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Stuart Broad has been casually referred to as The Next Flintoff ever since his remarkable bowling spell at The Oval back in August, but he’s only now starting to live up to the moniker by picking up “a niggling injury to his right knee“. The young superstar-in-waiting and chat show guest is set to undergo a ‘strengthening programme’, but not until after the Champions Trophy, which suggests that he may also be going down the Flintoff route in playing in less-than-crucial matches even when unfit because of his ‘presence’.

If I was Broad’s manager, I’d lock the minibar and keep him away from pedal-powered water vehicles, or alternatively invest in some hangover-masking sunglasses.

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Mitchell Johnson, after a disappointing Ashes series (even allowing for his fine showing at Headingley), is showing English crowds what he’s capable of. After taking a wicket with his only ball of the rain-curtailed Twenty20 series, he was at it again at The Oval, taking 3 for 2 from his 7 overs as Australia won by 4 runs.

The potency of Johnson and the equally impressive Brett Lee as a strike partnership may have Australian fans pondering what might have been if the two had bowled together in the Test series. Whilst Hilfenhaus, Siddle and Clark picked up plaudits in some quarters, it’s hard to escape the feeling that the series was ultimately decided by two awesome bowling spells (particularly, of course, Stuart Broad‘s at The Oval) which Australia’s pacemen couldn’t quite deliver.

Speculation is of course an idle pastime, but there are certainly plenty of Poms who reacted to Lee’s injury at the start of the summer in much the same way as they did four years earlier when Glenn McGrath managed to injure himself in a warm-up without so much as an Owais Shah leg-biter to blame. I don’t think anyone is saying that Lee would have had as much impact as McGrath undoubtedly would have in 2005 (indeed, I made that point at the time), but the Aussie pace attack might have been a little more stable with his involvement.

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The Urn

Congratulations England, farewell Flintoff, hard luck Hussey, and hats off to young Broad.

It hasn’t been the greatest series ever, but winning the Ashes still means a lot. Of course, it’s all thanks to Monty’s last stand at Cardiff

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Much has been made in the build-up to the Ashes about the supposed weakness of Australia’s bowling attack, but it is quickly becoming apparent that England’s isn’t quite as good as some people would have you believe.

Flintoff has bowled plenty of overs without looking particularly menacing; Panesar‘s only wicket was more or less self-inflicted by Ponting; Swann hasn’t proved as dangerous to the left-handers as was predicted, and has been outperformed so far with the ball by Nathan Hauritz, Australia’s alleged weak link; Jimmy Anderson has been Jimmy Anderson, threatening for a spell then innocuous until the second new ball; Stuart Broad has gone for nearly 4 an over.

If England want to bowl Australia out twice in a Test this series, then someone needs to step up. Graham Onions may be feeling confident about his prospects for the Second Test (as indeed may Harmison).

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The first day of the 2009 Ashes was quite a day. It had a spectacular catch from Mike Hussey, Mitchell Johnson scaring the horses, Pietersen and Collingwood losing their heads (and their wickets), Prior and Flintoff going ballistic, a wholly unnecessary nightwatchman being employed to protect Stuart Broad, who ended up batting anyway, and Katherine Jenkins, for those of you who like that sort of thing.

On balance, both sides will find plenty of encouragement, as well as plenty of areas for improvement. It seems at least some of the hype about the entertainment value of this series will be borne out.

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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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England’s selectors have announced their 13-man squad for the First Ashes Test at Cardiff, and there’s good news and bad news.

The good news is mainly for Graham Onions – his performance against the West Indies (as well as a strong start to the season for Durham) has seen him included, and also for Monty Panesar, with whom Onions is competing for the last bowling slot, albeit with conditions rather than form likely to be the final arbiter of the decision about who plays.

The bad news is for Steve Harmison (although he was expecting it, as he should have been after being left out of the 17-man training squad) and for everyone who hates Ian Bell, who has been included despite managing only 20 runs in two innings against the Australians last week. Bell is very much the 13th man, but an injury to any of England’s top order could see him play a part.

The squad in full is as follows: Andrew Strauss, James Anderson, Ian Bell, Ravi Bopara, Stuart Broad, Paul Collingwood, Alastair Cook, Andrew Flintoff, Graham Onions, Monty Panesar, Kevin Pietersen, Matt Prior, Graeme Swann.

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Ravi Bopara grasped his chance at number three with both hands whilst all others fell about him. Strauss (who was crowned England’s best player of last year before the start of the match) made just 16; Cook did his usual of getting in and getting out; Pietersen was out first ball as his disappointing IPL form spilled over into the English ‘summer’; Collingwood didn’t get out of single figures; Prior and Broad both battled beside Bopara but didn’t hang around for long enough (although in Broad’s case he probably lasted longer than his batting deserved); and Tim Bresnan made about as many (and as few) as those who have never heard of him may have expected.

For the tourists, Fidel Edwards took 4-53 (and might have had another two or three but for some dropped catches) and Sulieman Benn took a couple as well.

If Bopara can hang around tomorrow morning and shepherd the tail, then England can make a decent enough score, but I shudder to think what Australia would have done to this batting line-up.

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England have announced their squad for the summer’s World Twenty20, having trimmed their initial 30 down to a more manageable 15:

Paul Collingwood captains the side, somewhat suprisingly given his previous reluctance to do so, and the fact that he stood down as One-Day captain a mere nine months ago. Cynics may also suggest that if England’s best hope is someone who couldn’t even get a game in the IPL, then things don’t look good.

The other headlines are the inclusions of Rob Key (interesting because he hasn’t played for England – as opposed to the Lions – since 2005, and his last limited-overs international was way back in 2004), James Foster (also recalled after a long exile), Eoin Morgan (‘borrowed’ from Ireland), Graham Napier (another IPL bench-warmer, albeit with a fair bit of Twenty20 pedigree) and Leek’s very own Ryan Sidebottom.

The rest of the squad comprises James Anderson, Ravi Bopara, Stuart Broad, Andrew Flintoff, Dimitri Mascarenhas, Kevin Pietersen, Owais Shah, Graeme Swann, Luke Wright.

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Is Stuart Broad just making excuses for England’s recent poor performances with the ball, or does he have a point when he says that the “wickets have been overly flat, it’s not been a fair battle between bat and ball and it doesn’t make for exciting cricket“?

Probably a bit of both. A side that gives up the world record number of extras is clearly struggling (not all of them can be blamed on Prior), but a series that has already seen four innings over 500 in less than four tests suggests that the pitches have been too flat (when they haven’t been unplayable).

Flat pitches were also an issue in the tragically-cut-short series in Pakistan, and are increasingly an issue for Test cricket as a whole. Against the backdrop of shorter forms of the game increasingly favouring bat over ball, the delicate balance at the heart of the game is in danger of being lost.

I know that this is hardly a novel or original point, and a fair amount of sour grapes may be behind Broad’s frustration, but I think the powers that be need to keep their eye on the ball – and not just the bat.

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V.S. Naipaul could hardly have scripted it better for India. The crowd favourite tore up the fourth-innings rulebook, the young gun and the Mumbai legend completed the feat. For Indian fans, this must have been cathartic in the extreme – a famous triumph against ridiculous odds, victory from the jaws of defeat.

Best of all, references to ‘the Security Situation’ declined rapidly
from Day 3 onwards. Strauss, Sehwag and Slow Over Rate were the only
S-words on anyone’s lips.

Continuing the alliteration, Sehwag’s Sunday slogfest (youtube here) set things up for India to acheive the seemingly impossible and chase down 387, but it was England’s bowlers who arguably made the largest contribution to the home side’s success. Panesar (0 for 105 from 27 overs), Harmison and Anderson have all come in for some criticism, suggesting that Broad will return immediately to the side once fit, and there are also likely to be some changes in the England batting order before the Second Test.

For the moment, though, it seems churlish to detract from the Indian
achievement
by dwelling on the English failure. Even though it was a cataclysmic failure.

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After the recent events in Mumbai, and the subsequent ‘will they/won’t they’ deliberation by the tourists over whether it was safe to travel, both England and India will doubtless be relieved to get back to playing cricket when the Test series gets underway in Chennai.

For the hosts, the tour is an opportunity to cement their status as
challengers to Australia’s dominance of Test cricket (a 1-0 or 2-0 win
would see them overtake South Africa as the second-highest ranked team), as well as the first series since the retirement of Sourav Ganguly. Yuvraj Singh, who many feel has so far failed to do himself justice in the longer form of the game, steps into Ganguly’s shoes. If he can replicate the form he showed in the One Day series, England’s bowlers are in trouble. Also in need of a big score is Rahul Dravid – ‘the Wall’ has looked a little less than solid of late, and calls for his retirement are starting to be voiced more vociferously.

For England, ‘spin twins’ headlines await for Graeme Swann and Monty
Panesar
after the former (“a lovely confident boy”, according to his
captain) was confirmed as the replacement for the injured Stuart Broad
. Also added to the side for the tourists is Matt Prior, who returns in place of Tim Ambrose as part of England’s revolving door approach to wicketkeeper selection. Although it has been suggested that England’s very decision to tour means that they ‘cannot lose’ in terms of prestige, they can certainly lose the series.

You can follow the First Test here, or here.

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