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What does Australia’s Test series win over Pakistan actually mean?

Does it amount to a hill of beans? A fell of discarded iPhone covers? A mountain of offcuts of plasterboard?

Just before Christmas, we said that Pakistan are, essentially, a swing bowling side, and therefore pretty much always do terribly Down Under. There has been more to the series than that – but it still explains a lot.

The tourists’ batting collapses have drawn attention, but it is their inability to take wickets that has left them… well, it’s left them fielding mostly.

Taken as a whole, the batting has ticked over. They made a decent stab at chasing 490 in the first Test, kicked off the second Test with 443 and Younus Khan has just become the first player to score a hundred in all 11 nations that have hosted Tests after making 175 not out in the third.

In contrast, their best bowling performance was when they dismissed Australia for 429 in the first innings of the series. You wouldn’t think that an especially lofty point from which to fall, but Pakistan appear to have been positioned over a bone dry Mariana Trench. They’ve just conceded 241 in 32 bleak overs of declaration-awaiting.

“Today was more about the ball not swinging,” said David Warner after making a hundred before lunch on the first day of this Test. It was a glorious innings, defined by the batsman’s utter conviction that he should seize the moment, but that assessment also casts a bit of light on other contributions, such as Matt Renshaw’s 184 and Peter Handscomb’s 110.

These two certainly have the air of being batsmen who could thrive in Test cricket, but we’ve been here before. Just over a year ago, Joe Burns made 129 against New Zealand and 128 against the Windies. Australia arrived in Sri Lanka and he promptly made 34 runs in four innings. He then made one run in two innings against South Africa.

Ensuring you cash in is a vital part of batting in Australia – and every bit as worthy as other qualities in matches where such a quality comes to the fore. Elsewhere it doesn’t necessarily influence the batsman’s returns to quite the same extent.

These kinds of VERY BIG NUMBERS can sometimes conceal more than they reveal. Adam Voges averaged 95.50 when he arrived in Sri Lanka. He averaged 14.80 in the three Tests against them and the two against South Africa.

So where does that leave us? Well, if nothing else, we know that Australia are better than Pakistan in Australia. It’s hard to draw any firm conclusions beyond that – and after 400-and-odd words already, why would we even want to try and do so?

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Vernon Philander is there if you need some seasoning

vernon-philander

We’ve spent much of the morning trying to work out what kind of a vehicle Vernon Philander is. After much thought, we’ve concluded that he’s not a vehicle at all – he’s a pepper grinder.

South Africa have a lot of whizzy, fancy kitchen gadgets. Dale Steyn is the luxury coffee-maker you always look forward to putting into use; Kagiso Rabada is a new vegetable juicer – novel and good for you, but might yet break down; and Morne Morkel is a big gallumphing lankatron of genial ferociousness who would do all the chopping and dicing you asked of him even though his rampant gigantism puts him in a decent position to say no to anyone at any time.

Philander, by contrast, is a low-key functional object who does his job perfectly.

You need some pepper? Use the grinder – there’s some pepper.

You need someone to bowl at the top of off stump, hitting the seam with every damn delivery? Use Vernon Philander – there’s 152 Test wickets at 21.65.

Philander was away for a while. When he returned, he looked solid-of-midriff and you got the impression that surely now his logic-defying brand of medium-pace would be found out.

Not so. It just never seems to work out like that. People always expected his Test bowling average to swell like a spacehopper at altitude following a few series away from home, but it never really did.

His home record is superior – as it is for almost all players – but his away record is 57 wickets at 25.35. That is, basically, earth-shattering. If it’s built on wickets taken in New Zealand and England then only in Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe is his record actually outright bad – and that’s only three Tests.

Vernon Philander endures. Toastie makers and waffle irons may fall into disuse, but pepper will always be ground.

Clinical dobbery can take a bowler a very long way.

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R Ashwin: Lord Megachief of Gold 2016

Our annual Lord Megachief of Gold award is the highest honour in cricket. The title is recognition of performance over the previous calendar year. Here are all the winners.

A nod for Ben Stokes’ relentless Test excellence (904 runs at 45.2 and 33 wickets at 25.81); a second nod for Virat Kohli’s performance across all formats, which included 1,215 Test runs at 75.93; and a third nod for the homicidal capybara Rangana Herath, who took 57 wickets at 18.92.

However, this year’s Lord Megachief of Gold is R Ashwin, a man who can’t so much as look at a cricket ball without winning a Test match for India.

r-ashwin-bowling-cc-licensed-by-james-cullen-via-flickr

R Ashwin bowling (CC licensed by James Cullen via Flickr)

R Ashwin took 72 Test wickets at 23.9 in 2016 and also scored 612 runs at 43.71 during his downtime, which he mostly likes to spend with a bat in his hand. He is a strike bowler who does the donkey work who also bats well enough that his side can field an extra bowler. If his captain is higher profile, it is Ashwin who India would miss most.

To repeat a point we made a few weeks ago, pit a team of 11 Ashwins against one comprising 11 of any other individual player and the Ashwin XI would surely come out on top after the two teams had come up against each other home and away.

We’ll come to the bowling in a second, because that’s the heart of the matter, but before we do that it’s worth closing this section by pointing out that only three Indian batsmen scored more runs than him in 2016.

How to take wickets

R Ashwin is not a mystery spinner. Mystery spin – in the form of the carrom ball – is just something he resorts to when necessary, or when he thinks the pitch suits that particular delivery. Once upon a time, mystery spin was something to aspire to, but Ashwin has transcended it. It is something he is occasionally reduced to.

Mystery spin is Plan B because Plan A generally works pretty well. Against England, Ashwin took 28 wickets, including three five-fors and that was far and away his least successful series of the year. In the West Indies, he took 17 wickets at 23.17 (while averaging 58.75 with the bat) and against New Zealand, he took 27 wickets in three Tests at an average of 17.77.

Expectations

In all honesty, 2015 was probably more impressive in terms of his returns with the ball, but that is arguably what’s so admirable. This has been a continuation; a meeting of already lofty expectations.

Ashwin took no wickets in the first 2016 Test innings in which he bowled (against the West Indies). In the second innings, he took 7-83 and India won the match. Even when he seemingly lets India down – such as when they drew the next Test – you see that he still took 5-52 in the first innings.

Like a badly-trained dog, he has never been down for long. A slow start in the first Test against England was followed by 5-67 in the first innings of the second. As a UK website, we focused on the England batsmen’s response to pressure, but that pressure didn’t come out of thin air. It fizzed down, out of R Ashwin’s right hand.

The series against New Zealand was pretty much relentless wicket-taking.

In a nutshell

As he skips around the outfield like a primitive robot inexplicably constructed out of wet concrete, you remember that R Ashwin isn’t actually flawless. Far from it. He is a trier. He is a ponderous and pondering man who has methodically hewn himself into the most influential cricketer around.

He is the nerdiest nerd who delivers the least fashionable style of bowling. He approaches the crease as if both his arms have been stuck on inside-out, indulges in a brief prance and then delivers the ball without the least bit of ceremony.

And it works.

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Did Australia win or did Pakistan lose? YOU HAVE TO CHOOSE

England v Australia: 3rd Investec Ashes Test - Day One

Photo by Sarah Ansell

One of the rules of cricket coverage is that Australia, England and India have results and the other teams are merely inactive participants.

In 2016, India beat New Zealand, Australia lost to Sri Lanka, and England drew with Bangladesh. Technically, this also means that New Zealand lost to India, Sri Lanka beat Australia, and Bangladesh drew with England – but you’ll be hard-pressed to find things presented that way.

Like many rules, this one has an exception – and like so many cricketing exceptions, it involves Pakistan.

Pakistan lost to Australia today. The home team didn’t snatch victory. The tourists – who were already one down in the series – threw the match away.

That is the unwritten result on the scorecard because a Pakistan implosion is even more headline-worthy than Australia snatching an unlikely victory.

Could it be that despite how we may be inclined to perceive things, it is impossible for one team to be wholly responsible for the outcome of a match?

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David Warner’s “lean” 2016 in Test cricket

England v Australia: 4th Investec Ashes Test - Day Four

Some of you may have both noticed and cared that David Warner was apparently having a relatively mediocre year before this Test. His 2016 one-day record is exceptional, but his long format returns had been little more than ‘all right’.

Against Pakistan Warner edged a load and also became what feels like the 85th person to be bowled off a Wahab Riaz no-ball before eventually reaching three figures.

One day of jousiness and Warner’s Test year now reads 748 runs at 41.55 with two hundreds (plus a 97).

So perfectly normal then.

Strikes us that if mediocrity can so easily be negated, it was probably no such thing in the first place.

They should probably start including an asterisk next to Australian batsmen’s annual records, indicating “was obliged to face Herath“. As far as this Warner story goes, that pretty much explains everything.

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Mop-up of the last couple of days – Angelo Mathews still has work to do

For a good long while you could accurately gauge Sri Lanka’s score by whether or not Angelo Mathews was walking out to bat or not. If he was, they were 22-3. If he wasn’t, it was some other score.

A couple of recent batting finds had encouraged the notion that Mathews would no longer be obliged to be his team’s Shivnarine Chanderpaul as well as serving as captain and doing a load of bowling. This optimism may be unfounded, for against South Africa it has been business as usual.

Mathews appears to be back to leading by example regardless of whether or not anyone shows the faintest interest in following. It is at least very thoughtful of the rest of the cricket world to limit his workload by refusing to schedule many matches against his team.

Down in Melbourne, Pakistan are still batting and no-one really knows what it means because it’s still the first innings. Whether theirs proves to be a good team score or not, Azhar Ali’s unhurried rise continues.

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May you enjoy a happy Festivus full of Pakistannery and Herath

Festivus (CC licensed by R Crap Mariner via Flickr)

Festivus (CC licensed by R Crap Mariner via Flickr)

Our Festivus post seems to get earlier by the year. We make it that today is Boxing Day Test Eve Eve Eve and so not really in any way something worth acknowledging. However, we’ve realised that if we get the “hey, have a good ‘un” tradition out of the way early and sign off now, we can focus on all the cooking, eating, drinking and sleeping without further distractions.

This year’s Tests are South Africa v Rangana Herath and Australia v Pakistan. Being as the first match is taking place at Port Elizabeth, it promises to favour the home side – although assuming Herath brings his mate Kusal Mendis along, maybe we could get something freakish.

Odds are, however, that the Australia-Pakistan match will be the more interesting of the two. Pakistan – who are, essentially, a swing bowling side – pretty much always do terribly Down Under. They promised new lows in the first innings of the first Test, being bowled out for 142, before delivering a vintage slab of Pakistannery by nearly chasing down 490 but not actually managing it.

Who knows what will happen next. Probably a fairly conventional defeat. That would be the last thing we’d expect and therefore what our money would be on.

Now, before we go, a quick Festivus message…

In a couple of days, when you’re sitting beside your aluminium pole awaiting the airing of grievances, or readying yourself for the feats of strength, just take a moment. Take a moment to think. Take a moment to ponder the likelihood that the world is going to hell in a handcart.

Could cricket be the answer? If this wonderful sport doesn’t actually encourage fans to embrace other cultures, then it does at least make them dimly aware of them. Could dim awareness prove humanity’s salvation?

The answer is no. And cricket is therefore not the answer, but it should hopefully prove an adequate distraction for some of us until international society inevitably breaks down and we all have to sustain ourselves by eating litter.

Have a good time. See you in a few days – or possibly tomorrow in the highly unlikely event that something important strikes us and we just have to get it out.

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The two ways of looking at Alastair Cook’s captaincy

Alastair Cook

There are two ways of looking upon the England captaincy. You can see it as an important position where the incumbent can have a major positive influence on how the side performs, or you can see it as one more thing that could go horribly wrong.

Rated according to the former, Alastair Cook is not an especially good captain. He is diligent and well-meaning, but ultimately far too insipid to have any significant impact. It’s hard to imagine that he is the author of England’s strategy. He will have a say, but the blueprint is not his. As much as anything he is the guy who flicks the switches and pulls the levers and operates the machine.

Tactically, he has learned to be inoffensively nondescript.

That sounds like a fairly damning report card, but we’re equally inclined to adopt the second perspective expressed in the opening paragraph of this piece. Captaincy can go wrong. You can do a lot of damage as a captain.

Ironically, considering he doesn’t himself possess them, Alastair Cook is a safe pair of hands. Although his captaincy will forever be remembered for one massive world championship title-taking dressing room bust-up, the team does generally function fairly smoothly.

No-one’s lobbying to become the next captain. No-one’s hitting anyone else with a cricket bat. To momentarily indulge in cliché, everyone’s pulling in the same direction. More impressively, when they find they’re getting dragged in the opposite direction, they don’t stop pulling and start arguing, they just sort of press on, refusing to accept the apparent futility of their efforts. That’s actually quite an achievement.

Despite some real low points, England no longer seem liable to completely implode under Cook. That isn’t so bad. Given a bit more talent in a few key areas, nondescript captaincy could take the team a long way.

The answer to the question “should Alastair Cook continue as England captain?” may to some extent depend on which of those perspectives you are inclined to take. However, both views may well be irrelevant.

Alastair Cook has, of late, appeared completely fed up with his job. Getting battered on an away tour will do that to a man, but it’s quite possible the enthusiasm won’t gush back in when he gets home.

If that’s the case, he’ll correctly resign because a man who really, really cannot be arsed is not going to do an especially good job. Trust us on this.

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Video: Cricket, penguins and lasers – together at last

dj-bravo-and-zooper-dooper

Finally!

It’s the video for the latest version of Dwayne Bravo’s Champion song, in which our man lists everyone and everything he’s ever encountered and brands them all champions.

Toast is a champion, plate is a champion, floor is a champion, wall is a champion…

If you don’t immediately comprehend the reasoning behind some of the visuals, we recommend that you don’t investigate. The real explanation is unlikely to make you any happier than the idea that they for some reason concluded that a penguin firing lasers at Dwayne Bravo from its eyes was an appropriate inclusion.

The penguin is called Coolio. It is unclear to us whether or not he is the same Coolio who was responsible for Gangsta’s Paradise but it seems pretty safe to assume that he is.

And there we were thinking that promoting a Twenty20 tournament using a robot with flames for eyes was a bit leftfield.

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Virat Kohli had power tools while Alastair Cook only had rusty manual hand-me-downs

Alastair Cook of England in action during Day Four of the Second Investec Test Match between England and New Zealand at Headingley Carnegie Cricket Ground, Leeds, England on 27 May 2013. Photo by Sarah Ansell.

England haven’t stagnated. They’re just worse at bowling and facing spin than India. And playing Test cricket in India involves bowling and facing an awful lot of spin.

So rather than howling about normality, now might instead be the perfect time to revisit the monumental achievement that was England’s 2012 tour. Reviewed through the prism of the last few weeks, we can better see that series win for the glorious aberration it truly was.

But back to stagnation

There was no point in the last few years when England were a better spin conditions side than India. If there’s been a significant change, it’s that England have been obliged to play Test cricket in India. They should be able to avoid that activity in the immediate future, so the side’s already on the up-and-up.

Yesterday we wrote about perceptions of pitch flatness. We’re less than delighted but not entirely surprised to have had our subtext made explicit. England lost ten wickets for 104 runs in 48.2 overs today. The last six wickets fell for 15.

But this doesn’t sum up the tour. You don’t lose a marathon by half-an-hour in the finishing straight. This last collapse was just the cracking of a side subjected to prolonged stress. The ‘lazy’ shots and apparent incompetence were just a manifestation of all that had gone before.

What had gone before?

Just an awful lot of being worse. India weren’t twice as good – as today’s result perhaps implies – they were just reliably better at almost everything, day after day after day. It wasn’t just the obvious elements, like spin bowling, it was also the related ones, such as bowling seam on Indian pitches.

Playing at home does confer certain advantages. A necessary reliance on spin bowlers is a major one that is always likely to make an India side more effective and an England side less effective. However, it’s hard to avoid concluding that this particular version of England has been more affected by this than most.

Every team is skewed towards some style of cricket or other, but the relative paucity of good spinners and turning pitches in the county cricket ecosystem means England don’t just struggle for bowlers, they also lack spin-adept batsmen.

Can you summarise this with some sort of reference to DIY?

If you need to saw through a floorboard, you can get the job done with a hand saw. It’ll take you a few minutes. However, if you have a circular saw, you can do the job in seconds. This is before you even get started on the plumbing, rewiring or corpse-concealing that necessitated the floorboard removal in the first place.

England set out for their winter tours with a plastic box full of hand-me-down tools and they made do. In Bangladesh, they managed to get some sort of a job done by improvising with pliers and adjustable spanners. Against India and their van full of professional equipment, they simply couldn’t keep up.

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