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October 26, 2008
If, as many people suspect, Allen Stanford's intention is to crack the US market in the course of this Antiguan expedition, then the quality and drama of the opening two fixtures of his Super Series does not augur well for his prospects for New World domination.
It hardly seemed possible to put together a less enthralling contest than the one that the Superstars and Trinidad produced on Saturday evening, and yet England and Middlesex managed just that in a turgid affair that masqueraded as a close finish only because of the inability of either side to score at more than a run a ball. Stanford's visions of soaring sixes and transfixed audiences were replaced instead by the sight of Neil Carter swinging with ugly optimism like a second-rate baseball slugger, as he pinch-hit his way to a self-defeating 11 from 27 balls.
This match followed an identical pattern to the opening fixture. The favourites batted first, and produced a substandard effort on a track that favoured spin bowling. The underdogs kept pace for a while, threatening to cause an upset only for the gulf in class to yawn between them in the final analysis. "We did our best, against the best bowlers in the country," Middlesex's captain, Shaun Udal, said. "I'm happy really."
There has been a grim fascination to these matches, but it's not been Twenty20 cricket as the world knows and loves it. Low-scoring games are not uncommon in this format - some of the finest matches so far have been double-digit affairs - but at least when sixes refuse to fly, stumps tend to go cartwheeling instead. But, so far in the Super Series there have been 21 wickets out of a possible 40, and only two sixes in each of the last three innings. That adds up to an awful lot of inactivity for a supposedly hyperactive brand.
Kevin Pietersen has never been fond of slow, low wickets, and his 10-ball 5 ended with a predictable stumping as he attempted to force the pace. "It's a bit of a shame really," he said. "Given the spectacle that's going to be, you'd expect us to have scores of 160 to 200, but it's the same for both teams, and the best team is going to win on the day. That's what we've got, so that's what we've got to try and practice with."
Pietersen was quick to add that he believed that, given the sums of money riding on the match, nothing would detract from next Saturday's spectacle. But it's clear that after just two days of competition, England are already accepting that their pre-conceived notions might have to be trashed if they are to fly back home with Stanford's loot on Sunday evening. The knots into which they were tied by Murali Kartik and Udal, coupled with the success of the Superstars spinners on Saturday night, means that Graeme Swann is one step closer to his dream of a pink Ferrari, as he prepares to join Samit Patel in a twin-spin attack.
|It's a bit of a shame really. Given the spectacle that's going to be, you'd expect us to have scores of 160 to 200, but it's the same for both teams, and the best team is going to win on the day - Kevin Pietersen on the slow nature of the Stanford wicket|
"It's definitely an option," said Pietersen, who underlined the likelihood by bringing himself into the attack for a full four-over stint. "I'm not good enough to bowl as a second spinner, but it's something we'll think long and hard about. It's not something we were thinking about at the start of the tournament, but we didn't think we'd have conditions like this."
All of a sudden it's hard to envisage quite how England's bowlers will line up for Saturday's big match. Andrew Flintoff was the trump card this evening, bowling so full and fast at the death that Middlesex could do little more than dig out his yorkers, but Stuart Broad and Ryan Sidebottom - on his return to England colours - were the two most economical men in the attack. With Steve Harmison unlikely to miss out if he is fit enough to take part, it could be that James Anderson will once again be England's fall guy, if space has to be found for the second spinner.
"It's going to be difficult but we've come here as a squad," Pietersen said. "If we win the squad benefits, if we lose no-one benefits. At the end of the day we're here as a team to play for England, to play for the badge and show the pride and passion that I always talk of. If [players] miss out, they miss out. It's for the good of the team, to pick the best team we can possibly pick."
England might also be mindful of picking the very best fielders they can muster, because there has, of course, been another comical factor to the contests so far - the standard of the catching, which has been woeful from all four teams on display. If the Superstars' Kieron Pollard took the biscuit in yesterday's match, with his facile drop at midwicket, then today he was superseded by two spectacularly poor attempts - Kartik's clanger at slip, and Andrew Strauss' blunder for the ages at short midwicket.
"It was one of Auntie's Bloomers for history," Strauss' captain, Udal, said after a miss that has scarcely ever been rivalled in the history of televised cricket. Mike Gatting's reprieve of Kiran More on England's 1992-93 tour of India is one such howler that merits comparison, as does Eric Upashantha's spill in the gully on Sri Lanka's tour of England in 2002. But Udal did at least come up with a plausible explanation for the rash of chances that have gone begging in the last two days.
"The lights here are pretty low, due to the airport being next door," Udal said, "so as soon as it goes above the line of the lights, it fades into oblivion, and it's like looking at little stars. If something comes down at you, you have to try and make a move, and Strauss's went straight into the middle of the lights and he lost it, [or so] he said." Both teams could be seen out in the middle for 20 minutes after the game, circling underneath skiers and practicing for the ball that might, in a matter of days, have US$20 million riding on it.