Smith has no right

Don Bradman, Sachin Tendulkar and..?

Debates about who joins this company will never end. Perhaps no other player does.

The next rung on the ladder is impressive and difficult to split.

Brian Lara, Jacques Kallis, Kumar Sangakarra, AB de Villiers, Alastair Cook, Rahul Dravid, Ricky Ponting. That’s just the modern era.

Viv Richards, Desmon Haynes, Garry Sobers, Greg Chappell, Graeme Pollock, George Hedley.

We could go on, but we are trying to determine if anyone joins the elitest of the elite: Bradman and Tendulkar.

There’s Steve Smith. The fastest player to 22 hundreds in the history of  Test cricket. Faster than Bradman, faster than Tendulkar. He scored his 22nd hundred at Perth today. He is now more than half way to Ricky Ponting’s 41, the most of any Australian.

It took Ponting 168 matches to make 41 Test tons. Smith has 22* from 58* matches.

It took Tendulkar 200 matches to make 51 Test tons and 15921 Test runs.

Smith has a third of Tendulkar’s runs (5650* and counting) from just over a quarter of the matches. His Test batting average is 62 and he averages over 73 as Australian captain. He is only 28 and his numbers are outrageous.

How far can Smith go?

For purists there is some doubt. A sense that you cannot forge a great career with that style.

Smith has no right with that technique. So unconventional it’s a disgrace: back and across and squaring up. When he does get out LBW it is ugly.  But it is mightily effective.

He scores runs all around the ground against all forms of bowling and the shots, when executed, look as good anyone else’s.

He can attack, be patient, withstand fire and pace and unlike many Australian batsmen of the recent past, Smith is not a flat track, home ground bully.

He has scored runs everywhere.

He has three tons in England, including a double at Lords, tons at home against Pakistan, West Indies, New Zealand, India and England. A ton away in South Africa, another in Sri Lanka, another in the Caribbean, another in New Zealand and three centuries in India.

The quality of bowling across an era is a factor.

Smith has not faced the best of the West Indies or Pakistan but he has faced some of the best ever from England and excellence from South Africa, India, Sri Lanka and New Zealand.

Smith’s contemporaries include Virat Kohli, AB de Villiers and Joe Root.

Kohli and Smith are in front of the other two and on numbers and spread of hundreds across the globe, Smith is ahead of India’s new legend.

Debating greatness will fill many more columns and drive raucous arguments around the bar, but it is now undeniable that Steve Smith is worthy of inclusion in all discussions.

Extreme Ashes rivalry exposed

A deep roar rumbles around the Gabba. Summer has arrived. England are here.

Thousands of eager fans will pour up Brisbane’s Vulture Street toward the Gabba on Thursday morning for the first Ashes Test. Sweaty from the moist morning heat, the punters will gather in bars around the ground and resume endless predictions and debates about what will unfold throughout the series.

At this point, opposing fans might as well be different species. You only have to explore the comments on popular cricket pages to see the extremity inspired by the Ashes rivalry.

Some fans are certain of their opponent’s flaws and equally sure of their own nation’s superiority in every measure, but they’ve all imagined losing the Ashes and it is a catastrophic thought.

On the first morning in Brisbane, ice cold amber liquid flows from frosty taps and the pubs roar with arguments, laughter and reflections on past series.

Fans share their confidence, optimism and insecurity.

Inside the ground the GABBA’s smooth and shiny pitch lay uncovered, absorbing the morning’s sparkling sun. Its lightening fast surface awaits the anxious players, who in turn hear the rising chorus from outside the ground.

The toss of the coin approaches. It’s time to go in.

The first morning in Brisbane is a cultural icon. Cut into the late Australian spring, it signals the shift to summer’s bush fires, hail storms, cyclones and Test cricket.

Brisbane’s cricket ground is a graveyard for visiting teams. Australia haven’t lost a Test Match there since 1988. Twenty eight consecutive matches have passed without defeat.

It’s the GABBATOIR and by late-afternoon on the first day, it will be a cauldron of fire.

Lubricated by thousands of litres beer, the outer will be rocking. Especially if English wickets are falling at the hands of Australia’s formidable fast bowling attack.

Equally possible is the prospect of tumbling Australian wickets. Batting collapses are now as frequent as Steve Smith hundreds. Warner’s runs are vital but if Smith has a bad series, Australia will struggle.

Same for England. If Root fails, who gets runs?

England’s all time leading Test run scorer, Alistair Cook, has a big job. He must occupy the crease for long periods, protect the softish middle order and force Australia’s injury prone fast bowlers to toil away for long spells.

On the whole, this is a contest between two relatively ordinary sides. That will be good for neutral spectators. It might be low quality, but highly unpredictable and entertaining.

With Root, Cook, Stuart Broad and England’s all time leading wicket taker, Jimmy Anderson, the touring side has proven quality. But it’s the last tour for three of that four. Can they rise again?

If Ben Stokes does indeed join Moeen Ali in the middle order at some point this series, England’s spine would look tougher than Australia’s.

Have the Australian selectors got it right with Shaun Marsh and Tim Paine? Will Usman Khawaja and Peter Handscomb deliver?

Runs at the death will be invaluable. Whose tail will wag the most?

It could be a tight series. We haven’t had one Australia for decades.

From here. Both sides can win. Lower scores and dramatic fourth innings run chases will feature and the victor shall be the side with the greatest resilience to withstand frantic periods of intense battle.

Australia 3-2?

55 years ago English tourists crushed Queensland Country

Cool weather, clouds and a splash of rain greeted England for its final Ashes tour match in Townsville, 55 years since the MCC last played in the city in 1962.

The weather presented a strange scenario few predicted.

North Queensland’s normally hot and humid November climate persauded England’s tour planners to play the team’s final Ashes warm up match in Townsville.

Townsville has a long and relatively unknown cricket history, which includes matches involving Bradman, West Indian cricket royalty and past England touring sides. England hoped Townsville’s heat would acclimatise the players: the local conditions often cause club cricketers to endure bursting tropical humidity and beaming sunshine.

Besides the conditions, the clash will offer critical insight into England’s chances of beating Australia, with the first Ashes Test kicking off in Brisbane on 23 November.

England will play at Townsville’s Riverway Stadium against a Cricket Australia XI coached by one of England’s most prolific first class run scorers, Graeme Hick, who never quite converted First Class runs into Test longevity.

Hick, who scored over 40,000 first class runs and 144 centuries, will be joined by the Australian Troy Cooley, who gained notoriety for being the coach of England’s bowling attack during the famous 2005 Ashes Series, which included ‘mintgate’.

England have been before

Part of Townsville’s rich and relatively untold cricket history involved a match between the Marylebone Cricket Club and a Queensland Country XI at the Townsville Sports Reserve in 1962.

Playing as the MCC in its tour matches during the 1962-63 Ashes Series, England’s match in Townsville was one of an astonishing 27 played by England on the tour.

The result was an outright victory for the MCC team, which included Italian born England captain Ted Dexter, off-break specialist Ray Illingworth and the ordained minister and Bishop of Liverpool, David Sheppard.

The Queenslanders managed scores of 165 and 138 against the MCC’s 423. The 62-63 Ashes Series ended in a 1-1 draw. An omen perhaps?

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Townsville hosted England on 7-8 December, 1962: ‘Long Trek Ahead of M.C.C. Team’, North Queensland Register, 13 October 1962, 39.

Future Test venue

Townsville has a fabulous world class cricket venue set among river parkland, with a mountain backdrop.

The city hosted a thrilling Sheffield Shield match in 2016 and in 1987 at the city’s Endeavour Park, Queensland defeated a West Indian side, which included Haynes, Richardson, Gomes, Richards, Dujon, Marshal and Garner.

Townsville also hosted the under-19 50 over World Cup in 2012 and A-list tour matches including India, South Africa and Australia in 2015.

It is hoped that the city can host Test cricket in the future.

Australian preparations

Sheffield Shield matches attract additional media interest at the beginning of the Australian Test season, before being shunted to the periphery by the Big Bash.

This year, it’s no different. Speculation has mounted that Australia could drop Matt Renshaw for either Cameron Bancroft or Shaun Marsh. Bancroft, in particular has been prolific among the runs. A Shield double-century has elevated his stakes. Surely, however, this is mere speculation.

Despite a poor opening to the Shield season with no score over 20 in five starts, Renshaw has done enough in the Test arena to justify selection. Renshaw and Warner could become a great team. Renshaw just needs to rotate the strike more often to avoid being tied down and allow Warner more regular involvement.

It remains unclear who will bat at six for Australia. Glenn Maxwell, George Bailey, Moises Henriques, Jake Lehmann, Marcus Stoinis, Aaron Finch, and even Mitchell Marsh (again), are contenders. Perhaps Bancroft should come in at 6? Mike Hussey’s history as an opener did not prevent him from becoming prolific in Australia’s middle order.

The wicket keeper position also remains unfilled. Although he too has scored few runs in the Shield, Peter Nevill looks set for a return over Matt Wade and Alex Carey.

Would Australian selectors shock the world and select players on the basis of Shield form? If so, there will be new faces.

Let’s wait and see.

For now, those of us in North Queensland will enjoy scrutinising England’s prospects at emerging the least ordinary this summer, of what, it must be said, are two of the most underwhelming Test teams Australia and England have produced in some time.

A quick check of the form guide and the personnel in both squads suggests this could be one of the lowest quality Ashes series seen this century. Nonetheless, it should still be a great contest, not least between who scores more: Root or Smith?

Play with the crowd at your peril

Renshaw graced the boundary late on day two. He played with the fans over the fence, clapped, entertained and danced a jig. This went on for forty minutes before Cummins and Hazlewood took the new ball for the final four overs.

It was a critical time in the game and a period of pace and fire from the quicks could secure Australian supremacy. Cummins steamed in and snicked up Saha. The edge flew to first slip and Renshaw spilled a sitter. Renshaw has been great this series but the young man lost focus on the fence at a critical time and it may have contributed to the drop.

India were sixty behind Australia at the time and Saha and Jadeja put on 99 runs for the seventh wicket and India were able to set a lead of 32. Australia will need to score at least 250 to push India.

It’s hard to ignore the crowd. They’re young, keen and many of them love the Australian players. Glenn Maxwell is hugely popular. Recently named the new captain of Kings XI Punjab, the locally based IPL team, Maxwell’s name has been chanted and his every move applauded.

It’s hard to imagine an Australian crowd treating a foreign BBL player the same during a heated international Test series.

But India is different. In many ways. There’s an intoxicating vibe here, something is happening everywhere, all the time. It’s a country on the move. There’s a clear vision of a bright future and a progressive, nation-wide march. It’s evident in the conversations you have with people, you see it on the television and hear it in the streets.

Don’t get me wrong. India has massive challenges. Inequality, poverty, environmental issues, technical challenges, the list is long. But stuff is getting done and India is rising.

This contrasts sharply with Australia, which has ground to a halt. India is thriving with fresh energy, excitement and aspiration and Australia is stuck on a roundabout.

Cyclone Debbie and north Queensland

It’s a little difficult to concentrate on the cricket today. My family, friends and home in north Queensland are feeling the first winds of Cyclone Debbie. The cyclone has continued to track further south toward Bowen and my thoughts and best wishes are with my fellow north Queenslanders. Stay safe everyone.

 

 

 

 

O’Keefe blasts shot of the day in snowy mountains

It’s the 78th over and Umesh Yadav screams in. Steven O’Keefe steps froward and smashes him straight back down the ground for four runs. Shot of the day.

What about Smith’s innings though? Supreme quality once again. Noted for his ungainly, stepping across and squaring up technique, Smith just gets it done. His balance and stability is exceptional. The shots that emerge at the end of all the fidgeting, squatting and stepping are as good as anything you’ll see in the modern game.

He was irate at himself for his dismissal but probably not as frustrated as he was at his fellow batsmen. The standard he sets and demands of his troops is high. Hard work, vigorous dedication and fight for momentum. Some of his mates let themselves down today but let’s not forget the bowling.

India surprised a few by not picking a back up batsmen for the injured Virat Kohli. They didn’t even pick Mohammed Shami. Instead they chose Bhuvinesh Kumar for Ishant and debuted the Chinaman Kuldeep Yadav.

Bhuvi was unlucky. Snicked up Warner first ball of the Test. Dropped by Karun Nair. But Kaldeep did the business. Trapping four wickets and stunning a few of the Aussie batsmen.

A moment in Kaldeep’s performance stuck out. Four wickets into his career, as fans chanted his name (literally), he delayed the game and called skipper Rahane and senior spin partner Ashwin in for a mid-pitch conference. Arms waved about. The young fella set demands and the field changed.

The kid could be a keeper but the Aussies hadn’t seen him before and admittedly, I have a soft spot for the oft harshly treated leggy, even if he is a lefty.

Back to O’Keefe’s drive for four in the 78th over.

The shot showed the wicket is good. That should concern Australia, just a little. Three hundred was a good result after a disastrous second session where India’s bowlers crashed through five top order players. The Aussies had been 1/131 at lunch.

Locals at the ground were happy with India’s position at stumps, thinking that after the first session Australia would be 400 by day’s end. But they lamented the Cummins-Wade partnership, feeling that once Ashwin removed Smith circa 208/6, they should have had Australia all-out for about 225.

Wade batted well though and the tail produced an invaluable wag.

What was it like at the ground?

I’ve seen every Test venue in Australia except Adelaide, probably the best one I hear? I’ve seen Lords, Chester-le-street in Durham, Edgbaston and Kensington Oval in Barbados and Queens Park Oval in Trinidad.

Dharamshala is the best ground I’ve seen. Actually. It’s the best ‘thing’ I’ve seen. Fans of Newlands may disagree, but Dharamshala must be the best? It seems unreal. Many fans I chatted to both from India and Australia mentioned dreamy periods throughout the day where they simply forgot the game and stared at the backdrop.

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The crowd was confusing though. Disappointingly small, but young in demographic and certainly loud and enthusiastic. They knew their stuff.

Unfortunately there is no beer at Indian grounds. But that made the climb back up the hill and the arrival at our 270 year old heritage hotel pretty special. Ice cold beers were cracked and plans were made to see Hazlewood and Cummins rip in tomorrow (today for most of you).

Could Kohli miss the Himalayan decider?

High up the mountains in McCleod Ganj the Indian team ate. Word broke among the people and they came to hold vigil and chant Kohli’s name. Armed guards thronged the square and held back crowds of locals, Indian tourists, Buddhist monks and taxi drivers.

Hundreds gathered in the hope of seeing Virat Kohli and Team India. They waited patiently and were rewarded with a glance and a wave before Kohli and the other players escaped to sleep further up the Himalayas.

It was the night before last. We had taken a taxi to a striking restaurant spotted earlier in the day. A mountain pine tree grew through its small front balcony, which fronted the main square of this small township connected to Dharamsala and myriad other towns by busy spiraling lanes full of people, traffic, markets and stray animals. We didn’t know it would be the same restaurant chosen by India.

Unable to enter until the team had finished we took up residence at a bar high above the square, on a level opposite the Indian team. Absorbing the scene while sipping the 8% ‘extra strong’ Kingfisher beers we chatted cricket, the IPL, the popularity of Test Match and the scandals of the series. It was great fun.

The Indian team departed amid huge cheers, screams of joy and chants of Kohli and India.

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Himachal Pradesh has exceeded our expectations. It is a thoroughly striking landscape and its towns, people and infrastructure unfold all around you in a topographic labyrinth.

Although it has been warmer than expected, snow still caps the highest peaks. Home to the exiled Buddhist Tibetan Government – which was invaded and been under Chinese control since the 1950s – the region has a strong Tibetan and Buddhist influence. His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s temple and Monastery and other sacred sites, military bases, Anglican churches from the British era and natural beauties define the area. An extraordinary setting for one of the most highly anticipated Test Matches this century.

In big news today, a replacement has been called in to cover Virat Kohli. Mumbai bastmen Shreyas Iyer will arrive in Himachal on Friday in case Kohli does not recover from a shoulder complaint. Mind games or not it has stimulated anxiety among locals. Surely Kohli will play.

In other news, which no doubt has reached Australia and beyond, the pitch is expected to favour quick bowling. Fast and bouncy is the word and India has also brought in Mohammed Shami who has had success this season on the Dharamsala pitch.

Australia is claiming that all the pressure is on India. But that card no longer seems valid. Before the series Australia were not expected to win anything and the pressure was on India to prove their vast superiority. But the Pune thrashing changed the game. Australia is under pressure because the holy grail of a series victory in India is within its grasp. Both sides are under the pump.

We’ll make our way down to the ground for the first time tomorrow to pick up match tickets and perform a reconnaissance of the area ahead of day one. Probably have a few more of those ‘extra strong’ Kingfishers too!

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Dharamsala dreaming

Few expected Australia to be here. Heading to the fourth and final Test Match in India with a strong chance of winning the series. Actually. Nobody predicted this.

India are red hot at home and they are frothing to beat Australia. They had a massive chance to go 2-1 up today in Ranchi. Personally I thought we were done. 2 wickets down, 130odd behind on 1st innings and heading into the fifth day. Chances were Jadeja and Ashwin were going to murder our top order.

After touring the Taj Mahal at dawn and then heading to the Agra Fort we headed to a shop to examine some marbel scultpures. All out of our price range. Conversation soon turned to cricket. Away from the hotel’s wifi we had no internet and needed a source of information. It wasn;t far

I spotted a young lad supposed to be selling gifts, but preoccupied by his phone. He was grinning. I guessed he was either talking to a flame or he was on CricBuzz and India were taking wickets. It was the latter.

A few blokes laughed after they saw our faces when the news broke. Smith was gone and we had lost 4/75 and were still 70odd runs behind on 1st innings. Surely we were gone.

Five hours and 124 runs later we were still alive. Shaun Marsh and Peter Handscomb had batted defiantly and resisted the predatory Indian spinners. The record books will show a draw, but this partnership and the performances by Smith and Maxwell then Pujarra and Saha were of supreme quality. On a pitch that had looked like rolled mud on day one we were treated to memorable batting.

Virat Kohli certainly wasn’t interested in offering an easy hand shake for a draw near the end. As the minimum overs remaining fell below 10, and Australia’s lead grew past 40, one might have expected the call for a draw. But Kohli pressed on, perhaps dreamily imagining that his bowlers could finish Australia and then chase 40 odd from 4-5 overs. A fanciful idea that demonstrated his competitive spirit and desperation for a result.

So here we are at 1-1. Kohli and India are under huge pressure to win. For Australia, a win here is the holy grail. Imagine having a life long dream to watch Test cricket in India, gambling your travel on the last Test of the series and it materalising as the great decider in the foothills of the Himalayas. What a thing!

We all head to Dharamsala in the far north of India in the coming days for what will be an explosive climax.

Shortly after celebrating the draw and relishing the prospect of the decider I peered out my hotel window and saw some kids playing cricket in a field. I hesitated for a moment and then scrambled to get my shoes on to head down and ask to join in. The kids were delighted, they tossed me the ball straight away. I was lucky enough to have a bat and a bowl before heading off buzzing from the experience of playing some backyard cricket in India. I only stayed about 15 minutes as more kids were coming down from the surrounding building and racing across the fields.

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