Archive for July, 2009

After the Test series, Sri Lanka’s first home series win against Pakistan, the two sides move on to ODIs with the tourists looking for revenge. In trying to get their own back, Pakistan will be boosted by the return of ICL exiles Naved-ul-Hasan and Imran Nazir (as well as Abdul Razzaq,back after sitting out the Tests).

After the relative success of both sides in the World Twenty20, the focus shifts to preparation for the World Cup in 2011, but both sides have chosen to focus on experience – whilst Pakistan welcome back their ICL players, Sri Lanka bring back the likes of Thilan Samaraweera. The hosts also enjoy the return of Lasith Malinga (although Dilhara Fernando is available as cover in case the slinger picks up an injury. Meanwhile, the pressure on Mendis to deliver against Pakistan, a side who have played him pretty well, continues to mount amid suggestions that his magic has worn off.

Pakistan will hope that their new opening partnership of Nazir and Kamran Akmal (or whatever other partnership they go for – the squad is as strong as it has been for ages) can deliver, whilst their bowling attack – led by Umar Gul – looks strong as usual. If Shahid Afridi can take his World Twenty20 form into the (slightly) longer form then the tourists have a real chance of victory, but inconsistency (as ever) may prove the largest obstacle to success for Pakistan.

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Mitchell Johnson isn’t having the Ashes tour he was supposed to. His form is erratic, his mum and his girlfriend are complaining about each other in the press and the same papers are calling for him to be dropped.

English conditions are being blamed by some, his mum is being blamed by others, but whatever the cause the decline from top-ranked fast bowler to potential liability has been as striking and sudden as Steve Harmison’s. Nevertheless, with Brett Lee still sidelined, Johnson may well feature at Edgbaston, and it wouldn’t be too surprising if his mind is concentrated by all the criticism that has come his way over the last couple of weeks.

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Ian Bell will definitely start the Third Ashes Test at Edgbaston, after England opted not to call up a replacement for the injured Kevin Pietersen. Bell hasn’t played for England since February, when he was part of the touring side that collapsed to 51 all out against the West Indies in Jamaica, and the lack of any competition for batting positions could be seen as indicative of a lack of strength in depth.

Certainly, Bell’s average against Australia (a mere 25.10, as opposed to Pietersen’s 50.72) doesn’t inspire much confidence. Australia’s bowlers have had the better of Bell in the past, and he will need to come up with more convincing performances than he has in the past if he is to make an impact on the series.

Pietersen’s absence, of course, also heaps more pressure on Ravi Bopara to make some runs at the top of the order, and perhaps the expectation will be for Bopara to take on the role of aggressor in the manner that KP made his trademark. Whatever happens, there is a long way to go in the series, and plenty of time for reputations to be made, restored or cemented.

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There has been a lot of talk recently about the rise of Twenty20 freelancers, with Andrew Symonds and Andrew Flintoff both being linked speculatively with the idea of wandering Twenty20 specialists playing in four or five different countries’ domestic Twenty20 competitions a year rather than playing for their country.

Kevin Pietersen is the latest player to be linked with this idea (some less kind commentators may suggest that he has already displayed what some would call a mercenary approach in his move from South Africa to England), with PCA chief executive Sean Morris predicting “the day of the freelance cricketer with players turning down England contracts” in favour of the money on offer as ‘marquee’ players in overseas leagues.

There has been an interesting development on this front in New Zealand, with six Black Caps players agreeing new contracts which effectively surrender some of their IPL income. Daniel Vettori, Brendon McCullum, Kyle Mills, Jacob Oram, Jesse Ryder and Ross Taylor all agreed deals with New Zealand Cricket following a  delay whilst”scheduling conflicts between the … international programme and the IPL were clarified“. Unless some wide-ranging agreement is reached between national boards to compensate one another for the conflicts which arise between players’ commitments to overseas leagues and their national (and domestic) sides, this is a story which looks unlikely to go away anytime soon.

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The ECB has, somewhat out of character, done something that makes sense and decided that having two county Twenty20 competitions might be a little over the top, scrapping the proposed ‘P20’ league format (which was itself an alternative to the ‘EPL’ city-franchise-based competition which was previously favoured by some) in favour of expanding the existing Twenty20 Cup.

There would have been considerable foolhardiness in persisting with two twenty-over competitions in the face of waning support from the counties (which predictably faded further after it became apparent that there wasn’t as much money to be made as had previously been thought) and a general feeling that the format is reaching saturation point. According to the BBC, the expanded competition will span the whole season with most matches played on Thursdays, Fridays and at weekends, which also makes sense. In fact, the whole thing is so plausible and seemingly well-thought-out that it’s a little disconcerting.

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Bangladesh’s first ever overseas Test series victory may have come against a weakened West Indies side, but it does have a number of fringe benefits, not least the fact that Shakib Al Hasan has the chance to show off his quality in a winning cause. Having taken eight wickets in the Second Test (including 5-70 in the second innings) and made 96 not out as Bangladesh knocked off the required runs to seal the series, Shakib is starting to garner attention beyond the hardcore fans.

If Bangladesh are to establish themselves as a Test side to be reckoned with, and not just a minnow that can win the odd match and series against reserve teams, then the likes of Al Hasan, and Tamim Iqbal (who recently made his first ever Test century), will need to stand up and be counted as the influence of the old guard starts to wane. The silver lining of the huge metaphorical cloud that is what’s happening over in the Caribbean is that the Tigers are getting a chance to find out what winning Test matches feels like.

Here’s hoping they get a taste for it.

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In all the (admittedly irresistable) excitement about Flintoff, 1934 and all that, it’s important to remember that 2009 is not 2005. The tension has been similar, but mainly because both sides have alternated between dominance and capitulation, rather than because the standard of cricket has been as high as it was during the much exalted series of four years ago.

England, certainly, have looked much less impressive with the ball than they were at their mid-decade peak, with even Flintoff only occasionally managing to dispel the impression that he is something of a nostalgia act (today, of course, has been a glorious exception). The batting, too, is less assured – perhaps surprising, given that Ian Bell was in the 2005 side.

It’s hardly revelatory to suggest that Australia’s bowling attack is weaker than it has been for any Ashes series for nearly two decades, but it’s nevertheless accurate. Whereas the Aussies used to have the best bowlers in the world, Hauritz isn’t even necessarily the best spinner in Australia, and comparing McGrath to Hilfenhaus or Siddle is a bit like comparing Elvis to Jimmy Ray, at least for the moment.

So, it’s not time to start planning that chapter in your memoirs about the ‘legendary summer of 2009’ just yet, but unfortunately, this Ashes series seems to be having a similar effect on my mental health to the 2005 edition.

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The Third Test between Sri Lanka and Pakistan, which starts tomorrow, will be Chaminda Vaas‘ last. The announcement of his retirement from Test cricket comes just a fortnight after he denied speculation that his Test career was coming to an end, and his recall to the Sri Lankan side for the first time since February gives him the chance to leave on a high, with his side looking for a clean sweep against Pakistan.

Vaas is probably Sri Lanka’s greatest ever fast bowler, having played more than 100 Tests and taken more than 350 wickets. Whilst he intends to play one-day and Twenty20 cricket for another two years, his absence from the Test side will be keenly felt. If you don’t believe me, watch his 5-61 against the West Indies in Guyana last year below.

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The follow-on, and specifically whether or not it should be enforced in any given situation, is always a subject that provokes debate, and Andrew Strauss’ decision not to ask Australia to bat again at Lord’s is no different, with those who think he should have put them back in debating the issue with those who feel that batting again was the right decision.

It’s not necessarily an easy call to make. In the past, Strauss has been accused of conservative captaincy, and there is a danger that he will overestimate the possibility of the Aussies chasing down a monster total when he times his declaration. But five or six sessions should be plenty of time to bowl a side out, even Australia (although it will still require decent performances from the bowlers), and a faint heart never won a fair urn in any case.

Of course, soon those on both sides of the debate will have the benefit of hindsight -if England win, Strauss is a genius; if the Aussies escape, he’s too cautious and England don’t have the ‘killer instinct’ or ‘ruthlessness’ required.

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The American Premier League seems to have run into difficulties (and not just because of its shocking website), but any American-based Twenty20 fans need not despair, for the USACA (the USA Cricket Association, the official body in the States which is affiliated to the ICC) has put out a Request for Proposals from interested parties to set up a ‘USA Premier League’ Twenty20 franchise competition.

According to ESPN, the league would start in 2011, and it would certainly chime with the ICC’s plan to get the USA involved in Twenty20 cricket (as seen in the recent decision to fast-track the US side into the next round of World Twenty20 qualifiers). Whether or not ‘mainstream’ American sports fans would be interested in cricket is unclear, but the number of expatriate Indian, Pakistani and even English cricket fans based in the USA might mean that there is sufficient support to make the competition a viable prospect for sponsors even without what might be called ‘crossover’ appeal.

Certainly, Twenty20 cricket is the form of the game which would seem best suited to Yankee consumption, at least initially. At least there would be no snide comments about matches last five days and ending in a draw.

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England fans everywhere are carefully considering whether or not to get their hopes up after their side ended the second day of the Second Ashes Test at Lord’s needing only two further wickets to bowl out Australia, who currently languish 69 runs short of the follow-on target.

Jimmy Anderson in particular starred with the ball for the hosts, taking 4-36 in his 17 overs on Day 2, including the wickets of Cardiff centurions Ponting and North. Earlier, the “Burnley Express” had made a career-second-best 29 with the bat, most of which in a tenth-wicket stand of 47 which doubtless added to Australia’s frustration.

For the tourists, the task ahead is incredibly tough, but if they are asked to follow on, it could play into their hands, especially if the showers that are being forecast materialise at the right time (or the wrong time, depending on your viewpoint).

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Following Andrew Flintoff’s announcement that he will retire from international cricket after the Ashes, a number of overseas sides (notably the Queensland Bulls) have expressed a renewed interest in signing him for their respective domestic Twenty20 competitions.

The obvious parallel to draw is with another big-hitting all-rounder with a ‘history’ and a well-publicised taste for beer, Andrew Symonds, who also plays for Queensland (alongside Flintoff’s former captain at Lancashire, Stuart Law, although Symonds’ Queensland future is uncertain at the moment) and has recently been rumoured to be planning a new career as a globe-trotting Twenty20 specialist, a path that may appeal to Flintoff. In any case, it seems likely that – unlike in Symonds’ case –  England will still benefit from Flintoff’s limited-overs skills for some time to come, although his county may not – Lancashire were apparently as surprised as anyone else to hear the news.

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