The Sri Lankan Lion Roars

Sri Lanka has secured a well-deserved, last gasp victory in the second and deciding Test at Headingley and in doing so, has demonstrated that one lion is better than three.  It may have only been a series of the minimum two Tests but both were extraordinary in their own ways and incredibly, in both Tests, with two balls remaining in the match, the bowling team needed a single wicket for victory.  And how differently those respective deliveries (and matches) ended!

Surely Cook’s goose is cooked.  It seems that every cricket journalist, especially the English, have Cook’s head on the chopping block.  You would think that Cook has used his last life but how different things could have been.

We will recall that in the 1st Test, England had an lbw appeal upheld on the penultimate ball of the match.  It looked like England (and Cook) has secured a much needed victory.  It seemed that Broad had pulled it out of the fire and taken two wickets in the final over.  But the appeal was overturned by a referral and Sri Lanka salvaged a draw, still 188 runs behind England.

In the second Test, there were more heroics from Broad as he claimed a hat trick in Sri Lanka’s first innings which saw Sri Lanka dismissed relatively cheaply.  England passed Sri Lanka’s total with just two wickets down and looked in a position of strength.  And although they eventually lead by 108 on the first innings, it was mostly downhill from there.  Then Sri Lanka piled on an unthinkable 457 on the back of a magnificent 160 from their skipper, Angelo Mathews.

But the match had a final twist.  After having removed the first five wickets in very quick time out on the fourth evening (Cook must have been wondering why he did not declare on the fourth afternoon of the 1st Test), Sri Lanka struggled to take the remaining five wickets on the final day.  However, having managed to make the initial breakthrough, Sri Lanka chipped away and England found themselves nine wickets down, still with 20 overs play remaining (and over an hour’s play).  Enter James Anderson for one last passage of drama.  James Anderson faced almost half of those final 20 overs: 55 balls to be precise.  On the last of those balls, he was dismissed for one of the best ducks in Test history.  It is third on the list of most balls faced for a duck.

I’m not accusing Anderson of being a chicken but if the ball is going nowhere near the stumps, there is no excuse for getting out.  The ball was missing the stumps by a mile so all he had to do was make sure he got his bat and hands out of the way.  When Australia was nine wickets down against the Windies in 1961, Slasher Mackay faced the last over from Wes Hall.  And what did Slasher do with the final, hostile delivery?  He let it hit him in the chest.  I’m just saying.

Glancing down the scorecards, England seemed to have so much to smile about.  A double from Joe Root.  Maiden Test centuries for Ballance and Robson. A hat trick for Broad and Plunkett taking a five-for.  And last but not least, a monumental final day century from Moeen Ali.  Ali batted an entire day under extreme pressure and yet, England have nothing to show for it.  Cook had scores of 17, 27, 17 and 16 and criticism of his captaincy aside, his batting form (consistent as it is) probably means that the writing is on the wall.  I guess we will see the return of KP in the near future.


In Bed with the Enemy

I would have thought that in the aftermath of the Mickey Arthur saga, CA would have made a note to self: In future, don’t hire outsiders.  Or maybe that was just South Africans.  I am amazed to see Australian cricket hiring such a controversial former adversary.  Sure, Muthiah Muralidaran was the most successful bowler ever but you have to look at why he was!  Now he is the spin bowling mentor for the Australian tour of UAE to play Pakistan.

Australians generally need little encouragement to be parochial, jingoistic and some even, sadly, outright racist.  I am not suggesting that pandering to those tendencies should ever be considered.  However, reflecting on the Mickey Arthur experiment, I thought it was accepted that putting men in leadership positions where the cultures are not compatible, was not a good idea.

I’m not sure about the compatibility of Sri Lankan and Australia cultures.  I for one really like a good lamb biryani with some of that extra-long grain rice.  Perhaps it is more about choosing individuals who will mix well with the culture of the current team.  That is still an interesting point when it comes to Murali.

Over the years, there has been acrimony between the Australian public and Murali.  Or more correctly, the Australian public (and media) has directed quite some animosity towards Murali.  I don’t think it is accurate to say that Murali has retaliated or responded, except that he didn’t tour on one or two occasions.  That acrimony even extended to umpires and even the players.  Who could forget Darrell Hair and Ross Emerson’s confrontations with the Sri Lankans, Arjuna Ranatunga in particular, in the mid-nineties.  And the players had their share of troubles, too.  Ian Healy had one infamous run-in with Ranatunga (and his runner).  And I don’t know if he meant to pick a fight but some years later, Adam Gilchrist got into a lot of trouble for suggesting that Murali did chuck the odd delivery.  Not all of the incidents directly involved Murali but it seems that they were inflamed by an undercurrent of resentment over Murali’s questionable bowling action.  Of course, those questions were resolved in time because the ICC changed the rules of cricket to accommodate Muralidaran.

And now, Muthiah Muralidaran joins the Australian fold.  Is it a case of sleeping with the enemy or is it a piece of CA genius?  Shane Warne was the spin mentor on the recent tour of South Africa.  Will his nose be out of joint because his old rival has taken his place?  Was Warne offered the job?  Was he too busy commentating for the English summer?

It is not just Murali and the controversy that has surrounded him that is confounding.  One of the stated reasons for his recruitment is that Australia has no idea about the Doosra – how to bowl it, nor how to play it.  Given that Australian cricket has publicly stated that they are philosophically opposed to the Doosra because they question its legality, it adds to the surprise that they should employ the inventor of that delivery.

Reading the release from CA, I’m left wondering if Murali is to be the batting coach for playing spin bowling!  Now that makes quite some sense, except if you have witnessed Murali’s own batting style.  It was quite entertaining and at times briefly effective but you would not want to see the top six swinging in such a manner.  However, Australia’s last visit to play spin bowling on the subcontinent was a complete disaster.  They lost 4-0 to India just over a year ago.   Some of them are clueless against spin and getting some help to pick the trick balls (Doosra and Carrom) could be inspired.  This is what Murali himself is quoted as saying:

Ajmal is a difficult customer for all the best batsmen in the world, but he bowls a little bit similar to me so perhaps if I can bowl to the Australian batsman it might help a little bit and give them some tip.

After the initial shock, on reflection, I think Murali might fit on OK.  For starters, Darren Lehmann is happy about it.  And I think it is fair to day that the spin bowling and/or batting mentor does not have anywhere near the responsibility or influence of the head coach.  And what is more, Gilly says it is OK.  CA put Gilly’s tweet on their site (of course they did):

Inspired move by @CricketAus re Murali on board #AussieMurali Gotta keep to him @HomeOfCricket on July5, needs some tips myself #cantpickhim

And finally, Murali as a character has not really had issues with the Australian teams of the past.  Although his long career was embroiled in controversy over that bowling action,  throughout all of that, he kept a smile on his face, he avoided public acrimony (unlike his first skipper, Ranatunga) and he was always a fierce competitor.  He had the ability to stay focused on cricket when things off the field must have been hard.  Those are all qualities that would seem to sit well on someone joining not just the Australian cricket team but any sporting team.

The most gut wrenching DRS in history

The 1st Test between England and Sri Lanka seemed destined for a draw from the outset.  In the end, destiny had her way but not without some drama.  Sri Lanka held out for a draw, with just one wicket in hand but not before DRS intervened and indisputably altered the result of the match.

This Test ended up being one of those nailing biting thrillers.  True, it was not one of those truly close encounters where either side could win, when a tie was a possibility.  In this case only one side, England, could win but for Sri Lanka, a win would feel like a draw.

After a strong start by Sri Lanka on day 5 (they went well past one hundred before the second wicket fell), England made some quick break throughs.  Come the last hour, England still needed four wickets.  With 10 overs remaining, England still needed four wickets.  But they chipped away, and took further two wickets.

England started the final over needing two wickets for victory.  Stuart Broad dismissed Herath with the first ball of that over.  Interestingly, Herath did glove the ball but after his hand had left the bat.  Why he did not refer is anyone’s guess.  In fact, he walked.  Perhaps he doesn’t know the rules.

The new batsman, Pradeep, negotiated the next three balls without trouble.  On the penaultimate ball of the match, Pradeep was given out lbw.  England had snatched it out of the fire.  Or had they?  Paul Reiffel had made the decision without hesitation.  Perhaps ‘Pistol’ was a little quick to pull the trigger but I forgive a former Test bowler for giving a colleague an even break.  Or as it turned out, a more than even break.  Pradeep referred with confidence and the decision was overturned.  Pradeep had edged the ball into his pads.  Broad and England had to pick themselves up for one final effort.  The last ball resulted in one final climax: an outside edge falling just short of second slip.

It has been remarked upon plenty of times in the past that DRS can detract from the excitement of game in that bowlers and teams cannot get on with celebrating a wicket with peace of mind.  In this case it was not just a wicket but the match itself.  For a few seconds England had won and then they hadn’t.  But justice was done so that is better, isn’t it?  On the other hand, if there was no DRS, how would the Sri Lankans have felt if they had lost in such circumstances?  Would the game have escaped the inevitable racial tensions after a Caucasian umpire awarded the Anglo home side victory with an unfair decision?

I remember a few years back when the opposite problem occurred.  Australia lost by one wicket against India but had DRS been in use, they would have won a few balls earlier (when Billy Bowden refused to give an lbw).  But it does not seem to be the same thing.  In that case a non-decision saw the game continue to a different end.  No premature celebrations had to be curtailed.

It’s hard on England but they need to keep sight of the fact that it wasn’t out.  Ten years ago, they would have won the match but times are changing.  With the wonders of modern technology and because Sri Lanka had wisely conserved their referrals (maybe that explains Herath’s non-referral), the correct result was achieved.

While that match did not have a result, there were some good results for several individuals.  Sangakkara scored his first Test ton at Lords, as did Angelo Matthews, who scored his first century against England.  Gary Ballance scored his maiden ton and Joe Root cemented his place back in the team.  He was dropped, many argued quite harshly, for the final Ashes Test in Australia.  He has bounced back with his first double century.

It’s great to finally have some Test cricket again.

Gayle: A Force to be Reckoned With

One of the giants of modern West Indies cricket has just celebrated his hundredth Test match.  Well, he played his hundredth Test.  I’m not too sure that there was much celebrating.  The Kiwis have polished off the West Indies in that match, which somewhat put a dampener on the occasion for Chris Gayle.  In the past decade, the West Indies have had two batsmen who had stood out miles from the rest:  Chris Gayle and Shivnarine Chanderpaul.   While the diminutive Chanderpaul is harder to dislodge than a limit and often imitates a glacier, the mighty Gayle is at all times volcanic.

In an era when West Indian cricket has struggled, to say the least, Gayle has put together a career that has thrilled and impressed.  While 100 Tests is an impressive milestone, politics and injury have conspired to limit his Test match cricket in the past few years.  He may also have contributed to that somewhat himself.  While cashing in on IPL and T20 in general, he said that he didn’t care if Test cricket died!  The current Test match is just the ninth Gayle has played this decade – three and half years.  He played none in 2011, four each in 2012 and 2013 and this is his first for 2014.

In this hundredth Test match, Gayle has just edged past the 7000 run mark with his 35th half century.  He has scored 15 centuries and averages 42.  Included in those centuries are two triple hundreds.  He made 317 against South Africa in 2005 and 333 against Sri Lanka in 2010.  Gayle is one of only four players to score two triples (Bradman, Lara and Sehwag being the others).

Gayle also bowls useful finger spin and has a creditable 72 Test wickets, at an average of 42.

Gayle is big, loud and talks with his bat and his mouth.  And he is cool.  Way cool.  As cool as Michael Holding, I would say.  He is a marketer’s dream with the dreadies and swagger, not to mention his massive presence in the T20 game.  I don’t know whether he really hates Test cricket.  I hope not because he has played a lot of it and had many fine moments.

Sadly, as the West Indies have lost their cachet, their visits to Australia have become shorter and further apart.  Gone are the days of a five Test series every four years.  The Windies have not played a Test match in Australia since early 2009.  That is already more than five years  and there is nothing scheduled for 2015.  Who knows if Gayle will visit for Tests again?  At any rate, in 2009 Gayle came promising to deliver and after a shaky start, deliver he did.  In the 2nd Test in Adelaide, he scored a commanding 165 not out and in carrying the bat, saved the match.

In the 3rd Test at Perth he scored a blistering 102 from just 72 balls.  The West Indies ultimately lost that match by just 30 runs.

Looking through Gayle’s match listing, it has to be said he has struggled for consistency but I guess that is consistent with his playing style.  When he gets it right and finds himself in the zone he makes hay.  His first century came in his tenth Test match – 175 against Zimbabwe.  His second did not come for another 13 matches – 204 against New Zealand.  Get the picture?  And he fails a great deal.  He has made 15 ducks and in all, has been dismissed 44 times for less than ten runs in his 176 innings – 25% of visits to the crease.

I hope Gayle can play Test cricket for some time to come.  The West Indies need him  Chanderpaul needs him.  However, it seems more likely that he will be playing IPL and lots of other T20 leagues for far longer.