For the “Puraists”

The World Cup isn’t the only cricket being played at present. Almost, but not quite. The Australian domestic season reaches a climax with the start of the Pura Milk Cup final, starting in Brisbane tomorrow.

The match is to be played between the defending champions, Queensland, and a very strong NSW side, playing in their first final for almost a decade. The Blues won their last two matches outright to squeeze into the final. The NSW batting line up features Slater, both Waughs and Katich, all big names who have shown some form of late and also the prodigious new talent, Michael Clarke.

I have no intention of previewing the match or predicting a winner. I couldn’t care less.

What I did want to discuss is Steve Waugh’s playing future. Will he or won’t he retire? Perhaps he’s out of sight and out of mind at present but in a few weeks time, he’s back in the frame.

Waugh has not had to make a decision as he has still been playing and there has been no Test selection required for the past couple of months.

I believe that Waugh will play on. The reason is the way he is playing. He has always said that he wanted to play on if he felt that he was still able to perform at his best.

After that heady day where he scored that memorable 102 at the SCG, I think that he started to contemplate accepting the fairytale end on offer. He is a rational man and from some of his comments, I gained the impression that he somewhat discredited that innings due to the high amount of adrenalin and emotion involved. He wondered whether he could continue to produce those results on an on-going basis.

Over the past two months since then, I have watched Waugh bat on several occasions in the ING Cup and I think that he has been testing himself. He has attempted to bat with great aggression and authority and has succeeded handsomely. His results were not good in February but excellent. His scores in the ING Cup included 104, 71 and 88 with an overall strike rate of much more than 100. He scored 211 against Victoria at the MCG in the Pura Cup. During February, in all matches he scored 495 runs at an average of 82.5. Hit 55 balls to the fence and cleared it eight times – that’s 268 runs without having to run. His overall ING strike rate of 284/264 = 107.58 runs / 100 balls was impressive.

Last week he scored a vital 138 from 202 balls which included 25 boundaries, to save NSW with Michael Clark (120 from 118 balls), having trailed by 80 runs on the first innings.

The form is on the board. He must be selected. The choice is his.

The incentives are there:

1. If Australia wins the next series against the West Indies in the Caribbean, Australia returns to the top of the ICC Test Championship table.

2. After that come some easy beats and a chance to return the average to fifty plus. We play our first home, winter series in the Top End when we take on Bangladesh in June. This will present Waugh with the opportunity of becoming the first batsman to compile inning of 150 plus against all Test playing nations. We take on Zimbabwe, at home, at the beginning of next summer and Australia will end the year on top of the Test Championship.

Waugh can then choose where to go from there – probably to retire at the end of that summer.

In the short term, I will be most surprised if he announces his retirement at the end of the Pura Cup final.

After Waugh had hit 88 from 55 balls to bury WA in the final of the ING Cup, Justin Langer commented that Waugh was batting better than ever and would be a clown to retire now. Aside from the (unintended, I’m sure) sucking up nature of the comment, Justin does have a point.

It’s a miracle

No. Make that two miracles.

1. Australia defeats New Zealand by 96 runs (9/208 v 112). Australia, having slumped to 7/84 seemed unlikely to make 96, let alone prevail by that margin. Small miracle.

2. Kenya makes the semi-finals. Big miracle. I saw the highlights this morning and some of those guys can play. They thrashed Zimbabwe. The sequence of events that has transpired to allow Kenya through to the Semi finals, having beaten just one of the first 8 Test playing nations, is nothing short of freakish. Congratulations to Kenya – they have won a couple of matches – and have achieved more than they could have hoped. The design of a tournament which allows a team through to the semi-finals without earning it is not Kenya’s responsibility!

Australia to play New Zealand or Sri Lanka in the semi-final (on THAT pitch again). If New Zealand defeats India (tomorrow), they are through. Otherwise they will be relying on Zimbabwe to beat Sri Lanka (on Saturday), which isn’t really a possibility.

Andy and the Professor

Australia has posted 9/208 from a seemingly impossible position, having at one stage slumped to 7-80.

On a pitch that is not ideal for one day cricket, the Kiwi bowlers reveled in conditions which were expected to suit them. Shane Bond was simply sensational, taking 6-34 from ten overs.

On the same pitch that saw Australia crumble just over a week ago, the
innings was repeated almost exactly. The top three, on whom so much
depends failed again. After a brief consolidation from Martyn (rather than Lehman) and Bevan, the weak under-belly of the middle order and tail was swept aside with ease.

It was left for Bevan and Bichel to save the day again. These were perfect conditions for Bevan – with 7 down and half the overs remaining, who could blame him for being super cautious. Once again, it was Bichel who dominated the scoring – and looked a better batsman. With Harris, Vettori and Bond all finished their very economical spells, NZ were left with 10 overs to bowl with just trundlers. It should be noted that Zimbabwe scored 63 runs off the last 3 overs against NZ. However, with just three wickets remaining, Australia was not in a position to take similar advantage until the last two balls of the innings.

Bichel finished with 60 something, being dismissed in the second last
over. Bevan made 55, going out in the over before. Interesting, the Kiwi commentator made the comment when Bevan was dismissed along the lines that was a critical dismissal and could be the difference between a score of 190 and 210. I thought “yes – we might actually get 210 now.” I think the commentator was meaning the opposite.

As it turned out, I was right. No disrespect to Bevan – his contribution was crucial today, but Bichel smashed the next ball down the ground for four. Bichel got out and McGrath came to the crease and made his first ever World Cup run – incredibly, after 25 matches, McGrath had not scored a single run in three World Cups. He hit his first ball for two (one overthrow), before handing over to Brett Lee who hit the last two balls for maximums.

Australia has something to bowl at. They may not win but they have a good chance. I think that Bichel will once again be very useful. Against England, McGrath and Lee bowled poorly, not making good use of the conditions and England got off to a flyer – a head start which almost proved a match winner. We won’t have to wait 10 overs to see Bichel tonight if we don’t see an early breakthrough!

I think that Harvey will bowl well on this pitch. There is plenty of
movement off the seam and he has bowled well so far. Also, Bond got some useful swing. If Lee can get the same swing, he will be a very difficulty proposition.

NZ may go on to win the match – they will be the more desperate. However, should they meet Australia again, it will be on a pitch that will not offer as much assistance and the match will be a different story.

Backyard Rules?

“Can’t get out first ball!”

How many times have I heard that over the years during long, summer evening backyard games?

Sometimes I wonder whether international umpires’ minds wander while on the job, and they find themselves standing in imaginary backyard cricket games. I think that Shep found himself in a village green somewhere in England, showing mercy to young Tommy Tootell (8 years old) who had just come to the crease.

I’m a big fan of David Shepherd – he’s one of the best umpires around and also a great character. His antics while diligently standing on one leg while the score is on Nelson (111 or a multiple of) are highly entertaining.

In yesterday’s match between Australia and Sri Lanka, Shep made one of the worst lbw decisions I have ever seen. As it had little impact on the match and as lbw adjudication is one of my hobby horses, I feel compelled to make some comment.

Australia had Sri Lank on the rack. They had just lost 4 wickets for 8
runs in 23 balls. Lee was balling very quickly and getting late swing.
Sangakara made his way to the wicket to receive his first ball. Left-handed Russell Arnold had just departed for 1, lbw to Lee. Lee
has the perfect lbw ball for the left-handers, bowling over the wicket,
pitching up at great pace with late in swing (an out swinger to the
right-handers). The ball pitches on the stumps, continues to straighten and traps the batsman in front.

Sangakara, also a left-hander was nervous as a cat on a hot, tin
roof. There were no prizes for guessing what the first ball would be. It was perfect: Quick, perfect swing, pitching on middle and going straight on. Sangakara did the umpire the favour of playing right back. The ball hit on the knee roll, on the back leg, only inches in front of middle. I watched for Shep’s finger – it seemed a formality. But astonishingly, it stayed in the holster. Shep seemed to call out “leg side”. This delivery was clearly more out than the previous one (and there were no complaints about that one).

Was Sangakara benefiting from the “can’t be out first ball” rule. It is my opinion that the chances of an umpire giving a batsman out lbw on the first ball are low. Bat-pad (or just pad) seems to be fine but lbw is another matter. And if the previous ball was an lbw decision, the chances seem to be almost nil. Seems silly as umpires are grown men, and professionals who are expected to treat each ball on its merit.

Anyway, Australia won handsomely batting first. Gilly was desperately
unlucky to be run out on 99 (88 balls), returning for two at the non
strikers end. He was done by a direct hit from more than 50
metres. Ponting made a scintillating 114.

Sri Lanka were never in the hunt. All of the bowlers were slaughtered
(except for Murali) and the batsmen were never in the hunt on a bouncy but true wicket.