Monday, December 20, 2010

Ashes 3rd Test Review

A thumping victory for Australia, and with any luck, if nothing else, journalists in both hemispheres will now settle down and accept the rather mundane reality that this is not the worst Australian team in history, and nor are Strauss' England the next coming of The Invincibles. Both teams are chasing the top pack, nothing more, nothing less.

The best way to review the test will, I think, be a player by player assessment, so here goes.


  • Andrew Strauss, 5/10 : Strauss chalked up another half-century in the first innings, but was not convincing in either knock. More critically, his captaincy lacked imagination, and his use of Swann, albeit on an unhelpful track, was mysterious. He wasn't aggressive enough with field placings on the first day, and in both innings, spent a lot of time chasing the ball - the sort of captaincy we see from 12 year olds.
  • Alastair Cook, 5/10 : Cook actually looked in control in both innings, but failed to make it count either time. He got a great delivery from Harris in the second knock, but rather gifted his wicket first time around. No reason to think he won't come good at the MCG and SCG on flatter tracks.
  • Jonathan Trott, 4/10 : Simply did not look like a man who averages 58, and was one of the weak links in the field. Not terrible, but simply didn't deliver.
  • Kevin Pietersen, 1/10 : Gets a point for a couple of good stops in the gully. His worst contribution in a Test match ever. He didn't look comfortable when the Australians were gunning for him in the second dig, but I suspect he'll be pretty determined to get back on track at the MCG.
  • Paul Collingwood, 2/10 : Quite simply not good enough with the bat - didn't look like he could handle it at all. I know he's a nervous starter, but there seemed little chance that he would even get a start. However, he remains a stupendous catcher, and his catch to dismiss Ponting in the first innings was sheer class. England may want to drop him for Morgan, but his fielding, Morgan's lack of cricket, and Collingwood's bowling may shade it.
  • Ian Bell, 6/10 : The class batsman in this England side. He looked a cut above the rest in both knocks, only giving it away in the first innings looking for quick runs. Simply put, I'd pay to watch this man bat. He was very good in the field too, and I think he's now set for a long and productive career.
  • Matthew Prior, 7/10 : Prior rates high because his keeping was absolutely outstanding in this game (despite copping a serious earful from the crowd). His batting however, looked ill at ease on this pitch - yet another player who can look a world-beater on a flat track...
  • Graeme Swann, 2/10 : Had a match he would want to forget, and his body language was surprisingly negative by the end of it. Struggled to settle on a line and length to bowl to Hussey, and dropped one that he'd usually catch in his sleep. But he's world class, and will come back. I have no doubt of that.
  • James Anderson, 6/10 : Was far off his best, and couldn't find his ideal line with any consistency, but continued to show that he's a genuine swing bowler, and one who actually has real control over the swing (see Mitchell Johnson for contrast). His batting looked surprisingly weak against the pace and bounce, but his fielding - well, I don't think I've ever seen an opening bowler who can field like this man. Superb.
  • Chris Tremlett, 8/10 : What a revelation! Bowled like a seasoned campaigner, generally hit a decent length, and got the ball to talk a bit. Easily the standout for England, and cemented his place in the side for the remainder of the tour, deservedly so. When Stuart Broad comes back, it won't be at Tremlett's expense.
  • Steven Finn, 2/10 : May have played his last Test for a while - his bowling was simply all over the place, and didn't warrant his figures. Bowled some good deliveries, and I suppose they may have taken the batsmen by surprise. He looks as raw as he is, but I do see real potential there, and I think he'll come back to have a long career for England if he stays fit and hungry. Shouldn't be worried by a bad game - he's young and learning.
Total for England: 48/110. Ouch.

  • Shane Watson, 6/10 : I could have given Watson more for his second knock, but he loses points for his spoilt-child decision review and petulance after being given out, and also for the slip catch that he watched go straight past him. But back to his batting, he is a real anachronism. An opener in the classic mould, with impeccable judgement around his off stump, a willingness to leave the ball, and an ability to pounce on any errors in line and length. Couple that with one of the classiest cover drives going, and you've got the real deal. Australia should not move him out of this position.
  • Philip Hughes, 1/10 : Hughes doesn't look the part at all. His technique was loose, and he didn't look likely at any point. His fielding is also surprisingly weak, something I'd never really noticed before. He may yet be the future, and his run scoring record suggests there's something there, but he definitely has work to do. A flatter pitch at the MCG may be just what he needs.
  • Ricky Ponting, 3/10 : Ponting was lucky to get the runs that he did, and his captaincy was similar to Strauss' - lacking in invention, and a lot of chasing the ball. However, he gets a couple of bonus points for clearly firing his side up and leading them to a victory that few anticipated. I wouldn't be surprised if he turns the corner and scores a big century at Melbourne.
  • Michael Clarke, 2/10 : Clarke only gets that much for having a good outing in the field in general. His batting was poor, and more than looking out of form, he looks mentally frazzled and it is showing in his shot selection. I think he simply needs to relax, and like Ponting, I suspect the win will relieve some pressure and we may see him return to his best.
  • Michael Hussey, 9/10 : Sheer class. His batting was simply phenomenal. Others have said everything that needs to be said. I've seen some Hussey masterclasses at the WACA, and this was right up there.
  • Steven Smith, 3/10 : I give him this much not because he really performed, but because I sense there's something about him. He batted with character and intent, even if he doesn't seem ready to be a Test match number six. Looked good in the field too.
  • Brad Haddin, 6/10 : Haddin had another typical outing. Solid if not brilliant with the gloves, and yet another critical, match-defining partnership with Mike Hussey. Won't be going anywhere for a while, other than possible one spot further up in the batting order.
  • Mitchell Johnson, 9/10 : Johnson took this match by the scruff of its neck and saved both the Ashes and Ricky Ponting's captaincy. The only reason I knock a point off is because I'm not sure how much he really knows about what he's bowling. Use of 12x binoculars revealed a scrambled seam more often than not, which suggests that he doesn't have control over whether or not the ball swings. The contrast with Jimmy Anderson in this regard is significant. However, he bowled with real purpose and hunger, and despite what the radar gun said, hurried the batsman consistently as the quickest bowler on display. He also adds so much to the Australian side with the bat, inspiring the rest of the tail to perform as well. I don't think he'll be dropped again for a while.
  • Ryan Harris, 8/10 : Harris is probably the best overall bowler in Australia. He may not hit the heights that Johnson can, but he steams in all day, and gets the ball to do a little. He's able to bowl defensively and to attack, and 9 wickets in the match tells its own story.
  • Peter Siddle, 5/10 : Siddle did little wrong, but he really didn't do much either. He's the weakest link in the attack, and it's evident that his captain thinks much the same. The story is that Ponting wanted Beer in the side ahead of Siddle.
  • Ben Hilfenhaus, 6/10 : This may look generous given the statistics, but Hilfenhaus is the closest thing Australia have to Jimmy Anderson - a genuine swing bowler. He caused plenty of problems, and will bowl much worse for much better figures. Will be confident of retaining his place in the team at the MCG.
Total for Australia: 58/110.

Not a huge difference between the sides. This game was settled by one spell from Johnson, and Hussey's batting. Australia bowled a fuller length than England, who made the usual mistake of bowling too short on a bouncier track. All of this is remediable, and that's why England will not remotely have lost hope.

One aside worth mentioning - while the presentations were going on, and for a while after, the three reserve England bowlers were having a session on the match pitch. Tim Bresnan looked rock solid, and it was clear that he could come in as the stock-bowler option and also strengthen the tail. Ajmal Shahzad looked the paciest, and may have a shot given his reputation of loving to bowl at lefties. Most impressive though, was Monty Panesar. He was hitting his spot perfectly, and getting the sort of turn and bounce that had seemed to be completely unavailable when Graeme Swann was bowling. He won't get a game at the MCG, but if England win in Melbourne and the Ashes are secure, you could well see them play 5 bowlers, with Monty and Bresnan in.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

WACA Test: Day Three

What a day of cricket! There is absolutely no chance of England preventing Australia from squaring the series at this point, and while yesterday I felt that England could get back on top in Melbourne, I am now of the opinion that they will need to freshen up substantially in order to compete again.

We saw once again batsmen struggling to come to terms with a very good pitch. As Graham Gooch said at the end of the day, the pitch is a high quality Test wicket, the likes of which we should see more often. Something for everyone, and as Hussey, Watson and Ian Bell have demonstrated, that includes any batsman who can control his impulse to play at every ball. The occasion called for some good old-fashioned Test Cricket, with proper batsmen facing a moving, bouncing ball. Not many were up to it.

Both Hussey and Watson looked untroubled, and both deserved centuries even though only the local lad reached the milestone. Watson is almost an anachronism, with his impeccable leaving of the ball outside off combined with one of the classiest cover drives in the business. All talk of him being moved down the order for Australia should be silenced - he's certainly the best opener in the country.

They were helped by a rather listless England attack. Strauss clearly had little faith in Swann after Hussey's attack on him the previous day. Jimmy Anderson was clearly feeling the effects of travel and a lot of bowling; Steven Finn was below par and constrained by his own inexperience; and Chris Tremlett, while bowling well, was perceptibly reduced in effectiveness.

The contrast when England batted was marked. Australia were clearly enjoying being in the ascendancy, and they bowled with a purpose and fire that has not been seen previously in this series. It serves ultimately to illustrate just how much of a mental game cricket is. Once again though, the English batsmen were their own worst enemy. Cook was squarely beaten for pace by a good delivery, albeit one that kept a touch low, but the others can only blame incompetence for their dismissals as they provided catching practice for the slip cordon.

Collingwood's dismissal off the final delivery of the day would have been particularly galling to England fans, if only because he had declined an easy single off the previous delivery. I am not in favour of nightwatchmen in general, but having sent Anderson in to do that job, it was silly to see Collingwood protecting Anderson instead of vice versa.

The WACA crowd got a great day of cricket, and even the injury to Ponting couldn't put a dampener on their day. In fact, there's not a lot of love for Ponting there, and a some people in the Members section were wondering aloud whether Ponting's career could be ended by a broken pinky.

There was other entertainment on offer too - a sightscreen malfunction that would have provoked mass outrage had it happened on the Indian subcontinent, and positively the worst streaker ever seen at a cricket game. Picture an extremely pale and morbidly obese drunken 25 year old male jumping a fence, running onto the field fully clothed, and then attempting to disrobe whilst running. End result - streaker tackles himself and falls face first. It then took 5 security officers to get him back up and off the ground, but not before he provided the Members with a ghastly and disturbing view of his own member.

Anyway, back to the cricket - it's onto the MCG for both teams, and both have some big questions to answer.

For my money, England should bring in Morgan for Collingwood (but somehow get the ginger fella onto the field to take some catches in the slips); and replace Finn with either Shahzad or Bresnan - possibly the latter to play a stock bowler role and beef up a very weak lower order. I think Finn is a great long term prospect, but he took a hammering here, and I don't think England can afford any weak links going forward. As for Collingwood, quite simply, his batting isn't up to par.

Cook, Strauss, Trott, Pietersen, Bell, Morgan, Prior, Bresnan, Swann, Anderson, Tremlett would be my line up for the MCG.

For Australia, although Phil Hughes does not look the part, the only possible replacement is Shaun Marsh, and I just don't see that happening. Young Nic Maddinson scored an unbeaten hundred for NSW today, but he's got a ways to go. Steven Smith shouldn't play if he's not going to bowl - either Callum Ferguson or Usman Khawaja should come into the middle order. I'd be inclined to go with:

Watson, Hughes, Ponting, Clarke, Hussey, Khawaja, Haddin, Johnson, Hilfenhaus, Harris and a spinner.

If they were being really bold and ruthless, and if Ponting's injury rules him out, they could go with:

Watson, Marsh, Khawaja, David Hussey, Mike Hussey, Ferguson, Haddin, Johnson, Hilfenhaus, Harris, Beer (seeing as they really do have to pick him if they pick a spinner).

It's always fun playing selector :)

Friday, December 17, 2010

WACA Test: Day Two

Day Two at the WACA was an absolute treat for those who enjoy Test cricket at it's best, though Australian fans would do well not to get over-excited as their team's failings have not disappeared, rather they were papered over by a tremendous spell of bowling by Mitchell Johnson.

Johnson was at his mercurial best today - running in and bowling with a high(ish) arm action, getting the ball to dart back in to the right-handers, and most importantly, bowling quicker than the radar gun implied. He was sharp, and was beating batsmen with sheer pace at times.

On a track that continues to be fine for batting, England paid a big price for failing to prise out the Australian tail on Day One, and then for some loose cricket today. Ian Bell was the only one to emerge with any credit as he showed himself once more to be probably the best batsman (in terms of current form) on either side. His footwork was decisive, his strokemaking crisp, and his shot selection flawless - until his dismissal, which can probably be attributed to lack of faith in the tail.

Outside of Johnson, the Australian bowlers looked largely toothless. Hilfenhaus swung the ball appreciably, but none of them looked more than honest triers. Siddle's experiment with modern day Bodyline, in which he had no fielders in front of square on either side of the wicket, would have been laughable had Matt Prior not somehow contrived to fall victim to it.

The concern for England will be that they looked a little deflated, and more crucially, their bowlers looked tired second time around. The wickets may have continued to fall, but Finn bowled a lot worse than his figures imply, Tremlett wasn't hitting the lines of the first innings, and Anderson can't buy his 200th Test wicket. Even flying First Class on Emirates doesn't prevent jetlag.

Australia are effectively 200-3, and will back themselves to set England something in excess of the 414 South Africa chased down in 2008. However, they would be wise not to get ahead of themselves. Shane Watson continues to look the part - a throwback to openers of time gone by, with a remarkable ability to leave the ball (including when fielding in the slips). Mike Hussey and Brad Haddin can do little wrong either, and Hussey extracted some very classy revenge on Graeme Swann late in the day. But Philip Hughes looked ill-equipped once again, Ricky Ponting doesn't know where he's going to find a run, and Michael Clarke appears to be a complete mental basket case. Steve Smith isn't yet a Test #6, and England won't bowl so poorly to the tail again, so while this Test may seem won, once we get back to flatter pitches, England will feel very confident.

Speaking of pitches, what we're seeing here really says a lot, too much even, about the modern cricketer. This is decidedly not the WACA of old, it's simply a pitch with good bounce and carry. Absolutely nothing alarming about it. What is very obvious is that batsman have been so well mollycoddled that once the pitch does anything other than help the ball sit up and beg to be hit, the batsmen really don't know quite what to do. Only those with strong technique, strong minds, or both, have made runs thus far.

The first 60-90 minutes tomorrow will probably decide the game. England will want 2 or 3 quick wickets and to bowl Australia out for under 225. Australia will want to bat the day, and I don't see why they can't if they put their minds to it.

The series should go to the MCG standing at 1-1, at which time I expect England to regain the ascendancy.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

WACA Test: Day One

The contrast between these two teams couldn't have been more apparent today. On a track that looked a little green compared to the typical modern Test match deck, Australia went for overkill and picked five middle-of-the-road medium pacers. They then lost the toss, and watched as Graeme Swann claimed the prize scalp of Michael Hussey and took two wickets on the opening day. I suppose Australia might not live to regret their decision, in so far as England may not have to bat twice in this Test match!

A sell-out crowd provided a superb atmosphere and the best WACA track in years provided some great cricket. Make no mistake, this is not a deadly fast bowler's wicket, simply a pitch on which batsmen, quick bowlers, and even spinners could all find some assistance, if they were willing and able to put in the effort.

Ricky Ponting had a very long conversation with David Boon and Greg Chappell out in the centre before going straight over to Michael Beer to inform him that his days in the headlines were numbered for the time being. For my money, this was a defensive decision by a risk-averse Australia, and it was countered by England taking the aggressive option and bringing in Chris Tremlett.

And how Tremlett repaid the faith shown in him. He was unquestionably the star performer on the day, bowling well enough that I don't feel so bad about not being able to watch Morne Morkel and Dale Steyn this week.

Jimmy Anderson moved the ball both ways, and bowled with intelligence, but failed to find a consistent line, more often than not bowling a foot too wide and not forcing the batsmen to play. Tremlett was landing the ball, seam perfectly upright, on a dime, and he tested everyone, beating the bat with incredible regularity and ease. If he keeps bowling like this, Stuart Broad will not come straight back into the side.

The spirit and energy in the England team was palpable - players congratulating each other on every good piece of fielding, and there was plenty of that. Paul Collingwood pulled off yet another stunner to dismiss Ponting, and Swann's vertical leap to snare Brad Haddin did not suffer in comparison.

The only negative from England's point of view would be that they really ought to have bowled an insipid Australian side out for well under 200. You won't see this widely written, but Strauss' surprisingly defensive captaincy was partly to blame. There was an incredible amount of ball-chasing in the field placing, something which is usually only seen in kiddie cricket.

As far as Australia are concerned, there will be a lot of worry overnight. The pitch is good for batting, and their bowlers failed to exert any sort of sustained pressure in the evening session, struggling to find the right line or length. Mitchell Johnson's rehab is alleged to have been successful, but in the two overs I saw this evening, he looked incredibly tense and rigid in his action, and if there's one thing a fast bowler needs to be, it's loose and relaxed. The three right arm pacemen are all a little different, but there is just much of a sameness about the attack.

Australia lost a lot of wickets because their batsmen are simply not up to the task currently - whether because they looked technically unsound, as in the case of Phil Hughes, or because they lack self-belief, which is very apparent in the shot Michael Clarke played. Steven Smith is not a number six yet, and with Ponting looking a shadow of himself, there's not a lot left. It's hard to picture any of the Englishmen giving their wicket away, and frankly, it's hard to see the Australians taking the catches that the English did.

If England stay focused, then there's no reason why they can't end the second day at 350+, and go on to a 200+ lead.

A comment on the umpiring too - it was excellent, for the most part. Billy Doctrove was overruled by UDRS twice, and yet he didn't really get anything wrong. On the Hussey catch, even Graeme Swann, who is about as shy as Shane Warne, didn't really appeal - the edge was clear on review, but also clearly faint.

The queuing experience was a good one, once again. My WACA Test buddy, Rick the American from Sonoma who lives in Margaret River was there as usual, making it two yanks at the front of the queue for an Ashes Test once again. It's always fun to watch some of the elderly members turn back the clock as they race for the prime seats - especially those that then spend the day focusing on their reading or knitting.

Tomorrow's target is 2:30am, that should put me at the front again, and give me a great view of what I hope will be a massive Pietersen-Bell partnership in the afternoon. Nothing against Cook, Strauss and Trott, but they aren't the entertainers!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

WACA Test Preview

It's noon on Wednesday December 15th, and that means I'm just 12 hours away from standing (or more likely sitting/lying) in the queue at the Member's entrance to the WACA, in anticipation of Day One of the 3rd Ashes Test, as Australia seek to prevent England from retaining the Ashes.

I'd rather be at Centurion, watching Steyn and Morkel bowl to Sehwag, Gambhir, Dravid, Tendulkar and Laxman. Sheer class on both sides there. However, my in-laws don't live in South Africa, and haven't travelled there for Christmas, so here I am in Perth, as ever. Truth be told, I don't mind at all. It's becoming something of a tradition - so much so that when I missed the WACA Test in 2009 (West Indies), it caused some consternation and my absence was noted on ABC radio. The global recession never made it to Perth, but when the bloke who travels 11,000 miles every year to the Test match doesn't make it, people start to wonder, apparently.

What's more, I've been pretty lucky at the WACA of late. Monty taking 5-for and Gilchrist's blazing century 4 years ago; India's first ever win in Perth including *that* spell from Ishant to Ponting in 2007; Duminy taking South Africa to victory in 2008 despite a tremendous Mitchell Johnson performance - these have all been special experiences. Hopefully Anderson, Swann and a couple of others can step up and delivery for me this weekend!

I'm also looking forward to seeing Phil Hughes in action. He's been talking a phenomenal game this week, citing Virender Sehwag as his inspiration, so at the very least I guess we'll see some excitement. Of sorts.

The pitch looks a lot greener than it has in recent years, but although it's steadily recovered some pace, it is not the WACA of old, and it's hard to see any of the medium pacers terrorizing batsmen unless Mitchell Johnson somehow gets it right on his home ground. I won't be wagering my mortgage on that though.

The Fremantle Doctor has also been making its presence felt all week. It's been the driest winter on record in Western Australia, and now we're in for a relatively cool Test match, with temperatures barely topping 30 degrees. Throw in a nice breeze, a true pitch, and one of the best sighting grounds in the world, and you've got to think that anyone who gets themselves in will have to work hard to get themselves out.

As far as my picks for the game are concerned, I think we're going to see Tim Bresnan come in for England and play the reliable stock bowler role, as well as adding a little bit of depth to the batting, as superfluous as that may appear. There will be purchase for Swann in the latter stages, and I'm really looking forward to watching him bowl live for the first time. The Aussies will be fired up, and there is everything to play for, but it's very hard to look past England taking it with a 50+ run or 4+ wicket win early on Day 5. You heard it here first.