Ashes, Younis, Radada, IPL and Phil Emery.
What are we waiting for, assembled in the stadium? The barbarians are to arrive today.
There is a feeling, an inbred belief, that Australian cricket is better than English cricket. It has always been there. People might deny it, but deep down, it is part of being an Australian or English fan. There might be some thought that English cricket has been tactically superior at times, but actually superior? “No bloody way, mate”.
Australia is better than England. Australia has always been better than England.
As the England fans trekked into the ground for day four, with Australia about to mount a chase of 412 on a pitch that was up and down, and even on its best day, not a pitch that Australia could understand, some still refused to believe that Australia wouldn’t win.
It was part of their DNA. Some were worried. Some were twitchy. Some feared something would go wrong. Some even thought they needed more runs. But there would never be enough runs, not against Australia. Australia has always been better than England.
But it isn’t just pessimistic fans; it is part of how almost everyone sees the Ashes. Players, punters and pundits. It’s almost impossible to think of the Ashes without the history coming through. Analytical thought seems to get drowned in a sea of Ashes hyperbole, Australian masculinity and English pessimism. England hope they will do well. Australia expect to win. Facts have no place in an Ashes contest.
In 2010-11, with all the evidence to hand of Australia’s decline and England’s form, most Australian cricket fans didn’t believe they could lose, and therefore many England fans believed them. Australia has always been better than England.
This hasn’t been a consistently good Australian team in a very long time – more or less the same amount of time that Shane Watson has been a regular in the team, in fact. The team and the player even play in a similar way.
Both have won a World Cup, both have beaten South Africa in South Africa, and won an Ashes series 5-0. When they are good, they are amazing. They are spectacular. They are throbbing muscles, curses in your ear, balls at your head.
In that same era, however, they have lost three of the four Ashes, lost at home twice, have gone back to the bad old days in India, added UAE as a hell destination, have used four coaches, had reviews into their own system, slipped down the rankings and have not managed to win one of the seemingly never-ending World T20s on offer.
At times they have bullied, at other times they have been toyed with. Their aura seems to switch on and off. They claim sledging helps them win, in the games they are already winning. They run away bare-chested screaming at clouds when they do well, and they stare in dead-eyed amazement at losses. They seem perpetually perplexed by slow pitches. They crush anything on quick ones. At home they rack up frame-worthy mega-scores, and away, they take whatever crumbs they can find.
Like Shane Watson they frustrate, bully, smash and fail in the same way over and over again.
This latest team began at Old Trafford in 2013. Chris Rogers seemed solid, Michael Clarke was in great form, Steven Smith had made great strides, Ryan Harris was a force, Peter Siddle was steady and Nathan Lyon could be relied upon. But the ages, and workloads, meant that even then, this was a short-term flare-up. Harris and Clarke’s bodies wouldn’t last forever. Rogers was already old. Siddle was over-worked.
All this proved to be enough when you added Mitchell Johnson bowling at quicker than the eye can see and faster than the brain wants to face. Johnson is now not doing that. Much of the fear and loathing of England’s fans before this Test came from Johnson, who had already said he was down on pace, and was about to bowl on the kind of wicket he had never been successful on. The fear remained.
Last time Brad Haddin came to England, he averaged 22. But this time, older, and in form so bad it is hard to remember how good he ever was, the talk was of how he smashed England everywhere in the last Ashes. There was little mention of the fact he had been obliged to, as Australia’s first innings without Haddin would have been all but forfeited. That fear was still right there.
There was fear for David Warner. Fear for Smith. Fear for Mitchell Starc. There was fear. Ashes fear, because Australia has always been better than England.
It didn’t matter that Warner hadn’t proved himself in England, Smith hadn’t proved himself at No.3, and Starc hadn’t proved himself in Tests. That was logic. This was the Ashes. Even Harris and his average of 20 limping off into the sunset did not fill England with joy or even hope. The fans barely noticed, the odds hardly changed.
The predictions came in, Australia would win said almost everyone, everywhere. Maybe it wouldn’t be 5-0. But they would win. They would bully. They would get in front and never look back. New England would be another false dawn. Australia was just better than England.
But then the Test ended and the barbarians did not come. Some who have returned from the Test say that there are no barbarians any longer. Australia had always been better than England.
Ryan Harris’s knee was just one nightmare for Darren Lehmann. Behind his folksy Uncle Boof façade, there is a coach. Coaches worry, coaches fret, and coaches worry about the dark side they can’t control. No amount of coaching cones will stop your biggest fears. They might have called it that, they might have called it SWOT, or challenges, but they had a list of worst-case scenarios. When Boof has knocked back his last team bonding beverage, and he shuts those bleary eyes, the coaching nightmares come to him.
In playing 27 Tests, Harris overcame South Australia’s on and off field decade of shame, Australia’s quest to find the next great young fast bowler, cricket statistics when he became the first quick to take over 100 wickets despite debuting over 30 and confounded medical science and common cricket sense. But his synovial fluid was all out of miracles.
Harris might not have played in the first Test, actually, knees or not, he probably would not have. But Harris meant that Australia had four frontline bowlers capable of worrying England. Harris averages 20 against England, and would have been on the bench. And Harris is pretty much an on-field bowling coach. When Mitchell Johnson bowls with Harris, he averages 20.71 and takes a wicket every 38 balls. So this series, Australia will have no use of two men who when paired together won 10 of their 16 matches with only three losses.
Harris was the first casualty of Dad’s Army, but Chris Rogers is another. Rogers makes solid 50s. He makes them a lot. Perhaps he should turn more into game changing scores. But it’s not a weakness, his fielding is a weakness. Rogers was never a great fielder, and never a mega cricket athlete, but when Ian Bell flicked the ball on the leg side early in his innings, Rogers moved like a man his age, and he failed to catch the ball.
His opening partner averages 22 in England. David Warner has an average of 41 when not playing Tests in Australia, and that includes scoring over a third of his runs away from home against South Africa in three Tests when South Africa refused to catch him. His two Ashes hundreds were both at home in the third innings when Australia were well in front in the game. Here he struggled. There was no Warner aggression, no stunning slaps that changed the bowler’s plans, day or career. Just a strike-rate of 40 and an edge into the slips.
England believed Steven Smith was a weakness at three, or they at least wanted him to think it. Australia’s batting has been weak for a very long time. Their top order has been saved by one-off performances and tail end heroes. Smith at No. 3 has the chance to change that. With Michael Clarke behind him Australia could finally have the sort of top four that they can rely on. But in his first outing, when well set and in form, he was out thought by a bowler the Australians think is a part timer, and a captain they mock for being boring.
Adam Voges was brought out for the Ashes because he knew his game, had been around, and was a solid guy that could be relied upon. After his start, with the close of play encroaching, he tried to play a ball not full or short enough, and it bobbled off the bat, but not in the hands of short cover. It was he sort of shot you expect more from someone 25, not 35. From that moment Australia was never in control of their innings again.
Watson was left with the tail. On Twitter, #Wattolotto was in full flow. Watson earned his way to stumps. But the next day, the ball hit his pad. Cricket’s most consistent impact.
Watson walks slowly up to Nathan Lyon. Watson is coy, yet no one who has ever seen him play thinks he won’t review it. Lyon and he chat, Watson listens, but is having his own internal conversation. He reviews, there are ironic cheers. The ball might have hit him just outside offstump, the ball might have been high. But it’s a risk. For the first time, he hasn’t demanded it, he hasn’t pleaded, he’s just asked. And hoped.
The predatory steady-cam operator was already out on the ground before the DRS had confirmed Watson’s fate. It was one of Watson’s best wrong reviews. Watson had not left the square and was already being mocked by the world. Watson is in his fifth Ashes, he was Australia’s last batsman, and this might be his last Test.
Brad Haddin’s form, with the gloves, with the bat, is poor. In the first innings he had 17 byes, he’s added seven more in the second innings. In the nets the day before the Test he batted as if an inner ear infection was affecting his balance. On day three, he was a 50/50 proposition of laying wood on the ball. His runs came from edges, slashes and one slog. At one stage, without seemingly being able to hit the ball with his original bat, he had that bat replaced, and instantly found the edge twice, losing his wicket.
Then there was the Joe Root chance. Including byes, his score and Root’s score, Haddin is currently minus 136 in this match. The analytical way of sorting out the Root catch would be to show Haddin what he did so he could self-correct himself. The Uncle Boof way would probably have been to delete all footage from Cricket Australia hard drives and buy Haddin a beer.
That drop was like teenagers deciding to sleep into the abandoned cabin in the woods. The wicket was slow, but Australia were fast. If Haddin takes what is only slightly removed from a regulation catch, Australia might have got in front.
Instead, the two Mitchells are not used to crush the will of a young middle order, but instead bowl at Root until time seems to stand still. Well, each ball does. Each Australian thunderbolt sticks in the pitch and says, “Ah, you again. We knew we’d see you here, but we had no idea you’d be this powerfully slow, and, we, um, cannot, argh, get , come on, any, ugh, pace…”
It’s India, it’s Port Elizabeth, it’s the UAE, it’s Australia’s bête noir. Slow wickets seem to have a consciousness that infest Australian cricket minds and lay eggs of confusion.
Those eggs were hatched by Australia’s gamble in doubling down on Mitch. Before Mitchell Johnson won the Ashes and Mitchell Starc won the World Cup, there was always a hesitation in playing the two of them together. On their best days they leave a trail of destruction behind them. On their worst days they do the same thing. Both Mitchs went at over four runs an over in the first innings. Starc took wickets and Johnson kissed his cap at fine leg as the crowd ironically cheered his wicketless hundred. Perhaps Haddin’s old hands could have saved them, but instead, they bowled for longer than they wanted, on a pitch they didn’t understand, leaking runs and pressure until eventually Johnson’s aura and Starc’s ankle went.
Three days into the Ashes when Darren Lehmann lays his head to rest he sees bad things. Ryan Harris will never bowl again, Chris Rogers looks slow in the field, Warner and Smith are yet to prove themselves in England, Voges played a rash young man’s shot, Watson might have played his last review, Haddin has played, missed and dropped, the slow pitch has eaten them and their double Mitch dream team is leaking. None are nightmares. All are realities.
Starc has come back to bowl, gingerly at times, held together with jabs, tape and Lehmann’s love and affection.
Australia’s Ashes hopes are currently more Starc’s ankles than Harris’ knee. By stumps tomorrow, they might have a fresh diagnosis.o
What was once white is now brown, or at best, grey. Through the middle the brown has mutated to yellow. At the end there is also black. It could be a stain, it could be mould. Instead of being soft and absorbent, it looks almost smooth and shiny in parts. And, you can smell it. Or at least you can feel you can.
It is Chris Rogers’ arm guard. It is Chris Rogers’ career.
Not the colour you want, it’s been lived in, it’s failed, it’s won, it’s got the odour of victory, and defeat, it should be replaced, it shouldn’t work anymore, it shouldn’t have ever worked.
Ian Chappell believes that the best Test players are picked young and then play for a generation. It’s a lovely idea. But if that was the case, then Australia’s recent and brief run to No. 1 in the world would not have happened. It needed the aged and ignored knees of Ryan Harris. It needed the punchy mouth of Brad Haddin. And it needed the dirty, stinky armguard of Chris Rogers.
Rogers’ career, much like that of Adam Voges after him and Ed Cowan before him, came from knowing his game, scoring runs at the right time, and the lack of generational batsmen. Rogers learnt his game at the crease, while no one watched. First-class seasons, piled one top of the other, were his wife. Big scores were his school yard. Every year, a new, often overlooked, big daddy score was his reward: 194, 209, 319, 279, 248*, 222, 200, 173, 214 and 241*, just to name a few.
That’s how you earn a brown armguard, that’s how you finally crack Test cricket in your mid-thirties.
Does Rogers play any pretty shots? No. At best, he is neat. And if someone asks you if your kids are pretty, and you reply, no, they’re neat, they’re clearly not pretty. Rogers plays effective shots. Sound shots. Checked shots. Squirts, pushes, dabs and turns. The ball is not dispatched to the boundary, it is ushered between fielders. There is no awe-inspiring crack on the bat, but a polite understated knock.
The armguard points back at the bowler like a battered shield. The backlift barely gets above the waist, and it’s hidden behind the crouch. The front foot moves quickly, but not far, just a small, toe-first semi step. The back foot moves over with it. The front foot inches further forward and the bat comes through straight, it meets the ball, and the ball heads off. The bat then goes into a weird checked move, like it feels it shouldn’t have played such a rash attacking shot. The blade is clutched by Rogers as he runs as fast as he can to get the greatest reward for his safe nudge.
It’s a three, not a four. It’s a transaction, not a painting. Rogers’ team-mates say he has a pillow on his bat, but it’s a safety blanket. Even his six here – his first in Tests – was an accident or, at best, chance.
Before this Test, and with only a mere, non-world record six straight Test fifties, some questioned whether he would come straight back into this team. Rogers even believed it himself, while sitting around with his concussion, he wondered if that was how it ended. With a net bowler hitting him on the head, one fifty short of the world record, and then never to play again.
He was to be replaced eventually, so why not now?
Today Rogers batted with multimillionaires, stars, potential legends. Australia’s cheeky bad boy franchise star, Australia’s new odd batting prodigy, and Australia’s Ashes and World Cup-winning captain. And when he went out, he had scored more than David Warner, Steve Smith and Michael Clarke combined. No one had really noticed. They weren’t really supposed to. It was just supposed to happen, and so it did. Much like almost every other moment of his career.
With an Australia batting line-up that has repeatedly struggled in the first innings, Rogers has made eight scores of 50 and above from 21 innings. Australia need more hundreds, Rogers wants more hundreds, but his fifties are so important.
Rogers put on an opening partnership of 50, then two more partnerships over 50. He, for the seventh, and world record, time in a row made 50. Australia Invincible and opening batsman Bill Brown said his job was to get to lunch. Australia’s fallen hero Phillip Hughes was known to say dig in and get to tea. Chris Rogers just makes fifties.
Perhaps he doesn’t smell of roses, isn’t shiny and new, won’t play for a generation, and is at best neat. But he is those things while making a lot of fifties. And today, without his runs, Australia would have made something uglier than a Chris Rogers armguard.
Root glad to cash in after good fortune”Check the scorebook.” That’s what they say. Grizzled old cricket watchers who see the game through life’s bitter disappointment. They’ve heard every story, every excuse, every couldabeen tale. It doesn’t matter. The scorebook matters.
Modern cricketers and coaches tell us it is about the process. We shouldn’t judge on results. We shouldn’t focus on what happened at the end, but how they went about it.
In that sacred scorebook, Joe Root made 134. But his processes were all over the place.
First ball he found the smallest amount of bat to stop a ball that was hooping back in at him better than any David Warner punch. Second ball he was dropped from an outside edge that Brad Haddin simply didn’t understand. And even third ball he was close enough that there was a stifled appeal, but Root made it through that over.
But then, part of his process was also attacking Australia. He used flawless off-drives, sensuous cover-drives and forced off the backfoot whenever there was a chance. Sometimes, he cut hard, sometimes up and over, sometimes it was a guide, sometimes it was a crack. When he reached his 40s, his balls faced had still not caught his runs.
They were the glorious processes. It was counterattack, it was new England, it dragged England away from a bad day.
The sort of innings Kevin Pietersen would have played. Hope like hell you end up the day on the back of papers for the right reasons. Cover yourself in glory if you do well. Or cover yourself in something far worse if you fail.
Root’s innings was a constant battle between his best and worst. Every great shot would be followed by luck or confusion. Inside edges went between midwicket to the finest of fine legs. Pull shots off balls that advised him via their length not to pull them. Play and misses from balls too close to him, too far, coming in, going out. And so many half and three quarter shouts.
Even his 50 was part of this. The result was two runs, he raised his bat, the crowd said his name. But the process was a leading edge through cover that floated past the field, rather than to it.
After another inside edge near-calamity, Root moved across to sweep Lyon, Lyon was sure he was out LBW. The first replays of the review seemed to agree with him. But hawkeye and its mystical digital eye believed the ball pitched outside legstump. Lyon stopped believing in science as it remained not out.
At one stage Root was almost caught/run out/stumped (Ian Bell probably would have found a way to be out all three ways), when he flicked off his pad, and it ricocheted off short leg’s shin pads. That was soon followed by another huge shout, followed by huge disappointment for Lyon when he thought he had an inside edge, that he thought Steve Smith should catch, that turned out to be neither hit nor caught.
Yet, Root still had the ability, calm, and timing to stroke a ball through covers. To cut, guide and flick. At one stage he steered a ball through point so perfectly it was like he’d pre-mapped it with a protractor.
When Mitchell Starc finally took Root’s wicket, he didn’t do a jig, or even put his finger to his lips, he just exhaled a very deep breath.
Root was in control for three-quarters of the balls he faced, the tenth-lowest control in a Test hundred since 2009. Twenty different times Australia thought they had him, or a chance of him, or they hope that he would soon be gone. He kept his wicket by millimetres. But does that make it better, or worse? Was he lucky or brave? Was this an epic rearguard or a failure to fail. Was it a victory for positive intent, or just one of those days?
Root’s day in gif form would look like this: Australia throw their hands up, cover turns to pick up the ball from the boundary, the crowd yelling “ROOOOOOOT”, bowlers shaking their heads, the ball scooting through Australia’s haunted vacant point region, Australia dropping their heads, Root slapping another boundary and ultimately Root celebrating a hard earned, well received, incredibly important very lucky hundred while Warner didn’t clap him.
Root played new England cricket. Root played and missed. Root made a hundred. England survived the day. Today, the result beat the process.
A podcast where we imagine how Ryan Harris would bowl without limbs, and wonder if one day KP will hang out with Kin Jong Un. A preview for the ashes that very nearly looks into the series, some Pakistan and Sri Lanka chat that veers into left hander bashing, Bangladesh cuts and drones, the semi competence of the ICC and a special tribute to Victor Trumper.
Will appear on itunes here.
We look deep inside the the world of pink balls and day night Tests to pull out all the truth you need.
This was originally written for the Herald magazine back in December for their people of the year edition. Today join us started his 100th Test.
Younis Khan is sweating. Every part of his skin is wet. His shirt is clinging to him. His hair is messy. His bat is raised. There are a few cherry marks on it. He holds that bat lightly in his hands as his 100 is celebrated. His eyes look tired.
This man has defeated the Australians, the raiders, the bullies, the barbarians. This old man. This warrior. This legend. Behind him there is not a single human being. He has conquered the aggression of the Australian wolf pack but it’s done in another empty stadium. Khan is a legend. But he haunts empty stadiums. He’s a cricketing ghost.
He has never played in a five-match Test series. During his entire career, Pakistan has had only one four-match Test series scheduled. Younis missed the final Test against England at the Oval in 2006. Pakistan forfeited it.
Javed Miandad had the opportunity to play in seven five-match Test series. There are some, mostly from Australia and England, who don’t even believe that anything less than a five-match Test series is a real Test series. To them, Khan’s career isn’t real. He has not been tested enough.
He has scored over 500 runs in two three-match Test series. Against Australia, he made 468 runs in two Tests. Maybe the five-match Test series would have seen him worked out. Maybe a bowler who came at him week after week for six weeks would finally find the chink in his armour. But in 96 Tests, no one has worked out Khan.
Khan has a list of things happen in his career that players like Daniel Vettori and Ricky Ponting just don’t have to worry about.
There is the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB). Khan recently had his contract demoted from Category A to Category B. The reason given was that he only played Test cricket. Shahid Afridi doesn’t play Test cricket. He is still in Category A. A month later, Khan was playing one-days again.
In 2009, Khan was made captain, but resigned after there was a Senate enquiry into match-fixing. He was cleared, but insulted. In 2010, the PCB banned him indefinitely. The ban was because of his role in the “infighting which brought down the whole team during the tour of Australia in January” that year.
The ban was lifted three months later. Nothing is permanent in Pakistan cricket except Khan at the crease.
He has seen Tests cancelled for match-fixing, for terrorism; he’s had teammates go to jail and the opposition shot at in his country.
Khan has also had to overcome so much death. His father died during a tour of Australia. A brother died during a tour of the West Indies. He lost another brother, and a nephew. Then there was Bob Woolmer. All this death seems to have taken an extraordinarily high toll on him.
The PCB and death collided when the Peshawar school attack happened in December 2014. The PCB decided not to postpone a meaningless one-day against New Zealand. It could only be a decision based on fiscal realities. Khan had seen enough. He wanted the game postponed, just as a game had been postponed for Phil Hughes death.
“How do you play a match when your spirit is not in the game? That is our state of mind right now.”
New Zealand won by seven runs. The PCB made their money. Khan made 103. While Rome burns, he bats.
People love Misbah. People hate Misbah. People love Afridi. People hate Afridi. They are called Misbahtards and Afridiots. It’s Catholic versus Protestant, Sunni versus Shia, and East Coast Rap versus West Coast Rap. It is beyond logic. It is beyond cricket. It is a choice of ideologies.
Yet, for all this passion, all this nonsense, Khan just plays cricket. Occasionally, people may not be happy with his public statements but he wouldn’t be a Pakistani cricketer if some people didn’t irrationally hate him. Or love him. But most just love him. He has ridden above the nonsense.
Mostly Khan just bats. Turn on your television and there is a 50 per cent chance that he is calmly dealing with Test bowlers somewhere in the world. He’s so good that no one calls themselves Younisites, because it’s assumed we’re all Younisites.
It is early on day four, February 24, 2009. Dilhara Fernando finds a short of a length spot where the ball can just do something. It jags back. Khan is on the back foot. He misses the ball. Maybe he was tired from the previous day. Maybe he didn’t have his eye in. Maybe he got that one great ball.
That one ball was the last that Khan faced on a Pakistani Test pitch. The next Test was in Lahore. Sri Lanka batted first. Salman Butt was slow to move and ran himself out. Instead of Khan coming out, stumps were called. He was to come out in the morning. But there was no morning. Gunmen attacked the Sri Lankan team bus instead.
Pakistani cricket has been in witness protection ever since.
Khan is in that limbo. He has been made to bat behind glass, in a television cage.
Khan has the most Test centuries by a Pakistani. He has five double-centuries in Tests. He has scored a hundred against every Test-playing nation. He holds the record for most catches in Test Cricket for Pakistan. He averages over 50 at home. He averages over 50 away. He averages over 50 in the neutral limbo. He has the highest average of any Pakistani batsman in history.
He is a legend. You can’t read the stats any other way. You can’t watch him and think any different. Pakistan’s homeless status means they can’t make the money they should. Teams don’t have to play Pakistan. They do it because they can’t get a date with England, India and Australia. Over a quarter of Khan’s Tests are against Sri Lanka.
In 96 Tests he has played, three were in Australia. Matthew Sinclair has played five in Australia. And if you don’t know who he is, that’s my point. If you do know who he is, you already know my point.
Khan has played eight Tests against Australia, 10 against England. In the space of eight months, those two teams play 10 Tests. Khan has played another nine Tests against India — the last one in 2007, the first one in 2005.
Khan is a legend — and by legend I mean an unverifiable story handed down by tradition and popularly believed to be accurate.
After batting like few people ever have against Australia, he fronted the press.
“It would have been fantastic had all this happened in Pakistan before my own people”. Or just people.
There are so many images of Khan raising his bat, smiling on the way off the field, winning a Test, saving a Test, or just enjoying his time out in the middle. Almost all of them have no people behind him. Often, he is the only person in the shot.
A champion in isolation. A victim of other’s crimes. A batsman in a cage.
He exists. He bats. But in many ways, he is the ghost who bats.