Monday, 20 July 2015

The Lions Had Kangaroos In Their Top Paddock

A few things strike you about Australia's victory at Lords.

Initially and certainly for the casual observer, the ease of the victory points to one of world sport's greatest form reversals. Only a week ago, England had beaten an Australian side which played as badly as England played well. Their bowling had been smarter, their batting showed more application, they played to the conditions and their captain had done a much better job than his counterpart.

How do you account for this? How will statisticians look back at the results of these two games and understand the huge disparity of the two results. Was it the toss? Were conditions so much better in London than in Wales. Was it psychological, a team harmony issue or did it just boil down to the Australians disliking Welsh singing?

There is probably truth in most of the above but the core truth probably lies in other reasons that keen observers would have noticed over time - observers who catch every word, who look for answer in eyes rather than actions.

In the next twenty four hours, while the media praises in Australia and castigates in England, lavishing superlatives in the thesaurus equivalent of there being no tomorrow, the simple and bald facts of the matter are that Australia dealt with England in the manner expected of them. This was the Australia everyone expected to see in Cardiff. Did they demolish England: thrash them, annihilate, blow them away? Actually no. Australia simply brushed them aside like a waiter does crumbs in between courses in a good French restaurant.

Dark days: homeworkgate & Mickey Arthur
To understand why, you have to look back beyond those awful seven days of Australian cricket in Cardiff. You have to go back two years to the Cardiff of 2013, when Darren Lehmann first worked the soil into which he would seed the next Australian Test side. It was just three months after "homeworkgate" and an abysmal performance in India which disintegrated the Australians into dust particles and had scattered them like even the softest breeze does to a second day wicket in Hyderabad. A little over two years after that 0-4 drubbing on the sub continent and Michael Clarke is the only survivor of that debacle. At that Cardiff, on Lehmann's debut as coach, Australia struggled and fought and scrapped and restored faith and pride. A debutante scored 98 batting at eleven, the late Phil Hughes played probably his finest Test innings and Australia lost by a mere 14 runs. Seeds were carefully sown on what had appeared barren ground and this week at Lords, despite the weevils and pestilence of last week's Cardiff, the sower watched his boys harvest a bumper crop.

The victory at Lords was based on lots of things which all stem from two facts.

Firstly, Australia's performance a week ago was bad but not a disaster and the players believed that. It was there in their post match comments after Cardiff and pre-match comments before Lords. As Mitch Johnson said in the minutes after the victory at Lords, no one panicked. The coach called it a hiccup. The captain called it a kick in the backside. The selectors did what was necessary and fate helped their cause. The response was measured, assured and based on the success this group of players has achieved in beating England, South Africa and India since. Whilst the media looked for disharmony - even during the Lords Test - the players gathered closer, fed of the resilience of the group and emerged from it convinced that statements made after Cardiff weren't spin but truths spoken with purpose.

Secondly, all of the above is down to the "Lehmann Factor". This seemingly happy-go-lucky, Shrek in human form, the man who lampoons himself even to his casual nomenclature, has the grit learned from the hard things which have impinged not just on his career but on his life.

For years he had an abundance of talent which lay unused at Test level because Australia already had playing opulence and his character didn't seem to fit with the unamused, austere professionalism of the Australia outfit. When finally given his head. late in his playing days, he showed all who doubted him of the error of his omission but with a humility and sincerity we have seen in recent years from Ryan Harris. As a self-decapitator, he is in the master class.

He also lived through the pain of David Hookes. He was there. He saw a mate's pointless end in the street outside a pub after a great day of cricket and a night of laughter and the serious talk of cricket tragics. Such things change a man, give him balance and above all else perspective. He brings that to his work. It's why he often says, "at the end of the day, it's just a game of cricket". He told Robert Craddock in a frank interview in early 2014 "It changed my attitude.I realised cricket was a game and life was more important. When you are at the ground you are driven by what you are doing but once that is done you can't change the past and you can't look too far forward."

From hard times comes resilience. From resilience comes perspective. From perspective comes contentment. Boof Lehmann is a man content with his life and just happy to be given the opportunity to shape others without them having to endure the pain of his own experience but with the insight to know that each man must find their own way. Responsibility over self is the first and most crucial step toward being able to work in partnerships. Selfish individuals may shine occasionally but Lehmann knows that each man should be more concerned with his legacy and the role he has played for his mates and to the greater view of cricket as a game: just a game.

At Cardiff, England were allowed to play the game they wanted: to hatch the plans they had to trap the Australians. They caught Lehmann's team midst the complacency of an outstanding month of cricket in the Caribbean and the early stages of an Ashes tour. Australia's only worries were a surfeit of quality players. As a result, the game was lost on the first day as the captain lost his way and his insight and forgot about his experience of playing and adapting to English conditions. From stumps on that day, the Australians have improved. They lost at Cardiff but it wasn't going to be a habit. England won and were surprised but behind the victory was a fair degree of luck. 50/50 decisions went their way. Root was dropped when England were on their knees and turned loss into profit.

The Australians played their best cricket at Lords. Apart from the last two tours to Blightly, they always have. Lords means more to them than it does England. After all, its a place where they play their domestic games and where they come for meetings. Its a place for business and corporate functions. For the Australians, however, all talk of playing here as being a highlight in their career and a good performance as the pinnacle. The word "special" is overused when Australians talk about the ground but, never the less, with total aptness. It's the place all Australians want to go, to experience at least once, even the fifth grade plonkers who collect ducks with a smile every Saturday.

From thecricketragic's visit in 2012
You don't have to wear the Baggy Green to need to go there at least once in your life. It's why on my only overseas trip, on a rainy mid week day at the end of the northern summer of 2012, I took an sharp intake of breath as I passed through the Grace Gates. I had walked twice as far as I needed to just so my first entrance to the ground could be into history and the next hour or two passed as a combination of checklists and awe. The slope really is huge. The view from the visitors rooms is stunning. The member who led as around was very polite, very stuffy and very condescending in his egg and bacon tie, even though his knowledge of Ashes history was disabled and corrected by this particular antipodean. As a ground, its ordinary: rectangular, that famous slope, a hotch-potch of architecture and without the vast sense of colosseum that Australian stadiums have. You couldn't get lost in the crowd at Lords. Where ever you go, you can be seen from everywhere else, even to the point of being pretty and accidentally missing your seat.

But its Lords and that's what makes the difference.

Australia were superb and England played as well as they could under the circumstances. Alastair Cook and Ben Stokes, courageous and full of fight in the first innings, were bumbling fools the following day, the inevitability of a defeat they didn't see coming falling upon them. James Anderson's twin brother subbed for him and wasn't anywhere near as good, constantly running on the pitch and bringing a smile to Nathan Lyon's face and two second innings wickets to his tally. Stuart Broad, close to their best at Cardiff, was their best at Lords. Like Stokes, he has ticker and he'll fight the Australians on any field at any time. Its why Aussie supporters love to hate him but will quietly admit their admiration for his pluck. The rest were at best disappointing and at worst awful.

Root castled by Hazlewood
Much has been made of Joe Root and his contributions to a new England ethos. Reality struck home at Lords. He was peppered and didn't like it in the first innings and was one of four Josh Hazlewood victims who were bowled, all ends up, during the game. A fifth was lbw, which says all you need to know about the young quick's ability to swing the ball, and land it with accuracy and consistency. The balls which removed Bell in the first and Root in the second, were as good as any thecricketragic has seen a swing bowler deliver in Tests and the equal of Bob Massie in 1972. Root came into the game with runs in Cardiff, but one must remember that he should have been light a hundred. If Haddin snared a catch, Root would be walking away from Lords with 78 runs@19.

Cook and Stokes apart, the English batting six are very vulnerable and it has been exposed in both Tests. Adam Lyth won't play at Edgbaston, Bell shouldn't and Ballance has flaws that the Australians will keep exposing.

The main difference between the sides will be the reaction to loss. Australia have quality cricket in their recent past, played for the last two years with only the visit to the UAE eighteen months ago as a shadow and based their confidence for Lords on that. England, by contrast, have been a side disturbed by volatile and/or damaged personalities, a captain low on the transfer of personal strengths to building confidence in his players and eventual changes to a management which had let rumblings fester. Andrew Strauss has put an end to it and Trevor Bayliss is the right man for the new direction but not in this series. England have played like losers for too long to break the habit and this loss at Lords, coming so immediately after such hope, will damage them and send them back along the well-worn paths of the last three years of ordinary cricket.

Australia don't leave Lords without at least one worry and some thinking to do on selection. The series isn't over and Chris Rogers retirement from the crease in the first overs of the last morning are a real concern. Dizzy spells so soon after a concussion, despite his apparent recovery during the rest of the day, are not to be taken lightly. Two weeks should not be enough time to ensure his health, nor a zeal to win again in Birmingham convincing enough reason for him to play. Shaun Marsh will want a long bat at Derby to make it easier for Rogers and the selectors to retain common sense.

Haddin - a man of honour
Whilst the selection of Mitch Marsh proved successful, it was one Test overdue. Rod Marsh must bite the bullet now and do the same with Brad Haddin. Sad as it is that such a conspicuous team player must leave in such circumstances, Peter Nevill must be retained. This will hurt everyone, not just Haddin, but his similarity to Justin Langer is too great, his loyalty to what best serves the team and his mates too strong, for him to have it any other way. Nevill did a fine job behind the stumps at Lords and batted in a manner Haddin has been unable to since his stellar summer of 2013-14. The advantage to the team won't just be in having the player in the better form on show, but it will be having a man of such experience supporting Nevill in his early days in the Baggy Green. Haddin bought Nevill from Victoria to his own grade club in Sydney and has groomed him ever since. Now is Nevill's time and Haddin is gracious enough to know that. In the end, his highest loyalty is to his family and it is even stronger than the pull of that famous cap. Being able to step aside will relieve his concerns for his daughter.

The ability to bat without responsibility and have a free swing at the ball in Australia's second innings will have done Michael Clarke the world of good. Voges needs some runs but both are likely to play a big innings sometime before August is exhausted. There is little else to tamper with.

thecricketragic, having sung these tunes before Cardiff, is mightily pleased to have had the Australians play true to form at Lords.

Now in the next day, I need is a good night's sleep, a strong cup of coffee and the company of some English friends.

Saturday, 18 July 2015

Kangaroos In The Cricket House of Lords

Steve Smith
They say its best not to judge a wicket until both sides have batted and on a Lords pitch which had served up Australia five hundred plus in almost two days and then reduced England to 4-30 inside eleven overs, the judgment is in.

The pitch might be tending towards dead and slow but the Australians are alive and kicking.

After Steve Smith (215) finally broke the double century barrier after lunch and Peter Nevill (45) showed why he will stay in the Test side, England crashed in the manner of the early overs at Cardiff. Adam Lyth went second ball to Starc (1-29), giving Nevill his first Test catch. Garry Balance (23) hit four boundaries before the introduction of Mitch Johnson; Josh Hazlewood (1-22) cleaned out Ian Bell in the next over and then Johnson (2-16) got the prize wicket of Joe Root in the next and England had lost 3-2 in twelve deliveries.

Ben Stokes (38x) smashed five fours and a six in adding 55 with Alastair Cook (21x) before stumps. This lad is the real deal. He had fielded with great verve during the long, leather chasing overs of the first two days, refusing to believe the ball could ever beat him to any part of the Lords boundary and had been England's best bowler on the first day. In the face of a disaster, he offered his patient captain the best of what he had and spat in the eye of the Australians. Its on the likes of him England are rebuilding their side.

Early in the day, Chris Rogers (173) was finally removed when Stuart Broad (4-83) took an inside edge onto pads and stumps and Michael Clarke was unconvincing before meekly hooking straight to Balance near the umpire at square leg. The rest played cameos as England reigned in the brumby after it had made the safety of the hills.

Ian Bell bowled by Hazlewood
Broad, as in Cardiff, was England's best with the ball, finally given chances at the right time by Cook. He bowled a six over spell for just 11 at the start of the day which included the wicket of Rogers and returned after lunch to claim Adam Voges (25) and Mitch Marsh (12) and then again at the end to claim Johnson and bring on the declaration. Joe Root (2-55) claimed a couple with his wobblers, including the prize of Smith, when he let a shot from another game, in another context, invade the Test space and was out lbw reverse sweeping. Unlike David Warner, a double century will protect you from criticisms of a loss of judgment.

England face a mammoth task if they are to preserve their lead in the series but then, after Cardiff, Australia faced something similar to be considered any chance of retaining the Ashes. Its a long game, this summer obsession, which demands patience and reserved judgment, even on cold Australian winter nights and watched with bleary eyes and handy excuses for bosses and unreasonable spouses on the following morning.

Its the Ashes. What other excuse does one need?