THE WEEK THAT WAS: NOBODY REALLY expected the massively depleted Australian one-day cricket team to do it easy when their five-match one-day series started this week – and they didn’t. It wasn’t all bad but there were some worrying signs for the captain, says Chief Writer RON REED:
THERE IS no shortage of goodwill for Australia’s new cricket captain Tim Paine, who presents as the ideal antidote to the ugly image generated by the Cape Town ball tampering catastrophe. He says all the right things and no-one doubts that he will carry out the “new era” brief with determination and respect. So it’s far too early to be nitpicking about his performance after just one of the five one-day matches that constitute the so-called redemption tour that got under way in England this week.
That said, it wasn’t an impressive start – not for the team or for the new skipper, personally. Fresh from being beaten by Scotland, England won comfortably by three wickets with six overs to spare – but that’s forgivable. Given the tourists were without their two best batsmen (Steve Smith and David Warner), their three best fast bowlers (Mitchell Starc, Pat Cummins and Josh Hazelwood), their best all-rounder (Mitchell Marsh) and, probably, their best spinner, Nathan Lyon, who is on hand and available but simply not selected – again.
But why did Paine choose to bat himself in the top five, ahead of the much more dangerous and accomplished Glenn Maxwell? And when he did, why, with the ship listing badly at 3-70, would he virtually make a gift of his wicket with an ambitious reverse sweep which he should know by now is scarcely his forte. According to the Cricviz website, it was the 14th reverse sweep he has played in ODIs and three of them have cost him his wicket. Paine is no batting rabbit, of course – he averages a tick over 30 from his 31 ODIs, which is useful but not enough to justify him attempting to play as a specialist top-order performer, especially as he does not score quickly. He said after the match – stated the obvious, really – that in one-dayers it is all about getting enough runs from the top five, which he, Travis Head, Aaron Finch, Shaun Marsh and Marcus Stoinis conspicuously failed to do. Presumably the idea was to hold the flamboyant Maxwell back for one of his signature blitzes in the last 20 overs – but that was putting the cart before the horse, and Maxwell under too much pressure when the early wickets fell. Paine’s day got no better when he dropped a catch off Jos Buttler, perhaps a symptom of the pressure he was feeling.
The team was poorly selected, with four specialist quicks plus Stoinis, plus Ashton Agar’s unconvincing left-arm spin, and was obviously a batsman short. Paine can’t be blamed for that, with new coach Justin Langer certain to have had far more say than the captain, and the selectors taking even more responsibility.
Between them all, and even allowing for the experimental nature of the campaign, they got it wrong. That said, it is no catastrophe, and nor would it be if the entire series went the same way with the World Cup countdown now inside 12 months. The stars will all be back by then, presumably, and with a great deal to prove.
It is legitimate, however, to wonder whether Paine will be still holding the reins by then or even in the team, given South Australian Alex Carey’s impressive work with gloves and bat in domestic cricket demanding that he be given a chance sooner rather than later. If not Paine in charge, who? It seems unlikely to be Smith and it most certainly won’t be Warner, who has been rightly barred from ever captaining Australia again in any format. From this distance it might become a toss-up between Finch and his old mate Maxwell, who has made it known he is desperate to be trusted with more responsibility. Given his uneasy relationship with Smith in the recent past, it would be a brave move to install Maxwell in the job, making him effectively the boss of the bloke who ticked him off last year for not training hard enough. As they say, we live in interesting times.
KEVIN PIETERSEN played more than 100 Test matches for England which sometimes was forgotten a bit as he turned himself into a Twenty20 gun for hire over the past few years of his colourful career. But the retired superstar earned plenty of applause during the week with a passionate call to protect the traditional long form of the noble old game. Pietersen’s speech was controversial before he even opened his mouth because he was giving the annual MAK Pataudi lecture, the first foreigner ever invited to do so, much to the irritation of the traditionalists.
His topic was well-timed, given it was in the week of the historic first Test ever played by Afghanistan, itself just a couple of weeks after Ireland made its Test debut with a strong performance against Pakistan.
Pietersen did not speak in half-measure. “In my opinion, a hard-fought five-day Test match remains the greatest all-round challenge in modern day sport,” he said. “A challenge as mentally demanding as it is physical. A challenge demanding the very highest levels of concentration and technique, of determination, of stamina, all, for the batsman at least, with no second chances. Having played every form of cricket in every corner of the cricketing globe, I remain 100 per cent convinced that the five-day Test remains the supreme form of the game.” He said he was in no way denigrating T20 but suggested “it offers the cricketing buzz without the full sting. Wickets are less precious. Risks are taken without the same downside. There is less character and technique required. Few players have ever been met with the wrath of an entire population simply for getting out to an injudicious shot early in a T20 innings.”
Pietersen said that for Test cricket to maintain its status, it needed to be marked better, as T20 had been. “Let’s not compromise on entertainment – let’s make Test cricket a spectacle. Garnish it with colour and fireworks. Fill the grounds. Play in the evenings. Give the umpires microphones to broadcast to the spectators. Allow sledging as long as it remains on the right side of the line. Communicate better with the fans.”
The players had to be convinced to make Test cricket a priority and for that to happen they had to be paid as much as they are in T20. “It’s remarkably simple,” he said. “They are professionals, they are brands in their own right. You can’t blame a player for seeking financial security through his or her sporting talent. The days of amateurism are gone. Let’s not kid ourselves that players will choose a classical art form over something requiring less effort that attracts greater rewards. When the greatest players can attract the greatest income by playing the greatest form of the game, then we will see nothing but a renaissance in Test cricket.”
In theory, Pietersen is on the money, so to speak. But in most Test playing nations, the gap in interest is so vast, that it’s going to take a lot more than a bit of razzle-dazzle to get the people back in big enough numbers to reinvigorate the entire Test match economy. Remarkably simple? If only.
EDDIE Betts has long been just about this Carlton-centric column’s favourite footballer, and that didn’t change when he left for Adelaide – possibly the most regrettable loss of all the good players that have discarded their navy blues guernseys in the past decade or so. He is not only such a productive forward but such an interesting player to watch, constantly conjuring up magical goals from out of nowhere. And he engages with the fans more than most players can be bothered to do.
During the week, he provided another good reason to salute him. Confronted with a racist jibe on social media from a teenage schoolboy, Betts thought long and hard about what to do. Yes, it had to be called out for what it was – but he declined to name the boy in case it led to him being bullied at school. That’s turning the other cheek in a very classy fashion. Hopefully the guilty kid will learn a much-needed lesson in life from Eddie’s example.
SOME interesting outcomes in the Footy Record’s annual survey of what the fans think. One that rings true is the response to the question of whether you would follow the women’s comp if your club fielded a team. A whopping 74 per cent said no, 26 per cent yes. That tells you that for all the hype surrounding the girls’ game, it is still far from the unqualified success story that the AFL would have you believe. Which is not to suggest that the women should be deprived of their opportunities and encouragement, only that the reality is that it is gaining traction only slowly. This may eventually be reflected in their capacity to command free-to-air TV time. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the Record’s over-arching article summarising the survey outcomes made no mention of this one.
The media is a huge part of footy these days – but which media? Asked how they get their footy news, the most popular answers from the fans were the AFL app (62 per cent), TV (61) and the AFL website (60). The most traditional form of footy media, newspapers, came in at just 24 per cent, with online newspapers at 22. Given that the percentages added up to 408 – not sure how that works! – it’s difficult to know how seriously to take this.
SPORTSMAN OF THE WEEK: Winning the French Open for the 11th time might put RAFAEL NADAL into contention for sportsman of the year, not just the week – especially if he has a big Wimbledon.
WINNER OF THE WEEK: The Scottish cricket team pulled off one of the best upsets ever when it knocked off England, the world’s No 1 ranked team, in a one-dayer. Pity the Australians couldn’t emulate the feat.
LOSER OF THE WEEK: Imagine coaching your country’s soccer team to the World Cup, where you are among the favourites to win – and then getting the bullet a couple of days out from kick-off! Take a bow, Spain’s Julen Lopetegui, who learned the hard way that if you’re negotiating a new job – he had just signed up with Real Madrid – there is something to be said for keeping your current bosses in the loop. Not a mistake Melbourne Storm’s in-demand Craig Bellamy has made.
RON REED has spent more than 50 years as a sportswriter or sports editor, mainly at The Herald and Herald Sun. He has covered just about every sport at local, national and international level, including multiple assignments at the Olympic and Commonwealth games, cricket tours, the Tour de France, America’s Cup yachting, tennis and golf majors and world title fights.