Trouble on the Horizon for Clarke and CA

It has already been noted by many that the selection of Michael Clarke in Australia’s 15 man World Cup squad is problematic. The prospects of him being fit to take part in any significant part of the tournament and to remain fit and to perform at anything near his best is entirely unknown. Commonsense would say that the chances are low. The situation becomes sticky because Clarke and Cricket Australia seem to have different ideas on when deadlines should be imposed for Clarke to prove his fitness. This should not surprise anybody when we remember the nasty confrontation that was shaping up immediately before the tragic death of Phillip Hughes.

Immediately before Hughes’ injury and death, CA and Clarke were at odds over how he was to prove his fitness for the 1st Test. Cricket Australia, the selectors and Lehman were in agreement that Clarke needed to play at least a two day match to prove that he was ready. Clarke disagreed and was adamant that playing one day of a Sydney first grade match would be ample. It is widely accepted that situation was not going to end favourably for Clarke and that he was to be replaced with none other than Phillip Hughes in the 1st Test.

Of course, that all changed in a moment with the gut wrenching loss of Hughes in late November. Clarke showed outstanding leadership and deeply mortal qualities that won the support of the nation. In the wake of Hughes’ death, all cricket was cancelled in the lead up to the rescheduled 1st Test. Considering all of those factors and the grief and emotion, and given that Clarke could walk, allowing him to play and captain the team was the only choice. The serious tensions of the week before were rightly left aside. Clarke scored a century and Australia won. Clarke also proved that the selectors were right in suffering further injury on day one – an injury that ruled him out of cricket for a long time. Nothing was said at the time (like, “I told you so”) which was also tasteful.

However, those tragic circumstances have only deferred the inevitable. Clarke’s body is still broken, he and cricket authorities will be locking horns again in the near future. It is sad but unavoidable given Clarke’s attitude. I don’t see how a leader can think they can function above the rules and guidelines of the organization to which they belong. Players simply cannot be allowed to choose their own terms for inclusion. All international sportsmen desperately want to represent their countries whenever possible. This is why selection processes are objective and removed from conflict of interest.

No international sportsman likes to lose his place in a team whether because of injury or loss of form. Reinstatement is no certainty. This is particularly true of captains. Added to this situation is that the injury is serious and the absence extended. The stand-in captain had three whole Tests and won the hearts and admiration of all. He broke record after record and now this has spilled into the One Day spectrum. Steve Smith is a winner and has reached god-like status even more quickly than Clarke did. Furthermore, Clarke is naturally flamboyant and loves the limelight. That is his nature and it’s not necessarily a criticism but he must be finding the situation hard to take, happy as he no doubt is about the team’s success.

Michael Clarke was on his way to greatness by the end of 2011 but his team was lacking consistency as was he. Then 2012 saw his place beside the cricket gods confirmed when he started the year with a triple century, followed by three more doubles. By the end of 2012, Clarke’s stocks could go no higher but surely that did not place him ahead of the game. Surely, he still has to submit to the authorities that he serves.

In 2013 there was a downturn in Australia’s fortunes, playing nine consecutive Tests away without a single win. During this time occurred HomeworkGate and it was obvious that the team was in turmoil. Through all of that, Clarke was always impeccable in front of the media but I did wonder if he was at all times sincere. There was some evidence that he was not as Mickey Arthur, after his dismissal, produced a dossier that included claims that Clarke had called Watson a cancer on the team. This was despite Clarke’s assertions that all was well with him and Watto, even though Watto didn’t do his homework.

It was a shock move but a right one when Darren Lehmann unexpectedly replaced Mickey Arthur. His leadership turned things around and it would seem that he was a good mentor for Clarke and the team. The end of 2013 saw Australia sweep England aside to win the Ashes and all was well. At that time, Ricky Ponting released his autobiography just in time for Christmas. The most controversial part was his thoughts on the dressing room brawl with Simon Katich. In 2009, Clarke demanded that after victory against South Africa, that the team song be sung by a certain time and then wanted to leave when the deadline was not met. You can read my account of it here: Ponting may not have expressed himself as well as me but he expressed his concerns about Clarke at that time and wondered if he was ready to be captain. He came under heavy fire because criticism of Michael Clarke was simply not permitted. Ponting simply said that was in 2009, Clarke has come a long way since then but he stood by what he said at the time. I agreed with Ponting and was glad for the correlation as I had just published my book where I said:

Pup – and it seems “Pup” is an appropriate name – was more interested in meeting his fancy, high maintenance, Prada-wearing girl, to jump into the $300,000 car and high tail it to the nearest happening night club and be seen with the A crowd, than celebrating correctly with his team mates. Maybe he should move to America. Perhaps you might think that five hours is long enough to party with the team. Perhaps it is. Mike Hussey’s other half may have been on the other side of the country (or not – how should I know?) but the fact is that he is named Mr Cricket, he gets to choose when the song is sung. Any insubordinate upstart who wants to challenge that should be kicked out of the herd. They certainly should not be allowed to be vice captain (or stand in captain). Being at the top in any area requires sacrifice.

Clarke did turn it around and losing Lara Bingle was a good move. He has become a great batsman and a good captain but he’s not perfect. And he certainly isn’t above the game itself although it must be hard to feel that way with so many worshippers. I found his stint with Channel 9 during his injury worrying. I have at times over the years felt uncomfortable when great players retire and are rushed into the commentary chair to analyse and criticise players that were recently their peers. So much more so when Clarke hopes to rejoin the players who are coming under his scrutiny. It seemed to me ill-advised and just not cricket.

But is this symptomatic of the age? Image does appear important to Clarke. Marketing and exposure are important. I’m sure that his agents are looking after his financial interests. Does all of this make it difficult for Clarke to hold the cricket authorities in the correct respect?  And we must remember that Clarke is gen Y which might also account for some of his behaviour.

Ultimately, if Clarke does not submit and go along with whatever decision is made, he is going to create turmoil for himself and his team. This might come during the World Cup and may have negative consequences. And that might extend to the longer process of reshaping the team over the next two years. I hope Clarke is part of that but it has to be on terms of Australian cricket, not his own.

AB Breaks the Sound Barrier

The world’s best batsman, AB de Villiers has smashed an astonishing century at Johannesburg against the West Indies. AB took just 31 balls to raise three figures, eclipsing the previous record of 36 balls, held by Corey Anderson. AB continued to 149 from just 44 balls. This is a stunning scoring rate of 338.63.

For de Villiers, this was an innings of records, some of which may not be broken for a long time. Record number one was the fastest 50 – from just 16 deliveries, breaking Jayasuriya’s 19 year old record. Then the century, of course. Corey Anderson’s record was just over a year old, but before that, Afridi’s 37 ball record had stood for over 17 years. The point I am making is that AB was breaking records that had stood for a long time, and he broke them by a long way. Five balls might not sound much but it is a 14% reduction. It would be like breaking the 100m sprint record by 1.4 seconds – an unthinkable margin. When Rohit Sharma scored 264 recently, I remarked that he had done a ‘Bob Beamon’ and set a landmark that would last for a very long time. That holds equally for this innings by de Villiers which even has the high altitude to go with it.

And finally, de Villiers hit 16 sixes, equaling Sharma’s record, set during his innings of 209.  That is 16 sixes in 44 balls or expressed another way: 36% of balls received disappeared over the fence. And of course, if AB had scored just one more run, he would have broker Watson’s fastest 150 record by about 35 deliveries. What more can be said?  Will we see the same scoring in the World Cup Down Under, at sea level, on full-sized grounds?

Spidercam Stymies Superman

On a day when wickets were crucial, in a Test where wickets have been hard to come by, Australia’s own Superman dropped what should have been a simple catch. Steve Smith, who is regarded as a wonderful fieldsman, ran back from first slip to take a skied pull shot. He seemed to have trouble picking up the ball, held his hand up apparently to shield his eyes from the sun, circled, lunged and grassed the chance. Rahul was on 46 at the time and went on to make 110. Another dropped catch, another century. However, it quickly emerged that the sun was not the only thing providing a challenge to Steve Smith as Spidercam became the villain.

It is not yet clear exactly what the role of Spidercam was in the dropped catch. Channel 9 was quick to confirm that the ball did not hit the camera or the cables. But that’s a bit like the power company’s doctor telling you that there is no hexavalent chromium in the water, isn’t it?  What else are they going to say?  It appears that one of Spidercam’s cables put Smith off (and perhaps also the sun) and that is very believable. Spidercam was badly positioned at the time – it was lowish over the wicketkeeper’s head. And if the ball was coming down near a cable, that would be off-putting. Having you ever tried taking a backyard cricket catch under the clothes line?

I don’t like Spidercam and never have. I think it is an eyesore. I don’t think it belongs in Test cricket. I understand the need for innovation and that making use of technology to improve television broadcasts is expected. Perhaps I am being precious but I find Spidercam invasive and a distraction when at the ground. As a spectator, I don’t like having the camera and the cables moving around in my direct and peripheral vision. I sat in a few places around the ground in the past few days and Spidercam affects the view from above more than below. From the concourse, it is less noticeable. From the top of the new stands, it is quite often below eye level and is really annoying.

The aesthetics of the ground are compromised by Spidercam. I have had many a photo spoiled by Spidercam. It’s unnatural when an object appears where no object should be. Just this morning, I was taking a shot of the ground from high up (I was in the top of the new Bradman stand), getting the Jane McGrath banner and the Members pavilions. I was happy with the shot when my daughter pointed out that nosey old Spidercam was sitting in the middle of it. I wished I was Inspector Gadget and could reach out my rubbery arms and snip the pesky cables. Call me fussy but I don’t like even seeing its shadow on the ground.

I think Spidercam is fine for T20 and goes well with on-field players being miked, Freddie Flintoff commentating his own shots, trampoline artists, and flame throwers. However, Test cricket is a game of tradition and I think it might be spared from Spidercam. And that is just from the spectators’ perspective. The players must often be affected by it to some degree and in today’s case, Steve Smith was interfered with enough to have it removed, I think.

But at least this provided some excitement and a talking point. Another talking point but not a cause for excitement, is the drop-in pitches. Australia bowled with far more discipline than India and should have had both centurions out before they were 60 (could you believe that Smith also dropped Kohli when he was on 59?) but wickets were hard to come by, as they were for the last 8 days of the series. The drop-in pitches provided for the Melbourne and Sydney Tests have been far too friendly for the batsmen and have not been good for the game. That being said, if sides bowl well and hold their catches, results can still be achieved. The Australians have blown their chances in Melbourne and Sydney – four centuries have been scored after batsmen have given very catchable chances.

I have done my stint at the SCG for this Test and will be following the rest on radio and TV from up north. However, I hold little hope of a result being achieved even though India has still not avoided the follow on.

Spidercam escorts Supeman and Watson from the field

Spidercam escorts Supeman and Watson from the field

Spidercam watches the drinks break

Spidercam watches the drinks break

Jane McGrath day - spot Spidercam and his shadow

Jane McGrath day – spot Spidercam and his shadow

Kane gives Sri Lanka some Stick

The New Zealand Black Caps had a very successful 2014 but their first Test in 2015 was on the precipice with five second wickets down. Having trailed Sri Lanka by 135 on the first innings, the fifth New Zealand second innings wicket fell with a lead of just 24. But incredibly, the Kiwis declared late on day four, still five wickets down, setting Sri Lanka 390 for victory.

Kane Williamson (242*) and BJ Watling (142*) shared an unbeaten partnership of 365 to well and truly save the day. This set a new all time record for 6th wicket Test partnerships, beating the 352 set just three years ago by McCullum and Watling at the same ground. And while this was a world beating partnership, it has been a match and series of heroic innings. In Sri Lanka’s first innings, the evergreen Sangakkara scored 203 out of 356. The next best was 67 and then 16. And in the 1st Test, Brendan McCullum scored a sizzling 195 from just 134 balls. It was a great shame that he did not score another 5 runs. He is already fourth on the list of fastest Test double hundreds with a 186 ball effort just a month prior and he would have bumped himself to fifth and Nathan Astle to second. He also would have  been just the second batsman beside Michael Clarke to score four double centuries in a calendar year. But it was not to be and I think that it is a pity. At any rate, New Zealand won that Test and now look to have secured the series.

Meanwhile, I went to day one of the 4th Test between Australia and India. It was a perfect day at the SCG and even though the Australians scored heavily and entertained, there was a certain spark missing in the match. I guess it is another featherbed pitch but the Indians certainly do not appear to have their hearts in it. They dropped more catches than they held and the ground fielding was horrible. The score is 2-348. One oddity was that at one point, India looked like they would bowl more than 90 overs in the allotted six hours. However, predictably, they crawled through the last hour ensuring that they did not need to bowl any more than deliveries than necessary. Oh, and they did not bowl a single no ball all day.

I will return tomorrow to see if Steve Smith can score a century in all Tests of a four Test series. Has that been achieved before?  He is on 82 and looking wonderful, as usual.