Test cricket

Hard-wicket home ground bullies?

Australia is rightly recognized for being one of the strongest cricketing nations on the planet. It is tough to beat Australia at home but Australia has been incredibly poor away from home for at least a decade.

Tours to the Asian sub-continent against Pakistan and India have always been difficult but Australia’s first series loss in Sri Lanka recently has added to a growing burden.

The Aussies have now lost eight matches in a row and won only one of its last 17 Test Matches in Asia. 

England, South Africa and New Zealand have each won more Test Matches in Asia than Australia since 2005. England has also won a series in India and South Africa has defeated Pakistan.

The Australian struggle is not isolated to Asia. It hasn’t won a Test series in England for fifteen years, winning only three of the last twenty Ashes Matches in England.

So when the mainstream media suggest that Australian batsmen have a problem with spin on Asian wickets, remind yourself that they can’t seem to get it right against pace or swing in the home of cricket either.

So is it a problem with playing away?

Well, Australia has enjoyed success in South Africa but the dispute between the nations over scheduling has limited the length  of Test Series played there and robbed fans and players of some potentially great contests (both countries share the same summer season and neither will give up its lucrative Boxing Day and New Years’ Tests for one another; shorter series are instead scheduled on the fringes of the southern summer).

Australia plays limited series in New Zealand and with Australia committing to shorter series and fewer Test Matches in the Caribbean recent successes there should be considered in context.

Although home sides invariably win Test Series, other nations have not struggled as much as Australia. South Africa has won two Test series each in England and Australia since 2005 and England won one in Australia in 2010-11. Sri Lanka has won as many Tests in England as Australia since 2005 and both it and New Zealand have drawn series in the Old Dart.

True cricketing might was traditionally adjudged on the level of success earned in different conditions around the world.

So are recent Australian teams hard-wicket home ground bullies?

Feed the dogs: Test cricket is back

The stomach dogs are barking, they must be fed. Their thirst for battle and starving demand for a cricket contest must be appeased. A fiery beginning on a GABBA green top usually satiates their relentless desire, but unscripted events have delayed salvation.

The southern summer does not begin on 1 December, it arrives with the first ball of an Australian Test. Desperate fans crave the moment.

Cans of ice cold beer will be heard cracking across the weather battered southern land this afternoon and couches will get a hammering, because just as hot thunder storms smash the east coast from the Victorian border all the way to Cairns, Adelaide has provided a sparkling blue sky for Test cricket.

Finally the dogs will rest. The scoop of chips and never ending summer snaps into action with four DRS-less Test matches: Brisbane next week, then Melbourne and Sydney.

Recent seismic events are well publicized and although speculation about bouncers and helmet safety may continue in the background, today we move on and get back to watching quality cricket. India arrived in Australia to compete aggressively and attack Australia’s shaky batting order. One billion Indian fans demand it. They will not back down from this intent. Bouncers will be bowled and tactics of torment will be deployed. This will be significant contest.

David Warner has rocketed into action with a run a ball start placing Australia at 2/88 approaching lunch. Rogers and Watson the men out. Clarke is fit and playing and Ryan Harris returns to bolster the bowling, while Virat Kohli assumes the Indian captaincy from the injured MS Dhoni.

Summer is all around you.

India have disgraced themselves: Who is to blame?

Bowled out inside 30overs for less than 100. What a day for India’s batsmen. Concede over 100 runs in 11 overs against England’s tail. What a day for India’s bowlers. Smashed by an innings and 244 runs. What a day for Indian cricket.

Routed inside three days for the second time in a week. India are in pieces, their players under fire, the coach – Duncan Fletcher – has been sidelined by BCCI and the Captain, MS Dhoni thrashes about in a London hotel bed wondering what the hell comes next?

It’s an ODI Series and Ravi Shastri has been hastily appointed by the BCCI to run the team during the series. The move effectively demotes Fletcher and adds confusion to India’s set up. Will it help?

Well India haven’t won an ODI on their last two international tours. Shocked? Don’t be. The players have little to no chance of working hard on faulty techniques or improving their games. India’s Board of Control for Cricket in India have established a relentless schedule of matches decimating all reasonable opportunity for rest, recuperation and meaningful practice. Oh what a shame you say? They’re millionaires, right? Yes, but all cricketers must work long and hard to exorcise bad habits and polish technique. The Test series defeat reveals a lack of strategic training and toil at first class level.

Virat Kohli, Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane represent the future of India’s batting, but their lack of mental fortitude in tough circumstances and adaptability were wildly exposed by England throughout this series. Shikhar Dhawan, another batsmen who might have had a future with India, was replaced after 3 Tests by 32 year old opener Gautam Gambhir, a regressive selection that backfired. Gambhir looked haunted and worked to avoid the strike during his four innings in the series and, on his last day of torment, was pathetically run-out a few minutes before lunch when clouds threatened.

India visit Australia for 4 Tests in the southern summer and their batsmen must be absolutely shaking with terror at the prospect of facing the Aussie pace battery.

Can India take wickets?

India also lack genuine wicket-takers. Cast your thoughts back over the years. Can you rattle off a selection of top notch Indian bowlers who’ve consistently taken wickets home and away?

They seem to have cobbled together bowling attacks, just enough to get by and sure, guys like Zaheer Khan were quality and Ishant Sharma is kind of okay I suppose (he wouldn’t get a game for Australia, England or South Africa with a bowling average of nearly 37). India lack spearheads. Ravichandran Ashwin has potential as a spinner and Bhuvneshwar Kumar was their best player in this series and maybe India should build their pace attack around him, but he won’t be the spearhead they crave. He doesn’t have raw pace and Dhoni’s overuse of Kumar flattened him.

MS Dhoni may lose the captaincy

Dhoni himself mostly batted with defiance throughout, but his captaincy and wicket-keeping were second rate. He is a fighter, a man of character who, despite possessing a pedigree most suited to short-form, has proven that resilience of character and resolute commitment often gets you over the line in Test Match cricket. Better cricketers than Dhoni have failed to make any dent in the Test arena because they lacked those attributes. But, after this embarrassing 3-1 defeat to England, where his side have squandered a 1-0 lead, can he retain the captaincy of the world’s most popular cricket team? The hashtag #dhoniout has been trending on Twitter for over 12 hours now so perhaps India’s fans have already indicated a clear choice.

England were good

English readers are saying “what about OUR performance?” Yes, yes I know, you won 3 Tests and bounced back from near oblivion with great aplomb. Alistair Cook has revealed that he nearly quit the captaincy in June after England suffered home defeat to Sri Lanka. His wife convinced him otherwise. After 2 Tests against India, a draw and a painful defeat at Lords and a whole lot of snicking to slip with no runs, Cook must’ve been thinking “gee thanks wife, now I’ll be sacked in disgrace”.

But Cook, the senior players and coach Peter Moores have orchestrated a thrilling fight back. Anderson was tremendous, Broad was great and Moeen Ali showed that he can get wickets (but remains questionable as a top 6 Test batsman). Gary Ballance looks all class and new keeper Jos Butler can play. Don’t get too excited just yet. India were ordinary opposition and Australia’s visit up north next year will be tougher.

Mahela Jayawardene

Sri Lanka’s batting legend is currently playing his last Test Match. He scored 54 in his final innings against Pakistan. The 37 year old has played 148 Test Matches, scored 34 hundreds and will finish with a batting average of 51+. A world class cricketer and great servant of for Sri Lanka. Many will mourn his loss, but Sri Lanka are producing exciting cricket talent and their Test future is bright.

Phil Hughes 243* in Townsville

The 2nd match between Australia A and South Africa A in Townsville finished in a draw after a washout on day 2. Seventy five mm of water fell during Friday disappointing myself and a few others who had organised a day off work. Townsville’s long term August rainfall average is 15mm. A bookie would have offered you 100-1 if you’d said that 75mm of rain will fall on a Friday in Townsville in August, the day you plan to take off-work to watch a rare 1st class cricket match. Blue skies shone the next day and Phil Hughes scored a memorable 243 not out, earning an ODI call up for the Zimbabwe tour and staking a claim (again) on a Test recall. That might inspire groans from Aussies or laughs from Englishman, but Hughes is only 25. With further development he could still make it at Test level.

The 2 match series in Townsville was a success. It was reported over the weekend that Townsville City Council and Cricket Australia are negotiating the application to have Tony Ireland Stadium certified for Test Matches. Cricket Australia are impressed with the facility and suggest only minor upgrades – such as improved lighting for television broadcasts – would be needed to attain accreditation from the ICC. It would become the eleventh Australian venue to receive ICC approval. This would be a huge asset for cricket, Townsville and Northern Australia. Make it happen people.

IMG_4910

Phillip Hughes flicks off the hip to score the first run of his 243 not out against South Africa A in Townsville: August 2014

 

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.

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…