November 2011

A WORK IN PROGRESS...

by maxbenson 30. November 2011 15:46

@maxbjourno

The English county fixtures for the 2012 season were revealed yesterday, hot on the heels of David Morgan’s initial review of the county structure.

Well, they were announced a day earlier by one county and a local newspaper actually, whilst still under a '’strict embargo’’ which was in place presumably to heighten the tension, or at least make the relevant authorities feel more important about their annual groundbreaking announcement.

So, where do we start?

We start on the April 5th, actually, for the earliest ever kick-off to a Championship season.

Meanwhile, the England national side will be in the middle of a Test match against Sri Lanka. In Sri Lanka.

Make of that what you will, and there are one or two further oddities instantly spotted in the schedule ahead of the next load of changes in 2014.

Division Two new boys Yorkshire, for instance, are without a single home Championship fixture between the start of June and the middle of August.

That would be nearly all of what is technically known as 'summer', then, and it's not as if there aren't games to be played as the Tykes face FIVE consecutive Championship away matches in that time.

Newly-promoted Surrey will have played five of their eight home Championship games before May is over, leaving any slow-starting members wondering what the unrelenting floodlights, pyjamas and pop music of the One Day and Twenty20 scene is about come June.

The domestic One Day final, once a focal-point of the season, is hidden away at the fag-end of the campaign on September 15th again.

How the 2012 final will capture the public imagination more than Surrey’s triumph over Somerset at a less than half-full Lord’s in the cold and rain of this autumn is anyone’s guess.

While we’re talking finals, the perenially successful Twenty20 finals day is on August 25th at the SWALEC Stadium. That’s Cardiff’s Sophia Gardens to cricket fans like you and I.

Glamorgan - or the Welsh Dragons, as they now like to be known of a weekend - clearly won a bid to host the event fair and square, but is playing a celebrated finals day in Wales the best way of encouraging people from every cricketing corner through the turnstiles?

With Morgan’s plans being fleshed out in the New Year, there is an opportunity for scheduling issues in the county game to be sorted.

For this to happen, though, decision-makers need to remove the dollar signs from their eyes and refocus on what is good for the long-term future of the game.

Not easy, particularly when it is undeniable that money from satellite TV has gone a long way to improving domestic and international cricket in England.

Keeping Sky happy is seemingly a necessary evil at the moment, as we saw with the laughably scheduled ‘contractual obligation T20 series’ against the West Indies recently.

Chasing the pot of gold also led to a ridiculous number of domestic Twenty20 games last summer that became meaningless for the average punter, just because more matches were naively presumed to equal more paying customers.

It was overkill, people became bored and didn’t turn up, and we are happily down to a more breathable ten group games for 2012.

A word of warning, though, as Morgan’s initial report recommends increasing the figure to 14 in 2014 to leave us facing the same potential for saturation as before.

Aside from the international calendar to negotiate, there is next summer the added distraction of the European Football Championships involving England and the small matter of the Olympics and Paralympics coming to Britain, both inevitably dominating media coverage and the public interest.

It’s not easy to get scheduling right and it’s impossible to please every county, but it would be so much better if some ostensibly simple steps were taken to improve the accessibility and, therefore, the profitability of domestic cricket.

For what it’s worth, I believe the 2012 fixture list is an overall improvement on the season just gone.

Just brace yourselves for Morgan’s recommendations in January.

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THAT WAS GREAT. WHEN'S THE DECIDER?

by maxbenson 25. November 2011 10:08

@maxbjourno

So they have got ‘ticker’ after all.

Australia recovered from a harrowing Cape Town Test to level the two-match contest – I refuse to call it a series – in Johannesburg.

Their sterling fifth day effort with the bat at the Wanderers brought a fitting climax to a disgracefully short, yet thoroughly gripping contest.

Who would have thought that Mitchell Johnson, so wildly incompetent with the ball, would emerge a hero with the bat?

Although that’s hardly relevant, and surviving on occasional glories of the past in the hope that lightning strikes twice should not be reason enough for the new Australian selectors to spare him.

Ricky Ponting defied the vultures circling over his Test career with a dogged 62 in the fourth innings, probably securing his place for the start of the Aussie summer.

But enough of the negatives, as one tourist enjoyed a superb debut in Johannesburg.

18-year-old Pat Cummins was ultimately forced to lead the attack with Shane Watson hamstrung, Peter Siddle innocuous and Johnson being Johnson.

Cummins looked jaded in spells – he’s played next to no First Class cricket in his life – but soldiered on to take 6/79 in the second innings before coolly knocking off the winnings runs on Monday as a terrified, white-as-a-sheet number eleven, Nathan Lyon, thanked his God of choice from the balcony.

His future could be a bright one if they look after him properly, as England start to reap the long-term rewards of singling out Steve Finn for special treatment during his breakthrough year.

There were highlights for South Africa, too, despite passing up the opportunity of a first home ‘series’ win over the Aussies since readmission.

Hashim Amla notched a classy century in each match while Graeme Smith’s unbeaten ton in Cape Town led his side to victory in an unbelievable first Test.

As with the tourists, it was a bowler on debut who shone brightest.

Man of The Series Vernon Philander bowled with accuracy and an intelligence that belied his lack of Test experience, while clearly showing why his First Class average is below 20.

He, along with Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel, will make for exciting viewing in English conditions next summer.

So we move on from Sofa Towers and, after a timely break to recharge the batteries - or hibernate, in Hendo’s case – we should be back for England’s tour of the Emirates to take on Pakistan in January.

In the meantime we’ll be Tweeting, blogging and the like to keep things ticking over before our glorious rebirth in 2012.

Thanks for listening, we'll see you all then.

Max.

TO THE WANDERERS WE GO

by maxbenson 16. November 2011 21:33

@maxbjourno

Well that first Test wasn’t too shabby, was it?

Last week’s three-day bonanza in Cape Town had a bit of all that’s great about Test cricket.

Graeme Smith, Hashim Amla and Michael Clarke all crafted excellent Test centuries, with Clarke’s monumental 151 standing out for his aptitude as much as his attainment.

Dale Steyn, debutant Vernon Philander and, more surprisingly, Shane Watson, at times bowled beautifully in three very different ways on a wicket offering just enough for the quicks.

No masochistic Englishman is satisfied without a decent batting collapse and, lo and behold, we were treated to two!

South Africa’s disintegration from 49/1 to 96 all out was nothing compared to the wreckage that was the Australian second innings position of 21/9 about an hour later.

Peter Siddle and Nathan Lyon – batting at nine and eleven – nudged them beyond a record lowest score and up to a still ridiculous 46 in a performance described in typically brilliant Australian parlance as ‘’very ordinary’’.

The damage was done and the home side cruised to a victory target of 236 on a wicket that didn’t warrant anything like the batting carnage that had gone before.

So we reach our final scheduled Test of 2011 at the Wanderers in Johannesburg and our last at the present Sofa Towers.

If the two sides were struggling to recall how tough the longest form of the game can be, Cape Town should have been a more than adequate refresher.

18-year-old pace bowler Patrick Cummins could earn his first baggy green tomorrow having played more Twenty20 matches than First Class, List A and One Day Internationals combined.

Peter Siddle and the unfathomable Mitchell Johnson both flattered to deceive in decent bowling conditions at Newlands and one could well make way for Australian cricket’s latest saviour, with Siddle most vulnerable if it comes to a last-in-first-out policy.

The tourists are also without the steadying influence of Shaun Marsh at number three. His knackered back allows Usman Khawaja to slot into a side now overcompensating with a uniquely hilarious bravado that masks some deep wounds and insecurities.

36-year-old Ricky Ponting has, to be blunt, just about had it. Trademark shuffling around at the crease did for him twice in Cape Town as aging eyes and reflexes can no longer conceal a longstanding technical flaw.

It will still be a big decision to drop the former captain – talent is hardly queuing up for a place - and, at his age, there is little chance of returning once the inevitable happens, possibly straight after this series.

There’s something quite sad about such a great player slipping out of Test cricket in almost undignified fashion; like Schumacher pottering round the midfield in Formula 1, or that once energetic dog you had now consigned to a flea-bitten basket by the fire.

But, hey, it’s called Test cricket for a reason, and that’s why we love it.

We’re gearing up for what should be another cracker on the Sofa and will be on air tomorrow morning from 8.15am GMT.

Join us, won’t you?

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SOUTH AFRICA FACE AUSTRALIA AS TEST CRICKET LOOKS TO REDEEM ITSELF

by thesofa 8. November 2011 16:29

By Max (@maxbjourno)

It has been a desperate few weeks for cricket. The arrogance, greed and stupidity – match them yourselves – of the three Pakistan players sent down for spot-fixing last week has once again tainted the sport we cherish.

And don’t get me started on the astonishing impotence of the ICC throughout a scandal that is far more widespread and far from over.

We need a tonic, an elixir to drag the greatest form of cricket back up to the hallowed status it should warrant. What’s that, a Test series between two of cricket’s great nations starts on Wednesday? Perfect! It’s only a two-match series? Oh.

We’ll just have to make the most of our truncated final series at the present Sofa Towers, and there is great hope that the rebuilding Aussies taking on number one pretenders South Africa will provide many a positive talking point over the coming fortnight.

The home side are fresh going on rusty - they haven’t played a Test match since January – but welcome back the classy Jacques Rudolph to the top of the order after his exile as a Kolpak player with Yorkshire.

Graeme Smith has given up the ODI and T20 captaincy to focus on Tests. He will partner Rudolph while Amla, Kallis, De Villiers, Prince and Boucher represent a tidy middle order on paper.

A greenish early season pitch in rainy Cape Town will encourage the best new-ball pair in world cricket: Morne Morkel and Dale Steyn. Also excited by a rare chance to shine in the modern day batsman-friendly game will be Ryan Harris and Mitchell ‘he bowls to the left, he bowls to the right’ Johnson.

The final pace berth in the Aussie XI will go to one of Peter Siddle, trundling Trent Copeland and Pat Cummins - the latest in an increasingly desperate list of Australia’s young saviours.

In a worrying sign of our times, 18-year-old Cummins has been centrally contracted and drafted into the Test squad having played more T20s (15) than First Class, List A and One Day Internationals put together (eleven).

The Sydney-born youngster will, if selected, cut his teeth in the toughest form of the game against the South Africans with almost no long-form experience whatsoever. What could possibly go wrong?

Nathan Lyon is the eleventh attempt to replace Shane Warne, and he will go up against South Africa’s spinning debutant, Imran Tahir, in a match that should be decided by pace unless the sun gets out earlier than expected at Newlands.

The Aussie batting picks itself for the first Test, although Ricky Ponting is under pressure for runs as the vultures circle over his outstanding international career.

Shaun Marsh is settled at number three, while Shane Watson will open alongside Philip Hughes, who surely won’t be given as much freedom by the South Africans as in the 2009 series.

Hughes scored a hatful of runs against the surprisingly unwitting Steyn and Morkel before his technique was mercilessly dismantled by England in the Ashes just months later in a grilling from which he has never fully recovered.

Will Smith remember how to construct a Test innings? Will Johnson be able to keep it on the island? Will Hendo get time for a good sleep? Find out tomorrow morning as we go live for ball-by-ball coverage from 8.15am GMT.

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Legislation Is Required To Cure The World Of Spot-Fixing, Not Neighbourhood Watch

by daniel 2. November 2011 12:38

The spot fixing trial has culminated in guilty verdicts for Mohammed Asif and Salman Butt, so now begins the hand-wringing and post-mortems.

It is always dangerous in the immediate aftermath of such a sensational trial to reach hasty conclusions and intone earnestly on what lies ahead, but that hasn’t stopped a plethora of pundits from giving their immediate reactions.

 For some the trial has “proved” that Pakistani cricket is corrupt to its very core. Kamran Akmal and Wahab Riaz have been reported as now coming under scrutiny as a result of evidence given at the trial. The Sydney test between Australia and Pakistan is being cited as an example that not just spot fixing but even more seriously (if that’s possible), match fixing has been endemic in games involving Pakistan for some time.

For others the trial is a success for the processes of law and will strengthen not just cricket but every sport’s drive to eradicate the pernicious influence of fixers from the game. They support jail terms for the convicted cricketers believing that this will act as a deterrent to future would-be transgressors.

And for many pundits the focus has already moved on to how we police the game in future. The often opined solution appears to be for cricketers, past and present, to act as the eyes and ears of the authorities and report any suspicious activity like some kind of vast, intra-cricketing Neighbourhood Watch Scheme.

But absent from these reactions seems to be any kind of realistic or even internally coherent analysis of what the trial has exposed.

Ever since we launched Test Match Sofa in July 2009 I have been fortunate enough to meet numerous cricketers both past and present. Barely a conversation has been completed without an “off the record” nudge nudge wink wink about the prevalence of spot fixing.  I have been regaled with tales by a reliable source who was active in the ICL of exactly how bookmakers entrapped players – it seems to have involved parties, the ready availability of women who are not the players’ wives or girlfriends and substantial quantities of alcohol. Once sucked in they are ripe for blackmail, unsurprisingly.

When I’ve asked players if they were willing to discuss their views on air or on the written record they quite understandably clam up. The fear of reprisals for whistleblowing  is tangible, and the notion that players who have families to protect should put their heads above the parapet and do the ICC’s dirty work for them is not just risible, it’s irresponsible. Indeed, when you consider the deterrent effect of a jail term in the UK, be mindful of the greater deterrent effect of having your family threatened by people who operate within the same moral guidelines as the Cosa Nostra.

Whilst I am initially drawn to the suggestion floated by Angus Porter, Chief Executive of the Professional Cricketers Association, of an amnesty for all cricketers from prosecution if they come clean about any approaches they’ve had from would be match fixers, I can’t see how it addresses the fear of the illegal bookies themselves.

As for the notion that this is a Pakistani problem alone, whoever believes that should go and talk to the cricketers (remember the ones? The guys who should now be the eyes and ears of the ICC), off the record inevitably, and you will hear speculation about players from every test playing (and in some cases non test playing) country in the world. It is true that Pakistani players are paid badly relative to their other international counterparts. It is also true that match fixers will be able to incentivise poorly paid players more easily than wealthy ones to do their bidding, initially at least. But now consider how many 1st class and limited overs matches are played across the world and bet on through illegal bookmakers. And note how poorly paid these non-international cricketers are from Barbados to Chelmsford to Columbo and Brisbane. If poorly paid internationals are willing to risk their careers AND the relative glory of competing at the highest level, why wouldn’t equally poorly paid county cricketers do the same?

At the very core of this whole issue is the unregulated market in gambling. As long as gambling is illegal it will come under the same pressures as alcohol did in prohibition America and recreational drugs do across the world now. Organised crime seizes on unregulated markets and perverts them.

So just as dodgy hooch in the 30s and toxically adulterated heroine today floods the markets, so does the corrosive influence of illegal bookmakers on the sporting contests we all want to watch.

We have an international problem fuelled by illegal bookmakers who coerce young men through blackmail and sizeable quantities of cash to act contrary to the very principles of sport. Perhaps we could start with regulating the bookmakers and legalising gambling across the cricket playing world. I have no idea how you persuade the Indian legislature to bring in such a radical reform, but I never said the answer was easy, and I sure as hell know that charging cricketers with policing their game in the teeth of highly effective organised crime syndicates is absolutely no kind of solution at all.

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