Next into bat in my mini-series of sports journalists’ forecasts for 2012 is cricket writer BRUCE TALBOT. The Cricketer magazine contributor told me he remains unconvinced on the ICC’s ability to stamp out spot fixing, says England will beat South Africa this summer – and tips a youngster with a strong cricket pedigree for an international future…
The issue of spot-fixing was brought sharply into focus again this week with the guilty plea of former Essex bowler Mervyn Westfield. Just a few months after Pakistan’s Salman Butt, Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Amir were jailed for their roles in deliberately bowling no-balls to order, Westfield was told he too faces imprisonment after admitting a corruption charge at the Old Bailey linked to his bowling in a Pro40 match against Durham in September 2009.
The court heard the 23-year-old had agreed to bowl the first over so that he could deliberately concede 12 runs (in the event, Durham only scored 10). Essex police and the cricket authorities were falling over themselves to welcome Westfield’s admission of guilt – and yet, with the judge in the case warning a well-known cricket figure was also involved, everyone in the game, from the International Cricket Council (ICC) downwards, may be forced to go through a painful exorcism of cricket’s demons.
Talbot reckons the suits in Dubai will have to show strength of character to guarantee the sport’s credibility. He told me: “The ICC must take more of a lead on the whole match-fixing business. At times of crisis in the game, the lack of coherent leadership at the top of the sport must baffle the average cricket fan.
“I hope the punishments meted out to the three Pakistani fixers will act as a deterrent but I’m not convinced. There is just too much money swilling around the game, particularly in its huge betting markets on the sub-continent.”
Money, and the poor distribution of it within cricket, has raised another unpalatable scenario – the gradual decline in popularity of five-day test matches. With fewer matches in some series (there will be just three between England and South Africa, the world’s two best teams, this summer) and more and more limited overs cricket being played to enable host stadia to pay the bills, there is a fear 2012 could see test cricket further undermined. England spinner Graeme Swann came up with the suggestion of wiping out 50-over cricket completely, and retaining only the most demanding form – test cricket – and the most financially-rewarding, Twenty20.
Talbot admitted test cricket needed a shot in the arm, but said losing one-dayers was unlikely: “Apart from England, and to a certain extent Australia, test match cricket has been poorly supported for years. I can see a scenario when there are more t20 internationals and fewer ODIs but I would be amazed if one-day internationals finished altogether.”
One thing guaranteed to keep the turnstiles ticking over is a close series between two sides at the top of their game, and England versus South Africa is likely to be even more eagerly anticipated than last winter’s Ashes. Talbot believes the Proteas will provide England with a tougher examination than the Aussies or India, but told me Andrew Strauss’s side can edge it. He said: “I think it’s going to be a fantastic series, it’s a real shame that it is only three matches. South Africa’s seam attack is outstanding but they still lack a quality spinner and I think England have the better top six and wicketkeeper so I expect them to win the series.”
With England at number one in the test world rankings, and holders of the t20 World Cup, coach Andy Flower has set his side the challenge of transforming their 50-over performances, which are by and large lifeless in the middle overs. But Talbot believes the formula for improvement is simple – emulate the methods credited with improving the test team. He said: “[There needs to be] a more coherent selection policy, allowing players new to the international format more games to get used to the environment.”
On the domestic circuit, Talbot ruled out Lancashire for the County Championship but predicted three of the regular challengers would again be slugging it out at the top of division one – and the one-day trophies were anyone’s for the taking. He said: “I think all three competitions are wide open again, which is great for the domestic game. Who would have predicted for instance that Leicestershire would be t20 champions in 2011? The usual suspects will challenge for the Championship – Durham, Somerset and Warwickshire but I cannot see Lancashire repeating their title triumph.”
Talbot is the Sussex correspondent for The Cricketer and says his county’s best chance of silverware will again come in the shorter formats. He added: “They were the only county to reach the knockout stages of both [limited over competititons] last year but then performed poorly under pressure.”
He has also tipped Sussex batsman Luke Wells, son of the county’s former captain and England one-cap wonder Alan, for a big future. The Eastbourne-born left-hander made his first-class debut at the end of the 2010 season – since then he has played 15 matches for the county and is just a big knock away from 1,000 runs. Wells was rewarded with a three-year deal and Talbot believes he could be on the verge of international selection by the end of 2012.
“He is extremely talented, has a great temperament and simply loves batting. He’s only 21 and I’m sure he will play for England one day. He needs to get into Sussex’s one-day team this year though.”
Bruce Talbot covered Sussex cricket for The Argus newspaper from 1994 to 2011 and writes on the county for The Cricketer magazine. He is also the co-author of several books, including two on Sussex – ‘The Longest Journey’, an account of the county’s historic 2003 Championship triumph, and ‘The Golden Age’. He now works for Crawley Town Football Club as their full-time media manager.
The Crystal Ball continues next week when the BBC’s Nick Parrott will preview a Formula 1 season set to feature six world champions.