Tag Archives: Alastair Cook

Complaining about selection is one of the joys of being a cricket fan

by Sam Blackledge

 

After England’s defeat to Bangladesh at Dhaka, fans were quick to voice their dismay at the balance of the team.

Some might say we should give the selectors a break. They’re trying their best to cope with a ridiculous international schedule, and they are a darn sight more qualified than the rest of us.

It’s the easiest thing in the world to sit on our sofas moaning that the likes of Ansari, Ballance and Rashid are not cut out for Test cricket, as if we have been anywhere near that level ourselves.

But then again, complaining about selection policy is one of the great joys of being a cricket fan.

Perhaps it’s a peculiarly English thing, like queuing, talking about the weather, or existential self-loathing. Or maybe cricket fans worldwide think they could do a better job with a scrap of paper and numbers 1 to 11 left blank.

It’s why the fantasy football industry is still thriving, and it’s a major reason why we all still love sport. The feeling that if only those in charge would ask us, we could sort it out.

 

The comedian Dylan Moran put it best.

He said: “Look at the people who give it everything. The Beckhams or Roy Keanes of this world. Running up and down the field, swearing and shouting at each other.

“Are they happy? No! They’re destroying themselves. Who’s happy? You. The fat f**ks watching them, with a beer can balanced on your ninth belly, roaring advice at the best athletes in the world.”

Social media, of course, has made all of this so much more visible.

When 43-year-old John Emburey was recalled to the England Test team in 1995, I have a vivid memory of seeing the news on Teletext, turning to my dad and simply saying: “Emburey?”

If that happened now, I probably wouldn’t even turn around. I would reach for my phone and spew my thoughts straight on to Twitter, and they would immediately be buried under the thousands of others doing the exact same thing.

The selectorial merry-go-round is sure to be in full flow as England kick off against India on Wednesday.

Nobody seems to know whether we stand a chance against the might of Kohli, Ashwin and the rest.

But one thing is for sure: if we couldn’t complain, we wouldn’t be half as interested.

This piece first appeared at Last Word On Cricket

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Beaten at the bottom, tough at the top

The Men-Looe third team was finally put out of its misery this week, doomed to relegation having conceded defeat for the third time due to shortage of players. The long-term future of the side is uncertain, and it seems it may well dissolve altogether at the end of the season, which would be a great shame. The last couple of years have been a real struggle results-wise, but the opportunity for those of us at the lower end of the ladder to learn by playing regular league cricket is invaluable. No doubt there will be plenty of friendly matches to get stuck into, but when there’s nothing at stake it doesn’t matter quite as much.

My third XI colleagues and I wrote the book on shambolic defeats, but at least our livelihoods don’t depend on success. It’s hard to imagine what Alastair Cook and his troops are going through at the moment; they might be feeling what many of us have felt at some point in our personal or professional lives.

I’m a writer. Last year in my day job I was sort of promoted to a management position which involved much less writing and much more editing other people’s writing. I didn’t enjoy it and I wasn’t very good at it, but it took me the best part of nine months to realise something had to change.

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I don’t have many things in common with Alastair Cook. We are the same age – he is exactly two weeks older – but at the time of writing he has 8,162 more Test match runs than me and a whole lot more talent. We do share one characteristic though – we are both stubborn, determined individuals and if we are given a job to do we like to see it through. It wasn’t easy to admit that I was in over my head in my new role, that I felt uncomfortable and needed to return to what I’m good at. But it was definitely the right thing to do.

The ever-insightful and thoughtful Alex Bowden, over at King Cricket, describes a similar experience of his own. He explores the reasons Cook was chosen for the captaincy, concluding that actually being a good captain may not have been top of the list. “What captainly qualities has he ever actually displayed?” he writes. “Non really, beyond being a bit older than most of the team and having some sort of inclination to do the job.”

Of course, most of what is being written about Cook is speculation and conjecture. Nobody apart from the man himself knows what’s going on inside his head, how much the leadership is affecting his batting or how close he will come to resigning if results do not improve.

Maintaining the status quo is often the simplest and easiest thing to do; it takes bottle and bravery to make a difficult decision, especially when it involves walking away from a challenge. If England lose the third Test in Southampton and Cook fails with the bat again, the pressure on his position will only increase. If he feels he cannot continue in the job, I hope he has the strength and courage to admit it. If the selectors feel he is not the man to turn things around, they should be strong enough to make the decision for him.

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A perfect match

Most relationships can be mapped out in significant moments. First date, first kiss, first argument, first time you split the cost of a bus ticket.

We have all of that, and more. But we also have cricket.

We met that glorious summer when Vaughan and Flintoff’s fearless England banished the ghosts of 18 years.

Those were the days. Nervous energy, crazy haircuts, prima donnas taking on the world – plus a constant supply of beers, a never-ending binge.

And that was just the drama students we were prancing around with at the Edinburgh Fringe.

She knew nothing about cricket at first. We went to the pub where I ran through the rules, perched on too high stools, battling the background noise and football fools.

We spent all night in that dirty old joint. She didn’t understand why it was called silly point.

As the famous Edgbaston Test reached its thrilling finale, I was involved in a different kind of theatre. I had let hope go, switched off my radio and headed in as the Aussie tail-enders edged them closer to the win.

For Old Trafford, we were nestled in a corner booth in one of those awful sports bars, all neon lights, stodgy burgers and mounted fake guitars.

We craned our necks up at the plasma TVs as an exhausted Steve Harmison fell to his knees. He couldn’t break through the defensive wall, and it remained one all.

We took the lead on a Cornish clifftop, not far from where, eight years on, we would eventually settle. If not yet with 2.4 children, then certainly with Sky Sports HD and a broken kettle.

This time she waited for Brisbane as I paced the house, listening to Hussain, Gower and Strauss on what could be, what might have been. She endured the sleep-deprived mood swings, made soothing noises, as Clarke won the tosses and Johnson destroyed us.

The last time England surrendered the Ashes, we lived up north. The Humber rolled by and we struggled to find who we wanted to be. Now we run down to a different kind of sea; a different kind of her, and a different kind of me.

We tie each other in knots debating edges and hot-spots. What next for Flower? What now for Swann? And Jimmy, and Matty, and so on, and so on. And one other problem – where do I begin? “Honey, I’m home! We need to talk about Kevin…”

Such talent, such grace, such a fragile, bashful mess. He could have been the greatest, still could yet. When he first showed up, I loved his cheeky grin. But age has built up barriers to keep the baddies out; and creases in his face, to keep his ego in.

Over breakfast we question what the future holds. Pass the jam, mind the cutlery. Stokes or Woakes? Chopra, Ballance? Finny, Rooty, Buttler-y?

We hope to see the day when one of our own strolls through the Long Room, greeted by a roar. “Make way”, they’ll say, “and hold the door. The incoming batsman – the latest of the Blackledge clan at number four.”

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Warwickshire fans launch name change campaign

by Sam Blackledge

FANS of Warwickshire County Cricket Club have launched an online campaign and threatened to boycott matches following the decision to re-name the team for next year’s domestic Twenty20 competition.

Yesterday chief executive Colin Povey revealed that the club will drop their county name for the NatWest T20 Blast tournament, and will be known instead as the Birmingham Bears.

But within hours of the announcement, an online petition had been set up by fans claiming Edgbaston bosses have “sold out”.

The campaign was started by 32-year-old catering manager Adam Veysey from Shrewsbury, who says he is “deeply offended and disgusted” by the decision.

He said: “As members we were not consulted in any way on the name change of our cricket club. I come from outside of Birmingham to watch my county cricket club play, outside of Warwickshire in fact, and I don’t feel it’s right that I and other members outside of Birmingham should pay to watch their team play under a different name. I also have friends and fellow members that live in Birmingham and they feel exactly the same.

“As a club they should be contacting fans’ organizations and members about changes such as these. In general myself and fellow members feel that our county cricket club has sold out, and I’m doing this so other counties don’t go the same way, and hopefully we can get this changed.

“Warwickshire have try to justify that they think it will bring in a younger crowd, but how? I take my five-year-old son, who lets face it is the future of cricket and he should be able to watch the history of our great county at Edgbaston and become the future of county cricket.

“If I wanted to support a city or town club I have many closer venues I could choose from, but I don’t. Warwickshire is my county and long may it continue.”

By 9am today the petition had attracted more than 200 signatures, with 168 people joining a group on Facebook.

A statement on the page says: “This is our club, and I for one will not be attending any game (or) purchasing any merchandise that has the Birmingham Bears on or in it.”

Defending the decision, Colin Povey said: “Birmingham and Edgbaston has been the club’s home since 1886 and we believe that adopting the Birmingham Bears name for the NatWest t20 Blast presents a great opportunity for us to engage even more closely with fans living and working at the heart of the city.

“Asian families, business men and women working in the city’s commercial districts and local cricket clubs are three particular audiences the club is seeking to work with more next season.

“However, despite our T20 name change, we will continue to maintain the proud history of the club and play under the Warwickshire banner in the other two more traditional formats.”

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The Ashes: Karma, pride and the pantomime press

England were completely outplayed in the first Test at the Gabba, and deserved their heavy defeat. But this is a long series, and Alastair Cook’s side have a history of bouncing back. They will need to draw on that over the coming weeks.

On the pitch, the match was won by the Aussie bowlers. Mitchell Johnson was quick and hostile, Harris and Siddle were steady and accurate and Nathan Lyon exploited a bouncy Brisbane pitch and scrambled English minds.

Away from the action, the traditional hostilities between these two old foes have resumed with a bang. Stirred up by Darren Lehmann’s radio rant, the Aussie media – in particular Brisbane’s Courier Mail – went for Stuart Broad. They refused to name Broad, referring to him simply as “a 27-year-old English medium pace bowler”. The paper attracted some fierce criticism for this approach, particularly from rent-a-quote Shane Warne, who described it as “ridiculous” and “childish”. This from the man who named Ian Bell after a character in American Pie and asked Paul Collingwood if his MBE stood for “Must Be Embarrassing”. The legendary leggie seems to be suffering a sense of humour failure in his old age.

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I would argue the Courier Mail’s “campaign” was a bit of fun, and actually turned out to be a marketing masterstroke. Editors spend hours scratching their heads over how to entertain and engage their readers, while increasing the reach and circulation of their paper. Very few campaigns in regional media are unique, and most “off-diary” stories are simply recycled ideas. After his eye-catching front pages had been seen around the world, the Courier Mail’s editor, Christopher Dore, issued a po-faced “defence” of his editorial stance. He described Broad as a “wickedly good cricketer,” saying his “dastardly deception” had cost the Aussies the previous series. You can almost picture Mr Dore rubbing his hands together and sniggering behind his desk. The whole thing could not be more of a pantomime if Christopher Biggins had popped up at silly mid off.

Perhaps more relevant to the rest of the series were David Warner’s comments on the third evening of the first Test.  “England are on the back foot,” he said. “It does look like they’ve got scared eyes at the moment. The way that Trotty got out today was pretty poor and weak.” Trott’s dismissals in both innings were disappointing, bounced out in inevitable fashion by a rampaging Johnson. It’s a technical problem, highlighted by some excellent bowling. Poor? Definitely. But scared, and weak? As the words came out of his moustachioed mouth, Cricket Australia’s press officer visibly cringed, perhaps recalling Warner’s history. Punching an opponent in a bar. Ranting at journalists on Twitter. Skipping a match he was due to play in to spend a day at the races.

Warner had his day in the sun at the Gabba, backing up his words with a belligerent century. I’m all for players breaking the trend for bland, media managed press conferences. But perhaps he should concentrate on his own game, and leave the “poor” “weak” English to concentrate on theirs. As that great sage Andrew Flintoff once observed, “This game has got a funny way of biting you up the arse.”

As England’s top order came crashing down on Friday afternoon, TV producers raced into the archives to sift through the folder marked “collapses we have known”. After Mike Atherton’s side were skittled for 46 by Ambrose and Walsh at Trinidad in 1994, the selectors kept faith with the same batting line-up for the next Test, the theory being “you got us into this mess, now get us out of it.” Alec Stewart scored two centuries, Angus Fraser took eight wickets and England won. Almost 20 years on, Alastair Cook finds himself in a similarly tricky spot. For the last three Ashes series England have largely had things their own way. Now their backs are against the wall and they must show what they are made of.

An afterthought: Towards the end of the match a stump microphone caught Michael Clarke telling James Anderson to “get ready for a broken fucking arm”. This comment is being reported in isolation and blown up by English newspapers. My view is that all sorts of things get said on the field in the heat of battle, and the players on both sides give as good as they get. No big deal.

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The Ashes: A winning habit

THEY say familiarity breeds contempt. Too much time spent in the same company – whether it’s chattering work colleagues, bickering family members or the same old strangers on the bus every morning – will eventually drive you mad. But in recent years the England cricket team appears to have discovered that the team that tours together wins together.

As the Ashes hoopla kicks into gear again, less than three months after the last series ended under the Kennington floodlights, this seems like a good time to reflect on how far England have come in the last 20-odd years.

In November 1990, Graham Gooch’s side arrived in Brisbane hoping to recapture the little urn. Gooch was injured and sat out the first Test, forced to watch as his side were bowled out for 194 and 114, losing by ten wickets inside three days. They lost the series 3-0.

Four years later they were back, with just two surviving members from that hammering  – Michael Atherton, now captain, and Alec Stewart. England lost the Test, and the series 3-1.

In 1998, Atherton and Stewart swapped captaincy duties and returned for a third shot at glory on the old enemy’s turf. This time they brought along two more battle-weary warriors from the previous tour, Graham Thorpe and Darren Gough. England escaped with a draw thanks to an almighty thunderstorm on the final day, but surrendered the series 3-0.

Stewart, who by this time must have claimed himself a regular window seat on the flight down under, took his final Ashes bow on the 2002 tour, with only Mark Butcher and captain Nasser Hussain remaining from the ’98 team. Hussain famously won the toss on the first morning at Brisbane and chose to bowl, firing the starting pistol for a 4-1 defeat.

In 2005, of course, everything changed. Michael Vaughan and Andrew Flintoff discovered that winning was actually quite fun when you got used to it, especially when you could legitimately hit Ricky Ponting in the face.

Amid the champagne-soaked euphoria following that now legendary series, nobody seemed to much care about the future. So along came Brisbane…and the old curse struck again. From the team that started the 2002 series, only Ashley Giles and Matthew Hoggard remained in 2006. They watched Steve Harmison bowl the first ball to second slip, but neither of them would still be there at Sydney to witness the fifth nail in the whitewashed coffin.

These days, with England bidding for a fourth consecutive Ashes victory, it’s easier to list the players who have not survived the period between Australian tours. Cook, Bell, Pietersen and Anderson are on their third trip in a row. Of the XI that ground the Aussies into the dirt at the Gabba in 2010, only the retired Strauss and Collingwood are missing from this year’s touring party.

England have slowly but surely turned themselves into a cricketing family, a dynasty whereby as one player retires, another comes in to fill his spot – just as Steve Waugh’s Aussies used to do, in fact. It hasn’t all been plain sailing – they have yet to settle on a permanent replacement for Strauss at the top of the order and they don’t seem to know who should bat at number six – but it’s a world away from the touring merry-go-round of the 1990s.

Central contracts, better fitness regimes and an all-round professionalism have all contributed to England’s rise over the last few years. But one of the most important factors, often overlooked by fans and commentators looking for a quick fix, is consistency of selection.

There is talk that this England side – which will surely be judged in hindsight as being a golden generation  – is growing old. But don’t be surprised if the trend continues and most of them are back in Brisbane in four years’ time to compete for the urn yet again.

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The Ashes: A future without Flower

IN his autobiography, Playing With Fire, Nasser Hussain said his greatest fear for English cricket was what would happen when Duncan Fletcher moved on.  It is now more than six years since “the man behind the shades” parted company with the ECB, and many will find themselves experiencing a similar anxiety over the void that could be left by England’s latest enigmatic Zimbabwean coach.

Andy Flower took on the role in 2009, following the Peter Moores debacle, and was powerless to prevent England’s immediate capitulation in Jamaica, a result of frazzled minds and a lack of leadership. Since then Flower has overseen three consecutive Ashes victories and home and away series wins over India, either side of England’s rise to number one Test team in the world.

Like his predecessor, Flower has developed an inscrutable persona that gives nothing away and a protective shield around his close-knit group. As the press pack grows ever hungrier for a story away from the action, the vicious circle is squared. But Flower’s rare, brief and considered interviews often say more than endless hours of Sky Sports waffle and tabloid speculation ever could.

When the TV cameras caught up with him in the Oval darkness at the end of the fifth Test, as his players and their respective offspring cavorted and gurned their way across the outfield, Flower was his usual calm self. Paying tribute to his players and particularly his captain, he threaded some well-timed remarks neatly through the gloom up to the glowing media centre.

“There’s more to leadership than funky field placings and stuff like that,” he said. “I think Cook’s strong leadership was a key. The players need to trust and respect their leader. He is a man they all look up to and he has a certain conviction and inner strength that will serve English cricket well.”

Flower could just as easily have been eulogising himself. If Fletcher brought England out of themselves and taught them how to enjoy winning, with all the pedalos and open-topped buses that followed, Flower has moulded them into a mature, professional outfit with that “conviction and inner strength” that he showed himself so often as a player.

But how long will it last? Having relinquished control of the one-day side last year, reports are now suggesting Flower will quit for good after the Australian tour. When pressed on the issue during the Oval celebrations, he said simply: “We’ve got to enjoy the moment and not look too far ahead.” It was the diplomat’s response, the equivalent of the embattled MP’s “We’re doing all we can.”

It was not so long ago that English cricket fans, and moreover their representatives in broadcast and print, were simply happy to see their side winning. At the turn of the century, a 3-0 Ashes win would have been scarcely believable. On Monday several back pages chose to dwell on the bad light and inflexible umpiring that denied what would have been a hugely flattering 4-0 scoreline. The fact is, England are good, approaching very good, and have been so for quite some time now. Expectation levels have risen. Performance must follow suit.

If Flower does decide to hang up his laptop in a few months’ time, ideally toasting his departure with a fourth consecutive Ashes urn, he should be thanked and congratulated for all he has done. The ECB, now shorn of outgoing managing director Hugh Morris, will doubtless already be considering his likely successor.

Ashley Giles could take the logical step from one-day coach to full honours, but may be too inexperienced and lacking the toughness and spark required. Graham Gooch might stray the other way – a popular and familiar figure but could he innovate and bring a new approach?

From there the list of names roll off an increasingly familiar merry-go-round. Whatmore, Arthur, Buchanan, Kirsten – perhaps even a return for Fletcher himself. Whoever is chosen, if and when Flower steps aside, will have a tough act to follow. To call it a poisoned chalice would be misleading – the England coach would do well to drink from such a vessel as he ducks, dodges and dives to avoid the venomous darts coming at him from all angles. If one of them hits its target, he could always call for a review. But that’s another story.

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The Ashes: Media management and biting the hand that feeds you

WHEN Joe Root takes a wicket, he wheels around like a giddy schoolboy who has just scored the winning goal in a playground recreation of the FA Cup final. When Ian Bell reaches a century he removes his helmet and leaps into the air, throwing a wild punch in a violent release of nervous energy. There is such a lot at stake for these players and their teammates, who have dedicated their entire lives to succeeding at the highest level. It’s no wonder they get a bit excited.

Yet when they come off the field and line up to fulfil their ever-growing list of media requirements – TV, radio, print, even a soundbite for the ECB’s YouTube channel – they sound like they’re rehearsing for their village am dram performance of the dullest show on earth.
The old cliches roll off the tongue in defeat – ‘Take the positives’, ‘Move on’, ‘Keep working hard’ and the much-hated ‘We’re a young side and we’ll learn from this’. Nobody expects a defeated captain to call his team an absolute shower or break down in tears a la Kim Hughes. But you would hope for a bit more when basking in the glory of another thumping victory.

Root’s interview demeanour could not be more at odds with his on-field antics. Chirpy and hyper one side of the whitewash, he seems to stare off into space when confronted with a microphone, delivering the same old rehearsed lines. His breathtaking debut Ashes century, converted into a matchwinning 180, was “nice”. It was “good to contribute” to the win. He paused slightly when asked about how the team would enjoy the victory, at which point a speeded-up montage of pedalos, dentist’s chairs and dwarf-throwing parties may have scrolled across his vision. But showing the maker’s name, he straight-batted the spitting cobra down the track. “I’m sure we will enjoy it.”
Root’s doe-eyed innocence is endearing, and he will have to grow more comfortable in the limelight if, as many are predicting, he is to occupy the top of the order for many years to come. He may even be next in line as captain. But let’s hope he has a bit more charisma than his current boss.
Alastair Cook is clearly a very driven, determined cricketer. His powers of concentration are remarkable, and he has already shown a quiet authority and ruthless streak as skipper. But like Root, his post-match briefings leave a lot to be desired. He ends every monotone sentence with pursed lips and a cocked head, as if to say “Next question, let’s get this over with”.

If all this is seen as a criticism of the players, it is not meant that way. They are professional sportsmen, paid to do a job on the field and doing it pretty well right now. They are not necessarily natural speakers. But over the last 20 years or so, since the advent of Sky TV and the growth of media power in sport, the public want to hear what their heroes have to say. And left to their own devices, they are liable to say something that might get them, or their colleagues, in trouble. Ian Botham was rarely off the back pages in the 1980s as he boasted of his sex, drugs and rock and roll lifestyle. The late Tony Greig is probably best remembered for threatening to make the West Indies “grovel” before his England side succumbed to a 5-0 drubbing. And more recently Kevin “It’s not easy being me” Pietersen became a high-profile liability who threatened to destabilise the entire English setup.

The ECB has become much more professional since the turn of the century, and this approach – along with consistency of selection and central contracts – has transformed the national side. But like all good risk managers, they take a cautious approach towards anything that can be seen as a potential banana skin.

Players at the highest level these days are media trained to within an inch of their lives. They are coached in what to say and how to say it, how to deal with journalists and how to survive in the public eye. This often means that all their character, passion and personality is left at the crease, and we end up watching and listening to a bunch of corporate suits dressed in cricketing whites. Occasionally a player will resist the training – or maybe he will be encouraged to “be himself” to appease the press pack. Graeme Swann is a case in point. Reporters breathe a sigh of relief when Swanny is wheeled out for a press conference. He is funny, witty, self-deprecating and doesn’t take himself too seriously.

Just as the players’ dead-eyed responses are a result of media training, they are also a sign of their distrust of the fourth estate. Not too long ago pro cricketers in England would be on friendly terms with all the regular journalists on the circuit, and would think nothing of a quick interview for tomorrow’s paper or a soundbite for Test Match Special. Not so nowadays, it would appear. Last week the Sun’s John Etheridge said: “It is almost impossible to speak to anybody in the England team away from press conferences without paying money or plugging a sponsor.” This is partly due to the fact that the game is increasingly controlled by cash. But it could also be because the tabloid media – and sometimes the broadcasters too – don’t help themselves.

When Stuart Broad edged a ball to slip in the first Test and was given not out, he didn’t walk. This ‘incident’, of which there are dozens every day in every form of the game, from international to village, was blown out of all proportion. The headline on the back page of the following day’s Daily Mirror was ‘BAN STU’, a reference to comments made by Sky’s Michael Holding. The wheel comes full circle. The media appears to be undermining the interests of the national side in the pursuit of a sexy story, quoting itself. The players see the headline and retreat further into themselves and their group. And the next time that reporter approaches a player for a quote? “Very pleasing. Put them under pressure. One game at a time.”

The whole ludicrous situation was neatly demonstrated by Broad himself this week. After James Anderson was sent out to bat at number eight on day one, apparently protecting the more competent Broad and Swann, the vultures began to ask questions. Responding to Simon Hughes on Twitter, Broad quipped: “Wasn’t a nightwatchman. Swanny and I banged heads while making a brew and were dazed so Jimmy took it on”.

Hyped up on Ashes fever, many journos fell for it hook, line and sinker. An amusing and telling moral victory for the embattled all-rounder. No doubt he will take the positives and move on.

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The Ashes: First Test Day 3 – Bell stands firm

A FEW years ago, during a one-day international following England’s 5-0 Ashes drubbing in Australia, Ian Bell played a shot that got me thinking. Brett Lee was the bowler. Bell took a couple of steps down the pitch and offered a firm forward defensive. Nothing, in the words of Henry Blofeld, was done. But Bell just looked so calm, so cool, so totally in control. He appeared to have all the time in the world, like he could have hit the ball anywhere he chose.

Why then, I wondered, couldn’t he play like this every time? It’s a question that has puzzled greater cricketing minds than mine throughout Bell’s career. For every sublime innings, there’s a tame chip to cover. Every time he looks like he’s broken through, he will frustrate and infuriate with a sloppy dismissal.

But recently it seems like Bell is making the step up from very good to world class. He still has all the silky strokes he had when he broke into the Warwickshire side at the age of 19. But now he’s grown up and learnt how to fight.

His match-saving innings in the final test in New Zealand earlier this year was a brilliant example, and today’s unbeaten 95 – surely to progress to the first century of the series tomorrow – was another. Bell has had more than his fair share of critics over the years, and he seems to have been trying to prove them wrong ever since he made his debut.

Bell is now 31 years old, he has played 88 Test matches and scored almost 6,000 runs. The “Sherminator” jibes are a thing of the past, and yet there were still comments in the build-up to The Ashes – some of them from journalists who should know better – questioning his place in the team.

Bell is one of the best English batsmen of his generation. He may go on to be one of its best batsmen full stop. But something tells me he won’t be remembered as such. The enduring English Test players of my youth – Atherton, Stewart, Thorpe, Hussain, Vaughan – were all good players who had exceptional periods. Bell is more talented than all of them. He has benefited from the selectors’ faith – what the likes of Ramprakash and Hick would have given for the same. Now he is adding the steel, determination and grit to make him a world beater.

England fans love a moan. But they have short memories. In Pietersen, Cook and Bell we have three of the greatest batsmen this country has ever seen. They know when they’re in a scrap, and later in this series they will get the chance to really make hay.

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The Ashes: First Test Day 2 – Start the Agar

Eng 215 & 80-2

Aus 280

FOR as long as I can remember, almost everyone who has captained England for any length of time has ended up losing his hair. Gatting, Gooch, Hussain, Vaughan, Strauss – even Atherton and Stewart might have thinned on top by the end of their ill-fated tenures.

Alastair Cook’s thick black mane is showing no signs of wilting – but if the next six weeks follow the course of the first two pulsating days at Nottingham, he might have cause to pull some of it out himself.

Having collapsed to a mediocre score then launched a stirring fightback on day one, England reduced Australia to rubble. Well, almost. At 117-9 it just needed one final blow to bring the tourists’ house crashing down. But the harder the wolves puffed, the more the final pair of Ashton Agar and Phil Hughes refused to let them in.

19-year-old Agar played with freedom, skill and an impish smile. It was a freakish knock, a once in a lifetime innings. He made a mockery of the nerves and tension that seemed to grip the more experienced players during the opening exchanges.

England suffered some bad luck courtesy of two perplexing decisions by third umpire Marais Erasmus. These things will even themselves out over the series, but it’s unusual to feel hard done by as a result of the man upstairs, who should have time and technology on his side.

Cook and Pietersen did well to calm the pulse rate of the match during the final session of day two, and the situation remains delicately poised. Despite Siddle, Agar and Hughes’ excellent performances so far, this Australian side should not be giving Cook any sleepless nights. Let’s hope he doesn’t need to invest in any re-growth products just yet.

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