Australia fail to arrest spin deficiencies

It’s beginning to sound like a broken record. But once again when faced with quality spin bowling on a surface offering some assistance, Australia’s batsman have finished second best.

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Usman Khawaja falls LBW to Dilruwan Perera as Australia’s struggles on turning pitches continued in Kandy. (Photo credit: LAKRUWAN WANNIARACHCHI/AFP/Getty Images)

In the end not even the predicted rain could save them in Kandy. Despite being favorites for the Warne-Muralitharan Trophy before the first Test match, Australia instead find themselves 1-0 down with just two Tests to play. The 106-run defeat at the Pallekele International Stadium adds another chapter to Australian cricket’s recent catalogue of struggles on the subcontinent.

Despite staunch resistance from Peter Nevill and the injured Steven O’Keefe, who added a painstaking stand of 4 runs from 178 deliveries, it wasn’t enough as the hosts wrapped up victory before tea on the fifth day. For Australia it was a seventh consecutive Test match loss in Asia.

Their shortcomings against the spin offerings provided by the Sri Lankan trio of Rangana Herath, Lakshan Sandakan and Dilruwan Perera are certainly no aberration. Such deficiencies have been going on for decades and they currently look no closer to being arrested than they were after the disastrous tour of India three years ago.

After dismissing the hosts for 117 on the first day of the Test, the Australians could only muster a first-innings lead of 86. Eventually set 268 to win after a masterful third innings 176 by rookie Kusal Mendis, they folded for 161 on day five with Herath and Sandakan sharing 16 wickets in the match.

On dry turning wickets, the Australians have struggled against all varieties of slow bowling. Be it the legspin of Yasir Shah and Devendra Bishoo, the left-arm orthodox of Herath and Ravindra Jadeja, the left-arm chinaman of Sandakan and Tabraiz Shamsi, or the offspinning showings of Ravichandran Ashwin and Sunil Narine. Against Australia no spin bowler is ever discriminated against.

It’s been almost five years since Australia last celebrated a Test or series victory on Asian shores. In fact it was on their last tour of Sri Lanka, where they claimed a 1-0 series victory, thanks largely to the excellent batting of a certain Mike Hussey. Since then they have struggled desperately, often faced with scoreboard pressure and several men hovering around the bat.

Since that 2011 series win there has been nothing but heartbreak in Asia. The early 2013 tour of India – which will forever be known as the homeworkgate series – was the beginning of a disastrous spell from the Australians. The likes of Ashwin, Jadeja, Harbhajan Singh and Pragyan Ojha turned Australia ragged on that occasion during a 4-0 Indian whitewash. Further strife was endured during a 2-0 Pakistan series victory in the UAE in October 2014 where this time the legspin of Shah and the canny left-arm spin of Zulfiqar Babar proved to be the visitor’s downfall.

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Peter Nevill is finally dismissed after holding Sri Lanka at bay for 115 deliveries. Photo Credit: Getty Images.

Other shortcomings against spin have also occurred outside of Asia too. A 2014 ODI loss to Zimbabwe was compounded by an inability to score off a quartet of modest spinners, while the likes of Bishoo and Narine have troubled the Australians on recent visits to the Caribbean.

Perhaps overconfidence or a lack of patience is often to blame for their careless batting. This was best epitomized in the first innings dismissal of Steve Smith. The Australian captain – who’s commonly renowned as the country’s best player of spin since his predecessor Michael Clarke – was well set on 30 before an ugly heave against Herath resulted in his departure at a crucial part of the match. Australia should have shut Sri Lanka out of the match thereafter, instead they only claimed a first innings lead of 86 when something over 200 would have made life extremely difficult for the hosts.

Despite being well aware of their struggles against spin bowling, what more can Australia do to conquer their fears over the turning ball?

By going to Sri Lanka two weeks prior to their current series, they gave themselves every chance to acclimatize to the humid weather and dry surfaces faced with on the island. While back home work is constantly being done to improve the way the Australians play on turning wickets. Last year a hybrid spin pitch was installed at the Bupa National Cricket Centre in Brisbane. The hope is that the next generation of young Australian batsmen will be able to spend plenty of time honing their skills on the subcontinent-like surface.

Technique wise, going forward they must find a pragmatic but purposeful way of playing the turning ball. A tendency to attack their way out of tough situations may be the Australian way but it’s rarely proved to be the correct way.

Currently faced with two must-win Tests in the coming weeks and then a four-Test series due to commence in India in February, there’s going to be no hiding places for the Australian batsmen. Right now they must find a quick fix before another series on the subcontinent is lost. Seven defeats and counting…

 

 

Do Collingwood and Trescothick represent the last of the true county pros?

Veteran batsmen are among a dying breed of experienced ex-international leaders on the county circuit; but can Ian Bell and Jonathan Trott follow suit?

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Paul Collingwood and Marcus Trescothick share a moment together earlier this summer. (Photo Credit: Getty Images.)

To witness Somerset’s Marcus Trescothick pull apart a Test-quality Pakistani attack on the way to his 61st first-class hundred this week brought a certain warmth to the heart.

For men like Trescothick, who will turn 41 years old this Christmas, don’t litter the outfields of county cricket like they once did. In fact for sheer age, longevity and leadership qualities perhaps only Durham’s own elder statesman Paul Collingwood, five months Trescothick’s junior, can rival the inspiration offered by the man known as Tresco.

There’s something much underappreciated about the old county pro. If English cricket is to continue its upward curve on the international scene then the influence of such men must not be simply brushed aside. Without their vacuum of knowledge the county game could suffer immeasurably.

With restrictions on the number of Kolpak players allowed and tidy financial incentives being offered to Counties who blood English-qualified youngsters into their systems, the number of former international stalwarts in county cricket is slowly dwindling.

In decades gone by many former England cricketers would have jumped at the chance to finish their careers with their respective home counties, but the landscape is vastly changing. The cricket world is now filled with endless T20 league opportunities, well-paid media openings and attractive coaching roles that tussle for both time and attraction.

Indeed, England’s three previous Test captains Nasser Hussain, Michael Vaughan and Andrew Strauss each showed little-to-no interest in carrying on their county careers once the international limelight had fizzled away.

There are exceptions of course. Mark Butcher played on for Surrey five years after his international career had ground to a halt in 2004 and Mark Ramprakash continued to dominate the county scene for a decade after his England days were numbered in 2002.

While injuries have prevented the likes of Graeme Swann and Matt Prior from continuing in the county game, the blow seems to have been somewhat softened by Swann’s media work with TMS and Prior’s indulge into the world of cycling. Kevin Pietersen, despite a brief return to county cricket with Surrey last summer, was never likely to spend his final playing days out in the pastures of Arundel Castle or Scarborough.

Of course different players are motivated by different things. Be it the monetary aspects, lifestyle choices or simply the need to give something back to the game that has given them so much. Each player has his own reasons for playing on or taking an early retirement.

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Jonathan Trott and Ian Bell both have the desire and experience to become sucessful county pro’s at Warwickshire. (Photo Credit: Charlie Crowhurst/Getty Images)

With 170 Test caps between them Warwickshire’s Ian Bell and Jonathan Trott represent a new generation of county statesmen. With other batsmen now seemingly ahead of him, Bell’s chances of an England recall appear to be evaporating with each squad announcement. But with the Bears captaincy now in tow and a demanding respect in the county game, Bell could well prolong his career for a good few years yet. On the other hand Trott, much like Trescothick, is just happy to be playing the game he loves away from the international spotlight.

Recently axed by England, Middlesex’s Nick Compton is currently taking time away from the game to reassess his career ambitions. Given that his international career seems to have ended after its second reincarnation, Compton must now decide if he’s keen on the life of a county pro or if opportunities elsewhere jump out as more appealing.

Another man recently faced with the similar decision was Michael Carberry. Jettisoned from the England Test side after the Ashes whitewash of 2013/14, Carberry has since gone on reinvent himself as a number four with Hampshire, having predominantly opened the batting throughout his career.

It can’t be underestimated the fine work both Trescothick and Collingwood have done in recent years. With the bat both men can still provide measurable contributions. Prior to recently breaking his thumb against Yorkshire, Collingwood has added 402 County Championship runs at 57.42. Trescothick has also continued to roll back the years in the West Country with 557 runs at 42.80.

While their inputs with the bat allow for them to continue playing at county level, it’s their abilities to transfer knowledge that continues to be most invaluable asset.

Trescothick, captain of the Somerset first-class side until this summer, has overseen the recent development of the likes of Jos Buttler, Tom Abell and the Overton twins Craig and Jamie.

Since taking over as captain four years ago, Collingwood has performed miracles in the North East. Durham, a county beset by financial cripple in recent times, are now down to the bare bones of a playing squad that keeps punching above its weight when logic predicts otherwise.

The tenure of Colly has instead coincided with the emergence of recent England players Scott Borthwick, Ben Stokes and Mark Wood. While promising England U19 batsman Jack Burnham could hardly ask for a better mentor than Collingwood.

Others warrant a mention too. Nottinghamshire’s Chris Read and Gareth Batty of Surrey deserve huge credit for giving back to the county game. Read, even at 37, remains one of the country’s outstanding glovesmen, while Batty’s leadership of the dressing room after the death of Tom Maynard has been second to none. The 38-year-old now combines his time captaining Surrey with the mentorship of potential England Test player Zafar Ansari.

When players such as Collingwood and Trescothick eventually decide to call it a day, how easily will they be replaced?

That’s a question for later. For now we must sit back and appreciate the county pros of today before they are gone.

 

Australia’s next generation of Asian talent.

When the New South Wales contracts for next summer were recently released, two names immediately stood out. Arjun Nair and Jason Sangha not only stood out for their undoubted youthful talent, but also because of their ethnicity.  

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With his elegent style at number three, could Jason Sangha become Australia’s next Usman Khawaja? Photo Credit: Getty Images.

The times are rapidly changing down under. As the country becomes ever more multicultural, gone are the days when cricket was exclusively a white only sport. Indeed now, State’s such as New South Wales are looking to fill their rookie contracts with the next generation of Asian-originated talent.

Arjun Nair and Jason Sangha aren’t just there to make up the numbers either. These are two of the most exciting talents to come through the New South Wales system in recent memory. Stylish right-handed batsman Sangha is at 16-years-of-age, the youngest player ever to receive a NSW rookie contract. His fellow youngster Nair, an 18-year-old offspinner, has been rewarded with a full State contract after a sensational year – which saw him rise through the Sydney Grade ranks to become a Sheffield Shield cricketer.

In January the pair made history when they became the first duo of Indian-origin to represent Australia in the same match. Also playing in that fixture against the Pakistan U19 side was another player of Asian-descent. The 19-year-old Wes Agar (younger brother of Ashton), who himself has just landed a rookie contract with South Australia.

With the cricketing landscape finally beginning to catch up with a new diverse Australia, cricketers of Asian-origin are beginning to emerge from pathways previously unlocked in a sport not widely known for its cultural diversity. Past research has shown that the cost of, and time consumed whilst playing cricket has previously alienated Asian youngsters from participating in the game.

Despite a strong “traditionally white” culture still being in place in some parts of the country, major cities such as Sydney and Melbourne have seen an increase in the participation of players with Asian backgrounds. In 2012 Cricket Australia developed a three-year diversity and inclusion strategy aimed at taking the sport to newer diverse communities, through both schools and grass-roots recreational clubs.

And that strategy has recently started to show some signs of fruition. Although there have been players of Asian-descent throughout Australian cricket in the past – Hunter Poon, Dav Whatmore and Richard Chee Quee immediately come to mind – the immergence of new talent such as Nair and Sangha, coupled with the recent success stories of men like Ashton Agar (a Sri Lankan mother), Usman Khawaja (born in Pakistan), Fawad Ahmed (a former Pakistani refugee) and Gurinder Sandhu (whose parents hail from the Punjabi region of India) can only be celebrated as a triumph.

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Usman Khawaja, Fawad Ahmed and Gurinder Sandhu are the forbearers to a new generation of Asian-Australian cricketers. Photo Credit: Jono Searle.

Indeed, is there currently a better cricketing role model in Australia than Khawaja? Since returning to the national setup almost a year after suffering a severe knee injury, the nonchalant left-hander has piled up the small matter of 1,006 runs across the three separate formats.

In Australia, such hero’s are vital for the next generation of Asian youngsters. One such youngster is Sangha. Born in the Eastern suburbs of Randwick – but raised further north in Newcastle, the rookie number three is very much a product of Indian-heritage. His languid stroke-play is of subcontiental design and still just 16, he’s beginning to acuminate a hugely impressive CV for a man of such tender age.

If making ones Newcastle first grade bow, for the Wallsend District CC, at just 13-years-old wasn’t enough evidence of his huge potential, then a glowing report from former Australian batting great Greg Chappell should carry enough weight to suggest Sangha’s promise.

 “An elegant stroke-maker with a touch of class that is the hallmark of the very best players.” – Greg Chappell on Jason Sangha’s potential talent.

The high praise from Chappell is evident in his recent performances. Despite only entering last December’s Under-19 National Championship once he had dominated both the School Sports Australia Under-15 tournament and the Under-17 National Championships, Sangha more than held his own by striking 316 runs across his eight innings at an average of 39.50.

And there was even more to come during Sangha’s miraculous rise through the ranks. In January he became the youngest man to score a hundred on debut for the Australian U-19 side during a tri-series victory over Pakistan in the UAE.

Just a month after his exploits of the Australian U-19 side, he was back in New South Wales breaking more records. Firstly, he made his Sydney first grade debut for Randwick Petersham CC, before becoming the youngest player to play Second XI cricket for New South Wales in 91 years whilst playing against the Australian Capital Territory in Canberra.

Sangha certainly hasn’t been the only young player of Asian-descent to make waves in NSW this year. Nair – who was born in Canberra to a migrant couple that originally arrived from Kerala in southern India some twenty years ago – has since continued his cricket development in the western Sydney suburb of Girraween.

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Arjun Nair made two Sheffield Shield appearences for New South Wales last season. Photo Credit: Getty Images.

Like Sangha, the offspinner has also honed his skills down under with a distinctive Asian flavour. In a recent interview with ESPNcricinfo’s Daniel Brettig, Nair credited his ability to bowl as many as five different deliveries to watching countless YouTube videos of so-called IPL mystery spinners Sunil Narine and Ravichandran Ashwin.

The way such skills are now learnt may signal a new beginning in how young players self-teach using video footage but, like a history of Australian cricketers previously, it’s Grade Cricket where the wheat is separated from the chaff. Similarly to Sangha, Nair made the step-up to senior Grade Cricket whilst just a schoolboy.

At just 15, he became the eighth youngest player ever to play in the Sydney first grade competition when he represented Hawkesbury CC during the 2013-14 summer. He’s since gone from strength-to-strength going from Under-19 state selection to playing Sheffield Shield cricket inside three months.

With regular NSW spinners Nathan Lyon and Steve O’Keefe both absent, Nair was granted a First-Class debut after impressing with match-figures of 9-70 in a Future Leagues clash preceding the match against South Australia in Coffs Harbour.

Such exposure accompanied by a Big Bash League stint with eventual champions Sydney Thunder – where he was rewarded with a Community Rookie spot – can only be beneficial for the development of a player whose batting talents might yet one day exceed his offbreak bowling. This was emphasized no more so than when, in his maiden first-class innings, he scored a backs-to-the-wall 37 from 93-delivieries during a pivotal partnership with Ryan Carters.

With both men now firmly in the grips of New South Wales for the foreseeable future, the future looks bright for the pair, who will looking for more Future Leagues action with the Blues this summer.

And they could yet be joined down under by a 22-year-old Pakistani legspinner. Usman Qadir, the son of former Pakistan legend Abdul Qadir, is currently mulling over a decision whether to return to play cricket in Australia after a lack of playing opportunities in his homeland. After spending time playing Second XI and club cricket (Adelaide CC) in South Australia in 2013, Qadir would have to serve a four-year qualifying period if he harboured any serious hopes of one day representing the Australians.

Although still unconfirmed, Qadir’s story would, to an extent, rival that of fellow Pakistani legspinner Fawad Ahmed. Could this represent a zenith moment for the future of Australian cricket?

Bowral – A step into Bradman country

A trip to the Bradman Museum in Bowral isn’t just about cricket; it’s about Australian sporting history, traditional and culture.

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It’s Easter Saturday and a beauty in Sydney. Replacing the dank and drizzle that plagued my Good Friday walk in the Eastern Suburb’s is a bright sky that closely resembles the blue of the nearby Pacific Ocean.

My destination for the day is the Bradman Museum and International Cricket Hall of Fame. Located in the small New South Wales country town of Bowral, the museum is situated almost half-way between the state’s two main cities of Sydney and Canberra.

A lot has happened in Australian cricket in the two years since I last stepped foot in Sydney. Richie and Phillip have sadly left us, a home World Cup crown was secured, an away Ashes series squandered and farewells were aplenty with Pup, Ryano, Bucky, Hadds, Mitch and Watto all leaving the international scene. One thing guaranteed to always remain around these parts though, is the legacy of Sir Donald Bradman.

As I make my two-hour train descent towards Bradman’s final resting place of Bowral, the big city slowly drifts by into a flurry of suburbs and small villages and then, beyond Campbelltown, the beautiful Southern Highlands. One can’t help but to be impressed at the amount of sporting facilities that lie adjacent to the train line. No suburb goes empty handed without AFL, soccer, tennis, cricket and rugby facilities. Many small rural towns even have their own horse racing circuits and golf courses.

Yes, Australia has the good weather and the space to facilitate such sporting resources, but they also have an unrivalled love for sport and the great outdoors. It’s just in their blood. And Bradman is an integral part of that.

Weaving through the Southern Highlands is a joy to behold. Cattle, sheep and horses litter the landscape of rolling hills and tree-laden meadows. Country NSW has never looked so glorious.

As the train enters its final stretch through Mittagong and towards Bradmanland, the excitement becomes intangible. Unrivalled since the morning I wondered down towards Yarra Park for my first visit to the MCG, for such a cricket lover visiting the hometown of the game’s finest player is right up there with other fine memories of the sport.

Having finally arrived at Bowral the walk through the town centre is a pleasant one. A thriving cafe scene enriches the area as the locals gather to discuss the various different footy codes being played over the Easter period. As local children play in the town’s many park areas, you can almost imagine a young Bradman doing likewise some 100 years previously.

Part of The Bradman Walk meanders towards Glebe Park. The recently fallen leaves throw you into an autumnal way of feeling. If it not for the warm easterly breeze, it could well be a late September morning anywhere in England. Instead the profound cries of a nearby swarm of cockatoos reiterates the fact that this is very much Antipodean land.

And then suddenly out of nowhere, I’d arrived at the picturesque Bradman Oval. Encircled by Camden Woollybutt gumtree’s and a smartly painted white picket fence, this again leads me back to a great feeling of Englishness. Indeed, the traditional pavilion puts the cherry atop the English cake.

In a way the Bradman Oval is the closest thing to resembling English cricket across Australia. Sure the WACA ground retains some English-style characteristics in the design of its stands – but how long will it continue to host international cricket once the new Perth Stadium is built? While the Gabba, MCG, SCG and the Adelaide Oval are all now essentially large footy grounds with, occasional, cricketing tenants.

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The museum itself is charming. Throughout the Bradman Gallery the early years of The Don are told aplenty and described in fascinating ways with in-depth accounts of both his adolescent life in Cootamundra and Bowral, and his early cricketing memories. A whole installment is in fact dedicated to his infamous cricket-schooling – involving a stump, a golf ball and a water tank.

Another of the museum’s absorbing features is a segment on Bradman’s Invincibles side of 1948. While we commonly hear of the successes of men like Neil Harvey, Arthur Morris, Ray Lindwall and Keith Miller on that tour, learning more about lesser-known names such as Bill Johnston and Colin McCool was an equally enlightening experience.

The section Cricket through the Eras, which pays particular attention to both the Bodyline series of the 1930’s and Kerry Packers’ World Series Cricket in the 1970’s, is another worthwhile affair mixing both visual and audile recollections of hugely important periods in Australian cricket.

In a day and age when many cricketers live a predominately freelance existence, it’s equally compelling and surprising to discover the sheer volume of contrasting teams Bradman either represented or encountered. From the inter-village 234 made against Wingello to a knock of 153 against a HD Leveson Gower’s XI at Scarborough – an informative plaque lists every score The Don ever made over 150.

Other interesting features include subjects on The Baggy Green, The Origins, The Greats of the Game, The World of Cricket, The Game and a vertual Kids Backyard section.

A trip to the Bradman Museum is an education in not just cricket; but sporting history, tradition and culture too. For over a century, cricket down under has captured the very essence of Australian life. And Bradman was at its very forefront.

 

Day/Night Test cricket – A step into the unknown

After three years of trails, tribulations, debates and suspicion, the inaugural Day/Night Test match is now just a matter of hours away from taking place at the Adelaide Oval.

In this piece I look at the five burning questions facing the match.

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Image Credit: Getty Images

 

Will the pink ball hold up for 80 overs?

After a “Cricket Australia and Kookaburra nightmare” occurred during last month’s Prime Minister’s XI fixture at Canberra’s Manuka Oval, the longevity of the pink ball appeared a serious cause for concern.

Many doubts were raised during that 50-over fixture, none more so than when the pink ball appeared to lose its lacquer and colour very quickly – turning it from pink to a greenish colour – long before the end of the allotted 50-overs.

Such deterioration was largely blamed on the abrasive Manuka Oval wicket and outfield, which took large pieces of lacquer off the ball when it was either bowled into the pitch or thrown into the wicketkeeper on the bounce. Measures to counter such issues have since been put into place.

To compensate for this Damian Hough, the Adelaide Oval’s chief curator, is working closely with the Cricket Australia hierarchy to maintain that the wicket for Friday’s fixture is set to include an extra couple of millimetres of grass than what would usually be prescribed for a Test match at the venue.

Hough’s will also be creating a smaller square than usual too – with just two wickets either side of the main strip. This, further coupled with a lush green outfield, should ensure that the ball keeps its shape and colour throughout the innings, albeit nullifying any possible reverse swing in the same instance.

This concept was trailed and found largely successful during the recent Adelaide Oval day/night Sheffield Shield fixture between South Australia and New South Wales, allying many of the fears first raised in Canberra a month ago.

Likewise, ball manufacturers Kookaburra have spent the best part of three years researching and developing the pink ball to ensure it resembles the similar mannerisms of its red counterpart.

 

Will the pink ball make for good cricket?

Victorian seamer John Hastings didn’t seem to think so after his side’s recent day/night Shield fixture with Queensland at the MCG.

The former Australian bowler dismissed the pink ball as being conclusive to a “boring brand of cricket”, with his main concerns being over the lack of hardness, movement or swing once the ball had reached the 15-over mark.

Hastings, no neophyte to the pink ball format, has suggested that changing the ball after 50-55 overs instead of the mandatory 80-over mark, which is currently in place in Test cricket, would allow captains to engage in more attacking field placings instead of asking their bowlers to bowl to straight fields.

With a lack of conventional swing available after the ball starts to soften during the 15-20 over mark, it’s difficult to imagine a way in which the quick bowlers will succeed during the afternoon session at least. With the lack of reverse-swing also a factor once the ball softens, it could lead to a period of attritional cricket – where both run scoring and wicket taking becomes predominantly difficult.

However, curator Hough has this week allied those fears by suggesting the added grass on the wicket will allow for an entertaining battle between bat and ball – something that can’t be said for the wickets on offer at the Gabba and the WACA in recent weeks.

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How will the Pink Ball hold up to the rigures of Test cricket? (Image Credit: Getty Images)

 

Do the twilight and evening periods give the bowlers an unfair advantage?

Like ODI cricket with the white ball, its pink equivalent has been known to swing more under the lights.

As well as swinging more once the daylight subsides and the floodlights take over – the pink ball, notably a discoloured pink ball, can also be difficult to pick up for both batsmen and fieldsmen once the sun begins to set.

This has raised debate over whether the ball will favour the quick bowlers much more in the second and third sessions, than it would do in the afternoon session. Early suggestions are that it almost certainly will – especially judging by the recent round of day/night Shield matches.

This issue was raised at the Adelaide Oval earlier this month. When Australian captain Steven Smith, at the time skippering NSW, made an interesting declaration on the first evening, he perhaps set a precedent for future captains in this new format.

Once Smith and David Warner were dismissed after a century-stand for the second wicket, it began a collapse as NSW lost eight wickets for 90 runs during the twilight and evening period. With just one wicket remaining Smith had seen enough and declared with the chance to have a bowl at South Australia, in the few remaining overs of the day, simply too good to refuse.

Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazelwood duly delivered for their captain, leaving the home side precariously placed overnight at 3-3.

Faced with a similar situation, expect other captains to follow suit in the search for late evening wickets. It could well give a whole new meaning to the term “nightwatchman”.

 

Will the pink ball favour spin too?

It was once perceived that the pink ball would hinder spin bowling during a Test match, but recent statistics have suggested to the contrary.

NSW left-arm spinner Steve O’Keefe has excelled during his three day/night Shield matches at the Adelaide Oval – so much so that he has been added to the squad for the inaugural Test.

In three matches at the venue O’Keefe has taken 18 wickets, including 5-89 and 6-70 in his first day/night fixture there two years ago. And although Australia are likely to favour Nathan Lyon and three seamers, his inclusion at least gives the selectors further options heading into the unknown on a wicket that Hough believes will take “some spin” due to its “coarse and thatchy grass covering”.

Another area which can benefit the spin bowlers is the green seam-stitching on the pink ball. On the surface it seems irrelevant what colour the stitching is, but the issue was this week raised by Smith who insisted that he had particular difficulty in picking up the green seam on the spinning ball whilst facing South Australian part-timer Travis Head during a recent Shield match.

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The Adelaide Oval is set to host it’s fourth and most important Day/Night match. (Image Credit: Daniel Kalisz/Getty Images)

 

Will it attract more fans to the ground and on television?

The early indications are that ticket sales have been good and a crowd of around 40,000 is expected for the first couple of days. If as expected a crowd of around 40,000 does indeed turn up, then it would surpass the first day totals for the two most recent Ashes matches at the ground in both 2010 and 2013.

The match is not just attracting the locals either, around 60% of the non-member ticket sales have been to fans from interstate or overseas – leading to global interest and intrigue over the new concept.

Certainly the introduction of “After work” or “Twilight” tickets have added another dimension to the fan’s cricket experience in the local area. The tickets to be priced at $20 for adults and $10 for children – will allow access into the ground from 4pm onwards, meaning that fans can attend play for the final two sessions of the day at a discounted rate.

Such concepts are sure to engage the public interest with both workers and school children being offered the chance to still see their hero’s after a busy day elsewhere.

For television and more specifically Channel 9, the plan to host the match in Adelaide works perfectly as the network hope to capture primetime viewers in the highly populated Eastern states, similar to the way a Perth Test match would do so.

Pace, perseverance and pantomime villain: the tale of Mitchell Johnson

Steady decline and fading desire lead to 34-year-old’s retirement; he departs the game with 313 Test and 239 ODI wickets.

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The end is upon us. Batsmen around the world can breath a sigh of relief. Mitchell Johnson has hung up his spikes for the 73rd and final time.

In the end his retirement had become public knowledge long before his announcement ahead of the final day’s play at the WACA. The whispers had grown louder; the desire had grown no longer and the career of a great enigma had reached its conclusion.

Ahead of this week’s WACA Test, Johnson had mooted the possibility that it could be his last. When he was blazed around the park by Kane Williamson and Ross Taylor on a scorching third day, he knew it was a wrap. First innings figures of 1-157 from 28 overs (the most expensive by an Australian bowler at the venue) certainly didn’t advocate for pretty viewing or a fairytale finish. However, as often symbolic with Johnson, his perseverance eventually came to the fore. In one final hurrah both Tom Latham and Martin Guptill were bumped out in emblematic fashion.

Once the doubts over retirement had set in during the six weeks preceding the failed Ashes retention, it appeared only a matter of time before the cricketing spark would fizzle away in favour of an easier life spent at home with both wife and daughter.

After deep discussions with wife Jessica and his mentor Dennis Lillee had taken place, it was decided that the opportunity to go past his idol Brett Lee’s haul of 310 Test wickets, would prove too enticing to walk directly away from.

Evidently, after passing Lee’s mark during his treacherous bowling display on Monday, the lack of desire to re-approach his bowling style – that has seen him only ever bowl fast and intimidating – came over in waves. He decided to pull the curtains on a career that had spanned 73 Tests and seen him take an impressive 313 Test wickets at 28.40.

Fittingly it would all end at the WACA. Over the years Perth and its famous old cricket ground have become a home from home for Johnson. His record there is outstanding too. After relocating to Western Australia from Queensland in 2007, his seven Tests at the venue have fetched him 45 wickets at just 22.77.

But the flatness of the wicket during this November match with New Zealand, along with the emergence of Mitchell Starc as the team’s new go-to-man, had both conspired to leave the Townsville-native somewhat underwhelmed.

It’s been difficult times for Johnson of late. His 1-157 at the WACA was the sixth time in the past cricketing year and the second time in just three innings that he had conceded more than 100 runs. In fact since his heroic efforts against both England and South Africa – now 20 months and 14 Tests ago – his average, strike rate and economy rate have all risen sharply in a sure sign his star was on the wane.

Sure, there have been glimpses of that magical time since, but only glimpses. During this year’s Ashes, the fourth afternoon at Lord’s springs to mind, as do the consecutive ripsnorters to fell Ben Stokes and Jonny Bairstow at Edgbaston. Likewise in more recent times the deliveries to dismiss Taylor, BJ Watling and James Neesham at the Gabba also stood out for their intimidating qualities.

This past year, though, has taken a huge emotional toll on Johnson. His aggression and general demeanour were both understandably down after the death of teammate Phillip Hughes last summer, while he also admitted to considering retirement after lifting the World Cup in early April.

Nevertheless he carried on alongside a corpse of aging teammates, with the shared burning desire to retain the Ashes on British soil – something which hadn’t been achieved by his fellow countrymen since 2001.

Mitchell Johnson Portrait Session
Mitchell Johnson poses during a portrait session at Newlands Stadium, South Africa (Photo Credit: Morne de Klerk/Getty Images)

But despite glimmers of light along the way, he never did quite conquer England or the English crowds. For a tearaway bowler – who relies on aggression, pace and bounce – the slow seaming conditions conjured up in the motherland were never truly to his taste.

In the eyes of the English supporters Johnson was most commonly renowned as the ultimate pantomime villain. At times the Barmy Army stood in awe, at others they derided, heckled, abused and mocked him until his confidence and bowling action were shot to the ground.

And when the action fell away, things rapidly spiralled out of control. If the chips were down, his natural slingy low-arm action would creep even further off and the radar would disappear completely. The once threat of wicket taking deliveries would simply turn into an incomprehensive haemorrhaging of runs.

His bowling against England certainly fluctuated from the sublime to the ridiculous. Regardless, his overall numbers certainly speak volumes among modern day Ashes contemporaries: In 19 Tests he captured 87 wickets at 25.21.

But those numbers only tell half of the story. For three out of the four Ashes campaigns he was bordering ordinary, for the other, he was quite simply breathtaking.

Johnson’s Ashes series

2009 in England. (5 Tests, 20 wickets at 32.55)

2010/11 in Australia. (4 Tests, 15 wickets at 36.93)

2013/14 in Australia. (5 Tests, 37 wickets at 13.97)

2015 in England. (5 Tests, 15 wickets at 34.93)

With Johnson, nostalgia will always harp back to the 5-0 whitewash series of 2013/14. The fear inside the eyes of the English can still clearly be pictured to this day. The left-armer simply couldn’t put a foot wrong. Bone-shattering accuracy was mixed with a fierce determination to right previous Ashes wrongs and of course pace, serious pace.

With a throwback-handlebar-moustache – drawing back to the good old days of Lillee and Merv Hughes, Johnson terrorised the England batsmen – neither top order nor tailender were spared his jaw dropping velocity.

Johnson, with some help from Brad Haddin along the way, fired Australia to their second Ashes whitewash in three home campaigns. He would later be awarded both the Allan Border Medal and the ICC International player of the year accolades for his achievements.

Showing this new found confidence was no fluke, he destroyed the South Africans in their own backyard just months later. Spread across the aforementioned eight Tests, he had hustled 59 wickets at an average of just 15.23 including five 5-wicket hauls.

This sudden resurgence was all the more remarkable given that he faced five months out enduring a lengthy rehabilitation following toe surgery in 2011. During which at times he even questioned whether he had the ability or desire to return to international cricket.

While he would never again scale such heights as he did in those few months against England and South Africa, Johnson had done enough to ensure he would go down in Australian fast-bowling folklore alongside the likes of Lillee and Jeff Thomson.

***

Although it’s been a tremendous journey, it certainly hasn’t been an easy one.  His perseverance shown during the times of adversity should serve as inspiration to any young fast bowler out there.

Growing up in the northeast Queensland coastal town of Townsville, for a while as a teenager, he had aspirations of becoming a professional tennis player. Bourne out of his admiration for American Pete Sampras, he would regularly put tennis ahead of cricket in the sporting ranks. Aged 14 he was offered a tennis scholarship in Brisbane, eventually turning it down to concentrate on becoming a scary fast bowler – Oh how many batsmen, the world over, would have wished he’d chosen the racket avenue?

At 17, he was spotted by Lillee at a fast bowling camp in Brisbane. The former Australian quick was so impressed that he immediately arranged for Johnson to spend time with Rod Marsh at the Australian cricket academy in Adelaide, from there he progressed to the U19’s before injury struck.

He went on to suffer four separate back stress fractures – symptomatic with fast bowlers in the modern era – either side of making his first-class debut for Queensland during the 2001/02 summer. Although Queensland knew they had a talent on their hands, he was still raw and very much injury plagued so it was no real surprise when he was released from his playing contract in 2004.

Never one to quit, Johnson persevered; driving a plumbing van whilst often playing as a specialist batsman in the Brisbane Grade scenes, all the while getting himself fit and firing before re-entering state cricket with Queensland.

The hard yakka and resilience paid off in late 2005 when he made his ODI debut against New Zealand at Christchurch. His first introduction to Test cricket was during the 5-0 Whitewash Ashes campaign of 2006/07. Although, intitally, he couldn’t force his way into the side ahead alumni’s such as Glenn McGrath, Stuart Clark and Lee, he did eventually made his debut against Sri Lanka at the Gabba in November 2007.

Aside from the devastating spells produced in 2013/14, he will also look back with fondness at other memorable bowling displays such as the 11-159 against South Africa at Perth in 2008 and the 8-137 against the same opponents in Johannesburg, just months later.

Johnson can certainly sit down with wife Jessica and daughter Rubika and be proud of his career. He’s been a mercurial force, an enigma, a thoroughbred, a champion, at times a lost soul, at others a throwback moustache-wielding destroyer.

And he leaves the game trailing only Shane Warne (708), McGrath (563) and Lillee (355) as the most prolific Test wicket-taker in the history of Australian cricket.

Farewell Mitch.

 

Australian cricket set for summer of change and intrigue

At the end of another Ashes and World Cup cycle, along with the retirement of key players, times are changing for Australian cricket and with an exciting summer ahead; CaughtOutCricket looks at nine key highlights to look out for.  

Pink Kookaburra
The Adelaide Oval is set to host the first ever Day-Night Test match this November.

New captain and deputy

With Michael Clarke now fully retired from international cricket, the time has come for Steven Smith to take over the captaincy on a full time basis for both ODI and Test cricket. Despite having captained for three Tests against India last summer and being appointed as Clarke’s ODI successor after the World Cup triumph in March, Smith now has the time to put his own stamp on the side with the next Ashes and World Cup campaigns not for another two and four years respectively.

Smith’s promotion to leader left the side with a lieutenant short and that void has been promptly filled by David Warner. Just a year ago, such a move would have seemed highly unlikely, but the dashing lefthander has since made a conscious effort to improve his on and off field behaviour – even giving up sledging and alcohol during the recent Ashes campaign. Such maturity, coupled with Warner’s previous leadership grooming and a lack of serious alternatives, has led Cricket Australia to make such a decision.

A return to Bangladesh

It’s been over nine years since Australia last visited Bangladesh for a Test series. On that occasion Jason Gillespie was the hero as he became the first nightwatchman to score a double hundred – in what turned out to be his final Test appearance.

That previous series resulted in a 2-0 whitewash – but not without the odd hairy moment as Ricky Ponting led his side to a three-wicket face-saving success in Fatullah before an innings victory followed at Chittagong. Obviously much has changed since then, and with the retirement of Clarke, not a single Australian from that tour now still plays international cricket.

This time they return for Tests at both Chittagong and Mirpur against a competitive and improving Tigers – who will have reason to feel confident after a string of impressive recent home results, albeit in limited overs matches. After recent failings in both India and the UAE, all eyes will be on the Australian batsmen as they look to combat their spin woes against the likes of Shakib Al Hasan and Jubair Hossain.

New opening partner for Warner

With the retirement of Chris Rogers after a brief but successful two-year Test career, Warner is now on the hunt for a new opening comrade for the upcoming tour of Bangladesh. Despite Shaun Marsh being the reserve opener for the recently concluded Ashes campaign, his inability to play the moving ball looks to have put pay to his chances of long term shot at the job and other candidates are currently being looked at.

Joe Burns looks to be an early frontrunner for the opening having being selected as Warner’s partner in an auditioning role during the ongoing ODI series in England. Although the 25-year-old made his Test debut as a number six last summer, he has recently fulfilled the opening role with plenty of success for Queensland.

Another option for the opening role is Cameron Bancroft. The Western Australian was third on the Sheffield Shield run scoring charts last summer with 896 runs at 47 and recently scored an impressive 150 during an A tour of India. A solid batsman in the Rogers mould, at 22, Bancroft is very much one for the future.

Bowling attack changes

Much was made of the exclusion of Peter Siddle during the business-end of the Ashes, when it seemed the pitches provided were tailor made for his style of bowling and a good showing in The Oval match could yet revive his stuttering Test career.

Siddle is of course part of an impressive battery of pace bowlers assembled by Australia in recent years and their depth is certain to be tested by a demanding schedule which will include ten Tests, eight ODIs and three T20Is before the summer is out. Such scheduling is sure to mean that the fast bowlers will have to be carefully managed as and when the selectors see fit.

Already there has been suggestions that both Mitchell Johnson and Josh Hazelwood will be rested for the tour of Bangladesh next month with an eye on the series with New Zealand that follows. Luckily for Australia their fast bowling stocks remain high with the likes of Siddle, Mitchell Starc, Pat Cummins, James Pattinson, James Faulkner, Gurinder Sandhu and Nathan Coulter-Nile all waiting in the wings should changes be made. Keeping them all fit remains another matter.

New glovesmen

Whether you agree with the way in which it was handled or not, the call made on Brad Haddin during the Ashes looks to have ended his Test career. It had been assumed for some time now that Haddin would indeed call it a day in Test cricket after the Ashes – much like he did in the limited overs form after the World Cup in March – but circumstances did not allow for the graceful ending that someone of Haddin’s stature undoubtedly deserved.

All the same, sport moves on and Peter Nevill has been entrusted with first dibs on the Test wicketkeeping position. After coming into the side at Lords, Nevill did a steady if not spectacular job both in front and behind the stumps, but it’s too premature to simply declare the position as a closed shop this early on.

There are other strong contenders should Nevill’s form dip drastically over the summer months. Matthew Wade, is at 27, two years Nevill’s junior and already a scorer of two Test hundreds across his twelve matches. Should he continue to make waves in the ODI arena – he scored a match winning unbeaten 71 at Southampton in his previous ODI – then there is no reason why he can’t challenge Nevill for a Test berth.  Further down the line is the talented 23-year-old Sam Whiteman of Western Australia – who has impressed the Australian cricket hierarchy for a couple of years now – his time will surely come sooner rather than later.

Can Peter Nevill become Australia's next long-term Test wicketkeeper?
Can Peter Nevill become Australia’s next long-term Test wicketkeeper?

A return to the Trans-Tasman rivalry

After a near four-year exile, Australia and New Zealand will again meet to compete for the Trans-Tasman Trophy this summer with five Tests scheduled across both countries. The duel will begin in Australia at the beginning of November with Tests set for: The Gabba, The WACA and a day-night game at the Adelaide Oval (More of that next). It will then conclude in New Zealand in February with matches at The Basin Reserve in Wellington and Christchurch’s Hagley Oval.

The previous encounter between the pair was a competitively fought two-Test contest that finished one-each in December 2011. That series marked the debuts of Pattinson, Starc and Warner for Australia and Trent Boult for New Zealand and that same quartet will all be looking to make an impact this time around.

Furthermore the two sides will also meet for the Chappell-Hadlee Trophy prior to the return leg of their Test clash in New Zealand. The famous named trophy – currently belonging to the Black Caps after their World Cup group triumph at Eden Park in February – is back up for grabs across three matches as it is set to be played more frequently under the new future tours programme.

The trophy was originally contested annually from 2004–05 until 2009–10 as a three- or five-match series with Australia currently holding the upper hand with four victories to New Zealand’s two.

The first day-night Test match

After years of uncertainty and debate, the first ever day-night Test match will finally be staged at the Adelaide Oval on November 27th.

The historic event will mark the first Test to be played under lights with the new, heavily trailed, pink Kookaburra ball and will begin at 2pm ACDT time.

Much intrigue and scepticism surrounds the move for day-night Test cricket, with issues such as notwithstanding the traditions of the game and the condition and behaviour of the pink ball under lights, being the most prominent.

The move was brought about of course to improve attendances and television audiences across Australia with CA chief exclusive James Sutherland having campaigned for the move for seven years. Like Sutherland, Coach Darren Lehmann and CA board member Mark Taylor have both supported the move, but it hasn’t been everyone’s cup of tea with players like Mitchell Starc being unsure how the new pink ball will replicate the mannerisms of its red counterpart.

It seems nobody truly knows how the pink ball will react under the rigors of day-night Test cricket. So watch this space.

New Matador Cup team

The Matador BBQs One-Day Cup has had mixed success since its change of format in 2013-14, with the limited overs competition now being played in Sydney to its entirety in one three-week block at the beginning of the Australian summer.

Some argue that it’s good to play the one-day format in a single block, while others argue that it should be played continually throughout the summer so to lead up to the annual ODI series played in the New Year.

Either way this year’s competition is set to include a seventh side in the form of a Cricket Australia XI. The team to be simply known as the CA XI is a two-year trial project, with the 15-man squad set to be comprised of un-contracted state players and national youth squad members.

The squad will be selected by State Talent Managers and guided by the National Selection Panel, while former England bowling coach and Bupa National Cricket Centre head coach Troy Cooley will coach the side with assistance from High Performance Coach Graeme Hick.

It is hoped that the team will include the likes of Australian U19 starlet Jake Doran, an 18-year-old wicketkeeper batsman who has dominated his age group over the past year.

Cricket set to leave The WACA for Burswood

And finally, although technically it won’t directly come into effect until 2018, the changing of the guard in Perth is a huge one for cricket in Australia.

International cricket has been played on the fast and bouncy pitches of The WACA for over forty years, but although that will remain the case for the foreseeable, the cities’ premium international and Big Bash fixtures will now be moved to a brand new 60,000-capacity stadium across the Swan river at Burswood.

Visiting teams from England, India and South Africa will play all of their Perth fixtures at the new Burswood ground from 2018 onwards as the old WACA ground will be downsized to a “boutique” venue with a capacity of 10,000-15,000.

While all other countries, barring those mentioned above, will still play international fixtures at The WACA and Western Australia will continue to play Shield fixtures there – it seems a somewhat sad chapter in the history of Western Australian cricket with the great Dennis Lillee among those opposing the move.

Hagley Oval hopes to ease earthquake pain

Christchurch ready for World Cup opener.

image
Christchurch is set to launch the cricket World Cup on Saturday.

On February 22nd 2011 things changed forever for Christchurch and its people. In what was one of the worst earthquakes of all time to hit New Zealand, the city of churches was almost completely wiped out leaving 185 people dead and many more seriously injured. Almost four years on and the city is still in its early stages of rebuilding – a process that is expected to take another fifteen years.

With a sporting heritage that goes back many decades, Christchurch, the country’s second largest city after Auckland, had hosted international cricket and rugby for many years prior to its earthquake devastation, but during its early years of re-build the city has to do without either the All Blacks or the Blackcaps until recently.

As World Cup cricket returns to the country for the first time since 1992, the cricket committee thought it was very important that cricket was returned to Christchurch as the city tries to get back on its feet again.

On Saturday the Kiwi’s as set to open the 2015 World Cup when they play host to Sri Lanka in the tournaments first match, almost fifteen thousand miles away Australia host old enemy England in Melbourne at what is expected to be in front of a crowd of 90,000 at the MCG. The Hagley Oval seems a million miles away from the ‘G’ but the people of Christchurch will hope a sold out Oval of around 20,000 will make equal noise and get this once vibrant city back on the world stage.

Despite hosting its first cricket match in 1867, Hagley Oval has for long been an afterthought amongst the cricket faithful in Christchurch as its big brother Lancaster Park (also known as AMI Stadium and Jade Stadium) hosted international cricket for decades until it was fatefully damaged in the 2011 earthquake.

A derelict and overgrown Lancaster Park awaits demolition.
A derelict and overgrown Lancaster Park awaits demolition.

Lancaster Park had been the home of international cricket in the city since 1930, when it hosted New Zealand’s first ever Test match, an 8 wicket defeat to England. It has since hosted many remarkable matches over the years and despite not having been used as a Test venue since 2006 due to poor crowd attendance, its 36,500 captaincy was seen as an ideal ODI and T20I venue right until it was closed following severe damage caused to its foundations.

With no other international standard venue in Christchurch the people of Canterbury had been deprived of any international cricket since the quake, until a plan was forced to redeveloped the Hagley Oval, a small corner of the 164.637 hectare Hagley Park, located next to the beautiful Botanic gardens and just outside of the badly damaged CBD.

The Oval was developed with an eye on the country’s other traditional cricketing homes such as Wellington’s Basin Reserve and Dunedin’s University Oval and apposed to the grand stadia of the previous Rugby sharing Lancaster Park as well as the likes of Eden Park in Auckland and Westpac Stadium in Wellington.

Many people were apposed to an international sports venue been located inside an urban open space but others were just pleased that their city would get a chance to host a global international tournament after the earthquake damage to Lancaster Park ended their hopes of hosting seven matches in the 2011 Rugby Union World Cup including two quarter finals. For a rugby loving country like New Zealand, that was a devastating blow to the people of Canterbury.

Something had to be done to make sure the city didn’t suffer the same fate again when the cricket World Cup came to the country and plans were quickly put in place to revamp the Hagley Oval in 2013.

The controversial plans put forward by Canterbury Cricket were approved by the Environment Court and by late January 2014 the Oval was hosting its first international cricket match, when Canada and Scotland met in a ODI World Cup qualifying match – three years after the city had last hosted an international match when the Blackcaps hosted Pakistan less than a month before the earthquake disaster.

By October of last year the ground was given full ICC accreditation as an international cricket ground and it soon became New Zealand’s eighth Test venue when it hosted the country’s first Boxing Day Test since the Basin Reserve was a regular host of the event up until 2003.

Hagley Oval during a recent visit in November 2014.
Hagley Oval during a recent visit in November 2014.

The Blackcaps’ return to international cricket in Christchurch couldn’t have gone much better! A near packed house of 7698 people gave up their Boxing Day to cheer on their side and in return were treated to a delightful sunny day and a Brendan McCullum special (195 off 134). The Kiwi skipper fell just five runs short of what would have been the fastest Test double hundred of all time as the home side dominated proceedings, eventually winning the Test by 8 wickets.

McCullum was certainly impressed with the design of the new ground from a spectator point of view. “I think the way the crowd can interact… being quite close to the action and the grass embankment, there’s a bit of romance about that from a purist’s point of view.”

A return to international cricket was an important step for the city known as the hometown of the greatest Blackcap of them all, Sir Richard Hadlee.

Hagley Oval has since hosted a ODI, also against Sri Lanka, as well as a host of World Cup warm up matches this past week, but the best is still to come. After an eventful opening ceremony on Thursday evening, the main stage begins on Saturday at 11am.

Once again the world’s eyes will be on Christchurch, thankfully this time it’s for the right reasons.

The Finishers

ICC CRICKET WORLD CUP 2015

The wait is almost over.

With just a week to go until world cricket’s major limited overs tournament kicks off in Christchurch, I take a look at a vital role in the ODI game – The role of “The Finisher.”

The pressures that come with the World Cup bring together hero’s and villains alike. Batsmen and bowlers who keep their nerve to guide their respective sides to glory or the polar opposite and guys who wilt in the heat of the moment and fail under the expectations.

The term finisher originates from the man many believe was the finest finisher of them all – Australian Michael Bevan. Bevan was part of the 1999 and 2003 Australian World Cup winning sides and scored 6912 runs from 232 ODIs at 53.58. When it came to an ODI chase, the burly left-hander came into his element. In successful run chases his 45 innings brought him 25 not outs and 1725 runs at 86.25 – which also included three hundreds and twelve fifties.

The importance of being a good finisher is keeping calm, often when batting with the tail, with the run rate increasing and regular wickets falling at the other end. Many batsmen panic and fall to the big shot in these situations while others simply keep calm and back their abilities to see the job through using calculated risks whilst also making sure they often rotate the strike and shepherd the tail.

With history showing the role of the finisher to be an important factor between glory and failure I have picked five key finishers to look out for during the upcoming global tournament.

……

James Faulkner – Australia

imageDespite the fact that he’s set to miss the first week of the tournament due to a side strain, the all-round abilities of Faulkner remain a vital part of a strong looking Australian outfit.

Although he is primarily seen as a left arm medium fast bowler, it’s his late order hitting and composure with the bat that has seen him talked up as Australia’s latest finisher – following in the footsteps of the greats in Bevan and Michael Hussey before him.

With the all round depth that Australia currents possesses in their ODI side, the Tasmanian is not usually scheduled to come in until number eight and often doesn’t get a bat. But when he is required to strap the pads on he is often the man for a crisis and a high pressure run chase.

In twelve ODI second innings he averages 109.50 with eight not outs and a strike rate of 131.53 – A record better than any other player going to the World Cup.

The 24-year-old currently averages 48 in ODI’s and first truly showcased his lower order hitting prowess in a 2013 ODI series in India – where he scored an impressive 230 runs across just four innings at an average of 115 including a career best 116 and a stunning unbeaten 64 off 29 balls to lead his side home in Mohali.

Best finisher innings: 69no v England (at Brisbane – Jan 14′)

Coming in at number nine with his side staring down the barrel at 7-206 chasing a further 95 to win with 15.1 overs remaining, Faulkner pulled off a remarkable heist and led his side home with three balls to spare.

After seeing two wickets fall at the other end he was joined by number 11 Clint McKay with 57 runs still required but kept his cool and launched three 4’s and five 6’s in a 47-ball 69. His partnership with McKay was the second largest ten-wicket stand to win a match and Faulkner duly knocked off the final 25 runs needed in just seven deliveries.

…….

Luke Ronchi – New Zealand

imageThe wicketkeeper-batsman returned to the country of his birth in 2012 after initially representing Australia in four ODI’s back in 2008 and by 2013 he was a fixture in the Blackcaps limited overs sides.

By picking him in their ODI side the Kiwi’s have allowed skipper Brendon McCullum the freedom to focus on the captaincy and his aggressive batting without worrying about keeping wicket.

But Ronchi isn’t just here to keep the balance of the side intact. Coming in at number seven he has started to put his own mark on the side and compliment their strong middle order with his late hitting and finishing skills.

In a recent ODI against Sri Lanka at Dunedin he blasted the highest ever ODI score by a number seven when hitting a brutal 170 not out off just 99 deliveries. His century came of just 74 balls as he, alongside Grant Elliott put on a world record unbeaten 267 for the sixth wicket, having come to the crease at 4-82 they left the visitors with a chase of 361.

Best finisher innings: 32no v Sri Lanka (at Nelson – Jan 15′)

Despite his record breaking hundred getting all the plaudits he also helped the Blackcaps chase down Sri Lanka’s 276 in Nelson with an unbeaten 32 from just 15 deliveries. With centurion Kane Williamson having just been dismissed, Ronchi walked to the crease with 47 runs still needed from the remaining 36 deliveries, when Corey Anderson was then run out, Ronchi had seen enough and quickly made light of the chase by taking 24 runs off one Thisara Perera over to all but finish the game off.

Two other performances of note came in a pair of matches against South Africa in Mount Maunganui last year where he made 99 and 79 in losing causes.

……..

Mahendra Singh Dhoni – India

imageWhat more needs to be said about Mr Calm.

A veteran of 254 ODIs and 90 Test matches, India’s most successful leader is approaching his third World Cup after an appearance in 2007 and a winners medal in 2011. The man known as ‘Mahi’ is undoubtably ranked up their with the finest limited overs players of all time.

Time and time again the cultured right-hander has snatched his side victory from the jaws of defeat with powerful and calculated hitting toward the end of the innings and he is regarded alongside Bevan as the greatest finisher in the history of one day cricket.

Only Sachin Tendulkar can claim to be adored by the billions of India public more than Dhoni – Especially after the latter led his side to their first World Cup title since 1983 four years ago with a breathtaking finishing act to the scale of 91 unbeaten runs on home soil.

An ODI average of 52.29 is almost unrivalled in the modern day, but for a player who plays the risky and entertaining brand of cricket that Dhoni does – it strikes of greatness.

After giving up Test cricket recently, the 33-year-old has decided to stake more of his time in ODI and T20I cricket alongside his commitments for IPL side Chennai Super Kings and India will hope there are a few more years left yet in his hugely successful limited overs career.

Best finisher innings: 91no v Sri Lanka (at Mumbai – April 11′)

The world’s premier finisher of course had to show off his skills under pressure on the world’s biggest stage, the World Cup final.

Leading into the final, Dhoni had had a quiet time of things during the World Cup with teammate and national icon Tendulkar taking centre stage, but his captain wasn’t to be out done – cometh of the hour cometh the man.

Chasing 275 to win, India lost openers Tendulkar and Virender Sehwag inside the first seven overs and when Virat Kohli also fell with more than half the target still required, Dhoni decided to promote himself ahead of the in-form Yuvraj Singh.

Alongside Gautam Gambhir he took the Sri Lanka’s on for a tournament winning undefeated 91 from 79 balls adding a 109-run partnership in the process and eventually sealing the victory with a huge six into the grandstands to send over a billion Indians into party mood. Well played sir, well played.

…….

AB de Villiers – South Africa

imageThe man of the moment! de Villiers recently stopped the world in its tracks after blasting the world’s fastest ever ODI hundred against the hapless West Indians in Johannesburg.

Although he only came to the crease just eight deliveries before the 40th over, the brilliant right-hander somehow managed a brutal 31-ball hundred and still didn’t bat out the innings after falling for 149 in the 50th over chasing yet another six. He hit sixteen in total to go alongside his nine fours.

Despite this magnificent achievement, it perhaps didn’t shock that many people. That’s AB de Villiers for you, there’s not many things that he can’t do on a cricket field!

Although it seems he has been around forever (he made his ODI debut almost exactly a decade ago) he will only turn 31 during the tournament and could have at least another 5-10 years of cricket left in him.

If South Africa are to win their first World Cup and finally rid themselves of the chokers tag that has followed them for years, then they need their captain and talisman to perform the Lance Klusener like finishing skills of the late 90’s.

Test and ODI averages of over 52 confirm de Villiers as the best batsman in the world at present and with 19 ODI hundreds at a strike rate of 97.16 few would bet against him leading his side to next months World Cup final in Melbourne.

Best finisher innings: 136no v Australia (at Harare – Aug 14′)

Faced with a steep target of 328 against a good Australian bowling attack, the Proteas made light work of the chase thanks to hundreds and a 206-run partnership from de Villiers and Faf du Plessis. They eventually chased the total down with 20 deliveries spare.

De Villiers’ unbeaten 136 was made off just 106 balls and was at the time the second highest score by a South African captain in one day cricket.

The innings was typically clinical de Villiers – including both power and finesse on equal measures and helped with eleven fours and two sixes at a high strike rate of 128.30.

If there’s one man who knows how to pace an ODI innings, it’s the Proteas captain.

……..

Darren Sammy – West Indies

imageSt. Lucia’s first international cricketer has had a turbulent past 12 months in international cricket and his previous visit to New Zealand ended with him resigning from the Test captaincy and retiring from the format altogether.

Since then he has also been involved in contract disputes and was originally left out of the squad for the recently concluded 4-1 ODI series defeat in South Africa before been reinstated.

Once a captain across all formats for the Windies, Sammy is now just leader of the T20I side and has come back into the ranks as an ODI player with the side now skippered by youngster Jason Holder.

But despite of this he still remains an important part of the side in the forthcoming World Cup not least due to the absence of fellow hard hitting all rounders Dwayne Bravo and Kieron Pollard.

Despite his lack of an ODI hundred, Sammy has a high strike rate of over 100 and previous history of finishing off run chases – A skill he has transferred over from his past experiences in T20 cricket. His remarkable finish’s in T20I’s in the past year include: 30* off 9 (v England), 34* off 13 (v Australia) and 20* off 7 (v South Africa).

Best finisher innings: 63no v India (at Visakhapatnam – Nov 13′)

Up against a powerful Indian side on home soil and facing a stiff chase of 289, the West Indians got home with three balls and two wickets to spare, mainly thanks to Sammy’s unbeaten 45-ball 63.

The chase was set up by fifties to Kieren Powell, Darren Bravo and Lendl Simmons, but wickets kept falling and the asking rate climbing. Walking in at 5-185 with over a hundred still required, Sammy took it upon himself to seek boundaries with four 4’s and as many sixes been blasted from the bat of the tall right-hander.

His innings was reached at a strike rate of 140.00 despite him playing out a maiden when he first came to the crease.

With the current disarray in West Indies cricket, they will need a few more Sammy specials to brighten the spirits of their long suffering fans.

Ajmal absence makes Australia favourites

Just a day after announcing their limited overs and Test squads for the upcoming tour of the UAE, the Australian’s received the best possible news.

Ajmal's career is now in serious jeopardy after his bowling action is deemed illegal.
Ajmal’s career is now in serious jeopardy after his bowling action is deemed illegal.

Pakistani mystery spinner Saeed Ajmal has been given an indefinite bowling ban by the ICC.

The 36-year-old had been ordered to the National Cricket Centre in Brisbane for expert tests after his action was deemed to be illegal for all of his repertoire of deliveries. He was reported by umpires Ian Gould and Bruce Oxenford during the first of his side’s two Tests in Sri Lanka last month.

The news of course comes as a massive blow to Pakistan. Ajmal has been the world’s leading wicket taker across formats in the last three years and is the spearhead to his side’s commonly spin orientated attack.

Although the PCB could have appealed the decision to the ICC straight away, it could have risked inducing a longer ban on Ajmal in the long run. Instead the spinner is set to begin work with former Pakistan favourite Saqlain Mushtaq next week in an attempt to rectify his action with a hopeful timescale of 3-6 weeks being muted.

With such a timescale being indeed optimistic for a full renovation of a bowling action and with Ajmal having to go through a thorough re-assessment process after modifying his bowling – It is now certain he will still miss the entire Australian programme, which starts in less than a month’s time and includes a T20I, three ODI’s and two Test matches.

For Australia the news must come as a huge boost. It is no secret that the current set of players, Michael Clarke and Steve Smith aside, have regularly struggled against slow bowling in helpful spin conditions and the absence of Ajmal will ease many a heart rate in the camp.

Although Pakistan still have solid spin options in fellow veterans Abdur Rehman, 34, Mohammad Hafeez, 33, Zulfiqar Babar, 35, Atif Maqbool, 32 and Adnan Rasool, 33, it was Ajmal, the current No. 1 ranked ODI bowler and a man also inside the top ten ICC rankings in both T20I’s and Tests, who was deemed their most potent weapon.

Without their key weapon to lead the line, Pakistan must now be looked at as very much outsiders especially in the two Test series. Apart from the five veteran candidates named above it remains to be seen who they will draft in to replace the mystery and nous of Ajmal – who has 67 Test wickets over 12 matches in the UAE.

The likes of 22-year-old left-armer Raza Hasan have been touted as the next spin sensation, but despite bursting onto the scene with impressive first-class and T20I form two years ago, injuries have taken there toll and he remains on the outside looking in.

The current Australian outfit have had a retched time against quality spin bowling on turning surfaces in recent times and their last Test tour of the subcontinent ended up in complete shambles with a 0-4 whitewash to the Indians 18 months ago.

The general theme of that series was the complete inept that the Australian’s played the trio of Indian spinners Ravindra Jadeja, Pragyan Ojha and Ravi Ashwin with. The tour famously ended with an injured Australian captain, three players being suspended for not doing their homework and it was also the beginning of the end for then coach Micky Arthur.

Such a low ebb of course brought about change and the appointment of Darren Lehmann has brought about a change in mentality and an improvement of team sprint and on field success. Despite all of this and the fact that Lehmann was such an aggressive and productive player of spin bowling in his own playing career, his sides struggles against the turning ball still remain.

Australia's batsmen stumbled against the spin of Zimbabwe in their recent 3-wicket loss in Harare.
Australia’s batsmen stumbled against the spin attack of Zimbabwe in their recent 3-wicket loss in Harare.

This was most recently highlighted in Harare last month – where the side were restricted to a total of 9-209 in an eventual 3-wicket ODI defeat to Zimbabwe.

The bowling quartet on that occasion wasn’t the likes of Ajmal or Ashwin it was the lesser known names of John Nyumbu, Prosper Utseya, Sean Williams and Malcolm Waller who each had the Australians in a stranglehold. They would go on to bowl 36 of the allotted 50 overs and claim impressive match figures of 36-3-117-6.

It was unsurprising that Clarke (68no) was the only player to truly get to grips with the Zimbabwean attack before he limped off with a troubled hamstring. Post match the captain was annoyed at the selectors decision to omit Smith for the starting XI that day and said that they had got the decision undoubtably wrong.

Clarke’s hamstring remains a problem, especially after a long haul flight, but he is set to arrive early ahead of the ODI and Test series in the UAE to allow himself extra time to recover.

One area in which CA have sought to improve their handling of spin bowling for the tour of the UAE is the hiring of former Sri Lankan off spinner Muttiah Muralitharan as a coaching consultant. Murali will not only be used as a net bowler and brain to the batsmen but also as a bowling mentor to Nathan Lyon and the freshly called up New South Wales left armer Steve O’Keefe.

O’Keefe’s call up is a deserved one. The 29-year-old topped the Sheffield Shield bowling charts last season with 41 wickets at just 20.43 and has been the leading spinner in the competition for the past two years during a career that has brought him 128 victims at 24.72.

Elsewhere, Clarke has been given a 15-man squad for the two-Test series, which seems to have all based covered. Alongside the spin duo of Lyon and O’Keefe the party includes all rounders Glenn Maxwell and Mitchell Marsh – who have both impressed in ODI and first-class cricket in the recent past.

So with a settled Australian side coming into the series on the back of series wins over England and South Africa, it’s hard to look beyond the baggy green’s against an unpredictable Ajmal-less Pakistan outfit.