Thursday, December 28, 2006

Time for England to start learning

England's Ashes campaign descended into complete farce with a humiliating innings defeat in the fourth Test at Melbourne.

But England have learned some important lessons that, if heeded, will help them improve in the future.

Kevin Pietersen must be promoted to number four. Although this didn't work out in England's second innings, it is clearly the way ahead.

Pietersen has been England's only truly successful player with the bat in Australia and should therefore be given the opportunity to bat for as long as possible. Which is not something he can do when batting with the tail and trying to prop up a faltering innings.

Paul Collingwood should bat at number five. There, his grit can complement the flamboyant stroke-making of Pietersen and Andrew Flintoff, who comes in at number six.

Chris Read should continue to keep wicket for the foreseeable future. At Melbourne, the Nottinghamshire glove man's six catches confirmed what any impartial observer has said all along: he is an infinitely better wicketkeeper than Geraint Jones.

And if he knows his place in the side is secure, he can then work on his batting. His unbeaten 26 in the second innings proved he can contribute.

Andrew Strauss must replace Andrew Flintoff as skipper. It has been obvious throughout that Flintoff is struggling to cope with the huge demands of playing the pivotal all-rounder role and captaining the side.

I believe Strauss is a more shrewd skipper and he should be allowed to build on the excellent start he made against Pakistan in the summer. If Michael Vaughan is not available come next summer, Strauss should be given the job on a long-term basis.

England must somehow learn not to waste excellent situations. In the first innings, they slumped from 101-2 to 159 all out.

They then had Australia 84-5, only for the home side to rally and post 419 all out. And even in their second innings, England made a decent start, reaching 41 for the first wicket before collapsing to 161 all out.

Finally, England must stop dining out on the success of 2005 and realise that one narrow series victory does not entitle them to world domination.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Inconsistency the cause of England's failure

If only England could bat well twice in the same Test match, this Ashes series would still be alive.

As it is, their rank inconsistency with the bat has helped Australia take an unassailable 3-0 lead.

England's dreams of retaining the urn have been shattered, but England must rally for the last two Tests, at Melbourne and Sydney.

They owe it to themselves, the thousands of travelling fans and the bleary-eyed TV spectators at home to restore some pride and avoid a 5-0 drubbing.

There is no doubting Australia's status as the world's premier Test nation.

Even so, England's inability to reproduce the form and resilience of 2005 has been extremely frustrating.

At Adelaide and Perth, they were in a commanding position after the first innings of the match before losing the plot.

England were simply unable to match Australia's skill, intensity and self-belief in the crucial sessions of each match.

There have been some fine individual performances from England players, most notably Paul Collingwood, Kevin Pietersen, Matthew Hoggard and Monty Panesar.

However, England have not fired as a team and only the exceptional Kevin Pietersen has truly enjoyed a good series, averaging almost 80.

The Hampshire batsman is the only England player selected for all three matches to have justified his own and England's heady reputation.

*Rob Wightman is co-writer of Match of My Life - The Ashes (Know The Score Books, £16.99), in which 12 Ashes legends, including Geoff Boycott, David Gower and Glenn McGrath, reveal their favourite Tests. Call 01527 454482 now to order at the special price of £15 (p&p free).

Friday, December 15, 2006

Jones must justify his place

I am at an utter loss to explain Geraint Jones's continued presence in the England team after another abject failure with the bat today at Perth.

Jones was dismissed for a duck off the innocuous bowling of Andrew Symonds, yet again thrashing at a wide delivery.

The Kent wicketkeeper has a reputation for being an affable, honest cricketer. But you do not select a player for the heat of Ashes battle simply because he is a good bloke.

Given Jones's woeful batting form, England's tail effectively begins at number seven - or six, as Andrew Flintoff has made just 0, 16, 38 not out, 2 and 13.

For Jones, it seems to be harder to get out of the team than it was to get in it.

Jones is clearly not a better wicketkeeper than Chris Read, so the selectors have picked him because of his supposedly superior batting.

But Jones has scored just 259 runs in his last 20 innings, including today's effort.

Three of his innings have ended unbeaten, so that gives a mightily unimpressive average of 15.23 since the second innings of the second Test against Pakistan in November last year.

When Read finally got his chance against Pakistan in the summer, after two and a half years in the wilderness, he made scores of 38, 55 and 33.

And he proved himself to be a high-class performer with the gloves.

England have made so many errors in this series that I lack the space - or energy - to catalogue them all here.

But one of the worst has been changing the team that beat Pakistan so comprehensively just a few months ago.

Ashley Giles and James Anderson have rightly made way for Monty Panesar and Sajid Mahmood at Perth.

So how can the selectors explain choosing Jones over Read?

Going into an Ashes series as holders for the first time since 1989 was a wonderful feeling.

Sadly, by the time I write again, the famous urn will be back in Australia's grasp.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Monty makes his point

Monty Panesar's five-star display on day one of the Perth Test made his previous absence look crazier than ever.

Not picking the left-arm spinner for the first two Ashes matches was like turkeys voting to take goose off the Christmas menu.

Today's 5-92 took his Test tally to 37 wickets in just his 11th match.

So Panesar's record compares favourably with that of the legendary Derek Underwood, who many regard as England's finest post-war spinner.

After his 11th Test, Underwood, also a left-armer, had taken two wickets fewer than Panesar.

The Luton-born spinner was simply magnificent on his Ashes debut and his performance should be placed in its full context.

No English spinner has ever taken five wickets at the WACA in its 36-year history as a Test venue.

The Perth pitch offered pace and bounce on day one, but no great spin. Yet Panesar fully exploited the conditions, with control and bounce his main weapons.

Panesar has played very little cricket on the tour and any rustiness would have been understandable.

Three of his victims - Justin Langer, Andrew Symonds and Adam Gilchrist - are top international batsmen. So it was not just a case of mopping up the tail.

The Northamptonshire spinner had to carry a huge weight of expectation on his shoulders and must have felt under some pressure to justify his selection.

That he responded with such assurance and determination shows exactly why he should have been in the side from the outset.

It is criminal that England waited until they were 2-0 down in the series before picking Panesar.

I've had my say, now you have yours by posting comments to this website.

Match of My Life - The Ashes (Know The Score Books, £16.99), edited by Sam Pilger and Rob Wightman, is available now from all good bookshops and online retailers. Call 01527 454482 to order at the special price of £15 (p&p free).

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

A quick word on sorry England

If you are still shellshocked by England's horrific capitulation in Adelaide, spare a thought for how Paul Collingwood, Kevin Pietersen and Matthew Hoggard.

They are three players who really did not deserve to lose this Test match.

Collingwood (206) and Pietersen (158) were outstanding with the bat in England's first innings, one Hoggard's seven wickets in Australia's first knock were a triumph.

But therein lies the reason for England's defeat. They have players capable of outstanding Test performances, while others look out of their depth.

By contrast, every member of the Australian side has made at least one major contribution in either or both of the two Tests.

The only exception is perhaps Matthew Hayden. But he can be let off since he has already scored over 7,400 Test runs and will doubtless have his day during this series.

I'll be back with more thoughts before the Perth Test next week.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Hoggard shines with traditional values

Only bowlers who have stuck to the old-fashioned virtues of line and length have prospered in the Adelaide Test.

England's bowling hero yesterday and today was Matthew Hoggard, with seven wickets.

And Stuart Clark has been the pick of Australia's bowlers, taking four wickets so far in the match.

Both have bowled with great control, putting batsmen under pressure by denying them scoring opportunities.

Most of their wickets have therefore come from frustrated batsmen being tempted to push at a ball they should leave or strike it to the boundary instead of playing defensively.

This trend is emphasised by the fact that eight of Hoggard and Clark's 11 victims have been caught.

But the second Test has been a batsman's match so far, which is why it appeared to be heading for a draw.

England must not be negative tomorrow, but they should remember that avoiding defeat is their first objective.

That is a shame because paradoxically their best chance of victory lies in offering Australia a chance of winning the game.

If England could set up an Australian run chase, they could hope to take wickets because the Aussies would need to keep a high scoring rate.

But the one thing England cannot afford to do is go two down in the series, so a pragmatic approach is likely.

The batsmen who have yet to make a half-century in the series - Andrew Strauss, Andrew Flintoff and Geraint Jones - should see tomorrow as an opportunity to get some welcome practice.

They can expect Shane Warne to prove a far more potent weapon on a wearing pitch, but a good innings against him would set them up well for the rest of the series.

Friday, December 01, 2006

The Panesar debate

I was as surprised and disappointed as anyone not to see Monty Panesar selected for the second Test, which began today in Adelaide with England posting a solid 266-3 by the close.

England are desperately short of match-winning bowlers, so the left-arm spinner's continued absence is hard to understand.

I don't want to be an apologist for England's selection policy, but several factors may have influenced the decision not to pick Panesar.

When Duncan Fletcher, the coach, and skipper Andrew Flintoff sat down to discuss team selection, they must have wanted to avoid a knee-jerk reaction to the humbling at Brisbane.

And by changing the team dramatically, they would have been admitting they got it wrong to start with.

If they genuinely believe they selected the right team at Brisbane, it follows that that is the best side to continue England's defence of the Ashes.

Let's not forget they adopted the same policy after Australia comfortably won the first Test of 2005 at Lord's.

However, Australia's omission of Stuart MacGill, the experienced leg-break bowler who remains two short of 200 Test wickets, may have persuaded Fletcher and Flintoff further.

If the Australians, with their local knowledge, believed Adelaide would not prove the spinners' paradise expected, perhaps England are right not to go in with two spinners.

Of course Shane Warne made the ball spin on day one, but he could make a snowball turn on a sheet of ice, so his performance gives little indication as to whether or not Panesar should have played.

Warne ended day one with no wicket for 85 runs from 27 overs and it is highly unlikely Panesar - or MacGill, for that matter - would have fared better than the great man.

Given the lack of batting talent among England's bowlers, it is also hardly surprising Ashley Giles kept his place, especially after performing well with the bat at Brisbane.

Despite the selection debate, England have made an excellent start to the second Test, one which suggests we might just get a real Ashes contest after all.

Let's hope the outstanding Paul Collingwood and Kevin Pietersen can continue their fine form on day two.

In the meantime, I would be interested to hear readers' opinions on the Panesar debate.

You can post your comments by clicking on the link below.