Category Archives: general balls

India’s fight to the end

India have often rolled over and cried in overseas Tests. But not here. They kicked and screamed right until the end. No retreat, no surrender. Rohit Sharma is a man with the skills to change a Test in a session. Here he changed a Test in a sentence.

Virat Kohli was aggressive before the first Test. He wanted everyone to know that he would be attacking and proactive. That he wouldn’t roll over. That he wouldn’t do what India did every series and expect different results. Kohli delivered. India were aggressive. India were attacking.

On the first morning they attacked the stumps. They had a plan to bowl round the wicket and full. They stuck to it. It was obviously not a great strategy and Australia scored at ease. But they were making the play, even the bad play. Then Varun Aaron bowled the first bouncer. Not afraid to bother anyone. Just doing what they thought they needed to do. They also kept the field up.

It didn’t work. Their two early wickets were nice, but once Warner and Clarke, Warner and Smith, Smith and Clarke were together, it all went bad. Ishant Sharma went at three an over. Karn Sharma at four. Mohammed Shami at five. And Aaron at six, or 5.9. It is hard to attack well with these numbers.

Karn was an attacking move in himself. R Ashwin is a better bowler. R Ashwin is a better batsman. R Ashwin is an offspinner. So Kohli thought Adelaide might suit the legspinner better. It might have, with a better legspinner. Karn was starting his career on a ground with short square boundaries against Warner and Clarke. It wasn’t ideal, but Kohli wanted something different. Last time Ashwin gave India five wickets for 267 runs in Adelaide. It isn’t match-winning, but the safe and reliable thing to do was pick him again. India didn’t. They picked three quicks who can’t bat and one new leggie. Only Ishant came off. But none of it was defensive.

Despite the fact they had conceded over 500, India didn’t shut up shop and take time out of the game. Their top six all played their shots. They tried to put pressure on the bowlers, and they came after Nathan Lyon. When Kohli was hit on the badge, he didn’t want people’s concern. He wanted to face the next ball. His cover drive after lunch was the shot of a man making a point. When Kohli was out, their tail swung, which could be deemed as part of their aggressive game plan, or just because that is pretty much all they can do.

When Australia set the target, India had a defensive field. But not a defensive mindset. Kohli went out of his way to make it known to every single Australia player that they were still going for victory. Chris Rogers certainly saw it as Kohli sent him off. Warner got it in his premature send-off. And then the rest of that afternoon was a series of exchanges between players on the field. No one would accuse the Indians of backing down.

There was not a single moment during the chase on the last day that ever hinted at the India players going for a draw. They batted for a win, at times recklessly, at times magnificently. Both seemed strange, both were captivating. Wriddhiman Saha’s innings was full of aggression, then one attempt he’ll never forget. But what he and Kohli were trying to do was important. Hitting Lyon out of the attack would give them a chance to take some runs from the friendlier seamers.

Kohli did it with magnificence and grace. Saha did it like he was trying to get a late-night kebab. India went down swinging. Their last wicket was stumped.

Play 06:24
Agarkar: Australia responded better to the big moments
India have often rolled over and cried in overseas Tests. But not here. They kicked and screamed right until the end. No retreat, no surrender. Rohit Sharma is a man with the skills to change a Test in a session. Here he changed a Test in a sentence.

Virat Kohli was aggressive before the first Test. He wanted everyone to know that he would be attacking and proactive. That he wouldn’t roll over. That he wouldn’t do what India did every series and expect different results. Kohli delivered. India were aggressive. India were attacking.

On the first morning they attacked the stumps. They had a plan to bowl round the wicket and full. They stuck to it. It was obviously not a great strategy and Australia scored at ease. But they were making the play, even the bad play. Then Varun Aaron bowled the first bouncer. Not afraid to bother anyone. Just doing what they thought they needed to do. They also kept the field up.

It didn’t work. Their two early wickets were nice, but once Warner and Clarke, Warner and Smith, Smith and Clarke were together, it all went bad. Ishant Sharma went at three an over. Karn Sharma at four. Mohammed Shami at five. And Aaron at six, or 5.9. It is hard to attack well with these numbers.

Karn was an attacking move in himself. R Ashwin is a better bowler. R Ashwin is a better batsman. R Ashwin is an offspinner. So Kohli thought Adelaide might suit the legspinner better. It might have, with a better legspinner. Karn was starting his career on a ground with short square boundaries against Warner and Clarke. It wasn’t ideal, but Kohli wanted something different. Last time Ashwin gave India five wickets for 267 runs in Adelaide. It isn’t match-winning, but the safe and reliable thing to do was pick him again. India didn’t. They picked three quicks who can’t bat and one new leggie. Only Ishant came off. But none of it was defensive.

Despite the fact they had conceded over 500, India didn’t shut up shop and take time out of the game. Their top six all played their shots. They tried to put pressure on the bowlers, and they came after Nathan Lyon. When Kohli was hit on the badge, he didn’t want people’s concern. He wanted to face the next ball. His cover drive after lunch was the shot of a man making a point. When Kohli was out, their tail swung, which could be deemed as part of their aggressive game plan, or just because that is pretty much all they can do.

When Australia set the target, India had a defensive field. But not a defensive mindset. Kohli went out of his way to make it known to every single Australia player that they were still going for victory. Chris Rogers certainly saw it as Kohli sent him off. Warner got it in his premature send-off. And then the rest of that afternoon was a series of exchanges between players on the field. No one would accuse the Indians of backing down.

There was not a single moment during the chase on the last day that ever hinted at the India players going for a draw. They batted for a win, at times recklessly, at times magnificently. Both seemed strange, both were captivating. Wriddhiman Saha’s innings was full of aggression, then one attempt he’ll never forget. But what he and Kohli were trying to do was important. Hitting Lyon out of the attack would give them a chance to take some runs from the friendlier seamers.

Kohli did it with magnificence and grace. Saha did it like he was trying to get a late-night kebab. India went down swinging. Their last wicket was stumped.

Kohli and Dhoni have been attacking captains this series © AFP
It wasn’t the first occasion this year that India had been close to victory, only to lose. At the Wanderers they were close to winning, or losing, when South Africa called off the chase with eight runs needed and three wickets in hand. At Trent Bridge, India made a respectable 457 and had England an even more respectable 9 for 298, before conceding the lead and having to fight to draw the match on the final day. At the Basin Reserve they were 246 runs ahead after one innings. New Zealand made 680 in their second. All of these were India being in front, and then letting it go. At Adelaide they were behind for 13 straight sessions. It wasn’t until late in the 14th that they finally got on even terms. The 15th was their problem.

Duncan and Dhoni are no longer the only big names in town.

Kohli was given a lot of credit for this new way of play. And he should have been, two hundreds and all. But Ravi Shastri was there as well. Even if not all the Channel Nine commentators knew about his new position as India team director. We have all spent many years with Shastri in our lounge rooms, often booming. He is a booming sort of man. A man of big impact, not subtly.

Shastri won’t want to be part of a team that isn’t trying to be the best. He wouldn’t want them to roll over and die. He has a reputation. He is the loudest voice of Indian cricket. He wants the team to be as dominant on the field as the BCCI is off it. He wants “India, superpower”.

At the Gabba, India batted first. It was the right thing to do. They often bat first. But it just felt right. The pitch did look green in the days leading up. They could have taken the cowardly way out and said they saw something in the wicket. It has happened here before. They didn’t.

Their batting was also aggressive. Again. M Vijay went aerial often. There were shots over cover that might have been heat strokes, but they were aggressive ones. He wasn’t just sitting back and scoring, he wanted to be on top. As Australia got injured, the Indians also went after Lyon again. When Mitchell Starc could bowl, he probably wished he hadn’t.

Even six wickets down, Ashwin and Dhoni were scoring quickly. Dhoni was trying to end Starc spells quickly to tire out Johnson. And Johnson was tired. And wicketless.

In the field Dhoni had catchers everywhere. It’s not that unusual for him to have 7-2 and 8-1 fields. But usually it is to bore out the opposition. This was to catch them out. There were slips and gullies everywhere; it was like we were back in the 90s.

The umpires came to the Indians and asked if they wanted to stay out and bowl spin as it got dark on the second evening. They didn’t. They wanted to attack with their quicks, they didn’t want a part-time spinner wasting overs hoping Ashwin got lucky. The Australians strolled off. The Indians went into the tightest of huddles. This was a team that believed it could win.

Ishant bowled nine straight overs either side of tea and took Warner with a beauty © Getty Images
The third morning they kept playing that way. Dhoni attacked. The bowlers kept it tight as well. Ishant attacked the top of off stump, and Mitchell Marsh was out neither attacking nor defending. Ishant let Marsh know what he thought of the leave.

When Brad Haddin came in, Aaron came round the wicket. At him. Up him. Into him. Into the hands of short leg.

The Indians were excited, they were frothing. And when Johnson came in, Rohit asked him about his match -wicket tally. Many others also had a word. The chat level was back to the afternoon fights at Adelaide. It was attacking. It was aggressive. It was a mistake.

VVS Laxman tweeted, “When an Aussie sledges it’s aggression but if an Indian sledges it’s unnecessary & foolish. Bottom line – Ind didn’t bowl well 2 Mitch.” And he has a point. But you also don’t sledge everyone. Johnson is a slow starter. He leaves balls early he should hit. He wafts early before putting his all into it. He doesn’t commit early until he’s settled.

Getting half your team to scream at him might make him focus more. Questioning his bowling might want him to do you over.

It wasn’t just words of course. They also bowled short to him, VVS was right about that. Like the first morning at Adelaide, they had a plan. Bounce him. One pull shot was easily dealt with to the rope. Another was cannoned there. Then there was a mishit, a ball in the air, one that could have carried to a fielder. It didn’t.

At Lord’s they gambled with the short ball and won a Test match. Here they gambled with it and lost one. They should have pitched up far earlier. But they were attacking and aggressive, as they have been all tour.

It was embarrassing for India as Smith barely had to do a thing, and Johnson swung wildly to mock them. When they got to lunch they had a moment to rethink, and after lunch, they played for the second new ball. Ashwin bowled three overs, Rohit bowled with five men on the rope. It did mean they had less chance of sledging anyone into a match-winning performance, but it was their most defensive cricket of the day, Test or series.

Just a day earlier, with Shane Watson 25 from 25, and looking dangerous, Dhoni had mid-on and mid-off up. Ashwin said: “Those are the plans. I don’t just put the point back or long-on back to save four runs. That’s not in me. If that’s how people see it, I can’t help it.”

Now Dhoni did something different. A six from Johnson over long-on kept the field up. But then Dhoni moved long-on back anyway. A straight four moved mid-off back straight away.

The pitch was also at its flattest. And it was hot. The Australians just milked the Indians who were just hoping for a break. They could have been off far earlier, but Dhoni didn’t move for a catch. This was the old India. The away-from-home India.

After ten overs, India were 41. They had lost no wickets. They were scoring well. They had put some pressure back on Australia. Losing only one wicket set up the next day. There was plenty of time, a good pitch and Australia were a bowler down. Dhawan and Pujara would come out and keep pushing.

But Dhawan never made it. The most aggressive thing India did in that first session was send out a press release accusing the Gabba groundstaff of not preparing new practice tracks, and that it caused discomfort to Kohli and injury to Dhawan.

There were slips and gullies everywhere © Getty Images
The rest was a procession. The wickets came so fast, at times it was hard to work out whether all the dismissals were out. People just kept leaving the field. Some tried to be attacking, like Dhoni who was almost mid-pitch when he was out lbw, but mostly it was a blur of wickets. There were six. It felt like eight.

When they left the ground, Watson decided to give Dhawan some advice. Rohit and Watson have to be vying for fans’ most-hated crowns all series. They have both used their mouths as much as their bats. Whatever Watson, and then Haddin, and then Warner said to Dhawan, after lunch he was a different player.

Perhaps the message from the team was to just hit out. Because Dhawan tried to slog Watson from the start. His first attempt, a mishit over mid-on, wasn’t subtle attacking, it was naked aggression. He kept going. And the more he attacked, the worse Australia looked. He crashed balls through cover, he guided balls to third man, he lapped Lyon, he swiped over mid-on, he jabbed pull shots and he slashed. When not doing that, he managed to keep the strike as Smith was left with one of his biggest decisions: should we try and get him out, or should we keep him off strike? Dhawan might have attacked bowlers better before, but this was just the aggression that was needed, and Australia were just lucky he missed one.

Dhawan’s knock was two-thirds of the total Australia needed, 128 runs was all India had. Dhoni didn’t over-attack. He didn’t give away easy singles. But he tried to play the smartest game he could. Five catchers, in random positions, hoping for the best. It was about all he could do on a pitch you could still score fast on, where you only had 128 in the bank.

Ishant bowled nine straight overs either side of tea. Dhoni backed him. He took Warner with a beauty. Played the short-ball game with Watson, and then told him about the wicket. And one of the gambling fielders Dhoni had took the catch of Rogers.

Dhoni kept going. They attacked the body of Shaun Marsh and found the glove. A little more glove, and Dhoni and leg slip just watch runs go by them. They got lucky with the run-out, as Smith didn’t need two. But they made that luck by making him think he did. Maybe even by Aaron’s aggressive body positioning.

They then took Haddin on with the short ball. Such a risk. They had fine leg 25 metres in from the boundary. Haddin had already looked a bit tentative, but it is Haddin. He is just as likely to middle one and send it flying over the two men out. Instead he found one. The next over Australia had won.

Four wickets. Forty-eight runs. 0-2.

They are losing, but they are making Australia win. They are losing, but they are aggressive. They are attacking, until there is nothing left to attack. One shot, one bouncer and one sentence at a time.

the evolution of steve smith

Thirty-three ODIS. Twenty T20s. Five Tests. Two fifties. Both in Tests.

That was Steven Smith before the March 14, 2013. Six-hundred and forty-three days later, he was captain of his country.

Pulls up his right pad.

When it was suggested by ESPNcricinfo’s Daniel Brettig in May last year that Smith might be the next captain of his country, not everyone took it well.

“This article is complete trash. For starters, Smith isn’t good enough a player to even consider for the Test side as yet and unless he scores a heck of runs, shouldn’t be considered as his bowling is almost as bad as this article.”

“If Steven Smith is the answer then we are looking down the barrel of the worst period in Australian cricket history. The only part of his game that is remotely Test standard is his fielding.”

“Steven Smith, captain of Australia…god help us, how bad are our stocks?”

Those were just the commenters. Brettig wasn’t suggesting Smith take over the next day, or even any time soon. Just that, despite Smith’s record and form, there was really no one else out there. Smith had just made a very good 92 in Mohali, but one that looked blander with the Mitchell Starc and Shikhar Dhawan madness that followed. It also meant that he’d only made three international fifties from 60 international matches. And despite some suggestions that he could captain, and that his batting had matured, he wasn’t going to the Ashes.

I, like many of those commenters, people in bars and those on social media, was not convinced that Smith had changed. He was still the twitchy ball of mess that pushed at balls outside off stump like a junkie looking for a fix. India suited his feet; England would not suit his hands.

My exact words were, “I’d pick a dead donkey before I’d send Smith to England with his technique.” I was wrong. The others were wrong.

Steven Smith was the right man.

In the first innings in Nottingham, the Australian batting was in the mire. Three men made over 15. Ashton Agar. Phillip Hughes. Smith. At 22 for 3, most Australian fans wanted anyone but Smith walking out. Smith was still Smith. Early on he played a ball to point, while his groin when towards square leg.

It was Smith who lasted to stumps, who pulled Australia towards the England total, who gave any hope. Smith who pulled the short balls, used his feet to Swann and handled Anderson at his best.

But the following morning he was out nicking behind, outside off. Hughes batted on. Both were picked very early on as freakish talents with even freakier techniques. Both were dropped because of these flaws. Both were often written off by people because of it.

Smith’s innings is now something very special. It was against a rampant England, on a pitch neither team could bat on. It was composed. It was sensible. It wasn’t the knock of an allrounder. Or project player. It was actually a top-class innings. But Agar and Hughes then stole all the news. And it was only a 50. His fourth in Tests.

Pulls up his left pad.

There have been 33 Test captains younger than Steven Smith. Maybe three who looked younger.

Graeme Smith was younger. Way younger. But looked older. Bigger and more durable. If Steven’s appointment shocked some and seemed rash, compared to Graeme’s it was the most sensible decision in the world. That was nothing more than a hunch based on a cocky young kid, and needing Shaun Pollock to be a scapegoat. Graeme had less captaincy experience than Steven. Was years younger. Had barely played outside of South Africa. It was perhaps one of the worst decisions in South African cricket history. And probably one of the best.

South Africa dropped a captain after winning 13 of their previous 16 Test series, and tapped a kid based on one World Cup warm-up match.

Had South Africa worked out Duckworth Lewis… Had Gary Kirsten been younger… Had Mark Boucher not been a wicketkeeper… Had Jacques Kallis not been Jacques Kallis… Had Shaun Pollock not been the scapegoat… Then, Graeme Smith wouldn’t have taken over.

Had Australia not been so rubbish in India… Had Mickey Arthur not been fired… Had Australia not had any injuries… Had Michael Clarke’s body actually held up… Then, Steven Smith wouldn’t have taken over.

Adjusts his thigh pad.

The first Test 50 was perhaps the most insane one. Australia had been bowled out for 88 in the first innings. They were six down and only 47 runs in front when Smith came in. The bowlers were Mohammad Asif, Mohammad Amir, Umar Gul and Danish Kaneria. Pakistan in excelsis.

Smith fiddled and left while barely scoring. His first 50 balls came with 19 runs. Then the tail went out. And Smith decided to hit the ball. He pulled. He slogged. He drove. He danced. He twirled. He twitched. He was the last man out for 77, from 100 balls.

Ponting was asked in the press conference if Smith was going to put pressure on Marcus North at six. Ponting said no. It was clear that he saw this as a charming fluke; he called the runs “pretty entertaining and very valuable”. Smith was a cheeky slogger who could field the house down, but was outbowled by Marcus North and not a real batsman.

Smith didn’t even keep his place in the next two Tests, despite the fact they were in India. His bowling went away like one of his floated full tosses.

Shakes his inner thigh pad.

It wasn’t even that long ago Michael Clarke was trying to get him dates via Twitter. There are photos out there of Steven Smith posing with lion cubs, having perhaps the best time of any human ever in the history of the world. There is another where he wears a hat with a propeller on it. Smiling like he’s found the secret to eternal happiness in hat form. And a photo shoot where he stands proudly in a zebra onesie. Complete with a hood. And a tail.

Australian cricketers are certainly not new to embarrassing photos. Shane Warne has had a few. Some of Clarke’s underwear photos are certainly not great. But Smith’s are something different. They’re the photos of a uni student on Facebook. Not a Test captain. He doesn’t look drunk in them. He looks incredibly happy. Alive. Young. And un-captain like.

But then on the field, whether for Rajasthan Royals, Sydney Sixers or New South Wales, something turns. He’s still that kid, but he’s that kid with a job to do. The senior players see the cheeky face, the propeller hats, and his youth, and some have tried to push him. Stuart MacGill once received unfriendly language when questioning something Smith said. He may look like a kid on a Contiki tour, but he’s got Australian Captain mongrel beneath those cheeks.

Tweaks his box.

After Smith’s first two Tests, he only had to wait a few more to be back in the squad. He was the last man sent home from the 2010-11 Ashes Gabba Test. He was very upset at Brisbane airport when leaving. By the third, at the WACA, he was back. Batting at six. Replacing Marcus North. It was very confusing. Smith failed to make 50 in his first five comeback innings. In the sixth, as England warmed up their celebratory sprinkler moves, he made a not out 50, his second. But he had started in Perth as a number six. By Sydney he was moved one spot down to number seven.

It was at this point that it was clear that it wasn’t just fans that had no idea what Steven Smith was – the Australian team and management didn’t either. Was he a number eight who could bowl? A number six who could bat? Or a number seven who fielded really well?

Pushes his helmet tighter on his head.

Australia were playing a warm-up against Pakistan A in Sharjah. Brad Haddin had been replaced by a local keeper. Then Clarke left the field. But it was Chris Rogers who took charge of the team. That was in October.

Even when Smith was in charge, people didn’t always know it. The announcer at the Shield final said, “The NSW captain, Steven O’Keefe.” That was in March.

Fiddles with his shirt collar.

Australian captains seem to be absurdly good fielders. Mark Taylor didn’t really move, but he swallowed everything in his path. Allan Border made short midwicket look like a cool place to field. Bob Simpson caught with his chest. Ricky Ponting was an expert in every single position on a fielding map.

Smith is following this tradition. The best fielders seem to know where the ball is going. They read the ball, the pitch, the hands, the bat, the feet, and they are there before most batsmen know where they are hitting it. Smith up close is quite like that. He seems to move before the shot, like he’s privy to some information that we aren’t. Plus he is quick. His hands are great. His body morphs into whatever it needs to be to find the ball. And when he has it, he’s deadly with the stumps.

When he took the one-handed diving screamer in this match, it just felt normal. Had it been Shane Watson, or a Marsh, there might have been real surprise. But Smith seems to have been flying sideways since the first time we saw him. Had he not made it as a batsman, we still would have remembered the fielding.

Puts his left glove on better.

When Smith was brought back for the India Test series of 2012-13, he had scored only one firstclass hundred since 2009-10. Yet, he was picked as a No. 5 batsman in a Test team in crisis. Had it not been for Clarke’s back injury, he wouldn’t have been in the squad for the Ashes in England. Had it not been for once of Uncle Boof’s hunches, he probably wouldn’t have played at all.

Smith made first-class hundreds for Australia A against Ireland and for Australia against Sussex. But at Old Trafford, it was another 50 that kept him in the team and made him look, for the first time in his career, completely necessary.

Old Trafford wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t dominant. It wasn’t insane. It was just batting. Smith hardly hit any boundaries. Smith hardly played crazy shots. Smith just accumulated and put Australia into a great position. Until, when on the brink of the 90s, he played a shot that was so silly Geoff Boycott is still mid-rant about it, he looked like a batsman.

They picked him as a junk yard dog. A scrapper. One that hit the ball where others didn’t. That really believed in himself. That ignored his weaknesses and backed himself.

They still had all that, and a batsman.

His work with Trent Woodhill, his personal batting coach, had turned him into a zen batsman. The twitches were still there. Outside off still looked shaky. But he was cool with it. Supercool. Two Tests later at The Oval, he was ready and able to make a Test match hundred.

138. Not out.

That was 485 days ago. The hundreds haven’t stopped since.

Moves his helmet back.

There was so much energy from Smith, the Test captain, on the field at the Gabba. Almost every over he ran down to chat to the bowler. Sometimes he’d chat to the bowler who’d just completed the over, and then run to the bowler who was about to bowl the next one. Not many overs went by without a change in the field. He sought out Haddin. Watson. Rogers. Warner.

At times, the young guy in him escaped; at one point he feigned throwing a ball behind his back at the stumps.

He was also obsessed with watching replays on the big screen. Clearly didn’t want to bowl himself. Tried a funky move with Warner’s slow-medium pacers. Managed not to cry too much as he lost Mitchell Marsh to injury, Mitchell Starc to form and injury, and Josh Hazlewood to cramps.

When Australia finally bowled India out in the first innings, Smith ran up to pat Mitchell Johnson on the back. Johnson didn’t react at first. Then he turned and patted Smith on the back.

Fixes the band on his right glove.

Smith had made a lot of runs in 2009-10 playing Shield cricket, he’d also taken a seven-wicket haul. Then his career had taken him around the world. He’d played for Australia, Kochi Tuskers Kerala, New South Wales, Pune Warriors, Rajasthan Royals, Royal Challengers Bangalore, Sydney Sixers and Worcestershire. He’d played in India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, South Africa, England, Zimbabwe, the UAE, Northern Ireland and the West Indies.

From 2010 to 2013, Smith was always playing. Turn your TV on and he’ll be playing somewhere, for someone. A franchise player. A county player. A limited-overs player. He was in demand. He was everywhere. He was in and out of Australian colours.

Smith was the modern player. He learnt the modern way.

Kicks at the dirt.

In 2011-12, Smith captained Sydney Sixers in the absence of Haddin. Sydney Sixers won the Big Bash League. Many were impressed with how well Smith led. It was certainly mentioned by Cricket Australia this week.

The one question all captains get when they take over the new job is how the captaincy will affect their batting. When Smith led the Sydney Sixers he played in nine games. He made 166 runs, with one 50.

But that was that Smith pre-junk yard dog. Pre-zen batsman. Pre-international hundreds.

This time he floated into the Gabba on a hoverboard made of runs. Since The Oval last year, 1129 of them at 66.

Maybe the captaincy can get to people. Perhaps a day in the field when it’s too hot for human exertion and no one can stand up would have upset some people. Or moving up the order for your newest position in the line up would do it.

But if there is something that can affect Smith’s batting at the moment, no cricket team has worked it out. When Australia were struggling, he took to R Ashwin to give them some space. When they were newly six down, he guided the ball over the slips casually. When Johnson almost lost his mind during an over from Varun Aaron, Smith tried to get the strike.

When Aaron sledged Smith, Smith smiled back cheekily. He might be the captain, but he still looks like a kid who has stolen a cookie.

Then he made his sixth Test ton in 488 days. His first as captain. He celebrated like a young boy at first. Then like a wise man afterwards.

Marks his guard endlessly.

At the Barley & Rye across from the Gabba, a Christmas work dinner chats about the horror of the Sydney siege, then moves seamlessly into a chat about cricket. People seem interested in Steven Smith. One guy stated that he had no problem with Smith, but he was just happy the other guy wasn’t playing. “Michael Clarke?” said a workmate.

“Yeah, that guy is a Wayne Kerr, if ya get what I’m sayin'”. From there the chat went to discussing the private life of Kyly Clarke.

Never did cricket skill, or results, come into the conversation.

Smith has moved on from just being a player. He is now one of the most talked about and scrutinised people in Australia. His private life is already more public. His partner is more public. Next will be where he lives, what he drives, how he dresses. Australian captains might be selected for their cricket, but they are judged in the court of public opinion on everything, just like a politician.

Smith is still only the Australian captain elect, but he has already had to talk about a terrorist siege on behalf of his team-mates, and talk about how they are moving on from their personal bereavement. It won’t be long before people start referring to him as a Wayne Kerr and discussing supposed mistakes his partner has made.

It’s the part of captaining the Australian cricket team your fantasies never really cover.

On Channel 9, he was speaking to a former captain, and he said, “I’d just like them to like me for the person I am.”

Shuffles the wristband.

Pad. Pad. Glove. Helmet. Glove. Thigh. Inner thigh. Box. Wristband. Helmet. Pad. Pad. It’s a blur. Maybe 15 adjustments. All quicker than his footwork. Smith moves so fast at times it’s impossible for all, or any, of these things to actually to be bothering him. It’s not about that. It’s a ritual. It’s his cricketing signum crucis.

At one point, within 40 seconds Smith touches his helmet seven different times. He is twitchy and uncomfortable. He looks nervous. He is at the non-striker’s end. He is 121 not out. Australia are quickly erasing the deficit. They are 1-0. India are now feeling the heat. The crowd is cheering.

This is a great moment for him. He is Captain Australia and doing great. He’ll enjoy it, once he’s readjusted his shield.

Monster Johnson goes missing

This season, Mitchell Johnson is not the fearsome fast bowler he was last summer © Getty Images
Last time he was here a No. 8 was feeding time for Monster Johnson.

This time R Ashwin was playing him as if he was just another bowler. A full and straight ball slipped down the leg side. There was no menace. No fear. No explosion. Just a leg bye.

Mitch was mid-pitch, shrugging, looking at his hands, wondering where the magic went.

At the top of his mark, he was sweating so much in his first spell of the day, he had to throw the ball to someone else to shine it.

The next delivery is a half volley, MS Dhoni cover drives it for three. The last ball of his morning spell is pushed through the covers by India’s stylish No. 8, without fear of injury or loss of wicket. Mitch just stares down the pitch for a while, before eventually turning to see where the ball has gone.

Mitch wanders off to fine leg. Warner runs over to tell him where Ashwin is standing in the crease, oblivious to the fact Mitch is going to be taken off. Mitch stands at fine leg, by this point last year, he was winning an Ashes and destroying an era of English cricket.

Now he is sweating uncontrollably, no one is screaming his name, he’s wicketless and fiddling with a bandage around his finger. Around him there are many empty seats.

The Gabba has blue seats, but scattered among them are gold and maroon chairs. It seems like a ploy to trick the mind into thinking there are more people in the ground than there actually are. It also does the opposite. When the Brisbane heat kicks in fully, the ground goes quieter. Vocal chords melt. People disappear to local bars.

Today, they just never seemed to turn up at all. The Gabba can’t intimidate with coloured seats. Seats don’t scream.

Last year as Mitchell Johnson bounced out Trott and KP, it felt like an angry, drunken, rockin’ coliseum from hell. For M Vijay’s boundaries, it was more an amateur Lawn Bowls over-70s event.

There are many differences from this time to last year, but nothing is more noticeable than Mitchell Johnson’s bowling. After one innings. After three. It’s different. This time it is 0 for 81. Last time it was 4 for 61. The time it is 4 for 228. Last time it was 16 for 143. This time it is okay. Last time it was terrifying.

This was the start of Mitchell Johnson’s run of eight Tests for 59 wickets at 15 apiece. Hellfire. Brimstone. Armageddon. Cook. KP. Trott. Smith. Amla. It was one of those amazing stretches of bowling in Test cricket history. It was Syd Barnes’ wickets with Thommo’s pace.

There was no way Johnson could keep that up, especially as not all wickets are Australian and South African. In the UAE, he was okay – six wickets at 29. He was not a fire-breathing dragon from space, just a fast bowler on unresponsive wickets.

Then he came home. Back into the bosom of fast tracks and good times. Adelaide might be known as a bowling graveyard, but not for Mitch. He bowls as well there as anywhere. It might not bounce and have as much movement as the Gabba, bounce as the WACA, or as much of either as the G, but he always finds what he needs there.

Not this time.

Like in the UAE, Mitch was not hopeless, he was just okay. His working over of a well-set Vijay was beautiful. But that was the only time he was that good. That awesome. That monster.

There have been glimpses of aggression from Mitchell Johnson in this series, but it has not been sustained for any period of time © Getty Images
Photo by: Jarrod Kimber is a writer for ESPNcricinfo. @ajarrodkimber/a
This Test he is also without Ryan Harris, as he was in both UAE games. Mitch Johnson does miss Ryan Harris. It’s hard not to, he has gravitational pull. Harris is fast, accurate, cunning and relentless. He’s essentially the human version of the truck from Duel. Bowling at the other end to him must be a dream. Having him at mid-on or off would be like having an on-field bowling coach. In three of Mitch’s last four Tests, there has been no Harris.

In Brisbane, when it got hot and quiet, what would have been better than Harris standing next to Mitch?

A scientific study of Mitch’s bowling speeds show he is down on pace. As scientific as ball speeds can be. Not to a career low, but to a new era Monster Johnson low. Two kilometres lower on average. That’s not a yard of pace, that’s a handful of inches. Maybe those inches of lost pace are that nip people are always talking about. But is 88 mph so different to 89.5?

It would seem like regardless of a fraction of a nip, or Ryan Harris’ injury, there is something else. Last time there was also the build up. It was the Ashes. And the last one hadn’t healed yet. Words were said in the media. The Courier Mail started newspaper bodyline. Mitch was raring to make a comeback. He’d missed a whole Ashes. The Test was all anyone in Brisbane wanted to talk about. He started by smashing runs in it to save Australia. The crowd was practically foaming at the mouth before Trott was out. They were whipped into a carnivorous frenzy.

This time there was a funeral.

It’s been said that deep in the bubble of the Australian Cricket Team no one took the news harder. Then to compound it was the bouncer that struck Virat Kohli on the crest. And maybe it’s too easy to say that it was that that changed Mitch, but no one else in that Test looked as shaken as he did on that walk down to Virat.

When Umesh Yadav was facing Johnson, there was no feeling of impending doom. Like every time a South African or England tailender faced him. In one full over, Mitch bowled one bouncer. Yadav twirled away from it for survival. It wasn’t followed up. There were no leg gullies. No one walked up from slip. The crowd wasn’t getting worked up. Mitch just bowled the last two balls full. One of which Yadav played from near square leg as he assumed he was going to be under attack. He wasn’t.

In this series Mitch has bowled bouncers. But there has been no sustained fire-breathing. The quickest ball in the match was from Umesh Yadav, not to him.

When the new ball was taken yesterday, Mitch took it. He bowled wide down the leg side. Then got his line right. Then got his line wrong, four. Then got his line right. Then got his line wrong, two. Then got his line wrong. Full and wide. The speed gun said 90 mph. Rahane played it like a kid had flicked down a lollipop. It was a long wide half-volley, one of a huge number.

Johnson then turned and walked very slowly back to fine leg. Warner came up to him and gave him a rub on the shoulders. Johnson didn’t even seem to notice. His hips looked sore. He was hot, or cooked.

When he got to fine leg, he had to tape up his own injured fingers. There he stood, wicketless. This time Mitch was the one putting on bandages. Last time it was the others.

Tagged ,

The perfect Test

A happy birthday balloon was floating at the front of Adelaide Oval on day one. It’s the ground’s 130th Test birthday. It wasn’t for that.

The balloon was for the birthday that Phillip Hughes never had. It floated above the spontaneous fan tribute to Hughes. Cricket’s spirit proudly on display.

Underneath it was a Christmas tree. Radios. Beer. Sunglasses. Illustrations. Headbands. Flowers. A toy cow. And cricket gear. So much cricket gear. Bats with rosary beads. Tear stained balls. Kids’ bats. Signed gloves. Well-used bats. Pads with stories. Illustrated bats. Bats. Bats. Bats. All put out.

Team hats from clubs all around Australia are there. One from Orange. Another from the Bowen Barracudas. And the Brothers Cricket Club. There is also one from Merlynston Hadfield Cricket Club. Probably one of the hardest cricket clubs in Melbourne. It was a club famous for men, and boys, who batted without gloves. Their home ground seemed more frightening that the cemetery next door. One of them donated his bat to this. Even the hard men are crying.

Then there is a helmet. It’s hard not to think it should be on someone’s head instead of sitting in this tribute. On the peak is a photo of Phillip Hughes.

The condolence book is full. “Bat on forever”. “We love you mate”. “Hope you’re smashing them in heaven”. It has far too many RIPs written in kids’ handwriting.

A fan walks past, takes a quick look and says it’s “too morbid”. Hughes’ promotional photo smiles back at him from the wall.

Cricket Australia tried to find the balance between being respectful and over the top in their tribute. They had his Test number 408 written on the field, and on the shirts. The players wore special armbands with PH on them. They made Hughes 13th man; since the Lord’s Test, Hughes had often been the 13th man. Now there was no other choice.

The players stood to pay their respects. Players from both sides look to the sky. Some look upset. Virat Kohli looks as he often does. It might have been a moving moment, but Kohli was focused on something else. That first Test as captain. And when Kohli is focused, there is little that can change that.

The ground is filled with the voice of Richie Benaud. You don’t often hear Richie at the ground. So from the speakers he sounds like the voice of the cricket God. But it was a broken Richie, older and upset, sounding like he never had before. It was a relief when he finished, the sadness from every word was unbearable. And what followed was 63 seconds of applause.

The fans had turned up early, very early. They were eager to pay their respects. To see what would happen next. To help cricket heal. Strangely for Adelaide, most of them didn’t head out the back of the members’ to drink. They watched the cricket. Cricket Australia and the crowd had played their part, but in truth, the game now needed to start healing itself. New Zealand and Pakistan had helped, but it was too removed from the moment. This was right in Hughes’ new hometown. On his pitch. A Test he could have played in.

The Varun Aaron bouncer to David Warner came in the fourth over. It felt like much longer. Every single ball seemed to build the pressure. Waiting, wondering, hoping it would be okay. Praying that one freak accident wouldn’t attract another. Wanting the cricket to be nicer, but still the same. Varun didn’t make them wait long for the healing. He cleared the air as he whizzed past Warner’s ear. It made cricket feel a bit normal.

Once Varun had assured us that cricket was still what we remembered, we then had something not normal. A live cricket memorial. It was touching, amazing and seemingly never-ending. Warner remembered Hughes on 50, 63 and 100. Michael Clarke did it on 37, but hit a boundary to skip 63. Steven Smith did it on 50, 63 and 100 as well. Ryan Harris, Nathan Lyon, Mitchell Johnson and Peter Siddle all did so when taking their wickets.

There was looking at the sky. Raising the bat at the sky. Standing by the number. They pointed at the number. Touching the arm band. Patting the 408 on the heart. Raising the ball to the sky. Kissing the armband.

Black armbands have been too prevalent in recent cricket history. They were worn after terrorists attacked the Sri Lankan team. And when Andy Flower and Henry Olonga wanted to protest their government’s regime. These were for the victims of fascism and terrorism. The ones in Hughes’ honour were for a victim of cricket.

The crowd cheered when the total went to 408 as well. It was as if the 63 seconds of applause from day one would never end.

Then a noise. Hearts skipped. Some players heard the same same sound they had at 2:23pm, 25 November on the SCG. The crowd went silent. Johnson wore panic on his face. The Australians rushed at Kohli, not as a predators, but as comforters.

All cricket fans marvelled at this new Australia. Maybe cricket had been changed by the Hughes incident. Maybe it was just a bit nicer. More one family than war by other means.

Like Aaron, Virat just got on with the cricket. It’s not a surprise. Virat’s father died during a Ranji trophy match in Virat’s first season. Virat was the not-out batsman overnight when his father passed. Virat still batted the next day. He made 90.

The Indians may have been fumbling, dropping and missing balls in the field. Their bowlers may have had trouble with line and or length. They might have bowled around the wicket, roughing up the pitch for offspinners, despite not having one. Their batsmen might have given away starts. But they were playing cricket.

Virat was playing something else. Something special. He hit a cover drive that should be put in the Louvre. Off his pads he was virtuoso Virat. When they went short, he handled it. When they went full he punished it. He was all business in one of the most personal Tests ever played.

At 100, there were no gestures for Hughes. He was full of fire and brimstone. He swung his bat around like an axe. He was inspiring his team; threatening his team. Showing them what passion really is. This Test meant a lot to so any people, but regardless of Hughes, it meant just as much to Kohli. He pointed to his damaged badge like a warrior who had conquered an army.

Clarke also did no special gesture for his hundred. He could barely lift his bat. Clarke was overcoming his back, his hamstring and his heart. His innings was full of the sort of determination the Australian public had once accused him of not having. He was the first Australian batsman to make a hundred after being retired hurt. And probably the first to give a eulogy of a team-mate before making a Test hundred.

Two giants of the game, moving us forward in different ways.

On the rare occasions when there were no moments to applaud at the ground, they found them in the Shield games. Ed Cowan made two emotional hundreds in Hobart.

The SCG had something even more remarkable. There is no way we can ever really work out what Sean Abbott is going through. Hughes is on every TV, newspaper, magazine, radio show and website in Australia. There is no way Abbott can exist in this country right now without being reminded of it. Even Elton John gave a shout out to Hughes and Abbott during a set. This is a huge thing for a 22-year-old.

Other players who didn’t even deliver the ball had to miss their Shield games this week as they were too upset. Abbott played. Maybe he just had to. Grief doesn’t come with a strict set of guidelines, you just get through it. Abbott bowled through his. In his first over Abbott had bowled a bouncer, later he took wickets. Everyone was pleased for him, pleased for cricket.

That seemed like nothing when he ran into bowl on the second innings against Queensland. This magical collection of six deliveries. A short wide one. A couple that kept low. A ripper outside off. A quick yorker. And the brute. It jumped up into the glove that was moving into a defensive position towards the throat before ending in slip’s hand. Every single delivery seemed to be a gift from cricket. Unless you were the batsmen who faced them.

When Abbott’s figures hit the big screen, the crowd applauded. So did Warner. So did cricket.

Bouncers were okay. Hits were okay. Abbott was okay. Cricket was okay.

The whole thing was nice. Indian reporters and fans were shocked that this was the Australia who had spent years bullying and sledging their players, who now openly wept, cared for the opposition’s safety and stopped to celebrate a mate so often. Cricket’s new world was friendly and nice.

The amnesty lasted ten sessions. During the second session of the fourth day, the birthday balloon for Hughes finally hit the ground. In a perfect world, it might have floated there forever. Cricket’s world has never been perfect.

On the field, Kohli brought cricket back down to earth. Kohli’s decision to send off Chris Rogers was aggressive, unfriendly and kind of bizarre. Australia were setting a total, they were in front, it’s Chris Rogers and he swept a ball to a fielder. It’s like sending off your uncle in a backyard game. Why you would walk beside Rogers doing an angry chicken dance send off is anyone’s guess.

By contrast, the Aaron send off was actually pretty tame. He yelled “come on” in the general direction of David Warner. Some thought Kohli might have done the same thing. But if both players started it, Warner took it to a whole new level. When the no-ball was brought to his attention. He didn’t walk back to the striker’s end. He went to the non-striker’s end to shout “come on” at Aaron three times. He then aggressively left the next ball, and did it again.

It was in no way like the man who cried into his captain’s shoulder in day one.

Shikhar Dhawan walked in as the third man to try and make it worse. He did. Kohli then tried to play peacemaker, which no one looked comfortable with.

Michael Clarke said “there’s a chance I might never play again”. Virat Kohli said he was “getting to terms to how life goes on every single day”. Cricket and life will continue to go on © Getty Images
Later, Warner and Kohli ended up next to each other as Smith and Cheteshwar Pujara were also involved. It was ugly. It was aggressive. It was also cricket. The two teams weren’t playing a memorial game in Hughes’ honour, they were playing a Test in his honour. Tough. Ugly. And not always right.

The umpires kept that up on day five. DRS doesn’t like it when we ignore it. It pokes its head in any way it can. It’s cricket’s third rail. You can’t touch DRS without losing friends and feeling dirty. Was Dhawan’s decision a howler? Would DRS change the Test? Would it have stopped Nathan Lyon from appealing so strenuously that it seemed like he might combust?

Lyon was more throbbing vein than human by the end.

His career is quite Hughes-like. Lyon knows what it is like to be praised and pariahed. Big at the beginning. Mocked and overlooked later on. He was dropped for random spinners who struggle to take 12 wickets in a season. And he was even dropped after his previous best performance. He was coming off a series where the fans gave up on him. He was playing the best players of spin, on their favoured Australian pitch. In the first innings he was attacked, he was unlucky. In the second conquered the last-day demons. He conquered the Indians. But he couldn’t move Marais Erasmus.

Solid and unmoving. There was no romanticism or hometown bias. Erasmus wasn’t umpiring for Hughes’ memory or some perfectly scripted ending. He simply believed that every single ball was missing the top of the bails. He was made into the villain, but even he couldn’t be blamed when Clarke’s body finally gave up.

Australia had lost a mate. Their captain was in hospital. Even technology was against them.

But it was Kohli between them and happiness.

Kohli was dogmatic. Kohli was dominant. Kohli was floating above the crease like a supernatural being. It would be an understatement to just call it batting. Mitchell Johnson broke an entire team here last year. In the space of two balls, Kohli had smashed him, smiled at him, and then laughed as he bowled a wide.

There are some innings that look like they can’t be ended. Kohli’s looked like he refused to believe there was an ending. When you bat like this, when you lead like this, when you believe like this, it should end with you being carried on the shoulders of your team-mates.

Kohli should have been brought down by a ball of the century. The world’s best-ever run-out. A catch of the pure athleticism. Something fitting of the innings. The class. The grit. The specialness.

Kohli’s innings should have been brought down by greatness. It should have. It wasn’t.

The ball was short. Really short. It should have been a drifting ripper that sliced through the gate. It should have. It wasn’t. It was so short Lyon would have been disgusted with his effort. The ball should have been heaved into the Mark Ricciuto stand. It should have been annihilated by Kohli’s mere existence. It should have. It wasn’t.

It clanged against his bat like a shopping trolley hitting a car. It floated out accidentally towards Mitchell Marsh. It should have been taken quite easily. It should have. It wasn’t. Marsh went the wrong way. Then his hands went the wrong way. And in the end he fell to ground like a toppled animal and caught it like it was his first ever catch.

Kohli bent over at the waist. He never left the crease. He clutched at the blade of his bat. In both innings he had been king of the crease. Now he was trapped there by disappointment. And he couldn’t even hold the bat properly.

His grief was like no one else’s in the whole Test. It was purely for the win. Not for a friend. Not for a cricketer. But he had taken his side within sight of a great away win in one of the greatest Tests. And then he’d made one mistake. He stayed there for such a long time, it looked like he might never leave that crease.

It was utter devastation. But finally, for the first time in a few weeks, devastation of the right kind. A captain losing the match with one mistake. A poorly executed shot. A cricket tragedy. Not a tragedy.

When the Australians took the last wicket they followed Brad Haddin who ran manically across the field. The ended up next to the 408. There had been many tributes that had obviously been thought about by the players involved. This seemed accidental. This seemed unplanned. This was a perfect cricket moment. The perfect Test. The perfect celebration.

After play, a band out the back of the members’ played Throw Your Arms Around Me by the Hunters and Collectors. They played it really loud; you could hear it float out over the outfield.

I will squeeze the life out of you
You will make me laugh and make me cry
We will never forget it
You will make me call your name and I’ll shout it to the blue summer sky
We may never meet again
So shed your skin and lets get started
And you will throw your arms around me

Michael Clarke said “there’s a chance I might never play again”. Virat Kohli said he was “getting to terms to how life goes on every single day”. Cricket and life will continue to go on. This time Test cricket dug in and got through to tea.

My mother: a woman of books

My dad has featured often here. And so he should. He was the man who gave me cricket. It was him I first watched, even before my eyes could see from a distanced the boof haired goatee swing bowler shuffling into the wind. His club is where I first played. He was my first coach. My first mentor. My first hero.

But he was just half the story. My life path would have been easier if I’d just looked at where I came from. My father was a cricket coach. My mother was a librarian. The fact that they spat out a cricket writer now seems kind of obvious, but I was oblivious for most of my life.

My mother finished high school and did a heap of meaningless jobs. Then she had a baby, and like many women, she spent a few years wiping my ass and making sure I was kept alive. But then, she had to find a job. The job she found was in a library at a Catholic School in Broadmeadows.

Broady.

My mother founder her calling, she loved books and kids.

With secondary kids she felt like she was an important part of their development. She loved research, and would find articles and books that would help them pretend to be intelligent during reports and essays. While my mother loved this part of her job, these essays and reports are largely bullshit. Regurgitated “wisdom” hacked into chunks for teachers to grade. It teaches smart kids how to fake it. And gives hope and encouragement to dumb kids who crack the code.

My mother’s real gift was in books. Making people love books. She would create these epic no budget displays about a theme or genre, and sell the kids on books. I know it worked, because she did it on me.

I was a kid who wrote my own screenplays for Shirley Temple films and enjoyed Nancy Drew more than the Hardy Boys. But my mum saw something else, something I had not even seen. A love for weird shit. At a very young age she fed me this weird shit. Books about people with eyes like cows. People who ended up in video game worlds that could kill them.

Z for Zachariah. Which was a book about a young girl who may or may not have been potentially raped by some nuclear guy who survived an apocalypse. Taronga. A dude who talk to animals in order to eat them in a post-apocalyptic Sydney. Many parents would be worried about these sorts of subjebst, my mum found these books and fed them to me before I was ten.

I can’t remember her even pushing a book on me that I wasn’t desperate to finish.

My mum knew me. There was no point giving me books that were aimed at kids my age, or that were part of the curriculum, she found the books that would appeal to me. That was her skill. It wasn’t just me. She did it with guys I played cricket with. She did it kids I knew. She did it with kids at her school. She was desperate to find books for kids.

She sold books to young aussie boys who just liked hitting, kicking and swearing. In a culture where being intelligent was seen as being a pussy, she made us all read.

She did it at tougher schools, my old school (which the library had to be closed down because the boys would piss on the connecting wall). My mother pushed books in Broady, Epping and Craigieburn (Fuck Craigieburn). Three places were book learning is not exactly supported. But that never seemed to bother her. Or worry her. Or even occur to her. Kids who didn’t speak English at home. Kids whose parents couldn’t ready. Kids with every kind of background. The troubled kids. The gifted kids. The drifting kids. She saw it as her mission to find books that would challenge and books that would inspire.

When they wouldn’t read, she’d find a way to trick them into reading, and most of us loved her for it.

Every kid was one book away from reading. She would try as much as she could to find that book. She probably never thought about it, as my mother is not one for quiet introspection, but it became a mission for her. It was not beyond her to buy in a book for just one kid, because she knew that could reach them, change them, help them.

My mother has a drive in her that not many people have. She helped set up a theatre company in a part of town that considers the theatre as something for poofs. She helped run cricket clubs when women were supposed to provide teas and shut up. She was in charge of two school councils and library clubs. And she is still about 15 years into her role as president of the Epping Tennis Club. Had she come from the ‘right kind of family’ she probably would have been the CEO of a big company, or in politics. Some may say she did better than that.

In her rare spare time, often well past midnight, she reads. Papers. Magazines. Books. Everything. Sometimes I remember her just reading catalogues of kid’s books, looking for that one book, for that one kid. Her energy is scary; her drive is never ending.

My mother was wasted as a school librarian. Trying to get young boys to read something other than the sport section. Or young girls into something other than trashy magazines. She should, and could, have done much more. But she was a girl from North Melbourne and Braybrook with no higher education; she was not even technically a librarian in a paperwork sense. She was a library technician, or something of that nature, but paperwork wouldn’t change what she really was.

An educator. An Inspirer. A woman of books.

I am sure she has helped people become lawyers, actors, politicians, doctors and artists. Many of which will have forgotten their passionate loudmouth librarian who made the displays that first got them interested in literature.

But I haven’t forgotten. Because she was always there for me. Always suggesting new books. Always pushing me to read. Always pushing me to learn. Always pushing me to grow.

Where I came from ambition often seemed like a dirty word. It was working class and hard. And those who stuck their head up too high got a smack across the neck. But I remember once writing out a list of my dream jobs.

It was:

Writer.
Director.
Musician.
Cricketer.
Work in a CD store.

My mum skipped down the list past the first four, and got stuck on the last one. “You don’t really want to sell CDs, do you”. And I didn’t, hence why it was number five. But she wouldn’t even let me have a fallback. Like most of the kids she looked after, she wanted nothing but the best. Wouldn’t even accept that we wouldn’t try for that.

When I was 19, I left gardening school after three months. My parents were not amused. A pretty violent argument ensued. My dad left the room in disgust. My mum regained her cool and asked what I wanted to do next.

“I want to be a writer”.
“Well, you will be, but probably not till your 30”.

I was a 19 year old high school drop out that failed English, had been fired from factory work, been a shopping trolley attendant and now couldn’t handle learning about plants. There was no reason to believe that I could ever become a writer. Or, really anything.

My first book was published when I was 29.

Today was my mum’s last day as a librarian. The school gave her a great send off. One worthy of her passion and dedication. Because of my job, she got to do it with her grandkids by her side.

But that was not enough for me. I wanted her to know, on behalf of all of us that she gave the books to, that she was something special. That she really meant something. And even for all those who have moved on and forgotten her, she was a part of their journey. That she had a part in their learning. Their improvements. Their achievements. Their origin stories.

My mother is special. And she won’t ever get the credit that she deserves. I, and probably many others, owe her a massive debt, Other than the obvious actual birthing if me, I know I wouldn’t be where I am without her. I wouldn’t even be close.

She believed in people when no one else did. She is a hero. She is a legend. She deserves a standing ovation at the MCG. A bouquet of flowers on stage. An award from her peers.

Instead all she gets is this rushed thank you from her son. But more than me, I hope somewhere, there is one of her students, who on a good day, when they love their life, they wonder what ever happened to that woman who loved books, who made them read, who showed them that book that they still remember.

And then they smile.

Librarians, and library technicians, can be heroes. I know one who is.

Enjoy your time off, mum.

Johnson’s terrifying bouncer

Mitchell Johnson walks down to Virat Kohli. His head is leaning to one side. He’s trying to see underneath the helmet. He’s trying to see if Virat is okay. His walk is quick and worried. There is no aggression. It’s the same walk someone has after causing a traffic accident. He needs to get down there. He needs to know Virat is okay.

Johnson’s eyes aren’t fixed on a terrifying stare, they’re terrified.

****

“Wooooooooaaaaaaah”. James Brayshaw practically howling. He loses himself in commentary, he is paid to be loud and blokey. “Struck”. He’s barking excitedly. “Right on the helmet”. But then Brayshaw realises the moment. This isn’t a just another accurate bouncer. Brayshaw tries to dial back, it’s not three weeks earlier, it’s 63* time.

Brayshaw’s commentary is echoed throughout the crowd. Woah, then quickly silenced. By the time the ball hits the ground it’s already going silent. It feels like you can hear the ball hit the ground, this heavy thud. It’s the last noise that registers for a while.

****

Kohli wasn’t hit by a demon ball. It wasn’t the shortest ball in the over, or the quickest. The ball to dismiss M Vijay was 89.3mph. The ball that hit Kohli was the same. The last ball of the over that Cheteshwar Pujara pulled for one was quicker, shorter and straighter. Kohli just got it wrong. Really wrong.

Batsmen have been getting it wrong a lot. The ‘helmet generation’ don’t watch the ball. They don’t get out of the way. The don’t play it well. They don’t leave it well. They just brace and hope. They have more padding and protection than any players before them, but they make it unsafe by not doing the one thing that really saves you, keeping your eye on the ball.

Johnson’s ball pitches short outside leg stump. Kohli is shuffling across and forward. He starts to squat down. But the ball isn’t that short. Had he stayed up, it would have been barely chest height. Instead it’s badge height. His eyes are down, the ball just goes straight for him while he attempts the bouncer foetal position.

The peak of the helmet is flicked. The badge is smashed. The ball trickles down his body and lands at his feet. The helmet covers his eyes.

****

Australian fielders turn up from everywhere. Chris Rogers puts a hand on him. So does David Warner. Brad Haddin comes in as well. Kohli is surrounded by Australian fielders.

The same fielders that Faf Du Plessis referred to as a pack of dogs. The same men who then howled at du Plessis like wild dogs. The same men who told James Anderson to prepare for a broken f***** arm.

The same men; but not the same.

They stood around for support, not for sledging. The arms weren’t broken, they were rubbed. Mental disintegration had gone, it was replaced by the cricket unity. Two teams, one family.

****

Johnson makes his way back to the boundary. He is a wicket taker, on a flat pitch; the crowd would usually celebrate this with rapturous applause as he got closer. Instead there are a few claps, but the wicket isn’t on people’s mind. Johnson hitting the badge is.

The crowd is still on mute.

****

“Give him another one” yells someone in the crowd.

****

Virat Kohli had his helmet off for all of six seconds.

He was shaken up; his head was hit by something at 90 miles per hour. He was surrounded by well wishers. Worried looks from each and everyone of of them. But, had the same thing happened, and Johnson gone straight back to his mark, Kohli might have been ready to face without any delay.

That couldn’t happen, not for this hit, not at this time. Kohli pushes away Pujara. Kohli nodded at Clarke. Kohli waves the umpires back. Maybe he was in shock. Maybe he was trying to posture. Maybe he didn’t want to be seen as the victim.

Kohli is hard. By the time Johnson had turned to walk back, it was clear which man was more shaken.

****

The next ball was three miles quicker. The same line. The same length. Virat plays it fine.

****

Johnson turns, and despite the fact that Kohli is okay, Johnson is not.

Clarke runs over to ruffle his hair. Then puts his hands on his shoulders. Johnson looks like someone who has just seen something he shouldn’t have. He tries to act busy, walk past Clarke. A stop at the crease to check his footmarks. Maybe trying to trick himself into forgetting the last ball. The last fortnight. All of it.

The ball before he tapped the 408 on his shirt. He couldn’t forget.

It was in his eyes. It is on his face. It was on his mind. It is on his mind.

Mitchell walks back to his mark. It feels like a long hard walk. It was. It is.

Clarke: Broken, but not beaten

The last meaningful thing Michael Clarke did on day one was lay face down in the dirt and push at the ground. It is a pointless stretch when your back is that bad. It did nothing. Clarke had to hobble off the field. Physically limited, emotionally drained.

The rumours started early in the morning. They hit Twitter soon after. Clarke would bat. He was at the ground. He was in the nets. He was padded up. And then, as Steven Smith bounced onto the ground excitedly, next to him wasn’t Mitchell Johnson, but a slightly rotund looking Michael Clarke.

Either wearing a backbrace, or as one Cricket Australia official joked, perhaps he’d eaten too much pasta the night before. Clarke was chunkier. Unlithe. Looking more former athlete, than current. Perhaps because of this, or the sparse damp crowd, it took just a little longer for people to notice it was Clarke on his way out.

The shots were different as well. He had brought back his bad-back pull shot. Part international cricketer, part old man moving items on a clothing rack. Cuts were dispatched, often without any need, or ability, to move the feet. Clarke even used the guide over the slips. It was mullet batting. Business on the pads, party outside off.

Clarke’s leaves weren’t authoritative or dismissive; they were jumpy and occasionally mildly hysterical. The inside edge of the bat would have been shocked with how much work it had to do. Clarke also gave the early waft, that to be fair, he can perform whether injured or not. He never truly seemed to get out the way of short balls, some just missed him as he shrugged his shoulders, ducked his neck and waited for impact.

Crossing from end to end may result in what we call runs, but it’s overstating what Clarke was doing. Singles looked painful and resulted in much effort and little pace. Clarke would often lean forward, hoping the momentum would get him home. India threw the ball at his end like he was Arjuna Rantunga. Clarke complete four twos and one three. All of which looked like the end of marathons, not 44 or 66 yards. The bat seemed amazingly heavy in his hands, it always seemed clutched, not held. When running it seemed to be almost weighing him down.

When the rain first started, Clarke was the first man to start leaving the field. It was the only time he was the quickest to move. He looked dispirited when the umpires decided to play on. When they did leave the field later on, Smith ran off, Clarke walked slowly.

The stump microphone was more brutal on Clarke than any short ball. Heavy breathing and groaning became the soundtrack for his innings. A cricket phone sexline. If it was turned up louder, you could probably hear his spine clicking in and out of place. Louder still and you’d have heard the internal monologue of pain.

The crowd applauded everything, even mishits to the legside that almost got runs. Clarke slashed hard outside offstump, and picked up singles off his hip on the legside. His feet moved to the spinner, but not in any meaningful or attacking way. It was Clarke on lithium. The Clarke we know since his back was attacked by this invisible troll.

Not sublime. Not silky. Not smooth. Sore. Slow. Skewed.

There was once a Clarke who danced down the wicket, slapped the ball without fear, and attacked like a desperate dog. It now seems like a dream, because the new version has been with us for so long. Crooked and cautious. New and unimproved, but still better. It scores important hundreds overseas. Can bat through bodyline tactics without any movement. Handles broken arms during an innings.

We’ve seen all this before. The stretching. The groaning. The slow movement. The target for short balls. The batting handicap. But this added something else.

Clarke has buried a friend. Fronted the media. Given a eulogy.

There were parts of Clarke’s triple-hundred that appeared stage managed. His overcoming the back injury was done in private at Old Trafford. The hundred at the Gabba was punchy, admirable, but not epic. Cape Town might have had a broken arm, but it was a broken arm we found out about months later.

This was on the news. Front pages. Twitter. Facebook. Radio. Kitchen tables. Pubs. Trains. Offices. Schools. Everywhere.

When he made it to 98, India even went bodyline. But short of an asteroid landing on a good length, nothing ever looked like stopping Clarke. Career and life-ending problems confronted him, and he shuffled and slashed past them.

The young Michael Clarke wouldn’t recognise this broken old man. But he’d respect him. He’d want to be him, injury and all. Because Michael Clarke is now the hero he has wanted to be since he was born. Not just A captain of Australia but one of THE captains of Australia.

When he finally made the 100th run, he couldn’t jump. He could barely raise his bat. It wasn’t a celebration. It wasn’t a testimonial. It wasn’t a relief. It was just another struggle to overcome. Clarke was restrained physically, restrained emotionally. His entire innings was the embodiment of what has happened to Australian cricket over the last fortnight.

Broken, but not beaten. And somehow, despite it all, stronger than before.

the bouncer goes on

“There it is” – Ian Healy, 10:49, 09 December, 2014.

Nineteen balls. That is how long it took. There had been yorker length. Full length. Length length. Back of a length. And then nothing. The pitch map just had this unofficial line in it, the Phillip Hughes respect line. Starting at roughly 63 inches from the batsman.

You could start the day with anthems, 13th men, arm bands, the number 408 or whatever you wanted, but this Test couldn’t start until a bowler hit the middle of the pitch. Until that first bouncer was bowled in an aggressive way and handled in a safe way. The rest was fidgeting.

Mohammad Shami started with six balls that never even hinted at noticing the middle of the pitch. It was clearly a plan that analysts had come up with. Full from around the wicket. The only player who was in danger was the short leg from a clip off the pads.

At the other end was Varun Aaron, he is always a chance of an accidental bouncer. But he also stuck to the pre-boxed bowling plan. Around the wicket. Full. Very full. And wide, which may have been his own twist on it, or something that Warner had ordered. It wasn’t short, it wasn’t intimidating, and it wasn’t good.

After five legal balls and three Warner boundaries, Aaron stood mid-pitch the way bowlers do when the over won’t end and the fielders are still collecting the ball. Fast bowling 101 suggests the next ball should be a bouncer. Escape the over, and let the batsman know you’re angry. Virat Kohli came up to see his bowler. One of the many fast bowlers he requested for the game. Was this the bouncer? Would it finally be unleashed? Could the crowd breathe more normally? Could the commentators pronounce the hex was over? Would cricket remain as we knew it?

Aaron flew in and bowled a back of the length ball that was pushed into the covers for one.

Six more bowling plan balls from Shami, full and non threatening.

Then ball 19. Around the wicket. Quick. Angled straight at Warner. Full enough to hit something. Short enough to hit something precious. Warner is coming forward. He sees the ball late. His head hurriedly drops. His feet struggle for balance. The bat stays up. The ball flies over the right shoulder. Warner can’t see it. It lands in Wriddiman Saha’s glove. Safely, from a cricket and life perspective.

Ian Healy almost sounds excited at the bouncer, the crowd ooohs. They were caught by surprise as much as Warner. Then they applaud. It’s a long applause, it’s not an ovation, no one seems to be standing. It comes from every part of the ground, and it sounds pure. There seems to be no bogans yelling, whistling or booing. Just sustained applause for cricket and a thank you to Aaron for delivering their cricket back.

Warner twiddles his bat. Aaron steams back to his mark. The crowd start chatting. The replays are shown. The Test has started.

Aaron follows up with another bouncer. Warner tries to smash it. It could be Richardson to Trumper. Larwood to Bradman. Adcock to Sutcliffe. Lillee to Richards. It’s just a bouncer, not even a good one.

Sean Abbott comes on at the SCG, he bowls a bouncer fifth ball, it also goes through to the keeper.

Shane Watson comes in and is bounced straight away by Ishant Sharma. It was only Sunday when Watson was talking about struggling against the short ball in the nets. Now he was facing one.

You can see Watson takes his eye off it. You can see him turn his head. You can see the potential for disaster. You can see the back of his head. You can see the ball going towards the unprotected zone. You can see the ball going past. You can see the men on the hill who are cheering each bouncer. You can see Warner looking unfussed from the non strikers end. You can see that cricket goes on.

Warner will stop on 63 to celebrate the new landmark. If 87 is the Devil’s number, then 63 is God’s number. The bouncer belongs to neither, it belongs to cricket.

Cricket 63.0: Mitchell and the first bouncer

The moustache is a historic symbol of the villain. And a handlebar moustache? Well that is the staple of many of Australia’s finest criminals. When combined with tattoos and the threat of violence, there were times last summer when Mitchell Johnson looked more bogan underworld enforcer than professional Australian cricketer. Mitch looked like violence, and he backed it up with violence with the ball.

Fast bowling produces these sorts of characters. It has since ‘Demon’ Fred Spofforth spooked batsmen into believing he could perform dark magic with the ball. The parting in his hair was supposed to resemble devil horns. And the demon took it further by dressing as Mephistopheles.

Roy Gilchrist was violent on and off the field. His big innovation was the beam ball when Indian pitches wouldn’t allow him to attack heads with a bouncer. Rodney Hogg had a lunacy room to anger other fast bowlers into going after batsmen like he did naturally. Dale Steyn hunted, or at least caught, a crocodile. Jeff Thomson hunted batsmen. And Andre Nel made batsmen believe he was capable of anything.

This is fast bowling. That these men are dangerous is part of cricket’s narrative. It’s many people’s favourite flavour of the game. Fire in Babylon was a fine film, but it was also a couple of hours of fast bowling porn. It gave us the brutality and, crucially, the survival.

Most of us have enjoyed fast bowling our whole lives. It’s our coliseum: we’re watching the lion at one end bounce out the Christian at the other. Like boxing fans who want a knockout, we want the bang, the scare, the excitement, the danger and then the amazing survival and comeback. It’s not bloodlust, it’s contest-lust.

Cricket is a sport with public stoning, where the victim can smash away the rocks. But will we love it the same after such a vivid reminder that in the midst of life we are in death? Is the present outpouring of love and emotion stemming at least in part from how guilty we feel as fans for the decades of enjoyment we have got from fast men bowling bouncers?

A cricket ball is a dangerous thing. We didn’t need Phillip Hughes’ death to tell us that. It was dangerous before helmets, and it’s dangerous after them. We’ve lost two international cricketers to head injuries from the ball in the last two weeks: one from a bouncer, one from a straight drive when former Israel cricket captain Hillel Oscar was hit while umpiring. It’s a hard ball and it travels faster than ever before, from bat, from hand.

Unless batsmen wear a modern suit of armour, that is never going to change, because fast bowling and the threat it poses is always going to be there. The laws of cricket and the playing conditions recognise its lethal power, limiting the number of bouncers per over, as though it doesn’t take only one to harm. You respect a batsman more if he can handle it, survive it, and thrive on it. The danger makes him more of a marvel, more of a wonder. A bruise or break makes a batsman a conquering warrior. A survivor.

It’s all shown in the current bouncer ritual. A bouncer that just misses or hurts a little gets a stare or verbal follow up. But one that hurts a bit more gets a, “you okay?” And one that really hits has a bowler rushing to check on the batsman. Say what you will about fast bowlers, but real brutes don’t check to see if someone is hurt, they just prepare to keep hurting. It’s a dance between wanting batsmen to think you want to hurt them, and you hoping like hell you don’t actually hurt them.

Even Ryan Harris, the man who bowled a sustained spell of brutal throat-length bowling at the English in Durham, is not sure he’s emotionally ready for the first Test. Harris, who stampedes through the crease like a herd of pissed-off water buffalo. Harris, whose face is 75% snarl, and who is carved out of the hardest redwood. Because even with broad shoulders, thick neck, leathery skin, tree-trunk body and tough demeanour, Harris is actually a nice guy with normal human emotions, even if he camouflages that with naked aggression as he runs up.

So what of the man who sent down eight Tests of mass destruction last summer. That villain. That machine. Breaker of bones and hearts. Ender of careers and eras. What will Mitchell Johnson do when he needs to bowl a bouncer in Adelaide?

There will be tens of thousands at the Adelaide Oval. There will be tens of millions following at home. Everyone will feel differently. Some, like Merv Hughes and Ricky Ponting, will want a bouncer straight away. Others want fewer bouncers altogether.

Johnson will have to steam in and fling that ball as fast as he can. What he is trained to do, what he is paid to do, what he was born to do. At some stage, possibly early if Shikar Dhawan is in, Johnson will be expected, or instructed, to bounce him.

What will he do – a soft bouncer that travels safely over the batsman’s head to start, followed by a few slower but more accurate bouncers to warm himself up? Or will he just go for it with full Mitchell Johnson bone-breaking strength. If one just misses the mark, but scares the batsman, will he throttle forward or hold back?

What will he be thinking as he runs up? How do you prepare for a situation like this? It’s a proposition for a professor of moral philosophy, not a bowling coach. Everyone can give advice, but they aren’t the ones with the rock in their hands, and they aren’t the ones who have to live with what could happen next.

These are uncharted waters. People have been injured, and died, in cricket before but it has never been this public. We’ve never had shaky video footage and stolen photos to see it. We never put out our bats for Raman Lamba. This is on a whole other scale. And Johnson, who was vaunted for his brutality last summer, now has to bowl in a whole new cricket reality. Cricket 63.0.

If Johnson was like Gilchrist or Thomson, he might not care. But he does care. He cares a lot. Johnson isn’t a free-wheeling, fast-bowling demon – he’s a man who internalises, analyses and overthinks things. It’s what held him back for years, and it’s part of who he is as a cricketer. When the Barmy Army sang a hurtful song, Johnson took it to heart. He might be a stronger bowler, and a more confident human right now, but what he is about to enter is new and confusing. For someone like him, it’s a moral confrontation.

Last summer Johnson was waiting for James Anderson to face up, so he could give him “a broken f****** arm” in the first Test. This first Test has been moved so Johnson could be at the funeral of his friend from the same kind of bowling.

Fast bowlers aren’t the devil. Spofforth was a scientist of bowling, not a demon. Few bowlers are actual demons – they’re aggressive, they’re not often sociopaths, even if on their grumpy days they resemble them. Johnson is not a mad fast bowler. He’s not a demon. He’s not a hunter. He’s a bereaved friend who just went to a funeral. On Tuesday, less than a week later, he is supposed to deliver the same thing that played an unintentional role in that accident. Death has publicly entered the game through Philip Hughes. A bouncer is now not just something to knock the footwork of a batsman or bully out a tailender. It’s holds the possibility – however remote – of being someone’s last ball. In time, however, that is something you can forget, and must forget. In the midst of death, life – and cricket – carries on.

In Adelaide we’ll carry on. Bouncers will be bowled. We will all handle what happens next differently. And there are many possible outcomes.

What if Johnson hits someone? What if he knocks them over? What happens if they get hurt? What will the crowd do? What will Johnson do? What will cricket do?

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 20,577 other followers