Is it ever morally OK to support the Aussies?

For me, it is often impossible to watch a sporting contest purely as a neutral.  As much as I may watch for the enjoyment of sport itself, at the back of the mind there is usually one team, or one individual I want to win.  This may be down to the skill of a particular performer (I always want Ronnie O’Sullivan or Roger Federer to win, as they are the most exciting players to watch, even if they are, in their own ways, arseholes); it may be down to a strange childhood obsession (I will always support Denmark at football, because of their 1986 team); it could be because of a mildly xenophobic dislike of certain countries in a sporting context (I will hardly ever root for a team or person from France, Germany, Australia or the USA); and it often stems from the peculiarly British desire to see the underdog win.  For this last reason, I despise Manchester United, the New Zealand rugby union team, and Tiger Woods.

It can happen that I care not, when following a sporting event, who wins.  This may be due to antipathy for the competitors (when Chelsea play Man United, the only real positive outcome for me would be if there were an unseemly brawl, resulting in a points deduction for both sides) or a liking for both the opponents.  For example I would have been happy for either Rafa Nadal or Stan Wawrinka to win the recent Australian Open Final, Nadal because he comes across as a lovely, humble bloke, and Wawrinka because he was the underdog and has one of the dreamiest backhands in the game.

The current Test series between South Africa and Australia is one such occasion when victory for either side would leave me content.  Like any right-minded English person, I have long held a deep-seated hatred for the Australian cricket team for many reasons: they are historically England’s cricketing rivals; I grew up watching gum-chewing, baggy cap-wearing, muscular men swatting aside the feeble challenge of some limited county pro; and their team always seemed to contain a number of highly objectionable individuals, such as Shane Warne, Matthew Hayden and Glenn McGrath (it has shaken my faith slightly in my judgement of character that McGrath comes across as one of the friendliest and most self-deprecating of men in the TMS commentary box.  At least Warne’s still clearly a cock).

Therefore, even against a South African team for whom I have no real affection (Graeme Smith in particular looks a self-satisfied bully), ordinarily I would be rooting wholeheartedly for the Saffers.  However, this is not necessarily the case.

Before you start accusing me here of not being a true England cricket fan, and threaten to snap my Ashes 2005 DVD before my eyes as not being deserving of it, allow me to explain.  I have not got a weird sporting version of Stockholm Syndrome and developed an affection for the Aussies.  I still despise Steve Smith’s piggy face, idiosyncratic batting technique and knack of taking vital wickets with some of the filthiest leg-spin this side of Scott Borthwick.  I can’t stand Michael Clarke’s false bravado and ridiculous captaincy decisions, mistakenly lauded in some quarters as inventiveness.  Every time David Warner flashes speculatively outside the off stump without even considering moving his feet, I want to punch him in the face, and make him say, several times, ‘it is a travesty, nay a scandal, that I have considerably more Test caps than Stuart Law.’

Instead I am searching for reassurance that England’s 5-0 mauling over the winter was not entirely down to English incompetence, but was instead thanks to an outstanding performance by a well-balanced and highly motivated team.  I am still not completely over spending most of November and December quickly checking the score at 3am before enduring several hours of introspection and gloom, interspersed with dreams about Mitchell Johnson’s moustache running off with my girlfriend, while Brad Haddin taunted England by batting with a stick of celery and wearing Boycott’s mum’s pinny.  If Australia could beat South Africa, then the memory of those disturbed nights might start to fade.

And, to be honest, it was quite fun watching a different team getting totally obliterated by Mitchell Johnson’s speed and aggression, while David Warner’s hopeful wafts kept on connecting, ruining Vernon Philander’s career figures.  But, come the second Test I was starting to feel a little uncomfortable – as much as it was satisfying to watch Graeme Smith forced into panicking his wicket away twice, it would be less fun if this was the start of another period of Australian cricket dominance.  What it needed, the right-minded amongst us felt, was a high-class fast bowler in excellent form to expose the Aussie batting line-up as the brittle fraud it is.  Thankfully Dale Steyn reminded us that he is one of the great bowlers of this or indeed any generation, and as a result we have a potentially epic decider on our hands.

As previously discussed, for me it doesn’t matter who wins – an Australian victory will in some way mitigate England’s shambolic performance, while if South Africa win, then, let’s face it, Australia will have lost, which is always enjoyable.  I’m looking forward to being able to follow some sport in an entirely non-partisan way. 

 

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England face crunch Ashes fortnight

The next two test matches in Adelaide and Perth will decide the fate of the Ashes urn.  If England can make it to Melbourne on Boxing Day level pegging then there is all to play for.  If Australia can win either test then they trophy will more than likely be staying down-under for the next couple of years.  After the aberration in Brisbane, England need to bounce back and fast.  They were out-gunned and meek in the face of an hostile and, at times, overly aggressive Australian team.  The Jonathan Trott issue has also been an unwelcome distraction.  These coming weeks will show what this England team is truly made of.

            The first test was a bit of a disaster on all fronts.  England’s bowlers did brilliantly to reduce Australia to 100-5 in the first innings but then they allowed them to reach 295, with the last four wickets putting on over 150.  Conversely, England were 82-2, yet Michael Clarke went for the jugular and with the help of some surprisingly accurate bowling from Mitchell Johnson (surely he can’t keep it up), bowled them out for 136.  This is where the contrast between Alastair Cook’s more measured captaincy approach and Clarke’s gung-ho attitude is most apparent.  If Cook had really gone for it, England could have bowled the Aussies out for under 200 and been in the game.  As it was, he let the game drift and gambled on waiting for the new ball before making more inroads.  It was not unreasonable for him to expect the batsmen to post a respectable first-innings score (which they most certainly didn’t) but Cook’s leadership was reactive rather than proactive.  A great captain takes the game by the scruff of the neck and imposes his game-plan on the situation.  Cook doesn’t take too many risks and while that has served England well during his tenure, when chances arrive, he must take them immediately.  Failure to do so results in catch-up cricket and thus, the kind of insipid performances witnessed in Brisbane.

            Part of England’s problem in the first test was the back-up bowling to Anderson and Broad.  Tremlett (as I predicted in this blog, not two months previous) is not the bowler he was three years ago.  His pace has dropped and he doesn’t have the zip and troublesome bounce which was so effective on the previous tour in 2010/11.  When Broad and Anderson were taken out of the attack you could see the pressure lift because while Tremlett was not necessarily overly expensive, he rarely bowled the sort of probing, wicket-taking deliveries for which he is renowned.  Swann was uncharacteristically out of sorts too.  He failed to create pressure by sealing up an end, instead being the brunt of many a Mitchell Johnson biff in the first innings.  In the second innings he went for more than five an over which, from 27 overs, is embarrassing.  If England are to have any success in the coming fortnight he needs to get his mojo back fairly pronto.

            So the England selectors face a bit of a headache.  Who is going to replace Trott?  And something clearly needs to change in the bowling department.  I personally would go for Gary Balance to bat at number 6.  He hasn’t exactly set the tour alight with runs yet but he has a very solid technique and he doesn’t seem to have a weakness against the short ball (unlike Johnny Bairstow) and he had an impressive end to the county season.  Ben Stokes is not quite ready for this level and with the form that Prior is currently in, the batting needs as much depth as possible.  There has been talk of pushing Ian Bell up the order but why?  He has been England’s form batsman this year at No. 5.  The old ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ adage springs to mind.  Joe Root should move up the order to 3.  He has experience as a Test opener and has scored runs there so shouldn’t be fazed.

For the bowlers, I would pick Tim Bresnan.  He is a big gamble, especially as he is returning from injury and only has one two-day match under his belt.  However he lengthens the tail and brings a measure of control to the bowling attack.  He is an impressive exponent of the art of reverse swing but can also play a bit of chin music if required.  If Bresnan isn’t fit then Steven Finn has to come into the team.  Yes he leaks runs like a tap but he also has a knack of taking regular wickets (often with abysmal deliveries).  Tremlett simply isn’t an international-class bowler anymore and Boyd Rankin is too inconsistent with his length.  Why he was picked ahead of Graham Onions I will never fathom.  England are crying out for someone with Onions’ potency with ball in hand.  There seems to be this idea that because Australian pitches are bouncy, England must play their tallest fast bowlers.  Bollocks.  At the risk of sounding like Sir Geoffrey, you don’t take many wickets with bouncers, even in Australia.  It is still the corridor of uncertainty which is the key to bowling success, whatever the conditions.  Yes it’s a good surprise tactic to set up a batsman but if it’s a stock strategy then batsmen just sit on the back foot and pick off the short balls.  Onions has the speed to throw in the odd bouncer but is an awkward customer because he is a very skiddy bowler, complementing both Broad and Anderson.  I think he is still on stand-by somewhere in the Southern Hemisphere (South Africa maybe) and England should send out an SOS call to him sooner rather than later.  If they wait any longer the Ashes may already be gone.  There are rumours abound that Monty Panesar is under serious consideration for Adelaide.  Panesar is an effective bowler and it would not be a bad option if England played two spinners but then that leaves a heavy workload on Anderson and Broad without any other seam-bowling options in the team.  He may still be in line for a recall if England continue their worrying slide towards ignominy.

            I will still pop on the old TMS at midnight tonight but it will be with the unfamiliar feeling (or familiar to those who remember the dark days of the 90’s and early 00’s) of trepidation.  England’s sudden ability to collapse at the slightest tremor and their inability to reach a total of 400 in their first innings does not fill me with any assurance.  Part of me thinks England can’t be as bad as in Brisbane and Australia won’t be as good.  Part of me expects that Mitchell Johnson will revert back to his old erratic self again.  Part of me hopes that Ryan Harris’ dodgy hamstring delivers a timely return.  But the current England team does not exactly breed confidence, so when I turn on the radio tonight to listen to Aggers’ dulcet tones, it will in hope rather than expectation.

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.

England should go for the jugular

So far, so good Ashes-wise.  Two games, two victories, and everybody of an English persuasion is happy.  We’ve even had some history-making moments.  We have had a record score by a number 11 batsman; we have had a record 10th wicket partnership; we have had a truly outstanding delivery to dismiss the opposition’s captain and main batsman (Anderson to Clarke at Trent Bridge); we have had a bollock-clenchingly close finish; and we have had a hilariously brutal spanking.  Yet, there are some who claim to feel a particular emotion that is utterly alien to almost every English cricket fan; that of sympathy towards the Aussies.

This was most notable at the end of Australia’s first innings at Trent Bridge.  Ashton Agar had just been dismissed for 98 in his debut innings, an astonishing effort as everyone acknowledges.  However, you could hear murmurs of ‘isn’t it a shame that the poor lad didn’t make his century.  I wouldn’t have begrudged him an extra two runs.’  Excuse me?  This lad has just contributed to a stand which may very well have taken the first test away from England.  From a position of impregnability, we are now staring down the barrel of a 70 run deficit after the first innings.  We want him out as soon as possible.  Every run may be crucial.

There is something in the British psyche that looks down on winning too easily.  Drumming home one’s obvious advantage is seen as vulgar, not the done thing.  We root for the underdog, and often fail to acknowledge sheer sporting class because we are too busy sympathising with the loser.  For example, following this year’s women’s Wimbledon final, most reports concentrated on the collapse of Sabine Lisicki’s form, rather than praising Marion Bartoli for her high-class, tactically prefect play.  This may have something to do with the relative attractiveness of the two players, which is a different issue entirely (for more information write to J Inverdale Esq, BBC Sport, Chauvinism Place, Misogyny Road, I’m-no-looker-myself-ville), but also displays the British fixation with a plucky, but tearful loser over a deserved winner.

In reference to the cricket, any supporter who has lived through the barren years of 1989 to 2005 is not going to feel sorry for the Aussies in a hurry.  The first Ashes series I was aware of was the 1989 fiasco which, to my mind, seemed mainly to consist of Steve Waugh scoring runs, and Graham Gooch getting out to Terry Alderman.  England fielded 29 different players in that series, including such luminaries as Phil Newport, Tim Curtis and John Stephenson.  Between 1991 and 2005, the following players have played Test cricket for England against Australia: Eddie Hemmings, Martin McCague, Mike Smith, Warren Hegg, Ian Ward, Jimmy Ormond, Richard Dawson.  In the same period Australia have had the following selection dilemmas: which Waugh twin to play (1991); Michael Slater or Matthew Hayden (1993); which fast bowler out of McGrath, Gillespie, Reiffel or Kasprowicz to leave out (1997); Ricky Ponting or Michael Bevan (also 1997); Michael Slater or Justin Langer (2001); how are we possibly going to deal with the loss of Shane Warne, oh well better call up Stuart MacGill I suppose (2003); is our batting line-up strong enough to ignore Brad Hodge, Stuart Law, Matthew Elliott, Jamie Cox, Michael Hussey, Darren Lehmann and Michael Di Venuto (most series from 1997 onwards – the answer’s yes by the way).  Given the disparity in quality and selection policy between the two teams for 16 long, predictable years, I am certainly not about to offer up any sympathy towards this current Aussie outfit.  Keep your metaphorical foot on their metaphorical throat is my message to the England team.  And don’t worry about the metaphorical bit.

The Ashes

What a weekend for British sport; and it’s about to get a whole lot better.  If anything can top the Murray/Lions euphoria, 22 men from England and Australia playing for a comedy, pint-sized urn can.  With more thrills and spills than Michael Barrymore’s Christmas party, this series has already had more than its fair share of controversies – and a ball hasn’t even been bowled yet.  Many so called ‘experts’ are predicting an easy England victory but this blog (always 100% accurate with its predictions) isn’t so sure.

 

            On the face of it, the Australian cricket team is in absolute turmoil.  They sacked their coach, Mickey Arthur, two weeks ago; one of their batsmen (David Warner) punched an England player (Joe Root) in a nightclub and was banned from playing in the warm-up matches; and when they played India, earlier this year (whom England beat 2-1 just before Christmas) they got absolutely hammered 4-0.  The Aussies also suspended four of their players for failing to do their homework on the India tour.  So far, so good from an England perspective.

 

            The reality is not necessarily so rosy.  Australia have appointed ex-batsman Darren Lehmann as their new coach which is something of a masterstroke.  Unlike the draconian Arthur, Lehmann is a people’s person from the old-school, someone who will encourage and galvanise the side and this makes them potentially very dangerous.  Lehmann will install some stereotypical hard Aussie grit back into the team and make them very hard to beat.  The tourists may not be as technically gifted as England but you can bet your bottom Australian dollar that Lehmann will extract every last drop of determination out of his side.  The mental side of sport is too often ignored, but in this case it can and probably will make a big difference to the Australian side England will face on Wednesday and the side they faced in the Champions Trophy four weeks ago.

 

            Australia have the luxury of the world’s best batsman, captain Michael Clarke, in their ranks  Since the beginning of 2012 he has been a run machine, scoring four Test double-centuries (one of them was a triple century) in a single calendar year.  Clarke’s back has been playing up a bit recently but if he’s fully fit, England will have a serious job on their hands shifting him.  Supporting their captain will be Chris Rogers and Shane Watson.  Rogers is very much a horses for courses selection who has excelled for years in English domestic cricket.  Watson has oodles of talent but in 75 innings for the Baggy Greens, he only has two centuries to his name.  At 32 it is now or never for the broad-chested all-rounder and Australia will need him to improve on his current record.

 

            Much has been written about the vaunted England attack but there has been relatively little said about the Australian bowlers.  Ryan Harris, Peter Siddle and Mitchell Starc all have the armoury to excel in English conditions, and James Pattison and James Faulkner in particular look like very promising seamers.  Starc could be the trump card for the Aussies.  He is a handy lower-order batsman and crucially bowls left-arm fast.  Another left-armer, New Zealand’s Trent Boult, caused serious problems for the England batting order earlier this year and Starc will try to exploit that weakness.  Siddle also has had success in English conditions, taking 20 wickets in the 2009 series.  His consistency, pace and aggression is bound to trouble the English batsmen this summer.  The current weather could in fact negate their impact and may in fact play into England’s hands.  The hosts are more experienced in these drier conditions.  James Anderson is a master of reverse-swing and also bowls brilliant cutters when the ball is not doing much.  The Australians are yet to prove they can bowl effectively in batsman-friendly conditions.

 

            That is not to suggest that the Australian bowlers won’t get opportunities.  I have felt for some time that England’s batting order is a little too brittle and recently they have failed to post the sort of imposing first innings totals that were commonplace between 2009 and 2011.  England have two relative newcomers in the top six (Root and Jonny Bairstow) who will no doubt come in for some special treatment during the series.  They Yorkshire pair have both had impressive starts to their test careers but nothing can prepare them for the intensity of series against the old enemy.  The decision to open with Root is certainly a bold move – one that represents England’s faith and confidence in the 22 year-old.  Both their performances could well be a deciding factor in the destination of the urn.

 

            One area England do have a significant advantage is in the spin department.  Since his début in 2008, Graeme Swann has risen to become one of, if not the best spin bowler in the world.  The likeable Nottinghamshire man has the ability to bowl in all conditions be it in a containing capacity or as a wicket-taker.  With all due respect to Australia’s Nathan Lyon, England’s top-6 are hardly going to be having nightmares about his off-spin.  In a move that smacks of desperation, Australia have called up newly qualified native, Fawad Ahmed into their A squad who are also touring England this summer but he has barely played any first-class cricket, let alone test cricket.  Even if he does get called up, I find it hard to believe that he will immediately become some sort of world-beater.

           

            On paper, England have a far stronger team.  Their batting is superior to Australia’s, the seamers and spinner are more experienced and England have a wonderful wicket-keeper/batsman in Matt Prior.  But cricket matches are rarely, if ever, won on paper.  This Australian side is dangerous; they have absolutely nothing to lose.  They have a new coach who will have boosted morale no end and if the key players perform, like Clarke, Shane Watson, Siddle and Starc, and England aren’t at their best, the Aussies have more than just a chance of victory.  All this talk of England winning 5-0 is complete nonsense.  It will be a lot closer than that.  The series will be won during two or three key sessions.  Whoever performs when it matters most will be lifting the little urn at the Oval in late August.  I hope (and think) it will be England but you can unfortunately never discount the Aussies.