Saturday, August 02, 2003

England versus South Africa, and a tiny report on Australia v Bangladesh ODI 1

IN 1989, the Australian cricket team toured England for an Ashes series. Australian cricket was not at a very high ebb at that point. Captain Allan Border had led Australia to two heavy defeats in the previous two Ashes series. Australia's previous test series had been at home against the West Indies, and Australia had lost 3-1. Australia over the previous few years had gone through the worst period in their cricketing history, even at times losing to New Zealand. (That said, New Zealand had a good team at that time).

But the upside was that Australia were by that point clearly beyond their lowest point. They had won the World Cup as rank outsiders in 1987, and since then they had been a good one day side and a test side that at least won matches regularly (although not always series). There were a number of good young players coming through, mostly batsmen. People like David Boon, Mark Taylor, and Steve Waugh.

Which was why Australians were a little put out when the Australian side was written off in England going into the series. Bookmakers named England favourites at 10-1 on. Newspaper editorialists said that "England unquestionably have the stronger side". The 1987 World Cup victory was written off as a fluke. (A journalist in an English newspaper described that 1987 final as a game that "England would have won nine times out of ten). When Australia lost the first one day game, Allan Border was asked whether he had expected that Australia would be defeated that heavily, his having expected that Australia might win being apparently out of the question.

Of course, this all made our pleasure in Australia at what happened next so much the greater. Australia tied the second one day game and won the third, for a drawn series. Then, the first test was played at Headingley. Australia batted first, and were utterly magnificent, declaring at 7/601 with Mark Taylor and Steve Waugh scoring maiden test centuries, in Steve Waugh's case a magnificent 177 not out. After that we saw one of the most one sided test series I have ever seen in my life, with Australia winning 4-0, and England hardly winning a session in the six test matches. (The series result would have been 6-0 if it were not for rain, as Australia were way ahead in the other two games). We all laughed at the commentators who had written Australia off, given that Australia were so obviously on the improve. Australians look back on the series very fondly. If the 1987 World Cup was the point where Australia started to turn things round, the 1989 Ashes series was the time when they really came good.

So why do I mention this. Well, on the third morning of the second test of the South Africa v England series, it is clear I judged South Africa about as badly. Due to the turmoil and recent poor performances of South Africa, I judged them to be a side clearly in decline, and as I saw England as a side on the rise, I said that I thought a comprehensive England victory was very likely. And, so far, this has not happened. It is England that look in disarray.

When I made these observations, South African reader Dave F left comments taking issue with them a little bit. In particular, he said I was wrong to underestimate new South African captain Graeme Smith, who (according to Dave) was really something special. I was perhaps a little dismissive of this, although I had not seem Smith play much.

Well, Dave, I salute you. You were right. Enjoy the gloating. For what happened last week was not too different to what happened when Australia batted first in that first test in 1989. Gibbs and Smith put on an opening partnership of 338. Smith ended up with 277 and Gibbs 179 and South Africa declared just before tea on the third day at 5/594. All of the second day was lost to rain, so that is actually quite a fast run rate. There was then more rain, and on the fourth day Michael Vaughan played superbly, scoring 156 for England. (Vaughan is clearly the real deal). At the end of day four, England were 374/7 with Vaughan out, requiring another 21 runs to avoid the follow on. On day five, they got these easily enough, and from that point, the game was doomed to a draw. (It had been probably heading for a draw from the point where Vaughan dug in). After England were out for 408, South Africa scored a quick 4/134 (Smith scoring 85), setting England 320 to win in about threehours. This was never going to be doable, and England ended up with 1/110 when the game was declared a draw.

What can we say? South Africa would likely have won without all the rain. Smith's batting was superb. As for his captaincy, well he was a huge improvement on Pollock (although that isn't saying very much). He was less aggressive than Steve Waugh would have been, and received a little criticism for not declaring a little earlier on the final day. (I don't have much criticism here myself, as a result was most unlikely at this point). I was a little surprised he batted as long as he did on the third day after the second was lost to rain. (I think Steve Waugh would have declared earlier, but Steve Waugh has stronger bowling at his disposal). On the other hand, if he had batted a little longer on the third day, South Africa might have ended up being able to enforce the follow on on day five. So it is hard to say. Trying to figure out the right thing to do in a rain affected match when you do now know what the weather is going to be like and time is limited is one of the hardest things for a captain to do. In the end, not much criticism from me there either. South Africa got a draw and a moral victory from the first test.

The moral victory became bigger a day after the test when Nasser Hussein stepped down as England captain. This took most of us by surprise. Hussein has lost some support in the press in the last couple of months, as it has been suggested that splitting the captaincy between a test captain and a one day captain is a bad idea. Other people have commented that it seems to work okay in Australia. It does, but there is media criticism of it in Australia too. And of course it is not something that the captains have agreed to voluntarily in Australia. Both Mark Taylor and the Steve Waugh were actually dropped from the one day team. Nasser Hussein went willingly. My personal opinion was that sticking with two captains wasn't a bad idea. Let Vaughan concentrate on his (wonderful) batting in tests for a while, and get some captaincy experience in the one day team.

So what happened. I don't know whether Hussein jumped, was pushed, or whether there was some sort of player revolt. (Hussein is known for being a somewhat authoritarian captain, whereas Vaughan is "more relaxed". Hussein did make a stupid comment about South Africa being "there for the taking" before the series. He may have though that - I thought that too - but it is a dumb thing for a captain to say, as the oppositition will tear out the parge of the newspaper quoting it, circle the quote, pin it up on the wall and use it for motivation. However, that wasn't a sacking offence, if he was sacked.

Whether Hussein resigned or was sacked, the timing of it was deeply unprofessional. It was completely unfair on Vaughan to given him the captaincy two days before the next test. He had no time to plan, and no time to prepare himself. If the captaincy was going to be changed mid-series, it should have happened after the second test, when Vaughan had ten days to prepare himself. Vaughan being given the captaincy in the circumstances he was given it was asking for trouble.

And trouble is exactly what England got. Smith won the toss and sent England in, and England's batting was pathetic. They slumped to 9/118 thanks to good bowling from Ntini, who ended up with 5/75, and from Hall, who took 3/18. Some hitting from Gough and Anderson salvaged a small amount of respectability, but not much. England were all out for 173, having batted for only 48.3 overs. Smith, Gibbs and then Kirsten then demonstrated that the pitch was easy to bat on after all, and they had scored 1/;151 by the end of day one. On day two it got worse. South Africa lost only one wicket all day, Kirsten for a fine 108. Smith was unbeaten on 214 at the end of the day. He became only the third player (after Bradman (three times) and Vinod Kambli of India) to score double centuries in successive matches.

Oddly though, Smith seemed slightly lacking as a captain in terms of aggression. South Africa actually went off due to bad light towards the end of the day. Given how the South Africans were creaming the English, it might have been better to simply keep doing so and push for the win as quickly as possible. And the weather was looking ominous at the time. One possibility was that they would spend the next three days trying to win the game between rainstorms, so that every minute on the field might count. (The weather is much better now, but they didn't know it would be). At the end of the day, Smith was obviously very happy, but their seemed a bit too much discussion of batting records. Smith openly said that South Africa wanted to break the all time South African innings batting record, and he didn't do much to shut down discussion of the possibility of his breaking Lara's record for best individual score in a test match of 375. Ritchie Benaud was critical of this kind of talk on channel four this morning, and I have to agree with him. Given the slightly dodgy weather yesterday, it would be far better to just go as aggressively for the win.

As their talk last night indicated they are batting on and on today. Steve Waugh would have declared by now. Smith has got out (for 259) since I started writing this post, but the batting continues. They are 3/530. The lead is approaching 400, which is totally unnecessary. If it starts raining again (which the weather report does not predict, but who knows) and South Africa do not win - or even if England save the match by batting well - they may regret this. It is not likely that they will - a South African victory is by far the most likely result - but I think Smith is being a little too timid.

On the other hand, this is no different to the way Australian captains played the game a decade of 15 years ago. It is the way captains of most sides other than Australia play the game. Part of this comes from Steve Waugh's great confidence in the abilities of his team. It is really striking just how Australia are playing a different game to everyone else. Smith's captaincy isn't bad, it just could be a little better. This may just be inexperience.

In other cricket, Australia won their first one day international against Bangladesh with the greatest of ease. Bangladesh were sent in, and slumped to 5/33 due to some excellent bowling from Brett Lee, who ended up with 4/25 off 8 overs. The eventually scraped together a fairly miserable 105 off 34 overs, with Gillespie also continuing his good form by taking 3/23 off ten. Australia lost Gilchrist and Ponting getting the runs, but thanks to 46 not out from Hayden, they made the target off 22.3 overs. Damien Martyn made a welcome return to the Australian team after his finger injury, although he didn't have much to do, facing only one ball and scoring nought not out. Hopefully he will get some time in the middle in the next game tomorrow. However, Australia may need to bat first for this to happen.

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