ON TOUR WITH ENGLAND LIONS
THE England Lions tour of New Zealand in March produced controversy over Samit Patel — more a lingering worry — and did not garner the results that would have been expected, but the environment and matches provided valuable experience for all, despite cruelly limited opportunities for individuals to impress.
Unlike many tours in the past, no one could be said to have ruled himself out of future consideration, but only a handful of players really gave their careers a boost. In my view Mark Davies, of Durham, was the only bowler to excel — he really caught the eye, which would be no surprise to county members noting his ability in championship cricket.
The batting quality was quite high. Rob Key, the captain, and Steve Moore, the most prolific championship run-maker of 2008, did just enough, but the best on view proved to be Jonathan Trott and the all-rounders Luke Wright and Samit Patel. Another to take a step forward was Ben Scott, noticeably sound behind the stumps and maintaining his Middlesex improvement with the bat. Lack of experience weighed against the two junior tourists Eoin Morgan and Joe Denly.
Perhaps the most notable events of the trip happened off the field. Ravi Bopara and Amjad Khan were both promoted to the senior Test squad in the Caribbean on arrival in New Zealand, and Samit Patel was deselected from the one-day series on fitness grounds and had to stay behind. Bopara made a century in Barbados on his Test debut.
Patel did very well in New Zealand with an assertive century at Queenstown and 64 at Lincoln, though he bowled only a handful of overs of left-arm spin. He finished the tour with 64 in 36 balls in a crushing Twenty20 reverse at New Plymouth. The ECB acknowledged that the Nottinghamshire man had the required ability to play at the higher level, but they declined to make an exception to their fitness markings, a decision not without controversy.
Patel, naturally upset, said he was surprised at failing to reach the standard. He remained diplomatic in his comments, though his talk of returning as a “better person” sounded odd to me. The ECB were forcing everyone to conform, and it raised the question of degree. The management deserve support and credit for trying to raise performance levels, but surely they must avoid converting players to automatons.
The automaton topic had already arisen tellingly in New Zealand with the emergence of Jesse Ryder, a burly left-hander with fantastic talent. Ryder would not fit the ECB ideal. He looks bulky, and his attempts to have a normal pub social life in an abnormal life as a full-time cricketer have led to clashes with his New Zealand Cricket bosses. Shades of Andrew Flintoff here.
But Ryder, not dissimilar to Marcus Trescothick in batting style, has become absolutely crucial to Black Cap fortunes. While the Lions were touring the country he powered a majestic rampaging one-day ton against India at Auckland and followed it up with a back-to-the-wall Test century in the first innings at Hamilton, which avoided humiliation if not defeat. Then this week he smashed a double-hundred in the Test at Napier. Yet England would contemplate deselecting a man like this if they saw a set of figures that don’t fit the norm.
The Lions trip offered only two first class matches, two one-dayers and a Twenty20 for anyone to make a point. Trott, of Warwickshire, excelled at No 3. He grafted to 138 not out under The Remarkables mountain range at Queenstown, finishing the tour’s top run-maker with 271 in four innings and appending one-day scores of 94 and 48. And his medium-paced seamers looked more than useful.
Trott was still remembered with affection in New Zealand after a very successful season with Otago three years ago, and he met one of his old team-mates Chris Gaffaney in the Lions’ first warm-up match at Christchurch. “He wandered into our dressing room carrying a box of balls and I wondered what on earth he was doing,” said Trott before realising quickly that ‘Gaff’ had become a youthful umpire, fast-tracked by New Zealand Cricket.
It is encouraging for Sussex that Luke Wright sustained crisp, mature strokeplay for 55, 69 and 105 in his three Test innings before returning home to rest a sore ankle. It was just a pity that his nippy seam-bowling was not luckier and more penetrative. The ECB bowling coach Kevin Shine has been working, in co-operation with the Sussex coach Mark Robinson, to conjure up more outswerve. The Dukes ball on the county circuit should provide proof of any pudding this summer.
Morgan and Denly — two outstanding prospects — played one Test each. Morgan hit the ball very sweetly in two warm-up games, but he threw away his wicket twice, a mistake Moore did not make. It did not matter in the match context, but Morgan could have nailed down a place in both Tests against New Zealand A at Queenstown and Lincoln University, near Christchurch. The Irish left-hander had only one first class innings on the tour, which happened to be an uneventful score of 18. He made a typically livewire 74 off 60 balls in the first one-dayer at Palmerston North — much more his scene before joining Ireland for the World Cup qualifying tournament in Johannesburg.
Denly was unlucky to damage a finger and miss a warm-up game so that he could not force his way into the first Test. Not everybody could play, and he became the easiest option to drop. In the second Test he tried to play shots too early on an awkward pitch, and the first half of his tour disappeared. His nice clean 68 off 78 balls in the second one-dayer revived his credibility no end.
The Lions were robbed of a Test series win when they were held to a draw at Lincoln, shocked an extraordinary undefeated hundred by a local ‘unknown’ Iain Robertson, batting at No 8 as a last-day replacement for the promoted Ewen Thompson. But, without Davies and Wright, the Lions were thrashed in the two one-dayers at Palmerston North and in the Twenty20 by New Zealand A sides containing hardened mature players.
The pitches proved reasonably responsive to seam-bowling while lacking ‘carry’ and only Davies — and Arnel for New Zealand — seemed able to turn this to an advantage. Robbie Joseph had a reasonable game in his one Test, at Queenstown, and was taken to the cleaners along with his colleagues in the one-day matches by assertive hundreds from Peter Ingram and Jamie Marshall, twin brother of the Gloucestershire batsman Hamish.
The arrival of Graham Napier for the one-dayers did strengthen the Lions, and he enhanced his own prospects with 77 off 41 balls in the first game. At the age of 29, the all-rounder would probably do well for England if selected. As Sussex know all too well from their Twenty20 encounter at Chelmsford last year, anyone who can score 152 not out in 55 balls must have some sort of ability.
If Napier has a good England chance in the one-day format, so must Morgan. The Dubliner faces an important year after the Lions tour, starting with Ireland’s World Cup qualifier. As a very strong fielder, he seems up to the mark for England at 50 overs or 20 overs. So his Middlesex season becomes expecially important.
Morgan, 22, gained from his experience in New Zealand. “I got an impression of the way things are in regard to playing against a Test-playing nation by testing myself against their second XI,” he said. “It gave me a good indicator as to where I am at the moment and where I need to improve, and how to go about it.”
“I’ve made a lot of good friends on the toure and gained good experience with the guys I’ve played with, such as Rob Key and Stephen Moore. The memories are certainhly ones I will cherish and hopefully gain from it in the future.”
The tour was not as tough physically for Morgan as might be expected. “It wasn’t that arduous really because I am quite used to being away for a long time with Ireland. I enjoy getting away and seeing other countries. The Lions tour — any England tour — was something I looked forward to when I was growing up as a child, with the dream of following the paths of guys like Thorpe and Stewart.
“I think I have come a long way in the last year or so in county cricket and obviously being recognised to come on the Lions tour. I played an England A game last year, so I certainly think I’m going in the right direction.
“At Middlesex I can hopefully see us progressing in the Division Two championship. The unknown we have at the moment is a young batting line-up, which is strengthened by Phil Hughes as our overseas batsman from Australia. We
have plenty of talent, and hopefully it will bring a lot of success.”
Queenstown, March 1-4
England Lions 493-5 dec (J Trott 138 not out, S Patel 101, R Key 89, L Wright 55, S Moore 43) & 158-1 (R Key 66 not out, J Trott 75 not out).
New Zealand A 430 (J How 190 not out, J Franklin 92, P Ingram 73; M Davies 29-13-54-4)
Christchurch March 7-10
England Lions 346 (L Wright 69, S Patel 64, G Batty 64; E Thompson 4-98) & 353-9 dec (L Wright 105, J Trott 51, B Scott 47, S Moore 41, R Key 38; J Franklin 3-56)
New Zealand A 243 (Young 71, Thompson 60; Davies 4-47, Batty 3-51) & 393-9 (I Robertson 107*, A Redmond 55, K Williamson 48, D Flynn 45, P Fulton 45; S Mahmood 3-118)
Palmerston North, March 14:
New Zealand A 373-6 (50 overs; P Ingram 135, S Stewart 59, N McCullum 50*; G Napier 3-74)
England Lions 335 (48.1 overs; J Trott 94, G Napier 77, O Morgan 74, R Key 44)
England Lions lost by 35 runs
Palmerston North, March 16
England Lions 284-9 (50 overs; J Denly 68, J Trott 48, B Scott 31)
New Zealand A 285-4 (46.1 overs; J Marshall 125* G Hopkins 66; L Plunkett 2-33)
England Lions lost by six wickets
New Plymouth, March 19
New Zealand A 227-6 (20 overs; S Stewart 88, G Hopkins 41)
England Lions 143 (16.4 overs; S Patel 64)
Lions lost by 83 runs