Archive for July, 2009

It’s hard to believe that England will take the field in the third Test with 11 men, not because they are fighting to find 11 fit players but because they are concentrating on just one individual, Andrew Flintoff, as if it’s Flintoff versus Australia.

Flintoff's KneeThe newspaper columns seem suffocated with updates on Flintoff’s knee ever since conclusion of the second Test. While waiting agonizingly about Flintoff’s fitness, England suffered a body blow when Kevin Pietersen was declared unfit and his Achilles had to go under the knife. He is decisively eliminated from the rest of the script and Ian Bell has been summoned to take his place.

Flintoff’s knee, however, has become a Curious Case of Benjamin Button, thanks to England’s over-reliance on the all-rounder. Such has been the hysteria surrounding Flintoff’s injury that desperate measures are being employed by the ECB. In the latest endeavor to make his knee match-fit, Freddie is made to sleep with his right knee connected to a machine based on NASA spacesuit technology. What more, even the wrap he is wearing on the knee has been given a name. It’s called the ‘Game Ready’ wrap!

No doubt Flintoff is indispensable to English plans at this point, more so in KP’s absence; but the team and fans should not forget that it’s a team game and there will be 10 other guys on the field, equally capable of winning the game for England, otherwise they won’t have been in the squad at first place. Moreover, it may have two-way negative effect. First, the rest of the team may feel demoralized with all the focus on Flintoff and second, Flintoff himself may feel burdened with the weight of expectations, especially with this being his last Test series. So folks, back the whole team, not one player!

Ponting Laugh_1Australia on the other hand will still be without Brett Lee and Johnson’s form remains a cause for concern. Even though the Aussies won against Northants, Johnson still was far from his best. At the same time, overhead conditions may force Ponting to keep Johnson in the eleven considering his match-winning ability and useful batting. Watson’s performance against Northants will be a strong lure for Ponting to pick him. If that happens, it will either be at the cost of Johnson or Siddle. If you ask me, Ponting should not pick Watson. I feel he needs a bowler on the lines of McGrath and the only one that comes close to that length is Stuart Clark. He bowled well in the tour match and Australia need him to bowl out England twice. Clark should take Siddle’s place.

So while Aussies contemplate and England wait, the fans can rest assured that it’s going to be a feast, rain permitting. Yes, the forecast is for rain during match days. So punters are favoring a draw. The news may be a bummer but you never know about English weather. Fingers crossed!

Flintoff CelebratesThe 75-year-old Lord’s jinx was overturned by an aggressive England led by a hostile Freddie Flintoff on the morning of July 20, 2009. As I said in my last post, an early Aussie wicket on the fifth morning could make all the difference and that’s exactly how the plot went. Flintoff removing Haddin first up set the cat among the pigeons. Clarke stood firm until strangely playing over a regular off-spinner from Swann to see his off stump pegged back.

With both the overnight batsmen Clarke and Haddin back in the hut, the writing was very much on the wall. Johnson, however, showed his batting prowess once again that would possibly help him retain his place in the eleven for the third Test.

The morning, by the way, belonged to the man who savored the Lord’s Test atmosphere for one last time, Andrew Flintoff. The Prestonian was on the button right from his first over, forcing Haddin to edge one to the slips and signaling the nature of things to follow. The way he was bowling, Strauss had no chance to take the ball away from him. It was one of the most hostile spell of fast and accurate pace bowling witnessed in recent times.

Once Swann got rid of Clarke, Flintoff steamed into the Aussies who had their tails between their legs. The Aussie lower order had absolutely no clue as to what would come next and when Flintoff castled Siddle, his bowling figures read 27-4-92-5, his best at Lord’s. Swann performed the last rites by removing Johnson, taking his tally of wickets in the innings to four. So his spell was none less significant.

The series scorecard reads 1-0 in England’s favor. But there are still three more Tests to go. Those who know or follow Australian cricket, they would certainly be aware that Aussie won’t give up and come even harder, with possibly Lee and Clark back. Whatever happens, a thrilling Ashes beckons. My prediction: Watch out for Flintoff, even if he is on one knee!

Clarke and Haddin_2If most of the first Test at Cardiff went Australia’s way, then this second one in progress at Lord’s has seen England dominate until the last session on day 4.

Since day 1 when Strauss and Cook had that 150-plus first-wicket stand, England have kept Australians at bay from wresting any sort of advantage whatsoever. Rather it’s been the Englishmen who had been calling all the shots until the last couple of hours on day 4. Having been set a world record chase of 522, Australia were staring down the barrel at 128 for 5 before tea on the penultimate day. They were well and truly on the mat and England, by means of Flintoff’s pulsating spell of bowling, were intent on keeping them on the mat.

English noses could smell an Ashes Test win but they had Clarke and Haddin standing in between and how firm they stood. From 128 for 5, Australian scorecard at the end of day 4 read 313 for 5. The stats: a 185-run unbroken sixth wicket partnership, Clarke at 125, Haddin at 80 and Australia needing 209 runs to win and make a world record of highest run chase in the history of Test cricket. The crowd was both amazed and enthralled to see what unfolded in those 2 hours in way of breathtaking stroke-play and unflappable Aussie spirit.Flintoff 2

It won’t be wrong to admit that both sides stand a chance to win but for an early Australian wicket, which will expose the Australian tail and put England in the driver’s seat. However, if the opposite happens and Clarke and Haddin keep knitting, then it will surely go down to who blinks first.

So we have all the ingredients for a spicy first session on the final day at Lords. Tempers may flay and bearing in mind how gutted the Aussies felt after the first Test, they will press hard, not for a draw but for a win. On the other hand, English hopes rest firmly on Flintoff. He himself too won’t leave any stone unturned, considering this will be his final day in English whites at Lords. So fasten your seatbelts folks! This is going to be very interesting!

Monty and Andy 2Putting money on a draw was nothing more than a thought on the backburner once English wickets fell in a heap on the final day, leaving England at 70 for 5 with 169 runs still to be erased. The real drama started after the dismissal of Stuart Broad, the seventh English wicket to go down. The situation: England 159 for 7, Swann the new batsman in and Collingwood fighting like a Phoenix.

Swann had already torn into the Aussies with his stubborn resistance in the first innings but saving a Test is a different ball game. Odds were against Swann but the price tag of his wicket was too high. He kept knocking the cover off the ball along with Collingwood who stood like a rock. The only hope left for the Aussies was the new ball. Ponting gave Hilfenhaus just a few warm up deliveries before asking the umpire, “new ball please.” The partnership reached 62 with England 221 for 7, just 18 runs adrift to make Australia bat again. But that was it. Swann’s resistance gave way to a slightly short Hilfenhaus delivery that didn’t rise much and caught Swann in front, who was looking to pull it. England 221/8, in comes James Anderson.

Collingwood was evidently the last English hope. He, along with Anderson, brought the deficit down to just 6. Now England started harboring some hope but that was only if they could ask Australian openers to pad up with 20-odd runs to win. All this because just 12 overs were left in the day with a cut-off time of 6:50. If they stretched their innings to 6:40, then all Aussie hopes would be dashed because there will be no time for them to bat (taking into account the 10-minute changeover between innings).

The worst took place; Colingwood’s unyielding knock was ended by Siddle. England still 6 runs away from knocking off the Aussie lead and the English Sikh, Monty Panesar, walks into the middle. Thoughts of leaving the ground were high on spectators’ mind. The situation: one wicket and a minimum of 11 overs left, 6 runs needed to make Australia bat again, electrifying atmosphere.

Every defensive prod was greeted with humungous cheers, ball after ball,Ponting 2 with one eye on the clock and the other on the scoreboard. Ponting made every run hard to come by and used spin to squeeze in that extra over. England, however, kept collecting singles and drew level; Australia had to bat again, 10 minutes minused, officially. Monty and Anderson doing it for England. The roars grew louder. The quota of overs had finished. Everybody still glued to the clock, a couple of minutes still for the clock to strike 6:40. “Another over,” said the umpires and the drama continues, for 6 more episodes.

The Kangaroos had already resigned to their fate; the last of the cunning prods comes along, followed by uncomfortable handshakes. England have drawn a Test match they had chased for the most part, nothing less than a win for them but hard one to swallow for the Aussies. The Ashes has begun!

Ponting and KatichThe second day of the Cardiff Test saw Australians use their batting edge to take the chip off England’s bowling effort, ending the day strongly at 249/1.

After England’s lower order frustrated the Aussies to reach an unexpected 435, Phil Hughes came in all guns blazing and raced to 28 off just 30 deliveries. In came Andrew Flintoff and Hughes evidently felt suffocated from a barrage of bouncers pelted at him. Hughes jumped and ducked like he was doing sit-ups. The short ball once again was his undoing as he edged one from Flintoff to Matt Prior who took a smart catch.

Flintoff looked a class apart and as I mentioned in my last post, he gave more than a glimpse of his bravado in 2005. The English new ball attack, however, lost the plot completely and gave a wayward display of bowling, giving easy pickings to the batsmen. Katich and Ponting took full advantage but gave Flintoff the respect he deserved.

During the luncheon interval, with Australia just one down, it is learned that Andrew Flintoff got the whole team together in the dressing room. He reminded them of the situation at The Oval 4 years back, days before they lifted the urn for the first time in 16 years. That day Flintoff took 5 for 78 as Australia collapsed from 264 for 1 to 367 all out. “As Fred said when we got in the changing room, for those who didn’t play at The Oval in 2005, it was a very similar situation,” told Graeme Swann.

The Aussies, though, had other ideas and never gave a sniff to the Englishmen, evidenced by the unbeaten centuries by Katich and Ponting. With 9 wickets still in hand, Australia is in a position to dictate terms, unless Flintoff and Co have a plan ‘B’ to catch the Kangaroos.

Play is about to start…see you tomorrow.

Day one of the first Ashes Test saw both sides on an even keel at stumps. While England would be happy to have passed 300-run mark, Australia made inroads late into the evening, ending up scuttling seven English wickets. On the whole, there were two moments in the day’s play that warrant special mention.

KP sweeps

The first one was a horrendous attempt at a sweep shot ever witnessed in Test cricket. At a moment when KP seemed to be taking the match away from Australia, he attempted to sweep a Hauritz’s delivery just like one would reach out for the pickle jar on the other side of dinner table. The replay made it look the top contender to qualify for ‘how not to play a sweep shot.’ This could play a decisive role in how much England would end up with in the first inning. On the contrary, the lower order is doing every bit to prove me wrong as I write this post.

Andrew-Flintoff-smiling

The second and the more significant moment in context of the series was ‘Return of Freddie’s Signature Smile.’ While on the crease with Prior, Flintoff’s demeanor was reminiscent of 2005 when his heroics won England the Ashes.  He was enjoying his game and smiling in Haddin’s face like a 20-year-old. He savored the constant chatter from the rear of the stumps, returning the complement with a smile and a breezy knock of 37 before he played on just ahead of stumps.

KP needed a good inning at the top of the series and Flintoff’s inning would have been critically eyed. While KP must be disappointed to have attempted that sweep shot, a decent knock of 69 under his belt would surely palliate those feelings. Appreciation of Flintoff’s quickish 37 was palpable in the ground; however, for me, his body language was more encouraging than the runs he scored, as it conveyed a promise to test the Kangaroos.

And as I end my post, England’s last wicket has gone down but only after they have put 435 on the board. This game never fails to surprise!

The ‘Men in Blue’ head into a much-deserved 2-month break at the end of West Indies tour and they would surely love to leave the island nation on a high, adding to their string of overseas ODI series wins in New Zealand and Sri Lanka recently.

Team that wins the third ODI in St Lucia on July 3 can rest assured that it won’t end up as the losing team. That, however, also raises question marks over a 4-match series instead of 3 or 5 to prevent the trophy-sharing scenario, as rightly pointed out by Sanjay Manjrekar. A 2-2 finish would mean nothing more than an unwanted exercise for the players, especially Indians, but a series win would certainly help India bury the ghost of 2007 world cup.

Yuvraj-SinghYuvraj Singh, no doubt, remains pivotal to the team’s success and he must fire for India to win. Although Dhoni has played a couple of good innings, his subdued approach – except for the situation in the second ODI – still remains an enigma. What has been most disappointing is Gambhir’s form and Rohit’s irresponsive shot selection. Gambhir’s contribution in India’s recent victories cannot be undermined and his failures have prevented India from getting a decent opening stand. Rohit seems to be wasting his talent playing rash shots. Karthik played one good inning at the top but is far from filling the void created by Sehwag’s injury. Time is running out fast for Yusuf Pathan or else he will be considered only a basher fit for T20s.

India’s bowling has been the major cause of concern. Bowlers can’t be given much credit if their team wins by only 20 runs after scoring 339. The convincing nature of West Indies’ win by 8 wickets in the second ODI further highlights the shortcomings of Indian bowling attack. Ravindra Jadeja has failed to impress and should make way for Abhishek Nayar’s debut who has shown some promise as an all rounder in the IPL. It must be said, however, that none of the recent all rounders India have tried are close to the abilities Irfan Pathan possesses. A return of his ‘banana swing’ will surely bring him back in the scheme of things for ODIs.

West Indies, it must be admitted, look like a more settled unit at the moment than India. Apart from the bowling failure in the first ODI, they have performed more consistently and have their noses slightly ahead. They wear a different look if Gayle fires and Bravo is fast becoming the backbone of this side.

It’s a race to the finish; the series has certainly hit the home stretch. Only a sprint will help win from here on in or we could be in for a photo finish. Whatever happens, the series will remain alive until the fourth match but only the team that wins at St Lucia will have the chance to win the series. My money is on India!