Ashes Daily – To follow-on or not to follow-on: that is the question.

Embed from Getty Images

England have been behind the eight ball since Joe Root won the toss and decided to bowl four days ago, but if England go on to win tomorrow the question on everybody’s lips will be ‘gee, I wonder if the result would be different had Smith enforced the follow-on’.

At face value Smith’s decision to bat again after dismissing the fragile English batting line-up makes sense.

The seamers had already bowled 76 overs and when you are carrying just three fast bowlers and a sole spinner through a five-match test series it is wise to give them a rest when the opportunity presents itself.

But consider the message enforcing the follow-on would’ve sent to England, who were bowled out for just 227 after seeing Australia pile on double that in a day and a half.

Had they been sent straight back in while the memories of the first innings carnage were fresh in the mind, England’s batsmen would’ve been low on confidence rather than buoyed by the possibility of a history-defying win for the ages stemming from impeccable swing and seam bowling.

No batsmen at any level enjoys batting after a failure in the first innings because the pressure is on to avoid back-to-back low scores.

Fall cheaply twice in a test match and all of a sudden your career hangs by a thread.

You begin to question facets of your game and technique that were once completed without question while rumours swirl in the press of a likely replacement for the next match.

Four of England’s top 5 failed to go past 20 in England’s first innings; three of those are finding their way in test cricket and, had they been put back in on the evening of day three and dismissed cheaply once again, it might have set the tone for the remainder of the series.

Where is our next run coming from? How can we score over 300 against these bowlers?

Our next game is at the WACA – we could get rolled for 100.

Australia’s bowlers would’ve looked more like the formidable West Indian attack of the nineties and the mind games that are so important in the Ashes would’ve set a cat amongst the pigeons in the English camp, potentially leading to further Overton-esque changes.

By electing to bat again, Smith has inadvertently given up Australia’s stranglehold on both the test match and the series.

All of a sudden the English don’t fear the Australian quicks, while the batsmen, who were previously infallible in their home conditions, are as human as the rest of us after all.

Cracks begin to form in the Australian batting ranks and before you know it the pressure is right back on them to avoid a loss to the old enemy on home soil.

If you need evidence of this, look no further than Peter Handscomb who could find himself out of the side if Australia goes down tomorrow.

Had Smith enforced the follow-on, Handscomb walks away with a score of 36 – assuming, of course, that Australia weren’t required to bat again – and is automatically retained for the third test at the WACA.

A loss under such circumstances, however, shines a spotlight on technical deficiencies that are swept under the rug when a side goes through a series unbeaten.

Smith’s decision has further ramifications that can’t necessarily be quantified. England have gained confidence in their ability to dismiss the Australians, and, if they complete the job tomorrow, their batting is capable of what can only be described as a statistical impossibility.

A stat was flashed up on Channel Nine’s telecast today. It detailed the highest run chases in test history at the Adelaide Oval.

The last side to chase down a score over 300 was way back in the early 1900’s when wickets were uncovered and every delivery sent down by the opposition quicks was a  potential landmine.

If a side can do it in these conditions, it can’t be difficult to replicate such a feat on an artificially concocted drop-in wicket.

Even if the visitors fail, they have been given a huge leg up by a decision that could well decide the path this series takes.

What’s in store for Australia’s junior brigade during the forthcoming clash with Pakistan

There will be plenty of minor sub plots for the cricketing community to sink their teeth into when the First test against Pakistan roles into Brisbane on Thursday. There’s the ongoing saga involving former Australian coach Mickey Arthur, and the discontent that continues to bottle up over the terms in which he and Australia parted ways, despite the fact that his axing can now be filed under ancient history. He’s now a bona fide and respected member of the Pakistan team who added a notch to his belt earlier this year when he coached the side to number one in the world. A remarkable feat for a man who was thrown out of his last major gig to a resounding ‘hurrah’ from the playing group and cricket board. Many felt that he was the source of dressing room disharmony, which makes his rise to prominence from the ashes of the wreckage that was his career all the more impressive. But his major goal would surely be to give Australia a dose of their own medicine and earn back a hint of the respectability he lost following the homework-gate saga. What better place to do it than on their home soil, in front of their home fans, during a period in which they are at their most vulnerable.

Mickey Arthur, Photo: The Indian Express

There’s also the curious case of Mohammad Amir – the comeback kid who has been put through the wringer on the road back to the national team following his involvement in a spot fixing scandal that occurred during Pakistan’s tour to England in 2010. He’s come along way since we first saw him back then as a meek, baby faced fast bowling prodigy being put behind bars alongside his captain and mentor in a cruel twist of fate that continues to divide the cricketing public. He might prove to be the thorn in Australia’s side, as he was the last time Pakistan let him loose on an Australian batting order.

That was 2010, and if he can find the form we’ve witnessed so far on his come back tour, which has seen him travel to England and then to the UAE for a series against the West Indies, this could be a break-out series which sees him reassume the mantle as one of the worlds most revered young fast bowlers. It was that way before he was led astray by the most influential figure in his young adult life, and he might well have his name up in lights for the second time in this soap-opera of a career if he can lead Pakistan to victory in arguably their biggest challenge since they humbled England in August.

For the Australian side, this series couldn’t take on any greater importance. They are the walking wounded who made the call for reinforcements a few weeks back and have been reaping the rewards ever since. But the young side remain as vulnerable as they were before their all important initiation in Adelaide, and their inexperience could well lead to their downfall if they are suddenly thrust behind the eight ball. How will an inexperienced middle order react to being 3/35 under lights with Pakistan’s opening bowlers swinging the ball around corners as the did in their tour match against the CAXI.

IMG_1259.JPG
The Gabba will be the venue for the first encounter between Australia and Pakistan.

There was a sense of beginners luck – which stemmed directly from the exuberance of youth – about the test win in Adelaide. The side had nothing to loose having already been handed their backsides in Hobart and any further losses would have simply been a continuation of recent trends, and hence, nothing for the public to cry foul about. But Australia have managed to steady the ship and they now must live up to their newly forged expectations by beating a side that looks fatigued and gun-shy after four months of globetrotting. The batting order had little answer to what the New Zealand bowling attack threw at them on the green seamers at Hagley Oval and Seddon Park. By comparison, Australia have an experienced and finely tuned new ball pairing, wickets with pace and bounce at their disposal and showed one again in the recently completed Chappell Hadlee series that their seamers are a class above New Zealand’s. If they can’t deliver with the ball and their volatile batting falters, Pakistan will take advantage of their shortcomings and they will quickly return to the position they found themselves in at the beginning of the summer.

I’ll be visiting the ground on days one and two and will report back with photos and a brief report at stumps.

Gabba test snubbing nigh if day/ night test fails to make waves

Brisbane’s iconic Gabba could be on the receiving end of a test match snubbing as early as 2018 if it fails to churn out a respectable crowd for next week’s first test between Australia and Pakistan.

The Gabba has come under scrutiny from the game’s governing body over its poor attendance records in recent years, and has had to stave off bids from interstate rivals to keep its status as a test match venue alive.

When the ground hosts its first ever day/ night test match next week, all eyes will be on the Brisbane locals to see if this once trivial idea, which looks to now be a staple on the test match calendar following two successful stints in Adelaide, will be enough to stir up interest and keep the Gabba in contention for hosting rights of the summer’s first test match.

IMG_1252.JPG
The trans-tasman test of 2015 saw just 52,199 people pass through the GABBA gates 

Scheduling has proven to be a major factor in the ground’s recent dwindling attendance figures, with last year’s first test against New Zealand coming just day’s after the Melbourne Cup.

But the Gabba has no excuses when the first day’s play rolls around in mid-December, and you get the feeling that this is the ground’s last chance to prove it is entitled to a test match each season.

CA gifted Brisbane with a day/ night test earlier this year upon unveiling the seasons schedule in the hope that it would rejuvenate the cities ostensible flagging interest in test match cricket.

The venue has pulled out all the stocks since, upgrading the light towers and installing a boundary-side pool deck to attract a new type of audience, while early ticket sales suggest that this might just be the Gabba’s opportunity to remove itself from CA’s cross-heirs until at least the series following the 2017/18 Ashes.

If it cannot achieve the kind of crowds expected by CA, having been given every opportunity to shine, it can say goodbye to continuing its legacy as Australia’s first test venue – as it did this year – and begin to make plans to fill the void with one-day international and BBL fixtures.

Alternatively, it may become one of only two Australian venues used exclusively for day/ night test cricket.

304810931_467b0bdeee_z
Crowds outside gate 2 at the Gabba

The ground is held in high esteem by the Australian side for the bounce and pace that is generally on offer for the home side’s seamers on a Kevin Mitchell Jnr. prepared wicket.

It is also one of the last remaining multi-use stadiums in Australia that is yet to adopt the drop in wicket system currently in operation at the SCG, MCG and Adelaide – three grounds which have assured a test match will remain in their respective states for the foreseeable future.

Sacrificing Australia’s remarkable winning percentage at the Gabba seems a significant price to pay for an infinitesimal gain in attendees at one of the rival venue’s currently vying to take the first test from Brisbane’s firm grasp.

Such a move would signal CA’s apparent need to maximise profit, even if that means leaving the interests of the national team and seasons of tradition in its wake.

Average test match attendance figures over the past five years has led CA to fall out of favor with the ground, but if the Australian side wish to continue opening their season at the Gabba – a venue which has witnessed some of the game’s finest moments – the pink ball will need to tick all the relevant boxes starting with a crowd that exceeds the previous attendance records set by a Pakistan touring side.

Australia v South Africa – Third Test Preview – Trials And Tribulations

As is so often the case in the midst of a crisis, the Australian selectors have hit the panic button and opted to take the quickest route out of the ostensible deep dark hole they find themselves in. The changes they’ve made in the wake of the debacles reflect a selection panel short on ideas and pragmatism, but not on audacity. It exemplifies their burning desire to disentangle themselves from the rut Australian cricket has found itself in these past months. Perhaps, and I say this tentatively, it is an interim selector looking to make a bold statement in the knowledge that he cannot be shot down. At the very least, the mind boggling and unwarranted culling of five incumbents shows that Australian cricket is backed into a corner with nowhere else to turn. But is this really the case?

There can be no questioning the significance of the third test match in Adelaide; despite its status as a dead rubber. South Africa will be seeking to replicate similar feats to those achieved by the great West Indian touring sides of the 1980’s. They have the chance to white-wash Australia on home soil; an opportunity not to be passed up. On the other side of the ledger, Australia will be trying all they can to recapture the form they held on home soil last year, while also attempting to manufacture a winning culture among the newest owners of the Baggy Green – in just one game. This is typical of the selection panel’s mindset of late. There is great value placed on immediate results, which is compromising the time afforded to a debutant to find their feet in an increasingly cut throat environment. The patience and faith the selectors once had in a player struggling to find his niche at test level was rewarded when he eventually cracked the code. Today, the side is result driven and looking for a one hit wonder who, it is hoped, will steady the ship and immediately curtail the influx of negative conjecture. They didn’t find that in Callum Ferguson, and they certainly couldn’t pin their hopes on Joe Mennie to fulfill this duty. So, it appears they too can now be added to the growing list of players in the one-test graveyard. But this trigger happy approach and lack of consideration for circumstance is where Australia’s problems originate. And they certainly haven’t done themselves any favours in anointing Trevor Hohns as a front to contrive a fresh start. Australian cricket is a shambles at the moment. It requires a long-term solution and for selectors, players and administration alike to be held liable for their missteps. Change was inevitable. But the magnitude of the changes and the swiftness with which they were made, along with the constant reshuffling of the line up, will not allow the side to settle on a winning formula.

Matthew Renshaw’s selection is perhaps the boldest of them all. He’s played a total of 12 matches at first-class level for an average in the forties, but is purportedly cut from the same cloth as Matthew Hayden; at least as far as technique is concerned. He’s an enormous gamble- particularly given he didn’t play the opening two games of the Sheffield Shield season – but one selectors are confident has the ability to cope with Rabada, Philander and Abbott. What’s most concerning, though, is his lack of exposure to world-class swing bowling. It appears the selection committee have shifted their thinking with the long sought after change in chairman. They prefer the exuberance and untapped talents of youth over the trialed and tested techniques of the ageing Shield population. But this is more a case of selectors taking the path less traveled. Experience hasn’t payed off lately, and a shift to picking youngsters, while no doubt a last resort, was most likely a forced decision rather than one made voluntarily. Either way, there can be only one outcome, and given the selectors track record in this area, Renshaw must make a good first impression or risk being shunned from the side for a good chunk of his career. He faces a tough initiation. Players tend to be placed under greater scrutiny when the team is under performing and has its back to the wall.

Matthew+Renshaw Update.jpg
Matt Renshaw on duty in the Sheffield Shield

A less surprising selection, but an equally confusing one, was that of Matthew Wade. Personally, Peter Nevill has shown his glove-work to be far superior to Wade’s at both international and state level. But it wasn’t his keeping prowess that saw him axed from the side, it was his lack of runs, which is the most despicable disregard for the art of wicket-keeping since T20 cricket revolutionised the traditional technique. If you look at Nevill’s previous ten innings in isolation, you’ll also notice that he was required to bat during a period following top order failures and was therefore handed a mandate to score a flurry of late order runs. What this selection ploy indicates is that the Australian team currently desire a keeper who bats, rather than one whose role is to keep wickets as a first priority – as was the case in the Rod Marsh and Ian Healy days. This has stemmed from Australia’s trouble at the top, and will no doubt change when the top order is settled and back scoring plenty of runs. But in the meantime, selectors must decide which is more valuable. Late order runs, or a keeper with a penchant for saving them and taking every opportunity that presents itself. Given Wade’s notoriously hard hand’s and crude one -day methods, it’s difficult to see the latter being achieved.

More frustrating, though, are the Chinese whispers which suggest that Wade’s ‘mongrel’ was a factor in his selection over Nevill. If this is the case, and I dearly hope it’s not, the selection panel have lost all dignity and credibility in my books. Sledging is an age old tactic designed to put off batsman by troubling their mental fortitude. But how adept one has become at using it should not be considered grounds for selection. I’ve got a feeling this is nothing more than a cheap joke, but the fact we are bringing up such delusional lines of thinking indicates they needed an extra factor to make Wade’s selection appear incontestable. Most of all, it shows that Australia’s selectors really are struggling to establish what makes a test player.

I do hope the selectors are yet to put a nail in the Voges coffin. His Shield stats alone across the previous five seasons earns him a spot almost automatically, while the records of those that are about to usurp him (Maddinson 37.65, Peter Handscomb 40.56), as well as those that are on CA’s radar (Patterson 42.01), pale in comparison. Voges is a victim of a struggling side, there’s no doubt. When the chips are down, as they were in Sri Lanka and now against South Africa, he averages just 14.8; most probably because the bowlers weren’t blunted by Warner and Smith on these occasions. While when the going is good, as it was against the West Indies and New Zealand at home and away, he averages a monumental 162.28. Figures which make him indispensable. A run of ten innings in which he greatly underachieved means we’ve probably seen the back of Voges, though. It’s a shame that from a guy who promised so much at state level, and for a brief period on the international scene, we’ve received so little.

I won’t touch on the Day/Night element of this third test, mainly because I think the game will play out in a similar fashion to last year. The wicket will have some grass left on it, Rabada and Starc – the bowling king pins – will have a field day and the test will be over inside just three days. The result will be different when we reach Brisbane for the third edition of the day/ night phenomenon (in Australia), but we haven’t yet, and we’ve got a tough task ahead of us to avoid humiliation for a third straight game.

For Nostalgia’s Sake

Gideon Haigh’s statement in Death Of A Gentleman can be thanked for this piece and its anecdotal theories. Perhaps because it encompasses all of cricket’s major issues in one sentence, forcing myself, and many others i’m sure, to consider what role we as fans play in the ever-changing cricketing landscape. The statement I’m referring to is difficult to dismiss when you consider what its repercussions may be.

The fan, where he’s considered at all, is there to be monitised and to be exploited.

This statement perfectly sums up the mindset of cricket administrators and board members as they sit in their ivory towers sketching up tour schedules and fixtures. Not only are the fans suffering from quiet exploitation in these instances, the game and what it stands for is being taken for a ride by those who purport to care for it the most – cricket administrators. Take the recent scheduling announcements for Australia’s tour to India next February for example. One day after the final T20 game of the summer is played out at the SCG between what will be a patch work Australian side and Sri Lanka, the Test team will take on India in the first game of a four match test series. Compromise would have been put to good use in this situation, particularly had player welfare and the wellbeing of both formats been considered. But cricket’s power brokers don’t listen to compromise, they listen to whatever can maxamise profit to fill their coffers. Even if that means jeopardising the integrity, and therefore the significance, of a contest by spreading the available players across two nations. This is a small price to pay for significant financial gain. The one certainty is that both these games will draw substantial crowds, most of whom genuinely care about the result at the end of a day’s play. After all, these are the foundations on which cricket’s popularity, and sport in general, have been built. Without competition fans wouldn’t exist, or at least, they would have little reason to feign an interest. People give a stuff about their teams success and cricket’s governing bodies are wise enough to flex their muscles and cash in on their patriotism. This issue is systemic not only among cricket’s governing powerhouses, but on a global scale in a multitude of different codes. Look no further than the NFL Superbowl’s mid-game advertisements. This is fan monetisation on a grandiloquent scale.

Of course, without fans and their monetary contributions, the many systems in place to foster the next generation of cricketers wouldn’t be financially viable. The smaller, low-key domestic tournaments would also struggle to stand on their own two feet. It begs the question, are there other ways to generate revenue that don’t undermine the paying supporter or impeach the cricketing hierarchy? Take a look at the latest revenue figures for the ICC and its members and it’s hard to see how one might go about doing so. The ICC’s total revenue amounted to $453.6 million USD in the year of 2015. Without even so much as a glance towards the annual reports, one can assume a fair chunk of this came by way of television broadcast rights and associated advertising revenue. For the last two years, Australia have hosted India for a meaningless one-day series at the back end of the summer in order to make up the remainder of an exorbitant predetermined revenue figure. One which couldn’t be reached on the interest in the test series alone. On such occasions, CA’s annual balance sheet was reported to be worth up to $100 million more than normal. These figures suggest that games against India aren’t scheduled based purely on what the fan is interested in viewing, but instead on the income that is generated through their perpetual interest. The majority of which is derived from the cricket-obsessed sub-continent where the calibre of opposition makes only a slight difference to the allure of the contest, and hence the revenue garnered from the tour. CA assured us all at the beginning of this year that it would be open to sharing its windfall with the greater cricketing community. If we as fans are to be exploited, it’s good to see that our money isn’t being chauffeured around the hands of cricket’s big wigs and is going towards establishing firmer connections with associate nations. I remain positive that this might be the case despite the well documented corrupt goings on in world cricket; even if my optimism diminishes with every piece of news that serves to justify my cynicism.

I understand how processes at the head of the table work and why some decisions are essential, I’m not naive. I also recognise that cricket boards require financial assistance to cover the games many operating costs, and the easiest way for them to acquire the funds in an efficient manner is by selling us, the fan, to whoever is witty enough to recognise there is significant public interest in this sport. We’re their biggest asset. Their biggest bargaining tool. But the national team also represents the fans. Without our support, or existence for that matter, investors, advertisers and other sources of financial backing wouldn’t bat an eyelid because their portfolio wouldn’t be nearly as lucrative, and not nearly as attractive to the corporate window-shoppers. You know, the one’s who have taken a liking to the IPL. The one’s that crave untapped markets with great money generating potential and a guaranteed rise in target audience numbers. A greater following equals further reach for their company. Administrators know we’re not going anywhere though, no matter how obvious their disregard for our existence has become and how much we’d like them to begin making influential decisions on our behalf. Our love for the game will almost always persevere.

My anger over our treatment as ‘commodities’ reached its peak around the time CA released its schedule for the 2016/17 summer of cricket. Finding out that the GABBA will no longer host the first test of the summer really rubbed me up the wrong way. It may only be for this year, lord I hope so, but as a supporter and regular attendee of the GABBA test, this announcement further emphasised my point that cricket is no longer played for the fans as it once was, it is played for the shareholders and the corporate lackeys. When this trend began was probably around the time T20 cricket started to raise the eyebrows of investors and television broadcasters, even if its ties can be traced back to the Kerry Packer era and World Series Cricket where similar circumstances arose, but on a comparatively small scale.

IMG_0286.JPG
Memories of summers past…….This from last year’s first test against New Zealand

I have attended every GABBA test match since 2005 where as a young boy I witnessed the beginning of the demise of West Indies cricket. Brian Lara and Shivnarine Chanderpaul were still playing at this stage, while Mike Hussey was making a belated debut. But I won’t delve into the game or its major contributors too much as it doesn’t serve a purpose in the context of this piece. In 2016, the ritual of attending the first test of the summer has been taken away from me, and many other season ticket holders, for the sake of a day/night test match to be played during peak ratings season, which happens to coincide with the BBL. The GABBA has struggled to attract a crowd of note for some time now, not through lack of interest – although this is part of the problem – but primarily because games have been scheduled during a time of year where cricket doesn’t dominate the headlines. As a result, the first test of the summer has now made way for the first day/night test against Pakistan; the least anticipated test touring side despite their number two ranking. It’s a wonderful spectacle, i’ve written before about how much I think this restructuring will help attract a new breed of cricket viewer which, in the context of this piece, might help explain why the shifting of the GABBA test has finally come about after years of toing and froing and administrators suffering in silence.

IMG_1441.JPG
How much longer can we expect test cricket to last at this once widely lauded venue. Is a test snubbing nye? Or are we destined to remain the permanent site of day/night test cricket?

Holding a day/night test, the first of its kind in Brisbane, will not only guarantee a bigger crowd, but ensure advertisers aren’t missing out on what they are owed, and what with the ‘decline’ of test viewing numbers they’ve been deprived of for some time now. This is the whole reason the day/ night experiment was formulated. It wasn’t an edgy, attractive new time-slot aimed to please the masses and breathe life into an ageing format. It was designed to attract a wider audience and, in the process, maximise profit potential. This is fine. If interest in certain non-ashes contests is waining and the next generation of cricket fans are required to be weaned off the format in which they have become reliant, then a new structure must be instituted to ensure cricket survives an apathetic period. It’s the point at which the fans are undermined, and the performances of the national team compromised for the sake of television, that day/night cricket becomes less a quest for fan engagement, which it should be, and more a source of increased revenue in which boards use to appease their confidants. Even if the two are inextricably linked. A vested interest in the revamped day/night tests becomes apparent as soon as the above occurs, and immediately after the placement of these games becomes so sporadic that they are used only to boost profit margins.

The Australian team hasn’t lost a test match at the GABBA since 1988. It goes into this summer against a rampant South African unit that presents perhaps their biggest challenge since the Ashes of three seasons ago. The WACA is another venue in which Australia boast a very respectable winning percentage. Not necessarily against South Africa, and not nearly as impressively as at the GABBA, but the quicks have generally been able to trouble touring batsman through the utilisation of the WACA’s trademark bounce and pace. Australia has enjoyed great success over the years at both grounds, which makes the circumstances around this year’s GABBA shunning all the more conspicuous. Why should one be cast aside for the optimisation of the revenue sum when Australia require all the assistance possible from wickets that will cause the world class South African batting stocks great discomfort. Here’s our first real sign of the financial results being placed above the performance of the national team. A byproduct of day/night cricket’s efficient money making potential. I’ve no doubt that the WACA test would have also been made a day/night game had the time zones been ripe for the picking for broadcasters. They do, after all, seem to have a big say in the layout of the game’s scheduling.

I’ll leave you with this comment from ECB chief executive Tom Harrison, who appeared on TMS last week to discuss the reasons why next winters home series against the West Indies will feature a day/ night test at Edgbaston.

As much as anything, opening up a new audience for cricket is really what’s sitting behind this whole [D/N] proposal. How can we present the game in a way which appeals to different communities, different parts of the public and give them an easier and better way of getting to see cricket when they want to see it, either through television or turning up at games……Everything we are trying to do subscribes to that mantra of making cricket more accessible to more people, more of the time.

Are there ulterior motives at play here? Put the faltering West Indies into the mix and we’re not questioning the ECB’s motives, we’re proving them. The ‘opening up a new audience for cricket’ stance is a convenient facade to disguise the rarely publicised ‘day/ night test as a scantly trialled money spinner’ angle. Notice television was used in a way that suggests it compliments the accessibility factor, not that it was the chief supporter of its creation for reasons that benefitted both parties – cricket boards and broadcasters.

Day/night tests are one successful stint away from becoming the new saviour of cricket boards around the world.