Travelling tittle-tattle, tall tales and shameless name-dropping by Jon ‘Don’t Call Me’ Norman

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Thursday, 10 May 2012

England must beware the West Indies threat

The 1st Test of the summer gets underway next week and the West Indies have already been written off. Former England captain Michael Vaughan is tipping our bowlers to steamroller them for less than 250 an innings & that only bad weather will save them from a 3-0 drubbing. But is rain really the only way this proud cricketing nation can take England to a fifth day? talkSPORT’s cricket correspondent JON NORMAN doesn’t think so.
Let’s be clear. Over the course of three Tests cricket’s 7th best team should not pose a problem to the world number one; especially at home in conditions conducive for swing &  seam bowling. However to dismiss an improving West Indies side before they completed a whole day’s warm up isn’t something Michael Vaughan would have done as captain. For amongst the West Indies ranks are three players with a point to prove & the talent to ram his words down his throat.

SHIVNARINE CHANDERPAUL

In a squad which boasts only five players with experience of playing Test cricket in England the chances of West Indies going past 300 in a single innings appear to rest squarely on one man’s shoulders, Shivnarine Chanderpaul.

In a Test career spanning more than twenty years ‘Shiv’ has developed quite an appetite for scoring big runs against the best the English can serve up. In 31 Tests against England he averages over 50 with the bat and it rises to nearly 65 on these shores.

Incredibly this will be Chanderpaul’s SIXTH England tour the pick of which came back in 2007 when Michael Vaughan was captain. Then the Guyanese five innings were 74, 50, 116*, 136* & 70. A year later he climbed to the top of the ICC Test Championship batting rankings.

A lot can happen in five years but one thing that has remained constant is Shiv’s dedication to scoring runs. He recently became only the tenth batsmen to go past 10,000 Test runs. In doing so he also repeated what he achieved following that inspired run back in 2007. For Shivnarine Chanderpaul is officially once again the best batsman in world cricket.

KEMAR ROACH

Is there a sight in world cricket to set the pulse racing quite like a pace bowler steaming towards the wicket, a hard red cherry in hand, and a new batsman at the crease? Nothing typified the West Indies approach during their glory days than the battery of fast bowlers they employed to bludgeon opponents. And where Holding, Marshall, Garner & Ambrose once stood now stands Kemar Roach.

At five foot eight Roach is more Malcolm Marshall than Joel Garner but consistently bowls over 90mph & is fast developing as a bowler of real menace. Many point to a spell on his first overseas tour where Roach had Ricky Ponting hopping around before forcing him to retire hurt as the moment the Aussie great first showed signs of mortality.

Further proof of Roach’s great promise once again came against the Aussies last month when he became the first West Indian to take ten wickets in a match since 2005 & the first against Australia since Curtly Ambrose nineteen years ago.

DARREN BRAVO

During the 1990’s one of the greatest batsmen the game has ever seen waged war against English bowlers. As the side he marshaled began to deteriorate around him he was the Caribbean’s shining light. In smashing 375 & 400* against England, Brian Lara broke cricket records nearly as frequently as he did their hearts, minds and backs.

Fast forward to 2012 and the man who could now be king has arrived. Lara’s cousin and fellow left-hander Darren Bravo is heir to the Caribbean throne. He announced his arrival with back to back centuries in India last year, and already averages a shade under 5o in Test cricket. Alongside Chanderpaul he is the wicket the English bowlers will prize the most.

The family resemblance is never more noticeable than when Bravo is at the crease. His stance, timing, cover drive & pull shot are all straight out of the Lara textbook. While in one of those eerie coincidences that cricket statistician’s love it was noted that after their first twelve Tests Bravo & Lara had scored exactly the same amount of runs (941) & had an identical average (47.05). England and Michael Vaughan will pray the similarities end there.

If the West Indies are to pull off a heist or even just compete then they will need to rely on more than just three men and if the weather is kind then the omens are good. Captain DARREN SAMMY (whose middle names Julius Garvey suggest he was put on this earth to lead) posted his best bowling figures in England. His 7/66 in 2009 at Old Trafford included that of Michael Vaughan. Fast bowler FIDEL EDWARDS bunny is Andrew Strauss. The Barbadian has taken the England captain’s wicket five times in 12 innings and KP’s four. While recently recalled wicket-keeper DENESH RAMDIN has hit three of his eight Test fifties and his only century against England. Will any of this be enough to prove Michael Vaughan wrong? We have less than a week to wait until we find out.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Four questions England must answer in Sri Lanka

Unedited version of the article that went up on talkSPORT.co.uk

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Traditionally, overseas Test tours spanned months, involved long drawn out days of travel, warm up matches in obscure cricketing outposts, evening functions with local dignitaries & two or three week gaps between the actual test matches. Not any longer. England’s ‘blink-and-you’ll-miss-it’ series with Sri Lanka will be over and done with inside 30 days. However the ramifications of a second successive series defeat could last much, much longer for those involved. And there are four unanswered questions that this tour may answer once and for all.

WILL THE CAPTAIN HAVE A RETURN TO FORM?

Andrew Strauss may not be aware the last Test of the summer against the touring South Africans will be his 100th as an England player. What he will be aware of though, is that in 2003 the same opposition saw off Nasser Hussain’s reign as captain & the 2007 version signalled the end for Michael Vaughan.

Make no mistake about it Andrew Strauss is under pressure to perform. Since steering England to a career defining Ashes victory in Australia the captain’s form has dipped alarmingly. He hasn’t hit a century since Brisbane in 2010 & has hit only two fifties in 16 innings over the past calendar year. With his opening partner & new ODI captain Alastair Cook continuing to churn out the runs a big score at either Galle & Colombo is a necessity. The last thing Strauss will want come July is to be facing the best new ball bowling attack in the world with questions marks over whether his 100th Test will also be his last.

WHO IS ENGLAND’S NUMBER ONE SPINNER?

It’s a question that would have seemed ridiculous just over a year ago as Graeme Swann led the sprinkler dance in front of a delirious Barmy Army at the MCG. An Ashes victory capping off a tremendous year which saw Swann rise to 3rd in the Test & top of the ODI bowling ranks. But will Graeme Swann be in the side for the first Test of the English summer?

England built their ascension to the top of the ICC Rankings through the tried and tested formula of one spinner & three fast bowlers. They will revert to this as soon as the Sri Lanka tour comes to an end. But will it be Swanny at nine or Monty at eleven in the batting order?

Despite protestations from Panesar that he sees himself as the secondary spinner in the side his figures more than match up with Swann’s. In the UAE despite playing one match less than Swann, Monty bowled more overs and took more wickets. Was that a sign that Andrew Strauss has more faith in the Sussex man? Tellingly England have yet to win a test with both in the side. Sri Lanka could be a straight bowl out to decide which one starts against the West Indies in May.

WHO IS ENGLAND’S NUMBER SIX?

Ever since Freddie Flintoff’s legendary all-round powers starting to wane in 2007 the chink in England’s impressive armour has been the lack of an all-rounder. Ravi Bopara is favourite to stake a claim at number six but there’s a feeling Samit Patel or Matt Prior could give England more natural balance.

Prior’s proved he’s good enough to bat at six which would allow for a five strong bowling attack. Ravi Bopara would be a straight swap for Morgan and could bowl 5-8 overs towards the end of the innings. While the inclusion of Samit Patel could provide the most interesting call up as it would allow England to play just the one spinner and keep together the three-pronged seam attack that has served England so well.

CAN ENGLAND PLAY SPIN?

England horror tour against UAE will still be fresh in the batsmen’s minds ahead of another tough examination of their abilities to play spin. KP averaged less than 12 & Ian Bell only 8.50 against Pakistan. Ultimately it was Morgan who carried the can scoring just 81 runs in six innings as Saeed Ajmal & Abdur Rehmann did a passable impression of Shane Warne & Muttiah Muralitharan.

Not for the first time since his retirement Sri Lanka will wish they still had Murali in their ranks. Without him they have won just one Test in 17 attempts. It is unlikely Sri Lanka will ever see a bowler quite like him but England will still have to show marked improvements from last month if they are to pass this trial by spin. Regana Herath or Suraj Randiv will pose the questions. Whether KP & Bell have learned the answers will determine whether their fate follows that of Eoin Morgan.

Why it has to be third time lucky for Ravi Bopara

Have started writing a semi-regular cricket column for talkSPORT.co.uk here. Here is my first offering.

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With the England Test team set to depart for Sri Lanka tomorrow talkSPORT’s cricket reporter and producer of The Keys & Gray Show JON NORMAN looks at a make or break series for one batsman who will approach the tour with a feeling of déjà vu

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Three years ago, on a blazing hot Barbadian afternoon, I watched from the Kensington Oval stands as Ravi Bopara scored his maiden century.

He marked the milestone by mimicking the famous ‘To Di World’ victory pose of the Caribbean’s favourite son, Usain Bolt. Three deliveries later he departed, caught on the hook by Jerome Taylor.

But surely this was the start of a great Test career? Well, no.

Now he will depart again on Saturday as part of England’s 16-man squad bound for Sri Lanka. And this time there is no margin for error and no excuses for failure.

In 2007, as England’s great new hope, he made the same trip. It was a series that would end with him exiled from Test cricket for over a year and sow the first seeds of doubt about his ability to succeed at the highest level.

Back then, Bopara was a brash young Londoner coming through the ranks at Essex. Like the man whose pose he pulled that day in Bridgetown, he’d been quick out of the blocks.

Described by his mentor Graham Gooch as one of the most talented batsman he’d ever worked with, Bopara was called up to the one-day international squad at 21, and now a Test debut later that same year.

Since then, however, his career has been a succession of false starts.

That first Sri Lanka tour ended with three ducks in a row, the last of which typified his increasingly muddled thinking. With England struggling to save the match, Bopara was run out first ball in an over that had already yielded two wickets. After England stuttered to a series defeat on Asian soil (sound familiar?) Ravi was dropped.

When his second chance came in the West Indies in 2009 he knew he needed more than a century on a track flatter than an Ian Abrahams joke to convince the doubters. So he followed it up on home soil with back-to-back hundreds and a man of the series award against the same opponents.

But his second coming was to prove as much of a false dawn as the first. In the most highly pressurised environment in cricket, the Ashes, he buckled; mental fragility and a loose defensive technique saw him average just 15 in four Tests.

Appearances in the pyjamas of ODI and T20 cricket provided some solace over the next two years before the retirement of Paul Collingwood opened the door for another Test return.

It was a straight shoot-out between Bopara and Eoin Morgan, with an England Lions match against Sir Lanka the opportunity for both men to stake their claim. Morgan blasted 193, Bopara failed. Morgan was in and once more there were mutterings about Bopara’s temperament.

He spent most of last summer watching his idol Sachin Tendulkar from the same vantage point I had, before carrying drinks in the UAE as England capitulated to a 3-0 series defeat against Pakistan.

Significantly for Bopara, however, Morgan failed in the recent series, opening the door once again for the Essex man.

It has to be third time lucky for Ravi, because he surely won’t get another chance. A host of young talent is coming through the county scene, while the management is toying with the idea of using Samit Patel as a spinning all-rounder.

So a two-Test series this month may well define his career. He has two weeks to safeguard his international future.

He has been here before. Literally. But his tormentors of 2007, Muralitharan, Jayasariya, Vaas and Malinga, are no longer around.

So Sri Lanka have changed. The question we’re about to have answered is whether Bopara has.

As he flashes his passport at check-in this weekend, he’ll know that if he hasn’t, then he’s on a journey that will start and finish in the same place. This time for good.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

The Spider House - A Review!

If you are the type of person who likes being woken in the middle of the night by an upper-middle class 30-something woman in the room next door chastising her partner then the Spider House resort in Boracay is the place for you.

"Oh for fucks sake Simon! Don't climb in that SIDE!!!!!"

If you are the kind of holidaymaker who enjoys listening to Russian couples complaining about their wet luggage after leaving it out in the rain then look no further than the Spider House resort in Boracay.

"This room. Not good. Tomorrow we leave."

But if you are the sort who cannot abide falling asleep to the sound of waves crashing over rocks beneath your room, detests views such as this and who hates sleeping in a treehouse then I would steer well clear.

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For our wedding anniversary Fe and I spent four days on an island in the Phillipines called Boracay. Considering I hadn't actually known of its existence three days previously it meant at times I found it slightly surreal to peer out over such wondrous landscape. I'd been expecting to spend two weeks in a typical built up Asian city. Now I was lolling around sipping freshly made mango juice by the Philippine Sea watching clouds roll across the sky. It was at times too much to take in.

The first I had known about our trip came on my first morning in Macau. Following my 12 hour flight I had been woken in the morning by a distraught Fe who was pointing at strange weather symbols on her laptop.

Confused, I wiped the sleep from my eyes to be told a holiday had been secretly booked. However Fe had just seen the weather forecast where thunder, lightening and rain featured heavily. It was quite a lot to take in. Joy and surprise entwined with disappointment; all delivered seconds after waking up at what was 2am UK time.

I spent the next day studying the weather maps while Fe asked advice from Filipino work mates. They assured her that the weather was so changeable we should risk it. Also, that even when it rains it's still warm. This advice backed up my own findings. The day we were due to land forecast rain, cloud, wind, lightning and sun. Now that I had to see.

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The other bit of research I undertook was into the airline we were flying with. I had to get my head around four new flights that I hadn't contended with. A quick scan of Cebu Pacific Air's Wikipedia page allayed my fears that we were flying with a tinpot outfit. A new fleet, decent safety record and the planes were a nice, bright yellow colour. I was starting to relax right up until the last section which told me that no Filipino airline was allowed anywhere near EU airspace due to serious safety deficiencies. Ulp.

I decided there was little point telling Fe about my findings. Nor the fact that four aeroplanes had either under or overshot the runway we were flying into over the past five years. Hell, nobody had died. And what were we going to do. Cancel our holiday? Nah, I figured. It was far better to keep this bit of stress to myself.

And in the end the journey, as it usually is, was without incident. The only annoyance a four hour wait at Manilla airport before a 5.30am flight to Caticlan. Thankfully we neither under or overshot the runway and despite drops of rain greeting us we boarded our next two modes of transport in good spirits.

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It was 7am when we arrived at the Spider House and our hosts seemed surprised to see us. Not because we were early rather that we were late. They had expected us the day before. But after a worrying three-way exchange of glances the situation was quickly resolved. And with diazepam still coursing through my veins I chilled out in the communal area as our room was readied. We both sat down and tried to get our heads around the fact we were going to be living in a bamboo tree house for the next few days.

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Before we had left Macau we agreed to accept whatever weather was thrown at us. And we proved to be good to our word. We had learned the lesson from our wedding. Indeed it seemed almost poetic that a year after two cyclones descended on our wedding day they should re-emerge for our anniversary. But as it was the worst of the rain was to hit that afternoon while we caught up on our sleep. Then through our last night when two Russians failed to heed the warnings of the Spider House owner about their luggage.

However I couldn't help but be excited when I awoke the next morning to beautiful sunshine and a breathtaking view across the bay to Diniwid Beach. Normally if given the chance I'll happily spend an entire morning in bed. But in these surroundings I woke early. I think in part it was the happiness of being on holiday and wanting to enjoy the day. But mainly it was due to the fact our room didn't have any bloody windows. The sound of Filipino boats zipping around is pleasant but noisy.

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Somewhat embarrassingly we then proceeded to both get sunburnt. So relieved to get some sun and fooled by the sporadic cloud cover we failed to put on any suntan cream and were thankful for a cooler afternoon. Which was spent walking up and down the neighbouring White Beach. A beach far busier than the one we were staying near. It even has a Starbucks. The horror of which needs no comment from me. I'm more of a Costa man.

Considering we had both been working six days a week for the past two months we set ourselves the target of doing as little as possible and this was achieved fairly easily. Our only exertions were daily massages (£6 an hour), dips in the sea (free) and happy hour drinks (£3 for two). We were both more than happy to chill out on our balcony, catch up with some reading and pop downstairs every now and again for a drink.

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And this is where the Spider House really came into its own. For there was no real reason to have to leave. If we wanted a swim then we used the ladder from the communal area straight down to the sea. It was actually easier to jump in the water than use the shower.

The food was cheap, tasty and prepared by friendly local staff. The owner was on hand to help with any tourist information. Families, couples and experienced travelers mixed happily. The sound system played a mixture of reggae, dance and 60's music to create a pleasant ambience. Then every now and again a flushed in the face tourist would just turn up unannounced, sit down and have a drink before disappearing off again.

Amusing exchanges would also crop up every now and again to keep me entertained. Like the middle-aged couple who turned up one morning with their awkward teenage daughter. The two women sat down, red in the face after an early morning walk. The overweight man approached the bar.

Man: You are serving?
Owner: Yes. What are you having?
Man: Two cokes and a beer.
Owner: A beer? It's nine thirty in the morning! (PAUSE) You must be Russian, right?
Man: (PROUDLY) Yes!


Concerns the Spider House was so called because it was overrun by huge and hairy arachnids also turned out to be inaccurate. While mosquitos were a problem at sunset the only creatures we encountered were bats snapping away at the insects at dusk. And the sound of the geckos scampering around the walls. It turned out that the only real drawback was the close proximity to guests with loud voices.

The only dangerous thing about our stay was the lift to the restaurant next door. It was ridiculous. Apart from the extreme juddering it wasn't so bad on the way up. But on the way down we soon found out why the lift operator warned us before we began our descent. We had feared the ride was going to be bad when during our meal we heard a woman let out a blood curdling scream. Thankfully by the time our turn came round we'd shared a bottle of wine to fortify our courage.. Okay, my courage.

Ultimately our Spider House experience was one worth writing about. After a hiatus of nearly a year it gave me the inspiration to get this 'blog up and running again. I'm not sure if this is anything to celebrate. But it does feel good to be writing. And with a few ideas in the pipeline for 2012 it could be a good time to start up again. Relaxed and rejuvenated thanks to a few days in a tree house. Who'd have thought that two weeks ago?

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