Graeme Swann

England Destroyed; Australia emphatically hammers Ashes cricket foe

Australia have hammered English cricket.

It has been destroyed by the grandeur of Australia’s incredible performance and a vicious disintegration of a once-great team’s continuity. Australia won the 5th Test by 281 runs. Cook won the toss, sent Australia in to bat and lost the Test match inside 3 days. Believe me, this is momentous and as retiring ABC Grandstand legend Kerry O’Keefe stated, “heads will roll”.

It’s not just the falling apart of this team, the 5-0 defeat will elicit an intense review of coaching, captaincy, leadership, culture and selection policy.

All sorts of cracks appeared early on the tour, and the way in which England keeled over and died on the third day of the fifth Test in Sydney confirmed the cracks had become deep cavernous ravines. The style of England’s cricket, their tactics, and the dressing room culture require change.

The writing was on the wall in England when they won the Ashes 3-0 at home. The 3-0 scoreline flattered England. Other than Lords, Australia fought closely in two defeats – a 14 run loss in Nottingham and a fourth innings collapse and 74 run loss in Durham. Everyone remembers how poorly Australia batted, but Australian batsmen made up 5 of the top 6 run scorers of that series. Only Ian Bell scored significant runs for England and many others failed averaging 30 or less. England’s bowling attack creaked, just slightly, papered over by the sheer overall quality of Anderson, Broad and Swann.

That trio is now finished. Swann has retired. James Anderson still has a lot to offer, but is 31 and Stuart Broad has been one of England’s better performers on the tour, but they need more depth. They’ll find it if they look in the right places and correctly blood and develop their next generation, but it will take effort and time.

22 year old New Zealand born Ben Stokes has been an epic revelation. Stokes is a handy cricketer with an aggressive attitude and a willingness to fight for his country. England is at a crossroad: either they fully commit to a considered process of renewal, or they enter a protracted decline that risks a 90s-style wilderness sabbatical.

Australia’s crossroad is more positive, but arguably equally as challenging. Captain Michael Clarke has stated that the squad’s ambition is to become the number 1 Test team in the world. The next 12 months presents that opportunity. In four weeks Australia tour South Africa. The 3 Test Matches against the number 1 Springboks will be absolute war, with two fiercely combative fast-bowling units attempting to strangulate two pugnacious batting line ups. Later this year Australia plays Pakistan in the UAE, which will present another intense examination. India visit for four Tests in the summer.

Can older players such as Mitchell Johnson, Brad Haddin and Ryan Harris continue to deliver? Will Steve Smith and David Warner develop further and become rock solid, world-class batsmen? Despite 6 of the top 7 getting centuries during this series there are still significant question marks about Australia’s batting.

The 5-0 victory is massive given the sporadic success of Australian national sports teams in recent years. The Australians have a right to celebrate hard. England did just that in 2010-11 when they took a 2-1 lead at the MCG. Back then 25,000 English surrounded the Barmy Army in the Southern Stand and, along with the English players and support staff, did the “sprinkler dance” in front of the world’s cricket media. I doubt we’ll see such a display here, but there will be plenty of banter and there damn well should be. Long live Test Match cricket.

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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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The Adelaide spectacle – 2nd Ashes Test 2013-14

Do you have any plans for the weekend?

Cancel them. England resume tomorrow on 1/35 and they’re chasing a mountain of Australian runs. At first, the bowling will be fresh and fierce and then tactically relentless, the batting should be stoic and the contest will paralyze spectators.

Australia will rue the missed chance from the last ball of day 2. Michael Carberry found himself on strike after Joe Root bizarrely took off for a mindless single on the second last ball of the day. Carberry was unable to connect bat with ball and would have been given out LBW had Australia reviewed the original not-out decision. Carberry survived Root’s capricious run.

Australia’s Adelaide innings

Far for from being impulsive Australia’s batting card indicates collective contribution. Only Steve Smith missed out. At 5 for 270odd at stumps on Day 1 honours were said to be even. I probably had England ahead on the basis that 450 seemed par for the Adelaide Oval.

I missed the first day’s play while participating in a conference. All day I dreamed of the conference’s conclusion and the afternoon’s drive to cricket training where my car’s radio and the famed ABC commentary would catapult me from corporate slogans and into modern, sporting warfare.

My radio wouldn’t work. Seething is one expression. There were many others screamed at fictitious technological gods and slow drivers too. Nonetheless I caught up on the day’s play during the late night sports news.

Graeme Swan remarked buoyantly that if England claimed early wickets on Day 2 then they could exert authority on the Test Match.

By the Tea Break on Day 2 the Australian captain’s crafty century drove England into submission and forced the holders of the precious Ashes Urn to wait patiently for an innings declaration. Vice captain Brad Haddin more than chimed in with a studiously crafted century of his own and when tail ender and Australian fast-bolwing spearhead Ryan Harris knocked up a casual 50odd off tired English bowling, the declaration finally came.

Australia had set England 570 runs.

England’s innings so far

Mitchell Johnson was unleashed late on the second day and given a mandate to attack England’s opening batsmen. Bowling in excess of 150kph Johnson terrorised Michael Carberry and Alistair Cook. The latter had his stumps torn from the ground and looked more than all at sea trying the fend off the red leather assault. The England captain seemed as if he was in outer space and will probably consider staying there if his side do not bat for at least the majority of day 3.

The amazing game of Test Cricket

The Ashes kicks off tomorrow at 10am Queensland time, but get yourself in front of the television at 0745am.

A couple of days ago I mentioned the Test Match between West Indies and New Zealand. The Caribbean tourists had won the toss and sent New Zealand in to bat. The host team embraced the invitation to score runs and blasted over 600 and then skittled the West Indies for a paltry 213. Required to follow on the West Indies looked down and beaten, but in a twist that even the finest pundit would not have been able to predict, the tourists remain unbeaten in their second innings and will take a 47 run lead into Day 5. Darren Bravo is not out on 210.

That match promises an entertaining conclusion and the changing fortunes of the sides beset by brilliant individual performances is yet another example of how great Test Match cricket really is.

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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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Fifth Ashes Test, The Oval – Australia’s selection riddle continues

Reports indicate Australia will make changes to its XI for the fifth and final Test. This means that in every one of its last 13 Test matches, Australia has changed its line up and batting order. We’ve lost 8 of those, with one to play.

For tonight’s Test at the Oval I can understand Mitchell Starc replacing Jackson Bird, but James Faulkner replacing Usman Khawaja?

Australia has significant problems with its batting, so what do we do? Drop a batsmen and bring in an all-rounder who averages 30 with the bat in First Class cricket.

The selection mismanagement and total lack of continuity and direction in this Australian set up is appalling. This isn’t to say that James Faulkner isn’t a reasonable candidate for selection, but the circumstances demand we pick our strongest possible batting line up. There is no evidence to suggest we’ve done that here.

The Selection Riddle

In early 2013 Ed Cowan was one of Australia’s better performers in a barren series in India, albeit as an opener. He was moved to number 3 for the First Ashes Test, but failed, and was dropped. Usman Khawaja replaced him at Lords. He lasted three Test Matches.

One 50 in 6 innings is hardly a suitable return, but the fact Khawaja (again) was picked meant the selectors believed he had the ability to become a Test standard number 3. You may fail to convert it, but you don’t lose ability 3 weeks. This is the second time Khawaja has been dropped from the Test side. He’s played 9 Tests and averages 25. Surely he’ll be consigned to some lengthy graft at Shield and County level to prove he is worthy once again?

Maybe not though, he could be back in the side sooner than that.

The establishment may handle Khawaja like they did Phil Hughes – who was dropped about 18months ago (for the second time), and consigned to less than half a season in Shield cricket, before being brought back to play at home versus Sri Lanka, and away in India.

Based on the mean, Hughes didn’t have a shocker in Inida, and retained his place for the First Ashes Test. He scored an 80odd not-out in the first innings at number 6, a less recognised cameo to the famous 98 by Ashton Agar. Hughes failed in the second innings of that Test, and was then promoted up the order to number 3 for the 2nd Test after Ed Cowan was dropped. In the Lords massacre, Hughes didn’t get a run and was dropped for the Third Test, replaced by David Warner.

Shane Watson is reportedly now the man to bat at 3, after batting at 4 and 5 in India, opening in the first 2 and a half Tests of this series, then batting at 6 in the last 3 innings.

Based on the continual shuffle, Khawaja might find himself opening the batting in the return series in Australia. Or he could be at number 6, or 4. Maybe even wicket keeper? Has he got a good set of gloves in his kit bag? Perhaps he should get some.

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Incredulity Inducing Cricket Council – we’re in the dark, again

England’s vise-like grip on the Ashes urn has tightened to an almost unrelenting point, at least for this series anyway. If we manage to play on Day Five, then the first ball bowled has to be delivered by an Australian to an Englishman, and it will probably need to be a wicket taker.

Australia will surely declare overnight, but with the benefit of hindsight one may argue that Michael Clarke should have pulled the pin already.

With rain pencilled in for Day Five causing the likely loss of many overs, and with a lead approaching 300, the case for declaration mounted last night. I rocked back and forth steadily going round the twist from sleep deprivation, and at one o’clock this morning I pleading for a declaration. This feeling was emboldened when rain did arrive, the players departed and Tea was taken. The rain subsided, tea and scones were had, but Australia batted on.

On cue, as if realising they hadn’t interfered and shaped the game for a couple of hours, the umpires imposed themselves.

Tony Hill, of New Zealand, and Marais Erasmus of South Africa, dragged the players off the field at 1625 local time, enforcing the ICC’s bad light ruling. Michael Clarke was furious. The umpires had asked the England captain, Alistair Cook, to bowl spin from both ends, he understandably declined. No more play occurred and 36 overs were lost forever.

The bad light ruling drives me nuts and it didn’t please the parochial English crowd at Old Trafford, who booed and expressed visual discontent. There are England fans out there undisturbed at the loss of play, pointing to the contribution it makes to their Ashes campaign. I’d rather see the players resolve the contest, not the umpires or the weather.

Bad Light

Bad light is a safety ruling designed to protect players and officials, but it seems immensely subjective. Context and local expectations seem to shape the standard.

I’ve sat at Queens Park Oval in Trinidad – a rainy, forested island adjacent to Venezuela – and monsoonal gloom dominated. I sensed that if this light were experienced in sunny Perth the umpires would be off, but that light is par for the course in the southern Caribbean. I’ve also been at Lords, freezing cold in a gale, clad in a thick jacket with the day far too dark to consider sun glasses, yet play continued without any issue with the light. Again, if that light were experienced at Newlands in the bright beaming South African city of Cape Town, it would have seemed like night. I know the umpires utilise light metres, but it does seem subjective.

The weather factor

The premise of bad light is usually to protect batsmen and to a much lesser extent, fielders. But, when the batting team is currently going at 6 runs per over (4.77 for the innings) it’s hard to argue that their vision is impeded and safety threatened. The lights were on at Old Trafford and things seemed tenable.

If I were an England fan I’d be disappointed with the prospect of rain too as I’d be backing my team to fight and withstand Australia’s desire for rapid wickets. England certainly has the quality and it would be a scintillating contest. That’s what it’s all about for cricketing purists, high stakes last day cricket.

I can understand praying for rain when your side is six or seven wickets down late in the day trying to save a Test, but I can’t fathom the welcoming of weather interruption on Day Four when both sides are still fighting it out. That’s just not cricket.

The play that did go ahead

England’s batsmen Matt Prior and Stuart Broad did very well in the opening exchanges. The latter frustrated Australia with a succession of boundaries interspersed by defiance. England consumed time and picked off Australia’s lead, surpassing the follow-on indicator, before finally succumbing for 368 about 150-odd behind.

Australia shuffled the batting and sent out David Warner, a move that will generate topical debate. One logic offered for the reshuffle is that the left handers struggle against Graeme Swann so having three of them at the top of the order would provide them time against the seamers, before facing the Nottingham spinner. From hazy recollection, Swann was on after 4-5 overs. His ball to bowl Usman Khawaja around his legs was phenomenal. A real peach and he went straight for Broad to celebrate, as if it were Broad who suggested the ploy.

The fragile Aussie top order managed a collection of starts as the imperative for reasonably quick scoring brought about risky shots.

With the lead now 331, if somebody could kindly erect a roof at Old Trafford so we can get in a full day’s play watching England attempt to resist Australia’s attack, I’d be very grateful.

If not, then the Urn remains in England and we go to Chester Le-Street in Durham on Friday for the Fourth Test, England 2 up.

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Proper Test Match batting – Day One, Third Test – Old Trafford

Finally Australia have put on a display of proper Test Match batting.

I locked myself in for the evening, along with half of Australia and much of the rest of the cricketing world, in the hope that we would at least make a contest of this match. It’s all at stake in Manchester; careers, legacies, levels of interest and of course, the Ashes urn.

No change to the England side that demolished Australia at Lords. Three changes for Australia with Ashton Agar moving out for Nathan Lyon (don’t worry, Agar is 19 he will feature again) and Phil Hughes making way for David Warner. Mitch Starc got the nod to replace the injured James Pattinson.

The day’s play

Australia won the toss and on a wicket that looked great for batting all day and beyond, it was a vital moment. A solid base was needed and Rogers and Watson began to construct it with Rogers the aggressor and Watson the cautious, watchful one. Unfortunately for the latter he got out again on a start, 19. But, it was a pearler of a delivery from Tim Bresnan. No batsmen in the world could resist that nibbling line and perfect length and Watson prodded to the delight of wicket-keeper Prior.

Rogers persisted and raced beyond fifty exhibiting a fine array of shots. His new partner Usman Khawaja seemed terrified of Graeme Swann at Lords, so it was no surprise that he was quickly set up to face his dreaded phobia. Swann took his wicket in dramatic circumstances and I’ve already reflected on the Usman Khawaja DRS fiasco.

2/92 at lunch, a reasonable start. After a round of ham sandwiches, a packet of crisps and cup of hot water infused with sub-continental tea leaves, it was out for the second session.

Rogers and Clarke pushed on, but the gritty 35 year old opener was distracted by persistent movement up at the pavilion. A few overs passed and with constant interruptions up there, Rogers grew increasingly discontent. It contributed to his downfall, with a cunning full delivery by Swann trapping him LBW, right after another incident of unsuccessful communication with the buffoons up on the deck, one of whom turns out to be club cricket mate of Rogers.

England sensed a blood bath and they circled. But, the methodical and much ameliorated Steve Smith provided precisely the foil that Captain Michael Clarke needed.

In the Lords Preview I talked about the need to bat 120 overs plus in the first innings of a Test Match, and that the ability to leave the ball was a critical component of this. On a bouncy pitch more akin to an Australian wicket both Smith and Clarke executed leave after leave with aplomb. The result was an England bowling attack who began to show signs of irritation and fatigue. As I did at about 0145, trudging off to my own pavilion a little happier than most times this series.

Final Day One observations

Although not in the same galaxy as the Khawaja incident, England had their own brush with DRS dissatisfaction. They thought they had Smith caught behind for 25 before Tea, but the field umpire disagreed, they confidently reviewed and while there was some strange tick noise, there was no other compelling evidence. Mike Atherton said it was justice to Australia – a rubbish statement. Smith consumed both of England’s reviews and remains unbeaten on 75. Here in the southern hemisphere we hope he nails his maiden century tonight.

England will fight back, they’re too good not to. The Old Trafford crowd showed signs of becoming more boisterous and will increase it’s cacophony of support in the coming days. Australia must bat on for as long as possible and not even consider the D word, at all.

The stage is set for David Warner to blast Australia to a big score once Smith and Clarke reassert Australia’s ascendency on Day Two resuming at 3/303. Let’s hope the infamous Manchester weather remains clement.

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