Top 5 Ashes moments – number 1

Blokes love ranking things.  It’s just something we do.  We love to order things, quantify things by relative quality, and relish in the ensuing debate.  YouTube is brimming with videos entitled ‘Top 10 Goals OF ALL TIME!!!,’ ‘Top 20 most brutal knockout punches,’ or ‘Top 17 escapes from tricky snookers behind the baulk colours’ (I made that last one up by the way, although I am now considering compiling such a video).  Rugby HQ, Fox Sports Australia’s Rugby Union show, has had a new slot this year detailing Rugby’s Top 5s in a variety of categories, including Top 5 Tackles Gone Wrong, Top 5 Bombed Tries, and Top 5 Fatman Tries.  Most of them have topped 100,000 YouTube hits.

Cricket as a sport loves ranking (I said Rrrranking) more than most.  A sport in general will have a World Ranking list.  Cricket, as you might expect from a sport dedicated to statistics, has rankings for international teams, rankings for the best batsmen, best wicket-keepers, best bowlers and best all-rounders in international cricket (although given Alex Hales is currently rated the best Twenty20 batsman in the world I wouldn’t rely on them too much).  Not only does every current international player have a ranking, but every international player of all time.  Some people have been paid (jammy bastards) to trawl through every cricket international ever played, and feed the data into the ICC’s rank-o-meter, so if you want to know the top ranked Test batsman or bowler in July 1958 (Peter May and Tony Lock respectively if you really want to know), you can find out. 

All I have been trying to do in those two paragraphs is justify the subject of this latest article, which will be the top 5 Ashes moments that I can remember.  I’ve decided to limit it to one per series, and only ones that I can actually remember happening rather than reading about later on.  Given my tendency to waffle on, I’ll publish them one at a time, so here goes.

  1. 1.       Day 5, Adelaide, 4th Test 1995

The first Ashes series that I was aware of was the 1989 series, an unmitigated disaster for England, who, laughably, started the series as favourites, but ended up, due to injury, the announcement of a rebel team to tour South Africa in the winter, and a staggeringly short-sighted selection policy, using 29 players during the series, the equivalent of picking 3 new players every Test.  To my mind the series consisted of Mark Taylor scoring runs, and Terry Alderman trapping a succession of players (but mainly Graham Gooch) lbw – never any chance of there being a top moment here then.  The 1990-91 series likewise passed me by, and it wasn’t until the Oval Test of 1993 that I was able to consciously experience an England victory in an Ashes Test.  However, other than the fact it was Angus Fraser’s return to Test cricket, I don’t remember much about that game, so we must continue to England’s nest Ashes victory for my first moment.

England arrived Adelaide in a pretty dreadful state.  Some ludicrous selections (Martin McCague and Joey Benjamin ahead of Angus Fraser?  Really?), and a terrible run of injuries and illness meant the Aussies won the series despite not being anywhere near their best.  Shane Warne took a stack of wickets to win the first two matches in Brisbane and Melbourne, but Darren Gough inspired an England fightback in Sydney, where Australia ended the final day 7 down to claim a draw.  However, in the one-day international between the third and fourth Tests, Gough, England’s latest new Botham, suffered a stress fracture to his foot, and by the morning of the Adelaide match, Mike Atherton literally only had 11 fit players to choose from, with Graeme Hick’s injury meaning Chris Lewis had to be drafted in from playing local club cricket.  The batting line-up looked desperately shallow, with Steven Rhodes, in horrendous form with the bat, batting at 6, and Fraser, belatedly called up as a replacement, getting vertigo at 9.

As it turned out, England didn’t do too badly in the first innings, making 353, thanks mainly to Mike Gatting scratching out an ugly 117, and Atherton making a cussed 80.  Reservations about the length of the tail proved accurate, however, as the last 6 wickets only added 57.  Australia responded strongly, with Michael Slater and Mark Taylor putting on 128 for the first wicket, but a quick flurry of wickets left the score at 232-5, a promising position for England.  As per usual, they couldn’t make it count as debutant Greg Blewett, a batsman so aesthetically pleasing you could hang his cover drive in the Louvre, and Ian Healy, possibly my most hated cricketer growing up, put on 164 without too much effort.  Although Australia did a passable impression of England, losing their last 5 wickets for 23 on the morning of the 4th day, you felt that their lead of 66 would probably prove crucial.  Once Lewis was bowled by Damien Fleming trying to leave the ball, England were 181-6, a lead of 115, and despite John Crawley and Philip DeFreitas dragging them to 220-6 by the close of play, no-one but the most deluded would have expected anything other than yet another Australian victory (yawn).

It turned out both Crawley and DeFreitas must have been pretty deluded, as they added a further 50 before Crawley fell for 71 to that most potent of weapons, a Mark Waugh bouncer.  It was at this point that DeFreitas went beserk.  Whether he thought that England’s lead was such that they now had a chance, whether he figured that, with only Fraser, Devon Malcolm and Phil Tufnell to come, he was England’s only hope of runs, or whether he just fancied giving it a pit of humpty, he proceeded to lay into Craig McDermott, flicking him expertly over square leg for 6, and then taking 22 off his next over, including a brutal hook over long leg, before becoming the next victim of Mark Waugh’s suddenly unplayable bouncer.  His 88, coupled with a couple of Malcolm specials off Shane Warne, lifted England’s total to 324, setting Australia a target of 265 in 66 overs.  The perfect run chase – low enough for the chasing team to have no qualms about going for the runs, high enough for the defending team to set attacking fields and not worry initially about conceding too many.

As it turned out, an Australian victory was never on the cards.  Devon Malcolm had one of those days where it all clicked – similar to his famous 9-57 against South Africa at The Oval the previous summer, where the South African batsman had looked petrified.  You knew it was going to be England’s day when Tufnell of all people took a tricky catch at fine leg to dismiss Slater, and when Malcolm timbered Steve Waugh first ball with a blinding in-ducker to leave Australia 23-4, it was a question of whether Australia could hold out.  Wickets continued to fall regularly – Mark Waugh went to a very questionable catch by Gatting off Tufnell at short leg (the ball apparently hit Gatting on the instep and ballooned into his hands without touching the ground), and when McDermott edged Lewis to Rhodes, Australia were 83-8 with more than 30 overs left.

But that annoying bastard Healy was still there and, accompanied by Damien Fleming, hung around, scoring fairly fluently and never looking like getting out.  The pair battled through until 9 overs from the end, when Lewis, giving one of his best performances in Tests, which isn’t really saying much, bowled a short-ish ball to Fleming that didn’t bounce as much as the batsman was expecting.  He missed his pull shot, the ball struck him on the pads and the 9 England players around the bat all appealed.  To the naked eye, the ball appeared to be going over the top, but umpire Venkat immediately raised the finger, and England had the breakthrough.  Healy got to his 50, but when last man, leg-spinner Peter McIntyre was left on strike, Atherton brought back Malcolm.  It only took one ball, a fast inswinger trapping the tailender in front, to give England an unlikely victory.

The reason this is a memorable moment for me is the sheer unexpectedness of it.  At the risk of sounding like an old git, there was no internet back then, no up-to-the minute scores, so for Test matches in Australia, you went to bed, and woke up the next morning to find out what had happened in a whole day’s cricket.  So, I went to bed expecting another ignominious England defeat, only to be greeted with the news at breakfast that they had somehow snatched victory from the jaws of defeat, a most un-English trait during the 1990s.

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The James Hook dilemma

This weekend sees Wales take on Argentina at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, but one man will be very conspicuous by his absence: the mercurial James Hook.  The Perpignan utility back continues to be overlooked by Wales coach Warren Gatland despite his good form for his club.  He is one of the greatest rugby talents Wales has produced in decades.  His play has drawn comparisons with the great Barry John.  Alongside Gavin Henson, he is the most gifted rugby-footballer to come out of the principality this century.  So why can’t Hook get a game for Wales?  After being named on the bench for both the Autumn Internationals and being overlooked for the Lions tour, does the coach Warren Gatland just not rate Hook?  At 28, the Welshman is in the prime of his career, yet he already seems surplus to requirements despite having over 70 caps and being his nation’s 3rd highest points-scorer.  It simply doesn’t add-up.  So what can be the reason?

Hook made his début as a replacement in late 2006 after breaking into the Ospreys team as a fresh-faced 21 year-old, scoring 13 points against Australia.  Wales’ coach at the time was Gareth Jenkins who liked to play free-flowing running rugby and this fitted in perfectly with Hook’s natural attacking instincts as a running fly-half.  Unfortunately, at the time, as well as scoring lots of tries, Wales tended to concede plenty and were not the force they are today.  After a humiliating defeat to Fiji in the 2007 World Cup (a game in which Shane Williams scored one of rugby’s greatest ever tries http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lmtouHIVexw  go to 2:50), Jenkins was removed as coach and replaced by the current incumbent, Warren Gatland.  In the Grand-Slam winning team of 2008, Gatland tended to rotate Hook with the more experienced Stephen Jones.  Following Gavin Henson’s self-imposed rugby exile in 2009, Hook was moved into the centre where his elusive running and inventive passing could unlock the midfield.  He was a regular in the Wales team until Gatland settled on a more power-dominated (and totally invention-lacking) centre-partnership of Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies.  The emergence of Rhys Priestland at fly-half further marginalised Hook and he only just scraped into the World Cup squad of 2011, largely because of his versatility.  Since then Hook has been used sparingly, not least because he doesn’t have a full release clause for internationals in his Perpignan contract which has irked the Wales coach, but also because Leigh Halfpenny has blossomed into a world-class full-back (the position in which Hook currently plays for his club), further limiting his playing chances.

Last weekend against South Africa, Wales looked ponderous in attack showing an alarming lack of invention for a side that is usually renowned for its attacking flair.  Priestland in particular looked decidedly average – he kicked aimlessly and seemed to shirk the physical confrontation with the Proteas.  Instead, Wales decided to run at the defence instead of attempting to unlock it or find the gaps, and against a physical side like South Africa, that strategy is doomed to failure.  I can sort of see where Gatland is coming from.  Priestland is a safe pair of hands and is likely to take fewer risks than Hook.  However against the big three Southern Hemisphere sides, that simply doesn’t cut the mustard.  Having someone like Hook at first receiver brings a whole load of possibilities into play.  Hook can expose a defence in an instant with a clever kick, a drop of the shoulder, an inside pass, a burst of pace.  Yes he is unpredictable, but that is the key to his effectiveness as a rugby player.  Defences will be more aware of Hook’s flair and will consequently stand-off slightly.  With Priestland, you know he doesn’t have great running ability so the defence will be more inclined to rush-up, putting more pressure on the attack.  Wales have been crying out for that touch of class and Hook has it in spades.  Without it their long drought for a Southern Hemisphere scalp will most likely continue.

The age in which international rugby sides fielded a ‘playmaker’ is slowly coming to an end.  James Simpson-Daniel is a prime example.  Probably the most naturally gifted player England have produced this century, his international career was very stop-start due to injuries and also the England management not knowing what his best position was.  A silky runner with a devastating burst of speed, Simpson-Daniel earned 10 caps but was never allowed an extended run in the team.  He was viewed as a luxury rather than a necessity and was often used as an impact substitute, as Hook is, against tiring defences.  Henson was sort of a ‘playmaker’ as was Mike Catt for England at inside centre and Gregor Townsend for Scotland.  There is a pre-conception that they are defensive liabilities and modern day rugby being what it is (i.e very physical), opponents will ruthlessly target any defensive weaknesses.  However this is a fallacy.  Catt and Henson were definitely not liabilities and neither is Hook.  Australia’s Quade Cooper and Italy’s magical Luciano Orquera are the modern equivalents of a ‘playmaker’ – not the strongest in defence but worth the risk because they can win a match single-handedly.  This is the case with Hook.  He can win Wales a match on his own and against New Zealand, Australia or South Africa, Hook’s creativity is vital if Wales want to break their duck.

With Jamie Roberts and now Jonathan Davies out injured, the most logical centre partner for Scott Williams this weekend against Argentina would be Hook.  Gatland has other ideas, selecting Corey Allen from the Cardiff Blues, who has played 10 games of professional rugby in his life.  Now I’m all for giving youth a chance, but you also need your best players on the pitch to win rugby matches.  Argentina are no mugs and Allen is certainly being thrown in at the deep end.  He is either going to sink or swim.  Regardless of whether Gatland should have picked Allen, I personally think James Hook should start at 10 instead of Dan Biggar (and Rhys Priestland).  Despite Biggar winning the 6 Nations earlier this year, the Ospreys man was rarely a stand-out performer.  He had the benefit of willing midfield runners and an excellent pack in front of him.  Now if someone like Hook that as an attacking platform, he could rip defences to shreds, especially a less mobile team like Argentina.  I don’t know why Warren Gatland doesn’t pick him but he is missing an enormous trick.  I’m sure the Pumas will be breathing a huge sigh of relief when they see him warming the bench on Saturday.

If, like me, you yearn to see James Hook in a Wales shirt sooner rather than later, let this video (which I definitely haven’t watched about 20 times) whet your appetite:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pw6CuMwiKn4

Ashes again.

Following Australia’s announcement of their squad for the First Ashes Test in Brisbane, coupled with Michael Clarke’s very helpful and in no way mind-game motivated disclosure of England’s XI for the same match (apparently Alastair Cook told him at the Remembrance Day service – unless he himself was indulging in a spot of double-bluff), we now know (probably) who will be walking out at the Gabba come the 21st November, for the start of the most eagerly awaited Ashes series since July.  So, the cry goes out, how is the series going to go?

It’s strange how in some quarters (mainly those near Mr S Warne) Australia came out of this summer’s series in England with a moral victory, despite losing 3-0.  This is to some extent based on Antipodean wishful thinking and the inbuilt inability of any Australian former cricketer to acknowledge English superiority, but at the back of each England fan’s mind is the nagging feeling that it might be fair.  England’s batting over the summer always seemed to be one Ian Bell masterclass away from abject failure; the bowlers, rather than bowling as a unit as in previous series seemed to be relying on someone having a blinding day to bowl the Aussies out; and several what-if moments seemed to go England’s way – what if Stuart Broad had slightly less chutzpah?  What if England had used all their reviews when Brad Haddin nicked one of James Anderson?  What if Haddin had bothered to attempt to snaffle Joe Root’s edge at Lord’s?  What if Manchester wasn’t so rainy?

The flip side to this is that England won 3 Tests because they are a side that over the last few years has learnt how to win in tricky situations, while Australia’s poor record means they haven’t got the know-how or confidence to push on for victory.  Their collapse from an undoubtedly winning position at Durham was the most obvious example of this, and Michael Clarke’s declaration at the Oval, while it gave the final day crowd some entertainment, was a desperate act by a captain unsure of where his team’s next win will come from.  There are those who argue that there is little difference between losing a series 3-0 and 4-0, but surely defeat after dominating the Test would have dented his team’s fragile confidence even more

Yet Australia have cause for optimism.  They have some excellent fast bowlers, and if/when Ryan Harris or Mitchell Johnson get injured, there are a large number of potential replacements to call on.  Their batsmen seem to be running into form at just the right moment – Michael Clarke is and always will be a class act, but David Warner, Chris Rogers and Steve Smith have been in the runs recently.  Crucially, they seem to have worked out how to stymie one of England’s most dependable run machines, Jonathan Trott – put in two short mid-wickets, bowl at his legs, stop him scoring in his favourite area, then pitch one up outside off stump, and accept the resulting edge.  Or just bounce him out.

What of England?  In contrast to the Australian top order, their batsman are mainly in poor form.  Alastair Cook is once again struggling with what to leave outside the off stump, Joe Root looks susceptible to the moving ball and is too easy to pin on the back foot, Trott we have discussed, and Matt Prior suddenly can barely buy a run.  It’s impossible to tell whether Kevin Pietersen is in form or not, as he is a one-off who can produce a sparkling innings from nowhere, but it must be worry that he can only play with his knee swimming in cortisone (which according to KP himself is not a problem, a view not shared by most others).  Michael Carberry, Cook’s probably opening partner for the First Test, has played beautifully in the warm-up games, against admittedly pretty mediocre bowling, but any player, no matter how experienced, is going to be nervous in only their second Test.  As for the bowling, Clarke seems to think that Chris Tremlett will get the nod as the third seamer.  I must admit, having seen Tremlett bowl a little over the summer I’m not convinced.  His pace is significantly down compared with when he previously toured Australia and, while his control and consistency are admirable, he also looks innocuous.  However, he may be the best of a relatively mediocre bunch of improbably tall men.  Steve Finn is the opposite of Tremlett – expensive, but always liable to take wickets, while Boyd Rankin’s length is too inconsistent.  His natural length is slightly too short, but when he does try and pitch it up, he tends to float it in the manner of Andrew Caddick, and bowls too many half-volleys.  The question on many people’s lips is ‘where is Graham Onions?’  The Durham man looks like he may be this generation’s Martin Bicknell – unplayable in county cricket, but destined to be forever ignored by England.  To be fair to the selectors, I can see why they have their reservations – he bowled like a drain in the tour matches in New Zealand earlier this year, and his injury record makes Darren Anderton appear the picture of health, but surely some variety in the bowling attack is required.  I would be inclined to go with Tremlett simply because he can be relied on to keep an end dry, whereas I suspect the Australian batsman would be inclined to target either Finn or Rankin.  Tim Bresnan is, of course, on tour as well, but is unlikely to play in at least the first two Tests, and then may be wary of bowling flat out so soon after injury.

Despite England’s recent hold over Australia, I spent my formative cricket-watching years in the 90s, and can’t quite get used to the idea of an England cricket team being expected to win the Ashes.  Whereas the preparation 3 years ago screamed professionalism, this time round things aren’t going as smoothly.  There have been injuries; other than Broad and Anderson, the bowlers have looked poor; most of the batsmen haven’t had much of an innings; and then there’s the 82-page England cricket recipe book, which is either an indication of the meticulous preparation that has gone into this tour, or a sign that the team has gone so far up its own arse it’s tickling its tonsils.

There are still plenty of question marks over the Australian team.  Chris Rogers, David Warner and Steve Smith are still relatively callow at this level, and Smith’s technique is still a potential matter of concern if he loses confidence.  George Bailey, who will be making his Test debut, has been selected thanks to his form in the one-day matches, but averages only 18 over the last year in first-class cricket.  A good one-day player does not a good Test player make (Michael Bevan).  Mitchell Johnson, likewise, has been picked thanks to good performances in one-day cricket, but let’s not forget his previous performances against England.  When he gets it right, he is probably the most devastating bowler in world cricket (even including Dale Steyn), as seen at Perth last time around.  If he gets it wrong, as at Lord’s in 2009 or at Melbourne in 2010, then he’s a passenger in the side.  There has been talk about how his bowling action has improved, how his bowling arm is now much higher, but, after a cursory trawl through YouTube, it looks pretty similar to me.  If England (and the Barmy Army) can get under his skin, then he could once again prove a liability.  There are fitness concerns over both the remarkable Ryan Harris and Shane Watson, and losing either of them would be a real blow to the Aussies.

It’s a tricky series to call.  Since there has been such a small gap between the end of the last series and the beginning of this one, there hasn’t been much of a build-up.  Logic suggests that England should win, but I can’t help but feel that while England are a team on the way down, Australia are a team on the way up.  I’ll go for a 2-2 draw, but very much fear the Aussies could sneak it.