Friday, 21 February 2014

St. George’s Park pitch can’t stop enthralling cricket

Morne Morkel: bent his back with little reward
There are flat pitches, and there are slow pitches. Then there is the pitch which the groundsman has served up in Port Elizabeth. In South Africa’s first innings, there wasn’t a single edge which has carried to the men waiting in the slip cordon, and the seamers didn’t manage a single wicket past the sixth over. That’s low, slow and flat. 

There’s a small window for dismissals there. The bounce is low, so if you can swing one into the pads, it will most likely hit the stumps. The ball stops swinging early on though, and the wind doesn’t help consistent swing by blowing the seam off its axis. After that ten overs with the new ball it’s a patience game.

So that makes it easy for the batsmen right? Surely they’d enjoy a pitch where even Mitchell Johnson is mostly neutralised? Wrong. It’s too slow for batsmen to time the ball consistently , and once it goes soft, even AB de Villiers, in the form of his life, couldn’t bat fluently. 

Nothing for bowlers bar restricting the batsman, no opportunity to drive with confidence for the batsman. It’s like a sub-continental pitch, bar for the fact there’s precious little spin. Lyon turned a few, mostly out of the footmarks, but the pitch is holding together, there’s no turn or seam of the straight, and batsmen have to work very hard for their runs.

The only thing to get the batsmen out is themselves most of the time, but despite that the only batsman to had any kind of measure of the pitch was David Warner, a man more used to ill-judged dismissals than most. He drove imperiously early, even then with risk, Vernon Philander getting fingertips to a caught and bowled chance in his follow through, and one flick narrowly evading the catching mid-wicket.

Australia had just lost Chris Rogers, to an early LBW while the ball was still swinging. Then Wayne Parnell happened. Into the attack, and in his first three balls he managed what no seam bowler had in the previous 589 balls in the Test match. He got a nick to carry, through to the keeper, then another one. 

Whatever the pitch is doing, cricket can throw up weird stuff. Marsh pushed at one of the few swinging balls shortly after Doolan had done the same thing to one that had moved marginally away from him. Still, that was only the tenth over. Clarke and Warner were now in, and if they could survive five overs and get themselves in as the ball went soft, staying in would become easy, although scoring runs less so.

With such a lifeless pitch most of the time, the odd times when something does fly through surprise everyone. When Morkel got one to jump at the splice, Warner fenced, nicked and de Villiers couldn’t get his hands up quickly enough to hang on to it. 

Australia had been driving well, but this wasn’t the pitch to be doing that once the ball had softened. It may have been only the 18th over, but the ball had stopped moving, and as Philander got one to stop on Clarke, he would have realised halfway through the drive that it was a bad idea. Dean Elgar snaffled the catch, and it was night-watchman time. 81-4.

Thanks to those two fantastic balls from Parnell, and Morkel cranking it up like never before, Australia’s charge was interrupted, and the match held some interest. No thanks to the pitch though. No thanks to South Africa’s fielding either, two catches grassed, plus one review declined when Lyon nicked through to de Villiers. Warner and Lyon were both there at the close, but both could have been removed.  

South Africa’s first innings go slow starting to be proved right. Sure, Australia crashed a few boundaries, but playing strokes was always fraught with risk. At stumps on 65 off 67 balls, with ten fours, Warner had played well, but also with a great deal of luck.

Australia’s constant desire for attacking cricket has got them unstuck before, their top order departing carelessly more times than not in Ashes first innings. But now, on a pitch slower than any in that series, can Warner, Smith and Haddin mount another counter-attacking rescue job? If they do, they'll need more luck and poor catching. 

Thursday, 13 February 2014

Johnson breaks the pattern

It's no surprise to see South Africa start poorly on the first day of a series. They did that on their number one sealing tour of England, and here again. Then they ended the first day with England on 267-3. In this Test they had Australia on 297-4. Back in 2012 they picked up 7-114 on the second day to pull themselves back in to it. This time they did just as well to pick up 6-66. A familiar pattern, continuing.

All through the morning session on the second day, South Africa fought back steadily, getting the two overnight batsmen out before they could fully bed in again, running through the tail quickly enough to keep Australia under 400. It wasn’t an incredible fightback, but a quietly confident one.

Then Ryan Harris’ first over was milked for ten runs by Graeme Smith. The first ball went for four, imperiously pulled through mid-wicket, another went through the slips for the same again, then he managed a comfortable two. The familiar pattern being stitched; South Africa playing below par on the first day of the series, then upping it on the second.

At that point, South Africa would have been anticipating putting together a partnership pushing towards towards first innings parity. In England in 2012, Smith and Hashim Amla put on 259, before Amla and Kallis put on 377. There’s one big difference between England’s bowling attack of 2012, and Australia’s one now: Mitchell Johnson. He changed the whole direction of the game with his fourth ball. Slung into the pitch at 89.2 mph, it took off and flew up at Smith’s forehead. The only thing stopping it hitting the badge on his helmet was his bat handle, off which it looped to Shaun Marsh running backwards in the slips. Pure pace; a different game.

The bouncer was great, but just as great was the setup, reminiscent of Andy Roberts’ two bouncer trick. Firstly the slower one, barely slower, at 87 mph, but fended uncomfortably as it rose into Smith’s chest. Then the quicker one, detonated a foot shorter, bouncing a two feet higher, 2 mph quicker and much more deadly.

Then came the lull, South Africa in the eye of the storm as Amla and Petersen tried to rebuild. It didn’t last long, Johnson’s pace and a few back of a length balls got Petersen leaning back, and he nicked a slash outside off stump through to the keeper. He wouldn’t have played that shot to Harris or Siddle. Extreme pace scrambles the brain. That ball was 93.5 mph.

Next into to the abattoir was Faf du Plessis. He edged his first ball short of slip, then next Johnson over a vicious ball angling across him caught the edge at armpit height, and looped to Clarke at second slip. That first four over spell brought Johnson 3-10. South Africa could relax for a while as he was withdrawn.

In nine more overs spread over two more spells, Johnson only picked up one more wicket, McLaren, an all-rounder perhaps batting a place too high at seven, not really good enough for a quick full ball, nipping in a touch, clean bowled.

It remains to be seen whether South Africa react like England to Johnson. Whether he scrambles their brains into mush, or whether they realise that if you get through his initial four over spell with the new ball, it does get marginally easier later on, Mitchell Johnson has four wickets and a chance to come back next morning to terrorise the tail. South Africa’s pattern is gone, can they stitch it back together?

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Shaun Marsh’s moment

Shaun Marsh, in One Day colours
Nobody thought he should be there. He almost wasn’t. Shaun Marsh has had the peculiar distinction of being picked for this tour twice. Once he was called up to the initial tour party, before having to pull out through injury, then about a week later called up as an injury replacement for Shane Watson.

Marsh was first replaced by Phillip Hughes, but on his return to the squad he immediately leapfrogged him, and given that, as Daniel Brettig put it, “The tour selectors Darren Lehmann and Inverarity have been unable to resist Marsh's flowing form in the nets,” he was a shoo in for the first Test.

After both of the openers were dismissed early, Marsh had to settle in against the world’s best bowling attack with a fresh new ball, as his captain hid below him, again reluctant to bat at four.

Early on he looked good, as he always does. An inside edge down to fine leg for four to take him to six caused brief concern, but otherwise, he seemed to be getting in. One cover drive against Morkel looked particularly classy, but a scorching cut was dropped by Hashim Amla at gully. At that point he had 12 to his name.

Going from 16 to 20 with another fine cut shot, Marsh managed more runs than in an entire series when he last wore the baggy green two years ago. He wasn’t scoring particularly quickly; the flowing cover drives and cuts always look good, but turning the strike over can a problem.

The short ball caused a few problems, especially from Morkel. several pulls inside edged down into a painful area. But Marsh kept fighting. This was the opposite of the fluent, but flighty player Marsh has been stereotyped as being. Throughout the day, he kept leaving the ball, a few fours, some nuggety singles; Marsh was building an innings.

Around the 40th over, a couple of pinched singles off the last balls of overs kept Smith on strike for three consecutive overs. Marsh responded to 18 balls without any strike by demonstrating the IPL Marsh, skipping down the wicket and easing the unthreatening Robin Peterson over the top for a one bounce four. He followed that with a calm single, tucked into the leg side. Colour me impressed. Marsh was in.

At that point, with the big guns out of the attack, he calmly and quickly accumulated. A beautifully timed and placed clip through the leg side took him to 46, though his fifty came up with a gloved pull down the leg side, he fully deserved it. At that point his strike rate was up above 50, despite at one point having been well below forty. He eased into the game, but by that point he was chugging along nicely.

After tea, he continued the accumulation, a single came off the first ball of the session, and the singles continued to flow, with the occasional silky-smooth drive or cut for four. A couple of half-chances went begging, to Morkel at fine leg, nearly run out going for a third on his dodgy calf, then an edge short of slip on 96. Good running for a two, plus a single to square leg later, and Son of Swampy was on 99. Duminy was rolling his arm over at the other end, Marsh must have been licking his lips. It only took a couple of balls into the next over for Marsh to seize the chance and tuck a single down to long leg for his second Test hundred.

All this despite seeming to be struggling with an injury to his calf, Marsh celebrated then settled down to extend his innings to the end of the day and 122 not out.

Before we get too high on Marsh, it’s time to remind ourselves that he’s done this before. On Test debut against Sri Lanka, he hit a brilliant 141, before adding 81 in the next Test. In his first four Test innings he had 284 runs at 71, in the next seven he scored 17 at 2.43.

All the talk about Marsh before the series began was about injuries, and the inexplicable faith the selectors have in him. The question is now, can he build on this? Will he be a Marcus Trescothick, someone picked on a hunch, who turned out to take well to Test cricket? Or will he do what he’s done the rest of his career: start with style, then fail to score the consistent runs his talent suggests he can.

SB Tang has written well on Australian cricket’s fixation on Marsh as the batsman has underachieved over the years, and he’s right in his assertion that Marsh shouldn’t have been picked for this series; that his selection sends the wrong message to young cricketers. Marsh didn’t deserve a place on this tour, but he may well have been the right man for the moment.

If Marsh can he can add consistency to his other talents, it was an inspired pick. Judge Shaun Marsh after the end of the series, and after the end of the next one, and the one after that. Then we will see.

Friday, 7 February 2014

Despite wickets, Ishant Sharma still doesn’t know what he’s doing

Ishant Sharma: lacking adaptability
If you look at raw physical skills to be a great fast bowler, Ishant Sharma has a lot going for him. Height and genuine pace, those are the attributes which roughed up Ricky Ponting back in 2008, and made him into the man who looked likely to take over from Zaheer Khan in the long term.

A couple of years of reasonable success followed, but with a lack of big hauls. Then after a brief purple patch which brought him 31 wickets in five Tests against West Indies and England, he embarked on a dry spell. In 15 consecutive matches he failed to get more than three wickets in a match once. That spell brought him 23 wickets at 64.26.

Since then, he’s been marginally better, with 11 wickets at 40.63. Even with a six wicket haul today and yesterday, it still seems he doesn’t quite know what his plan is. His struggle is similar to Steven Finn’s, but whereas Finn has had tinkering with his action, the problems with Sharma look to come down to a loss of pace and confusion about his role in the attack.

At times, when bowling to Southee in particular, he attempted the enforcer role, but in one incredible over, he not only managed to discomfort Southee three times with short balls, but see two more of them travel over fine leg for six.

At other times he tried to settle into a line and length, but any chance of movement was lost by a seam so scrambled you could serve it with bacon and call it breakfast. It’s difficult to see how this would be deliberate. Occasionally he gets some lateral movement with these cutters, but more often he would be well advised to land the ball on the seam.

If he’s going to be the weapon, he needs short spells, and not too many of them, but he also needs to push his pace up. When he emerged as an international bowler he was genuinely quick, but as with a lot of most Indian bowlers, he’s lost pace since he burst on the scene.

Now the option opens up to him of being a Glenn McGrath style metronome. To do that, he’d have to straighten his seam. McGrath didn’t get 500 Test wickets by bowling cutters, he did it mainly by landing the ball on the seam, and letting the pitch do its work.

Despite all the issues, this Test brought his first five-for since 2011, an extraordinarily long gap for a bowler who has kept his place in the side throughout

Compare all this to Tim Southee. He had a more difficult to start to his Test career with the ball, but in the last year or two he’s been sensational. His first spell was a masterclass in bowling to a plan. Five balls out of six were on or outside off stump and an in between length. A few subtle variations among those lines and lengths, and crease position, a surprise bouncer or inswinger for the sixth ball, and the Indian batsmen were having to work very hard. Boult served up a few more loose balls, but also created chances and took two wickets himself .

Ishant may have had a good day today, but as any bowler will know, in one innings, the number of wickets doesn’t always correlate with the skill of the bowling. Ishant got two caught in the slips off half-decent balls, but one slashed to point, one driven to short mid off, one fortunate LBW and one brilliantly caught at long on.

While it’s churlish to deny him those wickets, as most wickets will come down to some sort of batsman error, in the long term Ishant hasn’t bowled well enough for these type of hauls to come more regularly than four times in 54 matches.

It’s all very well to blame his struggles on unresponsive Indian pitches, but that’s not borne out by the facts. In Asia he has 85 wickets at 35.05, not great, but not too poor considering some of the pitches he’s had to bowl on. Outside Asia where the pitches should help him more he has 70 wickets at 40.97. If you take out his wickets in the West Indies, he has 48 wickets at 53.47 in conditions which should favour seamers.

It all adds up to an odd sense that Ishant is bad at adapting to new conditions. In Asia he’s worked out his job and does it reasonably well, and on the bouncier pitches of the West Indies against a poor batting line-up, he makes hay. Then he is given conditions he should exploit, but against good batsmen, and he struggles to find a threatening line and length.

Compared to the master of angles and swing Zaheer, Ishant seems to be a remarkably unthinking and poorly skilled bowler. How much longer can he rely on his natural talent? Not much.

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

There is no number one ODI team

India and Australia: contenders, but not top dogs
Look at the ODI rankings. At the moment, Australia are at the top, two points clear of India, and seven in front of South Africa. They’ve got there by smashing a demoralised England side and thanks to New Zealand dethroning the previous numero uno, India, who until their 4-0 defeat in New Zealand, looked like a genuine limited overs dynasty in the making.

That poses a problem. Australia are a good ODI team, but they haven’t smashed their way to the top, they’ve got there via, as Homer Simpson put it, “The two sweetest words in the English language, DE-fault.” Now being top by default doesn’t mean you don’t deserve to be there, but the constant shilly-shallying of the top spot, passing itself around three or four teams, means that it’s hard to take seriously whoever has their turn with the baton this week.

There’s no era-defining one day team around at the moment, and that’s alright. When Australia won three world cups in a row they held the top spot in the ODI rankings for the best part of ten years, but as we go into the next event, despite it being held in the current number one’s backyard, it’s as open as it gets.

Australia could win it, sure, and if it were to be held tomorrow they would be installed as favourites, but anyone in the top eight of the rankings would feel they have a chance. South Africa are a great Test team, and if they ever get a coherent strategy for the one day group, they’ll be formidable. India have two great batsmen, as part of a batting unit that can make up for their mediocre to poor bowling.

England may be humiliated at the moment, but they were number one in this format not too long ago, and made the final of the Champions Trophy. You’d be a fool to count them out. New Zealand will be playing some of their matches at home and always seem to punch above their weight, Pakistan have a potentially brilliant bowling attack, Sri Lanka have classy batsmen and Lasith Malinga, and the West Indies have firepower and quick bowling.

Any of the top four have a good chance, and the other four are decent outside shots. It looks set to be a great World Cup, maybe only then, when one side comes out on top, we will have a number one ODI team… even if that isn’t then reflected in their ranking.

This disconnect also applies to the T20 rankings, Sri Lanka, losing World T20 finalists are top, India are second, and the last two World T20 winners are down in fifth and eighth respectively. Maybe too few games have been played to reach firm conclusions. India have played the least of the top eight with 19 in the rankings period, whilst Pakistan’s 40 is the most, but also fewer than the number of ODIs played by any top eight nation in the same period.

Does all this uncertainty call into question the worth of the ODI and T20 rankings? Without a World Test Championship anytime soon, the Test rankings are the best way to ascertain the relative strengths of the teams in that format, but in ODIs and T20s the best teams for any one time can be said to be the World Cup or World T20 holders.

Those tournaments are the only time in which the best available team is selected by every team. Whilst India value their ODI team highly, meaning full strength teams for all but the weakest of opponents, Australia and England have been duking it out in eight limited overs games with players rested hither and thither, and South Africa’s best ODI team is known only to those with a crystal ball. Constant weakened teams don’t make for meaningful contests, and by extension, rankings.

So, why do we keep the ODI and T20 rankings? Consistency. There are Test rankings, so there must be ODI and T20 ones. But are they needed? Perhaps only to make up groups for the World Cup.

South Africa are the best Test team in the world. That is a fact. You can deny it, but it doesn’t make it less true. It might change soon, but for the moment, it is true as it can be. But who are the best ODI or T20 team in the world? Nobody knows.