Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Andrew Strauss' Career Best

It's pretty common knowledge that I love Andrew Strauss. He's one of my favourite players to watch, he's a brilliant captain who's seen England to near world dominance in test cricket, and he's a great bloke. In his long, illustrious career, he's pretty much had it all. Except a double century.

It's bizarre that a player of Strauss' calibre; one who's achieved so much, should have never passed 200. In fact, before today, he'd never got out of the 170's. It's been the one obvious box that's been left unchecked throughout his career.

Overnight in the Middlesex v Leicestershire game, Andrew Strauss is 185 not out. Overtaking the 161 from the 2009 Ashes, his previous best for Middlesex of 176, and that infamous career-saving 177 in Napier, Strauss has moved within touching distance of that maiden double ton. Only a fairly toothless Leicestershire bowling line-up tired from the T20 exploits of the weekend stand between Strauss and the 15 runs that can seal his own personal destiny.

Andrew Strauss is no longer a young man (although at 34 he still has a few years left in him), and the chance to score a double century may not come along again. Given that Strauss plays the majority of his cricket against proven international bowlers (and India's seamers) in the full glare of the media spotlight and under the pressure of captaining his country, he certainly won't get a better opportunity than against a ragged Leicestershire attack who are mentally counting down the days until their trip to the Champions League.

Scoring 200 would be huge for Strauss, as it would almost be the final piece of what's already been an exceptional career. While scoring 200 against a fairly disinterested bottom of the table side on a flat track in Division Two isn't the greatest achievement in the history of cricket, it would give Strauss the self-confidence and belief that he can do it; something that has held him back a touch as he's approached the milestone in the past. And given the dominance of his current test side, plus their penchant for 'daddy hundreds', you wouldn't be surprised to see Strauss being the latest addition to England's Double Ton Club over the next few games.

But first he needs to score 15 more runs for Middlesex against Leicestershire. He's already made his highest ever First Class score, which is some achievement, but now he needs to convert into into a double.

Monday, 22 August 2011

Where Do India Go From Here?

It's a tough place to be in when you've lost 4-0. The series has ended in humiliation for India, the number one test ranking has been lost, and there are seemingly no silver lignings to speak of. However, if England have proved anything over the past couple of years, it's that a team can go from a seemingly hopeless situation to the summit of test cricket in not a long space of time, with only a few minor tweaks. So how can India regain their number one ranking and become a successful test team again?

1) Don't accept mediocrity

England have got where they've got by carefully stripping away the chaff to find an exceptional group of players. Yes, this may be a once in a lifetime golden generation of English cricketers, but only the best of the best are tolerated. Throughout the English team are players at the absolute pinnacle - Cook is the best opener in the world, Trott the best number three, Pietersen and Bell the best middle order. Matt Prior is the best wicket-keeper batsman, Swann the best spinner, and the pace attack of Anderson, Broad and Bresnan / Tremlett is the best fast bowling attack going. For a team who came into the series as number one, India have an awful lot of players who aren't really good enough to compete with the world's elite. Raina was out of his depth, Sreesanth and Sharma didn't cut it, and neither Harbhajan or Mishra looked consistently threatening. India must be ruthless and cast aside those who just aren't good enough, in order to bring in young talent who can be.

2) The batting needs a shake-up

It's clear to see that India's batting boasts some of the best run-getters in the history of test cricket. However, the likes of Tendulkar, Dravid, Sehwag and Laxman won't last forever, and to avoid a situation seen with the Australian team post 2007 when all of the legends retired at once, India need to gradually ease a few new names in. Some tough decisions need to be made - at 36 (and 10 months) is VVS Laxman as good as he once was? Is Sehwag? Is Dravid? And heaven forbid, is Sachin? Tought as it may seem, Indian will be better served shifting aside some of the legends in order to move on and look towards the future.

3) Sachin

The cult of Sachin, as it has become known, is weighing heavily on the Indian team. The fact that headlines have been focused more on Sachin's failures to make the elusive hundredth hundred rather than the embarrassment of a 4-0 reverse speaks volumes for the over-arching importance Sachin has in the Indian team. As much as a legend as he is (and make no mistake Sachinistas, before I get death threats, I am not in any way detracting from his past), at the end of the day, Sachin is just one player out of eleven. He is not the be all and end all of the story. While Sachin must bring a lot to proceedings - his experience and calm head in the dressing room for one, it does seem from the outside that some players are unable to cope with the pressure that being even in the same side as Sachin brings. For India today there didn't seem much thought about saving the test - instead all focus was on Sachin's attempt at the 100th 100. As unbelievable a player as he was, and still is, Sachin has become a distraction to this India team and their goals. In an ideal world for the Indian team, Sachin will make his seminal ton in the ODI series that now follows, and hang up his bat, allowing India to move on and out of his shadow, and refind their focus.

4) Preperation and priorities

Put simply, the BCCI have made a complete hash of organising this tour. The single warm-up game at Taunton was not enough to get ready for a tour in the notoriously tough conditions of England, and reminiscent of England turning up undercooked ahead of the 2006/7 Ashes mauling at the hands of Australia. And ultimately the way Sehwag's injury (that he picked up during the World Cup) was handled shows the lack of respect that the BCCI have for test cricket (and how low on the list of priorities it is) - had Sehwag had his operation immediately he would have been fit for all of this series, and probably the West Indies tour as well. But he delayed the operation with the BCCI's blessing... to play in the IPL. Only when test cricket is put at the top of the list will India again prosper.

5) End the culture of player power

Duncan Fletcher is a very shrewd, experienced coach who has done an awful lot in the game of cricket. However, his word, which was always law when coach of England, seemed as though it was often overruled and ignored. From the outside, it seems as though the Indian players, and the senior players in particular, did what they fancied and the coach was powerless to stop them. From only warming-up or training when they felt like it to (supposedly) calling for only the one warm-up game (some wanted no warm-ups at all), players were taking the easy way out in order to avoid any hard work. Which led to a failure of a series. After Zaheer's injury, it was disclosed that the Indian players decide personally how to look after themselves, and picking up a series ending injury only a few overs into the first morning at Lord's certainly suggests that Zaheer was doing it wrong. Only when responsibility and power is handed back to the coach can India do well. Ultimately, he is paid to make these things happen, and the Indian players would be fools to ignore his experience and expertise.

All in all, it's been a pretty abject tour for India. And while there is a lot of hard work ahead, it isn't all doom and gloom for them. In MS Dhoni they have an excellent forward-thinking captain, and if he develops a strong partnership with Duncan Fletcher, they can organise a master plan not too dissimiliar from the plans of Andys Flower and Strauss. They also do have some very good players who took them to number one in the first place, as well as a lot of promising young talent to choose from to help them return. It has been a pretty humbling series from an Indian perspective, but with a lot of hard work and subtle changes, there's no doubt that the mase for world's number one team will be back in Indian hands sooner or later.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Dravid Shows Fight

It's been a series that's lacked a little something.

As good as England have been, it's been a bit of a breeze, with Team India not offering a lot of resistance once they've been pushed up against the wall.

If this was boxing rather than cricket, it would have been stopped a long time ago.

England started by coming out swinging, landing some lusty blows early. And while India had the odd couple of hours when they decided to fight back, generally they've just laid back and taken the relentless beating that England have given to them, with no real sign of resistance.

Apart from one man.

Rahul Dravid, who moved to his third century of the series at the Oval, has been the only Indian player to show anywhere near the required level of guts for test cricket.

While his teammates have barely mustered half of his runs, Dravid's tons at Lord's, Trent Bridge and the Oval have been gutsy, determined, and full of application. Three things that his fellow tourists have been quite clearly lacking throughout the series.

In almost every regard, pretty much every other Indian player has gone missing. With the ball, they've been happy to watch England rack up mammoth partnerships while heads have dropped and bowlers do nothing. And with the bat, nobody has wanted to dig in and grind out the tough runs when England's seamers proved that conditions have been far from bowlers graveyards.

Except Dravid. In a series when everyone was expecting the hundredth hundred of a legend, we've seen a different kind of fulfillment of another. Sachin, just like Raina, Laxman, Dhoni, Sehwag, Mukund, Ishant and the rest of them, have gone missing when it's mattered the most, and will ultimately go home empty handed. Dravid, however, has put his hand up, regularly, and while he will too leave with nothing from the series, his legend will be enhanced.

This series was billed as the heavyweight championship of the world, but instead it's been more of a mauling in a pub car park. Only Dravid, the old campaigner, has stopped England from landing yet another knockout blow. If his teammates had shown anywhere near the fight he has this series, it almost certainly wouldn't be the battering that this bout has turned out to be.

Friday, 19 August 2011

Ian Bell's Unfinished Business

There have been two obvious stages to Ian Bell's international career. We had a boy who was thrown in at the deep end and floundered, and now we have the man who is taking on all comers and scoring an awful lot of runs. There is a clear and obvious line between the two phases of Ian Bell - being dropped out in the West Indies and being forced to leave the England set up, go back to county cricket, and earn his place back. Since his redemption it seems as though he's been on a mission to right all of the wrongs of his previous few years at top level cricket, and he could now quite justifiably be called the best batsman in the world.

Ian Bell always had the technique for international cricket. Those fluent cover drives that had the Oval crowd drooling today aren't a million miles away from the same fluent cover drives that had crowds drooling back when he was making his way in a Warwickshire, and later England shirt. What has changed, however, is Bell's mindset. Back in the day Bell was the perfect example of a player who had all of the shots, but lacked the mental fortitude to succeed in test cricket. A lot of pretty starts were very rarely converted, and the stat of him never being the first batsman in an innings to reach 100 proved that he only really made runs when England were well on top. Prone to crumbling under pressure, it seemed that Bell's time was up after he carried the can for the seminal 51 all out in Jamaica.

Bell left that miserable tour as a spare part - a player who couldn't quite cut it at international level despite making some decent scores (199 against South Africa the previous summer springs to mind) and it looked like his international career was over. During the time away from the England set up, Ian Bell grew up. He knew he had to toughen up, and that there were a lot of things he had to put right if he was to succeed. So he added some steel to that technique, and has slowly set right the wrongs of his early international career.

Never been the first batsman in an innings to make 100
Never made 100 against Australia
Never made 100 at number three
Never made a test 200
(not quite there but at 181 not out overnight he should get there early tomorrow)

Already with five test tons to his name this calendar year, and averaging 128 in 2011, Bell has turned himself into an absolute machine. Adding runs - consistent runs, to his superb range of shotmaking, Bell makes an incredibly strong case to be considered the world's best. That his feats have been somewhat overshadowed by the form of some of his teammates shows just how good a side England are at the moment. A team who, a couple of years ago always had talent but never consistently delivered, added some grit and determination to their obvious ability and have become the best in the world. A little bit like Ian Bell.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Rankin for England?

A piece of cricket news that has slipped under the radar for many today has been the addition of Warwickshire's Boyd Rankin into the England Lions squad for the rest of their One Day series against Sri Lanka A. On the surface, this may seem a trivial piece of news, but when you realise that this is the same Boyd Rankin who's gone to two World Cups and played 32 ODIs for Ireland, then it suddenly gets a bit more interesting.

Boyd, the big fast bowler from Derry, has had quite a bit of international success so far in his career. Ireland's leading wicket taker at the seminal 2007 World Cup and the leader of the attack in 2011, Rankin is a massive (quite literally, standing at 6ft 8ins) part of the Irish team who have made huge strides in international cricket over the past few years. However, he's been on England's radar for the past couple of years, and it looks as though he's about to follow fellow ex-Irish internationals Eoin Morgan and Ed Joyce in turning out for England. A country he isn't from.

I've written before just how much I sympathise with Irish cricketers. Any cricketer, anywhere in the world, wants to play test cricket, and sadly at the moment that's something that isn't offered to Irish cricketers. It's been well publicised that both Joyce and Morgan repatriated themselves in the search for test cricket (Morgan made it, Joyce didn't), and it appears that Rankin is following the same path. However. They'd be representing England despite not being from England, and while hoping to play test cricket certainly is a noble goal, I'd like to play football for Brazil, but as I am not from Brazil, I am not going to realise this ambition. (And it's not because I'm not good enough, because I am...)

The issue of non-English people playing for England is a sticky one. As great as it is that England are flying so high in world cricket at the moment, the fact that Pietersen, Trott, Kieswetter, Dernbach, Morgan and Lumb have got us there does make the whole thing slightly hollow. While I can understand that the lure of test cricket as well as a much more professional structure in English cricket would tempt Boyd Rankin, his would be another name on the list of foreign imports into the English team. Which doesn't quite sit with me.

It's a tough one, and without wanting to sound all David Starkey about it, it shouldn't really be allowed. People have the fortune, or the misfortune, to be born in certain parts of the world, and as such, should represent that nation in international sport. Otherwise it's hardly inter-national, is it? At a time where Ireland could be on the brink of achieving some great things (and as such, need all of the talent they have), Boyd could be turning his back on them to chase his test dream. Ireland are a team who could be on the verge of something big, but how can they progress if their brightest talents abandon them as soon as England flutter their eyelids? On the 25th August, England travel over to Stormont for an ODI against Ireland. It's not inconcievable that with Rankin being named in the Lions squad (effectively a reserve international team) and England's first choice bowlers potentially being rested after a tough Indian test series that Rankin gets picked by England. With test cricket potentially beckoning, if Ireland are able to tempt him to stay with them, it will show the massive strides being made by Cricket Ireland. If they can't, it could open the floodgates for the likes of Stirling, Dockrell and plenty of other young Irish talent who rightly or wrongly fancy a craic at playing for England.

And a quote to show Irish fans that not all of their players want to cross the Irish Sea... Kevin O'Brien: "Play for England? You must be joking! I'm Irish, I want to play for Ireland!"

Monday, 15 August 2011

Bunny's Back

Way back in September 2010, I wrote this about Graham Onions. Bunny's always been a personal favourite of mine, whether it's for smearing Aussie stumps with fine swing bowling or defiantly blocking out to save games in South Africa. Onions had forced his way into the England side thanks to some excellence at county level, and had just about got himself into England's first choice test eleven. But disaster struck in the form of a back injury that ruled him out for a season just before the Bangladesh tour, and England moved on since then.

It's fair to say that since Onions last donned an England shirt things have changed. First came Steve Finn, who raced to 50 test wickets in the fastest time possible. Then Chris Tremlett, who's international redemption has seen him become one of the most feared fast bowlers in the world. And then Tim Bresnan, who has turned from bits and pieces seamer to a genuine test all-rounder who averages 45 with the bat and 24 with the ball. And while Onions has been out injured, England moved from also-rans to Ashes winners and World Number Ones. He couldn't have picked a worse time to miss, as England had quite clearly moved on from him.

But, they haven't. With the fourth test against India being quite the dead rubber, it seems that Jimmy Anderson's slight niggle won't be risked. So into the squad comes Graham Onions, the forgotten man of England's success.

A similiar sort of situation happened back the last time England were any good - the heady days of the 2005 Ashes. Simon Jones, who'd been a key quarter of England's fearsome fast four broke down in the fourth test at Trent Bridge, with what proved to be a quite serious injury. In the time it had taken for Jones to get back on a field and prove his fitness, England had moved a long way from the Welshman, and he remained just a memory as England floundered in the post-2005 failures.

Luckily for Onions, he hasn't been forgotten, and is back in the squad for the test starting on Thursday. He may or may not get selected, as the pecking order system used probably has Steven Finn still ahead of him, but it shows he is right back on England's radar. At a time when England's fast bowling pool couldn't be stronger, if Onions comes in and seizes the opportunity as Finn, Tremlett and Bresnan have, there could be quite a few headaches for Andy Flower between now and England's next test appointment in the UAE in the new year.

Saturday, 13 August 2011

Five Reasons Why England are Number One

1) Planning

This England team are the most organised and prepared in the world. Every individual player knows every individual weakness of every opponent, and how best to exploit it. Thanks to the tireless work of Andy Flower and his team of analysts, England are one step ahead before a ball's even been bowled.

2) Consistency

Consistency on two levels - in terms of performance and in terms of selection. England are now far less likely to take their eyes off the ball and have a shocker in one test, which has led to far greater performances throughout. And the consistency of selection has seen players in poor form being nursed back into shape, and ultimately pushing England to the top spot.

3) Strength in depth

Luckily this strength hasn't had to be used too often thanks to not many injuries, but as and when the situation has required, players have stepped up and performed. When key players have retired or been unavailable, there have been ready made replacements who've come in, and the county production line is incredibly strong at the moment, which can only see this strength continue going forward.

4) Luck

Every successful team needs a bit of luck, and England have had plenty. Their best team in donkeys years has come at a time where the traditional best teams in the world have been rebuilding and not offering as strong an opposition. Plus they've seen opponents lose key players to injury at crucial times, which has certainly helped.

5) They have the best players

It may seem an obvious one, but to win games of cricket you need to be generally a better team than the opposition, and more often than not England are putting out man for man better players. Throughout their batting they are immensely strong, and their fast bowling options are an embarassment of riches. They have the best attacking spinner in world cricket, as well as a captain and coach that brings everyone together to get the best out of them. It's no wonder that with all of that happening that England are the number one ranked team in the world. And that might not change for a long time.

Friday, 12 August 2011

Bopara the Nearly Man

Ravi Bopara is the sort of man who you imagine steps on a lot of rakes. A good batsman, handy bowler, and by all accounts fairly amiable chap, Bopara just has the unfortunate knack of just being a nearly man.

For a player so obviously talented as he is, Bopara's England career has never ignited as it should have. Part of it has been down to his personal behaviour and attitude, but it's also been down to his being at the right place, but often at the wrong time. And his failure to grab hold of the opportunity when the chance presents itself.

After being in and out of the test team following his 2007 debut, the three consecutive test centuries in 2009 should have been the launchpad for him being a mainstay in the England team for decades. With Bell out of the team and Bopara bang in form, Ravi had the chance to nail down his place and become a test regular. However, he didn't seize the opportunity, and was out of the team before the Ashes series finished. Thanks to the rise of Jonathan Trott and the resurgence of Ian Bell in what became a very well settled England middle order, Bopara didn't get another chance for another two years.

After the 2010/11 Ashes, Paul Collingwood retired from his spot in the England middle order. Bopara, more mature and worldly wise by now, chose to turn down the riches of the IPL to stay and fight for the test position. His direct competitor, Eoin Morgan, went off to the IPL, but hit 193 for the England Lions against Sri Lanka, and made the spot instead. Again Ravi had to wait.

In the second test against India, Jonathan Trott rolled his collarbone, and was ruled out of this third test. This time, Ravi was sent for. And on a day where Cook made 294 and Morgan made 100, Bopara failed, with a scratchy looking seven. Trott will most likely come back in for the fourth test, and with England's middle order looking incredibly settled, Ravi may have another two years to wait until he gets his next bat in a test for England. And with James Taylor, Jonny Bairstow and plenty of others floating around who may usurp him in the pecking order, it's not inconceivable that this is the last test Ravi Bopara plays.

To be a successful test cricketer, you have to take your chances when you get them. The prime example of that is Tim Bresnan - a man who's never nailed down a permanent position in England's test team but averages 45 with the bat and 24 with the ball. He's almost made it impossible to be dropped. At a time where England are looking set to dominate world cricket, chances will be few and far between, and Tim Bresnan's seized the opportunities given to him with those big hands. Ravi Bopara, however, hasn't done that. Test cricket is a harsh place at the best of times, but with England's pool of talent so strong at the moment it's positively ruthless. On his day, Bopara can be an excellent batsman, but he just hasn't proved that for England. He may get another chance in the future and take it, but until then, Ravi Bopara will be the ultimate unfulfilled talent - England's nearly man.

Alastair Cook is Relentless

Alastair Cook seems as though he is never satisfied. Even when making his first ever test 250 (and the becoming the first Englishman to make a test 250 for 21 years) he barely raised the bat to the crowd, thinking more about how he was going to score the next 250.

Alastair Cook loves batting, and he loves scoring runs. Everything he does appears to be on some sort of personal vendetta to score as many runs as he possibly can. He can never have enough runs. You can picture him in a future James Bond film as some sort of evil meglomaniac, constantly batting and refusing to get out, taking over the world by boring opponents to death whilst scoring millions of runs.

Some critics of Cook say that he can't pick up the rate and accelerate, which is sometimes needed when a declaration is in sight. But quite simply Cook sees no need to pick up the scoring rate - he's just happy scoring runs, and lots of them, and he'll try and score as many as he can. He knows that if he keeps making mountains of runs, England will keep winning test matches, and that what keeps pushing Cook on to keep going.

I don't like using the term run machine, but it's hard to give Cook any other title. He almost seems emotionless while at the crease, effortlessly switching between a heavy concentration and an automaton state of unawareness. The man doesn't even sweat, which just confirms the fact that he is clearly not human. In the film where Cook is the villain, he'd just keep coming at James Bond, no matter how many bullets are fired at him. Cook would just swat them away, with dabs into the on-side for singles to keep scoring runs. The film would only end after about 12 hours when Strauss has enough and decides to declare, but even then Cook would be unaware to what's happening around him; still focussing on scoring more runs.

Alastair Cook is an immense batsman, and will no doubt go down in history as one of England's greats - if not the best. Every successful team needs a player who is so set on scoring runs that failure is not an option; a cold hard ruthless killer who drills the opposition into the ground and demoralises them so completely that it doesn't seem to be a fair fight. Fortunately for England, they have Alastair Cook, who will continue to do that for quite a few years to come. Unfortunately for the rest of the world, they also have Jonathan Trott, who if anything, is even more relentless. Good luck, rest of the world. You're going to need it.

Monday, 8 August 2011

Podcast - Stuart Broad's Vaseline

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England's win at Trent Bridge was a victory for tenacity, and Will dissected just why England are so damn good. The various controversies are looked at, from Bell's run-out to the DRS, and even to Vase-gate, as Will looks at whether the spirit of cricket is indeed alive and well. India are all injured, so will looks at why, as well as working out whether Tim Bresnan really is the greatest all-rounder in the world and if England should go in to Edgbaston with only six batsmen.

Friday, 5 August 2011

Flower's Selection Headache

England's selectors name their squad for the third test against India tomorrow, and they're faced with a dilemma, and his name is Tim Bresnan. After sticking with a tried and tested formula of seven batsmen and four bowlers over the past couple of years, the selectors will have to decide on whether to drastically change policy and shuffle things around, or to stick with traditional and keep the status quo.

Ever since being gubbed at Headingley by the rampant Australians in 2009, Andy Flower has had an obvious reticence to only playing six specialist batsmen. With a long tail starting at seven, England were rolled within 34 overs, and ultimately lost within three days by an innings. Despite containing 'handy' players down the order (with Swann and Broad both sharing slightly face-saving half-centuries), England lacked the safety-net of an extra batsman, and paid the price handsomely. Since then, Flower and Strauss have steadfastly refused to change their preferred shape, which as rigidly defensive as it may be, has clearly wielded great results.

Jonathan Trott is injured, and unlikely to play at Edgbaston. And normally we would just see the "next cab off the rank" in operation, with (probably) James Taylor coming in to the side to maintain the natural order of things. However. Tim Bresnan has just had an excellent game at Trent Bridge, with a five-wicket haul and a 90 certainly adding weight to the argument that he is a true test all-rounder. It would almost appear illogical to drop him after the game he's just had, if not downright cruel. So with Trott out should England move Bresnan up to seven and go with only the six out-and-out batsmen?

Things certainly seem to be in Bresnan's favour. Even though he may arguably be a touch too high at number seven, with Swann and Broad below him, there's certainly a tail that can wag viciously. Having Matt Prior at number six isn't an issue, as he's proven in the past that he's plenty good enough to bat there, and England have enough batsmen in top form to afford to add an extra bowler. The shape could still work if Chris Tremlett doesn't pass fit, with Steven Finn ready and waiting to step into the breach, and either way England would have a very strong batting and bowling line-up.

Headingley 2009 still haunts Andy Flower, and the scars of that performance have been evident in the team selections ever since. However, it's surely impossible to omit Bresnan, and the return of Tremlett would give them a very big headache. However, the injury to Trott gives England the opportunity to have their cake and eat it, and to rearrange the shape of the side. With India on the ropes, England must go out and finish them off, and the best way to do so is with an aggressive line-up. It just remains to be seen whether Andy Flower makes the brave call in changing the policy, or the safe one in sticking with the usual.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

2005 v 2011 - Ultimate Team

Last night I had a look at this current England side, and whether they're better than their 2005 counterparts. Seeing as quite a few people have been getting involved in creating a 2005-2011 composite side (including Tom Fordyce of the BBC), I thought I'd have a go myself.

1) Alastair Cook (2011) - Just count the runs. Not in sparkling form thus far in this India series, but his feats over the winter and into the Sri Lanka series speak for themselves.

2) Andrew Strauss (2005) - A really tough one this for the opposing opening berth - do you want the Strauss of 2011 with added captaincy? Or the hard-hitting Trescothick, who'd otherwise walk into any composite England team of recent history? Instead I've gone for 2005 edition Strauss, as he gutsed out two big hundreds despite wearing a few from Brett Lee. As classy and stylish a batsman as you could ever see, and 2005 was just about at his pomp.

3) Michael Vaughan [Captain] (2005) - As much for the excellent batting (on his day Vaughany was as good as any in the world) as the innovative and inspirational captaincy. Would certainly get the best out of his bowlers, as well as plenty of runs from number 3.

4) Kevin Pietersen (2011) - The Kevin Pietersen of 2005 was a breath of fresh air; the young skunk-haired Saffa who hit Warney for sixes and dropped catches for fun. The 2011 KP still drops the odd catch, but has become a bit more wise about his cricket. While in 2005 he'd hit a six, but then be caught on the boundary trying it again, in 2011 he's a touch more circumspect, as seen in a gritty 200 at Lord's last week. After a rough patch, 2011 KP has found a way back to the 2005 form that saw him burst onto the world scene, which is why the more mature vintage makes it into the team.

5) Ian Bell (2011) - No contest at all for which edition of Ian Bell to put into the team; in 2005 he was very much a boy amongst men, whereas in 2011 he towers over his contemporaries. Since being shellshocked in 2005, Bell has added guts to his obvious skill, and is arguably the best batsman in the world right now.

6) Andrew Flintoff (2005) - Do I even need to elaborate? Runs, wickets, bucket hands at first slip, inspirational match-winning performances, a few drinks.

7) Matt Prior (2011) - Matt Prior is quite simply the best wicket-keeper batsman in the world, and his all-round game has improved leaps and bounds since arriving on the international scene. Geraint Jones never flourished with either glove or bat, but is still revered as a hero for catching Kasprowicz down the leg side.

8) Graeme Swann (2011) - Graeme Swann is an attacking offie who turns the ball a fair way. Ashley Giles was a defensive slow left armer who's stock ball was the straight one. Thanks for the runs at Trent Bridge Gilo, but I'm sticking with Swanny.

9) Steve Harmison (2005) - Harmy was probably already on the slide by 2005, but was still a fearful sight for any batsman. That early spell on the first morning at Lord's where he skittled the Aussies (and cut Ricky Ponting) set the tone for the series (even if England were thumped) and Harmison led England's most successful attack of recent years with distinction.

10) Jimmy Anderson (2011) - The leader of England's attack six years later. Now with an ability to swing it wherever he wants, there is no better bowler in English conditions, and Jimmy takes wickets for fun.

11) Simon Jones (2005) - A tough one for my final seamer's spot. Chris Tremlett, he of the fearful bounce? Stuart Broad, the enforcer man risen from the dead who takes wickets and scores runs? Matthew Hoggard to share the new ball and make it talk? Instead, I've gone for the master of reverse swing, and the unsung hero of England's 2005 Ashes win. The Welsh Warrior, Simon Jones.

So then, that's my composite 2005 and 2011 England team. Just imagine if such a side (at their peak) had taken to the field - especially with the likes of Trescothick, Trott, Strauss, Pietersen, Tremlett, Broad and Hoggard in reserve - we'd have been world number one years ago!

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

2005 v 2011 - Who's Better?

With the current England side looking like it's going to be the best in the world in a couple of weeks, it's natural to wonder if it's the best England side in living memory. Of course, the biggest opposition to that claim is the victors of the greatest series - the class of 2005. Captained by Vaughan, inspired by Freddie at his best and packed with big names, the 2005 vintage battled and beat the best side in the world.

The 2011 lot are also playing the team who are at the summit of test cricket. However, unlike 2005, instead of scraping tight fought victories, they're destroying all before them and sauntering to big wins. This doesn't automatically make the 2011 team better than their 2005 contemporaries, as it's plainly obvious that the opposition in '05 of Warne, McGrath, Gilchrist, Ponting et al are on a slightly higher plain than the current touring Indian side.

However, for me, if the two best England sides of the 21st century were to meet, there'd only be one winner. As good as the 2005 team were, they managed to win the Ashes while carrying a few players. Ashley Giles, a man who's runs at Trent Bridge and the Oval make him a hero amongst men, was hardly the most threatening spinner of the ball. You don't get called the Wheely Bin for nothing. And the 2005 edition of Ian Bell is a far cry from the hardened run-machine currently seen, with a freckly rabbit-in-the-headlights a more apt description. In 2011, there simply isn't that. Everybody pulls their weight.

However, we won't know the true ability of the 2011 side for quite a while. Back in 2005, having won the Ashes, England had the world at their feet. However, a combination of taking their eyes off the ball, untimely injuries and the gradual aging of players meant the side drifted apart and world domination was not reached. As such, the 2005 side is seen as just a one-off - a side that was put together with winning the Ashes in mind, and ultimately they achieved their goal. The key for Andy Flower and Andrew Strauss is to create a legacy - a side that dominates world cricket for years to come.

Monday, 1 August 2011

England's Win a Victory for Tenacity

Test cricket is more than just about having a good technique or a solid defence. It's about mental fortitude and having the concentration for fifteen two-hour sessions of intense cricket where you have to keep your eye on the ball. Games of test cricket can be won and lost in an instant, and the best teams are those who are always switched on and are as such able to win those games at any given moment.

Having a team of good cricketers does go a long way, but the great sides of test cricket are the teams full of "winners" - those who refuse to give up when faced with defeat, or allow opposing teams to rise from difficult situations. England are certainly a team of winners. At 88/6 and 124/8 on the first afternoon, it would have been easy to fold and put up a score that would almost certainly be a losing one. But the grit and determination of the lower-order saw them to 221; not an awful score given the tough scoring conditions. India had overtaken that score with only four wickets down, and looked set to build a sizeable lead. But England fought back, and led by Stuart Broad taking 5 wickets for 0 runs in 18 balls, were reduced to a lead of only 67.

Even when things weren't going their way during that Indian first innings, England kept fighting. They never stopped believing that they could cause an Indian collapse, and it only needed the spark of Stuart Broad to make it happen. Compare that to the lifeless display of bowling from India at the back end of England's second innings, where runs were being gifted away and nobody seemed to bothered. The impressive Praveen Kumar aside, it was a completely gutless and embarrassing display, as Prior, Bresnan and Broad all cashed in with the easiest runs in test cricket they will ever make. India had completely given up - remarkable for a team that boasts some of the greatest talents to ever grace the game, are World Champions, and the current holders of the world number one ranking. That seems as though it's going to be meekly surrendered too. Bell's innings was full of class, and even allowing for his reprieve, India still were in with a chance. Bell departed at 323/4, a lead of only 256. Had they got their tails up and stuck into England, they could have been looking at a chase of not much more than 300. Given that Bell showed batting wasn't a total nightmare on that pitch, and that they possess Dravid, Laxman and Tendulkar, India were still in with a big chance of winning that game. You know England, or indeed, any team of winners would have at least given it a crack. Instead, they ceded another 200 runs as England's tail took it well out of their reach. By the end, it was men against boys. They didn't even bother trying to reach the victory target of 478.

India are quite clearly a team of class individual players, all with skills that on their day make them world-class performers. However, when the going got tough, they didn't get going at all, instead retreating so meekly it made England's march to victory almost painful to watch. The hosts, on the other hand are a side that relish the big battles, and they invariably win them. To win the game by 319 runs given the perils of the first two days certainly shows the character of this current England team. India earned the number one test ranking, but have underperformed massively so far, with England taking full advantage. England are now odds-on to take over that coveted number one ranking, and having seen the way they've played in the first two tests of the series, you'd fancy them holding onto the position for a very long time to come.

My Take on the Bell Run-Out

I won't make this a long-winded thing because I know absolutely every cricket fan with access to the internet has already voiced their opinions on the incident already, but just because I can, here's my two cents worth.

Massive credit to India. They didn't have to repeal the appeal. With the game situation as it was, they knew just how important the wicket of Ian Bell would be, and in the laws of the game, they had taken it. It would have been easy for them to do nothing, or to argue that they'd done nothing wrong in whipping the bails off and appealing. From what we heard from Rahul Dravid, the whole team felt distinctly uneasy at getting the wicket that way, and the unanimous decision was made to recall Bell.

However, as sporting as India clearly were, England certainly didn't cover themselves in glory. Bell's celebrations when reaching 150 were, given the reprieve he'd been granted, a touch over-exuberant, and he seemed to show a tragic lack of self-awareness when not taking responsibility for his part in it in the interviews at the end. And Andy Flower and Andrew Strauss probably shouldn't have put pressure on the Indian dressing room to change the decision - at the end of the day it was completely up to India to decide and nothing to do with Strauss or Flower.

We all know the whole situation could have been avoided had Ian Bell simply waited for some sort of signal from the umpires, or for the ball to be thrown in from the boundary. However, once he didn't do that, India were well within their rights to knock the bails off, and the umpires were totally correct in giving him out. There's no denying that Bell was certainly very foolish, and the way he argued his way out of the situation rather than holding his hands up and admitting his error didn't look brilliant. However, the odd situation shouldn't take away from a fine innings - one of the best we'll see in test cricket this year, and what could be a match-winning one.

All in all, while the ICC statement praises one side, only one has come out of this in credit. India, who lest we forget are the number one side in the world, certainly set the benchmark for the way cricket should be played, and for that, they should be applauded from the rooftops. The spirit of cricket, in some quarters at least, is certainly alive and well.