Monday, 22 July 2013

Ashes Diary - 2nd Test - Day 4

No escape but plenty of goat

The unpredictable mixed with the entirely predictable on day four at Lord's. From column A, Joe Root made a mockery of his own; this time of my claim yesterday that he dealt exclusively in old-fashioned cricket shots and an innately English common sense. In prospect, his scoop or ramp or whatever variation of "filth" that you want to label it promised to be breath-taking in the same respect as seeing a young John Coltrane play a kazoo would have been breath-taking. As a full-stop on his magnificent innings of the previous day, it was a monumental fizzer.

On the other side of the ledger, Shane Watson fell 'shoved out front leg before wicket and curling bat' again. This time it was for 20, a shortfall on his expected output but not by a hell of a lot. It actual fact it felt like the most inevitable moment of the series to date. At least on this occasion Watson resisted the urge to play pantomime villain and accepted the umpire's verdict. As an iconic and wholly trademarked moment, it should now be categorised as its own new form of dismissal within the laws of the game booklet. That would at least allow Watson's batting to carry some kind of lasting legacy in cricket history. At present, it is a body of work known primarily for its ability to generate outpourings of mockery and derision.

Chris Rogers was picked in this Australian team to provide a firm hand on the tiller. At his best and most consistent, he is to batting what the German architect Mies ven der Rohe was to modernist design; a man eschewing ornamentation and ostentation in favour of structure and function. Le Corbusier might have called him a "machine for making runs with". Unfortunately on the occasion of returning to his virtual home ground at Lord's, Rogers took this minimalist approach to his work rather too literally, offering nary a shot to counter a straight one from Graeme Swann. International Style it was not; book-ended with his first innings pratfall the dismissal took on an entirely more provincial aesthetic.

At Trent Bridge Phillip Hughes appeared to be turning some kind of corner. Here at the ceremonial home of English cricket, he ran straight into a brick wall. A perennial bunny to spin of any variety, Hughes was no match for a buoyant Swann whose trickery at first poked and prodded at the left-handers' insecurities before laying them completely bare. Leg before wicket after a jumpy twenty-one ball stay, Hughes again engaged in the disconsolate trudge back through the members pavilion. By day's end it was a journey observed by all of his cohorts.

Despite similarly shaky beginnings, Usman Khawaja combined well with his captain to add a modicum of respectability in the chase. His patient 54 had just the right balance of rasping boundaries and wafty misses to temper any rash conclusions that Australia's woes at Number 3  had been solved. Given time, patience and the opportunity to establish a permanent berth though, Khawaja looks the young batsman most likely to fill a sizable chunk of the yawning gap in Australia's batting armory. Clarke's own failure to avoid a leg-slip trap against the relatively novice spin of Joe Root probably had the Aussie skipper wondering how Ashton Agar was not able to produce such sharp grip and turn from the wearing Lord's strip.

Thereafter England remained committed but not maniacally so and were content that the Australians, so obsequious to Cook's bowlers in the early stages of this game, would remain so at the tail-end of the second innings.  Smith, Haddin and Agar all obliged quickly before James Pattinson and Ryan Harris did what the Australian tail has done all too often of late and exposed the top order for their lack of application and heart. To see Phillip Seymour Hoffman out-acted by the bloke who plays Stiffler would be funny once. If it started to happen in every movie you went to see you'd begin throwing things at the screen.

In the final analysis England consigned the Australians to a genuinely demoralising 347 run defeat. At 2-0 down and still absorbing body blows, the Australians don't look capable of pulling themselves up of the canvas let alone squaring up to these English heavyweights.

Field Notes

If England are to persist with the use of hired guns to take the place of their constantly-resting bowlers and injured fieldsmen throughout the series, the least they can do is provide a substitute fieldsman who is...geez, I dunno...a current first-class cricketer. 36 year-old fielding coach Chris Taylor may have some very attractive job-related skills, but being that his professional playing career wound up two years ago, I'm not sure how his presence in a Three Lions cap sits within the Spirit of the Game TM. Probably in the indices under the heading: "Things that should NEVER EVER happen under any circumstance." 

Sunday, 21 July 2013

Ashes Diary - 2nd Test - Day 3

The Big Sleep

There is one inevitability for the Australian cricket lover following a winter Ashes and that is that at some point you are going to fall asleep for a significant chunk of play. Day 3 was my turn. Having seen out the first two overs with a straight bat and watchful eye, I made the fatal error of assuming the sleeping position length-ways across the couch. Resistance was futile. A week with virtually no sleep caught up with me in one fuzzy, soundless moment and I was gone. For hours.

It is an Ashes tradition I suppose and once I woke up again it got me thinking about other rituals I've observed over the years and the way that the 'away' Ashes series is an orientation point for so much of my life. The thrilling, joyful act of post-bedtime parental defiance in '89 and '93 gave way to deep, considered obsession in '97 and '01 before '05 and '09 co-existed variously with the nocturnal unpredictability of young adulthood and the incursion of serious relationships. This time around I feel prepared for a consistent, level-headed campaign. If only I can stay awake.

In an ephemeral sense, I guess the ABC Cricket Guide is the most obvious Ashes tradition I observe. It made more sense in 1993 when I was huddled under my doona with the radio turned down low to avoid the attention of my parents. After all, I wasn't allowed a TV in my bedroom (my girlfriend and I now have more screens in our house than people by a multiple exceeding two), there was no twitter and (for me) no internet. It was a portal into the world of cricket, full of statistics and profiles; pictures and words that seemed to matter a lot.

There is no justifiable reason to buy the ABC Cricket Guide these days. It's an anachronism and about the least essential cricket document I can think of. But without fail I still buy every single one of the things. The stats are out of date before it even hits the newsagent's shelves and everything written in it seems (even if it is only a month old) feels like it may as well have been uncovered from a stone tablet. But if it were ever to disappear I'd probably feel an immediate and crushing tightness in my chest and start silently weeping. I guess its like the English's own feelings towards publishing institutions like the Beano; they just want to know that it's still there, that there's some continuity in their life and that certain things will never change. The difference being that I still feel the need to buy the ABC Cricket Guide.

The Ashes makes me think about life on a profound level, you see.

Brief interviews with hideous men

In the time I was still awake before play, I at least got to have a decent chuckle at Brendan Julian's assertion in the Fox Sports studio preview that Joe Root "sometimes looks like a number eight of something" and that he didn't get the fuss about the English youngster. In combination with Greg Blewett, BJ is to cricket analysis what Richard Wilkins is to film criticism. Unlike Dickie Wilks, BJ doesn't have Rotten Tomatoes or the back cover blurb of DVD's to fall back on though, so he ends up making such cack-handed statements on a regular basis.

The baby-faced Assassin 

In actual fact Root's success in blunting Australia's tiring attack to the tune of 178 undefeated runs and counting on day three should not have come as a surprise to anyone. It might be an oversimplification of Australia's batting malaise to say that the country lacks young players who can make big hundreds (or hundreds of any kind, if we're honest) but it is also true. By comparison, this season alone, Root has made scores of 182, 236, 179, 104 and now 178 not out. Here's something even simpler to digest: he makes runs off the back foot. Not lap sweeps or switch hits or big show six-hitting from a firmly planted front foot, though he is probably capable of them as well, but from a bedrock of nudges and nurdles and drives and cuts off the back foot.  

It's an important distinction to note. Root's backwards movement is more of a shuffle than a stride, but boy is it effective. You could have feasibly lost count of the amount of times it resulted in a boundary being whipped away through cover or mid-wicket. Even the slightest shortening length from Australia's pace brigade was punished.

Did Usman Khawaja notice that? Are Australian batsman preparing themselves for the specific requirements of Test cricket with such obvious diligence as the young Englishman? As Andrew Strauss noted after Root had passed his half-century, he didn't do anything "outrageously risky" during this innings. It wasn't a quick kill and it wasn't flash but by the end of the day, Australia had absorbed so many of Root's seemingly polite jabs that they were dizzied and bleeding, not from the lip but at their core.

At the other end

All the while that Root was piecing his opus together he had able support from both Tim Bresnan and The Terminator, Ian Bell. 

If Ashton Agar showed up the Australian top order at Trent Bridge with his youthful batting exuberance and free-flowing simplicity, today Bresnan taught them a lesson of a different kind; that it's a wholly beneficial aim to just be the best possible version of yourself. Bresnan didn't biff or bash, as would be expected of a nightwatchman returning the next day. He batted exactly as he always tends to, with purpose and in sync with his partner. I noted before the match that Australia would have much preferred to be up against the spindly Steven Finn than a resilient competitor such as Bresnan and his innings today only reinforced that view.

Bell merely picked up where he left off in the first innings. His ascendancy is emblematic of the true gulf between the two teams, that of self-esteem and self-belief; quiet arrogance even. Secure in his place in the English pecking order, Bell's innings construction is accordingly clear-headed. Mis-hits register like slightly amusing blips rather than a telling sign of imminent doom. In the end, his demise to a Steven Smith half-tracker seemed apt; he just never looked particularly troubled by the better bowling that the Australians mustered.

The pain just continued from there with Jonny Bairstow joining a rapidly accelerating Root and giving a further shove to the back of Australia's downhill momentum. With a deficit of 566 looking set to grow further on the fourth day, it is no longer a question of Australia locating the breaks, their exhausted bowling attack might be in need of a full service.

Yes, Bell was out

I mean, when David Gower is saying that an England batsman is out, he's stone cold. It was another howler though no more of a howler than the last one and the one before that. It is becoming a lot less excusable when those howlers are made with the assistance of fairly conclusive evidence though.

Speaking of commentary, has Andrew Strauss said "grind them into the dirt" more times than any other human being in living memory? It's a verbal tic to rival Ian Chappell's stories about Les Favell. The thing is though, Cook's men barely need to engage in the cliche that Strauss suggests as Australia are most definitely digging themselves into a subterranean position all of their own accord. They're not far off hitting water, in fact.

An Australian spinner is taking wickets

He's not actually in England, but it's a start. A couple of days back I joked about Fawad Ahmed being sent home to his couch but he's currently ripping through a Zimbabwean batting line-up for Australia A. Eight wickets and counting. Should Ashton Agar succumb to the injury that appears to be troubling him, Ahmed will enter the frame again along with Nathan Lyon. Some might even make a case for Glenn Maxwell though I won't be one of them.

Saturday, 20 July 2013

Ashes Diary - 2nd Test - Day 2

Tail Teeing Off

While some patrons were still en route to their seats at the beginning of day two, Ryan Harris was etching his name onto the Lord's honour board by completing a well-deserved five wicket haul. At the other end, James Pattinson looked to be bowling Jackson Bird into contention for third Test selection. 

By the time Pattinson finally broke through for the final wicket of the innings, Australia had been battered all about the place by Swann and Broad in a frenetic 10th wicket partnership that moved with the helter-skelter tempo of a T20 contest and left England with a total of 361. This was perhaps under par for the conditions but actually looked imposing given the flaky opposition. And so it proved.

That thing I said yesterday about many days of this series potentially being even? Forget it, I was talking bollocks again.

Earpiece Update

Boof was at it again with his Sky earpiece. He loves that thing more than Shane Watson loves lunging down the pitch with his pad in front of his bat. Maybe the less you know, the better you coach? Add in a sanger (or 'sarnie', depending on your geographical location) and the man is a machine. An eating machine. An eating machine that is fuelled by Michael Holding quips. Or do I have that the wrong way around?

He did take it off for a while but having watched himself back on TV stifling laughter on the balcony following Ashton Agar's calamitous run-out, Lehmann reverted back to his pals in the commentary box. I just can't get over the fact that the Australian coach is sitting listening to David Lloyd's nonsense, I really can't. At one point late in the day, Lehmann was sitting there listening to the encouraging words of of his old mucker Shane Warne. Yes, the same Shane Warne who recommended Lehmann as Australian coaching material in the Warnifesto. Think about that for a minute. That is life imitating extremely shithouse art if ever I've seen it.

The Shane Watson Show

During the ad breaks on day two, Australian audiences would have noted a commercial for the Fox Sports "fantasy cricket" competition. For many of them, I guess a genuine fantasy would probably involve Shane Watson not burning another DRS referral when he was trapped plumb in front.

Let's break this down in detail though...

As usual, Watson compiled 30 attractive runs comprised primarily of expansive drives, trying to dictate a fast tempo. Again, as he always does. Then the compulsive lunger that he is, he lunged with gusto into a particularly lungey example of one of his signature lunges. Planting his foot across in front of off stump and then trying to squeeze his bat around and in front of his pad, Watson met his entirely predictable demise. What followed this umpiring decision was just as predictable but also tremendous theatre...

Our leading man, Narcissus, is brilliantly captured by the Sky camera team here. In lieu of his reflection in the pool, Watson makes do with the Decision Review System to reaffirm his batting beauty and seek a reprieve. To start with, he acts like he is pondering whether to review or not despite the fact that there is absolutely no doubt that he 100% will. He even goes to the extent of a charade consultation with his partner Chris Rogers, who presumably resists the urge to say, "Watto, it is f*cking plumb, hit the the showers." Captain Cook merely peers around the corner to enjoy the show..

In this next split second the England players, including Kevin Pietersen in shot, start goading Watson into using the referral. They needn't have wasted their breath really, it was never in doubt. Watto makes the call, forcing one entire nation to groan in unison and another to pinch at its sides, which are now surely splitting.

Having made his call, Watto cops a further spray from Pietersen and co in an image that feels like a very bad omen for Australia and this series. It's a telling sight and surely a major psychological win for the English side. Speaking of sports psychology, will that entire field actually expand in the coming years to accommodate the avalanche of text books about the way Shane Watson's mind works? He's a truly fascinating case study. I'll be honest, I will miss him when he's gone. When Bjorn Borg retired, John McEnroe no longer had his nemesis driving him every step of the way and he fell apart personally and professionally. I think that cricket bloggers will come to feel this way about Watto. Who do you throw eggs at when the biggest goose in town takes off?

If you think I'm letting Watto off lightly, here's bonus pic of him burning another review in the 2010-11 series. I think I might actually start an album or use it as the basis for a Watto montage. 

And just one other thing; lost in the hilarity of Watto's 'Refer Madness' was one of the most egregious cases of commentary box barracking of the series. This time it was Nasser Hussein with a triumphant cry of, "YEEESSSSSS!!!!!" as the ball struck Watson's pad and Umpire Dharmasena's finger went up. If it's objectivity you want, maybe best to fire up the wireless.

The best and worst of the rest

Sadly for Australia, Watson's innings was as good as things got. A combination of ineptitude on behalf of the tourists and a relentless, disciplined bowling effort from England saw the Australians crumble.

Chris Rogers fell LBW to a Swann full-toss that had myself and others scrambling for the MCC rules book, for it was an amateurish moment the likes of which are rarely seen in international cricket. Either spooked by Watson's wasted referral or in deference to his more capped colleagues, Rogers declined a review that would have saved him. It was that kind of day for the Aussies.

Somehow the bungled referrals were nowhere near as shambolic as Usman Khawaja's demise, Australia's new model number three reaching 14 before dancing recklessly down the track to Swann and skying a catch that possibly caused the word "idiot" to trend on Twitter. Khawaja continues to give his doubters ample ammunition; this batting calamity came in the wake of an insipid attempt at an outfield catch late in England's innings. It was a day Khawaja will want to forget fast.

Phillip Hughes nicked off as Phillip Hughes often does and when Steven Smith prodded Swann to short leg, Australia were falling into the quicksand at 5-86. Things got even worse as captain Michael Clarke failed to display the authority and longevity needed of him, this time trapped in front by Broad for 28. 

There would be no rescue mission from the Australian tail on this occasion, Ashton Agar's senseless run out was emblematic of Australia's woes on a day in which they were humbled by a slick England side. Where Australian heads dropped, the home side were ebullient; Jonny Bairstow and his cohorts threw themselves around in the field until the very last. The final stand between Pattinson and Harris totaled 24 and was thus the second highest of Australia's abysmal innings. Bowled out for a meagre 128, they hardly deserved any better.

"Grind them into the dust."

With that well-worn cliche from Andrew Strauss in the commentary box, Alastair Cook and Joe Root strode to the crease after the former's decision to forgo an Australian follow on. Of most danger of being reduced to dust was probably whatever ankle and knee ligaments remain in the weary legs of Ryan Harris. His return to open the bowling for a second innings within the day was an unfortunate and potentially dangerous by-product of his side's batting sins.

Throwing the new ball to Watson, Clarke must have been dismayed to watch a catch from Root's edge fly by his waist at first slip as Brad Haddin pulled out of a regulation keepers take for the second time during the day. It was the kind of reprieve the baby-faced Joe Root needed. At the other end, Peter Siddle made light work of Cook and Jonathan Trott, the duo both playing on during a sharp, probing spell of perfect length by the indefatigable Victorian. Kevin Pietersen then did his best possible impersonation of an Australian batsman, slashing Siddle straight to Chris Rogers at point.

If the 16 wickets that fell today were symbolic of the dominance of some canny, world-class bowlers, they also told of an appalling lack of patient batsmanship and self-control from both sides. It really isn't a a 16 wickets in a day pitch, honestly.

Sort of a cricket book person

The only thing I love as much as cricket is cricket books. Therefore I will end  today on a self-indulgent note as I received this gem from my thoughtful and eagle-eyed girlfriend as a delayed birthday present. If ever there was proof that the way to the heart of some men is not through their stomach but via their Wisden shelf, this is it.

This 1946 edition holds extra significance for me as it covers many of the post-war services games watched by my grandfather following his WWII Air Force duty with many of the key protagonists. Shortly before he passed away last year I spoke to him one final time about those men he went away to war with and there was one in particular he had an evocative remembrance of.

"Keith Miller? He was a mad bastard."

Lest we forget.

Friday, 19 July 2013

Ashes Diary - 2nd Test - Day 1

Ashes Tests at Lord's are special. So special that even if you are red-eyed, jet-lagged and dissolving into a state of delirium, you want to savour every minute of them. In this spirit I defied every physical signal that my body sent me and dragged myself out of a post-flight nap to watch the start of play.

Or in this instance, the delayed start of play. 

The end of something beautiful?

I have previously made no attempt to hide my liking of Ed Cowan, so it would be a little bit odd if I didn't make an acknowledgement of his axing from the team. The worst part about it is that it was the right call. The second worst part is that he didn't really fire a shot in England. Watching him struggle away at Trent Bridge was a little bit painful, if also a little bit fitting. The first innings swipe was atypical, probably even more so than the waste of his second innings wicket, but what happened in between was Ed all over. He seemed to be fighting against himself as much as the bowling or the conditions.

This could well be the end of the line for an odd but intriguing Australian Test career. Like Marcus North before him, it's hard to see him coming back into the Lehmann regime. Then again, half the Australian middle-order might get into a bust-up at Chasers nightclub at some point, so who knows? His detractors would say it was harder for Cowan to get himself out of the team than it was to get in, but his was not a charmed run. He was hammered from pillar to post from all angles from day one and he never gave an inch. He didn't whinge and he probably won't do so anytime soon. 

He was also publicly white-anted by teammates, successfully in the end; his shift in the batting order made him one of Australia's most incongruous number threes. If those 18 Tests are all we see of him at the pinnacle of his profession, he should be remembered as a player of limited natural gifts who extracted something admirable from within himself. In the end it was so ugly it was beautiful.

Three is the magic number

Coming in at Cowan's expense was that other maligned left-handed batsman, Usman Khawaja. Asked before play why no Australian had managed to hold down the number three spot since it was vacated by the colossal aura of Ricky Ponting, Clarke snapped back, "Usman is about to. He has batted beautifully for the last four months. He is ready for his opportunity." A more probing interviewer than Nasser Hussein might have come back with a number of follow-up questions, not least, "if he's batted beautifully for four months, why didn't he play in India?" or "Do you really think no-one's noticed you sneaking back to number five?" Then again, commercial TV is no place to be asking the important questions.

If Khawaja is indeed up to the task it will show he has matured considerably. The length and depth of his innings' as well as his ability to turn the strike over will be of most pressing interest. There are no doubts about Khawaja's shot-making abilities. Whether he's even allowed to make the place his own is another thing altogether. In comparison to say, Watson or Phillip Hughes, Khawaja has been shown little faith or forgiveness by the selectors thus far. He now finally has an opportunity to put those decisions beyond doubt, at least in theory.

Elsewhere, Mitchell Starc predictably made way for the presently fit Ryan Harris, who responded with early wickets in his usual bustling, busy manner. As with New Zealand's Shane Bond, history probably won't remember Harris as readily as it should for he's never strung many games together but he's a constant threat when Clarke is able to call upon him. In saying that, it was a great shame that there was no place in the Australian line-up for Jackson Bird. Possessing the powers of swing and precision, Bird had many predicting Terry Alderman-like feats on this tour but as it stands, he'll be 30 and 34 years old when his next chances come to make such a sustained impact on an England tour. A mid or late-series cameo role is not out of the question given the Australian attack's recent medical chart..

England made only one change, bringing Tim Bresnan in for Steve Finn, who struggled badly at Trent Bridge. You get the feeling that Bresnan may have actually been more suited to play in Nottingham; his history at Lord's is inglorious, especially in comparison to Finn's stellar performances there. Regardless, the Australians will hardly be happy to see the combative and multi-talented Bresnan up in their (helmet) grill. 

Fashionably Late

By the time Her Majesty decided to grace the cricketing world with her presence, some of the players looked decidedly less interested in meeting royalty than you'd expect. Of more concern to Fox Sports anchor Brendan Julian was the fact that the Australian's were not wearing their team blazers for the traditional meeting. Perhaps a little rich for a bloke who often wears dress shirts buttoned lower than mid-70s Dennis Lillee.

In the end, the Queen's eleven over stay was longer than that of both English openers.

What is the value of a change bowler?

And let's face it, that is what Shane Watson is. He's a change bowler who is not physically capable of bowling many overs. That is less troublesome than a front-line bowler who is not physically capable of bowling many overs, but it's still not great. He's really really good at it, don't get me wrong, but what sort of weighting do you give this skill when you are picking a Test side? On current evidence, you'd say it gives him an insane amount of leeway.

He can subsist on a meager output of runs, survive countless attacks on his character, including being positioned as an alleged cultural "cancer" and he can lumber around the field like a park cricketer, all seemingly because he makes those breakthroughs. Indications are that he won't be picked at times when he cannot bowl. Yet Shane Watson is Australia's second highest paid cricketer and has been given virtually everything he's ever asked for; the opening batting spot, the captaincy, the lot. That is like having an NBA basketball team where a guy who can shoot the odd three-pointer is given the second highest wage on the team and treated like royalty.

It's a very specific skill and not an insignificant one but it both flatters and deceives. But with a pace bowling battery as deep and varied as Australia's, is it really that important? In today's instance, brought on to relieve the scattergun Pattinson in the opening five overs, Watson removed Alistair Cook LBW, but thereafter looked far from threatening.That his first spell apparently featured an average speed of 82 miles per hour spoke more of the unreliability of the speed gun than Watson's physical exertion.

The boy with the thorn in his side

You just get the sense that this will be the series that Australian fans finally stop remembering Ian Bell as the hapless chump that Shane Warne toyed with. By comparison, Bell has run metaphorical batting laps around Australia's faltering middle-order for a while now. He's probably found it easier to grind his way to Test centuries than earn the respect of Aussies though, if that is something he even considers these days.

2013 edition Bell is a veritable man of steel in comparison to previous incarnations. He's starting to look more Terminator than Sherminator and no-one is laughing anymore, least not the Australians. His Trent Bridge hundred, the only three figure score of the game, felt monumental at game's conclusion. 

Here he left mostly everything wide of off-stump and made Australia bowl at him. When they did, he merely stone-walled them, A flash wide of point for his half-century was as ostentatious as Bell got, though that particular milestone contained nine boundaries. His next fifty runs were equally as watchful and carried Bell to his third century in successive Ashes Tests. He made Pattinson look like a mug at times, though the Victorian hardly helped himself in that regard. 

The partnership of the day

If Bell and his fifth wicket partner Jonny Bairstow were feeling the strain of an uncharacteristically sweltering day (by English measurements), they didn't receive a lot of heat from Ashton Agar, who looked tired and/or injured during a sophomore slump of sorts. Coming in exactly five hours, Bell was eased into his century by a lethargic, directionless over from Shane Watson. Bairstow, there with him for all but the first two hours of it, benefited from a reprieve on 21 courtesy of Peter Siddle's front foot.

As costly as Siddle's no-ball to Bairstow was, to say that fast bowlers of his ilk should never bowl no-balls in Test cricket, as suggested by Michael Holding in the commentary box, is actually a load of nonsense. Pacemen have and always will strain for as much ground as possible in search of narrowing the time frame in which a batsman can react to their deliveries. Especially bowlers not blessed with the fearsome, effortless pace of Holidng. This is doubly so on pitches as slow as this one at Lord's. Feel free to publicly stone any spin bowler who transgresses though, Mikey.

The wash-up

Not to dwell too much on Holding, but his claim that Steven Smith landing his second speculative delivery of leg spin in the correct proximity of the pitch "would have given him some confidence" was an odd back-hander to a player who actually came to fame as a bowler of said leg-spin. It seemed even harsher when Smith dismissed the previously untroubled Bell for 109 a few balls later, Clarke again proving his knack for unexpectedly fruitful bowling changes, though in this instance it was an act of desperation rather than inspiration.

When Smith removed the hard-working Bairstow caught and bowled for a patient 67 with a sub-district level full-toss, the Yorkshireman bowed his head in embarrassment. The mutually shambolic actions of the two players sparked a renewed vigor in the Aussies. It clearly did wonders for Smith's aforementioned confidence, because he grabbed a third late wicket by removing the dangerous Matt Prior caught behind with a clever variation out the front of his hand. Prior might look like a street-wise gangster from a Guy Ritchie film, but he shook his head like he'd just been mugged by a tween. In truth he was culpable himself, slashing wide of off-stump as late in the day as he did. 

England's top order stars have shown genuine fallibility against this skillful Australian bowling attack so far and it's something we perhaps all could have foretold in the lead-up to the series. Cook, Root and Pietersen would have ended the day ruing their lost opportunities but they should be equally thankful for the stoic efforts of Bell and Bairstow. 

Honours were split evenly today. It feels like we could be saying that more often than not in the coming months.

One Final Gripe

Given the dross being served up by the Sky team for much of the day (this is nothing against the English, Channel Nine is just as bad), it just feels a little bit ridiculous that Darren Lehmann sat for most of the day (as he did at Trent Bridge) listening to their coverage through an ear piece. Some thoughts on this:

(1) Does it influence his thinking on the game? You'd genuinely hope not.

(2) Does this indicate Lehmann's reluctance to consult the computer boffins and stats men, as more than a few of his predecessors would have? It's definitely an interesting contrast from Andy Flower's platoon of laptop-toting assistants. 

(3) Are there other persons in the Australian dressing room who are being deliberately ignored by Lehmann via this unconventional method? 

(4) The whole thing is just a bit bizarre, like becoming very aware of the fourth wall being removed from cricket coverage. Sometimes, as when Shane Warne predicted and commentated one of his own dismissals in a meanigless Big Bash game, this is a good thing. Most times though, it makes me think that things aren't being taken seriously enough. 

(5) Am I just reading too much into this? As always, this is more likely the case.

Monday, 15 July 2013

My Yankee Ashes

WARNING: THIS IS A SELF-INDULGENT TRAVEL DIARY - if you are here for topless photos of Shane Watson, I will resume normal services like that next week.

Also, let the title of this post not be too misleading, for I'm returning to Australian shores in the next few days; this is just the first time I've been abroad for any part of an Ashes series so I thought I'd chronicle it, even if it's only the first Test . It's been...odd.

I've previously mentioned that earlier this year, I made one of the worst time-planning mistakes of my life by having a four week US holiday overlap with the first Test of The Ashes. I mean, the holiday was never going to mean four weeks completely away from cricket, but the thought of 'missing' an Ashes Test of the English variety had filled me with overwhelming dread for months. Sad but true.

In the end, it's worked out fine thanks to the wonders of...ahem...'the internet' (those are 'I did something illegal and don't really feel bad about it' inverted commas) and my own willingness to rise at 5.45am for five days of my holidays. Add in the explosion of cricket-based twitter banter at this point of the cricket calendar and it's virtually like I'm in my lounge room. Except I'm not, I'm in someone else's lounge room on the lower east side of New York with a merry band of pot-smoking troubadours across the hall. I may actually be passively stoned; it smells as though they buy it by the kilo.

Anyway, because I'm a complete loser and have lost all perspective on the importance of this game, my thoughts on the long flight over to the States turned at some point to the expectation of there being 'cricket moments' on this trip. I'd pre-explained the Ashes scheduling issue to my girlfriend and she was fine with me rising early (without her) and leaving our sight-seeing till later in the day during the first Test. But what other part would cricket play on this trip? 

To start with, not a hell of a lot. In our first stop, New Orleans, there was no cricket talk and no cricket watching. Actually that's a lie; it was in New Orleans that I discovered Cricinfo have a live stream of certain one-day games that I don't get in Australia. I breathlessly relayed this information to my girlfriend as I was laying on our hotel bed with the laptop sitting on my chest and some kind of disgusting food in my hand. The look on her face suggested that the sight before her had just shot straight to the Top 5 of my least sexy moments with a bullet. You can't win them all.

In Chicago I was too busy having fun and shoving my face into deep-dish pizza to think about cricket a whole lot, but I did go to Wrigley Field to watch the Cubs. This ball park was later described to me by a Bostonian as "a bit of a dump", but a Bostonian would say that, wouldn't they? This particular Red Sox fan had an Irish family crest tattoo covering half his leg, so I shouldn't have expected anything less. But the day out at Wrigley was a great reminder of the way a sport can be modernised, professionalised and covered from every available angle yet still retain a lot of its old-world charm. Australian stadiums are becoming increasingly homogenized and drab in the last 15 years, so it was a nice reminder of the rich patina that comes from holding onto what you love about your sport.  

Actually, cricket did get a mention in Chicago. We were staying in a hotel so thoroughly buffeted by noise from the neighboring nightclub and fire station (yeah, thanks Cruisabout Travel Agency, you're real pro's) that we could not sleep. This frustrated my girlfriend immensely and it became so hard to get sleep that she eventually rolled over one night at about 3am and said, "Can you tell me a really boring cricket story that will send me to sleep?" My first thought was: 'I might not speak to you for the rest of the trip' but even in my sleep-deprived state, my inner smart-arse shone through; "Sorry, there's no such thing as a boring cricket story, you'll have to count sheep."

In Washington DC I actually learned a thing or two about Twenty20 cricket and the Big Bash in particular. How did I learn this in DC? I went to a Washington Nationals baseball game, that's how. The next time Cricket Australia start with the lip service about wanting to get women and children to attend cricket games, I would point them in the direction of Ted Lerner's office

A World War II veteran and real estate mogul, Lerner took control of this new franchise in 2006 and he had a decent enough job in front of him. In the absence of a Washington-based team for so long, baseball-loving locals mostly followed the Orioles of nearby Baltimore. I guess Lerner was also battling against the fact that DC being DC, its population is transient and fragmented. 

Yet despite all this, the shiny new Nationals Stadium seems to be doing exactly what a stadium should do in a town like that; be completely and utterly appealing to every type of potential fan. It is a considerable achievement. There was a startling array of different and interesting food stands, bars of many shapes and sizes, a brilliant and slickly-run team merchandise store, and overlooking the beautifully-manicured field, a kind of sprawling beer garden that seemed to be the centre of the festivities. We de-camped there from our seats and never returned, it was so much fun. 

To put it bluntly, it was also the gayest crowd I have ever seen, quite an achievement for a sport that occupies similarly dowdy real estate in the American sporting calendar as cricket seems to do these days in Australia. This may have been due to the historic DOMA/Prop 8 verdicts coming down the following day, but you know when journalists resort to cliche and describe an event as possessing a "carnival atmosphere"? This was a carnival where people were also watching sport and spending lots of money on booze. James Sutherland and Mike McKenna should go and stand in that ball park for an entire week. They'll note a few things, like for instance:

- You can't sell merchandise to punters when you're encouraging them to wear fancy dress to the game. That is a gimmick that actually loses you credibility AND money, which is a remarkable failure really and the total opposite of what you should be achieving  Also, make the merch interesting, unique and play upon the colourful heritage of short-form cricket. I lost count of the amount of fans walking around in retro-inspired baseball jerseys and t-shirts.

- Rather than pissing money against the wall creating a "lifestyle magazine" with wine reviews or badger-baiting tips or whatever is actually in that wanky publication of yours (yes people, Cricket Australia have tried their arm at a 'Gourmet Traveler vibe), how about you bring that desirable 'foodie' lifestyle to your actual event? "Oh, but the grounds have catering contracts in..." I don't care, get it right. You can't expect to win over women, kids, hipsters, yuppies and whoever else it is you want if you're offering them a bain marie full of extortionately priced Four 'n' Twenty pies. Get food trucks, get local breweries in, just do something because you currently offer the fickle "Do I really want to go to the cricket?" punter the following: a hard plastic seat and food from the high school tuck shop, circa 1987.

So what I'm saying is, if you're trying to win non-cricket fans over, take a look at people who have done a similar thing and learn from it. It's not easy, but at least try.

Moving on to Boston, we took in Fenway Park and I've got to say, the experience was very similar to Wrigley Field (ie. brilliant and olde-worldy) with the added bonus of un-hinged fans and above-average buffalo wings (I haven't really mentioned what we ate at the Ball Parks because it is shameful and embarrassing to everyone concerned). This also sounds like I just dragged my girlfriend to baseball games; in actual fact we went to four games in 28 days, so I'm not a total monster. I don't even particularly like baseball, but the new Yankees Stadium aside, it is a fun day out. I'll give them that.

Inspired by recently reading Don Watson's 'American Journey's' I decided we should pack a few books and get the train from Boston to New York rather than fly, as we had everywhere else. It was one of the better decisions we made on this trip. I mean, we didn't make friends with an old, wise local or chase a Hurricane like Don Watson would, but I was able to re-read Gideon Haigh's Sphere of Influence in the four hour trip past beautiful lakes and forest,  thus probably making me the only person on that particular carriage reading about the power structure of 21st century cricket. I must have annoyed Cynthia by reading a few too many passages out to her because later in the trip, she woke up having had a dream in which she was playing cricket against myself and Gideon Haigh. I'm not making this up. She probably needs therapy, the poor woman. I'm even invading her subconscious with cricket.

We're now nearing the end of two weeks in mad, maddening and also pretty brilliant New York. Appropriately enough in the midst of an Ashes series, it has actually made me feel a bit English for the first time since...well, since the last time I came to New York. And not just because everyone in America assumes you're from England if you're an Australian. I've never been one for big crowds or loud, bad-mannered people, so obviously New York has presented itself as something of a challenge. It's a brash and bracing place, obviously. Aside from an Indian bloke in a deli who wanted to talk about Ricky Ponting and Mike Hussey, they are also fairly indifferent to cricket.

By the time we were in New York, I was missing cricket. A lot. I missed cricket so much I wanted to get drunk and send it a topless selfie.

I sound pathetic but the contrast of the bustling, grimy streets of Manhattan against my mornings rising to watch The Ashes against the lush, green back-drop of an English summer has done nothing but reinforce my love of cricket. Of its aesthetic beauty and of its monastically calming presence in my life. 

These are feelings I am having from watching a game that's been riddled with umpiring errors and heart-in-mouth moments, so I realise that labeling this game 'calming' sounds completely insane. But watch it I did and what a game it was to watch. From Lord's onwards I'll be keeping a diary on each day of the Tests, but below are a few random observations from another continent with the aid of a jittery computer stream:

Observations on: The First Test - Trent Bridge

Remember this guy?
Poor Fawad, you really have to feel for the guy. He had every section of the press clawing at him for a solid month or so and was probably relatively certain he'd be playing a bigger part in this Ashes campaign than what's occurred. A couple of average spells in warm-up games and he's back at home on the couch in Melbourne. Is he okay? I hope he's not having a Nathan Hauritz-style garage sale this weekend.

I'm not sure how I feel about the Man of the Match Blazer
Are we straying too far into 'Encouragement Award' mentality here? I mean, it's an embarrassing colour at least which is in keeping with cricket tour hijinks, but this just looks like an omen to me. Is it harmless fun or are the official tweets from CA legitimising it as an actual award? It is after all being awarded to Agar for a Test that Australia lost and one in which he was not actually the official Man of the Match. Happy to be proven wrong and I would love to see Agar have his name stitched into it five times though. Channel Nine are actually already preparing a limited edition "Agar the Honourable" limited edition print.

But the jacket thing; am I taking this too personally? I may be taking this too personally.

Keep Calm and Carry On with the Cliches
Apparently this poster was iconic once. I say 'apparently' knowing that is was but having had it shoved down my throat by every meme-lover on the internet and every shitty souvenir shop in the entire universe. You're on your final warning CA social media types, the madness needs to stop. Final warning!

Chris Rogers is my favourite bespectacled Ashes player since David Steele
Ok, I will admit there is not much competition but I love Chris Rogers and his decayed, brown, suspicious-looking armguard. That thing should have its own Cricket Australia contract. I want to smell it. I want to lick it. If Chris Rogers makes a double century at Lord's he can mail it back to Melbourne and I will eat the entire thing live on the 6 o'clock news.

He played alright too, didn't he? Funny thing that, picking a guy who churns out runs in every single place he plays and he goes out and makes some runs. He got a pretty dodgy call and a few more runs still would be nice but it was a more than acceptable amuse bouche. 

Joe Root joke armistice
Hand them all in people, we're safely destroying them. We've moved on. Do you really want to live in a society that allows people to walk around toting stale Joe Root jokes? Be honest, you don't.

Keep on with the Dave Warner jokes IF they are funny though. That one is still fair game.

Pie in the Sky
We all know the Channel Nine's coverage of Test cricket becomes staler and a little bit more cringe-inducing by the year, but it is always a nice novelty to have a fresh set of commentators to provide those awful moments. Sky have delivered in spades. Consider the following statement by David Lloyd during the Trent Bridge Test:

"He seems a very relaxed character, Shane Watson."

Now I know Bumble isn't famed for his preparation work but describing Shane Watson as "a very relaxed character" is kind of like calling Alex Jones a "totally chill bro". Interestingly enough (or not, I guess), when I visited New York's famed 'Strand' bookstore the other day, they had two cricket titles on their shelves, 'English Cricket' by Neville Cardus and some complete bollocks by Bumble. So he does have some pull, I guess.

At least when Athers wasn't blatantly barracking for England (sample from Australia's first innings: "Is 'inside edge' wishful thinking?" I dunno Athers, are you a fan or a journalist?) and Andrew Strauss wasn't completely ignoring the fact that one Stuart Broad lunge to save a four featured his leg straddling the boundary rope, there were some lighter moments. 

My favourite Athers hobby-horse is when no-name sub-fieldsman come on wearing the England Test cap. Those guys are the Road Runner and Athers is Wile E Coyote. It appears he is destined to never have anything done about it, but whinge he will. I remember a time that English-born Frankston boy Steve Stubbings came onto the field during a Test wearing the aforementioned cap and Athers sounded like he was going to run onto the ground and crash-tackle him. It was all very endearing.

Ashton Agar
I won't waste undue time on this as it's been covered to death, but consider this: Australia have unearthed a talented young cricketer who is......drum roll.......ACTUALLY LIKEABLE!
Sorry for the egregious use of capitalisation but I think it deserves some attention. The family, the brothers, the boyish grin, the sporting reaction to being caught two short of one of the more remarkable potential centuries in Test cricket history; what is not to like about this kid? If my girlfriend leaves me for Ashton Agar, I will be shattered but completely understand.

P.S. Re-watch the footage of the Australian balcony when he gets out; Shane Watson does the least convincing impersonation of someone caring that his debutante teammate has just got out for 98 that is humanly possible. Worse acting than the Brut ads. Watto himself put in a classic Watto performance; hit some nice boundaries in the second innings, got himself to 40 odd and then got out, plus bowled some handy overs that had everyone falling over themselves to pay him tributes. In between he generally moves like someone who had spent the entire previous day weeding a garden for the very first time. His pain was painful to watch.

Suggested Ashes Twitter Follows, Vol. 1 - Len Pascoe
Finally, if you are not following Lenny Pascoe on twitter then I don't know what you are doing with your life and am frankly pretty disappointed in you. He is a madman in the most brilliant, consistently entertaining way and I want to hang out with him. Does he drink? From his tweets it sounds like he's drinking constantly. I mean all of this as a compliment Lenny, you are amazing.

Some samples:

Lenny Pascoe needs to be employed by Cricket Australia as the team psychologist. Even when you lose, you win. Everybody gets a sticker. We are reborn! Go ahead my son, into the light!

I dunno Lenny, I have never thought about that but if that is the kind of thing you think about, I want to have a beer with you. Or 20, so this all makes sense.

Lenny loves Dickie Bird? I wouldn't know this without twitter but it's hardly a revelation, is it? Does he own all of Dickie's 742 books? I find them quite useful as door stoppers. In developing countries, they are currently being used as bricks to construct entire high rise buildings, there's that many of the things.

Okay Lenny, I love you bud, but "complete Test player"? No-one show Lenny vision of Amla batting; he will literally dive at his TV and injure himself.

Lenny in his pomp, here. The best thing about his twitter account is his Warner-like spelling and sentence-construction. His tweets are like engravings from an ancient time in which dictionaries and basic syntax did not yet exist.

Someone please explain this to me. Seriously. 

C'mon Lenny, you're better than that. You're heading into Brick Tamlyn territory there buddy. You can't just look at the newspaper on your lap and then just write the first combination of thoughts that come into your head. There is a 'draft' button, use it judiciously.

Thursday, 11 July 2013

The Forgotten Story of Geoff Foley

I know, I have been away and neglecting you and I have no right to be foisting things on you, but here is something I wrote for the Guardian about Geoff Foley, the last Australian cricketer called for throwing in a first class game.

Like Meckiff before him, he really is a square peg in that round hole of chuckers, neither bitter about the treatment he received nor particularly emotive about the issue as a whole. I'm talking it down though, it's an interesting story. I swear.

Aside from that, I'm in dying days of a gloriously long holiday but will be back on board post haste.