Thursday, July 28, 2005

Deja-Vu All Over Again

So. The First Test has been run and won.

The media have been whipping up this series as the most “anticipated” clash between these two nations in almost two decades. The England players pledged that they would not be “bullied” by the Australians, and that they would be just as hard and focused as their opponents were. Former England captain, Nasser “Send 'Em In” Hussain, was quoted as saying that Shane Warne was ten years past his prime. English bowler, Matthew Hoggard, was quoted as saying Australia's pace attack was too old. England captain, Michael Vaughan, refused Ricky Ponting's goodwill notion before the start of the Test, in which Ponting suggested that the batsmen take the word of the fieldsman in any disputed catch situation. Vaughan was quoted as saying that over the past eighteen months the umpires had “seemed to get it right on most occasions” - while blatantly ignoring his own refusal to walk when caught by Justin Langer in Adelaide in 2002.

Is it just me, or is anyone else beginning to believe that the Poms got everything they deserved?

It was all and good for the England players, management, commentators, media and supporters to show a united front, take a hard line, and not take a backward step. To be positive. But it appears as though they went just a little too far. Because they seemed to forget that they still had to defeat Australia, because Australia were not going to roll over.

England bowled aggressively on the first day, hitting all of Australia's top 3 with painful blows before dismissing them. England commentators regularly reminded us that the home side had the fastest pace attack of the two sides, and that they would not be afraid to use it - “in the same way Australia has in the past”. No question, and no argument. On a pitch providing some encouragement, they bowled very well. At tea, it was almost inconceivable that they would not hold the upper hand at the conclusion of the first day.
Come the second day, and the second Australian innings, and things didn't seem so simple. Harmison aside, the fastest pace attack found taking wickets a tad more difficult. Suddenly, just bowling the ball was not good enough to take wickets. They had to find a plan of attack. Did they have one?

The Australians took 20 English wickets for less than 350 runs. Each batsman faced a bowling plan that had no doubt been worked out well in advance of the match. McGrath, Warne, Lee and to a lesser extent Gillespie just kept plugging away, making the batsmen play almost every delivery, until they made an error, and were dismissed.

England's batting must be a concern for them. Andrew Strauss gave Damien Martyn a huge send-off in the second innings. One can only wonder what was said to him after the dreadful shot he played to be dismissed by Lee on the third afternoon. Vaughan has been clean bowled twice. Both Andrew Flintoff and Ian Bell have been bowled by McGrath and deceived by Warne.

To some extent, the performance of Australia's elite papered over the cracks of their few concerns – the form of Gillespie number one. He did not bowl poorly, but he also did not appear to trouble those he bowled to. He will play the 2nd Test, and sooner or later will take wickets again. As long as the other three keep dismissing their opponents, Dizzy can continue to be carried.

In the end, it appeared that during all of the huffing and puffing before the contest began, the English forgot to respect the Australian's position as best cricket side in the world. They are rated that for a reason. By taking what appeared to be an antagonistic position, England allowed Australia to quietly and methodically take control of the contest after tea on the first day, and not let go. It is hard to believe that the English bowling line-up, as it currently stands, could ever bowl better than they did in the first two sessions of the 1st Test. The fact that they lost the Test convincingly despite this must be frightening for them.

The doomsayers are out, of course. Can England come back? What do they have to do? For years, their biggest problem has been taking 20 Australian wickets to win matches. They achieved this in the 1st Test, and must believe (rightly or wrongly) that they will do it again. Despite what the media appear to be peddling, it wasn't the dropped catches that cost England the Test. It was their mediocre batting. But how do they strengthen what appears to be the best batting line-up they can put together? (perhaps apart from the now-retired Graham Thorpe).

Most people appear to be favouring the selection of another specialist batsman to play at number six, relegating Flintoff to 7 and Geraint Jones to 8. This appears sound on the surface, although the name being touted to be this replacement is Paul Collingwood, another bits-and-pieces allrounder. Surely if England tread this path, they must find the best English middle-order batsman, and play him A difficult task these days, with so many overseas imports playing County cricket, and taking up the best positions in each team!

If this was to happen, whoever they chose to fill the number 6 batting slot, you would think that it would mean Matthew Hoggard heading back to County cricket, which for England would not be such a bad thing. He still appears to be a non-threatening bowler to the Australians, and his figures flattered his performance in the 1st Test. If the ball is not swinging, Hoggard becomes a medium paced trundler, and there are plenty of those plying their trade in the United Kingdom. He was the least dangerous of England's four pronged pace attack, and none of the other three deserve to lose their spot.

Many are also questioning Ashley Giles' continued inclusion, and have actually earmaked him to be the bowler dropped to make way for an extra batsman. This would be a ludicrous decision. Despite the fact that he appears to have no answers as to how to bowl to the Australian's in Test conditions, he does at least provide some variety. Going into a Test Match without a recognised spinner would be fraught with danger, especially if they got Australia on a fifth day wicket chasing a target for victory. If he is the best spinner in England (and, more's the pity for them, it appears that he is), then he must be retained.

The Australians will know that the job is not yet done. Langer and Hayden will be dissecting their 1st Test performance, looking for ways to break away from the threat Harmison and Flintoff have with the new ball. Michael Clarke, after his sparkling 91, will know he needs to follow it up with more scores to consolidate his place in the side. Adam Gilchrist will be receiving a week of net bowling from around the wicket. Jason Gillespie will know that he must rediscover the art of wicket-taking before Michael Kasprowicz, or even Shaun Tait, starts climbing over him.

Solutions will be thrown around for the next seven days, until we kick off the second round. England have it all to play for. They need to throw everything they have at the Aussies now, rather than waiting until they are 2-0 or 3-0 down. They simply cannot afford to lose.

As an Australian, you can't help but sit back and smile contentedly.

Saturday, July 23, 2005

A Vicious Circle

It's still nine weeks until the start of the SCDCA 1st and 2nd Grade competitions, but all Clubs are already hard at work getting prepared for the 2005/06 season. It's a difficult thing, because for the most part, everyone is working in the dark. No one knows how many players are going to show up, and therefore how many teams each Club will have, in all Grades.

Four weeks ago, rumours were circulating that not only were Gerringong going to be missing from the 1st Grade competition this season, but that Shellharbour City were also going to forego their position in the top grade. This would have left an extremely volatile position, with seven Clubs in 1st Grade and nine in 2nd Grade - a nightmare for those trying to make a competition draw.Now, those rumours have turned 180 degrees, and apparently both Clubs are now going to nominate 1st Grade sides again. Whilst this will ease the strain on the draw, with all nine Clubs represented in both 1sts and 2nds, it brings to a head that phrase that sends shivers down the spines of Kiama cricketers - "Sunday Play".

When this was brought to a head this time last season, it was passed by a slim majority of 5-4 to have no Sunday play. This decision was appealed by the Albion Park Cricket Club, meaning another meeting and another vote had to take place. Almost by divine intervention, this vote was ceased when Gerringong announced they were pulling out of 1st Grade for 2004/05.While there is no confirmation of anything at this time (Clubs do not have to declare their teams until the end of August), it is possible that this whole debate will raise its ugly head once again - and very close to the start of the new season at that. Unfortunately, it would be a very messy affair.

The proponents of Sunday Play have only one order of business - to ensure there are two full rounds played. This, they say, is the only way that the best team will win the competition. If there are not two full rounds, then unworthy, less talented teams may make the semi-finals, because they didn't play the best teams twice, and the best teams may miss the semi-finals, because they didn't play the lesser quality teams twice and give them an almighty thrashing.

Absolute crap.

John O'Dwyer has made the point that not even the Sydney Grade Competition, the premier cricket competition in this State, does not have two full rounds of home and away matches. Why, then, is it seen as necessary for our competition to have two rounds?

Is it the perfect scenario? No.
Will the best team still win the competition? Of course! That's the definition of being the best team!

Some have been sneering at those Clubs who have supported no Sunday play for our competition, and yet nominate and play in the State Cup, which is held on Sundays until the final 16 in December. This, of course, is nonsense. Firstly, the State Cup is a statewide challenge competition, the opportunity to be called the best Club side in Country New South Wales. It is a privilege to play in, and fun as well. Of course Clubs will nominate and play in this competition, despite it being played on Sundays.What these people can't seem to realise is that, if a Club made it through to the final 16, they would have to play up to four rounds - ie FOUR Sundays - to make it that far. If the SCDCA insisted on Sunday play, that would be a possible additional FIVE Sundays in the season, a total of NINE Sundays where players would spend their entire weekend on the cricket field.

Sunday play makes no thought for players with families who work all week, no thought for players who must take leave weekends to play cricket, no thought of players who also volunteer to look after Junior teams on Saturday mornings, no thought of honorary greenkeepers who have to prepare wickets for these matches, no thought for Clubs who have to put weakened teams on the paddock when players are unwilling to play the Sunday matches.

There are dozens of reasons why Sunday play should be banned, and seemingly only one why it should go ahead. Surely then, it is logical not to play on Sundays in our competition.There may be people out there who want to play on Sundays as well. That's all fine and dandy - but remember that there are those of us out there who have a life outside cricket, and would like some time to enjoy it as well.

Friday, July 22, 2005

The Ashes Are Here... At Last!

It might be the middle of winter, but the real cricket starts tonight, as Australia take on England for the biggest prize in the game - the Ashes.

All of us have talked about it for so long now, and opinions have differed and changed throughout that time period. But what really awaits the viewer as England attempt to wrest back the trophy for the first time in almost two decades?

Most believe England will be a bigger force, a tougher challenge than in previous years. Of course, we've heard the same thing in Australia for the past seven Ashes series since winning back the trophy in 1989. Seldom has that conviction lasted beyond the Second Test of the series. In fact, only in 1997 were Australia under any realistic pressure come the end of the Second Test. By winning the following three Tests, they again wrapped up the Ashes.

England have shown good form in the past two years, which not surprisingly has coincided with the introduction of some new faces, the phasing out of some older worn faces, and a change in skipper which in turn brought a more aggressive approach with it.The First Test will tell a tale. If Australia win (and they have only lost once in a Lords Test in the past hundred-odd years), the pressure on England will be enormous, certainly from their own media. If England win, the confidence they gain from that will stand them in good stead for the remainder of the series.

So many questions wait to be answered :
  1. Can Trescothick, Strauss and Vaughan hold back the Australian pace barrage, and protect their middle order from having to deal with the new ball assault? England need good, solid starts, so that the likes of Pietersen, Flintoff and Bell can play their natural games once the ball has become a bit ragged.
  2. Will Pietersen and Flintoff play in their natural, aggressive style, or be forced to play a more patient game? Although neither flourished overtly in the one-dayers, and Australia will have set bowling plans for them in the five-day games, they both showed an ability to hang around and build an innings if it was necessary. Their success or failure with the bat may hold the key to the series.
  3. Will Australia's third seamer be a liability? While McGrath and Lee appear ready for battle, none of the options for third seamer have set the world on fire. Both Gillepsie and Kasprowicz have struggled for form so far, and Shaun Tait hasn't bowled on tour, nor for some months competitively. With only four specialist bowlers likely to be chosen, if one were to underperform, the pressure and workload on the other three will increase dramatically.
  4. Warne vs Giles - pick a winner? Giles has had his most successful 12 months ever, and bowls that nagging, negative line of bowling outside the right-handers leg-stump that Phil Tufnell used to do with success against Australia. Whether that works against this Australian line up will be a key to his Ashes summer. Warne has been captaining Hampshire for three months, taken a few wickets, scored two centuries, has about three different girlfriends, and now an ex-wife. If he takes 25+ wickets, no one will give a toss about anything else.
  5. Harmison vs Australia's top order. His tour of South Africa was abysmal, his last English summer superb. He will bowl into the Australian's ribs, and hope to hurry them into a false shot. The Australians will most likely take him on, in the hope of hitting him off his line and length, and out of the attack. If he is on song, England have the opening bowler they need to win. If he is off, then it is a problem the English captain does not need.
  6. England's periphery bowling attack. Can some combination of Hoggard, Simon Jones, Tremlett or any other seamers in County cricket get Australian wickets? Hoggard has been tried before without a lot of success, while Jones, after showing some pace in his debut in Brisbane in 2002, then destroyed his knee and missed more than 12 months of cricket. Like the Australians, England must find solid back-up for Harmison and Flintoff if they are to keep the pressure on their batsmen.
  7. The art of batting patiently. Have any of the Australians, apart from Katich, really mastered this in recent times? The intent is to attack at almost every opportunity. Hayden charging and mistiming to mid-off, Langer pulling and skying to mid-wicket, Ponting driving and playing the ball onto his stumps, Martyn caressing straight to backward point, Clarke slogging across the line - all have fallen in recent Tests to trying force the pace. Have they lost the ability to play a long, tough, boring innings for the best interest of the team? Supporters will say that, having only lost one Test under his leadership, surely Ponting and his team have nothing to justify to the likes of me. And they would be right. Still, let's just see what occurs, shall we? And how much it might cost us.
  8. Andrew Flintoff - is his body up to the challenge of 5 consecutive 5-day matches? However unfair it may appear, the fate of the Ashes lays on his broad shoulders. Were he to break down again, there is no one in English cricket to replace him. He bats aggressively, and bowls the same way. Vaughan cannot afford to over-bowl him, simply because if he suffers an injury, then England suffer a massive hemorrhage.
There are five Tests, and the result is anyone's guess. My heart tells me the series will be drawn. This is only because I have an undisclosed sum of money resting on this result with SportsTab, paying a healthy $7.00 if it comes off.My head tells me Australia by a half-head. With Brad Hodge a big chance to play a part in the series.
Bring it on!