Thursday, August 22, 2013

A Premature Ashes Review

What is a hotspot not? A cultural reference many people under the age of 30 will get. Also, it’s not the thing you want to be centre of attention during an Ashes series. Too often over the past few weeks attention has focussed not so much on the men in the middle as on the third umpire, sat high in the stands behind, one suspects, a dizzying array of monitors. Officiating has replaced cricket as the spectator’s summer sport of choice.  
 
And of course it’s not just hotspot that has drawn the ire of players, pundits and punters. So many virtual column inches have been filled with chatter about DRS, Hawkeye, marginal LBW calls and the (non-existent) tape on the outside edge of Kevin Pietersen’s bat that at times it seemed as though the internet might run out of space.  Even the one controversial story which seemed cut and dried – Stuart Broad’s nick to first slip that could be seen from space, but apparently not from the umpire’s vantage point – has rumbled on. Aussie coach Darren Lehman has called on Australian fans to barrack Broad so hard in the return series this winter that they make him “cry and go home”. Perhaps the England seamer should take a second set of underwear with him wherever he goes, just in case an irate fan tries to give him an atomic wedgie as he leaves the MCG. Or perhaps they’ll just nick his dinner money.
 
Dubious decisions are nothing new to the world of cricket, having been part of the game’s folklore long before even WG padded up for the first time. Yet very rarely have they generated quite so much coverage (although a dishonourable mention should be made of Mike Gatting and his ugly spat with Shakoor Rana). What started as a debating point of minor interest has become a national obsession. It seems almost as if, with the football season encroaching across the summer, cricket has picked up the bad habits of the national game by osmosis. With a myriad of channels now broadcasting Premier League games refereeing mistakes, analysed from a thousand different angles can fill hours of otherwise dead air. Faulty umpiring works in the same way for the commentary teams, whether they be on TMS or Sky. After all there’s only so many ways to describe a cake or draw attention to Nassar Hussein’s unerring likeness to Montgomery Burns.
 
Of course the mere presence of technology is enough to spark a lively conversation, particularly amongst the traditionalists. Perhaps during the Ashes there have been more problems than usual, and it’s a given that any new innovation in the game will be under review, its strengths and weaknesses continually assessed. But understanding that new technologies have limitations should not obscure the fact that they can also be of tremendous use. Just like Twitter, Facebook and the blogosphere, Hot-spot and Hawkeye are here to stay. Only the most conservative (M)CC member could fail to understand this.
 
Rather than the increasingly monotonous examination of doubtful calls, I expect most people would prefer to be talking about quality strokes, prodigious turn, and the wonders of reverse swing. But herein lies the problem, for what the blather reveals is what most armchair spectators already know: the standard of cricket on show during the five Ashes tests has been decidedly mediocre. In the absence of top quality cricket all we’re left with is a discussion of second class umpiring.
 
For those of us who grew up equating the Australian Cricket team with invincibility the present side is a sad shadow of former glories. There is not a single player of the current generation who would have forced their way into the teams which contained such legendary figures as the Waugh twins, Martyn, Langer, Ponting, Gilchrist, Gillespie, McGrath and Warne. Prior to the start of the fifth test their unsettled, brittle batting line-up could boast only two players with a series average of over 40. Those same two batsmen, Clarke and Rogers, were the only Australians to score centuries. Equally they have struggled with their bowling unit. Bird, Starc and Pattinson have been less than convincing, and their best spinner has been Steve Smith with his occasional leg-breaks.
 
This is not to say that there were no exceptional individual performances from what is, in truth, a distinctively average side. For a brief spell, unbridled by fear or circumspection, Ashton Agar lit up the Ashes with a swashbuckling debut innings the likes of which rarely appear outside of childhood fantasy. Yesterday Watson freed his shoulders and took a lacklustre England attack to task, scoring the kind of century that would scarcely have looked out of place in a T20 match. His 176 all but doubled his tally of runs for the series. Michael Clarke managed a captain’s innings in Manchester but the weather robbed it of significance. Of their bowlers Siddle and Harris have toiled with some success but without support. The moments of genuine quality have been few and far between.
 
Strangely the performance of the England team is more disappointing than that of the Australians. Despite cantering to victory they have failed to excel. Only one batsman has an average of over 40, and although the wickets have been shared around no one could claim that the bowling attack has been firing on all cylinders. Bairstow underwhelmed up to the point at which he was eventually dropped; Brad Haddin knocked Steve Finn around the park with such carefree abandon that he effectively batted him out of the series; Matt Prior, normally so aggressive and confident with the bat, suddenly looks lost at the crease, averaging only 14.
 
But it is the form of England’s star players that is most striking. England captain Cook and Jonathan Trott have spent the last few years building reputations as veritable, if occasionally ponderous, run machines, yet this series so far has seen them accumulate barely 400 runs between them. Kevin Pietersen’s hundred at Old Trafford has helped to conceal the fact that his batting is a long way below par. If you ignore that innings he averages a little over 23. And, though it seems incredible to say of a bowler with 19 wickets in the series, Jimmy Anderson has seemed below his usual (exceptionally high) standards.
 
Of course there have been enough highlights to delight England fans. Broad has fired in fits and starts, Joe Root’s stunning 180 made amends for other knocks with scant foot movement, Swann has benefited from Australia’s numerous left-handed batsmen and the rough to be found outside their off-stump. But without question it has been the sustained and unassuming brilliance of Ian Bell that has prevented the series from assuming the status of the instantly forgettable. His statistics are remarkable. He has garnered 500 runs at an average of 71, scoring three centuries and two 50s on the way. Yet impressive as they are the figures tell only half the story. More than once Bell came to the crease with England three wickets down and struggling. With quiet assuredness, and classically beautiful shots, Bell was the difference between the two teams and the reason to keep tuning in.
 
Aside from the man-of-the-series performances from Bell the series has been short on quality. This need not necessarily make the Ashes any less interesting or exciting to watch. As Ed Smith, graceful opening batsman cum thoughtful BBC commentator remarks:
“[S]ports fans crave an optimal degree of uncertainty. Too little uncertainty and sport becomes boring. Too much uncertainty and the story becomes too complex to follow. There is a sweet spot, a perfect balance between familiarity and drama.”
However the drama has been patchy. The first test augured well, as Brad Haddin and James Peterson took Australia to within 14 runs of an unlikely victory at Trent Bridge. But after England had coasted to victory at Lord’s, and a combination of rain and uncharacteristically hesitant captaincy from Clarke reduced the third test to a draw, that early promise was gone. The Ashes were won, the series decided, pride was all that was left to play for. The drama had ebbed away. Not even the rapid scoring of David Warner on the fourth day at Chester-le-Street could rekindle the spark. Once the early Australian resistance was broken the drama flowed from England’s competition with the clock rather than the opposition.
 
We’re now in the second dead rubber, both teams with one eye on the next series Down Under. With the little urn retained England have taken the opportunity to blood Chris Woakes and Simon Kerrigan in much the same disdainful way as Premiership managers pick a host of youth team players for the early rounds of the Carling Cup. The Barmy Army will cheer a victory, and a comfortable one at that, but for us neutrals the cricket has not captured our collective imagination, nor lived up to the Sky Sports hype. With a possible four days left to play it is already possible to review the Ashes. England have proven to be the least worst side in a five test series. And of that they can be proud.