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 ...