Archive for August, 2013

Durham destruction

Monday, August 19th, 2013

Ashes retained, and now series won.

It’s amazing, how a match can turn on its head.

Australia went to tea on the fourth day of the Durham Test, sitting pretty on 120-1, the match for the taking and with it a salvaging of some pride. Only 179 runs away. Chris Rogers had been the man to go, edging Swann to slip for 49 runs that seemed a continuation of the quietly-resolute 110 he’d made in the first innings. Khawaja was new to the crease, but David Warner’s resurrection from panto villain to Aussie hero was nearing fruition with 57 runs next to his name. The new ball, a spring-loaded hand grenade in Ryan Harris’s hands in the morning, seemed as dangerous as a week-old jam donut for England’s seamers.

By 7:41 that evening, Australia were all out for 224. It was one of those what-the-hell-happened sessions of insanity, where panic and cluelessness in equal measure grip a side by the throat and you couldn’t help but think back to that awful collapse at Lord’s. All those series what-ifs, where Australia have reminded everyone they’re not an easy touch, and Durham was the best opportunity they had of winning, with events entirely in their hands, unencumbered by time restrictions, or the vagaries of the weather: just 299 runs needed and the cool heads and straight bats required to hunt that total down.

A couple of posts ago I wrote that the funeral orations for the demise of Australian cricket may have been slightly premature, and mentioned that they were unlikely to sink to the levels the West Indies did in their post-nineties plunge, but Australia’s collapse at Durham reminded me of something we’ve become used to seeing from the Windies – a team that’s now so used to losing, it freezes when it finds itself in a position from which it can win.

Take nothing away from England, though – whatever was said during that tea-time war conference over protein bars and energy drinks, it worked. Khawaja fell to Swann soon after the break, but it was Tim Bresnan who started the procession of batsmen back to the pavilion with the wicket of Warner. it was one hell of a ball: full, angled across the batsman, seaming away and taking the edge through to Prior. The best, though – or worst, from an Australian perspective – was yet to come.

I’m not sure whether Stuart Broad’s inspired spell, which had roughly the same effect on Australia’s innings as a tropical storm on a trailer park, was one of the greatest of modern times or an achievement of such magnitude that it just serves to throw those days on which he bowls wide, ineffectual dross into even starker relief. I’ll settle for the former for the time being, because however you want to define that elusive “zone” that sportsmen aspire to, that makes them superhuman in the eyes of us more earthbound mortals, Stuart Broad was not only in it, but he had made himself at home, rearranged the furniture and signed a nine-over five-wickets-for-22-runs lease, with Michael Clarke’s scalp as down-payment. Clarke can count himself unlucky to have been the recipient of two best-of-series, destined-for-YouTube, unplayable deliveries – the other, of course, being the thunderbolt sent down by Jimmy Anderson at Trent Bridge.

Broad was deservedly Man of the Match for that performance, but Ian Bell deserves his share of the laurels as well. Even with 17 Test centuries to his name before this series, there have always been niggling doubts about his “ticker”, his appetite for a fight, when his side are up against it and tough runs are required. His three centuries this series have set England back on an even keel when the early loss of their top three has seen them listing to starboard. His partnership with Pietersen was wonderful to watch, particularly with memories of the latter’s magnificent Old Trafford knock still fresh in the memory. If Pietersen is Wagner – batsmanship as bombastic spectacle, all blaring brass and thundering timpani – Bell is a Haydn string quartet, with those legato cover-drives and glissando deflections to third man. Elegant salon cricket at one end, Valkyries and Götterdämmerung at the other.

Bell’s come a long way from his days as Shane Warne’s whipping boy. We may have laughed along with the “Sherminator” jibes at the time, but it looks like the grit was there after all; it’s only now we are seeing the pearl it’s become, and admiring its lustre.

Speaking of Warne, I enjoy his punditry enormously (and his bowling masterclass on Sky was a treat), but his insistent, niggling criticism of Cook’s captaincy on the last day – and in a subsequent article for the Telegraph – was the only bum note in an otherwise enjoyable commentary stint. A crafty attempt to undermine the opposition it may have been, but it also had the slightly desperate tang of sour grapes. I know that, ontologically speaking, true objectivity is impossible, and even with Warne on board the Sky team are still head and shoulders above their Channel Nine counterparts in terms of even-handedness, but it was still a bit much. It’s true that Cook may come off the poorer when compared to the more gung-ho, gut-feel captaincy of Clarke, but the ready-made riposte that it is England who have not only retained the urn but won the series seems hardly worth mentioning.

It’d be remiss of me, though, not to mention two notable performances for Australia. It’s a shame that Ryan Harris and Chris Rogers were on the losing side – how is Ryan Harris even still upright after three consecutive Tests? – but Harris’s career-best 7-117 in the second innings, and Rogers’ redoubtable maiden Test century on the second day were in the end all for nothing. They were let down by their team, and it will have hurt like hell. The challenge at the Oval on Wednesday will be to distil that disappointment into renewed determination. They will need to come out angry, and come out swinging. Pride ain’t much to play for, but it’s still something.

Old Trafford fizzles out, but the Ashes are England’s

Tuesday, August 6th, 2013

The last time England won the Ashes, it was at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, in bright sunshine, with an innings victory.

This time, they retained the urn on a dour, dank, drizzly afternoon at Old Trafford, during a terminal interruption in play, before which they’d been stodgily batting out time in order to avoid defeat – while still managing to lose three wickets. There’s something appropriately British about this scenario. And yet it feels odd.

It feels odd because of the wonky nature of the reality compared with the bullish predictions beforehand; nothing feels resolved. Perhaps it’s because of the brevity with which England have achieved their main objective – this series has been wrapped up in only 14 days of play – but it feels like we haven’t even begun to unravel the readiness of each side for Brisbane in November, or even in relation to each other.

Australia came close at Trent Bridge due to a freakish innings from their debutant number eleven. They then dashed expectations that they’d be a proper threat to England at Lord’s, where they batted like the man in the story by Borges who dreams he’s been tasked with upholding the honour of his family at a historic chess tournament fought regularly between two rival dynasties, only to realise as he takes his place at the board that he doesn’t even know the rules. Unfortunately for Australia, however, Lord’s was one nightmare from which they didn’t wake up.

And now this Test. If Old Trafford had been the first Test in the series, with four more to come, you’d be forgiven for thinking that England were done for. Kevin Pietersen finally answered the call of destiny that invariably rings out when greatness is needed, and Ian Bell’s form has been a pleasant surprise on the back of his recent travails, but with a paucity of runs from such previous stalwarts as Cook, Trott, and Prior, there are worrying gaps in England’s batting form, dry patches on an otherwise lush lawn that suggests this English garden might need some tending in readiness for the harsher climes of an Ashes series down under.

And what if Australia, buoyed by the fact they’d likely have had this match won if not for the rain, win the last two matches at Durham and the Oval and draw the series? England will have retained the Ashes, but only by default.

And, looking even further ahead, Australia’s top order finally seems to be coalescing; it’s reasonable to assume that David Warner, promoted back up the order to open with Chris Rogers in the second innings, will remain there come November, while the disappointing Shane Watson, who still offers something with the ball, will be demoted to six. The only questions surround captain Clarke’s position in the order – his magnificent 187 came at number four, where previously he has averaged only 21.51 – and whether there is still a place in the side for Phillip Hughes, who arguably did nothing wrong before being shunted aside to let prodigal son Warner back in.

The warning to never underestimate Australia hardly bears repeating, but it would seem after their Lord’s defeat, many had started to do just that. England are still, on paper, the better side, but they won the first Test by a tiny margin largely due to the fact they were unable to bag Agar’s wicket until he’d enhanced the scoreboard by 98 runs. England were dominant at Lord’s, and then against all expectation Australia put 527 runs on the board at Old Trafford after winning the toss, and would have won had the weather not intervened. Australia could easily go on and win the next Test. Or they could collapse in a heap the way they did at Lord’s. Nothing is clear-cut. England, similarly, could take their foot off the gas now that the urn (metaphorically) isn’t going anywhere, and a series result of 2-2 sounds a damn sight less impressive than the 5-0 whitewash many were predicting.

This was also the match in which we were given a timely reminder that Michael Clarke and Kevin Pietersen are crucial to their sides. Clarke finally scored a captain’s innings, albeit two Tests too late, and Pietersen helped set up what the weather finished with an innings of 113 when everyone else bar Cook and Bell failed to significantly add to England’s total. In both men the spirit is as willing as it ever was, but the body in each case is looking increasingly rickety. In the case of Clarke, it’s hard not to envision a physio’s folder bulging with X-rays, scans, printouts, rehab schedules and pain-relief dosages. The discs in Clarke’s spinal column have been degenerating since he was 17, probably even before that. You may marvel now at his cavalry-commander, lead-from-the-front batting, the cultured aggression against spin, the ability to fly the flag, on and off the field, for his team, but at what price further on down the line when he’s no longer playing the game? Pietersen too is, by his admission “an old man”, revealing that he had decided to forego surgery on his knee because it would have put him out of action for nine months. While there were still the predictable digs in the press at his perceived short-comings as a man rather than appreciation for his greatness as a batsman, there will never be another like him. The introvert who loves the big stage, the man whose simple attitude to life is made so needlessly complicated by others, the man who, in short, lights up a cricket ground like no other when he is putting bowling attacks to the sword… we should enjoy him while we can because his career, too, is approaching a crossroads in terms of balancing an impossible workload with a worn-out body.

It may have been a damp, sputtering denouement after all the red-hot hype, but if there’s one scintillating memory that remains, it was Kevin Pietersen’s outrageous shot that brought up his hundred, a shot Errol Flynn would have been proud of in his Hollywood swashbuckling pomp; a whirl of the bat above the head, blade angled just so, a flamboyant uppercut that sent the ball sailing over third man, and the crowd surging to their feet, roaring their approval. It was Pietersen’s 113 that dug the defensive moat around England’s castle at Old Trafford, and it was the rain that filled it.