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What do Brendan McCullum and VVS Laxman have in common?

Brendan McCullum and VVS Laxman share a very important statistic.  I will give you a clue: it is a number between 280 and 282.  For those of you who give in, I will give the answer.  McCullum and Laxman both have a top score in Test cricket of 281.  For now.  McCullum is not out overnight and stands to push onwards.  Perhaps he will become the first New Zealander to reach 300 runs in a single Test innings.  And you would have to save both innings of 281 were equally astounding.

For those of you not following, New Zealand leads the two Test series against India one-nil.  Having won a topsy turvy affair in the first Test of the series by 40 runs, New Zealand were looking forward to their first series win against India for more than a decade.  In fact, they had not beaten India in a Test in over a decade.  Also, they had the chance to enjoy an unbeaten summer of Test cricket.  It never rains but it pours.

It seems to be somewhat of a New Zealand specialty to play Test matches in two halves – one good and one bad.  In the 1st Test, they scored 503 in the first innings and enjoyed a 301 first innings lead.  They capitulated for just 105 in the second innings and limped over the line by the aforesaid margin of 40 runs.

Come the 2nd Test, they decided to have the bad half first.  Having mustered just 192 runs in the first innings, they trailed India by 246 runs after India posted 438.  Batting for survival, New Zealand found themselves well and truly on the rack at 5-94 in the second innings.  With just five wickets in hand, they still needed 152 runs to make India bat again.  This task seemed unlikely.  It was shades of England versus Australia at Headingly in 1981.  India versus Australia at Calcutta in 2001.  An innings defeat seemed inevitable.

That is when Brendan McCullum found an ally worth having in BJ Watling.  McCullum is in fine form and had already scored 224 in the first innings of the 1st Test.  The pair dug in and had put New Zealand six runs to the good at stumps on day 3, still with five wickets in hand.

And this is where they really impressed.  It is a hard thing to start all over the next day.  So often we see comebacks halted by a good night’s sleep.  The momentum of the comeback is lost.  The bowling team can pause, reflect and take stock.  It’s common for an early breakthrough to occur and resistance to crumble.  To be honest, I felt India still had a chance to wrap up the match by lunch on day 4.  But they didn’t.

Who would have thought that the match would have gone to a fifth day?  And who would have thought New Zealand might even win?  BJ Watling went on to his highest Test score – 124 – and in doing so, he faced 367 balls.  That is 61 overs.  McCullum and he add 352 for the sixth wicket – the new sixth wicket record for Tests.  It is also the highest partnership ever in a team’s second innings of a Test match.  Ever.  Can you believe that?

McCullum started the day on 114 and batted the entire day.  He has faced 525 balls.  That’s 87.3 overs.  New Zealand’s lead is now 325.  I read that McCullum is in two minds about declaring overnight.  I have no idea why.  He should bat on, get to 300 himself and put the match beyond doubt.  They don’t need to win the match to win the series.  They don’t need to win for this to be one of the best comebacks of all time.

Magnificent Mitch

The last time I wrote on Mitchell Johnson, it was on “Mysterious Mitch”.  That was after the first Ashes Test, in Brisbane.  Since then, there has been little need for me to add to the pool of words uttered in admiration of Johnson.  But after sweeping England aside and now starting on South Africa, I should offer something in the way of celebration of the new superstar of world cricket.  I have been a detractor in the past and fair is fair.  I apologise if you receive two email notifications again but this one might be worth reading twice.

In my post, Mysterious Mitch, I pondered whether Johnson’s incredible effort at Brisbane was another flash in the pan or whether he would back it up in Adelaide.  We now know that Johnson did back up in Adelaide in a most spectacular way and he kept going.  The planets seem to have aligned in his personal life, physical and mental condition.  And now with what appears to be the right team management, Johnson, the superstar, appears to be here to stay.  God Save the Queen.

I’m not going to argue for his beatification or anything like that but Johnson’s achievements should be documented on this blog.

I watched much of the first Test at Centurion.  The telecast was from British Sky Sports.  I always enjoy the chance to get some commentary away from Australia’s parochial home offerings.  Sky Sports offers a cosmopolitan commentary team and is anchored at home by some guy I don’t know with Bob Willis and Steve Harmison.  They take over during innings breaks and tea breaks etc.  During the innings break after lunch on day two, Bob Willis said something along the lines of, “Well we’ve had the entrée.  Now it is time for the main course.”

That is exactly the way I felt.  Since the start of the Test, I had been wanting to see Johnson bowl.  Notwithstanding my gratitude to Smith for allowing Australia to bat first, I was waiting for the tail to get out after lunch.  It was getting late (at night in Sydney) and I wanted to see Johnson bowl.  Willis and Johnson waxed lyrical about Johnson, they rolled the tapes of Johnson ploughing through English batsmen, with Alistair Cook being dismissed over and over and it became clear:  The English were well and truly terrorised by Johnson and they wanted South Africa to do just as badly so that they could feel like it wasn’t just them.

To that end, they were not disappointed.  If anything, Johnson’s first spell at Centurion exceeded expectations, which was no easy feat.  It took Johnson just four balls to claim his first wicket of the series and that was just his second ball to Graeme Smith.  He didn’t just get him, he plumb near killed him (OK, I’ve been watching Bonanza again).  Johnson charged to three wickets in his first four overs and South Africa did not recover.  After the match, Smith said that there would be no scarring.  They had lost a Test match.  It happens.  They just needed to regroup.

I’m not so sure about that.  Those words sound familiar.

What is so impressive about Johnson these days is his accuracy and consistency.  Graeme Smith was on strike for the first ball of the South Africa innings.  He received a short ball from Ryan Harris and pulled it to the boundary in emphatic style.  It has to be said that first ball was somewhat of a loosener.

Down the other end, it was another matter with Johnson.  He does not bowl looseners.  Johnson’s physical shape is very impressive.  He’s quite the athlete.  His first ball is always 140 plus, any spell, any time of day.  In Sydney, England started their first innings towards the end of day one.  Carberry was on strike to Johnson.  Prior to the first ball, they displayed on the scoreboard the six fastest balls of the Test (to that point).  They were credited to Staurt Broad and were in the low one hundred and forties.  Johnson opened up to Carberry and beat him comprehensively outside of off stump.  Fastest ball of the match (to that point): Mitchell Johnson.  Demonstrating that scoreboard attendants are more than just button pushers, the crowd was updated in the fastest ball of the match after every ball of that first over.  At the end of the first over, Carberry had played at every ball, not laid bat on ball and Johnson had bowled the six fastest balls of the Test match.

Which brings us back to South Africa.  Johnson took exactly two balls to dismiss Smith.  But it goes so much further than dismissing.  The word “dismissing” doesn’t say enough.  Smith likes to dominate.  He likes to bully.  He likes to be in command.  He was dismissed fending an absolute snorter from in from of his face.  It was self preservation, nothing more.  He shaped to hook but before he knew it, he was saving his own life.  Having done that, he was heading back to the pavilion.

Alviro Peterson was next to go and his mode of dismissal was also worth discussing.  He swished at a fast ball outside off stump, was done for pace and was caught behind.  It was vintage Johnson.  Johnson has dismissed countless other batsmen in such as fashion.  He has always been fast and has always done batsmen in such a manner.  But there is a difference.  In the past batsmen ‘went’ at these deliveries out of frustration, boredom even.  It was Johnson’s stock delivery, after all.  Johnson’s accuracy and hostility is now such that Petersen had a dash at that ball from sheer relief.  It wasn’t going to kill him and it may have looked, well, innocuous. What could go wrong?

Johnson has taken 49 wickets in his last six Test matches and really does look to be unstoppable.  He looks and acts mean on the field but I’m liking him off the field.  When he received the Allan Border medal, he stood at the podium trying to compose himself.  It was unexpected and anyone could see how much it meant to him.  He spoke humbly and with great appreciation.  I recall also when he received his third man-of-the-match in the Ashes series (at the close of the 4th Test, in Melbourne) that he was appreciative but remarked that he thought ‘Buck’ should have got it.

In one of the previews of the first Test at Centurion, I read that the match featured the top four ranked pace bowlers in the world.  And Mitchell Johnson.  It has taken Johnson just one Test to show the world that while he may not be officially ranked number one, his captain is right.  Just at the moment, it is pretty hard to argue that he is not the best.

I don’t want to risk being a fair-weather friend.  I have read many times that Johnson has been ‘much maligned’ and it is true.  This can easily be traced to his disastrous Ashes tour in 2009 where he pretty much fell apart.  By why maligned?  I’m sure he was trying his heart out but without getting good results.  The truth is that players are maligned when they let the fans down simply because the inner well being of those said fans is undermined.  Johnson is loved now because his great success is causing great joy to a cricket-loving nation.  It is rather contrary, I admit.

So here’s to Mitchell Johnson.  To a guy who didn’t give up even when it seemed his career was over, without him achieving what so many expected from him.  And probably not achieving all that he may have wanted, himself.  He persevered and has come out the other end better than ever.  I hope he enjoys his time in the sun.  The rest of his countrymen are enjoying it, as is the cricket community at large.

Eddie’s Pain and KP is flushed down the drain

After going undefeated for the whole of the Big Bash round robin stage, the Melbourne Stars went crashing out in the first semi-final.  I’m sure that this was much to the chagrin of Stars president, Eddie Maguire and much to the delight of the Hurricanes captain, Tim Paine.

Tim Paine had found himself in very hot water after a radio interview where he accused the Stars of breaching the salary cap!  His remarks included, that the Stars were playing under “another set of rules” and that there was “obviously a never-ending salary cap there that the Stars seem to run by”.

Needless to say, the Stars were apoplectic over these remarks.  BBL and CA administrators were none too happy either.  Eddie got himself into a right state.  “I take the utmost umbrage to this because I live very solidly over 15 years standing against any type of skullduggery in the (AFL) salary cap,” he said.  “So if this clown wants to just get up and sprout, then he’s going to cop it right between the eyes. We’ve had enough.”

Paine wisely took an approach that Shane Watson seems incapable of and went onto the back foot.  He provided a full apology and explained that his comments had been “a poorly chosen light-hearted remark”.  What else could he do?  But I’m not buying that explanation.

This is one of those classic proofs of why young sporting stars should not be allowed near social media or microphones of any sort.  The old adage is that many a truth is said in jest.  Perhaps Tim Paine had no premeditated intention of saying what he said but he must have been thinking it.  Or he wouldn’t have said it all.  Any radio interviewer worth his salt can get a sportsman talking about subjects that should be avoided.

This added some spice to the final stages of what has been a long Big Bash.  And fortunately for Paine, it turned out alright.  I’m sure Eddie would have been counting on his lads teaching the little punk a lesson and putting the wind up the Hurricanes.  But it was Paine himself leading the successful chase of a modest Stars total.  He let his bat do the talking with 65 runs and even Eddie should appreciate that.

But will it be alright for Paine?  Before his injury problems, he was a player in favour.  He was the elected next, long-term Australian wicket keeper and a possible future captain.  That was a while ago.  But we must remember that Paine is still young and Haddin, while currently enjoying demi-god status, is not getting any younger.  He does not have much more time at the top and Paine should be positioning himself for Haddin’s retirement.  Making stupid remarks on air is not too bright.  But we shall see.

And while we are considering the end of careers, it seems Kevin Pietersen really is at the end of his career.  The England body count continues to grow following a disastrous Ashes campaign down under.  The series has claimed Trott, Swann, Flower and now Pietersen.  And don’t count on that being the end of it.  The ECB has announced that KP is no longer in their plans.  He is just 33 years old and that surprises me.  But then again, it has been a love hate relationship and perhaps they have been looking for an excuse.  Farewell KP – it’s been a fun ride since 2005.

The Adjustment Bureau

I recently watched a movie called The Adjustment Bureau. My daughter, Georgia, made me. It’s one of those Hollywood dramas where there is a magical or supernatural element to the story that you just have to accept as reality (for the duration of the movie, at least). The Adjustment Bureau are a myriad of men who dress like FBI agents (hats and coats) who intervene on behalf of ‘The Chairman’. The keepers of fate, if you like. They are responsible for some of those events that we think are simply chance. When a person gets ‘off the plan’ the AB steps in. The first example in the movie was that one of the AB agents was supposed to make the star (Matt Damon) spill his coffee in his apartment before work, so that he would miss his bus and not meet a certain girl. The AB officer assigned to this task dozed off, missed his cue. Matt caught the bus and met the girl. Now you can imagine the trouble that caused and they made a whole movie about the consequences. When the Australian squad for South Africa was announced recently and Shaun Marsh was part if it, the selectors were ‘off the plan’. Way off. Thank goodness ‘The Chairman’ cares about cricket.

Enter the Adjustment Bureau. Some of you might think it was chance – a happy coincidence – that Shaun Marsh suffered a little old calf injury and was ruled out of the tour. But it’s not. It is obviously the work of the Adjustment Bureau and there are precedents to support this. It’s quite common for someone to be injured and for someone else to take their place. It happens often. Especially to Australian fast bowlers. I’m talking about those times when arguably the wrong man was chosen and this is only made right when misfortune strikes. A few years ago I made a post called ‘Watson’s Gift’ (http://dongles.org/watsons-gift/). This documented the many times that Watson was selected when he could count himself lucky, only to be injured and replaced by the right man.

Another significant example was when Keith Miller was outrageously omitted from the team to tour South Africa in the summer of 1949-50. This was only corrected when Bill Johnson was injured in a car accident. Why the Adjustment Bureau chose Johnson, I don’t know but Miller was restored to his rightful place in the team. There are other examples which I detailed in another post called ‘There is a God’ (http://dongles.org/There-is-a-God/).

It is yet to be seen whether Hughes will play. For reasons that I don’t fully understand, it would seem that Alex Doolan has the front running. Perhaps the Adjustment Bureau of the other side (the evil Chairman – he’s not actually in the movie) was at work here. As I recently shared, due to a technical glitch, dongles notifications have not been emailed for a while which meant that the selectors did not receive my post, ‘It’s not the first five we worry about’. If they had received that, they would have read about the risks of ignoring Shield cricket and gone with Phil Hughes in the first place. Whether Hughes will succeed or not, I don’t know. He has been successful in South Africa before. In fact, his failures have been in England where he has been dropped twice. Perhaps he is just another Doug Walters in the respect. What troubles me is that Hughes and Doolan have seen no First Class cricket for over six weeks.

Cricket Australia continues to revel in the glory of a successful Ashes summer yet they conspire in their programming to thwart the development of the long form of the game. When it came to selecting the Ashes squad in November, this task was made difficult because very little Shield cricket had been played. Then when the time came to select the squad for South Africa, a similar situation existed. While there has been a significant amount of Shield cricket this summer, when the touring squad was announced, it had been 40 days since the last ball was bowled in the Shield. In fact, there is a two month gap in the Sheffield Shield schedule. I think that is a disgrace. There is no play from 11 December 2013 until 12 February 2014. If that is not a complete disregard for the most important form of the game, in favour for an unashamed money grab call the Big Bash, I don’t know what is.

I don’t know if that is why the selectors chose to completely ignore form and go with Shaun Marsh. I can only imagine that they were seduced by the idea of Marsh and a few nice shots played in colourful clothing against a white ball. Thank goodness for the Adjustment Bureau. I am waiting for The Chairman to give his order to the Adjustment Bureau to get Cricket Australia back on plan. In the meantime, all that said, Australia has sent a good side to South Africa and for the first time in a while, they have that winning feeling. It should be a good series.

PS: I apologise if the Adjustment Bureau hasn’t yet fixed that thing where you get two emails from dongles for each post. They may be still working on that.

The Adjustment Bureau

The Adjustment Bureau