A Nasty Taste

The other piece of fallout which sticks in the memory is the way in which, ultimately, and rightly, Harbhajan was exonerated. However, many aspects of the saga left a nasty taste in the mouth.

Sometimes I love the thrust and style of Peter Roebuck's writing, many times I don't. This time, though, his piece at Cricinfo chimes with most of what I've been thinking over the past few weeks.

Some of the comments are best avoided, though.

Settling Dust, Opening Issues

With the dust from a fine Test series settled it's possible to think a bit about the fallout from it. And what you keep coming back to is the fact that some things never change: Australia win Test series at home - usually with ease, sometimes with more difficulty - and India struggle to find a reliable opening partnership.

When so many things about the Indian team have started to go right over the last few years, it's confusing and depressing that the establishment of a stable pair of openers still seems a long way away.

In Australia Jaffer started the series on the crest of a wave after his polished displays against Pakistan, but was gone by the end of it, following his erstwhile - and not unsuccessful - partner, Dinesh Karthik, out of the door. At Adelaide they were left with Irfan Pathan and Virender Sehwag to carry the can. Unsurprisingly, one failed and the other succeeded.

It was great to see Sehwag back to something approaching his best, even though his second Adelaide innings lacked the blazing brilliance of his greatest days. He's always liked Australia and, while appearances can be deceptive, he's always been at his best at the top of the order. Also, when he scores, he always scores big.

Viru should have ensured that he's back where he belongs for the time being, but who's to partner him?

As regular readers will know, I'm a strong supporter of Jaffer, although I'm happy to concede that there are technical and possibly temperamental vulnerabilities which may continue to affect his chances of truly replicating his home form outside the sub-continent. However, anyone who can bat as he did at Eden Gardens late last year has to be worth going back to.

It's a persistent headache which India need to sort out, and fast. As I've said before, things currently look sweet on the bowling and captaincy fronts, but they're going to have enough on their plate when the middle order big guns start to retire without having to continue to try to plug up the top of the order as well.


Changing Times/Another Great Gone

This morning I was going to write about a few subjects: events in Adelaide, the changes in England's selection panel, India's top-order problems. But all those can wait; the Adelaide game is still taking shape after three days and the other two topics will be around until the cows come home. There's only one story in town this unusually sunny January Saturday morning: the retirement of Adam Gilchrist, announced just a couple of hours ago.

With the probable exception of Warne, Gilchrist changed the game - well, the role of the wicket-keeper/batsman in it, to be precise - more than any of Australia's other recent greats. And he did it with a good-natured, smiling effervesence that belied a typically Australian toughness and a rare, rare, talent.

As Peter English wrote on Cricinfo after Gilchrist had secured the dismissals record a couple of days ago, the cracks, both with bat and gloves, have been starting to show for a while now and, for Gilchrist, there was nowhere to go except down, with only the relatively unimportant and ever more commonplace milestone of a hundred Tests on the horizon. As it is he'll retire with 96, played entirely consecutively, which constitutes a pretty good career.

One personal memory sees Gilchrist keeping on the Taunton square to a practising bowler as the shadows lengthened after a day's play. I'm not sure who the bowler was but something in my mind says Colin Miller, which would place the time as 2001. By this stage Gilchrist was a fixture in the Test side but he worked long into the dusk for his bowler, taking and returning, providing encouragement, chatting and laughing with interested observers (of whom I was one). Before that I knew he was a great cricketer; after that I respected him like no other Australian player of his generation.

The times continue to change for Australia. But for now this can be ignored. When Gichrist walks to the wicket tomorrow the Adelaide Oval will go nuts. And rightly so.


Perth and After

With Perth out of the way it's worth considering where Australia and India currently stand. As Peter English pointed out in a slightly over-pessimistic piece on Cricinfo yesterday, Australia had a defeat coming to them. Too many players had been lost and too many consecutive games won for anything else to have been the case. To me, though, even if India go on to draw the series in Adelaide (unlikely, but far from impossible given what happened there last time), Australia remain the team that sets the standards that every other international side has to aspire to and it'll take many more defeats to change that.

However, it's also a good time to be a follower of India; with away wins becoming more frequent, a range of seam bowlers developing rapidly and Kumble captaining the side with inspiration and inclusivity, things look good, even allowing for what happened in Melbourne and Sydney. Indeed, with Pathan, still young at 23 and starting to recapture something of his best form, RP looking to me like an increasingly classy and mature operator and Zaheer to return, the possibility of a three-pronged left-arm seam attack is a tantalising one. And then there's Kumble himself, who looks good to deny Anno Domini for another year or two now that the captaincy is finally his, and Harbhajan to come back in, and I haven't even mentioned Ishant Sharma, who remains raw, but confirmed, with his spell to Ponting on Saturday, that he's a bowler of rare potential.

The batting will require reinforcements soon enough, but, in the short term, India's challenge is to build on this. Another win at Adelaide might show that they're starting to move away from being the type of side that can beat anyone when the mood takes them and towards being the type of side that can simply beat anyone.


Not Before Time

It was great to see that James Foster has been brought into the England Lions squad to participate in the Duleep Trophy in India, replacing the injured Steven Davies.

He's been ignored for far too long and this is his chance to gain a foothold on the long road back.

One of the Good Guys

With the retirement of Shaun Pollock at the weekend another of the world's best players of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries has left the stage, following last year's farewells to Lara, Langer, Warne and McGrath.

With Shaun Pollock I was in at the start, having the (good or bad) fortune to be at Newlands when he ran through England's insipid batting in his fifth Test in the first week of January 1996. Almost everything he did then he continued to do throughout his career, right up to the nip-backer which removed the hapless Runako Morton on his last day in Test cricket on Saturday: Gun-barrel straight run, the highest of high actions, consistent line and length, enough movement to test the very best. The only thing Pollock lost was the extra ration of pace which defined him as a very, very good (if not quite great) bowler, rather than just another seamer.

The other thing worth remembering about Shaun Pollock was that he couldn't half bat when the mood took him. I recall seeing a particularly hard-hitting knock of 62 at Trent Bridge in August 2003 which gave a vivid glimpse of a player with the genetic ability to have become a top-order player if he'd wanted - or needed - to.

Pollock's retirement also signifies a continuing shifting of the guard in South African cricket. He was one of the central components of the teams which set South Africa back on the straight and narrow after isolation with Cronje, Rhodes, Donald, the Kirstens and Wessels, among others. All are long gone and now Pollock joins them, although the older representatives of the next generation down - Gibbs, Kallis, Boucher and Ntini - are still, with the exception of Gibbs, going strong, and will be seen in England this summer, when they'll give England plenty to think about.

The bottom line, though, at a time when all the talk is of international cricketers' behaviour, is that Pollock, emphatically, was one of the good guys.


Murky Waters

I don't know about anyone else but I knew things were about to get even more messy when the perenially oleaginous Malcolm Speed announced that Steve Bucknor was going to be replaced by Billy Bowden.

Okay, Bucknor was struggling and is not the umpire he used to be. But to replace him just because many Indian supporters (if not players) seem to have decided that he has some sort of vendetta against them takes the ICC into very murky waters indeed.

Not that they haven't been there before, mind.


Hitting the Fan

With India having gone the way of every other team that faces Australia, the s*** has really started to hit the fan in Sydney.

From this distance one can only agree that the umpiring throughout the match was poor; Bucknor has looked past his best for a year or two now and Mark Benson probably hasn't reached his best yet. And most of the errors went against India, although Indian fans should be wary of getting too paranoid. Even allowing for the part played by the officials, the Indian batsmen should have been able to bat through the last day, especially when they made such a good fist of the first innings at the SCG. Andrew Symonds and Michael Clarke may be many things, but world-class bowlers they're not (even though Clarke's Test average - 15.54 for 11 wickets -suggests otherwise).

As for the other controversy of the hour, well, who knows what was said, although I assumed that the umpires must have heard something and reported it to Procter for the case to have been declared open and shut so rapidly. Now I read that it was the word of Ponting and Symonds against that of Harbhajan and Tendulkar.

Either way, there's too much postured verbal sparring between players going on for my liking. No sooner have we gained an injury-induced respite from the lunatic Sreesanth than Harbhajan's piling in. Not that Australia can complain; they virtually invented 'sledging' and there's more than a few players in the current side who know how to mix it with the best of them. And then there's Nel and Prior (oh, sorry, the England selectors have seen him off for the time being).

Time to grow up, calm down and just play the game.


Round in Circles

I always enjoy listening to what Mike Selvey has to say, and I remember him warning on TMS, very soon after Matt Prior's debut century for England against the West Indies at Lord's last May, that it would be a good idea for everyone to wait and see how good his keeping was before deciding that England's wicket-keeping problems - in response to which the selectors have been going round in circles ever since Alec Stewart retired - had been solved.

Wise words, because, less than a year on, the England selectors have decided that, however well he's batted, Prior's keeping simply isn't good enough to keep him in the side and he's been dropped completely from the England side to tour New Zealand.

It's fair enough with me - I dislike Prior's cliched on-field hardman persona - and I suspect that Ryan Sidebottom, who, used to the support of Chris Read's superior keeping, finally blew his top at Prior in Sri Lanka, won't be losing any sleep either.

As to his replacements, well, it's no real surprise, given his Sussex background, to see Tim Ambrose in there, but James Foster has once again been very unlucky, and, with Phil Mustard also in the party it's certain that England will go into their crucial series in New Zealand next month with a Test match greenhorn wearing the keeper's gloves. A big ask for either of them, I reckon.

Elsewhere in the party Andrew Strauss returns, if only in the hope that his proven record of scoring Test centuries and taking slip catches will shore up two of the areas in which England were most vulnerable in Sri Lanka. He's fortunate to be there, though, having played no cricket since his omission from the Sri Lankan squad, and, to me, a probable and unwelcome knock-on effect of Strauss's return will be to ensure that the harshly-treated Owais Shah will still find it very hard to get into the side despite the dropping of Ravi Bopara.

From a parochial viewpoint it was good to see James Hildreth's selection in the 'England Lions' squad to take part in the Duleep Trophy, and it was also good to see Panesar's inclusion, as any bowling in favourable conditions, however different they are from those he'll encounter in New Zealand, will stand him in good stead. But Mike Yardy as captain?

Not sure about that, but then he too, plays for Sussex. Enough said.



There was plenty of inevitability about Sachin's hundred and now we have a finely poised game.

This sums it up beautifully.


Enigma Variations

Day two in Sydney ended with India firmly in the game thanks to a third magnificent SCG century from VVS Laxman. Meanwhile, in Cape Town, West Indies with their astonishing Port Elizabeth win under their belt, are going toe to toe with the Proteas, a skilled spell of seam bowling from Dwayne Bravo their major weapon.

Two enigmas, VVS and Bravo; the one often flattering to deceive and seemingly perpetually vulnerable, but bang in form at the moment, the other yet to really achieve the consistent results his talents demand.

For both of them today was one of the good days.


Poor Indeed

I wrote the previous post at work earlier today without having seen the highlights. Now I have, and, while everything I said still holds good, it does have to be said that some of the umpiring was very poor indeed. In fact, I can't remember when I last saw a catch behind as routine as Symonds' off Sharma fail to be given out.

India will need to bat well tomorrow.

What Can You Do?

It wasn't a great surprise - quite the opposite, in fact - to see the way in which India capitulated at Melbourne. Indian batsmen and pacy Australian tracks have rarely mixed well, and they went into the first Test of the series with even less practice behind them in local conditions than Fletcher and Flintoff's doomed England side did last year.

Today, though, could have been different. But it wasn't. When Australia are the home team it rarely is. When I went to bed with an hour gone RP had whipped out the openers, but I was woken by the news that Australia had been 134-6 before Hogg and Symonds had brought them round.

That's the thing about Australia. At least one player, often two, will always step up to the plate (as Duncan Fletcher might say); as they flourish the opposition, as often as not, will fall away as they see their early good work disintegrate. It's no good just starting well against Australia; you have to keep a high level of performance up all the time (and receive all the help from the umpires you can get). If you don't you're dead meat, especially if the game's being played in Australia.

Still, at least playing Australia stops weaker sides from getting the idea that they belong at the same table.

What can you do?

Well, it's not Australia's fault that they're this good. All anyone else can do is try to get better.

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