Monday, March 22, 2010

New Zealand v Australia, 1st Test, Basin Reserve, 2nd day, 21 March 2010

Today’s New Zealand collapse came in the first hour, while the churches were still open to pray for them. Six wickets were lost for 49 runs in 13 overs.

Doug Bollinger was the main destroyer, with five for 28, his best test figures. Vettori and McCullum were both out playing attacking shots. It’s the way both play, and people love it when it works, but today the situation demanded more circumspection. Guptill got the ball of the morning from Bollinger, one that lifted and left him to be caught behind for a fine against-type 122-ball 30.

Daryl Tuffey’s dismissal best illustrated the disparity between the two sides in attitude and ambition. He pushed a ball into the offside and set off for a single, which he regarded as safe. He didn’t run at full speed and failed to extend the bat into the crease as he neared the other end. Nathan Hauritz at cover saw not a safe run, but a wicket-taking opportunity. He swooped on the ball and threw down the stumps, running Tuffey out by a couple of centimetres.

Inept use of the referral technology finished the innings. Tim Southee attempted to hit the cover off a ball from Mitch Johnson (a reasonable approach with Chris Martin at the other end). The Australians appealed for caught behind and umpire Ian Gould concurred. Southee asked for a referral. Endless replays from all angles and Hotspot were scrutinised by third umpire Aleem Dar (they were shown on the big screen too, a commendable change of policy which probably won’t last when it reveals the official to be blundering, as it did here). It soon became clear that:
i. there was air between the edge of the bat and the ball and
ii. there was no sign of contact on Hotspot.
Yet the decision was confirmed, apparently because of a rogue noise which sounded like an edge. Aleem Dar is agreed to be one of the best umpires in the world on the field of play which, on this evidence, is where he should stay.

The referral system also confirmed the first wicket of New Zealand’s second innings (the follow-on was enforced) with Watling out lbw to Bollinger for the second time in the game. The decision was correct, but reached only after interminable viewings of the evidence by Aleem Dar, whose preference appeared to be to adjourn proceedings for a day or two. The good news for home supporters was that the wicket fell with the score on 70, the most resolute opening partnership we have seen for some time.

Progress during the afternoon session was sedate, the run rate hovering around two an over, but nobody seemed to mind. The enthusiasts were engrossed in some good, tight test cricket, while the rest enjoyed a balmy afternoon in the sun.

Tim McIntosh was playing his finest test innings. He reached his 50 from 167 balls, but no criticism about slow scoring was merited today. New Zealand needed crease occupancy, and that is what he provided. His confidence and scoring rate improved after tea. He took ten from three balls from Johnson in the over before he was out, an inside edge onto the pad taken by Katich at short leg off Hauritz. McIntosh was disappointed to be out for 83, but he has secured his place in the test team for some time to come.

The day finished with New Zealand 115 behind with five wickets remaining. Not even the Wellington weather, a doughty and consistent performer over the years, can save them.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

New Zealand v Australia, 1st Test, Basin Reserve, 20 March 2010 (2nd day)

Here’s something different; a free book for the first 3,000 spectators into the ground today. A good book too, The First 50 Tests, a history of test cricket at the Basin, by New Zealand’s foremost cricket historian Don Neely. It contains some wonderful photographs of the ground through the years, mostly from Neely’s own collection (many featured previously in his history of the ground, but it is still a treat to see them again). Some of the player profiles are a little pedestrian, and could have been run through a fact check (Ian Botham was a specialist second – not first – slip, and many in the hop county would dispute the contention that John Wright was a successful coach of Kent), but it’s a splendid addition to the New Zealand cricket library.

The second day of the Basin’s 51st test began and ended with Australia in control. Things had run away from New Zealand in the last session when 163 were scored for the loss of Katich. Today Michael Clarke and Marcus North extended their fifth-wicket partnership to 253, a record for Australia against New Zealand. It is difficult to recall a false shot, let alone a chance, until Clarke was stumped by McCullum off Vettori for 168.

For Clarke, this was a triumphant end to a difficult fortnight during which he left the ODI series to end his relationship with his girlfriend Lara Bingle (little is known of her less attractive sisters Hooper and Richardson). These events have been forensically, intrusively and tediously chronicled by the Australasian media, and it was pleasing to see such a fine innings in adversity from a decent bloke. It was also gratifying that the promised onslaught of abuse and ridicule from the crowd was almost totally absent. The atmosphere at the Basin was serene and benevolent, a satisfying contrast to the raucous parochialism of the Cake Tin. Perhaps a calming book would be worth a try there, though a colouring crayon might have to be supplied with it.

North became the latest in a long series of batsmen to have their careers saved by the New Zealand attack. How different the Ashes might have been had Andrew Strauss not had the good fortune to come across them at Napier two years ago. As Trevor Bailey used to say of the England attack in the late eighties and early nineties, “they can change the bowler, but not the bowling”. Vettori apart (and he is not the force in tests that he is in shorter forms) it is right-arm military medium fast all the way.

An early declaration left New Zealand facing half a day’s batting. The trepidation felt by many of the home supporters at this prospect was justified when BJ Watling was out first ball, lbw to Bollinger. This left Tim McIntosh and Peter Ingram to see off the new ball, neither with the record or technique for the task.

For 11 overs they did well, scoring sparsely, but batting with purpose and discipline, leaving alone what did not need playing. Then McIntosh blocked the ball in the crease and called Ingram for a quick single. The bowler, Johnson, followed through, but did not have the time to pick up the ball and throw it at the stumps. So instead he kicked it. I have seen this attempted dozens of times, but cannot recall it being successful, as it was here (and from a narrow angle with his – I assume, as he is left-handed – unfavoured right foot). Bad luck for Ingram, who batted well enough to assuage at least a few of the doubts about his calibre as a test batsman.

McIntosh (a 58-ball nine – one of his faster efforts) and Taylor followed, bringing together Guptill and Vettori at 43 for 4. They saw out the day with an unbroken partnership of 65. Guptill was very impressive, restraining his natural aggression and displaying good technique against better bowling than he has faced before.

Vettori was an only mildly restrained version of his one-day batting self. There is less crease-wandering, but he plays a completely defensive shot, one that brings no possibility of runs being conjured from it, only when absolutely necessary for survival, much as a Methodist might resort to a sip of whisky when lost in the desert.

Protected from the northerly by the RA Vance Stand, it was a perfect day for watching at the Basin. It also brought good news. There is to be a Boxing Day test here this year, against Pakistan. This throws into disarray my plans to travel to Melbourne for the Ashes at that time, but there is always Sydney the following week, and leaving Wellington while there is a test on is close to unthinkable.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

New Zealand v Australia, ODI (50 overs), the Cake Tin, 13 March 2010

My reputation as a human four-leaf clover is intact: I have never seen New Zealand lose an ODI at the Cake Tin (four wins and a washout against India).

It looked shaky for a while. Few thought that New Zealand’s 241 would be enough, and if the series had not been already decided (or a review system had negated a couple of umpiring howlers), it might not have been.

Things have not gone well for the home side since I last wrote on this subject, mainly thanks to New Zealand’s deckchair batting (it collapses in a moment). The second game was close, with Daniel Vettori getting his team far nearer to victory than they deserved with a typical crease-roaming 70 from No 8. But the third and fourth were cakewalks for Australia, so when it was announced that Australia had won the toss (for the fifth time out of five, a lucky streak that might encourage Punter Ponting to increase his current investments) and put New Zealand in, I was tempted to text my son to say that I would be home around eight.

New Zealand got off to a bright start, thanks mainly to the Australian bowlers. Bollinger sprayed it about in a manner in keeping with his name, going for eight wides from his first over, and Martin Guptill put a free hit off McKay into the crowd at mid-wicket, having hit the no-ball for four. It didn’t last. Brendon McCullum charged at McKay, but was done by a change of pace and hit a tame catch to mid-off. Guptill was slow to respond to a call by Taylor and was run out by a Hopes direct hit.

I still think that McCullum was more effective as a finisher at No 7 than he has been as an opener, and would be happy to see him back there, but this seems unlikely, as he seems to be giving up the gloves and has to justify himself as a specialist. It should be noted that Australia has always reserved one of its best batsman (first Bevan, now Michael Hussey) for this role. However, McCullum seems to like being free of wicketkeeping; he romps around the field like a caged dog let loose in a wood.

Shanan Stewart came in next. I was pleased to see him make his international debut in the fourth game. He was in the New Zealand under-19 against South Africa that I covered in 2001, and I am gratified in an avuncular way when members of that team get on. He follows McCullum, Butler, Ryder, and Taylor into the international game. It was a glimpse only; he was out for six.

Vettori and Styris took New Zealand back into respectability with a bright partnership of 68 at almost a run a ball. Vettori’s dismissal looked awful: he showed Bollinger all three and was bowled off stump. But criticism is pointless. That’s the way he plays, and it is remarkably effective.

It was largely thanks to Daryl Tuffey that the total reached the point it did. Tuffey is determined to re-invent himself as a lower-order all-rounder, and is timing the ball as sweetly as anybody. However, the Australians have worked Bond out: he can’t play anything short.

At 27 without loss the course of the game looked entirely predictable, and many in the crowd will have checked the time of an earlier train. Then Bond hurried Haddin with a bouncer, which was lobbed up to square leg.

Enter Ponting. I have never seen him make a big score, and thought that this might be the day, so watched his first ball from Bond through the binoculars. It was short, Ponting turned away, it clipped his helmet and went through to wicketkeeper Hopkins. I was surprised that the fielders appealed at all, let alone with the conviction that they did. I was more surprised (but not as incredulous as the batsman) to see umpire Gary Baxter raise the finger.

No replay was shown at the stadium, an indication in itself that the umpire was being protected, so I had to wait until I got home to confirm that an appeal for caught was only fractionally more credible than one for lbw would have been. Adam Voges was done later in the innings when Asad Rauf gave him out caught behind off an attempted drive that had air between bat and ball. The case for extending the review system is overwhelming. New Zealand would probably not have bothered even to appeal for either if the possibility of conning the umpire had been eradicated.

It was the batting powerplay that finally undid Australia, just as it did New Zealand in the third game, at Hamilton, when it was taken early and resulted in collapse. The commentators are obsessed with it, and still do not understand that it is not a free token for 30 or 40 runs. An opportunity yes, but one that comes with high risk.

Here, in the first over Michael Hussey played a shot that he would not have attempted in other circumstances, and was bowled behind his legs by Southee. Two wickets fell for only 21 runs in the powerplay and all hope was gone (Hopes was gone too).

Besides the factors mentioned, New Zealand should be complimented on a fine performance with the ball and in the field. Bond and Southee both took four wickets. It was Southee’s second match-winning performance in a couple of weeks, following his effort in the T20 at Christchurch, a remarkable effort for one so young. Of course, he had a couple of poor games in between, but the public and media must exercise patience, for he is our only really convincing bowling prospect at the moment.

Three-two was a fair result, and though New Zealand lost, it was with honour reasonably intact. Only the brightest optimist on this side of the Tasman expects that to be the case in the two-test series, which starts here in Wellington on Friday.

I think Knott

There is a report in the March edition of the Wisden Cricketer on the development of a wicketkeeping ranking system. Developed by Adam Crosthwaite, a wicketkeeper for New South Wales, it is modelled on the baseball system, calculating the percentage of chances taken of those offered, and expressing the result as a decimal.

The thrust of the system and the report is sound: a wicketkeeper should be judged not by how many chances he takes, but by how many he misses. I had no reason to become agitated until I read the final paragraph, which begins thus:

           "We may never know if Alan Knott rated higher than Rod Marsh..."

I can be of assistance here.

Alan Knott was a far better wicketkeeper than Rod Marsh, and any system that concluded otherwise would not be worth the numbers it crunched.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Wellington v Northern Districts, first-class, Basin Reserve, 4-6 March 2010

When I’m in charge, an hour’s daily cricket watching will be compulsory. The social and economic consequences will be dramatic. Productivity will soar, crime rates will plummet, and a breeze of serenity will blow through the nations. It will be four-day cricket, obviously, cricket that flows past the watcher like a river as it nears the sea, inviting immersion or contemplation, according to the state of the water and the spectator’s mind.

Such were, for me, the restoring effects of an hour spent at the Basin Reserve at the end of the first and second days of the match between Wellington and Northern Districts, and the whole of the shortened third day too, shortened because Wellington, near the bottom of the table, were no match for ND, at the top. Injury and international calls meant that no more than five of the Wellington team in this game would be in the strongest possible XI, whereas ND were missing only Daniel Vettori (who has played in only 14 first-class games for ND in his career, despite being loyal to his home province throughout) and Tim Southee.

Having been CricInfo’s man in Northern Districts for a few years at the start of the last decade, I retain loyalties and was pleased that seven of the ND squad of that era were present: Michael Parlane, Hamish and James Marshall, and Graeme Aldridge in the ND team with Bruce Martin as twelfth man, Neal Parlane for Wellington, and Grant Bradburn as ND’s coach.

This retention of experience has helped ND have a good season, but is not good for New Zealand. When I was writing, only seven or eight years ago, there were hardly any players over 30 still playing, except those in, or close to, the national team. Since then, pay has improved and players can earn more by prolonging their careers than by getting a proper job. It is unlikely that any of those named above will play for New Zealand in the future. With only six teams in domestic cricket, the pool from which the national teams are picked is reduced significantly.

The comfortable figure of Michael Parlane was at the crease when I arrived at the ground on Thursday evening, Wellington having already been dismissed for 193, a paltry score by Basin standards. Any number of batsmen no better than the elder Parlane (and a few not as good) have played for New Zealand over the past decade. This may simply be a question of luck, though perhaps he does not comply with the modern coaching vision of the cricketer as all-round athlete (I recall his being dropped for not meeting fitness targets while I was writing on ND; happily these requirements did not extend to the press box). This has never stopped him scoring plenty of runs, and sound method and secure shot selection saw him past fifty again here. His brother Neal used similar methods to score 70 in Wellington’s second innings.

At the other end was Kane Williamson, the latest bright young hope of New Zealand cricket. Just 19, Williamson was player of the year in the 50-over competition, scoring 50 and taking five wickets in ND’s win in the final. After a lean first half of the first-class competition he is now scoring runs for fun in the longer game too. On Thursday he passed fifty while I watched, and went on to 170. Two shots in one over off Jeetan Patel took the eye: a lofted on drive, followed by a cover drive. Like all top-class players, Williamson has time in abundance. He might appear in the New Zealand side before the summer is out.

When I arrived on Friday, Wellington were 35 for one, chasing 207 to make ND bat again. They succeeded, leaving a target of 41, achieved just after four on Saturday, a pleasant day in the sun, if unspectacular on the field. Brent Arnel stood out for ND. Tall and quite quick, by local standards at least, he is another who could be in national colours in the next few weeks, though hurrying up batsmen called up from local club cricket, and doing the same to Ponting, Clarke and co are clearly different things altogether.

I am pleased to say that a couple of thousand people passed through the gates of the Basin on each day of the game. Unfortunately, about 1,970 left by the opposite gates approximately two minutes after arriving. It is not considered worth charging for entry to Plunkett Shield games, so the footpath and cycle way that goes around the boundary remains open throughout. Is there another venue anywhere in which spectators are separated from the playing area by a public thoroughfare?

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Meek Shall Inherit the Earth

Mainly for the benefit of the unfortunates in the northern hemisphere who won’t have seen them, a few remarks on two outstanding games between New Zealand and Australia played here over the past few days, both won by New Zealand.

The T20 at Lancaster Park in Christchurch on Sunday had everything that the game in Wellington did not. At the heart of the home team’s 214 was an extraordinary innings of 116 not out by Brendon McCullum which featured the most outrageous unorthodox hitting that I’ve ever seen. He has his own version of the dilscoop in which he places the bat almost on the ground and, falling away to the offside, flicks the ball over the keeper, ending up on his back as the ball crosses the boundary. Unlike dilscoop mark one (which is so last decade) McCullum’s version does not need the ball to pitch just short of full and so be on its way up on connection. He executed it perfectly from a blockhole ball by Tait at 150 kph. Quite astonishing. If only EW Swanton had lived to see it.

The Australians paced their reply perfectly, with some marvellous, more orthodox, hitting from Cameron White, exploiting Lancaster Park’s rugby-ground geometry perfectly. It looked as if they were going to reach the target with a little to spare when an unlikely hero saved the day: Tim Southee.

Southee has had an up and (more often) down career since coming into the side against England two years ago. He is still only 21, is in the team as an investment, and because the attrition rate of New Zealand’s quicker bowlers is that of industrial Europe at the time of cholera. But in domestic cricket this year he has developed the ability to bowl blockhole balls to order, a quality appreciated by his Northern Districts teammate Daniel Vettori, who entrusted him with two of the last three overs. Result: 11 from 12 perfect yorkers, and a tied game.

And he did it again in the one over bowl off, conceding only six against White, Warner and Clarke. Any bowler would have found this difficult to defend, but Shaun Tait went about the task with a particular lack of nous and nerve. The whole thing was over in three balls, two of which were wides, one being of near-Harmy proportions.

What were left of the nerves of New Zealand cricket fans were shredded in the closing stages of today’s ODI at Maclean Park, Napier. Australia batted first and reached 275, never a poor score, but 30 or 40 below par on New Zealand’s most batsman-friendly pitch.

New Zealand started well, with McCullum and Ingram putting on 75 in good time. At first Ingram looked as hapless as he had in the T20s, but hit himself into a bit of form without raising confidence levels in this quarter.

The key turning points in New Zealand’s innings were the dismissals of McCullum and Taylor to unnecessarily adventurous shots at times when things were going well, though Taylor had batted superbly for 70, and had captained well in the field in Vettori’s absence.

It seemed that the game was drifting away from New Zealand, with almost eight an over wanted with only four wickets remaining, one of which was Oram’s, and he had been carried off with his latest injury (knee) earlier.

But, as in Sunday’s game, a member of the chorus stepped forward to understudy the lead and steal the show. Today it was Scott Styris, only in the team as a late replacement for Vettori, and not trusted with a middle-order spot. Ably supported by Daryl Tuffey and Shane Bond (and less ably by Tim Southee) a series of bold, well-judged strokes, mostly through the offside, brought the asking rate down during the batting powerplay . He also wound up Mitchell Johnson a treat, provoking Johnson to attempt a head butt on the peak of Styris’ helmet. The crowd chanted a pithy and perceptive analysis of Johnson's character.

With two overs to go (the first of which was the last of the powerplay) 12 were required. With the Australians and most others, including Styris, expecting a prod in order to get off strike, Bond sweetly hit two boundaries through the offside. Everybody appeared to have forgotten that Bond has scored a first-class century. The unbroken ninth-wicket partnership was worth 35 from 17 balls.

Styris finished in style, with a big straight six with four balls left, leaving New Zealand where it most likes to be: one-up on Australia.

Arlott, Swanton and the Soul of English Cricket

In the same package as this year’s Wisden , there arrived Arlott, Swanton and the Soul of English Cricket , co-authored by Stephen Fay ...