Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Ashton holds the key

The World Champions head towards France with just the impending Six Nations tournament left in which to find some form. With the seasoned alchemist, Ashton, at the helm, it's with a renewed sense of excitement that I look forward to the action of the coming weeks.

Although that's not to say it's not edged with trepidation. Ashton's reputation for transforming stolid performers into thoroughbreds was borne out last season in his work at Bath, where a team who had struggled to cross the try line began to run in score after score - even if it meant racking up, on the face of it, heavy defeats. Whatever the truth in his 'free-thinker' label, Ashton certainly seems able to imbue his players with an elan that allows them to do things they'd before thought impossible; and even if it's as simple as requesting they play with a smile on their faces, as Mike Tindall joked this week, it's certainly a valuable skill.

Someone who may be in need of a confidence shot before the big kick-off against the Scots on Saturday is Johnny Wilkinson. With all the hype and interest that surrounds him, his England comeback more than three years after kicking the points to win the Web Eillis trophy has the potential to be fraught with nerves, even for as experienced a performer as Wilko. The Scots will surely target him early on, to test his resolve as well as his body; but I'd be as confident as Ashton is in throwing him the chance. Over the Autumn, I pondered the options at 5/8, and was presented with some uninspiring options in the face of Charlie Hodgeson's injury, and continued indifferent form. Andy Goode is not, to my mind, an international fly-half, while Olly Barkley seems more likely to make a case for himself at inside centre. Toby Flood and Sean Geraghty are new, and inexperienced, ingredients in the mix, and although they may flower into players of true international pedigree, there is still no one to stand toe-to-toe with Wilkinson. Another serious injury, in such a pressure cooker as Twickenham will surely be, could break England's golden boy - but the mental strength that helps him slot kick after kick, just as its aided him in coming back from successive injuries, will hopefully see him through. Ashton must believe this, else why pick him?

I'm also willing to back his judgement in giving Andy Farrell his Union international bow, as well as excited by the potential the big guy has. Despite some messy exchanges early in the season, as Saracens and the RFU got a bit silly in working out where to play the League convert, he seems to have been producing some sterling performances in the centre in recent weeks, and praise has flowed, beginning with his performance for the World XV last year., and growing steadily louder. Zinzan Brooke shooting his mouth off isn't worth paying heed to, on this occasion.

Yes, tomorrow could be a real tingler. Ashton's the man with the plan, and the mere fact that the turgid performances of Robinson's era are unlikely to be repeated is something to smile about. And if smiling's all we need, boyish Brian's just the man.

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Friday, January 26, 2007


Arsenal face Bolton on Sunday, in what could be a sticky tie for the Ashburton boys. In recent times the direct style of play employed by the Trotters has proved particularly obdurate in the face of the Gunners' embellishments, and even though Bolton were dispatched in the same competition at Highbury two years ago, Ashburton Grove has yet to obtain such a menace for visiting teams, despite the lack of a defeat there to date.

Beaten 3-1 at the Reebok earlier in the season, Arsene Wenger will be well aware of the qualities his opposite number aims to cultivate in his players, and will surely attempt to galvanise his own team toward a clinical victory, avoiding the dual pitfall of a return leg, further congesting Arsenal's fixture list. A home defeat shouldn't be categorically ruled out, as Bolton are able to smash-and-grab with the best; but it's on their own patch that they find their metier.

Whatever the result, Allardyce and his Wanderers have become something of a nemesis for the North Londoners, and the game could provide fascinating watching. I'm no fan of Bolton's approach, so when fire meets ice come the sabbath eventide, I'll be hoping sangfroid prevails.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

In Summary

Inspired by a rather tupperware review piece of England's Ashes squad in London Lite, here are my own thoughts about each player, and their international prospects. The scoring system I have chosen to implement is based upon the old schoolboy ritual of sticker collecting, and runs thus:

Shiney - key player, a must for the collection
Keeps - a solid performer, and required for the full set
Swapsie - not needed, should be exchanged as soon as possible

So, without further ado...

Andrew Strauss
Silver spooner Straussy, the man who would be King, probably shold have been for this series. His performance as captain against Pakistan resulted in a cohesive and energetic 3-0 win (albiet boosted by Pakistan's forfeiture of the last Test), and, crucially, his form didn't appear to suffer, as so often happens, scoring over four hundred runs, including two centuries. His technique outside offstump appeared suspect against the Aussie seamers, but he was also victim to several bum umpiring decisions. Still a classy opener, his presence will be even more vital with the uncertainty surrounding Tresco's Test future.
Verdict: Keeper

Alastair Cook
The youngest tyro in a team of young tyros. Cook's travails against McGrath and Lee with the new ball were as pronounced as his partner's, although his century at Perth offered a glimpse of his ability. Rod Marsh has said that Cook should captain England in the future, having worked with him at the Academy, and on the evidence of his intelligent and phlegmatic approach to Test cricket, this doesn't look a bad bet. The youngest Englishman to score four Test centuries says it all really.
Verdict: Shiney

Ian Bell
The rabbit in 2005 turned himself into something more resembling of a predator this time around, and his four half centuries provided the middle-order with at least a dash of resistance. Has shown against most other Test-playing nations that his early-career billing was justified, and on the strength of his improvements in Australia, he should go on to make that elusive Ashes century, and the number three spot his own. Aptitude plus application can make him a great player.
Verdict: Keeper


No debate necessary on this one. Pietersen was the only batsmen to show the sort of acumen and aggression required against the rightly-vaunted Australian attack, and even though he still has a lot to learn, he should form the bedrock of England's middle-order for years to come. His apparent rufflability should dissipate with age and experience, and an ability to guide the tail through, rather than hit out with abandon, can hopefully be fostered too - although if he bats at four rather than five, his natural instincts will need less reigning in. Pietersen is the most outrageously talented batsmen in world cricket at the moment, and should become the first Englishman to average over 50 in Tests since Ken Barrington in the sixties.
Verdict: Shiney

Paul Collingwood
The stoic geordie, scorer of the first double hundred by an Englander in Australia since before the first World War (Wally Hammond, incidentally), showed that he really was more than just a nuggety bits and pieces player (although not this one), and deserves his place in future England squads. A starting spot cannot be guaranteed, simply because he is not as gifted as some of his contemporaries, but his grafting qualities have taken him further than many would have guessed, particularly after an innocuous debut against Sri Lanka three years ago.
Verdict: Keeper

Ed Joyce
Called into the squad after Trescothick's departure for a Swiss sanatorium, Joyce's Test credentials have yet to be examined. His county performances have been good in recent seasons, so, let's judge not, lest we be judged, yet, eh.
Verdict: Keeper - pending a flick through the album

The only genuine allrounder on the English horizon, unless you count James Dalrymple (and perhaps Ravi Bopara - come on the Eagles!), and a towering performer. Averages and impact messed up this time around by his lack of fitness, and the added burden of captaincy, but should still be an important cog in the machine by the time the Ashes come to be competed again. His batting relies on rhythm, and his ankle needs rest if it is not to restrict his bowling, but as a talisman, he is still worthy of Beefy's mantle.
Verdict: Shiney (if in need of a little buffing)

Geraint Jones
Jonesy, Jonesy, Jonesy. Where did it all go wrong? This series looks to have broken Jones as a batsman (cf. the dodgy run out in Perth), and that's all he reportedly won his place on. Glovework appears to have improved, although still prone to the odd miss, and he must now surely score ton after ton in the County game to earn even the glimmer of a reprieve.
Verdict: Swapsie

Chris Read
Perhaps one of the most instructive statistics from this Ashes series was Read's eleven catches and one stumping from two Tests, compared to Jones's nine catches from three. Read is the gloveman par excellence. But he averaged only a fraction more than Jones, and that's probably only because he was less exposed. Read has been a work in progress since the late nineties, and that's unfortunately where he still is. Should just cling to a squad position though.
Verdict: Keeper - just

Ashley Giles
The King of Spain experienced more rain on the plains than most, before departing from Oz, and should now contemplate the end of his Test career. England never play more than one spinner in home Tests in the modern game, and, barring injury, Monty Panesar should have the spot sewn up, meaning Giles's chances over the next year look bleak. He is a battler though, and I wouldn't be surprised to see him trundle in one more time... although if he does, we'll know we really are in trouble.
Verdict: Swapsie

Monty Panesar
The young twirler burst into the series with five-for at Perth, although he faded somewhat from there, possibly because he only had no second-innings bowling in either the fourth or fifth tests. A vast, chasm-like improvement on Giles's dib-dobbers, Panesar's guile was only undermined by a tendency to drop short and wide a little too often. However, he should continue to come on in leaps and bounds (literally so, if he takes wickets), and if he works on his batting and fielding a smidge, then Fletcher can have no excuse for dropping him. Could be a star English spinner in the making.
Verdict: Keeper/Shiney

Matthew Hoggard
Little to be said about Hoggy, except that he can keep trundling in until the day his dogs have do the perambulating for him. Exceptional figures on Adelaide's feather bed showed what a resourceful bowler he has become, although his average is still not up there with the best. Needs a good English summer, but can rest assured of his place. Should become only the fourth English bowler to take 300 wickets.
Verdict: Keeper

Steve Harmison
Less 'grevious bodily' than 'likes to keep out the way of' this time out, Harmison's series-opening delivery unfortunately summed up England's tour. Plenty of puff, but too often off-beam, the wayward quick suffered the brunt of media criticism, exacerbated as it was by the knowledge that Harmison finds touring difficult, and would confessedly rather be at home watching the football. And didn't he play like it. However, having retired from the one day game in order to prolong his Test career, he should be a fresher and more menacing figure in the five-day version from here on out. Unlikely as he is to ever reclaim the number-one bowler spot he once occupied, he still has the capability to be a lethal weapon, and should be given the new ball as soon as the West Indies step off the plane.
Verdict: Keeper

Saj Mahmood
Neither the selectors or his captain seem to know what to do with him, but his raw pace and ability to wield the willow should give him time to be worked on. Far too expensive for international cricket at the moment, with an economy of above four in test and six in ODIs, Mahmood needs to ally control and accuracy to his express delivery. With those in harness, he might just come to compensate for the perennially injured Simon Jones.
Verdict: Keeper

Jimmy Anderson
A fiesty little swinger, Anderson's series was summed up by dropping too short too often, and his figures of five wickets at an average of 82 runs a piece testifies to that. Anderson lacks the reliability of Hoggard, and is unlikely to find a place in the team until he can sort that out; although his capture of Langer, Hussey and Gilchrist in the final Test offers him a last throw of the dice. Should remain a squad player, at least until Stuart Broad comes of age.
Verdict: Keeper - just

Duncan Fletcher
This review cannot ignore the Coach, and for all his hard work over the last seven years, scrutiny of the Zimbabwean does not result in a glowing report card for 06-07. Guilty of excessive caution in the first two Tests, a move which appeared to undermine the team's confidence, Fletcher must also shoulder some of the blame for Andrew Flintoff being made captain, thus overloading one of his key performers. His relationship with Michael Vaughan - whose continued rehabilitation in the full media spotlight also appeared to subdue Flintoff - hung over events, and contributed to the uneasy demeanour with which the camp faced both the Australians and the press. Sometimes one man's input can become stale, and while John Buchanan has already set his date, Fletcher continues to kick. I think it's time England looked for some fresh ideas in this area, and the World Cup should be his swansong. Whether that will happen, however, remains a case unsolved...
Verdict: Swapsie