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Part two of the Twenty20 Champions League Preview:

  • The Bangalore Royal Challengers have almost as many South Africans in their squad as the sides representing that country (even without the injured Kevin Pietersen). Jacques Kallis, Mark Boucher and Dale Steyn all feature, whilst Rahul Dravid demonstrated in this year’s IPL that there’s a role for him in Twenty20 cricket which doesn’t simply involve driving down the run-rate.
  • Somerset‘s preparation has been dominated by Marcus Trescothick’s return to India, with some of the coverage seemingly willing him to suffer a breakdown. Assuming all is well with Trescothick, he and Justin Langer make an experience opening pair, with possible future ‘England’ wicketkeeper Craig Kieswetter also capable of making quick runs. It’s difficult to assess how well the English sides will do, but at first glance it seems a mighty task for Somerset to win the tournament.
  • Sussex have a reasonably balanced side which was impressive during the English domestic Twenty20 Cup, with the batting of Michael Yardy and Ed Joyce and the bowling of James Kirtley particular highlights, with Luke Wright and to some extent Yasir Arafat capable both of adding runs and taking wickets at crucial moments. The side may struggle against some of the millionaire IPL teams, but perhaps greater experience of Twenty20 cricket will count in their favour.
  • Trinidad & Tobago are arguably considerably stronger than the side which is representing the West Indies at the moment, with Dwayne Bravo one of the stars of the (now presumably defunct) Stanford 20/20 competition alongside spinner Dave Mohammed, and with Windies wicketkeeper Dinesh Ramdin also in the side.
  • Wayamba have the experience of Mahela Jayawardene and the magic of Mendis. The latter will most likely bamboozle a number of players who are missing international experience, although he didn’t quite live up to his billing for Kolkatta in the IPL. The side look more like dark horses than front-runners, but, as I’ve already said, anything could happen over 20 overs.
  • Victoria might suffer for the loss of Dirk Nannes, but David Hussey and Brad Hodge have the class to make an impact with the bat. Bryce McGain has another chance to make an impact outside of Australia following his disappointing Test ‘career’.
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The Twenty20 reaches its conclusion this weekend with the now traditional Finals Day. This year will be the last season of the current format, and will also see the first qualifiers decided for the Champions League after last year’s cancellation.

As well as the exciting prospect of the mascot race being commentated on by Phil Tufnell, the cricket should be of a high standard, with four good sides involved:

  • Somerset, like Kent, are former winners, and the quality of their top order (Trescothick, Langer, Kieswetter…) is beyond question. The bowling is not quite as strong, but if the batsmen make a big enough score that won’t matter too much, and the experience of the older heads will be priceless in the field.
  • Sussex may be missing Matt Prior for Finals Day, but they have quality bowlers in Yasir Arafat and James Kirtley, whilst Luke Wright can make an impact with bat or ball (or both). Defeat in the Friends Provident Trophy final may have sharpened their hunger for success, but Murray Goodwin will need to regain his form if they are to lift the trophy.

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The so-called ‘Langer dossier‘ detailing all of England’s failings (which, incidentally, Justin Langer almost certainly didn’t write) is getting a lot of coverage today – but it’s hardly full of revelations. In the words of Michael Vaughan, “If I had been asked to write a dossier on English cricket, I would have come up with many of the same points“.

Any English cricket fan could tell you that the team’s heads drop when they’re up against it, that Matt Prior and Graeme Swann have large egos and that Jimmy Anderson can fall apart when things aren’t going his way. Perhaps the dossier also contained suggestions that Pietersen rates himself highly and that Andrew Flintoff likes a beer or two.

A far more profound insight into the (lack of) mental strength of England’s cricketers could be gained purely by watching them bat in the current Test.

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Unless you’ve been hiding away in a University tower for the last couple of months, it can hardly have escaped your notice that the Ashes starts tomorrow with the First Test in Cardiff.

England’s fans (and some sections of the media) seem to have suffered a bout of collective amnesia (or perhaps repression), with the last series (which, of course, Australia won 5-0) as infrequently referred to as an old copy of the Encyclopedia Britannica or an Atlas that still has Yugoslavia and the USSR on it, and with many non-experts apparently believing that the 2005 series was in fact the last time these two sides met.

Nevertheless, the events of four years ago are likely to foremost in the mind of Ricky Ponting, who will be desperate to restore his reputation and prove the doubters (such as a certain Mr. Thomson) wrong. If Mitchell Johnson can bowl at his best and the openers can cope with reverse swing more competently than Langer and Hayden managed four years ago, then the tourists can more than justify their status as favourites.

The home side, meanwhile, are – as ever – reliant on Pietersen and Flintoff. The emergence of Graeme Swann as a genuine spin threat who can hold a bat (and a catch) adds some balance to the lower order, but there is a lot of pressure on Broad, Anderson and the fifth bowler (a position that my be filled by a number of players throughout the series) to take wickets, something which Flintoff hasn’t done much of in recent years. The top order needs to display more solidity than it did over the winter, and while Ravi Bopara may have the element of surprise (although not to the extent that KP did four years ago), he will struggle to sustain his brilliant early-season form against a bowling attach which – for all its much-heralded weaknesses – will be far more motivated than the Windies were (and, of course, won’t suffer from as many misfields).

Although it pains me to admit it, it’s tough to see past an Aussie series win.

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  • Durham surprised a lot of people with their Championship win last year, and with Steve Harmison out of favour with England once again, their bowling attack looks just as strong as it was in 2008. Ian Blackwell has come in to bolster the middle order and add a spin option, and Shivnarine Chanderpaul returns in June following the World Twenty20.
  • Hampshire arguably owe last year’s survival, let alone their eventual third place, to the spin bowling of Imran Tahir, who returns from June. In the meantime, Australian Marcus North comes in as an overseas player to add runs, and Dominic Cork also arrives following his release by Lancashire. Chris Tremlett will also be key for the attack, whilst Mascarenhas’ England and IPL commitments will drain the Rose Bowl’s resources for much of the season.
  • Lancashire have released Dominic Cork and Stuart Law, whilst Andrew Flintoff and James Anderson are likely to make very few appearances for their county, so the Red Rose lineup will be somewhat unfamiliar in places. Mark Chilton and Francois Du Plessis need to improve on last year’s performances with the bat, or relegation may threaten to make Peter Moores’ 2009 even worse.
  • Nottinghamshire may spend the majority of the season watching their three best bowlers ply their trade for England, so the likes of Shreck and Pattinson will be key. If Samit Patel gets fit enough to be called up as well, the side could look a little thin in the middle order, but if newlywed Adam Voges can translate his limited-overs form to the four-day game then the prospect of a title challenge isn’t too far-fetched to consider.
  • Somerset continue to have an incredibly strong top order (especially with and Marcus Trescothick as an opening pair), but with Ian Blackwell moving to Durham and Andy Caddick into his 40s, the bowling attack looks worryingly thin. Unless a young gun steps up to take wickets, a proliferation of draws may ensue.
  • Warwickshire face the step up from Division Two without Ian Salisbury, but Jeetan Patel should be a strong addition to their four-day side. If Ian Bell stays out of the England team long enough to feature regularly, then the Bears can reap the benefits. Similarly, Tim Ambrose will be a force in the County game even he doesn’t cut it at Test level.
  • Worcestershire enter the post-Hick era in 2009, which puts a lot of pressure on Vikram Solanki and the likes of Stephen Moore. Gareth Batty’s recent England call-up underlined his quality with the ball, but the pace attack is relatively weak, especially given Simon Jones’ continuing injury problems. If Solanki and Kabir Ali find form, then the side can look for more than just consolidation in their return to Division One.
  • Yorkshire came uncomfortably close to relegation last year, but players of the quality of Michael Vaughan, Anthony McGrath, Matthew Hoggard and Adil Rashid should see them improve in 2009 (assuming England call-ups don’t intervene). A championship challenge may be asking too much, and adjusting to life without Darren Gough will be difficult, but there is enough class (especially with Jacques Rudolph in the side) for a top-half finish.

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As the County season is about to properly start, here’s my preview of County Championship Division One.

  • Kent
    Positives: Joe Denly looks exciting, plus they are Champions of the most popular form of cricket at the moment (that’s Twenty20, not Brockian Ultra-Cricket)
    Negatives: The bowlers are OK, but they aren’t of the standard that many other county attacks offer.
  • Lancashire
  • Positives: Ashes Hero Freddie Flintoff will actually play some games for Lancashire this year, and there are still more than enough wise old heads to suggest a decent chance of silverware.
    Negatives: The psychological damage of last year will be hard to overcome, and the average age of the side is about 56.

  • Nottinghamshire
    Positives: David Hussey, future Australia star, will score runs aplenty when he’s available, plus there will be occasional cameos from new signing Stuart ‘Ricky’ Broad.
    Negatives: Stephen Fleming’s captaincy skills will be missed, and there are a few concerns about the bowling when Sidebottom and Broad are away on England duty.

There may be a Division Two preview tomorrow, but there may not be if I can’t be bothered.

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