Wednesday, 10 January 2018

Australia player-by-player; Going at it home and away - final Ashes notes

Steve Smith said that he felt the series turned on Nathan Lyon's run out of James Vince on the first afternoon at Brisbane. The city was unseasonably cool, the Gabba pitch one England would have knelt down in prayer for, low and sluggish and about as typical of Queensland as Julian Assange. Vince was on 83 and cruising like a rich granny, England 143-2, ahead for the first and, as it turned out, last time. Smith was right, Brisbane was England's chance. How fleeting it was, and how suddenly it was gone...

David Warner
(441 runs at 63.00, HS: 103)
The mighty Bull turned righteous Reverend was uncharacteristically mild until the Ashes were won, visibly set on an unlikely (for him) strategy of seeing off Broad and Anderson then to feast upon white underbelly. He saw sense in Melbourne, where he scored 103 of Australia's first 135 runs, the only man to overpower a wicket that demanded players outlast it. It's a mark of Australian dominance that his final mark of 63 was good enough for just fourth place in their averages.

Cameron Bancroft
(179 runs at 25.57, HS: 82*)
Warner's tenth opening partner may soon yield to number eleven, Bancroft's series post-Brisbane both jarring anomoly and a stinging lesson in holed technique. He is only 25 and has time to regroup, while Australia will probably return to the even more youthful Matt Renshaw. Warner may reflect that his one stable partnership has been with Chris Rogers, gentleman of a certain age...

Usman Khawaja
(333 runs at 47.57; HS: 171)
Australia remain equivocal about Khawaja, who rather marvellously doesn't seem to bother himself with such trivia. The main criticism, expressed at length on commentary by Michael Slater, was that he didn't "give off enough energy" at the crease, whatever that means. It's nonsensical of course, as useful a piece of advice as when Ian Bell was urged (and tried) to "impose himself" on the opposition. Yes, someone who glares and re-fastens his gloves like Warner, or struts to square leg like Smith, is going to look more engaged than Khawaja, who is soft of frame and gently round-shouldered. But he gutsed out fifty in Perth and then unfurled majestically in Sydney, where his timing outshone his captain's.

Steve Smith
(687 runs at 137.40, HS: 239)
Let's not talk more about the Bradmanesque technique and what it may mean, and instead consider Smith's cricketing intelligence. He read the game like a great Shakespearian actor reads the Bard, with an innate feel for how it should be expressed. It may be a flowery analogy, but how else to explain the way Smith produced his fastest hundred and his slowest, how he altered his stance and his grip and the shots that he chose? He inhaled the game and breathed out pure cricket, and by the end had batted so long it had driven him slightly mad. His final hour at the crease became eccentric even by his standards; he lost some timing and scooped a nothing catch to Moeen with an historic fourth hundred a few runs away. Captains engage in a Yin and Yang struggle in long series. Smith already had the advantage in firepower when he was handed a cache of free ammo in the Bairstow 'headbutt' and Duckett pint fiasco. From then on, he simply had to smirk at Root to let him know the score.

Shaun Marsh
(445 runs at 74.16, HS: 156)
Sometimes the gods laugh... At 34, Marsh was a kind of Australian Graeme Hick, dropped and recalled so often even he couldn't remember how many times it had happened. Yet he arrived in form, his first ball hit the middle of the bat and at last the world was his. The story goes that Mark Waugh had liked Marsh since 2003, when Marsh brought up his maiden first class ton by hitting Waugh for consecutive sixes in a State game. Whatever the reason, the selectors got this, and a couple of other borderline choices, exactly right. In the Aussie rooms their batting coach, one Graeme Hick Esq, might have permitted himself a smile.

Mitchell Marsh
(320 runs at 106.66, HS: 181)
There's nothing like a bit of brotherly oneupmanship to stir the familial blood. Their mid-pitch celebration at Sydney when Mitch joined Shaun with a second hundred of the series was funny and touching, but you can be sure there was some grit in the pearl - little brothers fight hard not to be outdone. There was a weird familiarity to Marsh's uncomplicated batting - the cut, the pull, the beefy biff down the ground - and then it dawned: he's not unlike a prime-era Flintoff in approach.

Tim Paine
(192 runs at 48.00, HS: 57)
Great teams - very good teams even - feel solid; they have a kind of inevitability to them, with all questions answered. Tim Paine seemed so far away from being a part of it, and yet after the bolshy Wade, he was the perfect fit. Beyond an early drop, his glovework was smooth and his batting there if needed; a question answered so well it seems strange it was ever asked.

Pat Cummins
(23 wickets at 24.65, BB: 4/39; 166 runs at 41.50, HS: 44)
Unlike England, who turned up with two ageing thoroughbreds, a couple of punts and half a spinner, Australia had planned for eighteen months to get Cummins, Starc and Hazlewood on the field together. It was more difficult than it sounds - Cummins' five Test appearances prior to Brisbane had occupied six years, his first made in November 2011 and his second in March 2017. Still not 25, only now could Cummins' body withstand the rigour he put it through as a strongarm enforcer from brutal lengths.  

Mitchell Starc
(22 wickets at 23.54, BB: 5/88)
Starc is almost two bowlers in one, such are the difference in angles when he goes over and around the wicket, and England really didn't need two Mitchell Starcs bowling at them... Full or short, it was that bone-chilling speed, the sort that has its effects on the central nervous system. The plan to destroy England's tail, which, when Stokes was in the side and Moeen batted at eight, brought so many runs, was lethally executed.

Nathan Lyon
(21 wickets at 29.13, BB: 4/60)
The least likely member of either side to be involved in a Daily Mail kiss-and-tell nonetheless pulled that feat off, the continuation of his equally unlikely but increasingly substantial career. It's not usual for a man with almost 300 Test wickets to have a semi-ironic nickname, but the GOAT continues to feed, especially on left-handers, and it was his run-out of Vince in Brisbane, and his first spell there, which edged Australia into the series. England's lefties need more solid plans for two years' time, because Lyon, Australia's unlikely lothario champ, will still be there...

Josh Hazlewood
(21 wickets at 25.90, BB: 5/48)
So evenly were Australia's wickets shared that Hazlewood took one of just two five-fers from the 89 that they knocked over. He is the least flashy of the pace trio, and in a way the Ur version of the player England want to produce: someone that bowls 90mph at the top of off stump, and stays fit while they do it. Hazelwood sent down some compelling, tireless spells, particularly in Brisbane and Perth, and his moustache remains the only truly indefensible thing about him.

Home and away with the neighbours...

Cricket Australia's sale of rights to BT Sport has resulted in a predictable car-crash for viewing figures. The series was essentially invisible in one of the competing nations. Numbers for the Perth Test, Andy Bull reported for the Guardian, were 82,000 per day. For Melbourne it's possible there were more people in the ground than watching on British TV.

With the announcement that "there will be no specific review" of England's performance from the ECB (compare and contrast to the internecene blood-letting of last time) it seems that the Ashes 2017/8 will be quietly swept under the carpet, least heard, soonest mended.

It is becoming a contest divided between home and away, still subject to the great anachronistic timescales of the era in which it was invented. A more stable proposition, and a more competitive one, may be to play a six-match series across both countries, three in England ending in September, three in Australia beginning in November, once every two years. In the event of a tied series, an away win would count double. Alternatively, there could be four Tests in England, three in Australia, and then vice versa.

Any sport - indeed almost anything - needs to accelerate to match the speed of the culture it lives in. The era of five Tests once every four years in each country is creaking unsteadily towards its end.

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