Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Testing Times for England and South Africa

Interesting times in the cricketing world. A year and a half ago I wrote a piece about the end of an era as Strauss retired from international cricket and handed the reigns over to Alistair Cook. In truth, it was more of a stage 2 in the Andy Flower era, with the majority of the team remaining the same and a similar feel about the whole set up. The last couple of months however are a totally different kettle of fish. The unceremonious dumping of Kevin Pietersen, the withdrawal of Jonathan Trott, utter collapse in
form of Steven Finn and Matt Prior and sudden retirement of Graeme Swann left an England squad in tatters. Coming off the back of a successful series might have meant you could buy time and put things together again slowly. However, as it was it was unquestionably the most embarrassing and dismal tour in English history, wholesale changes were inevitable - including the departure (or at least slight shuffling) of Flower

A brief limited overs tour against an equally dismal West Indies won't do much in terms of rebuilding for the test arena, but it's a start at least. Getting a couple of wins (however unconvincing) is positive and certainly there are good signs from Broad and Root in particular. 


Buttler and Taylor could have big
roles for England in the coming years
The truth is that teams go through phases, and no side ever remains on top indefinitely. The Aussies dominated world cricket throughout the 2000s, but then became decidedly mediocre and are only coming out of that slump now (although they're doing it spectacularly!) England have had a real good run of it over the last 5 years or so, and it looks like a bit of spell on the sidelines. As a fan it's hard to take but accepting the reality of blooding youngsters and letting faithful servants go is necessary for having genuine success again in the future. It's only a shame that we had to be murdered down under to shock them into realising it. A big series against a young and confident India team this summer could be fascinating.

The other major storyline in world cricket at the moment is the retirement of Graeme Smith. One of the mainstays of the last 10 years is going to leave an almighty hole in the South African set up. Following so quickly on the heels of the departure of Jacques Kallis, one of the greatest players in history, is going to make it extremely difficult for them to stay on top of the test rankings. A home defeat to Australia is their first series loss for 5 years and could spell a slipping in their domination of the test arena. They still have top class players such as Amla, De Villiers, Steyn and Philander but no team can lose Smith & Kallis and not feel the ill effects of it. 

Incidentally, I don't really think that fact that Australia have gone to South Africa and won adds any level of consolation to our humiliation. Perhaps a small amount of perspective and vindication that this is a genuinely strong Aussie team, but the reality is that England played dreadfully and with no pride or fight. Hopefully those days are behind us 

Cricinfo provides a fantastic page showing the upcoming series of all the international teams. 

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Six Nations, Three Big Wins

There can scarcely have been such round of a one-sided matches in the history of the Six Nations. The fierce rivalries, close contests and rich histories seemingly never fail to produce at least one tense or dramatic clash each weekend of this fascinating tournament. And yet this weekend will hardly go down in history as one of chewed nails, worn nerves and well used seat-edges. The brilliance of the competition is that it there is still so much to look at and analyse, and that the final outcome is not really any clearer than this time last week. Let's look game by game and where the results leave its respective combatants.

Paddy Jackson adds insult to injury,
while North resigns himself to defeat
Ireland 26 - 3 Wales: Probably one of the most eagerly anticipated matches of the whole tournament turned into an utterly one-sided domination by the men in green. Ireland performed exceptionally well, controlling the game from Sexton's boot and taking advantage of a hugely disappointing Welsh performance. Few would have expected Wales to play even worse than they did in their win over Italy last week, and fewer still to see such a limited response when they fell behind. Inevitably Ireland will have high hopes going into the remaining 3 fixtures but travelling away to both England and France means that they'll need to maintain their standard of play if they want to be crowned champions. It's not over for Wales, but they too will need a win at Twickenham, as well as a massive swing in points-difference to have any hope of completing that fabled treble.

Another near-flawless performance
from Mike Brown
Scotland 0 - 20 England: A worm-infested pitch and driving rain could have made for the sort of ugly battle that Scotland had a chance of emerging from victorious. As it was, the dismal pitch meant only a few missed kicks and farcical scrums - the rain never came, and nor did the competitive Scottish fight. England's only concern was not putting more points on the board when they had the chance, but unlike in Paris, there was never any danger of it coming back to haunt them. Scotland's stand-out player (at least until inexplicably subbed), Dave Denton, said before the game that this was the match which mattered most. Apparently not many of his team-mates heard him because they failed to show up with any vigour or pace. Hogg couldn't make any impression at all, while Johnny May demonstrated what England had missed last week against France. Hosting another group of Celts in a fortnight will show what England are really made of, while Scotland can look forward to the wooden-spoon-off against Italy, and I imagine putting in a bit of training on the line out.

Fofana's running made the difference
France 30 - 10 Italy: A pretty dire first half was characterised mostly by ill-discipline and missed penalties, rather than anything positive. Then the second half exploded with 3 rapid-fire French tries effectively putting an end to the competitive nature of the match but certainly providing for much more entertaining viewing. The last quarter of the match was Italy camped in the French 22, unable to find the killer breakthrough. Finally it arrived, but only after both sides had a man sent off for a headbutt and France also had one in the bin. The final scoreline reflected how much more clinical the French were, as well as how vulnerable Italy continue to be in spells. As they have done for years, they show potential and promise but not in any sustained manner.

A week off now and then possibly 2 of the biggest clashes of the tournament (sorry Italy v Scotland, I'm not talking about you). Two home wins from two for both Ireland and France, travelling to England and Wales respectively, both with one win from two. Quite feasibly we could have 4 teams with a 2-1 record after 3 matches and then it's anyone's guess how it'll finish up.

Monday, 3 February 2014

Six Nations - All Still to Play For

One round of matches into the Six Nations and in reality not much is clearer about who will be holding the trophy aloft on 15th March. Three home victories leave Wales, France and Ireland heading the table but none of the three victors established themselves as the team to beat. 

It has been much discussed that Wales were pretty unconvincing in their win over Italy. Gifted an early try by a nervous and inexperienced Italian back-line, they failed to capitalise on what was a big chance to hit some significant numbers. Given that last year's tournament came down to points difference, only taking +8 from the Italians could yet come back to haunt the two-time defending champions. Even the usually flawless Leigh Halfpenny threw a dismal pass leading to a straightforward interception and try.

All this being said, let's not forget how Wales started the tournament 12 months ago. Being 30-3 down at home after 40 minutes and going onto lose to a major rival is a whole lot worse than just having to scrape a victory against one of the weaker teams. With Lions centre Jonathan Davies (yes the one controversially selected ahead of Ireland centre Brian O'Driscoll, by Wales coach Warren Gatland) set to return a lot earlier than originally suspected, I wouldn't expect to see Welsh team that emerges in Dublin to be remotely the same, in personnel or performance, as the one which left the field in Cardiff. 

The Irish managed to see off an initially positive and organised Scotland team, who faded significantly as the game went on. Inevitably all games open up as players tire and substitutions loosen teams' structure, but into the latter stages of the second half, Ireland suddenly looked like they could score at any moment. There was a good level of cohesion and replacements for key players like O'Connell, Bowe and O'Brien stood up to be counted. A relatively easy home game is an ideal start to a campaign, allowing time for the squad to settle and find some rhythm. Both Wales and Ireland have had that chance, and as such, things are perfectly set up for their clash this coming Saturday.

As for England, I don't want to talk about it. Yes we performed well in the second half and there's lots to play for yet but frankly you can't afford simple mistakes and if we hadn't dug ourselves a hole in the first half, the door wouldn't have been open for Fickou to storm through at the death. The truth is that the better team always wins - England may have dominated parts and played good rugby, but unless you can take your chances and be clinical and focussed to the last minute, you're always liable to let the game slip. No doubt Scotland will pose an entirely different sort of threat to Lancaster's side, fierce passion and physicality likely to be the defining features. Maitland's absence will be a sorely felt by the Scots, and the returning Jonny May could make a big difference to English fluency through the backs. 

On the assumption that France will comfortably have enough to put away the Italians, the table could again make for fascinating viewing come Sunday evening.