Things to watch out for in the World Cup

South Africa
There were World Cups before South Africa came back into cricket, and they matter, and all have their own appeal. But through sheer drama, hissy fits, counting errors, dropped sitters, 12th-man sledging, panic-running, Richie Benaud rain calculations and the c word, South Africa have owned the World Cup like no other team since 1992. The only thing they haven’t owned is an actual winner’s trophy. Last tournament they tried to positive-mindset themselves with the “C is for Champions” tag. Clearly New Zealand missed that memo and they went about ensuring that South Africa mentally collapsed.

This time they arrive with AB de Villiers having made the quickest hundred in ODI history. They have Amla. And Steyn. They have hard hitters, tall bowlers and wristspin. They are well set up for this tournament. But they are South Africa. That means they will probably crush the Associates, play tough, good cricket against the Test-playing nations, and then the knockout games come along. No matter what you have planned, daughter’s wedding, first kiss, tickets to see Tom Waits, if South Africa are playing a World Cup knockout match, you can’t afford to miss it.

ICC stuff-ups
The only group who disappoints more at the World Cup than South Africa is the ICC. It has made a mess of so many tournaments, in so many formats, with so many playing conditions, that at this point the biggest surprise is that people still care about the World Cup. People started complaining about the tournament from the moment it was announced. At first the ICC wanted to limit the teams to Test-only, which made people angry. Then it let the Associates in, and that made other people angry. Then when the schedule was looked at, and people realised there is over a month of cricket before a real possibility of major teams going home, that made people angry. So the real thing to watch out for is other reasons this tournament will annoy people. Actually you don’t need to watch out for them – they will find you, annoy you, and moan at you for about six weeks, maybe seven. Though it will feel like longer.

India’s chase for 500
Among all those seemingly meaningless games there will be a game that you might think at the moment there is no point in watching. India are playing UAE at the WACA. Now you might wonder why this is a game worth watching. Well here’s why: If India bat first, they have a chance of scoring 500. Yes, they do. India have evolved beyond other teams in terms of ODI batting. They had to, because with their bowling, normal batting would not be good enough. They seem to believe that they can hit the ball into the rope, or crowd, as often as they want, and they have no fear. In the old parlance of the game, they bat like millionaires. And they are actual millionaires.

No other team has as many batsmen who can win a game, make a hundred, or a double-hundred, or emotionally destroy bowlers. And no other team has an MS Dhoni. Scoring at ten an over for a normal team would be near impossible, but for a team with this line-up it is possible. And then they have the fast and bouncy wicket against the old and slow UAE bowlers. We could see world records tumble, we could see two batsmen make double-hundreds in the same game, or one make a triple-hundred. We could see anything. Or UAE could bat first, which might ruin it all.

Elbow watch
Perhaps the biggest villain at the World Cup, with apologies to Mr Srinivasan, is the fingerspinning elbows. It is interesting that Cricket Australia, which has always hated chucking, ECB, which has been very careful with chucking, and the BCCI, which has committed to a behind-the-scenes campaign to stop chucking, would take over world cricket, and then suddenly the many dodgy actions around the world are all called on the eve of a World Cup.

Even those who believe chucking should be part of cricket couldn’t argue that the old system was pathetic. Bowlers seemed to travel around the globe with actions that were clearly a problem, and while you can argue that Saeed Ajmal and Sunil Narine were making cricket more exciting, you could also argue that Kane Williamson and Marlon Samuels were not. Now many players have been cleared after improving their actions, and the ICC has promised a quick response on players who are called mid-tournament, so elbow watch will a major part of this tournament. Perhaps the best elbow to watch is that of Prosper Utseya, the Zimbabwean offspinner, who the ICC said was cleared but can’t bowl offspin. It did say his slow and medium-paced deliveries are legal, so he should light up the World Cup with them.

Associates
The other thing that people tried to stop for this World Cup was the Associates. The original schedule had no time for the countries who have given so much to the World Cup over the years. They weren’t even allowed to qualify. Which, considering Ireland’s recent record, seems extraordinary. When the World Cup squads were announced, Ireland players had scored more ODI hundreds than England players. UAE brings in the oldest players – two are over 43 – and the most inexperienced squad into the tournament. And Scotland have great shirts.

1992 World Cup shirts
There will be many shirts bought during this series, but many will be inspired by the 1992 World Cup shirts. You can buy them all around Australia and New Zealand at the moment. They are cheaper and easier to find than the official team shirts. It’s partly because it was the first time a World Cup had coloured shirts. And partly because they are awesome. They match each other. Have great colours. A simple design. And look good no matter your figure. They are the ultimate performers. No cricket wardrobe is complete without at least one.

West Indies’ selection
West Indies already look incomplete. Dwayne Bravo, picked for the ICC 2014 ODI team of year, is not in the national squad. Neither is Kieron Pollard. Clive Lloyd said that the reasons they weren’t picked were based on their performances while playing for West Indies. In the squad West Indies picked two players who had never played an ODI for their country before.

Lloyd also said West Indies had to look at the future, towards young players. This West Indies side has an average age of 29. Bravo is 31, Pollard is 27. Jonathan Carter is also 27. Jonathan Carter is one of the players who played no ODI matches for his country before his World Cup selection. West Indies’ push for youth included one player under the age of 25. Their captain. West Indies now become a side to watch to see how badly they perform, for you to imagine how Bravo or Pollard could help them. The biggest shame was Lloyd having to make up cricketing reasons that a casual fan could see through to justify not picking two players the WICB just didn’t want in the squad.

World Cup weirdness
World Cups have had Bob Woolmer’s death. Andy Flower and Henry Olonga’s armband. West Indies being stoned mistakenly. But this tournament has already given us weird things before it has started. The England captain has already been involved in a blackmail case. And Bangladesh’s Rubel Hossain was arrested on charges of making false promises of marriage to an actress. Those are both pretty bizarre stories, and we’re not in February yet.

Hamilton Masakadza
Masakadza has been in international cricket for 14 years. If you follow cricket closely, his name will be familiar. He has played 144 ODIs. He’s also played about 30 T20s and about 30 Tests. Made a Test century before he was 18. You know, he’s been around. On February 15 he will probably take the field for Zimbabwe against South Africa. It will be his first World Cup game.

Afghanistan
The final will be an important game, but will there be many games of cricket more important than when Afghanistan take the field for their first World Cup game?

Taj Malik is a legspinner. Taj Malik is a right-hand batsman. Taj Malik is a cricket coach. Taj Malik is a cricket selector. Taj Malik is a cricket administrator. Taj Malik is Afghanistani cricket. Taj Malik is no longer involved with Afghanistani cricket.

In 2001, when Taliban fighters were fleeing their country as the US bombed them, Taj Malik went the other way. He had some clothes, a cricket bat and a ball. Taj was on his way to Kabul from Pakistan. Taj’s dream was to start an Afghanistan cricket team and take them to the World Cup.

On February 18, Taj Malik’s dream will come true. Taj Malik did it. He has given his country something amazing: a positive story during some of their darkest days. He’s given them sporting heroes. He’s given them victories. And he’s given cricket Afghanistan. They will lose more games than they win, but them playing is one of the most amazing victories in cricket history. A victory for the country, the sport, and Taj Malik, cricket hero.

Tagged

in the land of big bash

“Rock solid. Sideways drift. Whip. Flip.”

This is what an excitable man with a microphone is screaming as I walk into the Docklands stadium. It’s a Melbourne Renegades home game against their cross-town rivals Melbourne Stars, a 45-minute walk away. The roof is closed, but the announcer is trying to raise it.

The crowd cheer. It’s not often the crowd cheer before a game. It’s not often before a game that a massive jump is set up on the outfield for a bunch of dirt bikes to do rock solids on. The Melbourne Renegade Extreme Team are tearing it up. Well, not tearing up the outfield; they drive around the astro turf, and then when they get onto the ground they travel very cagily until they are on their boards.

Everytime the series of jumps is completed the crowd cheer a little less. The crowd is not clued up in the subtle difference between a back flip and a rock solid. It’s like when a T20 crowd cheers a six over midwicket the same way they cheer one over cover. They need some context to understand that hitting the ball over cover is far harder than hitting over midwicket.

But we’re not here for context, we’re here for the Big Bash League.

It is my first Big Bash league game. I did go to Big Bash games before it was a league. They had less dirt bikes. I have also been to the IPL, the English T20 league and the World T20. I’m pretty solid on T20. I know the gimmicks. I know about the countdown clock. I know about the Spanish horn. I know about the cheerleaders.

I scan the ground for the cheerleaders. In the IPL I love it when they forget which team they are supporting. I loved it when Surrey hired a bunch of dancing students who seemed to be on their first lessons. And when the World T20 included men in baggy jumpers. Here there are none. There are smoke machines. But, they have no Pom Poms. How will I enjoy this sporting endeavour without fit women gyrating to crap music in a family-friendly sexual way?

I’m sitting three rows from the top of the Coventry End. There were times I thought I was at the other end, but that was only because the announcer routinely got the two ends mixed up.

The Renegade players were announced on the big screen like it was an NBA game. But other than for James Pattinson, the crowd showed no real interest in the players. Not even Nick Winter – which, if said in the style of an American ground announcer, does sound quite cool.

I spent several minutes trying to work out who had the most fans. My wife often referred to them as the red ones and the green ones. Many in Melbourne do the same. It seemed like there were as many Stars (green) as there were Renegades (red).

Next to me was a family of three. The father wore green, the youngest son red and the bigger son green. I wondered if they ever argued about the youngest son’s choice to abandon the family clan.

As the Renegades come out, the announcer yells “your Melbourne Renegades”. No one seems to notice.

The first over is better than I could have ever imagined. It starts with a wide. Then an edge that two men should have caught. Then five wides. Then another wide. Then a play and miss. A misfield. Another player and miss. Probably not in that order. And there was also a leave. The leave was the only thing that was booed in an over where both batsmen, the bowler, the keeper, the cover and the slip were embarrassing.

Maybe if we rename the leave a “rock solid”, people will cheer it more.

The crowd smash together their true value power sticks, or fun sticks, or thunder sticks. They are big plastic noises making sticks, and regularly at moments where you might want to think about the ball that has just been bowled you are told to slam them together.

It is important that you don’t think about the cricket too much. If T20 is the sport that is supposed to bring in a new crowd of fans, those at the ground are presumably learning about it through some sort of cricket osmosis.

They don’t show the speeds of the bowlers. If a ball swings, you have no way of knowing. The same if one keeps lows, or if it spins. Bowlers are there to simply knock off the lit-up bails. Which may be a gimmick, but if they actually work, they should be used in all pro cricket.

Channel 10 shows every game of the Big Bash on free to air coverage. During the Australian summer, Prime Time TV puts its head in the oven, so the Big Bash is getting around a million viewers against such classics as Motorway Patrol, that 70s show and three straight episodes of the Big Bang theory.

The coverage on Channel 10 is very good. The commentators are already more popular than their friends at Channel 9, who now all resemble embarrassing dads with Chappelli looking more and more like a professor at a keg party.

When something interesting happens from a tactical standpoint, like Ben Dunk’s unwillingness to score behind him, Ponting, Gilly and Junior are all over it. At the ground it might be cricketainment, but the commentators take it seriously. None of this forgives the fact the producers show the commentators more than the players on the field.

It’s often hard to work out what role certain people are actually doing. Technically, Freddie Flintoff is a player, but if he wasn’t Freddie, and was just Andrew Flintoff, cricketer, why would anyone want him as their overseas player at this point? He barely played for Lancashire. But he is a great commentator of himself running a two. At the ground you don’t get wagon wheels, hitting zones or even celebrity hijinks. You get loud music and kids dancing on the big screen. Much like in the IPL, once the ball has happened, it just disappears into music, smoke and the announcer’s shriek.

What is noticeable is that unlike my last Big Bash game, probably in 2007, there are far more kids here. When I used to go, the crowds in Melbourne were much like that of an ODI in the 90s; it was people looking to get hammered in the sun and a few kids. We don’t even have a sun at this game because of the roof. And drinking during a T20 is always a very expensive way not to get hammered.

The crowd is full of mums, dads, aunts, uncles, and kids with only a few groups of drinkers scattered in between. It is exactly as it should be: promoting the game to a bunch of newcomers, not draining more cash off cricket fans too drunk to use the toilets correctly.

KP comes in and is given a few boos, but heaps more cheers, even if this is an away game for his Green Stars. He is the biggest star in the Stars and the stadium. He bats well on the Australian wickets; he is acclimatising well to the Australian conditions. Maybe he’ll get a call up for the World Cup – although it’s more likely that England will have a dynamic new domestic franchise T20 tournament that features Giles Clarke dressed as a cheerleader.

A tight over of bowling is given some applause. A well-placed two gets some support as well. A hard run two even more. There are some cricket moments through the backflips.

The ground announcer screams Andre Russell’s name in a way that suggests he’s never seen him bowl before. Russell’s first two balls don’t bounce. One travels for six, the other one a four. But before Renegades fans can wallow there is an Air Guitar section on the big screen. Kids wobble their hips like guitar heroes, probably their dad or mum’s heroes, rather than their own. It’s cheap and easy, but is it really worse than being forced to watch a bloke change his gloves between overs in a Test match?

Aaron Finch comes on to bowl. With David Hussey in, he moves mid-off wider, and the cover sweeper straighter. He knows that Hussey wants to hit him over cover. First ball after the move, Hussey plays a horrible slog towards the leg side that ends up with the keeper. It’s very clever cricket from Finch. The big screen focuses on various people wearing red.

Hussey heads off the field shortly after. He’s pretty much off the field before anyone notices. They show a quick replay of him being hit on the glove first ball from Russell. It is, as far as I can remember, the first time that a ball is shown on the screen.

The scoreboard takes an age to be updated. It’s pretty much impossible to read from where we are anyway. For a short while my wife thought her eyes were going. But the idea of making the text on the board “Renegade Red” makes half of it invisible to human eyes. When you can see it, it states that David Hussey is retired. He’s not, he’s retired hurt. Details.

A kid in front of us is presumably so upset by this incorrect scoring he plays a violent video game on his tablet. He looks eight, and that’s also the number of beheadings he seems to score. He doesn’t spend much time looking up at the cricket – until his mum tells him that the Clap O Meter is being used. My wife corrects the announcer, suggesting it should be clapometer. The kid claps as the obviously fake sound levels are beamed up on the screen. Then he goes back to killing alien Kung Fu creatures.

KP plays and misses at a ripper from Ahmed. Well it looked a ripper, no replay. The crowd don’t notice, as they are now in full Mexican Wave mode. Ahmed finishes his spell two balls later for only 22 runs. A great effort considering the run rate was around 10 when he came on, and that he bowled quite a bit to KP. There is virtually no applause for this, as people are eagerly waiting for their turn in the Mexican wave.

The Stars score 20 less than what they could have. The scoreboard still says that David Hussey is retired. One Direction are playing at the Docklands soon. I bet they’d get their screens correctly updated before their intermission.

The entirety of the half time show is spent watching the dirt bike jump being assembled again. On the top of the jump there is one of the clapper fun/power/thunder sticks, no one seems to notice as they painstakingly put together this jump piece by piece. This does take some time: I’m sure I’m not the only one to compare it to a Kraigg Braithwaite and Shiv Chandrepaul partnership on a slow wicket.

The reason they are doing this is so that some dirt bike jumper guy can attempt to break the world record for a backflip jump. He does it. His jump is 130 feet. Metrics measurements are not given. I’m not sure why he has chosen to break a world record while many spectators are having urination or chips breaks.

After the jump, it’s noticeable a few families have left. Moving this tournament later is for TV, but for kids, a game finishing after ten at night is a very late night.

The roofed stadium is a great idea for cricket, until you remember that cricket is often played in 40C. Melbourne has been hit by one of their horror northerlies all day, and while you can smell the cool change outside, in the stadium all you can smell is the BO of 30000 slowly roasting. It is actually 33,000, which is impressive for most cricket cities in the world, but in Melbourne, when it’s an all-Melbourne derby, it feels a bit low. Perhaps it is because both teams have been rubbish so far this season or because absentees know how hot 40 degrees is inside a covered stadium.

Within a few balls it is clear that the Renegades are not going to chase down any total. They hit the ball straight up in the air a bit. They miss a few. Edge some others, and I tell my wife we’re leaving if the score gets to 5 for 50. I assume it is going to be one of those matches where it is clear one side can’t win, but two blokes form a tedious partnership to get them through most of their overs.

The score actually gets to 9 for 43, because the Renegades are just that bad. And it’s really enjoyable to find out what stupid way they will get out next. The Karaoke, clapometer and air guitars seemed to fade into the background of the collapse. But they do promote a competition to win a trip to Hong Kong Disneyland.

When Fawad Ahmed comes in to bat, there is no chance of anything other humiliation for the Renegades. His Victorian teammate Scott Boland decides to bounce him. It seems unfair. He hits Ahmed on the left hand. The physio is brought out. Ahmed decides to bat on. Boland hits him again. It’s proper cricket. But people just want to go home. They do show a replay, Boland’s ball must be mega extreme rock solid enough for the big screen. Luckily for himself and the big screen, Fawad Ahmed also doesn’t retire hurt.

The Renegades make it to 50, and the crowd stand up and give them applause. That is my kind of cricket, angry spectators taking the mickey out of a useless side. Kids and their parents uniting in their cricketing disdain for the Renegades. To use the dirt bike phrasing, the Renegades were rag dolled.

I’ve seen a world record, a Big Bash League record low score, KP, good legspin, a proper collapse and children playing air guitar. It’s been over-produced, over-hyped, and the cricket has often been overlooked. But it works: kids do look up from their video games. They wear the team colours. They wear the skater style caps. They come to the cricket.

When I was young, the same thing happened. There always was an audience for domestic cricket. My friends and I were obsessed by it. We wore Bushranger colours while the Vics wore shorts to appeal to a new crowd. But there was no real promotion. It wasn’t aimed at kids. It wasn’t aimed at anyone other than cricket-obsessed, middle-aged freaks, from what I could tell. The games that made TV were shown on the weekend, while many were playing cricket. The original Big Bash was exactly like this, with a new format, actual promotion and games on at a better time.

All the Big Bash League has done is made everything just a little bit better. And it works. The Big Bash League is not perfect, and it probably never will be. But It’s in the prime time of summer, in a prime time slot, has overseas players, a new channel backing it and more sixes per game than a season of the Mercantile Mutual Cup. That isn’t bad.

My cousin was at the same game. He has three girls, all under seven. They all wanted to come to the game. The both of us spent time watching Victoria play in in empty stadiums, entertaining ourselves and finding heroes in now forgotten men like Richard Chee Quee, Darren Berry and Joe Scuderi. Here it’s easier. It’s aimed at the kids. You might have to mine through to find the cricket, but you’re at the cricket. And maybe the kids here will go away with a weird fascination for Nick Winter.

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Virat Kohli: the spoilt brat superstar

Virat Kohli flexes his tattooed arms at the MCG. The Swami Army sings about the BCCI. “We’re so rich it’s unbelievable.” There is swearing at Kohli. There is abuse from Kohli. Balls are bowled at him. Balls are thrown at him. He kisses his bat. His movie-star girlfriend smiles at him.

The Sachin Tendulkar era is behind us. We’re in Generation Kohli.

**

Adelaide. The crest. Middle of the forehead. First ball. The match stops. This was Kohli’s first ball as Test captain.

First ball after lunch to Kohli was the sort of length ball wide outside off stump that Mitchell Johnson bowls a lot. Many of the world’s best batsmen have found an outside edge from the Johnson pace and slant. Kohli paints a cover drive. It is as perfect and beautiful as any of your past loves, grandkids or Audrey Hepburn. The ball leaves his bat like it’s been sent to an alternate universe.

From that point on, Kohli bats in this out-of-world style, for two innings. In England just months earlier that ball would have probably beaten him or taken the edge. Now it beats up the fence. This is a different Kohli. He’s sure of himself again. He’s sure outside off stump. He’s sure he’s going to make runs.

In Australia’s second innings in Adelaide, Kohli is still so sure of himself that he is now sending off Chris Rogers, getting into David Warner, and starting a fight with Steven Smith. He was so confident at this point he could have started a fight with a mirror.

This confidence was all from Kohli. His bowlers couldn’t back it up; their 12 wickets in the Test had no impact on whether India would win. It was Kohli’s batting and a bit of rain that almost won India the match. When he finally mis-hit the kind of ball that he’s hit into stands around the world, all that confidence came crashing down. He didn’t even have the energy to leave the crease. For the second time in Adelaide, he was crestfallen.

**

India have finished an ODI at the Gabba on their last tour of Australia in 2011-12. The curator Kevin Mitchell jr. and his team are looking after the pitch. Mitchell sees what he thinks is a bunch of fans in India replica clothes playing with a shopping trolley by the race. One guy is spinning the trolley around, while another sits in it. Mitchell yells at them.

When he walks up the race, the only two people there are Indian players waiting for their team bus. Kohli looks dizzy and out of breath, like he was just in a shopping trolley that was spinning around before making a runner when caught.

The next time he was at the Gabba it was after being India’s Test captain. As Nas once said,  “It’s like the game ain’t the same”.

**

The first ball of day four at the Gabba is faced by Kohli. It wasn’t a rip-snorting, toe-curling demon ball. It was a gentle delivery from Shane Watson. But Kohli should not have been out there. Shikhar Dhawan should have been.

Both men had been hit in the temperamental Gabba nets. Dhawan had been retired hurt. Kohli had been sent in.

At no stage did he look comfortable. At no stage did he look happy. And when he left a ball off the middle of his bat back onto his stumps, he was gone. Later he would be back, stationed in the slip cordon, dropping a catch that can’t be seen without hearing the clanging of cymbals in your head.

In Brisbane he wasn’t cheered. He wasn’t booed. He wasn’t much.

**

Kohli was one of three Indian players to attend Phil Hughes’ funeral. That was on December 3. By December 5 he was retiring on 66 in a warm up game in Adelaide. Kohli is a passionate man, he’ll flip the bird, scream obscenities and laugh in the face of an outgoing batsman, but he seems to be able to put a distance between tragedies and cricket.

In December 2006, Kohli had just turned 19. He was playing his fourth first-class match. Karnataka had made 446 in the first innings. Overnight Kohli’s father passed away. Kohli played on. He entered the wicket at 14 for 3. Dhawan left on the same score to make it 14 for 4. Kohli made 90. From 238 balls. And helped save Delhi from defeat.

Virat’s mother said years later: “Virat changed a bit after that day. Overnight he became a much more matured person. He took every match seriously. He hated being on the bench. It’s as if his life hinged totally on cricket after that day. Now, he looked like he was chasing his father’s dream which was his own too.”

**

At tea on day five at the MCG, India had the draw in their grasp. The first ball after tea, Kohli was out. It was an effortless and mindless flick, the sort Kohli could play deep in REM sleep. The sort he probably first played when he was an actual spoilt brat. But he found Joe Burns at square leg and gave Australia their last chance of winning the Test.

A couple of days earlier Kohli was felled by a Johnson throw and ended up in a heap on the ground. Johnson was throwing at the stumps and did apologise, but after a day of exchanging sledges, Kohli was not in the mood for an apology. He drove loosely twice, and then was dropped in the next over. Accidental bodyline looked like succeeding more than verbal diarrhea to get Kohli out.

Kohli took on Johnson all day, refusing to take a backward step unless he was running away from a throw. And then just as the day was finishing, he let Johnson and Australia beat him. He gave away his wicket. He gave away any hope of the tail making runs.

Then Kohli turned up at the press conference and kept playing his shots like he hadn’t just given Australia a big enough lead to boss the match. His press conference was given like he was not out, India were in front, and he’d just jumped out of his private jet having launched his new record in Miami. Not like he had wafted at a wide one while India were desperate for stumps.

**

When Australia are batting on day five at the MCG, Kohli walks over to talk to Mohammed Shami. An MCC member tells him to get on with it. Kohli looks back at him with the stare.

If you’ve seen an IPL match, an ODI or a Test featuring Kohli, you’ll be familiar with the stare. It’s a face of such anger and coldness. Like in the ad for Sahara Q that was banned, it was the stare he used when he replaced a man’s shopping trolley with a wheelchair. Acting wasn’t needed, Kohli knows how to channel quiet rage.

Kohli has used the stare on bowlers, batsmen, and fielders – both the opposition’s and his own. In Melbourne when he ran on the pitch, he used it on the umpire when he was warned. There is this righteous fury right beneath this cold, hard stare. It’s the stare of someone who doesn’t like to lose, who is on a mission, who is spookily focused. If he was to be in one of his partner’s films, he’d be better suited as the dashing villain than the charming lead man.

**

Sports fans are odd. When Kohli failed in England this year, some genuinely thought his girlfriend Anushka Sharma had something to do with it. It wasn’t as though Virat was spending his time trying to fund a Bollywood remake of No, No Nannette. He was a professional cricketer, who had a girlfriend on tour.

The satirical website Faking News handled it best when they ran this made up Anushka quote, “Kohli’s form dipped since last six months and suddenly I am responsible for it! Did anybody notice a drop in my acting abilities in last few years and tried to hold Kohli responsible for it?”

When Anushka finally did announce their relationship, she said “We’re not hiding anything, we’re just being two normal young people in a relationship”. Just your normal movie-star-and-Indian-captain relationship.

While he bats, she takes selfies with star-struck crowd members. She’s probably taken more than 600 of them as well; Kohli’s batted that long.

**

Brad Haddin comes out to bat in the first innings at the SCG. Kohli walks up to him. It seems like he is saying something at first, but another camera angle shows that Kohli is just staring that stare. He holds this for a long time. Even for Kohli, this is really creepy.

Then Kohli moves back into the ring, the bowler comes in, and Haddin pumps him back over his head. As the ball is disappearing for six, Haddin turns his back on Kohli. Stare at this, Virat.

**

Dean Jones described Kohli as, “almost more Australian than he is Indian.” It has long been thought that one thing Australians can’t stand more than anything else is someone who plays like them.

But that is not the reason Australian cricketers don’t like Kohli. A personal sledge aimed at an Australian cricketer during the 2011 tour cut very deep. It was a low blow.

Sledging Australians when you are not Australian can be a tricky tightrope. They might call you a princess, a brat, a rat, a (insert swear here), but they also have limits. Limits that you need to grow up with to understand. If you break one of the unwritten rules, their secret code, they don’t like you.

You can see how the Australians feel about Kohli every time they talk to him on the field. And they talk to him a lot. Australians talk to Kohli more than they talk to the press, more than they talk to Channel Nine, more than they see their families. When they’re not talking to him, they’re talking about him.

Australia’s coach Darren Lehmann promised even more talk, despite Kohli seeming to love it. The next day they talked about boring him out, assuming with more inane, pointless chatter. Kohli seems to revel in getting under their skin, and that is where he has been since his personal sledge. Since that moment, Kohli has made four hundreds and two half-centuries in six Tests.

And in that time he’s said more things on the field than MS Dhoni has in his entire life.

**

Shaun Marsh is on his knees, behind him a man smiles.

Just before that, Marsh had shuffled, worried and hoped his way towards a hundred. It was horrible stuff. India stepped up when they saw how worried he was. Marsh had already tried to take off for a run that could have only ended in heartbreak. This time he knocked the full ball straight to mid-off, and just ran.

The fielder moved in quick and sure. He cut off the angle. Got to his right side. Launched himself low. Threw as he flew. Hit the stumps. Marsh looked up at the umpire, who told him it was out.

Kohli ran down the pitch to be adored by his team-mates. He knew. He often does.

**

The crowd boos when Kohli arrives on the SCG. The previous ball either spun more than any ball ever in the history of Nathan Lyon’s career or was dragged onto the stumps by Rohit Sharma. Kohli’s first ball does less. He half pushes forward. The ball either misses the edge, or takes it, and just misses off stump. Kohli’s head turns around to see the ball, as KL Rahul starts running, but Kohli calls no after a couple of steps. He regains his composure, and gets back in the crease.

Behind him, in the middle of the pitch, his partner is facedown on the turf. Kohli composed, India face down. That’s this summer.

**

Kohli’s feet are wide apart. His hands are high above his head. His bat is clenched. His face has that stare. Some cheer, some boo. Kohli has his fourth hundred. Australia have beaten India. They haven’t beaten Kohli.

The crowd is dressed in pink. They are raising money for breast cancer nurses. They start chanting, “Kohli is a wanker.” There is no higher praise you can be insulted with by an Australian crowd. “I know you guys hate me, and I like that”.

Spoilt brat superstar.

A lack of Test skill for India

The fear has been with us for a very long time. Cricket does fear and worry better than parents watching a drunken aunty hold their newborn. T20 is cricket’s creeping evil. If you look hard enough, and have the right kind of tunnel vision, you can see its destructive powers in every part of cricket.

The spectre of T20 and its giant mutated child, IPL, is never far away when people talk about India. If India win a match, they do it because of the IPL. If they lose, they do it because of the IPL. Their batsmen are flashy millionaires with shots a dozen who can’t crack real cricket. Their bowlers are lazy, popgun, four-over specialists with tricks to get a bloke caught at long-on and not much more.

We are in the first T20 generation of cricketers. Players who are arriving at Test cricket with contracts across continents, who can reverse, switch-hit, ramp or scoop a maximum for a moment of success, but who enter the corridor of uncertainty like a chainsaw wielding psycho is at the other end. Coaches tried to ground their pupils at first, but now we have T20 specialist coaches who cheer rather than chide improvisation. When Glenn Maxwell played a reverse hook shot, we’d reached uber cricket-max mode.

Cricket has feared the limited-overs revolution for almost as long as it has existed. In the 1990s every time a bad shot was played, ODI cricket was blamed. It was the IPL before we had the IPL. Yet, if you spend anytime watching old cricket footage, stupid shots and pointless bowling has always existed. When Sobers made his double-hundred at the G for the Rest of the World, the modern analyst’s computer would have exploded at the amount of short and wide balls he got.

T20 makes you rich. T20 puts you on television. T20 makes you a target.

In this match we have David Warner, Steven Smith, Mitchell Starc, Nathan Lyon, R Ashwin, Virat Kohli, Suresh Raina, and Rohit Sharma. All T20 players first, Test cricketers second. Perhaps not in hopes or dreams, but in reality and contract.

Warner was a franchise player before a first-class player. Smith has travelled the world playing limited-overs cricket in shirts every colour of the rainbow. Ashwin was a Chennai Super King well before he was an Indian spin king at home. Kohli was the emerging player in the first IPL and one-day superstar. They have all adapted, changed and are working out what Test cricket is.

India as a team is yet to evolve. This is a young team; Kohli with 33 Tests is the most experienced player. They have talent, they have proved that at home, but on the road is where young players are tested the most. And on this road at the SCG, they were run over.

Most of India’s current squad have played more domestic T20s than any other form of cricket. Dhoni had not played a Ranji Trophy match since 2005, or Irani Cup match since 2008. Rahane has played one first-class game outside of India colours since 2012. Dhawan has played none since his debut. Rohit has one in the last two years. Mohammed Shami last played in 2012. Raina did not play a first-class game in 2014. He has played 203 ODIs, and 86 first-class matches. And Ashwin not one since 2010. This is a generation of cricketers learning Test cricket while playing it.

Because of their schedule, and how they like to warm up – when India play warm up matches before Tests – they use most of their squad. Blokes retire once they start hitting the ball well. They bowl 12 overs in the match and then rest with the physio. They don’t treat them like matches, and they don’t reap the rewards of a bowler bowling his 20th over and working through a set batsman. Or a batsman pushing beyond 130 knowing how tired that makes you. Their innings and spells are short, their games are make believe. And because of this they struggle to play more than three good sessions in a row. They can’t catch in the slips. Their bowlers need a rigid plan. And their batsmen give away good starts.

Many times in this series India have played good cricket. The first two sessions on day five in Adelaide gave them a chance of winning. The next session might as well not have existed. At the Gabba they fought to get the Australia tail in while they were well behind. Then they spent hours bowling at them. For three seasons India batted well at the MCG, but they had one session where they gave away five wickets and the Test was over. They have not had one great innings from beginning to end. Not with the bat, not with the ball, not with their fielding, and not with their captaincy.

India have dropped a fair chunk of slip catches this series, but what was more noticeable is the amount of people who have fielded in the cordon – Dhawan, Cheteshwar Pujara, Kohli, Ashwin, Raina, KL Rahul, Rahane and M Vijay. There could be even more. Slip is a position you only learn by standing there. You can have the hands, you can have the reflexes, but your mind needs to be trained on how to be ready for the one ball a day that may come your way. The Indian slips don’t even get whole days. Or whole sessions. Ashwin aside, if you’re a batsman, you’re probably going to be travelling through there.

The first morning in Adelaide, India started around the wicket to Warner. It was a clear plan. When Mitchell Johnson came in at the Gabba, sledging and bouncing happened. It was a clear plan. All series India have been aiming at Chris Rogers’ hip. It is a clear plan. When Brad Haddin came in at Melbourne, he was bounced. Plan. India set the field in such a way that Haddin, and seagulls flying overhead, knew where the ball was going. It’s almost as if India don’t believe their bowlers can come in and bowl ball after ball, over after over, session after session. So they pile on these plans that, mostly, have just not worked.

Kohli has three hundreds and one fifty. His team have two hundreds and seven fifties. Rahane, Pujara and Vijay should have made hundreds. Dhoni, Rohit and Ashwin gave up starts before they got to 50. The Australian order has only made three more hundreds, but they have a tail. India are naked once they are seven wickets down. Too often their batsmen have done some good work, but not enough, and then the innings just disappears.

That is India. On first glance they look okay, then the harder you look, the longer you look and the more often you look, the worse they seem.

The 12th ball on Boxing Day was quick, bounced, and took the edge. Umesh Yadav is big and strong. He’s the most moose like of Indian quicks. His strike rate is amazing. His pace is impressive. Dhawan at slip goes low, the ball hits the middle of his hands, he rolls forward athletically.

But it’s kind of a mirage. It’s the best of India, and what they can do. But not often what they do.

They’re learning as they go in front of a billion angry fans, on unhelpful surfaces, without bowlers who can keep pressure, batsmen who score regularly overseas, with a captain leaving, a hot head taking over and Ravi Shastri. And T20 cricket ruining their games.

Their biggest problem might just be that they don’t play enough cricket of this kind. You can make 264 in an ODI, without really knowing how to do it in a first-class match. You can take a five-wicket haul without knowing what a fifth spell feels like. And you can catch a one-hander on the boundary and never learn how to take a nick at second slip.

Today India watched Sunrisers Hyderabad’s Warner make a hundred, before ending the day with a big partnership from Rajasthan Royals’ Smith and Watson. Earlier in the series they lost wickets to the find of the 2010-11 BBL, Nathan Lyon and the IPL-winning Ryan Harris. And they ran out the top scorer of the first IPL tournament for 99 in Melbourne.

If T20 is truly evil, it’s clear it also discriminates.

Tagged

Australia won wrong

“We’re going to play entertaining cricket,” Australia coach Darren Lehmann, on the 0730 report earlier this year.

“Get on with it.” “Just declare.” “Play a shot.” “Boring.” The MCG crowd, today.

Every single opinion you have on cricket is wrong. Even when it isn’t. No matter how firmly you believe, or have researched, or how often you’ve seen it play out, you’re still probably wrong. So is Ian Chappell. So is Ravi Shastri. So is your uncle. So is your daughter. All of them, wrong. Because rights and wrongs in cricket are never absolutes. It doesn’t work that way.

Today Australia declared at lunch, well just after lunch was supposed to begin. There were people who thought Australia batted three hours too many. There were people who thought Australia batted two hours too many. There were people who thought it was only an hour. Each thought the other was wrong.

Then there were people who thought there was no need for Australia to declare. They thought the longer they batted, the more chance they’d win the series. Why give India a sniff? Why worry about Virat Kohli when you didn’t need to? Either India play out the draw, and you win the series, or they collapse and you win the Test and the series. The early declarer obviously thought this was as wrong.

Even if Australia had bowled out India by tea, some would still have said they had declared too late. Steven Smith would be wrong, and a winner. India end up nine wickets down, Smith would be wrong and a winner. India finish three wickets down with 50 runs to get, Smith would be wrong, and a winner. Instead it was four wickets left for Australia, many would say that’s a session of bowling. Maybe they’re wrong.

Under Lehmann, we were promised exciting cricket. When talking about how England play, Lehmann said, “Dour. It’s not the type of cricket I’d play.” In general, he’s not wrong. This morning if you had England on the scoreboard instead of Australia, would anyone have noticed? Big lead, plodding batting, waiting for milestones, ensuring you couldn’t lose – it was dour, dull and defensive. This was Boof’s boys at their most English.

There were MCC members in London cheering as the ones in Melbourne were screaming for a declaration.

Ryan Harris likes to play his shots, and often pose after them as the crowd cheers his work. Here he scored 13 runs from nearly 20 overs. The only applause was from a few blokes giving him the slow clap. Shaun Marsh made only a few more in the same time. This was the innings of a man trying desperately to show he could play this kind of innings. Gritty and determined. Obdurate rather than obliterate.

Today Australia declared at lunch, well just after lunch was supposed to begin. There were people who thought Australia batted three hours too many. There were people who thought Australia batted two hours too many. There were people who thought it was only an hour. Each thought the other was wrong.

Then there were people who thought there was no need for Australia to declare. They thought the longer they batted, the more chance they’d win the series. Why give India a sniff? Why worry about Virat Kohli when you didn’t need to? Either India play out the draw, and you win the series, or they collapse and you win the Test and the series. The early declarer obviously thought this was as wrong.

Even if Australia had bowled out India by tea, some would still have said they had declared too late. Steven Smith would be wrong, and a winner. India end up nine wickets down, Smith would be wrong and a winner. India finish three wickets down with 50 runs to get, Smith would be wrong, and a winner. Instead it was four wickets left for Australia, many would say that’s a session of bowling. Maybe they’re wrong.

Under Lehmann, we were promised exciting cricket. When talking about how England play, Lehmann said, “Dour. It’s not the type of cricket I’d play.” In general, he’s not wrong. This morning if you had England on the scoreboard instead of Australia, would anyone have noticed? Big lead, plodding batting, waiting for milestones, ensuring you couldn’t lose – it was dour, dull and defensive. This was Boof’s boys at their most English.

There were MCC members in London cheering as the ones in Melbourne were screaming for a declaration.

Ryan Harris likes to play his shots, and often pose after them as the crowd cheers his work. Here he scored 13 runs from nearly 20 overs. The only applause was from a few blokes giving him the slow clap. Shaun Marsh made only a few more in the same time. This was the innings of a man trying desperately to show he could play this kind of innings. Gritty and determined. Obdurate rather than obliterate.

The entertainment continued as Marsh played and missed, started unlikely singles and then ran himself out on 99, but it wasn’t really the kind of excitement Lehmann had promised. This was more spoof than action film. It was made funnier by the arrival of a playing and missing Josh Hazlewood, and then Australia forgot that at nine wickets down, sessions get extended. They couldn’t even walk off the ground correctly.

Then Uncle Boof called them in. Australia’s dour hours were finally over.

It was telling – and maybe this is wrong – that it was Lehmann who could be seen waving them in, not Smith. Of course Smith could have been doing his shoelaces up behind the coach. Some thought that under Michael Clarke, Australia would have declared far earlier, they talked about the Oval Test. But that was a dead rubber, and a gamble for a win, so the comparison was wrong. Clarke was even defending Australia’s actions from the commentary box. Some people still think Clarke would have declared earlier. Maybe they are wrong, maybe Clarke was wrong, maybe Lehmann was wrong.

194,481 came to this Test. Plus the two coaching staff, so probably 200,000 all up. All with their own opinions. All wrong.

Smith shook hands with MS Dhoni, ending the match with four overs to go and four wickets to take. Maybe Lehmann or Clarke thought that was wrong. On William Barak bridge, the fans thought it was wrong. One bloke said, “bloody, defensive, crap cricket.” His mate said, “They won it the wrong way”.

Wrong. Even in glory.

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