Friday 29 October 2010

University of life, school of hard knocks...

Growing up at the remove of a hemisphere, Australian grade cricket was a semi-mythical thing, the Yorkshire and Lancashire Leagues of the 1950s and '60s updated and transplanted Down Under. The myth grew as the Border-Taylor-Waugh juggernaut fired up and tales filtered down of Test players bred there playing a couple of Shield games and then wearing the Baggy Green.

They'd go back to their club sides on odd weekends and sometimes get worked over. One innings every two weeks produced the kind of flint-eyed determination and jaw-dropping balls that could repel Curtly Ambrose mid-wicket at Port Of Spain, could have you hallucinating at the crease in Madras rather than get out. English players would go down there and get chewed up, dropped to the seconds - too callow, too soft for grade cricket in their first season.

It was singular in its ferocity, a finishing school that money could neither replicate nor buy, populated by the kind of teams who would rout soft-ass county second XIs, filled with men who could nurture greatness by offering it no quarter. How England envied it, discussed it, wanted to replicate it.

Now it is changing, as Peter Roebuck writes in an insightful piece. There is a danger for Australia that they will go the English way, producing a generation of talented but cossetted players whose ability can be subjugated by sheer hardness. County cricket, especially in Div One, is tough now, with few meaningless matches, less dreamy, drifting summer days. England have got harder. Australia are, if not getting softer, in danger of losing something that has made their cricket unique and uniquely Australian.

Tuesday 26 October 2010

The seconds, you say?

Cricinfo have selected their all-time world XI. A jury of 12 good men and true have put Barry Richards in the seconds. Hobbs and Hutton made the cut above Bad Bas and Sunil Gavaskar for some reason or other.

The jury must be forgetting though that Bas don't play in no seconds...

NB: A certain gentleman whose picture appears at the top of this column didn't even make the twos... Do you want to tell him or should I?

Friday 22 October 2010

The quintessential truths of Dean Jones

On the list of commentators that you'd expect to say something genuinely insightful, Dean Jones ['The Terrorist has got another wicket'] sits only just above the astonishing newcomer Brad Hogg ['Cameron White loves it in the slot'], and yet here he is in the Melbourne Age:

'What makes a genius? To me, the difference between a genius and mere mortals is that their defence is better. When athletes or teams are under the most pressure, it's their defensive skills that stand out the most'.

To me, this is a great and not always acknowledged truth about batting. I thought first of Vivian Richards, a man whose defensive play was underrated, at least insofar as it's never mentioned. The key to Richards' batting [the key to all batting in fact] was in the stillness of his head. The eyes were always level, and when you had an eye like Richards, that was all it took. Yes, he could whip across the line without fear. But he could, and did, play awesomely straight, especially in defence.

There were periods of a game that even Richards couldn't dominate, and as Jones said, part of his genius came in acknowledging those moments and surviving them. Like a boxer on the ropes, taking punches on his gloves and arms, letting the opponent punch himself out, Richards could absorb before he counterpunched.

Jones also noted that the very great players strike the ball differently. Not necessarily harder, but with a purity that comes from timing alone. There's just something extra about what they do - it's easier to observe than it is to describe, but Jones has seen and understood it. That's what it's all about...

Tuesday 19 October 2010

Your Free Cut Out And Keep Ashes Phony War Planner!

With just 36 days, 24 scheduled press conferences, 97 sponsor opportunities, 17,287 column inches, 365 hours of broadcast time and 145,604,967,845 twitter characters to be filled until someone bowls a ball at the Gabba that almost certainly will not go to second slip this time [ah Harmi, where art thou? Tis not the same without you], the phony war has begun.

So if you're as time-poor as most people these days, fear not. Simply print out this handy planner, grab a pen and delete as you feel appropriate:

Kevin Pietersen is/is not i] disruptive ii] finished iii] ready to make Australia pay iv] should be dropped

Ricky Ponting i] should ii] should not be sacked

Nathan Hauritz is i] rubbish ii] rubbish iii] rubbish

England's attack i] can ii] cannot bowl with a Kookaburra ball

Stuart Broad and Steve Finn are i] too young to play in the Ashes ii] young and hungry to win the Ashes

Mike Hussey should i] go back to number four ii] Go back to WA

i] England's or ii] Australia's middle order is vulnerable

Jimmy Anderson i] will ii] will not swing the ball

Shane Watson is i] Allan Border Medallist ii] number six batsman

Mitchell Johnson is i] quick ii] erratic iii] mental

England/Australia i] will ii] will not win 5-0

The English press's chief sportswriters i] will ii] will iii] will feel the need to dust off their 'chops'

Chris Broad's three hundreds in 1986-7 i] will ii] will be mentioned every tine Stuart does something good

Ian Botham and Shane Warne will i] laugh out loud ii] roll their eyes iii] express exasperation at the thought of i] boot camps ii] coaches iii] fielding practice iv] players who refuse to smoke/drink during a game

Right, let's get started, then...

Thursday 14 October 2010

Brightness falls

It always happens, and I always feel this way. There's something about the last days of great players, something noble, something ineffably sad that makes them seem greater than they were at their best.

India beat Australia [you may have heard], Tendulkar beat Ponting, Sachin beat Ricky, the Little Master bested the Punter, and it was magnetic, hypnotic cricket. The stats were too beautiful: Cheteshwa Pujara was one when Sachin first batted for India, which means he was a veteran of seven when Ricky first took block in a Test, and not yet born when Australia last lost three in a row [not even Ricky was playing when that happened 'although it feels like I was,' he said ruefully the other day].

What a tale Pujara can tell. At the crease with Sachin [who told him that the nerves would pass, so he should not fight them but feel them], in the field as Ponting raged against the dying of the light, both his own and his country's.

The state of Tendulkar's bat told its own tale - it was a reflection of him, thick-set and broad, well-used but still mighty. What craft there was to his batting, what skill and know-how, and what inevitability. No-one has deserved a swansong more.

While Ponting was a component of the great Australian machine, his batting, though merciless, seemed to lack the aesthetics of his peers, but now, as he fades, the beauty is manifest. In a country where he has barely averaged 30, he made three 70s against his nemesis Harbhajan. His craft matched Tendulkar's, the position of his feet and his head immaculate, his determination implacable. That he knew, in his heart, that he would lose made his effort more glorious.

Some people in Australia want to sack him. Maybe they will, if this curiously flaky team loses to England at home. But history will be kind. He was great, Sachin was great, the pure spirit of the game was inside them.

Sunday 10 October 2010


Marcus North gets runs. All England breaths a sigh of relief.

Friday 8 October 2010

New words and phrases

The game has demanded more of its language as change has ripped through it in the last few years. There are some obvious examples - doosra, Dilscoop, zooter, DLF Maximum, Citi Moment of Success*, and did WG ever 'clear his front leg'? - but the arrival of the two Test series demands another.

What do we call tomorrow's second game between India and Australia? It's not a decider, is it, because the series has already been decided - India can't lose it and have thus retained the Border-Gavaskar Trophy. But it's not a dead rubber, either, because Australia can still draw.

In matchplay golf, they'd say that India were 'dormie one' - so maybe that's it. Hail the rise of the Dormie Test.

* Ok, maybe those two aren't, you know, official. Yet, anyway...

Tuesday 5 October 2010

Class: permanent

Heard a great story about bad-ass Barry Richards being even more bad-ass than usual, and it's quite a recent one too, dating to the occasion the other summer when Richards turned out for the Bunbury charity XI.

He arrived at the game direct from the airport, carrying a pair of golf shoes and a bat so old that it was the colour of oak and the width of a slim volume of poetry. The rest of the kit he borrowed. A couple of men fell and he made his way in. Richards began slowly, as befitted a man who had just crossed the world, but soon that thin bat sang its song, and Bad Bas was smiling his way to another fifty before he gave his wicket away.

'How long is it since you've played,' someone asked him back in the pavilion.

'Oh, twelve years,' said Richards.

Twelve years. Bad-ass.

Nice one.

VVS Laxman - scourge of Australia.

NB: great line at the end of the cricinfo report: 'India retain the Border-Gavaskar Trophy'. Gotta love those two-Test series.