Sunday, 11 January 2015

It's Not All Been Milk and Honey

Easy batting conditions
Australia's Test summer ended with another fizzle at the SCG - just as it had in Melbourne - with the
blame falling on immature captaincy, an ineffective bowling performance from Nathan Lyon and yet another victory for curators.

The Australians will have the satisfaction of a series victory but it was won narrowly in the end. Michael Clarke's heroics, David Warner's ferocious mental toughness and Virat Kohli's enthusiasm/arrogance gave Australia the first Test and then India's only batting collapse the second. Beyond that, it was a series dominated by the curators.

Short form cricket has finally infected the men who make our pitches in Australia. Its desire for batting heroics and the transformation of bowlers into sterile bowling machines has created the demand for flat wickets that will last the distance. Gone are the decaying 4th and 5th day wickets and the need for quality spin. Gone are the green 1st day wickets which seam and and spit. All that is left is a consistent bounce for five days from these perfectly manicured and pampered drop ins which do nothing else but behave. It would seem that Warner and Smith have made the transition from short form whackers to Test batsmen, only to find themselves back on the pitches they started on.

At least Sydney had more in keeping with a tradition Test wicket but it took until late in the 4th day before it started to misbehave and even then, only one wicket fell to anything which was out of the ordinary.

We therefore had a series where bat so dominated the ball that good men were left broken by its end. Ryan Harris will be months recovering and Mitch Johnson had to be mothballed in Sydney to preserve him for more important matters in the shorter form of the game. Six batsmen totaled more than 300 runs for the series and a staggering eleven averaged over 40. The fact that three Indians featured in each list points to conditions which favoured batting but even more telling, not one bowler averaged less than 30 per wicket. Nathan Lyon (21 wickets) might have finished as the leading wicket taker but only courtesy a bag in Adelaide as India chased hard in the last session. His following three Tests netted him 9@45.

For the Australians, Warner, Rogers, Clarke and Smith showed they are the class batting members and the men at the core of a batting line up which feasted this summer. Johnson, Harris and the new boy Hazelwood were easily the best of the bowlers, with Lyon, despite his 12 wickets in Adelaide and Starc, diminished and unable to deliver, consistently, when it most counts. That is, of course, the difference in Test cricket: consistency. Starc, like others before him - Bevan and Bracken are two who come to mind - is immensely skilled and dangerous in the moment but he hasn't the temperament to do the hard work across five days. Watson, Marsh and Burns may have made runs but against the swinging ball in England, their loose techniques will be rather easily swept aside.

Virat Kohli and Steve Smith
Smith, with the bat, was superb. His innovation and precociousness was the highlight of the summer but doubts remain against a swinging ball in the damp summer conditions ahead in England. He is good enough to adapt but hopefully he won't have the responsibility of leadership. Unlike Clarke, who hit the ground running as a skipper from his first Test, Smith has faltered. He threw victories away in Melbourne and Sydney, making decisions that were more than inexperience. His aggressive attitude when batting - much ignored by the media - was the initiator of at least half of the share of unpleasantness and friction between the teams. Kohli certainly was prepared to engage but he was often not the person who threw the first punch. Last summer, Clarke got into hot water via a director's decision to turn up a stump microphone but his was an act of backing his man in the face of an aggressor ... of drawing a line and warning Anderson not to step too far. Smith, by contrast, was bug eyed and looking for trouble, confronting the Indians by word and gesture, yet being the next Golden Boy, this went unreported.

This was a good result for Cricket Australia after the disruptive start to the Test series bought on by the consequences of the dreadfully sad demise of Phillip Hughes but there are more than enough danger signs. These will be, unfortunately, glossed over int he light of Smith's runs and the series victory.

A few to consider would be the age and state of decay of some of our best and the management of the players.

Harris will make England but it will be his last. Siddle remains in the mix but further back in the selectors plans. Rogers answered his critics but on easy batting tracks and his age is starting to condemn him, with back injuries starting to creep into older bones ...

... and then there's Clarke.

In his mid thirties and with a lengthening track record of injuries, his future is now much shorter than it might otherwise have been. His largest and most unavoidable obstacle is his back. As anyone with a lower back problem will tell you, the worst thing you can do to avoid back pain is to stand still for longer than a few minutes, so all day sessions in slips has gradually been ending his career. It seems counter intuitive but movement in the field is the best thing for him. There is no doubting his courage or his mental strength but spells away from the game have to affect his form and his confidence. His batting might be important but his captaincy is vital if Australia are to defend the Ashes.

Hughes always over their shoulder
Cricket Australia needs to seriously review it management of the players during the past few months. The way in which they allowed the reaction to Phil Hughes death escalate to a state where it so dominated players that any catch, wicket or boundary was declared in his honour and in the process, detracted from the dignity with which he played the game and maintained relationships. Too many requests were acceded too, leaving the cricket followers and in particular the players, unable to get on with the process of grieving individually and coming to terms with what his death means to them. Corporate grief never works and now, after prolonging the beginnings of coping in order to get their players on the paddock, administrators are faced with the difficulty of how to start returning to normal. Clarke has made public claims that he will never again play a Test match without 408 on his shirt. Its a nice homage but it shouldn't be allowed, mostly because its a bad coping method.

Things have got way out of hand. It's time to remove the arm bands and move on. (see "When Is Enough, Enough?")

A surfeit of one day cricket lies ahead for our best over the next few months before sanity returns with a Test trip to the Caribbean. The West Indies gave a decent account of themselves in South Africa and will be even better at home, so they will be no easy beats.

Its been a summer of sweet and sour but only a cricket fool would think its all been milk and honey.

Tuesday, 30 December 2014

When Is Enough, Enough?

When are we going to let Phil Hughes die?

It may sound a harsh reaction to the manner in which his death has been played out in public, because their is no doubt the players have been shocked by his death and are experiencing real and painful loss. The problem lies not in their grieving but the way those outside that inner circle of friends have sustained that grief.

Clearly, from all the best people in grief management and those who have experienced it and come out the other side, people must be allowed to grieve in their own way and in their own time but sooner rather than later, life must go on. His death was a terrible accident and one that has affected many more than his loved ones and friends because it has given us all a reminder of our vulnerability - of the easy way in which we can be laughing one minute and silenced the next. His age and the sudden ending of his life gives us all pause for thought, even if we had never heard of him before the TV screens started replaying the bouncer, the contact and the sickening collapse to the turf. We are in shock. For some, the loss rekindles times of our own personal grief and marks our own loss as piquant and alarmingly painful again ... but life does go on.

Cricket Australia's initial reaction ... a suspension of matches, the seeking of an agreement to alter the Test match schedule to buy time for those close to the action and to issue a statement of support and understanding for the players, was appropriate and a fulfilment of their duty of care. Allowing the players so personally affected the option of sitting out the First Test was also an action of support.

The problem has come since, where we have done that commendable but unrealistic and certainly unhelpful thing or lifting Phil Hughes up in death to well beyond who he was in life. He was, after all, a humble young man whose achievements were in personal relationship, not in his impact on society. The impact on the nation almost rivalled the memorial service for Gough Whitlam, a man of such greatness that a country was completely reformed and generations since have reaped the benefit. Death, terror and human suffering stopped being noticed, almost inexplicably, for weeks after Hughes death, as we all faced the fragile grip we have on life.

One cannot blame the Hughes family for agreeing to televise their son's funeral. One can only hope it gave them closure to what had been a short but public life and that it is not something they might later regret. Beyond these measures, the rest has smacked of a lack of understanding of what is required to continue to support the players cope.

Whilst it can be understood that much of what followed in Adelaide and since, has been initiated by the players, Cricket Australia should have resisted and gently coerced the players away from the ongoing tributes that they are paying to whom Michael Clarke calls "his little mate". The 408 painted on the outfield; the 63 seconds of applause; Hughes player number on the players shirts; the black arm bands; the declaration that Hughes would be 13th man for the series ... these are all things which should never have been sanctioned and never agreed to on a corporate basis.

Personal tributes and dedications by individuals have been touching. No one doubts, for instance, that Warner and Clarke batted with a fiercer determination in their innings in Adelaide and that they indeed batted in homage to Hughes. No one would begrudge glances to the sky, presumably to a heaven very few of them believe exists, in order to communicate and justify their actions as part of them respecting Hughes memory. However, allowing the systemic and by now, ongoing recognition of Hughes, is a grave mistake. When someone dies, eventually, you have to let them go. Still wearing black arm bands two Tests later, still having his number on their chest, is only acting to forestall the resolution of their grief. One understands Clarke's sentiment when he asserts that he will think of his "little brother" everyday for the rest of his life. Its heartfelt and genuine but its not the reality. These are statements one makes in the period of grieving, made mostly to delay that moment when we finally accept that the person we have loved, has in fact died. We might try to surround ourselves with their memory and commemorate objects and events and anniversaries in order to allay our greatest fear - that by failing to keep them upper most in our lives we are failing to love them - but life isn't meant to be that way.

Those that have loved and lost great relationships through death will tell you two things, that the pain of the loss of their companionship never goes away but that, in truth, life does go on and so it should. The pain comes less often but not less intensely.

By setting up all of these reminders and keeping Hughes fresh in the minds of their players, Cricket Australia are denying them the chance to undergo normal process. It may be well meant, it may even be good public relations with a community which has been touched, in some cases deeply by his death but its not good psychology. Delaying healing is a dangerous thing.

This is not to say that understanding should not be exercised or that players should be told to man up and get on with it. Not at all. It does, however, mean that the very public and demonstrative systemic response must now return to normal. If media reports and comments from players and family are any guide, its likely that Hughes himself, an immensely practical country boy, would have understood that life is for living and that death is just a necessary if unpleasant part of life's cycle.

Its time to hand grief back to the individual and remove the armbands and give players back their own identities and let them get on with the personal business of grieving. Perhaps the time to draw a public end will come in Sydney, for even though Hughes went to South Australia for opportunity, no kid form the NSW bush has any more fervent wish than to play beside the ghosts of those who once sent their spikes into the wooden benches in the SCG dressing sheds. It was here he died living his dream and working hard to further it. There will no doubt be more ceremonies delivered, more words said and more tears shed but that's where it should end. When the game ends, give the players back their own shirts, cast the black arm bands into a pyre and wait for the next sunrise.

Let him go.