It’s just the way it is. Australians would say the same when they come over to England. Some of the county teams are full of second XI players. Both sides would love to come across a stronger outfit to really be tested out. But you go round the world and it’s the same everywhere.
(Trevor Bayliss after England’s day-night warm-up match at Adelaide)
When something is wrong and the conclusion reached is, “It’s just the way it is,” there is somewhere, perhaps everywhere, a failure of vision, courage and judgement.
Bayliss’s comment has troubled me. It’s a resignation to the fact that national cricket boards care more about stacking the odds even further to the benefit of the already advantaged home team than they do about hosting a competitive series. It’s institutionalised cheating. It’s not quite overt, but it is a deliberate effort to deny opponents an opportunity to familiarise themselves with the challenges they will face in the international contests.
I don’t expect Bayliss to step out of line of this nasty consensus that visiting teams should be tripped and tricked on their way to the opening Test. His position as England’s first Australian manager of an Ashes touring team is liable to attract enough unfavourable reaction without him risking being characterised as tainted by keeping company with whinging Poms.
Compared to BCCI (who, it was widely suspected, were behind the initiative to keep spinners away from England’s three warm-up matches in 2012) and the ECB (who usually muster county sides containing mostly second XI players) Cricket Australia is not especially culpable. England’s warm-up matches coincide with full programmes of Sheffield Shield games, which limit the standard of the players available for the CA XI. But Ed Cowan and Cameron White are amongst the experienced players who haven’t won places in their state sides who could have given England more stretching opposition. When Tim Payne was recognised as a potential solution to the Australians’ wicket-keeping quandary, he was whisked away from his role as CA XI skipper to Melbourne to play for his State.
What should host nations organise for their guests as pre-Test practice matches? They should not be expected to field their first choice attack or expose a relatively new player who is being lined up for the Test series. That would be giving too much away to the visitors. From the follower’s perspective, it would also rob the build-up to the Test series of a little of its suspense. We want there to be an escalation in the intensity of the cricket and to avoid premature encounters between key protagonists. But an escalation does not mean a step-change.
A clue to the answer has been given by Cricket Australia. The national board did organise a day-night match at the venue where the pink ball Test will be played a few weeks later. The sheer novelty of this event meant that the visitors had to be allowed to acclimatise. The sheer commercial value of the match meant that the tourists could not be abandoned to flounder to a Test defeat inside three days at Adelaide.
But a slow seamer at Adelaide – even under lights with a pink ball – probably presents fewer unfamiliar challenges to the England team than the hard, fast track at the Gabba. For any touring team to be properly prepared for a Test series in Australia, they should be given practice time on a pacy pitch against bowlers of a similar kind, if not the same effectiveness, as the Australian attack. Yet the pitches at Adelaide and Townsville, in contrast to what is looming for England when the series starts at the Gabba, have been easy-paced, even sluggish.
As Bayliss acknowledged, it happens all around the world and he’s counting on the ECB being similarly uncooperative towards touring teams when England next play at home. To break this selfish cycle that cricket has slipped into, it might take an altruistic national cricket administrator to step up and offer a touring programme that puts the visitors’ needs at the heart of the itinerary. It does not happen now and the upcoming World Test Championship, weighted with extra context, may make things worse as each series result will have implications beyond its own duration.
On the other hand, I do see the corralling of (at least some) Tests into an over-arching competition as having the potential to improve the pre-series preparation given to visiting teams. The ICC could make the organisation of meaningful practice matches a playing condition for the tournament. Unlikely, I accept, but penalties could be attached to home sides failing to comply. Defining ‘meaningful practice’ is not straightforward, but in the International Cricket Committee, the ICC has access to an expert group who could set a standard, which match referees could enforce. I propose that the standard would include features such as:
- Visiting team management involvement in the preparation of pitches that warm-up games will be played on
- Warm-up opposition to include players with current (or if clashes with domestic fixtures, recent) first-class experience or junior international recognition.
- Team selection to reflect the bowling style of the home nation’s team (e.g. if two spinners likely to play for the home team in Tests, then two spinners should play in warm-up matches).
- Climate to be equivalent to that of the Test venues (e.g. don’t schedule a warm-up for a Brisbane Test in Hobart).
Test cricket’s attempt at a global tournament is both overdue and laden with risk. For it to be viewed as a credible competition and so mitigate some of the risk of it not engaging with a wide, international audience, the ICC must ensure that the neglect of the need of away sides to get meaningful practice ahead of Test series must end. All participating countries must acknowledge the importance of promoting closely competitive cricket and take responsibility for achieving it in their own countries. It’s just the way it should be.
Friday afternoon, just past half-way through the fourth innings, Middlesex’s disciplined, probing attack pushed it ahead of the other two teams contending for the 2016 County Championship. That was also the point when the Captain, my erstwhile opening partner, challenged me to name the 1993 Middlesex side.
Barely an hour later, Toby Roland-Jones bowled Ryan Sidebottom to complete a hat-trick, Middlesex victory and Championship. After the match, approaching the pub, 15 minutes walk from Lord’s, I enjoyed a moment of clarity, reeling off the last three names in the Middlesex side for their final match of the 1993 season. “… and Mark Feltham!” I cried, before my pals mobbed me and carried me on their shoulders to the bar so I would have the honour of buying a celebratory round.
Embellishment and simplification. The truth was altogether less straightforward.
At lunch Middlesex had a lead of 80 with seven wickets in hand. To push for victory, it seemed clear that they would need to continue the acceleration Malan and Gubbins had managed before the break. Yorkshire took the new ball, but wickets didn’t fall and Middlesex ticked along at 3 to 4 runs per over. Yorkshire’s fielders had stopped jogging into position between overs. The cricket was respectable, but not Championship-winning. Neither side had a grip on the game.
Processing the Captain’s question, I recited names of Middlesex county stalwarts of yesteryear: Barlow, Slack, Gould, Williams. I was recollecting real players’ names, but had telescoped the past, focusing on the era I had first followed cricket, 35-40 years ago. Gatting and Emburey came quickly to me, but they both spanned the period from my early interest in the game and 23 years ago. My mind had no traction on the question.
Around 2pm, a change of bowling, of tactics, of atmosphere. Lee and Lyth bowled in the manner described in footnotes to fast scoring records as, “to expedite a declaration.” The fielders, stationed away from the busy traffic areas of cover point and deep mid-wicket, watched balls pass them, or chaperoned balls to the boundary rope. Some instincts stayed keen: Brooks took a one-handed catch at square leg before he remembered what was going on. Franklin came into bat and was talking to his opposite number, almost before he had a word for his batting partner. Collaboration, conspiracy – a pre-agreed target was being set.
It wasn’t just my mind working on the trivia question. Four former teammates were pondering, keeping fingers away from smart phones. Tufnell, Fraser were added. But we were approaching stalemate. The Captain offered assistance – a big, juicy clue. “West Indian opening batsman.” We pounced on that: “Haynes” and our game was up and running again, fed more assistance, trying not to compromise the integrity of trivdom.
There were a few moments of unaided excellence. We diverted to consider the Worcestershire team that took the field against Middlesex in September 1993. Our regular quiz-master (and Worcester resident), reeled off the majority of the playing XI, climaxing with a nonchalant “Gavin Haynes”.
Yorkshire’s pursuit and Middlesex’s defence of the target of 240 in 40 overs brought sterner, more purposeful cricket. The players had to find the right balance of attack and defence. Errors might be irretrievable; a teammate lined up to replace any bowler or batter off their game. Yorkshire progressed to 80-3, slower than we had anticipated, but with Bresnan batting fluently a platform and the right personnel in place.
Our minds now attuned to the task, we gradually filled out the 1993 Middlesex order. Discussion roved from England players of the era, to players that moved counties that might have included Middlesex. Our focus narrowing productively.
The home team’s burst to victory – six wickets in fewer than six overs – rewarded the pressure applied by Roland-Jones and Finn. But it also fed off Yorkshire’s commitment to attack come what may. To eschew the cricketers’ obligation to make the other team’s victory as hard as it can be. To fulfil an agreement made with Middlesex, that shut out the hopes of Somerset, the other team that might have won the title; that would have won a very first County Championship if Yorkshire had fought for a draw once it knew it could not win.
My moment of clarity to remember the last three members of the 1993 Middlesex team never happened. Pure embellishment. The answers – John Carr, Keith Brown and Mark Feltham – were gifted to us, like batsmen swinging and hoping when the game is on the line.
Perhaps it’s common for achievements to feature a share of compromise and collaboration with the opposition. It would seem fitting not to lose sight of that, the ambiguity tucked behind the victory and to acknowledge some unease amidst, or at least soon after the celebrations it creates.
The final over run out of the Zimbabwe non-striker, Richard Ngarava, to give the West Indies victory and passage to the quarter finals of the Under 19 World Cup has detonated a full spectrum of opinion from cricket followers. I will construct a defence of Keemo Paul, the West Indian bowler who completed the run out, and argue that the rest of this tournament and the World T20 that follows shortly will be better contests because of his action.
For cricket-law essentialists, Paul and his captain Shimron Hetmyer, who confirmed to the umpires that he wanted to uphold his bowler’s appeal, acted within the Laws and so should not be questioned. Allied to this position is the contrarian, and often humorous, cabal who celebrate anything that discomforts those who argue for cricket’s lofty role while not applying the rigour that spots double standards and inconsistencies. And this incident most definitely discomforted this group.
But the conclusion to today’s match also sat uneasily with many who know the Laws and how to negotiate them and have long, unsentimental experience of playing, watching and officiating cricket. That uneasiness was partly because a game, boiling up into a grand finale, was cut short. No stumps were splayed, no batsmen frantically scampering home or fielders flinging themselves to stop or miss a ball. It was an unworthy end: the game of bat and ball abbreviated before bat even had a say in the matter.
More strongly than that, I suspect, was the notion that Paul had tricked Ngarava into his demise and not that Paul had caught Ngarava stealing down the pitch sneakily. I admit that seeing the footage, I immediately inclined to this view. The non-striker is standing, not advancing, bat in conventional fashion leaning back towards, but sadly not inside the crease. It took the third umpire to confirm that the motionless Ngarava’s bat was grounded on the line. Paul had no intention to bowl and participate in the contest that could win or lose his team the game.
Seeing that one ball, in isolation, it is easy to come to that view. Paul is the villain, who exploited the grey area between the Law on paper and how the game is played. Paul’s vindication comes, I believe, by looking beyond that single ball to the situation of the match.
Zimbabwe were nine wickets down, three runs from victory. Their last pair at the crease were in the team as bowlers. The senior partner, Matigimu, had scored a boundary – from his inside edge, past off-stump to the fine-leg boundary. There was a looming possibility that the match would end with batsman, keeper, fielders converging, sliding, diving towards the stumps. It could come down to a scrambled single from a mishit, deflection off the pads or ball running through to the keeper. We’ve seen so many matches end this way. And the odds are loaded in favour of the batting team when the non-striker leaves the crease early for this last mad dash.
If Paul, trusted (or burdened) with bowling the last over of the match, was to take his team to victory, he had to guard against singles scored from mishits and misses. He had to even up the odds. To wait to see if the batsmen were adventurous runners would be to act too late. There’s no complaints mechanism, or dispute resolution for the fielding team that sees a non-striker dashing to the danger end before the ball leaves the bowler’s hand. There’s just frustration and disappointment. Paul’s was a calculated decision to run in first ball and dislodge the bails.
Cricket’s lines are governed in two ways. Some lines – front and back foot no-balls, the creases when batsmen are turning after completing runs – are policed. Other lines – for example, the batting crease – are managed through competitive tension. With the former, the umpires have control. With the latter, the opposing players check each other’s excursions and retreats, jockey for advantage. The sport is better where competition is the governor. Policing of lines by umpires only happens where there is an absence of competitive tension. It is a necessary, but inferior substitute.
The position of the non-striker, relative to the crease, falls into the second category of line governance. The fielding team can rely on no policing of the non-striker’s move across and away from that crease. This is acutely, match-definingly crucial when a game is in the clutch. The fielding team must apply its own pressure and compete for control of that line. Surrender it, hope perhaps that the spirit of cricket will act as their proxy, and the single and with it the match is conceded.
Keemo Paul knew this and exerted pressure on the line; a pressure that would ensure any single run in that final over would have to be the full length of the pitch from, and not before, the moment he released the ball. It just so happened that his premeditated application of competitive tension caught the non-striker carelessly, not sneakily, out of his ground.
Paul’s action should now ensure that other matches in this tournament and at the World T20, coming to a tense conclusion, have batting and fielding teams competing over both ends of the pitch. Match-winning singles will have to be run in full, with guns jumped at the non-strikers’ peril.
It was clever, pre-emptive action that should eradicate future complaints and controversies about unfairness in close finishes. If I coached a cricket team, I would make it a tactical requirement of my side in the field to commit a Keemo Paul as matches approached their climax; and I would coach my batsmen to expect it to happen to them.
Stuart Broad is leading an England rearguard. Australia have not managed to dislodge him with the second new ball and England’s total, once fragile, is beginning to take substantial shape. In the final over of his spell, Mitchell Johnson heaves his shoulders into a bouncer that rears at Broad, who jolts backwards to evade the ball and ends up on his backside. Haddin takes the ball and tosses it up with a shout. Johnson, seeing his keeper celebrate, wheels round to Umpire Dharmasena. The bowler has his arms out-stretched and bellows an appeal.
Dharmasena must determine whether the ball flicked the edge of Broad’s bat as he tore his upper body out of the way of Johnson’s bouncer.
The Sri Lankan steps around the stumps at the non-strikers end and walks along the edge of the pitch. The Australian fielders fall silent, and stop on their way to bestow hand-shakes and shoulder claps on the bowler. Broad, having regained his feet, watches Dharmasena approach him, holds his bat in one hand behind his back.
Dharmasena, a metre from Broad, holds out his right hand. Slowly Broad passes his bat to the umpire, who takes the handle in his left hand and toe in his right. Turning away from the batsman and with the fielders still frozen in place, Dharmasena looks up and down the blade, turning it carefully to look closely at the outside edge. After a couple of seconds, he turns back to Broad, restores the bat to him and walks back to his spot behind the non-strikers stumps. All thirteen players have their eyes on him, as well as the 14,000 spectators and a dozen cameramen, several score photographers.
Dharmasena raises his finger. The Australians finally make their way to Johnson for celebrations. Broad looks down, and strides across the square towards the dressing room.
This flight of fancy comes courtesy of the French Open Tennis Championship. Played on clay courts, the umpire is able to adjudicate on line calls by descending from her chair, walking to where the ball landed to see precisely where the fresh mark is. Back in front of the microphone at her chair, the umpire gives the verdict by confirming the score.
It’s a distinctive and entertaining facet of clay court tennis. All that it would take for its application to cricket would be for contact of ball on bat to make a predictable and recognisable mark on the bat. If it could be done, if.. what an improvement on the various technologies of the decision review system.
Those of us wearied and annoyed by the ECB’s management of its limited pool of international standard male cricketers, enjoyed a little spiteful satisfaction last week. It seemed that Andrew Strauss’s decision to exclude Kevin Pietersen from England selection for the foreseeable future – in all likelihood ending his Test career – may deter the better qualified candidates for the Head Coach role. Pre-conditions, constraining who could and couldn’t be selected, made the role unattractive.
Today, however, it seems that Yorkshire Coach, Jason Gillespie, may want the role after all. Does that make the Australian weak-willed or status-hungry?
I am pretty sure neither is the case. It may be that Gillespie prefers the job with the KP question resolved without his involvement and so no comeback on him. More likely, I would argue, coaches with international aspirations are pragmatic beasts.
The teams they coach are only intermittently at full strength. Injuries, squad rotation, the lure of the T20 tournaments that clash with international commitments, or even retirement to earn more playing in another country’s domestic competition all have to be worked around.
Gillespie will also be very aware of the circumstances his peers, should he be appointed, work under. Duncan Fletcher began his stint with India with four batting greats, three of whose careers were in clear decline, installed in the team, holding up the development of the next generation of batsmen. Fletcher managed that succession to their timescale, rather than his.
Fletcher made it into the post-Tendulkar era, surely expecting to hold greater authority, but soon found the voluble Ravi Shastri appointed Team Director for most of his last year in the job. Fletcher would not have lasted long insisting on coaching without preconditions.
In the West Indies, Phil Simmons inherits a ‘West Indies first’ policy. On the one hand, it’s the strong backing that an international coach would want; on the other it may restrict flexibility the coach could take advantage of when the players pursuing T20 contracts make themselves available.
Being told to manage without KP is a far simpler task than that facing the coaches of South Africa, Zimbabwe and Sri Lanka, each of whom will confront preconditions set by politicians, not just cricket administrators. And it’s unlikely those preconditions will be as overt and as easy to abide by as ‘just don’t pick Kevin.’
Even Gillespie’s former teammate, Darren Lehmann, took on the Australia coaching role with limited room for manoeuvre. The Ashes squad had already been selected; the first-choice opener had been sent to the ‘A’ team as a disciplinary measure. Lehmann waited, worked with the players he was given and began to shape the team culture.
Strauss’s decision to exclude Pietersen will not have narrowed the field of potential head coaches. Whoever gets the role will understand that it’s not the sort of job that comes without preconditions.
The ECB has, apparently, made the decision to restructure the English domestic season and reduce the County Championship to 12 games per team. The motivation is to make the most of the commercial potential of T20 and also to bolster the 50 over one day game ahead of England hosting that World Cup in 2019.
The County Championship, for much of its existence, was a 32 game tournament, with a potential 96 days of action for each team. A year (or two?) from now, it could comprise at most just half that number of days’ cricket: 48. It’s almost as strong an assault on the traditional county game as the removal of counties from the T20 tournament, in favour of city franchises. And perhaps, the ECB is holding back from that second reform as a means to achieve the former and creating the space for an expanded season of limited overs competitions.
The arguments against this change from those heavily invested in the County Championship will brand it a trivialisation of a grand tradition of the English game, with complaints about the damage that could be done to county clubs that have served communities for generations and the short-changing of many county members by cutting the number of days of first class cricket they could watch. These all seem legitimate concerns.
It will also be contended that it marks a retreat from the primacy of first class cricket, with consequences for England’s Test cricket. That, indeed, would seem to be the case looking at how a new balance is being struck. But I am less convinced by this aspect of the opposition to the reforms. I accept they may be anti-county, but I don’t equate that with them being anti-Test team. I don’t see why twelve games of quality first class cricket isn’t adequate exposure to the longer form of the game. I don’t have any scientific proof, merely the observation that other nations, whose Test teams either outperform England, or share with England a pattern of periodic up and down swings, play even fewer first class matches in their domestic seasons.
I concluded, in a recent piece about the prevalence of first class cricket, that my assumption that the longer form of the game was being played less and less was wrong – with the exception of in England. What we are seeing is a convergence of England with much of the rest of the Test-playing world. I don’t pretend, however, that the strongest devotees of the County Championship will find any solace in that.
There’s a board-game revival (1). A thriving sub-culture exists of folk sitting at a table, rolling dice, moving counters and turning over cards that might support or seal their fate.
I would like to pitch an idea to the manufacturers riding the crest of this unlikely trend: the KP recall board-game. The objective of the game is simple: to get KP to play at Lord’s, or failing that, Headingley. Between the start and the desired destination lie a series of favourable and adverse factors. Think of them as snakes and ladders, or ‘CHANCE’ cards that might send you to jail, or to collect £200 at the ‘Go’ square.
The snakes, or cards you want to avoid, would include: ‘accept multimillion contract to play in IPL’, ‘succumb to knee injury’, ‘old adversary appointed to senior ECB post’, or ‘journalist tricks you into talking candidly about your potential England teammates’.
But there are also ladders, or good cards. ‘Coach with whom you have clashed is sacked’, ‘new chief of English cricket appointed’, ‘play in county championship cricket’ all move you in the direction of Lord’s. ‘Bell shuts hand in car door’ and ‘Aussie appointed to coach England’ are like rabbits pulled out of hats.
You would have to negotiate match situations. There you would dread ‘face three slow left arm bowlers’, but feel pretty satisfied with ‘opposition attack spearheaded by one-cap wonder’. And you would want to tuck away the ‘dropped in slips’ and ‘dropped off skier’ for use at a crucial moment. The ‘score a triple-hundred (290 more than the second top score)’ card might be a bit far-fetched to make it into the version that goes into production.
With a mix of good fortune and sound judgement, you could navigate KP all the way to the home of cricket and a Test match recall. On the other hand, bad luck or carelessness could see KP become a T20 mercenary.
As with our great game, there’s another possible outcome, other than the win or loss. Because it’s a board-game, this outcome is the big boot that crushes our little playing pieces, scatters the dice, grinds the cards and ends the game for good.
KP is meeting Strauss, whose boots could end the game, this very evening.
Note 1: Evidence of the existence of a board-game revival can be heard here: http://www.theguardian.com/technology/audio/2014/nov/26/board-game-tech-weekly-podcast
Second teams, up and down the land and across the world, are peopled by a mixture of those on the way up in the game, those on the way down and those who have reached their highest level. Second XIs are natural places of flux.
This new book describes a second XI where there are participants on the way down (Holland and Kenya), but the rest may never progress to a higher level. The lack of meritocracy in international cricket is a clear theme of this collection of essays about cricket in ‘Associate’ nations.
Writers Tim Wigmore, Peter Miller (and contributors) have chronicled the history and current state of cricket in eleven Associate (i.e. non-Test playing) nations. There are intriguing stories and many surprises. I am still shaking my head at finding out from the very first pages of the book that I share a love of cricket with the Afghan Taliban.
In another sense there are lot of issues familiar to those of us in cricket’s senior nations. Conflict between the elite and grassroots development, mal-administration, unease over the representation of non native-born cricketers, over-dependence on a handful of star players or charismatic organisers, the consequences of a narrow defeat. What makes the Associate experience different is how fragile their cricketing culture is; how vulnerable the whole sport is to bad luck or judgement. Kenya provides the cautionary tale: World Cup semi-finalist to lost ODI status in eleven years.
And for many in cricket, that’s the point: if the game in these nations cannot stand on its own two feet, it doesn’t deserve senior status. If you disagree, or hold that view and are prepared to have it challenged, you will welcome the robust response. Wigmore, Miller and co haven’t just prepared a polemic, though. The book is well-researched and choc-full with yarns and characters. The key matches in each nation’s history are recounted in exciting detail and woven into the longer term story. Associate cricketers – whether through the interviewers’ skill or their own openness – give good quote.
The World Cup has provided the ideal context for this book. Four associates have participated. They have suffered some drubbings, but so have the major nations. Many of the most exciting games have featured them on the field. I expect, as they depart Australia and New Zealand, they do so in credit. That, many aver, is their best protest against the ICC’s plans to exclude possibly all Associates from the 2019 World Cup.
Not so, says author Peter Miller on Twitter (@TheCricketGeek), with typical contrariness. Miller argues that the case for Associate participation should not depend upon performance, but a pure commitment to the game’s expansion. A gulf exists between that point of view and the approach of the game’s governors. Just as a few good results at the World Cup can only help the Associates’ cause, so the timely publication of this well-written, highly-engaging book about the neglected history of cricket in its outposts and the cricket establishment’s responsibility towards cricket in those countries may just help move the argument forwards.
Readers who would like to express their dissatisfaction with the ICC’s plans to limit the 2019 World Cup to 10 teams can sign this on-line petition.
I can draw the attention of readers interested in cricket in the non-Test playing nations to the following blogs that participated in the 2014 cricket blogger survey:
Idlesummers (global coverage; includes links to the Associate and Affiliate podcast, featuring Russ Degnan and Andrew Nixon)
Play for Country Not for Self (European, especially German cricket)
The Samurai Cricketer (Japan)
Adamski Loves Cricket (various)
Disclosure: no payment or non-monetary reward was received for this review.
Eoin Morgan’s achievement at setting a new England one-night stand blackmail record of £35,000 almost went unnoticed this week. It took eagle-eyed statisticians in the Tasmanian police force to draw the cricket public’s attention to this feat.
Retired cricketers were quick to downplay the significance of this new high score. “These days, the lads jet all around the world, rarely spending more than one night in the same city. It’s very different from the game we played. Month after month, we were at home with the wife and kids. It’s just not fair to compare performances between the two eras.”
It doesn’t just come down to opportunity according to one England great of the recent past. “The equipment had transformed things. Take the size of beds. Swinging in one of these whoppers, well you’re bound to get lucky.”
Mike Gatting, whose record Morgan superseded, was keen to praise his Middlesex colleague. “Eoin is second to none in the pyjamas. He has that X-rated factor.” Gatting found one aspect of Morgan’s new mark unexpected. “Knowing what an unorthodox player Eoin is, I was a little surprised that it was a straight single that brought him the record.” Gatting couldn’t help musing on the changes three decades had brought. “I mean, how much would a roll with a barmaid in Brum be worth these days, what with the Internet and all?”
Head Coach, Peter Moores, saw it as a warning for the so-called experts who have been taking every opportunity to find fault with the England team. “They keep saying we’re not fancied. The skipper has shown that the people of Australia, the hosts of this World Cup, look upon our guys very favourably.”
In other news, England’s new record ODI run scorer, Ian Bell, was reticent about discussing his own achievement, apologising for distracting the team and its supporters from England’s upcoming elimination from the World Cup by scoring a run-a-ball hundred in a warm up match. He reasoned, “Obviously, it’s embarrassing. But at the end of the day, the lads failed to defend 300, so it shouldn’t have done too much damage to the unit.”
In a pointed remark about the recent impotence at the top of the England order, Bell added: “Obviously, for an opener having two balls at the start of the innings can help.” This begs the question of the particular handicaps that England’s previous opener was playing under.
The 2015 World Cup was being hailed as the saviour of one day international cricket by the time the quarter-final places were settled. That first month of the tournament had seen regular close finishes, control of other games swinging dramatically from one team to the other (and occasionally back again). The associates had shown themselves to be competitive, with Afghanistan snatching a victory against Sri Lanka, who bizarrely opted to rest Jayawardene on a day his calm batting could have made the difference.
There were stories of renewal: the West Indies, four months after leaving India mid-series, their players and Board in dispute, dealt their erstwhile hosts a further snubbing with one of the most comfortable victories of the group stage. For India, this was a solitary defeat of a strong opening phase.
Alastair Cook also found vindication leading England to a record five World Cup victories on the trot, as well as being leading run scorer for his country. Defeat to India in the quarter-finals left England’s performance indeterminate – not poor enough to require a clear out, nor strong enough to dispel doubts.
Amidst the drama and excitement, Australia exuded a sense of calm and purpose. Wickets taken, their batsmen reaching milestones, even victories were greeted with handshakes, slaps on the back and simple acknowledgements to the crowd. There were no extravagant celebrations or reveling in the misfortune of opponents. They approached the tournament as a campaign, conserving energy, pacing themselves and, of course, bearing the burden of the loss of Philip Hughes.
India, who had already shown unexpected toughness in the Test series in Australia that preceded the World Cup, looked Australia’s most likely adversaries. Their semi-final opponents, Pakistan, had played scrappy, wasteful cricket. Somehow they wrought disorder on India’s smooth progression and in a tight game of mini-collapses and lower order rallies, Pakistan were in their element and squeezed into the final.
The following day, in the other semi-final, Australia neutered South Africa. Michael Clarke played that match – the first time in the tournament he had appeared in consecutive Australian fixtures. His back, his hamstring and his energy levels needed to be managed. By playing alternate matches in the group stage, Clarke was kept in one piece for the knockouts.
Australia faced Pakistan in the 49th match on the 43rd day of the tournament. Pakistan batted first. A steady start was on the verge of spectacular acceleration as Misbah launched an assault reminiscent of his innings in the 2nd Test against Australia in November. Only five months ago, but feeling to Australians to belong to a different era. But it wasn’t to be a throwback as Misbah slipped, aiming for a fifth six, and buckled the stumps with his back leg to be out for a rapid 46. The innings closed on 282 – a total that Australia had exceeded four times already in the tournament, although never needing that many when chasing.
Warner and Finch opened with a partnership of intense, high-energy cricket. Seeking to score off every ball, but not with their characteristic boundary-clearing shots, they upset Pakistan’s calculations. By the 15th over, the score was 90 when Finch, finally challenging the boundary fielder, was caught off a lofted pull.
The bowler was Saeed Ajmal. The off-spinner was a major focus of pre-tournament conjecture. His new action had been cleared by the ICC in the weeks leading up to the tournament. His team’s own misgivings about the impact of that change were apparent when he didn’t make the eleven for Pakistan’s first two matches. But thereafter, he settled into a groove that made him the most economical bowler at the tournament. Ajmal limited himself to off-breaks and arm-balls, but batsmen, if no longer mystified by his variations, couldn’t find a method to collar him.
Finch’s dismissal derailed the innings. Over the next twenty overs, Australia lost another six wickets while runs were extracted painfully. Misbah made manifold bowling changes, seeming to disorientate the Australian batsmen. The most dizzy and out of sorts of all, was the skipper Clarke. Yet, he had enough tenacity to hold onto his wicket. If he was hoping for calmer times, harmony wasn’t to be his saviour. Instead it came in the form of a James Faulkner hurricane.
Hitherto in the tournament, Australia’s serene progress had meant Faulkner’s muscular batting was always kept in reserve. But at the Final, with his team finally knocked off its axis, he had license to let rip. Faulkner hit more boundaries in three overs than his side had in the previous 35. Ajmal was mauled with three successive slog-swept sixes. Faulkner found the freedom, which had eluded all batsmen in the tournament so far, to clobber the Pakistani spinner.
With only three wickets in hand and fifty still needed off seven overs, Clarke called for steadiness from Faulkner and took the lead role as they stepped down from the latter’s assault to a more measured and calculated approach.
Into the final over and Australia required eight runs to win. Misbah brought back Saeed Ajmal. Faulkner erupted onto the second delivery. Flat batted and batted flat it hurtled between two legside boundary fielders for a four. One of the required four runs came the next ball with an under-edge sweep to short fine leg. Michael Clarke was now on strike.
Ball four, Clarke shimmied outside leg and met the ball on the half-volley. He drilled the drive straight in the direction of the long-off boundary, but with one obstacle in its way. Ajmal’s left wrist took the blow and intercepted the ball, knocking it to the ground, where the bowler pounced and stayed down until the physio appeared next to him to apply analgesic spray.
Ball five was the inside edge mishit that wins so many matches, but not this one as Clarke’s left ankle deflected the ball bobbling past his leg stump and through to Sarfraz Ahmed.
Clarke and Faulkner met mid-pitch, perhaps hoping to drift inconspicuously to each other’s station. Pakistani players, led by Misbah converged on Ajmal, who turned his back and waved away his teammates. Misbah, arms outstretched, face contorted, begged his bowler’s attention. Ajmal was full of quiet rebellion.
Clarke returned to the crease. He marked his guard, then stepped away, looked up into the ring of night sky framed by the MCG stands, inhaled and readied himself.
Ajmal stood thirty yards away, flexing his left wrist, bruised or worse by Clarke’s drive and flicking the ball with his bowling hand. The Pakistani fielders had retreated to their positions, shifted this way and that by their captain, but ignored, thought irrelevant by Ajmal.
Umpire Llong looked over his shoulder and mouthed ‘play’ to the bowler. Ajmal shuffled to the wicket. As he entered his delivery stride, Clarke stepped lightly across his stumps and his left foot began to stretch forward. Ajmal pitched his torso back, appearing to hesitate for a moment with his right hand lost to the batsmen’s view at the base of his spine. Lithe and loose his arm rotated upward, propelling the ball towards Clarke, who had lowered his body behind his front pad. The Australian’s bat swung from the off-side to fetch the ball heading for his off-stump. As the bat swept through its arc, the ball dipped. It pitched in line with Clarke’s intended point of contact. The bat’s true swing intercepted the trajectory of the ball’s travel, but the ball deviated left from the pitch, passing through to Sarfraz who parried the ball to the ground with his right glove.
Clarke, choosing to play a shot on one knee was left bowed at the moment of defeat. Ajmal raised his arms above his head, taking his turn to gaze at the Melbourne night sky. Sarfraz stood looking at the ball on the ground, two foot outside off-stump. Faulkner gesticulated, flexing his arm at Umpire Llong, who looked across at his colleague Dharmasena, seeking an answer. Llong moved his hand to his earpiece, where off-field assistance could be found, then lowered it again and carefully lifted the bails from the stumps. Clarke and Faulkner slumped. Misbah, in an echo of his bowler’s action seconds before, hesitated as he began to run to Ajmal, then pitched forwards to acclaim his bowler and banish doubt in Pakistan’s triumph.