Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Abject England; as weak as water

Having won the first four matches of their tour to New Zealand, England were expected to dominate the ODI series much in the same way as they had done the 20/20 match-ups. However, New Zealand hadn't read the script and have since demolished England in the first two ODIs.

Fans would have been hoping that the abysmal showing of Saturday had merely been a blip on the radar for this young and promising outfit. It was infact nothing, compared to the apocalyptic debacle witnessed at Seddon Park this morning.

Captain Collingwood lost the toss and England were put into bat by New Zealand skipper Daniel Vettori. A few minutes later, Alastair Cook and Phil Mustard made their way to the block to try and make amends for their failings first time around.

For six overs everything seemed to be going according to plan. The batsmen gauged the pace and bounce of the pitch much better and made an aggressive start. However, as he does too often Mustard went for one shot too many and was caught out when he could easily have played the ball along the ground through cover. With experience, Mustard is likely to cut these mistakes out of his game. Next ball, the under-pressure Ian Bell, fell for a golden duck due to an exceptional catch by keeper McCullum. Next in was Pietersen and together with Cook, they seemed to steady the ship. The pair were still at the crease when rain curtailed play for over 2 hours.

Upon the resumption of play, England fell apart. Daft shots and ridiculous run outs caused England to collapse from 90-2 to 158 all out. No dismissal was more farcical than that of Alastair Cook.

Ravi Bopara decided it would be a great idea to hit the ball straight to New Zealand's best fielder (Ross Taylor) and set off for a suicide single. Being the team player that he is, Cook tried to rescue the exigent situation and did his best to scamper up the pitch and try to prevent the loss of another England wicket. He was run out by a mile.

To make matters worse, Bopara played a painstaking innings from there on in and subsequently threw his wicket away. People will very quickly get annoyed with this laissez faire approach and the distinct lack of a sensible thought process.

On the other hand, Alastair Cook again played superbly for his innings of 53. Some would argue that he should have stood his ground and allowed Bopara to be run out. With more experience, he probably would have done so. However, he was completely innocent in his dismissal and one would only hope that Bopara later apologized for denying him a big innings. One can not be sure as to how many Cook would have gone on to make as the rest of the team hardly stuck around. However, had he stayed England's score might well have been upwards of 200; a much greater challenge under the constraints of Duckworth Lewis.

It is good to see that Cook is getting a fair run at the top of the order. He is a good complimenting opener to Mustard as he allows his colleague to take on the bowling. Despite missing out on the 20/20 matches, Cook has put in three very good performances so far on this tour and slowly his class seems to be showing through in the one-day arena. It is little wonder that he is being touted as the FEC. The man is only 23 years of age; yet he is playing with a humility and percipience that is frankly putting his senior counterparts to shame.

New Zealand's openers, McCullum and Ryder, showed no mercy whatsoever in their attempt at chasing down the inadequate total set by the opposition. England bowled very badly and the two batsmen slaughtered the bowling to take New Zealand past the winning post of 165 with 107 balls remaining. England had chances but wasted them; dropping McCullum on 0 and Ryder on 8. They finished on 80 and 79 respectively. Even so, England got what they deserved.

With the next game on Friday in Auckland, it is very hard to see how England are going to be able to pick themselves up in time. A plus for the visitors is that things really can't get much worse. Collingwood seemed keen on keeping an unchanged team for this match but after today's result, changes seem inevitable. Bell and Bopara both seem to be in torrid form and the only players who would be likely to come in for them are Luke Wright and Dimitri Mascarenhas. This would leave a probable batting order like so:

1. Alastair Cook
2. Phil Mustard (WK)
3. Kevin Pietersen
4. Paul Collingwood (Capt.)
5. Owais Shah
6. Dimitri Mascarehnas
7. Luke Wright
8. Greame Swann
9. Stuart Broad
10. Ryan Sidebottom
11. James Anderson

It is the opinion of many that Pietersen should bat at three because he is clearly England's best batsman. He should therefore be exposed to as much of the bowling as possible. On his day, Collingwood is most probably the side's second best one-day batsman, hence making him the obvious choice to be England's number four. Dimi Mascarehnas and Luke Wright both played well during the 20/20 series and would add a much needed impetus to the middle order.

England have talent, there is no doubt about that. They showed that they were made of sterner stuff during the 20/20s; yet their sudden loss of confidence is making them as weak as the rain water that disrupted play in Hamilton today. A promising, young and at times, exciting team they may be. It just seems at the moment, many of those promises are rather hollow.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

20-20, a perfect vision.

I was listening to the B.B.C's coverage of New Zealand vs England on Test Match Special this morning. I must admit, I like so many others, was sceptical about the shortest format of the game. I am very much a traditionalist when it comes to cricket and I felt 20/20 would detract from some of the finer points of cricket which make it so compelling to both play and watch.

However, the more I see of it, the more I am warming to it. I played my first 20/20 match last year and it was really good fun. It was a beautiful late summer's evening. There was a big crowd and there was a party atmosphere about the ground. Music playing, hot food for sale, as well as a fantastic run chase. It all made for a great time.

It was mentioned on the radio that the first ever ICC 20/20 World Cup will take place in England; using Lords, The Oval and another southern ground to stage the matches. It would have been nice to see a northern ground involved but I feel it is only right that the English get the chance to host the competition. After all, they gave 20/20 to the world. Organisers say that there will be cheap tickets and a distinctively English feel to the tournament.

England have had a patchy 20/20 record of late but managed to convincingly thump New Zealand by 32 runs. The hero for England was Mascarenhas. He hit a mighty 4 sixes in a row; this ultimately was the deciding factor in the match. These runs came with England losing wickets and when the run-rate falling. It was a case of someone grabbing the bull by the horns and he did so admirably.

After recent performances, people were wondering whether or not Cook would get a game in the limited overs series. Today, the selectors went for Wright and Mustard. One would assume that this is probably the best way forward in T20 but as for ODI things are still very much undecided. If Wright gets a good score on Thursday, it will be a very tricky decision indeed as to who will open in the first ODI on Saturday.

Whether or not England builds on this most recent 20/20 victory or not is irrelevant. The shortest format of the game is for a long time to come and it is spreading fast. Most amateur leagues are carrying out some kind of 20/20 tournament these days and it has brought a lot more money into grass roots. People love to go out and slog and have fun. Provided it is played sparingly, it will always be able to draw the crowds and draw in the money. It must be carefully balanced with List A and first-class matches to provide a recipe for success. It truly is a great idea and here's to Twenty 20 cricket.

Is he cutting the mustard?

I know this is my 3rd post of the day but I ask for people to please be patient. I had a thought whilst nattering with my brother just now.

Phil Mustard, described by Shane Warne as England's Adam Gilchrist , is going to be playing for his country during the upcoming limited overs clashes with New Zealand. It is great to see that the selectors are looking for aggressive hitting up the order but they must surely be worried about his current showing.

So far Mustard has played a total of 5 ODIs, all against Sri Lanka; with has a highest score of just 28. He is young, so time is on his side and has produced some remarkable displays of power hitting in county cricket; which were enough to get him selected in the first place.

Unfortunately, this is no longer county cricket. There are vast differences and so many have triumphed domestically, only to be brought crashing down to earth on the biggest stage of all. Mark Ramprakash, Greame Hick and Robin Smith, to name but a few.

What is most concerning about Mustard is that in England's two warm up matches he has looked very nervous and tentative; scratching around and only making 33 runs off 63 deliveries in two innings. His opening partner, Cook, known not to be an natural striker of the ball, acting as the aggressor. This being very much what Mustard is in the side to do.

After two failures against what has to be considered a moderately weak opposition, Mustard is very much in the spotlight. It is right that he should be given every opportunity to prove his worth; but one wonders whether he has the fundamental technique to perform at the highest level consitantly. Having seen what he has achieved so far on this tour, it seems a certainty that he won't be the first choice test wicketkeeper; and the warning signs are there for a troubled ODI series for the lad from the North East.

Monday, February 4, 2008

A brighter future for county cricket... hopefully

Today, the E.C.B. has announced that £30 million will be ploughed into the county game and upwards of 2000 community clubs across the country. This money is primarily going to be used to update venues of all 18 first-class counties, to ensure that international standard floodlights are installed. For leading county grounds there is the added bonus of improved drainage.

County cricket always takes second place to internationals and rightfully so; but it doesn't need to be as far behind as it is currently. With the advent of 20/20 cricket, the financial benefits and increased popularity associated with floodlit cricket have been further confirmed. More floodlights mean more day-night matches. More day-night matches mean more spectators and more money for the game. This money then can be reinvested into bigger and better things.

As with all investment, it needs to be carried out thoroughly and short cuts shouldn't be considered. Let's for example, take a look at the county ground, Bristol. In 2007, it staged a day-night ODI between England and India (India ending up winners by 9 runs). This match was played with four small floodlights all at one side of the ground. This would be an unacceptable waste of funding if such an arrangement was to be made to make this a permanent. If floodlights are to be installed, they should look to install big towers all around the ground, such as those used in Australia. This would make viewing and playing much easier.

Part of the E.C.B’s long-term county reformation plan will see large international grounds, such as Old Trafford, being entitled to funding for better drainage. It would be good to see this on a par with the standards at Lords. Such drainage would be fantastic and would clearly allow for much more cricket to be played.

Is it fair however, that non-international grounds shouldn't have improved drainage? County grounds such as Glamorgan, Derbyshire and Worcestershire appear to be somewhat neglected due to not being hosts of test matches. This is disappointing to see. All grounds should be improved to allow for as much cricket as possible. It is only right that in this day of sky-high ticket prices and non-terrestrial TV coverage, that the followers of this great game get their money's worth.

Cooking Up A Treat

Fans at the Village Green Cricket Ground in Christchurch, witnessed what might well have been the coming of age of Alastair Cook as a one-day batsman.

Ever since Cook burst on to the international scene in spectacular fashion, scoring a century on debut in Nagpur; question marks over his ability to score aggressively in the shorter formats have remained. In his first 16 innings he has scored 1 hundred, against India last year and a strike rate of 69.00 has left many people asking whether or not the man is up to the task.

When England arrived in New Zealand ahead of the T20 and ODI series, Alastair Cook was by no means a certainty to participate in the limited over matches. However, scores of 51 and 138* have given him a real possibility of making the team.

Cook has been working very hard in recent months to improve his scoring options. It helps that he is a quick learner, but he and England batting coach, Andy Flower, urge for patience, as at the young age of 23, Cook is very much a work in progress and greater things are yet to come.

Yesterday's innings shows just how far the young Essex player has come. His strike rate was a very impressive 98.57 and during his 140 ball innings, he managed to clear the boundary twice. These were his first sixes in England colours.

What was most impressive about this innings however, was not his final tally but the maturity he showed whislt constructing it. Opening the batting with Phil Mustard, a very aggressive hitter, it was Cook who took the attack to the bowling. He carried this England chase much in the way an older more experienced player would. He did not become unsettled by dismmissals to key players like Pietersen and Collingwood and forged good partnerships along the way.

The important thing to remember is that Cook is young, he has time, plenty of it. Form and fitness allowing, he has another 10+ years at the top. He will never be Adam Gilchrist nor will he be a Ricky Ponting. He is much more likely to be a Jaques Kallis kind of figure. Forget about the bowling side; and even the averages. Kallis occupies the crease and that, with time is what Cook will hopefully take from his test game into the ODI arena. Kallis has 9414 test runs (S/R 44.07) and 9541 ODI runs (S/R 71.35).

If Alastair Cook continues to improve as he has done in List A cricket and continues to score heavily in tests; there is no reason why he can't acheive similar feats or even surpass them. No one would complain about that.