The Ashes 2015

The Ashes 2015 Preview

A preview of the 2015 Ashes Series with our predictions and players to watch over the summer.

And so, the biennial clash of two fiercely proud -some might say arrogant- nations commences today in Cardiff as England and Australia square off in the first test of this year’s Ashes series. A series steeped in tradition, the moniker was first applied in 1882 after Australia’s first ever series victory on Australian soil. A mock obituary appeared in a British newspaper, The Sporting Times, stating English cricket was dead and “the body will be cremated and the ashes taken to Australia.” As a symbolic gesture after England’s victory in 1883, England captain Ivo Bligh was presented with a small urn –this is itself is a quirky story– containing “the Ashes of Australian cricket.” Ever since a tiny replica urn -symbolic of the vanquished side’s game- has been presented to the winning captain in what has become the most trumpeted rivalry in international cricket.

England and Australia. It would be difficult to conjure a more self-important sporting nation than the former –indeed the victorious England side of 2005 were awarded MBEs for winning a two team cricket series- while the Antipodeans approach and play their sport with complete, unapologetic, though invariably well backed-up, arrogance. It is fitting that these two nations should play out such a grandiose contest every two years. There really is no other sport where a stand-alone rivalry is granted such an unprecedented level of attention in both the public and media fora. Aussies hate the Poms while England love nothing better than to stifle the incredibly brash, in-your-face Australians. Nonetheless, if one chooses to dip for the first time into what is generally perceived in these parts as an incredibly boring game, there is no better cricketing experience than the Ashes.

Test cricket is completely different to what we saw earlier this year at the limited overs World Cup. Played over five days with both sides batting for two innings each, the side with the most runs after five days wins but they must bowl out the other side’s entire line-up. If a side is still batting at the end of day five without surpassing the other side’s score then the game ends in a draw. The wicket and crease are prepared differently for test series. For example English bowlers like to swing and seam the ball –this article explains these terms perfectly- but as day four and five approach cracks appear in the pitch and this is when spinners come into their element.

This year’s series sees Australia, led by Michael Clarke, attempting to retain the urn for the first time since 2003. England ended years of heartache and downright humiliation with a thrilling victory in 2005 –their first since 1987- bringing to an end an unprecedented era of Australian dominance fronted at various times by greats such as sledging king Merv Hughes –more on that later- Steve Waugh, Glenn McGrath and the most prolific leg-spinner of all time, Shane Warne. Warne’s fist ever delivery in Ashes cricket in 1993 –‘the Ball of the Century’– to a hapless Mike Gatting has gone down in cricketing lore, not only for its brilliance but for the singular impact it had in reintroducing leg-spinners to cricket.

Along with Andrew ‘Freddie’ Flintoff –a genuine, modern-day, English folk hero- the man who really swung that 2003 series in England’s favour was the now exiled, Kevin Pietersen. Twelve years ago the English public were unconvinced as to whether this highly touted, South African import would deliver. Over the next six weeks he answered that question emphatically, smashing Warne and co. to all corners of English grounds as the unproven maverick became the doyen –Freddie aside- of the English summer. There’s no great point in retracing our steps as Pietersen’s enforced absence this summer has already been well-documented and the English public –save for Pietersen’s dickhead mate, Piers Morgan- have for the most part moved on. Nonetheless, expect any English failing to be tied, whether logically or not, to Pietersen’s absence.

Following the 2005 breakthrough, England actually won three of the next five series although these wins were bookended by humiliating 5-0 whitewashes on Australian soil. This summer however England will enjoy home comforts and raucous home crowds, led by the highly irritating though admittedly passionate Barmy Army. Also, as we mentioned above the ball swings in the air in English conditions –mainly it seems due to cloud cover- and James Anderson, England’s all-time leading wicket-taker is peerless in this department.

English cricket was somewhat in the mire for the last twelve months with the probably sulking shadow of Pietersen looming large in this period. 2014’s whitewash ‘Down Under’ was followed by this year’s World Cup abomination, with the English performing considerably worse than a vastly less well-resourced and frankly inferior side in Ireland. A drawn test series against a West Indian team shorn of its stars bore bad omens for the fast approaching series against New Zealand, a team who in terms of attacking style and low-key demeanour proved the antithesis of the beleaguered English. Yet, what a difference a few weeks makes. England drew the test series (five-day games) and recovered to win the one-day series (50 over games) against the World Cup runners-up to give English cricket an incredibly timely boost before the arrival of Australia. The upturn in performance resulted from England taking a very un-English approach, releasing the shackles and playing with reckless abandon. Australia will still be the favourites, but Alastair Cook’s England have every chance, boosted further by the injury-enforced retirement this week of the hugely important, swing-proficient Australian bowler, Ryan Harris.

The above-mentioned New Zealand series was notable for the absence of sledging –the hot topic in this summer’s gaelic football championship- but really an age-old mainstay of all sports. If England invented cricket then Australians are the unquestioned founding fathers of sledging: relentless verbal insults aimed at an opposing batsmen with a view to weakening the batsman’s mental resolve. While New Zealand ignored the use of insults there is absolutely no chance that England or Australia will decline the opportunity to ruffle their opponents’ feathers. After the recent series against the ‘Black Caps’ was played in fantastic spirit, Anderson –a serial sledger- attempted to mount the high horse, disingenuously asking for the upcoming Ashes to be played in the absence of any nasty verbals. The Australians, however, saw right through this. We’re inclined to respect the Australians for their frankness, not because we’re particularly fond of sledging, but because both sides will engage in the thorny psychological wars. We’ll take a straight criminal over a dodgy cop any day of the week.

There seems, however, to be a different level of vitriol -probably media driven- between the current sets of players. This isn’t helped by the fact that Australian opener David Warner –a guy who would be as divisive as Kevin Pietersen if he were English but is loved in Australia- punched English batsman Joe Root in a Birmingham bar in 2013, in the build up to that year’s Ashes series. Warner has reportedly calmed down –that is according to himself- but we’re certain that once the series starts all bets will be off. Australian coach Darren Lehmann openly encourages his players to take on the opposition mentally and England’s pair of Anderson and the risible Stuart Broad are as mouthy as they come. So, frankly, something has to give. Despite the relative paucity of information about cricket players –at least compared to their soccer counterparts- it seems they are a decidedly prickly, bitchy, irritable bunch. Between Warner’s antics, the furore surrounding Pietersen –indeed English director of cricket and former teammate Andrew Strauss was caught calling the South African a “cunt”, unaware that he was live on air- and the perceived nastiness on the pitch there is no chance this series will pass without some form of widely-debated indiscretion.

The series will be tighter than the Aussies expect though they rarely expect a challenge let alone contemplate being beaten. Nonetheless, England may be riding on the crest of a deceptively, insubstantial wave, as, despite their self-congratulatory summer thus far, they have achieved little in terms of consistency. Additionally, today’s test is new coach -incidentally an Australian- Trevor Bayliss’ first game in charge following the tumultuous spring. Expect drama, countless barbs from both camps and believe us, despite the duration of each test, truly thrilling cricket. The home side will battle gamely but we expect Australia’s proven class to tell. Australia to win this lengthy production and ride not so quietly into the sunset.

Our Prediction:  Australia to win series 3-1 (9/2 generally)

While the sledging of recent series has been marked by a dearth of wit there are some classic sledges from earlier Ashes series, where even the victim may have allowed themselves a concealed smirk. Here are a couple of our favourites:

Merv Hughes to Graeme Hick

Hughes, a notoriously chippy, mountain of a man aimed this at batsman Graeme Hick with the Englishman going through a period of hopeless swishing of the bat, unable to score.

Hughes: “Mate, if you just turn the bat over you’ll find the instructions on the other side.”

Glenn McGrath to Michael Atherton

Revered Australian fast-bowler Dennis Lillee originally devised this eternally popular set-up, used on this occasion by Glenn McGrath against former England captain, Michael Atherton.

McGrath: “Athers, it would help if you got rid of the shit at the end of your bat.”

Atherton earnestly looks at the bottom of his bat.

McGrath: “No, no, the other end.”

James Ormond to Mark Waugh

The little known England bowler James Ormond was preparing to bowl to Mark Waugh – a fine player but never regarded as being in the same league as brother Steve- leading to a more subtle, English response.

Waugh: “Fuck me, look who it is. Mate, what are you doing out here? There’s no way you’re good enough to play for England.”

Ormond: “Maybe not, but at least I’m the best player in my family”.

And, the classic Ashes sledge courtesy of legendary English all-rounder, Ian Botham.

Ian Botham to Rodney Marsh

Botham, like Hughes was never one to play the game with his mouth shut. As the Englishman prepared to bat, Aussie wicket keeper Rodney Marsh decided to put him off and was as emphatically as is possible put back in his box.

Marsh: “So how’s your wife and my kids?”

Botham: “The wife’s fine – the kids are retarded.”

The Captains

Alastair Cook (England) – Possibly the most boring batsman in the world, Cook is an obdurate opener who when locked in can make massive scores. Accusations of conservatism challenged by new found freedom in New Zealand series. Can be a bit wibbly-wobbly when the concentration wanes. Needs big scores to lead England.

Michael Clarke (Australia) – Definitely taking a lead from Machiavelli in declining the notion of inspiring love from his players. A tricky character but superb batsman when in form. Also an aggressive, creative captain who will attack rather than defend against batsmen. Terrible injury history may slow him while pre-series form is poor. Needs to step up like he can.

Players to Watch

England

Joe Root- An absolute revelation this year, the baby-faced Yorkshireman is the absolute darling of the expectant English public. Appearance belies his steely demeanour. If he has the series he is capable of, England will compete.

Moeen Ali- England’s spinner is tasked with replacing retired great, Graeme Swann. The Australians will target the relatively untested Ali so if he crumbles England lose. End of.

James Anderson- England’s leading all-time wicket taker. An incredible ability to move the ball in the air and as combative as they come. Will happily mix it with the Australians in what will definitely be his last home Ashes series.

Australia

David Warner- Loathed in England –water off a duck’s back for an Australian- Warner is incredibly explosive with the bat.  When firing, Warner has the ability to take the game away from opposition bowlers. Arguably Australia’s most important player and definitely Public Enemy Number One.

Steve Smith- Once pilloried by the English media Smith is now ranked the best test batsman in the world. The English still think they have seen something that makes him vulnerable and believe he can’t cope with English conditions. It would be fantastic to see Smith prove his obstinate set of doubters wrong.

Mitchell Starc

The other Mitchell, Johnson that is, destroyed England last time round but he may on the wane this time round. Mitchell Starc has proved a revelation, bowling with immense pace and aggression and though unpredictable at just twenty-two has the potential to become the dominant figure in this year’s series.

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Cricket

The Whole World Laughs at England

While Irish sport pores over Jack Grealish’s decision on his nationality –he seems to be waiting for the pretty girl’s call but he might just settle for the consolation prize of Ireland if she ignores him much longer- it’s interesting to observe how one of the greatest English cricket players of all time is being denied the opportunity to play for his country by their newly appointed rulers. For those who have no interest in cricket –and we know there are many- this story is compelling as an observation of administrative incompetence. There’s a certain satisfaction –most likely the world over- in seeing English sporting bodies make complete laughing stocks of themselves as the English and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) has done this week. Do we dislike the English? Of course not. Do we enjoy seeing England, and, in particular their beyond reproach sporting administrative bodies, fall flat on their faces? Absolutely. Kevin Pietersen, England’s marmite-like, South African batsman at the centre of the controversy has been indefinitely denied a place in the English team under the new regime. The problem is that the same person who rubberstamped Pietersen’s exclusion –not a ban- incoming chairman, Colin Graves also told him, just two months ago, that if he put up some numbers playing in English county cricket he’d be in the England selectors thoughts once more.

Natal born Pietersen has rarely if ever been able to escape controversy since his English test debut in 2005. That summer the swashbuckling right-hander was the toast of English cricket, playing a massive role in England regaining the Ashes from Australia for the first time since 1989. Since then he has fallen in and out –mostly out- of favour with team-mates and he garnered the reputation as a surly, arrogant, divisive character who is all about the team but just as long as he comes first. Pietersen was touted as a highly talented though enormously difficult character when he first arrived in England in the early 2000s so English cricket knew exactly what it was getting. For all his misgivings KP has elicited mass sympathy since the new director of English cricket, former teammate Andrew Strauss, told him this week that he was not involved in England’s plans either now or in the future. Pietersen’s bold boy in the corner routine neatly dovetails with the sacking, for second time of English coach Peter Moores.

Six years ago following a dispute with then captain Pietersen, Moores was dismissed from his position, while Pietersen, who had undermined his manager completely, was removed as head of the tribe. 2013’s dismal Ashes Series saw England beaten the length and breadth of Australia and afterwards the rapid back-to-back departures of coaches Andy Flower and then Ashley Giles. Moores was tempted back – perhaps he has a goldfish memory- for a further bout of failure and ultimately humiliation. The ECB knew he wasn’t up to the job the first time so why reappoint him? Pietersen, meanwhile has been out of the national picture since after the 2013 Ashes –where he was England’s best batsman -when he was told by then ECB Managing Director, Paul Downton that he was surplus to requirements going forward. Fine thought KP as he made his way to India to reap the rewards of seven weeks play in the lucrative Indian Premier League. All relatively humdrum so far but the insular ECB, themselves about to undergo a mini facelift, replacing company men with their mirror images, conspired to illustrate their collective idiocy.

First, incoming chairman, Colin Graves dangled a big juicy carrot in Pietersen’s direction with an assurance that if KP returned and played county cricket –four day matches- and scored runs then he could be in contention for the summer tests against first New Zealand and then the crucial Ashes series against an Australian side who can clearly smell blood. Pietersen who you must remember had his England career cut short on somebody else’s terms jumped at Graves open invitation, forewent his relatively lucrative IPL contract and returned home to play for Surrey. His willingness to buckle down was further confirmed by his agreement to play for Surrey free of charge. Surrey meanwhile would get free labour from one of the best batsmen of the last ten years. All the while England were muddling their way to a drawn test series –a series they needed to be winning at a canter- against a West Indian side shorn of their stars, and at the beginning of a new cycle. The knives were sharpening over the now erstwhile coach Moores and the axe eventually dropped earlier this week.

Moores’ sacking –which was widely leaked before the man himself knew- was the catalyst for some top class idiotic machinations from one hell of a self-regarding organisation. Strauss replaced Paul Downton –the old enemy of Pietersen- and it was the new boy who told Moores to empty his locker. Down in Surrey Pietersen –only playing for crowds of three-hundred because of new chairman Graves’ direction- was en-route to compiling his highest ever score of 355. So when the new regime came in an expectant Pietersen’s dreams were smashed when Strauss stressed there was a “massive trust issue” with the South African – perhaps Strauss in his new role as head boy was settling old scores– and he wasn’t part of England’s plans going forward. Then, in a gesture of patronising appeasement, Strauss offered Pietersen a role as advisor to the one-day side. So Strauss effectively thought, ‘basically Kevin we (and mainly I) don’t trust you to play but we would like you to fulfil a perfunctory role to make us feel better. We’re so progressive that we’re actually allowing you partake in a fundamental trust exercise.’ Graves, like a back-pedalling politician, seems to have quietly removed himself from the furore and towed the party line. In fact, the whole ECB are patting themselves on the back for dealing with Pietersen openly. Except they didn’t. And, while he certainly has his misgivings they’ve somewhat deceived him and definitely portrayed themselves as incompetent and out-of-touch.

Perhaps the bigger point here is that England have ignored their best player in the last 18 months because he’s a bit of a dick. When did a player ever have to be universally liked? Or, more ridiculously, when did an administrative body decide that a man couldn’t represent the national team because they didn’t trust him. True, Pietersen is a tantrum waiting to happen but it’s not like he slept with their wives. There are plenty of arrogant sportsmen out there whose teammates choose to co-exist with because it means a stronger collective on the field. LeBron James is arrogant enough to unilaterally take two weeks downtime in Miami mid-season, while even current Australian cricket captain Michael Clarke has ruffled the feathers of teammates past and present.  And Cristiano Ronaldo –obviously an all-time great- is a surly ass, who appears to be on the verge of tears if anyone other than him scores for Real Madrid.   

Most pertinently for England, Australia are on the horizon. And Australians love nothing more than humiliating the English in the Ashes. Pietersen’s omission has been met with bemused delight by the Australian cricket community, confounded by the fact that their great nemesis of Ashes past has been sent to pasture before his time. Incidentally Pietersen bats at number four, a position which is currently filled by England stalwart Ian Bell. Why didn’t the petty Strauss or even Graves simply mention that Bell is currently entrenched in the side but that Pietersen will be considered if a drop in form or injury intervene?

You learn to accommodate your best players, histrionics and all. Surely that is part and parcel of management. Australia –the top ranked side in the world- would assuredly find a place for Pietersen in their playing setup. They are all about winning. And, while the ECB might make a similar claim they are clearly an antiquated entity that never fail to shoot themselves in their clumsy feet.

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Cricket - World Cup

Cricket World Cup – Update

Reality Bites for Ireland

Unless you’re a student, insomniac or night shift worker, chances are you haven’t had an opportunity to watch a great deal of the events unfold in Australia and New Zealand, over the last few weeks. Each team has reached the half way point in the tournament’s group stages and as expected the pre-tournament favourites have, as good as, booked their places in the quarter finals.

New Zealand and Australia have proven extremely difficult to separate, indeed the Back Caps only overcame the Baggy Green by a single run, in a thriller in Auckland, last Saturday. Reigning world champions India, despite a winless winter in Australia, have come out of the blocks all guns blazing, destroying all before them, including the world’s third ranked side, South Africa. To confuse matters further, South Africa responded to this embarrassing defeat, to the Indians, with demolition jobs on both the West Indies and yesterday morning, Ireland. England have been shambolic, Sri Lanka and the wondrous Kumar Sangakarra the latest side to make the founding fathers of cricket sigh in their graves. You could argue their tournament is playing out like a Greek tragedy but one wonders will there be any meaningful ending? Perhaps more like a farce then.

Ireland find themselves in about as good a position as they could have hoped for at this stage of the tournament, in terms of victories, having won both games before the humbling at the hands of South Africa. However Ireland’s net run rate; as with everything in cricket, a more complicated equivalent of points for and against, except using runs; was damaged badly by the South African’s free swinging batsmen and a dual demolition job of Ireland’s top order by the world’s number one ranked fast bowler, Dale Steyn, and the in form Kyle Abbott. Ireland actually got an early breakthrough but then succeeded to drop, Hashim Amla, South Africa and the world’s second best batsman, on 10. Amla would go on to score 159, while his partner Faf du Plessis, also dropped on 19, added acid to the wound by scoring a century of his own, leaving Ireland with an unchaseable target of 412 to win. South Africa did not even need to rely on their imperious captain AB de Villiers, who though, while not a bowler, still managed to take a wicket yesterday. For those with even only a passing interest in cricket, watch this man bat before the World Cup ends. He has timing, style and power and as Lionel Messi appears to have a second longer on the ball, so the ball seems to come to de Villiers that little bit more slowly. Oh, and he’s extremely destructive and fun to watch.

Ireland in response, buckled early, losing captain William Porterfield, and the heroes of the West Indies victory, Paul Stirling and Ed Joyce, when barely into the 20s. To their absolute credit Ireland’s batsmen and particularly their bowling tail enders, stuck manfully to the unenviable task of damage limitation, taking Ireland from 48-5, potentially disastrous, to 210 all out, reasonably respectable. Unfortunately they came up against an incredibly talented juggernaut, who had been, completely unexpectedly, left for dead by India. You generally don’t need to poke a bear too many times before he jumps up and devours you. India poked the bear, so the bear annihilated the next two teams he saw, West Indies and Ireland. Law of the forest or something like that. That blip aside, the South Africans have confirmed that they will be around for the business end of the World Cup. They have become the first international side ever to post 400 runs in consecutive one day (50 over) games.

Still, like Leicester City travelling to the Etihad Stadium tonight, these are not the games that Ireland, in all honesty, will have earmarked as winnable. Ireland’s biggest game of the tournament arrives on Saturday, when they face a Zimbabwe side, who while themselves have only victory, managed to give considerably more problems to the South Africans, admittedly undercooked at the time, than Ireland did. However, this will be tempered by the fact that Zimbabwe completely blew it on Sunday against a Pakistan side who were absolutely reeling early in their innings, and even still posted a very meagre total of 235. Zimbabwe were well on course for victory before dramatically collapsing from 150-4 to 215, all out. Sunday’s snatching of defeat from the jaws of victory means the Southern Africans are as good as gone from this World Cup.

Nonetheless, they are still, at least in the eyes of the International Cricket Council; a body dominated almost exclusively by Australia, England and India; superior to Ireland and more deserving of full test status. Saturday, therefore, provides the Irish with a fantastic opportunity to confirm their status as a top eight, or at the very least, top ten calibre side. The I.C.C. in their infinite wisdom, have decided to reduce the number of teams competing in the 2019 World Cup from 14 to 10. It is an idea that seems almost ‘Blatteresque’ in its construction. The game is expanding and reaching unprecedented levels of popularity outside of the traditional strongholds so, why reduce the playing pool?

There is a serious misconception that Associate nations such as Ireland, Scotland and Afghanistan dilute the quality of the tournament and create too many one sided contests.  Unsurprisingly the Associate Nations have lost more games than the Test nations at this World Cup. But, for the most part, the really non-competitive games have just as often involved two of the perceived big guns. Indeed, the biggest defeat of the group stages was a 257 run hammering, inflicted by the now firing South Africa on West Indies. And, the most humiliating defeat was suffered, and I say this with such a heavy heart, by the Irish led England. Last Friday in Wellington, New Zealand were able to chase down England’s paltry total of 123 within 12.2 overs, or to put it bluntly, with three quarters of their innings to spare. It seems the I.C.C. are considering a rethink for the 2019 tournament, which to their credit, at least, is more than the incompetents in F.I.F.A. seem willing to do, ahead of the shambolic Qatari World Cup. We’ll keep an eye on any developments in this regard.

Captain Morgan on the Rocks

England’s tournament continues to plummet into disarray. The comfortable victory over Scotland provided brief respite before Sri Lanka put them to the sword with remarkable ease on Sunday. England have made a catalogue of errors laughable enough to make even Father Ted Crilly seem competent. Their best batsman of the last ten year’s, Kevin Pietersen, is providing television commentary on this World Cup, instead of playing because, well, he’s deemed to be a prima donna, asshole. Granted, there’s more to it than that but it seems incredible that England can’t find some way to accommodate Pietersen, an incredibly gifted, game changing batsman. Sport, as we are all aware, is full of tricky characters. Surely managing these personalities is part and parcel of the, and there’s a clue here, management side of the game. Unfortunately, things really are not getting any better for captain, Eoin Morgan. Completely out of form with the bat and with his tactical decisions being derided, he has now been further criticised in some quarters of the English media for not singing God Save the Queen, before English games. Why, oh why, would any English journalist get het up about a man born and bred in Ireland refusing to sing a song about how fantastic the Queen is? We don’t do politics here on Straight Up Sport but, come on, that’s just plain ridiculous.

Anyway, as a gesture of good will, we may have just devised a solution for the I.C.C. to do away with all this furore. Give Ireland full test status, grant us automatic entry to future World Cups and let our best players come home, to represent Ireland against the cream of world cricket. Then, England can return to blaming defeat on conservative coaching, sterile tactics and the use of average players, while the best English player of his generation watches from his couch. Not to blaming it on a man who won’t sing a song that means absolutely nothing to him.

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