Monday, November 29, 2010

Michael Hussey 195

He walked from the field as the Gabba rose to applaud an innings as much about the match as it was of redemption. A man with his back screwed to the wall nailed his name to the team list with a stroke of his bat.

There are times when watching cricket that you start to feel that something special is building, I felt this watching Warne’s first test in England. As Michael Hussey cut and pulled England during the afternoon session of the 2nd day you started to feel that he was turning the game in his gloves.

Sitting in my lounge observing a ‘testing’ first session of punch and counter punch against the old enemy, Hussey showed toughness that is only shown in the true test of 5 day cricket, as he baked in the morning Brisbane sun to fight off the early use of the new ball. Building an innings from scratch is no mean task and as the sun wilted the once tall poppies in the English bed of roses, Hussey stood tall playing shot after shot, beating fielders with timing over power, mental strength over reckless attitude.

Australia as a country and a cricket side has changed dramatically over the past 4 years and in this time we have seen our pride and passion for being Australian used as a prime excuse to act less that favourable towards our fellow citizens, or behave as yobs overseas. Long had the fighting kangaroo disappeared from the worlds view; Hussey with his no frills cricket. No bombshell women’s magazine wife, tattoo wearing, product placement cricketer. Who in many ways comes across as the suburban man from WA, proved that the ‘average’ man has greatness when he puts others thoughts aside and worries about his contribution to team and country.

The return of the battler. As he jumped for joy at making his 100, hugging Haddin and punching the air with his bat and helmet. An Australian in the fighting sense, a respectful batsman who credits the bowlers for the endeavour and the media for its reasons, but forgot all of that for a day and half to provide the English a glimpse into the heart of a patriot batsman, and to worry England into the fact that Australia is not prepared to just give away the opportunity on home soil.

England’s reply will be quick and deadly, as a nation they are now the leaders in a sport they were laughed at. And when emotion runs high from one side, it can have the effect to muster the troops of the other. England is no longer the ugly step child, which slides into the shadows as its master beats them. A reply will be forth coming and one that shall show all that this series will be special for more than just its holders 20 year mission to win in the sun burnt country.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Winter Season Reads ( I )

As the winter starts to set in, it seems that those without the magic of pay-tv, don’t have the access to the overseas tours happening in the southern hemisphere. I find this time of year great to settle down on the couch or maybe that quiet pub, an Ale next to the fire and tuck in that book you’ve been meaning to read.

Summer is for playing cricket, and winter is for reading about it.
  So with that in mind I’m going to highlight a few books during this winter break that I personally have read, some old, some new, but all worthy page turners.

Blood, Sweat and Treason – Henry Olonga My Story

This first book is a mixture of part biography, part political story as it describes the events and Henry Olonga’s life leading up to the ‘black armband’ protest during the Zimbabwe World Cup. The book starts off with the day of the event and the fear that Henry felt inside knowing he needed to escape the country in order to avoid prosecution from Mugabe’s militant regime.

The book then continues to talk about his rising to become the first black cricketer for the country, as well as his issues regarding his bowling action, and his ongoing injury problems. The book itself is an interesting view compared to most cricketing books, as they tend to follow ‘superstars’ of the game and Olonga by his own admission in the book describes himself as an ‘average’ cricket who on his day is ‘world class’ This honesty provides the reader with a strong feeling of Olonga’s passion not just for cricket, but for life and the future of his once growing country.

As devote Christian, you can feel his faith portrayed in this book. Yet this theme is not pushed on the reader to believe, with Olonga giving examples of times when things have moved in mysterious ways. It certainly alerts you to the fact that there are forces that seem to move to align certain events at just the right time, some call this luck, others faith. Having mainly read books based on English or Australian sides, it is refreshing to take a look at international cricket from a minnow’s point of few, as Zimbabwe went about trying to make themselves into a cricketing nation in both the short and long forms of the game.

The build up to the events that changed Olonga’s life and that, of Andy Flowers is, detailed and insightful, and shows a strong bond between cricket and the country. And it shows in the lead up to this event that it was not a rushed protest, but one that was carefully planned, thought of and achieved with the great help from many other individuals. Post protest Henry Olonga having moved to England now lives a much quieter life compared to his team-mate Andy Flower and it almost seems as if the two were brought to together by this historical moment, yet it was only this that bonded them.

Henry Olonga’s story is one which needed to be written, and I’m glad have read it. A story of a one person’s efforts to, inform others of his countries loss, a protest that cost a cricketer his career. This is a story of courage to stand-up to what you believe and have the conviction to stand by your cause. Everyone should this at least once and then remember the power that sport can have on society.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Around the Grounds "The Gabba"

On the eve of the Ashes Series, here at the Cricket Observer we are going to go beyond the players that are taking the field and walking past the gate towards the centre. And are turning our focus on the grounds of this year’s series, with a brief history of past games, results and events that have shaped each venue, to play its own special part in the legend that is the Ashes.

Brisbane Cricket Ground “The Gabba”

Other wise known as The Gabba due to the shortening of the suburb in which it is located in Woolloongabba. The land on which the ground sits was first set aside for use as a cricket ground in 1895. The first cricket match was held on the site on 19 December 1896 between Parliament and The Press. The Gabba was not used for interstate or international cricket until the visit of South Africa in 1931. A game in which Australia won by an innings at 163 runs, with Bradman top scoring for the home side with 226 and local Bert Ironmonger taking 9 wickets.

In the 80’s the Gabba was notorious for its run down facilities, these were greatly improved in 1993 and 2005, The Gabba was redeveloped in six stages at a cost of $128,000,000 AUD. The dimensions of the playing field are now 170.6 metres (east-west) by 149.9 metres (north-south). The seating capacity of the ground is now 42,000. In its appearance the Gabba now almost resembles a mini Melbourne Cricket Ground complete with light towers and a gigantic modern grandstand ringing the ground providing an intimidating and noisy atmosphere for visiting teams.

Best known as the beginning of all test series for the summer in Australia, a reason on research has found nothing more matches were required to be played at the ground, and now this has been stuck with as the beginning of Cricketing summer. Regarded as a good batting track with plenty of bounce, the ground itself has had some memorable scores. The highest being the 645 scored by Australia in 1946 against England which included Bradman 187, Hassett 128, and McCool with a 95. the most recent ‘modern’ day high score was Australia in 2006 after “that delivery” from Harmison they went on to amass 602 runs. In more recent times it has become a favourite haunt of Shane Warne, with the extra bounce from the often excellent wickets helping his legspin. In early 2006 a record crowd of 38,894 watched the first Twenty20 international in the country. This mark was promptly beaten six days later when Australia played South Africa in a full ODI.

Memorable Moments:
  • 2006 Steve Harmison and that wide delivery that picked out Flintoff at 2nd slip, a defining moment in the series.
  • In December 1960, Test cricket's first-ever Tied Test took place at the ground when Richie Benaud's Australian team tied with Frank Worrell's West Indian side.
  • Queensland clinched it’s first-ever Sheffield Shield title with victory over South Australia in the final at the ground in March 1995.
  • March 2008, Andrew Symonds knocked a would be streaker flat to the ground, in the biggest tackle ever seen in ODI cricket.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Larwood was a Englishman but, also pure Aussie at heart.

To get myself into the mood for the Ashes, not that a series such as this needs much to stir the pot of emotions for a man living on both sides of the fence, I have been brushing up on a few classic books on the Ashes. The first that comes to mind is The Bodyline Autopsy and most recently Duncan Hamilton's biography of Harold Larwood. It's a top-class piece of sportswriting, one in which I wish I wrote myself.

How good was Larwood? Get on YouTube and have a look. It's old, old footage. Larwood is a grey ghost streaking in to bowl. He was only 170 centimetres in height and it is said he ran so lightly he made no sound as he came in to bowl. His action is still wonderful to behold - he has both acceleration and exquisite balance. His various rhythms come together in one fluid moment at the point of delivery much as those of another great fast bowler, New Zealander Richard Hadlee, did.

The YouTube footage shows him hitting Australian Bert Oldfield in the head, Oldfield reeling away like a man who'd had acid flung in his face. This was after earlier hitting the Australian captain Bill Woodfull with a delivery to the heart. Woodfull batted on. Larwood struck him several more times. There was a real risk of a riot. Larwood and another English player agreed which stump they would grab to brandish in their defence. In the aftermath, the governments of both countries got involved. Larwood's story reads like a novel. He was down the coal pits at the age of 14. His family was Methodist, teetotal and cricket-loving. Playing for Nottinghamshire, he impressed Jack Hobbs when he blasted the master batsman's off stump out of the ground in successive innings. Hobbs got him into the English team in 1926.

For the 1932-33 tour of Australia, England was captained by Douglas Jardine. Upper class and severe in manner, Jardine re-awoke old convict memories and personified what Australians silently despised about the English. He and Larwood had a bond which Larwood carried with pride all his life. Jardine was of the officer class; Larwood was proud to have carried out his orders. Jardine had personally investigated every innings Bradman played in England in 1930 to find a chink in his armour. Finally, in a piece of footage, he saw an incident in which, on a rain-affected pitch, Bradman appeared to flinch before a short ball from Larwood. ''Got it!'' he is said to have cried. ''He's yellow.''

Duncan Hamilton is a fine sportswriter and the best of his imagery is startlingly good. The book really comes alive to me when he likens Jardine's plan for Larwood to the invention of the tank in World War I. Before the tank, the infantry on both sides basically ran at one another's machine guns. With tanks, they had cover. Before Larwood, cricket was a different game, one biased - Larwood believed - in favour of batsmen. At the end of what is remembered as the Bodyline Tour, having taken 33 wickets at 19, Jardine insisted on Larwood bowling with an injury. He never bowled as fast again and nor did he ever again play for England.

A teammate said Larwood, a shy, sensitive man, bowled with ''demonic aggression''. He didn't like Bradman - although it seems his appreciation of Bradman as a batsman grew over the years - and Bradman didn't like him. Larwood questioned Bradman's courage, Bradman questioned his action when he bowled his bouncer.

Bradman had reason to be aggrieved. They came to hurt him, not in an accidental way, but thoroughly, until his nerve broke and he threw his great talent away. The tactic created havoc when taken back to English county cricket. In 1935, with the Australians threatening not to tour England, the MCC told Larwood to apologise to the Australians. No such request was made of Jardine and Larwood refused to do so.

Keith Miller loved him, Denis Lillee was in awe of him. The first few English teams that came to Australia after he defected shunned him, but then a new generation, players like Colin Cowdrey, sought him out because he had been among their boyhood heroes.

Peter FitzSimons hit the nail on the head some years ago when he wrote that Larwood is an Australian sporting legend. He's an English sporting legend but we claim him, too. He created indelible memories here, he made his home here and, by the time he died in 1995 at the age of 90, he was honored in this country as well as England

A fantastic book if you haven't read it and well worth getting your hands on, for the stroy of a man that was a hero to some and a villan to others.

Monday, November 22, 2010

My Favourite Cricketer

Recently I have been inspired by discussions of people’s favourite cricketers, and the reasons they are drawn to this player. For some it is a boy’s own dream of being that daring shot maker, or the steel of the courageous captain. As we grow up we hang onto to these hero’s and remember the reason and the place that we fell in love, not with the game, but those who play it.

In keeping with this theme I’m going to discuss my favourite cricketer and look forward to peoples responses as what drew them to the ‘summer game’.

My Favourite Cricketer: Keith Ross Miller, The All-australian All-Rounder    

I was not drawn to cricket at young age living up in the Melbournian suburbs and found myself playing football [Australian Kind] & basketball, indulging in cricket of the pavement kind out the front of my house with the other kids in the street. Back then we only knew of the current players Merv Hughes and Allan Border, the Waugh’s and Tubby Taylor.

As I entered my late teens I became interested in the history of sport and those that capsulate the public with their deeds beyond the picket fences and seem to transcend and bind a nation in their own image. After listening to a radio show competition to name Melbourne’s best ever sportsman did this name come into view. What made my ears prick up at this moment was not just his cricket, but his life. Keith Miller had played cricket for 2 States [Victoria & NSW] was a great winter sportsman as well as summer having played Australian Rules Football for both St Kilda [the team I followed] and the state of Victoria, all this while being the spearhead of a frightening attack on the ‘Invincible’ tour of England.

It was with this that drew me to find out more about this man. "Nugget" Miller was more than a cricketer: along with his English soulmate Denis Compton he embodied the idea that there was more to life than cricket. Miller, who was named after two pioneer Australian pilots - Keith and Ross Smith - was a fighter pilot himself in the Second World War, and after some extremely close shaves was well aware of the importance of life. It meant that he could occasionally look disinterested on the field: at Southend in 1948, when the "Invincible" Australians were running up the record score of 721 in a day against Essex, Miller stepped away to his first ball and was bowled, since such an unequal contest held little excitement.

He held a devil may care attitude with utter brilliance in the Victory Test post-war. His slicked back hair, which was on the long side for the short-back-and sides-era, and gamblers batting style lead him to amass test average of just under 40 and a bowling economy of 2.24. His life was littered with cheeky grins and rumours of affairs with royalty. A man that was just as comfortable placing a bet, as he was pulling some of the fiercest bowlers of his generation.

Miller started as a batsman, hitting 181 on his first-class debut, for Victoria against Tasmania in Melbourne in 1937-38. And he first made a mark on the international game in 1945, with a sparkling 105 in the first "Victory Test" at Lord's. Miller made his official Test debut after the war, and went on to play 55 times for Australia, scoring 2958 runs at 36.97, with seven centuries, three of them against England and four against West Indies, whose captain, John Goddard, once sighed, "Give us Keith Miller and we'd beat the world."

Bradman's strong side needed Miller more as a bowler than a batsman, and he ended up with 170 Test wickets, at the excellent average of 22.97. He was the perfect foil to the smooth, skiddy Lindwall: Miller would trundle in off a shortish run, but could send down a thunderbolt himself if he felt like it. Or a legspinner. Or a yorker. Or a bouncer, an overdose of which led to his being booed during the 1948 Trent Bridge Test: Miller simply sat down until the barracking had subsided. What few people realised was that he had trouble with his back throughout that tour - he often pressed an errant disc back into place at the base of his spine before somehow sending down another screamer.

To me Keith R Miller was an Australian in every sense of his being, a joker and worker, a man that knew that there was more to life that what was being played on that small patch of turf. Neville Cardus dubbed Keith Miller "the Australian in excelsis", a notion to which the noted Daily Mail sportswriter Ian Wooldridge heartily subscribed: "By God he was right."

Due to my young age I never had the opportunity to watch the man play cricket, so all I have had was the books I read of the stories and quotes of a man as much in love with life and it's excesses, as he was with its success. Having lived near the MCG for a short time I would find myself walking around the outside of stadium after his passing,on a warm summers evening and always standing, looking towards the great bronze statue that stood just a few feet from the Bradman entrance. It positioning in a bowling action and imagining the character of this man coming towards me, and then I’d smile, think of sunny days and remember that it’s only a game.

Full name Keith Ross Miller

Born November 28, 1919, Sunshine, Melbourne, Victoria

Died October 11, 2004, Mornington Peninsula, Melbourne, Victoria

Major teams Victoria, New South Wales, Australia, Nottinghamshire

To this day I have held that picture of his full and mighty hooking shot with me most places I go, and it sits on my desk as a ‘perfect’ image of balance and courage, with no helmet and a distant look in his eyes.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Ashes Preview

With all the previews on Sky Sports and every major newspaper in the country getting onboard I felt that the Cricket Observer [CO] had to be on the front foot as they say, and get in a early with a strong prediction for those that will and won’t make the grade during this years Ashes series.

A lot has been spoken and will continue on about the Gatting side of 1986, that being the last English side to win a series in Australia . And there is no doubt that England have all the hype behind them going into the 1st Test at the Gabba. Rather than go though every player and ground for the series I’m going to give a quick look at the top bowler, batsman and ‘match changer’ for each side for the series, as well as put out who and how I think the series will finish. Enjoy.

The Hosts – Australia.They haven’t exactly given their faithful public much to croon about in the lead up, losing a series against India away and Sri Lanka at home. Taking in mind the only 5 day cricket was in India and there were good if not great performances. With many players heading back to their State sides in the lead up, I think a good does of home cooked food and familiar faces will invigorate the side prior to Thursdays start.
Bowler: Mitchell Johnson
The wayward bowler from the last series will be looking to provide the spark for the Australian side. Having lost his way on and off the field of play, he has shown the greatest strides to having a good series having gone back to WA and score a century and taken wickets in the lead up.

Batsman: Simon Katich
It was hard to pick who should be standing up for Australia , as it seems that most of the top order have been struggling of late. Ricky Ponting seemed an obvious choice. As the English are sure to target him I felt he is always in the firing line, but the wild old vet in Katich has and continues to cause problems for visiting sides on home turf. Having recovered from a shoulder injury and the unspoken possibility that this could be his last Ashes, he will surely want to set the record straight.

Match Changer: The Spinner ??
Who will be the spinning option for the Aussies? It seems that the new selection panel may be looking to make its mark in this series and a change at the last minute with Doherty putting his hand up as a solid spin option. Steve Smith was taken to England for the Pakistan series, but I felt he was more of a part-timer in this area and seems to be an all-rounder rather than a 4th bowler. Hauritz is under siege and this could either be good for him or work the other way, either way this is a space that will be watched carefully by more than just Shane Warne.

The Visitors – England
They arrived in the sun burnt country with their sails full of wind, having dominated the hosts in a one-day series and also taking apart Pakistan and Bangladesh . Some see this as not the best build up for an Ashes series, but with the cricket this time around making sure the team plays plenty of tour matches prior to the first test, should see the players in a could frame of mind.
Bowler: Graeme Swann
The jolly gentleman who snags wickets and saves cats from under floor boards will be in his element I think among the sometimes jovial Australia supporters, but it is his spin that needs to do the talking. Many saw him as a saviour in the Lords test and was great with the bat in Cardiff to leave the Australians guessing what was next. Having improved again I see him being the leader among all the bowlers.

Batsman: Kevin Pietersen
Never one to stand in the shade, KP will be looking to fight the late season demons of the Hampshire/Surrey move ,as well as his ill timed twitter rant to show that he is the superstar batsman in the England side. With no Freddie about all the attention will be on him, and it’s a situation he should enjoy. KP showed a dedication to his overall improvement by getting himself a few hours at the crease by returning to South Africa, and despite a slip up against Australia A, I feel he is in his prime to be a thorn in the batting order.

Match Changer: Steve FinnWill he or won’t he? That is the question bursting into the early summer tests in England with 5 wicket haul at Lords and then hidden from all in a cave one could only guess in the Lake District . England have been saving this young man for this moment, but will the moment be too much for him. With a solid action that would suit Australian conditions and being unseen by most of the batsman that didn’t spend a summer on the county circuit, Finn could change the out come in no small way.

The Series:
Now what you’ve been waiting for my prediction. I see Australia winning this series and maybe it’s the green and gold in my veins, but I don’t see England handing it to us like last time. It will be a hard toil of a series and a result of 2-1 is how I see the matches. Parts of Australia have had the wettest winter on record, so rain could be a factor for at least 1 match, and with both teams not will to give an inch a draw is definitely on the cards. As always hero’s will become of those who win, and the losers I’m sure will have a ‘full ‘investigation as to why they lost.
For the rest of series here at the Cricket Observer I shall be in between the countries of the 2 sides, spending the 1st and 2nd Test here in England and travelling to Melbourne for the 3rd and 4th. Always getting you the best in news and opinion from both sides of the pond, I look forward to everyone’s responses on my thoughts of the upcoming series.

The Entertainer.

Chris Gayle as I type this is still 301 not out against Sri Lanka , in the first test of this tour. Chris Gayle has shook off the pressure or sometimes watchful eye of the being captain to unleash a power innings of shots and focus not seen from this pure entertainer, winding back the clock to have people remember the original master blaster Sir Viv Richards.

Long has he been known as the entertainer in the shorter versions of cricket, even coming out to say how much he didn’t like playing in the Test arena. All this fuelled the fire from the critics that he didn’t have the temperament or patience for the true test that is 5 day cricket. We have always seen a glimpse of possible big scores, with Gayle being his own worst enemy in many situations throwing his wicket away, just as it seemed he was closing in on the big scores.

I vividly remember the warm WACA afternoon as the “Doctor” the name for the breeze that comes off the seaboard drifts over Perth playing surface, was moving in as Chris Gayle attacked the Australians blasting shots not seen in Test Cricket one going straight over the bowlers head that seemed to clear the members stand, the crowd was in awe of a man so devil may care with a bat in his hand. Cutting and weaving runs for a team that lacked any fight or spirit during the previous encounters. Too often Gayle has been more about the show than the runs, with energy spent on talking to bowlers and the media about what ‘might happen’ rather than what will. He has had bravado and shown plenty of front when needed at the crease best shown with a running chat with the English bowlers at Lords during the Windies last tour.

Talking has only gained him a reputation of a showman rather than a batsman, and people have long got tired of this repeat performance. Yet as the sun now moves lower over the Galle Ground on Day 2, with Sri Lanka struggling to come to terms with life without Murali and his constant pressure from one end. Gayle is still punching into the evening sky having added 23 more runs to his total as I reach my conclusion.

Where this innings leads even I am not sure of at 324 on the board and 33 fours and 9 sixes in this master full innings that will go down in the history of long West Indies greats.