Five Things We Learned In County Cricket This Week

1)      Marcus Trescothick is getting better

Only an idiot would doubt Marcus Trescothick. In an ideal world he’d still be in the England team, possibly as captain and be both their highest century maker and run scorer but he’s not and sadly the tendency is to treat every county achievement with a sense of “what if”. It is only natural, but does Trescothick, Somerset and the County Championship a disservice by almost diminishing his achievements. Because if anything ‘Banger’ is getting better; no mean feat at the age of 35 and without the motivation of a Test spot to aim for.

Marcus Trescothick: Better than the rest

His captaincy continues to develop; he is an astute and understated leader who has had to lead an often inexperienced batting and bowling line-up while keeping up his form with the bat. Indeed the remarkable thing is that his batting continues to astound. He stands head and shoulders above the rest of the county circuit there. He has notched up 978 runs before the end of May and is over 250 runs away from Varun Chopra, his closest rival. He also boasts the highest average-81.60 and has a strike rate at 71 which is matched only by fellow big hitters Ben Stokes and Ian Blackwell-neither of whom opens.

His latest effort for Somerset-189 in the first innings followed by a typically belligerent 151* off 131 balls was too much for Yorkshire, a county with an attack which contains Ryan Sidebottom and Adil Rashid. Somerset’s fluctuating form this season is often tied to their captain’s, when Trescothick fires, his county tends to as well-that is how crucial he has become and a sign of how good a player he really is.

2)      Ravi Bopara has got serious competition as England’s potential part-timer

Ravi Bopara has every reason to feel aggrieved. One imagines he will have watched this England match with a vested interest given how close he came to selection, and felt more than aggrieved at the sight of James Anderson going off and Jonathan Trott being forced to bowl some overs as a relief bowler. For that was Bopara’s role in this team before Eoin Morgan intervened.

Ben Stokes: The next Collingwood

Instead Bopara was at Chelmsford, getting out twice for single figures and taking three wickets for 130-odd runs, in terms of a riposte it was far from a telling one. Meanwhile elsewhere there were further ominous signs for Bopara in the form of another confident young star that is both scoring runs and taking wickets in Durham’s Ben Stokes.

Stokes, who has already scored two centuries this season, took 7-145 in Durham’s comprehensive victory over Warwickshire. His bowling has never been his strong suit but it has begun to develop with an extra yard of pace added over a winter spent training with the England Lions and the results have manifested themselves in 16 first class wickets at an average of 31. As Ian Botham would put it, his averages are the right way round, 42 with the bat, 31 with the ball this season and if he carries on like this then England honours will surely be just a matter of time. Having just lost one red-headed northerner who bats, bowls and fields well, it would be ironic if England replaced him with another one.

3)      Alviro Petersen really is Glamorgan captain

Of course we all knew that Alviro Petersen was Glamorgan captain, he arrived in such controversial circumstances that we could not have missed it. Yet after his first innings double hundred against Surrey now we can safely say, he REALLY is the Glamorgan captain. The innings itself was special-210 off 352 balls with 24 fours and 1 six-but ultimately in the context of the match it was meaningless as neither side appeared capable of dislodging the other on a relatively tame surface, but in the context of Glamorgan’s season and Petersen’s captaincy it could yet be crucial.

Alviro Petersen: The knock of a captain

This was the innings of a leader, opening the batting and taking responsibility to lead his side forward in a match which had potential significance against one of their promotion rivals. It was one which spoke of a leader, a real captain’s knock which perhaps for the first time we had really seen from Petersen in his tenure. His arrival may have been controversial, but he has been doing a good job in difficult circumstances this season and after an innings such as this, a real captain’s knock, he really has become Glamorgan’s leader.

4)      Lonwabo Tsotsobe has found the only way isn’t Essex

Lonwabo Tsotsobe’s brief stint in county cricket will probably go down as one of those mysterious ones-like the signings of Andy Blignaut by Durham in 2004 (4 wickets at a cost of 50) or Iftikhar Anjum by Surrey in 2009 (8 wickets at 40). Yet Tsotsobe unlike those two was a genuinely gifted international bowler who was seemingly at the top of his game having starred for South Africa in their series against India and performed well at the World Cup. So how he managed to end up with just five first class wickets at an average of 77 will surely remain the subject of much debate.

The mystery of Tsotsobe

It has already proved to be quite the storm with Paul Grayson publicly slating the player (a rare event for a County coach) after the player himself had used his Twitter feed to bemoan the environment at the club and his decision to move there instead of staying in South Africa. The exact reasons behind his failure will now be investigated thoroughly by both Essex and Cricket South Africa to determine both why it occurred and how it could have been avoided.

It is a great shame because county cricket can be a great learning environment for pace bowlers. Zaheer Khan said this week that all Indian pace bowlers should go there after his spell at Worcestershire in 2004. Thus it is a real shame that Tsotsobe has gone, a shame for Essex and South Africa but most of all for the player himself, because what has now gone down as one of the worst moments in his career should have been one of his finest.

5)      County cricket can learn a lesson from Adrian Shankar

If Tsotsobe’s story is a mystery then what can you make of the case of Adrian Shankar? The story is covered in far greater detail here, but needless to say the story of a cricketer who managed to bluff his way into first class cricket will go down in history. Though the story hardly reflects well on Shankar himself, what to make of the counties who signed him without proper investigation. Neither Lancashire or Worcestershire have exactly covered themselves in glory in this tale, and the apparent ease with which Shankar has managed to forge a career will serve as a warning to them in the future. As much blame as Shankar will ultimately take for his part it is worth remembering that with appropriate measures in place he would never have managed to get so far. Next time, if there is a next time, they will surely have learned their lesson.

England: Eoin Morgan foils the Selectors

One wondered whether in the midst of their gargantuan partnership for England Lions against Sri Lanka whether Samit Patel was tempted to turn to Eoin Morgan and utter as Graham Gooch once did to Ian Botham, “who writes your scripts?” Because this was certainly one of those moments of which star turns are made, despite the relatively humble surroundings in which it came.

Eoin Morgan flown back from the IPL last week where he was shunted around, failed to score runs, without little more than practice against net bowling to get him into the groove for first class cricket was being thrown in at the deep end for what was effectively a straight shootout for a Test spot against a man who has made all the right noises, done all the right things and scored all the right runs.

Yet despite all those odds, those questionmarks, once he got out into the middle they all quickly melted away. His form was good, his eye importantly was good. That aura and authority which has been eroded after more than six months kicking his heels on tour with England was back. Suddenly you remembered quite why he was the likely candidate for the Test team as he dominated spin and seam with that touch of class and steely glint in his eye which is now his trademark.

If this were a straight shoot-out then Morgan would be winning it. Perhaps not considerably, but certainly on points after Ravi Bopara lucked out and left for a low score. Yet the fact remains, that this was never a straight shootout. It was never going to be Morgan vs Bopara, or Bopara vs Hildreth vs Morgan vs Taylor because the selectors have made their bed, and Bopara is going to lie in it.

They were probably hoping, deep down that Morgan would fail here. It would make it all the more easier to pick Bopara over him on the basis of batting form. Yet now that’s gone, and if Bopara is picked and fails against opposition he has struggled in against Test cricket before, then the clamour for Morgan will intensify even further especially after an innings like this.

England selectors may have hoped for things to become that little bit clearer after their Derby trip, yet Morgan has simply muddied the waters even further.

Ashes 2010: The good, the bad and the ugly England are missing down under

On Friday England’s squad will head off for Australia as their preparations begin to heat up ahead of the Ashes’ campaign.

It will be an interesting experience for the team, rekindling old, unhappy memories for some, better ones for others, and for the newcombers it will offer them a personal, cricketing experience on a whole other level to what they are used to.

Andrew Strauss’ “Rabbit in a headlights” description of their last campaign perhaps sums up what the Australia experience did to some of the team in 2007.

As England set off to try and retain the Ashes in Australia for the first time since 1986/87 it is worth remembering those who for whatever reason can’t be there in this squad, yet have somehow played their part in England’s progress over the past 2 years and in their preparation for this tour.

Graham Onions

But for injury, Onions would probably have been a Test match regular this summer, and we may never have even seen Steven Finn, except playing for Middlesex. The Durham man, who has been out injured since the tour in South Africa, had made quite an impression during his brief Test career.

But for injury Onions could have been a certain starter

Taking wickets against the West Indies, Australia and South Africa, showed that he could mix it with the best and his accurate, pacey and economical bowling-allied with a tricky bouncer-could have been of great use in Australia. Hopefully he can return sooner rather than later and avoid the same fate which befell the last England bowler to be plagued by injury, Simon Jones.

Ravi Bopara

Bopara was ruthlessly exposed, and yet to recover

Suffered the rudest of rude awakenings at the hands of Mitchell Johnson and his slower ball variations which ruthlessly exposed the weaknesses in a technique which has already been sharply dissected during his brief Test career. It’s not to say his chances of returning are non-existent, but his progress has certainly stalled.

It’s easy to forget that Bopara is 25, boasts 3 Test Centuries-though all against the West Indies (god it’s sad to have to qualify Test match runs), but he is well out of favour in terms of Test selection having watched a resurgent Ian Bell, a methodical Jonathan Trott and the mercurial Eoin Morgan charge past him in the queue. He has time on his side to return, but until solves his technical issues, it won’t be coming anytime soon.

Owais Shah

Owais Shah: Explosive, Inconsistent, Misunderstood?

Whether he would have been on the plane or not is debatable. Shah’s forte was always the limited overs game rather than Test Cricket where he effectively got a batsman’s version of the yipes and turned into a version of Nasser Hussain in that he frequently ran out partners.

Yet Shah’s fall from grace has been both painfully horrible to watch but also hard not to sympathise with. He was jettisoned from the ODI team just two innings after making a magnificent 98 against South Africa in the Champions Trophy. Plus, along with Paul Collingwood and Eoin Morgan, he revolutionised England’s ODI form in that tournament-hitting big and embracing the brave new era the two Andrew’s were trying to instill.

Ryan Sidebottom

Sidebottom is another English bowler whose career has been affected by injury. Prior to his injury in 2008, Sidebottom was effectively half the England bowling attack on his own, and he bore the load well at first, but eventually become overburdened and eventually injured.

Ryan Sidebottom - a real competitor

He has never quite recovered since then, and eventually announced his retirement from international cricket this year. But the Roger Daltry lookalike, and inventor of the best non-cricketing shot around.

Yet he was popular, probably would have been in the squad, remained a key part of England’s T20 squad-which beat Australia in the final-and he was vitally important that day too with two key early wickets. He was the best English left-arm pace bowler since Alan Mullally, and could be missed in Australia.

Andrew Flintoff

Andrew Flintoff: Scourge of the Australians

English cricket’s own messiah has retired from cricket after failing to recover from long-term injury. It’s tempting not to class Flintoff as a forgotten cricketer because he will seldom be forgotten due to a) his starring role in defeating the Australians in 2005 and b) a burgeoning media career and a larger than life personality.

For so many reasons this is a crying shame, but in particular given the car crash nature of his previous tour of Australia, he’d probably have loved to answer a few of his critics with a big final tour before he finished.

Honorable Mentions and outside contenders: Adil Rashid, Craig Kieswetter and Luke Wright.

Why England’s Selectors Would Be Wrong to Write off Ravi Bopara

Brighter Times for Bopara

The rise of England’s cricket team over the past 18 months has seen its fair share of winners and losers. For every Jonathan Trott, Eoin Morgan and Steven Finn who has thrived, there has been a Joe Denly, Owais Shah and Ryan Sidebottom who has been cast aside.

Yet has there been a bigger loser in this turn of events than Ravi Bopara?

Cast your mind back twelve months and Bopara was busy racking up his third test hundred and becoming only the fifth Englishman to rack up three consecutive Test Match centuries.

He had enjoyed a decent (at least by the standards England set) World T20 tournament and caused a fair stir in the IPL for the Kings XI Punjab.

His form appeared to have ensured that England had found another batsman capable of performing well in all-forms of the game, and also found that long awaited answer to the troublesome number 3 position.

Ashes struggles cast Bopara out of England reckoning

Yet the rest-as we now know is history. It’d be interesting to know-and unsurprisingly he has not divulged to great length his thoughts on the matter-what Bopara makes of his Ashes campaign. His situation is probably comparable to those that Ian Bell experienced during the 2005 Ashes.

Unlike his previous struggles in Sri Lanka, where Bopara simply was dismantled by the Sri Lankan bowlers, here it was more of a working over in a pressure cooker environment which got too much for the Essex man.

In the end his failures brought Jonathan Trott into the fold, and England ended up winning the Ashes while Bopara was left to stew in County Cricket while his former team-mates celebrated victory at the Oval.

Since then, Bopara has found the way back into the England team a hard one.

He was omitted from the squads for the tours of South Africa and Bangladesh, was accused of ball tampering by Dermot Reeve while away in New Zealand, was reduced to a role largely as a spectator during England’s T20 success and a poor run of early season form in County Cricket.

Conceivably, given the relative success of Morgan and Trott, Bopara would find himself third in line for a vacancy in a batting line-up, and even then his favoured spot at 3 appears far beyond him.

Thus a position at 5 or 6 is more likely-though his best chance may come when Paul Collingwood goes-as he offers the same measure of fielding and bowling as the Durham man.

Yet there are signs that Bopara is beginning to turn things around again during his time with Essex, playing key roles in their T20 victories over Glamorgan and blazing 96 off 65 balls to put away Hampshire.

His latest knock was the best of them all-with 168 runs scored off 140 balls to defeat West Indies A, while also providing valuable contributions with his medium paced bowling-which appears to be improving all the time-as his recent run of wickets has shown.

Back on Track?

Speaking after the game, he underlined his desire to feature for his country again. He said: “It’s always nice to score runs and to do it when you’ve got selectors watching is obviously pleasing and hopefully if I carry on playing like this it will lead to a place in the full England squad again.”

Carry on like this and a recall will almost certainly come. Whether he has quite done enough to earn that recall for this summer’s international fixtures is open for debate, but a summer of hard yards in county cricket could well do some good to a player who often appears to find things all too easy.

But it would be foolish to write off Bopara any time soon, at 25, he may yet live up to the promise which many people saw in him.