Wednesday, 18 December 2013

The Return of the Urn

Australia celebrate the 150 run win in the 3rd Test at the WACA to regain the Ashes. Photograph: Jason O'Brien/Action Images
Three tests or 14 days of cricket. That was all it took for Australia to win their first series against England since 2006/07 and regain the Ashes. It was fully deserved as Australia outplayed England in all facets of the game both on and off the pitch except in the production of an 82-page cookbook.

Malaise: a vague feeling of discomfort or unease. When England recorded a seemingly comprehensive 3-0 series win in the English summer there were many that sensed a malaise within the England team. Results did not justify this feeling but performances did. With the Ashes now lost the condition of this English patient can be upgraded to chronic: usually applied when the course of the disease lasts for more than three months.

A batting line up that last passed 400 runs against New Zealand in Wellington, 23 innings ago, has displayed such a sustained drop in form that you wouldn’t back them to get the runs after a dodgy kebab on the Edgware Road. If bowlers win Test matches then they can only do so if the batsmen have put enough runs on the board to defend. For too long the England bowlers have dug the top order out of a hole either through inspired bowling despite defending low totals or by adding valuable lower order runs themselves. There is also a case to be made that their cumulative efforts have caught up with them. Broad, Swann and Anderson have bowled the most Test match overs in 2013 and now complimented by a lack of support from the batsmen, fielding errors, intelligently devised and executed plans from the Australian batsmen and a sudden inability to extract any lateral movement from the Kookaburra they too have run out of steam.

The one bright spot for England has been the arrival of Ben Stokes. A surprise choice for the tour, let alone the side, he produced a high quality century in Perth in only his fourth Test innings. Batting with technique and discipline missing from his more celebrated colleagues Stokes has recorded England’s only century. It was arguably the best innings of the series to date and it will be interesting to see if he can continue his rapid ascent. A long-term position in the side is his for the cementing.

With the urn lost, immediate attention turns to team selection for the remaining two Tests. Will Andy Flower stick by the star names who have now slumped or, with an eye on the future, re-employ Jonny Bairstow and Steven Finn or promote new blood in the shape of Gary Ballance or even Tymal Mills? The case could be made for all four but Flower’s track record suggests that he is unlikely to make wholesale changes. It is most likely that Broad’s injury will give an opportunity to Finn who should be allowed to follow the example of Jimmy Anderson and forget the recent coaching that he’s received and revert back to the wicket taking threat he used to be.

England’s recent track record of blooding new players is poor. The last unqualified success was Jonathan Trott who debuted in the last Ashes test of 2009 – early in Flower’s reign. Since then another 13 players have been handed caps. Many of these will never play Test cricket for England again (see Shahzad, Tredwell, Patel, Compton, Woakes, Morgan) and the jury is out on the remainder.

There are 14 Tests until the 2015 Ashes series in England but a 5-0 hiding is staring England in the face. For Cook, Bell, Pietersen, Anderson and Monty this would be for the second time in their career. The baggy greens of 2006/07 contained bona fide greats that would walk in to teams from any country in any era; Ponting, Gilchrist, Warne and McGrath. Of the current Australian team only Michael Clarke and potentially Mitchell Johnson would make the 2006/07 side. After Clarke’s Australia lost to England by 347 runs at Lord’s in July to go 2-0 down they were derided in their own press as the worst Australian team since that of 1978/79. Allan Border recognised the strength of Cook’s England, “Australia is up against a quality England team – there’s no questioning it. For us to win we need everyone playing to their full potential plus a little luck. At the moment, neither is happening.” In the intervening four months Australia have not suddenly become a great team. Seven of their starting lineup at Perth played at Lord’s while England fielded nine of the same XI. These are the only Tests that Australia have won all year. Australia have gone back to basics – much credit is due to Darren Lehmann – executed core skills and made themselves hard to beat. These were the same basics that had previously been hallmarks of head coach Andy Flower’s England teams. The difference is that almost all of the Australian team is now playing at their full potential compared to only one of the England team.

Thousands of England supporters are joining the tour for the final two Tests and this will be the third time in the last four away series that England have arrived in Melbourne three nil down. In 2002/03 and 2006/07 it was not a major surprise but the most loyal cricket supporters in the world expected and deserved better from this group of players. It is to be hoped that England can give them something to cheer about at the MCG and SCG but the odds do not look good. At least the exchange rate is moving in the favour of the Barmy Army.

Monday, 12 August 2013

Tel Aviv Thriller

1st Test, Trent Bridge, England won by 14 runs. England 215 and 375, Australia 280 and 296

A cloudless blue sky with the sun beating down, mercury touching 35C, warm sea water and a sandy beach teeming with people modelling the latest in beach ware and apparel; welcome to Bograshov Beach, Tel Aviv. A perfect setting for a summer holiday but a less than convenient place from which to follow the action from Trent Bridge in the First Test.

Unsurprisingly The Ashes is neither front nor back page news in the Israeli press. If you asked a local for their opinion on Hot Spot they might direct you to the Clara on a Monday night and DRS sounds suspiciously like a new tax. It’s safe to say that Australia’s retreat back in to the pack from cricketing superpower will have gone unnoticed in the trendy restaurants of Neve Tzedek.

Israel’s national sport is not cricket but matkot which involves two people using carbon fibre rackets to smash a squash ball at each other as hard as possible without it touching the ground. Perversely, in an ultra-competitive society, it’s a sport which doesn’t result in a winner or loser as no points are scored but, in a lesson that no global sport has heeded apart from volleyball, it is frequently played on the beach. Whilst not threatening the status of matkot, cricket does have a presence in Israel which has grown in popularity since the departure of the British in 1948. Israel obtained ICC Associate Membership in 1974 and, with teams populated by a combination of Israelis, expatriates and migrants, has a thriving league where for Middlesex and Yorkshire read Sri Lanka Tel Aviv and Lions Lod.

Disappointingly, by the time of my holiday, cricket was not sufficiently ingrained in the public consciousness to the extent that a large screen had to be erected on the beach to keep the Israeli cricket supporters abreast of the Ashes. Instead it was a case of rationing the use of mobile phone battery so Cricinfo score updates, BBC text commentary and the occasional burst of TMS could all be accessed to keep us on the edge of our deckchairs. It’s doubtful that Aggers, Blowers, Maxwell and Boycott have held the attention of many beachgoers in Tel Aviv before. Snatches of Anderson brilliance, Bell resistance and Agar precociousness disturbed our relaxation pleasingly. The match seemed England’s to lose and lose it they so nearly did.

With the benefit of hindsight, scheduling a meeting for the climax of the Australian fightback was a foolish move. I’d expected the game to be over well before this point. When I was having lunch and receiving ball-by-ball updates from a friend in Paris it was Pattinson that joined Haddin at the crease and Australia needed 79 runs from their last wicket partnership. An Australian win looked a long shot but the target was whittled down. With my phone vibrating with score updates I kept the meeting as short as possible.

Renting a flat in Tel Aviv with an Australian could have backfired. It was about to pay dividends. Exiting the meeting I discovered to my horror that, resuming after lunch, Australia needed 20 runs to win. I was a 15 minute walk from home or, as it turned out, a 7 minute run in flip flops in 35C heat. My flatmate (did I mention he was Australian?) had the TV coverage on his tablet which was streaming several seconds behind TMS running on the laptop. With the commentary being relayed to me over the phone I ran up Ben Yehuda, turned right on to Sderot Ben Gurion. Trying not to lose my flip-flops I crossed over Dizengoff and scuttled past the fruit juice stand. Five runs came off Swann’s over. Fifteen runs or one wicket. I was in the home straight, running up Hakalir. Anderson bowling. An appeal for caught behind and a review from Cook! I ran up the two flights of stairs and put my key in the lock, opening the door to hear Haddin given out. My flatmate sat in silence. A 14 run win for England. There was little more to do other than record the moment of mixed emotions. Thanks to Tuffers for the retweet.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011


It will be remembered as ‘People’s Monday’ at Lords. The queues of fans snaked through St John’s Wood from the crack of dawn but it was going to take some Indian charm of the highest order to extract a result from a high class 2000th Test. They came to see the little master shoulder the burden of saving his nation at cricketing HQ but England were reading from a different script.

Deep in the final session of play a rejuvenated Stuart Broad trapped Ishant Sharma in front of his stumps for his seventh wicket of the match and England took a deserved lead in the four Test series with a convincing 196 run victory. The celebrations on the pitch showed the level of desire amongst the team to be recognised as the best in the business.

When England is credited with innovative thinking and the man dispensing the credit is S R Waugh then you take notice that this cricket team must have a bit about them. Australia found this to their cost in the winter and they may be smiling ruefully now that the English bowling attack has laid waste to the more vaunted Indian batting line-up dismissing them twice for under 300.

True, India suffered from injury and illness to Gambhir, Tendulkar and, crucially, Khan at various stages of this match but they also arrived under-cooked. Duncan Fletcher coached England to a glorious high in 2005 and humiliating low in 2006/07. More than anyone he knows the value of preparation for a high-octane series. Resting senior players for the recent tour of the West Indies and scheduling one warm-up game in advance of the Lord’s Test has proved insufficient against an England team performing as a cohesive unit.

As Kevin Pietersen, a deserved man of the match, put it succinctly ‘All departments seem to be covered.’ The batting showed grit in the first innings and when the foundations were rocked to the core in the second innings it was Prior and Broad who took the game away from India with a game-changing seventh wicket partnership of 162.

It was the bowling attack that really stood out and not just because of their height. It seems inconceivable that until last December the human tripod Tremlett had only played three Tests since his debut against India four years previously. In his 38th Test Broad finally discovered that he’s more likely to take wickets when the ball lands in the same half of the pitch as the batsman. The spin department out-bowled their more experienced counterpart. It was Anderson though that stepped up to the mark on the final day. Few bowlers in cricket will have taken the wickets of a more illustrious trio than Dravid, Laxman and Tendulkar in the same innings. It was a fitting reward for the leader of the attack.

India has only 3 days to re-group before Trent Bridge. They have the talent to turn this series around but they must act fast. There is a sense that this England is a younger, sharper, more disciplined and resourceful beast than the old masters of India can handle. A combination of great batsmen, cunning bowlers, shoddy fielding and gnarled coach may not be sufficient to see them come from behind.

Monday, 28 February 2011

A cut above

There’s life in the old dog yet. The surfeit of mediocrity that cricket fans are force fed by the Twenty20 format has made some nostalgic for the relative sobriety of an old-fashioned One Day International. The 11th Cricket World Cup has its problems but in the land where the IPL is the cricketing equivalent of the Emperor’s New Clothes the 40,000 people that packed the Chinnaswamy stadium got full value for money. The contest between India and England ebbed and flowed all the way to a breathless finish. It was super-charged cricket for 100 overs in a white-hot atmosphere.

The record books will show that England tied the match scoring 338-8 but at 281-2 in the 43rd over the most improbable of run chases was within touching distance of an England team that had previously looked a pale imitation of the disciplined unit that humiliated Australia only last month. That England didn’t make it over the finish line was due to some inspired clutch bowling from Zaheer Khan. That England was even in with a chance was due to an innings of rare brilliance from captain Andrew Strauss with 158 from 145 deliveries.

Test cricket has shown Strauss as a calm, resolute leader of men – able to motivate them to achieve feats beyond their predecessors. Whereas the challenge of captaincy sent Flintoff off the rails in Australia and saw Pietersen spontaneously combust in the West Indies it has seen Strauss remodel his batting first in the Test arena and then in the 50 over format. Strauss exemplifies a man at ease with his game. He knows his limitations and ensures that he plays to his strengths. England has not seen a more adept, if not as brutal, cutter of the ball since Robin Smith. It takes a rare performance to snatch a man of the match award from the grasp of a Sachin Tendulkar century in India but that was one contest in which there was no tie.

That the result will ultimately not mean much in the course of this lengthy competition does not matter as much as the fact that the World Cup had a contest to match its status as the pinnacle of the One Day game. For those that watched enthralled around the world it will be infinitely more memorable than the plethora of Twenty20 games or mis-matched ODIs involving minnows. For both England and India there are plenty of areas of improvement, not least the fielding. For the other nations there is the knowledge that, India, the red-hot favourites will give you a chance with their bowling – no matter how many runs they score.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Take the Urn Home

Watching England play cricket in Australia is traditionally a harrowing experience. The walk to the SCG for the final day of the Ashes with 3 wickets needed to secure a first away triumph for 24 years was as pleasurable as a stroll in the English countryside. The best decision that an Australian made during the tour was to let people enter the SCG free to witness the coup de grace. Around 18,000 England supporters turned up to help Andrew Strauss’ team take the urn home. Flags of St George hung from the railings of the Ladies Pavilion. Australians, save for the baggy greens in the middle of the pitch, were in short supply. English dominance on and off the pitch was total.

Despite a morning of showers that threatened to delay the win until after lunch it was just before mid-day when the mighty Chris Tremlett ripped one through what masqueraded as Michael Beer’s defence to rearrange his timbers. Cue delirium amongst the England supporters. The Barmy Army have been singing since 1994 when it was routine to see England routed, frequently in the manner of a whale in the path of a Japanese whaling ship. To support England at cricket and spend hard-earned cash travelling to long-haul destinations to see sporting humiliation on a grand scale epitomised the addiction of the sports fan to their team. There are few more loyal sports fans in the world than those of the England cricket team, certainly no one disputes the lyrics of their song that they are the most loyal cricket supporters the world has ever seen.

At times it has been hard to sing in such unequivocal support of the teams that have worn the England shirt. The last tour of Australia was a particular low point. Duncan Fletcher had vowed to heed the lessons of the 4-1 defeat that he masterminded in 2002/03 and ensure no repetition. He was right, the 5-0 capitulation set a new benchmark. Players were off the pace and the body language in the field betrayed a beaten team. Experienced players like Flintoff could not set the right example from the front. Rookies like Mahmood floundered as if they had gone to play in the Bondi surf without learning to swim. No amount of lifeguards could save that England team. It was a tough posting for the Barmy Army. These are sweet times for the high ranking amongst them.

Wisden will record this Ashes campaign as a 3-1 victory for England. No Australian that you meet will tell you that it felt that close. Every defeat for the home side was by an innings – an achievement  to rank alongside the precedent set by Bangladesh. By the end of the tour there was an uneasy sense of confidence in the performance of the England team. The batsmen made runs. The bowlers took wickets. The fielding was tight. This must be what it’s like to watch a winning team we thought. No longer did you need to restrict yourself to the intervals for a run to the bar.

As always, time will tell but this England team has a glint in it's eye. It means business. The sprinkler dance was a one-off in Melbourne. The team refocused and kept their foot on the Australian throat. One away Ashes win does not a dynasty make but the pieces are in place for Andy Flower's team to reach the top. The batsmen have matured, the bowlers are disciplined, there are no shirkers in the field. With Strauss our captain we'll take the urn home and it may not leave for a while.

Saturday, 1 January 2011

Super Mitch

One of the finest sights in world sport is that of a fast bowler charging in to hurl a 5.5 ounce missile of leather, cork and string at speeds of more than 90mph towards a batsman standing 22 yards away. No area is off limit. The batsman has to scramble for his life, ducking, swaying and defending not knowing whether the ball will be directed at his head, chest or toes. The batsman hopes the bowler will tire quickly and lose pace and accuracy. It is about survival rather than run-scoring. The atmosphere can be akin to a bear-pit.

England fans will remember the duel between Allan Donald, South Africa’s White Lightening, and captain Michael Atherton in the Trent Bridge Test of 1998 that has attained legendary status. Atherton repelled Donald’s high speed advances with skill and no small amount of luck and courage to see England through to a famous victory. Similarly, in Ashes competition, Andrew Flintoff was cast in the role of aggressor in 2005 as he ripped out Justin Langer and Ricky Ponting to the delight of a roaring Edgbaston crowd.

For Australia the nation’s fast-bowling hopes now rest on the shoulders of Mitchell Johnson. A fast, left-arm bowler he was named the International Cricket Council’s ‘Cricketer of the Year’ in 2009. If Australia were to regain the Ashes then Johnson would have to fire.

Sadly, from an Australian perspective, Super Mitch’s performance has been abject. A total loss of control has seen deliveries sprayed either side of the England batsmen who have pounced in the manner of King Henry VIII at an all you can eat buffet. Dropped for the second Test in Adelaide Johnson rebounded in Perth to produce a game-changing spell of rapid inswing but doubts remained as to whether he actually knew how he had rediscovered his ability to bowl accurately.

Johnson’s fragile confidence and natural shyness off the field has been further eroded by the verbal shellacking he has received at the hands of the Barmy Army. With Sydney to come it will be seen whether Melbourne represented a nadir. For hours on end England’s loyal band of supporters subjected Johnson to a repetitive ear-bashing that they would have never risked dishing out to Glenn McGrath – and nor did his performances give them ammunition to.

A less than complimentary ditty sung to the tune of the Addams Family played a bit part in the Barmy Army repertoire but it was dominated by the description of Johnson’s bowling sung to the tune of Sloop John B, “He bowls to the left, he bowls to the right, that man Mitchell Johnson, his bowling is shite”. Complete with hand movements thousands of Englishmen made their point to Johnson again and again. Even Kevin Pietersen, fielding in front of the Barmy Army, felt inclined to agree (see video).

For a man struggling to find any form, with the sun beating down and his team stuck behind the eight ball, it was the last thing that Mitchell Johnson wanted to hear. Every leg-side delivery or four was cheered mercilessly. Johnson needs to rediscover his form and fast if Australia are to re-emerge as a cricketing powerhouse.

Thursday, 30 December 2010

Sprinkle Sprinkle

It wasn’t meant to be like this. It was my third trip to the MCG and on the two previous occasions I’d arrived with England already three nil down and would leave for Sydney a few days later with us down by four. But yesterday I saw England retain the Ashes in Australia for the first time in 24 years with victory by an innings and 157 runs to take an unassailable 2-1 lead in the series.

If Carlsberg made a perfect day of cricket then for the English cricket fan Boxing Day was it. Over 84,000 people were left stunned as Australia were routed for 98 only to see England surge to lead by 59 at stumps, with all ten wickets intact. The Australian fans were silenced whilst the long-suffering but eternally optimistic Barmy Army were pinching themselves in disbelief not just at the cost of the watered down mid-strength Victoria Bitter that passed for refreshment, but at the scoreboard. That England rammed home their advantage without taking their foot off the Australian throat indicates a team that is learning to seize the moment – there are still relapses and remember that the best two Test teams in the world are currently playing elsewhere in the southern hemisphere.

Australia avoided the ignominy of losing the Boxing Day Test before the conclusion of the Sydney to Hobart yacht race but it was a close race for line honours. When Ben Hilfenhaus edged Tim Bresnan to Matt Prior before lunch on Day 4 the celebrations could start. Rarely did an England team play with such verve and focus but it is becoming an increasingly common sight. To do it against Australia in their own backyard is as rewarding as it gets. 

It has been curious to observe the reaction of Australian cricket fans from the old Bay 13. Volubly critical of their own team, especially the performance and leadership of Ricky Ponting and Michael Clarke, yet there is a lack of consensus of how the team should proceed. It is clearly time for change but to what? There are few obvious contenders waiting in the wings. No batsman, other than Michael Hussey, was up to the mark and he was on the verge of being dropped before the Ashes started. Despite fielding more bowling options than England there has been an absence of control and lack of penetration. The attack leader, Mitchell Johnson, was missing in action for three of the four tests and he was marmalised by both the English batsmen and the Barmy Army for hours on end at the MCG.

England have embodied a squad united by a sense of purpose, discipline and a common goal. Chris Tremlett and Tim Bresnan, who were not in the starting line-up in Brisbane emerged as game changing bowlers in their own right. The Australian replacements were not up to the mark: Philip Hughes and Steve Smith will go back to finishing school. The much vaunted Australian Cricket Academy that produced a seemingly endless conveyor belt of talent, for so long the envy of English cricket, has evidently been left unattended for too long. The Sheffield Shield, the toughest of first class finishing schools, has been reduced to a beauty pageant where any glimpse of promising talent is fast-tracked through to the national side after a handful of games.

There is much to enjoy in England’s cricket. They bowl with guile and discipline, in tandem to build pressure on batsmen by denying them width. In 2009 Justin Langer attached the label of “pussy” to James Anderson. Little did we know that Anderson would return to haunt the now current Australian batting coach in his guise as the premiere swing bowler in the world. Runs have been scored by batsmen prepared to see off the new ball and build an innings. Alastair Cook and Jonathan Trott have prized their wickets in a fashion that the great accumulator, Sir Geoffrey of Boycott, would be proud to call his own. It has been the grafters rather than the dashers who have battered the Australian attack in to submission. Andrew Strauss’ captaincy has become more astute as he has grown in to the role since his appointment in January 2009. Great credit too must go to Andy Flower, a coach who has instilled a work ethic previously unseen in an England team.

For England, whilst the celebratory sprinkler dance was performed to the delight of the Barmy Army there is still work to be done. When the hangovers subside this England team will get back to work in Sydney. The management and players wouldn’t have it any other way. There is still a series to win.