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Club cricket takes a new turn this week with the inaugural Twenty20 Champions League. Here’s a brief run-down of the sides involved:

  • The Cape Cobras, although without the injured Graeme Smith, will still have plenty of firepower with JP Duminy and Herschelle Gibbs the main threats. The lack of access to the large pool of overseas talent that the IPL teams will enjoy could be an issue, though, as could a lack of familiarity with subcontinental conditions from the non-internationals amongst the squad.
  • The Deccan Chargers boast a wealth of talent, with Adam Gilchrist, Andrew Symonds, Chaminda Vaas and Scott Styris all in the squad alongside Indian players of the quality of Laxman and RP Singh. One of the IPL sides will be expected to win the competition, and the Chargers will certainly fancy their chances.
  • The Delhi Daredevils pulled off a coup in securing Dirk Nannes‘ services for the tournament, and some of his fellow Victorians may be cursing that decision on Friday when he could well open the bowling against the Australian side. Meanwhile, Gambhir, Sehwag and Dilshan could be an irresistable top order combination if they all hit form. The loss of Paul Collingwood to injury is unlikely to be felt too deeply (except by Collingwood himself, who has ‘a little niggle in his buttock’, no less).
  • The Eagles are on paper the weakest team in the competition, but the likes of Dillon du Preez and Ryan McLaren have overseas experience, and Twenty20 competitions have proved ripe for surprising results in the past, so they shouldn’t be underestimated.
  • New South Wales could upset the IPL hegemony, with the likes of Simon Katich and the famously big-hitting David Warner providing the runs, whilst Stuart Clark, Nathan Hauritz and Brett Lee will be a potent attack. If the problems which the Australian national side had in the World Twenty20 can be overcome, then NSW could be heading home with some silverware to go with their international players’ natty new white jackets.
  • Otago‘s chief asset, as ever, is the power-hitting of Brendon McCullum, but brother Nathan can also contribute. Dimitri Mascarenhas, available as neither Hampshire nor Rajasthan have qualified, has a strong track record in this format with both bat and ball, and is a strong addition to the squad.

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There’s been plenty of talk in recent months of the rise of the freelance cricketer, with first Andrew Symonds, then Kevin Pietersen and Andrew Flintoff being linked with the idea. Now it seems that the latter is set to lead the way, having turned down an ECB contract in favour of what some might call a mercenary existance.

On his official website, Flintoff has said that “I said when I retired from Test cricket that my ambition was to become the best one-day and Twenty20 player in the world and playing in all these different countries can only help”, keeping mention of the potential millions on offer if he plays for six teams on five continents as it has been suggested he might.

Just in case the IPL millions don’t quite cover Freddie’s bar bill, though, he is also set to take on a second job commentating for Eurosport on the Twenty20 Champions League next month. The retirement fund seems to be coming along nicely, although it remains to be seen whether Flintoff’s popularity with England fans takes a knock from this news.

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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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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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What is it about international cricketers and buses? After Jamie Siddons’ concerns about Bangladesh’s coach-related timekeeping comes news that Andrew Flintoff is similarly lacing in bus-catching skills. Although no mention of alcohol consumption has been made by the ECB, The Times have chosen to illustrate Michael Atherton’s report with a picture of Flintoff downing a beer, implicitly drawing parallels with a certain other power-hitting all-rounder who has recently made headlines for reasons other than cricket, as well as raising the spectre of the infamous ‘Fredalo‘ incident of 2007.

Perhaps more worryingly, Andrew Strauss has said that “punctuality has been a bit of an issue recently with a few players“, which doesn’t bode well for team morale, togetherness and all the other things that the team’s trip to Belgium was supposed to instill in the first place.

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Although many would suggest that their recent form in the World Twenty20 hardly merits it, Australia’s cricketers are set for a pay rise after the Australian Cricketers Association (ACA) and Cricket Australia agreed a new Memorandum of Understanding.

The move is being seen as motivated by a desire to stave off defections from the national side to a freelance (or, less generously, mercenary) existence of the sort that Andrew Symonds looks set to pioneer following his recent troubles.

It has also been revealed that the new deal will see the highest-paid player or players earn bonuses based on “their recognition and their popularity”, although reports that Ian Bell is strenuously lobbying the ECB against adopting a similar system are as yet unconfirmed.

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Andrew Symonds has been axed from yet another Australian squad for disciplinary reasons. Apparently he broke team rules relating to alcohol and other issues, which sadly doesn’t come as much of a surprise.

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Less than 24 hours after being backed by his captain for a place in the Ashes squad, Andrew Symonds hasn’t been included in
said squad, with Shane Watson, Andrew McDonald and Marcus North all being preferred to the centrally-contracted and often controversial all-rounder.

Was this the right decision? Was it the wrong decision? Will it make any difference?

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Australia’s poor one-day form continued as they lost to Pakistan by 4 wickets with a whopping 35 balls remaining. Chief amongst their tormentors was Shahid Afridi, who took 6-38 from his ten overs, his best ever bowling performance in an ODI.

In fact, eight of Australia’s wickets fell to spinners as they crumbled to 168 all out. James Hopes made 48, but ran out of partners and ended as the lone player not to be dismissed (and as the only player other than the top 3 to make it into double figures).

The sides play again on Friday, when Pakistan will be hoping to continue their good form and Australia will be hoping to arrest their seeming decline. The likes of Andrew Symonds, playing in this tournament in the hope of gaining an Ashes place, will nio doubt be desperate to get back out onto the field.

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The second season of the IPL (or the first season of the SAPL, if you prefer) gets underway this weekend, so here’s the lowdown on the teams taking part:

Bangalore Royal Challengers
Bangalore’s main pre-season activity was the purchase of Kevin Pietersen and KP will join a host of his fellow countrymen in Kallis, Steyn and Boucher. Last year the Royal Challengers finished seventh of eight teams, with only 4 wins, and Rahul Dravid didn’t look much of a Twenty20 batsman last time out, so it is to be hoped that the signing of Pietersen and the availability of Nathan Bracken following injury last year will improve things.

Zaheer Khan has departed to the Mumbai Indians in a swap deal for Robin Uthappa, but Steyn and Bracken – when available – should be enough to keep the bowling up to standard. Nevertheless, the Royal Challengers are unlikely to be amongst the favourites for the competition this year (although as Rajasthan showed last year, the odds may not be a fair indicator of each team’s relative chances).

Chennai Super Kings
Initial indications are that Chennai look strong again this year. Matthew Hayden’s retirement from international cricket means he is available for the whole competition, and new signing Andrew Flintoff, if fit, could potentially be the archetypal IPL all-rounder. In addition, MS Dhoni remains a potent threat.

Last season, the Super Kings lost out to Rajasthan in the final on the last ball, and the squad looks good enough to go one better this time around if fortune (and fitness) favours the Super Kings.

Delhi Daredevils
Dehli have been hit by the loss of Shoaib Malik and Mohammad Asif, but have added Australian master blaster David Warner and English duo Paul Collingwood and Owais Shah. Perhaps most important of their new additions is ‘Dirty’ Dirk Nannes, a Twenty20 specialist who has been part of successful Middlesex and Victoria teams in the shortest form of the game.

Dehli also have the likes of Sehwag, Gambhir, Vettori, de Villiers and McGrath at their disposal, so if the Daredevils can get the make-up of their side right, they have a strong chance of success. The fact that most of their overseas stars will be available throughout may lead to the odd selection problem, but they will be problems of the sort that other franchises would like to have.

Deccan Chargers
Last year’s wooden-spoon winners in dead last place, the Chargers suffered heavily in the batting department as Shahid Afridi, Scott Styris and even Herschelle Gibbs failed to live up to expectations. he has been recalled, and they have a preponderance of all-rounders having also added Dwayne Smith and Ryan Harris.

RP Singh is also under pressure after a disappointing season last year, as is Chaminda Vaas, and Fidel Edwards’s arrival should improve the effectiveness of the bowling unit. In all, there is some hope for a better performance this year, although it would be hard for the Chargers to do any worse.

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Marcus North has made quite an impact in his first outing as a Baggy Green. Australia are in the market for new heroes at the moment, given their recent slip from the heights of invincibility, and North seems to fit the bill.

The last player to make a century on debut for Australia was Michael Clarke back in 2004, and in the years since, the side has been arguably at its least stable for some considerable time. A batsman of North’s ability lower down the order, combined with some promising batting from Mitchell Johnson, will help the Aussies cope without feeling the need to have Andrew Symonds in the side if his non-cricketing issues aren’t resolved in time for the Ashes.

Australia are evidently going to be tougher to beat for South Africa the second time around.

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The first day of the long-awaited series between Australia and South Africa promised drama, and on that score it didn’t disappoint. The home side, having won the toss, found themselves languishing at 15/3, but Simon Katich and Michael Clarke, and then Andrew Symonds and Brad Haddin, battled back to leave the Aussies on a decent 341/9 at the close of play.

South Africa’s bowling attack has been much praised in the build-up to this Test, and it seems to have delivered for most of the day. Ntini in particular gave the Australians all sorts of trouble, and it will be interesting to see how Australia’s less than experienced bowlers fare when they get their chance on day two.

If every day’s play is like this, we’re in for a fantastic couple of weeks.

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