Tuesday, December 30, 2008
A most uninvincible performance
I was listening to ABC News Radio in August, on Bradman's centenary, and they did a feature on the celebrations. Usually News Radio will put news wraps on the first 15 minutes of each half hour, with a news anchor reading out and introducing news stories, sports, weather and stock market data, and the second half hour is for more in-depth analysis of the big news, usually 3-4 minute pieces, or a phone hook-up for an expert discussion, usually a professor or a former insider-turned-pundit.
Well, guess who News Radio had for the detailed chat? Roland Perry, a "noted cricket historian", who sounded rather chuffed that the presenter had such a high opinion of him. They also ended up mentioning that Perry's book about the Invincibles was being launched for the centenary, thereby spruiking it, deliberately or otherwise.
The book is a rehash of various previous Perry books, including brief profiles of the players, and accounts of what happened on tour, match descriptions and so forth. In my brief reading of it in the book shop, a lot of it was adapted from Captain Australia, the biographies of Miller and Bradman respectively and the books on Bradman's best ever XI and his best ever Ashes XI, because a lot of Bradman's men were covered by the earlier books, being the greats they are. Nothing wrong with this of course, as he's simply reusing his work, but that virtually guarantees that all the old errors are transplanted.
The ABC could at least have teed up the truly pre-eminent historians such as Gideon Haigh and David Frith, who have appeared on their productions before. Among other things, Frith is known for Bodyline Autopsy and appeared on ABC's television documentary on the same topic, while Haigh is known for a lot of things, and has appeared ABC's Sunday morning sports television show Offsiders. Haigh and Frith recently collaborated on Inside story: unlocking Australian cricket's archives in 2007. It is a fascinating and well-researched story of the political rumblings in Australian cricket administration, and is pieced together from Cricket Australia archives and many other primary sources, including interviews with former board directors, who give their perspective straight from the horse's mouth, including how they argued on certain controversies. Everything from the private dealings over John the bookmaker, the possible conspiracy against Ian Meckiff for throwing, Bodyline, Clem Hill's famous selection-room punch-up with Peter McAlister and Sid Barnes exclusion from the team for "reasons other than cricket", are expanded on to shed more light on how and why the star chamber did what they did. I recommend it to all cricket lovers.
Before listing the errors, I will now quote Gideon Haigh, lest there be no expert reinforcement of my beliefs. Another cricket scholar and cricket museum curator at a Test cricket venue who has written a few very polished books did agree that Perry was poor writer, although I'm the only witness to that.
In "No Ball". Game for anything: Writings on Cricket. Melbourne: Black Inc. ISBN 1 86395 309 4. , Haigh says of Captain Australia – "... Perry maintains a disquieting tendency to, quite casually, mangle information for no particular reason". and "... there are assertions whose origins, are, at least, somewhat elusive" and "Perry depicts [the captains] in the flat, bulking the thin personal matter with ponderous clichés, execrable puns and recitations of scores and averages. There is no original research to speak of, no new insight to relate; there is not even a bibliography".
Frith says: "Unfortunately, Roland Perry's work here is anything but confidence-inspiring. He is an opportunist author, Don Bradman, Shane Warne and Steve Waugh being among his previous subjects, together with a book on Australia's captains which gave the world nothing that the painstaking Ray Robinson had not already dealt with, apart from the update. Two earlier biographies of Miller and his autobiographical jottings have been milked dry, which is fine. But the book is strewn with errors that undermine confidence in the work as a whole. Keith Johnson was not Ian's father; Army cricketer JWA Stephenson was not the beloved colonel who became MCC secretary; when Cyril Washbrook took a run after being hit on the head it was not a "bye"; George Tribe was not a "legspinner" and Alf Gover was not a "medium-pacer"; Wally Hammond was not dropped for the final Test of 1946-47 (he had fibrositis)."
Right, now to the action. These claims can all be debunked simply by looking up the schedule and statistics. There might be more errors in the peripheral information about his public meetings and dinners with Princess Margaret among others.
*p. 222. That the Australians arrived in "early April". Unless April 16, in the second half of the month is "early", then he's made a mistake.
*p. 223. Says that Barnes, Brown, Morris, Bradman, Hassett, Miller and Harvey jostled for five Test spots. Actually, six, as the first six on the list played in the first two Tests. Counting Miller as a frontline batsman, Bradman always used six of them before Tallon/Johnson/Lindwall.
*p. 224. The Worcester Cathedral in the background of the county ground is not 13 centuries old. Christian activity is that old, but the original church was long demolished and the iconic backdrop that cricketlovers are so familiar with dates to the 1200s.
*p. 224. Contrary to Perry's claim, Miller did open the bowling in both innings of the match against Worcestershire.
*p. 224. Miller also did not hit three sixes against Worcs, he hit one. Cricinfo and CricketArchive agree.
*p. 224. Perry says of the next match against Leicestershire: "Batting at three, especially after not bowling in the game". That's because Australia batted first, although Perry's comment is ambiguous.
*p. 224. Perry says Australia played against Yorkshire "next day" after scoring the double ton against Leics. However, Miller finished batting early on day two and the next day was the last day of the match against Leics
*p. 225. Says that Hassett won the toss and put Yorkshire into bat. Actually, Yorkshire won the toss and decided to bat.
*Generally, Perry is often slack with not outs and sometimes doesn't say "not out" after a player's score like Saggers' 104* against Essex, but sometimes does.
*p. 227. He says that the win over Essex was the sixth win in a row in 19 days. Incorrect, as Australia won the first match against Worcs on April 30 and the Essex win came on May 17.
*p. 229. Hutton did not captain the MCC against Australia. Yardley did.
*p. 232. Perry says that Australia slumped to 8/63 against Hampshire in discussing Miller's counterattack. Australia were 5/91 when Miller departed.
*p. 233. Says that Hants took a 77-run first innings lead. No. 195-117=78
*p. 233. Says that Miller and Saggers took a trip to Paris during the match against Sussex because they were not playing. Saggers certainly did not, as he did play in that match.
*p. 234. Says Princess Margaret was 18, when discussing Miller having dinner with her in June. Princess Margaret didn't turn 18 until August.
*p. 235. Says Miller bowled five bouncers in eight balls at Trent Bridge during the Test, in reference to the final over of the day against Hutton. He did not, as in 1948, they used six-ball overs. Hutton glanced the other ball for four.
*p. 238. Says that Miller opened the batting in the second match against Yorkshire. Not so. Brown did and scored 19 and 113, and Perry thinks these were Miller's score. Miller actually scored 20 and 0. A pretty massive mistake to confuse a century with a duck! Furthermore, an incorrect and dubious conclusion is reached from this paragraph, that Miller's long innings as an opener taxed his bowling efforts. Twenty and a duck is not a heavy workload!
*p. 239. Says Hamence bowled Hutton for 10 in the second innings of the said match. He bowled Halliday. Hutton didn't bat in the second innings.
*p. 242. Says that Loxton and Toshack opened the bowling in the first innings of the second tour game against Surrey in 1948. Toshack did not, Hamence did
*p. 243. Mentions a poker match during a rain break in England's first innings in the Third Test involving Miller, Edrich, Compton and Evans. Miller reportedly was late back onto the field as he wanted to continue playing with the others. Well, Edrich came in at 1/22 and when he was out, Compton came in when Edrich was out at 5/119 and batted until the end of the innings. Thus, if Miller was holding up play, it can't have been after England lost their first wicket, as either Edrich or Compton would have been waiting on the ground to bat, not playing poker. But there was no "long rain delay" at the start of England's first innings before the first wicket fell at 1/22. Either he's made another mistake or taken on trust the apocryphal story of an old cricketer with possibly faulty memory without checking to see if it is consistent with the scorecard.
*p. 246. This account of Miller's 58 in the 1948 Headingley Test is adapted from Jack Fingleton's "Brightly Fades The Don". However, Miller did not hit five sixes in this innings, as Perry implies, and mis-adapts Fingleton's account into saying so.
*pp. 248-249. Says that Miller followed his bowling effort against Derby with another against Glamorgan on the next day. Miller's bowling effort against Derby was actually on the second day, so the next day was the final day's play, not the match against Glamorgan.
*p. 250. Dewes fell with the score at 2 in the first innings of the Fifth Test, not 1/1. Appears to have copied this from Jack Fingleton's Brightly Fades The Don, which appears to be incorrect in this case.
*p. 251. Says that Miller scored 2088 runs in the 1948 tour, second only to Bradman. He did not. He scored 1088. What is worse is that Perry uses this erroneous number to reach the conclusion that Miller was the influential player in 1948 after Bradman and Morris, at the end of this chapter.
*p. 253. Says that Bradman only allowed six capped Test players to represent the opposition in the match against Leveson-Gower's XI. Well, Hutton, Edrich, Yardley, Bedser, Evans and Laker played, who were all in the 1948 Tests. But Walter Robins, Freddie Brown, Martin Donnelly and Laurie Fishlock also played, and they were already capped. That's 10. Again it appears that he copied Fingleton's Brightly Fades The Don without checking the scorecard for himself.
*p. 256. Says that Bill Johnston scored 60 runs at 20.66 in the Tests. Nope. 60/3 =20.00. He scored 62 at 62/3=20.66
*p. 255. Says that Miller went to a concert after the final day of the first Scotland match and then told the media at the concert that he was playing against Scotland tomorrow. There were two days of rest between the matches. Either a "sic" should have been added to note that Miller was wrong or the concert wasn't on the last day of the first match.
Perhaps Fingleton's (pictured) seminal work Brightly Fades The Don also needs to be checked for its accuracy. Certainly Fingleton has a great understanding and feel for the game, and his writing is engaging and charming, like Peter Roebuck in our time, but in some places, the accuracy of the match accounts appears to lacking. Another example is that he says that Sam Loxton made his Test debut at Old Trafford and then took his first wicket at Headingley, but Loxton debuted in the previous summer against India and took wickets in that series. It does seem as though he just wrote from his impressions in some parts of the book.
The Invincibles deserve to be researched and recorded in history in a manner and with polish befitting their status as one of the greatest cricket teams of all time. Perry's writing does anything but.
Wednesday, December 24, 2008
Roland Perry's error strewn cricket writing
They include biographies on Bradman, Miller, the Invincibles in general, a compilation on all Australian Test captains, a compilation on Bradman's selection of the best Ashes teams for both Australia and England and one on Bradman's selection of his best XI of all time.
He has actually won prizes for his writing, and is a best-seller, which I find hard to believe, given his high frequency of mistakes.
I am going to compile the instances of the errors in his books, and invite others to report them in.
The following list is in progress.
*Refers to "Nayan Mongia" as "Mayam Mongia"
*Refers to NZ off spinner "Dipak Patel" as "Dilip Patel"
*p. 246. This account of Miller's 58 in the 1948 Headingley Test is adapted from Jack Fingleton's "Brightly Fades The Don". However, Miller did not hit four sixes in this innings, as Perry implies, and mis-adapts Fingleton's account into saying so.
*p. 242. Says that Loxton and Toshack opened the bowling in the second tour game against Surrey in 1948. Toshack did not, Hamence did
*p. 238. Says that Miller made 113 in the second innings of the second tour match against Yorkshire in 1948. He made a duck
*p. 238. Says that Hamence bowled Hutton for 10 in the second innings of the same match. Hutton did not bat in the second innings
*p. 251. Says that Miller scored 2088 runs in the 1948 tour, second only to Bradman. He did not. He scored 1088. What is worse is that Perry uses this erroneous number to reach the conclusion that Miller was the most influential player in 1948 after Bradman and Morris, at the end of this chapter.
That's just in 15 pages, and those are just the ones of the top of my head.
Contradictions between MILLER'S LUCK and CAPTAIN AUSTRALIA
* Account of Lindsay Hassett making a prank visit to a random English family at night during the 1948 tour. Accounts in the two books contradict each other as to who the driver of the car was.
* Account of Miller's fight with Ian Johnson over a bowling change between Miller and Lindwall. Contradiction on which of the two was the bowler being taken off/put on.
Please share any more errors you have spotted for the benefit of other cricket readers!
Monday, December 22, 2008
Error in the Cricinfo quiz?
1. A wicket keeper who played his only Test against New Zealand in the 1970s. He scored 7*, took two catches and conceded 16 byes.
A Pakistani called Shahid Israr. Definitely fits.
2. A modern great with 26 Test centuries to his name, but an average of only 36 against South Africa.
Rahul Dravid - only two folks with 26 tons, and his average fits
3. A between-wars bowler whose only Test was the match before the one in which the main answer made his debut. He took no wickets, returning 0-60 and 0-12, but scored 8 and 44 with the bat.
Otto Nothling (Australia)
4. A 1980s batsman who scored over 4000 Test runs, including centuries against West Indies when the rest of his team kept folding, and memorably won an ODI with a lot of runs off the last over.
Allan Lamb. Smashed a piled from Bruce Reid. Scored a few 100s against WI. Could it be anyone else?
5. A current all-rounder who has a century and a six-wicket haul in different matches on tour in Australia, but has yet to reach 100 wickets and 2000 runs.
Dwayne Bravo - Took 6 in Adelaide in late 2005, and 100 in Hobart on the same tour. 70 wickets and 1800 odd runs.
6. A batsman and part-time bowler more usually thought of as an ODI player, he only averaged 28 with the bat, though he made three Test centuries, the highest being 123 against Pakistan.
Russel Arnold. The numbers fit and he averaged 35 in ODIs.
7. A 1990s pace bowler who took 160 wickets but is more usually remembered for some lengthy stonewalling innings at number 11, including 14* in a last-wicket partnership of 106 against England.
Danny Morrison (NZ) definitely, batting with Astle
8. A current bowler who has 123 Test wickets to his name – although he says his name changes to something German when he gets out on the field.Andre Nel.
So the answers spell Sir Donald Bradman.
Although I can't see how it is linked to the first cryptic clue about Azhar and Key.
Also, Nothling made his debut in the Second Test.
Bradman debuted in the First Test, failed, was dropped and came back in the Third Test and made his first Test century
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
A glorious burden for Harbhajan?
When India and England take to the field for the First Test in Chennai, it will be the first time in five years that Harbhajan Singh starts a series as India’s first-choice spinner. No longer will he be bowling in tandem with Anil Kumble. After five years of mixed results that have fuelled speculation that he was in decline, the responsibility of leading the spin attack may just be the catalyst for India’s most successful off-spinner to return to his peak.
Harbhajan appears to thrive on the burden of leading the attack. In matches where he has played with Kumble, he averages 32. When Kumble has been absent, Harbhajan averages 26.1, substantially less. This becomes more marked when India has resorted to playing five bowlers, as it did in Faisalabad, Mohali and Mumbai in 2006, and in Adelaide and Ahmedabad in 2008. During these matches, Harbhajan bowled listlessly, with no apparent sense of purpose, taking 11 wickets at 59.5. Only Irfan Pathan averages worse when India has fielded five bowlers. In the Adelaide Test, he was outbowled by Sehwag. Harbhajan looked irrelevant as Ricky Ponting-of all people-dominated him and broke his hoodoo with a century. It was as though the surfeit of bowlers made him feel unrequired and irrelevant. In Faisalabad, he was plundered for 178 runs, ending the series with 0/355.
Never one to reject an opportunity to return fire, Harbhajan has a long history of performing well when he is surrounded by conflict and chaos. Like the fiery Australian tennis player Lleyton Hewitt, it seems to fire him up for the task ahead. He rarely fails to respond to engage his opponents in the media, even after he was told by the BCCI to stop commenting on last season’s tour of Australia.
One could be forgiven for thinking that he deliberately seeks confrontation and controversy to create a siege mentality for his own competitive advantage. Others are more cynical. Speaking at a recent cricket forum, former Australian off spinner Ashley Mallett claimed that Harbhajan courted controversy in order to deflect attention from his bowling action.
Harbhajan’s greatest triumph came when he was on the verge of giving up cricket. In 2000, his fledgling career, already beset by allegations of chucking, appeared in tatters when he was expelled from the National Cricket Academy for disciplinary reasons. When his father died, Harbhajan, the only son, contemplated moving to the United States to drive trucks to support his mother and unmarried sisters. Various other slow men were paired with Kumble and Harbhajan appeared well out of favour.
When Kumble succumbed to injury, the similarly belligerent Sourav Ganguly called for Harbhajan’s recall. The selectors obliged and Ganguly was amply rewarded when his hitherto out-of-favour Sikh warrior famously spun India to a series victory over Australia in early 2001. He took 32 wickets when none of his teammates took more than three as India came back from 1-0 down and being forced to follow on to end Australia’s world record run of 16 consecutive Test wins. Fittingly, he hit the winning runs after a late stumble in the deciding Test.
It was always going to difficult to repeat such results and so it proved. In 2003, after playing through a finger injury for an extended period, Harbhajan was sent home from the tour of Australia for surgery after an ineffective First Test.
In late-2004, he returned amid much speculation and promptly took a ten-wicket haul in his first Test back against Australia in Bangalore. With India 1-0 down, the pitch for the Third Test in Nagpur was an uncharacteristic greentop, the result of payback for internal BCCI squabbling. Ganguly and Harbhajan both withdrew at late notice, officially on grounds of injury and illness, but many alleged that it was grass induced and roundly condemned them. India plummeted to defeat by 342 runs and its first home Test series defeat to Australia in 35 years. Harbhajan then roared back for the final Test in Mumbai and spun India to victory with 5/29 as Australia fell for 93. He then took nine wickets to be man-of-the-match against South Africa at Eden Gardens soon after.
Harbhajan then quietly made his way through the next year with moderate results until the Ganguly-Chappell spat exploded in late-2005 and Indian cricket went into open warfare. Always one to defend his allies, Harbhajan accused Chappell of instilling fear and insecurity into the team. Ganguly was shunted out of the team, and Harbhajan appeared to be on thin ice after being gagged. Rumours abounded that Chappell was planning for Harbhajan to follow his Dada out the door. Harbhajan promptly responded by engineering a win at the next ODI in Nagpur and was India’s most economical bowler for consecutive ODI series. He then took match-winning ten-wicket haul in the Ahmedabad Test, ending the year strongly after a weak start.
After losing form and being dropped, Harbhajan was recalled in late-2007, and put in mediocre performances against Pakistan and Australia. Then came the racism controversy with Andrew Symonds (pictured), followed by a media run-in with Matthew Hayden. His subsequent ODI performances in Australia were relatively good compared to his barren record in the country. In both finals matches, Symonds and Hayden were regaining the ascendancy for Australia after a top-order collapse. On both occasions, Harbhajan had a hand in dismissing the pair of them in quick succession, which went a long way towards securing India’s wins.
Harbahajan was again in the headlines after slapping Sreesanth and receiving a lengthy ban. When he returned, he was India’s leading wicket-taker in Sri Lanka. In a year when he has been the most sanctioned Indian cricketer, he is also India’s leading Test wicket-taker and the second highest from all countries.
Kumble’s departure will also mean that Harbhajan will now play under the captaincy of MS Dhoni. In three matches under Dhoni’s captaincy, he has taken 19 wickets at 18.42 and all the matches were won. Under Ganguly, he claimed 177 wickets at 26.84 in 37 Tests. However, with Kumble and Dravid at the helm, Harbhajan averaged around 3.5 wickets per Test at an average over 40. Perhaps he is unable to perform at his best when led by placid leaders with a worldview so starkly different.
Kumble’s retirement could be a blessing for Harbhajan. In recent years, India’s improved away record in the 21st century was in large part due to Kumble’s increased overseas effectiveness in the latter half of his career. Harbhajan is now in the middle of his career and averaging around 40 away from home, which is not a good portent for India’s overseas ambitions, where it needs to win more consistently if it wants to vie for world dominance. His record in Pakistan stands at 0/355 and he
will doubtless want to rectify that next month. If the burden of responsibility takes hold again, Harbhajan too can rise to another level. If he does, then India’s post-Kumble future looks promising. Chennai is one of his favourite hunting grounds
and an ideal place to start this next phase of his career.
Sunday, December 7, 2008
A captain’s legacy
This article was written by the author for Mint at the attached link
Ganguly mysteriously withdrew from the Test at late notice, with cynics contending that he had run away to avoid defeat. Amid the chaos, India ceded the Border-Gavaskar Trophy with a crushing 342-run loss.
In a little more than a year, the verdict on Ganguly’s legacy had savagely turned. Ganguly became widely reviled and ridiculed. Amid the political machinations and a downturn in performance, his contributions to Indian cricket and his record 21 Test wins were forgotten.
Ganguly had taken the reins of the Indian team in the 2000 season after a ruinous match fixing scandal and five consecutive Test defeats. In his first season in control, India ended Australia’s famed run of 16 consecutive wins after being forced to follow on in the epic Eden Gardens Test in Kolkata. Against the odds, they won the series, primarily due to Ganguly protégé Harbhajan Singh, who had been resuscitated from disciplinary oblivion at the captain’s behest.
Such results were symptomatic of Ganguly’s captaincy, which saw significant improvement in India’s away record. He instilled backbone into his troops, and India was no longer seen as a soft team that spontaneously unravelled amid alien conditions. This was typified by a stirring win at Headingley, England, in 2002, when Ganguly elected to bat on a greentop and declined the light so that he could force a result.
Towards the end of the final Test, Dhoni allowed Ganguly to marshal the troops for one last time. Harbhajan winkled out the winning wicket, LBW without offering a shot, the exact same ending to Ganguly’s most famous triumph at Eden Gardens seven years ago. The passing of the torch was a fairy tale finish for Ganguly, as though the rumblings in between had never happened.
Despite these limitations, Ganguly did what was needed at the time—galvanizing an uncertain group of skilful cricketers, giving them a sense of purpose that enabled them to fight outside their comfort zone and in foreign lands. Now that a foundation exists, a more sophisticated approach is needed for further progress. India will hope that Dhoni can channel the Ganguly-instilled fight in a more refined manner.
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
The Final Frontier: Not as elusive as it seems
These two statistics are well known to most watchers of Australian cricket, and are often cited to illustrate the difficulty of conquering the subcontinent. From the sheer magnitude of the timescale, it’s easy to feel that some kind of Herculean team and performance is required to win. After all, it’s unfathomable to comprehend Australia or England not winning an Ashes series on foreign soil for over three decades.
However, the irregular scheduling of Test matches in yesteryear has caused a statistical imbalance of matches that has falsely magnified Australia’s inability to win in India. Whereas the Future Tours Programme now stipulates that every country should play a home and away series against every other team in a cycle of five years, this has not always been the case.
In the 35 years between Lawry and Gilchrist, Australia played only 16 Tests in India. In the last 36 years, Australia have played 55 Tests on English soil, yielding four times as many opportunities withing the same timespan. Going 18 Tests without a series win is what happened on the Australian campaigns of England in 1977, 1980, 1981 and 1985. When Allan Border’s men won in 1989, 14 years after Australia’s last series win in the Old Dart, the triumph was not regarded as one that had transcended generations of struggle, unlike the Final Frontier of India. The Final Frontier defied Australia for two fewer Tests, but the fact that the 16 Tests were spread over an extra 21 years made the drought appear rather paleolithic.
The statistical count of Australia’s performances in the 16 Tests-two wins and seven losses-paints a misleadingly poor picture of Australia’s ability in India. Since Lawry’s conquest, Australia toured India five times until it won again, in 1979-80, 1986-87, 1996 (a one-off Test), 1997-98 and 2000-01. Only in the last decade has Australia toured regularly. Prior to that, they toured twice in 27 years, and those two sides were in no way representative of that period of Australian cricket.
From January 1971, when Ian Chappell became captain, until 1984-85, when Allan Border was thrust into the top job amid Kim Hughes’ tearful resignation, Australian cricket was generally in two disparate modes. Under the leadership of the Chappell brothers, Australia was successful, but when they were absent, the green and gold were regularly blown away.
After suffering a loss in his first Test as captain-the last match of the 1970-71 Ashes-Ian Chappell ensured that Australia never lost a series under his watch. After five years at the helm, Chappell handed the reins to his younger brother, having recorded three wins for every defeat and re-established Australia as the premier team in world cricket.
Greg Chappell continued where his elder brother left off, crushing the West Indies 5-1 on home soil in 1975-76. Australia continued to win more than it lost, before the wheels came off amid the most dramatic upheaval in the history of modern cricket. Long-simmering resentment over meagre renumerations resulted in the majority of the Australian team signing with Kerry Packer’s rebel World Series Cricket. The news broke during the 1977 tour of England, breaking the team into loyalist and rebel factions. Clashes between the players and management reportedly bordered on violence and it was announced that the WSC players would be banned.
With almost all of their first-choice players gone, Australia drafted the 41-year-old and retired Bob Simpson to lead the team against an Indian touring side untouched by WSC. India had previously played nine Tests on Australia soil, losing eight and never tasting victory. The depleted Australians managed only to scrape home 3-2, an ample demonstration of how badly the defections had bitten. The hosts were lucky to avoid a 5-0 whitewash, winning their matches by two wickets and 16 and 47 runs respectively, while India’s wins comprehensively secured by 222 runs and an innings respectively.
The Australians were soon exposed, however, losing eight of their next 13 Tests. During this time, Simpson was replaced by Graham Yallop and then Kim Hughes. Hughes then took Australia on a six-Test tour of India, their first since Lawry’s triumph ten years earlier. Australia rarely troubled the hosts and were flattered by a 2-0 loss, cushioned by rain-affected draws. It was part of a 19-Test run that yielded only three wins.
Immediately afterwards, the WSC players resumed their places in a reunified Test team following a rapprochement. Highlighting the weakness of the establishment team, only four of Hughes’ Indian tourists pulled on the baggy green during the summer. Under the younger Chappell, Australia again won more Tests than it lost, but when Hughes led the team during Chappell’s self-imposed breaks, the situation was reversed. Hughes had the worst winning percentage among Australian captains who have led for more than six matches, winning only four from 28.
At the end of the 1983-84 season, Chappell, Dennis Lillee and Rod Marsh all retired. Australia had lost the world-record holders for most Test wickets and wicket-keeping dismissals, and its finest batsman. Thereafter, Australia went on a unprecedented barren run, playing eight series without success, totalling 33 Tests with only three wins and 14 losses. Nine of the defeats were dreadful maulings by an innings or ten wickets. It was without doubt the weakest side in Australian history.
In 1985-86, amidst the calamitous run, Australia were exceedingly lucky to deny India a maiden series win in Australia. The tourists took first innings leads of over 130 in each of the three Tests; in the Second Test, rain curtailed the final day’s play with India 67 runs from victory. In the Third Test, Australia were six down and still in the red when time ran out, having being forced to follow on.
The following year, the much-maligned Australians toured India. Border’s nondescript men took an 147-run first innings lead in Madras, but were unable to ram home the advantage, and the match ended with the second tie in Test history. The series remained deadlocked 0-0 after a washout and a dead pitch in the last two Tests.
After this, Australia did not play another Test in India for ten years, when Mark Taylor’s side lost a one-off match in late-1996 to inaugurate the Border-Gavaskar Trophy. During this period, Simpson became Australia’s coach and they broke through to win the 1987 World Cup. The Test team gradually improved, and after winning 4-0 in England in 1989, they became consistently successful once more, vying with the West Indies for supremacy before regaining the Frank Worrell Trophy in 1995.
Thus, in the 27 years after Lawry, Australia were usually in the top two or three countries except the two years of WSC, and roughly six years following the triple retirements of Chappell, Marsh and Lillee, when they were shambolic amid extreme circumstances. But the two tours of India during this time coincided with these two dark periods, being entirely unrepresentative of Australian cricket over this period. From 1970 until the mid-1980s, Australia’s most prominent players were the Chappells, Marsh, Lillee, Jeff Thomson and Allan Border. All bar Thomson are inductees of the Australian Cricket Hall of Fame. However, due to the WSC interregnum and the mass retirements in the early 1980s, only Border toured India at all from 1970 to 1987. Imagine a team without its two best pacemen, two best batsmen and wicket-keeper. Imagine how Australia would have done in India without McGrath, Gillespie, Gilchrist, Hayden and Steve Waugh. As this year’s comprehensive 0-2 defeat showed, they would probably have been beaten comprehensively.
Since then, Australia has played in India with teams more representative of its general strength. In 1998, Taylor’s men returned to India as the world’s leading team. However, they were met by Sachin Tendulkar, who was at the peak of his powers and comprehensively dismantled Warne.
Australia took a 71-run first innings lead in the First Test in Chennai, before Tendulkar bludgeoned an unbeaten 155 in the second innings to leave the tourists looking to survive on the final day. Hindered by several umpiring decisions that prompted Wisden to say “three decisions were harsh and the fourth dubious”, Australia fell to a 179-run defeat. The hosts then sealed the series by slaughtering Australia by an innings at Eden Gardens. They amassed 5/633 while Australia managed only 414 in two innings. Australia then took the final Test by eight wickets. Tendulkar scored 446 runs at 111.50 in leading the way for the hosts. The loss was Australia’s only series defeat under the five years of Mark Taylor’s captaincy, aside from a 1-0 defeat in Pakistan when Australia lost by a single wicket.
Australia returned in 2001, confident that it could conquer the Final Frontier. Steve Waugh had developed Taylor’s world-leading team into a ruthless unit that had secured 15 consecutive Test victories. Anticipation was rife that this would be Australia’s breakthrough. They extended their run to 16 with a crushing 10-wicket win in the First Test in Mumbai. When they took a 274-run first innings lead and enforced the follow-on after India had insipidly folded for 171, it appeared that the Final Frontier would collapse in a landslide. However, VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid batted for the entirety of the fourth day in a legendary partnership of 376, before Harbhajan Singh bowled India to a dramatic final-day win. It was only the third time that a team had won a Test after being forced to follow-on. Heading into the Third Test in Chennai, Australia were in a good position at 3/340 before Harbhajan terminated the innings at 391. India then took a 110-run lead and required 155 for victory in the final chase. After a late collapse, they stumbled home by two wickets, with Harbhajan striking the winning runs.
Victory was so close yet felt so far away. Taylor and Waugh presided over times of plenty for Australia, but were never to win in India. That the loss in India stood out among their multitude of wins elsewhere magnified the aura of elusiveness. When juxtaposed with Australia’s other victories, it had everyone concluding that to win in India required performances that transcended generations.
But they were highly competitive and had their chances in all but the Calcutta slaughter of 1998. In 1998, Tendulkar played a dominant role, and in 2001, Harbhajan took 32 wickets at 17, series-winning performances that can rarely be repeated. Coupled with Laxman and Dravid’s once-in-a-generation partnership, Harbhajan ensured that Australia lost a match that was seemingly unloseable. Without it, Australia could conceivably have swept the series 3-0. How many other times has a team won a Test series when their second most successful bowler has collected only three wickets? How many times can a team score in such a manner on a fourth day Calcutta turner? It was a truly remarkable Indian performance that denied Australia for three more years.
Yet Australia had won 3-0 at home just over a year earlier. This disparity between the scorelines exacerbated the impression that winning in India was like a sprinter trying to win on Alpe d’Huez or Asafa Powell running in a marathon. However, had Australia scored just 20 more runs in Chennai in 2001, it could have been 2-1 and the perception would be vividly different.
The breakthrough finally came in 2004-05. After easily winning the First Test by 217 runs, Australia were on the back foot in the Second Test in Chennai. India needed 229 to level the series, but a monsoonal downpour washed out the final day. After Sourav Ganguly mysteriously withdrew prior to the Third Test, the leaderless Indians were crushed by 342 runs and Gilchrist had conquered the Final Frontier.
Although 35 years appears an eternity, the breakthrough came after four series defeats, which in regular scheduling would occur across a 16 year period. Of these failures, the first was primarily due to the decimation of WSC, while the second was during a genuinely bleak period following a generational changeover. A quarter century of players never had a meaningful chance to conquer India. It was only 28 years after Lawry that Australia had their next real chance in a full series, and after two narrow series losses, they broke through. Under Ian or Greg Chappell, or Allan Border in the early 1990s, Australia would have mounted a strong challenge, but these men never had an opportunity. Given the amount invested into computer analysis in modern cricket, it’s astounding that so many people imagine an Australian victory in India as an Everest. While the players have a motivation to do this in order to colour their performance in a brighter light, it is hard to comprehend how independent commentators can come to the same conclusion.
And so to this year’s tour, which Australia lost 0-2. After appearing set for substantial lead in the First Test in Bangalore, some stubborn rearguard batting saw India to safety with relative ease. Apart from that, Australia rarely looked like getting the necessary 20 wickets for any reasonable cost needed for victory. This has led to substantial fears about Australia’s future prospects.
In the aftermath, many have optimistically pointed to the fact that Australia went 35 years without winning in India, so therefore it is no disgrace for Ponting’s men. These people point to the case of Steve Waugh, who otherwise reigned over a period of domination that was unprecedented in the history of cricket. The loss in India was a mere interruption in this domination, so they argue that other losses will be similarly anomalous. The observation about Waugh is correct, but his team was highly competitive. Australia only had four series in India during the winless period. Taylor’s men were competitive, and Waugh was not far from whitewashing India had things gone his way, before Gilchrist broke through. Ponting’s campaign resembled 1979-80 and 1986-87 in that Australia struggled to find any openings. As Hughes’ team were depleted by defections, the only time Australia looked so placid in India was during the nadir of the mid-1980s.
It’s incorrect to disregard the result as anomaly due to the disparity in playing conditions, as during this period, Australia struggled to beat touring Indian sides notorious for their utter impotence on foreign soil. The WSC-depleted team won 3-2 in Australia, but all three wins were nailbiters, while the two Indian triumphs were comprehensive. The two series in the 1980s were both drawn, with India having substantially the better of the play in the latter.
This doesn’t mean that Australia will hit rock bottom like the mid-1980s, as India are a lot stronger than they were in the 1980s and beating them is more difficult. But it does show that results in India aren’t as much of an outlier as is commonly presumed. Being competitive and winning in India has been a real prospect for any good Australian team, and had every good Australian team had a chance to play in India, the Final Frontier would not have lasted 35 years.
Sunday, November 23, 2008
Like the United States, Australia traditionally holds the national titles over the same eight-day schedule as the Olympics and the World Championships. This allows the swimmers to test themselves under the conditions that they will face on the global stage.
The powers that be cited marketability as the reason for the change, hoping that a more condensed campaign would enhance sales and advertising for the national titles and focus more attention on the marquee races and key battles. However, this myopic planning risks doing far more harm than good to the cause of Australian swimming.
In terms of spectators and television viewing, swimming is not major sport in Australia. It only receives prominent media coverage twice a year, the Australian trials and the subsequent major international competition for the year. Apart from
the handful of athletes who manage the lofty feats of winning gold on the global arena, Australia’s swimmers are generally incognito among the wider public. Earlier in the year, the Australian Championships were held in a predominantly empty stadium, watched mainly by the athletes’ inner circle-their family and close friends. The television interest was similarly poor, as the public was demonstrably only interested when the Dolphins landed in Beijing to compete for the green and gold.
It is folly to assume that the public would be better able to maintain their interest in the trials if the races were crammed into a shorter window. If hardly anyone is interested in the first place, as is manifestly and unfortunately the case, then there is no interest to maintain. The most anticipated races at the trials will be the women’s sprint freestyle events, featuring Libby Trickett, Cate Campbell and Jodie Henry, and the 100 m butterfly, featuring Trickett and Jessicah Schipper. The other events are either David vs Goliath mismatches, or involve swimmers who lack the profile to attract the attention of the general public.
In the United States, collegiate swimmers compete regularly in NCAA competition, allowing them many opportunities to hone their racecraft not only against American swimmers, but many leading international swimmers who train under the university system. No analogous series of competition exist in Australia, nor is there the same depth of competition. All the more reason to make the most of every opportunity to race, especially considering that some of Australia’s swimmers have had dubious track records where racecraft is concerned.
Heading into the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, Australia was ranked #1 in eight events, but went away with only two golds. Michael Klim missed the final of the 200 m freestyle after trying to conserve energy in the heats; Scott Goodman was ranked first in the 200 m butterfly but was visibly nervous and came third. In 2000, five golds were netted when eight or nine were expected. More recently, Leisel Jones’ pre-2005 inability to reproduce her fastest times in finals have been well documented, while Libby Trickett broke the 100 m freestyle world record at both the 2004 and 2008 Olympic trials only to find herself unable to find similar speed at the Olympics; she was twice eliminated in the semifinals but was given a reprieve in Beijing due to another swimmer’s disqualification for a false start. After his defeat to Alain Bernard in the 100 m freestyle, Eamon Sullivan rued having swum Bernard’s race, rather than his own.
As one does in practice, so one does in competition, and the trials are not only a competition in its own right, it is a dress rehearsal for a global competition. The swimmers can trial their program and see if it is manageable with the given scheduling. Based on the results, alterations can be made to allow for better performance on the world stage. However, by trialling in different conditions, there will be a greater element of guesswork required.
No Formula One team would go and test and setup their car at Albert Park, and then turn up in Italy and use the same configuration at Monza. So upon arriving in Monza, they would have to tinker before getting the correct setup. The same applies here. By simulating at home what one will confront in future, a more effective preparation results.
By condensing the program, swimmers attempting to qualify in multiple events will be disadvantaged by smaller recovery times. This is likely to encourage swimmers to drop events they perceive to be weaknesses to shore up selection in pet events as scheduling clashes become more prevalent. Only a few swimmers of brilliant calibre such as Michael Phelps can swim multiple finals and semifinals in one session effectively. This will result in Australia’s stronger swimmers being underemployed once they arrive in Rome for the World Championships, facing longer rest periods between races that no longer clash.
By not giving Australia’s athletes the best chance to win in an attempt to harness short-term gain, swimming stands to lose much more. The hoopla surrounding Ian Thorpe’s remarkable feat at age 14 in becoming the youngest male to gain selection for Australia was microscopic in comparison to the media frenzy that erupted when Thorpe made the most of his selection and became the youngest male to become world champion. Scores of lucrative sponsorship deals resulted. A more recent illustration is that of Australian swimming’s glamour couple, Stephanie Rice and Eamon Sullivan. Both broke two world records at the trials, which, coupled with their tabloid-fodder status, made them targets for underwear endorsements. However, when it came to Beijing, Sullivan was set two world records in the relay lead-off and semifinals, but was narrowly toppled in the final. On the other hand, Rice triumphed in to double gold in the individual medley, setting world records in both. On the surface, the difference between two gold and one silver is stark. But below the surface, there was little difference in the quality of the performances, as Rice had scraped home by a slender 0.15% in each race. But the difference in the ramifications could not have been starker. Rice carried the flag at the closing ceremony and became the darling of Australia, swamped by a multitude of media and sponsorship deals, whereas Sullivan was largely forgotten. To add to the impact it has on the public psyche, international success also determines the amount of government funding that is awarded.
The imagery generated by gold medals inspire the next generation of champions to take up the sport. Without exception, the current golden girls in Australia’s dominant women’s team cite Susie O’Neill and Sam Riley as their role models. It’s inevitable that the next generation will similarly be inspired by the likes of Rice, thereby driving an expansion in the sport. But such catalytic triumphs don’t come easily in the fierce world of competitive swimming, with a razor-thin margin separating champions and also-rans. Australia’s athletes need as much help as they can get, and the decision to place the marketability of the selection trials won’t do their hard work the justice it deserves. In the end, swimming in Australia stands to incur a greater penalty if their performance is hit.
Wednesday, November 19, 2008
Ajantha Mendis: Hopefully not the second coming of Jack Iverson
Sri Lanka's Ajantha Mendis, who was recently named by the ICC as the Emerging Player of the Year, has put the cricket world in a spin lately. Amid the first decade of the 21st century, when batting averages and totals have steadily increased as pacemen such as Donald, Ambrose, Waqar, Wasim, McGrath, Pollock and Walsh have all departed, it has been a welcome change. With quality spinners also becoming a endangered species due to the proliferation of roped boundaries, better bats, more powerplays and Twenty20, Mendis was a timely arrival, particularly as the most decorated spinners of our time, Shane Warne, Muttiah Muralitharan and Anil Kumble are about to head into the sunset.
Since making his international debut earlier this year, Mendis has taken 33 ODI wickets in 13 matches at an average of an average of 10.81. In addition to all this, his best performance a demolition of India in the final of the Asia Cup, taking 6/13 against a batting arsenal famed for its ability to demolish spinners. He then proceeded to make his Test debut in Sri Lanka's home series against India and proceeded to flummox the Indian batsmen, particularly the famed middle order. He took 26 wickets at 18, and was promptly named man of the series.
With his wide repertoire, most notably his carrom ball, Mendis has bamboozled many batsmen and is a major leading force behind Sri Lanka's recent triumphs. His signature delivery was pioneered by Jack Iverson (bowling grip pictured), an Australian spinner who quickly shot to fame in the Ashes of 1950-51 against England, terrorising the batsmen for a season before disappearing from first-class cricket in the following year and eventually committing suicide after suffering depression.
Richie Benaud, the doyen of commentators, once said
"There have been plenty of spin bowlers around for more than a hundred years but the four, for me, who have broken the mould and made batsmen think seriously about what was coming down the pitch at them, have been Bernard Bosanquet, Jack Iverson, John Gleeson and Shane Warne."
Mendis can now be added to the list, and hopefully for the sake of cricket, he stays around a lot longer than Iverson.
Like Mendis, Iverson experienced more a more arduous upbringing than most. His father was
austere and strict towards the younger Iverson and expected his son to be self-reliant. He was sent away to board and when he finished school, he did not work in his father's real estate firm, as many businesspeople would do with their children. Instead, Iverson headed alone into the unforgiving Australian desert, tending to livestock. Eventually, with the outbreak of World War II, Iverson enlisted in the armed forces and was deployed to what is now Papua New Guinea. There he began experimenting with bowling during recreation matches with other soldiers; his prior experience was playing in a few school matches more than a decade earlier under the leadership of Lindsay Hassett, who later captained him for Australia.
Mendis had the family responsibility thrust on him at the age of 18 in different circumstances, when his father died of a heart attack. He was spotted during a match against a Sri Lankan Army team, and in order to support his family, he enlisted and played cricket for the military. As with Iverson, Mendis also saw active duty.
Upon their emergence into first-class cricket, both players made quick progress with seemingly few impediments, routinely despatching an assemblyline of outclassed batsmen who were unable to comprehend what was heading towards them. Iverson made his first-class debut for Victoria in 1949-50. With the national side touring South Africa, it was the opportunity for a new crop of players back in Australia to push for selection. Iverson was the top wicket-taker in the Sheffield Shield season, with 46 scalps at 16.6 in just seven matches. He was duly selected for an Australian Second XI tour of New Zealand where he proceeded to claim his victims at an astounding average of 7!
The following season, Iverson made his Test debut in the Ashes series of 1950-51. His first Test wicket was that of Trevor Bailey, a middle-order batsman known for his dour and sturdy defensive style. Bailey once batted for more than seven hours in a Test for just 68 runs, earning himself the sobriquet of "barnacle". Likewise, Mendis made his international debut in his second year of first-class cricket. His maiden Test wicket was Rahul Dravid, penetrating the famed defence of a player known as "The Wall" with a carrom ball that broke through bat and pad. By the end of their debut series, both players topped the wicket-taking lists and played a pivotal role in their teams' series wins, with Iverson taking 21 wickets at 15.
As the saying goes, you learns more about a champion when he is staring defeat in the face than when he raising his fist in triumph.
In their first two seasons, neither players were strenuously tested by opposition batsmen, having taken all before them. A successful spinner needs a big heart to survive the onslaughts of aggressive batsmen; unlike a fast bowler, he cannot intimidate his opponents with bouncers, but must outmanoevre them.
However, Iverson was put under the microscope during the season by some of his Australian teammates. When Iverson bowled either in the nets or on the field for Australia, Hassett, the captain of both Victoria and Australia, would forbid New South Wales players from viewing his action, hoping to keep them in the dark so as to maintain an advantage in clashes between the Sheffield Shield heavyweights. Hassett achieved this by banning them from batting against Iverson in the nets, and when Iverson bowled in Tests, he put the New South Wales members of the Test team behind the bowling arm. He would move Keith Miller, the New South Wales allrounder, from a position in slips, to mid-on or mid-off. This irritated the New South Welshmen, but Hassett was unmoved.
As it was, the two state heavyweights-who at the time had a virtual duopoly on Australian cricket-met in the middle of the Test season, with both at full strength with their Test players. The New South Wales batsmen, led by Keith Miller and Arthur Morris, began to unravel Iverson's secrets and launched a strong attack which demoralised him and went a long way towards winning the match and breaking Iverson's aura. The pair launched a withering burst, propelling New South Wales to 459 from 93 overs, a rapid rate of scoring for a first-class match even by modern standards, especially as Victoria's three other frontline bowlers-Ian Johnson, Bill Johnston and Doug Ring-were all Test players and members of Bradman's Invincibles. Iverson was the most effective and economical on the day, with 3/108 from 28 overs, but for the standards he was used to, it was quite rough treatment.
During the subsequent ODI series in Sri Lanka, India bounced back after their Test series defeat and their humiliation in the Asia Cup to claim the series 3-2. During the five ODIs, India managed to score more reasonably against Mendis in a couple of matches. India's most assured batsmen against Mendis were Virender Sehwag and MS Dhoni. Morris was an attacking opener and part-time spinner like Sehwag, while Miller was a mighty hitter with a distinctive mane and was the object of much female adulation, like Dhoni. All four were the senior batsmen in their respective teams.
The fragile Iverson began to doubt his ability. In the last two Tests against England, he took only five wickets. In each of the next two seasons, Iverson made himself largely unavailable, feeling himself unready for first-class competition. He played in only one and two first-class matches respectively in each of the two seasons. After that, he toured India with a Commonwealth XI in 1953-54 before retiring.
Despite his loss of confidence, Iverson was still largely unconquered by batsmen, ending with a career bowling average lower than 20; his average in the last three demoralised seasons was 24.61, hardly poor at all. He still had a lot to offer to the cricket world, as evidenced by the 17 wickets at 18 that he took in three unofficial Tests during the tour of India, but sadly, he felt otherwise and disappeared from the scene. Affected by depression, Iverson took his life at the age of 58.
In the modern era, Mendis faces a different set of circumstances. With the proliferation of video technology and super slow motion cameras filming the action from all angles, batsmen will have more assistance in decoding Mendis' techniques. As a result, Mendis will need to hone the subtleties in his repertoire and rely more on his mental powers to overcome the batsmen. Unlike Warne and Muralitharan, Iverson and Mendis did not face grave challenges from batsmen before establishing themselves at international level. As a result, they did not need to grow such a thick skin before they had found their way to international success. As everyone knows, cricket is played mostly between the ears. Unhappily, Iverson was mentally unable to withstand the effects from the few aggressive batsmen who had unlocked his secrets. For Mendis, how he deals with batsmen who have decoded his secrets is yet to be seen.
Luckily for Mendis, in the modern era, unlike in Iverson's time, there is no shortage of psychologists and other support staff for elite cricketers. Hopefully the parallels between Mendis and Iverson don't carry through to their cricketing demises. In this batting-dominated era of cricket, it would be a great shame if Mendis was but an Iversonesque shooting star.