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Tuesday, December 14, 2010

How to tame the Saffers in their own den?


In a few days time, the number one side in test cricket India would lock horns with the number two side South Africa for test supremacy. It promises to be a mouth watering contest between the top two teams in the rankings. I do expect a closely fought series, though it would have been better, if it was a four match series instead of it being a three match series.

I am sure that already about 1000's of previews must have been written on the upcoming series South Africa. To be frank, I am bored of writing previews, so this time around, I will look at why South Africa is known as a fortress for visiting teams and how can a visiting team upset the applecart and defeat South Africa in their own den?

South Africa is a fortress 


India are ranked the number one side as per the ICC rankings, but they have a task on their hands as for most teams playing the Saffers in their own den is like being confronted by a fortress. Since their re-introduction to test cricket in 91/92, the only team which has consistently defeated the Saffers is Australia. Australia haven't just defeated them, but I would rather say that they have been able to dominate South Africa as since 93/94, they have only lost three dead rubber matches in South Africa. Even in 93/94, South Africa were able to just draw a series against Australia. The only other team to succeed in South Africa was England in 04/05. England had a good side at that time as after beating South Africa, the same team went onto do the unthinkable and that was to beat the all conquering Aussies in 05.

For rest of the teams though, it has been a different story as none of them have been able to win a series in South Africa. Especially the subcontinent teams have really struggled in South Africa. Pakistan have won a couple of matches and India won their first match in South Africa in 06/07, but neither of them could win a series in South Africa. There is hope, as in recent times South Africa have looked a bit more vulnerable at home. Even when India were struggling in 06/07, they won a match at Wanderers, Pakistan too won a match in 06/07, the struggling Windies side won a match at Port Elizabeth in 07/08, the Aussies weren't at their best when they defeated South Africa in 08/09 and last year, England could have won the series, but the Saffers came back strongly by winning the last test at Wanderers to draw the series 1-1. When it comes to subcontinental teams, a combination of not just extra pace and bounce, but also a touch of sideways movement is a hurdle which they have struggled to overcome.

Blueprint of South Africa's success at home


So what is the secret behind South Africa's success at home? It doesn't take rocket science to understand that they have played better cricket than most teams at home, but there are a few key factors which perhaps makes them a better unit than most other sides at home.

I do believe one of the major factors for South Africa's success at home is, over the years, they have consistently produced a battery of hit the deck bowlers, who seem to be manufactured in a factory in Capetown or Durban. Let it be the metronomic Mathews, Macmillan, Nel, Hayward or even the likes of Elworthy, they all tended to bowl back of a length and just wide of off-stump. None of them would give the opposition a chance to play the cut shot as they rarely ever bowled short and wide. In the end, the batsmen would get frustrated and lose his wicket. Actually, I may also include Shaun Pollock as only early in his career was he nippy and had a dangerous bouncer, but as the years went by, he sacrificed pace to become another of those robotic hit the deck medium pacer. Make no mistake that Saffers have also produced a few genuine strike bowlers like Donald, Schultz,(for a very brief period) Pollock,(early in his career) Steyn and to a lesser extent Ntini, but their ability to produce back up seamers, who specialise in bowling back of a length has surely helped them to do well.

The Saffers have usually treated the spinners as second class citizens. Even if they pick a spinner, he would likely play the role of a defensive bowler, someone who can do the holding job by restricting the batsmen from scoring runs. Paul Harris is a very good example of a bowler, who mainly bowls from over the wicket and  looks to do a holding job.Even when they picked a spinner, who is slightly more attacking like "Frog in the blender" Paul Adams, they used him in a defensive mode. I do remember well respected former crcketers like Simpson and Benaud being critical of the then captain Cronje for forcing the chinaman bowler Adams to bowl from around the wicket with negative fields in the series in Australia in 97/98.

South Africa have tended to pack their batting line-up with all-rounders. Unlike most sides, South Africa in the past have gone in with couple or sometimes even three all-rounders in a game. Now, neither Klusner nor say Boje may have great records as all-rounders, but players like Klusner were a vital cog in the Saffer side, especially at home. In the past, the opposing captain knew that even if his main bowler takes the wicket of say Boucher and Pollock, there would be either Klusner or Boje waiting in the wings. In the end, the visiting team's  key fast bowler would just get dead tired as it isn't a child's play to bowl for a long-time on those hard wickets of South Africa as it can hurt a fast bowler's ankle and knee. A player like Klusner would take advantage of it and flog the tiring attack to all corners of the ground. So, even if a visiting team made early inroads into the Saffer batting line-up, they always knew that battery of all-rounders may just take the game away from them with their power-hitting. Of course, they have always tried to show, who is the boss in the field, especially against subcontinental teams with their fielding.

1)a) Australia's success in South Africa


The general feeling among fans and experts is that Australia's success in South Africa was due to them having a great side in the past, but there is no doubt in my mind that they carefully studied that tactics of South Africa and out-thought them.

Top-order-One of the key reasons for Australia's success is, their top-order batsmen have been able to counter the strategy of the Saffer quicks by taking calculated risks which in turn has left the Saffer captains pressing the panic button.

South African captains, let it be Wessels, Cronje, Pollock, or for that matter Smith love to have control over a match by squeezing the opposition with their battery of seamers, but against Australia, it has flopped miserably. The best example I can think of would be the 01/02 series when the likes of Haydos, Langer and Punter consistently ripped apart the Saffer seam attack with their aggressive batting. In the series played in 01/02, Haydos averaged 61.8 and his S/R was 65.88, Langer averaged just 30 yet his S/R was 93.82 and finally, Punter averaged 77.25 with a S/R of 76.48. The calculated risks taken by the top-order paved the way for the likes of Gilly and Martyn to feast on a demoralised opposition. Once the Saffers are attacked upfront, I have rarely seen a Saffer captain come up with a Plan B.

If I scratch the surface and look deeper into it, I can see how important the assault by the top-order was. In the first test at Wanderers, Haydos scored 122 at a S/R of 64.55, Langer though scored only 28, he did it in just 31 balls and Punter got his 40 only in 56 balls. The result was, the likes of Gilly, Martyn and even Junior, who was coming to the end of his career came up against a confused team as their highly successful tactic of bowling back of a length wasn't successful. On expected lines, both Gilly and Martyn made a mincemeat of the opposition attack with Gilly even getting the fastest double hundred at that time. Yes, it is always great to have a player like Gilly at seven, but it was the top-order which paved the way for the likes of Martyn and Gilly to attack a confused bowling line-up by scoring at a fair clip.

In the second test again the top-order came to the party and that too with Australia chasing a rather stiff target of 331. Langer got his 58 runs in 74 balls, Haydos got 96 in 141 balls and Punter got a century in 160 balls. The Aussies won that match by five wickets and wrapped up the series even before the final match of the series.

Australia followed a similar pattern in 08/09 as both the young Phil Hughes and Punter played aggressive cricket by taking on the Saffer quick bowlers. Phil Hughes was brutal as he got couple of centuries and ended up with 415 runs at an average 69.16 with a S/R of almost 60. Punter couldn't do as well as Hughes, but he too got his runs at a good S/R of 62.87. I still remember Punter's knock of 83 in the first test at Wanderers, when in-spite of Australia losing a few early wickets, he didn't slow down, but made  a fine half century. For the umpteenth time, when a few top-order batsmen took the attack to the Saffer camp their captain seemed to be bereft for ideas. It was clear that when Hughes got both those centuries, the Saffer quicks Morkel and Steyn were out of sorts as instead of following Hughes and bowling short, both were feeding to Hughes's strength by bowling short and wide. Smith could have tried plan B of introducing a spinner in the first test at Wanderers, but the stubborn Smith kept giving the seamers the ball. He  finally gave Harris the chance to bowl and guess what? it took mere fourteen deliveries for Harris to dismiss Hughes. Incidentally in the final test, the lone spinner in the Saffer camp Harris got the wicket of Hughes in both the first and the second innings.

The only time the Australian top-order struggled to come to grips against the disciplined Saffer attack was in 96/97. The reason for it was, their captain Taylor was out of touch and Haydos was confronted by a quick bowler called Donald, but the middle-order of Waugh twins and Blewett rallied around the top-order by playing crucial knocks. The older Waugh and Blewett came up with what turned out to be a match winning partnership at Wanderers and Junior played a special knock on a dicey track at PE.

b) England's triumph in 04/05

 The only other team to beat South Africa in their own backyard since their re-introduction to test cricket was England in 04/05. Yet again the openers were the key to success as Strauss amassed 656 runs with three hundreds to his name. His partner Trezza made 448 runs with two hundreds to his name.Yes, neither of them scored as quickly as the Aussie batsmen, but strike-rates of over 50 in South African conditions isn't bad either. I still remember that mammoth partnership of 282 between the two for the first wicket at Durban.The Saffers had got a seizable first innings lead, but Trezza and Strauss turned the match on its head with that huge partnership as suddenly England were able to score well in excess of 500 and South Africa had to bat on the last day. In the game at Wanderers, Trezza perhaps decided it is time to smash the disciplined bowling attack to smithereens as he got 180 at a S/R in excess of 70.The Saffers including their  captain Smith yet again looked lost as the seamers Pollock, Ntini and Kallis kept bowling back of a length and Trezza continued to make merry.


Actually, even in the shorter formats of the game Smith has come across as a rigid captain. Can anyone remember him using Steyn in the middle overs, though he is a strike bowler in the T/20 WC in West Indies?   I wonder, whether Saffer captains write all the tactics in a piece of paper before coming to the ground and continue to follow it as the holy bible.


2) Wrist spinners

 Mark Taylor took a huge gamble in 96/97 by using Bevan as a frontline spinner as he thought that Saffers are good against finger spinners, but can struggle against wrist spinners.He was heavily criticised for picking Bevan, but his hunch worked as Bevan was deadly, especially against the lower order batsmen of South Africa. The all-rounders  in the Saffer camp were a menace for opposition teams, but Taylor's gamble of picking Bevan did the trick as none of them could get going against him. In-fact, during the first test at Wanderers, Cronje seemed very confident of avoiding defeat as they had a very long batting line-up and the track was flat. Unfortunately for him, Bevan got the last four wickets within four or five overs as Australia crushed Saffers by an innings and 196 runs!! Ponting tried the same tactic in 08/09 at Capetown as they selected a leg spinner in McGain, but if a spinner can't land too many deliveries and continues to bowl full-tosses, a captain can't be blamed. It maybe first test nerves for Mcgain, but he was very poor at Capetown in 08/09.

So, what can India do to win in South Africa?


I don't think anyone can deny that just like other subcontinental teams, India have an abysmal record in the Rainbow nation as they have won only one out of the twelve tests they have played. So, what are the reasons for India's poor performance in the Safferland? A few may point out that India  have rarely been able to muster a decent bowling attack to take twenty wickets away from home, but if I see the records, it is clear that India's much vaunted batting line-up has flopped miserably in South Africa.

To be fair to the Indian batsmen most of their recent success away from home has been built on back of huge scores made by the likes of Sehwag, Tendulkar, Dravid, Laxman and co. which in turn has given the slightly inferior bowling attack, the chance to attack the opposition, but that hasn't been the case in South Africa. It is obvious that top-order of India has been blown away in the past by the disciplined Saffer pace attack.

If I look at the past averages of some of the top-order batsmen, it doesn't make for good reading. Let it be in 92/93, 96/97, 01/02, or in 06/07, the Saffers have been able to do what they love the most, to squeeze the opposition batsmen into making mistakes by bowling back of a length. For a cricket connoisseur, it isn't great to watch, but there is no denying the fact that they have mastered the art of hitting the deck to near perfection.

In 92/93, the pace trio of Srinath, Kapil and Prabakar as well as the lone spinner at that time Kumble were able to bowl out the Saffers for reasonably low scores, but just look at the averages of the  top-order  batsmen.

Ajay Jadeja

Average- 24.75
S/R-32.56

Shastri

Average -11.8
S/R-14.32

Manjrekar

Average-23.2
S/R-24.42

The Saffers must have really loved bowling to batsmen as negative as Shastri and Manjrekar. The top-order clearly played into South Africa's hands with their negative approach. The only Indian batsmen, who perhaps took up the challenge was Kapil Dev as he averaged over 40 and made a stunning hundred at Port Elizabeth, but the top-order just wasn't good enough as India lost the series.

A similar pattern followed in 96/97 with India picking couple of  openers, who perhaps weren't test standard in Raman and Rathore. More than a few would pick Rathore in their worst X1 of all time. Again the likes of Srinath and Prasad did well with a ball in hand, but they lacked a third seamer and of course, the top-order was again poor. In 06/07, Sehwag tried to do something about it as he scored his runs at a S/R of 66.48, but he could average only 26.44. Yes, it is great that he tried to break the shackles of the disciplined Saffer attack by going after the bowling, but that isn't enough as in test matches, 20's and 30's aren't good enough. There is no doubt that India's chances of winning the series this time around hinges on whether S'wag can not just score quickly, but can he get big scores like Haydos, Trezza and Strauss. The one advantage he has got is, at last India seem to have found a partner for him in Ghambir. Ghambir is a competent batsman, but sometimes in an attempt to match Sehwag, he has thrown his wicket away.

It isn't just Sehwag  though, who has struggled as rest of the batsmen too haven't been at their best in South Africa. Dravid averages just 33.6 and his S/R is in 30's. The only time he really did well was when he scored a 100 at Wanderers in 96/97, but that came in a dead rubber. The Saffers won't mind bowling to Dravid as it suits them well. Even the great Tendulkar hasn't been at his best in SA as he averages just around 40 in the Safferland. He made a magnificent hundred at Capetown in 96/97, when he perhaps got fed up by the failure of the top-order batsmen and decided to go after the bowling. SRT also got a 100 at Bloemfontein in 01/02, but other than that he has been disappointing. The one man I haven't talked about is Very Very Special Laxman. In-spite of batting against the older ball he averages 41.11. To be fair to Laxman, he looks much better when the ball comes onto the bat on hard wickets of South Africa and Australia. If I am the captain, I would take the gamble of batting Laxman at three and Dravid at six as the Saffers won't be able to control the game, but I don't see that happening. Anyway, it is perhaps the last chance for the golden generation of Indian batting line-up consisting of stalwarts like Tendulkar, Dravid, Laxman and maybe even Sehwag to prove their worth in the Rainbow nation.

In cricketing circles, there is a lot of talk about how can India take twenty wickets, but assuming that Zaheer would be fit, I see them doing reasonably well. Both Sharma and Sreesnath can blow hot and cold, but the major worry is Harbhajan. On South African pitches, it is difficult for a spinner to take wickets. Either a spinner should be a decent wrist spinner, or should be able to beat the batsman in the air like Swann did on a good batting track at Durban in 09/10. In the past, the hard-working Kumble kept India in the game by taking crucial wickets in South Africa. In 92/93, he took 18 wickets at 25.94 and in 06/07, he 14 wickets at just 24.71. In-fact, he played a key role in India's first ever win at Wanderers in 06/07 by taking five wickets for just 56 runs. The only other way to take twenty wickets is perhaps by having a four pronged pace attack, but the caveat is, all four bowlers should be good. England won the series in 04/05 as the bowling attack consisted of four fine quick bowlers.

If I look at the opposition, India would be happy that unlike before, Saffers don't seem to have good back up seamers and neither do they have the likes of Pollock, Klusner and Macmillan to come down the order and destroy opposition pace attacks. Neither Tsotsobe nor Parnell are traditional hit the deck bowlers, especially Tsotsobe looks to swing the ball and I don't think he would worry the Indian batsmen. Ryan McLeran can do better as his bowling is better suited to Saffer wickets. Actually, I am not even convinced of Morne Morkel as he can blow hot and cold.

The Saffers have also come across as a team which seems to have a fear of losing as even when they need to go for the kill, they rarely do it. I can instantly think of couple of examples. In 04/05, England were 2-1 up going into the last match at Centurion, but the tactics employed by the Saffers were weird as  Kallis took a long-time before he got going.  In the end, South Africa declared, but England were left with just 44 overs to bat and yet they lost four wickets in those 44 overs. The key point to look at is, it was South Africa who were 2-1 down in the series. Just recently against Pakistan, the Saffers were already ahead by 150 runs after the completion of the first innings, but in the second innings instead of going for a win, the batsmen seemed to be intent on getting some batting practice. How else can you explain Prince getting 47 of 97 balls, Kallis 10 of 37 balls and Boucher 15 of 40 balls? It seemed like a team that was thinking of de-accelerating as the likes of Amla and De Villiers were aggressive at the start of the innings. In the end, they only got 67 overs to bowl at Pakistan and even the likes of Roberts, Marshall, Holding and Garner may have struggled to take ten wickets on that flat pitch at Dubai in just 67 overs.

Finally, in simple words, it can be called as the final frontier for India as South Africa is one place India have struggled big time. For India to win, they need their much vaunted batting line-up to fire. If the batsmen, especially the one and only Sehwag gets struck into the Saffer camp, they have a chance as India can get big scores and in the past Saffers have crumbled under pressure. You don't need to look any further than the game at Durban or Calcutta, when the Saffer batting line-up crumbled.

(Caution-A Saffer fan may not like the article but maybe it can be sent to Gary Kirsten? only if he is thinking of helping his former team)

Saturday, December 11, 2010

My views on Australian bowling attack


                          Can Australia find another Merv Hughes?

Since Australia's debacle at Adelaide, I have kept reading Sky commentators like Hussain, Atherton and co. or even other experts stressing on the fact that as Australia don't have McGrath and Warne in their ranks, they are now a second rate side. Having watched Australia's domination for the past two decades, I wonder whether that statement is true? Throughout the late 80's and early 90's when they were a good side, or during the later part of the 90's and in the last decade when Aus were a great side, I always believed that strength of Australian bowling attack was whenever the main bowlers like McDermott, McGrath, Warne  and co. got injured, or were slightly out of form, the back up bowlers would step up-to the plate and lead the bowling attack. In-fact, Australia always seem to have a rich tradition of producing bowlers, who may not be talented, but always have a big heart which in turn helped them to perform well even when Australia fielded a depleted side and they were forced to lead the attack.

During the last two decades, Australia have continued the rich tradition of producing bowlers, who seemed to be ready to even bang their heads to a concrete wall for the sake of their team. Seamers like Hughes, Kasper, Fleming, Reiffel and Bichel were nowhere in the class of McGrath, or not even in the class of Dizzy, Reid, McDermott and Lee, but no one can point a finger at them for lack of effort. All the above mentioned bowlers had big hearts who could do the donkey's work of bowling with a older ball and if needed, could easily lead the attack in the absence of main bowlers.

In this article, I would look at a few lion-hearted bowlers Australia has produced during the last two decades and how can the Aussies again have a bowling attack that can take twenty wickets.


Merv Hughes- When the Victorian fast bowler first came onto the scene during the 86/87 Ashes series most experts reckoned that it would be his first and last Ashes series as he was rubbish. Big Merv though, just kept proving his critics wrong and ended up with more than 200 wickets to his name. Actually, if I think about his run-up, his action, or the way he behaved, he came across as a bull in a China shop, but Oh! god, he was mighty effective as a bowler. He forged a great partnership with the Queenslander McDermott during the late 80's and early 90's. If McDermott was around, Hughes would act as the back-up seamer, but as soon Billy the Kid got injured, he easily took up the mantle of being the attack leader.

In 88/89 against the all conquering West Indies side, the big Merv suddenly had to lead the attack as there was no McDermott. Worse was to follow as Lawson got struck on his jaw by a lifting delivery from the giant Ambrose and had to be carried out of the ground on a stretcher. Our man Hughes though, didn't let the team down as he bowled 73.1 overs in that match and took 13 wickets for 217 runs! He seemed to thrive when he was confronted with a challenge as he was pitted against the all conquering West Indies side and in the second innings, Aussies were left with just three bowlers because of the injury to Lawson. Hughes rose to the occasion like a Trojan by doing well in adverse circumstances as he improved upon his first innings performance by taking 8 for 87 in the second innings. The proverb when the going gets tough, the tough gets going can be aptly used to describe the big Merv.

In-fact, his 13 wicket haul against the great West Indies side also included a hat-trick though no one seemed to have noticed it as couple of his wickets came in the first innings and his third wicket came during the first ball of the second innings. Anyway, his efforts didn't help Australia from crashing to another defeat against the Windies side, but Hughes proved to everyone that he could be relied upon to raise his game even against the best. In 1990/91, he again raised his game against the marauding Windies team by taking 19 wickets. In that series, none other than Hughes and McDermott took more than 10 wickets. The next best were part-timers like Mark Waugh and Allan Border. Even during the 93 Ashes series, it wasn't just Warne  who did the damage, but in the absence of the injured McDermott, Hughes led the seam attack by taking 30 odd wickets. Hughes was never a purists delight, but he was a man with a big heart.

Kasprowicz- When I first saw the Queenslander in 96/97, I thought he wasn't test standard and would soon fade away from scene. I was though completely wrong as the same Kasper went onto play seventeen of his tests on the barren tracks of the subcontinent and took his wickets at under 30 on those flat tracks.

Kasper first showed his class at Edgbaston against England in 97. On the face of it, the Aussies had a star studded bowling attack as the likes of McGrath, Warne and Dizzy were playing, but in reality none of them were at their best during that test match. It is strange but true that for once McGrath and Warne bowled like mere mortals. On the other hand, Dizzy was troubled by a shoulder injury and could only bowl ten overs. In-fact, that was the only match in which I saw the slightly underrated McGrath looking lost for ideas.  It didn't stop our man Kasper from trying hard though, as in-spite of Australian attack suddenly looking like a one man attack, Kasper toiled hard by bowling 40 overs and took four wickets at an economy rate of under three. It didn't stop England from cruising to a fantastic ten wicket win, but thanks to Kasper and brave fightback by the batsmen in the second innings, Australia weren't humiliated like we saw at Adelaide.

Kasper's best spells perhaps came in India in 98. With McGrath and Dizzy out of the side due to injuries and Tendulkar's  brutal assault on Warne made sure that the inexperienced Kasper suddenly became the number one bowler. On unresponsive tracks of the subcontinent, Tendulkar took a heavy toll on Kapser as well. Poor Kapser, as especially during Tendulkar's epic knock at Chennai, it seemed like every-time Kapser bowled to SRT, the ball would just disappear into stands, but Kasper kept running in and maintained decent pace throughout the series. Finally, he was rewarded for his hard-wrok as Kasper took a five wicket haul at Bangalore. His ability to bowl at consistent pace and the reverse swing he extracted from that surface helped him to get a five wicket haul. Kasper's average during that series  just won't tell the true story, as leaving a few decent spells by the novice off-spinner Robertson, it was a one man attack. Poor Kasper is said to have lost six kilos during that series.

Kasper's efforts in that series though, unfortunately made the selectors to think of him as a subcontinental specialist as he went onto play seventeen of his 38 tests in the subcontinent. Kasper didn't lose heart as later on  in his career, he played a key role in Australia's three nil thrashing of Lanka in 03/04. McGrath was injured and they needed someone to open the bowling with Dizzy and in Kasper they found the right man as he took twelve wickets at just 25. Fans talk about how good Warne was in that series, but the series result could have been different if Kasper hadn't led the seam attack by not just taking twelve wickets, but by also restricting the batsmen from scoring runs on unresponsive tracks for the seamers.

In 2004/05, when Australia won a historic series in India, both Dizzy and McGrath rightly were showered with praises for their superlative bowling in the subcontinent. The fact though is, without Kasper's ability to bowl with the older ball, Australia may not have won the series. In a sense, he did all the donkey's work by bowling with a soft ball in the middle overs. His strike rate of over 70 during that series was nothing to write home about, but his bowling average of 28.33 and  his E/R  of just 2.35 tells us that without him, Australia may have struggled as it is one helluva task to bowl with the older ball under severe heat in the subcontinent. At Adelaide, Punter may have even given one of his eyes and a teeth, if someone had just whispered in his ears that in Sheffield Shield there is a bowler whose E/R is 2.35 and can also take wickets on flat pitches.

Paul Reiffel- When Reiffel or popularly known as Pistol first came onto the scene, he was thought of as a one-day bowler, but with time, he became a fine test match bowler as well. In 94/95 during the epic Frank Worrell trophy, he showed his worth by taking 15 wickets at just 17.53. The tour started on a bad note for Australia, as Australia got thrashed in the one-day series, their spearhead McDermott got injured and Warne was rendered ineffective thanks to big hitting by Hooper and Lara. Going into the test series, West Indies were expected to retain the Frank Worrell trophy,  but a young seam attack and of course the famous partnership between Waugh twins made sure that Taylor would lift the prestigious Frank Worrell trophy.

When the epic series held in 95 comes up for discussion, everyone talks about McGrath, as that was the series in which McGrath showed to the cricketing world that Australia may have unearthed another great fast bowler, but in my opinion it was Reiffel who led the attack. Every-time there was a partnership between couple of Windies batsmen, Reiffel seemed to raise to the occasion and get the vital wicket. I still remember the last test at Jamaica, when Australia looked for quick wickets in the second innings, it was Reiffel who came to the party by knocking over top-order batsmen at the fag end of the fourth day's play. It was like a final nail in the coffin as with both Richardson and Lara back in the pavilion, the game was as good as over.

In 96/97, Australia again squared up against the men from the Caribbean. This time around though, Australia were comfortably the better side and they wrapped up the series even before the final match at Perth. In the match at Perth, Aussies seemed to be a bit off colour which was expected as they had already lost the series. Even the greats McGrath and Warne weren't at their best, but Reiffel  rose to the occasion and led the attack beautifully by taking a five wicket haul. Pistol couldn't save Australia from being defeated by a detemrined Windies side, but he again showed that Australia wasn't just about McGrath and Warne.

Reiffel continued to do yeoman service for Australia. In 97/98, against the Saffers, OZ again missed the services of both Dizzy and McGrath, but Reiffel led the seam attack in the last couple of tests and averaged 23.6 for his wickets. Pistol was also good in English conditions as he consistently did well in England. Just like bowlers from the previous generations, he was yet another Aussie seamer who had a big heart and never gave up.

I can remember a few more bowlers like Bichel and Fleming who were successful. I always thought that Fleming was a talented cricketer as he could swing the ball like a banana. In his chequered test career Fleming was able to support McGrath as a back up bowler and at the same-time, he led the pace attack a few times. Bichel too did well for Australia during the late 90's and early noughties. I do remember him bowling some great spells during the 03 WC. Australia had yet again lost the injury prone Dizzy,  but in his absence Bichel did very well. It just shows that Australia has always produced an assembly line of seamers, who could  get into the team as back up bowlers, but if needed, they could easily lead the attack as well. They were men with a big heart.

I can say the same about the spinners as bowlers like Tim May and even Colin funky Miller were reasonably successful as off-spinners. I would even say that mediocre leg  spinners like Sleep, Holland and McIntyre, or chinaman bowlers like Hogg and Beven may do a better job than the left arm spinners, who are getting selected for Australia now. None of the spinners were anywhere near the class of Warne, or even Macgill, but I would back Tim May or Miller to do a better job than few of present day left arm spinners Australia are keen on selecting.

Now, let us look at Australia's current bowling attack


Seamers


Siddle-Everyone in the media showered praises on Siddle for his six wicket haul on the first day at Gabba, but the reality was, it came on a pitch which had a bit of life in it on the first day and against a batting line-up which was slightly off colour. It maybe attributed to first day jitters of a Ashes series as after the first day's play,  England's batsmen have been unstoppable.

Actually, when he first burst onto the scene in 08/09, I thought Australia have found another Hughes as he bowled a few decent spells on the barren tracks in India. He was even more impressive in South Africa albeit in bowler friendly conditions. Since then though, he has been disappointing as every-time I have watched him bowl, he seems to believe that the only way to get wickets on flat tracks is by bowling harmless bouncers. If he continues to bowl short in the ongoing Ashes series, I don't expect him to ever again get the wicket of KP as he swatted all those short deliveries like flies at Adelaide. I still think Australian selectors should show faith in him, but Siddle has to stop bowling so many harmless bouncers.

Hilfenhaus- In the present bowling line-up, he is perhaps the only bowler who can bowl line and length. There is a lot to like about him as he has a nice and easy action, can generate decent pace and can bowl a fine outswinger, but is that enough to succeed in test cricket?

The problem with Hilfy is, a good batsman can work him out rather easily as he mainly bowls the outswinger with the new ball and brings it back into a right-handed batsman  with the older ball. It would help Hilfy, if he follows in the footsteps of Hoggy by adding an effective inswinger and even off-cutter. Hoggy too struggled early in his career on flat pitches in Australia, but with time, he added more weapons to his armoury and became a fine swing bowler. Just look at Hilfy's record against better batting line-ups like South Africa, India and England which in turn shows that Hilfy has to improve his wicket-taking ability.

It was unfortunate that Aussie selectors dropped him after just one bad game at Brisbane. It was a classic case of revolving door policy that England followed in the 90's and even Australia themselves followed in the 80's. Australian selectors should back him as with time, I see him doing well.

Mitchell Johnson- Mitch looked every bit the strike bowler that Australian selectors were looking for after the retirement of both McGrath and Warne against South Africa at home and against the same team in South Africa. Mitch frightened every Saffer batsmen with awkward bounce and pace, but to be called a strike bowler, he has to do well for a considerable period of time. Unfortunately for Australia, he hasn't been able to replicate his performance against the Saffers. In-fact, ever since the series in South Africa, he hasn't even remotely looked like a strike bowler as most of the times, he has bowled rubbish. Mitch continues to bowl first change which isn't the sign of a strike bowler and even bowls with a scrambled seam. The biggest worry is,  he doesn't come across as a mentally tough cricketer.

If Mitch gets back his wicket-taking ability, he may find a place in the Australian team in the years to come, but I somehow don't see him as a long-term investment.

Ryan Harris-He was the best of a bad bunch at Adelaide which more than anything else says how bad other seamers were. Yes, he can bowl at decent pace and get a bit of seam movement, but the fact is, he is already 31 and won't be a long-term investment. Australia have also used Bollinger in recent times. The NSW left armer is Australia's answer to Sidebottom as he ripped through weak batting line-ups like Pakistan and New Zealand as they couldn't play the left armer's angle and his ability to generate decent pace. Against a better team like England though, he wasn't test standard at Adelaide. I was even more surprised by his inability to generate decent pace against England.

I have also seen a few fans discussing about test discard Stuart Clark. If Clark has to comeback into the side, then Australia must be in big trouble as he looked like a spent force when he bowled against India and in England. I do remember him trying lots of slower deliveries at both Headingley and Oval which in itself tells you that Clark can't comeback into the test team. Australia can look towards youth by introducing  a few youngsters like Hazelwood, Copeland, George, or maybe even Strac.

Spinners


It is crystal clear that since the retirement of Warne, Australia have been struggling to find even a decent spinner. The cupboard is bare as the selectors are nowadays selecting ordinary left arm spinners. If someone had told me in the 90's that Australian selectors will select mediocre left arm spinners in the future, I  would have laughed it off as a joke, but that is the reality now as the Aussies seem to be obsessed with selecting left arm spinners.

In the last two decades, the only left arm spinner I can think of having a bowling average of less than 40 even after playing 10 tests in Australia is Vettori and he too averaged just under 40. The likes of Monty, Benn, or Muscles(Raju) were just about ok, but they only played two or three tests in Australia.  Even the immensely talented Murali Kartik took just one wicket in Australia. Here is a bowler, who can flight the ball, get turn and bowl a well disguised arm ball, but when he too can't succeed in Australia, there isn't even a hope in hell for the likes of Doherty and Beer.

I have already made my views clear about Doherty not being a test standard spinner and it looks like the same can be said about Beer. As per a few knowledgeable Aussie fans, Beer is said to be a floaty type non-turning conventional left arm spinner. It is unbelievable that Aussies are so intent on having left arm spinners as before Doherty, I have to go as far back as early 80's, when they selected couple of left arm spinners in Ray Bright and Murray Bennett. It just shows that Australian selectors are desperate and are trying too many options.

Australia also have a couple more spinners in  Hauritz and Smith. I have never rated Hauritz as a test match spinner. Yes, he did well in 09, but I do believe it was due to him bowling against weak teams like West Indies and Pakistan. Pakistan's batsmen were crazy in the series they played against Australia, as they seemed to be intent on slogging every-time Hauritz bowled which resulted in them gifting wickets to Hauritz. Fans argue that Hauritz struggled only against India, who are rated as the best players of spin, but let me point out that even the Kiwi batsmen smashed him all over the park in the Kiwiland and they don't have good players of spin.

More than Hauritz, I do like the young Smith's temperament. At present, he can't play in the line-up just as a spinner, but I would still have him in the side as a allrounder. Recently at Hobart against England, he showed that he has a good temperament as with a bat in hand, he scored a fifty in bowler friendly conditions. I liked the way he constructed that innings as he respected the conditions and tried to play late. Rest of the batsmen including the highly rated Ferguson and Khawaja couldn't handle the conditions, but Smith was able to get a fifty. The innings at Hobart was a complete contrast to how he played against Pakistan in England as in that knock, he tried to smash the cover off the ball. It just shows that Smith can adapt to different situations as against Pakistan, Australia needed quick runs, but at Hobart, Australia A needed someone to handle the tough conditions. Experts may point out flaws in his technique, but cricket is also about having a good temperament. I also do believe with time, Smith would improve as a leg-spinner.

What next?


The Aussies would struggle to replace the likes of McGrath, Warne, or even other talented  bowlers like Macgill, Dizzy and company,  but I am sure there must be a Kasper or a Hughes somewhere in Australia. So, to find a bowling attack that can take twenty wickets, Australian selectors can either look at continuing with their revolving door policy, or they have to go for a youth based policy. On one hand, I just see Australia going down the same path that England followed during the dark days of English cricket in the 90's, but if they back youngsters to the hilt, there is a chance of Australia finding a decent attack .

If they have any sense, Aussie selectors should look at backing youngsters like Copeland, Smith, George, Hazelwood along with bowlers like Hilfy and Siddle. In-fact, it isn't just the bowling attack, but the time has come for Aussie selectors to perhaps look at the entire team and pick a core group of young players and back them. Maybe they can think of Hughes, Khawaja, Smith, Hazelwood with few older heads in the mix like Hussey, Clarke and perhaps White as the captain of side.

Australia have usually been a major force in cricket and for the sake of cricket, I hope that they can comeback. World cricket has already seen the once mighty West Indies side crumble and nowadays even  Pakistan team is more of a rabble. Cricket can ill afford to have another major cricketing nation to lose their way.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Well done England!!


Oh! my god, Australia have been thrashed by an innings and 71 runs and that too in their own backyard.  Am I dreaming and have to pinch myself that it isn't Australia, but England who have been slaughtered at Adelaide??? During the late 90's and the last decade, I even thought that the great wall of China may fall, or Himalayas may melt, but Australia won't lose a series at home. In 08/09, SA finally won a series against Australia and now I see a holocaust at Adelaide as the margin of defeat is an innings and seventy one runs. The last time Aussies were defeated by an innings at home was way back in 92/93 when the deadly threesome of Amby, Bishop and Walsh made light-work of Australia on a lightning fast track at Perth. The last time England won by an innings in Australia was way back in 1986 at Melbourne.

My views on the test

Pitch conditions


It wasn't a typical Adelaide track as there was a bit of life in it on the first morning yet Australia should have at least made 350-400 on that pitch. The pitch got quicker on day two and three which helped batsmen as the ball came onto the bat and on expected lines, the Adelaide pitch gave assistance to the spinners on day four and five. I thought it was a decent pitch as there was something in it for all the bowlers. Even on days two and three, when the pitch got better for batting, there was decent carry for the quicker bowlers. I have seen pitches that can only be called as a batting paradise at Adelaide, but I would like to give credit to the groundsmen for preparing a track that  had something in it for the bowlers this time around.

Australia's shambolic start


Any team would like to get a decent start from its openers, but Australia had the worst possible start as they lost a wicket during the very first over and that too through a run out. Shane Watson and Katich have already been  involved in a couple of misunderstandings but they don't seem to have learnt their lesson. Losing a wicket through a run out and that too with it being the first over of a match is a clear sign that Australia lack the discipline to win test matches. The loss of Katich opened the flood gates for Anderson to attack right-handed batsmen like Punter and Clarke with outswingers and soon they were in doldrums at 2 for 3. The run out was catastrophic for Australia as it gave England the opportunity to bowl out Australia for a low score in the first innings.



Anderson silences his critics


I have perhaps heard it about 999,999 times that Anderson in Australia won't succeed as the pitches in Australia won't help swing bowlers and he has to bowl with a kookaburra ball. Most experts and fans would just point out that he averaged 82 in Australia in 06/07. It got so bad that just like Harmless-on's 7 for 12 spell in West Indies, I would never forget that Anderson averaged 82 in Ashes 06/07 blah blah blah. I won't repeat it again regarding why he failed in Ashes 06/07 as I have already written an article on it. If interested anyone can have a look at it. Anderson in Australia. In simple words, I can't fathom when fans just look at a stat and judge a cricketer. Bringing up Anderson's stats in 06/07 Ashes is like saying as Harmison took 7 for 12 in 04, he should be in the Ashes squad now.

Anyway, let us not focus on that disastrous Ashes tour of 06/07, but on the magical spell bowled by Anderson on the first day. In-fact, there wasn't any magic in what Anderson did, but just like any good swing bowler, he pitched it up and used a bit of swing on offer to his advantage. He bowled a couple of beauties to Ponting and Clarke as it swung late and both Punter and Clarke had no other option, but to edge it to the slips.

I have also seen a few criticising Anderson for being below par in the second innings, but he is a swing bowler and a swing bowler in an attempt to look for swing can go for runs, as sometimes when a  bowler bowls full, it can turn out to be a half volley.   Anderson though showed character by coming back with a fine spell on the fifth day and got the wickets of both Haddin and Harris. If anyone was going to save the match for Australia it was Haddin,  but a trademark delivery from Anderson that initially slanted into the batsman and left him late produced the edge of Haddin's bat. I liked the way Anderson plotted Haddin's dismissal as he went a touch wide of the crease to create a bit of angle which in the end helped him to get the edge. More than anything else, I am impressed by Anderson's ability to use the inswinger. In the past, he neither had the control over the inswinger nor would he use it judiciously. Nowadays, he doesn't try to bowl his second weapon, the inswinger too often, but keeps it as a surprise element which in turn keeps the batsman guessing.  Anderson alone took more wickets than all Australian bowlers combined and the talk before the series was, he can't bowl on featherbeds like Adelaide.

Hussey's battling knock


In the recent past, Hussey has been out of sorts, but in the Ashes series he has been a revelation. In recent times, he has come across as a batsman, who is afraid of getting out,  but in this series, he has come out with a positive outlook which has helped him.

I don't think he has made any changes to his technique other than him trying to play as straight as possible.  Even when Finn bowled a few decent deliveries with the older ball, I could see that Huss was trying his best to play with a straight bat.

Actually, I thought it wasn't Clarke, but Huss who played Swann very well. I especially liked the way he tried to play low against Swann. The Adelaide track was offering considerable turn for the spinners and it was getting very difficult for the batsmen to survive. The best way to play on such tracks is to play low as it can help the batsmen to escape from being caught by the close-in fielders because the edge won't carry to the fielder. It wasn't just his defensive technique which impressed me though, as he used his feet to keep Swann guessing. In in the end, it was a shame that he got out by playing a bad shot on the fifth day.

Aussies can't get Cook out


Before this tour commenced, it looked like even I could get Cook out by bowling a few of my left arm trundlers, but now the Aussies may feel that even if they throw a rock at Cook, he would defend it in his sleep.  I just can't believe that he is the same batsman, who seemed to be chasing deliveries which were well wide of off-stump and was getting out against Pakistan.

I don't want to take anything away from his great knocks both at Gabba and Adelaide, but looking at some of the flat pitches and the bowling attacks going around at present, I feel that the best place to bat is at top of the order as the field won't be spread and the batsmen can make merry by feasting on roads and of course sub-standard bowling.

KP comes to the party


Before the series started, critics were asking questions like whether KP still has the hunger to play test cricket? has he been worked out by opposition bowlers?  and many more. Yes, he has played just one great knock and needs to be consistent, but even his critics have to admit that he played a fabulous knock.

As I said in my previous article that he showed plenty of promise in his knock at Gabba, but at Adelaide he converted that promise into a big score. I don't think he has tinkered with his technique, but he tried his best to play a lot more through the mid on region rather than play across the line and flick it through the on-side. Of course, he played late which helped him to be confident to get a decent stride forward. KP just loves to come well forward and take the bowlers head on.

There is no denying the fact that during the last 18 months his confidence has been shot to pieces as he lost his captaincy, couldn't score a hundred and had that terrible achilles heel injury, but saying that he is already a 'has been' was laughable. He has been tested by far better bowlers early in his career, who tried the same tactic of bowling the outswinger by attacking his stumps and KP came out with flying colours. Yes, he didn't play SLA early in his career, but in the recent past has been troubled by left arm spinners yet, I don't see any major flaw in his technique. It was just that here was a player whose confidence was shot to pieces.  A few of his comments before the series even made me think that whether KP is a mix of jekyll and hyde, but thankfully, he made a big impact at Adelaide by not just playing  a fabulous knock, but by also taking the crucial wicket of Clarke on the fourth day.

At his best, KP is a nice mixture of power hitting and finesse. A few of his cover drives, pulls and the flamingo shot he played against the left arm spinner Doherty was brutal, but at the same-time, the way he nonchalantly flicked a few good length deliveries through the mid on region was a touch of pure class. I won't forget a few classy drives he played through the covers of Watson, when in-spite of a 7-2 field, he was able to find the gap.

A few of his harshest critics may never give him any credit, but I have no doubt that when in form, KP is England's best batsman as he doesn't just get a big score, but demoralises the opposition team by sending the fielders on a leather hunt. I guess I don't have to remind the fans about what he did at places like Oval(twice), Lord's, Mohali, Napier, Faislabad, Adelaide and many more.  In-fact, I would even say that unless he gets seriously injured KP will break Gooch's record for being England's highest run-getter in test cricket, though I see Cook breaking even KP's record.

Swann makes his presence felt


Swann was ordinary in the first test at Gabba as he bowled short, but made up for it with a superlative performance at Adelaide. Yes, unlike say Anderson, Swann had the luxury of bowling on a wearing pitch, but a bowler still has to take advantage of it and Swann did just that as he bowled well on a track that offered assistance to the spinners.

Swann's strength isn't just in the amount of revolutions he imparts on the ball, but subtle changes in pace and turn makes him a dangerous bowler to face. I especially liked the way he plotted the downfall of Punter. Ponting was trying his best to get outside the line of off-stump so that he won't get out lbw to Swann. Swann perhaps noticed it and bowled a top spinner with an off-stump line to Ponting. Ponting had no other choice, but to edge it to the slip fielder Collingwood.

In-fact, I didn't like the way a few of the right-handed batsmen played Swann. For an amateur like me it felt like both Watson and Ponting were trying to bat outside the line of off-stump to negate the threat of Swann getting them out lbw. Now, I am not an expert, but when a batsman premeditates his footwork, it leaves him with lesser options to score runs. For instance, in an attempt to not get out lbw, a few Aussie batsmen perhaps missed out on scoring runs through the on-side as once a batsman gets outside the line of off-stump, he would struggle  to flick it through the on-side.

If I have to criticise Swann, I would say that he has the tendency to bowl quicker through the air when a batsman goes after him. As soon as Clarke attacked Swann, he tended to bowl quicker through the air. Let me make it crystal clear that Michael Clarke played wonderfully well in the second innings, but I was surprised by a spinner of Swann's calibre bowling flat to Clarke.  Anyway, I don't think one can criticise Swann too much as after playing 26 tests, he has a strike-rate of 56. I consider a strike-rate of 65 as outstanding for a spinner, but this guy has a S/R of 56!!!

Australia's toothless bowling attack


England's batsmen have to be praised for the way they have acclimatised to the conditions in Australia and have got huge scores, but  what about Australia's bowling?

In the past, even when the Aussies fielded depleted attacks, the likes of  Kasper, Bichel, Fleming, Reiffel, Macgill and co. would bowl out opposition teams for low scores on flat tracks, but the same can't be said about the current attack.

Seamers like  Siddle, Bollinger, Johnson,  Hilfenhaus and especially Bollinger have good averages, but against stronger teams on flat tracks, I do expect that attack to come a cropper. Bollinger has feasted on weaker teams, Siddle is good when the track offers something for the bowlers like on the first day at Brisbane, but has a tendency to test middle of the pitch on flat tracks. His innocuous short deliveries were swatted like flies by KP. Johnson is a strike bowler, when he gets awkward bounce and he can bowl at good pace too, but unfortnately for Australia, he has done that in only couple of series and that came against South Africa in 08/09. Everyone seem to rate Hilfy highly, but until he adds a decent inswinger to his armoury, good batsmen would just be content in leaving his outswingers. At present, he has a decent off-cutter, but that isn't good enough to succeed at the highest level. He doesn't get late swing like Anderson either. It just doesn't look good, when an average bowler like Harris looks the best bet and Shane Watson too seems to be better than some of the seamers.

I don't think I have to discuss much about Australia's lone spinner at Gabba and Adelaide, Doherty. In simple words, I would say that after watching Andy Whittal of Zimbabwe, Bradburn of New Zealand and Robin Peterson of South Africa, I thought I won't see a worse finger spinner in my life,  but I was wrong as I have now watched Doherty. It would be better if he changes his profession to playing darts as he may turn out to be good at it.  In-fact, North looks like Australia's best spinner at the moment as he is ready to give the ball a bit of air.

Ponting's captaincy


If the bowlers aren't good enough a captain can't do much yet Ponting's captaincy was abject poor. He set weird fields and seemed to be following the ball all the time.

More than a few fans and experts criticised the older Waugh for setting 7-2 fields during his time as a captain, but what do they make of Punter's captaincy? Waugh set a 7-2 field mainly for McGrath. Now, McGrath could bowl on a good length spot and just outside the off-stump perhaps even in his dream, but Punter set such a field for swing bowlers like Hilfy and even Watson. How can any captain expect a swing bowler to bowl to such a field? Was he expecting a swing bowler like Hilfy to bowl a three quarter length and wide of off-stump? absurd.

Ian Chappell on Ponting's captaincy,


"If a bowler is asked to bowl with a 7-2 field, he's entitled to throw the ball back and say 'you bowl it yourself' "

It wasn't just him setting a 7-2 field either as Punter sometimes had three men in the deep and three fielders in the short extra cover region. I can't fathom such tactics for sure. Australia even had the strange idea of getting Trott out caught on the leg-side as instead of trying to pull a short ball, Trott tends  to flick it in the air. I don't think when a batsman first arrives at the crease any captain should look at getting a  batsman caught on the on-side as the first plan should be to have a few slips and try to induce the edge. Yes, if nothing works such type of tactics can be thought of as the last option.

Ponting's opposite number Strauss isn't a great captain either, but more often than not, he sets a particular field and asks the bowler to bowl to it. On the other hand, Aussie bowlers must be really confused as their captain can't stick to a plan, but changes the field all the time.

 Broad's injury


Everything went well for England except for the fact that Broad got injured and now has been ruled out for the rest of the tour. He must be feeling very bad as no one wants to be ruled out of the Ashes series because of an injury. We wish him a speedy recovery, but at the same-time, is he a big loss for England?

In the past, I have been criticised by more than a few fans as the general feeling is, I am biased against Broad. I have never rated him too highly as he comes across as a bowler, who bowls short and doesn't bowl a fuller length. Even when he bowls short, he doesn't get the awkward bounce that someone like Freddie used to get. Sky sports experts and most fans though think that he has bowled well without much luck in this series.

I don't like to go through what sky commentators say as they seem to be obsessed about praising Broad at every opportunity they get. So, I looked at what our great man Boycott has to say about Broad. I am not a fan of Boycott either, but he always makes some interesting observations.

Boycott on Broad after the first test,

"Stuart Broad bowled too short and needs to be reminded to pitch the ball up on that awkward length where batsmen are not sure whether to come forward or stay back. Many bouncers were too short and ineffective. They may have looked good but they were harmlessly going over the batsmen’s head. When he bangs it in short he needs accuracy to aim at the batsman’s ribs, high chest or neck area which is pretty awkward for the batsman to keep the ball down"

If Tremlett bowls like he did at Hobart, I do expect him to do better than Broad as he gets a bit of awkward bounce and finally Tremlett decided to bowl a fuller length in the second innings at Hobart and reaped the rewards by taking wickets.



What next

After a great victory at Adelaide, England would play Victoria in a three day game. It would be interesting to see how the back-up seamers Bresnan, Tremlett and Shahzad perform against the Vics. The batsmen are all in great form and if the team plays like they did at Adelaide, I do expect England to win at Perth as well.


Australia though have plenty of problems. Doherty wasn't even club standard and would likely be dropped with Hauritz coming back into side. The seam attack doesn't look much better which may result in a quick recall for the unpredictable Johnson, or maybe Aussies would go for a fresh face like Copeland or Cameroon? North continues to play like he hasn't ever picked up a cricket bat, but as Katich is out of the side with an injury, he may yet get another chance and North also bowled well in the first couple of tests.


The Aussies may make wholesale changes to the side, but what they need is a change in attitude. The way the lower-order collapsed on the last day was reminiscent of how England used to play during the dark days of 90's! If the lower-order had shown a bit more fight, they may have saved the game as Adelaide was hit by thunderstorms as soon as the match was over and it is said that rain stopped only during the wee hours of morning today. The fielding has been worse as they have fielded like Pakistan, India, or Bangladesh!


On the other hand though, England's team showed ruthlessness by taking the last six wickets on the fifth day to finish the match before Adelaide was hit by thunderstorms. In the 90's, Aussies used to say that Poms should show a bit of fight as it was boring to defeat the same team by huge margins. It hasn't come to that stage yet as we are thinking about just one loss, but the Aussies have to improve significantly to win the Ashes. Finally, I am not surprised that England are doing well in Australia, but Australia losing by a huge margin is a surprise.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Ashes-My views on England


I still can't believe that after all the speculation and the excitement about the start of yet another Ashes series, the first test is already over. The biggest surprise of the first test was Australia didn't win at their fortress Gabba! In a way Australia's worst  fears have come true as the bowling attack wasn't penetrative enough and the fielding was worse. After the match got over, for sometime I felt blank as I grew up watching Aussies ruthlessly dismantle every opponent they came across, but this Australian side is different as their body language is of a defeatist team and they have forgotten how to win a match. It was a pleasure to watch Cook and co. making a mincemeat of the toothless Australian bowling attack, but England's batsmen dominating Australia at Gabba was something that I wouldn't have envisaged even in my wildest dreams as Gabba after all is rightly known as the fortress of Australian cricket.

Why a draw at Brisbane is a significant achievement?


More than a few fans may argue that in the end it was just a draw and England didn't gain much from the draw. The simple fact is, leave alone losing a game, Australia don't even allow opponents to draw a game at Brisbane. Since their loss to the mighty Windies side in 88/89, Aussies have won 16 games and before this match had drawn just five games.  The amazing part is, they won all their six games between 2004/05 to 09/10. In-fact, before this match, they allowed only couple of teams to escape with draws in the last ten years. The first one came against the Kiwis in 01/02 and the second one was against India in 03/04. Both came in rain hit matches and it has to be said that Australia fielded a depleted attack against India in 03/04.

In that context, a drawn game at Gabba is a significant achievement for a touring side. I have said it many times that even if England are able to draw the first game at Brisbane, there is a very good chance of England beating Australia in the Ashes. In the past, Australian batsmen have thrived at Gabba by playing horizontal bat shots and the quicker bowlers almost perfected the art of bowling the traditional Australian three quarter length, but again the present Australian side is different.

Pitch conditions


As England were able to make a stunning recovery by scoring 517 runs for the loss of just one wicket in the second innings, the pitch has come in for severe criticism. Yes, after helping the bowlers on the first two days, the pitch flattened out considerably and it became a very good track for batting. Having said that, I would like to point out that in the last ten years or so, the track at Gabba has been similar to what we saw during the last five days.

When England came to the shores of Australia in 02/03, Australia made almost 500 runs in the first innings  and cruised to a total of 300 runs in the second innings before they declared. In the 2006/07 Ashes, Australia made a mammoth total of 602 runs in the first innings and slaughtered the bowlers in the second innings before they declared at 202 runs for the loss of just one wicket. In both those game though, they had couple of great bowlers like McGrath and Warne which helped them to crush the opposition by a huge margin. It wasn't like England had a bad attack either as the likes of Caddick,Freddie,Hoggy and co. played in those tests, but they were up against a very confident batting line-up and more so a flat pitch.

In-fact, leaving a couple of tests recently, especially the one in 2008 when Southee and the Aussie quicks took advantage of bowling friendly  conditions to take wickets, the track at Gabba has been a very good track for batting. I would even say that the track for the first test offered a bit of seam movement on the first couple of days unlike what we saw in 02/03 and 06/07.So, it is a indicator to the Australian management that they perhaps should prepare tracks that have a bit of life in it, otherwise they may have to be content with just draws, or even losing the series as when the pitch got flat, Australian attack looked worse than England's attack.

Batting line-up


I can only think of showering praises on the top-order for the rearguard action on the last couple of days. Cynics may say that pitch was flat, but is it is a herculean task for any team, when they are 200 runs behind and have to bat for two days. In such situations, the team which is behind can crumble under pressure. When Cook and Strauss started the second innings on the third day, I was a bit wary about what may happen as most teams tend to lose a few wickets as the team would be demoralised after being sent on a leather hunt by the opposition batsmen. So, the top-order deserves all the accolades they are getting as they showed great determination and discipline to help England draw the match.

The star of the show for England was of course Cook. Many have questioned his technique just outside the off-stump, but in the first test the discipline he showed just outside the off stump was exemplary. He was on the field for almost five days yet, he didn't lose his concentration and made a great double hundred. He seems to have worked on his batting as his back-lift looked better and he was just looking to time the ball through the covers and not force it through the covers. In the end, it is more of a mental issue as when a batsman isn't confident, he would worry about factors like his off-stump, or whether his technique is good enough. I just take my hats off to him as getting a double hundred with the team about million runs behind is one helluva task.

Now, it doesn't mean that one can forget the efforts of Strauss, or Trott either as both of them played extremely well. Strauss hasn't been in good form and he was on a  pair as he scored a duck in the first innings, but in the second innings he too showed great concentration prowess and notched up a fine century. Strauss is surely underrated as a batsman as even after doing well in South Africa, West Indies, New Zealand, on turning tracks in India and now in Australia, I have seen fans reckoning that even Atherton was better than Strauss. Michael Atherton better than Strauss??? no way. Trott may not have a wide range of shots, but he brings a calmness to the team. It is good to see that England have finally found a batsman, who can bat at the crucial number three position.

In the second innings,I was also impressed by the way they left deliveries purely on length. Most visiting teams including England struggle to do well in Australia as they play at deliveries which should be left alone. In Australia, because of the extra bounce, a batsman can leave deliveries on length and the top-order batsmen did that very well in the second innings. It just shows that here is a team which is ready to learn from its mistakes as in the first innings few of the batsmen chased deliveries which could have been left alone. It also shows that by playing three warm-up games, England have got acclimatised to the conditions in Australia.

The middle-order consisting of KP, Colly and Bell didn't get the chance to bat on a featherbed in the second innings, but I was impressed by what I saw of Bell and KP in the first innings. KP has come under pressure for not doing well in the last 18-20 months, but his knock of 43 runs in the first innings was promising. Having watched him bat for a longtime, the feeling I got was, KP was playing on the move which didn't help him to get into a good position. KP has a exaggerated shuffle and when he isn't in form, he tends to play on the move and gets into a tangle. During his knock of 43 in the first innings, he was getting into a good position which is a positive sign for him and England. KP was also getting a decent stride forward. At his best, KP gets a decent forward  and if it is on the shorter side, he has shown that he can just about rock back onto the back-foot to pull. It isn't just about him looking good at the crease though, as it is high time that he gets a century to silence his critics.

Ian Bell was the best batsman on show for England in the first innings.  Bell finally seems to believe that he can succeed at the highest level and I also liked it when I saw that Bell was just caressing it and not trying to over-hit the ball. Bell has never been a power-hitter, but in the past he had a habit of trying to smash the cover off the ball instead of relying on his forte, which is timing. Colly flopped in the first innings as Australia exploited the weakness of Colly closing the face and edging it to the slips, or the keeper. The problem isn't as huge as what many make it out to be as at his best, he tends to leave lots of deliveries just outside the off-stump and waits for the bowler to bowl on his pads. The plan has worked perfectly for Colly, but against some teams like Australia, he has tended to poke at deliveries just outside the off-stump and get out. If he plays within his limitations and doesn't chase at deliveries outside the off-stump, he can comeback to form.

Wicket-keeper


I have never been a fan of Prior as a keeper, but I have to admit that his keeping was top-class in the first test at Brisbane. He has no doubt improved as a wicket-keeper and has silenced most of his critics. Prior  made a duck with the bat in hand, but to be fair to him he got a good delivery from Siddle which swung late.

The bowlers


Leaving the luckless Anderson, none of the bowlers were good, but they didn't get the chance to bowl when there was a bit more help in the pitch on the first day. Of course, Anderson was the best bowler on show as he rarely strayed in line and made the batsmen play more often than not. Luck though deserted him as even after beating the bat about 25 times, he couldn't get more than a couple of wickets. Even a plumb lbw was turned down by Dar. Actually, I don't know what more should he do to take wickets in Australia. The only reason behind his lack of success in the first test can be, Anderson swings it late and as a result he keeps beating the bat. Hopefully he will get some luck at Adelaide as that pitch doesn't have much bounce which in turn may help Anderson to get few batsmen lbw, or bowled.

As far as rest of the attack is concerned, Broad continues to test middle of the pitch and wasn't penetrative enough, Finn was ok, when he bowled a fuller length, but he has to work on his bouncer. Hussey took full advantage of all those half-trackers that Finn bowled and made 195. In the past, bowlers like Powell, Nel, Ntini, Morkel and co. have got Huss out on the pull as he mainly pulls on the front-foot, but all of them bowled their bouncers head high which made it difficult for Huss to play the pull shot. Finn is said to be a quick learner, so hopefully he can improve on his bouncer. There was a lot of hype surrounding England's lone spinner Swann, but Swann was disappointing as he bowled short. To be frank though, it isn't easy for a spinner to take wickets on Australian tracks.

England in the field


England's fielding and tactics were passable. Yes, when Australia were on top, the wheels seemed to have come off as Anderson made a complete mess of what should have been an easy catch, but the slip catching as well as Strauss's captaincy wasn't bad. In the recent past, I have been critical of Strauss as a captain, but unlike Punter, Strauss seems to be growing in his role as a captain. For instance, I liked it when he tried to block Katich's leg glance by bringing a leg slip. Katich is very strong on the on-side and may not get out, but by placing a fielder at leg slip, Strauss would force Katich to be a bit more cautious of playing the leg glance in the upcoming tests. It also encourages the bowler to attack his stumps. A few may criticise him for declaring England's innings on the last day as both Trott and Cook were sending the Australian fielders on a leather hunt, but with England about 300 runs ahead and only a few overs left, there wasn't anything wrong  in declaring the innings.

The next test would be played at Adelaide and usually it is a bowlers graveyard on the first two days. The pitch may turn on the fifth day, but both teams need to look at ways to get twenty wickets. England shouldn't get carried away as even though they have escaped from what looked like a certain defeat at fortress Gabba, the fact remains that series is still 0-0. Australia on the other hand, still don't seem to be  sure about what their best side is. It is very difficult to predict the outcome of the series as both are evenly matched sides, but I would stick to my earlier prediction that England may win a closely contested series as the bowling attack of Anderson, Broad, Finn and Swann looks slightly better.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

What is wrong with Sami?


If we look back at the history of cricket, it can be seen that talent alone isn't enough to succeed at the highest level which is test cricket, but a cricketer needs a good temperament as well. Over the years, we have seen numerous cricketers, who have shown enormous potential, but just couldn't make it big in international cricket. One such immensely talented cricketer, who hasn't been able to succeed at the highest level is Sami.  A few cricket fans may say that he has been a victim of the revolving door policy that Pakistan cricket is famous for, but  if a bowler averages over 50 after playing in 35 tests, then he too has to take some of the blame for not performing up-to his potential.

If I think about Sami, I would ask to myself what he doesn't have as a bowler? He has a bustling run-up and a whippy action, can be deceptively quick and can get late swing with both the new and the old ball. Sami  is more of a hustler, who can surprise the batsman for a bit of pace. Unfortunately though, in-spite of having the required skills to succeed as a quick bowler, he has flopped miserably in test cricket.

Sami's career


If I have to track Sami's early career, I would have to go as far back as 2000/01, when a wiry 20 year old burst onto the scene with a eight wicket haul in his debut test in the land of long white cloud and helped Pakistan to win that test. In-fact, when Pakistan toured England in 01, there was a lot of hype surrounding Sami and the feeling was Pakistan have unearthed another top quality fast bowler. Akram though, couldn't pronounce his name correctly as he talked about how much potential a young bowler called Mohammad Salim  has. Jokes apart, he didn't play in that series yet, everyone believed that a star was born.

Unfortunately for Pakistan, he has rarely ever performed for them since that debut test in New Zealand. Yes, against his favourite opponents the Kiwis, he once more got a five wicket haul in 03, but other than that he hasn't got any other five wicket haul to his name in test cricket! Recently in Australia, he produced one decent spell in the first innings at Sydney albeit in helpful conditions, but was back to his old ways in the second innings. I may defend him by saying that Sami was excellent when he played CC for Sussex in 03, but if I do that I must be scraping the barrel!  Pakistan's selectors though, haven't learnt their lesson as they have recalled him back for the series against South Africa. I realise that with Asif and Ameer suspended, they are struggling to find decent bowlers, but there should be someone, who has a bit of talent and can play for Pakistan. Pakistan's selectors  are just wasting their time by selecting a bowler who averages over 50.

It is hard to explain why would a bowler as talented as Sami averages over 50, but I would give it a try. 


1) Discipline- The greatest bowlers in the history of the game always have great control as they rarely lose their line or length.  Sami though, struggles to keep it tight and even maintain a modicum of pressure. Nowadays, I don't have to watch Sami bowl as I know that a particular over that Sami bowls would contain couple of good deliveries followed up by a few leg stump half volleys and a short and wide delivery. Sami always comes across as a bowler, who tries to bowl a jaffa. Every bowler loves it, when a ball pitches on the leg-stump and hits top of off-stump, but such deliveries can be produced once in a blue-moon. The lack of discipline in his bowling has meant that even in bowler friendly conditions like in England, he has struggled to take wickets. In-fact, modern day bowlers seem to lack the discipline to take wickets as most of them get frustrated as soon as they beat the bat a few times.

2)Trying to match Shoaib for pace- I also have a gut feeling that whenever Akthar plays, Sami tries his best to match him for pace and as a result lose his line and length. I can remember Sami trying to consistently hit over 90mph in Australia in 04/05 as Akthar was bowling at the pace of wind and even in a few series against England and India around that time Sami tried to bowl quicker and lost the plot. I have never thought of Sami as a out and out quick bowler. In my opinion, he is more of a hustler, who can surprise the batsman for a bit of pace. Sami is perhaps at his best, when he bowls around 87-88 mph as when he tries to bowl quicker, he loses his control, tends to bowl with a scrambled seam and can't get the late swing for which he is famous for.

Fans and experts may give about million more reasons for his failures yet, it would remain a mystery that a bowler of Sami's skills averages over 50 in test cricket. Finally, it again shows that to succeed at the highest level, just talent isn't enough, but it also requires temperament and sadly from Pakistan's point of view,  Sami doesn't have it.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Ashes 2010/11- Sydney cricket ground


A few months ago, I did promise that I would look at the various cricket grounds in Australia. So today, I would like to share my views about  the Sydney cricket ground, or more famously known as SCG. The Sydney cricket ground situated in the Moore park in the city's east has a rich history and tradition as cricket has been played on that ground for more than 150 years now. Every year, the match at Sydney is known as the new year's test as it is played at the start of every year on either Jan. 2nd or 3rd. The ground has  been graced by many great players and  it is a witness to some of the classic tests ever played.

History of cricket at Sydney


To encapsulate the history of Sydney cricket ground in a few lines is a near impossible task yet, I would like to write in brief about the beautiful Sydney cricket ground. It is amazing and may even sound untrue to cricket fans, but the fact is, once upon a time, the SCG was a rubbish dump before it got transformed into one of cricket's major centres. The interesting part is, it was known as garrison ground.  It was only in 1924, did it came to be known as Sydney cricket ground.

As the years went by, the ground was developed by the administrators and by the time the first test was played in 1882,  already two grandstands could be seen. Two spectators mounds were also built  in 1886.  If we think about the developments that have taken place, one of the key point to notice is, the relationship between the trust and the New South Wales cricket board has always been strained which in turn has affected the development of Sydney cricket ground.

Nowadays, the hill, or more famously known as the Yabba Hill is sadly not there at the Sydney ground  instead we can see O'Reilly, Noble and the Walters stands.  The ladies pavilion is still there, but the disappearance of the Yabba hill and the outfield not looking as lush as it used to be, would perhaps make a cricket fan think that Sydney cricket ground has lost some of its sheen .

Conditions at the Sydney cricket ground


Historically, the Sydney cricket ground has been a good track for batting and more than a few huge scores have been made. Bradman's magnificent knock of 452 not out came on this very ground. The pitch has tended to help spinners on the fourth and fifth day yet, spinners have had to work hard for their wickets. With so many tests being played at SCG,  there have been a few exceptions, but the track is generally good for batting with the spinners coming into play on the final two days of the match. For instance, in a bid to stop the rampaging West Indies from winning every test, the Aussies prepared a  rank bad turner in 88/89. It surely helped a part-timer like Border to take a 10 wicket haul as Australia achieved their objective of winning the test. It is another matter altogether that Aussies still couldn't stop the great Malcolm Marshall from taking yet another five wicket haul on what was said to be a spinners paradise! In 02/03, the pitch became a minefield on the fifth day and it helped all sorts of bowlers.  Both in 99/00 and in 09/10, there was too much sideways movement on the first two days mainly thanks to incessant rain.

As expected, Shane Warne has enjoyed the conditions at Sydney by taking 64 wickets, but his bowling average of 28 shows that it isn't a piece of cake to take wickets on that pitch. In-fact, Stuart Macgill has a better strike rate and even a better average than Warne. In the recent past, few subcontinental spinners have occasionally found success like Mushie in 95/96, or Kumble in 03/04 and again in 07/08.

Now, it doesn't mean that faster men won't get any encouragement from the surface at Sydney. I have always felt that Sydney is one ground in Australia, where the new ball can swing albeit just for a few overs. Hoggy got the new ball to swing at Sydney in 02/03 and even at his lowest ebb Anderson found some swing in 06/07 and got three wickets. A few cracks can also open up which in turn can help the taller bowlers to hit those cracks and get variable bounce. The Windies bowlers of the past like Wambrose  (Ambrose and Walsh) were very good at hitting the cracks that would open up. The canny Fannie De Villiers did the same on a great day for the Saffers as they were able to defeat Australia at Sydney in 93/94 by just five runs.  I am not too keen on including the heroics of Caddick in 02/03 as that became a minefield on the last day.

A few keen observers of Sheffield Shield may argue that track at Sydney has flattened out, but I don't think that is the case when it comes to test cricket. Yes, when I look at the 2009/10 Sheffield Shield season, I can at least think of five scores of over 400 at Sydney, but I have always thought the wickets prepared for test matches have a bit of life in it. This year there have been more than a few low scores all over Australia  because of overcast conditions. Just yesterday, Tasmania won a low scoring game in which neither Tasmania nor New South Wales were able to get even 200 runs. No one can predict though, whether the conditions will remain the same when the test match would be played at Sydney.

England at Sydney 


First the good news, unlike some of the other grounds in Australia, England have managed to win a test  at Sydney in the last twenty years. The victory came in 02/03, but unfortunately it was a dead rubber. The pitch at Sydney in 02/03 was a bit strange as it became unplayable on the last day with huge cracks being visible. I still remember a young Harmison getting Martin Love with a delivery that didn't even reach the height of the batsman's knees which was followed up by Caddick getting a delivery to bounce awkwardly and Gilly could only feather a edge to the keeper. Caddick enjoyed bowling on that surface as he took a ten wicket haul.

In 94/95, England held the upper-hand thanks to the wholehearted efforts of Gough. First with the bat, he slogged a fifty and followed it up with a five wicket haul in helpful conditions. Australia though, were able to draw that match as the spin twins Warne and May came to their rescue not with the ball, but interestingly by batting for more than 20 overs on the last day. In 98/99, Australia were in a spot of bother in the first innings before the younger Waugh played another of his special knocks and it was followed up by Slater butchering the bowling in the second innings as England crashed to another defeat in Australia. I don't think I have to say much about what happened during England's ill fated Ashes campaign in 06/07!

If I think about England's strategy at Sydney, first and foremost, I do hope that team management won't fall into the trap of going with two spinners. Only if a team has two decent spinners, both spinners should play. Yes, someone may point out to me that Hemmings and Tufnell were successful at the same venue back in 90/91 as they took eight wickets between them in the second innings, but generally it isn't a good strategy. A few may even point to the fact that Monty is a decent spinner, but batsmen nowadays play him better as they have realised that he doesn't have an arm ball and doesn't really flight the ball. Of course, Swann would be a key bowler, especially in the second innings. I won't like to bore everyone again by saying that how effective he can be against all those lefthanders Australia have.

When it come to the quickies, the taller bowlers like Broad, Finn, or Tremlett may come in handy in the second innings as the pitch may deteriorate and there maybe a few cracks to aim at. Jimmy Anderson would likely get a bit of swing with the new ball and may get the older ball to reverse as the surface at Sydney isn't as lush as it used to be.

For the bowlers to succeed, the batsmen though have to do well on a track that is usually good for batting. Even if England don't win the toss, I don't think Strauss would be too perturbed as there is no Macgill, or Warne in the opposition ranks. The batsmen surely won't lose their sleep by thinking about the likes of Hauritz, Doherty, Smith, or Keefe. If the conditions are overcast, it would be a different ball game altogether and in that case Strauss may elect to bowl first.

Australia at Sydney


It shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone, if I say that Australia have been almost invincible at Sydney in the last decade. During that period they have won ten matches, lost one and drew one game. In-fact, Australia have won all their last seven matches including the recently concluded controversial tests against India in 07/08 and Pakistan in 09/10 respectively. Yes, Pakistan had a chance to defeat a slightly weaker Australian team this year, but Pakistan's captain Yousuf set some strange fields and gifted the match to Australia.

One has to go back to the early 90's, when Australia found it difficult to win matches and were able to only draw them. Between 89/90 to 95/96, they drew five games and lost couple of games, but didn't win anything. A few of those games were played, when Warne wasn't yet playing for Australia. Warne made his debut at Sydney in 91/92, but the Indian batsmen made a inexperienced spinner look ordinary. The couple of losses can be attributed to outstanding spells bowled by De Villiers in 93/94 and Mushie in 95/96 respectively. The games played by Australia in the early 90's is perhaps a better indicator about how Australia may do this time around as once the likes of Warne and Macgill began to weave their magic, Aussies almost became invincible at Sydney.

From Australia's point of view, it is imperative that if not as a wicket-taker, their spinner would at least do the holding job by drying up the runs. Among the seamers, Bollinger can do well as he is good at reversing the older ball. Hilfenhaus may swing the new ball and cause some problems. More than their bowling, the batting seems to be a bigger problem as most of their batsmen aren't in good form.

Finally, looking at both the squads, one can predict that unlike the recent past, the series would be alive when both teams travel to Sydney for the final test. As a cricket aficionado, I do hope that is the case as dead rubbers can get boring to watch.