Saturday, 5 December 2015

Pink balls & Aussie cricketers

Day/night test cricket played with pink balls arrived in Australia last week.  The home team beat the Kiwis by three wickets, aided and abetted by a poor DRS decision that may in hindsight have decided the match.  The pink ball swings, (England will fancy bowling with it) but looking at the scorecard the ball may have dominated the bat a bit too much.  Whatever, I'm sure test cricket under lights is here to stay.

Elsewhere England have thrashed Pakistan in the limited overs matches, winning the ODI series 3-1 and the T20 3-0.  The latter series provided much excitement and two desperately close finishes, all very entertaining.  England's cricket is moving in the right direction in all formats of the game but in Test cricket we are moving slowly and still don't know what our best XI is.  The next match begins on Boxing day in South Africa, this will be a tough series but I expect England to at least compete.

I think most cricket fans are fair in their assessments of opposing players, we respect great players and good sportsmen from all the cricketing nations.  However as a passionate England supporter it has not always been easy to respect the Aussies, for a long time they caused us too much pain.  2005 changed that, having seen the great team beaten I for one allowed myself to appreciate them, a little.  When they all retired it became much easier.

The first Aussies I really became aware of were the Chappells, Rod Marsh and the fearsome Lillie and Thompson.  Both these latter two were never at their best when touring England and rarely that threatening.  The first Aussie to really get under my skin was Alan Border who was a dour, miserable bastard but a tough captain and a great cricketer.  He was the sort of batsmen who seemed to play few shots but when you looked at the scoreboard he was racking the runs up.  He also had a rarely infuriating habit of picking up the odd wicket with crap slow bowling.

Border was captain the first time I saw the Aussies play.  This was a day night game against the West Indies at the SCG.  Border was bowled by Carl Hooper for just 1.  Aus scored 234 with 82 from Geoff Marsh and 61 from David Boon.  The West Indies bowlers included Ambrose and the greatest, Malcolm Marshall.  The batsmen included Lara, Haynes and Richardson but Carl Hooper top scored with 77.  WI ended well short of the target with the wickets shared by McDermott, Reid, Whitney and SR Waugh.

 For me the best Aussie cricketer of the last thirty years was Steve Waugh, it is a little known law that you cannot mention his name without using the word 'tough' at some point.  He probably produced more heart breaking moments in Ashes tests than anyone else in that time and seemed to always do it when the team needed it most.  How many times did Steve Waugh walk to the wicket with the score around 150-4 and the opposition in with a shout, then just stay in and accumulate runs.  That bloke was hard as nails.  Waugh scored 34 in that Sydney ODI but the next time I saw him in the flesh he punished England for 78 not out.  (Ian Healy did well too!) This was 1993, the first test match Old Trafford which is famous for a certain leg spinners dramatic entry to Ashes cricket.  That all happened on day one and I watched it unfold on the BBC but on the fourth day I was at the match.  Also playing were Border and Merv Hughes, a big lump of a man with a huge moustache who looked like the sixth member of the Village People.  He was the target for much grief from the crowd but he had the last laugh when he bowled Gatting off the last ball of the day.  You couldn't help but admire Hughes as he ran in all day and never gave up trying.

Shane Warne will probably go down as the greatest cricketer of this generation and is certainly the best spin bowler I've ever seen.  I can't say I particularly like the Warne that sits in the commentary box but he was a hell of a player.  Warne played the mental games as well as any cricketer ever has.  He was great and he knew it; he exuded confidence/arrogance.  As mentioned I saw him play at Old Trafford and was there when he had Atherton caught at slip on his way to 4-86 and eight wickets in the match.  I saw him again at Trent Bridge in 1997 where he took 3-43 and along with McGrath and Gillespie bowled Australia to the Ashes.  Only Graham Thorpe stood up for England with 82 not out.  I was in the crowd in front of the pavilion when the fat bastard danced with a stump on the balcony.  Warne caused me pain on that day and on very many others but but it was a privilege to see the best slow bowler of all time.

That day began with Australia precarious at 167-4 and when Caddick removed Steve Waugh early on we hoped England would be on a roll, bowl Australia out and chase down a small target to square the series!  That hope was crushed by two batsmen.  I saw Ian Healy's first test hundred at Old Trafford in 1993 and four years later he spanked us for 63 and took the game away.  Adam Gilchrist is the most renowned Aussie keeper of recent times but for me Ian Healy was the better player behind the stumps.  The other player was Ricky Ponting who scored 45 in a match defining partnership with Healy.  I couldn't stand Ponting when he played, especially as a snarling/gloating captain but by god he could bat and comes across as a nice bloke now he's retired, I like him in the Com box.  Ditto Glenn McGrath even if he is the most biased commentator around but a great bowler!  He also caused me agony at Trent Bridge in '97 removing Atherton, as usual then blowing away the tail for 3-36.

I didn't get to an Ashes match for a long time after that so missed the greatest team and greatest agonies endured by England.  The Aussie teams captained by Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting were truly great and pushed the boundaries of test cricket.  Gilchrist always came across as a decent bloke but by God he annoyed the hell out of me when he batted.  I admired Langer when he played, seemed a good bloke but went down in my estimation after he retired, when he slagged off the England team prior to the 2009 Ashes.  It was hard work ever liking Hayden though.

The more recent Aussies have been easier to like as in the last decade we've won five series against their two.  I respect Mitchell Johnson for coming back after all the stick we gave him and I think England fans like him really.  In truth he only had an effect on one of the four Ashes series he played in but in that one he was superb.  Brett Lee was a bloody good bowler and provided some classic moments in Ashes cricket in victory and defeat.  I particularly enjoyed the sight of him bowling to Piers Morgan.  Ryan Harris was class, his injury probably decided the Ashes this year.  Peter Siddle is probably my favourite of the recent Aussies, a bloody good bowler and a modest man.  He never stops trying.  I can't believe Australia don't play him more as he is difficult to get away and takes wickets.

I saw Ashes cricket again in 2013, the fifth test at the Oval.  A game mostly remembered by England nearly pulling off an unlikely win on the final day.  From memory we followed that passage of play on TMS while we watched Essex play at Colchester.  For once we were there for the first day, Aus won the toss and batted.  Anderson removed the vile Warner early on and Shane Watson LBW (usually a walking wicket if ever there was one), came out at no. 3.  However on this day he smashed us everywhere and ended up making 176.  He battered Kerrigan who'd made his debut and was promptly smashed right out of test cricket.  This was one of Watson's rare good days.  He looked like he should/could do everything and anything but ended up doing very little in test cricket.  He seemed to have the talent but not the intelligence and rarely caused us England fans much grief but every dog has his day.

Chris Rogers opened that day and its hard not to admire this bloke who didn't get a decent crack at test cricket until well into his thirties but proved to be absolute class and a really decent bloke.  He did struggle with Graham Swann and it was he who had him caught that day.  This brought Michael Clarke to the wicket, a real top class player who was well liked apart from the 2013/14 return series where he behaved like a prick.  He redeemed himself this summer as a sportsman who took defeat on the chin.  He has had a fair bit of practice in his Ashes career.  He didn't score many that day, bowled by Anderson and this brought another walking wicket to the crease.  Stephen Smith made an unbeaten half century that day and went to three figures on day two.  I think that may have been his first test century and he's made a few since.  He could go on to be a future great and he's starting to piss me off.

The next Ashes series will be in Australia in a years time.  The way recent series are going the home team will start as favourites and if the series goes to form there will be a fresh batch of Aussies to break my heart and earn my loathing but a few years after they won't seem so bad,

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