That’s what it’s all about

IMGP0294_100I’ve not played cricket since I was at school, 50 years ago. Even then no one actually taught us to play. In the summer, when cricket was de rigueur (much to the PE teacher’s disgust – he was very much a footy man) we were simply sent out to play cricket during weekly games lessons. I suppose it was assumed that English boys knew from the cradle how to hold a bat and place their fingers along the seam of the ball – as indeed we did. But I don’t remember anyone ever explaining the intricacies of the lbw rule, for instance, or growling at us to “ground your bat”. And certainly no one would have dreamed of sitting us down to listen to an explanation of “what cricket is about”. That was a great pity because I am by nature someone who needs a general synthesis before plunging into details. Not just cup-hooks for cups but “What is a kitchen?” If I’d stayed in England, I might have turned to cricket in my 40s and 50s, but there was no chance of that happening in Germany and France, where I spent most of my working life. My interest in cricket crystallised as retirement drew near and Internet streaming became available. So I’m an armchair spectator and my knowledge, such as it is, has been acquired by listening to the likes of Hussein, Atherton, Chappel and Holding as they expound on the subtleties of what’s happening out in the middle.

Watching an England team being comprehensively mauled by the Australians has not been a pleasant experience, and more than once I told myself I’d be better off spending my nights sleeping. But I was drawn to the cricket like a moth to the candle, always hoping the moth would become a bee and the candle a honeypot. Now, like everyone else, I ask myself what went wrong.

As ever, there was a certain amount of bad luck, as Mike Selvey points out here:

Once they got beaten in Brisbane it was always going to be difficult to come back, because that was such an overwhelming victory [for Australia] after having been in a difficult position on the first day. England bowled very well at them in the first innings in Brisbane. To come back from that was quite remarkable. There were elements too that compounded, which couldn’t be legislated for; Alastair Cook’s back going early on in the tour. Michael Carberry, who was a reserve on the tour, got in and got some runs. Carberry had to play. Gary Ballance didn’t get a game where he could have gotten a game where Joe Root got dropped down the order. You had Steven Finn, an integral part of the attack, who couldn’t bowl a ball in the same post code twice. You had Jonathan Trott going home. It just compounded. It rains in the warm-up matches. Everything that could go wrong seemed to go wrong.

But there was much more to it than that of course. Selvey also points out that it wasn’t just a matter of fragile England batsmen succumbing to the unfamiliar pace of an on-song Mitchel Johnson. By and large the top-order batsmen handled him pretty well, but time and again he went through the tail like shit through a goose, speedily eliminating the chance of an extra 50-60 runs to boost a flagging total. No, the England batsmen were pinned down by the relentlessly accurate bowling of Siddle, Harris and Lyon which inevitably led to rash strokes – and wickets.

I think you also have to take into account the ruthlessly forensic nature of modern Test cricket. Carberry is a case in point (thanks to Hussein for this). At the age of 36 he was brought in on the strength of his form in county cricket and that was a perfectly reasonable choice – what can you judge a batsman on if it’s not run-scoring? At first he looked pretty good: 40, 0, 60, 14. That’s a decent start for a Test debutant. But he couldn’t get the big scores (43, 31, 38) and it didn’t take the Australian back-room boys long to work out that he was vulnerable to the ball from round the wicket swinging across him: 12, 0.  He made 43 in his last innings – a sign that he was learning to adjust? We might never get the chance to find out. But whether it’s Carberry or Cook going through the line with his head or Trott with his bat stuck behind his pad or Bell spooning it up to short cover, the analysts spotted the weakness and the Australian bowlers were good enough to exploit it. The England bowlers weren’t up to it.

On this showing, Anderson might be past his best, Broad approaching his. Bresnan – again, on this showing – doesn’t have the pace (which we knew) or the consistency. Rankin trundled his great frame up to the wicket like a mediaeval siege engine only to lob the ball down at barely 80mph – too short, too full or too wide. At least Stokes appears to have some fire in his belly but he doesn’t yet have the control. As for Swann, who can imagine anything more ruthless (that word again) than the way Haddin and Warner put an end to his career?

Yet the England bowling was frequently good enough to destabilise Australia’s (reputedly) fragile top-order batsmen and on at least two occasions England got themselves into positions from which they had a more than even chance of winning, only to throw it all away through duff fielding. I’m not talking about the occasional fumble but the number of catches they put down – three in one session on the second day of the second Test! For the team that was reckoned to be the best fielding side in the world a year ago, that was to say the least disappointing. Then again, fielders can only field where the captain puts them and Cook’s placings went from odd to puzzling to mysterious to downright ridiculous. In my book he was entirely responsible for letting the fourth Test get away from England: at the start of day 3 Australia were nine down and 91 first innings runs behind – a time to attack if ever there was. But instead of going at them hard to get that remaining wicket, Cook pulled his field back, the batsmen scored ones and twos at will and knocked up 40 in nine overs. They were still 50 behind, sure, but they’d wrested back the initiative. Selvey makes the interesting point that while Tendulkar was undoubtedly India’s star batsman, he wasn’t captain for long…

Australia’s fielding, on the other hand, has gone from excellent to spectacularly good. In fact during the third ODI it was nothing short of miraculous. I’m thinking of Warner’s throw to run-out Bell from halfway to the boundary with a single stump to aim at. Or Clarke’s astounding catch at square leg to dismiss Stokes off a full-blooded sweep shot right out of the middle – diving full-length to his right, one-handed, two inches off the ground. I’ve seen it several times and I still don’t believe it!

That third ODI really summed it all up. For the English batsmen out in the middle it must have seemed as though all hell had been let loose. It was evident, even on TV, that the Australians were all up for it – each and every one of them wanted to take a catch, stop a four, provoke a run-out or just pressure the batsman by attacking the ball and preventing a second run. It wasn’t just bat against ball, like we used to play at school – the batsman was up against the combined hostility of a whole team, eleven against one. That’s what cricket is about and it was wonderful to behold.

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