Monday, November 27, 2006

sport thoughts


I didn't see much of the rugby at the weekend, as I was out getting muddy in The Cotswolds (see previous post). Couple of brief observations though:

  • Look out for England in the Six Nations. They will almost certainly be better than they've been in the autumn internationals, partly because it's hard to see how they could be any worse, and partly because they'll almost certainly have a new coach by then. Who that'll be is an interesting question. A couple of the West Country boys could be in the frame, I reckon: Richard Hill of Bristol and Dean Ryan of Gloucester. Hill has just signed a new contract with Bristol until (I think) 2010, though, so the RFU would have to shell out to poach him. From a selfish point of view I hope he stays around at Bristol for a while....

  • Look out for Australia in the World Cup. I think the Aussie coaching staff are being a bit cute with all the switching round of positions they've been doing during the autumn series - Giteau at scrum-half, Rogers at outside-half, etc., etc. You can bet your house that, come the World Cup, Stephen Larkham will be back at outside-half, assuming he's fit. He was there for the Scotland game and they instantly looked like a different team. I would play Giteau at inside centre as well (not sure who that leaves to play scrum-half, though). Here's a heretical notion: if Larkham had been fit for the whole 100+ minutes of the 2003 World Cup final, instead of being constantly on and off (and eventually just off) with a facial injury, Australia would have won, for all the heroics Elton Flatley performed with the boot while he was on in Larkham's place.


Two questions to be answered here:

1) Why didn't Australia enforce the follow-on after England's first innings in Brisbane?

Let's start with a bit of scene-setting background. In order to have the option of enforcing the follow-on, a captain has to have done two things:

  • Batted first (either by winning the toss and batting, or by losing the toss and being asked to bat)

  • Bowled the opposing team out for a first innings lead of 200 runs or more

One of the reasons you might choose to bat first is this: cricket pitches are prepared to be in tip-top shape at the start of the match, and tend to deteriorate thereafter. So typically the later in the match it is, the more difficult batting becomes as the wicket dries out, cracks start to appear, it gets scuffed up by batsmen & bowlers running up and down on it, the bounce of the ball becomes more variable, etc., etc. So if you bat first, not only do you get first use of the pitch, you condemn your opponents to having to bat last, when the pitch is at its most worn.
Bearing that in mind, a couple of reasons you might decide not to enforce the follow-on are:

  • Enforcing the follow-on effectively means swapping innings 3 and innings 4, i.e. you elect to bat last, having not planned to at the start. You might decide you don't really want to do that, as you don't know how much the pitch will have broken up during the opposition's second innings.
  • You want to give your bowlers a rest. Usually more of an issue when you've bowled out the opposition for, say, 400 instead of 157, unless McGrath's sore heel was really bothering him. But if you have spent a day and a half in the field and achieved your 200-run lead by the skin of your teeth, you might decide that your bowlers are too knackered to trot back out and do it all again.

I suspect Ponting's reason wasn't either of these; more likely he just wanted to grind England's nose in the dirt psychologically by removing even the slightest possibility of an England win. Following on 445 behind you could still harbour thoughts of bowling out the opposition cheaply second time round for a miraculous win; being asked to make the best part of 700 to win removes any thoughts of winning - quite apart from the unlikeliness of scoring that many on a 4th/5th day pitch, there wouldn't be enough time left in the match to do it anyway.

The other reason may be: if Australia have had a weakness over the last 10-15 years it's been occasionally tripping up in pursuit of small-ish 4th innings totals. Also, they were famously on the wrong end of a defeat by India after making them follow on in Calcutta about 6 years ago, a match in which most of the senior Aussies playing here (Ponting, Gilchrist, Hayden, Langer, Warne, McGrath) were involved. A team winning after following on is incredibly rare, in fact it's happened three times in the history of test cricket (1894 and 1981 being the other two - strangely Australia were the losing side on both those occasions as well), but there might be some demons still knocking around in Ponting's head.

2) Why can't people bat to save Test matches any more?

England's second innings performance at Brisbane was better than their first innings, good enough to take the match into the relative respectability of a fifth day anyway. But they still scored at 3.7 runs an over, a rate that would have been unthinkable a few years ago for a team trying to bat out time for a draw. In these circumstances there's nothing to be gained by attacking - if you're chasing 650 to win then finishing on 28 for 8 gets you a draw, while 400 all out means you lose. Three key England batsmen, Strauss, Collingwood and Flintoff, got out to shots they shouldn't have been considering playing (in Strauss's case for the second time in the match). Has the art of batting for a draw been lost? I can think of a handful of great draw-earning innings I've seen in recent years:

  • Mike Atherton's 185 not out for England against South Africa at Johannesburg in 1995

  • Alec Stewart's 164 for England against South Africa at Manchester in 1998

  • Gary Kirsten's 275 for South Africa against England at Durban in 1999. Kirsten batted for 14 and a half hours, the second longest innings in Test history.

  • Michael Vaughan's 105 for England against Sri Lanka at Kandy in 2003

  • Ricky Ponting's 156 for Australia against England at Manchester in 2005

These are the exception rather than the rule, though. Too often teams whose sole purpose should be blocking the ball back to the bowler for 8 hours perish in a flurry of shots. Why? Too much one-day cricket? The hectic pace of modern life? Search me.


Anonymous said...

Regarding replacing Andy Robinson.
Yes, like I said in a post, he should go. I DO NOT blame him in particular though, for England's woes. Never thought I'd say this about the tubby get, but I actually feel quite sorry for him. He took on an impossible job, and then effectively had all power taken from him with the appointments of people like John Wells and Squeaky.(I do understand he's not blameless though, FAR from it).
He should go for his own sake, as well as England's. And he should go back to Bath to help them - God knows they've got their own problems at the moment, but at least he'll be back at home.

If he walks (which I think he still should) or he's pushed, matters not in regard to a possible replacement.

You've mentioned 2 people who are being widely touted in the press to replace him. I suspect that 'Our Ricky' has made his intentions clear at Bris, and will KNOW that ALL of his good work will be rendered hypocritical should he leave. He will NOT go to England now. Maybe in a couple of years or so...?
As for Dean Ryan - possibly the same applies... and I personally think he just wouldn't want the job. Too much of a 'Leader' and not enough of a 'Manager' to fit in at "Haich-Queue" - a fact he SURELY must be aware of? You would think?

So that leaves the others being touted in the press.
ie Brian Ashton, Martin Johnson, Nick Mallet, Eddie Jones, Warran Gatland or Squeaky himself.

Warran Gatland would be a short term thing, and I don't suppose he'd enjoy the pleasure of working under the shambolic, archaic RFU either.I suspect that would rule him out. Same goes for Eddie Jones. (I don't think the RFU would contact him anyway.
Nick Mallet would be an unpopular choice - I wouls give the RFU some credit if they realise this, so THAT leaves Ashton, Johnson and Squeaky.

It's WAY too early for Martin Johnson, the second ugliest man in the world (second to Neil Jenkins) to be considering international management, and he's more of a leader too, (rather than a manager). He has repeatedly demonstrated both on and off the park his very short fuse - NOT the stuff the RFU want to work with.

So I think that basically leaves Ashton or Squeaky. I'm not convinced Ashton will take it on,because the WHOLE SETUP is a complete farce, and he must know it is, from the inside out.

I'm not sure they CAN replace Andy Robinson. I'm not sure if anyone would want the job at the moment. Apart from, perhaps, ONE PERSON...

Squeaky himself.

The 'Teeth Grinder' has recently been employed by the RFU to a job that I'm pretty sure even he couldn't summarise the job description of.
I think he'd just LOVE the chance to be 'ENGLAND'S SAVIOUR'.
If I had a bet on it, I'd plump for Rob Andrew. I certainly don't think he'd be the best at it, but I'm not sure if the farts at the RFU or the man himself are giving themselves much choice.

Just my take on the whole fiasco.

electrichalibut said...

I must admit to a certain amount of sympathy for Robbo - every picture of him in the paper for the last few months has been of him looking anguished in the stands with Rob Andrew just out of focus over his shoulder with a grim expression on his face.

I'd be surprised if they gave the England job to an "outsider" like Gatland or Mallett, but you never know. More likely Ashton will get it as "caretaker", or Andrew will "reluctantly" step in on a temporary basis. A serious conspiracy theorist might say they only parachuted Andrew in over Robinson's head to force him out....

Speaking of "caretaker managers"....that expression always used to puzzle me, as I assumed it was similar to "player manager" i.e. a player and a manager, "player coach" etc. So I envisaged the guy giving the team talk, sending the players out onto the pitch and then grabbing his mop and going to clean the toilets. Apparently that's not how it works.