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.

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Five Things We Learned In County Cricket

 1)      Lancashire could be the new home for the left arm spinner

For Lancashire the story of the match prior to the toss was the return of James Anderson to first class duty, yet by the end of the match there was only one thing person wanted to talk about, the art of spin was alive and well in Manchester.

That’s not that Anderson bowled badly, three wickets and some decent overs under his belt were good for a first start, it’s simply the spectacular manner in which Warwickshire collapsed under the dual threat posed by Gary Keedy and Simon Kerrigan who took 3-2 and 5-7 in the second innings.

Lancashire’s seam bowlers have been largely responsible for their flying start to the season with Glen Chapple, Sajid Mahmood and Oliver Newby all starting well, but here it was their spinners leading the way which is a promising sign once the pitches start to dry. Certainly their current speciality appears to be the slow left arm spinner, with the dependable Gary Keedy continuing to thrive but the development of Simon Kerrigan is very promising. Kerrigan has a strong action, good control and a decent temperament, all ingredients for a left-arm spinner to perform well.

Add in the potential of Stephen Parry who has shown promise in T20 cricket previously and you have three capable performers, all of whom practice one of spin bowling’s more underrated forms. Certainly in English cricket it is undergoing something of a revival with Monty Panesar at Sussex and Danny Briggs at Hampshire, but judging by the performance on Friday, it is Lancashire which is the real home of left-arm spin in England.

2)      Northants old boys have still got it

County cricket is undergoing something of a youthful revolution at the moment as the ECB’s attempts to incentivise youth development for counties encourages them to give greater opportunities to younger players. So much so that the old boys who were once to be found on County team-sheets up and down the country are very much becoming a thing of the past.

Yet amidst the juvenile excitement and talk of potential stars of the future, one club is still providing a home for the old boys of County cricket and so far they are proving their worth.

Northants’ recruitment policy may never be everyone’s cup of tea-too many Kolpaks down the years, not enough youth development-but they know how to get the best out of what they have, and still manage to reinvigorate some of cricket’s elder statesmen. But the decision to sign Chaminda Vaas last season proved to be the bargain of the season, and he has continued to both take wickets and score runs this season too.

Then there is the captain Andrew Hall, forgotten by South Africa yet still the anchor of Northamptonshire’s middle order and one of the canniest bowlers on the circuit. David Sales continues to provide cameos which demonstrate why he could have been one of England’s finest but for injury. Then there is James Middlebrook, another underrated operator who was apparantely written off when he left Essex but who has been reinvigorated at Wantage Road as has Mal Loye following his exit from Lancashire.

They help balance a team which remains one of the weakest on paper as it continues to accommodate some largely unproven players such as Lee Daggett, James Brooks and Alex Wakely but thanks to their experienced heads they continue to punch above their weight. Clearly the old boys have still got it.

3)      Surrey’s ground-staff know their own strength

Credit to Chris Adams and the Surrey ground staff, they realised their overwhelming strength this season and they are determined to make the most of it. Thus when they left a bit of green on the Oval wicket ahead of their game against Lancashire it was probably in the knowledge that the fastest bowling attack in the country were probably going to be too much for Leicestershire.

In truth that is exactly how it turned out. Surrey’s strength this season has been the four pronged pace attack, led in this match by the returning Chris Tremlett, Pakistan seamer Yasir Arafat and the ever-developing duo of Jade Dernbach and Stuart Meaker. Here they were comprehensive in their demolition of Leicestershire, particularly in the second innings where only James Taylor could defy them on a pitch which was livelier than many the Oval has had in recent years.

Not that it was always like that during the match, when Surrey batted they batted well and showed that application and discipline could ensure runs would flow. But this was a pitch which suited their attack more than Leicestershire’s, one with bounce and decent carry which suited their quicker, taller bowlers. If the ground-staff have any sense they’ll keep preparing one’s like that all season, it could be the best way forward for Surrey. After years of flat wickets, a lively pitch for a lively attack could well be the answer.

4)      Rotation policies can do counties more harm than good

Come the end of the season one hopes that Middlesex aren’t left to rue this weekend’s match in Bristol when the leaders were held to a draw by Gloucestershire. That’s not to say they didn’t perform up to scratch, they did. Well enough in fact to dominate most of the match, but not enough to push for the win.

Their batting was good, but it was their bowling that ultimately let them down. It was a good match for the seamers with Corey Collymore, Tim Murtagh and Toby Roland-Jones all taking wickets-Roland-Jones indeed managing to take a 5-fer, but only two wickets were taken by Gareth Berg and the rest of their attack went wicketless.

So what was missing? Well actually it was probably Steven Finn who has started the season like a train and appears a cut above the rest of the bowlers in Division Two. Finn was actually in Bristol, but as he revealed on Twitter, was being rested due to a rotation policy. One wonders quite what Angus Fraser, always a bowler who preferred to bowl as much as possible, was thinking though ultimately it has cost Middlesex. With Finn here, they would probably have won and kept up their early momentum. Sure he could have benefitted from the rest, but ultimately Middlesex have shot themselves in the foot.

5)      Craig Kieswetter is back and better than ever

Last season could have been a tremendous one for Craig Kieswetter. He won the World Twenty20 with England and played a key role in the Final victory over Australia. He left the tournament with a winner’s medal and potentially a 50-over slot as England’s opener for the World Cup in India within his grasp. Yet something went wrong. Kieswetter was brought back down to earth in a tough limited overs series against Bangladesh and then Australia as he was frequently exposed by the moving ball early in his innings as his unconventional technique proved his undoing.

He was then swiftly dispatched back to County cricket by Flower who opted for Davies ahead of him insisting that work with Somerset and rehabilitation in County Cricket would help in the long run. Yet if that was the aim, last summer it didn’t work as he failed to register a first class hundred and averaged just 27 runs in first class cricket-hardly the stuff which would knock on the door for England honours.

Thus while England were winning the Ashes and then off to India for the World Cup, Kieswetter had to watch from the Caribbean were a winter of technical work with Graham Thorpe and plenty of matches against regional opposition were designed to get him back on track.

Judging by his start to the season, the work has paid off. The sages assure us he has returned a less frenetic cricketer and far more assured both against the moving ball and the short one. After a couple of quiet County matches, he has exploded into life-starting with a couple of fine CB40 knocks before notching a century against Worcestershire on a wicket which was proving troublesome for even Somerset’s top order.

It’s a start, but a promising one which suggests that the breakthrough summer he was due last year could well be in the offing. Keep up form like this and an ODI recall will be little more than a formality while a winter away on full tour could well follow. For Somerset fans the good news is that Kieswetter is back on form, though the bad news is that England will know that too.

The Ashes: Chris Tremlett selection shows England are in it to win it in Perth

All signs point to Chris Tremlett rather than Tim Bresnan replacing Stuart Broad in the England team for the third test.

Bresnan’s credentials as an experienced international bowler, not to mention a strong and consistent one capable of mastering the Fremantle Doctor, as well as his superiority as a batsman were believed to have tipped the odds his way.

Yet Tremlett is very much the coming man in terms of selection.

A surprise choice at the start of the tour-given that he hadn’t been selected since 2007-but on the face of it perhaps a wise one.

Tremlett’s career is one of underachievement owing in part to an injury-ravaged career, a personality and disposition which lent many to label him “weak” and a promise which ought to have brought him more international appearances.

But a move to Surrey has reignited him, getting him fitter and stronger physically and mentally and shifting him from his comfort zone. Now he can look forward perhaps to more international appearances given that Tremlett has every attribute to succeed at the highest level, which many people have identified in him from the start of his career.

Certainly what England will get now is a focused individual who is in good form so far this tour, bar his last appearance where he bowled tidily rather than threateningly. But his combination of good pace with speeds from between 85-90mph, height at 6ft 7in and consistent control at line and length. As far as attributes go his mimic those which Broad gave to England most closely.

But more importantly he, out of all the possible candidates, will pose a bigger threat to Australia’s batsmen.

And really that is the point about England, and this tour. They are looking to threaten Australia in their own backyard.

When you’re picking a four-man bowling attack, going for the most consistent and the most likely wicket-taker is important. But this is also a move by England to show that their focus is as much on taking Australian wickets rather than focusing on the better all-round option in Bresnan.

Bresnan, a safer bet, would have offered a better all-round balance both with the bat and in the field, but Tremlett provides then with a better cutting edge. In the past England would have played it safe but this selection speaks volumes for the attitude which both Strauss and Flower are using to tackle Australia.

Leading 1-0 in the series, it would have been tempting to play it safe on a ground where England’s record is poor and bat out a draw with a line-up which bats well down to number 10 with Bresnan.

Instead in Tremlett they have sacrificed the safety net and opted for the biggest challenge to Australia’s batsmen. It is a bold move which shows England are focused on winning; Tremlett’s selection probably gives them the best chance of doing just that.