Sunday, 2 December 2012

The Stories of Test Cricket

Test cricket, at the heart of the game, is about narratives. We who love this form of the game tend to romanticise it, and this leads to incredible stories and epic tales. The plot of a test twists and turns, much like a good book, and at the end of a good test match, the story is resolved in a satisfying manner. Context is important too, a test match can be a continuation of a theme or a turning point.

Over the last few weeks, there have been multiple test matches which fans will be talking about for years. Classic matches where the advantage swung back and forth, where dreams were realised and shattered, where commentators didn’t have to grasp at superlatives to hype up the games. The significance of a period of test cricket like this, even a brief one, is important. It is times like this that will bring fans back home to the purist’s game.

Those with an understanding of test cricket know that the result is not always the most important outcome of a match. It is how the teams got to the result that matters. Take for example a draw between South Africa and Australia. Nothing to write home about there. But what if you consider that South Africa had to bat an entire day, with only six wickets in hand, just to save a match? The name Faf du Plessis was not widely known before this match, in fact, it was his debut test match. Now, he has not only a name, but a legend. South Africa owe the fact that they remain number 1 in the world to him. Every good story needs a hero, even one with an unlikely name like Faf.

 A triumph against the odds is a template that many great stories are based on. That could easily be applied to England’s recent win in India. Make no mistake, England have been terrible in the subcontinent over the past few years. After being predictably thrashed in the first test, hopes were not high for the second. It took redemptive performances from two players who have been ridiculed and mocked throughout their careers, KP and Monty Panesar, for England to score an upset in Mumbai. Now the series is 1-1, and with two matches to go there is everything to play for. This tale still has a few plot twists coming.

Sometimes characters off the field will appear in stories about test cricket. Martin Crowe made his return recently, not with the bat but with the pen. He wrote a fierce call to arms to the New Zealand team, in the wake of arguably their worst day of cricket in recent years. His intervention, like a ghostly Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars, seemed to provide the impetus for the Kiwis to start believing in themselves. Like England, New Zealand are rubbish on the subcontinent. Who though will ever be able to forget Taylor and Williamson grinding out the first day, followed by Southee and Boult tearing into the aging Sri Lankan batting order? It was a triumph of youth over experience, and about as unlikely as David defeating Goliath. Kiwi fans, so often starved of good news, are already comparing this win with not only Hobart last year, but other memorable test wins across history.

Sometimes the story is one we’ve heard before. Bangladesh are adept at turning good positions into defeats, and they managed this in spectacular style against the West Indies. After doing absolutely everything to get the upper hand in Dhaka, they somehow managed to let it slip away. Another debutant, Sohag Gazi, bowled the match of his life to set up a chance to win a rare test victory. As is so often the case with Bangladesh, the batsmen were the villains of this tale. The target was 245, tough, but considering how hard they had to work to get there, heartbreaking not to reach. Let’s hope this story doesn’t keep repeating itself.

Finally, every tale ends with an epilogue. We are currently witnessing the end of one of the great test players, Ricky Ponting. How fitting that his career, which has had so many challenges, should end against the best team in the world. Ponting has done everything, in cricketing terms he has lived a very full life. From fighting personal demons in his youth, to regaining the Ashes in the later years of his career, he has been the archetypal Aussie battler. He is also the last survivor from the great Australian team who conquered all before them, the last man who played with Warne, McGrath and the Waughs still standing. His retirement brings to an end the epic saga of the greatest test team to ever tour the world.

The nature of test cricket lends itself perfectly to narratives like this. How else can we understand a game that takes a week to complete? After matches like what we have recently seen, it is clear test cricket doesn’t need to be revived. It already is alive and well. Here’s to many more great tales, yet to be told. 

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Obscure Cricket Series Review

One of the most fascinating and crucial series happening this year will also likely be one of the most overlooked. Currently, India A is 1-0 up over the West Indies A side, in a battle that could go a long way to shaping the test sides of both nations for many years. As you may have noticed, neither the West Indies, nor India, have particularly strong test sides at present. There are spots up for grabs, particularly if you are a hungry young batsman. There will be three unofficial tests played over the A series, and so far a few batsmen have put their noses in front.

The case of India’s test team is particularly pressing. Their next test series may be against lowly New Zealand in August, however, there is at least one spot that needs to be filled immediately. Actually, to call it a spot doesn’t quite do it justice. Somebody is going to have to step into the giant shoes of Rahul Dravid. Somehow, after being the only batsman to do anything of note in the dismal tour to England, he decided that it was him who had to retire. Laxman and Tendulkar though must be feeling the breath of Father Time on the backs of their necks, which means that the entire middle order is up for grabs to any Indian batsman willing to put in the work.

Who then are the contenders? So far on the A tour there have been two batsmen who have made their presence known. Firstly Rohit Sharma, who was shamefully overlooked for the entire Australian test series, bashed 94 in the first innings of the first match. That will go a long way towards nicking Laxman’s spot, as it was scored from number 5. He will need to keep the pressure on though, or else he might continue to be ignored. The other fellow in contention is Cheteshwar Pujara. He is the skipper of the A team, and more importantly, was the sole reason India A managed to win the first game. In the first innings he scored a creditable 50, but in the second he made 96 not out to drag his team over the line. India A won by 2 wickets, and the next highest score was 27. That shows the sort of mental toughness that the Indian batting lineup will lack in the post-Dravid world.

There are a few other contenders too, Suresh Raina, Ajinkya Rahane, even Subraminiam Badrinath could make a return. Raina has experience in Tests, however after 15 matches only averages 29.58. Rahane had a stunning IPL, often playing very technically good cricket. He is however yet to make his test debut, and has somewhat underachieved in his international outings. Badrinath is a sad case, a good player who will probably be considered on the wrong side of 30. While he might have a first class average of 60 over 104 matches, every outing in Indian blue, or white, has ended in disaster. He has probably lost his only chance after failing against South Africa in 2010. There is also the small possibility that Yuvraj Singh may return one day, provided his health improves.  

So what path should India take? For my money, a huge cleanout needs to happen, and soon. Dravid is gone, Laxman has been awful in recent times and Tendulkar is just not the batsman he once was. If I were selecting the team to play against the Black Caps, I would have Pujara at 3, Kohli at 4, Sharma at 5 and Raina at 6. Out of those four batsmen, there also has to be a future captain emerging, as Dhoni cannot hang on forever if results don’t improve. Very few captains survive two whitewashes in a row.

The West Indies is also a very interesting case, partly because in almost every recent test, the batting has been disastrous. In this instance it is a case of no young players nailing down a spot, while the old guard (and by that I mean Chanderpaul) continue to grind out the runs. Marlon Samuels has been a revelation on his return, however he is known for inconsistency, so it may not last. Overall though, the next generation of Barath, Powell, Edwards, Braithwaite and Darren Bravo have failed to stamp their mark on the batting order. All play in the top 4, and while it may be great having Chanderpaul and Samuels scoring heavily from 5 and 6, it is somewhat pointless if they come in at 60-4.

In the first unofficial test, most of the runs for West Indies A came from the lower order, and not enough runs in general were scored. 19 year old Braithwaite may be just ahead of the pack, after he scored a torturously slow 50 in the first match. Moreover, he batted the entire first day of the second match to go to 66 overnight, off a titanic 292 balls. Such feats of endurance will endear him to the selectors, and he may well find himself partnering a certain IPL superstar at the top of the West Indies order in their next series. However, the only reason he is playing for the A team is because he got dropped from the Test team after averaging 21 from 9 games.

Each nation may have a problem the opposite of the other, with the Indian old guard failing to fire, and the West Indian seniors being the only ones firing. However, the roots of both problems are the same. Not enough runs are being scored by the batsmen for either side, and it is costing the team one Test after another. The losing streaks for both sides are starting to look very bad, especially for the former no.1, India. Batsmen who perform well in the A series should be given a shot at higher honours, because lets face it, they can’t do any worse than the current lot. Therefore, you should keep an eye on this series. It may tell you all you need to know about the future of each nation’s Test sides. 

Thursday, 31 May 2012

Pay Perry Properly

One of the finest athletes in the world currently is Australian dual international Ellyse Perry. She has represented her country at both the cricket and football world cups, and is a mere 21 years old. She is roughly comparable to Kiwi Sophie Devine*, a dual cricket/hockey international, only better.

Perry has recently quit her football club in Canberra because they were demanding she commit to football full time. However, in a telling remark from leading Australian footballer Melissa Barbieri, women's football coaches "want their players to be more professional, without the professional means." Essentially the point is that a woman cannot get a decent paycheck for being a star athlete, even in sports as popular as cricket or football. Equal pay? A top female cricketer or footballer would be lucky to earn 10% of a male counterpart.

This is a golden opportunity for women's cricket to secure the services of one of the brightest prospects in the game. Imagine a cricketer who had a one day bowling average of 21.97 after 47 games, with a batting average of 19.47. Such a player would command huge sums in the IPL, as well as a lucrative central contract with their national board, as well as huge endorsement deals, provided they had a penis. Alas, the player with these stats is Elysse Perry, so even though she is clearly an incredibly talented athlete, neither code is willing to offer her the sort of money required to secure her services full time.

* A quick aside about Devine, I had the misfortune of facing her a few times in matches. She bowled faster than anyone I had ever faced when I was 12, and let me tell you, when you are pissing yourself at the thought of being hit by a thunderbolt like that, you forget you are facing a girl pretty fast. She was well known around junior and high school cricket as being a destroyer of batsmen, especially the macho types. It was quite funny in hindsight remembering square jawed jocks swaggering out to the wicket and slinking back soon after, if they were lucky with only a bruised ego.

Sunday, 15 April 2012

SBW - Not worth it eh

So Sonny Bill Williams has been made an offer by the NZRU. No doubt, it is an incredibly generous offer, packed with endorsement deals, opportunities to box and lasting only one year. Frankly, I don't see why they bother.

The NZRU is not doing well financially. This is abundantly clear, given the number of provincial sides in debt, as well as reports which suggest their cash reserves will not last many more years. Since the professional era began, player salaries have been inflated further and further, and it is starting to cost the national game dearly. I am not a critic of professionalism, players deserve to be paid for what is essentially a full time job.

However, are we forgetting something crucial about the All Blacks in the rush to sign a star like Sonny Bill? The black jersey is bigger than any one player, even bigger than any one successful, Cup winning team. There is history in the jersey. There is mana in the jersey. It is an insult to that jersey to have selfish players wearing it. What will that jersey lose if it becomes just another well marketed brand?

Furthermore, is SBW even worth the hype? He is blessed with the most gifted agent of his generation, the ruthless Khoder Nasser. Is it possible that the vast majority of the positive media coverage of SBW comes straight from the press releases of this gifted hype builder? Looking at the facts, he barely started a game in the World Cup. He is not a part of the Smith-Nonu partnership, the undisputed kings of the midfield. We have quicker wingers than SBW. Hell, he isn't even the best midfielder at the Chiefs, that would be Kahui. For that matter, this weekend was the first time he has scored all season. There is a veritable production line of talented backs coming through the ranks, wouldn't they be equally worthy of investment as players?

Lastly, Sonny Bill Williams has not given the All Black jersey the respect it deserves. To be an All Black, you should make that goal your life. Williams clearly does not think this way. To him, the All Blacks are just another team to flit through on his way to bigger paydays. Remember the Bulldogs? He skipped out on them with time left on his contract. That is exactly what will happen with the All Blacks. In my view, the NZRU should pre-empt this and offer him a bog standard contract, with no frills that wouldn't be offered to say, Cory Jane or Colin Slade. If he takes that contract, then I would eat my words willingly, because it would be a sign that he takes the All Blacks seriously enough to consider turning down vast amounts of money just for the Black jersey. My guess though is that he would spurn the offer on the advice of his manager and chase the dollars somewhere else.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

The tail wags

Australia have just shown yet again why they are such a formidable test side, after completely reversing their situation on Day 4 in Bridgetown. The West Indies were in control at one stage, with Australia 7 wickets down and behind by 199. However the tail of Harris, Hilfenhaus and Lyon combined to drag the Aussies back into the match. When the 7th wicket went down, Australia were on 250. 156 runs and two wickets later they were in a strong enough position to declare. What happened?

The answer is the grit shown by the bowlers, who cannot be expected to survive and score runs but did anyway. Australia has a bit of a knack for doing this, and many explanations for why revolve around the Australian reputation for being fighters. In this current test, all of their bowlers average over 10. The value of these runs is hard to overstate. While they are not the most significant contributions to the scoreboard, their contribution to team morale (and the sapping of the opposition's morale) is unquestionable. For a bowler it must be agonising to get through the middle order of Ponting, Clarke and Hussey, be in a position to secure a huge lead and then have it slip away thanks to bowlers scoring annoying runs. We can't know for certain of course, but I would be willing to bet that the West Indies collapse in their second innings had a lot to do with the bowlers being confident after making runs, and the batsmen being dispirited after being kept in the field for an extra 45 overs.

A team with a reputation for lower order runs is very hard to put away. New Zealand no longer enjoys this reputation. When Vettori used to bat at 8 there was always the strong possibility of an extra 100 runs being made in the last 4 partnerships, now that we have the likes of Southee and Bracewell propping up the lower order there is no such fear. Southee can smash the ball a long way, but he is yet to play a single mature innings. Bracewell can stick around for a while, but struggles to keep the score ticking over. They are each a negative stereotype of tail end batting, the slogger and the prodder. With regular lower order contributions, perhaps New Zealand would start to win tests more often.

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

It's not OK

A wonderful petition has been started by an Australian league fan, calling on the NRL to ban any player found guilty of domestic violence for a season. You can sign it here. There are excellent reasons for this petition to be signed, not least because rugby league as a sport has a long history of off-field assualts, rapes and violence. There are of course players who conduct themselves well off the field, however those who commit violent offences should absolutely be singled out and punished.

Let us face facts, professional rugby league players are massive, aggressive young men. Their job is to attempt to run a ball through a line of 13 other massive aggressive young men, using pretty much any means necessary. There must be systems in place to show them that that sort of behaviour is completely unacceptable off the field, against anyone. Of course, there are those that argue that sports like league and rugby are breeding grounds for monsters, but I don't subscribe to that view. In general, rugby league players do not assault or rape. Those that do should not be welcome back on the field.

I would suggest that this petition be widened to include all sports, not just the NRL. Why ban sportspeople for smoking a joint when they don't get banned for a real crime?

Monday, 2 April 2012

Gambling with his reputation

The Prime Minister has asserted that an increase in gambling problems will not be one of the consequences of the deal with SkyCity casino. This is despite the fact that the Problem Gambling Foundation has estimated that every 10 new pokie machines contribute to 8 new gambling addictions. Between John Key and the Problem Gambling Foundation, which party is more likely to have researched this issue in depth and have full possession of all the facts? My money is on the Foundation. (no pun intended)

The SkyCity deal will allow the casino to install up to 500 new pokie machines, so we have to assume that this deal will directly contribute to hundreds of gambling addictions. Is this a price that John Key really wants to attach himself to?