The Ashes: a captain’s reckoning

If Alastair Cook and Michael Clarke want to understand just how the Ashes can redefine a captain’s legacy, then they needn’t travel far. The Oval, in fact, would be a good place to start – at the door of Ricky Ponting, whose reputation as a captain suffered so greatly as the loser of two Ashes’ series to the English that it tends to overshadow the fine work he did as a leader of a fine Australian team and leading some of the finest cricketers of any generation. Yet that is what the Ashes can do, make or break captains.

One senses that Michael Clarke was aware of that fact, when he opted to tackle the issue head-on in his press conference, summising: “I’ve read it will make or break my reputation as a captain. Personally, I don’t feel like that.”

He may not, but as the great Vince Lombardi opined: “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing”.

The history of the great and good of English and Australian captains have been shaped by the Ashes. Allan Border’s reputation as a captain is forever forged by the “Mr Grumpy” persona which emerged during his team’s all-conquering 1989 tour. Or could an Englishman name any other opponent which the great Len Hutton or Ray Illingworth defeated in a series, yet the Ashes remain indelibly linked to their name and their successes in those series are writ large in their reputation.

Or consider a recent example – Andrew Strauss. The former England captain, who has entered retirement with his reputation as a leader of high standing still intact, has largely found his greatness built upon the back of his statesman-esque turns in two Ashes series, whilst ignoring the fact that he couldn’t topple the best Test team in the world and found himself at loggerheads with his finest batsman. If the assessment of Strauss’ captaincy is a little harsh in pointing out the (few) wrongs, it only goes show how Ashes success can overshadow all flaws, however small, and forge reputations.

Yet while reputations can be made, they can easily be broken. Nasser Hussain’s captaincy career was fortunate to survive that call on the first day in 2003, and while his tenacity and tactical nous as captain were seldom disputed, his misfortune in coming up against a rampant Australian team means he may never quite get the respect afforded to his predecessors, nor too Michael Atherton, a respected captain of England, but one whose career could never quite conquer the Everest that was winning the urn. Then consider Kim Hughes, a young man, a young captain, but one for whom the Ashes and Ian Botham would haunt quite remarkably and whose repute as a player and as a leader, is forever associated with those events of 1981.

What history tells us is that both Clarke and Cook should be wary of what the Ashes may bring. Both are new to this (ignoring Clarke’s one Test in 2010), and both will soon realise that if playing in the Ashes is very different to every other Test match, captaining in one is a whole different matter altogether.

Clarke, unlike Cook, has had time to forge a considerable reputation as a captain – a sparky, exciting, aggressive captain perhaps like his mate Shane Warne could have been, he has been a bastion of excellence in Australia’s era of ordinary, and at times singlehandedly kept them standing. But Australian’s love winners, and Clarke has yet to prove definitively that his method can bring them victories and that he can make this team a winning one.

He is hardly helped by having a team weakened considerably with the departures of Mike Hussey and Ricky Ponting, but nor has some of the disciplinary issues dogging Australia’s tour of India and now of England, been a positive reflection of the man management within the camp. Cricket Australian may have believed it was Micky Arthur who was at fault, but it is hard to imagine such matters occurring so damagingly on the watch of a Border or a Waugh.

While for Cook, it is a different matter. His reputation as a captain is in it’s relative infancy, and while he appears to be akin to his predecessor, Strauss, in being a man who puts great store in patience and plans without great innovations. He appears to be well respected, capable of leading the way with word but mainly by deed in letting his bat do the talking, yet on the field his method has yet to show the spark of genius which inhabits Clarke’s captaincy modus operandi. And such an approach can, if it doesn’t yield results, can quickly cause the critics to turn. More importantly, unlike Clarke, Cook’s must also cope with that great captaincy killer – expectation. He is succeeding a serial Ashes winner, with a team which is clearly fancied as the favourites by the fans, the pundits and the bookmakers (who normally know better than most), and yet if the wins do not come as many expect, then the pressure inevitably will grow on a young captain with an awful lot to lose.

The reality for both is that the next 10 Test matches will do more to forge their reputation as a captain than any other they play for the rest of their career – Michael Clarke, winning captain of the Frank Worrell trophy, doesn’t quite have the same ring as Michael Clarke, winning captain of the Ashes. Given the limited lifespan of current international captains, it is not inconceivable that come the next Ashes series in 2015, both England and Australia could have new captains in post.

Thus for both, the next 10 matches become even more critical. Whatever the outcome, one man will win, and the other will lose, and their reputations could well be determined by the Ashes, a captain’s great reckoner.

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Phil Hughes: Hope, Hype and the Slow Death

By any stretch of the imagination, Australia’s tour of India has been bad. A constant diet of bad batting, bad bowling, bad decisions and perhaps worst of all, bad luck. The latest case was Phil Hughes’ dismissal on the final day – an untypically poor decision from Aleem Dar to a ball which, according to the replay, was going down the legside. When things go against you, they really do go against you.

For a man whose previous five scores had been four single figures and a scratchy 19, this was some respite, but he remains a man under seemingly endless pressure and playing like it as well. In an underperforming team, Hughes’ failings have been highlighted mercilessly despite the travails of his other more established colleagues (Clarke apart).

It wasn’t supposed to be like this for him. Just four years ago, Hughes was not so much setting the Test Cricket scene alight as erupting like a firework upon it, becoming the youngest batsmen ever to score two centuries in a Test match against a rampant South African attack containing Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel in only your second appearance will do that.

Just then, when the world was at his feet, the words of Neil D’Costa, Hughes’ mentor, who said “I’ll tell you this; this kid will go all the way”, appeared prescient. An Australian team, lacking a quality young batsman since Michael Clarke burst on to the scene, appeared to have found their era’s Don Bradman, Doug Walters or even Victor Trumper, young Australian’s who achieved extraordinary things.

Unfortunately for Hughes and Australia, history will record something very different. England refused to buy the hype and bounced him out of Test Cricket and put a severe dent in his reputation, and bar the occasional cameo there has been nothing quite to match the giddy heights of his debut. Not so much a Bradman, Walters or Trumper, he appears to be akin to David Hookes – a prolific run-scorer in domestic competitions but one who himself admitted that he struggled technically to cope with the rigorous demands of Test cricket.

But while Hughes’ travails in international cricket remain unrelenting, the question is rather whether Australian cricket can really afford to give up on him.

Domestically Hughes, with the second highest average in Sheffield Shield cricket (behind one Ricky Ponting), has had a prolific season. Bar old heads Ponting and perennial run-scorer Chris Rogers, only Mark Cosgrove and Alex Doolan as potential competitors in first class cricket have performed as well – one unselectable for spurious reasons, the other as yet inexperienced. Nor has his probable replacement, Usman Khawaja, performed as capably. If first class cricket, so often the previous indicator of Test readiness in Australia, is anything to go by then Hughes should by any definition be up for selection.

He almost seems symbolic, symbolic of a system which is failing in its duty to prepare Australia’s players adequately for Test Cricket through an insufficiently demanding domestic competition. Symbolic of a system which glorifies it’s young players too quickly without providing them with time to develop (remember Khawaja-mania?) and a cricketing setup which appears to look unkindly on its players operating their own form of preparation – hence D’Costa’s stinging rebuke against Cricket Australia’s refusal to permit him a one-on-one session with his young protégé.

The truth is that Hughes is what he is, a capable young player who at the age of 24 has the potential to iron out the technical flaws that are holding his game back. He is younger than Mark Waugh, Darren Lehmann and Mike Hussey were when they had scored their third Test Century yet still remains apparently on the cusp of being drummed out of Test cricket for the third time in his young career.

He appears to be a victim of his own success, a prisoner of the heightened expectations which greeted his initial triumphs in Test cricket and the reputation it brought with it. While Waugh, Lehmann and Hussey honed their game in first class cricket, Hughes has been promoted and talked up in international cricket – finding himself having to learn in an environment that is as unforgiving as they come. Little surprise he always bears the look of a man with the weight of the world on his shoulders.

And if Hughes does ultimately fail, Australia have some hard questions to ask themselves. A young player of almost prodigious talent is finding his career strangled by the weight of expectation placed upon him and the realisation that he is not the player he was heralded to be. It has been this reputation which has built his international career, but it could also be the burden which breaks it too.

The Ashes: Chris Tremlett selection shows England are in it to win it in Perth

All signs point to Chris Tremlett rather than Tim Bresnan replacing Stuart Broad in the England team for the third test.

Bresnan’s credentials as an experienced international bowler, not to mention a strong and consistent one capable of mastering the Fremantle Doctor, as well as his superiority as a batsman were believed to have tipped the odds his way.

Yet Tremlett is very much the coming man in terms of selection.

A surprise choice at the start of the tour-given that he hadn’t been selected since 2007-but on the face of it perhaps a wise one.

Tremlett’s career is one of underachievement owing in part to an injury-ravaged career, a personality and disposition which lent many to label him “weak” and a promise which ought to have brought him more international appearances.

But a move to Surrey has reignited him, getting him fitter and stronger physically and mentally and shifting him from his comfort zone. Now he can look forward perhaps to more international appearances given that Tremlett has every attribute to succeed at the highest level, which many people have identified in him from the start of his career.

Certainly what England will get now is a focused individual who is in good form so far this tour, bar his last appearance where he bowled tidily rather than threateningly. But his combination of good pace with speeds from between 85-90mph, height at 6ft 7in and consistent control at line and length. As far as attributes go his mimic those which Broad gave to England most closely.

But more importantly he, out of all the possible candidates, will pose a bigger threat to Australia’s batsmen.

And really that is the point about England, and this tour. They are looking to threaten Australia in their own backyard.

When you’re picking a four-man bowling attack, going for the most consistent and the most likely wicket-taker is important. But this is also a move by England to show that their focus is as much on taking Australian wickets rather than focusing on the better all-round option in Bresnan.

Bresnan, a safer bet, would have offered a better all-round balance both with the bat and in the field, but Tremlett provides then with a better cutting edge. In the past England would have played it safe but this selection speaks volumes for the attitude which both Strauss and Flower are using to tackle Australia.

Leading 1-0 in the series, it would have been tempting to play it safe on a ground where England’s record is poor and bat out a draw with a line-up which bats well down to number 10 with Bresnan.

Instead in Tremlett they have sacrificed the safety net and opted for the biggest challenge to Australia’s batsmen. It is a bold move which shows England are focused on winning; Tremlett’s selection probably gives them the best chance of doing just that.

 

The Ashes: Second Test England and Australia Player Ratings

The best of England’s best over the past decade? Or the worst Australian performance in nigh on 30 years of continual success?

Well, in truth it was a bit of both, but for England it was a performance which was from start to finish absolutely fabulous, while for Australia more like an absolute farce.

Player Ratings

England

Andrew Strauss – 6

A 4 for his batting, where he left a straight one from Bollinger which didn’t bounce as much as he thought, but an 8 for his captaincy which though still a touch conservative was more or less spot on.

He may never pull a rabbit out of the hat like Pietersen’s wicket with the last ball in day 4 again, but he also made the wise (and brave) choice to bat on in day 4 and secure the runs needed to make victory secure.

Alistair Cook – 9

A tour to remember after his 06/07. His first innings century was a brilliant, gutsy performance which showed no signs of fatigue despite coming just days after his marathon effort in the first test.

Without doubt the form man in this line-up and he’ll need to keep it up for three more tests yet.

Jonathan Trott – 8

One of the big reasons why this England team is far better than it’s 2009 equivalent. A gutsy 78, which was surprising only for the breezy nature of his strike rate and also the manner in which Australia fed balls onto his leg stump. Now averages more than any other English batsman per innings, a remarkable achievement.

Kevin Pietersen – 10

A man who scores his highest test score and yet still leaves the field screaming “I’m an all-rounder” after claiming a vital wicket deserves nothing less than a 10. Century which could set the template for a sustained era of brilliant, risk-free strokeplay from a player who was once again the batsman we all know and love-two years gone but boy it’s nice to see KP back.

Paul Collingwood – 7

42 runs, lovely catch of Ricky Ponting, just another solid day from the ever-reliable Collingwood who despite being outshone by his colleagues, gave the Test a rather celebratory farewell by diving full-length across the Adelaide pitch mid-deluge.

Ian Bell – 9

In the form of his life, hitting the ball as sweet as anyone has seen him in years, and looking every inch the batsman we know and love. Surely not long before he and Collingwood switch places in the order, Bell now need a move up the order his talent, and newly-found temperament deserves.

Matt Prior – 8

Breezy knock at the end helped keep England’s score ticking over once the bigger boys had there fun. His keeping was again very good, and the fact people dwelt on the fact he dropped a tough chance off Hussey on the final day spoke volumes.

Stuart Broad – 6

Injury has wrecked his tour, but he bowled well in this game prior to that abdominal tear-particularly in the first innings where he was unlucky to pick up just one wicket.

Graeme Swann – 9

If England do win the Ashes, it will be down to Swann. His ability to take wickets on the final day is pivotal to the team. More importantly he showed he can dry up an end when the ball is not turning and proved that those who doubted him after the first test had better eat their words.

James Anderson – 9

Fantastic first innings, merely very good in the second. His bowling put England way ahead from the off with four wickets including Ponting first ball, and then his two wickets at the end on day five helped speed up the finish. Without doubt a much improved bowler.

Steven Finn – 8

Has a happy knack of taking wickets which England will hope continues. Bowled poorly on the first day, but bowled his best spell of the tour with a decent bit of reverse swing coming around the wicket. With Broad’s injury, Finn’s position takes on huge significance, but the signs are he’s not letting anyone down just yet.

Australia

Shane Watson – 7

Two fifties, no hundreds. If ever the issue with Watson was shown in figures it was those two. A great starter, a poor converter when Australia really need big scores if they are to compete. Bowled tidily, in contrast to some of his colleagues, and the wicket of Collingwood was deserved.

Simon Katich – 5

Torn achilles rules him out of the series and Australia will miss him. Despite a diamond duck-the third ever in Australia’s history-he looked in decent nick in the second innings before falling to Swann.

Ricky Ponting – 4

A first ball duck and then a dismissal to a good ball from Graeme Swann rather summed up a miserable match for the Australia captain. Captaincy was sparky, if unimaginative. Needs to be less frenetic with field placings-which he changed constantly.

Michael Clarke – 6

Easy to criticise Clarke for the manner of his dismissal, far harder to praise him for the fighting spirit showed in his display. Probably deserved more than an 80, though the sight of him walking and then turning round after realising he may get away with it, will haunt him.

Michael Hussey – 7

The one Australian batsman in form, 93 and 52 were good rewards though ultimately inconsequential. The one man who looked capable of hitting Swann out of the attack, his dismissal to Finn was a truly awful one given the context of the final day of play.

Marcus North – 4

The less said the better. Clearly has a problem against Swann as he doesn’t move his pad out of the line and constantly gets trapped on the front foot. Meanwhile his first innings dismissal-trying to ride a ball down to third man but only edging to the keeper was almost a cry for help in it’s ineptitude.

Brad Haddin – 6

Kept ok, bar a straightforward drop off Trott on the second day. Lively with the bat-nabbing a half century in the first innings, he also sparked off one of the games talkingpoints by getting into a spat with Anderson.

Ryan Harris – 7

9 for bowling, 4.5 for his batting.  Removed for a king pair but also picked up a pair of wickets. Lively pace, constant effort and great accuracy made him very dangerous at times. If he lasts the tour England could find him difficult.

Xavier Doherty – 4

I feel sorry for him, clearly out of his depth and it’s by no means his fault. The myth of KP’s left-arm weakness has been exposed utterly, as has Doherty’s. 3 wickets in the serious at 100 runs apiece says a lot, as does the mooted return of Hauritz.

Peter Siddle – 6

Unable to replicate his first test heroics, he ran hard, ran fast but ultimately ran nowhere.  Probably the most accurate of all Australia’s seamers, but was unable to stem the tide once England got going.

Doug Bollinger – 5

It was, they told us, all going to get better with the return of “Doug the Rug”. Except it didn’t, it got worse. Bollinger is clearly more accurate than Johnson but lacks his all-round package or pace. Tired easily later in the match, which will be a worry.

The Ashes: James Anderson arrives in Australia

It’s far to say Australia haven’t taken to James Anderson. He is, as Justin Langer once put it, seen as a bit of a “pussy”.

The tag has become tiresome, and thoroughly outdated. Anderson is a man of many caps-which is understandable given the length of his career to date.But now he’s found one that fits: leader of the attack, all-round experienced international cricketer, the fast-bowling fielder in the world and not to mention a bloody good pace bowler. Not to mention a suitable foil for Graeme Swann’s antics.

He is now, a genuinely challenging bowler, not just in home conditions where he so often thrives, but now away from the swinging green tops where he thrives.

As Australia found out today, the boy who they dismantled with relative ease has become a man. Someone who can keep it tight, consistent and also deliver the odd dream delivery.

This is an important tour for Anderson, his nightmare record in the country is revisited time and time again-the average over 80, the whitewash of 06/07.

Despite excelling over the past year-54 wickets since the tour of South Africa began at a shade over 25-there remained some questioning over his ability to perform in these conditions.

In many ways Australia remains the last real frontier for Anderson to conquer. He has proved himself the world over, but English cricket tends to define itself by the Ashes.

In that regard Anderson has missed out on a real opportunity to write his name in gold. In 2005 he was horribly out of form and on the fringes, in 2006/07 he shouldn’t have been there as he was undercooked and unsteady with an action being messed around more times than Cheryl Cole in the days of Cashley, and in 09/10 a certain Andrew Flintoff and Jimmy’s good mate Stuart Broad stole the show.

Now, in the country which has traditionally been a graveyard for some of the good and the great English fast bowlers, Anderson is showing exactly what he’s made of.

Credit must go to his coach Andy Flower, and of course the influence of David Saker, but also to Flower’s predecessor Peter Moores, who first took a chance on Anderson and made him a cornerstone of England’s attack. It was a landmark moment in his career, and from then he has rarely looked back.

For a player who has been around for a long time, now he has an opportunity to achieve something remarkable, dominance in a country which has seldom been tamed by either bowlers or teams in over two decades.

Though it is still early on the tour, the signs in the two Tests so far are promising, and should his form continue, he could write his name into Ashes and English cricket history.

While many in Australia may continue to have their doubts, they can be certain that the Anderson of this series is a totally different beast to the one they met before. The ‘pussy’ is no longer about, but Jimmy Anderson has certainly arrived.

The Ashes: Peter Siddle is straight out of the Australian old school

For an Australian side currently undergoing something akin to an identity crisis the first day was privy to a performance which was very much out of the Australian tradition from a man celebrating not only his birthday but his first Test start in a long time.

Peter Siddle, the least sung of this Australian attack, sent out a chilling message on the first day of this Ashes series with six wickets including a hat-trick of Alastair Cook, Matt Prior and Stuart Broad to shudder their rivals

He’s quite a sight in full flow Siddle, a former wood cutter in his youth, and with a body which looks like it was carved out of it.

He’s a monster, strong, powerful with a determined run-up and an attitude which every captain would love from all their players. It is remarkable that Siddle’s place was under such debate, with the Australian selectors criticised for opting for him over Bollinger, but he proved more than up to the task.

He’s very much an Australian bowler, a macho mongrel of a bowler and a worthy competitor. Consistently hitting late 80s, extracting consistent bounce and aggressively attacking the batsmen at every chance he gets. It’s hard not to admire his wholehearted approach to the game and today he reaped the rewards.

In a team lacking some of the character of it’s predecessors, Siddle’s place is a reminder of just what Australian pace bowlers were all about-ability, pace and a healthy dose of aggression.

Think Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson, Merv Hughes, Glenn McGrath, Terry Alderman. Australian heroes one and all, not just because they bowled fast and took a fair dose of wickets but because they caught the mood of ordinary Australians, and had a fair dose of devilment about them

Siddle fills all those categories, unlike his compatriots Mitchell Johnson and Ben Hilfenhaus. Neither seems to find aggression easy, provide any hint of a threat or a sense of an aura about them. While the less said about their facial hair the better-Johnson looks a touch like Ron Burgundy of Anchorman.

Both struggled for wickets today, while for Siddle they seemed to come easy once he sorted his length out. Perhaps that’s another thing that makes him a typical Aussie-he loves playing against the Poms. Easy to forget that in his debut Ashes series he finished as the second highest wicket-taker.

Now he’s made his mark against them in the home series as well, and at a time when his team needed it. His six-wicket haul has put Australia ahead with honours after the first day, reminding them that for all their recent poor form, Ashes series at home are rarely lost by Australian teams.

This may not be an atypical Australian team, but they still have plenty of that old fighting spirit about them. Siddle may not yet live up to the great names of the Australian past, but he gave a performance which was right out of the old school and one his predecessors would have been proud of.

Kevin Pietersen and the “curse” of the left-arm spinner: Fact or Fiction?

If anything is indicative of the travails of Kevin Pietersen it is the notion that he is a bunny for any left-arm spinner. For a player who has thrived against some of the world’s best spinners-Shane Warne and Muttiah Muralitheran spring to mind, it is a concern.

The latest example was the straight ball bowled by Steven O’Keefe which Pietersen played around and eventually bowled him. That undoubtedly helped the case of Xavier Doherty for Australian selection, who is a capable left-arm spinner but one whose record is far from distinguished.

The worrying thing for Pietersen will be that this is nothing new. With the notion spreading that Pietersen is a bunny for left-arm spinners-something Yuvraj Singh once labelled him and not helped by his dismissals at the hands of the bowlers in surprisingly similar fashion.

The statistics are revealing: Daniel Vettori and Suliemann Benn are in the list of the top Test wicket-takers against Pietersen-getting him four and three times respectively, while Yuvraj Singh tops the list of wicket-takers against Pietersen in ODIs, while Vettori again features.

But they tell half the story. While Pietersen has been vulnerable to left-arm spinners he still averages around 40 against them. In total he has played 117 innings in Test cricket and has been dismissed 17 times by left-arm spinners-less than half of the total wickets against him from spinners, and both Shane Warne and Murali have got him more times than any left-arm spinner.

The issue stems more from the mode of dismissal, and in particular the much publicised problems Pietersen has about playing around straight balls.

Yet that is more about a technical glitch which Pietersen has when he is not in form. He is at his best playing straight, but when out of form his balance tends to fall away to the offside, and he can therefore play too far on the leg side meaning that he can end up missing the straighter balls while hitting to legside as he did against O’Keefe.

But in a way Pietersen has already worked hard to counter this, taking into account the willingness of umpires to give people LBW due to Hawkeye’s influence, he looked to move his front pad out of the way in Bangladesh. While he may have got out for 99, it was his highest score in an England match since January 2009, and was probably his last sign of real sustained form which showed he could play it and play it well.

Furthermore, some of the stats about Pietersen’s problems against left-arm spin are slightly misleading. Two of his 17 dismissals were attempting to smash a spinner out of the ground to bring up a century-think Paul Harris and Sulieman Benn. He has also been out LBW or bowled only 7 of the 17 times-hardly indicative of a problem playing round his front pad.

Looking further at his stats, he averages marginally less playing against left-arm spinners than right-arm ones (40.58 to 41.28). It suggests that for all the talk of vulnerability to a left-arm spinner there is little difference between left and right handed spinners, which given that Pietersen is renowned as one of the finest players of spin in the world makes the whole issue of left-arm spinners rather perplexing.

While his recent form in England suggested he had an issue more with the moving ball and the accuracy of Mohammed Asif-something which Ben Hilfenhaus will have noticed.

In truth the issue of weakness is probably more fiction than fact. A player of real quality who plays for years will invariably go through peaks and troughs against bowlers and types of bowling-think Gilchrist against Flintoff in 2005. While Pietersen’s dismissals to the left-armers are concern, they probably say more about his form rather than any weakness against a type of bowler.

The evidence suggests that if he can get back in form and adopt some of the plans he already has in place to combat bowlers and attack like he did in his earlier England days, then he could thrive again..  

While the statistics and the performances suggest Pietersen is anything but a bunny against the left-arm spin it’s up to him to prove the naysayers wrong. So, fact or fiction? Only the coming weeks will provide the decisive answer, but it could ultimately go a long way to deciding the outcome of this series.