England

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?

55 years ago English tourists crushed Queensland Country

Cool weather, clouds and a splash of rain greeted England for its final Ashes tour match in Townsville, 55 years since the MCC last played in the city in 1962.

The weather presented a strange scenario few predicted.

North Queensland’s normally hot and humid November climate persauded England’s tour planners to play the team’s final Ashes warm up match in Townsville.

Townsville has a long and relatively unknown cricket history, which includes matches involving Bradman, West Indian cricket royalty and past England touring sides. England hoped Townsville’s heat would acclimatise the players: the local conditions often cause club cricketers to endure bursting tropical humidity and beaming sunshine.

Besides the conditions, the clash will offer critical insight into England’s chances of beating Australia, with the first Ashes Test kicking off in Brisbane on 23 November.

England will play at Townsville’s Riverway Stadium against a Cricket Australia XI coached by one of England’s most prolific first class run scorers, Graeme Hick, who never quite converted First Class runs into Test longevity.

Hick, who scored over 40,000 first class runs and 144 centuries, will be joined by the Australian Troy Cooley, who gained notoriety for being the coach of England’s bowling attack during the famous 2005 Ashes Series, which included ‘mintgate’.

England have been before

Part of Townsville’s rich and relatively untold cricket history involved a match between the Marylebone Cricket Club and a Queensland Country XI at the Townsville Sports Reserve in 1962.

Playing as the MCC in its tour matches during the 1962-63 Ashes Series, England’s match in Townsville was one of an astonishing 27 played by England on the tour.

The result was an outright victory for the MCC team, which included Italian born England captain Ted Dexter, off-break specialist Ray Illingworth and the ordained minister and Bishop of Liverpool, David Sheppard.

The Queenslanders managed scores of 165 and 138 against the MCC’s 423. The 62-63 Ashes Series ended in a 1-1 draw. An omen perhaps?

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

Townsville hosted England on 7-8 December, 1962: ‘Long Trek Ahead of M.C.C. Team’, North Queensland Register, 13 October 1962, 39.

Future Test venue

Townsville has a fabulous world class cricket venue set among river parkland, with a mountain backdrop.

The city hosted a thrilling Sheffield Shield match in 2016 and in 1987 at the city’s Endeavour Park, Queensland defeated a West Indian side, which included Haynes, Richardson, Gomes, Richards, Dujon, Marshal and Garner.

Townsville also hosted the under-19 50 over World Cup in 2012 and A-list tour matches including India, South Africa and Australia in 2015.

It is hoped that the city can host Test cricket in the future.

Australian preparations

Sheffield Shield matches attract additional media interest at the beginning of the Australian Test season, before being shunted to the periphery by the Big Bash.

This year, it’s no different. Speculation has mounted that Australia could drop Matt Renshaw for either Cameron Bancroft or Shaun Marsh. Bancroft, in particular has been prolific among the runs. A Shield double-century has elevated his stakes. Surely, however, this is mere speculation.

Despite a poor opening to the Shield season with no score over 20 in five starts, Renshaw has done enough in the Test arena to justify selection. Renshaw and Warner could become a great team. Renshaw just needs to rotate the strike more often to avoid being tied down and allow Warner more regular involvement.

It remains unclear who will bat at six for Australia. Glenn Maxwell, George Bailey, Moises Henriques, Jake Lehmann, Marcus Stoinis, Aaron Finch, and even Mitchell Marsh (again), are contenders. Perhaps Bancroft should come in at 6? Mike Hussey’s history as an opener did not prevent him from becoming prolific in Australia’s middle order.

The wicket keeper position also remains unfilled. Although he too has scored few runs in the Shield, Peter Nevill looks set for a return over Matt Wade and Alex Carey.

Would Australian selectors shock the world and select players on the basis of Shield form? If so, there will be new faces.

Let’s wait and see.

For now, those of us in North Queensland will enjoy scrutinising England’s prospects at emerging the least ordinary this summer, of what, it must be said, are two of the most underwhelming Test teams Australia and England have produced in some time.

A quick check of the form guide and the personnel in both squads suggests this could be one of the lowest quality Ashes series seen this century. Nonetheless, it should still be a great contest, not least between who scores more: Root or Smith?

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.