England

ENGLAND HOPES TO COOK WITH GAS AND CLEAR UP CAPTAIN CRISIS.

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Given the ECB’s fierce determination to persist with the Moores and Cook project, it comes as little surprise to see England’s opening batsman leading his side out at the Ageas Bowl in the third test against India.

The general public have expressed their opinion in no uncertain terms about Cook’s stewardship. Many have called for his head, while the more humane among us have politely asked for the Essex player’s resignation. Irrespective of the sport, the captain is always under scrutiny; the spotlight centres on him, particularly when results begin to turn against his troops. England were heavily shelled down under in a 5-0 whitewash against the Aussies, and artillery fire has continued to batter them ever since. A woeful run of Test match results since the summer of 2013 has seen England slip to 7 defeats, stutter to 3 draws and fail to win any matches against Australia, Sri Lanka and India.

The first of the complaints lodged against Cook’s captaincy is his tendency to take a reactive approach, rather than a proactive one, in the field. It has been largely speculated that were the selectors to hand over the reins to another leader, England’s tactical endeavours would not be compromised in any way. It would be difficult for anybody to describe Cook’s stewardship as “charismatic” or “dynamic”. Quietly standing at first slip while he hides away from the world’s glare behind his dark sunglasses, the skipper seems “pensive” at best. Rarely does his body language seem rousing, more often is the double-teapot hands-on-hips pose adopted as the game slowly but surely moves away from England. If the team have an opportunity to exert serious pressure on the opposition, it seems that this England side instinctively slip into defensive mode. Stuart Broad has recently revealed that he’s concerned about haemorrhaging runs when he storms into bowl, and this worry has been reflected in Cook’s field placings. There is a refusal to pack the slip corden and gully region to create catching opportunities. Instead, the sight of England’s opening bowlers having boundary riders at deep extra-cover leaves spectators tearing their hair out.

Then of course, there is the pressing issue of Cook’s plummeting form with the bat. In the days of old, the left hand opener would churn out runs for fun, helping himself to boundaries galore through mid-wicket, while occasionally smearing a short ball through point. He’s never been the most eye-catching of batsmen, but few have been more effective. He’s moved past Kevin Pietersen to become England’s 4th highest run scorer of all time in this morning’s session, and so has proved that he’s a fine international player. However, the corridor of uncertainty outside of his off-stump has proved his most recent Achilles heel.  Such is the frequency of Cook’s nicking behind, or finding a slip fielder with his favoured outside edge, that people need not watch the game to discover how the captain is going to be dismissed. There was another heart in mouth moment as he found a meaningful edge that presented Ravi Jajeda with a simple chance before noon, but the skip was let off the hook with only 15 runs to his name.  Cook has overcome a past habit of his weight falling towards the off-side to be a prime lbw candidate, but will the pressure of the captaincy distract him from rectifying the most recent problem with his batting?

Enough about Cook though. He is not the only senior player failing to produce the goods though. Ian Bell has endured a torrid time of late, scratching around for runs like a man on hot coals. When he first emerged onto the scene in 2004/5, Bell was targeted by the hostile Brett Lee, who’s fiery back of a length bowling had the Warwickshire player tied up in knots. This made the batsman keen to throw his hands at anything full, making him susceptible to a feather edge. Although Ishant Sharma is significantly slower than the express pace of Lee nine years on, Bell still looks as unconvincing against the aggressive bowlers. When England’s number four is in form, he’s arguably the most majestic player on the circuit. However, expose him to sustained pressure, and despite having accumulated a wealth of experience at the age of 32 now, many would expect Bell to crack. Averaging just 25 since last summer’s Ashes, a series wherein he starred, the aesthetically pleasing batsman is due big runs.

Should the top order get their act together – a job perhaps boosted by the inclusion of the extravagant but somewhat unpredictable Jos Buttler – the bowlers must back their efforts up. When England were the number one team in Test cricket, there was unwavering confidence in James Anderson and Stuart Broad ripping through their rivals. Despite having collected 600 wickets between them in the longer format of the game, they’re currently not working well in tandem. I have already alluded to Broad’s reluctance to pitch the ball up, and swing King Jimmy is suffering from a similar ailment. The first innings of the previous Test match at Lord’s epitomises the problem. Having won the toss and elected to bowl first, England were aided by a green surface and cloudy skies. The morning session was if not disastrous, quite simply not good enough. Taking three wickets in two hours was a poor return given the day’s conditions, with Anderson and Broad’s line and length far too erratic.

The problems are paramount for English cricket during this stage of transition from experience to youth. As Cook raises his bat to celebrate his fifty at Southampton, there may just be faintest trace of a senior star beginning to take some responsibility. Now to step on the gas …

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Swann (n): 1. A Royal bird 2. A Regal bowler.

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I had expected to receive news of Graeme Swann’s retirement from International cricket sometime in the near future but had always anticipated that when he did call time on his England career, it would be like the spectacular ending to some movie premiere. Having performed countless death-defying stunts and saved the world from total devastation, he should slowly have drifted off into the faintly humming sunset, the ground on which he walked, glistening with gold. The reality of the situation could hardly be more different. Part of a miserable England Ashes tour of Australia and rumoured to have been omitted from the squad for the MCG test beginning on Boxing Day, the Nottinghamshire bowler has chosen to pack his bags and retire with immediate effect from all forms of cricket.

The purpose of this piece is not to speculate about the reasoning behind Swann’s decision, to formulate an opinion on whether he was within his rights to walk away before the tour reached its conclusion, but to congratulate him on excellent county and international careers. It took its time in coming. Until his move to Nottinghamshire in 2005, Swann aged 26 at the time, had done little to capture the imagination bar a single ODI appearance just after the turn of the Millennium. Sure, he had been a consistent performer for a team playing in the second tier but thoughts of another England call-up were a fading hope. Most would have thought that ship had long passed; indeed it had barely ever docked in the first place. Nottinghamshire were imperious in the 4 day game at the time of his arrival and clinched the 2005 Frizzell County Championship honours. As such, Swann’s main duties were to entertain the Trent Bridge crowd in the 45 over game – a competition that is no more. Under Stephen Fleming’s leadership, Notts employed Swann as an opening batsman, pinpointing him as a pinch-hitting player capable of getting the innings off to a flyer. In principle it was a cunning plan that they persevered with, but one which usually backfired to leave the Outlaws 2, 6 or 8-1. His frequent wild heaves across the line of the ball would pain every youth coach in the game! Having exchanged his bruising bat for the more familiar ball in the second innings, Swann immediately began to enjoy more success. Boasting 305 wickets in 269 appearances in the shorter forms of the game, his right arm orthodox was proving tricky to manoeuvre around. Never afraid to give the ball plenty of flight, the wily spinner was a constant menace and began to catch the eye. In addition to his bowling credentials, he was rarely spotted without his mischievous grin, a smirk capable of unnerving the coolest of customers. 2007 was to be his breakthrough campaign in the 4 day format though, a productive season that saw him snare 43 victims and earn a flight on the England plane to Sri Lanka. Although he was unused on the tour and played second-fiddle to Monty Panesar, he would soon exchange places with the charismatic slow left armer. Swann’s golden age began against India the following year when he became only the second player in the history of Test cricket to claim two wickets in his very first over. Rahul Dravid was one of those sent packing and from then on, no “wall” was reinforced adequately to prevent Swann from knocking it down. We all know the story from there: part of an Ashes victory (2009), earned a tied man of the series award in South Africa (2009), considered to be the world’s number 3 bowler (2010), pronounced ECB cricketer of the year (2010), involved in the demolition job of Pakistan (2010), T20 World Cup winner (2010), integral in another Ashes win (2010-11), gained the title of world’s number 1 spinner (2010-11), ranked the 2nd best Test match bowler (2011), became the world’s number 1 ODI bowler (2011), part of an England world number 1 squad (2011).

If Swanny should ever lay his eyes on this article, I hope to have fed his ego with this inexhaustible list of achievements. Even the methodical hand-picking of words seems insufficient to describe such a phenomenal rise in a career that for long periods had looked highly improbable. The elbow problem sustained in 2012 meant that England’s ‘go to’ man failed to ever hit the same lofty heights again and has ultimately led to the most difficult career decision. Take a look at the following video to hear his version of events.

So there we have it. Graeme Swann: Northamptonshire, Nottinghamshire and England. The unlikely man who rose to take the world by storm. The England selectors will now be forced to mull over who his successor should be. Will it be the ever-reliable James Tredwell? Alternatively it may be the young Northern sensation, Scott Borthwick. Simon Kerrigan and Moeen Ali won’t want to be discounted either. However, all that for another day. For now, let’s raise a toast and say: “Swanny, thanks for the memories”.

Guest Blog Entry: “The stress professional sportspeople are under should not be taken lightly, and Jonathan Trott should be applauded for his bravery and openness.”

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Written by Josh Keeling

I’d never exhibited so much mental focus and control in my life. The date was September 20th 2013. The venue was Sutton Lawn, Nottinghamshire, UK. The activity? Sport. Tennis. Just an amateur tennis match between myself and a friend. Yet, having never won a set before, despite well over fifty matches over the course of two summers, I went into a state of mental focus I’ve never achieved before. My friend will tell you, I tend to talk during our matches. A lot. Yet on that day, having lost the first set 6-1, I decided enough was enough. It was time to shut up. Time to focus. Time to take one point at a time. Having done so, I was able to get to- and lose- a second set tiebreak before winning the third set 6-3.

This all came back to me when I was considering the recent case of Jonathan Trott and his withdrawal from the England squad for the Ashes tour of Australia. It took a huge amount of mental toughness for me to isolate myself from any dissenting voices or fears in the midst of a simple tennis match with a friend, to ignore the implications of a misplaced shot and move on. I have honestly never been so mentally focused on an amateur tennis encounter before. It was a real mental effort to ignore a bad shot, a lost point, to forget about the potential implications for the match, to clear my mind and just focus on the next swing of my racket in isolation from everything else. It was only after, when I relaxed mentally, that I realised just how focused I’d been.

So, I thought, it is impossible to imagine just how much mental strain a professional sportsperson must be under. It must be at least a hundred times worse. I was playing merely for the personal satisfaction of winning a set for the first time. These men and women are staking their livelihoods, their careers, their reputations, huge sums of money and the dreams of millions every time they step onto the field of play, or into a swimming pool, or onto a running track, or onto the curved banks of a velodrome.

To take the example of Jonathan Trott once again, the mental pressures of stepping out at the crease for hours at a time, watched by millions of people both in the stadium and at home, your every move having an influence on the ultimate destination of the biggest prizes in sport, must place an incredible strain on the human mind. People sit at home, watching Trott and his counterparts lose their wickets in supposedly ridiculous ways, and they scream ‘What a stupid shot! What was he thinking?!’.

The fact of the matter is, these decisions are taken in a split second under the most intolerable pressure. They don’t get hundreds of replays and hours of analysis. They get a split second. That’s it. A split second to make or destroy the dreams of millions. Could you handle that pressure?

I found it tough to maintain such a high degree of intense focus- a level of focus I don’t normally attain- playing sport in the most relaxed environment possible. Imagine the huge strain these professionals are under, in the toughest conditions possible. Imagine having your every move ripped to shreds. Forget the silly argument that because they are paid well, they should just ‘put up with it’. They are merely people like you and I, vulnerable to the same insecurities, the same worries and stresses and strains. Think about that when you watch professional sport and then think about perhaps showing a level of consideration for the people in front of you.

Stress-related illnesses in sport should not be taken lightly, and it takes much more bravery to openly admit that you need a break than it does to sit in the stands with some warped sense of entitlement, issuing a stream of vitriol and abuse. They are people, not immune to insecurities, and it’s important to remember that next time you take your seat in the stands. Show some respect, and maybe sportspeople will open up and connect with their fans more. It works both ways. For now, Jonathan Trott should be applauded for his bravery, and let us hope that more sportspeople are not suffering in the same way.

For more of Josh’s work, check out his blog at http://justfroingitoutthere.wordpress.com.

5 REASONS TO NOT BE A DESPAIRING ENGLAND FOOTBALL FAN AFTER CHILE DEFEAT

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International friendlies always throw up a few shock results. However, England’s 2-0 defeat to Chile at a packed Wembley stadium should come as less of a surprise. The South American nation have crept up the FIFA rankings to a lofty 12th position and will be a force to be reckoned with at the 2014 World Cup. This however, is not one of the five reasons that England fans should not despair.

The following on the other hand, are.

1) Lallana is Brazilian.

Of course, it would be an area of concern if Adam Lallana did have Brazilian citizenship. Thankfully I have used a metaphor when a simile would have been more appropriate. One of three debutantes, Lallana was the most impressive as he demonstrated a mesmerizing fleet-footedness that, at times, Rivaldo would have been proud of. Where Southampton team-mate, Jay Rodriguez was panicked and hurried, Lallana looked at complete ease while wearing the prestigious number 9 shirt. He could, and perhaps should, have marked his England bow with a goal at the end of the first period. After neat link-up play with Rooney, he could only drag his effort wide via a deflection having delayed shooting for a fraction too long. Still, his industry and intelligence are likely to have moved him up in the pecking order for a midfield place.

2) Wayne Rooney is a changed man.

Over the summer months, there was an incredible amount of speculation linking Rooney with a move away from Old Trafford. It was said that it would be near impossible for him to rebuild a fractured working relationship with David Moyes, who had succeeded Sir Alex Ferguson at United. How wrong the press can be. The forward has begun the 2013/14 season with a ravenous appetite, hounding defenders to pick their pockets like Oliver Twist. He was instrumental in the Red Devils’ crunch victory over Arsenal and looked equally determined in an England shirt yesterday evening. Playing as a lone striker was always going to be a difficult task but was accomplished on the ball and regularly looked to play the ball through to midfield runners. He’s certainly returning to form.

3) One loss since the turn of the year.

It may be mid-November but yesterday marked the first time that England have succumbed to defeat this calendar year (and it wasn’t even a competitive match at that!) Yes okay, so we have lined up against the fearsome outfit of San Marino, whose population fails to exceed the capacity of most Premier League stadiums. Likewise, we have survived scares against both the Irish and the Scots, but it would be unfair to overlook a victory and a draw against next year’s World Cup hosts. It is pleasing to know that without playing the most swashbuckling soccer, England have been effective at grinding results out. Through both injury troubles and selection policy, the squad has had little time to settle and the results are testament to the character shown.

4) The right-back slot is sorted.

Glen Johnson played the full ninety minutes and confirmed exactly why Kyle Walker will start ahead of him in seven months time. In truth, the intelligent movement of the Chilean attacking line caused problems for all of England’s defenders, yet Johnson’s performance was spectacularly sub-standard. Leighton Baines has been rightly pulled up for allowing Alexis Sanchez to head home the opener, but the Evertonian was not alone in fault. After Wigan winger, Jean Beausejour collected possession, Johnson allowed him to pass the ball out wide. Liverpool’s full-back was then slow to close to cross down and the rest is history. Additionally, the lively Sanchez and Vargas frequently found space on England’s right flank when countering in the first-half and the former-Portsmouth star simply didn’t have the recovery speed to answer. Just when you thought that Johnson’s evening couldn’t get much worse, he was conspicuous by his absence in the other Chilean goal. Pushing for an equaliser, Johnson was caught up the field and as Sanchez coolly lobbed Forster, he can be seen ambling back some 30 yards from goal.

5) We’re better than the French.

Haunted by the tactical deficiencies that cost Harold Godwinson in 1066, English fans still derive great pleasure when our near neighbours are in stuttering footballing form. And that they are, currently embroiled in a real scrap to qualify for Brazil. As St George’s flags hung loosely around supporters’ waists yesterday evening, news that the French were on the receiving end of the same humbling score-line, soon meant that red and white was being brandished across London once again. Further satisfaction was gleaned from their opponents being Ukraine, the nation who England narrowly finished above in Group H – we don’t mention the bore draw played out in Kiev last September.

So there we have it, five reasons to not despair as an England football fan after defeat by Chile. Admittedly, some of the points may not instil much optimism either, but it’s worth remembering from time to time, that England are going to Brazil.

Rhyming with Rogers – Ashes Fever

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A poem penned in September courtesy of England’s Ashes series triumph over Australia. 

Twenty-Thirteen, an Ashes year

 Of both hype and furore,

Before we even started

There was controversy galore.

Better stick to the facts though,

Well when I choose to at least

Because for one, that DRS system,

Should be very closely policed.

Anyhow, the fun began

At a sunny Nottingham,

Where a local boy was rapped

For the crime that he had done.

[I]

The ball refused to turn for Swann

Despite abrasive rough,

Agar soon smashed Finn around,

The match was proving tough.

Then Ian Bell came marching in,

He likes to strut his stuff.

A defiant knock of one-o-nine

Was just about enough.

Erasmus was no humanist

And Aleem Dar no saint,

But Stuart Broad not walking,

Caused furious complaint.

[II]

At Lords, the hosts were soon three down,

The Poms played off the park,

Siddle thought he had Bairstow

But overstepped the mark.

England need not have feared though

The Aussie batsmen had no spark,

Scores of one-two-eight and two-three-five

Did not please Michael Clarke.

In England’s second innings,

Rooty came of age

And In doing so, showed the world,

He’s made for the biggest stage.

[III]

The Aussies had to win the third

If they should have a hope,

And so called upon Dave Warner

Who’d thrown punches at some bloke.

When the tourists notched 500

The whitewash went up in smoke,

Caught down leg and plumb in front

The skip began to choke.

With England in the mire,

Supporters prayed for rain

And under striped umbrellas,

The Ashes were retained.

[IV]

Staying put, the target now

An English series win,

But once again, the batting waned,

Ryan Harris wore a grin.

The match took a turn when,

Clarke’s off-peg went tumbling,

Runs dried up, the pressure told

On Smith, Watson, Haddin.

With nine men gone, time stood still

As Siddle looped a ball,

Sprinkler dances, Aussie rued missed chances,

We’d won three out of four.

[v]

The Oval was a dour affair

Until the fifth and final day

When the tourists made a game of it

But ‘twas deemed too dark to play.

Either way, the match was drawn

And the home players chose to stay

For a raucous time of urinating,

The evening’s cabaret.

Recover from those hangovers boys

We’ve got it all to do again,

In November, when we cross the seas,

Where we’ll have to bat like men.