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

About Me

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Four questions England must answer in Sri Lanka

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

***********************

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.

***************

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

***************

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.