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“Tic-tac-toe, eight in a row”

England has swept away South Africa in the first Test in Port Elizabeth to take a one-nil lead in the five Test series. They eventually won by a comfortable seven wickets, following a South African second inning batting collapse.

The match was won mainly off the bat of Andrew Strauss – the Englishman with the Austrian name. He anchored the English first innings with 126 and then became the second batsman within a week to narrowly miss out on a pair of centuries in the same match (joining Langer). Strauss was left 94 not out in the winning chase of 3/145. A chase that had the shakes at 2/11 and 3/50. A chase that was also threatened by encroaching bad weather.

Some good bowling also saw them through with Hoggard returning to form and Simon Jones taking an important four wickets in the second innings.

England has now posted eight victories in a row – a record for England and equal fifth on the overall list of consecutive victories – in a year that goes from exciting to euphoric for the English cricket team. And as it turns out, Strauss has played eight Tests and known only victory. Of course, the record holder for that is A C Gilchrist with 15 victories and nobody is going to beat that.

So where does that leave England? Officially, they are second on the ICC Test rankings and I don’t think there could be any dispute that on current form, they are easily number two. How big is the gap between first and second? I don’t think that there is an Englishman who would dare utter aloud that they might be the best. But I wonder how many are secretly thinking it? All I can say is thank goodness that 2005 is an Ashes year and in less than eight months we will no longer be wondering. One thing seems assured: The next Ashes series will be the best (as in closely fought) series since hmmm – I’m not sure when.

A lot has changed for England since 2001, and even 2002-03. And not much has changed for Australia except that the boys are all a few years older. And last time I looked, McGrath, Gillespie, Warne and even Kasper were bowling rather well. The English summer of 2005 should hold the answers to some intriguing questions. And whichever way you look at it, those answers will be hard to swallow for some of those involved.

And now a digression on the subject of the consecutive Test victories list:

Looking at the list, I was interested to see a couple of surprises. The last time I looked at that record was when Australia was setting its 16 match winning streak. At that time, the mark to beat was 11 – set by Clive Lloyd’s West Indies team. And the next best was 8, by Armstrong’s Australians in the early nineteen twenties. So I was astonished to see that there are two new entries with 9 straight wins. A lot has been said about the overall lack of depth in Test cricket and this probably adds to the argument. Both Sri Lanka (2001 – 2002) and South Africa (2002 – 2003) had winning streaks of nine matches! I have two comments to make:

1. The first eight of Sri Lanka’s nine were at home. And in fact, they had played 13 straight Tests at home. The first seven of South Africa’s nine were at home (and they played nine straight at home) and the last two of the winning streak were against Bangladesh. It’s interesting that those teams played so many straight at home – I can’t think of a time where Australia would have played more than six. Not a criticism but it is interesting.

2. Of Sri Lanka’s nine wins, three were against Zimbabwe and one against Bangladesh. Of South Africa’s nine, four were against Bangladesh. Four “walk overs” each. Enough said on that.

Merry Christmas.

Memories of Hobart

Pakistan started the day well enough. In fact, with Australia at 5-78, just after lunch and Shoaib Akhtar and Mohammad Sami bowling very well, they were doing famously. Having put Australia in, they had them on the ropes.

But over the next two hours, through the two locals, Gilchrist and Langer, Australia first consolidated and then started to take the game away. This wasn’t a partnership of the proportions or gravity of Hobart 4-5 years ago, as Langer and Gilchrist miraculously and famously won a Test match, but nonetheless was significant. When Gilchrist fell for 69, the pair had added 152 and the score was 6-230. Not a commanding score, but anyone would take that after being 5-78.

The Australian top and middle order was undone by some good bowling and a couple of ordinary shots. Ponting was beaten by a good in ducker, having been feed a few away swingers, but it was a very careless shot. And Lehman’s dismissal was once again a disgrace. I’m afraid to say it was a typical Lehman dismissal as he walked right across his stumps and saw his leg stump knocked back. With Katich in the wings he Lehmann would do well to start playing more responsibly.

But the day belonged to Langer. He had just passed his hundred when Gilchrist went. With Gillespie, he built an 80 run partnership that really took the gain away from Pakistan and with his score at 181 overnight, he has the chance of back-to-back double hundreds.

And one final comment: The great Pakistani fast bowler and former captain (three times, I think, or was that four) is in the commentary box. And perhaps surprisingly (to me) he is beautifully and thoughtfully spoken. He says the Pakistani names very correctly and offers some interesting insights as a bowler and a Pakistani cricketer.

Oh, the score is 8/357. Pakistan bowled only 85 hours even though they went the full 30 minutes over. Run rate = 4.20