Saturday, October 21, 2006

Ashes Countdown 32

Sign of things to expect in Ashes.

For the second time in a row in the ongoing edition of Champions Trophy, England failed to last their complete quota of 50 overs in their match against Australia. After a tremendous start by Strauss and Bell during which both the openers greeted Glen McGrath’s first delivery they faced to a boundary, England’s middle order again collapsed and were bundled out for 169 from 45 overs.

Though Australia had some hiccups earlier in their innings, in the end they won the match very convincingly with the birthday boy Damien Martyn making a solid 78 in a superb batting display which made the English bowlers look quite ordinary.

At 83 for no wicket England was well on their way to a total of at least 250 which could have given them a chance to beat the Aussies. But after the first wicket fell at that score England’s batting succumbed to the unlikely bowling pair of Shane Watson and Mitchell Johnson. Both of them accounted for three wickets each with Watson returning an impressive tally of 3 for 16 in seven overs. Mitchell Johnson too bowled with impeccable line and length and proved that his DLF cup performance against India was no fluke.

In one of the spectacular collapses of ODI cricket England lost their 10 wickets for 86 runs and their final total of 169 was never a challenging total for Australia. But when the Aussies lost their first three wickets for 34, it seemed as if we will have a contest at hand. Gilchrist was bowled comprehensively by Sajid Mahmood’s first ball after a brief interruption of play as one of the light towers lost power. Ponting’s misery on Indian wickets continued as he became the next victim for Sajid Mahmood when he edged an outswinger and Andrew Strauss took an excellent catch in the first slip. Watson then attempted a horrendous shot of the bowling of James Anderson and was clean bowled after making a confident 21.

Michael Hussey then joined Damien Martyn and they both added 118 runs in a partnership that was mixed with both caution and aggression and for the umpteenth time the Aussies sealed a victory with their middle order holding the fort.

Some positives that England can take from this match in their preparation for defending the Ashes this winter are 1) Finally Glen McGrath started to show his age in his bowling . He looked very normal bowling at a military medium pace and was not even a shadow of the menacing bowler he was just a year back. 2) Ian Bell found the form that deserted him in almost all of his batting stints against England’s arch rival. 3) Australian skipper Ricky Ponting’s continuing poor form (though to balance this out England's skipper too struggled with the bat).

But for those very few bright spots, England looked very much a bunch of losers after put into bat by Ricky Ponting and went through the motion of completing the proceedings as they did against India. It now looks almost certain that instead of Australia, England will be the one that would be waiting down under for Aussies to join them for the Ashes. If this match indicates any signs of the type of encounters we are going to witness during this winter’s Ashes Series then it would be quite one-sided and might make McGrath’s 5-0 prediction come true.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Ashes Countdown 48

Close Encounters of the Ashes Kind:

Surely, the image of Brett Lee and Andrew Flintoff after the 2005 Ashes Edgbaston test, when Andrew Flintoff bent on his knees to console the heartbroken Lee after Australia lost the test by closest margin ever in Ashes, will go down in the history of cricket as a testimony to the spirit of the game with which the whole series was fought. No wonder both Brett Lee and Andrew Flintoff own a copy of the painting depicting the picture and autographed by them in their respective memorabilia collection. Later this month Brett Lee will be loaning his painting for an Ashes exhibition tour, whose main attraction would be the Ashes Urn, which would be kicking off on October 21st.

Arguably, the photograph which flashed on every newspaper, news magazine and TV channels and became a topic of discussion among the cricket lovers and brought several other new fans for the game was one of the main reasons for the revival of interest in the game and Ashes during the laste year's epic series.

Nobody can describe that moment better than Brett Lee himself. In his own words: "It's probably the most exciting Test I've ever played in. To get so close and then have Freddie come and console me, put his arm round me and say what a fantastic match it was; to me that's what the Ashes is all about. That's got to go down as my favourite Test match although Australia didn't even win. To me it proves you don't have to take five-for or win a game for Australia to be playing in a fantastic game of cricket. You have to be humble as well and realise that you have been beaten fairly and squarely. The way that we fought back, the way we bowled in the second innings, the way that we chased down those runs and got so close when we really didn't deserve to get so close to them. It was all about the good old Australian spirit, just standing up, taking a battering, fighting as hard as we possibly could as a team. It's about sportsmanship, the way the game is played. The spirit of cricket is alive and well."

In that test match which provided one of the closest and greatest test match finishes ever Australia came very close to winning after the last wicket pair no. 10 Brett Lee and no. 11 Michael Kasprowicz added 59 runs and brought Australia within 3 runs of an impossible and improbable victory ever. The final result of 2 run victory for England remains as the closest winning margins ever in Ashes history. As if to live up to the interest the Edgbaston Test generated, the following test played at Old Trafford which ended as one of the greatest and exciting drawn test matches ever played, too involved that great fighter Brett Lee who along with Glen McGrath made sure that England did not secure back to back victories by battling out 4 tense overs and ensuring a draw for Australia.

In the history of Ashes, there are only three test matches which ended in a loss for the team chasing the victory target and fell short by just a boundary hit. (i.e Either 4 or six). With a remarkable coincidence there were also 3 tests which denied victory for the team bowling in the last innings, two ending in victory for the chasers and one ending as a draw. Not surprisingly the greatest Ashes Series ever played in modern times; the 2005 Ashes provided one test match in each of those categories.

In this edition of Ashes Countdown Series, let us look at these Closest Clashes of Ashes:

4th Test, Old Trafford, Manchester 24th – 26th July 1902, Australia won by 3 runs:

The first two tests of this series were badly hit by weather and ended as draws, Australia were lucky to have escaped an embarrassing loss after being bowled out for 36, their lowest total in test cricket, in the first test of the series which also was the first ever at Edgbaston, The 2nd test was washed out after England batted just 38 overs to score 102 for 2. This test match will be remembered as the only test match in which both CB Fry & Ranjitsinhji got dismissed for ducks. Third test played at Brammal Lane, Sheffield (only test match ever played at this venue) was comfortably won by Australia by 143 runs.

Thus Australia entered into this test with 1-0 lead. Australia won the toss and raced to 173 for 1 by lunchtime with Victor Trumper providing the first occasion of a batsman hitting a century before lunch on the first day of a Test match. Once Trumper got out for 104 adding just 1 run to his lunchtime score England’s Lockwood & Rhodes restricted Australia to a score of 299. But their celebrations lived short as England themselves found in a terrible situation as they lost 5 wickets for 44 runs and ended the day one at 70 for 5. The next day , Jackson (128) and Braund (65) added 141 valuable runs to take England’s total to a respectable 262.
Australia in their second innings could make just 86 runs, that too because of a dropped catch by debutant Fred Tate who floored a simple chance offered by the Aussie skipper Darling when they were reeling at 16 for 3. Darling went on to top score for Australia with 37 and added 54 valuable runs for the 4th wicket with Syd Gregory. England started their chase of 124 on a very positive note and was well on their way to a series leveling win at 92 for 3. But once Ranjitsinhji fell lbw to Trumble for 4, wickets fell like nine pins before rain interrupted the match for 45 minutes with the score reading 116 for 9 and England still needing 8 runs for victory. After the play resumed Fred Tate edged the first ball he faced for a boundary but was bowled going for a wild sweep the fourth ball he faced thus leaving Australia victors by 3 runs.

The ill-fated One Test Wonder Fred Tate, whom the English spectators, whoever witnessed that match, never pardoned, on his way back to home from the match, told a team-mate that he had a little boy at home who would make it up one day. And keeping his father’s words, Fred's son Maurice Tate, an outstanding all rounder and a great swing bowler played 39 tests for England scoring 1198 runs and claiming 155 wickets.

5th Test, The Oval, London 11th – 13th August, 1902, England won by 1 wicket.

Like the 2005 Ashes, 1902 Ashes too provided two back to back close finishes. The fifth and final Test played at the Oval saw England’s last wicket pair denying a victory for Australia and in the process winning the test for England by 1 wicket. Australia’s Hugh Trumble top scored for Australia with an unbeaten 64 batting at no. 9 and also took 8 for 65 to help Australia bowl England out for 183. But in the 2nd innings Australia could make only 121 leaving England to score 263 runs for the win. Saunders then wrecked England’s top order and the defeat looked imminent when they were tottering at 5 for 48 runs.

Then the flamboyant English all-rounder Gilbert Jessop joined Hon FS Jackson and played one of the greatest counter-attacking innings of all time. In just 75 minutes he raced to his hundred off 76 balls with the help of 17 boundaries and added 109 runs for the 6th wicket. After Jackson was out at 157, George Hirst joined Jessop and they both took the score 187. But once Jessop was dismissed Hirst continued accruing runs even though two more wickets fell at the other end. When Rhodes joined Hirst for the last wicket, 15 runs were still needed. Hirst reportedly told his partner, "We'll get them in singles,”. They did finally get them mostly through singles and England scraped home by 1 wicket. George Hirst remained not out on 58 and Wilfred Rhodes on 6.

It was just 8th test appearance for the young Wilfred Rhodes who continued playing till 1930 and in doing so set a record for the oldest cricketer to have played in tests. Rhodes who batted at no .11 in this test went on to play in 58 tests and aggregated 2325 runs, 127 wickets and 60 catches. Curiously, Rhodes who figured in a last wicket stand of 130 runs with RE Foster batting at no.11 in 1903/04 also added 323 runs for the first wicket with Jack Hobbs in 1911/12. He is also one of the three cricketers to have batted in every batting position in test cricket along with Australia’s Sydney Gregory and India’s Vinoo Mankad. Abdul Razzaq of Pakistan holds this unique record in ODI Cricket. Wilfred Rhodes also holds the record for most number of wickets in first class cricket 4204 wickets @ 16.72 in a career spanning 31 years and 1110 matches.

2nd Test, Melbourne Jan 1st-7th (5th rest day), 1907/08 England won by 1 wicket.

England won the second test of this series played at Melbourne, with a wicket to spare, after going through yet another close finish in the first test of this series at Sydney, which Australia won by 2 wickets despite a heroic effort by George Gunn. Gunn made his test debut by pure accident. Though he was not a member of the English touring part, he happened to be in Australia on health conditions and was invited to play in the opening test. He obliged the cricketing authorities by top scoring for England in both innings with scores of 119 & 74.

Playing in his second test Gunn could not produce his magic in this Melbourne test and was dismissed cheaply in both the innings for 6 & 0. However another debutant of the previous test KL Hutchings scored a fabulous hundred (126). The master batsman Sir Jack Hobbs made his debut with a masterly knock of 83 and added 99 runs with Hutchings and helped England take a first innings lead of 116 runs. However in the 2nd innings Monty Noble and Victor Trumper wiped out the lead by an opening partnership of 126 runs. Australia finished the innings with 397 and set a difficult target of 282 runs. When England slid from a comfortable 196 for 5 to 209 for 8, Australia’s win became all too but a formality. But England’s wagging tail, no. 9, 10, 11 batsmen SF Barnes, J Humphries and A Fielder crawled towards victory target slowly but surely with the last wicket pair Barnes & Fielder adding 39 runs and thereby recoding a one-wicket victory for England.

4th Test Melbourne Dec 26th – 30th, 1982, England won by 3 runs.

I still remember all the excitement and drama of listening to the commentary of this great test match on the final day when Australia still needed 37 runs for victory and the last wicket pair of Allan Border and Jeff Thomson who knocked of half of the required runs the previous night after they came together with the score reading 218 for 9 and Australia still needing 74 runs. I might have felt as sad and heart-broken as Allan Border and Jeff Thomson when Thomson got out for 21 to that Australian nemesis Ian Botham.

I believe this test match remains as one the most evenly contested test matches ever in terms of runs scored in all four innings. The difference between any two scores of the four innings of this test match did not exceed ten. England batted first and scored 284 with the help of Tavare's 89 and Lamb’s 83. Bruce Yardley and Rodney Hogg accounted for 4 wickets each and Thomson took the other two. Australia replied with 287 with half centuries from Kim Hughes, David Hookes and Rodney Marsh. England in their 2nd innings scored 294 and set Australia 291 to win. Australia was cruising towards victory at 171 for 3 with both first innings half centurions Kim Hughes and David Hookes at the crease.

Then Norman Cowans with an unbelievable spell reduced the Australians to 9 for 218 and the writing was on wall for the home side that still needed 74 runs for a win. Even then when Border and Thompson, who joined his senior partner at the fall of 9th wicket, without any real hurry knocked of half of those required 74 runs by the close of play on the 4th day, England did not expect the fight to last any longer on the 5th day morning. But a big surprise was waiting for both English team and around 20, 000 non paying spectators who watched Border and Thomson bat on and on as they attempted to score 37 runs for victory on the final day. When just a boundary hit could have attained an impossible victory for Australia, Thomson edged Ian Botham’s delivery to the second slip, where Tavare juggled with the ball and could not hold on to complete the catch. But luckily for England he palmed it up behind his head where Geoff Miller showing a tremendous presence of mind under the circumstances completed an amazing catch to enable England register a win by 3 runs and keep their hopes of retaining the Ashes alive.

The test match that produced the result and now famous image of Brett Lee-Andrew Andrew Flintoff was won by England even before a ball was bowled when the hero of the 1st test victory Glen McGrath was carried away on stretchers on the morning of opening day the test match when he twisted his ankle stepping on the ball in a pre-match practice. On top of that Australian Captain Ricky Ponting put in England to bat on a good batting track after winning the toss ignoring the absence of Glen McGrath. England fully capitalized and scored 407 all out on the opening day itself . And when Hoggard dismissed Matthew Hayden for a first ball duck the following morning, it was all an uphill task for Australia.

Finally Australia could muster just 308 with Langer and Ponting chipping in with scores of 82 & 61. However Australia, the fighting unit they are, came back into the match and bundled out England for 182 in their second innings with Shane Warne accounting six victims and returning with match figures of 10 for 162. So Australia was set a target of 282 runs which was never going to be easy and when they lost their 8 th wicket at the close of 4th day’s with the score reading 175 with Australia still needing 107 runs it looked as if it was going to be just a mere formality for England the following day.

Nobody expected that the mere formality would extend for almost 21 overs the following day. First Shane Warne and Brett Lee added 45 runs for the 9th wicket before Warne was out hit wicket stepping back too far on his back-foot and hitting the off-stump with his right foot while trying to flick a Flintoff delivery. So with Australia still needing 62 runs for a victory Kasprowicz joined Lee and they both produced a kind of excitement and drama for next 12 overs which put the whole of Edgbaston stadium on the edge of their seats. Lee in spite of taking many body blows guided Australia towards what could have an unbelievable victory.

Lee kept the scoreboard ticking and with Kasprowicz hitting 3 boundaries in one Giles over Australia came ominously close to a victory. With Australia needing 4 runs Lee drove hard the 2nd ball from Harmison’s 17th over which if placed either right or left of the off-side sweeper could have sealed victory for Australia. But as luck would have it Lee could get just a single for that shot and the next ball was gloved by Kasprowicz to let Geraint Jones come out with a superb catch. Though the Television replays suggested otherwise, that catch let England register a 2 run victory in a nerve-shattering finish. Flintoff recently recalled the batting of Brett Lee in that test, "I tried to bowl him out, I tried to knock him out, He was unbelievable."

Within three days of registering one of the closest test finishes ever England were on cloud nine and even Glen McGrath’s presence in the Australian team did not scare them in their preparation for the 3rd test. With England’s new heroes Kevin Pietersen and Andrew Flintoff hitting top form and their bowlers looking even more dangerous and penetrating than their Aussie counterparts , the whole nation was anticipating at last they found a team that could bring back the ashes which eluded them for a very long period of 16 years .

Michael Vaughan won the toss and did not hesitate to bat first and when England lost their first wicket at 26 he joined Trescothick and added 137 runs for the 2nd wicket. In the end England finished the 1st innings at 444 with Vaughan making 166. Australia faltered again while replying and it was Shane Warne again, whose gritty knock of 90 provided any amount of respectability to their total of 302. England with a first innings lead of 142 went out for some quick runs in their second innings and made 280 runs in 62 overs with the help of Andrew Strauss’s century before declaring their innings and setting a target of 423 runs, highest ever to chase for a victory. By the end of 4th day’s play Hayden and Langer survived the 10 overs without losing any wicket.

On Day five it was always going to be a daunting task to survive 90 overs. For the first time in ten years Australia was forced to bat out the final day in an Ashes Test. Australian skipper Ricky Ponting played a captain’s innings of 156 and held on to one end. But wickets kept falling on the other end at regular intervals. Any hopes of an Australian victory were quickly vanished, when the 5th Australian wicket, that of Adam Gilchrist fell at 182. With Australia still requiring to survive for 50 overs, it looked as if England was going to pull off back to back to wins for the first time in 20 years and only Ponting stood between a draw and an England Victory.

Ponting continued the fight along with injured Michael Clarke (39) and then Shane Warne (34) to make sure Australia will not lose the match. Shane Warne was again unlucky to have got out as Geraint Jones held on to a catch which was first dropped by Strauss in second slip and was popped out of his hands. Australia needed to defend just 10 more overs and with the ever reliable Brett Lee joining Ponting at the crease it seemed as if the match was heading towards a draw. But when Ponting was ninth out for 156 after playing one of the most memorable innings of his test career and defying the English bowlers for more than six hours getting his glove to a Steve Harmison delivery to Geraint Jones Australia still needed 24 balls to survive for a draw.

Both McGrath and Lee survived those tense moments and importantly the 24 balls to deny a back to back Ashes Test Wins in a Series for England, which still eludes England for 21 years. Leading the English side for this winter’s Ashes, Andrew Flintoff would definitely like to change that and retain the Ashes. Brett Lee would like to forget the closest Ashes test match ever played in which a boundary hit by him would have made all the difference in the outcome of the entire series. I am sure he will be giving his best for Australia this winter to regain the Ashes.