Wobbling Mathilda

In the wake of their drubbing at Trent Bridge which resulted in them losing the Ashes to England, the whole Australian cricketing setup seems to be collapsing in a heap.  When a team is winning, the niggles between team members, conflicts between the players and support staff, and more serious structural issues tend to get ignored, but when a team is losing – particularly when they are losing in spectacular fashion – all of these come to the fore.  Nobody demonstrated this better than England after their losing 5-0 in Australia in 2013/14: that series cost us not only the Ashes, but terminated the career of our most reliable No. 3 batsmen who once looked as impossible to remove as Dravid, our wicketkeeper-batsman who only recently had won a Player of the Year Award and had saved us a test match in New Zealand, and the best spin bowler we’d ever had.  The loss kick-started a process which saw the departure of our most talented batsman in a generation, the departure of our coach, batting coach, and bowling coaches, and a very messy and highly publicised airing of dirty laundry which was still going on weeks before this summer’s cricket season started.

Australia’s internal problems might not result in so spectacular a collapse, but they are looking very shaky.  The captain has already gone, leaving the team in the hands of a chap who came into the series being touted as the world’s best batsman and now has people wondering if he shouldn’t be in the team as a part time leggy batting at 8.  If he grows a long, dark beard he might just do that.  Probably their only specialist test batsman, Chris Rogers, has announced his retirement which must surely leave the Australian selectors with a bigger headache than who will replace Clarke.  There appear to be internal divisions over whether Brad Haddin should have been brought back for the Edgbaston test which, given his retirement after the series, appear to be more about who he was and how much others liked him rather than what he could do out in the middle.  A sort of reverse KP, if you will.

Things couldn’t have gotten much worse for Australia after Trent Bridge, but they did when they visited Northamptonshire, who are struggling in the second division, and found themselves at 87/5 and thanking their lucky stars that fast bowler Pat Cummins managed to put on 82 runs to save the match.  The star of the show, who scored 142 not out against Siddle, Cummins, Watson, Lyon, and Marsh before taking the wickets of Voges, Neville, and Siddle for 38 runs conceded, was ironically an Australian.  This is how his Cricinfo biography reads:

Steven Crook, an Australian-born skiddy seam bowler and hard-hitting lower-order batsmen, started his first-class career at Lancashire but had limited chances to show his worth. After a loan move to Northamptonshire at the end of the 2005 season, he made a permanent switch for 2006 where he earned greater chances in the one-day arena. Injury ravaged much of his time at Northants but he found other outlets to express himself as a lead singer of the band Juliet the Sun.

So the Australian team – who arrived on these shores being touted as one of the greatest sides ever assembled – get undone with both bat and ball by a part-time singer.

And it gets worse.  As TNA points out, the Australians still complaining about the pitches they have encountered, this accusing the English of blatant pitch-doctoring at the Oval.  This is beyond pathetic.  Could you imagine Steve Waugh, David Boon, or Justin Langer whining about this?  Or Brett Lee complaining there was too much movement in the pitch?

Say what you want about England’s capitulation in the 2013/14 Ashes (and it was really pathetic), we never looked to blame anything other than Mitchell Johnson’s left arm and our own failings for the results.  As I noticed when I lived in Melbourne, the whole “whinging pom” epithet is far more of a reflection of Australians than it is a criticism of the British.  Nowhere has this been better demonstrated than this tour, which is fast turning the Australians from an unlikeable team that wins to a laughable team that can’t.  Regardless of what happens at the Oval, I think we will see further damage wrought before things start to improve.  You’d back Australia to take the ODI series, but with the Ashes secure and following their success against New Zealand with their new-found aggression under Eoin Morgan, England will be relishing the opportunity to upset an apple cart or two.  Even a single big loss in the ODIs will open up fresh wounds in the Australian camp, ahead of a home series against New Zealand who enjoy the services of two of the finest swing bowlers in the world.

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t enjoying this immensely.

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Ashes 2015: Fourth Test

It took Australia less than two hours to throw the Ashes away on the morning of the fourth test at Trent Bridge, with Jimmy Anderson’s absence being a complete irrelevance in the wake of Stuart Broad’s incredible 8/15 and a series of shots played by Australian batsmen that varied from appalling to diabolical.  I wasn’t able to watch it but followed it on CricInfo, and hence witnessed the capitulation in text form.  When I watched the highlights when I got home, I saw how bad it was.

The balls that the Australians should have left got edged to slip, and the ones they left hit the top of off stump.  Broad bowled well – this was his home ground, after all – and produced some wonderful swinging deliveries, as did Wood and Finn in support (Stokes didn’t even get a chance to warm up), but most of these balls should have been left well alone.  I think it was Brian Lara who once said the first hour belongs to the bowler.  Somebody commented a few years back that things had changed so much that now even the first ball doesn’t belong to the bowler.  The Australian collapse showed that Lara was right all along.

It wasn’t just the hyper-aggressiveness that was Australia’s downfall, it was also a lack of intelligence and technique.  As an Australian friend pointed out shortly afterwards, playing in the IPL does not give you a bad technique, but it does allow people with bad techniques to make a lot of money.  With the money comes reputation, and test selection inevitably follows.  How else do you explain Glenn Maxwell being awarded a Baggy Green?   A generation or two ago Australians would have played in the English County Championship and gotten used to the conditions over there.  Now they all play Shield, BBL, and IPL and turn up in England without even knowing what English conditions are, let alone having learned to play in them.  Take a look at this post-match interview with Steve Smith:

Australia’s captain-elect Steven Smith has admitted that he has been drawn into playing strokes too often by the English skill of bending the ball on both directions, and hopes that his Australian fast men can learn to replicate the trick.

You mean nobody told him this before he arrived?!  How many ex-players are in the Australian setup, and nobody even bothered telling them what to expect?  The great Australian teams of 10-20 years ago not only knew what to expect, but had learned with great skill and patience to flourish in such conditions, which is what made them so special.  Having not even been aware of what technique is required in England, never mind actually master it, it is hardly surprising the Australians fell apart.  Rogers and Voges (in their second innings) were the only ones who looked like test batsmen, and by pure coincidence they have both played a lot of County cricket.

But they were also dumb, and Shane Warne was livid about this in the commentary.  In the second innings, just before tea, Steve Smith smashed a wide ball from Broad to the cover boundary.  So Cook told Stokes to move a few metres to his right and stand in the trajectory of the previous stroke, before Broad bowled exactly the same ball.  Smith duly obliged by smashing exactly the same shot, only this time there was a tattooed, ginger Ben Stokes with buckets for hands between him and the boundary rope.  Warne was livid because at that point in the game, just before tea and having just lost a couple of wickets, Smith should have been looking to ride it out until the break and go back out afterwards prepared to soldier on.  Scoring runs just wasn’t important right then.  He was also angry because Smith was too dense to figure out that Stokes had moved position precisely to take a catch of a repeat shot.  But Smith still doesn’t get it, here’s what he said afterwards:

There has been criticism of the second-innings stroke, a dismissal that Shane Warne described as “horrific”, and Smith said his weight had been poorly distributed for the shot. But he defended his positive approach, arguing that a ball there to be hit to the boundary needed to be addressed that way no matter how many balls a batsman has faced up to.

“If you get a loose ball, you have to hit it,” he said. “I hit two half-volleys for four and the one that I got out to in the second innings was pretty much the same. It was there to hit for four, I just didn’t execute it well. My weight was a bit back, looking back at it. And that’s something I’m trying to work on with my technique – to get my weight going forward. It’s something that is pretty crucial here in England on the slower wickets as well.”

Let’s read that again:

It was there to hit for four, I just didn’t execute it well.

You hit it straight to a fielder who had been placed there in the hope that you would hit the ball straight to him, the captain having banked on your belief that “if you get a loose ball, you have to hit it”.  Smith’s a good player, but this is extraordinarily stupid.  Everyone plays dumb shots, few defend them in hindsight.

Smith’s wasn’t the only dumb shot.  Warner, despite his second innings quick-fire 64, got himself out playing a shot that every commentator I read or listened to struggled to describe.  The beauty of Warner is you know that no matter how quickly he scores he is going to gift his wicket before the two hour mark, so all you have to do is keep an eye on how many runs he makes.  And if runs aren’t an issue – which they weren’t in the second innings – then you just need to wait.  Rogers, for all his talent, isn’t much different: he is very good at getting past 50, and very poor at getting to 100.  Show enough patience, and he’ll get himself out soon enough.

I don’t recall too much of the England innings, other than Lyth failed (again), Cook got himself out just when everyone was hoping he’d go on to anchor the innings with a massive score (again), and Root stepped up and with a huge grin grabbed hold of the match and did with the bat what Broad had done a couple of hours earlier with the ball.  Bairstow’s contribution of 74 was extremely handy for both him and the team, but with Stokes and Buttler both going cheaply it fell to Broad and Ali to nudge the score to a point where Australia were really going to struggle.  Australia’s bowling wasn’t that bad, but it was nowhere near good enough to turn a first innings score of 60 into a match-saving position.  England’s batting has not been terrible this series, but it’s not been very good either.  Root and Ali have been the stand-out players, but it ought to worry England that Cook keeps getting out just as he looks to be set for a big score, Lyth has consistently failed to handle a bowling attack which Broad has refound some form against (albeit against an older ball and more weary/depressed bowlers), Bell is still inconsistent and Buttler hasn’t done in tests what we saw him do in ODIs, even when he’s been under very little pressure.

When it comes to batting England have some work to do, but they ought to be pretty pleased with their bowling.  Mark Wood has looked good this series albeit tired at times, and the return to form of Steven Finn will cheer them no end.  Ben Stokes put in a fantastic display to knock over Rogers, Warner, and Marsh in quick succession in the second innings, proving he is becoming more and more like a genuine all-rounder.  If England can keep Moeen Ali improving to the point he becomes a reliable spin bowler, they can look forward to a bright future in the bowling department.

Australia have bigger issues, the main one being they need to stop looking for excuses.  First it was the pitch, then it was the pitches, then it was losing the toss.  Given Australia have relied upon winning the toss in order to win anything over the past few years, this last one is laughable.  Sorry, but losing the toss doesn’t make a batsman swash at a wide delivery three balls before tea.  Then Ian Healy said the accompanying families were a distraction, perhaps fondly recalling the days when a travelling cricket team could nail local waitresses without their wives finding out.  They arrived with considerable hubris, underestimated their opponents from the beginning, dispensed with proper, lengthy preparation, shrugged when thumped in Cardiff, arrogantly assumed Lord’s was “business as usual”, learned nothing from their thrashing at Edgbaston and hit what they must hope is rock bottom at Trent Bridge.  Their captain is on the way out, seemingly intent on making sure all discussion surrounding Australian cricket for the next few weeks is about him, and their best batsman is supposedly retiring as well.  A lot of people are saying that Siddle should have played at Trent Bridge, and perhaps he should, but he is no spring chicken either.  With Hazlewood rather unsurprisingly not turning into Glenn McGrath over the course of one series of international cricket, Australia seem to be a bit stuck.  Others have mentioned Pat Cummins, but he’s an impact bowler and some may have missed this, but Australia have enough of them already.  The two Marshes are the answer to a question nobody asked, Voges hasn’t filled the gap he was brought in to fill, and Warner is, in my opinion, a walking wicket outside of Australia and South Africa.  Neville is probably the only half-positive thing in the Australian team, looking like a handy enough wicket keeper whose batting will likely improve.  Again, for all the talk of bringing Haddin back in, he was set to retire too.

England ought to go out and have some fun at the Oval, and if they do it might be enough to overcome a demoralised and shaken Australian team.  But Australia have enough players who will be up for one final fight, particularly those who probably won’t play another test again, and so an upset is still possible.  What I’d like to see is England win the toss and bat first on pitch with some movement, thus giving their batsmen a proper test on a pitch that suits the bowlers.  If Cook can snaffle a century under those conditions, Australia will have been well and truly seen off with no more excuses.


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Ashes 2015: Fourth Test Comments Thread

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Ashes 2015: Third Test

Without knowing the state of the pitch at Edgbaston, my heart sank when Michael Clarke won the toss and elected to bat.  Australia have one method and one method only of winning: bat first, put on a decent total, and let their bowlers do the rest.  What I didn’t know, but what the English team apparently did, is that batting first on that wicket was a poor decision.  Whether Clarke made a genuine error or has shown himself to lack imagination is only one of the questions being asked of him right now.

I watched the first session’s play in the Aussie Bar in Patong’s Bangla Road, and it quickly became apparent that the Australians had erred badly in choosing to bat first.  Anderson and the revitalised Finn demolished the Australian top and middle order, leaving Chris Rogers – not for the first time in his career – looking like the only genuine test batsman in the side.  With the dangerous Smith removed, saving the innings was left to the hopelessly out of form Clarke and a middle order that has struggled throughout the series.  After Rogers’ gallant 52, Adam Voges was the next top scorer with 16.

With Australia bowled out for 136 it fell to England to put on a huge first innings score of 400+ to take the game away from Australia.  This they utterly failed to do, and with two snorting deliveries from Mitchell Johnson early on Day 2 leaving England 142/5 it required a partnership of 87 between Broad and Ali to eventually give England a first innings lead of 145.  Although it proved to be enough, England may consider themselves fortunate not to have handed the game back to Australia at that point.  Cook might think himself unlucky to have been caught by Voges’ belly, but Lyth failed once again and Root got himself out at 63 when he ought to have gone a lot further.  That we can consider 63 a mediocre innings by Root speaks volumes about his form of late, but the real pleasant surprise for me came from Bell’s 53.  True, he got out in his usual manner of switching his brain off leaving the rest of the innings in doubt, but the confidence and fluidity of his batting following his make-or-break promotion to No. 3 was crucial to England and demonstrated that his class remains intact.  This will be very much welcomed by the England team and their fans.

As the innings went on, it became clear that a lead of 80+ would be useful as the pitch and conditions were swinging the ball all over the place and such a lead would cancel out any score made by a half-decent Australian batsman.  When England finished with a lead of 145, this looked to be very handy indeed.  And so it proved, with Australia collapsing in a heap under the attack of Finn, Broad, and Anderson with only Warner looking comfortable in an innings of 77 which turned out to be meaningless.  Only when Neville arrived at the crease, determined that Australia wouldn’t lose by an innings within 2 days, did Australia show some fine resistance to grind out a lead of 121 with Starc in particular scoring an impressive 58.

Any dreams of Johnson tearing through the England line-up to save the match lay were quickly laid to rest when he and the rest of the Australian attack – particularly Starc, but even the hitherto reliable Hazlewood – let their line and length drift and England cashed in.  Despite early success against Cook with a disappointing 7 and Lyth who shouldn’t even have bothered padding up, Australia once again found themselves being carted about by the rejuvenated Bell who was clearly brimming with confidence from his first innings knock, ably supported by the grinning Joe Root.  Even had Clarke’s dropped catch of Bell stuck in his paw, defending a lead of 121 against England’s current batting line-up on a 3rd day pitch was a big ask.

The highlights of the match for England must be the return to form of Bell and Finn, with the lowlights being the injury to James Anderson and the continued failure of Lyth as an opener.  Bairstow didn’t do much on his recall to the team, but falling to a ripper of a delivery and lacking a second innings knock he’s not somebody to worry about yet.  Buttler once again disappointed with the bat, but hopefully he’ll improve as he gets more experience.  Ali batting at No. 8 again proved himself to be a real thorn in the side of the opposition, and Broad will be pleased he scored some vital runs following a couple of years of not knowing which way up to hold the bat.

With the way this series has gone so far it would be foolish to try to predict what will happen at Trent Bridge (a comprehensive innings victory for Oz cannot be ruled out), but it’s fair to say Australia have some massive problems to overcome.  Top of these is the poor performance of their newly-drafted middle-order batsmen – Voges and Marsh – who have been completely exposed by the repeated failure of Michael Clarke.  Warner is having a torrid time against the moving ball, and if either one of Rogers or Smith falls early, Clarke inevitably follows leaving the new boys facing the likes of Anderson and Broad with a ball that is still shiny.  It comes as no surprise that Australia’s only success in this series came when Rogers and Smith scored all the runs and nobody else was required to contribute.  This might come off once or twice a series, but relying on two batsmen to do the work of the entire team cannot end well, particularly when one of them is a grandfather who intends to retire in a few weeks’ time.  England know that if they can remove either Rogers or Smith, defeat becomes an awful lot less likely.

Australia will also be disappointed by their bowlers, particularly Starc.  They always knew Johnson was an impact bowler who would start spraying it about if he doesn’t take quick wickets, but following his success in the WC Australia would have hoped Starc could wreak the same destruction with the red ball.  Unfortunately, he seems to be more of a Mitchell Johnson than a Brett Lee and without the control the pressure piled up on Hazlewood who also started to lose the accuracy for which he has already become famous in his short test career thus far.  The Australian bowling attack is still good and should not be underestimated, but with their batting looking so fragile they will be under enormous pressure at Trent Bridge against an England who probably cannot help but feel buoyant.

Australia will be mighty glad that Anderson won’t be playing (he has a good record at Trent Bridge), but if Wood regains his fitness, Finn bowls like he did at Edgbaston, and the conditions remain English then his absence might not make much difference.  Despite Australia only needing to level the series to retain the urn, they are a game down in the series with only two to go.  If England win the next match, it’s all over.  If it’s a draw, it’s still an open series.  Australia have an enormous task ahead of them, and you’d fancy the English from here.

I wonder if Lehmann still thinks Cardiff was a minor hiccup?

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Ashes 2015: Third Test Comments Thread

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Ashes 2015: Second Test

I only caught the first two days of the second test because on Day 3 I was flying to Thailand, where I am now.  By the time I arrived, the match was all but over.

Having predicted in my previous post that England would edge this match, I could not have been proven more wrong with Australia trouncing their opponents in a 405 run win.  In doing so, the whole situation between the teams has now flipped 180 degrees: it is England who will go into the next match pondering personnel changes and wondering what went wrong, and Australia who will look to capitalise on a potentially demoralised opposition.  A bigger response to their first test defeat could not have been asked from Australia, and a more pathetic capitulation scarcely imagined from England.

Australia won the match by doing what they do best: winning the toss, putting on a hefty score, and letting their bowlers do the rest.  Had England won the toss things might have gone differently, but they didn’t and if England are going to be considered even a half-decent team they need to learn how to win batting second on a lost toss.  So does Australia, come to think of it: they’re not much better in this department, and neither team seems able to withstand the slightest scoreboard pressure.  If any weakness in Australia’s batting lineup has been masked by Rogers’ and Smith’s brilliant partnership which took the game away from England on Day 1, it is this.

I watched most of that partnership, and it really was a case of brilliant batting as opposed to poor bowling.  Even Shane Warne said Cook’s captaincy and field settings were as varied and attacking as could be expected, and all the commentators said the bowlers had bowled well, especially Broad.  But they came up against what sometimes happens in test matches, two class batsmen who have played themselves in.  I don’t think it was a failure of England’s bowlers and fielders that Australia scored so many runs (Bell’s drop of Smith notwithstanding, but it was a tough chance): they did quite well on Day 2 once they’d gotten rid of Rogers and Smith, and the pitch was very good for batting.

Where England failed completely was in the batting.  True, the extra pace of the Australian bowlers made the ball do much more than it had coming from English paws, but the capitulation of England’s top order was appalling.  Despite the massive run deficit, here was a chance for England to at least show some fight in response and avoid the follow-on figure (which is usually symbolic when playing against Clarke with Warner in the team), and for some of the batsmen over whom there are doubts to prove themselves, namely Lyth, Ballance, and Bell.  Each failed miserably (Root we can give a pass to as he’s done plenty recently and can’t be expected to perform every match) with the exception of Cook, who was batting steadily with Stokes when my plane took off.  If Cook and Stokes can manage to score 96 and 87 respectively, what is the excuse of the rest?  Lack of form and/or talent is my guess, and both Ballance and Bell should be dropped, Root moved up to 3 or 4, and Lyth told that the third test will be his last if he doesn’t score at least something.

If I thought England’s first innings was bad, their second beggars belief.  It’s not that England had any chance of saving the match, but a meaningful partnership or a century would have done wonders for the confidence of the team and was a good opportunity for some out-of-form batsmen to get some time in the middle without – ironically – too much pressure.  Instead we were all out for 103, which handed the Australians not only the match but an enormous psychological victory heading into the third test.

So with England looking certain to make some changes in their batting line-up at Edgbaston, one would expect Australia to be the ones carrying the momentum and seeking a victory.  But as we have seen, much depends on who wins the toss and the state of the pitch.

And on that note, I would like to say that I find all this talk of pitch “doctoring” to be rather tedious.  I have yet to hear a professional groundsman say whether it is even possible to fine-tune an English pitch to nullify Australian bowling let alone whether it has actually been done in the two tests we’ve seen so far.  For all the talk of Cardiff being a “flat” wicket England took 20 wickets with a day to spare, and hours after the Australian media was wailing that England had prepared “a road” at Lord’s Clarke’s bowlers did the same thing in return.  This must be the first time in cricketting history that two test matches each producing a result inside 4 days have generated complaints about lifeless pitches.  What seems to be confusing the Australians is that the English pitches don’t behave like the WACA, but I’m not sure anyone can help them with that.  If there has been a change in the behaviour of English pitches in the past few years it is most likely to do with the improved drainage which allows play to resume much sooner after the inevitable English downpours.  And that’s what we all wanted, wasn’t it?

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Ashes 2015: First Test

Well, it seems the cautious optimism I displayed in my Ashes Preview post was justified: England have thumped Australia in the first test mainly due to their batsmen being able to withstand the Australian bowling attack and the Australian batsmen being crap.

A word which used to get bandied about a lot during the good times under Andy Flower was “businesslike” or “workmanlike”.  England’s success came mainly off the back of serious, concentrated, graft rather than displays of brilliance or raw talent (KP was the exception, hence his reputation).  These terms sum up well the demeanour of the English players during the first test in Cardiff: at stumps at the end of Day 2, Australia were 264/5 in reply to England’s 430 all out.  England had taken wickets at steady intervals all afternoon, putting in considerable effort for each, rather than having one of those moments when Broad or Anderson gets you 3 or 4 in a single spell.  When they interviewed one of the English players as they were walking off the pitch (I forget who it was, mainly because I saw most of the team interviewed over the course of the match) he said they still had a lot of work to do.  Again at the end of Day 3, when it was known they would need to bowl Australia out for under 411 to win the match, the English player interviewed talked of the work ahead.  For the English players, they take the professional aspect literally by talking of each task ahead as a piece of work that they need to get done, in the same way you or I would in the office.  They realise that winning a test match against Australia will require serious work and effort.  This work ethic was evident in the first test, and it paid off.

As I had implied in my preview post, Australia appeared to hit England’s shores believing the media hype that a 5-0 win would be a mere formality.  That they snapped out of this by lunchtime on Day 1 was encouraging, but what surely must be more worrying for them is that they had no Plan B from that point on.  Their whole battle-plan was to rely on Johnson and Starc intimidating the opposition batsmen into giving up their wickets while Siddle and Harris block the scoring from the other end, and it’s been this way for years (with some names changing).  Their batting plan has been to be ultra-aggressive and “get on top of the bowlers” and if this results in a low score, meh the bowlers will make sure we still win.  This approach has been personified by Darren Lehmann whose aggressive style has been lauded by practically everyone, probably because in Australia it works well.

The problem is, Australia are now in England.  It became obvious that the aggressive style wasn’t going to work when the pitch didn’t bounce and England scored 430 in their first innings.  For the first time in a long time Michael Clarke seemed clueless as to what to do, and Lehmann even more so.  Australia were shown to be extremely one-dimensional, and unable to cope with things not going their way.  It is all very well to be snarling, aggressive, and in-your-face when you’re on top, but even a half-decent side needs to be able to dig itself out of a hole when things are going against them, and they failed to do that in this test.

If I was Australian, this is what would worry me the most.  England showed in their 5-0 drubbing that a team can be very much less than the sum of its parts, and Australia will now need to make sure they become a team once again.  This being Australia, you would count on them to do so: they are not half the hardened sportsmen they make themselves out to be, but they are not a bunch of girls’ blouses either.  So you can expect a response from individuals and some better performances at Lord’s this week.  But Lehmann’s comments, summed up below, ought to cause some concern:

Australia’s coach Darren Lehmann has described England’s big victory in the first Test as a “minor hiccup”, and has effectively challenged the Lord’s ground staff to produce a quicker pitch for the second match from Thursday.

Lord’s will be a faster and bouncier pitch that will suit Johnson and Starc more than that of Cardiff, but if he thinks that a slightly better pitch is all that is needed for Australia to claw back the opening loss he is surely mistaken.  England, he might have noticed, also have some reasonably good fast bowlers in Anderson, Broad, and Wood.  A quicker pitch is not going to make them any easier to handle, and is not going to remove the requirement for his batsmen, at some stage, to knuckle down and spend several hours at the crease.  One would hope that Lehmann has realised this.

Many said the first test in Cardiff would be crucial, and it was.  But the second test at Lord’s will be even more crucial for Australia: if things don’t go their way for long periods in this match, and they again don’t come up with a Plan B for how to deal with it, they will have been dangerously exposed as a one-dimensional side who can do hyper-aggression and nothing else and achieve success only when conditions suit.  The series will then be effectively lost.

England, on the other hand, will be unlikely to get ahead of themselves and will retain the workmanlike approach in dealing with the immediate task at hand and then moving onto the next.  England supporters will be hoping Cook scores some runs, Lyth, Ballance, and Bell show more consistency and longevity, and the rest keep on doing exactly what they did in Cardiff.

At the risk of being proved hopelessly wrong, I will stick my neck out and say that an England which is more consistent and familiar with the conditions will beat an improved but still brittle Australian side whose 1 or 2 personnel changes didn’t address the underlying problems.

Finally, thanks to Michael Jennings for the comments, it’s been good!  Anyone else is free to join in.


One of the other things I forgot to mention is the poor manner in which the Australians have managed their wicket-keeping situation.  Despite Brad Haddin’s advancing years, which could hardly have come as a surprise, there appears to have been no effort to groom a replacement.  Normally, one would expect Haddin to have hung up the gloves in the ODI format allowing a successor to be found and prepared for test duties, but Australia continued with Haddin right through the World Cup.  This is nice for Haddin, and his form may have warranted his selection, but with Haddin’s withdrawal from the squad due to “personal reasons” Australia now have the NSW second choice keeper (Haddin is No. 1) making debut when 1-0 down in an overseas Ashes.  Even Australia’s most ardent supporters must agree that this isn’t ideal.  I can’t help but feel sentiment and Haddin’s popularity with other senior team members kept him in the ODI and test squads at the expense of grooming a successor.

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What £3.7bn per year gets you

In a rather confused article entitled The Arrogance of Power, the BBC gives us this gem:

Some European countries have no [Presidential] term limits, including Italy, Switzerland and Russia.

According to the Russian constitution, Article 81 Clause 3:

One and the same person cannot hold the office of the President of the Russian Federation for more than two terms running.

Good journalism there, BBC.

Having started talking about African presidents hanging onto power beyond their constitutionally determined limits, the article then veers off into an opinion piece by one Lord Owen, former British foreign secretary and leader of the Social Democtratic Party in the 1980s who argues:

by the time they have been in power for many years, some leaders tend to become arrogant, unwilling to listen and overly optimistic that their decisions will produce good results.

“Eight years is enough,” Lord Owen told Newshour Extra.

“Blair is the classic example of hubris and it had profound effects because he reinforced the hubris of Bush and Bush reinforced Blair’s and these two made terrible mistakes.”

I assume that Lord Owen is referring to the decision to invade Iraq in February 2003, which was made during Bush’s first presidential term.  Bush assumed the presidency in January 2001, meaning he’d been in power all of 2 years when the invasion was launched.  Blair had been in power 7 years at the time of the invasion, and although Lord Owen is quite correct in his assessment of the man, even a casual observer would have spotted that he had been this way right from the start: he didn’t need 7 years in which to develop arrogance and the idea he was on some sort of holy crusade.  This is just another excuse for some washed-up Lefty to have a swipe about the Iraq War: they were quite okay with Blair’s arrogance and hubris until he did something they disagreed with.  Naturally, Lord Owen takes the opportunity to have swipe at “bankers” as well:

Lord Owen believes acquired hubris is not limited to politicians:

“It exists in bankers,” he says.

“If you look at the roots of the 2008-9 crisis you see in many major banks that their chief executives were making decisions based on a lot of the characteristics of somebody suffering from hubris syndrome.”

So in an article of the arrogance of power and hubristic behaviour, the best examples the BBC gives us are Bush and “bankers”.  The absolute clusterfuck that is the Euro project and the catastrophe unfolding in Greece warrants nary a mention.

Then last week we had the BBC report on the resignation of Ellen Pao, CEO of Reddit:

Ms Pao had been the subject of intense criticism over her handling of the site, one of the web’s most visited, since taking over late last year.

At no point does the BBC mention that Pao’s appointment to Reddit came in the middle of her highly-publicised lawsuit against her previous employers for discrimination and harassment, which she subsequently lost, and that many predicted that this appointment would be a car-crash from the beginning.

The argument against scrapping the BBC is that the quality of news reporting available to the British public would suffer.  I’m trying to think how.

Posted in Media, Politics | 7 Comments

Ashes 2015: Preview and Predictions

Okay, the Ashes are upon us again with the first test kicking off tomorrow.  As is customary around these parts, I will weigh in with my uninformed, narrow views as and when I think I have something to add.

Many Australian pundits (including former players) are predicting a 5-0 stroll as per the last series in Australia.  This is monumentally stupid if for no other reason than the English weather can normally be relied upon to force a draw somewhere.  What I have yet to figure out is whether this is the usual Australian media and public gobbing-off, or whether this is what the actual team members believe.  If the latter, then Australia are in deep trouble already: cricket is a funny game, and has a habit of knocking some reality into those who demonstrate undue hubris.  Look at the expectations of the English team in the last Ashes, for example.  Supreme confidence shattered permanently after a single morning at the Gabba.  Test cricket is good like that.  I was watching some Ashes re-runs the other night on Sky, and one thing caught my attention: even the great Australian team of the early 2000s used to spend sessions being pummeled, with Shane Warne bowling pies, full-tosses, and wides and Glenn McGrath pitching short and wide from the other end and being dispatched to the boundary with ease.  But in other moments of the game, they pulled it all back.  In other words, even the best teams need to work pretty hard for a win, not just turn up on the back of a reputation.

So let’s assume the Australian team is a bit more sober than its fans and is going to put some effort in.  What can we expect?

First England.  Facing Tim Southee and Trent Boult at their very best with the red ball last month will have done the English batsmen no harm whatsoever, even if some – Ballance and Bell – didn’t cope with it too well.  In terms of preparation for facing potentially devastating spells of fast, swing bowling this was probably as good as it gets.  For reasons I’ll explain in a minute, this area is where the Ashes will be lost or won for England.  Our batting line-up is packed with talent right down the order; the only questions are whether they are good enough to handle the Australian bowling and whether Ballance and Bell will regain their previous form.  You would back Bell to score some runs at some point in this series, even if he isn’t as consistent as he was in the previous home Ashes when he single-handedly kept in England in the contest.  He has too much talent and experience to keep getting ducks, although the selectors might lose patience if he’s not produced the goods and England are 2-0 down going into Trent Bridge.  Ballance is more of a worry: if he cannot reliably bat at No. 3 he will find himself sent back to County Cricket in pretty short order and a replacement drafted in or Root pushed up the order.  On Ballance (see what I did there?), he is probably England’s most worrying link in the batting chain.  I am confident Cook will score runs, as will Root, and as will everyone else down the order at some point.  Stokes, Buttler, Ali can all swing a bat.  But these guys will not win matches on their own, and it is crucial for England that these explosive players arrive at the crease when there are at least 250-300 on the board.  And for that, we need Cook, Lyth, Ballance, Root or Bell to score at least a century with two of the others making substantial contributions.

You would back them to do that – if they can force the Australian bowlers into fifth and sixth spells.  And that’s a big “if”.  Australia have had very little practice at the long form of the game of late: fresh from a World Cup and IPL, they cruised through two pathetically truncated test matches against the West Indies before coming to England where they have faced county teams for their warm-up matches.  As New Zealand showed when they arrived on English shores, it takes a test or two to adjust to the Duke ball and the longer spells.  The Australian bowlers will surely adapt, but it is vital that England keep them out long enough to force them into longer spells and late-session bowling against set batsmen.  England have tried to do this in the past by blocking for eternity, waiting out maiden after maiden, but this proved to be disastrous in the last Ashes.  England simply have to score runs off the Australian quicks, or the series will be over before we know it.  It is a daunting task, but not an impossible one.  Ryan Harris will not be playing, Mitchell Johnson has struggled a little in the warm-up games and doesn’t have a great record in England, and the hype being placed on Hazelwood as the new McGrath after only a handful of games might prove to be his downfall if he starts getting clubbed around a bit.  All eyes are on Mitchell Starc, who is capable of destroying an entire batting line-up in a single spell, but there will be periods where he hasn’t quite found his line and length and England need to take advantage of these and force Clarke into a more defensive field.  If England can somehow tire the Aussie bowlers, and put on 300+ runs each innings, they’ll be in with a real chance.

Why? Because the Australian batting looks vulnerable.  In the previous Ashes, the Australian 5th batsman was exposed to the new ball in almost every innings, the top order having collapsed.  Each time they relied upon the tail wagging and the bowlers cleaning out England’s batsmen cheaply, which they duly did.  But this is a risky strategy, especially away from home.  Warner doesn’t cope well with sideways movement, Rogers is dangerous but is pushing on a bit and can normally be relied upon to get himself out cheaply every other innings, and the rest – especially Watson and Marsh – are inconsistent.  Clarke is a class act but has been injured lately, so he perhaps shouldn’t be relied upon to shore up a collapsing innings.  Haddin doesn’t do so well in England as Australia and, like Voges, is also pushing on.  The real dangerman is Smith, who is young, fit, and extremely talented (as well as being extremely likeable).  In previous series, Australia’s bowlers have been so effective that their batsmen have only needed 250-300 or so each innings to secure a match-winning total.  If England can somehow get even a modest 300+ total, especially if batting first, it will be interesting to see how Australia’s batsmen cope.  They are simply not used to facing down massive scoreboard pressure, and this is where they are most vulnerable.

That said, there are a few other worrying signs for England.  First and foremost among these is our lack of an international-standard spinner.  Much as though I like Moeen Ali, and also Rashid, neither are (yet) match-winning spinners of the sort that would trouble Australia.  Lyon isn’t particularly good, other than the fact that he has amassed more wickets than any other Australian off-spinner and has had England’s number for quite some time.  In other words, he’s plenty good enough.  He’ll not be the difference between the two sides, but he’ll certainly contribute to it if England’s spinners cannot get into their game.  England’s seam bowling looks good, but if past performances are anything to go by we are far too reliant on Jimmy Anderson.  Broad is brilliant about once every three matches, which is just not good enough.  If he fails to back up Jimmy, we’ll lose.  Mark Wood is an exciting prospect, but is unproven and his pace might quickly drop off as the sessions, matches, and series grind on.  But if he picks up some big wickets early on, he might end up having a storming series.  Next, England really need to once and for all figure out how to deal with a tail.  Time and again English fans have watched their bowlers reduce a side to 190-7 using good-length bowling targeting the top of off stump and then seen the last three batsmen plunder another 180 runs of short-pitched rubbish.  If Trevor Bayliss can manage one thing in his first few weeks in the job, it ought to be teaching the English bowlers how to remove a tail, or at least stop them from scoring like it’s a T20.  By contrast, the Australians usually skittle the England tail for about 15 runs.  Finally, England need to get a grip of their catching.  They are excellent in the field in terms of balls chased down and getting it back into the keeper, but they have put down a lot of slip catches in their recent tests against New Zealand and the West Indies.  This might not be a problem against the likes of Watson and Warner who can be relied upon to give you another chance in the next over, but against Clarke or Smith this will be fatal.  Bayliss needs to address this pronto.

Regarding Bayliss, I expect we will see his influence more in Tests 3-5 rather than the first two or three.  He will need time to figure out the team in the same way Lehmann did when he took over Australia 4 years ago.  Hopefully he will at least have instilled a new mentality in the England team, similar to that adopted by the ODI side with impressive results.  England have some positives: Root, Wood, Stokes, Buttler should all be worth watching.  Of Cook’s captaincy, the less said the better.

So what do I think?  Australian’s better bowling, captaincy, and and overall experience giving them the series 3-1, with 1 game drawn and England winning the 4th or 5th test.  That’s the realistic view.  The optimistic view is England winning unexpectedly in Cardiff due to Australia’s bowlers not being able to find their rhythm, and going on to win the series 2-1.  Whatever happens, I am sure England will at least win sessions this series: we didn’t even manage that last time.

Posted in Sport | 27 Comments

More on American Gun Control

In the summer of 2000 I found myself sat at the counter of a small bar somewhere on the coast of Virginia, USA.  The barman, a man in his 40s with long hair and a beard, was friendly enough and we were chatting (the place wasn’t busy).  I don’t remember what we talked about and I would have otherwise forgotten being there were it not for one thing he said regarding Britain:

“Well, you guys just need to get the fuck out of Ireland.”

I wasn’t particularly annoyed by the remark – dumbassed comments on the Northern Irish situation were common enough back home – but it remained with me as a perfect example of somebody passing a remark on a highly complex and protracted foreign situation which revealed almost total ignorance and should best be ignored.  Which is what I did.

I was reminded of this episode last week in the wake of the shootings in South Carolina, when herds of British and Australians, led by that idiot Piers Morgan and backed up by the comedian John Oliver, took to the internet to launch both criticism and advice at America which can be summed up as follows:

1) Americans are stupid.

2) Ban all guns now.

When it comes to foreigners talking about American gun laws, there seems to be an inverse relationship between passion and knowledge of the subject.  Many of those foaming at the mouth, who confess they consider this issue to be the gravest America faces, were unaware that gun laws vary considerably from state to state.  Others claimed the issue of gun control is one that has never been debated in the US, leading one to wonder how the Federal Government, 50 states, and the District of Columbia managed to pass legislation on the subject.  As Wikipedia tells us:

Policy at the Federal level is/has been governed by the Second Amendment, National Firearms Act, Gun Control Act of 1968, Firearm Owners Protection Act, Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, and the Domestic Violence Offender Act. Gun policy in the U.S. has been revised many times with acts such as the Firearm Owners Protection Act, which loosened provisions for gun sales while also strengthening automatic firearms law.[94] At the local and state level gun laws such as handgun bans have been overturned by the Supreme Court in cases such as District of Columbia v. Heller and McDonald v. Chicago.These cases hold that an individual person has a right to possess a firearm. Columbia v. Heller only addressed the issue on Federal enclaves, while McDonald v. Chicago addressed the issue as relating to the individual states.

No debate or control, indeed.

The prevailing opinion appears to be that everyone and anyone is able to carry any kind of weapon freely, and hence they have all these shootings in the USA.  They think that these shootings are less common in other countries because they have tighter gun control, hence the solution is to implement a nationwide ban.  What advocates of a ban rarely acknowledge is that even European countries have not banned handguns: ownership, although subject to obtaining a permit and other heavy restrictions, is not illegal in the UK, France, Germany, Norway, and Italy (at which point I stopped looking).  Regarding France:

France has no limit on magazine capacity and no assault weapon ban, other than that you need a permit for category one semi-automatics.

And Italy:

All private firearms must be registered at the local police department within “72 hours”, as specified by law, after purchase or transfer, although this limit goes from the time the firearm is actually taken to the place where it is to be registered (for example, the firearm may be bought at a time and withdrawn after a week from the retailer; only then the weapon will require the registration).

Citizens are allowed to own:

  • up to three common firearms (usually handguns, but all firearms not using hunting calibers fall into this category, such as 10-gauge shotguns, or some .22 rimfire pistols and rifles);
  • up to six weapons that have been classified as manufactured for shooting sports by the National Proof House;
  • an unlimited number of hunting weapons (both rifles and shotguns);

A concealed carry license allows a citizen to carry a handgun for personal defense; this license is usually much harder to obtain than the other two firearm licenses, must be renewed yearly (while the hunting and shooting sports licences are valid for 6 years), and the applicant has to provide a valid reason to carry a concealed gun (e.g. a salesperson of valuable goods such as jewelry).

The fact that gun ownership is permitted across Europe is something rarely acknowledged by those Europeans who want to see American guns banned.  How many commentators do you hear saying “there is absolutely no reason for anyone to own an assault rifle” in the context of American gun ownership, but never once mention France?

In short, the gap between America and Europe when it comes to gun control laws is wide, but not half as wide as gun control advocates make out.  When it comes to actual gun ownership, the gap is indeed very wide, which may be because of the restrictions in Europe but is more likely to be because, for reasons related to culture, history, and geography, Americans simply want to own more guns that Europeans.  It does not follow that by introducing European-style gun laws that Americans will turn their backs on guns, and their number decline amongst the law-abiding.  So what a lot of the criticism comes down to is that Americans are stupid for wanting to own a gun, because Europeans don’t see a need for them.

Nevertheless, the complete ban solution, so the narrative goes, is so obvious that only morons cannot see it.  Hence we get Facebook posts along the lines of:

3,000 people killed in 9/11 = war

32,000 people killed per year by guns = NOTHING

Which gets reposted by what appear to be adults.

Gun deaths in the US, or anywhere else, can be broken down into separate categories:

  • General criminality
  • Killing sprees
  • Self-defence
  • Accidents
  • Suicides

According to Wikipedia, there were 8,855 firearm related homicides in the USA.  I’ve not been able to find a breakdown of this figure which would show us how many of these are attributed to general criminality, but despite the regularity of noodle-armed omega males going on killing sprees in the past decade or so, the numbers killed in these events do not run into the hundreds, let alone thousands.  Ditto for self-defence.  Therefore, most firearms homicides in the US are a result of general criminality.

Now the homocide rate is very high, probably for two broad reasons:

  1. America is awash with guns.
  2. A combination of stupid drug laws, gang cultures, and inner-city deprivation.

The above two set America apart from most other civilised nations, who either have one but not the other, or both but on a far smaller scale.  If you’re looking for a reason why there are more homicides by firearms in the US than UK, for example, then look no further.

So how are harsher gun controls supposed to help with this?  As TNA pointed out in the comments of my previous post:

1. I don’t believe those with malicious intent will pay any attention to gun laws.
2. There are loads of guns already out there and they are non-biodegradable.

A lot of foreigners, particularly Australians, point to the Australian gun buy-back scheme which was set up as part of the new legislation after the 1996 massacre in Port Arthur.  This netted 631,000 firearms, turned in by law-abiding owners.  However, as the same linked Wiki article tells us:

Low levels of violent crime through much of the 20th century kept levels of public concern about firearms low. In the last two decades of the century, following several high profile multiple murders and a media campaign, the Australian government co-ordinated more restrictive firearms legislation with all state governments.

So the Australian government managed to gather and destroy a lot of legal firearms from a population that had, by and large, not been using them to kill each other very much.  Leaving aside whether this was necessary (although Australians point to their lack of recent massacres to vindicate this policy), it is hard to see this working in the US: criminals are criminals, and are not likely to hand over their guns.  In short, Australia and the US are at very different starting points with the main difference being the armed, criminal element in Australia was pretty low.  As it was in the UK around the time of Dunblane.

Even assuming law-abiding Americans hand over their weapons instead of going through the embuggerance of complying with European-style gun laws (which I very much doubt), this still leaves the vast swathes of gun-toting criminals who would in all certainty hang onto them, and in all probability be delighted that they are now the only civilians who will be armed.  The Australian scheme simply isn’t going to work in the US and remove any more than a handful of guns from circulation.

And that’s by far the biggest problem facing America when it tries to grapple with its sky-high homicide-by-firearm rate: there are a lot of violent criminals, and they all have guns.  If you want to tackle this problem, the starting point would be a severe examination of their disastrous war on drugs, but nobody will touch that with a barge-pole.

However, nobody really cares about the vast majority of homicides which are dark folk shooting other dark folk.  Certainly the Europeans couldn’t care less about inner-city gang violence in the US.  But they are quite happy to use these statistics whenever there is a shooting spree.  Shooting sprees are terrible events and create harrowing storylines, but statistically they are insignificant, hence the overall gun death rate must be held aloft when the bodies are still warm in order to advance the agenda.

There is an argument that increased gun control might prevent some shooting sprees (although not all of them), which was put to me by a Texan friend.  The type of loser who goes on a shooting spree would probably lack the balls and the social connections to get hold of illegal weaponry, and so picks up a legal one from the nearest shop.  Without this option, he might not be able to arm himself.  I’ll not dismiss this argument because it does make sense in theory, but increasing gun controls is unlikely to eradicate all shooting sprees as anyone determined will arm himself one way or another.  But more importantly, I don’t think shooting sprees have much to do with gun controls anyway: it is more an issue of mental health diagnosis and treatment, and the quirk of American culture which for whatever reason throws up delusional, attention-seeking assholes who would do anything for a few minutes of notoriety – be it on a reality TV show or by committing mass murder.  Addressing these two issues would probably go a lot further to reducing the number of shooting sprees than making people obtain gun permits.

Finally, what annoys me a lot about Europeans and Australians when they comment on America’s gun laws is they are completely dismissive of 1) the constitutional structure of the USA and 2) the opinion of millions upon millions of American citizens.  We saw this when the Kyoto Protocol was roundly rejected by the US senate by whopping 95-0 because, rightly, they saw it as a massive stitch-up for the American way of life.  Europeans reacted with disbelief and insults, seemingly astonished that an American government is unable to just enact whatever laws it likes in order to fall into line with what the rest of the world wants.  The way Europeans sneer at the American constitutional right of its citizens to keep and bear arms betrays a deep-rooted ignorance and snobbery which Americans have detested since the Boston Tea Party.  Secondly, Americans have been time and again asked whether increased gun control laws are a price they are willing to pay to reduce the number of gun deaths in the USA, and each time they have come back with a resounding “No!” based on:

1) The fact that they have a constitutional right to own guns, and the government does not have the power to infringe this; and

2) The quite understandable idea that restricting their right to own a firearm would not make a blind bit of difference anyway.

America has serious issues with guns and gun deaths, but these will not be solved by their listening to foreigners who are breathtakingly ignorant or utterly dismissive of every historical, cultural, societal, political, and constitutional aspect of this highly complex and divisive topic.

(With thanks to the commentators on my previous post.)

Posted in Politics, USA | 14 Comments