Sport

Breaking the shackles

 

The lights, the chatter, the music and even the coach’s voice fazes out of Andi Hofer’s consciousness as he steps up to the horizontal bar. Amidst the silence forged in Hofer’s mind, there lingers an entrenched voice that demands his attention.

Hofer’s Husker gymnastics teammates and parents are not the voices that circle him. The voice of self-doubt consumes him. Self-doubt eats at his very core until he finds a way to shrug it off.

Hofer stands upright to the bar and stares down the task at hand. What’s the task? The judges expect perfection. A few flips, twists and jolts on the horizontal bar without hesitation and stiffness. Yet, his challenge begins before he swings on the bar or twists on the pommel horse. His challenge begins in a little complex thing called the mind.

***

Overcoming adversity is nothing new for German native Andi Hofer. Gymnastics can physically and mentally overwhelm combatants. Dislocated shoulders, ligament tears and fractured bones are a way of life for gymnasts. Already, Hofer, 24 and a senior at University of Nebraska-Lincoln has endured five significant injuries. In all five knee, foot, shoulder and elbow he found a way to overcome them. Yet, one injury lingered that was not always visible to his coach’s, family’s or close friends’ eyes. Throughout his junior career, his fear of failure plagued his mind and his performance. The fear of failure is a motivating tool for some athletes but for Hofer, there was nothing worse.

***

At the 2006 German National Championships, 19-year-old Hofer competed with the senior national team for the first time. He was no longer competing with boys.

Hofer who was club captain from the 1 Budeslinga League, the highest gymnastics league in Germany, walked to the gates of the competition arena. Hofer stood barrel-straight with his chest out, ready to explode into the arena. His eyes circled the packed arena as he strode on the competition floor with his teammates to warm up. Immediately, his posture slumped, his chest tightened and his muscles clenched. All eyes in the arena beamed directly at Hofer.

Or that’s how he felt. The raging crowd and the game-ready opposition drew one screaming thought from Hofer.

“Get me out of here!”

Hofer’s coach noticed the worry in his tense-looking face.

“What’s wrong with you, Andi?”

“Don’t know, coach,” replied Hofer.

Hofer’s generic line response did the trick. His coach accepted his answer and moved on to speak with another gymnast. As if a one-on-one psych-analysis was needed on one of the most important days of his gymnastic career. Any rev-up, even an Al inspired speech, wasn’t going to free Hofer’s mind.

He finished 13th overall. Not terrible for a gymnast competing in the seniors for the first time. Yet, statistics doesn’t always tell the whole story. Sometimes, as spectators, we must dig a little deeper than the bottom line.

Underlying Hofer’s performance was hesitation in his mind and body movements. Before every routine, he felt the walls closing and felt the crowd’s anticipation. He felt that little voice at the back of his head.

“It affected me. That competition stands out as an obvious moment where my mind let me down,” Hofer said.

The fear of failure consumed him.

***

In 2009, Hofer’s life and gymnastics career changed course. Hofer left his hometown of Heidelberg in Germany to become an international exchange student at University of Nebraska-Lincoln for one semester. His close friend, David Jacobs, an American, a self-proclaimed army brat and fellow Husker gymnast, recommended Hofer to apply for UNL.

Hofer arrived for the 2009 fall semester expecting the typical exchange student experience. Enjoy a different culture, learn the language, meet new people, preferably a blonde American girl and of course, go to a Husker football game at Memorial Stadium. These are the activities that international students look forward to when they come to UNL.

His plan was simple; attend an American college for four months. Make a few new friends. See an old friend. Then fly back home to Germany to complete his international business major. And of course, further pursue his gymnastics career.

He was so wrong.

A few workouts with a club team and heads began to turn. And bang. The Husker coaches liked what they saw and they offered Hofer a scholarship.

“I emailed my parents because I didn’t know how to take that,” Hofer said. “My parents said to take it. Take advantage of the scholarship for a year. If you like it then stay. If not, come back home.”

***

America was a new opportunity for Hofer. He packed his warmest clothes in anticipation for Nebraska’s notoriously cold winters and his fear. He arrived in Nebraska “scared of messing up” in competition.

Learning a new culture can open one’s eyes. It can break down political, social or religious barriers. For Hofer, embracing American culture did more than just improve his English or his understanding of American football, it strengthened his state of mind.

You don’t have to look any further than Lebron James, Andy Roddick or Rex Ryan to understand how large a factor self-assured confidence plays in the American sporting landscape.

“The mentality that Americans have. They are proud of what they are doing and what they have,” Hofer said.

During training sessions and meets, he would observe how every competitor moved and talked. He paid particular attention to the way his close friend, David Jacobs, would perform at meets. Chest out, head high and a keen willingness to throw himself at every routine.

Jacobs is the polar opposite athlete of Hofer, as Hofer sees things. Jacobs possesses no self-doubt. Confidence has “never been a problem” for him, Hofer explains.

Jacobs noticed Hofer’s transformation as a gymnast in just Hofer’s first season with the Huskers.

“The way he competed in Germany to the way he competed here, there is nearly no comparison,” Jacobs said.

***

As the 2011-2012 gymnastics season draws near, Hofer sets his sights on that first day of competition at Colorado Springs. There’s nothing quite like that first meet for Hofer, the lights, the crowd, the music and Coach Chuck Chmelka’s pre-game talk.  When the sound drowns out and Andi Hofer turns to face the judges for the first time this season, his shackles will be freed.

 

 

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 end

So it finally seems the Fev-show has closed for business on Australian shores. Perhaps the showman has seen his last days as an AFL footballer and will now pursue a lucrative deal in the NFL. For the last decade Fevola has simultaneously thrilled and disappointed, appauled and inspired. Not many players can boast such a contradictory reputation.

For all of Fev’s childish antics, his health should remain the number one concern. Yet, not necessarily a major concern for the Brisbane football club. In hindsight, Michael Voss and his wise team made the blunder of the century in believing that Fev would carry more fruits than a loyal good-citizen in Daniel Bradshaw. The Lions owe no loyalty to Brendan. As Fevola very well knows, a punt doesn’t always come off. Sometimes it is sensible to move on and forget.

How should Fevola be remembered? Should he be hailed as a flawed champion? A game-breaker? Or should he just be described as another footballer who toiled with us and ultimately wasted our time- a “waste of talent”?

He is in-fact all these things. Fevola was like four seasons in one match- hot, cold, cold… and hot again. How many times did we hear gleeful Carlton supporters say,”If Fevola turns it on we are within a shot”. His departure from the Navy Blues divided the Carlton tribe and the footballing world in general.

Fevola’s seemingly finished career is not a tragedy but a disappointment. Fevola was more than an entertainer. He was a showman in the truest sense. He wasn’t a part of the act but was the act that we all paid to see on a wintery Melbourne night. Like the great Matthew Richardson, we felt like we intimately knew and understood Fevola when he was out on the footy field. His erratic childish dramas was just part of the Fev charm. He could suck you in and spit you right out in just two hours of footy.

A controversial exit for a sportsman is not new and never will be. In the near future, another frustrating and lovable sportsman will be terminated abruptly from their sport. Would he or she be casted as a “wasted talent”?

Most definitely.

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.

Collingwood 2010 Premiers

On that one day in October, Collingwood storm home to claim the 2010 Premiership Cup.

After a dramatic and intense finish last week, Collingwood simply outgunned and outran a tired looking St. Kilda outfit.

Collingwood’s performance typified a ‘team effort’. Every player played their part. From Nathan Brown’s blanketing job on Nick Riewoldt to Dale Thomas’ extraordinary work rate, the pies dominated from start to finish.

This year’s Grand Final was always going to end in tears. For the long suffering and starved of success St. Kilda supporters, a premiership will remain a dream.

For Collingwood, there were winners all over the ground. Darren Jolly rightfully took advantage of a young Ben Mcevoy. Gardiner was a telling exclusion from the Saints’ line-up. Scott Pendelbury was his silky best, winning clearances and setting up play from the clinches. Always seems to have ample of time. While, he was a worthy Norm Smith medalist, Dale Thomas was stiff to miss out. Once again he backed up a superb Grand Final last week with another hard working and classy performance. Thomas’ ability to spread from the packs proved too much for a slow looking St. Kilda midfield.

On the other side of the fence, there will be some sore and sorry bodies tomorrow morning. Sadly for the Saints, the season was one game too many. Questions marks over players fitness seemed answered. Jason Gram struggled to generate run and was restricted to a stationary defensive role due to obvious injury.

Brendan Goddard in a loosing side was simply inspiring and courageous. Not only has he reaffirmed his position as an elite player in the game, he now poses a strong case as the best player in the league. In both Grand Finals he was the most influential player on the ground. His flexibility around the ground and the ability to raise his game to another level in clutch moments makes him the best player in the AFL. The brilliant Goddard, the never say die attitude of Lenny Hayes, Sam Fisher (before injury), Nick Dal Santo, James Gwilt, Clinton Jones and Sam Gilbert all tired hard for St. Kilda.

At the end of the day, Collingwood had far too many players who contributed. While, the Saints had few. Eddy, Peake, Dempster, Mcqualter and Mcevoy never fired a shot. These players are the Saints’ bottom five players. The Saints’ required significantly more effort and composure from them. Quiet simply, along with Milne, they were pathetic.

Under the leadership of Eddie Maguire, Mick Malthouse and eventually Nathan Buckley, the Pies’ juggernaut seems destined for more ultimate success. The team is still young and has plenty more improvement left.

Like Geelong, Collingwood’s full court press and impressive ability to spread and run in huge numbers will once again be imitated from the opposition.

Another season over. Another team crowned Premiers and another losers. But only this time their are more disgruntled loosers then winners.

Beware.

The Collingwood army is out in force.

My best:

Collingwood: Dale Thomas, Scott Pendlebury, Nathan Brown, Nick Maxwell, Darren Jolly, Steele Sidebottom, Heath Shaw, Sharrod Wellingham, Dane Swan.

St. Kilda: Brendan Goddard, Dal Santo, Gilbert, Gwilt, Jones

Who has the advantage?

The drawn Grand Final digs up an important question. Who goes into this weekend’s Grand Final replay with the advantage?

Collingwood and St. Kilda both have claims of “they should have won it”.

If Travis Cloke had the polish and class to convert his two missed opportunities late in the second quarter, the game would have been shot and the Saints’ fate marked.

If Milne had chased down Lenny Hayes’ kick before the ball rushed over for a behind, the Saints’ 44 year premiership drought would had been broken.

There are countless “what ifs”, but both sides will now be moving on and looking optimistically at their chances this week.

One would suspect St. Kilda will have the psychological edge over Collingwood because of their brave fight back and individual duels won.

While, Collingwood should be more physically fresh then the Saints. Mick Malthouse has rested players throughout the year with consistent rotation of players coming in the side and out. Also, the Pies’ team is considerably younger than the Saints and don’t seem to have the same amount of question marks over players’ fitness.

Jason Gram and Nick Dal Santo are clearly carrying injuries. Both players are crucial to St. Kilda’s ability to penetrate and run through Collingwood’s pressing zone.

What is the better advantage to have? The psychological or physical?

Time will tell.

Review: Collingwood vs St. Kilda

The game ended as it started. Scores level. Still waiting for a result. Yesterday’s epic Grand Final between two desperate and willing sides came to an anti-climatic end. For now.

At the same time and same venue, part two will commence and this time a result is guaranteed.

The drawn result mirrors St. Kilda’s year of controversy and drama. The Saints have proven their ability all year to combat controversies on and off the field. They now have one final hurdle to climb over.

As expected the Pies’ jumped too a wonderful start. They were full of run and carry and were able to play the first half largely on their terms. Yet, the Saints were able to hang in the game at the half, courteous of Travis Cloke’s woeful kicking at goal. His late two blunders at goal provided the Saints with a sniff.

In the first half, Daisy Thomas typified Collingwood’s dominance with his ability to break the lines and deliver effectively in the forward line. What was more impressive was his work rate off the ball. His ferocious harassment on the opposition player with the ball was a highlight in his wonderful performance. Furthermore, the General Nick Maxwell patrolled the back-line and made the swooping half-back role his for the day. He cut off many attacks from St. Kilda and limited Saint Nick’s influence in the attacking 50.

Lenny Hayes’ superior work-rate in the packs and Sam Fisher’s telling marks in defence, kept the Saints alive as they went into the main break.

As the old saying goes, “the third quarter is the premiership quarter”. This was certainly the case at the G’. Coach Ross Lyon swung Sam Gilbert to the forward line. This moved proved vital. Gilbert converted a goal, pressured and presented well. Brendan Goddard went to a whole new level and managed to swing the momentum St. Kilda’s way. Goddard’s penetrating kick, run and the ability to win the crucial contest suddenly saw Collingwood on the back foot. Hayes also lifted to another level. His Norm Smith performance only highlights the absurdity of his non-selection in the All-Australlian team. Yesterday, Hayes possessed the rare herculean quality of willing himself on the contest like no other. Hayes’ in and under work was inspiring. At three quarter time, the Pies were holding on by a goal.

The last quarter was just as enthralling. At every contest, players were throwing themselves at the ball trying to win an advantage for their team. Neither team were willing to concede ground. Daisy Thomas continued to work at an astonishing level and Nick Maxwell with his chest puffed out continued to lead with vigour and determination. Neon Leon was once again no where to be seen throughout the day but manage to bob up and snare one. Nathan Brown for Collingwood performed an honourable job on Skipper Nick Riewoldt. Dane Swan was restricted in the second half in a gritty duel with Clinton Jones and later, Farren Ray. The under-rated “tagger”, Clint Jones, rushed Swan’s disposal but struggled to keep pace with his gut-running. While, Swan played his part for the Pies, particularly in the first half, Ray managed to take the honours in the second half.

Goddard once again loomed dangerous and nearly won the game for the Saints. Goddard’s “hanger” in the forward line typified the effect he was having on the game. It seemed that Hayes and Goddard just carried their team-mates on their backs and said follow us.

Sadly, every supporter and casual observer at the game or watching elsewhere were left stunned at the final siren. Except for the AFL who surely will cash in with two Grand Finals in two weeks.

Both teams fought bravely for two hours for an unjustified drawn result.

Collingwood and St. Kilda will now have to start all over, and come back next Saturday afternoon for another physical and emotional marathon.

Cancel your holidays and Saturday afternoon sport. Another emotional roller coaster is coming our way.

Grand Final preview: Collingwood vs St. Kilda

The Collingwood Football Club storm into Saturdays Grand Final as raging favourites.

The St. Kilda Football Club enter the game as underdogs, yet with a quiet confidence and an unshakable belief.

Both teams managed to conqueror the mighty Cats, which make them both worthy Grand Finalists.

Mick Malthouse tasted the bitterness of two Grand Final defeats at the start of the Millennium. Can he finally deliver the Collingwood faithful a Premiership?

Ross Lyon and his men tasted the most sour of defeats just one year ago. Will the hurt drive Lyon’s men to victory and deliver the Saints their second Premiership in their club history?

The game will be won or lost in the middle.

If St. Kilda can win the stoppages and get first hands on the ball, they can then control the tempo of the game. The Pies’ “full press” game is most suited against a team like Geelong who try to play on at all costs. But the Saints have the ability to slow a game down and play keepings off, and also have the courage to take the game on. Last week, Geelong failed to react to Collingwood’s unrelenting tackling and consistent smothering. The Saints like to play a stoppage game to strangle the opposition but as shown against the Bulldogs in the third quarter, they can also slam home seven goals in a quarter. Therefore, the Saints have the armoury to play with the tempo of the game and keep the Pies out of rhythm.

For the Saints to control the speed of the game, Lenny Hayes must get on top in the stoppages by doing what he does best, burrowing in the packs. He undoubtedly is the motor that keeps “Saints footy” moving.

The much maligned Justin Koschitzke looms crucial for the Saints’ chances. He won’t be a match winner or the “go to man” in the forward line but what he can do is give Nick Riewoldt a one-out opportunity close to goal. If Kozi can clunk a few early and maybe kick 1 or 2, then he will draw the third-man-up, normally Nick Maxwell, away from Saint Nick and force Collingwood to be accountable. If he succeeds, there isn’t any backman who can stop Saint Nick one on one.

On the counter-side, Alan Didak and Darren Jolly are integral to Collingwood’s premiership chances. Jolly’s first class tap work and ability to get around the ground will reduce the chances of St. Kilda controlling the tempo. If he can give Dane Swan and Scott Pendlebury first crack at the ball, then the Pies’ overwhelming runners roaming forward may be just too much for the Saints. Finally, there is the magical and captivating Didak. He has been questioned in previous years for his ability to perform on the big stage. He has proven his doubters wrong in this final series so far. If he causes havoc in the forward line and then push up in the middle and creates from there, he is then the most influential player for Collingwood. St. Kilda must restrict him.

The outcome of this one day in September will be awfully painful for some and overwhelmingly joyous for others. Pending if Collingwood prove victorious, there may be more than just St. Kilda supporters upset and ready to flee. It may just be the longest summer yet.

The contest will be mouth-watering. By Saturday 5pm, a new team will be crowned Premiers.

On the back of St. Kilda’s path to redemption and the leadership of Hayes and Saint Nick, the Saints by the most fractional of margins.

Saints by 3 points.

Brownlow Medal shock

On footy’s night of nights, Dane Swan… no he didn’t win. The little Champ Gary Ablett fell short. Hodge struggled to poll and even Adam Goodes, the perennial vote getter, wasn’t to be seen in the major vote getters.

The 2010 Brownlow Medalist was Chris Judd. He is only the fourth player in history to win a Brownlow Medal at two different clubs.

Judd’s explosiveness and match winning ability was a feature to his game. But this year he has had an average year for his lofty standards. He has developed into a purely inside player who provides all the grunt work for the Carlton Football Club. His precision by foot has declined as a result.

Swan leaves the night empty handed but with the thought of a Premiership in mind. Ablett leaves with a ticket to the Gold Coast.

For the average punter and maybe even for the average player, the validity of this historic award must be questioned. The MVP award is slowly surpassing the Brownlow Medal.

To his credit, Chris Judd showed wonderful gratitude and, like us all, shock.

Collingwood march on

In front of a thunderous 95,000 crowd at the MCG, Collingwood stormed into the Grand FInal after a merciless victory over an ageing Geelong.

The final margin was 41 points but the Pies amassed a lead of nearly 80 points half through the third quarter. The first quarter by Collingwood was simply the best quarter of football played this season. The unrelenting pressure and tackling was taken to a whole new level against a Geelong team which looked second rate and seemingly without a plan B. Watching Geelong attempting to handball their way out of Collingwood’s ‘full court press’ was a sign of a great team coming to an end. Normally so clean and quick with their ball movement, Geelong turned the ball over and failed to adjust by slowing the game down. The cat’s game plan of playing on at any cost was exposed by a hungry and desperate Collingwood side.

Collingwood had stars all over the ground. Scott Pendlebury managed to find space and time and was just so damaging by foot and hand. Dane Swan continued his fine form by collecting over 30 touches and with his partner in crime, Alan Didak turning opponents inside out and playing the game on his terms, the Pies were just to slick and sadly for a mighty Geelong team, too good. Yet, the most valuable player on the ground when the game was there to be won was Captain Nick Maxwell. His ability to run off his man, read the play and provide support for his fellow defenders was inspirational. By quarter time, Mark Thompson moved Cameron Ling on to him, but by then it was too late, the damaged had been done.

While there were winners all over the ground for Collingwood, there were just too many passengers for Geelong. Tom Hawkins, Darren Milburn, Cameron Ling, Cameron Mooney, James Podsiadly and Brad Ottens were exposed at various stages last night. Hawkins looked lost in the ruck, actually the only time he looked likely was when he was sitting on the bench. Milburn has been a wonderful servant for the club but it seems the game has sadly passed him, he can only run in straight lines as his agility and youth is lost. The key forwards were woeful, Podsiadly’s inexperience on the big stage looked obvious while Cam Mooney failed too impose his physical presence on the game and as a senior player his performance was pathetic. Finally, Ottens lumbered over the ground and he too may need to consider his future.

Is Gazza off to the Gold Coast? Likely. After the game, Mark Thompson didn’t seem to hold much confidence in his little champ staying. While Ablett was guilty of over hand-balling (he wasn’t alone), he was Geelong’s best.

Colingwood’s march to glory continues. One more week. One more game. One more win. To win that Premiership Cup and break a 20 year premiership drought.

St Kilda vs Western Bulldogs

A year later, same teams, same venue and both teams playing for the same reward: a spot in the Grand Final.

St Kilda look to bury the nightmares of 2009.

Western Bulldogs look to defy the overwhelming odds of an unlikely victory over a team that denied them so cruelly of a Grand Final birth last year.

The Saints will go in as clear favourites. So they should. They look fresh from the week off and with the return of their Captain Nick Riewoldt, they should prove too strong for an undermanned Bulldogs side.

The Bulldogs showed great heart and determination to come from behind to defeat Sydney and keep Brad Johnson’s career alive. But to be honest, their victory was less than flattering. Sydney kicked 2.8 in the second half. Yet, the final scores never lie, the Bulldogs are through to a third consecutive Preliminary final. The first time in their club’s history.

One of the keys for the Bulldogs’ fortunes is the possible return of defender Dale Morris. Morris is the Bullies best shut down defender and crucial to their defensive setup. If he can prove his fitness, he will be able to free up Brian Lake. Without Adam Cooney, Ryan Griffen and to a lesser Robert Murphy are their only two midfielders who have the explosive speed to break the lines and worry the Saint’s midfield. If Griffin and Murphy can get off the leash, then expect a close contest at the MCG.

Nick Riewoldt, Brendan Goddard and Lenny Hayes loom as the major threat to the Bullies. With doubt over Lake’s fitness and the unlikely-hood of Morris’ return, Riewoldt, as always, is a huge concern for the Bulldogs’ defence. He torched Harry Taylor the other week with his unmatchable running ability and contested marking. Hayes is the motor in their midfield and Goddard is their General and playmaker. As Geelong showed in the second half in the first final, if you shut down Goddard you limit St Kilda’s transition from the back-line to the forward line.

Expect the Saints to be too slick and physical for an undermanned Western Bulldogs outfit.

St Kilda by 28 points.

Collingwood vs Geelong

The Champs verse the challengers. Friday night at the MCG with 90,000 spectators. The winner through to the Grand Final. Doesn’t get any better than that.

Collingwood have enjoyed the week off and some could argue Geelong had a week off as well with their training run against Fremantle.

This game will be won or lost in the forward line. Both forward lines are suspect, but if either can function and more importantly convert their opportunities than that will decide the result.

The key for the Cats is David Wojcinski’s and Travis Varcoe’s ability to break the lines. The usual suspects of Ablett, Selwood, Bartel and Chapman will lurk dangerous as always but what will give the cats an edge is the run and carry of Wojinski and Varcoe. In particular, Wojcinski showed against Fremantle how damaging his blistering pace can be. He was clearly best on ground against the Dockers.

The key for the Pies is Travis Cloke, Harry O’Brien and Alan Didak. If Cloke can get hold of Harry Taylor, clunk a few marks and convert in front of goal then Collingwood will be in the box seat. Further, O’Brien’s daring run out of the backline and Didak’s creative best will be crucial for the pies’ fortunes.

Its going to be a ripping contest. Collingwood are fresh and are in hot form while Geelong know what is required when it comes to the crunch.

Collingwood by 5 points.

Collywobbles

Everyone has their kryptonite.

For Mick Malthouse’s men it’s their goal kicking.

The inclusions of Luke Ball’s hardness and Darren Jolly’s first class tap work, the improvement of Sharrod Wellingham and surprisingly Leigh Brown has seen Collingwood finish at the top of the ladder and now primed to break their 20 year premiership drought. Yet doubt remains over their ability to finish off their hard work.

Watching Travis Cloke kicking at goal is like watching Rob Oakshott talk dribble for 30 minutes as he attempts to explain which party he supports. Its just painfull.

The positive for Collingwood is they continue to have ample shots at goal.

The negative. Come prelimary final or even Grand Final day, neither Geelong or St Kilda will allow their opposition the luxery of 30 to 40 scoring shots a game.

Collingwood’s goal-kicking may just cost them dearly when the stakes are at their highest.

The Fev Show

Brendan Fevola in trouble again, where to now for the controversial footballer?

The circus surrounding Brendan Fevola never seems to end. The latest allegation poses one blatant question: Why Fev, Why?

Whether or not he is guilty in his latest scandal, one just has to wonder why Fev continues to place himself in situations where he is open to boiling criticism from the media.

Fevola is a showman in its pure form. On the field he can do the near-impossible, kicking the most freakish of goals and on the other hand, he performs like he just waltzed out of the pub without the slightest of care.

Every person deserves a second chance but it seems Fevola may have run his race. Fevola’s future hangs in the balance. Once again.

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.

Who’s better: Geelong or Brisbane

As Geelong enter another finals campaign in search for their third Premiership, the question of who is better is an appropriate one. Geelong or the champion Brisbane Lions team of 2001-2004. As it stands the Lions won 3 premierships in 4 Grand Finals and today’s Cats have won 2 premierships in 3 Grand Finals. Geelong boast a superior winning percentage over the home and away seasons but Brisbane have won when it counts most.

Both back-lines and midfields have superstars across the board with class mixed with tough and uncompromising characters. The names of Max Rooke, the Scott brothers, Joel Selwood and Michael Voss all have toughness as their greatest trait.

At their peak, the Lions bullied opponents like no other with physical intimidation. The “Nick Riewoldt incident” typified Brisbane’s near innate ability to beat opponents into submission. Geelong intimidate opposition with their swift and devastating ball movement. Geelong have the ability like no other where they can pile on 5 goals in 10 minutes.

What divides these power house teams is simply the forward line. The Lions’ key position forwards are far superior to that of Geelongs’. Lynch and Jonathan Brown verse Cam Mooney and Tom Hawkins. Mooney provides Geelong with an honest effort with a ‘team’ first mentality. While Lynch had the ability to take a devastating mark and crash the packs that would leave opponents groggy long afterwards. Furthermore, big Jonathan Brown is a proven match winner with “Carey-like” ability to turn the game on his own. Geelong’s only classy forwards are their smalls; Steve Johnson and Paul Chapman. Yet Brisbane also had Jason Akermanis (Brownlow Medalist) who back in the early 2000’s, had wonderful speed and goal kicking ability.

Both sides will go down in history as the all time greats. The proof is in the pudding though, Brisbane by just.

Richmond season in review

The season promised nothing yet this young Richmond team delivered everything. After round 9, the Tigers were compared to the old dying Fitzroy team and were at extreme short odds to win ANOTHER wooden spoon. After round 22, the Tigers finished with 6 wins and plenty of renewed hope for long suffering Richmond supporters. The season included an exciting 2 month stretch where the tigers won 4 in a row and 5 of 8 games.

Jumping Jack Riewoldt enjoyed a wonderful break-out season, jumping out of ‘Saint Nick’s’ shadow with 78 goals and the Coleman Medal. The highlight for many was Jumping Jack’s bag of 10 against the insipid Eagles at the mighty G’. He was the first Tiger to kick 10 in a game since Matthew Richardson’s haul against the Bulldogs. Jack shows a real love for the Tiger faithful and more importantly, the direhard Tiger Army love for him. ‘Push-up’ King and Riewoldt have developed a cult following down at the Punt Road end.

Richmond have been accused of poor recruiting in the past, but this year it seems ‘Dimma’ Hardwick and his troops have plenty to work with. Dustin Martin showed strength and composure beyond his years with the best ‘don’t argue’ in the league. Along with gut running displayed by Ben Nason, Dave Astbury’s reading of the play, Mitch Farmer’s long kick, Ben Griffiths’ athleticism, Troy Taylor’s freakish yet raw ability and a host of other first year players, Richmond seem to be on the improve.

The most difficult stage in this young team’s development will be the leap from being a competitive team too a consistent finals team. Club CEO Brendan Gale’s bold plan of 3-0-75 seems to be oncourse. Richmond supporters should hope for finals appearances in 2012 and beyond at the earliest, as this very young and inexperienced team still have a long journey ahead. With the outstanding leadership of Coach Dimma Hardwick and Captain Chris Newman it seems things at Punt Road are finally on the up. Well lets hope so, its been 30 years since their last flag and with only 3 finals appearances since. The sleeping giant of the AFL may just be waking up.

Cousins’ farewell game

Ben Cousins was chaired off infront of 37,000 Richmond fans, fans who have forever been in search for a hero. In the last two years, ‘Cuz’ has been that hero for many suffering Tiger fans. At the end of 2007, he left West Coast with his reputation, career and life in shatters. At the end of 2010, he leaves the Richmond Football Club and the game with admiration and respect from the wider football community and in particular, the Tiger faithful who embraced him at his lowest ebb. Such ‘Tiger love’ is kept for Club champions like Jack Dyer and Matthew Richardson, yet Cuz’s contagious nature sees him sitting at the top with fellow Tiger greats with only 32 games played for the club. Whereas the West Coast Eagles collect their first wooden spoon and seem destined for more bleaks years ahead. Such is life.

Ben Cousins’ retirement

The controversial football champ’s retirement gave us all a timely and nostalgic reminder of ‘what could have been’. Where would Ben be today without a second chance? Where will ‘Cuz’ be in the future? Both questions will be answered in time, but what Cuz demonstrated today at his media conference was a strong sense of humility and appreciation for the second chance given to him by the Richmond Football Club. Sadly, it is a stark contrast to the outspoken and sacked-footballer Jason Akermanis, who continues to attack the club who once gave him a second chance at doing the thing he loves most- playing footy.

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.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s