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Monday, January 3, 2011

The hat-trick that should have been

Gee people can be quick. I have already received a tweet asking about the non-hat-trick that I can't blame an umpire for.

OK, it's only a short story, so here goes.

It was a one-day match, a final, against a team that really fancied their chances against us. And to be fair, they had every reason to fancy themselves.

The skipper threw me the ball. Almost instantaeous success. A wicket. Another. The hat-trick beckoned. And just like that previous episode, in all important incoming batter was a kid.

I stood at the head of my run up. I glared at the kid, doing my best impression of Merv Hughes, provided Merv had been a short, greying, bespectacled, hopeful-off-spinner. In fact, about all Merv and I had in common was a paunchy gut. But never let facts get in the way of a good story!

The bowl rolled beautifully out of my fingers, looping up in the air, dropping right on the spot. It turned in a little and the batter lunged forward, the ball catching the shoulder of the bat to loop back in the air back towards me. Oh what a dream of a return catch. I could have probably rolled a cigarette while getting into position, it was that easy a return catch. But instead, for some strange reason, I lunged forward toward the ball, only to find myself over-shooting it. A last desperate lunge back between my legs only saw my fingertips brush the ball.

The umpire, having been greeted with the sight of my hands chasing a bowl out from beneath my fat posterior, managed to keep a straight face. Almost.

The hat-trick that never was

My last post about umpiring made me remember an incident from my own inglorious cricketing career, showing just what a poor umpire can cause.

It was a ground in a small country ground. My lot were the visitors. After only posting a mediocre total, we took the field second.

At the start of the day, the captain and I had both queried the way the stumps were placed, arguing that one was set too wide. "Nothing wrong with them," the man in the white jacket insisted. Well, OK, not so much a white jacket as a white polo shirt, but white jacket sounded more impressive.

This was before I saw the light and took up bowling donkey drops - straight-breaking off spin. Back then I was still trying to become the next Dennis Lillee. I opened the bowling but into the wind as my opening partner generally got first choice of which end to bowl from. And it was not so much bowling into the wind as it was pushing into a gale. But in no time at all, the wind swung right around. From trudging into a typhoon, I suddenly found myself bowling with the wind behind me. What a treat!

The wickets started falling with me in among them. In one memorable over, I found myself on a hat-trick. Even better, the incoming batter looked like a kid. Surely I could clean him up and achieve that elusive goal?

Pitched on a good length, the ball moved off the pitch a little, back into the right-handed batter - and straight through the gate between bat and pad. Up I went in celebration - I had bowled him! Hat-trick! The keeper had gone up with me. Yes! But wait a moment. The bails were still on.

We stood and looked at the undisturbed stumps in surprise. "I thought you bowled me," admitted the young batter.

Well, we went on to win the game and I was in the wickets. But once play was over, I grabbed the ball and walked up to the stumps, the placement of which we had disputed at the start of the afternoon. Sure enough, the ball just fitted between the off and middle stumps. Probably only a cigarette paper or two either side, but fitted through all the same.

I feel quite justified in blaming the umpire for that missed hat-trick. At least I had someone to blame for that one, unlike another memorable occasion. But that is another story for another time.

A thought on umpiring

The referral system in Test Cricket was introduced with some controversy. At the end of the day, however, the reason for its introduction was to help get past some absolute howlers of decisions being made. From my observation point, one of the worst culprits was easily Billy Bowden, who has suffered my wrath before.

What is noticeable so far this series, is the closeness of many of the decisions being referred 'upstairs' for adjudication. Even when a decision has been overturned, there has not been much in it and umpire judgement has been shown to be pretty sound. This is a good thing for umpires, helping give them back some authority and giving players confidence in an umpire's ability to properly control a game. Ricky Ponting's outburst on the field during the Fourth Test, arguing with an umpire when he was not happy with the outcome of a referral, was ridiculous and uncalled for. I think he was lucky to only have lost 40% of his match fee for that stunt.

I have been very impressed with the standard of umpiring during this series. However we are only into the second day of the Fifth Test where Bowden is, unfortunately in my opinion, standing once more. As a player I would have virtually no confidence in that umpire at all. Hopefully Billy will concentrate on actually running the game and not his stupid on-field theatrics.

Lay off Usman!

Usman Khawaja made a solid debut for Australia, slipping into the number three position in the wake of injured Ricky Ponting. He seemed in charge and quietly confident, with a sound technique that the likes of Phil Hughes should have a good look at. However he only made 37. He made a solid start but that was it, although admittedly having rain delays would not have helped the concentration. Solid – yes. But hardly worth the over-the-top media headlines. According to the press, Khwaja ‘starred’, he ‘shone like a beacon’. One commentator announced that this was clearly the start of a 100-plus Test career.

Oh give me a break. The guy did not even make 50. He has made a promising start and does admittedly look darn good, but he is hardly our ‘Saviour’ just yet. Lay off the silly hyperbole, will you? Sure, the press have not had much good news to report to Australian audiences this season, but don’t go so ridiculously over top. The scorebooks are full of names of players who made a promising start only to fall away and disappear into mediocrity. Khawaja has enough pressure on him as it is, without the press putting even greater expectations on his shoulders. Just let him develop naturally.

Take a lesson from the Poms

Any aspiring medium-pace or quick bowlers would do well to pay close attention to how the successful English bowling attack has been operating. They consistently bowl at and around off-stump before putting the ball a bit wider, drawing the batter into pushing or poking at a delivery they would have been better off to leave well alone. Those are the circumstances that result in edges going to the waiting cordon behind the stumps.

It takes a disciplined batter to resist those tactics, knowing when to drop the wrists, pulling away from the shot. The current English bowling line-up are very disciplined in this approach. And a sure way to start taking wickets is to wear batters down. It is an approach that can work in most circumstances even if it is not as exciting to watch. But to make it really work, the bowling needs to be very consistent otherwise the batters receive valuable respite from the pressure. This English attack is very consistent with this attack and they are reaping the rewards.

In contrast, the Australian bowling attack has conspicuously failed to produce any continuing pressure on the English bats in the same way.