Boxing Clever

Christmas Day for a cricket fan is one where the festivities of the season take place with a note in the back of the mind that there is Test cricket to watch later. This year we were rather spoiled, with three Boxing Day Tests scheduled, rather than the one (plus random ODIs or T20s) that has been more common in recent years.

Hagley Oval was the gorgeous sight it always is, perhaps the most welcome addition to the Test roster anywhere in the world. New Zealand appear to have got their venues spot on in recent times, a focus on smaller dedicated cricket grounds that fill, rather than the vast multi-purpose arenas that looked deserted even if there is a vaguely healthy attendance. Of course, in Christchurch there are specific circumstances rooted in natural disaster, but New Zealand cricket deserves praise for turning this into a positive, and in this instance building a ground that every lover of the game wishes to visit.

Perhaps surprisingly after a first day where 14 wickets fell on a very green surface, it made it to the fifth day, albeit the outcome was in little doubt by the third, but Sri Lanka showed some fight in the final innings, despite being doomed long in advance.

In all three matches, the quality of the pitches was an issue, certainly at Centurion which remained bowler friendly throughout, to the advantage of the hosts whose pace attack took full advantage.

At the MCG, another turgid surface led to two days of grind, and rapid deterioration thereafter. Winning the toss was the key to winning that one, and the self-inflicted wound under which Australian cricket currently operates was highlighted in their batting in both innings, but perhaps also in their bowling, which has become oddly ineffective with the old ball in recent times. People can draw their own conclusions on that one, and probably will.

Australia were well beaten in the end, and can at best draw the series. They are a team with problems in batting depth, as any side where a 35 year old is still an unproven performer would be.

Smith and Warner are due to return for the Ashes, and there seems little doubt that whatever the problems of re-integration, they will be selected simply because of the fragility of Australia’s batting. This makes the continued blame game intriguing, as Warner continues to be portrayed as the evil genius taking advantage of naive young players with no one else involved. Cameron Bancroft’s recent interview claiming he did it to fit in is an abrogation of the responsibilities of any player, who is, and should be, more than aware of the difference between right and wrong. If he hoped to garner sympathy, it appears to have backfired.

Equally, the idea that the rest of the team and staff were oblivious remains as preposterous now as it was at the time. The crime itself wasn’t the issue, players have always sought an advantage. The brazenness with which it was carried out was remarkably stupid, the claims of innocence elsewhere, especially among the bowlers, implausible. The idea they neither noticed the condition of the ball nor cared what the batsmen were up to with it ridiculous. It shouldn’t matter, except to say that the discussions post-Bancroft remarks about team culture have all failed to consider this element – faux innocence, back-stabbing and finger pointing are at least as damaging to unity as anything else.

How Warner responds to being portrayed as the arch plotter will be fascinating, for England fans in the crowd will be unforgiving in the summer, creating what could prove to be an entertaining sub-plot to proceedings.

The New Year’s Honours List appointed Alastair Cook a knight of the realm, perhaps the ultimate vindication of being part of the establishment. The response to this has been interesting, the delight in some quarters that their man has got his dues, the bewilderment in others that a 34 year old gets such an award so quickly perhaps being the biggest response. It doesn’t really matter overly, whether for or against it, but it does seem remarkably early given it took Ian Botham until his fifties and a lot of charity fundraising to get the same. Presumably James Anderson will get the same upon his retirement, for if he doesn’t, it will smack of double standards, not for the first time.

Perhaps more than anything it demonstrates grade inflation in sporting honours, Andy Murray receiving his while still playing at the highest level. Anyone can point to oversights in the past, but one favourite for me has always been the lack of one for John Surtees, the holder of a truly unique record in being the only man to win world titles on both two and four wheels.

I can’t get that cross about the whole thing, it’s more amusement at the sense of vindication and the sheer tribalism of it all.

And so we move into 2019. First on the agenda for England is a trip to the West Indies, and yours truly will be heading over to Antigua for the second Test. I’m sure the England team can’t wait. After that, a busy summer awaits, with a home World Cup and (another) Ashes series.

A final word. The Christmas period brought the terrible news that Ruth Strauss had passed away. Nothing brings home the pettiness of cricketing squabbles so clearly as human tragedy. Expressing condolences feels so empty and meaningless, yet it’s all we can ever do.

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