England heading for a whitewash defeat and the batting stats don’t lie

Another day, another poor show with the bat. Couple this with the first underwhelming English performance with the ball on this tour and we have for the third time this series a predicament which sees England staring a Test Match defeat directly in the eye.

Pietersen has been just one of many disappointments against Pakistan

England’s paltry 141 with the bat was perhaps slightly excused after Pakistan were skittled for 99 on day one, but today’s show of solidarity from Azhar Ali and Younis Khan proved that the pitch was, in fact, fairly innocuous and provided the perspective necessary to highlight just how poor England were again throughout their first innings.

Though the bowlers too struggled on day two of the third and final Test, it is hardly fair to apportion much blame in their direction. It has after all been their efforts, almost in isolation, that have spared England complete humiliation in their first Test series since being named the world’s leading side in the format.

Today, the most notable of the negated England bowling threats was that of Graeme Swann whose usually  very effective off-spin was made to look entirely impotent by Pakistan’s star performers on the day. It may sound a little cliched to say that Younus Khan and Azhar Ali succeeded with the bat due to their ‘patience’ early on and their progressive build towards ‘taking the attack’ to England, but that just about sums up the majority of the day’s play.

Aside from this show of resilience from Pakistan and England’s first slip of the series into the realms of ineffective bowling, the current cause for major concern must be the lacklustre batting displays which are a world away from Down Under at the start 2011 and the run-thirst demonstrated on home turf against India in the summer.

The clearest indicator of the fall from grace for England’s batting line-up on this tour is the comparison of their averages so far in the three match Test-Series with those put together during India’s visit in the summer, where England of course dished out a whitewash series victory of their own.

During England’s ‘Indian Summer’ the vast majority of their batting line-up enjoyed huge success and it was Alistair Cook at the top of the order who led them out of the blocks in style, carrying on from his outstanding form away to Australia in the Ashes. His average in the India series was very healthy, up in the high fifties, even if that was courtesy of an outstanding knock of 294 at Egbaston. This stunning contribution in Birmingham meant that his series average was nearly 40 runs-per-innings higher than his collective contributions against Pakistan this winter.

Cook’s partner in crime, Andrew Strauss, didn’t have quite as healthier average as his fellow opener but the captain did manage an average in the high thirties which is better than his low thirties average so far this series.

Jonathan Trott, the recent recipient of the ICC’s top award at their yearly celebration of all things cricket, may have suffered a series ruining injury over the summer against India but prior to this he had chipped in with a series opening 70 before a slump which saw him average in the mid-twenties. His form with the bat in this series has actually seen an improvement on his contribution in the summer, with his average up in the thirties but three scores of sub-twenty out of five innings is still a cause for concern.

Kevin Pietersen who seemed to have returned to something like his dominant best against India with a world-beating average of 89, has too struggled throughout the present tour. After some worrying early indicators in the warm-up matches, KP has continued to struggle against the Pakistan attack managing a measly 49  collective runs scored over his five innings’.

Along with Pietersen, it was Ian Bell who really shone over the summer with an almost as imperious average of 84. Sadly though for Bell who’s summer was seen as something of an affirmation of his world-class status as a Test performer, his role against Pakistan has been far less glamorous. In alarmingly similar fashion to Pietersen, he has sunk without trace on the current tour contributing even fewer runs than his team-mate; a total of just 41 runs from his five visits to the crease.

The fledgling member of England’s supposedly match-winning batting line-up, Eoin Morgan, is one of the only batsmen worthy of a little sympathy for his torrid time out in the middle this series given his lack of Test Match experience. However, his lack of runs has also been a worry given the faith shown to select him ahead of the talented (even if not entirely reliable) Ravi Bopara. Morgan has averaged more than 20 runs less-per-innings during the present tour when compared to his contributions against India on home turf.

The common theme for England’s batting line-up is clearly that they have failed to deliver anywhere near as strongly as they did at home to India in the summer, with the exception being Jonathan Trott who’s average has actually been an improvement. There are of course several reasons for such a rapid decline in form and I am not going to bother claiming that I am next in line to Graham Gooch on the batting guidance front, but the foremost explanations are two-fold.

First, the England batsmen are ‘ring-rusty’. This may sound a little pathetic when they are meant to be top-class performers but a few months out of Test action is a long time and although they may have needed it for the sake of their long-term sanity, it hasn’t exactly helped them in the short-term. Also, there appears to be some serious deficiencies in their approach to batting on Sub-Continental pitches, which have seen the batsmen resorting consistently to either negative and tentative reliance on the back-foot and, alternatively, if all else fails, they have been lured into loose shots designed in vein to relieve pressure.

So then, there is an enormous amount for England to work on in the coming weeks and months but in the short-term a second innings of composure and positivity would go some way to restoring the apparently fragile confidence of their batting contingent.

 

Advertisements

Ajmal lays down the gauntlet as Pakistan overwhelm England on day one

When Pakistan last faced England in Test Match cricket their ability and reputation were left in tatters. Their feeble on-field performances and the disgraceful acts of some of their players off of it left the nation’s sporting and societal name completely tarnished. Thankfully though, the opening day of their latest series told an entirely different story.

For Pakistan national pride and identity is of utmost significance and the events of the summer of 2010 could scarcely have been timed worse. Whilst a few of their national heroes were demonstrating immense greed and selfishness, the country itself was left reeling in the wake of devastating floods. Insensitive and inappropriate as the actions of Mohammed Amir, Mohammed Asif, and Salman Butt were in isolation, they were compounded by the natural disaster unfolding in their homeland.

Joyfully, the opening day of this series will be remembered for what Pakistan do still have to offer to the world of cricket. Their spin-heavy bowling attack  tore into the world’s number one Test side, and arguably the world’s best Test batting line-up and dismissed them for a poultry 192.

Ajmal's brilliant variations and "Doosra" impressed rather than his thus far unseen "Teesra"

Without a doubt, the star of the opening day was Saeed Ajmal whose pre-match kidology spoke volumes for his self-confidence going into the series. His promises of a new mystery ball proved fairly unfounded in truth, but there was no doubting the effect of his brilliantly subtle variation.

England’s entire batting order (the brilliant Matt Prior aside) looked baffled by Ajmal’s ability to turn the ball both ways with very little change in action on what seems a very flat pitch. He isn’t a huge turner of the ball, but the craft of his bowling was plain for all to see.

His performance en-route to career-best figures of 7-55 today makes it seem remarkable that he has only played 17 Tests for his country before now when at the of 34 he is potentially right at the back end of his career. For a while now he has been thought of as being a better One-Day bowler for his country, but today’s performance went some way to disputing this and will have had a positive effect on his previously no-better-than-solid Test bowling average of over 30.

Ably supported by the rest of Pakistan’s more regulation bowling attack, Ajmal became by far the stand-out player on day one. His seemingly undying confidence has in the past gone a little unjustified but today he lived up to his own billing and really delivered. If he manages to maintain this level of performance and England continue to help him and his team-mates out with some silly indiscipline, then he could finally be the man Pakistan can rely on to see them to a considerable Test scalp.

Sceptics (myself included), might put a bit of a downer on Pakistan’s day one achievements with thoughts of ‘what might have been’ for their bowling attack had Amir and Asif not have taken a severely wrong-turn in their careers. Today though, certainly showed signs of a re-juvenated Pakistani side intent on trying to at least partially eradicate the ill-feeling surrounding their recent Test Match history.

If England don’t improve their fortunes quick-smart, then they may well find themselves staring down the barrel within three days in this opening Test. Not only will their players be ruing their errors but the selectors too must be feeling the heat having left out the in-form Monty Panesar in a Test that has seen nine wickets for the spinners on day one. In recent times the selectors have been pretty much faultless, but this decision could come back to bite them in a couple of days time.

Will the most open World Cup in memory serve up England’s greatest triumph?

England’s quest for the completion of an incredible year has this week reached the quarter-final stages of the World Cup. To complete the treble of Twenty20, Ashes and World Cup glory would have to be considered a year of unprecedented success, however, in order to achieve this they must first overcome Sri Lanka at fortress Premadasa.

England’s campaign thus far has been far from convincing. Defeats at the hands of associate side Ireland and the horribly out-of-form Bangladesh have called into question the fatigue-levels and mental state in the camp off the back of a busy winter, but England will know their work is far from done. They must keep in mind just how huger achievement it would be to complete this mission and that the end really is in sight. Their mentality in the bigger games has appeared committed thus far and that is the way things must remain.

England have demonstrated a major weakness against spin and the challenge of the master Muttiah Muralidaran, the famed ‘mystery-spinner’ Aganta Mendis and the in-form Tilekeratne Dilshan could well prove too much. ‘Murali’ and Mendis in particular can win this match single-handedly, couple that with the rampaging threat of Lasith Malinga and the task presents it’s own case. Though England undoubtedly boast match-winners too, it seems that Sri Lanka’s stars are far more fresh and in-form. In fact, some of England’s ‘X-Factor’ players such as Kevin Pietersen and Stuart Broad have already succumb to injury and left for home. Is it really possible for England to win this tournament without arguably their best one-day batsman and arguably their best one-day pace-man? The jury is very much out.

One thing is for sure, even if England do progress there is still a mountain to climb to win the tournament. With favourites South Africa the likely semi-final opponents and the prospect of the in-form Pakistan, hosts India, or reigning champions Australia waiting in the final it is clear for all to see that England are far from being crowned champions. Captain Andrew Strauss will be praying that the ‘dark-horse’ tag hanging round England’s necks at present will work in their favour as they seek some serious improvements going into these knock-out stages.

It has been a fantastic tournament so far, founded primarily upon the trials and tribulations of England’s campaign. They have been involved in arguably five of the greatest games of the tournament out of the six they have played, and have provided outstanding entertainment, if not any level of consistency. Players and fans alike will be hoping for victory this Saturday, but in truth I think the task is just too much for them. I tip Sri Lanka for victory and progression to a final against India. If this is the case then I believe India will rule triumphant on home-turf.

Whatever the outcome eventually is, it seems we are set for yet more excitement and hopefully a couple more surprises along the journey. England will hope to continue slipping under the radar and finding crucial victories from somewhere in the murky depths of the imagination, which so far they have stretched to it’s fullest extents. Perhaps only New Zealand are less favoured for glory, but Captain Strauss would be wise not to focus on this. They have one objective now and that is to win, we await to see if this is in fact achievable or whether it is more just a romantic pipe-dream.

What a debt we owe to the South African production Line

England/South Africa's Finest...It is easy to ignore amidst the euphoria of Adelaide glory that four of ‘English’ Cricket’s seven batting heroes are South African by birth. It is a much reported upon subject and I am not here to criticise the English selection policy but more to thank whole-heartedly the magnificent talent production line that is South Africa. Andrew Strauss and Matt Prior, both South African by birth, spent only small amounts of their youth in their native country. In contrast, Kevin Pietersen and Jonathan Trott are South African through and through. Pietersen’s case is a much publicised tale of trial and failure in domestic South African cricket but Trott’s story is lesser known.

Trott is a real product of South African cricket having starred in the U17’s and U19’s youth sides. Following on from this were a couple of stuttering and starting spells in South Africa and New Zealand’s domestic leagues. However, Warwickshire gave him his break in 2002 when they signed him as a non-overseas player due to his family’s English descent. Upon his arrival Trott had to bide his time whilst plying his trade in the 2nd XI but soon Trott’s class came to fruition in his record knock of 245. Trott had proved his worth and since then has never looked back. To show for his efforts in domestic English cricket he had amassed over 8,000 runs an admirable if not  exceptional average of 44.

Due to a horrible loss of form from promising young batsman Ravi Bopara in the 2009 Ashes Series Trott, averaging 97 for the 2009 season with Warwickshire, was called upon for his high pressure Test debut in the fifth and final test. He managed a confident first innings 41 before being run-out and then a steely match winning century in the second. How better to introduce yourself on the international stage?

Trott’s burst to international prominence has been cemented over his fifteen month test career. Having endured a somewhat disappointing tour to his native South Africa last winter he has come back strongly with impressive performances against the testing attack’s of Bangladesh and Pakistan. Highlights of his first British summer as  a test batsman included a test high of 226 and a world record eighth wicket stand of 332 with Stuart Broad. Such brilliant achievements have instilled a level of confidence in Trott that has served him beautifully down under.

Trott has recovered from a poor first innings dismissal in the twenties at the GABBA to go on and post a record unbroken partnership of 329 with Alistair Cook in the second innings. Also, he has contributed to Englands record breaking first innings total of 620-5 with a hard-fought 78 having come in following Strauss’ early dismissal, yet again proving his ability to perform in a pressure situation.

Here we have then a man who has in the space of fifteen months gone from county performer to test match record breaker. Trott has made the number three spot his own and is the rock around which England’s batting successes of recent times have been built. An unconventional and at times ugly style has irked opponents far and wide but he is without doubt a class act that, for now,  proudly boasts the  all-time best test match average of any Englishman, the highest current ranking of any English batsmen and an average in excess of 100 in the current Ashes series.

Australia beware. One more major score from England and their South African contingent and they could regain The Ashes. Surely the thus far toothless Australian side will not give up their quest to regain the little urn so easily? Or do they simply have no means with which to fight back?

*Something to consider…  South Africa’s most recent test line-up with the addition of the Anglo/’Saffers’:

Smith, Strauss, Amla, Kallis, Pietersen, Trott, Prior, Botha, Steyn, Harris, Morkel

Can The Ashes Put To Bed The Ghosts Of The Cricketing Summer?

Another hugely anticipated Ashes series is upon us and has there ever been a more important one for the reputation of the sport? Whenever England take on Australia the world watches with baited breath and this Australian summer season will be no different.

As if The Ashes in itself isn’t important enough, this series has the unenviable task of restoring the spirit and integrity of the sport after a controversial summer. The world of cricket was rocked in August when Pakistan became embroiled in a spot-fixing scandal when competing against England. No enduring punishments have yet been placed upon the players involved, but, Salman Butt, Mohammed Asif and Mohammed Aamer are all currently suspended pending investigation.

These seemingly unsavoury events have dragged Crickets reputation through the gutter over the past few months and the role that this series holds in rescuing the sport cannot be overstated. It is a series that regardless of the final outcome always seems to provide immense entertainment, the very best test cricket has to offer. Hopefully the series will pan out in a fashion that does this most magnificent and noble of sports sheer justice.

The build up to this particular series has been rather unfamiliar in comparison to previous series’ in Australia. Typical hype revolves around how many the Aussies are going to thump ‘The Poms’ by, but this time their is a definite sense of uncertainty. Australian media and public perception has been rather subdued and many have predicted a tough summer for their men. Quite right too given the poor recent form and apparent indecision within the selection policy.

Much has been made of England’s ‘settled’ side being a huge advantage and one would tend to agree, however, I disagree with the criticism surrounding Australia’s decision to choose a 17 man squad. For a side that have been under performing I believe it a logical decision to line up plenty in reserve so that those who may be brought into the side are prepared mentally to enter the fray. To pick a smaller squad and perhaps run the risk of leaving reserve players in short supply could potentially force Australia to call upon those who haven’t been in and around the Ashes set-up. Public perception very much seems to be driven by the media come Ashes time Down Under and this year has proven no exception.

If ever cricket needed a series to re-establish it’s good name then this is it. The strife still hovering around the game in the wake of the Pakistani scandal will perhaps be put to one side if these two great nations put on a show of great quality and commitment. Expect heartache and ecstasy in the forthcoming weeks and pray that positivity recaptures the cricketing headlines in what is set to be an intriguing quest for the famed Urn.

Andrew Strauss clutches on to the famous little Urn...

Spot The Fixers; The Pakistani Cricket Scandal

The fourth morning of English cricket’s summer swansong descended into misery and chaos. On a morning that should have been all about the extraordinary achievements of messers Broad and Trott and their record-breaking stand, the News of The World broke the news that Pakistan players had been involved in illegal spot-betting during the test match.

Ashen faces filled the stands at the home of cricket where the vast majority were seen clutching to a copy of the NOTW. Star bowlers Mohammeds Aamer and Asif it had been alleged were involved in spot-betting regarding the bowling of no-balls. Recently appointed Captain Salman Butt was also accused of overseeing and profiting from the scandal. Cricket a ‘gentlemen’s sport’ was left reeling.

Suspicion arose when Asif and Aamer delivered in total three blatant no-ball deliveries at the times which corrupt ‘middle man’ Mazhar Majeed revealed they would in an undercover sting carried out by the NOTW. Since these initial allegations investigations have progressed. Aamer, Asif and Butt have been interviewed by Scotland Yard but were all let go without charge, however, the ICC have suspended all three players from playing until investigations are finalised.

It seems as though all thus far suspended are indeed guilty though no official charges have yet been made. Too much clear evidence seems available and even the team mates of the trio such as Yasir Hameed have come out with revelations regarding the whole Pakistani’s team involvement in spot-fixing over the past few months. The publicly named and shamed trio have all protested their innocence but besides themselves and their team of lawyers very little seems to be on offer in terms of sympathy or defence. One would suspect this is down to their being little to defend.

My personal belief is that all players found guilty of such deviance should be dealt with by the toughest means possible; however, I will offer a crumb of support to the cause of the accused. I in no way advocate their actions but it is perhaps understandable that world class Pakistani cricketers are tempted into such corruption when their average annual central contract is approximately £30,000. Compare that to the average English central contract of £400,000 and you begin to grasp a sense of injustice.

Pakistan after horrific recent flooding is a country in ruins, their idols careers may well be as well. I hope for the sake of a desperate nation that this story can in time reach its most savoury and appropriate resolution.