Usman Khawaja

House of Cards: it’s not over in Perth

Australia lost 7/130 on day 2 of the Perth Test. Only 2 players got more than 50 in their 1st innings. They were bowled out for 60 and collapsed on demand in England 3 months ago. If New Zealand get a lead on day four, what are the chances of another collapse and a dramatic finish at the WACA?

Cricket administrators and telecasters will certainly hope something like this manifests. And it’s not impossible. Australia has collapsed often.

They have, perhaps with the exception of Chris Rogers, lacked players who are able to defy conditions and reverse the fortunes of momentum. When the game turns, Australia has inevitably collapsed.

In contrast they are red hot when momentum is on their side, when one or two players seize the day with a thunderous spell of fast bowling or a quick-fire ton.

David Warner did that in Perth on day one by blazing 247. Khawaja went with him for most of the day crafting a fine 121.

Australia started day 2 at an almost impregnable 2/416. Many chalked up a massive win for Australia.

But New Zealand fought back hard. They bowled exceptional lines on day 2 and restricted Australia to only 70 runs for the loss of two wickets in the morning session. An hour later Australia had lost another 5 wickets for 61 making 7/130 in three hours.

They were chasing quick runs for a declaration many said. They were collapsing I contend. There was no need to rush things and the strike rates of Australia’s batsmen prove that they did not (Mitch Marsh 34 from 64 balls, Voges 41 from 83, Smith 27 from 68).

At 9 down Steve Smith had enough and called the declaration at 559.

Thanks to world class batting from Kane Williamson (166) and Ross Taylor (235*) New Zealand had amassed 6/510 by stumps on day three.

“It’s a road” went the familiar cry. Yes. This is not a quintessential Perth pitch but this is a fascinating Test Match. Nobody should think that the batting clinic put on by Warner, Khawaja, Williamson and Taylor was simply the product of a conducive wicket. Those innings were world class.

Taylor’s defiance of the second new ball spell yesterday should go down in the ages. Mitchell Starc bowled between 150 and 161.8kmph in 40 minutes of wrath and fury that snapped Brendon McCullum’s bat.

At present, New Zealand is only 15 runs from leading the Test Match.

Of course, the short-priced favourite is a draw but with 175 overs to go, who would seriously suggest that this Test Match is already over?

Only those who haven’t seen Australia bat very often in the past 5 years.

Fifth Ashes Test, The Oval – Australia’s selection riddle continues

Reports indicate Australia will make changes to its XI for the fifth and final Test. This means that in every one of its last 13 Test matches, Australia has changed its line up and batting order. We’ve lost 8 of those, with one to play.

For tonight’s Test at the Oval I can understand Mitchell Starc replacing Jackson Bird, but James Faulkner replacing Usman Khawaja?

Australia has significant problems with its batting, so what do we do? Drop a batsmen and bring in an all-rounder who averages 30 with the bat in First Class cricket.

The selection mismanagement and total lack of continuity and direction in this Australian set up is appalling. This isn’t to say that James Faulkner isn’t a reasonable candidate for selection, but the circumstances demand we pick our strongest possible batting line up. There is no evidence to suggest we’ve done that here.

The Selection Riddle

In early 2013 Ed Cowan was one of Australia’s better performers in a barren series in India, albeit as an opener. He was moved to number 3 for the First Ashes Test, but failed, and was dropped. Usman Khawaja replaced him at Lords. He lasted three Test Matches.

One 50 in 6 innings is hardly a suitable return, but the fact Khawaja (again) was picked meant the selectors believed he had the ability to become a Test standard number 3. You may fail to convert it, but you don’t lose ability 3 weeks. This is the second time Khawaja has been dropped from the Test side. He’s played 9 Tests and averages 25. Surely he’ll be consigned to some lengthy graft at Shield and County level to prove he is worthy once again?

Maybe not though, he could be back in the side sooner than that.

The establishment may handle Khawaja like they did Phil Hughes – who was dropped about 18months ago (for the second time), and consigned to less than half a season in Shield cricket, before being brought back to play at home versus Sri Lanka, and away in India.

Based on the mean, Hughes didn’t have a shocker in Inida, and retained his place for the First Ashes Test. He scored an 80odd not-out in the first innings at number 6, a less recognised cameo to the famous 98 by Ashton Agar. Hughes failed in the second innings of that Test, and was then promoted up the order to number 3 for the 2nd Test after Ed Cowan was dropped. In the Lords massacre, Hughes didn’t get a run and was dropped for the Third Test, replaced by David Warner.

Shane Watson is reportedly now the man to bat at 3, after batting at 4 and 5 in India, opening in the first 2 and a half Tests of this series, then batting at 6 in the last 3 innings.

Based on the continual shuffle, Khawaja might find himself opening the batting in the return series in Australia. Or he could be at number 6, or 4. Maybe even wicket keeper? Has he got a good set of gloves in his kit bag? Perhaps he should get some.

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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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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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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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Is the DRS rubbish or are some ICC umpires utterly useless?

That is the volcanic inferno inducing question, once again.

After only one session of cricket in the third Test here we sit, not discussing Australia’s reasonable start with the bat (2/92 at lunch). Instead, all across Australia and parts of the world social media fumes over the sheer incompetence and totally unsatisfactory performance of the field umpire, and the third umpire operating the Decision Review System.

I was absolutely ropeable at the outcome of Usman Khawaja’s review. He was clearly not-out, missed it by two inches; no noise, no hotspot, no deviation. Why England appealed I have no idea, but they did and the field umpire obliged. The batsmen reviewed, then in an act of total absurdity, the third umpire concurred and Khawaja was sent packing.

I received about 11 text messages from fellow Australians raging over the inexplicable outcome. I bashed out about as many diatribes to friends and colleagues. Social media burned with hatred and the targets were many; the ICC, the umpires, the DRS, England, technology, you name it.

DRS or Umpire fault?

As the cloud of frothing anger begins to recede (is that possible?) the key point of debate should focus on whether the technology or the umpire is to blame?

There’s no question that the third umpire, Kumar Dharmasena, completely stuffed this one up. He had access to compelling evidence and his job was to overturn the field umpire’s horrendous decision. He failed.

In what circumstances is human error least acceptable?

With or without DRS humans will make mistakes. We can accept that. We have to. We’ve all copped a howler, benefited from one, or witnessed one from the stands or the couch. But, the circumstances of this dismissal are unforgivable. DRS was designed to reduce the instance of howlers, not introduce new ones. Accountability is required and answers are needed.

India refuse to play with DRS, perhaps they’re feeling pretty vindicated right about now.