Sympathy For The Devil

David Warner is a massively unlikable person. He’s violent. He’s aggressive and insulting. He’s a cheat. Perhaps worst of all, he’s a hypocrite. It has been pretty amusing to several outside observers, including myself, how his past words and actions in this South Africa series have come back to bite him.

And so, with all of this baggage, it’s somewhat remarkable that Cricket Australia’s actions have led me to feel at least some small measure of sympathy for him. Obviously not much, but arguably a lot more than he otherwise deserves.

Warner was neither directly responsible for the ball tampering nor the man in charge. He hasn’t received any punishment from the ICC, unlike Steve Smith and Cameron Bancroft. He is, however, unpopular in the Australian dressing room and in the international cricket press. Even a large portion of the team’s own supporters have tired of his antics, stereotypically Australian thought they might have been. In other words, he is an ideal scapegoat.

Bad Timing

It seems fair to say that the harsh punishments meted out to the ‘Sandpaper 3’ has more to do with Cricket Australia’s financial position than any kind of ethical stance. Within a few days of the ball tampering incident, which itself came after a series of unflattering stories involving Warner earlier in the series, the Australian Test series sponsor pulled out of their agreement. This action potentially costs CA $20m over the next three years. Even more importantly, this winter (at least for those in the wrong hemisphere) was also meant to be the time when new TV deals for Australian cricket were meant to be struck.

Immediately after the Ashes series, Cricket Australia were reportedly expecting to receive $1bn (Aus) over five years for the rights to show Australian cricket on the TV and streaming. That’s equivalent to £550m, or £110m per year. That’s quite a large deal considering that the ECB’s current TV deal up to 2019 was only for £75m a year, in a country with almost three times the population of Australia and where (unlike Australia) no cricket is shown on free-to-air TV.

Except now, with a cricket scandal on the front and back pages of every Australian newspaper, a deal that big seems some way away. Cricket boards have swept most indiscretions and wrongdoing under the carpet or given extraordinarily light punishments. Examples include racial abuse, talking to bookies, touring Apartheid South Africa and instigating what Richie Benaud described as “one of the worst things I have ever seen done on a cricket field.” And that’s just the rap sheet for Cricket Australia’s four-man selection panel. What they won’t forgive is costing them money. Potentially hundreds of millions of dollars, in this case.

In order to bring the story under control, Cricket Australia felt they had to draw a line under it with swift and severe punishments for all involved. Which brings us to the second aspect of unfortunate timing. The incident happened at the end of the Australian cricket season. This meant that any ban shorter than eight or nine months would involve the players missing no cricket in Australia whatsoever. This would seem lenient to some, which CA couldn’t abide.

Had the incident happened in September, three or six month bans would have suited everyone. The baying Australian public would have their pound of flesh and the players would have received punishments vaguely proportional to their ‘crimes’. As it is, two players being banned for a year seems ludicrously long and punitive.

“Fronting Up”

“Full credit to Steve Smith & Cam Bancroft for fronting up and admitting what they tried to do .. I know many teams and individuals who would have gone hiding .. it still doesn’t brush it away but at least they faced the music .. – Michael Vaughan.

Immediately after the press conference at the end of play in Cape Town, where Smith and Bancroft confessed to ball tampering, Michael Vaughan posted this tweet. The responses to it weren’t flattering to him or the Australians, and so he quickly deleted it and posted a new tweet with an almost 180 degree turn in viewpoint.

Apart from demonstrating Vaughan’s propensity to latch onto anything which he thinks will be popular and dumping it just as quickly, it also shows the way in which Steve Smith and Cameron Bancroft are being separated from David Warner in the press. Numerous press reports (particularly from the one-eyed Australian journalists who wind us up so much) praise Smith and Bancroft for being honest, sincere, apologetic and so on. The same writers call Warner evasive, insincere and repetitive.

Even Cricket Australia are in on it. If you look at their videos on YouTube, they have Smith and Warner’s tearful press conferences. If you look at the titles, they are “Smith breaks down during emotional press conference” and ” Warner apologises but leaves out the detail”. Clearly CA have picked their scapegoat.

The reason why this division amuses me, other than the simple pleasure of watching the mindlessly aggressive Aussies attacking a kindred spirit in Warner just because it suits their agenda, is that Smith and Bancroft are the only ones who have definitely lied during this whole saga. First they denied everything to the on-field umpires, then told the press at the end of play that it involved “players and the leadership group” and used sticky tape. Finally, they told Cricket Australia’s investigators that it was just the three players involved, and a strip of sandpaper.

Even in their latest press conferences, there are discrepancies between Smith’s and Bancroft’s stories. Compare their answers when asked if it was the only time Australia had cheated. Steve Smith stated categorically that “To my knowledge, this has never happened before. This is the first time I’ve seen this happen, and I can assure you it will never happen again.” Cameron Bancroft gives a much more specific denial, “I have never ever been involved in tampering the ball. It completely compromises my values and what I stand for as a player and as a person.

On the other hand, David Warner has apparently chosen not to lie. For example, when Warner was asked at his press conference whether anyone else was involved his response was this: “I’m here today to accept my responsibility for my part in my involvement in what happened in Cape Town.” A clear non-answer, but also not a lie.

I would argue that part of the reason Dave Warner is being hung out to dry is that he isn’t giving the Australian press the answers they, and Cricket Australia, want to hear. “It was an isolated incident.” “It has never happened before.” “It was just three people.” No one in Australia’s cricketing establishment wants the scandal to widen, and Warner isn’t helping that cause by pleading the fifth whenever these questions come up.

This leads the press the declare that he has an ulterior motive, such as a $1m tell-all TV interview. Whilst I wouldn’t begrudge him that after this incident, especially considering the fairly high chance he won’t play for Australia again, the truth is that he might be the only player in the Australian team who hasn’t implicated someone else in the investigation. He appears to want to protect the team and his former teammates, even after they cast him as their scapegoat.

So Steve Smith, being the first one to cry and telling what are almost certainly lies, is credited with being emotional and honest. 25-year-old Cameron Bancroft is the young, impressionable victim of the senior player’s evil plans. Mohammad Amir without the great hair, essentially. Both of them are already rehabilitated in many people’s eyes, and ready to come back and represent Australia. And David Warner is the villain, who led the other two astray and is now trying to profit from the situation. Except without actually profiting from the situation in any way.

All of which is to say that I feel sympathetic for Warner in this specific circumstance. I wouldn’t be shedding any tears if he had been banned for a year (or longer) because of the other stuff he’s done. The fights, the insults, the send offs, and quite possibly tampering the ball himself. But he wasn’t. If anything, he was encouraged to do all of that even more by being rewarded with the vice captaincy. If he was a bad influence on others, it’s only because Cricket Australia allowed it. Welcomed it even.

I believe that allowing the blame to fall almost entirely on Warner, as appears to be the case in the Aussie media, is unfair and unjust. “Team culture” is defined by what the people in charge allow and clamp down on. For example, in England’s dressing room any kind of dissent is stamped down on immediately. It’s not right, but it is a vivid example of the amount of control administrators exert on a team. Cricket Australia have allowed their national team to become bullies and cheats, and it’s a little late to blame it on ‘one bad apple’. They did this.

As always, feel free to comment below.

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A Good Weekend To Bury A Bad Result

Good day to you. It’s test losing day on Being Outside Cricket, and we know what that means. Rancour. Introspection. Anger. Despair. Ambivalence. Wait. Not ambivalence. That never happens here. Imagine what it would be like if this were the Ashes! Instead of that anger, we are probably all still too busy laughing over the other events. No, not Afghanistan winning the World Cup qualifying, or the news Varun Arron is going to play for Leicestershire. But worrying about whether Malcolm Conn is OK. Australia Fair indeed. We’ll come to that.

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Lord Save Me…. Oh, You’ve Got It On Tape?

To England first. Another defeat by an innings away from home, as they came within 20 or so overs of forcing the draw their first innings of 58 didn’t deserve. There were half centuries in the innings for Stoneman, Root, Stokes and Woakes, but none went on to the big century or the 250 ball stay that the situation was going to require. It was certainly a better effort, and survival until later than we probably expected, but it was still very disappointing. England’s record away from home is abominable, and the excuse that no-one is winning really doesn’t wash. India, for example, went to South Africa, lost 2-1, but were competitive all the way. Australia have been pretty competitive in South Africa too (more of that later). We fold like a cheap suit, and it’s not good enough.

But that is the easy bit. Identifying the issue is a bit like identifying why Monday and the horrors of commuting, has to follow Sunday and the relative pleasures of sitting at home watching the Australian media drown in hubris. It just happens (God, that was a bad juxtaposition – Ted Dexter will be after me). Why it happens needs some more deep seated, probably psychological analysis. How has Joe Root stopped getting to 100 in test matches? Why does Stoneman look like a test opener, and then looks so out of his depth? Why does Alastair Cook do “it” so rarely in match saving situations? Why is it just absolutely bleeding obvious that Stokes is worth his place as a batsman alone when he is clearly carrying a back injury? Will Bairstow ever be consistent with the bat while he has wicket-keeping duties? What the bloody hell has happened to Moeen Ali? Is it a measure of our desperation that Dawid Malan’s form is going to be more John Crawley than Graham Thorpe? When will Stuart Broad bowl another one of “those” spells? Would Woakes be in the team if he couldn’t bat? What’s James Vince doing there? What’s Liam Livingstone doing there? What’s Jimmy Anderson really offering these days? Why did Craig Overton have to spoil it all? It’s like an episode of SOAP.

England started the day three down, and didn’t have to wait long to be four down after Malan nicked to Latham at second slip with 10 runs added to the overnight score. Stokes settled in for a decent bat, and Bairstow joined him, which you sensed needed to last well into the second session to give England an earthly. 20 overs of denial, especially from Stokes, followed, but Astle got the England keeper who pulled a long hop to mid-wicket to give the hosts their fifth wicket. England could probably have lost one wicket in the first session, at worst two, but it became three on the stroke of tea when Mooen succumbed, and for all intents and purposes, England had too.

Woakes and Stokes put up a long spell of resistance throughout the second session, and hope started to rise. But this England team have become specialists in hope rising only to be disappointed, and although I’ve not seen it yet, it is the dismissal of Ben Stokes that has the tongues wagging, or keyboard fingers itching, on social media. Another gift wicket, another at the interval, and another hammer blow. He may have made 66, and we are great at having a go at the contributors rather than those who flop, but one wonders just how much more vehement a KP or Ian Bell dismissal in those circumstances might have been treated by the press.

300 for 7 at dinner, England fought gamely for another hour or so, with Woakes completing a half century, but the game was up. When Anderson lofted tamely to end the innings, England had been beaten by an innings.

I know a number of you, including those who don’t comment on here, made/make a bee-line for the site when we lose. They seem to like our sense of anger, our dismay that this is going on, that somehow, if only we’d done things better we might have won. I would normally go off the deep end, usually going at members of the media not giving it to us straight, the ECB pulling the wool over gullible eyes or some other matter that would get the rage machine firing.

Not today.

This England team are now in the laughing at them stage, as I said after the 58. For a team mollycoddled and given all the support staff and encouragement they need, they under-perform mightily. Or do they? Is this, whisper it, our standard for the foreseeable future? Half decent home, half a team away? There is no sense of anger here, because even some of the media cheerleaders have given up, thrown their hands up in the air, and just accepted it. Sure, they’ll give some big and mighty words, but they don’t mean it. That the selection of James Vince did not have them screaming blue murder showed that. A selection to be laughed at, was one to be ignored, by and large. I don’t sense anger from the fans, I don’t sense anger from bloggers and I certainly don’t sense it from Strauss, Harrison and Graves. England writers, one senses, are only conceding test cricket is in trouble because England test cricket is. There is so much to put right, you don’t know where to start. There are so few solutions, one senses it is going to take luck to find them. I don’t think there’s much upside at the moment because batsmen seem incapable of making very big scores on a regular basis, and our bowlers don’t look like bowling teams out overseas. That’s a combination.

But the best thing about this loss is when it happened. It happened on a weekend when our best of enemies decided to have a meltdown. Many hundreds of thousands of words have been written, but if I may, could I be permitted to give you some more…

First, one of the fascinating things was watching the scandal develop. There was the press conference. As soon as Smith announced he was part of the group responsible I tweeted “he has to be sacked as captain”. There were some out there who thought this was because of ball tampering – it wasn’t, it was because he was admitting a conspiracy and you can’t have that. After all, you can’t even text your mates in the opposition these days.

But the Aussie journalists at the ground seemed strangely reticent. Indeed Peter Lalor praised the two for confessing and fronting up. At this time Australians would mostly have been asleep, and I was waiting for the Sydney / Melbourne boys to wake up. Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, Brisbane Courier-Mail all seemed quiet. Then Michael Clarke woke up, tweeted, got dressed and let fly. Fox Australia let them have it with both barrels and the floodgates opened. It didn’t take long for a tsunami of hand-wringing, a flood of self-loathing and some good old scapegoating of the present for past sins and we had ourselves a full blown meltdown. I’ve seen this happen before, and it never gets less dull watching it. By the end of the Aussie day we are seeing mentions of life bans, every Aussie and his/her pet koala having a say, and proportion and perspective abandoned for the immediate future. How could they? How very dare they?

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Him, Or Me. Australia decide…..

The second is something that might strike you odd. I loathe Australia as a cricket team, but I love watching them play. The male equivalent of treat ‘em mean, keep ‘em keen. You want them to lose, but you want them to lose with them playing hard and keeping the winning team on their toes. It’s why I will always love 2005 over 2011. So I think we need a strong Australia in test cricket, because we need a great rival that over time has been better than us. Their late 90s, early 2000s team had sanctimony by the bucketful, cheating (in its widest sense) down to an art. We, well I, secretly loved them for it. Every action movie has a baddie. The fact is Australia genuinely never saw themselves as the bad guys. They were, it seems, utterly convinced they were the pinnacle not just in achievement, but in attitude and fair play. Every piece this weekend, will nearly every, seems to take this line. There was a running joke between me and my mate Adelaide Exile about Gilchrist’s selective sportsmanship, but now Adam is seen as a paragon of virtue. I’ve seen it suggested that Ricky Ponting come back to instil Aussie values, which I presume including haranguing umpires if he doesn’t agree with decisions, and screaming at visiting coaches (and I love, almost unhealthily, Ricky as a pundit). I think I speak for many when I am amazed they think this way. This isn’t me putting my lot on a pedestal. How the hell can I with our vile governing body, a director who called his former star player a c***, a team for many years hated by match officials every bit as much as this Aussie team is now, it seems. We are laughing at you Australia. Stop it. We know you are upset. Take a deep breath, realise this was stupidity personified, that there is a sporting crime and someone has to pay, make them pay, then rehabilitate, reform if you must and move on. We will, once we’ve stopped laughing.

Third, watching the press and others stick the boot in here is very funny. They should be looking at the way Australia handles this and be ashamed. There’s no sense here of one Cricket Australia. If the organisation doesn’t do something to address this, and presuming it isn’t off the charts, or too soft they will come to some thoughts, the press will crucify them. They will do it to their Australian of the Year, who was exceedingly popular it seems, until he isn’t. The Cricket Australia statements included fans, don’t say they are outside cricket and to fuck off because this has nothing to do with them. They at least provide some recognition. If they care in Australia, they care too much, which is not an awful thing. Here, our press are so terrified about losing access, that they avoid conflict. You know what I’m talking about, I don’t need to draw you a picture.

Me? I’d make sure they never captained their team again – that honour and increase in pay has to be forfeited – but they should all play again if their form permits it. A suspension seems in order, and Bancroft needs to do the time too, but if it is six months they’ll miss just ODIs, T20s and a test in Zimbabwe. They’ll be back for India at home. A real punishment may be to ban them from the IPL by not giving NOCs, but that might bring in m’learned friends.

As I said, we’ve all read a lot. Sydney Morning Herald has been my go to site, and I recommend it to you all.

But as Jo Moore said, this is a good day to bury bad news. England chose the right time to lay a cricketing egg. We await Friday in Christchurch to see if there’s an Easter resurrection, or we prove to be the bunnies we really seemed to show in Auckland. And with that, comment away on the lines above if you feel you want to, and thanks for your contributions over the weekend, whether you agreed with us or not.

Dmitri (Peter)

Rubble, Muddle, Toil and Trouble

England picked a good week to be bowled out for 58.  Whatever the embarrassment of their likely defeat in Auckland, it’s going to be overshadowed by the events at Newlands. Still, at the very least, they can point to their predicament being one of ineptitude rather than nefariousness, which in the current climate is an achievement of sorts. 

The only reason England aren’t already 1-0 down is because of the weather, and it is a reflection of how disastrous their match position was that the loss of nearly two days play still has them likely to lose.  They put up a fairly decent display overall, but by this point of proceedings it requires miracle days to even up the ledger.

Henry Nicholls, batting for the fourth day in a row in this Test, made his highest first class score to take New Zealand to 427-8 at the declaration,  while for England Stuart Broad bowled pretty well, keeping things tight and picking up wickets.  It always seems strange to praise a bowler for keeping things tight, but in the circumstance of trying to keep a deficit down and limit batting time for your own side, it turns all bowlers into negative containing types rather than wicket takers.  Given the pitch was still decent for batting – and after all only two days old in reality – they could have been forgiven for cursing their own batsmen repeatedly for their profligacy as they laboured to create any chance of note. When you’ve been bowled out for 58 in a good surface is not the time to criticise the lack of penetration in the bowling attack, reasonable general point though it might be.

One sided Tests are never particularly interesting, and they only become so when it gets to the meat of the second innings, watching the usually doomed attempts to stave off defeat.  Invariably, teams bat better second time round, equally invariably they still lose.  Thus it was that England certainly made a better fist of things, while at the same time still looking like there was only one outcome.  Cook fell early again to complete a poor Test match – note that much comment once again referred to Root’ s conversion problem rather than Cook’s lack of runs over the last couple of years.  Melbourne still looks like an outlier.

Stoneman and Root set about compiling a partnership, but fell late on, the captain to the last ball of the day one delivery after taking a painful blow on the hand.  Root is clearly deeply frustrated at his habit of not going on to make big scores when well set, but England’s problems are deeper set than one batsman failing to make the most of being in.

Assuming the weather stays fair, seven wickets should be well within New Zealand’s capability, and while it’s always possible that there will be a repeat of Matt Prior’s heroics last time, England neither deserve a draw nor do they give off the impression of a team capable of it.  

Naturally enough, the post play interviews spent as much time talking about the conduct of the Australian team as the match itself.  Stuart Broad was clearly itching to give them both barrels and barely contained his amusement at the predicament in which they find themselves.  He did manage to make a few pertinent points concerning hypocrisy and his own treatment at the hands of the crowd, which is neither here nor there, but at the behest of the Australian coach, which is. He also took the opportunity to imply that it isn’t the first time Australia have altered the state of the ball, couching it in a dig about being surprised that this is supposedly the first time they’ve acted this way by saying he didn’t see why they’d changed a method that had hitherto been working.  Broad is often good value in these circumstances, given that Aussie baiting is something he is unquestionably good at, but it doesn’t mean his words should be taken as being any more objectively true than those of Darren Lehmann. Yet it is also true that footage of Bancroft putting sugar in his pockets during the Ashes emerged overnight – which is something Australia are going to have to get used to as people scour the footage for evidence of previous attempts.

The reaction to the pre-meditated ball tampering has been interesting.  Australian supporters are aghast, ashamed and in shock, which perhaps highlights self perception of the way Australia are meant to play cricket in their eyes.  Outside the country it’s rather different, a deep sense of amusement and schadenfreude at the self-appointed arbiters of cricketing morality caught out deliberately cheating.

For the crime is not the worst that could have been committed, reflected in it being a Level 2 or at most Level 3 offence in the ICC disciplinary code.  One of the peculiarities of cricket remains the mobile moral code that considers some actions to be reprehensible and others part of the game, even when all are intended to gain an illegal advantage or deceive the umpires.  Ball tampering appears to be one of those where self righteous outrage is a common response to something most teams have been guilty of at various times.  Perhaps the greatest outrage is reserved for those who are caught.

There are a few exceptional circumstances to this one.  Many instances of it tend to be in the heat of the moment, rather than as here a deliberate plan concocted by the “leadership group” of the Australian team, the exception being in the legal dubious but impossible to police tactic of enhancing saliva through the sucking of sweets.  In that sense the mea culpa from Smith created more questions than answers.  His refusal to name names as to who was involved is not sustainable; the match referee and ICC will want to know who is to be punished, and a no comment won’t fly.  Equally, it beggars belief that Darren Lehmann wasn’t aware of any of it, the giveaway being the speed with which he radioed the 12th man to inform Bancroft he’d been caught.  Lastly on this particular element it is astounding that apparently not one player or staff member pointed out that this was a terrible idea, either for moral reasons or the simple practicality that being caught was so likely.  David Lloyd’s assertion that Australia are “out of control” is never more strongly supported than by the total absence of anyone with either a moral compass or a well developed sense of self-preservation. Above all else, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the leadership group are severely challenged in the mental department.

Smith is finished as captain, as is Warner as vice captain.  There is absolutely no prospect of them surviving this, the reaction from Australia has been so negative, and so angry, that it is merely a matter of time before both go, the only question being whether Cricket Australia will allow them to resign rather than sacking them.  There is simply no prospect of them remaining that is remotely sustainable – every time Australia gain reverse swing they will be alleged to be cheating, every time they claim a low catch they will again be called cheats, irrespective of the truth.  The stupidity of their actions means that for the next decade this will be thrown at them at every opportunity.  It is a PR catastrophe to which there’s only one response.

James Sutherland held a press conference overnight where he issued the usual platitudes about being aghast at what had happened, but he also made the interesting comment that he’d had cause to speak to Smith before about the behaviour of the team.  In the first instance this suggests either that it was hardly a bollocking or on the other that it was ignored by the team to the extent that they felt ball tampering was a reasonable response to the concerns.  Doubling up on things is an oddly impressive response in a sense.  Either Cricket Australia didn’t care about the stench of hypocrisy emanating from Australian cricket, or the team didn’t care what he thought.  Both reinforce the out of control criticism.

Few international sides are angels, and most have behaved poorly at different times, not least England.  But no others have taken it upon themselves to define how everyone else should behave and claim the moral high ground even when it is a laughable position.  Prior to these particular events, they had complained bitterly about the treatment of the players (and players’ wives) at the hands of the South African crowds.  And fair enough too, it was unedifying – but for the complaint to come from a side whose coach had openly called for Australian crowds to send Stuart Broad home in tears, it was another example of an extraordinarily lacking in self awareness perception as being the good guys, oblivious as to how they were seen elsewhere.

There is no reason to assume that the ball tampering was a regular act – though equally the protestations that this was the first time it had ever happened were greeted with derision given this is the response every time Australia are caught out doing something wrong – but Australia’s behaviour during the Ashes left a lot to be desired, as did the pious manner in which they justified themselves.  This speaks to the heart of the difference between self image and outside observation, and explains precisely the glee with which this has been received outside Australia.  Ball tampering is a relatively minor matter, hypocrisy is not, and it is the hypocrisy that has resonated.  Furthermore, the outrage from the Australian media raises plenty of eyebrows given their unstinting support for every dig and complaint issued from the team.  They have been the propaganda arm of Australian cricket far too often to now react with outrage At the team going one step too far.

At the time of writing, news broke that Smith had been suspended from the fourth Test and fined his match fee.  This is merely the beginning for him.  For the sake of trying to gain a tactical advantage in one Test he has damned himself for the rest of his career as a cheat, and if Any sympathy is to be extended in his direction, it is that one crass decision is going to haunt his career, not because of his guilt, but because of the pre-planned, deliberate nature of the offence.  Any penalties he receives from the ICC or Cricket Australia pale into insignificance compared to the reputational damage to himself.  Some have commented that he deserves some credit for fronting up and accepting his guilt at the press conference, but he spent more time talking about being embarrassed than he did apologising, indicating he still didn’t realise quite what they had done.  Equally, Cameron Bancroft was largely thrown under a bus, making it somewhat apposite that Sutherland then did the same to Smith.

As for Bancroft himself, being a junior player is no excuse whatever.  Everyone knows the rights and wrongs of something like this, and volunteering to be the patsy suggests a complete lack of perspective and intelligence.  It comes back again to being astounding that no one appears to have objected to the plan.

Over the longer term this may well benefit Australia, serving as a correction to their recent overbearing nature.  For everyone else it doesn’t offer the slightest opportunity to jump on to the moral high ground so rapidly vacated.  All teams have been behaving poorly in one manner of another and none of them can claim to be the wronged party on a regular basis.  Equally, and taking into account that this still isn’t the worst crime to have committed on the cricket field, it provides an opportunity for the authorities to clamp down hard on some attitudes and confrontational acts that have been pissing off a lot of people all around the world.  

National teams are not a law unto themselves.  This represents an opportunity to reinforce that point 

More Rain – And Putting The Ban Into Bancroft

All this scratching is making we twitch.

With all due respect to the very limited action available to the hardy souls in Auckland, the story of today is without doubt Australia being hoisted on their own petard. Let’s be charitable here and say let the investigation run its course and it would be premature to rush to judgement. Then remember back less than three months to Channel 9 and its shenanigans over a dubious looking moment with Jimmy Anderson. There was no measured calm, no looking for innocent explanations, no trying to get the facts. They were, quite blatantly, playing the 12th or 13th man for Team Australia, and the media out there duly followed. We see it, we get mad by it and yes, in just a small way, we might even envy their loyalty and support. But it’s not looking to secure justice and fair play.

Yes, I know, I am being hopelessly naive, and yes, I know, I’ve probably crossed a moral line or two playing sport too. But we are going to get nowhere if we start denying the obvious. Let’s wait and see what happens later in the day, but at the very least Bancroft is guilty of misleading the match officials, which is what Burge threw the book at Atherton for. I was at the Oval in 2006 when Pakistan were accused of ball tampering, and all we had to go on was announcement of a 5 run penalty. When we put two and two together, we thought there might be trouble. And trouble there was. This gets to be an emotive subject.

I know we have some Aussies who come on here regularly, and I know we can’t put this on all of them because it would be silly. But I do put it on large swathes of their media that allows, even laughs, at people like Malcolm Conn having a pop at England picking players with perfectly legitimate links to England, while ignoring Usman Khawaja or Andrew Symonds with less tangible birth links (and for the record, absolutely they should be playing for Australia). You can’t chuck this nonsense out and (a) not expect it back and (b) to be bloody ridiculed for it. For years the Australian team, and its dutiful press corps, by and large have been fine and dandy when they are dishing out the stick to the opposition. If it is because you are being beaten, you are crying. If it is because you are in a tough game, it is mental disintegration and what test cricket is about. If you are winning…..it’s Australian spirit, never say die etc. And by and large I really don’t care. But you don’t and never should, get the privilege of defining a line. Yet in this series they are telling us South Africa are crossing it.

(Update – Of course, I forgot Lehmann’s part in all this. Just like some football managers, when his boys do it, it’s fine. When his team does it, it’s within the line. But when an idiot South African fan dispenses it back, it’s off we go. You can’t run with foxes and hunt with the hounds. These things have a tendency to bite you on the arse. Which is why England should keep quiet because we definitely head butt the line too.)

Now Australia are faced with dealing with a really sticky situation with Cameron Bancroft. It does not look good. The press all over the world will be watching. In turn I’ll be watching the Aussie media. On Sky Graeme Smith put Allan Border on the spot about it, and AB, as loyal to the Aussie cause, as gritty and determined as they come, a player I admired (save that Dean Jones macho bullshit nonsense in Madras) was put in a spot. Did he jump to a conclusion and be berated as disloyal, or play it safe. He trod a careful path “it doesn’t look good, and if he’s found guilty he will have to pay the penalty”. Can’t say fairer than that. This is going to run and run. (Update – 2 hours on and Malcolm Conn is silent. Maybe it’s past his bedtime.)

Aside from all the nonsense, this is a cracking series, and this is another good match. A pity the two teams have acted like bloody children. It’s taking away from the spectacle, not adding spice. We know how competitive the two teams are.

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Beautiful Newlands…. Any excuse to get this picture out

A story is breaking that Virat Kohli is going to miss Afghanistan’s first ever test match to play three games of county cricket, probably for Surrey. Sadly for us Londoners the only home game he will play if he does is at Guildford, which although great for a day out, is not so great if there’s going to be a large crowd. Anyone fancy a day at the Ageas Bowl for his first game? I think this speaks much about the game – county cricket still has some attraction otherwise why would Kohli bother; some test matches aren’t quite as important as others; and England helping out an opponent by giving him early match practice is laudable, in my view now. I’ve changed my tune and would rather see a well prepared, in tune India play England than some outfit ill prepared and waiting to go home. I maintain my point. Test cricket really needs Virat Kohli. If he turns his back on it (and I know he sort of his for the Afghan test) then the game might be in trouble. He’s the world’s most important cricketer right now and it’s not even close.

We’ll probably come back to the Colin Graves and Glamorgan story. Again, if the story stands up, you’ll count us shocked. Really shocked.

So to Day 4 at Auckland. England don’t deserve to be saved by the rain and they should at least have to have earned a draw by batting time – a thing we have been dead good at in recent years. The weather forecast appears better tonight. New Zealand should look to add 120-150 quick runs, get up to 350 if they can and stick us in. Some might say they should go earlier and I wouldn’t argue. Then England will need to earn some pride back. It’s by no means acceptable, and that 58 should be remembered for quite a while, but it would be a start. This team has been papering over cracks with its home form. There’s a lot about “no-one wins away” but we aren’t even competitive. That has to change.

Comments on all of this immediate, reactive nonsense below. Comments on the test should also follow.

UPDATE – They have confessed. It was a leadership group decision. Smith as captain has to go. Absolutely no questions asked. Warner as vice-captain cannot take that position up either. At the moment they are protecting Lehmann. That’s not going to work either.

UPDATE @ 10PM UK TIME…

Well, a lot of water has gone under the bridge since the afternoon. Chris is possibly going to be on tomorrow to give his verdict on Day 4 and some comment on today’s events.

I genuinely believe that Steve Smith is dead in the water. If he survives this, I’d be genuinely shocked. The next in line would be David Warner, but he has to be part of the “leadership group” mentioned in Smith’s mea culpa. It’s not the ball tampering, which is ludicrous and to some extents serious enough. But it’s conspiring to do so, within a structure within the team, and then getting the sap with the fewest caps to carry it out. More will come out about the whys and hows, but this isn’t an international captain, nor a vice-captain showing leadership. Those who think this is purely about ball-tampering are off their minds.

Australia find themselves in a bind purely of their own making. They have been holier than thou in terms of their cricket for a good while, and the mask, however slightly, has slipped. People can abide cheats – players who have pushed the margins of the rules, who have appealed when they know it is not out, who have even pushed the line of acceptable banter – but they generally can’t abide hypocrites. Loads of people have sledged, but why do you think people go at Warner? Because he can throw, but he can’t catch. Smith and the whole “Baggy Green” ethos is in tatters, and he is the one at the helm of his ship. “Oooops, I’ve smashed this one into the iceberg, but I’m just the man to rearrange the deckchairs…”

The issue isn’t for me to say Steve Smith should be sacked – I think he should but that is a call for Cricket Australia. What this is also not about is the technical issue of ball tampering. What is in question is leadership and the way the game is played. Cricketers have cheated since the beginning of the day and always will. Much of it comes from the flow of the game. It isn’t pre-meditated over a lunchtime chat to take something out into the middle and blatantly use it on the ball. Some will say Smith shouldn’t be the one to take the fall. Let us see. Commercial and reputational interests conquer all, and this is not a good look, right or wrong, and they will decide the fate.

It’s been a funny old day….

New Zealand v England – 1st Test, Day 1

Your hard working writers have been working bloody hard recently, and so the articles on here are a little thin on the ground. We have always said we won’t post for posting sake, and that we know you understand this. A lot has got my interest recently, and even today there is barely concealed anger over the ICC Qualifiers for the World Cup. We’ve had the tiresome nonsense between two groups of adults acting like children in South Africa. We’ve had the KP retirement and the reaction (and lack of in some quarters). There was the schmozzle in Sri Lanka, there are the frequent laments over county cricket. If the game has nothing to moan about, then it can generate something in a heartbeat. Sadly, despite all these subjects we’ve just been crushed by our day jobs. So sorry, but that’s life. It’s especially tough when we see some of the stuff being put out there at the moment.

But we have some actual cricket tonight. I was going to say proper cricket, but I’m not sold on this pink ball stuff, but according to all and sundry I am supposed to be the one to get into line. This is a sad tour for me. New Zealand are attractive opponents, playing an exciting type of cricket, with some good bowlers, and we will be tested. So let’s just play two test matches, bunged on to the end of an extraordinarily long winter tour, which to the public at large is going to be as an invisible tour, straight out of the HG Wells novel. You can tell how important it is for all and sundry – no-one appears to give a toss that Ben Stokes is playing. It’s an interesting sub-plot rendered meaningless by it being so low key. Stokes is making a comeback in the country of his birth. Such courage, as Andrew Strauss said. Let’s play a game. Let’s see if it’s New Zealand-born Ben Stokes on the scale of South African-born Kevin Pietersen in days of yore.

The first test is being played at the world’s most Mickey Mouse playing area, with some primary school boundaries in play at Eden Park. It’s also being played under lights (you’ve said that already), and it’s a two test series. One wonders if the ECB don’t take this series seriously, why the hell should supporters? As I’ve said many times, England lost an Ashes series 4-0 and no-one really gave a shit. So why should we care about what happens in New Zealand?

We do need to start winning away test matches. It may not be something the ECB cares too much about, but there is a worrying trend of England folding when there are distances to travel. This is a big series for a lot of players coming off an underwhelming Ashes. Stoneman has a place to play for, and even then, I’d be dubious of his test longevity. Malan came out of the Ashes with rep enhanced, but it’s a fragile place to be, and he may end the winter being chucked in at number 3. Joe Root has a number of critics to placate, because he keeps making 50s but not 100s. Moeen Ali had a chastening Ashes, but he’s not allowed one bad series, while some of his teammates survive three or four. Alastair Cook thought about quitting, but then didn’t think about, made one massive knock amid the slim pickings, but he’s not under pressure. Why should he be? Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad and Chris Woakes also need to recover some of their mojo. Well, not Jimmy. He’s in the sainthood with Alastair. But both could do with good series to bring England a victory, if possible.

New Zealand are going to be formidable, one would think. Neil Wagner is particularly interesting, having run through the West Indies before Christmas. Boult and Southee need no introduction. Kane Williamson is a class act, and the fear is after the ODI series is that we have a red hot Ross Taylor to contend with. It’s got plenty to commend it, this match.

We also have Act Three in the Children’s Party in South Africa. Who will call each other the worst rude word? Who will come up with the unfunniest quip? Who will ask another player out for a fight after play has finished? Which team will be more cheeky to teacher (umpire or match ref)? Which player will actually shut up and play cricket? England as a team are no angels, that I know. But this series has seen some tense cricket, good performances and exciting periods of play. Hell, AB De Villiers has shrugged off his fatigue to be fabulous. They don’t need this needle, and for grown adults to say they do, they should grow up. I can’t say I perform better in work if my manager tells me to fuck off every five minutes, or it gets me going if I threaten HR every now and again. They don’t have the monopoly on tense working environments, so pack it in, you tedious bores.

Comments on both matches below. We’ll try to get day reports up as and when. No promises.

Fifth Ashes Test: Day Five – Humiliation

Defeat came as expected, and the scale of it was every bit as huge as anticipated, as England collapsed to lose by the small matter of an innings and 123 runs.  In some ways it offered the perfect conclusion to the series, for despite England being well beaten, indeed thrashed, there was also the smallest morsel for some to point to as the latest excuse – in this case the loss to illness of the captain, Joe Root, who at least deserves credit for trying to bat when clearly and visibly extremely poorly.  No doubt if he had been fully fit, England would have saved the Test and started the year on the same kind of high as they finished 2017…

Analysing the final day of the series is pointless, it went as expected, and with little fight beyond Root.  The series as a whole is a different matter, and as the dust settles somewhat, then the questions that won’t go away will come to the fore.  To some extent, Paul Farbrace was rowing against the tide when asking the kinds of questions that ought to be obvious, but which seemingly are buried beneath a wave of ever more desperate explanations.  It is striking that it was the first time anyone associated with the England set up even dared to say anything of the kind, and offered a marked contrast to Tom Harrison’s ridiculous collection of platitudes insisting that all was well.  How Farbrace’s call for “brutal honesty” goes down among his superiors remains to be seen, but the signs aren’t good.

The press certainly aren’t going out of their way to answer them, or even properly consider them.  Two elements immediately spring to mind, firstly that Alastair Cook is consistently highlighted as being one of the more successful elements of the series.  One genuinely superb innings in Melbourne on an officially poor pitch cannot be used to mask the remainder of the series where he scored just 132 runs in 8 attempts.  By all means salute that one knock, but rarely has a series average of 47 proved so misleading or irrelevant.  It isn’t dismissing him or belittling him to acknowledge that, and he’s openly expressed his frustration – why others make excuses that he doesn’t is exactly why some cricket journalists attract such contempt.

Secondly, the response to Mason Crane’s performance has been nothing short of extraordinary.  He’s a 20 year old kid, playing in his first Test, and to that extent expectations were entirely minimal, and his match figures of 1-193 aren’t terribly relevant.  First Test, dead rubber, let’s see what he can do, and he bowled nicely at times.  But it certainly can’t be considered a success, and to highlight him as being so is downright peculiar. No seam bowler would receive such plaudits for that kind of debut, and certainly no off spinner, no matter how young.  It isn’t about hammering him for not having a good match, it’s about being realistic about what it was, and acknowledging him for what he is – a young player learning his game, who may or may not go on to have a good career.  Adil Rashid must wonder just what it is about him that deserved such an entirely different set of headlines throughout his seemingly finished Test career.  On that point, what England would have given in Australia for a spinner who could bat and was capable of taking 23 wickets in India.

The parallel universe of cricket reporting and administration continues to amaze.  A 4-0 defeat is hailed as being better than the last attempt four years ago on the grounds that England managed to draw one on the flattest pitch ever seen in Australia.  Nominally, that’s true, but denial of the horror of this tour against an Australian side that hasn’t been particularly outstanding over the last couple of years is a remarkable exercise in putting heads as deep in the sand as possible.  One draw and four heavy defeats as progress isn’t the highest of bars at which to aim.  At that rate of improvement, a  flippant observer might think England could just possibly look forward to a very dull drawn series round 2034.

Any cricket supporter can acknowledge and accept being outplayed by a better team, but they also have the right to ask why that is, especially when it keeps happening.  This series defeat is worse than any of those in the 1990s, when Australia did have an exceptional side and England a poor one, yet at no point during that era was there such insouciance in the press and within the ECB about it.  Even the 2006 thrashing, while shocking, had some mitigation in being at the hands of a magnificent side bent on revenge.  2014 might well have been a disaster, but at the end of it the sole response was to kick out one player and insist that it wouldn’t happen again.  Well, it has done.  What the bloody hell have the ECB been doing for the last four years and why will so few in the media hold them to account for it?

The truth is that they don’t care.  The money is rolling in from TV deals and T20 cricket in particular, though they’d be wise to realise that catastrophic performances (and it’s only a year since the same thing happened in India) tend to kill interest quicker than anything else.  Cricket is in deep trouble in England, not because of one series defeat, but because of the policies adopted that have led to it.  Viewing figures are down, participation is down.  Sponsors tend not to align themselves with invisible sports that are failing, and kids most definitely don’t take up sports they don’t see and don’t have any heroes in.  Yet because finances look good at present, there is much backslapping at Lords, and those responsible will be long gone by the time the reality of the disaster they’ve overseen in the game manifests itself.

There are so many elements to this, and barely any of them are ever even acknowledged, let alone addressed.  The ECB have already stated that there won’t be major action taken over it, so just like last time around, the structure will remain the same – only this time there’s no obvious scapegoat to blame for everything.  The county championship will remain marginalised at each end of the season, limiting opportunities for fast bowlers and spinners, and continuing to ensure that medium pacers who do a bit off the seam can thrive – and be entirely unsuitable for higher levels.  Darren Stevens’ success last season was a beautiful thing, but the fact it could happen at all is not.

The fast bowling academy at Loughborough, which has been spectacularly unsuccessful will carry on as though nothing of import has taken place. The bowling attack will continue to be carried by two veterans who have done sterling service over the years, but who have so little behind them to challenge their positions.  The batsmen will carry on being drawn from the ranks of those averaging in the thirties in first class cricket, who may or may not be capable of making the jump to the top level.  The administrators will remain in position with no accountability whatever for what has transpired on the field.  The players will be developed from the tiny pool of the public schools which demonstrates a genuinely impressive level of wastage amongst the 93% who do not.  The people who care for the game will continue to be dismissed as “obsessives” in favour of those who wander along to a T20 match.

The worst part is that none of this is going to change.  None of it.  This is how it has been set up, in fact this disintegration of English Test cricket (it isn’t going to get better as things stand) is the exact outcome from the policies set in place over the last decade.  Removing all cricket from free to air television in favour of a financial drug fix was a disastrous decision.  It doesn’t mean that had they not done that all would be well, but it does mean that it set the game on a path of dwindling relevance and interest that the ECB then compounded with their other decisions.  To that extent, this is what they’ve achieved, and it was pointed out at the time.

The ECB consistently talked about the four year cycles, and did so after the last drubbing.  What have they achieved in that time?  The refocusing on short form cricket has delivered precisely zero titles, and the current team is mired in the middle rankings of the ICC tables, just as they were four years ago.  They approach it rather better than they did, and they’re certainly more exciting, but it’s hardly been an obvious road to success.  The Test team in that four year period has been “rebuilt” to the point where the only players secure in their places are the ones who have been there since then, and in most cases, years before.  Jonny Bairstow is the single exception to have come through and he was on the fringes then anyway.  England don’t even have the excuse of being  young side.  They arrived in Australia with doubts over three of the top five batting positions, the spinner in Australian conditions (and who openly regards himself primarily as a batsman anyway) and the entire seam bowling attack apart from two who have been around for a decade and more.

The biggest crisis the Test team face right now is the sheer poverty of what is behind the veterans, with very little sign of anything truly exciting coming through.  That this will get worse, not better.  When people say England will miss Cook, Anderson and Broad when they’re gone, they don’t realise just how right they are.  Home series against Pakistan and India may well paper over the cracks somewhat – though should England lose, as well they might, perhaps the alarm bells might finally penetrate the heads of the assorted establishment figures – but not to anyone paying close attention.

England have lost 9 of their last 12 away Tests – two thrashings in India and Australia, and a drawn series in Bangladesh that frankly, they got away with.  But it’s ok, Tom Harrison says all is well.

A small housekeeping note:  Sharp eyed visitors will have noted a new link at the top of the home page where you can contact any of us, to have a rant if you feel the need.  We will do a final Ashes panel over the next few days, so if you’re interested in being part of it, drop an email to tlg@beingoutsidecricket.com

 

 

Australia vs. England, 5th Test, Day 4 – Meltdown

The day began as the last one ended, with the Marsh brothers punishing some ordinary bowling from England’s spinners Moeen Ali and Mason Crane. Fortunately, English viewers only had to endure 3 overs before the third new ball was taken. In a surprising turn of events, Root kept Crane bowling with the fresh Kookaburra rather than going with Broad. Anderson at the other end managed to get Shaun Marsh to edge the ball, but it flew between 1st and 2nd slip to the boundary, and then having two LBW shouts in his next over.

The reasons for the odd bowling choices became clear when Moeen Ali and Stuart Broad replaced Crane and Anderson after just a few overs each. The heat in Sydney was exceeding 40°C, and England’s bowlers in particular were feeling the strain. Both Marshes managed to get their hundreds, a galling moment considering the derision the two brothers are considered with by English fans and journalists. England have been so bad at bowling that even the Marshes have prospered. There was a brief bright spot for the tourists as Tom Curran managed to bowl Mitch Marsh with an offcutter in just his second ball of the day. After the wicket fell, England set the field back to restrict Australia’s scoring although a preponderance of loose balls meant Australia were still progressing steadily towards a declaration at Lunch.

After Lunch, the Aussies upped their run rate and with it started to take risks. Shaun Marsh paid the price for reacting slowly to Tim Paine calling for a quick single, and Stoneman managed a direct hit which dismissed Australia’s number five for a mere 156. Mitchell Starc came out swinging, looking to score quickly for a declaration, but after hitting Moeen for six he skied the very next ball to Vince at mid-off. Amusingly, this wicket in an almost completely pointless phase of the game meant that Moeen Ali technically had the best bowling figures of England’s bowlers because he was the only one to have 2 wickets. Cummins came in to partner with Paine, and together they managed to score 36 runs in just 26 deliveries which took Australia’s lead to 303 runs. Steve Smith called the batsmen in from the dressing room, which left England with 46 overs to survive in the day. More importantly, they had to quickly recover after spending the first half of the day in 40°C and having fielded for 193 consecutive overs.

Having spent half of the day fielding in the sweltering Sydney heat and the having to bat with just a few minutes rest, it was perhaps unsurprising that England’s openers did not stay in for long. Stoneman left in the third to a plumb LBW from Mitchell Starc, wasting a DRS review in the process. Amusingly Cook agreed with his decision to ask the third umpire, perhaps reminding himself of the two times he has effectively lost his partner’s wickets by persuading them not to use a review.

Fortunately for England, we all know that Alastair Cook is made of ice-cold steel. He laughs at sweltering heat, he doesn’t sweat, he always delivers in pressure situations, he…

…was bowled by Nathan Lyon for 10 in the 6th over. Cook played on the back foot to a delivery pitching on middle and spinning out to hit the off stump. Cook played an exceptional innings in Melbourne, but it has proven to be an exception to his form in this series. His match totals this winter have been 49, 244*, 21, 53 and 9. This is hardly the form of the greatest opener of all time, and his lack of consistency has put pressure on England’s already shaky middle order. To put this in context, Stoneman outscored Cook in each of the first three games. The three live rubbers, you might say. Not that I’m suggesting that Cook should be dropped, but neither is he playing the kind of cricket which deserves the volume of praise likely to be heaped on him at the end of the tour. He has had simultaneously a great game in Melbourne and a poor series, but due to one massive score he averages 47.00 and that’s all anyone will talk about.

James Vince looked in good form, until… Well you know what happened. The only surprise was when the umpire gave him out for edging a delivery from Nathan Lyon to the wicketkeeper and Vince successfully reviewed it. Even the umpires have been conditioned to assume that if he plays loosely outside off stump then he’s probably nicked it. In the very next over after his reprieve, Pat Cummins managed to get Vince to edge it twice, and the second one went straight into Steve Smith’s hands at slip.

Of England’s batsmen, James Vince is probably the least likely to make the tour to New Zealand. Although he has outscored Stoneman, the repetitive nature of his dismissals makes Vince seem particularly vulnerable. In his 9 innings in Australia, he has edged the ball to the wicketkeeper or slips 6 times. Every team he is likely to face in the future will know to just hang the ball outside off stump and just wait for him to get himself out.

This brought in Dawid Malan, the surprising success of the series. Well, it was a surprise for me. Sean, being a Middlesex fan, probably expected it. Together with Joe Root, the pair attempted to block out the remaining 25 overs of the day but Malan was given out LBW after being hit in front by a straight ball from Nathan Lyon. Not a great dismissal, being stuck deep in the crease playing on the back foot, but he has been England’s highest run scorer so far in the series. Of course, being England’s top scorer in an Ashes defeat isn’t always a guarantee that you won’t be dropped.

Which left Root and Bairstow at the crease. Considering Moeen Ali’s form in Australia this winter, it’s probably fair to say that this is England’s last partnership before the tail begins. The pair of Yorkshiremen safely navigated the following 12 overs to see England through to the close of play. At stumps, England were 93/4 and still 210 runs behind Australia.

It seems fair to say that it would take a miracle of epic proportions for England to even make Australia bat again. More realistically, by the time most of us wake up tomorrow England will almost certainly have lost the series 4-0. Australia have outplayed them with both bat and ball throughout the series, and only a great innings from Cook and a truly abysmal pitch at Melbourne saved England from back-to-back whitewashes.

Talk has already begun on who might lose their job in the aftermath. Perhaps Worcestershire know something we don’t, because they’re apparently chasing Paul Farbrace to be their new head coach. On the field, it would be surprising if Vince, Ball or Curran made the Test squad for New Zealand in a couple of months. Beyond that, I’m not sure much will change in the England camp. All of the public statements from the coaches and Tom Harrison have been to support the current players and staff, attempting to reassure people that everything is fine. If nothing is wrong, then surely no one can be to blame?

As always, please comment on the game (or anything else that comes to mind) below!

5th Ashes Test, Day Two

Australia in a strong position – check

Steve Smith in and looking ominous – check

England’s bowling looking toothless – check

Here we go again.  Despite Tom Harrison’s proclamation that all is well and the only reason England are marginally losing this series is because they haven’t taken their opportunities, two days of cricket at the SCG have once again emphasised the gulf between the teams.  And this after England did fairly well with the bat in the morning too.  In a better balanced series, Australia finishing on 193-2 would mean that with a deficit of 150 still to be made up, the game was in the balance, and if England bowled well in the morning then they would be in a decent position.  The problem is that repeating this in the face of all previous evidence is the kind of thing only the empty suits at the ECB do, to try and ensure that wherever the blame goes, it doesn’t go to them.

Sure, it’s possible that by the time the third day is complete, this post will look ridiculous, as England skittle Australia and start building on their sizeable lead, but the exceptionalist nature of such an outcome, and the way that you, dear reader, have almost certainly scoffed at that possibility is exactly the point.  England have now reached the point where the feeling of inevitability about the outcome has taken hold, a pattern in every Test, apart from the one where the pitch was officially rated as “poor” and allowed England to escape with a triumphant draw – one that sealed the Ashes into eternity according to the response to it in the media.

There can be surprises, certainly.  The weak looking England tail did rather well, aided by some extraordinarily brainless bowling at Stuart Broad, and some impressively inept catching.  Maybe the Australians weren’t quite feeling the intensity with the series well and truly won, not that anyone is allowed to mention that of course.  Still, Tom Curran and Broad rode their luck and made decent contributions, as did the out of sorts Moeen Ali.  Yet while 346 represented a much better total than it could have been, it still looks lightweight in context.

England gained a quick success in dismissing Bancroft, a fairly routine delivery from Broad breaching his defences, which merely goes to highlight that the idea that England are up against a great team remains as absurd as ever – the controversy over their lack of batting depth seems a long time ago.  Perhaps it is the case that Australia do indeed have a very fine bowling attack, but given England’s inability to cope with many others around the world, it’s hard to tell for sure.  Even allowing that, it doesn’t provide an excuse: either England are totally outclassed, in which case why is that; or they are, just unable to grab the moment (Harrison), in which case why are they being battered repeatedly?

After the early success, there were few alarms; Warner compiled a well made fifty, Khawaja closed in on a century, and Steve Smith seems to have been at the crease for the entire series.  And there’s the problem, James Anderson has done fairly well this tour, but while he has received some criticism for being defensive and containing, the question needs to be asked as to what else should be expected of him?  He’s 35 years old, is unquestionably one of the cleverest bowlers around, but surely at this stage of his career he ought to be a support bowler of extreme skill rather than the one carrying the entire attack.  Broad at the other end has had a mixed tour by his own admission, and that’s fine, because it happens.  Last time around he was exceptional even as the side disintegrated around him.

George Dobell is one of the few journalists pointing out the reality of England’s position, the abysmal failure of the ECB to produce fast bowlers, and the seemingly counterproductive fast bowling programme allied to the sidelining of first class cricket.  England’s current pace bowling attack has the feel of the West Indies in the late careers of Courtney Walsh and Curtley Ambrose.  Those who respond to criticism of Anderson and Broad by saying England will miss them when they are gone are exactly right – for when they do go there is so little behind them except a collection of medium pacers without their level of exceptional ability, or crocks.  Cyclical problems can afflict any country, but the utterly blasé response of Harrison’s insistence that all is well highlights Dobell’s point about the complete lack of accountability.  When it is said that this is a golden era having Anderson and Broad, the sad truth is that they are almost certainly right.  A 35 year old and a 31 year old should not be leading the attack with no rivals for their position in a healthy structure.  Don’t blame them, blame the administrators who have created the position where they are not only the best we’ve had in the last 20 years, they are also the best we will have for the next few years as well.  Ambrose and Walsh indeed.

The same can be said to apply to the spinning role.  Moeen Ali has had a miserable tour of it, and once again failed to impress here.  Yet earlier in the series he was apparently being played as a batsman only (only to then bowl) because his finger was so badly damaged, and was also suffering from a side strain.  In the rush to beat him up for this series, this no longer seems to be mentioned at all, in which case it either wasn’t a problem in the first place, or he’s being slated for playing badly when he’s not fit – it has to be one or the other.

Like clockwork, now there are calls for him to be replaced.  Fine.  No player should have a sinecure when they are out of form, or if they ultimately aren’t good enough to stay in the team, but here it still smacks of thrashing around in the death throes.  Drop Moeen Ali by all means, but be sure that the replacement is going to be better.  This doesn’t mean you don’t try things of course, otherwise no one would ever be selected, but in the last 15 months England have used Moeen, Rashid, Ansari, Dawson, Batty and now Crane.  Six spinners in just over a year, discarded one by one as not being good enough, with the last a left-field punt that doesn’t offer huge confidence for a long term selection, which is absolutely not his fault.

As Dobell points out, Adam Riley, meant to be the answer to England’s spinning woes, didn’t play a county championship match last season, and even Crane only appeared in some of them.  They can give Ollie Rayner a go, presumably based on his average of just under 40 last season that just screams “pick me”, but it isn’t going to magically change things.  Moeen might well have been very poor away from home (again, let’s emphasise he was meant to be injured for this one, because this seems to be constantly ignored) but he has been good at home, both with bat and ball.  Is that remotely ideal or acceptable?  Absolutely not.  Is it probably as good as is likely whoever they pick?  Yes.  It might even be better.  This is not a defence of Moeen Ali or a call for him to be retained, but it is pointing out that the idea that things will magically change for the better when a player is dumped is wishful thinking.  England do not have ready made replacements to slot in and improve the team, nor do they have a production line of young talent.

The same applies to Cook.  In his poor spells, it can’t possibly be said that he came under true pressure for his place, not in this case because of the media, although that is true, but because with a lack of a successful opening partner, how could he possibly have his own place questioned?  Cook horribly out of form was still England’s best opener.

Irrespective of how this match unfolds, the true horror of England’s position is that this really is their best team, and most of their best players are in the later stages of their career.  Perhaps some will magically seize their opportunities, but it’s not something you’d put the house on.

This is where the ECB have led the English game to.  Invisible, unimportant, hidden away, wealthy (for now), not very good, and likely to get worse in future.  Well done chaps, drinks all round.

Day Three Comments Below

 

5th Ashes Test: Day One

OK, hands up:  who’s really surprised?  Perhaps that England had a pretty decent day up until the last five minutes, yes, but the close of play score?  Unlikely.  A middling total, encompassing a promising position thrown away, with the prospect of that lengthy tail to come, and a new ball in Australian hands.  It’s possible that England will go on to make a fine first innings score, for Dawid Malan is still there, and of all the England batting order is the one who exudes a degree of permanence when at the crease.  Equally, Moeen Ali could be said to be due for some runs – forever the last kind of unreasoning hope to be extinguished.  But after that, there’s not much at all, and while 350+ is always possible, so is 250 all out, and the probabilities lean closer to the latter than the former.

Of course, much of the comment will be around Root passing fifty and failing to go on to a century yet again.  That it’s a problem he’s more than aware of was shown by his despairing reaction to his dismissal, but as ever, it’s something that gets commented on in isolation about him, and never should it be mentioned that Cook has more than a slight issue over the last few years with the same thing; occasional huge scores don’t alter that.  England throwing away promising positions is hardly new, but nor is it down to just the captain.  Oh, and nor is this conversion problem something that’s afflicted him since he became the skipper, it’s been a problem for a while.  Still, it doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be mentioned, for Root’s dismissal didn’t look great, and was compounded by Bairstow being quickly dismissed afterwards.  In the peculiar way cricket is sometimes looked at, Bairstow’s dismissal is apparently Root’s fault.  228-3 is a decent position, 233-5 is Australia’s day.

The lack of a nightwatchman on Root’s removal also became a topic of debate.  As ever, it’s being wise after the event.  Given how many times Bairstow has been left marooned as the tail fell apart around him this series, it’s not too surprising he didn’t want to bat any lower than he had to.  This time, it just didn’t work out, but Australia went some years having abolished the role entirely.  As ever, decisions like that are often only good or bad in retrospect – Bairstow backed himself to get through the last two overs.

The last five minutes apart, England had done fairly well but with all the same flaws they’ve shown all series.  Stoneman started well but failed to go on, Vince looked pretty but got out for the same kind of score that he tends to get out for, and Cook was dismissed for 39.  Two things about that, firstly the Daily Mail’s description of it as “a convincing 39” is preposterous, and does Cook himself no favours, and nor was his lbw, given on review, in any way controversial, no matter what his number one fan Paul Newman might claim.  It was too much to hope that Cook would repeat his Melbourne innings, but it can be said that he looked technically very good here too, which is promising from his perspective as long as he can maintain it.  That’s not meant to be dismissive of him at all, Cook when he has his game sorted is a fabulous opener, but he also drops off alarmingly at times in terms of his technique.  As he gets older, this will become ever more important, but he remains quite extraordinary in the divergence between when he is fully sorted, and when he isn’t.

Dawid Malan is England’s batsman of the tour, which may seem to damning him with faint praise, but three fifties (including his current one) and a big century represents a better return than anyone else, and if this innings was a careful one, he still very much looked the part.  And bringing in batsmen who do look the part has been in fairly short supply recently.

And so we move into day two.  Any feelings of impending disaster are entirely to be expected, which is probably just the time they’ll confound us all and bat out of their skins.

Fifth Ashes Test: Preview

If ever there was a measure of how far sights had fallen on this tour it was to be found in the way that a draw at Melbourne, on a pitch so batsmen friendly it was rated as poor by the ICC, was treated as a triumph by some.  3-0 down, a series and the Ashes gone, but apparently England ended the year well.  Perhaps in some ways that’s true, when you’ve lost the last seven away Tests and the last eight away Ashes Tests anything better than that is something to take note of, in the same way that just because the ship has gone down doesn’t mean you can’t appreciate the piece of wreckage to which you’re clinging.  Yet denying the disaster that this tour has been remains as pathetic as it was after the Indian tour.  In that case, few expected England to come out on top, but being battered repeatedly and insisting that it was nothing other than the expected – all is well, don’t worry – was a low point for a group of cricket journalists who haven’t been afraid to plumb the depths in recent years.

Here too, the same has happened.  Cook’s unquestionably excellent innings at the MCG doesn’t mean Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth didn’t happen, and pretending that it does invites the contempt it deserves, and not just from the Australians either.  Claiming that it is irrelevant because it’s a dead rubber is nonsensical, ignoring the 3-0 scoreline and a series thrashing is preposterous.  It counts.  Of course it counts, it always did.  But it also always had a slight note against it. Indeed, the England coaching staff clearly didn’t get the memo, for when Trevor Bayliss was asked about selection for the final Test, he said “with the series lost it gives us the opportunity to look at some different people”.   Of course, this shouldn’t need saying, as it is blindingly obvious to anyone paying even a cursory degree of attention, but apparently it does, even though England on the other side of the equation did exactly the same thing when selecting Woakes and Kerrigan at the Oval in 2013.  Writing on cricket is a matter of opinion, but refusing to acknowledge reality in favour of hagiography remains as intellectually dishonest as ever, particularly given the same people were talking about retirement precisely one Test earlier.  Even allowing for finally having something positive to write about, it went much too far.  England played better at Melbourne, the seamers in the first innings were very good, Cook absolutely batted beautifully, while Australia probably lost some intensity, but still saved the match with something to spare.  Fine.  It was better, give Cook plenty of credit.  Move on and don’t overdo it.

Thus, for this game Mason Crane will make his debut.  The SCG pitch is expected to offer some assistance for spinners (interestingly, Nathan Lyon doesn’t have as good a record there as the traditional expectation for turn might suggest) and as a result, Moeen Ali is expected to keep his place.  He hasn’t had a good tour, either with ball or bat, and so this represents something of a reprieve given the initial expectation it might be a straight swap.  Much comment has been made about him not getting overspin, which does raise a few questions:  Firstly whether this is something he’s always had a problem with – the lack of any discussion prior to this tour suggests not – and if it’s just in Australia, why that might be.  He’s clearly not been fit for much of it, with talk of both side strains and finger damage throughout.  If that is the reason why, then England have done him a serious disservice by repeatedly playing him, and then seeing him get a kicking for not performing.  The player narrative shifts from week to week, with no reference to what has been said before, so perhaps the injury claims were overblown instead and he really has just been poor, but it would be nice to once in a while have some degree of consistency in appraisal without the need for excuses first, then a hatchet job.

Crane himself represents something of an unknown quantity at this level.  His first class bowling average is nothing to write home about, but he’s also young and promising.  The biggest fear with him has to be that if he doesn’t have an exceptional time of it, he’ll join the list of those brought in for the final dead rubber of a series (oh, that again) and then never heard about again.  England’s management of leg spinners who fail to be the next Shane Warne doesn’t engender too much confidence.  Maybe it’ll be different this time.

Chris Woakes misses out, having suffered a recurrence of his side injury.  England are saying that it’s precautionary, and hope that he’ll be fit for the ODI series following the Tests, but scepticism about their injury management is probably second only to scepticism about their selection strategy.  Side strains don’t tend to clear up quickly; it seems hopeful to say the least that it will properly heal in such a short time, and risky to then bowl him if it is a problem so soon after being out for so long with the same issue.

Woakes’ absence means that Tom Curran will play, saving him from the possibility of being a one cap wonder, while Jake Ball is nowhere to be seen in the discussions, except to point out that he’s nowhere to be seen.

This will leave England with a line up that requires the top order to get all the runs, for after Jonny Bairstow at six will come a hideously out of form Moeen and a tail that might be nowhere near as abysmal as the legendary Caddick, Giddins, Mulally Tufnell one, but does have the particular distinction of being just as long.  It will be fascinating to see if Cook’s technical work continues here, while Root and Malan too will need to have good Tests.

For Australia it’s easy – Mitchell Starc should return in place of Jackson Bird, although there are suggestions he’ll be rested for the ODI series in preparation for the South Africa Tests, an illustration of their priorities if nothing else.  They have their own batting issues in the top order, but also have Steve Smith, who has been imperious for so long  it has masked the other problems.  How to get him out remains a conundrum that has proved beyond England and might well be the single biggest difference between the sides.

The surface is by all accounts well grassed, and should provide a better contest between bat and ball than last time out.  The trouble is, that looks like very good news for Australia and very bad news for England.  English optimism is in short supply, but always remember Tom Harrison’s soothing words:

“It’s a pity that we’re not in a position to take the Urn home with us, but there’s a lot more to play for over the course of this winter. The health of the game is more than about Ashes series overseas. This is not the moment for kneejerk reactions or rash decisions in respect of performance.

“We have a plan. We’re making progress on that plan. England have been very competitive for large parts of the Ashes series. Those marginal periods of play where you can turn a game, we haven’t been able to do it which has been the difference between the teams in each of the Test matches.

“We understand that it’s extremely disappointing. But this team will be learning from every experience they have on the field and we’ve got a lot more to play for over the course of the one-dayers and the Test series in New Zealand.”

The lack of any critical coverage of what he has said is quite simply remarkable.