Sunday, January 5, 2014

5-0. Natural order is restored.

The urn has returned to its rightful home. Equilibrium is restored. All is right in the world again. The Australia that we all knew and loved has awoken from her slumber. Is it not clear now? The last three Ashes series won by England were the freak aberration, not the 16 years' of Australian supremacy. The big, bad Australia that used to terrorise Englishmen for fun is back, back with a vengeance. Lick your wounds, England, for natural order has been restored, and Australians enjoy winning.

Banter aside, though, it has been a privilege, as an Australian, to witness this spectacular Ashes series. We've witnessed some of the best cricket that the Australian cricket team has produced in a very, very long time. The ghosts of collapse to South Africa, whitewash in India, and (relative) trouncing in England are exorcised with the sporting spectacle that has been the 2013-14 Ashes series. Australia had surely hit rock bottom in the 4-0 Indian whitewash, but look now. Surely this will go down as one of the great events in Australian sporting history, to come back from the ashes so quickly and completely (excuse the bad pun)? 

Although I didn't make any predictions like I did before the 2013 series in England (I might have jinxed us), I quite expected England to win this series, even if Australia got a better return this time. As a group of individual players, England were, and arguably still are, the better team, after all. Australia had one genuinely great batsman - Michael Clarke - while England had three - Alastair Cook, Kevin Pieterson and Ian Bell. Australia had two world-class bowlers - Ryan Harris and Mitchell Johnson - while England had three - Jimmy Anderson, Stuart Broad and Graeme Swann. I fully expected Alastair Cook to come triumphantly out of his run of poor form (remember the last time he came to Australia?), for Pieterson to bully our bowlers to tears, for Bell to continue churning out hundreds for fun, for Swann and Broad to wreak havoc. So I am confounded that it didn't turn out that way, especially so in the case of Cook. Yes, I am honestly surprised that Australia won this series; I'm astonished, pinching myself, that Australia have won it 5-0. I saw England winning the series perhaps 2-1 or 3-2, yet Australia have won every single Test match convincingly. Unlike the last Ashes series in England, the scoreline does not flatter the winning side at all: 5-0 is a profoundly accurate reflection of the dominance Australia have displayed over England in every match and nearly every session of this series.

Just by way of comparison:

Australia have made 10 hundreds to England's 1.

Australia have made a total of over 300 runs in an innings 5 times to England's 2 times.

Australia have bowled England out for under 200 runs 6 times, while England not once.

Quite astounding, if you remember that, immediately before the Gabba Test, Australia's top seven batsmen shared an aggregate average of 38.15 (excluding Bailey) compared to an average of 43.55 for England's top seven, or 42.91 without Trott. Verily, this is an example of an ordinary team doing extraordinary things, and an extraordinary team doing very ordinary things. Throughout this series, Australia have been more than the sum of its parts, while, conversely, England have been far, far less than the sum of its parts.

One thing I think is worth noting is that, going into the England Ashes series, Australia were widely seen to be a ragtag rabble; old timers Chris Rogers and Brad Haddin had been co-opted into the side to provide some much-needed experience in what was a side of inexperienced and largely unproven youngsters who had barely played with each other. In contrast, England were the established, experienced side with a formidable lineup of battle-hardened veterans. Now, on the other end of this six-month back-to-back Ashes odyssey, the tables are turned: Australia look like the established, settled team, while England are the inexperienced rabble. To be sure, this perception might be compounded by the absence of Jonathan Trott and Graeme Swann from the England side in the last four and two Tests, respectively, and by Australia's having played the same XI for five consecutive Tests. But it's true enough, isn't it? This Australian side is now a settled side, at least for the next couple of years. This Australian side has proven that they work extremely well together as a unit and that together they can play a standard of cricket that is greater than the sum of their parts. Conversely, three debutants in the Sydney Test tells me that England will undoubtedly be having a long, hard think about who will play in the England cap from this point forward. Trott may return to the Test team in time, but he won't return to the team he last played with at the Gabba.

As for Australia, what lies ahead? Australia's next challenge is South Africa, the reigning world champions of Test cricket. As much as this whitewash over England has shown this Australian team's mettle and skill, South Africa are a much more formidable opponent than England, and we are playing them on their home turf. There is a reason why South Africa obstinately remain the best Test team in the world - several reasons actually: Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel, Vernon Philander, Graham Smith, Hashim Amla, and AB de Villiers; the uncontested best bowling attack in the world and among the best batsmen in the world. I just can't see Australia coming out on top in South Africa, but then again, I fully expected Australia to lose this Ashes series. It's a three Test series, so I trepidatiously predict that South Africa will win 3-0. I hope to God that I will be proven wrong, though.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Thoughts on the series so far

I'm writing this in the Tea break on the fourth day of the Third Test at the WACA. Australia are two up in the series so far, and England are staring down the gun barrel of a third consecutive loss. The Ashes are as little as one session within reach for Australia. Here are some of my thoughts on the series so far.

Australia's supremacy or England's weakness?

In three consecutive Tests, Australia has set England a lead of over 500 to chase. According to the commentators, that has never happened before, ever. Australia's batsmen have made seven hundreds thus far in the series; England's have made none. Australia have made an innings total above 400 twice (including a 570); England not once.

What's happening? England are being steamrolled much more comprehensively than Australia were in the English summer. I felt dejected during the last Ashes series, but I can only begin to imagine what it must feel like to be an England fan now. There was no question of Australia being better than the 3-0 scoreline for the last Ashes series seemed to suggest, but this is a complete turnaround in fortunes. I expected England to win this series by perhaps a 3-1 or 2-1 margin. Now it seems that a 5-0 whitewash for Australia is by no means off the cards, as Glenn McGrath, for once, will be pleased to know.

It's hard to process what's taken place. Have Australia rediscovered the old mojo? Mitchell Johnson has certainly been the X-factor for Australia this series, but Australia's success can't be put down solely to Mitch. I feel that it partly has to do with England being weaker this series. It's not only that Trott has been missing from the England batting lineup for the second and third Tests, it's also that England have been poor and mentally weak in all departments of the game. Many England wickets have been self-induced - complete gifts for Australia. England's fielding has been poor, and their bowling hasn't been up to their usual standard. Australia have been good enough to exploit that weakness, making England spend excessive time in the field watching the Ashes slip away from them run by run.

I was wrong about David Warner

Boy, was I wrong about David Warner. After India, I had him down as inexorably on the fast track out of the Test team, to be consigned in perpetuity to a flashy yet quaint and supremely unmemorable career in the Big Bash. He was dropped from the Test side in the last Ashes series in England before being flown back in after making 193 against South Africa A. I've got to admit, I had written him off. I didn't think he was suited to Test cricket. I used to get very anxious every time he came to the crease. I thought he was a liability, and that it would, ultimately, be a good thing if he were to be permanently dropped to make way for a proper opener.

But this Ashes series, he's gone and proven me very wrong. His batting figures thus far this series are: 49, 124, 29, 83*, 60, 112. Something has obviously changed. Has his girl made an honest man of him? Is his commitment to become the next Mr Cricket paying off? Whatever it is, it's working. To be sure, the way he lost his wicket in the last of his innings was incredibly reckless and unprofessional, but he has an average for 91.40 for the series so far, the highest average of both the Australian and England sides. He now has a career average of 43.21. Fair play to the man, he has completely changed my mind about him through the sheer brilliance of his performance. Not many people can do that. I can now say definitively that I see Warner as being essential to the future of Australian cricket. Like Steve Smith, I think Warner is another exciting young prospect for Australia. At 27 years of age, Warner has a long career ahead of him; he can only get better from here, and I can see him maturing into a very talented, quality opener for Australia. We talk about the glory days of Australia being over - but if those glory days are ever to return, surely David Warner will be there in the thick of it.

Shane Watson haters gonna hate

I've written about this before. Shane Watson is the man who divides Australian cricket. He's like vegemite - you either love him or you hate him. The hatred of some of those who hate him borders on pathological. To their minds, there is no debate about it: he must be dropped and kept away from the Test team with a twenty-foot barge pole. To them, Shane Watson can do nothing right. Every success he makes is tainted or diminished in some way. Every failure is justification for dropping him. Therefore, it was no surprise to me when I read the reaction of one anti-Watsonite on Twitter when Watson got his hundred in this Test: "Kill me." There you have it: these people actually want Watson to fail. They would rather Australia's total have been one hundred runs less than for those runs to have been made by Shane Watson. Others were saying his hundred doesn't count because he was batting as if it were an ODI rather than a Test match. It's quite honestly pathetic, unsporting and unpatriotic. Where's the Aussie spirit of a fair-go? Quite clearly absent in these mean-spirited individuals. Why not recognise Watson for the genuine, albeit inconsistent, talent that he is? They can't, because their disdain for Watson is not rational, but emotional.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Why I'm not watching the India v Australia series

They should be at home!

Well, actually, it's mostly because it's only being shown on FOX Sports, and the television in my bedroom doesn't get pay-tv, meaning I'd have to move to my sitting room. And also because it's exam knuckle-down time for university students in Australia at the moment.

But that's beside the point.

If it were a Test series, I'd be all over it. You wouldn't be able to move me from that sitting room for anything other than food - not for sleep, not for work, not for study. Even if it were an ODI series at any other time of the year, I'd still at least be paying more attention than I am now.

But my boycott of the India v Australia ODI series is, in part, my silent protest about scheduling idiocy in Cricket Australia. Why, why, why, when Australia has a home Ashes series imminently approaching, are Australia gallivanting around India playing ODI's and T20's?

I realise that much of the squad won't be appearing in the baggy green come the 21st of November, but players like Watson, Hughes, Haddin, Johnson, Faulkner and McKay, even Bailey, should not be in India now. They should be home playing Sheffield Shield, preparing to face Cook, Trott, Pieterson, Bell, Anderson, Swann and Broad at the Gabba.

I realise that the Sheffield Shield doesn't begin until the end of this month. But that's not how it should be either. Our Test players, whether they're in India now or not, will get only 2-3 matches of first-class cricket to prepare for the Ashes. Not good enough.

Instead of putting the Ryobi Cup at the beginning of the cricket season in a whirlwind month-long contest (I presume to get it out of the way as quickly as possible), the time taken up by the Ryobi Cup should be allocated to Sheffield Shield rounds, and all Test players and prospective Test players should be playing in them.

The Sheffield Shield should run uninterrupted from October (if not from September) up to Christmas. The extra rounds before the Test series start should allow both the Test players to get into form and the younger up-and-coming guys to put their names forward for Test selection later in the Summer. Success against Glenn Maxwell and Scott Boland does not prove a player's mettle (no offence to Scott Boland); success against Michael Clarke and Ryan Harris does.

The Big Bash League can go in a month-long contest over January, to rake in the school-holiday revenues (that's the whole point of the BBL, right?). The Ryobi Cup can be spread over February and March, or else run concurrently with the BBL over January and finish sometime in February or March.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

How wrong was I?

Before the Ashes started, I made some outrageous predictions about how the series would pan out. Let's see how my divination skills have shaped up...

Michael Clarke will, on more than one occasion, save Australia from complete humiliation at the hands of the England bowlers (instead ensuring we only suffer slight humiliation).
This happened only once, when Clarke made his 187 at Old Trafford. Apart from that one innings, Clarke has not fired this series - one significant cause of Australia's batting woes. Is it the back problems?

Indeed, Michael Clarke will make at least two hundreds in the series. He may even make another double ton, if the old back holds out.
Well, this didn't happen. He almost made a double ton, yes, but it was his only hundred in the series. He passed 50 only twice. Despite this, Clarke averaged 47.63 for the series (accounting for his two not-outs), with 381 runs in total. He'd have averaged 27.71 if not for his 187.

Shane Watson, if he remains an opener for the duration of the series, will make a hundred. Maybe even two.
Shane Watson did make a hundred, although for the great majority of the series this looked like it might not happen at all. Remarkably, he actually averaged 41.8 for the series, making 418 runs in total; he would have averaged 26.89 if not for that 176, though. In any case, he made his 176 at no.3, not as an opener. Perhaps we've killed two birds with one stone: the no.3 dilemma and the Shane Watson dilemma.

Chris Rogers will be the second most solid Australian batsman in the series after Michael Clarke. He will certainly make a hundred.
Rogers averaged 40.78 for the series with 367 runs, although he made three scores above fifty - equal only to Steve Smith. I would actually say he was the most solid batsman, since Clarke and Watson, both of whom averaged higher than Rogers, only did so because of one great innings each.

Phil Hughes will manage to stand his ground - just - against the English pace bowlers, but will be tormented by Graham Swann.
Hughes averaged 27.67 for the series. He played four innings: 81*, 0, 1, 1. True, he showed some grit in his 81*, but I stand by my description of him as a "serial dud". The selectors seem to agree with me, since they dropped him after Lord's. And, indeed, two of his three dismissals were by Graeme Swann (both lbw).

Steve Smith will make a hundred. Or two. And will emerge from the series as the new darling of Australian cricket.
Steve Smith did indeed make a hundred. It was truly glorious to watch. But, in fairness, he did not perform as well over the series as I had originally predicted: one hundred, two fifties, at a reasonable average of 38.33. He hasn't emerged as a "darling" as such, but at least is now seen as a long-term Test batsman. The no.5 spot will be his for the foreseeable future.

David Warner, if he gets a bat, will struggle severely to hold his own against the England bowlers. This may be the beginning of the end for David Warner's Test career.
Warner played three Tests, making one score above 50 and averaging 23.00 for the series. Despite this, I very much doubt Warner is going to be dropped any time soon. His 193 on the African tour torpedoed him back into the Test side, and, unless his Test form plateaus from here, he will very likely remain in the side for a long time to come. Which is good, I think...

Jackson Bird will be the scourge of the England batsmen.
In one Test, Bird took a grand total of two wickets for 125 runs. Doesn't exactly set the world alight, that. It's strange, since his first-class figures are so freakishly good. Perhaps he had trouble adjusting to the English conditions? Or perhaps we are seeing a manifestation of the State teams' damaging and self-interested practice of preparing result-oriented pitches, and that Bird is little more than an ordinary bowler whose results are made to look extraordinary by the help of doctored pitches. Or perhaps he just had a poor match. That's my hunch. It happens. After all, that lbw dismissal of Alistair Cook was absolutely sublime. And remember his debut? I still rate him as one of the best bowlers in Australia.

So will Mitchell Starc.
Yeah, that didn't happen. Over three matches, he took 11 wickets for 357 runs (average 32.45). Not terrible, but nothing special. At The Oval all he seemed to do was leak runs, bowl wides and, yes, take the occasional wicket. Like a poor man's Mitchell Johnson.

James Faulkner will not get a bowl. Unless Ryan Harris breaks down.
Faulkner was quite a find in the The Oval. 6 wickets in the match for 98 runs - an average of 16.33. I quite underestimated him. He seems a handy bat, too. Let's see more of him.

Ryan Harris will break down.
Amazingly, Ryan Harris played four matches in a row ... before promptly breaking down. But at least he had the consideration to wait before the Ashes were finished before contracting a hamstring problem. Averaging 19.58 over four Ashes Tests (including two five-fors), Harris has shown what a class act he really is. Easily one of the best pace bowlers in the world now.

And the end scoreline? England win 3-1.
I was close, I suppose. England did win three matches. Australia had four chances to win one: one will go down as one of the great Ashes Tests in history; one will be remembered for what could have been, if not for the ruddy weather; one will be remembered for a bungled opportunity; and one will be remembered for a brave display of captaincy that unfortunately didn't pay off (#losetowin).

Now just wait for my next round of outlandish predictions for the home Ashes series in Australia.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Steve Smith comes good

I knew this would happen. Darren Lehmann had said at the press conference following the Test at Chester-le-Street that a few of the Australian players would be playing for their careers at The Oval. He didn't name names, but you knew the players whom he was talking about: Usman Khawaja, Shane Watson, Steve Smith. There was pressure on each of these batsmen to prove their worth, prove they deserved their place in the team. Khawaja was dropped before he got his chance. Shane Watson made 176. Yesterday, Steve Smith made 138*.

I knew this would happen. I knew that, faced with the prospect of, yet again, being exiled from the Australian team, Steve Smith would pull his head in and bring out his best game. Steve Smith is a very talented cricketer who shows great promise and has the capacity to go on to do great things for Australia. It was clear from when he made 92 in India, in his first innings back from a two-year exile, that it was not a matter of if, but when he would make his maiden Test century. And now it's come, and in the Ashes to boot. Now let's have more of it, please, Mr Smith.

In some ways it is better that he got his maiden hundred here than at Old Trafford. At Old Trafford, you got the sense that Smith was being babied to his hundred by Michael Clarke, who was letting Smith take it slowly and easily when Australia ought to have been trying to score quickly at that point in their innings. Here, there was no Clarke to hold Smith's hand as he toddled over the line. After Watson went, Smith became the senior partner out in the middle, and maturely and with composure, off his own bat, made his way to a hundred, and beyond.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Watson vindicated

That's my boy. What did I say? I always knew he had it in him. An Ashes 176. Raise the bat, and be proud. You deserve it, Watto.

It looked like his Test career was nosediving, but then he goes and does that. A testament to the fact that Shane Watson really is a quality batsman - he really does have the ability to flourish at Test level, as this muscular, manful innings has shown.

I doubt that will deter his detractors from insisting he be dropped, though. Watson polarises opinion among the Australian cricket-following fraternity: you either love him or hate him. And those who hate him really hate him. You get the sense that they want him to fail; you get the sense that his detractors were willing Watson to go cheaply again so they could continue in their smug denigration of him. Doubtless they'll make excuses to belittle his innings: he scored too fast, he hit too many boundaries, he was pretending to play one-day so it doesn't count, etc. Really pathetic.

Now let's see more of this, Watto, my lad.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

An open letter to the Australian selectors

My dear selectors,

As I sit down to write this, it is one hour and forty-eight minutes until the beginning of the Fifth Test. I would have been marginally optimistic about our chances at The Oval, but now I'm not. This is why.

Earlier today my ever-diligent Twitter feed informed me that Usman Khawaja and Jackson Bird were to be swapped out of the side for James Faulkner and Mitchell Starc, respectively. I greeted this news with my trademark facepalm of incredulity and exhaustion. It's not that I don't rate the two players selected (in Starc's case re-re-selected); my problem is that, yet again, you feel the need to chop and change the side in a desperate bid to find the "winning combination" that will miraculously reverse Australia's decline and enable us to win Test matches again. As though the solution were that simple. As though it were even a solution at all.

I feel you have been frighted by the way this Ashes series has panned out so far. Admittedly, 3-0 does not look good, but 3-0 disguises the fact that this Ashes series has been a much more closely-fought contest than the scoreline suggests. Just as 1-0 disguised the fact that Trent Bridge could very easily have been Australia's, 3-0 disguises the fact that the tables could easily have been turned: the series could easily have been 3-0 to Australia but for a variety of turns of fortune. Had Haddin and Pattinson been able to push on to snag those last 15 runs at Trent Bridge; had the rain held off on the fifth day of Old Trafford; had Stuart Broad not inexplicably found the form of his life in Australia's second innings at Chester-le-Street: Australia could have been 3 matches up right now.

But it so happens that Australia is not. It so happens that Australia, instead, is 3-0 down on the day of the Fifth Test. Irregardless, Australia have performed better than the unflattering scoreline suggests. In the same way, England have performed worse than 3-0 suggests. Of England's main three batsmen - Cook, Trott and Pieterson - only Pieterson has performed anywhere near his best. With Root, Bairstow and Prior having proven to be lame ducks (other than Root's stellar, yet anomalous, 180), England has largely been dragged across the line by the heroic efforts of Ian Bell, their one success story this series. England have not yet posted an innings total above 400. Australia have. All of Old Trafford and most of Chester-le-Street were dominated by Australia. England have not dominated this series any more than Australia have.

That has not stopped you, the Australian selectors, from frantically cannibalising the Australian lineup after every loss. Rather than holding your nerve and being brave enough to play the same side, or largely the same side, for a whole series, you've descended into a frenzy of ritual slaughter. Ed Cowan, despite having been a regular in the Australian top order for well over a year now, was dropped after one match. His successor, Usman Khawaja, has now been dropped after only three matches. Jackson Bird was dropped after one match for, I suppose, not being as successful as his exceptional figures promised. Whether these changes were for better or for worse, I'm struggling to understand the reasoning. All I see is knee-jerk, reflexive responses to matches that haven't gone the way we wanted them to.

You see, chaps, it is one thing to always play the best performers. It is quite another to keep changing the side when our "best performers" aren't delivering the results we wanted them to. Every player goes through rough patches. You can't expect batsmen to consistently make 40+ runs every innings, or for bowlers to take 4+ wickets every innings (especially when Ryan Harris is taking them all). Moreover, you can't pluck players with little or no international experience from domestic cricket, expect them to immediately perform to form in Test cricket, and then drop them when they don't meet your lofty expectations. Nurturing quality Test cricketers takes time, commitment and, above all, patience. When a player is always aware that he is playing for his spot in the side, he will rarely perform to his best. Apprehension, nerves and doubt will enter his game, and he will play negatively and unnaturally.

So my plea to you is this: pick the XI, and a couple more, whom you want to be Australia's long-term Test players*. Stick with them. Invest in them. Commit to them. Let them develop. Let them know that their place in the side is settled. If they don't immediately perform, stick with them. If they go through rough patches, stick with them. If they don't make a hundred until their 26th Test or even pull their average above 30 until their 23rd Test, stick with them. The selectors of the '80s and '90s did for Steve Waugh, and just look how he turned out.

There is no quick-fix to take Australia back to ascendency. This is a rebuilding process that takes time and long-term investment. We may not see the fruits of our labour for years. But constantly changing the face of the Australian side at this dizzying rate is vain, damaging, and achieves nothing. Put in the hard yards to rebuild Australian cricket and you will be rewarded. I promise.

*An exception can be made for Chris Rogers.