Wednesday, 29 April 2009

The Ashes plan or horses for courses?

To anyone following the build-up to today's England team selection for the first of the two upcoming Tests against the West Indies, that selection will have come as a surprise - neither Ian Bell, nor Michael Vaughan (around whom speculation has centred) made the 12-man squad, nor even Owais Shah, with Ravi Bopara preferred for the No. 3 berth, whilst Steve Harmison was passed over in favour of Durham teammate, Graham Onions, and Yorkshire's Tim Bresnan.

What is unclear about the selection, however, is how far it signals England's Ashes intentions. A top 7 of Strauss, Cook, Bopara, Pietersen, Collingwood, Prior and Broad may look adequate against the inexperienced West Indies attack, but it is surely a little lightweight to face the Australians. At No.8, Broad was a luxury, but, at No.7, he will shoulder run-scoring responsibility; Bopara scored one century against West Indies at No.6 (after being dropped on 4), but coming in first down against a top bowling attack on pitches with some life (Lord's aside) is quite a different matter. Putting two players in 'make or break' situations inevitably pressurises the rest of the batting line-up.

The 5-bowler selection may be a reflection of the difficulty of forcing a result at Lord's (the last 6 Tests there have been drawn), rather than a statement for the summer, although it's worth remembering that the team for the final Windies Test of the winter had the same balance. If this balance works well in the first Tests, it could well be kept for the summer, especially if Flintoff returns at No.7.

Whatever the side's balance, players I'd regard, at this stage, as inked-in Ashes certainties are Strauss(c.), Cook (reluctantly), Pietersen, Collingwood, Prior (with reservations), Broad and Anderson. With Swann or Panesar as the main spinner, this leaves 3 further places up for grabs: 2 batting and 1 bowling if England are being conservative, 2 bowling and 1 batting if caution is thrown to the wind, and one of each if Flintoff is fit.

The brusque message sent to Bell and Harmison, the most notable 'snubees', is that they are going to have to make themselves impossible to leave out between now and July, rather than simply returning to 'their' spots in the team. Bell, in particular, repeatedly puts being dropped down to a 3-month loss of form, rather than a failure, over a longer period, to do justice to his talent by scoring match-dictating centuries under pressure.

In the race for Ashes places, it's all to play for, which is just as it should be. Since Andy Flower doesn't have the luxury of a settled team, the best he can do is to stimulate competition for places and hope that the results will follow. It'll be interesting to see which players react best.

Sunday, 26 April 2009

In search of an IPL team to support

At the end of my last post, I began to ponder which team I'd be supporting in the second season of the Indian Premier League - a bizarre 8-franchise event pitching together teams composed of the world's best current players, the cream of India's up-and-coming crop and some from the 'Seniors' Tour'. As it enters the second of its five weeks in South Africa - complete with cheerleaders, mid-innings commercial breaks and the venomous (and hugely popular) Fake IPL Player blog (supposedly the work of a reserve for the Kolkata Knight Riders) - I am still none the wiser.

I was initially quite excited at the prospect of watching Kevin Pietersen turn around the fortunes of Bangalore Royal Challengers, who came 7th of the 8 teams last year and were widely ridiculed for picking a 'Test team', with a batting line-up including Rahul 'The Wall' Dravid and Jacques 'What's my average now?' Kallis. Not only was I very sorry that Pietersen was not England's captain for longer (I always fancied he could have emulated Viv Richards as a captain as well as a batsman), but I've also long felt that the best Test cricketers adapt their games best to the shorter formats - Dravid was one of the leading run-scorers last year and is currently 6th in the list this year. The problems with supporting the Challengers, though, are that Pietersen will be returning to England soon and I am unable to do anything other than enjoy the sight of Jacques Kallis' face as his bowling is hit around the park. They're also now bottom of the table.

Besides, the 'Royal Challengers' sobriquet is pretty poor really. In fact, half the teams have 'Royal' or 'Kings' as part of their name - a bit of a dearth of creativity in the marketing department, surely? By the 'name criterion', the Kolkata 'Knight Riders' are also a non-starter, I'm afraid, much as I like Chris Gayle and enjoy as I do the row brewing between John Buchanan and anyone who plays for him. If they'd been the 'Night Riders', I might have been intrigued..

The Delhi Daredevils are the only team to manage a vaguely decent name - hitting the jackpot (comparatively speaking) by being alliterative and appropriate to Twenty20 - and they seem to have assembled a team made for this format: Gambhir, Sehwag, De Villiers (scorer of the first century in this year's competition) and Dilshan are four of the most in-form batsmen in the world (in all formats), while Daniel Vettori is the world's best Twenty20 bowler and a fine captain. They have Owais Shah and Paul Collingwood in reserve, not to mention Glenn McGrath and Twenty20 sensation, David Warner. All this probably makes them the favourites to win the competition, which might well lose them my support, I'm afraid...

Which brings me nicely on to the underdog appeal of the Rajasthan Royals, or Team Warne, who won last year on a shoe-string budget (well, it's all relative - see here for a look at who was worth the spend last year). After losing Shane Watson, the Man of the Tournament last time, and Sohail Tanvir, its leading bowler, to the Pakistan-Australia series in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, things aren't going so well, with the Graeme Smith-led batting yet to fire (and Swapnil Asnodkar a shadow of last year's buccaneer). Dimitri Mascarenhas is doing marginally better than Warne with the ball (as things stand), but both have been trumped by the 18 year-old Indian left-armer, Kamran Khan, until recently, like me nowadays, predominantly playing tennis-ball cricket. Plucked from nowhere, he epitomises Rajasthan's lure - I wonder, though, whether liking them is a sign of my inner curmudgeon failing to embrace the IPL on its own terms, sticking two fingers up to its big-spending fantasy team ideal (in the first season, Rajasthan were actually penalised for not spending enough!).

As such, I'm going to need to look further afield and avoid curmudgeonliness in that respect. I'm not charitable enough, though, to overlook Chennai Super Kings signing Matthew Hayden. The Deccan Chargers have Adam Gilchrist and Herschelle Gibbs as their scintillating opening pair and are currently leading the way, after finishing bottom last year. Pragyan Ojha, an Indian slow left-armer, is proving one of the bowlers of the tournament so far, and Fidel Edwards' slingy action is highly effective in the death overs.

But Lasith Malinga, playing for the Mumbai Indians, is a more exciting slinger than Edwards and has been thrillingly unplayable thus far. And you can't beat the old masters, Jayasuriya and Tendulkar, for an opening pair. Sentiment and Sri Lankan exuberance, then, might just swing me Mumbai's way.

I've not quite persuaded myself yet - I'm still rooting for Rajasthan in their current run-chase against Delhi - but I'm certainly excited at the feast of cricket on offer. Hopefully, the more I watch, the less confused I'll be - I'll keep you posted...

Friday, 17 April 2009

One-day status and so nearly more

Afghanistan have earned one-day international status after a 21-run win against Namibia in their final Super Eight game, but missed out on World Cup qualification after finishing 6th in the group, behind qualifiers Ireland, Canada, Holland and Kenya.

A comfortable win for the Netherlands against Canada and a determined match-winning partnership between Collins Obuya and Thomas Odoyo for Kenya against Ireland meant that all my predictions about Net Run-rate came to naught.

But when Kenya were trembling at 96-4 (needing 209) and the Afghans had Namibia on their knees at 79-5 (having scored 244 themselves), it seemed for all the world as though World Cup qualification was there for the taking - I was willing the Afghan captain, Nowrooz Mangal, to bring back his attack's spearhead, Hameed Hasan, a favourite of this blog, and go for the jugular, the comprehensive win. In the back of my mind was the thought that a conscious decision may have been made not to risk losing the tantalising prospect of ODI status, yet this is almost certainly a churlish overestimation of the information available to this marvellously game outfit in the thick of the fray.

Instead of speculating as to what might have been, it is better to look forward to what the Afghans can achieve in 4 well-funded years, having seen what they managed in 2 years without resources. They will surely continue fulfilling Hameed Hasan's hope of "showing the world we are a good team and a country of friendly, peaceful people. We are not what people say, when they say we only fight. We are also good cricketers and [have] good talent, and want to prove to the world Afghanistan is a country full of people like us."

It may be hard to find such good reasons to support a team in the upcoming IPL.

Thursday, 16 April 2009

All to play for in the Qualifiers final round

After a far from disgraceful loss against Canada and a triumph against the fancied Scots, the Afghans' chances of qualification for the World Cup (in the top 4) or, failing that, one-day international status (the top 6) have come down to their very last match against Namibia on Monday morning - the official site is the place to watch events unfold live and to see video highlights from throughout the tournament.

The other fixtures in that last round of matches are Ireland v Kenya, Canada v Netherlands and Scotland v UAE, with the table currently standing as follows:-

TeamMatWonLostTiedN/RPtsNet RR
Ireland 6510010+0.860
Canada 642008+0.855
Kenya 633006+0.006
Netherlands 633006-0.019
U.A.E. 633006-0.813
Namibia 624004-0.022
Afghanistan 624004-0.316
Scotland 624004-0.576

Even though Ireland are guaranteed a place in the final of the competition, I'd be surprised if they eased up against Kenya, who will need something special from Steve Tikolo to bounce back from a huge 201-run defeat at the hands of Namibia. Scotland will be fighting tooth and claw to hold on to their one-day international status, a huge shock given the 6 professionals in their side - the criticism coming their way could well spur them to victory against the UAE.

If the Canadians then beat the Dutch - very possible given that their star player Ryan ten Doeschate returned to Essex for the start of the county season after his one-man run chase against Namibia - the five teams placed 3rd-7th will all have won 3 games and qualification will come down to Net Run Rate. If the Afghans post a hefty win against Namibia, they stand a chance of leapfrogging one of Kenya and Holland, the teams I've picked to lose, and securing a top-4 spot.

The problem is that almost nothing has gone as expected in this exciting, evenly matched tournament and the Namibians have been very solid in the tournament's second stage. Nonetheless, reading interviews with any of the Afghan players reminds one that many stranger things have happened in the past two years.

(If, after all that, you'd like someone else's predictions, Will Luke's on-the-spot assessment of the teams' chances can be heard here.)

Saturday, 11 April 2009

Afghans beat the Irish

I'm clambering back onto the bandwagon after the Hameed Hasan-inspired Afghans were inspired by to a famous victory over the previously untroubled Irish. With 5 wickets remaining and 33 runs required at a run a ball, the Irish were clear favourites, but 4 wickets in 9 balls from the Afghan pace bowler - 3 clean bowled - left them spectacularly derailed. (Read Hasan's take on the match here).

It was a must-win game for the Afghans, preventing them from falling adrift at the bottom of what is now a congested table (the Namibians and Scots also won). They are still in contention for World Cup qualification in the top 4 or, more realistically, a top-6 finish that would win them One-Day international status (the ICC High Performance Manager, Richard Done, here explains his blueprint for making the qualifying teams competitive in the 2 years leading to the next World Cup).

For anyone who would like to join me in following the tournament obsessively, the best place is, in fact, the official site, rather than cricinfo. Canada are up next for the Afghans on Monday morning - in the meantime, you can watch a video of the team's fitness programme or read about the documentary they've inspired. Or go out to Hyde Heath for some extra-cover catching practice from Tom.

Friday, 10 April 2009

Catching: Dravid's record and England's slips

Just a very short post to anoint a true 'cricket tragic' - reading the cricinfo blogs on a Friday night, I feel well placed to do so. The worthy whom I honour is Sambit Bal, editor of those blogs, who recently missed a flight to watch Rahul Dravid take his record-breaking 182nd Test catch - the previous holder was Mark Waugh, if you were wondering - against New Zealand.

(The bowler, for the record, was Zaheer Khan, India's best ever overseas and very possibly worthy of a place in a World XI until the recent flowering of Mitchell Johnson.)

Anyway, Dravid's record got me thinking about England's slip fielding. If Flintoff's bowling in the Ashes this summer (read Sambit Bal here on England's unhealthy obsession with the urn), I presume that the inconsistent Alistair Cook will be alongside Strauss and Collingwood in the slips (or at gully). Could someone who watched more of the West Indies series than me let me know what there is to worry about behind the wicket other than Matt Prior and quite how sorely Marcus Trescothick is missed?

Thursday, 9 April 2009

Cricket Nets

If the weather turns out okay this weekend, I'm planning to have a bit of a net down at the Heath.

Last year I noticed a bit of a tendency to drive in the air, so the off-season has seen me remodel my back-lift in order to attempt to rectify this problem. I think it will enable me to keep my front elbow high through the shot, thereby ensuring that the ball stays along the ground.

In addition, I’ve also made a couple of minor alterations to my bowling action: I’ve slightly shortened my approach to the crease and decided to lower my bowling arm a fraction in order to get more break from leg to off.

That’s the theory anyway – soon I'll put it into practice. I’ve got a feeling that this season might be a good one for yours truly. I need to really cement my place as Hyde Heath’s leading leg-spinning all-rounder under 25. So in concrete terms: at least one half-century, a five-wicket haul, and less than three dropped catches. Moderate, but attainable.

Anyone in the slightest bit interested in this? I thought not.

Wednesday, 8 April 2009

Not Michael Vaughan...

Earlier today, Afghanistan went through with a whimper to the Super Eight phase, after losing to the UAE by 5 wickets and seeing Bermuda beaten by the Dutch. They will start that phase from the bottom of the table and it is, alas, hard to see them making a great deal of movement from that position, with the ruthless Irish side awaiting them on Saturday and the second-placed Canadians on Monday.

Nonetheless, the World Cup Qualifiers have provided a welcome distraction from the movement of Michael Vaughan towards the forefront of media speculation ahead of this summer's home test series against West Indies and Australia. The traditional English season-opener between the MCC and the champion county, Durham, starts tomorrow, with attention focusing on the battle between MCC batsmen Ian Bell, Vaughan and Rob Key for the number 3 berth that Owais Shah failed to make his own in the West Indies.

Even the eminently sensible Lawrence Booth, one of the very best cricket writers around, has put the case for Vaughan's reinstatement, arguing that "England tend not to beat Australia by playing it safe." Certainly Andrew Strauss would be well-advised to take note of the importance of risk-taking - he has historically been ultra-conservative in setting a total, whether sending in James Anderson as nightwatchman against the West Indies this year or pressing on to his own century against Pakistan in 2006, and cannot afford to pass up any comparable opportunity to force the game against the Aussies - but this argument surely cannot be made to pick a man who has scored only 2 Test centuries in his last 17 matches. Booth may have a certain claim to authority, having been a firm advocate of Kevin Pietersen before the 2005 series, but Pietersen had just taken a one-day series against South Africa unprecedentedly by storm, whilst Vaughan has scored one century against Surrey in a pre-season tournament in Abu Dhabi.

If Vaughan is picked, as Booth suggests, for his tactical nous, the effect, ironically, would be to implement the second of the demands (the other being Peter Moores' departure) that brought about Kevin Pietersen's unceremonious downfall as captain. In short, it would be an absurd move that would highlight once again the absurdity of England's management since the end of the Indian tour. I would love to be proven wrong, since there are few finer summer sights than a Vaughan cover drive - there can, however, be few more aggravating than that of Vaughan walking off with his trademark quizzical glance pitchwards, stumps strewn everywhere.

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Down to earth for the Afghans

After their second consecutive win in the match against Bermuda, the Afghans have had their World Cup dreams rather punctured by defeats against Kenya and the Netherlands.

As well as leaving their qualification for the Super Eight stage in some doubt - if the Bermudans beat the Dutch in tomorrow morning's round of matches, the Afghans need to win or draw against the UAE - these defeats will be carried through to that stage if the Dutch and Kenyans both qualify, leaving the Afghans needing wins against Associate heavyweights, Ireland, Scotland and Canada, and feature writers wondering when they'll next get such good material (click here to read Will Luke's interview with Afghan batsman, Raees Ahmadzai, about cricket in the refugee camps).

Whether or not there is a fairytale ending to this leg of the Afghan story, their progress could do wonders for the game's development at Associate level, a matter of critical importance in view of the political problems prevailing in Zimbabwe and Pakistan and the stagnation, Shakib Al Hasan aside, of the Bangladeshi national side. Effectively, this leaves seven Test-quality sides still playing reasonably frequently: India, Australia and South Africa on the top table, Sri Lanka not far off, though still starved of regular series against top teams, and England kept off the bottom by generally poor - sportingly and economically - West Indies and New Zealand sides (an analysis borne out by the official ICC rankings).

The recent series between Australia and South Africa may have shown Test cricket at its see-sawing best and Dhoni's India is excitingly consistent, but there is a risk that this will become an isolated spectacle. The Afghans, then, may bring hope for more than one reason.

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Afghanistan's opening match

For those of you on tenterhooks as to how the Afghans fared in their first match, the result was a 5-wicket win at a canter, with fine all-round performances from Mohammad Nabi and, in particular, Karim Khan. In the finest village cricket tradition, the latter took off his wicketkeeping gloves to bowl (after a finger injury), only to scythe through the Danish batting line-up. A (slightly) fuller match report can be read here; you can also find the BBC leaping on the Cricket Tragics bandwagon here

Lying in wait for them next (on Thursday morning) are Bermuda and their 20-stone+ star spinner, Dwayne Leverock, fresh from a miserly spell of 10-5-13-1 in the defeat against the UAE (the Dutch were the group's other winners). Though Bermuda also have former Glamorgan batsman, David Hemp, in their ranks, their cricket has been in alarming decline since qualification for the 2007 World Cup and the team has lost their first two matches in South Africa - another eminently winnable game for the Afghans!