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Know when to declare: Smith gets it right amid Test Match feast

For cricket lovers, the period between Christmas and New Year was a veritable Test Match feast. Three Boxing Day Test matches in three time zones proved that utopia exists, in short spurts.

Early risers caught the first session of New Zealand v Sri Lanka, then after sneaking a beachside nap, devoured the bulk of the day watching India tackle Australia at the MCG. Seriously pushing their luck, some blokes even got amongst South Africa v the West Indies in the evening… but the Melbourne Test was the main caper for Aussies.

Although many Australians were incensed by Steve Smith’s decision to bat on during day five, the drawn Test in Melbourne ensured that Australia regained the Border-Gavaskar trophy from India. But the series win was muted by the great declaration debate.

Australia closed day four about 320 ahead. An early declaration was expected on day five, setting up a chase to win, or defend to draw, scenario for India.

It was supposed to be an exciting finale. A formidable and aggressive Indian batting line up were expected to chase around 350 off about 90 overs, a difficult but achievable task. However, the declaration did not come until lunch, with Australia 383 ahead.

Know when to declare

On a flat, batsman-friendly-deck I believe, give or take three or four overs, it was the correct decision.

The morning session was disrupted twice by intermittent rain. As long as showers persisted, Smith was happy to let Shaun Marsh and the tail bat India out of the match, and the series. Had Australia declared earlier, they may have bowled 2-3 overs on a wet outfield, been interrupted by rain again, then faced 80+ overs with a wet ball, seriously damaging their chances of taking 10 wickets.

All fast-bowlers will tell you that bowling with a wet cherry is not desirable, so until the showers abated, Smith sat on the fence. By then, Marsh was in the nineties, so they hung on a little longer. When Marsh ran himself out for 99, the declaration followed.

Many punters expressed outrage at Smith’s tactics. Channel Nine, Fox Sports and other agencies ran public polls and the majority believed the declaration came far too late. In ridiculously disproportionate rants, some writers even slammed Smith’s future captaincy credentials.

But far too many have neglected the conditions and the state of the series, somehow believing that the public’s desire to be entertained was, or should be, the dominant factor in Smith’s reckoning.

Nevertheless, Australia nearly pulled off a win, reducing India to 6/174 before Smith and Dhoni, with four overs remaining, shook hands and called it a day.

That decision is most baffling to me. You need four balls to take four wickets, Australia had 24 remaining. The top order was gone, Dhoni and Ashwin were resisting, but if one of those had been removed, three genuine tail-enders would have been exposed.

Where to for the West Indies?

Meanwhile in South Africa, a depleted West Indies battle for dignity against a transitioning, but still very good, Proteas side. The Caribbean collective were annihilated by an innings and 220 runs at Centurion before Christmas, then rain destroyed the latter half of their encounter in Port Elizabeth. The West Indies are 2 down, and still trail by 4 runs in the second innings of the third Test at Newlands.

While their national side struggles away in South Africa, several West Indian stars are currently playing in Australia’s Big Bash League. The clash of schedules and priorities is not new, but it’s becoming unsustainable. The ICC must act decisively or cricket risks permanently losing one of its great regions. Who is next?

The Black Caps

Things are better for the Kiwis. New Zealand have won seven, and lost only four of their last 17 Tests. Currently, the Black Caps are one nil up against Sri Lanka, but thanks to a brilliant double century by Kumar Sangakkara are under the pump in the second Test. A big innings from young gun Kane Williamson is needed; the hosts are five down and only 118 ahead in the second dig.

Fourth Test, Sydney

Tomorrow, Australia’s fourth Test begins against India in Sydney. Mitchell Johnson has been sidelined by a troublesome hamstring, replaced by Mitchell Starc.

After the resignation of MS Dhnoi – who retired immediately after the Melbourne draw – a new era hails for cricket’s biggest player. Virat Kohli will lead the Indians. He is a great batsman, but displays hints of immaturity and petulance, unbecoming of a successful leader. At 26, he has a lot to learn; Kohli promises India will be an aggressive unit, one that will meet Australia’s combative brand of cricket, front on. Sydney will be an interesting spectacle. The needle between Kohli and several Australians has been epic already, with Kohli nicknamed the “spoilt brat”.

For the Australians, emotions will be flowing as they return to the scene of Philip Hughes’ death. Will the mental and physical strain of events over the past five weeks, prove too much for Australia?

Australia become number 2 and England give India a real blue

Seismic shifts in world cricket. They’re busting up proceedings all the time. Last week England were in  tatters. They hadn’t won in 10 Tests, their Captain was eyeing off a bloody guillotine and the wicket-keeper had walked away. Today their Captain sits comfortably at slip and marshals a buoyant and aggressive bowling unit who have the scent of Indian blood firmly ensconced in their nasal passage.

Overnight their batsmen plundered an indolent India and declared after scoring over half a thousand runs. Their new wicket keeper battered 85 off 83 – leading to ridiculously premature comparisons with Adam Gilchrist – and Gary Ballance and Ian Bell looked a million pounds on their way to 156 and 167. On Day 1 Ali Cook had at least bequeathed some of the pressure on his batting towards his leadership qualities by scoring a gritty 95. Now he has India precariously perched on 1/25.

England must win this Test Match. Mathematically, if they don’t they can still win the series, but the bounce they’ll get and the critics they’ll savagely retort (including me) at least in the immediate short term will propel the dressing room and startle India – who are known for lacking a bit of fight when things get tough away from home. But, let’s not get carried away. England’s had two better days at playing cricket than they’ve had for a little while. The uncertainty of Cook’s leadership and tactical nous remains and administrative and dressing room issues require much more work.

A development that might stir up an incredulous response from Australian cricket fans is the change in ICC Test Rankings overnight. South Africa have retaken number one billing off Australia after winning a 2 Test Series 1-0 in Sri Lanka. It could have been so different. On a dreary last day of the 2nd Test at the Sinhalese Sports Club in Colombo South Africa resisted a desperate Sri Lankan bowling attack to nut out a thrilling draw. With the Proteas leading 1-0 their foci lay on preservation and defiance. At 6/118 with 13 overs remaining rain fell. But, it quickly subsided and the Proteas had to face the wrath – or more accurately the Rangana Herath, who took 5/40 off 45 overs. But, South Africa’s tail clung on at 8/159 securing a 1-0 win and a return to the top of the pops.

In other news the ICC is to “investigate” pro-Gaza wrist bands worn by England’s Moeen Ali during the Test v India. Apparently political messages are banned by the ICC. And Kevin Pietersen has signed up to play for the Melbourne Stars in Australia’s Big Bash League in the southern summer. Could be the first time the bloke isn’t unanimously booed at the MCG?

KP has also come out and said that he “feels sorry for the geezer” when discussing former England Captain Andrew Strauss’s recent on air gaffe where he labelled KP “an absolute c***”. Clearly the personality feud continues even though both men are now ex team-mates.

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.

 

 

Graeme Smith retires, Australia on brink

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

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

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

Australia on the brink of victory at Cape Town?

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

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

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

Don’t touch the ball!

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

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

A toilet break

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

Bowled out

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

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

Conclusions

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

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

Welcome to Cape Town: best ground in the world?

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

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

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

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

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

Tampered ball?

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

Team Changes

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

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

Newlands the greatest

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

Chasing status: The Pursuit at Port Elizabeth

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

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

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

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

How good is AB de Villiers!

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

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

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

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

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

@Cricket_Froth