August 2009
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John Stern: Can Flintoff factor carry England home?

August 19th, 2009 by John Stern in England, Test cricket, The Ashes


So after a fortnight of post-Headingley hair shirts and self-flagellation, how about a dose of pre-Test optimism?

The toss would seem to be all-important but if England do win it then surely they have a legitimate and plausible chance to set the game up and put Australia under pressure.

Australia have bowled first three times out of four in this series and on the two occasions when conditions were unequivocally good for batting, England made their attack look ordinary.

At Lord’s they looked worse than that. History and local knowledge would indicate that conditions at The Oval will be good for batting.

In batting terms, England have been their own worst enemy, caught between the desire to attack and the need to impose themselves on their greatest rivals but seemingly unable to be equally positive and decisive in defence.

Indecision should not be a problem for England at The Oval. They know they have to win, they know they must be bold. In that context the selection of Jonathan Trott, a Pietersen clone in attitude if not technique, fits the bill.

My first inclination about the Oval Test was a draw. But, on reflection, that seems unlikely unless the weather intervenes. Neither side is that well-equipped for a war of attrition and England need to force the pace anyway.

Australia’s bowling, especially if they were to risk Brett Lee, has a boom or bust feel to it as does England’s, more so if Flintoff and Harmison both play. For England the key is how much pace and bounce there is in the pitch.

There have been four County Championship matches at The Oval this season, all of which have been drawn. The first, in April, was badly rain-affected; the second, in May, produced a belting finish with spinners in the ascendancy in the second half of the match; the other two, in July and August, were both run-fests in which only four innings were completed and only once was a side bowled out. The total scores in those two matches were 2,400 runs for 19 wickets.

Now, that is the second division of the Championship versus a decisive Ashes Test on a pitch that hasn’t been used before this summer. I’d be disappointed and surprised if there wasn’t some pace and bounce in it. The question is whether England’s bowlers can use it to their advantage.

It should turn later on and, again, the question is whether Graeme Swann can be effective. He has had one good performance in this series, at Lord’s. At other times, at Cardiff and Edgbaston, he has bowled poorly. He has at times been like an over-revved car: his natural ebullience and enthusiasm has tipped unhealthily into the red zone and resulted in an assortment of full tosses and other filth.

England need controlled, sustained aggression this week not gung-ho, hot and cold cavalry charges but I suspect we’ll get more of the latter. That doesn’t mean they can’t win but it does mean the odds are longer than we’d like.

Then there is the Freddie Factor. It was at The Oval, 23 years ago to the week, that Ian Botham, with his first ball after a drugs ban, had Bruce Edgar caught by Graham Gooch. “Who writes your scripts?” Gooch asked him. The same bloke who does Flintoff’s we can now reply.

Fingers crossed for a far-fetched farewell.

John Stern is editor of The Wisden Cricketer

Posted in England, Test cricket, The Ashes | No Comments »

Peter Siddle: Oval biggest game of my career

August 19th, 2009 by peter siddle in England, Test cricket, The Ashes


This Oval Test is without doubt the biggest game of my career. Every Test match is important but there is so much riding on this. Being an Aussie it compares to an AFL grand final – a huge occasion with a big build up. Everyone will be watching back home and we’re desperate to do well for them and ourselves. We’ve had good preparation, enjoying the hype, and above all it’s exciting – we’ve got a great group of guys, who have been working hard together all tour and now it comes down to this match.

We know we only need a draw to retain the Ashes, but we will be going all out for the win. If you go in with the attitude that a draw is enough you are moving away from your natural game – that would be the worst thing we could do and would play into England’s hands. If you look through our side we are full of aggressive cricketers, even at Lord’s when we were chasing a massive total Michael Clarke and Brad Haddin still tried to win five wickets down. We love to go hard at the opposition and hopefully that will pay off.

I can’t wait for the game to start. I’ve played four Ashes Tests now and am used to the hype – this series is bigger than anything I’ve played and I was nervous coming into the early games, but I’ve relaxed now and it’s helped. The pressure will be there but it’s why you play the game. The pitch looks like a beautiful cricket wicket – people have said it can become a batter’s paradise but if you bowl well there’s good bounce and pace, which suits my game. I had success at Headingley where the wicket was offering a bit but I’ve done better on the wickets with pace where I can charge through and get at the batsman.

There’s definitely the potential for reverse swing here – the wicket is rock hard, and the square and the outfield the same, so the ball will rough up. Provided it stays dry the reverse swing could be a real factor. A combination of things have meant that it hasn’t really come into the series so far – the balls have stayed in good condition, the grounds haven’t helped it and the wet weather has played a part so the ball has been swinging in an orthodox way up to the 80th over. If the selectors decide that is the way to go then Brett Lee could have a big part to play. He’s done a great job exploiting conditions like this for Australia in the past on the dryer wickets in the subcontinent or back home. But it will depend on the weather, the state of the wicket and what the selectors think.

It’ll be another tough call for them this match, with a fully fit squad and everyone desperate to play a part in the decider. I wish we could all play but there are only so many spots and it’ll be desperately tough on those who miss out. Stuart Clark and Brett haven’t played as much as they’d have liked but they have been brilliant all tour – always there with advice and they know what to say and how to relax you when perhaps things aren’t going so well.

As for England, they’ll have the Freddie factor, which will give them a big lift, and they’ve also brought in Jonathan Trott who will be keen to show why they have selected him ahead of Ravi Bopara. Some of the boys have played county cricket against him and he’s scored a few runs this year so there hasn’t been any shortage of highlights watch. He’s a new guy in a pressure game, so we’re not going to worry too much about him and his strengths, we’re just going to go about our game and let him come to us. People talk about comparisons to Kevin Pietersen. It’s always exciting playing against guys who play like KP. I’m looking forward to it.

Peter Siddle is blogging for throughout the Ashes

Posted in England, Test cricket, The Ashes | No Comments »

Lawrence Booth: Would a draw be so bad?

August 19th, 2009 by Lawrence Booth in England, Test cricket, The Ashes


I’ll probably get blogged to within a pixel of my cyber-life for saying this, but would 1-1 really be such a bad result for England? I realise this rings semi-treasonous on the eve of the Most Important Game Ever, but it was only a few months ago that England were losing a Test series in the Caribbean of all places. Before that, they lost in Sri Lanka and at home to South Africa. Australia, for all their frailties, remain No1 in the world. Last time out, they beat England 5-0. So I’ll ask it again: would 1-1 really be so bad?

Ashes rules leave room for only one answer: in the case of a draw, the urn – or at least its metaphorical cousin: the real urn remains imperiously in the Lord’s museum – stays with the team in possession. In the column in Wisden that uses an upper-case E or A to denote which side has ownership, a draw at The Oval would make it 10 As out of 11. I’ll grant you, it wouldn’t look good (an England win, by contrast, would make it two Es out of three: all the English want is for Australia to give them a decent game!).

But for those who believe, controversially, that other cricket takes place outside the Ashes cycle (two series every four years), there may be more at stake. Not for the first time, England are slowly rebuilding, even if the injury to Kevin Pietersen is a reminder that for every two bricks mortared on, another can fall off. They improved in the Caribbean after 51 all out, then brushed West Indies aside at home. Hell, they even lead Australia into the fourth Test of an Ashes series for the first time in 23 years.

If they lose this series through playing more reckless cricket than they would in any other situation, they will have lost their last three main home series after going down to India in 2007 and South Africa last summer. For a side that lost only one home series in seven years under Duncan Fletcher – to Australia in 2001 – that would represent progress of the most perverse kind. And it would set England up for a miserable winter in South Africa.

The counter-argument has its merits: go all out for the win and cricket in this country will rise from the inside pages once more. But it does not totally convince. Did the face of cricket change for ever when England won a far more exciting and high-quality series in 2005? Briefly, yes. But the country quickly slipped back into football-worship. Our national tendency to draw grand conclusions should not be under-estimated.

The question of whether England are actually capable of beating Australia with a middle-order of Ian Bell (out of his comfort zone at No3), Jonathan Trott (has a debutant ever gone in beyond the deep end?) and Paul Collingwood (apparently neutered by Pietersen’s absence) seems almost incidental. Once more, the nation is placing its faith in a hobbling all-rounder and throwing itself on the mercy of the sporting gods. That, of course, is the British way (followed by tears and recriminations).

But we could spare ourselves the heartache. Be positive, sure, but don’t be reckless. And be content with a draw against a side containing more potential match-winners. This may not fit with the all-or-nothing spirit of the age, but it’s honourable enough in its own, quiet way. If, on Monday evening, Graham Onions comes in at No11 needing to hit the last ball for four to bring back the Ashes, cross your fingers for him. Go doolally if he succeeds. But don’t be too disappointed if he plays, misses, and survives.

Lawrence Booth writes on cricket for the Guardian

Posted in England, Test cricket, The Ashes | 6 Comments »

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