2013-14 Ashes Series

England Destroyed; Australia emphatically hammers Ashes cricket foe

Australia have hammered English cricket.

It has been destroyed by the grandeur of Australia’s incredible performance and a vicious disintegration of a once-great team’s continuity. Australia won the 5th Test by 281 runs. Cook won the toss, sent Australia in to bat and lost the Test match inside 3 days. Believe me, this is momentous and as retiring ABC Grandstand legend Kerry O’Keefe stated, “heads will roll”.

It’s not just the falling apart of this team, the 5-0 defeat will elicit an intense review of coaching, captaincy, leadership, culture and selection policy.

All sorts of cracks appeared early on the tour, and the way in which England keeled over and died on the third day of the fifth Test in Sydney confirmed the cracks had become deep cavernous ravines. The style of England’s cricket, their tactics, and the dressing room culture require change.

The writing was on the wall in England when they won the Ashes 3-0 at home. The 3-0 scoreline flattered England. Other than Lords, Australia fought closely in two defeats – a 14 run loss in Nottingham and a fourth innings collapse and 74 run loss in Durham. Everyone remembers how poorly Australia batted, but Australian batsmen made up 5 of the top 6 run scorers of that series. Only Ian Bell scored significant runs for England and many others failed averaging 30 or less. England’s bowling attack creaked, just slightly, papered over by the sheer overall quality of Anderson, Broad and Swann.

That trio is now finished. Swann has retired. James Anderson still has a lot to offer, but is 31 and Stuart Broad has been one of England’s better performers on the tour, but they need more depth. They’ll find it if they look in the right places and correctly blood and develop their next generation, but it will take effort and time.

22 year old New Zealand born Ben Stokes has been an epic revelation. Stokes is a handy cricketer with an aggressive attitude and a willingness to fight for his country. England is at a crossroad: either they fully commit to a considered process of renewal, or they enter a protracted decline that risks a 90s-style wilderness sabbatical.

Australia’s crossroad is more positive, but arguably equally as challenging. Captain Michael Clarke has stated that the squad’s ambition is to become the number 1 Test team in the world. The next 12 months presents that opportunity. In four weeks Australia tour South Africa. The 3 Test Matches against the number 1 Springboks will be absolute war, with two fiercely combative fast-bowling units attempting to strangulate two pugnacious batting line ups. Later this year Australia plays Pakistan in the UAE, which will present another intense examination. India visit for four Tests in the summer.

Can older players such as Mitchell Johnson, Brad Haddin and Ryan Harris continue to deliver? Will Steve Smith and David Warner develop further and become rock solid, world-class batsmen? Despite 6 of the top 7 getting centuries during this series there are still significant question marks about Australia’s batting.

The 5-0 victory is massive given the sporadic success of Australian national sports teams in recent years. The Australians have a right to celebrate hard. England did just that in 2010-11 when they took a 2-1 lead at the MCG. Back then 25,000 English surrounded the Barmy Army in the Southern Stand and, along with the English players and support staff, did the “sprinkler dance” in front of the world’s cricket media. I doubt we’ll see such a display here, but there will be plenty of banter and there damn well should be. Long live Test Match cricket.

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Cook won a toss, but dropped a Root

England’s Captain won his first coin toss of the series and surprisingly elected to field. When Australia slumped to 5 for 97 Alistair’s Cook’s decision was vindicated, Vic Flowers led the Barmy Army into song and for a brief moment the 4-0 scoreline was forgotten. Enter Brad Haddin and Steve Smith.

They put on 128 in an afternoon session that England will seek to forget, or analyse deeply if they’re serious about rebuilding, which we can somewhat doubt given the fact that they bizarrely dropped Joe Root. The 23 year old batsmen is one of England’s best prospects and would get a game in most Test sides as a lad for the future. He is not the worst performing bastmen for England on this tour, at times he has done well – a notable 87 in Adelaide – and has had to put up with batting at opener, 5, 6 and 3 in the year 2013 alone. If England want to rebuild for the future – as they have repeatedly stated – then Joe Root must be part of that future. Dropping him for this Test is a silly mistake.

Enough of that. Steve Smith, at 24 perhaps Australia’s closest comparable player to Joe Root, scored a brilliant hundred today, which rescued and returned ascendency to the hosts. Brad Haddin, who is the only player within a country mile of challenging Mitchell Johnson for Player of the Series, provided a substantial foil scoring 75 off 90 balls. In the circumstances, Haddin’s 75 represented a brutal counter-attack that smothered England’s bowlers. Haddin is not shy of on-field needle and sprayed England with aggressive verbals, body language and stroke play.

England’s bowling line up suffered with the loss to injury of debutant Boyd Rankin, who went off twice for an unknown injury. Perhaps Rankin should be playing for Ireland given that he was born in Derry in Northern Ireland. I only digress to this because Ireland has produced a number of Test standard players recently and the time is nigh for them to be included in Test cricket so that players like Rankin and Eoin Morgan can represent their own country.

After Ben Stokes, a brilliant find for England and a great prospect for the future, took his sixth wicket Australia had made 326. The Aussies nipped out Michael Carberry before stumps to have England somewhat reeling at 1/8. Carberry’s dismissal was not a good look for the talented Sir Viv impersonator from Surrey. An obvious leg slip trap was set and he obliged flicking a hip ball into the hands of a delighted Nathan Lyon. Carberry had got away with an unchallenged snick behind the ball before and surrendered weakly the ball after. At 33 Carberry had to wait far too long for an extended chance with England, but unless he shows more fight in tough circumstances his tenure is under threat too.

No golf tees or driver were required – Day One at the Ashes in Australia

Hair was torn from Australian scalps today and a bright sunny day in Brisbane failed to deliver a predicted violent thunderstorm. Golf ball-sized hail did not materialise. Besieged by storms in recent weeks, it was feared that Brisbane would again be battered by inclement weather, hence disabling the critical opening exchanges of the Australian Ashes.

As I staggered up Vulture Street in south Brisbane this morning, alongside thousands of other frothing cricket fans, it was 50+ suncream you wanted. Not an umbrella or Titleist driver.

Describing the vibe leads me to reflect. Today was nothing like 2006. You know? The home series after we lost 2-1 in England in 2005. The one where everyone in the Asia-Pacific pawned their grandmother to secure a ticket to the follow up Ashes Series in Australia. Today didn’t have the frantic pre-game buzz of that series or the anxious dry retch inducing tension.

Fans today were a little more circumspect, perhaps understanding that all that really stands between England winning four Ashes Series in a row for the first time in over 100 years is an immensely unexpected performance from Australia. Winning the toss was nearly the best thing that happened to the green and gold all day. On a top-notch batting strip, Michael Clarke sent us in hoping our top order could cash in.

At six wickets for 130-odd Australian fans were facing an horrific reality – being bowled out for stuff all on Day One in Brisbane on a batsman’s paradise.

Townsville boy Mitchell Johnson and wicket-keeper Brad Haddin dug Australia out of a fairly deep pit.  8/273 at the close of play turns out to be acceptable. But, let’s not be too tactful here – we can leave diplomatic dialogue to the Australian Government and bid them well in their attempts to salvage the rapidly declining relationship with Indonesia. We need to face the facts.

England are on top and Stuart Broad has been ignited. The attempts of the parochial Brisbane crowd – including me and my friends – to unnerve Broad fell to the wayside as the Nottingham quick ripped into the Aussies with aplomb.

Strangely enough, earlier in the day Broad inquired about changing a misshapen ball. A mate of mine, Ian, a tall fast-bowler similar in stature to Chris ‘The Giant’ Tremlett, leaned across and described a bizarre dream from the evening before where he was forced to bowl with a ball so beaten out of shape by furious batsmen, it resembled a potato. The umpire obliged a request to change the potato; Ian was provided a hexagon. Well, at least you might get some decent seam movement, I thought.

Australia’s attack will need loads of that tomorrow as it is certain that they’ll be bowling at England before lunch on Day Two. Here’s hoping Brad Haddin (78 not-out) goes all the way and scores a tonne before that happens.

See you tomorrow at the GABBA.

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The Little Master’s farewell & war between the old enemies

Welcome back men of gentle persuasion, and ladies who love or tolerate cricket. Only a few more days until the Ashes contest commences, so get the coronary surgeon on speed dial and book some leave from work. Five Tests in Australia, four in 2013 and one in 2014, and it all commences next week in Brisbane. Right now though, the game’s greatest batsmen of the past 25 years is playing his final ever Test Match in Mumbai.

Sachin Tendulkar

Enormous content will be generated in the wake of Tendulkar’s retirement. Eulogies and comparisons will trigger reflection and debate. The most prominent comparison will be between he and the late Sir Donald Bradman. I must assert that this is unnecessary. Both are brilliant batsmen, eternal legends of the sport, but the sheer gap in time between their careers and the vastly different conditions in which they plied their trade renders them incommensurable.

Tendulkar scored 74 against the West Indies yesterday and moving into Day Three, with the visitors 3 down and 270-odd behind on a 1st innings deficit, it’s likely we’ll never see the Little Master bat again. Perhaps the only man who can allow the world to see Tendulkar once more is West Indian legend Shivnarine Chanderpaul, who at 39 is playing his 150th Test. A rearguard innings from Shiv might see the West Indies force India to go around again, but it would have to be a timeless special. I hope the Guyanese hero can do it and with the big Jamaican Chris Gayle still in, there’s a slim chance.

I don’t think it should have ended like this though… a raging dispute between South African cricket’s CEO Haroon Lorgat and India’s BCCI has robbed the cricket world of what should have been an epic four or five Test match series in South Africa beginning on Boxing Day or in the new year. I argue that Sachin’s last stand would have been far more memorable had it been nutted out in the trenches of Test warfare against the world’s best, rather than in a hastily arranged “farewell” tour against an unprepared and relatively weaker West Indian side. Alas, scatter-gun personality politics and an unbridled BCCI gave us what we have.

Tendulkar’s record is stunning: he will have completed 200 Test matches, at least 51 Test centuries and amassed around 16,000 runs at an average over 53. He’s also knocked out over 18,000 runs in 463 One Day Internationals. He’s only played 1 international T20. Says a lot doesn’t it?

Goodbye and thank you Sachin, you’re a fine cricketer and a gentleman and as New Zealand’s former captain Daniel Vettori aptly described, “you’ve been in form longer than some of our guys have been alive”.

The Ashes Series in Australia

There’s no debate to be had on the assertion that England are favourites and Australia are underdogs. Beaten 3-0 in England only a few months ago, optimistic Australians have argued that there were many “moments” where we could have won Test Matches or forced a closer contest. Trent Bridge, Old Trafford and Durham spring to mind, but let’s examine a few truths.

England possess more proven quality, and they did manage to beat Australia 3-0 without their best batsmen firing. Ally Cook, Kevin Pietersen and Johnathon Trott didn’t pile on the runs in the old dart. It was the fine batting of Ian Bell supplemented by a collection of notable cameos that saw England through, and it was the relatively poor, often collapse-prone batting of Australia that ensured we couldn’t sufficiently return fire at the crease. Australia’s revolving selection door, which fostered about as much stability as a contemporary Egyptian democracy, seemed not to assist the Australian effort.

Australia’s strength was its bowling, particularly Ryan Harris. Australian fans should be energetically fist pumping at the prospect of a fully fit Harris, while the English should take note that this man presents a genuine threat to their hope of retaining the Ashes.

Of course, Australia requires more than the fine effort and return of any one man. Australia’s batting must deliver big runs. Not just from Michael Clarke. I fancy that the mean innings scores in Australia will be higher. Even more runs will be required. A tall order for Australia’s lean order, but not an impossible prospect.

First Test,The GABBA, Brisbane

Australia have recalled Mitchell Johnson and added One Day Captain George Bailey to their 12 man squad for the first Test. Johnson was a destructive force on a recent ODI tour of India and has a massive opportunity to excise demons from past Ashes campaigns, hit back at critics and reinstall himself in a Test team that faces South Africa the other side of the Ashes. George Bailey has been selected on the basis of ODI rather than Shield form – not ideal in my view – but I do think the Tasmanian has the character, maturity and mental resilience to succeed at Test standard.

The new faces join a list of players, all of whom played a part in the 3-0 defeat in England.

I think the squad is about right. Obviously Mitchell Starc and James Pattinson are injured and Phil Hughes and Usman Khawaja have been overlooked.

There’s some familiar speculation about Shane Watson’s fitness. Pending his fitness to at least bat, then I think James Faulkner will be 12th man and finally we’ll be picking a 6-1-4 formation. Four front line bowlers should be able to take 20 wickets.

England have had a long preparation in Australia, arriving in October and completing various tour matches. The only questions for them appear to be the fitness of wicket keeper Matt Prior and which fast bowler should accompany Stuart Broad and James Anderson.

It will be a cracking contest next week. There’s a lot of fierce storm activity in southern Queensland at the moment and I do fear this one will be interrupted by rain and possibly some golf ball-sized hail, so bring the driver and a few tees. A warning to English fans, the GABBA is nicknamed NAZI dome for the way its security and QLD police aggressively assert themselves in the lives of cricket spectators. The atmosphere will be great, but it would be so much better without the nanny state attempting to frog march 50% of patrons from the ground by Tea for a range of ludicrously petty “violations”.

Anyway, I’ll be there in Brisbane with a bunch of other cricket tragics, so I look forward to reporting pitch-side then.