Ring Out The Old

Best wishes for 2011 to all my regular readers and anyone else who's dropping by.

Having enjoyed The Old Batsman's take on the year's best innings, I've been mulling over what I've seen.

The innings I can't get out of my head is Jonathan Trott's 184 in the final Test against Pakistan, which I watched from the Warner Stand. Deliberate no-balls or not, he came in on as difficult a batting morning as you'll ever see at Lord's with more than a few people still wondering if he was the best England could do at number three. Hours later he left the field with Stuart Broad to a standing ovation. Just before he went up the pavilion steps he raised his bat and looked back towards the Grandstand with a broad smile on his face. He belonged.

This is what I wrote at the time.


The End of the Beginning

While England's success in Australia hasn't been especially surprising, the same can't be said of the way in which it has been achieved. Leaving aside Perth as an exception which proves the rule (that England are the better team), Adelaide and Melbourne have seen England dismantle and humiliate Australia in ways that would have been completely implausible just a few short years ago.

They have been assisted by Australia's timidity and confusion, both on the field and in the selection rooms, where there are deluded people who think that Steve Smith is a Test match number six batsman, or that Ryan Harris is a number eight, or that Xavier Doherty and Michael Beer are better cricketers than Nathan Hauritz. This was a team which used to set the standards for the whole world. At times these past few weeks they have been a shambles.

And, as Andrew Strauss made certain to acknowledge in his post-victory interviews, much of England's achievement can be attributed to that satisfyingly familiar cliche, the 'team effort', to which everybody contributed. This is broadly true, but some players contributed more than others.

Paul Collingwood has many virtues, but these cannot obscure the fact that he is the only one of England's specialist batsmen who has failed even to make a single half-century, and much of the time he has batted with the elegance and sure footedness of an inebriated man trying to walk across an ice rink. Not that you ever went to him for elegance - just resolution, unquenchable spirit and the best damn catching ever seen in an England shirt - but this must have been one of the last great days he will ever know in England whites.

Today has been a clammy, foggy day in the English Midlands and Stuart Broad's thoughts will, of course, have strayed far from his
Nottingham home. Unlike Collingwood, though, he will have further opportunities to be part of triumphs such as this, for the England team forged by Strauss and Flower will have many more days like these before they're done.

Two contrasting players. One old, one young. One in Australia, one at home. One at the beginning of the end, the other at the end of the beginning.

Now that the MCG cheers have faded, a penny for their thoughts tonight.


Confronting Mortality

There are aspects of all our lives which we know we're good at. And there are things we think we're good at, but which, in fact, we can't do as well as we think we can. And, eventually, our capabilities are changed and diminished by the vagaries of time, age and misfortune.

Ricky Ponting knows he's a great batsman and has probably always fancied himself as a pretty good captain too. He would be unlikely to admit that it was his good fortune to find himself in charge of a team which, at its best, could make anyone associated with it look good. The innate psyche of a great sportsman will always be reluctant to admit to inadequacies and failures. You don't spend 152 Test matches breaking the best bowlers of your generation by having a clear sense of your own weaknesses.

Eventually, though, everyone has to confront their mortality. In Ponting's case, the runs have dried up, his team is a pale shadow of what it was and a permanent reputation as the man who lost three Ashes series is staring him in the face.

Bearing all that in mind, as well as the fact that he's got a long list of previous convictions, it's no wonder he gave Aleem Dar an extended piece of his mind earlier today. This is not to excuse it. He got off lightly, but this was a man simply raging against a dying of the light over which he has little control.

When Ponting turned his attention to Pietersen, the batsman's face signified a mixture of astonishment and humour, but no real concern. He knows that he will still be playing Test cricket long after Ponting has gone.


Ricky Ponting's Barmy Army

These are confusing, possibly distressing, times for the Australian cricket follower. If you are one you would have to be in your early thirties, at the very least, to have any conscious memory of a time when your national side was as poor as it is now, and, even if you're older and were around in the days of Murray Bennett and Andrew Hilditch (I wonder what happened to him?), there's a good chance that you've forgotten what it's like to see your side repeatedly humiliated at home by superior opponents. The fact that the team raised your hopes by beating the very same opponents with ease in the previous match probably just serves to increase the feeling of disorientation.

And it's no better for the players. The last time this sort of thing was going on Punter was playing for Mowbray under-10s and Steve Smith and Philip Hughes hadn't even made their debuts in the human race.

So what, as a spectator, when your flagging, toothless team needs your support more than ever, do you do?

Well, if the first day at the MCG is anything to go by, you decide before tea that you can't take any more and you simply walk out of the ground.


Real Test Match Batting

In a week when England bit the Perth dust again, the one and only Sachin reached a milestone which once would never have seemed possible and another all-time great, Jacques Kallis, reached his first double-century in Test cricket, it could have been difficult to decide what to write about.

But to me the biggest story in the cricket world these past few weeks has been the form of Mike Hussey. A man who had been virtually written off as an international batsman but who has kept his team in the series with as measured a display of batting technique as you could ever hope to see.

Technical rigour, patience and stamina are unfashionable virtues these days. Relentless innovation and the hitting of boundaries can often seem to be all that matters as the more impulsive charms of the shortened forms of the game engage the senses of its newer acolytes more rapidly than Test cricket can. But this, from Hussey, has been real Test match batting: the advance selection of an appropriate gameplan, the persistence to see it through to its conclusion, and the shotmaking skill to bend England's often naive bowlers to his will.

At 35 Hussey is no tyro. But, while he is only a few months younger than Ponting, he belongs to a different generation of Australian cricketer. The generation who could never break into the Test side during the glory years and who instead were forced to earn their living abroad. While Hussey's basic skills were forged on the quick tracks of Western Australia they were polished on the English county circuit; at Wantage Road in Northampton, in the shadow of the Jessop Stand at Bristol, and at the Riverside. Holding poor sides together and piling up huge scores.

Hussey's batting over the past few weeks has been that of a man reluctant to give up something which he had to wait a long time to achieve. England have yet to discover an effective way of attacking him, but, with the series in the balance and Melbourne almost upon us, they need to do so soon.

Because, given the chance, he will bat, and bat, and bat.


A Chill Wind

There's something supremely enjoyable and evocative about listening to Test Match Special as you walk through your home town in a snowstorm, with the pale light of a freezing December morning slowly making itself felt and the cold stinging your face like a sharp catch stings the hands. Christopher Martin-Jenkins, sheltering from the Perth heat, dutifully said something about welcoming listeners waking up on 'a frosty morning in England', but round my way it was a bit more severe than that.

Things were similar in another part of the WACA. A few hours before, a chill went through an England dressing room which has barely missed a beat since Brisbane, as Mitchell Johnson finally remembered what he was supposed to be good at. Six rapid victims later and match and series had taken on a different hue. A few of us - a bit like it used to be with snow itself in the days when English winter after English winter would go by without a hint of the stuff - had forgotten in three weeks that Australians could actually play cricket.

The characteristically fluent 62 which Johnson made on the first day was vital. An interview with him in the last Wisden Cricketer revealed him to be sensitive about his failures in England in 2009 and the type of player whose confidence needs regular regeneration. While the nets with Troy Cooley will have assisted with the mechanics of his technique, the reminder of his capabilities and the justification of his place which his runs gave him will have helped him to conquer his anxieties and bowl as he did.

England will need a supreme effort tomorrow to haul themselves back into the game, but this is not to say that all the Australians have left their demons behind. While his team suddenly look stronger on the back of a good day, the future for Ponting still looks clouded with an uncertainty which only a series victory and major runs will dispel.


Start the Car

The world of cricket was rocked to its foundations this afternoon when, with just 35 overs gone in the third Ashes Test at the WACA ground in Perth, Western Australia, the 41 year-old international poker player and cosmetic dentistry model, Shane Warne, made a shock decision to come out of retirement.

Although there had been calls for Warne to rejoin the Australian side after their humiliating defeat in the second Test at Adelaide, he had given no indication that he was prepared to make a comeback. However, with England on 242 without loss, and both Andrew Strauss and Alastair Cook choosing to bat right-handed in order to combat what Strauss later described as 'the mind-numbing tedium of scoring huge totals very quickly against people who can't bowl', Warne could take no more.

Warne, who has been working for Sky Television, suddenly stood up in the commentary box, removed his jacket, handed it to his co-commentator, the former England captain Mike Atherton, and said, simply, 'Hold that, Athers, I won't be long'.

Warne strode out to the middle, grabbed the worn Kookaburra from a startled Ricky 'Punter' Ponting and began setting an eccentric attacking field which included seven close fielders. The sense of expectation throughout the cricket world was palpable, but Warne's first delivery in Test cricket for almost four years proved to be a disappointment. It failed to spin and was very short, inviting the wide-eyed Strauss to pull it ferociously. The ball cleared the boundary by some 50 metres and was seen on TV to be heading towards a dark haired man with numerous tattoos and a strong resemblance to the discarded Australian player Mitchell Johnson. Johnson was on his ninth beer of the day, but interrupted his thirst-quenching routine to make an unavailing attempt to catch the ball, which rebounded from his right hand and nearly hit the former Test cricketers Ian Botham and Ian Chappell, who, in accordance with time-honoured cricket tradition, were fighting each other in the corner of the bar.

Warne threw his hands in the air in disgust and was heard to mutter something about Australian fielding not being 'what it used to be in the days of the great David Boon'. 'And Boonie could drink. If Johnson could hold his grog he would have caught that no worries'.

Warne returned to the commentary box, arriving just in time to hear David Lloyd deliver an uncomplimentary dissection of his bowling which concluded with the familiar but meaningless phrase 'start the car'.

At close of play England were 654 for 2 off 90 overs, with their coach, Andy Flower, expressing some discontent with the way they had 'let their advantage slip' after tea.

Don't do it, Warnie.


A Full House of Negatives

Whatever happens as this game plays out, things look truly grim for Australia. Grim in a way they haven't against England for a quarter of a century.

One of my favourite memories from the summer before I went to university is the day Gooch and Gower flogged a pallid Australian attack all over Kennington. Today, with the hapless Xavier Doherty playing the part of Murray Bennett, and Shane Watson as Simon O'Donnell, Cook, Trott and Pietersen did much the same.

For the majority of the twenty-five years which have elapsed since that day, the Australian cricket team has had it all. It still has, only now it is a full house of negatives: a threadbare, poorly selected attack; batsmen who are ageing, or lack form, or both; fielders who cannot take catches which should be routine at Test level.

It's still possible, given the benign pitch and the possibility of rain later in the game, for Australia to escape defeat in Adelaide, but the psychological damage being done here is huge.

Australia's glory years were really over as soon as all the greats had retired, but full confirmation of what this has meant on the pitch has taken a while longer to come.

Now, though, it is over. And there is nothing that anyone - least of all Ponting - can do about it.


All You Need to Know

Ricky Ponting comes to the crease. He has won the toss for his side and chosen to bat, but, in the first over of the match, they have already lost a wicket and are yet to score a single run.

Jimmy Anderson pitches the ball up, compelling Ponting to play forward. He does so, hurriedly, and the ball moves just enough to take the outside edge of his bat. Graeme Swann, at second slip, makes a difficult catch look profoundly easy.

This single delivery, one of 521 bowled in the day, tells you all you need to know about the relative strengths of the two sides.

God, England look good.

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