Feb 052014

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SYDNEY Sixers captain Marcus North has won the toss and opted to bowl first in the Big Bash League semi-final against Perth Scorchers at the SCG.

After Hobart Hurricanes stunned the previously-undefeated Melbourne Stars in the first semi-final on Tuesday night, the winner of tonight’s clash will take the home advantage into Friday night’s final.

These teams could barely be separated the last time they met, with the Scorchers eventually clinching victory courtesy of a ‘super over’.

Both sides have had a serious change to player personnel since that match.

The Sixers will be without Test squad members Steve Smith, Brad Haddin, Nathan Lyon and Moises Henriques, while the Scorchers have regained international bowler Nathan Coulter-Nile.

His inclusion was expected to mean one of Alfonso Thomas or Pat Cummins would be dropped, but the visitors have taken a risk by including those three players, plus fellow paceman Jason Behrendorff, in a bowler-heavy line-up.

In an unusual twist of fate, former Scorchers captain Marcus North will be leading the Sixers at the SCG, while the man leading Perth, Simon Katich, called the SCG home for a large chunk of his career.

Sixers: Marcus North (c), Sean Abbott, Ravi Bopara, Trent Copeland, Mark Cosgrove, Josh Hazlewood, Brett Lee, Michael Lumb, Nic Maddinson, Dan Smith, Mitchell Starc.

Scorchers: Simon Katich (c), Jason Behrendorff, Nathan Coulter-Nile, Pat Cummins, Brad Hogg, Mitchell Marsh, Craig Simmons, Alfonso Thomas, Ashton Turner, Adam Voges, Sam Whiteman.

Follow all the action in our live blog below!


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Jan 202014
Cricket Sri Lanka: Malinga and Mendis recalled home from BBL over "fitness issues"

Sri Lanka Cricket (SLC) has recalled thier fast bowler Lasith Malinga and spinner Ajantha Mendis from the Big Bash League with immediate effect, so the pair can undertake a training programme in Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka’s next challenge, after finishing their Test series in the UAE, is a tour of Bangladesh. Their tour begins from Jan 27 with Test series and the limited-overs matches begin from February 12 although Malinga has retired from Test cricket was called back to save him fit. Malinga’s fitness is among the selectors’ chief concerns, as the team prepares for a busy limited-overs schedule in the next three months, which features the Asia Cup and World Twenty20.

We felt it is important for all national squad players to undergo a strict training regime in the next few weeks, as Sri Lanka has a heavy schedule ahead,” said the SLC secretary, Nishantha Ranatunga. “The decision to call back Lasith and Ajantha was taken in consultation with our coaches and national selectors.

This decision comes weeks after the board and selectors had also refused Thisara Perera’s permission to play in the BBL. On that occasion, the chief selector, Sanath Jayasuriya, praised Perera’s work ethic as a reason and he has now expressed similar view on Malinga’s fitness. Malinga has visibly gained weight over the past eight months and, though he remains a very valuable player in the limited-overs sides, his performances have also become less consistent.

You have to admit that Malinga has a serious fitness issue,” Jayasuriya said. “But if he shows serious intentions and is willing work hard and improve himself and if he is ready to show commitment towards national duty, then we feel it is unfair to leave him out. He is obviously a world-class bowler. So, we want him to prove himself by coming back from the Big Bash and working with our coaches and trainers and get back to his full fitness in the next few days.

He knows that we are keen to help him out and have the patience to manage him and assist him cope with his injury in order to prolong his international career,” Jayasuriya said. “It is a very encouraging sign and we hope everything will turn out well for the country.

Jan 142014
Howard warns against complacency
Pat Howard, Australia's team performance manager, at a press conference, Melbourne, November 22, 2011

Pat Howard says Australian cricket must ‘keep pushing, keep assessing, keep improving’ © Getty Images

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Players/Officials: Pat Howard
Series/Tournaments: England tour of Australia

A sense of urgency – even emergency – coursed through Australian cricket’s veins in the lead-up to this summer’s Ashes series. The team performance manager Pat Howard has now warned that such energy must not be lost in the afterglow of victory over England if the team’s success is to be lasting.

Howard’s role, outlined by the Argus review and bestowed by the Cricket Australia chief executive James Sutherland in 2011, made him ultimately accountable for the national team’s performance. He was thus in danger of losing his job had the Ashes stayed with England, and admitted as much at the start of the summer.

A sweeping victory over Alastair Cook’s tourists brought relief to Howard and many others at CA, allowing him the privilege of a dressing-room invitation at the end of the Sydney Test to share a celebratory drink with the team – players and administrators have not always mixed so fondly. He could look back on numerous decisions, from the appointment of Darren Lehmann as coach and the return of Brad Haddin as vice-captain to the call-ups of Craig McDermott, Damian Mednis and John Davison to on-tour support staff roles, as key moments along the way.

“We did collectively have a lot of faith coming out of England; the one-dayers confirmed that faith post the Test matches as well that we had the capability, and obviously it’s holding your nerve through what was an interesting period,” Howard told ESPNcricinfo. “I think a lot of people held their nerve and the players performed admirably.

“There’s been a lot of things going on for an even longer period than that [England] but the things we see are what we call the shop window and the Test team and how that goes. There were 11 guys who performed brilliantly during that period of five Tests and a lot of backroom staff who kept them on the ground for that period and obviously the coaches that got the best out of them during that period.”

There were structural adjustments too. The domestic season is now divided into four distinct blocks of matches, starting with the domestic limited-overs tournament, the Sheffield Shield, Big Bash League and then the closing rounds of Shield games. Pitches have been massaged to better advance batsmen and spin bowlers, while the age restrictions on the Futures League have been removed altogether. The fruits of many of these gambits will not be known for some years, but Howard is adamant that the changes ushered in during times of poor results must not be followed up by contented dithering. He is on guard against complacency.

“Sometimes success can bring complacency and that’s why you’ve got to have a strategy and a document that drives you, either the CA strategy or the team performance review, the Argus review as it’s commonly known, and to keep trying to push processes forward and to innovate,” Howard said. “Some things work, some things don’t, but the continuing ability to keep pushing, keep assessing, and keep improving is important.

“We’ve looked at longer-term projects like stuff coming out of our domestic changes or the pitches and things which we’ve been pretty vocal on this year, and you’re not going to see the benefits of those for a while. But we’ve seen a significant increase in the number of overs that spinners are bowling, as a consequence the number of overs the batsmen are facing of spin, and we’re going to continue to try to work with all the officials around Australian cricket to try to support the Australian Test, ODI and T20 teams.

“But I’ve been really happy with progress. We’ve seen a significant rise in centuries, a significant rise in half-centuries, but there’s also areas like 50s to 100s [conversion rates] that haven’t improved as much as we’d want. So there’s all those changes that probably take more than half a season to wash through, and we’re going to have to be patient to try to get some batsmen really putting their hand up and giving the selectors even more choice.”

It should not be forgotten that the Australian Cricketers Association is tabling a state-of-the-game report to CA that will offer plenty of frank commentary on the problems the players themselves still see in the system. The placement of the BBL in the centre of the summer is chief among them, an issue highlighted by Shane Watson before the Ashes began in Brisbane. Howard himself is not satisfied with the current marginalisation of the Shield around the BBL, and is discussing with CA how the balance can be improved further in 2014-15.

“Change is always hard, and sometimes you’ve got to put your head down and get that change through,” he said. “We’ve had some positive and some negative feedback, and the negative feedback has been really constructive. So we’re looking to tinker, but none of that’s gone through yet. I think in terms of the blocks of season that’ll continue, where Ryobi will be played in a block again and we’ll see if we can get the balance right with the number of Shield games either side of the BBL and see if we can get that through.

“It’s a really complex time of the year, absolutely no doubt about that. But we try to keep our thinking clear. For those the selectors identify we make sure we work from the first Test backwards and work in with the states and the BBL teams, make sure we can incorporate any training or workloads into competitive cricket as well as training. Those plans are in place, you get injuries along the way, you get pressure on performances and suddenly teams wanting to make BBL semi-finals etc. So there are lots of competing interests and it is complex, but it’s a great challenge.”

The repealing of earlier regulations restricting the second XI competition to three, then six, players aged over 23 was the lowest-profile but arguably most significant change to the Australian cricket landscape. They had been put in place at the behest of Greg Chappell, who remains CA’s national talent manager, due to his fears about a lack of youth coming through. A subsequent exodus of senior players from club, state and national levels had consequences for the national team, and Howard said the need for greater balance was now appreciated.

“I think the state talent managers who play chairmen of selectors for each state have done a really good job with that,” Howard said. “In some states there’s a significant amount of youth playing at the state level, and as a consequence we look at the balance of not just the Futures League team for the second XI game but also how much youth is being represented at the top level. I think they’re doing a very good job generally at getting that balance right and getting the best growth out of those players.

“We’re also trying to send a message to grade cricketers with aspirations that you can play in the next level, we want to be able to say if you though that’s closed off that’s not closed off. The presence of those players in premier grade cricket is important, so we’re trying to have that system which is deep and fosters talent all the way down. The importance of a young player playing with an older player in premier grade cricket I don’t think is lost on anybody.”

Howard was reluctant to speak about the Ashes victory, preferring to let the players bask in their success. but he admitted to enjoying that moment in the dressing room, a place he has avoided crowding in the past. “I believe the dressing room is a sanctuary for players and those that are close, so it was very nice to be invited in,” he said. “I’d resisted for a while, but it was very nice to join them.”

Dec 202013
BBL03: How cricket's Big Bash is winning tug of war within Aussie sports

BBL is the Big Bash League. Strictly speaking, it is the KFC T20 BBL but that is too much of an acronymic mouthful even to accommodate FMCGs, or fast moving consumer goods. This is its third version. The first and second went some way to transforming cricket in Australia and indisputably took the game to a fresh congregation and a new generation.

In the inaugural season, 10 per cent of the audience had never been to a cricket match before (21 per cent in the case of females), last year 13 per cent were attending one for the first time. With average attendances of 18,000 and 15,500 in the opening two years, domestic cricket Down Under has not had such crowds, since the Sheffield Shield, the four-day, first-class competition, was in its brief pomp 70 years ago.

SS112, as it is not called since chronological numbering is the preserve of modern tournaments, has been interrupted for the Big Bash League, to be played over the next four weeks. Cricket Australia, after a few seasons of diffidence, has picked up the Twenty20 baton and is running like hell with it.

The Melbourne derby, between the Stars and the Renegades, which launched this season’s competition, attracted 46,851 supporters last year, a record in Australian domestic cricket and both unthinkable and impossible in England. A mere 25,266 were there last night on one of those cold Durham-like Melbourne evenings but it was a sparkling occasion.

Wright bashed – no other word for it – 70 from 32 balls which Buttler’s 49 from 28 for the Renegades could not quite match. Stars won by 76 runs, although Muralitharan rolled back the years by conceding only 23 runs in four overs for the Renegades. The crowd could still not resist shouting “no ball!” as he came in to bowl, reminding him that he was once called for throwing in both Test and one-day matches here.

“I suspect that the regaining of the Ashes by Australia may give the BBL a boost in terms of numbers,” said Mike McKenna, Cricket Australia’s executive general manager and one of the competition’s driving forces. “We certainly expect the impetus it has gained in the first two seasons to be continued.”

The tournament is making money, which is welcome, but not its sole objective. All the profit is ploughed back into the game to ensure that cricket remains high on the national agenda. Its initial success has been confirmed by the selling of television rights for this third season to the free-to-air Network 10.

In some ways, the BBL is a triumphant marketing exercise as much as a sporting competition. It was launched in a kind of controlled panic because all the indices showed that cricket was slipping from Australia’s national psyche.

Nobody has watched the Shield for decades and while international cricket was holding its own – Test match crowds have increased in the past 20 years – there was reliable information that cricket, once the country’s most popular sport, had fallen to seventh place.

Twenty20, highly commercialised and promoting star power for all it is worth, was seen as the saviour of the game in all its forms. It is hard to avoid the feeling that the Australians have used it in a way that the England and Wales Cricket Board have been wary of doing or been persuaded was not the appropriate course.

When it saw the warning signs, CA wasted no time in establishing city rather than state teams and defeated traditionalists. It has been relentless in publicising the competition even as the drama of the Ashes was unfolding. BBL team messaging is used in promoting the T20 schools tournament.

T20 in England, the country which invented the format, is not only still based on the old county structures but from 2014 is also to be played over the whole season rather than in a block. BBL may be seen as a poor relation of the much-trumpeted but derided Indian Premier League, the daddy of them all in terms of garish, shameless, cricket-as-showbiz tournaments. But it has quickly established its own cardinal rules.

The marketing of it is based solely on cricket, although dancing girls and cavorting mascots are de rigueur. Some seasoned followers continue to insist that it is not cricket as they know it – the illuminated, flashing wickets known as zing stumps, for instance, give that argument credence – but McKenna passionately and clinically puts the case for BBL both as an entertainment in its own right and for its existence as a tool to promote the wider cause of the game.

All this is part of a delicate balancing act. The Big Bash is part of the whole, not the whole itself. There must be a worry that the new audience will settle only for Twenty20 and will not give a fig for Test cricket, which will therefore eventually wither and die.

McKenna, fervent about old and new, agrees that part of the BBL’s role is to ensure that Test cricket continues. He understands the dilemma.

“It is our job as administrators to see that all forms of the game will continue,” he says. “The one that we have to be concerned about, strangely enough, in this country isn’t Test cricket, I believe, for which attendances have been on a small upward curve, but 50-over cricket.”

BBL has not been engulfed by the controversies of the IPL, which faces a serious examination of its status and probity when stumps are drawn on its seventh edition next April. But international stars have been lured by the money and the glamour, real and perceived. So important is it considered that Ashes heroes Steve Smith and David Warner were re-routed direct from their celebrations to play, respectively, for Sydney Sixers and Sydney Thunder in the derby match on Sunday.

That would not have happened had the Ashes still been alive but it is still a measure of the BBL’s significance. CA wants the big names to play, the big names want to play: some might call it a win-win situation. The Big Bash appears to be what it says.

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