The beginning of the end for County Cricket’s congested calendar?

The good news is that change in County Cricket coming. The bad news? Only in 12 months time.

It’s the change which County Cricket’s fans, it’s players, even it’s coaches have wanted, a new structure which promises to reduce the season by eight to twelve days.

Having watched county sides slog it out game after game over a domestic summer, it’s a change that is long overdue. Good quality cricketers may actually get sometime to rest and recover between games, a situation which ought to eradicate the frankly farcical situation which Somerset faced when they had to dash from the Twenty20 finals day (which to boot they lost!) straight to a Pro40 match against Lancashire two days later.

In total Somerset, who ultimately ended up winning zero trophies despite being in two finals and finishing level on points with Nottinghamshire for the title, played almost 50 games from May to September. Premier League teams play less matches in a nine month season.Before the season former England coach Duncan Fletcher, no fan of County Cricket’s slog, wrote:

“Nothing is ever done about the glaringly obvious fact that county cricketers play too much cricket. It has to be the major reason why England have never won a global one-day trophy.

“Not only do they play too much, they also play it at the wrong time. Generally games are tagged on to the end of four-day championship matches, when players are tired, and sometimes from long hours of travelling as well as playing. There is no time to think and reflect, no time to rest, no time to practise.”

Thankfully having seen the error of their ways, the ECB has devised a strategy which will eventually reduce the number of days which players play cricket.

However, the details are muddled and unclear, with few sides yet to agree on what form the cuts will take. Furthermore as the talks regarding the cuts have gone on so long, they will not be implemented until 2012. Which means one more year of the county treadmill which neither players or spectators want.

Then you get to the minor details, for instance the reform of the Pro40 competition back to 50-Overs or the refusal to consider changing the County Championship format or the Twenty20 competion.

These are good competitions, producing good cricket and cricketers when there is less cricket being played. County teams play a huge number of Twenty20 games which has prompted talk of overkill, with county’s struggling to attract spectators on a consistent basis.

Though some counties, Essex and Yorkshire in particular, do very well out of Twenty20, other poorer counties do not-so keeping the competition in a status quo is hardly ideal.

County Cricket is the lifeblood of English cricket, a quintessential part of being a cricket follower and as we have seen recently, a fine breeding ground for players to graduate into the England team.

The cuts in playing time, if and when they eventually come could be a vitally important step to preserving the game.

Good quality cricket can attract spectators in vast numbers, but equally too much of it can drive them away. Reductions in the number of games, helping to preserve the quality of the cricket, can only be a good thing.

The domestic game may never be able to fulfil the needs and hopes of players, fans, coaches and administrators, but it can still do a lot more to help ensure that all parties’ concerns are catered for.

Though there’s a long way to go but perhaps this decision, after years of piling more cricket onto the County calendar, could get things moving in the right direction at last.

 

 

 

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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.

Michael Yardy personifies England’s limited over’s approach

Whisper it quietly, but for once England may finally have got themselves a limited overs team which they can be proud of.

Having conquered all in the Caribbean during the World T20 and continuing their good form during the English summer, England’s momentum in the shorter form of the game shows no signs of stopping-as their victory over Pakistan on Sunday showed.

The importance of that victory is relatively minor given that Pakistan have bigger problems to deal with, but achieved without Kevin Pietersen, arguably the team’s biggest gun, it is a notable achievement.

Not that England achieved it without struggling along the way, slumping to 62-5 when Luke Wright moved too far across to a Shahid Afridi straighter ball but thanks to Eoin Morgan and Michael Yardy they managed to make their target of 129 with relative ease.

The importance of this is that it shows the collective strength which is a key part of this England team. When others fail, others step up to the plate.

This is a team who work well together, this is a team which lacks star names-especially given Pietersen’s absence-but which has 11 players who all contribute in all facets of the game. There are no passengers in this team, just players who field superbly and either bat or bowl well-sometimes even both.

No-one personifies this approach more than Yardy, whose 35 not out and 1-21 earned him the man of the match award on Sunday.

On paper Yardy would probably lag behind Sussex team-mate Monty Panesar, Adil Rashid and James Tredwell on the list of England spinners.

But as an experienced performer, Sussex captain indeed, and also a capable batsman and fielder, Yardy offers an all-round package to this team which makes him a vital part of this team.

This variety of abilities which Yardy boasts is very much the personification of his team.

On paper, he is not the most talented of players, but his variety of talent makes him a vital performer for the team, and thus is a crucial part of England’s gameplan in limited overs cricket.

He is but one of a number of players who contribute in all facets of the game, much like Graeme Swann, Tim Bresnan, Stuart Broad and even the captain Paul Collingwood.

It is this which is England’s biggest strength, a collective strength that makes them such a good team in limited overs cricket.

No-one personifies this approach better than Michael Yardy, whose variety as much as his ability make him such a key performer.

Making Sense of England’s One Day and T20 Selections for the Pakistan series

As England’s Test match preparations for the Ashes ended in controversial fashion with the cloud surrounding the Pakistan players, so the final preparations in limited overs cricket begin with a Twenty20 and One Day International series. Their selections for these series have also caused a stir.

The decision to omit Kevin Pietersen-unthinkable two years ago-is the most eye-catching decision, with the batsman issuing a rant bemoaning the decision on his Twitter page. He will now spend the remainder of the season on loan at Surrey honing his game and hoping to recapture some of his form and confidence.

But Pietersen’s omission is not the only eye-catching decision; another is the continued omission of Matt Prior from the limited overs teams, despite his rampant Test match form with Surrey’s Steven Davies named as wicketkeeper in both Twenty20 and ODI squads. While Craig Kieswetter has been forced to concede wicket keeping duties and concentrate on his batting.

Here are the squads in full:

England Twenty20 squad: P Collingwood (c), C Kieswetter, S Davies (wkt), R Bopara, E Morgan, L Wright, T Bresnan, M Yardy, S Broad, G Swann, R Sidebottom, J Anderson.

England one-day international squad: A Strauss (c), S Davies (wkt), J Trott, R Bopara, P Collingwood, E Morgan, L Wright, T Bresnan, M Yardy, S Broad, G Swann, A Shahzad, R Sidebottom, J Anderson.

As the ins and the outs of England’s latest One Day and Twenty20 teams have been announced, here’s looking at the key points of these squads.

Steven Davies – A clear move aimed at building an Ashes squad, beyond the first XI. Davies has been in remarkable form for Surrey since his move from Worcestershire and perhaps represents the best first class/limited overs wicket keeper/batsman. Thus Flower and the England selectors are selecting him to see how he performs at the highest level. Should he succeed, a place on the plane to Australia could well be on the cards.

Ravi Bopara – His form lately has not been that of a man breaking down the door for automatic selection, but with Pietersen’s loss of form Bopara is arguably the next in line as a top order batsmen capable of playing in all forms of the game. Has a chance to impress and show that his game is continuing to improve as he will know it must.

Craig Kieswetter- In for the T20, but out for the ODI, this is a statement about Kieswetter’s current form. Capable of biffing it in the shorter form, which allows him the freedom his game needs to get back on track, but not yet developed enough to be an automatic selection in the 50 over game. Decision to remove gloves is less a statement about his keeping than his batting-overburdening him could do more harm than good.

Jonathan Trott – The opposite of Kieswetter, in for the ODI’s and not for the T20’s. His domestic T20 record deserves consideration but his chances in that form of the game have nosedived following a wretched performance against Pakistan last year which even he admitted he got it horribly wrong.

Only question hanging over his head is can he avoid falling into a go-slow mentality which he has occasionally shown in his so far stellar international career. If he can maintain the pace of his innings during this series a place at number 3 in all forms of the game this winter is not out of the question.

Ajmal Shahzad- Clearly the Yorkshireman’s brand of slingy, swinging, pace bowling is well fancied by the England selectors, but bowlers of his type tend to get hit quite easily in the T20’s. In 50 overs, he could be the star of this series. He’ll be expensive, but he consistently takes wickets with intelligent pace bowling, something which England have lacked in the 50 over game since the departure of Darren Gough.

Kevin Pietersen – The big cahuna of England selection decisions. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this decision is that whereas the batting has for so long relied on Pietersen, not since the World T20, have England relied on Pietersen. His recent form against Bangladesh and Pakistan betray his ring rustiness, and the problems with his game.

To solve this problem England clearly feel Pietersen is best served spending time in the middle in first class cricket. While Pietersen may feel neglected by England after being dropped, he must realise that they are doing this in his best interests and that perhaps some hard yards in lesser climbs are the things he need to refresh and unscramble a game which has become all too cluttered.

At his best Pietersen plays with an uncomplicated freedom, but he needs both confidence and form to do so. Playing for England in this series is no guarantee to restore these two things to his game, playing in County cricket can easily do both. While Pietersen may be feeling unloved by England right now following his omission, in fact England probably feel that some tough love can bring the best out of KP.

Alastair Cook’s loss of form opens the England door to County contenders

As the England test team begins to enter the final straight in their quest to retain the Ashes they appear for the first time in years to be entering an away series in Australia in better shape than their bitter rivals.

While Australia continue be concerned by the fluctuating form of both bowlers and batsman, for Andrew Strauss and Andy Flower this has been a remarkably tranquil period where stability and success have gone hand in hand over the past year.

However the one cloud on England’s horizon is the form of vice captain Alastair Cook.

Cook's loss of form is a real worry for England

After a dramatically poor English summer, it is easy to forget what a productive winter Cook had with a century against South Africa and two against Bangladesh in his first tour as captain.

But now just a matter of months later, Cook looks all at sea. After spending the latter part of last summer working on technical issues which had plagued him during the Ashes he appeared to have hit upon a method which was working.

Yet now the technical issues have re-emerged, with a continued flaw outside off stump making him a target for a fuller ball. As his former Essex team-mate Nasser Hussain commented during Friday’s painstaking innings of 17, “his technique is shot”.

The question now is what do England do with their vice captain. Continuity has been a staple part of their success, and Cook is a vital part of that. Yet with an Ashes Winter looming, can England afford to persevere with their vice captain and back him to come good?

Given Cook’s record you wouldn’t bet against him making a battling hundred in his next innings, but should his woes continue then perhaps the kindest thing to do would be to take him out to allow a refresh and a rethink.

Such a tactic worked for Andrew Strauss when he struggled with his form in 2008 before returning with a battling 177 against New Zealand, it could well work with Cook.

Jonathan Trott: Ready to open?

England are not short of credible candidates who could step up in Cook’s place. The one name among the current team is to suggest pushing Jonathan Trott up to open with Ian Bell coming in at number 3.

Though quite whether England would be willing to jeopardise the success Trott has had as a number 3 in favour of trying him in an opening position he is unaccustomed to, is another matter.

Another option could be to dip into the county cricket pool, which has proved particularly productive for them in recent years given the success of Trott and Morgan over the past 12 months.

Two names standout in the county championship so far this season, Yorkshire’s Adam Lyth and Hampshire’s Michael Carberry.

Adam Lyth: Breakthrough season

Lyth, who sits atop of the run scorers list, is a left handed opener who has enjoyed something of a breakthrough season this year after struggling to break into the Yorkshire team last season.

At 22 he still has plenty of improving to do, but he is well organised and keen to attack at every opportunity-very much a Flower/Strauss sort of batsman.

Carberry on the other hand was capped by England during the Bangladesh tour, where he admittedly struggled-top scoring with 34.

Carberry: Scoring runs for fun

Despite failing to shine, he has enjoyed a fruitful county season-recently scoring two centuries against Durham in Hampshire’s last County game.

A powerful hitter, an excellent fielder and a thoroughly capable batsman, he has plenty of fans including Shane Warne, and remains very much in England’s thoughts as James Whittaker has been a regular at the Rose Bowl this year.

There are certainly options if Cook’s fortunes continue to fade. While his record automatically ensures he will be in the squad for the Ashes trip, only time will tell if he remains in the starting XI.

Competition in a squad is something Andy Flower has wanted for a long time, and Alastair Cook certainly has competition for his place, from both in and outside this England squad.

Pack mentality allows England’s bowlers to thrive in hunt against Pakistan

As Pakistan subsided to their lowest score in a Test Match against England, the sense of inevitability about it all was rather depressing.

Like they had in the series against Australia and at Trent Bridge the Pakistan batting line-up collapsed like a house of cards. Once the opener’s go, no-one has the application necessary to hold out against the swinging ball.

The steady stream of outside edges which flew to the England close fielders were mere catching practice for a slip cordon who are steadily growing into one of the finest in the world under the tutelage of Richard Halsall.

Yet while the inadequacies of the Pakistan batsmen have been the subject of plenty of column inches and TV coverage, credit where credit is due to the England bowlers.

In these conditions these bowlers are in their element, led by James Anderson who is arguably bowling as well as he ever has.

Certainly yesterday with both in and outswing he was too much for the beleaguered batsmen, as his career test bowling average now stands at it’s lowest point since 2003 after picking up 4-20 on the back of his 11 match haul at Trent Bridge.

But while Anderson’s performances in these elements are fast becoming expected, the form of his two young sidekicks Broad and Finn are further reasons for optimism.

Broad in particular bowled his best spell in England since his series defining 5-37 against Australia, picking up 4-38 with a wonderfully spell of line and length bowling, no doubt remembering his recent 11 wicket haul for Nottinghamshire at this ground.

And then there was Finn, though the junior figure in terms of experience and figures of 2-10, his obvious qualities of immaculate line and length, good pace and height suggest that should he stay fit he can be an England Test bowler for many years to come.

Few bowlers can have caused such a stir so quickly, though bigger tests in Australia will lie ahead.

The exciting prospect for England is that Finn does not appear to shy away from any challenge. Plus a healthy sense of common sense, perhaps drummed into him by his mentor Angus Fraser, will not go amiss on the flat pitches of Australia if they are not needed in conditions such as those at Edgbaston yesterday.

Perhaps the key point for this England bowling attack though lies not in the wickets, but the performances together. The last England attack to operate as a unit were that wonderful attack in 2005, and the signs are that a similar rapport is being built up between the three quick bowlers and Graeme Swann in support.

Plus the different ingredients, Anderson with his swing, Broad his line and length and Finn his height make for a potent and challenging attack working in tandem.

Credit too must go to David Saker, England’s new bowling coach who is clearly having a real impact on this attack. Though more a coach of people than of their art, Saker encourages his bowlers to think on their feet and work as a unit. Such qualities are likely to appeal to a group of bowlers who are also not short on brain power.

There will be harder days to come, and certainly the debate about whether England should stick with a four or five-man attack will go on. So too is the desire to inject real pace into this attack-probably the missing ingredient, meaning the likes of Ajmal Shahzad and Graham Onions will come into contention.

Though whatever the changes both in shape and personnel, the key for England will be to retain the focus on the bowlers hunting in a pack. Because as Pakistan found out yesterday, England’s bowling attack is at it’s best when working in tandem.

Overcoming his latest setback could be Andrew Flintoff’s last, great challenge

As the news filtered out about Andrew Flintoff’s latest injury setback, it was hard not to cast one’s mind back to the scene at the Oval when the all-rounder played his final test match for England.

In the aftermath of the euphoria of the Ashes victory, the all-rounder was busy setting out the plan’s for his future career and what would drive him through rehabilitation from his injuries.

Speaking then Flintoff said: “I wouldn’t put myself out, I wouldn’t go through all this if I didn’t think I wanted to be a part of the team. I want to play in the World Cup and I want to play in the Twenty20 World Cup.”

Now with the latest news that Flintoff’s knee is not yet ready for the rigours of cricket in any form, and the fact that he will now have spent a whole year out of cricket, the stark facts are that at 32, we may have seen the last of Andrew Flintoff.

Not that anyone will quite be ready to write Flintoff off. He remains a titanic presence, one of the most dominant personalities in the game in the past 10 years. Yet any hopes of re-establishing himself with England are in jeopardy because in his absence the team have developed considerably in all forms of the game. Far from inhibiting England, it has emboldened them.

It is in this form that Flintoff, the man, the cricketer has established his legend and his fame. Without international cricket, much of the appeal about playing the game he so badly loves will undoubtedly dissipate.

There is the possibility of more cricket with Lancashire, and various teams around the world-such as in Australia and New Zealand-plus his large IPL contract. But such challenges, beyond the obvious financial benefits, will be harder to sustain as the tougher physical obstacles continue to impede his ability to perform at the highest level.

While there has always been something gloriously simplistic about the manner of Flintoff’s cricket, the willingness to run up and bowl fast at every opportunity and to it big sixes whenever he can.

Yet the man himself is far from a mere simpleton, he has throughout his career harboured great ambitions to achieve all that he can, both for himself and for Lancashire, and mostly, for England.

But with his latest injury blow likely to affect Flintoff’s chances of achieving those final goals he set out for the last chapter of his career, now he must begin to accept that those goals could well be beyond him.

As a cricketer, and as a man, Flintoff has had to overcome more than most throughout his career, and while his latest blow compares little to the prospect of facing Australia or the public scrutiny of his captaincy and conduct both in the Ashes and at the World Cup in 2007, overcoming it could be the last, great challenge of his career.