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England prepare to pit hope against bullish expectation

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It’s a been a fair few years now since Australia’s formidable Test record at Lord’s has been factored into the Ashes build-up – consecutive thumpings in 2009 and 2013 rather punctured their proud boast of not having lost at the ground since 1934. But on their last visit here in 2015, they atoned for those setbacks with a brutal 405-run victory – with a certain Steven Smith leading the line with 215 from 346 balls.

And now they are back at their favourite home from home, with Smith exuding an invincibility on English soil not seen since Graeme Smith’s extraordinary awakening in the summer of 2003, and England – for all the hype and expectation surrounding Jofra Archer – looking as vulnerable in a home Ashes campaign as they have been in a generation.

It’s not simply that England are 1-0 down in the series – that’s nothing new for this set of players, as Root was happy to point out on the eve of the contest. They’ve been behind on home soil three times in the last six years, and recovered on each occasion, to beat India in 2014, and draw with Pakistan twice in 2016 and 2018.

But this time, the concern is the gulf between hope and expectation that appears to be opening up between the two teams, for that Root was setting out to be bullish on the eve of the contest.

“We’re in English conditions, we really back ourselves to come back strong after last week,” Root said, after it had been pointed out that England have now lost six of their last seven Tests against Australia dating back to 2015, with only a bore-draw in Melbourne for respite. “I’m expecting a big response from the boys. We’ve proven that we do that, time and time again, when we’ve been defeated, especially at home. Last week will have hurt everyone and everyone will be absolutely desperate to go and win this week. And I expect nothing less.”

That’s a lot of expectation to shoehorn into one answer. But does Root really expect England to perform better than they did in the crunch moments at Edgbaston, or he is merely hoping that they will? Does he expect their misfiring middle-order to find renewed resolve with the series in the balance, or is he simply hoping that that is the case?

Or, to flip the sentiment on its head: Do England really expect Archer – and to a lesser extent, Jack Leach – to add a sting to their attack that Smith in particular so expertly drew in the first Test? Of course they don’t … though they fervently hope that they might. “He’s got a good bouncer and bowls at a good pace consistently, so I’m sure he’ll cause problems on most surfaces,” said Root of Archer. “Hopefully, he can exploit this one.”

ALSO READ: ‘More ready than I’ve ever been’ – Archer primed for Test debut

Instead, it is Australia who really expects … and that has tended to be a deadly mindset when these two sides have clashed in the past. Whereas England tend to be a danger to themselves whenever they try to be frontrunners in a series, getting on top and staying on top is far more in tune with the Australian psyche, especially one that has been rebooted by a brains trust including both Justin Langer and Steve Waugh.

In fact, Australia’s plans are falling so serenely into place that, in resting James Pattinson while tantalising both Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood with the carrot of a Lord’s comeback, the management have been able to cast one eye towards next week’s third Test at Headingley, even while ensuring their chosen 12 keep their thoughts firmly fixed in the present.

“It’s always nice from a captaincy and a leadership point of view when you’ve got two senior players who are world-class left out and they cop it on the chin, run drinks, and train their backsides off in the lunch hours and tea breaks,” said Australia’s captain, Tim Paine. “It sets a really good example for the rest of our team.”

ALSO READ: Pattinson rested, Hazlewood likely to play Lord’s Test

It’s certainly not a policy that guarantees success, but as a mitigation against failure, it seems light-years removed from England’s current suck-it-and-see approach – one which, in the penultimate month of this most exhausting of summers, seems now to be relying more on a Pakistani-style quest for Haal than any actual long-term planning.

And who’s to say, just like Pakistan on any given day – or like Chris Woakes and Stuart Broad on the final day of the Ireland Test last month – a combination of rich talent and faint desperation won’t propel this set of players to extraordinary and series-turning heights. There’s certainly little doubt that, pound for pound and irrespective of fatigue and motivation, a team containing world-class individuals such as Root, Archer, Ben Stokes and Jason Roy ought to be a match for any opponent.

But, just as Australia couldn’t be any more at home at Lord’s – moseying around the pavilion as if to the manor born, and with their kids performing cartwheels on the square as they saunter back from the nets – so it is England who most resemble a put-upon touring team.

One Test down out of five, and among their fast-bowling stocks, already Mark Wood, Olly Stone and James Anderson are sidelined, with only the latter a realistic chance of being fit before the end of the series. And while Joe Root’s promotion to No. 3 has applied a band-aid to their longstanding top-order flimsiness, the recent absence of Championship cricket makes the sourcing of battle-ready replacements as problematic as it would have been had the series been taking place Down Under.

“A big responsibility comes on the players, making sure that they look after themselves and keep themselves as fit as possible,” said Root. “Throughout the rest of this campaign, there are certain things which you can’t control and sometimes you get thrown a bad hand and you have to deal with it. And we’ve certainly responded well to that in the past when that’s happened. And we’ve got to make sure that we do exactly the same this time. We’ve got some very talented players and bowlers that are fully capable of taking 20 wickets this week.”

And yet, to riff on a recurring theme of the past month, England have already scaled their Everest for this summer, and in such glorious fashion too, on this very ground. Australia, by contrast, over-achieved in reaching the World Cup semi-finals, but only now are they really beginning to hit their stride. They’ve not won the Ashes in England for 18 years and counting, but much like England in the white-ball campaign just gone, they know they’ll rarely get a better chance to drive home their advantage.



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Taunton expects as Tom Abell leads Somerset into title crunch fortnight

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Last week was momentous for Somerset’s cricketers. Needing a victory to put the pressure on Essex in what is a two-team arm-wrestle race for the title, they hammered Yorkshire by 298 runs, helped in large measure by two outstanding fifties from their skipper, Tom Abell, who batted ten minutes short of seven hours on a surface which some Test players found too taxing.

But that victory over Yorkshire may be viewed as little more than a staging post on a flight to glory should Somerset win the Championship in ten days’ time. The prospect is the talk of Taunton – and also a subject which many of the county’s supporters are barely able to discuss. Somerset, you see, have been here before.

In 2010 they needed Lancashire to avoid losing three first-innings wickets to Nottinghamshire at Old Trafford. Karl Brown, Mark Chilton and Shivnarine Chanderpaul were duly knocked over in 4.4 overs and the title went to Trent Bridge. “The eternal second” was the headline above Richard Latham’s Somerset copy in the 2011 Wisden. Then in 2016 around a thousand supporters gathered at the County Ground, hoping against all cricketing logic that the game between Yorkshire and Middlesex at Lord’s might end in a draw or a tie. Middlesex won the match – and the title. Perhaps we can now understand why some folk in Glastonbury or Frome will be torn between wanting to find out what is going on in this week’s match at the Rose Bowl and wondering whether a week’s retreat with Trappist monks might be a saner option. No one doubts Essex would be worthy champions; they are not the bad guys in this drama. All the same…

One of the most memorable photographs from that Friday afternoon at the County Ground three years ago shows Somerset’s skipper, Chris Rogers, “Buck” to almost everybody in the game, looking up at the television as the drama unfolds at Lord’s. Rogers had retired from the game the previous evening after making two centuries in the annihilation of Nottinghamshire. Now all he could do was wait. Hardly anyone knew it at the time but Somerset’s then-director of cricket, Matthew Maynard, had chosen Rogers’ successor. He had settled on Abell, a 23-year-old Taunton boy.

It has proved a wise choice. Abell has the respect of his players and the unconditional love of the county’s supporters. His captaincy against Yorkshire last week was assured and suddenly one realised he is now a senior cricketer with perhaps a decade in the professional game ahead of him. But as Abell prepares himself and his team for their vital matches against Hampshire and Essex, it is probably important to recall that two years ago, in his first season at the helm, he was in such poor batting form that he dropped himself from Somerset’s team for another match against Yorkshire, at Scarborough. And even more intriguing to discover that Jason Kerr, Somerset’s current head coach, told Abell he “enjoyed” the skipper’s slump even as he sympathised with his gloom.

“We’re very keen at Somerset to develop people as human beings and I’m a fan of people going through adversity,” said Kerr. “That year was awful to watch for Somerset supporters and for friends and family of Tom but if you go through something like that you are definitely stronger. It’s a determining factor in how you are going to be moving forward.

“I can remember having conversations with Tom at the time when I said: ‘Look, you won’t appreciate this but I’m actually quite enjoying this happening to you.’ You can imagine how he looked at me but I told him he would be a better person and we are all reaping the rewards now. I think we’ll see a consistency of performance which will get him higher recognition.”

“That year was awful to watch for Somerset supporters and for friends and family of Tom but if you go through something like that you are definitely stronger.”

Jason Kerr on Tom Abell’s batting slump

During 2017 Abell viewed any type of higher recognition as a distant second to justifying his place in Somerset’s team and he is now capable of viewing things a little more dispassionately than perhaps he could at the time.

“I guess luck does come into it,” he said. “I dropped myself and that’s something that had to happen. But circumstances dictated I got back in the side because Adam Hose left and vacated a spot at five. But things could have been very different and I look back with a bit of relief that I managed to come back. It was a pretty tough time and as a captain it was difficult to lead from the front when you weren’t worth your place in the side. But I have a great team around me and great team-mates who will always have my back.

“We know there are going to be times when things don’t go as smoothly as you would like. I spoke to Andy Hurry during that period and he said it was possibly the best thing that will ever happen to you in your career. It wasn’t nice but I’ve come out the other side.”

Abell’s emergence from what is becoming a distant gloom has been confirmed in several ways this summer. He has led Somerset to the Royal London One-Day Cup triumph and made a century in the Vitality Blast which revealed a far greater range of shot than he previously possessed. Above all, though, he is a shrewd captain and front-line batsman, who may, just may, lead them to the title So these are heady times as well as momentous ones and you might think it would be useful if Abell had the advice of someone like Rogers to call on. Funny you should ask…

“Buck was fantastic for us,” said Abell. “I had a really good relationship with him and certainly learned a lot from him in the year he was here. He helped me as a batter and I still have the few pages that he wrote and gave to me to help me out as a captain. And that was great because I don’t think you can fully prepare yourself for what to expect and you can’t ask for anything more than to have people like that in your corner. The notes are all about tactics, playing on spinning wickets, making sure you take care of your own game and getting the best out of the team. There were other things – in cricket and outside of cricket.”

Getting outside cricket may well be important in the next fortnight even if Somerset and Essex’s players have little opportunity to take in a film or play a little golf. It scarcely needs too much imagination to visualise what the County Ground will be like if the title comes to Somerset. Already officials are thinking of hiring Portakabins to accommodate the influx of written media keen to report on the shootout beloved of the tabloids. The usual press box is being used by Sky and the Thatcher’s Terrace will be the preserve of TMS. And all this for a game nobody watches…

“We’re trying to avoid thinking too far ahead,” Abell counselled, “We love it and we’re desperate to do something special. You do get a sense of the pride the people of Somerset take in their cricket and we felt that when we won the one-day cup earlier in the year. Taunton is a very special place and we have a special group of supporters. We’re also a tight group and we are desperate to win it for each other.”

It will also be fair to say that Somerset’s players are keen to win the title for Marcus Trescothick, who retires at the end of this season, and for Kerr, a quietly-spoken Boltonian who has made his life in the West Country and has spent most of his career at the County Ground. The coach, himself, of course, having enjoyed Abell’s agony, will share in his ecstasy if the title comes to the West Country for the first time.

“I’m a huge fan of Tom and he has my unconditional support,” he said. “I think he’s an outstanding cricketer and an outstanding leader. I think what we’ve seen emerge more this year is his deep-rooted belief in himself. The guys follow him and I think we’re going to see him go from strength to strength. He took responsibility on a really challenging surface in this game against Yorkshire and batted as if he’d been playing a lot longer than his years suggested. The signs are really good for him.”



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BCCI ACU launches inquiry into alleged approaches in TNPL 2019

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The BCCI’s anti-corruption unit (ACU) is conducting an inquiry into alleged approaches made to several players by suspicious people in the latest edition of the Tamil Nadu Premier League (TNPL), a T20 competition conducted by the Tamil Nadu Cricket Association (TNCA). The ACU launched an inquiry after the players reported the alleged approaches during the tournament.

According to Ajit Singh, head of the ACU, the approaches were reported by the players promptly during the fourth season of the league, played between July 19 and August 15 between eight teams. “It is an inquiry into who has made an approach,” Singh told ESPNcricinfo. “The players have told us we have received these messages, so it is not an inquiry against the player.”

It is understood that seven to eight players had reported approaches to the ACU.

When asked, Singh said he could not confirm or deny whether any of the players are, or have been, Indian internationals. Saying he did not have an exact number of players who had reported approaches, Singh did confirm that there were at least a handful. “There were messages who is going to bat first in the match, basically seeking (match related) information. We presume it’s coming from those who are interested in betting,” he elaborated.

Singh, a former Director General of Police in Rajasthan, also said that the ACU had received no information against any of the eight team owners, and the teams are not part of the inquiry as of now. As things stand, the ACU is trying to establish the source of the messages the players had received, which involves tracking telephone numbers.

That information can only be accessed by the police, but under the Indian Penal Code, match fixing is not yet a legal offence. Hence, Singh said, there was no deadline as such, but the ACU will look at all possible angles before wrapping up the inquiry.

Incidentally, this was the first time that the ACU provided cover for TNPL, having supervised the anti-corruption measures last year. In the first three seasons, the TNPL had on board Ravi Sawani, former ICC ACU general manager and BCCI ACU head, to look after the anti-corruption cell. This season, the TNPL had four ACU officers available throughout the tournament, with a few more investigators providing them support.

Singh explained that the ACU conducts a mandatory education programme before any tournament and this was followed at the TNPL this time. Players are expected to report any approach made within 24 hours to the ACU, and Singh said that the education programme had helped make players aware of the way corrupt elements seek match-related information, and how they use it. Also, the programmes have helped develop a rapport between players and ACU officers, who they can contact directly if required.

The TNPL was launched in 2016 by TNCA, the home base of former BCCI president and ICC chairman N Srinivasan. The tournament has been promoted by various high-profile present and former cricketers acting as brand ambassadors: MS Dhoni, Shane Watson, Matthew Hayden, Michael Hussey, Brett Lee, and Ambati Rayudu. The best cricketers from the region have also always been a part of the mix. This year, for example, Dinesh Karthik, R Ashwin, Vijay Shankar, M Vijay, Washington Sundar and Abhinav Mukund were all part of the action. Also, the TNPL has been telecast by Star India, the biggest broadcaster in cricket, which owns rights for ICC global tournaments as well Indian cricket rights and the IPL.



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A good team, not a great one yet – Langer

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Australia’s coach Justin Langer wore a rueful look on his face as his players lifted the urn at The Oval, having lost to England by some distance in the final Test and so failed to win the series. Having set out upon a gruelling twin tour of the UK for the World Cup and the Ashes, he witnessed a pair of strong and successful campaigns without either fully satisfying.

With the benefit of a few moments’ reflection, Langer reckoned that while there had been great improvement in the Australian team over his 16 months in charge so far, there would need to be a greater level of ruthlessness if they are to graduate from World Cup semi-finalists and Ashes retainers to consistent series and tournament winners.

“It’s something we’re getting better at, how we back up after a win,” Langer said in reference to how the Edgbaston and Old Trafford victories had been followed by a draw at Lord’s and defeat at The Oval. “That probably comes with the maturity of the group as well. It’s ok to fight back when you are underdogs and it’s one of those Australian things – we love the underdog tag. To fight back from a tough loss is admirable and I said how proud I was with everyone for that.

“But also over the last couple of years we haven’t necessarily performed at our best after a win. Really good teams do that. We didn’t do that too well after the first Test at Lord’s. We didn’t do it after this Test. There have been some Test series over the last couple of years where the team hasn’t been able to. I think that’ll be part of the maturity of our side. If you probably think about it, the way we were in this series, we aren’t a great team yet.

“We are a good team, we are a maturing team. We have got some great players in it. But we’re aspiring to be a great cricket team. You got to work hard and get consistent results to achieve that. That comes from experience and learning how to win. That comes with players individually getting more experienced and the team working together. Those sort of things evolve I think. I think back to the start of my career, in 1993, we had some senior players but we didn’t necessarily win all the time. And that we learnt to do through Steve Waugh’s era. We learnt to be ruthless but we also had seven or eight great players and a number of very good players and a couple of good ones like me. But that takes time to develop and evolve.”

Something that Langer will have to balance coming home from England will be how the Test team will have perhaps three spots settled in the batting line-up for the home summer, but also how to pick David Warner back up after he was thoroughly beaten by Stuart Broad across this series. Warner was not alone as a struggling left-hand batsman at the top of the order, but he is the one player in that group who possesses a career record suggesting that it was a temporary problem rather than a defining one.

“I think, talking frankly, he let Stuart Broad get into his head and he thought way too much about it,” Langer said. “I’ve seen it before, even with the great players, every now and then they have a series – and I’m talking about the all-time great players – they have a series where…I remember Gilly (Adam Gilchrist) with Andrew Flintoff, I remember seeing Steve Waugh sit on the team bus in South Africa and the guy had been a run machine for so long, he got out just before stumps and I, in a sick sort of way, thought it was the best thing I’d ever seen.

“I didn’t think great players had lean runs. I used to have lean runs all the time but even great players have lean runs and I’m sure David – we know he’s a very good player, there’s no question about that – but he had it tough, particularly against Stuart Broad. I used to have it against Murali (Muttiah Muralitharan) and I couldn’t solve the issue and it’s so hard when you try to problem solve and then you’re in the middle of a big series trying to solve the puzzle.

“In this instance I don’t think David solved the puzzle, and he’ll be first to admit that, he’ll probably be very relieved he gets on the Qantas flight in a day’s time and doesn’t have to face Stuart Broad for a while I reckon. But he is certainly, there’s plenty of upside still to his batting. I’ve learned over a long period you never write off champion players, it doesn’t matter what sport, you never write off champion players. They tend to come good, don’t they? So he’s had a tough series, no doubt about that, but he’s also a champion player so usually with champion players they get a bit more time to come good.”

Langer was gratified by the displays of Steven Smith, Marnus Labuschagne, Pat Cummins, Josh Hazlewood and Nathan Lyon, while also appreciating how Matthew Wade had battled his way through the trials of the series to notch a pair of book-ending centuries. “We cut to the chase, I thought our bowling throughout this series was absolutely world-class. I think we talked throughout about the maturity and healthy group of fast bowlers that we were able to have on the park,” he said. “The bowlers were brilliant. Nathan Lyon as well and the way they all stepped up at different times.

“But we didn’t bat well enough. I said this at the start of the series that the team that bats well will win the series. I said it consistently enough and we didn’t bat well enough. That’s the truth. I mean Steve Smith was obviously outstanding. What a pleasure to watch. He’s a brilliant young man but what a pleasure to watch him bat. I thought the development of Marnus was exciting. He worked so hard. He’s a bit in the Steve Smith mould of the players that you love to see do well. He worked so hard.

“The way Matthew Wade scored two centuries in this series, obviously including today. We talked about him knocking so hard to get an opportunity. He did that and then to back up with two Test centuries in an Ashes series showed great fight and great skill. I loved Matthew Wade’s footwork. But we certainly fell short in other areas and we need to work on that.”

In addition to ruthlessness, Langer had a simple goal based on what he had seen in England in 2019 – find a batting line-up that will better capitalise on the current riches in Australia’s bowling stocks. “With this exciting fast bowling group we’ve got, if we start batting well we’ll win a lot of games of cricket,” he said. “We go to Australia to play two pink ball Test matches, against two good sides in Pakistan and New Zealand, two day-night Test matches will be exciting.

“There’s a real challenge for young Australian batters, the ones who want to step up and score lots of runs and work hard on their footwork patterns and techniques and ability to score runs it’s a pretty exciting time. That’s a big challenge.”



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