Bairstow, Buttler and England’s Wicket Keeping Crossroads

Both Jos Buttler and Jonny Bairstow have failed to grab England's wicket keeping position with both hands

Both Jos Buttler and Jonny Bairstow have failed to grab England’s wicket keeping position with both hands

Between 2009 and 2013, England enjoyed the luxury that was Matt Prior, picking the Sussex wicket keeper for almost every single test match played during those years. Prior ascended to the role of vice-captain before an achilles injury cut his career short in mid-2014, and his game changing, counter-attacking style of batting at number seven in the order enabled England to play without a genuine all-rounder during their golden era under Andy Flower. Prior averaged over 40 with the bat during his test career and his wicket keeping also improved immeasurably after he was recalled to the team in early 2009, making him one of the best if not the world’s best keeper-batsman for a time.

However times have changed, and since Prior was originally dropped during the ill-fated Ashes tour of Australia in late 2013 Jonny Bairstow and Jos Buttler have both donned the gloves, neither with enough success to end debate about the position in both the short and long term. Both have appealing attributes with the bat; Buttler has played a number of influential innings in the shorter formats of the game, albeit not recently, while Bairstow comfortably passed 1,000 first class runs last summer despite featuring in only half of Yorkshire’s Championship fixtures. Yet both have serious flaws with the gloves, and this has served to exaggerate criticism over their place in the team when either has suffered a barren run with bat in hand.

Both Bairstow and Buttler remain fine fielders, which makes it even more frustrating when they make the occasional mistake with the gloves on, but ultimately it is their performances with the bat that have led to England’s current wicket keeping dilemma. In 34 test innings Bairstow averages 26.40, while Buttler averages 30 after 24 knocks. As a point of comparison, over a decade ago the silk gloved James Foster mustered an average of 25.10 in his 12 test innings, while providing far better work with the gloves than the current Bairstow and Buttler combination.

This begs the question; would England be best served by returning to a specialist keeper? Perhaps the answer is yes, but the options in the county game are few and far between. Foster himself still captains Essex, but he will turn 36 before next summer begins and has played his first class cricket in division two during recent seasons. Chris Read, another excellent gloveman who never quite made the test grade with the bat, is 37 and his ship has also sailed. Younger ‘keepers of prominence include Ben Foakes of Surrey and Sam Billings of Kent, and they would appear to be the next two cabs off of the proverbial rank. Foakes has appeared on multiple England Lions tours and averages 36 in first class cricket, while Billings has been capped at ODI level by England. Billings possesses a first class average of just 31, however, and Foakes only kept wicket on a semi regular basis for Surrey in 2014 thanks to the presence of captain Gary Wilson.

Ultimately, it figures that both Bairstow and Buttler will be given at least one more opportunity each before anyone else is given a go by Trevor Bayliss, but both will be aware that with James Taylor’s emergence alongside Joe Root in the middle order that the only way either of them will find a way into the side is by assuming the gloves. England will need at least one to finally come of age in the test arena if they’re to adequately replace Prior, and in the process plug the huge gap that has emerged in the lower middle order.

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England v India ODI Series: 5 Things to Watch

Alex Hales looks set to make his ODI debut against India

Alex Hales looks set to make his ODI debut against India

Following England’s stirring comeback in the test series against India, the three lions will be looking to press on against the same opposition in the 50-over format with the ODI World Cup in Australia just around the corner. Here are five things to keep an eye on as the five game series gets underway:

Is Alex Hales the man for England in all three formats?

Previously viewed as just a twenty20 specialist, Alex Hales looks set to earn his first ODI cap against India and there have even been whispers a profitable series could catapult him into the frame for a test spot. Hales imperious form of late has seen him notch centuries in both four day and one day cricket, and the man himself has admitted he’s in the best form of his young career. England have often been criticised for being dull and unimaginative with their team selections; should Hales force his way into the test team as a David Warner-esque bully at the top of the order it would certainly represent a change of philosophy from the England hierarchy.

Which England all-rounder will stake a claim for the role?

The omission of Ravi Bopara from England’s 15 man squad came as a surprise; however with Moeen Ali, Ben Stokes and Chris Woakes all selected the hosts still have a range of options to choose from when it comes to all-rounders. Ali has the best record as a batsman in domestic cricket and his status as a spin bowler also factor in his favour, while Stokes’ impressive showing amongst the chaos in Australia last winter and his aggressive attitude make him an appealing option. Woakes, meanwhile, has steadily and somewhat quietly improved since his test debut at the Oval last August against Australia, adding a yard of pace and impressing as captain of the England Lions last winter. All three could have a role to play in the ODI series and with places on the plane to Australia for the World Cup up for grabs every single one of their moves will be closely monitored.

Can Virat  Kohli bounce back from a disastrous test series?

Kohli, the golden boy of Indian cricket, staggered to a batting average a shade over 13 in the five test series, failing to live up to his billing as one of crickets most exciting young players. His technique was revealed to be far from watertight against quality seam bowling, the likes of which was provided by James Anderson and Stuart Broad. Kohli also struggled with the short ball, a flaw that needs to be corrected if he’s to ever transfer his ODI form into the test arena. There is no doubting Kohli’s prowess in the shorter format, however, so don’t be surprised if he responds in a big way over the coming couple of weeks.

Who will man the number three position for England?

After Jonathan Trott departed the Ashes tour of Australia last winter, Gary Ballance laid claim to the coveted number three role in the test side and hasn’t looked back following a sterling summer in the format. It’s unclear, however, whether Ballance will get the chance to man the role in the ODI’s, or if he’ll even be selected. Ian Bell is set to move down the order to accommodate Hales at the top of the order alongside captain Cook, so the Warwickshire man is one alternative for the number three slot. Team director Peter Moores could even spring a surprise and fill the role with wicket keeper Jos Buttler, who does seem slightly wasted at number seven. Whoever gets first dibs on the position will be keen to impress, with a plethora of one day games scheduled over the winter culminating in the 2015 ODI World Cup.

Will Alistair Cook rediscover his one day touch?

Despite regaining form in the final three test matches of the summer, Alistair Cook still failed to reach three figures and a run of poor scores in the limited over games could lead to renewed questions about his position in the one day side. Cook’s once paced batting style doesn’t count in his favour at the best of times and the inclusion of Alex Hales indicates that team management want to play a more aggressive brand of cricket, as does the promotion of Jos Buttler to the test side. Cook deserves the chance to lead the side in a World Cup, but he might not make it that far if England are humiliated in this series by the current world champions, or if he himself doesn’t trouble the scorers.

Who do you think will win the ODI series between England and India? Leave a comment or tweet @fredjstanley to have your say

 

 

Winter Break? Wenger, Mourinho and Rio Can’t All be Wrong

Would Steven Gerrard have made his mistake against Uruguay if he'd had a winter break?

Would Steven Gerrard still have made his mistake against Uruguay if he’d had a winter break?

I used to be resolutely against a winter break in English football. I used to think that the Premier League fixtures over the Christmas period were an indispensable part of this country’s football fabric, and I used to think that the benefits of such a break would be minimal.

Then I read Rio Ferdinand’s lengthy article on the subject in his World Cup preview for the Daily Mail. Ferdinand stated that England’s players enter major tournaments at a disadvantage to the other top European nations because they aren’t allowed the time off that their Spanish and German counterparts are during the winter months, despite Premier League matches taking place at a breakneck pace unmatched across world football. When a clearly jaded Steven Gerrard made two uncharacteristic mistakes against Uruguay that led to a defeat terminal to England’s World Cup hopes I finally saw the light – if the England national team is to succeed they must follow the lead of the other top European nations and embrace the polarizing winter break.

English based foreign managers Jose Mourinho and Arsene Wenger have championed the idea of a winter break for years now, with their cries largely falling upon deaf ears. They’ve cited the pace of the Premier League and the lack of time for rest as a key reason why many players tire towards the end of the season, as well as explaining the amount of injuries sustained by players as the summer approaches. A three to four week rest period in either December or January would undoubtedly be viewed favourably by Premier League managers sick and tired of seeing their premier talent struck down by fatigue or worse as the season enters its business end, and unquestionably lead to a fresher squad of England players being available for selection come the start of major tournaments every two years.

Does a winter break have its drawbacks? Yes and no. Premier League football would be missed by supporters of top flight clubs during such a period. However with the Championship, Leagues One and Two plus non-league football all well supported in this country there would still be plenty of football to watch and those lower league teams would stand to benefit from increased attendances and television audiences while the Premier League is on its break. You might also ask where the fixtures from such a break would be reintroduced into the Premier League calendar. It’s a valid concern, but one that could be easily navigated. The season could begin a week earlier, for starters. A Saturday and midweek slate of games would fill two of the three weeks worth of fixtures lost to a winter break; the remaining set of games could be slotted into the schedule at any reasonable point throughout the year. To make things even more convenient F.A Cup replays could be done away with and League Cup Semi-Finals could revert from a two-legged format to a one off tie.  In short, allowances could be made to ensure a winter break fits into the schedule – allowances that are far from radical.

Many people will say we don’t need a winter break, that the problems within English football are far greater than three weeks off in the middle of January. But those people would be ignoring the fact that international football is about pivotal moments and small margins. If it made even a one percent difference to England’s chances in future tournaments it would be a change worth making. A common misconception is that England simply don’t have the talented players other nations do. Costa Rica have just advanced to the quarter-finals of the World Cup in Brazil. Bryan Ruiz, their best player, was farmed out on loan by Fulham in January because he couldn’t get in their starting eleven. Fulham were relegated, in case you’d forgotten. Algeria have advanced further than England this summer in Brazil. As have Nigeria. Do either of those teams possess half the talent as a side containing Wayne Rooney, Daniel Sturridge and Steven Gerrard? England failed to win a game this summer because they made crucial mistakes at inopportune moments, not because they lack ability. How many times have you seen Rooney miss a header from a yard out for Manchester United? How many times has Steven Gerrard completely misjudged a header for Liverpool, playing in an opposing striker? These are out of character mistakes from great players, great players who are running on fumes after the demands of yet another intense Premier League season. Give them the rest they deserve, and the rest other European players get, and those kind of mental and physical lapses could become a thing of the past. A winter break would mean only one thing for English football – progress.

World Cup Preview: Group D

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The fourth World Cup group to be previewed here at Fred Stanley Sport is Group D, which of course features England as they attempt to add a second World Cup crown 48 years after securing their first. Italy, Uruguay and Costa Rica will attempt to thwart Roy Hodgson’s Three Lions, however, and Group D promises to be fiercely competitive later this month in Brazil.

Uruguay

Best Finish – Winners (1930, 1950)

Odds – 33/1

Two-time winners Uruguay will be confident of emulating their effort in South Africa four years ago, when they somewhat controversially reached the semi-finals after Luis Suarez‘s infamous handball against Ghana cost the Africa side dearly. The Liverpool striker will hope to make the headlines for all the right reasons in Brazil, however, and after the season he enjoyed for the Reds he’s in prime position to make a positive impact on the biggest stage of all. Although he’s currently recovering from a knee injury Suarez is expected to be fully fit for the start of the tournament, which would be a huge boost to a Uruguay strike force that also includes Edison Cavani. The South Americans may not be as strong in defense as they are up top but make no mistake about it – they’re one of the teams to watch this summer.

Costa Rica

Best Finish – Last 16 (1990)

Odds – 4000/1

Costa Rica are rank outsiders for the competition, returning to the World Cup stage after an eight year absence. While their 2006 vintage contained legendary striker Paulo Wanchope, of Derby County and West Ham United fame, the current edition features former Fulham forward Bryan Ruiz and Arsenal youngster Joel Campbell. While they form a less formidable front line than Uruguay, for example, the duo have the potential to cause some hiccups to the three more established teams in Group D. Perhaps the biggest advantage the Costa Ricans will have in Brazil doesn’t concern talent, but their familiarity with the South American heat and humidity.

England

Best Finish – Winners (1966)

Odds – 28/1

Can England finally end their wait for a major trophy in Brazil? Probably not, but Roy Hodgson’s decision to select a youthful looking squad was a bold one and at least means it won’t be the usual suspects who fail to come back holding a trophy. The squad are currently acclimatising to conditions in Miami, where they’ll play two final warm-up games before heading south for Rio before their first game in Manaus against Italy. If the Three Lions are to get off to a flyer in the jungle they’ll surely need Manchester United striker Wayne Rooney to fire on all cylinders, something he has failed to do of late for both club and country. However talk of dropping the former Everton man has been premature, and while Daniel Sturridge may have been more prolific thus far in 2014 it’s Rooney who has the international pedigree that has helped make him an integral part of the national set-up for over a decade now.

Italy

Best Finish – Winners (1934, 1938, 1982, 2006)

Odds – 25/1

The Azzuri head to Brazil in search of a fifth World Cup crown, though they’ll find it challenging just to make it out of Group D having been dealt a tough hand in December’s draw. A strong showing at Euro 2012 should give the Italians hope; however that successful campaign was achieved in the relatively cool climes of Eastern Europe, a far cry from the South American sauna that will await them later this month. Andrea Pirlo was the star of the show for Italy two years ago and the Juventus playmaker’s relaxed style of play could suit the Brazilian conditions more than most, and if the Azzuri are to enjoy another successful World Cup they’ll need Pirlo to be at his supreme, casual best.

Fixtures

Uruguay v Costa Rica – June 14, Fortaleza (20.00 GMT)

England v Italy – June 14, Manaus (23.00 GMT)

Uruguay v England – June 19, Sao Paulo (20.00 GMT)

Italy v Costa Rica – June 20, Recife (17.00 GMT)

Italy v Uruguay – June 24, Natal (17.00 GMT)

Costa Rica v England – June 24, Belo Horizonte (17.00 GMT)

Who do you think will qualify from Group D in Brazil? And can England win the World Cup under Roy Hodgson? Have your say in the comments or tweet @fredjstanley

World Cup Preview: Group C

Shinji Kagawa will be aiming to help Japan qualify for the knockout stages in Brazil

Shinji Kagawa will be aiming to help Japan qualify for the knockout stages in Brazil

The latest of our World Cup previews at Fred Stanley Sport focuses on Group C, which contains four country’s from four different continents. Colombia, Ivory Coast, Japan and Greece all have a chance to progress to the knock out stages in Brazil, so keep reading to find out which players to keep an eye out for and where and when each game in Group C takes place.

Colombia

Best Finish – Last 16 (199o)

Odds – 33/1

The Colombians will fancy their chances of winning Group C, thanks to a combination of quality players and their familiarity with the conditions in Brazil. Radamel Falcao has cemented his reputation as one of the top strikers in world football over the past few seasons, first by scoring at will for Athletico Madrid in Spain before taking his talents to moneybags Monaco in France. Falcao leads a strong contingent of European based players in the Colombia squad, including centre back Cristian Zapata, who plies his trade in Italy for Milan. With Group C featuring no stand out nations the smart money would appear to be on Colombia coming out on top and securing a tie against a group runner up in the second round.

Greece

Best Finish – Group Stage (1994, 2010)

Odds – 350/1

Greece famously won Euro 2004 thanks to their stingy defense and opportunistic attack, but the chances are slim that they’ll be able hoodwink the footballing world once more a decade later. Greece were forced to qualify for the tournament in Brazil via a playoff victory over Romania, although they were unfortunate to miss out on automatic qualification on goal difference to Bosnia and Herzegovina. Borussia Dortmund defender Sokratis Papastathopoulos is the rock at the heart of the Greek defense, while at the other end of the pitch Celtic striker Giorgos Samaras will be relied upon to score the goals that could see Greece upset the odds at a major tournament once more.

Ivory Coast

Best Finish – Group Stage (2006,2010)

Odds – 150/1

By most observers reckoning the most talented African squad heading to South America next month, the Ivory Coast possess a number of accomplished Premier League players (Yaya and Kolo Toure, Didier Drogba) and one not so accomplished player (Emmanuel Eboue). Yaya enjoyed his best season yet in England this past campaign with Manchester City, leading the Citizens to their second title in three years. His powerful runs from midfield and ability to conjure a goal from almost nowhere make the Ivory Coast a threatening proposition for any team, and if Drogba can rediscover his form from his Chelsea days then the Africans could well be the surprise package of the tournament – though their back four and goalkeeper remain a weakness.

Japan

Best Finish – Last 16 (2002, 2010)

Odds – 250/1

Japan enjoyed a run to the last 16 in South Africa four years ago, and with Group C likely to be very competitive they’ll fancy their chances of repeating the trick in Brazil this summer. Shinji Kagawa may have struggled for minutes at Manchester United this season but the former Borussia Dortmund midfielder is still the key man for his country, where he’ll be counted on to get on the ball and dictate play for the joint hosts of the 2002 World Cup. Japan possess the least pedigree of the four teams in Group C but that won’t phase them as they embark on another World Cup mission.

Fixtures

Colombia v Greece – 14th June, Belo Horizonte (17.00 GMT)

Ivory Coast v Japan – 14th June, Recife (02.00 GMT)

Colombia v Ivory Coast – 19th June, Brasilia (17.00 GMT)

Japan v Greece – 19th June, Natal (23.00 GMT)

Japan v Colombia – 24th June, Cuiaba (20.00 GMT)

Greece v Ivory Coast – 24th June, Fortaleza (21.00 GMT)

Who do you think will win Group C? Have your say in the comments or tweet @fredjstanley

 

 

 

2013/14 Ashes Grades – England

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Ben Stokes showed ability with both bat and ball during an otherwise disastrous Ashes series for England

 

There’s little left to be said about England’s 5-0 drubbing down under this winter that hasn’t been already mentioned, nonetheless here are my individual grades for the players that participated in one of the most embarrassing capitulations the three lions have ever experienced against the old enemy, Australia.

Alistair Cook (c) – F

The England skipper struggled both with the bat and with his leadership of an increasingly decimated squad, drawing criticism of his captaincy from English and Australian players past and present. Averaging just 24 with the bat Cook failed to scale the heights he achieved in his record breaking 2010/11 tour and didn’t record a century although he did manage to reach 50 on three occasions. However his inability to make the ‘daddy hundreds’ preached by his mentor and idol Graham Gooch contributed to his sides inability to pass 400 on the tour, resulting in mediocre totals that placed undue stress on a depleted and dispirited bowling unit. Cook will likely keep his position as captain although it’s debatable whether that’s more because of the faith the ECB has in him or a lack of viable alternatives in the current set-up.

Michael Carberry – D

Given the opportunity to grab the second openers spot alongside Cook the 33-year old Carberry failed to stamp his authority on opposing bowlers at international level in the same way he does for his county side, Hampshire. Carberry often got bogged down after starting his innings fluently and appeared to fall into the same mode of playing for survival that caused the selectors to controversially discard Nick Compton in 2013 despite the Somerset man notching two centuries. Unfortunately one fifty in ten innings is not test standard and when you factor in his costly drop of Brad Haddin in Adelaide it was a tour to forget for Carberry and it would be a surprise to see him in England whites again.

Jonathan Trott – F

While it’s incredibly sad that Trott is suffering from a stress related illness and I do wish him a speedy recovery there’s no glossing over the fact that in the one test he did play Mitchell Johnson exposed a major technical flaw in his game. With time not on his side (Trott turns 33 in April) and his illness still fresh it would seem that his international career is over, much as Marcus Trescothick’s was after he failed to complete an Ashes tour with similar issues.

Kevin Pietersen – C-

It was a disappointing tour for KP, who failed to hit a century after scoring heavily in Australia on his previous two visits. Two fifties and an average south of 30 is a poor haul for a player of Pietersen’s undoubted class and if England are to return to winning ways they’ll need their South African-born talisman at the heart of the batting order. Former captain Michael Vaughan has suggested Pietersen should be restored to a position of authority such as vice-captain, which isn’t a terrible idea as it could re-engage the former skipper and encourage him to continue in the side during a transitional period.

Ian Bell – D

After a fantastic home series in which Bell struck three tons the Warwickshire batsman struggled to make much of an impact in Oz, limping along to 235 runs at an average of just 26.11. Eventually promoted to number three for the Sydney test Bell has the pedigree and technique to be England’s medium to long term answer at the position should Trott not return, and despite his poor showing this winter it would be harsh to shoulder too much blame on the 31-year old following his man of the series performance back in England.

Joe Root – C-

After such a promising start to his test career Root came crashing back to earth by averaging just 27.42 with the bat over four test matches. A surprise casualty for the fifth and final game the decision to omit Root instead of Carberry raised eyebrows as the Yorkshireman is England’s most talented young batsman by quite some margin. Hopefully the decision was made to benefit Root and afford him some rest after a busy year in which he represented the three lions in all three formats as opposed to simply dropping him over a lack of form. It shouldn’t be forgotten that Root also offers a handy option with the ball and although he failed to take a wicket in his 32 overs his economy rate of barely over three was far superior to specialist spinners such as Graeme Swann, Monty Panesar and Scott Borthwick.

Gary Ballance – N/A

While it’s unfair to read too much into Ballance’s test debut at the SCG the pure fact of it is he struggled in both innings. It’s important to note that none of his teammates fared any better and in truth Ballance was thrown into a desperately dire situation. His technique looks solid if not watertight, and after an impressive first class season for Yorkshire in 2013 Ballance has probably earned the right to begin the English test summer at five in the order. However he’ll have to make sure he scores runs for his county in the early part of the Championship season if he’s to ward off other challengers including the likes of James Taylor and Sam Robson.

Ben Stokes – B+

The brightest light to emerge from this dark tour, Stokes demonstrated somewhat out of the blue that he has the raw talent and mental capacity to fill the all-rounders role for England for years to come. His ton in Perth on a deteriorating pitch was England’s only one of the series and his final average of 34.87 with the bat eclipsed his mark of 32.80 with the ball. Capable of hitting speeds in excess of 90 miles per hour Stokes has the pace and accuracy to trouble even the best of batsman, as shown by him dismissing Australian captain Michael Clarke on two occasions. A six wicket haul in the final test could be the first of many for the Durham man and while expectations should be tempered Stokes has every chance of evolving into a Flintoff-esque talisman for his country.

Matt Prior – D-

England’s longtime wicket-keeper batsman was dropped for the final two test matches of the series after underwhelming showings in the first three tests with both the bat and gloves. An average of 17.83 was well below Prior’s career mark of 40 plus and two missed stumpings in Perth sealed his fate for the rest of the Ashes. Fortunately for Prior his axing may have been a blessing in disguise as his replacement Jonny Bairstow was even worse in both departments and as a result you’d figure Prior will regain his place for the Sri Lanka series in the summer.

Jonny Bairstow – F

Speaking of the flame haired gloveman, Bairstow did nothing to press his case for future England consideration. After a string of disappointing performances Bairstow may have blown his chance at a test career, either as a batsman or wicket-keeper. He’s young enough that he can force his way back into consideration down the line but it would take an exceptional campaign for Yorkshire for the selectors to even think about giving him another opportunity within the next twelve months.

Stuart Broad – B+

Broad was England’s only truly consistent threat with the ball and his six wickets on the series first day in Brisbane should have sent England on their way to a commanding first innings lead. However the inability of his teammates to press home the advantage and their subsequent capitulation with the bat saw his efforts go to waste. It’s perhaps also flown slightly under the radar that Broad managed to stay healthy for an entire five match series, something that he has often failed to do in the past. His batting was also a positive, with his average of 19.37 higher than the likes of Prior, Ballance, Bairstow and Trott.

Tim Bresnan – D+

Poor Timmy was probably rushed back into the team earlier than his body would have liked and the results were predictably poor. A batting average under ten and a bowling average over 40 belied his all-rounder status and Bresnan’s reputation as Englannd’s ‘lucky charm’ is now a distant memory. Bresnan is better than he showed during this series and while it would be folly for the selectors to completely dismiss him from their plans it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that they’ll move on from the barrel chested Yorkshireman and opt to try out younger models.

Graeme Swann – F

Bowling average of exactly 80? Check. Economy rate a shade under four runs per over? Check. Batting average under eight? Check. Mid-series shock retirement? Check. It wasn’t exactly a vintage series from Swann and the 2008-2012 model will be greatly missed by England as they attempt to replace him but with his elbow clearly bothering him and declining results over the past eighteen months the time had come for the off-spinner to call it day. Whether or not he was right to do so midway through a series in which the team needed all the veteran leadership it could muster is up for debate but the real shame is that it took so long for his country to recognise his talent in the first place.

Scott Borthwick – N/A

The second of England’s three debutantes in Sydney, anyone who had money on the leg-spinner to make his test debut in Australia before this series is probably rolling in money right now. Borthwick looked far from the finished product with the ball and the number of full tosses and half trackers he sent down was alarming and he hardly excelled with the bat either, making just five runs in his two innings despite a Championship season in which he passed 1,000 runs for the first time. The spin bowling cupboard for England is bare following Swannn’s retirement so Borthwick can earn first crack at the opening if he performs well for Durham before the Sri Lanka series. That’s easier said than done, though, with English wickets (Durham’s in particular) offering little to no assistance to spin bowlers during April and May.

James Anderson – C-

This grade may seem a little high but after the batsmen repeatedly let the bowling attack down it seems a little unfair to punish Anderson, who delivered a team high 190.3 overs. Despite a bowling average of 43.92 the Burnley Express held Australia to 3.22 runs per over, an economy rate that led all of England’s specialist bowlers on the tour. Anderson’s statistics haven’t been great since his heroics at Trent Bridge during the summer but he’s continued to toil away with far fewer runs to play with than in the past. Factor in the unforgiving pitches and lack of swing movement with the Kookubura ball and the raw stats aren’t quite so bad as they first appear.

Chris Tremlett – C-

The tall paceman only played in one test on the tour, the opening game in Brisbane. Tremlett was slightly unlucky to be dropped thereafter as his four wickets at an average of 30 represented a respectable haul and his average was better than anyone on the team bar Broad and Borthwick. Another member of the squad who’s fighting age, there’s almost no chance Tremlett will make another England XI thanks in large part to his declining pace and unreliable fitness.

Boyd Rankin – N/A

Irishman Rankin failed to make an impact in his only appearance of the series in Sydney, twice pulling up with muscle cramps in the first innings before recovering to take his first test wicket in the second dig. The main disappointment with Rankin wasn’t his lack of wickets but his lack of pace and bounce, attributes which led to him being selected for the tour in the first place. There’s every chance he could become a one cap wonder with a host of fast bowlers in the wings and Steven Finn likely to be given an extended run alongside Anderson and Broad during the summer.

Monty Panesar – F

Panesar’s off-field problems seem insignificant compared to his on-field struggles after he took just three wickets across two test matches at an average of 85.66. While a run in with a night club bouncer can be overlooked if you’re taking bundles of wickets it becomes more of an issue if the opposition are carting you all over the park and unfortunately for Panesar it appears he’s well and truly lost his mojo with the ball. He’s had an up and down career full of fielding mishaps, ill-timed dives and over exuberant celebrations but it finally looks as if Monty Panesar is done as a test match cricketer.

 

Australia v England – Fourth Ashes Test Preview

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A capacity crowd of 90,000 people is expected at the MCG for the first day of the Boxing Day test

 

Venue: Melbourne Cricket Ground (Victoria)

Date: 26-30 December 2013

Time: 23:30 (GMT)

The Ashes may have already gone at the earliest opportunity but there’s still plenty to play for between these great rivals. Since the third test at Perth Graeme Swann has retired from all forms of cricket and with the series decided England may well take the opportunity to ‘retire’ some other senior players as they look towards the future. Australia meanwhile will be going all out to whitewash the visitors in a similar manner to the great side of 2006/7, adding to the intrigue during the final two tests of the series. With 90,000 spectators likely to be crammed into the famous MCG the atmosphere promises to be electric during one of the biggest dates in the cricket calendar offering the perfect stage for any of the 22 cricketers on display to make a name for themselves. With speculation rife regarding a number of the England teams future there’s a strong possibility that some of them could very well be playing for their international careers over the next five days.

Team News

Australia look set to name an unchanged side for the fourth successive test, a far cry from the chopping and changing of the summer series. Michael Clarke’s back and Ryan Harris’s knees have held up well so far and as Clarke pursues history there’s no chance that him and coach Darren Lehmann will take their foot off the gas.

Likely team: Rogers, Warner, Watson, Clarke (c), Smith, Bailey, Haddin (wk), Johnson, Siddle, Harris, Lyon

England have once again been forced into making at least once change after Graeme Swann’s shock retirement, with Monty Panesar likely to replace him in the XI. Scott Borthwick and James Tredwell may come into contention for the spinners role at Sydney but for this test at least Panesar has the chance to re-establish himself as the visitors lead tweaker. Wicket keeper Matt Prior looks set to make way for Jonny Bairstow as Andy Flower looks towards the future while Boyd Rankin could make his test debut at the expense of Tim Bresnan, who appeared to be below his best at the WACA. Stuart Broad has overcome his foot injury and the likes of Kevin Pieterson and James Anderson have avoided the same treatment as Prior so they’ll keep their places in the team.

Likely team: Cook (c), Carberry, Bell, Pieterson, Root, Stokes, Bairstow (wk), Broad, Anderson, Rankin, Panesar

Pitch and weather

The second drop in surface of the series promises to offer early assistance to the seam bowlers before flattening out as the match wears on. Large boundary dimensions make the ‘G a difficult ground to take the slow bowlers on but with the wicket offering little turn it’ll still be tough for Panesar and Australian spinner Nathan Lyon to get much out of the surface.

There’s a slight chance of showers on the second day but apart from that the weather is set fair and a full compliment of overs should be completed during the five days. Temperatures on the Saturday could reach a scorching 36 degrees Celsius.

Umpires

Aleem Dar and Kumar Dharmasena

Prediction

Following one of the most lopsided three game stretches in recent memory it will take a minor Christmas miracle for England to turn this series around and repeat their Boxing Day success from three years ago. The task will prove especially difficult without Swann but there’s a fantastic opportunity for the likes of Monty Panesar and Jonny Bairstow to cement a place in the team for the fifth test and beyond. Australian teams are famously ruthless and having smelt English blood Michael Clarke will want to be part of the second Ashes whitewash during his storied career. Unfortunately I fear that the visitors are in such disarray that there’s little they can do to bounce back during this series, especially without team mainstays such as Swann and Prior in the lineup. As a result I fully expect Australia to make it 4-0 and edge ever closer to a dreaded whitewash.