I got one or two things right in my Ashes preview and one or two laughably wrong. I was not expecting great things of Ponting and Pietersen and so it turned out. I had sung the praises of Michael Hussey (195) in a midsummer piece. On the other hand my faith in the lower order England batting, Prior (first ball) Broad (first ball) and Swann was just a trifle misplaced!! Swann's bowling was a disappointment too but he will have plenty of opportunities to put this lack lustre effort behind him.
I also wrote disparagingly of Mitchell Johnson and he had a very poor game. Even when the pitch was green on the first day he made no impression and got worse as the match progressed. Another symptom of his lack of confidence was the way he batted. With 450 runs on the board already, it was the perfect moment to swing the bat and deliver the final thrust. There are few people who can fulfil that role better than Johnson and he was fresh from making a hundred in a Shield match. I was expecting fireworks but he never lit the fuse.
I thought the commentators missed the point about the first day's play. They made light of the way the pitch played and kept repeating a mantra of too few runs from England in the first innings. The ball swung, seamed and also turned. Some of the short stuff actually broke the surface. This was no ordinary first day pitch by any stretch of the imagination. Which is why I was pretty sanguine about our chances, even when Australia went past 400. If our bowlers were not taking wickets, they were still bowling tidily and, in the context of all the runs scored later on it was a great effort to knock over Australia's last 5 for 30 runs.
So we come to the record breaking batting of Strauss, Cook and Trott. Handsome is as handsome does and I have no intention of belittling their achievements. However they were a bit lucky to have Mitchell Johnson out of form and rooky spinner Xavier who looked for all the world like any number of club bowlers on view every week in parks all around the world. Oh! My Shane Warne. My Derek Underwood. My Murali.
Two cricketing buffs in this part of the world were also a bit taken aback when I pointed out that neither side had a batsman who would currently get in a world eleven and possibly not in a world second eleven. And this rather damning comment was born out by the ICC Test Batting Rankings – led by Sachin Tendulkar, of course – which listed no Brit or Aussie in the first 15 spots: apparently the first time such a thing has happened in all Test history.
I watched Strauss and Cook batting either side of lunch on the fourth day and was actually quite surprised at the number of false strokes being made: missed sweeps, sallies down the pitch without reaching the pitch of the ball and one total miscue of a pull shot by Strauss which lobbed up gently over cover. Sky shows replays of missed chances. It would be interesting to see the run of the mill errors as well.
It will also be interesting to see what the Rankings actually make of this plethora of runs because the mathematical formula used to evaluate one innings against another takes note of the attack you face, the runs per wicket throughout the match and is less generous in a drawn match than one with a result. For a long time it was Graeme Gooch's match winning hundred against the West Indians at Headingly that ticked all the boxes and held top spot. i.e. runs made against highly rated bowlers in an otherwise low scoring match and being on the winning side. The fact that he was captain as well made the innings all the more memorable.
So the caravan moves on to Adelaide. It was the great New Zealand batsman Martin Crowe who put a neat twist to the old saying about death and taxes being the only certainties. Crowe added “and a hundred at Adelaide”. We shall see. Four years ago Collingwood made a double hundred but England still lost. If he does it again it is hard to imagine a repeat result with these Australian bowlers.
I like doing crossword puzzles: nothing too taxing but hard enough to while away an hour. There are usually one or two words to add to my vocabulary – like demesne in the Telegraph today. I thought it was from the same root as “demean” and was struggling to find an answer to the clue. Then my daughter put me straight: she suggested it meant a matter of property or ownership with the correct answer turning out to be “estate”.
But the other “demean” stuck in my head and it suddenly became relevant when I read a pre Ashes interview with the Australian fast bowler, Mitchell Johnson. He is a well mannered player on the field and wholehearted in what he does, so when he comes out with the intention of “targeting” the England Captain it all seemed out of character and – yes – thoroughly demeaning.
It is puerile nonsense to suggest that one batsman should be targeted more than another. Can you imagine any of the great fast bowlers of the past having to stoop to such clumsy psychology in an attempt to unsettle a Steve Waugh or a Sunil Gavaskar before the start of a Test series? If I were in Strauss's shoes, far from being concerned, I would be treating such petty posturing as a major sign of weakness in the opposing camp.
It is much the same with the current fashion for “bonding” exercises, presumably with the intention of artificially creating situations where players are forced to rely on each other and to trust one another. I can see the point with raw recruits from different backgrounds like basic training in the army but to make out that a Test player is more likely to hold a catch at slip because he has “bonded” well with the bowler is – yes – thoroughly demeaning.
For all that people make out that cricket is a team game, any player will tell you that most of the time you are on your own and it is up to you and nobody else to perform. There is a pleasant camaraderie in the dressing room and off the field but it is no good looking around for a shoulder to cry on when the chips are down in an Ashes series. It is up to the individual to show he has what it takes.
I never thought who the bowler was if a catch was coming my way. My first priority was to prove to all and sundry that I was quick enough, alert enough and with good enough hands to succeed. The only person I might have had in the back of my mind was the Captain. Nor did it matter who the batsman happened to be. That could be a matter of satisfaction after the event if it happened to be one of the opposition top order, but not in the split seconds when you have only your instincts to rely on.
I suppose this “targeting” business comes from the same school as “sledging” and neither one is worth a damn in the long run. A few words here or there on the field are fair enough. Nobody should expect to play in a monastic silence. But it is best kept to a minimum and even then contained within acceptable bounds by common agreement between the players. And it should stay on the field and nowhere else.
When Mr Johnson sees fit to publicise his aggressive aspirations before a game, he does the game a disfavour and certainly does his own image more harm than good. If he spent more time trying to improve his low arm, slinging bowling action and less time “targeting” other people, I am sure the Australian team would reap the greater benefit.
In my betting days, I preferred to punt on the Hurdlers and Chasers, rather than the flat. For two reasons: because the same old favourites appeared year after year giving an idea of the type of race and part of the season they preferred. And winners usually showed, by their jumping and attitude during a race, that this was their day and they were making the most of it. Conversely, you soon knew your fate if your pick was making mistakes and not travelling.
Compare all that with the lack of information available in a flat race dash over a few furlongs when the whole thing can be decided in a few strides, either for better or worse. Not so much fun really. On the other hand I am not mad keen on bets that take weeks and months to be resolved. I even prefer a 30 second whiz round a greyhound track.
Nevertheless, I have offered a friend a small wager on the Ashes at eleven to eight against the Australians regaining the little Urn. That may seem a little skinny to those who are beguiled by Australia's moderate form in India and England's current winning streak. But I am still mindful of what a narrow squeak it was last summer with more than a few moments when England were outplayed completely.
Who can forget the Monty Panesar cliffhanger survival, fighting out a draw in Cardiff. And, of course, we all want to forget the clatter of English wickets when we were hammered at Headingley. In between we won at Lord's when Australia had a batting nightmare on the first day. Finally, when we clinched the Series at the Oval, it was a huge bonus to win the toss and bat first on a strangely loose surface, totally at odds with normal conditions at that ground.
The batting and bowling statistics were all in the Australians’ favour: so it was a pretty cute get out when Andrew Strauss explained it all with a wry smile saying that when England were bad, they were very very bad. And when they were good, they were just good enough. If I had had a bet on those matches, I don’t think my heart could have taken the strain.
The facts seem to show that both sides are vulnerable to really poor patches and I expect that pattern to continue. Much will depend on whether Ricky Ponting can rediscover his old form but I am sceptical of that possibility. Just as I do not see Pietersen playing a prominent role. His habit of playing shots on the walk, successful for a while, seems to be catching up with him. How the opening batsmen on both sides compare will be more crucial as well as the success or otherwise of the respective slip catching cordons.
I can see the lower order batsmen having to contribute in a big way. I am a great fan of Matt Prior as a cricketer in everything he does and I get a great kick out of watching Broad and Swann bat. I am quite hopeful of what these three might produce.
There is the matter of how well our right handers think their way through the unusual circumstance of facing not just one, but two left arm quicks – Johnson and Bollinger. If they go chasing runs on the off side, they will be in trouble. If they get their angles right, leaving the ball well and making these lefties “come to them”, then life will be a whole lot easier.
The one clear advantage for England lies in the splendid, not to say miraculous form and success of Graham Swann with his off-spinners. It is not surprising that he gets so many wickets in his first over because he never gives them any sighters. His first ball is usually spinning hard and bang on a length and the batsmen know there are plenty more of those to come. His record of successful lbw appeals must be a worry too and it is a bit late in the day to decide they should be going down the pitch more. That is a natural instinct for some – like Clarke – but it is not a skill to be learned in a few weeks.
There are great expectations and I just hope that things go England's way, particularly when it comes to injuries. Despite many encouraging signs they may still need a little help from lady luck.
I watched the wonderful display of golf by Francesco Molinari and World Number One, Lee Westwood in Shanghai. As in the Ryder Cup, they were helped by overnight rain to soften the greens and virtually no wind. Give the top professionals these conditions and they can go for the flags and show how incredibly good at the game they really are. It was a feast.
I have a running argument with those who are so determined that “their” course will not be made to look too easy, that they trick them up – and then find themselves with “flukey” winners: eg. The R&A course set-ups at Troon 1994 (Justin Leonard) Carnoustie 1999 (Paul Lawrie –courtesy of Jean van de Velde) Royal St Georges 2003 (Ben Curtis) and Troon again in 2004 (Todd Hamilton).
My attention was then caught by a commentator who described the current explosion of interest in golf in China. He casually mentioned that there are over three hundred new courses under construction within the catchment area of Shanghai with a population of 18 million people. Which begs the question. How on earth are people going to learn the game before setting foot on these courses, all of whose architects and constructors will be vying for the honour of the finest “Championship” course in the area? Almost by definition these courses will be totally unsuitable for beginners.
Everyone will be starting from scratch. No Dads and Mums, Uncles and Aunts to show them the way. It will no doubt prove a bonanza for golf professionals from the world over who will be clamouring for teaching opportunities but without some kind of enlightened practise facilities, leading to some more accessible, more simple golf courses i.e. flat, not too long with minimum rough and sensible greens, the brave new world of Chinese golf could turn into a sporting nightmare.
Which brings me to the matter of golf instruction generally. We are all advised to go to a registered PGA professional but what do they really have to offer, apart from a bucket of balls and advice on a few general principles e.g the grip, stance and some basic idea of the swing? If they were even mildly successful in what they do, there would surely be a lot more reasonable ball strikers to be seen at driving ranges. In fact I find it hard not to rate golf as one of the worst taught games in the world.
If anyone really cared about teaching someone to play golf properly, the last place they should begin is on a normal practise ground or driving range. Without question, the best way (possibly the only way) of learning the GAME – as opposed to just learning some sort of swing – is to start with a three inch putt and work slowly backwards from the hole. Long putting will become chipping, finally short pitching and so on. This way a controlled strike on the back of the ball is at least an achievable goal. Waving a long club round your body on a range with a success rate of one reasonable hit in fifty is a dead end process: in fact it is worse than that, because the poor sufferer naturally believes the following: if only I could repeat that one good strike, my path to golfing glory is assured. In fact, the likelihood is that the swing concerned was as inept as all the others and almost certainly unrepeatable. Talk about a vicious circle!!
The only way I ever recommend a beginner to hit a bucket of balls if they have serious aspirations is to use no longer club than a seven iron and swing with their feet together – actually touching. Until they are able to make good contact the majority of the time, there is no point whatsoever in moving on.
There is a new, rather charming, golfing publication available called Golf Quarterly (by subscription only – www.golfquarterly.co.uk).
There are a couple of pages, headlined “How to make golf more fun”. Banish the tee peg, less clubs, bigger hole and finally “design courses in multiples of six holes”. Courses of six and twelve holes would be built – especially attractive to beginners and juniors. China even gets a mention. I just hope that someone over that side of the world takes out a subscription.