Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Random thoughts on the Ashes: Brisbane

There was something for everyone in the first Test at the Gabba. A hat-trick on the first day; a fighting partnership by Hussey and Haddin to push Australia ahead; an Ashes debut six-for by Finn (he'll bowl much better for less reward); and rearguard heroics from Strauss, Cook and Trott. England have yet to prove that they can win consistently against strong opposition, but they can certainly save games, which is a pleasing novelty for those of us who have lived most of our lives with an England team that had the willpower and steadfastness of Jesse Ryder in a pie shop.

The result leaves key questions unanswered, as is right in a five-match series, which should unfold like a good mystery, the full truth not being revealed until just before the end.

The most important of these questions is “can either of these attacks take twenty wickets to win a Test?”. Mitchell Johnson, with his Movember moustache, looked like Ronald Colman, and bowled like him too. Graham Swann bore little resemblance to the match-winner of recent series. An off spinner winning the Ashes in Australia? The idea begins to sound more absurd than ever.

If the bowlers are to be successful, they will need more help from the pitch than the Gabba gave them. The Channel Nine commentary team, in full every-day-is-Australia-Day mode, sang the praises of the curator (a term I rather prefer to the more rustic “groundsman”) for producing an “excellent” – Bill Lawry – surface. In fact, the pitch was difficult to stay in on in the first half of the game, and difficult to get out on for the second half, pretty much the antithesis of how a Test pitch should behave.

Despite the undoubted merits of the innings of Hussey, Haddin, Strauss, Cook and Trott, 962 runs for six wickets over the last three-and-a-bit days of a Test match means that the pitch was a poor one, in that it did not facilitate an even match between bat and ball. One or two match-saving centuries are worth celebrating. Five are merely mundane.

And then there is the question of the decision referral system (DRS), which functioned poorly in Brisbane. Anderson had Hussey lbw when he was 85, but Aleem Dar rejected the appeal (he had sound grounds for doing so, as there were two noises as the ball hit both pads on the way through) and England could not refer the decision to the third umpire because they had already had two unsuccessful referrals, the allowance for one innings.

It’s true that England had rather squandered their opportunities to refer, but the reason for the limit is to prevent frivolous referrals, not to introduce an extra tactical dimension; that sort of thing is fine for ODIs, but not Tests. When the DRS was first trialled, three unsuccessful referrals was the limit, which prevented abuse of the system, but meant that few close decisions went unscrutinised. That the two-strikes limit is too severe was further illustrated in England's second innings when Australia had two unsuccessful referrals for lbw decisions (including Strauss first ball; what a difference that would have made). Both were exactly the sort of marginal decisions that the DRS was designed for, and Ponting was right to refer them, but a serious umpiring error might have gone uncorrected as a result.

Another alternative would be to declare unsuccessful referrals as spent after, say, 50 overs. Under the present system the fielding side will almost inevitably lose their referrals in a long innings, which is exactly when they need them most.

At least the DRS is operative in Australia, which it was not for the recent series in India, presumably because the BCCI (the governing body in India) was too stingy to pay for all the necessary hardware, preferring to spend their IPL riches on asses milk for Board members to bathe in, or similar. Was this discussed by the commentators? It was not. Why? Because the BCCI is producing the TV broadcast and selling the finished product, rather than just the rights. This is a disturbing trend that would seriously affect the quality of sports coverage were it to spread.

The good news is that Jeremy Coney has replaced the dreadful Morrison on the team for the ODIs.

Can’t wait for Adelaide.

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