Friday, December 2, 2016

Matt Renshaw - The Return of the Gritty Opener

Something bizarre happened last week, a test match batsman left the ball.

Left the ball? What is this, the 70s? Where are the boundaries, the DLF maximums? What is this nonsense about batting time! Leaving deliveries that should be left, putting the flashy garbage in the cupboard. Didn't Matt Renshaw get the memo? This is not cricket!

I jest, of course it is.

Let us compare him to that nutter David Warner, a player intent only on his damn-the-torpedoes crash and bang approach. No disregard to context and circumstance. Hey, it's earned him an average of 48, what's wrong with that? Honestly, probably nothing. In this day and age with our ridiculous batting tracks and lowered bowling standard, heave-ho test cricket actually works.

But if we take him back 20 years ago, and he would have averaged about 28, mincing about quietly at domestic level. Warner would have been clueless facing the likes of Ambrose, Walsh, Donald, Was & Waq, the entire Australian attack. Especially if the ball talks and the pitch misbehaves. The apparent "Modern" cricketers of his ilk would have been nothing but fodder in the yesteryear, including fellow T20 experts Martin Guptill and Rohit Sharma, cut from the same cloth.


That's not to say attacking cricket doesn't work. Viv Richards and Adam Gilchrist were geniuses of their time for being able to maintain a colourful strike rate while clad in whites, turning entire matches on it's head in a mere session. But the difference is that they had to combat genuine pace, quality swing, horrendous spin and alien conditions all the time.

Virender Sehwag tonking Murali and Mendis around was pure joy when no other Indian that day could even get the ball off the square. It's no fun if everyone else is whacking centuries too.

That's all changed. This breed is allowed to bat with utter disregard of what the ball might do, simply because most of the time the ball will do absolutely nothing. Watch the way modern batsman thump their front foot down, pre-determine the ball's trajectory, and swing their caveman-esque batting clubs away.

They could do it blindfolded, with the right timing. Without this ability to judge so easily, Dhoni's last over mad glory swings would result in flying stumps instead. It's baseball cricket, and it leaked into the five-day format.

We all love Ross Taylor, but hammering 290 in Perth is just insulting to the 18-year-old Tendulkar, who's century is worth 500 in comparison. It was a plain stupid match containing four centuries and two doubles, two high-quality seam attacks reduced to dust.

Is it their fault? Not at all. They are a product of the times, engineered out of the senseless thirst for fewer wickets and more whack. You play what's in front of you, and that's certainly not the fault of batsman cashing in.

But there is a larger problem, now we have a kid named Renshaw who actually wants to play for stumps, protect his wicket, leave anything not worth touching and force the bowler to do all the work. Sunil Gavaskar once said, the first hour always belongs to the bowler, and the rest belongs to him. The old-fashioned ideas of settling down, getting your eye in have slowly become obsolete. Mark Richardson did it and was appreciated, Akash Chopra did it and was discarded permanently in favour of another flat track robot Yuvraj Singh, a hopeless test match player.

The insanity in the commentary box summed up the bizarre situation, fellow stone-waller Mark Taylor and his blissfully clueless Channel 9 crew slammed Renshaw for "not getting on with it", while the aforementioned Warner and their captain threw their wickets away in typically idiotic fashion. Remember this is a team that was bowled out for less than 200 twice in the series, and there was a full day's play left to get the winning runs.  Renshaw saw off 183 deliveries for one dismissal, we were regarding someone finally with the stomach for a fight, and he's hung out to dry? Ludicrous.

His partnership with Usman Khawaja for practically zero runs on day one was a massive reason Australia was even allowed to build a score. His second innings ensured that the run chase was secured at least on one end. His die-hard mindset, regardless of a few play and misses, had Abbott and Rabada frustrated, two men who were otherwise raking in wickets for fun.

By taking away the commonplace batting-mistake mode of dismissal, Renshaw, and similarly, the freshly introduced Haseeb Hameed & Jeet Raval, are forcing the opposition to produce a jaffa to remove them, asking them to earn their wicket. Immediately the initiative was back on the batsman, 90% of the balls delivered weren't going to trouble them. The bowling quality was forcibly raised and in turn the value of quality shots. It was refreshing to see the brief return of smart cricket.

But sadly, here's what might happen. Renshaw will stick around for now given that Australia finally won a test match, but times will get tough again and his gritty 30s and 40s will be overlooked simply through the numbers game. There's always a flat pitch around the corner for Warner to keep his stocks healthy, at the end of the day selectors will look at raw averages and discard this young bloke.

A shame, because Day 1 of the Adelaide Test delivered that wonderful slow burning drama that a full IPL season could never deliver.

Friday, October 14, 2016

India vs New Zealand - Was it Fair?

And so, our humble Kiwi's failed to take off in India, hopes ruined completely by the two Ravis - Ashwin and Jadeja.  The Black Caps found themselves playing on moon surfaces, with the odd exception of a very New Zealand style pitch engineered to turn the underrated Bhuvi Kumar into a swinging menace. 

3-0 later it all begs the question, is it honestly fair that India is allowed to doctor their wickets to suit them?

The answer is, yes, why the hell not.

There is nothing wrong with home advantage, in fact it enhances the game. Winning overseas should be a big deal, the opposition should be walking into a cauldron of alien conditions and jeering home crowds. Victory on foreign soil should be special.

"Definitely a hint of turn out there today".  ©

This is what made India's drawn 2003 series in Australia so fascinating, then later Australia's 2004 victory in India described as if conquering "the final frontier", near impossible tasks made any shot at victory so compelling. 

India has to exorcise their seaming wicket demons, a subject previously clueless about (poor Tendulkar aside). Anil Kumble had to mine all day tirelessly to extract wickets, Jason Gillespie had to turn in an inspired fast bowling performance on pitches catered for spin. 

Yes we have padded home averages, suddenly Ashwin is a better bowler than Warne and Murali combined we're told. Kohli and Pujara, so hopeless in England, are racking up tons and double tons. Sir Jadeja is the worlds deadliest all-rounder, "The Complete Player" the post-match coverage proudly blares.  

Uh huh.  © 

Take these guys to face Jimmy Anderson in his backyard, and things get pretty ugly, but as before, why not? Averages level out, and that is the cost of building a home town team as India were in the 90s.  If you don't adapt, you perish, and fair enough. 

Then how did India climb to number one on the rankings? While a brilliant South African side sits on 5th? Does #1 in the ICC rankings truly mean number one?  Not if the cards aren't dealt fairly all over the world, and therein lies the issue, only India get to play doctor it seems. 

Remember what happened when they toured New Zealand in 2001-02? A spectacular series where tests couldn't reach three days, and ODI innings couldn't hit 50 overs.  Sourav Ganguly and his men let their opinions rip, and next time they came to town around we duly delivered them roads.

What was wrong with New Zealand favouring their own strengths? It was a fascinating series where we appreciated quality swing bowling, and the rare dogged batting that countered it. Shane Bond was near unplayable. Zaheer Khan, Ashish Nehra and Javagal Srinath finally had bowling conditions to work with. Rahul Dravid described his 76 in Wellington as one of the best innings of his career. 76, not 276. An inspired Virender Sehwag didn't seem to care at all and clubbed centuries in a series where sometimes 20 was gold.

It was certainly weird cricket, it was nothing like the 'norm' that popular opinion later dictated. But that didn't make it any less fascinating. Had India won that series, they would rightfully have stood tall, just as New Zealand would have if they managed to win this series. There was nothing wrong with a thumping then, and there is nothing wrong with it now.

Instead, we stand in a situation where New Zealand's green seamers are long gone, nobody is scared of touring the West Indies, even Perth has become a flat joke. Other than (perhaps) English conditions, it's become about who can stand and slog the longest. 

It's wasteful to throw away an intriguing element of the game, variety should be embraced not wrested away because one cricketing board says so. A tragic shame, and an unnecessary dilution to our game.

A couple of final musings:
  • What happened to excessive appealing, does the law even exist anymore? The last guy who tried to do anything about it was Mike Denness way back in 2001, and got his officiating career destroyed for his troubles.
  • How does Sir Jadeja get away with *deliberately* tampering the pitch with a fine equal to 2 minutes of endorsement work? Oh, they handed NZ five runs, I guess...
  • In those few occasions New Zealand were fighting along admirably, what do you call the laughable accusation of the 'deliberate drinks breaks' tactics?

Those dastardly cheats.

Throw away the spirit of the game when things go against the script? 

Onwards to more maulings then, Bangledesh next, in a series promised to be fascinatingly ugly.