Cricket Froth

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.

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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.

How do you survive 150kmph thunderbolts?

To witness the South African top order being steamrolled would be rare. Busting a gut to stay awake last night I capitulated and missed M Johnson driving the heavy roller straight through the Proteas’ front gate. Did you see it?

Of late, batsmen appear to be entering the infamous Bermuda Triangle when Johnson grabs the leather cherry.

Graeme Smith, Faf du Plessis and Ryan McLaren were lost at sea under the cyclonic storm of Johnson lifters, bouncers and fullish swingers. Smith played defensively from the crease to a ball he thought was about chest height. It kept coming. At his face. He had no choice but to turn the head and use the bat to defend the door to his soul. The ball smacked the splice of his bat and shot off over the slips. The entire cordon took off in pursuit and Shaun Marsh took a ripper. Alviro Petersen surrendered meekly, slashing at a wide one. Faf du Plessis was shocked out by a 150kmph lifter which he attempted to fend away. It spat out to second slip. New boy McLaren had his castle obliterated, playing well outside the line of another Johnson thunderbolt. The effervescent Peter Siddle took the prized scalp of Hashim Amla, adjudged LBW on review. Nathan Lyon removed a counter-attacking JP Duminy, brilliantly caught by Johnson (who else?).

I guarantee South Africa will fight back. They require 57 to avoid the follow on and they’ll get it. AB De Villiers is the best batsman in the world and is 52 runs. He’ll resume tonight with a very sore forearm after Johnson struck it hard on a mistimed pull. I’d be out for weeks if it were me. AB is tougher than I.

As long as Robin Peterson plays the role of foil, the Saffers can push on. Vernon Philander can bat. I feel that AB might drag them along toward 250. Anything beyond is game on, because Steyn will get those crazy eyes whirring for Australia’s second innings and his buddies Philander and Morkel will supercharge their efforts to get the hosts back in it.

Over at the Basin Reserve in New Zealand India won the toss this morning and asked the Black Caps to bat. MS Dhoni got it right. His quicks knocked out the hosts for 192. India are 2/100 in reply. The Kiwis lead the series 1-0 after securing an absolutely stunning victory in Auckland last week. NZ made 500 and knocked India over for 200. Then the Kiwis self-destructed and were bundled out for 100. India nearly chased down the 400 required falling 40 short. Who on earth believes Test matches are boring? Get a life!

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Rediscovering the romance of Test Cricket: The Future

Daniel Brettig at ESPNcricinfo recently wrote that the International Cricket Council will meet soon to consider a two-tier Test Championship.

The concept could include promotion and relegation and facilitate the introduction of Ireland and Afghanistan. On the provision they can compete the inclusion of new nations is positive, but the two-tier system could starve 2nd tier sides of lucrative series against the big guns.

There’s a lot of detail to consider. Underpinning those considerations is the pseudo format-conflict dividing Cricket. The rise of T20 has been astronomical, but it threatens the game’s future.

The Romance of Test Cricket

To me, watching a good Test Match is to consume a great novel. There’s depth in the plot and thick, unpredictable layers of sub-text. Parallel stories feature an incredible range of characters. Villains and heroes challenge prevailing ideas and philosophies. Some thrust themselves into the fray during the initial chapters. Others develop with more complexity as the days pass. Eventually they crash through the story, drastically altering events.

Some of these novels emerge from the pack as classics. Great Test Matches create memorable series, which become an historiography of the world’s most captivating sport. They remind us of great players who, as protagonists, shape remarkable stories.

Test cricket is psychological warfare. It is made of up infinite battles pitted through the expression of tactical deployments, field placings and bowling plans. Human abilities clash with environmental conditions. The pitch changes and players work frantically to manipulate the behaviour of the ball. This occurs right around the world in some of the most challenging and diverse locations. South Africa and India. The Caribbean islands and the north-east coast of South America. Australia, New Zealand, England, the Middle-East and Pakistan, and on an island in the India Ocean. Contrast this beautiful complexity with the “other cricket”.

The Limitations of T20

T20 can be compared to flicking through a shallow, commercially confronting low-brow magazine. The pitches are all the same. The role of unique environment is diminished. We drown in multiple editions from the sub-continent to Australia and the format is increasingly predictable. Ramp shots, reverse sweeps and unbridled slogging.

Look! There’s fireworks and endless saturation advertising, again. See enough of this and you feel as if you’re thumbing through the same old cartoons and hearing bad dad-like jokes again.

Don’t get me wrong. Clearly T20 is here to stay and it has a big role to play in cricket’s future, but if Cricket isn’t careful they’ll kill the golden goose. Cricket cannot be shortened, tarted up and trotted out to dance in front of commercial interests any more than it already has. Cricket must be careful not to overplay the T20 card, especially at the expense of Test Match cricket.

The Future of Cricket

There is opportunity for Cricket to reassert the spectacle of Tests. The format has existed for over 120 years. It has adapted, but not enough. It must evolve further, but is starved of quality attentive administration. A reassessment of priorities and fresh strategic posture is needed.

One critical problem is that cricket’s fringe dwellers – the not-so-committed fans and new fans attracted by the saturation advertising attached to T20 – have wholeheartedly bought into the implication of cricket’s current global message: Tests are boring, uneventful manifestations of an era gone-by.

The ICC must discover some teeth inside its mouth. It must bite back at some of the selfish commercial pressures and debunk myths. It should initiate an holistic strategy to assist the masses to understand and appreciate the complexity of Test Match through progressive administration and radical marketing. So it can take precedence in schedules and rise again as the greatest game of all.

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2-0 to Australia: Are England done and dusted?

I’m not writing an obituary or presenting a detailed postmortem of England. We don’t have a carcass to analyse yet. They’re on life-support in the back of an ambulance heading west across the Nullarbor with a slim chance of revival.

Many cricket writers and spectators will offer their analysis of why England are 2-0 down and why they have been battered from pillar to post by Australia. It’s too early for that.

Since Darren Lehmann’s installation as head coach there’s been notable differences in the way Australia conducts business. At the heart of their business model is a determinately aggressive attitude and cause commitment unmitigated by internal conflict. Power politics, disputes and petty distractions littered the dressing room prior to Lehmann’s reign, but now every player in that camp is invested into whatever the leadership has articulated as necessary to win back the Ashes, and it’s working. They field as if possessed by a spiritual connection to feeding sharks mauling scraps, eager to obtain the ball and stymie every English run. They have batted with composure and they have found fighters when collapse seemed likely.

Two nil up and heading to Perth, where the weather will beat down on the tourists and the pitch will batter them from underneath, is a perfect status for the home side and a fair indication of the action. Australia’s western capital will supply 40 degrees of heat throughout the third Test, turning the WACA ground into an inescapable furnace. The Fremantle doctor will blow and invite explosive in-swinging wrath from Mitchell Johnson, while the surface – commonly regarded as the fastest cricket wicket in the world – will heap yet more pain on an English batting order that has, at times, genuinely looked afraid.

Can England get back?

Had England taken their chances on Day 1 of the 2nd Test in Adelaide (they dropped several catches), this match may have panned out differently. Australia should have been on the ropes and struggling to make 300 in their first innings, but England grassed a handful of chances and Michael Clarke and Brad Haddin forced them to pay dearly on Day 2. Had Mitchell Johnson not been able to unleash that destructive spell on the middle and lower belly of the English order on Day 3 then other outcomes may have transpired too. Australia are well on top in this series, their ascendency undeniable, but don’t scoff, there are still avenues of return for England in a series that is not yet half way over.

A glimpse or two of fight emerged from Joe Root, Kevin Pietersen, Ben Stokes and Matt Prior who showed that there is desire to hit back, but their reach is questionable and Australia are feeling mighty.

Perth

Australia won’t change their team unless one of the troops is unfit. NSW quick Doug Bollinger is on stand-by if an incumbent bowler needs to be withdrawn. On the other hand England will consider several changes. Coach Andy Flower has sent back-up batsmen Jonny Bairstow and Garry Balance ahead of the squad to play in a practice match. They’ll play right up until the eve of the 3rd Test and be unable to prepare with the rest of the squad. It is difficult to decipher if this signifies that their inclusion is unlikely, but England could do with an extra batsman. Graeme Swann hasn’t troubled Australia’s batsmen in two Tests on the bounce so perhaps one could stage an argument that he should be withdrawn in favour of Tim Bresnan.

The Needle

The needle shall continue at Perth. Kerry O’Keefe and Drew Morphett – two great ABC radio commentators – described an “ugly” scene late on the fourth day at Adelaide. They felt that the verbal exchanges and the accidental physical contact between Mitchell Johnson and Ben Stokes had gone too far. Skull O’Keefe and Morphett implored the ICC match referee to intervene and present an ultimatum to both dressing rooms to simmer the exchanges down. I’m not sure if this intervention has occurred – Johnson and Stokes were charged, but cleared on appeal – but, I doubt the temperature of this contest will decrease.

Australia are on a mission, England under siege and the Ashes can be won and lost within the week.

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Win the toss and bat for days – The Adelaide Oval, 2nd Ashes Test

Do not win the toss and elect to bowl at the Adelaide Oval. Win it and bat for 2 days.

A simple plan and one that both captains will be hoping to institute on Thursday morning. Neither Michael Clarke or Alistair Cook will make the mistake that West Indian captain Darren Sammy made yesterday, against New Zealand in Dunedin. Sammy won the toss and elected to field. New Zealand carved out 600 runs and forced the lads from the Caribbean to bowl 150 overs before declaring.

England will be more thoughtful about declaration if they find themselves in a position of ascendency at the Adelaide Oval. In 2006 the then England captain Andy Flintoff declared England’s first innings for 550. England subsequently lost that Adelaide Test Match and the series 5-0. They’ll choose to recall their most recent experience instead. In 2010 England pounded an Australian bowling attack that could only be described as relatively sub-standard. Xavier Doherty and Marcus North toiled away attempting to fill the role of spin attack, while an injured Doug Bollinger failed to penetrate formidable and strident English batting.

This time the form suggests Australia’s bowling will present an entirely different proposition. The “Gabbatoir” performance in Brisbane last week had exponents and appreciators of aggressive quick bowling salivating. Adelaide’s pitch will be different, but exactly how different remains a mystery.

This is not the usual Adelaide wicket. The South Australian Cricket Association accepted big money from AFL to redevelop the ground and this means that for the first time in Adelaide a Test Match will be played on a “drop in” pitch sourced from elsewhere.

Only two Sheffield Shield matches have been played there this season. Shield players have described a wicket that failed to deteriorate throughout the four days. Perhaps the curator has something different in stall for this Test Match. Only time will tell.

England spent a week in Alice Springs after the Brisbane demolition. In Australia’s red centre they closed ranks and mostly avoided Australian media. Their performance in a 2 day tour match against an Australian Chairman’s XI was ordinary. Questions about their XI for this Test remain, but it seems that Gary Ballance and Tim Bresnan will replace Johnathon Trott and Chris Tremlett or Monty Panesar may be added as a second spinner. If the Australian camp feels confident in Shane Watson’s ability to bowl 15-25overs in an innings then I think they will be unchanged from Brisbane.

The next few days should deliver an enthralling cricket experience and a highly competitive sequel to the epically dramatic and one-sided first Test. Enjoy the spectacle!

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