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Ashes update: why it’s not all about Stuart Broad

Although today was all about Stuart Broad, by public demand it falls upon Reverse Sweep to return once more to the subject of Paul Collingwood.

Paul Collingwood, you may remember, is the gritty England batsman who had a Facebook group created in his honour – Paul Collingwood for Prime Minister – after his fine battling performances at Cardiff enabled England to escape with a draw which, in light of the extraordinary events at the Oval this afternoon, seems likely to prove crucial to the destination of the celebrated Ashes urn.

So what if since the second innings at Lord’s he’s looked like a man holding, in the words of the celebrated Duckworth and Lewis Method CD, a contrabassoon instead of a Slazenger I Blade, contributing only 42 runs from five innings, his limp plop to short leg this evening a ready reminder of his technical shortcomings?

His Facebook page has reached the dizzy heights of five members, which is approximately zero members more than it accrued immediately after it had been  established.

But there is still time for you to rectify that. And wouldn’t you rather have him running the country than the effete, prostate-gland challenged slimeball that is Peter Mandelson.

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Ashes update: First mission impossible accomplished, then England self-destruct

It was fairly obviously to those even with only half a cricket brain that England’s sole hope of reclaiming the Ashes was to win the toss and bat on the first morning at the Oval. First mission accomplished, Andrew Strauss making the correct call, the second was to put as many runs on the board as possible and, with a wearing pitch and the surface expected to take some spin, put the pressure on Australia and hope that they would succumb. Those by necessity were fairly optimistic appraisals because typical Oval pitches normally take a considerable time to wear – sometimes, as Surrey and Leicestershire could testify from their recent county championship match that produced more than 1,200 runs for the loss of just nine wickets, not until after the final ball of the match has been bowled.

Yet this does not quite seem the archetypal Oval pitch, the ball several times going through the surface, and with the part-time off spinner Marcus North getting some purchase on the first day – notably when he rotated the ball between Jonathan Trott’s driving blade and the off stump, and left Brad Haddin rooted to the spot as well – there were signs that every first innings run would be even more important than usual.

So it was a great disappointment to see the England batting order again unable to profit sufficiently from a good start. The statistic is stark but sums up the extraordinary failing of this line-up: in 10 innings so far, only Andrew Strauss – and he only once – has passed the 100 mark, while the Australians have seven centuries to their names.

At tea, on 180 for four, England would have snatched an offer of 300 for six by the close from whomever was tendering it. Alas it proved to be worse than that, but only because Australia, despite the 1-1 scoreline going into the decider, stuck superbly to core skills, from where they were perfectly placed to add the odd embellishment: Mitchell Johnson’s slower ball that did for Matt Prior, Simon Katich’s stunning reactions at short leg that left Trott stranded.. That is what the better teams do.

 Unfortunately, they were also able to take advantage of England mindlessness, which had Andrew Flintoff as its flagbearer. Having been forced back by three straight, short deliveries from Johnson, it shouldn’t have taken the experience of 78 previous Tests to have worked out what was coming next: a full, widish one that should have been left alone. Sadly Freddie could not resist temptation and it was the ugliest of ends to the all-rounder’s penultimate Test innings.

In the end, thanks to another impressive performance with the bat from Stuart Broad – surely a batting all-rounder in the making – they made it to past the 300 mark, but with only two wickets remaining, their chances of reaching a minimum 350 seem slim. But crease occupation for the remaining batsmen is critical this morning as it would be to England’s advantage to have Australia batting when even more damage has been done to the surface.

As it stands, the tourists’ line-up has enough about it to surpass England’s first-innings total, unless Graeme Swann., on whom great expectations will rest, bowls to his potential and the seamers back him with the discipline shown by Hilfenhaus and Siddle. And if England have to return to a deteriorating crease in arrears it could signal  carnage on a Headingley scale.

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Ashes update: Why the Ashes will be decided at Headingley

I notice that another ticket broker – on this occasion viagogo – are offering vastly overpriced seats for the final Ashes Test at the Oval (those of you who are not familiar with my rant about seatwave should see my blog entry for July 16

Their cheapest offer for Day 1 is £249 per ticket and to take a friend, with fees and handling charges of over £90, it will set you back the best part of £600.

However, my advice is to save your money and if you have no other way of securing a ticket, buy instead the much cheaper ones on offer for this coming weekend at Headingley (even if you’re venturing north or south from distant climes it will still cost you less). Because Leeds, mark my words, is where this series will be decided, short of a mass vole invasion under the strip in Kennington.

It is true that neither Surrey nor Leicestershire have strong bowling attacks but that surely cannot be the only reason that four days’ toil (give or take 50 overs for rain on Saturday) in the shadow of the gas holders in the division two championship game between the two counties produced only nine wickets at the expense of 1,224 runs.

That must be some batting track and, of course, those who are regulars at the Oval will know that over a course of a season there are plenty of those. People may point to last year’s victory over South Africa, in which the tourists were bowled out for under 200 on the first day. But that was after a series had been decided and featured Steve Harmison, until then ignored by the England selectors, out to prove a point.

Harmison, has, of course, only recently said that he has “unfinished business with Australia” and should the result go against us in Leeds, the selectors will probably be forced to give him his shot at redemption, but with the batting talent that Australia have at their disposal, it is hard to envisage him putting that business to bed when it really matters.

So Headingley, where England capitulated in four days against South Africa last year, is probably the venue at which the destination of the coveted urn will be decided – with victory for England ensuring a 2-0 success and victory for Australia tying the contest and an Ashes win by proxy.

Brett Lee is expected to come back into the reckoning and if he can immediately recover the form that he showed before getting injured against the England Lions, England’s still flimsy batting could find themselves in a bit of a showdown.

 It was the home team’s lower middle order that set up the prospect of a last-day victory at Edgbaston, with Prior, Flintoff, Broad and Swan making important contributions.

But it would be optimistic to expect them to do exactly the same again: England are in greater need of runs from the upper middle order and that, specifically, means Ravi Bopara and Ian Bell. Bell played some sumptuous strokes in the fifty that marked his comeback in Birmingham, but looks no nearer finding the solution to his problem of getting out when well set and could, some say should, have been out twice before he got to that landmark.

At least, though, he looks good, however brief his stay at the crease. Much more worrying is the return from Ravi Bopara – 104 runs from five innings at No3. The Essex player has batted like a man who begun to believe all the publicity he received after three hundreds against a fairly innocuous West Indies attack. He seems to be dining out on Graham Gooch’s repeated claims that “there is something a bit special about him” and has failed to realise that it’s his turn to do the cooking.

So the pressure will be squarely on them this weekend, especially if Andrew Strauss and Alastair Cook fall to get us off to a good start. And with Australia’s own batting unlikely to fail for a third time in the series, my money is on the Aussies to claim victory there and bat themselves to safety in South London.

I can only hope I’m wrong.

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Ashes update, third Test, fourth day: Ian Bell, Andrew Flintoff, Matt Prior, Mitchell Johnson, Graeme Swann, Stuart Broad, Graham Onions and Shane Watson we salute you

Crikey; I can’t imagine a much better day’s Test cricket than that. Can you?

In fact, apart fromwhen Australia’s batsmen were thumping England’s attack to all parts of the Swalec Stadium on the second and third days of the first Test, I can’t remember a predictable session in the entire series so far.

Today was a perfect example of team cricket: by that I mean that picking an outstanding player of the day would not only be pointless it would be grossly unfair to the many who played their parts so well and ensured that a game rudely disrupted by the weather goes into its final day with at least two results on the cards.

First of all, there was:

Ian Bell: another delightful fifty, which he failed to convert into something greater, but there was enough sweet timing to engage the purist and then he had the decency, just as he was beginning to get bogged down, to get out and leave the stage clear for….

Matt Prior and Andrew Flintoff: Prior continued his bullish approach to batting in this series with a number of crisp strokes at a crisp rate, while Freddie, on his favourite ground for batting, at last played something more than a cameo, perhaps reminding Ricky Ponting why he left it 65 overs before bringing on Shane Watson. And when these two departed there was….

Graeme Swann and Stuart Broad: among the best No8s and 9s in Test cricket already, Broad played a series of magnificent shots, one down the ground off the back foot on the up to Mitchell Johnson coming round the wicket really taking the breath away and Swann matching Johnson boundary for sledge and word for word, but…..

Mitchell Johnson: had the last laugh, switching to round the wicket and fooling Swann with a slower ball which brought an end to the most entertaining over of the day and, by adding the Nottinghamshire spinner to Ian Bell as a victim, suggested his worst struggles are over and he will still have an important part to play in this Ashes. And continuing to make his mark was…

Graham Onions: who celebrated earning a partial central contract with another burst towards the end of the day which got rid of Simon Katich and troubled Mike Hussey after Australia had threatened to wipe off their deficit and opened the way for….

Graeme Swann: again, who bowled one of the finest overs of off breaks at Ricky Ponting which, had Rudi Koertzen’s radar not been out of synch would have resulted in the Australia captain being dismissed leg-before, but not allowing that disappointment to affect him my plundering his middle and leg stumps with a ball that turned perfectly between the stretching batsman’s bat and pad two balls later, and finally….

Shane Watson: who may not be experienced in the opening slot, but looks more comfortable than many in that position. He had a solid, attractive technique and he could steal the man-of-the-match at the last from any of the above if he can turn that into a long, long innings tomorrow


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Ashes update, third Test, second day lunch: Jimmy Anderson finds his form of the series

It’s been a long time coming and there were questionable claims that it had arrived at Lord’s, but has Jimmy “in the form of his life” Anderson finally located the form of his life?

I was just thinking, Graham Onions having provided the early inroads, that it was time for Jimmy to get in on the act and suddenly, in barely the blink of an eye, he has done, turning familiarly uninspiring figures of 15-4-51-0 into ones of 17.5-5-56-4.

Again, he got a bit lucky – the leg-before decisions against Michael Clarke and Mitchell Johnson were marginal, but on first viewing most of us, not just Rudi Koertzen, would have given them.

Clarke had earlier got the benefit of the doubt on another very close lbw shout, and then guided a sitter to Freddie at second slip, only for the hero of Lord’s to do the almost unthinkable and drop him, while Johnson will probably just have to admit he’s going through one of those rough stages in his career that most cricketers experience.

It will be remarked upon elsewhere, but I think the statisticians will have their work cut out trying to find another occasion in which two England bowlers have been on a hat-trick in the same Test, let alone the same day and in this case, the same session.

It was a fascinating morning that England, paradoxically, started on the defensive, with men out on the boundary on either side of the wicket for the opening ball – a ball with which Andrew Strauss sprang another surprise by handing to Onions, who had conceded 21 runs from a mediocre three overs yesterday evening.

It proved an inspired – or fortunate – choice as the Durham man whipped out Shane Watson and Michael Hussey out with the first two balls.

The Australian response, however, was equally positive, and Clarke and Ricky Ponting tried to put the pressure back on England by dispatching the loose ball – Flintoff didn’t really get it right in his opening spell – and running their singles aggressively. They shared what might have been  momentum-turning stand of 40 odd at around four an over, but the surprisingly soft dismissal of Ponting provided England with another lift just when they needed it and Jimmy slipped into his form of the series so far, if not his entire existence.

Presuming that England mop up the tail quickly after lunch, it will be equally interesting to see how their batsmen fare if the ball keeps swinging. Hilfenhaus can make it do a bit, and if Mitchell, against all expectations, clicks back  into gear, the rain that is forecast to return tomorrow may not have such a bearing on the outcome of this match as we’d thought.

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Ashes update: Knackered Shane Warne has reason to be grateful to the tooth fairy

As Sky’s introductions for the third Test on the wetlands in Birmingham got under way this morning, I confess that I couldn’t quite decide which had had the more work done on it: the Edgbaston outfield or Shane Warne’s teeth.

I eventually decided it must be the latter, for from the mouth of the Aussie former leg spinner flashed a sparkle and gleam that would make even a Colgate executive blush. In fact, such a paler shade of white are his mandibles, that you could stick him behind the bowler’s arm, ask him to grin and do away with the need for a sightscreen.

If you don’t have access to Sky, you might like to peruse the following excerpt of an old episode of Friends, for a fuller understanding of the Shane Warne new look

That, however, was the only visible part of Warne that was looking top Australian dollar. The spikey gelled hair and tanned visage – tanned probably only because of the amount of foundation that the make-up artist had applied to tone out the blemishes – could not disguise the fact that he appeared knackered, washed up, whatever you will.

Then, in conversation with David Gower, he offered up the notion – I hesitate to call it an excuse – that, true professional that he was, he had been at the ground at 5am to check on the conditions. I think that highly unlikely: if Warne had been at the ground at 5am, I’m sure it was only because it was on the route back to his hotel from whatever boozy function he had attended long into the early hours.

In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the ground staff who had worked themselves into the earth trying to get the venue ready for today’s proceedings found him curled up and having a happy little snooze on a length when they first rolled back the covers.

Sky, though, proved to be a bit of a tease today. I woke up expecting to hear the day’s play had been abandoned before anyone had even thought about bowling a ball, only to be greeted with the sight of bright sunshine, the covers removed to the edge of the square and a member of the ground staff gently operating a mower or roller up and down a very firm-looking pitch.

It was 15 minutes into the build-up before we adjourned to Ian Botham in the middle, who was even more tantalising as he explained how excellent the pitch was. But before long he was heading off in the direction of the bowlers’ run-ups, trying to convince us that water was rising up over his polished size-12s. (Is it too much to have expected the bowlers’ run-ups to have been properly protected?)

As I write now, Michael Atherton is suggesting there may yet be some play today – good drying conditions, the subtle placement of hessian matting to do their tricks, but I’m not optimistic. It’s been one of those weeks for cricket.

With Andrew Strauss’s team one-up in the series there is no reason for them to risk life, limb and a wet ball should they be forced to bowl.

I was going to say that there’s about as much of a chance of getting under way as Shane Warne needing a new set of dentures, but, blimey, late news alert. They’re hoping to start at 5pm, with the toss half an hour earlier. By which time, of course, I will be on my way to work.

Such is life.

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Ashes preview: The Test there is no point in previewing

Shame. I was so looking forward to the third Test with all its ponderables – would Andrew Strauss be punished by the cricket gods for becoming the latest and most signficant Ashes protagonist to question Australia’s aura, would Ian Bell get a run, would Brad Haddin prove misguided in his bizarre assertion that Mitchell Johnson “is still taking wickets for us” (he quite clearly isn’t  – see his figures at Lord’s and against Northamptonshire) and would the captain’s stated intention to stand by his leading paceman be excellent man-management or an indication that Ponting has finally lost his marbles?

And, perhaps most important, would Johnson’s mother turn up to barrack him from the Edgbaston sidelines in the best you-almost-couldn’t-make-it-up-Australian-cricketer-versus-mum-story since Shane Warne’s mater pressed something from a blister-pack and handed it to him, saying : “This should help you get rid of those few extra pounds, darlin’.”

But now it seems those questions will remain unanswered, for at least the first couple of days, anyway, because of England’s finest impediment to top-class sport (apart from lack of ability): rain.

Cricinfo is claiming to have been told that there is no chance of play on the first day, it’s not looking too good for the second, despite sunshine forecast for both, and by the third and fourth showers will back to do their worst. And to back up its claim is a picture of a puddle-strewn outfield. Is there any point in any of the many previews that will come from the wise and wordy in newspaper or blog? Might those attending be advised to cancel their hotel bookings?

I can’t remember experiencing such a depressing build-up to a Test match, especially one that has so many intriguing subplots. The England players had barely returned bladdered to their hotel rooms at 4am on the Tuesday morning before Steve Rouse, the Warwickshire groundsman, was covering his arse with claims that the weather had already put him three days behind on preparation.

Days later, he was explicitly stating that the pitch would be a bowler’s graveyard, encouraging us to think in terms of enormous scores and bore draws before a ball was delivered in anger. And now we are given to understand that Edgbaston, despite being first on the case many moons ago with the ‘brumbella’ and four super-soppers, is one of the slowest drying grounds in the country.

The word ‘marshy’ has been used more than once and not just in passing mention of the great former Australian wicketkeeper. In fact, so unsuitable it seems has the Edgbaston outfield become for cricket that one might expect the local council to move in and designate its alternative use as a wildlife sanctuary.

Sadly, the only ducks we are likely to see will not be those in Mitchell Johnson’s wickets column but ones that have flown in for the duration.

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Ashes chat: Troy Cooley – maybe the ECB played a blinder

As we head into another Ashes week, there is a question that I think needs answering.

Is Troy Cooley all he’s cracked up to be?

I ask because all the perceived wisdom is that he was instrumental in turning England’s fast bowlers from also-rans to world-beaters, almost in the space of one series: England v Australia in 2005

Then, he went back to Australia and while it is not suggested that he had much input into the Australia attack – Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne weren’t  ones to take to coaching too easily – it is thought he had a  part in convincing Brett Lee to shorten his run-up in the 2006-7 series. That it seemed, brought some immediate success in that Lee continued to pick up useful wickets but stopped leaking the enormous volume of runs that his spells tended to.

It was, though, thought that England missed him. Harmison went off the radar (literally and figuratively) and James Anderson failed to pitch anything further up than halfway.

Funnily enough, it has recently been suggested that Jimmy ‘in the form of his life’ Anderson has only rediscovered his form since coaches, and by implication Cooley, left him alone to do what comes naturally  (even if that means staring somewhere between your boot and mid-wicket as you deliver the ball).

Now it has been suggested that his advice might be behind Mitchell Johnson’s loss of form, perhaps putting too much emphasis on his ability to bowl the inswinger. The inswinger might in theory complete the armoury, give the batsman more to think about but even if he could only bowl outswingers,-so long as he bowled them consistently well, he would be more than a handful.-

No one should believe that those who have not done well at the highest level cannot make good coaches. The ability to know what you are doing wrong is no guarantee that you can  put it right in yourself. But I was quite shocked when I looked up Cooley’s statistics.

In 33 first-class matches for Tasmania, he took only 54 wickets at an average of 61.35 and never took five wickets in an innings. Maybe the ECB were playing a blinder when they let him escape back to the land of his birth.

Fact of the matter is that England would almost certainly have lost that series anyway – the brilliance of McGrath and Warne with the ball ensured that – but now Cooley has been given time to work with the new generation, maybe his true abilities are becoming apparent.

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Kevin Pietersen struck down by the Reverse Sweep Ashes hoodoo

The curse of  Reverse Sweep’s Ashes astrological predictions has struck again: having seen off Michael Vaughan and Brett Lee, in association with cricket’s finest clairvoyant, Mystic Mags, we correctly foresaw that Andrew Flintfoff would have injury problems at Lord’s and give the pedalos another workout

We also crystal-balled that Jimmy “in the form of his life” Anderson would come good in St John’s Wood (to coin a snappy phrase) althought admittedly he didn’t return the expected ten-fer, and suggested that KP would be “at his most crotchety throughout 2009, blunting his creativity.  Those looking for new strokes to add to his personal batting lexicon of ‘flamingo’ and ‘switch shot’ will be disappointed”.

Well, now we know why he was crotchety: because his achilles was giving him gip. And he certainly won’t be adding to his personal batting lexicon because he won’t be doing anything creative with a bat for quite some time.

* Reverse Sweep is now available for personal astrological guidance, but reminds potential clients that it might all be a complete load of boll*cks.

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Ashes comment: Those Kevin Pietersen replacement operatives in full

The pundits have been racing to their lap-tops since the news broke of Kevin Pietersen’s exclusion from the rest of the Ashes, throwing out so many names about a possible replacement that we would need a whole series of rings to contain them.

But we know that the only man who will be stepping into KP’s enormous shoes come next Thursday, unless Geoff Miller has another of the kinds of brainstorm that brought Darren Pattinson to the fore last summer, is Ian Bell. Extraordinarily gifted batsmen; or classic flat-track bully? Still hard to say and Reverse Sweep wishes him well, simply because whichever he is, he’s the most attractive batsman to watch  – I’m almost tempted to say on either side, but Michael Clarke might like to take that argument up with me.

Yet it is fun to speculate and even put contingency plans in place in case the England Lions captain were to come down with an ingrowing toenail in the intervening period. And so, to the alternative names proposed in other realms of  Joe Denly, Mark Ramprakash, Eoin Morgan, Stephen Moore – aw, he’s already got a hundred against the Aussies so let’s squeeze him in despite an average this year in the middle 20s – Owais Shah and absurdly and hopefully, Marcus Trescothick, let me add my own favourites – all risky, but, as someone once said, life – and the Ashes – is about risk.

First of my contenders is Jonathan Trott: actually I think he got a mention on Line and Length, and has had a taste of England action in the one-dayers in 2007. He’s aggressive and pleasant to watch, one of those players who you know within a few balls has got something about him and a clean striker of the ball. What’s more, he was brought up in South Africa, so would be almost a straight swap for KP – and that very fact could be guaranteed to get up the noses of the Aussies.

Second up is Michael Carberry: the Hampshire left-hander has been in prolific form of late, has the willingness to battle when the going isn’t that good and is perhaps the best outfielder you would see even if you watched a game of cricket every day from now until global warming sends us into the final big bang. His determination is borne out by his desire to make a professional career of cricket in the first place, having had to journey round the counties before finding the Rose Bowl a suitable venue for his talents. Think Ian Ward, but probably better – and he played for England.

And third, although not necessarily last, is James Hildreth, the earliest triple centurion of an English season, superb through the off side and, cricinfo informs me, rated as an “extraordinary talent” by Justin Langer, who has known a few good batsmen in his time (he’s just overtaken one too). He has age on his side – he’s still only 24 – and leaving him too much longer might lead him to atrophy. And, as a former public schoolboy, he’ll provide literate company for Straussy in the dressing-room. The one downside is that this year most of his runs have come in the homely environs of Taunton and he hasn’t travelled too well.

So in the end I would lump for Trott, who might even find the jelly of his home ground to his liking.

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