Red Crystal BallsNeil Pickup |
The English season is two weeks old. The sun is shining, I’ve got myself a sunburn and a seam mark across my left instep, and Ian Bell has made a regulation century on a featherbed at Taunton. Three things that any soothsayer worth their salt would expect to find within their “Captain Obvious” section, right next to the visions of Chris Martin losing his middle stump.
So, with the sound of birdsong still fresh in the evening air, and the hope of runs and wickets yet to be extinguished by the reality of my woefully inadequate forward press or Bryce McGain-like control, I’ve taken the time to consult my own (red) crystal balls and gaze forward into the next five months of deliveries, drives and Duckworth/Lewis.
April has already brought with it much misery for the six cricketing universities with a series of professional second-strings filling their statistical boots at the students’ expense: and with further UCCE fixtures remaining the only surprise will be if no undergraduate teams are skittled for double-figure totals. There is a growing air of inevitability over Ian Bell’s England recall, and it’s equally certain that Warwickshire’s batsman will express his hunger to succeed in the Three Lions. Expect the words “determination”, “desire” and “hurt” to feature in the first interview, followed by another healthy dose of flat-track runs.
Come the First Test in May, however, “Bell caught Gayle bowled Taylor 19″ will find its way into the scorebook via the kind of tentative outside edge that everyone can already envision all too easily. In spite of this setback, and a second hiccup as Kevin Pietersen sensationally walks off the field having made 158*, declaring that he is unable to spend so much time away from Jessica Taylor, England are still able to seal a victory in the series opener. Sajid Mahmood makes an early impact on his England recall before being withdrawn from the attack having struck square leg umpire Billy Bowden on the temple with a particularly errant wide, leaving Graeme Swann to bowl unchanged for the entire West Indies second innings on his way to match figures of 14/183 from 113 overs.
West Indies coach John Dyson is then furious about the wicket prepared for the Second Test, which is controversially switched from Chester-le-Street to the outside lane of the neighbouring A1 (M) Motorway. England, on winning the toss, proceed to bat for 14 and a half sessions in the process of recording 1,437 for 8 declared. An apoplectic Dyson’s rant that the pitch was “a complete road” is dismissed by a nonplussed Andy Flower, whose remark, “yes, John, that was the idea – you would have understood that if you hadn’t misread your road map and insisted that we were playing in a field for the first session”, does nothing to further the relations between the two sides.
England’s promising start to the summer cannot last however, and their World Twenty20 campaign ends in disappointment as Kevin Pietersen again fails to complete an innings, once more citing the length of his absence from partner Jessica. In Pietersen’s absence, the hosts slump to New Zealand, having stuttered to 14/0 after 6 overs in the chase of 183. Controversy also strikes at Trent Bridge as India capitulate to Boyd Rankin and Ireland, before insisting that the rules of the tournament are altered to allow matches to be played as many times as possible to allow them to win. The BCCI subsequently demand the annulment of all of Ireland’s results having remembered that Rankin played in the ICL, ordering their players to appear in the Super Eight stage regardless of the Irish presence – until the standoff is resolved when someone tells Niranjan Shah there is ?800million of advertising revenue at the bottom of the River Trent.
The World Twenty20 concludes in high drama. South Africa take on England’s conquerors New Zealand, proclaiming that they have once and for all shaken off their ‘chokers’ reputation. Nonetheless, with 19 required from the final over, Jesse Ryder strikes three fours and a maximum from Dale Steyn to send the Proteas to tears, and Ryder straight to the Long Room bar. “It was good enough for Freddie,” slurs Ryder, “and I’ve scored a first-class hundred in the last four years…”
With the season’s appetisers over, the British public’s thoughts turn to the main course and the five Tests of the Ashes summer. Chairman of Selectors Geoff Miller stuns the press with his latest solution to the troubled number three position – sensationally calling up Kevin Pietersen’s other half, Jessica Taylor. “This solves two problems for the side,” Miller tells a flabbergasted media. “Kevin will be able to spend more time with Jessica and, let’s be honest, she’s not going to be any worse than Bell, is she? Besides, she’s bound to put someone off under the helmet…”
Miller’s gamble shows little sign of paying off, however, as England are skittled for 58 in the First Test – despite Taylor top-scoring with 14, before England are saved by the Cardiff weather, as three days of continuous rain ensure the hosts escape with a draw. The English luck cannot hold, though, and Stuart Clark picks up where Glenn McGrath left off, exploiting the slope at HQ to take 6/38 off the back of Philip Hughes’ home ground hundred. It is with the dire warnings of the hazards of Australians playing county cricket ringing in their ears that the two teams head to Edgbaston – the visitors travelling in the knowledge that just one more win will be enough to retain the Urn.
England turn to twin spin for the Third Test of the series, recalling Monty Panesar to partner the weary Swann. The tone for a comfortable home victory is set in front of an incredulous crowd when Panesar hits Simon Katich on the pads and doesn’t appeal, before minutes later pinning Ricky Ponting leg-before. A furious Ponting proclaims that none of the English players would merit selection in his Australian side, harking back to the recent South African series. “When we brought in three new caps last winter, we won the next test. If we make six changes, we’ll win both of the next two.” Beside him, Tim Nielsen shifts uncomfortably in his seat, his own reply to the journalist’s question cut off as Ponting turns to his coach, baring his teeth and growling menacingly.
The Australians’ problems intensify after Ponting spontaneously combusts in the drawn Fourth Test at Headingley, having been run out by Jessica Taylor, swooping from extra cover to flatten the non-striker’s stumps. Stand-in captain Michael Clarke’s leadership is called into question in the Final Test at the Oval, claiming seven catches that, on replay, don’t appear to have carried. Clarke’s post-session claim that he thought he was playing “one hand, one bounce” is met by coach Nielsen bashing his head against the bank of microphones with enough force to knock himself out for the remaining four days of the Test. When roused afterwards, all the Australian can say is, “at least I didn’t have to watch any more of our so-called spinners”, before casually glancing towards the scorecard, reading the line “McGain 19-0-163-1″ and reaching once again for the nearest large object.
With the Urn safely returned to the home of cricket, the attention turns to the ODIs – however, before the seven-match series is out, no one can actually remember how many matches are left, or even who’s winning. England’s wicketkeeper-batsman experimentation reaches a new extreme in the final match as the side named 11 glovemen, including coach Andy Flower – and still break the record for most byes conceded in fifty overs as nobody proves able to bowl with any control or direction.
Back on the County circuit, and under the England radar, Mark Ramprakash crosses the 2,000 run barrier for the third season out of four: but this time no one thinks about a recall. Meanwhile, Worcestershire’s New Road ground finishes the season underwater once again, and with six-figure red numbers bubbling across the balance sheet, Sky Sports launch a revolutionary underwater cricket. Ian Bell still finds a way to get bowled for (and by) a duck.