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Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Catches Win Matches - again

Australia v Pakistan, MCG, Day 5

One over into day 5. Pakistan resumed at 3/170. Five balls later and they were 5/171.

Pakistan had to pull-off a record-breaking run chase of 422 to win. But with 170 already under their belt, the remaining 252 with seven wickets was actually quite achievable, even more so considering there were two world class bats at the crease with another next to come in. That chance went out the window with Mitchell Johnson's 4th and 5th deliveries.

Where I am leading to is a further dig about the Pakistani fielding. No, I am not referring to the dropped catch that gave Shane Watson his maiden century. It was those badly-missed chances in the first session of Day 1 which has cost Pakistan this game.

As a bowler it is heart-breaking to bowl your guts out, give it everything, get the edge only to see eminently catchable chances hit the turf. As a captain, it is incredibly frustrating to see your players spill chances that they should be taking. I imagine coaches would be uttering unrepeatable (at least in this blog) phrases.

At the end of the day, poor fielding has undone some fine Pakistani bowling, particularly the hard work by Mohammad Aamer in getting 5 wickets.

The team management and coaching have to wear some of the responsibility here. It is all very well to talk about the underlying culture of not taking fielding seriously, but it is the management and coaching staff that are in the position to take positive action with the team under their control. If fielding is sub-par, which the Pakistani catching most definitely is, then the players must be forced to work at it harder. Introduce mandatory sessions at the slips cradle at most training sessions - that sharpens those slips reflexes like nothing else. Force the players to have sessions taking catches in close with tennis balls off a tennis racquet - that forces you to soften your hands and to stop snatching at the ball.

Those sort of training tactics will not turn every player into Mark Taylor quality in slips, but it would vastly improve Pakistan's quite lacklustre performance with this fundamental.

As I said on Day 1, catches win matches. And dropped catches have almost certainly cost Pakistan this game.

Controlling a game

Has anyone else noticed the big difference between the Second and Third Tests against the West Indies this summer and the subsequent First Test against Pakistan?

Unlike Billy Bowden with his theatrics while utterly failing to actually exercise any authority with the players, we now have the likes of Rudi Koertzen in charge of things. Koertzen is an old-fashioned, no-nonsense style of umpire.

Good umpires are barely noticeable during a game as they are doing their job properly. More than once in this current Test, Koertzen has quitely defused testosterone-fulled situations by a simple quiet word, telling the players to get on with things. His fellow umpire, Billy Doctrove, seems similarly in control. Contrast that to Bowden's shameful ignoring the on-field shenanigans in Perth. He stood there, stoney-faced, taking absolutely no interest in attempting to defuse the altercation between Brad Haddin and Suilemen Benn. Ian Gould at square leg, must have been cringing.

There is little doubt in my mind that matters would not have escaleted in Perth as they did, if Bowden had done the job he is paid to do and done it properly.

This was far from the first time that Bowden's umpiring has been worth some negative comment. When he has a bad day, he has a shocker. The number of times he calls 5- or 7-ball overs is simply not acceptable from a supposed elite umpire. Doesn't he know how to use his ball counter properly? Why isn't he checking after the fifth ball with square leg that you are expected to do at club levels of the game? And what's the deal with the silly signals? During the last Ashes series, at one point he was giving such a strange signal that nobody off the ground, including the scorers, had a flipping clue what he was on about. Sure, Bowden was mildly amusing and different when he first appeared on the scene but his theatrics have become just so tired, boring and irritating.

Being a character is fine. Consider the likes of Harold 'Dickie' Bird or David Shepherd in England. They were definitely characters, especially with Shep standing on one foot to ward off bad luck when the score reached 111 or multiples thereof. But at the same time they were in clear control and obviously respected by the players. Bird would have been all over the players in Perth, pulling them back into line. Then there was a certain Australian umpire, subsquently imprisoned on sexual charges, who as an umpire would hand out Minties to players. I do not recall him having problems with controlling the game either.

Billy Bowden would do well to have paid close attention to the quiet, no-nonsense approach of
Koertzen and Doctrove in this Test and tried applying the same. Or better still, have the umpiring fraternity leave him on the outer until he has learned to apply himself to actually umpiring and controlling a game rather than stupid theatrics and bad decisions.

Catches Win Matches

Australia v Pakistan, MCG, Day 1

There is an old saying in cricketing circles: 'catches win matches.'

This was never more evident than in the first session of play in the Boxing Day Test. The Pakistani's dropped both Australian openers on lowish scores with Shane Watson and Simon Katich going on to make 93 and 98 respectively.

These dropped catches did more than just cost the fielding team well in excess of 100 runs. Holding either or both had the potential to destabilise the Australian team. It would have brought Ricking Ponting to the crease against a faster, harder, newer ball at a time when he is still recovering from the elbow injury sustained in the last Test against the West Indies merely days before. While Michael Hussey has finally returned to form, his position in the order means that he rarely has to face a newer ball at the start of his innings.

These were major opportunities lost. The game was quite possibly lost in that first two hours of play.

Poor fielding has been a feature of the Pakistani game for years. Quoting the Pakistan coach, Intikhab Alam:

"This is the weakest part of the game we have. This is a grass roots problem in our country, those who play don't take fielding that seriously, this has been a problem for a very, very long time."

In this day and age where cricket is played at a very professional level, it beggars belief that players of a national side can take such a lax approach to fielding. The first catch spilled at slip for example, was simply unacceptable - it should have been almost regulation for that level of the game. For that matter, most club players would have expected that one to stick.

Cricket is more than a national pastime in Pakistan, it assumes near-religious overtones with burning effigies of players deemed to have failed. The Pakistani President is known to have words with cricket authorities about his displeasure over selections, providing a political overtone to proceedings as well.

With that background, why is it so difficult to hone Pakistani players on the full range of required skills? A smart fringe player could significantly enhance his chances of long-term selection by simply becoming a reliable fielder, especially in the slips region.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

more whinging

Unless something phenomenal happens, the rain-effected Third Test seems destined to be a draw.
Further emphasising the insanity of the Australian decision to drop Phillip Hughes and play Shane Watson as a bat, Watson was hardly sighted with the ball. Then when he was, it was to a Freddie Flintoff who was settled and firing. Sadly, Watson just served up a smorgasbord of half-volleys. He appears to be lacking real match-fitness on the tour, as he is a far better bowler than that.

The decision to drop Hughes was not just a bad one, it was a disgrace. He was given only two Tests before being dropped. Mike Hussey on the other hand has now had 17 innings without scoring a century. In the games they have played together, Hughes has consistently outscored Hussey. In two of his last three innings, Hussey has been bowled without offering a shot – a sure sign of someone whose judgement is sadly lacking at the moment.

On the positive side of things, after the third day was washed out, Day Four saw Mitchell Johnson start to get something back together. While still a long way from his dynamic best, he was now pitching the ball up with far more regularity. As a result, he got his swing back at last. Ben Hilfenhaus was by far the most effective of the Australian bowlers once again. That said, Peter Siddle tends to apply a degree of pressure at the other end with sustained, hostile bowling.

Now a quick word on the replacement wicketkeeper, Manou. He was brought in a the last moment after Brad Haddin injured a finger about the time the coin was being tossed by the respective captains and had little time to prepare himself. He has consistently gloved the ball smoothly with very neat footwork. To my mind, his work behind the stumps so far in this Test has been better than Haddin’s in the previous two Test matches.

This raises the question of what is more important with a wicketkeeper – his glovework or his batting prowess. Australia has been blessed for decades with keepers who can bat. At what point however do you take one above the above? While having a keeper who can make 50 or more with the bat certainly helps with the scoreboard, how many runs by the opposition are saved by having a better keeper who can perform that little extra bit of magic with the gloves, pulling in those extra catches? Those can easily be worth 50 or more runs by themselves.

A bowler is judged by his ability to take wickets, not his contribution with the ball. So why does a wicketkeeper, another non-batting specialist, have to justify his inclusion on his batting prowess? We saw the Australian experiment in the mid-1980s persisting with Wayne Phillips whose performances with the gloves was nothing to write home about while at the same time, his batting, which got him into the side in the first place, plummeted. The team lost out on both sides of the equation.

Friday, July 31, 2009

what the ^%$#?

It has to be asked - what the &^%$ are the Australian selectors doing? Hughes, after an amazing debut, averaging over 50 after his first five tests and smashing the South Africans, he is given only two Tests in England. He failed to dominate and was dumped. In his place, allrounder, Shane Watson, is brought in to replace Hughes as opening bat. Give me a frigging break!

If any batter needed to go, it sure as shit wasn't Hughes. How about Hussey - he has been struggling for a hell of a lot more than than two Tests. Hussey has totally lost the plot, being dismissed in two of his last three innings, bowled without even offering a stroke. It is Hussey who needs to be given a break to get his game together, not Hughes.

Even if we accept that the Australian bowling has failed to do the job sufficiently well, that didn't mean that the only option was to bring Watson in at the top of the order. Give Hussey a badly needed break to focus on getting his game together again, bring Watson in at number six and you still have Watson there as a bowler. Instead, the Australian selectors dump Hughes, who has done SFA wrong, and throw Watson to the wolves in the opening slot. Yes, Watson top-scored in that lowly first innings Australian total, but let's be fair - along with some lovely driving, he had more than his share of good fortune as well.

On day two of this Test, the English bowlers showed just how to use conditions where the ball is swinging araound. Jimmy Anderson will go down in the record books as the hero of the innings with five wickets, but it was Onions who got the all-important first three break-throughs on day two. The pair of them were near unplayable with their control in swinging conditions. What a contrast to the shower of shit the English bowlers served up in the only session played on the first day.

When the Aussies took the field, I expected to see Ben Hilfenhaus in particular making good use of the conditions. To my disappointment, he did not produce the movement I suspected. Peter Siddle got a little movement, but he is not a great swinger of the ball anyway. And Mitchell Johnson has continued his woes. I concur with the general opinion within the media - his action is far too low, causing him all manner of problems.

With about an hour to go on day two, I suspect that only rain will save Australia in this game. And unless they have a bigger comeback than Lazarus for the remaining two Tests, the Ashes will be returning to England.