The Reverse Sweep – The Week in Cricket

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This week as England fly to Australia for the Ashes we look at how England are so much better prepared and led than four years ago. We also look forward to the festival of test cricket over the next few months, ask whether India’s future post-Tendulkar, Laxman and Dravid is better than feared and welcome back Younis Khan to international cricket.

The Reverse Sweep is an irreverent and acerbic round-up of the week that was in cricket. For similar musings on the sport that God would play, please visit our blog also entitled The Reverse Sweep – selected as one of the 50 best cricket web sites in the world by The Times. Alternatively, you can follow us on Twitter @TheReverseSweep.

Strauss pilots England’s plane of hope down under

For the first time since 1986/87, England will depart for an Ashes tour down under with real hope that they can win or draw a series and so return home with the oldest and most famous prize in international sport.

The difference between now and four years ago when a shambolic England relinquished the Ashes that they had fought so hard and so bravely for just one year hence with barely a whimper is stark. As Andrew Strauss readily admitted in last weekend’s Sunday Times, England went into the first test at Brisbane with a “let’s hope it will be all right on the night attitude and when you’ve got that kind of attitude it invariably isn’t all right on the night”. He’s not wrong there.   Four years ago in what Australians jokingly refer to as English cricket’s Afghanistan – “the forgotten war”, England were beset with problems. Injuries to inspirational captain Michael Vaughan and bowling linchpin Simon Jones meant that England were understrength from the start.

Then there was acting captain Andrew Flintoff, Jimmy Anderson and Ashley Giles returning from long-term injuries and several selection question marks. Flintoff or Strauss as captain, Giles or Panesar as the spinner, Anderson or Mahmood to replace Jones and Geraint Jones or Chris Read behind the stumps. As it turned out, England made the wrong choices in each case. Then on the eve of the first test, Marcus Trescothick’s health problems returned and he flew home.   Even with all these problems, a proper schedule of warm-up matches could have put England on a more level footing when the series started. But just three days of first-class cricket prior to the Gabba meant that England were undercooked, rusty and in total disarray.

It was hardly a surprise therefore when they were walloped by 277 runs. Worse was to follow in the next test at Adelaide where England’s final day humiliation destroyed any remnants of hope and confidence within the ranks and led to their first Ashes whitewash since Warwick Armstrong’s side beat them 5-0 in 1920-21.

This time it is refreshing to see that Strauss sees things very differently. Not only will England play two three-day and one four-day games before the 1st test starts, but they will take them seriously. Strauss believes that he has “always thought that the biggest danger with warm-up games is treating them like warm-up games. When I became captain, I said that was something we should do away with. We try to play every game to the limit now. On an Ashes tour, it’s crucial to hit the ground running.” Spot on again.   So, with a determined leader at the helm, better preparation and a more settled, resilient and confident side, England seem to have everything in place to do well. However, that will mean nothing if they don’t play to their maximum and get the luck that will be necessary in a contest between two closely balanced sides.

England had their problems in 2006/07, but these were exasperated by the quality of the opposition they faced. With all-time greats Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath determined to go out with a bang after the most glittering of careers and with several other world-class players in the ranks like Ponting, Gilchrist and Hayden, plus a resolve emboldened by their defeat in 2005, Australia proved pretty much unstoppable and utterly ruthless.

Things are different now though. Only one great in Ponting remains and he would appear to be past his vintage. Shane Watson and Simon Katich have done well since they came together at Edgbaston last summer, but they are no Hayden and Langer. Michael Clarke is coming off a poor series in India. Michael Hussey’s Bradmanesque average of 2006 is now under fifty and he only averages 34 since scoring a hundred against India at Bangalore in 2008. And Marcus North is unlikely to last the series. Australia are well-served in the wicketkeeper department, but neither Brad Haddin or Tim Paine are Adam Gilchrist. On the bowling front, Australia seem to have a group of decent seamers, but bar Ben Hilfenhaus none can even offer close to the control of the miserly McGrath, and the less said about Ponting’s spin options the better.   Even with all that though, Australia are notoriously difficult to beat on their own grounds, having only lost two home series since 1989. England will need to assimilate quickly to Australian pitches, a vociferous crowd, the kookaburra ball and different types of pitches to those they find back in Blighty. But one cannot help thinking that with only a drawn series needed to retain the Ashes, Strauss is piloting a plane full of hope and potential victors.  

Our all-time Ashes XIs

None of the current crop of English and Australian cricketers made it into the all-time Ashes XIs we have just finished selecting with only Ponting featuring on any of the shortlists. It was certainly a rewarding exercise and we managed to fill in some of the gaps we had in our knowledge of the early Victorian Ashes encounters. Check out our All-time Australian Ashes XI and All-time England Ashes XI and tell us what you think.    

A festival of test cricket awaits We love this time of year at the Reverse Sweep. Not only has the heat of a South of France summer given way to a gorgeous autumn, but a flood of upcoming test cricket is set to whet the appetite over the next few months. The main course is naturally the Ashes, but there is also Pakistan vs South Africa, India vs New Zealand, Sri Lanka vs West Indies and a potentially fascinating South Africa vs India series to look forward to. Time to get the beers in.  

India’s future looks brighter than expected

When Sachin Tendulkar, VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid put the pads in their kit bags for the last time, India is set for a decline in its fortunes to match that of Australia since Warne, McGrath and Gilchrist amongst others retired. Well that’s the script peddled by most commentators anyway. Its certainly true, that any side would miss three all-time great batsmen such as these especially if they were to retire simultaneously. But firstly the form of Tendulkar and Laxman at least, who both average over 90 in test cricket this year, would seem to suggest that they have plenty of gas left in the tank. And perhaps more importantly, it would appear that India has a plethora of young batsmen ready to step into their illustrious footsteps. Suresh Raina has had a brilliant start to his test career and averages 68 after four matches. Murali Vijay hit a majestic hundred in the recent Bangalore Test and looks a class act. Cheteshwar Pujara looked every inch a batsman with a first-class average of 60 when pitched in at the deep end in his first test. Virat Kohli may not have made his test bow yet, but has looked to have all the ingredients required for the longer form of the game in his outings for the one day side. And Rohit Sharma looks like he may finally deliver on his obvious promise. And my Indian spies tell me there are others too. Yes, these five batsmen need to prove they can shine as well outside the subcontinent and stay away from the many distractions that now face every young Indian cricketer thanks to the IPL and the celebrity circus, but the future certainly looks brighter than many expect. India could yet be set for a long reign as the number one side in the world.  

Younis Khan 1 Ijaz Butt 0

We were delighted to see that Younis Khan – one of Pakistan’s two world-class batsmen along with Mohammad Yousuf – finally reinstated to the Pakistan squads for the forthcoming test and limited overs series with South Africa in the United Arab Emirates. It is a victory for Younis’ dignity after he rightfully refused to bow down to Ijaz Butt following the lifting of his ridiculous indefinite ban back in June. That was the final step needed for Butt to give his blessing to Younis’ recall, but Younis felt he had nothing to apologise for – especially to Butt, so chose to keep his counsel whilst he waited on the sidelines. Finally, it would seem that Butt has capitulated under pressure from the selectors and more likely the Pakistan Government. It certainly makes Younis a Reverse Sweep hero – see Heroes: Younis Khan.  

Quote of the week

As we wrote at the weekend, when explaining why new West Indian cricket captain Darren Sammy is a Reverse Sweep hero – see Heroes: Darren Sammy – we are extremely impressed with his (blind?) optimism at his appointment despite being the most unlikely test captain since England appointed Chris Cowdrey in 1988 (and look how that ended). Sammy, recognising that West Indian cricket is in the doldrums and that its supporters are brow beaten by their slide down the rankings, said that his manifesto would be to put a smile back on the faces of Caribbean cricket lovers:

“That’s what Darren Sammy wants to do. Bring back the joy.”

That’s all for this week folks.

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