February 2012

THE FINAL RECKONING

by maxbenson 26. February 2012 15:45

@sofa_maxb
 
England go into tomorrow’s deciding T20 in Abu Dhabi as definite favourites following a fortnight that has transformed a tour that had teetered on the brink of disaster.
 
Having been whitewashed in the Test series, few were predicting much of a comeback from a young limited overs squad still very much a work in progress over three years away from the next World Cup.
 
But Alastair Cook and now Stuart Broad have led their ODI and T20 charges admirably. Kevin Pietersen's dramatic return to form has been handy, too, as has the continued development of Steven Finn into a high-class international pace demon.
 
Team England's meticulous approach to youth development has also begun to bear fruit as 22-year-old Johnny Bairstow - the city of York's finest export since Dame Judi Dench - blazed his way to an unbeaten 60 in Dubai to set up tomorrow's finale.
 
It was an innings reminiscent of his arresting 41 off 21 balls on debut against India in Cardiff last September and went some way to justifying the faith put in him after his unremarkable Lions tour of the subcontinent. Jos Buttler struggled again against international bowling but his fellow Lions graduate's success should inspire rather than deflate a young batsman with bundles of raw talent.
 
Eoin Morgan's complete lack of form is a more pressing issue. This was billed as a perfect tour for the Irishman's innovative technique on spin-friendly pitches, but he has faltered badly, failing to score higher than 31 in twelve attempts in the Emirates.
 
His performances in the hectic world of T20s shouldn’t diminish his selection chances for March’s two-Test tour of Sri Lanka, but a stage may soon be reached where a break from the international treadmill is seen as the best course of action for a player so demonstrably short on confidence.
 
At the other end of his career, the fulcrum of Pakistan's Test success over the tourists, Misbah-ul-Haq, is now facing serious questions over his captaincy in the limited overs formats. How quickly things change.
 
Awais Zia enjoyed just one scoring shot in the twelve balls he survived at the top of the order on Saturday and has a long way to go to carve out an international career. At 25-years-old it is debatable how much potential is left to flourish into international talent.
 
Quality spinners are in plentiful supply for Pakistan and Saeed Ajmal, Mohammad Hafeez and the inimitable Shahid Afridi can be ably complemented by Abdur Rehman and Shoaib Malik to both constrict and bowl out the best sides.
 
The pace department is a concern, though. Umar Gul’s recent regression has exposed a lack of depth and, while Junaid Khan could lead the line one day, it is an area in which Pakistan need to improve quickly if they are to prosper on wickets away from Dubai and the subcontinent.
 
Regardless of tomorrow's result, England's one day boys come away from the desert with reputations generally enhanced. Pakistan, quite unexpectedly after the Tests, have much to ponder ahead of September T20 World Cup in Sri Lanka.

*Join us from 3.45pm tomorrow for live coverage of the final T20 between Pakistan and England in Abu Dhabi.

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A NEW CHAPTER

by maxbenson 22. February 2012 16:11

@sofa_maxb

It is fitting that the first full series we cover in our new era with The Cricketer is the format designed to engage a wider audience in the game we all love.

The 20-over incarnation has been an innovative shot in the arm to a sport that was stagnating. Its influence has benefitted immeasurably the popularity of Test and limited overs cricket at home and abroad, capturing imaginations all over world.

More selfishly than that, England are the best on the planet. Their only global title remains the 2009 T20 World Cup when Kevin Pietersen and Craig Kieswetter blew away Australia in the Barbados final.

Pietersen was crowned Player of The Tournament that day and many will argue it took until this week for his limited overs form to return to the heights his immense talent demands. A match-winning 111 in the third ODI – his first one day ton for over three years – was bettered by a mighty 130 on Tuesday as England reciprocated the Test series whitewash.

The other consecutive centurion from the series, captain Alastair Cook, is unexpectedly staying with the squad due to injury concerns - chiefly over Ravi Bopara, who was one of four replaced for Tuesday’s win along with the rested Jimmy Anderson, Graeme Swann and T20 captain Stuart Broad.

Kieswetter has opened the batting with Nottinghamshire's Alex Hales for England’s last four T20s and tough selection decisions need to be made with Jos Buttler, Johnny Bairstow and Samit Patel among those fighting for places. Strength in depth is not a problem.

The new ninth-best ODI bowler in the world, Steven Finn, is a shoe-in alongside Broad. It is a question, then, as to whether Tim Bresnan has shaken off enough injury-induced rust to find a place with Anderson far from a selection certainty in this form of the game.

Danny Briggs, the young left-arm spinner, was composed and bowled intelligently to pick up 2/39 on debut earlier this week. He would count himself unlucky were he to miss out here.

Pakistan are likely to introduce fresh blood to their side. An opener in domestic T20, Awais Zia could make his international debut at the top of the order. Exciting all-rounder Hammad Azam, meanwhile, may also make his T20 bow.

Signs of promise were visible in the bowling of 22-year-old Junaid Khan on Tuesday. He should have done enough to secure his spot ahead of the bang-out-of-form Umar Gul, Wahab Riaz and Aizaz Cheema for what will likely be a single pace bowling place.

We’ll be on air at 3.45pm GMT for the first game of three so, if you’re new to The Sofa, check out the homepage to see the many ways in which you can listen and join in the fun. You can also tweet us @testmatchsofa to be part of the discussion or to share with us anything that's on your mind.

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A WHITEWASH FOR A WHITEWASH...

by maxbenson 21. February 2012 18:38

@sofa_maxb

To steal a football phrase: ‘It’s a funny old game.’ Just a couple of weeks after England’s world number one status was made a mockery of by a 3-0 Test series drubbing, the one day side today cruised to a 4-0 retaliation in Dubai.

For England, the series became a tale of two double centurions. After Alastair Cook calculated his way to three figures in the first two ODIs, Kevin Pietersen dramatically recaptured his form of old to record consecutive tons in games three and four.

Pietersen is at his best with all eyes on him, and they certainly were in Dubai from the first over of England's reply when Cook fell to Junaid Khan’s second ball. But Pietersen, who adores playing the hero role, dismantled Pakistan once again to secure for England a notable series whitewash in the desert.

The tourists took advantage of having wrapped things up with a game to go by ringing the changes. Jos Buttler and Danny Briggs made ODI debuts, while Tim Bresnan and Jade Dernbach returned as Ravi Bopara, Graeme Swann, Stuart Broad and Jimmy Anderson dropped out.

Briggs impressed in low-key fashion after Pakistan won the toss and batted, taking 2/39 from his ten overs to help restrict the ‘hosts’ to a below-par 237. It had looked like being a considerably higher total at 112/1 in the 23rd over, but the loss of Asad Shafiq for a well-crafted 65 started a regular fall of wickets as Pakistan again underachieved.

There was an element of rust about the returning Dernbach and Bresnan, but the former finished with 4/45, including the scalps of openers Mohammad Hafeez and the promoted Azhar Ali.

But the limelight inevitably belonged to the box office favourite Pietersen. Supported largely by Craig Kieswetter (43), he led his side to within two runs of victory with 130 runs to add to his 111 from Saturday’s third game.

It was Bresnan’s privilege to flail the winning runs to the vacant third man boundary to avenge, at least in part, the Test series debacle as England’s proactive approach against the spinners once again proved fruitful with Hafeez and Shahid Afridi bowling 20 wicket-less overs between them.

Four months will pass before England’s 50-overs side have another go, but the signs of both youth and genuine strength in depth bode well so early in a World Cup cycle.

*We'll be back from 3.45pm on Thursday for the first T20 between Pakistan and England.

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IS CONTINUITY KING?

by maxbenson 20. February 2012 12:57

@sofa_maxb

As Kevin Pietersen’s century heralded a notable series win for England last Saturday, thoughts immediately turned to the tourists' selection plans for tomorrow's finale in Dubai.

Andy Flower and Alastair Cook will be desperate to give themselves the best chance of avenging the 3-0 Test series whitewash as thoroughly as possible. ODI series annihilation does not bring complete redemption, but it’s a damn good start and says a lot for the character and drive of ‘Team England’ as they enter a huge year of cricket.

That would mean retaining the side that has performed so admirably for the first three encounters in which England have dominated with bat, ball and embarrassingly so in the field. Pietersen’s first ODI ton in 37 attempts went some way to justifying the selectors’ persistence with him, while Ravi Bopara’s brace of fifties in the first two games also keeps the vultures at bay.

But with England’s next ODI not until they take on the West Indies at Southampton’s Rose Bowl on June 16th, tomorrow represents the last opportunity for four months, T20s aside, to give competitive international experience to the likes of Jos Buttler, Johnny Bairstow and even leg-spinner Danny Briggs.

The England Lions have just a solitary scheduled fixture in that time - against the West Indies in May - which lends weight to the argument for giving youth a chance. Sheer will to win will likely override planning for the future on this occasion, though, and there are strong cases for either approach. But the Test series hurt England badly and they are often inclined stick with the tried and trusted.

Nevertheless, Craig Kieswetter will be nervous for his spot with Buttler and Bairstow both competent and improving ‘keepers as well as fearless, destructive batsmen. Fit-again Tim Bresnan is a consistent asset with the ball and bat, threatening once again Jimmy Anderson’s place in the limited overs side's pace attack.

Pakistan have been completely outplayed over three matches. It will be interesting to see, then, whether captain Misbah-ul-Haq’s disciplined approach will be enough to keep focussed the minds of his doubtlessly deflated side.

They also could make changes with only the clichéd pride left to play for. With Wahab Riaz and Aizaz Cheema both used as the second pace bowler alongside a battalion of spinners in this series, young Junaid Khan can consider himself unfortunate not to have had an opportunity to impress so far.

Likewise, the well-regarded Hammad Azam's top order experience could see him dislodge either the struggling Asad Shafiq or Azhar Ali.

Regardless of any changes on either side, you feel that dealing with the imperious Cook and Steven Finn - not to mention a rejuvenated Kevin Pietersen - could be too much once more for a still unpredictable Pakistan.

*Join us from 10.45am GMT tomorrow for live ball-by-ball coverage of the final ODI between Pakistan and England in Dubai.

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IT'S A KNOCKOUT

by maxbenson 18. February 2012 18:12

@sofa_maxb

The start of a new era on The Sofa heralded the same old story on the field as England dismantled Pakistan by nine wickets to complete a notable series win with a game to spare.

It really is Groundhog Day as the only thing captain Alastair Cook did wrong in Dubai today was lose the toss. His 80 from 98 balls was every bit as composed as his centuries in the first two ODIs, and it set England on their way to a massacre of a series clincher.

Unexpectedly, it was the much-maligned Kevin Pietersen who showed the staying power at the top of the order to make his first one day century since November 2008 and guide his side home with more than 12 overs to spare.

Despite continuing to look downright awkward in the early stages of his innings, Pietersen took advantage of anything loose to remind everyone of the sheer talent he possesses. Forget the bravado and arrogance – this boy is still a class act.

Although batting first in more favourable conditions, it seemed for Pakistan that Shahid Afridi or Umar Akmal would have to come good and, in the event, they both did as the former struck a typically rapid 51 before falling to Jimmy Anderson.

Akmal has flattered to deceive so far in this series – not least in his makeshift position behind the stumps – but he dug in when necessary to compile a hard-fought 50, including an uncharacteristically solitary boundary.

But it was Steven Finn who continued to prove his worth as a genuine international bowler. Opening once more, the Watford-born giant again outshone Anderson, taking 3/24 from his ten overs to limit Pakistan to what proved to be a hopelessly low score.

Stuart Broad and Anderson also took five between them as England’s pace battalion made light work of a supposedly unhelpful wicket.

The same can’t be said of the hosts as Umar Gul (0/59) and Aizaz Cheema (0/40) toiled under the ‘ring of fire’ floodlights of the Dubai International Cricket Ground.

Unfortunately for Pakistan, their pack of heavily-relied on spinners also failed to make an impact. Saeed Ajmal kept things tight and took the only wicket, but Afridi and Mohammad Hafeez were unable to impart any semblance of pressure as England made hay.

Who would have predicted a Pakistan whitewash in the Test series and an England whitewash in the one day series? Not us supposed experts on the Sofa, and we'd wager no one else, either.

Still, one game to go until England complete that feat, so join us on Tuesday for the fourth and final ODI live from 10.45am GMT.

*Test Match Sofa will be live for ball-by-ball coverage of the fourth one day international between Pakistan and England from 10.45am GMT on Tuesday 21st February.

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