Cricket

England’s leadership debacle

Alastair Cook’s unusually conservative captaincy terminated England’s dominance over Australia and certainly has done no favours in promoting the game of test cricket.

Cook said that he and Coach Andy Flower are still the right combination to drive England forward. Right, so are Dennis Dugan and Adam Sandler.

Test cricket can ill-afford to stand still and tolerate slow overrates, corrupt administrators, and captains who clearly have little interest in inspiring the paying public and struggle to latch onto the game’s pulse.

Expecting the BCCI… I mean, the ICC, to behave as a guardian angel to cricket’s oldest form is like expecting Michael Slater to ask a post-match question other than, “How does it feel” (C’mon Slats! I’m beginning to only like you for, one, your nickname and, two, for the time you jumped onto the stage and drunkenly sang at the conclusion of another Allan Border Medal Night).

Players, and importantly, captains, are primarily responsible to ensure that not only test cricket remains cricket’s ultimate form, but also that the game remains relevant in a fiercely competitive commercial environment. In partnership with Flower, Cook has failed to do so.

Cricket’s relevancy, domestically and internationally, is a serious issue. For all of the Twenty20 insanity, retired washed-up athletes competing under a lame marketing-fueled slogan, ‘battle of the bashes’, is not top-class competition – nor inspiring entertainment. Heck, the players might be telling the truth that they do take the competition seriously. But the fact remains that Australians and other cricket lovers are accepting second-rate competition.

Let’s say, hypothetically, basketball faced the crossroads following the NBA relapsing back into its cocaine-fueled-orgy days (stay with me). Sure, we would all love to see a 50-year-old Michael Jordan hit the hardwood again in some pseudo- basketball league to help basketball remain one of the world’s most popular sports. Yet, if this Jordan-led retiree league (mixed in with talented young players) was what we pinned our hopes on to reinvigorate basketball in the long term (STAY WITH ME!), then the integrity and standard of the game would be further cheapened. Yes, millions of people would tune in for another glance of MJ, but the core problems would still exist in basketball. Bums on seats do not always accurately measure the sport’s state of health.

Ummm, anyway, back to England’s mess.

I imagine playing under Cook and Flower is a bit like enduring Dean Bailey and then Mark Neeld as your coach. Although, at least Cook pretends to be in complete control with his icy stonewall persona on the field.

Despite trailing 2 – 0 leading into the Perth Test, England refused to make tactical adjustments. Following another humiliation in Perth, signs for change were as obvious as Tiger Woods’ sexual appetite for girls whose names ended with two n’s or two e’s, or girls who have names with two k’s or two x’s back to back.

Joe Root batting at number three typified England’s refusal to counterpunch Australia’s fast bowling battery, which was led by Mitchell Johnson. Root is talented, if not slightly overrated, and should have never been asked to man cricket’s most important batting position.

Sure, positional changes and more daring batting wouldn’t have hindered Australia reclaiming the Ashes, but it may have induced a more spirited and fierce contest.

As Shane Warne continually repeats on air, showing positive intent is sometimes just as important then the bottom-line. Your captain shouldering a straight ball delivery is not showing much fortitude.

Five tests and 21 days of cricket were played, and England refused to waiver from its raw conservative tendencies at the crease and in the field.

For such a fine player, Cook exhibits a severe case of Ponting-itis.

Despite England being a model of consistency over the last five years, it’s difficult to say how truly great they were. India faced multiple retirements, Pakistan was dirtier than an inner-city brothel, Mickey Arthur coached Australia, New Zealand alienated Ross Taylor (Player management 101: Do not under any circumstances piss off your lone star talent), and only South Africa championed the world.

How do we characterise England’s era? Every great team consumes an identity that either transforms the way cricket is played or captures a generation of young cricketers’ imaginations. Besides England’s consistency and South African heritage, this era is difficult to define.

For all of Cook’s shortcomings as captain, he remains a key catalyst to England’s revival in 2014 and beyond. Just perhaps not as the man steering the ship.

Meanwhile, Flower might be better off collecting a pen and paper and joining Mickey Arthur’s homework club.

The Good & The Bad

Only 20 days ago, I was preparing to write a column about how there was only three sure things about Australian cricket: 1) Mitch Johnson’s claim to be a good cricketer is as legitimate as Lara Bingle’s IQ. 2) I trust the captain of the Costa Concordia more than Cricket Australia. 3) I’m going to drink a shot for every time I hear Warney compare Ian Bell to The Sherminator (THEY LOOK NOTHING ALIKE, SHANE, GET OVER IT!)

Getting two of my three certainties correct, isn’t bad (I refuse to trust Cricket Australia. Its rotation policy and homework tasks for grown men was an embarrassment to professional sports). I recognise that Moustache proved me wrong. Do we credit Johnson’s rise to stardom to the thinking man’s alcoholic, Boof Lehmann, or do we finally recognise that maybe, just maybe,  Johnson is more resolute, determined and competitive then we ever believed?

Australia lead 2 – 0 and have won its last six Ashes test matches in Perth. Oh, and the WACA is Johnson’s favourite test ground! Australia couldn’t ask for a better opportunity to reclaim The Ashes.

England arrived in 2006-07 as favourites and left with the same obliterated look I had after watching The Hobbit (OK, you get it now. I HATE that movie. Peter Jackson destroyed Middle Earth for me in the same way that Josh Schwartz butchered post-season one of The OC. Let this be a lesson to all those rookie producers out there – Don’t air 27 freaking episodes in one season). This 2013-14 England team may well be heading down the same miserable path. Are you getting a little deja vu?

AUSTRALIA

THE GOOD:

Let’s see… David Warner has resembled a professional cricketer. Chris Rogers is batting within himself and Phil Hughes isn’t playing for Australia. Yet, it’s Michael Clarke’s captaincy and batting that has been the most historically significant and impressive feat in this series. Since Mark Taylor, no other Australian captain has been as commanding, fluent and in touch with his team’s heartbeat, as Clarke is. He knows how to expose defensive batting tendencies, when to go for the kill and always make the right bowling change – this is what sets him apart from Steve Waugh, Ricky Ponting and current international test captains.

Day two of the first test will forever be the day England lost the Ashes and Clarke proved to be Australia’s finest batsman as test captain since Greg Chappell. Great teams protect tactically passive captains but adversity reveals a captain’s tactical nous. Johnson might be England’s dread but it’s Clarke who has been the glue-guy and the series’ most valuable player.

THE BAD:

Shane Watson. He glares, pouts, sledges… and is one of the softest competitors in the history of sports (Don’t worry, Jordan McMahon, you still hold that title). Watto’s skill set is absurdly intriguing – he’s probably Australia’s best exponent of reverse swing bowling, he can tie down an end and he’s solid in the slips. His batting is textbook – perhaps to technically sound – and he can score in all parts of the ground (just don’t ask him to rotate the strike).

Watto’s fragility in the mind is his downfall. Most batsmen have technical flaws, which the world’s premier fast bowlers always attempt to expose. We all know Watson has as much difficulty with his front foot movement as Warney does pronouncing, “Australia” (apparently there’s an ‘h’ after the ‘s’). Yet, Watson should still find a way to score more test centuries. Or, perhaps, we should stop the He Should Be Dominating World Cricket and, instead, accept that what we are seeing from Watson, right now, is who he really is – a skilful journeyman international cricketer who is fortunate to play in a weak era.

RANDOM THOUGHT:

Johnson and Stokes new found love deserves a series spinoff. Seriously, their clash on the pitch sparked more chemistry than the entire series of Lois & Clark.

ENGLAND:

THE GOOD NEWS:

Wait for it … There’s still three test matches to be played! Plenty of time for Warner to get back on the piss and for Siddle, Johnson and Harris to breakdown from one of the following: stress-fracture/broken foot/Chondromalacia/Triangular Fibrocartilage Complex/REST. No need to panic.

THE BAD NEWS:

There’s still three test matches to be played! MORE MITCHELL  JOHNSON, SWEET JESUS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

MORE BAD NEWS:

I might be one of the few people who genuinely enjoys watching Jonathan Trott bat. I  love his South African smugness and his tendency to walk at the fast bowler. News of Trott’s departure from the series and his battle with mental illness has been the darkest point of the summer. Historically, cricket has one of the highest rates of mental illness and suicide across all sports – and you wouldn’t know it! The Ashes needs Trott (being South African-aside) and the game of cricket needs all the star power it can muster.

As it stands

Jimmy Anderson wants to punch George Bailey in the face and Michael Clarke wants Anderson’s arm broken. No, this isn’t some awful WWE wrestling match or even Dave Warner on a Saturday night. What was said and not what was achieved in the first test wrongly dominated the back pages.

Australia haven’t hosted a tightly contested Ashes series since the 1982-83 summer. England was either hopelessly negative or Australia was wilfully dominant. In recent years, the Aussies have been overmatched because of a meek talent-pool and stunningly poor decision making by Cricket Australia. The truth be told, The Ashes in the modern era has been predictable and often disappointingly one-sided with the exception of 2005.

Australian cricket and, heck, test cricket needs a champagne series. Cricket is lacking true star power as the Little Master, Ponting and Lara no longer wield the willow, and Shane Warne no longer texts. Kevin Pietersen excites spectators but he struggles to avoid public scorn, anyone South African is under-appreciated (seriously, listen to the Channel Nine commentary team’s pathetic attempt to heap praise on Graeme Smith’s brilliant leadership and toughness. They’re definitely still livid by Smith’s abrasive  cockiness in his first tour to Australia) and public opinion of  Michael Clarke remains polarised (Is it because we couldn’t understand why Clarke would rather bang Bingle then live and breathe Australian cricket?).

The ICC’s decision to fine Clarke for his on-field altercation is a classic example of a paranoid authority trying to protect its brand. Clarke’s incident in isolation barely merits discussion. While vulgar, worse language has been used on the field. What was surprising was Australia’s number one cheer-squad, Channel Nine, allowing Clarke’s exchange with Anderson to be aired.

Well, here we are in late November, and David holds a 1 – 0 series lead over Goliath. Australia went nine tests without a victory, so it was crucial the Aussies broke through in Brisbane with the win. England suffered its first test defeat in 14 tests. Was it a loss England had to have to sharpen its focus? It’s difficult to say. What we do know is that every Melburnian’s worst fear of a dead Boxing Day test match is now unlikely. For Australian confidence, corporate advertising, spirit of competition and the wider impact on test cricket, the result in Brisbane was the right one, for everyone.

England are proven winners even if its brand of cricket is dull and uninspiring, much like Peter Jackson’s sellout of The Hobbit. Yet, with Jonathan Trott’s sudden departure leaving a glaring hole at number three and Australia’s ease with playing Swann, can England regain control? The Ashes is going to come down to which batting pair, Clarke and Warner or Cook and KP, can have more success. Pup never found his batting rhythm over in England and Warner never really left the pub. Warner, in particular, looked at peace in the middle of the GABBA (much like he would with a frothy in hand) – he was aggressive but in full control, dictating the bowler’s actions. During Australia’s nine test winless stretch, Warner and Pup never scored a century in the same match. Seems like a losing formula, to me.

England opened the door to Australia on day two of the first test with some hideously negative tactics and now they must find a way to level the series on an Adelaide highway. As both sides find themselves in unfamiliar territory, the first session of the Adelaide test will be crucial in influencing not only the result of the second test, but, also, the entire Ashes series.

Key observations: Brisbane Test Day 2

Was it English complacency that allowed Australia to break the match wide open in a dramatic middle session?

Sure, to a degree. Throw in Mitchell Johnson finally contributing to an Ashes test match, Nathan Lyon actually top-spinning his deliveries and Alastair Cook’s incomprehensibly poor captaincy … and you have Australia in pole position!

In the lead up to the Brisbane Test, lively debate was made about Cook and Michael Clarke’s different captaincy styles. Clarke’s captaincy tends to be proactive, aggressive and daring, while Cook enjoys boring the paying-crowd and relying on his team’s superior talent to win matches. England got away with playing ‘safe’ cricket at home, but on Australian pitches where a few English batsmen struggle with the bounce, cautious cricket won’t cut it Down Under.

Cook’s plan to occupy time at the crease and bore Australia into submission was blatantly dumb (screw it, schoolboy captaincy deserves a juvenile description). Test cricket has changed. Slow run rates and mundane batting only saves matches… and loses matches. Clarke is cricket’s premier strategic mind and England played right into his hands. Michael Carberry’s tidy 40 (I really want to say ‘put-a-fork-to-your-eye’ innings) placed more pressure on England than it did on the Aussies. His inability to rotate the strike allowed Clarke to dictate the inning’s tempo and pace.

Australia’s success today was more about Clarke’s captaincy than it was about Johnson’s return to relevancy. If you don’t think captains can win you test matches, think again. Watching Clarke control proceedings from the slip-cordon was like playing with that wise potbellied I-Used-To-Play-District-Cricket-So-Do-What-I-Fucking-Say old guy. Seriously, I love this post-Bingle Clarke.

And you know what, I’m also beginning to love this post-Simone I’m-banging-England’s-hottest-MILF Shane Warne (facelift aside). Warney’s match analysis is as amusing as James Brayshaw’s attempt to use a word other than ‘unbelievable’ in his commentary. Warne’s assessment of Joe Root’s batting must go into 2013′s Top 10 Most Underrated Sports Television Moments: “Be interesting to see what Root we get today. Will it be a sedate root, aggressive root or a nice patient root?”   I’ve been screaming out for a longtime for Australian TV to have its own Charles Barkley (NBA TNT Analyst and basketball hall of famer) who is hilariously improper, but possesses incredible basketball IQ. If I was given the reins to select Channel Nine’s cricket commentary team, I would ask myself one simple question: Who would I want to listen to making a best man’s speech? Simple. It’s Shane Warne.

Unless an embarrassing meltdown occurs (always in the realms of possibility when Shane Watson is your vice captain), Australia hold all the cards and shouldn’t lose the test from here.

I can’t quite decide on what was today’s more pleasant surprise. Mitch Johnson turning into a total “F-You Mode” to the Barmy Army and his critics (that would be the entire Australian nation… but apparently not Tendulkar) or the Aussies finishing the day in such an overwhelming position that there is a strong possibility that day three could become known as the day when Davey Warner sodomised England. Now there’s some imagery!

England have too greater talent to lose this series, but Cook’s men do face glaring concerns. Perhaps, for the first time in Johnson’s career, he matches up well against England’s batting lineup. Carberry’s conservatism, Root’s vulnerability to Australia’s bouncy wickets and Jonathan Trott’s frailty to the short-ball (which is as sad as watching Phil Hughes’ attempt to play spin bowling), gives Johnson the surprising advantage. Johnson’s ability to throttle the opposition with a barrage of bouncers (his only strength?) suddenly makes him a game changer.

For England to regain ascendency in this Ashes series, Trott must compose himself and find a way to combat the short ball without blatantly exposing his leg stump. Not only would an in-form Trott make England a more intimidating opponent, but it could also render Johnson ineffective for the rest of the summer.

Australia defied the naysayers, at least for now, and reminded everyone why The Ashes is sport’s greatest contest.

Cometh the Warner

Dave Warner’s greatest contribution to Australian cricket in 2013 was landing a right hook to Joe Root’s head at a Birmingham bar, but even that couldn’t derail the Poms.

Now, Warner has been gifted the opportunity to regain respect and add another needed storyline to the remaining eight Ashes test matches. Thanks to an innings of 193 on a highway and Australia’s overall incompetence, Warner is back. He’s not quite Australia’s saving grace but he is back from touring Birmingham’s pubs and exploring social media- so perhaps he can at least provide Boof with a nice selection of boutique beers.

In many ways, Warner is the problem and the solution to Australian cricket’s rotting culture. He’s young, brash and terribly loose, not just technically. Yet, he is talented. Behind Michael Clarke (err… actually very far behind), Warner is Australia’s most capable and explosive batsman. Australia’s other two superior talents aren’t even in the test team. One is wicketkeeper Matthew Wade who is waiting behind a sadly washed up Brad Haddin and the other is Shaun Marsh who strangely is highly rated by international onlookers but not so much by Cricket Australia.

Warner is far from the complete package but he is an important piece to the puzzle. Australia need him but they don’t need the Warner of 2013. Currently, the swashbuckler is a professional by title but not by nature. No true athlete committed to winning prioritises the sweet taste of a pint over the glory of winning matches. Maybe, Warner is a social hermit and an obsessive trainer but the public image he paints of himself is on the other extreme.

Clarke is screaming out for a buddy who he can bat with for long periods. Warner isn’t exactly an occupier of the crease but he is a run scorer who bats without Shane Watson’s mental fragility and Ed Cowan’s overwhelming limitations. Change must come from within, both in Warner’s and Australia’s case. But also, influence from beyond the intimate closures of the dressing-rooms must be utilised to rejuvenate the state of Australian cricket. Warner’s maturity would be fast-tracked dramatically if past players like fellow New South Welshman Glenn McGrath took him under his wing. McGrath’s obsessive commitment to bowling, weights and fitness was elite. After a long days play of test cricket, McGrath resisted the temptation of packing it in for the day and, instead, would go straight to the gym for extra leg weight training to ensure his strength and power was maintained.

Sure, Australia’s top order lacks genuine world class talent but what they sorely lack is the warrior’s mentality. Led by Peter Siddle, the Aussie bowlers embrace the struggle but the batsmen have shown little interest in overcoming adversity. Brendan Fevola has shown more defiance to the punt and the piss than Australian batsmen has to quality bowling. Maybe Australian cricketers aren’t used to facing adversity after a long period of bludgeoning dominance. Yet, is that really an excuse for their current ineptitude?

Twenty20 cricket is at fault for the low scores. India’s money has corrupted the cricketer’s heart. Australia’s domestic competition’s scheduling is undermining player development! Perhaps, these statements all played a part in the Baggy Green’s demise. In fact, cricketers have turned into ‘hired guns’, which has caused a disconnect and a phoney sense of ‘team’.  How can a healthy team environment be established if the XI is different every year? Stability has proven to be the one constant theme for every successful team in sport (Geelong Cats, Melbourne Storm and NBA’s San Antonio Spurs to just name a few). Past cricketing greats, like the Chappells, believe ‘talent’ is the only issue. We just needs more gun players! Cheers for that! Their assessment is simplified and practical but not very helpful to Australia’s current plight.

Cricket Australia’s misguided ‘rotation policy’ demonstrates their eagerness to borrow strategies from other sports. How about borrowing the right ideas? Well coached teams in all sports implement a system or style of play that best suits the talent at its disposal. Does Australia’s talent allow them to continue the Australian tradition of aggressive and free flowing batting? No. It’s time for ‘Boof’ Lehman to emphasise occupying the crease as rule number one.

Warner’s inclusion in the test team allows the other top and middle order batsmen to play a more defined supporting role. Phil Hughes, Steve Smith and even Clarke can patiently build a platform for a long decisive innings, instead, of feeling consumed by the slow run rate and small total.

It’s time for Warner to put aside the ‘kid’ and become the year-round professional that Australia’s top order desperately needs.

Home Truths

At the home of cricket, home truths will be told and series-telling trends will be established.

The first test was filled with bizarre abnormalities and controversial momentum killers. Australia’s number 11 batsmen (Ashton Agar in the first innings & James Pattinson in the second) combined for more runs than any other position and Agar’s 98 is the most scored by a number 11 in test match history. Staring down the barrel at 9 for 117 in their first innings, Michael Clarke’s men looked destined for another humiliating tour, yet, somehow Australia nearly pinched victory on day five and made England’s bowling attack look awfully one-dimensional. Throw in England’s Ian Bell playing his greatest test innings and Clarke succumbing to what was likely the best delivery we will see for the series, Trent Bridge’s stunning twists made George Martin’s plots seem linear.

So far, only four minor pre-series predictions have come to fruition- Jimmy Anderson is the premier fast bowler in this series, Australia’s top six form an able State batting lineup but struggle mightily on cricket’s biggest stage, Australia’s bowling runs deeper than their opponent’s, and England would be eventual victors. Unfortunately for the Aussies, this edges them in the negative.

Can Australia score enough runs to win a test match? If Clarke fires, sure. But with Agar preparing to face a more intense examination at Lords and the law of averages surely coming into affect for Australia’s lower order, the battle for the Urn is about to get far more difficult.

Out of form Ed Cowan will not find solace in facing a touring Pakistan team in party mode, like Mike Hussey did. Instead, Cowan and his mate, Shane Watson, must face Anderson’s winging masterclass to resurrect their careers.

Clarke will rightly sell to his team that they can compete with the old rival but to win back the Urn? England’s first test victory was more significant than just the stat-line 1-0. Australia must now claim three of the next four tests to win back the Ashes as a combination of Australia’s unpredictable batting and England’s elite talent will ensure the Poms win at least one more test.

England can bank on Kevin Pietersen rising to the critical moments and Jonathan Trott eventually gaining the umpire’s favour. Can Australia rely on Phil Hughes repeating his first innings deeds? Although Hughes showed patience and seemingly an improved cricketing IQ, Hughes was really just riding on Agar’s coattails. Steve Smith has surprised but his tendency to square-up in defence leaves him vulnerable on moving English decks. Maybe if the Ashes was a three test series, Australia could escape with carrying some journeyman batsmen and immature talent. Yet, as series stretch to five matches, England’s batting consistency will most likely triumph Australia’s more flash and crash approach.

While Australia’s batting has yet to join the fight, the Australian bowlers have already shown doggedness with the bat and zeal with ball. Victorians Peter Siddle and Pattinson set an aggro and toughness that is sorely missing in Australia’s batting top order. Both natural aggressors and in the traditional Victorian mold, Siddle and Pattinson are currently Australia’s most valuable players, aside from Clarke. Australia had no business stealing the first test but Siddle and Pattinson’s competitiveness nearly shone bright enough to burst England’s steely resolve.

If Australia is to claw their way back in the series it must begin at Lords, their home away from home, where Clarke’s men can dispel the myths and forge some new truths.

Trent Bridge Test Match (End of day 3)

Not even all of the Agar-mania could cloud the reality of these Ashes Series. While Australia leant on a 19-year-old number 11 to resurrect themselves, England trusted its resilience and depth to withstand an Australian assault.

Despite the Trent Bridge test match enduring the unbelievable with Ashton Agar’s history breaking 98, the first test looks to reach a fairly inevitable ending.

England Captain Alistair Cook and Kevin Pietersen laid the solid foundations with a century partnership, and Ian Bell’s unbeaten 95, perhaps his greatest knock for England, ensured England hold a 261 run lead with four wickets in hand.

Sure, Aleem Dar was blinded and apparently deaf to Broad’s blatant nick off Agar, but Australia’s inability to seize the moment and overcome adversity is characteristic of Michael Clarke’s current XI. Broad’s decision to hold his ground caused a volcanic eruption on social media- mostly from tired Australians (c’mon it was the early hours of the morning!) and others who hold a false sense of morality. Do bowlers call back their victims if they know they bluffed the umpire in pulling the trigger? I never did and no respected competitor should. Or should have Tom Hawkins instructed the goal umpire that his ‘goal’ in the 2009 AFL Grand Final was a behind? Playing within the spirit of cricket is accepting the umpire’s decision, even if the umpire’s decision is not favourable, not dictating the umpire’s decision. In fact, Broad’s refusal to walk is symbolically suggestive of England’s agitation to Jonathan Trott’s second innings dismissal.

The problem that lies ahead for Australia is that England have plenty of upside left in their camp. Kevin Pietersen is still shaking the rust after a layoff from test cricket and Stuart Broad is not fully fit. In the immediate future, Australia will mightily struggle to chase anything more than 280 as Graeme Swann awaits them on a crumbling day four and five pitch. Yet, win or lose, Australia’s second innings performance with the bat will be crucial to their long-term ultimate goal of winning the Ashes. A swift capitulation to England would denigrate the memory of Agar’s 98 and severely dent Australia’s belief that they can win the series. On the other hand, a grinding and resolute chase with the bat, successful or not, will maintain a young Australian team’s confidence.

Although, does Australia really believe an Ashes test match can be won with a number 11 top scoring? Some may draw the “what if” card and claim Aleem Dar’s blunder and Broad’s immorality was the decisive stroke. But a five day test match doesn’t lie. The more consistent, assured and killer-minded team survive the marathon, and so far to date, Australia are the ones short of breath.

The legacy series

The upcoming Ashes Series has been misunderstood by the average pundit and commentator. This series will not be primarily about Australia’s belligerently incompetent batting or sports love affair with a “David vs Goliath” story. Instead this series is about a lone champion, Michael Clarke, attempting to carve perhaps his final and most absolute legacy upon the annals of cricketing history.

The pressure is meant to lie with the battle-tested English and the Australians are supposed to play with “nothing to lose”. Yet, the “nothing to lose” sporting mantra is nothing but senseless media hyperbolic dribble. Clarke has more at stake than England’s Alistair Cook, and I daresay the two test teams combined. For the great wielders of the willow, like Clarke, a particular series or season defines their career.

Clarke’s last 24-months of domination has placed him in the discussion of Australia’s greatest XI. Yet, he still needs one more signature moment, particularly in The Ashes, to muscle his way into Australia’s top five greatest batsmen list. Ricky Ponting’s heroic 156 at Old Trafford in 2005 confirmed his greatness and Greg Chappell’s 131 (no other batsman scored more than 60 in that match) at Lords in 1972 achieved the same.

The back-to-back Ashes series in England and Australia, has even more significance for Clarke’s career. Not only is he the stand alone Australian class act, he is also captaining a team that he now truly owns. Ricky Ponting and Mike Hussey’s absence make him the chief leader, and with Mickey Arthur’s sacking and “Boof” Lehman’s welcoming, the team can be moulded in his reflection. Furthermore, Clarke’s ailing back (potentially career ending) adds a greater sense of urgency and significance to these upcoming Ashes.

England maintaining the Ashes Urn this year is a near forgone conclusion but England’s path to Ashes glory is not fixed. The boy they call “Pup” has an opportunity to be the Brian Lara of 1998/99, when Lara laid multiple bloody assaults on Australia’s bowlers and nearly single handedly dragged the West Indies to a highly unlikely series victory.

Cricket is a team sport which is driven by individual deeds, not the other way around. Who do we marvel at more and who inspires debate? Sachin Tendulkar’s run making or his XI’s erratic results? Brian Lara’s domination or his team’s dysfunctional state?

Before Dave Warner’s twitter rants and drunken brawls, Shane Watson’s sulking and Steve Smith’s test selection, Clarke seemed  to be the undisputed premier test captain in the world. While maintaining Australia’s traditional attacking tactical edge, Clarke also employed imagination and streaking boldness to his fielding placements and bowling changes- something which Ricky Ponting and Steve Waugh sorely lacked. Yet, a dearth of team discipline rightly reflects on the team’s leaders just like young Pakistani Mohammad Amir’s involvement in spot-fixing reflected poorly on the senior Pakistan players.

For Australia to force a meaningful fourth or fifth test in England, Clarke will need to bag at least 500 series runs while nursing a shoddy back and enduring a bunch of journeymen and wildly inconsistent teammates.

On cricket’s grandest stage, Clarke can elevate himself shoulder to shoulder with Ricky Ponting and Greg Chappell as Australia’s greatest batsmen of all time.

The Urn isn’t the only prize at stake for the Australians.

Extreme overhaul required

The Australian summer built up misplaced confidence and exaggerated talent but the Indian summer has cast the absolute damning judgment on the test team, the national selectors and Cricket Australia.

Australian cricket has ventured into the realm of sports science, embraced complexity over the simplicity and abandoned instinctive logic. CA has tried so desperately to stay in front of the game that they have taken their eye off the ball. The Aussie and Indian Summers prove this.

The safe and familiar Australian pitches and medium paced Sri Lankan bowling padded Australia’s test ranking. Sri Lanka might have test-status but their team is barely test-quality. The Lankans had two champion batsmen (one nearly finished), a handy swashbuckler and a spin-bowler crying out for support. Realising this, the Aussie selectors ensured Phil Hughes, one of their favourites, skipped South Africa’s pace-barrage and eased him back into the test arena against a pace attack that would be inferior to most state teams.

Australia’s first two performances against India have been humiliating, weak and not surprising.

The truth is CA hasn’t allowed the test team to consolidate and rebuild since the retirements of Glenn McGrath, Shane Warne, Adam Gilchrist and Matthew Hayden.

Australia’s short and maybe even long-term future is reliant solely on Michael Clarke’s ability to repeatedly rise to the task.

Yes, Clarke has no test equal as a batsman and captain but eventually his shoulders have to give way. His health and state of mind has to be a huge concern to his teammates, coaches and selectors who are failing to play their part.

CA has always had a severe dose of the “mate-syndrome-paralysis” that rivals Chanel Nine’s “boys club” but only now there’s limited talent to cover-up such a childish management-style.

Consistent performance at state level should be the determining factor on test selection not if you’re one of the “lads”.

How does Hughes get preferential treatment over Victorian Rob Quiney who was the sacrificial lamb to South Africa? How does Quiney play just three test innings and be relegated to his state duties, seemingly for the rest of his career? Yet, Steve Smith’s seaming leg-breaks and underwhelming batting guarantees him a spot on the Indian test tour despite posting just the one first-class ton from 40 innings and 17 wickets at 73.11 since 2010.

In football, Richmond Coach Terry Wallace and Football Director Greg Miller lost their heads for their inability to recruit, draft and nurture talent.

The Australian selectors should suffer the same fate.

John Inverarity’s position as chairman of selectors must be put under serious questioning as he has failed to support the right young talent, the most appropriate player-management scheme and establish a balanced test team.

CA’s rotation-policy has stirred public discontent and surely in the state and national player ranks as well.

Why has Australia endured so many spineless batting collapses under Clarke’s captaincy? I argue that the lack of top order talent is not the main culprit. Instead, the rotation policy has played the most influential hand. CA’s controversial resting policy has created a culture of softness. Cricket is the most mentally dependent game on earth but not the most physical. Even though CA’s player-management plan is for the bowlers, it still instills a scapegoat mentality amongst the XI. The policy implies to payers that exhaustion, mental or physical, directs you to quit. CA is countering Clarke’s attempt to embrace a Stephen Fleming-like captaincy model by empowering his young teammates to share responsibility in performance and preparation.

So, where to now for Australian cricket?

Culture cannot be changed overnight but under Clarke’s adaptable leadership style, Australia will eventually find a team identity that will underpin their preparation and performance but CA must first fall into line.

In the immediate future, the best and most in form XI must be selected. While Australia’s pace bowlers have been ineffective in India they are the world’s most talented young pace attack. England’s green country will serve James Pattinson, Peter Siddle, Jackson Bird and Mitch Starc well. Although, Australia’s current batting top-order will not find the same solace in greener pastures.

Ed Cowan is like that off-milk lingering at the back of the fridge. It just has to go. Cowan refuses to use his feet to both spin and pace and lacks the weaponry to play test cricket. Some believe Cowan’s Bill Lawry-esk ability to bore the bowlers and even the crowd has its place in the game. This old-school idea no longer has a place in the modern game particularly when Cowan doesn’t have another gear to go to. Just like the tall lumbering forward has no place in modern footy, the one-geared blocker is more paralyzing for his team than the opponent.

On the other hand, Hughes has looked painfully lost in India but England’s seaming decks and experienced team will prove even more hazardous for him. I am a firm believer that we are all creatures of habit and when the situation rises to its most challenging and spiteful we revert to our innate practices. Hughes’ mates up in the Channel Nine commentary box told us all summer that he tightened and corrected his technique to the short ball and the wide swinging delivery. Slats, Heals and Binga might be right to a degree but Hughes’ cricket IQ is shockingly basic for a test player. In the Australian summer, he blatantly ignored cricket fundamentals and ran out Dave Warner on the stroke of lunch and then over in India he looks amusingly perplexed and tactically inept facing spin.

Finally, there is the curious case of Shane Watson. 18 months ago Watson was Australia’s most important player. He was one of few Aussies who could reverse swing the ball and was a fine opening batsman. Now, Watson has put his bowling to the backburner and his batting looks truly lost. For Australia to be competitive against England Watson must be in a strong mental state and his bowling utilized. He must tour England as he, Clarke and to a lesser extent Warner, are Australia’s only proven batting commodities.

Australian cricket must adopt the philosophy of “using more with less” and abandon the gross number of egotistical coaches who are more worried about justifying their position than creating a strong environment for their players to flourish.

Darren “Boof” Lehmann should be the national batting coach, Ashley Mallett must be allowed to tutor Nathan Lyon and for once post-career Warney is right, Stephen Fleming should be Australia’s coach.

The greatest tragedy is that while Australian cricket continue to twist a knife in their own gut, we are underappreciating Michael Clarke who is one of the most graceful and willfully dominative batsmen and astute captains that have ever donned the Baggy Green.

CA have it all wrong

The announced Australian squad for the upcoming Indian tour plagues of inconsistency and irrational thinking.

The squad reinforces the fact that consistent run making at state level will no longer be the determining factor for international selection. To the detriment of Australia’s short and long term future, Cricket Australia are rewarding “potential” at the expense of proven performance.

Australian selectors’ track record suggests we should expect anything but transparency and high-class managerial skills. Over the Australian summer alone, sacrificial lambs have been served up to the South Africans, ala Rob Quiney, just to protect other assets like Phil Hughes. Failed project players like Steve Smith have been dug out of the old dusty closet to make ODI appearances and now named in the squad to tour India.

Without disrespecting Smith, clearly other state players have surged well ahead of him in talent and production. Since Smith’s last test appearance against Pakistan in 2010, he boasts one first-class ton from 40 innings and 17 wickets at 73.11.

What swayed the selectors minds to select Smith in the test squad? Was it Smith’s solitary wicket this Sheffield Shield season or was it his inability to not post a century this summer?

“He’s played well but just hasn’t got the runs this year,” Chairman of Selectors John Inverarity said of Smith’s selection.

After posting 3 consecutive ducks in high school cricket, I proposed similar reasoning to my coach yet to my displeasure I was knocked back.

Why should we feel content and satisfied with CA?

Spinner Xavier Doherty’s selection is even more perplexing. Doherty has taken just the two scalps this Sheffield Shield season. New South Welshman Steve O’Keefe is the more deserving player with 17 wickets at 24.29.

CA is dangerously nurturing an environment that rewards unfulfilled prodigal talent over tough, committed and proven production. Furthermore, CA’s implementation of the “rotation policy” not only fuels this unhealthy culture but also counters Michael Clarke’s efforts to instill dogged toughness into the Australian dressing room.

In what can only be described as the most crucial 12 months in Australian cricket, both on and off the field, since the Allan Border-era, Inverarity and his team of selectors have missed the boat once again.

Twenty20 more than just an exhibition?

Twenty20 cricket grabbed the headlines, favorable crowds, biggest hits and Warnie but the latest cricket craze has yet to prove if it can be more than just a glorious exhibition.

At the end of two T20 matches between Sri Lanka and Australia we learnt that the Sri Lankan spearhead Lasith Malinga is the number one bowler in this format and despite solid attendances and television viewers, the players seem to be the only party that care for the result.

The Australian Big Bash League broke attendance records for state matches and international T20s are attracting a new younger and “hip” crowd. The more eyes on cricket the better, ay?

Maybe but the general Australian public feels no tribal alliances towards the BBL teams or stirring patriotism for the Australian T20 team. The players claim that the shortest format in the game evokes the same fiery passion and competitiveness as the longer formats.

“Australia didn’t really take Twenty20 that seriously, I certainly think that’s changed,” George Bailey said before the 2012 T20 World Cup in regards to the change in Australian players’ attitude.

The players might have warmed to the idea of T20 cricket as serious competition but the avid club cricketer or casual Melbournian looking to pass time while the footy season is in hibernation, tend to differ.

More shoppers believed in Warney’s “Spinners” underwear line than cricket fans believing that the end result in T20 cricket is important.

T20 is still that hot summer fling rather than that steady marriage. Critics and supporters believed that One Day cricket would entertain and change the game of cricket as we knew it. They were right. Creative and flamboyant batting took the front seat as the dull and steady were forgotten. Yet, the 50 over game, some 25 years later, is all but extinct on the international scene, or at least in the western hemisphere.

So while Twenty20 cricket continues to bag the cash, trend on twitter and erupt dull fireworks, there still has to be serious questions on whether the new “it” format in cricket has the capability to endure and still dominate beyond the next decade?

Chance to join the all time greats

The next 12 months of test cricket has great team significance for Australia but an even greater personal significance for Michael Clarke.

Clarke’s batting is undoubtedly on another worldly level to his other contemporaries.

Ashley Mallett, a fine cricket writer and past test cricketer, described Clarke as an “amalgam of Victor Trumper and Don Bradman.”

For the past 18 months, Clarke has developed the Bradman-like pursuit for runs and Trumper’s elegant style.

In 2012, Clarke clocked 1545 runs at an incredible average of 110.35.

However, Clarke’s acclaim to greatness in a less-than-impressive Test XI, strikes similarities with another master of the willow, Brian Lara, who was burdened with underperforming and lackluster teammates.

Lara’s batting was stylistically different to Clarke’s and certainly more emotionally volatile, but Lara carried the “one-man band” tag just as the Australian skipper does today.

Even more so than ever, the Indian test series followed by back-to-back Ashes Series in 2013 will challenge Clarke’s patience and wit as both a batsman and leader.

With Mike Hussey’s sudden retirement, Australia’s batting talent is thin and acutely vulnerable.

With no batting spot assured in the top six – aside from Clarke and maybe Dave Warner’s – Australia are almost entirely reliant on Clarke’s ruthless pursuit of runs to remain competitive against the likes of South Africa and England.

In the 1998-99 test series between West Indies and Australia, Lara willed the West Indies to a 2-2 drawn result. Shane Warne swears that the only reason for a drawn series and not a 4-0 sweep by the Australians was due to Lara’s individual greatness (two centuries and a double century).

Lara entered his prime when West Indies champions were either in decline or chose the brighter pastures of retirement.

Lara had the rare dual ability to appear so ruthless but so graceful at the batting crease. His typical high bat lift would drop to meet the ball like a guillotine in a swift deadly motion. Glenn McGrath was perhaps the only test bowler who had the ability to restrict Lara’s brutal assault on the ball.

In the 2001-02 test series against Sri Lanka, Lara accounted for an incredible 42% of West Indies’ runs.

Flash forward to today: Clarke is flying solo while Hussey and Ricky Ponting have called it quits on their remarkable careers.

For Australia to pinch a series win against England, Clarke will have to have more “out of this world” performances with the bat and might just have to be a new but steadier version of Lara. Lets call it “Lara 2.0”.

With the general Australian public strongly opposed to Cricket Australia’s current “rotation policy”, the Australian team doesn’t enjoy the entire nation’s support and two Ashes defeats in a space of a six months, which is highly likely, will only cause a greater rift.

Clarke has already exhibited the full array of shots and has the rare combination of style, power and grace that locks him in as a modern Australian great.

Another year of Clarke’s ruthless run making will see him stand alongside the all time cricketing greats.

New Zealand cricket in a sorry place

Petty officials, chaotic politics, uninspired cricketers, forgotten identity and lost leadership was life in Asia, or at least that’s how their cricket could be sometimes neatly summed up in 10 words.

Move over India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka – you have a new nation who wishes to join the league of the dysfunctional: New Zealand.

While the cricket world has cast a firm eye on the surging Twenty20 format and the upcoming back-to-back Ashes series, New Zealand cricket has been allowed to slide past mediocrity and into an abyss with other tragic stragglers like Bangladesh and Zimbabwe.

In what can only be described as uncompetitive dribble, the Black Caps lost two consecutive test matches by over an innings to the number one ranked South Africa.

New Zealand is not alone in posting embarrassing low totals of 45 (first innings of the first test) and 121 (first innings of the second test) against the premier bowling attack in the world. Australia scored 47 runs at Cape Town in 2011 but Australia came back hitting hard and showed a far greater application of skill and mental toughness.

The most worrying part of New Zealand’s decay is the lack of united effort and leadership from the XI.

The Black Caps have not always been blessed with elite talent and with a significantly smaller population than other cricketing nations, remaining in the top four or five in test rankings can be a challenge.

Yet historically, where New Zealand may have lacked in talent, they ably combatted with a united disciplined effort.

The finest cricket captain of the twenty-first century hails from Christchurch, New Zealand. Stephen Fleming who led the Black Caps to series victories over India, England, West Indies, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh and played 111 tests for New Zealand, had no rival in the tactical and leadership department.

Granted, Fleming had handy and at times devastating talent in Chris Cairns, Shane Bond, Brendon McCullum, Daniel Vettori and Craig McMillan but it was Fleming’s ability to drill the entire test and one day teams to play a hard edged style with a team-first mentality that makes him stand out above his peers.

Fleming arrived as New Zealand’s youngest test captain and departed as the greatest Kiwi captain.

Fleming instilled a success-driven culture where everyone, from the top down, could contribute ideas and values that would help in the pursuit of high performance.

“It just comes down to that skill of listening, and giving everyone the opportunity to make a difference,” Fleming explained in his autobiography Stephen Fleming: Balance of Power. “The answer is to turn everyone else into leaders as well.”

At the moment, there seems to be few leaders on the field and in the administration of New Zealand cricket.

New Zealand’s handling of their current most prestigious talent, Ross Taylor, has been a basket case. Taylor’s sacking from captaincy was nothing more than an unceremonious knifing by the board. Whether or not Taylor is a solid leader (there are countering opinions), the fact remains that Taylor’s sacking was messy, ugly and can only add further strain and fracture within the Black Caps’ squad.

New Zealand cricket has been holding on to dear life ever since Fleming’s retirement from the game. Vettori’s experience, monumental improvement in his batting and workhorse left-arm spinners assured that there was still universal respect for the Black Caps. With his inevitable departure from the playing field, darker days are ahead.

Back in 2001, the Kiwis nearly pulled off a great series upset (resulting in a 0-0 draw) against an Australian side at the peak of their powers. Through relentless planning and execution and calmly assured captain, New Zealand overachieved.

“None of the decisions he ever made reeked of panic, even when there were times when our batsmen were well on top of their bowlers,” Shane Warne said of Stephen Fleming in Shane Warne’s Century. “It is important for players to be able to see a captain who looks as though he is in control.”

New Zealand cricket is crying out for Fleming’s style of captaincy, for his guile, coolness and toughness under suffocating pressure.

Sports fans love the scrappy underdog and the Black Caps need to rediscover their biting ways.

One Day cricket damaged beyond repair

One Day cricket is nearly, if not already, irrelevant on the domestic and international scene.

Australia and Sri Lanka are meant to be playing the first ODI of the summer at Australia’s home of sport, the Melbourne Cricket Ground, yet, if one flicks through the newspapers, courageously sits through Channel Nine programming or even listen to 1116 SEN, there seems to be very little care factor.

The Australian selectors seem to agree as well. Headline acts Michael Clarke, Mike Hussey and Dave Warner will not grace the G’. So why should we care?

Maybe 25,000 people will make the journey to the MCG to see George Bailey lead a side that features Test reject Brad Haddin, forgotten Steve Smith and the “other” Hussey. Oh it should be riveting!

Australian One Day Captain George Bailey rightly defended his Australian XI.

“It’s still the Australian cricket team, isn’t it?” Bailey said. “I’m sure Sri Lanka won’t be taking it as the Australia B-team.”

However Bailey puts it, the bleak reality remains that both the public and the players are being cheated with this so-called “series”. How Sri Lanka perceive the Australian XI is inconsequential. What the public choose to believe is.

Australians can sense when there is legitimate world class competition on show. Just like when Australia competes in the Soccer World Cup, or the Australian Boomers facing the goliath USA basketball dream team, Aussie sports fans get behind the sport, even if some have little understanding of the game.

Friday’s ODI is dubbed “Summer’s Biggest Dress Up Party.” Not a bad promotion but I tend to sway more to the idea that Friday’s ODI at the MCG is a “dress up” international contest. Win or lose, there is very little consequence or reward for either Australia, Sri Lanka or the West Indies.

In what can be described as a rarity, the Australian selectors are not to blame for the underwhelming and dull build up to the ODI series.

The 50 over format has lost its purpose and initiative.

A total of 456,264 spectators attended ODI matches in the summer of 1999-2000, an encouraging figure that plummeted to 251,916 last summer. In a competitive environment where most major sports in Australia are seeing rises in match attendance, One Day cricket has frighteningly trended the other way.

Kerry Packer envisioned the 50 over aside game as cricket’s answer to the popular demand for faster and sexier sport and entertainment.

We now fast-track to 2013 and viewers’ demand has become more acute. American baseball is struggling to recapture the claim as America’s number one game and so is cricket in Australia- both victims to consumers’ want for aggressive entertainment that is finished in two hours and with preferably a few cracked ribs along the way.

The forever controversial Twenty20 format in cricket still stirs tribal divide amongst the traditionalists and the modernists.

England invented and popularised the 20 over format nationally and India commercialised the big bash globally.

Public consensus and statistics suggests that Twenty20 attracts and demands the biggest viewership and profit. Also, if you braved one of Matthew Hayden’s talks, I mean one of his mind-numbing lectures, you get the sense that the players have truly embraced the format as number two behind Test cricket.

The brand of One Day cricket has seemingly been damaged  beyond repair by the T20 mania. Test cricket continues to endure, however delicately, while One Day cricket is somewhere with “Warney’s” ex-wife Simone Callahan.

Twenty20 is filled with constant heave-ho and industrious play while One Day cricket is restrained until the final 10 overs. What was once the purpose of 50 over cricket is now the objective of T20.

Who would have thought that after Ricky Ponting’s triumphant 140 not out in the 2003 World Cup Final against India when ODI cricket sucked the cricketing world in, that a domestic game 10 years later would have more bums on seats (46,581 at the MCG) than a ODI at the same ground?

What can be more morbid than hearing from one of the greatest limited overs players to ever grace the field to forthrightly announce that One Day cricket will soon be “history”?

”I suspect that one-day cricket may be obsolete in about three years’ time,” Adam Gilchrist said.

Indeed it will be.

Typical Hussey

Mike Hussey guided Australia home in a typical steady and understated fashion.

Mitchell Johnson hitting the winning runs with Hussey on the other end was in someways a fitting tribute to Hussey’s character and career as an Australian cricketer.

Hussey is the purest of competitors: His intensity in his training mirrored his match day effort and everything he strived to do, whether that was executing a reverse sweep or splitting drive or hitting out, was aimed at winning. Not for personal glory or ego stroking but for collective success. He never played for show.

Hussey understood that team success triumphed selfish ambition.

As Lance Armstrong (yes now a villain and hardly the model athlete anymore) once said:

“Anyone who imagines they can work alone winds up surrounded by nothing but rivals, without companions. The fact is, no one ascends alone.”

Perhaps, Armstrong was referring to illicit substances as the “ascending” companion but Hussey surely believed in the idea of a collective effort driven towards a singular goal and that an individual’s greatness can only truly be measured by his team’s success.

It’s no coincidence that many of Hussey’s career highlights can be associated with batting partnerships, both with the top order and tail, and sharp catching in the gully that finished off the bowler’s hard work.

Ultimately, Hussey’s deeds on the field will be associated with the winning culture in Australian cricket.

“Mr. Cricket” was never the showman but forever a winner.

Unexpected dividends

The Australian selectors unorthodox decision to field six batsmen and five bowlers for the Sydney Test has paid unexpected dividends for the Australian XI.

The Sri Lankan middle order saw to it that the much maligned Australian selectors wouldn’t have to defend their selected XI as they played with brazen carelessness and ineptitude.

Yet, the benefit of selecting Nathan Lyon and the four quicks has a more longterm impact upon the makeup of the Australian test team.

All four quicks at some stage of the summer earned their keep and Peter Siddle emerged as the clear leader of the attack.

Then there is Lyon who the South Africans carefully assured that he was nearly invisible to the eye and the Sri Lankans who attacked him for what he is, the weak link in Australia’s bowling attack.

While Sri Lanka’s aggressive approach to Lyon was the downfall to a few, it exposed Lyon’s predictability and inability to bowl enough deliveries with drift or gripping turn.

Sri Lanka’s spinner Rangana Herath might look like a rotund and wobbly sort but he sure made the Sydney pitch talk during stages in Australia’s first innings. With better support from the pace attack, Herath might have had a greater part to play this summer.

In Sri Lanka’s first and second innings, Lyon was unable to ask enough questions to an average batting lineup. All that Australia does from now on is about preparing for The Ashes later this year and Lyon, while he should be in the squad, should not be in Australia’s best XI. His form simply does not merit the seemingly blind faith displayed by Cricket Australia.

On the other end, selecting five batsmen and a keeper put the onus on Australia’s top order to take responsibility and begin to dominate their position.

Dave Warner, while maintaining his domineering approach to the crease, has tempered his game enough that now makes him look like a longterm test opener.

His partner, Ed Cowan, failed to grab, yet again, another opportunity to silence the critics. Cowan, like Lyon, has had an underwhelming summer and has failed to cash in against a mediocre Sri Lankan attack.

Hopefully the Sydney Test has confirmed Cricket Australia’s opinions on the fledgeling under-performers and will enforce immediate change to the makeup of Australia’s XI.

Hussey’s retirement

Another sun sets on another fine Australian cricketer’s international career.

Mike Hussey defied the recent trend of hanging onto his career with dear life by simply doing it his way.

Can it be possible that someone so conventional and textbook in their approach to the game of cricket, can reject such popular means of ending their career?

Hussey made the right decision to not allow his form to dictate the terms of his retirement. Somehow Shane Warne’s decision to retire on top of his game never caught on as modern greats Rahul Dravid, Matthew Hayden and Ricky Ponting all decided to retire until their positions were unattainable. Even the Little Master should follow Hussey’s example.

Although, the truth is that Hussey never accomplished a fine test batting average of 51.25 without constant setbacks and overall bad luck.

Hussey made his debut for Western Australia in 1994 and became one of the premier batsmen in the State competition. Some 15,313 runs and three County Championship triple-hundreds later (only Wally Hammond and Graeme Hick have achieved this), Hussey finally lived the Australian dream of donning the Baggy Green.

He was a late bloomer who excelled in the twilight years of Australia’s test dominance and in the testing years that followed Australian cricket.

As it is often the case with sports, the men in power of selecting the team are often the last to be convinced of talent. The English press and supporters who watched Hussey dominate the County Championship were astounded by how long it took for him to make his test debut.

In his first Ashes Series, Hussey piled on 458 runs at an average of 91.60 as the English could only say, “we told you so.”

While Ponting will be remembered for his ruthless combativeness and that rocking pull shot, Hussey shall be toasted for his unyielding intensity at the batting crease, his timely knocks and surgical precision with his cover drive.

In so many ways, Hussey can be likened to Australia’s ultimate “finisher” in One Day cricket, Michael Bevan. Bevan was one of the finest in batting with the tail and Hussey proved he could do the same. Yet, unlike Bevan, Hussey was able to adjust his game and excel in both the shorter version and in the longest form of the game.

In the 2005 Boxing Day Test Match, Hussey combined with “everyone’s bunny” Glenn McGrath for 107 for the last wicket against South Africa and 123 ninth-wicket partnership with Peter Siddle against Pakistan in the 2010 Sydney Test (while under appallingly suspicious circumstances), was classic Mr. Cricket.

The Australian public and probably his teammates expected Hussey to play in The Ashes Series in England and in the Australian summer next year.

The old guard has officially vacated Australian cricket and Captain Michael Clarke now stands alone as the one constant in Australia’s ever changing and uncertain batting lineup.

Hussey’s family will be undoubtedly happy with his decision to call it quits but Australian cricket might not feel so comfortable with it.

With Shane Watson breaking down as much as the somewhat endearing phrase “mate” is said on the cricket field, and a whole bunch of inexperienced and modest talent at the top of the order, Australian cricket is once again in a vulnerable position.

Ponting suffered multiple Ashes defeats as Australian Captain and it seems Clarke will also be at the mercy of the English in 2013. Ponting didn’t have a bowling attack for two of the three Ashes series losses and now Clarke doesn’t have any mates to wield the willow with him.

Clarke has already done an extraordinary job as both tactician and batsman, clearly Australia’s finest captain in a long time.

Next year when a match winning or saving knock is needed, Clarke might just be wishing his old wisely partner at the other end of the crease, Mr Cricket, rolled the dice for just that one more year.

Too many voices of the wrong kind

Cricket Australia’s current coaching setup needs a serious rethink.

Currently, the wrong voices are being heard and the right ones are being foolishly ignored in the Australian camp.

Nathan Lyon has been poorly managed by the current coaching staff by being given the wrong advice and direction.

Australia’s finest off-spinner, Ashley Mallett, reached out to Lyon to lend some advice and coaching, yet, Lyon has not returned Mallett’s call.

Why would a struggling Lyon not embrace advice from a man who played 38 Tests and took 132 wickets that included six five wicket hauls and career best figures of 8/59?

One past Australian test batsman believes Lyon has to many coaches worried about their job to allow Lyon to seek help from outside Cricket Australia’s official coaching setup.

Not all of Lyon’s struggles have been his own fault.

Mallett’s main long held criticism of Lyon is that he bowls too wide on the crease and recently Mark Taylor has been echoing similar sentiment in his commentary. Taylor rightly believes Lyon rushes through his deliveries and bowls too consistently fast for an off spinner.

Why aren’t these messages getting through to Lyon who has had all summer to make appropriate and needed adjustments?

It seems ego and job uncertainty in the coaching ranks is denying Lyon a fair opportunity to flourish at test level.

Perhaps, a minimalist and flexible approach should be taken in CA’s coaching setup, where an elite and small coaching unit should be selected to work full time with the Australian cricket team. Importantly, Lyon or any current Australian cricketer should be encouraged by their coaches to seek advice from the greats of the game just like other athletes do in other codes.

As German write Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote, “Nothing is more terrible than to see ignorance in action.”

Bird rises

Jackson Bird delivered an early new year present to his captain and to the Australian selectors.

Bird not only secured a spot in the SCG Test but proved he can be a longterm test player.

Mitchell Johnson may secure the plaudits for his smooth 92 not out and 6 wickets in the match but it is Bird’s debut performance with the ball (2/32 and 2/29) that should really excite Captain Michael Clarke.

Bird combined accuracy, pace and subtle variations with the ball in both innings. His first test wicket was typical of Bird’s simple approach to the bowling crease. Importantly, Bird looked like he was bowling within himself and always looked in control.

Already the new year is nearly upon us and the most immediate dilemma facing the Australian selectors will be the bowling lineup for the Sydney test.

Mitchell Starc has earned the right to come straight back into the side with his five wicket haul against Sri Lanka in the first test. This means that one bowler has to be left out of the third test and by judging upon performances across the summer, Nathan Lyon must be the casualty.

It’s hard to believe hearing that Australia should go into the Sydney test without a frontline spinner but based on form and production, the Aussies will be best served with a four pace attack with support from Shane Watson, Clarke and Dave Warner.

Lyon has failed to show a wicket taking ability on a day five of a test match, which is when a spinner should come into his own. Against the South Africans he was given ample opportunity to prove this skill and the Sri Lankans don’t seem to have a worry in the world facing the darts-man.

In Starc, out Lyon and Bird could be the word in 2013.

Reality and fantasy poles apart

Boxing Day has turned into training day as the Australians made light work of a sad Sri Lankan team.

The Australian bowling foursome of Peter Siddle, Mitchell Johnson, Jackson Bird and Nathan Lyon, was made to look like a durable and destructive attack at the MCG.

Yet, what is the fantasy and reality of the current state of the Australian cricket team are two different things.

If we strip back the fact that Sri Lanka have “test team” status, this series is a nonevent and has little consequence on the future makeup of the Australian Test team. Cricket Australia’s willingness to rest bowlers only reinforce the insignificance of this summer.

Of Sri Lanka’s seven top order batsmen, five are competent One Day cricketers. Captain Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara are the two obvious class acts. Unfortunately for Sri Lanka, the skipper hasn’t been able to threaten so far, which has left Sangakkara, who is underrated by some in Australia, to burden the weight of a young and immature team.

In fact, Sangakkara’s 58 demonstrated how batting friendly the Melbourne pitch really is and how bland Australia’s bowling is.

Sangakkara’s teammates’ dismissals wreaked of over-exposure to the shorter versions of the game. Despite, the now 10,000 run getter eventually holding out to Australia’s Johnson, he dominated Johnson with little fluster. Johnson’s 4/63 will keep him in Australia’s fast bowling rotation but his performance will not concern Alistair Cook and his men. While Sri Lanka only have Sangakkara, England have four elite batsmen. Johnson showed today that he can shock the B-graders but he cannot bowl consistently well to worry the elite bats.

South Africa and England have proved that they can only be beaten through ruthlessly consistent bowling and bold batting. Johnson’s still wild and hit and miss approach will not cut it against the best two nations in the world.

Australia might need to disband with the conventional three pace and one spin attack and instead, embark upon a four pace attack with support from Shane Watson’s mediums, Michael Clarke’s off-spinners and Dave Warner’s leggies. Spinner Lyon’s predictability makes him an ineffective test bowler.

Then there is Australia’s batting which needs immediate reconfiguration.

Warner looks set to be in the Baggy Green for the long haul, meanwhile, Australian selectors should follow Ian Chappell’s tune by axing Ed Cowan. All seems rosy when Warner is blitzing an attack and Cowan is playing Robin but if Warner goes cheaply, Cowan is lost at sea. With only one century to his name in 11 matches, Cowan’s spot at the top has expired.

The so called rejuvenated Phil Hughes is not equipped to tackle the English as even Angelo Matthews’ medium pace posed problems for him when Matthews locked in on his body.

Perhaps, astonishingly, the English cricket team will be more buoyed by today’s performance than the team that handed the demolition job, Australia.

Restgate Scandal

A controversy is brewing within the headquarters of Cricket Australia – call it the “restgate scandal”.

Australian selectors are almost trivialising the Baggy Green by pursuing a strict rotation policy for the bowlers.

Gone are the days when the Baggy Green was as difficult to obtain as the class geek seducing the blonde cheerleader. Today are the days when being the Australian geek on an American university exchange isn’t so bad. Anything is possible.

Mitchell Johnson can seem to be the forgotten cricketer and suddenly declare himself Australia’s “impact” bowler. Matthew Starc has a breakout Test match with a match winning spell of bowling against Sri Lanka but is not selected for the Boxing Day Test Match. Stranger or more absurd things have happened in the unpredictable world of Australian cricket.

There is no conclusive evidence that states if Australian bowlers’ current heavy work load  is the reason for the injury plague. Past great test bowlers, like Dennis Lillee, believe the plague can be controlled if the bowlers are allowed to bowl far more. Others say that too much focus on weight training has hindered the bowlers’ flexibility and therefore are more prone to injury.

In what can be argued as the biggest Test Match on the Australian calendar, The Boxing Day Test Match, Australia is presenting an unsatisfactory product for the public. While the traditionalists will turn up for nearly every ball of the Melbourne Test, the more casual fan will not. Already the opponent Sri Lanka makes the test match difficult for Cricket Australia to sell to the public. Now, add the fact that we won’t be watching the best possible Australian XI and that makes it highly unsatisfactory.

National Selector John Inverarity claims that the rest policy is justified by the fact that other sports follow a similar policy.

”I don’t know why it takes people so long to get their head around it. It’s an integral part of AFL football,  Chris Judd plays 78 or 82 per cent of the game. He blitzes it for seven or eight minutes, then he comes off for three minutes. I don’t see the difference. The top teams in the English Premier League soccer, they have a squad of players and the best players play most of the games but not all of the games. Overall, you maximise your effectiveness,”said Inverarity.

Here is where Cricket Australia’s policy is flawed. The English Premier League, or the NBA, or even the AFL play significantly more games and play repeatedly in front of their home and away crowds, which allows resting players an acceptable decision for both the team sake and for the fans. Yet, in the game of cricket, each Australian State only get the chance to see the Australian Test Team play in-person once a year. In the NBA, fans can see their team play in the state they originate from 41 times. In the AFL, fans can also see the team play in the state they originate from up to 16 times.

Now it seems that we might only get to see the best cricketers play once every two years.

Yes, the selectors have a right to try to field a team that they believe is in their best interests. Yet, when this means damaging the quality of the product on Channel Nine, ABC Radio and for the thousands of patrons who attend the biggest test match of the year, Cricket Australia are in the wrong.

Commercial media pay the broadcast rights and patrons pay tickets for the matches assuming they will receive full value for their dollar.

For years, Cricket Australia have often failed to live up to the task of promoting Australia’s summer game. This “restgate scandal” (yes a scandal) leaves us further disillusioned with the administrators in Australian cricket and abroad.

Is this what test cricket really needs at a time when crowd numbers are embarrassingly low?

Reinvention

After 35 Test Matches and at the age of 28, Peter Siddle has forged a new and unexpected identity on the field.

Once the lionhearted woodchopper, Siddle is now the crafty, reliable and steady leader in Australia’s bowling attack.

He has made a remarkable transformation by bursting out of the cliched but accurate “trier” and “bang it into the pitch” tag.

Images of a red faced Siddle hurdling down bouncers and predictable short of a length deliveries became typical of his career until 12-18 months ago when he reassessed his approach to the long form of the game.

Siddle understood that becoming a long term test bowler in the modern game required more than just raw effort on match day. He changed his meat dominant diet to a vegan diet and he trained with the Carlton Football Club to improve his fitness. He has become a true professional athlete by watching what goes in his body.

Criticism of Siddle has been warranted ever since his first delivery in test cricket smashed into the side of Gautam Gambhir’s helmet. Too much brawn and not enough subtly to his craft has been my main objection.

ABC Radio sports commentator Glenn Mitchell described Siddle as ”an old-fashioned run-up hard, hit the deck hard type of bowler.”

Siddle of the past was nothing more or nothing less than an “old fashioned” up and down and no nonsense fast bowler, very much like Merv Hughes. Yet, Siddle has proved to be so much more than what Mitchell described.

Yes, Michael Clarke can still rely on Siddle to charge in all day without complaint and lowered effort but Clarke can now also rely on Siddle to outthink the man wielding the willow on the other end.

Whether that is drawing the batsman forward with a few deliberate full swinging deliveries and then following up with the one that moves the other way, Siddle is beginning to show that he has the full bags of tricks.

Like, Clarke holding Australia’s batting together, Siddle is carrying Australia’s bowling attack. As it stands, the skipper and Siddle are Australia’s two most vital players.

With Australia’s most talented fast bowler out for the summer, James Pattinson, and Pat Cummins continued absence, Siddle is virtually leading a second string attack in form and talent. His absence was obvious in Perth when South African pair Amla and Smith feasted on Australia’s state-like bowling attack.

With Siddle fit and healthy, Australia will not lose this current series or a test match to Sri Lanka.

Siddle is there at Australia’s hour of need and is always there in the face of opposition batsmen with relentless consistency not just senseless bravado.

Enough is enough

There are somethings that you can’t let go unspoken.

At the stroke of lunch on day one of the first test between Australia and Sri Lanka, the moment arrived. One of the Channel Nine commentators had to speak up and voice their opinion on a terribly clumsy runout involving Phil Hughes and Dave Warner.

“He’s back,” Michael Slater announced on the Cricket Show, referring to Hughes surviving the first session.

“He has been impressive,” Bill Lawrey said.

“Unfortunate runout,” Ian Healy added at the beginning of the second session.

Rubbish.

Hughes ignored every fundamental of cricket when he decided to call a run when Warner pushed the ball into the covers.

First law broken: If the ball is hit forward of the wicket, the batsman on-strike makes the decision on whether there is a run or not.

Second law broken: As the session nears the close, avoid risky calls for singles.

Hughes chose to crucify his teammate Warner, who was looking ominous for a big knock.

Hughes might have tightened his technique a little but he sure hasn’t refined his understanding of the game. His game sense and awareness is not at Test level. He might have not been dismissed in the first session but he sure cost Australia a wicket, which equally hurts the team (if not more by the fact that Warner can devastate bowling attacks).

Channel Nine’s commentary reeks of the “mate syndrome”. What cricket commentary needs is not the dismissal of the current commentators but an addition to the commentary box.

What they need is a Charles Barkley- Not always politically correct, not always the most fluent of speakers (but who is on the Channel Nine team), but sure does voice his opinion on everything.

Barkley is a retired Hall of Fame basketball player in the United States who features on the premier NBA coverage on TNT.

Barkley doesn’t mind telling the world when a great player should retire or when a media identity doesn’t know what he or she is talking about.

Yet, behind Barkley’s inability to pronounce names correctly or please cities around America (claiming women in San Antonio are fat), he sure does know his basketball like very few and has a great comedic sense.

“When I was recruited at Auburn [university], they took me to a strip joint. When I saw those titties on Buffy, I knew that Auburn met my academic requirements,” Barkley said on TNT’s Inside the NBA.

The Australian public deserve not to be blindfolded by the “mates syndrome” in the Channel Nine commentary box.

Honesty is always the best form of journalism and commentary.

Put up or shut up

Time for talk is over in the Australian camp.

Over the last few weeks there has been repetitive dribble coming from both players and administrators.

Mitchell Johnson claims “he is ready” to lead the Australian bowling attack and being the “man” again. Phil Hughes claims (on SEN Radio) that his 12 months out of the test team has made him a better player.

According to these two cricketers, their technical and mental (how could we ever forgive and forget Johnson’s Lords meltdown) flaws are in the past.

Johnson’s return against the South Africans in the third test was hailed a success by the Channel Nine “boys club”. Was it really?

Johnson didn’t disgrace himself in either innings by collecting six wickets for the match largely thanks to his athleticism and desperation.

We haven’t learned anything that we don’t already know. He can consistently bowl above 140km and occasionally get a delivery to sore into the batsman’s ribcage. Yet, like he did in the last Ashes Series, he gives batsmen the “get out of jail” ball to often. Whether, the delivery spirally down leg or the ill-directed short and wide ball that is crunched for four, his old habits have not suddenly disappeared as some commentators hope.

Of course, as the battle between bat and ball tightens and the stakes rise, Johnson emerges with a sorry and moping look on his face rather than a rising swagger. He would benefit greatly from talking with Sir Viv Richards about the mental aspect of the game (Richard’s talk about the mental aspect of the game on Channel Nine’s The Cricket Show was great viewing).

Then there is the young Phil Hughes who has been recalled to the test team after Ricky Ponting’s retirement.

Hughes should count himself lucky to be wearing the Baggy Green again so soon, while Rob Quiney should feel mishandled. Quiney has been the premier state batsman over the past two years. Despite failing in his two test appearances, he would be most ably equipped to replace Ponting due to his extensive first-class experience and consistent form over a long period of time.

Hughes weaknesses are obvious and have been exposed by the premier fast bowlers in the world- Bowl up to his ribs and then tempt him with a wide moving ball. Hughes was the most ill-equipped opener for Australia in the past 25 years, as many English commentators suggested during the last Ashes Series. They weren’t wrong.

The level of success Hughes achieves in his immediate test return will depend greatly on the preparedness of the Sri Lankan bowlers. I suspect that if Australia encounter a focused and united Sri Lankan lot, then Hughes’ technical deficiencies will continue to plague him.

Time will tell if they succeed but it’s time for both Johnson and Hughes to either put up or shut up.

Cracks revealed

Alas, South Africa found a way to crack Australia’s top six and take firm control over the series.

Some may have suspected it and others may have been blindsided by Australia’s scores streaking above 500 but Australia’s batting has been fragile since the Hayden and Langer era.

Why has Australia been able to grind the South Africans out of the first and second test with aggressive batting?

Well Michael Clarke’s golden form and to a lesser extent Mike Hussey ability to understand what the situation requires, have protected Australia’s unpredictable top order. Dave Warner’s brashness and Ed Cowan’s lack of class hardly poses an overwhelming challenge to first-rate test bowling attacks. Warner is an entertainer but is he a long-term test cricketer? His fly swat shot today was simply unacceptable and reeked of amateurism. His partner, Cowan, is a gritty and no-nonsense opener yet simply lacks the array of shots and class to become a reliable run scorer for Australia.

The return of Shane Watson will help bolster Australia’s top order but even he sometimes struggles to convert half centuries into the match winning tons. The soon to be retired Ricky Ponting will leave a hole from a leadership standpoint but of all Australia’s batsmen, Clarke has been carrying him the most. Ponting’s success last summer is even questionable. The Indians clearly had no interest of digging in for a competitive and spirited summer and hence, Australia’s series win against India is also flattering.

Ponting should have retired three years ago- not for the sake of the Australian Test Team but for the fans and his own reputation. There is nothing worse than watching a champion as a shell of his former self. Like Wayne Carey extending his career in Adelaide, Ponting’s retirement has come to late and it has not been gratifying watching Ponting losing his footing at the crease.

What Australia’s top six looks like in 12 months time is as good as anyone’s guess. While the injury curse continues to strike Australia’s bowlers, the future is obvious with young guns Pat Cummins, James Pattinson and Matthew Stark still yet to enjoy their best years of cricket.

On the other hand, Australia’s batting is a mess and Clarke’s form and leadership will be the difference between Australia posting competitive totals or plummeting to 6 for 46.

Simply the best

Life won’t get any better than this for Michael Clarke.

In the space of 12 months, Clarke married a model, established himself as the most creative and industrious Australian captain since Mark Taylor and the world’s best batsman.

Clarke is at the top of his game in both batting and captaincy. He has scored four double centuries in one year- a feat that no man has accomplished before. He achieved this against highly fancied test teams in India and South Africa. Most impressively, Clarke has made the Australian batting lineup not look like a basket case.

Simply, Australian cricket will only go as far as Clarke takes it. Importantly, Australia’s Ashes fortunes lies almost entirely on the Australian captain. With a mix of declining or expired veterans (aka Ricky Ponting), and unproven young talent at the international level, Clarke is both Australia’s last line of defense and main protagonist. Everything starts and ends with the man who once struggled to win over the Australian public and even teammates.

His imagination and creativity in the field is refreshing as Australia’s past two captains, Ricky Ponting and Steve Waugh, were of the more stubborn and one-track mold. While Ponting sometimes refused to toss the ball to Simon Katich, Clarke happily entrusts Dave Warner or even Rob Quiney (who doesn’t even bowl for Victoria) to disrupt the batsman’s rhythm. This trust that Clarke instills in teammates like Warner rubs off on the rest of Australian XI and therefore makes everyone around him better, which is the true measurement of a leader and an athlete.

How far Clarke has come since being thrown against the wall by Simon Katich and dating the trashy Lara Bingle.

Ponting’s ODI career comes to a close

Alas, the decision that we all saw coming has finally arrived.

Ricky Ponting’s highly decorated one day international career has finally come to a close after “stepping down” or sacked or given a little push out the door- phrase it however you like. Ponting has cemented himself in the top three greatest Australian one day players of all time, alongside Michael Bevan and Shane Warne.

Ponting averaged an impressive 42 throughout his career, which included match winning World Cup performances.

In the last five innings he managed just 18 runs.

Ricky’s greatness is cemented in stone but it was time for Ricky to step away from the shorter version of the game.

So why all the shock in certain corners of the Australian cricket community?

Well firstly, age should have not been a factor in Cricket Australia’s decision to drop Ponting when we consider the old war-horse, Brett Lee, is still hurling down 60 deliveries a game. In fact, I forgot Lee was still donning the coloured clothing.

Ponting’s “retirement”, if you will, came because of form. Nothing else. If Ponting failed against India in the recent Test Series than we would be reading front, middle and back page spreads of Ponting’s greatest moments- from his bar fights and black eyes to his memorable century in his hundredth test match.

Cricket Australia’s management of Ponting over the last week could be described as pathetic. Yet, we have grown accustomed to clumsy and poor management by CA.

The outrage, shock and in the words of a now published writer, Matthew Hayden, “it’s a disgrace”. Thanks Matthew for adding fuel to the fire. Hayden has never had a problem with opening his mouth.  Hayden argues that Ponting’s form over the test series should be taken into consideration when considering his ODI future.

Well, his comments are misguided and blurred by the “mates syndrome”. One day cricket should and does not have any correlation with test cricket. If Ponting’s good form continues in the test arena, then he has his flight tickets booked for next year’s Ashes Series. Yet, does that mean he should be re-called for the 50-over game?

The short answer. No.

Clarke’s captaincy

Oh, how the world has changed!

It was only 12 months ago, the Lara Bingle saga smothered Michael Clarke’s life. The Australian public was skeptical of Clarke’s ability to lead a group of men. He was to much in love with “fast cars and fast women”, and he lacked substance on the field. How could this bloke captain Australia?

Fast-forward to today. Clarke led the Australians to a 4-0 sweep of India. Keep in mind, Australia only just lost to New Zealand before the series. Clarke proved his toughness and leadership.

Unlike previous captains like Ricky Ponting and Steve Waugh, Clarke possesses greater imagination on the field. He is willing to throw Mike Hussey, Ponting or even himself the ball to disrupt the batsman’s rhythm. Perhaps, Pup has been forced to do this, as he doesn’t enjoy a Warne or a McGrath to rip through a batting order. Yet, the fact remains he does and with great affect. Clarke also has a sense of when to be aggressive in the field and more importantly, the bowlers seem to believe in their captain, they believe in what he is trying to achieve.

Captaincy and batting is too often linked together. The general consensus in cricket is that to be a “good” captain you must score runs or be the best batsman in the side. This opinion is a misconception. These two aspects to the game are two entirely different skills. Captaincy is to motivate and communicate with his own men, and make the appropriate strategic judgement in a game, whether that is making a change in the field or appropriately electing to declare innings. The link between captaincy and batting should not be made on the total aggregate of runs in the series by the captain, rather, the timing and nature of the runs, low or high, made by the skipper. Clarke consistently compiled runs at Australia’s hour of need in a major test series. He led from the front when many batsmen struggled, rather than scoring runs when a series is lost or cashing in others’ success. His triple century was inspiring and provided the test side with genuine momentum heading into the 2012 calendar year.

A captain’s knock, indeed.

What direction to take?

To let them stay, or not stay? That is the question.

Ricky Ponting and Mike Hussey both had memorable summers. Ponting in particular became the old run-machine that he used to be. Hussey as well found some touch. However, as the Ashes Series slowly creeps around the corner, decisions need to be made. The general feeling amongst the powers that be at Cricket Australia, believe that both must stay for the Ashes. Clarke also warms to the idea of having two old heads at his side. Yet, at what cost?

Ponting’s return to form cannot be ignored. His double century and a hundred speak for itself. Both massive scores came when the Australians were under pressure. The opening pair failing once again. With a touch of luck, determination and know-how ability to accumulate runs, Ponting silenced the calls for his retirement.

Mr. Cricket, on the other hand, is a different story. His runs and average of over 55 tells us he enjoyed a fine summer. However, statistics can be misleading. Hussey has been a fine servant for the Australian team, no doubt, but for the last few years, he has been relying on ill-disciplined bowling, circumstance and luck. Can anyone recall the innings when Hussey and Siddle resurrected the Sydney Test Match against Pakistan? He was dropped five times. If any of those five catches were taken, his career would have been finished. Lets be honest, the match itself is questionable. Then there is the Ashes Series last year. For the first half of the series, Hussey carried the team with consistent scores but then struggled for the last two test matches. Why was that? The English bowlers did not plan well against Hussey. They bowled far to short and Hussey fed off his favourite hook and pull shots. Yet, noticing this, the English redirected their plans by bowling a fuller length. Problem solved. Hussey was no longer a threat and failed like the rest of the Australian team. Then we come to the most recent test series. Hussey has a high cricket IQ and he uses this to his advantage. He knows when to cash in. Hussey had good fortune to come to the crease following one of many huge partnerships between Clarke and Ponting. Hussey took advantage of the disinterested Indians, by piling on the runs. However, Australia’s dominant position was not Hussey’s fault, he just faced what he had to face.

What the summer does tell us is that the mystery of Ponting is solved and the puzzle of Hussey is not.

The Australian selectors must make their call right now. If Ponting and Hussey play in the next test series, then they must play in the Ashes Series. There is no point carrying them all the way up to the Ashes and then to only be sitting in the grandstands.

Covering the cracks

You are never as good as you think… or as bad.

The Australian cricket team face a crucial 8-10 months before the Ashes Series in England. The young bowling brigade have been impressive with their persistent full and patient lines. What will excite coach Mickey Arthur, is the level of growth still to be had in the bowling attack. Pattinson, Cummins and Starc all have considerable growth left in them. Pattinson and Cummins look to be the most promising in Australia’s rejuvenated  bowling stocks. Both youngsters have a nice understanding of when to be aggressive and when to be patient with their line and length.

However, the story of the Australian summer is the comeback of Hilfenhouse and the consistency from the “woodchopper” Siddle. Both have had their critics. In the past, Hilfenhouse was to predictable outside off-stump and lacked pace to trouble the world class batsmen from England. Meanwhile, Siddle has always had a brave heart but not always a smart cricketing brain as he would more often than not bowl to short for too long. Yet, over the space of a year, both warhorses have become two vital cogs in the bowling attack. Thankfully, Johnson has fallen off the map as a result.

Even though Australia is in a far stronger position than this time last year, cracks still remain in the Australian lineup. Dave Warner showed he has the strokes but what about some consistency? It still remains to be seen if Warner can counter the premium bowlers of the world, like, Stein from South Africa and Jimmy Anderson from England. His batting partner, Ed Cowan, was admirable over the summer. His mental toughness must be applauded. Yet, is he the long-term answer to Australia’s batting order? I don’t think so. Cowan shows application but he lacks the class and large array of strokes to be a consistent run scorer at the top of the order. Both Australian openers have some test qualities but too many deficiencies to become durable test openers.

The panic in the media has been directed at the number three spot in the batting order. Historically, the number three position has been the most reliable position in the Australian team- from Bradman to Ponting- the prestigious “first-drop” has never been a problem for the selectors. Yet, here we stand with a problem that needs to be solved well before the Ashes Series next year. Shaun Marsh endured a miserable summer by failing in every innings against India. Yet, the Australian public should not panic nor drop off Marsh too soon. Marsh’s problems began on the selection table. He should have never been selected for the Melbourne Test Match. He just recovered from injury and lacked meaningful match practise. Somehow a quick swash-buckle innings in a Twenty20 earned him a spot back in the XI. The selectors let him down and as a result he is out of the one day series. There was no need rushing Marsh back in for the first test in Melbourne. From the first ball he faced he looked disorganised and most importantly, underprepared. Marsh is a class act and should not be thrown out with the dogs so quickly.

The Australian selectors were willing to persist with Ponting’s miserable misfortunes for two years. Marsh deserves the same faith shown by the selectors.

Ponting’s miraculous return to form and Clarke’s stunning form and solid captaincy has covered the cracks that need to be addressed.

If Australia fail in next year’s all important Ashes Series, the selectors’ failure to address the top order issues, will be the reason.

The End Is Near

The question is not if but when for Ricky Ponting. Australia’s most decorated batsman behind Sir Don must face the reality of retiring before the firing squad catch him. And quickly. Ponting’s rough stretch with the bat has continued in South Africa with scores of 8,0 and 0.  Mind you the rest of the Aussies are struggling to flatter.

Ponting embodies Australian captains of the past- self-assured, single minded  in his pursuit for success and amazingly stubborn. These three qualities made him what he is today. He is a champion, game-breaker and a winner. Perhaps, his stubbornness has become the sword that he will fall on.

Ponting was a wonderful hooker and puller of the short ball when he stood at the top of the world. Now, at age 36, his reflexes have slowed and the rising short ball is now his nemesis.

Ponting’s first mistake was not making an adjustment to his shot selection when he still had plenty of runs on the board in the 2009-10 Australian summer.

A young and confident Kemar Roach arrived to the Australian shores with one simple plan- rip Australia’s second most decorated batsman’s head off. Roach enjoyed some success and more importantly, Ponting’s new weakness was exposed.

Punta’s struggles have continued ever since. And his stubbornness remains solidified in his psyche. He continues to play the hook and as a result he continues to fall victim to the short ball.

Despite calls for his immediate dismissal from the Australian team, he deserves one last Australian summer wearing the Baggy Green. Sometimes there is room for sentiment in sport. If not for Ponting’s sake, for all the fans who have been privileged watching one of the all time greats of the game. The fans deserve to see him walk out to the middle with his typical strut under the Aussie sun for one last time. He is still able to score the occasional half century and perhaps even a century so that he does not disgrace himself. This Australian summer should be and will be his last.

Simon Katich debacle

Simon Katich must be scratching his head. Katich is Australia’s second premier batsman behind Shane Watson. Over the last three years, he has been the most reliant top order batsman in the world. While Ricky Ponting and Michael Clarke have been inconsistent and scratchy at best, Katich has thrived in Australia’s mediocrity. Yet this week, the Australian selectors in all their wisdom, denied Katich a contract.

The direction that the selectors are taking is improved. Youth is good. Yes. But please. Get on the right road.

Mike Hussey should count himself lucky. Besides a three test burst of form, Hussey’s performances have been insipid. His three test burst of strong performances in the 2010-2011 Ashes series was largely due to ill-directed bowling from the English. The English attack bowled a short line and gave too much width to Hussey. However, in the fourth and fifth tests, the English straightened their line and importantly bowled a fuller length. As a result, he struggled to score. He entered the Test arena with fluency and a seemingly flawless technique. Currently, in his declining years, he has assumed the ‘battling’ tag. How Hussey gets another Cricket Australia contract is beyond bewilderment.

The Australian team need a few wise heads to surround the inexperienced youth. Yet, Australia don’t need two veterans clogging up the middle order. Ponting at three and Hussey at five. It makes more sense to have Ponting at three and Katich assuming the opening position. Having these two wise-heads at the top of the order will protect Australia’s middle order and at the same time, this will not deny youngsters’ development in the middle order.

Katich rightly slammed the selectors after hearing his fate. He is of the old school where flashiness takes back seat to hard work. The Australian selectors are promoting Phil Hughes. The opposite to Simon Katich.

Once again the Australian selectors blunder. Until someone outside of the Cricket Australia family comes in to shake things up, Australian cricket will be stuck in mediocrity.

Persist with the battlers

Was it the luck of the Irish? No. It was the man from Dublin, Kevin O”Brien.

Ireland’s stunning, dramatic and near impossible victory over their old rival England re-inforces the importance for a cricket World Cup to feature inferior teams like Ireland, Scotland, Kenya and Canada. As temporary as the positive momentum may carry in Irish cricket, this result exposes the benefit for developing sides to play against established power-houses. Persisting with the battlers is worthwhile.

However, the English One Day cricket team may want to re-assess their bold ambitions of becoming the number one nation in all formats of the game. Perhaps, taking care of the consummate battlers in world cricket is as far as they should dare dream.

One thing is certain, every Australian will be raising a glass in honor of the English humiliation.

Investigation?

Oh dear! The ICC Anti-Corruption unit are flexing their muscles. Could this be true?

It is reported that the so-called “corruption” unit is looking into Australia’s batting innings against Zimbabwe. That new word in cricket is back- “spot fixing”.

Is this proposed “investigation” into Australia’s “slow start” to their World Cup game cheap tokenism? Yes. You can just see the headlines the ICC will be wishing to see: “The ICC tackling corruption head on”.

The ICC’s investigation is a phony gesture of stable and cohesive governance. Nothing will come of this investigation and I would doubt if a legitimate one would take place anyway.

It’s just some good PR for the ICC.

The Allan Border Medal

The Allan Border Medal is a celebration of Australian cricket and individual performances. Yet, last night’s ceremony re-enforced Australia’s miserable state. Shane Watson claimed back to back Allan Border Medals. He is now justifiably Australia’s best and most valuable player. Watson steadies the ship at the top of the order and provides much needed relief for Siddle and co with his probing cutters. Perhaps, when the conditions suit, he is Australia’s best bowler.

Does Watson’s two Border Medals suggest his individual brilliance or his team’s awful woes? I shall lean more to the latter. In two seasons of cricket, Watson has registered two Test centuries. Five years ago this kind of statistic would encourage the selectors to second guess you. Yes, Watson has scored several commanding half centuries when his fellow men have barely surpassed 20. But in a proud history of Australian cricket, Australia have always been blessed with at least one player who could rightly stand tall with any greats of that time. Even in the embarrasing 80′s, Border stood as the sole pillar of Australian cricket. Can we really elevate Watson to the same superior level to that of a Kevin Pietersen or Sachin Tendulkar. Over the last 15 years, Ricky Ponting has been Australia’s masterful and elegant batsman (For me, Ponting is only second to Brian Lara as the greatest batsman I have seen) but his current form suggests his need for a retirement home. This is not an attack on Watson (nor Punta mind you) but rather an attack on the current depth of Australian cricket.

For now, we may just have to step aside from Australian cricketing tradition and be content in appreciating a fine all-round cricketer whose shortcoming is his inability to grab a Test match by the scruff of the neck.

Pakistan cricket

Three players were caught engaging in under the table deals. The result? Three players vanquished from international cricket for an extended period of time. Is it a tragedy? Perhaps. Is it clear cut? Black and white? Apples and Oranges? Most definitely not.

The damning sentence handed down by the ICC this weekend to Mohammad Amir, Salman Butt and Mohammad Asif is a double edged sword to world cricket. Not only do these bans crush the careers of three talented Pakistani cricketers, one of which is only a teenager, it also casts a further bleak outlook on Pakistan cricket and perhaps even on world cricket as a collective unit. If it were not for some old fashioned investigative journalism then the three amigos would have quietly collected their pay check and continued with their days work. This hardly paints the ICC in a positive light. They do act as the sole and supreme governing body for our wonderful game of international cricket, right?.. They are meant to block match fixing from our traditional game? Mmm…

While here in Australia and in England, players enjoy healthy contracts, stable living conditions and heavy endorsements, Pakistan players enjoy a corrupt, fickle and inept cricket board. Oh, and also disastrous living conditions. A bit of a contrast ay?

Yes, we all must accept the consequences of our own actions. Yet, in this case, a young and potentially elite world class bowler Mohammad Amir is the victim of the failed system. An impressionable teenager needs a reliable mentor. Who has it been? Ijaz Butt? Hope not. At some point, Amir has been led to an appealing idea of quick money for little effort. Just bowl a no-ball. Can I get in on this?.. Only kidding. Yet, this is the tragic point. Why should I or any other Australian just heartlessly dismiss the young Amir and say, “it serves him right”. As cliche as it might sound, I like to think I know right from wrong. Yet, it is vastly easier to know right from wrong when you know little of desperation. However, I do not intend to portray young Amir as a divine Saint. But I do intend to portray how inept and volatile the game of cricket is over in Pakistan.

Pakistani cricket is in a near definite path of total destruction. They cannot host any international cricket matches. The IPL are reluctant to allow Pakistani cricketers to participate in their lucrative competition. And finally, three fine Pakistan players (one of which was the captain of Pakistan) will not be seen for quiet some time. What was left of their international reputation is now gone.

The Ashes hero of 2005 and 2009, Andrew Flintoff, once said, “I enjoy hitting the ball and trying to bowl fast, and that is what I do”. Flintoff’s simple words reveal a stunning contrast between an Englishman and a Pakistani. One fellow must only worry about knocking off a batsman’s head and hitting bowlers back over their heads. While the other poor fellow must wonder if his country will still have a Test side the following year.

There was a time when things seemed more simple.

The question of One Day cricket

How many times has the cliched phrase “time for change” been used in sport? Well, surprisingly not that often in the wonderfully conservative world of cricket administration. Yes, the public and the commercial titans have voiced such progressive desires, but the dysfunctional and self-serving members of the ICC will not adhere to public suggestion. Wait. No. Let me rephrase. Considered public and player opinion will be listened to if it means an inflation in the ICC members’ bounteous off-shore accounts. Or am I foolishly confusing myself with the BCCI? Indian cricket dominates 70 per cent of world cricket revenue and as a result, they now dictate the actions of the ICC. For 100 years, the ICC was simply a back office to the Marylebone Cricket Club. Now in our modern commercial world, the ICC is restricted by the elephant in the room- the BCCI.

Yet, lets divulge deeper with the idea of “change”. While, Twenty20 cricket is tragically threatening the importance and relevance of Test Match cricket, One Day cricket is self-destructing, despite some astute judges who see Twenty20 cricket as the dagger in the heart to 50 over cricket. Where Twenty20 cricket succeeds, One Day cricket embarrassingly fails. The hit and giggle 20 over game provides instant cheap thrills to a often drunken crowd. Saucy dancers, beer advertisements and explosive innings- what else can an over-exuberant Gen-Y spectator want? Overs 20 to 45 in 50 over cricket is filled with tedious and predictable stroke play and mundane tactics. It is only the last 5 overs that daring cricket is played. And by then Channel 9 have flicked over to the news. Thanks very much.

However, One Day cricket can survive and perhaps even flourish if appropriate changes are made… and fast. Test cricket challenges players’ mental and physical strength (i.e. Mitchell Johnson’s Lords debacle), and the mighty format also exposes flimsy technique- as Phil Hughes can attest to. Twenty20 cricket provides a condensed version of the game to viewers- the IPL really have embraced the “sex, drugs and rock n’ roll” line. Often, the entertainment can be seen off the field- the after game Bollywood functions. The game of cricket is second to the commercial madness- even second to Michael Clarke’s intolerable Bonds ads. Finally, we come to One Day cricket. Who can recall what happened in the first One Dayer of the current series between Australia and England?… I didn’t think so. For your information, Shane Watson orchestrated possibly the greatest innings of his career with a wonderfully brutal match winning 150 not out. Sorry if that information seemed insignificant.

One day cricket must revert to the opposite of Twenty20. It is beyond me why the ICC in all their glorious wisdom, insert these new quirky rules that by the end of a match, spectators are still scratching their heads in bewilderment. Whats the point of these restrictive new laws? How many times have i heard a bored  spectator ask “what the hell is a powerplay”? Good question. The ICC must dump such complexing rules and free up the game with little to no restrictions. Instead of strangled fielding restrictions for both the disinterested players and spectators’ sore eyes, let the captain dictate wherever he deems appropriate for his men to field. And to follow the boyish indoor cricket rules, a fall of wicket should cost the batting side runs- lets say 15. Also, let the bowlers bowl as many overs as they could be bothered. I admire David Hussey as a cricketer but I would rather watch Timmy fall down the well AGAIN then watch him bowl his little floaters. Finally, lets shorten these ridiculous 7 game series. As Matthew Hayden revealed recently, players are bored by game 4.  By freeing the laws of a spiralling format, this new and what I believe to be improved format will provide the consumer with a contrastingly different product to that of Twenty20 cricket.

For all of his devious motives and highly questionable deals, the second coming of Moses (or as he likes to believe), Lalit Modi, envisioned a product that would instantly capture the hearts of a cricket obsessed India. Despite the English being the founders of Twenty20 cricket, Modi grasped the “glamour” of this new exotic product and elevated it to a nearly inconceivable level of popularity and attractiveness. The reason for the IPL’s success? It was new, sexy and so BOLLYWOOD. One day cricket must provide viewers with a new and ambitious product of free flowing and DIFFERENT cricket. Oh sorry, I mustn’t use such a daring word like”ambitious” when discussing the ICC’s governance of the game. The way forward for One day cricket, much like Test cricket, is for the administrators in all cricketing nations to cut down their underserved egos and for once follow through on their repetitive and now unbelievable rhetoric- “for the good of the game”.

We can all dare to dream can’t we?

Forge an identity

The English massacre has finally ceased and the Australian spin-doctors are out in force to ease the public’s heightening disillusionment and disgust in their, now, Baggy Green villains. Michael Clarke’s press conference after the Sydney Test read like a school boy’s argumentative essay- inaccurate, bluff and blatantly ignoring the presented facts. Chairman of Selectors Andrew Hilditch wilfully graded his merry selector’s efforts “good”. He and James Sutherland rolled out the expected cliches and tediously repeated the word “effort”. A “thorough” and “honest” investigation into Australia’s failings are forecasted at the end of the summer. If the “investigation” is carried out internally, how can the public expect a welcomed and appropriate outcome? The likely result will see a few minor re-shuffles at the administration level and the national selectors position. Hilditch and other high profile figures will likely maintain their positions. If this “detailed” investigation flows against the expected script then Australian cricket is moving forward.

Admittedly, Australia were outplayed by a superior, well focused and disciplined English outfit. The English batsmen were notably patient and allowed the tempo to be played on their own terms. The English bowlers followed a similar dominant trend with tidy and probing lines. And accordingly, the Aussie batsmen faltered to the swinging ball with unrefined and lose techniques.

Despite the English assuming their natural matriarchal superiority over their “convict” friends, questions must be dutifully answered by Cricket Australia of the disintegration of a once dominant team. Struggling Australian sides of the past mustered an appealing identity, often manufactured by their Captain. Allan Border was a resolute leader who embodied an appealing Australian captaincy trait of grittiness and rugged talent. Before Herbie Collins’ dramatic and rather sad exile from Australian cricket in the 1920s, Collins was leading a side to a brighter future (it did help that a man called Bradman waltzed into the Australian team in 1928). Currently Ricky Ponting is marked as leading a side through a transitional period as well. Yet where are the signs or the proof in the pudding that suggests a transition is taking place in Aussie cricket? Perhaps, Australian cricket is at a stand-still.

From both an administrative and playing perspective, Australian cricket is lacking innovative thinking and stoic leadership from the top.

Australian cricket boasts 43 Test captains over its proud and eventful history, a considerably smaller number than the English list of captains. Success is derived from stability and Australia have forged success by these means. Today, the men in the famous Baggy Greens are a rambled and disillusioned lot. Ponting has now lost three of four Ashes campaigns as captain. Perhaps Ricky is victim of taking the rains of a peaking champion side that was destined to slide down the humbling mountain. But who would have thought the fall would be so shocking and embarrassing? Despite Ponting’s shortcomings as captain, Australia need him out of necessity rather than choice as there is no one else to lead this pathetic lot. Ponting can take solace and hope from captains of the past. Bobby Simpson flew to Australia’s hour of need in a third rate Australian team during Packer’s World Series Cricket saga. He used his overwhelming experience and somewhat political charm to negotiate a tough and controversial time in world cricket.

Prior to this Ashes series, critics and promoters of Ponting hailed this series as the defining moment in Ricky’s illustrious career of captaincy. They were to hasty to make such a bold prediction. Leaders are judged by there deeds in times of extreme and suffocating odds. Ponting’s men have their backs to the wall but it is these next 18 months where Ponting can forge a famous reputation as the player and leader who guided Australia out of a seemingly endless and bleak tunnel.

Lessons

As my 5th grade teacher would repeatedly say to my young exuberant self, “Learn from your elders”. Unfortunately, he had a point at the time. Yet, Usman Khawaja composed and promising 37 on debut would have been a wonderful counter to Mr. Anderson’s seemingly unshakeable advice.

Following Phil Hughes’ failed resolute effort, Khawaja received a thunderous applause from his home crowd when he walked out to bat. Instantly, he presented a confident and relaxed demeanour at the crease. He comfortably whipped an over-pitched delivery from Tremlett to open his account and followed up with a powerful pull shot for four. In no time he raced to an exciting 15. The runs dried up for the young dynamite, but this was the moment when he showed the world that he can excel at the highest level. He faced some testing and probing overs from the bowler of the series, Jimmy Anderson, and his fellow English speedsters. Unlike Khawaja’s senior teammates and captain, he showed the benefit of playing the ball with soft hands, rather than stabbing at the cherry. He followed up his impressive stroke play with watchful leaves. Throughout the series, the Australian batsman have too often pushed hard at the ball and lacked the required discipline to leave moving deliveries outside off-stump. Furthermore, his footwork was organised and his confident swagger at the crease implies that he feels worthy of donning the Baggy Green.

Despite the English assuming the dominant position in the final test, Australia should be encouraged by the debut of Khawaja. Khawaja’s 37 doesn’t read as any momentous performance, but it was the nature in which he constructed his innings that made his debut eye catching and memorable. The veterans and youngsters alike in Australian cricket can learn a considerable amount from the way the NSW debutant played with relaxed hands and a cleared head.

A vision to the future

All is not well in the Australian dressing room. The Australian middle order are lacking temperament, form and a touch of grit. The Aussie bowlers show a brave heart but are of the working class-ilk. The English are rightfully cocky. And the Ashes are lost.

Australian cricket administration and players are about to enter a critical and telling period of Australian cricketing history. The old veteran group have failed to deliver the Australian public success. For 15 years, success was taken for granted in this sporting nation. Now the futile media and frustrated public are basking for blood due to the ineptness of the current Australian Test team. Yet, not all is doom and gloom.

The young Usman Khawaja will make his test debut in Sydney in replacement of the injured Ricky Ponting. He has averaged above 50 in state cricket this season and deserves a taste of the highest level. He will also become the first Muslim to represent Australia in Test cricket. He represents both the transition of one generation of players to the other and also the progression of an anglo-Australian society to a multi-cultural society. Whether he flourishes on debut or not, patience is the key. Not hastiness.

After the completion of this Ashes series, the Australian selectors must review the state of the current line-up. Phil Hughes is not the man to open for Australia. His technique is too easily exposed, even on the flattest wickets, and he lacks the patience out in the middle to be a consistent member of the Australian team. The other New South Welshman, Steve Smith is talented but raw. His game is not fully developed and needs a few more seasons of State cricket to fine tune his developing game. The obvious replacements should be Shaun Marsh (to open) and the seasoned Cam White (bat at number six). Both players have more experience at the international level than Hughes and Smith, and would bring a more refined and reliable game to the national Test team.

The Australian selectors should feel compelled to select a youthful side and ride the bumps and waves with them. Commentators, players and administration have over-used the “transition” line in the last two years. The selectors stuck with the seasoned veterans and ignored talented youth, with the exception of Hughes and Smith.

Two young Victorians, James Pattinson and Alex Keath, are just the sign of the bright future for Australian cricket. While, both are yet to cement their spots in the State side, they both have the potential to defy a growing sense in the Australian public that Australian cricket is in a rot for the next 10 years. The key is to nurture talent like Khawaja, O’Keefe, Smith, Keath and Pattinson into reliable and fine test cricketers.

Khawaja’s debut on Monday at the SCG should be heralded as a breakthrough in the national selector’s conservative psyche. They have been burned during this series with their foolish reliance on failing veterans. A youthful Australian side will entice a refreshing new sense of excitement for the Australian public.

Boxing Day Test: Day two

Despite an improved Australian bowling attack, the English all but nailed the sorry Aussie coffin.

Peter Siddle carried the Australian bowling brigade with admirable support from the wicketless Hilfenhaus and Harris. Siddle bowled a disciplined line with controlled aggression. Despite the fact that his wicket celebrations resembled more of a Collingwood footballer kicking a bag of 5 on Grand Final day, than a tired cricketer whose team was trailing beyond 200, he was still impressive. Siddle was rewarded early for a patient line outside off-stump by dismissing the stubborn opening pair of Strauss and Cook with two beauties of deliveries. Cook was caught prodding at a delivery that managed to just move a fraction. Strauss soon followed his partner when he received a brutal delivery that climbed sharply on his body. For a brief period, Siddle brought much needed energy and excitement to a starved MCG crowd. His chest pumping celebrations lifted a sombre team spirit.

Yet, as the day drifted, so did the contest. Pietersen crafted a comfortable half century before succumbing to another Siddle delivery. Paul Collingwood went against his name-sake by failing on the MCG and Bell soon followed. Both played two extravagant hooks off Johnson that was swallowed by Siddle in the deep. Johnson managed to snare two wickets but was at his eratic worst. If the ball doesn’t swing, Johnson is too easily picked off.

Trott reached his second test century of the series with a fine display of patient stroke play. Trott whipped the balls that strayed on his pads and dispatched the deliveries that offered width. In the last session, Trott and Prior cashed in on the circumstances. Australia accepted their overwhelming and doomed position while the English pair feasted on Australia’s realisation.

Today re-inforced a glaring problem in the Australian lineup. The bowlers lack class but not application while, the batsman lack application and at the moment, class.

Earlier in the day, Ricky Ponting’s frustration exploded in a one-way verbal exchange between he and the umpires. Following a reversed decision by the third umpire that went against the Australians, Ricky sent his displeasure blatantly known to Pietersen, the umpires and the Melbourne crowd. The Australian captain’s actions were childish, disrespectful and pathetic. He ignored the ethics of the game by continuing to whinge to the umpires. An appropriate punishment should be dealt for the immature act. Ponting’s heated actions showed a terrible distain towards an umpire’s authority. The intense scrutiny Ponting is under is overwhelming and sometimes unfair. He let his emotions overcome him as the reality may have finally set in- a third Ashes defeat.

The perfect day

Infront of 84,000 people at the MCG, the English exposed a miserable Australian top order.

The optimists would blame Australia’s performance on too much plum-pudde on Christmas day. But in reality, Australia’s embarrassing 98 first innings total revealed a deeper rot that has slowly lodged itself in Australian cricket. Their performance was rot. Their attitude was rot. The English bowlers bowled a wonderful consistent line. The three English fast bowlers displayed discipline and execution combined. The Australian batsman displayed a schoolboys shortcomings- impatience, immaturity and  an inability to construct an innings.

The selection of Phil Hughes is startling. His shortcomings and immaturity with the bat are obvious. It may be too premature to call, but, Hughes is in danger of loosing his way in the cricket ranks; thats if he hasn’t already. Hughes’ weakness to the short ball on his body and the wide angling full ball was on glaring display today. His averaging below 20 at state level this season which indicates that even the state players have figured out how to bowl to him. He now must make a crucial and swift career decision. Does he stick with his swash-buckle approach and ignore the technical advice he is now receiving. Or, does he look to make a radical technical change now. At the moment, Hughes is in two minds. Should he follow his boyish instincts or reconstruct a severely faulted technique? Shaun Marsh is waiting patiently in the wings and should be rewarded at the expense of the inept Hughes.

However, Australia’s demise should barely be blamed on the young Hughes. The older head and seemingly once wise head, Ricky Ponting, is desperately struggling for form. His footwork is disorganised and out of sorts, and his reflexes have dropped off a fraction. Like his fellow teammate Michael Clarke, Ponting’s lack of runs in the past year or two places enormous pressure on the selectors to act. Perhaps, the lack of suitable replacements is the Captain’s and Vice-captain’s saviour.

Although Australia managed a dramatic turn around in Perth, the same lingering deep problems remained embedded in the Australian side. If the ball swings, the Australian batsman lack the temperament and application to combat the subtle movement. There were more nicks in Australia’s innings than in a greek nightclub. The raw and currently not up to the level, Steve Smith, pushed hard at a full ball. Like the men who came before, he had little clue of how to play against intelligent swing bowling.

Jimmy Anderson was the pick of the English bowlers. His consistency throughout the series has been of a higher class to that of everyone else. He managed to make a usually dull MCG pitch look like a minefield. With the impressive support from Bresnan and Tremlett, Anderson exposed three major faults in the Australian line-up- the opening spot of Hughes, the number six role filled by Smith and an ageing under-performed middle order of Ponting and Clarke. Hughes and Smith are considerably young and are currently of an inferior class.

The Australian selectors cannot be blamed for an astonishingly meagre and pathetic 98. Yet, they must be brought into severe questioning over the selection of the team. Is Smith a superior option over the Victorian Cam White? White offers leadership, experience and an accomplished and refined technique. Smith is not ready for test cricket. He is of Australia’s future but in four years time. And how can Andrew Hilditch justify Hughes’ spot? A drunk from the side of a road could figure out how to get him out. He jumps at anything short like a bunny and he flashes at anything wide like an excited child waiting for christmas presents.

The English have proven to be the more balanced, settled and superior side of the series. Their hands are nearly clasping the Urn. For the first time in 15 years, selection issues must be sensibly faced and strategically tackled, after a likely series defeat on home soil for the Australians.

It was a perfect day for the English. An English lead of 59 runs at the end of day one without loss of wicket. On the other hand, the Australians were left licking their wounds on a day that is normally celebrated as the greatest annual sporting event on the Australian calendar. The heat is on but of a different kind. Suddenly, the attention is turned to off the field where the Australian public will be calling for long-term change, not just a short term fix.

All roads lead

All roads lead to the mightiest of all stadiums. Just as the gladiators fought and scrapped for their lives in-front of a futile Roman crowd, two old foes will battle it out on the Melbourne colosseum for the most precious prize of all- the Ashes Urn.

Nearly three months ago, Melbournians witnessed an epic and riveting encounter between Collingwood and St Kilda in the AFL Grand Final. Two sides demonstrated overwhelming desperation and skill. A few players stood out from the trying pack and it was the efforts of these elite few that forced a Grand Final sequel and eventually the cup into Collingwood’s hands.

On Boxing Day, perhaps the most anticipated day on Melbourne’s sporting-fest calender, players will perform Herculean-like deeds and others will suffocate under the intense MCG lights. Reputations will be fortified and reputations will be broken.

Australian spectators tend not to rate any player unless they perform in front of their judging eyes. It is a harsh but unique Australian trait.

Day one at the mighty G’ is expecting a record crowd, in excess of 90,000 cricket followers. Doubt lingers over Ponting’s fractured finger. Don’t expect Punta to miss out on the Boxing Day Test which has been a pleasant hunting ground for him throughout his illustrious career. After the dramatic and extreme Australian turn around, the on-field intensity will reach a whole new intoxicating level as the holy-grail in Test cricket is at stake.

Series alive

Mitch Johnson and Australia found their swagger while England stumbled on a dramatic day two.

The wayward and sometimes intolerable Johnson re-ignited his Test career in stunning circumstances. The Australian selectors keep spinning the line that Johnson is their match winner. In a rarity, those much criticised men were proved accurate. For the first time in nearly 18 months, Johnson found his line to the left hand batsman and more importantly his length and pace. He managed to execute what a left arm bowler should do: bowl the in-swinger. Furthermore, the inspired Johnson maintained, if not, heightened his rage from the previous day. The English batsman were left searching for answers as they lost 10 wickets for 100 runs. Ironically, the man who no one ‘rated’ was the man who may have just dragged Australia back from obscurity and into the contest. Perhaps, England’s only ill-judgement in the series- not respecting Johnson- will cost them the Test match and the momentum heading into the Boxing Day Test.

Despite Australia’s growing strangle-hold in the match, the one lingering question is yet to be answered. Can Australia take 20 wickets? Australia managed to rip apart an English lineup in the first innings of the first Test but then was embarrassed the next innings. England’s first innings in Brisbane and in Perth share one commonality: both innings were destroyed by a moment of madness where one Australian bowler had all his birthdays come at once.

Was Johnson’s inspiring and fiery spell an aberration or will he be able to continue to bowl with today’s near-majestic rhythm and aggression. For Australia to wrench themselves out of misery, Johnson must reproduce his relentless attack on the old enemy and perhaps, more critically, the support cast of bowlers must play their role.

England’s next dig will tell all.

Foreseeably, the winner of this Test will be the eventual owner of the Urn.  The enthralling intensity is back between these two desperate sides. The Ashes series is certainly alive and well.

Leadership?

An empire doesn’t collapse over night. Over an astonishing 15 year period, the all conquering Australian cricket team bullied and bashed opposition foes into submission on a ruthless and consistent basis. When a team or player dared to challenge such a talented lot, the ball would be thrusted over to the deadly duo of McGrath and Warne to silence any challenge. The young Graeme Smith endured a painful Australian summer when he trash talked the Australians prior to a series. He swiftly understood that the Australians instigated the mind games. Not the other way round.

Presently, the Australian cricket team has lost its brashness and unwavering confidence. On a typically fast Perth pitch, the Australian batsman came and went from the middle as the Barmy army cheered. Phil Hughes, Ricky Ponting and Michael Clarke all exited the crease by unforgivable circumstances. In amazement, Hughes attempted to play across the line in only the second over of the day. How could a Test opening batsman fall for one of the cardinal sins of starting out an innings. Hasn’t the youthful but significantly flawed Hughes ever heard the old line: play in the ‘V’, show the full face of the bat and most importantly… Play STRAIGHT. How could a player who averages below 20 this season for New South Whales, receive the highest honour of opening the batting for Australia?

However, the more experienced and seasoned campaigners, Ponting and Clarke, fell victim to a “nothing shot”. Clarke’s dangling of the bat outside off-stump was astounding for a player who aspires to Captain Australia one day. But that is the precise problem with the Australian cricket at the moment. Australia lack leadership both on the field and off it. Australia may not enjoy the excessive depth of talent as it once did, but it has enough to compete competently with any nation in the world. From the administration down to Ricky Ponting’s captaincy, Australian cricket has failed to demonstrate directive and organised leadership that can nurture young talent and inspire the current XI to play competitive and cohesive cricket. The Australian selectors have lacked vision while Ponting has lacked resources. Ponting’s efforts to lead his men cannot be questioned but perhaps he isn’t a naturally born leader. Ponting received the captaincy out of circumstance. Shane Warne’s off-field dramas meant that he was no longer the suitable option. While Ponting’s individual performances have been somewhat sub-par over the past year or two, he still has been Australia’s greatest batsman over the last few decades, and arguably, he is in the top three greatest Australian batsman.

Australia’s decline began in the 2005 Ashes series. Ausralian cricket was able to recover from the Ashes loss due to the once-in-a-generation players of Warne, McGrath and Gilchrist. Yet, the selection panel made a critical decision after that wonderful series. They stuck to the proven veterans and neglected the in-form and deserving up and coming State cricketers. Cricket Australia are bluntly feeling the painful consequences of following the conservative path.

With no obvious choice for the next Australian captain, Australian cricket will continue to spiral aimlessly into mediocrity.

The empire has fallen. But can it rebuild…

Changes all too late

The English cricket team can all but shut the books on the outcome of the series with just one dominant morning session tomorrow morning on a fast WACCA pitch. As the series currently stands, the Australians are a confused and uninspired lot, while the English are a focussed and ambitious unit who have failed to show chinks in their armour. Perhaps, the first let down for Strauss’ men was the recent tour match against Victoria. The Victorian swing bowler, Clint Mckay, showed the Australian “legion” of bowlers how to take a wicket against England. It seems by the summer’s end, Australia would have churned through more bowlers than Warney would have girls numbers tucked away in his back pocket. Like all sides, struggling or not, Australian enthusiasm will be present early, but if the English can hold firm in the first session then Australian heads will begin to drop.

Past Australian greats are pleading for stability in the Australian team, but the selectors have dug their own spiralling hole. At the start of 2010, the selectors had an opportunity on the New Zealand tour to blood talented youth or able combatants. Instead, they seeked to blindly support the inept Marcus North in the middle order, the wayward and mentally-fragile Mitchell Johnson, and even Mike Hussey, who struggled to score any meaningful runs for nearly two years. However, the selectors will rightly feel justified for backing Hussey for an extended period of time with his recent lone-hand for Australia. But the question has to be asked: How long is too long? Peter Siddle storms into the National side and forges six wickets and a hatrick. Two weeks later, it seems he won’t appear in the Perth Test.

The Perth Test will witness more unsettling changes to the Aussie side. But these changes must be made. These changes are extremely overdue yet sadly untimely as Australia seek to level the series. Australia don’t enjoy the elite depth of talent as it did in the 90′s and early 00′s. A new kind of innovative thinking and management must enter the selectors’ minds as they attempt to rebuild a broken but proud cricket nation.

The strategy: short term pain in exchange for sustained long-term success.

Casualties cause headaches

England swept through the Australian batting order with little resistance to claim a commanding one- nil lead in the series. Yet, as it often happens, all the attention now turns to the most pivotal Test match for the series.

The Perth Test is shaping to be the defining moment for both desperate foes. Despite the English crushing Australia in the Adelaide Test, both sides suffered casualties. Stuart Broad and Simon Katich will take no further part in the series. Broad’s negative prognosis is no surprise. Since his first spell in Brisbane, he appeared physically tied down and at times looked short of breath after only a few mere overs. His absence in the series is a blow to England, but not as much as the future absence of the gutsy Katich. The opener leaves a significant dent in the already struggling Australian top order. His consistency over the past two years has been one to marvel at and his hardened attitude at the opening spot will be hard to replace. On day four of the Adelaide Test, he showed absolute determination and resilience under severe pain in a daunting predicament of the game.

Immediatley after the the Adelaide Test, Ponting indicated that the flamboyant Phil Hughes will assume Katich’s position at he top. Hughes can carve up an inaccurate and disorganised attack that lends width to his off-stump. Yet, if Hughes replaces Katich, his technique will be under severe scrutiny by viewers and by the English bowlers. He relies on his devastating cut shot to amount runs, but while his cut-shot is a considerable strength, it is also an obvious weakness in his game. Someone of Finn’s height can expose Hughes’ often timid approach to the short ball on his body. Stuart Broad’s absence will aid Hughes’ bid to secure the opening spot as Broad tends to hit the pitch hard and bowls a wonderful bouncer that surprises the most accomplished batsmen.

The Australian team has already seen two changes to the line up this series. After Marcus North’s miserable failure again this morning, he surely must be the third unforced change to the lineup. The replacement will very much indicate the philosophy of the Australian selectors. Will they back a seasoned campaigner like a David Hussey or a Cameron White or will they turn to an unknown young quality like a Khawaja or Ferguson?

The final crucial decision the selectors must make is the matter of spin. After two Tests, Xavier Doherty is simply punching above his weight. He failed to demonstrate variety in his off-spinners and as a result should be given the flick. While the pitches did little to aid his aspirations, he caused little to no problem for the inform English batsman. Like the North situation- the untried youth or the predictable veterans? Should the selectors turn to the reliable yet not outstanding Nathan Hauritz, or, the excitable and raw Steve Smith? Or perhaps the aggressive wicket-taking yet expensive Krezja is the answer to Australia’s woes. Hauritz has proven he can hold an end in Test cricket but without flattering the world. He deserves a chance at redemption after being surprisingly overlooked for the start of the Ashes series.

Consistent changes is often destabilising for a team, but the Australian side does not have the good fortune nor time to blindly back failed products of North and Doherty.

Australia forge hope

Despite the English drawing close to victory, Australia can take much heart and inspiration from their dignified efforts on a testing day four.

For a moment, Australia’s hopes of forcing a draw looked increasingly likely with Michael Clarke finally emerging out of his slumber of wretched form. With the support from the inform Mike Hussey, the pair’s partnership instilled nerves into the English camp for the first time this series. But then, who else ripped the heart and soul out of Australia? The man of the moment, Kevin Pietersen of course. He dismissed Clarke in the final over of an intriguing day to leave a bitter taste in the Australians and in particular, Clarke’s mouth.

Clarke’s fluent knock of 80 mirrored his greatest innings in Test cricket, where he scored a courageous and memorable century under significant pressure at Lords, in 2009. A striking feature to Clarke’s game is his willingness to to use his feet to the spinners. He is perhaps the most accomplished player of spin in Australia. On a day when Swann forced batsman to second guess and had Ponting fooled for spin, Clarke counter-attacked Swann’s dominance with aggressive yet measured footwork down the wicket but also back in his crease. Like his fellow partner out in the middle, Clarke recaptured his touch by positive intent, not by a timid and a defensive approach. Hussey was firmly touched on the shoulder by the selectors to get a move along with his batting before the series, and it seems Clarke took note of Hussey’s sudden transformation of form.

Rain will likely be Australia’s savior due to the long batting tail and Marcus North’s ongoing struggles with the bat. Perhaps, North should take a leaf out of Hussey and Clarke’s altered and new found approach to batting. Another failure tomorrow and North will say his farewells to the Australian’ dressing room and Test cricket for good. While, the Australian supporters will say “finally”, as North begins his lone walk back to the pavilion.

Like life, cricket can be unforgiving and not always rewarding to the brave. Just as the vocal cynics were rather absurdly calling the efforts of Ponting’s men as “un-Australian”, Simon Katich led the united and stubborn Aussie front on one leg, and Hussey and Clarke fought admirably to the last over of play. For Clarke, his innings may go down in vein, but his brave efforts will surely not be forgotten by the Australian selectors nor his harsh critics. Perhaps, this plucky fight-back may just instill some much needed belief into the Australian line-up.

Marvellous KP

Kevin Pietersen plundered his way to his first double century against Australia and fourth Ashes century. Pietersen’s rare ability to dominate and dictate an attack was on wonderful display on another bleak day for the Australians.

While current Test greats such as Ricky Ponting, Sachin Tendulkar and Jacque Kallis have the records and performances to support their claims as the most dominant batsmen of the last decade, Pietersen perhaps boasts the most talent of them all. Often KP’s contagious and unique ego denies him reaching his full potential. Like the colourful characters of the past, Pieteren’s problem is that he simply doesn’t rate some bowlers. That is why perhaps, today’s entertaining and ruthless knock is even more impressive. Surely KP must have thought he was playing grade cricket when Xavier Doherty was bowling his little tweekers. Without sounding condescending to Doherty, his strength is his heart but lacks much else. He only has the stock left arm off-spin delivery in his weaponry. He fails to vary his pace and to worry the most accomplished batsmen. Perhaps, this is the difference between the two sides. England enjoys an elite spin bowler who can break partnerships in the first innings and dominate in the last, while, Australia endures a defensive and non-threatening spinner who struggles to tie down an end.

We may be witnessing a maturing Kevin Pietersen who will at least pretend that he rates the opposition. Like all elite players in the world, Pietersen lives for the special and telling moments. If today is any indication, Pietersen may have just found the levelled temperament to reach similar consistent heights to that of his rivals.

A worrying summer

For a summer that promised so much, it is becoming crystal clear that this Ashes series will likely deliver a one sided contest. The first test was hailed as a riveting contest but in fact it was a long winded draw that only witnessed 2 wickets fall on the final two days. Hardly what Test cricket needs in Australia. Today was a continuation of the first test.

Before the English team arrived in Australia, much talk was narrowed in on how balanced the two rivals were and only the critical and defining moments will divide these two middle of the road teams. A test match and two days of play later, the series is promising to be a tedious and one sided contest. The English batsman are confident and are in super touch. If Cook continues his rich vein of form he may maintain his heavenly average above the 100 mark. Furthermore, their bowling attack is settled and organised, a feature to a touring English side that hasn’t been seen for decades. The English are even outplaying the Aussies in the field. Haddin’s and Hussey’s forgettable drop catches indicate that Australia can hardly boast their once superiority in the field. The most pessimistic Australian supporter can be forgiven to think that the Aussies can’t bat, can’t bowl and certainly cannot field.

The English are the obvious dominant team but they are no world beaters. Cook is in fine touch but his runs in the last few innings may inflate observers’ opinions of him. He is no more competent and assured than a Simon Katich. Jonathan Trott is a more appealing batsman to watch but he has his deficiencies as well. The Australian bowling attack have failed to test Trott’s game outside the off-stump. He looked the most vulnerable on the full out-swinging delivery. Instead, the Australians felt obliged to attack his leg stump.

The Australian bowlers lack penetration and Ponting lacks imagination. The blame for Australia’s depressive state should not be shouldered by Ponting alone. His middle order batsman aren’t supporting him and therefore creating overwhelming pressure on him to perform. Furthermore, his bowlers lack discipline and when they occasionally get it right, the fielders let them down. Peter Siddle, Doug Bollinger and Ryan Harris can’t be questioned for effort. In searing 40 degree heat, the three pace bowlers toiled honestly without support in the field. Whether the pitch is a road or the Australians were “unlucky”, the simple fact remains: Australia is no longer the pace-setters in world cricket. They are ranked number five in the world. And are more importantly, performing like a 5th ranked side.

Second Test: Day one

Australia plummeted to a mere 245 on a beautiful Adelaide batting strip. England bowlers, particularly Jimmy Anderson and Graeme Swann, exposed Australian batsmen’s technical flaws. Simon Katich was run out by a neat piece of fielding by Trott which suddenly sparked a dramatic collapse. Watson and Katich have batted together for a lengthy 18 months, yet, they have failed to consolidate an understanding between each other in regard to running between the wickets. Then, the often inspiring Ricky Ponting, came, saw… and went out first ball, attempting to stab at the swinging ball. The skipper is renowned for his hesitant and nervous starts, and the best bowler in the series, Jimmy Anderson, exposed his tendency to strangle his bat and go searching for the ball. With no surprise, Ponting’s cheap dismissal exposed Australia’s struggling middle order. The supposed future Australian Captain, Michael Clarke, tried to play an Anderson delivery way too far in-front of his pads and was caught behind by Swann. Clarke is another major concern for Ponting. His old flaws in his game are creeping back in- he is considerably loose outside off-stump. The most worrying aspect for Punta is that Clarke’s mind doesn’t seem to be on the job. In the field, Clarke is dropping catches and isn’t looking as sharp in the field as he normally is. And finally, Pup is seeing the ball out in the middle like a golf ball. As talented as Clarke is, he joins Marcus North as the consumate battler in the middle order. Even if his poor form continues in the series, the selectors kindly give a lengthy year or two for a batsman to find his form. Players like Matthew Hayden, Andrew Symonds, Marcus North and even Mike Hussey have all enjoyed such generous leniency.

Form is temporary. Class is permanent. In a difficult day for Australia, Mike Hussey reminded the world and more significantly the Poms, that he still has within himself to perform at the elite level. Like Hussey did when he first bursted onto the international scene, he rescued Australia from an embarrassing first innings total to a somewhat respectable score. Despite Hussey’s courageous and persistent efforts England are in an acutely dominant position heading into day two. On one of the finest batting strips in the world, England should hope to play accordingly on a friendly wicket by posting 500.

The first session on day two will be marked as the most crucial session of the match. If Australia can snare four wickets by lunch then Ricky’s men are back in the contest. However, with a working class bowling attack of Peter Siddle, Ryan Harris and Doug Bollinger, the English should nearly make it impossible for Australia to win the second Test by reaching lunch with only one or two wickets down. Expect Ricky to be chewing on his finger nails at a rapid rate if early wickets aren’t taken.

The Australians are wounded deeply, perhaps they are a divided team. Katich looked on for much of the afternoon in isolation after a contribution of zero, and the Australian Captain had a stressful and nervous look about him while he was glaring glumly onto the field. The roles are reversed. Strauss’ men have the bullish and self-assured look, while, the Australian unity and confidence seems fractured and false. All possible series predictions will be answered by 6pm tomorrow afternoon.

Where to now for the Australians?

Oh “the Horror the horror.”

These are the words that swept across the Gabba on the final day of the first Test. Australia were humiliated with such an inferior and timid bowling attack. To think only 48 hours ago Australia were looking to go 1 up in the series. Now, some home truths have to be answered.

Mitchell Johnson’s position is in serious doubt now. He is marked as a wicket taker. At the moment he is a bowling machine for the English. He talked up his aggression before the series and has failed to deliver on his promises. Johnson’s sudden fall from grace began when the opposition did some much needed homework on him. When he won international cricketer of the year, he took the majority of his wickets from the “sucker” wide ball. Opposition batsman now ignore the “sucker” and just wait for Johnson to bowl on their pads. His time is up and Doug Bollinger is waiting eagerly in the wings. Unlike Johnson, Bollinger is in the batsman’s face every ball and won’t die wondering.

Peter Siddle survives the cut for the second Test, thanks to his hatrick and six wicket haul. But he needs to make further adjustments to his bowling. In the first innings, Siddle enjoyed overwhelming success by bowling a consistent full length that would entice the English to drive. In the second innings, his pace was down, his length was short and his greatest asset- his aggression, was no where to be seen on a depressing day five.

Ben Hilfenhaus is the only Australian bowler on a bleak day in Australian sporting history,who bowled with any discipline and somewhat consistent line. He tends to drag his line a tad to wide but he is a thinking bowler who will throw in a few off-cutter and in-swingers. The most shocking aspect about Australia is the lack of thinking and awareness in the field. Siddle and Johnson don’t change their angle at the crease nor vary their pace, nor bowl off-cutter and leg-cutters. Hilfenhaus won’t be a match winner but he will at least force the English to remain honest.

Ricky Ponting blastered a half-century to finish the Test. A friendly warning to the Poms that he still has the match winning quality within him and the fuelling motivation to drag Australia over the line. The embarrassing bowling performance will force the selectors and Ponting’s hand to make an immediate change. Until Johnson learns to bowl an in-swinger, he should battle his way in the State ranks.

England will now have an extreme belief within themselves to knock off a timid Australian team. From today’s efforts, the bowling is club level and the fielding is dare I say… nearing Pakistan’s level (no not quiet there but Pup Clarke might want to hold a catch soon).

Advantage England.

First Test: Day four

The Australian’s confidence and optimism was swiftly ripped away by Andrew Strauss and Alistair Cook. Strauss, Cook and later Trott made the Australian attack look pedestrian and timid as the English firmed as the superior team. England finished day 4 with a remarkable and courageous 1 for 309. An Australian bowling attack failed to penetrate an accomplished English top order. While Ben Hilfenhaus kept the English honest with some testing outswingers, Mitch Johnson and Peter Siddle struggled for line and more importantly length. Siddle who reaped the rewards of bowling a full length in the first innings, reverted back to his old short length. Johnson followed Siddle’s length and too often gave width to the grateful Strauss and Cook. The question mark over Australia was can they take 20 scalps in a match. From today’s struggles, they can’t. What is more glaring and worrying for Australia is their inability to identify the appropriate line to bowl to Cook. In both innings, Cook has dictated the Australian attack and as a result he has already scored a fine half century and an unbeaten century. Australia kept pitching short and the English kept reciprocating accordingly by punishing an ill-dicliplined attack.

Ricky Ponting frowned as the Australian crowd cringed at the sight of a plundering English lineup overcoming their Baggy Green heroes on home soil. As Strauss and Cook’s opening stand grew more threatening, Ponting turned more defensive with conservative and unimaginative field placings. Shane Warne made note on day one about the importance for imaginative captaincy in the field. Too often Punta pushed mid-on and mid-off back, and kept two men deep on the leg-side. The experienced Strauss or the impressively focused Cook would not so readily throw away their wicket by falling into such a wishful trap. However, Ricky was poorly supported by his bowlers and fielders. They failed to remain patient and allowed the English to rotate the strike with inexcusable misfields and sluggish attack on the ball.

The result seems more than likely to be a draw. The Australians have lost a golden opportunity to impose their authority in the series. While the English have dramatically swung the momentum back their way and have forced the pressure back upon Australia. A week is normally a very long time in cricket but not much has changed. Question marks remain over the erratic Mitchell Johnson and the battling Marcus North. Meanwhile, the English team seem stable and prepared to accomplish a rare feat of retaining the Ashes on Australian soil.

First Test: Day three

Mike Hussey and Brad Haddin cemented Australia’s imposing position on day three with a gritty and classy 307 run partnership. Haddin showed wonderful maturity and leadership with a more tempered and controlled innings. He defied his natural aggressive instincts early with watchful stroke-play. He and Hussey survived a gruelling and testing spell from Jimmy Anderson in the morning session. Hussey’s good fortune continued with escaping multiple LBW shouts from the luckless Anderson. Anderson bowled with such threatening accuracy and perseverance all day, particularly in the morning session. How he didn’t collect a deserved wicket haul is still one of astonishment. He had Hussey plum, dead in front, yet, Aleem Dar was convinced Hussey got bat to it. Hussey survived other desperate shouts but Hussey kept fighting and more importantly kept amassing a potentially match winning score with the inspired Haddin.

As Anderson grew more frustrated, the Australians grew more confident and increased the scoring rate in an imposing fashion. Once Haddin past 30, he raced his way to his finest Test century of his career. He reverted to his more known self with belligerent drives and lightning quick footwork. Meanwhile, Hussey also broke free from the Anderson hold with some glorious cover drives and confident pulls and hooks.

To much of the English delight, Haddin finally fell to Swann for 136. Ironically, Hussey soon followed Haddin after tea with the stroke that gave him the most satisfaction and reward in his heroic 195- the pull shot. Like Haddin, Hussey probably played his finest innings of his career. He entered the crease yesterday with extreme pressure because of the critical match situation and the blaring doubts over his career. For nearly two years, Hussey seemed to have batted with a mind tangled with insecurities and fears. In the last two days, Hussey has batted like a man free of psychological constrain and lingering doubts.

As Australia’s innings came to a close at 481, the lanky Steven Finn finished with a 6 wicket haul, which should be commended. However, despite his commendable wicket haul, England will not win the series if he is the leading wicket taker for England. Furthermore, Stuart Broad’s toughness and preparation is questionable at the moment. Australian home series have a history of identifying the faint-hearted from the seasoned and composed campaigners. Broad has shown already in the match his obvious talent with the ball at various times but the news of him suffering from blisters on the foot because of new shoes is laughable. This certainly wont please Andrew Strauss. England will need Broad at his fittest and most focussed state if they are to retain the Urn.

The Victorian Peter Siddle, Hussey and Haddin are the clear elite performers of the summer so far. However, two men have been denied sufficient praise and admiration. Umpires Billy Doctrove and Aleem Dar have been most impressive. In a match that has had as many LBW shouts then one would bother to blink, the umpires have stood tall with admirable composure in a highly heated contest between two old foes. Despite all of the controversies surrounding Pakistan cricket, the best umpire in international cricket hails from the torn country, Aleem Dar.

The Australians take the honours on day 3 with a first innings lead of 202 at stumps. The first Test of this much anticipated Ashes series has been a wonderful show-case of the true brilliance of Test cricket. Unlike the “hit and giggle” One Day and Twenty20 formats, Test cricket proves a cricketer’s worth as a competitor and as a person. One’s grit, determination and class is tested for all to see. The enthralling intensity in the first three days of this test can hardly be matched with any other sport in the world. The game’s purity is on show with two evenly and equally desperate sides.

First Test: Day two

On a Gabba wicket that would deny any batsman feeling at home, Mike Hussey demonstrated a combination of stern application and an aggressive array of stroke-play that has been missing from his game since he arrived on the international scene. Hussey flicked back in time when he was at the height of his powers as he controlled a probing and accurate English attack. Today, Hussey used his feet well, particularly on the back foot, punishing anything that was a fraction short. He sent his positive intent early by lifting Swann down the ground for six. Swann was then forced to bowl a shorter length, and as a result, Hussey punished Swann with powerful pulls.

As the intensity lifted, Hussey lifted. The consummate battler, Marcus North came and went. He completely misread Swann’s stock delivery. Further doubt has to be casted over his career after another failure. Michael Clarke hung around after Katich and Ponting went immediately after lunch. Yet, 50 balls later, the out-of-sorts Clarke finally gave in to the English pressure for a mere and painful 9. Hussey was once one of three Australian middle-order battlers, for today anyway, he showed a polish and class that resembled his old self. The vintage Hussey.

Earlier in the day, Katich and Watson continued their reliable opening partnership with patient stroke play against an organised and often superior English attack. Jimmy Anderson proved his doubters wrong with his ability to beat the bat on countless times without the aid of dramatic swing. The pairing of Anderson and Broad is a dangerous one. Both bowled aggressive and testing lines for the Australian batsman. Katich managed to scrape his way to a half-century before scooping one straight back to the lanky 6 foot 7 Finn. Ponting fell shortly after lunch by nicking the ball down the leg side. His dismissal as usual sparked an overwhelming enthusiasm and intensity from the Poms.

Like day one, the days play was even for the most part with neither team able to gain the ascendency. Yet, like yesterday, it was an individuals performance that seperated the two teams. Yesterday it was Siddle’s 6 wicket haul and mighty hatrick. Today it was Hussey’s calm and timely unbeaten knock of 81. Last Ashes series, the English were able to win those crucial periods. So far, the Australians have grasped the significant moments in the game.

At 5 for 220, with Haddin and Hussey batting with little difficulty, the Australians have taken the front position in the all important first Test.

First Test: Day one

The winter passes and the summer arrives. Today at the Gabba, there was certainly a sweet summer breeze that swept through the Australian side. The newly determined touring English team were torn apart by a Victorian woodchopper. In the traditional Victorian fast bowler mould, Peter Siddle just kept coming and coming at the English batsman with exceptional work-rate. Since coming back from his stress-frature, Siddle has been bowling a fuller length. In front of a packed stadium, Siddle’s change of length was on full display. On his birthday, Siddle claimed a career best 6 wicket haul with a superb hatrick included. It is only the 5th time a bowler has taken a hatrick in an Ashes series. He now joins the great Shane Warne on that list, not bad company.

Earlier in the day, Andrew Strauss sent a clear message of intent towards the Australians when he elected to bat. Once a reluctant leader, Strauss has found a determined streak which is invitingly appealing, even to the most patriotic of Australian supporters. Unfortunately for the Captain, he went third ball trying to cut a rising new ball from Ben Hilfenhaus. Hilfenhaus and Siddle toiled well in their first spells but struggled to bowl a consistent line. England’s number three, Jonathan Trott, looked comfortable against Australia’s opening bowlers and the erratic Mitchell Johnson. He looked organised and waited for the odd ball to stray to his pads. On the other end, Alistair Cook seemed content on just occupying the crease while Trott scored somewhat freely. Shane Watson then produced a lovely cutter that sneaked past Trott’s bat and pad, hitting the stumps. Kevin Pietersen strutted out to the crease and received a cold reception from the Brisbane crowd. He and Cook reached lunch with little difficulty. However, Xavier Doherty bowled his first spell in Test cricket with resounding confidence and aggression. He managed to spin the ball with great affect, surprising not only the English batsman but most of Australian viewers. Although, at lunch, Pietersen was looking in ominous touch. His foot work and determined concentration resembled the 2005 KP.

The first half-hour after lunch, the Australian attack looked disorganised and ill-directed. Johnson continued to bowl with little penetration or aggression, while Hilfenhaus failed to make the batsman play for the most part. Just when Pietersen looked set for a massive score, Siddle struck with a ball that dragged Peterson forward. Siddle collected his first of many for the day, and Ponting got his man. Pietersen caught by Ricky for an impressive 43. As the old saying goes, one wicket can turn into two. Siddle swiftly dismissed the normally stubborn Paul Collingwood with a similar ball to that of his first wicket. The game suddenly swung Australia’s way. Ian Bell joined Cook in the middle, and the two negotiated their way to Tea with, again, little difficulty. Cook continued to be patient and wait for the short ball to flick away while Bell presented a confident and assured look, one in which Australian’s have rarely seen.

For much of the first day of the first Test, the game was in the balance. Australia would strike then the English would develop a comfortable partnership. Shortly after tea, Ponting tossed the red pill to the bustling Victorian. For once the Australian selectors seemed to have picked the right man. Siddle got the nod over Dougy Bollinger. One man’s misfortune is another man’s fortune. Siddle’s purely magical spell began with dismissing the plucky Cook. Cook was caught dabbing outside his off-stump, out for 67. Then the wicket-keeper Matt Prior arrived at the crease… and then departed a ball later with his stumps shattered. Broad raced out to bat after some delay, clearly not expecting to bat in such dramatic circumstances. Although, like Prior, he left a ball later after being struck on the pads from a full and straight thunderbolt. Siddle went bang, bang… and yes, bang again. Siddle didn’t bowl anything mind-bobbling or surprising, rather, he stuck to a simple plan throughout the day- keep the ball on a full length on a rather slow Gabba deck. In a space of 3 balls, Siddle erupted a full house and more importantly, placed his country in a commanding position at the end of day one.

Siddle managed another wicket, finishing with superb figures of 6 for 54. The debutant Doherty cleaned up the English with 2 wickets, including the impressive Bell. Bell compiled a composed 76 under intense pressure from the Australians, particularly when his partners seemed to change every time he looked up.

At the end of day one, it was Australia’s and Siddle’s day. The English all out for 260. While Shane Watson and Simon Katich negotiated 7 overs from the English attack finishing on 25. However, the English bowlers will take comfort from what they saw when the Australians managed to bowl the ball at a full length.

There is still plenty more cricket to be played before a result can be called. Can’t wait. The summer is certainly here. For Siddle, all the christmases and summers came at once.

Key players for Australia

Ricky Ponting: As usual the Australian skipper must lead the way if the Aussies hope to win back the Urn. At an outstanding Test average of 54, Ricky will need to conqueror the menacing short ball that has caused him much discomfort and strife over the past 18 months. He must make a choice. Either take a leaf out of the Steve Waugh book and remove the hook shot out of his armoury, or risk being the short ball’s bunny. He may need to park his ego in the pavilion. Australia’s fragile and battling middle order places extreme pressure on Punta to produce. Simply he must. He will need to amass 450 to 550 runs in the series for Australia to silence the Barmy Army.

Mitch Johnson: The much maligned and erratic Australian fast bowler will need to straighten up and find his rhythm that he enjoyed 2 summers ago against the South Africans. Even though, in the eyes of many astute judges, Johnson is lucky to be playing in the national Test side, he still remains Australia’s X-factor and match winner. Ben Hilfhanous provides stability and a nagging line for the Poms to contend with, while Dougy Bollinger and Peter Siddle provide the grunt work. However, Johnson is a proven wicket taker on the international scene. Yet, he has become a worry for Ricky in the last year or two. Johnson’s tendency to bowl short and wide is C-grade stuff and at times embarasing. His performance at the Lords Test in the last Ashes series was disgraceful and nothing short of the worst display of bowling shown by an Australian “strike bowler” in quiet some time. If he reproduces such wayward form, Australia will struggle to take 20 wickets in a match. His recent strong performance against the Victorians in a Sheffield Shield game suggests his found some much needed touch.

Michael Clarke: The Vice-Captain will need to play a crucial role in the middle order for Australia. He enters this Ashes series with two blaring questions: his fitness and form. Since the Bingle affair at the beginning of the year, Clarke has failed to reach consistent form. With the struggling Mike Hussey and the sometimes inept Marcus North coming in after, Clarke must find ways to score and lend some aid to Ponting in the middle. If Clarke wishes to Captain Australia, he must rise to the occasion now. He has been constantly questioned over his mental toughness and his inability to convert starts to big scores. Clarke doesn’t fit the Border-Taylor-Waugh-Ponting mould of a rugged and gritty Captain. Instead, he is the “model”, a “womaniser” who drives expensive cars. The only way to alter his image is on the field, in a major series. This is the opportune time to answer them all. The second worry for Pup is his back. The rumblings are growing louder that he might miss out on the first Test in Brisbane. Clarke was one of few bright lights out of the previous Ashes defeat with some resolute and fine innings. He will need to reproduce at that hight level again.

Australia’s 17 man squad

After much build up and discussion of who should be in the 13 man squad for the first Test in Brisbane, the squad was finally released yesterday. Hold on, I thought it was meant to be a 13 man squad? Apparently its a 17 man squad just incase the team is struck down by a terrible case of syphilis or a few get hurt from running into a burning building to save an old woman’s cat… Really Cricket Australia?

Once again the Australian selectors show their inability to pick a team with conviction and confidence.

In the squad released yesterday there were 3 spinners in the squad. Since Shane Warne, 9 spin bowlers have played for Australia. The most successful spinner for Australia since the great Warney is Nathan Haurtiz, our so-called front line spinner. Some may be forgiven to think that he plays down at their local club. The 3 man inclusion of spin bowlers hardly shows confidence in Hauritz. Whether he is the answer or not, the selectors must send the spinner a clear message. Is he in or out?

Pleasingly, some young and promising players have been included in the squad, including Khawaja, Smith and Ferguson. Notably 2 are from New South Wales… but still it’s a start.

Yet even with the youth inclusion in the squad, one has to think that Ricky and the selectors will go with the same predictable line-up of the past 18 months. Hussey and Johnson will hang in the 11 and North will be backed blindly again. The same result will happen. North will fail to score a run for most of the series but will manage to score a century to keep his spot. Hussey will muster all the concentration and determination he has to average a mere 30 to 35 with the bat. And finally there is Mitch Johnson who most watching would think he is aiming 5 feet outside off stump. He will probably manage to snare a wicket or two from here or there because of impatient and reckless batting by the Poms.

The outcome of the all important Ashes series remains uncertain. But what we do know is if Australia fail to win back the Urn, the old stayers of the Australian team would have seen their last series and the selector pannel will need another drastic reshuffle.

What about the “bear”?

A struggling Australian Test team means time for change. Or is it?

The Australian selectors have always been reluctant to pick youth in the Test side.

Since Michael Hussey’s hyper-inflated batting average of 86, he has averaged a meagre 28 and only two centuries in the last 2 years. Hardly acceptable one would think. Yet not surprisingly the selectors are avid believers of the “one innings makes a summer”. Or in Hussey’s case, a full calendar year. The Pakistan series saved Hussey career. One can count on Hussey seeing through the Australian summer.

Marcus North seems to follow a similar battling path. Six consecutive inept failures and then a career saving ton.

Its time for these stubborn Australian selectors to make a few brave calls for the upcoming Ashes series. The selectors’ conservative management of the Test team is like the deep-south of America in the 19th Century. Obliviously in denial of the need for drastic change.

Cameron White is banging on the door after a dazzling display of straight hard hitting in a One Dayer against the Indians last night. Not only did the “bear” White dispatch an Indian bowling attack, he also brought life back into a spiralling Australian tour of India. Over the past 12 to 18 months, White has dominated One Day cricket and has also performed well in the Sheffield Shield for Victoria. His bowling isn’t up to scratch but his batting finally is. He is technically sound with a levelled temperament and can also lift a few gears with his hard-hitting when called upon to. He is an obvious replacement for the struggling Marcus North. North’s astute cricket brain gains appraisal from within the Australian dressing room. White’s appointment as Vice-captain of the Australian Twenty20 team would suggest he matches North in the leadership and strategic side of the game. Finally, White would bring a unique and crucial component to the Test team- his fielding. He displays a baseball arm when fielding in the deep, and sharp and clean hands when in close. Besides Ricky Ponting, Hussey and to a lesser extent Michael Clarke, White would considerably strengthen the gully and slip region.

Only a simple adjustment is required. White in. North out.

But don’t hold your breath.

Where to now for Punta?

Another series defeat in India sees Ricky Ponting’s captaincy under severe fire once again.

The Australian camp denies Ponting’s captaincy is a concern. Vocal critics like Darren Berry, who always seems to carry a chip on his shoulder, begs to differ.

Australia have now lost three consecutive Test Matches and the Australian public who have been spoilt of success are demanding immediate answers.

Amazingly, if it wasn’t for Billy Bowden’s awfully stuborn finger not being raised, Australia would have won the first Test. Cricket really is a game of inches and fortune.

Critics are demanding Ponting to drop down the batting order. This is absurd and not dilligently thought through. Ricky proved his gritty determination and more importantly class at the crease with three fine 70′s. He was only outperformed by India’s greatest batsman, Sachin Tendulkar.

However, Ponting must address his fielding tactics and management of his bowlers. Ricky is not of the Taylor-ilk when it comes to tactics. Ponting’s captaincy in the field was first exposed in the 2005 Ashes series where Australia were famously defeated by the Poms. He failed to adjust to the circumstances and too often the fields he set were too defensive. Similar to the recent Indian tour. In the first Test, he denied Nathan Haurtiz an opportunity to bowl Australia to victory. Haurtiz has obvious limitations but a spinner is a proven weapon against the tail. Furthermore, Australia’s seam bowlers are often under-used at the best of times. Although, a bowling attack without a McGrath and Warne certainly makes things rather difficult for any captain.

Despite Ponting’s occassional short-comings in regards to field tactics, he is the right and only man to lead Australia’s assault on the Ashes this summer. Many forget Punta often carries Australia’s batting fortunes on his back. The men who waltz to the crease after him- Clarke, Hussey and North- are fast becoming the belligerent battlers of the Australian line-up. To think Clarke is heralded Australia’s next captain. Like many of his middle order mates, he can barely manage a run.

Ponting is still the prize scalp who the Poms will be ever so hungry for. He will be the difference in this summer’s Ashes Series. But if the series falls the Poms way, expect the vicious critizisms of Ponting’s captaincy to further intensify.

Australians falter on the eve of the Ashes

The Indian cricket team defeated a disspirited and fragile looking Australian outfit.

Ricky Ponting’s men failed to fire a shot on the last day of the second Test. Ponting continued to show little confidence in Nathan Hauritz’s offspin floaters. Mitchell Johnson continued to be inconsistent and at the best of times dreadfully wayward. While the reliable Ben Hilfenhouse continued to plug along patiently in testing Indian conditions.

In the build up to the Ashes, the Australians’ look disorganised on the field and off it.

The Australian selectors continue to select a battling Marcus North instead of a promising youngster. He has kept his spot despite a meager return of form. The lack of forsight by the selectors is stunning. The New Zealand tour at the start of the year should have been seen as an opportunity for a youngster to be groomed and ready to tackle the old foe. Instead, Ponting must contend with North’s extreme inconsistencies. North crafted a fine century in the first innings but then failed in the second. North is a liablity rather than a weapon.

The transition of the Warne, McGrath and Gilchrist era to today’s Australian team has been with no surprise difficult. But the length of time has been a surprise. The Australian selectors are reluctant to back youth and instead they continue to back the aging servants in Mike Hussey and North.

Hussey’s situation is a perculiar one. He has been in battling form for nearly 3 years now. His application at the crease and in the field is admirable and first rate. Yet, even his centuries and fifties he has scored in the last couple of years have been from sheer determination rather than form or class. Hussey can thank the Pakistan team for firming his position in the national team. His match winning century at the Sydney Test has been publicised as a ”Hussey-esk” performance. Coming to Australia’s rescue in their hour of need. The reality is quiet the opposite. He was dropped five times in that test and all of them were straight forward club level catches.

The positives for the Australians is Shane Watson’s and Simon Katich’s reliable and conistent form at the top of the order. While, Ponting is beginning to find some lovely touch at number three. Ponting’s three 70′s in the Indian series was courageous and inspiring but was second to the ”Little Master”.

Sadly, that has been Australia’s nagging problem since the dominant Warne era. They continue to come second to their rivals despite Ponting’s gritty leadership from the top.

Cricket in strife

What does cycling and cricket have in common?

Both sports can barely be taken seriously anymore as a legitimate sport. Allegations that the Pakistan cricket team have rigged more games than one would bother to breath, casts a severe cloud over the legitmacy of our great traditonal game.

Corruption seems obvious in all areas of the game. More and more rumblings are coming out about the questionable nature of these “cashed up” Twenty20 competitions.

How can your average punter be assured that any given cricket match isn’t fixed? Lets just thank that the Ashes are coming our way this summer. As it seems the only pure form of cricket played around the world is between the two old rivals: Australia and England.

Cricket tragedy

Another  match-fixing claim and another blow to the state of  Test Match cricket. Sadly, Pakistan cricket is just as futile and fragile as the nation itself. Up to seven Pakistan cricketers face expulsion from the game and at worst the death sentence because of claims that players were instructed to bowl ”no-balls” at specific times by an illegal bookmaker. Yet what is tragically missed in the controversy is  young bowler sensation, Mohammad Amir’s depressing predicament. A lack of support network, unity and leadership results in a promising 18 year old boy’s career seemingly destroyed or in doubt. How can an 18 year old be blamed for the disgraceful situation Pakistan and world cricket is in? While everyone needs to take responsibility for their actions, the blame should be focused more on the Pakistan Cricket Board and senior players’ inability to educate and lead young impressionable players like Amir in a responsible and dilligent manner. The never-ending controversy in cricket continues.

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