Monday, 29 June 2015

Ashes 2015: Aussie selection questions

It is almost time again for the Ashes.  Yes, hard to believe, but due to the importance of England's preparation for the recent World Cup (which they still bowed out of early), the schedule has been rejigged to give us our third Ashes series in just over two years.  The Aussies go in as theoretical favourites, but have an ageing team that has not travelled well in recent years.  They also have a bag full of selection questions.  It is to these that the rest of this post is dedicated:

Starting with the openers.  Warner is a clear selection, even after a relatively lean series in the Windies.  Incumbent S. Marsh has not done enough to keep Rogers out assuming he is available.  Rogers' experience in England and his proven partnership with Warner should mean he forces Marsh to fight for a lower position in the batting.  Come August, however, the Aussies will need to work out who partners Warner on Rogers retirement (I'm not convinced it is Marsh).  

Finally the Aussies have a clear selection for number 3.  The new world number one, Steven "what an incredible 18 months- can we make it two years" Smith has a lock on the job for the foreseeable future.  He is the first since the decline of Ponting set in.  His continued success is important to the fate of the team in this series.

Clarke at four is another easy selection- assuming Clarke can stay fit.  If not, it makes the next selection easier.

Five is currently Adam Voges domain.  After only two tests, Voges is already one of the Aussie old brigade, being an old debutant.  A reasonable start to the series in England should see him keep his position throughout.  His main challenger is S. Marsh.  Marsh seems to do well in his first test back after a break, but so far seems less able to sustain the performances- injury, poor form, and successful rivals have conspired to cut off each of his short runs in the team.  

The all-rounder spot is a contentious one.  Watson is the incumbent, but as regular readers will know, he is not a favourite of this blogger.  He is a useful, but rarely penetrating bowler, and an average batsman at best.  Given the level of his bowling, a batting average in the low thirties, with so few hundreds from so many attempts, is not really good enough.  A decade Watson's junior, the other Marsh brother, the third of the Mitchell's, is a better long term prospect.  He bowls with more zip, and loses nothing in the batting.  While he may not be as good at drying up the runs as Watson (who manages to do so with bat as well as ball!), Mitchell Marsh looks more likely to take several wickets.  His batting exploits thus far have at least been on a par with Watson.  Of course the best Aussie all-rounder is not even in the squad.  Faulkner is by far the best bowler of the three, and would lose little if any to Watson in the batting.  However, barring injury or a change in selection policy, he is not available, so it is M.Marsh that should get the nod.  Sadly, it will probably be Watson, again.  

Haddin remains as the keeper, even though his batting has declined since the last Ashes.  He is, however, keeping better than at any point in his international career.  Neville and the others in the queue will need to wait for Haddin to retire before moving up.  Of course, at Haddin's age, that could be sooner rather than later, but not before the Ashes are over.

Lyon should remain the spinner of choice.  He has just become the most successful finger spinner of Australian history, all before he hits the time in his career that most spinners are at their best.  Let's hope that the tour selectors don't have brain fades like in India a couple of years ago, or in England last time where lesser spinners were brought in "on spec" at Lyon's expense.  If there is a pitch needing two spinners,  Ahmed should come in as the second spinner, but Lyon should be first pick.

That leaves three places for quicks.  With Harris' return, there are five quicks in the running.  Unfortunately for Siddle, who has been a hard worker and mainstay of the attack, he is clearly in last place at the moment, and will probably not feature too much in the Ashes unless there is injury to the other quicks. Harris has been consistently the best bowler for Australia in the last few years, when available, even given the heroics of Johnson the summer before last.  Like Bruce Reid of an earlier generation, when available Harris is virtually a first pick.  That leaves Johnson, Starc and Hazelwood to fight for two places.  It is hard to pick which one should miss out.  Starc, the most likely, is finally showing his awesome white ball can be reproduced in red ball cricket, and he needs to be given a prolonged chance.  What he has done in white ball cricket, especially the recent World Cup, suggests that he could be the best bowler in the world if he gets his red ball game up to speed.  Hazelwood has been the best bowler in the last few matches, especially in the absence of Harris, and thoroughly deserves to keep his spot.  Johnson is also hard to leave out.  It was his rise in fortune that changed Australia's form line so dramatically between the last two sets of Ashes.  Given what he did to the English batsmen, it would be a psychological boost to England if he was dropped (not to mention he is a fairly decent bowler!).  While outshone by the other two in the Caribbean, he was still bowling well. Whichever of these four misses out is going to be desperately unlucky.  My guess is that it will be Starc.  I wonder if the selectors should take a risk and leave out Johnson.  If Starc knocks over Cook and Balance in the first couple of overs- like he knocked over early Windies wickets- any English psychological advantage will have evaporated.

Monday, 21 July 2014

South Africa's tainted win.

The record books will show that yesterday South Africa pulled off a rare win in Sri Lanka.  Unfortunately, the history books will record a tainted, controversial win.  South Africa set up the win with a burst of wickets in the third session of the third day, with Steyn leading the way.  After play that day, Philander was charged with, and pleaded no contest to, ball tampering in the second session.  Thus the ball that Philander was alleged to have scratched with his fingernails was the same ball that moved around and got the wickets in the third session.  A ball, incidently, that South Africa saw as so advantageous they kept it in favour of getting a new ball for about 15 overs after the new ball was due.  

There are several levels to this story that are, in terms of cricket, disturbing (I am aware of the events in this world that are far far more disturbing, but they fall outside the bounds of this post). Firstly, a match official knew about the alleged tampering at the time it happened, but the South Africans were allowed to keep the ball and take at least five quick wickets with it before the incident was addressed after play.  Those five wickets meant that Sri Lanka went from a roughly even position to being well behind in the match.  They never really recovered.  Thus Philander cops a fine of a few thousand dollars for an action that could have secured his team the victory.  

Secondly, the South Africans wanted us to believe Philander was innocent, even though they pleaded no contest to the charges.  The argument is that they prefer to plead no contest and have Philander cop a fine, than contest the charges and risk a larger penalty - even though according to them he is innocent.    I for one cannot understand why an innocent man would allow himself to be branded a cheat, rather than defend the charges, unless there was a strong feeling that he could not successfully defend them.  This seems to be the case from their reported concern about harsher penalties.  If he is indeed innocent, that can only mean that they feel that the process is too biased, flawed or worse, corrupt, for Philander to get a fair hearing.  The other conclusion is that they knew or at least strongly suspected that he was guilty.  The fact that they pressured the broadcaster to not show the footage of the incident in question, footage that by all accounts proves the case against Philander, more than tends to point in this direction (I have not seen the footage, but the stills I have seen are damning: and   So it would seem that now we not only have a player who cheated to get an advantage for his team, but a team that covered it up.  

If the argument above seems overdone for something that seems settled by short burst of footage, it is done because it is not the first time that the South Africans have gone to this line of defence.  Less than a year ago, Faf Du Pleisis was charged with ball tampering in a match against Pakistan, pleaded guilty, but then argued that he was in fact innocent using the same reasoning as above.  Given the events of this week, it is less likely that many people believe him.  It also makes David Warner's outrageous ball tampering claims after the second test between South Africa and Australia earlier this year seem less outrageous.  South Africa won that test after an extraordinary spell of reverse swing bowling by Steyn, similar to this test, except the ball went reverse uncommonly early on that occasion.  The repetition of claims and charges suggests, rightly or wrongly, that there is systematic ball tampering going on by the South African team.  This is not good for the sport, especially as it seems that the South Africans look likely to regain their number one ranking at the end of this series.  It does nothing for the sport to have its best team under a cloud like this.

Perhaps most disturbingly of all, there is a line of "defence" out in the cricketing social media (not all of it by nobodies) that all teams do this, and South Africa are just the ones that have been caught.  It is to be hoped that this is not the case.  Certainly the Australians would find it hard to live down the comments by Warner, and more recently Harris, if it were ever to emerge that they were tampering with the ball in any way.  If it is true that many of the international teams are doing this, then one must conclude that either the policing and penalties for the offence are not enough (after all, the two cases involving South Africa are the only examples in the last year of anyone being charged, and it would seem that the first case was not enough to dissuade the second instance), or the law needs to be revised- after all, if it is poorly followed and poorly policed, then it may be a poor law.  

One suggestion is that the law be changed so that the fielding team is allowed to alter the ball by any means they like, perhaps with the caveat that is with parts of their body (as in the case of Philander and his fingernails) or their normal equipment (as with Faf and his zipper).  This would be easier to police as there would be much fewer illegal actions.  It would also level the playing field- both teams would have the benefit of the reverse swing generated.  It would also introduce a new (valid) skill of conditioning the ball.  However, if this were to go through I would also suggest that the ball not be able to be replaced until the new ball is due, even if it goes out of shape- the large advantage of being able to condition the ball slightly offset by no longer being able to get rid of a ball that wasn't working for you.  This suggestion would of course mean throwing away the record books, as bowling records would most likely tumble, as indeed many batting ones have as bats have become bigger.  I wonder how the history books would look on that.

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Prior cannot do it alone

Dear ECB/England selectors,

You may have noticed that England are not doing so well after a prolonged relatively good period extending from about 2005.  As a concerned cricket fan, I would like to help you out with your selections for the India tour, since you seem to have made so many bad choices recently.  The main issue I want to point out is that you are expecting far too much of Matt Prior. He cannot be expected to carry the team on his own.  You have asked him to try to achieve something that has not been done since Strauss in June 2005 against Bangladesh.  That was the last test that England won with only one South African born player in the team.  Can it really be a coincidence that England's best stretch of form in decades links with the presence of between two and four South Africans in the team?  Is it any wonder that Sri Lanka beat this English team when Prior is on his own?  Indeed no English team has won with less than three South Africans since August 2008, and the majority of test wins since then have required four South Africans.  

I realise that there is a little shortage of South Africans qualified and ready to play for England at the moment, but I can suggest a couple to help Prior with the heavy lifting against India.  There seems to be a place opening up at the top of the order with the form of Cook.  Thankfully there is a South African ready to step in.  Compton is both South African and an opener.  It seemed last year that he was dropped for the sole reason that he did not fit well into the Flower-Cook style (originally the Flower-Stauss style), but this would no longer be a concern as Flower is gone already, and this way Cook would be gone too.  

To get to three South Africans, and thereby give England a fighting chance there needs to be one more.  With Trott still not back this means that you will need to look elsewhere.  There is a little known player named Kevin Pietersen who looks a handy sort of player.  I believe he could even score 10000 runs in test cricket if given a chance. To squeeze him in, he could replace Joe Root.  Yes, I know Root recently scored a double hundred, but he can safely be dropped from any test not played at Lords.  In three matches at the English home of cricket he has accrued 512 runs at 102.4 including a 180 and a 200*.  His other 14 tests have only amounted to 702 runs at 28.08 with a solitary century.  So for any test at Lords he is a walk up start, but KP is a better bet overall.  And once again his main (though perhaps not only) detractors in the team were rumoured to be Cook and Flower.  

Yours almost sincerely

An Aussie Fan

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Mankad sins:the Senanayake controversy.

Sri Lanka's Sachithra Senanayake committed the ultimate in cricket sins in the match against England on Tuesday.  Ever since he "Mankaded" Jos Buttler, controversy has raged.  However his sin was committed two overs earlier.  

Imagine if you will the following circumstance:  the bowler bowls, the non-striker starts to head down the pitch, the batsman hits it straight to a fieldsman who picks it up and sends it back to the bowler standing over the stumps.  The bowler doesn't break the stumps, but rather holds the ball and watches as the non-striker scrambles back to his crease.  That was a warning, don't do it again.

While it might happen in backyard cricket, especially if the non-striker was very young and the bowler very generous, if it happened in international cricket there would be an uproar.  Why did the bowler let him off like that?  He should be trying everything within the laws of the game to get the opposition batsman out, and anything less, like not running him out when he could, or deliberately dropping a catch is not acceptable.  And yet, Senanayake failed to get both Buttler and Jordan out when he had a chance.  They both were backing up too far, too early, and he did not run them out but gave them a warning.  If he sinned, it was in failing to dismiss the batsmen when it was well within his power to do so.  The next time he bowled, Buttler did it again and was run out.  For some reason that perfectly legal action is what has caused the controversy, not the fact that he did not try everything to get the batsmen out the previous two occasions.

It has been interesting to see the reaction.  The main objection it would seem is not to the legality of it, but to the violation of the "spirit of the game".  And this is mainly from the same people who were arguing strongly that Broad was well within the law not walking when he was given not out when he middled one last year.  For the record, I supported Broad on that one, like I support the Sri Lankans in this one.  Both of them were not entirely within the spirit of the game (though by giving a warning, or actually two, Senanayake comes far closer).  However, consistency means that if you supported Broad, you should support Senanayake.  Both of them acted legally (for those wanting to argue the point, it seems clear to me that 1- he was not intending to bowl by the time his back foot hit the ground, therefore he was not in his delivery stride, and 2- the umpires made the decision, so just like in the Broad incident, it is not the player that is at fault if there is any fault).  The error in both occasions was someone else's: the umpire in Broad's case (and the Aussies for having burned their referrals), and in this one, Buttler for backing up too far, too early.  The stupidity of Buttler is that he did it even after being warned, and seeing his partner warned just two overs earlier.  If the English players don't like what happened, the lesson is to stay behind the line until the ball is bowled.   

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