Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Stuart Meaker Picked For England

It's sort of an odd one, yet not an odd one. Meaker's List A pedigree is far from great - not many games (21), even fewer wickets (19) and a lofty average of 38. Indeed he barely got into Surrey's CB40 winning side all year, which makes the decision to take him on tour a surprise one. (Certainly surprising to Graham Onions who labelled the decision [on Twitter of course] "bizarre").

However, from what I've seen of Stuart Meaker, he is a very, very talented bowler. He has serious pace (supposedly topping 96 mph), and at 22 he's only going to get quicker. He can reverse it, and again, at a young age, he's only going to become more experienced on how to use and exploit such a dark art of bowling. He will eventually be an England bowler, so why not give him a taste of a subcontinental tour to get used to what being an international entails, pick the brains of the bowling coaches and work alongside some of the best bowlers in the world? And who knows, with Stuart Broad injured and Jimmy Anderson rested he might even get a game against the World Champions, which can hardly be bad for his development.

Yes, there is the almost inevitable elephant in the room of the fact that he was born in Durban which has kicked up quite a debate on Twitter, but I've grown tired of all of that, and it's probably quite irrelevant. Stuart Meaker is a hugely promising fast bowler who learnt his trade in England, is committed to England, and will probably take bagfuls of wickets for England. While I'd have liked to have seen a more experienced young buck getting a go, the selection of Meaker is certainly very exciting. We might be seeing the start of a very long, and very good international career.

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Ravi Bopara is Embarrassed

Ravi Bopara is the epitome of a confidence player. So often in and out of the England team, he's never truly felt comfortable in the side, so as such, hasn't felt loved by the English selectors. This lack of inner belief and trust in himself has led to poor performances, and has meant that his great potential just hasn't been lived up too.

Ravi Bopara has only really been given two solid runs in the side. The first, back in 2009, was when new coach Andy Flower told Ravi that he was the man to bat at number three for England, and put his trust and confidence in him. Bopara backed this up by making three successive test centuries. He felt as though he had a place in the team and confidence, and runs flowed.

He's had to wait until this summer for his next prolonged spell in the side. In and out over the last couple of years, he was given his chance for the final two tests of the India series, and then for the subsequent ODIs. While he started slowly, the performances have slowly but surely improved as Ravi is slowly starting to feel loved again by the selectors. A 96 at Lord's - so nearly his maiden ODI ton and comfortably his highest ODI score preceded a valuable 37* at Cardiff to guide England home, and tellingly a 4-10 in the first T20 against the West Indies. England's best ever T20 figures.

It's worth bearing that in mind. Of all of the great bowlers to have represented England over the past six years in T20 cricket, nobody has bowled better than Ravi Bopara did on Friday night. This is some achievement. However, Ravi claims he is "embarrassed" to have collected the accolade, which sort of sums up his mental issue with being in the England team. He just doesn't feel worthy enough to be playing international cricket, let alone excelling at it.

When thinking of Ravi Bopara's mentality, the perfect person to compare him to is Eoin Morgan. Both have extraordinary natural talent, as well as some equally obvious technical flaws. Yet both have had distinctly different careers in international cricket. Ever since taking to the field for England, Morgan has looked as though he belongs. Blessed with a mental fortitude that almost guarantees success, Morgan is extremely comfortable at the highest level, and has reaped the rewards of that. Bopara almost needs someone to constantly remind him that he actually is a very good cricketer, and while he will always be blessed with an extraordinary talent, what isn't so sure is his ability to perform and impress consistently for England. Ravi's feeling of embarrassment at his record figures sums up his attitude, and you get the feeling that had Morgan broken a record that he would be enjoying it rather than feeling bashful about it.

Technically, Eoin Morgan has his limitations. He isn't brilliant to the short ball, and is often very edgy when driving the ball off the front foot. But it's almost assumed that he will be a key player for England over the next few years, purely because he has the state of mind that he is sure to succeed. Ravi Bopara doesn't have this. What Bopara needs is for a prolonged run in the team backed up by good performances. At the moment, he is getting a run in the team, and those performances are beginning to come. With Morgan set to miss out on the next England tours, Bopara will get a few more opportunities in the side, and has a chance to stake a claim for a regular starting role. However, if he is to become one of the world's best - he must radically change his own mentality - stop being embarrassed and start enjoying international cricket. Only then can he become a Morgan.

Friday, 23 September 2011

What Actually Is The Point of The T20s v West Indies?

The other day I spouted something about how I'm not a huge fan of the Champions League. Created solely to make a lot of money quite quickly, it sort of opposes everything us cricket bloggers should stand for. So you'd have thought that a final hurrah for the England team in international action this summer would cheer me up and get me all misty eyed. Well, not really either. This horribly shoehorned in seriesette has no real benefit other than to fulfil Sky's contract. So I don't really care about these matches either.

You could ask what I'm doing as a cricket blogger when I evidently have no real interest in cricket. And you'd be right to ask that.

So, mainly to show that I can be bothered (even if nobody else is), here's why you should watch the two T20s against the West Indies.

Young Talent

Everyone loves seeing a young player making his first tentative steps into international cricket, filled with hope that they'll be the next big thing. And at the moment, England's team is packed with them. Bairstow, Stokes, Briggs, Hales, Buttler - the potential in this team is immense. And while some won't live up to their big billing (remember the fanfare Luke Wright arrived in after a debut fifty against India in 2007), chances are a few of them will turn into bona fide England legends. And in twenty years after Sir Joseph Buttler is made prime minister after leading England to 6 successive Ashes wins, you can say that you were there (metaphorically) at the start.

England are winning

Given even fairly recent cricketing history this is still somewhat of a novelty, and we should enjoy it while it lasts. England are currently top of the test rankings, World T20 champions and have just beaten the ODI World Cup winners. And have looked really good whilst doing so. Yes, it may be a pointless seriesette that in a couple of weeks we'll have forgotten all about, but if England get to wave yet another trophy around at the Oval on Sunday, it's a great opportunity to celebrate everything else that's good about English cricket. Enjoy the success while it lasts - it may be gone sooner than we think...

Graeme Swann will be captain

Given the fact that Swann is at least fifth (and possibly sixth) in line to the throne, the chances of him captaining England again are fairly slim. Swann probably knows this is his one and only chance to do something destructive as England captain, so expect him to pull out all of the stops. Stink bombs at the toss. The team running out to "Diamond Lights". Fielders on the boundary told to get girls numbers for the captain. Who knows. But it will be worth watching.

The West Indies are playing

Everyone loves watching the West Indies. They're either really good and make cricket look easy, or they're hilariously crap and are good for a few laughs. In a T20, there is the potential for both possibilities. Expect dolly catches dropped, huge sixes over the pavilion, stupid collapses, demon yorkers and players forgetting to bring their bat out to the middle. It's always entertaining to watch the West Indies. Plus they may start dancing if they take any wickets, which is always a bonus.

OK, that's pretty much it. While it may not make the history books in 100 years as one of the great series, it'll be good for a couple of hours of light entertainment. Plus afterwards you get to watch me on Sports Tonight Live. What's not to enjoy?

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Champions League Not So Champion

As an idea, the Champions League is a good one. Yes, it's been set up primarily as a money spinning way of getting a bit more TV revenue, but the notion of pitting the world's best domestic sides against each other is certainly something that should be pursued, and it's surprising that it took until 2008 for someone to think of it.

As a competition, however, the Champions League doesn't work so much. It just doesn't capture the imagination of anyone, at all. The qualifying stage, where teams have to fly out with no guarantee of actually getting into the tournament is stupidly thought out, and the fact that there are three teams in the groups means it will almost certainly be decided on net run rate. A long way to travel at a great expense, only to see your side miss out thanks to a piece of maths.

One of the most obvious flaws in the tournament is of course the fact that players who qualify via a number of different teams have the option of picking who they want to play for. And given the spending power of the Indian sides, any player who has the choice between their home domestic side and their IPL team is always going to follow the dollar. This is clearly unfair, skewing the balance even further towards India - lest we forget that four Indian teams qualify, compared to one apiece from Sri Lanka, West Indies and New Zealand. I know the Indian boards organise and bankroll it, but surely this blatant bias just isn't fair?

The tournament could work. The top two teams from each country all go into the group stages, with players who qualify for more than one team made to play for their "home" team. And it could be held more than one day after the county season ends. The idea of the world's best domestic sides all facing off should work - it should really work. But it just doesn't. Dwindling attendances, sponsors who don't even want to be associated with it, poor organisation, and the fact that teams could stand to make a loss on the whole escapade - the Champions League has a lot of work to do before it can be considered along side it's footballing namesake.

Monday, 12 September 2011

The T20 Captaincy Question

So with the news that T20 captain Stuart Broad's going to be out for a few months with a sore shoulder, as will vice-captain Eoin Morgan (spookily also with a sore shoulder), England's selectors are going to have to appoint their fifth captain of the summer ahead of the fairly meaningless T20 internationals against the West Indies in a couple of weeks. While the games will come at the end of a tiring summer and will probably be played by heavily depleted / disinterested sides, the matches (and perhaps even the away T20 in India after the ODI series out there) will give someone the opportunity to step onto the first rung of England captaincy - the chance to impress all with their cricketing brains, and the ability to tell their grandchildren that they were England captain.

So who should take the job? There are a few candidates, but as with the appointment of Broad himself at the start of the summer, nobody really jumped off the page. So I'll start with the FEC himself, and the man who already leads England's 50 over outfit, Alastair Cook. Everyone knows that Cooky is just serving an apprenticeship before being anointed England test captain, and taking on a couple of T20 games will only help his development and is another step of progression for him personally. However, Cook has long been deemed unsuitable to play T20 cricket for England. If he hasn't been in England's T20 plans thus far, with the bigger picture of the World T20 on the horizon, the selectors are unlikely to want to pick someone just for some one-off matches, which could rule Cook out. However, he has spoken of his desire to get into England's T20 team, and given the unbelievable form he's shown recently (including a T20 style innings as he guided England home at the Rose Bowl v India), this may just be the opportunity for him to get back into the shortest format side, and grab yet another captaincy in his quest for total control over English cricket.

The "not being in the side" argument would also appear to rule out some of the other senior players in England's side, with both Ian Bell and Jimmy Anderson not actually being in the T20 team. While they would both be major contenders in either of the other formats, the fact that they aren't (like Cook) actually deemed suitable for T20s should see them excluded from the reckoning.

With England's T20 team looking more pre-school than university, actual senior players who are regularly playing in there are fairly thin on the ground. In fact, only Graeme Swann and Kevin Pietersen could be deemed experienced enough to lead an England side, and both have their obvious fallbacks. Swann, for all of his laddish brilliance probably wouldn't be the best choice as he'd either do something inappropriate and unbecoming of an England captain, or by not being "one of the lads" the dressing room would miss out on Swanny's antics and the boost they give. And KP would come with the baggage of being KP, and everything that brings and has brought in the past. Besides, he may not want another crack at it after last time. However, despite how it all ended, Pietersen was actually not a tactically bad captain, and for only a one-off could consider having another go. And given that it is just for a couple of days, the powers that be may decide that Swann's influence wouldn't be missed that much, or even that even he couldn't create THAT much carnage in two days.

Another option would be giving it to an exciting youngster in order to help them progress, and given the relatively low pressure situation that it will be, that may not be the worst idea in the world. Current Lions captain James Taylor could be a shout, but after just one international cap, handing him the captaincy might be a touch premature.

However you look at it, the two games against the West Indies are turning out to be a bit of a nightmare. The players don't want to be playing them, and the selectors don't want to be forced into naming an interim T20 captain. However, a captain must be named, and while it may not mean much in the grand scheme of things, someone will be able to proudly boast that for two wet September days at The Oval, they were England captain.

Home or Away?

So England have won the ODI series against India. Given England's fairly abysmal start to 2011 in limited over cricket, two series victories over the two World Cup finalists is an obvious feather in the cap, especially given many assumed two heavy defeats would mark Alastair Cook's first two series in the job as captain.

However, England have had it mostly in their favour. Injuries to India, depleted after a long, gruelling and fruitless tour has meant that it has been far from the full strength side that saw India take the World Cup crown in April. Rain has come at opportune moments for England - first at Durham to save England as they wobbled, and then at Lord's, where Duckworth and Lewis' permutations could have seen the game go either way (and in the end, it went neither). However, the key asset to England thus far this series has been the choice of pitches that home advantage brings.

England's strength, as seen in the tests, is in their swing bowlers, who can move the ball both ways. Given Indian batsmen's historic aversion to being worked over by the moving ball, England have exploited that weakness effectively, seen most clearly at The Oval, where a combination of an emerald pitch and Jimmy Anderson reduced India to 58-5, and effectively out of the game.

So are England well within their rights as the home side to prepare pitches that favour their strengths? Well, yes. As has been pointed out, India are likely to prepare pitches that spin big for the away ODI series to follow - an area that England have historically struggled with as well. As Hampshire have shown in the T20 this season, it's well within a team's rights to take full advantage of home advantage by creating pitches that suit the side (and arguably to create a side that suits the pitch).

However, the question should really be whether England should actually take advantage of that home advantage, or whether they should be a little more thoughtful about things. It's becoming a running joke that England can do well at home before wilting in away series - especially in World Cups. The home successes mask clear problems in the side which are exploited when the conducive conditions aren't in play, leading to poor performances in 'alien' foreign climes. Surely if England are to progress in ODI cricket, they have to learn how to play, and to win on any pitch and in any given condition. Green-tops at The Oval are all well and good, but how will England grow as a limited over team when they are rolling teams over at home, before inevitably being rolled themselves on a raging turner in Chennai, Mumbai or Bangalore.

England have done well this summer in ODI cricket, but still have a long way to go before becoming genuine World Cup contenders. It's all well and good taking loads of wickets when the ball's hooping around corners, but England's real test will be when they travel to India in a few weeks for the return ODI series. Only once England learn to play well overseas can they be regarded as one of the best limited over teams around. Until then, as always, they'll just be seen as good in their own backyard.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Cook Stakes A Claim For The T20s

You can never write off Alastair Cook. He just has an innate desire to prove people wrong, going about his business quietly, effectively, and at a mind-numbing level of boring. After the talk of dropping him from the test side last summer, he then went on to have the winter to end all winters in Australia. Booted out of the ODI team, he comes back in, as captain, and makes stacks upon stacks of runs against Sri Lanka, pausing only to stick two fingers up at Michael Atherton everytime he got to yet another milestone. Only a return to the T20 team, which he was written off for long ago stands between Cook and the world domination of being the best batsman in all three formats of the game.

The rain affected ODI at the Rose Bowl was the perfect opportunity to show the selectors that he can play the shortest form. He already has a T20 hundred, don't you know. Faced with a potentially tough chase of 188, Cook carried his bat, making an unbeaten 80 off just 63 balls. He even hit a six.

As match-winning as it was, I still just don't see Alastair Cook as a T20 player. The Indian attack was woefully one-paced, and didn't offer much resistance to Cook's relentless dabs into the on-side. And while it was scored at a fairly decent lick (a strike rate of 127 isn't the best, but he was no stick in the mud), he just didn't score many boundaries. His 50 came up off 38 balls, and only included three fours (and that worldy of a six). He ran the ones hard and the twos harder, and while that should be applauded, against better fielding sides than a cold bunch of Indian second teamers, he won't be able to milk it as easily as he did. Cook will want to open - which means batting in the powerplay, and that means finding gaps and hitting boundaries. England's World T20 win was based on Lumb and Kieswetter getting them off to a flyer early, before big hitters came in and carried on the good work. The fact of the matter is that there are far better candidates to blaze it around at the top of the order than Alastair Cook. Cook would also expect to come in and captain, and judging by some of the odd decisions (Dernbach 5 overs for 49, Bresnan 4 overs for 43 yet Jimmy Anderson who bowled 3 overs for just 11 isn't seen again after a superb opening spell) he may not be best suited to do that either.

However, if watching Alastair Cook over the past year has taught me anything, it's to never write off Alastair Cook. He clearly believes he has a future as an international T20 player, so he will try his damndest to impress on the selectors that he should be playing in T20s for England. Cook is in the middle of a run of form that suggests he could score runs in any situation or in any format, and the unbeaten 80, as unglamourous and unflashy as it was may go some way to showing the powers that be that he should be in England's T20 team. Whether Stuart Broad, who was given the captaincy assuming Cook wouldn't get into the T20 team agrees or not is a different matter...

Missing Morgan Mixes Up the Middle Order

The news that Eoin Morgan has picked up a shoulder injury that will see him miss the rest of an India ODI series that already seems to have fizzled out into a damp squib may not seem important, but it couldn't have come at a worse time for England. With a resting Kevin Pietersen missing, and now Eoin Morgan, England have absolutely no idea of their strongest ODI batting line up, and will have to wait a further few months to organise themselves properly so they can discover it.

The idea of resting players is not a new one, and it is by no means a ridiculous one. Last summer, Kevin Pietersen looked jaded and forlorn - a shadow of himself having struggled through a test series against Pakistan. So, like it or not, KP sat out the ODI series, and has since made a couple of double tons and rediscovered the form that made him one of the world's best batsmen. And it's also clear that Alastair Cook, who wasn't at the time involved in England's limited over plans clearly benefited from the time out of international cricket at the end of last summer, seen in the winter to end all winters for Cook. International cricketers can't be expected to play 24/7, 365 days a year or they'll burn out - the current plague of injuries surrounding the Indian team is testament to that.

However, Pietersen missing last year's ODI series confused the selectors in the ODI format, leading to a very haphazard build up to the World Cup ultimately ending in Pietersen being shoehorned in to open, and nobody really knowing what England's best team was. Following the ultimate disappointment that the World Cup proved to be, England had the chance to reestablish themselves as an ODI side, with a new captain, and a blank canvas on which to create the best team possible. However, the middle order is still cause for concern.

Do the selectors want to use the tried and trusted batsmen from the tests with Trott batting at three, Pietersen at four, and Bell and Morgan at five and six? But is that line-up lacking in 'explosive' players? Do they want to bring in young Ben Stokes for his all-round abilities (even though he can't bowl at the moment, which was a decision not particularly thought through...), which means that someone has to make way? Or do they want to pack the side with one-day specialists like Bopara or Patel? The absence of Pietersen automatically means it isn't England's strongest side, meaning somebody is only temping for KP, and now with Morgan missing it means that more short-term fixes are going to be made towards a long-term problem.

England's lead-up to the World Cup was very poor, and while selectors have spoken about learning from their mistakes and moving on, it's plain to see that they still have no idea who they want in or how they want them to play. With Pietersen and Morgan, England's two ODI trump cards going to be out for the rest of the series, the search for a consistent and settled team will go on. It's just as well that against the world champions, England have their ever faithful match-saving joker. The September English weather.

Monday, 5 September 2011

The Evil Empire of the BCCI

If the cricket world was to be made into a film, it's pretty obvious who the bad guys would be. The BCCI. Yes, there are naughty people like Allen Stanford or Mahzar Majeed who come along every once in a while to provide plot twists, but they're more incompetent criminals then evil empire. The evil empire, of course, being the BCCI.

It does all add up. The BCCI created a league that they want to control world cricket, as well as giving themselves a monopoly at the top of the ICC (who, like the Ministry of Magic in Harry Potter, mean well but are largely incompetent). After taking all of the money and making all of the decisions, the evil empire then go around doing evil things like kicking associates out of the World Cup, or having massive conflicts of interest within the IPL or drowning kittens and the like. The BCCI are downright despicable, and they make people want to throw their popcorn at the big screen in disgust.

Of course, the people are so scared of the BCCI that they daren't speak out. Thought-crime is punishable by death, or by having their contract terminated, which means that people are happy to either toe the party line, or stick their heads in the sand and pretend it isn't happening. Any publication that disagrees with official BCCI policy (or indeed, doesn't support it wholeheartedly) is banished, and only a select few are allowed to report the news to the people - but only once they've signed a contract pledging to only speak the good word of the BCCI.

Every film needs a good guy - and oddly in this case, the good guy is Nasser Hussain. Not content with just inanely agreeing with every press release from the Empire, Nasser isn't afraid to speak his mind, no matter what the consequences. After verbally sparring with Chief Minister of Propaganda Ravi Shastri, Hussain then likened the Indian fielding to "donkeys".

Hardly the most cutting of comments, but everyone knows that anyone who opposes the BCCI in any way is committing a gross act of treason, and is liable to firm retribution. In this case, the BCCI get in touch with the ECB and tell them to "control their commentator". However, the ECB not being a totalitarian cricket state, they're unable to control this rogue journalist. And quite rightly.

Nasser Hussain is employed by Sky Sports, and a few other media outlets in order to give his opinions. Which is what he's done. If he thinks the Indian team have fielded like donkeys, he's well within his rights of free speech to say so. The fact that the BCCI think they are in any position to say that "commentators who make such comments, should abstain from saying such things" is a violation of Hussain's right as a journalist to report as he sees fit. The BCCI, or indeed any cricket player, official or body have no right at all to interfere with the commentators or reporters whatsoever, and any body that does so should be stopped immediately.

I was appalled to see that two of the leading commentators in Indian cricket are on the BCCI payroll, in order to spout BCCI policy, whitewash the news and brainwash the public. And that the BCCI are threatening the ECB, who quite rightly have no say over who Sky employ or what they say certainly smacks of an evil empire attempting to covert the world to their way of thinking - and should be stopped immediately.

As a cricket blogger, I will naturally agree with some of what I read and hear about cricket, as well as also disagreeing with certain items too. That's the nature of a free press, who are able to report whatever they see fit. But if an organisation is threatening and blackmailing reporters into only reporting whatever fits at the time, then the freedom of the press is lost. The BCCI have absolutely no place telling anyone what to, or not to say, and the evil empire certainly need putting back in their place. It's just as well that the good guy, the seeker of truth and justice, won't let it lay.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Jos Buttler Keeps

It's easy to forget that Jos Buttler is actually a wicket-keeper. Coming into Somerset's side after Craig Kieswetter had made the gloves his own, Buttler's had to settle for playing solely as a specialist batsman. Averaging over 68 in List A cricket, with an astonishing strike rate of 147 per 100 balls, Buttler is certainly an England player in waiting - indeed he is a current international having made his debut against India last Wednesday.

A modern cricketer sometimes needs a couple of strings to their bow in order to succeed, and Buttler's wicket-keeping could set him apart from the group of talented young limited over players all making their names in county cricket at the moment. However, Craig Kieswetter's seemingly permanent place behind the stumps at Taunton means that Buttler isn't able to show off his glovemanship, and that extra element to his game may be forgotten about.

Kieswetter's technique has led to question marks all the way through his international career, and it would only take a few low scores for the doubters to grow ever louder. England have a long list of potential wicket-keepers for the limited over formats (Matt Prior's position as test stumper being impregnable for the time being), with Steve Davies, Jonny Bairstow, Phil Mustard and even Middlesex's John Simpson (although I may be a little biased on that front) all putting forward excellent cases for their inclusion this season.

Kieswetter is currently away with the England ODI squad, which means that Buttler's been given the chance to don the gloves for Somerset's CB40 semi against Durham, and by all accounts Jos has performed tidily. Those in the know see Buttler's excellent technique as far superior to Kieswetter's shaky one, and it's fairly obvious that Buttler is the better long term prospect internationally. It's not uncommon for ODI teams to give the gloves to any old member of the team (de Villiers, Trescothick, Dravid anyone?) in order to shoehorn in the players that they want to, and while Davies, Mustard, Bairstow, Kieswetter and Simpson (don't forget him...) all keep wicket for their respective counties, we may see a situation where someone who fields at deep square leg for Somerset is given the gloves for England.

It's a tout, and an outlandish one considering the talent that is currently in front of him, but I'm expecting Jos Buttler to have ousted Craig Kieswetter as England's limited over keeper by next summer. Or at least taken over from him as Somerset's number one stumper...