Sunday, 21 July 2013

Ashes Diary - 2nd Test - Day 3

The Big Sleep

There is one inevitability for the Australian cricket lover following a winter Ashes and that is that at some point you are going to fall asleep for a significant chunk of play. Day 3 was my turn. Having seen out the first two overs with a straight bat and watchful eye, I made the fatal error of assuming the sleeping position length-ways across the couch. Resistance was futile. A week with virtually no sleep caught up with me in one fuzzy, soundless moment and I was gone. For hours.

It is an Ashes tradition I suppose and once I woke up again it got me thinking about other rituals I've observed over the years and the way that the 'away' Ashes series is an orientation point for so much of my life. The thrilling, joyful act of post-bedtime parental defiance in '89 and '93 gave way to deep, considered obsession in '97 and '01 before '05 and '09 co-existed variously with the nocturnal unpredictability of young adulthood and the incursion of serious relationships. This time around I feel prepared for a consistent, level-headed campaign. If only I can stay awake.

In an ephemeral sense, I guess the ABC Cricket Guide is the most obvious Ashes tradition I observe. It made more sense in 1993 when I was huddled under my doona with the radio turned down low to avoid the attention of my parents. After all, I wasn't allowed a TV in my bedroom (my girlfriend and I now have more screens in our house than people by a multiple exceeding two), there was no twitter and (for me) no internet. It was a portal into the world of cricket, full of statistics and profiles; pictures and words that seemed to matter a lot.

There is no justifiable reason to buy the ABC Cricket Guide these days. It's an anachronism and about the least essential cricket document I can think of. But without fail I still buy every single one of the things. The stats are out of date before it even hits the newsagent's shelves and everything written in it seems (even if it is only a month old) feels like it may as well have been uncovered from a stone tablet. But if it were ever to disappear I'd probably feel an immediate and crushing tightness in my chest and start silently weeping. I guess its like the English's own feelings towards publishing institutions like the Beano; they just want to know that it's still there, that there's some continuity in their life and that certain things will never change. The difference being that I still feel the need to buy the ABC Cricket Guide.

The Ashes makes me think about life on a profound level, you see.

Brief interviews with hideous men

In the time I was still awake before play, I at least got to have a decent chuckle at Brendan Julian's assertion in the Fox Sports studio preview that Joe Root "sometimes looks like a number eight of something" and that he didn't get the fuss about the English youngster. In combination with Greg Blewett, BJ is to cricket analysis what Richard Wilkins is to film criticism. Unlike Dickie Wilks, BJ doesn't have Rotten Tomatoes or the back cover blurb of DVD's to fall back on though, so he ends up making such cack-handed statements on a regular basis.

The baby-faced Assassin 

In actual fact Root's success in blunting Australia's tiring attack to the tune of 178 undefeated runs and counting on day three should not have come as a surprise to anyone. It might be an oversimplification of Australia's batting malaise to say that the country lacks young players who can make big hundreds (or hundreds of any kind, if we're honest) but it is also true. By comparison, this season alone, Root has made scores of 182, 236, 179, 104 and now 178 not out. Here's something even simpler to digest: he makes runs off the back foot. Not lap sweeps or switch hits or big show six-hitting from a firmly planted front foot, though he is probably capable of them as well, but from a bedrock of nudges and nurdles and drives and cuts off the back foot.  

It's an important distinction to note. Root's backwards movement is more of a shuffle than a stride, but boy is it effective. You could have feasibly lost count of the amount of times it resulted in a boundary being whipped away through cover or mid-wicket. Even the slightest shortening length from Australia's pace brigade was punished.

Did Usman Khawaja notice that? Are Australian batsman preparing themselves for the specific requirements of Test cricket with such obvious diligence as the young Englishman? As Andrew Strauss noted after Root had passed his half-century, he didn't do anything "outrageously risky" during this innings. It wasn't a quick kill and it wasn't flash but by the end of the day, Australia had absorbed so many of Root's seemingly polite jabs that they were dizzied and bleeding, not from the lip but at their core.

At the other end

All the while that Root was piecing his opus together he had able support from both Tim Bresnan and The Terminator, Ian Bell. 

If Ashton Agar showed up the Australian top order at Trent Bridge with his youthful batting exuberance and free-flowing simplicity, today Bresnan taught them a lesson of a different kind; that it's a wholly beneficial aim to just be the best possible version of yourself. Bresnan didn't biff or bash, as would be expected of a nightwatchman returning the next day. He batted exactly as he always tends to, with purpose and in sync with his partner. I noted before the match that Australia would have much preferred to be up against the spindly Steven Finn than a resilient competitor such as Bresnan and his innings today only reinforced that view.

Bell merely picked up where he left off in the first innings. His ascendancy is emblematic of the true gulf between the two teams, that of self-esteem and self-belief; quiet arrogance even. Secure in his place in the English pecking order, Bell's innings construction is accordingly clear-headed. Mis-hits register like slightly amusing blips rather than a telling sign of imminent doom. In the end, his demise to a Steven Smith half-tracker seemed apt; he just never looked particularly troubled by the better bowling that the Australians mustered.

The pain just continued from there with Jonny Bairstow joining a rapidly accelerating Root and giving a further shove to the back of Australia's downhill momentum. With a deficit of 566 looking set to grow further on the fourth day, it is no longer a question of Australia locating the breaks, their exhausted bowling attack might be in need of a full service.

Yes, Bell was out

I mean, when David Gower is saying that an England batsman is out, he's stone cold. It was another howler though no more of a howler than the last one and the one before that. It is becoming a lot less excusable when those howlers are made with the assistance of fairly conclusive evidence though.

Speaking of commentary, has Andrew Strauss said "grind them into the dirt" more times than any other human being in living memory? It's a verbal tic to rival Ian Chappell's stories about Les Favell. The thing is though, Cook's men barely need to engage in the cliche that Strauss suggests as Australia are most definitely digging themselves into a subterranean position all of their own accord. They're not far off hitting water, in fact.

An Australian spinner is taking wickets

He's not actually in England, but it's a start. A couple of days back I joked about Fawad Ahmed being sent home to his couch but he's currently ripping through a Zimbabwean batting line-up for Australia A. Eight wickets and counting. Should Ashton Agar succumb to the injury that appears to be troubling him, Ahmed will enter the frame again along with Nathan Lyon. Some might even make a case for Glenn Maxwell though I won't be one of them.

Monday, 15 July 2013

My Yankee Ashes

WARNING: THIS IS A SELF-INDULGENT TRAVEL DIARY - if you are here for topless photos of Shane Watson, I will resume normal services like that next week.

Also, let the title of this post not be too misleading, for I'm returning to Australian shores in the next few days; this is just the first time I've been abroad for any part of an Ashes series so I thought I'd chronicle it, even if it's only the first Test . It's been...odd.

I've previously mentioned that earlier this year, I made one of the worst time-planning mistakes of my life by having a four week US holiday overlap with the first Test of The Ashes. I mean, the holiday was never going to mean four weeks completely away from cricket, but the thought of 'missing' an Ashes Test of the English variety had filled me with overwhelming dread for months. Sad but true.

In the end, it's worked out fine thanks to the wonders of...ahem...'the internet' (those are 'I did something illegal and don't really feel bad about it' inverted commas) and my own willingness to rise at 5.45am for five days of my holidays. Add in the explosion of cricket-based twitter banter at this point of the cricket calendar and it's virtually like I'm in my lounge room. Except I'm not, I'm in someone else's lounge room on the lower east side of New York with a merry band of pot-smoking troubadours across the hall. I may actually be passively stoned; it smells as though they buy it by the kilo.

Anyway, because I'm a complete loser and have lost all perspective on the importance of this game, my thoughts on the long flight over to the States turned at some point to the expectation of there being 'cricket moments' on this trip. I'd pre-explained the Ashes scheduling issue to my girlfriend and she was fine with me rising early (without her) and leaving our sight-seeing till later in the day during the first Test. But what other part would cricket play on this trip? 

To start with, not a hell of a lot. In our first stop, New Orleans, there was no cricket talk and no cricket watching. Actually that's a lie; it was in New Orleans that I discovered Cricinfo have a live stream of certain one-day games that I don't get in Australia. I breathlessly relayed this information to my girlfriend as I was laying on our hotel bed with the laptop sitting on my chest and some kind of disgusting food in my hand. The look on her face suggested that the sight before her had just shot straight to the Top 5 of my least sexy moments with a bullet. You can't win them all.

In Chicago I was too busy having fun and shoving my face into deep-dish pizza to think about cricket a whole lot, but I did go to Wrigley Field to watch the Cubs. This ball park was later described to me by a Bostonian as "a bit of a dump", but a Bostonian would say that, wouldn't they? This particular Red Sox fan had an Irish family crest tattoo covering half his leg, so I shouldn't have expected anything less. But the day out at Wrigley was a great reminder of the way a sport can be modernised, professionalised and covered from every available angle yet still retain a lot of its old-world charm. Australian stadiums are becoming increasingly homogenized and drab in the last 15 years, so it was a nice reminder of the rich patina that comes from holding onto what you love about your sport.  

Actually, cricket did get a mention in Chicago. We were staying in a hotel so thoroughly buffeted by noise from the neighboring nightclub and fire station (yeah, thanks Cruisabout Travel Agency, you're real pro's) that we could not sleep. This frustrated my girlfriend immensely and it became so hard to get sleep that she eventually rolled over one night at about 3am and said, "Can you tell me a really boring cricket story that will send me to sleep?" My first thought was: 'I might not speak to you for the rest of the trip' but even in my sleep-deprived state, my inner smart-arse shone through; "Sorry, there's no such thing as a boring cricket story, you'll have to count sheep."

In Washington DC I actually learned a thing or two about Twenty20 cricket and the Big Bash in particular. How did I learn this in DC? I went to a Washington Nationals baseball game, that's how. The next time Cricket Australia start with the lip service about wanting to get women and children to attend cricket games, I would point them in the direction of Ted Lerner's office

A World War II veteran and real estate mogul, Lerner took control of this new franchise in 2006 and he had a decent enough job in front of him. In the absence of a Washington-based team for so long, baseball-loving locals mostly followed the Orioles of nearby Baltimore. I guess Lerner was also battling against the fact that DC being DC, its population is transient and fragmented. 

Yet despite all this, the shiny new Nationals Stadium seems to be doing exactly what a stadium should do in a town like that; be completely and utterly appealing to every type of potential fan. It is a considerable achievement. There was a startling array of different and interesting food stands, bars of many shapes and sizes, a brilliant and slickly-run team merchandise store, and overlooking the beautifully-manicured field, a kind of sprawling beer garden that seemed to be the centre of the festivities. We de-camped there from our seats and never returned, it was so much fun. 

To put it bluntly, it was also the gayest crowd I have ever seen, quite an achievement for a sport that occupies similarly dowdy real estate in the American sporting calendar as cricket seems to do these days in Australia. This may have been due to the historic DOMA/Prop 8 verdicts coming down the following day, but you know when journalists resort to cliche and describe an event as possessing a "carnival atmosphere"? This was a carnival where people were also watching sport and spending lots of money on booze. James Sutherland and Mike McKenna should go and stand in that ball park for an entire week. They'll note a few things, like for instance:

- You can't sell merchandise to punters when you're encouraging them to wear fancy dress to the game. That is a gimmick that actually loses you credibility AND money, which is a remarkable failure really and the total opposite of what you should be achieving  Also, make the merch interesting, unique and play upon the colourful heritage of short-form cricket. I lost count of the amount of fans walking around in retro-inspired baseball jerseys and t-shirts.

- Rather than pissing money against the wall creating a "lifestyle magazine" with wine reviews or badger-baiting tips or whatever is actually in that wanky publication of yours (yes people, Cricket Australia have tried their arm at a 'Gourmet Traveler vibe), how about you bring that desirable 'foodie' lifestyle to your actual event? "Oh, but the grounds have catering contracts in..." I don't care, get it right. You can't expect to win over women, kids, hipsters, yuppies and whoever else it is you want if you're offering them a bain marie full of extortionately priced Four 'n' Twenty pies. Get food trucks, get local breweries in, just do something because you currently offer the fickle "Do I really want to go to the cricket?" punter the following: a hard plastic seat and food from the high school tuck shop, circa 1987.

So what I'm saying is, if you're trying to win non-cricket fans over, take a look at people who have done a similar thing and learn from it. It's not easy, but at least try.

Moving on to Boston, we took in Fenway Park and I've got to say, the experience was very similar to Wrigley Field (ie. brilliant and olde-worldy) with the added bonus of un-hinged fans and above-average buffalo wings (I haven't really mentioned what we ate at the Ball Parks because it is shameful and embarrassing to everyone concerned). This also sounds like I just dragged my girlfriend to baseball games; in actual fact we went to four games in 28 days, so I'm not a total monster. I don't even particularly like baseball, but the new Yankees Stadium aside, it is a fun day out. I'll give them that.

Inspired by recently reading Don Watson's 'American Journey's' I decided we should pack a few books and get the train from Boston to New York rather than fly, as we had everywhere else. It was one of the better decisions we made on this trip. I mean, we didn't make friends with an old, wise local or chase a Hurricane like Don Watson would, but I was able to re-read Gideon Haigh's Sphere of Influence in the four hour trip past beautiful lakes and forest,  thus probably making me the only person on that particular carriage reading about the power structure of 21st century cricket. I must have annoyed Cynthia by reading a few too many passages out to her because later in the trip, she woke up having had a dream in which she was playing cricket against myself and Gideon Haigh. I'm not making this up. She probably needs therapy, the poor woman. I'm even invading her subconscious with cricket.

We're now nearing the end of two weeks in mad, maddening and also pretty brilliant New York. Appropriately enough in the midst of an Ashes series, it has actually made me feel a bit English for the first time since...well, since the last time I came to New York. And not just because everyone in America assumes you're from England if you're an Australian. I've never been one for big crowds or loud, bad-mannered people, so obviously New York has presented itself as something of a challenge. It's a brash and bracing place, obviously. Aside from an Indian bloke in a deli who wanted to talk about Ricky Ponting and Mike Hussey, they are also fairly indifferent to cricket.

By the time we were in New York, I was missing cricket. A lot. I missed cricket so much I wanted to get drunk and send it a topless selfie.

I sound pathetic but the contrast of the bustling, grimy streets of Manhattan against my mornings rising to watch The Ashes against the lush, green back-drop of an English summer has done nothing but reinforce my love of cricket. Of its aesthetic beauty and of its monastically calming presence in my life. 

These are feelings I am having from watching a game that's been riddled with umpiring errors and heart-in-mouth moments, so I realise that labeling this game 'calming' sounds completely insane. But watch it I did and what a game it was to watch. From Lord's onwards I'll be keeping a diary on each day of the Tests, but below are a few random observations from another continent with the aid of a jittery computer stream:

Observations on: The First Test - Trent Bridge

Remember this guy?
Poor Fawad, you really have to feel for the guy. He had every section of the press clawing at him for a solid month or so and was probably relatively certain he'd be playing a bigger part in this Ashes campaign than what's occurred. A couple of average spells in warm-up games and he's back at home on the couch in Melbourne. Is he okay? I hope he's not having a Nathan Hauritz-style garage sale this weekend.

I'm not sure how I feel about the Man of the Match Blazer
Are we straying too far into 'Encouragement Award' mentality here? I mean, it's an embarrassing colour at least which is in keeping with cricket tour hijinks, but this just looks like an omen to me. Is it harmless fun or are the official tweets from CA legitimising it as an actual award? It is after all being awarded to Agar for a Test that Australia lost and one in which he was not actually the official Man of the Match. Happy to be proven wrong and I would love to see Agar have his name stitched into it five times though. Channel Nine are actually already preparing a limited edition "Agar the Honourable" limited edition print.

But the jacket thing; am I taking this too personally? I may be taking this too personally.

Keep Calm and Carry On with the Cliches
Apparently this poster was iconic once. I say 'apparently' knowing that is was but having had it shoved down my throat by every meme-lover on the internet and every shitty souvenir shop in the entire universe. You're on your final warning CA social media types, the madness needs to stop. Final warning!

Chris Rogers is my favourite bespectacled Ashes player since David Steele
Ok, I will admit there is not much competition but I love Chris Rogers and his decayed, brown, suspicious-looking armguard. That thing should have its own Cricket Australia contract. I want to smell it. I want to lick it. If Chris Rogers makes a double century at Lord's he can mail it back to Melbourne and I will eat the entire thing live on the 6 o'clock news.

He played alright too, didn't he? Funny thing that, picking a guy who churns out runs in every single place he plays and he goes out and makes some runs. He got a pretty dodgy call and a few more runs still would be nice but it was a more than acceptable amuse bouche. 

Joe Root joke armistice
Hand them all in people, we're safely destroying them. We've moved on. Do you really want to live in a society that allows people to walk around toting stale Joe Root jokes? Be honest, you don't.

Keep on with the Dave Warner jokes IF they are funny though. That one is still fair game.

Pie in the Sky
We all know the Channel Nine's coverage of Test cricket becomes staler and a little bit more cringe-inducing by the year, but it is always a nice novelty to have a fresh set of commentators to provide those awful moments. Sky have delivered in spades. Consider the following statement by David Lloyd during the Trent Bridge Test:

"He seems a very relaxed character, Shane Watson."

Now I know Bumble isn't famed for his preparation work but describing Shane Watson as "a very relaxed character" is kind of like calling Alex Jones a "totally chill bro". Interestingly enough (or not, I guess), when I visited New York's famed 'Strand' bookstore the other day, they had two cricket titles on their shelves, 'English Cricket' by Neville Cardus and some complete bollocks by Bumble. So he does have some pull, I guess.

At least when Athers wasn't blatantly barracking for England (sample from Australia's first innings: "Is 'inside edge' wishful thinking?" I dunno Athers, are you a fan or a journalist?) and Andrew Strauss wasn't completely ignoring the fact that one Stuart Broad lunge to save a four featured his leg straddling the boundary rope, there were some lighter moments. 

My favourite Athers hobby-horse is when no-name sub-fieldsman come on wearing the England Test cap. Those guys are the Road Runner and Athers is Wile E Coyote. It appears he is destined to never have anything done about it, but whinge he will. I remember a time that English-born Frankston boy Steve Stubbings came onto the field during a Test wearing the aforementioned cap and Athers sounded like he was going to run onto the ground and crash-tackle him. It was all very endearing.

Ashton Agar
I won't waste undue time on this as it's been covered to death, but consider this: Australia have unearthed a talented young cricketer who is......drum roll.......ACTUALLY LIKEABLE!
Sorry for the egregious use of capitalisation but I think it deserves some attention. The family, the brothers, the boyish grin, the sporting reaction to being caught two short of one of the more remarkable potential centuries in Test cricket history; what is not to like about this kid? If my girlfriend leaves me for Ashton Agar, I will be shattered but completely understand.

P.S. Re-watch the footage of the Australian balcony when he gets out; Shane Watson does the least convincing impersonation of someone caring that his debutante teammate has just got out for 98 that is humanly possible. Worse acting than the Brut ads. Watto himself put in a classic Watto performance; hit some nice boundaries in the second innings, got himself to 40 odd and then got out, plus bowled some handy overs that had everyone falling over themselves to pay him tributes. In between he generally moves like someone who had spent the entire previous day weeding a garden for the very first time. His pain was painful to watch.

Suggested Ashes Twitter Follows, Vol. 1 - Len Pascoe
Finally, if you are not following Lenny Pascoe on twitter then I don't know what you are doing with your life and am frankly pretty disappointed in you. He is a madman in the most brilliant, consistently entertaining way and I want to hang out with him. Does he drink? From his tweets it sounds like he's drinking constantly. I mean all of this as a compliment Lenny, you are amazing.

Some samples:

Lenny Pascoe needs to be employed by Cricket Australia as the team psychologist. Even when you lose, you win. Everybody gets a sticker. We are reborn! Go ahead my son, into the light!

I dunno Lenny, I have never thought about that but if that is the kind of thing you think about, I want to have a beer with you. Or 20, so this all makes sense.

Lenny loves Dickie Bird? I wouldn't know this without twitter but it's hardly a revelation, is it? Does he own all of Dickie's 742 books? I find them quite useful as door stoppers. In developing countries, they are currently being used as bricks to construct entire high rise buildings, there's that many of the things.

Okay Lenny, I love you bud, but "complete Test player"? No-one show Lenny vision of Amla batting; he will literally dive at his TV and injure himself.

Lenny in his pomp, here. The best thing about his twitter account is his Warner-like spelling and sentence-construction. His tweets are like engravings from an ancient time in which dictionaries and basic syntax did not yet exist.

Someone please explain this to me. Seriously. 

C'mon Lenny, you're better than that. You're heading into Brick Tamlyn territory there buddy. You can't just look at the newspaper on your lap and then just write the first combination of thoughts that come into your head. There is a 'draft' button, use it judiciously.

Thursday, 11 July 2013

The Forgotten Story of Geoff Foley

I know, I have been away and neglecting you and I have no right to be foisting things on you, but here is something I wrote for the Guardian about Geoff Foley, the last Australian cricketer called for throwing in a first class game.

Like Meckiff before him, he really is a square peg in that round hole of chuckers, neither bitter about the treatment he received nor particularly emotive about the issue as a whole. I'm talking it down though, it's an interesting story. I swear.

Aside from that, I'm in dying days of a gloriously long holiday but will be back on board post haste.