Don't Believe The Hype

I don't usually bother reading the British tabloids. They're occasionally amusing - sometimes intentionally, sometimes unwittingly - but what they write rarely bears much relation to the real world.

So I had to laugh when I happened to catch part of the sports slot on BBC Breakfast this morning and Chris Hollins showed the back pages of various papers to the camera.

One (I think it was The Sun but I couldn't swear to it) appeared to be describing Alastair Cook's innings (which deserves credit for being made, initially, under huge pressure, but which ended as an exercise in filling his boots against a poor attack on a bland pitch) as 'The Greatest Innings Ever'. There was no question mark.

Er, not quite, lads, in fact not even close to the top 50. But thanks for the laugh.


Hard to Love

I began writing here in 2006, just a few months after Alastair Cook came into the England team, and, in the first few years I was writing, I mentioned him a lot.

Over the last couple of years I haven't written about him so often, as for much of that time he's been battling a range of technical demons and his runs haven't been as plentiful or consistent as they were in his early days.

He's a player, and person, of contradictions. Still young, boyishly good-looking, often uncertain of manner, but with an old pro's patience, steely determination and hatred of getting out.

He can be hard to love, but when he plays like that it's not hard to see why his record's so good.

Tomorrow morning he and his partner, Jonathan Trott, can take the game right away from Australia.


Deja Vu

As Hussey and Haddin took the game away from England in the small hours of this morning, it was Michael Vaughan, on TMS, who first mentioned the feeling of deja vu. This was roughly thirty seconds after I and millions of other English cricket followers had thought it. As the crowd noise rose and the scoreboard started to revolve at a pace which England could do nothing to contain, the only thing that could be thought was that it was just like every other Ashes series in Australia that you could really remember.

I deliberately didn't comment here yesterday as I wanted to see how many Hussey finished up with, but his batting on the second day was a timely reminder that while advancing age always affects people in ways that can't be easily felt or defined, it doesn't always whither the way in which they do their job. Hussey has always been a pleasingly compact and technically sure player, and here his fortitude under pressure, judgement and footwork were of a calibre which it's hard to see anyone on the England side, with the possible exception of Ian Bell, who's in the best form of his entire career, matching.

Now, though, at least two of them will have to if England are to avoid defeat. The pitch could be a lot worse and the Australian attack could be a lot better.

But it will be tough.


Welcome to Australia, Welcome to Sleep Deprivation

The start of Ashes series can be captivating, exciting and emotional. This can lead to a strange type of nostalgic reflectiveness.

As I climbed into bed this morning, three overs in, Strauss already gone and CMJ broadcasting to the world, I found myself thinking about the fact that I'd been doing this sort of thing since before anyone from either side was born. When England pitched up at Brisbane to be sacrificed to Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson in November 1974, satellite television hadn't been invented and radios were still sometimes called transistors. I loved it. Still do.

Conclusion: I started bloody young, I'm getting older, and it's a good job I wasn't playing. There are many reasons for this - not least the fact that I'm not a very good cricketer - but also the awareness that too much emotion can affect the way you play.

It's hard to say whether this was a factor in what was, for England, a poor day, but if anyone had become even slightly carried away with the favourable predictions and lavish publicity, today's events will have brought them sharply back to earth.

Australian sides come, and Australian sides go, but they always, always, compete very hard. Today Peter Siddle was the embodiment of this attitude - fast, direct, immune to pressure and frequently successful. No matter what you have going for you (and England are currently very fortunate to have Ian Bell), going to Australia and winning Test matches is never easy.

Judgement is suspended until both sides have batted once, but, with one day gone, Australia hold the aces.


On The Edge

There's currently a lot - and I mean a lot - of writing about the series in the English media. Most of it tells you things you already knew, or things you didn't want to know, or draws conclusions you could reach yourself if your life wasn't so crowded that a man can make 333 in a Test match (and another can make 278 not out a few days later) and you can barely find the time to think, let alone write, about it.

This, by David Hopps, is different and brilliant.

There's a very real feeling that Ponting stands on the edge, and the ground underneath his feet, in the shape of the Australian cricket system, is less firm than it's been for many years.

Such was the evidence of Hobart, where, if you looked past the sublime quality of Ian Bell, the Australian second team fielded some decent players. But in amongst them were a good few - chiefly Mark Cameron and Steven O'Keefe - whose levels of experience, when set against their ages (rising 30 and 26 respectively), were pitiful.

With everything changing, it may be that what was once held to be one of Australia's strengths - the lack of a professional career structure and the seamless relationship between club and first-class cricket - has now become a weakness.

Similar But Different

It's always risky to draw inferences and parallels from phoney wars, but over the past week I've found myself thinking about the months leading up to the Rugby Union World Cup in the English autumn of 2003.

Clive Woodward's side was the best in the world and had laid many a marker down over the preceding years. The passage of time was against them but all that remained was for them to win the biggest prize in the game in the backyard of the world champions. In those days I had real faith and throughout that summer was telling anyone who would listen that they would do it. They did, but it was the final act of a team which rapidly broke up and cast the side into a period of headlong decline from which they've only really started to emerge in the last six months.

Flower's England is similar - tough, talented, highly professional, increasingly ruthless - but different in that they are a less dominant force on the world stage. But they are also younger and will not break up once the impending contest is over, victorious or otherwise. On this occasion it is their opponents, and their captain in particular, who are feeling the chill winds of change.

This time I haven't felt the same type of faith. Years of humiliation and defeat on the cricket ovals of Australia have a tendency to sap the confidence, and, unlike the players, I've been there before (in mind and spirit, if not body), time and time again.

I still say that it will be close, but one's feeling, as the cold and gloom of an impending English winter draws down, is that this England team has what is required - as much skill as their opponents and as much, if not more, confidence - to do the job.

The first few days in Brisbane will be telling.


On Its Knees

The first time that virtually anyone in this country became aware of Zulqarnain Haider was when he came into the Pakistan side for the first time for the second Test against England at Edgbaston in August. After a first innings golden duck and a lucky first ball escape second time round, he made a resourceful and gutsy 88 in the second innings to prolong Pakistan's ultimately forlorn fight for survival.

This was clearly a cricketer of some substance, and, while we don't yet know the truth behind his flight from Dubai, it was repulsive and revealing that a representative of the Pakistan authorities condemned him as strongly as he did yesterday.

Yes, he chose not to inform the team management of his concerns before he fled, but that was a choice he was perfectly entitled to make.

With attitudes like that, no wonder cricket in Pakistan is on its knees.


The Right to Review

Although they ultimately lacked the power to drive home their advantage, it was a significant achievement for New Zealand to push India as far as they did in Ahmedabad.

The Black Caps came straight from an unprecedented 4-0 ODI series defeat by Bangladesh (which I never found the time to write about when it happened, so belated credit to the Tigers) while India were sharpening their claws by winnning both their Tests against Australia.

For all Harbhajan's deserved maiden century, the most significant moments of the final day were the two transparently incorrect lbw decisions given by Steve Davis which put Dan Vettori - a man who's done most things - on the verge of what would have been one of the hollowest Test hat-tricks of them all.

It was a pity, because Davis has always looked to me to be an excellent umpire, but it threw into sharp relief the fact that we still have certain series being played without any form of Decision Review System while in others it increasingly appears to be working as its proponents intended. With India still choosing to lag behind the thinking of most other countries on this issue, it's salutary to think of what might have happened if they had lost the game as a result of those decisions, something which could also easily have happened in the first Test against Australia.

It would be interesting to know what VVS thinks, but, then again, it was only a (very) dodgy lbw decision and he's already passed three figures sixteen times in Test cricket.

If the rumours doing the rounds have anything in them, Zulqarnain Haider had a bit more to worry about.


Never a Truer Word

Thanks also to Andy Bull for having spotted and pointed up this apposite quotation (hidden away at the end of the column) from Dan Vettori, speaking about Sachin Tendulkar:

"He has been in form longer than some of our guys have been alive."

As Andy says:

Dan Vettori wasn't even joking. Sachin Tendulkar made his Test debut on 15 November 1989. New Zealand's Kane Williamson was born on 8 August 1990.

And, as I write, he has a Test debut century under his belt and New Zealand, against every set of odds you can think of, have India on the ropes.

You simply have to love Test cricket.

Looking Forward, Looking Back

As autumn sets in in England and everyone's attention turns to what is and isn't happening and what might or might not happen in any one of a number of cricket-related locations around the globe, sometimes it can be educative and not a little perplexing to turn one's mind back to events and people which everyone seems to have forgotten about in a world which turns too fast for its own good.

Andy Bull's columns in The Guardian are often wry and well-crafted, and are encapsulated in The Spin a weekly e-mail to which I subscribe. When this dropped into my inbox last week it really made me think.

At a time when one of the key off-field sub-plots involves what will happen to the Pakistan Three, it was a timely reminder of the fact that other people have drenched cricket in disrepute many times before.

At times the whole Stanford debacle seems like a bad dream. I wonder if Giles Clarke feels the same?

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