Archive for the ‘scg’ Category

A sentimental century

Thursday, January 5th, 2012

There is no sport in which sentimentality coexists with commercialism so closely, and at times so uneasily, as cricket. A Test match can play to near empty stands, and still have a large contingent of purists fretting over its continued existence; T20 is seen as its uncultured, uncouth offspring, the kid who threw away a university scholarship to go on the X Factor and is knee-deep in money, cheerleaders and rock and roll.

Success in sport means moving with the times. It is why Test cricket now uncomfortably straddles the line between traditionalism and an uncertain future, not knowing whether it wants to go forward or back, and why in building a successful cricket team pragmatism must take precedence when it comes to retiring the old guard and making way for new blood.

It is mission accomplished as far as England and Andy Flower are concerned: England sit at the top of the Test tree through the fortuitous butterfly effect of KP’s bust-up with Peter Moores, and a perfect synergy between Flower and captain Andrew Strauss. Both Australia and India are fighting their way through a period of transition, with both facing accusations of sentimentality for not putting their old warhorses out to pasture.

One warhorse who, in the view of many, should have had his passage booked to the knacker’s yard months ago is Ricky Ponting. The first suspicion of reverent sentimentality on the part of Cricket Australia came when he did not retire immediately after losing the captaincy, but was pushed down to number four in hopes he would rediscover his form. Two schools of thought can be ascribed to this: the first being that any possibility at all of a return to his imperious best was worth persevering for, and the second, and most likely, that no one wanted to be the one to swing the axe on a great career, and that if the failures persisted for long enough, Ponting would do the decent thing and retire himself.

You make a rod for your own back when you have achieved as much as Ricky Ponting has. Anything less than excellence means failure. The fact you scored your last hundred back in January 2010 – never mind that you have scored ten half-centuries since then – is failure. Your 78 against New Zealand at Brisbane this year still won’t be enough to silence the critics. The skill in being a success at parties is knowing when to leave. People are saying you are finished. You need to bow out gracefully, to make way.

Or, you could say screw all that, smile and nod and grit your teeth and keep your head down and do it the hard way, throwing yourself through the dirt in one of the most desperate singles you’ve ever taken, and, spitting out bits of the SCG wicket and with mud on your shirt, raise your bat to the pavilion in cricket’s version of the one-fingered salute to celebrate your 40th Test hundred.

This was more than just a fuck-you hundred to the critics calling for Ponting to be dropped. Comebacks like this are the culmination of the moment you realise that, when you get to this stage in your career, your biggest opponent is yourself. The engine of your talent is still what drives you; but the workings need a bit more TLC than they used to. Like a vintage Patek chronograph, the hallmark and craftsmanship remain unmistakable, but the timekeeping might no longer be as precise; the inner workings will need cleaning, dismantling and, in some cases, replacing.

Ponting, interviewed after a roll-back-the-years 134 – in which the swivel-pull made a triumphant return with all the fanfare of  a conqueror marching into a city – acknowledged that he has had to return to basics: “There were a few technical aspects of my game which I have been doing and which have now paid dividends. It’s all starting to come back. There’s rhythm about my batting again.”

Presumably – hopefully – now that the mechanism has been given a good old winding in that Sydney innings, he can continue keeping good time now for another year, another eighteen months, even. He will wind down eventually, to the extent where nothing will restart him, but that day is not yet.

Today, all the talk was of captain Michael Clarke’s historic triple-century. Tomorrow, all the talk will be about Sachin Tendulkar’s success or failure in chasing down that still-elusive hundredth hundred.

That all of this should, to a certain extent, overshadow the achievement of Australia’s ex-captain is understandable.

But that new shirt Ponting changed into after raising his bat was probably more symbolic than the dive through the dirt: clean shirt, clean sheet, renewed confidence, clean start.

Thank god for sentimentality.

The perfect day

Friday, January 7th, 2011

Days don’t come much better than this.

This morning:

Celebration huddle

Fire the glitter cannon

This afternoon:

Victor's grave

Flowers for Victor

These were my two main reasons for coming to Australia: to see the England team make cricket history, and to pay homage at the grave of a man who was cricket history.

It has been an emotional day, and I am very tired.

I am also very happy.

I wonder whether it is even possible to have another day that could possibly be better than this one.

Australia claim moral victory by taking match to 5th day

Thursday, January 6th, 2011

Otherwise, there was nothing whatsoever that could have redeemed such a humiliatingly dire performance.

The hosts were all out for 280 in their first innings, could not bowl England out until they had scored the highest total in history of runs in an Ashes Test in Australia, and are now teetering on the brink of an innings and series defeat, with three wickets remaining on a pitch that is still good for batting.

That is the unvarnished reality of how this final Test stands and how it will finish tomorrow when Michael Vaughan presents the Waterford crystal trophy to the 2010-11 Ashes winning captain, Andrew Strauss.

Touted as a competition between two equal (and fairly ordinary) sides, this series has proved anything but. Australia have been outperformed on all levels, with England winning on most instances in a head to head comparison of the members of each team.

Only Michael Hussey can be said to have shown a glimmer of the junkyard dog who would rather chew off its own foot when trapped than wait for the hunter’s bullet, and Peter Siddle has been another unsung warrior whose deeds have gone largely unheralded because he does the basics well rather than promising so much while delivering so infrequently like Mitchell Johnson, and mainly because he is on the losing side.

For England, Graeme Swann has not quite torn Australia apart, with an average so far of 41.78 that if foretold in isolation to match results before this series started would have had England fans fearing for the loss of the urn.

Instead, it is England’s quicks who have stepped up, in particular James Anderson, who would surely share the new ball for any Test nation you could care to name (Anderson and Steyn, anyone? Nope, I would not rate my chances as a batsman either).

Anderson made magic with the ball again today. When Mike Hussey, who lasted for 60 minutes, fell for 12 to Bresnan after having survived an Anderson barrage of hooping, swinging hand grenades, it must have felt like the end to the longest innings of his life.

It is tempting to say that if Ricky Ponting has lost Australia the Ashes, then Michael Clarke has lost them the series, but the problems runs deeper than just captaincy for this team. Rebuilding will be a long and hard process.

Tremlett shatters Johnson's timbers

Tremlett smashes Johnson's timbers

I cannot possibly end this entry by not commenting on perhaps the most poignant moment of the day. Before play started it was announced on the PA that Paul Collingwood will retire from Test cricket after Sydney.

Collingwood, a player of self-confessed limited ability who has surpassed his own limitations and given steel, heart and backbone to the England team on many occasions, has almost always done the right thing, with perhaps that 2008 incident of the run-out of Grant Elliott at the Oval the only blot on an otherwise honourable and admirable career.

He has admitted he has been struggling for runs in this series, and having failed again in this Test, and with Eoin Morgan waiting in the wings, he has realised it is time, and he has done the right thing.

The final match in an historic series in which England retain the Ashes; the final match in which they win the series; he could have picked no better time to make his announcement.

I admire Paul Collingwood immensely. I admire him for all that gritty, plug-ugly scrappiness at the crease on the occasions when he pulled England’s bacon out of the fire when they were up against it; I admire him for all the impossible catches he took at backward point, in complete defiance of the laws of gravity; I admire him for the bit of ginger he brought to the team – the smashing orangey bit in England’s Jaffa Cake.

While he will continue in other forms of the game, it is hard to imagine an England Test team without Paul Collingwood MBE in it.

His presence will be missed.

Sydney preview

Sunday, January 2nd, 2011

Tom Parker, the curator at the SCG, has predicted that wicket no. 5 will be a spinner’s dream from day three. The ball may do a bit through the air during the first session of day one, but from then on the hard-packed Bulli soil will be a batter’s deck until the cracks start appearing.

This forecast, of course, is predicated on five days of glorious weather with no rain. I write this about hour after a thunderstorm descended upon Sydney, bringing a refreshing coolness and giving some relief to my beleaguered sinuses. More importantly though, there is still dampness in the air, and further showers are predicted tomorrow, with overcast conditions over the next two days.

Perhaps this might just be a good toss to lose.

In any event, it goes without saying that England go into this last Test better prepared for anything the weather may throw at them.

This is the last Test in a series in which the main prize is no longer up for grabs, but England will be striving for domination and a series victory as a further stepping stone on the road to the eventual goal of being Test cricket’s number one.

Australia will similarly be looking to lay stepping stones, but towards the more modest goal of emerging from a series that has seen the stuffing kicked out of them with a win that will give them some heart before they play Sri Lanka in August. Seven months is a long time for wounds to fester.

Australia will have Michael Beer; England have Graeme Swann. Swann has put this succinctly into perspective by saying he still doesn’t understand why NSW homeboy Nathan Hauritz was dumped so ignominiously. He believes Hauritz should have been Australia’s first choice spinner throughout the whole of this series, and he is not the only one.

Usman Khawaja, Australia’s new number three, looked relaxed and cheerful at practice today, and seems to be taking the hullabaloo over his selection as Australia’s first Muslim cricketer in his stride.

The papers recently have been full of articles about him. Khawaja reckons he is singled out for explosives checks at airports, and even at the WACA when playing in a one-dayer against the Warriors he was stopped by three security guards on his way to the dressing room who did not believe he played for NSW.

He laughs all this off and treats the whole thing with an admirable sense of humour; I think mine would probably have run out a long time ago.

He plays Call of Duty on his PS3 and plays his guitar in his spare time. The newspapers seem to be making a big deal out of the fact that he is a normal 24-year old (and why shouldn’t he be?) and at the same time investing him with the responsibility of being a role model and ambassador for Australia’s Islamic community.

I wish it did not have to be this way, where so much attention seems to be on his faith, but there it is. I really wish they would all just let the guy play.

Michael Clarke will be hoping to prove his naysayers – of which there are many – wrong as he becomes his country’s 43rd Test captain. Judging by his form of late, and doubts over his captaincy credentials, “Pup” must find his inner mongrel is he is to win his critics over.

England have an embarrassment of riches to choose from with their stable of quicks, but I expect the side to remain unchanged from Melbourne.

Paul Collingwood is this week’s ant under the batting magnifying glass, and needs runs desperately to avoid being sizzled to a crisp by the ever increasing glare of scrutiny. Few come tougher than him, though, and scrappers like Collingwood never stay down for long.

This Test will be an interesting one, imbued with importance, especially for Australia.

The urn is gone, but it is now their long-term future that is important.

Usman Khawaja and teammates in their Baggy Pinks at the SCG today

Usman Khawaja and teammates in their Baggy Pinks at the SCG today