Wednesday 30 November 2011

Paceman Pat and his immediate impact...

When South African maestro Dale Steyn is bowling with his tail up, that trademark snarl etched across his face, that demonic look in those piercing eyes and the wind rushing through his hair as he tears in toward the popping crease at breakneck speed, it is safe to assume there is no specialist batsman in world cricket that enjoys the prospect of facing him. Unleashing outswinging and unerringly accurate exocets in excess of 90mph, Steyn is a menacing presence.
In the second and final Test between South Africa and Australia at the Wanderers a fortnight ago, that is exactly the proposition 18 year old paceman Pat Cummins was greeted with when walking to the wicket with his side 292-8 with 18 runs needed to win, and just two wickets remaining in Australia’s second innings.
One could have forgiven Cummins for thinking that this wasn’t part of his job description when his prodigious fast bowling talent saw him picked to earn his first Test cap. Crucial passages of play in a high pressure atmosphere are often where hot prospects sink or swim. Cummins, it seems, has an element of Michael Phelps about him. Where more experienced and illustrious names had failed, Cummins took to his task with the fearless youthful exuberance that only the inexperienced can, swiping the mighty Steyn and co for two boundaries on his way to making 13 not out and winning Australia the match and a share of this compelling and criminally under scheduled Test series.
His batting heroics were nevertheless only the icing on the cake of what was a terrific Test debut for the New South Wales man. Whilst Cummins had looked the most threatening Australian bowler in South Africa’s first innings, his modest return of 1-38 did him little justice. It was the second innings, however, where this rising star of Australian cricket really began to burn at its brightest. One over in particular caught the eye and was rather poignant, as an 18 year old novice gave 40 time centurion Jacques Kallis an almighty working over, before removing the great man with an angled delivery outside off stump; Kallis clearly softened up by the earlier barrage of venomous short deliveries. The cunning old fox had been out-thought and out-smarted by the new cub on the block.
Australia, it must be remembered, were still busy peeling themselves from the canvas after that crushing and traumatic trouncing in Cape Town. This was a side carrying more issues than the average Jeremy Kyle guest line-up, and how it showed here in Johannesburg. Ricky Ponting was embroiled in his own almighty struggle for each and every run as he looked to finally post a score of note, Mitchell Johnson was bowling off a shortened run up as an experimental means of gaining accuracy and swing, and wicket-keeper Brad Haddin had clearly decided that blazing his way back in to form through a series of audacious slogs and extravagant drives was the solution to his own batting woes.
A man whose only issue was how much carnage he could wreak on a stellar South African batting order was Pat Cummins. Experience is key in any sport, with participants constructing a mental portfolio which sees them through the toughest of situations. As a consequence, the mental scars of past failures are often etched deep into their psyche, with the potential to inhibit a mind that was once reliant on natural instinct. One suspects that the absence of these embedded psychological terrors was of greater benefit to Cummins in this pressure cooker situation than years of experience could ever have provided.
India’s master batsman Sachin Tendulkar is one such example of experience, and therefore expectation, altering the way that various situations are approached as time passes. At the age of 18, Sachin played with all the freedom of a chick flying the nest. In recent times, and with the hopes of over one billion fans sitting squarely on those small shoulders, the pressure is at times visibly telling. The hook shot has almost disappeared from the little masters game, no doubt a concession to prolong his stay at the crease, and the whole experience of watching him bat is somewhat diminished (though still a pleasure) from that of his youthful exuberance, as he plays to his strengths with minimal risk. Such a situation is something that may present Pat Cummins with problems of his own in the future, but it is likely the very reason that he was the coolest head in the house at the Wanderers.
Whilst his effect upon this particular Test match was undoubtedly critical, it is the wider impact that the emergence of Cummins has on Australian cricket which is likely to be the most resounding. In truth, Australia have struggled for a fast bowler with genuine quality and a real cutting edge since the retirement of the peerless Glenn McGrath. Mitchell Johnson is a mercurial bowler capable of destroying the best of line-ups, but those performances have become all too infrequent of late. Ryan Harris and Peter Siddle are what you would call solid performers that won’t let anybody down, but there is no doubt that a world class attack needs a leader that oozes class and wicket-taking threat whenever the ball is in his hand. It is early days, but could Pat Cummins be well on his way to filling this void already at the tender age of 18?
Cummins bowls with a maturity well beyond his years, and is clearly a ‘thinking bowler’ always looking to out-smart batsmen. Such attributes were consistently on display throughout the T20 Champions League tournament where he found great success with New South Wales on the flat pitches of the Indian subcontinent. Tall, fast and with the ability to extract prodigious bounce from just back of a length, the raw materials of a world class fast bowler are there in abundance. Add to that the promising early signs that he has an ice cool temperament required for the big occasion, and Australia may just have unearthed themselves a gem.
Only time will tell just how far Pat Cummins can go, but based on these initial glimpses the potential seems to be there for a long and successful Test career. One thing is for sure, his emergence will add much needed spice to the Australian bowling unit ahead of the next Ashes series in England, as the selectors look to revitalise an attack ground in to the dirt by the relentless blades of Alastair Cook and Jonathan Trott last winter.
Of course, it is often English practice to get carried away by talented youngsters that display early promise. In this instance, one has to wonder whether that enthusiasm is more closely related to the possibility of a hotly contested Ashes series against a Cummins led Australian bowling attack, after the relative ease with which the little urn was retained last time out. It couldn’t be that English supporters miss having an Australian bowling nemesis, could it?

Tuesday 8 November 2011

Adrenalin Agenda...(continued)

In the first of this series of blogs I spoke of my desire to take those first few tentative steps into the world of boxing, with the ultimate aim of stepping in to the squared circle and managing to hold my own against those far more experienced in the 'sweet science' than myself.

As a 9 to 5 office worker whose experience of throwing punches didn't extend much past the free Wii Sports boxing simulation game, it had appeared an intimidating prospect. The intention of that first blog however, and I hope it had the desired effect, was to show that somebody with no fighting background and with a tendency to live the easy life could step out of their comfort zone, and find it wasn't quite as petrifying as it may once have appeared.

Nevertheless, it's still an intimidating place, the gym. During our various drills in technique I take time out to look around at the others, assessing the competition, if you like. What I see is something that doesn't sell sparring too well to me. My main concern? They all look like they know what they are doing. 'Mean Business' read the slogan on one gym mates T-shirt, and the way he was hitting the heavy bag showed it wasn't in jest.

Despite only having stepped in to the gym for the first time all of six weeks ago, I realise I'm becoming far more confident in things even as simple as shadow boxing. I'm now concentrating on slipping those imaginary incoming punches, of manoeuvring my opponent around and ensuring it is all done with the correct technique. Turn back the clock a couple of weeks and the only thing I'm concentrating on is not looking like a clueless buffoon in front of the regulars.

The question I had been mulling over almost endlessly in my own mind was whether I could live with these guys in sparring, where the drills became real and instinct takes over. That old adage of fight or flight would certainly apply, with my worry being that it'd be the latter. After all, the last time I'd been hit on the nose was a good fifteen years ago, I didn't like it much then, and as to how I'd react now even I didn't know. One thing was for sure, I would most definitely be getting hit - my dexterity in the slipping of punches had only slightly improved from that of off-milk to a badly made porridge after a few extra weeks attempting to sharpen my skills.

After the obligatory Google search of 'how long do people box for before they start sparring' I was left none the wiser, with advice ranging from one month to six months. "You'll be fine" says one of my gym mates, "once you realise you aren't made of glass, and get used to being hit, you'll start to enjoy it." This may be boxing, but getting hit was something that wasn't exactly at the forefront of my mind when I signed up. I vowed to redouble my defensive efforts in training.

Upon finally purchasing a mouth guard, one of those self-mould jobs that barely fits, gives you a mouth appearing similar in shape to that of King Kong and falls out every time you try to speak, it was time to give sparring a go. If I thought I was nervous before my first group training session, I was wrong. I spent my entire day at work with what I can only imagine is the type of dread that a Death Row inmate suffers as he peruses the menu choices of his final meal.

Hands up, chin down, I told myself as I was first called in to the ring - quite typically against the biggest, meanest looking guy in the vicinity. Thankfully, our trainer Anthony had us work on a two jabs each policy to begin with, so I was able to get a taste for moving about the ring and being able to try and defend against the incoming jabs without worrying about a monster right hand follow up wiping me out.

I must admit, my greatest fear beforehand was being overwhelmed by punches I couldn't see coming. Whether by design or fortune, it actually suited me well to be in with the biggest, but consequently slowest member of the team. I wouldn't necessarily class myself as fleet of foot, but I was able to get in and back out again using quick raiding tactics with the jab before I could be found with a counter. Jabbing to the body was where I enjoyed most success, with the majority of my jabs to the head being blocked or parried. Not at all surprising, given that I most likely announce an impending jab with all the subtlety of a stampeding Rhinoceros.

There were five of us in attendance, boxing two minute rounds each, but changing opponent after one minute of each. Words fail me when beginning to describe how much hard work a two minute round is, and it really brings home just how well conditioned professional boxers must be, who are fighting three minute rounds remember, and twelve of them!

"The fight is won or lost far away from witnesses - behind the lines, in the gym, and out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights" - Muhammad Ali

Despite not quite being ready to begin comparisons between myself and the great Muhammad Ali, one thing I can say is that I now understand what he was talking about - difference being that he was preparing for a gruelling 15-rounder with Joe Frazier, and I was hoping to survive two minutes against Dave from the local building site.

We had completed plenty of tough strength and conditioning drills in the gym across the past six weeks, but nothing could have prepared me for the rigours of sparring. That combination of sharp foot movement, the throwing of punches and, of course, being punched in the face, chest, arms, everywhere it seemed, does take it out of you, and rather rapidly. Concentration is another aspect that cannot be overlooked, causing a sweat to break out after mere seconds through my sheer will to pre-empt punches that had my name on them. Things had started well though, despite the almost immediate screaming coming from my legs that they'd had enough.

Alas, it wasn't to last. On a list of things you most definitely would not want to do when faced with an ogre-like opponent with arms like hams, hitting him low would appear pretty close to the top. As I lunged in for another of my by now specialist jabs to the body, he stepped back, leaving my jab to fall low and cause his eyes to water somewhat. After a ten second break where he checked they were still there and gathered himself, he came tearing out of the corner like a bull to the matador, except this particular matador wasn't quite as skilled in the art of evasive action.

Before I knew it I was under fire against the ropes from a barrage of left hands, managing to block most of them to my credit, though I did take a particularly painful one right on the end of the nose. Another jab to the eye later and it appeared that Taurus had finally started to run out of steam. Chance to capitalise? Not for me, dead on my feet and genuinely thankful as the buzzer told me it was the end of the round. I'd held my own, but certainly had a scare upon awaking the sleeping giant.

The rest of the session saw us focus upon techniques we had been working on so rigorously in training in recent weeks - defensive manoeuvres and counter-punching. One half of the round was spent being the aggressor, whereas the other half had a stipulation; you could only throw a punch back if it was a legitimate counter. Needless to say, I was far too concerned with getting out the way of my opponents punches to be much of a success at getting my own counter off, though I'm reliably informed that everyone feels this way during their first couple of sessions.

I'd been told it was addictive, sparring. Beforehand such a notion was pretty hard to believe, though I've since found myself throwing combinations in every mirror I manage to walk by - when nobody is watching, of course. There is no doubt that sparring was the scariest thing I have ever participated in, but did I enjoy it? Absolutely. Will I be going again next week? You bet. I'm not fooling myself, I've got a heck of a long way to go before I can start getting the better of people in there, but it was comforting to know that I could step between those ropes and hold my own, particularly given that I'm still a complete novice in the sport.

One thing this session highlighted is the immense role that confidence plays in a sport such as boxing. I went in feeling like a lamb to the slaughter. After somehow managing not to disgrace myself, I left feeling like the next super-middleweight champion of the world.

Monday 7 November 2011

The curious case of Jacques Kallis...

Twenty years on since the re-admission of South Africa to world cricket following their exclusion due to the government's policy of apartheid, the once banished nation is standing tall alongside the other behemoths of the sport.

They've never been short of talented crickets, South Africa. Prior to the sporting boycott of the nation in 1970 they were represented by undoubted greats of the game in the form of Graeme Pollock and Eddie Barlow, to name but two, and since their re-admission have seen numerous world class performers don the olive green cap.

Open to debate this may be, but perhaps South Africa's greatest ever performer, and a man that has been a stalwart of the side since re-admission is Jacques Henry Kallis. Kallis, it could be argued, is right up there alongside Sir Garfield Sobers as the greatest all-rounder the sport of cricket has ever seen, boasting an incredible 40 Test centuries, second only to Sachin Tendulkar, at an average of 57.43 (at the time of writing).

Add to this 270 Test wickets at an average of 32.01, in addition to the fact that Kallis is the only man to have scored in excess of 10,000 runs and taken in excess of 250 wickets in Test cricket, and you've got yourself one heck of a cricketer.

Why, then, does debate amongst cricket supporters often see Jacques Kallis being ranked slightly below the likes of Sachin Tendulkar, Ricky Ponting, Brian Lara and Rahul Dravid when discussing the greatest batsmen of his era. Purely in terms of statistics, and despite his all-round credentials, Kallis has a batting average superior to any of the aforementioned. As alluded to previously, he is second only to Tendulkar in the number of Test centuries scored, and also holds the lowest number of innings per half century ratio of the group (2.62 innings per half century, with Tendulkar second at 2.66).

Initially, I believed it to be a reflection of Kallis' batting style. Cricket is, after all, an entertainment business. To the purist, Kallis' slightly cumbersome style and often laboured footwork is not hugely adhering, and his solid but unspectacular technique somehow fails to set the pulse racing in comparison to the sublime majesty of Tendulkar, that West Indian flamboyance of Lara, the poise of Dravid and the tenacity of Ponting.

History has a tendency to be kind to pioneers and entertainers, and Jacques, unfortunately, fails to qualify as either. When assessing the greatness of a batsman, however, surely style alone cannot condemn a man whose record stands up to those of his seemingly more illustrious contemporaries. There had to be something deeper and far more significant as to why this magnificent run machine wasn't receiving his dues.

When racking my brains for any possible explanation as to what makes these batsmen so great, I began trawling through the stand-out innings that each have played - whether that be an innings that alters the outcome of a series, an innings that takes their side from a seemingly unwinnable position and puts them into a winnable one, or an innings that simply sets a new precedent against a certain attack.

If we cast our memory back to the Sydney Cricket Ground in January of 2006, the above point becomes particularly relevant. The two greatest batsmen on display in this game, Kallis and Ponting, both had significant success. Kallis scored 111 in the first innings, followed up by 50 not out in the second. Ponting, on the other hand, made 120 in the first innings, and a match winning 143 not out in the second. Statistically, you couldn't argue with either performance. The manner in which the runs were compiled however, presents a different outlook in its entirety.

During that first innings, it was eminently clear that Jacques Kallis and South Africa were desperate for a big first innings total, betrayed by their snail-like run-rate of less than three runs per over. Conversely, Ponting came out and made his 120 from 174 balls, a brisk enough strike rate for sure. This is of far less consequence to this debate than the second innings, however.

After taking a first innings lead of 92 runs, South Africa's batsmen were required to really push on in order to declare and set Australia an imposing total whilst giving themselves enough time to take the ten wickets needed for victory. Herschelle Gibbs went about this task in the right manner, making 67 from 74 balls before falling, though his partner Kallis looked far more concerned with playing for his average in crawling along at barely a strike rate of 50 once again. Upon setting Australia a difficult 287 in 76 overs, Ricky Ponting strode to the crease and blitzed 143 from just 159 balls to lead Australia to an unlikely victory.

That Test match, to my mind, is a prime example of why Ricky Ponting will always be rated as a greater batsman than Jacques Kallis, despite many of the statistics proving otherwise. It is also potentially the key reason as to why Kallis is rarely regarded in the same league as the other extraordinary batsmen I have mentioned throughout this piece to many cricket buffs. In short, Kallis may have spent far too many years of his career being a great accumulator of runs, as opposed to a match winner. Though there have been signs of late that Jacques has attempted to reverse this trend, he may just have left it too late in the day. This, along with the lack of that one career defining innings to date, might just explain why such a magnificent batsman may be placed on a slightly lower pedestal than his esteemed contemporaries, despite having a record that stands shoulder to shoulder with the best of them.