England melt in Ashes obliteration

Before the 2013/14 Ashes series started, much of the build-up surrounded the scoreline by which England would win the series.

Sir Ian Botham was in typically boisterous mood, predicting a 5-0 whitewash for the visitors against an Australian side who, without attracting attention, deserved more respect than they had been afforded.

The warning signs were there during the summer. England’s 3-0 victory managed to sufficiently paper over the cracks of some flaky performances – and the foolhardy had not even noticed there were cracks in the first place.

Perhaps the most common theme of England’s summer Ashes campaign was that of the bowlers rescuing their side after some flatulent displays from the batsmen placed the team in precarious positions on more than one occasion.

Too many times England were reduced to 30-3 as captain Alastair Cook’s weakness outside off stump was badly exposed and Joe Root’s inexperience gravely exploited.

Australian seamer Ryan Harris was made to look world-class by some imprudent strokeplay, while Peter Siddle dismissed Kevin Pietersen more times than English fans care to remember.

On the face of it, Botham’s prediction was mischievous and unduly confident but few could have foreseen a dismantling of such gigantic proportions that would see his 5-0 prophecy inverted in Australia’s favour.

England started the series well and probably shaded the first day, reducing Australia to 132-6. Where the tide began to turn however, was when England were skittled for 136 to concede a first-innings deficit of 159 runs.

The two Australian innings had finished and started on the same day, such was the level of England’s collapse.

It was a collapse masterminded by the resurgent Mitchell Johnson, who terrorised England’s batsmen with vicious pace, bounce and accuracy.

The latter quality had always been Johnson’s nemesis. Too often he had the tendency to drift wide – at times embarrassingly so – and he was consequently taunted by the Barmy Army.

However, in this series he made them watch with great pain as he continued a rejuvenation which had begun in April in India. Playing for Mumbai Indians in the Indian Premier League, he delivered a string of highly impressive bowling performances.

He had finally been able to rid himself of the inconsistency which had plagued his game and was showing great control of line and length in partnership with his more renowned pace and bounce.

Johnson was suddenly the cricketer England feared he would one day become, but when the two sides met in Brisbane for the opening Test the visitors were hopelessly underprepared – and they never recovered.

The left-armer succeeded in mangling numerous English innings throughout the series, stripping batsmen such as Jonathan Trott – who later flew home due to mental health problems – and Matt Prior of their confidence and rampaging through the tailend with a cruel ease.

Johnson took 37 wickets during the series – two more than Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad combined – complete with three five-wicket hauls and having snared 15 more wickets than Ryan Harris, who with 22 also had a superb series.

While it’s easy to focus on the brutality of Johnson’s form, England’s dire batting should also be spotlighted.

The previous Ashes tour was an incredible one for England as they routinely pulverised the Australian attack. They even broke records, memorably when they scored 517-1 in the second innings of the first Test in 2010.

Cook (235*) and Trott (135*) were the men chiefly responsible, while Andrew Strauss weighed in with a century himself.

How that form changed in just three years. In the 2010/11 series, England were scoring centuries almost at will. In the 2013/14 series, they mustered just one – Ben Stokes’ 120 at Perth.

Stokes, competing in his debut Test series, was by far the brightest light of England’s gloomy tour. He scored 279 runs at an average of 34.87, which was just 15 runs less than the reckless Kevin Pietersen despite playing four of the five Tests.

Australia were better than England in every department, but especially so at the crease.

The top six series runscorers were all Australian, while David Warner’s tally of 523 runs was only four runs short of the combined tally of his counterparts Alastair Cook and Michael Carberry.

Australia also notched ten centuries against England’s one, which is the most telling statistic of all.

Much credit should go to Australia coach Darren Lehmann, who has transformed the fortunes of a side who had lost seven of their last nine Tests before Brisbane.

He has crafted a new generation of cut-throat cricket, instilled a winning mentality into his side and constructed a batting line-up capable of scoring fifties right down to numbers nine and ten.

That depth of batting was perfectly illustrated by Brad Haddin and Johnson. Haddin, in particular, was a constant hindrance. He scored 493 runs at an average of 61.62 and counter-attacked at crucial times.

Just when England were looking to bowl Australia out for around 200, up popped Haddin with a typically aggressive half-century to further demoralise the English attack.

Lehmann will also be pleased that from Haddin down to Nathan Lyon at 11, Australia’s tailenders plundered 874 runs between them.

When matched against England’s top three runscorers Kevin Pietersen (294); Michael Carberry (281) and Ben Stokes (279), Australia’s tailenders outscored them by 20 runs – a truly harrowing statistic for England coach Andy Flower to ponder.

Flower will be pondering plenty after this series, for as worrying as England’s reliance on their bowlers is their lack of emerging talent.

So far only Root and Stokes have made plausible claims to a regular starting spot, but the likes of Carberry and Jonny Bairstow have not flattered themselves in a dismal situation wherein a run of confident displays could have cemented their Test berth.

The fact that Graeme Swann, England’s second-most prolific Test spinner after Derek Underwood, retired after three Tests of this tour also turns attention towards England’s spin talents.

Scott Borthwick did himself no harm by taking 3-33 in the Sydney Test, but Monty Panesar has had a damaging tour having taken just three wickets in the four innings he has bowled.

Flower and Cook have a massive rebuilding process to go through and must analyse the gory details of the series, extracting any positives they can.  England’s golden era is over, but after this Ashes obliteration Australia’s is only just beginning.

  • You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89
Advertisements

The Cricketing Enigma

How many cricket fans in England know that the biggest (supposedly) domestic Twenty20 cricket tournament is currently being played in India? Not many.

The Champions League Twenty20 brings the winning teams from various Twenty20 tournaments across the globe together in a clash worthy of its name.

Yet, unbeknownst to English cricket fans, MS Dhoni plundered one of the fastest fifties in history yesterday when his 16-ball half-century helped Chennai Super Kings to a 12-run victory over fellow IPL graduates Sunrisers Hyderabad.

Dhoni’s innings went largely unnoticed in England, partly due to the fact that the BBC rarely covers the IPL and other Twenty20 tournaments, and also due to Eurosport winning the contract for the televised rights.

Truthfully, viewership was always likely to suffer in the UK once Eurosport got their hands on the deal. They are not Sky Sports, or BT Sport for that matter, and consequently advertisement for the CLT20 was so scarce it was almost ghostly.

This isn’t Eurosport’s fault though, they won the rights to the tournament fairly and their dedicated following will have been treated to some quality cricket as the tournament edges towards its second half, with the final being played a week on Sunday (Oct 6).

It is perhaps the fault of ITV4, though. Logically, as they hold broadcasting rights for the IPL, they should have done more to secure the rights for what is technically a bigger tournament.

However, the absence of any English teams in the competition provides some idea as to why Eurosport were effectively unchallenged for the screening rights.

Being held in mid-September, the CLT20 clashes with the conclusion of the County Championship in England. This means that county sides are reluctant to participate in the tournament when promotion or relegation is on the line.

This is particularly true of Northamptonshire who, after winning the Friends Life T20 this summer, couldn’t travel to India because of their four-day commitments.

Promotion to Division One was their objective and, after taking the necessary points during a 115-run defeat to Worcestershire, they achieved that goal by finishing second in the table to Lancashire.

Another reason for the lack of mainstream coverage in the UK is that India is currently plagued by the end of the monsoon season.

Several games in this year’s CLT20 have been rain-affected, while the forecast for the remaining fixtures looks equally bleak.

So, it seems the main terrestrial UK broadcasters have taken the calculated gamble to save money on acquiring the TV rights.

That aside, it means that UK viewers will continue to miss innings of the majesty of Dhoni’s unless they have Eurosport – subscription for which, of course, would make a serious dent in anyone’s wallet.

For that reason, the CLT20 will continue to assume its role as the definitive cricketing enigma. Until the rights are secured by a terrestrial broadcaster, the majority of fans in the UK will be starved of watching a tournament as opulent, but also tragically mysterious, as the Champions League Twenty20.

  • You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89

India set to ignite world cricket as IPL 6 begins

With its glamour, packed stadiums, superb atmospheres and a sprinkling of the best players in world cricket, what’s not to like about the Indian Premier League?

The money-spinning Twenty20 tournament, in its sixth year, will officially start tomorrow with the grand opening ceremony, but most cricket fans will be looking forward to Wednesday and the first match between defending champions Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR) and Delhi Daredevils (DD).

KKR, owned by Bollywood superstar Shahrukh Khan, boast a very strong side once more with South African limited overs specialists Jacques Kallis and Ryan McLaren set to feature prominently alongside the mysterious off-spin of Sunil Narine.

Big-hitting wicketkeeper Brendon McCullum, who famously smashed 158 in the inaugural IPL match, will hope to transfer his recent good form for New Zealand into another superb IPL season, while Brett Lee, skipper Gautam Gambhir and England’s Eoin Morgan join Yusuf Pathan and Brad Haddin in a squad that should be in contention for a second successive title.

KKR’s roster would have been further boosted by the addition of world number one-ranked all-rounder Shakib al-Hasan, but the Bangladeshi cricket board wanted their star international players available for their tour of Zimbabwe, and so al-Hasan misses out alongside compatriot Tamim Iqbal, who had signed a contract with Pune Warriors.

In fact, the political controversy surrounding IPL 6 has threatened to overshadow the build-up to this great tournament.

The usual political hostilities between Pakistan and India persist, but until the various differences between Pakistan and India both on and off the field can be resolved, the IPL will not develop as fast as it might otherwise have done.

More recently, due to ethnic conflict between the Sinhalese people on India’s eastern coast and Sri Lankan rebels from Tamil Nadu, no Sri Lankan players will be allowed to play at Chennai.

This affects IPL heavyweights the Chennai Super Kings (CSK) the least as seamer Nuwan Kulasekara and spinner Akila Dananjaya are the only Sri Lankans in their squad and will likely play only bit-part roles throughout the IPL campaign.

Critics of the ban have pointed out that this favours Chennai, particularly as world-class players such as Muttiah Muralitharan, Kumar Sangakkara, Lasith Malinga and Tillakaratne Dilshan will not be allowed to play for their respective teams.

Politics aside, Chennai have an excellent group of players to count upon as they look to regain a title that they have won twice in the past three seasons.

Indian talisman MS Dhoni continues to skipper the side, with fellow Indian superstars Suresh Raina, Ravindra Jadeja and Ravi Ashwin providing exciting reinforcement.

Added to that quartet are the explosive talents of South African stars Francois du Plessis, Chris Morris and Albie Morkel, while Australian seamers Dirk Nannes and Ben Hilfenhaus will look to bowl tightly in a formidable attack which is enhanced by the tricky variation of West Indian all-rounder Dwayne Bravo.

Bravo’s international team-mate Chris Gayle continues his contract with Royal Challengers Bangalore, and the Jamaican is capable of scoring rapidly with his unrivalled big-hitting.

Gayle has shown in previous IPLs that no stadium is big enough for his gargantuan six-hitting, and he is ably assisted by fellow fast-scorers AB de Villiers, Virat Kohli and Dilshan.

Muralitharan and Daniel Vettori will supply their usual guile for a relatively fragile bowling attack, which is spearheaded by swing bowlers Zaheer Khan and Ravi Rampaul.

Perhaps the biggest threat to Chennai in this tournament will be Mumbai Indians, who are traditionally strong and are fortunate to have a plethora of international stars in their ranks.

Home favourites Sachin Tendulkar and Rohit Sharma are joined by compatriots Harbhajan Singh and Pragyan Ojha, while Malinga, Ricky Ponting, Munaf Patel, Mitchell Johnson and Kieron Pollard complete the Indians’ strong squad.

Delhi Daredevils will be without the influential Jesse Ryder and Kevin Pietersen, the former after suffering a fractured skull in a disgusting attack in Christchurch, but they will have the big-hitting Virender Sehwag and David Warner at their disposal, together with IPL 5’s purple-cap (leading wicket taker) winner Morne Morkel.

England players are scarce finds in the IPL though, as the tournament clashes with the Test series against New Zealand. Consequently, limited overs experts Eoin Morgan (KKR), Dimi Mascarenhas (Kings XI Punjab), Owais Shah (Rajasthan Royals) and Luke Wright (Pune) are the only notable inclusions.

Other international stars set to appear include the fiery Dale Steyn and Cameron White for newly-formed outsiders Sunrisers Hyderabad, formerly known as Deccan Chargers.

Pune, meanwhile, have the brutal Yuvraj Singh, Ross Taylor and Marlon Samuels alongside the crafty Steve Smith and Robin Uthappa and will be seeking an improvement on last season when they could only manage to finish last of the nine teams.

The bookies have Kings XI Punjab as the rank underdogs, but the team based on the foothills of the Himalayas includes Australian legend Adam Gilchrist, Mascarenhas and the reliable Shaun Marsh and David Hussey in their team.

Kings XI Punjab’s weakness has historically been their bowling and they have seemingly done little to address that problem with Ryan Harris, Praveen Kumar and Piyush Chawla the leading internationals in their attack.

Rajasthan Royals, owned by Bollywood darling Shilpa Shetty, complete the 2013 line-up and could prove to be dark horses after assembling an intriguing squad for IPL 6 which includes the exquisite yet orthodox shotmaking of Ajinkya Rahane and Rahul Dravid.

Firepower is provided in the shape of Shane Watson and Shah, while the world’s fastest bowler Shaun Tait is joined by Fidel Edwards and Australian veterans Brad Hogg and Brad Hodge.

Despite the controversy hindering the build-up to the tournament, IPL 6 has the potential to be the best so far – and with the likes of Tendulkar, Dhoni, Gayle and Steyn on show it should prove an irresistible attraction to cricket fans across the globe.

  • ITV 4 will screen every match of the IPL live in the UK.