You’ve got to pace yourself. Australia started this 10-Test series so woefully that they could only ever improve. In hindsight, that was a masterstroke. It’s tempting to talk about momentum, but we’ll stick to a different M-word – motivation. Nothing keeps you going like knowing that you’re gaining on someone.
The corollary of this is that few things in sport are as dispiriting as being overtaken. A bike race is the clearest example of how this works. Cyclists up the road with a few seconds advantage will fight and fight, even when those behind are gaining on them. However, the moment they’re caught, they visibly wilt. They can no longer deny what’s been painfully obvious for the last few kilometres.
If the race is going up a huge mountain pass, the best thing to do when you’re caught is to just let whoever caught you go. The cold, harsh truth is that you were already operating at your maximum and that simply wasn’t good enough. The best you can do is pace yourself in order to reach the summit as quickly and efficiently as possible. Sometimes a cyclist will be more ambitious than that and will redouble their efforts in a bid to stay with whoever caught them. This never works. All that happens is they go into oxygen debt and have to slow down significantly in order to recover.
A forlorn bid
That appears to be pretty much what’s happened to England. They were overtaken on day two of the Brisbane Test and promptly deflated. They have since put in a greater effort in a forlorn bid to stay with superior opposition, but that has basically meant trying to operate beyond their means and so now they’re imploding as a consequence.
England aren’t as bad as they currently appear. They’re just trapped in a long race they can’t win. People are calling for all sorts of changes, but it’s worth considering current circumstances. These aren’t generally bad players, but good players playing badly. Given chance to recover, most will adapt and improve. It’s a bit late, but ever more ferocious attempts to claw back ground on Australia in the short-term are only likely to cause further damage.
This isn’t to say that there shouldn’t be judicious droppage with a view to bringing players back again at a later date should they remember how to play cricket.15 Appeals
Yeah? Maybe? 20-odd overs onwards? Bit of something? Yeah?
It’s been a low scoring match; it’s been hard to score; so a bit of movement might make the run chase a bit tense? Yeah?
It’s hard to appear entirely positive when you’re using so many question marks.16 Appeals
Are England and Australia ever going to comprehend the concept of hubris? Australia finished day one shushing the Barmy Army. Have they not been paying attention to the way things have worked this year? They finished day two on 164-9.
Sportsmen aren’t exactly shot-through with dignity, but the Ashes seems to have become a goldfish-memoried in-your-face fest. Every wicket seems to be accompanied by some sort of taunting celebration of vengeance fulfilled. At the same time, players from both sides keep reminding their opponents that ‘cricket has a funny way of biting you on the bum’ – seemingly unaware that the advice is equally applicable to themselves. What’s a normal way to be bitten on the bum, incidentally?
All this talk of it being like a war out there. It’s not. It’s basically a playground squabble. Players react to whatever happened last, without ever seeing the long, tit-for-tat chain of events that led to the most recent slight.
It’s revenge for revenge for revenge for revenge and no-one’s got any perspective and it’ll never end. So actually, maybe it is like a war.9 Appeals
For a team whose coach mocks England for having a boring approach to the game, Australia are hypocritically wedded to maidens. As the series wears on, it’s clear that Mitchell Johnson is just a go-faster stripe on an Astramax van. He distracts us, gains our attention, but this bowling attack is essentially a functional thing. They aim for the top of off stump; they give you nowt.
There are worse strategies.
England simply can’t do anything about it. There seems to be a run-rate threshold beyond which they cannot venture safely and that threshold is dropping the longer the series goes on. When they play within their means, they’re safe, but can’t get anywhere. It’s now reached a point where no batsman can manage more than two runs an over without appearing to lose control.
Why is this? Good bowling is 50 per cent of the equation certainly, but the batsmen are involved too – they aren’t bystanders, despite how it seems. It’s like the team is suddenly stacked with Shane Watsons, unable to find singles.
This is what Paul Collingwood could do. Alastair Cook once spoke admiringly of his skill in this regard when Cook himself, batting at the other end, had been unable to get the ball off the square. Four singles equals one boundary, but you’ll get far less credit for being skilled, even though you’re probably contributing more to the partnership.
Sometimes fours aren’t on the menu. This England batting line-up seems increasingly incapable of finding an alternative form of sustenance.6 Appeals
We’re a day late with this and have little to add, but since when has turning up late and contributing little stopped us?
Just over a year ago, Faf du Plessis and AB de Villiers combined to play out an unlikely draw against Australia. Du Plessis made 110 not out over about seven-and-a-half hours. De Villiers hit a chronically shotless 33 off 220 balls. This weekend, they did something similar against India, although de Villiers did actually remember to hit the ball this time.
South Africa made 450-7 – eight runs short of victory – with 134 from du Plessis (run out!) and 103 from de Villiers. Vernon Philander and Dale Steyn batted out the draw. They were actually slightly further off victory than appears because Steyn hit the final ball of the match for six.
Up until that last day, India had looked magic.Virat Kohli made light of alien conditions (alien as in ‘unfamiliar’ – there was oxygen and what have you) in the first innings and was then almost as good in the second innings, but found himself outshone by Che Pujara who is becoming a somewhat wearying number three for opposition teams what with his unquashable love of scoring runs and all. Between times, the Indian seamers – including a newly svelte Zaheer Khan, who somewhat inexplicably chose France as the place where he would eat less bread – did a fine job, ensuring an Indian first innings lead.
But this is what South Africa do. They’re feisty sods and these kinds of draws can be dispiriting and physically wearing for the dominant team. Last year, South Africa’s stunning dead-battery knocked Peter Siddle and Ben Hilfenhaus out of the following Test match, allowing them to win the series. This time around, there’s (infuriatingly) only one Test to go, so no-one will be rested from the Indian bowling attack. Some of them might be a little less zingy, even if they’re not flabbing in to bowl these days.17 Appeals
Graeme Swann’s retirement seems somehow emblematic of England’s current state. It sounds like he’s been aware of reduced efficacy for a while now, but could put it to the back of his mind so long as England were winning. Now they’re losing and the ensuing clarity has shunted a memorable bloke out of the game.
The four-man attack
Reacting to Swann’s retirement, Darren Lehmann said:
“He’s a big player when they’ve only got four bowlers – or now they’ve got five with Stokes in their side – and you have to try and take one or two of them out of the equation and make their quicks bowl more.”
That’s a pretty good explanation of why Swann has been so important for England. It really is more than the wickets. We wrote about this back in 2009 and used the word ‘linchpin’. That word’s both overused and misused, but it’s entirely appropriate here. England’s entire strategy revolved around Swann and it was also he who ensured the wheels didn’t come off.
Swann simply couldn’t afford to have a bad day. Batsmen get ducks and pace bowlers shoulder a lighter workload when measured in overs. Swann’s performances were therefore disporportionately influential. Even when he wasn’t taking wickets, he had to be able to eat time on unfriendly pitches so that each of the three seamers could rest.
Even without the wickets, runs and catches, Swann was a facilitator. He allowed the pace bowlers to perform at their best and he allowed England to pick a sixth specialist batsman.
The plan outlined by Lehmann is pretty much the same one everyone’s gone with against England for the last five years. It’s the obvious thing to do, and yet England managed to stick with a four-man attack until two Tests ago. In other words, Swann’s been good enough to withstand these assaults until now. Read his retirement statement and it’s clear that will and body have waned in harness and that’s why it’s the right time to go.
Breadth of skills
You need to be a very adaptable player to fulfil the role of spin bowler in a four-man attack and Swann was most definitely that. He had the accuracy and intelligence to constrain on seaming wickets and he could also do the thing that defined him as a Test bowler.
Graeme Swann was not a spinner who gradually eased into a spell. He dismissed Gautam Gambhir and Rahul Dravid in his first over in Test cricket and this was in no way aberrative. His first over was always worth watching and this was especially the case when bowling to a left-handed batsman.
One ball to size them up and then a second to dismiss them.
Plus he could catch, plus he could bat – okay, maybe he couldn’t bat, but he could hit fours – and perhaps most importantly of all, he has the priceless and rare ability to cut through the shit.
Ask a stupid question, get a decent answer
Swann’s not a comedian, but he can certainly make you laugh – you know, like normal people do and like sportsmen conspicuously don’t. Interviews were like actual conversations rather than strange set-pieces played out according to constrictive regulations. If he saw an opportunity to say something that might amuse him, he would take it.
For example, how did he break it to Alastair Cook that he would be retiring?
“He is one of my best mates so it should have been a very easy conversation but it actually made it doubly hard, just to sit down over a coffee and blurt it out. It was like one of his team talks – it didn’t make any sense. But I got it out in the end.”
Graeme, you will be missed more than most.19 Appeals
The story of the New Zealand v West Indies series seems to be West Indies’ batting collapses. This is odd, because they’re hardly a new phenomenon. It’s also harsh on Trent Boult, who’s a darn tidy bowler.
It’s perhaps even more unfair on Ross Taylor, who has countered everything thrown at him – or occasionally bowled at him – with disdain. He’s averaging almost 250 in the series after scoring two hundreds and an unbeaten double. Overall, his Test average now stands at 47.49. In New Zealand, where batting tends to be rather tricky, he averages over 60.
It also sounds like he’s a colossal cricket nerd, which isn’t a bad thing. This is how he got away from the pressure of his innings during the lunch break:
“Peter Fulton had the Almanack out and I was answering the questions and it was nice to just get away from it.”
In the evenings, he plays Brian Lara Cricket to unwind. Probably.14 Appeals
Sometimes we really feel for Ishant Sharma. Whenever we see him, he appears to be bowling on a flat pitch in a one-day international with the batsmen going hell-for-leather and fielding restricitions in place. In reality, that isn’t the only time we see him bowl. It just feels like it is.
It’s a bit like being a mole in a living room. You’re bloody marvellous at burrowing around underground, but sat there on the carpet, everyone just thinks you’re useless. If they’re generous, they pat their knee for you to come and sit on them, but with your short-arse back legs, you can’t jump up.
They look at you sadly as you blunder around with your crap eyesight, bumping into things, occasionally making a futile attempt to scrabble at the floor. Someone sneers at you and says: “Ugh, look at you with your disgusting extra thumb.”
But put you outside and you’re away. You might have lost all confidence in your ability to dig, but it’s still there. You just need to rediscover it. The dog gets filthy digging a shallow hole; the cat digs an even shallower hole, craps in it and then fills it in again. Suddenly everyone realises that there are certain jobs for which the mole is well suited – it’s just that you’ve just been spending all of your time in the wrong environment.11 Appeals
We’ve done our usual Twitter thing for Cricinfo, but you’ll notice we haven’t mentioned Ryan Harris and his Al Swearengen style whinge about not being let into some casino. Nor have we mentioned Graeme Swann.
If you don’t already know, Swann’s receiving criticism for likening England’s Ashes defeat to being “arse raped”. He has apologised, saying that the comment was ‘crass and thoughtless in the extreme’ which seems a fairly accurate assessment to us.
However, when questioned by the Daily Telegraph, Yvonne Traynor, the chief executive of Rape Crisis, said:
“We are appalled that Graeme Swann equates a cricket match with the devastatingly serious crime of rape. It is the duty of people in the public eye to make sure that their own distorted views are kept to themselves and not shared with the general public. These comments lack compassion and intelligence and he should apologise to anyone who has suffered from this heinous crime.”
This begs a question. Why is it that when Alastair Cook says that Ashes cricket is ‘pretty much a war’ or when David Lloyd suggests that the opposition has been ‘murdered’ no-one sees it as anything other than hyperbole, but when an intelligent cricketer uses the word ‘rape’, some assume him to have ‘distorted views’?
You don’t have to know Graeme Swann particularly well to know that he is not in favour of rape. Chances are, he used the word precisely because it seemed somehow more severe than anything that implied homicide or genocide. Life-taking language has had its power eroded through frequency of use.
Graeme Swann’s crime is perhaps to have forgotten that certain words will be leapt upon, regardless of the true intent behind their usage. The only real difference between what he said and what professional writers say about sport daily is that society isn’t currently numb to the meaning of the word ‘rape’. Maybe he could have tested the water with ‘euthanised’ or ‘executed’ instead to see where we stand with those.39 Appeals
Not sure what organisation or body deems a player to be ‘up and running’. We’re going to try and decree it ourself and hope that it sticks.
But what do we mean by ‘up and running’? Virat Kohli’s just about the best one-day batsman in the world and he’s been around for pure time now. Why are we only now getting around to making this outlandish and hugely controversial statement?
It’s because he’s scored a Test hundred in South Africa and it seems to us that this might represent the final step in his fairly inevitable journey into the top tier of batsmen. Flatelaide and three Indian cricket grounds have seen Kohli Test hundreds previously, but this one’s a different beast. He’s now the batsman you worry about, no matter where you’re playing.
England host India next year. Magic.11 Appeals