Sunday, December 10, 2017

New Zealand v West Indies, First Test, Basin Reserve, 1 – 4 December 2017

The third test of the year at the Basin Reserve, but the only one this season. When England are here in three months or so they won’t play a test at the Basin, the first time that has happened since the last time England came here straight from Australia, in 1974/5. A pox on your two-test tours.

The Basin was lovely, just a couple of weeks short of its crimson-clad best, when the pohutukawas are out. We have had the warmest run of December weather in the twenty years I have been in New Zealand, so the bank was unseasonally parched. The crowd was not sparse, but not big. This is the same corrosive logic that undermines the County Championship and, soon, tests in England: don’t play first-class cricket in peak season because not enough people watch. Bookend the season with it instead. There, smaller crowds, what did we tell you?

West Indies’ surprise win at Headingley three months ago added to the appeal of this series. Braithwaite and Hope became players you want to see on the back of their partnership in that game. Mundane prospects can provide interesting test cricket as we found when Bangladesh were at the Basin at the start of the year.

The refurbished scoreboard appeared from its plastic shroud today, installed by Pyongyang Scoring Inc. It has a shiny black fascia, replacing the green one. This is a bit of a pity. A different coloured scoreboard can give character to a ground, but I don’t think that any are left. Canterbury’s white and Worcester’s green have both gone in recent years.

The light bulbs at the top of the board recording team and batsmen’s totals have been replaced by a digital display. The bulbs tested spectators’ eyesight (“is that 8? Or 3? Or 0?”) and mental arithmetic, so are not mourned, but anybody thinking that the considerable expenditure on renewing the board would result in accurate scores being publicly available must stand accused of hopeless naivety. For one thing, the display went blank quite often. For another, during the intervals it would say something like “Welcome to the Basin tea interval in progress” cleverly alleviating the common problem of people mistaking the groundstaff for players, but not letting anybody arriving know the score until play resumed.

The designers of the digital display appear to regard the possibility that any cricketer would have a name longer than seven letters as absurd. Thus the New Zealand captain is William and the West Indies opener B’thwai.

First day

It was the seventies all over again. The West Indies were in town and the bowling was fast and throat-high. However, the chin music was not a Caribbean beat, rather Now is the hour, the time to say goodbye. The chief purveyor of the damage was Neil Wagner, who bowls with the fury of a man who has spent the last two hours on hold with a call centre. His seven for 39 was the best first-day test return for a New Zealand bowler. He’s a bit of a puzzle: a short man (for a fast bowler) who is quick, but not that quick, yet who can get bounce out of a dead cat. It’s the precision that does it, ball after ball homing in on the batsman’s ribs like Derek Underwood’s malicious alter ego.

The spite that the Basin pitch habitually reserves for batsmen on the first morning was not an excuse; just ten minutes before the interval they were 75 for one. When I arrived during the break it was 79 for three; 40 minutes later, 109 for nine as subsidence turned to landslide. Twice in this time, Wagner was on a hat-trick.

First, Shai Hope gloved a legside catch, Blundell’s first in tests. That brought in debutant Sunil Ambris who played his first ball in test cricket confidently down to fine leg. Most eyes followed the ball, so there was general mystification at why Ambris was making his way back to the rooms. He had played from so deep in the crease that his back pad had brushed the stumps with sufficient force to dislodge the bails, thus making him the first in 140 years of test cricket to be out hit wicket to his first ball in tests. Shades of Roy Fredericks in the first World Cup final.

Four overs later, Chase was caught at leg slip, the flared trouser of fielding positions, so long out of fashion, then skipper Jason Holder was yorked first ball, showing that Wagner can make occasional visits to lengths closer to the stumps.

Shane Dowrich helped New Zealand along by setting off from the non-striker’s end with the ball almost in Mitch Santner’s hand at cover point. A direct hit sent him on his way with yards to spare. Kemar Roach and Shannon Gabriel showed more resolution than some of their colleagues up the order in a tenth wicket partnership of 29 taking the final total to 134.

The following day in Adelaide Joe Root put Australia in and has spent the days since in the stocks as a result. Here, Williamson put West Indies in and got no credit at all.

The West Indies’ coach, Stuart Law, blamed his batsmen for playing too many poor shots, but bad shots are sometimes the consequence of consistently good bowling. Wagner was outstanding but was well-supported by the other bowlers, Boult in particular.

The day’s loosest shot was played by Kane Williamson who steered a long hop to gully. Tom Latham was the other New Zealander out this evening, hooking to mid on a ball from Holder that was a tad quicker than he expected. The home team finished the day at 85 for two at the end of a calming evening session where progress was quite slow, but the pleasure of being at the Basin on such a lovely day meant that nobody cared.

Second day

Trevor Bailey used to say of the England attack of the late 80s that they could change the bowler, but not the bowling. This was substantially true of the West Indies here, a little spin from Chase and Braithwaite apart, it was yeoman-like right-arm medium fast all the way. Not that the bowling was poor—the run rate did not rise above three an over until the 90th over of the innings—just that it lacked menace.

Jeet Raval was first out this morning, to a very good ball from Roach that pitched on middle and off and moved away just enough. Raval made 42, which is approximately his average after seven tests. There are murmurings from the media that he is getting out when set too often, but for most of us the fact that we have an opener who gets set is comfort enough. Forty-two after seven tests is a good average and the test opening pair looks of less concern than for some time.

Henry Nicholls got off the mark first ball with a pulled four to long leg. At the other end Ross Taylor looked in another class. On TV Ian Smith observed that Taylor was playing two games, back foot against Holder, front foot against Roach and doing both admirably.

Nicholls gloved a caught behind first ball after lunch, but was reprieved by a third-umpire no-ball call. He is becoming the artisan of the middle order, making the most of his talent with good judgement to the fore. With Taylor he put on 127 for the fourth wicket. The partnership ended when Taylor was out to an lbw review for 93, just as we were readying ourselves to celebrate his 17th test hundred, bringing him level with Williamson and Crowe at the top of the New Zealand list.

Nicholls was caught at fine leg off Cummins for 67, and Santner followed soon after, bowled by a straight one. At 281 for six the lead was healthy but not yet decisive.

Colin de Grandhomme (or deG’Ho as the scoreboard knows him) hooked two of his first three balls for four. We settled back for another de Grandhomme cameo, being careful to reduce blinking to a minimum so as not to miss it. But today’s innings was different from his usual crash-bash 18 or so. The strong hitting was still there, with 11 fours and four sixes, but the wafts outside off were almost entirely absent. It was still quick, a century from 71 balls, the fastest made by a New Zealander except for Brendon McCullum’s 54-ball farewell in Christchurch against Australia a couple of years ago (not forgetting that Nathan Astle got from 100 to 200 against England at Lancaster Park in 2002 in just 39 balls). His minimalist celebration when he reached the century—helmet off, bat raised, get on with it—was very Kiwi. He was caught at long on for 105.

Those of us who question de Grandhomme’s place in the test team must acknowledge that he has produced a test-class performance with the bat to match his six wickets at Hamilton against Pakistan late last year. Such fun to watch too, the village blacksmith come to the city.

De Grandhomme put on 148 for the seventh wicket with debutant Tom Blundell, the Wellington wicketkeeper in for the injured BJ Watling. This broke the New Zealand record against the West Indies held by Martin Crowe and Ian Smith in 1985. More than any batsman I can recall, Blundell’s stance at the crease is that of a baseball batter, knees bent and bat raised above the shoulder until the ball leaves the bowler’s hand. He finished the day on 57 not out but with last man Boult with him. New Zealand were 447 for nine, lead of 313. From tea to close 180 were added.

The Museum bookstall never fails to delight at the Basin test, and today it came up with a beauty. AA Thomson’s Cricket My Happiness. I became reacquainted with Thomson during the exercise of recreating the 1967 season and spent some of the afternoon discovering delights on every page. I have just opened the book at random on page 65 and found this, regarding the young FS Trueman:

Scotland Yard takes no keener interest in the whereabouts of a missing criminal than do the Yorkshire county authorities in the whereabouts of a promising young fast bowler. When Fred Trueman reached the Headingley nets he came under the quizzical scrutiny of Bill Bowes and Arthur Mitchell, who, following immemorial Yorkshire custom, did not tell him how good he was, but noted, without open disapproval, that he had a good action, a strong frame and a strange liking for the hard work of fast bowling. I remember my step-Uncle Walter’s getting angry getting angry with somebody who denied the basic intelligence of cricketers.
“Ridiculous,” cried my ancient relative. “Most sensible chaps in the world. Though mind you,” he added thoughtfully, “I wouldn’t exactly say fast bowlers…”.

Third day

Some expected a declaration first thing, but with three days left it was worth letting Blundell and Boult get what they could. This turned out to be more than anyone expected. Only when Blundell got into the 80s did it occur to us that he stood a real chance of making a century on debut. From then on, the loudest cheers were generally reserved for Boult for surviving, though he is one the more capable No 11s I have seen and ramped Roach for six. Blundell, a naturally aggressive batsman, became cautious as he neared the landmark, perhaps excessively so. He took 19 balls to move from 98 to 100, during which time Boult was dropped off a sharp chance at short leg and survived an (optimistic) lbw review. A celebratory six followed, then the declaration, always a touch humiliating when a last-wicket partnership (here worth 78) has not been broken.

Blundell is the tenth New Zealander to start with three figures and I have been there for the last three, the other two being Jimmy Neesham at the Basin against India in 2014 and Hamish Rutherford versus England in Dunedin the year before. One of the ten was Rodney Redmond, who never played again, and given Blundell’s status as stand-in keeper it was suggested that he might emulate this regrettable feat, but even had Watling been fit to keep in the second test a place would surely have been found for him; he looks good enough to have a future as a batsman.

West Indies began their second innings needing 386 to make New Zealand bat again. Openers Powell and Braithwaite looked comfortable enough (though Powell would have been lbw to Boult had it been reviewed) until Wagner came on (again mysteriously after de Grandhomme) and challenged them to a hooking contest. Braithwaite is too circumspect to respond, but Powell was game and two sixes resulted. But a glancing blow to the helmet may have unsettle him and explained the tame return catch he gave to Henry soon after.

The partnership of 94 between Braithwaite and Shimron Hetmyer was the highlight of the test for the West Indies. Twenty-five-year-old Braithwaite is from Barbados. He has a test average of 37 and a test temperament. Hetmyer is from Guyana and will be 21 on Boxing Day. There is a flair about him that makes the spectator think that they might be watching the start of a considerable career. He led West Indies to victory in the last under-19 World Cup and with Braithwaite and Hope may be the foundation of the best West Indian test batting line up for a generation. It was a surprise when he was out to a leading edge off Henry for 66 in 89 balls. Braithwaite and Hope took West Indies through to 219 for two at the close.

The bookstall spread its stardust once more. The Playfair Cardus, a collection of Sir Neville Cardus’s writing for the Playfair Cricket Monthly in the 1960s. This was particularly interesting given Backwatersman’s recent piece on Cardus, who (here at least) is not quite as readily quotable to the modern reader as Thomson Most of the pieces are nostalgic, particularly about the heroes of his youth, above all Frank Woolley. It is idealised, of course, but if you can’t be romantic about cricket, what is left?

I wasn’t there on the fourth day. Braithwaite went for 91 at 231, the first of eight wickets to fall for 88 runs. New Zealand won by an innings and 67 runs.

Monday, October 23, 2017

A new season: Wellington v Auckland

Wellington v Auckland, Plunket Shield, Basin Reserve, 23 October 2017 (day 1 of 4)

If ever asked to provide advice to the young of today, I say only one thing: never arrive late at the cricket.

Those who failed to note this wisdom, and arrived 40 minutes or so after the first ball of the New Zealand season was bowled at the Basin today, missed a treat. Ollie Newton, opening the bowling on first-class debut, began with a triple-wicket maiden and a little later the scoreboard read 12 for seven. That’s the thing about cricket: you can watch it for half a century and it still shows you things you haven’t seen before.

Newton took the new ball for the second over of the day, from the southern end. He has had a long wait for this moment. He is 29, and has been on the fringes for a while, but one T20 appearance almost two years ago was his only previous experience in the first team. Why it was decided to give him a go now, and with the new ball at that, I don’t know, but it was a decision of Brearleyesque foresight.

His first ball was a yorker that struck Michael Guptill-Bunce on the toe for a straightforward lbw decision. The second passed by the outside edge. The third, Robert O’Donnell decided to leave, but too late. He was bowled off the inside edge. The fourth was edged to fourth slip as Michael Barry played defensively off the back foot. The hattrick ball was another yorker, kept out—just—by Mark Chapman.

At the other end, Hamish Bennett had Jeet Ravel dropped at first slip by Jeetan Patel, but joined in the fun soon enough with three wickets across two overs. Another from Newton and there we were: 12 for seven. 

Tight bowling and vigilant fielding prevented further scoring for a couple more overs, so keeping alive the hope that Auckland would join Oxford University (v MCC and Ground in 1877) and Northamptonshire (v Gloucestershire in 1907) in being all out for 12 in a first-class match. This was not down to any ill will towards our friends in the north; simply that it would be a thing which any cricket buff would count as an achievement in spectating. A crisp off drive from Matt McEwan settled the matter. 

There were five ducks among the top seven, but as is often the case with dramatic top order collapses, the lower decks achieved what their betters could not and the last three wickets scraped together fifty with the tenth wicket stand of 23 between Nethula and Ferguson the biggest of the innings.
Newton finished with four for 26, but Bennett’s figures were the most remarkable: 5-4-2-3. Logan van Beek and Iain McPeake (are there other rhyming pairs of bowlers?) also took wickets in their first over, in the former’s case on Wellington debut having moved from Canterbury.

At this stage, fingers of blame were being pointed at the Basin Reserve pitch, which has a record as long as your arm of being over-helpful to bowlers on the first morning. But on this occasion, it was innocent. It was green, certainly. There was movement too, but nothing that was uncalled for on the first morning of a four-day game. Few of the Auckland batsmen could blame the pitch with any degree of justification. Raval played round a straight one, and there were several rash shots. 

The counsel for the defence of the Basin pitch could also call upon the close-of-play scoreboard to offer powerful evidence: Wellington 246 for no wicket. No pitch changes its character that quickly. 

The key was the quality of the bowling. The home bowlers were pinpoint accurate, challenging the batsmen throughout and forcing errors and misjudgement. On the other hand, if bowling were taxable, Auckland could claim a full refund on the grounds that theirs took the form of a charitable donation. 

Lockie Ferguson bowled one really good over to Luke Woodcock, troubling him with a series of short deliveries that he was fortunate to survive. But the score was 190 for none at that point and for the rest of the day Ferguson was fast but wayward.

Leg spinner Tarun Nethula had a poor day, which his figures (0 for 45 in 19 overs) do not reflect. At the start of one spell he bowled two wides, one to off and one to leg. For much of the last session he was bowling wide as a defensive measure. He also bowled four no-balls, puzzling given that his approach to the crease is a nine-step stroll.

Seamer Matt McEwan bowled without luck, though not to the extent of Dreyfusian injustice suggested by his loud and lengthy appeals and general demeanour, which was that of a mugging lead actor in a Victorian melodrama.

Michael Papps dominated the innings, unbeaten on 163. He was the epitome of judicious aggression. There was a lot of loose stuff to hit, but he did so in mid-season form. As usual, he was particularly unforgiving square of the wicket. Luke Woodcock’s 64 from 209 deliveries might appear mundane in comparison, but his resolution enabled Papps to plunder freely. Woodcock has a range and, to a greater extent than most players in domestic cricket, can play according to what the situation demands. Today, he equalled the record for appearances for one province, with 127 (shared for the moment with James Marshall).

It was as one-sided a day’s cricket, start to finish, as I can recall. The Basin was pleasant too, the RA Vance Stand offering protection from the north-wester and, as the beginning-of-season email to members boasted “we’re pretty sure it is an asbestos-free zone now”. Value for money there, to be sure.

The scoreboard was encased in scaffolding and plastic. Regular readers will be familiar with my theory that the Basin scoreboard is controlled by North Korea, spreading fake news to undermine the morale of the civilised cricketing world, so we should be worried about what is going on under there. The extraordinary scores of the day were conveyed on a replacement club-style board with players’ names large enough to be read clearly by spectators as many as three rows away. 

Altogether, a relishable start to the New Zealand season.

England lose in Wellington

New Zealand v England, T20 (second of five), The Cake Tin, 3 November 2019 Scorecard It is always a pleasure to welcome England ...