Reece Topley – remember the name

The second round of Championship matches is underway, and I’ve made it to first day at both The Oval and Lord’s so far. Brilliant sunshine last week, unashamed murk this – it turns out that the start of the British summer was a bigger myth than the good guy football star.

The cricket has been a mixture of brilliant and murk too. On the one hand there was the uninhibited strokeplay of Rory Hamilton-Brown and Tom Maynard on the first day at the Oval, and the raw promise of the Essex left-armer Reece Topley today. On the other there is trying to rationalise the value of watching a Northants attack led by 35-year-old South African Andrew Hall and 37-year-old Sri Lankan Chaminda Vaas, similarly Middlesex’s opening batsmen of Australian Chris Rogers (33) and Surrey cast-off Scott Newman (31).

If this is a familiar moan I’m sorry, but it’s true, there are too many teams in the Championship. Let’s move on anyway, for in Topley, England has a real prospect. At 17, with seven wickets in his Championship debut against Kent last week and five more today, the figures look good. I can confirm that they don’t flatter – there is plenty to be excited about for Essex and England fans. Don’s son is tall, extracts bounce, and swings the ball – at least in these early season conditions. Pace-wise he would be low to mid-eighties at the moment and his run-up needs work but crucially he is in a decent position at release, giving him notable consistency for one so young, despite a tired third spell.

Maurice Chambers was a fearsome sight up close in the nets when in Australia with the Academy, but the strung-up-by-your-neck view of the Lord’s media box reveals an inherent flaw – a low-arm action, meaning that, like Saj Mahmood, he will lack the bounce to trouble the good players despite his skiddy pace. After a miserable morning spell it was unusual to see Chambers tweeting in the lunch interval that the Lord’s slope had unbalanced him – as though he was replying to the twittercism. Essex fans have been waiting for him to lead their attack for a few years – he’s one of those perennially promising types, but on this evidence it’s hard to see him breaking through unless he can discover a way to extract more bounce.

As for Middlesex’s batting – bleurgh, as nine scores between 15 and 38 suggests.

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Why Pakistan shouldn’t beat India

I’ll get in there quick before the game gets underway.

Roll on the cliches. More than a game etc etc etc.

Ignore the politics for the moment – this is a fascinating contest because it is cricket in it’s purest form, bat versus ball.

Now that India have won the toss, the stats would say there is no way Pakistan can win this.

Their top batsman, Umar Akmal, has scored 211 runs in the tournament so far. He’s their only guy over 200 runs. India have four batsmen over 300 runs (Tendulkar, Sehwag, Yuvraj), and two more (Gambir and Kohli) with more than Umar Akmal. Sure Pakistan have played in different countries on trickier pitches, but no one can dispute the difference in quality between the top-orders.

In the bowling, Afridi has more wickets than anyone, 21 at 10. Then Gul has 14, but after that it’s down to Hafeez with seven. The point is that Pakistan are just as reliant, if not for pressure then wickets, on two bowlers as India are on Zaheer Khan (17) and surprisingly Yuvraj (11).

I think India are better chasing, but if their batsmen can set a decent target it’s difficult to see how a Pakistan lineup who have topped 200 twice in seven games will get near it, so Pakistan will need to roll them over. But somehow I fancy Pakistan. Over to you Boom Boom.

Goodbye Ricky Ponting

Finally Ricky has gone. It was a resignation as inevitable as the onset of summer, and certainly increases the heat on Michael Clarke. Now is the right time, Australian cricket needs to move forward, and dragging the side for the last few years as captain, surrogate coach, agony aunt and kitman too has had a visible effect on Australia’s most successful batsman of recent times.

Ponting has been an inspiration to his own country and beyond. Observing him close up during the Ashes it was impossible not to be mesmerised by a face so creased from years of battle, a man so dignified and honest in response to constant probing and sniping.

The question now is whether he should stay on in the team as a batsman, as he has indicated he wants to do. Michael Clarke said in December he would never captain Ponting, we will find out in the next few weeks and months how sincere those words were.

Ponting’s record over the last few years is not befitting of his reputation and hardly worth a place in the side – in 16 Tests since the end of the 2009 Ashes he has one hundred (209 against Pakistan in which he was dropped in single figures) at an average of 36.

The counter-argument to that would be that his selfless involvement in trying to arrest the losing culture in a new Australian side stopped him from spending enough time working on a batting technique that was struggling to cope with the ageing process. His supporters pointed to his gritty quarter-final hundred against India as evidence of what he could do when allowed to focus on cricket in the short term. With Sachin Tendulkar batting better than ever and a year older than Ponting, the case for allowing Ponting a chance to fulfil his wish is persuasive.

But there are other things to consider. Ponting’s hold over this Australian team has been total in recent years. In the Sydney press conferences Michael Clarke as good as admitted that Ponting had been acting as coach on top of his captaincy role (another indictment of the apparently invisible Tim Nielsen). How can a player who has exercised that much influence slip quietly into the ranks? Further to this, the distance between Ponting and some of the younger members of the Australian side was obvious during the Ashes. Respect is clearly there (at least in one direction) but camaraderie? Australia needs the Peter Siddles, the Steve Smiths and the Shane Watsons to become their new ‘guns’. Can they do this with the ghost of the past watching and judging their every move?

And what of Ponting’s relationship with Clarke – who rumours would have us believe has been attempting to undermine the man in possession in recent times. The whole thing is a right kerfuffle, stretching beyond this down to Clarke’s 26% popularity rating among the Aussie public. Having a new captain who the country’s press already hold in contempt is quite a situation. Even with the metres of negative press that have greeted England’s World Cup performances we can afford to glance down under and smile.

Touring difficulties, Ray Illingworth and Geoff Boycott, and Chris Lewis

Reading a piece by Derek Pringle about Michael Yardy this morning, it reminded me of an interview I did last year with Andrew Wingfield-Digby, former chaplain to the England cricket team. An excerpt appeared in February’s Wisden Cricketer, but it was a wide-ranging chat and a lot of interesting stuff ended up on the cutting room floor.

This was the paragraph in Pringle’s piece that got me thinking.

Handed a smouldering short straw, when team management rather shamefully declined to be interviewed about the matter, Ravi Bopara, after sympathising with his departure, said that: “It is reassuring knowing that someone is there if you do need to open up to someone.” Trouble is there wasn’t, at least not here, Mark Bawden, England’s psychologist, ony being present during the Ashes tour.

That pastoral role was one filled on and off by Wingfield-Digby between 1990 and 2000. Here are the quotes from Wingers that may or may not relate to the experiences suffered by Yardy and Marcus Trescothick before him. There’s also some stuff on Ray Illingworth and Devon Malcolm that has a strange parallel to the Geoff Boycott/ Michael Yardy quotes, and some interesting reminiscences on Chris Lewis.

On sports psychologists

They (cricket teams) do have sports psychologists but sports psychologists are more geared towards their performance than their lifestyle. If your self-worth is entirely wrapped up in how many runs you get or how many goals you’ve scored then you make other self-destructive decisions.

There is a real place for what the army would call, a good Padre. Why do they have Padre in Afghanistan and Iraq or wherever? They must think they have some role to play with people under pressure in the front line and sports people are under pressure in the front line, they have all sorts of temptations, opportunities, and pressures. The army really do value a good Padre.

On Marcus Trescothick

I have no idea whether someone in my role could’ve made a difference, I don’t even know if in his life there is anybody in that role. I wonder if that avenue was explored sufficiently in terms of pastoral care for him, or was he exposed to the brutality of the changing room, the terrible loneliness of touring in a team when you’re miserable. The place you’re most lonely is in a crowd and if you’re in a team and you’re miserable, it’s desperate.

On touring

I’ve often worried about home advantage in all sorts of professional sport, why is home advantage so great? I know you have the crowd with you and all that but I can’t believe that makes much difference really. I’m sure it’s to do with your well-being as a person and how you feel about yourself. You’re sleeping in your own bed, with your own wife, you’re not in a hotel, and you’re in familiar circumstances, you’re more at ease with yourself compared to if you’re on the other side of the world, not behaving very well, being dragged down by your teammates.

A different topic but a startlingly similar premise to the comments on Yardy by Geoff Boycott, a Yorkshireman from a similar generation.

On the way Ray Illingworth treated Devon Malcolm

Raymond was a great cricketer, great captain, absolutely fascinating on the game but really he just knew about cricket, that was his entire life. I didn’t get the impression that he thought much or knew much or cared much about things outside cricket really – he enjoyed his golf and he had his house in Spain but he was entirely a cricket creature. He grew up in the 50s in the Yorkshire team, I think he was just a victim of that society. I don’t think there was much malice in it at all really, it’s unacceptable now but it was a different world then. It was deeply offensive to Devon but I think it would have really surprised Raymond that it was deeply offensive to him; I don’t think it would have crossed his mind; it’s just the way things were. Of course he should’ve known better but he didn’t know better.

And lastly, just because it’s very interesting

On Chris Lewis

I’m very sad at what’s happened to him, I’m amazed really. He was an astonishing talent. I remember saying that to Mike Atherton who captained him and got frustrated with him. Athers would say don’t use that word, if he can’t do it, he hasn’t got it. Athers believed you can only measure talent if you look at mental attitude as well, and Chris tended always to have a reason why he could not quite get to 100%, through injury or something going on. For Athers you should give 100% whatever the cause, whatever the situation, half-fit you should give 100%. Athers said, “He’s (Lewis) got a sublime cover drive, better than me but if you can’t actually do it repeatedly when it matters, you haven’t really got talent.”

I haven’t seen Chris in 11 years. I would love to see him. He’s an immensely likable chap; I remember my wife and I had dinner with him and his girlfriend in the West Indies in Antigua, just the four of us, and we had a really nice evening together – he was charming and articulate and delightful. He professed Christian faith so he was extremely warm towards me; I regard him as one that I failed with completely despite having an opportunity, I just failed to be of any help to him.

I’d be really surprised if his heart was not in the right place, I think he was just in a proper muddle, probably, that was the impression I got then, I have no idea now. He was never really happy as an England cricketer, he always felt apart and he had this self-destructive urge. I don’t think a cricket changing room; any changing room is the most sympathetic place for a person who is carrying personal problems. With the banter, it tends to brutally expose weaknesses. I think for someone like Chris Lewis it was very difficult at time, he was a very sensitive chap, he was a bit of a model, wearing a hair net, in the West Indies getting sunstroke, the banter would have been ferocious.

I watched him get an absolutely phenomenal hundred in Madras in the second innings of that losing Test match; he just looked a world-beater and I remember Athers saying well of course he made a hundred, it doesn’t matter, we were losing the game so there was no pressure.

I’m back, and other World Cup stories

It’s been a long time since I’ve blogged, not sure why, hey-ho. Anyway, I’m back, fittingly on a day that India have chased down Australia and given them a savage street-beating. Fortunately this Australia side is so ugly already that the scars will be of little consequence.

I’ve been doing some other stuff. The Chuck Fleetwood-Smiths are an extension of Two Pricks at the Ashes. Check us out on YouTube.

Meanwhile here are some thoughts on day 7017 of what has surprisingly been a rather excellent World Cup.

Michael Yardy

Best wishes. Every man is an island and all that, he’s made the best decision for himself and hopefully he can manage his problem at home. Ravi Bopara’s reaction – Yardy hadn’t popped into his room to play Fifa for a few days apparently – was refreshingly (or depressingly depending how you look at it) naive on a day when everyone else has been treading on eggshells.

I’m not sure whose bright idea at BBC 5 Live it was to shove a microphone in Geoff Boycott’s mouth. His comments were unfortunate but not malicious. He’s a man from a different era with no pretensions of understanding the subject he was quizzed about, but he’s also got a problem keeping his mouth shut. Let’s hope he doesn’t become a victim of the need to keep the story moving.

Ricky Ponting

One of the greatest. Such a tough bastard. No form, little fluency, and yet still manages a hundred against the hosts in a World Cup quarter final. It could have been a match-winning innings if his bowlers could have managed basic line and length as India began to melt in the pressure cooker. Instead just more scrutiny. Stay or go? I’d say go Ricky. It’s not about you any more. This team is not going to get any better soon and they need to move on. Michael Clarke may be a preening, fey metrosexual but it’s his turn.

Adil Rashid

The right-wrong pick at the wrong time. Rashid should have been here instead of Yardy all along. He’s a better batter, and a developing leggy. England have doubts about his temperament – translation he’s a cocky git. But he’s young and has time. What any leg-spinner needs is the confidence of his captain and I can’t anticipate Rashid being a Strauss favourite. For that reason and with England juggling opening batsmen like Warney does blondes, I’d have brought a proper opening bat out. Craig Kieswetter is in decent form and hits nice and straight, but Alastair Cook would be the sensible choice. Batting on these pitches is not about smashing it, it’s about knowing your game and your scoring areas, which Cook does. He scored ODI runs in Bangladesh last spring and would have significantly enhanced England’ s chances here.

Australia

If your bowlers can’t control where they bowl the ball you’re not going to stay in the tournament. A poor side who won’t be missed, save the ageing Ponting, Brett Lee and Mike Hussey.

India

Still less than the sum of their parts. A side that struggle to convince in the field, and struggle for cohesion with the bat. Yuvraj steadied them superbly today, when some brainless running and a slapdash cameo from Dhoni had stuck them in the shit. The suspicion remains that had Australia just concentrated on line and length for a couple of overs they would have collapsed again. Into the semis, which is good for the tournament, but Pakistan must be favourites for what will be an epic game.

It’s all over now, England win 3-1, Sydney, day five

From Sam Collins in Sydney

END OF THE ASHES: fifth Test, day five, Sydney
Match score: England 644 (Cook 189, Prior 118, Bell 115) beat Australia 281 (Smith 54*) and 280 by an innings and 83 runs to win series 3-1
Session score: Australia 68-3 England win
Session in six words: England’s 24-year wait is over

It’s been a victory party more protracted than a royal wedding, but this morning England finally got their hands on the Ashes in Australia. An innings-and-83 run victory here secured a 3-1 victory, their first since Mike Gatting’s team in 1986-87, but it is no so much the series win as the margin and the manner that are so impressive. If this was a football match they would say it could have been 10 – all England’s victories were by an innings and the figures didn’t flatter them.

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