Glen Chapple – A legend of county cricket

With indefatigable zest, energetic industrious stamina and sheer ingenuity, Lancashire’s premier paceman, Glen Chapple, has done yeoman services for his county. The fast bowling all-rounder made his county debut about two decades ago for Lancashire against Sussex at Hove in ’92. More than twenty years later, he is the captain of Lancashire’s set up, and remarkably is still the cornerstone of their pace attack. Glen Chapple’s longevity embellishes his single-minded dedication and devotion towards cricket.

In the just concluded county game against Worcestershire in division two at Old Trafford, the Lancashire stalwart bowled close to 40 parsimonious overs, and snared 3 wickets to take his wicket-tally to 886 wickets in first class cricket. In an era, where gym-fit promising fast bowlers are heading more towards the knackers yard, the 39 year-old Glen Chapple is a sui generis in every sense.

Even during his younger days, the pace ace was known as a fierce competitor. When he made his second X1 debut back in 1990 against Leicestershire, and played with future county cricketers like Irani, Austin and Yates, there were whispers that Chapple was ahead of rest of the pack in the county circuit.

It was in 94-95, when Indian cricket fans caught a glimpse of the young firebrand fast bowler, as Chapple played for England A against India A in a test series that season. The senior Indian team had thumped an enervated English side in 92-93. Everyone was expecting a repeat performance from the India A side at home. But Chapple and his partner in crime, Cork, snared 39 wickets between them to send the young India A side hurtling towards a 3-0 whitewash.

With an athletic build, and by smearing chapstick on his face, the way the ginger haired Chapple razed India A’s strong batting line-up consisting of Dravid and Muzumdar to the ground at Bangalore was an eye opener. Glen Chapple’s effervescent endeavours on barren tracks of India made one wonder whether he was already pencilled in to play for England in tests.

There was even an inkling that Glen Chapple would have to cut short his tour of India to bolster an injury ravaged English set-up in Australia in 94-95, but that didn’t happen. Those days, by pursuing a haphazard selection policy, English cricket found itself in doldrums. But hope springs eternal, as Chapple continued to bowl incisive spells in county cricket.

The following year in ’95, Chapple came very close to making his much awaited test debut against West Indies, but it was his Lancashire teammate, Peter Martin, who got an opportunity to play his first test.  When India toured the Old Blighty in ’96, it seemed certain that Chapple would play a test or two, but he was dogged by niggling injuries throughout the season. In ’03 against South Africa at Trent Bridge, England’s selectors were forced to make a choice between Kirtley and Chapple, and they plumped for Kirtley.

In spite of being largely ignored by national selectors, and let down by persistent injuries, Chapple was consistent in county cricket. He ripped open a formidable Essex batting line up in the Natwest final in ’96 at Lord’s by taking 6 for 18. As the years ticked by though, his detractors opined that Lancashire should invest more in youth, and put Chapple out to pasture. Those niggling injuries he suffered in the late 90’s had gnawed at his pace. But he refined his craft of seam bowling by using every little trick in a seam bowler’s trade. It also has to be said that Chapple’s repeatable action has helped him to bowl with good control, over the years.

In particular, 2005 was an annus mirabilis for him. During that season, he hunted down 47 batsmen. In ’07, it was yet again a case of being so near, yet so far for Lancashire, as they lost the County Championship by a whisker to Sussex. Just like a true servant of Lancashire’s cricket though, Glen Chapple did his bit by taking a 7-for against their formidable foes Durham.

In ’08, Chapple’s herculean efforts with a ball in hand saved Lancashire the blushes, as without his 42 wickets at the cost of just 20.5, Lancashire could have suffered the ignominy of being relegated to second division. It was his breathtaking spell of 6 for 40 against Kent which assured Lancashire of their place in division one that season. With Lancashire’s management releasing Stuart Law, Chapple had to shoulder the additional responsibility of captaining a young side as well. Glen Chapple as a captain of Lancashire seems to constantly motivate his teammates to do better. He definitely comes across as a popular captain.

In 2011, Lancashire was strapped for cash, and most critics reckoned that they would be relegated to second division. The youngsters in the team though, played out of their skins to bring glory to the county, as they won the County Championship outright for the first time in 77 years. In many ways, county cricket is quintessentially a microcosm of well-established British traditions. So, Glen Chapple, his teammates and Lancashire’s cricket faithfuls must have been over the moon after winning the prestigious County Championship.

Glen Chapple himself played a key role in helping Lancashire to their historic triumph in ’11. He was simply outstanding, as he took 57 wickets at just 19.75. His heroic efforts can be best exemplified by how on the penultimate day of County Championship in 2011, he shrugged off a hamstring injury, and bowled with fire and brimstone to chip away at Somerset’s top-order. In that innings, Chapple showed the exuberance and vigour of a young tearaway quick. Glen Chapple was rightly adjudged as Lancashire’s player of the year in ’11.

In a stark contrast to 2011, the last season didn’t go well for Lancashire, as their batsmen struggled to do well, and eventually they were relegated to second division. The utilitarian Glen Chapple still churned out impressive performances day-in and day-out. The tragedy was that in spite of Chapple’s valiant warrior-like bellicosity, Lancashire played way below par.

Despite being ultra consistent in county cricket, Glen Chapple’s international career was unfortunately restricted to a solitary One-Day international against Ireland in ’06. It is hard to fathom how could have the selectors picked the likes of Martin Bicknell, Mike Smith, Simon Brown, Mike Watkinson, Darren Pattinson and company, but not Chapple.

Glen Chapple may not have been bestowed with god-gifted talent. But with 886 wickets, 7,922 runs, and by nurturing a young side to a County Championship triumph, there is no doubt that he has carved out a niche for himself among the pantheon of great county cricketers.

Azhar Mahmood – The star performer

On a typical hot and humid Sunday at Subrata Roy Sahara stadium, the old warhorse and the emperor of t/20 cricket, Azhar Mahmood, left the batsmen from Pune Warriors clueless with his bagful of tracks. The fascinating story wasn’t just about two wickets that he took, but the way he baited and teased the batsmen to entrap them into making mistakes made for great viewing. In many ways, the wily old fox’s bowling prowess is comparable to the technicality and the filigree craftsmanship involved in fine ornamental work.

While facing up to Mahmood with a bagful of well-oiled tricks, the batsmen know, they can’t even allow for a minor slip in their concentration. The Punjab’s think-tank have made an astute move by plumping for Azhar Mahmood, as unlike many other glittering million dollar stars, Azhar Mahmood is worth every penny that Punjab’s team has spent on him.

At the age of 38, Azhar Mahmood has matured as a cricketer. He is no more the wiry 22 year old Azhar, who took the cricketing world by storm with three hundreds against the marauding South Africans. During the cricketing season of 97-98, he pummelled the much-vaunted South African pace attack with glorious flourishes of swivel pulls, dashing cuts, thundering drives; sometimes played on one knee, and by bouncing on his toes with an extravagant back-lift to loft South African quicks straight down the ground.

Azhar Mahmood’s breathtaking display of counter-attacking innings at Durban in 97-98, came at a time when the South Africans were smelling blood. But Azhar Mahmood’s houdini act changed the scenario drastically. He stitched crucial partnerships with the lower-order, and made a sparkling century. The superb display of batsmanship made one feel whether his bat was manicured so thoroughly that there wasn’t an edge on it. Azhar’s coup de main just took the wind out of South Africa’s sails, and Pakistan eked out a victory from jaws of defeat. In his younger days, his game was built on live by the sword and die by the sword approach.

Since Azhar Mahmood’s eye-catching hundreds against South Africa, his career has never taken off in the international arena. In Azhar’s first 8 tests, he averaged 77.28 with 3 hundreds to his name. In his next 13 tests, his meagre returns of 359 runs at 15.6 just doesn’t do justice to his potential. Those occasional sparks of brilliance were invariably offset with him gifting his wicket away on a platter, and disappointing Pakistan’s hysterical fans.

Even with a ball in hand, Azhar Mahmood struggled to make an impression. He did well against the Windies at Rawalpindi in 97-98. In England at Lord’s in ’01, he pitched it up in favourable conditions, and was duly rewarded with four wickets. In the crucial test at Hobart in 99-00 with his brand of swing bowling, he dealt a couple of vital blows. It took a magnificent partnership between Langer and Gilchrist to steer Australia through choppy waters, and take them to a famous win. A few good performances though, just can’t mask the fact that he averaged over 35 as a bowler. In spite of Azhar Mahmood’s game being well suited to One-Day cricket, even in that format, he couldn’t make it big.

Pakistan’s cricket board also has to take a fair share of the blame for treating Azhar Mahmood shabbily. Azhar Mahmood was rarely ever given a decent run in the side. A case in point being, the last time he played for Pakistan in the 2007 World Cup, he was given just one opportunity to come good against Ireland, but he failed in that match. As Pakistan suffered an ignominious exit in the first round of the 2007 World Cup, he was made the scapegoat for it, and was shown the exit door.

The high-impact player from Pakistan wasn’t deterred one bit by all those setbacks. By plying his trade in county cricket for more than a decade with Surrey and Kent, he has honed his skills, and has become a better cricketer. Nowadays, he comes across as a mentally relaxed cricketer. In 2011,  he led Kent’s county batting averages, and took 23 wickets at the cost of just  23.73. He single-handedly took Kent to the quarterfinal of friends life t/20 in ’11. Even his fielding skills were very good in that tournament.

Azhar Mahmood has now added a few more strings to his bow. There was a time, when Azhar played too many flashy shots. These days, he knows the importance of rotation of strike, and his defence has improved by leaps and bounds. Here is a cricketer who has smoothed out some of the rough edges, and knows his game inside-out.

With so many leagues mushrooming around the world, Azhar Mahmood is a hot property. In the last few years, he has turned out for various teams like Auckland Aces, Kent, Wayamba United, Cape Cobras, Sydney Thunders, Barisal Burners and for Kings XI Punjab.

If in the 6th edition of IPL, Kings XI Punjab have to do well, they need their talismanic all-rounder Azhar Mahmood to deliver the goods. They have started their campaign against a listless Pune Warriors India side on a good note. But when up against the big guns of IPL like Mumbai Indians and Chennai Super Kings, they may find themselves on a sticky wicket, and that is when they will look up to their star performer Azhar Mahmood to launch a rescue mission. With the kind of experience and the wealth of knowledge he has garnered by playing all over the globe, Mahmood can also be a mentor by supplementing the youthful exuberance in the Punjab set up. In short, he is the fulcrum of Punjab’s line-up.

Azhar Mahmood in every sense is a sui generis, as even at the age of 38, he is as fit as a fiddle.  Azhar who is now a British citizen still says, he is open to playing for Pakistan, if needed. The sad part is that when Pakistan’s selectors mull over selecting the squad, there don’t seem to be any takers for Azhar Mahmood.

IPL 6: Match 6 – KXIP vs PWI: Kings XI Punjab Preview

After a star-studded glitzy magnum opus opening ceremony to kick-start IPL 6, fans across the length and breadth of the country are buzzing with excitement. It is that time of the year, when in offices, bus-stands, or while travelling in a tuk-tuk, one is forced to listen to all sorts of expert analysis about the beautiful game. Every year, IPL rekindles the flames of passion in cricket fans.

Tomorrow, Kings XI Punjab will start their campaign in IPL 6 with a match against Pune Warriors India. Unfortunately, in recent times, Punjab’s raucous fans haven’t had much to salivate in terms of their team’s performances. After an impressive run in the first edition of IPL in 07/08, when they reached the semifinals, Punjab haven’t exactly set the IPL on fire. During the last few seasons, they have been blowing hot and cold.

Conditions

Most batsmen at Subrata Roy Sahara stadium have found it a slightly tricky wicket for batting, as last year, it tended to grip for the slower bowlers to come into play very early in the innings. It has also tended to stay low. An ideal t/20 wicket should have even bounce with batsmen being able to play shots on the up. Hopefully, the track at Sahara stadium would have settled down this year.

Key players

Azhar Mahmood – The talented all-rounder, Azhar Mahmood, is nowadays sadly a journeyman who plies his trade across the globe in various t/20 leagues. In the last few years, he has played for Kent, Auckland Aces, Barisal Burners, Cape Cobras, Sydney Thunders, Wayamba United and Kings XI Punjab.

The 38 year old has matured as a cricketer. Azhar Mahmood is no more the young firebrand all-rounder, who burst onto the scene with those thundering drives played on one knee against South Africa at Durban in 97/98. These days, he understands the importance of rotation of strike. As a bowler, he uses clever changes of pace to keep the batsman on tenterhooks. The street-smart all-rounder is also a master at bowling dry lengths. Having done his apprenticeship by playing county cricket for Surrey and Kent, here is a cricketer who knows his game inside-out. Whenever the Punjab team finds themselves on a sticky wicket, they will look up to the charismatic all-rounder to launch a rescue mission.

Adam Gilchrist – At the age of 40, Gilchrist may struggle to play those thrill-a-minute knocks that he once played for Australia. But the wicket-keeper batsman can help the side as a mentor. By playing the role of a mentor, he can supplement the youthful exuberance in the side with his wealth of knowledge and experience.

Ryan Harris – The injury prone Ryan Harris has served the Punjab team well over the years. He can bowl dry lengths and zoom in on the stumps with precision. He is a vital cog in the line-up, as Indian batsmen generally struggle to play horizontal bat-shots against back of a length bowling. He along with Awana have to lead the pace attack.

Game strategy

If Pune Warriors India are again going to open the batting with Uthappa and Pandey, both Harris and Awana may pepper them with back of a length bowling. In their game against Sunrises Hyderabad, Pandey and Uthappa struggled to come to grips with back of a length stuff. If the quicks don’t strike early then, Gilchrist should waste no time, and go for the jugular by bringing on the spinners. Unfortunately, Punjab doesn’t have decent left arm spinners in their arsenal. In t/20 cricket, a good slow left arm spinner is like a gold dust.

Surprise package

If the conditions at Sahara stadium are like what we saw last year, they may take a gamble with Harmeet Singh, as he mixes up the pace well. If they can somehow find a place for Mascarenhas, Punjab can trouble Pune Warriors India even more, as he too can be a threat at Sahara stadium. But as in IPL, only four foreigners can be picked, it won’t be easy to fit him into the final XI. The conundrum of which four foreign players to pick is something that Punjab’s think-tank have to live with during the entire tournament.

As Punjab have the experienced swing bowler Praveen Kumar in their squad, Sandeep Sharma may not play tomorrow, but if he plays in this tournament, watch out for him. He is said to be a fine prospect who swings it both ways, and bowls with decent control.

The major problem for Punjab is that they depend too much on their overseas imports to deliver the goods. Punjab still should fancy their chances against a Pune side that isn’t exactly brimming with confidence after a rather tepid performance against Sunrises Hyderabad.

Can Nepal follow in the footsteps of Afghanistan?

With those majestic mountains, thundering rivers, frozen valleys and forested hills, Nepal is a spectacularly beautiful country to visit for an adventurist tourist. These days, the landlocked country isn’t just famous for its tourism, as with the advent of cable television in the late 90’s, people across rural areas of the country have been hooked to a game called cricket. There is an inkling that soon cricket will overtake football as the most popular sport in Nepal. An average turnout of 11,000 raucous supporters during the ACC t/20 trophy held in Nepal this year, tells us, cricket is a game that binds the entire nation of Nepal together.

Cricket was introduced to Nepal almost a century ago by the Rana dynasty, but it was mainly played among the elite in Kathmandu. It was only in the 90’s, when the sport grew in stature, and became extremely popular outside the confines of Kathmandu. They were granted ICC affiliate status in 1988 and since 1996, Nepal has been recognised as an associate member of ICC.

Nepal has consistently participated in World cricket leagues and ACC trophies. They took part in the intercontinental cup twice, but couldn’t make it past the first round. In their defence, it has to be said that Nepal was unlucky in ’05, as in spite of upsetting the apple-cart by defeating their formidable foes UAE, they didn’t progress. Last year, Nepal’s cricket team brought cheers to millions of fans across the length and breadth of the country by winning the World cricket league 4. In the ACC elite 50 over trophy final, in a nail biting thriller against UAE, they managed to tie the game, and share the trophy with UAE.

Despite all those encouraging results in ’12,  Nepal’s cricket cognoscenti reckon CAN (cricket association of Nepal) haven’t given the kind of infrastructure that is required to take the game to greater heights in Nepal. To make it worse, Nepal’s cricket board isn’t professional in its set up. As the board is run on an amateur basis, one can find a school teacher or a principal running the day to day operations of the board. When promising youngsters like Kanishka Chaugai get disillusioned with the system, and look for greener pastures elsewhere, there are loopholes that have to be plugged by the board.

In 2010, Nepal’s firebrand captain Paras Khadka and his teammates even went on a strike against the board. A few of Khadka’s detractors accused him of being brash, but the move to go on a strike has in many ways helped Nepal’s cricket to come out of virtual darkness. A national academy was set up in January 2013. There are at least 17 turf wickets, and 65 cricket grounds now in Nepal.

There has never been a dearth of talented cricketers in Nepal. The likes of Khadka, Vesawkar, Binod Das, Alam, Subash Khakurel, Anil Mandal, Malla, Basanta Regmi, Bhandari, Shakti Gauchan, Baskota and company have proved their mettle time and again in the lower rungs of World cricket.  Both Khakurel and Mandal impressed cricket enthusiasts with their raw talent in the World cricket league 4. In the just concluded ACC t/20 trophy, the firebrand captain Paras Khadka made the cricketing world to sit up and take notice of his all-round prowess by amassing 207 runs at 41.40, and taking four wickets. He bookended the tournament with a half century in the final against Afghanistan.

The impressive performances chalked up by Nepal last year, and in the just concluded ACC t/20 tournament shows that there is light at the end of the tunnel. One man, who has been responsible for the remarkable turnaround is the former Sri Lankan wicket-keeper, and current national coach of Nepal, Pubudu Dassanayake. When he took over as the coach of the team, Nepal found themselves in turbulent waters. Under his watchful guidance though, Nepal’s cricket team has gone from strength to strength. Dassanayake also played a key role in setting up of the academy.

The way Nepal’s cricketers by banishing their inner demons, and exorcising the ghosts that haunted them in the past, bulldozed Malaysia in World cricket league 4 last year, augurs well for the future of Nepal’s cricket. Interestingly, the coach of Malaysia is Roy Dias. The former SrI Lankan batsman coached Nepal for more than a decade, and during his stint as a coach, Nepal’s cricketers lacked the big match temperament, and critics called them as chokers.

Everyone talks about the amazing story of the rise of fearless giant-killers Afghanistan. In a short space of time, the Afghanistan team leapfrogged other associate nations to become a force to reckon with. With home-grown talent, Nepal too can become a major cricketing force among associate countries. But for that to become a reality, they need a professional set up which focuses on grassroots cricket and domestic cricket.

The youtube video gives us a glimpse of the sheer passion for cricket in Nepal.

Cricket in Germany

As cricket-obsessed fans, we are hooked to following certain teams, and our cricketing heroes 24/7. The entire city gears up before every high voltage clash with a sizzle of anticipation and an unmatched excitement. Cricket fans tend to throng the stadium in big numbers by braving the heavy traffic, the horn-honking and the scorching sun to watch their heroes perform.

In midst of all this euphoria, have we ever thought that there is world beyond the nine test playing nations known as associate teams? These are the teams who play in the lower rungs of cricket. Cricketers from associate countries too strain every sinew, and churn out impressive performances day in and day out. Unlike the glittering stars plying their trade in big stadiums, and in front of thousands of fans, they play with little or no financial backing.  It is a testament  to the sheer passion of associate cricketers that they are always ready to stand up and be counted for the sake of their nation.

One such team battling it out in the lower leagues of World Cricket is Germany. To the outside world, Germany is known for everything else but cricket. Yet a dedicated bunch of  expats and a few faithful fans are trying their level best to popularize the game in the country.

Germany became an affiliate member in 1991 and in 1999, the ICC granted them associate status. It was a step in the right direction. Since Germany was  granted associate status, they have regularly taken part in the European championships. Their best performance came in 2000 and in 2002, when they finished runners up in division 2 in one-day cricket. They also play in division 7 of world cricket league.

At present, Germany is captained by the stockily built middle-order batsman Asif Khan. Asif Khan, who has been part of the German set up since ’04 is a pillar of strength and a vital cog in the line up. He has engineered the German team to some fantastic wins over the years. In 2011, Asif Khan led from the front with a stroke-filled century against Botswana in world cricket league. He and Milan Fernando are two bedrocks of the batting line up.

A few other cricketers like Andre Leslie, Shakeel Hassan, Farooq Ahmed, Sathya Srinivas, Ehsan Latif, Dilshan Rajudeen and Rana Javed Iqbal have played prominent roles in helping to raise the profile of the game in Germany. In 2010, the plucky Germans with a steely resolve, and by displaying flair and panache proved their mettle by finishing 2nd in division 8. Their excellent showing in division 8 was duly rewarded with a promotion to division 7.

In spite of some sterling performances in the lower leagues of world cricket, it has always been a huge challenge for the administrators to promote the game. Germany’s captain Asif Khan though, is optimistic about the future of the game in the country.

In an interview to playforcountrynotforself cricket blog, Asif Khan said, Keith (Germany’s cricket coach) has worked hard in the background looking for fresh talent, travelling to nearly all regional and DCB tournament finals and pinning down on probable candidates for the national team. He strives to find the correct blend of young enthusiastic as well experienced players to represent Germany at international tournaments. Over the years I have played in various sets of German teams, but to me the 14 -16 players since Jersey 2010 have been the pick.  It’s vital to encourage and get in new players so they gain experience by playing alongside seniors and carry on in the same vein as the past teams.” 

Asif Khan also added, “In my eyes we’ve got around 10 standout cricketers between 22 and 28 years who could take on the mantle of responsibility for the next decade. They’re aggressive and possess good understanding of the game. They need to be adequately coached and made to understand their roles and expectations from them in the team. Would be unfair not to name all of them but Kashif Mahmood, Dilshan Rajudeen, Ashwin Prakash, Tarun Rawat, and Shafraz Shamsudeen are on the brink of cementing their places in the senior sides. Ritwik Marwaha and his brother Tushar have done well playing for the U19s and they’re highly talented.”

Germany’s cricket team faces all those typical problems that every associate nation goes through. Lack of funds to support the players financially has to be the first and foremost concern of Germany’s cricket administrators. The entire cricket structure in Germany is operated on an ad-hoc basis. Except for the manager of the team, no one else gets paid. The meagre funding that is allotted to them by ICC is just enough to cover travel and other miscellaneous costs. But unfortunately, no pay is awarded for any matches. The staff, who with their diligence and hard work support the team are all volunteers.

Another major problem that is haunting Germany’s cricket is the fact that ICC have now scrapped the European 50 over league. To make it worse, the ICC have gone ahead and scrapped the lower two divisions of the World cricket league. So, if Germany doesn’t get promoted to division 6 this season, and manage to stay there, they will drop out of any international 50 over cricket staged by the ICC.  The ICC indirectly is encouraging the associates to focus their attention on T/20 cricket. These are tough times for cricket administrators in Germany.

As it is an amateur sport, Germany’s players also have to worry about their own jobs, while representing the country. Their wicket-keeper, Sathya Srinivas in an interview says, “I cannot obviously involve my boss in all this. I am allowed a certain number of holidays in a calendar year and I need to accommodate the cricket tournaments for Germany in this schedule. The people at my company are really appreciative of the fact that I represent a national team. But my first responsibility is obviously towards my job.”

He also added by saying, “But there are people in our team who work as taxi-drivers or work in restaurants, who basically take time off without getting paid during such kind of cricket tournaments for Germany. Everyone basically plays for the passion of the game.”

In Germany, domestic cricket is confined to playing t/20s and 50 over cricket.  Both competitions are run on a league basis. Cricket wise, Germany is divided into regions with each region comprising of a few federal states. The best team from each region, battle it out to be crowned as the t/20 or one-day cricket champions.

For the next season, Germany’s cricket board is looking at tinkering the domestic structure ever so slightly with a two-tier division. They have come up with a very innovative and novel concept that guarantees the promotion of a team to the first division. In Germany, to gain promotion, it doesn’t just depend on actual results, but the team that aspires to work their way up the ladder have to also provide evidence of contributing towards grassroots development.

In the last few years, under the able leadership of German cricket federation’s General  Manager Brian Mantle, they have taken up the gauntlet of branching out the game to more people through youth development programmes. All the hard work is yielding results too as last year, the under 19 wicket-keeper Giancarlo Schöcke came through the system.

The next assignment for German cricketers is a trip to Botswana to play in world division league 7. German cricketers will face a baptism by fire as the likes of Nigeria, Ghana, Botswana and Vanuatu are renowned for playing a tough brand of cricket. But make no mistake, the battle hardened cricketers from Germany playing for the sake of sheer passion will look to soar greater heights by winning the coveted world division league 7 trophy.

(Thanks to Germany’s cricket fan Steffi Wes Wessington for all the valuable information provided about cricket in Germany)

Matt Prior – English cricket’s unsung hero

As New Zealand prepared to take on their formidable foes England in a three match test series, everyone expected nothing less than the English bestriding the Kiwis, and completing a whitewash. But cricket is a game full of glorious uncertainties. On the fifth and the final day at Auckland, it was surprisingly the Kiwis who needed just six wickets to checkmate England, and win the test series 1-0.

At 159 for 6 on the fifth day, England found themselves in a precarious position. With the English team’s hopes of salvaging a draw hanging by a thread, it needed someone to step up-to the plate to thwart the Kiwis from causing a gargantuan upset. Enter England’s wicket-keeper Matt Prior, who pulled off a coup de theatre act to steer England to safety with a match saving hundred.

In a cauldron of bubbling tensions at the Auckland stadium, Prior with his trademark fortitude and immense concentration prowess was able to blunt New Zealand’s attack into submission. During his defiant rearguard action, Prior also did shepherd the likes of Broad and Monty Panesar, and guided them during their stay at the crease.

Matt Prior’s game is built on the old adage of playing each ball on its merit. If a ball is there to be hit, Prior will waste no time in taking advantage of it by sending the ball racing to the boundary boards. At Auckland, the Kiwis had pinned down the English batsmen with parsimonious bowling. With those dramatic flourishes of swivel pulls and rapier-like cuts, Prior changed the scenario by transmuting the way his teammates played. His great extension of hands, and the precise metre of timing helped him to penetrate the interstices of the ring field that had been set to entrap Prior into making a mistake.

If we look back at Prior’s career with a bird’s eye view, he went through hard facts of life very early in his career. His parents separated when he was young, and he had to go through the mental trauma of watching his mother battle for life with breast cancer. Prior was gritty enough to face the hard truth and take the life head on.

The then Sussex coach Peter Moores, who always had a great eye for spotting young talent took him under his wing, and selected him to play for Sussex against Worcestershire in 2001. In spite of some consistent performances for his county Sussex, he was largely ignored by the national selectors. Duncan Fletcher always seemed to prefer Geraint Jones to the likes of Read, Foster and Prior. Prior did make his one-day debut in Zimbabwe in 04-05, but playing test cricket still remained a distant dream. It finally took the resignation of Fletcher, and the appointment of Peter Moores as the coach of England, for Prior to be selected to play test cricket in ’07.

Prior’s critics weren’t convinced about his selection, as they said that Peter Moores was biased in his judgement. It didn’t bother Prior one bit, as he answered his detractors with a sparkling century in his debut test against West Indies. There were still lingering doubts about Prior’s ability as a wicket-keeper.

During the series against India at home in ’07 and in Sri Lanka in 07-08, Prior went through a horrible period as a wicket-keeper. Everytime the left arm swing bowler Sidebottom induced an edge, it seemed like Prior would drop the chance. The left armer’s angle proved to be the Achilles’ heel for Prior. With a willow in his hand, he was still able to shrug off his poor form as a keeper by scoring runs. For his poor wicket-keeping form, he was subsequently dropped from the test side. Interestingly, he was replaced in the test side by his former Sussex teammate Tim Ambrose.

Prior took that major setback in his stride, as along with former English wicket-keeper Bruce French, he worked hard on his keeping, and made a stunning comeback into the test side in 08-09 in India. In that series in India, he didn’t just shore up the brittle lower-order of England with vital runs, but it could be noticed that his keeping attributes had come up by leaps and bounds. Even as a batsman, he had added another string to his bow by improving his defence. With an abundance of sweat, blood and toil, Prior had passed his trial by fire with flying colours.

Since his comeback  into the test side, Prior hasn’t just amassed 3075 at an impressive average of 46.59, but has also effected 168 dismissals as a wicket-keeper. At Auckland by bouncing on his toes, and with a superman-like leap, he took a stunning catch to send Fulton back to the pavilion. In many ways, it was a testimony to the hard work he has put in as a keeper. Prior is also the quintessential team man. When England was riven by internal conflicts last year, it was Prior who tried to be the peacemaker between Kevin Pietersen and rest of the players.

When English cricket’s resurgence in the last few years is talked about, the contributions of Strauss, Cook, Pietersen, Trott, Swann and Anderson are highlighted. But we rarely see Prior’s name being discussed. Hopefully, his heroic rearguard action in the final test at Auckland would bring his name further into the limelight. Matt Prior is no doubt the unsung hero of English cricket.

The metamorphosis of James Anderson from ‘Daisy’ to swing-king.

During a typical rain-sodden English summer season in 2002, James Anderson lit up the Old Trafford stadium with a booming inswinger that trapped Surrey’s run machine Mark Ramprakash dead in front. In his first county game itself against Surrey, the shy lad from Burnley, left Lancashire’s cricket cognoscenti spellbound with a vivacious spell of swing bowling.

Fast forward to our present world. The shy lad, James Anderson, has become a nasty swing bowler who snarls, growls and even sledges at the batsmen. The banana-bending swing bowler from Burnley is a fine manipulator of the ball. With subtle changes of wrists and fingers, he orchestrates unsuspecting batsmen’s downfall by exploring every nook and cranny in their defence. Anderson’s adroitness with a red cherry in hand is unquestionable. In short, at the age of 30, Anderson is the irresistible force of English cricket.

If we turn back the years and trace Anderson’s early career, it feels like listening to a fairy tale story. Lancashire’s the then player-development manager John Stanworth was impressed by Anderson’s range of skills, and tried to persuade Lancashire’s coaching staff to have a look at him. Incidentally, Lancashire, just like other counties wanted to hire an overseas professional. But Anderson’s range of skills impressed the coaching staff, and he was drafted into the side.

In his first season, the Burnley Bullet regularly scythed through County batting line-ups with pace, cut and swing, and gave batsmen all over England headaches. Those 50 wickets he took in 2002, caught the eye of England’s swashbuckling opening batsman Trescothick. When England’s touring party to Ashes in 2002/03 was ravaged by injuries to key fast bowlers, Trescothick recommended Anderson’s name to England’s captain Nasser Hussain.  Anderson subsequently made his debut at MCG, in a one-day match against Australia.

Anderson’s fairy tale story continued, as he ripped through Pakistan’s famed batting line-up in the World Cup at Capetown in 2002/03. For most fast bowlers to bowl an out-swinging yorker on off-stump is beyond the realms of possibility, but by sending Yousef’s off-stump somersaulting with the new ball, Anderson made it a reality.

The hat-trick Anderson took against Essex in a county match in May 2003, helped him to break into the test side as well. In his first test at the hallowed Lord’s cricket ground against Zimbabwe, he swerved the ball away from right-handers, and took a 5-for. He was suddenly the talk of the town, and was even touted as the saviour of English cricket.

Unfortunately for Anderson, his honeymoon period was soon coming to a very bitter end. The coaching staff started to tinker with his action, and the emergence of troika of quick bowlers: Flintoff, Harmison and Simon Jones, led to Anderson just warming the benches.

Whenever James Anderson got a rare opportunity to play, he bowled like a loose cannon. It is difficult to blame Anderson for such capriciousness, as he was made to play tests without many games under his belt. When Anderson replaced Simon Jones for the Wanderers test during the tour to South Africa in 04/05, he hadn’t played even a single first class game for close to five months. It is hard to fathom why the coaching staff didn’t think of playing him in the first class game against South Africa A at Potchefstroom. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that just like hungry vultures, South Africans tore Anderson’s bowling into pieces.

Anderson remained on the periphery of English selection. He wasn’t selected to play in the  XI in Ashes 2005. It must have been a bitter pill for him to swallow, as England went onto win a historic test series against Australia. Every English cricketer’s dream is to play in Ashes, but in ’05 that dream didn’t materialise into reality for Anderson.

When called up as a replacement for the injury prone Simon Jones, during the tour of India in 05/06, he did make his presence felt by taking six wickets at Mumbai. But with Anderson, every good show was juxtaposed by a poor performance. It made the critics give him the name of ‘Daisy.’

Another body blow to Anderson’s career came in the form of a stress fracture, he suffered on his back in 2006. The irony of it being, the injury was caused due to coaching staff constantly tinkering with his action. These days, young bowlers are indoctrinated to bowl with a certain action, leading to loss of form and even injuries. When Anderson was bowling with his natural action, he was hooping it around the corners and taking wickets. But that wasn’t the case with his remodeled action.

The timely advice by former Lancashire’s coach Mike Watkinson, to go back to his old action, helped him to find his swing back. But on the cricket field, his career touched its nadir, as the Australian batsmen took a liking to his bowling. In the Ashes 06/07, Anderson took just 5 wickets at a cost of 82.60. To make matters worse for him, he had bowled a mere 34.1 overs, since his comeback from the back injury. Yet the English selectors and Duncan Fletcher were convinced that he will be match fit to take on blood-thirsty Australians, waiting to take revenge for the ’05 Ashes loss. It was certainly a tumultuous year for Anderson.

With injuries to Hoggard, Harmison and Flintoff in ’07, Anderson got a window of opportunity to show his wares against the touring Indians. He made that chance count, by taking a 5-for at Lord’s. Anderson seemed to be in a relaxed state of mind, and by going back to his original action, he was able to generate prodigious swing. Anderson also seemed to have worked very hard on his inswinger, as he bowled the inswinger with better control, and troubled the Indian batsmen throughout the series.

The watershed moment in Anderson’s career came about in 07/08 in New Zealand. England’s coach Peter Moores, decided to drop both Hoggard and Harmison. England had lost the first test at Hamilton, and as a result, Moores wanted to inject fresh blood into the pace attack. Broad and Anderson were selected for the game at Basin Reserve, and England won that test convincingly. Anderson in particular had a good game, as he took a 5-for at Basin Reserve.

James Anderson caused more misery for the Kiwi batsmen, when they toured the Old Blighty  in ’08. At Trent Bridge, he put on a virtuoso exhibition of swing bowling to make short work of New Zealand’s batting line-up. The way he in-slanted the Duke ball, before making it to swing it late away from both Redmond and McCullum was a sight to behold. Late swing has become one of those utterly mundane cliches used by commentators to describe every swing bowler going around, but it sits well with Jimmy Anderson.

When Pakistan toured England in ’10, Anderson ran riot by bowling on some sprightly tracks. He took 23 wickets in that series at a cost of just 13.73. The peach of a delivery he bowled to send Farhat’s stumps cartwheeling at Trent Bridge was a swing bowler’s equivalent to Shane Warne’s magic ball in Ashes ’93.  By bowling from around the wicket, he swung it into the left-handed Farhat, before it virtually snaked away at a high speed to take out the off-stump. Farhat must have felt like he had been hit by a 440-volt shock that day.

In-spite of some sterling performances for England that year, there were lingering doubts about Anderson’s ability to perform on hard wickets, and with a kookaburra ball Down Under. It seemed to have spurred Anderson, as by banishing all his inner demons, he bowled with zest, verve and gusto to take 24 wickets in the series. It was a spirited riposte to all those critics baying for his blood.

He didn’t have sheer pace to send the Australian batsmen quivering for cover on those hard wickets. But Anderson used every little trick available to a swing bowler to succeed. If it was swing that got him those prized scalps of Clarke and Ponting at Adelaide then, with seam movement, he impressed everyone at Brisbane and Melbourne. At SCG, he used reverse swing to good effect, in the second innings. The now famous Anderson’s ‘knuckle ball’ and his surprise inswinger, kept the Australian batsmen on tenterhooks. To make it worse for the left-handers, he would bowl from around the wicket, and by using the crease, bait them like a temptress. Australian batsmen found it hard to decipher Anderson’s modus operandi in that series.

In Australia, Anderson seemingly had the ball on a string, and did whatever he wished to do. Cricket pundits compared him rightly to a cheetah, as just like a true predator, he was preying on unsuspecting batsmen stealthily. The way he would set up a batsman, before delivering the coup de grace was a sharp contrast to the Anderson, who bowled with lingering self-doubts in 06/07 Ashes.

In 2011, Anderson’s effervescent endeavours even helped England to usurp India, as the number one ranked team in test cricket. Last year, he hammered the final nail in the critics’ coffin by succeeding in Asia. He strained every sinew on abrasive surfaces of UAE, Srilanka and India, and did well. In India, he continuously played on the batsmen’s minds with a mixture of in-dippers and swing. It tells us, a good bowler can succeed anywhere.

With 295 wickets to his name, Anderson is on the cusp of becoming only the fourth English bowler to take 300 test wickets. In the ongoing series in New Zealand, he has been slightly below par. But it shouldn’t take long for Anderson’s competitive juices to flow again.

Just having a glance at Anderson’s bowling average of 30.46, it can be misinterpreted that he is overrated. But he was mismanaged by the coaching staff, and as a result, took more time to mature. In his last 35 tests, he has chalked up some impressive numbers, as he has taken 147 wickets at 26.03. It also has to be said that these days, bowlers have to bowl on some flat decks. With modern day batsmen sporting all those strange accoutrements, it makes that much harder for a bowler to make his mark. The metamorphosis of Anderson from being called a ‘Daisy’ to a world class swing bowler can be a ray of hope for all those promising quicks struggling to make their mark.