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May 25, 2006
Geraint Jones is one of England's more emotional cricketers. In a recent interview in The Wisden Cricketer, he admitted he had wanted to cry himself to sleep after his blunders in the Ashes last summer, and last week, as the nation worked itself up into a lather about that spate of dropped catches at Lord's, he was at it once again, demanding that England "stick two fingers" up at their critics with an improved performance at Edgbaston.
Well, one day in and England can be justifiably proud of their response to the bickering, as they dominated Sri Lanka from the first over of the day and manoeuvred themselves into a position from which to force victory, even in spite of the rain that is forecast over the weekend.
But did they "stick two fingers up" in the process? Hardly. This was more of a stick-your-tongue-out performance. England were good but far from ruthless, and Sri Lanka were left down, but not entirely out. It's becoming the theme of the series, which is a worry for England, seeing as it was this sort of effortless dominance that came back to haunt them on the final two days at Lord's.
Comparisons are odious but instructive. The manner in which England crushed Bangladesh in consecutive Tests 12 months ago was so far removed from the team's current attitude as to belong in an entirely different dimension. Back then, Michael Vaughan was so hacked off with England's use of the new ball on the very first morning of the series that he was still chuntering about it a fortnight later, despite having wrapped up a 2-0 win inside six days.
To be fair, Vaughan would had have no complaints about today's new-ball display, as Matthew Hoggard and Liam Plunkett used the conditions superbly to tear through Sri Lanka's resistance. But what of the peripheral issues? England's performance was vastly improved from their Lord's nadir, with Paul Collingwood back on song and Marcus Trescothick once again demonstrating his hands are among the safest in the game. But as the saying goes: "You're only as good as your weakest link". Which brings us to Monty Panesar.
Monty is turning into an enigma without equal. So cool, calm and collected with a ball in his hand; such a bag of gibbering nerves whenever it comes near him in the field. His late wicket in Sri Lanka's innings was evidence that he possesses an enviable ability to compartmentalise his woes, but his performance today confirmed him as perhaps the worst fielder ever to represent England in the professional era.
Only Devon Malcolm and Phil Tufnell come close, and each had an alibi or a redeeming feature, or both. Malcolm was desperately short-sighted but possessed an arm like a sling-shot - witness the missile from third man that ran out Gordon Greenidge at Sabina Park 1989-90. And Tufnell, on the other hand, was simply bone idle.
Monty, bless him, works so hard at his game and yet consistently falls short of the mark. Aside from that awful miss at mid-off, he dived straight over a chance at leg-slip, and managed to miss with a sliding stop at mid-on as well. Yes it is cruel to count up the errors, but at Test level you have to be cruel to be kind, and on this evidence he is simply too much of a liability.
When asked about England's fielding at Lord's, Flintoff joked: "Whatever it is, I hope it's not catching." It was a light-hearted moment, and yet it was probably unnervingly accurate. The good humour that greets Panesar's persistent errors cannot help but permeate the rest of the team. The little things just don't seem to matter at present, because Sri Lanka are not strong enough to punish them properly.
It's at moments like this that the value of Ashley Giles is most recognised. Arguably, he is the strongest weakest link in world cricket - a man so uncertain of his importance to the side that he forced himself to become a valuable source of tailend 20s, and perhaps more pertinently, a genuinely world-class gully fielder. That he won an Ashes-special version of the quiz show "The Weakest Link" is a joke that on reflection, is no joke at all.
Panesar, by contrast, drifts along in his own little world. It is wonderful that his bowling remains unaffected by the desperate nature of his fielding, but it's also a little alarming. Stiffer challenges than Sri Lanka await, and when they arrive - starting with Pakistan in July - it won't be enough to tweak out a tailender to make amends for earlier errors.
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