28th December Cricket

West Indies resume on 91/6 and look absolutely doomed, trailing Australia by the width of the Pacific Ocean

South Africa resume on 137/6, 166 runs behind England with Dean Elgar on 67* and the tail tantalisingly close

Two contrasting tests, but worrying noises coming from each of them. The action in Melbourne is sadly predicatable. Australia’s top order made hay, compiling four centuries, and then routed the top order. I’ve seen a lot of comparisons to Bangladesh here, but this is more worrying than that. The decline is precipitous. There are good players here, playing incredibly badly. Samuels is no muppet but is playing like one. The bowling isn’t great, but it isn’t these record partnership or appalling scores bad. What is going on here? I’d be dead surprised if, on waking up tomorrow morning, this game isn’t over. It would take a resistance not seen thus far. Here’s hoping, but this lot look shot. That’s shot.

Meanwhile in Durban there are worrying noises about AB and Steyn packing it in after this series. AB is 32 in February. He’s brought so much joy to us in the past couple of years in particular. He’s the little guy who can do unbelievable things. If he is to retire to the circus of T20 and ODI, I fear for tests. The story reportedly is being denied, but would you think it is outside the bounds of possibility?

TLG has done his thing below – if you haven’t read his round-up, please do – but I’d add a little comment on Dean Elgar. His innings has been incredibly important, and looks even mores so given the travails of two of the home team’s rocks – Amla looks a pale shadow of the colossus of three years ago, and Du Plessis is so far adrift, he could be disappearing over the horizon. Elgar, unheralded, largely unloved and certainly not one for the purists has grafted, had some luck, but is still there. He’s scored at a pacier clip than Compton who has come under some stick from many quarters, but is doing much the same job.

This test is a slow burner, but you must praise the way Stuart Broad has bowled. Now the brains of the outfit has little time for us bloggers, but we aren’t all bad, and his dismissal of AB was a work of beauty. I could almost hear Glenn Gregory’s most famous concentration as the leg cutter induced AB to poke his bat out to it, and the nick might have sealed South Africa’s fate. Elgar and Bavuma resume tomorrow with the hopes of the Proteas on their shoulders. After these two, there’s Duminy and the bowlers. This could get ugly, this could get decent. As TLG says, that’s why we watch test match cricket.

The next Dmitri Award post will be up on the blog during the day (I have two more on the stocks), and TLG will be on day review duty. Keep the comments coming.

Almost forgot, there’s an ODI too in New Zealand. Sri Lanka have won the toss and are batting.

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South Africa v England: 1st Test, day two

The trouble with the first couple of days of Test matches is that much of the time every observation is couched in maybes, might bes and possiblys. There are exceptions of course, the slaughter taking place in Melbourne has few uncertainties beyond wondering whether Australia will win by hundreds or an innings and hundreds. 

At Kingsmead in contrast, it’s very much in the balance, as Test matches should be at this stage. In your classic Test story, the first two days are feeling each other out, while day three is moving day, and day four is finding out if the team on the rough end of day three will fight back. Day five of course being the result day. 

So at least thus far this Test is following the perfect script. If the first day was even, it’s hard not to feel the second day deserves exactly the same epithet.   And yet England probably should be the happier; they had the clear worst of the conditions on the first day, yet survived it, and in less bowler friendly conditions on day two removed four top order players. 

Against that it must be said that the way England’s innings fell away from a position of promise will – or should – deeply irritate the team, and it’s hardly the first time it’s happened in recent years anyway. 

Nick Compton held the innings together, his 85 of obdurate defence would have received much greater plaudits from certain quarters had it come from another obdurate player in the England side, which says more about those offering the praise than anything else – Compton was excellent and was the primary reason England made a competitive score. Bairstow’s breezy 41 briefly arrested the decline of the innings, while Broad, who appears to have at least partially rediscovered his batting mojo, provided much needed runs at the end to get England over 300.

In this calendar year, Broad has over 50 Test wickets at an average of 24. And yet he remains in at least some quarters a prophet who is not honoured in his own land. His record over the last few years is excellent, sufficiently so that he was pretty much the only player to come out of the Ashes disaster of 13/14 with any dignity left intact. For some reason he still faces constant criticism. 

Certainly here his wicket in the first over was one that would give opening batsman nightmares – the last thing you want to see is the ball arrowing back into off stump when you don’t want to play, likewise Hashim Amla, out of form or not, could have done little with the one that caused his downfall.

And so to that moving day mentioned earlier. In which direction? Who knows. That’s why when Test cricket is at it best, we watch. 

2015 Dmitri #5 – Steve Smith

Note – this was written before Christmas.

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Dmitri Number Five celebrates an overseas cricketer who made an impact on me this year. There were a number, including Kane Williamson, who has had an amazing year by anyone’s standards, AB DeVillers for the sheer verve of his batting and the skills he brings, and given my love of West Indian cricket, I was particularly pleased to see Jason Holder’s maiden test hundred, although the body and weight of his work has a long way to go to match those above.

However, I have to give this Dmitri to Steve Smith. On a personal level, I was there when he completed his double hundred at Lord’s, so in that sense his batting had a direct impact on me, but also the fact that he would deliver regularly for his team, including the greatness of scoring a 199! He scores quickly, with a hand-eye co-ordination to die for, despite having a technique only his mother could love. He has taken over the Australian captaincy without missing a beat, being the key man to dismiss and with a steely ruthlessness that our own Iron Man can only envy.

This won’t be a long piece. Smith is accused of being a bit flaky outside off stump, and has attracted the ire of some of our press corps already. Many of them committed Smith to the dustbin of irrelevance as the Aussies picked him in the fateful 2010/11 Ashes team, where he was derided for a poor technique and seen as being more there for his leg spin bowling. In 2013 he made his first hundred at The Oval, having made an important score at Old Trafford in support of Michael Clarke. In the following series he was also there to make crucial hundreds to win test matches, a very decent habit he gets himself in to. The double at Lord’s this time around, and his hundred at The Oval were key in winning both games. In between that he feasted on Indian bowling in the last test series, had a decent World Cup, took major runs off South Africa in their last ODI series and became Australia’s main man.

There was a large groundswell of support from certain sites and Twitter personalities for Smith that, frankly, I didn’t get. Probably not hipster enough. But his performances this year have been exciting, mountainous, and combined with the captaincy, inspirational. We may not take too kindly to some of his mannerisms – he is quite abrasive, it seems, as captain as evidenced by the Stokes incident – but he’s a fine player who played for the World Champions. Congratulations came from many quarters as he won the ICC Player of the Year award. This pales into insignificance compared to a Dmitri, I know.

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Two Dmitris in One Shot

Let me explain, just for the record, that I’m not measuring the greatest performances, but someone who impacted on me the most. Many will say Kane Williamson, and they would not be wrong, but Smith’s reaction to and performances after the Philip Hughes tragedy, and the way he’s gone about his business since swayed me. Kane’s century last weekend made the decision tighter, but I’d already made up my mind. Steve Smith gets the second International Dmitri Award, following Brendon McCullum.

After I wrote this piece, Smith moved to the top of the run-scoring charts for the calendar year with a candy-from-a-baby hundred against West Indies. Redemption for the selection!