Category Archives: aussies

Eternal 63* – Phillip Hughes

This isn’t the piece I wanted to write. I had another.

I wanted to tell you it was in 2007 when I saw this kid hopping, buzing and flying around the crease and he first took my eye.

I wanted to say he looked like a pixie taking on giants hurling missiles at him.

I wanted to show you a piece I wrote excitedly as I flew out to South Africa this year, convinced that Hughes would be back in the team.

I wanted you to know how disappointed I was that he never did play in that series.

I wanted you hear all the arguments I had with other writers about him and his weakness against the short ball, the wide ball, the full ball, or whatever it was that day.

I wanted you to know when I was wrong, and doubted he could overcome all the setbacks.

I wanted one day for him to make enough runs that no one ever inferred he had a problem with the short ball again. That he changed his personal narrative.

I wanted to help dispel that myth in the mean time.

I wanted him to laugh at all of us who had laughed at ‘Caught Guptil, Bowled Martin’ as he went around the world making hundreds.

I wanted him to go back to Shield cricket, learn his craft, and come back and be the legend he was supposed to be.

I wanted him to be left alone, not be hyped up, and for him to never be compared to a guy who retired in 1948.

I wanted him to keep making runs against Dale Steyn, to prove to everyone that he wasn’t a First Class bully.

I wanted him to play a hundred Tests, score triple centuries and do that thing he does with his nose when the camera was in close up.

I wanted to know what happened, so I watched the footage. Now I need to know that one day the images I’ve seen will leave my head.

I wanted him to know how brave I thought he was for calling out racism on the field.

I wanted to see him do more replacement wicketkeeping with that massive smile on his face.

I wanted him to actually play in all five Ashes Tests in one series.

I wanted the selectors to trust him the way I now did.

I wanted him to find his position in the line up, and stay there for a cricketing lifetime.

I wanted him to treat the offside like it was his personal property.

I wanted him to back away and carve, I wanted him to slap spinners and I wanted him to cut like the ball like it deserved it.

I wanted him to bat.

I wanted his 63* to be 100*. I know it means nothing, I really do. But this is all so unfinished. A 63* not out is a start, not and end. It isn’t the end of anything. It’s on the way to something bigger. Not an abyss. He had so far to go, in life and cricket, and a pointless cricket milestone might mean nothing in 50 years, but it meant something to him, and too much of this has ended too early. I want the scorers to change it. I want them to give him those 37 runs. I want someone to tell him that we all miss him already. And that we’ll all try look after the bowler. That we’ll look into new helmet designs. That we’ll not treat young players so haphazardly. That as long as cricket is known, so should the name of Phil Hughes. Phillip.

I wanted more than anything for Phillip Joel Hughes to make it. I don’t know why. I haven’t met him. But I just wanted this kid with the handmade technique and the courage to face balls he couldn’t handle to be an Australian legend.

I wanted to write something other than this, I wanted to honour him, I wanted to show how much notice I had been taking of him, how much I was on his side. How I felt it was unfair when he wasn’t selected when he should have been, how it was stupid that he always ended up in our out by the third Ashes Test, that I remember being so upset when Pepler Sandri got him out in a tour match, and that I should never have given up on him.

On the 3rd of December 2007 I saw a pixie stand up to giants. Now we have the unfinished symphony of Philip Hughes. Just a hole in the Australian batting card that doesn’t feel right now like it can ever be filled.

We all just want this piece in the present tense. We want him back at the crease, where he belonged. Not 25 out, but 63 not out. For eternity.

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George Who: The invisible Australian captain George Bailey

During Australia’s World T20 campaign in 2012, George Bailey dined in the crab restaurant owned by Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene. More than other slightly overpriced crab restaurants, this is a place of cricket. They don’t hide who the owners are, and there are pictures of other cricketers around as well. The waiters also love cricket. They were very excited, as many famous current players and legendary ex-players had been in. They were keen on meeting more. The man who waited on George Bailey was a massive Cameron White fan. He spoke of how White used to be the Australian T20 captain. When asked who the current Australian captain was, he didn’t know.

Bailey just sat there uncomfortably. With a slight smile.

****

The first ball of George Bailey’s Test career at the Gabba was eased through mid-on. It was from Stuart Broad. There are far worse ways of starting your career than with an on-drive for three. Interestingly, it was an empty mid-on. From the start it seemed that England didn’t rate him.

After that, every ball Bailey faced in that innings would be from James Anderson. He missed a bouncer, edged a length ball that didn’t carry, and played and missed at an outswinger. During all of this, Jimmy spoke to Bailey. His famous sledging style: through his fingers. Bailey spoke back, and smiled.

Until he nicked off to Cook at slip. His feet set in stone. His hands looking for the ball, and his edge completing the wicket. He had made 3 and was Anderson’s first wicket of the Ashes.

****

Bailey made an impact almost immediately in domestic cricket. Not completely as a batsman, but for his smile. He smiles a lot. There was an ad one year promoting the one-day tournament and in it was Mick Lewis, the grizzled Victorian quick, saying how much he hated George Bailey smiling. But despite the smile, and the obvious talent, Bailey never really pushed for higher honours.

If you saw him bat, it was strange. With no real follow-through, he could smoke the ball to the fence. Pace and spin didn’t seem a problem. He could play on rough wickets. What he couldn’t do was produce the sort of season that you need to get picked. Almost all Australian cricketers do it. A 1000-run season that makes everyone shout your name.

Bailey never went past 778, which he made in his second season.

In 50-overs cricket he was always pretty good, but never “lock up your daughters this guy is burning your world down” good. In T20 he was the same. He played for Scotland when they were in the English domestic cricket set-up. But it was only in 50-over games, and he didn’t do enough to make a stir.

He also played in the IPL, for the best team, Chennai Super Kings. Many Australian players had made good reputations doing good things in the IPL. Bailey was there for four seasons. In that time Super Kings won two IPLs and were runners-up once. He played four games. His top score was 30.

There were no editorials written demanding his inclusion. He wasn’t signing multi-million dollar deals. He just played a bit of cricket, mostly at home, and occasionally abroad.

****

After Mitchell Johnson’s first innings at the Gabba, batting got easier. And Bailey had only one over from Anderson. Australia were well in front, Anderson was soon taken out of the attack, and instead Bailey faced Joe Root, Chris Tremlett and an out-of-sorts Graeme Swann.

Bailey reacted to this like a good team man. He smashed Root and Swann for sixes. He had not yet hit a four in Tests, but he did have two more sixes than Jonathan Trott. He was keen to show how much he had listened to instructions to attack the spinners, and that he could forget about putting a price on his wicket and just get Australia the runs they needed to declare. It was not always smooth but it was a positive sign.

That was until he looked like a badly programmed robot, playing up a line that Swann had not bowled. He was out for 34.

****

In Ed Cowan’s book, In the Firing Line (part diary, part bromance epic with Bailey), he wrote about a conversation that he and George had about the future after cricket. Both guys had got to around 30, felt a way away from playing for their country, and now had to think about the worst thing many professional cricketers fear – getting a real job.

There is good money in playing first-class cricket into your 30s, but you have to want it. You have to be prepared to get up early, train harder than the kids, prepare like a pro, knowing that your ultimate dream is gone. There are some players who play on without all this, but they are the obscenely talented. Bailey is good but not obscenely talented. A drop off in his work ethic could have meant he was no longer automatically picked, and even a career cashing in at the lower level may not have been available to him.

So when he chose to keep playing, it was because a part of him still believed. He was willing to keep working hard. He had won domestic titles. He had chased his dream professionally for over a decade, but when you are only one lucky phone call from playing for your country, it’s a big call to become a schoolteacher or batting coach.

****

Neither of Bailey’s Gabba innings made anywhere near the impact that his stoush with Anderson did. England had been placed inside a brass bull, the fire had been lit beneath it, and all that was left was the last screams as they roasted to death.

Australia pushed for the last wicket, but Anderson wasn’t quite cooked. Just before the 80th over started – one where he faced up to Johnson from around the wicket in the “Imma gonna kill you” style – he was already on edge. While Johnson warmed up, it was clear that Anderson and Bailey were chatting, and that Anderson wasn’t kidding around. He walked over to Bailey, standing tall above him, and nothing he said seemed like a John Keats poem. Politeness wasn’t in evidence. Neither man even seemed to let the other finish a sentence.

Bailey smiled, Anderson scowled, the umpires walked in hurriedly, they used the international sign for calm down, and then everyone went back to their marks. Michael Clarke chatted within the stump mics’ hearing range.

“Face up”, said an aggressive Clarke.

“I’m quite happy to,” said a passive-aggressive Anderson.

“Get ready for a broken f****** arm,” said Clarke walking backwards knowing that one of the world’s most dangerous bowlers was on his side.

George Bailey continued to smile. Anderson survived seven more balls.

****

If George Bailey wasn’t a good captain, he probably would have been even less known. Bailey had inherited a decent side from Dan (son of Rod, not Geoff) Marsh. But he made it even better. Partly through building a team ethic, partly by smart recruiting. George was well known and well liked within Australian cricket. Anyone he thought could be good for his team turned up. Ed Cowan, Jackson Bird and Mark Cosgrove turned up. Armed with these three, two good allrounders, and a bunch of other quality bowlers, he built an empire on green tracks that he and the other batsmen tried to survive on.

They made six finals under Bailey. They won three. For a state with no real record of prolonged success, and about 35 residents, it was a brilliant effort. And when Australian cricket changed under the reign of John Inverarity, George Bailey was their sort of man.

He knew about things other than cricket. He could bring people together. He was calm. He was cool. He was worldly. He was a winner. And he was bright. Then he was Australia’s first-ever captain who had not played for Australia before.

Even though it was the least important captaincy position, it painted a target on his back.

****

The score was 174 for 4 when Bailey appeared in Adelaide. He was dropped. He brought up his first Test fifty with a six off Broad. And continued to hit sixes.

When he came in, Australia were very nearly in danger of throwing away a huge advantage on a flat track, with their in-form captain at the other end. Bailey batted like a batsman without a care in the world. When England bowled a bad ball, he went after it. When they didn’t, he just handled them fine. Bailey outscored his captain.

The ball made a good noise off his bat when he smacked it. He looked, for the first time, in complete control. He came down to the spinners on the odd occasion Monty Panesar wasn’t bowling short. Even the chance he offered was relatively safe. He went down the wicket and smashed the ball at Panesar, who dropped it. If you’re going to pick anyone, it should be Panesar.

His six off Broad to bring up his fifty wasn’t just a six off Broad to bring up a fifty. It was a six off Broad, who was using the second new ball, to bring up a fifty. After that, Bailey resumed his battle with Anderson. It was an over where very little happened. The only question was what score Bailey would be not out on at close.

Then he middled another pull shot off Broad. This one went lower and Graeme Swann at square leg pulled off the sort of catch that gets you a lot of Youtube hits. Australia had recovered but were not yet out of the danger zone.

Brad Haddin would change that, and Bailey wouldn’t bat in the second innings.

****

In 2013, Bailey did something that had a higher-profile player done it, would have been praised on talkback radio and in opinion pieces. He turned his back on the IPL and made an attempt to prove himself as a Test player.

He could have sat on the bench for Chennai Super Kings again, and then played another T20 league or two, made a fair bit of money, and had a bit of off time. Instead he chose to be in England, playing mostly red-ball cricket, as the Australian team was there for the Ashes.

It was a two-fold attack. It started as a way to prove he was actually committed to playing Test cricket. And by being in the UK, and already being an Australian ODI and T20 player, at worst he might have made the Test side. Hell, with Michael Clarke’s back a shoelace tie away from breaking, Bailey could have even been a Test captain despite not even being in the original squad.

****

At the WACA it was noticeable that Jimmy Anderson bowled quicker to Bailey than he had before. Now it could have just been the imagination of a sportswriter looking for narrative, or the rhythm that a bowler can get into during the day, but Anderson bowled as quick in one over to Bailey as he had at any time in the series. But he didn’t get him out.

It was Broad and the short ball that did it again. Bailey seemed intent on never taking a backward step, even when on the back foot. He wouldn’t be bullied or bombed by England. So he tried to hook a short ball and found Pietersen, who did everything he could to make the catch look awkward.

Australia were in another hole, but Haddin mopped up again.

****

Clarke’s back didn’t work at all for the Champions Trophy. So Bailey took over. He batted well, Australia played horribly, and it was suddenly clear, while many still didn’t rate him, that he had somehow become Australia’s most consistent ODI batsman.

With Clarke in London, and David Warner in trouble, it was Bailey who had to front the press. He did it well, while making it very clear he couldn’t wait for Clarke to come back.

Clarke would come back, and would captain with no more real problems for his back, so Bailey was never needed as Test captain, or even Test squad member. Instead he came back for the ODIs at the end of the English summer, and made more runs. His batting average and ODI batting ranking were really high for someone whom no one ever seemed to talk up, or often even about.

****

The second innings at the WACA was brutal on England. They walked out knowing the series was gone. They fielded poorly, Broad was injured, Anderson looked over it, Swann was fading, and it was really very hot. Australia skipped joyfully to a declaration.

Bailey rejoined the fun when Australia were over 400 runs ahead. He sat at the other end while Shane Watson head-butted the English corpse for a hundred. Bailey didn’t do much damage himself. After 24 balls he had hit one boundary (only a four) and was 11 not out.

Then he came back in touch with his old friend Anderson. What happened next seemed like it would break a few rules of the Geneva convention. Bailey tore up what was left of Anderson like he was made of tissue paper on a windy day.

When Bailey’s boundary-hitting massacre finished, there was a puddle of blood at the top of the mark where Anderson had once stood. For Bailey, that over could not have come from a more perfect opponent.

****

George Bailey had some fun in India. 85, 92 not out, 43, 98, 156 and 4.

Flat pitches, an amazingly weak bowling attack, and small boundaries all helped Bailey average over 95 at a strike rate of 116. People had to write about it. They had to hype it. Well not even hype it, just report it accurately, and let people moan at the numbers.

This wasn’t another series, this was a coming-out party. Every six, and there were 15 of them, rang a bell, and with the next Ashes around the corner, and a batting spot available for anyone who wanted it, Bailey had made it very clear that he wanted it.

The press could have looked at it from a detailed and analytical standpoint. Bailey had played very well in ODIs in England and India, and he was clearly seeing the ball amazingly, but how was his red-ball form? Had he made any runs playing for Hampshire in county cricket, or any runs for Tasmania in last year’s Sheffield Shield?

Who cares? Look at his hitting in Mohali.

The selectors and fans seemed to do the same. Very few seemed to notice, worry or bother with the fact he hadn’t made a first-class hundred since February 2012.

Bailey was selected with as much fanfare as a six at a Big Bash game. He had been noticed, and embraced.

****

Bailey faced 18 balls at the MCG. He was at the wicket with his team in trouble. The ball was reversing. This wasn’t the time to attempt to beat his world- record overs tally efforts of the WACA. This was the time for survival.

Straight dead bats. Grim determination. Last-minute adjustments. Small backlifts. Sure movements.

That was surely the plan. But Bailey was uneasy. One leave almost ended with him caught at slip, and then run out in the confusion. A huge leg-before shout from Broad was turned down because of a small inside edge. It was nervy, and nasty, and then Bailey found himself at Anderson’s end.

In the first over Anderson found a spot and just kept at it. The first four balls landed within six inches of each other. Three of them seemed to hit the exact same spot. The reverse was not deadly, it was just there. Even the smallest hint of reverse from a decent bowler can upset an Australian batsman more than most. But the second over at Bailey, now that was Anderson the chessmaster.

The seventh, eighth, ninth and tenth balls from Anderson to Bailey were all on or about the same line and length. He was keeping him on the crease, not letting him really come forward or back. None had big movement. None was meant to. They were about getting him used to the ball coming in at him from that line and length.

The 11th ball kept the same length. But it was six inches wider than the others. It was supposed to be wider, because it also went wider through reverse movement.

Had No. 11 kept its line, Bailey might have used the width to hit it for four. He certainly saw it as the weakest ball he faced. But it didn’t, it was a trap. And Bailey, who had not scored after being out there for several overs, didn’t see it and went for it.

England were convinced Bailey hit it. Aleem Dar wasn’t. The evidence was far from conclusive. But the dismissal had passed enough protocols for the third umpire to decide that it was out. It’s possible Bailey didn’t hit it. It’s not possible Anderson didn’t completely fox him.

Bailey was not needed for the second innings.

****

In Sydney, Bailey wasn’t just fighting Anderson and England. Another foe joined in.

There had been history between Bailey and Channel Nine. When Bailey was filling in as captain of the Australian ODI team the previous summer, he had been involved in a weird media event. Channel Nine had been bemoaning Australia resting of key players (informed player management, they call it). When Bailey was asked about it, he put a spin on the fact that Channel Nine were currently in negotiations with Cricket Australia about paying for rights, and that it may be in their interests to downplay the worth of one-dayers.

That prompted a bizarre response from Brad McNamara, Channel Nine’s executive producer of cricket. “It’s rubbish and George should stick to playing cricket and leave rights to the people who know what they’re talking about. I reckon he’s got his hands full as it is. He needs to concentrate on staying in the side. And he needs to understand where his money’s coming from. Without the TV rights deal, George is probably working in a coal mine or flipping burgers at McDonald’s.”

McNamara was rightfully laughed at for his comments.

These comments were brought up a fair bit when Bailey failed to make a fifty in two attempts in Sydney. Mostly because it seemed that no one in the Channel Nine box could make a comment about him that wasn’t negative. His feet, hands, technique and temperament were questioned. His second-innings 46 was not enough. And they weren’t always wrong. It just seemed kind of mean. Especially when at the back of the press box some seemed happy when he was out.

But it went deeper than McNamara’s comments. Bailey had made mistakes in his career. He hadn’t made enough first-class runs. He hadn’t come into the team as a young man. He came into the captaincy without playing a game. He came into the Test team because of one-day runs. He was everything old-school cricket didn’t like. A thinking cricketer who had never demanded inclusion, but who had been included regardless.

For old-school types like Ian Chappell, he was pretty much everything he didn’t like. And Chappell wasn’t just turning on Bailey because of his stoush with Channel Nine. He had not liked Bailey for a long time.

To show how Bailey never fit in, there is no better article than the one by former good old boy larrikin Aussie cricketer (briefly) Brett Geeves for Inside Cricket. In it, Geeves listed the many reasons why Bailey was not a good captain. And the piece would have had more relevance had Bailey not captained the reigning winning Sheffield Shield team when the piece was published.

****

Before his fourth Test, Bailey stood outside the MCG doing an interview. He stood there for a long time, and because of the cameras and the familiar Australia tracksuit, a crowd turned up. But it wasn’t until the interviewer said, “Thanks George” that most of the crowd realised who it was.

At that stage, he had been an Australian captain for two years. He had played three Ashes Tests, all won. He had fought with Anderson. But he was still not really known. Not embraced. Still invisible. After Sydney, he wasn’t really dropped, just not picked for the next series. Just sort of faded away.

At a press conference afterwards he didn’t complain, or rant. He just took the decision with a slight smile. And then left.

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Ryan Harris writes history in synovial fluid, tears, bone, tendon and blood

There is something floating in Ryan Harris‘ knee. The medical community thinks it is bone. It’s probably magic. Or a little pebble of awesomeness. Nothing else explains his last over.

In the overs before, Harris could barely bend over when fielding at gully. His hands were at the top of his thigh, not down near his knee in the customary position. When he walked, you were watching someone with osteoarthritis move, or someone who had done a whole day of rodeo. And when he stood up at the end of each ball you could hear the creaking all around the ground. Even his hip flexor had given out, possibly from the flexing he was doing more and more just to get by. Crocked. Stuffed. Finished. Another over was surely beyond him. Another Test might have been as well.

His job was to stay out on the ground to celebrate the potential Australian win. The win that they couldn’t get. Vernon Philander’s hand and Dale Steyn’s bloody-mindedness were drawing the Test. Here were two forces.

One, the South Africans, they just refuse to lose a Test series. They’re better when the primal need for survival has been put on them by their own shoddiness. This time, they had extra motivation with their captain, hero and leader on his last mission. They couldn’t have done more to draw this game if they decided to dig actual trenches at the Kelvin Grove end. Against them was a very movable force. The fluid in Harris’ knee was moving the bone quite often.

Australia thought they’d get eight or ten overs out of him in the entire second innings. The wicket of AB deVilliers was in his fifteenth. You should never call this dismissal anything as dismal as a wicket. It was a triumph of man over superman. De Villiers is currently batting like the laws of physics don’t apply to him. It is as if he has learnt to see into the future and decides on his shot as the bowler is coming in. Getting him out in this form, with his assistance is virtually impossible. Getting him out without his assistance from a busted down old man who should be on crutches should be impossible. The only thing impossible was the Harris outswinger.

Ryan Harris winces in the face of impossible.

Today he winced from leg slip, slip, gully, short cover, or anywhere else you put the guy who stopped being able to move. But he kept coming back, more broken than before.

Tasmania had tried to break Queensland during the last Sheffield Shield final. They had prepared a pitch made of actual deserts. They batted in a coma. And then when Queendlsand tried to move the game on, they picked up enough wickets to lead by almost 200 runs after the first innings. In the first innings, Queensland had bowled 173.4 overs. Harris had bowled forty of those and taken three wickets.

But in the second innings, he just kept going in his opening spell. It seemed endless. Harris, and everyone watching or playing, knew that the only chance of a Queensland victory was with him. Tasmania collapsed under his pressure to 5 for 16. Harris bowled what felt like all the overs, he smashed the ball into this lifeless pitch, he demanded that the ball move for him, and he put his entire career in jeopardy by bowling 54 overs for his adopted state in a losing cause.

It seems that Harris just cannot quit. So why would he listen to his surgeon, his doctor, his physio, or anyone, when they said he couldn’t bowl again. He hadn’t ever listened to his body. Fast bowlers don’t start international careers over 30 in already broken down bodies and take over a hundred wickets. But Harris wouldn’t listen to modern medicine, he wouldn’t listen to science, he wouldn’t even listen to cricket stats.

His second last over of the day looked like his last, well his last of any note. He bowled a short quick one that scared Steyn. It was quicker than his over the previous night where he bowled an over of Shane Watson-paced slower balls.

But he didn’t look right. Instead of bashing through the crease like a Joe Frazier combination, steaming coming from his nose, his chest daring anyone to hit him, his legs were all over the place, and his fearsome torso looked attached to the wrong set of legs. His knee wasn’t working, his hip was flexing poorly, and he was trying to play through it all and conquer a pitch that gave nothing.

On the second last ball, he slipped as he delivered. It looked, for the shortest of moments, like the injury that could end him today, tomorrow and forever. But he just went back to his mark and somehow got through the over. He was now noticeably limping. His action and run up was falling apart. He had surely bowled his last over, or at least, his last of anything approaching pace.

Nathan Lyon was tried, but had little luck. Watson came back on to wobble them about a bit. And had he wobbled them slightly better, or at least had Steyn playing at them, Harris might not have come back when he did.

When he came on, you couldn’t shake the feeling that Ryan Harris shouldn’t be bowling. Ryan Harris shouldn’t be walking. Ryan Harris shouldn’t be bowling Australia to victory. Ryan Harris shouldn’t be running around the outfield having just taken the two final wickets in three balls. Ryan Harris should be with a surgeon, showing him how when he twists his knee, the bone clicks out of the bad bit and he can walk properly again.

Where did he find the swing or strength?

In the years to come it will read 24.3 overs, 15 maidens, 32 runs and four wickets. But unless it was written in synovial fluid, tears, bone, tendon and blood, no one will ever understand how good Ryan Harris was today. Whatever is in that knee, I hope they remove it, and get Ryan Harris fit again. Then I hope they show the removed item in a museum and schoolkids are bussed in to see it for years to come.

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surviving Mornzilla

Short ball.

Ribs. 40.6.

Morne Morkel bowled two of his first three balls to Clarke full. He bowled all three over the wicket. That was a massive waste of time and effort. That over didn’t start when Steyn went off after one ball, and it didn’t start with Morkel’s over the wicket ball in the corridor, it started when Morkel came around the wicket and slammed the ball into Clarke’s ribs. Clarke didn’t play it, he just clutched it to himself like an injured bird. There was now little chance of Morkel coming back over the wicket. Or Clarke getting tested with the full swinging ball.

Short ball. Short ball. Elgar over.

Arm. 42.3

Morkel now had his aim right. It was somewhere between the arm pit and left nipple. Clarke was moving back and across and into the missile’s trajectory. He was a slow-moving target, and Morkel hit him right on the arm. It looked like, to paraphrase Clarke himself, “a broken f**ken arm”. Which is something that one of the South Africans might have mentioned to him. The super slow motion looked like a shock ad to teach you the lessons of not wearing arm guards. At the end of the over, when Clarke was touched by the physio, it looked like he’d rather not be.

Warner tried to protect his captain by keeping strike a couple of times. One ball that Warner called two on Clarke just jogged the one to get back on strike. Clarke had moved back to No. 4. Clarke hadn’t made any runs. Clarke would not hide at the non-strikers end.

Short ball. Short ball. Elgar over. Short ball. Short ball.

Shoulder and head. 44.3.

Clarke had had enough of standing upright and being hit, so he dropped to get under another ball on an armpit-nipple length. This time the ball didn’t quite get up, but Clarke couldn’t see as he had turned his head away, and the ball crashed into his shoulder. From there it ricocheted up into his jaw. Clarke tossed his bat, stumbled off the pitch and was surrounded by worried South Africans. None more so than Morne Morkel. Seemingly everyone within Cricket Australia with a first aid certificate came out to check on the captain. The cameras found Shane Warne looking worried on the balcony, an odd twist on the grieving wife shot. They decideed that Clarke is okay. After a few minutes, he faced up again.

Hand. 44.4.

The ball was straight back at him, Clarke flinched early, he took his eye off it, this time it hit his hand and flew straight up in the air. Clarke had no idea where the ball is. JP Duminy rushed in like a mad man from a deepish short leg, the ball beat him to the ground, but went very close to the stumps. Clarke could have been caught, Clarke could have been bowled, and Clarke could have had a broken hand. Clarke is under attack.

Gut. 44.5.

Clarke was now clearly over just being hit and decided to try the attacking option. The pull shot to get away from the short ball worked for him in Adelaide when England tried the same thing. This time he just sort of got hit around the gut as the ball ended up behind him.

When Warner faced a short ball from Morkel it ended up smashing it’s way to the fine leg boundary between two fielders. The difference was as great between Warner and Clarke as it was between Mornzilla and Elgar Smurf. Everyone at the ground wanted to fast forward the Elgar overs or any balls when Warner was facing. No one even worried much about Steyn’s injury.

Short ball. Elgar over. Short ball. Short ball. Short ball. Short ball. Elgar over. Short ball. Morne taken off.

Thumb. 86.3.

With the new ball Morkel achieved some sideways movement. And for a while, he pretended that Clarke was just another batsman. Clarke even pushed one through mid-on in what looked like very civilised cricket. More shockingly, Clarke smacked a pull through midwicket. But Clarke wasn’t just another batsman, and Morne went back to the beautiful barbaric nature of armpits around the wicket. Leg slip came back in smelling blood. And Morkel produced it with another ball that almost ripped the top of Clarke’s thumb off. Much time was taken to reattach the thumb nail. Blood was wiped away. And then Clarke took any chance he could to get off strike for the next ball, surviving a possible run-out and getting a well earned five.

Finally Clarke could rest at the non-strikers end. He had nothing left to prove, and nothing left to injure. He had survived.

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An afternoon in Port Elizabeth: a thorough retelling of an epic destruction

The first ball after tea Alex Doolan edged Vernon Philander behind to AB de Villiers. It could be out, it should be out, but the cameras say it could have bounced. Then Doolan edges to slip, and it doesn’t carry either. Doolan looks like a walking knicker. Finally Morne Morkel gets an edge from him that carries.

Shaun Marsh comes and goes, for a pair. He has now scored less than four in more than half his Test innings. On other days, this would be talked about much.

Michael Clarke has not made runs since Adelaide. He edges first ball. It doesn’t carry. You have to really earn a caught behind the wicket right now. Steyn’s first over after tea. He looks like that Dale Steyn. Angry and hungry. Clarke just guides one to slip after being worked over by reverse swing. Smith barely arrives at the crease and is out.

At 126 without loss it sounded like de Villiers shouting “150 for 4 here”. De Villiers was wrong, it was 156 for 4. With four wickets down, you could smell the fifth day fading.

South Africa were now throwing it all on the line, Australia’s saviour in the Ashes was allowed on strike with fielders on the boundary for Chris Rogers. Oh, Rogers, he had barely scored. He had barely looked like going out. He was just there.

Steyn could virtually taste Brad Haddin’s wicket. After four balls of strike, he removed his middle stump with a ball Haddin knew where it would pitch; with a ball Haddin knew how it would swing; with a ball that Haddin could have predicted an hour before it happened. Haddin still lost his middle stump.

Mitch came out with his massive batting average against South Africa. Mitch missed a short swinging delivery from Steyn by roughly 4.7 kilometres. Then he had a ball pole vault out of the footmarks and take the shoulder of the bat. Mitch was being attacked by ground and foot.

Smith was now so sure this was the last day he was throwing reviews away. The fifth day was dead to everyone.

Johnson stays out of the line to one from Philander. He tricks Richard Illingworth, but South Africa review anyway; damn you day five. They are right. Johnson is out.

South Africa have given up on bowling out Rogers. So Steyn bowls wide to Rogers to keep him off strike. It is called a wide. Morkel hits something down the legside so South Africa throw another review at it: not out. The umpires are staying pretty sharp despite the yelling and craziness. The clouds are now encroaching on the pitch like a Fritz Lang baddie.

How many wickets down do you need to be to enforce the extra half an hour? Everyone has a different answer. It’s not a real thing. It could be seven, maybe its eight. But Ryan Harris and Rogers look settled as the minutes creep up to 1759, one minute from the normal close.

Morkel is down the leg side again, he seems to be working to some sort of leg-side-or-be-damned plan. This time Rogers has wood on it, de Villiers has dived like a superhero. But did it carry? South Africa think yes. Has it bounced, maybe, yes, maybe no. The sun seems to be on every TV screen in the ground, the glare makes people doubt themselves. While it is all happening, it is beyond six. It’s either bounced or been foreshortened. Will that be it?

Aleem Dar decides it is not out. But the umpires on the field decide that the extra half an hour can be called. Rogers is livid, he complains uselessly. He deserves it to be the close of play. Australia and South Africa deserve to have an extra half hour.

Steyn is bowling to Harris, and there is another edge down the leg side that is almost caught. Then Harris hits the ball into the ground, it bounces high in the air (higher than any delivery in the match), it is not going near the stumps, but he hits it away, and does it very badly. It hits the back of his bat and almost goes onto the stumps.

Two balls later Steyn hits Harris high and leg side. South Africa are convinced it is out. Kumar Dharmasena takes forever to compute, then he gives it out. Harris reviews. It is still out. Only just. Harris keeps looking at Dharmasena as he walks off.

Rogers faces a full over from JP Duminy. Perhaps he’s bowling to get through the over quickly to allow Steyn a go at Peter Siddle. He cannot get off strike. The last ball he tries to take a run, but decides only a run out would happen. So he says no. The sun goes behind a cloud. It suddenly gets very dark.

Siddle gets stuck with Steyn. An inside edge happens, but safely. Then Siddle hits out on the off side, he takes the single, as Duminy stops it by flopping on the ball with his ribs. He can barely breathe. The phsyio comes out, but there is no time, he is sent back. The light metre comes out, and South Africa can’t knock that back. Duminy is in massive pain. He keeps running into the wrong position because he can’t listen to anyone through the pain. He’s taking up seconds and light.

Steyn gets angry and smashes Rogers in the back of the helmet and it goes for four leg byes. He wants Rogers on strike so Philander can bowl to Siddle. He wins. Steyn is down on his haunches at square leg after his last couple of bouncers, barely breathing. He has bowled nine overs, he looks like he has bowled a hundred. You just know he will try bowl another.

Siddle handles Philander very well. Very, very well. It now looks like Steyn or nothing.

Rogers faces Duminy, who has done well to recover, but both teams are playing like tomorrow will not happen. Rogers pushes the ball wide of mid-off, to the right of Alviro Petersen, who earlier in the session was fielding like he was in a coma. Now he is awake, picks it up, flicks it and hits the stumps. It looks out. South Africa are sure it is. The first replays show Rogers well short when the ball hits the stump. South Africa get the thumbs up and celebrate. But for drama, the bail takes a year to come off. Dar has noticed this. It takes maybe two years for the bail to come off. And in that time, maybe Rogers is in. There are about 27 replays. Dar has seen enough, he gives it out.

Rogers, who played with ease alongside David Warner, and then hung on to the wreckage of the Australian order to stay afloat has run himself out in the dark, in the final minutes. Steyn, as buggered as he is, runs over and shakes his hand. So does Smith.

It is Siddle and Nathan Lyon, better than most Nos. 10 and 11. They can bat. They are okay. They need to face less than two overs. It is now darker than before. Siddle does well against Duminy to end the over. He even pushes into the covers for a two.

At the other end Steyn takes off his hat, goes to the end of his mark. He will give it one more over. But Illingworth and Dharmasena are alternating on who they help. They decide it is too dark. Instead of facing Steyn, Lyon will face Dean Elgar. The man who called himself a pie chucker at the end of the first day. Left-arm orthodox. The very opposite of Steyn in practically every way.

The first ball is an actual pie, and Lyon had enough time to eat it. The second ball is better, but Lyon plays it well. The third is a quicker ball, it’s wide and full and Lyon just leaves. The fourth, the fourth.

It is short of a length on the stumps, it spins, it holds up, Lyon is hit on the pad. Lyon is OUT. SOUTH AFRICA WIN. DEAN ELGAR HAS TAKEN A WICKET.

Lyon stands there as Elgar mounts his team-mates, they laugh, they smile, Lyon stares. Unimportant replay show a possible edge and problems with height.

Thirty minutes later, Lyon is in the changing room, still staring, still unable to change anything.

South Africa have won. Dean Elgar has taken the wicket.

In 36.4 overs, South Africa have taken nine wickets. They have beaten Australia. They have beaten the apocalyptic rain. And they have made Lyon stare.

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Johnson and Smith: a short rough love affair

February, 2014

The ball punches the pitch, and cracks into Graeme Smith who seems to react only as the ball leaves him. It loops up slowly and the crowd make noise accordingly. It is just off the pad. Not out. It is the first ball Smith faces from Mitchell Johnson.

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There is not much time to think between the ball leaving Johnson’s hand and the batsman having to deal with it. It is like a camera flash, or a political back-flip.

You can have a plan, you can think it through, but the ball just comes out of his hand and you react. There are some batsmen who revel in that. See ball, hit ball.

Not enough time for clear rational thought. There is not enough time to think about past deliveries, or history, it just happens.

January, 2009

A full ball that that should never have damaged anyone, but spat up and took the left massive hand of Smith. His hand disappeared like he had been zapped by a ray gun. For a second Smith was lost, the pain confused him, he was walking around in a circle towards point. And only then did he eventually find the culprit, which had gone off to fine leg to allow him to get off strike. But the damage was done, and he would only come back into to bat at No. 11, with a broken hand.

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There is a bowling machine that players have used to try and learn the mystery and tricks of certain players, the Pro Batter. You can face Morne Morkel, Lasith Malinga or even Mitchell Johnson.

But you can’t program it with superhuman confidence. You can’t give it artificial menace. And you can’t play against it like it is a real force of nature. It is a computer game with real elements. Nothing more. All you can do is try and pick up a few tricks that you hope the next time you play will come in handy.

South Africa have used the Pro Batter, they have also faced Johnson at his old best. They should know how to play him. Smith has faced him more than most. They have survived him at the WACA, after he took 8 for 61, they milked him on their chase beyond 400 to win, they have played him ten times. They know him.

Well, they knew the old him. This new one is relentless and brutal, like a zombie girl group, or a current affairs reporter. This Mitchell is worse and better than anything that can be made with CGI or the old model.

March, 2009

Off the ground, looking at point, one hand off the bat, the right hand protecting his throat and being smashed into the bat handle. That is how Smith found himself as he just tried to survive a delivery. The ball did not take his wicket, he did end up in hospital.

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Smith is respected all over the world. He has scored almost 10,000 Test runs. He has done that at almost an average of 50. He has 27 Test centuries. He is the captain and leader of the world’s best Test team.

Smith is South Africa’s top order monolith. Strong, calm and reliable. The young warrior who took over the side and pushed them higher than they had ever been. All with a bottom handed technique that makes even his best shots look like a solid uppercut.

His place in the world of cricket is safe and secure, and he could retire tomorrow and be remembered for decades.

In nine Tests he has been dismissed by Johnson five times and sent to hospital twice. Today Johnson tried to do both in one ball.

February, 2014

The ball leaves the pitch with a mission to break the jaw or eye socket of Smith. There is no time. There is nowhere to hide. There is no way out. Smith can ever be hit in the face, or try and play the ball. His body is doing in one direction, his face another. His bat is jerking upwards not like a cricket shot, but like he is fending off a surprise Pterodactyl attack. The ball hits the bat, more by pure chance than design. The ball flies high, and all of the slips, (there are a few, but it seems like hundreds), arch their necks up at once, and watch it float behind them. Shaun Marsh chases, and chases, while the batsmen easily cross, and at the last minute he reaches the ball to barely take the catch.

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Graeme Smith faced two balls from Mitchell Johnson today.

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Australia’s trip to number one without a top six

David Warner didn’t move his feet. Not for the first time. Chris Rogers was unlucky. At the wrong age to do that. Michael Clarke fended at the moving ball. Easier to do at No. 4 than No. 5. Shane Watson planted the target on the front pad. England found it for the first time this series. George Bailey was dangling outside off. People already murmuring about him there.

Brad Haddin flies in. Situation sorted. Again. Again. Again. Again.

Beneath the Big Bash big talk, away from the CA Twitter account’s split personality and far from ads for summer’s biggest dress up party, Cricket Australia still take cricket seriously. It may not always seem that way as the ‘Ashes pashes’ are on the big screen but Cricket Australia has been pretty consistent on one thing, it wants the team to be No. 1. It actually want to be No. 1, No. 1 and No. 1. In all formats, the best team on earth. A cynic may suggest that it’ll make for better marketing copy, but it’s still a worthy, if hard to attain, ambition.

Clarke used his newspaper column to reiterate that this team wanted to be No. 1 straight after Perth. That’s when captains speak, after the game, when the result dictates the conversation. Had Clarke been asked to speak when Australia’s fifth first-innings wicket fell, No. 1 would have been a sizable distance from his mind. The Australia top order have consistently been awful in the first innings. Only in Adelaide were they anything near passable. In every other innings they’ve been poor.

Then Haddin comes in. Technically Haddin has batted at No. 7. But in real terms he’s batted one, two, three, four, five, six and seven. Add a cape and a moustache and Mitchell Johnson may not win Man of the Series.

Haddin as the permanent saviour was enough to win the Ashes. And it may be enough to win 5-0. But to be No. 1, you are probably going to need a top order. And Australia’s next series is against a bowling attack of Morne Morkel, Vernon Philander and Dale Steyn.

Beating England, while that team is in emotional freefall, at home is just a step in the right direction, not anything more. Australia were naked in a gutter a few months back, and they haven’t won three consecutive Test series in a row since the infamous summer of kidding themselves against West Indies, Pakistan and New Zealand. This summer there are far more good signs than back in 2009-10. That’s all they are. This isn’t some finished product that has honed its game around the world and is ready to tussle at the top, it’s an old team with a good bowling attack that’s in great form.

Form is, as many cricketers have told us, temporary.

“Australia have the best bowling attack in the world.” It’s something you may have heard more than once. Lazy commentators say it, showing that they don’t follow the cricket outside of Australia. Coaches have said it, despite the fact it is their job to know how good other countries are. It’s not the best bowling attack in the world (unless South Africa has been voted off the planet). But it’s really good.

Peter Siddle has improved virtually every part of his bowling. He is a leader and a worker, who never gives up. Nathan Lyon was the boy no one wanted. Considering the menagerie of misfits used as spinners before (and during) his time, surely only a mad scientist selector would change him now. If Johnson keeps bowling the way he is, he may actually explode, as will most batsmen who face him. He could also lose form and confidence and end up sitting on the bench for an IPL franchise. It’s all possible. Ryan Harris may not be long for this game. Then again, who really thought he’d play nine straight Test matches against England.

Harris is the only one for who age is a concern. Australia also have James Pattinson (Test average of 26), Pat Cummins (pace like fire, body like paper) and Nathan Coulter-Nile (pace – tick, swing – tick) hanging around.

So it may not be the best on earth, but it’s a pretty damn scary attack to bump into on a dark night. With Johnson in this form, it’s nuclear.

India and South Africa are the No.1 and No. 2-ranked sides in the world. Even if India had won in South Africa, their first overseas series since they were in Australia two years ago, they were too many points behind to go top.

India look good right now, but may be a bowler short away from home. R Ashwin is averaging more than five wickets a Test and was just dropped against South Africa. Pakistan were ranked fourth before this series. In recent times they drew with South Africa, and before that they drew with Zimbabwe. Essentially they play in the same manner Saeed Ajmal does press conferences.

England are so bad right now, the hashtag #pomnishambles has been invented.

So, that only leaves South Africa. They are the best team on earth. They have beaten or drawn all their series since losing, to the then-No. 1 side, Australia in ’09. In their last seven series, they have won six and drawn once. After Gary Kirsten took over, they became the team that they flirted with being at most times since readmission.

To beat them, you have to shove Graeme Smith aside. Confuse Hashim Amla. Hope AB de Villiers is tired. Then survive the bowling attack. And do it all quickly in a shortened series.

If Australia do win 5-0, in the history of cricket it will probably be the worst batting line-up to have ever swept such a long series.

Coming into Melbourne, Chris Rogers was a 36-year-old with a Test average of 31.88 – pretty much the same average that Ed Cowan had when he lost his place. Then England dropped Rogers at the MCG and he made his second hundred and cemented his place for South Africa. He’s obviously not rubbish, but at his age, he doesn’t need balls bouncing back through his legs on to the stumps. Chances are, no matter how good his career goes, at his age, he’ll be a batting coach or commentator by the next time Australia are No. 1 in Tests.

David Warner’s form has been amazing, in the second innings when Australia have been smashing the ball everywhere against a Mitch Johnson-ed England. His first innings have shown promise, but he’s never gone through. He still has no overseas Test hundreds and in the one second innings when the pressure was on, he failed. After being dropped. His footwork is always going to get negative feedback but he’s never going to fix it. In South Africa it will be tested every day.

Shane Watson is batting at No. 3 for Australia, with a Test average of 36.56, and you can see why Darren Lehmann may not have backed him completely as a batsman. It still makes more sense for Watson to bat at No. 5 or No. 6, but then Australia would have no one to bat at three. In the first innings of this series, he has been woeful, but he made a happy slap hundred in Perth, and guided Australia home at Melbourne. Still important, still frustrating, and still a massive lbw candidate.

Michael Clarke has a bad back, and a sensational home record. If he can recreate that away from home, and his back stays good, he’ll be a good player to ride to No. 1.

Steven Smith is one of three Trent Woodhill (a see ball, hit ball batting coach) disciples who have made hundreds this series. He made another in England, and gave another way. In India, as his team-mates cried into their cornflakes, he came in and showed guts and feet. Here was another hundred that proved how tough he is. But he’s still only averaging 37.41 in Test cricket. It’s because Smith either makes runs, or fails. There is no in between. His bowling, and fielding are both useful but, at No. 5, he needs to make it as a batsman. He is probably a six, and maybe so is Watson, and it looks like Bailey might be as well.

George Bailey may not even make it to South Africa. Or Clarke could retire and he becomes captain. One is more likely than the other.

There was no shock as Australia lost early wickets. It was green, Australia had been put in, and throughout this Ashes (and the entire mega Ashes) Australia have struggled to score in the first innings. There was no shock that Haddin saved them either. It may have been moving around, and in his bad times he would have nicked off playing a shocking shot, but that wouldn’t have felt natural in this series. It all happened exactly as it has for five Tests.

Australia failed, England failed harder. Haddin prevailed.

Australia are old, have a frail batting line up and are relying on a 36-year-old wicketkeeper more than any team should. They shouldn’t get to No. 1, but then they shouldn’t have won this series without a fully functioning top six. Even with a fully functioning Brad Haddin behind it.

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