Thursday, 12 November 2009

Change of plan

To the literally tens of people who read this blog,

Thank you for visiting, especially if you've kept coming back for more (honourable mention to messers J Hayward and C Staniforth-Endsor). In the past week or so, I have been lucky enough to be asked by Will Luke to contribute regularly to his excellent blog, The Corridor. I'm exceedingly lucky to have this opportunity.

If you haven't already, please check it out. Will was formerly an assistant editor at Cricinfo, and now works for ESPN in general. As yet, I'm unsure what's going to happen to Three Lions Cricket - I may post on it from time to time - but for now, you can follow me over on The Corridor.

Many thanks for reading,


Saturday, 31 October 2009

Pietersen Beginning To Talk The Talk Again

Kevin Pietersen gave a typically frank and honest interview to The Times yesterday, and - crucially - it was positive too. Because that's a word that's been slipping down the long list of adjectives aimed at England's best player in recent times.

Will Luke alluded to it in a recent article, the man himself in yesterday's piece; Kevin Pietersen was beginning to fall out of love with the game.

In that respect, writes Alison Rudd, his recent injury can be viewed as "a necessary evil... The combination of politics [the captaincy debacle] and playing while in pain left Pietersen wondering about his relationship with the sport." In his own words, he "hasn't particularly enjoyed playing cricket" in 2009.

But, as 2010 rears into view, his injury heals and his homeland beckons, his love for the game is set to be restored.

"I can't wait. I haven't been at my best since India last year. These last three months have cleared my brain and my thoughts," he said.

Despite the recent Ashes win, England's batting needs to be much stronger in South Africa. A fit and firing KP not only improves the top order through his mere inclusion, but also through the effect he can have on his teammates. It will be great to see him back.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Limited Overs Pump Up The Volume, But Test Is Best

Both Patrick Kidd and Will Luke - authors of the two best cricket blogs out there - have hit the bail on the head in recent posts regarding the sheer volume of cricket currently played on the elite circuit.

As Luke points out, very rare is the occasion when one logs onto cricinfo to find an empty Live Scores box. The top players are in demand like never before - from their national boards and a plethora of globalising club franchises. Not to mention their families back home.

I have no problem with the Champions League or the IPL - which is good, because they represent the direction in which the sport is heading. But, while some see this uncertain path as exhilarating, and others vulgar, all agree it must be managed carefully. This is equally true of the international game.

Scrapping seven match ODI series, as advocated by Patrick Kidd, would be a start. Doing away altogether with pointless series, like the one currently being played between India and Australia, is a necessity.

Cricket administrators are dipping their toes into a sea of overkill. Whilst a balance is sought between international and franchise cricket, mistakes are bound to be made and learned from. The one certainty I am taking from all this, is the supreme reign of the longest from of the game.

Whilst the quantity of one-day cricket around the world increases, so too does my yearning for, and appreciation of, Test cricket.

I'm looking forward to the two T20Is and five ODIs on the upcoming tour of South Africa, but they're the warm-up act. The appertiser. The spat before the war. When the floodlights go down, the cricket whites come out.

Unlike the shorter forms of the game, Test matches provide a platform on which, in theory, any type of player can thrive, but in reality only the best do. They create heroes of greater stature, longer lasting memories and more strands of narrative.

The limited overs debate will rage on. The more it's talked about and tinkered with, the more it will serve to underline the brilliance of the purest form of the game.

Friday, 23 October 2009

TLC 'End Of Summer Awards', Pt 2

Individual One-day Performance of the Summer - Eoin Morgan v South Africa, Champions Trophy

Too few performances to choose from, and most of the aptly named shortlist came from this match, but it was Morgan's knock which carried the most significance. His 67 came off 34 balls, including five 6s at a strike-rate of 197.05. Whilst not an altogether unheard of feat in world cricket, it was an innings rarely achieved by an Englishman - ok, Irishman - and came against the hosts and No 1 ranked team in the world. Along with Collingwood's performances in that tournament, and Wright's potential, it showed that maybe England do have the modern-day firepower to match the Albie Morkel's of this world.

Unsung hero of the Summer - Kevin Pietersen

I whole-heartedly supported Kevin Pietersen's actions at the start of the year. They cost him the job of England captain, and Peter Moores that of England coach, but in the long run, I felt that only good could come of it. I was wrong about the long run bit. The new coach and captain, plus Pietersen's attitude since the affair, enabled an outstanding turn-around and an Ashes result which would not have been previously possible.

An honourable mention to the selectors, who had an excellent Ashes series. They kept faith with Bopara and Broad, giving them every chance of a form recovery during the Ashes, and comprehensively won the 'battle of the gambles' - the inclusion of Trott vs the omission of Hauritz - at the Oval.

Best Opponent of the Summer - Ricky Ponting

Quite simply didn't deserve to become the first Australian captain to lose the Ashes twice in England since Billy Murdoch. Vilified by the English crowds for being too good, he finally garnered the reception he deserved at the Oval, during a match in which he demonstrated admirable humility. Not at his absolute best with the bat, his wicket is still the most prized of any Australian, while his captaincy is remarkably underrated in his homeland. Class act.

Best thing about the Summer - England's character

One thing this England side certainly have, is character. They bounced back from leadership implosion and Test series defeat in the Caribbean to win the Ashes, unthinkable embarrassment against Holland to beat Pakistan, disaster at Headingley to triumph at the Oval, and so on. Now Flower's job is to make such recovery unnecessary; but should we go 1-0 down in SA, all is far from lost.

Worst thing about the Summer - Devaluing of the England v Australia Contest

This occurred during the 6-1 post-Ashes ODI series defeat, and was nothing to do with the score, which merely devalued the ODI format. As the 50-over circus lumbered around the country, it threatened to take the shine off an otherwise memorable summer of anglo-antipodean battles.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Three Lions Cricket 'End Of Summer Awards', Pt 1

Time - during this well-earned international break - to review the summer of 2009. Only one team in the world could lose to Holland then triumph over Australia in the space of a few months.

Man of the Summer - 1. Andrew Strauss

A stunning summer, in fact, a stunning past 18 months. Grew into captaincy - improvement between Cardiff and Oval Tests was highly significant. Top scored in the Ashes (ave: 52.66) and ensuing ODI series (ave: 38.14). Married great batting and brilliant captaincy in an Ashes series; even Michael Vaughan didn't manage that.

2. Matt Prior

Finally, a worthy successor to Alec Stewart. Only just behind Strauss in terms of consistency during the Ashes. Has become a genuinely world-class keeper in remarkably short space of time. England conceded 106 fewer extras than Australia during the Ashes. Only criticisms being a moderate high score of 63 from seven Tests this summer (Ashes high score: 61) and an inability to consistently transfer Test batting cameos to one-day arena.

3. Andy Flower

Just brilliant. Comfortable in underdog role - a product of his playing career - but aiming to guide England to a level where they can dispense with the tag. Promising early signs of a special working relationship with Strauss. Showed his humility by opting out of the Oval victory lap.

Moment of the Summer - 1. Flintoff running out Ponting at the Oval.

A script writer would dare not pen it: Ponting run-out? Flintoff heroics? Been done before. But this was how it was meant to end. With his body restricting his bowling, Freddie, at wide mid-on, defied it one last time. The purest form of theatre, no-one could have predicted it. Except it didn't really surprise us. Flintoff's last offering of utter perfection to the Test match scene.

2. Panesar and Anderson Holding On At Cardiff

A monumental passage of cricket in the context of the rest of the summer. Few figures inspire less confidence with the bat than Monty Panesar, but his contribution that day - along with those of Anderson and Collingwood - were the first glimpses of the steely character which was to prove the difference between the sides.

3. Swann's Ashes Winning Wicket

Always a sweet occurrence, but made even more sickly by the the fact England were denied an on-field winning moment in 2005. I'm sure Swann doesn't mention it. Much.

Team Performance of the Summer - 1. The Oval Test (Ashes)

Edges out the Lord's Test purely because it followed the Headingley debacle, which, though both were bad, was far worse than the performance at Cardiff. An outstanding team effort, with argument-ending contributions from Stuart Broad and Jonathan Trott.

2. v Pakistan, World T20

A win, under huge pressure, against the eventual winners. Highly commendable due to the unthinkable embarrassment defeat would have caused. Going out of your own tournament after three days, before some teams have even played a game, would have rivaled World Cup '99 - when we exited the tournament before the official team song was released.

3. v South Africa, Champions Trophy

So they can do it. And how. The hosts barely knew what had hit them as England compiled a Shah-and-Morgan-inspired 323. Strauss said it was the best he'd seen England bat in a 50-over game, and, backed-up by sound bowling, it can act as a model performance to aspire to.

Individual Test Performance of the Summer - 1. Strauss at Lord's (Ashes)

The innings which announced England's arrival in the series as a team with pretensions of winning it. Batted for a whole day, and put on 196 with Cook for the first wicket. Fell early on day two, for 161, but had made the decisive contribution of the match by then, despite Flintoff taking the man-of-the-match honours on day five.

2. Broad at the Oval

Kudos to the selectors for sticking with him, kudos to the man himself for the decisive spell of the series. Stuart Broad won the Ashes for England in 12 overs, on day two of the last Test, during a spell of 5-37 - which included four wickets in 21 balls. Stunning stuff, and a 2005-shaped dose of excitement.

3. Trott at the Oval

A scarcely believable debut. So many parallels with KP's 158 four years ago. Siddle looked for all the world to have him caught behind off the first ball of day three, just like McGrath seemed to have snaffled Pietersen first ball in '05, but two great umpiring decisions enabled two historic innings - Trott's every bit as good as his countryman's. Actually, better. As Scyld Berry put it, "one of the all-time best England debuts."

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

England Issued Stuart Broad Warneing

Watching him bowl was an unforgettable experience, listening to him commentate is refreshing, and reading his articles is always worthwhile - even if it's sometimes advisable to have a bowl of salt to hand, with fingers in pinching position.

Shane Warne, in his Times column today, has warned England that they are in danger of 'ruining' one of their most promising young stars, Stuart Broad, providing he bats - as looks likely - at No 7 in South Africa.

He said: "If England want to ruin Stuart Broad, it strikes me that they may be going the right way about it. [Batting at No 7] could be the worst thing to happen to the guy.

I'm not bagging Broad, because he has the makings of being a good player. He is a decent bowler and a reasonable batsman - just not an international all-rounder. By thinking that he is, England risk taking his focus away from what he is learning to do well: first and foremost to support frontline bowlers, then to chip in with runs."

I'd apply the pinch of salt to the "makings of a good player" part. Broad has proved a match winner on several occasions in his short career so far, making important contributions with bat and ball. He's one of England's good players, the question is, how much better can he get?

If Warne drew on his own experience in writing this article, then it's barely applicable. He played in Test teams who almost always named their wicket-keeper at No 7. The second half of his Test career coincided with the emergence of a certain Adam Gilchrist, who single-handedly changed the job spec of the wicket-keeper forever, in making 12 hundreds from No 7 and even one from No 8.

Gilchrist's predecessor in the Australia team, and their keeper/No 7 for the first half of Warne's 145 appearances in the baggy green, was Ian Healy. Though made to look decidedly human when compared to Gilchrist, his batting average, after the last of his 119 Tests, was a respectable 27.39. After 22 matches, Stuart Broad's stands at 30.68.

It would be easy for England to 'ruin' Stuart Broad, but I think that a step up the batting order is some way down the list of possible ways how. Too much cricket - let's hope he's rested for the Bangladesh tour - and expecting Oval-like performances every match are more dangerous threats to England's brightest young talent.

Having him at seven is not ideal, but nor is not having a genuine Test-class all-rounder, and at present England don't.

One of Warne's arguments is that Broad at No 7 heaps too much pressure on him. On his batting maybe, but in allowing another bowler in the team it should have the opposite effect on his primary weapon. A 7, 8, 9 of Prior, Broad and Swann sounds perfect, but that would leave Broad as one of four front-line bowlers; a prospect South Africa's supreme batting line-up would surely relish.

The balance of the side is a key issue going into the South Africa series, and if Broad at No 7 works, England will have unlocked the answer. If it doesn't, he's shown enough character so far in his England career to suggest that one failed experiment wont 'ruin' him for good.

Monday, 12 October 2009

Media Round-Up: The Champions Trophy, Harmy And The Heroes Of The Summer

England's cricketers may currently be trying to remember what they used to do in their spare time, but those who write about them are having no such thoughts.

Papers and websites have been awash with comment, contemplation and analysis, at the end of a summer which included seven Tests, countless limited-overs contests and two world tournaments. The one-day international was ruthlessly KO'd, then resuscitated, all in the space of a few weeks. Time to take stock.

The Champions Trophy promised to be the party no one wanted to go to, but threatened, in the end, to be the talk-of-the-town white hot VIP ticket. It certainly re-ignited an ODI debate which England had threatened to give a definitive ending to through their dismal 6-1 series defeat to Australia.

Alison Mitchell enjoyed what she saw during her informative blogs and reports from the heart of the action. And the general consensus seemed to be that the ODI, in its current format, had been offered a lifeline. Players, such as winning captain Ricky Ponting, and commentators alike subscribed to the view that while the administration of 50-over cricket is so often found wanting, when managed well, it deserves a place in the calendar.

I have dealt with the media reaction to the Ashes success, but sub-plots - relating to the squad chosen for South Africa - have failed to die-down. The Harmison debate has dominated in recent days.

With his record as it stands, I can only see Harmy as an immensely talented actor, with a penchant for forgetting his lines. Glad, as I am, to have seen him in England colours, I think the selectors have got this one right, but Mike Selvey makes a fine case for the defence in this article, and warns that he may yet be able to add credence to the line: "I'll be back." Providing he remembers it.

The implications of a Harmison-less attack are discussed here, by Otis Gibson.

But the men of the summer have to be Andrew Strauss and Andy Flower. There is little left to say about Strauss, the subject of an excellent Paul Hayward article in The Observer, who has enjoyed a masterful summer.

In the case of Flower, it seems interviews - like victory laps around the Oval - are not for him. Martin Johnson secured such a piece for The Sunday Times a month ago, which concurred entirely with his pragmatic, sensible but ambitious image. It took, as a starting point, England's pathetic 51 all out in Jamaica, and chronicled his team's improvement since then. With the start of the journey a mere eight months ago, Flower is certainly not viewing this summer's success as any sort of ending.