Unfulfilled pre-season ambitions

This is a picture of the Principality Stadium in Cardiff, the rather impressive beast that I’ve spent much of this week in the shadow of courtesy of the Student Radio Conference. Unfortunately, this Welsh excursion didn’t bring me anywhere near to the SWALEC Stadium just a leisurely park stroll away (if I’m remembering the damp woes of my trip to Finals Day in 2012 correctly), and it also ruled out any trips to the wild delights of pre-season county friendlies.

It began on Sunday when, full of optimism and a yearning to actually write something here, I posted on my personal blog thing that I’d write something about cricket for every day of cricket I actually went to. Monday morning was supposed to bring the first day at Hove, with Sussex hosting Surrey for a two day friendly. It also brought a storm called Katie, a 14-hour powercut at home, and general frustration when I got half way to the train station before visiting the Sussex website to find out that play had been called off an hour before it was scheduled to begin. The rest of the day was rather lovely, it seemed, so I spent it inside.

Preparing to go to Wales, going to Wales, and being in Wales got in the way of the second day and the two-day friendly against Hampshire later in the week, where I’m told runs were scored and, eventually after a wicketless first game, batsmen were forcibly removed by bowlers. As it’s pre-season for another week and not even the counties seem to really care about what goes on, there’s no such thing as a scorecard or a scrappy highlights package designed, at best, for Windows 98 machines.

Next week, there may be a horribly early morning journey to Northampton to enjoy/endure the first moments of Sussex’s quest to be the one team to escape Division 2 of the newly-christened Specsavers County Championship. Even more likely is a day watching Hove’s UCCE friends from Leeds and Bradford bring a game of the first-class variety and Cricinfo live scoring to the land of dampened deckchairs.

At the moment the West Indies need another 27 to win in the last two overs, so I’m off to prematurely celebrate the magical powers of Joe Root finally getting recognition in a global tournament. More tomorrow, I promise.


Sublime Sangakkara squeezes Surrey to Lord’s final

Surrey 300/5 (Sangakkara 166, Wilson 48, Foakes 42, Mullaney 2/49, Ball 2/52) beat Nottinghamshire 296/7 (Smith 124, Christian 54, Patel 51, Mullaney 42*, SM Curran 2/54, Dernbach 2/60) by 4 runs

Kumar Sangakkara’s first century since retiring from international cricket at the age of 37 – and his second-highest score in a list A career spanning 511 matches – saw Surrey to a narrow victory over Nottinghamshire in the Royal London One Day Cup semi-final.

Sangakkara announced his arrival to the crease in style, uprooting the entire wicket at the non-strikers’ end in a superfluous and misaligned dive to register on the scoreboard. Before Surrey reached their first hundred in the twenty-fourth over with Rory Burns chipping over Steven Mullaney, Nottinghamshire had conceded only 6 boundaries and 2 extras. Nottinghamshire’s bowling and defensive field placement provided significant control but little threat, with singles into gaps – both in Read’s layout and past spectacular dives – a frequent sight.

After Surrey surpassed 100 in the 24th over, Sangakkara and Burns executed their strokes with a greater aggressive intent, including a pirouette hook from Burns and a violent straight shot from Sangakkara that narrowly avoided the head of bowler Jake Ball. Burns fell for 23 attempting to go to the point boundary and locating an outstretched Greg Smith who made a tough opportunity look straightforward.

Sangakkara struck the only six of the innings towards the groundsman’s alcove and his thirteen fours – of which only two came in his first 50 and seven in his last 66 – littered all corners of the ground and gave wicketkeeper and captain something to think about. In few situations could one imagine a backstop in professional cricket, yet Sangakkara’s panache for paddles, ramps, and sweeps behind square as he took 61 from 31 deliveries in the final Powerplay demanded one. Each was followed with a smile through gritted teeth as he took a knee to find more energy. This was the innings the Monday afternoon crowd craved.

Gary Wilson, the member of Surrey’s wicketkeeper quintet who was actually granted the gloves, played an admirable support role in a partnership that reached 100 in 86 balls. Though he began slowly with anxious wafts at Broad, he flourished in his role of largely maintaining Sangakkara’s strike. The onslaught finally concluded in the first ball of the final over, with Sangakkara finally misjudging a paddle against Jake Ball into the hands of the wicketless Stuart Broad. This followed a torrid final over from Harry Gurney which began with a no ball and ended with Sangakkara 19 runs better off. Fortunately for Nottinghamshire, Wilson couldn’t reach his 50, finding Riki Wessels with the last ball off the innings.

Sam Curran, the 17-year-old left-armer who managed to take the day off from school to take part, wasted no time in putting a chokehold on Nottinghamshire’s hopes. Following a relatively tidy opening over from Jade Dernbach that surrendered a solitary wide, Curran utilised steadily escalating pace to make Wessels play on second ball and trap Brendan Taylor lbw immediately after. The next over he was unlucky not to add Smith to his haul, as the ball flew narrowly out of reach of Steven Davies at mid-on. An incredible effort from Sam’s older brother Tom on the boundary edge prevented any damage being too severe. Moved to the slips, Davies had the Outlaws three down within less than an over with a sharp catch to dismiss Michael Lumb. At 16/3 after 21 balls and with Samit Patel receiving treatment for cramp minutes later, the road to Lord’s looked stormy.

The game was subjected to a lengthy delay in the twenty-first over as Smith, playing as a consequence of the participation of Alex Hales and James Taylor in England’s ODI squad, hit either two, four, or six. Having driven straight over Gareth Batty, an athletic attempt by Sangakkara to take the catch or at least save a boundary proved in vain, as he was ruled to have made contact with the rope before freeing the ball from his tumbling grasp.

Patel went on to escape narrowly twice in consecutive overs with a stumping appeal – referred to the third umpire to the chagrin of the crowd – and a one-handed catch from the pads by Gary Wilson both rejected. His resilience was eventually curtailed by Zafar Ansari as he gave Davies a second catch, this time at long on, two balls after reaching his fifty.

The partnership of 91 still left the Outlaws looking for almost 8 per over, though a platform of some sort allowed Dan Christian, who returned to the Nottinghamshire side after a season-ending injury to Imran Tahir, to assume the limelight as Smith quietly accumulated. A mammoth six that struck the upper tier of the pavilion chased Gareth Batty out of the attack as Surrey’s spin pair, while largely economical, hadn’t achieved the desired breakthroughs. The tandem of Currans were then granted five overs with a few looser deliveries tarnishing their figures.

Ansari and Dernbach returned, with the former producing some heavy movement and unlucky to allow Greg Smith into the 90s as he hit a one-bounce four to bisect the colliding Tom Curran and Aneesh Kapil at square leg. Later that over, Christian’s fifty came up with another wallop into a cluster of members in the sky, leaving 92 to win from the last Powerplay period and, like Surrey’s quarter-final against Kent two weeks prior, a match poised for Surrey’s early dominance to collapse into complacency.

Christian only lasted 6 more balls as a mistimed cut against Kapil went safely to Ansari, but Smith reached triple figures for the second time in his list A career later that over. It was an innings with little power – his stroke for the century itself was a lucky glance to fine leg and only his seventh boundary – but finely accumulated. Swift running had put Surrey in command, but swifter too were the Outlaws. When Mullaney ran the ball deftly to third man, they managed two. Both his and Smith’s bats were on the floor, and a Donald-esque run-out farce was only avoided through a Wilson tumble.

Five overs later, and the equation is the same. 9.6 per over to go to Lord’s. A hobbling Dernbach surrenders briefly to the Currans, before delivering his final two overs with a torn calf. Smith locates a chasm behind square on the leg side. After Tom put down a running catch off Sam’s bowling, Smith tried to play the ball by lying the bat on the ground. Soon after, backing up and not given the shot from Mullaney he was hoping for, the centurion is gone. Tom leans in to make sure he won’t fumble this opportunity.

If Sanga can do it, why not Steven Mullaney? With captain Read at the other end, the all-rounder and sometime opener brought out his own array of behind-square specialities. Stuart Broad paces around the Nottinghamshire balcony. Samit, in shorts, bounces alongside.

Read doesn’t last long, falling to his right to paddle a Dernbach delivery that finds leg stump. 19 from 12 becomes 14 from 6 with Dernbach’s limp and grin growing greater. A dodgy yorker from the elder Curran tucks Broad safely at the non-strikers’ end. Mullaney stands tall, except alongside Broad, and exceptionally casual. Doubles are scrambled. The behind-square chasm? Still there, but not enough. 5 from the last ball proves an ask too far, and the sun falls on a roaring Oval. With Gloucestershire in sight, Surrey’s road to Lord’s is complete.

Taylor ton sets up Nottinghamshire resilience

Day 1: Nottinghamshire 358/5 (J. Taylor 163*, Wessels 94, Read 54*, Robinson 4/81) vs. Sussex at Cricket Field Road, Horsham

How does 30/3 turn into a formidable score? For England, the question lingers, as a malfunctioning top order again failed to appear as the hosts crumbled to 103 all out in pursuit of 509 today at Lord’s. In Horsham, however, a similarly mediocre start turned into a golden position for Nottinghamshire thanks to an unbeaten 163 from James Taylor.

Taylor, who has long flirted with the fringes of the national side but remains a veteran of only two tests, could not have found a more timely century. Though not without its chances, which included a pair of LBW appeals that took him off his feet either side of reaching his first century of the summer, Sussex failed to control Taylor, who reached three figures from 190 balls and continued to push on, gaining in flair and carefully accelerating. The shot that brought up his 150 was a microcosm of the day’s luck, as a prod to mid-life for a single ended up rolling to the boundary for 5 and a chorus of applause from the Nottinghamshire squad, under the watchful eyes of England selector Mick Newell and exiled coach Peter Moores.

He found support in a pair of century stands with wicketkeepers, with Riki Wessels’ departure for a punchy 94 to be Ollie Robinson’s third victim soon bringing Chris Read to the crease. By this stage, Taylor found himself settled on 50, and this allowed Read to make a slow yet untroubled start. He eventually reached his 50 from 117 balls, adding just one more run before stumps. Though Ed Joyce let a tough opportunity off Read’s edge fall on 35, Sussex can take solace in their drastic improvement in fielding from a comedy of errors in Friday’s T20 loss to Hampshire.

The third option with the gloves, Taylor’s Zimbabwean namesake Brendan, was not so fortunate. As the visitors appeared lukewarm to the initial character of the pitch, he fell for 7 from 37 balls to provide an early reward to Matt Hobden, who went on to concede over 100 in his 17 overs. Before him, Alex Hales had become the first to fall off the bowling of Ollie Robinson, providing an edge to Chris Nash at second slip on 3.

Like Hales, Steven Mullaney played a strong hand on Nottinghamshire’s last trip to West Sussex, and for a few balls it looked as if his destructive mindset was the same. Ultimately his innings proved more concise, ending on 15 in the plentiful mitts of Luke Wells for Robinson’s second, but not before he all-out decapitated a rare empty seat with a swipe over the midwicket boundary. Hope later emerged out of the escalating scorecard for Sussex as Samit Patel succumbed to Robinson for 9 to chase Wessels back under the pagoda, followed by a tightening of the screw from Robinson and Magoffin, though Read, once under way, helped Taylor into a comfortable position at the close.

The home side, who were spun to an incredible victory against Warwickshire here last summer by Kentish loanee James Tredwell, found their ongoing spin conundrum remaining one of the many concerns. Wells, an opening batsman by trade whose dabbling in spin has recently begun to resemble treading water, was the first trusted with the ball – ending up with 21 overs under his belt, third only to Robinson and the typically miserly Magoffin – before trialist Peter Burgoyne, formerly of Derbyshire, was unleashed to bowl at 5.7 per over. Both finished wicketless at stumps.

Ashar Zaidi and Will Beer, the only specialist spinners in the contracted squad, observed from the boundary, doubtless pondering how else they can win the red-ball affections of Mark Robinson. Just two games ago Zaidi was one of four centurions at Edgbaston in a motorway duel, while Beer has been granted just 6 appearances in the Championship side since his debut in 2008, despite his white ball prowess. In a town he calls his home, at a ground where his mother acts as a purveyor of baked goodness, murmurings were rife that Sussex could do far worse than give him a chance.

NFL Kickoff 2014 – 5 things to watch

1. Rodgers resurgence?
Many people have tipped Rodgers for MVP honours this year, and now we get to see his first competitive outing behind a revamped offensive line. No one else has taken more sacks than Rodgers in the last three years, so the key to success in Green Bay is keeping him healthy and on his feet.

2. Eddie Lacy to pick up where he left off?
Last year’s offensive rookie of the year Eddie Lacy will be the man taking the handoffs for the Packers as he looks to build on an impressive rookie season. With both him and Rodgers stating healthy all season, the Pack will have a potent air and ground attack this year. Can he (quite literally) hit the ground running in Seattle?

3. Corey Linsley’s baptism of fire
Green bays fifth round pick, centre Corey Linsley has been handed the start by Packers head coach Mike McCarthy. Seattle has famously been a tough place to play offensive line, with the loudest fans in the NFL causing vast amounts of false starts over the years. Can the rookie cope with the pressure and keep Rodgers upright?

4. Can Seattle so it all again?
A big win here will certainly put them in contention. After last year’s Superbowl win, the Seahawks will hope to kick start there campaign with a convincing victory over Rodgers and Co.

5. How badly will the Seahawks miss Walter Thurmond?
Slot corner Thurmond left Seattle for the Giants via free agency this offseason. With Seattle boasting the leagues top secondary in Richard Sherman, Byron Maxwell, Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor, some may think that the loss of Thurmond will barely register. However, his ability in nickel packages will be missed by the Hawks.

All eyes are on Seattle, then. Whatever the result, it is sure to be an exciting start to the 2014 season.

Hall of Fame Game – 3 things to watch

The NFL is back. After months of waiting, the first game of the year is now upon us. This sunday, the New York Giants will take on the Buffalo Bills in Canton, Ohio for the first game of the 2014 season. Both teams had disappointing campaigns last year, and here are 5 things to watch as they look kickstart their season with a win.

1. Sammy Watkins

The Bills surprised many people when they traded up to own the 4th pick of the 2014 draft, and with that pick they chose Clemson receiver Sammy Watkins. Watkins impressed in OTA’s and training camp, and EJ Manuel will be happy to have a reliable target on the outside after Steve Johnson was traded to San Francisco. Watkins speed and athleticism will be on show for all this weekend.

2. The Bills without Kiko Alonso

Linebacker Alonso had an impressive rookie season in Buffalo, but tore his ACL at the beginning of July. After amassing 87 solo tackles, 72 assisted tackles, 4 interceptions and a forced fumble in 2013, his absence leaves a huge hole in Buffalo’s defence.

3. Giant’s O-Line

Eli Manning was sacked 39 times in 2013 behind a struggling offensive line. Also, guard Chris Snee decided to call it a career this offseason. Buffalo have a strong pass rush, so Manning will hope that his lineman can step up and offer him good protection so he can put the ball in the hands of rookie wideout Odell Beckham Jr. in his first game for the Giants.

Hales hundred gives Notts perfect start to title defence

Nottinghamshire 312/8 (Hales 116, Lumb 77, Beer 3-60) beat Sussex 282/8 (Piolet 63*, Joyce 59, Mullaney 4-33) by 29 runs

As the newly-restructured Royal London One Day Cup launched throughout the country this weekend, signifying the return of 50 over cricket to the county circuit, reigning limited overs champions Nottinghamshire took a convincing victory over Sussex to begin their title defence of sorts on another beautiful wicket at Cricketfield Road, Horsham.

After being put in by Ed Joyce, Nottinghamshire ticked along steadily with openers Alex Hales and Michael Lumb staying put for a century partnership that frustrated the home side, who had taken a rare victory over Warwickshire in the Championship on the same ground on Thursday. Unusually for the pair, known predominantly for their exploits in Twenty20, docility appeared the name of the game as both reached half centuries at strike rates of below 100 – Lumb off 58 and Hales off 73 – before Lumb played on a Will Beer delivery for 77 in the 29th over.

Then, the middle-order collapse began. Though Hales was dropped by Matt Machan on the boundary for 88, Beer (3-60) managed to bowl James Taylor before the batting powerplay was taken after 35 overs. Nottinghamshire didn’t utilise this particularly well, scoring just 27 for the loss of both Samit Patel and Riki Wessels. Hales too almost fell to Chris Liddle, who ended wicketless and 86 runs down the drain, but Matt Machan’s drop over the midwicket boundary spared him as he moved onto his century off 107 balls.

Hales finally departed for 116 to the bowling of Steffan Piolet, who finished with 2-35 from his allocation, but Steven Mullaney fired the team above the holy run a ball rate with 40 off 20, including 16 off 3 successive Lewis Hatchett deliveries. Hatchett followed up with a bouncer that visibly threw the batsman off track and he offered a simple catch to Craig Cachopa at backward point in the 48th over. Early thoughts were that 350 would be par upon the flat and dry Horsham wicket, and Mullaney’s blast lifted them from 235/6 after 42.1 to 312/8 at the conclusion.

Sussex started in encouraging fashion, with a partnership of 64 between skipper Joyce and Luke Wells, who departed for a pedestrian (though List A career best) 23 off 44 as Sussex not once overtook the Notts run rate. Lacking Luke Wright, who picked up a side strain during his record breaking 153* against Essex on Friday night, few Sussex batsmen went aggressively at the Nottinghamshire bowlers. One of the exceptions was Cachopa, making his List A debut for Sussex, who launched a free hit from fellow Kiwi James Franklin over the toilets at long on off his first ball before falling contentiously to a Chris Read catch on 22.

Fellow Sussex List A debutant Piolet was the top scorer with his maiden List A half century, finishing on an unbeaten 48-ball 63 that included 8 boundaries, but support was sparse as the required rate escalated. Joyce fell for 59 to reward James Taylor’s consistent athletic fielding performance and Machan for 43, with miserly Mullaney doing away with much of the middle order in a spell of 7-1-19-3. He later returned to do away with the struggling Ben Brown for 3 off 16 and finished with 4-33, securing the game for the Outlaws. Jake Ball picked up the wickets of Beer and Liddle at the death, completing a 29 run victory that perhaps reflected too kindly upon the hosts’ batting.

“As defending champions we wanted to stamp our authority on the tournament and we’ve certainly done that here,” said Hales at stumps. “It was a nice wicket to bat on. There was a little bit seam movement early on but, as it showed, if you got through that then you’ve got a good score on the board.”

Cook hits back

3rd Test Day 1: England 247-2 (Ballance 104*, Cook 95)

After struggling in recent matches and with many calling for him to step down as captain, Alastair Cook hit back in superb fashion, making 95 on the first day against India at the Ageas Bowl in Southampton. Cook won a toss that Dhoni looked happy to lose, and took the tough decision to bat on a good day and on a wicket he said would: ‘do a little bit (of swing) in the first hour like all test wickets’. So, he took the crease alongside fellow opener Sam Robson. Things started tentatively, with Cook edging the first ball just short of second slip. After playing some good shots to get him up to 15, he was dropped by Jadeja at third slip, which looked like a straightforward catch knee height to his left, a lucky break for Cook. Robson on the other hand was playing some great strokes through the off side on the front foot, bringing up their first 50 partnership as an opening pair.

Cook surpassed his best score of the summer, cutting a ball for 4 to make 29. He also overtook Kevin Pietersen and David Gower to become England’s 3rd highest test run-scorer of all time earlier in the innings. Robson however fell victim to Shami after he edged the seamer to Jadeja at 3rd slip, leaving Cook to bat with Gary Ballance. The Essex man looked like a different batsmen to the one that he was in previous matches this summer, batting with patience and poise and making 50 for the first time since Melbourne last year. He looked to be finding his rhythm as a batsman again, placing his shots well. Ballance too was playing very well indeed, ending the day on 104*. Together they gave England momentum to build on, and seemed to feed off that momentum themselves as they progressed to a 100 partnership off 198 balls. He reached 82 at tea, and picked up where he left off after the interval with a fantastic pull shot for four on the on side. However his innings ended in agony after he was caught behind by Dhoni after trying to flick Jadeja’s ball off his pads.

This innings marks a turning point in Cook’ summer, and hopefully a turning point in England’s series. All England’s supporters will certainly hope so.