You Win Some, You Lose Some

Last summer, after seeing Danny Briggs bowl and liking it a bit more than was strictly sensible or healthy, I told a friend that I wouldn't be surprised if Monty Panesar never played in another Test match.

A couple of months ago or less, I and a good few others were charting what seemed to be Ricky Ponting's inevitable and terminal decline.

Back in October, when he was cutting England to pieces in the one-day arena, I wrote some glowing things about Virat Kohli.

But at least I never said England could play spin bowling.



On Wednesday morning Lawrence Booth, the editor of Wisden, tweeted (Can you imagine Norman Preston tweeting? No, neither can I.) that watching England slide in Dubai was 'just like the old times', at the same time inviting us not to 'pretend you're not feeling at least a tiny bit nostalgic'.

This struck a chord with me, and, yes, it did feel a bit nostalgic, because I remember the old times. Although this, really, wasn't much like the old times.

This wasn't Qadir in Lahore, turning it square with the worst umpires in history at his shoulder (you can say what you like about Billy B, but Shakeel Khan he ain't), or Kumble and his henchmen mopping up the prawn curry refugees at Chepauk (That was the old times. Sachin made a hundred.). This, somehow, didn't seem to quite have the essence of English humblings in Asia down pat. The stadium looked modern, antiseptic and largely deserted, and, while the Gaddafi Stadium in 1987 was equally empty, the old concrete terraces lent it an air of starkness and brutalism which 'Dubai Sports City' will never match. The air was clear and the ambience calm, with the odd desultory Barmy Army chant replacing the call of the muezzins. The smog and searing heat of old India were enviably absent with some English travellers even complaining that it was too cool in the shade.

Other things were different too. Pakistan looked a smooth, competent, resurgent unit, desperate to atone for past slights and failings. DRS mopped up any loiterers with as much finality as Shakeel and Shakoor used to, but marginally more accuracy. Saeed Ajmal looked the bowler he is - good, not great - with the modern off-spinner's facility to make the ball go in more than one direction, although often the trickery seemed to be confined to the wandering minds of England's ring-rusty batsmen.

But this is hair-splitting. The wider truth is that the game in Asia has always been different from that played in England, or in Australia, or in New Zealand, and it remains so. Pitches are slower, spinners come on earlier and bowl better, with more variation and confidence, than they will ever do again in the world's temperate zones. English teams, even one as successful as this, will always struggle to adapt, especially if they haven't quite had the practice they need and the soft, warm feeling of Christmases and weddings and being 'World No.1' hasn't quite faded. A few hours in the middle against Ajmal and Rehman ought to sort that, but most didn't make it that far, bamboozled either by Ajmal's variations, Gul's persistence or, in Pietersen's case, their own brainlessness.

This is an England team with many qualities. They could come back from this.

In the old days, though, they never did.


We Could Be Heroes

With India again dismantled and humiliated in an away Test series, questions, changes and further problems will surely follow. Duncan Fletcher, for one, must be wondering what the hell he's got himself into.

All the greats, suddenly and not so suddenly, appear to be slipping. Tendulkar looks good but can't make a century; Dravid, last summer's form increasingly looking like a mirage, has his stumps broken almost every time he goes to the wicket; Laxman is a prisoner of his own hesitancy and Sehwag is going through one of those periods - and they've always been there - when he looks a simplistic, shallow player, without footwork or runs.

With changes now certain other questions will be prompted, the most obvious of all being to ask how a country with a population of more than a billion people, where cricket is followed with ultimate fanaticism, can't produce a better team than this.

In time, new heroes - Yadav, Kohli, perhaps Pujara and Raina - will emerge, but things, for India, may well get worse before they get better.

Australia, meanwhile, go forward. They have a bowling attack which is adhering to the basics with persistence and skill (and they haven't required much more against these opponents), they have a captain who is a magnificent batsman and is in the runs, and they have Warner.

Warner who will soon assume Sehwag's mantle - in fact perhaps he already has - as the greatest attacking opener in the world. Warner who, with insouciant logic, pointed out that there often aren't many fielders in front of the wicket in Test cricket. Warner who, as someone said on the television yesterday, is changing the game. Warner who is the first world-class cricketer to graduate to Test cricket from the game's shortest form.

Warner is this week's all-Australian hero. For English cricket, even without its national team in action, this has been a challenging week. Its hero is a man that I saw bowl with impressive pace and verve for Derbyshire last season at a time when nobody knew anything about his role in the most concerning story to hit the county game in many years.

This week's English cricket hero is Tony Palladino.


Runs and Trust

Michael Clarke could always bat.

He could bat when he came to England with the Australian Under-19 side in 1999. He could bat when he made his Test debut in India in 2004. He could bat when he took over the captaincy of his country a year ago and he can bat now. If you wanted, you could even take his Sydney epic as evidence that he can bat. But why would you need to do that when he has proved his worth, his mettle, and his skill many times before?

Australia remains a country with a deep, knowing, vital relationship with cricket. Not as visible, or as showy, or as brash as India’s, but important nonetheless. In Australia, as in India, one of the leitmotifs of the game’s growth was the way in which it enabled a young country to show its nascent capabilities to its former colonial masters. Because of this, and because it’s just a great game, cricket remains a central part of Australia’s cultural DNA.

And Australia produces great cricketers. Among batsmen there is Trumper, there is Ponsford, and, of course, there is Bradman. There is Archie Jackson. There is Greg Chappell and Border and Ponting. There are the Waugh twins. Well, Steve, certainly. Perhaps there is Hayden. At a stretch you could possibly even consider Mike Hussey. And if you can consider Mike Hussey you can certainly consider Michael Clarke.

With the exception of Greg Chappell - a man who some of us feel doesn’t quite receive his due either - all Australia’s post-war greats have been simple, unembellished players and men, their personalities as reflective of the characteristic Australian capacity for bluntness and distaste for pretension as the way they go about building an innings.

Clarke is perceived to be different. He has tattoos, has dated models. As Mike Selvey put it so well this past week, he is ‘a smooth-skinned, bright-eyed, baby-faced fellow from the metrosexual generation’. Someone, perhaps, a little out of step with most Australians’ perceptions of themselves and how an Australian man - and especially its most senior sportsman - is supposed to be.

All this is true, but it doesn’t stop you being surprised by the way in which he has often appeared to be held in such lukewarm regard by his compatriots. For Clarke is as good, and mature, and passionate a batsman as it is possible to find on the contemporary world stage.

In traditional Australian style his batting is without artifice. Early in an innings he will be watchful, maintaining his shape, leaving when necessary, working the ball around. Once set he will look to attack, especially against spin, his decisive footwork and range of shot keeping him one step ahead of the bowler. There is little that stands out or makes him unusual, apart from the smooth edges of his technique and his calling, which is as loud and definitive and easily identifiable as you will ever hear, repeatedly reminding the watcher of his assertive commitment to the task at hand. In front of a microphone he is balanced and jauntily articulate. His love for the game, the way it lives inside him, is obvious and unaffected.

All the truly great players who made Australian cricket what it was in the last decade of the twentieth century and the first decade of the twenty-first were born well before Clarke: the Waughs in ‘65, Warne in ‘69, McGrath in ‘70, Gilchrist in ‘71, Ponting in ‘74. With the exception of Ponting all have left the stage. Now is a time of adaptation and adjustment such as Australia hasn’t known for a quarter-century

Clarke, born in 1981, is comfortably the best Australian batsman of his generation, and he, as captain, will be his country’s standard-bearer as the coming years unfold and a different, younger side seeks to regain its place at the top of the world game.

All the signs are that Clarke, orthodox but adaptable, and a more instinctively perceptive captain than his predecessor, is the right man to do this. What is more, it increasingly appears as though the Australian public know this to be so. It may, strangely, have taken 329 undefeated runs at the cradle of the Australian game to convince them, when 151 at Newlands, or 136 at Lord’s, or many other past innings, should have done just as well.

This time last year, with Ponting deposed and Australia humiliated by their oldest foe, things were very different. Clarke was captain, but he neither had runs nor trust. Now he has both.

As someone once said, form is temporary but class is permanent.

Michael Clarke could always, always, bat.

Subscribe in a reader