Clark Kent to Superman


Coming into this Ashes series I was more optimistic than a lot of people. I generally am. There seemed genuine cause for that, though not everyone agreed. There had been very promising signs in England through our winter, though we still lost 3-0 – a scoreline that flattered England. With the return bout in Oz I knew the cionditions would suit us – it’s tough going for visiting teams playing on Australian pitches and in the Australian summer. On top of that ‘Boof’ promised a return to Australian values – attacking cricket with bat and ball, a strong competitive edge and in your face agression. Perhaps I looked at things through rose coloured glasses, but I tipped a 2-1 series win to Australia, and the return of the Ashes.

Here I sit though, surprised at how it has turned out. The Perth test has just concluded and Australia have the Ashes back here where they belong. We lead the series 3-0, and on track for a 5-0 whitewash.

It feels like a return to the good old days. This is how cricket has been pretty well for a lot of my life – Australia on top and playing ruthless, bruising, often exhilarating cricket that leaves opponents bewildered and intimidated. England haven’t had a sniff. They’ve been walloped in every match.

There have been some outstanding contributors, none more so than Mitch Johnson, who has become a phenomena. He’s copped a lot of flak over the years, but he’s always been one of my favourite players – because on song he is so fucking good. For a long time he has the potential to be the best player in the world with his exhilarating combination of gifts – sheer, violent, unpredictable pace, and a natural ability with the bat. Right now he is the best player in the world, and already in this series carved out a big place in Ashes history. His spell in Adelaide last week was just about the most thrilling piece of bowling I can recall for many years. Right now he is the spearhead of a great bowling attack.

Clarke has been great, but we expect that – he is the best batsman in the world. Haddin has experienced an Indian summer though, and David Warner rebound from the dramas and controversies of early in the year to be the best batsman of the series – dominant and rampant. There have been no dud performers.

It’s a nice feeling this. Not just winning, but to win like this. We lost our way for a while, and one reason for that is that we weren’t true to our nature. We attempted to play scientific cricket, casting aside our innate attitude. We become just like any other team though when we do that, which seems foolish. Our success over time has been in playing to our strengths – to attack, to follow our instinct, to be true to that competitive edge bred into us from childhood. We tried to be Clark Kent when we’ve generally played like Superman.

Silence is golden


The first Ashes test starts this morning, always a big occasion. I’ve been reasonably bullish about our chances this summer, up to a week ago anyway.

What has dampened my hopes is the pre-match chatter. I’m very much old school. I have no problem with on-field sledging and chatter, but that’s where it belongs. That’s not a moral position. I just happen to think that mouthing off ahead of the contest is a sign of weakness. I think it’s traditionally un-Australian too. The great Australian teams never did this. On field it’s on for young and old. Off the ground there was a steely resolve, an indifference, even disdain for the trash-talk and braggadocio our opponents might indulge in. For me that’s a lot more impressive, and probably more intimidating.

I’m Gen X. I’m old school. This is how we are. This mouthy pre-game sparr-ing just comes across as feeble and insecure, like geeing yourself up before the big contest trying to convince yourself that your words are true.

Forget it guys. Play the game. Do your talking with the bat – I’m talking to you Davy Warner. Let the softcocks mouth-off, and reveal their frailties.

Unfortunately I’m less confident now because of this talk. I should accept it as Gen Y just being annoying again, but it just strikes me as the talk of a team who doesn’t quite believe in itself. Very un-Australian.

Good grief, what next?


It’s hard to fathom, but Australia’s tour of India has gone from pretty bad to undeniably worse in the space of 24 dramatic hours. From here it seems pretty farcical, a view that appears to be common no matter where on the globe you sit.

To go back a little first. Before the 2nd test started I made some suggestions knowing they were never likely to be adopted, and they weren’t. Changes were made for the 2nd test, including one I suggested – including Maxwell (for want of a better option), but the shock was the dropping of Lyon. I’m no big fan of Lyon, but I think he’s a better bowler who replaced him – Doherty – and deserved at least another go. In any case a resounding loss resulted, with only the extent of it being a surprise. In the fall0-out it was widely mooted that Hughes, a hapless failure once again, would be dropped for Khawaja. Clarke also came out to say he would bat further up the order. Both of these were in my post of the other week.

Then everything went from being pear shaped to inordinately pear shaped last night. Watching TV I saw a news bulletin stating that four Australian cricketers had been suspended from selection in the 3rd test for disciplinary reasons. Big news, and clearly, you think immediately, they’ve been bad boys. Broken curfew and been out on the turps? Got involved in some argy-bargy? Broken team rules?

This was a disaster for the 3rd test team, leaving only 13 players to choose from, robbing it of its second best batsman after Clarke, the best performed bowler of this series, as well as the replacement for Hughes. No matter what, the team is going to be cobbled together and well below full strength. Bloody unfortunate, but sometimes you have to make these hard decisions. Discipline is a cornerstone of success, and if you fail to maintain standards everything else follows. Hard but fair.

That’s what I thought initially. And then the full extent of the story broke. Seems the four players were suspended for not handing their homework in on time. They had been asked to prepare and submit a short report to team management, and had failed to by the scheduled deadline. It’s disappointing, no doubt, but on the misbehaviour scale very much on the low end. They should punished yes, but for the misdemeanor that it is rather than the capital crime its been made out to be. I would have thought a fine and a group apology would suffice.

It seems clear now that this is a situation leaped upon by team management. They saw the opportunity to set an example, to show resolve and send a message to the players. It’s intended, clearly, to jolt the team into another state of thinking. India, in effect, is being sacrificed in order to get things right by the Ashes tour midyear.

Again, I’m not against such demonstrations in theory. Sometimes they’re needed, and I’ve seen them work. The fatal flaw in this situation is that the punishment must meet the crime. The players at whom it is addressed must see it as fair, even if harsh. I don’t see how this situation meets that criteria. In my eyes, and in the eyes of many, this is over the top. If the remaining players feel the same way it will breed resentment and disharmony; it will achieve the very opposite of what is intended. I don’t know what’s in their minds, but we have a clue.

To fully complete this farce Shane Watson, vice captain of the team, and one of the players suspended, flew out of India to be by his pregnant wife’s side. This was not on the schedule until he was suspended, and he’s clearly ropeable at the situation, and said to be considering his future.

Australian cricket is going through a harsh transitional phase right now. Over summer Ponting and Hussey called it quits – one of the best batsmen ever, and another of superior quality. On top of that injuries have cruelled the prospects for a settled test team, as well as some quirky selection decisions. Now this.

I’m wondering how the dust will settle on this. It’s not a good look. At best it’s a misjudgement, at worst, sheer stupidity – very un-Australian. The Aussie skipper has come out in support of these decisions, citing what it means to play for Australia. I agree with all of his sentiment, and that the baggy green should be seen as something sacrosanct. In this case I just don’t believe the actions merited this punishment, unless there is more we don’t know. I’d rather err on the side of being tough, but not to the point of injustice.

What will happen? The team will close ranks. Management will explain the decision away. Perhaps the team will be galvanised by the embarassment, but more likely will lose in Mohali. And Watson may or may not return for the 4th test – or we may never see him again.

http://www.theage.com.au/sport/cricket/mickey-we-dont-do-this-kind-of-nonsense-here-20130312-2fxk7.html

Ins and outs


The second test against India is shortly to start in Hyderabad. The first test in Chennai was a comfortable win to the home team. All 20 Australian wickets were taken by Indian spinners on a dusty red pitch that was likened more to Roland Garros than what we expect of a cricket wicket. The Indians have come under some criticism for the blatant doctoring of pitches to suit their side, but who really expects anything else? Until there are safeguards preventing it then it’s just the way it is, and get on with it.

The Australian selectors were criticised also for the make-up of the first test team. It’s always easy in hindsight, but perhaps a thorough examination of the Chennai pitch might have made it clear that pacemen would struggle. And so it proved. Still, the selectors problems start with the squad picked.

The word is that the Hyderabad pitch will be more sporting, and the rumour is that Australia will go in with an unchanged side. That doesn’t surprise me altogether – selectors are innately conservative, and loathe to admit they got it wrong – but would disappoint me.

I’d have had Maxwell in the first test team on the strength of his spin bowling, but that would have been in place of Henriques, whio had an outstanding debut and was one of the few to do himself credit. I’d still be inclined to play Maxwell in this match, but in place od Starc, who was a big disappointment (though still a major talent). Siddle was pretty ordinary too, but you get the feeling that Siddle is a favourite who will have to do a lot wrong to be dropped. I’m an admirer too, and for the same reasons – he’s got a massive heart. On skill though he’s behind the leading pack, and I expect will be on the outer edges of the team within 18 months as Pattinson, Starc, Bird, Cummins and Hazlewood fully emerge.

Back to this game. I’d have Maxwell in ahead of Starc, but if they’re determined to go the three pacemen then I’d elevate Johnson for Starc. Johnson has experience of Indian conditions and taken good wickets. Plus he can bowl all day – and is capable of the mercurial, with either bat or ball.

There’s talk of Doherty coming into the team, but I don’t even understand why he’s in the squad, He’s a canny and competitive limited overs player, but that’s his limit. He’s well behind Lyon, and Lyon is no more than mediocre. I don’t see the point of picking a player just because he can spin the ball unless he does it well. Lyon went the journey, so will Doherty if picked. The mistake the selectors made was in not including Beer in the squad. I know he was injured, but he’s just about right now, but with his height, his accuracy, his temperament, and his style of bowling he’d be ideal for Indian conditions. Instead they picked Doherty and, outrageously, Steve Smith. If they’re serious about winning they ought to get Beer on a plane now.

I expect the batting line-up to be unchanged, though I have serious doubts about it both short and long term. It’s clear that Watson should open, and given that Cowan is a battler there’s a spot to be had. I have to admit I can’t take to Cowan as a person, no matter how intelligent or well spoken. I think he’s a prig. As a cricketer he has clear limits. He’s a plodder of a batsman, which is fine if you have the superior technique of a Lawry or a Boycott, but he hasn’t. I don’t think he’s a long term proposition, and he doesn’t have to be with watson in the wings. Warner picks himself.

I support Hughes getting another go, and clearly he does have talent. I really doubt he has the goods against quality spin bowling in India, however. He’ll be retained, but I don’t see him making a lot of runs.

Clarke should be batting next at 4. He’s the best batsman in the team, and probably in the world, but he comes in too late. In my world with Cowan out I’d be batting Khawaja at 5. He’s got great technique, and great potential. I think he might be coming into his own in the next few years, and I think his technique would hold up a lot better than others in the team.

I’d have Maxwell in next (in place of a quickie). Great fieldsman, mercurial batsman, and a handy bowler on the improve. He bolsters our batting and gives us another spin option. Long term I think he has the capability to be a regular player, my only query on him is the dodgy judgement and mind explosions he’s prone to batting. On his day though, a big match-winner.

Henriques is in then, a more than handy batsman, and a handy bowler good at reverse swing. He’s the third pace option. You could swap him with Maxwell in the order.

The wicket-keeper is Wade, a player I don’t rate even if he is a Victorian. He’s an average keeper prone to bad mistakes. He can be a devastating batsman, but can be all at sea also, particularly against spin. I think he’s got away with a lot thus far, but will be found over time and against better teams.

If I’m agin Wade I’m very much an advocate for Tim Paine. He’s probably the best pure wicket-keeper in the country, and much more nuanced as a batsman than Wade. He can hit a hard ball, but equally he can shut up shop when the situation demands it. He has technique, great temperament, and a good cricket brain. And he’s done it before for Australia until injury intervened. I think, given the opportunity, he’s an Australian captain in the making

I dream – he’s not in the squad either, though with reports that Wade is injured he might be a light replacement (though tend to think the selectors will go for Haddin).

I could be completely off kilter, but that’s my take on things. For the record, if there is a change, I think they’ll bring in Doherty for Starc. Which will do little for our chances I think, but what do I know? I’m just one of the thousands of Aussies who have an opinion on the team, a national pastime.

India: done and dusted


Sachin Tendulkar and an Indian teammate suppor...

Image via Wikipedia

I’ve just watched Australia wrap up the test series against India 4-0. There have been some great Australian teams over the last 20 years, but this isn’t one of them (though hindsight may prove otherwise). It’s hard though to think of a more comprehensive series win by Australia. It’s not just that it’s been a whitewash, but that every match has eventuated in a crushing win to Australia. India haven’t got close. I nearest I can think of is the 5-0 drubbing of England in 2006-07, but that was with a team chock full of legends and probably not quite as one-sided.

It’s hard to judge precisely the full worth of this victory. India have been very disappointing. Coming into the series I had doubts that India had the attack to dominate Australia, but I was sure that their batting would make an impact. That hasn’t eventuated. Their bowling has outshone their batting, but even so gave up scores in excess of 600 twice, and were patchy throughout. Their batting has some all time greats of Indian cricket, and world batting. Out of Sehwag, Dravid, Tendulkar and Laxman you would have thought at least would make a test century this series, and more likely a few. In fact the only century scored by India was by a rookie, and all their champions struggled, and some very badly.

There’s no doubt Australia played very well. The bowling was a revelation, tight, skilled and aggressive. Fielding throughout was top-notch, as you expect from Australian teams. While there were a few weak spots the Australian batting was highlighted by some imperious innings, two by Clarke, one each by Ponting and Warner, as well as some great supporting roles. With Watson coming back into the team that will only get better. Australia may not be the best team in the world right now (though it is in the best form), but I’m confident it will be inside 2 years.

As for India? They made mistakes across the board I feel. You have to question their selection policies to begin with. Too much is expected of their champions, now in their mid to late thirties. The poor performances we’ve seen in this series are partly form, but more likely evidence of terminal decline. India should have transitioned younger players into the team like they have Kohli, instead have burdened themselves with players with great records but indifferent form. To lose them all now with leave a gaping hole, but they must act soon.

I suspect we’ve seen the last of Dravid. He’s one of my favourite international players, a courtly, old-fashioned gentleman who was also a bloody good cricketer. Serious questions about (Very, Very Special) Laxman too. A great batsman to watch on his day, and a thorn in the side of past Australian teams, he seems to have slowed up. If I was the Indian selection panel I’d be calling time on them.

Sehwag is safe for a while yet, though his recent record suggests he is struggling at test level. Then there’s Tendulkar. He’s much revered, and not just in India, but I don’t view him through the same rose coloured glasses as most. He’s bee a great batsman and showed the best form of this group. Still there are signs of decline I think, not so much in technique – he’s still a great defensive batsman – but of body. I wonder if he has it in him to sustain form over a series. He’s good for a while yet should he want to continue, but the end is nigh. Incidentally, I think it’s bollocks those people claiming we wanted to see Tendulkar crack his hundredth ton. Not me. I want him out, and if it’s a golden duck all the better.

The Indians erred through the series too. I wonder if they played the wrong spinner throughout. Ojha being a leggie would have been much more dangerous than Ashwin. And I thought that when the situation demanded more aggression they failed to step up. Come Perth they should have dropped a batsman and played an extra bowler if they were serious about getting back on level terms. Tactics on the field have been pretty dubious too.

That’s it anyway. Australia is not back to its best, but getting there. That’s one of the things I’ve liked most this summer. Throughout the series Aussie crowds have supported their resurgent team. There are no people on earth who have higher expectations of their cricket team than Australians, and it’s rare that we’re disappointed. It’s been a topsy turvy 2 years, and with some dire lows, but unlike many places we haven’t turned on our own. We’ve supported the hard work and the commitment, knowing that was the only way back and with faith that we would not be let down. The crowds this year showed their appreciation knowing their hopes have been vindicated, and good dividends returned sooner than we might have thought.

Memories of the baggy green


Melbourne Cricket Ground, 1 January 1864

Image via Wikipedia

One of the gifts I received yesterday was a book I had left heavy hints about, Australia: Story of a Cricket Country. This morning in bed I began to read it.

It is a large format book with pages of absolutely gorgeous, and occasionally iconic, photos: Kim Hughes wielding his bat one handed as if one the Three Musketeers with a rapier in hand, Dennis Lillee in full flight, Victor Trumper striding down the pitch, pictures from the Sydney hill, and so on. It would be easy to classify it as a coffee table book but for the quality of the writing inside.

It’s essentially a book of essays collected around different themes and by and large with an Australian slant. The writers are a diverse lot, cricket journalists, commentators and ex-cricketers predictably, but also historians and novelists, passionate followers of the game from all walks of life, a couple of ex band members, social commentators and the like – reflective of the wide and deeply grained love of cricket in this country. The essays range from the historical and fact driven to the swoopingly nostalgic. Inga Clendinnen, for example, writes a lovely piece on her memories watching her brother play local cricket in the years after the war. Though it’s an era far removed from mine there was much in it I absolutely knew such is the pervasive cricketness of Australian cricket. It was a beautifully written piece of intelligent Australiana that brought to order so many of my own parallel memories.

Is cricket Australia’s central sport? It probably is, though AFL is giving it a run for its money. Cricket all the same is the sport most sporting Australians identify with at a national level: it is our cricket team, and we ride on its coat-tails. A book like this would not be as resonant if it were not for the rich history of Australian cricket, as distinct from cricket elsewhere. At the top end there is the proud record as the winningest team in the caper. Most of us keen cricket watchers feel that is our birthright, and passionately uphold the notion that it is only ever a matter of time when we’re not. On top of that it’s a sport that has a rich iconography. In Australia we’re fortunate to have spawned some great characters as well as cricketers: Warne, Lillee, Miller, Bradman, Spofforth, and so on. Then there is the grass roots appeal and presence, never o0verlooked in this book.

Growing up we played cricket every summer in our street. We were protestants wedged between two catholic families, one of whom had about 15 kids. We never had any shortage of players, and hard fought contests. The teams were generally led by myself and my best mate from next door, Peter Woody as he was called, six and half feet tall by the time he was 15. More often than not we played in the backyard of my house, though often enough we would also play on the nature strip in the street. These were pretty full on contests that went one way then the other. Each of us skippers were the pre-eminent batsmen and bowler on our team. Often with a bin acting as our wicket and kids huddled all around the bat the bowler would storm in in emulation of Lillee, or else stroll up to bowl slow balls that might bounce more than once before reaching the batsman. Grubbers – where the ball would hit the pitch and roll – where mostly deemed illegal, though not always.

Unlike most of the kids I played with I had some professional coaching. One of our greatest family friends was an Australian ex-test bowler. I remember him as a big and very friendly man with a seventies moustache full of good stories. Every Sunday for a while I would show up at the cricket nets where he coached and hone my technique. Even today in impromptu scratch matches I have a classical cover drive and a perfect forward defence. Like most kids though I loved to hit the ball.

In recent times there seems a lot of old cricket either being broadcast or written about. By some happenstance there are many links between what I see and my own life at that time. I was there the day of the Centenary test in 1977 when David Hookes smacked Tony Greig for 5 consecutive boundaries, and Marsh scored a hundred. I was there with Peter Woody and his gruff dad.In this book there’s a photo of John Dyson taking his famous catch against the Windies in 1981 with the SCG outer in the background. I was there that day in the summer heat with my aunt and uncle.

I was also present at what is one of the most famous, and probably best, days of cricket ever at the MCG in 1980 when Australian was bowled out for just over 200, but with Hughes making a fantastic ton, before the Windies went to stumps at 4/11 with Lillee bowling Viv Richards with the last ball of the day. I was there with my grandfather, and still remember it well: my grandmother, being the driver in the family, dropping us off nearby in the morning in the silver Holden Kingswood they seemed to have forever. The short tram ride with others heading to the cricket, before we settled in the outer. My grandfather, a gentle and always elegant man, would share the thermos of tea he had brought and the sandwiches wrapped in wax paper.

There;’s many thousands of people who have claimed to be present that day in the years since – if there can be iconic ‘days’ then this is one. What I remember is the steady tumble of wickets down one end while Kim Hughes defended or else played lovely swashbuckling strokes that would race to the boundary, the crack of ball on bat reaching us a moment after we viewed the stroke. Late in the day the ground was in crescendo, Lillee at his imperious best charging in as the crowd chanted his name. I joined in, thrilled, stirred, feeling myself part of something bigger as Australia surged and the wickets fell in quick succession to roars that must have rivalled that in the Roman Collosseum.

Another day I remember, at home this time pacing around listening to the radio as Allan Border and Jeff Thomson staged a last wicket partnership at the MCG against England. They scored reached 71 of the 74 runs needed when Thomson was finally dismissed. Despair and dismay in my household, and thousands of others, but also respect. It was a great effort.

Such are the memories, but that is what a book like this is all about. Less a book of raw cricket history and statistics, and more of a cultural study, as the name suggests, about what cricket means to a country such as ours. That’s memory, nostalgia, ambition, hope, expectation, triumph, fear, sentimentality, and so on. It’s about the arc of the game as a force within society. For us who follow cricket there are all these little footholds and occasional arcane moents which mean everything to us in our secret language. This book in fact was promoted earlier in the year by publicising the best 25 Australian cricketers through history, many of which I found contentious, until the top 5, which seemed perfectly predictable (Gilchrist, Miller, Lillee, Warne, Bradman). That whet my appetite for this book, and now I have it to read over this Christmas/New Year break, nicely coincident with the annual Boxing day test.

 

Australians don’t mind losing; they can’t stand not trying to win – Cricket


Australians don’t mind losing; they can’t stand not trying to win – Cricket.

Shocked this morning to hear that Peter Roebuck had died. He was my favourite cricket commentator and reporter, fearless, incisive, and always entertaining, his was a distinctive and elegant voice. He had a beautiful, resonant way with the English language that elevated these games of cricket into contests of deeper import. It was only a couple of hours ago that I read what now transpires to be his final piece. Now he’s dead.

I find myself more affected by this than I might have imagined. I didn’t always agree with what he wrote, but often did. I loved his passion and perspective on the game that went beyond the fence. His is a voice we have become familiar with over many summers, and expected to for many more summers to come. Though he was English born he became a great Aussie, and the love for his adopted home is clear in the article I have clipped here. I will miss him.

I suspect there will be more to this story to come out. He was a flawed individual like all of us, and divided opinions. It seems likely that he took his own life, and quite possibly as a consequence of earlier events which will surely come to light. I don’t know what unsavoury news will come to hand, though I can guess. Regardless, my memories of him will be of that voice, that quiet sense of humour, that insight, passion and straight talking. It’s a very sad day.