IN FOCUS – Cricket Australia’s misplaced priorities

  The Australian public was still stomaching the country’s sixth consecutive Test defeat – possibly its worst of the lot – when Cricket Australia decided to make things even more indigestible. It gleefully released the schedule of this summer’s Twenty20 Big Bash League, backed up by in-your-face statistics proclaiming its ‘success’.

  Not a big deal, many would think, in these days of relentless T20 marketing, which is directed towards satiating the wants of people suffering from attention deficit disorder. But Cricket Australia chose to take things to an altogether different level of brazenness – it sent the schedule into various in-boxes around the world just five hours after the national team’s 347-run walloping at Lord’s – Australia’s fourth successive defeat in the Ashes. The e-mail proudly proclaimed that ‘Australia’s strategy for the BBL is working’, and insisted that the league had succeeded in bringing a new diverse fan base to the game.

  As if this was not enough, a look at the schedule itself was sure to send waves of anger through any Australian fan who stays up all night long to watch his team play in the Ashes. Yes, buoyed by the ‘success’ of the event, the BBL will be now played across nearly two months – a fortnight more than the previous summer.  

  In what is undoubtedly a deplorable case of terrible timing, this message conveys all that is wrong with Cricket Australia these days. A similar announcement made by the BCCI in 2011-12 springs to mind – in that case, the IPL itinerary was unbashedly revealed a few hours after India were pummeled by Australia in the Sydney Test. For the record, just like Australia currently, it was India’s sixth overseas defeat in a row, a string which extended to eight eventually.

images344  How did things become so bad?This is what Australia coach Darren Lehmann seems to be wondering as Australia hurtle to defeat at Lord’s (source – metro.co.uk)

  Just by bringing Darren Lehmann as coach, things are not going to change overnight. The Australian cricket system itself needs a shake-up. It is indeed a pity that the cricket board of the second oldest cricket nation did not think twice before indulging in such an act. Dancing to broadcasters’ tunes is nothing new, but Cricket Australia should have at least cared for the passionate supporters who are desperately hoping for a miracle from Michael Clarke’s men in England. But who cares about sense of occasion in these times of greed and even more greed. 347-run defeat in the Ashes? Oh no worries, Australian fans can come and book a ticket to watch Thunder take on Sixers on a Sunday night. It’s the Sydney derby after all!

  Will Cricket Australia still be as ignorant and impudent if Australia continue to dish out similar performances in the return Ashes? Going by recent happenings, it can be fully trusted in that regard. The Argus Review, which was initiated after the 2010-11 Ashes defeat, was supposed to bring in measures to help Australia get back to the top of the Test rankings. Among other things, it included a recommendation of giving utmost priority to the Sheffield Shield while cutting down on limited-overs cricket.

  But James Sutherland and Co. are seemingly having none of it, for Australian cricket is in fact fast moving in the opposite direction. 2013 has been a painful year for Australia so far – strange team selections, off-field fiascoes, sacking of the coach, numerous ‘leaks’ and of course, the six (and counting?) Test defeats. Rather than improving the first-class structure, Cricket Australia has actually proved where its priorities lie. The BCCI has some serious competition.

  The Sheffield Shield will never be marketed the way the BBL is being, simply because the power of money has superseded all traditions and morals in today’s cricketing world. With so much publicity, not to mention the heavy packets in the BBL, it is not surprising that young players are increasingly drawn to the T20 competition in order to make a quick buck. And as has been seen of late, even when a young batsman has shown early promise in the Shield, he has no option but to shift from first-class match to T20 and back, because there is no continuity in the scheduling of the Shield – there always seem to be a few T20’s around the corner.

  It is easy to say that a player committed to the goal of wearing the Baggy Green should refuse a T20 contract. But when everyone around the world is earning quick money by just swinging their bats a bit, he too, as a professional, has the right to do so and secure his future.

  In my opinion, this problem of contrasts in pay packets between Test matches and the T20 leagues is the biggest cause of worry in the game today. Of course, this is a worldwide trend, not just limited to Australia. The mushrooming of T20 leagues around the world following the sleazy IPL has given lucrative options to cricketers, and many of them might not care about a national contract, even though they do not admit it.

  The biggest flaw of the game today is that a player earns many times more playing three hours of cricket (if you can call it that) for nondescript domestic clubs than he does while playing Test cricket for his country. Though this is truer in the cases of nations like Sri Lanka, West Indies and Zimbabwe, even players of nations whose boards pay them well are bound to be more motivated when there is more money at stake. Unless this unfortunate scenario improves, the game will continue to suffer.

ZAH_maxwell_LN-20121228222940698992-300x0  T20 star Glenn Maxwell goes for yet another big one in a Big Bash game last season. Will he ever be as successful wearing the Baggy Green? (source – theage.com.au)

  Coming back to Australia, playing an intermittent Sheffield Shield peppered with crowd-pleasing, money-minting T20s is definitely hampering the batsmen’s ability to stay at the crease for long hours and score big hundreds. A common factor to each of Australia’s six defeats this year has been a poor, and at times woeful, performance from the batsmen. T20 provides no skills whatsoever to succeed in the ultimate format, but for some reason the Australian board fails to realise that.

  Worryingly, even some of the selections made for the Indian tour earlier this year were made after taking into account the BBL performances. Leading Shield spinner Steve O’Keefe was overlooked in favour of limited-overs specialists like Xavier Doherty and the very over-rated Glenn Maxwell. After all this, how does one expect the players to be motivated to play first-class cricket?

  It might take a very long time to resurrect Australia’s cricketing fortunes, more specifically, the batting talent, but the work has to be done now. We have already seen the West Indies falter after a glorious period, and cannot afford to lose Australia in a similar fashion. Cricket Australia must realise that it does pay to overlook financial gain sometimes. For Australia’s future to be bright, for the sake of the Ashes and for the sake of Test cricket, it must set their priorities right. Now. 

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Specials – Indian princes and Ashes hundreds

  In what is one of the many interesting coincidences in the history of Test cricket, there have been three Indian princes who had the distinction of representing England in Test matches against Australia, and each of them scored a century on their Ashes debut.

  Kumar Shri Ranjitsinhji of Kathiawar, Kumar Shri Duleepsinhji of Kathiawar and Iftikhar Ali Khan of Pataudi were the three blue-blooded batsmen who brought a new dimension to the Anglo-Australian rivalry:-

Kumar Shri Ranjitsinhji

  Widely regarded as the first great Indian batsman to have played Test cricket, ‘Ranji’ (1872-1933) was indeed a path-breaking phenomenon. He made his first-class debut for Sussex against the MCC at Lord’s in 1895, and immediately made an impact with scores of 77 and 150.

  It was not long before he caught the eye of the national selectors and was handed his Test debut in the second Test of the 1896 Ashes at Old Trafford. Australia won the match by three wickets after having been set 125, but Ranji stole the show.

  He began with 62 in the first innings, followed by a majestic 154 not out in the second, made in a little over three hours and studded with 23 fours. He scored a hundred runs – going from 41 to 154 – before lunch on the third day, becoming the first batsman to do so in a Test.

image_675  ‘Ranji’ was the first great Indian cricketer, inventor of the leg-glance and scorer of an Ashes hundred on his Test debut in 1896 (source – iloveindia.com)

  Trailing by 181 in the first innings, England were 33/1 in the second when Ranji strode out to the crease, and went on to play an innings described as ‘marvellous’ by Wisden. He stayed till the end of the innings, giving England a fighting total to defend which was eventually not enough.

  However, England went on to win the series 2-1. In making his hundred, Ranji became only the fourth batsman and the second Englishman after W.G Grace to have scored a hundred on Test debut. In the first Test of the next Ashes series at Sydney in 1897-98, he made a career-best 175 in spite of illness and exhaustion, batting at No.7.

  Perhaps the greatest contribution of Ranji to the game was the pioneering of a new style of batting. He had a keen eye and made great use of wrists, which led him to introduce the leg-glance. Also, he mastered the art of playing the back-foot defence with great success.

  Ranji played 15 Tests in all, finishing with 989 runs at a healthy average of 44.95. He was a prolific scorer for Sussex, having crossed 1000 runs in every season from 1895 to 1904, and also captained the county from 1899 to 1903.

  In an age of racial discrimination, he broke all barriers to be remembered as one of the great batsmen of his era. In 1933, the Indian cricket board recognised his legacy by naming the country’s premier first-class tournament after him.

Kumar Shri Duleepsinhji

  ‘Duleep’ (1905-1959) was a nephew of Ranjitsinhji. Like his uncle, he too was a Cambridge University product and represented Sussex in county cricket, making his debut for them in 1926.

  On his Test debut in the drawn first Test against South Africa at Birmingham in 1899, he failed to created an impression, managing only 12 and 1. He did not take further part in the series, but was included for the tour of New Zealand that winter, where he was the leading run-scorer with 358 runs, including his maiden hundred (117) in the third Test at Auckland.

  In the summer of 1930, batting at number four, he went on to emulate his uncle by smashing 173 in the first innings of his first Ashes Test, which was the second Test of the series at Lord’s. He also scored 48 in the second innings.

  Incidentally, here too the result was a defeat for England as Australia chased down the target of 72 losing three wickets, after having made 729/6 (Don Bradman 254) in the first innings.

  Duleep’s match tally of 221 was a new record by an English batsman in a Test at Lord’s. Though Australia won the series 2-1 (Bradman making a record 974 runs), he was one of the positives for England, finishing as the third-highest run-getter with 416 from four matches.

2005101905902001    ‘Duleep’, who was Ranji’s nephew, scored 173 on his Ashes debut in the summer of 1930 (source – hindu.com)

  Duleep’s last Test series was the 1931 home series against New Zealand. In his last two Tests, he made 109 and 63 at the Oval and at Old Trafford respectively. His career would have been much longer had it not been for ill health.

  Like Ranji, he too captained Sussex in 1932 and headed the county averages in every season until that year, when he was advised by doctors to stop playing cricket. In all, he scored 995 runs at 58.52 in 12 Tests.

  When he retired from cricket, Wisden wrote of him: ‘Of singular charm of character; extremely modest of his own wonderful ability; and with a love for the game which transcended his joy in all other pastimes, Duleepsinhji will always be remembered as one of the outstanding personalities during his period in first-class cricket.’ India’s zonal first-class competition is named after him. 

Iftikhar Ali Khan Pataudi

  Also known as the Nawab of Pataudi Senior, Iftikhar Ali Khan (1910-1952) is the only cricketer to have played Tests for both England and India. He played first-class cricket for Worcestershire and Oxford University in England and for Southern Punjab and Western India in India. 

17pat2    Iftikhar Ali Khan of Pataudi became the third Indian prince to score a centrury on Ashes debut during the 1932-33 series (source – rediff.com)

 At the young age of 22, he was selected for the 1932-33 ‘Bodyline’ series in Australia, and duly made his Test debut in the first Test at Sydney. After Australia had scored 360 (Stan McCabe scoring an excellent 187*), centuries from Herbert Sutcliffe (194) and Wally Hammond (112) guided England to 300/2, at which point Pataudi came in to bat.

  By the time he was last out at 524, he had ground out a patient 102, in the process becoming the sixth Englishman to score a hundred on Test debut. He also became the third Indian prince to score a hundred on Ashes debut.

  England romped home by ten wickets and took the controversial series 4-1, but Pataudi himself was axed after the second Test due to non-cricketing reasons.

  When Pataudi refused to take his place in the typical Bodyline leg-side field during the second Test, England captain Douglas Jardine remarked: “Ah, I see His Highness is a conscientious objector”.

  Apparently, his opposition to Jardine’s tactics cost him his place in the team. He played once more for England in the 1934 Ashes, but then fell out of favour. Twelve years later, he played Tests for India – he captained his country of birth in the 1946 series in England.

  In all, he scored 199 runs in six Tests. His son Mansur Ali Khan also was destined to become an Indian Test captain. Test series between England and India in England are contested for the Pataudi Trophy, named in honour of the family.

IN FOCUS – The DRS dilemma

  There was as much controversy regarding umpiring decisions in the first Ashes Test at Trent Bridge as there was the excitement of the cricket itself. It is easy to say that since both the teams found crucial decisions going against them, things might have evened out and it is part and parcel of the game at the end of the day. The Decision Referral System in itself is not a problem. However, the manner in which the DRS technology is being utilised at the moment needs correction, so that the focus remains on the cricket alone in the future.

  When the DRS was first implemented in 2008, its objective was to seemingly remove the on-field umpires’ tendency to err in totality, with the help of a set of technology systems. However, in its short five-year history, the DRS has in fact created more controversies than it has helped alleviate. Prior to DRS, the only ‘referral’ that the on-field umpires had was to consult the third umpire on dodgy matters such as a stumping, run-out or whether a catch was cleanly taken. Players themselves were not allowed to coax the umpire into referring a matter upstairs.

  The introduction of DRS has brought the captain and the players into the picture. This has brought a new angle to a team’s strategy – now captains have to master the skill of how to use the two reviews optimally, which to be honest, takes a bit of the charm away from the game. Ian Chappell recently hit the nail on the head when he said that the DRS should be left to the umpires alone.

images112    The DRS was the cause of much controversy in the first Ashes Test, but its proper implementation could avoid such situations in the future (source – rediff.com)

  Stuart Broad’s case was indeed absurd – what is the purpose of having a T.V umpire when he does not have the power to correct an on-field howler, of which everyone is aware of – including himself – yet the player is blatantly allowed to continue batting? It is wrong to put the entire blame on Broad alone, because he did what almost every batsman has done over the years – wait for the umpire’s decision. He might be ethically wrong in not ‘walking’, but so were many of the Australians during their 2000’s heyday (except for Adam Gilchrist). Who could forget Ricky Ponting and Michael Clarke throwing sportsman spirit out of the window in the Sydney Test of 2007-08 against India?

  However, whether to walk or not is entirely upon the player, and this issue should not be mixed with the shortcomings of the DRS. First and foremost, the DRS as a system should serve its objective of eliminating incorrect on-field decisions, which means that it should exclude those technologies which are still unsure about their efficacy. Secondly, the systems in place should be utilised to maximum benefit – care should be taken to avoid incidents like the one involving Jonathan Trott’s dismissal in the second innings at Trent Bridge. In this case, the T.V broadcaster was apparently utilising the Hot Spot technology for a previous dismissal, which it meant it was not available for Trott’s decision – indeed one of the more bizarre reasons for giving a batsman out in recent times.

  Most importantly, once all the countries are assured of the effectiveness of the DRS, all decision-making should be completely handed over to the umpires. At present, strangely, the third umpire cannot be consulted in case of iffy LBW calls – which are admittedly the most contentious of all decisions – while his advice can be called upon only in events such as a run-out or a stumping. This rule should be amended, and incidents like difficult LBW’s and doubtful snicks should also be brought under the purview of the third umpire. In the case of Broad, the batsman survived only because the on-field umpire did not have the authority to consult the third umpire, nor the fielding captain had the power to  opt for a review, since according to the absurd rule at present, only two reviews per innings are available to a captain, which unfortunately had been used up by the time they were needed the most.

793617-cricket-drs      Should I review? Or shouldn’t I? – England captain Alastair Cook chooses to go ahead with this one at Trent Bridge (source – foxsports.com.au)

   A bit of common sense and simplicity can go a long way towards making the game error-free. With DRS in place, whenever an on-field umpire has a reasonable doubt regarding any matter whatsoever, he should refer the decision to the third umpire. The third umpire then can carefully consider all the technological resources at his disposal and accordingly come to a fair decision which will infuriate neither the players nor the spectators, and thus the smooth flow of the Test match can be maintained and undue controversy would be avoided. Relieving the captains from the extra pressure of how to utilise the reviews will also help them concentrate on the things like matter, such as bowling changes and fielding tactics. The on-field umpires, on their part, should put their ego aside and take the help of the DRS whenever in two minds, they too are human after all.

  Finally, all Test matches should be played under uniform conditions. The BCCI might be feeling vindicated in the aftermath of the Trent Bridge Test, regarding its continued opposition against the DRS, but it should realise that this is not the time for arrogance and ignorance. It also has the financial resources at its disposal, which could prove to be useful to develop technology that is even more reliable than it currently is. DRS has many a times proved to be a handy weapon for captains, amply proved by the game-deciding dismissal of Brad Haddin in the second innings at Trent Bridge. 

  Thus, all the cricket boards should come to a formidable conclusion regarding the DRS for the betterment of Test cricket. The ICC should either scrap DRS altogether and go back to the old days – which is not feasible, given the declining standards of umpires nowadays – or make the DRS compulsory for all Test matches around the world, and that too utilising only those technologies which are reliable enough to give sound decisions. 

  In its current avatar, the DRS will continue to be criticised because of how it is being utilised. However, if it is completely left to the discretion of the umpires, then I am sure that it will serve its intended purpose. Hopefully the ICC will think about this logical solution sooner than later. 

IN FOCUS – Johnston, a giant of Irish cricket

  The inevitable has happened. Ireland’s tireless senior statesman Trent Johnston has announced that he will be retiring from the international scene in December, disappointing all those who were hoping for him to play in the 2015 World Cup. Even though Johnston will not play his third World Cup in a row, his announcement is timely, for Ireland have just qualified for the 2015 event, and December marks the end of the Intercontinental Cup, which he sees as his farewell.

  The 39-year old Australia-born Johnston has truly given a lot to Irish cricket in his eight years as an Ireland player. However, he would not even have got an opportunity to play for Ireland had it not been for his marriage to an Irish citizen. Despite having made his Sheffield Shield debut for New South Wales in 1999 – he opened the bowling with Brett Lee – he could not win the team’s favour due to injury woes and indifferent form. New South Wales’ loss was Ireland’s gain. Adrian Birrell, who was then the Ireland coach, did not hesitate in making Johnston a part of the Irish team once the all-rounder attained his Irish passport, and he made his Ireland debut in a limited overs game against Surrey in 2004, which ended in Ireland’s only second win against a top county.

Trent_Johnston3  Johnston, who led Ireland in the 2007 World Cup, does a lap of honour after his team beat Pakistan at Kingston in that tournament (source – vgreets.com)

  Johnston’s tryst with captaincy began the following year, when he was appointed skipper for the 2005 Intercontinental Cup semifinal against UAE. Ireland went on to win that tournament while Johnston went on to lead Ireland in their first ever ODI, against England at Belfast in 2006. His biggest moment was undoubtedly the 2007 World Cup, the tournament in which Ireland announced themselves to the cricket world with stunning victories over Pakistan and Bangladesh, not to mention a tie with Zimbabwe. Johnston fittingly hit the winning six against Pakistan, a result which helped Ireland proceed to the next round of the tournament. 

  In 2008, Johnston said he is retiring from international cricket, only to return and serve Ireland with his typical commitment and dedication. In the 2011 World Cup, he popularised a unique celebration – the ‘chicken dance’ – as he scalped a few big names. Just like the win over Pakistan in 2007, Johnston was there in the middle when Ireland beat England in the 2011 World Cup. Even with his increasing struggle to keep fit, he continued to dish out bowling performances characteristic of his nagging accuracy and discipline. 

  Always a team man, Johnston demonstrated his sheer grit in March this year when he bowled a sapping spell in the searing heat of  Sharjah in an Intercontinental Cup match against UAE, and during the same tour, took 4/25 in a World Cup qualifier. Age has not seem to deter Johnston one bit, but unfortunately all good things come to an end eventually. So far, he has taken 65 wickets in 65 ODI’s, plus 95 wickets in first class cricket – the latter at an average of under 20. In addition, his clean hitting of the ball has often helped Ireland get a few crucial runs at the death. 

TrentJohnston  Johnston brought tremendous experience and value to the Irish team over the last eight years, and played a pivotal role in the team’s rise and success (source – setanta.com)

  Ireland coach Phil Simmons said,’Trent has been one of the pillars of this team. He’s been incredibly consistent and gotten vital wickets at crucial times spearheading the bowling unit. His experience has been invaluable, his dedication and work ethic has been exceptional and second to none. He has the total respect of all players who have played with him over nearly ten years in Irish cricket. I would like to thank him for all he has done for Irish Cricket and wish him well in his future career.’

Reflecting on his career, he said: ‘I was incredibly proud to wear the shamrock and to lead your country 60 times including a World Cup was just massive for me. It was a genuine honour and one which I’ll never forget. That first World Cup put Irish cricket on the map and it’s kick-started the cricketing expansion that we’re witnessing now. It was a privilege to be part of that.’

  Johnston has always been an inspirational figure in the Irish team, and has won the respect and admiration of both players and fans alike due to his discipline and hard work, and because of the value he has continuously brought to the side. He might not have been lucky enough to play Test cricket, but surely he has played an enormous role in laying the foundation of Ireland’s rise in international cricket, which will hopefully culminate in Test status sooner than later. 

 In September, Ireland play England in a much-awaited ODI at the new ground in Malahide, followed by their final World Cup qualifiers against Scotland. Victories in each of these games would indeed be a fitting display of gratitude by the team to this absolute legend of Irish cricket.

IN FOCUS – The Ashes (Australia In England) 2013 : Preview

  International cricket’s oldest rivalry is all set to resume tomorrow with the first leg of back-to-back Ashes series commencing at Trent Bridge. A well-oiled English unit will take on an Australian team which is, for a change, widely regarded as the out-and-out underdog this summer. But as Ashes series over the years have shown, rarely has either team given even an inch away, and this is what makes this epic battle a great experience for connoisseurs throughout the cricketing world.

images124

The Matches and the Grounds

  The Ashes has thankfully maintained its tradition of a five-Test series, unlike many other match-ups which are often played in ridiculous two-Test affairs. Trent Bridge at Nottingham will host the series opener from July 10-14, followed by the Lord’s Test from July 18-22. Battle will resume with two more back-to-back Tests – the third Test at Old Trafford in Manchester from August 1-5 and the fourth Test at the Riverside Ground in Chester-le-Street from August 9-13. As has traditionally been, The final Test will be contested at the Oval from August 21-25. Chester-le-Street will be hosting its first Ashes Test, and England have won all four Tests played there till date. However, the hosts have won just four out of 20 Ashes Tests at Trent Bridge, and have won only once at Lord’s in the last 79 years (in 2009). The Oval is the most significant venue in the country, as it hosted the first Test in English soil in 1880 and it was here that the Ashes were born in 1882.

AshesUrnBig

Head To Head and Recent Record

  The rich history of Anglo-Australian cricket can be underlined by the fact that the two teams have played each other a record 326 times since 1876-77, with Australia having won 133 times to England’s 102 Tests, 91 games being drawn. Out of these 326 contests, 311 have been Ashes Tests. Australia have played England in England 156 times since the inception of the game, having a narrow edge with 47 wins to England’s 45, 64 games being drawn. There have been a total of 66 Ashes series played – Australia winning 31, England 30 and 5 draws. The most recent Ashes were contested in Australia in 2010-11, when England won 3-1 to record their first series win Down Under in 24 years. The last time the Ashes were played in England was in 2009, when England won 2-1. Australia’s last Ashes series victory came at home in 2006-07, when they whitewashed England 5-0, while their last series win in England was in 2001, when they beat the hosts 4-1.

Form Book and Ranking

  England put the record straight by achieving a 2-0 win at in a two-Test series at home against New Zealand in May, two months after being held to a 0-0 draw by the Black Caps in the three-Test series away in March. Last summer’s disappointment of losing the three-Test series at home 0-2 to South Africa was balanced out with a historic 2-1 win in the four-Test series in India in the winter – England’s first series win in India in 28 years. Currently, England are ranked 3rd in the Test rankings, four points behind 2nd-placed India and seven points clear of 4th-placed Australia.

  Australia’s most recent Test series was a disaster, as they were routed 0-4 in India in March. However, they were impressive in their home summer, blanking Sri Lanka 3-0 and dominating the first two Tests of a three-Test series against champions South Africa, eventually losing 0-1. England have won six and lost two of their last 10 home Tests, while Australia have won three and lost five of their last 10 away Tests.

The Captains

  The captains of the two teams are also the pillars of their respective batting orders. Captaincy has enhanced Alastair Cook’s batting, as he proved with three hundreds in the historic series win in India last winter. He now has more centuries than any other Englishman ever had, and the 28 year-old has surely a lot more to offer in his career. In the 2010-11 Ashes, he had logged an amazing 766 runs. He is composed as captain, and reads the game very well. Of late he has been criticised for being defensive in his tactics during the New Zealand tour, but what matters is that his leadership style brings a sense of solidity and reliability in the team, which is of utmost importance before the Ashes. He is certainly the best bet to lead the English Test side at the moment and in the coming future.

alatiar-cook_1670879c  Alastair Cook will enter into his first Ashes series as captain and as a batsman, he will look to continue  from where he left in 2010-11 (source – telegraph.co.uk)

  Cook’s opposite number Michael Clarke is more of an attacking leader, as he showed during last year’s West Indies’ tour and also in the home series against  South Africa. However, the lack of potential match-winners in the team coupled with his own recurring back problem means that very few are giving Australia a chance to upset England in the Ashes. Clarke has developed himself into someone the team respects, and his contribution with the bat will have a great impact on Australia’s performances, for just like Cook, he too has been in great form with the bat since becoming captain, having scored four double-hundreds in 2012 alone. If he gets the support of a few of his fellow batsmen, then we are in for a closer Ashes series than is expected to be.

Players To Watch Out For

  The mercurial Kevin Pietersen is back in the team after an injury and is probably the biggest threat to Australia. When on song, Pietersen can massacre the best of bowling attacks. Just last year, he scored three fantastic centuries, one each against Sri Lanka, South Africa and India to underline his status as one of the most feared batsmen in international cricket. He was a major factor in England’s 2005 triumph, where he had a memorable debut series, culminating in a knock of 158 at the Oval which helped England to win the series. His career best of 227 has also come against the Aussies, at Adelaide in 2010-11. If there is one man whose back Australia will be glad to see as early as possible, it is Pietersen. 

PTI2_23_2013_000123B_Kand_0  If he remains fit throughout the series, James Pattinson can prove to be a great asset for Australia against the solid English batsmen (source – deccanchronicle.com)

  If there is one area where Australia can rival, or even better England, is the fast bowling department. The leader of the pack will be young James Pattinson, who has taken 40 wickets in his ten-Test career so far, and was among the very few who held his own during the disastrous Indian tour. He is capable of extracting bounce from not-so-helpful surfaces while maintaining  good speed, and if fit, can be a potent weapon for Australia throughout the Ashes.

Prediction

  It is a bit surprising to me that many people are writing off Australia even before the first ball has been bowled. England surely start favourites, but not overwhelmingly. Having said that, my prediction for this Ashes series is a 2-1, or weather permitting, 3-1 victory for England. 

Specials – The Greatest Ashes Tests, Part 3

  In this third and concluding part, we look back at three modern-day cliffhangers that further enhanced the Anglo-Australian rivalry:

4th Test, Melbourne, 1982-83

  Following the disappointment of 1981, Australia made amends the next time by winning the 1982-83 home series 2-1. However, it could well have been 3-0 had England not won a most thrilling fourth Test at the MCG by a mere three runs.

  After being inserted by Australia, England slumped to 56/3. Chris Tavare and Allan Lamb then put on 165 runs for the fourth wicket before Tavare was dismissed for 89. Lamb followed ten runs later for an attacking 83.

  At 259/5 with Ian Botham looking in ominous form, England seemed to be in control. But the pace duo of Rodney Hogg (4/69) and Bruce Yardley (4/89) dismantled the lower order and England were all out for 284.

  On day two, the hosts too had a poor beginning but Kim Hughes (66) and David Hookes (53) rescued their side from the trouble of 89/4 with a 91-run stand for the fifth wicket. Rodney Marsh scored 53 as well, while adding 81 runs for the sixth wicket with Hughes. Australia then lost their last five wickets for 26, finishing the second day at 287 and a lead of only 3 runs. Bob Willis took 3/38.

  In their second innings, England went from 40/0 to 45/3 and Australia had the momentum. Greame Fowler, who top-scored with 65, added a vital 83 with Lamb for the fourth wicket before both of them were out within a run of each other to make the score 129/5.

  Botham cracked a rapid 46 from as many balls and when he was dismissed the score was 201/7. At that point, wicketkeeper Bob Taylor joined Derek Pringle and the two put on 61 for the eighth wicket to boost the total, which eventually came up to 294. Geoff Lawson was Australia’s best bowler with 4/66.

  Australia had two full days to reach the target of 292. The top order failed to perform again as they were reduced to 71/3. Again, Hughes and Hookes came to the rescue as they put on 100 for the fourth wicket and Australia seemed to be on course at 171/3.

bothamMelbourne_narrowweb__300x366,0     Ian Botham (left) celebrates with captain Bob Willis after dismissing last man Jeff Thomson to help England win by 3 runs at Melbourne (source – theage.com.au)

  But the hosts then ran into the unheralded fast bowler Norman Cowans (6/77), who along with the support of his fellow bowlers ensured that Australia slip to 190/7. Allan Border (62*), who came in at number six, kept watching as wickets tumbled at the other end, the ninth falling at 218. Jeff Thomson came out to join him in the middle.

  The two led their team to 255/9 with a day left. On the final day, they did everything right until just four runs were needed, when Thomson was caught at first slip by Geoff Miller off Ian Botham to script a three- run win for England and break the hearts of the full-house crowd. The final Test was drawn and Australia regained the Ashes.

2nd Test, Edgbaston, 2005

  This great Test match is easily one of the best ever played and to many the very best of them all. Australia came into this series on the back of eight successive Ashes series wins dating back to 1989 and it was business as usual for them as they whipped the hosts by 239 runs in the opening Test at Lord’s.

  Then in a massive stoke of luck, England’s tormentor Glenn McGrath (who took 9/82 at Lord’s) twisted his ankle after treading on a ball in a nets session just before this Test. England seemed to have got a psychological boost and it showed in this match, a game which changed the course of  this memorable series.

  Ricky Ponting seemed to have made an error when he decided to put England in despite lacking his strike bowler. As it turned out, Australia were seriously missing the sting in their bowling as the English openers Marcus Trescothick (top-scoring with 90) and Andrew Strauss raced to a stand of 112 in just over 25 overs.

  Australia fought back to reduce England to 187/4, but the run-rate at that point was an astonishing five runs an over. Kevin Pietersen (71) and Andrew Flintoff (68) then added to the visitors’ misery, putting on 103 off just 105 balls for the fifth wicket. Useful runs from the tail meant that England ended the first day after being all out for 407 – a run rate of 5.17

  On the second day, Australia’s reply revolved around opener Justin Langer’s resolute 82, aided by Ponting’s counter-attacking 61. Australia too maintained a run rate of above four an over, but a bit more patience would have been beneficial – as Langer as showed – with their final total reading 308.

  The last five wickets fell for just 46 runs. Flintoff and Ashley Giles bagged three scalps each. With a handy first-innings lead of 99, England ended the day at 25/1, Shane Warne removing Strauss. On the third day, the spin and pace combination of Warne and Brett Lee ripped through the English batting.

  From 25/0 the home team went to 31/4 and further to 131/9. But the dependable Flintoff was still there and he found a willing ally in last man Simon Jones, who helped him in a priceless last-wicket stand of 51. Flintoff went on the rampage, striking 73 which included four sixes to spruce up the total to 182. Warne finished with 6/46 and Lee 4/82.

Brett-Lee-001  Brett Lee is consoled by Andrew Flintoff after England beat Australia by just two runs in the thrilling Edgbaston Test of 2005 (source – guardian.co.uk)

  Australia began their chase of 282 well with a 47-run opening stand, but Flintoff played game-changer again. He removed Langer and Ponting (for a duck) in the same over. From that point, England were buoyed and Australia kept losing wickets, sliding to 137/7. 

  Michael Clarke grimly held fort before he too fell to Steve Harmison as Australia ended the fourth day at 175/8, still needing 107 to win. On the final day, Warne and Lee added 45 for the ninth wicket before an unfortunate Warne was out hit wicket to Flintoff (4/79) for 42.

  At 220/9, Michael Kasprowicz joined Lee. The two quietly set about whittling down the target and England were fast feeling the heat as the tension gradually reached tipping point. With 15 to win, Simon Jones dropped Kasprowicz. England’s last chance seemed to have gone.

  With Australia just three runs away, Harmison banged one into the left glove of Kasprowicz, who played it down the leg side. Within the next second, wicketkeeper Geraint Jones completed the winning catch to send the crowd into a frenzy.

  Television replays later showed that the ball had slightly brushed the glove and umpire Billy Bowden had failed to notice it. However, it would have been nearly impossible to detect amid the pressure-cooker situation. England had won by just two runs – the smallest margin ever in an Ashes Test.

  Lee, who remained not out on 43, was distraught and the image of him being consoled by man of the match Flintoff remains the defining moment of the series. The Ashes were alive and England went on to win the series 2-1, regaining the urn after 18 long years.

1st Test, Cardiff 2009

  This was the first Test to be played in Wales. England were on a mission to regain the Ashes after the humiliating whitewash of 2006-07. They began the first day ordinarily, getting reduced to 90/3 before Kevin Pietersen (69) and Paul Collingwood (64) added 138 for the fourth wicket.

  Thanks to Matthew Prior’s 56 and useful contributions from the tail, England’s total swelled to 435. In reply, Australia were led by a partnership of 239 for the second wicket between Simon Katich (122) and Ricky Ponting (150). Michael Clarke (83) and Marcus North (125*) added 143 for the fifth wicket as Australia ended the third day at 479/5.

James Anderson celebrates securing the draw with Monty Panesar      Monty Panesar (left) is relieved while James Anderson is jubiliant after the two defied Australia to help England escape with a draw (source – guardian.co.uk)

  The game looked to be heading into a draw at this stage. Australia piled the agony on England’s bowlers on the fourth day courtesy a 200-run sixth-wicket stand between North and Brad Haddin (121) in just 44 overs. Australia declared at 674/6, and England slumped to 20/2 with a day to go and still 219 in arrears.

  Defeat appeared inevitable for England on the final day as they crashed to 70/5 and then to 159/7, even as Paul Collingwood battled on with determination. He put on 62 with Greame Swann for the eighth wicket, but when he was finally dislodged for a 245-ball 74 in five hours and 45 minutes, England were 233/9 and still a little over 11 overs were left.

  Australia needed just one good ball to wrap things up. However number eleven Monty Panesar, boasting an average of a shade over five, joined number ten James Anderson in the middle and it wasn’t over till it was over. The two went on to do the unthinkable as they added an unbeaten 19 in 11.3 overs to script a memorable draw for England.

  The two tail-enders showed immense grit in defying the pumped-up Australian bowlers for 40 minutes. England were just 13 runs ahead when the match ended in a thrilling finish. This result dented Australia’s confidence, as England scored a 2-1 series victory to wrest back the Ashes.

Specials – The Greatest Ashes Tests, Part 2

  Continuing from Part 1, we move on to the twentieth century and look back at three more Ashes thrillers that arrested the attention of cricket lovers:

4th Test, Old Trafford 1902

  Holders Australia retained the Ashes with a thrilling victory at Old Trafford. Victor Trumper carved a brilliant hundred before lunch on the first day. He added 135 with Reggie Duff (54) for the first wicket, and was still unbeaten when Australia took lunch at a whopping 173/1.

  Trumper was soon out after the interval for a crackling 104, caught behind off Wilfred Rhodes (4/104). Clem Hill and captain Joe Darling (51) put on 73 for the fifth wicket. But from a solid 256/4, Australia ended up with only 299. Fast bowler Bill Lockwood (6/48) did most of the damage.

  Then the effective pair of off-spinner Hugh Trumble and slow medium bowler Jack Saunders destroyed the hosts’ top order, leaving them at 44/5. England ended an entertaining first day at 70/5. Fortunes were to turn dramatically on the second day.

Victor Trumper

      Victor Trumper made a hundred (104) before lunch on the first day of the 1902 Old Trafford Test, which Australia won by 3 runs (source – guardian.co.uk)

  Stanley Jackson staged an excellent fightback as he put on 141 for the sixth wicket with Len Braund (65). Jackson batted with responsibility around the tail and was last out for 128 in a total of 262. Despite their brilliant start, the Australian bowlers could ensure a lead of only 37. Trumble was the pick of the lot with 4/75.

  In their second innings, Australia crashed to 10/3 as Lockwood whisked out the top three batsmen. Darling (top-scored with 37) and Syd Gregory attempted a recovery by adding 54 for the fourth wicket, but the latter’s dismissal, LBW to debutant medium paceman Fred Tate led to another collapse as Australia lost 5 for 15. They ended the day in tatters at 85/8, leading by just 122.

  Australia were all out for just 86 early on day three, Lockwood getting another 5/28 to finish with 11/76 in the Test. Needing 124 to win, the English openers Lionel Palairet and captain Archie MacLaren ( who top-scored with 35) put on 44 for the first wicket.

  But Trumble and Saunders proved to be England’s nemesis again. They chipped away with regular wickets and at 97/5, the game was in the balance. At 107, first-innings hero Jackson was dismissed as the sixth wicket. Trumble (6/53) then removed Braund and Lockwood cheaply to make it 109/8. 

  With 15 runs required, Rhodes joined Dick Lilley and in three hits, the score was carried to 116, whereupon Lilley was dismissed. Still eight runs were needed. Heavy rain then drove the players from the field and there was a 45-minute delay before the match could be finished. Upon resumption, Tate managed a leg-side boundary but two balls later was castled by Saunders (4/52), leaving Australia victorious by just three runs.

2nd Test, Melbourne 1907-08

  England levelled the five-match series (which they eventually lost 4-1) with a humdinger of a victory at the MCG. Australia’s openers Victor Trumper and Charles Macartney added 84 before the side somewhat lost its way. Captain Monty Noble’s 61 guided the hosts to 266 while off-spinner Jack Crawford picked up 5/79. 

  England were 61/2 in reply, but Jack Hobbs (83) and Kenneth Hutchings put on 99 for the third wicket. Hutchings added a further 108 for the fifth wicket with Len Braund en-route to a knock of 126. England finished with 382, a healthy lead of 116. Fast bowler Tibby Cotter toiled hard to take 5/142.

  The Australian openers showed positive intent in the second innings too, with Noble (64) and Trumper (63) adding 126. Australia soon slipped to 162/4 but Warwick Armstrong (77) and Macartney (54) shared a 106-run stand for the fifth wicket. Wicketkeeper Sammy Carter boosted the total to 397 with a valuable 53. The great fast bowler Sydney Barnes took 5/72.

  England needed a challenging 282 to win. Captain Frederick Fane and Hobbs added 54 for the first wicket, but Noble dented the chase with his off-breaks by removing Hobbs and George Gunn in three balls. Fane was out for 50 while Hutchings could not capitalise on his start. At the start of the final day, England were 159/4.

  Even though all the English batsmen (except Gunn) reached double figures, Australia were constantly on top. Cotter removed Joe Hardstaff while Armstrong dismissed the stubborn Braund. Wilfred Rhodes was soon run-out and when Crawford fell to Saunders, the score read 209/8 and the match seemed to be out of England’s grasp.

  However, Joe Humphries and Barnes put on 34 together and then, amid high excitement, Barnes and Arthur Fielder hit off the remaining 39 runs as England reached 282/9, winning by one wicket. Barnes scored an unbeaten 38 and the winning run was just scored – Gerry Hazlitt’s throw from cover point failed to hit the stumps.

3rd Test, Headingley 1981

Ian-Botham-hooks-Geoff-La-005

       Ian Botham hooks Geoff Lawson en route to his 149* in the second innings at Headingley in 1981, a knock that galvanised England (source – guardian.co.uk)

  This Test is widely regarded as the most famous of all Ashes Tests. The background to this match is now well known – Australia were 1-0 up in the six-Test series against an England team led by Ian Botham. Captaincy had affected Botham’s game as well, a pair in the second Test at Lord’s being his lowest point.

  Desperately needing an inspirational leader, the master tactician Mike Brearley was recalled to lead the side for the third Test. Even at Headingley, the game began to follow a predictable script – Australia piled up 401/9 declared, led by John Dyson’s 102 and captain Kim Hughes’ 89. Botham picked up 6/95. 

  England were then rolled over for 174 (Botham 50, Lillee 4/49) and were 6/1 following-on at the start of day four. An innings defeat seemed inevitable as the pace duo of Lillee and Terry Alderman (6/135) made life difficult for the hosts. At 135/7, with England still needing 92 just to make Australia bat again, Graham Dilley joined Botham.

‘Beefy’ was batting freely with the burden of captaincy off his shoulders. What followed was one of the most epic partnerships of all time. The two added 117 in just 80 minutes as they went on a hitting spree. Botham, in particular, was playing as if there was no tomorrow. 

  Inquiring of the strategy, Dilley was told by his senior partner: ‘Let’s give it some humpty.’ Dilley made 56 and England were 252/8 when he got out. Chris Old then put on a priceless 67 for the ninth wicket with Botham. When the fourth day ended, England were 351/9, ahead by 124. Botham, who had come in at 105/5, was still unbeaten, on 145.

  England’s innings ended early on the final day at 356, with Botham compiling a stunning unbeaten 149 off 148 balls including 27 fours and and one straight six. Still, the target for the visitors was just 130 and they looked home and dry at 56/1 with Dyson and Ian Chappell in the middle.

  At that point,Willis, having changed ends to bowl with the wind on Brearley’s advice, had Chappell caught behind. From thereon, Willis bowled like an inspired man. His face bereft of emotion, he ripped through Australia as they crashed unbelievably to 75/8.

  Lillee joined Ray Bright and their 35-run ninth wicket stand raised hopes for their team. But Willis removed both of them to finish with a career-best 8/43. Australia were all out for 111, losing by 18 runs.

Final-Willis_2959180    Bob Willis looks near stone-faced during his astonishing spell of 8/43 which destroyed Australia on the final day of the 1981 Headingley Test (source – skysports.com)

  This was only the second instance of a team winning a Test after following on, the first also being an English win, over Australia at Sydney in 1894-95. Interestingly, the betting tents at Headingley were offering odds of 500-1 on an English win at the start of day four.

  As it happened, Botham’s resurgence, Dilley’s contribution, Willis’ inspired spell and of course Brearley’s outstanding leadership combined to defy the odds and hand Australia a defeat from which they could not recover – England won the series 3-1 and retained the Ashes.