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The First Day of Summer

We recently had a discussion in our office about changes of the season and that it’s not always as easy as the 1st of the given month.  For example, many Europeans don’t consider the 1st of March to be the first day of spring.  The first day of the northern hemisphere spring in 2011 was on 20 March.  Similar concepts exist for summer etc.  This year, in Australia, aided by Cricket Australia, in a tradition that I hope lasts, things have been kept simple, as they should be.  The first day of international cricket is the first day of summer.  And that is tomorrow.

The first Test between Australia and New Zealand commences at the Gabba (Brisbane), at 1000 hrs, local time, on 1 December 2011.  That is 1100 hrs Sydney time and 1300 hrs New Zealand time.   The outcome of the match will be as hard to predict as the volatile Brisbane weather.  The forecast is for hot, steamy weather, with thunderstorms developing.   Bother that.

Perhaps making predictions based on long term trends and responses to historical events is by no mean foolproof.  However, as is evidenced in analysis of property and stock markets, there is some benefit in the exercise.

New Zealand has not won a Test against Australia for 18 years and has not won in Australia for 26 years.  That was at a time when Australian cricket was on struggle street, rebuilding after the retirement of legendary players and the loss of key players to South African Rebel tours.  And New Zealand fielded a very good team at that time.

Those same conditions exist today, more or less.  Australia’s loss of players is through injury, rather than rebel tours.  Australia will go into the game with three debutants (the exact three is as yet unknown). And while New Zealand may not have a Hadlee in its ranks, it does have a good team.  The Kiwis are currently ranked 8th on the ICC Test ladder, but they have a relatively experienced side with at least four world class players, which you could argue is more than the Aussies currently boast.  It should be a pretty even contest.  I will be at the pub for early lunch on Thursday.

Brace Yourselves

The Kiwis are here and after many years, they have a Bracewell with them again.  While “Bracewell” may not be as big a name in New Zealand cricket as say, Crowe or Hadlee, it does hold a place in New Zealand cricketing tradition.  This New Zealand team includes a seamer, Doug Bracewell, 21, who has played just one Test match but he is from a family with a fine pedigree in New Zealand cricket and he is in form.

Most of you would know that the most famous Bracewell is John.  He played 41 Tests for New Zealand between 1980 and 1990 and took 102 wickets, and you would have to say that he is New Zealand’s second most accomplished spin bowler.  He was at his peak in the summer of 1985-86 when New Zealand beat Australia in Test series both home and away.  While the victory in Australia came mostly on the back of Sir Richard Hadlee (33 wickets in three Tests), Bracewell had a lot to do with the solitary victory in the series in New Zealand.  He took 10 wickets in that match, including a match winning 6-32 in the second innings.  John Bracewell was one of the few spin bowlers that I saw trouble Allan Border, a master of spin, on a regular basis.

John Bracewell has three brothers who also played first class cricket on and around New Zealand’s South Island.  There are two older brothers, both of whom played a little first class cricket and also his younger brother, Brendon, played six Tests between 1978 and 1985 and it is he who begat Douglas Andrew John Bracewell.  As we are doing some in depth genealogy here, it is worth nothing that Brendon named his son, taking a given name from each of his brothers.  How nice.  Which brings us back to Brisbane.

Doug Bracewell has just completed the warm up match with New Zealand against Australia A and he had a good match with bat and ball.  Coming in down the order, he smashed 73 from just 79 balls and he was the best performed of the bowlers with 4-87.  As I said, Bracewell has played just a solitary Test.  He played in New Zealand’s recent one-off Test against Zimbabwe, in Bulawayo.  That proved to be quite an experience for young Bracewell.  Zimbabwe was chasing a mammoth 366 for victory and had reached a position of needing just 63 more runs, still with five wickets in hand.   Bracewell came on and took three quick wickets, finished with five for the innings and with his captain, routed the Zimmers still with 34 runs to spare.

I don’t mean to put the Kiwis down but only the times they ever beat Australia in Test series were in the mid-eighties (not counting a one off Test at the end of the decade).  This was at a time when Australian cricket was at a very low point.  And it did coincide with a time when New Zealand had a pretty handy team which included players such as Wright, Edgar, Coney, the Crowes, Smith, Chatfield, John Bracewell and let’s not forget the Aussie’s nemesis, Sir Richard Hadlee. 

This New Zealand visit corresponds with another trough in Australian cricket, especially considering the injury list and it also corresponds with a Bracewell being in what is quite a useful team.  Now I admit there is not much science in this analysis but cricketers do tend to be superstitious, but perhaps the Bracewell factor will help the Kiwis account for the Aussies.  New Zealand has not taken a Test from Australia since March 1993 – more than 18 years – could December 2011 see the drought break?  Brace yourselves!

PS: It has to be recorded that Jesse Ryder and Ross Taylor hit 23 sixes between them on the final day of the warm up match.  Yes, that is twenty-three.  Two-three.   And that is against the mighty Australia A attack, which, as it turns out, will miraculously transform into the Australian attack come this Thursday.  Ryder cleared the rope 16 times, equalling the record for a first class innings.

The Most Exciting Draw Ever?

One over remaining.  India needs three runs to win.  The West Indies need two wickets to achieve same.  This is not a limited overs match.  It is a Test match.  And what a Test match.  Remarkably, the match finished in a draw, with the scores level.

This is not the first time that this has happened in first class cricket, or even Test matches but it never ceases to be exciting.  I remember the occasion of the very first Test match between England and Zimbabwe, in  Bulawayo.  That was the end of 1996 when Zimbabwe was all Flowers and Strangs.  That ended with the scores level and England still had four wickets in hand.

A little more recently, in December 2003, New South Wales and Tasmania had a similar result.  New South Wales scored 175 in just 22 overs but they needed 176 to win.  And I guess there might be more matches with the same result.

But back to the 3rd Test in Mumbai.  I’m glad the West Indies salvaged something from the series.  They lead healthily on the first innings in both the 1st and 3rd Tests and after their second calamitous collapse, they managed to come away with something.  Mind you, this collapse was good for the match and probably gave them their only shot at a victory.

I don’t know if it was the most exciting draw ever but it was up there.  It was not the first Test to arrive at the last over, with both teams in with a chance of winning. But it does not happen often.  And there were enough batsmen running in the wrong direction, wayward run out attempts (and successes) and desperate appeals, to make things exciting.

In the past few weeks, we have seen Test cricket alive and well.  With a thrilling mini series between South Africa and Australia,  this effort in India and not so long ago, a very tight encounter between New Zealand and Zimbabwe, where Zimbabwe lost by just 34 runs, chasing over 350, having lost the last five for 28.  Perhaps cricket like this will keep the T20 infatuation in check.

Against All Odds

Stop the speculation.  What will the selectors do?  Ponting: Will they drop him or not?  Haddin: Will they or won’t they?  Same for Johnson.  But who cares?  Australia has achieved a remarkable victory to square a wonderful “series” and I for one, intend to enjoy that. 

However, let me say this: We should be running around excitedly exclaiming what a wonderful series and that cricket is the real winner.  But has cricket been the winner?  There has already been a lot of talk before the series started, that it was a shame, a travesty, that this series has been reduced to two matches.  This is even more the case now, given the drawn state of the series and the excitement and enjoyment that this brief series provided.  I only wish Roebuck could have been with us to see the end of it.

The ICC says that the term “series” can be officially applied to any series of matches that extends beyond one match.  I think there is a given understanding that this condition was introduced so that the super powers could settle for playing the minnows for only two matches.  Given that it is a condition that all Test nations play home and away series at least every five years, against all other Test nations, the ICC sensibly made some allowance to make this more manageable. 

The spirit of this condition was never intended to see the super powers playing each other in two Test series.  The South African cricket board has taken advantage of a gentleman’s agreement and it is to its own, and to cricket’s detriment.  It devalues Test cricket.  Australian and English cricket has long known the value of a series of adequate length.  In fact, The Ashes cannot be contested in a series of under four matches. 

There has been much speculation about certain Australian cricketers.  In particular, would Ponting, Haddin and Johnson keep their places?  Of course, the team’s transgressions are always going to be examined more closely after the team has been dismissed for 47 and suffered a thumping loss.  But on balance, even disregarding the 47, these questions were all very reasonable.  But in this match, all of these players did something to achieve a victory and will probably retain their places, given the current injury concerns and the lack of outstanding alternatives.  The old adage, “never change a winning team” is by no means fool proof but perhaps it has some merit in this case.

There were some questions answered in this Test.  One of the big questions after the 1st Test was how could Australia bounce back from that humiliating 47?  Firstly, even if they had ultimately lost, they bounced back.  One way or another, they were competitive throughout the match.  But given that they did win, let me suggest that the answer is that they did it through good leadership, a great deal of determination, by searching the depths of their aging resources and by uncorking the fountain of youth. 

Enough on Cummins already.  But let’s not forget Khawaja.  He has shown some promise without delivering much to date, but what a time to do it.  And it seems quite fitting that he had such a crucial partnership with Ponting.  Who will remember in 12-15 years time, when Khawaja and Cummins’ are contemplating retirement, that their Test careers briefly overlapped with the great Ricky Ponting?

The balance of this excellent Test match changed often, with neither team managing ever to gain control.  At any point in the match, you could have said that one team was in front but not decisively.  For example on day one, with South Africa at 4/241, they would have been in front, but not out of site.  Less than an hour later, they were all out for 266 and things had changed.  This was repeated many times over five days with the occasional, good partnership and many batting collapses and mini collapses, and let it be said, plenty of good bowling.

Even at the death, with Australia at 8/292, with 18 runs to make, it was anyone’s match.  When both Ponting and Clarke fell quickly on the final morning, it seemed inevitable that South Africa would win.  But they didn’t.  The Australians dug deep and through no one individual or even partnership, they scraped together the required runs.  With 55 here and 39 there and another 40 from another, they cobbled together their first total of 300 for the series.  It should also be remembered that no team has ever before scored more than 300 to win at The Wanderers.  How fitting that Pat Cummins hit the winning runs with an emphatic pull to the fence.  I am in no doubt that Glenn McGrath would be envious.

This Australian team has taken some stick and criticism – the nation yearns for the glory days.  And there is no doubt that the team has some weaknesses – being dismissed for 47 is still unfathomable.  But in fairness, they have shown some strengths.  Let us not forget that this is only Clarke’s second series as captain.  The team has played both series away from home and has won one and drawn the other.  That means Clarke hasn’t lost a series.  And let us not forget that the team has suffered injuries to key players at key times (Harris, Marsh and Watson) and still remained competitive.  The way the team pulled together in this game, and played very good cricket for most of the match is a credit to them.  They were behind at times but they never stopped fighting.  They caught and eventually passed South Africa.

My mind turns back to Steve Waugh’s first series as captain.  That was against West Indies in the West Indies.  Australia crushed the Windies in the 1st Test, dismissing them for 51 in the fourth innings.  People wondered how the Windies could ever recover.  But they did.  They won the next two Tests, forcing Australia to win the final match of the series to draw the series.  Incidentally, I think that may have been the last time Australia came from behind in a series. 

However, the point I want to make is that the West Indies resurgence was done essentially on the back of one man, if I may use the humble term “man” to describe Brian Lara in 1999.  Lara played two epic innings and won two Tests almost single-handedly.  What Australia has done in South Africa is quite different.  The team spirit and courage they have displayed does give some hope for the future.  I’m as keen as anyone to see the end of Ponting, but I think the selectors would be wise not to break up the team quickly.