Will Harmison get his groove back?

Schadenfreude or taking pleasure in another's misfortune is not an admirable trait... unless it's at the expense of England's spearhead bowler Steve Harmison. Harmie has fallen badly in recent times - from being dubbed Grievious Bodily Harmison in 2005 to last week adding a new phrase to cricket's lexicon: Shoddyline. Now every man and his dog (probably including the one that bit Matt Hayden) is lining up to offer advice on how Harmison can get back his mojo. Dennis Lillee offered to help with his bowling action. Darren Gough says Harmison needs a cuddle. Even Australian bowling coach Troy Cooley has offered advice. At first I was concerned about this until I read his advice was to change nothing. If Harmison continues to bowl as he did in Brisbane, I'm quite okay with that.

England bowling coach Kevin Shine has been working hard with Harmison - they even had a secret net session yesterday where media and the public were banned from watching. Looking at a photo of the session explains why - the net pitch is a veritable obstacle course with little plastic markers, witches hats and even ski slalom poles to help indicate where Harmison needs to run up and bowl. I wouldn't be surprised to see big coloured footsteps on the ground to show Harmison where to step. But if you thought Harmison could sink no lower, England have asked Whispering Death himself, Michael Holding to help Harmison out. That might sound promising until you hear what ideas Holding brought to the table:
"I saw the pictures in the newspapers where they had put some cones down on the ground where they are seemingly trying to get him to straighten, but I think he needs something a bit higher up. Perhaps they could use an inflatable doll to stand up in the crease and every time he brushes it you know he is still leaning."
Did I read that right? A desperate England go to one of the greatest fast bowlers of all time and he comes back to them with a blow-up doll? I think Mr Holding is having trouble separating his professional life from his personal life. Unfortunately, it's a fundamentally flawed plan and couldn't possibly help Harmison bowl any better at the Adelaide Oval - the security guards would confiscate and puncture the doll well before it had a chance to get on the field.
Posted by JC on Thu 30 Nov 30 comments

Ashes 2nd Test preview

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Going into the second Ashes Test, we're in a remarkably similar situation to 2005. Australia just scored a comfortable 200+ run victory in the 1st Test. England are bringing out that old chestnut about not becoming a bad team overnight. They're scratching around finding positives all over the place (my favourite was Flintoff's optimistic quote "Normally, it's a good thing for the fielding side when the first ball of a match ends up in second slip's hands"). The media have written England off. Geoff Boycott is bitching and moaning (actually, that's always the case). Glenn McGrath has a sore ankle. Our loss in the 2005 Edgbaston Test was the turning point of the series. Momentum swung England's way and Australia never managed to gain an upperhand for the rest of the series.

Can history repeat itself? I think (and hope) not. England's 2006 bowling is a pale shadow of 2005. Harmison would have to produce a miraculous turn of form to make inroads on the flat Adelaide pitch. Australia's once vulnerable middle-order looks solid and in good form (Adam Gilchrist excepted although I feel he has a big innings around the corner). Our third seamer (Clark) is bowling a lot better than our 2005 seamer (Gillespie).

Nevertheless, there are many unanswered questions. Will McGrath be fit? (yes) Will Panesar be selected? (yes) Will Brett Lee's bowling average be less than his batting average? (no) Will Strauss continue to compulsively pull? (yes) And the biggest question is can Harmison turn things around? I think he'll bowl better but not well enough to win the match. So my prediction? If England win the toss, they'll put on a big score, we'll put on an equally big score and it'll peeter out to a draw. If Australia win the toss, we'll put on a huge total, dominate throughout but England will save the match by batting out day 5. Anyone else care to go out on a limb?
Posted by JC on Thu 30 Nov 22 comments

Duncan Fletcher's fighting words

I always thought Duncan Fletcher was a bit of a goose and he just confirmed it with some big talk overnight. First he laid into Shane Warne saying how easily the English batsmen handled him:
"We were pretty confident the way we played him there. The only thing is we gave him two soft wickets, and outside of that we played him very, very well and positively, so that was a big positive which came out of there."
It's amazing how often you hear the word "positive" out of beaten sides. Admittedly Pietersen plays Warne well, probably due to hours of net sessions they shared at Hampshire. But Warne bowled well in Brisbane - the main reason Warne failed to take many wickets was because Clarke and McGrath were getting them all. Fletcher goes on:
"I thought we played the other bowlers pretty confidently as well, especially in the second innings."
Was he watching the same match I was? England were dismissed for 150! The second innings mainly consisted of one large partnership. With five wickets in hand on Day 5, they couldn't even last the 25 overs required for the Gabba to get their ticket revenue. But wait, there's more. He also criticised Australia for not selecting Stuart MacGill for Adelaide:
"They're only leaving out MacGill because they're worried that Shane Watson's not playing. Australia has won 11 out of (its past) 12 Tests, and don't want to move a guy like (Adam) Gilchrist up to six and Shane Warne up to seven. That's the strange part about it. People tell us just to bat to number six. We try and bat past six (by including Jones and Giles), yet everyone thinks it's fine with Australia trying to bat down to number eight and nine. You've got to bat with depth and that's what we're trying to do, make sure we've got batters who bat down to number eight at least."
Now I'm confused. Is Duncan Fletcher criticising Australia for doing the same thing he does - picking a team with batting depth? And should he be pointing the finger over defensive selections when he chose Ashley Giles over Panesar who he dubbed the "best finger spinner in England"? And how can he criticise our batting when we scored 800 runs for 10 wickets in Brisbane? I'm not sure the coach of a side who just lost by 270 runs should be talking themselves up so big. But if it fires up our boys (as if they need it), all the better!
Posted by JC on Wed 29 Nov 21 comments

Australia names unchanged squad for Adelaide

There was intense speculation over the makeup of the Australian squad yesterday but it was much ado about nothing as Australia have named an unchanged 13 man squad for the Adelaide Test. How do you change a team that won by 270 runs? Admittedly, the decision was made easy by the news that Shane Watson's hamstring injury ruled him out and hence Stuart MacGill had little chance. Strange that they went with a squad of 13 though - the way Stuart Clark bowled in Brisbane, there's no question of Mitchell Johnson or Shaun Tait playing bar injury (watch out for those rolling balls, Pigeon). So why are they hedging their bets with 2 spare seamers again?
Posted by JC on Tue 28 Nov 38 comments

Barmy Army threaten to boycott Ashes tour

The Barmy Army haven't had a good start to their Ashes tour and are even threatening to boycott the rest of the tour. Their team got hammered in the first Test. Their trumpeter Bill Cooper was evicted from the Gabba. They didn't like the song played during the tea break of the 1st day that mocked the English. They were split up across the ground and booed by Australians whenever they started up a song. They complained that when Australia hit a boundary, the scoreboard displayed "Tonked" which didn't occur when England scored a boundary. On Day 1, I sat next to some Barmy Army members who were dumbfounded that the Mexican wave was banned. To add further insult to injury, the ECB are taking legal action against the Barmy Army for selling unofficial Ashes merchandise.

Now my Aussie instinct is to respond "whingeing Poms" and move on. I can see where the Gabba officials are coming from. Aussie crowds have been getting a bad rap for years now and the powers that be merely want to guarantee families have a good experience at the cricket, undisturbed by yobbos. And after the racist taunts from the South African series last year, the ICC are threatening to remove Test status from any grounds where the crowd behaviour crosses the line. That's a serious threat and you can understand ground officials' zeal in maintaining order.

However, in fairness, I and most Aussies were looking forward to the extra colour and culture the Barmy Army would bring to our matches. These aren't football hooligans - cricket fans are a dorkier lot. So there has been noises from other Australian grounds that there will be compromises made with the Barmy Army. The trumpeter will likely be allowed to play at future matches. Adelaide has a grassy area where the Poms will likely congregate. Melbourne and Sydney have said they may allow Mexican waves. So in theory, I agree that the authorities should relax their restrictions on the Barmy Army with one proviso - if England start winning, we go back to splitting them up and silencing the bugler again.
Posted by JC on Tue 28 Nov 711 comments

England pray for rain on 5th day

We're about to head into the 5th day and already Ricky Ponting is being criticised for not enforcing the follow-on. If Australia win today, noone will care but if by some miracle England manage to escape, it'll be Edgbaston all over again as the media and ex-greats question his abilities as captain. If we have a full day of cricket, Australia should put away the last 5 wickets easily but the forecast of possible storms this afternoon puts a shudder into every Australian fan and a ray of hope for every English supporter (hmm, mixing my metaphors there). Fox Sports have a weather radar map for the whole of Queensland but if you want a more detailed picture of the weather situation, you can't go past the Bureau of Metereology Brisbane Radar Map.
Posted by JC on Mon 27 Nov 23 comments

Ashes 1st Test Day 5: Australia win by 277 runs

The 1st Ashes Test is over as Australia managed to mop up the English tail before lunch, winning by 277 runs. England weren't even able to last the 25 overs required before the Gabba didn't have to provide ticket refunds (which would have Gabba officials gnashing their teeth, I'm sure). Pietersen fell in the first over, flicking to Martyn in mid-wicket and it was a steady procession from there. I thought I might reflect on some of the 1st Test highlights:
  • Worst ball: I still like to replay Harmison's first ball in my mind's eye with a smile on my face. I particularly enjoyed seeing how Flintoff caught the ball and casually threw it to third slip as if it was a normal event. Inside, I imagine he died a little.

  • Best sledge: Pietersen vs Warne. While some question their friendship, it's inevitable that you'll get tension when two alpha males come up against each other in competitive sport. And you don't get any more alpha than Warne or Pietersen.

  • Best innings: Ponting's man of the match earning 196 was dominant but I can't go past Pietersen's 92 - he's a compelling batsmen to watch when he attacks the bowling (particularly Warne).

  • Worst shot: Andrew Strauss's pull shots are semi-finalists but for pure ungainliness, Collingwood's wild swing on 96 takes the gong.

  • Best bowling: Andrew Flintoff did well to keep England vaguely in the contest, Glenn McGrath defied the critics by taking 6 for 50 but surprisingly, Stuart Clark was Australia's best and most consistent over both innings.

  • Most gratuitious Channel 9 new technology: I can't see much use for the Hot Spot camera except for seeing exactly where Justin Langer gets sconed on the helmet.

  • Winning margin: in 2005, England played out of their skins, had better luck with injuries and umpire decisions while Australia's bowlers lost form and batsmen couldn't deal with English conditions. England still only won 2 Tests by 2 runs and 3 wickets. This time the situation is reversed and we won by 277 runs.

  • Worst umpiring: On Day 1, England went up for an LBW appeal and Billy Bowden put most of the Aussie crowd into heart palpitations by raising his hand to scratch his nose. I umpired a church game a few years back and when the bowler went up for an appeal, I slowly and dramatically scratched my nose as a bit of a lark. The fielding side were not impressed with my antics. To do so at Test match level takes Bowden's show-ponying to a new level. On the plus side, Geraint Jones nearly took him out at square leg in England's first innings.

Posted by JC on Mon 27 Nov 27 comments

Ashes 1st Test Day 4: England fight back but too little, too late

Day 4 of the 1st Test showed the Ashes won't be a walkover this summer as England fought to 5 for 293 taking the Test into a 5th day. Indeed, if it weren't for some dodgy decisions from Strauss, Collingwood and Flintoff, they might even be in a stronger position to play for a draw (particularly with rumours of thunderstorms tomorrow afternoon). Australia continued batting in the morning until Langer reached 100, upon which Ponting immediately declared. Surely he can't pretend anymore that Australia don't care about individual landmarks - a boast they made after accusing India of putting individual achievements ahead of the team result.

Australia gave England a target of 648 to win so it was just a matter of how soon could Australia bowl them out. Again Strauss and Cook looked comfortable until Strauss play another ill-advised hook shot. It seems almost like a compulsive shot and the vice-captain should be smarter than that. Warne got Bell for a duck, deceiving him with the slider and trapping him LBW. Is Bell his bunny again? That dismissal brought Pietersen and Collingwood together, who built a partnership that finally had England winning a session for the first time in the match. Pietersen particularly gave his Hampshire teammate Warne a serious tonking, on-driving him for a number of boundaries. Warnie eventually pegged the ball back down the pitch in frustration which had Pietersen swearing and chirping at Warne for the rest of the day. It was a moment that will please grizzled Australian old-timers such as Merv Hughes who have questioned the two's friendly relationship on the field (maybe it was staged to get everyone off their backs).

Collingwood batted brilliantly but had a brain explosion on 96, advancing down the pitch and swinging wildly at a regulation legspinner from Warne. He missed it by a bat width and was stumped by several metres. That brought Flintoff in who lamely pulled Warne to long-on. Justin Langer caught the catch but not before he pumped his fists in celebration. I've never seen that before - celebrating from a fielder before he takes the catch - and I hope I never see it again. In the last batch of overs, Pietersen himself seemed to be making every effort to throw his wicket away with a series of risky cross-bat shots. Somehow he made it to stumps on 92 not out.

Nevertheless Pietersen demonstrated he will be the wicket the Australians will treasure this summer. You also get the feeling English wickets will be harder to come by on the flat Adelaide pitch and I wouldn't be surprised if it ends up a draw (I'm still picking a 3-1 series win to Australia with Adelaide the only draw). Other positives for England - Australia revealed injury worries with Ponting not taking the field all day. The fact that Ponting's absence coincided with England's resurgance was just that - coincidence. Adam Gilchrist is a handy skipper as shown when he led us to our first victory in India in several decades. Also worrying is Glenn McGrath suffering a bruised heel - somewhat ironic when he pantomined limping off the field like an old man yesterday. Maybe he wasn't pretending after all.
Posted by JC on Sun 26 Nov 19 comments

Steve Harmison "tried his nuts off"

Interesting interview on CricInfo as Steve Harmison confesses he froze on Day 1 of the 1st Ashes Test:
"When it came to bowling the first ball I froze. I let the enormity of the occasion get to me. It all seemed so alien to me. My whole body was nervous. I could not get my hands to stop sweating. The first ball slipped out of my hands, the second did as well and, after that, I had no rhythm, nothing. I know my poor bowling was not for want of effort. I tried my nuts off. But I had a very bad day at the worst possible time and I won't deny my confidence took a knock. I am also certain, however, that I can turn things around, given the opportunity to do so in Adelaide."
At first, I was amused to read Harmison's eloquent expression of his willingness to put his genitalia on the line for Queen and country. Then I was dismayed to read Dennis Lillee offering to help fix his bowling action. Is DK's feud with Cricket Australia that bad? It's bad enough Rod Marsh went over to set up their Academy (I think laying some of the foundation for the 2005 debacle). Can our ex-greats please stop helping England regain/retain the Ashes?
Posted by JC on Sun 26 Nov 48 comments

Ashes 1st Test Day 2: Australia turn the screws

Day 2 panned out even better than I'd hoped as Australia declared at 9 for 602 then had England at 3 for 53 at stumps. I expected the McGrath massacre before stumps - I hadn't expected Australia to get quite so many runs. There was one blemish - Adam Gilchrist dismissed LBW to Hoggard for a third ball duck. Gilchrist's innings was what I was looking forward to most of all today but I'll have to settle with Australia taking a stranglehold on the game.

At the start of the day, Hoggard and Anderson opened the bowling with the new ball - interestingly Harmison was overlooked. They bowled well, obtaining a fair bit of swing and keeping the scoring rate down. Then Harmison came back into the attack and things went pear-shaped once again for England. He bowled two wides in his first over, spraying it all over the place. Geraint Jones did himself proud though - there were wides down the legside, in front of 1st slip, all over the place. Most of the time, he managed to glove them - a bright spot to Harmison's waywardness.

Flintoff had to step in again and make things happen. He bowled a pearler to Ponting that reared and may or may not have brushed his gloves (he was given not out). In his next over, Hussey's off stump was knocked flying, falling just 14 shy of his first Ashes century. On the bright side, his average went up again (it was mid 70's before this Test). When Ponting was out LBW to Hoggard for 196, I was encouraged to see him strike the ground with his bat in frustration - he obviously means to grind England into the ground if 196 runs isn't good enough to satisfy him. It was also pleasing to see everyone from 8 to 11 contributed including consecutive sixes from Stuart Clark. I think England bring it upon themselves by bowling too short to our tailenders - they did the same thing last year and it nearly cost them the series. The sight of Brett Lee squirming and getting struck on the body might be satisfying in an alpha-male kind of way but it just doesn't get him out.

After Australia declared 9 down (just to let the Poms know they couldn't finish them off), England came in with an hour and a half to play before stumps - always a perilous time and a road well travelled by the Australian bowlers. We've come to expect McGrath knocking over openers in those conditions and the old timer didn't fail to deliver. The first dismissal was painful to watch as Brett Lee and Mike Hussey hurtled towards each other like some horrific deja vu experience. Had Gillespie and Waugh's collision in Kandy taught them nothing? Call for it, boys! At least the catch was taken - if we'd suffered injury and given Strauss a life, I would've been tearing my hair out. It was a foolish shot from Strauss who was crusing along comfortably and sparked a top-order collapse.

Already the fingerpointing for England's lacklustre performance has begun. Will Luke at Cricinfo blames it on the ICC's over-scheduling of international cricket. Admittedly, having the Champion's Trophy a few weeks before the Ashes was ludicrous. Maybe two warm-up matches before the 1st Test isn't enough. But Glenn McGrath only played 1 first class match in the 18 months leading up to the 1st Test and he was a whisker away from a hattrick this afternoon. England didn't even select Harmison to bowl in the 2nd warm-up match and yet they sent him in to field. Sounds like the familiar theme of scapegoating we've heard on past tours. England have been boasting for the last few years about their new squad of young players unscarred by past Ashes defeats. Hopefully this series will leave a generation of scarred English cricketers in its wake.
Posted by JC on Sat 25 Nov 27 comments

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