First Half of Ashes Marathon Goes to England

England 3-0 Australia – 5 Tests – England retain the Ashes

The scoreline seems unequivocal – the reality was less so.  Although the final result roundly vindicated England’s pre-series label as strong favourites, the hosts delivered a series of stuttering performances in the face of an increasingly organised Australian XI.  With the second half of this back-to-back Ashes battle a little under three months away, the Baggy Greens will leave this series regretful of the outcome, but considerably more hopeful of reacquainting themselves with the precious urn in the coming months.

England truly dominated in just one of the five Tests, the 2nd at Lord’s.  In all four of the other matches, Australia at times appeared positioned to strike for victory only to be confounded by one of two irresistible forces: either the weather or Ian Bell.

Centuries from Bell transformed the hosts’ 2nd innings in the 1st and 4th Tests, both times having conceded a 1st-innings deficit.  Although two plucky Australian run chases followed Bell’s heroics, England twice found what was necessary to force the win.

The tourists dominated much of the 3rd and 5th Tests, recording imposing 1st-innings totals that England were unable even to approach.  Moreover, visiting captain Michael Clarke was able to declare all four of his side’s innings across these two matches.  Although the 3rd match ended in stalemate, the 5th Test almost resulted in a barely deserved victory for the English following a sporting declaration from Clarke.  As the failing Oval light brought an end to both England’s chase and the series as a whole, thoughts turned to the return series beginning this November in Australia, with England seeking improvement and Australia redemption.

England’s retention of the Ashes leaves them third in the League, trailing India by the narrowest of margins.  Australia remain fourth, but will know that they will leapfrog their oldest rivals should they wrest back the urn come January.

Resurgent India Whitewash Helpless Aussies

India 4-0 Australia – 4 Tests – India regain the Border-Gavaskar Trophy

This latest iteration of the Border-Gavaskar Trophy started with India still reeling from a rare home series loss to England, and Australia looking to extend the excellent form they displayed in convincingly dispatching Sri Lanka across the turn of the year.  Two matches into the series, however, and India had confidently reasserted their erstwhile dominance in home conditions, while the Baggy Greens were self-destructing.

Australia seemed totally perplexed by the challenge presented by India’s spin attack from the outset.  Ravichandran Ashwin took 12 wickets in India’s 1st Test victory and went on to take another 17 in the series.  Ashwin was ably supported by the unheralded Ravindra Jadeja, whose 24 series wickets included the dismissal of opposition captain Michael Clarke on five occasions.

Having shown some fight in the 1st Test, Australia then proceeded to fall apart in the next.  Two tame Australian innings were separated bya 500+ Indian effort, which included a double-century for Cheteshwar Pujara, as the home side sealed an innings victory.

A much-publicised disciplinary debacle then afflicted the Australian dressing room, with four players summarily dropped for alleged breaches of conduct.  Though the tourists responded positively with a first innings of 408 in the 3rd Test, they were bombarded by a blistering debut century by Shikhar Dhawan, and eventually fell to another defeat.

A disspirited Australia were again outplayed in the final match, as India exacted full revenge for the 4-0 whitewash they themselves received the last time these sides met.

India’s victory leapfrogs them above both Australia and England into 2nd place in the League.  Although England may feel hard-done-by to be demoted by a side they recently beat in handsome fashion, they only have themselves to blame for a poor 2012 up to that point.  It is arguable that none of India, England or Australia seem worthy to lead the pack chasing table-toppers South Africa.

Australia fall to 4th in the table, but will see the forthcoming Ashes series as an opportunity to gain a trophy and begin the journey back to the higher reaches of the League.

South African Steamroller Remains Unstoppable

South Africa 3-0 Pakistan – 3 Tests – South Africa retain series trophy

Dale Steyn

Dale Steyn took 20 wickets during the series
Photo: Privatemusings

Another superb performance by table-topping South Africa spelt a humbling whitewash defeat for Pakistan in this three-match series.  Having dismantled New Zealand in similar fashion earlier in the year, Graeme Smith’s wonderfully talented unit have now won each of the five Tests they have played in 2013.

Good performances by the Pakistani bowlers across the series — including 10 wickets for the beguiling Saeed Ajmal in the 2nd Test — generally restricted the Proteas’ batsmen from posting mammoth scores.  However, the quality of the home sides’s relentless seam attack rendered redundant the need for South African batting heroics.  The potent combination of Dale Steyn and Vernon Philander yielded 35 wickets in the rubber, as batsman after batsman failed to cope with the pace, guile and movement on show.  Debutant Kyle Abbott followed the lead set by Steyn and Philander, snatching 7 wickets in the shell-shocked tourists’ first innings in the final Test.

South Africa’s victory strengthens their status as Test Cricket League Champions (the last encounter between these two sides ended in a draw) and entails that their retention of the Grand Slam Trophy continues.  Meanwhile, Pakistan remain wedged in fifth place between Asian rivals India and Sri Lanka.  The next battle for this series trophy takes place in Pakistan or the UAE later this year.  It will be fascinating to see how the peerless Proteas face up to the challenge of handling the talented Pakistanis in less favourable conditions.

Aussies Comfortably Retain Warne-Murali Trophy

Australia 3-0 Sri Lanka – 3 Tests – Australia retain the Warne-Muralitharan Trophy

With Australian captain Michael Clarke continuing his glorious run of form and Sri Lanka’s batsmen failing to cope with unfavourable conditions, the result of this series was never seriously in doubt.  Clarke added two fifties and a century to his recent haul of impressive scores, whilst David Warner and Matthew Wade also weighed in with important runs.

The Sri Lankans topped 300 just once in the series as they failed to deal with the pace and bounce generated by the Baggy Greens’ seamers.  The travails of the tourist could not have been made more manifest than in the 2nd Test.  Kumar Sangakkara and Prasanna Jayawardene both suffered fractured digits while at bat, a situation compounded by Chanaka Welegedara’s hamstring injury.  The trio’s absence from the second innings batting order left Australia needing only seven wickets to secure an easy innings victory.

Australia remain third in the League, with Sri Lanka not looking out of place in sixth position.

England’s Tourists Seal Historic Pataudi Defence

A year that England started with a string of abject performances against Subcontinental opposition has ended with redemption in the most emphatic fashion.  After 28 years of bafflement and failure, the touring English triumphed on Indian soil, retaining the Pataudi Trophy with a 2-1 victory in this four-match series.

The result is made all the more astonishing by England’s haplessness in the opening match of the rubber.  India sealed a 9-wicket win thanks to a double-century by the impressive Cheteshwar Pujara and a haul of 13 wickets by the much-vaunted spin pairing of Pragyan Ojha and Ravichandran Ashwin.  Bar some forlorn resistance by Alastair Cook and Matt Prior in the tourists’ 2nd innings, England were poor throughout and seemed destined to relinquish their hold on the Pataudi Trophy.

Monty Panesar’s selection for the 2nd Test appeared to revitalise his side, as he and fellow tweaker Graeme Swann accounted for all but one of India’s 20 dismissals in a 10-wicket romp for Cook’s men.  England’s retention of the series trophy was then completed in the 3rd Test, as the hosts failed to curb Cook’s rampant run-scoring and India’s batsmen wilted under the pressure.

On a horribly slow and stodgy pitch in the final Test, the newly rediscovered confidence of the English batting unit saw the tourists to a hard-fought draw and a richly deserved series victory.

Winning the contest outright has allowed England to remain in second place in the League, marginally ahead of Australia.  The dogfight for ascendancy between the two Auld Enemies will provide an intriguing backdrop to the forthcoming back-to-back Ashes series.

India remain in fourth place, but will see their next series – at home against Australia for the Border-Gavaskar Trophy – as the perfect catalyst to reverse their recent descent down the table and to exact revenge for the 4-0 loss suffered Down Under last time the trophy was contested.

Battle-weary Aussies Still Favourites for SL Clash

Coming off the back of one of their most gruelling series in recent memory, Australia will be looking to restore confidence as they take on Sri Lanka in this three-match home series.

After a will-sapping draw in the 2nd Test against South Africa, the Baggy Greens were forced into changing their entire pace attack for the 3rd Test, a match in which they capitulated to the top-placed Proteas by 309 runs.  This forthcoming series against opposition who have never won a Test rubber in Australia will surely give the hosts the chance to gain form and momentum ahead of this summer’s Ashes battle in England.

The travelling Sri Lankans are unbeaten in their last three Test series.  However, this trio of victories occurred on home soil.  A cursory view of their recent Test history reveals no away series victory – Zimbabwe and Bangladesh aside – since 2001.  Even considering the remarkable batting talents of Kumar Sangakkara and captain Mahela Jayawardene, as well as Australia’s recent travails, it seems inconceivable that Sri Lanka can cause an upset against Michael Clarke’s gritty campaigners.

Australia enter this series defending the Warne-Muralitharan Trophy and will want to win the series outright in order to stay in touch with  second-placed England, who seem likely to triumph in India.  An unlikely victory for Sri Lanka would see them replace Pakistan in fifth place in the League – a more realistic draw would put the two Asian sides equal on series held, series won and series drawn, with only the Pakistanis superior Match Win/Loss Rate keeping them marginally ahead.

South Africa Bask in Grand Slam Glory

South Africa have finally done it.  Since 1995, when Test Cricket League records began, only Australia have ever lifted the coveted Grand Slam Trophy.  Now, through defeating the Australians 1-0 over an enthralling three-match series, Graeme Smith’s South Africa have secured a clean sweep of series trophies and with it the League’s supreme prize.

Their achievement could hardly be more richly deserved.  After a high-scoring draw in the 1st Test, the Proteas’ chances of attaining the Grand Slam seemed to have evaporated when they ended Day 4 of the 2nd match at 77 for 4 chasing 429 to win.  Earlier, a second double-century in consecutive innings from captain Michael Clarke had boosted the Aussies’ first innings total.  In response, the Proteas could only get within 162 of their rivals, leaving the the hosts to set up an imposing victory target.  At the start of the final day, South African defeat appeared a certainty, but debutant batsman Faf du Plessis refused to bow to the inevitable.  Batting all day for 110 not out, du Plessis guided his team to a draw, with the loss of only four wickets during the three sessions.

When the tourists fell to 75 for 6 on the first day of the final Test match, again the Grand Slam seemed to be drifting inexorably away.  However, du Plessis once more rescued his team, before South Africa’s much-vaunted pace attack destroyed the Australian first innings, with able support from spinner Robin Peterson.  Two magnificent centuries apiece from Hashim Amla and AB de Villiers then set up a towering victory target for Australia.  The Baggy Greens, and Ricky Ponting on his final day of Test cricket, fell 309 runs short, leaving Graeme Smith to collect trophies for both the series and the vanishingly rare Grand Slam.

The win cements South Africa’s dominance at the top of the table, now leading their nearest opponents by two clear series.  Australia drop a place to third, with their old enemies England taking second spot.  England, however, must win in India to maintain their position.

Now that they have ascended to the highest peaks of the game, the challenge for South Africa becomes how long they can stay there.  They are unable to be caught in the Annual Championship and will take over from 2011 winners India come the turn of the year.  Challenges against New Zealand, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and India then await in 2013 – it will be fascinating to see whether this brilliant team can keep a hold of their bulging hoard of hard-won silverware.