Archive for July, 2013

Urn Burial

Saturday, July 27th, 2013

On a sun-drenched Sunday evening at Lord’s, on one of the hottest days of the year, England bowled Australia out for 235, chasing a total they could only have reached had Don Bradman been kept in cold storage and defrosted especially for the occasion.

They saved themselves a day, secured themselves a 2-0 lead, and, in all likelihood, the series as well, and prompted a whole heap of hand-wringing Down Under as to how it can possibly have come to this.

Sports sections of Australian papers have been brimming over with theories, analysis, finger pointing and hair-tearing, with a sideline in shirt-rending and chest-beating. T20, that rampaging wrecker of domestic scheduling and the Sheffield Shield, is to blame; it’s the pitches; it’s the lack of unity within the side; it’s a lack of forward planning and inadequate youth development; it’s the simple fact that the current Australia side is shit and they are now reaping the whirlwind of all the afore-listed. Sack-cloth and ashes indeed – and not the type that reside in a display case at Lord’s, that small terracotta eye of the storm of hype that preceded this series.

Shades, then, of Shelley’s Ozymandias and Thomas Browne, who, in his Hydriotaphia (Urn Burial) wrote that “time… hath an art to make dust of all things”. Edward Gibbon, too, might have been able to come to the party with a few words on the catastrophic crumbling of empires (though conflating Christianity with T20 might conceivably be pushing it), and, if you’re more contemporaneously-inclined, now would be a good time to invoke your Spenglers and your Toynbees and mention how everything is cyclical (cycles of what, though? On this, no one seems to agree).

One aspect I’ve particularly enjoyed when gathering the research for the blogs article in the Wisden Almanack is that the reactions to events are often more fascinating – and instructive – than the events themselves. I’m not big on interaction, but I do like to observe, quietly but closely, with an obsessive eye for detail, in the background (think the wall-scrawling, notebook-filling serial killer from Se7en, if he was a cricket fan – alright, perhaps that’s too much information). Given the reaction in the Australian media the last time England hammered Australia, the latest tsunami of Antipodean excoriation – ranging the gamut from reasoned analysis to near full-on hysteria – is no great surprise. Because if anything was guaranteed to bring affairs to a head, it was this, the series that, while its relevance in a post-colonial world might be up for debate, for many still defines the sport.

For a while now, it would seem that objects in Australian cricket’s rear-view mirror may indeed have been shitter than they appeared. It’s only now that that reality is stark enough – that they are being tailgated by a third Ashes defeat in a row – that it must be confronted. During Australia’s last round of dominance, it was the likes of Hussey, Ponting, Warne and McGrath who constituted the engine under the hood. Now, they simply do not have the horsepower, and at Lord’s they seemed to coast completely to a halt. It was a crushing, ignominious, soul-destroying defeat. The difference between the team that tore England apart in 2006-7 and the team that collapsed so abjectly on Day 2 at Headquarters the other week – a panicked procession of wickets that put one in mind of a herd of deer scattering over a hillside at the sound of a gunshot – is now so stark by comparison that the elephant in the room is now all there is. In a search to pinpoint the reason, everything assumes significance and everything is fair game for criticism – even down to the new team spirit Darren Lehmann has engendered, and which was on display during warmup at Trent Bridge. How dare they share a laugh and indulge in jolly japes when their team is being obliterated on the field – this is war, dammit! Conversely, there’s also been much made of the talk of a rift between Michael Clarke and his former vice-captain Shane Watson, who is admittedly not covering himself in glory at the moment due to a mystifying inability to understand the lbw rule. Michael Clarke may be a fine batsman and a strategically imaginative captain, but he is no man-manager. And so on. It’s understandable, the desperate need to find the one underlying reason that, if tweaked satisfactorily or banished entirely, will fix everything. There is no magic bullet, though, that can fix the troubles of this current Australian team. The side are not without talent. They are however, lacking in experience. The only thing that can fix this is time. The only way out is through.

If defeats along the lines of Lord’s – and likely the loss of the series – do not destroy the team’s young talent, they will at least thicken the scar tissue that will enable them to fend off future slings and arrows. (And speaking of outrageous fortune, it’d not be making excuses for Michael Clarke in acknowledging that his failure to win the toss on both occasions so far has not helped him.)

Ashton Agar, Australia’s very own version of Cinderella at Trent Bridge, complete with fairy-tale “you shall go to the ball” call-up before sweeping the England bowlers off their feet – and their lengths – ended up back in the kitchen at Lord’s in terms of comedown. As a Test bowler, he’s not yet ready. In a few years, he will be. Usman Khawaja’s batting equivalent of a panic-attack in the first innings was mitigated by a cool-headed partnership under pressure with his captain, a confident carting of Stuart Broad to the boundary on three occasions and a wristy line in leg glances that, dare I say it, put me in mind a little of VVS Laxman. Australia need to keep faith with him at number three because that debut knock at Sydney in 2011 was no fluke in terms of things to come, though there’s been a fair amount of water under the bridge between then and now. James Pattinson, collateral damage as a result of Australia’s wobbly batting and insufficient rest between innings, has it in him to become his side’s McGrath but is as yet too fragile. So was James Anderson at the beginning of his career. Pattinson, too, needs time, as well as careful management.

The current team might be the best Australia have, but they really aren’t that bad. The raw material is there. Trust me, they aren’t about to turn into the West Indies just yet.

Which brings me to the one thing I never saw coming, only two matches in: the almost apologetic reaction of some England supporters and pundits to their own team’s dominance (and even more ridiculously, wails that the series is being “devalued” because of its one-sided nature). Having already been tickled by the moral relativism that abounded in the wake of Stuart Broad not walking at Trent Bridge, this is a whole new thing. Sport is war! No, hang on, it isn’t, it’s a game for gentlemen, with standards and something called “the spirit of the game” to uphold – we don’t really know what that is, but we will make a big song and dance out of it dependent on the advantage it gives us! And anyway, we don’t gloat, we are British and – it goes without saying – better than that! I doubt McGrath, Warne et al. were sobbing into their Baggy Greens over the prospect of the Ashes being devalued as a series in 2006-7 when England were being dismantled, or that the thought that a close-fought series would really be better for the sport gave them many sleepless nights or prompted agonized, soul-searching contemplation.

Like hell it did. Only the English could feel sorry for the opposition and then have an existential crisis about it.

I know we all love an underdog, but let’s not get carried away. Australia will rise again. Me, I’ve always liked the notion of time as a river. The water will flow on, passing trees and houses, and at some point, around the next bend perhaps, it will pass more trees and houses, only different ones. Australia’s next great batsmen and bowlers won’t be Ponting, Hussey or Warne; they will be someone else. And that next bend could be sooner than you think.

Twists and tails as England triumph at Trent Bridge

Monday, July 15th, 2013

Boy oh boy. Have we had some cricket these last five days.

From the surprise selection of 19-year-old left-arm spinner Ashton Agar on Wednesday morning, to an England victory by 14 runs – echoes of Edgbaston 2005 – there have been riches aplenty for those of us for whom all those endless previews were starting to meld together into one amorphous mass of reheated churnalistic chip-wrap.

A number eleven breaking batting records that have stood since the Golden Age of Trumper and Armstrong; a thick edge that somehow goes unsighted by a respected umpire and the howls of controversy that followed; a side written off even before landing on these shores refusing to roll over and die, and it’s fair to say none of the previews led us to expect anything like this.

I was fortunate to be at Trent Bridge on the first and last days: on the way to the ground on Sunday we passed the Australian team bus, complete with Boof-Shrek doll stuck to its windscreen, and we saw them bowled out via the decision review system and the thinnest of thin edges as 17,000 fans held their breath in the broiling heat before erupting in relief and celebration – or despair, if you were one of the many travelling Aussie fans who’d helped ensure a five-day sellout. It was magnificent. It was crazy. It was exhausting, as Haddin and Pattinson chewed away the total required while the crowd chewed down its fingernails. It occurred to me, after everything that had happened the previous four days, that cricket should occupy its own temporal frame of reference, the way one human year equates to seven dog years, or the time it takes Jupiter in terms of Earth days to accomplish a circuit around the sun.

I kind of had an inkling it would go this way, watching the Australians warming up on the outfield before the start of play. Despite (or perhaps because of) the highlights of Day Four playing on the big screen behind them, Darren Lehmann made sure to keep his charges’ attention focused and their spirits high, organising a team huddle, taking the lead in a boisterous kickabout, larking about and playing the clown, but also having a quiet word with individual players, most notably Ashton Agar, who received the benefit of Boof’s wisdom during a break in the high jinks. They looked calm, relaxed, and united as a team, with genuine fondness and respect for their new coach. They did not look like a side who thought they were beaten.

Agar and Lehmann before start of play

Agar and Lehmann before start of play

Whatever Lehmann said to Agar, it worked, as, promoted to number eight, he continued where he’d left off after that fairy-tale knock of 98 that gave Australia a new hero to wake up to along with its Friday morning cornflakes. (That day, Agar’s emergence as a fully formed Test cricketer, was also the day of Ricky Ponting’s 169*, for Surrey at the Oval, in his last ever first class innings – one in, one out.)

Agar provided his partner at the other end, Brad Haddin, with able support in a 43-run, 24.4-over, partnership that soaked up the deliveries sent down by a bowling attack that had already spent a long day in the field and with an old ball that was doing nothing. Such was the epic nature of this match it was easy to view these two through the lens of heroic archetype, the stuff that myth is made of: battled-hardened veteran and youthful recruit, master and apprentice, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid before that whole betrayal and manhunt thing.

Brad Haddin - so near and yet so far

Brad Haddin – so near and yet so far

The ability of the human body to withstand the rigours of extreme exertion while coupled with the will to win can produce greatness. That greatness manifested in Jimmy Anderson, steaming in from the Radcliffe Road end with a new ball that had all four remaining batsmen’s names written on it. Agar’s was the first wicket of the day to fall, Haddin’s the last – after a lunchbreak in which Australia were nine wickets down with 20 needed to win. Food may have been the last thing on the minds of the two teams during those 40 minutes. By 2:30 it was all over. Anderson, with 5-73, and ten wickets in the match, looked so exhausted at the Man of the Match presentation afterwards, he could barely string two words together.

It would take a book, and considerably more bandwidth, to describe all the extraordinary things that happened in this Test match. Along with Agar’s sparkling debut, Peter Siddle again proved he is the heart as well as the backbone of Australia’s attack with his fourth Ashes five-for on Day One as England collapsed after winning the toss. Ian Bell’s match- and career-defining innings of 109 came when England desperately needed it; a true-grit ton from a man often criticised for scoring soft runs when someone else has already done the hard graft. Last but not least, there was James Anderson’s unplayable delivery to Michael Clarke on the first day, and his wrecking-ball spell on the last.

Man on a mission - Anderson steams in

Man on a mission – Anderson steams in

And then there was the decision review system, or more specifically, its shortcomings. In reality, it was more human error than failure of technology that caused the controversies, and while the referral by England that saw the back of Haddin and the end of the match was called controversial by some, in that instance it did exactly what it was supposed to – provide clear evidence, using the technology available, to overturn a wrong decision. True, there will be many “what-ifs” as a result of missed deflections, replays that showed evidence contrary to the decision given, and simple umpiring error; but what-ifs, of one variety or another, are what make all matches that linger long in the memory.

If Stuart Broad had walked after edging Ashton Agar to slip, England likely would have lost. If Agar, on 6, had been given out stumped England probably would have wrapped this up on Saturday.

Instead it came down to this: a morning session extended by half an hour, and then, on the restart, the simple equation of one wicket, twenty runs and a tail-end partnership that nearly made the difference.

Some of the previews for Trent Bridge were a little too dismissive of Australia’s appetite for this fight. I’m guessing the previews for Lord’s will make for slightly racier reading.

England celebrate

England celebrate

Remembrance of Tests Past

Tuesday, July 9th, 2013

No need for Proust’s madeleine (or maybe that should be a Four’N Twenty meat pie) as I have this:

Ashes 2010-11 ephemera

to remind me of this:

And it all starts again tomorrow. I hope I’m not tempting fate by mentioning these reminders of England’s triumph the last time these two sides met in the Test arena. The three weeks I spent in Australia, watching England retain the urn at Melbourne, and win the series at Sydney, were pretty much the best three weeks of my life.

Expectation regarding this go-round have grown markedly more realistic. England may be the better team in terms of results, ranking, and personnel, but Australia will be no pushover. Expect a few scares for England along the way. The fallout for whichever side loses will be brutal. But whether it’ll be Swann’s Way or Anderson’s swing that starts the ball rolling tomorrow – or if Cook, KP and co are subjected to a Pattinson peppering – the anticipation of new memories in the making is mouthwatering.

The pile of clippings I brought back with me from Oz, the magazines, match programmes, ticket stubs and Moleskine notebook filled with my fevered scribblings because I wanted to remember every second, are just the analogue tip of a media mountain that has grown exponentially over the last few years in terms of cricket coverage. Blogs, twitter, and websites, along with their august forebears television, radio, and the printed word, will be the avalanche that descends upon us all over the next few weeks, burying us with stats, analysis and opinion. Death by information overload, but what a way to go.

Tomorrow, it’ll all be distilled down to the simple reality of mano-a-mano, bat versus ball – no past, no future, just now. Formula 1 champion Jack Brabham once said: “When the green flag drops, the bullshit stops”. There’s another line I’ve always loved, spoken by Steve McQueen in the movie Le Mans, and which is applicable as much to the Ashes as to motorsport in terms of the distillation of expectation and moments that make history: “Racing is life… anything that happens before or after is just waiting”.

The waiting, thank god, will soon be over.

Ashes and sparks

Monday, July 1st, 2013

I have this image stuck in my head. Australia’s new coach, Darren Lehmann, fag in mouth, beer in one hand, reaches towards the switch that will flip into life the shambling monster that Australia has become.

A disparate hodgepodge of misbehaving parts, parts that have been bolted on where they don’t fit, and parts that have yet to show any sign of life whatsoever, it’ll take something along the lines of Dr Frankenstein to reanimate this mess.

Mickey Arthur’s more scientific approach didn’t work. Desperate times call for desperate measures and maybe, with “one of the worst Australian sides ever”, as they’ve been dubbed, a more maverick approach just might be the key. Or maybe Lehmann’s appointment was simply an act of desperation.

The timing, certainly, was curious: sixteen days before the start of the Ashes at Trent Bridge, Twitter was swamped with rumours that Mickey Arthur had been given his marching orders by a board that had finally run out of patience. To England fans, it must have seemed the cherry on the top of the schadenfreude gateau that had long begun taking shape in the overheated oven of Ashes expectation: the chewy base layer of a Test tanking in India, the creamy filling of Homeworkgate, with sprinkles of David Warner’s Twitter spray, dressing room splits, and a ridiculous incident involving Joe Root, a fake beard, and a Birmingham bar. It’s certainly been something to get your teeth into.

As half-baked rumour hardened into fact, it was difficult to know what to make of it all. Mickey Arthur was “a good man” who “tried his utmost”, in the words of Cricket Australia supremo James Sutherland in the first of three pressers. This was a disaster, said some pundits. No, actually, it was a good thing, said others – along with many of those who’d first proclaimed it a disaster but had now had time to think about it. The timing was bizarre, everyone agreed. This could either improve Australia’s chances, or it could destabilise them entirely.

But regardless of who’s wearing the chef’s hat, there’s only so much you can do with a batting lineup that puts one in mind of the contestant who always seems to turns up on Ready Steady Cook with a bar of chocolate, a tub of Philadelphia and a packet of digestive biscuits. “What can you make me with this?” Cheesecake. It is always bloody cheesecake. And the Australian recipe for this Aussie Ashes campaign looks anything but cordon bleu.

Perhaps Lehmann will be the man to bring something new to the mix. “My top three priorities are to win, win and win,” he said at the third of Tuesday’s press conferences. He didn’t waste much time in demonstrating that this is not simply bellicose bluster. Australia, declaring one run ahead in their first warmup match against Somerset at Taunton, signalled a new, aggressive intent: proactive rather than reactive, a readiness to take a risk to go for the win – which they achieved. This was aided by the one component of the squad in which there’s no doubt as to its quality. One statement Mickey Arthur made a couple of weeks back which prompted a fair amount of scoffing derision was his contention that “I honestly believe we can win the Ashes – we have the best all-round bowling attack in world cricket.” Perhaps that “all-round” should have been replaced with “seam”, and perhaps a “potentially” should have been slipped in there to not make it sound entirely ridiculous, but the way in which James Pattinson and Mitchell Starc shredded Somerset’s batting – from 310-4 to 320 all out – suggests that England retaining the urn may not be quite a straightforward formality.

True: the visitors only have one world-class batsman, a captain who must be the backbone of his side while he struggles with his own degenerative back condition. Where Michael Clarke fits into this whole saga will perhaps become clearer over time; he presented a united front with Arthur over Homeworkgate, but as a modern, ultra-professional sportsman, it’ll be interesting to see how his relationship with Lehmann – a throwback to more unreconstructed times when coaching manuals were considerably thinner and “work hard, play hard” just about covered it – develops. What has emerged from Lehmann’s coaching stints with Queensland, Deccan Chargers and Australia A is that he is a man who inspires intense loyalty but also respect – both of which seemed in short supply for Mickey Arthur at the end. While Australia’s precise lineup for the first Test is yet to be set in stone, it’s fair to assume that while the recipe may have its limitations, the heat in this kitchen will present no obstacle for the chef.

It’s interesting, too, that the underdogs are sounding considerably more bullish than the favourites. Lehmann talks about winning; Andy Flower is counselling caution. “We aren’t as good as some people are saying,” he said in an interview with the Daily Mail at the weekend. Alastair Cook, too, has refused to be drawn into anything resembling blustering prognostication, toeing the party line in maintaining that England are focussing on their own preparation and not what’s been happening in the Australia camp. It seemed somehow appropriate that he was at Wimbledon on Friday, watching Andy Murray’s unruffled progress to the fourth round while the Scot’s big-name rivals fall by the wayside through a combination of loss of form, injury, slippery courts and sheer bad luck. Australia may be embarking on a messy rebirth, but never underestimate the destructive power of the random and unexpected. God forbid, if Jimmy Anderson steps on a ball the morning of a crucial day in the field with the series in the balance, à la Glenn McGrath in 2005, it could be England’s hopes that are in need of resurrection. As we speak, Graeme Swann is off for an x-ray after being struck on the arm by Tymal Mills in England’s only warmup match at Chelmsford.

News has just come in, too, of confirmation that Shane Watson and Chris Rogers will open the batting for Australia when hostilities commence on July 10th.

The series is yet to begin, but the contest is already alive. The parts are coming together. Now let the sparks fly.