Australian cricket

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?

Test Match Thrillers and an A Team Killer: India and Pakistan miss the rain and a future Protea nails 200 in Townsville

Rain nearly saved Pakistan and it should have saved India, but it denied both sides a reprieve and ensured thrilling finales to two Test Matches over the weekend. England’s destruction of India at Old Trafford was stunning and the quality of cricket on display at the Galle Fort in Sri Lanka was just as fine. The standard was high in (Cape) Townsville too, where South Africa A hammered Australia A in a solid game of cricket at the Riverway Arts and Cultural Precinct.

South Africa might have found a replacement for Jaques Kallis. Actually, cancel that. Kallis is irreplaceable. But, they may have uncovered a future Protea. Rilee Rossouw nailed a superb 231, which killed Australia A’s hopes on a wicket that saw them bowled out twice in four days. Rossouw averages 45 from 72 First Class matches and must be on the edge of Test selection. Temba Bavuma asserted himself with a grafting 162 and Australia A – consisting of 5 internationally capped and 3 Test Match capped players in Phil Hughes, Moises Henriques and Mathew Wade – simply couldn’t match South Africa A. The visitors attracted plenty of vocal support too with many local club cricketers attending, enjoying a few beers and creating a bit of good natured atmosphere from the hill.

But, could the crowds be better? If the small crowds during match 1 are anything to go by, then it would seem that Cricket Australia, Townsville City Council and perhaps the local cricket administrators could do more on the promotions front. On Friday afternoon that little stadium should be heaving with blue and white collar workers and it wouldn’t take much imagination or creativity to spark interest and greater involvement from local businesses and large employers. On a positive note, Cricket Australia announced today the sport has one million participants in Australia, a great result that should be the basis for further expansion.

The two A teams go at it again in Townsville this week beginning on Thursday 14 August. Peter Forrest and Clint McKay have been added to the Australian side and Phil Hughes has taken the captaincy off Moises Henriques who is out injured.

The scene in Townsville resembles Newlands in Cape Town as Gurinder Sandhu steams in and attempts to get a much needed wicket for Australia A against Sth Africa A.

On the Test scene India’s weak surrender to England on the third day in Manchester has created an alarming dilemma for MS Dhoni: where to find players who want to fight? India only needed to survive one afternoon. It absolutely pissed down with rain all of the next day. I mean, blokes were chipping catches to short fielders and trudging off as if preferring to escape to the hotel games room. Unbelievable. England’s bowlers were good, but not quite this is an unplayable Mitchell Johnson who’s going to kill you good.

Two weeks ago India led the series 1-0, perhaps mostly because England were poor and lacked tactical direction. Since then India have been reclassified as an invertebrate species and England have reacquainted with the spinal column and retaliated with more discipline and application. Leading 2-1 England can’t lose the series now, at worst they’ll draw it if India bounce back, but England should win 3-1 with a resounding victory at The Oval Test, which begins Friday. Will England miss Stuart Broad if he fails to play after breaking his nose? Probably not. Moeen Ali will simply take another 5 for and finish the job Jimmy Anderson is likely to start.

Stuart Broad’s broken nose

Perhaps the most startling result occurred in Sri Lanka. Wow. Is Test Cricket alive or what? Pakistan made 451 in the 1st innings with Younis Khan amassing 177. Bang that’s it. It’s going to be a draw. The Galle wicket will be a road. Sure enough Sri Lanka pump out 533 and you’re thinking, yep, draw. But, here comes Sri Lanka’s spin king Rangana Herath and there goes Pakistan for 180 on the final day. A lead of only 98. 126 balls remain in the Test Match, are they going to go for it? You betcha. They peel off the runs with 5 overs to spare. Seconds after the celebrations begin the rain falls on the Dutch fort and rolls across the ground. Pakistani players were last seen kicking the ground, while locals danced and sang in the rain. One of the great Test victories.

No I haven’t forgotten to mention Kumar Sangakarra… he smashed 221 in Sri Lanka’s 1st innings, his 37th Test Match tonne. He averages 58 from 125 Tests. In fairness Sri Lanka don’t play as many top line Test Matches as Australia, England or South Africa, but he would waltz into any of those nations’ teams and score just as many. A timeless legend.

At the Harare Sports Club Zimbabwe made a competitive 256 against South Africa who are 4/201 in reply. It is great to see Zimbabwe back in Test Match action and so far they are holding their own against a rebuilding, but still very good South African team.

Graeme Smith retires, Australia on brink

Australia command proceedings in Cape Town and South Africa’s captain Graeme Smith has announced his retirement from international cricket.

Smith has had a brilliant career. He concludes having played 117 Test Matches averaging 48. He has been a solid opening bat, fearless leader and capable tactician. He has led South Africa to the top of the ICC Test Rankings. The Proteas haven’t lost a Test series since the 2008-09 southern summer.

Leadership duties may have taken their toll on Smith. He has been captain for 109 of those 117 Tests after being installed as the boss at just 22. Cape Town is his home ground and it’d be nice for him and his nation if he could craft a big score and save his side from defeat.

Australia on the brink of victory at Cape Town?

Australia can beat the number 1 side at home. Two days remain in the 3rd and final Test. Bar miracles, the hosts cannot win. Let’s face it they’re a bowler down with Dale Steyn injured. Unless Morne Morkel rips through Australia’s second innings tonight in a bout of absolute ferocious mayhem and South Africa’s batsmen tear down what would be at least 300-350 runs, then a draw is their only hope for salvation.

Australia lead by 234 runs with 10 2nd innings wickets in hand. They’ll bat aggressively tonight. Michael Clarke will go for the kill by declaring in due time for his bowlers to rip into the Proteas. They’ll have 4 or 5 sessions to survive the onslaught.

And what an onslaught it will be. During the first two sessions on day 3 Australia’s bowlers routed South Africa’s world class top order. Ryan Harris and Mitchell Johnson took 7 wickets with precision and persistent hostility.

Don’t touch the ball!

At one point shortly after lunch yesterday du Plessis blocked one away near his feet. He politely picked up the ball and threw it back to the bowler. A half dozen Australian fielders frantically swooped delivering a chorus of tirades.

“Don’t you dare touch the f****** ball” was the gist. For 30+ years Australian Test teams do not permit opposition batsmen to touch their ball. Some might call this unreasonable or unbecoming of gentlemen, but it is deeply psychological and Test cricket is psychological warfare. Arguably their ball policy contributes to an arsenal of weapons, which are strategically deployed to grind opponents into dust.

A toilet break

Until last night I have never ever seen a batsmen leave the field of play on an unscheduled break, let alone in the middle of an over, to go to the toilet. I didn’t think it was permitted, especially 15min into play after a 40min lunch break. Faf du Plessis crabbed off and left everyone standing about the middle hands-on-hips for 5mins. The stump mics were quickly turned down by the broadcaster when du Plessis returned to another spray (no pun intended) which Supersport commentator Mike Haysman described as “colourful”.

Bowled out

The sharp needling continued. A short time later Mitchell Johnson snicked out AB de Villiers. JP Duminy didn’t last long, but Philander batted well with du Plessis.

Nathan Lyon had a right to be aggrieved twice when Brad Haddin missed stumping du Plessis and Alex Doolan failed to take a catch at bat pad 2 balls later. The canny du Plessis-Philander partnership amassed 95. The Proteas did not evade the follow on target of 294, but they did successfully exceed the limit within which Michael Clarke would have enforced it. I think that was around 220. South Africa were eventually bowled out for 287.

Conclusions

Australia will go for the win. Of that there can be no doubt. Michael Clarke is an aggressive captain and they’re desperate for success after a mostly tumultuous 2012 and 13. If South Africa can drill into the Aussie top order early this evening it will deepen interest in all three outcomes. Australia has proved it can collapse like a straw house in Cyclone Yasi. For this reason I expect stoic batting at first and then a canter for quick runs and a wave from the pavilion.

Graeme Smith will begin his last innings at some point today. For cricket’s sake I hope he is able to manufacture a memorable finale.

Welcome to Cape Town: best ground in the world?

Newlands at Cape Town is a firm candidate for the best ground in world cricket. On Saturday it hosts one of the most anticipated Test matches in a decade. Aside from the rife speculation about the teams, I am utterly engrossed in this monumental contest and cannot wait to see if the Aussies can bounce back from being razed by South Africa.

I’ll probably harm my own performance in club cricket by staying up very late watching every ball. But any self respecting cricket nut cannot miss this. The series is level at 1-1 and South Africa clench the ascendency. They battered Australia at Port Elizabeth.

South Africa’s batting was supreme whereas Australia’s middle order didn’t turn up. They fell to pieces in the 4th innings chase of 449. At 1/150 they were a slight chance, but the loss of 9 wickets for 68 runs brought them to their knees. South Africa beheaded them with ruthless conviction. The Proteas executed them a bowler short too. Wayne Parnell tore a muscle and was unable to bowl. On a feather bed wicket suited more to patient batting than blast-em-to-pieces fast bowling, Australia’s brittle order was shredded by Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander and part-time spinners.

Openers Warner and Rogers made 173 of the 2nd innings 216. That’s frightening. Rolled for 216 coupled with a first innings failure of 246, it’s clear the batting needs to improve. But, so does the bowling.

Ryan Harris looked absolutely knackered and Johnson was unable to kill people on the slow wicket. Nathan Lyon bowled a thousand overs and without a fourth seamer the Aussies had to “unleash” David Warner’s lollipops.

Tampered ball?

David Warner has suggested that South Africa inappropriately handled the ball. More specifically he referred to the way wicket-keeper AB deVilliers “wiped” the rough side of the ball with his gloves. The implication is that the Proteas deliberately scuffed up the rough side of the Kookaburra to induce more swing. South African officials rubbished Warner’s claims. Coach Russell Domingo stated that Warner’s “disappointing” remarks had “added an extra 10 per cent motivation to the [South African] guys”.

Team Changes

For me Shane Watson must replace Shaun Marsh and bat at 6. Marsh has 6 ducks in 11 innings. Four from years ago, but a pair at Port Elizabeth. Alex Doolan stays because Australia must procure a proper number 3. Ryan Harris misses out for James Pattinson. Harris is brilliant, but needs a rest and Pattinson can become a superstar. He is that good.

The hosts need to replace Parnell and might go back to Ryan McClaren who was concussed by Johnson in the first Test. They might also go for Kyle Abbot who destroyed Pakistan last year in his only Test.

Newlands the greatest

I elevate Newlands as the most spectacular ground in world cricket because of its sheer beauty. To watch a Test there is a dream of mine. I have experienced Australian grounds. I’ve seen Tests at Lords, Kensington Oval and Queen’s Park in Barbados and Trinidad. Newlands would eclipse them all. Tabletop Mountain provides a stunning canvass and classic stands lead to grassy hills shaded by huge trees. Don’t miss the stunning scenery or the sparkling cricket.

Chasing status: The Pursuit at Port Elizabeth

As I write South Africa have finally declared at St George’s Park. Their lead is 447. Australia’s task is mammoth. The Aussies have never scored more than 406 in the fourth innings of a Test match.

The Australian top order failed in their first innings. The bottom 3 scored more runs than 3 of the top 4. If that trend is repeated then South Africa will defeat them and level the series 1 each. The Aussies need a a record breaking performance to win. If weather doesn’t disrupt this chase then surely a draw is off the table. 165 overs remain. Australia either score the runs or South Africa will bowl them out.

The hosts will be desperate for success. Their bowlers will send down missiles either side of lunch with the new rock, but the wicket is tame and the Proteas’ fourth seamer Wayne Parnell looks unfit to bowl. If Chris Rogers and David Warner get through then there are runs to harvest in the sunshine. Michael Holding compared the pitch to the Recreation Ground in Antigua, a feather bed run paradise. Both sides are a chance so it’ll be a great finish whatever the result.

THE CAT! Did anyone see the cat yesterday? It ran on the pitch, tore through the area between fine leg and 3rd man, leapt about in a rage of wicked joy and took off over the fence. I’ve seen dogs and a pig (alas), but never a cat at the cricket. I suppose there have been a few decent birds in the crowd…

How good is AB de Villiers!

Abraham Benjamin de Villiers is the best batsmen in world cricket. AB has reached at least 50 in his last 12 Test matches. The guy is an enigma, averaging just shy of 52 from 90 Tests. And he’s a wicket keeper and only 30 years old.

The accomplished right hander finished unbeaten – again – overnight. His 51 not contributes nearly a quarter of South Africa’s 5/214 at stumps. An intriguing battle with Nathan Lyon framed the start of his innings. He couldn’t score a run, testament to a well set field and tight bowling. AB navigated the tense exchange. If he bats for another session or two the Proteas will post a solid total. On this feather bed deck I reckon they need about 350 to squeeze the Aussies.

Australia’s batting can be brittle. ABC Grandstand’s Jim Maxwell indicated it’s about time they suffered a collapse that even Brad Haddin and the tail can’t escape. I think he’s right.

The pitch requires graft from batsmen and toil from bowlers. Discipline and patience the keys for batsman. Persistence and execution of sage plans by bowlers and fielding captains the ingredients for wickets. It’s not the sort of surface for blasting out batters with jaw shattering pace, but don’t rule this out. The bowlers on show are the best.

All eyes will be on Vernon Philander when the Saffers bowl. It was like when McGrath stood on the ball and rolled his ankle before the 2nd Test at Edgbaston in 2005. Philander strained a ham string. Distraught with panic the Proteas replaced him with Rory Klienvelt on the team sheet, only for big Vernon to express to his captain he was fine. The change was reversed. If this Test is anything like Birmingham 2005 then I shall need a defibrillator on hand.

@Cricket_Froth

Should Shane Watson replace Alex Doolan?

Australia’s desecration of South Africa’s batting at Centurion was decisive. I have never seen a more terrifying image on a cricket field than when Mitchell Johnson struck Hashim Amla in the helmet grille. That moment sums up the challenge straddling the Proteas.

Had Amla not been wearing a helmet it is possible he would have been killed. The ball would have certainly disintegrated his jaw and shattered every tooth. The footage is frightening.

What is Johnson doing?

When highlighting Johnson’s assets barely anyone mentions his left arm. With 254 wickets at 27.5 Johnson is one of the best lefties. The best of them is Wasim Akram who swung it both ways. Akram wasn’t a murderer. Johnson is and batsmen know it. To right hand batters he hits the blind spot causing concern for rib cages and faces. Lefties struggle to cope with the line: go back and you lose your poles, get in line and lose your face.

It’s a testament to Amla’s sheer world class quality that he went on to score 35 after copping that on his first ball. If he, Smith, Faf du Plessis and AB deVilliers get a plan to counter Johnson then the series will be back in the balance.

Port Elizabeth does present different prospects.

More toil will be required from bowlers on a slower wicket and some uncertainty over Australia’s XI might play into the host’s favour. South Africa’s quality means they’re capable of a fight back, perhaps even a 2-1 win.

The Watson Question

Yet again Shane Waton’s selection raises debate. He was ruled out via injury and replaced by Alex Doolan who scored 27 and 89. The latter was a fine innings in tough circumstances. Doolan’s performance coupled with the fact he’s a genuine number 3 should guarantee a place for the remainder of this series. Australia have been searching for a number 3 for some time. It is not clear yet if Doolan is the answer, but it is clear that Shane Watson is not. So why pick Watson?

His bowling is handy. Watson’s stump to stump medium pace builds pressure by conceding few runs. It allows Michael Clarke to rest his thoroughbred pacemen or set them loose from the other end. Australia’s batsmen attacked SA’s spinners at one end. It was a fruitful tactic. Graeme Smith couldn’t tie up an end. He couldn’t rest his pacemen. He had to call on Steyn, Philander and Morkel to stem run flows rather than attack for wickets. All-out attack necessitates risk and a bowler like Watson can mitigate risk and relieve front-line pacers. But, Australia needs to stabilise its top order and Johnson, Harris, Siddle and Lyon are doing the job with the ball anyway.

Australia could drop Shaun Marsh for Watson, but Marsh scored 148 and 44. All-rounder Moises Henriques is also in the touring party. Perhaps Australia should develop him instead of reinstalling Watson. Cricket Australia should send one of these two home to play Shield cricket. No chance of both playing at once.