Five Things We Learned In County Cricket

1)      Dominic Cork is the Mark Ramprakash of pace bowling

For years County Cricket has been built on three things: overseas players, young prospects and experienced pros who have been there and done it before. As financial stabilities have become threatened so the number of overseas players and aging players has decreased as County Cricket now bears a more youthful look.

Dominic Cork: As competitive as ever

Yet there are two old pro’s who have bucked the trend, one is Mark Ramprakash of 100 100’s fame, the other is the under-rated Dominic Cork.

Cork is nearly 80 days away from turning 40, he is just 21 wickets away from 1,000 first class wickets at an average of 26 and who brought up his 10,000th first class run against Yorkshire while picking up a first innings five-fer and picking up match figures of 8-126. Ok, so he hasn’t been as prolific as Ramprakash in his elder years (few could be) but he has averaged around 25 with the ball in six of his last eight seasons which is by no means disgraceful and he will probably end up with more wickets than either Andy Caddick or Darren Gough-his great rivals in the England set-up. If Ramprakash continues to remain the epitome of batting excellence as an elder statesman, surely Cork’s continued success after over 20 years in County Cricket make him very much the pace bowling equal of his former England team-mate.

2)      Ed Joyce is the form Irish batsmen

Once upon a time it was Ed Joyce who was the Irish batsmen upon whom England relied. He began in trying circumstances, flourished enough to score a century against Australia before ultimately having it end in ignominy at the 2007 World Cup. Three years in the wilderness forced Joyce to seek a return to Irish colours, embittered by the lack of opportunities provided to him by England selectors.

His World Cup form on his return to Ireland action was disappointing, but this season he has sparkled for Sussex as they continue to defy the critics in Division One.

Ed Joyce: The form of the Irish

Two centuries, two fifties and an average of nearly 60 have played a key part for Sussex so far this season as he has confirmed his status as one of the best batsmen around. Certainly he is the form Irish batsmen, quite something considering the talents of Morgan. But while it will surely be Morgan in contention for an England place this summer it is Joyce, the man who has turned his back on his adopted country, who is the form batsman from the Emerald Isle.

3)      Glamorgan are showing signs of life

It’s fair to say that this winter was no ordinary winter for Glamorgan. Captain and coach left, their best young batsman soon followed and their form batsman of the previous season found himself being told that he was not required to return. In came Alviro Petersen as captain and Matthew Mott, the former New South Wales coach, as the club’s board attempted to appease supporter unrest with some big name appointments and talk of a brave new era at the club. It’s fair to say things have not exactly started swimmingly for the captain and coach as Petersen and his team’s form has fluctuated badly with defeats against Essex and Leicestershire offset by a fighting draw against Surrey and wins against Gloucestershire and now Kent.

Yet the signs of life are growing, certainly though one would excuse Glamorgan fans from being overly optimistic as one of the longer suffering set of fans. Their bowling attack is proving potent with James Harris continuing to develop at a handy rate of knots, Will Owen and Adam Shantry taking wickets and Dean Cosker continuing to thrive as one of the country’s more underrated left-arm spinners by taking 23 wickets already on early season wickets. But their batting needs work, as they have scored just one century all season and appear to lack the bulk of runs provided for them last year by Cosgrove with Petersen struggling to strike a balance between captaincy and good batting form. Yet the fears for the club’s form in the County Championship after their winter of discontent are slowly being put to bed, as the Petersen era is finally getting up off the ground.

4)      The students can give lessons too

This was surely not the way in which Kevin Pietersen envisaged his return to first class cricket, captaining one of the few County sides who have been beaten by a University side-indeed the first at Fenners where the County team have been dismissed in the second innings since 1982. And he fell to a left-arm spinner, surely rounding off a fairly miserable match.

Granted, Pietersen apart, this was a weak Surrey XI but this was still a major coup for a Cambridgeshire side comprised entirely of students and containing only a handful of players on the books of counties including Surrey’s own Zafar Ansari and Warwickshire’s Paul Best. They didn’t just win, but they won handsomely by almost an innings as they outbowled and outbatted their County counterparts and in truth looked much the better team throughout. For once it was nice to see the students, so often the butt of plenty of cutting remarks regarding the first class status of their matches, giving County cricketers a lesson. Proof that the kid’s can be alright after all when given half a chance.

5)      Controversy will always overshadow class

I’m not going to debate the faults of modern journalism, there’s just no point. Salacious incidents and controversies nowadays will forever generate the headlines and overshadow the more mundane, and yet perhaps worthwhile stories which accompany them. It’s the modern media for you. Yet it still seems a shame when moments of inimitable class can get overshadowed by controversy and it happens all too often.

A Mohammad Yousuf masterclass gets overshadowed

Take this weekend’s match between Warwickshire and Worcestershire for example. This game will always be remembered for the wrong reasons: Worcestershire losing three men to injury, the ECB pitch inspectors declaring the pitch unfit and Warwickshire being punished for it. Yet along the way there were some rare moments of class amidst a pitch which played almost like a minefield. Take for instance the first innings hundred and second innings half century by Mohammad Yousuf, an innings which stuck out like a sore thumb and confirmed that despite his advancing years, his touch of class still remains. Think also of 20-yeard old Chris Metters, who on debut took 6-65 in his first ever Championship match. These are moments where class deserves due acclaim, and yet they find it overshadowed by controversy, as is all too often the case.

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Kevin Pietersen and the “curse” of the left-arm spinner: Fact or Fiction?

If anything is indicative of the travails of Kevin Pietersen it is the notion that he is a bunny for any left-arm spinner. For a player who has thrived against some of the world’s best spinners-Shane Warne and Muttiah Muralitheran spring to mind, it is a concern.

The latest example was the straight ball bowled by Steven O’Keefe which Pietersen played around and eventually bowled him. That undoubtedly helped the case of Xavier Doherty for Australian selection, who is a capable left-arm spinner but one whose record is far from distinguished.

The worrying thing for Pietersen will be that this is nothing new. With the notion spreading that Pietersen is a bunny for left-arm spinners-something Yuvraj Singh once labelled him and not helped by his dismissals at the hands of the bowlers in surprisingly similar fashion.

The statistics are revealing: Daniel Vettori and Suliemann Benn are in the list of the top Test wicket-takers against Pietersen-getting him four and three times respectively, while Yuvraj Singh tops the list of wicket-takers against Pietersen in ODIs, while Vettori again features.

But they tell half the story. While Pietersen has been vulnerable to left-arm spinners he still averages around 40 against them. In total he has played 117 innings in Test cricket and has been dismissed 17 times by left-arm spinners-less than half of the total wickets against him from spinners, and both Shane Warne and Murali have got him more times than any left-arm spinner.

The issue stems more from the mode of dismissal, and in particular the much publicised problems Pietersen has about playing around straight balls.

Yet that is more about a technical glitch which Pietersen has when he is not in form. He is at his best playing straight, but when out of form his balance tends to fall away to the offside, and he can therefore play too far on the leg side meaning that he can end up missing the straighter balls while hitting to legside as he did against O’Keefe.

But in a way Pietersen has already worked hard to counter this, taking into account the willingness of umpires to give people LBW due to Hawkeye’s influence, he looked to move his front pad out of the way in Bangladesh. While he may have got out for 99, it was his highest score in an England match since January 2009, and was probably his last sign of real sustained form which showed he could play it and play it well.

Furthermore, some of the stats about Pietersen’s problems against left-arm spin are slightly misleading. Two of his 17 dismissals were attempting to smash a spinner out of the ground to bring up a century-think Paul Harris and Sulieman Benn. He has also been out LBW or bowled only 7 of the 17 times-hardly indicative of a problem playing round his front pad.

Looking further at his stats, he averages marginally less playing against left-arm spinners than right-arm ones (40.58 to 41.28). It suggests that for all the talk of vulnerability to a left-arm spinner there is little difference between left and right handed spinners, which given that Pietersen is renowned as one of the finest players of spin in the world makes the whole issue of left-arm spinners rather perplexing.

While his recent form in England suggested he had an issue more with the moving ball and the accuracy of Mohammed Asif-something which Ben Hilfenhaus will have noticed.

In truth the issue of weakness is probably more fiction than fact. A player of real quality who plays for years will invariably go through peaks and troughs against bowlers and types of bowling-think Gilchrist against Flintoff in 2005. While Pietersen’s dismissals to the left-armers are concern, they probably say more about his form rather than any weakness against a type of bowler.

The evidence suggests that if he can get back in form and adopt some of the plans he already has in place to combat bowlers and attack like he did in his earlier England days, then he could thrive again..  

While the statistics and the performances suggest Pietersen is anything but a bunny against the left-arm spin it’s up to him to prove the naysayers wrong. So, fact or fiction? Only the coming weeks will provide the decisive answer, but it could ultimately go a long way to deciding the outcome of this series.

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.