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.