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Second Test Preview

All eyes will be on the newly redeveloped Adelaide Oval for the beginning of the Second Ashes test tomorrow. Surprisingly given pre series predictions, it is Australia which will go into the match favourites after a domineering performance in Brisbane. England has been rocked, first by their massive defeat, and then by the loss of stalwart batsmen Jonathan Trott. Who takes his place at number 3 is subject to much conjecture, though it is generally accepted that Ian Bell and Joe Root are the main contenders for the spot. On what is expected to be a flat pitch good for batting, both teams choice of line-ups will be under the microscope.
Australia has announced it will go into the match with an unchanged team, some welcome stability given the constant chopping and changing of the 11 during recent years. England meanwhile will have a gap in the middle order to fill, likely to be taken up by either Jade Bairstow or the Zimbabwean born Gary Balance, coming off the back of a solid performance in the tour match at Alice Springs. Paceman Chris Tremlett is likely to be dropped after a lacklustre performance in Brisbane, either for Tim Bresnan, who has recovered from injury, or potentially a second spinner in the form of Monty Panesar. If the pitch is flat as expected, spin could play a key role, and Nathan Lyon will be expected to bowl plenty of overs for Australia. He’ll be hoping to replicate a successful outing in Brisbane where he claimed a number of crucial English wickets, helping break the back of the English middle order during their disastrous first innings.
There’s sure to be some fire in the contest after the heated scenes at the conclusion of Brisbane test. It remains to be seen whether or not the unfortunate departure of Jonathan Trott will cause the teams to rethink their on-field antics. It seems unlikely given the importance of this test match. Last series in Australia, after a draw in Brisbane, the English blew Australia away in Adelaide. There’s still a long way to go in the series, and this is anyone’s game.

First published at theinfinitive.com.au

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Spite, sledging and stress- Thoughts on the First Test

Australia, at least temporarily, looked like the dominating side of yesteryear when it finished off England in the early evening on Sunday. Not just in the sense that the victory was comprehensive. Australia won big, but it also won ugly. The world-beating side of the golden era commencing in the late 90s and finishing a few years ago but was universally respected, but most definitely not liked. Visits to the match referee were a common occurrence for dissent, sledging and other acts of miscreancy. This was a side which pushed the envelope. And so as Michael Clarke dished it out to Jimmy Anderson in the dying light on Sunday, it was a case then of everything changes, yet everything stays the same. Clarke, in his abuse could so easily have been a fired up Ricky Ponting, or Matthew Hayden tossing obscenities from the slip cordon. This was not to say England were without sin. Indeed, what saw Clarke hauled before the match referee and forced to dip into his change purse was not so much the sledge itself, but his misfortune at having it captured by the stump microphone and broadcast to millions of viewers. Much more unseemly, at least when viewed in hindsight, were David Warner’s remarks about Jonathan Trott’s performance at the crease.

The sad story of Jonathan Trott, of course, has in the end come to overshadow Australia’s unexpected victory. Trott, having made a rather unconvincing 10 and 9 in two knocks, returned home to much surprise on Tuesday evening, with what was euphemistically described by England medical staff as a stress related illness (read depression and or anxiety). It, perhaps all makes sense now; many remarked upon Trott’s constant taking and retaking of his guard as obsessive-compulsive. Now, it seems that perhaps this was symptomatic not of the pop culture definition of OCD; someone who is perhaps habitual or a little neurotic, but rather of the actual debilitating, soul destroying clinical definition of said condition. Clearly, Trott’s condition was affecting his cricket; he looked a far cry from the batsman who was central to England’s destruction of Australia last time England visited. Whether or not his condition had all that much to do with his cricketing performance, at least in terms of cause and effect, would be to speculate emptily. For all we know, Trott could very well have suffered from such conditions since before he even picked up a cricket bat. It is just as likely the lack of runs followed the depression as that the depression followed a lack of runs. The England medical staff and coach Andy Flower acknowledged that it has been a long running issue for Trott. The way having been cleared by other players who acknowledged their own suffering, most notably Marcus Trescothick, hopefully Trott shall now receive the help and understanding he needs. As Michael Clarke demonstrated on Sunday, it can become very easy to forget it’s just a game of cricket.

Originally written for theinfinitive.com.au

First Test- Match Report

Australia is on a high after recording a crushing defeat in the 1st Ashes test in Brisbane. As is so often the case in Test cricket, the outcome of five days of cricket can be traced back to just one session, on the afternoon of the 2nd day when a fiery Mitchell Johnson, combined with the guile of Nathan Lyon tore England apart. The unexpected result, combined with the malice between the two teams exhibited throughout the match has set the scene for an enthralling series.

Having won the toss and batted, it appeared at first that normal transmission had resumed when Australia was 5/100 after the loss of Bailey. The England bowling attack, whilst far from sublime, made regular inroads in the Australian first innings, spear-headed by Stuart Broad, who was eager to rebuff a hostile crowd. Wickets fell not so much on account of sublime bowling, but sustained pressure from England. Clarke was found out by a well-directed short ball from Broad, whilst Warner who was the pick of the batsman early in the day was dismissed tamely, hitting a ball straight to short cover on 49. Johnson and Haddin batted well to add 114 for the 7th wicket, but in the end Australia’s first innings total of 295 appeared somewhat sub-par on a good batting track. England appeared relatively comfortable at 1/55 before Johnson, bowling with both pace and malice dismissed Trott on the stroke of lunch on day 2.

It was then that a session which will doubtless be remembered as seminal in the outcome of this series began. A fired up Johnson, reaching speed in the high 140s bullied his way through the English middle order. It was in fact the rather innocuous dismissal of Pietersen by workhorse Ryan Harris which began the slide, as Pietersen chipped a ball to midwicket. Johnson then unleashed a barrage of quality pace bowling, with judicious use of the short ball. First, he dismissed Carberry, who had looked solid for 40. Then, at the other end, the oft underestimated Lyon claimed two wickets in two deliveries, having both Bell and Prior caught by Smith at short leg. Root then went to an ill disciplined shot, before a fearsome Johnson softened up the tail, claiming one further wicket in mopping up the tail along with Harris and Siddle.

The second innings for the Australian’s commenced with some players having question marks over them. Warner, having played well in the first innings for 49 was clearly eager to prove himself as a test batsman, whilst all eyes were on Clarke and his ability to deal with the short ball after his first innings dismissal. The two responded superbly, silencing their critics with a 158 run 3rd wicket partnership. Clarke commenced his knock by calmly dispensing two short balls to the boundary, and by the time Warner fell caught behind for 124, the game was just about out of reach for England. Clarke silenced his doubters with a comprehensive 113.  Bailey had his first decent test knock, making 34, before another stellar partnership between Haddin and Johnson set up a declaration on the 3rd evening, with England set an unlikely 561 runs for victory.

For the second time in as many days, the atmosphere at the Gabba was electric, as the Australian bowlers went after the English top order in the late afternoon in Brisbane. For England, the only real positive to be had was survival to stumps, whilst the Australian’s smelt blood in the dying light. Carberry went first, unlikely blocking a ball which bobbled back on to his stumps. This brought out the out of sorts Trott, who David Warner had described rather tactlessly as having ‘scared eyes’ in the first innings. A barrage of short pitch bowling ensued, which ended with Trott caught at deep square leg from Johnson.  Cook and Pietersen survived to the end of the day’s play, but by then the damage had already been done.

England resumed on the fourth day attempting to maintain at least a façade of hope. Cook and Pietersen batted well in the first hour before Pietersen fell, yet another Englishman caught in the deep to a Johnson short ball. Bell batted well for 32 before falling caught behind to Siddle. A heavy storm which included hail caused a delay of over an hour with England four down, but when play resumed, so did the demolition. Lyon again proved his worth, dismissing Cook with a bouncy delivery caught behind, before outsmarting Prior, caught at leg slip. Johnson then dispatched Broad and Swann with more well directed pace, leaving England in tatters. Rain then again stopped play, seemingly delaying the inevitable to a 5th day, with England 8 down.

It was not to be however, with the players getting back on the field at 5pm local time. In spite of the seemingly dead state of the match, there was much malice exuded between the two teams, which along with the resurgence of Johnson will be amongst the talking points heading into the next match. Tensions flared with the field close in and Harris and Johnson bowling with their tails up. Johnson and Anderson engaged in heated discussion after the latter came to the crease. Matters came to a head with Anderson allegedly threatening close in fielder Bailey, leading to Clarke remarking, as overheard on the stump microphone, the Anderson should prepare to receive a broken arm from the fired up and angry Johnson. A short time later he was caught and bowled from a rising delivery from Johnson, who responded with an exaggerated celebration, before receiving an earful from Peter Siddle as the Australians celebrated.

England is down but not out in the series, and things are set for an enthralling second match in Adelaide commencing Thursday week. England will play a tour match against a Chairman’s XI in Alice Springs this week, with many batsmen eager to find form. They will also have to find a replacement for Jonathan Trott, who has returned home due to stress related issues. The Australians meanwhile will at least for now sit back satisfied with having landed an unexpected blow on the old enemy.

Also published at theinfinitive.com.au

Ashes Preview

The eyes of the sporting world will again turn to Australia for the 68th incarnation of the Ashes. The series kicks off in Brisbane on November 21st, with Australia eager to make amends for its disastrous 3-0 loss in England during the Australian winter. There has been an unusually short break between series, given that the previous series was held a year later so as not to clash with the London Olympics, and the return fixture cannot come too soon for Australia. It shall be a fascinating contest between an England side near its zenith, compared to an Australian side which has often appeared toothless of late, in sharp contrast to the dominance of the Australian side of the late 1990s and most of the 2000s.
In many ways, it was not so much a stellar performance from England, but rather Australian ineptitude which resulted in the 3-0 score line in the previous series. Other than a shining 180 from Joe Root in the second innings of the Lord’s test match, Ian Bell, with 562 runs at an average of 62.44 was the only real standout performer for the English. Big names such as Alastair Cook and Jonathan Trott, who devastated Australia during the last Ashes series here, failed to shine, whilst Kevin Pietersen was the second top run scorer, albeit inconsistent, with one century and a total of 388 runs. England is yet to settle on its opening combination, with Alastair Cook having a variety of partners of late; Nick Compton was dropped before the previous series after inconsistent form, whilst Joe Root looks uncertain. Michael Carberry staked a strong claim to the openers spot with a century in the rain marred warm up match against Australia A in Hobart which concluded on Saturday, but that was on a flat pitch against a largely docile attack.
On the bowling front, England will look to regular stalwarts Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad to head the pace attack, with off spinner Graeme Swann again set to bowl plenty of overs. Swann was leading wicket taker with 26 in the previous series, whilst Broad and Anderson claimed 22 apiece. It will be interesting to see who makes up the remainder of the attack. Workhorse Yorkshireman Tim Bresnan is likely to miss the series with a back injury. Chris Tremlett and former Ireland player Boyd Rankin can be expected to fight for places in the attack, whilst spinner Monty Panesar might also play alongside Swann if a curator happens to produce a turning pitch. Matt Prior is to take the wicket keepers gloves, unless a calf injury sustained during the Australia A match rules him out, in which case Johnny Bairstow is likely to keep wicket.
The Australian line-up is amongst one of the less certain in recent decades, with a number of spots up for grabs, reflective of recent poor performances. Good performances in the recently concluded Sheffield Shield match for NSW against Victoria look set to help David Warner retain the openers spot alongside Chris Rogers, who made 88 and 117 for Victoria in that same match. Other than that, Clarke, Smith and Watson (if he recovers from a hamstring injury) are set to feature, with the number 6 spot up for grabs. Alex Doolan, Usman Khawaja and George Bailey, who scored prodigiously during Australia’s recent ODI tour of India all fighting for the spot. Watson (418 runs), Clarke (381) and Rogers (367) were the only batsmen who could be said to have reasonable series in England, but no-one was particularly consistent.
As for the bowling attack, there are again numerous possibilities. Injury prone workhorse Ryan Harris looks set to feature, alongside Victorian Peter Siddle. Other than that, two fast bowling slots and to some extent the spinners spot are up for grabs. The erratic Mitchell Starc, the even more hot and could Mitchell Johnson, as well as players such as all-rounder James Faulkner, the as yet untried Queenslander Ben Cutting, who bowled well for Australia A could all also feature in the Australian attack, or Ben Hilfenhaus. Nathan Lyon appears to have the spinners spot locked in, in spite of relatively lacklustre performances at first class level this season, although given his unceremonious dropping for youngster Ashton Agar before the First Test in England, anything could happen.
One other hallmark of the last Ashes series was controversy over umpiring decisions, particularly in relation to the Decision Review System. All four umpires from that series are set to feature, with Marais Erasmus, Kumar Dharmasena and Aleem Dar set to feature on field, whilst New Zealander Tony Hill, who had a patchy series in England set to be the third umpire for three matches, as part of an ICC push to make the role more specialised when DRS is in use. The big surprise is the appointment of Kiwi Billy Bowden, on field for the Perth test and as third umpire in Melbourne. The eccentric Bowden was dropped from the ICC Elite Panel of Umpires in June back to New Zealand’s International Panel of Umpires. As a member of that panel, he is however still able to be appointed to test matches, and given the controversy during the last series, the ICC has evidently been eager to make use of him to relieve the pressure on other umpires.
It is sure to be an enthralling series. Australia appears to be on the back foot, whilst England looks good, albeit not at their dominant best. In front of eager Australian crowds, with the Australian’s eager to reclaim the Ashes, anything could happen. In spite of that, England is clearly the better of the two teams. My prediction is for a 3-1 victory to England.

First published at http://theinfinitive.com.au/sport/cricket/will-urn-returned-australia/1388

In defence of Dar

Not as easy as it looks: Umpire Simon Fry signals a wide during a match at the MCG- photo taken by the author

Not as easy as it looks: Umpire Simon Fry signals a wide during a match at the MCG- photo taken by the author

Well, I’m back from an enjoyable holiday, and I thought I’d dive straight into an issue of pressing national importance. The Ashes, naturally. Like former PM John Howard, I am a cricket tragic, and, similarly likewise, a tragic cricketer. So naturally, the first Ashes test match presently taking place in Nottingham has been my centre of attention. It was with interest that I awoke to news on Saturday morning of the controversy surrounding the non dismissal of English batsmen Stuart Broad, having edged the ball, I was informed ‘to first slip’; I quickly came to learn that this meant first slip via the wicketkeeper’s gloves and thigh, and so immediately this seemingly horrific error became all the more understandable. I must admit, my greatest sympathy was for Pakistani umpire Aleem Dar, three times ICC umpire of the year, who doubtless would have had a sleepless night as a result. Having umpired some cricket myself, I can sympathise with the difficulty involved. One is expected to have the skill and composure of a neurosurgeon, and to some involved, exhibit an even higher degree of perfection than the said neurosurgeon, matters of life and death paling in significance to a game of cricket. But, beyond examining the minutiae of this particular situation, greater questions about ethics and indeed about human nature itself are raised.

In a more narrow sense, the vexed issue of cricketing ethics was again brought to the fore. To the outsider, this is a bizarre game with an even stranger code of ethics, whereby, for example, a bowler preventing a batsman from gaining an advantage by backing up too far is considered the cheat should he mankad him. Under this rather ambiguous, unwritten, and quite fluid code of ethics, many were quick to condemn Broad for, at face value merely accepting the decision of the umpire. I would instead condemn not Broad, but the culture which his actions reflected. In this increasingly professional era, except for numerous exceptions, batsmen simply do not walk. In a societal sense, it reflects the fact that many people will do whatever they can get away with, and only express contrition if they should actually get caught. The other issue the situation raises is the double standards that every single one of us apply, whereby we expect perfection of others, but blanch at the thought of looking in the mirror and examining our own faults. And so, much criticism was directed at Umpire Dar, yet every single batsmen dismissed in the match prior to him, and every bowler hit for four, had just like him, made a mistake.

As I final observation, I think it is worth noting that my most noteworthy observation from playing and umpiring the game is that the cricket field serves as a crucible. Out in the heat and dust, you see the true nature of a person. The bowler, rising star Ashton Agar revealed himself as an individual mature beyond his age in response to what would have been his bitter disappointment at the non dismissal. As to the actions of others, I shall leave that up to you to interpret.

For the love of money…

Disappointing news has come out overnight in relation to the corruption scandal surrounding several cricket umpires from the sub continent caught offering to corrupt matches for bribes. Two Pakistanis, Nadeem Ghauri and Anis Siddiqi have been banned for accepting the advances of undercover TV reporters. Firstly, the fact that they were found to have engaged in such conduct is disheartening. Furthermore, the bans given out seem far too small (4 and 3 years respectively) given the complete lack of integrity demonstrated. The Bangladeshi authorities recently banned international umpire Nadir Shah for 10 years for his involvement in the same scandal. Given the repeated scandals in relation to match and spot fixing that have blighted cricket, and in light of the more severe penalty for Shah, the Pakistan Cricket Board has missed a chance to send a strong message.

Just not cricket?

Controversy surrounding Sri Lankan cricket players participation in the Indian Premier League has again brought to the fore issues surrounding human rights abuses in Sri Lanka and the close links between that nations government and cricket board. It would be tempting to merely cite the old mantra of not mixing sport and politics, but when the Sri Lankan government is so entwined with Sri Lankan cricket, often exploiting it for propaganda purposes, it is impossible not to link the two.

The background to the issue is the brutal conclusion to the decades old Sri Lankan civil war in early 2009. The Sri Lankan army ruthlessly eliminated the separatist Tamil Tigers, in the process indiscriminately and at times deliberately at the expense of civilian life. Gordon Weiss’ book The Cage provides an excellent and comprehensive portrayal of the issues surrounding the war. Put simply though, the end of the war was the culmination of decades of discrimination against Tamils by the majority Sinhalese. So why the link to cricket? Quite simply, given the government’s role in Sri Lanka Cricket, the nation’s cricket board, it is impossible to divorce the Sri Lankan state from its cricket team. Former players Arjuna Ranatunga and Sanath Jayasuriya are both government MPs, whilst current player Ajantha Mendis was an artillery gunner who served during the war. All of these factors have led to the current fracas, whereby Sri Lankan players have been told they would be unable to play in matches in the city of Chennai, in the ethnically Tamil south Indian state of Tamil Nadu. This came abouts after the state’s Chief Minister noted that in light of prevailing anti Sinhalese atmosphere in the state, the players safety could not be guaranteed. This has led to outcry from figures such as Ranatunga, and the inevitable decrying of the mixing of politics and sport.

Quite frankly, this is simply unacceptable. This issue highlights the ongoing issues surrounding the Sri Lankan cricket team and its participation in international competition. It is clearly an instrument of the government and serves to further its propaganda goals, including by virtue of the nation hosting part of the 2011 World Cup. The attitude taken towards the team is quite frankly hypocritical. What the Sri Lankan government did and has done to the Tamil population, and indeed dissenting Sinhalese, in numerical terms has been far worse than atrocities perpetrated in apartheid South Africa, and more recently Zimbabwe, both of which attracted full or partial sporting boycotts. Those of us in democratic nations such as Australia, and others must ask serious questions as to why we continue to host the Sri Lankan cricket team, as well as touring there, when this practice continues to give legitimacy to a government which has yet to be punished for grave crimes against humanity. Hopefully the controversy surrounding the IPL shall again bring this travesty to the fore.