The ball punches the pitch, and cracks into Graeme Smith who seems to react only as the ball leaves him. It loops up slowly and the crowd make noise accordingly. It is just off the pad. Not out. It is the first ball Smith faces from Mitchell Johnson.
There is not much time to think between the ball leaving Johnson’s hand and the batsman having to deal with it. It is like a camera flash, or a political back-flip.
You can have a plan, you can think it through, but the ball just comes out of his hand and you react. There are some batsmen who revel in that. See ball, hit ball.
Not enough time for clear rational thought. There is not enough time to think about past deliveries, or history, it just happens.
A full ball that that should never have damaged anyone, but spat up and took the left massive hand of Smith. His hand disappeared like he had been zapped by a ray gun. For a second Smith was lost, the pain confused him, he was walking around in a circle towards point. And only then did he eventually find the culprit, which had gone off to fine leg to allow him to get off strike. But the damage was done, and he would only come back into to bat at No. 11, with a broken hand.
There is a bowling machine that players have used to try and learn the mystery and tricks of certain players, the Pro Batter. You can face Morne Morkel, Lasith Malinga or even Mitchell Johnson.
But you can’t program it with superhuman confidence. You can’t give it artificial menace. And you can’t play against it like it is a real force of nature. It is a computer game with real elements. Nothing more. All you can do is try and pick up a few tricks that you hope the next time you play will come in handy.
South Africa have used the Pro Batter, they have also faced Johnson at his old best. They should know how to play him. Smith has faced him more than most. They have survived him at the WACA, after he took 8 for 61, they milked him on their chase beyond 400 to win, they have played him ten times. They know him.
Well, they knew the old him. This new one is relentless and brutal, like a zombie girl group, or a current affairs reporter. This Mitchell is worse and better than anything that can be made with CGI or the old model.
Off the ground, looking at point, one hand off the bat, the right hand protecting his throat and being smashed into the bat handle. That is how Smith found himself as he just tried to survive a delivery. The ball did not take his wicket, he did end up in hospital.
Smith is respected all over the world. He has scored almost 10,000 Test runs. He has done that at almost an average of 50. He has 27 Test centuries. He is the captain and leader of the world’s best Test team.
Smith is South Africa’s top order monolith. Strong, calm and reliable. The young warrior who took over the side and pushed them higher than they had ever been. All with a bottom handed technique that makes even his best shots look like a solid uppercut.
His place in the world of cricket is safe and secure, and he could retire tomorrow and be remembered for decades.
In nine Tests he has been dismissed by Johnson five times and sent to hospital twice. Today Johnson tried to do both in one ball.
The ball leaves the pitch with a mission to break the jaw or eye socket of Smith. There is no time. There is nowhere to hide. There is no way out. Smith can ever be hit in the face, or try and play the ball. His body is doing in one direction, his face another. His bat is jerking upwards not like a cricket shot, but like he is fending off a surprise Pterodactyl attack. The ball hits the bat, more by pure chance than design. The ball flies high, and all of the slips, (there are a few, but it seems like hundreds), arch their necks up at once, and watch it float behind them. Shaun Marsh chases, and chases, while the batsmen easily cross, and at the last minute he reaches the ball to barely take the catch.
Graeme Smith faced two balls from Mitchell Johnson today.
On a lovely, bone dry Centurion morning, a tune played. “Boom! Here comes the Boom! Ready or not, here comes the boys from the South!”
They are the sort of lyrics, when backed up with punchy nu-metal angst, that should open a heavyweight contest. And it was the first music of the Test. There was no anthem, no parochial song, just Dale Steyn’s personal anthem and the world’s best and third-best Test sides starting a series.
But it was a Wednesday, in February. Much like the band P.O.D., it was not quite as “Boom!” as it looked.
The security was so lax that you could walk straight into the ground, president suite and then press box without any pass or ticket. The sun was hot but not oppressive. There was no hint of rain. No real build-up, the players were just out on the field. Occasionally there was even the Spanish horn that plays in the IPL to awaken people.
There seemed to be more sponsored umbrellas around the ground than people. And every part of the ground was zoned off for something fun. The chill zone, the family area, the Castle Lager Terrace. Even a “maidens bowled over” section where women could watch cricket, meet someone from the South Africa squad and have massages and pedicures. You can’t fault Cricket South Africa for trying. They threw it all out there.
But it was a Wednesday, in February. So the crowd wasn’t really there. It wasn’t horrible for a Test at Centurion, but it wasn’t a cauldron, or massive-event-like feeling. It felt like a big Test series, started on a Wednesday, with Christian heavy rock in the back ground.
There were schoolkids on the bank, sitting in front of a few smart locals who had brought their own shade. The real fans were in the grandstand, a battered warhorse that probably looked ok when brand new, and has looked solid and ugly since. Apparently there was a group of people that some sponsors called “sizzlers”, but I never saw anyone who justified a name that stupid. There was even a Mexican wave, but only when the schoolkids spread out around the long-off boundary did it work.
The cricket didn’t need extra areas or corporate tricks to excite people. Steyn started off against David Warner on a pitch that was supposed to be lots of fun. That doesn’t need a rock soundtrack or marketing tricks. People should just want to see it. Those there saw the South Africa team spend a confusing and frustrating day in the field, and Australia find one partnership that worked and keep it going. It wasn’t pretty.
It was the sort of tough uncompromising day of cricket that metaphors and clichés were made for. The proper cricket fans would have appreciated Shaun Marsh’s doggedness, Steven Smith’s strokeplay and complaining about South Africa in the field.
There were a few proper cricket fans there to enjoy it, not many. Not nearly enough.
But it was a Wednesday, in February.
David Warner didn’t move his feet. Not for the first time. Chris Rogers was unlucky. At the wrong age to do that. Michael Clarke fended at the moving ball. Easier to do at No. 4 than No. 5. Shane Watson planted the target on the front pad. England found it for the first time this series. George Bailey was dangling outside off. People already murmuring about him there.
Brad Haddin flies in. Situation sorted. Again. Again. Again. Again.
Beneath the Big Bash big talk, away from the CA Twitter account’s split personality and far from ads for summer’s biggest dress up party, Cricket Australia still take cricket seriously. It may not always seem that way as the ‘Ashes pashes’ are on the big screen but Cricket Australia has been pretty consistent on one thing, it wants the team to be No. 1. It actually want to be No. 1, No. 1 and No. 1. In all formats, the best team on earth. A cynic may suggest that it’ll make for better marketing copy, but it’s still a worthy, if hard to attain, ambition.
Clarke used his newspaper column to reiterate that this team wanted to be No. 1 straight after Perth. That’s when captains speak, after the game, when the result dictates the conversation. Had Clarke been asked to speak when Australia’s fifth first-innings wicket fell, No. 1 would have been a sizable distance from his mind. The Australia top order have consistently been awful in the first innings. Only in Adelaide were they anything near passable. In every other innings they’ve been poor.
Then Haddin comes in. Technically Haddin has batted at No. 7. But in real terms he’s batted one, two, three, four, five, six and seven. Add a cape and a moustache and Mitchell Johnson may not win Man of the Series.
Haddin as the permanent saviour was enough to win the Ashes. And it may be enough to win 5-0. But to be No. 1, you are probably going to need a top order. And Australia’s next series is against a bowling attack of Morne Morkel, Vernon Philander and Dale Steyn.
Beating England, while that team is in emotional freefall, at home is just a step in the right direction, not anything more. Australia were naked in a gutter a few months back, and they haven’t won three consecutive Test series in a row since the infamous summer of kidding themselves against West Indies, Pakistan and New Zealand. This summer there are far more good signs than back in 2009-10. That’s all they are. This isn’t some finished product that has honed its game around the world and is ready to tussle at the top, it’s an old team with a good bowling attack that’s in great form.
Form is, as many cricketers have told us, temporary.
“Australia have the best bowling attack in the world.” It’s something you may have heard more than once. Lazy commentators say it, showing that they don’t follow the cricket outside of Australia. Coaches have said it, despite the fact it is their job to know how good other countries are. It’s not the best bowling attack in the world (unless South Africa has been voted off the planet). But it’s really good.
Peter Siddle has improved virtually every part of his bowling. He is a leader and a worker, who never gives up. Nathan Lyon was the boy no one wanted. Considering the menagerie of misfits used as spinners before (and during) his time, surely only a mad scientist selector would change him now. If Johnson keeps bowling the way he is, he may actually explode, as will most batsmen who face him. He could also lose form and confidence and end up sitting on the bench for an IPL franchise. It’s all possible. Ryan Harris may not be long for this game. Then again, who really thought he’d play nine straight Test matches against England.
Harris is the only one for who age is a concern. Australia also have James Pattinson (Test average of 26), Pat Cummins (pace like fire, body like paper) and Nathan Coulter-Nile (pace – tick, swing – tick) hanging around.
So it may not be the best on earth, but it’s a pretty damn scary attack to bump into on a dark night. With Johnson in this form, it’s nuclear.
India and South Africa are the No.1 and No. 2-ranked sides in the world. Even if India had won in South Africa, their first overseas series since they were in Australia two years ago, they were too many points behind to go top.
India look good right now, but may be a bowler short away from home. R Ashwin is averaging more than five wickets a Test and was just dropped against South Africa. Pakistan were ranked fourth before this series. In recent times they drew with South Africa, and before that they drew with Zimbabwe. Essentially they play in the same manner Saeed Ajmal does press conferences.
England are so bad right now, the hashtag #pomnishambles has been invented.
So, that only leaves South Africa. They are the best team on earth. They have beaten or drawn all their series since losing, to the then-No. 1 side, Australia in ’09. In their last seven series, they have won six and drawn once. After Gary Kirsten took over, they became the team that they flirted with being at most times since readmission.
To beat them, you have to shove Graeme Smith aside. Confuse Hashim Amla. Hope AB de Villiers is tired. Then survive the bowling attack. And do it all quickly in a shortened series.
If Australia do win 5-0, in the history of cricket it will probably be the worst batting line-up to have ever swept such a long series.
Coming into Melbourne, Chris Rogers was a 36-year-old with a Test average of 31.88 – pretty much the same average that Ed Cowan had when he lost his place. Then England dropped Rogers at the MCG and he made his second hundred and cemented his place for South Africa. He’s obviously not rubbish, but at his age, he doesn’t need balls bouncing back through his legs on to the stumps. Chances are, no matter how good his career goes, at his age, he’ll be a batting coach or commentator by the next time Australia are No. 1 in Tests.
David Warner’s form has been amazing, in the second innings when Australia have been smashing the ball everywhere against a Mitch Johnson-ed England. His first innings have shown promise, but he’s never gone through. He still has no overseas Test hundreds and in the one second innings when the pressure was on, he failed. After being dropped. His footwork is always going to get negative feedback but he’s never going to fix it. In South Africa it will be tested every day.
Shane Watson is batting at No. 3 for Australia, with a Test average of 36.56, and you can see why Darren Lehmann may not have backed him completely as a batsman. It still makes more sense for Watson to bat at No. 5 or No. 6, but then Australia would have no one to bat at three. In the first innings of this series, he has been woeful, but he made a happy slap hundred in Perth, and guided Australia home at Melbourne. Still important, still frustrating, and still a massive lbw candidate.
Michael Clarke has a bad back, and a sensational home record. If he can recreate that away from home, and his back stays good, he’ll be a good player to ride to No. 1.
Steven Smith is one of three Trent Woodhill (a see ball, hit ball batting coach) disciples who have made hundreds this series. He made another in England, and gave another way. In India, as his team-mates cried into their cornflakes, he came in and showed guts and feet. Here was another hundred that proved how tough he is. But he’s still only averaging 37.41 in Test cricket. It’s because Smith either makes runs, or fails. There is no in between. His bowling, and fielding are both useful but, at No. 5, he needs to make it as a batsman. He is probably a six, and maybe so is Watson, and it looks like Bailey might be as well.
George Bailey may not even make it to South Africa. Or Clarke could retire and he becomes captain. One is more likely than the other.
There was no shock as Australia lost early wickets. It was green, Australia had been put in, and throughout this Ashes (and the entire mega Ashes) Australia have struggled to score in the first innings. There was no shock that Haddin saved them either. It may have been moving around, and in his bad times he would have nicked off playing a shocking shot, but that wouldn’t have felt natural in this series. It all happened exactly as it has for five Tests.
Australia failed, England failed harder. Haddin prevailed.
Australia are old, have a frail batting line up and are relying on a 36-year-old wicketkeeper more than any team should. They shouldn’t get to No. 1, but then they shouldn’t have won this series without a fully functioning top six. Even with a fully functioning Brad Haddin behind it.
Alastair Cook tweeting about his surprise wedding and putting up a picture of him leading his new bride on a white stallion would seem odd. As would a picture of Michael Clarke dressed in military fatigues or with a dead deer at his feet. Cook isn’t about to make much of his body a canvas or become an underwear model. Clarke isn’t likely to wear gumboots and tend to his livestock before dawn. Clarke and Cook are two very different human beings.
A Google image search of Michael Clarke will come back with a man who has posed for as many cameras as any wannabe starlet. Red carpets, underwear shots, shoots for GQ, he has done them all. If you’re an Australian cricket fan under 20, you could be forgiven for thinking Michael Clarke has spent your entire life staring back at you in a sultry way or with a painted on smile.
Cook’s image search is mostly made up on him looking stern or pensive. Generally on the field, or at a press conference. There are very few shots of him doing anything fun (painting nude girls and holding up a cricket bat in a naked shoot are the exceptions, not the rule). On the occasion he does pose, you often get a look at his hypnotising eyes, eyes that seem to trap you, and which would be better used by a dystopian dictator looking to instill fear into the population.
Clarke’s image and game has been sharpened and pushed by a series of well-meaning people. Some who have made much money and great reputations from a stylish batsman. Like many working-class kids who find money and fame early on, he made the most of it. He bought showy cars, lived in the flashy part of town, ate at the cafes where the paparazzi hung out, and dated a C-grade celebrity.
Slowly he grew out of that. At its worst, his hometown paper called him a tosser, he felt the need to tweet an apology for not walking, and he was booed at the SCG in his first Test as captain.
Cook’s life has always been a bit more straightforward. He went to Bedford, a school with Nobel Laureates, Olympians and the school attended by Sir George Arthur Harwin Branson, Richard Branson’s grandfather. He was a chorister at St Paul’s Cathedral School. Two-and-a half years into his international career he had his first book out. In it he tried hard to distance himself from his middle class background, but a few paragraphs later talked of how his family often skied.
He is barely seen off the cricket field, isn’t the face of many products and almost unbelievably for a professional sportsman of his age, isn’t on twitter. Cook left his wedding in a tractor.
The off-field images of them are also pretty accurate of the way they play.
Cook looks after himself, does what he has to do, isn’t always stylish or pretty, but is damn effective. Leads from the front at No. 1. Takes few chances. It has been written that if he had to, Alastair Cook would give birth. It wouldn’t be pretty, but he would get it done. Robotic and efficient, at his best he makes massive scores without a bead of sweat. The sort of leader his country has always respected.
Clarke is stylish on and off the field (I’m sure that line has been used in the thousands of lifestyle pieces on him). When he started he was brash and aggressive, now he is smooth and reliable. Bats down the order, in part, to shield himself from the swinging ball. Willing to gamble, but never as much as people say. A nervous starter with pretty feet who once set, especially in his home country, is almost impossible to dislodge. A new leader for a changing country.
But Cook and Clarke have had amazingly similar cricket careers. They even both married women they knew before they could realistically be presumed to be future Test captains.
Clarke started in Bangalore with a blazing hundred. Baggy green on his head, he was the symbol for Australia winning their final frontier in India. Cook started in Nagpur, holding England’s top order together with a half century in the first innings. Then making a hundred in the second dig to push the game beyond India’s reach.
Both had major obstacles to overcome once they had been in the side for a few years. Cook’s technique had never been textbook, but with a stagnating career average (it was roughly 42 for 30 Tests), and a sudden angled bat that kept nicking off, Cook had to do something just to get on the tour to Australia in 10/11. In the second innings of a game Pakistan were dominating, Cook made 110. Two Tests later he would play Australia at the Gabba.
Clarke was the golden boy of Australian cricket. He had won in India. Taken on the English bowlers. And seemed indestructible. But he got trapped in a vicious cycle as the boy who didn’t want to be dropped. The worse his form got, the more the press talked about this once in a generation boy not being the missing link. It seemed like he could think of little else. Eventually he was dropped. But thanks to a gift that has happened to many Australian batsmen (a Shane Watson injury) Clarke was brought back, cleaned up his game, kept the ball on the ground and made lots of runs.
They both know what it’s like to play in one of their countries’ most successful teams. Clarke came into the team in 2004, has won a World Cup, and enjoyed everything that goes with being the number one Test team in the world. Cook was a major part of England becoming number one, and producing a new, if albeit brief, golden era for English cricket.
Both were also the apprentices for the top job well before they got it. Despite much psychological testing, a thorough interview process and England’s endeavour to do things by the book, Alastair Cook was only not getting the job if he shot Giles Clarke in a hunting accident.
In the modern era no new Australian captain has been as hated as Michael Clarke was. Yet, there simply was not another option when Ricky Ponting stepped down. Strauss and Cook would appear far more similar than Ponting and Clarke, but the “break your arm” comment would suggest that both men learn from their seniors.
As captains, both men have averaged more than their career average. Cook even managing to do so without the very constant daddy hundreds he made under Strauss. His overall average should still be higher, but despite this he will retire England’s highest-ever scoring Test batsman, unless a giant anvil lands on him within the next two years. Clarke is averaging a staggering 63 as captain despite the fact he took over after one of the worst summers of his career. In the summer of 2010/11 Clarke averaged 17 in seven Tests. Suddenly being called a tosser and booed wasn’t his biggest problem.
They both changed their careers, and public perceptions, with Everest runs. Before Cook’s innings at the Gabba last Ashes, he was seen as a one-dimensional plodder who could score handy runs but wasn’t a game or series changer. That one innings, followed up with Adelaide, changed how everyone saw him. In two series against India he did it again. And suddenly the plodder became a batting monolith.
Clarke had taken over as full-time captain for tours to Sri Lanka and South Africa. As is often the way, Australian tours, Ashes aside, are not really poured over the same way. Instead of 20 to 40 press in the box, it’s two to four. Instead of free to air, it’s cable. So, even though Clarke played one of his greatest innings in South Africa and drew an away series with a heavyweight, few noticed.
They did notice when Australia managed only to draw a home series against New Zealand. So in his next series, against a rapidly declining India, he had to win, and win grand. The winning took care of itself when at Sydney he changed his public perception (probably forever) with a triple century whilst wearing the baggy green. Tosser pretty boy was gone; true Australian hero was born.
As captains, both men lead much as they play. Clarke is attacking and stylish, yet still flawed. He’s not the tactical genius he gets credit for, nor the terrible man manager everyone assumed. He has survived two coaches being sacked, stood down from his selectorial duties and is currently running a team much in his own image. Not for the first time Australian cricket looks like it could be getting something right, but it’s fallen hard on its face in recent times after good series. Whether they are playing well or not, Australia still seems one massive collapse from a disaster, something Clarke’s batting will try to hold together.
Cook’s captaincy is well thought out, predictable and safe. He took over a machine that had just started to show some wear and tear. Strauss, Hugh Morris and Geoff Miller are all gone or going, Andy Flower is the only one who remains from England’s amazing two years. When Cook took over, he fixed the broken Pietersen situation, defeated India from behind and then won the Ashes. He was on a roll.
Now his team has run into Mitchell Johnson, every flaw they had has been opened up. His team currently look a bit like him, out of answers, and unable to capture the magic they had previously. But they are still the team that made it to number one, with most of the original playing parts still here. Cook and his team can still turn this around.
Somehow these two men with similar cricket histories and vastly different personalities have ended up playing their 100th Tests together. Thanks to Mitchell Johnson, the news is not really about them. And with Sachin clocking up 200, and many other players passing 150, 100 Tests is no longer the number played by the only the iron men of cricket. Clarke has brought his up in under 10 years, Cook in under eight.
You could argue who is greater and who has achieved more, but such conversations are mostly useless and should be kept in bars or 2am twitter fights where they belong. They’re both pretty damn good. And they both have interesting futures as leaders.
Clarke will hope this isn’t a fluke and Australia is finally back. Cook will be trying to work out what has caused this decline, and what to do next.
Before this series Clarke had the Ashes loss and Ricky Ponting’s book to contend with. People had openly started questioning whether he was the right man to lead Australia forward. Mike Hussey’s book brought back the Clarke/Katich rift, and even the Hussey/Clarke rift, even if in both cases Hussey was trying to be nice. Alastair Cook just tended to his sheep and gave the occasional positive press conference.
There are still many photos to be taken of them in their careers, or even in this series. Clarke’s current twitter avatar is one of him looking disappointed in the rain of Old Trafford. The promotional photos for the Ashes before the series have Cook with an easy smile on his face, next to a stern Michael Clarke. Right now, those photos could be reversed.