Monday, 28 January 2008

Sehwag's return shows Australia have much to fear come October

It may have ended with a day of anticlimax, but this Australia-India series continued the rich tradition of recent encounters between the two sides. After batting meekly in Melbourne, India matched Australia over the next three encounters. Only a combination of egregious umpiring decisions and Michael Clarke's outrageous over cost them a draw - at least - at Sydney, which would have seen a repeat of the 1-1 draw down under four years ago.

Either way, it is clear this is now cricket's premier rivalry, with Ashes clashes too often one-sides, and India-Pakistan games too often run feasts lacking real quality. We will not have long to wait for the sequel either; Australia's October tour promises to be another epic, with Adam Gilchrist's retirement leaving a gaping whole although, in truth, Brad Haddin will probably bat and keep better than Gillie has done since the start of the 2005 Ashes, averaging just 30 and dropping too many catches. Nonetheless, there is no denying his status as one of the greatest keeper-batsmen of all time; I named him in my Greatest Test XI.

In all likelihood, we will not witness too many changes in personnel before the next series, with a number of players on both sides - Matthew Hayden, who scored three hundreds in three matches, Rahul Dravid and Sourav Ganguly, who were both a touch disappointing - perhaps considering making it their last series. Sachin Tendulkar, with a pair of resplendent 150s, should certainly not be amongst them. Happily, Adelaide marked the resurgence of Virender Sehwag after two years of mediocrity. His flashing blade will prevent India repeating the mistake of this series, when Dravid and Wasim Jaffer began the series scoring excruciatingly slowly, handing the initiative to Australia immediately.

That was gratefully seized by Brett Lee, who has now recorded consecutive Man of the Series awards, and is, belatedly, mastering consistency and becoming the consummate fast bowler. However, Mitchell Johnson was erratic at times, Stuart Clark's effectiveness lessened as the series progressed while Brad Hogg's Test career could now be over after receiving brutal treatment from the Indians. For once, Australia's batsmen did not have it all their own way either; India will have delightful memories of how they capitalised on Hayden's absence at Perth. In Ishant Sharma, they have unearthed a prodigious pace-bowling talent, while Irfan Pathan, like Sehwag, seems rejuvenated. Throughout, Anil Kumble led by proud example, bowling with tremendous guile and willpower, and batting with courage and real skill.

As India were twice skittled for sub-200 scores in the opening Test, it was hard to envisage them seriously challenging Australia thereafter. But, testament to the mental fortitude that exists within the side, that is what they did. Australia remain number one, of course, but their golden age is yellowing round the edges. Role on October, when India's band of ageing greats have a genuine chance of adding to their sensational 2001 triumph.

Tuesday, 22 January 2008

A chink in the immortal armour

Aussie tragics such as myself must be wondering by now. How did it happen? Was it the loss of Matthew Hayden? Some dodgy umpiring decisions? A glitch in the Matrix perhaps? Or are we just not as invincible as was once thought?

It's a strange question. 16 test wins in a row, and just three losses in their last 20 test matches, but already there is talk that the loss of Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath, plus Justin Langer and Damien Martyn, has created a downward spiral in Australian cricket that could see this once immortal team suddenly become another bunch of average Joes trying to win a few cricket matches.

Calls such as this are, for now, premature. Despite the fact that the Indian team partied with similar elation and joy that they showed after winning the Twenty20 World Cup, which for Australia seemed to compare with the AFL's NAB Cup as an unnecessary precursor to the real thing. In fact, it was almost as if Australia was down in the series, rather than their healthy 2-1 lead, one might have even suspected that India had just won it, or something bigger, rather than simply claiming victory in a single match.

That's not to take anything away from India either, they played magnificently, and despite the occasional time where Australia is down but fights back, India became the first team since 2005's Ashes winning England to keep the foot on the pedal and to actually claim victory in a test match. Led by VVS Laxman, the evergreen veteran, and new skipper Anil Kumble, who could see the same fame and praise as the last giant slayer, Michael Vaughan, if he can claim the final test.

Of course, the Australians will fight hard, as they always do, to avoid drawing a home series with India, as they did the last time the Indians toured. One of the major differences seemed to be a lack of experience, with the incumbent Matthew Hayden injured, and rookie Shaun Tait coming in for the more experienced (if only in limited overs and first class cricket) Brad Hogg. It is probable that Australia will shy away from a four pronged pace attack for quite a while now, after a slow over rate forced Ricky Ponting to bowl his part timers more than the young speedster.

But where Tait failed to impress, Indian youngster Ishant Sharma was quite the opposite, with a hostile spell against world number 1 batsman Ricky Ponting stumping the skipper and finally finding the edge of Ponting's trusty Kookaburra to claim his scalp and break up a crucial partnership. That was where the downhill stuff began, as Mike Hussey, like Ponting, went in the 40's, sloggers Andrew Symonds and Adam Gilchrist failing, and Michael Clarke finally departing after a hard earned 50. It says a lot that tailenders Mitchell Johnson and Stuart Clark showed no fear in carting the bowlers around to take the deficit to within 100 runs, but eventually failing.

Looking forward, the final test at the Adelaide Oval shapes up to be a cracker, with Australia trying to get an Indian monkey (ah the irony) off their back - to beat India in a test series - and to hold off the Indian charge. The return of Hayden will be crucial, whilst I wouldn't mind seeing in form Victorian leg spinner Bryce McGain given a go ahead of Brad Hogg, who just doesn't do it for me. I would also like the popular Andrew Symonds to be dropped, it is too risky to have him and Gilchrist in the same side when our middle order is out of form. Bring in David Hussey, the younger brother of Mike is on fire for Victoria and is a fantastic middle order batsman. If you want an all-rounder, then Ashley Noffke should be considered with his great recent results for Queensland shining in both disciplines.

Certainly Australia will need to lift their game to beat India, who once again have showed themselves as real challengers to an Australian throne and dynasty. Can the Aussies come back, or will India draw the series? The final test will certainly be a cracker.

Final note: I recently returned from a holiday, so have had no writing time, and I certainly have quite a few opinions regarding the second test in Sydney, and apologize for the recent lack of writing. I have a draft that I may publish sometime if demand is high.

Monday, 21 January 2008

Kumble and Laxman challenge Australia's hegemony

How much we can all read into a solitary game of cricket. A week ago Australia were a superhuman side who, even if they had to cross the line in doing so, would simply always find a way to win. Now they are merely a brilliant side about to embark on the way down.

There are a number of areas of perceived fallibility India will look to exploit at Adelaide where, considering they won there four years ago on a pitch reasonably conducive to spin, they will rightly believe they can level the series. These include the opening pair - though this will be less vulnerable if Matt Hayden returns; Adam Gilchrist, undeniably in decline although still able to play the occasional superlative knock; and the fourth bowler, most likely to be Brad Hogg.

Whatever happens in the final Test, however, there is little doubt that India are now the second best side in the world. Following on from two impressive series victories over England and Pakistan, there have responded superbly to a thrashing at Melbourne. In Anil Kumble, they have a combative and proud skipper whose attributes have rubbed off upon his team-mates. As was the case last time in Australia, he has bowled with guile and gumption, becoming the third man to take 600 Test wickets in the process.

Their seam attack has progressed superbly of late. The rejuivinated Zaheer Khan is an admirable leader of the attack; but, indicative of the resilience of this side, his team-mates have risen to the challenge of his injury. At Perth, they exposed the Australian fallibility to top-class swing bowling. RP Singh is developing into Zhan's heir, able to curve the ball round corners, while Irfan Pathan reminded everyone why the cricketing world were so excited about his emergence four years ago. He batted with class in both innings, looking a bona fide Test number seven, and adds real batting depth when at eight. With the ball, he twice claimed both of Australia's openers; high-quality, controlled swing will always be able to test the best around. And then there was Ishant Sharma. His figures this series belies his talent: no one who witnessed the manner in which he worked out Ricky Ponting, and twice dismissed him, will doubt he is a major talent.

India meekly succumbed with the bat in the opening Test. But their batting has been transformed since, with Rahul Dravid rediscovering his obduracy, Sachin Tendulkar resplendent, and Virender Sehwag showing the merit of an aggressive opener. Yet again, however, VVS Laxman has risen to the Australian challenge, whether playing at three or six. His wristiness and ease playing off the back foot mark him out as one of the most dazzling players around; watching him in full flow is to watch batsmanship at its best. Frankly, he has underachieved in only averaging 44. But, at 33, there are signs that he has a new-found steeliness, and is no longer as prone to ending spectacular cameos with a loose shot. Over the next two years or so, Laxman has the chance to emerge as India's best batsman and cement the reputation his brilliant talents deserve.

Another majestic century at Adelaide would be as good a way as any to start. Australia are rattled and looking a little vulnerable. Under Kumble, India are imbued with a fighting spirit and resilience they have not always been associated with. Whatever happens in the final Test, India have the players to defeat Australia when they meet in India later this year. 'Too much cricket' is a common refrain, but no one will be complaining if Australia-India contests match the intensity and quality of the last two games.

Friday, 18 January 2008

Just jobs for the boys?

The news that Geoff Miller has been appointed National Selector is, in truth, pretty underwhelming. Miller and David Graveney, the outgoing Chairman of Selectors, have both had their jobs tinkered with a little, creating the suspicion of the new roles created by the Schofield Report merely being 'jobs for the boys'.

The two part-time selectors, James Whittaker and Ashley Giles, come as something of a surprise. Whittaker has had a distinguished involvement with cricket and may be able to provide a slightly 'fresh' perspective. Giles has been chosen for his proximity to the game, having played his last Test only 13 months ago, which in theory makes good sense. However, there are a few potential problems with his appointment. Will his role as Warwickshire's Director of Cricket create scope for a conflict of interest? And, perhaps more significantly, is he too close to the side? An amiable man who is particularly close to the skipper Michael Vaughan, will Giles have the gumption to advocate the dropping of an Ashes 2005 team-mate?

After the appointments of Mike Gatting and Hugh Morris in other roles created by the Schofield report, England look to have assembled a fairly sound team to help them avert their slump. Graveney did a reasonable job but, after 11 years and with many believing him to be too easily influenced by Ian Botham, the time is right for a change, although the decision to retain him in some capacity smacks of indecision and a lack of ruthlessness. It is also a great shame that, owing to the extra money and comfort provided by jobs in the media, Mike Atherton and Nasser Hussain, two strong-willed men who should be at the forefront of England's attempts to close the gap on Australia, are nowhere to be seen. Competing with other countries is hard enough; but competing with Sky is near-impossible.

Thursday, 17 January 2008

Arrogant Warne in danger of damaging his legacy

Shane Warne's status as one of the greatest players to play the game of cricket is undisputed. Yet there are worrying signs that, as he embarks on probably his final season for Hampshire, he is in danger of damaging his legacy.

As skipper of Hampshire, Warne has been excellent, imbuing his team-mates with evident self-belief - which palpably drops when he is not on the pitch - and taking them close to the Championship on several occasions. He claims his motivation to win the County Championship is the primary reason why he did not retire after Australia emphatically regained the Ashes a year ago.

Any captain of a county could reasonbly be expected to play a full and active part in pre-season preparation, to endeavour to prepare his side for probably the biggest prize on offer outside of the international game. Warne should be hatching strategies with the coach and senior players, whilst assessing how his squad are shaping up for a Championship hilt. Instead, he will play in the Indian Premier League, earning copious sums for a few weeks of Twenty20 action. Ironically, he does not play for Hampshire in the Twenty20 Cup, saying he needs a mid-season break. This year, he will be jetting off to Las Vegas during the Twenty20 Cup, to play poker. However, that appears not to be the end of it, as he is contracted to play in further tournaments in the UK and New Zealand.

Due to his commitments with the IPL, Warne will definitely miss the opening Championship game, at home to county champions Sussex. If this really is his last season, Warne would be better off committing fully to Hampshire, ensuring they have the best possible chance of winning the Championship he claims to covet so much. Instead he is making life extremely difficult for the county, necessitating the recruitment of locum overseas players because he cannot resist other options.

In jumping from one lucrative exploit to the next, and fitting in a few games for Hampshire around his other commitments, Warne is giving the appearance of believing himself too big to spend a season in the mundane settings of county cricket, preferring to chase the dollar elsewhere. How he will be able to achieve an 'all-for one and one-for-all' mentality whilst giving the appearance of considering himself above his team-mates is something of a mystery. After all, what sort of leader abandons his team-mates to earn yet more cash, whilst hoping to seize the glory if they lift trophies? A legend, yes, but in danger of being perceived as a very arrogant man too.

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Friday, 11 January 2008

Ponting's fortress

Ricky Ponting has an extraordinary record as Australian captain. In his 39 Tests in charge the Australians have racked up 31 wins, 5 draws and just 3 losses. All of the losses have occurred away from home, though Australia's record on their travels is still very impressive - 11 wins, 3 draws and 3 losses in the 17 Tests they have played.

Yet it is at home that Ponting's Australians have set new standards. On familiar turf, backed by their vociferous supporters, they have won 20 of the 22 Tests they have played, drawing the other two.

Most of the top Test playing nations have good home records, as you would expect when a team has the advantages of familiarity with the pitches and conditions, crowd support and the comforts of home, but the Australians under Ponting have taken it to a new level.

Playing their brand of hard, aggressive cricket, Australia have attacked the opposition from the beginning, never relaxing the pressure until victory has been achieved. This has incurred criticism from some quarters, but the results cannot be argued with. Under Ponting, Australia are literally unbeatable at home.

The only flaw in Ponting's record came at the hands of the old enemy, England, when he was forced to hand over the Ashes after a 2-1 loss away from home. Having suffered a lot of personal criticism for the loss, as well as the team being written off, Ponting sought to prove himself once again.

It is no surprise that he chose to do so back at home. In the 21 Tests since the Ashes defeat Australia have won 20, drawing the other one. Of those 21 matches 16 have been at home, the other 5 being 2 in Bangladesh and 3 in South Africa. Those 21 Tests have also included the recent world record equalling 16 wins in a row, 11 of which came at home, including the last 9.

Given their amazing level of dominance at home it may be that Ponting's men will be asked to play all their future Tests away, just to give the other Test playing nations a chance to bridge the yawning gulf between them and the Australians.

Tuesday, 8 January 2008

No sympathy for professional umpires

Test umpires are well paid professionals who should be able to do their job competently. When they fail to do so they should be subject to some form of disciplinary procedure, as most people failing to do their job properly would expect to face.

Somehow this obvious point is overlooked in the world of Test cricket, where the umpires are more akin to bastions of the game than people with a job to do. They are heavily protected by the ICC in an arena where players, whose careers are on the line, are required not to show them dissent, no matter how appalling their decision may be.

Supposedly every Test umpire is assessed on their performance in each match, yet they are rarely disciplined or fired, despite the atrocious decisions that crop up in most Tests. The ICC seems unable to provide enough top quality officials and to give them the adequate technology and procedures to carry out their job.

When umpires are removed from office it is for the wrong reasons. The sad thing about Darrell Hair and Steve Bucknor is not that they were removed from umpiring, but that it took pressure from cricket boards to force the ICC's hand, when International cricket's governing body should have acted itself.

The bottom line for most cricket players and followers is that a match is won by the team that plays the best, not the one that gets the best of the umpiring decisions. In this regard surely the best officials should be sought, trained and given the best tools to do their job as well as possible. If technology can reduce errors then it should be introduced widely. On field umpires should have the flexibility to call on the assistance of third umpires for any decisions that are in doubt. If the doubt persists after viewing replays, etc, then the batsman should receive the benefit of it.

A player's career is in the hands of the umpire, with decisions leading to the stats and performance indicators that decide if a player continues for their team or not. When this is a career at the highest level chances to come back are often at a premium. The old adage that luck evens itself out over a career is made nonsense if all the bad luck comes in a player's first few matches and they never have a career.

Bad decisions made by umpires at crucial times can swing a match and sometimes a series. This state of affairs simply cannot be left to carry on. Improvements in the quality and training of umpires at the highest level must be made and those officials must be given the support of the best technology.

Once these measures are in place those umpires failing to maintain a good level of competence should be dropped and only return when they have proven their ability once again. That is how it is for players and, in the world of professional sport, that is how it should be for officials.

Monday, 7 January 2008

Saluting the Australian machine

The tumultous fall-out to Australia's remarkable victory over India has rather overshadowed their equalling of the Test record 16 wins. Over eight years after the first run began, Australia continue to be imperious and awesome. Their aggressive self-belief is simply phenomenal. Every professional cricketer possesses this, of course, but collectively Australia's is perhaps unsurpassed in cricketing history. And, as the Sydney Test proved, sometimes even the umpires are unable to stand in the way of the juggernaut.

The big test for Australia remains how they will deal with the long-term loss of Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath, two of the five or so greatest bowlers in their history. However, Brett Lee has stepped up to the plate with remarkable - and inevitable - good timing and swiftly seems to be becoming the consummate fast bowler, having already claimed 29 scalps in the four games of this Australia summer. Stuart Clark, meanwhile, has fitted seamlessly into McGrath's void; unerringly consistent, he averages just 20. So, far from having a weak bowling attack, Australia clearly have two of the best seamers in the world. Hope for the rest of the world centres on the indifferent performances of Mitchell Johnson and Brad Hogg against India. If Lee were to get injured, then cracks would start to appear in the bowling line-up. Yet somehow, someone always comes to the fore, as illustrated by the six wickets shared by Andrew Symonds and Michael Clarke in the SCG win.

With the bat, Australia are even more exceptional. While their bowling prowess is likely to wane, they remain, and promise to remain, one of the finest-ever batting units. Additionally, the likes of David Hussey and Simon Katich, both of whom have consistently figured in the highest echelons of the first-class averages in England, are waiting eagerly for a chance, and would be permanent fixtures in many sides by now.

Aided by good batting tracks, short boundaries and less-than-awesome opening bowlers throughout the world, Australia amass scores of 450 with supreme regularity. Matthew Hayden's bludgeoning bat continues to pulverise opponents - and Phil Jaques looks like his heir apparent. Below the openers, Ricky Ponting and Michael Hussey (despite having just played 20 Tests) will almost certainly end their careers as all-time greats, while Clarke and, increasingly, Symonds, are exceptional talents also. What stands out in the batting unit is the incredible hunger for runs, epitomised by Ponting's anguished reaction to being dismissed for 196 in the Brisbane Test against England in 2006. Doing just enough is never enough. The aim is to grind the opposition into the dust, eliminating even the possibility of victory and relenting only when their spirits are spent. England's batsmen, with their penchant for stylish half-centuries, should be watchng in awe.

John Buchanan once remarked that he believed the Australian side could, one day, be genuinely ambidextrous. While that remains one of Buchanan's more curious observations, Australia have pioneered a form of 'total cricket'. Besides Jaques, there are no weak links in the field; their fielding unit is supreme, with players able to field anywhere with distinction. They have no need to play five bowlers when Clarke and Symonds, seemingly relatively innocuous, are able to prove match-winners through sheer force of will, and the intoxicating pressure the side can exert. And the days of tolerating a rabbit at eleven are long since over, such is the side's constant desire for self-improvement. In any other side McGrath's batting would have been allowed to descend into a source of hilarity; instead, he worked indefatigably on being able to hold up an end. The upshot? A once unthinkable Test fifty.

Behind it all lurks Ponting. Villified after the 2005 Ashes, his captaincy skills are now beyond doubt. The side's aggression, win-at-all-costs mentality and downright determination to maximise every ounce of talent also mirror his traits. Australia's supremacy in skill, and personnel, is unquestionable. Yet what sets that apart from the rest, above all, is their collective belief and constant striving for self-improvement. It is a force that transcends mere individuals; as such, their dominance looks sure to last for several years yet.

Saturday, 5 January 2008

Will you be staying long Colonel?!

The outright exclusion from England’s Test, One Day and Lions squads of Matt Prior was this weeks’ big news. Whilst Prior has shown an aptitude for scoring runs at the highest level, against the highest calibre of bowler, the bread and butter business of taking catches has let him down. Many people worried when Prior was first given the gloves that England had another Geraint Jones on their hands, neither good enough with the bat or the gloves to hold the position of England’s wicket keeper. I personally never doubted his ability to deliver the runs. His showings for the ODI side in Pakistan and India were never a true reflection of his ability. Unfortunately though, Prior is not the best wicket keeper in the country and further more he is not even currently in the top five when it comes to catching the ball.

To begin with though, it seemed as though exposure to International Cricket would bring the best from Prior and it served as a boost to his glove work. His performances in the crucial ODI series victory over India were faultless and a few mistakes in the preceding Test matches were seemingly forgotten and forgiven. However, then injury struck. Phil Mustard took over, but he simply proved the fact that brilliant county form means nothing at International level. Whilst he got starts with the bat against Sri Lanka he was far from the player he is for Durham and that was to be expected. So Prior soon returned for the Test match series in Sri Lanka and performed admirably, along with Ian Bell, in the first Test match, prompting the likes of Sam Lyon, Alec Stewart and Jack Russell, amongst others, to declare the arrival of England’s wicket keeper for the next decade.

Oh how the mighty fall though. Less than one month later and Prior has been jettisoned. Eight drops off of Ryan Sidebottom and crucial misses off of Mahela Jayawardene proved to be too much for England’s selectors. Yet his demotion need not be for good according to David Graveney, who has stated that if Prior can improve his glove work away from the media spotlight, then he can reclaim his place and fulfil his undoubted potential as England’s future wicket keeper batsman. It is unlikely that Prior’s replacement will average 40.14 from 17 Test Innings against West Indies, India and Sri Lanka away. However, they will hopefully hold on to more catches, which is the primary job of the wicket keeper. If they do not make runs though, you can guarantee that England will struggle because of their brittle tail and the wicket keeping debate will return to the discussions between cricket lovers up and down the Land once again.

So Colonel Mustard finds himself able to make the first move on Prior’s old job. He will keep wicket in the ODI’s in New Zealand and should he succeed he should in theory be given a chance in the Test series which follows. If not, then Tim Ambrose, once Prior’s deputy at Sussex, will step into the void and become England’s sixth wicket keeper in the space of a year. Whilst all this is ongoing and the likes of Geraint Jones, Chris Read, Paul Nixon, Prior, Mustard and Ambrose are mulling over their International careers, whether past, present or future, there is one player who goes quietly about his work at Essex, continuing to excel with the gloves and perform well with the bat. He is of course James Foster, once the man in possession, discarded because of injury and now seemingly forgotten about. With every passing wicket keeper, his stock grows. However, until he averages more with the bat on a home ground which is often one of the most conducive to batting in the country, he will it seems remain on the periphery of the England set-ups' radar. One further candidate exists, Steven Davies of Worcestershire. Demotion to Division Two will not help his cause, but the young man will be expected to come of age in the next year or so. Let the merry-go-round continue…

Wednesday, 2 January 2008

Lee, Steyn and a most welcome revival

In August Nick wrote a very fine piece lamenting the decline in pace bowling. From the halcyon days of the mid-90s, when opening batsmen were tormented by the likes of Wasim and Waqar, Curtley and Courtney, Donald et al, the quality of quicks has undeniably declined. Moreover, those few opening bowlers who have excelled in the 2000s, principally McGrath and Pollock, have tended to be miserly rather than lethal in pace.

Belatedly, however, the real pacemen seem to be back. A pair of lightning-fast slingers, Shaun Tait and Lasith Malinga, helped make the ODI World Cup more tolerable. Mixing devilish, late-swinging yorkers with inconsistency, they were invariably enthralling to watch: no one knew what was going to happen next. Their actions are so unique that modifying them appears close to impossible, which means they will never become masters of line and length. A good thing too: the more individuality in the game the better.

It has been in recent Tests, however, that the quick-men have reaffirmed their supremacy. Dale Steyn ravaged the admittedly brittle Kiwi battling line-up with consecutive match ten-wicket hauls, indicative of a special talent. His forte is, like so many quicks, the yorker, aided by a terrific bouncer. Although less idiosyncratic than Tait and Malinga, Steyn's action also has a welcome unmodified air, allowing him to generate supremely late swing. Armed with new and old ball alike, he has the ability to create carnage when he gets it right.

For all the exploits of Tait, Malinga, Steyn and the exciting Aussie left-armer Mitchell Johnson, the man who has been most impressive is anything but a new-comer. At 31, Brett Lee should slowly be metamorphosing into a line-and-length merchant. Instead, he has responded magnificently to the task of leading the attack in the post-McGrath era. His joie de vivre and blistering pace have never been in doubt. But now there is more late swing, greater consistency and an improved cricket brain; Lee can work batsmen out as well as blast 'em to the Pavillion. Worryingly for fans hoping Australia's impregnability will be challenged, he seems to be turning into the consummate quick bowler, a fusion of consistency and raw pace, able to be effective even on the least responsive of tracks.

This is not to belittle masters of swing and seam like Stuart Clark and Mohammad Asif, but cricket needs the fast men. Most encouragingly, the West Indies' shock win in South Africa owed much to Jerome Taylor and Fidel Edwards, who could just help to revive the great tradition of West Indian quicks. It has taken too long, but pace really does seem on the up. Just as well, too: watching Lee at his most hostile steaming in to Sangakkara, counter-attacking with audacity and elan, was to witness amongst the most exhilarating sights the game of cricket can provide.

Tuesday, 1 January 2008

Stamp racism out, but at what cost?

Racism is one of the ugliest faces of human nature. Incredibly, it is also one of the most common. Across the world, it has manifested itself as one of, if not the, worst human rights crisis that any of us have ever seen. From the Apartheid regime in South Africa to the holocaust in World War II, people have, for as far back as we can remember, discriminated against others on the basis of skin colour, religion and race.

Cursed, it seems, are minorities. Far from basic human rights, they have always been picked on. Some people have genuine hate for those who are different. Others see them as easy targets. And some enjoy going with the crowd. It is the latter, I suspect, that is the most common. Many people appreciate the difference in cultures, races and religions, and do not care to put others down on the basis of any of those factors, whilst others decide that some of them are not worth respecting or protecting.

Whilst the days where one could be racist without any political, social or legal ramifications are gone, the problem still remains. In particular, sport has always struggled with it. The image of Nicky Winmar responding to some insensitive fans by holding his guernsey up and pointing to his skin is etched into the memories of so many, and Kevin Pietersen’s relocation to England because their racial quota system (which to ensure black cricketers weren’t discriminated against, instead discriminated against white cricketers) kept him out of their system. But the greatest struggle that sport, and indeed cricket specifically – with players of different races touring many countries on a regular basis – has had, is fans.

Two years ago, Australia’s problem was exposed when the South African cricket team complained about Australian spectators racially abusing their players. The issue had existed in Australian crowds for longer than that of course, as this writer knows from personal experience having sat near such fans on several occasions, but the pressure was suddenly on Cricket Australia to crack down on such behaviour.

CA responded, announcing a large campaign to improve behaviour at the cricket, with former fast bowler and cricketing character Mervyn Hughes giving fans ‘A serve from Merv,’ as part of an ad campaign. Action was being taken it seemed, and fans were on their best behaviour according to most reports.

Boxing Day is always a major issue for authorities at the cricket, but despite two pitch invaders and a century of ejections, cricket fans were generally praised for being well behaved. Most of all, it seemed that despite tension between Indian and Australian fans, there had been no racial discrimination going on. After the second day, authorities were still fairly pleased. On this particular day, however, as so often seems to occur, a story was found: Amongst all the ‘you are a wanker’ chants aimed at those - no matter how young - that don’t have the guts - or stupidity - to throw a beach ball after being warned against it by policemen, not to mention the ‘let’s go f’ing mental’ chorus after every wicket, and of course the customary ignorance regarding sexual orientation and opposing batsmen, the Herald Sun picked out a small chant, which had been accompanied by a lot of tension between Australian and Indian fans, and labelled it racist.

The chant in question was, ‘Show us your visas,’ and it was started by a fan who, amongst all the fun going on with fans of both sides throwing whatever they could at each other, decided to say something that was as silly as it was harmless. The Indians did not show offence. They did not report it to the authorities. The policemen, of whom there were plenty in Bay 13, did not bat an eyelid. The Indian fans returned fire with an insult aimed at Australian heritage and culture; ‘Show us your handcuffs,’ and was accompanied by a few single finger gestures. In fact, there were plenty of those coming from that bay.

So what has occurred here? According to the paper, it was racism. Never mind the fact that no one seemed to care too much. Never mind the fact that show us your handcuffs is equally as insulting, and never mind the fact that drunk men at the cricket are not generally supposed to be taken seriously, which most intelligent Indian fans seemed to get. It was a small few who thought they’d complain to get everyone in trouble.

Was this racist? Personally, I doubt it. All day there were rude chants, throughout the game supporters of either nation were more than happy to throw whatever they could come up with at each other. This particular one was selected as racism.

As I said in the beginning, racism is a terrible thing, and must not be allowed to manifest itself as it once did so casually. But do we really need to play such fun police at sporting events? A few years ago, fans would specifically refer to cricketers of a different skin colour with derogatory, downright racist terms. Today, they are being persecuted for making jokes about immigration. Unlike Dean Jones, who called South African Muslim Hashim Amla a terrorist because of his beard, or the Zimbabwean cricket board that often refuses to select white cricketers because of their skin colour, this fan simply made an ignorant, but pretty much harmless, comment to further stir up the fans.

Can’t we just go to the cricket and have fun without being pulled up for racism at every corner? You can’t skull a beer, you can’t play with beach balls, and you can’t wave your arms in the air, so surely we can at least enjoy ourselves by playing around with the opposition?

My advice to journalists and authorities alike is, focus on the ones actually without visas.