Thursday, September 23, 2010

That dragged on a bit, didn't it?

The last international match of the summer finished a few hours ago, with England clinching the ODI against Pakistan 3-2. A much deserved victory and one which must be a massive relief to captain Andrew Strauss, who in the past couple of days has had to defend his team's honour after the ridiculous accusations of Ijaz Butt. Strauss has rightly been incredibly angered by the statement from Butt, and has been working tirelessly with the ECB to make sure the press releases are correctly worded and throughout all this the team spirit seems to have been high.

When Vaughan resigned as captain, I always thought Strauss should've been captain. I was absolutely distraught when Flintoff was made captain for the Ashes in 2006/07. But I guess had he been made captain, the result wouldn't have been different, because behind the scenes wasn't right and basically the squad selection was dire. Anyway, that was four years ago and completely off the point of this long old 2010 summer.

It seems a long time ago since April and I was sat freezing down at Chelmsford watching Ryan ten Doeschate destroy Hampshire's lower order to hand Essex their first win in the Division One of the County Championship. Five months later, we finished bottom and were losing sem-finalists in both the Twenty20 Cup and CB40. Brilliant. Hello Division Two. Injuries didn't help Essex's season. Had RtD not got injured in the middle of his superb run of form, he may well have performed better at the Rose Bowl. But the major news that came out of Chelmsford over the course of the summer was that allegation of spot-fixing, something that the world of cricket would soon find out about and has now put the integrity of the sport in danger.

During the Essex vs Hampshire game, the news broke that two Essex players were being interviewed by police about a televised Pro40 game in September 2009. For the first time of the summer, spot-fixing was mentioned and rumours began to circulate as to who the two players were. There were some high profile names on offer during the Durham vs Essex match, but in the end it turned out to be Pakistani leg-spinner, Danish Kaneria and the youngster, Mervyn Westfield. They were released on bail until 15th September, and it was revealed a couple of days before that Kaneria was not going to be charged. Westfield, however, was charged with conspiracy to defraud. With these allegations hanging over the county's head, it was no surprise that Mark Pettini resigned as captain. The amount of pressure he must have been under is huge. His form dipped and during the Twenty20 season, he was given leave for 10 days. He came back refreshed and the captaincy was handed over to James Foster.

To put it bluntly, it was a fairly disappointing season both on and off the pitch for Essex. After so much hope and expectation, it ended in a whimper at the Rose Bowl, horrific collapses in the County Championship and another terrible collapse in the CB40. Never mind, at least I met Scott Styris, eh?

Still, putting the disappointment of county cricket behind me (it could've been worse, I could've adopted Somerset as a second team and seen them finish runners up in everything. Oh, wait...), England's international summer has been a rather fruitful one. Whilst Bangladesh and Pakistan weren't the strongest opposition (I say this, but Pakistan's bowling attack did destroy us), we still found out some things during the 6 Tests England played. Not entirely useful, but some.

  • Steven Finn falls over. A lot.
  • Stuart Broad can break a man's thumb with his throw. Don't make him angry.
  • England suck against a swinging ball.
  • Alastair Cook can score a hundred with his eyes closed. Only if the bowler hurls the ball for four though. 
  • James Anderson is quite good when it's cloudy.
  • Bangladesh were more challenging than Pakistan were in the first two Tests.
  • Eoin Morgan will probably play Test cricket again for England.
  • The England batting line up isn't all that spineless.
  • Lord's does booing. 
  • Australia can be bowled out for less than 100. 
  • Graeme Swann is actually a fantastic spinner.
  • Matt Prior can bat. And wicketkeep.
  • Kamran Akmal can't. 
  • Kevin Pietersen's head is messed up and he needs a hug. Preferably off Lalit Modi. 
  • Neutral Tests don't attract crowds. 
  • Neutral Tests shouldn't be sponsored by the 'Spirit of Cricket'.
  • Neutral Tests involving Pakistan probably won't be hosted here again. 
  • Nasser Hussain, Ian Botham and Ramiz Raja are still bloody awful commentators.
  • And for all the terrible rumours surrounding the Pakistan team, it's refreshing to know that there's someone like Zulqarnain Haider in the side.
On a more serious note, it is only a matter of hours until the public find out who's on that plane to Australia in November. It will be an extremely gruelling tour for England, but this time, they're actually spending time warming up to get used to the conditions. This, hopefully, will be beneficial to England. Graeme Swann will prove crucial in the Test series, as he always does and it's good that he's on the shortlist for ICC Cricketer of the Year, despite being initially overlooked for reasons we cannot understand. I blame Bob Willis. He probably sent everyone to sleep.

The Test series against Bangladesh was fairly routine for England. Bangladesh weren't used to the English conditions, so they couldn't put England under pressure, like they did in Bangladesh. The one highlight for Bangladesh was the superb Tamim Iqbal, who routinely gave England's bowlers a headache as he thwacked them all over the place. Luckily for England, the rest of the Bangladesh batting line up weren't tigers, but instead kittens, as they limply got out to James Anderson, or Steven Finn bowling a loosener and hitting it to mid on. Good one, Rahim.

May seems a long, long time ago now. I miss Bangladesh. I really loved their positive outlook and the fact that they played cricket for the love of it. Yeah, they weren't very good, but everyone has to start somewhere. They play with a smile on their face, they're a young squad and exactly what cricket needs. Even if Geoffrey "corridor of uncertainty" Boycott doesn't think so. To quote Tamim Iqbal, "If you start a chocolate company you can't compete with Cadbury in the first 10 years because they are a big company." With gems like that, I won't begrudge Bangladesh Test status.

Then you come to Pakistan. At the start of the summer, I was drooling at the prospect of seeing Amir in action again. I remember him playing for Pakistan Under-19s as a 15 year old and the fact that someone my age (I'm repeating myself) was playing international cricket was fantastic. After drawing the 'neutral Test' series with Australia 1-1 and giving everyone a huge laugh after Australia were bundled out for 88, we began at Trent Bridge for what everyone hoped was going to be a hugely exciting, keenly contested series. Sadly, it ended up as who could collapse the least against the swinging ball and that honour went to England.

The Test series saw Stuart Broad's maiden hundred. First-class and Test. Jonathan Trott nearly scored two double hundreds at Lord's. Eoin Morgan scored a hundred at Trent Bridge. Andrew Strauss was out of touch, Collingwood wasn't great at bolstering the middle order and Pietersen. Well, Pietersen's demise has been well documented in the press. His confidence is shot, which was unthinkable five years ago. Perhaps Test cricket isn't where his heart lies, perhaps the passion isn't there. Perhaps I should stop speculating and just let him get on with it down in South Africa to make me shut up about his mental state, technique and general life things.

I, like many other cricket fans, was enjoying the Test series until BOOM! No, Afridi hadn't come out of Test retirement, but the News of the World published an article about the mysteriously large Pakistan no-balls. The news broke on Saturday night, as England had enforced the follow on on a completely shell-shocked Pakistan, after a world record partnership between Broad and Trott (which was still awesome and despite the allegations surrounding the Test, should not be tainted, because it was superb batting). On Sunday morning, MCC members could be seen reading the News of the World, something I never thought I'd see! Even on the Pakistani dressing room balcony, there was the paper in the hands of the tour manager with the team locked in the changing room behind. England carried on as normal, warming up on the outfield and focusing on the job in hand. When the wickets tumbled and the accused Pakistani players finally ventured out to the middle, a smattering of boos were heard. Boos! At Lord's! It was definitely serious.

Within a few days, the PCB still hadn't taken control of the situation. I'm not going to go on a massive rant about the PCB at the moment, as that warrants its own blog, but I'm just going to say I'm pleased the ICC took a hold of the situation. Even if the three players are found not guilty, for the sake of cricket, it is better to provisionally suspend them whilst the invesigation is on going. Why Kaneria and Westfield were not suspended is beyond me, but Westfield didn't play for the Essex first team at all during the season, so perhaps the club knew something that we didn't. Or they didn't want to lose Danish. The other fast bowler, Riaz was interviewed by the police and on Monday, found himself in the grasp of Jonathan Trott as emotions finally boiled over after Ijaz Butt's VERY WELL TIMED statement.

I can understand why Mr Butt is annoyed. The ICC are investigating British media claims about the Pakistan team. What Mr Butt does not understand is that match fixing and spot fixing are very different. Spot fixing focuses on a specific part of the game. Match fixing is throwing it. And, having watched England play for over 5 years, you just know that a collapse is never far away. Just because Pakistan won the third ODI doesn't mean they can't be guilty of spot fixing. Mervyn Westfield apparently is. Another thing Mr Butt needs to remember is that Pakistan could easily be at home not even playing Test cricket, had England not extended an olive branch to them and allowed them to play a Test series on 'neutral' soil. To the ECB, it must feel like a giant slap in the face. Instead of accusing the team of the country that has allowed them to use their facilities (at a loss), Mr Butt should take a look at the politics of the PCB. Then he can talk to us about corruption.

I'm pleased the summer is over. I love cricket, but in the last month, it's been a hard slog. England have beaten Bangladesh and Pakistan in their two Test series and beaten Bangladesh, Pakistan and Australia in ODIs. I'd like to say congratulations to Bangaldesh as well for their win in the second ODI in their series against us. It was a superb performance and thoroughly deserved and the celebrations at the end showed how much it meant to them. And that warms the cockles. However, the over-riding feeling is of anger towards Pakistan. I hope for the sake of Pakistan cricket that the allegations are not true, but then a part of me doesn't. A part of me wants them to be true so that corruption can be looked at and can begin to be dealt with instead of being swept under the carpet. Cricketing boards around the world need to get their heads out of the sand. Corruption is present in our beloved game and it needs to be harshly dealt with. If the fans don't know that what they're watching is real, then they're not going to go. Even if Amir is only 18, should he be found guilty, will fans want him to come back? He is a fantastic talent, but the trust would be broken. It has been for years with Asif and it angers me that someone who has failed so many drugs tests is still allowed to play.

I'm also pleased that the summer is over because it brings us closer to the winter. And the winter means the Ashes. Pundits are already bigging up England as having a chance to win Down Under. I think it'll be a close series. Some of the England players were there last time and will have hopefully learned from the 5-0 drubbing. We have a settled wicketkeeper and arguably the best spinner in the world at the moment. The coaching set up is relaxed and I think the two Andys have formed a great partnership. And this time, I think we have the right captain. I'm also excited about the Ashes on a personal level. On December 21st, I fly over to Melbourne to have a dream come true in seeing the Boxing Day Test live. Then, on New Years Eve, I head over to Sydney.

I cannot wait!