Thursday, December 30, 2010
Losing the Ashes
To provide some context: while I watch tennis when it's on, will occasionally check the internet to see how Tottenham Hotspur are doing in the English Premier League, and keep an eye on how Saint Kilda are doing in the AFL, cricket – test cricket in particular – is the only sport I really follow, in the sense that I spend a lot of time not only watching it, but also reading about it and talking about it with other people.
I've played cricket1, so I've got a good understanding of how it all works – and, given just how esoteric the minutiae of the game is2, this is quite significant. I remember most of the terms for field positions, batting strokes and bowling techniques and, having spent a decent part of most of the last thirty or so summers watching the coverage on television, I've observed the ups and downs of the Australian team.
Some of my fondest memories of my uni days in Queensland are of watching cricket on tv with my friends and flatmates. Best of all was the one night when a couple of us 'borrowed' the projector from the residential college at which we lived and took it to use in the lounge room of some friends who had a share house; this was during the '95 tour of the West Indies when Australia won the Frank Worrell trophy there for the first time – heck, we even had a couple of bottles of sparkling–like wine with which to celebrate.
I've seen cricket played at three of the major grounds – the 'Gabba in Brisbane, the Adelaide Oval and the Melbourne Cricket Ground3 – and have started making going to at least one day of the Adelaide test match each year a regular occurrence.
So yeah, I take my cricket fairly seriously.
And the Ashes – the regular series between England and Australia, played in alternate countries every two years or so – is the ultimate contest in cricket; the rivalry that began over a hundred years ago has most definitely not diminished over that time.
The last Ashes series, which took place in England in 2009, resulted in a 2-1 series win for England. Yesterday Australia lost the fourth test in Melbourne; even if we win the fifth test in Sydney, the series will be 2-2 – and that means England retain the title.
1I'm not entirely untalented, either – I even won a Best & Fairest award for my club as a junior.
2If this hadn't been abundantly clear before, it certainly got hammered home when I tried, while slightly stoned, to explain how it all to two equally stoned Israelis one night while fruit picking in Victoria's Goulburn Valley.
3Better know as the MCG, or just 'The G'.
Started well, became wretched, flickered briefly, died completely
We had a great couple of days in Brisbane, bowling England out for 260 – Siddle took 6/54, including a hat-trick4 – and in reply we made 481, a lead of 221. But the English batting in the second innings made our bowlers look hapless; they ended up declaring at 1/517, giving us 297 to chase in less than a day – and it ended up a draw.
While we didn't lose, that we were only able to take one English second innings wicket didn't bode well for the rest of the series.
4Three wickets in three consecutive balls. If that doesn't help, go here.
The second test in Adelaide started about as horribly as any test match in history for Australia; that I was actually there at the ground to watch us collapse to be 3/2 in the first half-hour and eventually go on to be all out for 245 just before stumps was a bit painful5. England would go on to make 620, setting Australia 375 just to catch up; despite the forecast for heavy showers and the chance for a draw, we fell 71 runs short without England even having to bat again – a huge loss.
It was now 1-0 in England's favour, and it really wasn't looking good for Australia.
5It was still a fun day, though. The Barmy Army – the touring English fans who attend in the tens of thousands – are very entertaining, and all the ribbing we got was good-humoured.
After the absolute cornholing6 we'd suffered in Adelaide, some changes were made to the team: Phil Hughes was brought in to replace the injured Simon Katich; Mitchell Johnson replaced Doug Bollinger; and Steve Smith came in for the underperforming Marcus North.
England won the toss and opted to field, which proved to be a good decision as we once again collapsed for a low total, this time 268. But unlike in the second innings in Brisbane, or the first in Adelaide, we bowled well; Mitchell Johnson led the charge with 6/38 and England were bowled out for 187.
While we didn't bat exceptionally well – Hughes, Ponting and Clarke all got low scores – we got to 307, setting England 391 to win. But our bowlers continued the good form they'd shown in the first innings – this time it was Ryan Harris doing the damage with 6/47 – and England crumbled to be all out for 123; we'd won by 267 runs.
Opinions were mixed; had Australia found form at the right time, or had England, having had such an easy win, gotten overconfident and taken their foot of the pedal?
6Not by any means a cricket-specific term.
The win in Perth had given the team some much-needed confidence – but it didn't last very long at all; once again we collapsed, and this time for one of our lowest completed-innings scores in test cricket history: 98.
We might have been able to salvage the game if we bowled well, but we were unable to replicate our performance in Perth, and England were able to make 513 – a massive lead of 415 runs. Again, there was a chance that the match could be saved if we could just bat through, but yet another collapse – at one point we were 7-172 – meant that that wasn't going to happen.
Siddle and Haddin gave it a go with an 86-run partnership, but we eventually fell to be all out for 258, and the game – and therefore the Ashes – were England's.
I wish I knew. Obviously, the choice is between dropping those who haven't been performing, or sticking with them and hoping they get through it. The former, though, would cause some serious problems for the team hierarchy since both Ricky Ponting (captain) and Michael Clarke (vice-captain) are the two who've struggled the most this summer.
To my knowledge, no Australian captain has been dropped from the test side – or from the captaincy (i.e. they're still in the side but no longer captain) – in recent times at least. Mark Taylor remained captain despite a very poor run – averaging less than 30 with the bat in both 1996 and 1997.
He, however, hadn't lost three out of four Ashes series.
I don't follow the state competition – which provides the pool from which the test cricketers are drawn – anymore, so I don't know whether there are any obvious choices the selectors can look at for inclusion in the squad. But there are no doubt a few players who might now be keeping their mobile phones a little closer to hand than they would have a couple of weeks ago.
What's also helpful is that, once the Sydney test is finished, we don't play test cricket again until the tour of Sri Lanka, scheduled to be sometime in mid-2011 – so we've got the rest of the summer of domestic cricket to see who's showing potential.
Fingers crossed the selectors will be able to put together a better, more cohesive team than the one we've got now – and, most importantly, will be able to challenge England in the next Ashes series in 2013.