Monday, December 12, 2011

The Missing Link?

England's recent thrashing away to India raised plenty of questions for Andy Flower and his boys heading into their New Year in the subcontinent. The media cameup with one answer: Eoin Morgan.

There's no doubt that England missed Morgan on the tour - he's had as much IPL experience as any other England batsmen, and he had some success on the subcontinent against Bangladesh last year. As MS Dhoni and India brought their totals up to and over 300, English fans were left hoping rather than believing that England's middle order could up the pace and challenge the home side. The 5 defeats ranged from the nailbiters to the collapses, but there was only one game where England ever really looked in total control. That didn't last long.

Is Morgan the answer? Why is such a relatively young player seen as so critical to the hopes of the world's top Test team, the T20 World champions? England always do badly in the subcontinent - would Morgan's presence have turned the series around?
In reality, no. The real problem isn't that Morgan was missing. It's that no one else on the English team plays in a similar fashion to him. I'm not asking for the improvised reverse pitching wedges and scoops over fine leg - the day Jonathan Trott tries that shot is the day cricket will end - but the English batsmen all showed a marked inexperience when it came to simple things.

Playing India at home is tough. Their spinners (now without Harbhajan Singh) can slow teams down as well as take wickets. Virat Kohli and Suresh Raina can hold up one end while allowing a more attacking bowler the chance to strike. Their batsmen enjoy the dry pitches, and when MS Dhoni is in the form he showed on that tour it's tough to stop the juggernaut.
But you know you're in trouble if you're only taking Kohli for 5 runs an over. When Raina keeps you on strike for an over. What Eoin Morgan does as well as anyone is rotate the strike. He finds the gaps. That doesn't mean launching drives through cover for four. It means jinking and nurdling the ball behind point and square, between the keeper and fine leg. It means keeping the bowler off balance, and keeping the field moving. It means turning dots into singles, and singles into twos.

This English team is young, particularly some of the batsmen. They are still learning their craft. Alastair Cook is still finding his feet as a captain. But to succeed on the ODI stage, they need to adopt the Morgan approach. Cook has class, and his opening partner Craig Kieswetter has raw power. Morgan has both. Kieswetter might get you off to a flier, with 40 off 20, but how will he fare in the middle overs. There are times when it seems like it's the big shot over extra cover or nothing at all. If the boundary doesn't come off the first 3 or 4 balls of the over, all the pressure's on the batsman. Morgan doesn't let that happen. There's nothing more frustrating than watching your side bowl to a man who seems able to churn out 6 and 7 runs an over while playing risk-free cricket. Eoin Morgan can do that as well as anyone in the world.

As for the last ten overs, when a team needs to push on, he's just the man to have at the crease. He seems to shift gears effortlessly, and has the strength and wrists to clear any boundary. Again, though, what marks him apart is his nous. Samit Patel might hit three sixes and then be caught at long on. Morgan will hit a six and then take the single. Samit might make 30 off 18. Morgan will make 80 off 60. He sees the target, and finds a way to get there. His maiden ODI century came against Bangladesh when England were up against it. He barely raised the bat - his focus was on the job in hand, and working over the opposition to finish it off.

Not every player can play like Eoin Morgan; he's England's best ODI batsman, and guys like him don't grow on trees. But if England want to bring their dominance to the 50-over format, they need to learn from Morgan. Of course he has the physical attributes, but above all else he has a good cricketing brain and an ability to adapt his play to the situation. There are times when you want Jonathan Trott batting, to make his 50 even if it take 780 balls (typo, but I'll leave it). There are times when you want Samit to have a whack. Eoin Morgan can do both without changing his game.

It's always a little bittersweet to watch Morgan, thinking of what might have been with Ireland. But when he makes a matchwinning contribution, there aren't many you'd pick to watch instead.

Friday, March 25, 2011

One Place Left

Well. South Africa can never resist a good choke. Best not to dwell on it. But that’s what it was. Against an ordinary attack, for Kallis, de Villiers and Duminy to throw away their wickets as they did was nothing less than a choke. AB de Villiers getting run out with the asking rate at 4.5? Ridiculous.

Give New Zealand their dues, Jesse Ryder made sure they reached a defendable total, Nathan McCullum bowled extremely well, and they were superb in the field. The result? A place in the semi-finals against England or Sri Lanka. Some disrespect to New Zealand, but those two teams will be glad to see the back of the Proteas from that side of the draw. How will they deal with each other?

England have played some truly dreadful cricket in this World Cup, but I don’t expect that to trouble them too much in the knockouts. They’re a successful enough team to know that when they’re given a chance, they have to take it, and that’s exactly what they’ll aim for. There have been bright spots in the campaign – Andrew Strauss’s magnificent 158 against India, Swann and Broad’s demolition of the South African middle and lower order to snatch a victory, and Jonathan Trott generally keeping the team alive with consistent performances. In spite of these, however, they just don’t look to have a team that can go the whole way. Tim Bresnan has had good days, but Jimmy Anderson has been awful, and with Stuart Broad and Ajmal Shahzad gone home, their pace bowling is in unknown territory. James Tredwell had a great game against the West Indies, but just how he’ll deal with Tillakaratne Dilshan and Kumar Sangakkara is a different matter. Graeme Swann will of course be the key, and I expect him to be up to the challenge. The question is, will his teammates give him the support to make it worthwhile?

We believe that Ian Bell has been promoted to open the batting alongside his captain in place of the unimpressive Matt Prior. Bell is as elegant a batsman as has played for England since David Gower, and yet he manages to get out too often for stylish 30s. He hasn’t contributed in a meaningful way in this World Cup yet, and facing the vicious slingers from Lasith Malinga alongside Nuwan Kulasekera’s stingy line-and-length balls isn’t going to make it any easier.

Andrew Strauss needs to front up. Aside from the innings against India, he hasn’t done enough. He leads best from the front, and he knows the pressure’s on. If Malinga is offline, as he can be, Strauss will punish him, but come what may, he needs to be sure that he can last 20 or 30 overs, and build a solid platform for his team.

Once given that platform, Ravi Bopara and Eoin Morgan will be waiting. Both have played important innings in this tournament already, and they will be crucial to England’s hopes. At least one of them needs to be at the crease for the batting powerplay, and at least one of them needs to be there at its conclusion as well. They have the ability to turn 230 into 270, and that’s what will make the difference if Sri Lanka have to rely on a somewhat wobbly lower-middle order in a chase. It looks like Luke Wright will get a game as well, but as far as I’m concerned that’s a waste of a spot. He won’t last against Murali with the bat, and he’ll get carted around with the ball.

Sri Lanka played mostly very good cricket in the group stages. They lost to a very good Pakistan performance, with the main worry being how the middle order would cope with a top order failure. This was somewhat eased in the no-result game against the Aussies, where Thilan Samaraweera, better known for his test batting, produced a very calm and collected innings which set his team up for a total of around 260, which obviously never materialized. Dilshan has been productive, making a couple of 50s and a magnificent hundred to boot. Upul Tharanga has looked good at the top, providing a certain amount of calm to balance the frenetic Dilshan, albeit scoring at a very healthy rate. Once you get the two of them, all you have to deal with is Kumar Sangakkara, aided and abetted by Mahela Jayawardene. Sangakkara has been brilliant so far, finally getting his elusive hundred in the last game. Mahela has been quite quiet after his opening ton, but he’s a big-game player, and expect him to do the job if the scoreboard read 20-2.

Angelo Mathews is already an important player for Sri Lanka, and that will only increase in the years to come. He’s an excellent fielder, and has bowled well in this World Cup. He hasn’t delivered a memorable performance with the bat yet, but he does fulfil the Eoin Morgan role for Sri Lanka. He’ll need to produce a crucial innings if Sri Lanka are to win this World Cup, and where better to begin than tomorrow.

If aspects of their batting are a concern, there is little to trouble Sri Lanka in their attack. They have Lasith Malinga, the toe-crusher extraodinaire. Yes, he can bowl a few “5 wides”, but that’s little consolation when he’s just killed three of your team-mates. They have Muttiah Muralitharan, who’s taken 7 trillion wickets worldwide, and isn’t too generous with the run-rate either. Ajantha Mendis may not be the mystery man he was in the 2009 T20, but he still has enough to bamboozle some of the spin-fearing Englishmen. I personally love watching the oft-unmentioned Nuwan Kulasekara – a couple of years ago he was the number one ranked ODI bowler in the world, and he bowls with an unerring accuracy and consistency that made him truly worthy of that moniker. With Kulaskeara staunching the flow at one end, it makes Malinga and even tougher proposition at the other.

As I said at the top, whoever emerges victorious from this match will fancy their chance against New Zealand, who have made the road to Mumbai a little easier. That said, neither the quarter nor the semi will be a cakewalk, and both these teams will need their whole team to be on form to record a win – neither has India’s luxury of 27 batsmen. I really can’t see England winning – even aside from the poor form, I don’t think that their batsmen have the class to manage Maling in the powerplays and Murali in the middle, and their bowling injuries have left them with an attack which, aside from Graeme Swann, shouldn’t cause too much trouble to the Sri Lankan top 4.

I’m sticking with Sri Lanka to win the tournament outright, and I’m confident they’ll take the next step tomorrow in Colombo.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Act 3

After the disappointment of the Pakistan – West Indies debacle, we were treated to some decent cricket today in the second quarter-final between India and Australia. As expected, India managed to overcome the world champions, with no small thanks due to that man again. Yuvraj Singh continued his excellent form with bat and ball, taking two wickets before playing an important role at the crease after a couple of wickets had fallen. We saw Sachin Tendulkar pass 18,000 ODI runs, but perhaps the story of the match was Ricky Ponting. Coming into the match on no form, the Australian captain showed the world why he has achieved what he has – no one fights like Ponting – when his team needed him he delivered. His 104 might have been in a losing cause, but it should be remembered as one of his best.

India’s win sets up a mouth-watering semi-final against Pakistan, but that’s a story for another day. For now,let’s focus on the next quarter-final.

The third quarter-final was seen by many as the easiest to call. New Zealand, after doing their usual party trick of performing on the big stage, face many’s pre-tournament favourites. South Africa had little trouble in their Group games, barring their frightening collapse against Graeme Swann and Stuart Broad, and even managed to pull off a famous victory against India. Both teams have World Cup history, some of which can’t be spoken of until after the watershed, and you can be sure that both teams will be up for this match. The question is, will that be enough for one of them?

New Zealand are a decent ODI team. No more, no less. They have a couple of very good players, but there are a few who make up the numbers. Add to that the injury list of this tournament and they face a tough proposition tomorrow. Daniel Vettori, who missed their last couple of games with a dodgy knee, has promised to play, and his coolness, as much as his bowling, will be key to his team’s hopes. Whether he’s got the bat or ball in his hands, or is standing in the slips, he adds true class to this current New Zealand set-up. On a track where runs will be difficult to come by, a patient head will be needed, and the presence of Vettori will be a huge relief to the whole camp.

It’s tough to mention Brendon McCullum and patience in the same breath, but it would be a very valuable marriage if he can pull it off. How many times do we see the start of a NZ innings: Dot, SIX, OUT. McCullum has talent and power, but it only translates itself into a meaningful innings all too rarely. If he can keep his head, he has the ability to give his team a stunning start, with Martin Guptill well able to hold down the other end and score at close to a run a ball. With the suddenly in-form Ross Taylor still to come, a good start can lead to a commanding total.

They lack something in the bowling department however. I've always been a big fan of Tim Southee, and it's easy to forget how young he is - I think he's got a hell of a lot more to give, and could be a great bowler in the years to come. At the moment though, he's solid without being devastating, and without a Shane Bond in their line-up NZ look a little one-paced. Daniel Vettori is a great player, and Nathan McCullum has played his part, but I don't think players like Amla, Kallis and de Villiers will find him troubling.

New Zealand certainly deserve to be in the quarters, but they need every single player on top form if they're to take out a real heavyweight.

South Africa appear to have finally found a good balance. I still think that their tail begins a little early, but when you've got Amla, Kallis, AB and Duminy all batting well that's not a massive concern. In Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel they have a wonderful opening attack. Their three spinners have performed well so far, although I'm yet to be convinced about the true worth of Imran Tahir - yes he has taken wickets, but not always at crucial times and with great deliveries. He could be the real deal, but he needs a few more matches where he'll be up against the wall.

Graeme Smith is a worry - he's not scoring runs, and he's eating up deliveries. That said, he seems to be captaining the team extremely well, and in the pressure cooker that is a subcontinental World Cup, that's nearly worth a 50 per game. The team's only demise came against England, where some excellent bowling from England complemented a certain amount of laziness and then panic from the South African lower order. That match was largely cancelled out by their superb chase of India's total in the following game, and they won't let the English game affect their confidence.

I had South Africa backed for a long, long time before this World Cup, and it was only in the couple of weeks before that I switched my pick to Sri Lanka. Despite everything I've seen from them, I'm still not totally convinced by Graeme Smith's side, and we could be heading for a very interesting Sri Lanka - South Africa semi next week.

Tomorrow's game should come down to class, and South Africa eclipse New Zealand in that regard. Enough of their players are in good touch to cause New Zealand serious trouble, and unless half of the New Zealanders play a different game to the one they've played so far, they'll be left behind. Having Vettori back will be a huge boost for the Black Caps, but I can't see them beating what looks like a pretty solid side.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Part 2

What a dreadful first quarter-final. We got to see some great bowling from Pakistan, and about four nice shots from the West Indies. The writing was on the wall when Gayle went in the third over, and by the time Sarwan and Chanderpaul began their painfully slow partnership, the wall was no longer visible. Pakistan cruise through to the semis without breaking a sweat, and tomorrow’s quarter-final will determine their opposition.

The second quarter-final promises much, but can it deliver?

On the one hand are the triple world champions, who made it through their group without much fuss, but totally failing to set the tournament alight.

On the other are the home favourites, a team with as powerful a batting order as any, and yet who have managed to set unremarkable totals following lightning starts.

Australia v. India – the past v. the future? That may be unfair on Australia – whatever they are, they’re scrappers. They won’t give up any game without a fight.

Australia have been unimpressive throughout the World Cup, and yet remain favoured by many to pick up a 4th consecutive crown. They cruised through the dullness of Group A, perhaps being fortunate that the Sri Lanka game got washed out before finally having their 34-game unbeaten record destroyed by Pakistan. Losing the record might not be the worst thing for them going into the knock-outs; it takes a little of the hype out of each game, and allows them to concentrate on the here and now.

Shane Watson, as was expected, has been the stand-out performer with the bat, ably supported by a somewhat circumspect Brad Haddin. Ricky Ponting still looks as though he couldn’t hit a four through an empty outfield, and no one is using up deliveries better than Cameron White. Michael Clarke has once again faced down his critics with a couple of useful, and relatively well-paced, innings, and after that come the rather questionable “all-rounders”, with the exception of the hero that is Michael Hussey.

Brett Lee has spearheaded the bowling superbly – he hasn’t let time diminish his abilities, taking wickets and slowing the run-rate game after game. Mitchell Johnson and Shaun Tait have had their moments, but still look liable to go for plenty around the couple of wickets that they do have in them. Jason Krejza? Enough said. Yes, he had a wonderful test debut, and yes, he’s performed reasonably so far, but he is not a man to lead your spin attack, particularly when there’s no one following behind.

India. India, India, India. What can you say. Not many teams can hit 338 and afford to be disgusted with it as a total. Not many teams can score a couple of hundred runs for fun in 30 overs before seeing how quickly they can lose all their wickets. Then again, not many teams have the power of Sehwag, Dhoni, Yuvraj and Yusuf, alongside the class of Tendulkar, Gambhir, Kohli and Zaheer Khan.

On paper, India are brilliant. Perhaps they are a strike seamer short, with Munaf Patel providing useful but not terrifying back-up to Zaheer. Their spin attack is led by Harbajhan Singh who, although he has not taken many wickets, has dried up the run rate in almost all the games to date.

Yuvraj Singh has arguably been one of the players of the tournament so far, scoring four 50s and taking a handful of wickets as well. SRT has made two hundreds, while Sehwag, Kohli and Gambhir have added useful runs.

So what’s the problem? MS Dhoni accused his team of showboating against South Africa, and not playing for the team. The result? The last 9 wickets falling for 29 and ultimately failing to keep South Africa out with the ball. India don’t seem to know how to finish off a 1st innings – they get to 250 or 260 with oodles of time to go, and then send in Yusuf to hit some 6s. Perhaps the key for India is to bowl first. With a target in sight, and that batting line-up, you wouldn’t bet against them taking down any total. In a game against such a fragile batting order as Australia, this could well be the right move.

Dhoni has tinkered with the batting order, sending in Yuvraj, Yusuf, and himself in at 3, 4, 5 – wherever. I LOVE when a captain is prepared to shift players depending on the situation, but Dhoni’s getting it wrong. When wickets have fallen with 15 overs to go, he’s opted for Yusuf over Virat Kohli. Yusuf wouldn’t know what to do with 15 overs. Kohli is a classy batsman, who doesn’t score slowly – send him in for ten overs, and then by all means bring in the power player. Dhoni has wasted Kohli throughout this tournament, and I can only hope that another good knock against the Windies has shown the Indian captain his young charge’s true worth.

The verdict?

India. Not because they’ve been convincing so far – they haven’t. But neither have Australia. India have all the players there; they just have to use them. Australia don’t. Maybe Ponting will find some form in the knock-outs, but I doubt it. He’s looking an old man at the crease now, and however much he says he won’t retire, the choice might not be his for too much longer. Smith and Krejza don’t have the nous to disturb some of the best players of spin in the world, and speaking of which, Australia can’t play spin. Clarke might make a few, but it will be amidst falling teammates.

To have any chance, Australia need all three fast men to be on fire, something we’ve never seen.

Get ready for fireworks in the semis – India v. Pakistan coming up.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Down to Business

A month on, and the World Cup is getting tense. No team has come through unscathed, but whatever happened before no longer matters. One team is three wins away from glory. Let's have a look at what they all face now.

The first quarter-final sees the two teams who do unpredictable best. We’ve seen Pakistan struggle to make it through the group stages in T20 World Cups, and then blaze through to the final and victory. West Indies can slump against any team in the world, or Chris Gayle can knock Brett Lee into next week. Their roads to the quarter-finals have been different – West Indies have failed to convince so far, managing to despatch the lesser teams of Group A, and failing to capitalize on a winning position against England, while Pakistan have played some excellent cricket, only coming unstuck against a ferocious Ross Taylor, and recording wins over Australia and Sri Lanka.

I didn’t think the Windies would make it this far, and now that they’re here, I’m going to send them out again. Yes, they can be inspired – a good start from Gayle can floor any opposition, and Kieron Pollard is as brutal as any with 5 overs to go. But if these men misfire – Gayle does frequently, and Pollard almost always – there’s not a lot to rely upon. Chanderpaul and Sarwan are looking tired and out of ideas, and young Darren Bravo, however much he might remind one of Brian Lara, hasn’t performed consistently after a solid opening knock.

Their bowlers are the real problem. Yes, Kemar Roach has had a great tournament, including a hat-trick, and Ravi Rampaul did well to take 5-for against India, but they look short of variety. Sulieman Benn has been found out by several teams, and if the pacemen get off to a poor start it’s a severe knock to the confidence. Darren Sammy has played a good captain’s role, taking wickets at crucial times, but he will need all his bowlers firing, even against the wobbly batting of Pakistan.

What of Pakistan? Once again, they’ve showed that they can pull out big performances when it matters. Victories over Australia and Sri Lanka, the finalists of 2007, in the group stage proved this once again. Although their batting has been questionable, with their top 3 failing, someone has always been ready to take up the mantle and play a guiding innings. Asad Shafiq, Misbah ul-Haq and, perhaps most crucially, talented young Umar Akmal have all provided important innings where required.

Pakistan’s bowling attack has of course been stripped of a couple of major players, for reasons known to the world and its mother, but they have continued to light up the limited overs game with their displays so far. Umar Gul and Shahid Afridi, heroes of ODI and T20 cricket for Pakistan, have continued their dominance, taking 30 wickets between them so far, and drying up the runs at the same time. It appears that Shoaib Akhtar might not play again, but despite some erratic bowling, he remains a trump card that can carve through a top order at any moment. Wahab Riaz was unimpressive against India, but he and Abdul Razzaq provide a solid back-up to Gul in the pace attack. Afridi has been the spinning star so far, but Abdur Rehman and Mohammed Hafeez have played important supporting roles, with Saeed Ajmal a very dangerous man waiting in the wings.

So what’s the verdict? As I said at the beginning, predicting a match between these two is nigh on impossible. Having said that, however, I’m going to stick with my pre-tournament prediction of Pakistan to make the semis. While both teams can implode, the West Indies are more reliant on certain players – if Gayle and Bravo don’t fire, I’m not convinced that the middle order can rebuild the innings, leaving Pollard most likely to last only a couple of massive swings before giving his wicket away. Pakistan, on the other hand, seem to be taking 15-2 as the natural starting point for an innings, and so the innings that Mohammed Hafeez will produce at some point will merely be a pleasant surprise.

The Pakistani bowlers have the ability to defend almost anything, while the Windies…don’t. I’d take Razzaq as a finisher in ODIs ahead of Pollard too.

If India knock out Australia in their semi-final, the winner of this will find it very difficult to progress to the final. India’s recent batting collapses notwithstanding, Pakistan might come up against a team their bowlers can’t scythe through. Bear in mind that those collapses left them with 265 and 296 – not tiny totals. Australia are certainly there for the taking, but I’d expect India to oblige before anyone else gets the chance. More on that tomorrow.

We’ve seen Pakistan do the unthinkable in the T20 World Cups – they’re a team for the big occasions. They have a least one more win in them this time round, and I think they’ll see off Darren Sammy’s men. Whatever the result though, the first quarter-final promises to be full of interest – I won’t promise any big runs or classy innings, but it won’t lack passion.

Friday, February 18, 2011

World Cup: Team By Team

India - Where better to start than with the hosts and favourites? They've got an endless batting line-up. Actually, it might end with Yusuf Pathan, because there are often no survivors. In Zaheer Khan, they have a man who's led lower bowlers to triumph before, and Munaf Patel and Sreesanth could well be those bowlers. Harbhajan Singh is world class. They have part-time spinners all over the park. A good captain in MS Dhoni. Virat Kohli is fast becoming my favourite player to watch. They've got it all. And's too much of a fairytale.

Prediction - Who would not love to see a Sri Lanka - India final? I think they will make the final, but I'll only give them a runners-up spot.

South Africa - The bottlers supreme. Their batting line-up looked shy and their tail pretty long against India, but Jacques Kallis back should make a difference in balance. With Hashim Amla at the top, you can nearly give them a 50-run lead. Will Johan Botha do the business with JP Duminy alongside him? They have a team of fantastic players - De Villiers can kill off a game when required, and Dale Steyn is the best bowler in the world. For a long time I've said they'll win this, but they really need every man in the team to perform, and I'm not sure that'll happen 3 games running.

Prediction - Semi-finals, maybe runners up.

Australia - They've won the last 3 - that's a good start. On the other hand, Warne, McGrath, Hayden, Langer, Hussey....etc aren't here. Ponting's hit a couple of 50s in the warm-up, and they beat a poor England 6-1, but I don't know. They've drawn the easier group - Canada instead of Ireland, New Zealand and Pakistan instead of South Africa and England, but I still think they'll have it tough. They should still make it through without too many problems, and from there on in it's a shootout. I don't think they have the bowlers - Lee did it for them Down Under - India's a different kettle of fish. Jason Krejza, well, good luck.

Prediction - Quarter-final exit.

New Zealand – They have a history of performing well in the big tournaments, and while they should make it to the quarters, they don’t have a the class to compete. Brendon McCullum’s IPL pedigree will serve them well, and in Ross Taylor and Martin Guptill they have two very fine batsmen, but I can’t see them troubling the big teams. They’re too close to a batting collapse, even with the experience of Scott Styris and Jacob Oram in as props. Daniel Vettori is a world-class spinner, but he can’t do it all on his own, and there are a couple of untested young men in the attack who could be taken to the cleaners.

Prediction: Quarter-final exit, but watch Martin Guptill make some runs first – he’s one for the future.

Sri Lanka - Here we go. Tilikaratne Dilshan and Upul Tharanga to open. Sangakkara at 3. Mahela at 4. Samarweera at 5 before maybe Matthews at 6. That all adds up to a million runs - who's going to defend them? Only a man with 590-odd ODI wickets and the most terrifying paceman you can see coming at you. How can Lasith Malinga work? No one really knows - he shouldn't be hitting line and length but he does. 4 wickets in 4 balls 4 years ago - I smell a hat-trick again. This is a truly class team. They showed great composure chasing the West Indies' total of 280 in the warm-up, after bowling well to keep them to that number. Sangakkara is a canny captain with a great team behind him.

Prediction - Blasted away from victory last year by Adam Gilchrist, I see them going one better here. 15 years on from their last triumph, the last team to win it before Australia are set to do it again. Champions.

Pakistan – It’s foolish to write them off – they can win anything from a standing start. They actually have some ok form coming into this, and plenty of players have put their hands up. Ahmed Shehzad and Mohammed Hafeez are an exciting opening pair, and Hafeez has shown himself to be a very useful second spinner behind Saeed Ajmal. Shoaib Akhtar is bowling well, as is Wahab Riaz, and Umar Gul could get into any ODI side he wanted. Misbah-ul-Haq has faced down his critics by producing some lovely ODI innings recently, including a run-a-ball century against Bangladesh in the warm-ups. If he can hold down one end and allow Afridi and Razzaq to tee off from the other side there could be some big scores. The big question marks are over the Akmal brothers – Umar Akmal’s stunning start to his career has ground to a halt – he needs to build a couple of innings to get his confidence back – and Kamran needs some runs now he’s taken the gloves back from the third brother, Adnan.

Prediction: Realistically need a top-two finish in the group to avoid India and South Africa in the quarters, but I think they’ll manage that ahead of Australia. Semi-finalists, and from there, who knows?

England - I'm sure I'll get flak for this, but they're not a great ODI side. People brushed aside the 6-1 to Australia, and fair enough, but the focus was on the absentee bowlers. The problem was the misfiring batsmen. KP must perform, as must Strauss. Trott must speed up. Prior must get runs. The opening partnership has changed again, with KP promoted. Will it work better than the last 20? Who knows? Without Eoin Morgan, the team lacks the innovation required to win this tournament. Collingwood, Bopara and Yardy aren't going to finish a game like the Irishman. England need more planning for this, starting with bringing Alistair Cook into the ODI game. Do they not watch him for Essex?

Prediction - Quarter-final Exit.

Bangladesh – A lot has been made of this team, and not without cause. Shakib al-Hasan has prove himself to be able to manage the captaincy alongside being a key with both bat and ball. Tamim Iqbal is one of the best openers in ODI cricket. Mahmudullah, Mushfiqur Rahim Juanid SIddique and more runs to a solid batting line-up, and with several solid spinners in the team they can cause trouble to any batting line-up. They’re most often criticized for a lack of a good pace attack – this should be less important in the subcontinent, although Rubel Hossain showed some good form against Pakistan in the warm-up.

Prediction – Expect some upsets from this still very young team. I have a sneaky feeling that they’ll qualify from the group stages, but that could leave them facing Sri Lanka in the quarters, which is where, for me, they bow out.

West Indies – Where to start? What a frustrating team. Chris Gayle, Shiv Chanderpaul, Dwayne Bravo, Kieron Pollard, Darren Sammy. That’s a team that should produce fireworks every time it goes out. Unfortunately, 50% of the time it’s a damp squib. They are undoubtedly going to have some big performances, led by the big man himself, but that’s the problem. Get Chris Gayle out early, and you should win. Against Sri Lanka in the warm-up, Gayle fell after a quick 50 and the run rate plummeted. Pollard’s job is to provide a flurry at the end, but that’s not such an easy task if the score’s 100 for 5. The bowlers are interesting – Sammy and Kemar Roach are a pair I’d like to see open, but I just don’t think that Nikita Millar and Sulieman Benn are penetrative enough in India. To be fair to him, Benn took 3 and only gave 4 an over to Sri Lanka, but he doesn’t have the consistency.

Prediction – I think they’ll beat England in the group stage, but still fail to qualify. If Gayle can be knocked over early, Bangladesh and Ireland have a great chance of taking the Caribbean scalp.

Ireland – Expect this preview to be heaped full of bias. Ireland are a very good team. They played a couple of very solid warm-up games, including a victory over Zimbabwe without using captain William Porterfield and Sussex opener Ed Joyce, arguably their two best batsmen. Kevin O’Brien showed great maturity alongside old hand Andre Botha in rebuilding after early wickets. Historically, the batting has been our problem – suddenly there are quite a few men with form. With Joyce at 3, we then have to choose from Botha, the O’Brien boys, Gary Wilson, Andrew White, Alex Cusack and John Mooney for our next four. Boyd Rankin and the ever-reliable Trent Johnston are a solid opening pair, and young George Dockrell has bowled tidily if not brilliantly so far. The main problem against Zimbabwe was conceding a huge number of runs off the last 10 overs – our death bowling has never been strong, and that’s where Trent needs a good partner once the Batting Powerplay is taken.

Prediction – Getting out of the group is a huge task – I expect a thumping from South Africa and India, but every other team is beatable. I would expect them to win maybe two games, but to get all the results to get through in such a short space might just prove too much. But I’m not going to type a nailed-on prediction…..

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas Special

No cricket fan worth his salt wants to miss the St. Stephen's Day (yes) test at the MCG. Over the past couple of years, it might not have had the same fizz about it, given the circumstances of the series involved. This year, it cannot but entertain.

The series stands at 1-1, but even the most optimistic Aussies will know that they've only won four or five sessions in the first three tests. The English team still looks a more settled balanced unit. On the other hand, we've seen England self-destruct before, albeit more rarely these days.
So what do we have in store from 11pm tonight?

Ricky Ponting is good to play - whether a few Aussies will be wondering if this is a yea or nay is another matter. When you come down to it, no one really wants to see Michael Clarke captaining the team at this stage of an Ashes - except maybe Strauss and Flower. It's impossible to believe that Ponting won't have a good knock at some point in the series - the MCG faithful just have to hope that they can inspire that innings.
Mike Hussey has kept Australia in the series so far - with 517 runs, he looks in the form of his life. We always knew he loved a pressure situation (T20 semi-final 2010, the Oval - Ashes 2009), but without him we'd be staring an English whitewash in the face. Brad Haddin has given him decent support at number 7, and Watson has chipped in with a few useful runs, but Ponting and Clarke need a hundred between them in the 1st innings. Haddin really has to move ahead of Smith - he showed at Brisbane that he's not a pounder who comes in late - his century there was one of the most mature and calculated innings I've ever witnessed.

No one knows whether Mitchell Johnson will show up again, but for the sake of a spectacle, I hope he does. It was incredible to see him back, firing on all cylinders, and he's given the Aussies some chirpiness again. Before we forget though, he tore England apart at Headingley in 2009, before relapsing into torpor at the Oval.

The big question is over the spinner. My two cents - you CANNOT play Michael Beer. This guy, aside from having taken 7 first class wickets in his career, had never met half the team before last week. There'll be clamourings about the Oval in 2009, but that is a different matter. They left out a capped and, to a certain extent, proven spinner in Hauritz - Michael Beer? He's Xavier Doherty Mark II. Smith and Clarke may not be Warnes, but they'll give them something, and with Hilfenhaus keeping it tight at one end they should be able to build some pressure.

The English media have been trying to create a story over the pitch preparation, calling it a conspiracy. What? Since when has it not been OK for the hosts to prepare the tracks that suit them best. The dust bowl that was the Oval last time round suited Swann down to the ground - it's only natural that Cameron Hodgkins should prepare a pitch to follow the Perth success. It's not going to be as bouncy, but hopefully he can make it spicy enough to give the seamers something to think about.

As for England, they shouldn't be too worried. They know that they're still on top - aside from anything else, they still only need one more win to retain the urn. It looks like Finn might drop out - I think you have to bring in Shahzad - he's a bit of a liability as regards control, but so was Finn. He'll give you the potential of some reverse swing, and bowl some wicket deliveries. Bresnan is a solid bowler, and will give you control at one end, but England have to be aggressive, and Bresnan simply isn't the aggressive play.
It looks as though Paul Collingwood will retain his spot at number 5 - Eoin Morgan might feel aggrieved, but Colly will hang on because of his fielding and his usefulness as a 5th bowler. Despite not being given the ball all that much so far, they have him in reserve, and his lack of runs won't cost him his place before the end of the series.

Well, I just can't wait. There is no better Christmas Day than that which culminates in an Ashes test at the MCG, particularly in a series as nicely poised as this.

Happy Christmas