Getting my sleep patterns into sync with UK daylight is for me, now, a constant struggle, especially now, when there is very little in the way of daylight in my part of the globe, and especially when there are such good international cricket matches going on elsewhere in the world, together with, now, the means to follow them, ball by ball. The latest such disruption to my daily clock took the form of a terrific game between Australia and South Africa in Melbourne.
I found day three especially hard to ignore. At the beginning of it, South Africa looked odds on to lose the 1-0 advantage they had gained with their amazing fourth innings run chase in the first test at Perth. With only three first innings wickets left, they were looking at a massive first innings deficit, but they ended with their noses actually in front, an advantage they pressed home the next morning by taking three quick second innings wickets before the Aussies had even got their noses back in front. I was still checking the score on that third day at tea time, which was at about 4 a.m. my time. JP Duminy got a big first test century in only his second test, having also done well at the end of the Perth run chase, and fast bowler Dale Steyn, who also took ten wickets in the match, gave Duminy massive support with the bat.
In its way, this third day was a bit of cricket history, because it marked the moment of Australia’s definite, absolute, unarguable fall from grace as the definitely best international cricket team in the world. They recently lost to India in India, but that can happen to anyone. But then to go back home and immediately to lose to South Africa in Australia, well, that was something else again. The difference is Shane Warne, the greatest leg spinner and very possibly the greatest bowler in the entire history of cricket. Australia with Warne to back up the font line quicks would never have allowed Duminy and his helpers to get from 184-7 to 431-8. Australia’s bowlers are still pretty good. But there is pretty good, and there is Shane Warne.
The point about Warne is that he was so very, very accurate. He could send down ball after ball that did exactly what he wanted. The average good leg break bowler bowls away, hoping that he will hit the jackpot with the occasional beauty, but resigned to serving up rather more frequent full tosses or long hops, which for the benefit of any Americans still with me, means bad balls that the batsman can score off heavily. But not only could Warne do those beauties more frequently than the best of the rest, but equally importantly, for over after over, there would absolutely no rubbish. He could bowl eight or ten or a dozen or more deliveries exactly as he wanted to, setting up expectations and reinforcing them, but then delivering the coup de grace, the words “he set him up” being one that constantlly recurred in the mouths of those commenting on Warne’s numerous triumphs. The result was a level of pressure that was outside the experience of the opposing batsmen in any other games they played, and what is more often at a stage in the innings when batsmen usually expect a degree of relaxation and easy run-getting. Then, in the event that Shane Warne hadn’t actually wrapped up the entire innings, back would come the Australian front line quicks, well rested, with the second new ball. Making big scores against all this was hugely difficult, and it speaks volumes for England’s quality as a side at the time that they contrived to win the Ashes in 2005 against Australia, Warne and all. That a weaker England then got smashed in Australia was no big surprise, even if the margin (5-0) was rather crushing.
Afficionados will want to add the name of Glenn McGrath to the above mix. Indeed. Another very great bowler, who was also amazingly accurate. But would McGrath have been quite so good, or have lasted quite so long, without Warne? Events since Warne’s retirement suggest not. Without Warne to share such a big part of the bowling load, the Australian quick bowlers now look vulnerable to overwork, with their most experienced quick, Brett Lee, being but a hobbling shadow of his recent best. And now, deprived of that confidence they used to have that they could win any game from just about any apparently losing position, the Australian batting is starting to look less formidable too. Gilchrist, the best wicketkeeper batsman ever, is no more, and Hayden is nearly done also. The Aussies are just not the force that, for a decade and a half, they were. Before them, the West Indies were dominant. Who might dominate next? South Africa? India? If India could make weight of numbers count at the top level they would be unbeatable, but cricket fans have been saying that for years.
England have a bit to do before challenging for the top spot, for they remain the dodgy outfit they have been ever since the 2005 Ashes side started falling to bits. Flintoff is getting back to his formidable best after yet another injury. Pietersen looks a good captain, possessing as he does an undentable ego. But England are short at least one good batsman (personally I think his name is Owais Shah). And the bowling still depends far too heavily on the notoriously undependable Harmison. But because of Australia’s decline England still have a decent shot at getting the Ashes back next summer.
Test cricket in general has been doing well just lately. Despite initial hesitations after the Mumbai killings, England did play more cricket in India, and the first of the two tests they played was a cracker, won by India but only after three days on the back foot against a very good England effort, the great Sachin Tendulkar reaching another hundred and winning the match with the one shot. And only today came news of another fine game, between Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. The difference between losing heavily and abjectly, and losing bravely and more narrowly, is huge. Winning alone is not everything in sport. Losing in a manner that suggests that your team could have a winning future also counts for a lot. Bangladesh were chasing a seemingly impossible five hundred in the last innings to win, but got past four hundred before the last four wickets fell cheaply. Sri Lanka got a huge scare before winning. Given that Bangladesh have tended to lose heavily and abjectly of late, this was an important game for them, and by extension for the entire game of cricket.