Monday, December 31, 2012

On 2012:

A golden Monday 3rd September 2012 - Thank you Mickey Bushell.
Today marks the end of phenomenal sporting year and has caused me to make a brief return from blogging hiatus to provide a personal reflection on the year of 2012. There are plenty of blogs/articles out there which will provide better and more analytical reviews of the incredible events of this year but, since I have watched so much sport this year, I thought it was easier to make a post rather than clog up Twitter feeds.

I've been all over the country watching cricket this year, travelling up north to Durham, Old Trafford and Headingley, out west to Worcestershire and a wet Glamorgan and have spent more time than is necessary on the Greater Anglia service down to London Liverpool Street to head to Lord's and The Oval. I've spent so long watching Hashim Amla this summer that it bordered on Stockholm Syndrome in the final ODI at Trent Bridge. And through my travels, watching both cricket and Ipswich Town, I've met so many wonderful people, so many that if I tried to list them all then I'd undoubtedly miss someone. 

2012 will be looked upon with great fondness by many people, both in Britain and abroad, but for me, here are five personal moments that have made my year.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Farewell, Straussy.

In happier times Down Under, celebrating a 50 at the SCG.
"The truth is I haven't batted well enough for a long period of time now. [...] I've run my race." - Andrew Strauss in his press conference announcing his retirement from all cricket.
I've been sat here since Strauss' press conference took place trying to think of something to write. I've watched the cursor blink at me, trying to put into words how I feel about one of my favourite players retiring from the game.

As someone born in the early '90s, I didn't have the pleasure of watching England be truly terrible at cricket. Instead, I got into cricket in 2004, around the time Andrew Strauss was establishing himself at the top of the Test order. Since then, I've grown up watching the rises and falls of the career of this quiet, but commanding, presence in the England team. From that catch of Gilchrist at Trent Bridge to the career saving 177 at Napier in 2008 to leading England to their first triumph Down Under in 24 years, Strauss' influence on English cricket will surely be remembered fondly for years to come.

About to do the sprinkler at the MCG after England's 2010 triumph.
After the highs of 2011, it's been a tough year for Strauss and England. Four straight Test defeats kicked off 2012 and questions about his form began to resurface. His captaincy and his batting were exposed due to England's failings and he realised that, at the age of 35, it's difficult to stop the slump.

Rather than cling onto former glories, Strauss has bowed out of the game having played 100 Tests, in which he scored over 7000 Test runs at a respectable average of 40.91 and held onto a record 121 Test catches. His partnership with Cook has scored more runs than any other opening partnership in English Test cricketing history and his captaincy record, whilst somewhat blemished by this dismal 2012, shows that England won almost half of the matches in which he was in charge.

There are some unwanted memories in there too. The 2006/07 Ashes series, and his massive slump of form during and after it, is one which he'll probably use his 100 bottles of wine to forget about, especially as he was the unfortunate victim behind Shane Warne's 700th Test wicket. Four years later, the furore surrounding the spot fixing accusations against Pakistan in 2010, and the repercussions it had on the ODI series, left him looking visibly drained, but he managed to cope with the daily uproar and Ijaz Butt and displayed great integrity whilst doing so. This summer is one he'll also wish to put behind him, especially with the entire Pietersen affair, something which he'll surely be relieved to have off his plate.

Celebrating his 141, his last Test century, which came at Trent Bridge against the West Indies.
I have many memories Andrew Strauss and it's difficult to select a favourite moment. His two centuries in the 2005 Ashes series, one of which came about after being left bleeding by Brett Lee, are usually overlooked because of the worship of the personalities of Flintoff and Pietersen. The career saving knock of 177 against New Zealand, which I watched in darkness whilst wrapped in a duvet on the sofa nursing a migraine, is up there too. Watching him at Lord's make his maiden first-class double hundred last summer was also a joy, because the celebrations of himself, and Matthew Hoggard, showed how much it meant to him. Being there as him and Cook put on 150-0 after bowling Australia out for 98 at the MCG is certainly a highlight of my short cricket watching life, as is his aggressive 50 at the SCG, where he came out all guns blazing to really put the Australians under pressure.

Today marks the beginning of a new era of English cricket, but for now, I just want to say that it's been a pleasure growing up watching him and it was wonderful watching a successful England team, while it lasted, around the globe. Strauss handled nearly everything, from Ijaz Butt to being asked to pose with a duck shaped candle, with dignity. Whilst his form with the bat was patchy at times, it was when he was in form that watching him square cut to the boundary would always be a glorious sight. An incredibly intelligent man, it is surely to be fully expected that he remains in cricket after his retirement but if he does want to enter into something political, I hope that it's cricket administrators, rather than Tory MPs, who are looking nervously over their shoulders.

Strauss has had his critics, but the way in which he has conducted himself as an England player has earned him much respect and plaudits around the cricketing world. England's next Test match is in November in Ahmedabad and it will be strange to see Alastair Cook head out to the middle without the light blue helmet of Strauss next to him. It'll be even stranger to watch Cook face the first ball.

Thank you for the memories, Straussy.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

England 0-2 South Africa: Where Do We Go From Here?

I, for one, welcome our new South African overlords.
It was a boiling hot day at a packed Oval this time last year. Fans had flocked to the ground to witness history, whether it be Sachin Tendulkar's 100th international century or England's historic rise to number 1 status. When Sreesanth was bowled by Graeme Swann to hand England another innings victory, the celebrations began, despite nobody in the England squad really knowing what to do with the Test mace. After years of turmoil, a dawn for a golden age of English cricket was heralded and many believed that it was a chance for this team to dominate international cricket like no other English side had before.

That was the plan. Instead, woeful batting performances against a resurgent Pakistan in their adopted home saw England slump to a 3-0 whitewash, their first since the fateful 2006/07 Ashes series. A further loss to Sri Lanka in Galle meant that England had begun 2012 with four straight Test defeats. Their number one status was already in the balance having been in possession of it for less than eight months. England managed to win in Colombo and the rain in New Zealand meant that they headed into the English summer clinging onto a status they had worked so hard to obtain.

Had South Africa been able to bowl out Graham Onions in 2010, highlighting an example of where they've been unable to win at home, there may not have even been a debate about the best team in the world. Still, it meant that South Africa arrived in England knowing that even the slenderest of victories would propel them to world number one. Their preparation for the series couldn't have been much worse, rain hindered opportunities out in the middle, Peter Trego took a fancy to Morne Morkel and then Mark Boucher's horrible eye injury against Somerset, forcing him into retirement, meant that concern for his well-being was always at the forefront of their minds.

After a testing first day to the series, in which Alastair Cook and Jonathan Trott combined to once again steady England after the early loss of Andrew Strauss, South Africa bounced back on the second day and, since then, never really looked anything other than the best team in the world. At The Oval, Alviro Petersen could only watch on in despair for his duck as Graeme Smith, Jacques Kallis and the record breaking Hashim Amla piled on the runs, and the misery, against a flagging England attack. After this thrashing at The Oval, South Africa went on to mostly out bat, out bowl and out field their opponents. In the case of fielding, England didn't help themselves and the old cricketing cliché of 'catches win matches' should probably be scrawled on the wall of every dressing room England enter this winter. 

Had it not been for Kevin Pietersen's innings at Headingley, England may well have lost this series 3-0. As South Africa, wearing shirts dedicated to Mark Boucher, walked around the Lord's outfield showing the mace off to the gathered South African and a few curious England fans, England watched on from the home dressing room wondering where to go from here.

There are concerns for England on and off the pitch. Firstly, there is the whole sorry saga surrounding Pietersen to sort out. With each passing day, the story becomes more and more ridiculous with accusations, breaches of trust and Piers Morgan/Michael Henderson leaving many people questioning their stance on it all. As it currently stands, it would appear that so long as Strauss and Flower are in charge of this England side, there is no way back for Pietersen.

The whole thing has been handled with all the delicacy of a bull in a china shop and, at times, feels more like a teenage drama in high school than a serious international cricket team. Both sides have their faults, but Pietersen's are far more publicised thanks to his own idiocy. For now, until Strauss and Pietersen have their meeting, it would seem that England are heading into the future without their box office, but insecure and troublesome, batsman in tow. This may well lead to a sense of team unity returning, but we would be kidding ourselves if we believed that this is the only area of concern.

England's batting line up has looked a shadow of its former self this year. Since becoming captain, Strauss has only scored centuries against Australia and the West Indies. His captaincy has always been conservative, but with a negated attack and his fellow top order being out of touch and patience, Strauss' batting form and tactics have once again been exposed. After a break with his family, Strauss has a meeting with Pietersen and then a couple of County Championship matches for Middlesex before England head to India.

Strauss, like the rest of the England top order, has made some starts. But the problem is, compared to the South African batsmen, that throughout the series, they never looked set. South Africa made five centuries this series. England? Only two. The English batsmen wasted good starts by wafting outside off stump, missing straight ones or running themselves out. Cook, Bell and Trott have all been guilty of this, with only Prior, and Pietersen, looking like they could take on a very strong South African bowling attack.

England's bowling attack has been a proud part of the rise to number one, but for this series they haven't seemed at their best. Anderson, who was economical but unlucky at times, picked up 9 wickets at 40.66, whilst Broad and Bresnan looked way off their best. Bresnan has been struggling with an elbow injury for much of the year whilst Broad can't decide whether he's gone back to his 'enforcer' stage. Steven Finn showed glimpses of his ODI form, especially in a spell in the second innings at Lord's, but he is still developing as a Test player. His ability to take wickets is impressive, but some of these wickets have come off absolute tripe and sometimes his figures do not make pretty reading. He has, however, managed to stop his habit of knocking over the stumps with his knee after South Africa complained that it was a 'distraction' during the Headingley Test. Graeme Swann didn't have the impact he would've hoped to have had with only 4 wickets at 77. Whilst he was economical, there is a worry surrounding the state of Swann's elbow and England will be hoping that Swann can return to having some kind of impact for when they head to India this winter.

Whilst the South Africa series has been one to forget for most of the England side, there are some reasons to be cheerful. James Taylor didn't take full advantage of Ravi Bopara's latest setback, but he looks like he's got the technique and the head for international cricket. He played well at Headingley before he was bowled by Morkel and at Lord's a good delivery and a stupid run out proved to be his downfall. His performance may not have completely closed the door on Bopara, but the Lord's batting display of a certain ginger lad from Yorkshire may well have done.

Jonny Bairstow was given a good working over with the short ball by the West Indies. He was dropped and sent back to Yorkshire where he struggled for a while before making a century against Leicestershire in July. His timely century for the England Lions at Old Trafford against the touring Australia A side and the dropping of Kevin Pietersen meant that he returned to the Test fold. Predictably, as soon as he walked to the crease, South Africa set about the short ball barrage. But Bairstow coped, in both innings, and fell agonisingly short of  a well deserved maiden century in the first innings after trying to play a flick through midwicket off Morkel. He followed this 95 up with another half century in the second innings, an innings which displayed his aggressive potential.

This winter sees England head back to the subcontinent and then head off to New Zealand. The pressure will be off England, as they have returned to the 'hunters' status, but India will be seeking revenge for that 4-0 hammering inflicted upon them last year. Without Pietersen, question marks over the form of some in the top six and with two youngsters who've never played a Test match in India in the top order, England may well be in for a tough winter. Cracking the subcontinent is something that Andy Flower and Andrew Strauss want to do and they must hope that the team can come back together again as they begin their challenge to South Africa for that number one status.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Sympathy for the Devil?

Calm before the storm: Pietersen celebrates his century for England at Headingley. 
From the moment he appeared on the England scene in 2004, Kevin Pietersen has always been a somewhat polarising player. It cannot be denied that he is an excellent cricketer, someone with the ability to change a match in a session, but his personality, one seemingly of brashness and arrogance, is one which rubs a lot of people up the wrong way. His desire to be appreciated and celebrity status has led to him making mistakes, and these mistakes may well have, potentially, drawn the curtains on his international career.

Having retired from international limited overs cricket in controversial circumstances earlier this year, Pietersen's feud with the ECB has escalated so rapidly over the past week that he now finds himself dropped from the England squad. The whole sorry saga began with him wanting to spend more time with his family, then it became about wanting to play a full IPL season and now it's turned into a ridiculous and almost high school drama about Twitter and text messages, the bane of every teenage girl's life.

Since rising to the top of the Test rankings last summer, things have not exactly been plain sailing for the good ship England. In October, whilst on a disastrous tour of India, Graeme Swann, another big personality in the England dressing room, published his autobiography in which he wasn't exactly complimentary about Kevin Pietersen's captaincy skills. In any working environment, cliques will form, and the England dressing room is almost certainly no different.

This being said, it's easy to not feel sorry for Pietersen. Outlandish videos and embarrassing press conferences mean he is a difficult person to understand. For example, his press conference at the IPL earlier this year, where he lamented the absence of some of his England colleagues because of 'second rate Australians', wasn't exactly greeted with rapturous applause. The video he released on Saturday was one to appease, but there was no hint of an apology within it and seemed to be done because he knew the axe was falling anyway. However, a key element of England's success over the past few years has been the management's ability to control the ego. The way in which details of these private meetings about his England future were leaked to the press was reminiscent of the fiasco of 2009 and means that trust between both parties has been broken.

Many have not forgiven Pietersen for this 2009 debacle. He forced a man out of his job, and also wanted his now coach gone too and this, undoubtedly, must have had an impact upon relationships in the dressing room. But there are two sides to every story, and it is incredibly important to remember that. Pietersen wants to continually come across as being the victim, and looking at previous history, it is possible to see why he feels this way. Earlier this year, Pietersen got fined for tweeting his opinion about Nick Knight's punditry. Stuart Broad also suggested that Knight's not very good at his job and nobody batted an eyelid. As stated, Swann was allowed to publish an autobiography in which he criticised some of his team mates. Pietersen may or may not have sent private texts, which either contained 'acceptable banter between team mates' (South Africa's Moosajee) or 'derogatory' remarks about his captain. The ECB, according to the South African camp, have not asked to see the texts but it was Pietersen's inability to deny their existence which saw him dropped from the squad. For those who label Pietersen as greedy, or think that he shouldn't be allowed to pick and choose his cricket, let us not forget that it's the ECB who got involved with Stanford, a man who now has a 110-year jail sentence for fraud. The people who let that happen are still employed by governing body. Let us also remember that the ECB allowed Andrew Strauss to skip the Bangladesh tour, although this helped him to be rested and be able to lead the team to the success in Australia.

Respect, though, has been lost on both sides. Pietersen, with his infamous Headingley press conference, alleged text messages which seem to be about his captain, YouTube video and perceived insult at the infamous @KevPietersen24 parody account, has lost the respect of the ECB, and his England teammates. The ECB has lost the respect of Pietersen through their leaks to the press and because he feels victimised. There must surely be more to come with this story, which may well be revealed once this Test series has concluded, but as it currently stands, it feels like an incredibly silly drama between two sides who are just as bad as one another. And it's easy to forget that there is a very important Test match starting on Thursday, because the feud between Pietersen and the ECB continues to be fought out in the playground-esque arena, and now Piers Morgan has appeared to egg them on in the background.

Pietersen being dropped may well mean that the squad return to some semblance of unity. Statements and newspaper columns from England players suggest that they're pleased Pietersen is not in the squad, and they believe they are better for it. His absence gives youngsters a chance to gain experience playing top quality international cricket and it also means that 'Team England' are able to pose for a photo with the Investec Zebra with a smile on their faces.

England managed to win ODI series against the West Indies and Australia without Pietersen, but these teams are not South Africa. With youngster Taylor, who impressed on debut at Headingley, and Bairstow returning to the squad despite questionable form since being worked over by Kemar Roach, England head into the Test at Lord's hoping that their team can come together and perform to overcome this strong and in form South Africa side. England won a must win Test without Kevin Pietersen against Australia at The Oval in 2009, but that side contained a demoralised Mitchell Johnson, not Dale Steyn.

Should England win, they retain their number one status. Should they lose or draw, England will lose that precious number one ranking, less than a year after they gained it, and all that hard work may well have gone to waste. There was talk of this side becoming one of the greatest England sides ever, there being a golden era for English cricket coming. Instead, in true English style, we have become our own worst enemy again and it may well lead to another long and gruelling winter.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Goodbye, London 2012

My earliest Olympic memory is of my mum shouting, "HIT HIM! GO ON HIT HIM!" at Audley Harrison in the early hours of the morning, as  she embraced the millennium spirit by shouting encouragement at the TV for Sydney 2000. Strangely though, it was the 2002 Winter Olympics, and more specifically the sport of curling, which cemented my love for this enormous sportsfest and it was in 2004 that I finally got round to watching the Olympic Games properly. Jumping around the living room and clapping at a slowly dying television as Steve Cram shouted "Come on Kelly" is something which has stuck with me for the past eight years and will, undoubtedly, stay with me for the rest of my life.

So when it was announced on 6th July 2005 that London had beaten Paris to host the 2012 Olympic games, I was excited. My home nation would be hosting a Summer Olympics, meaning I wouldn't have to alter my sleeping pattern and would have the world's greatest show about 100 miles away in a city that, to a 13 year old girl, was a terrifyingly exciting place.

For seven years I've been one of those commuters, travellers, day trippers, sometimes even dogs, who've gone on the Norwich-London Liverpool Street train through Stratford and have seen the way in which an Olympic Park has risen out of wasteland into a world class sporting site. A place where world records would tumble and heroes would be made. A place where national pride spread, thanks to the athletes, the spectators and the wonderful volunteers.

Having said this, I didn't get Olympic tickets. I couldn't afford to risk applying for them. Maybe if I were the gambling type, I could've experienced Great Britain's dominance at the velodrome or been in the Olympic Stadium for Golden Saturday. But I wasn't, and I don't regret not applying, because this games, despite the name, wasn't just London's games. It was Britain's games.

I was up at Headingley for the second Test, you know, the one where Kevin Pietersen scored a brilliant century on the same day Jess Ennis was crowned the world's greatest all-round female athlete, the day Greg Rutherford leapt to an unexpected gold and the day Mo Farah showcased the Mo-bot to an audience Sky 1 could only ever dream of. But from the large number of people dressed up as Bradley Wiggins to the people standing up and singing Spandau Ballet's 'Gold' when news from the velodrome reached the Western Terrace, it was clear that London 2012 had a nation gripped and that the 'Olympic spirit' was well and truly flowing in Yorkshire. 

A digital radio, a dodgy signal and 5 Live crackling away on a train carriage packed full of people ready for a Saturday night is probably a fairly usual occurrence, especially during the football season. But when a guy, who'd spent his day dressed as the Cookie Monster at the cricket, has three people crowded round a tiny mobile phone screen, hoping that the signal would hold out so they could watch incredible athletes run 10,000m and join in with the 80,000 people screaming encouragement for the one with the GB crest on his chest, then you know it's something special. Being greeted by other passengers giving funny looks as we cheered, joining millions across the nation, when Mo Farah crossed the line, was a wonderful moment and certainly one I won't ever forget.

Rain meant sparse amounts of play during the fourth day, a Sunday, a month after Andy Murray's big date in the Wimbledon final. A month later, it was the same opponent, the same venue, but this time, a different prize and a far, far different atmosphere. I had updates coming through thanks to my mum and Twitter, but once the lightning arrived at Headingley, everyone was downstairs and watching. The queues for the bars were empty as everyone was transfixed as they watched Andy Murray blowing Roger Federer away. Match point. An ace. Mass jubilation. The national anthem was being sung by drunk people in fancy dress. People, who had in no way supported Murray in the final a month ago, suddenly felt it was their national duty to cheer on the man from Dunblane. The Western Terrace cheering for a Scotsman. You think you've seen it all.

This Olympics wasn't just about London. This Olympics was about the nation. It was about celebrating and supporting athletes, from the incredible, like Sir Chris Hoy and David Rudisha, to those who were making history just by being there and who gave their all, despite the odds being heavily stacked against them. It was about giving Britain something to feel proud about, something to unify an apparently 'broken' nation, something to prove all the doubters wrong.

London 2012 showed that the British people are one of the most eccentric, and passionate, bunch of people you could ever wish to meet. They carried home tired athletes, creating a cauldron of noise and a wall of colour for British participants. The volunteers created a community spirit, something to be proud of and also allowed for some truly wonderful moments, especially the Bolt fist-bump before the 200m final.

So, London, thank you. The 29 gold, 17 silver and 19 bronze medals for Team GB have been spectacular. Hearing the national anthem be sung so joyfully as the Union Flag has been raised has left many people with a lump in their throat. We have introduced a whole generation to sports outside of the mainstream domain, and have provided them with heroes of humility, like Jess Ennis. There are people who have arrived at these games overcoming personal tragedies, civil wars, poverty, etc, to represent their countries and it is those people that we have celebrated. We have put on a show to the world and it is a show we can be proud of, because where else would have a 40 foot Voldemort being defeated by an army of Mary Poppins?

The Olympic flame may well have been extinguished, the BBC Olympic channels are no more and we may well have returned to the travesty of Heir Hunters and Bargain Hunt, but soon it will be time for the Paralympics, which, by the sounds of it, will be one of the most well-supported Paralympics ever.

Bring on August 29th. 

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Ravi Bopara: Is it his time?

Bopara walks off delighted to know a post-match interview
with Nick Knight awaits him.
Ravi Bopara is one of those players who, no matter how much some areas of the cricket watching general public don't want him to, continually turns up in the England squad.

After an impressive ODI series against Australia, where he scored 182 runs at an average of 91.00 and also managed to take 4 economical wickets, Bopara now finds himself in the Test squad for The Oval.

Bopara comes in for Jonny Bairstow who, having been found wanting on the short ball by the West Indians, has been sent back to Yorkshire to continue his development. Whilst it's disappointing for Bairstow, he is only 22 and there is certainly promise there. However, if he struggled with Kemar Roach then it's difficult to see how he would've overcome Dale Steyn or Morne Morkel.

Bopara was also selected ahead of Eoin Morgan, who held the number 6 spot ever since Paul Collingwood retired and Ian Bell moved up the order. But an incredibly poor series against Pakistan in the UAE and his decision to sit on the bench at the IPL means that Morgan has gone back to being seen as a one day player for England, rather than a Test player. Morgan was impressive against the poor Australian tourists, but against a swinging ball his technique is questionable.

Rather than call up someone deemed to be in form from the county game, something which would've occurred before this new modern era, England return to the familiar and his name's Ravi Bopara.

Bopara made his Test debut aged 22 in 2007, where he infamously picked up three ducks in 5 innings against the Sri Lankans. He wasn't seen again in the whites of Test cricket until 2009, where he came in at 3 against the West Indies and made three consecutive centuries. This success meant that he came in at three against the Australians in the 2009 Ashes series and in the seven innings he played before being replaced by Jonathan Trott at The Oval, he could only amass 105 runs at an average of 15. He was sent back to Chelmsford where his form had more dips than an Alton Towers roller coaster, but in 2011, after an injury to Jonathan Trott, Bopara returned to the Test fold against India. With everyone around him scoring runs with ease and Bopara knowing he was nothing more than a fill in for a shoulder injury, Bopara walked to the crease at Edgbaston with England 596-4 and only made 7 before he was out LBW to Mishra. At The Oval, where England were 487-5 when Bopara walked to the crease, he finished on 44 not out as England declared on 591-6. After the 12 Tests Bopara has played, his average currently stands at 34.56, which isn't that bad until you take out the runs he made against the West Indies.

If you looked up confidence player in the dictionary, a faded picture of Ian Bell would be covered up with one of Ravi Bopara. Whilst he has the technique, Bopara's mental frailties have always been exposed on the international stage. After the West Indies series, he had all the swagger of someone who spends a lot of time with Kevin Pietersen, but during the Ashes series, he was scratchy, slow and, especially at Lord's, incredibly painful to watch. Bopara, now 27, returns to the Test squad knowing that he has the chance to press down a claim for that number 6 spot. He's older, more experienced and his excellent ODI series against the Aussies aside, Bopara has been playing relatively well for Essex this season, when their matches haven't been flooded off. His unbeaten century against Yorkshire back in April, having come in on a hat-trick ball the night before and somehow surviving the incredibly testing conditions, was played with authority and, with help from the lower order, led Essex from 42-5 to a more reasonable 199 all out. Having been out with injury for much of May, Bopara led Essex to victory over Gloucestershire with an unbeaten 120 in the CB40 match at Chelmsford in June.

Bopara is in some kind of form, he has the advantage over those competing for that number 6 spot of being able to bowl and become that bit part bowler England have been lacking since the retirement of Paul Collingwood. He has been given another chance to prove himself and now Ravi needs to grab this opportunity and prove to his doubters that he can do it. He, and England, are coming up against one of, if not the, best bowling attacks in world cricket at the moment and everyone, not just Bopara, will need to be on top of both their game and their mind. For Bopara, he will be tested by pace and line and length. Early on in his innings, he's rarely pretty to watch as he walks across his stumps a lot and is likely to nick off into the slips, something which the South Africans will surely know. It will be challenging, but if Bopara can come through it, then England will hope that he can finally blossom into the player that many at Essex know he can be.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Twitter and Cricket: #KnightGate

"I don't even know what it does", said Geoffrey Boycott on Test Match Special during the evening session of the latest Test with the West Indies. The microblogging social networking website of Twitter has grown in popularity and stature since its formation in 2006 and it has many fans. I, having grown up with websites like Bebo, MySpace and Facebook, am included in this and having had an account on the site for nearly three years, I spend a lot of time on it.

Twitter, like any social networking site on the internet, is a hive of information. What Boycott, and others, don't seem to understand is that it's a site for discussion, entertainment and sharing of knowledge. Some tweeters may well have a tendency to update you with what they had for breakfast, but others will have something genuinely interesting to say. Friendships can form on there. My passion for cricket and sport in general has allowed me to meet people who have similar interests to me and means that, finally, I have someone to watch sport with, something that never happened when I was younger.

Of course, my banal rambling aside, Twitter also provides a platform for the celebrity, politician or sports star to share details of their life. One of those characters is that of Kevin Pietersen, who this week got in trouble because of his comments about the Sky commentator, Nick Knight:
Now, I'm not really a big fan of Nick Knight's commentary style. I have nothing against him as a person and I will give credit where it's due, as he's improved since I saw him presenting my mum's ECB coaching videos, but there's just something about the way he commentates that I don't like. Of course, some people do like it. Others think Ian Botham is a superb commentator, others can't stand Henry Blofeld's love of pigeons and nobody is ever quite sure how they feel about Nasser Hussain. James Anderson has his own opinions on commentators in general and said in a recent feature in the latest edition of The Cricketer that "Cricket commentary must be one of the hardest jobs in the world. It is the only way I can make sense of how so many of them talk such absolute guff".

Pietersen was fined a reported £3000 for the tweet and, of course, it's not the first time Pietersen's been in trouble over his use of Twitter. In 2010, he announced he'd been dropped from the ODI squad having apparently forgotten how to use the direct messaging service. He was fined for his comments back then as well and this, arguably, was a far more worthy reason for him to be fined. Other English cricketers have got into trouble for their use of the site. Tim Bresnan was less than impressed with someone's creative use of Photoshop and the Yorkshire all-rounder Azeem Rafiq was banned after a Twitter rant. There are those, such as Graeme Swann, who use Twitter to entertain (and make fun of Steven Finn or Tim Bresnan). David Lloyd and Michael Vaughan, both former players (and in Bumble's case, coaches) turned commentators enjoy filling your timeline with those who 'abuse' them and their attempts to outwit/humiliate the perpetrator.

The relationship between the sports star and the media has become one of the player presenting a bland front and not really saying much. Cliches galore have slipped into speech, sometimes a sparkle in their eye suggests they want to get something off their chest, but they can't. Even the England Lions receive media training as part of their development. Presumably this'll now include a module on Twitter etiquette. However, Pietersen's not going to stop tweeting, nor will his opinion of Nick Knight change. There are those who will argue that if Knight's allowed to criticise Pietersen, how come Pietersen isn't allowed to criticise Knight? There are others who will say that Pietersen should be respectful and wonder what the reaction would be like if this was a team mate or member of staff. Mind you, we know what happens when he criticises a member of staff, don't we?

It's also not the first time that an England cricketer has singled Nick Knight out for criticism. During England's ODI series in India, in which Stuart Broad was sat at home eating crackers/what was really just a student diet and saying that this was really beneficial to his beanpole body, Broad tweeted this:

Maybe it was because it's Stuart Broad, someone who some don't think suffers from chronic foot-in-mouth syndrome. Maybe it's because it was said during the ODI series in India which everybody seems to have forgotten about. Perhaps I'm reading too much into it, but had this been said during a home series, would it have caused a similar reaction? With Pietersen causing headlines with seemingly every move/statement he makes, has he just become an easy target?

Twitter is a fantastic platform. In a way, it's like a massive press conference, only with more grammatical errors, overuse of exclamation marks and sometimes horses. With more and more cricketers signing up, opinions, spats, and the odd gaffe (Dale Steyn tweeting an "accidental cobra" in the background of a picture, for instance) are now a part of the game. And this will mean that it will continue to perplex and baffle the likes of Boycott and the technophobe Alastair Cook. But it will also continue to create debates and sometimes allows people to feel closer to the action, something which should be celebrated, and not scorned.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

England v The West Indies: The Lord's Test, Day 1

There's something magical about the first Test of the international summer in England. It might be the muffled applause of the gloved hands, echoing around a three quarters full stadium. It might be the fact that champagne bottles adorn the boundary as those adorned in red and yellow stripes decide that 11 in the morning is a superb time to crack out the alcohol. It may just be that long suffering England fans are finally able to watch international cricket in their own time zone. Anyway, Test cricket's back and it's at Lord's.

Who would be England's third seamer? Well, after a comment from Mike Atherton about Strauss being "long in the tooth", it was revealed that Tim Bresnan had made the cut. Yorkshire's Jonny Bairstow was to make his Test debut and was presented with his cap by close family friend, Geoffrey Boycott. For the West Indies, Ravi Rampaul had a stiff neck so it handed a Test debut to Trinidad quick (I'm just going from reports here. I didn't quite reach West Indian domestic cricket in my winter exploits) Shannon Gabriel.

Still, cricket's back, rubber ducks are back and awful puns may or may not be back. Here's day 1 from Lord's:

England v West Indies: A Test Series Preview

Ah yes, it's that time of year again. Rummage around in the back of your wardrobe for those winter thermals that you put away during the heatwave in the final week of March, dust off your hand warmers and brush England's winter exploits to one side because England's international summer kicks off tomorrow. It's back to the green and pleasant land of seaming pitches and, presumably, empty seats because it's May. In England. And it's the West Indies.

The West Indies arrive and prepare to play in country which can't seem to decide which season it is, with the weather ranging from sunshine to hailstorms in the space of an afternoon. Around the county circuit, it's been a spring of discontent. My own county of Essex have been struggling since their first, and so far only, victory of the season in the first County Championship match of the season and other teams have also struggled to reach 200 on a regular basis. Days have regularly been washed out, with New Road being half submerged in water for a few days and a match at Gloucestershire being abandoned without a ball being bowled. It wouldn't be surprising if, like the Sri Lanka series last year, the three Test matches to be played are rain affected at some point.

Such is the beauty of the British weather. This isn't the MET Office and I long since gave up any dreams of being a meteorologist when I realised it'd help if I wasn't afraid of thunder storms, so I digress and move onto the cricket. Long ago, the West Indies coming over would've sent fear through the England batting order, and they wouldn't even need a spinner to do that. Today, anything less than an England whitewash would be seen as a disappointment.

To expect the West Indies to challenge in early English summer conditions is difficult, especially against a side who haven't lost a Test series at home since 2008, but they're not as bad as some make them out to be. Granted, they're not likely to be challenging for the number one ranking (although the top five is a target) and are liable to a collapse of England against Ajmal proportions, but they are, like many sides in international cricket have been, a side in transition. Ottis Gibson has been their coach for over two years now and captain Darren Sammy has been in charge of all three formats for around a year and a half.  They are a young side, with the average age of the squad for this series being around 26, but they do have some bright prospects coming through.

In the squad for this series, only five of those who came over in 2009 remain in the squad. One of those who remains is Shivnarine Chanderpaul, who in 2007 proved a stubborn thorn in England's side and, as recent showings against Australia suggest, he has the potential to do that again. For many years he, Ramnaresh Sarwan and Chris Gayle have been the major batsmen in the West Indian line up, but with Gayle's changeable relationship with the WICB and Sarwan's loss of his central contract meaning he now props up Leicestershire's middle order, Chanderpaul must act as a 'father figure' of batting to the youngsters coming through.

One of these batting youngsters is that of Darren Bravo. There's a mandatory reference to him being Brian Lara's cousin, left handed, etc. here, but Bravo is one of the West Indian players I'm excited about. This may be because I'm, somewhat unfairly, subconsciously comparing him to his half-brother Dwayne's performance at the Rose Bowl for Essex in 2010, but I'm hoping that Darren Bravo performs this series. He played a handful of matches for Nottinghamshire last season and his average was in the mid-30s, but in the warm up match against the Lions he got a half-century in each innings. He had a disappointing series against the Australians, but after 30 Test innings, his average is a relatively healthy 49.59. If he can perform in English conditions, then that would be wonderful for West Indian cricket, especially with the lynch-pin of Chanderpaul being 38 this year.

On the bowling front, England would do well not to completely underestimate them. Whilst the England Lions cruised home to a 10 wicket victory in Northampton, when Darren Bravo's coming on as first change, you know something's not quite right. Kemar Roach did not bowl in the second innings, and Fidel Edwards and Ravi Rampaul only bowled 10 overs between them. They bowled the combined total of 45 in the first. Should Edwards, Rampaul and Roach be fit and firing for the series, then England may well face some tricky spells. It won't exactly be the stuff of West Indian legends, but Kemar Roach, like Darren Bravo, is a West Indian youngster I'm excited to see in England.

Roach currently has 62 Test wickets under his belt and was the leading wicket taker for the West Indies against Australia, where he took 19 at 19.73. He can be expensive at times, but the 23 year old has pace and in the seamer friendly conditions of the early English summer, this may cause the English batsmen a bit of difficulty at times. 

Darren Sammy and Ottis Gibson aren't stupid though and are fairly realistic about the West Indies chances in the Tests. They know how strong England are at home and are also aware of how brittle their batting line up is. The ODI series is the one that the West Indies are more excited about, especially with the return of Chris Gayle. Sammy will be hoping that his young side will be inspired by the surroundings of Lord's and the potential to be on the honour's board, whilst Ottis Gibson has been left hoping that the match reaches four days.

When you look at the England bowling attack, though, it might take the weather to take the Lord's Test to a fourth day. England's bowlers have been superb over the past couple of years and this winter demonstrated that to full effect. They, especially James Anderson, toiled away in the searing heat of the Middle East and Sri Lanka and helped give England platforms that their batsmen failed to capitalise on. All the talk before this series is of who will be that third seamer. James Anderson, Stuart Broad and Graeme Swann (although how much he will be used is up for debate) are all shoe ins, but it's a choice of lucky charm Tim Bresnan, Steven Finn and Graham Onions for that final piece of the bowling jigsaw. 

I would expect England to select either Steven Finn or Tim Bresnan. Finn has come on leaps and bounds in the past year and would be playing at his home ground, but I would be tempted to go for Graham Onions. He picked up 7 wickets against the West Indies the last time they played at Lord's. In the County Championship match between Middlesex and Durham, he bowled Andrew Strauss for 0 and 6 on his way to picking up excellent match figures of 10-73. He is the fourth highest wicket taker in Division 1, with 23 at 14.52. Durham have had an awful start to the season, but Onions has stood firm and performed when required. I would love Onions to play, but that may be for sentimental reasons because I still remember the treatment of him in South Africa in 2010. Then of course there's Tim Bresnan. Bresnan had a superb series against India last summer and was a noticeable absentee in the disaster in UAE. He returned for his first Test match of the winter in England's victory in Colombo, where he wasn't really in on the wickets, but provided England with something different in the middle overs.

Of course, the bowling debate is something of a positive to have come out of England's dismal winter. The form of Andrew Strauss and Ian Bell's awful time of it are two things that have been much discussed in the run up to this series. Ian Bell had an incredible 2011 and it seemed like so much had been put behind him, but a miserable time of it at the hands of Ajmal and co was not exactly ideal for his confidence. He began the county season with three low scores, before hitting 120 out of Warwickshire's first innings total of 267 against Durham. He followed this up by then scoring 82 not out against Northants to guide Warwickshire home in a CB40 match. However, he decided to play for the England Lions and managed only 29 before being bowled by Roach. He didn't get a chance to bat in the second innings, but Bell, when he's on form, is a wonderful player to watch and I fully expect him to find 'form' again this series.

Andrew Strauss, on the other hand, remains centuryless. After the "witch hunt" of Sri Lanka, the cauldrons and broom sticks are probably on standby and packed in a cupboard in the Lord's media centre. Strauss has not had a happy start to the season, his highest score so far for Middlesex is a mere 49 against Worcestershire. His last first-class century came in a warm-up match against a Sri Lanka Development XI in March, but for his last Test century, you're heading back to the happier winter times of Brisbane in 2010. For his last one on home soil, you have to go back even further to the Lord's Test of 2009. With South Africa meaning far, far sterner bowling tests are coming, Strauss will know that he needs to find form, and will be trying his best to find some. 

A timely Ravi Bopara thigh injury has meant that he's now on the sidelines for at least two weeks, meaning that England have decided to hand the batting at number six baton to Yorkshire youngster, Jonny Bairstow. Bairstow is an incredibly exciting prospect and has shown himself to possess an incredibly cool head in limited overs cricket. On debut against India, he basted 41 off 21 deliveries and handed England a 3-0 series victory. If he can perform well in this series, the hapless Bopara may well have run out of England chances without having played a Test match for England since August 2011. Still, England have been lacking a northern ginger ever since Colly retired last year, so Bairstow is a welcome addition to the squad.

Anticipated result: England 2-0 West Indies (weather affected Test being a draw). If the weather's good, which it probably won't be judging by the first two months of the county season, then you would expect England to win 3-0. The West Indies have some talented youngsters coming through, but with the clouds gathering and England back on the green, seaming pitches of home, you get the feeling that the Calypso Collapso headlines may not be that far away.

The ducks will be back, probably, as I slowly try and not fail my second year. Anyway, here's to the English summer and being able to watch cricket in your own time zone again! 

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Close Encounters, Umbrellas and an Abandonment: Day Four, Yorkshire v Essex

Cheerful scenes at Headingley.
The public transport system of Sundays meant that I managed to miss Masters’ wicket of Sayers, but judging by his willingness to run in and bowl double the amount of overs that the other quick bowlers managed, it was a wicket that he deserved. The wicket brought to the crease Jonny Bairstow, and it was clear that he and captain Andrew Gale were going to go for the declaration.

Gale and Bairstow were positive. Bairstow cut Masters for 4 just before there was a rain delay. If a result was on the menu, the rain was the dish that looked the least appetising. Luckily for Yorkshire, it was only a shower, so Essex were back out with Tom Westley and Greg Smith bowling to a spread field with plenty of men on the boundary.

Smith bowled better in Yorkshire’s second innings than he did in the first. Having picked up the wicket of Joe Root, caught down the leg side, last night, he added the wicket of Jonny Bairstow too. Looking for quick runs, Bairstow went for a shorter ball and ended up pulling it to Adam Wheater at deep backward square leg.

Yorkshire’s attacking intent was clear. Throughout their mini partnership, Gale and Bairstow had pushed each other for twos, especially when the ball was heading in Charl Willoughby’s direction. In the same Smith over of the Bairstow wicket, Gale went for another six, but looked like he didn’t have enough timing on it. It was sailing to Willoughby at long off, but he somehow managed to drop it. In fact, it wasn’t even a drop. It just sailed through his hands.

About 45 minutes before the lunch break and after a Tymal Mills over, Gale decided he’d had enough. He clearly thought that there was something in the pitch, especially from the Kirkstall Lane End, for his bowlers to exploit and knew that a quick burst before lunch might see his side pick up a couple of quick wickets. There was also the weather to think about.

So, with his side 214-4 and with a lead of 261, Gale walked off. There were some murmurs in the stand, as many were confused about what was going on, but it soon became clear that Yorkshire had declared. Gale was not out on 48, but personal milestones clearly meant nothing compared to giving his side a chance at victory. Essex would require 262 in 74 overs or less and would want to show that their batting performance in the first innings was a minor hiccup.

Well, that was my hope anyway. Ryan Sidebottom and Ajmal Shahzad had different ideas, Shahzad especially. The battle of the first innings was definitely the one between Alviro Petersen and Shahzad coming in from the Kirkstall Lane End. Petersen was having a torrid time of it and it was no different in the second innings. Having managed to get off the mark, Petersen then managed to miss one that seemed fairly straight. The umpire had no hesitation in raising his finger and Essex once again found themselves losing an early wicket. 4-1 and there was still some time to go before lunch.

Tom Westley came in on a pair. Westley is a young player who, like Godleman and Jaik Mickleburgh last year, was fairly disappointing at the top of the order. With Alastair Cook returning for a couple of games in May, Westley will want to show that he deserves his chance at number three ahead of players like Mickleburgh and even Mark Pettini. He managed to get off his pair first ball and this innings played a bit better. He was hitting a lot of deliveries through the leg side and did play and miss a couple of times, but he managed to survive until the lunch break.

Godleman at the other end looked like he was also having trouble with Shahzad. Some deliveries were keeping a bit low. Petersen’s had kept a bit low, but he was also playing with his bat behind his pad, which is a huge danger in the early season conditions. Godleman seemed to be doing something similar and had survived a couple of LBW shouts until he was given out when he was on 2.

I got the camera out, Bernie got out. Sorry, Essex fans.
Like with the first innings, Godleman was not happy. The umpire took a long time to raise his finger and by this point, Shahzad’s eyes had nearly popped out of his head. For me, from where I was sat although with Essex tinted glasses, it looked a bit high. Still, the umpire’s decision is final and Godleman had to go and Essex were in a whole heap of trouble at 7-2.

Ravi Bopara once again found himself at the crease earlier than he would’ve hoped and, like in the evening session of the first innings, was having a lot fly past his outside edge. He played a lovely cover drive off Shahzad, but a lack of power combined with a wet outfield meant that it didn’t go to the boundary. Ravi played well this match and will surely be a welcome addition to the Essex middle order before England, perhaps, come knocking again.

Dry conditions over lunch meant that it looked like there may well be play for much of the afternoon session. During the lunch break Tim Bresnan was bowling on the outfield with Jason Gillespie as wicketkeeper. He hit the single stump plenty of times and must’ve spent the majority of the match sat in the dressing room eyeing up Petersen ahead of the summer.

When the players did come back out, the clouds were threatening behind the pavilion. Just after the first ball of a Sidebottom over, the heavens decided they’d open and the daily April apocalypse duly arrived. It forced Essex off at 26-2, with Westley on 12 and Bopara on 5.

After an afternoon session of several cups of tea, nearly bumping into both Graham Napier and Tim Bresnan and ending up awkwardly smiling at Charl Willoughby, the umpires emerged from the pavilion. They were joined by the ground staff out in the middle, but despite the sun coming out overhead, the weather that was threatening behind the pavilion meant that at 15:52, play was abandoned and the game was declared a draw.

Yorkshire will be thoroughly disappointed, especially after such a positive declaration. For Essex, the weather must have been of some relief and for them, it is back down to Chelmsford where they will face Northamptonshire on Thursday. There will be injury problames for Essex. Napier has just undergone his first round of physio for his calf injury, Phillips can hardly bend down and Bopara isn’t allowed to bowl. Essex will soon welcome back 18 year old Reece Topley from his England under 19 escapades, but with Napier gone, Smith and Chambers expensive, Mills only 19 and Willoughby having not bowled in a “proper” match since getting injured at Fenner’s earlier this month, the bowling attack is looking like it may well have to be the one man show of Dave Masters again.

Of course, the bowlers managed to fight back against Yorkshire, so it’ll once again be the batsmen under the microscope. Granted, it is April, Essex were playing at Headingley for the first time in, off the top of my head, three years and they came across a strong Yorkshire bowling line up, but if the side harbour serious promotion ambitions, then they can’t afford to keep losing early wickets. Even against Gloucestershire they did. Essex will be hoping that Alviro Petersen can soon begin to perform, but apart from his 156 against New Zealand, he’s been getting a string of low scores. With England presumably awaiting him this summer, if he keeps playing round straight ones, he’s going to be in for a rough time.

I wasn’t the only Essex fan in the ground. There was a lovely gentleman from Southend who I ended up chatting to during the rain delay. As we were leaving the ground after the abandonment of the match, he informed me that he was only doing the away games this year. He was all too happy to support the team, but this season he’d refused to buy membership and also refused to visit Chelmsford as he didn’t want to give the club a penny this year after the shambolic cancelling of the Southend Festival. There’s not really been a clear explanation as to why the festival has been cancelled, last year it drew in record crowds and, sadly, like with most issues that currently surround the club, the reasoning behind the decision has been kept very quiet indeed.

Still, I’ve enjoyed my hour and three days in Leeds. It’s been cold, it’s been wet and so much tea has been drunk that I was given a free one on the final day, but it’s been good fun and it was lovely to be watching the county I support in a different ground. It’s certainly an experience being an away fan at Headingley and it’s certainly one that I would thoroughly recommend. 

And if you're going to visit Headingley at this time of year, I recommend a snazzy blanket like mine. 

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Sunburn, showers and Ravi Bopara: Day Three, Yorkshire v Essex

Ravi Bopara celebrates his century. He and Tymal Mills put on 48 for the final wicket.
"April is the cruellest month" said T.S. Eliot. Having been sat at fine leg at Headingley, getting sunburnt and battling the downpours, for the second day running, those words ring incredibly true.

They also ring true for the batsmen, not just from Yorkshire and Essex, but across the nation. Like yesterday, today was about one player and that player was Ravi Bopara. Out of Essex's total of 199, Ravi scored 117 and he finished not out. The next highest innings was from captain James Foster, who got 25 before edging Sidebottom to McGrath in the slips. Only Alviro Petersen and the extras got into double figures.

Bopara, having survived two separate hat-trick balls and looking incredibly uncomfortable and shifty at the crease yesterday evening, had to farm the strike to try and help Essex build a somewhat competitive total after being 42-5. Once Foster departed, David Masters came in ahead of Tim Phillips. Phillips had been missing for much of the afternoon session and hadn't bowled at all yesterday, so clearly something was up.

We soon found out that something was indeed up. When Masters was bowled by Shahzad for 1, Phillips came out to the crease walking gingerly and accompanied by Adam Wheater as a runner. 
Ravi and a batsman with a runner, it was a recipe for disaster...
Phillips can usually bat. He would, normally, be in before Dave Masters and his first-class batting average is in the low 20s. Today, however, he did not look right. He would leave his bat hanging outside off stump with absolutely minimal footwork, he couldn't bend his knees and he would only play a shot off his pads. He survived 43 balls for his 7, but there was pain etched on his face. It became clear later as he slowly made his way around the boundary and then tried to bend down to replace Tymal Mills' drink that he is suffering with a back injury.   
The wicket of Tim Phillips brought Maurice Chambers to the crease. To compound Maurice's miserable game, he was gone for a six ball duck, the fourth of Essex's torrid innings. It was also Ryan Sidebottom's 5th wicket, handing him figures of 5-30. Essex, at this point, were 151-9. Reaching 150 had looked a far cry yesterday evening, so it was a testament to Ravi Bopara who was displaying the sort of batting that most England fans, sadly, rarely see.

In came Tymal Mills. Mills' top first-class score is 8, which he got on debut against the touring Sri Lankan side. Bopara was a long way from a century and with Mills looking like a rabbit trapped in headlights, it was looking like Bopara may well be stranded.

However, Bopara farmed the strike well from the youngster. He did turn down a lot of singles, but all things considered, the amount he hit in boundaries probably made up for it. Mills scored only 2, but he batted for well over an hour and faced 41 deliveries for those two runs. At the other end, Bopara was playing some wonderful shots, including a cover drive for four. His century came about in generous circumstances, as Ajmal Shahzad gifted him a nice leg sided delivery for him to glance down to fine leg for four, a full delivery on his pads and then a ball with width.

The desperation to protect the youngster from strike soon proved the downfall for the 48 run partnership. Yorkshire were desperate for a wicket and Bopara was happy to oblige. He stormed down the pitch off the fifth ball of McGrath's over, looking for a single despite hitting the ball straight to the fielder. Mills ran, but Patterson was quicker and Essex finished 199 all out.

It's telling of the performance of Bopara and the tail that Essex fans were disappointed to miss out on a batting bonus point. To have reached 200, having been at least 5 down when they've reached 100, is something Essex have a knack of doing. It could've been much, much worse, especially if Bopara had managed to nick one yesterday evening, but a lot will be said about his innings and it will provide him with a lot of confidence before the English summer, should he be pencilled in to bat at 6.

Yorkshire had a lead of 47, something they may not have expected before the Essex innings. They reached tea 44-0, having nearly doubled their lead and Essex were desperate for a wicket. With Bopara unable to bowl due to a side injury, Phillips in the dressing room nursing a sore back, Napier out injured, Willoughby on as 12th man and a guy who's really a back up wicket keeper on the field, Essex were limited on their bowling options. Masters was ever his economical self, but Chambers was, once again, disappointing. He started off well enough, but as soon as he got straight driven for four by Joe Root, his head dropped and he was expensive. Meanwhile, Tymal Mills was hostile. He was brought on first change and soon began peppering the Yorkshire batsmen with aggressive, but accurate, bouncers. He was far, far less expensive this innings and could have picked up a wicket had James Foster had a short leg in straight away.

Tom Westley was brought on before Greg Smith, but when Smith was brought on, he was more controlled than he was in the first innings. He did, however, struggle to find the off stump, so it was no surprise that his wicket came from the leg side strangling of Root. This was my first time seeing Joe Root in the flesh, having missed his wicket in the first innings due to trains and sleeping, but he played well for his 67. Westley picked up the other wicket, that of the first innings hero of Phil Jaques. He was out LBW going for a sweep. Nice way to celebrate his new found Englishless.

If the weather forecast brings up rain tomorrow, then the most probable result is a draw. However, if not, then Yorkshire will probably be looking to attack tomorrow morning and try to declare with a 250-300 lead. If this happens, Essex will have to play far better than they did in the first innings. They will, like Jaques, Bopara, Root and Sayers, have to dig in and display patience. The performance against Gloucestershire, albeit in the first game, has shown that Godleman does seem to be in decent nick. Petersen will want to show that he can handle English conditions, even though he can't keep his hands out of his pockets for longer than the period of time it takes the ball to go past the bat. Bopara will take confidence from his century. Wheater can bat, as can Foster who can also hang around. The number three, Tom Westley, is surely aware that the ominous shadow of Alastair Cook hangs over his position, so he will want to prove himself.

Essex may not be able to pull off the remarkable tomorrow, but if they can leave Headingley with a draw and a vaguely decent showing in the second innings, then they can prepare for the visit of Northants on Thursday in a far better mood than if they leave with a heavy defeat.

Friday, April 20, 2012

"Is that your funeral outfit?": Day Two, Yorkshire v Essex

Tymal Mills (to the right of Westley and looking round) is the centre of Essex's attention on a day that ended in an all too familiar fashion for Essex.
Having traipsed across the Pennines yesterday to get nothing more than a £3 breakfast, it was a surprise that there was actually any play at all today, let alone the fact it started on time.

There was an injury blow to Essex before the start of play as Graham Napier, who has started the season very well, was ruled out with a calf injury. It's not just a blow to the county, but a blow to Napier himself, who has had many injury problems throughout his career. The injury meant that Tim Phillips came in for his first Championship match of the season. There was no place for Charl Willoughby, except seemingly as official Essex cheerleader. Yorkshire won the toss and they decided that they would bat first.

The woeful Essex batting performance (more of that later) will get the headlines, but it should not overshadow the performance of Tymal Mills. If you read this blog regularly, you'll know that I rate him a lot. It's not just because of Suffolk bias, although it certainly helps, it's because he's quick. Very quick.

Mills, 19, is a left-arm pace bowler, who has only played a handful of first-class games for Essex. He was quite expensive today, going at nearly 5 an over, but he made an impact and had a huge say in a Yorkshire collapse which saw them all out for 246. He started off from the Rugby Stand End, but was not at all happy. The poor weather was making the run ups muddy and no amount of sawdust could make him less concerned. As Tom Craddock, the legbreak bowler who wasn't in the squad today but is a graduate of Leeds MET, walked past, Mills informed him how delighted he was to be bowling from the Kirkstall Lane End. 

All the Essex bowlers were expensive today. Even the usually metronomic Dave Masters got tonked about before finally remembering that he's only going to beat them with naggingly accurate bowling, rather than attempting to bounce Phil Jaques at 78mph. Maurice Chambers and Greg Smith were especially disappointing today. Chambers picked up 2 wickets, but not before he'd been hit about by the Yorkshire top order. After his effort, Greg Smith later tweeted that he's had better birthdays. A golden duck and being smashed for 50 off 10 wicketless overs? Many happy returns.

Still, after Yorkshire had been 184-3, to get them all out for 246 was a decent effort from Essex. And Yorkshire, actually. McGrath, Rashid and Shahzad all played shots (or in McGrath's case, didn't) that were so inexplicably awful that they'd have to be rated 18 before being released at the cinema. Jaques played superbly on his return to the county and hardly put a foot wrong in his 126, before he decided he'd finally accept his invitation to the collapsing party and got out to Maurice Chambers. Westley also bowled and he picked up the key wicket of the Yorkshire captain, Andrew Gale, after he and Jaques put on a partnership of 86 for the third wicket.

Essex's batting had started well against Gloucestershire. It was almost too well. This was the side that, last season, regularly reached three figures with at least 5 wickets down. It seemed like Essex took one look at the Yorkshire scorecard and thought, "Sod this, anything they can do, we can do better."

Sidebottom and Shahzad started incredibly well. Both were getting angry and both deserved a wicket. The breakthrough came at the end of the 9th over. Sidebottom angrily appealed at the umpire as the freshly shaven Billy Godleman, having made a career best equalling score against Glouchestershire, was seemingly struck on the pad. After a slight hesitation, the umpire raised his finger and Godleman was on his way. He didn't seem too happy about it. He probably thought it hit bat first, but it's probably better he went off with his life spared, as Sidebottom was looking angry.

Westley came and went for a golden duck, again to Sidebottom. Down at the other end, overseas signing Alviro Petersen was being roughed up by Ajmal Shahzad. Shahzad was bowling well after an incredibly torrid 2011. Petersen managed to edge one through the slip cordon, prompting Shahzad to release a crude, high-pitched shriek that echoed round the ground.

It wasn't Shahzad who got his wicket though. Sidebottom was replaced by Anthony McGrath who, thankfully for Ravi Bopara, managed to release some pressure with some relatively friendly medium pacers. Shahzad was replaced by the older-than-you-think-he-is Steve Patterson, who unleashed an over that caused me to slump into my seat sobbing at fine leg.

First Petersen, who'd looked uncomfortable, scratchy and he didn't particularly like Britain's idea of April, departed. He was out LBW. In came Adam Wheater who, if this match were in Essex, would be the perfect player for this type of situation. He wasn't. He was gone for a four ball duck. Greg Smith walked to the crease. He walked straight back to the pavilion with the second golden duck of the innings.

42-5. Lovely.

If you've watched Ravi Bopara play in the whites for England, or for Essex in early April last year, then you'd have found most of his innings flash before your eyes. He, somehow, managed to survive to the close. He played watchfully. He survived many deliveries that went past the edge, managed to keep some edges down and did actually play a couple of good shots, including a leg sided flick and a cut for four. He and captain James Foster managed to survive until the close, leaving Essex on 72-5.

Essex will need these two to perform tomorrow. With no Napier and Phillips having gone missing for much of the afternoon session (he didn't bowl and Willoughby was on for much of it), Essex's tail is looking quite long. Masters can try and hit it, but apart from that, there's nothing of great substance. Essex only won one game away from home last season, and that was against Leicestershire. Before that, the last time they won away was in 2009 and that was against Derbyshire to seal promotion to Division One.

Unless the weather intervenes, or Essex pull off a magic batting performance against a strong Yorkshire bowling line up, Essex may well be facing their first defeat of the season and having to deal with the top order batting demons all over again.