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.

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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.

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.

Ashes again.

Following Australia’s announcement of their squad for the First Ashes Test in Brisbane, coupled with Michael Clarke’s very helpful and in no way mind-game motivated disclosure of England’s XI for the same match (apparently Alastair Cook told him at the Remembrance Day service – unless he himself was indulging in a spot of double-bluff), we now know (probably) who will be walking out at the Gabba come the 21st November, for the start of the most eagerly awaited Ashes series since July.  So, the cry goes out, how is the series going to go?

It’s strange how in some quarters (mainly those near Mr S Warne) Australia came out of this summer’s series in England with a moral victory, despite losing 3-0.  This is to some extent based on Antipodean wishful thinking and the inbuilt inability of any Australian former cricketer to acknowledge English superiority, but at the back of each England fan’s mind is the nagging feeling that it might be fair.  England’s batting over the summer always seemed to be one Ian Bell masterclass away from abject failure; the bowlers, rather than bowling as a unit as in previous series seemed to be relying on someone having a blinding day to bowl the Aussies out; and several what-if moments seemed to go England’s way – what if Stuart Broad had slightly less chutzpah?  What if England had used all their reviews when Brad Haddin nicked one of James Anderson?  What if Haddin had bothered to attempt to snaffle Joe Root’s edge at Lord’s?  What if Manchester wasn’t so rainy?

The flip side to this is that England won 3 Tests because they are a side that over the last few years has learnt how to win in tricky situations, while Australia’s poor record means they haven’t got the know-how or confidence to push on for victory.  Their collapse from an undoubtedly winning position at Durham was the most obvious example of this, and Michael Clarke’s declaration at the Oval, while it gave the final day crowd some entertainment, was a desperate act by a captain unsure of where his team’s next win will come from.  There are those who argue that there is little difference between losing a series 3-0 and 4-0, but surely defeat after dominating the Test would have dented his team’s fragile confidence even more

Yet Australia have cause for optimism.  They have some excellent fast bowlers, and if/when Ryan Harris or Mitchell Johnson get injured, there are a large number of potential replacements to call on.  Their batsmen seem to be running into form at just the right moment – Michael Clarke is and always will be a class act, but David Warner, Chris Rogers and Steve Smith have been in the runs recently.  Crucially, they seem to have worked out how to stymie one of England’s most dependable run machines, Jonathan Trott – put in two short mid-wickets, bowl at his legs, stop him scoring in his favourite area, then pitch one up outside off stump, and accept the resulting edge.  Or just bounce him out.

What of England?  In contrast to the Australian top order, their batsman are mainly in poor form.  Alastair Cook is once again struggling with what to leave outside the off stump, Joe Root looks susceptible to the moving ball and is too easy to pin on the back foot, Trott we have discussed, and Matt Prior suddenly can barely buy a run.  It’s impossible to tell whether Kevin Pietersen is in form or not, as he is a one-off who can produce a sparkling innings from nowhere, but it must be worry that he can only play with his knee swimming in cortisone (which according to KP himself is not a problem, a view not shared by most others).  Michael Carberry, Cook’s probably opening partner for the First Test, has played beautifully in the warm-up games, against admittedly pretty mediocre bowling, but any player, no matter how experienced, is going to be nervous in only their second Test.  As for the bowling, Clarke seems to think that Chris Tremlett will get the nod as the third seamer.  I must admit, having seen Tremlett bowl a little over the summer I’m not convinced.  His pace is significantly down compared with when he previously toured Australia and, while his control and consistency are admirable, he also looks innocuous.  However, he may be the best of a relatively mediocre bunch of improbably tall men.  Steve Finn is the opposite of Tremlett – expensive, but always liable to take wickets, while Boyd Rankin’s length is too inconsistent.  His natural length is slightly too short, but when he does try and pitch it up, he tends to float it in the manner of Andrew Caddick, and bowls too many half-volleys.  The question on many people’s lips is ‘where is Graham Onions?’  The Durham man looks like he may be this generation’s Martin Bicknell – unplayable in county cricket, but destined to be forever ignored by England.  To be fair to the selectors, I can see why they have their reservations – he bowled like a drain in the tour matches in New Zealand earlier this year, and his injury record makes Darren Anderton appear the picture of health, but surely some variety in the bowling attack is required.  I would be inclined to go with Tremlett simply because he can be relied on to keep an end dry, whereas I suspect the Australian batsman would be inclined to target either Finn or Rankin.  Tim Bresnan is, of course, on tour as well, but is unlikely to play in at least the first two Tests, and then may be wary of bowling flat out so soon after injury.

Despite England’s recent hold over Australia, I spent my formative cricket-watching years in the 90s, and can’t quite get used to the idea of an England cricket team being expected to win the Ashes.  Whereas the preparation 3 years ago screamed professionalism, this time round things aren’t going as smoothly.  There have been injuries; other than Broad and Anderson, the bowlers have looked poor; most of the batsmen haven’t had much of an innings; and then there’s the 82-page England cricket recipe book, which is either an indication of the meticulous preparation that has gone into this tour, or a sign that the team has gone so far up its own arse it’s tickling its tonsils.

There are still plenty of question marks over the Australian team.  Chris Rogers, David Warner and Steve Smith are still relatively callow at this level, and Smith’s technique is still a potential matter of concern if he loses confidence.  George Bailey, who will be making his Test debut, has been selected thanks to his form in the one-day matches, but averages only 18 over the last year in first-class cricket.  A good one-day player does not a good Test player make (Michael Bevan).  Mitchell Johnson, likewise, has been picked thanks to good performances in one-day cricket, but let’s not forget his previous performances against England.  When he gets it right, he is probably the most devastating bowler in world cricket (even including Dale Steyn), as seen at Perth last time around.  If he gets it wrong, as at Lord’s in 2009 or at Melbourne in 2010, then he’s a passenger in the side.  There has been talk about how his bowling action has improved, how his bowling arm is now much higher, but, after a cursory trawl through YouTube, it looks pretty similar to me.  If England (and the Barmy Army) can get under his skin, then he could once again prove a liability.  There are fitness concerns over both the remarkable Ryan Harris and Shane Watson, and losing either of them would be a real blow to the Aussies.

It’s a tricky series to call.  Since there has been such a small gap between the end of the last series and the beginning of this one, there hasn’t been much of a build-up.  Logic suggests that England should win, but I can’t help but feel that while England are a team on the way down, Australia are a team on the way up.  I’ll go for a 2-2 draw, but very much fear the Aussies could sneak it.

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.

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.

England’s batsmen need to improve

England’s 170-run victory on Sunday was seriously impressive but it papered over the obvious cracks in the batting order.  Totals of 232 and 213 don’t really cut the mustard at international level and they needed their bowlers and some very injudicious shots from New Zealand to get them out of jail.  Against better teams they would have come unstuck and they cannot afford to repeat these batting collapses in the Ashes.

            England’s batting, especially in the first innings was worryingly pedestrian.  To score 160 in 80 overs is even slower than Geoffrey Boycott’s pet tortoise.  True, the outfield was overly lush which limited boundaries and the New Zealand bowlers were very accurate with the swinging ball, but England seemed to go into their shell instead of looking to rotate the strike with singles.  One man who was particularly guilty of this was Nick Compton; not naturally the quickest scorer in the world he scratched around for a painful hour and a half for 16 paltry runs.  Equally, his opening partner, captain Alastair Cook took two and a half hours for his 32.  Now there is nothing wrong with slow scoring as long as one is positive in one’s intent.  It was the first innings of the international summer so it is totally understandable that the batsmen were not at their most fluent but it seemed that at points, England were just aiming to survive instead of making the bowler think; for instance by batting out of the crease to disrupt the New Zealand attack’s length.

            The batsmen were much improved in the second innings until a wonderful spell by Tim Southee put the brakes on England’s total.  Joe Root and Jonathan Trott looked in good nick.  Root in particular has a very solid technique which has helped him flourish in the international arena.  He has a knack of making the bowler bowl to him so consequently he can manoeuvre the ball around the ground almost at will.  His mentality is impressive too – he is not afraid to knuckle down and build an innings patiently, as he demonstrated over the winter in India and New Zealand.

            However, England cannot rely on a rookie to score their runs.  It worries me that when Alistair Cook fails, the rest of the batting order looks vulnerable.  Trott is not scoring the volume of runs of old and Ian Bell, though often delightfully fluid, never inspires total confidence.  The brittleness of the batting was exemplified by Matt Prior’s pair at Lords.  England have relied heavily on his runs in the past 18 months but as a wicket-keeper, he cannot dig them out of a hole every match.  His two failures more than anything exposed England’s shortcomings.  I’m not convinced at all by Jonny Bairstow either.  He scored a fighting 95 against the South Africans at Lords last year and contributed 41 in England’s 1st innings last week but his technique for me still looks a little loose and he is yet to dispel the rumours that he is susceptible to a bit of chin music.  The Yorkshireman has a very good eye but for me that is not enough to thrive at international level.

            Various ‘experts’ have been suggesting that the return of Kevin Pietersen would solve all the problems.  There is no doubt that Pietersen is a wonderful cricketer and any team would be boosted by his presence, but even the Surrey man is not always a safe pair of hands.  Apart from his amazing hundred in India, he contributed relatively little in the four tests in the sub-continent.  Everyone waxes lyrical about his talents and rightly so, but time and again he throws his wicket away far too cheaply for a man of his undoubted ability.

            A lower order with the likes of Stuart Broad and Graeme Swann does not contribute often enough with the bat.  Broad in particular has a wonderful technique but lacks the application required to build an innings.  He needs to realise that he cannot just thrash the bat an anything outside off-stump.  Patience and judgement are required to score runs, not just a good eye.  Broad has more than enough ability to become a test number 7 – his century against Pakistan in 2010 is evidence enough, albeit against a supremely dodgy Pakistan attack.  At least he made a timely return to form with an entertaining, run-a-ball 26 in the 2nd innings.

            My criticism of England’s batting is doing a major disservice to the Kiwi’s bowling attack.  The seam trio of Trent Boult, Tim Southee and Neil Wagner bowled with no lack of skill and accuracy which were at times too much for the England batsmen.  Not since the likes of Chris Cairns, Dion Nash and Shane Bond have the New Zealanders had such a probing pace attack.  Boult impressed me, giving Compton a torrid time, exposing the flaws in his game.  He has the ability to swing the ball both ways and bowls that nagging Andy Caddick/Glenn McGrath length that is so difficult to score off.  Southee is also no mug with the ball.  His devastating spells on the third evenings and fourth mornings brought New Zealand within sight of a famous victory and he thoroughly deserved his 10-wicket haul.  I like his aggression – he is a tall man and is not afraid to mix it up with odd bumper and keep the batsman guessing.

            One thing that flummoxed me was Kiwi skipper Brendon McCullum’s decision not to have a fielder at point.  Instead he had a gully and a cover point in front of square, and this cost his team a mountain of runs, particularly in the 2nd innings.  Root and Trott were scoring at will through that area and yet McCullum stubbornly refused to change his field.  For me, point is an indispensable position; he not only stops boundaries and catches loose drives, but he can stop the singles too.  It is a no-brainer.

            Bruce Martin’s and Daniel Vettori’s injuries have left the Kiwis with a bowling vacancy for today’s test at Headingley.  It could be a blessing in disguise because the ground is traditionally a seamer’s paradise and the conditions are not dissimilar to back in New Zealand.  Doug Bracewell may well find himself thrust into the fourth seamer role.  He proved in March against England that he is not to be taken lightly.  Moreover Kane Williamson is more than handy as an occasional off-spinner and can be relied upon to bowl an extended spell if required.

            Before this series everyone was brazenly predicting an England walkover.  Did they not pay attention to the matches a couple of months previous?  New Zealand came within a whisker of winning that series.  This Kiwi side is not as soft as everyone thinks.  They do have a worrying propensity for a batting catastrophe (as well as Sunday, they were steamrollered for a sub-100 score in South Africa over the winter) but they also have some talented young cricketers who on their day and with a bit more experience can be a match for any side.  I wouldn’t put it past them to surprise England over the next 5 days.