Familiar England failings exposed again

It is an all-too-familiar tale for England in the One-Day arena.  Conservative batting, unimaginative bowling, a general lack of pragmatism and inventiveness – I could go on.  Time and again they are getting schooled by teams who are playing a brand of cricket which is light-years ahead.  Against an India team that were comprehensively outclassed in the Test series, England are finding that revenge is a dish served pretty chilly.  Losses by 6 wickets, 9 wickets and 133 runs are not close encounters; they are absolute thrashings.  So why is it that a team which triumphed 3-1 in the Test series be so totally outplayed not three weeks later?

            England have historically been ambivalent at best towards One-Day cricket.  Players are rightly brought-up to view Test cricket as the ultimate goal, and pyjama cricket as an added extra.  In this country especially, One-Day internationals are usually tagged on the end of an intense Test Series where interest is waning from both players and spectators alike.  I am yet to meet any serious fan who prefers the shorter form of the game.  Overseas however the One-Day arena is treasured, not least on the subcontinent where crowds are much larger than for Test cricket.  Nevertheless, England should be commended for preserving the popularity of the 5-day game over the crash-bang-wallop of limited-overs cricket.

            Yet it is the lack of any crash-bang-wallopesque cricket which is currently hindering the national side.  No one loves orthodox cricket shots more than me, but there is a time and a place for them – the test arena.  One-Day cricket has moved on.  No longer can one patiently build an innings at a leisurely strike-rate.  The requirement is that batsmen attack the bowling from ball one.  As scores of 300 become commonplace at a rate of one run per ball, a conservative approach is doomed to failure.  Yes there are situations where a pragmatic approach is prudent, but the time when pottering along to set a target of 250 has passed.

            So how do England escape the mire and become realistic challengers for the World Cup in just 6 month’s time?  With great difficulty.  As long as Alastair Cook is at the top of the order England will continue to struggle.  Get off to a fast start and the middle-order can relax and play their shots knowing that a competitive total is almost guaranteed – and this puts pressure on the bowling team.  If, like England, the openers do not take advantage of the fielding restrictions in the first 10 overs, the team is always playing catch-up.  It is not a recipe for long-term success.

            I don’t necessarily think there needs to be wholesale personnel changes to the team.  The basic spine of Root, Buttler, Tredwell, Bell, Anderson and Broad (if fit) is strong.  I like the introduction of Alex Hales at the top of the order who, if he stays in for 20-30 overs, can take the game away from the opposition.  Steven Finn is another who I rate very highly and who causes batsmen real problems whatever form of the game he plays.  He is key to England’s prospects of success in the future.

            Two selections baffle me.  Eoin Morgan must have some very incriminating photos of James Whittaker because his continued presence in the England side is perplexing.  He has not played an innings of substance or significance for at least two years and often wastes valuable balls scratching around for form.  Gary Ballance would be a much better alternative in the middle order.

Equally, Ben Stokes has never convinced me as player of international class.  With bat in hand his recent form has made Chris Martin look like Sachin Tendulkar – he has also been expensive with the ball.  The team’s all-rounder should be able to contribute in at least one facet of the game but Stokes is doing neither and is currently a waste of a position in the team.  I feel he is still living off his exploits over the winter in Australia.  Ravi Bopara’s international experience of almost 10 years has been bizzarely jettisoned and I would like to see him back in the fold as soon as possible.  His batting is far superior to Stokes’ and he can also bowl troublesome cutters that opposition batsmen find oddly difficult to hit.

In an ideal world England would have a player like Surrey’s Jason Roy or Nottinghamshire’s James Taylor in the side.  Both have been selected for the one-off T20 international and, after his exploits in the Natwest T20 Blast, it will be interesting to see how Roy fares on the international stage – he will certainly improve the strike-rate.  Taylor has merited his place in the squad through sheer weight of runs in the domestic 50-over competition and he is certainly knocking on the door of both the One-Day and Test squads.  After bursting on the scene so spectacularly earlier this year, Chris Jordan’s star has waned slightly.  His bowling is still too erratic but he remains a useful lower-order batsman and I think he is worth persevering with.

Not even the most optimistic England fan could envisage Alastair Cook’s men lifting the World Cup trophy in Australia in March.  Even though the team has some class operators, they don’t produce the goods often enough when it matters.  If one were to look at the best teams in the world, they all have a plethora of match-winners and usually at least one player steps up to the plate and performs.  England currently lack this (apart from possibly Anderson), and consequently, although it pains me to say it, they won’t win the World Cup.

England wrong to jettison Pietersen so soon

England’s dismal display at the recent T20 World Cup re-inforced the view that they have made a massive error in ditching Kevin Pietersen.  With someone of KP’s class and experience in the side one doubts whether England would have suffered that humiliating defeat to the Netherlands.  But it is not even in the crash-bang-wallop of the one-day arena that Pietersen’s absence will be felt most strongly.  With the Surrey man out of the picture, only two of the top 7 are nailed-on certainties for the first Test against Sri Lanka in June.  Pietersen himself has admitted that he still has the hunger and desire for Test cricket, and with England’s top order in disarray, it seems like an absolute no-brainer to keep him.  Even at 33 years-old he still has two to three seasons at the top level left in him.  So why did England feel the need to dispense with his services?

 

All this talk from Alastair Cook, Andy Flower and various ECB bigwigs of the team wanting to move in a new direction seems like a load of dog-turd to me.  The fact is that Pietersen didn’t fit in to the authoritarian atmosphere that Flower had created.  He had the audacity to question certain things and, god-forbid, speak his mind.  Because of this, he created tension within the management and the team too.  My concern is that Flower and co. refused to adapt to Pietersen’s single-minded nature.  You hear talk in football about coaches having great man-managing ability.  Alex Ferguson and Jose Mourinho are two such examples of managers who could mould a group of superstars into a coherent and ultimately successful team.  Why was this not the case with Pietersen?  I have no doubt that he could sometimes be difficult to manage, but therefore why wasn’t he treated a little differently so as to coax out of him maximum performance and commitment to the cause?  Every team has a maverick who doesn’t necessarily fit-in.  The challenge is to embrace this and enable them to maximise their rare talent, not to try and supress it.

 

I have a little theory about this whole saga.  Pietersen was born and raised in South Africa and despite his ‘English’ nationality, has a very ‘South African’ approach to the game.  The culture is highly competitive – aggressive even, and there is a huge will to win at all costs.  Pietersen embodies this culture.  He is a winner, believes he is the best and wants to show everyone he’s the best.  He was often criticised for giving his wicket away to needless attacking shots, but in his world, he wanted to dominate the bowling and grind the fielding side into the ground.  It was not enough to simply occupy the crease and stay in.  It is an approach that, despite the criticism, brought him 23 Test centuries and over 8,000 runs.  Now Pietersen has a very similar record to England captain Alastair Cook, but you don’t hear people chastising Cook for giving his wicket away.  This is because Cook accumulates his runs in a very unassuming fashion.  He rarely plays extravagant shots and likes to score methodically and ‘correctly’ – in short, in a quintessentially English way.  KP by contrast liked to score his runs with authority, taking on the bowling with unorthodox strokeplay and with an air of brashness and arrogance – namely, a more ‘South African’ approach.  I think this insistence on playing his natural game combined with his intense ‘winning’ attitude off-the-field jarred somewhat against England’s more traditional and conservative values.  There has also been a nagging feeling, and I include myself in this, that Pietersen didn’t quite make the most of his extraordinary ability.  The truly great batsmen of the era; Kallis, Ponting, Lara, Tendulkar, Dravid, Jayawardena, Sangakkara, all average above 50 in Test cricket.  Pietersen’s average of 47, whilst very impressive, does not place him in that exalted category.  There is a frustration that, with the talent at his disposal, he should have achieved slightly more than he did which could have contributed to his eventual downfall.

 

Pietersen’s ‘sacking’ is not a first.  A recent example is the John Terry/Rio Ferdinand saga of 2012, when, despite clearly being good enough, the Manchester United man was not selected by Roy Hodgson for the Euros squad because of the personal differences he had with Terry.  Ironically, a few months later, Terry himself was told he would no longer be selected for England, yet finds himself in a similar situation.  Arguably he is one of the four best centre-backs in England but cannot go to the World Cup in Brazil this summer.  The difference between these cases is that whilst Terry and Ferdinand were good players in their own right, they were not the best in the team.  Pietersen is palpably still the best batsman England have at their disposal, yet they refuse to pick him.  One can’t imagine Steven Gerrard, for example, being dropped just because he isn’t that popular in the dressing-room.  The whole saga has been conducted in a very childish manner.  Someone needs to sit Flower, Cook, the ECB and Pietersen down and just bang their heads together.  I’m still hopeful I will see KP in an England shirt again (as a Surrey fan I will hopefully get to watch him a fair amount), but with all that’s happened, it unfortunately doesn’t look likely.

 

The timing of Pietersen’s removal is made all the more bizarre in that there is no ready-made replacement waiting in the wings.  Obviously, players of Pietersen’s class and style come round once in a generation, but I have high hopes for James Taylor, who has been on England’s radar for a number of years.  He played a few Tests in 2012 against South Africa and looked solid but since then, Joe Root and Jonny Bairstow have jumped ahead of him in the queue.  If he can overcome his fitness problems, Samit Patel is another who has oodles of talent, but time is running out for the podgy Nottinghamshire player to make a mark in Test cricket.  Eoin Morgan has pulled-out of the IPL in an effort to force his way into the England side but I think he is vastly overrated and will never be a Test regular.  Bairstow is another who has a good county record but doesn’t have the requisite technique to succeed at the highest level.  He has had enough chances to stake his claim and has never really convinced.  Aside from those mentioned, the early county season is a chance for someone to force his way into the selector’s reckoning  given that there are no fewer than four places in the top 7 up for grabs (Jonathan Trott has to earn his re-call to the side à la Graham Thorpe in 2003).  Whoever is picked as Pietersen’s replacement against Sri Lanka in June will have some enormous shoes to fill.

Is it ever morally OK to support the Aussies?

For me, it is often impossible to watch a sporting contest purely as a neutral.  As much as I may watch for the enjoyment of sport itself, at the back of the mind there is usually one team, or one individual I want to win.  This may be down to the skill of a particular performer (I always want Ronnie O’Sullivan or Roger Federer to win, as they are the most exciting players to watch, even if they are, in their own ways, arseholes); it may be down to a strange childhood obsession (I will always support Denmark at football, because of their 1986 team); it could be because of a mildly xenophobic dislike of certain countries in a sporting context (I will hardly ever root for a team or person from France, Germany, Australia or the USA); and it often stems from the peculiarly British desire to see the underdog win.  For this last reason, I despise Manchester United, the New Zealand rugby union team, and Tiger Woods.

It can happen that I care not, when following a sporting event, who wins.  This may be due to antipathy for the competitors (when Chelsea play Man United, the only real positive outcome for me would be if there were an unseemly brawl, resulting in a points deduction for both sides) or a liking for both the opponents.  For example I would have been happy for either Rafa Nadal or Stan Wawrinka to win the recent Australian Open Final, Nadal because he comes across as a lovely, humble bloke, and Wawrinka because he was the underdog and has one of the dreamiest backhands in the game.

The current Test series between South Africa and Australia is one such occasion when victory for either side would leave me content.  Like any right-minded English person, I have long held a deep-seated hatred for the Australian cricket team for many reasons: they are historically England’s cricketing rivals; I grew up watching gum-chewing, baggy cap-wearing, muscular men swatting aside the feeble challenge of some limited county pro; and their team always seemed to contain a number of highly objectionable individuals, such as Shane Warne, Matthew Hayden and Glenn McGrath (it has shaken my faith slightly in my judgement of character that McGrath comes across as one of the friendliest and most self-deprecating of men in the TMS commentary box.  At least Warne’s still clearly a cock).

Therefore, even against a South African team for whom I have no real affection (Graeme Smith in particular looks a self-satisfied bully), ordinarily I would be rooting wholeheartedly for the Saffers.  However, this is not necessarily the case.

Before you start accusing me here of not being a true England cricket fan, and threaten to snap my Ashes 2005 DVD before my eyes as not being deserving of it, allow me to explain.  I have not got a weird sporting version of Stockholm Syndrome and developed an affection for the Aussies.  I still despise Steve Smith’s piggy face, idiosyncratic batting technique and knack of taking vital wickets with some of the filthiest leg-spin this side of Scott Borthwick.  I can’t stand Michael Clarke’s false bravado and ridiculous captaincy decisions, mistakenly lauded in some quarters as inventiveness.  Every time David Warner flashes speculatively outside the off stump without even considering moving his feet, I want to punch him in the face, and make him say, several times, ‘it is a travesty, nay a scandal, that I have considerably more Test caps than Stuart Law.’

Instead I am searching for reassurance that England’s 5-0 mauling over the winter was not entirely down to English incompetence, but was instead thanks to an outstanding performance by a well-balanced and highly motivated team.  I am still not completely over spending most of November and December quickly checking the score at 3am before enduring several hours of introspection and gloom, interspersed with dreams about Mitchell Johnson’s moustache running off with my girlfriend, while Brad Haddin taunted England by batting with a stick of celery and wearing Boycott’s mum’s pinny.  If Australia could beat South Africa, then the memory of those disturbed nights might start to fade.

And, to be honest, it was quite fun watching a different team getting totally obliterated by Mitchell Johnson’s speed and aggression, while David Warner’s hopeful wafts kept on connecting, ruining Vernon Philander’s career figures.  But, come the second Test I was starting to feel a little uncomfortable – as much as it was satisfying to watch Graeme Smith forced into panicking his wicket away twice, it would be less fun if this was the start of another period of Australian cricket dominance.  What it needed, the right-minded amongst us felt, was a high-class fast bowler in excellent form to expose the Aussie batting line-up as the brittle fraud it is.  Thankfully Dale Steyn reminded us that he is one of the great bowlers of this or indeed any generation, and as a result we have a potentially epic decider on our hands.

As previously discussed, for me it doesn’t matter who wins – an Australian victory will in some way mitigate England’s shambolic performance, while if South Africa win, then, let’s face it, Australia will have lost, which is always enjoyable.  I’m looking forward to being able to follow some sport in an entirely non-partisan way. 

 

How to deal with defeat

The England cricket team’s depressingly meek submission to Australia has made me face up to the realities of defeat.  Now, being a lifelong Liverpool fan I am certainly no stranger to this.  But to be mauled down-under in such comprehensive fashion is an extremely bitter pill to swallow.  Obviously I still love the game of cricket and still love England, but a certain part of me also doesn’t want to experience in the intense pain of watching my team get completely outclassed by their closest rivals.  I ashamed to say, that to deal with such a situation, I start caring less.

            Human beings react to disappointment in different ways.  Some vent their frustrations through anger and violence.  Others prefer to internalise their discontent and I definitely fall into the latter category.  No-one likes to lose, but supporters of sporting teams have the worst of it because they do not have any direct effect on the outcome of the contest, yet they care as much as (in some cases, more) than the competitors.  For example, I could want Woking to beat Dartford in the Skrill Premier League more than anything in the world (and I do), yet I’m not directly involved in the contest so no matter how much I will them to win, they might lose.  Equally I could be (and am) extraordinarily ambivalent towards the result of Burton v Newport but I will have as much influence on that result as Woking’s.

Herein lies the curse of the supporter.  In any normal walk of life, if a human desires something, he/she will go to any lengths to get it.  I desperately wish Liverpool would win the Premier League, but however hard I fervently crave this, there is no certainty it will happen.  In fact (and this is the worst part) the more I care about Liverpool, the more painful each defeat feels.  There is a certain helpless vulnerability which is almost unique to the sporting fan.  Now I really like football, but I refuse to have my weekend defined by whether my team does well or not.  That is a ridiculous way to live one’s life (especially if you are a supporter of a shit team, like Stoke or West Ham).  Therefore my solution is to make myself care less about the results of my team and to temper my expectations (admittedly very difficult after Liverpool’s highly impressive start to the season).  Granted, the high I experience after a victory will not be as intense given that I have made myself less emotional involved in the whole process, but more importantly, if (usually when) Liverpool suffer defeat, I do not go into a spiral of depression, lock myself in my room and cry for hours on end.  My Spurs-supporting housemate recently returned home a couple of Sundays ago to find me grinning ear to ear, quizzing him incessantly on the 5-0 drubbing his team had received at the hands of the mighty Reds.  He still hasn’t watched the highlights because if he doesn’t, it’s almost as if it didn’t really happen – therefore the defeat becomes less painful.

I have successfully used this tactic for Liverpool since their decline in season 2009/10.  Instead of constantly checking my phone every 5 minutes for score updates, I would wait until I got home before finding out to whom the latest embarrassing defeat was.  The key is to be in control of your football addiction.  Let it control you and you are toast; quietly but firmly tell it who’s boss – and you will have a fruitful and happy relationship.  This is how I am going to experience the rest of the Ashes series.

I started following the current series in such a manic, compulsive way, that people start to question your sanity (even more than they currently do).  A friend and I watched the whole first day’s play (00:00-07:30 GMT) at Brisbane live on TV in the Lords Museum courtesy of winning a competition (if you go onto my twitter account there’s a particularly fetching picture of me celebrating a wicket and generally looking like a complete goon).  That’s the sort of intense support that can, and eventually did lead to a rather sombre moment of reflection in my life where I sat myself down to consider what is really important.  I decided that despite the comprehensive Brisbane defeat, England couldn’t possibly play as badly at Adelaide, and like the obedient puppy that I am, I duly tuned in to Test Match Special at midnight to follow England’s progress.  When it became apparent that this performance was possibly worse than the Brisbane debacle, a deep cloud hung over me.  I had sacrificed a considerable amount of my time (and sleep) to support my team, yet I was receiving absolutely no reward.  I then had an Epiphany.  Why should I continue to suffer the pain of listening to England be ritually humiliated when I could be living in the glorious bliss of ignorance?  I could go to bed not listening to the cricket, wake up in the morning having slept soundly and check the score.  Oh look, we’re still being tonked around Perth.  Yes, I’m a little narked off but I’ve become more emotionally detached from the cricket so the pain of defeat is that much more bearable.  I can breakfast in relative serenity.  This is my secret to being an enduring sports fan: to deal with defeat with humour and apathy, not with anger and resentment.

I know deep down that I still care about the England cricket team and the results of Liverpool Football Club.  I have supported them all my life and will continue to until the day I die.  However, I have to convince myself that it is not one of the defining features of my life.  For example, when meeting someone for the first time, I do not tend to introduce myself as “David de Winter; die-hard England cricket fan.”  Most people would claim to have left the iron on/have a bus to catch/have a recently deceased relative and make a very speedy exit.  Yes, I am a huge fan of cricket and regularly attend matches but if Surrey or England are losing, I still enjoy the spectacle.  Its intrinsic beauty is the reason I love the sport.  This does not stop because the result is contrary to my preference.  Sport, when it comes down to it, is just a game.  In the grand scheme of things, it does not matter.  Life still goes on.  I understand that what makes sport so great is the fact that it matters so much to so many people.  That is what makes it such compelling viewing and why millions of people flock to stadia all around the world – to watch great contests between athletes at the peak of their powers.  That is the beauty of sport.

England face crunch Ashes fortnight

The next two test matches in Adelaide and Perth will decide the fate of the Ashes urn.  If England can make it to Melbourne on Boxing Day level pegging then there is all to play for.  If Australia can win either test then they trophy will more than likely be staying down-under for the next couple of years.  After the aberration in Brisbane, England need to bounce back and fast.  They were out-gunned and meek in the face of an hostile and, at times, overly aggressive Australian team.  The Jonathan Trott issue has also been an unwelcome distraction.  These coming weeks will show what this England team is truly made of.

            The first test was a bit of a disaster on all fronts.  England’s bowlers did brilliantly to reduce Australia to 100-5 in the first innings but then they allowed them to reach 295, with the last four wickets putting on over 150.  Conversely, England were 82-2, yet Michael Clarke went for the jugular and with the help of some surprisingly accurate bowling from Mitchell Johnson (surely he can’t keep it up), bowled them out for 136.  This is where the contrast between Alastair Cook’s more measured captaincy approach and Clarke’s gung-ho attitude is most apparent.  If Cook had really gone for it, England could have bowled the Aussies out for under 200 and been in the game.  As it was, he let the game drift and gambled on waiting for the new ball before making more inroads.  It was not unreasonable for him to expect the batsmen to post a respectable first-innings score (which they most certainly didn’t) but Cook’s leadership was reactive rather than proactive.  A great captain takes the game by the scruff of the neck and imposes his game-plan on the situation.  Cook doesn’t take too many risks and while that has served England well during his tenure, when chances arrive, he must take them immediately.  Failure to do so results in catch-up cricket and thus, the kind of insipid performances witnessed in Brisbane.

            Part of England’s problem in the first test was the back-up bowling to Anderson and Broad.  Tremlett (as I predicted in this blog, not two months previous) is not the bowler he was three years ago.  His pace has dropped and he doesn’t have the zip and troublesome bounce which was so effective on the previous tour in 2010/11.  When Broad and Anderson were taken out of the attack you could see the pressure lift because while Tremlett was not necessarily overly expensive, he rarely bowled the sort of probing, wicket-taking deliveries for which he is renowned.  Swann was uncharacteristically out of sorts too.  He failed to create pressure by sealing up an end, instead being the brunt of many a Mitchell Johnson biff in the first innings.  In the second innings he went for more than five an over which, from 27 overs, is embarrassing.  If England are to have any success in the coming fortnight he needs to get his mojo back fairly pronto.

            So the England selectors face a bit of a headache.  Who is going to replace Trott?  And something clearly needs to change in the bowling department.  I personally would go for Gary Balance to bat at number 6.  He hasn’t exactly set the tour alight with runs yet but he has a very solid technique and he doesn’t seem to have a weakness against the short ball (unlike Johnny Bairstow) and he had an impressive end to the county season.  Ben Stokes is not quite ready for this level and with the form that Prior is currently in, the batting needs as much depth as possible.  There has been talk of pushing Ian Bell up the order but why?  He has been England’s form batsman this year at No. 5.  The old ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ adage springs to mind.  Joe Root should move up the order to 3.  He has experience as a Test opener and has scored runs there so shouldn’t be fazed.

For the bowlers, I would pick Tim Bresnan.  He is a big gamble, especially as he is returning from injury and only has one two-day match under his belt.  However he lengthens the tail and brings a measure of control to the bowling attack.  He is an impressive exponent of the art of reverse swing but can also play a bit of chin music if required.  If Bresnan isn’t fit then Steven Finn has to come into the team.  Yes he leaks runs like a tap but he also has a knack of taking regular wickets (often with abysmal deliveries).  Tremlett simply isn’t an international-class bowler anymore and Boyd Rankin is too inconsistent with his length.  Why he was picked ahead of Graham Onions I will never fathom.  England are crying out for someone with Onions’ potency with ball in hand.  There seems to be this idea that because Australian pitches are bouncy, England must play their tallest fast bowlers.  Bollocks.  At the risk of sounding like Sir Geoffrey, you don’t take many wickets with bouncers, even in Australia.  It is still the corridor of uncertainty which is the key to bowling success, whatever the conditions.  Yes it’s a good surprise tactic to set up a batsman but if it’s a stock strategy then batsmen just sit on the back foot and pick off the short balls.  Onions has the speed to throw in the odd bouncer but is an awkward customer because he is a very skiddy bowler, complementing both Broad and Anderson.  I think he is still on stand-by somewhere in the Southern Hemisphere (South Africa maybe) and England should send out an SOS call to him sooner rather than later.  If they wait any longer the Ashes may already be gone.  There are rumours abound that Monty Panesar is under serious consideration for Adelaide.  Panesar is an effective bowler and it would not be a bad option if England played two spinners but then that leaves a heavy workload on Anderson and Broad without any other seam-bowling options in the team.  He may still be in line for a recall if England continue their worrying slide towards ignominy.

            I will still pop on the old TMS at midnight tonight but it will be with the unfamiliar feeling (or familiar to those who remember the dark days of the 90’s and early 00’s) of trepidation.  England’s sudden ability to collapse at the slightest tremor and their inability to reach a total of 400 in their first innings does not fill me with any assurance.  Part of me thinks England can’t be as bad as in Brisbane and Australia won’t be as good.  Part of me expects that Mitchell Johnson will revert back to his old erratic self again.  Part of me hopes that Ryan Harris’ dodgy hamstring delivers a timely return.  But the current England team does not exactly breed confidence, so when I turn on the radio tonight to listen to Aggers’ dulcet tones, it will in hope rather than expectation.

Drugs in Sport

The IAAF recently announced that they are doubling the suspension for a failed drugs test from two years to four years.  It is a welcome move.  But will other sports follow Athletics’ lead?  Recent high profile drugs revelations have lead me and millions of other sport lovers to question the integrity of competitive sport.  The public have been deceived so many times by cheats and cover-ups that patience is wearing thin.  Sports across the board need to get their act together and tackle this cancer head-on and with zero tolerance.

            The reality is that almost every major sport is tainted by drugs to some extent; to think otherwise would be highly naïve (motor-racing is the only sport in my mind that is relatively drug-free).  In disciplines such as Athletics, Boxing and Cycling, drugs have been prevalent for almost a century (the following Wikipedia article makes for depressing reading: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doping_at_the_Tour_de_France) but in other sports it is only becoming more widely understood.  Cricket and Football have historically had relatively drug free existences but with the rewards so great in both sports these days, drugs are a real concern.  Where there is money to be made, the temptation to use drugs, and the people willing to supply them, will always be there.

            The sport with the largest connection to drugs is Cycling.  Since 1969, only seven winners of the great race have never been tainted or connected to drugs in their careers.  That means, on average, one in every six winners of the Tour did so riding clean.  It is a horrifying statistic but it is not all doom and gloom. The last three winners, Chris Froome, Bradley Wiggins and Cadel Evans have never failed a drugs test.  Cycling needed to go through the dark time in the late 90’s and early 2000’s to get where it is today.  In a way, the fact that so many cyclists returned positive tests meant that the cheats were getting caught and the wider public started to take notice.  The sport had to clear up its act otherwise it faced fading into anonymity.  However damaging the past scandals may have been and after years of sweeping cases under the carpet, it has helped shaped a healthier and hopefully drugs-free future for cycling.  (For those interested in cycling’s shady past, read Tyler Hamilton’s autobiography The Secret Race)

            The same cannot be said for Athletics.  The two positive drugs tests recently returned by star sprinters Asafa Powell and Tyson Gay were a real blow to a sport which has been plagued for years by such scandals.  During the Cold War, communist countries, such as the U.S.S.R and East Germany, systematically doped a large majority of their athletes (especially women) to win major sporting titles.  This was seen as an attempt to legitimise their totalitarian regimes not only to the outside world but also to their own people.  Ironically, Russia has over 40 high profile athletes suspended for positive drug tests today.  The sport was particularly shady in the 80’s and 90’s and not only in the Eastern-bloc.  There has always been doubt cast over Carl Lewis, with strong rumours that a positive drugs test was covered up by the authorities.  Florence Griffith Joyner, still the holder of both the women’s 100m and 200m world records, mysteriously lowered her personal bests in both events by half a second in 1988.  And lest we forget, our very own Linford Christie failed a drugs test in both 1988 and 1999.  More recently, American sprinter Justin Gatlin (who has failed two drugs tests in his career, yet mysteriously is still allowed to compete) and 400m runner Lashawn Merritt (who claimed his performance-enhancing drug was for use in the bedroom) have successfully returned to the sport after their respective suspensions.  This riles me a lot given that clean athletes are being denied their just deserts (earnings and medals) because of a cheat.  A convicted drug-taker should not be allowed to continue to earn a living from sport after making a decision to defame that same sport in such a shameful manner.

            The Balco scandal was probably the most infamous in all Athletics history.  It came to light that its founder, Victor Conte, had been supplying steroids and growth hormone to athletes across numerous sports, the most high profile of which were sprinters Tim Montgomery (at the time the 100m world record holder), Marion Jones and Dwain Chambers, baseball legend Barry Bonds, and boxer Shane Mosley.  The worrying thing about the Gay-Powell saga is that they had no excuses.  Tyson Gay effectively admitted that he had taken drugs by stating ‘I don’t have a sabotage story… I basically put my trust in someone and was let down.  I know exactly what went on, but I can’t discuss it right now.’  If athletes don’t know themselves precisely what they are putting into their bodies then they can have no excuse.  Putting your trust in another person is a risk that in this case backfired spectacularly.  I don’t think Tyson Gay is the type of man to wilfully gain an advantage through illegal means, but he has been naïve in his choice of advisors.  Knowing or unknowing, a positive drugs is still cheating and Gay and Powell deserve the sanctions they receive.

            It is perhaps easy to see how performance-enhancing drugs directly benefit stamina and power-based sports.  However, can such a skilled sport such as football profit from banned substanes?  The very successful Juventus team of the mid-90’s was systematically doped (without the players knowledge apparently) with the blood-boosting hormone EPO (common amongst cyclists at the time as it allowed one to ride at a higher intensity for longer).  Dutch players Jaap Stam, Edgar Davids and Frank De Boer all tested positive for nandrolone (which promotes artificial muscle growth and red blood-cell stimulation) in 2001.  The most heralded football coach in the world, Pep Guardiola, failed a drugs test for nandrolone in that same year.  New Liverpool signing Kolo Toure tested positive for a slimming aid in 2011 and Rio Ferdinand was suspended for 8 months in 2004 for missing a drugs test, although that was more dopey than doping.  In his compelling autobiography, Tony Cascarino revealed that he was injected with what club doctors called ‘vitamins’ and ‘minerals’ in his spell at Marseille in the early 90’s (Marseille weren’t exactly strangers to controversy after the match-fixing scandal in 1993).  I am slightly worried that football doesn’t currently do blood tests.  Urine samples have to be given by randomly selected players after every game but blood samples are not mandatory.  A blood test is a much more thorough way of detecting illicit substances in an athletes’ body.  Sports like Cycling and Athletics have gone so far as to set up a blood passport system (anti-doping agencies can check samples against each other to spot irregularities).  Football needs to act fast otherwise the situation risks getting out of hand.  A drug such as EPO can increase stamina and intensity by up to 20%, so not only can players play for longer, they can train harder too.  Yes it could result in some embarrassing findings but for the sake of the game, it is imperative.

            Even more worrying for football is the links it has to the Operation Puerto scandal in Spain.  Doctor Eufemiano Fuentes provided numerous athletes, mainly cyclists but also footballers with performance-enhancing drugs (including testosterone pills) and blood doping.  There are rumours that he supplied seasonal plans for Real Madrid and Barcelona, and also assisted Real Sociedad in systemised blood doping.  If this isn’t evidence enough that blood testing is required then I don’t know what is.  What is most ridiculous of all is that the judge presiding over the whole Fuentes case ruled that the blood bags should be destroyed.  This is evidence that could be vital in catching not only dopers of the past but drug cheats of the future.  It seems the Spanish authorities are desperate to cover up this humiliation.  They obviously have something to hide.

            Another sport that was named in Operation Puerto was tennis.  It is rumoured that Fuentes worked with many tennis players, including the Spanish Davis Cup team, bafflingly the most successful nation during the 2000’s in the competition.  Tennis, like football, requires high levels of not only skill but also fitness.  That small advantage that blood-doping can give you makes a sizeable difference at a professional level.  With tennis becoming so athletic it is no wonder stories of doping are abound.  Remember the likes of Boris Becker, Tim Henman, Andre Agassi?  All very fit guys in their own right, but compare their physique to modern day players like Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray, Tomas Berdych.  I’m not saying these players are doping, it’s just the physicality of the sport has got that much more intense that you have to be in top shape to even compete with the top players.  Agassi had his own well-documented troubles with recreational drugs but recently top-100 ranked player (not for long) Victor Troicki has been slapped with an 18-month ban for failing to provide a blood sample.  A week after that, world number 15, Maran Cilic, was banned for a positive test.  Richard Gasquet has also been nabbed but this was for cocaine use, which he claimed was via kissing a girl who had just taken some.  Encouragingly, tennis is pressing ahead with plans to introduce blood passports which should help catch potential drug cheats.

            Cricket is a sport that one wouldn’t usually connect with performance-enhancing drugs.  It has had its problems in the past with recreational drugs.  Ian Botham, Keith Piper, Ed Giddins, Dermot Reeve, Phil Tufnell, Graham Wagg and tragically, Tom Maynard have all been found to have taken recreational substances at some point in their careers.  But taking drugs to improve say one’s strength to hit the ball further wouldn’t necessarily be an advantage in cricket.  Timing is much more important than brute strength, though I dare say it couldn’t do any harm.  However, players have been known to take drugs to aid injury recovery.  The injury-prone Pakistani fast bowlers, Shoaib Akhtar and Mohammad Asif both failed tests for nandrolone in 2006 and were handed bans which were later overturned on appeal.  Asif claimed his was due to a faulty nutritional supplement.  He later failed a test in the IPL for steroids in 2008 and also was detained at Dubai airport that same year for possessing illegal substances – all apparently linked to injury recovery.  Sri Lankan batsman Upul Tharanga was handed a three-month ban in 2011 for a banned steroid which he claimed it was an herbal remedy for a shoulder injury.  The legendary rotund Australian text messager Shane Warne infamously missed the 2003 World Cup for taking a banned diuretic (allegedly one of his mother’s slimming pills – a believable argument).  With the increasing riches on offer to players, cricket needs to be more vigilant in its approach to drug-testing.  The rewards are so great and the sanctions relatively minor that one or two players are going to be tempted to take short-cuts.  The IPL is especially vulnerable in this respect.  Indeed, young Indian fast bowler Pradeep Sangwan returned a positive drugs test for steroids in this year’s IPL.

            Golf is another sport which has links to drugs and injury recovery.  Fijian Vijay Singh admitted using deer-antler spray, a banned growth-hormone on the World Anit-Doping Agency’s (WADA) list, but was acquitted after it was revealed that it wasn’t taken in sufficient enough quantities to enhance performance.  Tiger Woods was linked to controversial doctor Tony Galea during his recovery from knee-ligament surgery in 2008-9.  Galea had links to the Balco scandal and Victor Conte having been involved in both Marion Jones and Tim Montgomery.  Galea’s method involved taking blood from Woods, placing it in a centrifuge to increase red platelets (don’t ask), and injecting it back into the affected ligament, thus speeding up the healing process.  To me, this is no different from blood doping that cyclists used – surely artificially increasing the body’s red platelets is the same as artificially increasing the body’s red blood cells and oxygen capability.  The rules have tightened since 2010 on the procedure but I believe it still remains legal.  Now I’m not suggesting that Woods is a drugs cheat, but having links to a man who is known to be involved with Conte and human-growth hormone is a bit fishy.

            The ultimate skill sport, snooker is not exempt from drugs.  Bill Werbenuik took beta blockers in the 1980’s to slow his heart rate when at the table and Neal Foulds also admitted to having taken a similar substance.  It is doubtful whether this would have a positive effect on performance but if a player suffers from nerves, it could be beneficial.  Recreational substances have long been associated with snooker: Kirk Stevens was known to have taken cocaine and Ronnie O’Sullivan was disqualified from a tournament in the 90’s for testing positive for cannabis.  Jimmy White and Alex Higgins were also no strangers to drug scandals during their careers.

Rugby League recently found itself at the centre of a drugs scandal in Australia where six clubs have been implicated in doping thought to include AFL too.  There has been little information since the report in February but rumours are surfacing that supplements (mainly muscle growth-hormone) were administered by the clubs, not by the odd rogue player himself, which is more worrying.  AFL player Jobe Watson has admitted that he took a banned anti-obesity drug but only after signing a consent form provided by his club. (http://theconversation.com/essendon-scandal-a-symptom-of-australias-sporting-woes-12085).  This whole affair draws parallels with the Festina affair during the Tour de France in 1998, where drugs were found in the Festina team car, and subsequently numerous teams were under suspicion of providing illegal substances for their riders.  Closer to home, Bradford Bulls star Terry Newton was banned for two years for taking Human Growth Hormone.  Martin Gleeson also received a ban for a failed drugs test in 2011.  One can see the benefits of taking these sorts of drugs in sports like rugby where power and size are central factors.  Recreational drugs are also not uncommon – Australian Rugby League Star Wendell Sailor tested positive for cocaine in 2006, as did new Salford Red Devils forward Gareth Hock in 2009 whilst playing for Wigan Warriors.

Rugby Union is no stranger to drug scandals either.  2009 was a dark year for Bath Rugby Club in particular as their England prop Matt Stevens received a two year ban after failing a drugs test.  He later admitted to having taken cocaine on more than one occasion and confessed that he found it almost a relief that he had been caught.  Later that year, after an end-of-season party, four Bath players were embroiled in a scandal after allegations of cocaine abuse.  (http://www.rugbydump.com/2009/07/1023/the-ins-and-outs-of-the-bath-drugs-scandal).  Their Australian lock, Justin Harrison confessed and was handed an 8 month ban whilst the other three, co-captains Michael Lipman and Alex Crockett and Andrew Higgins all resigned after refusing to give samples.  However it is very rare that a Rugby Union player is found to have taken performance enhancing drugs which for the sport is a saving grace (http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/0/rugby-union/24626491).

            Boxing is a shady sport that has had all manner of problems in the past and drugs are just one of the many issues facing it today.  It has a fairly lackadaisical attitude towards drug testing which it needs to rectify pretty quickly if it is to retain any credibility.  Recent scandals have included Lamont Peterson’s positive test for synthetic testosterone in 2011 which he failed in the lead up to his victory against Amir Khan.  Wrangling over drug testing scuppered plans for a ‘super-fight’ between Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather Jr in 2010 after negotiations over blood-testing failed to reach a conclusion.  Boxing doesn’t have a fixed set of anti-doping criteria which immediately sets the alarm bells ringing.  The drug-testing is not determined by a central body but is instead agreed between the two fighters themselves.  Legendary Mexican Juan-Manuel Marquez, before his sixth-round knockout of Manny Pacquiao last year, started to work with a less than reputable ‘conditioning coach’ Angel Hernandez, who has links to BALCO and Victor Conte (http://globalnation.inquirer.net/62195/did-drugs-nearly-kill-pacquiao).  Marquez’s physique was visibly more chiselled than at any point in his career and in his previous three meetings with Pacquiao, he had failed to knock down the Filipino.  Yet he put him on the canvas in round 3 and knocked him out cold in round 6 to record his first victory against his nemesis.  Worryingly, no drug testing of any sort was done pre-fight to either boxer.  In his most recent fight (which he lost to Timothy Bradley) Marquez caused controversy again by reneging on a pre-fight drug-testing deal (http://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/boxing/2013/10/08/drug-testing-rift-tim-bradley-juan-manuel-marquez-fight-is-on/2948991/).

            With the rewards on offer and the relatively minor sanctions, performance-enhancing drugs are an attractive proposition to sportsmen and women.  The only logical conclusion is to introduce a zero-tolerance policy of life bans for any convicted drugs cheat.  In the case of recreational drugs, a less hard-line approach would suffice given that often there are deep-set emotional reasons for such substance abuse.  There is a worrying trend in certain countries of drug-taking getting out of control.  During and after the 2010 Commonwealth Games, Indian athletes returned a disproportionate amount of positive drugs tests; similarly, Russia has over 40 suspended Athletes at the present time.  Chinese, Turkish and Greek authorities all have major problems with doping.  China in particular seems to have a particular problem with Swimming and Weightlifting.  There is a disturbing situation arising in Jamaican athletics where alongside Powell, two other high profile female sprinters, Sherone Simpson and double 200m Olympic Gold medallist Veronica Campbell-Brown, have returned positive drugs results amid claims that testing has been few and far between (http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/0/athletics/24517780).  The worry is that the testers are always playing catch-up with the takers.  The introduction of blood passports is a big step in the right direction but until all governing bodies across all sports make it a top priority, the situation is not going to improve.

            I love sport.  When I was younger I would marvel at the seemingly super-human abilities of professional athletes on TV and wish I could do what they could.  The concept of someone achieving something by artificial means never enters a child’s head.  I suppose the first time I really took interest in a drugs scandal was Dwain Chambers’ positive test in 2003.  I couldn’t believe that an English sprinter would do such a thing.  I mean it is so un-English.  When Chambers pleaded guilty a little bit of me died inside.  I naively assumed that illegal narcotics were consigned to Athletics only.  Then the world of cycling was turned upside down after Floyd Landis’ positive test after his Tour de France ‘victory’ in 2006.  Again, I assumed it was an isolated case limited to a minor sport.  Yet, when the recent Lance Armstrong scandal reared its ugly head, I slowly started to realise that one should not take every amazing performance, every world-record, every breath-taking sporting moment at face value – and that is really sad.  I now have a slightly cynical view of the sporting world thanks to those athletes who decided to take the short-cut, the easy way, the cheater’s route to success.  I still love sport and I still marvel at sporting prowess but now, at the back of my mind, there is always some doubt.

 

This Wikipedia article makes for rather disheartening reading:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_doping_cases_in_sport#Q

Problems at Surrey

After two seasons in Division 1, Surrey were relegated last week at Warwickshire with only a single victory to their name.  As a fan and member of this once great club, watching them this season has been a depressing experience.  The batsmen have continually failed to post competitive first-innings totals and the inability to bowl sides out twice has been very costly.  The sight of batsmen trudging back to the pavilion after yet another ill-judged dismissal for an embarrassingly low score has become all too familiar at the Oval.  Even signing three legends of the game in Graeme Smith, Ricky Ponting and Hashim Amla hasn’t saved Surrey from the drop.  The club has been guilty of a short-term attitude for quite some time and unfortunately, it has finally caught up with them.

            Since gaining promotion in 2011, Surrey have not had the easiest of rides.  The tragic death of Tom Maynard last year overshadowed the whole season.  The fact that the club avoided relegation was an achievement in itself.  Their captain at the time, Rory Hamilton-Brown took compassionate leave and many of the players’ performances were understandably adversely affected.  It was down to the leadership of spinner Gareth Batty that they managed to stay in Division 1.

Things looked up at the start of the 2013 season.  The signing of Graeme Smith as captain was a major coup and a new crop of youngsters, like Rory Burns, Zafar Ansari and Arun Harinath were finally fulfilling their potential.  Things didn’t get off to a great start.  Smith arrived with an injury and had to return to South Africa after a month.  Early draws and defeats in the County Championship put the pressure on and in mid-June, with the team still winless in the 4-day game, the coach Chris Adams was removed.  Bowling coach Stuart Barnes and Surrey legend Alec Stewart were installed as the interim management team but the change failed to arrest the inevitable slide into Division 2.  A season that had promised so much had turned in to a complete disaster.

            So what went wrong?  In the championship winning side of the late 90’s and early 2000’s, Surrey had a core of home-grown talent in their prime.  Players such as Graham Thorpe, Alec Stewart, Ali Brown, the Hollioake brothers, Martin Bicknell, Mark Butcher, Alex Tudor had all come through the age-groups at Surrey and were instrumental in its success.  Imports such as Saqlain Mushtaq, Ian Salisbury and Mark Ramprakash supplemented the core group.  The present day squad is littered with old pros at the wrong end of their careers.  Gary Keedy, Zander de Bruyn, Jon Lewis, Vikram Solanki were all signed from other clubs.  Now I admit that experience is vital in any team sport (remember, you don’t win anything with kids) but some of the purchases reeked of short-termism.  Keedy was a particular bizarre signing.  He doesn’t have a particularly impressive bowling average and the team was hardly in need of another spinner given that Ansari would be available from June onwards, yet he was promptly snapped up.  Lewis was a more understandable acquisition given that he was to advise the younger crop of fast-bowlers and Solanki has performed impressively this season as the club’s leading run-scorer.  This is also not a recent phenomenon for Surrey.  In recent past they have signed Usman Afzaal, Michael Brown, Mohamed Akram, Ed Giddins and Jimmy Ormond amongst others, all of whom had pretty unsuccessful stints at the club.  The problem with these signings is that they only ever provide a quick fix.  It is not a long-term plan that will lead to a legacy of success – just temporary solution to paper over the cracks.

            Since their title-winning years, Surrey have let an alarming amount of talent leave the club.  Current England opener Michael Carberry started his career at the club but left due to limited first-team opportunities.  A similar situation led to Tim Murtagh’s departure.  He has now gone on to become one of county cricket’s most consistent seamers.  Another Middlesex seamer, Toby Roland-Jones was on Surrey’s books as a youngster but was allowed to leave.  Rikki Clarke started his career at the Oval and was at first a great success.  After a few lean years he departed for Derbyshire and is now a key component of last year’s title winners, Warwickshire.  Surrey have some very talented youngsters and they must be allowed opportunities in the first team to showcase their abilities.  If seasoned veterans are blocking their progress then the club is suffering as a whole.

            What about the future?  In some ways, relegation to Division 2 is a good thing because it forces to club to take a long, hard look at its recruitment policy.  Without the threat of relegation, Division 2 gives more opportunities for younger players to stake a claim for first team action.  Talented 18 year-old batsman Dominic Sibley (who as I write has just become the youngest double-centurion in the history of the County Championship) must be given a chance, as should promising fast bowlers George Edwards and Matthew Dunn.  They are the future of the club.  The club needs to clear out the older deadwood and start afresh with young, hungry home-grown players.  Players like de Bruyn (who thankfully has already left), Keedy and dare I say it, Batty should all be let go.  Solanki still has something to offer the team and from what I have seen this season, he still has the hunger and desire for success.  There is also the issue of what to do with Graeme Smith.  Will he really be willing to lead the county in the 2nd Division?  In the meantime, Surrey must learn the lessons of past mistakes and look to the future with a long-term strategy.

The Ashes Squad

After two months of intense Ashes cricket, what better way to celebrate than by doing it all again?  The process all starts on Monday with the announcement of the touring party for the winter down-under.  The weeks leading up to the announcements of England squads to Australia used to be the subject of endless speculation.  In years gone by the squad always used to include one or two left-field youngsters who would go along just for the experience.  Martin Bicknell’s selection in 1990/1 was such a selection, as was Alex Tudor’s in 98/99 (although Tudor ended up playing an influential role in the series).  These days, the competition for places within the England team means there is no space for such luxury.  The selectors will pick the 17 players they think are capable of retaining the Ashes urn.  No room for any passengers.  So who will be on that flight to Australia.

Firstly, the batsmen; Alastair Cook is making his maiden voyage to Australia as captain so he’s obviously the first name on the teamsheet.  Add to that Ian Bell, Jonathan Trott and Kevin Pietersen and Joe Root and there are probably only two more spaces left for specialist batsmen.  Michael Carberry was mooted as a possible candidate but he seems to have done his chances more harm than good with his recent performances in the ODI’s.  I don’t think he will, but Nick Compton should go.  He has Test Match experience and can play as an opener as well as in the middle order.  I saw him play this season in the T20 quarter-final for Somerset against Surrey at the Oval.  He seemed very composed and compiled a tidy 20-odd not by slogging but by manipulating the ball around with classy touches and deflections.  He was by far the most accomplished batsman on either side that day.  I know he had a tough time earlier this summer against New Zealand but those problems were more mental than technical.

To go with Compton, Ravi Bopara and Eoin Morgan have also been mentioned due to their recent form in the one-day game but they have had their chances and been found wanting at Test level.  Ben Stokes could be a prudent selection.  He has been in the England limited overs squads for a couple of seasons now and has shown enough promise to be given at least an opportunity in the Test arena.  His batting stats are a bit disappointing in the four-day game this season; 563 runs at 28 apiece but his bowling is much more impressive – 40 wickets at a shade under 25.  He is still a very raw talent and to be a Test no. 6 his batting would have to improve, but he is an exciting cricketer and his performances over the past 3 seasons have warranted an opportunity with the Test squad.

The wicket-keepers pick themselves: Matthew Prior and Jonny Bairstow with the Yorkshireman just about good enough to play at no. 6 as a specialist batsman (he didn’t exactly cover himself in glory this summer however).  As I have mentioned elsewhere in this blog, Bairstow’s technique is looser than a wizard’s sleeve – not ideal for combatting the world’s best bowlers.  Until the England management are convinced that Bairstow has made his game more compact, the selectors should seriously consider moving Joe Root down the order to 6 and putting Compton back in to open for the first test in Brisbane.  Bairstow has become a bit of a liability in the batting order who does not put a high enough price on his wicket for my liking.

Until Monty Panesar’s ignominious fall from grace, the spinner situation was fairly simple.  Since Panesar was questioned by police in August, there have been serious question marks over Panesar’s mental capabilities.  If he is on top of his demons then he has to go because he is the second best spinner in the country, no question.  However if the England management feel he is going to be too much of a hindrance because of his off-field issues, a space becomes vacant.  Whoever is selected would most definitely be going as back-up to Graeme Swann, but with the Nottinghamshire man’s dodgy elbow, he may be called upon to play in the Tests.  I can safely say Simon Kerrigan will not be named in the touring party.  My 64 year-old father (he once took all 10 wickets in an innings) could have bowled better than the sack of shit Kerrigan served up at the Oval last month.  James Tredwell would be my choice.  He will not pull up any trees but he bowls very tight and deserves his chance after performing admirably in the one-day arena (he has a bowling average of 24.88 for England).  An outside choice would be Middlesex’s off-spinner Ollie Rayner.  I saw him bowl at the Oval last month and he took 15 wickets in the match and was nigh-on unplayable on an admittedly helpful wicket (and against some pretty dross batting).  His 6ft 5in frame makes him a very awkward customer to face and on bouncy Australian wickets, he could be a real handful.  The logical choice is Tredwell but if the selectors are feeling adventurous, Rayner could sneak in through the back door.

The seamers almost pick themselves.  James Anderson, Stuart Broad and Tim Bresnan are certainties.  Steven Finn is pretty sure of his place despite his indifferent season and Graham Onions has had yet another stellar year and must go on the tour.  I feel sorry for Onions.  He finally made it into the England team in 2009, only to be decimated by injuries and has always been on the fringes ever since.  He has taken a hatful of wickets in the past two seasons but has never been given his chance to show what he can do.  I really hope he gets an opportunity if he is selected.  The final seamer spot would seem to be Chris Tremlett’s.  Chris Woakes rather bowled himself out of contention with an innocuous performance in the fifth test against the Aussies.  Tremlett hasn’t had a great season for Surrey and when I have seen him in the flesh, he seems to have lost a bit of zip – a result of a catalogue of injuries throughout his career.  He had a real impact on the series in 2010/11 but I doubt whether he could re-create those performances.  If Tremlett isn’t selected then Boyd Rankin would seem to be in the driving seat.  A very similar bowler to Surrey man (like Tremlett he is 6ft 7in tall), Rankin is a very awkward customer to face.  The pace and bounce of the Australian wickets will most definitely suit his style of bowling.  The only drawback to his selection would be his lack of experience in Test Cricket.  He has played over 40 ODI’s, both for Ireland and England with great success but that is nothing compared to the intensity of an Ashes Test.  He would represent a very progressive selection.

No-one else has stood out this season in the county game.  Toby Roland-Jones was bandied about at the start of the season as a potential England bowler but injury has ruined his season and at 25 years of age, he still has time on his side.  Sussex’s Chris Jordan has had a wonderful season with both bat and ball since his move from Surrey. 50 wickets and a batting average of 25 is a very impressive return and his form was rewarded with a place in England’s one-day squad.  The Test touring party may be a step too far for him but he is certainly one to watch for the future.

So after much deliberation, my touring party would be as follows:

Cook

Compton

Root

Trott

Pietersen

Bell

Stokes

Bairstow

Prior

Swann

Panesar

Anderson

Broad

Bresnan

Onions

Finn

Tremlett

I’m pretty sure the 17 names on the above list would have more than enough to overcome Australia.  England aren’t at the peak of their powers by any stretch of the imagination, but the Aussies, especially with star fast-bowler Ryan Harris’ fitness doubtful for the series opener, aren’t in much better shape.  There’s even talk of bringing scattergun Mitchell Johnson back into the team.  If this is indeed the case, England are almost certain of returning to Blighty with the little urn in hand.

England should go for the jugular

So far, so good Ashes-wise.  Two games, two victories, and everybody of an English persuasion is happy.  We’ve even had some history-making moments.  We have had a record score by a number 11 batsman; we have had a record 10th wicket partnership; we have had a truly outstanding delivery to dismiss the opposition’s captain and main batsman (Anderson to Clarke at Trent Bridge); we have had a bollock-clenchingly close finish; and we have had a hilariously brutal spanking.  Yet, there are some who claim to feel a particular emotion that is utterly alien to almost every English cricket fan; that of sympathy towards the Aussies.

This was most notable at the end of Australia’s first innings at Trent Bridge.  Ashton Agar had just been dismissed for 98 in his debut innings, an astonishing effort as everyone acknowledges.  However, you could hear murmurs of ‘isn’t it a shame that the poor lad didn’t make his century.  I wouldn’t have begrudged him an extra two runs.’  Excuse me?  This lad has just contributed to a stand which may very well have taken the first test away from England.  From a position of impregnability, we are now staring down the barrel of a 70 run deficit after the first innings.  We want him out as soon as possible.  Every run may be crucial.

There is something in the British psyche that looks down on winning too easily.  Drumming home one’s obvious advantage is seen as vulgar, not the done thing.  We root for the underdog, and often fail to acknowledge sheer sporting class because we are too busy sympathising with the loser.  For example, following this year’s women’s Wimbledon final, most reports concentrated on the collapse of Sabine Lisicki’s form, rather than praising Marion Bartoli for her high-class, tactically prefect play.  This may have something to do with the relative attractiveness of the two players, which is a different issue entirely (for more information write to J Inverdale Esq, BBC Sport, Chauvinism Place, Misogyny Road, I’m-no-looker-myself-ville), but also displays the British fixation with a plucky, but tearful loser over a deserved winner.

In reference to the cricket, any supporter who has lived through the barren years of 1989 to 2005 is not going to feel sorry for the Aussies in a hurry.  The first Ashes series I was aware of was the 1989 fiasco which, to my mind, seemed mainly to consist of Steve Waugh scoring runs, and Graham Gooch getting out to Terry Alderman.  England fielded 29 different players in that series, including such luminaries as Phil Newport, Tim Curtis and John Stephenson.  Between 1991 and 2005, the following players have played Test cricket for England against Australia: Eddie Hemmings, Martin McCague, Mike Smith, Warren Hegg, Ian Ward, Jimmy Ormond, Richard Dawson.  In the same period Australia have had the following selection dilemmas: which Waugh twin to play (1991); Michael Slater or Matthew Hayden (1993); which fast bowler out of McGrath, Gillespie, Reiffel or Kasprowicz to leave out (1997); Ricky Ponting or Michael Bevan (also 1997); Michael Slater or Justin Langer (2001); how are we possibly going to deal with the loss of Shane Warne, oh well better call up Stuart MacGill I suppose (2003); is our batting line-up strong enough to ignore Brad Hodge, Stuart Law, Matthew Elliott, Jamie Cox, Michael Hussey, Darren Lehmann and Michael Di Venuto (most series from 1997 onwards – the answer’s yes by the way).  Given the disparity in quality and selection policy between the two teams for 16 long, predictable years, I am certainly not about to offer up any sympathy towards this current Aussie outfit.  Keep your metaphorical foot on their metaphorical throat is my message to the England team.  And don’t worry about the metaphorical bit.

The Ashes

What a weekend for British sport; and it’s about to get a whole lot better.  If anything can top the Murray/Lions euphoria, 22 men from England and Australia playing for a comedy, pint-sized urn can.  With more thrills and spills than Michael Barrymore’s Christmas party, this series has already had more than its fair share of controversies – and a ball hasn’t even been bowled yet.  Many so called ‘experts’ are predicting an easy England victory but this blog (always 100% accurate with its predictions) isn’t so sure.

 

            On the face of it, the Australian cricket team is in absolute turmoil.  They sacked their coach, Mickey Arthur, two weeks ago; one of their batsmen (David Warner) punched an England player (Joe Root) in a nightclub and was banned from playing in the warm-up matches; and when they played India, earlier this year (whom England beat 2-1 just before Christmas) they got absolutely hammered 4-0.  The Aussies also suspended four of their players for failing to do their homework on the India tour.  So far, so good from an England perspective.

 

            The reality is not necessarily so rosy.  Australia have appointed ex-batsman Darren Lehmann as their new coach which is something of a masterstroke.  Unlike the draconian Arthur, Lehmann is a people’s person from the old-school, someone who will encourage and galvanise the side and this makes them potentially very dangerous.  Lehmann will install some stereotypical hard Aussie grit back into the team and make them very hard to beat.  The tourists may not be as technically gifted as England but you can bet your bottom Australian dollar that Lehmann will extract every last drop of determination out of his side.  The mental side of sport is too often ignored, but in this case it can and probably will make a big difference to the Australian side England will face on Wednesday and the side they faced in the Champions Trophy four weeks ago.

 

            Australia have the luxury of the world’s best batsman, captain Michael Clarke, in their ranks  Since the beginning of 2012 he has been a run machine, scoring four Test double-centuries (one of them was a triple century) in a single calendar year.  Clarke’s back has been playing up a bit recently but if he’s fully fit, England will have a serious job on their hands shifting him.  Supporting their captain will be Chris Rogers and Shane Watson.  Rogers is very much a horses for courses selection who has excelled for years in English domestic cricket.  Watson has oodles of talent but in 75 innings for the Baggy Greens, he only has two centuries to his name.  At 32 it is now or never for the broad-chested all-rounder and Australia will need him to improve on his current record.

 

            Much has been written about the vaunted England attack but there has been relatively little said about the Australian bowlers.  Ryan Harris, Peter Siddle and Mitchell Starc all have the armoury to excel in English conditions, and James Pattison and James Faulkner in particular look like very promising seamers.  Starc could be the trump card for the Aussies.  He is a handy lower-order batsman and crucially bowls left-arm fast.  Another left-armer, New Zealand’s Trent Boult, caused serious problems for the England batting order earlier this year and Starc will try to exploit that weakness.  Siddle also has had success in English conditions, taking 20 wickets in the 2009 series.  His consistency, pace and aggression is bound to trouble the English batsmen this summer.  The current weather could in fact negate their impact and may in fact play into England’s hands.  The hosts are more experienced in these drier conditions.  James Anderson is a master of reverse-swing and also bowls brilliant cutters when the ball is not doing much.  The Australians are yet to prove they can bowl effectively in batsman-friendly conditions.

 

            That is not to suggest that the Australian bowlers won’t get opportunities.  I have felt for some time that England’s batting order is a little too brittle and recently they have failed to post the sort of imposing first innings totals that were commonplace between 2009 and 2011.  England have two relative newcomers in the top six (Root and Jonny Bairstow) who will no doubt come in for some special treatment during the series.  They Yorkshire pair have both had impressive starts to their test careers but nothing can prepare them for the intensity of series against the old enemy.  The decision to open with Root is certainly a bold move – one that represents England’s faith and confidence in the 22 year-old.  Both their performances could well be a deciding factor in the destination of the urn.

 

            One area England do have a significant advantage is in the spin department.  Since his début in 2008, Graeme Swann has risen to become one of, if not the best spin bowler in the world.  The likeable Nottinghamshire man has the ability to bowl in all conditions be it in a containing capacity or as a wicket-taker.  With all due respect to Australia’s Nathan Lyon, England’s top-6 are hardly going to be having nightmares about his off-spin.  In a move that smacks of desperation, Australia have called up newly qualified native, Fawad Ahmed into their A squad who are also touring England this summer but he has barely played any first-class cricket, let alone test cricket.  Even if he does get called up, I find it hard to believe that he will immediately become some sort of world-beater.

           

            On paper, England have a far stronger team.  Their batting is superior to Australia’s, the seamers and spinner are more experienced and England have a wonderful wicket-keeper/batsman in Matt Prior.  But cricket matches are rarely, if ever, won on paper.  This Australian side is dangerous; they have absolutely nothing to lose.  They have a new coach who will have boosted morale no end and if the key players perform, like Clarke, Shane Watson, Siddle and Starc, and England aren’t at their best, the Aussies have more than just a chance of victory.  All this talk of England winning 5-0 is complete nonsense.  It will be a lot closer than that.  The series will be won during two or three key sessions.  Whoever performs when it matters most will be lifting the little urn at the Oval in late August.  I hope (and think) it will be England but you can unfortunately never discount the Aussies.