The Best versus the Rest

An event that has received little coverage in the general press takes place in October this year. Two events actually. A series of three One Day matches in Melbourne and a six day “Super Test” in Sydney. Both ICC sanctioned events are to become an annual event where the number one rated side in each form of the game, at a given date (I think it’s about March) plays a team made of the rest of the world. At present, Australia is tops in both forms of the game, so they are hosting both One Day and Test events.

The Rest of the World squads were announced earlier this month – there is a Test squad and a One Day squad. There are 39 players in all making up the two squads of 30 players. There are 21 players in both squads.

The questions begs, can the Aussies win? It will be a tall order. I wrote recently that Australia has a team of super stars (and in reality, they have at least five) but they will be up against a team with 11 super stars, give or take. The Ashes series will have an impact on how many Englishmen are in the team and will certainly determine the fate of Flintoff – with such a pool of specialists to choose from, and Kallis, an all rounder will need to be really top shelf to gain selection. The Test team will look something like this:

Shoaib Akhtar

Something like that. Choosing the batsmen is pretty easy. Picking bowlers makes you realise that the world is short on class bowlers at present.

But any way you look at it, that is a strong team. Will the Aussies be able to overcome it?

In my opinion, cricket is a little easier than many team ball sports to “throw a best of team together”. The mechanics of most ball sports – soccer, union, league, Aussie Rules, Gaelic football, European handball etc means that the team must be well drilled and a well oiled machine. Communication that only comes from a great deal of time together on the playing field is paramount. For example, when George Gregan is served the ball at the back of the scrum, ruck or line out, Steve Larkam (usually) knows he is going to get the ball before he gets the ball. If Gregan’s execution is as it should be, Bernie knows exactly when to expect the ball on his chest and the opposition can try to stop it but in most cases, they are unable to.

Cricket is a little different. Interaction between players on the team is a little less direct. In the field, from the time the leaves the bowler’s hand to the time it finds it ultimate destination, whether that be the fence, the crowd, the wicket keeper’s gloves or anywhere else, the fielders have no control. None. Sure, the bowler can attempt to bowl a delivery to induce a particular shot – a bouncer to produce a catch at fine leg or a well pitched leg cutter to bring the slips into play. And I’m sure McGrath’s rib tickler to Jimmy Adams to present a simple catch to Langer at short leg and give McGrath his hat trick, is exactly what McGrath had in mind.

But even if the bowler can bowl exactly the ball he envisages, in the end, the strengths or failings of the batsman will determine which fielder is required. Many’s the time Warne has bowled it exactly where he wanted it to Tendulkar. Even in the air he can see it pitch, bite and take off stump. But Tendulkar comes down the track and launches the pill into orbit. Warnie still grimaces in anguish – so close. And curiously, even if the bowler balls the ball he wants, and the batsman makes the hoped for mistake, the fielders, particularly the slips, still have but a split second to react. The fielders normally don’t know what is coming next. If Kasper down at fine leg knew that Dizzie’s next three balls were going to be half trackers well outside off, he could sign autographs to relieve the boredom of that half an over.

And batting can be a lonely job. When Glen McGrath is running in to you, there is nothing that any of your team mates can do to help, except call him a “big girlie”. Communication when running is important, but as long as some basic skills are implemented, the batsman usually decides his own fate.

The point I’m making is that more than any other team ball sport, cricket has the scope for a group of individuals to perform well. The Pakistan team has been a good example over the years. Jokes about match fixing aside, they are renowned for being up and down. With the different politics, religious beliefs and factions, the team has often been weak and struggled. But suddenly, out of the blue, they can perform like world beaters, on the back of a few brilliant individual performances.

Where cricket is different from other sports is that team culture and spirit is the most important element of team work. In cricket, the players get to enjoy each others company during the course of a game. While batting, they spend hours in the rooms filling in time. The culture of cricket is important and as evidenced in this Australian side, the strongest teams support each other to the end. As a group they hate losing and they rejoice in the individual successes of their team mates.

Conversely, the performance of the West Indies in the recent series against South Africa gave food for thought. In the case of the West Indies themselves, the food might be rat sack. Three stars, Lara, Gayle and Sarwan missed the first Test over the Cable and Wireless fiasco. In their absence the West Indies had a new captain, new players and they prospered. Chanderpaul, the new captain and Hinds made double hundreds and the West Indies came within a few wickets of victory. Lara and the others returned for the second Test. Lara scored brilliant back to back hundreds in the 2nd and 3rd Tests but the West Indies were annihilated. That says to me that team dynamics are important and complicated, especially in a team like the West Indies, which is made of players of different nationalities, cultures, backgrounds and is dominated by a player who is a genius but could possibly the most ego centric player in world cricket.

Which bring me the to rest of the world team. That same Brian Lara will feature. And did I say something about players from different countries and religions. Hmmm. That is where the rest of the world will struggle. Perhaps players who have traditionally hated each other will be thrown together.

It will be interesting. I certainly intend to attend the Super Test in Sydney. Anyone who is interested in attending a dongles lead cricket outing, please reply to that effect.

Take a walk on the wild side

I would like to recount a (paraphrased) story from Allan McGilvray’s biography. In about 1933, a young McGilvray was playing for NSW against the Vics. He had the honour of taking the new ball and was bowling the first over of the match to the then Australian captain, the great Bill Woodfull. McGilvray could not believe his luck when Woodfull got a healthy edge and the keeper did the rest. A huge appeal ensued. It was turned down, much to McGilvray’s disappointment. Woodfull made a single from the next ball, and, arriving at the bowlers end, two interesting things happened:

1. A very sheepish McGilvray said “I’m sorry about that appeal Mr Woodfull”.
2. Woodfull said “I hit that one hard Ump. I would have walked but I didn’t want to embarrass you.”

My how times have changed!!

I thinking the practice of walking was dead by the end of the seventies. Sure, there has been the odd exponent since then, mostly the idealists and artists. Lara and Gower could be counted amongst them.

In the hard days of professional cricket, players have decided that they can balance out the bad decisions they receive by accepting those more favourable decisions. Swings and roundabouts. Certainly not cheating.

Have you ever noticed than when the batsman has nicked the ball, their reflex action is the spin the head around to see if the catch is taken. The real professionals such as Steve Waugh eliminated that practice, always staring straight ahead, poker faced, whether contact was made or not.

Now move forward to the World Cup Semi final, Australia versus Sri Lanka in March 2003. There is a big appeal against Adam Gilchrist for caught behind. The umpire gives not out. Gilchrist walks! What a sensation this caused. Why did he do it? Had he had a religious experience? Did he have money on Sri Lanka? Was this a team directive? Would more Aussie’s do it?

Gilchrist simply said that it wasn’t something that he had really thought through. It was almost an involuntary action – he just thought “Well I hit that. I should go.” Gilchrist was concerned that he had embarrassed Dave Orchard and spoke to him after the match. Orchard was very happy and wished there was more of it.

Ponting was very quick to point out that Gilchrist’s actions were not part of any team discussion or policy. I believe that he went as far as denouncing the move and couldn’t quite understand what was going on with Gillie.

Gilchrist has continued to walk since then and this must have earned respect from the umpires. It probably means that he won’t be given out with bogus bat-pads and caught behinds. Gilchrist has walked faithfully and I think if he doesn’t walk, it is unlikely that he will be given out. Gilchrist’s walking has had the acid test. During some important innings (I know it’s pathetic but I can’t remember and I don’t have time to research but I think it was in either India or Sri Lanka last year), Gilchrist had a big appeal for bat-pad turned down (after the umpire had allowed Gilchrist time to walk). The very next ball, up they went again, and off went Gillie. No need for umpire intervention.

The issue of walking has received a great deal of attention since Gilchrist’s action in that World Cup semi final. Some of his team mates even joined him on occasions. However, things came to a head in the recent tour of New Zealand. I think it was Craig McMillan who clobbered the ball through to Gilchrist but survived. Gilchrist and some of the other lads had a few words to McMillan. At the end of the days play McMillan was most upset that Gillie should take such a moralistic and “holier than thou” attitude. If Gillie wanted to walk good for him, but there was no expectation that anyone else would. I would just like to make the point that if a batsman blatantly hits the ball, is caught and is given not out, he is going to be made aware of his good fortune by the ‘keeper and slips. Whether the ‘keeper is a devout “walker” or not has little to do with it. That batsman is going to cop an earful. And I would say it’s worth it. A small price to pay. It’s much better than watching replays of your dismissal from the peace of the sheds!

While batsmen not walking may be a little sad, it certainly is not a major detraction to the game. What is a blight on the game however, is incessant, excessive, over zealous and mischievous appealing. Most countries are guilty of this practise at least some of the time and Australia is one of the worst, especially if Warne is bowling. In my opinion, even more admirable than walking, is Gilchrist’s practice of appealing only when it is out or pretty darn close. It is not uncommon to see all those around the bat go up, except for Gilchrist. I’m sure that the umpires find that very useful too. I once suggested a checklist that umpires need to go through before giving a batsman out lbw (Was it hitting the stumps? Did it pitch outside leg? Was it too high? etc). Perhaps “Did Gilchrist appeal?” should be added to the checklist.

The world’s friendliest pitch

It is official: Antigua Recreation Ground, St John’s, Antigua is the most batsman friendly pitch in the world. Well, equal with Leeds at any rate with three apiece. I’m declaring St John’s the title holder because in the past 11 years, the featherbed at St John’s has given up three triple centuries with Chris Gayle’s effort last night. Leeds has not seen a batsman reach 300 since 1965.

The details:

CH Gayle c Smith b Zondeki 317 runs, 483 balls, 37 x 4, 3 x 6
300 runs from 462 balls.

The series is dead, and the match is dead, not even finished both side’s first innings, with just 11 wickets falling in 4 days. Six centurions and counting.

Gayle came into the match having scraped together just 12 runs from 4 innings, having missed the 1st Test due to the sponsorship crisis. So the innings was important for Gayle and it was important that the West Indies not lose the match.

Most would know that the other two “triples” at St John’s belong to the spiritual owner of the ground, Brian Lara. Lara came into the match having posted innings of 176 and 196 in the previous two tests and many might have expected a huge score from Lara. The odds were very high, following South Africa’s demonstration of how easy the pitch was playing. Ironically, Lara made just 4 from 29 balls, having come to the crease with the score at 2/345.

I have attached the list of triple centuries in all Tests – just twenty of them. The achievement is always special, regardless of the state of the match, series or the opposition.

There are some interesting things to observe:

1. Two grounds, Leeds and St John’s account for 6 of those innings (30%).

2. Seven triples have been scored in the West Indies and five in England – 55% in just two countries. For the geographers, yes, technically, four countries as the West Indies is actually a collection of countries. So let’s say two cricketing entities.

3. A triple has not yet been posted in South Africa or India. Gayle’s triple is the first in a match that involved South Africa.

4. Two players, Lara and Bradman, have scored two triples.

5. Ironically, both players performed the feat both times at the same ground. In Bradman’s case, that was Leeds (1930 & 1934) and Lara at St John’s (1993 & 2003).