Tuesday, 26 July 2011
It will be remembered as ‘People’s Monday’ at Lords. The queues of fans snaked through St John’s Wood from the crack of dawn but it was going to take some Indian charm of the highest order to extract a result from a high class 2000th Test. They came to see the little master shoulder the burden of saving his nation at cricketing HQ but England were reading from a different script.
Deep in the final session of play a rejuvenated Stuart Broad trapped Ishant Sharma in front of his stumps for his seventh wicket of the match and England took a deserved lead in the four Test series with a convincing 196 run victory. The celebrations on the pitch showed the level of desire amongst the team to be recognised as the best in the business.
When England is credited with innovative thinking and the man dispensing the credit is S R Waugh then you take notice that this cricket team must have a bit about them. Australia found this to their cost in the winter and they may be smiling ruefully now that the English bowling attack has laid waste to the more vaunted Indian batting line-up dismissing them twice for under 300.
True, India suffered from injury and illness to Gambhir, Tendulkar and, crucially, Khan at various stages of this match but they also arrived under-cooked. Duncan Fletcher coached England to a glorious high in 2005 and humiliating low in 2006/07. More than anyone he knows the value of preparation for a high-octane series. Resting senior players for the recent tour of the West Indies and scheduling one warm-up game in advance of the Lord’s Test has proved insufficient against an England team performing as a cohesive unit.
As Kevin Pietersen, a deserved man of the match, put it succinctly ‘All departments seem to be covered.’ The batting showed grit in the first innings and when the foundations were rocked to the core in the second innings it was Prior and Broad who took the game away from India with a game-changing seventh wicket partnership of 162.
It was the bowling attack that really stood out and not just because of their height. It seems inconceivable that until last December the human tripod Tremlett had only played three Tests since his debut against India four years previously. In his 38th Test Broad finally discovered that he’s more likely to take wickets when the ball lands in the same half of the pitch as the batsman. The spin department out-bowled their more experienced counterpart. It was Anderson though that stepped up to the mark on the final day. Few bowlers in cricket will have taken the wickets of a more illustrious trio than Dravid, Laxman and Tendulkar in the same innings. It was a fitting reward for the leader of the attack.
India has only 3 days to re-group before Trent Bridge. They have the talent to turn this series around but they must act fast. There is a sense that this England is a younger, sharper, more disciplined and resourceful beast than the old masters of India can handle. A combination of great batsmen, cunning bowlers, shoddy fielding and gnarled coach may not be sufficient to see them come from behind.
Monday, 28 February 2011
There’s life in the old dog yet. The surfeit of mediocrity that cricket fans are force fed by the Twenty20 format has made some nostalgic for the relative sobriety of an old-fashioned One Day International. The 11th Cricket World Cup has its problems but in the land where the IPL is the cricketing equivalent of the Emperor’s New Clothes the 40,000 people that packed the Chinnaswamy stadium got full value for money. The contest between India and England ebbed and flowed all the way to a breathless finish. It was super-charged cricket for 100 overs in a white-hot atmosphere.
The record books will show that England tied the match scoring 338-8 but at 281-2 in the 43rd over the most improbable of run chases was within touching distance of an England team that had previously looked a pale imitation of the disciplined unit that humiliated Australia only last month. That England didn’t make it over the finish line was due to some inspired clutch bowling from Zaheer Khan. That England was even in with a chance was due to an innings of rare brilliance from captain Andrew Strauss with 158 from 145 deliveries.
Test cricket has shown Strauss as a calm, resolute leader of men – able to motivate them to achieve feats beyond their predecessors. Whereas the challenge of captaincy sent Flintoff off the rails in Australia and saw Pietersen spontaneously combust in the West Indies it has seen Strauss remodel his batting first in the Test arena and then in the 50 over format. Strauss exemplifies a man at ease with his game. He knows his limitations and ensures that he plays to his strengths. England has not seen a more adept, if not as brutal, cutter of the ball since Robin Smith. It takes a rare performance to snatch a man of the match award from the grasp of a Sachin Tendulkar century in India but that was one contest in which there was no tie.
That the result will ultimately not mean much in the course of this lengthy competition does not matter as much as the fact that the World Cup had a contest to match its status as the pinnacle of the One Day game. For those that watched enthralled around the world it will be infinitely more memorable than the plethora of Twenty20 games or mis-matched ODIs involving minnows. For both England and India there are plenty of areas of improvement, not least the fielding. For the other nations there is the knowledge that, India, the red-hot favourites will give you a chance with their bowling – no matter how many runs they score.
Wednesday, 12 January 2011
Watching England play cricket in Australia is traditionally a harrowing experience. The walk to the SCG for the final day of the Ashes with 3 wickets needed to secure a first away triumph for 24 years was as pleasurable as a stroll in the English countryside. The best decision that an Australian made during the tour was to let people enter the SCG free to witness the coup de grace. Around 18,000 England supporters turned up to help Andrew Strauss’ team take the urn home. Flags of St George hung from the railings of the Ladies Pavilion. Australians, save for the baggy greens in the middle of the pitch, were in short supply. English dominance on and off the pitch was total.
Saturday, 1 January 2011
One of the finest sights in world sport is that of a fast bowler charging in to hurl a 5.5 ounce missile of leather, cork and string at speeds of more than 90mph towards a batsman standing 22 yards away. No area is off limit. The batsman has to scramble for his life, ducking, swaying and defending not knowing whether the ball will be directed at his head, chest or toes. The batsman hopes the bowler will tire quickly and lose pace and accuracy. It is about survival rather than run-scoring. The atmosphere can be akin to a bear-pit.
England fans will remember the duel between Allan Donald, South Africa’s White Lightening, and captain Michael Atherton in the Trent Bridge Test of 1998 that has attained legendary status. Atherton repelled Donald’s high speed advances with skill and no small amount of luck and courage to see England through to a famous victory. Similarly, in Ashes competition, Andrew Flintoff was cast in the role of aggressor in 2005 as he ripped out Justin Langer and Ricky Ponting to the delight of a roaring Edgbaston crowd.
For Australia the nation’s fast-bowling hopes now rest on the shoulders of Mitchell Johnson. A fast, left-arm bowler he was named the International Cricket Council’s ‘Cricketer of the Year’ in 2009. If Australia were to regain the Ashes then Johnson would have to fire.
Sadly, from an Australian perspective, Super Mitch’s performance has been abject. A total loss of control has seen deliveries sprayed either side of the England batsmen who have pounced in the manner of King Henry VIII at an all you can eat buffet. Dropped for the second Test in Adelaide Johnson rebounded in Perth to produce a game-changing spell of rapid inswing but doubts remained as to whether he actually knew how he had rediscovered his ability to bowl accurately.
Johnson’s fragile confidence and natural shyness off the field has been further eroded by the verbal shellacking he has received at the hands of the Barmy Army. With Sydney to come it will be seen whether Melbourne represented a nadir. For hours on end England’s loyal band of supporters subjected Johnson to a repetitive ear-bashing that they would have never risked dishing out to Glenn McGrath – and nor did his performances give them ammunition to.
A less than complimentary ditty sung to the tune of the Addams Family played a bit part in the Barmy Army repertoire but it was dominated by the description of Johnson’s bowling sung to the tune of Sloop John B, “He bowls to the left, he bowls to the right, that man Mitchell Johnson, his bowling is shite”. Complete with hand movements thousands of Englishmen made their point to Johnson again and again. Even Kevin Pietersen, fielding in front of the Barmy Army, felt inclined to agree (see video).
For a man struggling to find any form, with the sun beating down and his team stuck behind the eight ball, it was the last thing that Mitchell Johnson wanted to hear. Every leg-side delivery or four was cheered mercilessly. Johnson needs to rediscover his form and fast if Australia are to re-emerge as a cricketing powerhouse.
Thursday, 30 December 2010
Sunday, 19 December 2010
Prior to Perth there was talk of England going unbeaten through the Ashes tour for the first time in 40 years. Some of this came from the England wicketkeeper. There is nothing like a 267 run pummelling to refocus the mind. Enough of this touring squad experienced regular beatings on this scale four years ago to realise that there would be a fightback from Ponting’s men following Adelaide.
The ‘psychological edge’ was meant to be with England as Australia had been hammered by an innings. Australian cricket was in disarray. The captain and vice-captain couldn’t score a run, the meter had been running for 4 years as the nation searched for a spinner and the bowling attack could only locate the middle of English willow.
It was the return though of pace, power and swing in attack that did for England. Skittled twice for a total of 310 runs it was a confrontation with a rejuvenated Mitchell Johnson, the fastest bowler on either side, and a receptive pitch that the haymakers of Brisbane and Adelaide couldn’t cope with. Johnson showed what English players and fans alike had only heard about in dispatches. When he clicks, even if he doesn’t know how he does it, Johnson is a game changing cricketer.
The only batsman that showed the requisite skill was Mr Cricket or Mr Bloody Cricket as Michael Hussey is probably referred to in English team meetings. Andy Flower’s thinktank will unveil plan G in Melbourne following Hussey’s sixth consecutive score of more than 50. He batted like a champion, well supported by a disciplined Shane Watson.
At 69-5 on the first day an English win looked on the cards. The Ashes were there for the taking but from that point on Australia bossed the game. England’s bowlers, with the noteworthy exception of Tremlett, pitched short too often allowing runs to flow. Wickets don’t need to come only from outstanding deliveries but can be taken by two bowlers working in tandem to apply pressure. Swann was attacked from the off and unable to settle on an unhelpful pitch for him and Finn was profligate despite continuing to take wickets. Australia got away. All of Australia’s pace attack kept at the English batsmen and didn’t let up.
It is a novelty for England to head to Melbourne with anything other than pride to play for. 90,000 people will roar their support at the MCG on Boxing Day. The pitch traditionally offers assistance to spin but after the demolition job that Johnson and Ryan Harris completed it is to be expected that the groundsman will leave grass on the pitch negating Swann and playing in to the hands of Johnson. There will be tough selectorial issues for England to discuss; will the out of form Collingwood be replaced by a fourth seamer? Will Swann lose his place if the pitch is tailored radically or, most likely, will Finn pay the price for a lack of control in a team reliant on each bowler exerting control?
Lest the doom-mongers get too carried away with the Australian rebirth: Ponting and Clarke are still woefully out of form, their search for a spinner continues, Hussey will surely fail at some point and the series is level at one win apiece. Touring teams always struggle in Perth with Melbourne and Sydney historically proving far happier hunting grounds. In contrast to their predecessors this England team has good spirit and can move on with optimism having achieved much so far on this tour. It is now time for England to show that they deserve to take the Ashes home by bouncing back as winners. Happy Christmas. I’ll see you on Boxing Day.
Friday, 17 December 2010
Hold the back page. The kangaroo still boxes. With hostile fast-bowling, sledging and stumps flying Australia did what they used to do best and turned around the course of the 3rd Test inside two sessions of the second day.
Written off by all and sundry following his dismal showing in Brisbane and no-show at Adelaide it was Mitchell Johnson with 6 wickets that strong-armed the recovery. England collapsed to lose all their batsmen in 39 overs for 109 runs and slump to 187 all out with a deficit of 81 on first innings. On a day where Ricky Ponting woke to read the Australian press hanging his ‘rudderless rabble’ out to dry it was his fastest bowler with most to prove who stepped up to the mark. Johnson was too hot to handle, pitching the ball up, swinging it at pace and ripping out the immovable England top order. The scramble for padding in the away dressing room echoed the fortunes of their predecessors.
Johnson’s record at the WACA is an impressive 27 wickets at an average of 18. He is a bowler that likes a wicket with some grass on it. If he didn’t come good here then Andrew Hilditch’s predictably irrational selection committee would have had justifiable grounds for putting Johnson out to pasture with his less favoured venues in Melbourne and Sydney on the agenda. It was outstanding fast bowling at a time when he and the team needed it most.
Turmoil, fat ladies singing, Shane Watson as captain and tattooed players were all themes in the Australian press today. An online bookmaker has already committed to paying out on England returning home with the urn. Steve Waugh, the last Australian captain, cast doubt on the future of his successor in the team let alone continuing his run as the most successful Test captain of all time.
Whether this galvanised the Australian team or maybe they couldn’t play any worse but there was fire in their performance in the field. Verbal sparring climaxed with Siddle’s dismissal of Prior eliciting dialogue from the protagonists with Ponting also taking the chance to vent. Today Johnson supplied the actions to support his words. It made for a captivating contest between bat and ball.
Despite the predictable failures for Hughes, Ponting and Clarke some cafeteria bowling from England augmented the Australian lead to 200 by stumps. The talismanic Hussey remains in situ and can put the game beyond England in the morning. Ponting’s series total from six innings is just north of 100 runs but he will have a more comfortable ride tomorrow from his former peers who now reside as fully lunched up members of the Fourth Estate.