For three days at the MCG, my outlandish predictions of Australia winning the toss and England winning, had me cock-a-hoop – so long as I ignored my call for Moneyball stats that would pull the curtain on Cook, Anderson and Broad, who were far and away England’s best players.
(Some of you may know that last Ashes in England we stayed with Alastair Cook’s in-laws in Bedfordshire, where Alastair, wife Alice and baby Elsie were also living while their own place a mile away was being renovated. In the flesh he was just as nice as he looked during his long innings at the MCG. I have to say I prefer his quiet and modest celebration of milestones to the raucous rubbish many Aussies perform.)
Hopes for Sydney
My big hope for my annual trek up the Hume Highway to the SCG is that its curator and the Trust have got the message about leaving some grass and moisture in the pitch so we have a test of skill.
Years ago, from the SCG Members’, I watched Alan Davidson give the most marvellous display of swing bowling as he took 3 for 5 that could have 7 for 5, so often did he miss the edge of the bat. The collective oohs and aahs from the crowd I can still remember as the ball swung both ways at serious pace on what was then a fast, bouncy, green pitch that the spinners also loved.
In contrast, 3 years back, I watched Warner and Chris put on 200 at nearly a run a ball against India on Day 1, and as much as I enjoyed it personally, it felt like it was taking candy from kids, so benign was the pitch and so little swing was evident for India’s swing king Bhuvnesh Kumar.
Even the MCG has conceded that its drop-in pitches are a problem. Why it’s taken them so long to realise that is a worry. A lifetime ago I saw John Maley put down a dozen experimental half-pitches at the WACA prior to its ground re-build, aiming to work out which combination of clay-soil and grass type etc, would work best. He may well have got it wrong in the end, but in these days of the MCG having a power station and a waste water treatment plant underneath the ground itself, you’d think there’d be some experimentation going on somewhere to get better drop-in pitches.
But is it the balls?
The Kookaburra cricket ball is just as culpable – it just doesn’t swing anymore and it moves less off the pitch. England have two of its best ever in both categories – Anderson with swing and Broad with seam – and each has been rendered toothless. Australia is winning this series largely on the back of bully-boy tactics – bowl fast at English heads. A bit like rugby union has become with fields too small these days for 15 players so the only way through is to have huge south sea island behemoth types smashing at the opposition, with skill a thing of the past.
When machine making of cricket balls took over back in the 90s, a past WA swing bowler Ken MacLeay living on his Angus stud property in Margaret River was invited up to Perth to show the youngsters how to swing it. “Yuri” (as he was nicknamed for seemingly being away in the stratosphere like Yuri Gagarin), asked for a ball to demonstrate, and when handed a couple, said there was no way he’d be able to swing balls like these, walked out of the room, and drove 300kms back home. And in the 20 years or so since, nothing seems to have changed. For mine I reckon Cricket Australia should give Kookaburra one season to get swing back, and if it doesn’t then try someone who can, like England’s Dukes ball.
My tip for this one? Anything like a green-top and I’ll tip the poms with Anderson and Broad having the edge. A typical SCG boring one, then Australia easily. The Poms have had a goodish test, but Smith, Warner, Lyon and the quicks will be far too good if we have another easy-paced deck.
Happy New Year!