The ’84 second-semi

Many years ago I attended a footy match at the MCG I’ve long thought of as the best match I’ve ever seen. That was the 1984 second-semi between Essendon and Hawthorn.

I’d never seen a replay of it since then, though I’d tried to get my hands on a copy over the years. Yesterday I finally caught up with it and watched it again for the first time since that dim Spring day.

The match is famous not just in my household. Many proclaim one of the best finals ever, and it featured those two titans and arch-enemies of the eighties. Hawthorn and Essendon hated each other, but there was also a lot of respect. They played in three grand finals in succession, and in the years since that bitter rivalry has continued.

I’m glad to say the game lived up to my memory of it. It was fast and skilful and hard and tough. It holds up very well against modern footy, which isn’t surprising given the roll call of absolute champions playing. There’s an argument that this era of footy was the greatest because it the VFL – as it was then – was a compact twelve team competition that drew the best talent from around the land. There wasn’t the dilution of talent once the competition went national and expanded – ultimately – to eighteen teams.

It’s hard to judge eras. Football is more professional these days, and more scientific. Coaching, in general, is more advanced, and the game itself has changed – less confrontational now, but more pressure. I’m not going to buy into the general conversation because the game ebbs and flows, quality rises and falls away. I’d safely suggest that either of these two teams playing would be top four today. And I reckon the 1985 Essendon side would be premier more often than not – the best footy team I’ve seen.

But anyway, back to 1984. In 1983 Hawthorn had smashed the Bombers in the GF. I was there that day, and all the excitement of an unexpected finals run ended ignominiously with the team over-awed and out of their depth. We finished top of the ladder in ’84, but Hawthorn had beaten us twice that year and was said to have the wood on us.

They won on this day too but watching the game again it was clear the game could have gone either way. On balance I think Essendon was the more dynamic team on the day, but Hawthorn steadied went it counted. It was pulsating game though, thrilling to watch then and now.

History tells us that the Essendon players came out of that game with renewed belief: they knew they could beat Hawthorn. The next week in the prelim we made a mess of Collingwood to the tune of 133 points – their best player that day an ex-Essendon man, Ronny Andrews. That was pure footy.

In in the grand final, Hawthorn and Essendon matched up again in what was to become one of the best and more famous finals in recent times. Down by four goals most of the day, despite playing well, the Bombers stormed home in the last quarter to kick a (then) record 9.6 in the last quarter to win by four goals.

That’s a game dear to Essendon hearts, with many great and indelible moments in that last quarter. We beat them again the next year, finishing up with a new (and current) last quarter scoring record of 11.3. That was a mighty team, hard as nails, but silky skilled, like no other team in history.

Great memories.


Flipping the coin

As I write this, the final test match against India has commenced in Sydney. Finch is out for Australia, unsurprisingly, and Mitch Marsh – no surprise there either. Labuschagne is in for his leg-spinning prowess, though he’s actually a batsman first, and mediocre at that. He’s batting at three. Handscombe is back as well. He made a big score in the BBL the other night and it looked like he might have changed his technique a tad, batting closer to the crease. He gets the gig because of his prowess batting against spin. Good luck to him, but better-credentialled batsmen are missing out.

Unfortunately, we lost the toss again. This is an under-reported stat. Tim Paine has won the toss just once since he became captain, and it just so happens that was the match we won. We’ve got a fair bit going against us regardless, but batting last generally means we’re behind the eight ball from the start.

I’m hoping that we can rip through India this morning, but I’m not confident. I’m with Shane Warne and believe some of our bowlers have underperformed.

Let’s start with Starc. On his day he’s an absolute matchwinner. There’s no more devastating bowler than him when on song. That’s pretty rare though, which is the biggest tick against him – a lack of consistency. He’s an undisciplined, often loose bowler. He reacts emotionally too often when he should stick to the plan. Counting against him is that I don’t think he’s the brightest spark going around. These traits are evident in his batting also, which is disappointing given the talent he has.

Then there’s Hazlewood, long touted as the next McGrath. He’s just about the opposite of Starc in temperament. He’s steady, reliable, intelligent. He’s also a bit of a soft cock at the batting crease and can be a bit vanilla with his bowling. I reckon he should be more vanilla. McGrath had the patience to bowl his way ball after ball and I think Hazlewood should do the same – aim for the top of off stump, and just outside. Too often he errs from that, particularly down the leg side – which is honey for Indian batsmen. I’m happy for him to bowl basically the same line every ball, vary the length a little, the pace of the ball and, of course, the direction – some coming in, some going way. Keep it simple and you’ll wear them out.

Then there’s Cummins. Not much can be said of him except he’s everything we want in an Australian cricketer – smart, tough, reliable, talented, and a matchwinner on his day. His effort never wavers, and his courage undisputed. Compare him to Starc and he’s all application and match sense. He does what needs to be done, and will sacrifice himself for the team. He’s good-looking and articulate, and a very decent bloke – no wonder he’s touted as a future Australian captain.

Likewise Lyon. I used to be hard on him. He lacked confidence and I used to think he bowled without courage. He’s a much smarter bowler these days and bowls a much more aggressive line than he did. Confidence makes all the difference. Not a lot of tricks, but can be a matchwinner.

As for this match? I came into it thinking if we bat first on a pitch that will deteriorate then we’d win. Unfortunately – and I hope I’m wrong – I think the best is more likely to be a draw. Must bat well.

Ranting from the sidelines

Look away now if it’s not your thing, for I want to expound at length on the state of Australian cricket.

On the scoreboard, at this moment Australia is level with India 1-1, but on the verge of losing the third test. More broadly, there are substantial issues that go far beyond the disgraces of earlier this year that must be addressed.

It’s an Australian pastime to bang on about Australian cricket selectors and their capricious choices – though I think it’s something common to many sports. Certainly, I have been vocal in these pages many times, and am about to be once more. The difference, this time, is that I’m about to sheet it home to Australian cricket administration.

Firstly this test match. There’s been a bit of comment about abject batting failures in this game, and in the games preceding – there’s only been one Australian centurion since last summer. You take your two best players out of the team, and another very promising, and it’s disappointing but not entirely unexpected.

In this match, there are some mitigating factors. India is well on top but was greatly advantaged by winning the toss and compiling a bunch of runs on a flat first-day wicket. That was the matchwinning score, with the pitch deteriorating thereafter. They made 440 odd, we followed up with a miserable 150 before India declared eight down for just over a hundred. As it stands it’s the fifth morning of the test with Australia 140 runs off victory, and India just two wickets away.

It will take a cricketing miracle to win this match, or divine intervention to save it. There are showers about – thunder has cracked this morning, rain has fallen – but India will need no more than a session to wrap this up, and likely much less.

So, you can make excuses, but the fact is there have been too many poor performances to accept. You look at the batting, which is the real culprit, and there have been repeated failures in application and technique. Some players aren’t up to it, pure and simple, and wouldn’t have got a game if not for the bans – but you have to question some of the decisions made.

Look at Aaron Finch, for example. I’m an admirer of his character, and in the shorter games he’s a brute – but this is test cricket. Watching him open the batting is enough to give you an ulcer. His discomfort and confusion are palpable. He just can’t cope with the moving ball and it’s only a matter of time before he departs. He averages sixteen this series and was out the second innings steering the ball directly to second slip the ball after surviving a DRS review. If he’s to be in the team then it should be down the order, but his shot selection – doubtless the result of a muddled mind – doesn’t aid his case. He might survive to play in Sydney, but really he shouldn’t.

Shot selection is an issue in general, as is technique. Throughout the series, the tailenders have often outshone the top order, this innings no exception. The difference generally is in application and concentration. A player like Head – who I think has a future – is let down repeatedly but poor shot selection and failures in technique.

Shot selection comes down to maturity and concentration. Some players have it, some never do. You want to select players who have it, or can learn it. Technique, by comparison, is something learned.

When I was a kid I was coached a few years by a former Australian test cricketer. The cornerstone of what I learned was the forward and backward defensive shots, from which all else flowed. I was an attacking batsman, but it came from a defensive foundation – the forward defense became a flowing drive, the back foot defence became a back foot drive (my shot), or perhaps a pull through midwicket. You learnt the fundamentals until they became second nature. On the few occasions, I play social cricket these days I find my feet moving automatically as I learnt.

These are test cricketers, they have more talent than anyone else in the country, but sometimes I wonder if my technique is not better than theirs. Head has been dismissed when well set at least half of his innings this series playing extravagant shots with the bat well away from the body. I learned: foot to the pitch of the ball when going forward, and back and across when the ball was short. You knew to play straight, and from a side-on position. Sure, there are some funky techniques these days, but at what cost.

So many batsmen play by the eye these days and you can’t help but believe that’s because of T20 cricket, where the emphasis is on expansive, attacking shots. In bash and crash technique becomes redundant – but in test cricket, with top bowling attacks and attacking fields, when the emphasis should be on building an innings, the absence of technique becomes telling. This is one reason our bowlers bat more surely than our batsmen – because they play within their limitations and know that technique is their friend.

Cricket administration in Australia has been complicit in this deterioration. Shield cricket has been weakened with the advent of officially sanctioned batting strips, an emphasis on youth over performance, and rotten scheduling. There isn’t the fierce competition there once was which crafted tough Australian test players for generations. The emphasis on crowd-pleasing, commercially rewarding hit and giggle fixtures have pushed four-day cricket to the margins while encouraging the spectacular over the proficient.

To highlight this, and against all advice, the ACB extended the wildly successful BBL this season, to the detriment of other forms of cricket – there’s a gap of nearly two months between shield games. There’s a risk of over-saturating the public with this form of the game – I’ll watch occasionally, without really caring – while it further undermines the production of test quality cricketers.

It’s easy to be critical of the selectors, but in truth, there’s a shallow pool to select from these days. Still, they manage to fuck it up. As noted, Finch should never have been selected as an opener, if at all. Young, virtually unknown cricketers get called up to wear the baggy green while others, less favoured by the selectors, are dropped without good cause (i.e. Maxwell).

It seems likely come the Sydney test next week we’ll be down 2-1 in the series, and with serious questions to answer. What do the selectors do? If it was me both Finch and Mitch Marsh would be gone, and maybe Sean too. I’d probably push Khawaja to open and replace Mitch Marsh with Stoinis or Maxwell, though there’s a push for Labuschagne given his leg-spinning in the UAE.

Longer term we need to straighten up. The banned players become available soon, and we need them. Any talk of Smith returning to the captaincy eventually should be quashed – he was never a good leader, and after what he allowed should never be in a position of authority again. Let him bat though, and Warner too (who, strangely, I respect more than Smith – because he is at least true to himself). I think Bancroft will find a spot also.

We have a great captain now in Paine, with a worthy understudy in Cummins – probably the most admired Australian cricketer at the present time. There’s a lot to love about Cummins – talent certainly, but great application and unyielding effort, and cricket smarts rare in this team. If Starc played with as much heart as Cummins then he’d be a great bowler, rather than just teasing us with it.

On the field, these have to be our building blocks – Paine, Cummins, Hazlewood, Starc, Lyon, the banned players, and Khawaja. The other spots will sort themselves out.

Off the field, the challenge is greater. We need to fix the game here in Oz. There needs to be better coaching at every level, with an emphasis on technique. And we need to re-prioritise good, tough domestic cricket with players selected and rewarded on merit. Fundamentally a big part of that means shifting or amending the BBL, and I can’t see that happening.

Winning again

As expected, Australia wrapped up the second test against India yesterday in short order. It had been a fascinating match throughout, but in context, the end result was a thumping.

I take two things out of this win. In recent memory, it’s hard to think of a more important victory. It’s been a while between drinks, but the true worth of this win is symbolic. Australia, disgraced by the events in South Africa earlier in the year, widely mocked and derided – even in Australia, and decimated by the bans on their best players, had staggered along in the time since, trying their best but pretty well lost. It was a time marked by uncertainty, in performance and in purpose. The win yesterday is a marker, proof that we can win still – and against the best team in the world – and can win playing within the bounds of respectable behaviour. We found our mojo and it was fine.

I expect Australia to improve from here. Confidence is a wonderful teacher, and the hot contest these newbies have experienced will only improve them. By comparison, India is showing signs of stress, though they will take a better team to Melbourne. Conservatively I would expect the two teams to split the remaining two games. We’ll see.

Otherwise, the game was marked by some notable banter, both biting and witty. There’s a lot of talk that this is the way forward for the Australian team, and I agree. There was no abuse, nothing personal, no send-offs or histrionics, but it did get heated.

Kohli, who at his worse is an immature and petulant leader, was up to his tricks – but it misfired. He was perfectly defused by Tim Paine, who I’ve long admired. Paine was brave with the bat and supreme with the gloves on. He’s a handy captain, and a fine leader – it’s been a while we could say that about an Australian captain.

Paine took on Kohli in a very Australian way, laconic, almost nonchalant, never rising to the bait. Instead, he controlled the debate with his coolness, and in the process dropped some classic lines – the best of which when he asked Murali Vijay if he could possibly like Kohli.

I’ve always had a lot of time for Tim Paine. I’ve believed him very capable and a man of courage and integrity. He is an Australian archetype we would do well to emulate.

Playing to win

Midway through the second test with India in Perth and Australia have their nose just ahead, after losing narrowly in Adelaide.

This has been a great series so far, though only early days. A couple of more than usual sporting pitches has added a lot to the contest. India is striving, hungry, competitive, have some great players and are ranked the number one test team in the world (incorrectly imo). They are searching for their first series win in Australia, which would be a historic achievement. With Kohli in charge, you can bet they’ll go at it hammer and tongs.

It’s been a tough year for Australian cricket. The disgrace of early in the year left the team much weakened after the banning of some of their best players. The batting was gutted and what followed was a succession of performances that ranged from feeble to brave, but hovered around the mediocre. It’s an unfamiliar place for the Australian cricket team to be. We’re used to bossing it on the field, often dominating, but always competitive.

Added to that is a new code of conduct that many ex-players believed would make Australia toothless on the field. They argued that aggressive, combative cricket is what gave Australia it’s the edge. It was innate to our nature and to repress that was both unnatural and self-defeating. ‘Nice’ Australia, they reckoned, could never win.

I agree that aggressive cricket is in our blood. It’s what has made us great. By nature and upbringing, we’ve always been competitive. I don’t believe we should subvert our natural selves, but likewise, I don’t believe it means we must be obnoxious and disagreeable. They don’t equate to me.

This is only an opinion but born of my own experience. In many ways, I think my character epitomises the traditional Australian approach to competitive sport. I hate to lose. I’ll bleed trying to win. I’ll go hard, I’ll be aggressive and unyielding, I’ll be overtly defiant. I might even say a word or two, though hopefully, it will contain as much wit as hostility.

It doesn’t condone cheating though. Nor is it personal. A lot of the so-called banter is ridiculous to the point of pointless in my book. Striving to be belligerent is not a good look, and is rarely effective.

Above all, I think we should never cease to respect our opponents, and indeed the sporting public, which is where we’ve gone wrong in the past. We got carried away over a period of years and lost perspective. You play hard, you play to win, but in the end, it’s just a game, and your opponent another human being. It’s not personal, nor should it be, and at the end of the day, you should be able to share a beer and a laugh no matter how hotly contested it’s been on the field.

That’s what I think. I certainly don’t believe being respectful and decent is incompatible with being hard and competitive. I’ll go so far as to suggest that was the greatness of Australian sport once upon a time.

I support the Australian team’s quest to redeem their character, though I think they’ve yet to find the right balance. In Tim Paine, I think they have the perfect leader – strong, capable, calm, decent.

So this is the context for the series. For the first time ever India came in favourites playing against an Australian team at home. India is a formidable team and led by the best batsman in the world, against a once mighty Australia toppled by its own flaws, weakened in personnel, uncertain of its purpose, undecided in composition. But playing at home.

It makes for a fascinating series, and it has been. In Adelaide, an enthralling contest saw a brave Australian team fall short by 31 runs.

In Perth, they stuck it out on a troublesome pitch to make an above-par score in the first innings and, despite a Kohli century, secure a 43 run lead on the first innings. Batting again, a batsman down and wickets falling regularly the lead had been stretched to 175 at stumps last night.

It was a day full of drama and conflict, as has much of the series so far. Four down at stumps if Australia can stretch the lead to 250 they’ll start to feel safe, and at 300 they should be secure. Finch is injured though, the pitch is playing tricks, and Bumrah, particularly, is a very good bowler. You’d put Australia just ahead right now, but that can change quick. Should make for a great days cricket.

While I’m here it’d be remiss of me not to make some comment about selection. With the players missing it’s a tough gig – put Smith and Warner in this team and they’d have won the first test in a romp, and would be clearly ahead here. But they’re missing so you have to make do. That’s tough when there’s no-one who really puts his hand up. They’ve made some odd calls recently, but now they’re faced with a decision leading into the Boxing Day test. Handscomb is struggling big time and while normally I’d back him for another chance (which is what I think the selectors will do), the problem is not really that he’s just not making many runs, it’s that his ugly technique means he’ll always be vulnerable. I’d go so far as to say I wouldn’t pick him for Australia until he changes his technique. Until then play someone else in his place – if an all-rounder than either Marsh or Stoinis, and I think Maxwell deserves another chance.

That can wait though. Let’s win this match first.

Rotting fish

Cricket Australia released its report into the culture of the Australian cricket team yesterday. It was scathing, not just of the culture within the team, but of the ethics and culture of cricket administration in general. It was welcome news.

What’s not so welcome is how CA have effectively siloed responsibility. We have three high profile cricketers banned from playing international or local domestic cricket for 12 months – a penalty that much exceeds what the statutes recommended. The penalties were widely accepted by an Australian public shocked and horrified by the events of South Africa, and in general, wearied by the petulant behaviour of the national team. I was one of those.

It’s no surprise to find that the actions of a few players on-field were in character with the general ethos of the administration in general. To be clear, I’m not suggesting CA condones cheating or abuse, but in the quest to be number one I doubt there was any clear distinction and much that was blurred. Certainly, there appeared much that was accepted, if only by omission.

The problem now is that while the players have been vilified and penalised much of the administration has got off scot free. True, the coach left of his own volition, and Pat Howard, the performance manager, is going also (as he should), but the higher echelons of CA are unscathed. This imbalance was highlighted by the fact that the chairman was reinstated (upon his insistence) before the report was sighted. If nothing else this is a perversion of due process, but very much aligns with the criticisms outlined in the report. It doesn’t inspire one with confidence.

If only for the optics, there should have been a root and branch review of positions, and I would have hoped that key figures would have accepted it was time for them to step aside, as James Sutherland did. Instead, we have a situation where the administration, by and large, survives – despite explicit criticism – while the penalised players carry the can. Now that’s un-Australian.

Everyone has an opinion on something like this. They talk about culture and so on, and yeah, that’s valid, but it comes down to leadership in my book. This situation would never have occurred had there been strong, just leadership. Unfortunately – as in many industries – CA has fallen into the habit in recent years of promoting people to roles they’re not fully capable of.

Let’s start with Steve Smith, a great batsman and, on the strength of that, made captain, as so often is the case, as if the ability to wield the willow automatically equates to superior leadership qualities. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. I’ve been saying this for years, Smith never had the innate authority required to do the role effectively. To be a leader you need to stand for something, you need to be strong in your principles and character, and you must compel those who follow. Smith lacked all of those qualities. It was unreasonable and unfair to put someone like that in that role, and we paid the consequences.

Then there was Boof Lehmann. Nice guy by all accounts, and probably a handy (but limited) coach. He’s also a bit of an old-fashioned yobbo very much out of step with the mores of society today. Smith allowed things to develop out of weakness, and Lehmann because he never took them seriously enough.

Then you’ve got the chairman, who took an adversarial approach in the pay negotiations last year, and who has a history in adversarial industrial relations when he was at Rio Tinto. It’s the wrong character set and wrong approach all down the line, and we see how it’s played out.

I think this report is good and some of the steps taken thus far are appropriate – Tim Paine, for example, epitomises the sort of leadership we should be aspiring to. That’s not enough though. Changes have been made within the test team, but at the top end, nothing has changed. I don’t think there are many who would disagree when I suggest that Peever should have stepped down, and still should. Until that happens there cannot be complete confidence in this board, or in the steps they take to rectify the sins of the past.

PS Peever resigned as Chairman a couple of days after I wrote this, as he should have from the start. The whole thing poorly managed. In a situation like this doing the right thing and being seen as doing the right thing are almost equally important. They got the optics wrong – more evidence, unfortunately, of how out of touch and arrogant they are. Hopefully the new chairman, whoever he is, will make a difference.

This week’s outrage

The big sporting news over the weekend was Serena William’s blow-up in the final of the US Open. As so often these days it has taken on a much greater and political significance than it merits.

The bare facts are these. Having lost the first set it is early in the second set when the chair umpire penalises Williams’ for ‘coaching’ – her coach had been spotted in the stands giving hand signals to her, which is disallowed. She protests vociferously but the penalty stands. She loses that game on serve and violently smashes her racquet and is penalised another point, as the rules dictate. It’s at this point she goes ballistic.

Williams starts to abuse the chair umpire, upset that she has essentially been branded a cheat, and invoking her colour and gender. She calls the chair umpire a cheat. It continues in ugly fashion and finally the umpire penalises her for abuse by calling the game on her. Williams’ calls in the referees, but to no avail.

The match goes on in front of a restive New York crowd who hoot and catcall and boo and in the end Williams loses to Naomi Osaka. The circus continues, robbing Osaka of what should have been a great moment in her life.

Afterwards Williams’ continues her spray in the press conference, once more suggesting that the actions by the chair umpire were both racist and sexist in nature. This theme is taken up by many thousands across the world outraged by what they believe to be the victimisation of Williams’. Social media is bitter with competing perspectives on the events. It’s all very 2018.

I had an immediate reaction to the news when I heard it, before it became political. I’m one of those people who dislike Serena Williams, and have done for a long time. I think she’s a graceless and insincere person who’s all smiles when things are going her way, but who turns into a hostile and aggressive person when it doesn’t. She may claim persecution but the fact is she has form. In past finals she has turned on umpires and linespeople when the game has gone against her, spouting vitriolic bile – and these have been female officials. My general feel is that her actions are those of a person of entitlement who becomes petulant when the game doesn’t go her way, and when her exalted status counts for nothing. Let’s not forget she is the most successful tennis player of all time, and has the riches to go with it, and playing a young, humble Japanese in her first final. She’s not the David here, she’s the Goliath, and her behaviour is a form of bullying.

Those are my observations, but let’s set them aside for the facts in this case.

Firstly, there’s no doubt coaching occurred – her coach admitted it. Whether Williams’ saw or acted on the coaching is irrelevant, as are her claims of lilywhite behaviour. Her coach is not going to wait until the final to begin coaching, so there’s little doubt that Williams’ has been a recipient of it in the past, contrary to her claims. So, there’s that, but should she have been penalised?

The letter of the law says that the penalty was justified. The issue with that is that coaching is commonplace and rarely called. The chair umpire, Carlos Ramos, is known to be one of the best umpires, as you would expect for a final, as well as being a stickler. I don’t think he can be blamed for what he did, but a warning might have been appropriate in the circumstances.

In regards to the broken racquet then that’s a clear code violation and penalty.

The remaining question is how he should have responded to Williams ranting and abuse. Personally I’m all for umpires taking a hard line. Like many people I’m sick and tired of the petulant antics of these professional sportspeople. By all means crack down on them.

That may be so, but was this fair? That’s where a great deal of the contention comes from, with many suggesting that men are allowed to get away with much more.

I’m thinking hard on this and its difficult because there are degrees of abuse. I can recall McEnroe being penalised repeatedly, and even having a match forfeited at one stage. Most of the leading men these days are very well behaved. The outliers perhaps are players like Kyrgios, who has been penalised occasionally, and who’s rants more generally tend to be against the world. I think Williams’ was unnecessarily personal in her abuse, but in any case I would totally support anyone – male or female – being penalised as she was when justified.

I certainly don’t believe it was either sexist or racist and the suggestion is offensive in general and, more particularly, to the chair umpire, who has no opportunity to defend himself. He is being effectively bullied by a powerful sportsperson and her legion of fans. It’s very unseemly.

To summarise, the chair umpire ruled to the letter of the law and shouldn’t be criticised for that. What makes it controversial (putting aside the political spin) is the inconsistent application of these laws.
This is not a view that will be popular with many. I don’t care, but I think any possible ambiguity can be removed going forward if the rules of the game are applied consistently and evenly.

  • Crack down on coaching. Penalise any who transgress.
  • There’s already a rule in place about racquet abuse. Stick to it.
  • And when it comes to abuse of any umpire go hard. It’s not to be tolerated. It might make a difference to the sport, and it sends a wider message to the community.

This is what the tennis authorities should do now. Come out in support of Ramos, and make it clear in future that no infraction of the rules will be tolerated.