No helicopters for Dhoni

MS Dhoni nurdled. Not ones or twos, but a cacophony of nurdles. Flays were nowhere to be seen. There was little flashing, let alone flashing hard. Tracer bullets were left in the dressing room. There were no helicopters.

Dhoni was calm, Dhoni knows only calm. Panic was for mortals, not Indian World Cup winning captains. The nurdles, the nudges, the pokes, the prods. They were all building towards something big. Five overs of solid accumulation. No need for panic. Plenty of time left, plenty of Dhoni left.

There was one big swing coming, maybe this was it. Maybe it would start here, with an edge to third man and quickly run two. No.

Two overs later, there was a smash down the ground. And then a flash, one that was quite hard. Two boundaries in the over. Here it was.

Then the batting Powerplay. Dhoni and Rahane. Both set. Both ready. Dhoni was giving himself room. Those brutish arms were ready. When he could reach the ball, he guided it to the fence. This would be it. Then eighth ball of the Powerplay, Rahane was out. Dhoni questioned the umpire about the decision while readjusting his gloves.

Dhoni faced a lot of balls after this. There were no big shots, there were dot balls, singles, and one two. The two was a drop. Dropping Dhoni in an ODI chase is like inviting India to defeat you. There is an asylum filled with former cricketers who have never gotten over this moment in their life. But when Clarke dropped Dhoni, he looked very serene. There was frustration, but not Dhoni-level frustration. There were jokes about him dropping the World Cup, but few really believed it.

Soon after, Dhoni was using soft hands to guide one into the offside. He looked unsure if there was a run there. Jadeja told him there was.

Earlier in the match, Jadeja hit Finch on the pads. Jadeja thought it was plumb. The umpire thought different. Jadeja pleaded with his captain to review. Dhoni gestured that the ball hit outside the offstump. It was a typical Dhoni gesture – laid back, calm, but very clear. Jadeja ignored it. He pleaded more. He had to have this review. And Dhoni, against his own judgment reviewed it. It was hitting outside the line.

In the single, it was again Jadeja, the impetuous, the passionate, and the mistaken. Dhoni had let Jadeja make two big decisions in the match. The referral, as annoying as it was, meant very little. The call for the single meant everything .

Dhoni’s next two deliveries went for six. Finally, with seemingly all hope gone from his support cast, Dhoni had been stung into action. It was 121 from 48 before his sixes. But that was cricket maths, Dhoni does Dhoni maths. The first six was a waddle and a whack over cover. The second was a dance and punch over mid off.

He was here. The savior. The hero. The man generations of Indians will tell their grandkids about. The man who promised and delivered victory. The man who thanked Sachin Tendulkar personally. The Dhoni.

But, no, it wasn’t. For the next eight balls, there were only five runs. Dhoni was struck on the body. He picked out fielders. And even the believers, even those who had grown up only in the era of believing in Dhoni, couldn’t believe anymore. It seemed, that even Dhoni didn’t believe. He wasn’t holding himself back. He wasn’t calculating when to attack. He was defeated. Out on his feet, not the Dhoni, but just an aging wicketkeeping batsman from Jharkhand.

Four years earlier, in the final, this same man had come in even earlier in the innings. He scored 91 from 78 balls. He helicoptered to victory. He looked invincible, untouchable, supreme, like he had been placed on the earth for only this purpose.

Now, he was scratching around at barely a run a ball. He couldn’t middle his pull shots. Even his biggest hits weren’t reaching the fielders. He had no faith in his lower order. Seemingly little faith in himself.

Dhoni then clipped a Starc ball onto the leg side. It went straight to Maxwell’s right hand. Maxwell flung it at the stumps. Dhoni slowed down. There was no dive, no real run, not even a reach with his bat. He didn’t make his ground.

It was like, mid-single he decided to retire. It was like mid-single, he decided there was no point just putting his bat over the line.

Dhoni had run out of nurdles. He flashed hard, in vain, rarely, and had only two tracer bullets left. There was no helicopter to glory. No helicopter to safety. No helicopters at all.

the battle of the bullies

Australia and India are part of the “axis of admin” currently running world cricket. That shouldn’t mean you confuse them for friends.

Administrators from both countries happily badmouth each other. Cricket Australia tells people they will hold the BCCI to their ethics. The BCCI tells everyone that they won’t be given moral lessons by the same Cricket Australia that runs the bully Australian teams.

On the field, it is often much the same.

There was a time when Australians completely ignored India. On the field, off the field, as a country. Australia spent decades without winning a Test series in India, but they also spent decades hardly playing a series there in the first place. Australia toured India five times in their first 50 years. They played for the first time in India 24 years after India’s first Test, which even when the Second World War is accounted for, is quite some time.

Even when Kerry Packer went around the world looking for players for World Series Cricket, the Indians weren’t tapped on the shoulder. Sunil Gavaskar and Bishan Bedi could have played, but one was a blocker and the other a spinner; it wasn’t box office. They weren’t playing the game the right way, the Australian way.

Before 2001, this was kind of how Indian cricket was seen in Australia. As this effeminate version of cricket that really wasn’t for Australians. They didn’t bowl fast. They didn’t smash the ball. They didn’t travel well. And Australians had to take food to their country just to survive it.

Australia hadn’t won in India since 1969, but now it was just a matter of time. Coming into India’s enforced second innings, Australia had won their last 16 and a half Test matches.

Then, VVS.

Australia first tried to take his wicket driving. He drove, they took no wicket. Australia then tried to take his wicket pulling. He pulled, they took no wicket. Australia then tried to take his wicket with slower balls. He waited, they took no wicket. Australia then tried to take his wicket with ring fields. He pierced, they took no wicket. Australia then tried to take his wicket with bowling in the rough. He smashed, they took no wicket. Australia then tried to take his wicket in the slips. He middled, they took no wicket. Australia then tried to take his wicket by giving up. He batted, they took no wicket.

VVS made 281. When India started to follow on, they were 274 behind. VVS beat the follow-on.

If you were taking on a team of Don Bradman, George Headley, Barry Richards, Viv Richards, Victor Trumper and WG Grace, you would not be unhappy to take Glenn McGrath, Jason Gillespie and Shane Warne with you. By the end, Steve Waugh used every player on his roster other than himself, probably due to health reasons, and Adam Gilchrist. Waugh had one of the greatest bowling attacks in cricket, and he was bowling Justin Langer.

VVS didn’t just beat Australia; he beat their entire system. He beat their will. He beat their ego. And he did it in such a way that Australia had to give up. India could no longer be ignored. India didn’t play cricket the Australian way, they played it the Indian way.

From there on in, you could buy DVDs of an Indian tour in Australian supermarkets. This was a country that only shortly before were happy enough to laugh, or at least cringe in silence, as former Australian Greg Ritchie did a long-running racist portrayal of Indians on TV. Australia went from a country that called Indians “curry munchers” to a country that was now desperate to beat them.

Then there was the money. India meant money. Not DVD sales but TV rights. The money jumped up every time Australia hosted India. Hosting 70,000 people at the MCG was nice, hosting India in a Test series was the greatest show on earth.

Then the Sydney Test of 2008 happened. Not many people come out of that Test well. Not either cricket boards or key players from either side. And when India threatened to travel home, Australia for the first time truly realised that they were no longer the masters of their relationship. To use the language of George Costanza, they had no hand.

This was India’s relationship, this was India’s sport, this was India’s money.

Matthew Hayden had called India third world and he had called one of their players an obnoxious weed. Yet, in the corner of N Srinivasan’s India Cements office there is a bat given to him by Hayden. Now Hayden can be seen doing embarrassing video selfies for an Indian TV company.

Thanks to the IPL, Australian cricketers were treated more like rock stars in India than they ever had been at home. At the Wankhede stadium there was once a 30-foot-high picture of Aiden Blizzard. In Australia he could wear an “I am Aiden Blizzard” sandwich board in Bourke St and not be recognised. Before most Australians knew who Aaron Finch was, he could be seen in hair product ads in India.

Steve Waugh had taken to India out of love for the country. And Australian cricketers had always felt much love from Indians. But now they felt it in their wallets. Brett Lee ended up in Bollywood films. Even John Buchanan has given speeches on business in India.

Then there is the Australian success in the IPL. They win a lot of titles, as captains, as coaches. Their players win a lot of personal awards. Many have pointed to the amount of useless Australian players in the IPL as a weakness of the tournament, but they are there because they have shown a lot of success. The IPL rated David Warner and Glenn Maxwell as much as, or in some cases long before, the Australian selectors did.

These same players are often now team-mates one week, adversaries the next. It has forged strong friendships and epic feuds. The more you know someone, the more chance you will like them or despise them. And with the IPL, Champions league and Australia v India matches being seemingly played 11 months of the year, it can brew a lot of hate.

You could see that when India lost the last Test series. Even during the Test that was as close to a memorial game as Test cricket has produced, the players got in each other’s faces. Some former team-mates, others constant rivals.

India were easily beaten on the field, but with their mouths they fought out more than the two draws they managed. They didn’t seem to even turn up for the ODIs in the tri-series; they even lost to the second-tier ODI side England. They haven’t lost since.

This is all different. This is a bragging right over your friends and enemies for life. This can help a cricketer turn from a hero to an immortal. Madan Lal played 39 Tests, but he is remembered for one ball in a World Cup. This matters to virtually all fans. Even the Test fans who still look down on ODIs. This is a World Cup semi-final. Australia are playing for a home final. India are playing for back to back. And they are playing each other.

For years India wanted to prove they could be the best. Now they want to prove they are better than the best. They’ve won three ICC tournaments since their World T20 in 2007. They probably should have won more. Last World Cup they lost to South Africa and tied with England. This time they have been magnificent. So a loss now, as champions, to Australia, is unthinkable.

For Australia, this is their World Cup. Even the promos have sometimes forgotten that New Zealand existed. Even their loss to New Zealand was so tiny, dramatic and chaotic that it was seen more as a great bad game of cricket than an actual loss. But a loss to India, at the SCG, will not be explained away, it will fester.

Australia are attacking with bat and ball. Their only spin option is a batsman who often talks better than he bowls. They have so many players who can hit sixes, a few of whom do it better than they rotate the strike. Their fielders are loud and athletic. Their bowlers are fast and aggressive. There is no doubt, even at a glance, that this is an Australian ODI team.

India are batting slower than they did last tournament. They seem to be backing themselves to get near 300 on autopilot. Their batsmen are almost all below 100 strike rate. Their fast bowlers seem excited by the two new balls and the bounce in the tracks. The rest of us are excited by their wickets. R Ashwin is in control. MS Dhoni wrote the program on modern ODI cricket. It’s sensible caution with flashes of all-out attack.

This is a clash of strategy. And of methods, culture and politics. This is a new-era rivalry. Not as ancient as the Ashes, or as passionate as India-Pakistan. Two countries that are so different, yet share rampant egotism, high self-opinion and a belief that being born in their country is superior to other births. This brings together a belligerent bunch of brats, bullies and braggers.

This is the “battle of the bullies”.

Two Men Out: Rashomon padded triangle potato

Next episode of world cup geekery with John Buchanan up here.


The face of DeVilliers

AB de Villiers’ face. It was different than Angelo Mathews’ face. Mathews had the face of a man hoping he won the toss. De Villiers had the face of a man hoping he wouldn’t lose it.

Two captains: one captaining a must-win game of cricket, the other captaining a past awash with disappointments.

Then de Villiers’ face got worse, much worse. The Sri Lankan crowd cheered. There weren’t many of them in, but they knew what this meant. Everyone knew what this meant. Sri Lanka would bat first; South Africa would chase. All of South Africa’s past flashed up on de Villiers’ face. The coin was against him. History was against him. His own emotions seemed against him.

It even looked like David Boon leant in to sledge him.

This was a knockout game. This was the knockout game.

Kusal Perera opening the batting, with an average of 22, would be a good sign for many sides. For South Africa, it might have brought back thoughts of 361 days ago in the World T20 where Perera opened the batting and made 61. South Africa lost.

This time Kusal Perera was different. More 22 than 61. He left one ball. Pushed the next to point. Then missed a swipe. Missed second slip with an edge. Missed the ball. Edged safely again. Tried to run himself out. Play and miss. Swipe and miss. There is a point when you nearly get a batsman this many times that you think a malevolent spirit is orchestrating your downfall.

Then Kusal’s edge is found, again. It is flying beautifully straight into first slip’s hand. Instead Quinton de Kock dives. He clutches. The ball bounces. It could go anywhere. Instead it hangs in mid air. And de Kock pulls off a hell of a catch for a man called mentally shot earlier in the week. Luck, and skill.

Soon it is 4 for 2. Dale Steyn is so excited his body almost explodes into pure light.

Or, maybe it just explodes. The elation is gone and there is concern on the faces of Steyn and de Villiers. A wide ball seems to set it off. Steyn is trying to reach a sore spot that looks like it could, or would, stop him bowling. He finishes the over, and continues to touch this mystery spot. On the boundary, the physio and Allan Donald come around to see how it is. Steyn and the physio touch it 12 times in 8 balls. That’s a worrying pain strike rate.

Steyn does not bowl the next over.

Instead, he bowls two overs later. And it is fine. So fine, it’s a maiden.

In the ninth over there are two shots by Lahiru Thirimanne. Both through point and cover point. Both in the air. Both miss hands. If any country could catch these, it is South Africa. This is the region of Colin Bland. Jonty Rhodes. AB de Villiers. The second one goes over de Villiers, close enough that he could smell it. De Villiers, one of the nicest men in cricket, swears at the sky. Swears at his luck. Swears.

Kumar and Mahela are in. The Sri Lankan dream team. Mahela is hit in front by a Tahir wrong ‘un he simply did not pick. Not out. Tahir is certain. De Kock is pretty sure. They review. They want to end this pairing. They are desperate. It is only 22 overs into the innings. That is a long time to not have a review. Replays show he was struck outside the line of off stump. What chances Mahela will not pick another wrong ‘un?

Tahir’s next ball is a short wrong ‘un. Mahela hits it twice. The second hit is the one that does Mahela: it ends with short midwicket. The first hit would have been safe. Maybe. Just maybe.

Mahela is replaced by Angelo. Angelo and Kumar. Two dogged men. Two men who can bat for 20 overs and make bad starts into distant memories. Two men who bat for close to ten overs at a slow pace, because they have to, and because they can.

Then Mathews walks down to smite JP Duminy, South Africa’s weakest bowler. He sees a gap between mid-on and midwicket. And he cracks the ball towards it. It would have reached the boundary – if it ever got past South African hands, du Plessis’ hands. Eight balls and three more wickets later the match is won. Isn’t it?

It’s only Kumar left. Only. Kumar.

The first ball of the 36th over has Kumar swiping. He has been nudging, leaving, blocking and occupying space until this point. That Kumar is no more. The swivel-hipped gunslinger is back.

‘Singles, I don’t want your stinking singles’, as he leaves one on the table to third man. Next ball, he corrects, so there is no need for a single, just four. The next ball he is down the wicket and finds a gap for two. Then another four. The next ball is timed so well, the off-side sweeper nearly didn’t see it, but Kumar hit it straight at him: it’s ball six, it’s time to reload for the other end.

It’s just one over, with eight wickets down, and virtually no runs on the board. But it’s Kumar.

Next over he starts by trying to send Morne Morkel into outer space. The follow-up ball, sort and wide, is perhaps one of the worst Morne balls of the night. It is also the greatest Morne ball of the night. It is the ball that Kumar finds third man with.

Before Kumar has even left, it rains on the SCG. Rain. South Africa. Knockout game. No. No. Come on.

“Don’t worry, folks, it’s just a sun shower,” says the announcer. Who is this guy, does he know who he is watching, does he know what he is saying? Social media talks of 22 off one ball. Rain map websites in Australia are watched by a whole country from Africa. When the rain does stop, the covers stay on. Even the groundsmen are trolling South Africa.

There is no plucky tenth-wicket partnership. There is no first-over wicket. There is no sign of collapse. South Africa just coast to the ICC-enforced mid-innings rest stop. Even when the mighty Hashim Amla is out, right on the rest stop, there is no panic. There is no uneasiness. There are no worried faces.

For the finale, de Kock smashes a ball through cover, the last ball of only the 18th over. As it races away he breaks into a quick step. It looks like he is about to run like a mad man to the changeroom. Then he slows, walks purposefully and gives a tiny fist pump.

After all that, this was just a quarter-final. It wasn’t a monster. It wasn’t a demon. It wasn’t an invisible crushing force. No one averted an apocalypse. They just won a game. Not the final game. But the game.

AB de Villiers’ face at the next press opportunity is different. He is smirking before the question has even been asked. He breaks into a full smile before the question is finished. It is the face of winning a quarterfinal. The face.

Scotland’s disappointing silence

Kyle Coetzer sat in silence. They all did. No one wanted to talk. There were no coach speeches. People kept out of each other’s way. It was solemn. It was quiet. It was disappointing. It was Scotland losing another World Cup match. It was Scotland losing a World Cup match they should have never lost. It was the silence of a team who have not won a World Cup match, and may never do.

The silence of losing what they most wanted by a wicket.

“We had tasted the victory,” was how Preston Mommsen put it. The aftertaste of the loss might never go away. This silence might be the closest they get.

Not much was expected of Scotland coming into this tournament. Ireland and Afghanistan were well known; UAE and Scotland were the other guys. Scottish cricket has never truly been anything to write home about. They spent years as just a minor county in English cricket. A feeder club. Until 1992 they were run by the TCCB, forerunner to the ECB. Until 1994 they were not an ICC member.

When kids grow up in Scotland, if they know of cricket at all, they want to play for England. According to the book Second XI there are 60,000 players in Scotland. The list of players who have worn the Scotland shirt include Gordon Greenidge, Desmond Haynes, Malcolm Marshall and Rahul Dravid. Even George Bailey and Ed Cowan have played for them. But in internationals, their biggest names are Dougie Brown and Gavin Hamilton.

Scottish cricket has often had no identity, no drive and little progressive administration. Their current team and officials look over at the brilliant job Cricket Ireland has done with envy and admiration. There are few conversations with them where they don’t bring up Ireland.

Scotland’s cricket is still run in an archaic way, like much of cricket, which benefits the voting clubs but not the game itself. They were very late to embrace professionalism and, even now they have done, their players make less than most county contracts. Keith Oliver is their chairman and, in the absence of a CEO, acting CEO as well.

It was Oliver who supported the big three’s takeover at the ICC. Despite the fact it was clearly not in the best interests of cricket and, more importantly, Associate cricket, the big three could say they had the support of at least one Associate.

For his trouble Oliver lost his position as an Associate Member representative on the ICC’s executive board. Now it seems that he will lose his chairmanship of Scottish cricket as well. But not before receiving an OBE for his services to Scottish cricket. Giles Clarke, who as ECB chairman was one of the brains behind the big three takeover, was on the nomination committee.

Some in Scottish cricket hope that Oliver takes that honour and moves aside, allowing for more dynamic and business-savvy people to come in and finally move the game ahead.

At one of many formal engagements for the Scottish team on this tour, Oliver wore tartan trousers, swore casually with the players, and generally acted less like a chairman of a World Cup nation and more like a happy old man at a wedding.

The Scottish team has had many formal functions. This one was to celebrate the link between Scottish and Tasmanian cultures. It had a bagpiper, who was born in the Netherlands, a joke about haggis, a joke about minnows, the Premier of Tasmania, a few British consulate types and whisky. The free bar was taken over by the players, who drank, poured and educated on the Scottish – oddly not Tasmanian – whisky. For some of these players, this tour is an opportunity they will never get again.

Mommsen spoke at this event. Mommsen has spoken at a lot of events. Perhaps the best was at Dunedin, when he referred to Dunedin’s Octagon as “the Hexagon”.

Mommsen has also managed to stuff up not one but two handshakes with opposition captains at this World Cup. His double-take with Eoin Morgan, where he went to shake Morgan’s hand and then seemed to turn his back in disgust just at the time Morgan finally saw him and tried to shake his hand, went viral.

Mommsen’s tournament started much the same way. He was out the first ball he faced. “I kind of went to the crease with the view of trying to steady the ship. That idea quickly got shot down.” New Zealand had Scotland 12 for 4 before Matt Machan and Richie Berrington made runs.

Berrington has the name and appearance of a character in Happy Days; Machan is an emotional young player from Sussex. “County cricket is more of a stepping stone to international cricket, so I have that advantage over some of the other guys,” he said. “You do face quality bowlers there, although not as many. But this is different. It’s on TV, cameras, the whole audience.”

They took Scotland to 109 for 4. They both made fifties. The rest of their team added less than 50 combined.

Rob Taylor opened the bowling for Scotland. He is a Leicestershire player. But this was Brendon McCullum, Martin Guptill, Kane Williamson and Ross Taylor. In his second over in World Cup cricket, he had McCullum dropped.

“I only got to bowl the one spell up top. I had McCullum dropped. If that goes to hand then I might have had a different day, and be playing more games.” Instead, Scotland dropped Taylor and he was only brought back for the Sri Lanka game.

There was a time, even with Scotland’s pathetic total, that New Zealand would have felt slightly nervous. New Zealand pushed hard for a great net run rate; too hard. Scotland kept finding wickets. With 26 to get and five wickets down, Corey Anderson hit the ball straight to fine leg. Iain Wardlaw dropped it.

“At the time, when you get them six or seven down, a couple of good balls or thin edges and all of a sudden they are nine down,” Coetzer said at the time. “The margins of the game are so small sometimes.” It was Scotland’s first sliding door of the tournament.

England were beaten by New Zealand even more convincingly. They looked broken and battered. Scotland had high hopes of a shock. Moeen Ali was almost caught. Ian Bell was almost out lbw. A fielder was almost on the rope for a catch. Scotland were almost in the game.

England’s frigid nature meant that a total of 350, or even 400, became just 303. Scotland had never scored over 200 in a World Cup match, but this felt different, this felt possible. The team that many of the players had grown up wanting to play for had given them something they could chase.

Scotland lost three wickets in their first 54 runs. But then Coetzer was joined by Mommsen. “We were getting ourselves in a good position, Preston had been through a tough time in the middle, and was just getting through the other side of it,” Coetzer said.

“I top-edged a sweep off Joe Root,” Mommsen said, “which sort of opened the door.” What if he and Coetzer had continued? “At that stage the run rate was just picking up at seven and a half. You look back at occasions in the tournament.”

The second sliding door was gone.

“If we had won the toss we would have bowled,” said the captain. But Scotland were sent in on a fresh wicket against Afghanistan. At 40 for 3, Machan joined Mommsen. Machan is pure bouncing energy at the crease. He looks like the sort of batsman who could handle bowling at any level but often finds himself out between 30 and 60.

While his team-mates were struggling against the Afghanistan pacers and the moving ball, Machan had raced to 31. “I was just in a sort of frame of mind where I wanted to push the scoring and I thought, on that day, Mohammad Nabi was the weakest bowler in their attack.”

Machan’s backing-away attempt at an aerial cover drive brought down his off stump. “Hindsight is a brilliant thing as a batter. Looking back, it wasn’t the right option at the right time.”

Thanks to a ninth-wicket partnership of 62 between Ali Evans and Majid Haq, Scotland had 210. It wasn’t a big score, but against Afghanistan on this kind of pitch, they thought it was enough. Afghanistan was a team Scotland knew, not hoped, they could beat. No matter what total they made, they believed that on a wicket where the ball was moving they could beat them.

Barely a month earlier in Abu Dhabi, Scotland had struggled to 213 against Afghanistan on a wicket with seam movement. Afghanistan were 38 for 0 in the chase and all out for 63. The only man after the openers to make double figures was a guy called Samiullah Shenwari. Wardlaw took four wickets. Josh Davey took six.

In Dunedin, Afghanistan started well again, then they lost five for 12. The score was 97 for 7. The game was over. “I thought, I genuinely thought, we were gonna win from there,” a still disbelieving Coetzer said. Machan added: “I thought we had it in the bag.”

“He nicked one to slip and it didn’t go to hand,” is how Mommsen puts the Shenwari chance. It didn’t go to hand because Haq didn’t put his hand on a very catchable chance. This was just at the start of the collapse. It meant very little right then. An hour later, as Shenwari farmed the strike, saw off Berrington, and put on a partnership with Dawlat Zadran, it meant everything.

Eventually Dawlat was dismissed. But Shenwari continued. With the end in sight, Shenwari made his move in an over bowled by the man who had missed him: Haq. If any Scottish player had approached cult status at this point in the tournament, it was Haq. He is the most capped Scottish player. And his offspin is something you can discuss amply in the time between it leaving his hand and reaching the batsman. Haq almost seems to stop time as he bowls the ball. It is not a call on his quality, and he probably bowls no slower than spinners throughout the years. But in modern cricket, Haq is slow. Very slow.

Haq inspired the hashtag #things2dobetweenmajidreleasingballanditreachingbatsman on Twitter. Despite his pace, or even because of it, he was very hard to get away throughout the tournament.

Shenwari’s innings had also been fairly slow until then. He had allowed the run rate to get past him. Haq coming back on was bound to change his mindset.

“I was sat in the dugout with the other lads,” Taylor said. “Majid came on to bowl the over to Shenwari, I turned around to Michael Leask and said the game was being won or lost in this over. Shenwari took three sixes, and I thought that was it. Then he got out and they needed 19 and suddenly it was all in the balance a little bit.”

Leask couldn’t handle the tension. “We won it and lost it six or seven times in that day. I’m one of those guys who gets very nervous and have to pick up things. I played with a rugby ball, I just couldn’t leave it alone.”

Shenwari’s wicket left 19 runs to get and one wicket in hand. Scotland still should have won. Shapoor Zadran looked a candidate for an lbw any ball. The runs needed were greater than the balls left. It would only take one ball.

In October, on their pre-World Cup tour, Scotland had experienced something like this. “We had a similar sort of situation against a New Zealand XI,” Taylor recalled. “They had a pretty much full-strength New Zealand side out, minus a couple of bowlers, but we were very much in the hunt in that game. We needed four in the last over and didn’t manage to get over the line.” Scotland lost by a run.

With five balls left, Afghanistan needed four runs. Wardlaw’s delivery crashed into Shapoor’s pad, then bounced out on the leg side. Shapoor took off. Machan sprinted in and had a full look at the stumps from little more than two metres away. “The game is ours if we hit,” Mommsen said.

Machan misses another sliding door.

Next ball, Shapoor shuffles across and hits a boundary. Afghanistan, not Scotland, win their first game in a World Cup.

Mommsen said: “It was a very quiet place.” Coetzer: “I just sat down in silence, thinking ‘What happened?'” Leask: “I tried to leave them to their own space.” Taylor: “We didn’t talk a whole lot in that time.”

“It took me probably a good four to five days to get over it,” Machan said. “We put so much effort and so much emphasis on that game. We knew that the first two games would be tough. We thought that, if we win this, we go to the Bangladesh game, and then you never know what happens in the last two. And then to get that close, and to have it taken away from you…”

Scotland had lost a game before that they should have won. In their first World Cup, back in 1999.

Bangladesh were not yet a Test nation and at Grange CC in Edinburgh, they were 26 for 5. Nineteen runs later, Minhajul Abedin edged to slip and was dropped. Scotland never took his wicket. Bangladesh limped to 185.

At 83 for 6, Scotland looked done. But Gavin Hamilton was in the middle of a fine World Cup and he got 63 as Scotland made it to 138 without further mishaps. He played so well that tournament, scoring more than any English batsman, that he would be picked for England straight afterwards, before the yips ended his career prematurely.

At the other end was Scotland’s keeper Alec Davies. Davies received a length ball that he tried to bludgeon down the ground. He got a bit of it, and then so did the bowler, Manjural Islam. And then so did the stumps. When the replays were looked at, Hamilton was out.

Bangladesh beat Pakistan as well in that tournament. The following year they were given Test status. Scotland would miss the next World Cup. They had just found their first sliding door.

Scottish cricket is finally professional. But it is not professional in the way that England, or even Sri Lanka, are professional. Even with some centralised contracts, unless you are playing county cricket you aren’t playing first-class cricket, you’re playing in the North Sea Pro series, a four-team competition that includes the Dutch.

The entire Scottish squad is so small that when Berrington ripped the sole off the bottom of his shoe – and nearly his entire foot from his leg – against Sri Lanka, Scotland only had one person come out to see to him. Had that happened to Trent Boult, New Zealand would have sent an army of medics.

At training Scotland have done some horrible slip practice, but often it’s their analyst giving the catches, when he can lay bat on ball. The media manager was part of a visualisation exercise before Leask’s first game. And he was facing up left-handed, despite the fact he is right-handed.

Later Paul Collingwood, one of the Scotland assistant coaches, was taking some balls from another spinner out on the pitch. He missed one and had to chase it. There was only one ball. At times it feels like there is only ever one ball.

When Mommsen was asked, “How are you preparing for Lasith Malinga?” his initial answer was, “We have Paul Collingwood.” It sounded funny, but the sight of Collingwood at the top of his run doing the Malinga pre-ball ritual then jogging in before slinging the ball with bowling slingshot to replicate the delivery was actually quite sad.

Everything always seemed to be stacked against them. But it was clear they were the best Scotland team that had ever played in a World Cup. Seventy-six from Hamilton was the highest score from a Scotsman in a World Cup before this tournament. Coetzer doubled it.

His 156 against Bangladesh is something that in years to come young Scottish players will talk about as their inspiration. “One of our boys goes out there and scores 150 against a Full Member nation,” Mommsen said. “That was a huge moment for Scottish cricket.” Scotland made 318. This could finally be their time.

“Kyle with his 150,” Taylor said, “means we can compete at this level. We are good enough. We’re proving that we are good enough. We are not here to make up the numbers, which a lot of people may have thought at the start of the tournament.”

Wardlaw bounced Tamim Iqbal. It was a good bouncer, high and outside off. “Tamim Iqbal hooking early on to fine leg,” Mommsen recalled, “and fine leg was about a metre in from the rope and it just dropped over the rope, again highlighting the fine margin. If our man was on the rope it was going down his throat and Tamim is gone for 15.”

That sliding door had Tamim scoring another 80 runs. When Tamim was finally gone, Bangladesh were beyond 200.

Scotland’s sliding doors were all gone. All that was left was Kumar Sangakkara and Mitchell Starc.

Davey would become the leading wicket-taker in the tournament during the game against Sri Lanka, but not before Dilshan had gone down on one knee to sweep him, then saw it was short and played a pull shot while kneeling – and still hit him for six.

Leask would bowl very few bad balls but one of his good balls would disappear against Sangakkara. “I’d done him twice the two balls before. And the next ball he ran down and hit me for six. I looked and went, phew. I thought I’d done him as well, as I’d bowled outside leg and he still hit me for six over extra cover. I couldn’t quite believe it. That’s the man, though, isn’t it?”

Taylor didn’t have much more luck against Sangakkara. “I remember the first ball at Kumar, and it just seemed he had forever. The ball just [slaps his hand]… right out of the middle of the bat. You can’t mistake it: the man is in the form of his life. I probably had one of the best seats in the house, getting to bowl the ball at him.”

Despite missing three straight games, it was Taylor, with a point to prove to the selectors, who showed his class. “When a side takes you for 360 and you only go for 48 of them you’ve got to be pretty happy with that.”

Matthew Cross was outstanding again. He seemed to be up at the stumps more than he was standing back. One lap-sweep almost landed in his hands as his anticipation and athleticism almost pulled off one of the great catches.

When Machan was given out lbw, and then his review was dismissed, he stormed from the field. Earlier that day he was kicking at the dirt in an over where Angelo Mathews was hitting him for six at will. When he eventually got Mathews, and the cameraman caught him for the inaugural wicket close-up, Machan ran past him. “I just wanted to get off the field rather than showing disgust in front of the TV.”

But the biggest disappointment wasn’t on the field, it was off it. Instead of helping young Leask in his first World Cup game, Haq was insinuating racism. His tweet about it led to him going home early. Haq had already been disciplined for previous tweets.

Head coach Grant Bradburn said Haq had “contravened the values of the side and contravened the values of Cricket Scotland”. So instead of watching his team play without him, he was on a plane back to Scotland.

In a press conference about the team, Mommsen referred to “the 15 of us”, before remembering and changing it to 14. When Mommsen talked to the BBC he used the word “disappointing”.

Coming into the tournament, the batsmen most people were keen to watch was Calum MacLeod. A man who remade his career as a batsman after his bowling action was found to be illegal. These days he is a top-order batsman for Durham. His recent batting performances for Scotland have been amazing, including a 175 against Canada, a hundred against Ireland, and a hundred in a warm-up match.

His first ball against Australia was his 45th of the tournament. After six balls against the Australians he had 12 runs. It was his top score in the tournament. It looked as if, finally, MacLeod would stand up the way the rest of Scotland’s top order had at various points.

Instead, MacLeod smashed a short ball straight at point. His World Cup was 48 runs off 63 balls at an average of 8.

Davey, a batsman who became a bowler, would end with 15 wickets in the tournament. His last three balls went six, four, beautiful yorker. Coetzer scored 253 runs in the tournament. He had the same total after four matches.

The penultimate ball of Scotland’s World Cup was a fast wide sent down by Leask. Cross’ footwork was beautiful, his hands even better, and he took the ball cleanly before looking for the stumping. This encapsulated Scotland. They showed glimpses of quality even in the worst moments.

Ultimately though, they were disappointing.

It was disappointing to drop Anderson. Disappointing that Mommsen was out to Root. Disappointing that they couldn’t get one more wicket against Afghanistan. Disappointing that they missed Tamim early on. Disappointing that Haq had to go home as his team played Sri Lanka. Disappointing that Australia were in such a hurry.

Preston Mommsen’s first line in his last press conference this World Cup started with: “It was very disappointing…”

There is an alternate universe where Scotland just lost to New Zealand by a wicket, almost chased down England’s total, beat Afghanistan and Bangladesh, and performed at their best against Sri Lanka and Australia.

That they didn’t was down to “fine margins”, “bad luck” and “how cricket goes”. They performed better than most people thought they could, but worse than they actually should have.

Due to reasons beyond their control, Scotland may never play in another World Cup. They’ll remember all the what-ifs in this one, and that one long disappointing silence that may never end.


Mr Moles and Afghanistan

Andy Moles was discarded by New Zealand. And Scotland. Kenyan cricket collapsed while he was there. And he has been overlooked by England. Moved on from county cricket. There are reasons, there are stories. But Moles hadn’t coached at international level in four years before Afghanistan brought him in.

Moles is a product of the day-in, day-out county machine. He is a born and bred Warwickshire trophy winner. He’s played in more matches than most people will ever see. He probably knows which services on the M1 have the best pastries. There isn’t a surface type he hasn’t played on, a bowling trick he hasn’t encountered or a match situation he hasn’t lived through. His brain is an encyclopedia of cricket experiences. He is a direct disciple of Bob Woolmer.

Moles is the man the English and international games moved on from, and so he went to one of the most dangerous places on earth to take his last chance, and now he has a team dangerous enough to beat the dispirited team of his birth.

It is quite a change for Moles. The life of an international sporting coach doesn’t come with strict guidelines about only eating in your hotel and watching out for kidnapping threats. But for Moles, much like this team, this is seen as a last chance to prove that he belongs at this level. Both are fighting for their future. A win over England, even this England, will help with that.

“Out bullied” is the phrase Andy Moles used when Afghanistan lost to Australia. This was not an accidental phrase. He had used bully many times in the lead-up to the match. “Afghanistan have been a bit of a bully in Associate cricket. They are bigger, stronger and they hit harder. Now we’re playing the bigger teams and they’re going to try bully us. This is an opportunity to show character and heart.”

Moles is a teacher, bullying was his lesson from the WACA.

“Boys, are you okay? Have you done your stretches, are you rotating amongst yourselves? Don’t kill yourself. Look after each other. It’s a hot day.” That is Andy Moles. To the net bowlers. Not his team. Not young men he has met before. But this is Andy Moles. A teacher. A coach. A parental force. The net bowlers, most in their teens or their early 20s, wait for Moles to move away and then chat about how they should rotate.

“They’re responsible for their game, I’m just here to give them a benefit of my experience of playing and coaching around the world,” says Moles.

There is so much talent in the Afghanistan team. Even when they collapsed against New Zealand to 59 for 6, they still made 186 against one of the best bowling attacks in this World Cup.

Their talent has not even been fully squeezed out in the matches yet. His players are capable of almost anything. You see it in the nets every time they play. Their batsmen have the ability to take almost any ball and just destroy it. Net bowlers across Australia and New Zealand have stood at the back of the nets, yelling “shot” on a seemingly continuous loop. The only time their batting has been tested in the nets is when their bowlers come on. “What do we do, we play straight,” is Moles’ much-repeated phrase.

Moles doesn’t over-coach his players. “They’re responsible for their game. I’m just here to give them a benefit of my experience of playing and coaching around the world.” A bowler wants to have a rest, he tells Moles he is too tired to go on. Moles asks him if he wants to bowl another over, just so he knows he can bowl even when he’s that tired. His bowler agrees. “That is your area, never leave there.” The bowler is Dawlat Zadran. He listens intently as Moles talks to him, and then jokes to Hassan out of earshot. The next day, against Australia, Zadran bowls an extended spell in the WACA heat where he stays in the right area.

At times you would think that Moles’ job is nets supervisor. Unlike other coaches, he doesn’t stand at the back of the nets or have long talks with people. He puts up the coaching aids. “We need a spinner over here. How are you feeling? Good, well go into the last net.” He places the shoes down for yorker practice. He gets the balls out for each net. He makes sure the right bowlers are tackling the right batsmen. He moves from place to place, a few quick words, “15 minutes”.

There are times when it’s as if he’s organising a school fete and not coaching an international cricket team.

When the umpires come into the nets to do their umpiring sighters the day before the game, Moles chats to them all like old friends. He introduces his bowlers and his captain to them as well. When Hassan is waiting for a hit, he yells out that if he doesn’t get in now, he won’t get a hit. “Five minutes boys, and then we’re done.”

Then Moles goes on to the interviews. Moles gives more interviews than other coaches. If you stop him, he’ll give you five minutes. He knows part of his job is to promote this team. He knows that this might be the last job he has where people want to ask him things.

Moles is in the Perth sun talking to another journalist about “the story of his boys”. Moles is asked this a lot. Moles gives the reporter what he needs. He talks about their personal toughness and their toughness as cricketers. He talks about what they have overcome and their new challenges. “I promote them to ask questions. Why are we doing this? I want them to challenge me as I’m trying to challenge them. And that is the learning environment.”

Around him, someone jokes that they heard a story that the Afghan players were asked about what they liked in Australia and they replied, “the women”. Yet, in this environment, it is the cricketers who are the attraction. Their stories, their pace, their hair, their headbands. They are at times cricket fetish items. Objects of lust and cricket satisfaction. Their lives have never been more different to the old stories told about them.

The refugee-camp days are their memories. Now they have to stop for selfies, tell stories about their childhood, meet politicians, learn what representing their country means, and deal with celebrity. And play cricket.

“The last job I did before here, I worked with an NGO in Cape Town with disadvantaged people. That was about building people. And I see this as the exact same challenge. If we build human beings to get them to understand the need to take responsibility, to know their role in the side – don’t blame others, don’t make excuses – if we bring all that alongside play straight, watch your grip, keep your balance when batting…”

As Moles chats to another reporter, a player walks by. He is flanked by a no-nonsense WACA security officer. But the player is smiling. He sees that Moles is trying to give a detailed answer, so he stamps his studs on the ground as loud as he can, while walking in a funny manner. He also makes funny faces as he walks past. Moles doesn’t react at all. He ignores the silliness and focuses on talking about cricket. The player is the captain, Mohammad Nabi.

Afghanistan’s cricket is not as good as it could be. Some of the players turned up nearly 10kg heavier for their pre-World Cup camp than they should be as professional athletes. They still have too many fielders who don’t seem to know how to dive. They lost a bowler from running on the pitch after seven balls. They follow up perfect yorkers with a bucket of full tosses. Their batsmen stroke the ball with ease, before bludgeoning their own innings to death.

“Every coaching job has it’s own challenges. Here they’ve not played much cricket, they’re naïve at times to the technical and tactical parts of games. So I’m trying to expose them to a different way of thinking, a different train of thought. It is an education.”

Education is never far away. You get the feeling that at times Moles is trying to educate the press as to the difference between his players and a player from England, or even a player from Scotland. “We were here in September and four of our guys were caught pushing at the ball by the second slip. Other people who come here have a knowledge and an understanding. Whereas these guys don’t really have that knowledge of history, of what happens at the WACA. Their backgrounds sometimes mean they don’t even have TVs.”

There have been times in the nets when you are watching international-quality cricket, and at others it seems that you are watching a bunch of kids learning the game. Shapoor was bowling no-balls in the nets. Moles went over and asked him if he was sure he had measured his run-up correctly. Shapoor then measured his run again, changed it slightly, and stopped bowling no-balls. The word “responsibility” was used by Moles. Shapoor had learnt his lesson.

Moles often sits the team down and takes them through a new cricket skill. Something they should already know but don’t. “A lot of the basic things that most 19-20-year-olds have from watching TV, from being exposed to quality coaching, these guys haven’t got that. It’s about dropping teardrops of ideas every now and again. When you think they’re ready for it, you drop another idea. If two or three of them think it’s good and one doesn’t, fine, I’ve got no issue with that, but later I’ll drop another piece of information. It’s their game, it’s not my game. Coaching is about trust, and if I give them information that they buy into and they change their bowling action and have a loss of form, they could lose their place in the side”.

Moles is training his boys differently from the other 13 teams. It is more classroom than cricket net. As he says, “Coaching is educating.”

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Josh Davey: wickets and wides

Josh Davey has 14 wickets at this World Cup. Josh Davey is the leading wicket-taker at this World Cup. There is every chance, until a couple of weeks ago, you had no idea who Josh Davey is.

The problem for the Associate cricketers at the tournament is people learn who you are. Davey is a former middle-order batsman for Middlesex with seven wickets to his name in first-class cricket. No one who hadn’t played against Davey before had any idea what sort of a player he was. There was no reason too.

But as the tournament goes on, people look at you. Even when Marvan Atapattu admitted before the game that Sri Lanka hadn’t done much research on the Scottish, they had done some. They had four previous games to go on. They would have watched them.

Then there is the media. Davey is not a confident speaker but, as equal sixth on the wicket-taking list coming in to this game, he was put up for interview. His name was mentioned in most preview pieces and, if he walked around Hobart this morning, he would have seen his words – “SCOTLAND WARY OF MALINGA THREAT” – plastered on Hobart Mercury billboards.

Josh Davey, and Scotland, have entered a new world. They are the most prepared and professional team that Scotland has ever had. They came within a Shapoor Zadran shuffle across the stumps of their first-ever World Cup win. When New Zealand went for a net-run-rate jaunt, they took seven wickets off them. They gave away what could have been a chaseable target against England, and made over 300 against Bangladesh, before failing to get enough wickets.

But they haven’t won a game. Here, the second the ball didn’t swing, they weren’t going to win.

Davey was targeted by the Sri Lankans. Afterwards, Kyle Coetzer said he wasn’t – but Sri Lanka had 36 runs off nine overs, then hit 10 off Davey’s first over. They knew about him. Maybe they hadn’t done hours of research but they knew enough that he was Scotland’s wicket-taker and their biggest hope of an upset. Associate cricketers can’t surprise after four games of a World Cup. Without swing, his 125kph wasn’t going to bring down Kumar Sangakkara or Tillakaratne Dilshan. After five overs, Davey had gone for 48.

At one stage, Dilshan got down to sweep Davey, the bowler dropped short and Dilshan just pulled him from the same position. It went for six.

Other than Rob Taylor, Scotland’s bowlers were often treated much like that. Lahiru Thirimmane called them weak and medium-pacers. Alasdair Evans is the only Scotland bowler that Matthew Cross didn’t stand up to the stumps for. He bowled well for practically all of the game, taking 1 for 26 from his first six overs. Then the seventh over happened. This was not a rest over, it was biblical.

Third man was up. Third man was back. Third man was up. Third man was back. All in one over. Preston Mommsen was trying to find the right fielding format to stop Sangakkara, and working out that nothing stops Sangakkara, not a Mack truck, not an asteroid, not a shark-octopus hybrid, nothing. Not even a revolving third man.

The first five balls went six, four, four, four, four, with a wide thrown in as well. Evans had tried bowling tricks and fielding positions, but there was nothing that could stop Kumar.

By the time they got to the last ball, Mommsen had no men back on the leg side. Evans moved from around the wicket to over. It was the most telegraphed wide full ball ever bowled, but there were no more options. Sangakkara moved across to hit it to the leg side, as every single person in the ground expected. He tried to tickle it around the corner. Taylor at short fine leg saw this, and just turned and ran towards the boundary. He was several steps in that direction before he realised the ball hadn’t gone to the boundary but had just been mishit to backward square.

You know you are struggling as a side when your players turn and head to the boundary before the ball has been delivered.

Scotland passed 200 for the third time in this tournament, and the third time in their entire World Cup history. Their batsmen were not annihilated; they generally helped in their dismissals. When Mommsen and Freddie Coleman were together, you saw the best of Scotland. The problem was their partnership was more than half the total score.

When they were bowling to Sri Lanka in the batting Powerplay, Mommsen had to turn back to Davey. With fine leg up, and a backward square in the circle as well, Davey’s first ball was a wide that missed leg stump by a considerable distance. With third man up, the next ball was wide of off stump and guided for four. The third, he had Dilshan out. Later he would take the wickets of Mahela Jayawardene and Sangakkara in the same over.

His figures would read 3 for 68, with three of Sri Lanka’s all-time greats in his pocket. But he wasn’t even trusted to finish his entire ten overs. And his wickets came when the total was already too big for Scotland to chase. His entire day was Scotland’s tournament so far.

They’ll be happy with what they have, but they wanted so much more.

Josh Davey has bowled 22 wides at this World Cup. Josh Davey is the leading wide-deliverer at this World Cup. There is every chance, after this Saturday, that you will never see Josh Davey at this level again.


Two Men Out: England funeral edition

Here is my latest cricket analysis podcast with John Buchanan and Trent Woodhill.

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