Indian cricket

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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The Little Master’s farewell & war between the old enemies

Welcome back men of gentle persuasion, and ladies who love or tolerate cricket. Only a few more days until the Ashes contest commences, so get the coronary surgeon on speed dial and book some leave from work. Five Tests in Australia, four in 2013 and one in 2014, and it all commences next week in Brisbane. Right now though, the game’s greatest batsmen of the past 25 years is playing his final ever Test Match in Mumbai.

Sachin Tendulkar

Enormous content will be generated in the wake of Tendulkar’s retirement. Eulogies and comparisons will trigger reflection and debate. The most prominent comparison will be between he and the late Sir Donald Bradman. I must assert that this is unnecessary. Both are brilliant batsmen, eternal legends of the sport, but the sheer gap in time between their careers and the vastly different conditions in which they plied their trade renders them incommensurable.

Tendulkar scored 74 against the West Indies yesterday and moving into Day Three, with the visitors 3 down and 270-odd behind on a 1st innings deficit, it’s likely we’ll never see the Little Master bat again. Perhaps the only man who can allow the world to see Tendulkar once more is West Indian legend Shivnarine Chanderpaul, who at 39 is playing his 150th Test. A rearguard innings from Shiv might see the West Indies force India to go around again, but it would have to be a timeless special. I hope the Guyanese hero can do it and with the big Jamaican Chris Gayle still in, there’s a slim chance.

I don’t think it should have ended like this though… a raging dispute between South African cricket’s CEO Haroon Lorgat and India’s BCCI has robbed the cricket world of what should have been an epic four or five Test match series in South Africa beginning on Boxing Day or in the new year. I argue that Sachin’s last stand would have been far more memorable had it been nutted out in the trenches of Test warfare against the world’s best, rather than in a hastily arranged “farewell” tour against an unprepared and relatively weaker West Indian side. Alas, scatter-gun personality politics and an unbridled BCCI gave us what we have.

Tendulkar’s record is stunning: he will have completed 200 Test matches, at least 51 Test centuries and amassed around 16,000 runs at an average over 53. He’s also knocked out over 18,000 runs in 463 One Day Internationals. He’s only played 1 international T20. Says a lot doesn’t it?

Goodbye and thank you Sachin, you’re a fine cricketer and a gentleman and as New Zealand’s former captain Daniel Vettori aptly described, “you’ve been in form longer than some of our guys have been alive”.

The Ashes Series in Australia

There’s no debate to be had on the assertion that England are favourites and Australia are underdogs. Beaten 3-0 in England only a few months ago, optimistic Australians have argued that there were many “moments” where we could have won Test Matches or forced a closer contest. Trent Bridge, Old Trafford and Durham spring to mind, but let’s examine a few truths.

England possess more proven quality, and they did manage to beat Australia 3-0 without their best batsmen firing. Ally Cook, Kevin Pietersen and Johnathon Trott didn’t pile on the runs in the old dart. It was the fine batting of Ian Bell supplemented by a collection of notable cameos that saw England through, and it was the relatively poor, often collapse-prone batting of Australia that ensured we couldn’t sufficiently return fire at the crease. Australia’s revolving selection door, which fostered about as much stability as a contemporary Egyptian democracy, seemed not to assist the Australian effort.

Australia’s strength was its bowling, particularly Ryan Harris. Australian fans should be energetically fist pumping at the prospect of a fully fit Harris, while the English should take note that this man presents a genuine threat to their hope of retaining the Ashes.

Of course, Australia requires more than the fine effort and return of any one man. Australia’s batting must deliver big runs. Not just from Michael Clarke. I fancy that the mean innings scores in Australia will be higher. Even more runs will be required. A tall order for Australia’s lean order, but not an impossible prospect.

First Test,The GABBA, Brisbane

Australia have recalled Mitchell Johnson and added One Day Captain George Bailey to their 12 man squad for the first Test. Johnson was a destructive force on a recent ODI tour of India and has a massive opportunity to excise demons from past Ashes campaigns, hit back at critics and reinstall himself in a Test team that faces South Africa the other side of the Ashes. George Bailey has been selected on the basis of ODI rather than Shield form – not ideal in my view – but I do think the Tasmanian has the character, maturity and mental resilience to succeed at Test standard.

The new faces join a list of players, all of whom played a part in the 3-0 defeat in England.

I think the squad is about right. Obviously Mitchell Starc and James Pattinson are injured and Phil Hughes and Usman Khawaja have been overlooked.

There’s some familiar speculation about Shane Watson’s fitness. Pending his fitness to at least bat, then I think James Faulkner will be 12th man and finally we’ll be picking a 6-1-4 formation. Four front line bowlers should be able to take 20 wickets.

England have had a long preparation in Australia, arriving in October and completing various tour matches. The only questions for them appear to be the fitness of wicket keeper Matt Prior and which fast bowler should accompany Stuart Broad and James Anderson.

It will be a cracking contest next week. There’s a lot of fierce storm activity in southern Queensland at the moment and I do fear this one will be interrupted by rain and possibly some golf ball-sized hail, so bring the driver and a few tees. A warning to English fans, the GABBA is nicknamed NAZI dome for the way its security and QLD police aggressively assert themselves in the lives of cricket spectators. The atmosphere will be great, but it would be so much better without the nanny state attempting to frog march 50% of patrons from the ground by Tea for a range of ludicrously petty “violations”.

Anyway, I’ll be there in Brisbane with a bunch of other cricket tragics, so I look forward to reporting pitch-side then.