The Ashes phoney war: notes on leadership

Put this in your tour diaries, Michael

Put this in your tour diaries, Michael

One of the dominant narratives in the run-up to the return Ashes series has been – thanks to Shane Warne and a press pack grateful for headlines – the contrasts in leadership espoused by Alastair Cook and Warnie’s mate, Michael Clarke. The former is pigeon-holed as ‘negative’ and ‘reactive’ while the latter is praised as being ‘positive’ and ‘proactive’ – on the field of play, at least.

It’s rare in professional sport nowadays for so much leadership responsibility to be vested in playing, rather than coaching,  personnel. It’s one of the many things that sets cricket apart.

Anyway, Gideon Haigh always seems to sum up the majority perspective better than anyone else around. Here are his thoughts on the matter:

The Art of Captaincy 2

Cuts and Glances Blog | 11 November 2013| 4 Comments

On a good thing, Shane Warne is sticking to it, taking his critique of the respective Ashes captains into print in the Daily Telegraph.  But the inference to be drawn is simply that Warne is on a roll.  His candidates to captain England?  Kevin Pietersen, because he has ‘the best cricket brain in the team’, and Graeme Swann, because he is ‘a good reader of the game’.  But, at the risk of repeating an obvious point, this is a reductive view of leadership, as analogous to a chess grandmaster plotting move and countermove.  Captaincy is every bit as much about the blending of personalities, the motivation of individuals, the setting of a personal example – especially in these days when the game is analysed so closely by coaching staffs, one might even say that ‘tactics’ trade at a discount.  That is before we even get to Warne’s alternative skippers.  In Pietersen’s case, his ‘cricket brain’ is harnessed to a nervous system of unpredictable impulses; in Swann’s case, he turns 35 in March, and may here be on his last lap.  Both players have long-term injury concerns.  They are fine, experienced cricketers.  Are they really superior candidates to a twenty-eight-year-old with twenty-five Test centuries?

Perhaps more interesting are the parts of the column where Warne invokes the example of his own career. ‘I played for 15 years in one of the best teams of all time, winning in all conditions against all opposition,’ he says.  ‘We had some great players, sure, but we also needed a good captain with imagination.’ I love that ‘sure’.  ‘Oh yeah, we had me, McGrath, the Waughs, Ponting, Gilchrist, Hayden, Langer, Martyn but really it was all about leadership.’ For one thing, this rather flies in the face of everything he’s ever said about the leadership qualities of Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting, who led him in two-thirds of the Tests in his career.  For another, it overlooks that Warne, perhaps the most powerful ‘cricket brain’ of all, was capable of making a contribution without being captain.

Then there’s this observation: ‘England won the Ashes in 2005 because Michael Vaughan was imaginative and proactive. He came up with different fields, attacked with the bat and challenged the opposition batsmen all the time.’ The field settings I remember from Vaughan eight years ago are the boundary sweepers he employed from early in the innings to arrest Australia’s boundary flow – smart captaincy, I grant you, but hardly ‘aggressive’.  And where are the England players in this remembrance of events?  Frankly, England briefly repossessed the urn in 2005 because they had Flintoff, Harmison, Pietersen, Trescothick, Jones and others playing he cricket of their lives, not because of a short cover Vaughan set somewhere or other.  Warne’s reading also underestimates Vaughan in ascribing his success to on-field inspirations.  Vaughan’s real triumph, I thought, was as a man manager, inculcating such a sense of self-belief in England’s dressing room, despite eight consecutive Ashes defeat.
Of the Australian dressing room, of course, Warne has said Clarke needs to foster a ‘happier team environment’.  Having last week expressed confidence that his ‘best friend’ Clarke and ‘good mate of mine’ Darren Lehmann are making progress in this respect, he here cites as evidence that during ‘the recent one-day series in India, there were a lot more Australian players smiling and in form’.  Perhaps he’s right.  But it’s not mere pedantry to point out that neither Clarke nor Lehmann were actually in India, that the team was led by George Bailey and coached by Steve Rixon.  Bailey has yet to join the Test team, and rumour abounds that Rixon is about to part ways with it.

Finally, there’s this, which surprisingly has not featured in any of the quotebacks from the Telegraph column: ‘To me Australia have to improve in more areas than England if they are to regain the Ashes.’ Oh, OK.  But it seems to undermine all the foregoing, and also Warne’s Twitter prediction of 3 November: ‘I think Aust will regain the Ashes Urn in Aust 2-1.’ (which by the way was Warne’s prediction for the series in England). There as usual lurks a solid point behind this column – that England in their determination simply to stifle and frustrate Australia have missed opportunities to really put the skids under them.  But you need to work your way through some slightly chaotic thinking to find it.

From: http://blogs.theaustralian.news.com.au/cutsandglances/. Accessed 14 November 2013

His first piece on the subject is accessible through The Australian newspaper’s paywall: http://www.theaustralian.com.au/sport/opinion/entertaining-shane-warne-is-not-always-on-the-ball/story-fnb58rpk-1226756183545#mm-premium

The Science of Selection

England Chairman of Selectors Geoff Miller, looking rightly satisfied with his lot

England Chairman of Selectors Geoff Miller, looking rightly satisfied with his lot

It’s a job I’ve long coveted. What could be a cushier gig than being a national cricket selector?

If you’re lucky enough to be employed by the ECB, you spend the early part of the domestic season touring around county grounds gorging on cucumber sandwiches and warm beer, all the while your centrally-contracted mainstays are wrapped in cotton wool for the international rigours to come.

Once the touring teams arrive and the proper cricket starts, you find a nice seat amongst the members, sit behind dark glasses, and occasionally discuss who’s next in line for the coveted 13th man position behind Steve Finn/Tim Bresnan. Then there’s the exotic jet-setting during the winter months, with all the five star luxury sports administrators have come to expect.

For the four-man[i] panel that have the responsibility of finding eleven good men and true to don the baggy green, however, the job is not so enviable. In the space of two overseas trips to India and England (and Scotland, officially), they have taken a total of 22 different players on tour, all of whom will have played a Test by the end of this current trip (Matt Wade has not played in England, but got three games in India; James Faulkner will debut today at The Oval). That statistic alone is enough to highlight how onerous a job the Aussie selectors are faced with.

Here’s another: Mitchell Starc has played four of the eight Tests against India and England this year, none consecutively. How does that help either his rhythm or confidence?

So, while the selectors are not faced with an embarrassment of playing riches, they’ve hardly helped the team bed in and build a rapport while facing two of the three best Test playing nations.

But to really nut out farce that the selection panel’s work has become, consider the chopping and changing in the batting order in the past 16 Test innings:

Position Players selected against India and England in 2013 Tests, as at 20 August Number of players selected in each position
Openers EJM Cowan; DA Warner; SR Watson; GJ Maxwell (yes, really); CJL Rogers 5
No. 3 EJM Cowan; DA Warner; PJ Hughes; MJ Clarke; UT Khawaja 5
No. 4 PJ Hughes; SR Watson; MJ Clarke; SPD Smith 4
No. 5 SR Watson; MJ Clarke; SPD Smith; NM Lyon (nightwatchman) 4
No. 6 DA Warner; PJ Hughes; SR Watson; MJ Clarke; MS Wade; GJ Maxwell; BJ Haddin 7
No. 7 MS Wade; MC Henriques; GJ Maxwell; BJ Haddin 4
No. 8 MA Starc; PM Siddle; GJ Maxwell; AC Agar; MG Johnson 5
No. 9 MA Starc; PM Siddle; JL Pattinson; RJ Harris 4
No. 10 MA Starc; PM Siddle; JL Pattinson; NM Lyon; RJ Harris 5
No. 11 JL Pattinson; XJ Doherty; AC Agar; NM Lyon; RJ Harris; JM Bird 6
The confused face of Australian cricket

The confused face of Australian cricket

New cap James Faulkner will play at seven today and Starc – the poor lad – will come back in again and play at either eight or nine. Shane Watson will move up to three, a position he has not played in since the Aussie summer, while Khawaja finds himself again cast into the wilderness alongside Phil Hughes and Eddie Cowan; a player who, in the mould of Chris Rogers, they could have persisted with after his horror show in the Trent Bridge Test, in which he was suffering from a virus.

Australia, we are told, need to win this dead rubber so they can build momentum for the return series in three months time. Even if they do so, who can say with any confidence what their XI will be in Brisbane? At this stage, the chances of them fielding the same team in that next Test seem as likely as the four-man selection panel remaining unchanged.


[i] John Inverarity (Chairman), Rod Marsh, Andy Bichel and Darren Lehmann (since June 2013)

The Breakfast Club

VegemiteBoof: [cracks open a tinny] Good morning, gentlemen. Thanks for meeting me for breakfast this morning. I know you’ll have today’s game on your minds but before we get to the ground I think it’s important we thrash out a few of the issues that have come up these past couple of days.

Pup: No worries, coach. You know I respect you as a man, as a leader and as a humanitarian. I’m at your beck and call.

Watto: [looks up from his organic bircher muesli] There’s a game today?

Boof: Yup, a rather big one, Shane. Don’t worry, you’re opening the batting.

Watto: I should bloody well hope so. Don’t think I dobbed in Davey boy for no good reason. I only had the team in mind, you know; my capacity to reach 40 before loosely nicking off far exceeds his ability to race to 30 before doing likewise.

Boof: I know, I know. We’re all very grateful. Aren’t we, Michael?

Pup: Oh yes, coach! Anything you say, coach!

Boof: Call me Boof.

Pup: Of course! Sorry about that!

Watto: What exactly is a ‘Boof’ anyway?

Boof: Back to what I was saying, the media have been having a bit of a merry old time with you two over the last 48 hours. We need to get this sorted right away…

Pup: Permission to speak, boss.

Boof: [sighs and slumps into his seat] Granted.

Pup: Look, I was just thinking that, what with everything’s that happened, maybe it would be for the best if, well… what I mean is that… you know… Watto – great guy and all – heck, he is a bit of cancer on the team, isn’t he?

Watto: This is what I’m talking about! He’s always had it in for me! Everyone else thinks I’m great, why does he not like me?! I just want to be liked! [sobs into goji berry and roasted partridge semen smoothie]

Boof: The way I see it, you two are the best chance we’ve got of beating the Poms and for us all to return to the colony as heroes. There are 22 million Australian men, women and children imploring you to put aside your differences and focus on what matters – wiping that smug look off Broady’s irritating face.

Pup: Now you’re talking, boss! That Stuart Broad is the real enemy. Why, when he refused to walk in the first Test I was so angry that I stomped so hard I almost crooked my back up. Of course, when I referred my caught behind decision you must understand I really didn’t think I edged it.

Boof: I don’t care about that, Michael. In fact, if you ever walk without being given out I’ll not only strip you of the captaincy, I’ll also make sure you never wear the hallowed baggy green again and are forever forced to carry Warnie’s bag around depressingly cavernous casinos. Is that clear?

Pup: Yes, got it. Am I allowed to apologise for not walking on my Twitter account though? That got me over 5,000 retweets during the Adelaide Test in 2010.

Boof: Absolutely not!

Watto: You know I’d never tweet, Boof. I prefer to say what I have to say behind someone’s back! [cackles]

Boof: Look, we’ve got to leave for the ground soon. I need both of you to look me in the eyes and tell me these issues are all behind you.

Pup: Everything’s fine, boss.

Watto: I’ve forgotten what we were fighting about.

Boof: Good.

Watto: I mean it, what was the problem again?

Boof: Shake hands, both of you.

[Pup extends his hand, Watto puts down his hairbrush and shakes it]

Boof: See, that wasn’t so hard, was it?

Watto: No, surprisingly soft and tender actually. Like shaking a limp orchid.

Boof: Great. That’s a load off. I really feel we’re shaping up quite nicely to give those Poms a good buggering now. There’s just one more thing I need to resolve before we set off.

Pup: Can I help with that, boss? Please let me help.

Boof: Actually, yes you can, Michael. Go over to Eddie’s table and tell him he’s cut.

Pup: I’d do anything for love, boss. But I won’t do that. I mean, look at his sad little eyes. It’s cruel.

Watto: [grins and rises from table] Leave it with me. It’ll be a pleasure.

Crystal Balls-up

I didn't see it coming either, Bob

I didn’t see it coming either, Bob

Nine months ago, your correspondent boldly/stupidly made his predictions for the upcoming Premier League season.

Among the pearls of wisdom was that City would comfortably win the league (finished eleven points behind United), Big Sam would be the first manager to lose his job (just been given a new contract) and Swansea would fall apart (top ten finish and League Cup winners).

Good job!

Only one prediction came to pass; but it hardly took the skills of Nostradamus to foresee Wigan would struggle this year – although they did, of course, win the FA Cup.

Thank goodness I didn’t put in print that I believed QPR would be pushing for a European place.

All this leads me to confidently state that Australia will definitely win the Ashes.

Ashes Hyperopia

What Matt Prior sees when he closes his eyes

What Matt Prior sees when he closes his eyes

As Australia prepare for their four Test series in India, England are in New Zealand gearing up for home and away Tests and ODIs against the Kiwis. However hard you try to block it out though, the challenge which looms largest for both touring sides is the first back-to-back Ashes series since the 1970s. Everything that happens in the next five months must be defined by what the old enemies will encounter at Trent Bridge on 10 July.

Matt Prior is already talking about bullying the Aussies over ten Tests. I’d like to believe this will happen, but I’m not so sure.

Brad Haddin, getting ‘bullied’ at Adelaide in 2010

The 2010-11 series was a dominating one by England, save for the Fremantle Doctor-inspired demolition at Perth, and Australia’s batting line-up has recently been shorn of vital experience with the retirements of Ponting and Hussey. Philip Hughes has recently slotted in nicely at number three (again), but a question mark remains about how his idiosyncratic technique will hold up against top bowlers, having been found out so ruthlessly by Flintoff in 2009, and Bresnan in 2011.

Perhaps unbeknownst to many England fans, the Aussies have steadily been building a formidable pace attack: Peter Siddle has matured greatly, Mitchell Starc is developing into the bowler Mitch Johnson should have been and, in the absence of the aggressive James Pattinson, Jackson Bird has come in to the side and hailed as the latest ‘new Glenn McGrath’. All of the above (excluding Johnson, of course) should thrive with the Duke ball on English pitches.

Ah, the hallowed green tops under leaden skies that await the hard hands of the Aussie batsmen. It’s of no debate that the pitched up, moving ball continues to confound the men from Down Under. Only a month ago the ball nipped around in Brisbane during an ODI against Sri Lanka and the home side slumped to 74 all out (from an even more humiliating position of 40-9), thanks largely to the gentle medium pace of Nuwan ‘KulaShakerer’.

When will they learn? I’m betting they will in time for the first Test. They have to. It’s not rocket science; don’t go hard at the ball, play it under your nose, leave the wide one… India will provide no ideal preparation, but Australia should encounter reverse swing on the subcontinent, before many of their key batsmen play in the ludicrous Champions Trophy at Edgbaston, Sophia Gardens and The Oval throughout June.

In Ed Cowan, Australia potentially has the perfect man to see off the new ball. A studious leaver of the wide delivery, blocker of the good ball and attacker of the bad one; Eddie could be key to giving the Aussies’ innings some much-needed platforms in the first series. His, and their, problem might be that he doesn’t do enough on the rough, low pitches of India to retain his place in England, with Watto coming back into the equation to take advantage of the early attacking fields set by Dhoni.

Meanwhile, England have been a mix of brilliant (home and away to India), hapless (in the UAE) and merely mediocre (at home to South Africa and away in Sri Lanka). Their varying performances since the last Ashes series has underlined how much, despite all the rhetoric about a strong team ethic, England rely upon key performers – just like any top team does, including Australia.

Take out Jimmy Anderson (sufferer of back niggles) and Graeme Swann (dodgy elbow) from the bowling attack and you start to wonder where the twenty wickets will come from. England won the 2009 Ashes without KP for the majority of the series, but, with Bell again looking lacklustre and the number six spot still up for grabs; their middle order impetus looks more dependent upon him than it has been since 2005.

So while England fans will be hoping that their settled team stays together over the next 12 months, Australians will be willing their new look side to gain form and momentum in time for career-defining series.

*****

Five months out, the likely XII’s at Nottingham:

ENGLAND

AN Cook *

NRD Compton

IJL Trott

KP Pietersen

IR Bell

JE Root

MJ Prior +

GP Swann

SCJ Broad

JM Anderson

ST Finn

12th: CR Woakes

AUSTRALIA

EJM Cowan

DA Warner

PJ Hughes

MJ Clarke *

SR Watson

UT Khawaja

MS Wade +

MA Starc

PM Siddle

JM Bird

NM Lyon

12th: JL Pattinson

Ricky Hughe?

A new generation of Aussie fans must get used to seeing a lot of Phil Hughes

Older readers may remember the great Australian batsman Ricky Ponting. It is easy to forget the contributions of the former captain as his heir to the dashing no.3 spot Phillip Hughes piles on the runs against the mighty Sri Lankans.

The selectors’ faith in Hughes’ abilities has led him to be dropped on three occasions in his 19 match Test career, only welcoming him back this time after openly sparing him from the fierce South Africans – where poor Bobby Quiney acted as Hughes’ human shield, picking up a pair in Adelaide.

What inspired management. Hughes is now back and duly filling his boots against the second string medium pacers of Sri Lanka, on his home SCG pitch [at the time of writing he’s just given his wicket away for 87].

With this sort of Ramprakash-esque momentum behind him, Hughes is bound to prosper in the alien conditions of India and, afterwards, in back-to-back Ashes series. If there’s anyone in the top 7 who’s less comfortable against the moving ball than PJ Hughes then Jimmy Anderson et al are going to have a gay old time.

Back in the day, it used to be that Australians raised their games against the old foe while the English wilted under the strain of facing a supremely competitive, chips-on-their-shoulders team from Down Under. Now, it’s more likely the other way round. Mitch Johnson, Shane Watson and Hughes have all grossly underperformed in the Ashes spotlight. More and more, the opposite is true of England; even Ian Bell had one of his Bangladesh type series in Australia in 2010/11. That same series arguably rescued Ali Cook’s whole career.

With Hussey retiring and Ponting long gone, the baton charge against the English must be led by the captain, Michael Clarke. And the bowlers. They’re the Aussie trump card right now. Jackson Bird, James Pattinson, Pat Cummings, Mitchell Starc and the new, improved, Peter Siddle are all likely to prosper in English conditions, as well as back home. When you consider how many runs they may be asked to bowl at in 2013, the selectors’ eagerness to rotate their pack and prevent burn-out is entirely understandable.

Farewell, old foe

Punter’s last Ashes stand, Dec 2010, MCG

Like all red-blooded Englishmen, I had hoped that Ricky Ponting would somehow defy his inexorable decline and produce sufficient runs in the South Africa series to ensure he would be a fixture in Australia’s middle order for next year’s back-to-back Ashes series. Alas, we now know that’s not to be.

As a totem of Australian cricketing dominance in their late 90s and early noughties heyday, Ricky emerged from the Steve Waugh era and came to represent a one-man Alamo against a resurgent England team (forgetting 2006/07, of course, as that NEVER happened). In the 2009 and 2010/11 series he would peer out from underneath his tatty baggy green with those piercing, worldly eyes, and you felt almost a modicum of pity that his bowling options consisted of the likes of Ben Hilfenhaus and Xavier Doherty when his predecessor nearly always had Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne. The fall from grace was more than English fans were ever prepared for.

But we still loved to beat him and going into the 2013 double header we were hungry for more. Perhaps by falling on his sword at this juncture he has had the last laugh, denying us the opportunity to mock him further. Or, I could be being unfair. Maybe the next stage of his transformation in the eyes of the English public would have been belated respect and admiration – coming full circle from his earlier omnipotence, but without the visceral loathing. This seems to be the path taken by Australian fans, with the applause he received at Adelaide last week quite a stirring sight.

Again from a purely English perspective, there have been career highlights. I have whittled them to five:

1. Harmy cutting him up on the first morning of the Lord’s Test in 2005 (he’s still got the scar). Getting Harmy that pumped up was probably one of the greatest ever achievements of Michael Vaughan as captain and set the tone for the series.

2. Gary Pratt running him out at Trent Bridge, prompting a volley of Punter invective against the unflappable Big Dunc.

3. THAT over from Freddie at Edgbaston, also in 2005. Punter the world class batsman, behind only Bradman, Lara and Tendulkar in the all-time list, couldn’t cope with an on-fire Fred that day.

4. Freddie again. Running Ponting out at the Oval in 2009 when it was just starting look like he might turn the deciding match around.

5. Trudging off at the MCG a broken man with a fractured finger in his last Test against England, as the away team retained the Ashes.

We’ll never see his like again as we’re unlikely to ever witness another once-in-a-lifetime Australia side led by such a grizzled competitor. We hated him so much because he, and his side, were so darn good. We respected him because, despite English inferiority, he too loved to beat us – which made the turnaround in fortunes so sweet to savour. Michael Clarke and Shane Watson just don’t get the blood boiling in the same way.