Saturday, December 20, 2008

Aus vs RSA Day 4: Rain, rain go away

The wicket is still as docile as ever, but this evening we were treated to a wonderful spell of fast bowling from Brett Lee in particular. There still is no greater sight in cricket than a fast bowler in full flow, and once he dismissed Amla (who walked, it should be noted), he bowled some beauties to de Villiers and Kallis. Full credit to to Mitchell Johnson, who was excellent bowling into the wind, took the likely match-winning wicket of Graeme Smith, and knocked Kallis onto his backside.

South Africa ended the day mathematically in the game yet again, but the reality is that everytime they've worked their way back to parity, Australia managed to wrest the initiative once again. More crucially, de Villiers and Kallis represent the last hope for the Proteas. Duminy is making a debut, and the tail effectively begins with him. It won't wag like the Aussie tail has, twice, that's for sure.

I'm expecting South Africa to fold around 100 short, but praying that they will actually run the Aussies close and give me a 5th successive great day of Test cricket. Either way, I doubt I'll have a 15 hour day at the WACA on Day 5. When was the last time a day's play in a Test ended at 8:03pm under lights?

My day's highlight, apart from Kallis being knocked on his rear end - Aleem Dar asking AB de Villiers "how many balls has he (Johnson) bowled in this over?" I wonder if he'll be consulting the non-striker on the next lbw decision as well. Oh, and yet another brilliant catch by de Villiers. The man is a legend.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Aus vs RSA Day 3: The Wessels Vessel

I'm shattered, and in need of sleep, so this will be brief. The radio comms were trying to figure out what to call a potential trophy for this series (there currently isn't one). My offering -- "The Wessels Vessel," in honour of Kepler Wessels, who played for both teams.

Another surprisingly topsy turvy day of cricket saw South Africa get bowled out much as I expected, and Australia seemingly take a stranglehold, before the Springboks flirted with the idea of being competitive, much to my surprise. Paul Harris and Jacques Kallis bowled beautifully to strangle Australia, and claw their side right back into the contest, but unfortunately, there was insufficient support from Steyn, Morkel and Ntini (those would be the 3 supposed strike bowlers). A target of under 300 might have been gettable, but it looks like they'll be chasing 400 now, and I just can't see it happening. Then again, this team did bat for over two days in England in the last innings, so perhaps I shouldn't abandon hope on their behalf. Then again, again, that was England. This is Australia.

Hats off, ultimately, to Mitchell Johnson, for single handedly wresting the initiative and delivering the Test match to his side. He'd have had a 9-fer too, had Brett Lee called for the catch which Haddin eventually didn't quite reach. On a wicket that continues to be completely devoid of significant life, to take 8-61 is simply phenomenal. Especially if you're a bloke who doesn't even swing the ball.

Hats off, also, to AB de Villiers. When I grow up, AB, I want to be you. Three breathtaking catches, and you also play golf off a single handicap despite playing only one round per month, and allegedly could outslash Slash on the guitar. Not bad, for a man who by his 7th Test match had scored a 50, a 100, taken two wickets, taken outfield catches, and taken catches as a keeper. Beat that, Sobers!!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Aus vs RSA Day Two: Where are all the flat track bullies?

Make no mistake about it, this track is as flat as the proverbial pancake. South Africa's 243-8 may not suggest it, but that is frankly nothing more than a reflection of the Proteas' weak batting line up, which was hampered further by the absence of Prince in this Test.

Kallis and Smith scored a few, but the former was nothing more than his obdurate self, and the latter thoroughly unconvincing. Amla and de Villiers were the ones who looked class on the day, Amla in particular looking like he could grow into a real world-beater. The pair timed the ball beautifully and looked completely untroubled at the crease.

It took a beautiful delivery by Krezja, drifting away, dipping late, then turning in sharply, to lure Amla into a drive that was beaten on the inside on the way through to the stumps, and as for de Villiers, his loose drive at Johnson paved the way for a truly South African collapse.

The collapse owed much to Johnson's brilliant day at work. Like Morkel on the first day, he bowled intelligently, varying his pace and length, and looked likely from the start. He richly deserved his 7-fer, even if he was aided and abetted by Aleem Dar, who had yet another poor day as he first dubiously triggered Duminy, and then appeared to miss a back-foot no-ball when Johnson went round the wicket to Harris and had him caught at backward square.

When i got to the WACA at 4:30am this morning, I predicted 400 for Australia, and 250 all out for South Africa in response. Australia fell slightly short, but South Africa are right on track to live up to my expectations, and unfortunately what that means is that this game is somewhat over as a contest. The interest now lies in whether Johnson can turn 7 into 9, and possibly beat Murali's 9-51 and record the 5th best figures of all time; and then in how many Australian batsmen can record second innings hundreds on a dead wicket, as I can't see them all messing up a second time around. Fortunately, I'll be there to see it all.

One more thing about Johnson - he was clearly the fastest bowler on display in this Test match. I don't know if the speed gun backed that up, but it was pretty obvious watching it live. Siddle was not far behind, followed by Lee, and I'd have to say that all three Australians were faster than the South African pace trio, which does not reflect well on the much-hyped Steyn.

It's also interesting to look at just how few of the dismissals in the match were a result of good deliveries. Taking them one by one:

  • Hayden - got a good ball that bounced a bit and seamed away from him, but played a poor shot
  • Katich - triggered by Aleem Dar
  • Ponting - a good catch, but a very poor short pushing hard at the ball first up
  • Hussey - a good ball that angled across him, and a great catch by de Villiers
  • Clarke - the second worst shot of the game
  • Symonds - the equal third worst shot of the game
  • Haddin - the equal third worst shot of the game, again to a nothing delivery
  • Lee - soft half-hearted prod with hard hands
  • Johnson - possibly triggered by Aleem Dar
  • Siddle - had a go at one too many in the end, and edged through - credit to Ntini probably merited here
  • McKenzie - perhaps the worst shot ever, leave alone off this game -- I only know one other person who plays shots like that pull to mid on, and he plays club cricket in Northern California.
  • Smith - a big inside edge, no footwork, but no surprises there, he wasn't batting all that well
  • Amla - got undone by an absolute beaut by Krezja
  • Kallis - chased it a little outside off and edged through to the keeper
  • de Villiers - got a decent ball, but could have let it go
  • Duminy - okay, a bum decision, but he got in a right tangle over a short ball on a flat track, and that's worrying
  • Morkel - so much for being an all rounder, but to be fair, Johnson bowled a smart slower off-cutter and he closed the face early - credit to the bowler here
  • Harris - a possible back-foot no-ball, but tamely turned straight into the hands of backward square leg.
Unbelievable really. All this on a track that as I keep saying, is pretty much dead. There's nothing to help the bowlers here, which shows you just how well Johnson bowled to take 7! Over the years, we keep seeing certain batsmen labelled Flat Track Bullies. Well, what would South Africa give to have one of those right now, I wonder?

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Aus vs RSA Day 1: Keep your mouth shut!

341-9 on a docile pitch after electing to bat would appear to be a sub par score. On the other hand, having been 15-3 at one stage, Australia might consider it a great recovery. On a third hand, having been 164-3 and in total control, they might have been looking at 500. On a fourth hand, having then been 166-5 with an out of form Symonds fresh at the crease, 341-9 looks good again. But on a fifth hand, having climbed to 259-5 in commanding fashion, it represents a collapse. And on the sixth and final hand, having been 303-8, with an expected 6 or 7 overs remaining, perhaps it is a good score after all.

That set of hands really tells the story of the day's play. You'll hear people say that it ebbed and flowed, with each side gaining the advantage at different times. However if truth be told, the only advantage that was gained was the first one, in the first 45 minutes of play. Each subsequent one was spectacularly lost by one team, not gained by the other.

Australia started well by winning the toss, and Steyn and Ntini were bowling the wrong lengths and lines, though at least the latter was attempting to pitch the ball somewhere near the batsman. Hayden looked in complete command, playing some cracking straight drives on both sides, before Ntini changed the angle, went round the wicket, and inexplicably lured the opener into a soft prod outside off, presenting Smith with the easiest of catches at first slip.

By this point, it was already clear that the pitch was something of a featherbed. Good carry, decent bounce, but essentially a perfect batting track. Justin Langer was drooling in the commentary box above my head. In strode Ricky Ponting, and not being a fan, I was concerned that he was on his way to a massive hundred. I needn't have worried. First ball, he pushed hard, and perhaps a touch late, at a ball outside off stump, and the edge flew low to de Villiers, who took what I thought at the time was a really good catch.

Hussey survived the hat-trick, but then became the first, and perhaps only, Australian batsman to fall victim to quality cricket. Steyn angled one across him, on a perfect line and length, and Hussey had to play at it. He duly edged, the ball landing a few feet short of de Villiers at third slip, thanks to Hussey's softening of the hands. Or at least, that's what everyone in the ground thought was happening, only for de Villiers to quite brilliantly dive forward from third slip and take a truly stupendous catch. The last player I saw taking catches like that was Carl Hooper. I don't know how much airtime the replay got on TV (it got a fair few on the big screen at the WACA), but I hope it got the credit it deserved. It doesn't look as spectacular as many so-called classic catches, but it really was one of the best catches you will ever see.

Unfortunately, that was one of the few pieces of good bowling from South Africa on the day. Steyn was too short, even being wided 3 times in the process, Ntini never looked threatening, Kallis was disastrous, and only Morkel of the pacemen looked to have the ability to make something happen on a dead track, varying his pace, line and length intelligently at times.

Clarke and Katich batted nervously at first, presumably because of the situation, but soon realised how friendly the pitch was, and once they were set, it looked like there was nothing that could get them out. The only threat posed was by one Paul Harris delivery that accidentally turned and bounced, much to the bemusement of everyone, I'm sure.

Speaking of Harris, he fast became a cult hero of the WACA crowd. He had a mild case of the yips with his bowling run up, stopping several times in mid-run. Not something you see often from a spinner. The real comedy moment, which earned him eternal adulation from the fans, was when he ran in and stopped for the third time. Only this time, he looked to be a in a bit of a panic, pointing feverishly in his mouth and almost appearing to choke. Indeed, it transpired that while running in with his mouth wide open, he had swallowed a fly. No spiders around to catch the fly, and I suspect he kept his mouth well shut thereafter.

There was also a comedy moment from Kallis, his entire bowling spell apart, when he warmed up to bowl for the first time and sent his practice delivery, aimed at mid-off, about 20 feet behind him in the direction of mid-wicket instead.

The Katich-Clarke partnership was only broken by the efforts of Aleem Dar. Apparently Hawkeye suggests that he may have been correct, but my birds-eye viewpoint says that he was a little too eager to give Katich lbw when nailed by a low full toss from Morkel, who was bowling round the wicket and angling it down leg. In fact, he was so eager, that he raised his finger completely in conjunction with the bowler's half-hearted appeal. It was a shocker, no matter what Hawkeye says - you could see that the South Africans were surprised as well.

A combination of smart captaincy and batsman stupidity then accounted for Clarke. Smith brought in the long-off, to try and tempt Clarke to hit Harris over the top instead of milking singles. He tried it the very next ball. It didn't work.

Symonds and Haddin then came together and consolidated by upping the tempo considerably - with some early edges and later lusty blows. However, the Smith-Harris combination then trapped Symonds. Smith had Harris move to bowling over the wicket, outside leg stump. Symonds hit the first one through mid-wicket for four, and then tried to repeat next delivery, only to top edge high to mid-on.

Haddin was then a victim of the new ball, a Mark Boucher adjustment to the field, and yet another ridiculous shot. Slashing with rooted feet at a wide loosener off the second delivery of the second new ball, when Boucher has specifically had the man at point pushed deep is a bad idea, and Duminy was grateful to get on the scoresheet on debut.

Steyn then bounced Lee out (Ian O'Brien can tell you how that worked out), and then Morkel applied the coup-de-grace with another Aleem Dar assisted lbw off the final delivery of the evening, leaving the match perfectly poised.

A sub-par score on a flat track means that there is probably enough in the South African batting to post a competitive total, and take this game into at least a 4th day, which will make the expense of this years membership well worthwhile :-)

And for the interested, a chronology of my day:

  • 0215hrs -- alarm goes off. pack lunch, load car up with chair and cushions
  • 0245hrs -- head out to the WACA on empty roads, trying really hard to keep to the speed limit
  • 0305hrs -- arrive at the WACA. #4 in the queue this year, behind ex CI-er Dave, and my American buddy Rick from Sonoma, whom I met in the Members queue at the WACA 2 years ago for the Ashes Test. Two Americans (if you count me) as part of the first four people in line to watch an Australia South Africa Test match at the WACA... what are the odds?
  • 0400hrs -- curse myself for waking up so early - there's less interest in this Test than there was in the India Test last year, nad I could clearly have slept in an extra hour and still been at the front.
  • 0430hrs -- feel a little better as the crowd starts to trickle in
  • 0600hrs -- a new innovation, a coffee, tea and hot chocolate van - congratulations to the WACA for figuring this one out at long last.
  • 0800hrs -- round one of gates opening, and we can move up to the turnstiles
  • 0830hrs -- loyalty (40 years) and high attendee members are let in first, they have a separate queue. This is the moment to enjoy watching 90 year olds with walking sticks outrun Usain Bolt. It's pheneomenal stuff. The poor security guards are nearly trampled in the process, as always.
  • 0845hrs -- got my seat, just about. There's about 10 seats which I consider worthwhile, and I managed to snag the 8th one. Couldn't have asked for a better place from which to watch the Test match.
  • 1000hrs -- sitting there and wondering why all the South Africans are congratulating Duminy. Looks like he's playing - but can't tell who's injured.
  • 1130hrs -- feels like bedtime, but at last the cricket is starting!
I shall be sleeping in tonight. I think getting there for 4:30am on Day 2 should do the trick.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Australia vs South Africa: My Preview

Here we are again. Less than 48 hours remain before the start of the Australia-South Africa Test series. Highly anticipated by many, including myself, for some of the most compelling Test cricket I have seen, especially as a neutral, has been in Tests involving these two teams. A packed MCG for Warne's 300th Test wicket, and a spectacular spell from Allan Donald to the Waugh brothers remain firmly etched in memory. With any luck, a fast bouncy track this week will ensure that Steyn, Morkel, Lee and Johnson create a few new highlights.

I expect Australia to win, with runs for Ponting in particular, simply because they have, in my book, a far superior batting lineup. Steyn and Morkel look to have world class potential, but neither can claim to be the finished article yet, and if they're not careful, the WACA will be a curse rather than a blessing. More than one visiting paceman has lost the plot and pitched the ball far too short over here, and you can expect that the Australians will not make that mistake.

It appears that the game is not sold out - surprising, considering Perth's large South African population. Unfortunately, that's unlikely to make a difference for those of us queueing up for a seat in the Member's enclosure. A 2am drive down to the WACA looks to be the order of the day, though with any luck, I can sleep in until 4am after the first day.

A comfy chair, a seat cushion, a good book, some cryptic crosswords, my Sansa mp3 player ($20 - beat that, iPod!!) and plenty of food and drink will get me through to gates opening at 9:30 and the 11:30 start of play. 9 and a half hours of waiting, followed by 6 hours of cricket. And as always, the funniest part will be watching those who queued up in order to do their knitting, and then leave at tea-time in order to beat the traffic. Unbelievable, but it happens every year.

After my brush with WACA authority this weekend - I was booted out of the Member's for not wearing a collared shirt, or as someone else suggested, for not being old enough or white enough - I shall be suitably attired. Instead of my smart long-sleeved shirt and trousers, which were deemed unacceptable, I will wear scruffy shorts and a collared T-shirt, and sure enough, they'll wave me right on in. Quite incredible.

The White Tiger

Lightweight. That was my instinctive reaction to this Booker Prize winner. There was nothing intrinsically wrong with the book, and in fact, I read it in two short sittings, putting it down only to watch the warm up game at the WACA.

However, no major flaws does not a prize-winner make, in my estimation. The tale is appropriately poignant, and that's where it seems to fall down. It's almost as if the entire story is crafted in order to pointedly engage a particular audience, and that manufactured feel is what stopped me from liking it a lot more.

The narrative is solid, and the prose engaging but not spectacular, and anyone who enjoys fueling a stereotype (which may well be accurate, in this case) will appreciate it.

If you are drawn to tales of an exotic yet down to earth reality in which caste, creed and basic human instinct are fundamental, then this is for you. Even more so if that is your carefully cultivated image of the India that you only ever get to see the periphery of, the one that you are sheltered from in your five-star hotel and luxury lifestyle. And that, no doubt, is why Adiga now has the Booker Prize.

Read it. Enjoy it. It's a good book. Insightful, even, if you're not already overexposed. Just don't be fooled into expecting great literature.

Friday, December 12, 2008

South Africa vs Western Australian XI

I made my way down to the WACA this morning to watch the South Africans' warm up game against what was essentially the Western Australian 2nd XI. Being a 2-day game, it was really never going to be more than a glorified net session, meaning that there's little one can really glean from the performances or anything else, but there was still enough of interest for the couple of hundred souls who were there. Of course, that said, most of them spent the day reading books or getting on with their knitting, but I've moaned about that before so I won't start now.

The pitch itself was a disappointment. Pitch number 8 was used for this game, apparently relaid 6 months ago. The relaid pitches at the WACA have been a throwback to its heyday, when pace and bounce ruled the roost. Not this one. Lonwabo Tsotsobe did get struck, but that owed more to his relative ineptitude with the bat than anything in the surface. The rest of the day, the ball carried through no more than waist high, and the spectators were in about as much danger as the batsmen.

The Test match however, is to be played on pitch number 6, and that could make for some fun stuff. That's the pitch on which Shaun Tait had the Kiwis hopping about last year, and if it plays anything like that, then watching Morkel, Steyn, Lee and Johnson ought to be an absolute blast.

Pitch issues aside, the South Africans may also be a little concerned about their batting. Bluntly put, they don't seem to have an awful lot of it, despite coming here with, on paper, their strongest line up in years. De Villiers put together a composed century, but McKenzie's half century wasn't altogether convincing, and with Smith, Prince and Boucher failing, and Kallis once again being called selfish by the press in an attempt to create some interest in the proceedings, only Amla looks in possession of both class and form. However, he too looked less than complete when playing the short ball, and a quick bouncy pitch may be quite a test. Throw in his having not yet been dismissed on tour, and his odds of failing in the Test seem pretty good.

Also of interest today were the field placings employed by the WA side in the initial overs. Smith, a belligerent lefty, and McKenzie, a relatively stoic right-hander, were facing Davis, bowling left arm inswing (to the righty), and Porter, a right-armer shaping the ball away. That covers about every permutation in the book. And yet Simmons, the WA captain, employed an absolutely identical field for both bowlers to both batsmen. Three slips, a gully, a square point (presumably because of the lack of pace in the pitch and the bowlers), a mid-off, a mid-on, a square leg and a deep fine leg. Either he expected his bowlers to bowl to that field, which they most certainly did not do, or what we all get taught about adjusting our fields for the bowler and batsman is not all that it's cracked out to be.

Field placing aside, Ricky Ponting could learn a thing or two from Simmons. He managed 32 overs in the first hour, despite using 7 medium pacers and just two overs of spin in that time, and he followed it up with 33 overs in the second hour. In fact, stumps were drawn after 90 overs, a full ten minutes ahead of schedule. Has that ever happened before?

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Hot Spot - the perils of technology

If you're a cricket fan, you're now well used to Hawkeye, the Snickometer and perhaps even the Protecto-Cam (ok, that one only exists in Billy Birmingham's world). Most recently, you've probably encountered Hot Spot.

Launched a couple of years ago by Channel Nine (who else?), Hot Spot uses infra-red imaging technology, detecting the heat emitted when, for example, the ball strikes the edge of the bat. Viewers are shown a negative image which clearly highlights the "hot spots," amongst which are any points of impact between the ball and other surfaces.

Hot Spot technology has also detected a few other distinct heat signatures that viewers have hitherto not been made privy too. If you thought technology was putting the Umpire's decision making under intense scrutiny, you're right, but the scrutiny doesn't end there.

Hot Spot, it transpires, can also detect flatulence. That's right. The Channel Nine technicians "see" Umpires and Players breaking wind. One can only wonder if they've actually been keeping score, as it were. You'd have to imagine baked-beans-on-toast Warney would be somewhere at the top end of the rankings.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Ronaldo's handball

There's not an awful lot to say about Ronaldo winning the Ballon D'Or today, but after reading all the articles about his quite incredible sending off in the derby game this weekend, I have to sneak a word in edgewise.

It's worth stepping back to the first yellow card he received. The tackle, even in the eyes of the commentators on my TV feed, did not warrant a card, and it was quite a surprise when Howard Webb flashed the yellow. That said, when Ronaldo responded by saracastically applauding, I fully expected him to be sent off there and then, and was quite relieved when it didn't happen.

He does cop a lot on the field, and is often not protected by the referees, but to be fair, City did not set out to nobble him, unlike some other teams, and in this case, although he received a poor yellow, he risked it all by reacting.

Still, the game went on, and then came the comical incident pictured above. There's no question that he used his hands, and nobody, least of all Ronaldo, is disputing that. What he claims is that he heard a shout, and a whistle, and so he used his hands and was intending to stop the game. For this, he has been roundly pilloried, but let's pause to think rationally for a moment. Forget about your hatred for all things Ronaldo (for those of you who are not United fans) for a minute.

Consider for a second that we have here one of, if not the, most accomplished headers of a ball in a penalty box. Remember his header against Roma last year, or even his header against Chelsea in the Champions League final. Not a man who is queasy in the air. Now look at the picture above. He has risen higher than all and sundry, and has a clear opportunity to head the ball goalwards. It's what he does best. Now whatever you may think of him, it is ridiculous to suggest, as most observers have done, that he did this for no reason. It's pretty obvious that under normal circumstances, Ronaldo would have got head to ball, and aimed for goal. Once again, that's what he does. Something prompted him to do otherwise. I'm inclined to believe that he did think he heard a whistle.

Unfortunately, there was no whistle. I can't and don't blame the referee for producing a second yellow card. It's the rest of us - the media and the fans - who need to retain some perspective here and think about what we're saying when we analyze the situation. Sure, there's nothing more fun than pulling the big guy down. But in this particular instance, all it does is make those of you doing it look very foolish indeed. At least, it would, if anyone else were thinking rationally.