Tag Archives: Ashes

Role reversal makes England Ashes favourites

Whisper it quietly but, the way this Ashes series seems to be developing, Andrew Strauss’ England team look like strong favourites to record a series win in Australia for the first time in 24 years.

Predicting success in Australia is one of the most notoriously optimistic traits an England cricket fan can have. The hype preceding tour after tour down under has promised much only for England to find themselves overmatched once the action commences on the field.

But there’s something different about this particular Ashes tour. Defeat in India reinforced the belief that Australia, now slumped to a previously unfathomable fifth place in the world rankings, were more vulnerable than they had been in England in 2009.

Then came the first test in Brisbane and, aside from the brilliant second innings batting of Strauss, Alastair Cook and Jonathan Trott, an odd, disquieting pattern began to emerge.

Previous England tours of Australia have been characterised by the tourist’s leftfield selections, the fielding of half-fit players and established players clinging for dear life to their international careers.

In 2010, the boot is on the other foot. This time Australia are in turmoil and Strauss’ professional, well-drilled, efficient England team are positioned to reap the rewards.

England walked into Brisbane well prepared. They had three tour matches under their belt. They even had the foresight to send their first choice bowling unit up to Brisbane early when they realized the Hobart pitch bore no resemblance to the strip they would play on at the Gabba.

All was not well with the hosts. The media questioned whether Michael Hussey should be in the team at all. In typical fashion, Mr Cricket responded with a timely – if slightly fortunate – hundred.

Vice-captain Michael Clarke’s fitness was an issue but they played him anyway. His reward? Getting peppered by England’s quick men for 45 minutes before eventually being dismissed.

Things were just as bad for the Aussie bowlers. Peter Siddle’s excellent six-wicket haul on his birthday masked the overall ineffectiveness of Ricky Ponting’s attack in England’s first innings. Second time around, they had no answer to the patient batting of England’s top order.

With Strauss effectively limiting himself to three attacking shots (the cut, the drive and the leg-side nurdle) and Cook and Trott refusing to waft their bats outside off stump, it was hard to see how Australia would take a wicket. As we now know, they only managed one in 170 overs.

The ongoing struggles of Ponting’s bowlers are another example of how English and Australian fortunes have reversed. In the past, bringing in an inexperienced player like spinner Xavier Doherty (never played in a test match, first class bowling average of 48) would be a typically straw-clutching English move.

Not any more. It is England who boast with the settled and experienced attack while the Aussies futile search for the next Shane Warne (or indeed the next Stuart MacGill) ambles on.

Then there’s Mitchell Johnson, axed one game into the series after spraying the ball around like a lefty Steve Harmison. Johnson was disappointing enough in England in 2009 but 18 months on he seems to have regressed even further, shorn of confidence and accuracy.

Dropping a player one game into a series is the least Australian move I can think of. Jeez, in 2005, they even carried Jason Gillespie for most of the series.

If Ashes history tells us anything, it’s that panic moves and desperation selections rarely work. England’s success in 2005 was built on stability. Their ignominious failure in 2006 (and many Ashes tours before that) was founded on incoherent team selection and poor captaincy.

Talking of which, the first test in Brisbane highlighted again how anemic Ricky Ponting is as a leader. Captaincy certainly came a lot easier to him when he could throw the ball to Warne, Glenn McGrath or Brett Lee and watch opponents crumble under the onslaught.

Ponting’s squarely unimaginative field placings on the final day in Brisbane were those of a man happy to display the most un-Australian quality of all: he was happy to settle for a draw – even though three quick wickets would have put his team on top against opponents notorious for batting collapses.

Not only did Ponting seem bereft of ideas, even worse, he seemed to have no inclination to attack. Previous Australian sides could force a win from almost any position – remember Adelaide in 2006?

Now, with a toothless and wayward attack at his disposal, he was happy with one slip and no bat-pad men in close. The shoulders of the Aussie fielders slumped when catches were put down. When has that ever happened before?

So Australia are old England, but are England able to be old Australia? The foundations are in place. A settled side, good preparation and disciplined leadership from Andys Flower and Strauss.

Can they dominate the opposition in this Ashes series? Pundits, pointing to Adelaide’s reputation as a batsman’s paradise, believe England will struggle to take 20 wickets there.

That’s a fair argument but the pitch isn’t the only variable in play. What about scoreboard pressure? If England bat first and grind the Aussie bowlers into the dust a la Brisbane, how will Ponting, Clarke and co go about their business facing a 500-run deficit?

Going into the second test, England have the momentum, but that counts for nothing when they take the field at Adelaide.

If the roles of England and Australia have truly been reversed, Strauss’ men must demonstrate the characteristically Australian professionalism, ruthless efficiency and unfailing belief in themselves if they are to take control of this Ashes series.

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England expects: the return of Kevin Pietersen

A good mate of mine refers to England cricketer Kevin Pietersen as “Big Prinz”, a song from The Fall’s I Am Kurious Oranj album which features the classic Mark E Smith lyrical refrain “He is nuts-ah!” (KP, nuts, geddit?). It’s an appropriate nickname for reasons that go beyond the obvious nutty bar snack association with Pietersen’s initials.

From the moment Pietersen made his test match debut at Lord’s against Australia in 2005, he dominated the crease with his Botham-esque self-belief and imposing Flintoff-ian physical stature. While supporters could sense the pride he took in representing his adopted country, they also enjoyed the fact that there was something wholly un-English about his behaviour. He refused to be intimidated by the sense of occasion. He dished out the abuse when opponents dared to sledge him. He regally counter-attacked against the best bowlers in the world. And, most importantly, he made big match-winning innings when it counted. Almost instantly, he became the biggest figure in English cricket. That is, until someone at the ECB decided he needed taking down a peg or two.

Dressing room leaks have seen him labelled a loner and were responsible for the decision to take the England captaincy from him after just six turbulent months.

Pietersen spent the first half of 2009 looking, in the words of Avon Barksdale, like a man without a country. Separated from his teammates by his own talent and the circus that surrounded him, it was almost a relief when he succumbed to an achilles injury that gave him a much-needed break from the game.

Fit again, Pietersen has rejoined England as they embark on their tour of South Africa. Only a fool would believe he won’t walk straight back into the team when the one day series begins. But while many believe we will see characteristic bombast when he walks out to bat in South Africa, I wonder if Pietersen’s experiences over the last 18 months have left him emotionally scarred.

Look at it this way, Pietersen’s technique is idiosyncratic. Although he bats with intelligence and thought – witness his ability to use his crease and alter his stance when troubled by pace or spin – Pietersen’s unique shot-making and dominant batting style relies, at least to some degree, on boundless self-belief. Up until the point where he accepted the England captaincy, it’s a good bet he’d never questioned or compromised himself in any way as a cricketer. I believe being deposed as England captain left deeper scars on Pietersen’s psyche than anyone will ever realise. It was the first time he hadn’t made a success of a situation he believed to be under his control (remember, it was the quota system that stopped him from being a star for South Africa). It was the first time he had openly and embarrassingly failed.

For this, the ECB must take the blame. They fudged the captaincy issue in the autumn of 2006 when, with Michael Vaughan injured, they passed over Andrew Strauss, who had just guided England to a home series victory against Pakistan, and made Andrew Flintoff skipper for the ill-fated Ashes tour. They overburdened Flintoff, the team’s best player, and lost the series 5-0.

In the summer of 2008, when the captaincy issue rose again following the retirement of Michael Vaughan, the ECB failed to heed the lesson and handed the reins to KP. At that time, there were no other choices as Strauss was out of the one day side and going through a terrible run of form in the test arena. Had Strauss been appointed in late 2006, the England team would have enjoyed the stable leadership that led to this summer’s Ashes victory. Plus, their two most talented players, Flintoff and Pietersen, would have been left free to perform without the pressure of the captaincy.

The ECB must have known that Pietersen as captain would lead to problems. For his part, KP looked like a man out of his depth, immediately insisting on the appointment of a new coach (tellingly, Kent’s South African coach Graham Ford who he had worked with before) and demanding former skipper Michael Vaughan be included in the tour party for the 2009 West Indies tour. He wanted expertise around him because he was already unsure of his ability to lead. As things turned out, he would lose the captaincy before setting foot on the plane.

Did being ousted as captain hamper Pietersen’s performance when he returned to the ranks of England’s middle order in the spring of 2009? Although he made a few forties and fifties against the West Indies and in the Twenty20 World Cup, the sense of dominance and permanance at the crease were gone. The achilles injury did play a part, but so did the fact that he had been betrayed by his employers. Losing the captaincy through no fault of his own (the ECB later went on record backing up Pietersen’s assertion that he did not leak the story of his rift with coach Peter Moores to the media) robbed Pietersen of his instinctive and domineering South African style of play. Thanks to the ECB, he suddenly looked like a typical English batter, reactive and riddled with self-doubt.

If England are to be successful in South Africa, Andrew Strauss needs Kevin Pietersen to come back having used his six-month break from cricket to allow his psychological scars to heal. With Strauss and new coach Andy Flower flush from Ashes victory, Pietersen’s return to the England dressing room should be a smooth one. This is no longer a one or two man team. Flintoff is gone. The likes of Strauss, Graeme Swann and (on occasion) Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad have announced themselves on the international stage. The success or failure of the England team no longer depends on whether Pietersen flays the opposition bowling to every corner of the ground or gets out first ball to a good delivery. To help England be successul in South Africa, all Kevin Pietersen needs to do is rediscover how to be himself.

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All in the game: sportsmen who could be characters in The Wire

A recent Guardian Football Weekly podcast suggested that The Wire’s Baltimorean drug lord Marlo Stanfield would be adept in the English Premier League owing to his uncanny ability to take corners.

The Wire is, in my humble opinion, the greatest TV show ever made. I love it almost as much as I love the sporting endeavours of Steve Nash, Tim Lincecum and Stuart Broad. So, with props to James Richardson and Co for getting the cogs of my brain to turn, the Sports Bloke presents a list of sportsmen who could be characters in The Wire.

Detective Jimmy McNulty is… Andrew Flintoff
McNulty, a supremely talented murder investigator acknowledged by his peers as “natural po-lice” but with an appetite for booze-based self-destruction. Sounds similar to a certain English cricketer we all know and love? Like McNulty, Flintoff has infuriated his bosses and colleagues at points of his career only to be welcomed back into the fold thanks to some superb individual efforts. Both men also ended up “riding the boat” or, in Fred’s case, a pedalo, after cracking under the pressure of their day jobs.

Avon Barksdale is…  Ricky Ponting
At one point, Avon ruled the Baltimore drug trade. His position was untouchable thanks to the support of Stringer Bell and his enforcers Wee-Bey, Stinkum and Bird. As captain of Australia, Ponting dominated world cricket thanks in part to his cricketing “muscle”. For Bell, Bey, Stinkum and Bird, read Glenn McGrath, Shane Warne, Adam Gilchrist and Matthew Hayden. When Barksdale lost his lieutenants, he lost control of the game and was jailed at the conclusion of series three. When Ponting attempted to regain the Ashes without his best players, he came up short too.

Bunny Colvin is…  Isiah Thomas
Colvin created Hamsterdam, a chaotic open drug market in which dealers and hoppers could operate free from the threat of arrest. In the world of sport, only Isiah’s tenure as New York Knicks general manager comes close to matching Colvin’s lunacy. Bad trades, horrific man management, a crippling wage bill and a well-publicised sexual harassment scandal all punctuated Zeke’s time in charge at the Garden. If anything, this comparison is unfair to Bunny Colvin.

Ellis Carver is…   Tony Adams
The Sports Lass is convinced the overriding theme of The Wire is the redemption and evolution of Ellis Carver. When we first meet Carver, he and partner Herc specialise in cracking heads of dealers “the Western District way”. As The Wire develops, so does Carver. Stung by his betrayal of Cedric Daniels in series one, he ultimately discovers a more cerebral approach to policing, softening to the point where he attempts to adopt young Randy Wagstaff in series four. In sport, only ex-gooner Tony Adams can rival such a transformation. In the early 1990s, Adams was a booze hound who spent Christmas in jail. Ten years later, he was quoting philosophy, earning a university degree and learning to play the piano.

Omar Little is…  Kobe Bryant
Prior to being gunned down by young Canard in series five, Omar scratched out a profitable living as a stick-up artist par excellence inhabiting a lonely world somewhere between the police and the street. Like Omar, Kobe is also an outsider. He grew up in Italy and entered the NBA aged 17, unable to relate to the locker room banter and bling. However, his solitary existence has never stopped him from excelling professionally. Omar’s focus in his vengeful pursuit of Avon Barkdale’s crew in series one is eerily reminiscent of Kobe’s cool detachment as he fired the Lakers to NBA championship victory over the Orlando Magic earlier this year.

Proposition Joe Stewart is…  Harry Redknapp
Prop Joe survived the ravaged Baltimore streets thanks to his ability to strike deals to save his skin. His “buy for a dollar, sell for two” ethos echoes that of Spurs manager Harry Redknapp, a man who cuts deals for football players as readily as Joe distributes dope. Like Joe, Redknapp has an ungrateful nephew which means Cheese – played by Staten Island’s streetwise troubadour Method Man – must be Chelsea’s Frank Lampard.

Marlo Stanfield is…  Kevin Garnett
After ousting Avon Barksdale as Baltimore’s drug kingpin, Marlo and his crew ruled the streets with a mix of cold-blooded intensity and instant vengeance. Like Marlo, KG is the most intimidating figure in his arena, instilling fear into opponents and teammates (remember when he made Glen ‘Big Baby’ Davis cry on the bench) alike with his demands for 100% loyalty and effort. It’s no stretch to imagine Garnett evoking Marlo’s credo “my name is my name” in response to hecklers in opposition arenas.

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How England can still win the Ashes

OK, cards on the table, England were royally hammered by Australia at Headingley Carnegie in the fourth Ashes test. The Swagmen, handed an early advantage by England’s profligate batting against the swinging new ball, dominated every facet of the match to win in two and a half days, levelling the series with one test to play.

A number of commentators, bloggers and prognosticators view Australia’s win as a critical turning point in the series. After all, the men in baggy green caps now have all the momentum, have the three leading wicket takers and have made seven centuries to England’s one. The hosts, riddled by injuries and self-doubt, are certain to fall to another defeat at the Oval in the fifth and final test. Right? RIGHT??

Believe it or not, despite all the negative press hysteria, it is still possible for England to win this Ashes series. Or at least I think it’s still possible. Here’s how:

Add experience and character
England’s extensive back room staff have taken responsibility away from the players for their mistakes. Obsessed with “taking the positives” out of each abysmal effort, players like Ian Bell have become cricketing automatons, unable to think their way around problems they face on the field. Shane Warne recently made the point that Monty Panesar hadn’t played 35 tests because he’d played the same test match 35 times. This comment cuts to the core of problems in the England camp. Experience, the sort gained in the heat of battle in a tight game, is sorely lacking. England must drop Bell for Robert Key, a man who was sledged mercilessly by the Aussies in 2002/3 but came through it to earn their respect, promote the resourceful Kent skipper to number three and bolster the ailing middle order.

Let Flintoff play regardless of his injuries
The importance of some things can’t be measured by statistics. Whether he’s 100% fit or hobbling on one leg, the presence of Andrew Flintoff will provide England with a massive boost at the Oval. The talismanic all-rounder simply has to play. In addition to his excellent bowling, Freddie galvanises the England dressing room and his presence alone should be enough to coax better performances from the likes of Jimmy Anderson. In what will be his final test match, the big man is guaranteed to give England a titanic performance.

Win the toss and bat and bat and bat
Last week, I watched Mark Ramprakash cruise to 274 for Surrey against Leicestershire. While the 39-year-old batsman doesn’t deserve an England call-up, his exploits at the Oval gave a timely preview as to what both teams can expect from the Kennington pitch. The Oval is a batman’s paradise and England must exploit it to the full. The best way to do this is win the toss, bat for two days, put the Aussies under scoreboard pressure and use the spin of Swann (and possibly Panesar) and Fred’s reverse swing to win the game on a wearing fifth day pitch.

Don’t buy into Aussie superiority
Forget the stories of Australia’s bowlers taking four games to acclimatise to English conditions and now being at the top of their games. Siddle, Clark and Hilfenhaus looked superior at Headingley because Australia were so far ahead of the game that they were able to bully England’s timid batsmen. But that was one game with conditions in their favour and England faltering under pressure. Remember Lord’s, where the Aussie bowlers were flayed to all parts of the ground by rampant England batsmen. In that situation, they were the ones under pressure, looking ordinary and unable to respond. It happened again when Broad and Swann got on top of them at Headingley. I’d argue that we haven’t seen both teams at their best simultaneously in any session in this series so far. It would be special if both teams clicked into prime form at the Oval.

Don’t rip the team to shreds
England’s selectors should take a good look at the treatment of Mitchell Johnson before taking the hatchet to their team. Short of form, Johnson eventually benefited from the faith shown in him by Ricky Ponting and bowled Australia to victory at Headingley. He now has a more than respectable 16 wickets for the series.

England should not make more than one batting change for the Oval test. As I’ve already said, I’d drop Bell for Key to add some guts to the middle order. What I wouldn’t do is drop Ravi Bopara or Paul Collingwood for debutant Jonathan Trott or veteran Mark Ramprakash. Play Key at three, Colly at four and Bopara at five with Prior, Flintoff and Broad adding firepower at six, seven and eight. Anderson and Swann retain their places with Panesar replacing Harmison only if the pitch is dry and spin-friendly as expected.

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