Saturday, December 17, 2011

Australian Cricket, The Romance Is Over

This is it.

The pits, the crypt, the absolute bottom of the barrel. Since their ridiculously efficient 2007 world cup victory, Australia cricket slipped slowly as their champion team started to age while all warning signs were ignored. The ultimatum is now with us.

Here in 2011 it surely cannot get any worse than this. This, a loss to the New Zealand test team, and in Australian territory. Look back in recent history and forget the Ashes collapse, the world cup loss, even the dreadful 47 all out... one certainty was that the Kiwis *always* lose to Australia in test cricket. 18 years since any loss to them, 25 years on Australian soil.

Ok boys, your best fake smile now.  © AFP

To lose to what is mostly a sorry New Zealand line-up means it is official, that the romance is over. Australian cricket is dead. You would even feel inclined to sympathise with them, if they hadn't piled on the misery for so many years. Its laughable now to hear these one-eyed commentators attempt to immortalize the likes of Phillip Hughes.

It was predictable in many ways, they had an embarrassment of riches and created an egotistic bubble and a winning culture that made them seemingly invincible. They were the team that everyone loved to hate, the only ones allowed to make stupid series predictions and single out batsmen as targets while the rest of us lived in the fear that they were probably right. The resulting aura meant that most opposition wilted at the very sight of their line-up.

They had the right to talk it up, and that right is gone. There is no aura left and they are being exposed brutally for what they are, eleven mere mortals. Lets take a moment to compare the old Australia to these ho-hums...

1) Matthew Hayden vs Phil Hughes - A batting butcher who would swing his meat cleaver and carve up any attack resembling weakness. Hughes is Chris Martin's bunny, enough said.
2) Justin Langer vs David Warner - The silent accumulator who never gave you an inch and played out his innings with nothing but patience. Warner is a Twenty 20 cricketer, and his daft handling of the tail help cost Australia the New Zealand match.
3) Ricky Ponting (young) vs Usman Khawaja - Would come in and happily smack around any loose bowling at a great strike rate. It was all so natural for Ponting, who has been replaced by a Chanderpaul like character. Khawaja has fight but will quickly disappear unless he starts producing.
4) Damien Martyn vs Ricky Ponting (geriatric) - Martyn was the definition of a touch player, a subtle batting technique built on precision timing and a hearty slice of Mark Waugh like cockiness. The current Ponting is built on reputation alone, and never ceases to look rusty.
5) Michael Clarke vs Captain Michael Clarke - A young buck who used to go out there and make batting look easy given he had the perfect batting order around him. He is currently their best batsman, but he is no captain. Australia badly need a skipper who gives slackers a smart kick up the rear.
6) Michael Hussey vs Michael Hussey - The law of averages is inevitable. Hussey was no Bradman but he was responsible for a lot of rescue acts. Too bad that he has smacked harsh realities given his real moment of need.
7) Adam Gilchrist vs Brad Haddin - Any advantage that a bowling team had got blown away by the man who redefined lower order counter attacks. As an able wicket-keeper he was essentially two players. Haddin's idiotic shot selection needs to stop being defended with the Sehwag inspired comment "that's how he plays". Sehwag makes runs, there is a difference.
8-11) Warne/Gillespie/Lee/McGrath vs ???- That bowling quartet ensured that there was constant pressure at every angle. You had the full works, pace, bounce, accuracy and quality spin. In the current crop, not a single player would have even made Australia A of the 00's. Peter Siddle shows that Australian spirit but nothing more, while Mitchell Johnson has invented himself as the bowling equivalent of Ashraful.

Australia clearly forgot about the next generation, and a team with enough depth to fill three squads suddenly can't even find eleven players worth mentioning. What happened?
  1. The IPL, and hence the ugly love child the KFC Big Bash. Its a strange mix of dodgy shots and Rugby League commentary.
  2. The overcooked swansong finishes. While the endless praise and tributes went on and on, did anyone stop to promote the next generation?
  3. The never ending finishes. Ricky, you are done... stop embarrassing yourself.
  4. The crazy axe. You got away with sending Bevan and Hodge on their way, but to drop Simon Katich was unforgivable.
Somebody fire my script writer.  © Getty Images

And so Australia now has a generation wide gap to fill, and the current source is the horrid T20 format. At this rate the Indians should arrive here and walk away laughing, especially if there is a fit Zaheer Khan available.

The recovery road for Australia cricket will not be easy. Heck it might even be West Indian.

Related Reading:
The South Africa Collapse
The Angry Ricky Ponting

Friday, December 2, 2011

The Vettori Tragedy

It was 1997 when a certain Daniel Vettori first turned up, a spectacled baby-faced cross between Harry Potter and Goldilocks known only for his ability as a left arm tweaker. He batted at number eleven on debut behind Geoff Allot, who is the owner of test crickets longest duck. Few would have expected great feats from the man.

Nobody eats my porridge  © Action Photographics

Fast forward fourteen years and the mighty achievement list stands as follows:
  • Most wickets
  • Most experienced
  • The only bowler the Australians choose not to attack
  • Successor to Stephen Fleming as captain
  • Three time world cup semi-finalist (out of four)
  • Champions trophy finalist
  • Stand-in coach
  • National co-selector
  • Best batsman

Thats right, best batsman. Epitomized brilliantly by his recently dogged, lone ranger innings of 96, which would have given him the most centuries for any current New Zealand batsman. Unlike the Taylor's and Ryder's who may have better batting averages, they did not face the supreme pressure that Vettori faced at usually 6 wickets down for not many. They did not have to bowl all day. And most importantly, they have far more natural batting ability.

Vettori does not possess a crunchy Tendulkar cover drive, or the easy swivel and pull of Ponting. What Vettori brings to the table is more common sense than the rest of his team combined, a knack for finding gaps and scoring quickly, and absolute discipline and control of his shot selection. Anything that is not in his zone is dead batted or ignored, there is almost so such thing as a loose shot. If you are going to remove him, you need to damn well bowl a ripper.

Its not even worth counting the instances when Vettori was left standing amongst a collapsed heap of junk. The tragedies that he had to endure over the years is almost Shakespearean.

Why do I bother getting up  © Getty Images

Perhaps the most telling story of all, he was near hopeless at the batting crease for the first six years of his career. You always hear of batsman tailing away and losing that natural timing and hand-eye, how often do you hear of a batsman continuously improving?

The numbers simply do not lie:

Span Mat Inns Runs HS Ave SR 100 50 0 4s 6s
97-02 44 64 878 90 16.25 44.59 0 4 11 102 2
03-11 63 100 3446 140 40.06 62.98 6 19 7 422 15

Somewhere in 2003 Vettori must have got struck by lightning, with a bolt of inspiration everything improved. All of his centuries came after 2003 along with 19 of his 23 fifties, his strike rate shot up to a healthy 62 and his average, the supposed benchmark statistic, more than doubled. Anything near 40 marks a genuine batsman. 

So hats off to The Daniel, long may you continue to forge runs in a team hardly deserving of your skill, wit and determination.