Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Nine Months of Intrigue

It's been a gripping nine months of Test cricket since Australia trounced England and won back the
Ashes last January. For most of the international teams, the results have been a case of good one series followed by disaster the next.

26 Tests spread over 11 series and involving all the Test playing nations, most of them home and away, has proved little in changing rankings. New Zealand and Sri Lanka have been the form teams, with the Lions under Angelo Matthews captaincy winning all three of their series, including away to England in June and at home against the vastly improved Pakistan in August. Surely, it was under the weight of runs by Kumar Sangakkara, the glut of wickets by Rangara Herath and the emotional farewell to Test cricket of Mahela Jayawardene but the Sri Lankans have become a strong unit - at least on slow pitches in Asia and swinging conditions in England. The heat and pace of Australian conditions and bowlers may be another story.

New Zealand have bloomed under Brendon McCullum's captaincy, losing only one series in the six since he took the captaincy from Ross Taylor in March of last year. His pace attack has been largely responsible, with Southee, Boult and Wagner proving most effective with the seam up and McCullum's aggressive captaincy. Their home win against India was the most meritorious, with McCullum making a double century at Eden Park and then a triple in the following match at the Basin Reserve and in doing so, becoming the first Kiwi to pass 300. Martin Crowe's 299 on the same ground, thirteen years earlier against Sri Lanka had been the nearest beforehand. Ross Taylor's return to the side has healed a wound and the gradual emergence of Kane Williamson has given the side much needed batting spine. It may not be entirely lucky coincidence that the most negative of cricketers, Dan Vettori, has been absent through injury for all of that time.

South Africa have held onto their number one spot, despite losing at home to an emphatic Australia last March, who were completing their best six months in Test cricket since Michael Clarke assumed the captaincy. As usual, the contest was spoiled by a lack of matches and until series between the top two teams on the ICC ladder can be a guaranteed five matches, then ranking will mean little. The number of Tests compared to series tells most of the story, with most series clipped by at least one match to accommodate endless, mindless games of the shortened form. The sub-continent and their bookmakers demand it, as to officials from the same part of the world. It's a long time since a crowd came to a Test match in India, despite their opponents, because rock stars only perform in short bursts.

India have been the greatest flop of all, losing both their series away in New Zealand and England. After flogging an England that was rebuilding their batting order and reeling from the execution of Kevin Pietersen, they capitulated to lose the series 3-1. Even the ebuliant and defiant Virat Kohli could only average 13 in ten innings and though Dhoni's batting was solid and his keeping good, his captaincy was as lax as ever, preferring to drift with the ebbing tide rather than steer the boat to safer waters. Life without Tendulkar is proving hard, especially on the road. India haven't won a series away since 2010 and this summer in Australia doesn't look like bucking that trend. The latest revelations, backed by the Little Master Himself, that Greg Chappell is to blame for India's endemic woes seems to conveniently forget the corruption beseiged IPL and a succession of officials who have pocketed rupees with the same haste an Indian curry acts on an unsuspecting touring cricketer in Mumbai. The fact that their on field leader has such strong links to this dirty money trail is less imaginative than the Chappell yarn but likely to be a more accurate source of blame.

Misbah-ul-Haq
Pakistan remain difficult to beat in their new home in the UAE. Since moving there four years ago, they haven't lost a series and that includes hosting South Africa, Australia, England and Sri Lanka. Their recent drubbing of an over confident Australian outfit was no real surprise. On the slow wickets at Adu Dhabi and Dubai, they bat with infinite patience, prepared to take two days batting first and building a score and then allowing their spin attack to work away at visiting batsmen, beating them mostly in mind games than off the pitch. The shrewd captaincy of Misbah-ul-Haq completely over shadowed the froth and bubble that Michael Clarke likes to exude and without a pitch to upset opposition batsmen who fix to the centre like barnacles, the Australia skipper lacked ammunition.

That's not to say all his bowlers were lame. Mitchel Johnson, in particular, was impressive in conditions completely unsuited to his style and strengths. The new maturity which emerged against England last summer shone through again and India may pay in the coming months on pace friendly decks. Nathan Lyon was given ever chance to lead his side's bowling attack and proved ineffective. Competitor yes but he needs a lot more in his armory to worry international batsmen. Has Darren Lehmann forgotten the name Ashley Mallett. Rowdy is the best offie Australia has fielded since the 1940's and was the forgotten man in Chappelli's bowling attack of the early 1970's. Please arrange a meeting and introduce the groundsman to drift and dip. On the whole, the bowling lacked a consistent line, the field placings attacked at all costs, rather than contained when it was demanded and seasoned professionals such as Younis Khan set the tone and never had it challenged.

You know your bowlers are demoralised when a careful and fairly average batsman such as Misbah, whose career strike rate is 43, turns all Viv Richards on you.

As Ricky Ponting has commented, the Australians lacked patience and this was backed by some bizarre selections. Hopefully, Glen Maxwell has proven his merit, once and for all, at this most important level of the game. Wiser heads than this correspondent have said that a quality Test cricketer can adapt to any form of the game but that making a transition in the reverse direction is extremely difficult. To use the lingo of an old team mate and seasoned Sydney paceman Phil Melville, Maxwell batted like a muppet, so badly in fact, that even thecricketragic would agree that Phil Hughes would have always been an infinitely better selection under the circumstances. Then again, why jettison Alex Doolan? His batting in South Africa against a hostile attack was a solid start to a Test career and yet he was abandoned after an on-the-line run out in the first innings and a duck in the second and still equaled his captain's match aggregate.

Still work to do on the
sub-continent
Mitchell Marsh was a pleasant surprise. David Warner and Steve Smith reminded those who still doubt them that they have more to them than their early career indicated. Grit, one thinks.

As much as Clarke and Lehmann's tactics paid great dividends at home and away last summer, they were useless in the UAE. The better batsmen play back on slow wickets. There was little or no spin to worry the Australians, despite fears of cobras batting last. Lehmann was right. Most got out to straight balls playing the wrong length. Most were impatient. Most went in with the wrong game plan and failed to adapt. Drawing Test matches should never be the aim but its better than losing them and looking inept whilst doing it.

Near where thecricketragic lives, there are poultry farms which produce more than 17 million eggs annually. Not all of them are spread on Clarke and Lehmann's face following the Emirates Embarrassment ... just most.