Origin 2016: Are The Blues On The Precipice Of Starting A Dynasty Of Their Own?

Youthful exuberance will wear blue on Wednesday night, as Laurie Daley’s new look lineup seeks to turn the tide on a decade of Maroon dominance.

A number of pejorative overtones have been associated with the NSW side since its announcement last week, with critics quick to write off their chances against a seasoned Maroons side.

Amongst the perpetual angst that invariably aligns itself with the beginning of a new origin series, is concern over the inexperience of the Blues side.

No doubt Laurie had one eye firmly fixed on the future when he sat down to select his best seventeen. The changing of the guard as far as NSW are concerned is very much upon us.

The baby blue’s new look spine will feature two Origin debutants in Moylan and Reynolds, alongside veteran hooker Robbie Farah and recalled James Maloney.

If NSW are to challenge, or indeed win this origin series, heavy scrutiny must be placed on the kicking game of the halves.

In the past, field position has been forfeited by NSW through poor fifth tackle kick options. The Origin decider last year, which saw the Blues go down 52-6, was played almost exclusively in Queensland’s half.

Maloney and Reynolds must avoid recreating the mistakes made by Pearce and Hodkinson in last years trouncing, by producing penetrating last tackle kicks that force Queensland to start their sets inside their own red zone. This will eliminate the opportunity for Cronk or Thurston to produce an attacking kick and reduce the influence of Oates and Inglis in attacking field position on the left edge.

Given NSW’ fallible right edge defence, which was exposed during game three last year, it’s imperative that NSW limit Queensland’s time in possession in attacking territory.

NSW’s right edge defence would have looked quite fragile had Dugan lined up alongside his old mate Ferguson, and not been ruled out with an elbow injury at the weekend.

Morris’ inclusion adds stability to the defensive unit on the right wing, which would have appeared quite inexperienced without him.

Both Reynolds and Maloney have shown a propensity to take the line on in club football this year. This trend must continue if they are to tire out the Queensland defensive line and improve NSW’ go forward. The way they combine with the likes of Woods and Gallen off the back of quick play-the-balls will dictate the meters NSW gain from a set of six.

It’s no secret Origin contests are won through field position and possession, the refurbished halves combination holds the key to unlocking both of these for NSW.

If they can exploit the chinks in the impervious Queensland defensive armory, it will go a long way towards winning them the series.

Dylan Walkers selection as a bench utility tends to boggle the mind, his form at five-eight this year for Manly hardly warrants a rep cap. He is the only blemish on what can be described as a typically adaptable, sizable, defensive minded bench. Jackson Bird and Bryce Cartwright should consider themselves unlucky to have missed out on playing in the utility role.

Negatives aside, Walker has multiple strings to his bow that will serve him well in a blue jumper. His speed may well open the game up if he is injected into the contest during the last twenty minutes. Queensland’s forward pack will be beginning to tire by this stage, leaving open pasture down the middle of the ground for him to take advantage of.

Although he can play in a number of different positions, replacing Farah at hooker appears to be the most logical application of his speed. He will reinvigorate NSW’s go forward in the closing stages through quick darts out of dummy-half from around a tiring ruck.

His biggest challenge will be rivaling the class of his opposite number in Michael Morgan, who has proved difficult to contain late in Origin contests (pending Cronk’s injury).

Robbie Farah is another questionable selection as far as form is concerned. Having missed a total of six games this season for his club side, there are questions over whether or not he’s the right man for the job.

I can’t help but think that Farah is an exponent of the ‘loyalty program’ that Laurie Daley appears to have in place across certain positions within the blues side. Past performance doesn’t necessarily indicate future prosperity; the job should be entrusted to the player who has shown the best form in the lead up to Origin.

Michael Ennis’ form for the Sharks has far exceeded Robbie Farah’s contributions to the Tigers. The hallmark of his game in 2016 is his ability to link up with the big men close to the line. This coupled with his impeccable goal-line defence, and short kicking game is why he’s ranked even third on the Dally M leaderboard, and why in an alternate universe he’d have the number nine on his back come Wednesday night.

An inherent attribute of a NSW side is a strong pack. Some would even argue they are the lynchpins of the NSW side. The experience of Gallen and Woods in the front row will be asked to make plenty of runs throughout the game on Wednesday night, and lead the direction of the NSW attack.

The performance of the pack should also be judged on their ability to negate second phase football that Queensland will use as a tactic to disorganize the NSW defence and generate attacking opportunities.

Miscommunication between defenders has in the past allowed the likes of Corey Parker and Matt Scott to get an arm free and offload the football, causing the defence to slide in-field to compensate for missing defenders. This leaves an overlap on the edges for Inglis, Oates, O’Neill and Gagai to exploit.

For the young debutants in the side, half the battle will be getting over the nerves of a monumental occasion in their Rugby League careers.

NSW can claim the Maroons players are on borrowed time in the rep arena, but unless they show this through their performances, Queensland will continue to dominate them come the beginning of winter each year.

Nathan Peats – A New Beginning

Four weeks ago, Nathan Peats was touted as a smoky to replace Robbie Farah in the Blues number nine jumper. A month later, he’s the fall guy for the mismanagement of an inept board.

Despite the turbulence and injustices of the last few weeks, Peats churned out a stellar performance for his new club, helping them to a four-point win over competition heavyweights Penrith at the foot of the mountains on Sunday.

 After spending a brief period in the back row, the benching of Nathan Friend shortly before half time allowed Peats to return to his traditional role at dummy-half.

In his fifty-eight minutes on the ground, Peats made fourty-two tackles in a typically prolific defensive display. However, it was his attacking prowess that took center stage.

In the sixty-fourth minute, he burrowed his way underneath two Penrith defenders off the back of a Greg Bird play-the-ball to score a crucial try and regain score-line parity for the Titans.

His short runs out of dummy half during the second stanza caught the tired Penrith big men out of position, allowing the Gold Coast forwards to access open pasture off the back of quick play-the-balls. Bird and James both profited from Peats’ presence, running for 116 and 120 meters respectively.

His performance was bittersweet justice on two fronts.

Since their inception, the Gold Coast has struggled to lure star players to the club. Cherry-Evans’ backflip on a deal in July last year left a void in the halves, an issue that was further compounded by the subsequent injury to Kane Elgey, and departure of Aiden Sezer to the Canberra Raiders.

Ironically, through their absence, they’ve uncovered a future star halfback in Ashley Taylor.

If a positive is to be drawn from the unfortunate circumstances of the Peats move to the glitter strip, it’s that he will remain steadfast in a blue, gold and white jumper till at least the end of 2017, becoming one of the Gold Coast’s bigger marque signings since Scott Prince.

For the Titans, having an experienced head in the hooking role after Nathan Friend’s contract with the Titans expires at the end of this year, is crucial in developing its young spine.

Taylor, Elgey and Roberts will all benefit from Nathan Peats’ match awareness, which, despite him being just 25 years old, is amongst the most finely tuned in the competition.

The only negative I can see for the Gold Coast is that Peats is among four other hookers currently contracted to the Titans. Fortunately, he has plenty of experience playing in the backrow, particularly at lock, from his time at the Rabbitohs and can play in that position if circumstances require him to.

For Peats personally, the game against the Panthers signaled the start of a new chapter in his Rugby League career.

Despite the perceived silver linings, I still resent the circumstances in which Peats and Parramatta parted ways.

Just last year he played thirty-six minutes against the Roosters with a broken neck, toughing it out for his teammates and the pride he had in the jumper. It speaks volumes about the toughness of Peats, both mentally and physically, and the commitment he has to a team and its players.

His selflessness is a hallmark of the way he plays Rugby League.

When he became the sacrificial lamb to cure Parramatta’s salary cap deficit of $570,000, the comradery and mateship forged between him and his Parramatta teammates through two and a half seasons in the blue and gold was prematurely and unjustly relinquished.

It’s disappointing that in an age where cynicism and large paychecks trump club loyalty, that the one player who embodies fidelity is moved on through the ineptitude of an imprudent hierarchy.

Despite all this, Nathan Peats is a crusader for modern generation footballers. Upon learning his fate following the salary cap debacle, he had every right to feel betrayed by the administrators and the club, but his diplomatic responses to the media’s enquiries over his treatment is a testament to his character.

Instead of blaming others, Peats handled himself with the utmost dignity, acknowledging that Rugby League is a ‘business’, and remained optimistic about a new start on the Gold Coast.

I hope for both he and the Titans sake that karma takes its course, and they continue their ascendancy towards the top eight and beyond in season 2016.

England V Sri Lanka Series Preview 2016

An appetite for test cricket has grown significantly over its three-month hiatus.

AB de Villiers exploits and King Kohli’s dominance on the IPL stage for RCB have made for regular headlines over the past few months, yet it’s the guile and resolve under late-May skies on a green seamer that a seasoned cricket fan has for months yearned for.

The World T20 is now all but a distant memory for England, who turn to the games most classical format seeking redemption for the final over heartbreak of a Carlos Brathwaite masterstroke.

Sri Lanka on the other hand, will head into the first test at Headingley today hoping to replicate the feats of the 2014 series, which saw them triumph convincingly over the hosts in all three formats.

It’s worth mentioning at this stage that the series will be decided by an ECB initiative, which sees all sides; Sri Lanka, Pakistan and England, accrue points across the three formats throughout the summer.

These points are then tallied up and attributed to an aggregate total that will decide who hoists the trophy at the conclusion of the tour.

Sri Lanka –

The absence of Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sanagakkarra from the score sheet will likely prevent any hopes Sri Lanka has of recreating its 2014 fairytale.

Sri Lanka drew both its tour matches against county sides Essex and Leicestershire, and will confront one of the more difficult batting wickets in England during the first test.

An inexperienced top order will be tasked with combating a Jimmy Anderson in-swinger and the seam movement of Stuart Broad on a deck synonymous for assisting fast bowlers, particularly during spring.

Karunaratne and likely Headingly debutant Shanaka were the only Sri Lankan’s to score hundreds in the two game series leading up to the first test.

Perhaps more concerning was the fact that on both occasions the Sri Lankans were heavily outscored by their opposition.

In the case of Essex, a side currently sitting atop the table in the second division, Sri Lanka managed just 254 batting first, before a Tom Westley – Jaik Mickleburgh master class saw Essex pile on 412 for the loss of just four wickets.

I’m not sure whether that says more about Sri Lanka’s batting or bowling.

Though, Sri Lanka can take inspiration from what New Zealand did to England in their last start at Headingley.

Tasked with 455 for victory, Mark Craig and Kane Williamson took a combined six wickets on the final day to draw the two match series and send England into the Ashes with their tails between their legs.

Sri Lankan spinners Siriwardana and Herath will be buoyed by Headingley’s propensity to turn during the last few days.

The two games played at the venue so far this season in the championship, however, have proved ineffective for spinners.

On just one occasion, in the second innings between Yorkshire and Surrey just over a week ago, did a spinner make their mark on the wickets column.

That was Joe Root, claiming the wickets of Kumar Sangakkarra and Steven Davies on the final day.

Adil Rashid is yet to take a wicket for Yorkshire at Headingley this season.

England –

Barely a series goes by without hearing about the English top order and its vacillation.

As Cook approaches yet another milestone wearing the three lions, all eyes will be firmly fixed on his accomplice, Alex Hales.

Having averaged just seventeen in eight innings during England’s triumph over South Africa, Hales’ development as an opening batsman will be an intriguing sub plot to keep an eye on throughout the summer.

Nick Compton is another player who will be scrutinised over every ball he faces against Sri Lanka.

In his first home series since his return to the English side last year, Compton will have the likes of Alex Lyth, Gary Balance and Sam Robson chomping at his heels to get back into the side.

This series should prove a pivotal one in the outcome of his future in an England shirt, his exodus could come as soon as July against Pakistan if he fails to upkeep or improve his current Test Match average of 31.47.

I have no doubt the class player he is, that he will be able to achieve this.

Look no further than Yorkshire duo Joe Root and Jonny Bairstow, alongside Captain Cook, as the top run scorers in this series.

So far in the championship Cook has amassed 523 runs in seven innings, while Jonny Bairstow (533 runs in six innings) and Joe Root (240 runs in 3 innings) have both made a memorable start to the season.

England had one of the most successful years of any of the test playing nations last year, winning two series and drawing another.

Their only loss came in a tedious series against Pakistan in the UAE, where spin bowling unsurprisingly proved somewhat of a Kryptonite for the England batting lineup.

Their triumph over South Africa on their own turf comes to mind as the most memorable of England’s 2015/16 victories, and highlights England’s strong reliance on their bowling stocks, in particular, their swing and seam bowlers.

They showed what a force they can be on green-tops both at home and away bowling Australia out for 60 and South Africa for 83 in the same year.

If Sri Lanka is to have any hope in claiming victory, their biggest challenge will undoubtedly be their rearguard action against swing and seam and the way they utilise those conditions themselves through Matthews and Shanaka.

Could King Kohli Reach The Heights Of The Little Master?

In front of a set of makeshift stumps along the river Ganges, a young Indian boy emulates a lofted Kohli cover drive.

His bat hardly resembles the prepossessing sight of Kohli’s MRF, yet the ball whizzes away with consummate ease down toward the final step of the Ghat.

Ten years ago, Sachin’s straight drive was practiced across India. Now, Kohli’s mesmerising footwork is intricately choreographed on the living room rug of a home in Bengaluru.

Admiration of a cricketer is only gained through performance. And Kohli’s cult following, much like the little master, is a corollary of his batsmanship.

My first memory of the indisputable talent of Virat Kohli came at Hobart in 2012. Requiring a win to keep the series alive against Sri Lanka, Kohli hit an unbeaten 133 from just 86 deliveries in an Indian batting performance that, at the halfway stage, showed little promise in delivering a victory.

He treated the Sri Lankan bowling like fodder. Angelo Matthew’s slower balls found the middle of his bat while his wrists made light work of Malinga’s yorkers through the leg side.

His salute to the dressing room upon scoring his hundred was as much a tribute as a coming of age.

He rarely fails in delivering an innings that makes your jaw gape with amazement and leave you utterly perplexed.

Sunday’s innings against Gujarat, which happened to align itself with Sachin’s birthday, was one of these. It made me think, who will have left the biggest impression on Indian Cricket come the conclusion of Kohli’s playing career.

Both Kohli and Sachin are undisputable marksman of the One Day formats, yet statistics tend to suggest that Kohli, at the same stage in their careers, is more prolific. In 171 matches Kohli has scored 7212 runs at an average of 51.51, while the little master at the same point had tallied 5828 runs at an average of 38.85.

There is no comparison in the test arena. Sachin’s 15,921 runs came in 329 innings at an average of 53.79. Kohli is averaging just 42.02 in tests with a run aggregate of 2994 in 72 innings, laudable but not nearly as prolific. His test stats draw more parallels with the likes of Gautam Gambir, who in 100 innings scored 4046 runs at an average of 42.58.

“He rarely fails in delivering an innings that makes your jaw gape with amazement and leave you utterly perplexed”.

Of course this is taken from a purely statistical viewpoint and hence doesn’t consider the opposition, time period nor the quality of the wickets played on. Kohli never got to face Wasim Akram and Shoaib Akhtar in their prime. For the most part of his career Sachin didn’t have to quickly swap between a five game Test Match series and a T20 tournament.

Kohli’s batting style is more debonair, the cricketing equivalent of a hip-hop routine, whereas Sachin possessed elegance and touch that could have been ripped straight from the textbook.

Kholi is an enigma in the field who drives around in an Audi R8, and probably owns fifty of them. Sachin gets around in a more conservative Nissan GT-R, aptly nicknamed the Godzilla for its ability to get from 0-100 in 2.9 seconds, somewhat akin to his run scoring.

Gee, now i’m really clutching at straws to establish relevant similarities.

It’s anyone’s guess as to who will have scored more runs at the end of Kohli’s career. But runs don’t necessarily translate into the definition of ‘India’s Best Batsman’. They should ultimately be judged on their cricketing footprint. That is, who will the fans reminisce over more when a new generation of Indian cricketers come along.

Have your say here:

@roundthe_wicket on twitter.

BBL: 80,000 Reaffirms T20 Popularity in Australia.

Five years ago, with the BBL in its infancy, Cricket Australia could only have dreamed of seeing 80,000 fans file into the MCG to see two Melbourne sides go at it hammer and tong. With the state v state concept beginning to wane, the Bash was lacking its all-important prefix. Games were played out in front of empty grandstands while T20 leagues around the world started to gather considerable momentum. Australian domestic cricket was falling behind.

The consequential shakeup of the Australian domestic T20 competition over the following years was met with an unprecedented reception.

In the midst of its fifth edition since turning franchise, the BBL has become the summers’ biggest hit.

The Big Bash League’s impetuous growth is a testament to the brand created over the past 5 seasons. It has far surpassed the corruption riddled IPL as the world’s number one T20 competition off the back of gripping, entertaining contests.

A modern generation cricket fans’ transient attention is captured by balls sailing into the second tier – or in some cases, Dan Christian, out of the stadium. The 52,000 strong crowd at the Adelaide Oval on NYE were incited by a Travis Head knock that is independent of the T20 format. Individual performances to the tune of 53 in 15 balls are seldom seen in Test and One Day cricket these days.

The NYE game won’t be remembered for the premature fireworks display, but rather the last ditch escapades of Travis Head.

Beyond the commercial benefits of T20, the Big Bash is the ideal breeding ground to christen young cricketers. A franchise based competition pits them against the best Australia and the world have to offer. They have the opportunity to rub shoulders with established imports over a 5-week period gaining an insight into the demands of international cricket.

Amongst other things, it offers exposure to a highly profitable international market where young players can hone their skills in a number of different pro T20 leagues. Becoming accustom to overseas conditions goes a long way to changing the current home-dominated state of international cricket.

Most importantly, raising a cricketer in a hostile arena is ideal in developing the think skinned nature that is a prerequisite for any Australian player. Nothing equips you more than a portly gentleman leaning over the boundary fence and politely telling you how ‘poorly’ your bowling tonight.

Yes, the BBL has uncovered the formula to developing a well-backed, successful competition – one that is fan orientated rather than commercially driven. By mixing cricket with 80’s rock ballads and flamethrowers, the Big Bash brings a festival atmosphere to every night.

Who knows, the BBL may soon rise to become as highly anticipated as the major football codes every year.

Travis Head Spark’s NYE Fireworks Show In Breathtaking BBL Clash

NYE has produced a number of miracles in its time, but none have been more inconceivable than the defiance and utter disregard Travis Head showed the Sixers bowling attack. Sean Abbot’s New Years resolution now pertains more to one of the 10 commandments – thou shall not bowl in the death overs.

The sixers seemingly had the game won with 4 overs remaining. The 46,000 strong crowd condemned to a dull roar. At least that was until Travis Head’s masterful array of T20 stroke play confounded the record-breaking crowd in a display that put on more of a show than the premature fireworks.

When Travis Head strode to the wicket, the Strikers were in a position of relative dominance. Simmons fleeting stint at the crease got the Strikers off to a brisk start, before the cagey Jayawardene played a stroke that would have been more at home on a dusty Pallakele deck. Though, as key wickets continued to tumble through the middle overs, the game looked set for an early finish. As Abbott ran in to deliver the first ball of the 18th over, the Strikers still required 51, in 18 balls. A remote chance considering Head had hit the boundary just four times and was striking at only 118. The first four balls of Abbott’s over went for 20, and Head seemed to conjure striking impetus. Abbott‘s predictable line and length saw him travel over the mid-wicket fence three times in four balls, squandering 27 vital runs. The experience of Bollinger delivered a tidy 19th over with a six off the fourth ball the only significant damage.

A bold move by the Sixers skipper saw Abbott trusted in delivering the final over. A modest 13 needed off 6 deliveries. As the first ball was flicked with ease over square leg for six, Head needing 11 to deliver his first BBL century, the Strikers were destined to end 2015 in the top four. Two more short balls from Abbott were hooked over square leg for six. Head finally becoming the first Striker to make a BBL ton in its 5th edition. Pandemonium ensued.

What a way to usher in the New Year – 2016, we can’t wait!

All ‘Hale’ The Heir To The Throne

Alex Hales looks odds on to take his place alongside captain Cook at the top of the mercurial English top order on Boxing Day despite underwhelming warm-up game form.

The ECB have an ineluctable wish this Christmas – find an opening partner for Cook.

The cricketing public could be forgiven for thinking the English selectors are attempting to stage a cricket version of the Bachelor. Since the egress of Strauss in 2012, the England captain has been through 8 divorces. Compton (twice), Root, Carberry, Robson, Trott, Lyth and Ali have all been shoved into the opening spot on the ill-conceived volition of selectors.

The inclusion of Adam Lyth into the squad for the recently completed Ashes series seemed to be without substantiation, a wing and a prayer selection based on a lack or exhaustion of options. His performances exhibited England’s great deficiency and signaled a crisis seldom discussed by selectors – the epigrammatic life span of cooks opening partners.

The most successful partner post Strauss is a man who is in contention to feature in the First Test on Boxing Day. Ironically, he was also the first to fill the Strauss void – and he didn’t make a hash of it. In fact, he and Cook have been the most prolific opening pair since Strauss’s departure, superseding the short-lived liaison with Michael Vaughan in 2007/08. In 17 innings, Cook and Compton managed 927 runs at 57.93. To supplement these already laudable statistics, their time together was during two series victories away from home.

Compton may have overplayed his hand though. After being dropped in 2013, Compton has plied his trade in division one of the championship for Middlesex with resounding success. In 2014 he averaged 43.68 for Somerset before returning to Middlesex in 2015 where he averaged 38.72. Statistics that put him within the top echelon of talent going round the English domestic scene.

To further Compton’s case, he has the potential to remedy England’s biggest problem – their routine dependence on the middle order – Root, Barstow and formerly Bell. Since his first stint, Compton’s successors have been frail, to say the least, in seeing off the new ball. Just three century stands have been had between Cook and his opening partner in 55 innings since Compton. In 17 innings together, he and Cook managed the same amount.

The first time round – Nick Compton celebrates his first Test Match ton. Picture Copyright Getty Images. 

Despite the fact he will likely feature on Boxing Day, he will doubtingly recuperate his relationship with his ex.

Enter Alex Hales.

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Having burnt through eight openers in three years England turns to the services of Alex Hales, whose presence in the shorter form setups has been habitual yet chiefly unproductive. In 23 ODI innings, Hales averages a modest 25.17 having scored only a single hundred. His statistics aren’t flattering, yet his gung-ho approach to batting may well compliment the English top order. Cook and Root are technicians of the game whose performances flourish off the accumulation of singles. If Hales does face the new ball come the first morning in Durban, his incessant boundary hitting will relieve some of the pressure that has accompanied Cook for the past three years. An attribute that will bode well with selectors for future series.

He wouldn’t be the first T20 connoisseur to chance his hand at the longer form and succeed – case in point – David Warner (4305 runs at 50.64).

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With South Africa in a relative state of flux after their derailment in India, England can pounce on the half eaten carcass and produce a thrilling series victory away from home. Early expectations of this series predict one that will be defined by the small battles; Amla v Cook, du Plessis v Root. Two men that have played a starring role for South Africa over the past several years, Steyn and de Villiers, stand between England and a series victory. If England take India’s lead and contain de Villiers, the trophy may well be travelling cross-country back to England.

Form Guide (Last 5): South Africa – LLDLD

England – LLDLW

Prediction: South Africa 2-0