Old Trafford

Wrung out yesterday, burned by Broad today – Aussie Ashes scattered

Armageddon?

After sleeping only 3 hours this morning after 3am, I’m substantially wrecked today, and so is Australian cricket. Some of you might think I’m being overly negative in response to the loss at Durham overnight, but we’ve a right to be armageddonist.

Remember how we felt in 2010-11 after England skittled us for 98 on Boxing Day at the MCG and replied with 0/150+ at stumps? Remember the 3-1 defeat, albeit three absolute thrashings, in that series over two years ago?

What about 4-0 down in India earlier this year?

How about being 3-0 down in England?

There shouldn’t be any bush beating here, Australia is at its lowest point for decades and it’s arguably a lower tide than the 1980s.

After an improved showing at Old Trafford last week I was amazed at how quickly the feeling of “we’re back” lurked behind media reactions. The phrase, while not quite spoken aloud, also seemed on the tip of tongues in conversations I’d had with fellow Australians. Sure, we’ve been in the odd decent position and our bowlers have often created that, but in a two-horse race run across five days there will almost always be a point where you can draw that bow.

The fact is, our batting collective is not Test standard, we lack resolve and fortitude and the evidence of this is plain and readily available. You won’t need Assange, Manning or Snowden to show it to you.

Don’t lose sight of the big issue

Without going on like a two-bob watch I must say that the odd positive on-field display should not distract us from the cancerous issues stymieing Australian cricket. The systematic destruction of our cricketing stocks is unintentionally orchestrated by dark, incompetent administrative forces and is first evident in the emaciation of talent available to Australia. Our stocks are thin. The numbers returned in the Sheffield Shield have been screaming it for years.

“Oh relax, we’ve had our time in the sun, it’s someone else’s turn”

This is the kind of statement made by those who concede defeat and disappointment with ease, and who lack the creativity and progressive attitude to launch remedial action. It’s the kind of statement that first permits, and then breeds mediocrity and it is spreading throughout Australian cricket – and many other sports – with devastating effect.

I’ve previously listed some of the issues I have with Australian cricket as early as 2011 and published more recent analysis of Australia’s Batting Demise, so I’ll now turn my attention to last night’s on-field events.

Day Four, Fourth Ashes Test – Durham

Congratulations England, you deserve the victory and the glory.

The poor application of some of Australia’s talented players can be blamed in part-only for last night’s collapse. Mostly it comes down to inferior ability and a higher quality of cricket played by England.

The morning began well for Australia, with the bowlers again doing their bit.

I was amazed at Aleem Dar’s decision to not give Tim Bresnan out when he didn’t bother to play a shot to Jackson Bird, who struck him on the pad, dead in front of the stumps. Height the only partial issue of pedantic concern. A review followed, but according to hawkeye, with half the ball smashing the stumps, Dar’s decision couldn’t be overturned. The bloke didn’t play a shot. May as well have tossed the bat away and was racked right in front. In my book that is out, all day, every day and it is only in this DRS/hawkeye world where this mantra has been eroded.

I ask then, how long will it be before the pitching outside leg criteria for LBW is questioned?

If the ball pitches outside leg you can’t be given out LBW. This rule hails from a pre-hawkeye world where umpires had to be sceptical of the angle, assuming the ball would need to do far too much to hit the stumps. Hawkeye’s exponents will argue that if it can be shown the ball will rattle the castle, then perhaps the old interpretation should be referred for review…

Ryan Harris is a superstar and his 7 wickets in England’s second innings included some absolute rippers to top order batsmen. At 33, Harris must be gutted at the realisation he may never win an Ashes Series. He will certainly never win one in England.

Crashing from 2/167 to all out for 224 in the final session last night was a bitter blow, but as I’ve written here it should remind us of the bigger issues in Australian cricket. Stuart Broad’s evening spell was a catalogue of high class bowling, deft captaincy and good fielding. How this Australian camp can regroup and perform well at The Oval in a week is beyond me. That dressing room must be an horrific place today…

Just think, we’ve got 6 more Tests against England and then we’re away for 3 against the world’s best Test side and bowling attack, South Africa. Look out.

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I need sleep, but I can’t let go of this riddle!

Here we go again. It’s Day Five, we’ve had play, we’ve had wickets and I think I’m going to need that defibrillator again. This is unbelievable. The problem is, it’s raining now!

England are rocking at 3/33, but father time and mother nature are mating again and they want a draw. Every Australian fan and neutral is screaming for more dry weather and wickets. You guessed it too. We’ve had more controversy with umpiring and DRS. Ally Cook was absolutely plumb, Jonathan Trott was out, but Kevin Pietersen… well. The umpire gave him out, he reviewed, hot spot did not support the original decision, but he was sent packing.

The increasingly impossible riddle of original decision versus referral, leading to hotspot, close camera analysis, deviation detection, noise, player reaction and gut instinct is enough to shatter the sanity of players and fans of both sides.

My initial and gut instinct was that Pietersen was not out. It wasn’t as clear as Usman Khawaja’s miss on Day One, but there was little evidence he hit it. The inadmissible snickometre detected something though, so I will say that at best Pietersen may have feathered a tiny thread of seam string. The close up photo showing the position of the ball indicates this might, just might, be the case.

Anyway. The second session is yet to commence due to rain. The full covers are out and I’m a jittering wreck of a man. I need sleep, I have heaps of work to do, my fitness is declining. This series is battering me, a ludicrous cocktail of pleasure and pain and I can’t let go, not now. I know I’m not alone either.

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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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Weather permitting, crackling cricket remains to rivet – Days Two & Three

Grit, grind, graft and trench warfare. This is tough Test Match cricket at Old Trafford and unfortunately, it appears that the Manchester weather will eliminate Australia’s hopes of victory.

I failed to write yesterday as the nip of domestic chores and general life maintenance requirements consumed time. Here I sit on a Sunday morning after a cracking night with friends Jen and Ian, who came to our place for some food, music, drinks and a few yarns. The night before we hosted Chris and Hien for an almost identical set. Two late nights, big on the wine and always with the Test Match close by, which pulled us in with its variety of twists and turns.

Day Two (Friday night) saw Australia continue its prudent first day batting display. Declaration came just after the Tea break. Who would have thought, a declaration? Australia were barely able to string together 200 at Lords, let alone surpassing 500 with Michael Clarke giving it the big wave from the deck of the pavilion.

The Captain had done his bit, with a marvellous knock of 187. His vice, Brad Haddin played an almost surreptitious hand, with an unbeaten 65 off 99 balls. Starc and Smith also get mentions and while the latter fell for 89, his innings assisted Australia in more ways than the cumulative of his runs. He batted time and demanded a great deal of graft from England’s bowlers, which set up the cameo knocks of his colleagues later on. Particularly Starc, who nutted out a 66 not out off 71 balls taking full advantage of a tired bowling group and propelling Australia beyond 500.

At 2/52 overnight England faced a mountainous task to avoid the follow on figure (328). But, on Day Three (Saturday night) England showed plenty of fight and their stoic batting held Australia at bay, who could only manage five wickets. Kevin Pietersen built a score of 113, while Ian Bell again gracefully added vital runs.

Australia are still on top in this game, with England trailing by 233 runs with three wickets in hand, but father time and mother nature are threatening to mate, and produce an ugly offspring for Australia.

Controversy, again

Snicko, hawkeye, hotspot and slow motion replays dominate my sleeping consciousness, such is their prominence in this Ashes series. More DRS controversy and poor umpiring has affected both sides in this match over the last two days and the ICC will come under sustained pressure to justify its systems, processes and human resources. I don’t have the energy to dissect and micro analyse the elements today, but rest assured, this series is generating doctoral research level talking points about the administration and officiating of cricket.

Looking ahead to Day Four

Australia need to fire out England’s remaining three wickets within an hour or two on Day Four. England need 34 runs to avoid the follow on figure, but it’s very unlikely Australia will enforce it. Instead, the scenario would seem that Australia will bat and attempt to nail on an extra 150 to the lead, declare and have another crack at England’s superior batting line up. Two days to go, six sessions of cricket and plenty of surprises remain. I hope there’s a two day drought in Manchester!

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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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Who should play for Australia next?

The ten day break between Lords and the upcoming third Test at Old Trafford is like an oasis for Australia. A bounty of space and time devoid of Jimmy Anderson and Graeme Swann. There’s been no time for relaxation, jelly and ice cream though. A section of the touring party has been battling Sussex at Hove, while the rest receive counselling.

Some of Australia’s fans are in need of counselling too after we copped a seventh defeat in ten Test Matches in London last week. With James Pattinson returning home injured, David Warner piling on 193 for the A side in Pretoria, and Ed Cowan posting 66 and a 77 not out against Sussex, heart rates remain high with conjecture raging about Australia’s XI for the next Test.

Australia’s immensely bad batting, which I discussed in depth in the Lords Preview and again in Australia’s Invertebrate Batting, has generated vociferous commentary. If we analysed some of the propositions circulating, we’d have about fifteen different 11s. I’ve made my feelings clear about the big picture and some of the factors affecting Australia’s batting demise, but with some radical ideas frisbeeing about in relation to who should play next, I’m in the conservative camp when it comes to selection for the remainder of this series.

Stick with the squad

You can’t go ringing up blokes and dragging them in from all corners with inadequate preparation, and dump them in the middle of an intense Ashes contest. Some people have demanded “bring in young guys and start building”. This popular line is trotted out in all sports, whenever things aren’t great, but it’s a shallow throwaway. This is already one of the youngest assemblies of Australian Test players in the past 25 years.

Mishandling our player resources is now a habit that requires breaking. The last thing we need to do is inhibit some young lad’s development by having him terrorised by England’s attack in front of the Barmy Army, who will be deployed in force for the first time this series at Old Trafford.

You don’t develop players in the Test team, you develop them in First Class cricket and pick accomplished and proven candidates to play Test cricket. Clearly this hasn’t happened for Australia with recent selection lacking philosophy and consistent logic, so it’s time for some continuity.

Chopping and changing is something to avoid in these circumstances

He’s a strong candidate and it looks likely he’ll play in Manchester, but I believe David Warner should not be rushed back in on account of one score for Australia A. Over 1300 runs were scored in that match with 3 centurions, a double centurion and a collection of worthy starts. This indicates the pitch was like the Great Eastern highway.

Warner scored 33 in the second dig and reports suggest he had to be separated from a heated confrontation with the opposition wicket keeper. He was sent there for disciplinary reasons and to fix an ailing attitude. Has the penny dropped for Warner? I’m not sure, I’d tell him we want another hundred for the A team when they play Sth Africa A again on Wednesday, but I believe he’s just arrived back in England to rejoin the squad so it seems he’ll play and hopefully prove me wrong.

As for the top order that failed at Lords; We can argue that Phil Hughes shouldn’t have been brought back so soon (or at all) and that Watson is an opener, a number six or a T20 specialist. Simon Katich should not have been deposed in 2011, but he should not be brought back in now, and we should not play Mathew Wade (0 & 30not out v Sussex) – a future wicket keeper who should bat at 7 – as a top six batsman.

Ed Cowan was dropped after the First Test so to reinstate him in the Third creates a revolving door and perpetuates a culture of self-preservation and fear.

Frankly, there should only be two certain changes for Old Trafford

Jackson Bird or Mitchell Starc in for the injured Pattinson and Nathan Lyon in for Ashton Agar. Naturally, this assertion lacks detailed pitch and weather analysis and the fitness of our players could affect selection come Thursday, but I’m hoping for some continuity both in the line up and the batting order.

My Old Trafford XI

Watson, Rogers, Khawaja, Clarke, Hughes, Smith, Haddin, Siddle, Harris, Lyon, Bird. (12th man Starc)

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2-0 to England and Australia’s invertebrate batting

Congratulations and well played England. Two nil up in the series and powering on toward what could be a resounding series victory at Old Trafford next week.

England batted for 18 minutes on Day Four with the declaration coming immediately after Joe Root got out for 180. Australia’s task was more about fighting for survival and showing character and resilience along the way, than serious consideration of a win. The highest fourth innings run chase in Test cricket is 418, so evidence suggests even the greatest of batting line ups would not have amassed the 580-odd required to win.

With Australia’s batting bereft of greatness they withered away from the start. Australia had just over 80 minutes to survive before the luncheon, but haemorrhaged three wickets before the interval. After lunch, Clarke and Khawaja provided some resistance, but when part-time spinner Joe Root nailed both of them in quick succession, the end was nigh.

Once again Australia’s bowlers, presently known for possessing more spine than their invertebrate batting colleagues, deferred the English victory until the last over of the day. The bottom four put on 85 with the number ten and eleven (Pattinson and Harris) outscoring five of Australia’s top seven.

Australia’s batting demise

There’s a lot to be said, but in brief there are three glaring issues.

Firstly, the shunting of Sheffield Shield to either end of the Australian summer to accommodate an increasingly dominant T20 “Big Bash”. It not only disrupts the Shield season, it diminishes its credibility and importance. The move sends completely the wrong message about cricket’s priorities and affects the development and skill set of young players. Not even India allows its popular IPL to clash with the Ranji Trophy, its First Class competition.

The Sheffield Shield format is not infallible. The points system pushes teams to chase outright victories. State sides are doing all they can to achieve this. In recent years pressure has been applied to groundsmen to prepare green-top pitches ensuring wickets will fall. For example, current Shield champions Tasmania turned Bellerive into a graveyard for visiting batting sides this past season.

Flicking through the scorecards of recent seasons reveals a lowering of team totals. Batsmen are becoming more fragile, less capable of compiling runs over long periods, and bowlers are robbed of the opportunity to toil and develop the skill to extract wickets on unforgiving surfaces. The pitches are a total mismatch to what is the norm in Test cricket.

Thirdly, Cricket Australia’s new excellence programs appear to rip young players out of traditional systems by changing the development pathways. Grade cricket is less and less the natural rung step for cricketers with aspirations.

Australia’s grade cricket used to be the best, at that level, in the world and provided a diverse mix of young talent, raw tearaways and qualified has-beens. It provided a tough, gritty and rewarding environment to serve a cricketing apprenticeship. Instead it seems getting a fancy tracksuit, heading down the nets to face a bowling machine and then playing in a glorified T20 carnival is more valued now.

CA have a lot to answer for. It’s time for James Sutherland and probably half the board to GO!