Thursday, August 18, 2005

When a Draw is a Win

3.48am. Tuesday morning. My phone beeps, and I read the SMS inscribed upon it.

“Victory! A draw! My heart now recedes into my chest”
The sender, Dan Reilly, later exclaims how exciting it had been watching Australia fight for a draw after all those thousands of victories he has watched over the years. Oh, the innocence of youth. All it brought back for me was the pain of my youth, watching Australia celebrate draws as victories – and not celebrating very often.
Most people of my generation would especially relate the joy we felt when Mike Whitney, a 'ferret' of a batsman [for those not in the know, the 'ferrets' come after the 'rabbits'], was able to survive the entire final over of a Test match in Melbourne, enabling Australia to draw the match and win a series for the first time in four years. The bowler was Richard Hadlee, and the team was New Zealand. The Kiwi's for goodness sake! We celebrated a DRAW against NEW ZEALAND like we had WON!! The depth of the abyss can never be measured until you have crashed to the very bottom.
So – as much as Rocket enjoyed it, let's hope there aren't too many more of them.

What will it take to win this series? Australia will consider themselves favourites, if only for the fact that they only need to win one of the final two Tests to retain the Ashes, a drawn series being enough for them to do that. They will want to win the series outright to quell any speculation. England will consider themselves favourites, if only for the fact that they do have some sort of momentum, despite being unable to dislodge Australia with 108 overs at their disposal at Old Trafford.

When it comes to making changes to Test sides, Australia have been very reluctant to do so in recent times. They back themselves to perform, even if they have a player or two in the side who is struggling to contribute. This, of course, is fine when the team keeps winning. If the team is not winning, it certainly must make that task more difficult. England, on the other hand, have often chopped and changed their side. On this occasion, they have played the same eleven in each of the three Ashes Tests.

In an effort to win the final two Tests, you would expect both sides could make some minimal changes to their line-up.

England will probably only consider one change, that being selecting another bowler in the place of Matthew Hoggard. Despite picking up two wickets on the final day at Old Trafford, Hoggard still appears largely ineffective, and Vaughan appears reluctant to use him. If England are to retain the balance of their team as it is, with four bowlers plus Flintoff, then surely picking a bowler that the captain feels confident about bowling for more than 6 overs (as occurred in the first innings) would be a benefit. Chris Tremlett is the popular pick as 'next-best'. At this stage, it appears that the England selectors will stick with the eleven they have. To me, that would be folly.

Australia must now be on the verge of replacing ailing strike bowler Jason Gillespie. 3 wickets at 100 is a true indication of the struggle he has faced all winter. He has been given every chance to run back into anything vaguely resembling form, and has failed to find it. Loyalty can only reach so far, and the loyalty to Gillespie realistically expired some time ago. Interestingly, it has probably only been his batting that has kept him in the team this long, and it has been invaluable on two occasions.
The selectors will probably fall back on Michael Kasprowicz, another legacy of loyalty. It would, however, be nice to think that Shaun Tait might get a run. New blood is needed in Australia's bowling ranks. Surely the best place to learn Test match bowling would be with alongside Glenn McGrath.
Loyalty will no doubt keep Australia's top 6 intact, unless injury forces Michael Clarke out for Brad Hodge's debut. However, how much of a difference could Andrew Symonds have made if he was available for Test selection? Batting at six, and offering a genuine fifth bowler option, who can bowl both medium pace and spin, depending on the conditions? We'll probably never know – but, if the selectors were feeling adventurous...

Thursday, August 11, 2005

... and On the Other Side of the Coin...

The integrity of Test cricket has been brought back into question this week, following New Zealand's incredible thrashing of Zimbabwe in their 1st Test clash in Harare.

Early on, you would be forgiven for believing it was going to be a contest. The Kiwi's were 5/114, and must have been gearing themselves up to have a bowl that afternoon.
Enter Brendan McCullum and Daniel Vettori. Both scored centuries, and along with help from the tail, New Zealand were able to declare at their overnight total of 9 for 452. Not a bad recovery, one would think.
Day 2 ended early. Not because of poor light, or wet weather, or even riots. No, it ended early, because Zimbabwe were unable to cope with the 'lethal' New Zealand bowling attack, and lost their entire 20 wickets in less than a day. That's right. TWO innings, not one. All out for 59 and then 99. Not since the days of uncovered wickets and 'The Demon' Spofforth and 'Terror' Turner have Test matches been concluded in under two days. But here we are, the fifth-rated Test nation giving the ninth-rated Test nation a bollocking. And on their home turf, as well.

If history is any guide, the International Cricket Council will do little to find a solution to the apparent decline in the standard of some Test nations. It appears as though it has been posted into the 'too hard' basket. Perhaps moving their headquarters from Lords to Dubai will clear their thinking a little.

No one is denying that exposing fledgling nations to international cricket through the One Day format, via the ICC Trophy and World Cup, is an excellent concept. The more intelligent format for the qualifying rounds of the 2007 World Cup in the West Indies will also (hopefully) bring with it more competitive matches, and less blow-outs. The One Day format also, on occasions, provides upset results, such as Bangladesh defeating Australia in England two months ago. For heaven's sake – Zimbabwe have made the Super Six of the past two World Cups, and Kenya made the semi-finals in 2003!
But Test Cricket is a different ball game. You don't get five overs of Michael Clarke to slog at in the middle overs – you get 30 overs of McGrath and 40 of Warne. When 50 overs have been bowled, Ponting will keep pounding at you until you can dismiss him. And when you wake up sore on the third morning, you can't have a replacement – you have to go out there and do it all again.

A properly-convened two-tier system in Test cricket can work. Those deemed to be second-tier nations can still play each other, building up their own rivalries. They would also be scheduled to make tours of the major nations. For example, Bangladesh would tour Australia, playing first-class matches against all the state teams, as well as, say, two five-day clashes against an Australia A team. As a result, Bangladesh are exposed to good, hard first class cricket, in differing conditions, while Australia's first class cricketers have the opportunity to press their own selection claims against International opponents. With first-class matches being squeezed out of International programming in the modern age, due to so much more International cricket being played, it would be a great opportunity for the First Class teams around the world to still get matches against International teams.

Whatever the case, let's hope that this week's result is the last of its kind. The game of cricket doesn't need to have such one-sided results occurring. There are enough of those involving Kiama...

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

A Series of Unfortunate Events

Like most other Australians on Sunday evening, I sat down in front of the television to watch the last rites of the 2nd Test from Edgbaston (unlike my father, who had flown out for Bali that morning for three weeks, no doubt in some annoyance at the Australians' plight).
Despite the theoretically impossible task that faced Shane Warne, Brett Lee and Michael Kasprowicz in chasing down the 107 runs required to win the match, there was a faint glimmer of hope in the heart.
My wife, Helen, boldly predicted an Australian victory. Unlike many wives, mine has a sense of what is happening on the cricket field, and is not adverse to coming up with correct predictions. My thoughts, however, were not so confident. I thought I'd be seeing the second half of Star Trek: The Next Generation on TV1.

The overs passed, and the runs required kept shrinking. There was tension – nervous laughter and chatter after each scoring shot. I traded SMS messages with Josh Jones down in Tasmania to keep occupied between deliveries. When Warne trod on his (expletive deleted) stumps, the match surely had to be over. The Poms thought so.
But the runs kept ticking over. And almost before we knew it, the runs required was in single figures. Incredible!! Now, perhaps Australia were a chance. They couldn't fall short again.....could they?....

Sunday December 30, 1982. I sat glued to my television, a faint glimmer of hope in my heart, as Allan Border and Jeff Thomson chased down 37 runs to win the 4th Test against England, and regain the Ashes.
The pair had already put on 37 runs the previous evening, and defied the England attack to fight it out on the final morning. Over 20 000 people took up the offer of free entry to watch what, in all probability, would be a very short session. One ball would finish it.
Border, who had been out of touch all summer, found himself with a single whenever he wanted it early in the over, before being crowded towards the end. He took most of the strike, looking for two's and four's, with singles towards the end of the over. Some came simplistically, others suicidally, but they survived.
As the score crept closer, England began to panic. Fieldsmen collided, misfields appeared, five senior players convening conferences almost every almost believed that Australia could win the unwinnable Test...
WIN TV returned from an ad break, for viewers to see a ball from Ian Botham fly from the edge of Thomson's bat to 2nd slip...who dropped it! For a brief second the dream was still alive...until 1st slip came behind him and caught the rebound. Thomson was out, and Australia had lost the Test by a measly (expletive deleted) 3 runs.
As a 13 year old, that was bloody painful. Even when the 5th Test was drawn, and Australia had regained the Ashes that were lost in 1981, the closeness of that defeat still left a bitter after-taste.

Tuesday January 26, 1993. I sat glued to my television, a faint glimmer of hope in my heart, as Justin Langer, Tim May and Craig McDermott chased 84 runs to win the 4th Test against the West Indies, and win a series against them for the first time in 17 years.
Chasing a rather modest target of 186 in the final innings, the Australians had collapsed to 8/102. Langer was on debut, and showing the guts and nerve that has now brought him over 6000 Test runs. Tim May was holding up his end with aplomb. When Langer was finally dismissed for 54, Australia still required 42 more runs to pull off what now looked a most unlikely victory.
Ans yet, the two tail enders fought to the end. May played some immaculate drives, McDermott some nudges and surprising pulls. The score crept closer and closer, and by late afternoon, they had drawn to within one run of the combined West Indian almost believed that Australia could win the unwinnable Test...
WIN TV returned from an ad break, for viewers to see a Courtney Walsh bouncer graze the grill of McDermott's helmet, and fly to the keeper. The West Indians went up, and Darrell Hair (to his eternal damnation) raised his finger. (And YES, it DID hit his grill NOT his glove!!).
The West Indians were ecstatic, Allan Border threw a cricket ball into the ceiling via the floor, and Australia had lost by the narrowest margin in Test history – by a measly (expletive deleted) 1 run.
As a 23 year old, that was bloody painful. The West Indies went on to win inside three days in Perth, and win the series – and the closeness of that defeat still left a bitter after-taste.

Monday January 6, 1994. I sat glued to my seat, a faint glimmer of hope in my heart, as Damien Martyn, Craig McDermott and Glenn McGrath chased 42 runs to win the 2nd Test against South Africa.
As with the previous four days of the Test, I was sitting in the concourse fronting the M.A.Noble Stand at the S.C.G. It was the first time I had watched every ball of a Test match live at the ground.
The previous afternoon, Australia had appeared a shoo-in, before Jonty Rhoads and Allan Donald put together a most unexpected partnership of 36, and left the home team 117 runs to win.
Even that appeared a formality, but a late collapse left the score at 4/63 at stumps. Wickets continued to fall on Day 5, until it appeared left for McDermott and Martyn to finish the job.
McDermott took it upon himself, and began to hit the ball hard through the line. Runs began to come at a flow that hadn't occurred throughout the almost believed that Australia could win the unwinnable Test...
Martyn saw the winning of the match, played the only forcing shot of his innings, and was caught at cover. The media cried out in anguish and anger. A very dodgy McGrath drove poorly straight back to Fanie DeVilliers, and Australia had lost by a measly (expletive deleted) 5 runs.
As a 24 year old, that was bloody painful. For some reason though, the media and the selectors decreed that Damien Martyn carried the can for the loss, sending his career spiralling. He would not play another Test for almost six years.
And even when Australia won in Adelaide to square the first series between the two countries in 23 years, the closeness of that defeat still left a bitter after-taste.

Australia's victory target had snuck down to 3. I was sitting on the edge of my lounge, feet habitually tapping away, hands clenched together. I hadn't moved from this position since Kasper had come to the crease. It's bad luck to move. You all know this. But we needed just three to seal a magnificent victory against the almost believed that Australia could win the unwinnable Test...
Bad move. NEVER begin to believe! Surely past history had already proven that!
As Harmison's delivery ballooned to Jones, the thoughts that rushed through my mind were,
“It was NOT off the gloves!”
“The ball hasn't carried!”
“Billy (Bowden) won't give it out!”
The truth, of course, was obvious, and before the ball was even halfway to the keeper, I exclaimed to Helen, “That's out...”.
And so it was. Kasper was out, the Poms were delirious, and Australia had lost by a measly (expletive deleted) 2 runs.

As a 35 year old, it was bloody painful, and the closeness of that defeat still leaves a bitter after-taste.

Of the narrowest losses in terms of runs in the history of Test cricket, Australia now have four of the top five. Adelaide 1992/93 (1st), Birmingham 2005 (2nd), Melbourne 1982/83 (4th) and Sydney 1993/94 (5th).

The series is wide open again. Both sides are relying on too few players to win matches. To me, it appears that the team that can break this dominance first, by having more than two or three players contributing to the total effort, is likely to be the eventual victor.

Isn't it amazing what a difference (expletive deleted) 2 runs can make?

Friday, August 5, 2005

A New Era

The Kiama Cricket Club embarks on a new era on Sunday, with the first official training session under new captain/coach Matt Meurant taking place. At least, it is to be hoped that it is a new era. A successful era. Kiama are due for one.

In recent years, Kiama have had a number of “new era's”. Theoretically we have had five new era's since the Club re-emerged into the 1st Grade competition in 1999-2000. And that is in just 6 seasons! I guess that is just the way the Cavaliers are.
It has not been through a lack of trying, of course. The Club knows exactly how important stability is in regards to success. During Kiama's 'Golden Age' from 1966-1973, the captain remained the same (Les Jones), and the basis of the team remained the same. It is important to have a figurehead, respected by those in the Club, at the helm for a lengthy period of time, in order to gain the maximum benefit for all concerned. Kiama's problem in recent times has been that the change of seasons has invariably brought a change of personnel, and with it a change of tact. What the Club has sought has been stability at the top, and success on the field.

In 1999-2000, the Club returned to 1st Grade after a self-imposed two year absence ("new era!"). Gary Koks, who had been in charge of the 2nd Grade side in 1998/99, retained the job in 1999/2000 in 1st Grade, with Danny Sullivan acting as vice-captain. There was no official Club coach. Although 1st Grade struggled, and finished at the foot of the table, a number of players began their 1st Grade careers. 2nd Grade won the premiership, as did 4th Grade, while 3rd Grade made the semi-finals. 2nd Grade's average age was just 19, 1st Grade's just 21. Most of the premiership winning Under 16's side had played 1st or 2nd Grade all season.

For the following two years, the Club was led by co-captains, Mark Brockman and Danny Sullivan, with Mark taking a serious role in coaching the Club (“new era!”). In both seasons, the Club finished in fifth in 1st Grade, which was a wonderful achievement in itself, but without ever threatening to reach the top four. The team would regularly either bat well, and set good targets, or bowl well, and restrict opposition to gettable targets, without being able to put the two together in the same match. The conclusion of the 2001-02 season saw great hope for what the next season would bring.

Danny Sullivan took over the sole reigns in 2002-03 (“new era!”), and so began a season where few things appeared to go to plan. For six months, the Club was rife with unsettling talking behind people's backs, injuries to key players, including Danny himself, poor attitudes and poorer performances for which people were always looking for excuses, and eventually a season where all but 3rd Grade failed miserably to be competitive on a regular basis. In a season that was supposed to be a new era, it finished as a farce. There was a lack of communication – and understanding – between all facets of the Club.

For season 2003/04, Randall Starr was appointed as captain/coach, with an aim to be involved for many years to come (“new era!”). Along with the arrival of proven wicket-taker Scott Cox, and a whole bunch of young kids coming through the grades, the future looked as bright as it could possibly be. 1st Grade reached the finals for the first time in a decade, as well as making the finals of the statewide Country Cup, while 2nds and 3rds also had strong seasons. More junior players were proving themselves at a higher level, and Club spirit was at record levels.
The only downside occurred when Randall announced that he was moving to the A.C.T, and would be unable to continue with the Club.

2004-05 arrived, with Scott Cox taking over the captaincy reigns of 1sts (“new era!”). Again, as there had been two years earlier, there was a lot of negative talk going on behind people's backs, which was contributing to problems within the Club. 1sts slumped badly, on the back of an inability to put runs on the board, and finished out of the finals. Both 2nds and 3rds made the finals, but should have done better after seasons that finished unfulfilled. By Presentation Night, it was obvious that half a dozen of the Club's best players would be moving on in the off-season, leaving a void that would be difficult to fill in the interim.

And so – this weekend...a new era begins!

It is to the Club's credit that a seasoned captain/coach has been found and appointed. No doubt Matt will imprint his own style on the Club. There is little doubt that the culture of the Club will change because of his appointment. It is important that the style and flamboyance of the Cavaliers can merge within the boundaries that Matt will set in order to bring success to the Club again. Some may baulk at this, as some have done so in the past with other people – but to be successful, you must institute a winning culture. At present, Kiama does not have that, and Matt will be looking to instill it.

The new era begins. May it be a long and successful one!