No Answers

As England stormed to a crushing win over Australia by 169 runs in the 1st Ashes Test of 2015, the question at the end was whether Mitchell Johnson would score a well-deserved, consolation century. As with all other questions of Australia, the answer was “no”. And now there are some off-field questions such as should Shane Watson (and others) play in the 2nd Test? You would have to venture that the answer should be the same as for poor old Johnson.

I don’t want to take anything away from England because they played well. They did not let Australia play well. The English bowling was ahead of the Australian bowling by many magnitudes. That was the difference. Last week, the Australian Cricket Podcast previewed the series and while they got many of the questions right, the analysis has thus-far proved wrong.

Two areas of focus were who would drop the most catches and who of the teams’ two premier batsmen (Steve Smith and Joe Root) would perform best. These two topics merged very early in the series – on the very first morning. While the panel predicted that the Poms would drop more catches, that has proved a moot point so far. On the whole, the catching in the 1st Test by both teams was exceptional. Some absolute screamers were taken and not much went down, with one very notable exception. The panel also suggested that while Root would do well, he probably wouldn’t average the 80 odd he has managed recently and that Steve Smith, while he might struggle in the English conditions, would prevail.

The pivotal moment of the Test and possibly the series was when England found themselves 3-43 with Mitchell Starc having found his direction  when finally presented with some right-handers. England’s best batsman was on strike and Starc had it swinging. After just surviving his first ball, Root edged the next and Haddin made a meal of the catch. While they all look easy from the armchair and I don’t say it was a regulation catch, it most certainly should have been taken. Haddin was wrong-footed because the ball had started to swing in, very late. However, it was very full and quite wide. The edge was almost a “squeeze” but Root got a top edge and the ball flew quickly to Haddin. Recovering from being wrong footed, he over corrected, dived to far and pretty much overshot the ball. That is how I saw it. That error saw Root make 134 instead of nought and obviously, England built their innings around him.

Another interesting discussion on the Podcast was which spinner – Lyon or Ali – would be best and if either would have an influence on the series. The verdict, although it was not unanimous was the Ali was unlikely to trouble Australia too much with fine players of spin in the side such as Warner, Clarke and Smith. Lyon did take six wickets to Ali’s five but it is ironic that Ali dismissed all of those three stated.

The Australian selectors now need to make a decision about the second Test. In 2005 and 2009, the flaws were overlooked for too long and replacements were not made. There has been vigorous discussion about the merits of Marshes versus versus Watson, Voges and Rogers. Interestingly, Haddin has never been in question even though if you look at his performances since the 2013-14 Ashes, he has done very little (and averaged well under 20 with the bat). He has been selected on memories. I think overlooking reality is mostly because Haddin is such a good bloke and a swashbuckling player to boot so nobody wants to criticise. Also interestingly, Peter Nevill is in the squad as understudy. It is true that there is a long history of two ‘keepers making Ashes tours but in recent time, when tours are shorter and there are very few County games, that practice has not been kept. Until now. I assumed this was done because Haddin is obviously near the end just based on age but perhaps the selectors envisaged a more immediate need. Now that Haddin has made such a palpable mistake it will be hard for him to escape notice.

I don’t think the selectors will panic but it will be interesting. My daughter and I during some moments of sleep-deprived, delirious grief could imagine Lehmann saying in the dressing rooms, “Right. Whoever didn’t play in this Test is playing next Test. Now take this revolver and silver bullet and we will work out who is missing out”.

Normal logic would say that Watson should be first to go. Rumour has it that he was selected for his bowling. Australia bowled 172 overs in the match of which Watson contributed just 13. That does not make any sense and I can only interpret that as a message from Michael Clarke. Mitchell Marsh heavily outscored Watson in the two warm-up games so that is one sort of logic. The other form is that Watson has lead a charmed life for a decade; a favoured existence. I don’t ever remember him being dropped on form. True, his injuries might have interfered with the process at times but I cannot remember him being let out when fit. There was that time when he was injured and became available for batting duties only and wasn’t wanted but that is not quite the same. Oh, and the homework but that is different also. If now is not the right time, when is?

But as I said, I don’t think the selectors will panic. I would expect one change but probably not two even though it could be easily justified. For the record, I would drop Watson and Haddin. It is common for teams to lose the first Test of an away series and the next match is at Lord’s. This ground is a traditional stronghold for Australia although not some much in recent years. I think Australia can bowl a lot better but if England keeps bowling at the same level, I don’t know who much Australia’s batting will improve. The 1st Test review will be interesting on the Podcast.

Pink Balls

Day/night Test cricket has been mooted for some time now and it’s finally coming. Australian and New Zealand cricket have set a date – 27 November 2015. Of course, Kerry Packer was holding Super Tests at night back in the late seventies so it’s hardly a new idea. But it is new for traditional Tests – white clothes and all. It is pretty well known that the pink Kookaburra will be used. Pink balls, albeit an earlier generation, were used in a round of Shield cricket last year. Interestingly, Starc says they don’t swing at night and Behrendorff says it swings like a banana so who knows?

I do want to point out that in the TV production, “Howzat – Kerry Packer’s War” there is a scene where they are trialing balls for night cricket. I just checked. They do try a pink ball and Chappelli gave it the thumbs down before going with the white. This masterpiece of tellie is based on a true story but I’m not sure if it is exactly a documentary so I can’t be sure it happened exactly like that.

I’m not an early adopter and I am also a traditionalist so it I’m not a big supporter of night Test cricket. However, I am looking forward to the trial in November – to see how it all goes. My main concern is that night cricket completely changes the conditions and that no matter how good the lights are, they cannot be as good as daylight. Test cricket is the pinnacle of cricket and it should have the best conditions.

I don’t buy into the concerns about records and needing new, or separate records for night Tests. Over the years, conditions have changed in many ways which makes it hard to compare from era to era but the statistics have never been separated. Over time the length of matches has changed, the length of overs and not to mention more material differences such as uncovered pitches and taking the new ball after 55 overs. But when you think about it, the ball itself has not changed much. Bats may have come into the 21st century but aside from the small concession of allowing machine stitching, the Test match six stitcher remains unchanged. Not anymore.

pink ball

pink ball

Rampaging Rhino Retires

Ryan Harris hung up his boots today. Some say it was a shock but really, there shouldn’t have been too much surprise. Harris has been a destructive strike bowler for Australia for the past five years and fans and officials alike were keen for him to make another comeback but at almost 36 years old, perhaps this was optimistic. Harris will be missed – both for his brilliant bowling and his friendly, no nonsense, humble outlook.

On the Australian Cricket Podcast last Thursday night, I said I wondered if Harris would be back at all. I wanted him back as much as anyone but you have to be realistic. Even before injury after the match against Kent, it was expecting a lot of him to come straight back into the team. He has always struggled with injury, is really rather old for a quick and has not played for six months. He has showed tremendous courage throughout his career but there are limits.

Harris had a shorter career than he might have expected in the beginning. He had already turned 30 before he made his Test debut. Harris started first class cricket way back in 2001/02 and his talent was recognized early. However, the injuries that plagued his Test career were not new. Those same injuries, particularly his knees, affected his entire career and delayed his entrance onto the big stage. Thank goodness he got there eventually and while he may not be up there in total wickets taken, his other figures are in the top deck. Test average: 23.52; Test strike rate: 50.7. To put things in perspective, that strike rate shades McGrath (51.9), Lillee (52.0) and Thommo (52.6) and the average beats all but McGrath. You have to look for someone like the incomparable Malcolm Marshall to find someone with a better strike rate (46.7).

Once Harris started his career, he took wickets in all types of conditions and was a formidable strike bowler. He was in and out due to injury and it was not until 2013 that he strung together four consecutive Tests. He was magnificent in a losing team in the 2013 Ashes. While Johnson stole the show in the Ashes down under, Harris played all five Tests and Harris and Johnson rivalled Lillee and Thomson in 1974-75. Rhino kept on going – 11 consecutive Tests – and took the final wicket, at the death, in an epic series win against South Africa.

There has been a lot of discussion on whether it is “Rhino” or “Ryno”. I’m going with “Rhino” because his self-titled autography is called “Rhino” (Hardie Grant Books, 2014). That’s pretty conclusive.

Harris finished with 113 Test wickets and to my knowledge never offended anyone and never acted like a goose, except perhaps for perhaps a rather innocuous, errant Tweet. Nobody is perfect. Oh, he didn’t mind having a dip with the bat and actually averaged 21.53 with three half centuries. Good luck in the future Rhino and thanks for the memories.

Harris warms up at the SCG, Jan 2014

Harris warms up at the SCG, Jan 2014

If Johnson don't get you, Harris must

If Johnson don’t get you, Harris must