Monday, August 30, 2010

The Lord's Test

I was looking forward to writing a blog about how fantastic Jonathan Trott and Stuart Broad were in England's first (and in the end only) innings. How they built a partnership that smashed one record after another. How Stuart Broad hit his first ever century (Test or first-class) and looked likely to get a double until Ajmal used the UDRS correctly. How Trott was at the crease for effectively a day and half and how he came so close to scoring two double hundreds at Lord's. But no. All this is now over-shadowed by the allegations surfacing against Asif, Amir and Butt.

England looked shell-shocked taking to the field at 11. The Pakistan dressing room doors had been shut until 11, with only a few players venturing onto the balcony. The two not out batsmen were greeted with a ripple of applause. When Azhar Ali's wicket fell, it brought to the crease Kamran Akmal, who was also named in the News of the World's report. How must his brother have felt at the other end? It's not the first time Kamran Akmal has been allegedly involved in some kind of 'fix'. The Sydney Test earlier this year saw a suspicious amount of simple catches dropped and routine run outs missed.

When he got out to Anderson for 1, it brought to the crease 18 year old Amir. I've been singing his praises. He mauled the England middle order on Friday and got on the Honour's Board at Lord's. There was a smattering of boos for him, but not much applause. He was quickly bowled by Swann, whose celebrations were quite muted compared to the previous day. When the other accused party in Asif came to the crease, Lord's fell silent. There were a couple of boos, but from the member's pavilion, there was nothing.

My first reaction to this news was of shock and anger. After Broad and Trott had worked so hard to get England into a commanding position, the allegations surfaced and seemed to taint their hard work. I felt angry towards the match fixers, the Pakistan team, even the News of the World. Match fixers were putting the sport that I and many millions around the world love on the front pages for the wrong reasons. They ruin others enjoyment, break the law and have now dared to attack the most sacred of cricket matches, the Lord's Test. 

The more I looked at it though, the shock and anger subsided and was replaced with an overwhelming feeling of sadness and disappointment. At the moment, Pakistan is in the grips of awful flooding and the entire country is facing a humanitarian disaster. The political state of the country and the attack on the umpires and Sri Lankan cricket team mean that Pakistan cannot hold matches in their own country, hence the Pakistan-Australia
(how must the MCC feel after sponsoring that?)
series being played here. The Pakistan team also has some heartbreaking stories in it. The back-up wicketkeeper, Zulqarnain Haider lost his mother when he was 12 and when he made his Test debut donated half his match fee to a hospital in Pakistan.

After the Oval Test, Pakistan were on a high. They had England 102-7 and were then batted out of the game by two sublime innings. On Sunday morning, only the injured players were sat out on the Lord's balcony, looking glumly on as their fit counterparts were talked to by the team director. If proven guilty, Amir's career will effectively be over. And if it is, what an absolute waste. The kid clearly has a lot of talent. He was playing for Pakistan Under-19s when he was 15. Now he could face a life ban. If you were born in a slum to extreme poverty and a man came up to you and offered you £50000 for bowling a no-ball at a stated time, would you turn it down? You would hope that the pride of playing for your country would cause you to do so. But the other bowler, Asif, is so used to controversy that the fact he's still playing is unbelievable. He has battled drugs and his own team mates and now he must battle these allegations. Salman Butt replaced arguably the most controversial and maverick player in world cricket, Shahid Afridi, as captain. And now he's been dragged into these allegations too. When asked if he should resign, he answered, "Why?" But should the allegations be true, then he'll probably be banned too. He's only 25 and his career may well be over as well. 

When it was announced back in April that two Essex players were being questioned by Essex police on the charges of spot-fixing the televised Pro40 up at Durham in September last year, I was absolutely gutted. When it surfaced that Danish Kaneria was involved, I was even more disappointed. I'm disappointed now as well. I really admired Mohammad Amir. He was the youngest player to reach 50 wickets and get on the Lord's Honours board and he has so much to give. But the evidence is not looking good for him or Asif, as those no-balls were not just over, they were massive. Had they not been guilty, surely they would have protested their innocence, like they did in 2006?

This one will rumble on for a while and should Pakistan play the ODI series, the reaction they get will probably be heated. But since Kaneria is still playing for Essex, despite being on police bail, will the PCB stop Amir, Asif and Butt playing in the ODI series? Looking at its track record, I would expect them to play, which is why I think the ICC need to step in and do the discplining here. The PCB banned Mo Yousuf and Younis Khan, then unbanned them a couple of months later on appeal.

Sadly, the cricket world will remain in a sombre mood for a while yet.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Match Report: Ipswich Town 2-0 Bristol City

I returned to Portman Road for the first time since that bloody awful Sheffield United game in May. I've already seen Ipswich play this season, but this was in the League Cup against Exeter, where the average age of the team was probably the same age as me. What was even more special about this game for me was that this was the first time that I sat in the lower North/Sir Bobby Robson Stand. I say sat, I was stood up for most of the game. Anyway, comparing the miserable match I saw in May with the one I saw here, in the August sunshine and showers, I was pleasantly surprised. We've improved so much that I've become convinced the real Ipswich Town are locked in a lost wine cellar of the Cobbolds.

We began the first half looking lively. There were hugs and high fives a-plenty amongst the Town players, so this seems to suggest that the team spirit is good in the camp. Who knows, maybe they're all just really good actors. We looked slick, passed the ball well and had chances. We came close with a Leadbitter (I think) free kick and then even closer with a Tamas Priskin shot that hit the crossbar. Being the massive pessimist, I was thinking that it wasn't going to be our day.

Around the half an hour mark, there came a change. Not a substitute, just the fact that we went off the boil. Suddenly we decided the dreaded long ball was the way forward, when carrying on what we were doing in the first place was far more effective. It was a disappointing end to the first half, as we just seemed to fizzle out. However, my spirits were lifted when I overheard a bloke behind me say that we haven't scored in the first half this season.

We did see some net action in the first half though. One of the Bristol City players took a shot, missed and ended up running into the netting used to protect spectators from shooting practice. He got stuck and put up with the jeering of the North Standers as he desperately tried to unhook himself...

Half Time:
Ipswich 0-0 Bristol City

Once the second half kicked off, you could see there was a difference in the Town side. They were spirited and returned to the passing game that had served them OK in the first half. You could tell it was going well as Keane didn't make any changes on the 50th minute.

Priskin, who whenever I've seen him is either always offside or looks about as cheerful as a Hungarian who is low on confidence can look, finally broke the deadlock near the hour mark. And with my blue-tinted glasses on, I'd say it was deserved. Yes, it was a massive, massive cock-up between Fontaine and good old Calamity James but the Priskin last season would probably have missed that. It may well be a confidence booster for the man, because this was his first goal in front of the Portman Road faithful. He's already doubled his tally for last season.

Now to his strike partner, Jason Scotland. When he arrived earlier this week and we said goodbye to Jon Stead, there was a bit of indifference and hesistancy amongst the Town fans. Scotland wasn't good for Wigan in the Premierleague, but in the Championship he was pretty good for Swansea. Considering the fact he was short of fitness, he played 90 minutes and managed to score on his debut. Once he does gain a bit of match fitness, he may well be a crucial striker for us. We have Wickham waiting on the sidelines with an ankle injury, but he's just a kid (like most of our squad) so now might be the time for both Scotland and Priskin to try and impress. Even though there is now an international break. Still, they both linked well, took advantage of defensive errors and basically, it was nice for two strikers to score after getting rid of three of them.

The reaction to Jon Stead was as expected. It must've been tough for the guy as he was here Sunday, gone Monday and then back here on Saturday. In a red shirt. Being marked by Gareth McAuley. I'm probably alone in hoping he went into the home dressing room by accident.

No matter how the goals came, it's three points. It's a decent enough performance and we're third in the league. It's also our first league clean sheet of the season and our third win. We look relaxed, we look like we're finally linking together. David Norris is excelling in his role as captain. When he went down in a heap outside the 'D' in front of the North Stand, I was holding my breath and hoping he was alright, as he really will be a massive player for us this season. In the end, I needn't have worried, because they make 'em tough in er... Plymouth.

Player ratings
Fulop 6: Having confused him for Brian Murphy in the highlights of the Palace match last week, I figured out who he was this time. He didn't really have to do much as the Robins didn't give him much of a challenge. However, he has a very useful kick and ran rings around David James.

Peters 6: Some of his passing was off today. Definitely had a better second half than first and did put in some decent tackles. Hopefully over the season he will link more with Carlos Edwards.

McAuley 7: The man's a rock. Hopefully he can stay clear of injury because he provides us with height at corners and also has started where he left off towards the end of last season.

Smith 6: The New Zealander seems to be forming a good partnership with McAuley, although I assume once Delaney's back he'll go to left or right back. He also made some good clearances, and I think any first team experience is valuable to someone so young.

O'Dea 7: He got forward, he looks strong and by heck he put in some crunching tackles.

Leadbitter 7: Unlucky not to score from his free kick. We all know how good he can be and it's fantastic that he's not got a chipped bone as was feared after the Burnley game.

Edwards 7: When he stays in position, he's good. And to be fair to him, he stayed in position a lot today. He seems to have been eating his Wheetabix in the morning, as he appears to be speedier than I remember...

Norris 7: Like Peters, played better in the second half than the first. But was still pretty good in the first half. The international break has come at a good time for him though, since he's played every match we've had, including extra time against Exeter and Crewe.

Hyam 6: He was awesome against Exeter, but not so good today. Too many loose balls. However, he's young and will certainly improve. Definitely someone to get excited about, anyway!

Scotland 7: Pretty decent home debut. Hopefully he can continue it once he gets a bit more match fit. He provided support to Priskin and clearly enjoyed the goal!

Priskin 7: He was good today. He was actually good. Only offside once if my memory serves me correctly. He looked like he enjoyed today as well and you could see the metaphorical monkey being lifted off his back as the ball hit the back of the net for the opener.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

There's only one Marcus Stewart...

I took this picture at the Exeter City game on August 10th 2010. I was going to do a match report on the game, but the news of Adam Stansfield put the match into perspective. That news was absolutely tragic and my thoughts are still with his family, friends and Exeter City FC.

Considering the news about Jon Walters today, and the way he left Portman Road, it left me thinking about one of my all time favourite Town players of Marcus Stewart (Matt Holland, Reuser and Darren Bent are on my list too because I'm 18, not 48) and the reaction he got on the 10th. I was hoping he was going to come on and when he did, I gave him the ovation he deserved. It was brilliant and he showed his appreciation of it at the end of the match. The next time Walters steps onto the Portman Road turf, or Tractor Boys occupy the away end at Brittania Stadium, he's likely to be booed.

The Ipswich Town version of the "there's only one..." song will always be Marcus Stewart's in my eyes. Sorry JW.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Pakistan bamboozled by James Anderson

Before the beginning of the Test match at Trent Bridge, it was widely believed that Pakistan were "in form" and this Test match wouldn't be a damp squib. Over night, the disastrous tour to Australia was forgotten and that match at Lord's was history. Yes, Pakistan played well up at Headingley. They bowled Australia out for 88. However, they won by 3 wickets. It was painfully obvious that the Pakistani batting line up is about as brittle as a breadstick.

The two bowling line-ups were very well matched. The 18 year old Mohammad Aamer (or Amir) is already being tipped for great things. I remember seeing him when he was a 15 year old (or similar) playing for the Pakistan under 19s. Makes you think when someone you're only a few months older than is playing international cricket. Mohammad Asif, who is prone to a controversy or ten, took a 5 wicket haul in England's first innings. Yet both of these fast-medium bowlers were overshadowed by another. The man with the eyebrows that look like tiny caterpillars have wandered onto his face, James Anderson, took 11-71 in the match, with a 5-fer and a 6-fer in each innings respectively.

Having a bowler friendly wicket was refreshing to say the least. After the non-event in Sri Lanka in the second Test, it was nice to have the return of battling batsmen and the new ball being so vital. Both sides struggled against it. England were 118-4 at one point before the vital partnership of Lord Collingwood and Eoin Morgan came together. Yes, Anderson bowled well, but it was this 200+ run partnership that set England's victory up. Pakistan didn't use their referrals at all well this match. Had they not wasted them on Pietersen, who was likely to get out quickly himself due to being out of form and his on-going feud with Hampshire, then they could've got England out for 200, or less. Instead, Morgan batted beautifully for his 130 and apparently brushed aside his critics. However, in a quite unique way, Morgan answered an interview with Nasser Hussain honestly and effectively said, "I've still got a lot of work to do, shut up Nasser."

Another England player that deserves credit is Matt Prior. He deserved his hundred after England were tottering in the second innings. Having been run out by Swann in the first innings and then running out Eoin Morgan in the second, Prior got his head down and played out Asif, Aamer and a fired up Gul. He got reward for this perseverance by facing the hopelessly out of form Danish Kaneria and the part time off-spinner Shoaib Malik. Whilst he may've crawled to his century (I think he owes Steven Finn about 20 pints), he certainly deserved it and ran rings and rings around his counterpart, Kamran Akmal.

Akmal struggled against the swinging ball an awful lot this match. He also struggled against the barely spinning ball. He took a sublime catch to dismiss Kevin Pietersen in England's second innings, yet the next ball he went to the cor blimey by dropping Collingwood first ball. It didn't really cost them many runs, but it was the second time he'd not got rid of Collingwood when given the chance. He didn't have much luck on the batting, as his brother seemed to use his referral chances. Umar Akmal was plumb LBW, Kamran Akmal was not.

So now we head off to Edgbaston where England will remain unchanged. This is fair enough. Alastair Cook is having problems with his technique and Pietersen is clearly struggling. Some of his trademark shots did come out during England's innings, but they didn't look as fluent. No player is big enough to not have a county. He may live in Chelsea, but there are two county sides in London, so there is no excuse. He needs to play cricket to get back into form, so he'll retain his place in the Test side.

On the other hand, Pakistan have made some surprises. Mohammad "Banned-Unbanned-Retired" Yousuf has been recalled into the squad to provide, I would assume, a backbone to their batting line up. But he's got to be flown in from Pakistan. He also hasn't played cricket internationally for a while, as he was banned due to the goings on Down Under. The Pakistan side is a very young one, so what kind of message does this send to them? Yousuf is 35. Yes, he scored hundreds of runs against England last time, but I think even he would've succumbed to the England seam attack. Pakistan need to move on from that time. Inzy's long gone and Younis Khan is in the wilderness. It's all part of the rebuilding process. England have gone through it after the Pietersen captaincy debacle, Pakistan will have to as well.

As said earlier, Danish Kaneria has been hopelessly out of form. He has been for most of this year, to be honest. Ever since the allegations of spot-fixing came against him, he hasn't been right. The Pakistani selectors seem to have finally realised who's in England's team and backroom staff. Alastair Cook plays with Kaneria at Essex. Gooch coaches at Essex. And more importantly, Andy Flower, played for years at Essex. They know about Kaneria's weaknesses, and now Kaneria has been sent back to Essex. Where he can't play. Because Essex have signed Bryce McGain. That'll be one to watch over the next few weeks.

Friday will be an incredibly interesting day. Especially if the conditions and pitch are suited to bowling. The bowling attacks are both incredibly talented. It's the batting and fielding that shows the gaps between the two sides. And at the moment, Bangladesh seemed to put up more of a fight. Take that, Geoffrey Boycott.