Protea Fire

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?

Test Match Thrillers and an A Team Killer: India and Pakistan miss the rain and a future Protea nails 200 in Townsville

Rain nearly saved Pakistan and it should have saved India, but it denied both sides a reprieve and ensured thrilling finales to two Test Matches over the weekend. England’s destruction of India at Old Trafford was stunning and the quality of cricket on display at the Galle Fort in Sri Lanka was just as fine. The standard was high in (Cape) Townsville too, where South Africa A hammered Australia A in a solid game of cricket at the Riverway Arts and Cultural Precinct.

South Africa might have found a replacement for Jaques Kallis. Actually, cancel that. Kallis is irreplaceable. But, they may have uncovered a future Protea. Rilee Rossouw nailed a superb 231, which killed Australia A’s hopes on a wicket that saw them bowled out twice in four days. Rossouw averages 45 from 72 First Class matches and must be on the edge of Test selection. Temba Bavuma asserted himself with a grafting 162 and Australia A – consisting of 5 internationally capped and 3 Test Match capped players in Phil Hughes, Moises Henriques and Mathew Wade – simply couldn’t match South Africa A. The visitors attracted plenty of vocal support too with many local club cricketers attending, enjoying a few beers and creating a bit of good natured atmosphere from the hill.

But, could the crowds be better? If the small crowds during match 1 are anything to go by, then it would seem that Cricket Australia, Townsville City Council and perhaps the local cricket administrators could do more on the promotions front. On Friday afternoon that little stadium should be heaving with blue and white collar workers and it wouldn’t take much imagination or creativity to spark interest and greater involvement from local businesses and large employers. On a positive note, Cricket Australia announced today the sport has one million participants in Australia, a great result that should be the basis for further expansion.

The two A teams go at it again in Townsville this week beginning on Thursday 14 August. Peter Forrest and Clint McKay have been added to the Australian side and Phil Hughes has taken the captaincy off Moises Henriques who is out injured.

The scene in Townsville resembles Newlands in Cape Town as Gurinder Sandhu steams in and attempts to get a much needed wicket for Australia A against Sth Africa A.

On the Test scene India’s weak surrender to England on the third day in Manchester has created an alarming dilemma for MS Dhoni: where to find players who want to fight? India only needed to survive one afternoon. It absolutely pissed down with rain all of the next day. I mean, blokes were chipping catches to short fielders and trudging off as if preferring to escape to the hotel games room. Unbelievable. England’s bowlers were good, but not quite this is an unplayable Mitchell Johnson who’s going to kill you good.

Two weeks ago India led the series 1-0, perhaps mostly because England were poor and lacked tactical direction. Since then India have been reclassified as an invertebrate species and England have reacquainted with the spinal column and retaliated with more discipline and application. Leading 2-1 England can’t lose the series now, at worst they’ll draw it if India bounce back, but England should win 3-1 with a resounding victory at The Oval Test, which begins Friday. Will England miss Stuart Broad if he fails to play after breaking his nose? Probably not. Moeen Ali will simply take another 5 for and finish the job Jimmy Anderson is likely to start.

Stuart Broad’s broken nose

Perhaps the most startling result occurred in Sri Lanka. Wow. Is Test Cricket alive or what? Pakistan made 451 in the 1st innings with Younis Khan amassing 177. Bang that’s it. It’s going to be a draw. The Galle wicket will be a road. Sure enough Sri Lanka pump out 533 and you’re thinking, yep, draw. But, here comes Sri Lanka’s spin king Rangana Herath and there goes Pakistan for 180 on the final day. A lead of only 98. 126 balls remain in the Test Match, are they going to go for it? You betcha. They peel off the runs with 5 overs to spare. Seconds after the celebrations begin the rain falls on the Dutch fort and rolls across the ground. Pakistani players were last seen kicking the ground, while locals danced and sang in the rain. One of the great Test victories.

No I haven’t forgotten to mention Kumar Sangakarra… he smashed 221 in Sri Lanka’s 1st innings, his 37th Test Match tonne. He averages 58 from 125 Tests. In fairness Sri Lanka don’t play as many top line Test Matches as Australia, England or South Africa, but he would waltz into any of those nations’ teams and score just as many. A timeless legend.

At the Harare Sports Club Zimbabwe made a competitive 256 against South Africa who are 4/201 in reply. It is great to see Zimbabwe back in Test Match action and so far they are holding their own against a rebuilding, but still very good South African team.