Ashes

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, Yohnus Kahn, 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 or Tendulkar. He scored his 22nd hundred at Perth today and 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 since becoming the 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.

Some say 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 his technique is effective.

He scores runs all around the ground against all forms of bowling and his scoring shots, when executed, look as good anyones.

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 the catastrophy of losing the Ashes. Nihilistic thought is soon overtaken by the sense of occassion.

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?

Force Majuere: who is responsible?

It is difficult to beat the other lot when they bat, bowl and field better than you. It’s even worse when they cherish and enjoy the contest and your lot turn up looking like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day.

Australians lay in bed all over the continent this morning contemplating another loss in England. Or is this the Australian players struggling to motivate ahead of the Test? Both are possible, it seems.

Australians lay in bed all over the continent this morning contemplating another loss in England. Or is this the Australian players struggling to motivate ahead of the Test? Both are possible, it seems. Bill Murray in Groundhog Day

England comprehensively punished Australia and deserved their victory. They played better than form suggested and Australia – who are still a better team than England for now – were poor and repeated two glaring mistakes of past England tours. They bowled too short and too wide for too long, expecting their quicks to blast people out as they do in Brisbane and Perth, and their batsmen went hard at the ball instead of playing later as the swinging conditions require.

Poor preparation?

Australia has a problem with slow pitches; they lost seven Test matches in India and England in 2013, and the following year they lost at Port Elizabeth in South Africa and twice in the Gulf against Pakistan. Now they’ve been utterly embarrassed in Wales. Has Australia recognised this weakness or ignored it?

Poor execution?

Few expected Australia could chase down the 411 set by England but with two days to play (the fifth with rain predicted), many more expected a demonstration of resilience. Perhaps a decent fight that might take them close, to at least 300, and if inclement weather arrived – as it did today in Cardiff – then a draw was possible. But they rolled over and died.

As day broke today in Cardiff Australian captain Michael Clarke was last seen running down the street to beg England for one more chance.

As day broke today in Cardiff Australian captain Michael Clarke was last seen running down the street to beg England for one more chance.

At one for 97 going into the last over before lunch, there were clear nerves and anxiety beginning to show throughout England. The huge wicket of Warner on the last ball before the break eased the tension and triggered a force majuere.

Within 5 overs the Aussies were 5/106. When Watson departed, perhaps for the last time ever in a Test match, Australia had lost all of their batsmen and were 7/151. It was a disgrace and none of the Australian batsmen took responsibility to resist the superior fight and attitude England brought to the contest.

Shane Watson’s body language summed up Australia’s approach. He looked encumbered by the world’s problems and trudged about sporting an agonised grimace apparently loathing the task of having to play cricket. Watson was picked because of his superior bowling when compared to Mitch Marsh but when Clarke called on him to bowl in the vital second innings, he failed to lead by example or make an impact. His Test career looks over. Brad Haddin’s keeping (and batting) will also concern Australia.

It was a tough gig watching that collapse. Bill, here again, sums it up nicely.

It was a tough gig watching that collapse.

Australia’s bowling

Although their bowling was erratic on day one Australia actually bowled well in the second innings. Starc was in agony with an ankle injury but steamed in and bowled 145km regularly. He was accused by Shane Warne and others of lacking heart when he left the field on a hot day in Brisbane last summer against India. It seemed this was in the back of his mind and his contribution was admirable. But the damage done is likely to exclude him from the second Test at Lords. Another huge loss for Australia.

Suddenly the two men who England’s batters will have studied the most – Starc and Ryan Harris – aren’t playing and Australia will have to go to Peter Siddle. Pat Cummins is the other man on tour but talented as he may be, Cummins is likely to bang it in shorter than any other. The concern with Siddle is that he’s a bit similar to Hazlewood. At least Johnson is still fit. He bowled very well without luck in Cardiff and Cricket Forth predicts that he will lift on the slope in London.

There’s a direct correlation between Johnson’s form with the bat and him taking wickets and he scored more (77) than Rogers, Smith, Clarke, Voges, Watson and Haddin combined in Australia’s second innings capitulation. With Australia’s bowling seemingly getting weaker the batting will become all the more important.

Let’s get back to discussing England though

The ICC needs to take action against the ECB because there are clearly different rules for Jimmy Anderson; why is he allowed to use a taped up tennis ball and swing it 2 metres? This guy is a legitimate superstar and must be nearing par with other great swingers like Wasim Akram (and your best mate’s parents, didn’t you know?). The Aussies haven’t got a clue. He was backed up well by Stuart Broad who was quick, extracted bounce where others could not and built the pressure that provided the lesser Moeen Ali and Mark Wood with wickets.

Wood is a great find. He has not taken a backwards step against Australia in his third Test and looks a great character and competitor. Ian Bell played himself back into form in the second innings and Ben Stokes has showed Shane Watson what an all-rounder looks like.

The series is not over yet though. Now let’s get some sleep before the second Test.

10 Tests without victory: Has England lost its spine?

England are only 1-0 down in the series against India, but it feels like they’ve just been beaten 5-0 again. The reaction to yesterday’s defeat at Lords and the projections radiating from England are all dire. A lack of quality, bad execution, ordinary tactics, poor fielding and troubled county and player development systems… I’ve read it all in recent days, but the dressing room problems that stalked England’s tour of Australia appear most relevant.

India bounced England’s batsmen out on a day five wicket, that on day 1, looked as green as the 18th at Royal Liverpool. Chasing 318 for victory with 4 sessions to play, England were in the box seat, but Ishant Sharma shredded them with 7 wickets – many of which were caught in the deep. England asked India to bat first on a green top and failed to capitalise, with their seamers consistently bowling too short on a pitch demanding a full, seam-nibbling length. India toiled hard with the bat throughout and set a competitive 4th innings chase. It was more than a touch ironic that short bowling undid England’s batsmen in the end. The difference between carefully executed, field appropriate short bowling and banging it in too often has never been plainer.

Twelve months ago England were ranked 2 in the world and were on the way to beating Australia 3-0. Now you’d be forgiven for thinking it was 1999. It’s not and England shouldn’t be this bad, but a packet of off-field problems are destroying them in the middle.

The big question for me is why somebody like Matt Prior is now quitting after two Tests?

“To treat injuries” is his reasoning, but Prior is the third (Trott and Swann) top 11 player to walk out on England mid-series is less than 9 months. They’re all legitimate reasons you say? Well ok, maybe so, but if England were preparing as well as they should be then Trott’s mental state would have been exposed and managed internally before he was obliterated after one Test in Australia and Prior’s “injuries” (and perhaps stomach for a fight) been adequately appraised before this absolutely vital home series against India. The bloke has quit when times are tough and injuries aside, I wouldn’t expect he’ll play for England ever again as some of England’s insiders are smarting.

The second issue is Alistair Cook. A great player with an incredible batting record that has seemingly been in steep decline ever since Andy Strauss stepped aside. Cook seems like a “lovely lad” as described by Strauss overnight, but is he a leader of men? I’m not convinced and the sight of bowlers changing fielders behind his back without consent and the general body language of certain players towards him looks bad, but I wouldn’t be demoting him during this series. This again, for me, comes back to preparation. If the head honchos at England cricket do not believe that he is the man to lead the  side then why go into this series with him at the helm? Why do these things keep needing to be dealt with mid-series?

Australia’s terrible, ill-fated tour of India in 2013 threw up several mid-series dressing room fiascos. When these incidents began to emerge on the subsequent tour of England and it was evident that they had not been managed, the head coach was sacked and a new leadership group redrawn before the first Test. Some decried the timing, but it has turned out for the better.

Cook absolutely needs runs to take some of the sting out of the criticism being fired his way. But, he could score hundreds and if England keep losing and their bowling and fielding plans lack shape and distinctive strategy, then his leadership will continue to be questioned.

The upshot is that England are only 1-0 down with three Tests to play. India are a very good side, but they’re not at the top yet and England is a difficult place to win (Australia hasn’t won in England for 12 years). Cook and the rest of the England unit must fight on and win this series at home, or be the subject of a rabid inquisition unseen in English cricket for at least a decade.