Monthly Archives: December 2011
For over 20 years it has been an integral part of the Australian Christmas experience – settling in to watch Day 1 of the test on Boxing Day. Around the country in thousands of backyards, kids will be emulating their heroes and dreaming of one day getting the chance to perform on Cricket’s biggest stage.
Over the history of the Boxing Day test, there have been many memorable moments. Here follows my selection of the five greatest performances by an Australian on the 26th December.
5. Ricky Ponting’s captain’s tonne
26 December 2005
Ricky Ponting 117
Boxing Day 2005 saw the start of the 2nd Test of the series vs South Africa. The proteas had escaped Perth with a draw in the 1st test by surviving 126 overs from Warne, McGrath and co over the 4th and 5th days. Ponting’s bowling tactics and conservative declaration (setting the Proteas 491 for victory) had both been critisised in light of the result, and his captaincy was under pressure.
In his 2nd Boxing day test as captain, Ponting won the toss, chose to bat, and was almost immediately out in the middle himself as Phil Jaques departed in the 3rd over with the score on 2.
Ponting was given an early life on 17, and then proceeded to ruthlessly punish the South African attack, hitting 6 boundaries on his way to 50 of just 73 balls. Hayden and Ponting put on 152 runs to swing the match decisively in Australia’s favour.
Ponting’s century was his first at the ground as Captain, and his 6th for the 2005 calendar year during which he averaged 61.
South Africa fought back late on day 1, but Ponting’s captain’s knock had shown again that while doubts would linger about his captaincy credentials, his ability as a batsmen would be enough to lead his country to victory on many occasions. Australia went on to win the test by 184 runs and would wrap up a 2-0 series win in Sydney.
26 December 2002
Matthew Hayden 102
Justin Langer 146*
These two great openers, so often spoken of as a partnership rather than as individuals, cannot have their efforts on Boxing Day 2002 separated.
Australia had already retained the ashes by the time the series moved to Melbourne in 2002, and both openers took the opportunity to pile on the runs against a depleted and demoralised English attack.
The pair went on to compile a 195 run partnership, smashing the previous record for highest opening stand in an ashes test of 126 by Monty Noble and Victor Trumper.
Hayden’s century was his 6th of the calendar year and 3rd of the ashes series. He was out shortly after reaching the milestone for 102. Soon afterwards Langer brought up his century with a 4 and a 6 on consecutive balls. He finished the day on 146 not out, and went on to score a mammoth 250 as Australia would compile 551/6 on the way to a 4-0 series lead.
3. Thommo rips through the West Indies top order
26 December 1975
West Indies 224
“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust…” - on Boxing Day 1975, the West Indies discovered that if Lillee don’t get ya, Thommo must! In front of a crowd of close to 86,000, the fearsome Australian pair took 9 wickets between them on day 1 to essentially win the test for Australia.
On this occasion, Thommo (no relation of the author) was the more deadly of the pair. In a spell which Wisden described as being “as fast as one could imagine a human being propelling a cricket ball”, Thomson decimated the Windies top order, dismissing Greenidge, Rowe, Kallicharran, Fredericks and their Captain Clive Lloyd to leave the tourists 5/108. The West Indies received a lesson in hostile fast bowling, one which they would take great pleasure in handing down to opposition sides over the next 15 years.
Thomson finished with 5/62 as Lillee cleaned up the tail to have the West Indies all out for 224. Australia was 0/38 in reply at stumps, and well on their way to victory and a 2-1 series lead.
26 December 1981
Kim Hughes 100*
West Indies 4/10
In 1981 the West Indies returned to the MCG, this time bringing with them a 15 test unbeaten run, and a fearsome pace attack of their own – Holding, Garner, Roberts and Croft.
Australia was in dire straights when Kim Hughes came to the crease. Laird, Wood and Captain Greg Chappell had all fallen cheaply to Roberts and Holding – Chappell for a golden duck. Australia was 3/8 as the West Australian took guard, and then slumped to 4/26 as Allan Border was unable to provide the resistance he would become famed for later in his career, departing for 4. An embarrassingly low score beckoned on a challenging pitch against arguably the greatest 4 pronged pace attack of all time.
Hughes’s response was to go on the attack. He carried his bat through the innings, finishing on 100 not out as Australia were bowled out for 198. That total had looked unachievable earlier in the day, and was reached largely due to a 43 run last wicket partnership with noted bunny Terry Alderman.
Hughes gutsy innings had lifted the side and given Australia’s bowlers something to aim at when they had their chance on the lively pitch late on day 1. Lillee and Alderman responded to the challenge, picking up the wickets of Haynes, Bacchus, night watchman Croft and then Viv Richards off the last ball of the day to leave the West Indies at 4/10 in reply.
Hughes innings had saved the match for Australia on day 1, and would lay the platform for the Aussies to inflict the Windies first test defeat in over a year. His lone stand innings in front of nearly 40,000 was the stuff dreams are made of.
1. Warnie’s 700th
26 December 2006
Shane Warne 5/39
The number 1 selection is not a tale of heroic resistance or triumph against the odds. The ashes were retained and England was looking well beaten by the time the series came to the MCG in 2006. But in terms of great Boxing Day performances, who can go past Victoria’s favourite son’s day out in 2006?
The crowd of nearly 90,000 were anticipating being witness to Warne’s 700th test wicket from the time Andrew Flintoff had decided to bat first in the overcast conditions. Despite constant urging chants of ‘Warnie, warnie” from the crowd, Ponting was to make them wait until the 41st over before bringing Shane into the attack.
On the 2nd ball of his 4th over, the wait was over. Strauss was bowled, the crowd roared and no one could catch the blond master as he wheeled away in celebration.
The rest of the day felt like an anticlimax, but often forgotten is that Warne proceeded to take his 37th test match 5 wicket haul to have England all but beaten by the end of day 1.
No doubt the attendance at Boxing Day 2006 will grow exponentially as time passes, as every cricket loving Australian male stakes a claim to having been there on the great day.
Bathroom firework displays, luxury car roof jumping competitions & curry house curfews… oh, and a few goals – Welcome to Super Mario Land.
The press are not short of words when it comes to Mario Balotelli. In fact over recent months, his continual involvement in mildly amusing misdemeanours off the pitch coupled with his fantastic play on it has made him somewhat of a media darling.
The striker’s brace and general domination of the Manchester Derby only a matter of hours after the fire brigade was called to his house because ‘someone’ had let off fireworks in the bathroom cultivated a surplus of explosive headlines which practically wrote themselves. From then on his increasingly eccentric behaviour seemed to be flourishing under the watchful eye of the papparazzi with sections of the UK press running a host of stories focused around his private life. These have ranged from the mundane, that showed Balotelli giving £20 to a street performer (something that had apparently never happened before in the city of Manchester) to the bizarre which reported him popping out to the store for his mother to buy a pint of milk and coming home hours later with a circus sized trampoline, a ride on lawn mower and a giraffe from the local zoo (or something along those lines).
It appeared from all this that the outspoken Italian, or at least the people around him, had finally learnt to play the game without even having to kick a football.
There was talk of the Italian finally maturing, the realization of his ability on the pitch co-inciding with his growing up off it, whilst maintaining his flair and a propensity for the bizarre that had brought him headlines throughout his short career.
But many believed that it was only a matter of time before Mario was back to his old ways, with the charmingly eccentric, larger-than- life routine vanishing in favour of the the realization that Mario is somewhat of an uncontrollable misfit.
Two stories that have popped up over the past week have validated those who conform to the latter theory, beginning with Mario breaking curfew on the Saturday before City’s crucial clash with Chelsea. Less than 48 hours before a game, Balotelli blatantly disobeyed team rules by popping out for a midnight curry with some pals and did his best to stay under the radar by sword fighting with a pal using rolling pins in the middle of the restaurant. If you’re sitting there searching for a valid reason as to why a footballer cannot have a curry 2 nights before a game then I, for one, have got naan, but the disregard for the rules was a definite show of insolence to the Manchester City hierarchy.
But Mario wan’t finished there. Later in the week after the loss to Chelsea he was involved in a training dust up with team mate Micah Richards. It was the second of these type of incidents involving Balotelli that has been caught by the watchful eye of the press and is the reason Manchester City are developing plans for higher fences around their training ground. The pictures showed both players having to be separated by teammates although the incident was apparently later dealt with using a Sepp Blatter racism-extinguishing handshake.
Now on the surface these two incidents seem to be in a similar vein to the nutty activities of Mario the joker, but it is the undercurrent of embarrassment that flows toward his manager in both of these cases that really questions the wisdom of his actions and well and truly puts the ‘maturity’ theories to bed, and not at a decent hour mind you.
Mario’s reputation and Inter was that of a Diva with limitless talent who could polarize the dressing room and during his time there he managed to alienate the entire fan base by wearing an AC Milan shirt on Italian tv. He was in and out of Jose Mourinho’s good books with such regularity the two could have passed as a married couple and he was involved in a swathe of off the field incidents.
The pick of which was apparently a luxury car jumping competition he had with Zlatan Ibrahimovic, where they egged each other on to jump on the roof of their own flashy sports cars, both which were utterly undrivable by the time the boys had finished having their fun.
These were clearly the actions of an immature self centered brat but the Balotelli story has an interesting prelude. As a toddler he was put into foster care by his struggling family who were Ghanaian immigrants living in Palermo and ended up with living with an couple who gave him the most Italian sounding name since Luciano Pavarotti. Despite being born and raised in Italy, Balotelli faced constant racism in his country that even continued when he became part of the national team. Life before he was a star was reportedly even worse, and much can be read into him coming to the aid of a young boy who he saw being bullied in Manchester, yet another story that the press lapped up like swiftly softening Ben & Jerry’s.
But if someone has shown faith in Balotelli, it has been Mancini as he not only paid top dollar for him despite his endless indiscretions but has also been willing to start him in the big games. The star striker has repaid this faith with goals, and crucial ones at that, with his finish against Chelsea the mark of a man who could be destined for greatness. If, under the watchful eye of his manager, Balotelli maintains this form and develops further into one of the best strikers in the premier league, then his worth to Mancini will be immeasurable.
In a sense it could become a relationship of co-dependence between player and manager, for in the eyes of the wealthy oil baron owners, those two may almost come as a package deal. If city’s form slumps and Mancini fails to produce a trophy haul that is sufficient enough to appease the Shiekh but Ballotelli becomes one of the leagues best strikers, they will certainly think twice before moving the manager on. So in that regard, Mario could become the bargaining chip used by Mancini to buy himself an extra 6-12 months in the job if things do not go exactly to plan.
After all, who else is going to be able to bring out the best in this volatile problem child and make him feel like he finally belongs to something?
One thing is for sure though, Balotelli is already dining at the Last Chance Cantina and in this regard his short career is already at a cross roads. He must overcome these off field incidents and behave in a manner that is not embarrassing to the club or once moved on, there is every chance he might not be able to find a new one.
The ageing process of a Hollywood starlet is rarely gracious and can bring about the swift demise of a glittering career followed by abrupt anonymity. Gary Niewand has shown us that life out of the spotlight for once famous athletes can be just as challenging, although old Gazza decided to highlight the issue in complete balls-and-all fashion.
This week the former Australian cyclist Neiwand pleaded guilty to charges of ‘willful and obscene exposure’. Let it be said that nothing good can ever come of something that is both ‘willful’ and ‘obscene’ and in this case it was particularly perverted turn of events which involved Gary driving around behind a woman who was riding her bike, ‘pulling up’ next to her with his pants lurking somewhere down near the gas pedal and politely enquiring as to whether she’d like to “finish him off”. If this picture isn’t clear enough for you, know that Gary only had one hand on the wheel and it goes without saying he was driving an automatic.
This was the first of two similar incidents which involved the former Olympic silver medalist exposing himself to strangers, although unfortunately neither case reported the state of Gary’s testicles to confirm or deny any steroid use throughout his illustrious cycling career.
Without overlooking the seriousness of the offences, we can at least take comfort that Neiwand didn’t choose to pull this stunt using the form of transport that made him famous. With all the cogs, chain and spokes, this incident could have ended in a far more disastrous fashion for Neiwand than mere shame and humiliation on a national level.
We cannot say that the warning signs weren’t there. There is a strong correlation between men who commit crimes that are lewd in nature and those who choose to model their look on Ron Jeremy. Maybe Gary will complete the transformation and try to beat Jeremy at his own game and put out his own feature film, something along the lines of ‘Driving (behind) Miss Daisy.’ But despite the comical element to Neiwand’s brush with the law, it does reveal a portrait of a man dealing with some fast peddling inner demons.
When I was younger, the name Gary Neiwand was synonymous with cycling but despite him winning enough medals to fill a velodrome, that elusive Olympic gold was never draped around his neck. This reportedly took a large toll on Neiwand as he sunk into a deep alcohol-fuelled depression following his retirement and ever since he has regularly popped up in the media for all the wrong reasons. Gary’s is not an isolated case.
Controversy has a tendency to follow around current athletes around like a lost puppy. From Michael Vick’s dog fighting to Joel Monaghan’s dog feeding, we are constantly being reminded of the sheer stupidity of professional sportsmen. Vick and Monaghan’s are particularly interesting examples as they highlight the fact that whilst some athletes believe they are above the law, others believe they are out of the public eye and clearly both these presumptions are wide of the mark.
But following retirement, former athletes are often left dealing with more sinister problems as depression, anxiety and worthlessness replace the days of locker room camaraderie. This occurs for a variety of reasons that range from missing the limelight and adulation to dealing with large amounts of physical pain meaning many of those whose careers have peaked during their mid 20’s and who have hung up the boots (or equivalent) by their early 30’s are left with another 50 years or more of trying to get by on former glories.
One can only speculate what has caused Neiwand to behave in the way he did but, one thing is for certain, the man needs help. According to his lawyer he is currently seeking therapy in the form of weekly forensic care meetings. I’m sure the women of Melbourne are hoping these meetings have their desired effect so that Gary can begin focusing on his achievements and glory on the track as opposed to his morning glory in the back streets of Elwood.
Qld and Australia are well served at full back
When newly crowned golden boot winner Billy Slater headed to the Wembley sidelines nursing a broken collarbone, England could have viewed his early exit from the tournament as opening up a major opportunity to expose Australia at the back. This did not prove to be the case. Darius Boyd was one of Australia’s strongest performers over the remainder of the tournament, emphasising the depth Australia (and Queensland) have in the number 1 jersey. In the final, Boyd was flawless under the high ball (zero errors), while running for 104 m, and contributing 1 line break, 1 line break assist and 1 try assist via throwing the last pass for the Jharal Yow Yeh try that put Australia ahead for good. Boyd was a constant threat to the England defence, chiming into the backline as the 2nd man option and using his pace and passing ability to create overlaps for his outside men.
By reproducing his excellent club form in his first opportunity to play fullback at representative level, Darius Boyd showed that the eventual departure of Billy Slater will not be felt as keenly by Queensland and Australia as might have been expected.
Tackling low can still be effective
The classic ‘copybook’ tackle around the legs has largely disappeared from the modern game. Players are coached to go high in order to wrap up the ball, stop 2nd phase play, and then begin the wrestle to slow the play the ball. Going low allows the ball carrier to get to their feet too quickly.
I’ve long been an advocate of players tackling low in certain situations, such as when close to their line or when one on one with an attacker out wide. England’s outside men used this tactic effectively to contain Uate, Yow Yeh, Lawrence and Inglis when isolated out wide. It was noticeable that Australia’s outside men struggled to break free of the defence, particularly when compared to the field day they had enjoyed a few weeks earlier against New Zealand in Newcastle. Willie Tonga in particular was able to brush off several ineffective efforts on his way to a double that day. The Australian outside backs did eventually get the better of their opposite numbers, but the tries they scored were due to hole running and the creation of overlaps rather than from missed tackles. In fact, the most memorable defensive lapse of the tournament was committed by the NRL trained Chris Heighinton, who went high on Tony Williams close to the line with embarassing results.
When England’s backs got to grips with the Aussies they brought them down – typically from the hips and below. A lesson for the NRL?
England struggle to compete for the full 80 minutes
It is judgement that must seem patronising to English listeners – “England has got the talent, but they aren’t used to the week in week out grind of the NRL. They don’t compete for the full 80 minutes”
Yet 40 years of dominance allows Aussie commentators to adopt this tone with good reason, and the last two four nations finals between these nations bear out the theory. In 2009, Australia led 18-16 after 58 minutes of the final, and this year the scores were locked at 8-8 after 56 minutes. On both occasions the Aussies sealed the win and then blew out the scoreline in the final 20 minutes, scoring 28 unanswered points in 2009 and 22 in 2011. England had been hugely impressive in the 2009 final (highlighted by Sam Burgess’s amazing solo try) and looked to have the beating of the kangaroos, yet fell apart when the blowtorch was applied. In 2011 it was more a case of the scoreboard not reflecting the kangaroos dominance in the first half – once they hit the front with 20 to go the strain told and the floodgates opened.
Is the solution for more of England’s top players to head down under to the NRL?
NRL clubs will be coming back for more English talent
The NRL is an increasingly attractive proposition for top Super League stars, offering not only a higher level of competition and prestige, but also financial rewards given the current strong $AUD. James Graham is heading to the Bulldogs for 2012, and NRL clubs will be taking an interest in several other England stars, in particular Sam Tomkins and Rangi Chase.
Tomkins is the leading light in the English game. The Wigan star’s light stepping elusive running game would no doubt be well suited to the firmer Australian conditions, and he impressed against the toughest of oppositions in the test match at Wembley, with his flick pass to set up the 2nd of Ryan Hall’s tries the highlight. Tomkins has recently re-signed with Wigan until 2016, however with contracts meaning little once a player’s head has been turned, a godfather like NRL offer may have him down under sooner than that.
Rangi Chase of course started his career in Australia with the Wests Tigers and the Dragons. Since moving to Super League he has moved a long way towards filling his always evident potential. His style draws comparisons to former high school team mate Benji Marshall, and while he is not yet at the level of the Kiwi captain, his first half display at Wembley showed enough to indicate he would be a success in the NRL, particularly given the dearth of natural playmakers in the modern game.
The Lockyer/Thurston combination reigns supreme
The old adage ‘forwards win the big matches’ has long been held up as a self evident truth. Without taking away from the efforts of the Kangaroos pack, once again Darren Lockyer and Johnathan Thurston seemed determined to prove that at the top level, it is the halves that hold the key to victory.
Thurston had a quiet finish to the NRL season, ineffective in the Cowboys embarrassing 40-8 finals loss to Manly, and was generally unable to hit top form following his perhaps precipitous return from a serious knee injury suffered in State of Origin 3. He was back to his best in the four nations, having a hand in every roos attack, virtually flawless with the boot, and deservedly took out the MOM award in both games against England. In his finale in the sport, Lockyer played the understated, steadying role that he has perfected in the latter period of his career.
The four nations final victory brought this halves combination’s record in the green and gold to 16 wins, 1 draw, 1 loss. Combine that with their impressive 12-6 State of Origin win-loss record and it is clear this pairing have laid claim to being the best representative halves combination in the history of the sport. England and New Zealand will be glad to see the last of them.
 2008 World Cup Final