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The Changing Face of Cricket

Now that the Ashes is over and the rout is complete, the post mortems shall begin.  I will abstain from an in depth examination of aspects of Australian cricket.   I don’t intend to use this blog for therapy.  On this occasion.

Firstly, let me say, “Well played England.”  Who would have thought?  The hits just kept on rolling:

1. The first time Australia has thrice been defeated by an innings in a Test series.  By anyone, anywhere.
2. The first time England has passed 500 on four occasions in an Ashes series.
3. The highest innings total (646 in Sydney) made by England in Australia.
4. The highest innings total for one wicket conceded.  Ever.
5. The most inept opposition faced by an English team.  Ever.  You would have to say that Graham Yallop’s lambs in 1978-79 had less to offer but the current team should have done better.  Much better.
6. Cook made the second most number of runs by an Englishman in a series against Australia.  Before the series, Flight Centre in Town Hall Arcade offered a special rate to England, less the highest score made by an Englishman in the series.  I bet they didn’t count on giving a $235 discount.

As I said, I will not conduct an in-depth post mortem of Australia’s disintegration.  Pick up any of today’s papers.  Or tomorrow’s,  Or Sunday’s.  They will all have plenty of commentary and what’s more, solutions.

How do you find the magic fix.  Blame everyone?  Sack the players?  Sack the captain?  Sack the coach?  Sack the batting coach?  Sack the selectors (Hilditch’s contract is up in April).  Rework the Academy and talent raising system?  Pour more money into it?

Is there any one solution?  Are there quick and easy solutions?  No.  It can be quite complicated and I will explore some of the potential bigger issues. 

However, some things are not complicated – it is easy to see that many of the basics are being overlooked and I will make some general comments.  I don’t hear anyone in Australian cricket saying, “We suck.  We don’t understand why exactly but the wheels have fallen off.  We need to have a good hard think and do something about it.”  Quite the opposite.  Just yesterday, at the conclusion of the series, Michael Clarke claimed that they had the talent and they just had to stick with it.  Hitlerian bunker delusions (sorry, andrewg, I have stolen your metaphor).  While I agree to an extent with Clarke that some talent is there, big changes need to take place.

When things are not going well, Ponting has always talked it up.  Denial.  It is good leadership to stick by your men in public but one gets the impression that really is the attitude.  Before the series, in overlooking Bollinger, the chairman of selectors, Andrew Hildtich said they would stick with the pace attack that got the job done in South Africa.  Hang on – that was almost two years ago!  What kind of an idiot uses logic like that?  Does he really believe it or was that just spin?

Looking more deeply into that comment from Hilditch, I suggested at the time of that unexpected series win, that it might do more long-term harm than good, in masking some real problems.  It seems that this is exactly what has happened.  In that series, we had two new batsmen (North and Hughes) who started with a bang and made piles of runs.  Ponting was two years younger.  Johnson played out of his skin, not to be repeated, or rarely even approached until a brief exhibition in Perth, almost two years later.

The selectors have not followed the principles of selecting in-form players.  The players cannot even do the basic things like running between wickets, landing the ball on the pitch, or catching.  They can’t think straight.  But while I can see some merit in sacking idiots like Nielson, Langer, and Hilditch, and even some players, that in itself will not bring about a miraculous recovery.  New and much better leadership is required.  The current complacency and denial are typical responses to the natural ebb of fortunes and yet they need to be addressed for a turn around to take place.

In thinking about Australia’s woes, I did find myself reflecting on the changes to the number one team in the cricket world.  Australia was the bottom of the heap in 1985 and the West Indies were at the top.  In 1995, they passed each other on their respective paths to the top and bottom.  Five years later, the West Indies had sunk to unplumbed depths.  Now, ten years later Australia is hurtling towards where the Windies still languish.

India is now the cricket super power.  Why?  Partly weight of numbers.  For example, Australia can never hope to beat China, USA or Russia at the Olympic Games because of sheer numbers.  The USA population is 10 times Australia’s population, and China has 50 times.  But it’s not just population – if that were the only requirement, India would be an Olympics super power.  And it was not so long ago that Australia did better China at Olympic Games.  Money, cultural and socio-economic conditions are also very important. If it were simply population, India would always have been a super power in cricket.  When counting bodies, one needs to count the eligible player pool. 

In the  late nineties, the West Indies  plummeted from number one to the bottom of the pile.  Why?  Surely one reason was the fading of the Lloyd empire.  After Lloyd’s retirement, there was a gradual weakening as the team passed from Richards to Richardson and the greats retired and were not replaced.  Where was the next generation?  West Indian cricket must take some of the blame for not providing infrastructure.  But why was there no infrastructure?  Was it because there was no money?  And why was there no money?  I have heard that West Indians are now mad about basketball.  Cricket no longer enjoys the standing it once had as the number one sport in the Caribbean.  If interest in a sport is not there, neither is the money.

Why would a country lose interest in a sport?  For the West Indies, I’m sure it is complicated.  I could guess that as that group of countries moves more away from the culture that colonised and exploited it, they would move away from the sports of that culture, to the sports of the dominating culture that is right on their door step (the USA).  Add to that “the group of countries” – the “West Indies” are not a country.  They are a group of island countries that don’t always coexist harmoniously.  That would be understating it.  In Australia, cricket has the advantage of being the national summer sport.  There is no such unifying force in the West Indies.

Perhaps that thinking is too idealistic.  It is not as simple as a desire to move away from legacy colonial influences.  If that were the case, India’s interest in cricket would be decreasing, not increasing.  India has every bit as much interest in distancing itself from its British occupation.  Look no further than the blocking of John Howard as ICC vice president for evidence of this.  But Indians love their cricket and there is unprecedented interest, and money.  Is this because of the success of the team, or is the success because of the interest?  I watched a program about the Indian World Cup victory in 1983 – it claimed that was the making of Indian cricket.   All that glory made all the little boys want to play cricket.

Perhaps that is part of it, but I would suggest that Indians have always played cricket.  However, the chance to represent their country was limited to the very privileged few – the talent pool realistically available for selection was probably less than that of Australia.  The little boys were playing cricket but they simply were nowhere near a selector of any sort.  With India’s exploding economy, cricket has changed dramatically.

Firstly, there is money in the economy for BCCI to provide infrastructure and more and more Indians have money to buy equipment, travel, attend coaching seminars etc.  Add a corresponding demand for cricket in the corporate world (IPL) and you have a thriving economy based on cricket.  The “decolonisation” of India has not resulted in India abandoning cricket.  Cricket has a use.  However, I think we will see that India will use its power to change cricket itself.  Look no further than the blocking of John Howard as ICC vice president for evidence of this.

Returning to the original question, I don’t think that Australia will go the way of the West Indies.  Rather, they are repeating the time honoured cycle of rise and decline (Australia is at about 1985 level currently).  What they do to drag themselves out of it, or whether it happens by less controllable, organic means, and how long it takes, all remains to be seen.

King Kallis

South Africa has set India 342 to win on the final day of the 3rd and deciding Test in Cape Town.  South Africa have one man to thank for that challenging target: Jacques Kallis.  King Kallis.

In adding a second innings century to his first innings effort,  King Kallis has leap-frogged the deposed Prince Ponting as second highest century maker (41).  These twin tons have realised 161 in a total of 362 and 109 out of 341.  Without him in this match, even with Steyn’s heroics, South Africa would be buried.

Roebuck today suggested that Kallis is an under rated cricketer.  I think what he means is that even though Kallis is highly rated, nobody seems to even consider him as one of the all time greats.  However, a glance at his figures would indicate that such consideration is appropriate.   He has scored 11,947 runs at 57.42, which puts him right towards the top of the batting tree.  Add to that his 270 wickets at 32.01 and surely, those numbers put him up there with the great all rounders.  Not just in volumes but in averages.  His batting to bowling average ratio is an outstanding 1.79.

Sobers is widely regarded as the best all rounder to have player.  Many regard him as the greatest player to walk the planet.  His numbers by comparison are 8032 runs at 57.78 and 235 wicket at 34.03 with a ration of 1.70.  On stats alone, it is in fact, Kallis by a nose.

So why is Kallis seldom mentioned in the same breath as Sobers.  I have one idea and that is that Kallis looks too much like Shrek.  He has tried to alleviate that recently by getting a young man’s “do”.  Aggers suggested that Kallis is selfish at times – he bats for himself when quick runs are needed.  And let’s face it – who would you rather watch – Sobers or the dour Kallis?  Also keep in mind that Kallis just scored his first double century while Sobers was the world record holder (365*) for many years and had other large scores, made in the true West Indian style.

But any way you look at it, Kallis is great all rounder and if South Africa wins this series, much of the credit will go to Kallis.

Oh, I’m not avoiding the drubbing at the SCG, due time will be given to that once the knock out is delivered at about 10:30 tomorrow.

Poles Apart

Having secured the Ashes in the fourth Test, England seems set to take the series 3-1, a fair indication of the difference between the two sides – they are poles apart.   England has already become the first side to beat Australia, in Australia, by an innings twice in the same series.  The way things are shaping up, they seem set to do it an unthinkable three times.

Australia’s woes continued and England’s joy did the same.  Australia continued to select the wrong players, in the wrong positions while England’s subs continue to shine (as well as their first choices).  And a special mention for Cook.  His reprieve on 41 yesterday was pivotal in the match.  However, he has taken his chance and broken all sorts of records.  A total of 766 runs in the series is the second highest by an Englishman in an Ashes series, or any series.  He narrowly missed becoming only the second visiting player from any country (besides Hammond) to score two double centuries in a series in Australia.

I will discuss the delicate position of Australian cricket after this Test concludes for I have been ignoring a magnificent series in South Africa for too long.  It should be remembered that this series is a real clash of cricket’s heavyweights, as opposed to the current Ashes contest.  You could debate at length, ignoring the official ICC rankings, whether South Africa or India are the better team. However, there could be no dispute that India and South Africa are easily the top two.

After India made a shaky start in the very first innings of the series, being dismissed for a paltry 136 and then conceding 600 and losing by an innings, India has bounced back.  India arrived in South Africa just three days before the series started, had no warm up matches and it is little wonder they were rolled.  They could scarcely have been over their jetlag, let alone be adjusted to local conditions.  I wonder why they did not pay the occasion the respect that it deserved.

Nonetheless, on the back of yet another epic second innings from Laxman (96 in a total of 228), India squared the series in the second Test.  The third Test has seen India take a 2 run first innings lead, on the back of yet another magnificent century (his 51st) from Tendulkar (146).  The Indian innings had everything.  With the match critically poised, Harris dropped a sharp caught and bowled from Tendulkar, only to drop the ball onto the stumps and run Laxman out at the non-strikers end!  It would be difficult to know whether to laugh or cry.

Steyn bowled with venom and accuracy throughout the innings and ended up with 5/75.  His battle with Tendulkar being a highlight.  There was an incident when Steyn and South Africa were convinced there was a clear caught behind denied by umpire Ian Gould.  It turns out that Gould was correct – Harbhajan Singh missed the ball, the ball clipped the off stump (hence the loud, woody nick) but the bail was not dislodged.  It moved but did not fall.

Harbhajan finished the day with the last word, taking two late wickets to finish with 2 for 1 and has taken two more early wickets on the fourth day,  Now, this is a Test match and a series worth following to its conclusion!

Update: South Africa has posted 341 all out, leaving India a day to make a mountainous 340 for the win on a worn wicket. Kallis, the superstar, made a brilliant century in tough conditions (his second for the match), while Harbhajan Singh took seven wickets. It seems the excitement continued right through the day. Here’s the cricinfo commentary of the last over from Harbhajan:

101.1 – Harbhajan Singh to Morkel, no run, 84.2 kph, turns from outside leg, nudged to the off side

101.2 – Harbhajan Singh to Morkel, FOUR, 83.5 kph, clears the front foot and smashes this flighted delivery that lands outside leg to the square-leg boundary.

101.3 – Harbhajan Singh to Morkel, OUT, 88.9 kph, Holes out to long-on. He went for another big hit but finds Sreesanth at long-on. No 6 for Harbhajan. M Morkel c Sreesanth b Harbhajan Singh 28 (52m 45b 4×4 0x6) SR: 62.22

101.4 Harbhajan Singh to Tsotsobe, FOUR, 86.4 kph, Whoa! Lonwabo Tsotsobe has charged down the track and hammered this to the straight boundary!

101.5 – Harbhajan Singh to Tsotsobe, FOUR, 81.0 kph, And again. This time to the midwicket boundary. He cleared the front foot and biffs this over the on-side field. Smith stands and applauds with a smile

101.6 – Harbhajan Singh to Tsotsobe, OUT, 83.2 kph, SA all out 341. Jacques Kallis not out 109! Tsotsobe rushed down the track and was caught by Sehwag at long-on. LL Tsotsobe c Sehwag b Harbhajan Singh 8 (4m 3b 2×4 0x6) SR: 266.66

For those wishing to follow what may yet be a fascinating day at Cape Town, here’s the link to the live scores