Ashes Series

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?

621013 - North Queensland Register - MCC tour of Australia cricket -p39

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?

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.

Australia cruise to a 4 nil lead as England capitulate, again

A short time has passed since I last doused this blog with fresh words analysing the Ashes Series. Christmas commitments, holidays and playing host to international guests squeezed my time and robbed me of the personal creative introspection I need to write anything worth glancing at.

Despite being time poor in the festive season, as I’m sure all of you were too, I still managed to absorb the ultimate cricket exchanges. I’ve spent much of the last couple of days at the Melbourne Cricket Ground watching the action live in human eye definition.

I spent time with the “Aussie Army”, had a few beers at the Cricketer’s Arms on Punt Road and stood among the Barmy Army. Good friends are always an asset in life and especially when they’re members of the Melbourne Cricket Club, an elite and privileged crew with an average 25 year waiting list. My MCC member friends allowed me, as a guest, to enjoy Day 4 in the comfortable surrounds of the members section. An amazing experience complemented by padded seats, good food and generous wine portions.

What a day; a Chris Rogers century, 8000 Test runs for Michael Clarke (Alistair Cook reached this milestone on Day 3), an unbeaten and entertaining Shane Watson 81 and a fourth consecutive resounding victory for Australia. The ease with which Australia finally took England’s scalp in this Test defies or inaccurately portrays how close England came to setting up a win.

England had Australia in a submissive position on Day 3 of the fourth Test at Melbourne when they began their second innings with a lead of around 50. At 0/65 after the luncheon England looked to be erecting the relevant foundation to build a solid lead. At 4/87 the foundation was still there, but the scaffold required to support the lead had begun to fall away. I think that had England established a lead of over 300, Australia would have capitulated, but when England lost 5 wickets for 6 runs near the close of Day 3 and Australia’s openers finished on 0/30, the hosts needed only 201 to win with 2 days of play remaining. England threw it away with devastating style, in part due to relentless high quality bowling from Australia, but also in part due to whatever cancer is eating away at England’s dressing room morale and attitude.

This has been a disastrous series for the tourists. It seems that internal conflicts exist, perhaps factions and cliques are at play and I’m sure that we will here more about these in future as players’ and coaches’ tongues are inevitably freed from the restrictions of international cricket. The leadership of coach Andy Flower and captain Alistair Cook will be questioned. I think that, at least, Ashley Giles will replace Flower in the near future.

The early-series departure of Jonathon Trott – a fine player – and the mid-series retirement of Graeme Swann – possibly England’s greatest spinner – added to the turbulent and unsettled disposition of the England squad. Something or many things have gone awry, but this shouldn’t detract from the super performance by Australia. Four Tests have been played and the same 11 players have provided Australia four victories. Five of Australia’s top 6 batsmen have scored centuries, as has wicket-keeper Brad Haddin, and all four bowlers have taken wickets. Mitchell Johnson has taken over 30 for the series, an enormous return for a man previously condemned by many opposition and Australian cricket fans.

Onwards to Sydney where the fifth Test begins on 3 January. Can England resurrect some of the high quality we know exists in the squad? Or will Australia execute the clean sweep?

Paying Homage

I must make special mention of one of the world’s finest cricketers, Jaques Kallis, who at 38 announced his retirement from Test cricket earlier this week. Kallis just scored a century against India and has 45 Test centuries in his career, second only to Sachin Tendulkar. The South African will bow out having scored over 13,000 runs at an average in excess of 55, at least 292 wickets at a bowling average of 32 and over 200 catches. What a wonderful player.

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Australia Resurrected – What about the sledging controversy?

Australia have annihilated England in an amazing First Test at Brisbane. The magnitude of this victory is so great that early observations point toward a possible shift in continental cricketing power. With four Test Matches to go in this series there’s a long time before any compelling assertions can be made about that, but the writing is on the wall for England.

The rivalry between these players is immense and I have no doubt that England will attempt to stage an aggressive fight back. Australia will be ready.

The needle

On Saturday night David Warner accused England of being scared. England’s captain Alistair Cook refuted this and believes Warner’s comment was “disrespectful”. He is probably fair in his assessment that sledging should be kept on the field of battle. I detected a slight agitation from the normally composed England captain and I sense that England’s dressing room will be bristling about this defeat and some of the incidents. Quite a bit of savage needle was exchanged in the middle.

Update: Now that Johnathon Trott has returned home to England with a stress related illness Warner’s comment is attracting even more attention and criticism. I think it is outrageously harsh to pin any blame for Trott’s circumstances on David Warner. He wasn’t to know Trott’s state of health, which is likely to expand well beyond any comments about cricket performances. Trott seems to be a good bloke and he is an exceptional cricketer. I wish him well and hope he has a speedy recovery.

Michael Clarke gave James Anderson a significant spray late on the final day and some media have suggested he overstepped the mark, but I say leave it to the players. They know the limits, they know what is proportionate and as Clarke has said “he gives as good he gets”. England have certainly given it. James Anderson is one of the most prolific sledgers going around.

This is high stakes professional cricket and it is a massive rivalry. Let’s not forget that there are two umpires out in the middle and they are the arbiters, not the random punters phoning radio stations on a moral crusade.

Update: The ICC has since fined Clarke 20% of his match fee. I find this to be a popular reactionary measure issued only because the stump microphones were erroneously left on and the broadcaster beamed the sledge “get ready for a broken f*&^%$g arm” into lounge-rooms.

Both captains received extra treatment from bowlers and surrounding fielders.

The resurrection

On the fourth and final day, with the match on the line, Mitchell Johnson chose to get stuck into the England captain and didn’t hesitate to remind the Barmy Army about his resurrection. And what a resurrection it is. Johnson was slaughtered by England fans and media during the 2010-11 Ashes series and was criticised for his supposedly weak mentality.

It’s clear this man possesses a strong character and a supreme work ethic. To return from where he was – out of the side and on the alleged decline – is an outstanding personal and professional achievement. In this Test he scored over 100 runs and was dismissed only once. He took 9 wickets with some huge scalps thrown in. It was rather fitting that the match ended with him taking a catch off his own bowling. I thoroughly enjoyed his hostility. It reminded me of the great West Indian quicks I recall from growing up. Long may it continue.

Are Australia back?

Australia have snapped a streak of nine Test Matches without a victory and they’ve done it with sensational style. There’s a lot of cricket to go before we say Australia are back though.

The victory was completed with notable contribution from all eleven players and this is vital. The form of David Warner, Michael Clarke, Brad Haddin and the bowling effort from Johnson and Lyon is ominous for England. In the past 18months Australia’s Test team has resembled a metropolitan bus stop. With various players coming and going and shifting up and down the order. In stark contrast Australia now looks solid. The revolving selection door may just have slammed shut. Suddenly it is England who will consider changes.

I note that Sky Sports in England is running a poll asking readers to vote whether Johnathon Trott should be dropped.

Update: If David Warner should be targeted for criticism, will sections of the English sports media be singled out too? Some immediately after the Test defeat, launched a savage campaign to sack Johnathon Trott.

There will be questions about Chris Tremlett and Joe Root, but mainly because England may consider an all-rounder or extra spinner at Adelaide.

Pending fitness, Australia shouldn’t change their team. George Bailey must be given the entire series to prove is he cut out for a top six Test batting spot. Nathan Lyon sparked the collapse of England’s batting on Day Two and took the vital wickets of Cook and Prior on Day Four. Peter Siddle consistently beat the bat and snared the prized wicket of Ian Bell on the last day. Ryan Harris remains Australia’s spearhead bowler. Steven Smith contributed an invaluable 32 runs in Australia’s faulty first innings and Chris Rogers is Australia’s rock.

England’s batting

Six wickets for 9 runs in 53 minutes on Day 2. England simply didn’t bat well enough in this Test Match. They lost 4/10 after the thunderstorm had passed on Day 4 and eventually 6/37 to lose. They failed to score 200 in either innings on a good cricket wicket and Stuart Broad was the only player to score more than 8 in both innings. Bad batting and brilliant bowling combined with well executed tactics ensured England perished well short of par.

The record of most of England’s players indicates they will respond. If there’s one player who might break Sachin Tendulkar’s record 51 Test centuries it could be Alistair Cook. He has 25 and is 28, but Cook has four 50s against Australia in his last 12 Test innings, and no centuries.

The England captain needs to lift if his team are to fight back and retain the Ashes.

Kevin Pietersen is another who must lift. He has 1 century and three 50s against Australia from 12 innings in 2013. Johnathon Trott has two 50s and no centuries against Australia in 12 innings. The time is nigh for these batsmen and Adelaide is the pitch. If they cannot redeem themselves there then the chorus of discontent will reverberate loudly.

Update: It seems England’s obvious choice to replace Trott is Johnny Bairstow with perhaps a likely reshuffling of the batting order. Tim Bresnan is another candidate, but it seems England require a full-time batsmen.

Closure

I had a cracking time watching the First Test in Brisbane. I had to leave the ground early on the final day when the hail stones hit. Alas, I had to return to my home port for work on Monday. I was able to catch the last few wickets on the television at the airport. As I entered the Qantas Club lounge at Brisbane I was greeted by roars of joy as hundreds of people in the lounge were huddled around televisions cheering on Australia. Those who think Test cricket is dead, think again. It is alive and thriving and so is this Test Series. See you all next week for the Adelaide preview.

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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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