Monday, 24 August 2009

Run-out of town

Down amongst the dust of The Oval under a deep blue sky and in front of a partisan crowd England regained the Ashes from a chastened Australia with a 197 run win to take the series 2-1. Don’t let the hyperbole of the television commentary team fool you; this wasn’t vintage cricket in terms of sustained quality but it was predictable only in its unpredictability. Momentum counted for little as both teams struggled to run with the hounds throughout the course of the series. That won’t matter to Andrew Strauss or his team, “when we were bad we were very bad and when we were good we managed to be good enough.” All that matters is that the little urn is back in English hands.

Strauss deserves great credit for leading an erratic England team to an Ashes win. He cajoled and inspired his side to win the key contests throughout the series, topped the list of overall run-scorers and ensured that the intensity of captaining the side didn’t affect his game. Occasional accusations of conservatism are levelled at Strauss but it may be because when he sees his team in the dressing room he doesn’t know if it will be Dr Jekyll or Mr Hyde that takes to the pitch. If a composite side of the two teams was to be compiled then it is only Strauss that would make the top five.

It is safe assumption to make that Ricky Ponting has had enough of The Oval. Now the scene of two chastening series defeats as captain he ended with a bloodied mouth, a bruised ego and provided the great national hero with a last highlight for his show-reel. Ponting batted with intense determination, great application and produced a technically brilliant innings as he found a strong ally in building a 127 run partnership with Mike Hussey.

Creaking in the outfield, WD40 can no longer sustain Andrew Flintoff and the big unit finally looked like he was playing his last Test match. Ponting, caught ball-watching slightly as Hussey tipped and ran, was aghast as Flintoff hurled the 5.5 ounces of red leather towards the stumps with brute force. Ponting was a foot short by the time the missile located its target. Wide brimmed white floppy hat on his head, arms aloft, motionless save for chewing gum Flintoff stood admiring the destruction of the stumps and Australia’s dreams. Ponting remained, head bowed, unable to comprehend that he had been dismissed in such a fashion, again. If being run-out once at a pivotal moment is foolish then to do it twice is careless. Unlike the Fourth Test in 2005 this time there were no recriminatory gestures to the England balcony as Ponting returned to the dressing room to applause from the crowd. If Trent Bridge was Gary Pratt’s finest hour then this was just another career-defining moment for Andrew Flintoff. If a certain lager company made cricketers then they’d make them like big Fred.

As Michael Clarke quickly became Australia’s second run-out victim of the summer the stage was left to Hussey to try and save not just his country but potentially his career too. Overcoming a nervous start and a hitherto disastrous tour Hussey compiled his first century in 29 innings and like Matthew Hayden in 2005 and Mark Taylor in 1997 it is likely that a battling Ashes century will have saved his career. Only when Hussey prodded forward and popped a catch up to Alistair Cook at short-leg to become the twentieth Australian wicket of the match could England supporters and players breathe a sigh of relief. This time there will be no parade through the streets of London or drunken shenanigans in Downing Street but a sigh of relief at a job well done as the Australians have been run-out of town.

Sunday, 23 August 2009

Blood on the baggy green

Dean Jones may have it right when he says that people thought the Titanic unsinkable, the four minute mile unobtainable and that you think you can never win the lottery but there is absolutely no chance of Australia escaping the Fifth Test without defeat. Is this a sign of the pessimism within Australian minds or realism based on the fact that 546 has never before been chased down in the history of the first-class game? With Wisden on England’s side you would have thought that the odds on an Australian win would have been more generous than the 10/3 on offer. I’m sure that your local sub-continental bookmaker would give you better value on this great escape.

The star from an England perspective on the third day was the latest player off the conveyor belt marked South African talent; Jonathan Trott. The England selectors ignored the calls to resuscitate Mark Ramprakash’s international career, bring Rob Key back in from the poker table or Marcus Trescothick from the peace that he has found in Taunton. Instead they went for the next cab off the rank and have been richly rewarded. Demonstrating a level of composure and technique completely absent in the hapless Bopara’s efforts Trott should have batted both Australia out of the game and himself on to the plane for England’s tour to South Africa over the winter. It is there that he will play against the man that his game partly resembles; Jacques Kallis. If Trott can be half the player that Kallis is, and as he doesn’t bowl that’s the most he can be, then England will be happy. He has displayed the touch of a veteran in his two innings to date.
One man who didn’t enjoy the third day at the Test was Ricky Ponting. When he planned this campaign at Cricket Australia’s headquarters he did it with the singular goal of returning with the Ashes. Never in his worst nightmare would Ponting have envisaged being the only Australian captain to lose two overseas Ashes series. He stood in the outfield yesterday watching as the cafeteria bowling served up by his attack was tucked in to by the England lower order. If the mental anguish wasn’t enough then it was accompanied by physical pain too as Matt Prior drove a ball that Ponting fielded with his unguarded face only yards from the bat - As he left the pitch spitting blood it was another unwelcome reminder of 2005 when Steve Harmison drew blood and scarred Ponting under his right eye. A tough man, Ponting beat the count with ease and will be drawing on all his expertise to ensure that Australia make England sweat for the win.

If Trott dominated proceedings in the middle then the star of the show off the pitch was singer/song-writer Lily Allen who proved herself an occasionally knowledgeable but always entertaining guest for Jonathan Agnew to interview on TMS. Arriving without entourage, makeup or ego lunch was cancelled for the likes of Tuffers, CMJ and the rest of the crew as Allen confirmed herself as a cricketing purist. She stated a preference for Test cricket over Twenty20 and made calls for a return to the traditional cream cricket whites and even the introduction of a ‘baggy blue’ for the England players. Everyone apart from Ponting was smiling in London town.

Saturday, 22 August 2009

Broad shoulders the burden

To English fans it felt longer, a lot longer but it was in fact only a six year period that separated Ian Botham’s last Test match appearance in 1992 from Andrew Flintoff’s first. The holy grail for a cricket team is to be able to include an all-rounder capable of deciding a game with either bat or ball. Alongside Jacques Kallis and the unconventionally brilliant Adam Gilchrist it was Flintoff that completed the triumvirate of the next generation to follow Botham, Imran Khan, Kapil Dev and Richard Hadlee. Whilst all England fretted over the end of the talismanic Flintoff’s career they did not expect Friday at the Oval to confirm the growth from fawn to stag of Stuart Broad. Whisper it quietly no longer; he is the complete package.

It’s easy to criticise an English cricketer and many have criticised Broad for his propensity to deliver four-balls and a lack of wickets. However, he is a young intelligent cricketer who works hard at his game. He bats classically, he fields athletically and now he has started to bowl accurately and with cunning. It was a hard apprenticeship served running in on flat pitches in India and the West Indies for little reward. However, when England has needed a hero to produce a career-defining performance at the death it was Broad that stepped up to deliver a spell of bowling of 5-37 that left England shocked and Australia pole-axed.

For almost the first time in his Test career Broad performed the accurate impersonation of Glenn McGrath that supporters have been calling for. It has been ignored that at the age of 23 Broad is playing his 21st Test; at the same age McGrath was yet to make his debut for Australia. Too much too soon is expected of talented young players thrown in to the crucibles of Test cricket and the media spotlight. Give Broad a chance to spread his wings and grow in to his art as a bowler. Then he will feel equipped to shoulder the burden of the attack as McGrath once did for 13 distinguished years.

The Oval pitch has come in for criticism as being a ‘result pitch’. This is no bad thing yet it has not been doctored to favour England. Yes, England won the toss and made first use of the strip – it could have been Australia that won the toss and elected to bat. Yes, England picked a front-line spinner to take advantage of the turn and bounce that the Oval offers – Australia could have done likewise. The 23 wickets that have fallen in two days have owed more to poor umpiring decisions, disciplined bowling and poor batting than demons in the pitch.

A lead of 230 runs with 7 wickets in hand places England firmly in the driving seat at the end of day two but the Ashes aren’t regained yet. As the twists and turns in this series have made many cricket writers sound less knowledgeable than even Kerry Katona on a daytime television show your correspondent will not be making any predictions. Suffice to say that it’s not the first but the twentieth wicket that is the hardest to take and the Australians will fight until the end.

Viva Espana

And so we arrive at the denouement. From reading the cricket press in the aftermath of the red rose capitulation at Headingley one would not realise that honours stand even in this Ashes series. Of course England need to win at the Oval to regain the little urn but given this scenario before a ball had been bowled they would no doubt have seized the opportunity quicker than Usain Bolt in a hurry. If you’re an England player it’s a rare thing to arrive at the Fifth Test with something other than ‘honour’ to play for.

In terms of the quality of the cricket no valid comparison can be made between this series and ‘that one’ four years that entered the 75th scheduled session of play with both teams still tussling for supremacy. That this series could climax in the same way owes more to the unerring ability of both teams to stumble in sight of the finishing line rather than pummel each other to a standstill.

On that 5th day at the Oval in 2005 it was Kevin Pietersen, playing his fifth Test, who seized the moment aided and abetted by Ashley Giles. Nothing could stop them recording their highest Test scores but time stops for no man and this time around Pietersen is recuperating following an operation on his Achilles heel whilst the ‘King of Spain’ now meddles in selectorial affairs. As with every final Test of a series it is time to pay tribute to those touring players participating in their last matches in England. Retrospectively we add Brett Lee to the ranks of Warne and McGrath, Langer and Hayden, Martyn and Gilchrist who made the Oval in 2005 their last English Ashes Test.

A fit Brett Lee in cahoots with a rejuvenated Mitchell Johnson would have enjoyed putting the wind up a rickety England but Lee’s series has been holed below the waterline by injury. Ricky Ponting is nearing 35 and it is realistic to assume that he will not be captaining the side on these shores on the next visit, having most likely, passed the baton on to Michael Clarke. Ponting has been cast as a pantomime villain by the English press but it is to be hoped that the crowd at the Oval give him the respectful send off that he deserves as one of the true greats of the game.

In case you’d forgotten Andrew Flintoff will be making his last test appearance not just here but anywhere before he retires to the land of curry, quick runs and four over bowling spells. You can be sure that he will be straining whatever ligaments are left in his body to cast himself as the main act in his final script. You don’t need to be a bookmaker lurking around a hotel bar full of cricket players to know that the fortunes of both Flintoff and Ponting will be instrumental in determining the fate of their respective teams.

Four years ago Andrew Strauss was an England centurion in the first innings at the Oval. This series he is captain and England’s sole centurion in four matches. Without the company of Vaughan, Trescothick and Pietersen there is an absence of quality and experience to support him but Strauss has coped manfully with the captaincy and also managed to successfully overhaul his batting technique since his disastrous series down-under in 2006/07. Strauss has come of age.

It isn’t just inside the boundary ropes that we see the passing of time and Richie Benaud will be appearing on English television for the last time in his spot on Channel Five’s highlights show. He will step down from all commentary commitments later this year. Old father time will catch up with all of us, even Richie. Let us look forward to five days of memorable competition that we hope will produce a climax to live in the memory for four years and hopefully longer.

Saturday, 8 August 2009

The bad old days

Mark Butcher and Andy Caddick announced their retirements from cricket this week. Unfortunate to represent England through the peak of Australian cricketing dominance in the 1990s and early 2000s they enjoyed precious few highlights from their various Ashes campaigns. In fact they suffered a few days similar to the first day at Headingley including being part of the England side that capitulated for 77 at Lords in 1997. Then the tormentor-in-chief was a human metronome by the name of Glenn McGrath who bowled with unwavering accuracy to pick up eight wickets. Today the perpetrator of the old fashioned disciplines of line and length was Stuart Clark.

England have had the good luck to come up against an Australian bowling attack this series whose performance could at best have been described as ragged. Fortunately for Ricky Ponting’s troops the English batsmen have demonstrated the collective resolve of Jerry mouse trying to cure his addiction to cheese; just one more nibble. England were already in trouble but it was the introduction of Clark at first change who reminded them of McGrath, their great nemesis. Supported by some excellent bowling from his cohorts it was Clark who crippled a leaden middle order by starving them of run scoring opportunities. It was left to Peter Siddle to kick away the crutches from this English patient. Painful to watch as an Englishman it was still reaffirming to see a rare outbreak of high class controlled cricket.

The loss of one talisman may be described as careless; to lose two could be described as foolish. Andrew Strauss has not been helped by the absence of first Kevin Pietersen and now Andrew Flintoff who looks increasingly likely to have played his final test wicketless. The absence of the two best players in the England team is one thing but the failure of the remainder to stand up and be counted is more concerning. Bopara, Bell and Collingwood are one of the least inspiring trios of batsmen in English Test history.

Stuck to the crease, body doing one thing, mind presumably doing another; a malaise has afflicted the middle order for which there is no apparent instant cure. The unfortunate trio have given the impression of leaving their bats in the locker room and arriving at the crease armed with sticks of rhubarb. Bell’s trials are well documented, Collingwood will back himself in to a corner and play another career saving innings and Bopara is busy proving what we all know; that he is not a Test match number three. His three centuries are the blip on a Test CV that has yielded only another 157 runs and no other scores above 50 in 11 further innings.

If the batting was bad then the bowling was abject and Andrew Strauss was left to fume at slip as his bowlers ignored everything that they had seen demonstrated so expertly by Australia. Incidentally, that Test match at Lords in 1997 ended in a draw thanks to the rain. There is little chance of the elements saving England this time and neither do they deserve it on the evidence of the first 80 overs at Headingley. No doubt it will be left to Bob Willis and Sir Ian, in the Sky commentary box, to try and drum up the viewers’ interest with tales of Headingley, 1981 and the good old days. If they have any sense then Butcher and Caddick will have turned the television off.

The curious case of Clarke, G

As the Third Test petered out to a draw, thanks in no small measure to Michael Clarke’s effortless brilliance with the bat, then the stage was clear for Giles Clarke, Chairman of the ECB, to set the agenda for the lead up to Headingley’s Fourth Test and divert attention from the tedious story of Flintoff’s knee. Clarke’s considered opinion was that the English fans, specifically the Barmy Army, should stop booing Ricky Ponting, the Australian captain, when he walks out to bat. Not for the first time in his tenure as the occupier of the most powerful position in English cricket has Clarke missed the point.

Every couple of years the Ashes series is hailed as the saviour of Test cricket. It is the clash between the old enemies that will determine the very survival of a game that has been played more or less unchanged from its current form for over 130 years. It is true that we are fortunate in England that Test cricket is played to packed houses. There are strong attendances in Australia but little popular support elsewhere unless the Barmy Army are in town. England’s most loyal cricket supporters are a long suffering collective but they are not responsible for the survival of Test cricket; that is unfortunately down to the administrators.

Ticket prices have adopted a Zimbabwean rate of inflation in recent years prohibiting families from attending, flags and instruments are banned but alcohol is fine (as long as you’re only buying it from the official caterers inside the ground). Having suffered the indignity of following a generally miserable cricket team around the world for the last 15 years the last thing that the Barmy Army warrants is to be told to show “respect and courtesy” to one of the legends of the game. This from a man who was only too eager to demonstrate his unique take on respect and courtesy for the game by entering English cricket in to a business relationship with the ludicrously egotistical ‘Sir’ Allen Stanford. Clarke didn’t bat an eyelid when Stanford landed in his helicopter on the Nursery Ground at Lords and he probably only raised an eyebrow when Stanford was subsequently charged in relation to a $9 billion fraud.

Of course it would be more polite, more refined and more English not to boo Ponting to the wicket but Clarke has failed to appreciate the pantomime attached to the moment with Ponting cast as villain. In an Australian team shorn of characters he stands out as the most recognisable foe. Ponting has frequently gone on record saying that he enjoys the company of the Barmy Army and again spoke up on hearing of Clarke’s comments, “I'm told that some people have been upset about the fact that some English fans were booing me, but I thought it was a terrific atmosphere to play in, and I loved every minute.” For the record, the Edgbaston crowd stood and applauded as Ponting passed Allan Border’s record as top Australian run-scorer.

The inconsistency of Clarke’s comments are further magnified when set against the unedifying backdrop of that other great goose chase of these cricketing times; Twenty20. Supposedly this is all about energising the youth of today, attracting new spectators and creating a carnival atmosphere which includes playing music. These are all the ingredients that the ECB and the ICC seem intent on driving away from Test cricket.

Monday, 3 August 2009

A last stand

Following a hectic and enthralling fourth day Australia will begin the final three sessions at Edgbaston 25 runs behind England and with 8 second innings wickets in hand. It is time for the new Australia to stand up and be counted if they are not to go two down with two to play.

Although their captain Ricky Ponting is already back in the hutch the baggy greens should be able to draw inspiration from the England rearguard action in the First Test. In Cardiff Andrew Strauss was dismissed at the end of the fourth day and England entered the last day trailing by over two hundred runs but also with 8 second innings wickets remaining. Scoring at a moderate rate of 100 runs per session will give Australia a lead of 180 at tea and batting on afterwards should secure them the draw.

All that’s needed is someone with the grit and resolve to play the Paul Collingwood role. It’s time for Michael Hussey and Michael Clarke to show their class. Without a Test century in 15 matches Hussey is in the middle of a lean spell which has seen his average plummet from a near Bradmanesque 80 at the beginning of 2008 to a more mortal 55. He will hope that the good fortune that allowed him to survive a king pair off Graham Onions yesterday will enable him to prove his critics wrong. If it’s not Hussey that guides Australia to safety then it’s likely that it will be Clarke. He fought hard at Lords with a classy century in a rearguard action only to be undone by the fire of Andrew Flintoff. A similar show of resilience will be required at the Bull Ring from the second best bladesman in Australia.

For England it is uncertain how much of a role Flintoff will play. Clearly struggling with his injured knee it would be appreciated if his designated replacement as all-rounder, Stuart Broad, could bring some wickets to the party. Undoubtedly talented Broad remains an enigma to which the code has not yet been cracked – certainly with regards to his bowling. Broad was though, along with his relatively inexperienced cohorts in Swann, Onions and Anderson, chief enforcer when it came to engaging in some lively verbal exchanges with the Australians, notably Mitchell Johnson. Undoubtedly this is not a scenario that would have happened if Warne and McGrath had been in situ.

Jimmy Anderson and Monty Panesar’s rearguard action at Cardiff has provoked a remarkable turnaround in the fortunes of the two teams in this series. Allan Border, the man who forged Australia’s modern cricketing identity, will no doubt be watching to see if Australia still possess the mettle that for nigh on 20 years no one doubted that they had. Today we will learn the answer.

An English summer

Aside from an old-fashioned display of swing bowling by Jimmy Anderson and Graham Onions which decimated Australia’s first innings the most notable confrontation in the first three rain-affected days of the Third Test took place on the other side of the boundary rope up in the ‘potting shed’. Not just any old potting shed but the affectionate name of the commentary box perched on top of the pavilion and home to Test Match Special at Edgbaston.

In this age of media bombardment there are a multitude of options available for those who want to follow live cricket ranging from Sky’s generally excellent but hyperbolic television coverage to various ‘ball-by-ball’ and ‘over-by-over’ statistical and text commentaries of dubious quality. However it is the radio commentary provided by the BBC’s Test Match Special team that continues to set the standard for the serious cricket fan and has done for over half a century.

TMS has been home to some of sport’s greatest wordsmiths-cum-commentators over the years in John Arlott, Don Mosey and Brian Johnston but rarely can the venerable institution have witnessed such a confrontation between two of its own summarisers. Geoffrey Boycott, the irascible representative from the people’s republic of Yorkshire, and the barrel-chested Queenslander making his debut, Matthew Hayden. Boycott took offence to Hayden’s comment that his dour and frequently self-centred batting style had “emptied cricket grounds”. Boycott stormed from the potting shed and responded, “I don't need comments like that at my stage. I felt it was totally inappropriate.” With Hayden’s offer of making up over a beer rejected by the tee-total Boycott it was a rambunctious start to the Test.

Boycott had no doubt erased from his selective memory long ago a comment from another Yorkshire and England great, Fred Trueman, who recalled “If Geoffrey had played cricket the way he talked he would have had people queuing up to get into the ground instead of queuing up to leave.”

Some of my fondest memories of cricket have not been from attending games but listening to overseas editions of TMS. As I grew to appreciate cricket in my early teenage years I would lie curled up under the duvet with headphones on listening through the night convinced that if I remained absolutely still then Bruce Reid’s body may fall apart before he reached the popping crease. It didn’t and he destroyed England in 1991. I recall also a talented twin scoring an effortless century on debut at Adelaide that year; Mark Waugh was his name.

Of course it’s not just the expertly described action on the cricket field that endears TMS to its legions of followers but the irreverence of the conversation in the commentary box. Armed with anecdotes from Test to village cricket matches, supplemented by interviews with renowned cricket lovers from other fields and fuelled by chocolate cake sent in by the listeners TMS is in rude health. Senior commentators Jonathan Agnew and Christopher Martin-Jenkins command respect in the manner that the Speaker of the House could only yearn for.

Recent criticism of TMS from some sections of a self-serving media for ‘dumbing-down’ coverage and daring to reach out to new listeners by embracing new technology is churlish and mis-placed. A voice of calm, reasoned opinion in an increasingly fractured game, TMS remains, like the sight of strawberries and cream at Wimbledon and bacon and egg at Lords one of the sounds of a quintessentially English summer.