On the Kiwis


I sat on my couch last night exchanging text messages with JV who sat on his couch a few kilometres away as we both watched the world cup semi-final and commented on every twist and development on the pitch. He tends to be more pessimistic than me – I always think there’s a way – but by the time I hit the sack at about midnight, I didn’t feel confident of the result.

It informed my sleep a little. The couple of times I woke up I looked at the clock, thinking, it’s happening right now, and it’s happened, and wondering how it happened. Eyes shut it got into my unconscious, affecting my sleep. I woke, hoping against hope, but it was without surprise that I checked the scores and found we’d been well flogged.

I’m disappointed, naturally, but we’ve had a good go of it. I can’t complain – though I can suggest.

Most of the tournament we’ve played well, but there have been holes in our performance. Maxwell under-achieved throughout and Stoinis hasn’t played a decent game of cricket all year. I had queries regarding the batting order, as most did. Then a couple of injuries before the semi-final had the potential to cut through that Gordian knot.

Khawaja was ruled out with a hamstring injury, which freed up Smith to bat at three. In retrospect we could have done with him yesterday, he was just the steadying influence we needed after being three down early. Wade was brought into the squad in place of him.

The other injury was to Stoinis, his second for the tournament. This seemed fortuitous to me. He had given the team nothing with either bat or ball, and at this stage, Mitch Marsh was surely a better option. But then Stoinis recovered, and Marsh didn’t make the squad.

Leading into the game, there was a lot of discussion about the make-up of the team. I wanted Wade in it. I’m not a big fan of him generally, but he’s been in explosive form for the last 6-7 months, including a couple of recent games for Australia A. He was the sort of player we were looking for.

I was willing to take a gamble and leave Stoinis out altogether and play Wade and either Handscombe or Coulter-Nile (as bowling all-rounder). I’d have retained Maxwell because he can win matches, but shuffled him down the order and given the ultra-impressive Carey a better go at it.

As it turned out, both Maxwell and Stoinis played. Carey and Maxwell effectively swapped places in the order, And instead of Wade, Handscombe was brought in to replace Khawaja. And we were 3-14 before Smith and Carey (temporarily) steadied the ship.

We were well beaten on the day and on the face of it no changes would’ve made much of a difference, though it becomes a new game with new players.

I like Langer and think he’s done great things for this squad. I admire his loyalty but fear it came at the cost of pragmatism. I think both Stoinis and Handscombe were selected against better judgement. Langer made reference to Handscombe ‘deserving’ his spot, and he stuck fat with Stoinis even though he’s been injury-riddled and ineffectual.

No complaints, though. It’s a great effort to get this far after the year Australian cricket has endured. We’ve rebounded and proved our resilience, once again. The Ashes are coming, and we have a chance for revenge against the Poms then.

As for the final, the Poms deserve it, but I’ll be barracking hard for the Kiwis, naturally.

Advertisements

A complete individual


With Wimbledon on, there’s been a lot of talk in Oz about Nick Kyrgios and Bernard Tomic, especially relative to the new darling of Australian tennis – and world number one – Ash Barty.

Like, everyone, I think Ash Barty is a breath of fresh air. She’s unpretentious and decent and upfront. She just gets the job done and with very little angst. In some ways, she’s an old fashioned Australian sporting type, and maybe even a throwback to previous eras in tennis when it was nowhere near as hyped as it is now, and the egos were much more reasonable. Now she’s hit number one she appears to have established a rich form line which may well carry her to the Wimbledon title, and beyond. The test will come against Serena Williams – just about her polar opposite – but I think she’s clever enough to win that.

Like just about everyone I deplore Bernard Tomic. I think he’s a disgraceful human being. Clearly, he has issues that lead him to behave as he does, but he has to be accountable for his actions. I can find no redeeming features. He’s lazy, arrogant, disrespectful and, worst of all doesn’t have a crack. He’s derisive of others and petulant to boot.

Last week he made the news by losing in the first round and being stripped of his prize money for basically tanking it. I think this penalty is the cumulative result of many tournaments and matches where his effort is cursory at best. I think it’s fair enough, but then if someone shot him out of a cannon, I’d think that was fair enough also. As you can probably tell, he’s held in general contempt. (I admit to some pity for him – he’s obviously playing up and there are reasons for it – but in the end, it’s up to him to be better).

Then there’s Kyrgios. The jury is much more mixed when it comes to him. There’s plenty who despise him. They see him as graceless and rude. They find his antics offensive. He’s also a wasted talent.

Then others think he’s great. For a start, he has in abundance that thing that Tomic lacks altogether – charisma and personal charm. He’s entertaining, even fun, and on top of that, a complete individual. He runs his own race and has no time for the conventional courtesies. He’s candid and straight-forward and, even if he is a wasted talent, completely free of pretension.

As you can tell probably from my commentary, I fall more so into the second camp. I find it a great pity that a man of such extreme talent – potentially the best in the world – so fritters it away. But then I acknowledge his point that it’s his life and his choice. He’s upfront with his shortcomings, that he hasn’t the concentration or dedication to achieve much more than what he does now – which amounts, generally, to several highly entertaining cameos and the occasional disappointing walkover.

He gets away with a lot because he is so utterly charming (though not everyone sees that). And because he is great to watch when on song. And because he’s so honest and transparent. Underneath I think he’s a genuinely nice guy who isn’t made for the circuit, and he’s definitely someone I’d like to share a beer with (my measuring stick). He has none of the contemptuous and cynical ill-grace of Tomic, and his sheer individuality is refreshing.

As an Aussie I wish he was winning one grand slam after another, but would he be as interesting an individual if he did? Ultimately it’s his right to deploy his talent as he chooses. We assume goals and a career on his behalf. That’s how we see things and have become conditioned to expect. He’s rejected that. I think he’s a pure soul, and while occasionally I may shake my head at his antics, I can’t help but like him. And I respect his right to choose his own road. He’s an individual, and for that, he should be applauded.

The stalking wolf


One of the big matches in the CWC last night, Australia taking on the home team, England.

I haven’t been wholly convinced by Australia going into the match last night, but there was also a sense of building into the tournament. By comparison, England had been flashy in their victories and disappointing in their losses. I was pretty confident that Australia would win.

A lot of that confidence was due to the nature of the tournament. I’d expressed doubt before it began that the pressure might get to England. The home team in front of a rabid crowd going into it as the hot favourites – what could go wrong? It was unfamiliar territory for a team that has underperformed for 25 years. Tournament play is different too. It takes a different mindset, and the pressure builds as you go along. This is what Australia has always excelled at.

On top of all that, there’s no team in the world the English want to beat more than Australia. We’re sort of the same, except I don’t think it’s as heartfelt here. We’ve almost always come out on top. The resentment of being perpetually inferior had never developed on our side. We expect to win, mostly, and it hurts when we don’t – but there’s the feeling that it won’t be long until we do again. It’s an interruption to the service, rather than normal service. Now that England finally has a team worth bragging about they want nothing more than avenging all those years of losing to us, but there’s something frantic about it, and it comes with pressure all of its own. As we’ve seen with South Africa, you can want it too much.

So last night on a tricky wicket Australia batted first and had a great start before stumbling late, but still posting a decent score. We were probably 50 runs shy of what we looked like we might get, but it was still a par score, if not a little better.

My frustrations with the team earlier in the tournament were evident again last night, with the middle order getting in each other’s way. I think the batting order is a big part of the problem. I have no problem with Khawaja coming in first drop in the first 15 overs, but if it’s later it should be Smith.

Then I’d probably put Stoinis in. He’s a matchwinner on his day but needs time to build into his innings. Right now he’s coming in and having to slog from the first ball, which is not his go. We’re not playing to our strengths, but there is sufficient talent and experience and leadership to get over the line.

That was a big thing last night. Half this team have played and won CWC finals. They know how it works, they’re familiar with the pressure, and they have trust in themselves and each other. And Finch is a great captain. There’s probably no calmer team in this comp than the Aussies, and that’s why.

In the end, they won easily. Starc was as his devastating best, and Behrendorrf played a big cameo. I don’t think Cummins has hit his straps all tournament, but he’s still a very handy cricketer.

Australia has now locked up a spot in the semis. England has lost two on the trot and have two tough games to come. It’ll be a real test of their resilience, and they could easily miss out altogether.

Long way to go. No chickens yet. But the world will be afraid. The big, bad wolf is back.

Famous last words…


I’ve been meaning to write about the cricket world cup for a while, and as it’s now started better get onto it before it gets away from me.

Let me put it up front. I think Australia will play New Zealand in one semi-final, and England will take on India in the other. Would expect Australia to win and probably England, then Australia in a canter in the final, much like 1999.

England have been the hot favourites for ages. They’re playing at home and are the best performed team over the last couple of years. I have queries on them on a number of levels.

Firstly, I wonder if they have a plan B. Their A plan is mighty, but it won’t go all their way this tornament and you need to scrap sometimes and find ways to win ugly. I also wonder if their attack is penetrating enough. Then there’s the mind side of it. Seems to me in England their side is either the best in the world or the worst, and that goes for all sports. They’re either as cocky as hell or disdainful. Right now, and for a while now, they’re as cocky as hell. I wonder if a few results going against them might affect their mentality. That’s where the tournament play of a world cup makes a difference, and where Australia has always excelled.

It’s basically matchplay and it sorts out the men from the boys. You need to have continuity and professionalism and a hard-edged belief. Even in 1999, when Australia struggled early, they didn’t waver and after a couple of immense results against South Africa had a walkover in the final against Pakistan. Every other winning campain (and there’ve been five in all) there’ve been steely eyed to the point you never thought they could lose.

England talks themselves up like that, but I don’t see it in them yet. That belief comes from getting it done in all conditions against all opponents. It’s that lack of belief that has undone an otherwise excellent South African team several times. It’s the sort of belief that England has never come close to attaining, but will have earned it if they walk away with the cup this time.

I think they’re good enough to make the final, though it won’t be as easy as they think.

I’ve put a line through South Africa – likewise, lacking penetration without Steyn and x-factor with de Villiers. Pakistan are mercurial, as always, and may fluke it, but don’t think so. I put the Windies in the same category. Sri Lanka aren’t nearly good enough, and while Bangladesh and Afghanistan are willing – and capable of pulling off an upset or two – they don’t have the depth of talent.

That leaves New Zealand, India and Oz.

I’ve nominated the Kiwis because they generally show up and, like Australia, are good tournament players. They’re even across the park and when it all clicks can be very dangerous. They’ll win the games they should and might sneak another game. Good enough to make the semis, not good enough to go further.

India are an easy pick because they’re jammed with talent and have the best ODI batsman and bowler in the world playing for them. They should make the finals easy, but I’ve got question marks over their temperament when it gets to the pointy end. They’ll overcome that at some point, just don’t think it’ll be this time.

That leaves Australia. As an Australian I could be accused of being bias but, given our record, it’s hard not be bullish. We’ve won this five times before. We have belief ingrained into us. Come the cracking whips no team has been steadier – in fact, no team has lifted more when its had to. On top of all that I think this squad may have a point to prove.

With Smith and Warner returning it’s as good as any squad out there. If I have any question marks it’s not over the quality, but the composition of the batting line-up. Are Smith, Marsh, Khawaja too similar a player? Do we need a big hitter between them? I’d be tempted to shuffle the batting order a little, but that’s dependent on Stoinis finding some good batting form. Nonetheless, Warner, Finch, Smith and Maxwell are among the best ODI batsmen in the world.

They’ll hold the game for us and make it competitive, but it’s the bowlers who’ll potentially win it. I think the Australian bowling attack is clearly the best in the comp. It’s a cutting edge all the way through and that’s what you need. It defines Australian philosophy too, different to most of our rivals. They set out to beat the opposition, not outlast them.

England may have the best record over the last couple of years, but no team has a better recent record than Australia. Counting the warm-up matches they’ve won ten in a row – including India, three times; Pakistan, five times; and England, once.

That’s ominous form and the world knows it. My only reservations are if the bowling attack goes off or gets injured, and if the team has been together long enough to make it happen. Still, my money’s on Australia.

The Aussies are coming


I have a friend, an Australian cricket fan, who’s become so depressed about the state of the game here that he won’t read anything I write about it. I’m ever more optimistic, but I understand. We’ve been spoilt for a long time and the recent ruin and disgrace is hard to stomach. Man, I’m telling you, it has to turn though, and maybe it’s starting, and maybe enough that my friend feels positive enough to read this.

Australia has been in the doldrums for the last year, most of it self-inflicted. Used to winning more often than not in recent times the losing has been more common, and there’s been some ugly stuff in there. Every now and then there’s a patch of promising form and little green shoots of improvement and you think, hang on a sec, but generally there’s not been too much to get excited about. The rest of the cricket world has been pretty much in accord. The demise of Australia is the cause for much schadenfreude across the cricket playing community. They’ve been quick and very keen to write us off as a serious contender for the World Cup in a couple of months’ time but, sort of, fair enough. I don’t mind being hated. I sort of like it in a way. But then there’s been justified writing us off – until now.

Australia’s just finished playing India over there. Back in Oz in summer they beat us 2-1 in the one day tournament. Playing them on their home patch they went into the series slightly strengthened and, on paper, ours slightly weakened. They were strong favourites across the board, but in the T20 series we unexpectedly beat them 2-0. Normal service returned in the one day series that followed after we lost the first two games. I was watching the games here. I hoped for a win, but mostly I wanted brave performances. I’d cop that. But then we lifted from what had been a narrow loss to post a succession of right from the top drawer – most notably chasing down 359 with a couple of overs to spare to level the series 2-2. The decider was overnight yesterday and, you guessed it, Australia won it. From being 0-2 down we came back to take the series 3-2 against one of the best teams in the world playing at home.

No point getting hyperbolic, but what we saw in this series was a return to the clinical performance we were renowned for. The team has bonded through the dark times and begun to click as a unit. They’re playing with great spirit. When it’s got tough they’ve doubled down throughout, in the same way as the Australian teams of the past – the teams that have won five World Cups in 30 years.

A few months ago I boasted to an Indian at work – getting cocky with his team’s success – that Australia would knock-out India in the semi-final of the world cup. I’m always bullish about Australian prospects – they’ve always found a way – but some of this was bravado. You believe it in a way though, you don’t rule it out no matter how hard others disbelieve, and their opposition only serves to stiffen your resolve. I’m not playing, but my proxies will be. Making the statement I did was a way of defending territory, but it’s also the sort of arrogance that supporters of other teams have grown to hate about Australia. Come the world cup and if I’m wrong I’ll shrug my shoulders and cop it sweet, fair play. You’ve got to believe it first though and it’s that historical belief that leads you to make such statements in the first place, and the sort of belief that becomes self-fulfilling. You’ve got to be bold enough to believe though, to challenge it by putting it out there, and through the years I reckon that’s given us a big edge.

I don’t want to get to far ahead of myself. We go to the UAE to play Pakistan now and could be whitewashed there. Regardless, we’re now a serious contender for the world cup, and doubly so when you consider that Warner, Smith and Starc need to be squeezed into a team already good enough to beat the best in the world. That’s the message to the world: be afraid.

I’ll cack myself if we get up to win after being pronounced so profoundly and gleefully dead by the pundits. Hope my mate does too. And if we don’t you know where to find me.

Looking towards the Ashes


I’ve got a friend who’s a cricket fan, but who’s so depressed with the condition of Australian cricket over the last 12 months that he won’t read a word of what I write about it. I know plenty of others like that, disillusioned and disappointed by the events last year that they still can’t come at the Australian team.
I had a twitter conversation with one of these people recently, a political journalist in Canberra. I understood his perspective completely, I told him, but couldn’t he find a way to support a revamped, and hopefully reformed, Australian team? I urged upon him Tim Paine, a paragon of fair minded and mature leadership and he agreed with me, finally conceding that he would come around to it – just not yet.

No-one was more disappointed than me with what happened in Capetown. I know that’s a cliché, but fair dinkum, the outrage was raw and spontaneous, just as it was for thousands of others. This is something others struggle to understand, and perhaps that’s fair, perhaps there’s some wilful hypocrisy in such belief – but from day dot I was brought to believe there would be no more fearsome competitor than an Australian, but that at end of the day it would remain true to that great Australian dictum ‘hard but fair’. That meant, among other things, that after going at it hammer and tongs on the field all day it was all good to catch up for a social beer after it.

In retrospect I figure those golden days were long gone, and it was all a bit of a fondly held fantasy – though I still believe in the basic principle. While it always made eminent sense to us, to many of our opponents, coming from entirely different cultures, I suspect it was all a confounding nonsense. It was one of those tropes we innocent Australian supporters held dearly to, so that when we were shown to have transgressed it came as a shock to our mentality. That’s why the reaction was so extreme, why the penalties were stiff – they not only betrayed the sport, they betrayed our dearly held notions of Australian self.

I was one of those ready to move on once the penalties were handed down. In fact, I’m happy at the concept of rehabilitation, of – to abuse another famous Aussie dictum – giving the transgressors a ‘fair go’. I wrote in the heat of battle last year that Smith should never play for Australia again. That’s too harsh I think. He has his penalty, once completed he’s welcome to return to the team – though never as captain. I think he was a poor leader regardless of this controversy, but I think this episode should bar him from future leadership. That’s where the line should be drawn.

Now the banned players are poised to become available again, just in time for the World Cup and Ashes tour of England. Smith and Warner should almost be automatic selections, and even Bancroft, given performance. Should be a chance. There’s no doubt in my ever combative Australian mind that we can win both competitions, and that’s what I want.

The availability of these players raises selection questions. Australia finished the summer on a high having easily disposed of a weak Sri Lankan team.

There were some outstanding performances in those tests. Cummins continued his rise superstardom. Head, promising all summer, finally cracked it for his maiden test century. Likewise Khawaja, disappointing much of the summer, got a hundred in what was a virtual dead innings. And Starc finally returned to form with devastating effect.

What was encouraging though was the performance of newcomers. The Australian selectors finally bowed to public pressure and reinstated Burns to the team, and he promptly got a hundred. An injury to Hazlewood gave a fortuitous opportunity to Jhye Richardson, who performed very well. He’s a clever bowler who aims at the stumps and can swing the ball at pace – he’ll be perfect in English conditions. And Kurtis Patterson finally got his chance, and promptly scored a hundred too.

I’ve been a rap for Patterson for a while. I think he’s just the player we need to balance out our line-up. He’s got good technique and a good head on his shoulders. He’s patient too, something we’ve lacked. My only disappointment was that Will Pucovski, perhaps the next great Australian batsman, was denied his chance.

Much can happen before we head off to England, and there’s still a few rounds of Shield cricket to have a bearing on selection – things can change – but here’s my squad:

Warner

Burns

Khawaja

Smith

Head

Patterson

Paine

Cummins

Starc/Richardson

Hazlewood

Lyon

Stoinis

Pucovski

Handscomb/Wade

Worrall/Pattinson

Labuschagne

Harris

There’s a couple too many players there. I think one of Starc and Richardson will be selected in the starting eleven according to conditions and form. I suspect Pucovski won’t be picked. I’ve got one either of Handscombe or Wade will be picked as back-up batting/wicket-keeping. One either of Worrall or Pattinson – Worrall can swing the ball big time, and we know what Pattinson can do if fit. His Shield form will be telling. Tremain is stiff. Labuschagne because he’s an incumbent, and because he’s the only other spinner besides Lyon. And Harris as back-up opener, making way for Warner.

Maxwell might be an option, except the selectors have put a line through him. Will be interested in the final squad selected. It’s a pretty good first eleven though. England beware!

The world cup squad


There’ve been a couple of tight, competitive ODI’s with India since the test series ended. Australia won the first, India the second, and the decider is tomorrow in Melbourne.

With the World Cup in England later this year everything is geared towards this – not just finding form, but putting together a team for the comp. That’s especially true of Australia, whose ODI form has been generally hopeless lately, and who will have Warner and Smith available again come tournament start.

That was the background when this ODI squad was announced, and there were a few surprises. For a start, none of the frontline test bowlers were picked. The reasoning behind that was to rest them, and fair enough, and also to blood some alternatives to see how they measure up. Then, some of the notable limited over batsmen were left out of the squad – Lynn, Short and McDermott particularly. Handscomb was a surprise inclusion, and Khawaja finally got another go.

In both matches we’ve batted first. In the Sydney game I thought we lacked urgency with the bat but posted a respectable score. In the second match we were heading towards a ver good score until a late order collapse left us probably 25 runs shy of what was likely.

I was sure India would easily surmount our score in Sydney, but some excellent bowling had them 3-4 at one point, and they never fully recovered. In the second match excellent partnerships and a century by Kohli saw them get up in the last over.

I’ve always got an opinion about cricket, and my first impressions were that we were too conservative. I was disappointed that Maxwell was coming in so late, but I was pleased with our application. On reflection my opinion is unchanged, but my perspective is. I understand that we are trying to build a template, a platform going forward. Get the architecture right and once it’s in place we can push it more, particularly with the players returning.

By my reckoning, with Warner returning and Finch back in form (I have doubts about his long term tenure, however) I reckon there’s an extra 15-20 runs in the initial powerplay to be had. I reckon there’s another 20 runs through the middle overs, and another 20-30 in the last 10 overs. That makes for an imposing total – assuming, of course, we keep our wickets. No-one said it would be easy, but limited overs cricket is inherently full of risk. It’s the game.

There’s still a match to go, but in my mind at least a shape is forming.

Warner and Smith are walk-up starts, probably for Khawaja and Handscomb in the first XI. We should adopt a floating batting order which changes depending on the situation of the game. In this series Maxwell has come in too late, regardless of what Langer says. He’s one of the best ODI players in the world, let’s capitalise. Stoinis can be a bruising batsman also, but he needs time to get in. In both cases I think they should’ve been batting ahead of Handscomb. In the WC teamI see Carey dropping back to the middle-order (from opening), which I think is a bonus. He’s a very capable and clever batsman and I see him – particularly in run chases – as being a critical cool head in the later overs, much like Michael Bevan was. In fact I see Carey as a future Australian captain.

Bowling is more interesting. I think we’ve lacked the variety previously, but now have the options. Richardson and Behrendorf have been impressive, and should be in the squad – not so sure about Siddle. Starc, who I’ve been critical of through the test matches, is possibly the best ODI bowler in the world. He’s the x-factor who can devastate opposition batting line-ups. I’d partner him with Cummins, who is just a winner, with the heart of Phar Lap. Both are pretty handy with the bat, too. Hazlewood is the one who misses out – he has his moments, but he’s neither really one thing or another. Stanlake is the other unknown.

For me the spinning option is clear-cut. Lyon has played the first couple of games and fair enough. He’s one of the best test spinners in the world, why not give him another go? The problem is he never really looks like getting a wicket, and doesn’t. He’s tidy, but unthreatening. And he’s an offie. Maxwell bowls clever off-spin, and leggies are all the go in limited overs cricket these days – and Zampa has the score on the board. Lyon out, Zampa in.

I’d be adding Darcy Short and Ben McDermott to the squad also. Both are explosive batsmen, and I think Short, particularly, will replace Finch some time in the near future. Lynn probably misses out because of his dodgy shoulders, which means he can’t dive and barely throw and isn’t up to it in the field.

The other thing I want to see is more urgency. Have been impressed with the attitude so far, no I want some of that fear factor back. Everyone has written us off, but I have confidence still, if only because we’ve done it so many times before.

Today, I expect Zampa to come in for Lyon and Stanlake to come in for either Behrendorf or Siddle.