Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Fostering discontent

James Foster's omission from the England touring party to India was to be expected. Peter Moores has been inking the names of Matt Prior and Tim Ambrose onto his team sheets for too long now just to abandon the habit at the click of a ball-point pen. But the question of why Foster continues to be overlooked for the role of wicketkeeper certainly bears some examination; and may yet prove pivotal for an England coach still to entirely win over his observers.

It can't be that his glovework isn't up to spit: last week Jack Russell described Foster as the best keeper in the world. And it ought not be his batting, which this season averaged a more-than-healthy 50.66 in the Championship; and comes in at a non-too-shabby 35.34 over the course of his career. He's performed in Tests before, so we know a bit about his temperament on the international stage. And he isn't a loose cannon or a rogue factor, prone to outbursts and boughts of ill temper - he appears a fairly genial, down to earth fellow, who is currently Essex's vice captain.

What, then, is the barrier to his inclusion? After being anointed Alec Stewart's heir apparent as long ago as 2001, Foster's handful of Test appearances stalled with a single Ashes cap on the winter tour of 2002/03. At this juncture, there were still evident weaknesses in his game - as a batsman he was green, and his ability behind the stumps was considered functionary rather than spectacular. However, six English summers of phlegmatic self-improvement have elevated Foster - in terms of professional aptitude - far beyond the promising 21-year-old handed Stewart's now-mythical gauntlet.

As Foster learnt to stand up to the wicket to Essex's battery of medium pacers, and perfected his stumping technique, Chris Read returned to the national frame - some time after a less than successful debut of his own. Geraint Jones, his buccaneering batting style another weapon that Foster was carefully crafting, then became the man in possession, until handling errors and a mental fragility finally let him down. And now, as Moores toys with his former Sussex wickies, Ambrose and Prior, Foster continues to be overlooked.

Maybe Foster has failed to produce the consistently eye-catching feats required to prick the selectors into action. Certainly, a more impressive knock in this season's Friends Provident Trophy final wouldn't have done his chances any harm - his scratchy 18 was no sparkler, despite it coming in the biggest partnership of Essex's innings: 68 with match-winner Grant Flower. Then again, a double century last summer against Notts went by largely unnoticed - as did Read's in the same game. Two wicketkeepers scoring 200 in a match, and still the selectors plough their south coast furrow?

We are told that there are seasoned eyes and ears amongst Geoff Miller's scouting network, who scour the county circuit, separating out raw talent from the rest of the dreck. If so, how can Foster have been missed again? The recalled Prior looks to have at least brought his gloves with him this time, but Ambrose had a woeful summer, in front of and behind the timbers. Dropped catches and missed stumpings will cost England against Australia next summer, if not before, but the national hierarchy's prevarication over their wicketkeeping requirements appears to have given bat the whip hand over glove once again. That said, there can surely no longer be any doubt over Foster's competency with the blade...

Essex coach Paul Grayson has voiced his disappointment, yet the facts remain: Foster should be in the England set-up, but he isn't. The longer that aberration is allowed to stand, the worse things may get for Moores.

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Sunday, September 21, 2008

A Guinness toast

Raise a glass of stout, because the Premiership is back. After three weekends of games, things are looking feisty as always in the world of English domestic rugby, and it seems that if ever there were old certainties, they aren't so certain anymore.

Take defending champions Wasps losing all of their opening fixtures so far. Or Leicester's kicking; without their former dead-eye, Andy Goode, who left over the summer for Brive, new signing Toby Flood has worn the mantle uneasily, converting just 55% of his attempts at goal. His 11 successful kicks have, however, ensured three wins from three for the Tigers, and their early-season solidity is in marked contrast to last year's quixotic quest to retain the crown they won in 2007.

Gloucester's traditional fragility remains, a problem bemoaned by coach Dean Jones, but Northants, relegated with barely a whimper in 2007, have added the steel of Neil Best and Ignacio Fernandez Lobbe, and fought their way to two wins from three and fifth in the table. Throw into the pot the newly-minted ELVs, which Jones reckons have been applied differently in all three of his side's games thus far, Jonny Wilkinson playing in two consecutive games injury-free, and Ollie Barkley in a Gloucester shirt, and the Premiership almost begins to look like a kind of newfoundland.

Some things don't change, though. Wilkinson's kicking percentage is up at 100, for instance. Worcester, for all the hype surrounding Chris Latham's arrival, find themselves at the wrong end of the blender; while Sale, the club who looked most likely to vie with Wasps and Leicester for domestic supremacy when they claimed a well-deserved title in 2006, are motoring again. And then there are the hardy perennials, the autumn internationals, just over the horizon...

England will play Australia, South Africa and New Zealand on three consecutive weekends in November, and, after the disastrous tour to Kiwi in June, that's a pretty fearsome-looking triptych. Even with Wilkinson fit having undergone shoulder surgery over the summer, it would be great to throw that physical manifestation of game-breaking unpredictability, Danny Cipriani, into the fray against the southern giants. Let's hope his own recuperation from injury is going well.

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Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Football Explained

The beautiful games is full of evocative phrases. "They think it's all over...", "terrible defending" and "megs!" are just a few classic examples. Anyway, here's 'Total football' explained.

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