Sunday, February 17, 2013

New Zealand v England, Third T20 International, the Cake Tin, Wellington, 15 February 2013

“It's not the despair, Laura. I can take the despair. It's the hope I can't stand”—Brian Stimpson (played by John Cleese) in the 1987 film Clockwise.

Cleese (a Somerset supporter by the way) might have been speaking for New Zealand cricket fans. Our hearts were brim-full of hope as we made our way to the Cake Tin for the decider in the three-game T20 series against the visitors from the frozen north. England won the first game, in Auckland, resoundingly. But in Hamilton, New Zealand bounced back like Tigger, to take the game by 55 runs. That’s the nature of T20 cricket, of course: bingo in coloured clothing.

Over the course of two-and-a-half hours all those hopes drained into the harbour as England dominated the game as it did the seas at the height of Empire.

Among the optimistic throng were my Waikato Correspondent (who had presented me with the best Valentine’s Day gift ever—a 1961 Wisden) and (this was something a thought that I would never live to see) my Island Bay Correspondent who has previously regarded the prospect of an evening’s cricket with the enthusiasm of a tuna with a booking at a sushi restaurant.

Stuart Broad put New Zealand in and, together with Steve Finn, subjected openers Hamish Rutherford and Martin Guptill to a disciplined and hostile opening spell, with plenty of short stuff and a tight line that offered little leeway for shots square of the wicket.

The assembled correspondents got a shock when Rutherford drove the first boundary of the innings: it was then we discovered that we were only a few metres away from six flame throwers that shot towers of fire into the air in celebration of every New Zealand boundary. On another night this would have been a welcome aid to spectator comfort; I have worked up a fair Captain Oates impersonation watching under the Cake Tin’s lights over the years. But this was another balmy day in Wellington’s long hot summer and it was pleasant to sit in the open air.

Rutherford gloved a short ball to short fine leg off Broad in the fourth over, but Brendon McCullum and Guptill found the change bowlers easier to score from. By the end of the ninth over New Zealand were 60 for one, with plenty of wickets left to push towards the 175 or so that we expected would be necessary to give the home team the advantage when England replied.

That was when the trouble started. Wickets fell regularly as the English attack bowled with intelligence and discipline. The flame throwers were unused from the thirteenth to sixteenth overs, as no boundaries were hit in this period, a musical with no songs. Guptill remained, but never got going. When he was out in the penultimate over he had scored 59 from 55 balls with only three boundaries, nowhere near the going rate in this form of the game.

Broad (three for 15) and Finn (18 off four overs) were outstanding. New Zealand batsmen have little experience of hostile, accurate short bowling and find it difficult to deal with. This does not bode well for the weeks to come. Kent’s new captain (I wore my Kent shirt in his honour) James Tredwell was proficient with one for 31. Jade Dernbach was expensive but interesting with his back-of-the-hand variations and took three wickets. The surprise package was Joe Root, the next-big-thing as a batsman, and a phantom off spinner, as Ross Taylor discovered. Taylor put Root in the stand over deep mid-wicket, but failed to spot that Root had held the next ball back when he tried a repeat and was caught by Bairstow on the boundary.

The fielding was almost impeccable, the spilling of a hard chance at mid off by Finn the only lapse. New Zealand finished on 139 for eight. We knew that it was not enough, but did not perceive by how very much it was not enough.

Alex Hales and Michael Lumb, both of Nottinghamshire, opened the batting. The last time there was such an uneven contest between the English and the locals in these parts, one side had guns and the other did not. Hales hit two fours in the first over off Boult as a sign of things to come. Mitchell McClenaghan started with a maiden, but Lumb hit the first two balls of his next over for six.

New Zealand had the chance of a breakthrough when Hales skyed a balled in from of square leg. Taylor was closest. Elliott set off at pace from the outfield and could have taken it reasonably comfortably. But Brendon McCullum had has eye on the ball, and the intent and singularity of purpose of a shopper at the January sales making a beeline for a little Versace number at 75% off. Nothing was going to get in his way. Both players who might have taken the catch wisely placed their own preservation above the needs of their team and stayed out of the road, just as a sensible person would not attempt to reason with a charging bull. McCullum executed a dive with pike and twist as he leapt past Elliott, but the ball dropped through his gloves to the ground.

That was it, pretty much. England raced to their target, reaching it in the thirteenth over. Lumb completed the carnage with a six onto the roof of the stadium, a smite even bigger than Martin Guptill’s against South Africa last year. Lumb made 53 from 34 balls, Hales 80 from 42. Lumb hit five sixes, Hales four. The astonishing thing is that both players were on the plane the following day, not needed for the ODI series that followed. England have Cook and Trott ready to replace them.

The flame throwers, reserved for New Zealand wickets, were still throughout the second half of the match, so it was an energy-efficient defeat, at least.

A one-day series of three games follows, and I will be in Dunedin when the Test series begins there on 6 March, despair notwithstanding.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Wellington v Canterbury, Plunket Shield, fourth day of four, 3 February 2013

376 runs is plenty to score on the final day of any game, even with all ten wickets still standing. That was Wellington’s task at the start of another day so gorgeous that it had a modelling contract and was driving around in a sports car with its footballer boyfriend.

In the home team’s favour was a pitch that might have been prepared by Mary Poppins, perfect in every way as it was, from a batsman’s point of view at least. Wellington’s sole spinner, Luke Woodcock, had been little used on Saturday. Today, almost three-quarters of the overs were bowled by Canterbury’s three spinners. Neither approach was right or wrong. Whatever the style of the bowler, the surface offered no charity and wickets had to be mined for, using guile and accuracy as tools.

Of course, this means that the pitch was far from perfect. A cricket pitch for a first-class match should be in a state of constant evolution from first ball to last, presenting different challenges from day to day, even from session to session. This one had all the variety of Scottish cuisine.

Left-arm fast-medium bowler Ryan McCone made an early breakthrough when Josh Brodie edged an outswinger to keeper David Fulton, who came into the match through the revolving door installed at the Basin by the New Zealand selectors (see yesterday’s post). Fulton is the brother of Canterbury captain Peter Fulton (but no relation of his namesake the former Kent captain), and should he never play first-class cricket again, will become a quiz question as this one day will constitute his entire career.

Wellington skipper and first-innings centurion Stephen Murdoch soon followed, unaccountably leaving a straight one from trundler Brett Findlay that removed his off stump. Decent fellow as I am sure Murdoch is, nobody was sorry to see him go, as his departure brought in Jesse Ryder. This was the point of the day as far as everyone was concerned. If he was there for three hours he would win the game for Wellington, if dismissed cheaply the game was as good as Canterbury’s.

Ryder was soon away, swatting a six over mid wicket off Findlay, then cover driving a four in the same over. He was as harsh on Todd Astle, and it was a surprise that Fulton persisted with the leg spinner. Out of the blue, Astle tossed one right up and Ryder’s drive turned it into a yorker, which removed his leg stump. Some spectators were out of the gate before Ryder had left the field. I braced myself for an adjectival outburst and the thud of bat against dressing shed wall, but none came. Later that day it emerged that Ryder had been signed up by the Delhi Dilettantes (I may not have the name quite right) in the IPL for NZ$300,000 plus, which would bring equitability to the most combustible temperament.

The general feeling was that only the formalities remained and that by mid-afternoon we would be strolling around the harbour enjoying Wellington’s apparent relocation on the Mediterranean. Not for the last time today, the home team displayed fortitude and fought back to a point where the game was close to level pegging. Michael Papps and Grant Elliott added 52 by lunch, 236 short of the target.

McCone, switching to the southern end immediately after the interval, trapped Papps lbw with an inswinger in his first over. McCone’s ability to produce a fine delivery at the start of a spell was to be crucial later in the afternoon. Papps made 65, continuing his good form. Like Fulton, he is being touted as a Test opener, but the same doubts about his class apply.

Luke Woodcock edged an Astle googly to slip and thoughts turned once more to gelato on the waterfront. For the second time, Elliott formed half of a match-levelling partnership, this time with Harry Boam, returning to the game after a day off on Saturday (see “revolving door”, above). After a brief period of consolidation, they too went on the attack—a draw would end what little chance Wellington had in the Plunket Shield as much as a defeat would.

The biggest surprise was not that the sixth-wicket partnership proved so durable, but that a crowd of about 200 was there to enjoy it in the sun. It is not often that the word “crowd” can be reasonably deployed in a report on a Plunket Shield match, and while it was not exactly Woodstock, there was a hint of an atmosphere around the pickets during the afternoon.

Fulton placed strong reliance on Todd Astle, who bowled with only brief respites at the northern end. Astle played a Test during the recent tour of Sri Lanka and is often mentioned for the spinning all-rounder’s role against England in the absence of the injured Vettori. Despite his dismissal of Ryder, Astle was unimpressive. He bowled far too much loose stuff—three successive full tosses followed by a long hop in one over—which he largely got away with here, but that would be punished severely by competent Test batsmen.

However, Astle did break the Elliott/Boam partnership just as it appeared to be pushing Wellington ahead. Elliott top-edged a sweep for 91 with the stand worth exactly 100. Another 125 were needed with four wickets left.

For most of the first two sessions slow left-armer Roneel Hira was ignored by his captain, at one stage having bowled only four overs in contrast to 13 of the non-descript off spin of Tim Johnston. With Boam booming and Kuggeleijn making a confident start with four, four and six from the last three balls of an Astle over, Fulton turned to Hira almost in desperation. He struck almost at once, beating Kuggeleijn through the air and bowling him.

The ever-aggressive Mark Gillespie, who, whatever the situation, bats with the demeanour of a man who has been served a plate of bad oysters in an expensive restaurant[1], put on another 41 with Boam, taking Wellington to within 63 of their target. Hira then produced another clever delivery, one that went on with the arm to have Boam lbw. Boam departed and twenty seconds after disappearing from view treated us to the dressing room explosion that we had expected from Ryder. An oath measured on the Richter Scale and work for the plasterers today, I think.

Ili Tugaga continued the attack, but did so brainlessly, holing out off the impressive Hira for two. Last man Tipene Friday came out to join Gillespie with 57 still required. Unlike Tugaga, Friday focused on defence, at which he looked well-organised, and left the run scoring to Gillespie, who started turning down singles, a strategy that I usually deplore, but which was vindicated here.

A four and a six off Hira was followed by a maiden by Astle to Friday. Twenty came from Hira’s next over, including two sixes high over the head of the man on the mid-wicket boundary. Friday resisted another over from Astle, and with 21 needed Fulton brought back McCone from the southern end. His first delivery settled it. A slow yorker, audacious in conception and perfectly executed. It clipped Gillespie’s leg stump and gave Canterbury victory by 20 runs.

The cricket was not always top class, but as a match it was wonderful. There’s nothing like a well-contested game of first-class cricket and when it is staged at the Basin in the sun it is a glimpse of Paradise. Auckland visit next weekend, by which time we will all be growing olives and oranges in the capital.

[1] My Waikato correspondent points out that I use food images quite often, and she has a point.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Wellington v Canterbury, Plunket Shield, third day of four, 2 February 2013

It is summer in Wellington. Proper, Cider With Rosie, lazy-hazy-crazy, eggs-frying-on-the-pavement summer. Day after day of blue skies and ice cream. A Test match of a summer, not the T20 substitutes we have had for the past couple of years. Where better to be than the Basin, and for a first-class game too?

Five others agreed with me. We half-dozen constituted the crowd when the first ball was bowled at 10.30 (though the possibility that a couple of the others had wandered in for a stroll, fallen asleep in the sun and awoke surprised to find a cricket match going on cannot be discounted).

Canterbury began 43 without loss in their second innings, a lead of 16. Peter Fulton and George Worker were the openers. Fulton is being touted for the troublesome opener’s spot in the Test side, along with most of the rest of the male population under 50. He is scoring runs: 94 in the first innings here, and has previous experience, of ten Tests. I was going to write “previous form” but this would be misleading as an average of 20 does not constitute form.

The problem with the New Zealand batting line up is that, Ross Taylor apart, it consists entirely of men who would be better off at No 5 or 6 on the order. I would move Taylor up to No 3, followed by Brownlie, Williamson, Guptill (who has not made it as an opener, but is too good to drop) and Watling. This would leave McCullum to open with whoever is in form and appears up for it when the first Test comes along.

Fulton moved smoothly enough to his second fifty of the match and, with some fluent striking, demonstrated why he is being spoken of as an answer to New Zealand’s opener question. However, he also showed why he is not the right answer. He favours the onside a little too much, almost giving Gillespie a caught-and-bowled as he tried to work one from too far outside off. Then he was out, loosely driving Tipene Friday to backward point when set. But is there anyone better?

Fulton’s dismissal apart, Canterbury were untroubled in the morning session, reaching 158 for one at lunch. Some spectators, looking at the card in the paper, might have asked “why don’t they put Harry Boam on? He took three wickets in the first innings.” Boam could not bowl because he is no longer playing in this game. But he will be playing tomorrow. This curious state of affairs is because of the regulations allowing the Black Caps management to take players in and out of matches at their whim (the regulations don’t actually say “whim” but it’s a fair summary). So here the two keepers, Luke Ronchi of Wellington and Tom Latham of Canterbury, are being withdrawn on the fourth day so that they can travel to Whangarei to play in the tour opener against an England XI (this is the correct term for a non-international fixture by the way). I can just about put up with that, albeit it sneeringly.

But Grant Elliott swanning in fashionably late on the third day (which is why Boam dropped out today) is intolerable. The powers that be seem to think that our international cricketers need to be rested as much as the average granny, and that Elliott could not stand four days under the harsh Wellington sun a mere week after returning from South Africa. At least Elliott gets two days’ play. James Franklin, present today, gets no game time at all.

Jeetan Patel was also at the Basin, but did not play, for different reasons. He has taken a lot of criticism for his less-than-steadfast approach to the South African quicks. In the First World War he would have been shot for cowardice. But so what? He is picked as a spinner. Patel is more highly valued in Warwickshire, for whom he was a key member of their Championship-winning side last year. With Vettori out for the Tests, New Zealand need all their spinners to be doing as much bowling as possible. In fact, the more all the international players can play the better, but this would be dismissed as laughably old-fashioned by John Buchanan and his acolytes, I have no doubt.

After lunch Mark Gillespie returned having bowled a long, tidy, if unthreatening spell in the morning. He was rewarded with the wicket of Stewart, bowled by an outswinger. On the boundary in front of me Gillespie explained to Wellington coach Jamie Siddons that he was swinging it both ways, possibly at the same time. He had an outstanding Test at the Basin against South Africa last year, but has not featured since, because of injury and the mysterious way in which the national selectors move at times. His day may have gone, though he would do a job if called upon against England.

Dean Brownlie, the best batsman in the recent Test debacle in South Africa, was next in. I had not seen much of Brownlie, so was looking forward to his innings. He proceeded tidily to 25, when he top-edged a hook off Tipene Friday and was caught at mid off.

At the other end, George Worker moved towards the second century of his career efficiently, if edgily at times. No doubt he will be propelled into the Test team by some pundits. His innings was not that compelling, but he may be a contender soon enough. At 107 he edged Friday to slip where Jesse Ryder—who else?—took a spectacular catch, the best bit of cricket of the day. My plan to seduce Ryder into an international return by way of fast food appears to have failed. His catches, as well as his runs, will be missed.

Tipene Friday removed Brent Findlay next ball, finishing with a career-best four for 67. Friday makes good use of a tall and solid frame. He bowls off a 20-pace run up, which only gets properly under way after ten paces. Sorting this out will add more pace, which, at a guess, stands around the 130 kph mark at the moment. There is plenty of promise here.

At tea Canterbury were 252 for five. This left the South Islanders with a tricky choice. These sides are the bottom of the table, and need a win to maintain an interest in the competition. Canterbury needed to push on in order to give themselves all day tomorrow to bowl Wellington out on a placid pitch, but in doing so could not afford to lose wickets and leave a target of under 300, or the game would be thrown away. In the final session they were rewarded for being positive. First Latham maintained momentum impressively with 57 from 72 deliveries before holing out to Tugaga on the mid-wicket boundary off Elliott. Astle followed for 37 leaving things evenly poised again. Enter Roneel Hira, who set about the Wellington attack to to the extent of a career-high 57, from just 44 balls, including the only three sixes hit all day. He put on an unbeaten 82 with Ryan McCone, enabling Fulton to declare to leave Wellington a target of 384 to win and a tricky 20 minutes to survive tonight.

Michael Papps and Josh Brodie were there at the end, but Matt McEwan struck Brodie with a short-pitched delivery and looked the most likely to take a wicket.

It was a hugely enjoyable day in the sun. There’s nothing as good as a well-contested first-class game. Wellington need 371 more tomorrow on a Mother Theresa of a pitch, so benign is it. Should be a cracking day.

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 ...