Saturday, January 22, 2011

New Zealand v Pakistan, 1st ODI, Cake Tin, 22 January 2011

My golden ODI run continues for another year. That's five wins for New Zealand and a washout since 2006. Like most of these games it was a cakewalk, Pakistan's paltry 124 passed in the 18th over of the reply, the floodlights superfluous, home by eight. Given the icy sou'easterly that pinned us to our seats like a guard dog, that was just as well. Cricket suits sultry evenings in Hamilton, Auckland or Hawke's Bay, but Wellington, like the UK, doesn't have the climate for it. I see that floodlit games are now being played in the old country in the first half of May. People will die as sure as standing up them against the back of the pavilion and shooting them.

New Zealand bowled superbly having lost the toss. It is hard to recall a loose delivery. Tim Southee swung the ball away on the line of off stump and finished with five for 33. Hamish Bennett took three wickets, and excited the crowd by bowling consistently at the miraculous speed of 140 kph. I realise that this may not sound much, but such is the monotony of medium pacers here that it is greeted as something wondrous, like Stephenson's Rocket was to people who couldn't imagine anything faster than a horse and cart.

Jacob Oram bowled a few leg-side wides, but took two wickets in two balls which appeased a section of the crowd which had given him a hard time. He is a controversial selection for the World Cup squad because of his poor fitness record, which is such that if he were any other species he would have been put down some time ago. He didn't help matters by dropping a sitter at long on from Shahid Afridi off Vettori. However, he remains the 11th ranked ODI bowler, and has the potential to be a matchwinner in the knockout stages, so is a good selection. Besides, he can be replaced if he is injured.

Impressive as the home bowling was, it has to be recorded that Pakistan batted dreadfully. They fished outside the off stump so much that they should have worn waders instead of pads. Only Misbah-ul-Haq resisted, and until the ninth wicket fell batted at his own cautious pace apparently oblivious to events around him, just as he had in the Test. Then a few well-timed blows took him past 50, and made the tenth-wicket partnership with Shoaib Akhtar the third-highest of the innings.

Jesse Ryder and Martin Guptill struck out from the start of New Zealand's innings, Ryder's hitting being particularly relishable. He, Ross Taylor and Brendon McCullum are all capable of playing a match-winning innings against any attack, which gives us hope for the World Cup, particularly if the bowling can retain the discipline it did today.

Shoaib Akhtar led the attack, back from his thirteenth retirement, but did so poignantly, a dog too old to bring back the stick. None for 47 from four overs. There is even a bald patch visible through the flowing black locks.

So ended New Zealand's horror run of eleven straight defeats in ODIs, a form of the game that had previously provided consolation to us for being so dismal in Tests. It was John Wright's first ODI as coach, and if he carries on in this vein he will be able to walk back to the hotel straight across the harbour, though it is never wise to draw any conclusions from a single ODI, particularly when they are being used for pre-World Cup experimentation.

A word about ticket prices, really just to irritate readers in the frozen north. For the Test I paid $75 for a ticket that got me into the Basin every day, which, even with the pound having shrunk to a value comparable with shiny pebbles, is still only seven quid a day. The ODI ticket was $27 for a seat behind the bowler's arm, and has an offer attached that allows me to get into tomorrow's domestic one-dayer for $5. This is a great country.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

New Zealand v Pakistan, Second Test, Basin Reserve, 19 January 2011 (fifth day)
How much closer to bliss can you be than to have watched all five days of a Test match and still find all results possible at tea on the final day? Admittedly, if that statement were tested it might be found that it was only true in a parallel universe in which the New Zealand attack was capable of taking 20 wickets in a game, but even so, there was more pleasure to be experienced by being at the Basin for the past five days than a sackful of T20s could provide. The result was a draw, the possibility of which is said to be Test cricket's flaw, but which actually gives it a dimension that no other sport has.

The first hour of the day was New Zealand's, the rest Pakistan's. Three wickets had fallen by noon, two to Chris Martin in a fine opening spell from the northern end. With Pakistan's batting New Zealand's closest rival in collapsability, it seemed that the game would be wrapped up by mid-afternoon but Younis Khan and Misbah-ul-Haq had a contrary view. They put on 118 for the fourth wicket, separated only when Younis suffered a lapse of concentration on the point of tea. His dismissal cost Pakistan victory. He had been batting so well that only a marginal increase in tempo after tea would have taken the game.

Misbah-ul-Haq continued with the doggedness that he had adopted throughout the partnership, to which he contributed 37 compared with 81 from Younis. It was faintly disappointing, but entirely understandable, that no attempt was made to have a hit at the target once the draw seemed secure, but the prize of Pakistan's first series victory since 2006, and the first outside Asia for eight years, was too precious to have the safest of punts on. It was a personal triumph for Misbah who was appointed on the last-man-standing principle, the chalice not so much poisoned as fashioned from nuclear waste. By all accounts he is a good man who deserves his success. Geoff Lawson, one of the many to have held the post of Pakistan coach over the past few years, describes him as having the best cricket brain in Pakistan. For the ODI series to follow, the captaincy reverts to the more excitable Shahid Afridi.

It was a disappointing day for New Zealand, and in particular for Daniel Vettori, who took only one, late wicket. Over the past few years he has failed every time he has had the opportunity to bowl out a side on a turning wicket in the second innings. There was turn here as Mohammad Hafeez demonstrated on the fourth day, but Vettori could not find it, looking a bit of a sixth-day bowler. It seems that he will be remembered as a great one-day bowler (he is currently a street ahead in the ICC ODI rankings), but as a primarily defensive Test bowler. It could be that he goes down as New Zealand's Kapil Dev, someone who took stacks of wickets by bowling for a long time in a team short of bowling talent. I rather hope that he does not hang around long enough to become New Zealand's leading Test wicket taker (he has 345, 86 short of Richard Hadlee's record), as that should be in the hands of a great bowler. The most promising young spinner in New Zealand is none other than Kane Williamson, and he should not be the receptacle for all our hopes.

As for the rest of the attack, I stand by my earlier view that the admirable Chris Martin is fading into the sunset. He seems to be entirely dependent on the new ball to make things happen, and may be destined to go out with 199 wickets. Brent Arnel does not appear to have his captain's confidence, and his captain is probably right. Jimmy Franklin is in danger of passing, as Michael Foot said of David Steel, from being a promising newcomer to an elder statesmen with no intervening period.

The great hope of New Zealand fast bowling is Neil Wagner, a South African who completes his qualification period soon (but not in time for the World Cup, alas). He bowls sharp and accurate left-arm fast for Otago and looks ready to step up. There is also Adam Milne of Central Districts who shifts it at 150 kph, but he is only 18 and must not be rushed.

We should be getting excited about the third Test now, but there isn't one, a six-game ODI series building up our stamina for the interminable World Cup instead. I'll be at the Cake Tin on Saturday trying to look excited.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

New Zealand v Pakistan, Second Test, Basin Reserve, 18 January 2011 (fourth day)

The expected deluge threatened the Basin for most of the day, but cost us only 23 minutes for a light shower after tea, and that was made up at the end of the day. The price we had to pay was thick humidity of a kind that we rarely experience in Wellington, and tend to regard as an Auckland affectation. For part of the day it appeared that all the game wanted to do was to have a cool drink and a lie down. Nevertheless, an intriguing final day has been set up, in defiance of the meteorologists.

Brendon McCullum and Martin Guptill batted through the morning for New Zealand's first century opening partnership at the Basin in nine years. McCullum increased the pace of the innings as the morning went on, and cut brutally. When he was out for 64 just after lunch, things went quiet. Kane Williamson made a typically well-organised 15. If he had a winter job in an office, his desk would be the tidiest, and he'd be fantastic at filing. Here, his focus was on batting correctly rather than moving things on, which is exactly what it should be for a 20-year-old Test No 3.

Guptill was out soon after Williamson, for 73. It was an admirable innings and he became more confident in playing shots square of the wicket as it progressed. But he didn't have another gear to move up to, which is odd for a man who was first noticed as a one-day strokeplayer. I wrote the other day that ideally he and Williamson would be left to develop at Nos 5 and 6 and the responsibility of opening seems to have curtailed his natural flair. It will be interesting to see how quickly he adjusts to the 50-over game at the weekend.

It was something of a relief that Ross Taylor and Jesse Ryder came together before tea to inject some urgency into proceedings. Ryder came in on a king pair, and had been out first ball in the second innings at Hamilton too. He did his best to oblige the bowler and the statisticians by shaping to cut a straight ball, but adjusted the shot just in time. Even during a poor run, Ryder has the gift of making cricket seem a simple game. Today he got off the pair by crashing a four over mid-wicket, with a six following in the same direction shortly thereafter.

But he had not escaped the first-ball hoodoo. Facing part-time off spinner Mohammad Hafeez, Ryder waved past the first ball after tea, only to see it collide with the off stump. Hafeez extracted more turn from the pitch than Abdur Rehman, who is accurate, but spears it in. The offie had Franklin caught behind in short order and the aim of the innings was transformed from pushing on to set a target to collapse prevention.

Taylor, approaching top form once more, held things together and kept the score moving at around three an over. He was well supported by Reece Young, whose second Test appearance is a vast improvement on his first.

A flurry of wickets fell in the final half-hour leaving New Zealand all out, a good thing as it removes the temptation to bat on in the morning. New Zealand has to win the match to draw the series, so must take all the risks. Pakistan's target is 274, which is as finely balanced as can be, if only the rain stays away.

Monday, January 17, 2011

New Zealand v Pakistan, Second Test, Basin Reserve, 17 January 2011 (third day)

For the first two sessions of the day not much happened, but it didn't happen in a way that was most agreeable. It was a lovely day at the Basin, with blue sky and the wind a mere zephyr in Wellington terms, certainly no more than a force six. The umpires were suckered into bringing out the Panamas again. Daryl Harper had no problems (I suspect illicit use of Velcro), but sure enough Rod Tucker's brim was back in his firm grasp after lunch.

With New Zealand's protracted New Year holiday drawing gradually to a close, today was as close to a working day as we will see this side of February, so the crowd was thinner than it was on the first two days, but still sufficient to create a pleasant, low-key atmosphere, similar to a sunny day during a Maidstone Week of two or three decades ago.

Azhar Ali was surprised by a sharp lifter from Chris Martin to be caught at first slip before he had added to his overnight score. Martin produced a similar ball to dismiss Abdur Rehman, but that was almost six hours later, and in between times he looked like a bowler who might very well be playing his last home Test, though he did pick up another two wickets including Misbah-ul-Haq.

The rest of the morning and the whole of the middle session was occupied with a stand of 142 for the fourth wicket between Younis Khan and Misbah-ul-Haq. It proceeded at a measured pace but contained sufficient elegance (especially from Younis) to satisfy the connoisseur.

It ended on the stroke of tea when Younis was given out caught at short leg off Vettori. Perhaps Tucker's hat got in his eyes, as the big screen replay meant that everybody in the ground shared the batsman's view that his bat had got nowhere near the ball, even before he had even left the field. The dismissal was a turning point in the day, and possibly the game, and (explaining this to the ICC provides an insight into how Basil Fawlty felt as he tried to get Manuel to understand why he had to get rid of his Siberian hamster) showed yet again why the decision referral scheme should be used in all international games.

After tea it was as if the valium that had been dripfed into the match so far had been replaced by adrenalin. 90 runs were rattled up as six wickets fell, to give Pakistan a first-innings lead of 20. Misbah-ul-Haq fell to nerves on 99, wandering across his stumps to be trapped lbw as he attempted to force a single into the onside, the first premeditated shot he had played all innings. Remarkably, he is the first batsman ever dismissed one short of a century in the 52 Tests played at the Basin.

Vettori finished with four for 100 from 47 overs, and was not in the least flattered by those figures. He exercised control throughout and received almost no help from the placid pitch. Apart from him the attack was insipid, though Southee bowled a testing spell with the second new ball.

The weather forecast for the next two days is such that just down the road at Wellington Zoo they are already lining up their charges two-by-two, but the thought occurs that by finishing off the Pakistan innings so efficiently in the final session, New Zealand have created sufficient time for a characteristic implosion that will lose the game, but that goes to show how the cruelty of experience has made pessimists of us in this part of the world.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

New Zealand v Pakistan, Second Test, Basin Reserve, 16 January 2011 (second day)

A pleasant if pedestrian day finished with Pakistan 222 runs behind New Zealand with eight wickets standing.

It was Daniel Vettori's day. First, he scored a century that took his team to a respectable total, then bowled a tight bowling spell that culminated in a wicket at the end of the day; he might have had two more. He fielded splendidly too.

What's more, he took it upon himself to act as the human manifestation of Reece Young's conscience throughout their 138-run partnership for the seventh wicket. Young played with great resolve, but occasionally strayed into temptation and essayed a cross-batted swish, whereupon Vettori would advance from the non-striker's end to deliver a brief lecture, presumably along the lines of “do as I say, not as I do”, as he continued to wander across the stumps, premeditate shots and generally irritate the bowlers by sending the ball to unlikely corners of the ground. I have written before about how much Vettori reminds me of Alan Knott when he is batting well.

Young could not be sheltered from harm forever, and became another victim of the flay outside the off stump, as irresistable to New Zealand batsmen as Cleopatra was to the Caesars.

Southee and Arnel did not last long, and it fell to Chris Martin to support Vettori to his century. The cheer that erupted as Martin survived the last ball of an Abdur Rehman over when Vettori was on 99 was as loud as that which greeted the captain's century.

Martin is not (quite) as bad a batsman as some say. As he demonstrated here, he leaves the ball quite efficiently, and plays reasonably straight, albeit only coincidentally on the line of the ball. Also, I had the pleasure of reporting on his highest first-class score, 25 in Gisborne a decade ago, so have always known the heights he is truly capable of reaching:

Vettori's sixth Test century again raises the question of where in the order he should bat. I have advocated that he should be at six, but when he was eventually promoted he suffered his worst run of batting form for some years. Just as Adam Gilchrist became the game's most best-ever batsman-keeper from No 7, perhaps Vettori is better rescuing the innings at No 8.

After the loss of Mohammed Hafeez (incorrectly given out caught behind; the case for the decision referral system is overwhelming), Taufeeq Umar and Azhar Ali settled in comfortably against New Zealand's affable medium-fast attack. Martin was the most economical of them, Southee asked most questions. Only when Vettori brought himself on in the 26th over did the scoring rate drop below three an over. In his first over he had Taufeeq Umar caught behind off an inside edge at the fourth attempt by a juggling Young, but the appeal was half-hearted and the batsman survived. Later, Franklin was in a few metres too far to get under a skyer from Azhar Ali.

On the face of it the pitch is too batsman friendly, but criticism should be reserved. Both attacks are under-powered, and the home team's propensity to fold like an origami expert could make it look silly. But rain is forecast for the last two days, so a draw looks the most likely result.

The gale was stronger than ever this morning. The umpires abandoned their Panamas in favour of caps, but the wind would not be thwarted, and twice Rod Tucker pursued his cap and his dignity across the outfield. He was forced to resort to yesterday's method of grasping the peak firmly between thumb and forefinger, which gave him the appearance of an enthusiastic, permanently saluting boy scout.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

New Zealand v Pakistan, Second Test, Basin Reserve, 15 January 2011 (first day)

246 for six in a full day's play may seem a bit retro, the sort of day that led to the pressing need for the invention of the one-day game, but it pleased a decent Basin Reserve crowd which is always tolerant of slow play in a good contest. The main questions of the day were whether:
a. New Zealand's batting could develop the resilience to build a decent score after winning the toss; and
b. umpire Rod Tucker could remain adjacent to his hat in the fierce Wellington breeze.

The answer to the first question is a provisional “no”, though the failure was a game one, and all hope is not yet lost. Only Kane Williamson and Jesse Ryder could claim to have fallen to a quality delivery (and receiving such a delivery does not have to result in dismissal).

In the first fifteen minutes of the match (and I refer readers to my previous homily on the importance of getting to the ground on time) we fondly remembered an absent friend in the form of the decision referral system, as Daryl Harper got the first two big decisions wrong, though neither was a horrendous error. Brendon McCullum deserved to be out for padding up to a straight one, which the technology showed to be passing just over the stumps. Martin Guptill got away with a thin edge to keeper Adnan Akmal, who was to take five catches as the day went on.

With Gloucestershire's James Franklin replacing Tim McIntosh, Martin Guptill opened and Kane Williamson came in at three. Williamson's 21 contained some of the classiest batting of the day before he was out to a sharp rising delivery from Umar Gul, but it is a mistake to push the 20-year-old up the order. He is a rare and precious talent who should be allowed to develop at five or six for a couple of years however desperate the needs of the team. If another opener could be conjured up, three to six should be: Taylor, Ryder, Guptill, Williamson.

Guptill puts me in mind of CJ Tavaré (and that is never an uncomplimentary comparison in these columns). Like the great man, Guptill is full of shots in all forms of domestic cricket, and a pillar of defence in Tests, where his determination to survive engenders amnesia in the matter of strokeplay. His stance also has a tendency to become square-on, and he even wandered to short square-leg and back between deliveries a couple of times. However, he has yet to emulate Tavaré's geological concentration span and fell to a fearful mow outside off just after lunch.

Up to that point Guptill had been secure, but runless, while Ross Taylor was aggressive but lucky to survive early on. Taylor is one of those rare batsmen whose natural talent is such that they almost always time the ball well from the start without having to think much about it. So when they hit a rare patch of poor form, as Taylor has of late, they don't know what to do to get out of it. David Gower was like that. Watching him in a bad patch was to see something that was against nature, a cheetah stuck in a swamp.

Taylor's fifty was possibly the scratchiest he has ever scored, which perversely makes it more of an achievement. That he took fewer risks and scored more slowly as time went on (13 in 70 minutes after tea) was a sign of increasing, not diminishing, confidence. After Ryder's first-ball dismissal to a fine ball from Tanvir Ahmed that pitched on off and left him, Taylor and Franklin put on 68 in the best partnership of the day, just as the phrase “all out by tea” was being bandied widely among the crowd. Both men displayed such sound judgement in shot selection that John Wright's blood pressure must have almost returned to normal. Alas, both fell to lapses in this very area, Franklin wafting at a ball well down legside and Taylor going the way of Guptill.

The one New Zealand batsman who was obviously not trying very hard to concentrate more than usual was Daniel Vettori, whose inventive urgency was untrammelled and effective. He was well supported by Reece Young, with whom he has an unbroken partnership of 66.

It was even windier than usual in Wellington today, and by mid-afternoon plastic bags, caps, bails and even helmets were being relocated. Umpire Tucker did manage to keep his hat on, but only by gripping the brim firmly at all times, which left his arm permanently raised in the “out” position, which must have unnerved the batsmen.

On such a day the wind is a strategic factor at the Basin, and the fact that Misbah-ul-Haq had his fastest bowler Wahib Riaz bowling into it for most of his overs suggests that he had yet to come to grips with the resulting subtleties.

New Zealand must beg, borrow or steal at least another hundred runs tomorrow to have a decent chance of a first-innings advantage.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Humiliation in Hamilton

BBC News reports that Justo Gallego, 85, has spent almost 50 years building a church entirely from scrap, after he was expelled from a monastery after he contracted tuberculosis. I can match that as an act of faith. I've bought a five-day pass for the second Test between New Zealand and Pakistan at the Basin Reserve, starting on Saturday.

Just before the tea interval on the third day of the first Test, played at Seddon Park, Hamilton last week, commentator Ian Smith was discussing the odds being offered by the bookies on the result. He advised punters to go for the draw, credible advice given that New Zealand had started soundly in making up the first innings deficit of 93 on a pitch that had not been giving the bowlers much help and, if anything, appeared to be getting flatter.

Three hours later Pakistan had won by ten wickets after what was, even by New Zealand standards, an Icelandic bank of a batting collapse, the top seven falling for 35 runs.

The Pakistan bowling was good, which should come as no surprise in a Test match. Their fielding was superb, which was astonishing given how slapstick-bad it was when Pakistan visited at the end of 2009. The New Zealand batsmen (in whom as I have written before, the talent of the team resides) committed collective suicide by poor shot (if they had actually tried to shoot themselves, they would have missed). This was particularly disappointing after good batting performances in the first two Tests in India recently (Ross Taylor, run out by a direct hit when responding to a call from Kane Williamson is absolved from this general criticism, but is in far from top form).

Tim McIntosh has borne the brunt of the blame. He has never looked convincing as a Test opener, but has managed to make runs just often enough to avoid the axe. Of course, most established first-class batsmen would make runs in Tests from time to time. Doing so regularly is what is difficult. The fact that there is no obvious alternative opener has helped keep McIntosh in the side too.

Naturally, the media has focused on the failings of the home team, so Pakistan has not been given the praise it deserves for producing such a convincing win despite being without at least six players who would be in its best line-up. Salman Butt and the brilliant opening bowling partnership of Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Aamer await their fate on spotfixing charges, Saeed Ajmal returned home because of his father's sudden death, wicketkeeper Zulquarnan Haider fled during the recent series against South Africa in the UAE, claiming some sort of cricketing asylum and, in the long Pakistani tradition of botched selection, Mohammad Yousef, one of the outstanding batsmen of the age, has been ignored. In all my years watching cricket no country has produced more naturally talented cricketers than Pakistan, and none has been remotely as inventive in finding ways to squander their gifts.

There is, I regret to say, a certain lack of excitement here about this series. The betting scandals, the fact that Pakistan were here this time last year and the poor showing of the home team have all contributed to this. Even those professional enthusiasts the marketing people seem unmotivated by the prospect. The series is being promoted with the least inspiring slogan in the history of advertising:
It's the last international tour for a very, very long time.
which was presumably chosen just ahead of “We'll probably all be dead this time next year”.

But I'll be there, so watch this space.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Random thoughts on the Ashes: Sydney

This 2010/11 Ashes has shown that, in a perfect world, Test cricket would always be played in five-match series. If this series had finished one-all at Perth after three games the sages would have declared the two sides to be evenly matched, but Australia with a few more problems to solve. It took the last two games to reveal the extent of the difference in quality between the two teams.

Of course, when one side is far superior to the other, as was the case in too many series between England and Australia in the nineties and noughties, and against the West Indies in the eighties, a long series is superfluous, but this has not happened that often in cricket history. We have a two-match series against Pakistan beginning here in New Zealand today, which is no use to anybody (I shall report from the second Test at the Basin nevertheless).

For England, weaknesses identified at the start of the tour turned into strengths, particularly Alistair Cook, whose place was in doubt halfway through the last English season. He accumulated his runs so smoothly that news that he had batted longer than any Englishman in any Ashes series came as a surprise. Boycott and Barrington just seemed to bat longer, I suppose. Why the Australians did not pitch the ball up to him more? That is one of many questions they will ask themselves in the weeks and months to come.

The big bonus for England was the depth of the fast bowling. At the beginning of the series Stuart Broad was said by many to be crucial to the team's chances, but was not missed after he was injured in the second Test. How many teams have been able to drop their leading wicket-taker half way through the series, yet improve the team by doing so? This is what England achieved by replacing Finn with Bresnan. Anderson was world class, his control of reverse swing magnificent.

Despite the overwhelming scale of the victory England are not as good as some say, nor Australia as bad. This Australian side saw off New Zealand, West Indies and Pakistan easily enough last year, and remain a first division side, albeit one flirting with relegation. Optimism levels here in New Zealand remain low looking ahead to the two-Test series in Australia next November.

England have to lose the habit of throwing away a game a series (Perth, and at the Oval against Pakistan). A crushing defeat in South Africa this time last year was avoided only thanks to two last-wicket survival acts. Both sides are at home to India later this year, an effective test of quality and progress in both cases.

The composition of a team selected from both sides has been discussed in various media outlets. Some think that only Hussey would make it from the Australian team, but this going too far. I would pick Haddin ahead of Prior, as his runs came at more difficult times and because his glovework was tidier. It has been suggested that Prior was better because he took more catches, but wicketkeepers are judged by what they miss, not what they catch.

I am tempted to argue that, the Adelaide double century excepted (and others were scoring runs there) Pietersen threw it away too often and contributed less than the other batsmen, Collingwood apart, so Watson should take his place. Talk of Watson moving down the order is mysterious, as he has done a good job as an opener, apart from the comedy running between the wickets. Also, it seems to take the pressure off his bowling.

I watched more of this than any other Ashes series, with the possible exception of 2002/03, when I was working from home and could pass off time spent in front of the television as research for my role as a CricInfo writer. It has been an interesting and entertaining series, but not a classic, as none of the four tests that finished were close. The most tension was felt at Brisbane, before it became obvious that England's rescue act was being mounted in a shallow park pond, not a stormy ocean. It was a historic series though, as it leaves Andrew Strauss alongside only Len Hutton and Mike Brearley (who, as Tony Greig is never slow to point out, did it against the Australian 2nd/3rd XI) as the only England captains to beat Australia home and away.

Roll on Ashes 2013.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Random thoughts on the Ashes: Melbourne

When England last retained the Ashes as they just have, by winning the penultimate Test thereby ensuring that the series could not be lost, the fact was noted only in passing. It was 29 July 1972 and I watched it on Grandstand on our new colour TV. The game finished mid-afternoon on the third day, Kent's own Derek Underwood routing the Aussies with ten wickets on a sickly Headingley pitch about which Australians mutter dark conspiracy theories to this day.

There were few celebrations and no post-match presentation ceremony (there was nothing to present). England's captain, Ray Illingworth, might have had time for a quick beer before going back to Leicestershire to lead the team in the Sunday League the next day. Tony Greig played for Sussex at Arundel, a 350-mile drive away (John Snow's name is conspicuous in its absence from that day's Sussex teamlist; he was never the county game's most enthusiastic devotee).

I suppose that in 1972 we were a bit too Celia Johnson for our own good, but in 2010 we have surely moved too far in the direction of Lady Gaga. David Cameron was effusive in his congratulations and invited the team (or the “group” as it is fashionably known) to No 10. BBC World News led with the Ashes for many hours on Wednesday, which even during the slowest news period of the year is getting things seriously out of proportion (Afghanistan anybody?). It wouldn't have been so bad if reporter James Pearce had not been so ignorant of cricket history, referring to England v Australia as “cricket's oldest contest” when USA v Canada beats it by 18 years. He also speculated that Ponting would be replaced as Australia's captain “as soon as the series ends”, which he certainly will not, as captain of the No 1 ranked ODI team and the World Cup only a few weeks away. The change will take place after that.

Hopelessly uptight as we were in the seventies, our reluctance to throw street parties across the country was at least informed by the knowledge that the series had not been decided. The fifth Test of the '72 series was outstanding, and ended with Australia winning on the sixth day (the extra day was added as the series was still undetermined, which was exactly the point). The stories that have proliferated in both hemispheres explaining why the English are so much better than the Australians are going to look pretty silly if Australia wins in Sydney.

That is not the most likely outcome, but twice already in this series a badly beaten team has come back to win the following Test and it could happen again, if Mitch Johnson rediscovers his inner Dr Strangelove and resists The Fiendish Plot of Dr Fu Manchu, if Michael Clarke finds his form... I was going to add, if the Australian selectors see sense and drop Hughes and Smith, and include Nathan Hauritz, but that moment has already passed. Usman Khawaja comes in for the injured Ponting, but will bat at three, giving the hapless Hughes another chance as opener (I don't recall an Aussie opener as vulnerable since Andrew “Hooking” Hilditch, the current chairman of the Australian selectors, which may explain something), the richly promising but under-ripe Smith remains too, and they're sticking with Michael Beer, the good form that led to his original selection no doubt lost in the three weeks that he's been trailling the team around Australia.

While the Australian selectors have made and compounded mistakes galore, England's have got everything right. Winning the Ashes with a four-man attack including Bresnan? Can't see a problem there.

Jonathan Agnew described the first day's play at Melbourne as the most one-sided he'd ever seen in Tests, including those involving Bangladesh and Zimbabwe. There might be a few that can be dragged up from New Zealand's recent past that would contend. I immediately thought of the first day of the fifth Test of the 1989 Ashes, where openers Mark Taylor and Geoff Marsh batted all day.

And then there was Ponting. It's difficult to engender the appropriate degree of outrage at his outburst over the third umpire's correct decision to rule Pietersen not out for two reasons. The first is that during the Test Channel 9 replayed the Dennis Lillee aluminium bat incident at Perth in 1979, which culminated the Australian captain Greg Chappell coming on to the field with a replacement and Lillee hurling the offending piece of metal 30 metres across the Waca. In comparison the Ponting incident looks tame. Also, Ponting got it so wrong that the effect was comical rather than provoking. His expression of incomprehension as Aleem Dar used his forearm to explain that the “hotspot” seen on the screen could not have been produced by the ball could not have been bettered by either Laurel or Hardy.

I hope that Ponting has not played his last Test. He has been the great batsman of the past decade and deserves to go out with a century.

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 ...