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Is Ed Smith in or out of a job?

The photo on the homepage of Ed Smith’s website is worth a look. It is from an actual photo shoot. We haven’t exactly done extensive research on this, but booking a photo shoot to get some pictures of yourself would seem to us to be quite an unusual thing for a broadcaster to do.

As an ex-cricketer – one who played three Tests for England – you’d think Smith might go for something from his playing days. But this is not how Ed Smith sees himself any more. Ed Smith’s Twitter handle is @EdSmithWriter.

But back to that photo. He is in a suit and tie, walking across one of those featureless photographic backgrounds where there is no wall or floor, only a great expanse of grey.

Two questions:

  1. Where is he going? Deeper into the grey void, presumably.
  2. What is he looking at? Something above and slightly behind him, judging by his eyes. The thing is not a pterodactyl because Ed looks very calm, bordering on contemptuous. If it’s possible to look down your nose at something above you, Ed is doing that.

The photograph is highly airbrushed.

The reason why we are talking about Ed Smith is because he was made semi-redundant today (a fate that also befell us a few months ago, funnily enough). He has had his hours cut.

While Test Match Special will continue throughout the British summer, it has lost the rights to cover England’s next couple of winter tours to a radio station we’re going to refer to as Talk Sport, even though the name is supposed to be written as talkSPORT.

Talk Sport has a cricket track record. It has covered the last two years of the IPL, plus the World Twenty20 in 2016 and the Champions Trophy last summer. It last did an England tour in 2005. You can find Talk Sport on medium wave or via digital means.

The BBC will presumably be very unhappy.

Ed Smith will be less concerned because Lizzy Ammon is reporting that he has been named as England’s new national selector.

Maybe Smith is looking at “the axe” in that photo on his homepage and is feeling faintly smug at having fully evaded what had promised to be a glancing but still debilitating blow.


Olly Stone is who we’re talking about this week

Olly Stone bounces Luke Wright (via ECB)

Warwickshire’s Olly Stone bowled a bouncer and on the strength of that became the county player everyone’s talking about this week.

In the 18th over, Stone dismissed Luke Wells and then the very next ball he bounced out Luke Wright. If you play for Sussex and you are a Luke W, maybe try and avoid facing Olly Stone if at all possible.

The Wright bouncer was one of those “argh, avoid it – oh no, I’ve hit it while trying to avoid it” dismissals, which is very satisfying because the bowler has made the batsman both frightened and out, meaning the victim is doubly humiliated. It is also encouraging when England are looking for some slightly quicker bowlers.

After the third day’s play, Sussex’s Michael Burgess said: “Olly Stone bowled quite quickly and well.”

This seems relatively fulsome praise considering his team still had four wickets left at that time and he probably didn’t much want to motivate Stone any further, being as he’d already taken the first six (he finished with 8-80).

Encouraging the notion that Stone might be able to do some of the main things you want a bowler to do in cricket, Burgess added: “They just had one of those spells where we seemed to keep nicking them and they seemed to keep catching them.”

Without recent speed gun data, it’s hard to know whether Stone is officially fast or just a ‘brisk’ bowler who was having a delightful day. For what it’s worth, his Cricinfo profile page says that he bowled “in excess of 92mph” last year, which by our reckoning means he has previously bowled at least one ball at 93mph.

Further cause for optimism comes in the fact that Stone missed near enough two years of cricket thanks to an injury sustained while celebrating a wicket. That elite level of injury-proneness is the mark of a true fast bowler.

“He needs to learn to go through the gears and not bowl 100 per cent all the time,” said Stone’s captain Jeetan Patel, who appears to know a thing or two about the nature of county cricket.


I Don’t Like Cricket, I Hate It – the county cricket and crying Aussies edition

A semi-regular feature in which we ask a fella going by the name of Prince Prefab about cricket – even though he hates cricket. We are in bold. Prince Prefab is not.

King Cricket: We’re speaking now on the eve of the County Championship and I am all the way excited to hear how this competition impacts on your life.

It does not. Unless there are crying Australians I’m not interested. Although I do love counties. I like to look at maps of the counties. Might get a county map and get it framed.

It literally has zero impact?

I’ve honestly never given it a single thought. Probably thought about badminton more. And I’ve never thought about badminton.

The only thing I know about county cricket (and I suspect that it probably isn’t the case any more) is that Yorkshire are the only team to have players only born in Yorkshire play for them. Was that ever the case?

That was the case until not quite as long ago as you’d probably imagine. Okay, let’s talk about crying Australians then. How did that whole thing seem to you, viewed from your position ‘outside cricket’?

Brilliant. Great fun. A right laugh. Didn’t understand the crying. I’ll cry at anything; I’ve cried at a wedding in Neighbours but if I intentionally set out to do something and then got caught doing it and then decided to apologise for doing it, I don’t reckon I’d cry.

Also, why was that lad’s dad there when he was saying sorry and crying? I reckon 12 is the cut off point for having your dad with you when you’ve fucked up.

We should probably try and pin that down actually. Here in the UK, 12 means high school for most people – maybe the first year, maybe the second. We need to imagine a high school scenario where you’re in pretty major trouble for dishonesty to work out whether or not it still makes sense to have your dad there for the apology.

Well, for context, (although this is not about dishonesty) I was about ten, playing football in the street with my dad. I was taking a penalty against our neighbour’s drive and he was in goal and I scored an amazing goal but the ball kept rising and smashed our neighbour’s garage window. Now, bearing in mind it was my dad’s fault for letting the ball get past him, and I was TEN, he ran inside and made me go and knock on the neighbour’s door, show them the damage and apologise. He watched this from behind our curtains. That, I believe, is proper parenting.

So what you’re saying is that by the age of ten, your dad felt it was absolutely legitimate for you to face the music alone? I think that’s only part-way conclusive though because maybe his involvement influenced that decision. Would it be fair to say that if he hadn’t been in nets, he might have accompanied you for the apology? (By the way, our favourite detail in this story is that he felt it necessary to return home at speed.)

Yeah he legged it. You know what, I’ve changed my mind. If you want your dad there, fine. Quite touching in a way. This isn’t about masculinity, this isn’t about being strong, burying emotion; like I said I love a good cry. Men should cry, it does you good to have a cry now and again, but I don’t understand what the tears were for here. In fact I don’t understand the whole thing. Cheating in front of 20 cameras. What did they think would happen?

Well this is the thing. Some feel that maybe they were up to lower-grade no-good previously or were up to the exact same sort of no-good but had previously managed to avoid being detected. We’re of the opinion that even if they’d never done this exact thing before, it would be weird if the sandpapering were an absolute outlier.

We suppose the crying was a moment of clarity. Kind of: “We lost sight of the bigger picture and now we see how annoyed everyone is, we kind of feel bad for letting everyone down.” Does that ring true?

Yeah, I can see that. Also, I’m not saying it wasn’t intense. The whole world laughing at you, accusing you, your prime minister’s having a go – bet it was horrible. I mean, even I was interested and as you know, I have no interest in cricket.

This seems like a bit of a non-sequitur at this point in the conversation, but you say that I have to ask you this. Which is the worst county?

Cheshire.


Who will initially be named as a County Championship title contender but actually end up getting relegated?

Essex celebrate 2017 survival (via ECB)

The first week of the County Championship is a great time for predictions. We’ve gone through a whole bunch of previews to pick out the three teams who have most often been mentioned as favourites this year and we’re now going to try and predict which of those favourites will actually end up getting relegated.

This is an odd feature of county cricket. For some reason teams’ performances vary enormously from year to year. Twice in recent memory the champions have been relegated the following season (Lancashire in 2012, Middlesex last year).

Who will it be this year?

Essex

Essex are reigning champions but it still isn’t all that easy to work out how they ever manage to win a game. Thanks largely to Jamie Porter, Simon Harmer and Neil Wagner, they are favourites to win the Championship (which to be honest only compounds the feeling that they absolutely won’t).

Surprise relegation rating: All but guaranteed to go down.

Lancashire

Lancashire have form in being relegated when no-one really expects them to be relegated. They have also strengthened their team over the winter by signing a couple of Durham’s best players (Keaton Jennings and Graham Onions), which would make relegation even more of a surprise and therefore even more likely. Throw in the fact that we support them and things really don’t look good. (We’d also like to point out that Shivnarine Chanderpaul will play for Lancashire again this season, encouraging the notion that he’s just going to carry on playing cricket until his age meets his batting average.)

Surprise relegation rating: Highly likely to go down.

Surrey

Surrey seasons are now routinely split into two or three phases. The first phase is when they’re talked up as potential champions, overrated young talent and big name old-timers having encouraged the notion that the county is ‘back’. The second phase is when an equally unjustifiable number of columns discuss why the things predicted in phase one haven’t actually happened. Phase three, if it happens, coincides with a late season resurgence as the county narrowly avoids relegation and in terms of media coverage is basically the same as phase one. In terms of playing staff, Kumar Sangakkara has sauntered off and Morne Morkel has turned up to wonder why the hell they need a seam bowler like him for all these nibbly green Championship pitches.

Surprise relegation rating: Pretty likely to go down.

Conclusion

All three favourites, simply by dint of being favourites, are in with a very good chance of being relegated – but county cricket being county cricket, the very fact that we’ve now weighed up the likelihood and made a prediction probably means that none of them will be relegated.

Additional conclusion

The County Championship is mental.


Does the IPL deserve its reputation?

IPL 2018 anthem (all images via YouTube)

The 2018 IPL is underway. It is the 11th edition.

Back in 2008 the IPL was a bombastic upstart that threw huge sums of money at all the big name players. Now it is a bombastic-yet-fairly-well-established competition and it only throws huge sums of money at some of the big name players, but also at a few players who you don’t really know all that well.

Things have changed but things also haven’t changed. Either way, it’s a good time to take a look at the IPL’s reputation to judge whether or not it’s deserved.

One of the challenges of attempting to do that is that it’s quite hard to pin down the IPL’s reputation. The tournament is vast and sprawling and different people have very, very different opinions on it.

We took the not-at-all scientific approach of asking a bunch of people who happened to be on Twitter on a Saturday afternoon to try and sum up the IPL’s reputation. After that, we cherry-picked answers that we felt had the ring of truth about them. The end result was a series of different qualities, each of which we will now examine.

This is not a short article, but hopefully it is the kind of article where you are happy that it’s long because you find it to be fun and enjoyable and not the kind of article where you’re forever checking how much you’ve already scrolled through and how much scrolling you still have left to do.

Here are some commonly mentioned aspects of the IPL’s reputation and analysis of whether or not they are deserved.

(1) The IPL is over the top, gaudy and ostentatious

Here’s a shot from eight seconds into this year’s IPL theme tune video.

At this point, you’re quite legitimately concluding that what’s about to follow is probably not going to be a work of extraordinary subtlety.

This is ten seconds in.

Hitting a flaming ball with a cricket bat initially seems kind of ludicrous, but two seconds later they’ve already made hitting a flaming ball with a cricket bat look like a very reserved way to promote a cricket tournament. It does after all greatly focus on cricket, rather than on tigers.

Our favourite part of the tiger shot is the disclaimer beneath which states: “These are stock shots and no animals were harmed in the making of this film.”

They say that because this is what happens next.

The tigers blew up!

Or at least an explosion was displayed at the exact moment that the tigers walking out of the fire towards one another would have touched noses. Maybe it’s a logical leap to conclude that we’re meant to see this as exploding tigers, but we put it to you that it’s a logical leap we are encouraged to make.

This is a very important example of how big things are marketed in India.

Here is a thing that no-one in India has ever said about marketing a big thing: “It’s good, I like it – but do you not think that maybe it’s just a little bit too much?”

No-one has ever said that. No-one will ever say that. Subjected to an assault of singing, dancing and explosions, people are far more likely to say: “Maybe we should have more singing, dancing or explosions.”

Then someone else will turn to them and say: “Let’s have more of all three.”

Everyone will nod and agree and then at some point someone will suggest the addition of tigers.

Here is another very minor, low-key example of the phenomenon. It is nice and small and manageable and easy to understand. When they named the Chennai franchise, they concluded that calling them ‘Kings’ would be insufficient, so they went ahead and called them ‘Super Kings’ instead.

Complaining that Indian entertainment is over the top, gaudy and ostentatious is like complaining about India’s geographic location on this planet. What do you honestly expect anyone to do about it?

If you have a problem with the over the top, gaudy and ostentatious nature of Indian entertainment, here are your options:

  1. Deal with it
  2. Fail to deal with it

Technically, you could also ignore it, but we’re writing this from the perspective that you’re in some way interested in the IPL and are doing your best to enjoy or endure it. As such, those are your two options.

(2) The IPL is a slogfest

This is a bit of a ‘yes and no’ which we are aware is not an especially satisfying way to deal with such a thing.

Yes, the IPL is kind of a slogfest, because it is a Twenty20 cricket competition and Twenty20 cricket is kind of a slogfest.

No, because when you say ‘slogfest’ there are connotations to your use of that word. It is very rare for someone to speak in complimentary terms about something they are labelling a slogfest.

The original pejorative description of Twenty20 cricket was ‘hit and giggle’. This has fallen out of use a bit because it makes the format sounds like a fun, knockabout, amateur sort of thing.

This is in no way appropriate any more because people are pumping millions of moneys into these franchises. We’ll tell you what people pumping millions of moneys into something don’t at all enjoy: giggling from the people paid to produce results. Giggling implies that you’re not taking things at all seriously and if someone’s invested millions of moneys, that isn’t going to go down well.

So the slogging. The crux of this issue is this: in cricket, runs and wickets do not have set values. The value of each fluctuates from game to game, and, in a more general way, from format to format.

In the shortest format, wickets don’t really have much value at all until the point you lose your tenth wicket and aren’t allowed to continue scoring runs. Runs are the meaningful unit of currency and with reduced likelihood of being bowled out due to the constricted nature of the game, there is greater incentive to try and hit fours and sixes. That is how the game is built.

To explain why it’s not just slogging, let’s think of a ‘slog’ as being a wild hack where there’s just as much chance of being dismissed as hitting a six.

(1) If all 11 batsmen hit exactly one six and play no other scoring shots before getting out, the team will make 66, which is pretty much guaranteed to be a losing total.

(2) If all 11 batsmen hit exactly two sixes and play no other scoring shots before getting out, the team will make 132, which is okay in some circumstances, but probably also a losing total.

(3) If all 11 batsmen hit exactly three sixes and play no other scoring shots before getting out, the team will make 198, which is good enough to win most matches.

Our point is that a batsman can’t mindlessly swing at everything. If his decisions are inevitably weighted towards runs and away from preservation of his wicket, then there is still a decision to be made every ball. It is not just a slogfest.

Additionally, bowlers and fielders also play cricket.

(3) The IPL has incredibly passionate fans

Okay, we’re going to address this one by telling you two stories from when we went to watch Bangalore Royal Challengers v Deccan Chargers in 2010 (a colourful time during which we wrote this). The first story is from when we were at the match. The second story is from when we were at a hotel.

Story One. Here is a not-very-good photo from when were at the match. Sorry about the quality. We seem to remember that cameras were banned and mobile phone technology was not-so-good back then.

We just wanted to give you a small flavour of what the crowd was like. You will notice that a lot of people are waving flags and at least one person is wearing a crown.

You also cannot hear the crowd. We’d gone there with our friend Tronco and when the RCB batsmen first walked out, it was loud enough that we could scream “this is loud” directly into his ear and he still couldn’t hear us. Whenever anything happened from then on, it got louder.

The boy who was sitting next to us was certainly passionate. He told us he was supporting both RCB and DC, but in reality he was supporting sixes. He didn’t even clap for most fours, but when there was a six, he was out of his seat, eyes bulging, nearly falling over. It was very weird. He wasn’t bothered about wickets either and it was hard not to conclude that his love for the DLF Maximum was entirely detached from its significance in the match.

There was also a middle-aged guy a few rows in front who was very definitely passionate. It was much less clear whether he was following the match too closely. He was mostly just into dancing.

He was dancing to everything. At the time, this seemed very strange to us because we grew up in a world where even sitting down on a chair in the pub is considered effeminate. In the world of our early adulthood, pubs were for standing in and nowhere in the world was for middle-aged men to dance. (Look, we’re not saying we agree with this view or that most of the people who populated this world weren’t dicks, but this was the environment and we have inevitably internalised many of the values whether we like it or not.)

After a while, we started to notice that Dancing Man was representative of a certain proportion of the crowd. Everyone was having a very, very good time, but the noise was constant in a way that wasn’t necessarily all that related to what was happening on the field of play.

We can’t say what the actual split was between people who were dead into the game and people who were just dead into the experience. Personally, we remember and cherish the experience and honestly don’t know who won the game. It’s worth mentioning that it was a very good-natured crowd too. We can’t imagine any of the players were getting abuse.

Story Two. A little while later, we had to spend ten extra days in the hotel because we couldn’t get home because of the ash cloud. We were on our own by this point and so took to chatting about the IPL with the staff. There was one guy who was very definite that he was not a cricket fan and not an IPL fan either.

Almost immediately after saying this, he dissected Harmeet Singh’s technique when bowling his leg-break slower ball and followed that up with a dissection of the same bowler’s technique when bowling his flipper slower ball. We are an actual professional cricket writer and we’re still not fully sure who Harmeet Singh is.

It seems that in India, the average person is far more likely to know their cricket shit.

This is hardly surprising because during the IPL, cricket can be hard to avoid. We picked up a copy of the Deccan Chronicle one morning during our stay. Six and a half of the 16 pages were devoted to IPL news of some form. There had been bombs at Chinnaswamy Stadium, but that only warranted a page and a half – the rest was all Lalit Modi and Shashi Tharoor, match reports and opinion.

The ash cloud got 150 words. Mark Ramprakash’s divorce got 100.

(4) The IPL has too much advertising

There are few parts of the IPL that haven’t been sponsored. Grounds are sponsored, shirts are sponsored, highlights reels are sponsored. They’ve even found advertisers for moments, like for a six or for a ‘perfect catch’. This means that corporate names can also lodge themselves within the match commentary.

After the match, there are awards – all of which are sponsored and many of which are flimsy and very obviously made-up purely to secure yet another sponsor. Man of the match is fairly conventional, but to this we can add ‘stylish player of the match’, ‘super striker of the match’ and doubtless a few others that we haven’t the will to find out about right now.

There’s an official strategic time-out partner. There are co-presenting sponsors. There are any number of ill-defined associate sponsors.

They’ve even named an ‘umpire partner’ – something which might come as very shocking news to some of the umpires’ actual partners.

Umpire’s wife: “Are you having a parallel relationship with Paytm?”

Umpire: “I, um… what?”

But it’s only on the TV coverage where you get the full IPL effect. Ad breaks are punishingly frequent and last time we watched it, they were doing a thing where they occasionally shrunk the live action picture so as to display banner ads at the bottom and down the side.

The ad break ads (it says a lot that we needed to invent that term) were mostly for aspirational stuff. Phones, LCD TVs, Mont Blanc pens and plush furniture featured heavily.

Let’s quickly do some TV advert awards.

Our all-time favourite Indian TV ad. It was from 2003 or whenever the hell it was we first went over there. It was for Rupa Jon pants and featured a man in white Y-fronts who advertised his sole garment by saying: “You’re number one!” He accompanied that statement with a bold, joyful finger point to emphasise his message. It really was very entertaining. We can’t emphasise that enough.

The most jaw-droppingly perplexing ad that we saw while watching IPL matches on TV in 2010. As we remember it, the guy was a hangman and he’d had a bad day hanging people (a successful day really in terms of doing his job, but in a more meaningful sense a bad day because his job was to hang people). He walked home feeling all bad and then when he got home he switched a solitary lightbulb on and felt slightly better because of the fact that he had either (a) a lightbulb or (b) power for the lightbulb. (We’re honestly not sure how much of this is accurate due to it being a long time ago and because the final slogan was in a type of writing that we cannot read.)

The ad that best sums up an entire country that isn’t India. In Canada we once saw a prime time TV ad which suggested that the viewer might want to “impress all of your friends with a giant rig” – that’s ‘rig’ as in ‘truck’. Oh Canada.

Anyway. Yes, clearly the IPL has too much advertising. We could probably have done this one a bit quicker.

(5) The IPL is overrated and overhyped

This is to some degree connected to (1) and (4).

Of course it is overhyped because that is how the IPL presents everything. It would be very odd indeed if the one solitary thing it didn’t oversell was itself.

Of course it isn’t going to be shy about taking opportunities to talk itself up. It would be very odd indeed if, in amongst advertising 10 million other things, it neglected to advertise itself.

The IPL thinks that it’s the best and has always thought that it’s the best. There are two aspects to this that warrant our attention.

Firstly, the IPL is, and pretty much always has been, the best T20 competition. It is the best-funded and therefore the best-staffed, both in terms of players but also in terms of people trying to work out smart ways of winning cricket matches. So yes, the IPL is within its rights to think it’s the best.

What’s changed is how people regard T20 competitions. Initially, ‘best T20 competition’ was a bit like saying ‘best-looking deep sea fish’ because it was a label that didn’t really have any value in broader terms.

Now, thanks to all the great players and thinkers who have been involved for a decade, ‘best T20 competition’ pretty much means ‘most sophisticated and forward-thinking cricket competition’.

However much or however little you value that, T20 competitions are unarguably far more important to the game than they once were and the IPL is the most significant among them.

(6) The IPL is too powerful

The idea here is that the IPL is a talent sucker; that other parts of the sport are losing players and becoming devalued as a consequence.

You could argue that the arrival of the IPL represented a very obvious tipping point for a sport that had already spread itself too thinly and was asking too much of its players. Cricket’s foremost domestic league lasts seven weeks. That is not, by the standards of most sports, unreasonable. The problem, really, is what was already happening.

International cricket long ago lost sight of the idea that it is supposed to be about big occasions where the best players play the best players and everyone is at their best.

County cricket has also been affected, but it only expanded deeper into April in the first place to allow even more international cricket to take place.

The IPL could see the end of the philosophy of ‘more of everything’ in cricket and that isn’t such a bad thing.

(7) Most people outside India are at best apathetic about the IPL

A common refrain from outside India is that they don’t care about the IPL and can’t even find a way to care about the IPL. This is not the same as no-one caring about the IPL because it is quite obvious that in India very many people care about the IPL. (This division of caring makes total and perfect sense because it is, after all, the Indian Premier League.)

The fact that people are even discussing this is a measure of the league’s significance. No-one in England is following the Ranji Trophy too closely. No-one’s following the Logan Cup or the Lankan Premier League. Foreign leagues are foreign. The fact that in its 11th season the IPL is suffering unflattering comparisons with the NFL in the US or the English Premier League is really kind of an achievement.

So, in relative terms, people outside India actually care very much about the IPL because they mention it and sometimes think about it a little.

So, with all of that in mind, does the IPL deserve its reputation?

Having weighed up the facts and pondered the detail, we would have to go with ‘sort of’.


England need a short-pitched specialist like Neil Wagner

Neil Wagner (via Sky Sports video)

Asking someone to bowl with the old ball is not the same as picking someone who has built their career around bowling with the old ball.

Asking someone to bowl short is not the same as picking someone who has built their entire career around bowling short.

Being tall does not guarantee bounce.

These are the kinds of things we’ve written about somewhat more coherently for Wisden.com.


Exactly how bad was Australia’s tour of South Africa?

Excuse making (via Sky Sports video)

Most Test tours are bad tours these days because it is rare for any team to win away from home. That said, there are different degrees of badness. We have a faint suspicion that Australia’s recently-completed tour of South Africa might have been unusually bad. Let’s try and work out whether that really was the case.

It’s important to be methodical when you’re asking a nebulous sort of question like this, so let’s set a series of sub-questions and try and answer each of them in turn. There are no points on offer here – we aren’t going to precisely quantify the badness – but hopefully by breaking down the larger question into smaller ones, we can get a clearer idea of how things went. These are questions you could ask of any tour but in this particular instance they are being applied to South Africa v Australia.

Are you ready?

Okay, let’s go.

Did the team lose any significant players to injury, retirement or for some other reason?

Teams lose players all the time for all sorts of different reasons. Often, it’s not a problem, because the player in question is being deliberately discarded because they aren’t very good at Test cricket. Sometimes, however, their absence is keenly felt as the player leaves a vacuum that cannot be filled (even though nature famously finds such situations abhorrent).

Did Australia lose any significant players to injury? No, not really. Not in the long-term anyway. Not beyond the usual wear-and-tear on fast bowlers that occasionally sees one or another sitting out a game or two.

Did Australia lose any significant player to retirement? No, they did not. South Africa actually had a far worse series than Australia in this regard, losing Morne Morkel for that very reason.

Did Australia lose any significant player for any other reason? Yes. Yes, they did. They lost no fewer than three players thanks to a ball-tampering attempt so woeful and ineffective that the umpires didn’t even feel it necessary to penalise them five runs.

While all three players who have been lost could eventually return, you’d have to say that the side will be worse off for a decent enough period that their absence can legitimately be considered ‘a bit of a blow’.

As it stands, Australia have lost their best batsman and second-best batsman for one whole year. They also lost their captain and vice captain for the same period because they are the exact same people.

They have lost both their opening batsmen (although the inferior one could return slightly sooner).

It’s probably worth mentioning that they lost their coach too.

Verdict: Australia just lost over a quarter of the team and it was a rather important quarter. This was a bad tour for Australia.

Did the team lose any matches by an enormous margin?

Chasing 612 to win in the fourth Test, Australia were bowled out for 119. Their last seven wickets fell for 31. Two players reached double figures.

Verdict: This was a bad tour for Australia.

Was the team reduced to cheating?

Yes.

Verdict: This was a bad tour for Australia.

Were any of the players reduced to tears?

Yes. Several of them.

Verdict: This was a bad tour for Australia.

Did the team in any way embarrass itself?

Just to repeat what we said four sections ago, Australia lost three players to a ball-tampering attempt so woeful and ineffective that the umpires didn’t even feel it necessary to penalise them five runs.

That, in itself, is pretty embarrassing. Throw in a bizarre and pointless fake explanation where they said they planned to use tape with dirt on it instead of the sandpaper they actually used and we have to go up an embarrassment level. Then the whole country went mental and revealed itself to be the only cricket-playing nation that had no inkling whatsoever that Australian cricketers might not actually be the sport’s ultimate moral supremos after all.

It was all very inglorious and unaware and hypocritical and a big, great overreaction. And yes, because of all of those things, the team did in a very real sense embarrass itself (and this is without even mentioning the run-out ‘celebrations’ that we’re going to come to in a couple of sections time or the whole barney-on-the-stairs thing that we’re not going to mention at all other than here in this sentence).

Oh, and then David Warner went rogue. We almost forgot that bit.

Verdict: This was a bad tour for Australia.

Did results deteriorate?

The nature of Test cricket means that the winning margin can be expressed in runs or in wickets. This can be problematic if you’re trying to make direct comparisons.

Let’s take a look at the results in this series and try and work out whether they got worse for Australia.

  • Australia won the first Test by 118 runs
  • South Africa won the second Test by six wickets
  • South Africa won the third Test by 322 runs
  • South Africa won the fourth Test by 492 runs

Clearly losing is worse than winning and losing by a greater number of runs is worse than losing by fewer runs, so the only question that remains is whether losing by 322 runs is worse than losing by six wickets.

Going off average scores, six wickets would generally result in fewer than 322 runs, so we’d say that the third Test result was worse for Australia than the second Test result.

Verdict: Results deteriorated. This was a bad tour for Australia.

Did the team start out kind of noisy and full of itself but end up quiet, subdued and slightly humiliated?

This is a great way of deducing whether or not a team had a bad tour or not. By comparing the players’ general demeanour at the start and end points of the tour, it becomes easy to see what has changed.

If the team is nervous at the start and all boisterous and irrepressible at the end then it’s been a good tour. If the team starts off gobby and cocky but ends up mute and diminished then it’s been a bad tour.

Way back at the start of March, Australia had a great deal of conspicuous fun running out AB de Villiers for a duck. Nathan Lyon dropped the ball at him; David Warner’s inner chimp took control (and also locked himself in the cockpit for the remainder of the tour); and afterwards, everyone accepted their fines and resolved to carry on doing almost exactly the same thing anyway, regardless of the financial cost.

By the end of the tour, one of those players was in a different country and Dean Elgar was making reference to “the most docile test” he’d ever played against Australia.

Appropriately enough, the series ended with Nathan Lyon being run out. No-one roared in his face because Australia were not at this point credible opposition worthy of face-roaring.

Verdict: This was a bad tour for Australia.

In summary

We posed seven questions and after all seven of them we concluded that Australia’s tour of South Africa was a bad one. This leads us to believe that regarded as a whole, Australia’s tour of South Africa was very bad.

 


The fourth innings ‘ball hundred’

New Zealand v England (via Sky Sports)

Runs are not always the objective for a batsman. If a team finds itself behind in a game such that a win becomes almost impossible, the objective generally becomes survival. Similarly, if you’re one-nil up in a series and it’s the final Test, a draw means a series win.

In these scenarios, the meaningful unit of measurement is not ‘runs’ but ‘balls faced’ – hence the concept of the ‘ball hundred’. Facing 100 deliveries when your team is trying to bat out the final day is a significant contribution.

On the final day of the second Test between New Zealand and England, Ross Taylor made 13 off 23 balls. That innings was a great deal less good than Neil Wagner’s almighty seven off 103 balls.

Top scorers are irrelevant. The top facers from New Zealand’s triumphant innings were:

  1. Tom Latham – 207
  2. Ish Sodhi – 168
  3. Neil Wagner – 103
  4. Colin de Grandhomme – 97
  5. BJ Watling – 66

De Grandhomme will be disappointed to have missed out on a ball hundred when seemingly well-set. Latham will be delighted with his ball double hundred. England will be glad to play some Test matches at home.


Is Stuart Broad back and is that necessarily a wholly good thing for England?

Stuart Broad appeals (via Sky Sports)

The future’s here. The future’s even more of Stuart Broad bowling with the new ball. You might think that sounds suspiciously like the past and you’d be right. Sometimes things don’t change all that much.

Actually one thing’s changed. Whether it’s enthusiasm, rhythm, a minor technical tweak or a combination of all three, Broad appears to have recovered some effectiveness.

Between his mostly insipid Ashes performances and now, Broad renounced video analysis and started training on feel and this wilfully primitive approach appears to have proven beneficial. He has regained some pace and just took a bunch of cheap wickets against New Zealand.

Is this resurgence a good thing?

Yes, obviously it’s a good thing

England have had precisely one wicket-taking bowler for most of the last year – James Anderson. Broad’s resurgence means they now have two. This means there’s a good chance they’ll lose Tests by much narrower margins when the batting utterly collapses. Losing by much narrower margins is a very legitimate and reasonable goal for England away from home at the minute and one we fully support.

There’s also the fact that Stuart Broad is an immensely enjoyable cricketer. Many people hate him, including a surprisingly large number of England supporters, but that isn’t the same as not enjoying his presence. Whether you feel affection or not, who doesn’t feel a twinge of some emotion or other whenever he appeals? And who would honestly claim that he isn’t the most watchable batsman in world cricket?

What’s less clear is what this apparent rejuvenation means long-term.

Mark Wood is not Neil Wagner

Wagner has carved out his very own niche as an attritional short-pitched fast-medium bowler. It really shouldn’t be a thing, but somehow it’s been working for him – not least because it is a role he has committed to in a manner that would put Daniel Day Lewis to shame.

You need someone to bowl 10 overs on the bounce at the batsman’s armpit? Neil Wagner will give you 12. Neil Wagner is no dilettante. Neil Wagner is going to pummel that armpit to Hades if the batsman doesn’t get bat, gloves or arm consistently in the way.

Wagner gives New Zealand a unique avenue to explore. He is one egg in a very different basket. This load-spreading egg transportation policy is one that England are currently looking to mimic.

Unfortunately, Mark Wood is not Neil Wagner. This is not at all how Mark Wood bowls. While he does have a bouncer, it is not his stock ball and yet the Wagner approach is largely how he has ended up bowling for England upon his return to the side.

Because who else will?

No-one, that’s who

Sometimes this is the price you pay for being the quickest bowler. Remember when Broad was England’s “enforcer” and how woefully ineffective he was when he had the job?

Wood can, in theory, be sawn, sanded and reshaped, but you do end up with a very different thing after doing all of that, even if it’s’ still made out of the same raw material. That’s all well and good, but what Mark Wood started out as – a fast bowler aware of the existence of the stumps – is a very fine and desirable thing indeed.

Without Full-Pitched Broad, Wood might perhaps get to bowl how he normally would. Without New Ball Broad, maybe Chris Woakes would have taken a few more wickets this winter.

What you are describing is really just displacement – you can’t blame Stuart Broad for England’s main bowling problem, which is their inability to find a half-decent way to get something out of the Kookaburra ball once the shine’s worn off

Yeah, okay, the exact approach of one of England’s only two effective bowlers and when he gets to bowl are pretty low on the list of England’s concerns at the minute.

However, the very top of that list runs something like this.

  1. Find a middle order batsman
  2. Find a top order batsman
  3. Find any sort of Test cricketer whatsoever because seriously it’s been absolutely bloody ages since anyone new secured a place long-term

Point three is where Broad has an impact because new ball bowlers and quick-bowlers-who-pitch-it-up are two things England really should be able to find even when they’re otherwise shit at cricket. The fact that Broad and Anderson have rendered both of those  ‘things the team absolutely does not in the least bit need’ for the last however-many-years means that an obvious route into the side has closed.

Seriously, England need to find someone – anyone – soon

Moeen Ali was dropped for this Test. While that doesn’t negate all of his many wonderful performances, it does mean that all of the stalwarts in the team started playing international cricket a really, really long time ago.

It’s the very nature of stalwartcy (not a word) that such a player is of course likely to have been around a fair while, but at some point teams have to find new players who are going to be solid, regular picks and there is no sign that this is happening. Not one sign. Not anywhere in the team. (Even Dawid Malan’s apparent solidity pretty much hinges on other people being slightly worse. He’s currently averaging 29.85 in Test cricket.)

When we wrote on this subject in January, we pointed out that Moeen was the man to have most recently become a mainstay. Moeen made his debut in 2014. Hopefully he gets back into the side, because his batting is slightly magical. His absence also means that the player whose name has most recently made the move from pencil to pen is Ben Stokes who debuted in 2013.

Churn

We used to work for a company where we eventually stopped attempting to learn new colleagues’ names because they would quite often not last a week because the company was rubbish and dying.

Stuart Broad’s resurgence is great and fun and pleasing, but you do feel that England could find a replacement new ball bowler more easily than they could find a middle-order batsman and it would be nice to have at least one newish player in the team whose name might be worth committing to memory.


Why did Steve Smith and Cameron Bancroft think that cheating using sandpaper was worse than doing the exact same cheating using something that wasn’t technically sandpaper?

Sandpaper (via Sky Sports)

When we first saw Cameron Bancroft tampering with the ball using sandpaper, we thought to ourself: “That is sandpaper” – and so did everyone else.

We were therefore very much surprised when he later claimed that it was not in fact sandpaper but something akin to home-made sandpaper.

“We had a discussion during the break and I saw an opportunity to use some tape, get some granules from rough patches on the wicket to change the ball condition,” he explained.

It has since turned out that no, actually it was sandpaper all along because of course it was.

This revelation both made sense and also entirely didn’t make sense.

It made sense because the main thing sticky tape sticks to is itself, so it would have been a hell of a feat for Bancroft to keep it in his pocket all flat and rigid like that.

It didn’t make sense because why did Bancroft say that it wasn’t sandpaper? It was such a pointless distinction it literally didn’t even occur to us that it might not be true.

Bancroft and Steve Smith were in that press conference admitting what they’d done. Yet at the same time as coming clean, they also decided that they would tell an outright lie about that one specific detail. How did they hit upon that particular course of action?

Smith: We’ve been caught in what was clearly a premeditated attempt to alter the condition of the ball using sandpaper. What the hell are we going to do? What shall we say?

Bancroft: Let’s mostly confess but then say that we didn’t use sandpaper. Let’s say it was tape that we sort of made into sandpaper once we were out there on the field of play.

Smith: Yes, that’s an excellent idea. That should entirely negate everything we’ve done and ensure we sidestep any and all criticism.

Seriously, why would you lie about it? The question demands some scrutiny.

In that initial press conference…

1. Smith and Bancroft admitted ball-tampering. The nature of the material used to carry out the ball-tampering did not negate this, so this cannot be the reason why they decided to lie.

2. Smith and Bancroft admitted planning to tamper with the ball. They said they’d come up with the idea in the break. They weren’t claiming this was a spur of the moment thing, so this cannot be the reason why they decided to lie.

3. Smith and Bancroft admitted using something very much akin to sandpaper to tamper with the ball. The primary aim of rubbing the hypothetical sticky tape in dirt was to create a thing with a coarse side which could then be used to rough the surface of the ball – so basically sandpaper. The nature of the thing cannot be the reason why they decided to lie.

4. Smith and Bancroft did not admit to sourcing actual sandpaper. This is the only difference between what happened and what they said happened. It would seem that for Smith and Bancroft the threshold for wrongdoing lies at the very specific point between ‘making sandpaper’ and ‘purchasing or otherwise acquiring sandpaper’.

Conclusion

This no doubt sounds very much ridiculous to you, but it’s the nature of ‘ball maintenance’ that everyone has a slightly different but very precise idea about what is okay and what is not okay.

For example, a lot of people feel that sucking a sweet and then taking the resultant sugary spit from your tongue to shine the ball is okay, but that taking sugary spit directly from a sweet on your tongue and using that to shine the ball is not okay. For these people there is a critical ratio of sugar-to-saliva beyond which you become a massive great cheat.

You will probably have your own opinion about where exactly the threshold lies. That opinion will no doubt be mental.

Darren Lehmann has another opinion again. We don’t know what that opinion is, but it is so radically different from Smith and Bancroft’s that the poor man has had to resign from his job as Australia coach due to the extraordinary weight of disappointment he is currently feeling.


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