Saturday, January 21, 2017

An ambulance and a God at the Basin

The need to call in at work for the first time since Christmas to make sure that they remember who I am has delayed the appearance of this account of the final two days of a surprisingly good test match.

First, an apology to the pitch and its caregivers. In accounts of the first three days I wrote it off, making the mistake of assuming that it would behave as test pitches at the Basin have done over the decade or so that I have been watching there. It didn’t give any help to the spinners as a test pitch should ideally do on the fourth and fifth days, but it did not curl up and die either. It was wrong to say that the pitch was heading into extinction, the opposite if anything; it had found the secret of eternal life, retaining its pace (or at least bounce) right through the game. A test pitch on which the game is resolved within the last scheduled hour is almost by definition a good one.

I cannot recall seeing more players hit on the head than I saw in these two days, including Santner twice, Wagner three times and, most chillingly, Mushfiqur, who was taken straight from the pitch to hospital by an ambulance that was driven onto the field to collect him, another spectating first for me. Courtney Walsh, here as Bangladesh’s bowling coach, looked a little misty-eyed at the sight of all those batsmen going down like felled trees.

On day four Tom Latham and Henry Nicholls took their resumed fourth-wicket partnership to 142 before Nicholls turned a delivery from Shakib into the hands of Mehidi at leg slip. Usually a half-century would enhance a young player’s reputation, but I’m not sure that this was so here. Nicholls can dispatch the bad ball, but finds it difficult to rotate the strike against accurate bowling, especially early in the innings. He survived a DRS review for lbw only on an umpire’s call, and was dropped. Sometimes batsmen score runs against a lesser attack which means that the selectors are obliged to keep them in the team against stronger opposition that they may not be up to. I don’t know if Nicholls falls into this category, but the question remains open.

Nobody else is suggesting this, but I would give Martin Guptill a run in the middle order as long as his form is reasonable. As an opener has played 47 tests with three centuries at an average a snip under 30. He has Ramprakash syndrome, the symptoms of which are to look unbearably good in other forms and at other levels of the game, but not to be able to turn the quality into test-match runs. Take Guptill away from the new ball and those runs might flow.

If the jury is still out on Nicholls, it is close to a verdict on de Grandhomme, to the sound of gallows being hammered together. Bang! On four after 13 balls, he scythed a four to third man. Crash! The next ball cleared the seats at deep square leg. Woe! A mow at a wide ball outside off and he was caught behind next ball. This is not the work of a No 6 test batsman.

Meanwhile, Tom Latham cruised on, if anything more relaxed than on day three. A casual lift over long on off Shakib for the first six of the innings showed how well he was seeing the ball, though he was dropped on 138, a hard diving chance at second slip.

Just when he looked set for a double hundred Latham swept Shakib, but missed and was plumb lbw, barely waiting for the umpire’s decision. Since both Dempster and Mills scored centuries in the first Basin test in 1930 (both dismissed by Kent’s Frank Woolley, who took seven for 76 at the age of 42), only John Wright among New Zealand openers had scored a century before Latham, which shows what trouble the position has been for us in these parts over the years.

BJ Watling had reached 49 in his usual unobtrusive way when occasional off spinner Mahmudullah was thrown the ball, which he immediately propelled some way down the legside. Watling, seeing an easy path to fifty, hurled the bat at the ball, which was collected by Imrul Kayes, standing in with the gloves for Mushfiqur Rahman. Imrul became very excited, which everybody thought was because he had made a decent legside take (for once). However, the DRS revealed that Watling had got a pretty solid touch and that Imrul had taken a catch that would have been remarkable even if he had been looking at the ball, which he wasn’t.

Mahmudullah wasn’t done. Three balls later Southee missed a straight one to be lbw. It is to be hoped that the young off spinner Mehedi (35 wicketless overs for 111 at this point) is the contemplative sort who can find it within to rue the fickleness of cricket and move on.

Mitch Santner made a career-best 73, but, as with Nicholls, it was not convincing. Against tired bowlers he struggled against the short ball, something that will have been noted by Kagiso Rabada among others.

An innings from Wagner that was a mixture of percussion and concussion, and that was that. New Zealand reached 539, a deficit of 56. The radio commentators took the view that Williamson should have declared at least 50 runs earlier as the best way of achieving a result. Of course, events vindicated Williamson’s approach completely, but I thought at the time that Bryan Waddle & co were mistaken, as they seemed to believe that Bangladesh would want to push for a victory. But the fact that they went defensive quite early on in the New Zealand innings showed both that they were aware of their own limitations and that after two years without overseas tests, a draw would be as good as a win for them.

Bangladesh’s sterling performance with the bat, and perseverance with the ball had made people forget how inexperienced they are; I haven’t checked, but some of the team may not have played on the fifth day before, and any attack that bowls 148 overs in the first innings will be tired in the second. These factors, along with a couple of hefty side servings of misfortune, meant that New Zealand had the keys to the safe when the Bangladeshis began their second innings with 90 minutes to go on the fourth afternoon.

For the second time in the game, Southee’s attempt to throw down the stumps in the follow through hit the batsman, despite the fact that he was located some distance from the target. Imrul Kayes responded perfectly by depositing Southee in the cheap seats later in the over.

After an hour all was fine, Imrul and Tamim were going well and thought drifted to which book to bring on the last day. Suddenly, Tamim pushed one to point and called Imrul for a single, a tough ask for someone who had just finished 148 overs of unexpected wicketkeeping. Imrul hurled himself at the crease, making the run, but hurt his leg in the process. He left the field on a stretcher, the first time I can recall seeing this (the second occurred the next day). Basin stalwarts recall Syd Lawrence exiting in this manner when he split his kneecap in 1992.

The incident disturbed Bangladesh’s equilibrium: Tamim was bowled by Santner and Mahmudullah was caught behind off Wagner. Then in the last over of the day some comedy running combined with a direct hit by Santner to remove nightwatchman Mehedi.

With three (possibly effectively four) down and the lead 122 a New Zealand win was on the cards, not that you could have discerned this from the local cricketing public, who years of shredded hopes has left with a demeanour compared to which Eeyore is a cock-eyed optimist.

Shakib strode to the crease like a concert pianist who, having knocked out some Beethoven to critical acclaim one night feels able to deal to Tchaikovsky next evening without rehearsal or practice in the interim. He tried to get off the mark by belting Santner over mid on, only to be  caught there by Williamson.

Mominul Haque was caught in the gully, but then Mushfiqur (still suffering from the hand injury that had prevented him keeping wicket) and Sabbir steadied things. In doing so they focused on time rather than runs. They batted together for 15 overs (both were dropped once), but scored only 18 runs. If the scoreboard doesn’t move much that can cancel out the time side of the match-saving equation.

The ball that caused the entry of the ambulance was not that short; Mushfiqur ducked into it and it hit him on the back of the helmet. It was a worrying few moments with the Phil Hughes tragedy so fresh in our minds, but the medical reaction was precautionary as much as anything and Mishfiqur returned to the ground by the end of the day. It was, however, the breakthrough that New Zealand were starting to get a little restless for.

Taskin was dropped at short leg by Latham—New Zealand’s catching has been poor—but bowled next ball by Boult. At lunch Bangladesh were 193 ahead with three to come, including the hobbling Imrul.

After lunch we had one of those periods that I find more irritating than anything else about modern cricket, and which makes me channel my inner Fred Trueman. For Sabbir—a No 7 batsman in the 40s playing his first overseas test—the field was set right back to give away a single so that the attack could bowl at Kamrul. I can’t understand why, when you want just three wickets to effectively win the match, you give up trying to get one of the batsmen out.

Kamrul was out (without getting on strike with a gifted single), then Sabbir defeated the strategy with a plan of Baldrickian cunningness: with no slips he contrived to be caught at the wicket by flailing at a short one.

Imrul Kayes returned, and unbelievably the single-gifting strategy continued, even though Imrul was clearly incapable of running a single; the desired outcome of the plan would be achieved only if two fielders had picked Imrul up and carried him to the other end. Runners are not allowed. I miss runners for the anarchy they so often introduced to proceedings.

Some boundaries from Imrul and the innings was over, leaving a target of 217 from 51 overs.

Mehedi located fresh reserves of pessimism among the locals by removing both openers, the young spinner’s first overseas wickets and well-deserved. This brought Taylor and Williamson together, which had the soothing effect of a deep massage on the spectators. Entry was free so Wellingtonians converged on the Basin from all over the CBD. The ground was fuller at the end of the game than at any other time.

Taylor was at his quick-handed best, swiftly onto anything fractionally short and unsettling all the faster bowlers, playing on their inexperience. His 60 came in just 75 balls. The third-wicket partnership was worth 163 and took just 25 overs.

Williamson batted like a God. Time after time, what seemed like a push into a gap for a single sped to the boundary, so perfect was the timing. Three fours in three balls off Taskin just before tea were sublime. His fifty came up in 43 balls, his hundred in 89, one of the fastest ever seen in the fourth innings of a test.

Had New Zealand won by an innings in three days (as we expected) this game would have swiftly disappeared from the memory. Because New Zealand were outplayed by Bangladesh in the first innings, a narrower victory was more of an achievement, Williamson’s magnificence on the last afternoon finishing it off perfectly.

Bangladesh made us forget how inexperienced they are, or that this was their first away test in more than two years, which is a scandal. There has to be a plan for Bangladesh to have at least five home and five away tests a year. India, England and Australia all need to step up here. There is obvious talent and potential here and world cricket must not let it go to waste. What is the point of (I hate this term) growing the game when an existing test country is given so little support? All talk of Ireland (or anybody else) being given test status is hopeless unless a coherent programme of guaranteed fixtures for ten years can be worked out first.

It was a pleasure to be at the Basin for this test match. The pohutukawas were out, there were surprises, records, ambulances and some brilliant, spirited cricket played with modesty and good humour. A great start to the year.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Latham's day at the Basin

To have astonishing days like yesterday there must be routine days against which to measure them. This is not to say that day three was mundane or boring—345 runs in a day can’t be that—just that it proceeded much as expected.

Bangladesh batted on for an hour so. They looked in no trouble at all, despite losing Taskin caught at slip and having Sabbir dropped at mid-on by Latham (in a way that sustains my crackpot theory that fielders lose the ball against the pohutukawa flowers at this time of year). The declaration came at 595 for eight, Bangladesh’s second-highest test score.

The Bangladesh pace attack is one of the least experienced in test history with one career wicket show between the three of them, so it was little surprise that off spinner Mehedi Hasan Miraz was handed the new ball, even though he is just 19 and playing in only his third test. Mehedi took 19 wickets in the recent two-match series against England who responded to the challenges he presented in the manner of an infant class trying to solve The Times crossword.

Of course, conditions at the Basin were very different to what he is used to, with plenty of bounce but no discernible turn. A Bangladeshi commenter on CricInfo looked forward to Mehedi making use of the pitch as it broke up, in which case he should check back around Easter.

Mehedi bowled 26 overs for 82 runs but no wickets, but he bowled very few “four” balls and did not allow batsmen to dominate. It was a commendable performance in the circumstances.

With Shakib not bowling much after his batting heroics, it was up to the fast-bowling novitiate to make the breakthrough. Jeet Raval was dropped at second slip off Subashis, but hung out his bat to the first ball bowled by Kamral Islam Rabbi (a name that encompasses cricket’s ability to heal divides).

This brought in Kane Williamson who batted with ease of a man at the peak of his profession. Any ball even marginally deficient in line of length was politely assisted between the fielders to the rope. A leg glance took him to a half-century at just under a run a ball. A batting master class seemed in prospect and there was foolish talk of a tilt at McCullum’s 302.

But the next ball from debutant Taskin Ahmed was the ball of the day, hitting a perfect upright seam and finding the edge as it moved away. It was his first test wicket, and taken with a ball that deserved to get a fine player.

Ross Taylor was next, and was in as good touch as Williamson. His footwork was would not have disgraced Darcey Bussell. On 40 he got a long hop from Kamrul and the crowd was collectively asking itself “four or six?”. Instead he drilled it straight to mid-wicket.

Meanwhile, Kent’s Tom Latham was working his way to his sixth test century in 27 tests, a decent ratio. He has quietly established himself as the junior member of the triumvirate that sustains New Zealand’s currently fragile batting. Particularly strong in the arc from third man to extra cover, his shot selection was faultless, and he is never hurried, never worried. Like Williamson and Taylor he has the skill, but what is more important, the temperament too.

As expected, the pace attack was unthreatening and brought to mind Trevor Bailey’s remark about the England attack of the late eighties, that the captain could change the bowler but not the bowling. All three of them are right-arm amiable pace, but they stuck at it along with Mehedi with occasional contributions from Shakib, and did not get taken apart. Indeed, the batting was at its most contained in the last hour of the day, which says something about their stamina and concentration.

At the end of the third day the course of the rest of the match looks as predictable as a Mills and Boon plot, but we can hope for an infusion of Agatha Christie and any poisoner would do well to start with the pitch.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

In the steps of Bradman

I have had my what-do-they-expect piece for the end of this test match written in my head for a few days. In summary, it goes: what do they expect if they don’t give Bangladesh an overseas tour for two years, if they only give them two tests in 2016, and if they put them into a test series with no first-class cricket in preparation. It was when the 300 partnership for Bangladesh’s fifth wicket came up that I finally decided to consign that piece to the trash folder of the mind.

Cricket is at its best when it surprises. Today was one of the most astonishing days I have seen; when the match began yesterday it was an outcome that could not have been conceived of. I bet that at no stage of the preparation did Bangladesh give any thought to what their declaration strategy would be if they were put in.

The day began with Bangladesh 154 for three; they ended it at 542 for seven. It was dominated by that fifth-wicket partnership of 359 between Shakab Al Hasan (217) and Mushfiqur Rahim (159).

A recycling plant could be built just to deal with the records shredded during the day. Highlights include the following:

·        Shakab’s 217 was the highest ever made by a Bangladeshi batsman

·        It was a record for any wicket for Bangladesh

·        It was a record for the fifth wicket for any test in New Zealand.

The partnership began with the early dismissal of Mahmudullah with the ball of the day, which Southee got the ball to spit and move to produce a caught behind. That was as much life as the pitch showed all day. It didn’t so much sleep as ease into extinction.

Shakib’s was the more adventurous innings, though this perception may be because when batting he uses his feet to stop him falling down and not much more. Batsmen with minimalist footwork tend to look as if they are flailing around a bit. Mushfiqur presented as the more restrained and orthodox of the two, yet it was him who hit the only six of the partnership and who attempted the only dilscoops. Both batsmen excelled at matching the shot to the delivery, though one sensed that this was more of a temperamental challenge to Shakib than Mushfiqur.

Shakib’s progress was more even; at one point Mushfiqur caught up with him but was fifty behind when the partnership ended. Like hair fashion Mushfiqur had a bad eighties, becoming as edgy as a Swedish detective drama. He became angstful in nineties, which he navigated as if a river full of crocodiles, not the tickled trout that the New Zealand attack now resembled.

The luck went with the two batsmen, but that was a fair reward for the relative quality of performance of the two teams. Shakib was missed four times, starting on the first evening on just four when Santner failed to see a ball coming straight at him at mid-wicket until it was too late. I’ll resurrect a pet theory from a couple of years ago: the flowers of the pohutukawas that grace the eastern side of the ground at this time of year are cricket-ball red, which makes it fearfully difficult to spot an actual ball as it emerges from the crimson foliage.

On 132 Watling at first appeared to have made good ground to have caught a gloved pull, only for the second replay to reveal that he spilled it on impact with the ground. On 172 he should have been run out but Santner failed to pick the ball up, then on 189 Taylor dropped a diving effort at backward point.

Well over half the partnership’s runs came behind square, which says a lot about the inconsistency of line of the New Zealand bowlers. Early in the day, Southee tried to throw down the stumps having collected a return hit from Shakib, only to hit batsman, who had retreated a metre wide of the stumps. The bowler’s plea that it was unintentional gained credibility as the day wore on and it became clear that it represented one of Southee’s better attempts to locate the stumps ball-in-hand.

Boult troubled Mushfiqur from round the wicket during one spell, but was otherwise uncharacteristically off song, but without the galeforce excuse of the first day. Wagner continued to bustle in without stint, and was again the most economical bowler, but as Richard Petrie said on the radio, if you bowl three balls an over short and wide it massages the statistics in this respect. Santner and de Grandhomme were both unthreatening. Jeetan Patel would have been a useful resource for Williamson here.

An off day for the New Zealand attack on a flat track, but that should not diminish the achievement; the partnership was made against an attack that included bowlers currently ranked at Nos 11, 12 and 13 in the rankings.

Shakib and Mushfiqur accelerated their way up the fifth-wicket partnership list until they were behind only Laxman/Dravid, Waugh S/Blewett and Barnes/Bradman, but when they had put on 359 Mushfiqur pushed tiredly and edged a catch to Watling. Shakib played on to Wagner a little later.

As he left the field the New Zealand players all shook his hand, some running a distance to do so. The applause was generous and sincere, and was acknowledged with humility. It made one be glad to be at the cricket.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

They call the wind Marais: NZ v Bangladesh day 1

As usual, bails flew on the first day of the Basin test, but this time it was not because of the usual St Patrick’s Day celebration of a pitch, but rather a Genghis Khan of a northwesterly that, among other detritus, swept Umpire Marais Erasmus’s hat from his head to the boundary and made the task of removing the covers akin to that of lowering the sails on an America’s Cup yacht.

As usual, pre-match reports suggested that the pitch was hiding in plain sight by being the same colour as the rest of the square, but when it was unveiled this morning it was less green than usual. Kane Williamson won the toss—an improvement on his predecessor’s somewhat sorry record in this area—and put Bangladesh in. It was the twenty-first time in a row that the winning captain has chosen to field in a test in New Zealand, but for once on the first morning at the Basin the ball did not seam like Coco Chanel.

Bangladesh have not played a test overseas for more than two years, and played only two at home in 2016, the recent drawn series against England. This may explain why Tamim Iqbal’s approach to opening the batting appeared not to take account of the fact that he was wearing white clothing. He was off the mark in the first over with a flash over the slips for four, and continued to attack at any opportunity, as well as running a series of short singles.

Another explanation is that Tamim had a season of T20 with Wellington four years ago, so knows that the best approach at the Basin is to get it done before your body shuts down from the cold.

Imrul Kayes tried a similarly aggressive approach to opening the innings but with less success, being caught at long leg by Boult off Southee for one, an unusual way for the first wicket of a test to fall.

Mominul Haque was more circumspect in his support of Tamim, who continued to attack, but with intelligence and judiciousness.  

Tamim survived a fielding side DRS review for lbw from de Grandhomme in the ninth over on an umpire’s call. Though it was close, that de Grandhomme was bowling round the wicket wide of the crease made a successful outcome unlikely. The bowler’s response next ball was a bouncer, which at his pace presented more of a threat to his own toes than the batsman.

Tamim’s aggression resulted in something that I have not seen the like of before. When Tamim pulled de Grandhomme to mid-wicket for four in the twelfth over he took Bangladesh to 52, of which his contribution was 49. Has one player ever made as many of a test team’s first fifty runs?

Tamim brought up his own half century next over, from 48 balls, but did not survive a second DRS review, which clarified that the ball had hit the pad just before it came into contact with the bat. He made 56 and was out with the score at 60.

Mahmudullah now joined Mominul Haque and either side of a lengthy weather break put on an attractive and well-judged 85 for the third wicket. Mominal was particularly strong through the off side.

The weather affected the home side more than the visitors. Being a northwesterly it blew across the pitch from wide mid on when the bowling was from the northern end. This made bowling with it more difficult than bowling into it; almost exactly double as many runs were made from the bowling at the northern end than at the southern. As fine a bowler as Trent Boult had his compass misaligned to the extent that his opening spell was terminated after just three overs, something that I cannot remember happening to him before.

Tim Southee was a model of precision into the wind (his first 16 balls were scoreless), but profligate with it (sort of) behind him.

Part of the reason for the parsimony of the southern end was that it was from here that Neil Wagner bowled. Of course he did; if ever a bowler was born to bowl into the wind it is Wagner, whose whole-hearted effort has made him a favourite of the locals. Today he conceded a run-and-a-half less than any of the other three bowlers. He was rewarded with a wicket from one of the worst balls he bowled, when Mahmudullah chased a wide one to be caught behind. But it often isn’t the ball that the batsman gets out to that takes the wicket; it’s all the other good ones that went before that do it.

Bangladesh finished the day on 154 for three from 40.2 overs. They were impressive and attractive in difficult conditions. So far on this tour they have been whitewashed in three ODIs and three T20s. In each game there was a point where they looked on top, but could never maintain the quality for a whole innings. That is their challenge tomorrow.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Wellington v Canterbury, T20 semi-final, Basin Reserve, 5 February 2017

Arriving at the Basin with the bank already filling I was taken back to seventies mornings when the smell of bacon frying on campfires in the car park meant that a big knockout game was on at St Lawrence.

Marketing hyperbole has undermined the language of sport. Rugby league in this part of the world is particularly keen to pretend that every game is a final. This match was billed as the preliminary final. But this was the game to decide who would play in the final, so a semi-final is what it really was.

With a bit of imagination and a little licence this one could have been sold as over-35s v under-35s. Wellington had five players in the former category, plus Woodcock who is only a couple of months short. Canterbury had only Peter Fulton.

Both sides have had their progress in the competition aided by being largely untroubled by the selectors. Only Luke Ronchi was missing on international duty from the Wellington team, and the selectors thoughtfully allowed Matt Henry to return to the Canterbury team following an indifferent performance in the T20 against Bangladesh in Napier the previous evening.

However, Canterbury had three other players who have been selected for New Zealand in one form or another this season—Henry Nicholls, Todd Astle and Kent’s Tom Latham—and looked the stronger team on paper.

Not that Latham had much influence on the game; he went early, lbw to a full toss that was quite the worst ball that Hamish Bennett bowled in his opening spell. That brought together Henry Nicholls and Chad Bowes for the best batting of the game, a second-wicket partnership of 69 in nine overs. Nicholls we know about, but I’d not heard of Bowes before. He’s a member of the white South African cricketing diaspora, captain of the Proteas under-19 team in 2012. Now he wants to play for New Zealand (which is, at least, preferable to wanting to play for Hampshire).

Bowes is a proper batsman whose 56 from 41 balls was full of intelligent orthodox shots. He hit eight fours, three of which were from successive deliveries from Brent Arnel, an interest-free advance from a payday loan shark. Nicholls also scored fours from three successive balls, off Luke Woodcock, though they were his only boundaries. He is a bat-through sort of batsman, which can be a euphemism for not having that top gear that is needed to flay a bowler in T20.

When Bowes was out in the 13th over, the score was 96 for two, so 180-plus was in prospect. But Jeetan Patel had already set about cutting off the blood supply. At last, Patel is getting the recognition as a master practitioner at home that he enjoys in England. When he came on the Canterbury innings was a roaring lion. When he finished, it was tamely eating from his hand.

Canterbury’s assistant coach Brendon Donkers was on the radio on the morning of the game saying that T20 was all about boundaries, there being a strong correlation between hitting the most boundaries and winning the game. He went as far as to say “forget about the singles”. A truism perhaps, and a petard to be hoisted by. Patel conceded only one four, a reverse sweep by Peter Fulton off the fourth ball of his fourth over.

Hamish Bennett was even more miserly, going for just 18 from his four overs with wickets from the last two balls of the innings. Canterbury’s total of 151 looked at least 15 short of a break-even score.

For many years Hamish Marshall was confused with his identical twin James. Now he has another doppelganger at the other end in Michael Papps. Both are short, old (in cricketing terms) and bat pugnaciously with a fusion of hard-hit conventional shots and new-fangled improvisation. Their fifty partnership for the first wicket came up from the first ball of the fifth over. Matt Henry took a particular pounding and may have wished that he had stayed in the Hawke’s Bay sun.

It seemed like a procession, but as has been related in these columns often enough, Wellington’s sports teams have a talent for escaping from match-winning situations that would spring them from Colditz. Here leg-spinner Todd Astle was the agent of change. He came on as soon as the fielding restrictions were relaxed and struck immediately taking a hard-hit return catch to get rid of Marshall.

We had a strong earthquake here in Wellington a couple of months ago that has led to the demolition of a couple of large buildings and design faults being exposed in others. Earthquake Astle revealed structural failings in the Wellington batting. The foundations were shaky and innings began to suffer from liquefaction. Papps was bowled by a perfect googly and 103 for one became 110 for five inside three overs.

Astle bowled his spell through, which supports my idea that sometimes captains meddle too much with the bowling roster in T20. Maybe he could have been risked during the powerplay.

With better support from the other end Astle would have won the game, but instead there was a curious effort from off-spinner Tim Johnston. I have been reading Jon Hotten’s The Meaning of Cricket, which contains accounts of the yips suffered by various bowlers, that describing the psychological implosion of Scott Boswell of Leicestershire in a one-day final at Lord’s being particularly harrowing:

“It took Scott Boswell a decade to rebuild his relationship with the game that had dominated his life.”

Perhaps because this was fresh in my mind, when Johnston failed to release the ball in the delivery stride a couple of times, I began to have my suspicions. He did so again, this time giving Papps a “Mankading” warning, which I thought might have been a cover story. Then came a slow beamer to Blundell. The resulting free hit went for six and ultimately made all the difference. Johnston was taken off after two overs, but surprisingly brought back later, when it was a choice between him and the out-of-touch Logan van Beek. The yips were not apparent this time, but a six by Taylor landed on the roof of the merchandising stall and a quicker delivery resulted in four byes.

The only bowler I have seen have a complete meltdown in this way was the great Australian quick Graham McKenzie, as unlikely a victim of the yips as could be imagined. It happened in a Sunday League game at Folkestone in 1971. McKenzie had bowled three overs with no hint that anything was awry, but in his fourth started to bowl front foot no-balls—called by his compatriot Bill Alley—and couldn’t stop, even when he reduced his run-up to three paces. Maybe the 15-yard restriction on run-ups that applied in the Sunday League at that time had an effect, but McKenzie’s was an economical approach to the crease that made it seem unlikely. The over was 14 deliveries long and went for 31, as many as I have seen come from one over. It was as strange a thing as I have witnessed as a spectator.

Two more wickets kept the collective blood pressure of Wellington supporters right up there, and the final over began with five needed and three wickets standing. Here I draw your attention to my comparison in my last post of Luke Woodcock to Darren Stevens in terms of reliability and reassurance. Two cover drives to the boundary off van Beek off the first two balls of the over and it was done.


The final took place just two days later, with Wellington travelling to Pukekura Park, New Plymouth to play Central Districts. I watched on TV. 4,000 were crammed into the most beautiful cricket ground I know of, spread out across one row of benches on each level of the grass ziggurats that tower over the ground on three sides.

Earlier this season a new world T20 record for a match aggregate was set on the ground, with CD falling one short of Otago’s 249. A runfest was expected, so when Wellington found themselves at eight for two, and later 114 for seven, hope had left the ground. An unbroken partnership of 58 by Taylor and Patel guided Wellington to the lower foothills of respectability, but a trouncing still appeared inevitable.

But by the end of the third over of the CD innings, Mahela Jayawardene and Jesse Ryder had both gone for ducks and the favourites never got going. Wellington won by 14 runs, a street in T20 terms.

I have enjoyed the later stages of the competition more than I thought I would because it has been less predictable than the shortest form can often be and there has been some good, thinking cricket. The fact that it is not presented in the overblown way that the Big Bash is also helps, particularly in the TV commentary which has been sensible and understated, as is the Kiwi way.

Next, the first of two test matches at the Basin this season, against Bangladesh.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

A cricketing degustation

Wellington v Otago, T20, Basin Reserve, 3 January 2017
There is the danger with T20 of coming to resemble Mrs Mary Whitehouse, who spent the seventies scanning the Radio Times in search of programmes to watch and be offended by. She would then campaign to have these programmes banned so that others could not gain the pleasure from them that she had, in her own way.

Many of the readers of these pieces will share my reservations about T20, and we need not again rehearse what they are. I am aghast that the school summer holiday period in England will henceforth be almost entirely given over it. Had that been so in the seventies, my whole life might have taken a very different course.

But if you go to a T20 game (other than at gunpoint) you should enter into the spirit of the occasion and judge it on its own terms, like an uncle who maintains a broad smile while wearing the reindeer-decorated jersey he had for Christmas. So I watched a five-over game, which was decided by a one-over game, and reader, I enjoyed it.

The cricket itself was not the only factor, but then it never is. There was bureaucratic confusion worthy of the Byzantine Empire at its peak to enjoy, of which more later, and there was the Basin itself, which for a week or so at this time of year acquires a scarlet sash of pohutukawa flowers that wraps its eastern side and reaches up the hill to the Governor-General’s residence (we have a new GG, by the way; a country largely dependent upon dairy farming for its prosperity now has a vegan head of state).

The game was supposed to start at two, but it had rained for most of the day, so it came as a surprise to hear just after four that the captains were about to toss up for a five-overs-a-side contest. I wouldn’t usually bother in these circumstances, but this season I have signed up for a Wellington cricket membership, so could chalk up a new spectating experience at no cost. I have watched a few ten-over games on rainy Sunday afternoons in England, but nothing this truncated, a gobbet of a game.

Had it not rained I would have missed David Warner’s century before lunch on the first day in Sydney, only the fifth such achievement in test history, and a treat to watch, though it is sad to see Misbah-ul-Haq’s heroic tenure of the Pakistan captaincy (the cricketing equivalent of the Italian prime ministership) ending so badly, on and off the field.

On most days the cricket would have been called off after several hours’ rain, but different criteria apply to T20 games, and rightly so. As ever, the positions taken on whether there should be play bore no relation to the conditions, depending instead on the stakes for either team. This was the final day of round-robin games. Central Districts had already secured top place, so will host the final on the world’s most beautiful postage stamp, Pukekura Park in New Plymouth. Second and third will play off to be their opponents. A win for Wellington would take them into the semi-final. An abandonment would be of no use to them. Otago had already secured the wooden spoon, so had only a laundry bill to gain from playing the game.

Which explains why, when I arrived at the Basin, the umpires and the Wellington players were on the field ready to start, but the Otago batsman were nowhere to be seen. This remained the case for the next five minutes or so, until at last the newly agoraphobic Rutherford and Kitchen were coaxed from the dressing room. Then, something else that I had not seen before (today was a bran tub full of new experiences): Hamish Bennett was ready to bowl the first over from the southern end, with the umpire in place behind the stumps (you will recall that they had had some time to think about this while waiting for the batsmen). At the last minute the decision was made to switch to the northern end, with Arnel opening, which necessitated late rearrangement of fielders and umpires.

What is a par score in a five-over game? I thought about 60, but given that both sides here made 48, that must be it. The only wicket of the Otago innings came from its final delivery, which raises the question of whether the openers should have pushed it a bit more. In the circumstances, Anaru Kitchen’s 16 from 17 balls seems a bit thin.

Bowling is a losing lottery ticket in these circumstances, so Hamish Bennett’s effort in conceding only four runs in his over was particularly meritorious.  

Michael Papps hit the second ball of the Wellington innings onto the bank behind long leg and at 20 without loss after 11 balls it all seemed a bit of a procession. But Marshall was caught at mid on, and from the first two balls of the next over, Namibian international Christi Viljoen had Blundell caught at fine leg and then yorked Papps.

Michael Pollard deployed the heave over midwicket to great effect, with two sixes, but was plumb lbw trying to repeat. He will make seventies in longer forms that do not have the value that 14 did here.

Eight were needed from the last over, bowled by Duffy. But which one?  I assumed that it was Jacob Duffy, Otago’s young quick, but no. It was Ryan Duffy, who is listed as a wicketkeeper by CricInfo, and who has bowled just two overs in 18 first-class matches spread over three years. He had never played T20 until New Year’s Day, but now finds himself reinvented as a closer (to use a baseball term) in this format. I wonder how you find out that the reserve keeper is a secret death bowler? He did a decent job here.

A single from Elliott, then Taylor skyed a catch to mid on. Seven from four. Grant Elliott—the hero of the World Cup semi-final—lifted the next ball over mid off for four. Why bowl full with mid off up? With three needed from three it seemed that what was left were mere formalities, but Elliott left the next one hoping for a high wide call, which didn’t come. The umpires were bowler friendly in their application of this rule, but consistently so. A single off the fifth ball mean that it was two to win, one for a super over.

Luke Woodcock was on strike for the first time. He is a southern hemisphere Darren Stevens, a man who exudes reliability and reassurance. Duffy’s attempted yorker was a little under-pitched and was driven straight of long off. It looked a certain two, but Michael Bracewell was quickly to it and he threw to the keeper’s end with the precision of Phil Taylor going for double top. Woodcock was run out by a metre.

So it was to be a super over. Or was it? We now had one of those disputes that cricket, and cricket alone, can conjure out of the ether. It would be inconceivable that a drawn football match in a competition that had used penalty shoot-outs throughout the season would then be paused to consider whether, on this one occasion, there was something in the rulebook that meant that the shoot-out could not take place. Yet that was what happened here.

This was post-truth cricket. How the idea emerged that somehow there was a sub-subclause somewhere that said that there was no time left to bowl two overs, who knows? But it took hold and meant that there was a delay of more than 15 minutes—longer than it would take to get the super over done—during which the Middle East peace process was recreated on the outfield with no brow left unfurrowed. I hardly need add that as these discussions continued, the sun came out in Wellington for the first time this year, and spectators were shedding layers of clothing.

Eventually, the obvious decision was reached and the super over was on (the sub committee set up to establish the religion of the Pope will report this time next year).

Wellington batted first, with Neil Wagner bowling. The first ball was decisive. It was called as a no ball for being above waist height. Michael Pollard applied his legside heave to send the free hit out of the ground, and followed with another later in the over, setting 20 as the total to beat.

Hamish Bennett bowled a tight, thoughtful over for the second time this afternoon restricting Otago to eight and taking two wickets, which is all out in a super over.

Wellington were through to the knock out phase, an outcome that looked improbable after their first four matches, all of which were lost. Even better news followed. Auckland, who would claim the right to play the semi-final at home if they beat Central Districts, lost despite scoring 212 in their 20 overs. Rain intervened and CD’s 82 without loss in eight overs satisfied not only Mr Duckworth, but also Mr Lewis, so Wellington host Canterbury in the semi-final.

This was as unusual an hour or so as I have spent at the cricket. It was a cricketing degustation, tasty and intriguing, not as nourishing as a full plate, but enjoyable nonetheless.

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