Archive for November 2011

The Amazing Anisa Mohammed And Promising Signs For Women’s Cricket

Off-break bowler Anisa Mohammed today starred with career-best figures of seven for 14 as West Indies demolished Pakistan in the final of the Women’s World Cup Qualifying Tournament. This means that she now has the remarkable figures of 30 wickets at an eyewatering average of 5.3 from her nine matches against Pakistan.

Her form in the competition, along with that of her teammates such as Stefanie Taylor, who was named Player of the Tournament, meant that the West Indies continued their march up the women’s cricket rankings.

However, while the West Indies’ progression has been excellent, it is the performances of the Asian sides in the tournament that will most hearten the ICC. Pakistan reached the final and lost only to the eventual champions, while Bangladesh finished in fifth to secure ninth place in the world rankings and earn ODI status. Sri Lanka also performed admirably in defeating South Africa to take third place.

All of this marks a significant shift in the women’s game which, despite having a relatively long history in Europe, was conspicuous by its absence in Asia. Not so long ago the three countries mentioned above didn’t even field a side, as cultural factors meant that women who played sport were frowned upon. Indeed, around the time of the birth of Pakistan’s national team players faced protests and court action from the government if they tried to play.

All of which makes their performances in this competition all the more remarkable. Credit must be given to the ICC, as well as the players and individual boards themselves, for this transformation in their fortunes; a transformation that is surely a step in the right direction for widening the following of the women’s game.

Cricket In Zimbabwe Is Thriving.

Zimbabwe’s descent from the top table of cricket in the first part of the last decade was one of cricket’s most saddening and depressing stories, but its comeback since then is surely one of the game’s most heartwarming. Whilst the country itself is still gripped by political instability, the cricket team is leading the way forward.

They made a successful return to Test cricket earlier this year and won their first match back against Bangladesh, and have since re-established themselves as a force to be reckoned with in the international cricketing arena.

However, without its revamped domestic structure that came into place in 2009, none of this would’ve been possible, and it is to this that attention in Harare will focus tomorrow as the five franchises do battle in the Stanbic Bank T20. The tournament itself is short and sweet and will be completed within a fortnight - perhaps a lesson here for the ECB and BCCI? – and will welcome some of the best players from all over the world.

Chris Gayle is the star signing – he will play for the Matabeleland Tuskers – but several English county players are also involved. Rory Hamilton-Brown, Paul Horton, Tom Smith, Adam Wheater, Ned Eckersley, Ryan ten Doeschate, Phil Mustard, Riki Wessels, Andrew Hall, Phil Mustard and Peter Trego will all be taking one of the four overseas places in each franchise’s starting eleven. There they will rub shoulders with the established Zimbabwe players such as Brendan Taylor and Hamilton Masakadza, as well as mixing with some of the exciting young talent that is emerging from the country such as promising 18 year-old batsman Kevin Kasuza and fast bowlers Nathan Waller and Tendai Chatara.

Four of the teams are closely matched, with Southern Rocks the rank outsiders, but the Tuskers – led by Lancashire opener Paul Horton - are tipped as slight favourites at this early stage.

Matches begin at 0800GMT tomorrow when the Mid West Rhinos take on the Mountaineers, and Cricket World will have a review of the tournament when it finishes on 4th December.

Are The Internet And TV To Blame For Dwindling Crowd Numbers?

Having seen the final part of today’s thrilling Test match play out on the internet and through Twitter, it is quite clear that Test cricket is not dying and is very much alive and well. It received a fanatical following through websites providing live text commentary and on Twitter, from which it is not difficult to see that claims of its untimely, and seemingly unwelcome, death are overestimated.

However, TV pictures of the ground, along with images posted on those very same text commentary streams and social media websites, appeared to suggest otherwise. The New Wanderers Stadium was deserted. All that could be seen was a militant army of grey plastic seats, upturned in their disgust at what was on offer and apparently painting an entirely different picture.

So which tells the truth about the health of the of the purest form of our summer game?

Well in my view the answer to this conundrum is simply that the way we view cricket is changing. Gone are the days when passionate fans would flock to watch matches and huddle under the umbrellas that would have been necessary in Johannesburg today. Instead, today’s fans dip in and out of the action, perhaps while at work, or on their smartphones while out and about, and soak up the action that way. These modern day fans are no less passionate, it is just that, unlike our predecessors, we are in the fortunate position of being able to follow the action in whatever way we choose.

This is where the similarities with English county cricket are startling. It has never had particularly big crowds and those that it did have have dwindled over the past decade or so. However, I would suggest that it has more fans than ever, especially if we are to believe the web traffic data that leading cricket websites routinely espouse. These show that the figures are steadily increasing year on year and prove those luddites that scoff of ‘one man and a dog’ every April to be palpably wrong.

Can the current lack of ground-going fans be altered?

Perhaps, if administrators were to make attending a Test match itself a more convenient and enjoyable experience (day/night cricket anyone?) then things would improve slightly, but it is unlikely to make too much of a difference as it is impossible to stand in the way of a market-led change that sees people power dictate how cricket is ‘consumed’ to an ever greater extent.

Should The County Championship Abandon Two-Divisions?

Essex CCC chairman Nigel Hilliard suggested last week that the County Championship should revert back to a format whereby any of the 18 first-class counties have a chance of winning title in any given year. It was a suggestion that came largely out of the blue, as it is widely believed that the current two-division format, since it was introduced in 2000, has helped raise the standard of county cricket.

Nonetheless, it is a suggestion worth considering, especially as Hillaird came up with an alternative explanation for the rise in standard. He said, “The argument put forward for two-division cricket is that it has improved the standard and has made more competition but, in my view, what has improved the standard is in fact four-day cricket (introduced universally in 1993).”

He went on to back up this argument by outlining how the number of players from the first division that have gone on to represent England is of a roughly similar amount to those from the second division. Indeed all three of England’s current captains learnt their cricket at clubs that played second division cricket in 2011.

However, where his argument begins to fall down is when it comes to the matter of how to implement a system that gives all 18 counties a shot at the title. A change back to the old one-division format is out of the question – Hilliard admitted so himself – as it produces too many meaningless games towards the end of the season. He did add, however, “I have … put my suggestions forward (to the ECB domestic cricket review) as a discussion point as to how this could be achieved but whether there will be any change, I don’t know.”

Now, what these suggested changes entail is open to debate, but they are likely to include something along the lines of the 2008 proposal that wanted three regional groups of six teams with an end-of-season knockout phase. Alternatively, a less dramatic change could see the bottom team in division one exchanging places with the top team in division two at the half way stage in the season. This way the two-tier format, with all of the excitement that it generates, could be maintained, while at the same time any of the 18 counties would have a shot at the title at the start of any given season.

Both of these proposals have their obvious disadvantages. In the former, a team could end up winning the title without ever having had to play certain teams and it could hardly be called a nationwide Championship; while the latter seems somehow contrived and it is difficult to see how the team that was promoted mid-season could carry their points haul forward into the first division, which would mean that the messy system of average points or adjusted totals would have to be used.

All of which means that, mercifully, we are likely to stay with the same system that has served us so well for the past two seasons and produced such exciting finishes. After all, the inherent virtue of the present two-division format is that practically every team has something to play for all the way through the season. Why change something that so obviously works?

Seven Days Is A Long Time In Cricket

Has cricket ever known a seven days like the ones we have just witnessed? From the ridiculous to the sublime and from ecstasy to tragedy, we have seen most of it.

For just the second time in the history of Test cricket, a part of all four innings was played on the same day when South Africa, having folded to be all out for 96, dismissed Australia for a staggering 47 and it needed a last-wicket partnership to prevent them from setting an unwanted record for the lowest Test score in history.

We then had Shahid Afridi’s latest comeback from retirement and although he last played for his country in May, he said he had spent the ‘long time’ away from the side wisely. Whatever he had been doing seems to have worked as his three wickets earned him the man-of-the-match award in a comprehensive nine-wicket win over Sri Lanka and he struck with just his fifth ball back. Who writes his scripts?

In among that we saw Sachin Tendulkar score his 15,000th Test run but miss out on his century of international centuries and a graceful VVS Laxman guide India to a thrilling win over the West Indies. Their squad was then rocked when news of a horrible bus crash in Saint Lucia – captain Darren Sammy’s home – filtered through and they are paying tribute by wearing black armbands for the second Test.

I have queried elsewhere whether it is the retirement of Tendulkar that will cause India the most problems as for me, Dravid and Laxman are just as irreplaceable. Exciting times ahead for the Indian selectors in the next five years.

At the end of the week, esteemed journalist and former Somerset captain Peter Roebuck committed suicide in South Africa, cricket losing one of its great characters and it is both tragic and sad that he should have chosen to have taken his own life just as too many other former players have done over the years.

Too often, words such as ‘tragedy’ or ‘disaster’ are bandied about when a team is well beaten, dismissed cheaply or a player misses out on a personal milestone. Perspective. Out of focus.

The last seven days have – unfortunately, but perhaps necessarily – reminded us what those words actually mean.

Is Test Cricket Dying And What Can Be Done To Save It?

If there is one thing that should be guaranteed to fill a stadium in India, it is surely the sight of the country’s favourite son, one Sachin Tendulkar, about to embark on his seemingly never-ending quest for his 100th international hundred. With that in mind, one would have expected the Feroz Shah Kotla in Delhi, capable of holding 50,000 fans, to be heaving with queues around the block, and replete with ticket touts on every corner doing a roaring trade during yesterday’s play.

Sachin Tendulkar. Guranteed to sell-out stadiums?

Alas, that was not the case. Only 8,000 turned up to see what could quite easily have been Tendulkar’s finest hour – he eventually fell agonisingly short – and if a report of one fan’s experience from earlier in the Test is anything to go by it is no wonder. In summary, he and his wife were thwarted at every turn in their attempt to buy tickets, including one laughable excuse that the ticket offices were closed because it was a Sunday. This is a Test match for goodness sake – an international sporting occasion! Can you imagine turning up at Wembley for the FA Cup final only to find it closed?

Anyway, I digress, what the article outlines is what is best described as shoddy organisation and ruthless inefficiency to the extent that if I were to be cynical for a moment, then I might suggest that the cricketing authorities were trying to undermine Test cricket in order to push people towards their favoured form of the game, namely Twenty20 cricket and in particular the Indian Premier League.

However, I doubt that is the case. It is, in all likelihood, simply a case of the shambolic mismanagement of cricket’s purest form of the game; the form which all true cricket lovers most admire; and is where this article ties in with one I was going to write a couple of days ago.

A group of enterprising fans have created a petition called Testing Times which is, I quote, “a campaign for the preservation and protection of Test and First Class cricket around the world.” Their ultimate aim is simple enough (“we want the ICC to stop eroding the importance of Tests by shortening key Test series in order to fit in more limited overs internationals”), but they have decided to start small and the petition itself is one which calls for England’s marquee series against South Africa next summer to be extended from three to four Tests at the expense of a couple of one-day internationals.

The series will undoubtedly be an entertaining one, however long it is, as is demonstrated by the nature of the South Africans’ current series against Australia, but would surely benefit from an extra Test.

As for the campaign itself, well their Twitter account has over 1,500 followers and they have already been retweeted by Jonathan Agnew, Ben Stokes and Lalit Modi among others. They also have 600 likes on Facebook and over 1,800 signatures on their petition – their ultimate aim is 28,000 (the capacity of Lord’s) - so far . Who knows, perhaps if they reach 100,000 they may even get a debate in the House of Commons!

Joking aside, it is debatable whether the campaign can be successful in the era of cricket that is dominated by TV companies and broadcast rights – the reason for the postponement of the Test Championship – but it can’t hurt to sign anyway. Can it?

How Will India Replace The Dravid-Tendulkar-Laxman Axis?

Watching the final day of the opening Test between India and the West Indies, we saw Sachin Tendulkar miss out in his latest quest for his hundredth international century and VVS Laxman guide his side to an impressive victory.

Both players were in supreme form and their 71-run partnership ensured there was no way back for the West Indies, who fought gamely, but came up short, despite having played exceptionally well over the first two days.

It was a tale of the two number fives – Shivnarine Chanderpaul scoring a century and then 47 to lead West Indies’ charge and his opposite number Laxman making up for a first innings failure with a consummate unbeaten 58 in 105 balls including some typically wristy leg-side strokes.

VVS Laxman - Irreplaceable?

VVS Laxman - Irreplaceable? Image: REUTERS / Action Images

India are undoubtedly going to face a slight dip when they have to replace Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid but do they have anybody ready to play Laxman’s role waiting in the wings?

His performances in his side’s second innings are exemplary – if not quite as good as Dravid or Tendulkar. It was he who carried India to unlikely wins over Australia in both Kolkata in 2001 and Mohali in 2008. He averages more than 55 against Australia – who during his career have more often than not been the best side in the world which is a testament to his being a man for the big match.

The three players complement each other perfectly, of course – Dravid as the solid, traditional number three bat allowing Tendulkar and Laxman’s free-flowing style to come through.

While the former style of player is rapidly going out of fashion – you would hardly call Darren Bravo or Shaun Marsh a blocker – there remains plenty of room in the game, and eventually India’s middle-order for prolific strokemakers.

Cheteshwar Pujara, Suresh Raina, Subramaniam Badrinath, Virat Kohli, Yuvraj Singh, Mohammad Kaif are some of the players who have been tried but which of them, if any, have what it takes to nail down a spot in the middle order when India’s talented triumvarate decide to call it a day?

India have been blessed to have had so many talented cricketers at their disposal at the same time during the last ten years. There is talent coming through the ranks but whether they have the longevity and class of their predecessors will dictate India’s future on the field – particularly in Tests.

In the meantime, it’s going to be fascinating for the rest of us to see who gets picked and then how they do. Who would you pick and how long do you think Dravid, Tendulkar and Laxman can play on for?

Will Tendulkar Score His 100th Century Against The West Indies?

Let us leave the spot-fixing trial to one side for a moment to focus on on-field matters as there is some good quality Test cricket both underway and coming up.

Sachin Tendulkar

Sachin Tendulkar - due to score his 100th international century? Picture: REUTERS / Action Images

The Pakistan-Sri Lanka battle has been fascinating while Zimbabwe are on the back foot against New Zealand but I want to turn your attention to India playing the West Indies, in which the first Test begins on Sunday in Delhi.

On the face of it, India should be plenty strong enough to win the three-match series and there is a strong chance that sometime in the next month Sachin Tendulkar will score an unprecedented 100th international century.

Yet, if you look at current form this is a meeting between a side that has lost its last four matches (India) against a team on a high, fresh from winning an overseas series for the first time in eight years and with an exciting young leg-spinner in their ranks (Devendra Bishoo).

India, meanwile, have rung the changes – out go Harbhajan Singh and Suresh Raina, in come Virat Kohli, Ajinkya Rahane and Ravi Ashwin. One wonders whether probable Test debuts, Rahane and Kohli doubtless being touted as the next Tendulkars/Dravids/Sehwags and Tendulkar’s impending landmark could just distract the Indian side.

Make no doubt about it, in Kirk Edwards, Kraigg Brathwaite and Kieran Powell, the West Indies have unearthed some fine batsmen who appear to have the temparement to match their skills and they will be stronger for including Adrian Barath in their side.

The perfect result for the neutrals is probably a 2-1 series win for either side with Tendulkar scoring his 100th century – probably earlier rather than later – but as both sides look to rebuild their sides it could offer several pointers for the future.

How Big Is Cricket’s Match-Fixing Iceberg?

With three Pakistani cricketers behind bars tonight and the trial itself throwing up more questions than answers, was the judge, Mr Justice Cooke, right when he indicated that this case represented the ‘tip of the iceberg’ as far as fixing in cricket is concerned, and if he was, just how big is the iceberg?

The most astonishing day of an astonishing trial came yesterday when agent Mazhar Majeed, under cross-examination prior to sentencing, admitted that corruption was rife in the Pakistan team and that there were competing cells engaged in corruption within the team. Majeed alleged that a player, named only as “X” and not involved in this trial, was the creator of this particular cell, in collaboration with Salman Butt, and that he paid £65,000 to fast bowler Mohammad Asif to “buy” his loyalty.

Now how seriously these claims, made by a man who boasted that he knew Brad Pitt and Roger Federer, should be taken is open to debate. Indeed, if they were isolated allegations then they could be dismissed as the deluded utterings of a power-hungry man, but they are backed up by startling evidence – both new and old.

To begin with, the News of the World investigation named several other players in connection with the scam last August, including Umar and Kamran Akmal, Imran Farhat and Wahab Riaz – all of whom have since played for Pakistan – and claims that were repeated in court by Majeed. Thankfully the ICC is at least considering launching an investigation into some of the claims, but their Anti-Corruption Unit have no police powers and some vital evidence is known to have been destroyed.

As for the PCB itself, they too are making small steps in the right direction. Their new team, led by the impressive Misbah-ul-Haq and boosted by a couple of potential new heroes in Junaid Khan and Azhar Ali, is going about its business in an understated but successful way in the UAE, and chairman Ijaz Butt has been relieved of his post. However, the reactions of a minority of their ’fans’ and some of the players’ families are alarming - a select few have suggested that the three players were victims of a set-up operation – while the feeling persists that if more had been done after the conclusion of the Justice Qayyum report a decade earlier then cricket may have been spared its present pain. It is a sad fact that players implicated in that inquiry, and in others since, continue to play and coach cricket in countries all over the world; a fact that serves to remind us that this is far from being a Pakistani-only problem.

Indeed, it would be easy to turn this case into a vilification of one country’s sportsmen as is so often the case, but the problem runs far deeper. Australians have been implicated in the past – Mark Waugh and Shane Warne are still under suspicion in some quarters – while Hashan Tillakaratne has warned of the problems in Sri Lankan cricket only to be silenced. English county cricket has the ongoing case of Essex bowler Mervyn Westfield, with Marlon Samuels of the West Indies; Herschelle Gibbs from South Africa and Maurice Odumbe of Kenya all linked to cases in recent past. The IPL and ICL have also been plagued by whispers over the years, as a format that is ripe for corruption is played among teams that have no real identity. Meanwhile the increasing television coverage of worldwide domestic cricket is making it ever easier to bet on games played many hundreds of miles away, thus creating the perfect conditions for corruption to thrive and leaving the impression that the Judge may just be right when he said that it could be the tip of the iceberg.

What do you think is the answer and if you were charged with cleaning up cricket what would you do? Please let us know in the comments below.