Sunday, January 11, 2015

New Zealand v Sri Lanka, 2nd Test, Day 5, Basin Reserve

It is a measure of how much the New Zealand team has come on that day five, though certainly exciting, was never tense. Whenever the seed of the thought that it was time for another wicket showed the least sign of germinating, a wicket would duly be taken. The only time nervousness took its seat in the RA Vance Stand was when some dark clouds appeared to the south with eight down and tea looming.

The day showed how New Zealand has grown stronger as a team. No longer do one or two individuals bear the responsibility for bringing about a win on the fifth day.

The close catching was wonderful, starting with Neesham’s fingertip grasp to get rid of Prasad early in the day. Best of all was Williamson’s catch to dismiss Mathews. Fielders often have a second, or third, grasp at a parried catch, usually desperately and unsuccessfully. Few have looked as calm or deliberate as Williamson did as he kept his eye fixed on the ball to take the catch, as if that had been the plan all along. There was a superfluous amount of national pride taken in the catch’s selection as ESPN’s play of the day.

A year ago most of us had not heard of Mark Craig. He went to the West Indies as a replacement for Jeetan Patel, who turned the trip down in favour of continuing his successful relationship with Warwickshire in county cricket. Craig claimed four wickets in each innings on debut at Sabina Park, didn’t do much for his next four tests, then took ten in the series-levelling victory against Pakistan in Sharjah, thus establishing himself over Ish Sodhi as leading spinner.

Craig did not have the metronomic accuracy or variations of flight that Daniel Vettori brought to the side, but he takes more wickets in the fourth innings than Vettori did in the final three or four years of his test career. Craig bowls more loose stuff than Vettori, but mixes them with wicket-takers.

Craig has better support than Vettori. During the morning he bowled in partnership with Trent Boult, who bowled five overs for nine runs, building the pressure that led to Craig getting two wickets in two balls at the other end.

The day’s only sour note was the dismissal of Kumar Sangakkara. BJ Watling did not even appeal for his take from an attempted cut to count as a catch. Bowler Trent Boult’s enthusiasm persuaded McCullum to make a somewhat diffident request for a review, something I am certain he would not have done for any other batsman. On the basis of a ripple on the snickometer and a faint patch on hotspot, neither of which was conclusive proof of contact, Sangakkara was given out.

This should not have been enough to overturn the umpire’s not-out decision. For that to occur, the first viewing of replays, hotspot etc should be enough to refute the original decision.

New Zealand are now fifth in the world rankings. A win in the short series in England—a realistic aspiration—would probably move them up to third. There is a resilience about the team that is new. Players who have performed adequately, such as Wagner, find that this is not enough to hold their place. Almost the whole team is young and will likely improve.

This was one of the finest test matches at which I have been present for all or most of. There has not been another at which probable victory for one team has metamorphosed into a win for the other. Perhaps the closest in this respect was the first test at Hamilton in December 1999, when the West Indies contrived to turn a first-innings opening stand of 276 (Sherwin and Campbell were the batsmen) into an eight-wicket defeat.

There was individual brilliance from a great player and a great player to-be. The southerly showed mercy on us for three of the five days, and my yellow-spined family has two new members (1943 and 1953). A perfect start to 2015.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

New Zealand v Sri Lanka, 2nd Test, 4th day, Basin Reserve

As I have grown older I have become less certain about stuff. No longer do I believe, as I once fervently did, that Mr Gladstone had the solution to the Irish Question. I am not as sure as I was that gherkins are the ideal complement to a roast dinner, and I concede that it is worth spending more than $10 on a shirt.

But on one matter I will not be shaken. That test match cricket is the finest public entertainment that could be conceived of, and that its existence is sufficient of itself to mark us out as a sophisticated civilisation.

That belief has been reinforced by today’s play at the Basin. One day I will write about the best days’ test cricket I have had the privilege of attending. This day will be on the list, no doubt about it.

The facts are these: Kane Williamson and BJ Watling, having batted throughout the final session of play yesterday, kept their wickets intact until well into the final session today before withdrawing unbeaten with their respective highest test scores of 242 and 142.

More than that, together they put on 365 for the sixth wicket, more than any pair has managed in any of the 2,156 test matches that have been played since 1877. Remarkably, the previous record was set at the Basin last February and BJ Watling was involved then too, with Brendon McCullum. I would have to check Bradman’s record more carefully to be certain, but a quick perusal of CricInfo does not produce any other example of a batsman breaking his own world partnership record.

And I was there to see it. Watching a world partnership record being set has always been a spectating ambition of mine. I had thought that being there for the first 150 or so of the McCullum/Watling record would be as close as I would get.

There were not a huge number of ravishing shots. Between them, Williamson and Watling hit only 27 fours (and one six for the latter). A death-march slow outfield did not help, but the beauty of the batting was in the discipline and tempo. After an hour’s play today I wrote a note questioning if they might be a bit slow, it being too soon to bat just for time. They knew what they were doing: ensuring that the foundation was absolutely solid. When the pace quickened in the afternoon, it was not through big hits, but precisely placed shots for one and two. So very clever.

Williamson’s concentration is extraordinary. He could sit through the Ring Cycle followed by a reading of War and Peace without showing the least sign of weariness. Nine test centuries and he is not 25 until August. Watch him bat and remember that you are watching one of the greats.

On the radio Allen McLaughlin has been making the point that BJ Watling featured in none of the World XIs picked by various pundits at the end of the year. Most pick AB de Villiers as keeper. De Villiers is a fine batsman, but a manufactured custodian. Watling is a superior keeper and, as a double world-record breaker in the last twelve months, has the batting credentials.

Conventional wisdom would have it that New Zealand—one up in a two-match series—should bat on well into the last day, so as to remove Sri Lanka’s chance of winning completely. Some of us hoped that McCullum would be bold enough to give Sri Lanka four or five overs at the end of the day, chasing a target of 450 plus.

But Brendon McCullum likes to roll the dice. He is interested in winning test matches as much as test series. The declaration came earlier than we had dared to hope (or in some cases, feared). It was thrilling, audacious and so smart. He set Sri Lanka 390 in 107 overs. Very tough, but possible, with Sangakkara in the line-up. And Sri Lanka have to have a go if they are to save the series, the risks they must take thus increasing New Zealand’s chances. Test cricket needs captains prepared to be as bold as McCullum.

Contrast with Steve Smith, grimly batting on at the MCG last week until India were completely shut out, cutting his own chances of victory off at the knees.

What will happen on day five? Boult and Southee might swing it like the Glenn Miller Orchestra. Sangakkara might emulate Arthur Fagg and score two double hundreds in the same game. Or it might peter out into a tame draw. The uncertainty will quicken our step down the Kent Terrace on the way to the Basin on Wednesday.

Monday, January 5, 2015

New Zealand v Sri Lanka, 2nd Test, Day 3, Basin Reserve

Good test cricket is all about change, which takes many forms. Yesterday’s play was the French Revolution up to the Reign Of Terror. It began with a wave of optimism and the expectation of quick victory; it ended in confusion and recrimination (though any resemblance between Kumar Sangakkara and Robespierre is not intentional).

Day three was the Industrial Revolution. Progress was extremely slow and for long periods it appeared that nothing was happening. Yet underneath, thanks to the hard work of a few individuals, profound transformation was taking place.

For the first hour, Latham and Rutherford were relatively untroubled, helped by some loose bowling from Sri Lanka. With four right-arm seamers of similar pace, none swingers of the ball, it seemed that Trevor Bailey’s dictum that the captain could change the bowler but not the bowling seemed to apply to Sri Lanka.

But Rutherford fell for a Mathews ruse (one of many—see below). Second slip was sent to third man to whence Rutherford steered a catch just a few balls later. He left the field knowing that he has not done enough to make certain of enjoying business class service on the way to England in May.

In Pradeep’s next over, Latham followed one to give the bowler his second wicket of the morning. Pradeep and his colleagues bowled less generously as the morning went on.

Now Herath was bowling his left-arm spin from the Government House end. He is the third-ranked bowler in the world at the moment, which is good for a rather chubby fellow who clearly dislikes fielding. Long may he prosper. He bowled tidily all day, but saved his best delivery for the scoreless Ross Taylor, who played slightly across one that spun enough to clip off stump.

McCullum began cautiously, unlike the first innings but in the same way as he did last year to cast off his triple hundred. No repeat today. He added to a somewhat unfortunate match (lost toss, golden duck, dropped catch) by wildly optimistic use of the DRS for an lbw decision against him that it took only a fleeting glance to see was cleaning out middle stump.

For taking quick, stylish runs from a tired attack, Jimmy Neesham is your man. But he does not yet do attrition very well. He was out as the result of effective use of the DRS by Sri Lanka. It showed that he had been hit in front of the stumps, not outside the line as it appeared at the time.

Angelo Mathews is the sort of captain who is so full of bright ideas that he could illuminate a day/night match from the lightbulbs popping on above his head. Now, a slip and two gullies. Now, three slips, but spread out with gaps between them. Now, give the new ball to the spinner. In the over before lunch, faced exclusively by McCullum, there were three complete changes of field.

As we have seen, one of these bright ideas accounted for Rutherford, but I have a feeling that Mathews might be a touch exasperating for those he leads.

In mid-afternoon BJ Watling joined Kane Williamson, who had been there since first down. They worked together, perfecting the steam engine for New Zealand, for the rest of the day. Williamson has become New Zealand’s best batsman, with the shots for most situations and the judgement to use them wisely.

Watling—McCullum’s partner in the record-breaking 352-run partnership here last year—is almost as reliable, if a trifle over-dependent on the third man region as a source of runs.

How different it would have been had either of the chances that Williamson offered been accepted. Perhaps the game would already be over. On 30, he hit the ball hard back to the bowler Herath, who could not hold on. On 60 he hooked Prasad straight to Pradeep at fine leg. It looked terrible, but I suspect that the pohutukawas did for him. They bloom regally at this time of year, but in the shade of a cricket ball, and it was against this background that Pradeep was trying to pick out the orb as it neared.

At the close, New Zealand are 118 ahead with five wickets left. The pitch has plenty of runs left in it, but is not a road. Another hundred might be enough to give the attack space to bowl Sri Lanka out, 150 makes New Zealand favourites. Will day four be the Velvet Revolution or the Prague Spring?

Sunday, January 4, 2015

New Zealand v Sri Lanka, 2nd Test, 2nd day, Basin Reserve

Let me take you back, my friends, to the December of 1946. At the Sydney Cricket Ground on the 13th of that month, Don Bradman made 234 against England. It was his eleventh test double century. The next time a batsman scored his eleventh double century was today at the Basin Reserve, and I was there.

Once in a while you wish for something very, very hard and it comes true. I wished for a Kumar Sangakkara century and got a double.

The match situation—five down and 143 behind at the start of the day—constrained Sangakkara from deploying the full range of his talent. He was a great actor performing at a matinee, holding something back for the second house. But a bad first session would have lost Sri Lanka the match, and the series. Now, even if New Zealand bat all day tomorrow, getting back on level terms is the best they can hope for as a reward, all thanks to one great innings.

Through the morning Sangakkara’s focus was on accumulation, featuring some astute running between the wickets with Chandimal. He rarely played a false shot and—the hallmark of a great batsman—always had time to spare. In the afternoon we saw more chocolate-smooth cover drives, back knee almost on the ground, bat over the shoulder in the follow through. There is no sight more pleasing in cricket than a left-hander’s cover drive.

He became a little ragged in the final session as tiredness combined with milking what he could from the tail, to the extent of 148 combined for the seventh, eighth and ninth wicket partnerships. Only then did he offer several chances at the difficult-to-impossible end of the continuum.

One of Trent Boult’s trademark Basin miracle catches—this one half dolphin, half weightless astronaut—was needed to end Sangakkara’s innings, for 203. Every one of the New Zealand team shook his hand before he departed. We should run a cricketing etiquette class; reduced rates for needy Australians.

That Sangakkara is a great batsman is beyond question, but where does he stand among the batting aristocracy? As the best left-hander since Graeme Pollock, I would suggest. Some will favour Brian Lara, and if we are thinking of attack only, I might agree. But Sangakkara combines the fluency of Gower with the obduracy of Lawry and adds something of his own to the compound.

He was well-supported. Chandimal shared a sixth-wicket partnership of 130 without ever quite having his timing, but this did not worry him, suggesting that he has a test-match temperament.

Rangana Herath appears to be the first batsman in test history to choose the airspace over the slips as his preferred scoring area. He got the rough end of the DRS, being given out after more repeat showings than The Sound of Music. Unless it is immediately obvious that the original decision was wrong, it should not be overturned.

The New Zealand openers began the second innings with a 135 deficit and 11 overs to face, something they achieved, though not before some in the RA Vance Stand had begun to applaud Rutherford whenever he left the ball outside off stump, to reinforce and reward positive behaviour. There is a growing feeling that there is a repeating computer glitch that includes him in the test team when he should be in the ODIs.

New Zealand will not be able to put themselves in a winning position on the third day, but could go most of the way to losing the match and drawing the series.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

New Zealand v Sri Lanka, 2nd Test, 1st day, Basin Reserve

Three hundred runs, fifteen wickets. What a perfect distraction test cricket is. Well worth having to be lashed to the heater for half an hour on my return to My Life in Cricket Scorecards Towers so as to mitigate the effects of a day in the teeth of the southerly “breeze”, as we Wellingtonians choose to describe the blastfreezer wind that blights our lives.

The calendar said 3 January; the pitch said St Patrick’s Day. No surprise that Angelo Mathews put New Zealand in. The toss is in international cricket in New Zealand is a meaningless formality, like asking if anybody at a wedding knows any reason why the bride and groom should not be married. This is because Brendon McCullum is, in his own words, “a useless tosser”. He is Superman. He tosses a kryptonite coin.

Tom Latham looked by some way the more secure of New Zealand’s opening pair, yet he was first out, playing at a short ball from Lakmal that he could have left alone. Hamish Rutherford scored 37 from 53 balls, but every shot is the closing scene of a soap opera, leaving you not knowing what will happen next.

Kane Williamson and Ross Taylor took New Zealand through to lunch, the verdancy of the pitch threatening more than it delivered. Is it my imagination, or is Ross Taylor getting more square on? Once or twice there he reminded me, and not in a good way, of the great CJ Tavaré, who would get full-chested against bouncy bowling.

After lunch, it was as if New Zealand’s great year of 2014 had all been a dream. Taylor started it, playing on to Pradeep. That brought in Brendon McCullum, who had been given the keys to the city of Wellington by Mayor Celia Wade-Brown at lunchtime.

He was out first ball, swishing at Lakmal and playing on. I hesitate to say it, given McCullum’s current place at Richie McCaw’s right hand in the New Zealand sporting pantheon, but it was a God-awful shot to play first ball in a test match on a questionable surface.

Only 79 were added after that, and 26 of them were from proper shots by Bracewell and selected grotesqueness from Boult for the last wicket.

Sri Lanka certainly bowled better after lunch, pitching the ball up more and maintaining a stricter off-stump line, but the fact that New Zealand’s three best batsmen all played on (Williamson did so too) is evidence that the pitch was not trustworthy.

In years gone by, the fragile local sporting psyche would have been plunged into gloom by these events, but the recent run of success meant that there was keen anticipation between innings at the prospect of Boult and Southee exploiting the conditions.

The breakthrough came in the ninth over when Karunaratne edged Boult to third slip.

Kumar Sangakkara was next in. Test cricket transcends partisanship, and I was hoping to see a great batsmen make a century. That Sangakkara is a great batsman is beyond question. Only Bradman has made more double hundreds and only him, Pollock, Sutcliffe and Headley, of batsmen who have played more than 20 tests, have done so with a higher average (the admirable Allen McLaughlin of Radio Sport is to be acknowledged as the source of this information).

The Basin crowd rose to its feet for Sangakkara when he passed 12,000 runs in tests, a touching and uplifting moment.

At the other end, Silva became the fourth batsman today to play on, and with delightful quirkiness. His forward defensive sent the ball spinning into the air well above his head. He turned just in time to watch it fall on top of the bails. It was Conan Doyle’s Spedogue’s Drifter come to life.

That was Doug Bracewell’s first wicket on his return to the test team. He took two more before the close. Neil Wagner has reason to be disappointed to be dropped (not a term coaches use these days, but it’s the truth) after a good performance in Christchurch, but it shows how intense competition for places has become. “Depth” and “New Zealand cricket” may now be deployed in the same sentence for purposes other than satire.

So New Zealand won the day. But we may still be blessed with a Sangakkara century tomorrow.

And, did I mention? 1953 Wisden, $20 from the Museum at lunchtime. Perfect day.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Owen Delany Park, Taupo

My Khandallah correspondent and myself have just returned from our Christmas trip to the Waikato (for Christmas, she added the 1958 Wisden to the yellow-spined brotherhood on the library shelves at My Life in Cricket Scorecards Towers, regular readers will be pleased to hear).

There and back we passed by Owen Delany Park on the outskirts at Taupo, in the central North Island. Last year we stopped there to give the dog a run and had a walk round (the accompanying photos are from that visit).
Its location is spectacular, surrounded by forest and overlooked by the dormant volcano Mt Tauhara. On a clear day, the volcanic triplets Mt Ruapehu, Mt Ngarahoe and Mt Tongariro, snow-capped and ready to rumble, can be seen across Lake Taupo. The lake is the biggest volcano of the lot. When it last let loose, in 176 AD, writers in China and Rome commented on the curious colours of the skies, unaware that were looking at volcanic detritus from Taupo. There has been no bigger eruption anywhere on Earth since.

The ground itself is quintessential New Zealand, perfect for watching under blue skies from the roomy grass banks that form the arena.

What a shame then that it is not a cricket ground any more. The park is still a venue for King Country rugby and there was an athletics track marked out when we were there, but there is no longer a cricket block on the main ground. Bat and ball are relegated to the outer ovals behind the stand.

Not so long ago, Owen Delany Park was a regular host of Northern Districts matches, and an international venue too, staging ODIs over the holiday period from 1999 to 2001.

Owen Delany Park and its ineffective floodlights
It was the ground at which I first watched cricket under lights, and from where I first reported for CricInfo, so it has good associations for me besides being a pleasant place to watch cricket.

The floodlit game was played between Northern Districts and Otago in my first New Zealand summer, just after Christmas 1997. I say “lights”, though the pallid luminosity that emanated from the four towers stationed for that purpose around the ground barely warranted the term. The point when the power of the artificial light surpassed that of the natural light would never have been reached under a full moon.

The lack of effective lighting was the main reason for Owen Delany Park’s downfall. Seddon Park in Hamilton acquired state-of-the-art lights in 2002 and took over the day/night games that had previously gone to Taupo. In the last few years, Northern Districts has had an enhanced choice of venues, with new grounds, both with excellent facilities, at Mt Maunganui and Whangarei.

A little under two years later I was back at Owen Delany Park, this time with pen in hand. I had recently forsaken educating for the freelance life, and planned to send CricInfo daily reports on New Zealand A v the West Indians. These were the infant days of digital communication when “wireless” still meant the old wooden radio in your grandparents’ loft. I wrote the pieces at the ground then at the close of play drove back to Rotorua, an hour away, to key them in before dispatching them at (if I was lucky) 56 bytes per second. Yet we were happy then.

The results can be seen here.
The reader is invited to compare my reports with those of the Barbados NationI have yet to hear from Bridgetown regarding my pleasantly worded suggestion that they might pay me for my material.

Shiv Chanderpaul’s double century was the feature of the match. He was then what he is now: the Thomas the Tank Engine of batsmen, not much to look at, but reliable and steady, getting to the destination ahead of the bigger, flasher engines in the shed. Here’s the scorecard.

CricInfo liked this and other unsolicited pieces that I supplied for the daily newsletter that season, enough to give me regular work when a New Zealand operation was set up for the 2000/01 season. Until the money ran out three years later, my patch was pretty well everything south of Auckland and north of Wellington. Taupo was right in the middle of this area, so I returned there often.
The main stand (also the only stand). CricInfo used to operate from benches at the back of the stand.

Even by the congenially high standards of New Zealand’s cricket grounds, the hospitality at Owen Delany Park was particularly warm and welcoming. Interesting people passed through and were happy to chat (no doubt seeing my attempts to present myself as a hard-nosed journalist for the sham they were). They included Sir Richard Hadlee, John Bracewell, and John R Reid, who reminisced about the 1949 tour of England.

Our usual station was the radio commentary box where Radio Sport’s Phil Stevens was pleased to have the assistance of CricInfo’s live scorer, usually the excellent Gareth Bedford, and myself.

We reported on plenty of good cricket from Owen Delany Park, notably a couple of one-day games between the New Zealand and South Africa under-19 sides, including Hashim Amla and Johann Botha (then a tearaway quick rather than the bent-armed spinner who was to become South Africa’s one-day captain) for the visitors and Brendon McCullum, Ross Taylor and Jesse Ryder for the hosts. I am relieved that my reports show that, by and large, I could spot who the good players were.

The last ODI to be staged at Owen Delany Park was played between New Zealand and Zimbabwe, just after New Year 2001.  I was there as a spectator. Zimbabwe won the game convincingly, a brilliant display of reverse-sweeping by Andy Flower doing much to get them into a winning position. New Zealand won the second game only for Zimbabwe to take the series with a one-wicket win at Eden Park.

At that time, Zimbabwe were well on the way to establishing themselves in international cricket in a place similar to New Zealand’s: on the second level, but with the capability to surprise the best teams quite often. Mugabe’s tyranny put an end to that, reducing the country to also-rans with no prospect of improvement in the foreseeable future.

Owen Delany Park and Mote Park bear a passing resemblance to each other if the Photoshop of the mind replaces the chalk of the North Downs with Lake Taupo’s igneous outpourings. Both are places where the cricket has been good and the sun bright, but where I am unlikely to set up my folding chair on the grass bank again.


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 ...