Friday, January 07, 2011

Alastair Cook's Letter from Australia

Dear Mom, it all started on 25 November. And just twenty two cricketing days later England won the final Ashes Test in Sydney by an innings and eighty three runs to wrap up the series three-one and secure their first series win down under in twenty four years. Australia began play in a hopeless position at two hundred and thirteen for seven, one hundred and fifty one runs behind England, and after a brief and frustrating rain delay they were eventually all out for two hundred and eighty one with Steve Smith not out on fifty four. The crowd, made up almost entirely of England fans, the Barmy Army, was let in for free and produced a superb atmosphere to go with the celebrations. England's captain Andrew Strauss said: 'We're delighted with what we've done.' Peter Siddle and Steve Smith kept England's champagne on ice in the early part of the day before the players were forced off by rain after less than twenty five minutes play. When they returned forty minutes later in glorious sunshine, Siddle took his score to forty three before, with just two overs left before a new ball was due, he tried to slog-sweep spinner Graeme Swann to midwicket and was caught in the deep by Jimmy Anderson after a stand of eighty six with Smith. Whilst all this faffing about had been appertaining yer actual Keith Telly Topping was busy bemoaning his lack of sleep on Facebook and cracking lame jokes (What do you call an Australian with the Ashes? The England bowling coach!), discussing poor old Peter Siddle's 'orrible mush (bless 'im, I know it's not his fault but Siddle - see right - does undeniably look like an unholy cross between an Orangutan and ... a really ugly Orangutan) and bitching about the inadequacies of the Barmy Army's - seemingly endless - version of 'The Lion Sleeps Tonight.' Mercifully for all concerned, Anderson then removed Ben Hilfenhaus before Chris Tremlett bowled Michael Beer with the score on two hundred and eighty one to get this party started. With the second new ball almost due, Swann finally struck for the first time in the innings, and the last two wickets then fell within a further six overs - Hilfenhaus providing Matt Prior with his twenty third catch of the series before Beer chopped Tremlett's delivery into his stumps. Over on Sky Sports, a gutted Shane Warne said 'bloody' (post watershed, admittedly! Well, it was one in the morning) whilst Bumble and Sir Ian could hardly hide their delight. And, in fact, didn't even attempt to. Nor did Nasser or Athers or Gower. The final wicket sparked emotional celebrations for England, while the contrast in the Australian camp could not have been starker. The chaos in the home dressing room was underlined when Michael Clarke, the stand-in skipper for this Test, resigned from Twenty20 internationals just minutes after the official presentations had been made. BBC Test Match Special's Vic Marks noted as the presentations concluded 'I've just cast my eye over to the Australian team, shoulders slumped, slinking off. This is what England have had to cope with on all those tours over here.' It was hard not to feel some sympathy for them. But, most of us managed it without too much difficulty by just thinking about what Douglas Jardine and Harold Larwood ably proved almost eighty years ago. They're great cricketers the Aussies but, when you've got them down, they squeal like girls. England's fans dominated the Sydney Cricket Ground with the Barmy Army's songs and chants echoing around the famous arena. One or two of them were even broadcastable. And, most of them were very funny. Particularly the Mitchell Johnson one. Victorious skipper Andrew Strauss joined Sir Len Hutton and Mike Brearley to become only the third England captain to win Ashes series both home and away. 'We came over here desperately wanting to win the series,' said Strauss, who was captain when England regained the Ashes at home in 2009. 'Obviously in Melbourne we retained the Ashes but we really wanted to finish with a bang here in Sydney. All credit to the guys, they've been outstanding again, the way the bowlers bowled on day one, the batsmen dipped their bread in it again and we got another victory. We're certainly going to enjoy this evening, that's for sure.' Anderson, part of Freddie Flintoff's England team whitewashed five-nil in Australia four years ago, finished with three for sixty one for twenty four wickets in the series, the best haul by an England bowler in Australia since Frank Typhoon Tyson collected twenty eight in 1954-55. He said: 'It's been a great tour for us, an amazing sort of feeling for us retaining the Ashes last week and winning the series this week. I'm delighted with my form this trip, enjoying my role in the team leading the attack. My job has been made easy by the guys at the other end, Steven Finn and Stuart Broad at the start of the series and Chris Tremlett and Tim Bresnan later on, and our fielding has been amazing. We've been working really hard on it, the catches we've taken this series are better than any I remember in any other series.' Paul Collingwood, given the honour of leading out the England team on his final day as a Test cricketer, said: 'Today is absolute number one. And I can't think of a better way to step out of Test cricket. A lot of guys in the dressing room put a lot of hard work in to achieve this. My role in the side is to score runs, I'm disappointed I haven't done that. But four years ago I scored a double century and we lost five-nil and I much prefer it this way round. We deserve it.' There was a great moment at the close as the England team set off on their lap of honour; Collingwood and Graeme Swann, arms draped around each others shoulders, walked behind the rest apparently in earnest discussion. They were probably debating the potential outcome for next weekend's Tyne-Wear derby in which Colly's beloved Mackems and Swanny's (still) unsellable Magpies will take part in sports only other genuinely great rivalry. And one that began, interestingly enough, in the same year as The Ashes did - 1882. This was the first time that any team had won three Tests by an innings in a single series away from home. The last time England had done it against any opponents, India, had been in 1959. Australia, meanwhile, would probably do well to consider that the last international team to suffer this fate was Bangladesh, against Sri Lanka in 2007. Which probably says more about Australia's place in international cricket at the moment than any other statistic in this series of broken records and ripped-up record books. It was also the first time Australia had lost three Tests in a series at home since 1988-89, when Viv Richards' world-beating West Indies side also won by a three-one margin. Alastair Cook was both man of the match and man of the series (the Compton-Miller Award), having hit one hundred and eighty nine in Sydney and seven hundred and seventy six runs across all five matches. 'It's been an amazing series for me, I couldn't imagine this seven weeks ago,' the young Essex opener said. 'The double hundred [in Brisbane] was a very special moment for me and to win man of the match in the final game of the Ashes is a dream come true. Our bowlers have been fantastic throughout the whole series, they've made our job as batters far easier.' Kevin Pietersen hailed the team effort, saying: 'It's amazing to win so convincingly in Australia. It's all credit to the team and the management. Every single bloke has done something to make it such a great trip. Every time an occasion has been needed, one of us has stood up. I did in Adelaide, but every bloke, player [and] member of the backroom staff has been outstanding.' England's usually taciturn coach Andy Flower said the victory was 'an emotional moment' for the players and the entire backroom team. 'A lot of hard work, effort, heartache and some sweat and tears go into winning any game of cricket. Over a five-match series it takes even more effort and no mean amount of skill, and I think the guys are very proud of all those things. We've got to enjoy it now - and share in the experience. We share the hardships along the way and we have to share the good moments too.' England currently remain third in the International Cricket Council Test rankings, but have significantly closed the gap to second-placed South Africa to just two points. India - who will tour England this summer - remain at the top of the table after their exciting three match series in South Africa ended in a one-all draw just hours before England's triumph in Sydney. 'Watching ruthless England crush the shambolic Aussies has been a blast,' former England captain Sir Ian Botham gloated in his column in the Daily Mirror. 'I've waited a while for this and boy, do they deserve to celebrate what they have done in Australia. From the moment they arrived in Australia they were hell bent on winning every game. They won't quite do that, but they'll go very close to it and their attitude towards the games has been fantastic. Australia have had no answer to the skill of England's bowlers. If it swings conventionally with the new ball they do that, when it gets older and it reverses they can bowl that instead and they can all do it. Not since 2005 have England had an attack that has been so threatening and as well balanced as this one, and there are only four of them this time, not five.' Another former England all-rounder Derek Pringle, the cricket correspondent of the Daily Torygraph, reported that 'the joy after Australia's twenty four-year monopoly on their home turf was there for all to see as the team went into a huddle and danced on the grave of Australian dominance.' SCG = Strauss Celebrates Glory was the Daily Scum Mail's new acronym for the Sydney Cricket Ground. 'It was an unprecedented home disaster at the hands of an England team who have totally and utterly outplayed them. Shout it from the rooftops. England have a cricket team to be proud of while Australia are about to embark on the sort of soul searching that has been an English preserve for far too long,' wrote Paul Newman. 'As the jubilant Barmy Army took over a ground that rapidly became an Aussie-free zone, thousands of disillusioned home supporters rushed past the new statue of Steve Waugh, a permanent reminder of past glories, and out of the gates as they fled the scene of a very English celebration.' Power Urn The Glory was the Sun's headline - whilst Alastair Cook was hailed as 'cricket's very own Frank Lampard' by his former Essex skipper Ronnie Irani. Cook's school coach, another ex-England batsman the great Derek Randall remembered how the left-hander came to Bedford School on a music scholarship as a chorister. He has certainly made the Aussies dance to his tune for the last three months. The Grunaid Morning Star's Kevin Mitchell felt 'this was a surreal end to an Ashes series - a party for England, a funeral for Australia, peopled by several thousand hoarse and harmless drunks, and a smattering of reluctant, stunned mourners.' Former England batsman Geoffrey Boycott, a man seldom short of an opinion on pretty much anything, said that he believes the Andrew Strauss-led England team's supremacy in Test cricket can last for years. Dear old David Lloyd was getting a bit carried away too, telling Sky viewers that 'Shane Warne has come up with a ten-point plan to revive Australia. How about these suggestions from me - the Aussies should have eighteen counties, four hundred and sixty pros, loads of Kolpaks who will never play for their country, one hundred and sixty Twenty20 games a season and travel the length of the country between games. That's clearly way to do it!' Simon Briggs in the Torygraph noted: 'As for Mitchell Johnson, how can you build an attack around such a rogue element? Johnson might be the most dangerous bowler in the country, but he is also the most frustrating. For the sake of some stability in the camp, he should be sent back to Western Australia until the Barmy Army's cruel song ("He bowls to the left/he bowls to the right/Oh Mitchell Johnson you're bowling is shite!") no longer rings true.' Meanwhile, James Lawton in the Independent felt 'Australia grew smug and negligent, and the result is shown in the ruins of their game. Maybe the likes of Usman Khawaja and Steve Smith will raise the banner again some time soon, but it is not something you want to bet on - certainly not in the shadow of an England who have plainly moved into a superior league.' In fact, what has happened to Australia - as any cricket-watcher with half-a-head whose studied the game for the last few years will know - has been, essentially, exactly the same thing that happened to the great West Indian side of the 70s and 80s by the time the early 90s rolled around. A team got old together and when a bunch of them all retired at once, they suddenly found, to their surprise, that the production line which had produced all those great young cricketers to add to an already experienced set-up can grind to a sudden halt when six or seven were urgently needed. Indeed, as Michael Holding recently noted in an excellent article in the Torygraph 'Australian cricket is an illustration of how, when great sports teams decline, they tend not to tail away gently. More often, they fall off a cliff.' Not that the Australian press were taking such a balanced view of matters. 'OUR WORST XI' bellowed the Sydney Morning Herald's headline on day five. 'Australia's Test team must take some more bitter medicine before it again becomes competitive with the world's best teams, let alone dominant,' wrote Will Brodie, listing a ten-point plan to rebuild the side. 'Unless Australia takes the short-term pain to blood several youngsters with the right techniques and temperaments, it will be consigned to a sustained period of mediocrity.' Peter Roebuck in The Age noted: 'Australia has been given a cricketing education. If England's victories on home soil were faintly fortuitous then this was the real thing, a beautiful execution carried out by an efficient and motivated side. Of the two teams out there, only one is playing Test cricket.' Hell hath no fury like an Aussie sports journalist who has to describe a defeat, of course. And in the case of Greg Baum in the Sydney Morning Herald it was uncomfortably like watching a mother eating her own young: 'The cricket community has a right to be angry,' he thundered, wax exploding in his ears. 'Whether or not Australians place too much store by sporting success, they at least expect to be represented by honest effort. Now heads must roll.' Calm down, mate, it's only a game. In a rather flowery - though not entirely unpoetical - editorial piece, The West Australian had this to say: 'Just as Nero fiddled while Rome burned, Australia's cricket leadership spent the summer fiddling while the Ashes burned.' So, cut out fiddling with yourself, clearly. That's the way forward. That, and finding a decent opener, a middle-order, a spinner who can actually spin the ball, a couple of quicks who - unlike Mitchell Johnson - can keep the cherry on the pitch and, maybe, a captain who isn't a whinging cry-baby with a very amusing ability of getting himself run out at dramatically hilarious moments. You know, those kind of things. 'Australia is not scheduled to play Test cricket again until a tour of Sri Lanka in August, and by then the team is likely to have a different look,' was the view of Malcolm Conn in The Australian - by which time he said that he expects injured skipper Ricky Ponting to return at number six in the order. In an article headlined Thrashed On And Off The Field Conn added: 'Apart from the first three days of the opening Test in Brisbane, and when Mitchell Johnson swung the ball consistently for the only time in the series to knock over England cheaply twice with a now injured Ryan Harris in Perth, Australia was appalling.' The newspaper also noted that 'the scorn of your opponents is hard to deal with, but their sympathy is the biggest insult of all. England captain Andrew Strauss was gracious and understanding despite achieving what so many of his forebears could not. He also had the good manners to say he didn't think Australia was that bad.' The unspoken implication being that The Australian considered this was, actually, a bare-faced lie. Former Australian batsman Dean Jones called on Cricket Australia to hire his old skipper Steve Waugh as coach. Writing in the Herald Sun, he fumed: 'All the coaches around Australia have never played for Australia.' Well, neither did David Saker for that matter, but he's doing a grand job for England: 'I don't think we've hit rock bottom yet,' added Jones. Meanwhile, one Will Swanton of the Australian Daily Telegraph, who wrote this little classic last November before the series started was being strangely quiet. Actually, that's not true at all. Australian sports journalists are incapable of being strangely quiet since they just love the sound of their own voice. Mr Swanton was, in fact, busy prepapring another, almost Asperger's-like, list of things that he'll do when he, like, rules the world. Or something. Dear blog readers may like to note that God himslef had but one list of ten things to do and that has lasted him for eternity so far; this Swanton bloke's had at least two in the last thirteen weeks. Australia's chairman of selectors Andrew Hilditch, meanwhile, was busy absolving himself of blame for Australia's crushing Ashes defeat. And then, he was warning that even tougher challenges lie ahead for the Test team. In the aftermath of an unprecedented third loss by an innings for the series, one in which the bowling attack he and his fellow selectors picked have been hit for more than five hundred runs on four separate occasions, Hilditch said that he and his fellow selectors - Greg Chappell, David Boon and Jamie Cox - had 'done a very good job' in choosing the teams for the five matches. Isn't that a bit like Harland and Wolff claiming they'd done a good job building the Titanic? 'The reality is we were totally outplayed,' Hilditch said immediately after the Test concluded. 'You can't get away from that fact. They were better than we were. We put a side on the paddock we expected to compete really well, but they gained momentum probably at the start of the Adelaide Test match.' So, not your fault, then? Just one of them things? 'Whether the Australian team realise it or not, there are little more than twenty Test matches between now and the quest to regain the Ashes in England in 2013,' noted The Age's Stuart Clark. 'Therefore those who administer the game must conduct a review to determine what is right, what is wrong, what works and what requires fixing, while taking into account the grim reality that the great teams of the 1990s and 2000s might never be achievable again.' Meanwhile, on the SCG outfield, just when you thought an Ashes victory couldn't possibly taste any sweeter, much-loved cricketing broadcaster Jonathan Agnew proved that it actually can. The commentator for BBC's Test Match Special team took to the Sydney turf to give his wholly unique unique version of the dance which has become as synonymous with this Ashes series as an Alastair Cook century. The 'sprinkler', a movement which involves holding an arm out and imitating the jaunty rotation of a garden sprinkler, was picked up by England all-rounder Paul Collingwood and then quickly adopted by the team and spread to the world via Graeme Swann's regular Twitter postings. Aggers, who had promised co-commentator Michael Vaughan that he would recreate the dance on the SCG outfield if England won The Ashes, didn't go back on his word. Hmm ... sorry Aggers but Tim Bresnan does it better. As the players finally left the field, Graeme Swann told TMS: 'Turning up this morning, we only needed three wickets but with the rain hanging around, it was a relief to wrap it up before lunch. I was happy with the way I bowled in three of the games, especially Adelaide, but I felt Melbourne was the best I've bowled in an England shirt, even though I only got two wickets. It's a difficult balance to get a group of blokes who really like each other, but if you put a happy mix of people together with victories, you're going to get success. We're putting the sprinkler away now, although I might do it if I ever win BBC Sports Personality of the Year!'

Meanwhile, listeners to BBC Radio 4's long wave coverage of The Ashes on Test Match Special only went and missed the crucial climax after the station switched - as it does every night - to the shipping forecast. You know the kind of thing; 'Forties, Cromarty, Forth, Tyne, Dogger, Fisher, German Bight, Humber, Thames, Dover, Wight, Portland, veering wildly. Northeast six or seven. Occasional rain. Good. Possibly violent later. Rockall, Malin, Hebrides. Severe gale nine to armageddon-style tempest thirteen. Abandon hope all ye who enter here. Rain, then squally showers. Poor. Moderate later if the wind dies down a bit.' Please allow The Young Punx to explain further in an amusing and techno-slammin' way. The landmark moment when England won in Australia for the first time in twenty four years was denied to long wave listeners as it occurred during the 00.48am shipping update which takes up to ten minutes, depending on what the seas are like. By the time the forecast had finished, Australia's Michael Beer had been bowled by Chris Tremlett. Jonathan Agnew told the returning punters: 'Welcome back to our Radio 4 long wave listeners to the news that England have just won. They've beaten Australia by an innings and eighty four runs when Tremlett bowled Michael Beer and the celebrations have begun.' Listeners to the BBC's digital service 5Live Sports Extra were unaffected by this as the shipping forecast is only broadcast on Radio 4 long wave and FM. It was an unfortunate – some might say extraordinary, indeed the Gruniad Morning Star did – coincidence that this was the third time in the series that Radio 4LW had cut to the shipping forecast at the very moment of an England victory, missing the climax to all three of the team's Test wins. An essential guide for sailors and fishermen around the British Isles, the shipping forecast is broadcast for those in peril on the sea four times a day by Radio 4, and its timings are set in stone. The reason for choosing Radio 4 for the shipping gorecast is not because it is a mainly speech-based channel, but because it broadcasts via longwave on 198kHz as well as FM, and the longwave signal can be received clearly at sea all around the British Isles regardless of time of day or the radio conditions. England's winning moment in each match came in the middle of the 00.48am update, first in the second Test at Adelaide, then in the fourth Test in Melbourne – when the Ashes were retained – and finally during the series clincher in Sydney. A Radio 4 spokeswoman said: 'The shipping forecast plays an essential role in the safety of the British maritime industry and has to be broadcast at a set time every day. We apologise for the interruption to Test Match Special on Radio 4 long wave, but listeners were warned at length ahead of the forecast that alternative commentary was available on 5Live medium wave and that TMS coverage continued on 5Live Sports Extra on digital radio, online and via digital TV.' That still didn't stop some people whinging, though. Of course, they're largely the same people who, if they weren't too cheap to buy a Sky Sports subscription, could have been watching the thing on TV instead of listening to it on the radio. No sympathy!

Which brings us to yer actual Keith Telly Topping's Cricket Lovely Cricket 45(s) of the Day. I suppose we'd better start off with an Australian perspective on this matter. Which, I dare say, probably bowled a few maidens over in its time. To put this into further context, then: Ricky Ponting, Rupert Murdoch, Dame Nellie Melba, Dame Edna, Dame Dennis Lillie, Sir Les Patterson, Sir Don Bradman, Sir Jeff Thomson, Sir Mel Gibson (alleged wife-beater and anti-semite), the Chappell triplets, Jason Donovan, Jim Robinson out of Neighbours, Ned Kelly, some blokes with corks on their hats, Bon Scott, Rolf Harris, Tony Monopoly, yer Keith Telly Topping's many cousins up in Brisbane(!), Slim Dusty and his pub with no beer, Skippy the Bush Kangaroo, Flipper, Crocodile Dundee, some prawns (on the barbie), Kylie! Can you hear me, Kylie? Kylie, Kylie, sweet and smiley, sing us a song in a rub-a-dub style(e). Tell your Dannii, Kylie, that your boys took one hell of a beating. They think it's all over.It is now. Yours, Alastair. PS: Can you send me some socks, please.