Duncan Fletcher v Andy Flower: The clash of the summer

Not since the days of 2005 when Australia came to town has a visiting team been greeted by such a heightened sense of expectation and excitement since the arrival of this India team. While talk of this series defining who quite rules the cricketing landscape is perhaps justified (though South Africa may have something to say about that), it is the personnel clashes on both sides which make this clash such an appealing one.

The contests simply jump off the pages. The captains-conservative Strauss vs aggressive Dhoni, the flashing blade of Sehwag vs the efficient, less effervescent Cook, Swann vs Harbhajan, Tendulkar vs Pietersen and Anderson against Zaheer are just some of the clashes that run throughout both sides from 1 to 11. Yet the deciding clash of the summer could well be the one taking place off the field, that of Andy Flower against his predecessor Duncan Fletcher.

Comparisons between the two are obvious, both are Zimbabwean, both excelled as players (Flower more so), both are serious-minded, organised individuals who combine the technobabble of a business management mastermind with the cricketing nous of someone who has spent years learning and absorbing every nugget of information about their sport. If they are both seldom heard in public (not a bad thing in a coach), then when they do speak they mostly speak with great clarity and perception which provide a welcome contrast to the tired soundbites of most modern coaches. Not to mention both inspire great loyalty from their players, perhaps a key quality in any coach, as England players to this day count Fletcher as a friend as well as a mentor while also displaying a similar sense of respect for Flower.

Yet in some ways the comparisons can perhaps be overegged, for though they share much in common, the differences in styles remains marked. Fletcher for one in his time as England coach was against County Cricket and its demands on his players whereas Flower has positively embraced it as a means of developing players. Gone too is the protective bubble which surrounded England players under Fletcher protecting them from criticisms and potential damaging outside influences, instead replaced by a more open-minded, embracing and positive outlook from Flower who urges them to take criticism head on, take responsibility and approach every challenge as an experience to be enjoyed.

Meanwhile Fletcher’s technical analysis is perhaps more incisive and doubtless he will be aware of the varying weaknesses which exist in this England side which could give him an edge. Whereas by comparison the structure and organisation which Flower has built up in his three years as England coach provide them with a strong framework which has yet to fall down despite numerous challenges across the world. Though for that he must surely thank Fletcher who during his time as England coach putting the starting blocks in place.

They are two of cricket’s finest coaches, two men whose strengths far outweigh their weaknesses, and who share much in common but also whose differences mark them out as very much their own men. For all the qualities on show from both the English and Indian teams this summer, it could be the qualities of two Zimbabweans which could hold the key.

England vs Sri Lanka: An Australian kind of victory

At the start of the fifth day England were not supposed to win their Test against Sri Lanka, the rain was falling, the leader of their bowling attack was injured and frankly time was running out. Yet the fact they did it, maintaining their winning momentum from the Ashes, and took all ten Sri Lankan wickets in 24.4 overs was a remarkable achievement and one which kicked a key summer for this team into gear.

For whatever the criticisms of the Sri Lankan batting, which was always likely to struggle if Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene failed to fire, plenty of credit is due to England. Their bowlers followed up on the fine work of their batting line-up (three centurions-one with a daddy hundred, another with a grand-daddy) and exerted the kind of pressure which Sri Lanka’s bowlers failed to build up.

The steepling bounce and consistent length of Chris Tremlett was complimented by some wonderfully skillful spin bowling from Graeme Swann and a more consistent showing from Stuart Broad who was far more consistent with line and length second time round. There was no way out for the Sri Lankan batsmen, choked by the relentless pressure of England’s bowlers and the scoreboard and match situation. They had no hope of victory, and England exerting pressure, took the draw out of the equation.

It was a victory which had shades of the kind of disintegration which Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting practised at their height of dominance. Time after time, Australia’s stellar batting line-up would rack up substantial scores and then with the seam of Glenn McGrath, the pace of Jason Gillespie and Brett Lee and then the spin of Shane Warne. Ponting once remarked ahead of an Ashes tour: “Mental disintegration? That’s what it’s all about, really, trying to keep England under pressure from ball one of the series until the series ends. That’s what our whole cricket theme, if you like, is based on.”

For Andrew Strauss and the veterans of England’s 2006/2007 Ashes tour this will have brought back shades of their own collapse in Adelaide when Warne got into their minds and turned a seemingly inevitable situation around. Just as England then seemed destined for defeat once the collapse began, so Sri Lanka seemed destined for defeat here-the hunted had become the hunter.

England: And then there were three

As the old saying goes: “Three’s a crowd” so as England wake up to a new era containing not two but three captain’s it is certainly a momentuous occasion, indeed an unprecedented one in the history of English cricket.

Split captaincy has always been an uncomfortable notion for some captain’s to take, Nasser Hussain for one was set against it when Michael Vaughan took over, and it was little surprise when Vaughan succeeded Hussain as Test captain just a year after as Hussain felt the winds of change were blowing against him.

Of course the danger now is that Strauss may find himself threatened on not one front but two by this new development, if both Cook and Broad were to thrive and Strauss was to falter as Test captain.

Yet Strauss’ argument that dropping the ODI captaincy would help prolong his Test career made sense as did his argument that the World Cup is the natural end of the cycle for an ODI skipper-Ricky Ponting, Graeme Smith and Kumar Sangakkarra have all also moved on.

His record as Test captain is superb, and with victories at home and away in Australia, a draw in South Africa and an exemplary home record in Test matches it is worth sacrificing one role to help prolong arguably his most important one.

The decision to promote Stuart Broad is the most eye-catching, especially as Paul Collingwood’s record as T20 captain-a World Record run of victories and status as World Champions speak volumes. Yet Collingwood’s form with the bat has declined sharply and though he offered plenty in his bowling and fielding his faltering form became too hard to ignore.

Though Broad may a surprising choice, looking at the field of potential candidates it is perhaps understandable. Not withstanding Kevin Pietersen on the basis of past transgressions and Eoin Morgan for fear of overburdening a key cog in England’s middle order, Broad was the only one left. Furthermore he is likely to best represent the next generation of England T20 internationals such as Kieswetter, Stokes and Buttler-young, feisty and potentially explosive.

Perhaps the most controversial one is Alistair Cook as ODI skipper which was always likely to further cement Cook’s position as Strauss’ long term successor.

Many have debated the merits of Cook’s as an ODI batsmen (an average of 33 and a strike rate of 71 so far) and though his captaincy experience in Bangladesh was promising, he still lacks experience for a job which is likely to involve captaining an involving unit. Certainly Ian Bell who has experience in County cricket and a game well-suited to a place in England’s middle order, has a right to feel a touch aggrieved.

Yet the onus is on Cook to prove, like Strauss did before him, that he can push the boundaries of his game and, for want of a phrase, push the boundaries more. Cook’s success in Test cricket is built on patience and judicious selection outside off-stump and an ability to punish anything short or pushed onto his legs.

Improvements will have to be made but Cook will no doubt be aware of that, as will Flower and batting coach Graham Gooch. But if he wants a role model to base such improvements on then he could ask the very man he has replaced as ODI captain.

These are big calls from Andy Flower, three choices, three captains and three very different style of leaders whom he must deal with. Only time will tell if all three choices turn out to be the right ones.

Sensible cricket is at the heart of both Somerset and England’s recipes for success

Two games in 24 hours witnessed two thoroughly proficient performances of limited overs cricket as first England beat Pakistan and then Somerset defeated Essex in their Pro40 Semi-Final to set up a final against Warwickshire at Lords.

Both teams are enjoying a prolific time within limited overs cricket, England fresh from being crowned T20 World Champions have emerged victorious in series over Bangladesh and Australia, while Somerset reached the Twenty20 Finals Day only to be pipped by Hampshire and are now in the Pro40 final-not to mention being genuine contenders for the County Championship.

On paper there are plenty of similarities between the two teams, both are incredibly fit, well organised and drilled. Both are well led both in terms of captaincy and with the bat, England by Andrew Strauss, Somerset by Marcus Trescothick.

Both also contain versatile bowling attacks, with real quality spinners in Graham Swann and Murali Kartik, and explosive young talent in Eoin Morgan and Steven Davies, and for Somerset Jos Buttler and England’s very own Craig Kieswetter.

Yet the key for both teams, beyond the sheer depth of talent at their disposal, is that both harness it in the right way-using their talent to full, something which both team’s could have been accused of not doing in the past.

The buzz word around each team has been sensible cricket, not so much approaching matters in a cavalier matter but approaching it with a methodical, calculated approach while also performing their key skills under pressure.

Take England, who have yet to concede more than 150 runs in a T20 innings in almost 2 years, and Somerset, who lost only two of their 16 T20 matches and just two of their 11 Pro40 games. These are not statistics achieved through chance, but through rigorous effort and a methodical, common sense approach.

Certainly, the improvements in both lie in the powerful management both on, and off the field-both by their coaches Andy Flower and Andy Hurry, and on the field with Strauss and Trescothick.

The coaches are particularly key, Flower built on the base which was constructed by the well-meaning, but under-respected Peter Moores, who laid the foundations for this success. So too, as Hurry and Trescothick built on the base constructed by Justin Langer during his time as captain.

Langer, a keen workaholic whose career outlasted many more talented batsmen as a result, helped introduce the kind of work ethic and fitness work which were unpopular among certain maverick players like Ian Blackwell, but which has proved beneficial to the likes of James Hildreth and Peter Trego who are thriving, as are the team.

It is about managing resources, covering every base, rigorously planning ahead, and ensuring that skills are performed under even the most pressured of environments. These may sound purely like plain common sense, but that is the very notion which is at the heart of their success. Sensible cricket, which as both England and Somerset are proving, is also successful cricket.

Phoney One Day International War unlikely to provide many clues for Ashes battles’ ahead

Judging by their respective ODI records, and the fact that less than a year ago England were soundly beaten by Australia, and by soundly I mean ritually humiliated, all roads point to an Australian victory.

But this is a different England, a team emboldened by T20 silverware and a new mindset forever verging towards the positive. They have, as Scotland captain Gavin Hamilton put it: “an aura”, and this is an Australian team lacking plenty of household names.

Whereas come Ashes time, England will be coming up against new ball bowlers in the guise of Mitchell Johnson, Peter Siddle and Ben Hilfenhaus, here they come up against Doug Bollinger, Ryan Harris and Josh Hazlewood.

Perhaps that is why, in all seriousness, for all Paul Collingwood’s bold conviction that this is a pre-cursor to the battle’s that lie ahead-in truth much in terms of personnel and of course time, can change.

Not that Australia should be underestimated, in a sense they are very much edging towards a brave new world-one which following this winter’s Ashes, may well be without the Hussey brothers and Ricky Ponting-though their sheer bloody-mindedness should not rule them out of one last crack at an away victory in 2013.

But now both they, and their biggest rivals, can assess just what the future holds. A middle order containing Cameron White-who could very much be a part of the furniture for years to come, Michael Clarke-Ponting’s successor and young wicketkeeper Tim Paine are a sign of things to come on the batting front.

Meanwhile-the hugely promising duo of Steven Smith and Josh Hazlewood-inevitably dubbed the next Warne and Mcgrath-will be worth a watch for England, though perhaps as much in the hope of getting in earlier dents upon their burgeoning reputations.

Yet England themselves will feel pressure, pressure to build momentum, to show that in a year they have gone from whipping boys to World Cup contenders.

Throughout the team, there are questions that need answers.

Is Kieswetter the answer in 50 over cricket? Does Strauss score at a sufficient click to justify automatic selection? Will Jimmy Anderson end the series as England’s pace bowling leader once again? And do Michael Yardy’s darts really work in a longer version than T20?

These are questions which England’s selectors will hope to find answers for now, rather than later.

Perhaps it is this which is why this tournament, the phoney war, means little. It is a means of testing the water against a familiar foe, but proves little of real significance.

It is a battle between two of cricket’s great rivals, but in truth the results will count for nothing in the grander scheme of things. Though the answers both Australia and England find may yet prove useful, the real test will be in the greater battles which lie ahead.

One Day selections show England’s eyes are firmly fixed on the World Cup

Showing that they are not contented with simply leaving the T20 World Cup victory in the West Indies as a one-off, England’s selectors and management are showing the kind of strategy aimed at mounting a sustained charge for the 50 over trophy, even though the event is months away.

One of the features of their recent success was the acknowledgement that square pegs in round holes do not work, so gone were the likes of Michael Vaughan and Alistair Cook opening an inningss, as dashers like Craig Kieswetter and Michael Lumb were picked.

Now England’s 50 over’s squad selection shows that they have learnt from those lessons and built a squad of players well-suited to limited overs cricket, and capable of thriving in the kind of conditions they will encounter in India at the World Cup.

So Craig Kieswetter, the man who provides the dash at the top of the order is picked, little surprise given the recent limited overs form of Matt Prior.

While some may have speculated whether Michael Lumb would also have been picked, Kieswetter-who will also keep wicket-is a far better batsmen, has already racked up a sub-continent ODI hundred and is a far more adept player of spin-which will be vital in India.

An ability to thrive against the spinners may also have played a part in Ian Bell’s inclusion, having been omitted from all international short-form cricket since November 2008.

Such an omission was surprising, especially given that Bell would generally be ranked as one of England’s better one day international batsmen, but perhaps indicative of the travails which had begun to afflict his game after three years of international cricket.

But while the likes of Owais Shah and Ravi Bopara took his place to mixed results, Bell has steadily been improving in county cricket.

Few would argue that he has returned a better player, as a Test match average of 71 in 2010, and the memories of the responsibility of his knocks in South Africa and Bangladesh attest to. Plus given that he remains England’s best player of spin bowling, such a return should be welcomed.

There is also the return of Michael Yardy, whose no frills brand of slow bowling worked well in tandem with the guile of Graeme Swann.

Whether Yardy can thrive in the longer form of One Day International Cricket remains to be seen, but his selection shows that England are aware of the types of conditions likely to be facing them in India, and hope to integrate him into their plans.

Though he may not be as big a spinner of the ball as the likes of Adil Rashid, Monty Panesar and James Tredwell, he is a multi-dimensional cricketer with bags of experience, and ought not to be overawed should he and his team struggle.

The other main talking point of the squad was the presence of Andrew Strauss. Such talk of omitting him from the ODI captain was short-sighted.

While his average, and style may not make him an ideal candidate to open the innings, Strauss’s game has evolved to the stage where he is capable of making a run-a-ball innings, and drop anchor while others around him take risks.

Meanwhile his status as England ODI captain remains unchallenged, further justifying his selection.

While some have argued that Paul Collingwood deserves the role, judging by his haste to relinquish the role two years ago it is not a position he particularly craves.

Indeed some would argue he was able to thrive as T20 in the Caribbean in the knowledge that Strauss was viewed as England’s overall captain, liberating him from some of the burdens which he has previously encountered.

Overall the selections hint at a permanence and desire to build a core group of players who will be in India in 2011.

While there is still time for the likes of Rashid, Flintoff and perhaps even Finn or Shahzad to stack their claim for inclusion in the World Cup, England appears to be building steadily towards a competition.

After years of short-term chopping and changing searching for success, England have learned that playing the long game can be the best way to win in Cricket’s shortest form.