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?

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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When will Australia declare and can England fight and survive?

Smashing feet and hands Mitchell Johnson has continued his resurgence by assaulting England’s batsmen and putting Stuart Broad out of this Test. Australia are on the brink of victory, England on the slippery slope to oblivion.

How the chips have fallen

On Day 1 Australia won the toss and batted. Within minutes a disastrous run-out (a felony in a Test Match) put Australia on the back-foot. By drinks in the 2nd session Australia were 5/150 and sailing to a below par score. The stage was set for young number 5 Steve Smith who scored a fine century and assisted the hosts to put on the most runs ever scored in a day at Perth (326). Smith was aided by solid batting from Brad Haddin and Mitchell Johnson and Australia’s tail helped to secure an eventual 385 run total.

England began well with Cook and Carberry navigating the new ball and posting 85 runs off 25overs. After Carberry’s departure partnerships were scarce and wickets fell periodically. England can feel aggrieved by Joe Root’s dismissal. It was a tough call.

At 4/180odd on day 3 England were still in the Test with a strong chance of at least a draw, but tight and relentless bowling picked off England’s batsmen who were hurried out for a total of 235. Needing to bowl Australia out cheaply in the second innings England’s struggles, compounded by Broad’s absence, were exemplified by David Warner and Chris Rogers. The Australian openers put on 157 for the first wicket and drove England out of the game. Warner’s second century of the series carved England to pieces and the matter of declaration timing and the unleashing of Australia’s bowlers again now rages as the most popular topic at water coolers in Australian offices.

Warner, Clarke and Haddin have combined to score 4 more runs (1054) than the combined total of England’s squad (1050) in this series and it seems the trend is set to continue.

How are England doing?

A ragged England displayed their worst characteristics during the last 30 minutes of day 3. Test cricket is a psychological game and assessing micro interactions and on-field choices is a viable method of determining where a team or an individual is at. Here’s the picture that unfolded during that final 30 minutes on Sunday evening.

Severely under the pump and way behind in the game, but with potential to salvage a draw still available to tap, a defeatist England portrayed a team on a sharp decline ambivalent about fighting for a draw.  In the fading sunshine bemused faces were carried by nonchalant and exhausted bodies.

We’ve heard how influential the Barmy Army have been in the good times, spurring on England’s bowlers to rip through batting line ups and fire the team during fighting sessions, but yesterday their influence seemed poisonous.

As England’s players lobbed about unenthusiastically in the field, the jovial Barmy Army led by their happy trumpeter, sang and clapped as if at a birthday party. The malapropos tunes of the trumpet drifted across the WACA and seemed to deflate England further. The ill-matched fandom inspired a half-baked appeal from James Anderson and Matt Prior for a “catch” down the leg side to Steve Smith. Prior’s tongue-in-cheek appeal was over spiced with desperation.

Cook, Prior, Swann and others shared a laugh, but they provided the comedy for the rest of us when, in ridiculous circumstances, England chose to review a Joe Root appeal for LBW. Root, bowling around the wicket to Shane Watson pitched the ball about 12inches outside leg stump, hit the pad about 3inches outside leg and appealed as if it was a sure thing. The umpire almost laughed while declining the appeal, but Cook engaged the DRS. It was a pathetic referral and an insight into England’s diminished attitude and fortunes.

Meanwhile, the Barmy Army chanted the theme to Escape to Victory, again, for the fifteenth time that day and for the forty fourth millionth time in recent history. A refreshed repertoire is required on and off the pitch if England are to save this Test and keep the fight for the Ashes Urn alive.

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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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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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Queensland: The Police State – Australia throttle England

Today’s edition of Cricket Froth summarises two days of enthralling Ashes cricket from the Gabba. Unable to post yesterday, I find myself struggling to gather my thoughts. Two days on the beer with the lads, with consumption estimated to have exceeded a dozen 425ml plastic cups of XXXX Gold per man per day, I was in a world of pain this morning. But, Australia’s on-field fortunes could arouse any hungover bloke and after a night out at Valley Fiesta in Fortitude Valley, I trudged to Brisbane’s cricket ground once more. Albeit just after lunch…

At an exorbitant $7.80 per cup our group has contributed to somebody’s wealth and early retirement and detracted from our own. That’s Australia though. It’s an increasingly expensive paradise and the Gabba is a fine example of this. Not only is it expensive, it is draconian. People were ejected throughout the day for a range of insignificant misdemeanors – accumulating beer cups into stacks, throwing around beach balls – but perhaps the worst example of the police state was when a photographer was ejected by police for kicking a beach ball back over the fence to the fans. This riled the fans, who earlier had cheered the journalist and now booed the police, possibly questioning how far the culture of over-zealous nanny statism can go before there’s an insurrection.

Luckily the Australian cricket team are producing the goods. It was an amazing period of play to witness when Australia ripped through England’s highly decorated batting line up on Day Two. For about 60 minutes the place was absolutely shaking, most of the 38,000 were up and dancing in the aisles, spilling precious beer all over the place. The crowd was baying for blood and it pushed the Australian bowlers on to destroy England. I won’t forget that hour. It was one of the most enjoyable I have witnessed in live sport.

Today was also significant. David Warner and Michael Clarke scored hundreds and Brad Haddin nailed back-to-back 50s for the first time in a Test Match. Mitchell Johnson also contributed with the timber and played a great foil finishing unbeaten on 39.

The best thing Mitch did all day was dismiss Jonathon Trott. He then ran to the out-field to hug Nathan Lyon who took the catch, and gave it large to the Barmy Army, who sat motionless and silent. Johnson is entitled to this as he’s received a lot of flack from them in the past. The much discussed Barmy have been silent for nearly 3 days and I did note that few, if any of them, stood and clapped today’s centurions. Seems as though a few of them have got the hump. Maybe the beer is too expensive.

Australia haven’t been beaten by England at the “Gabbatoir” since the mid 1980s and there’s no way that will change in this Test Match. For England to win they’d have to break a lot of records. They’ll resume tomorrow on 2/24 needing an impossible 537 to win. They’ll hope for rain, but I don’t think there will be enough weather disruption to save them. Only their batsmen can do that now.

A 1-0 lead would be massive though because the way the Adelaide pitch has been playing this season it’s hard to see a result there. Then it’s over to Perth and I fancy Australia on that deck. The job is not done for Australia yet, these 8 wickets will be tough to take as I do believe England will fight.

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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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