October 15, 2012

In September 2012,I spent a very enjoyable three weeks in the UAE on my first trip with the Aussie cricket team. It is a tour that probably went unnoticed by most in Australia and certainly by everyone in the UK. The tour started with a one day game against Afghanistan, then three ODIs against Pakistan followed by three T20 matches against the same opponent. The main aim of the tour was preparation for the upcoming T20 World Cup in Sri Lanka which starts next week.

The game against Afghanistan was an historic event, the first match between the two countries and made even more poignant by the deaths of five Australian soldiers in Afghanistan the previous week. More about that later.

The Australian and Afghanistan captains

Afghanistan has made huge strides in cricket and has qualified for the T20 World Cup. The game was certainly competitive, but the Aussies won fairly comfortably in the end. It was interesting to see the contrasting ways the teams filled in the drinks break – the Aussies rushing off to try and cool down and re-hydrate, and the Afghanis kneeling down to pray.

The one day games were played at night commencing at 6pm to avoid the oppressive heat during the day. The temperature was not much lower during the evening, but there was often a slight breeze early in the evening which made conditions almost bearable. It actually got hotter and more uncomfortable later at night. It was certainly a weird feeling finishing a cricket match after 2am.

The first ODI against Pakistan was a tight game all night and we were in a fair bit of trouble at 5/121 chasing 198 before Bailey and Maxwell got us over the line with some great hitting. The first two games were in Sharjah  just out of Dubai, a ground which has the distinction of having hosted more ODIs (207) than any other ground in the world.

For our next ODI, we moved to Abu Dhabi, a 90 minute bus ride from Dubai. Abu Dhabi was just as hot, but considerably more humid than Dubai making the conditions quite uncomfortable. We batted first making 248, but the Pakistanis batted beautifully going on to win fairly easily in the 43rd over.

While in Abu Dhabi, I caught up for coffee with Lucas Neill, the Socceroos captain who is living there. Lucas had a good chat to Mickey Arthur and Michael Clarke about areas of common interest.

For the deciding game, we headed back to Sharjah. Pakistan batted first and were cruising at 0/129 until a spell from Mitchell Johnson turned the game and we restricted them to 244 which was a challenging target. It looked like an unlikely target when we were 4/108 and then 5/159. Then Mike Hussey made 65 and Glenn Maxwell playing his first series for Australia hit a magnificent 50 not out to get us over the line and win the series 2-1.

The dressing room was pretty jubilant and I had my first experience of the famous Aussie cricket victory song Under the Southern Cross led by Mike Hussey with me thrust into the middle of the circle with the three other debutants (Maxwell, Ali McDermott and new bowling coach Ali de Winter). Being soaked in beer was a small price to pay for an amazing experience.

After the one day games there was a changing of the guard with skipper Michael Clarke, James Pattinson, Steve Smith, Callum Ferguson and Mitchell Johnson returning home, and T20 players Shane Watson, Pat Cummins, Cameron White, Clint McKay, Brad Hogg and Ben Hilfenhaus arriving.

In the first of the T20 games at the magnificent Dubai Cricket Stadium, we were completely outplayed by Pakistan. We were all out for 89 and they passed that easily in the 15th over. We therefore needed to win the second to keep the series alive.

This second game was one of the more remarkable games of cricket I have seen. It had everything…… beautiful stadium full of 25,000 loud Pakistanis…..riot outside after 3000 Pakistan fans without tickets stormed the gates and got in leaving 3000 with tickets outside……two pitch invaders including a 6 year old kid who just wanted to shake hands with the Pakistani batsman….Pakistan made 151 ….with two overs to go we needed 21…..last over needed 11…..two balls to go we needed 8 ….they bowled a wide….7 off 2….Pat Cummins hits a six….scores level with 1 to go…..Cummins caught off last ball….a tie….superover…we made 11….with 1 ball to go they need 2 to win…Cummins bowls a bouncer called wide….scores level…..with one to go…hit the ball straight to field, shot at the stumps just misses…..Pakistan win by one run in superover.

Doesn’t get any more exciting than that.

Have a look at this catch. Have you ever seen a better one? The old bloke on the player’s balcony was impressed.

As a result we had lost the series, but these T20 games were more about preparing for Sri Lanka than the results, and the second game had been a big improvement on the first. That improvement continued into the third and final game. A blistering century opening partnership from Warner and Watson set us up for a total of 168. That was always going to be a big ask for the Pakistanis, and then we bowled and fielded superbly having them 5/19 and eventually all out for 74.

It was a good note to finish on and encouraging for the team as they head to Sri Lanka to play two more practice matches then the tournament. One can’t help feeling that if Warner and Watson can get us off to good starts then we will be very hard to beat. The farcical ICC T20 rankings have us at number 10 behind Ireland (!), but I wouldn’t take too much notice of that.

The Pakistanis were very competitive and the two sides were very evenly matched over the two series. This was my first opportunity to see Saeed Ajmal who is one of the outstanding bowlers in world cricket. He caused us lots of problems and was rightly named man of the series for the T20 games.

The heat was obviously the big challenge, but overall I think we handled it pretty well. We monitored the players closely checking weight and urine specific gravity every morning, as well as weighing before and after games. Depending on these results, the players were given specific guidelines on how much and what to drink. I don’t think anyone’s performances were compromised. The non-playing members of the team did a fantastic job running out drinks, dry gloves, cold towels etc to batters and fielders.

Injury wise we had lots of minor problems, but we were able to keep on top of them all and we did not have a single player unavailable for any game. The players are monitored every few days by the physio and all have their own individual maintenance programs which they do regularly. There is certainly a big focus on injury prevention.

Being my first exposure to the cricket team I was curious about what sort of group they would be. I came away impressed by the culture and their professionalism. The players were very good to deal with and were receptive to anything that would improve performance.

The team leadership was excellent. Coaches Mickey Arthur, Steve Rixon, Justin Langer, Ali de Winter and Dene Hills all worked hard and trainings were focused and high intensity. I have known the physio Alex Kountouris for some time, but is was the first time I had actually worked with him. The team is very fortunate to have someone so skilled and dedicated. Their fitness man Stuart Karpinnen was on his last tour with the team but he has clearly done an excellent job conditioning the players.  The masseur and jack of all trades Grant Baldwin does a great job, team manager Gavin Dovey is an excellent organiser and communicator, security man Frank Dimasi and media manager Matt Cenin were both very professional, and the whole staff made me feel very welcome.

The two leaders Michael Clarke (ODIs) and George Bailey (T20) were very impressive. Clarke is very focussed and single minded about the team becoming successful and sets a high standard. I did not know much about George Bailey but it was not hard to see why he had been made captain, really nice guy and natural leader.

It was my first chance to see the young fast bowlers James Pattinson and Pat Cummins who are said to hold the future of Australian cricket in their hands. They are both beautiful bowlers to watch as well as being very mature, sensible young men. They were outshone on this tour by Mitchell Starc who has clearly benefitted from a season at Yorkshire and was the outstanding Australian player of the series. He bowled fast and accurately. If we can keep the three of them healthy, they will serve Australian cricket well over the next decade.

The big challenge is to keep the fast bowlers fit for the gruelling campaign ahead. The T20 World Cup is followed by Champion League in South Africa for some or Shield games at home for others. Then it is the test series against South Africa and Sri Lanka, a limited overs tri-series against Sri Lanka and West Indies, followed straight away by a four test series in India, then IPL for some, then Champions Trophy in England leading into the Ashes tour, then India again for one dayers then another Ashes series. A huge workload!

The schedule did not allow much in the way of extra-curricular activity, but we were very privileged to pay a visit to an air force base just outside Dubai where a few hundred Australian servicemen and women were stationed. This is a base that is a stepping off point for our mission in Afghanistan and they had endured a rough time recently with the bodies of the five slain soldiers being expatriated through there. So it was good to be able to spend some time there.

We started by laying a wreath at the memorial to those fallen.

Then we got some demonstrations of the sort of mines that cause so much damage

as well as a mock rescue of injured soldiers.

We were able to look inside the Hercules and C17 aircraft

and then had a meal and mingled with the soldiers.

It was a great day and every player and staff member both enjoyed the occasion but also found it quite moving. We think losing by a run the previous night is a tragedy, well it is pretty minor compared to what these people do.

All in all I really enjoyed the tour. Hopefully I will get the chance to work with these guys again some time in the future.