Archive for the ‘Ashes’ Category

The finished article

Friday, December 3rd, 2010

God knows Jimmy Anderson has known pain at Adelaide.

Four years ago, he was pasted all round the ground.

Since then he earned the reputation of someone who either bowled like Jesus or who sent down the rankest kind of ungodly, wayward filth imaginable. For the England fan, trying to predict which Jimmy would turn up on any given day proved a short-cut to distraction.

The talk before this series was that he would be cannon fodder on decks conducive to batting.

Today, he not only earned himself some karmic compensation for Brisbane, but he also proved that the callow youth, the unfinished, undisciplined article – whose only wicket here in ‘06 was Glenn McGrath’s and who took only five wickets in the entire series at 82.60 – has been banished forever.

It was a fair assumption to make (and one based on bitter experience) that the team batting first would put big runs on the board. No one could possibly have imagined that by the end of the first day, Australia would be blown away for 245, with Anderson the man who not only lit the fuse in his explosive first two overs, but who would lead the other England bowlers in a merry war dance around the burning wreckage.

It was a team effort, this; Broad, Swann and Finn chipping in and backed up by superb ground fielding, and Jonathan Trott setting the tone early on with his dead-eyed throwing down of the stumps to run out Simon Katich off only the fourth ball of the day.

But it was Anderson who was the day’s undisputed star. David Saker, England’s bowling coach, has impressed upon his charges the importance of line and length when conditions are unhelpful. Aim for the stumps. Bowl full. Execute the basics. Give the bastards nothing. Anderson showed today that in this he has been a willing and attentive pupil.

Katich dispatched back to the pavilion, Ricky Ponting came to the crease on the back of a fluent 51 in the 4th innings at Brisbane. He lasted only one ball, playing forward to a beauty of an outswinging delivery that found the edge and ended up in the hands of a jubilant Graeme Swann at second slip.

Michael Clarke was Anderson’s second victim, gone for only 2 to a ball that straightened and came back in. Struggling with woeful form and a back injury, he averages 17.81 in 17 innings at number four, and he must surely now come under extreme scrutiny. Hilditch and co. could do worse than picking someone like David Hussey as a replacement while Clarke takes time out of the international game to get himself right.

Australia failed today because they came up against a bowler who is not only nigh-on unplayable when the ball is swinging, but who is now pretty damned good at the basic stuff as well. The batting was a tale of individual failures, and starts squandered and thrown away. Only Mike Hussey and Brad Haddin succeeded in keeping the wreckage afloat long enough to avoid complete capitulation.

England’s batsmen must now repay the efforts of their bowlers and set the kind of total they must have dreaded from their opponents when Andrew Strauss lost the toss.

Day 2 will be the big push. It will be the day that could determine this series. This will remain a good batting wicket, but they will be facing a fired up Doug Bollinger and Ryan Harris, who, though bowling with a chronic knee injury, sent the last ball of the day down at 94mph.

If this series has so far taught us anything, it is that deviations from the expected order of things can and will occur. England have the upper hand, but only graft and application will put this game beyond Australia’s reach.

Adelaide preview

Thursday, December 2nd, 2010

Win the toss and bat. And bat some more. Bat as though your life depends on it. And for fuck’s sake, don’t declare.

So the wicket looks a bit green, more grass coverage than something you’d normally expect to be the colour of a Rich Tea biscuit. Might offer a bit for the seamers, you might think.

Never mind that. You win the toss, you bat.

With England’s doughty draw at Brisbane, fears of a repeat of the 5-0 drubbing that England suffered in the Series That Never Happened (amnesia pills, one per day) were laid to rest.

They can now do the same in Adelaide, exorcising the ghosts of a match they should have won but pissed up the wall instead, collapsing like a row of cheap tents in their second innings to a swan-song performance by SK Warne, aided and abetted by McGrath, Lee and Stuart Clark.

All this after 551-6 declared. In all the annals of cricket history it truly was one of the great “what the fuck happened there?” Test matches.

As expected, Australia have dropped Mitchell Johnson. Cricket Australia have long persevered with Johnson, because he as likely to be as devastating in bursts as he is dross for the rest of the time. With him, there is no in-between, which is what makes him dangerous.

England fans might bemoan the omission of a bowler who went wicketless in Brisbane (the first time in his 39 Test career in which he failed to take a wicket in both innings) but his record at Adelaide is not terrible, including a 5 wicket haul against the West Indies last year.

Ricky Ponting has indicated he is unhappy about Johnson’s dropping, which suggests that new selector Greg Chappell may have decided that the Johnson Experiment is better continued in the slightly less seething cauldron of Shield cricket, where he will be expected to prove he can fight his way back into the Test team.

Fake-follicled, hard-charging stalwart Doug Bollinger is likely to replace Johnson. Ryan Harris could come in for Ben Hilfenhaus, dependent on the latter’s hamstring niggle.

Harris – fast, skiddy, built like a brick shithouse – could find success with his low-slung deliveries on a pitch that will punish anyone who bangs it in short.

It is for this reason that England may consider playing Ajmal Shahzad, though that would admittedly be unfair on Steven Finn, who bagged 6 wickets at Brisbane. England management may feel, however, that over-bowling him after a tough Day 3 at the Gabba is a risk they are not willing to take, and they may decide to rest him.

England’s three Brisbane centurions will be expected to continue where they left off, and Kevin Pietersen will be expected to make the most of the batsman-friendly conditions.

As Andrew Strauss has reminded us, the series still stands at 0-0.

And it all starts again at Adelaide.

Cook and Trott carry England to safety

Monday, November 29th, 2010

One by one, the records fell.

By the time Andrew Strauss called Alastair Cook and Jonathan Trott in – yes, that would be the same two who started the day with their team only 88 runs ahead – England had not just sacked Fortress Gabba, they had taken up residence and were throwing a party complete with hookers, coke and midgets.

In a veritable orgy of statsporn, England’s second innings total of 517-1 declared, with Cook on 235 and Trott on 135, encompassed the following milestones:

  • This is only the 6th time a team has passed 500 without losing more than one wicket. It is also England’s highest total for one wicket down.
  • Alastair Cook’s 235 not out is the highest Test innings at the Gabba, surpassing Don Bradman’s 226 against South Africa in 1931.
  • Cook’s 329-run stand with Trott is the highest by an England pair in Australia, and, perhaps most satisfyingly, is the highest partnership ever at the Gabba, usurping Michael Hussey and Brad Haddin’s 307-run stand in the same match.

Who could ever have predicted all this when Andrew Strauss directed only the third ball he faced straight into the hands of Mike Hussey at gully on Day 1?

It’s been a strange match, a roller coaster of a match; a match where if you were an England fan you girded your loins and prayed that England would escape the Gabba with at least their dignity intact.

They have done more than this, much more. Aside from the bare facts of the draw, and the graphs and charts and numbers that flashed up on the screen with almost dizzying regularity during Cook and Trott’s marathon stand, the psychological advantage England now has heading into the 2nd Test is perhaps the most important accoutrement they will take with them on the plane to Adelaide.

Alastair Cook’s celebration on reaching his double ton was an unalloyed joy to watch. I am holding my hand up here to admit he has never been my favourite player; the flaws in his technique, big runs scored against small opposition, his early anointing as future captain by the England management for no immediately obvious reason, are the reasons why I’ve never really warmed to him as a batsman.

He will never be the prettiest of stroke-players, but the fact this knock was so important within the context of the match – salvaging a draw that had looked extremely unlikely after England’s paltry first innings total of 260 – must be recognised for the gutsiness and downright balls it took to compile.

Jonathan Trott continues to be England’s anchor. He now has over 1000 Test runs in 2010, and with his average now at 59.95, is England’s most successful number 3 for 50 years. There has been talk of Ian Bell perhaps being promoted up the order in the future, but Trott has made this position his own and I cannot think of anyone else I’d rather see walking out to the middle when the first wicket goes down.

Australia, if not quite up the proverbial creek, needs to carve itself a paddle and quickly.

Doug Bollinger and a fit-again Ryan Harris have been added to the squad for the 2nd Test after Mitchell Johnson showed his absolute loss of form and confidence with a performance that was nothing short of abysmal. If his Test match could be encapsulated in a single ball, it would be the one he bowled round the wicket to Jonathan Trott and that disappeared down the leg-side for 4 wides.

Steve Harmison would have been able to sympathise.

The Australian selectors, however, may be of another mind entirely.

Base camp reached but clouds still obscure the summit

Sunday, November 28th, 2010

When Andrew Strauss and Alastair Cook walked out to open England’s second innings, the task in front of them seemed almost insurmountable.

The mountain they had to climb was one that had been raised up on the back of a six wicket haul for Peter Siddle, and whose peak was lost in the clouds of newspaper headlines praising Michael Hussey’s return from purgatory and his epic stand with Brad Haddin.

As with those two icons of English pluck (and ultimately tragedy) Mallory and Irving, we do not yet know whether Strauss and Cook did enough to lay the foundations of success in avoiding defeat. But by the time Cook and Trott walked back to the pavilion, play suspended for the day due to bad light, England had reached parity and batted themselves into credit for the loss of only their captain.

And a captain’s innings it was, too. That England will start the last day of this Gabba Test on 309-1, 88 runs ahead, is due in large part to the perfect instance of a skipper leading by example. Anything wide of off-stump was cut away; charges down the wicket ceased to become a novelty from this normally staid batsman, and we were treated to several sumptuous cover-drives – a sure sign that Andrew Strauss is up for taking the fight to the opposition.

When he fell for 110, stumped (for the first time in his career) off the bowling of part-timer Marcus North, his partnership with Cook was worth 188, the highest English partnership ever at the Gabba. When Cook brought up his 14th Test hundred with a sweetly-timed cut to the boundary, it was the first time both England openers had scored centuries against Australia since 1938.

That the wicket played flat and the bowling was toothless should not detract from England’s achievement yesterday, but Australian eyes will be focused in particular on Mitchell Johnson who seems to have suffered an almost catastrophic crisis of confidence.

Victory for England is almost certainly out of the question, but after finding themselves all out for 260 in the first innings, a draw will feel almost as good.

Base camp has been reached; the tent pegs hammered in; but there is still a long way to climb. As all adventurers know, sometimes the conditions have a habit of suddenly turning nasty.

All it will take will be for Johnson to rediscover his mojo, even temporarily, and if more than two wickets fall in the morning session, the climb to safety could yet turn out to be a rocky one.

But if England can continue where they left off when Cook and Trott take their guard this morning, the clouds obscuring the summit might just begin to lift.

Stick a fork in this one

Saturday, November 27th, 2010

It’s done.

Michael Hussey and Brad Haddin weathered a superb spell of bowling from England early on to build a partnership that broke records and has made victory for England nigh on impossible.

Hussey, a new man after suffering a prolonged slump in form and a let-off first ball when he edged just short of second slip on Day 2, brought up his ton with a celebration that was more primal scream than war-cry. He has admitted the criticism of recent days has affected him; the decision of the selectors to include both him and Peter Siddle in the side ahead of Dougie Bollinger and a younger batsman now looks to be vindicated.

Hussey’s day was not – again – without its share of luck. Given out lbw on 82 off the bowling of Jimmy Anderson, the decision was overturned on referral when Hawkeye showed the ball pitching outside leg stump. Three runs later Anderson went up again, to no avail: had England not used up both their referrals, the simulation would this time have showed the ball hitting the stumps.

James Anderson’s figures do not accurately reflect how well he bowled today, for no reward. Brad Haddin, who together with Hussey compiled a partnership of 307 that lasted six and a half hours, admitted that the spell he faced from Anderson early in the day was “probably the hardest Test bowling I’ve ever had to face”.

Misfields and dropped catches in the deep added to England’s gloom, and when at last the partnership was broken and the tail-enders mopped up by Finn, Australia’s lead was 221.

England’s innings did not start auspiciously, Strauss rapped on the pads leaving the first ball he faced and having to endure a nervous couple of minutes as the not-out decision was reviewed  and upheld due to height.

He and Alastair Cook survived to stumps but a draw is now the best England can hope for. It is a task that that will require cool heads, calm nerves, and some big names to step up. Realistically England will need to bat all of Day 4 and until lunch on Day 5 if they are to escape the Gabbatoir alive.

It was never going to be easy for England at this ground, but they can still come out of this Test with their morale intact if they prove to themselves and their opposition that they have the stomach for this fight, even if defeat now seems the most likely outcome.

Take them on, on your own

Friday, November 26th, 2010

There are two ways you can approach what could be your last Test match, if your form is in the toilet, your best days are behind you, and you are only in the team by the skin of your teeth and by way of a last-gasp 100 in a Sheffield Shield match.

You can grit your way through it, blocking and nudging, barricading yourself into your crease, crawling slowly towards some semblance of a respectable total while knowing that it is only a matter of time before there will be a ball with your name on it and it will be unplayable.

Or you can say fuck all that, and take the bastards on.

Mike Hussey had some luck, first ball he faced. In fact, he had a lot of luck. Steven Finn, fired up after removing Simon Katich with a sharp caught and bowled taken only inches above the ground – not a bad effort for a bloke who’s 6ft 8 – induced an edge from the nervy left-hander which fell just short of Graeme Swann at second slip.

Hussey himself admits he said a small prayer as he nicked it. It is on moments like this that careers are curtailed, or second chances given.

After that – especially against the bowling of Swann – he played like the last couple of years had never happened. Spurning the very concept of timorous defence as though it were completely beneath him, short deliveries were pulled with an imperious efficiency and his footwork and timing were impeccable as he set about righting an Australian ship that was listing at 100-3 when he came to the crease.

By the time bad light had stopped play, two more wickets had fallen – a woefully out of nick Michael Clarke who is likely suffering with his degenerative disc problem more than his team are letting on, and Marcus North, another under-pressure batsman who got a ball from Swann that was simply too good for him. But, with an able wing-man in Brad Haddin, Hussey is proving to be his side’s backbone.

Resuming on 220-5, Hussey and Haddin will face the new ball and an England who just have the edge in the bowling department in a morning session that could decide the outcome of this Test match.

After struggling on the morning of Day 2 to find their line and length, the England seamers recalibrated their radars during the lunch break and came out firing. Finn’s high action and ability to extract bounce as well as his athletic fielding off his own bowling are signs of an exciting young talent, and Jimmy Anderson’s economy was excellent.

Graeme Swann got some tonk – the Gabba is not a happy hunting ground for off-spinners – but given cracks are starting to appear in the wicket he will come into his own in the fourth innings.

For now, all of England’s focus will be on this partnership of Hussey and Haddin, which must be broken quickly if the visitors are to move into ascendancy.

England blood flows at the Gabbatoir

Thursday, November 25th, 2010

There’s something strangely comforting in the familiar sense of helpless rage experienced on waking up to another bloody England collapse.

Truly, no winter is complete without it.

Having kept myself going throughout the night on a diet consisting almost entirely of coffee and foam bananas, I threw in the towel at tea time, when England were 171-4.

When I woke up this morning they were 260 all out, and Australia were 25 for the loss of no wickets.

The first over didn’t go so well.

Third delivery, Strauss got a ball from Hilfenhaus that seemed to nip back in and cramped him up; going for the pull he was out caught by Mike Hussey at gully. Rash shot or genuinely good ball? Bit of both, I think; nerves probably did for the England captain after all the relentless hype and talk leading up to this game.

Cook’s head is still falling over like a piss-head sailor negotiating a storm-tossed deck, but he played sensibly and solidly for the most part, that ugly-as-hell technique of his not such an issue since the ball wasn’t doing a heck of a lot.

Trott played well enough despite a couple of streaky boundaries and nervy edges that fell just short of fielders, but he batted with good intent and helped his team get a start. The fact he departed attempting a loose drive off a decent ball from Shane Watson is not a mistake he will want to repeat.

It is all too easy to hold Shane Watson up as a figure of fun, and he does bring it on himself, but he was the pick of the bowlers for me in the morning session, snaring Trott with one that nipped back off the seam, causing the England batsman to lose his shape while attempting to drive it through midwicket.

The small battle between Kevin Pietersen and new boy Xavier Doherty was entertaining, and nothing gave me more heart than watching KP charge down the wicket towards the debutant who immediately hurled the ball back at the batsman in anger. Tasty stuff.

There’d been a bit of hooha about Peter Siddle’s selection, with the explanation offered by Ponting for the omission of Bollinger not making a heck of a lot of sense (lack of match practice – a supreme piece of arsed-up logic).

Siddle proved the selectors had made the right decision in the most emphatic way possible.

Often referred to using the terms “blue collar” and “honest trier” – which sounds rather like a classic case of damning with faint praise – he proved to be England’s chief executioner. His hat-trick – Cook, tempted into playing forward to one that nipped away; Prior, full, straight, nipping back in, pegging back the off-stump; and perhaps the best of the three, the one that got Stuart Broad: full, straight, referred, upheld – was the bolt-gun to the forehead that knocked the legs of England’s batting out from under it.

It was a truly outstanding spell of bowling, an example of a canny bowler adapting to the conditions, a history-making passage of play that brings a cricket ground alive regardless of which side you are supporting.

After viewing that spell over a late breakfast, catching up on the action I missed when I retired to bed, I am more inclined now towards the philosophical where England’s situation in this match is concerned.

Had Siddle not bowled so superbly, Ian Bell, playing beautifully and with more assuredness than I have ever seen him play in a Test, would have gotten his ton and England would possibly have added another 100 runs to their total.

Instead he came up against a bowler seen as second best by many and with a point to prove, and whose removal of the batsmen at the other end put the mockers on a total of 350 plus, quite achievable on this deck.

England’s bowlers now have it all to do. I fear Day 2 might turn out to be a very long one.

No Sleep Till Sydney

Wednesday, November 24th, 2010

The warm-ups are over. Now is when the shit gets real.

England’s preparation – two wins, one draw – has proceeded with military precision. The team have runs and wickets under their belt and are united, relaxed and exuding an air of quiet determination.

Australia are too busy eating their own to put the boot in. Desultory efforts to rile the Poms have most recently included Shane Warne lamely trying to sow dissent among England’s ranks by suggesting that in the hierarchy of the team Kevin Pietersen is treated as “an outcast” – a suggestion Andy Flower batted away with all the insouciance of Douglas Jardine swatting flies in the outfield.

England don’t really care about what the Australian press has to say, something they demonstrated by not turning up to a pre-Test lunch attended by their Australian counterparts and raising the ire of local worthies and Ian Healy, who initiated a chorus of “three boos for England”, despite the fact England never promised to turn up in the first place, clashing as it did with a practice session.

Tell you something, though. Australia win at the Gabba, and all will be forgiven on the part of the Aussie press. It won’t be long till the 5-0 predictions are dusted off and given a raucous airing.

If England win at this Australian fortress – and it would be the first time since 1986 – the ghost of the drubbing they received last time they played Down Under will be exorcised.

But while England hold the whip hand going into this Test, it is important not to assume victory here – or in this series – will be a formality.

Michael Clarke has been passed fit to play, struggling with an old back injury aggravated in the recent NSW match, but is still, however, Australia’s second best batsman.

In the spin bowling department, Xavier Doherty has been preferred to Nathan Hauritz, but that oft-quoted, oft-mocked first-class career average of 48 is a tad misleading. Doherty has improved steadily over the last two years, and this year averages 27.45, with 11 wickets from 3 matches.

His economy rate of 2.39 makes him the 4th most economical bowler – and the most economical spinner – in Shield cricket this season.

Mitchell Johnson could either win this or lose it for his country, but Doherty’s economy at the other end will take the pressure off if he starts spraying it around like an over-excited incontinent elderly relative.

Mainly, though, the selectors will have observed Kevin Pietersen’s continuing weakness against left arm spin.

Pietersen’s form continues to be a worry, though he himself is in bullish mood. It helps that the team does not solely depend upon him, with Ian Bell being the most recent standout performer with the bat in the preceding warm-ups.

Darren Gough has said that he thinks a big score for Kevin Pietersen is just around the corner.

Me, I’m as nervous as Steve Harmison with the new ball and Flintoff ready at second slip.

But it will also be a relief when that first over is out of the way and we can settle the hell down and enjoy some bloody good Test cricket.

Because come 10AM local time – 00:00 GMT – the bullshit stops.

Australia 1 Simon Katich, 2 Shane Watson, 3 Ricky Ponting (c), 4 Michael Clarke, 5 Michael Hussey, 6 Marcus North, 7 Brad Haddin (wk), 8 Mitchell Johnson, 9 Xavier Doherty, 10 Peter Siddle, 11 Ben Hilfenhaus.

England (probable) 1 Andrew Strauss (c), 2 Alastair Cook, 3 Jonathan Trott, 4 Kevin Pietersen, 5 Paul Collingwood, 6 Ian Bell, 7 Matt Prior (wk), 8 Stuart Broad, 9 Graeme Swann, 10 James Anderson, 11 Steven Finn.


Saturday, November 13th, 2010

England’s plan to fly out early to Australia and get in some match practice ahead of the Ashes is a great idea.

Folks such as Pietersen, Cook and Collingwood have been spending time in the middle batting themselves back into form, shaking off the rust and honing themselves – more or less – into smoothly running cogs in England’s well-oiled machine.

A handy six-wicket win against Western Australia; a comfortable draw against some hit-me bowling at the Adelaide Oval, with a match against an Australia A side at Hobart still to come: so far, so good for the tourists.

For the England fan though, it is just one big, long cock-tease.

Australia are on the ropes after their hammering at the hands of Sri Lanka and look to be a side in disarray.

Hysteria is sweeping the rank and file of the Aussie press and if you don’t believe me, one newspaper had Marcus North down as future captain. Where the fuck do you even start with that one: a player who, while not quite the duffer many people view him as, is not even inked in to the side as a batsman.

Pressure is piling on Ponting – with some saying this series might be his last if he doesn’t perform, both as captain and player – and the search for a spinner who won’t get his arse handed to him on a plate continues.

While Andrew Strauss is far too sensible to underestimate the enemy on their own turf, one could be forgiven for giving vent to some guarded optimism (or in my case, the wildly unrealistic fantasy – read “delusion of grandeur”, if you will – of seeing the phrase “ENGLAND JUGGERNAUT” appearing in headlines come Melbourne, and if that is not tempting fate, I don’t know what the heck is).

This series of tour matches, while proving good preparation, is like waiting for the main course in a Michelin-starred restaurant while chewing like a rabid dog on breadsticks. They are quite nice breadsticks, and are keeping the worst of your hunger at bay, but your premium steak is taking its time, you are getting impatient, and you want something’s flesh.

Practice matches are all very well. But I want to be hallucinating with tiredness from sitting in my own filth for eight hours; to be knee-deep in two weeks’ worth of newspapers; I want four different windows open on my computer screen and three different audio commentary streams; to yell like a deranged motherfucker every time a wicket falls, wake everyone within a fifty-yard radius and be the first recipient of a cricket-related ASBO; I want every poor unwitting bastard who asks me how I think the cricket’s going to wish THEY’D NEVER FUCKING ASKED.



Tuesday, November 2nd, 2010

On 2nd November, 1877, Victor Trumper was rocketed to Earth as a baby from the planet Krypton to land behind Charles Trumper’s boot factory.

He was only on this earth for 37 years but he changed cricket forever.

Next January, sometime during the last Test of the 2010-11 Ashes series, I will stand at his graveside and pay tribute.

The series might be over by then. Much ink, actual and digital, has already flowed under the bridge on the subject of who might win. England have the best chance in many years, some say; others point out Australia are never a side to be underestimated. Everyone has an opinion.

Everyone has an opinion over the greatest cricketer who ever lived, too. Most say Bradman, some say Tendulkar; others – hopeless romantics like me – say Trumper.

Cricket will always be more than just about stats. Cricket needs its innovators as much, if not more, than its run-getters, and its wicket-takers.

Trumper was nothing if not an egalitarian – preferring attack to defence, he treated all bowlers alike. Men like Sehwag carry on the legacy that Trumper left behind.

The biggest part of my love for cricket is my love for Victor Trumper.

Happy birthday, Vic.