Thursday, August 30, 2012

Now is the Summer of England's Discontent

Just when it had all been going so well. The West Indies had been dispatched and a series against South Africa to confirm England's status as No1 in the world beckoned. Several weeks later, England have lost both their test and ODI No1 status, Kevin Pietersen and now their captain Andrew Strauss.

Despite the disappointing form with the bat that was the reason for his departure, Andrew Strauss should be remembered as a fantastic captain presiding over a period of phenomenal success unmatched in modern times for England. His reception in the press conference yesterday and the reaction from the players since said it all.

It was unfortunate that the KP fiasco was brought up at the press conference, mooted as a possible factor in his decision but the journalists are obliged to ask and it should not have detracted too much if at all from the main event.

For England, it is a bitter pill to swallow given that they have lost both a good player and a tremendous leader at a time when the team is having 'a bit of a wobble'. In reality however Strauss did appear to be a player in decline and the chances of a significant improvement from here on seemed remote.

As ever with the man he has done the right thing and in doing so swiftly, England have time to rebuild but they must act quickly and decisively. Their batting options have been much reduced with question marks now at opener, No4 and No6.

There is of course the option of moving Trott to open and moving Bell back up the order but that could possibly be folly. Whilst Cook and Trott clearly enjoy batting together, finding another settled opening partner for Cook would seem the better option. No3 for England has been a troubled position since Robin Smith left the scene and it would seem better to leave Trott where he is.

Ian Bell, for all his obvious class and new found self belief seems happier lower down the order and has provided invaluable runs for England in the last few seasons, again it would seem the wrong thing to do to start moving him around again.

Kevin Pietersen of course provides a dilemma for Cook and Andy Flower. What he did was wrong and clearly the dressing room is against him but he remains one of England's best players. Sometimes things do happen but people must always be able to move on.

There have been a plethora of instances in both cricket and wider sport where there have been unpopular or selfish players in a dressing room but it doesn't necessarily need to be a divisive issue if it is handled properly. England are a good team but not one that is good enough to pass over world class players. If KP is prepared to tow the line from now on he should be given a second chance.

For Alastair Cook, one must hope that he follows the example of his mentor Graham Gooch and flourishes as a captain and opening batsman. It is not an easy role, just ask Mark Taylor or Michael Atherton but it can be done and Cook it would appear has all the tools.

He certainly - Tuesday aside - has done a good job since taking the OD role and whilst a test series in India followed by back to back Ashes is a slightly bigger matter, he should be well placed to succeed. He also has the added advantage of a settled attack. Managing his bowlers should not be too much of an issue with all the apparent selection issues in the batting department.

It has been a six months that promised so much but ultimately has been one to forget for England  Strauss' decision whilst disappointing for all, is probably the right one and has been done at a point that gives England time to integrate new players into what has been a winning unit - No Nonsense.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Amla and South Africa's Cream Rises to the Top

An innings of the highest quality by Hashim Amla consigned England to defeat in Southampton yesterday and took the Proteas to the top of the rankings in all three formats. Like a playground bully who takes a younger child's toys away, the tourists have grabbed both of England's No1 spots in both tests and ODIs.

Whilst the victory was set up by Amla's individual excellence, the reality is that South Africa have looked a level up from England for the entire Summer and this latest game won at a canter gives further evidence of the visitors' superiority.

Amla in truth gave a couple of chances with Kieswetter the culprit which only gains credence to the question - where the hell is Matt Prior? Whilst Prior's average in the OD format is not the best, this is not the Matt Prior of 4-5 years ago, he is a premier cricketer these days.

England's reply looked doomed from the first over when Captain Cook played all around a delivery that deserved nothing but the straightest and lowest bat. Ian Bell looked relatively assured but the other batsmen achieved starts without having anything like the application to bat through the overs. Bopara and Morgan remain bit part players that are not of the calibre to be members of a team challenging for the No1 spot in the world.

Samit Patel provides a confluence of frustration and quality to proceedings. There is no doubting his ability but given the level of sporting professionalism nowadays and the harshness of training for all athletes -regardless of their trade - one wonders just exactly what he is doing with his spare time and how much he really wants to excel.

Whatever the sub plots were, England were simply outplayed here and they need to improve especially in the discipline of batting. Andrew Strauss is rumoured to be just about to provide another twist to the England story and we wait to see how England will respond  - No Nonsense.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Reality Check For England

Following the England cricket team is a bizarre experience. For several decades they were mediocre at best. Central contracts ushered in a new era of professionalism however and as Australia's dominance started to wain, England have won three out of the last four Ashes series.

Despite all this, for most England followers it was hard to believe that the dominance they showed down under recently was real. That feeling was reinforced when they buckled so badly at the WACA, it had all been an illusion and it was back to the Aussies on top. But what happened afterwards at the MCG and the SCG threw all that on its' head. Dare to say it..... England are quite good.

India were put to the sword in the most clinical of fashions last Summer and suddenly England were No1 and there seemed little doubt that they fully deserved it. A settled batting line up - with only a nagging doubt about the No6 spot - and an all conquering attack, fantastic times to be an England fan with the odd T20 World Cup win thrown in too.

The reality is of course that Test Cricket itself is in decline with Australia, the West Indies and to a lesser extent Pakistan offering up pretty mediocre fare for the traditional power houses. India also it seems now has little interest in anything longer than 50 overs that isn't played in it's own backyard. England were No1 but one could ask, so what?

South Africa are a genuinely good Test team, everyone knew that and it was billed rightly as the defining series in the World right now. What England found however is that whilst they have become extremely good at bullying lesser teams ruthlessly, they appear to be rather less good at scrapping in close contests.

England were poor earlier this year against Pakistan with lots of talk of being 'undercooked', of a lack of preparation and an almost obsession about playing spin against sub continent teams with DRS. Sri Lanka came and went and so we moved on back home and the West Indies were duly dispatched.

England's preparations against South Africa were perfect even managing a sound thrashing of Australia in the ODI series to boot. South Africa were apparently the ones short of match practise and the media - this blog included - were lulled into the expectation of a sound Engalnd series victory.

But what transpired was very different with South Africa offering a master class in batting during the first test as England were literally hammered in the most crushing of defeats.

Whilst the second and third tests were much closer affairs, since the opening hours of the first test, there are very few sessions that England can look back on and say 'we won that one'. There was always the sense that England were hanging in there rather than ever really being on top, short bursts aside.

Whilst the bowling still looks decent with Swann, Anderson and Broad - although strangely down on pace - all looking the class acts that they undoubtedly are, the batting is now causing real cause for concern.

Cook has had a phenomenal couple of years and should bear no criticism but Strauss, great captain that he remains is becoming burdensome for the team due to his relative lack of runs. More competition for places is required for the openers. Cook averaged only 32.5 in the series with Strauss even worse with an entirely mediocre 17.8.

Jonathan Trott seems less assured than in previous times and with the loss of Kevin Pietersen, England's batting line up now looks brittle where previously it had looked fabulous and with great depth. Of England's premier front line, only KP in his four innings averaged above 50, Jonny Bairstow aside.

The KP saga has been an unfortunate sideshow and it remains to be seen what the long term ramifications will be. It is clear that the ECB, Andy Flower and Andrew Strauss have lost patience entirely with the player and it has been noticeable that there has been no evident support from KP from anyone within the dressing room.

Whilst England's stance is commendable, it is clearly a 'lose lose' situation for everyone as England can little afford the loss of one of their premier batsmen. KP is a big game player and with ten Ashes tests looming in less than twelve months, a way to reintegrate him into the side would be the best outcome.

Jonny Bairstow everyone seems to believe has the talent and potential to become an England regular but he is young and needs time. Both Ravi Bopara and Eoin Morgan have shown time and time again that whilst they are extremely capable limited overs players, they lack the technique and possibly concentration at the very top of test cricket.

It is not all doom and gloom for England, they have after all been beaten by a very good side but there is definitely food for thought.

What is key is how England react to this set back and their Winter tour to India now takes on added spice given that they have lost series to both Pakistan and South Africa already this year. Winning in India is always tough but it would be the perfect way to set themselves up for next year's Ashes bonanza - No Nonsense.

Friday, August 17, 2012

England lose the impetus

England started in superb fashion yesterday with Finn proving again that he has the potential to be a match winner. His selection ahead of Bresnan was a positive one - no disrespect to the fantastic Yorkshireman - with the requirement of taking 20 wickets paramount.

Unfortunately for England, the early ground made up was lost to a strong South African rearguard action and the possibility of getting SA out for close to 2-250 disappeared quickly in the late afternoon gloom. With a less than settled batting line up, a score of over 300 from the tourists will provide a tough ask to produce a position to win from for England.

Jimmy Anderson was excellent all day and whilst Broad was strangely subdued and low on pace, Finn provided early fireworks before some radar issues in the afternoon. Graeme Swann asked many questions the most pertinent of which was 'Why didn't I play in the last test?'

South Africa as always were gritty with Duminy, de Villiers and Rudolph all absorbing various blows to the body to slowly claw their way back into the test.

The morning session will be key. If England can skittle the remainder cheaply then they have a chance to win the match if Cook and Trott in particular can perform their vigils at the crease. Should South Africa bat all morning and into the afternoon then England could potentially be staring down the barrel again - No Nonsense.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Premiership Champions League Race, how are the runners stacking up?

With only a couple of days left until the first fixtures of the season, it has been a relatively quiet Summer transfer market with few clubs other than Chelsea willing to make a major splash of cash. So where does that leave the clubs chasing the Champions League spots this season?

Manchester City
City will actually benefit from a Summer of less upheaval and activity. Hamstrung by the massive wages they are paying to unwanted players they have been able to shift on, City have only so far recruited Jack Rodwell. He is an undoubted talent but the likes of ManYoo had clearly cooled their interest in him given his patchy injury record and even Mancini has said he is 'not ready'.

City appear to be investing in some more 'Englishness' with Rodwell but the squad essentially remains the same with the reintegration of Carlos Tevez. A central defender still looks a requirement. They will however be tough to beat this season now they a title under their belts.

United's midfield shortcomings have not been fully addressed by the signing of Shinji Kagawa but he will provide fresh impetus to a hopelessly ageing and immobile midfield. Should Darren Fletcher complete his recovery from illness then his added dynamism will be much welcome also.

The squad doesn't look United vintage but Ferguson as ever remains the trump card. The acquisition of Van Persie would take much of the pressure off Wayne Rooney's shoulders to provide the goals also.

'Arsenal in shock player purchase' read the early Summer headlines and it appears in Podolski and Cazorla they may have signed some genuine quality with the jury currently out on Giroud.

As always however, their Summer has been dominated by talk of players going the other way and yet another saga with Van Persie risks derailing Arsenal's early season plans. Had Arsenal sorted out Fabregas and Nasri earlier last year they may well have not had the awful start to the season from which they could not fully recover.

Will Spurs provide redemption for AVB? Spurs again look a team in limbo with the ongoing Luca Modric situation. They have been unable so far to add to their attacking options and it is unlikely that Van Der Vaart will get fitter as he gets older.

The signing of Vertonghen looks a sound one which will add much needed quality at the back now that Ledley King has finally succumbed to his chronic and unfortunate knee problems. Hard to see Spurs improving on fourth place and more signings are required.

Newcastle United
Despite last year's stellar showing it is hard to see the Toon as genuine contenders for fourth spot but thus they must such was last year's achievements. A relatively stable Summer seeing them hang on to their prize assets means the Geordies will start the season with renewed hope and the spectre of the returning Andy Carroll is also an intriguing sub plot.

Last year's big underachievers saved their season with their heroics in Munich which both permitted and signalled a spending spree not seen at the Bridge since Abramovich first arrived. Hazard and Oscar in particular will add pace, quality and youth but their settling in period might be bumpy.

Chelsea may also have a new face in one Fernando Torres now fully emerged from the shadow of Didier Drogba. Whether he can regain his former glories may be key to whether Chelsea can mount a serious challenge this season.

Mikel and Lampard look ponderous in midfield and more replacements including a right back are required for what is not a big squad in terms of quality. It is unlikely however that Abramovich paid around 60M to be patient and Di Matteo knows that results are imperative with Munich now a memory.

Again, hard to call them genuine contenders but this blog shall give Brendan Rodgers the benefit of the doubt for now. He has so far said and done the right things and appears to have a definite plan. The acquisitions of Borini and Allen will be key for Rodgers as to whether they can make the step up to playing at Anfield.

It may take Rodgers several seasons to shape Liverpool into what he wants and having picked such a promising manager, one hopes that FSG will indeed give him the time he requires.

This blog's prediction for the coming season

1. Manchester City
2. Manchester United
3. Chelsea
4. Arsenal
5. Liverpool
6. Spurs
7. Newcastle

Monday, August 13, 2012

We need to stop talking about Kevin.

Whilst this blog has been supportive of KP in the respect that a balance needs to be found in the cricket calendar and that there are far too many ODIs, the behaviour of England's premier problem child this week is beyond the pale.

There is no doubt that England will be significantly weaker against South Africa with KP's absence given that the team is struggling to find an answer to the No6 dilemma - without adding no4 to the problem - but the selectors have done the only thing they can do by dropping a player who is single handedly undermining the entire group.

Whilst Strauss has not exactly been setting the world on fire for some time now, his leadership and the partnership he has forged with Andy Flower has been paramount to England's success and if KP's presence is no longer a positive one then he must go.

The issue of the alleged sms' that have been sent is an entirely ludicrous situation. Everyone knows that you remain loyal to your teammates no matter what and you certainly don't go running to the opposition of all people. Those actions alone are disgraceful.

KP's youtube stunt is also miles offside with the timing - around the same time as Mo Farah was winning gold - showing the entirely false sense of importance that Pietersen feels he has.

It may well be that KP had rumbled that the ECB were going to call his bluff and was attempting to pre-empt his dropping by holding out a very public olive branch. Whatever the reasoning, the fences should have been mended privately and not played out to the public gallery - especially as KP was at pains to stress in the past he wished to keep all the discussions private.

Players are a long time retired from international sport and hopefully Lords will give Pietersen time to reflect on what has transpired and hopefully decide to knuckle down and want to start scoring runs for England again.

His teammates will be dismayed for sure at his absence but more so in his betrayal of a dressing room that seems totally at odds with his portrayal of his cutting an isolated figure. KP needs to stop talking and start batting, if England will take him back that is - No Nonsense.