I had all kinds of plans of Things To Do over the weekend, but instead I spent my time following the news, with growing disbelief, of Australia losing two cricket matches, yesterday against England which was a bit of a surprise, and on Saturday against Bangladesh which was a cricket earthquake. The Aussies will probably pull themselves together by the time the test matches come around, because they are, after all, the Aussies, the best cricket team in the world. But they have now lost four games in a row, which is quite a hiccup by their standards. They lost the twenty over thrash against England last Monday, heavily, and then they lost to Somerset in a fifty-over warm-up game. And now they have lost these two games. As you can imagine, the British media are having a fine old wallow. The general opinion is that Assie captain Ricky Ponting, who won both the tosses of the weekend, made a mistake in batting first against Bangladesh. Yesterday, he did it again against England, in a game where England would have put Australia in first. On days like these, the bowlers get whatever help they will from the conditions right at the start, while it is still a bit muggy. Later, bright sunshine makes it much better for the batters. There was a touch here of “we are going to get this right if it kills us”, instead of “let us do what will get us the win”, a win they are starting to need rather badly. Worse, this decision suggested that most insidious form of sporting arrogance, which goes: “you fellows have to do everything right to win, but we are so great that we do not have to do everything right to win. The regular rules do not apply to us. We can bat first when we should bat second. We can hook bouncers just over long leg. We can go out the night before and get pissed. We do not have to get our feat to the pitch of the ball. We do not have to warm up when we bowl. We just have to show up. And still win.” Wrong. Great sportsman must have that vital dose of humility, which says that they only got great by doing everything right, and that to stay great they must continue to do everything right. But then again, maybe Ponting just wanted to practice batting first, and then defending dodgy totals.
Supporters of Australia will of course say that without Kevin Pietersen, England’s new South-Africa-born wonder batsman, England would have lost, and that is true. Pietersen scored 91 not out in 65 balls to wrap it up with 3 wickets (too close for comfort) and 15 balls (an eternity in one day cricket) to spare, and was the Man of the Match despite Steve Harmison earlier taking 5 or 33. But that brings me to my second feeling about this summer’s proceedings, which is for the first time in a long time, England may just have the edge in star quality over the Aussies. If the likes of Harmison, Andrew Flintoff, and now this extraordinary Pietersen character (“genius” was the word Vaughan used to describe his innings today), give of their very best during the forthcoming Ashes games, but if Australia’s star bowlers Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath turn out to be a bit past their admittedly stellar best, then England have a real chance. Mike Atherton, in yesterday’s Sunday Times, says that the Aussies are not what they were. He of all people knows all about what the Aussies were when they were what they were.
But, there is still Shane Warne. Glenn McGrath is very, very good, the best quick bowler of his time. Warne has been – still is? – something else again. Warne makes any bowling attack he is in twice as good. He bowls lots and lots of really good balls, including a few that are devastatingly good, and yet combines that with bowling hardly any bad balls, and certainly not the one bad ball every two overs or so that your average leg spinner will serve up. Against a Warneless bowling attack, the batsmen can reckon on times when they can cruise along and make some relatively easy runs without too much pressure, and prepare themselves for when the pressure resumes, with the next new ball say. But against a side with Warne in it, the pressure on batsmen is continuous. The quick bowlers can exhaust themselves in turn at the other end, while Warne just bowls and bowls. The only other bowling attack like this in cricket history was when the West Indians had about five ultra-fast bowlers taking it in turns. Recently Warne was voted, I think by some Australians, the greatest bowler of all time. (It may even have been the greatest cricketer.) This shocked me at the time, but thinking about it some more, I realised that this was right. If you were picking your all-time team, taking turns against another bloke picking his, school playground style, which bowler would you pick first, both to have him in your side and to deny him to the other side? Warne. Whenever, during the last few years, Warne did not play against England for some reason, England tended to do quite well. When Warne played, they crumpled, again and again.
Warne recently gave up playing one-day international cricket, and from now on will only play in five day test matches. He is now turning his arm over for Hampshire, and he took no part in this recent string of Aussie defeats. When he joins the Aussie party, he will undoubtedly try to raise his game and if he does he will duly transform the Aussie bowling. If that happens, Australia will go right back to being solid favourites, with all the other players suddenly playing better than before.
England’s unknown quantity is Steve Harmison. Harmison has it in him to win the series on his own, the way Frank Tyson once did in Australia half a century ago. Today, for example, Harmison took three wickets in one over, and they were not any old three wickets. They were: the extremely dangerous Gilchrist, then Ponting (first ball) and Martyn (second ball). The next over he bagged Hayden (a phenomenal catch by Collingwood), and towards the end he bowled Mike Hussey with a slower ball, thus putting a damper on the final few overs of the Australian innings. Only the exceptional batting of Pietersen at the end denied Harmison the Man of the Match award. Perhaps more significantly, the radio commentators were saying that when Harmison was bowling, with slips and gullies, it was more like a test match than a limited overs game. This was his first game against Australia this summer. He did nothing during the recent tour of South Africa. But he apparently suffers from homesickness, and now he is at home. He has, incidentally, been taking lots of county wickets.
On day one of the test series, it could be Australia 350 for 2 and all this will be forgotten. Or not, in the sense that I – or perhaps Michael Jennings – will be linking back to this posting and saying either oh dear or heh.
And how about this for a F1 asco?
Football, meanwhile, is a game of two halves, and at the end Germany wins.