Darren Sammy is a sensible choice to lead West Indies’ next generation

West Indies' New Captain

Once upon a time the news proclaiming the appointment of a new captain of the West Indies would be a world event, but the low-key greeting given to the announcement of Darren Sammy as captain, told a story both how far the West Indies have fallen and about Sammy himself.

Some all-time greats of world cricket have inhabited the role down the years, and in that respect Sammy fails to match up-though few would.

But Sammy is an intriguing choice as skipper, he has never been a Test regular and his stats suggest he is far from the West Indies’ best player. But if that was the criteria for captaincy then Chris Gayle would have retained the captaincy or Dwayne Bravo could have inherited the role.

Yet their status as the team’s leading players has also caused its own problems, with both involved in disputes with the WICB which has ultimately cost them both their claims for the captaincy as well as Dinesh Ramdin and Jerome Taylor.

Of the remaining candidates Sammy is the standout choice; both as a committed and passionate player for the West Indies but also an experienced captain with the Leeward Islands. These qualities will be important as he leads a younger generation of West Indian cricketers forward.

But it also lays down a marker for the younger players to follow. Sammy’s commitment to the West Indies’ will be total, could either Bravo or Gayle who have both embroiled themselves in rows with their board and are IPL-contracted.

Gayle axed

The potential for further trouble down the line is not what the West Indies need as they look to rebuild with younger players like Adrian Barath and Kemar Roach.

A stable structure and leadership, after years of captaincy ruled as much by a player’s status more than a coherent strategy, is what is desired and it is precisely this ideal which has led the West Indies to Sammy, who of all the remaining candidates has the most captaincy experience-gained with the Windward Islands-and international experience.

The experience with the Windward Islands is key because unlike recent captains like Brian Lara and Gayle, Sammy has regular experience of captaincy and can lead with imagination and confidence, not to mention provide leadership of a team which have badly missed it as their fortunes have stuttered.

But he also has experience captaining a young team with some success. The Windward Islands are traditionally one of the smallest and unsuccessful teams in the Caribbean, but under Sammy’s captaincy, a number of their players have developed into international cricketers.

Recent graduates include Shane Shillingford, Andre Fletcher and Nelon Pascal who have all been involved in West Indies teams in the past year, though Fletcher is missing from the squad in Sri Lanka.

Nelon Pascal and Andre Fletcher have thrived under Sammy for the Windward Islands

It is these qualities which make the appointment of Sammy a sensible one for the West Indies.

He fits the profile as a safe candidate whose attentions will be focussed solely on improving his team’s fortunes, boasts significant captaincy experience and has also dealt with younger players who make a significant part of this West Indies squad.

The key for both the West Indies and for Sammy is that they are patient in their expectations of this captaincy, as tangible change or even progress will take time to be achieved after years of regression.

The West Indies’ potential for success and producing talented cricketers capable of impacting on the world stage remains in place, yet they have not had the stable environment to help these players develop.

Results may not come immediately, and this is the vital point for any plans in the future, but the selectors must trust their decision and back Sammy. His appointment may lack sparkle compared to his illustrious predecessors but in the circumstances it could turn out to be the sensible choice.

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Eight points for Australia to move forward after India series

These are unprecedented times for Ricky Ponting and Australia, now removed from top spot in the ICC rankings and deposited into fifth place and with plenty to ponder after India inflicted a third consecutive Test defeat after their loss against Pakistan in England.

Now, with a home Ashes series to ponder, Ponting and his team find themselves under increasing scrutiny, as Australia attempt to work out where things have gone wrong and what can be put right.

Now with a potentially big 12 months coming up for Australia with an Ashes series and a World Cup to defend, there is plenty of work ahead for Australia to do if they are to get back on track.

New Blood for a New Middle Order

Loyalty can be a good thing in a captain and coach, especially when things pay off and a batsman makes runs, yet it can also be a weakness which hinders change when it is most needed. Whatever Ponting and Tim Nielsen say about their batting, change must be considered.

The prime candidates for the chop are Mike Hussey and Marcus North, who despite scoring a brilliant backs-to-the-wall hundred in India scored only 13 as an aggregate from his three other innings.

But who can replace these two? They could start with Usman Khawaja, the 23-year old New South Wales batsman who got his season off to a flyer with a double hundred against South Australia, or even the recovering Callum Ferguson, who is getting his career started after injury or even Mike’s brother David Hussey, who has scored runs for fun against all attacks yet has never been given an opportunity at the highest level.

If not revolution, then revamp

The likelihood for change in the interim period before the Ashes is unlikely with such a key contest coming up but if Australia want to get their batsmen firing in the Ashes then the best thing they could consider is tinkering with their batting line-up as much as the batsmen.

Ponting’s place at number 3 has been secure for years, yet there are signs of aging-despite him being the standout middle order batsman in India. The assuredness of his run scoring has gone, and the certainty about which he would convert starts into big scores. Having seen Sachin Tendulkar hit prime form at number 4, Ponting could follow suit and position himself further down the order.

Michael Clarke could drop down to 5, a more natural position for a player whose technique seems a touch loose for number 4, and Mike Hussey, a former opener and someone more at home against the faster bowlers than the spinners at the moment, could come in at 3.

Who is leading this attack?

The phrase “leader of the bowling attack” seems to be a modern one, designed for people like Richard Hadlee and Allan Donald, who once would carry their attacks to the opposition. Yet there is some sense in having a stand-out figurehead bowler, England have one in James Anderson, South Africa in Dale Steyn and India in Zaheer Khan. So who is Australia’s?

The obvious answer is Mitchell Johnson, yet when he has blown distinctly hot and cold over the past 12 months and provides little of the consistency which Australia need. A far better candidate could be the durable and reliable Ben Hilfenhaus, who performed out of his skin in India and could well have a big part to play in the Ashes to come.

Pick the best all-round spinner, not the best one

Steven Smith is not, nor will he ever be, Shane Warne. That much is clear but he should still be picked above Nathan Hauritz. Hauritz is a decent, honest spinner and he has exceeded expectations since his international career.

Yet the question is more if Hauritz is at best a decent spinner, then why trade off his marginally superior ability as a bowler for the better all-round package which Smith offers?

Smith scores runs and could provide plenty of ballast for the middle order, while also bowling tidy leg spin and as the younger man he can well develop into a better spinner than Hauritz. Australia’s spin-bowling cupboard is bare, so why not choose your spinner not only on their ability as a spinner but as an all-round package to compensate? In which case the answer is Steven Smith plain and simple.

Stick with the captain

Talk of removing Ponting as captain continually resurfaces, recently voiced by Geoff Lawson, yet such talk is bunk. For all the weaknesses Ponting has as a tactician, he leads by example and remains the outstanding candidate. Talk of change is ludicrous, especially given that there are no candidates who standout.

Who could replace him? Michael Clarke? Struggling with form and desperately needing to get runs. Simon Katich? An elder statesman yes, but a long-term candidate for change he certainly isn’t. Beyond that there are little choices available, stick with Ricky, his career proves he has a habit of having his own way in the end.

Free Up Michael Clarke

Don’t burden one of your trump batsmen with a tag such as Captain in waiting. The T20 captaincy has exposed flaws in his batting and has hardly helped the team, with Clarke’s inability to clear the boundary and score at the required rate costing his team and clearly harming him.

An idea? Give up the T20 captaincy and pass it to Cameron White. Ceding the captaincy has hardly cost Ponting, nor has the idea of a dual partnership hurt England. Clarke could eventually succeed Ponting though he needs to be scoring runs to justify it. The best way to do that? Strip him of burdens, let him settle into his run scoring and then eventually grow organically into the role.

Prepare an Exit Strategy

Big changes will come in Australian cricket over the coming years with an aging middle order and a captain in his mid 30’s preparing to move. The key to how Australia manage could well be how they cope with the changes-especially given the manner in which they have struggled to stem the fall following the departure of their last generation.

Identify the key players who could well be international players such as Steven Smith, Josh Hazlewood and Peter George plus the likes of Khawaja, Ferguson and Phil Hughes, and grant them opportunities whenever you can. It’ll stand them and Australia in good stead when the time eventually comes for them to step up.

Don’t Panic!

Are Australia finished? No, of course not and to think otherwise is ludicrous. A fall in the rankings is a mere blow, but matters little in the long run. The depth of cricketing talent in Australia are perhaps not as strong as they were in the late 90s, but there is a rich heritage of developing promising players quickly and bouncing back in adversity.

They have this to fall back on, and they must know that whatever the humiliation of being reduced to number 5 in the world it is only temporary. A victory in the Ashes against England could help ease the pain.

If Australia can keep their heads, and put in place the right long-term plans to build again, they could turn this bad moment into a defining one.

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.

Matt Prior’s Latest Hundred against Pakistan Proves His Worth to England Once Again

A Third Test Century for England's wicketkeeper

Once again a middle order batsman has stepped up to help steer England away from potential danger towards almost certain victory with a century. Where Eoin Morgan had his moment in the first innings, here it was Matt Prior’s turn to raise the bat.

Though he ended the day a hero, he was villain earlier in the day as hesitant calling from Prior saw Morgan run out with the score at 98-6 and whatever momentum England had built up was beginning to be halted by the clatter of wickets.

After Umar Gul swung hard earlier the day to avoid the follow on, including some mighty blows off Anderson and Finn, it was England’s turn to face the swinging ball with the Pakistan bowlers running riot.

The mood was set, as ever, by Mohammed Aamer who nipped out Andrew Strauss with a beauty, then Cook swiftly followed-strangled down the leg side.

After a bright respite from the steady Jonathan Trott and a recovering Kevin Pietersen, who showed signs of returning to form with some fine shots-including one lovely straight drive off Umar Gul.

Yet both men swiftly fell to the Pakistan fast bowler, Pietersen caught wonderfully by a diving Kamran Akmal off an inside edge and then Trott with a delivery which kept low.

Once Collingwood, fortunate to survive a first ball duck when Akmal dived too far and spilled an outside edge, fell LBW to Gul and after Prior and Morgan’s mix up, England were on course for a tough target but rocking along the way.

Yet up stepped Prior, all busy energy and capable stroke play, to steady the ship. Here was an innings which ought to have silenced any doubts, if any, about his worth to this team.

His batting was dogged, determined, yet not without flair-as shown by two big sixes off Kaneria to take him into the nineties. But more importantly was the way he manoeuvred England’s lower order towards a near impossible total for Pakistan to chase.

Hitting out for the hundred

Partnerships of 49 with Graeme Swann, 56 with Stuart Broad and 51 with last man Steven Finn were vital, and showed his ability not only to take a firm grip on proceedings, but keep the score rattling along at a rapid rate.

Only as he edged towards his hundred did he slow, as he crept cautiously towards the century-perhaps conscious that he had not scored one since March 2009.

Yet once the width was offered, a cut through gully brought him the three runs for his third Test hundred. As Strauss duly declared, with the lead now standing at a world record 435 runs, and given the calibre of the Pakistan batsmen and conditions of the Trent Bridge surface a certain victory.

England’s good form continued as Stuart Broad came to the party with two vital wickets and Anderson nipping out another one to leave Pakistan tottering at 15-3 at the close. Such a final flourish merely embellished Prior’s innings further.

Since Alec Stewart’s retirement England have searched desperately for a wicketkeeper batsman who can both keep soundly and score more than his fair share of runs, in Prior they have a man who ticks both boxes.

His keeping is now lithe and athletic to both seam and spin bowlers courtesy of hard yards put in with coach Bruce French, and he no longer betrays any of the technical deficiencies which marred his first foray into Test match cricket.

Meanwhile his batting, always his strongest suit, has never been doubted, despite a slight wobble in South Africa. A test match average over 40-still a lofty landmark in Test cricket-is hugely creditable and puts him up there with the best batsmen among England’s pantheon of wicketkeepers.

It seems almost strange to think that just weeks ago Craig Kieswetter was being tipped to force Prior out of the Test position given their recent turn of fortunes.

While Kieswetter searches vainly for a recovery of the form that made him such a force to be reckoned with in the T20 Championships, Prior continues to get stronger and stronger after scoring plenty in all forms for Sussex.

But as his latest hundred goes to show, when the pressure is on, Prior is more than capable of responding well.

As England continue on through this series, and then eventually towards the Ashes this winter, one suspects they will continue to appreciate the worth of their wicketkeeper batsman. On this evidence he won’t be going anywhere anytime soon.

Salman Butt is the glue holding Pakistan’s fragile batting line-up together

Pakistan are facing a hard task to chase down a world record score in the fourth innings of a Test match, a hard one, but not yet an impossible one thanks to some eminently sensible batting from Ashar Ali and in particular Salman Butt.

How the early start will be key for Pakistan, if they can avoid losing wickets early tomorrow and slowly begin to transfer the pressure back onto Australia, then a compelling day’s cricket ought to be in the offing.

No-one will be more crucial to their chances in this match than Salman Butt, for Ricky Ponting and Australia will know that if they can snare Butt, then the game is there’s.

That is how vital Butt is to the Pakistan team, while their bowling ought to be a test for most Test Match nations, with the prodigious Mohammed Aamer, Mohammed Asif and Umar Gul along with the wily Danesh Kaneria to contend with, their batting is weak.

It would be a disservice to the Australian bowlers to say that a score of 148 was always likely against that batting line-up, but there is a palpable lack of experience-especially at the top of the order.

Imran Farhat is arguably two or three places too high opening the batting, Azhar Ali at three is making his debut at the age of 25, and Umar Amin and Umar Akmal-though both hugely talented, are by any estimation inexperienced to be playing at 4 and 5.

How Pakistan miss a Mohammed Yousuf-who has a test match double hundred at this very ground, or Younis Khan-playing down the road at Surrey. But sadly personal pride, and the kind of infighting that has blighted Pakistan cricket, have put paid to that.

It is a shame, because this match could conceivably have been there’s for the taking-with a more methodical and experienced batting line-up unlikely to have caved in the manner they did in the first innings.

So the onus is on Salman Butt, the one Pakistan batsman to show real determination and skill against the Australian bowlers, who must carry the fight. By comparison to the rest of the top order he has plenty of experience, having experienced his own ups and downs throughout a career which is still young at 25.

But what has always been clear has been his abundant talent, best shown by some of his gorgeous off-side cuts, but he has emerged from his troubles to begin to put some innings of real class together.

Since his return to the side in 2009 he has hit 4 50’s and 1 century-against Australia in Hobart. In this match alone he is currently averaging 121, and he has become arguably the key man in this batting line-up.

No-one will know that more than Australia, and they will be gunning for him from the off. But if Butt can hang in their, along with some support from some of his more inexperienced, and even more experienced colleagues, maybe Ricky Ponting’s won’t have things all their own way just yet.

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.

England’s Selectors Should Stick With Eoin Morgan

It’s quite a time to be an English cricket follower that’s for certain. An Ashes victory, an unnervingly accomplished winter against South Africa and Bangladesh and now the T20 World Cup victory in the West Indies.

It’s been so good, it’s tempting to ask when are we going to wake up?

Judging by Bangladesh’s recent demise at the hands of the England Lions, it won’t be coming at Lords on Thursday. Yet history preaches caution-it would be typical England to stumble when things appear to be running ever so smoothly.

But such is the calm which has engulfed the England set up that the selectors are giving Stuart Broad and Paul Collingwood (deserved) rests.

Given that these two will continue to be lynch pins of the team throughout what promises to be a busy 2010, such a move is welcome and gives others the chance to impress.

While Broad’s place in the set up is likely to be contested by a straight shootout between Steven Finn-bounce and lots of it-and Ajmal Shazhad, quicker but skidier, the spot to replace Collingwood has been given to Eoin Morgan.

It caps a remarkable 12 months for the Irishman, who has now firmly established himself as a vital cog in England’s middle order in the One Day team. The question is now is can he do the same in the Test team.

Judging by his cool head, unorthodox technique and dazzling array of strokes, England should have little to fear. While critics may point to his underwhelming first class record, it is worth remembering that neither Michael Vaughan or Marcus Trescothick were setting the county scene ablaze before they stepped up into international cricket.

Should Morgan do well, and Collingwood returns, the most obvious casualties will be Jonathan Trott and Ravi Bopara.

Both are good batsmen, but both with question marks hanging over their heads-though Trott will have some cause for complaint should he miss out.

But should the Irishman fail, the England selectors should not be so quick to cast him aside. The old adage that form is temporary, class is permanent remains as true in sport today as it ever has before.

As Morgan as already shown in his short international career so far, he has class in abundance. If England stick by him, they will not go far wrong.