Friday, 31 July 2009

Finally on the field for the Ashes

Some incredulity greeted the selection of Shane Watson to open at Edgbaston, in view of his 4 ducks in 6 innings opening for Queensland and his Test average of 19.76, but his 62 yesterday (before being dismissed to Onions' first ball today) can have failed to please only the most partisan of English supporters.

With an injury list to rival Andrew Flintoff's in length and surpass it in variety - shoulder, calf, back, hamstring and food poisoning (he mistook it for a heart attack) have all caused him to miss matches - it's good to see him even make it onto the field. Add to that the fact that, at Cardiff, he spent longer signing autographs than any other sportsman that I've ever seen and I wasn't that unhappy to see him milk some pretty mediocre English bowling.

Watson on his usual side of the boundary rope

What remains to be seen is whether he can secure himself an opening or, more likely, top 6 Test berth longer term, injuries permitting of course.

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Edgbaston - final preview

Plenty of predictions are being made about Thursday's Edgbaston Test - that there will be problems starting the game (because of a water-logged outfield), problems continuing it (because of the rain forecast) and problems bringing it to a positive conclusion (because the pitch is a bowler's graveyard) - but, after the vast swing in the sides' fortunes between Cardiff and Lord's, it is impossible to know what next to expect this Ashes summer.

My feeling at both Cardiff and Lord's was that England's batting was careless and vulnerable, but they have topped 400 in each 1st innings: no disaster. And one change to a bowling attack that had struggled to take 6 wickets in 180 overs at Cardiff enabled them to take all 20 in 170 at Lord's. Sure, the overcast conditions helped Anderson to swing the ball in the 1st innings but Hughes, Haddin, Johnson, Katich and North all fell to attempted hooks and pulls. A strange series, then, so far.

In my book, the toss is a crucial one: if Ponting, a bad 'Punter' at Cardiff and Lord's, can make it 3rd time lucky and Australia get first use of an Edgbaston featherbed, they may be able to exert some proper first innings pressure on England's batting line-up, with particular question marks, to my mind, lingering over Ravi Bopara (clearly struggling for form in the Lord's 2nd innings), Ian Bell and Matt Prior. Prior's 2 Test centuries have both been scored against the West Indies and both were the 3rd of the England innings; it is one thing playing cameos with a declaration looming, quite another proving yourself a number 6 under pressure.

A similar argument can be deployed against Ian Bell, whose 8 Test centuries have always been the 2nd, at least, of the innings in which they were scored. That could potentially be misleading - accusations levelled at Bell that he has often 'slipstreamed' Kevin Pietersen show a lack of understanding of the differences between their batting styles - but his conversion rate of 8 centuries from 27 fifties (similar to Cook's 9 from 29, contrast Strauss 18 from 32, KP 16 from 31) is a poor one, a statistic that does not lie.

So make sure you're tuned in at about 10.45 tomorrow - if play is to start on time - since Andrew Strauss' flip of the coin could perhaps be a crucial one.

Monday, 27 July 2009

Breaking America?

Several months ago (see my March 26th post), I was excited to read of a planned American Premier League (APL) Twenty20 tournament to be held in New York in October. That particular tournament is now unlikely to go ahead, but the US cricket association has, unlike the APL’s organisers, received backing from the ICC (cricket’s main governing body) and is now in search of suitable partnerships to bring about the event.

Watch this space (as ever!), but don’t hold your breath even if sponsors and broadcasters are found. As Mike Atherton explained in a particularly fine Times column back in April, cricket’s best chance to become the big American sport came in the mid-19th century, when it rivalled baseball for popularity with clubs in 22 states. Once the rules of baseball were formalised in 1857 and the game spread to the South in the 1860s' Civil War, however, it grew rapidly. In 1905, the Mills Commission – set up to ascertain baseball’s origins – established the myth that it was a purely American invention, rather than evolving from (English) rounders, and it has been the US national sport ever since.

Cricket, by contrast, was marginalised and kept alive primarily by English, Indian and West Indian expats. Businessmen such as Sir Allen Stanford have attempted to create a market, but there has been little or no success as yet. In Joseph O'Neill's novel, Netherland, the dodgy Trinidadian entrepreneur, Chuck Ramkissoon, dreams of staging an international tournament in New York, but it remains a dream or, in O'Neill's words, "a metaphor for the boundaries of American perception." It is no accident that the hero of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, often termed the great American novel, has a business connection with the man said to have fixed baseball's 1919 World Series.

Turville Park vs HHCC

Good Lord, it’s nearly the end of July and time for our first away match of the season. How would Hyde Heath fare more than a hundred yards from The Plough? Well, reasonably well actually. The opposition were Turville Park and their ground really is beautiful (apparently it’s Jeremy Paxman’s favourite) - it was just a shame the weather was so glum.

Hyde Heath’s skipper for the day was Matt Simms, no doubt easing himself back in to the job before the challenges of Tour. He won the toss and, following in the footsteps of all the Heath greats, elected to field.

With overcast conditions and a brand new cherry we expected early wickets and, despite a rather depleted bowling attack, we were not disappointed. Jez bowled beautifully – he was accurate, canny and extracted just enough movement to trouble all the batsmen. His 5 wicket haul broke the back of the Turville innings. And there were some memorable dismissals: he set up one quality-looking player with two in-swingers before getting one to hold its line and clip the off-bail. Another batsman was completely deceived by a slower-ball off-cutter, which then darted back to bowl him through the gate.

At the other end James Shrimpton provided excellent support and was unlucky not to take more than two wickets. As so often, I came on at the end and picked up a cheap tail-end wicket - a nicely flighted leg-break that lured the batsman into the drive, turned a bit and lobbed to gulley. Before you laugh though, this fellow wasn’t just some hapless 10 year-old. He was probably about 75, and utterly shotless.

We then made a meal of chasing the target of 95, with Dom, Will, Tim Barnsley and me all perishing to pretty average shots. At least Tim had anchored things with 24 before top-edging their leg-spinner to cover. Shrimpy continued his good match with a sensible innings, without which the Heath may have struggled. His driving off the back foot was particularly brilliant, combining technique with some serious power.

Controversy came when Anooj was struck on the boot before he’d scored. I, umpiring at the time, had no problems with giving it out, but he was less than impressed. Oh well, a beer later and all was forgotten (I hope!) So the Heath scraped home by two wickets. Next stop, Tour!

Australia's Edgbaston selection

For the first time in quite a while in an Ashes Test build-up, Australia are wrestling with more difficult selection quandaries than England, who can only wait upon the results of Andrew Flintoff’s various painkilling injections (if Flintoff isn’t fit, Stuart Broad’s batting definitely puts him ahead of Harmison, though he is an almost certain pick anyway). The Australians, by contrast, have serious question marks over the two great success stories of their series win in South Africa, the prodigy Phillip Hughes and the man of that series, Mitchell Johnson.

Johnson’s radar went completely awol on the first morning at Lord’s, putting Australia on the back foot for much of the rest of the game, whilst Hughes has had some problems on that back foot against deliveries into the body from top fast bowlers such as Andrew Flintoff, Steve Harmison and, err, David Wigley of Northamptonshire. Johnson’s travails are the more worrying, especially since his yips continued at Northampton, where he went for nearly 6 an over and took just one (tail-end) wicket. Hughes did score second innings runs and has, as far as I’m concerned, had only one bad match at Test level – having scored Test runs against the likes of Makhaya Ntini, Morne Morkel and Dale Steyn, he can't be that vulnerable against the short ball.

If the Australian selectors choose to back Johnson, though, it would be quite a risk to do so as part of a 4-man attack, which makes Shane Watson that bit more likely to play in the top order (probably in Hughes’ place). If Stuart Clark (23 overs, 4-74 at Northampton) replaces Johnson, the team will probably remain otherwise unchanged. I’d definitely make that change, mindful of Clark’s vice-like hold over Alistair Cook and Andrew Strauss in 2006-7, but Tim Nielsen has remained bullish in backing Johnson. Surely they won’t actually keep the same team, though? Let me know your thoughts!

Thursday, 23 July 2009

Pen portraits - Shahid Afridi

Photos of Shahid Afridi at the crease tend to show the vast follow through of his bat over his shoulder, its arc often sufficient to lift him a little off the ground. The power of the village blacksmith is twinned with a surprising litheness of foot that takes the scythes of his bat beyond the merely agricultural and gives them the mark of the trained assassin. And he bowls well too. A bewildering variety of leg breaks and his trademark quicker deliveries, all delivered with a frenetic action that wouldn't be out of place in a school playground.

This last image neatly captures an aspect of Afridi's appeal. Born in the tribal areas of Pakistan near the Afghan border - his tribe is a powerful one - he first burst onto the international scene at the age of 16 back in 1996 with this spectacular 37-ball hundred against Sri Lanka, the fastest ever in internationals, and has retained the boyish exuberance in his game ever since.

It can't be easy knowing that you're unlikely to better something you achieved at 16 (though he has also hit a 45-ball hundred against India, also on youtube) and Afridi has been a bit of an enigma ever since, not helped by the constant infighting surrounding Pakistani team selection. It is testament to the man management skills of the late Bob Woolmer that, as Pakistan coach, he was able to coax the best out of Afridi in Test cricket, with consecutive centuries against India in 2006 following fine performances against England that winter - in the 2nd Test, he scored 92 at over a run a ball and took 4-95.

Yet that Test also saw him incur a ban following his bizarre decision to scuff up the pitch with the world's TV cameras watching. More than once he has announced and then rescinded his retirement from various forms of the game and he often seems to have strange ideas about where his strengths lie. In the last year or so, he decided he was primarily a spinner and best used down the order in one-dayers - when he was moved up to No.3 for the semi-final and final of the Twenty20 World Championship earlier this summer, he promptly produced match-winning 50s. The striking thing about his innings in the final was quite how measured it was, quite how carefully tailored to the match situation, quite how un-Afridi.

Is this, then, to be the beginning of the mature phase of Afridi's career? For the moment, characteristically, he's keeping us guessing, taking a fortnight's leave instead of playing in the Sri Lanka Test series. That, though, is one reason that 'Boom Boom', as he's known, is so exciting: you never know what's coming next, boom or bust.

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Lord's - some photos and a very little history

The next stop in this Ashes series that you may just have heard about lately is Lord's, the 'home of cricket', which, since you ask, is St John's Wood, NW8. In the spirit of evangelism, I thought that I might put a few photos of the ground up and maybe even write a little bit about it to try to give some idea of what all the fuss is about.

The pavilion in pre-season serenity

Cricket has been played on this pitch since 1814, when the wine merchant and entrepreneur Thomas Lord moved the Marylebone Cricket Club, or MCC (formerly of Dorset Square, NW1 and White Conduit Fields, N1), to St John's Wood.

The MCC, founded in 1787, had shortly after established a Code of Laws for the game of cricket (as it did for lawn tennis just under a century later), very necessary in view of the sums aristocrats of the time were gambling upon it. It became and remained for a long time the game's central administrative body as its laws were adopted throughout the country, the empire and the world (though attempts to break the American market continue to meet obstacles).

In view of this history, it is perhaps not surprising that the club built up quite a reputation for stuffiness, refusing until 1997 to allow women to be members or to enter the pavilion. Its 20-year waiting list means that, in some respects, it can be slow to change and that its members are prone to wear the club's colours of red and gold as much as possible when finally accepted.

He was wearing the tie too

Yet the MCC is now very forward-thinking in its support for and tours of emerging cricketing countries around the world, from Argentina to Afghanistan, the latter one of the most notable success stories over the past few years. And at one end of Lord's itself stands the rather space-agey media centre, built for the 1999 World Cup.

The media centre, a magnificent viewpoint

And, though it is rather a cliché , it is this combination of tradition and modernity that makes Lord's such a magnificent venue for cricket. The teams make their way out from the pavilion through the Long Room, filled with paintings from cricket's centuries of history and the members' applause, and are greeted by the media centre, the advertising hoardings and a chanting crowd 30,000-strong. The familiar slope of the pitch remains even as ever more inventive strokes, such as Kevin Pietersen's switch hits, are played upon it.

The only problem for tomorrow? Touring teams tend to rise to the occasion: the Australians have not lost there since 1934.

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Cardiff review, Lord's preview

As those of you following the Tragics on Twitter will know, I was happily (though anxiously) amongst the spectators in Cardiff on the first and last days of the opening Ashes Test - one of the more swiftly snapped up of my girlfriend's date suggestions.

Broad sunshine swathed Test cricket's newest ground, picturesque and filled to capacity, as the Welsh Assembly's £3.2m bid for the match was rewarded by a finish as fine as any of those in the famed 2005 series (especially reminiscent, with roles reversed, of Old Trafford). The controversy surrounding Cardiff's selection as a venue ahead of the more established Test grounds in Durham and Manchester was largely forgotten as a well-organised week was capped by Paul Collingwood's defiant, intelligent innings and unexpected heroics from England's (or Britain's) last pair.

Paul Collingwood after his 1st innings dismissal

An enjoyable couple of days, then, and England's best of the match, but worrying nonetheless. Australia's attack was without Brett Lee or Stuart Clark, their two most experienced bowlers, and few difficulties had been anticipated from Nathan Hauritz, the off-spinner with a first-class bowling average of 45.84. Yet England's batting line-up compiled not one century in two innings on a benign surface, whilst watching 4 Australian batsmen of the 7 who came to the crease reach three figures. Admittedly, Ben Hilfenhaus did deliver the best performance of his short Test career, maintaining a tight line and getting good movement, and was definitely underbowled on the last day (15 overs to the less impressive Johnson's 22), whilst Siddle provided bustle and short-pitched menace and Hauritz steadily grew in confidence after a nervy first 5 overs.

England's batsmen, however, got out to some pretty ordinary shots. Enough has already been written about Pietersen's horrific sweep when set in the first innings, but too little about Prior and Flintoff perishing to expansive drives against the new ball late on the first evening, after their partnership of 86 had just about wrested back the initiative. Prior's dismissal in the second innings, attempting to cut an off-spinner on a sharply turning pitch, was also frustrating: so many of his runs have been scored against the West Indies (739 in 10 matches, as against 396 from his other 9) that it is doubtful whether he is a sound option at No. 6 against better sides. Strauss looked very composed in each innings, before indecision (against a Johnson short ball) and a poor decision (to cut at Hauritz twice in a row) cost him. He needs to stamp his authority on this series with the bat sooner rather than later.

As concerning as the batsmen's failure to capitalise having played themselves in (the first 10 English batsmen reached double figures in the 1st innings) were the workings over that Bopara, in the 1st innings, and Pietersen, in both innings, received. Bopara was understandably very scratchy after being struck in the gullet by a Siddle lifter, but Pietersen was exceptionally jumpy, even for him, at the start of each innings and looked all at sea right through his 20-minute stay on the final morning, the result, very likely, of a more fragile ego than he lets on. My confidence in Cook to improve his 32% conversion rate of 50s to 100s - as he must - remains slight.

Ben Hilfenhaus in his delivery stride on the final day

In my view, then, there is certainly a case for lengthening the batting order for the livelier pitch at Lord's and including Bell at No.6, where he has had some success. This decision may be forced upon England if Flintoff is injured, but should arguably be embraced regardless. The problem with that, of course, is that one cannot rely on Flintoff's body holding up as part of a 4-man attack. Perhaps, as Mike Atherton suggests, England should be prepared for life without Flintoff: after all, since the 2005 Ashes, they have won 12 of 25 Tests without him and only 3 of 23 with him. It is hardly likely that they will be this ruthless though.

Although Monty Panesar will surely be left out for the Lord's match, it is very difficult to make further predictions as to the bowling line-up in view of the doubts over Flintoff's fitness, Harmison's temperament and Broad's role. Either Harmison or Flintoff is needed to provide the steepling bounce that seems likely to account for the phenomenon Phillip Hughes (Stuart Broad was misused in attempting this), although it is just possible that Onions may remain ahead of Harmison in the pecking order. Anderson and Swann must surely retain their places, whilst the selectors will be unwilling to drop Broad after one bad match in a fine summer.

Which leaves me with Broad, Swann, Harmison (or perhaps Onions) and Anderson, with Bell's inclusion depending on Freddie's fitness. For the Australians, the selection is comparatively straightforward and the same team will line up at Lord's, health permitting. I'm dreading Mitchell Johnson's rediscovery of the inswinger that made him man of the series in South Africa and was conspicuous by its absence in Cardiff. England's best hope is for Strauss to find the form and the mettle he showed this winter.

Do let us know what you think about the selection, particularly on the bowling front...

Monday, 13 July 2009

HHCC vs Chesham Bois

A pretty clinical victory for Hyde Heath this Sunday, apart from one notable exception, about which more later. The opponents this week were local rivals Chesham Bois – some readers might be interested to note that I was born and raised in Chesham Bois, as was Dominic Haddock and Nick’s father-in-law lives there, but, in all honesty, very few are likely to care too much.

Myself and Henry Capper turned up rather late – courtesy of an irritating little TfL fellow named Andrew – and Hyde Heath were in the field, so I can only assume that Charlie had won the toss. We put together a strong all-round display – James Aird was again the major threat early on but Jez was unlucky to finish wicketless after beating the bat with great regularity. Airdy was also unlucky not to have their opening batsman LBW for single figures – especially as he went on to hold the visitors’ innings together with a hard-working 89.

I was given a 10-over spell by Charlie and, with the wicket turning quite sharply, managed to take two wickets for 39, including, as so often, a 14 year-old number 11. At the other end Simon Napier-Munn was swinging it both ways and bowling with great accuracy. He picked up three wickets, including two in two balls, but our one bad moment of the day cost Napes a fourth. He bowled the ball, the right-handed batsman chipped it in the air straight to short wicket – a gentle little underarm lob. Capper – gloveless thanks to his criminal ticket-avoidance activities earlier in the day – somehow, to general amazement, shelled it. Wow. Surely this year’s Cack Award is in the bag?

So, only 154 for victory, and a solid opening partnership – 41 for Capper, 39 for Richard Cousins – did the bulk of the work. But with the target in sight, Hyde Heath decided to jazz things up with a little middle-order wobble. It was left to James Shrimpton with another excellent innings of 46 not out and Jez to see us home.

While all this was going on there was also apparently some cricket going on in Cardiff. Congratulations to Paul Collingwood, James Anderson and Monty Panesar for securing the draw. Check out the Cricket Tragics live Twitter coverage of the nerve-jangling 5th day. Sadly, England are looking pretty toothless right now. And I can’t see things changing that much before Lord’s, a venue where England haven’t beaten Australia in a Test since 1934.

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Cricket Tragics on Twitter

Cricket Tragics’ very own Tom Cameron has somehow bagged himself tickets to the first day of the long-awaited 2009 Ashes. And guess what? He’s only gone and joined Twitter to keep you folks up to date on all the action.

Check it out here:

Cricket Tragics on Twitter – now that’s what I call new media-tastic.

Monday, 6 July 2009

HHCC vs Ballinger

And now the big one: old rivals Ballinger arrived at the Heath in what was being billed by many as the clash of the Titans. We were taking this one so seriously that some of the team even had net practice on Friday evening and Saturday afternoon. Preparation of the highest calibre.

Charlie was back to captain the side but for the second week running we lost the toss and were asked to bat. Their openers bowled tidily but we made a reasonable start before Capper was bowled by a good one and Haddock played one shot too many and was caught (I forget where) to end an innings that some were reffering to as ‘flighty’. This paved the way for James Shrimpton to play his finest innings of the season so far, an elegant but hard-hitting 75. He almost single-handedly held the Hyde Heath innings together with a series of brilliantly timed cover drives and flicks through mid-wicket.

Support came in patches, but when Shrimpton was dismissed the innings began to falter until James Aird and Brad Holt came together for an entertaining pre-tea partnership. Aird – whose 34 came of just 17 deliveries – was instrumental in getting the Heath up to a defendable total of 212. For those of you interested in such matters, I was feeling decidedly sketchy for most of the day and got caught behind chasing a wide out-swinger for 4.

Nick bowling to a 14 year-old

When the Ballinger openers came out, we were surprised by the fact that one of them was only 14. We might have assumed we’d get him out quickly but it was not to be. They put on an opening stand not far off 100 and suddenly our total didn’t look so big after all. The Heath were looking uncharacteristically flat – the bowling tidy enough, but the energy levels in the field well down on the usual standard. Several catches went down, including a complete shocker where Charlie and I each left the other to take responsibility. The bowler – Jez – was distinctly unimpressed.

But Brad eventually got the breakthrough and then it was over to James Aird. Coming after his entertaining innings, he bowled with hostility and control to tear through the Ballinger middle order and return figures of 6 for 16, his best for the Heath.

Bowled him!

With two wickets needed and four overs to go, victory was within our grasp. Torn between recalling Brad or yours truly to try and grab a wicket, Charlie opted, to my surprise, for me. When the bastman charged down the wicket and got stumped it looked like an inspired decision. But in the end we couldn’t quite force the final breakthrough, and the match was drawn with Ballinger 9 wickets down. Both teams had played some good cricket (and also some rubbish cricket) so perhaps, in the end, a draw was the right result.