Thursday, 27 August 2015

Ashes reflections

Thursday, 27 August 2015
This summer's Ashes series was, quite frankly, bizarre. It was a series with the closest of scorelines, but where all five matches were one-sided affairs often decided by the end of the first day. A series that made a mockery of the concept of momentum, the way those first three tests swung so dramatically back and forth. It was a series that won't go down in history as a classic, but that had many moments that will though live long in the memory.

Often it wasn't the highest quality of cricket, matches almost being decided by who was the least bad at the time. Batting from both sides often left a lot to be desired, perhaps having some link to the 'attacking brand of cricket' mantra, that buzz-phrase of the summer. Run rates were high, and innings could often be thrilling - but sides often flirted on the borderline between 'attacking', 'reckless', and 'downright stupidity'. When the positive attitude worked, it really worked. Picture Joe Root's innings on the first day in Cardiff, one of the defining moments of the series: 134 from 166 deliveries after England were 43/3, and very nearly four down after Root was dropped on nought. But picture too, Australia 60 all out at Trent Bridge - an innings when really few balls would have hit the stumps, crying out for someone prepared to leave the ball. The captain was perhaps the worst culprit, wildly swishing at the ball with his team already five down in the first six overs. Often there was the sort of batting that, when it came off, would be praised for an attacking approach - but could be easily criticised as foolish when it often failed.

Every match was one-sided. The first match was probably the one closest to a normal test: a first innings lead of just over 100, and no innings totals that were drastically high or low. But events of the test perhaps had the greatest ripple effect. There was the drop of Root - how would England have fared had they fallen to 43/4? There was the further humiliation of Shane Watson - two LBW decisions unsuccessfully reviewed, and doubt cast into the selectors' minds. It also went a long way to damage the aura surrounding Mitchell Johnson, who had so tormented England in the previous Ashes series. Johnson had his spells where he looked as threatening as ever - particularly as England crumbled at Lord's, and in dismissing Bairstow and Stokes in a single over at Edgbaston - but at Cardiff England won their first battle as he went wicketless in his 25 first innings overs.

That was just the first swing of the seesaw. At Lord's, Australia completely crushed England. The pitch did nothing, and all England could do was watch as Smith and Rogers racked up massive centuries. At the close of the first day, the score 337/1, there was only ever going to be one result. And it wasn't only the toil the bowlers were put through: the batting took a hit too, dismissed for just 103 in the final innings for a crushing 405-run defeat. Johnson was on the rampage again, and Steve Smith was the best batsman in the world. England looked in disarray. The momentum, it was said, was definitely with Australia now.

Maybe it was the week off, giving England a chance to recover and recharge. Or maybe it was just that the idea of momentum was always an illusion, ready to be broken at any moment. But at Edgbaston England were rampant again. Finn was back in the side, putting his nightmares in the past by dismissing Smith and Clarke and going on to take six in the second innings. In the first innings, Anderson was the star with his own six-wicket haul - his intelligence as a bowler showing in identifying seam, rather than swing, as his key weapon. Australia were all out for 136, and England were close to passing the total by the end of the day. Another match with the outcome looking decided after a day, and a three day defeat for Australia. And then for once, form began to stick. I'm still almost in a state of disbelief over the Trent Bridge test. Looking back at the scorecard and seeing 60 all out and bowling figures of 8/15 still just doesn't quite feel real.

And so the Ashes had been won, and with a game to spare. Few had given England much of a chance before the series, and yet in those two tests they had won in the most emphatic of fashions. Still though, there was one game left to be played - a chance for England's victory parade, or a chance for Australia to regain some pride and give a fitting farewell to the retiring Michael Clarke and Chris Rogers. It was Australia who got the ending they had hoped for. Well, perhaps not the one they had hoped for, but a moment of redemption and a positive note on which Clarke and Rogers could say goodbye. Steve Smith (143) in particular piled on the runs in a total of 481, whilst England put in their own dismal display with the bat with a first innings of 149. In their second innings they fared better as captain Cook dug in for 85, but it was Australia's turn to trample on the opposition with Peter Siddle doing the damage in his only match of the series.

The scoreline then, reads 3-2. It's a scoreline that masks the nature of the series, yet seems fair at the same time. They are two sides that seem fairly evenly matched, with one at the beginning of its journey whilst the other feels near its end. Both are teams who are capable of putting in good performances, but obviously both lacking in the consistency to set themselves far apart. Neither side had all eleven players really contributing solidly, if anything Australia looking in many ways as the better side statistically. England proved the best in more traditional English conditions, when the pitch suited their bowlers at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge, but when in London Australia were the ones at ease. England though, won the key battles. They won in the way Joe Root responded at Cardiff, and in the way the bowlers came out fighting at Edgbaston after suffering so badly at Lord's. They won in the way they stepped up when Anderson was injured, Stuart Broad taking his mantle and arguably being the player of the series. They held on to their catches, something they hadn't done earlier in the summer, whilst Australia dropped a couple at crucial moments. They won as they went on the rampage in the first half hour at Trent Bridge. They won with their twelfth man, the crowd, getting behind them all the way. 

England won the Ashes. It wasn't always pretty, and they weren't always convincing, but they have their hands on the little urn once more. And while it wasn't always high quality, it brought its share of thrills. There were stunning catches, with Ben Stokes taking one that will certainly never be forgotten; exciting, stroke-playing innings; and one of the very best sights for English fans - bowlers tearing through Australian innings. It was a series too that gave a lot of promise for the future - many things to work on, yes - but also a fair share of hope. It's a victory that feels in many ways like the start of something. There are huge, huge, challenges ahead: this winter sees them travel to the UAE, Pakistan's fortress, where they will face great challenges against spin on unfamiliar surfaces; and then on to South Africa, the top ranked team in the world. For the test team, the latest new era has born its first fruits. But the journey is only just beginning. 

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Bidding farewell

Sunday, 23 August 2015
Whilst the Ashes series has drawn to a close, Australia trampling on and spoiling England's parade, a theme of farewells has prevailed most of all this week. Several significant players play their final matches on the international stage, having all left their marks on this stage in their different ways.

The first one I have to mention though, isn't involved in the Ashes at all. In Sri Lanka, Kumar Sangakkara plays his final match for his country. Sangakkara is one of those players who appears to be universally adored - you will rarely, probably never, find anyone to say a bad word against him, a unifying figure across the game. Certainly, he's one of my favourite players to watch. There's just that beauty of watching him pile on the runs, even when if it was my team he piled them on against. The sheer numbers that alone point to a great of the game: a batting average of 57.71, going up beyond sixty without the wicketkeeper's gloves; 38 test centuries and a further 25 for the one day team. There was the key partnership with Mahela Jayawardene, a friendship that served Sri Lanka so well for so many years. And off the field too, his impact was to be felt: his passionate Spirit of Cricket lecture in 2011 simply exceptional. A true great of the game.

Attracting the most attention here in England is the retirement of Michael Clarke, Australia's captain and an adversary of England for ten years. Looking over Clarke's career, it appears an odd one - a career that touched the highs of the greats, but never quite did enough to cement his place among them. There was the golden 2012, averaging over 100 with scores of 329*, 210, 259*, and 230*, and captaining Australia to an Ashes whitewash in 2013/14 (as well as his part in another, in 2006/7). But there too were the barren periods, characterising these past few months; Ashes defeats; and lingering murmurs of unpopularity within the team. But nobody could fail to appreciate his part over the past year, doing what no captain or anyone should ever have to do, leading his country in mourning after the tragic death of his close friend and team mate Phillip Hughes. England gave him a guard of honour as he went to bat on the first day, a touching and deserved moment for an opposition captain, a veteran of 114 tests at an average near 50.

Chris Rogers, too, retires from test cricket after this match, a decision made before the series begun. Though just playing 24 tests, with 15 of them coming against England as well as his many, many years in county cricket, he's been a familiar opponent over these past two years. Though he waited until 35 before a sustained run in the side, he made up for that in his consistency and reliability - as in evidence when he broke the record for consecutive test fifties earlier in this series. His knowledge of English conditions has shown - where Australian batsmen have frequently struggled, he's often been the man to lead the way and battle on - the reason why it was such a shock when he was dismissed without scoring at Trent Bridge (his first duck in test cricket, too). My prevailing memory of Rogers though won't be from an international match; instead it came last year, a county match between Middlesex and Yorkshire. Set 472 to win, the result was supposed to be a certainty for Yorkshire. But Rogers, the captain, was immovable in scoring 241* and taking the match with it.

The final player I'll pick out is Chris Tremlett, another announcing his retirement - from all cricket - this week. Tremlett played only twelve test matches across six years, but his impact cannot be forgotten. In that glorious winter, in 2010/11, he was on top of the world. A bowler so tall, with pace and bounce, he became a valuable asset as England won the Ashes in Australia, and taking 4/26 as England bowled Australia out for 98 on the first day of the Boxing Day test. He was the one who took the final wicket of the fifth test in Sydney, well and truly securing England's first away Ashes win since 1986/7. He started the following summer strongly too, with his best figures of 6/48 taken at his home ground in Southampton. But then the injuries caught up with him again, and though a couple more sporadic appearances came, it was never quite the same. 53 wickets at 27 from 12 matches shows an international career barely started, but one that certainly had a great impact.

Four players, all following different paths through the international game, all having left their marks on the game in their own ways. As they bid their farewells, their time on the field coming to a close, maybe the only thing left to say is this. Thank you. For all that you've done, thank you.

Sunday, 9 August 2015

England victorious

Sunday, 9 August 2015
England have won the Ashes. With a match to spare. It's not something I dared to believe at the start of the series - I saw myself as optimistic in thinking England could spring some upsets and come out with a series draw. And yet they have pulled through, and in these past two matches in particular, utterly dominated the opposition. A young team unfancied at the start of the series, with a 5-0 whitewash 18 months earlier still casting its shadow, has come out with their hands on the urn. I feel like I've written a lot about turnarounds this summer, but this one topped them all.

Really, the Ashes were won within ten overs at Trent Bridge. Australia already seven wickets down, game - and series - pretty much over. Or was it just in the first five, half the wickets already fallen and the top order in tatters? Maybe it was even the game before, at Edgbaston, England coming charging back by dismissing Australia for 136 after suffering their own abject humiliation at Lord's. The series was far from over, but it felt like the tide had turned for good. But nothing can beat that single moment to truly seal the deal. The sound of the ball knocking into the stumps, a sound that might be the most glorious in the world. The roar that follows, both at the ground and in people's homes, their cars, any place people could possibly be following the match. Nothing can beat that feeling of jubilation.

England have had their share of standout performances this series, special moments that stay with you for a long time. Root in Cardiff, Anderson and Finn at Edgbaston, Broad and Root (again) at Trent Bridge. Ben Stokes added himself to that list. He didn't need to bowl in the first innings, but when called upon in the second innings he was exceptional. Stokes doesn't always swing the ball, but here he did and then some. In that innings it felt like he couldn't be kept out of the game - when he wasn't taking wickets he was a safe pair of hands at gully (and the wonder catch in the first innings must be mentioned here too - any excuse to mention that catch). Figures of 21-8-36-6 are special on any day, even more so when those figures are winning the most valued prize in English cricket.

The man I want to mention most of all though is the captain, Alastair Cook. Like so many others, I've been very critical of Cook on this blog in the past. He had never felt to me to be a natural captain, being too cautious and not having the natural instincts and tactical nous that can make a captain so great. Indeed, had England lost this series, the writing still might have been on the wall. In this series he hasn't led from the front with the bat - a brave but doomed innings of 96 at Lord's aside - never quite finding his luck. But he has certainly led on the field. England are united, playing cricket with smiles on their faces and with a joyful and attacking spirit, and Cook has led them admirably. This victory will represent a great personal triumph too - picture the man who led his team to a 5-0 defeat, and picture the man leading his team to such a glorious series win now. His stubbornness and refusal to back down, the trait that can be so frustrating, has helped carry him and his team all the way to victory.

At times like these, it's hard not to dream of the future. This is a massive win - and it feels like the start of something. Joe Root, now ranked as the best batsman in the world, is just 24. 24 too is Ben Stokes, a player who will frustrate at times, but who is always capable of bringing those magic moments like in the past few days. Mark Wood, handed the ball on the final morning and taking the winning wicket, 25. Steven Finn, hero at Edgbaston, still only 26. Jonny Bairstow, who is just finding his way back into the side, but another potential game changer is 25. Jos Buttler, who hasn't had the biggest impact in this series but is ever improving with the gloves, 24. Gary Ballance too, out of the team now but still with a bright future ahead of him at only 25. And more. I shouldn't get too carried away, because they will stumble - and probably soon with a tough winter schedule ahead and away wins at the moment being like gold dust. The new era is though starting to bear its first fruits, and there is certainly a lot of talent there to be excited about.

Right now I'm stuck in celebration mode. There have been so many ups and downs over this past year or so, and moments like these make all that pain feel so much better. This series may not go down as a classic - truthfully, the standard hasn't always been high and every match has been one-sided - but it's still one that's given us plenty of moments to remember. And still there is one match to go - a chance for England to make history by winning four matches at home for the first time. The Oval could be their victory parade, though Australia will still want to spoil their party. But for now they have time to celebrate, and a chance to relax, and rightly so. They've earned it. They've won the Ashes.

Thursday, 6 August 2015

Blown away

Thursday, 6 August 2015
This series gained the 'unpredictable' tag a long time ago, but today went even further than that. Who in their wildest dreams could have predicted that England, bowling first, would be batting before lunch and have a lead of over two hundred by the end of the day? That's what it felt like, a dream. One we had to pinch ourselves to check that it was all real, that we wouldn't all collectively wake up like it had never happened.

But it was real, and it did happen. A mere 18.3 overs was all it took for each Australian batsman to walk out to the middle to bat, and then take the long walk back. You couldn't blink for a wicket to tumble, and the records were falling just as quickly. No sooner had Broad dismissed Rogers for a duck (his first in test cricket, in his 45th innings) in the first over for his 300th test wicket, than he had equalled the record for the fastest five-for in test history - a mere 19 deliveries. Australia were torn apart, their top scorer being extras with 14, and only Clarke (10) and Johnson (13) reaching double figures. Broad more than made up for the absence of Anderson through injury, being a wrecking ball through the Australian line up in taking 8/15. Ashes bowling figures by an Englishman only bettered by Jim Laker. Australia managed only 136 in the first innings at Edgbaston, but reflecting on that score today they might have been happy. 60 all out. The sort of thing you might expect at club or school level, not on the first day of an Ashes test.

England and Broad were brilliant, but more than anything Australia let themselves down. The pitch and the weather pointed to a bowl-first pitch, but not a 60 all out pitch. Rogers has been the man who has looked the most comfortable in English conditions, having a technique honed from years and years of county experience, playing the ball late. It's brought him a lot of success, today apart, but rarely have his teammates followed his example. Too often were the batsmen going at the ball too hard, too early - the result just being an edge behind to a slip cordon rubbing their hands with glee. Clarke's dismissal was perhaps the worst of the lot. He's been under a lot of pressure in this series, and coming into this match there was great speculation about his future and plans to retire - and he did nothing to assuage it all. The captain, the man you turn to in the batting line up in the big situations, just took an audacious swipe at the ball and edged it straight to his opposite number. It would be a terribly misjudged shot by any batsman early in his innings, even more so coming from the captain when the team is already 29/5.

The luck was with England. Everything they did seemed to go right. The catching - one of the major problems earlier in the summer against New Zealand - was sensational. We've already seen some brilliant catches from the England fielders in this series - Cook at Cardiff, Root at Edgbaston - but today Stokes topped the lot. The ball had practically gone past him when it stuck in his hand, diving away to his right. Broad's look of stunned disbelief summed up everyone's feelings, really:

Of course, England then had plenty of time to bat, and bat they did. On his own, Joe Root (124*) more than doubled the Australian score. It was his second century of this Ashes series, and as ever he just looked at ease making it. It's like he plays a different game to the rest of them, not looking ultra-aggressive and yet scoring with a strike rate near 80. For the most part he batted alongside Bairstow, whose 74 was not always convincing - the boundaries coming at times sumptuously and at times streakily - and between them the pair racked up a partnership of 173 from just 34 overs, taking the match even further away from Australia. Already England's lead stands at 214, six wickets still to go.

Really it's the kind of day that's hard to describe - one that's hard to believe but one it'll certainly be hard to forget. I still can't do much more than stutter and nervously laugh in disbelief about the day's events. Did it really all happen like that? Well, apparently, yes. Before the game Alastair Cook was calling for his team to etch their names into history, for someone to step up and make that difference. Stuart Broad did that. And it was beyond any of our wildest dreams.
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