An Ancient Battle of Two Teams is Already Heating Up Courtesy of Cook and Clarke

With back-to-back Ashes series looming in 2013 it is the beginning of a new era for both England and Australia. We are waiting and the world is watching Alastair Cook and Michael Clarke. The race is on to see which captain can assemble their best team and persist with their own superlative form.

In truth it has been difficult to look at any cricket in 2012 and not watch Clarke or Cook. Both have spent more time in the middle than any other batsmen in world cricket of late. They are the leading run scorers this calendar year, they have recently been tasked with the leadership of their teams and both hail from entirely different thought processes.

In the white shorts, from the northern hemisphere home of cricket in England, Cook spent years as an apprentice in the school of Strauss. Reserved, traditional and charming on and off the field, Andrew Strauss was a great spokesman for the gentlemenly approach in the sport. Cook has taken this a step forward in his ice-cool presence with or without the bat, a hint of testosterone fuelled positivity and a freakish inability to sweat.

England's new captain Alastair Cook

In the yellow shorts, from the land down under, Clarke spent years in a joint  honours scholarship of Shane Warne and Ricky Ponting. The former preaching aggression, dynamism and an entrepreneurial instinct for victory and the latter, a working man’s rigidity, toughness, resolve and conservatism. Clarke has evolved into a dangerous fusion of the two. The Australian captain harnesses a singleminded will to win via aggression and experimentation alongside a fiercely pig-headed approach to scoring runs.

Australia's captain Michael Clarke

Alastair Cook and Michael Clarke, despite their heritage, do share some attributes. They both seem to buy the ‘daddy hundred’ theory of kicking on past three figures, they share a fresh optimism and more importantly they have both improved beyond the realms of expectation once awarded the captaincy.

Leadership can have an adverse affect on cricketers. Some players are born to excel within the ranks and others to thrive on the responsibility of inspiring their teams from the front. Flintoff’s maverick skill-set suffered immeasurably under the spotlight of the captaincy for England while Ricky Ponting’s game went from strength to strength, albeit before Australia’s dominance began to crumble. Cook and Clarke have both performed extremely well as captains.

Alastair Cook’s stats as England captain: 5 tests, 5 hundreds, 889 runs at an average of 127 with a high score of 190.

Michael Clarke’s stats as Australia captain: 18 tests, 7 hundreds, 1976 runs at an average of 68.14 as well as four double-hundreds and a high score of 329*.

Having just become the youngest player in the history of the game to score 7000 test runs Alastair Cook was hardly struggling prior to the captaincy. The greater improvement has come with Michael Clarke. Where he was a classy middle-order contributor he is now Australia’s lynchpin as Ricky Ponting or Steve Waugh before him. He is also the top run-scorer in test cricket so far this year with 1358 runs in 9 matches at an average of 104.46. Cook is close behind him however, and if the Englishman’s form continues in this series with India he could conceivably finish 2012 on top.

As far as their achievements are helping the two teams, Cook is ahead of Clarke. Scoring so many runs at the top of the order has an undeniably confidence building effect on the rest of the batting order. Whereas Clarke’s runs have come when the top order has often failed. You could argue this only makes his runs more valuable, however setting the tone is a more secure and responsible approach rather than mounting a rescue operation. Clarke should probably promote himself to number three and back himself to protect the younger men.

In any case, if Michael Clarke and Alastair Cook maintain their career and captaincy form into next year, the Ashes series will carry a fascinating sub-plot. The captains will be battling for team and individual supremacy. It will be the season of run scoring, outfoxing each other in the field and out classing each other in the press conferences.

James Rowland

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Perth’s Split Personality to Have Final Say

When you turn a shark on its back in water it enters a state of suspended animation and becomes as harmless and senile as a goldfish in a bowl.

Despite the wily efforts of Michael Clarke and Peter Siddle in Adelaide, thus far, this series has been a story of neutered bowlers, long batting innings and a scoreline every bit as tame as the pitches the cricket has been played on. The past three days at Perth have seen the series come alive with what feels like an interminable highlights package from two very aggressive sides, Australia and South Africa.

Inside the first five sessions twenty wickets fell. The pitch held its light covering of grass and both teams were rewarded for bowling a fuller length than the bounce at the WACA would ordinarily encourage. The ball never performed circus stunts however. The relentless collapse of wickets seemed as much a product of the conditions as the featherbeds the batsmen have been gifted previously in this series. The increased bite of the bowlers shook batting from its state of comatose.

With an appropriately respectful approach Faf du Plessis, yet again, showed runs could be accumulated. His unbeaten 78 rescued South Africa’s innings from the edge of a precipice to a competitive 225. The Australian lineup, all except Matthew Wade, failed to show the same application and were consequently skittled for 163. However useful South Africa’s lead of 62 may have seemed the game was not out of Australia’s reach.

Unfortunately for the hosts as the wicket began to bake in the Western Australian sun, the indifferent work rate from their batsmen simultaneously seemed to  filter down to the bowlers. From the slip cordon Michael Clarke witnessed both the conditions and his attack undergo an apparent lobotomy. The South Africans were happy to take advantage and began to feed on a series of rank half-trackers. It was not so much a case of cat amongst pigeons, as bull sharks in a trout farm.

The Proteas amassed 569 runs at 5.08 runs an over, courtesy of a fluent 196 from Hashim Amla and a symptomatically bruising 169 from AB de Villiers. It was a remarkable change of pace for the match and the series, given that Australia began the final innings of the test on the evening of the third day.

Clarke and co are chasing 632 runs for victory. There are six sessions left in this match. However unlikely it is that Australia get any kind of result, the conditions are unmistakably more conducive to batting. Although they beat the bat more often than their Australian counterparts, the South African bowling seemed significantly less edgy in Australia’s second innings. They should be made to work hard for victory against Clarke’s men.

Finally and fittingly, in this match that was touted as a ‘grand final’ for the series and for the number one world ranking, a result seems certain. We have a pitch that has drifted from faux pas to featherbed to thank. It yielded some life force for five sessions and then found a docile alter-ego, alongside a South African masterclass of measured mongrel with the bat.

With the added context of Ricky Ponting’s final test match innings pending the test retains its flavour and should continue to draw strong crowds. With more hot weather due tomorrow conditions should be ideal for batting and the home fans could well be rewarded with a real show of steel from Australia’s lineup and its former captain. If the tourists have their way and Australia crumble it would be an unfitting end to a tough, tight series.

James Rowland

Ricky Ponting: A Hero Without a Comic, A Script Without a Film

“Ironically, this is where it all started for me, I think 17 years ago, this [Perth] is where it all started, and that’s where it’s going to finish.”

This is not a cheesy tagline to a shallow film. It is the sentiment of a man who has written his own script. He has done so by harnessing his undeniable talent with the all important pillars of success; discipline and dedication. His hero status was never more clear than when the WACA crowd leapt to their feet for his penultimate innings last night, only to discover Nathan Lyon was covering for the champion for that evening. The roar when he does appear may yet be as memorable as his career. He is still my hero. He is Australia’s champion. He is Batman… I mean Ricky Ponting.

When Ricky Ponting came into my life I still kept a Batman figurine under my pillow. I was eleven. The year was 1999. Ponting, though clear of his superhero phase and well into the beginning of a preposterously commanding career as a batsman, was still tinged by shades of boyhood. After a drunken punch-up outside a bar in Kings Cross, Sydney, Ponting was forced to explain his actions to the press conference with a black eye. I had just been publicly reprimanded in a school assembly for vandalising the new toilet block at Drummoyne Primary, Sydney. I admitted my fault, as did the younger Ricky Ponting, though mine was sheer recklessness rather than alcohol abuse. These were watershed moments.

Meanwhile thirteen years later. Many runs, test wins, catches, facial hairs, shoe sizes, school grades and cricket articles later, you could hardly recognise either of us. Ponting is in the twilight of his career and has exchanged his devilish inner Tasmanian for visible vulnerability. The former Australian captain’s emotional retirement announcement in the sweaty basement of the WACA, preceded by a two year erosion of form, is disturbing on several fronts. I’ve lost a hero, I am now a ‘man’ and I may have to resort to fictional role models again.

I traded in Batman for batsman. A work of fiction for a man. Cape and cowl for bat and ball. Thankfully Ricky Ponting’s inescapably menacing batting powers meant I was so rarely disappointed. This was quite a feat. If in nothing else growing up can be measured by idolising the incredible but possible, in actual people. Although my batting average of 2.3 and right-arm slow-medium outswingers did little justice to my love of cricket, the trade-off marked a shift in maturity. Ponting has done cricket a great deal of justice, playing with the sinewy solidarity of the old school, playing aggressively, playing all formats and above all, always teeming with a fierce level of integrity on and off the field.

Having my youth tied so intrinsically to the career of my idol has backfired now he is on the way out. If Ponting is 37 that means I am 24. His right of passage from youthful champion to a slow Hollywood walk into the Perth sunset (with Brett Lee playing the score) has coincided with my youth, from that first pimple to the current Movember moustache. Scarily enough this makes me a man. I am out of boyish excuses. The right of passage is passed. I felt aggrieved to the point of mourning, much like Michael Clarke, at having lost the comfort of the constant in Ponting. Though, I was spared the tears of the current Australian captain. He had lost his mentor. I have after all, only met Ricky Ponting once and have only seen him bat live once.

I spent an afternoon at Sussex County Cricket Ground in 2009 watching Australia warm up for their Ashes series in England. Ponting stroked a classy 71 at nearly a run-a-ball and pulled a six just wide of where the old man and I were sitting. That same day I collected my history degree result and caught AC/DC live at Wembley Stadium. It was a whirlwind but I still remember the sweet sound of Ponting cracking his infamous straight drive down the ground in Hove. Three days prior to this I ran into the Tasmanian talisman in a corner shop in nearby Brighton. I waited for his chewing gum transaction to cease, wished him luck, firmly shook his hand, caught a dose of steely, gum craving fuelled squint and a ‘thanks mate’, then departed.

People say you shouldn’t meet your heroes. People are wrong. Although it felt odd looking down at a man who I’ve come to regard as a giant, being in direct contact with the human and the alter-ego behind the champion only breeds greater respect for their achievements. Besides I have never tried to pretend I wouldn’t like to drive the bat mobile.

Heroes of any sort normally cannot retire. They usually perish in the face of a nemesis or become old and bitter because of their inability to fight the good fight any longer. Ponting will do neither, nor will he be reinvented by Christopher Nolan, or Sam Mendes for that matter. Harbhajan Singh, Ponting’s cricketing nemesis, has made his peace. Ponting has given us everything. Along with Ian Chapple my favourite innings of his was the 156 against England in 2005, pulling a test match from the flaming furnaces of farce for Australia. That effort was Ponting through and through. Uncompromising, classy, adaptive and counter-attacking. He has left behind a capable apprentice who bleeds willow sap in Michael Clarke, as well as a completely new era for Australian cricket. He is the last of the old breed, and has, including himself, played under four captains across three decades. A fine vintage of cricketer.

Ricky Ponting can now spend all the time in the world with his family. We can safely say he has earned it after all these years of being a truly remarkable asset to the game.

James Rowland

High Noon at Perth: Australia and South Africa Drawing Red Leather at 22 Yards

Dry your palm sweat in the pitch dust. Sharpen your gaze. Keep out the beating hot sun. Stiffen the sinews. Straighten your back. Hold your breath deep. It will take everything you have to break your opponent. Draw fast, hard and aim gun-barrel straight. Repeat for five days. Repeat for five days and get nowhere.

Until this series Australia and South Africa were not in the habit of drawing their duels. Their previous eight meetings yielded eight results leaving the two cricketing superpowers in a state of stalemate at four victories each. Despite two intensely fought matches at Brisbane and Adelaide there is still nothing to chose between the sides.

It is not called test cricket for nothing. It is the toughest and most unforgiving format of them all. If you ever needed confirmation of this fact just look Peter Siddle in the eye when he is on his haunches, if you can face down that fiery squint evocative of outlaw Ned Kelly.

Death stare from Ned Kelly: Nothing on Peter Siddle

The latest instalment from Australia and South Africa was one of the hardest cricketing fights you are likely to see. Unbridled aggression from both sides turned to bitter trench warfare at Adelaide. It was a bruising encounter with injuries to Jacques Kallis and James Pattinson, Peter Siddle bowling 63.5 bloodthirsty overs on an insipid pitch to no avail and a dogged debut century from Faf du Plessis. The Australian quest for test number one status comes down to a decider at Perth. Although both teams probably aren’t relishing the prospect of 22 yards of pace, bounce and 40 degrees of heat for five days, it is hard to say who will fare better at the WACA.

Michael Clarke will feel more aggrieved than his opposite number in Graeme Smith. While sheer hope and ambition drove Australia to the brink at the Gabba, they will feel as if they have been Steve McQueened by the Proteas this time around. Courtesy of a magnificent and dogged rearguard escape by South Africa’s batsmen Clarke’s bowlers were left bereft and exhausted. He will also feel personal frustration after his greatest achievements with the bat, back-to-back double hundreds, came in draws.

Despite South Africa being the happier of the two teams today, it is an inescapable reality  that they have been staring down the barrel of defeat all summer so far. No matter how exhausted the Australians must feel, especially the bowlers, they should take heart from that. They should also feel comfortable with the calibre of backup bowlers in Mitchell Johnson, Josh Hazlewood and Mitchell Starc who are all coming to Perth.

It will be a winner-takes-all match in more ways than one. The victor will emerge as the number one test team in the world and simultaneously break the deadlock that has existed between Australia and South Africa for nearly four years. The conditions at the WACA are normally blissfully conducive to fast bowling, which should mean a certain result as well as an exciting dual between some of the quickest bowlers around. This time Dale Steyn and Peter Siddle will have a little help from the pitch, hopefully inducing more venom from the red leather and squints saddled with a conviction that feeds on circumstance.

James Rowland

Cricket Australia Employment Classifieds: Suicidal Spin Junky Wanted

How did Nathan the Lyon heart capture the attention of Australia and go from grounds keeper to reining king of the jungle?

Position: Full-time off-spinner – Australian Test Squad

Applicants: You will be a masochistic, aggressive, perpetual gambler with more mouth than Liam Gallagher, more soul than Motown Records and a shelf life of unrefrigerated cod. Shrinking violets need not apply.

Job Description: You will be required to bowl spells of up to three times the length of those of the seamers. You will bowl when no one has taken a wicket. You will bowl well on unresponsive wickets and take the blame for a lack of penetration. You will bowl to batsmen who think you are lower than fossilised excrement. You will remain silent when you are woefully mismanaged and dropped. You will also lose credit for your wickets to the ‘poor stroke play’ of your opposition. You will be the 11th spinner since Shane Warne’s retirement.

You are Nathan Lyon.

It takes a certain type of lunatic to be a spin bowler in international cricket today, especially in the Australian cricket setup. Survival can seemingly only be achieved by harnessing an evil genius from within or via bloody-minded bravery. Shane Warne incorporated both of these attributes, hence the ongoing saga to replace him.

‘Drift, and flight, and spin, and goodbye.’ Richie Benaud OBE commentating on Andrew Flintoff’s dismissal by Shane Warne 2006/07 Ashes.

Benaud’s silky summarisation of a Shane Warne delivery could just as easily have been describing Nathan Lyon’s first ball in test cricket. When Lyon dismissed Sri Lankan champion Kumar Sangakkara, doing so with a loopy sharply turning off-break, he announced himself on the international scene and completed an unlikely fairytale. Consistent, thoughtful and aggressive performances since have established Lyon as the incumbent spinner in Australia’s attack.

Several aspects of the first test at the Gabba indicate that his stock is only set to rise. When the South Africans attacked Lyon he showed composure and patience, and did not waver from his aggressive flight, line and length. While his tidy match figures of 4-177 from 50 overs fail to shine from the page, Lyon intermittently strangled the scoring rate and enabled his captain to rotate the seamers on a docile wicket. As Australia pushed for an unlikely win on day five, Lyon’s economic aggression also helped build pressure for the wily efforts of Peter Siddle and James Pattinson.

It was a credit to Lyon that he was even selected. On what was touted as a seaming wicket Australia chose to play a spinner and South Africa opted for an extra seamer, despite their spinner Imran Tahir arguably being the more dangerous. This move proved that Lyon has Michael Clarke’s backing, the importance of which cannot be underestimated. Under Ricky Ponting’s captaincy, post-Warne, long-term spinners became all but extinct.

For the first time since Shane Warne Australia look to be genuinely investing time in a spinner both on and off the park. Lyon has a specialist bowling coach in Steve Rixon to keep his approach and mentality organised and a captain who appreciates his importance in the middle. Also for the first time since the Warne era, an Australian spinner has now defeated a top batsman with an intriguing, home-spun variation. Lyon’s ‘back-spinner’, which Michael Clarke humorously likened to a ‘doosra’, trapped Jacques Rudolph lbw and in doing so showed invention, effectiveness and courage.

The quest for a replacement Shane Warne will never be at an end, for obvious reasons. Lyon is a quiet man, unwilling and uninterested in feeding an egotistical evil twin with a war of the words to get the blood pumping. As such he does not look and sound dangerous, scarcely oozing an abhorrent lack of respect for the batsmen in the vain of Graham Swann or Saeed Ajmal, but he is a different kind of beast. Lyon’s personality means he will scarcely be in your face, but the unwavering and unadulterated aggression in his bowling also means he is never out of it. Australia have not selected a shrinking violet but a quiet battler who can trace his origins quite literally to the grass roots of cricket. The former groundsman knows better than most what life is like at both ends of the ladder and as such, has nothing to fear when he bowls, not least leaking a few runs. The South Africans should be a little weary of the spinner his home turf (no pun intended) at Adelaide over the next four days. Thanks to another superlative double hundred from Michael Clarke with support from Hussey and Warner today, he will have a lot of runs to play with when he bowls. If Nathan the Lyon heart maintains his organised aggression he should be able to kiss goodbye to his lawn mower for good.

James Rowland

A Monk Among Mongrels – Hashim Amla

15th November 2012

Show me Hashim Amla getting angry and I’ll show you Big Bird in a drunken bar brawl. In his post match interview the champion South African batsman was irreverently sanguine about the fact that James Pattinson had just spent an afternoon trying to scalp him with a cricket ball.

As with all cricketers no matter how intense the engagement on the field appears, Amla was quick to defend it all as ‘part of the game’ once in the air conditioned calm of the press conference. However Amla’s wording hints that he even bothered engaging with the fiery Australian quicks, which he did not.

He called the verbal and bowling bashing he received from Siddle and Pattinson ‘humorous’ and added, ‘I found it quite funny and just enjoyed the moment. It was a nice patch of play for cricket.’

His indifference to the Australian approach, foretold in the ‘dossier’ a week earlier, speaks volumes about Amla. Despite his placidity however, the Australian tactic ultimately worked albeit indirectly. Though they failed to rumble Amla and force an error, it seems being so inescapably wound up brought the best out of the fast men. Each ball spat from the surface like a Tasmanian Devil’s vicious growl.

Mickey Arthur and Michael Clarke should remember this for the next test match at Adelaide. Siddle, Pattinson and Hilfenhaus can scarcely afford not to release their inner mongrel and let the game drift, as the South Africans did, into a situation where they can only lose. Rest assured Morkel and Steyn will not bowl as if their mothers are batting at the other end for the whole series, as they did at the Gabba.

Cricketing battles between Australia and South Africa are frequently heated, hard fought, noisy and messy. There are several reasons for the level of extra-curriculars between these two teams. They are both traditionally packed with fast-bowlers, (the pit bull terriers of the sporting world) they share similar home conditions and are brought up packing a serious post-colonial, never-say-die punch. People that cruise around on surf boards in the same waves as great white sharks to relax are not to be trifled with, Australian or South African alike. Given that these teams are drawn at four wins each in their last nine meetings it might take something particularly sparky from the bowlers to break the deadlock. Between the manic depressive pitch and the iceman Hashim Amla, Siddle and Pattinson nearly achieved just that.

This is where Amla soars above the pack. For all of his battling mentality, concentration, intensity of stroke play and ability to occupy the crease, the only open indication of his inner mongrel, scrapping away ball after ball, is the runs he produces in spades. His bite is far worse than his bark.

James Rowland

Breakfast at Tea, Winter in Summer

13th November 2012

At 2.45am in Brixton, South London, it is three degrees outside. At 12:45pm in Brisbane it is 33 degrees outside. The trees are all but bare, the streets stir only with scavenging city foxes and the smell of fireplaces hangs in the crisp early morning air. The evergreen eucalyptus trees stand tall and the Queensland sky holds its sub-equatorial glow. I shake from a lack of sleep and move slowly to the living room wrapped in a blanket. The stands at the Gabba bustle with life fuelled by beer, food and sunshine. The slight of foot and pace are indicative of my self awareness. Every board creaking might wake the flatmates. The subdued hostility of my countrymen in the stands indicates a stern opponent all-too alert in the field. I turn on the TV, wait for Richie Benaud’s husky wit to get in gear and I’m back. There is nothing like an Australian summer in an English winter. I’ll sleep in the morning.

Justin Langer was right. Even on the other side of the planet the ritual of the start of an Australian summer stirs truly evocative childhood memories. Although I can’t enjoy the smell of the ‘fresh cut grass’ in my native Melbourne, or free terrestrial broadcasts on Channel Nine, I can savour the first ball of the afternoon session (Australian time) every year. Watching from ball one would mean no sleep at all. I maybe crazy but I’m not stupid.

From a young age all but this routine has changed. Rather than my mathematics teacher scolding me for falling asleep it is now my boss. Waking up early does take its toll, chief among which is my English friends joking that I still come out of hibernation in the wrong season. Right season, wrong hemisphere.

While I miss being fifteen and watching Brett Lee’s fire, McGrath’s effortlessly genius amble and Shane Warne’s gusto (mostly post sandwiches in the afternoon session) from my parents’ couch, I am always kept awake by Michael Clarke. His life affirming positivity, on-field aggression and batting leadership make him an apparently indestructible amalgamation of his mentors, Shane Warne and Ricky Ponting.

It is 07.27 in Brixton. The sun has just flooded over the housing blocks and filled my room. The last five hours have been a riveting show of positive intent from Clarke and this Australian team, albeit ending in a draw. The two Victorians in Pattinson and Siddle showed particular verve, howling and screaming for every appeal and half chance they extracted from Kevin Mitchell’s woolly cardigan of a wicket.

Despite the first full day of play being lost to rain at the Gabba since 1998, led by Clarke’s 259 not out the Australian’s run rate of 4.09 runs an over in their first innings changed the feel of the test.  The team’s intent ensured they were able to give the South Africans a sniff of losing rather than give themselves a real chance of winning. Thus Clarke’s mission for some momentum is a success story.

The best pace attack in the world managed only four wickets between the three of them for 359 runs in this test. Despite the wicket being less interesting than Nasser Hussain’s stat analyses on Sky, this should be a worry for Allan Donald. Especially when considering that without the rain they would now be battling to save a match in which their batsmen amassed 450 in the first innings.

Despite being the number one ranked team in the world, not losing at the ‘Gabbatoir’ is still a good start to their tour. Other than the loss of JP Duminy to injury there was little damage done. With a week off, Adelaide will be a different scenario entirely. I’ll have to reconfigure my body clock yet again.

I’m heading off to work in ten minutes. It looks cold outside.

This is the price I pay from living so far from my country of birth, where rich or poor, the cricketing summer is everyone’s birthright.  What a silver spoon it is when South Africa tour Australia.

James Rowland