Sunday, June 01, 2003

Just about the end

On August 30 last year, the Australian cricket team played a one day game against Pakistan in Nairobi in Kenya, winning by 224 runs, the first game of a triangular tournament also involving Kenya. Since then, they have been playing more or less continuously. That tournament was followed by another one day tournament, the ICC Champions Trophy, in Sri Lanka, a three test series against Pakistan (played in Sri Lanka and the United Arab Emirates after the Australians decided it was too dangerous to play it in Pakistan), five tests at home against England, a triangular tournament at home against England and Sri Lanka, the World Cup in South Africa, and this present tour of the West Indies featuring four tests and seven one day internationals. That's nine months of continuous cricket. Some players were injured or dropped at some point in that schedule, and other play in the one day side but not the test side, or vice versa.

Today, Australia play the last of their seven one day games against the West Indies, before finally getting a break.

However, this is a long time to be on the road. IN the nine months, Austrlalia have played 12 test matches (ten wins, two losses) and after today they will have played 36 one day matches (30 wins, one washout, four losses, one still to be played). That's a fantastic record, but it is worth looking at the actual losses. The two test matches were both dead rubbers after Australia had won the series. Of the one day losses, only one was in a match that mattered, the ICC Champions trophy semi-final against Sri Lanka on 27 September. (Australia were also unfortunate that the one day final against Pakistan in Kenya a couple of weeks before was washed out, so they technically didn't win that tournament either). The second loss was also against Sri Lanka in Australia on January 9, when Australia were in no danger of missing the final of the series.

The third and fourth losses were the two most recent matches against the West Indies, both after the series was lost. I have already written about the first of these, but the second was on Friday. Gilchrist got Australia off to a great start with the bat, but then wickets were lost and they at one point had slumped to 7/193 off 40.1 overs. However, Bichel then managed some good hitting, and the total was taken to a reasonable 252 off the 50 overs. This was one of those scores which would have been enough if nobody batted really well for the West Indies, but which wasn't going to be if someone did. And someone did, although it wasn't who we expected.

Australia bowled well, and kept taking wickets. For most of the innings it looked like Australia would win. However, opener Wavell Hinds simply kept batting, and didn't get out. Every now and then he hit one of the bowlers for six, ending up with six of them. He kept up the run rate, and scored 125 not out, getting the West Indies home with 8 balls to spare.

Not to take anything away from Hinds (who really was superb) Australia really should have won this one. If the Australians had scored 20 more runs (which they really should have given the start) they would have won. Had Brett Lee caught an easy outfield catch when Hinds had about 50, Australia would have won. Had Lee bowled more tightly towards the end and not bowled wides and noballs, the match would have gone down to the last couple of balls. (I am most irritating with the Australian batsmen though. The middle order is still a little suspect. We really could do with Damien Martyn back. And to be quite honest, Australia have not replaced Mark Waugh very successfully yet. In test matches, this is a good reason for sticking with Steve Waugh for another season. Two open spots in the middle order it too many, as we saw in the final test against the West Indies.).

Australia were sloppy, and they lost because of this. It is clear that they are tired and want to go home. Hopefully they can raise themselves to finish the tour on a winning note today. I think they probably can, but it would be a little disappointing if they cannot. A 4-3 margin would suggest that the series was close, and it really hasn't been. It would also be a little annoying to see a 30-2 record reduced to 30-5. That said the players do look tired, and most of their (few) losses of the last nine months can be blamed on this.

After this, Australia have a month off, before a home series against Bangladesh in July in Cairns and Darwin in Australia's north. I can't imagine they will find this stressful, as the opposition will be easy to beat, and the games are being played in tourist resorts. Presumably most of the players will dump their families in nice hotels in Cairns for the duration of the cricket. After that, Australia are off again until October, when there is a home series against Zimbabwe, followed by a one day tournament in India in November, a home test series against India in December, a home one day tournament in January, and then in immediate tour of Sri Lanka.

In short, the grind begins again in October. Australia had planned to also play in a one day tournament in September , but they have just withdrawn from this due to the players wanting a rest, despite the fact that they would have been very well paid for it.

I actually have relatively little sympathy for the players here. They are doing what they have always wanted to do, and are being paid very well for it. That's more than most of us can claim. However, they are being worked pretty hard for it.

I am going to watch the match and drink some beer. A brief update on the result later. There is plenty of other international cricket not involving Australia being played over the next few months, and I shall likely be covering it, although not to the same level of detail.

Update: And Australia lost the game. In fact, they were thrashed. The top order batting was disappointing, with Hayden and Gilchrist going early, both to poor shots, and Ponting retiring hurt after being hit by a quick ball somewhere around the waist level. Lehmann and Symonds then scored a few runs, but Symonds' dismissal for 48 led to another little collapse. For the first time in his brief career, Clarke looked a rank amateur today, firstly being given not out caught behind after hitting the ball more than a little bit - if ever walking was called for, this was the time - and then coming down the pitch, missing, and being stumped by miles when he should have still been playing back and getting his eye in. With the departure of Harven soon after, things looked bad at 5/133, but Lehmann and Hogg played very well to give the Australians something to bowl out. Lehmann eventually scored a fine 107 off 109 balls. I am not Lehmann's biggest fan, but after this, I have to concede he at least deserves a spot in the one day side. Hogg also batted the best he has since that one day final in Melbourne on Australia Day, and scored 53. With three or four overs to go and these two batting, it looked like Australia could have scored 260 or 270, but more wickets fell and they ended up with 8/247. Gayle, more famous for his batting, took 5/46 - his best bowling in a One Day International. The West Indies bowled well, and Lara's captaincy was imaginative and astute - the best I have seen from him.

This never looked like being enough. As it was, Gayle and Hinds put on 116 before Gayle was out for 60. Lara came in, and he and Hinds just went about their business, winning the match with 6.3 overs to spare. Lara scored 75 not out, and Hinds 103 not out, his second hundred in a row.

What can I say. The West Indies played very well today, and Australia didn't. Australia have lost more one day internationals in the last week than they had in the previous year. This was a pretty feeble end to the tour, and I'm not especially impressed.

Still, the West Indies are much improved over what they were 18 months ago. Clearly, they have the nucleus of a good side. South Africa (who simply played badly) have for some reason got all the sympathy for having missed out on the second round of the World Cup through "bad luck", but the side that was genuinely unlucky was the West Indies, who suffered from defaults, upsets, and bad weather. They played very well at times in that tournament, and again played well at times here. They may be some sort of a chance for the next World Cup in four years.

We can see whether this improvement lasts. Although Australia's season is over, the West Indies' isn't. This Australian tour of the West Indies is about to be followed by a Sri Lankan tour of the West Indies. Conceivably, this will be good to watch.

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