped XI competition (in Tests), I'd nonetheless recommend a quick browse of the long list before the selection’s publication in the April issue, if only to be reminded of quite how shambolic 1990s selection was.

The striking thing, for me, about the list, was my lack of outrage on behalf of any modern player (except, very wishfully, Ali Brown). For much of the (almost) 15 years for which I’ve watched the national team, I was convinced that one county performer or another was being cruelly overlooked: Darren Maddy, Steve James, Robert Croft, Simon Brown, Mike Smith, Jon Lewis, Chris Adams and even Aftab Habib all seemed passed over too long for playing at unfashionable counties. Yet, as you’ll have noticed, all these players did, for better or, more often, worse, eventually play at least one Test.

The decade in which England sunk to the bottom of world cricket was ushered in by the selectors’ feat of picking 29 players in the 6-match 1989 Ashes series, with little improvement in consistency of selection until the introduction of central contracting. On the long list, then, are left the likes of Dougie Brown, Peter Bowler, Mark Wagh, Paul Johnson and Robin Martin-Jenkins, solid county pros certainly, but hardly prompting a tear in the eye at what might have been. At least latterly – Darren Pattinson aside – there has been method to selectors’ madness. Even if Cook and Bell have hung on for far too long.

Elsewhere in the cricketing world, life seems to be following art as plans are made for a New York tournament involving top (current and former) Pakistan players. This in the year after the publication of Joseph O’Neill’s (considerably over-hyped) novel Netherland, which tells the story of Trinidadian would-be Gatsby, Chuck Ramkissoon, whose dream is to set up New York’s first proper cricket stadium for an international tournament. Hopefully the entrepreneur Jay Mir’s plans will have happier results than Ramkissoon’s and I won’t provide the kiss of death for the second post running.

Monday, 23 March 2009

Spring Dreaming?

By the time this article has been checked by the Cricket Tragics roster of editors and proofreaders, Monday’s decision on where this year’s IPL is to be held may already have been made. With India unable to guarantee suitable security, the choice looks to be between England and South Africa.

Maybe this is the early spring sunshine speaking, but this could be precisely what English cricket and Giles Clarke need after the Stanford scandal and the quiet death of the EPL.

The IPL is the world of the ‘what if’: it gives Warne and now Pietersen the chance to show the captaincy skills that have been passed over at national level; it lets us see whether a top order of Gilchrist, Afridi, Gibbs and Symonds could top 300 in 20 overs (last year, an emphatic no for the out-of-pocket Deccan Chargers); whether old pros like McGrath can still contain the finest young talents (an equally emphatic yes so far); and, most importantly, whom Harbajhan can antagonise other than the Australians.

With the ICC World 2020 also coming up in June, England has the chance to show that it is better at hosting international cricket events than it was 10 years ago. This could, in turn, open the way to British grounds regularly becoming neutral Test match venues, a hobby-horse of Clarke’s for some time and a move that is surely key to the future of Test cricket: not only is Pakistan likely to remain a no-go area for the foreseeable future, but Test crowds outside England are often non-existent. The large British Asian community, a prime reason behind the near guaranteed Test ticket demand, currently seems, according to South African sources, to be a key factor swaying the BCCI, alongside the possibility of road (rather than air) travel between games.

At the risk of sacrilege, it may appear the biggest problem is that England’s very possible Ashes capitulation in the face of the Mitchell Johnson show could seem like an anticlimax.

Far from it: as Andrew Miller argues, the conflict between Sky, broadcaster of the West Indies Test and one-day series, and Setanta, holder of IPL rights, might be deadly. The hijacking of the county 4-day season (which begins, like the IPL, in mid-April) will surely also cause some sort of kerfuffle, though the first round of May’s Friends’ Provident Trophy might perhaps migrate to reserve grounds without too much fuss. And surely the weather ought to be an issue, particularly when a South African summer is the other option?

Perhaps, then, this will all remain in the world of the ‘what if’ and be forgotten, in a few days, along with the spring sunshine. Now, though, I’m not so sure – and I’m beginning the week excited, but worried about the primacy of Test cricket.