If you wanted to see the very best in sporting skill and drama, it was shown live on BBC 2 this afternoon—but sadly I would wager a large number of you didn’t tune in to what was a truly remarkable women’s final of the Unibet EuroHockey Championships.
It has been well documented that in the guise of Great Britain or England, teams led by Kate Richardson-Walsh have produced some wonderful hockey at pretty much every recent major championship, yet respective squads have somehow never managed to win that elusive gold medal.
Some of you will know that the girls’ bronze medal at London 2012 is actually my favourite moment of the last Olympic Games—a medal that in Alex Danson’s case, I have been lucky enough to have worn round my neck. It’s hard to imagine the emotional and psychological effect of that narrow semi-final defeat to Argentina, but to shrug off such massive disappointment and produce a sparkling second half performance to defeat New Zealand and climb onto that podium said such a lot about the courage and determination of this group of elite athletes.
Fast forward three years and, in the colours of England, the squad made steady progress through their group and secured their place in the final with an expected but hard-fought win over a gritty Spanish side. Their opponents in the final were the Netherlands... reigning Olympic champions... reigning World champions; and for three quarters of the final, they looked every bit the best side in the world.
The English girls defended valiantly against wave after wave of Dutch attack, and the opening goal from a third quarter penalty corner was no more than the Netherlands deserved, although they had their keeper to thank for a wonderful save to deny Alex Danson shortly before they took the lead. A second penalty corner strike doubled the advantage and I must be honest, I didn’t think the Dutch would be denied with just fifteen minutes left to play.
The difference is what I saw as “just” fifteen minutes, was actually more than enough time when viewed through the eyes of England’s players. Their desire was undiminished and when Sophie Bray managed to extricate the ball from under the Dutch keeper’s body and flick home from close range, you could sense the belief within the host squad.
When the equaliser came (from another penalty corner routine) there was a hint of good fortune as the ball seemed to strike Lily Owsley on the foot before she volleyed into the net (below). The umpire missed it... the Dutch had already lost their video review... and sometimes... just sometimes you make your own luck.
It was a stunning fightback in front of a vocal home crowd, and with no winner being scored in normal time, we were left with the dreaded penalty shoot-out. Actually it’s just a shoot-out really as the ball is placed on the 23-metre line and the player has eight seconds to convert a one-on-one situation with the opposing goalkeeper.
In Maddie Hinch England has one of the finest goalkeepers in the world and when Helen Richardson-Walsh put England ahead (courtesy of a penalty stroke) and Alex Danson also scored (courtesy of the post), the stage was set for Maddie to put her homework into practice and maintain an advantage which, in truth, England never looked like relinquishing.
Fittingly, it was another Hinch save that secured the shoot-out victory and the gold medal. The celebrations were fantastic as the Holcombe keeper was buried under a pile of ecstatic team mates. There was a brilliant moment as a clearly emotional Kate Richardson-Walsh was about to be interviewed by Matt Pinsent. The remainder of the squad arrived just in time to engulf their captain and the four-time Olympic gold medal-winning rower in an impromptu dance of jubilation that brought a smile to my face, immediately followed by a tear (or two) to my eye.
I had picked a man of the match shortly before the end of the fourth quarter—Holcombe’s Sam Quek—and was more than pleasantly surprised when she was also the choice from the commentary box. I just thought Sam was the pick of a defence that was put under so much pressure by the speed and skill of the Dutch attack; she looks an outstanding athlete, she was strong and assured throughout, and I am now officially an expert!
With rolling interchanges, hockey is very much a squad game and everyone played their part in a victory that is so richly deserved, and which is also a massive boost to the Team GB build-up to Rio. In a week when England and the Netherlands have provided arguably the two outstanding female athletes in the World Athletics Championships in Beijing—namely Jessica Ennis-Hill and Daphne Schippers—the women’s hockey players of those two countries treated those watching live and on television the very best in elite team sport; and as a one-off sporting occasion, this was as good as you could wish to see.
You might prefer your top flight football or rugby union, but when the schedule for next year’s women’s Olympic hockey tournament is announced, put the Great Britain games in your diary and tune in to watch... you might just find you get hooked.
Yesterday was one of those rare occasions where two “challenges” were ticked off on the same day.
I got home from work to find a letter in an official House of Commons envelope had been delivered. It was from Anna Turley, the newly-elected Member of Parliament for Redcar, the constituency within which my humble abode is situated.
I am indebted to Gel Williams for her help in making this happen. Anna has asked to be kept in touch with the progress of my Time to Change project (something she may later regret!) and hopefully at some point in the future I will be able to thank her in person for such a supportive letter.
The rest of the evening was taken up with my second ever attempt at live stand-up comedy. There were two definite parallels with my “debut” last December… the more experienced performers were all very friendly and encouraging, and once again I was incredibly nervous.
Last night’s gig (as we say in the trade…) was held at the Westgarth Social Club in Middlesbrough. The venue was smaller than The Stand up in Newcastle, but the stage felt quite a bit bigger. The lighting was less intense, which was a blow… it is a whole lot easier when you can’t see the people you’re trying so hard to amuse and entertain.
The standard of acts was also very good… another blow. The three who were on before me (compere Lee, Simon and Allan) all looked at ease behind the mic, and engaged really well with the audience. I, on the other hand, was worried about everything from remembering my lines to something as outwardly simple as how to stand without looking ridiculously awkward.
Whilst trying to decide whether or not to take my drink on stage with me, I nearly missed my cue, but despite my all-too-obvious nerves the routine started well with the first punchline being rewarded with a few welcome chuckles.
The second story didn’t really work though; and I was definitely thrown by one supposedly “funny” line getting no reaction at all. I stumbled through what unfortunately was the longest part of my routine, trying desperately to avoid more tumbleweed blowing across the stage, before things thankfully began to improve. The next two gags got a decent reaction, and the final “overtaken by a pineapple” tale (the one I’m most comfortable relating) went down as well as I could have hoped.
And with that, it was time to exit stage right (or left if you were in the audience)… task no.47 completed.
I didn’t get the same rush of adrenaline that I’d had in Newcastle (and was desperately hoping to experience again), but that was undoubtedly down to the fact that one of my so-called jokes crashed and burned. For a split second, I didn’t know what to do; my mind felt like it had gone blank, and getting through the routine left me with a feeling of relief rather than exhilaration.
In hindsight I will realise I’m being hard on myself. I’m not a performer… I’m not a comedian… but not only did I have a go (strictly speaking another go) I managed to recover from what for me was a really difficult moment and finish the routine to the sound of laughter rather than silence.
And one day I hope that’s something I can be proud of.
Will I do it again? Honestly I doubt it, but you should never say never I suppose.
The most important thing is that in completing these two totally different tasks, I have the opportunity to reiterate the reason why I started this project in the first place.
Mental health issues affect so many people in so many ways. There remains a stigma attached to conditions that are essentially unseen, but can have such debilitating effects. It’s not easy to accept that you need help, and it takes real courage to ask for that help, but with understanding and support (in whatever form) comes an inner strength and a resolve to fight.
Bad days… poor jokes… they happen; just don’t give up, because things can, will and do get better.
Back in March 2014, Elaine and I got into the car to drive to Leicester in order to complete one of the tasks I’d set myself as part of my fundraising year for the mental health charity Mind. The task in question was that of meeting an Olympic medallist from London 2012.
After a fair bit of planning, I was actually going to meet not one, but five medallists from the GB ladies hockey squad who had won bronze a couple of years earlier. Middlesbrough to Leicester is about 150 miles… maybe 2¾ hours given a decent tail wind… what could possibly go wrong?
Well apart from delays caused by an accident, then roadworks, then a scheduled stop to do a live interview with BBC Radio Leicester, then getting lost on the Leicester ring road, everything went particularly smoothly, and we arrived just in time to watch the closing minutes of Reading’s 2-1 victory… some five hours after we’d left home!
It was fantastic – in fact a privilege - to have the opportunity to meet Kate Richardson-Walsh, Alex Danson, Emily Maguire (of Reading) and Leicester’s Hannah Macleod and Nicola White (who have both subsequently changed clubs), but something like half an hour after we’d arrived, it was back in the car for another 150 miles - and it’s uphill on the way home….
The journey back was quicker – in fairness we could have walked home in less than five hours… which of course is a lie – but essentially the few minutes we spent with those five talented, dedicated and charming young athletes was sandwiched between eight hours on the road. It was definitely worth it… but it was a very long day.
There are two reasons for mentioning this. The first is that the European Hockey Championships are currently taking place in London, and all of the above are in action: Emily Maguire for Scotland and the remaining four for England, who guaranteed their place in the semi-finals with last night’s 2-0 win over Italy. The second reason is that next Tuesday, I will be pointing the car south once again and making my way down to Milton Keynes, home of the National Badminton Centre, for my latest Time to Change challenge… that of playing badminton against a current England international.
The round trip this time is just over 400 miles, and instead of doing nothing more strenuous than having my picture taken, I will be dragging my ageing body (and similarly old racket) onto court and forcing my badly worn joints into action one last time. My opponent is Rhys Walker, currently ranked no.4 in the country, and I’m incredibly grateful to Rhys for giving up his time to show me just how the game should be played – and to Emma who arranged everything.
Badminton is a game I thoroughly enjoyed for many years, but the diagnosis of a degenerative hip condition a decade ago now brought an immediate end to all my sporting endeavours. I’d played cricket and badminton in pain for quite some time, but it was still a shock to be told that hip replacements would be necessary in as little as two years if I carried on….
So why decide to have a game of badminton after so long… so far away from home… when I’m guaranteed to be taught a sporting lesson; and the likelihood is I won’t be able to walk the following morning?
Well from a personal point of view, it’s an opportunity to meet and share a badminton court with one of the best players in the country; and even though I am (and always would have been) way out of my depth, it will be great to once again experience that feeling you can only get from sporting competition.
There might not be an obvious link between hitting a shuttlecock over a net and mental health, but on another level, this is one more example of being faced with a “challenge”, knowing that you need some help or support to complete or overcome that challenge, being prepared to ask for that help, learning that help is out there, and (however hard it may be) ultimately discovering just what you are capable of achieving....
Back in the early/mid-1970s, I was a member of the school choir. My voice (and my appearance for that matter) could arguably be described as “angelic” back then, but from a choral perspective things went badly wrong during adolescence, my ability to read music deserted me, and my treble voice disappeared… although I do still have a treble chin.
There are two singing challenges on my current list, which I’m undertaking to raise awareness of Mind’s “Time to Change” programme; one to sing in a band, the other to sing with a choir… one song each, I don’t want to outstay any welcome.
I’m not exactly sure how to describe my voice now. It’s pretty deep, with no great range, and as for being in tune….
Many moons ago, someone did tell me that my singing would be classified as “basso profondo”… I haven’t checked, but I believe it’s Latin for “shit”.
The idea behind some of these challenges – notwithstanding the importance of the underlying aim – is to put myself in difficult situations, and then see how I cope with the pressure of performing (more often than not in front of an audience). Not every task is designed to make me face a lifelong fear of failure, but with every success comes a desire to push harder and see just what can be achieved.
But I do need some help (not that sort of help…), so please read on….
My musical tastes are varied, but I grew up listening to the punk/new wave bands of the late 70s and early 80s; and my love of that type of music has never left me. I like a lot of 1960s music too… the Bobby Fuller Four, The Byrds (I can do a mean Mr Tambourine Man!, early Beatles etc. So request no.1 is whether anyone out there knows anyone (who knows anyone etc) who plays in a band (relatively local to Teesside) that covers tracks from one of those eras… and whether it might be possible for a very average guest vocalist to join them at rehearsal and see if I can belt out something resembling a tune?
Request no.2 is therefore related to the choir. I don’t really know where to start with this, other than to say my two favourite pieces of music are Tu Es Petrus a motet by the sixteenth century composer Palestrina, and the Christmas carol A Spotless Rose, and I’d love to have the chance to (try and) sing one of those again…
Basically, I’m hoping you might share this blog (like you’ve never shared before) in the hope that someone somewhere might want to get involved. Just remember… it’s all about the cause… and, of course, earplugs will be provided.
Thank you so much.
A couple of updates for you….
I’m busy practising my stand-up routine for next Wednesday (26th August). I have a five minute spot which doesn’t sound a lot, but trust me it’s longer than you think when you’re standing on a stage in front of a crowd of people who have paid to be entertained.
I suppose I could have taken the “easy option” and simply re-worked the stories from last December’s debut – actually the easy option would be to stay at home with a glass of vino and watch Corrie – but instead I’ve decided to change pretty much the whole routine and see if I can raise a chuckle or two from my “home” crowd.
It might be asking a lot for spontaneous applause, but I really hope there are a few giggles because I’ve timed my routine and unless I talk really slowly, I’m currently about thirty seconds short of my allotted time….
Actually that’s not entirely true. It’s nearer a minute.
The venue is the Westgarth Social Club in Middlesbrough; doors open at 7pm, and the festivities get underway at 7:45pm. I understand numbers are limited and it’s first come first served on the night, so for those of you who are thinking of coming along… don’t be late! The headline act is Adam Rowe, who hails from Liverpool. I’ve seen a few clips and he’s a funny bloke… which is obviously a bit of a blow for us novices… but massive thanks to anyone who is coming along to support me; it means a lot.
Hopefully there’ll be a few photos and maybe even some footage of my “performance” (which will only be shown if everything goes well). I’ll be very nervous on the night, but I’m also excited about giving it another go.
On the subject of giving it another go… I have now purchased a pair of trainers for a couple of upcoming athletic (term used incredibly loosely) challenges. The first is my long-unawaited return to the netball court. Last year’s first attempt was a Goal Shooter, but trust me throwing a ball into a hoop is nowhere near as easy as the Grangetown girls make it look. I tried to convince myself that my shooting was fine, it was just that the net was in the wrong place, but the reality is I was rubbish…
Take two will therefore be as a Goal Keeper. Since last summer I’ve watched the Commonwealth Games, some highlights from the World Cup and nearly all Grangetown home Prem games, as well as having chatted to regular starting defenders Jen Mrozik and Vicky Rees, so I’ve got no excuse for not knowing what I should be doing. There are a few downsides, mainly relating to ability and fitness, but I’m also concerned about the interpretation of the intimidation rule that might well lead me to being penalised just for the way I look….
Also in a sporting vein, I had an e-mail yesterday from Badminton England regarding the possibility of playing against (which implies a level a level of competition that clearly won’t exist) a current international. I’ve been told that it may be possible to arrange this… although I might have to drive down to Milton Keynes for the privilege. But in fairness, it would be a privilege and opportunities like this don’t come around very often, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed.
Two other tasks are now likely to be completed in the not too distant future: receiving a letter from my local MP (thanks to Gel for her help), and interviewing an international sportswoman… but in amongst all the preparation, and hopefully the sense of achievement at completing each task, I never lose sight of the reason why I’m doing all of this: to raise awareness of mental health issues… and the fact that it’s fine to talk… to ask for support… and to give support.
Anyway, thanks for reading… and hope to see some of you on the 26th…
After a shock defeat in the pool group of the Netball World Cup, Australia gained their revenge over New Zealand’s Silver Ferns in today’s final, and some semblance of normal order was restored as the Diamonds secured a 58-55 victory to retain a trophy they have now won in six of the last seven competitions.
The third and fourth place match went to seeding with England overcoming Jamaica by a comfortable 22-goal margin, a positive end to the tournament against the team that denied the English a bronze medal at last year’s Commonwealth Games.
As my regular readers (the plural is a bit of a gamble...) will know, I have been following the fortunes of the Scottish Thistles, due in part to my quarter Scottish heritage, but mainly because three of the squad had graced the court for Grangetown Netball Club last season.
The Thistles lost to Fiji in the eleventh/twelfth placed play-off and in doing so finished one-place below their pre-tournament ranking. Clearly there will be an element of disappointment within the Scottish camp, but the girls’ performance should not be judged on this one result.
As mentioned before, the make-up of the preliminary draw meant that only the top two from each pool group could advance to battle it out for a position in the top eight. To be faced with games against England and Jamaica (the world nos. 3 and 4 respectively) realistically meant that Scotland could finish no higher than ninth.
They did all the needed to do in their pool games by beating Samoa; and their defeat of Barbados (ranked inside the top ten) during the subsequent qualification group was a wonderful result that ultimately set up a game with Trinidad and Tobago for the right to play-off for ninth and tenth.
The encounter with the Calypso Girls was arguably the most dramatic match of the whole competition. It was the only game that ended as a draw, with the result therefore having to be decided in extra time. To lose by a single goal in such circumstances must have been a devastating blow and with Samoa gaining a shock with over Fiji, the Thistles were left to face the seventh-ranked Pearls for the second time in three days, and the game ultimately proved one too far for Gail Parata’s squad.
Such are the fine margins that one solitary goal effectively cost Scotland the guarantee of “beating” their world ranking. So does that single goal and the subsequent loss to Fiji change the perception of the squad’s tournament from success to failure?
I certainly don’t think so. Every time the Thistles faced a lower-classified side, they emerged victorious; and they also defeated one of the sides ranked above them. They gave the sternest of tests to Trinidad and Tobago, and the first game with Fiji was only decided by a six-goal margin. It therefore seems a little harsh that Scotland’s efforts were only rewarded with twelfth place.
But elite sport can be particularly unforgiving and much as the final standings don’t tell the whole story, I suppose that in years to come, it will be that table by which all the teams will ultimately be remembered.
Scotland’s young squad will learn so much from what must have been a wonderful experience. I congratulate all the players on their achievements over the past ten days, wish them a safe journey home and every success for their individual and collective futures.
I will leave you from my abiding off-court memory of the tournament (although the Thistles' lip-synch challenge video came a close second!)....
A couple of days ago I wrote that despite being ranked four places below yesterday’s Netball World Cup opponents Fiji, the recent form shown by Scotland was enough to suggest there were less than ten goals between the sides, and the Thistles had a genuine chance of not only pushing the Fijian Pearls, but also of actually winning the game….
There was only one goal between the two sides at the half-time break, but a dominant third quarter from the Pacific Islanders opened up a lead that Scotland could not overturn in the final fifteen minutes. The final score was 42-48… just six goals in it; and as I had suggested in my last article (more by luck than judgement I hasten to add), a two goal turnaround per quarter would actually have been enough to win the game. Fine margins….
I wasn’t able to see the game, and readily concede that my comments may reflect my lack of knowledge, but for me what the Scots have done is gain experience from giving it a real go against the very top sides, and confidence from being able to produce professional performances to beat the “lesser” teams. That experience and confidence, combined with the girls’ obvious determination and team spirit has now seen the Thistles overcome Barbados by three goals, before yesterday’s narrow reverse.
Gail Parata is in charge of a squad that is not only consistent, but actually developing; certainly to win a closely-fought game against a higher-rated team is a notable accomplishment. In terms of skill level, there probably is little to choose between the teams ranked a couple either side of Scotland’s eleventh position, but staying calm, producing your best form, executing plays and scoring goals under intense (scoreboard) pressure is what can ultimately make that all important difference between winning and losing… between eleventh, tenth, or maybe even ninth place in the world; and climbing even one place up those rankings would be a massive achievement given the way the pool groups were arranged, which left the Thistles (and Samoa for that matter) effectively having to beat either England or Jamaica to have any chance of battling it out for a top eight finish.
Against Barbados, Scotland showed they had the mental strength to win a tight game, and they did themselves credit again yesterday. The Thistles ran a decent side very close; on paper they’ve arguably performed beyond their pre-competition classification, but although I don’t know, I would reckon the girls will be disappointed/frustrated/angry (take your pick) at the defeat. And there’s nothing wrong with that. I’m sure their collective expectation is not just to compete with the sides in the lower reaches of the sport’s “top ten”, it’s to beat them. Any perceived gap seems to be closing though… and tomorrow the Thistles will get another chance to test their skills and mental strength, with a finish inside the tournament top ten still up for grabs.
It won’t be easy… but it wouldn’t have been easy before yesterday’s game, so one way to look at it is that the Thistles and their coaching staff now have the benefit of another hour’s action to digest and analyse before the squad takes to the court again to face Trinidad and Tobago. I’m sure the girls will be relishing the challenge… and, as before, I wish them well.
Anyone who knows me will be well aware that I enjoy nothing more than flicking through a page or two of sport-related statistics. I have been fascinated by facts and figures for as long as I can remember and whilst whatever information I may have retained has never made any significant positive difference to my bank balance, I can occasionally be half decent bloke to have on a quiz team….
With the Ashes having been regained in such dramatic fashion, my sporting eyes are now focussed on the Netball World Cup in Sydney. Although the absence of Sky TV at Chateau Kirby (apparently I can’t have a collection of Doctor Who DVDs and access to endless hours of sport…) has been a bit of a hindrance, there are enough clips and stories coming out of New South Wales to keep me up-to-date with the fortunes of the home nations.
Even at this stage, the tournament appears to be heading for a shoot-out between Australia and New Zealand’s “Silver Ferns” who inflicted a rare defeat on the competition hosts and holders in the preliminary group matches. England and Jamaica may well battle it out for third and fourth place, but along with some great results from the Malawi team, it’s the progress of the Scottish Thistles that really deserves to be highlighted.
Today’s victory over Sri Lanka made it two from two for the Scots in their qualification group, and this current round robin of fixtures ends tomorrow with a tough encounter against Fiji, who were ranked six places above the Thistles leading into the tournament. Scotland have already defeated higher-rated opponents in Barbados, and the fact that the “Bajan Gems” subsequently lost to Fiji by just eleven goals implies (to me at least) that on current form, there is far less between the two sides than the respective rankings might suggest.
This will be the Thistles sixth game; they have won three of the five (including the last two). The confidence and momentum that comes from winning matches – especially the close ones viz. the 37-34 success over Barbados – cannot be underestimated. Psychology plays such an important part in elite sport, and when the time came to show the mental strength to produce their best netball under real pressure, Scotland did just that.
On paper Fiji will be expected to beat the Thistles, but in a sense, being the “underdog” may actually favour Gail Parata’s squad. I am sure there will be belief within the Scottish camp that they are capable of beating the Fijian side, but that belief does not need to become a burden of expectation. All the pressure is on the Pacific islanders, but recent results indicate the sides are probably separated by less than ten goals… two goals per quarter… that’s the kind of deficit that can definitely be overturned.
Oh I nearly forgot... some facts and figures. All twelve members of the squad have made at least two appearances so far; eight girls have featured in all five games, with Claire Brownie have played in at least part of seventeen quarters of netball. The team has scored 186 times in their five games, with five shooters having been used. The Grangetown duo of Gemma Sole and Jo Pettitt have 100 goal between them, with Gemma being the Thistle’s leading marksman/woman/person (I have no idea which word to use) with 74 (at 69% success rate). Lynsey Gallagher, Lesley MacDonald and June McNeill have shared the other 86 goals, with Lesley’s 27 coming from just 33 attempts – 82% is an outstanding conversion rate.
It’s clear that all twelve members of the Thistles’ squad have made a fantastic contribution so far; and I wish them the very best of luck for the challenge that lies ahead. Ninth place is more than a possibility... you can do this!
The Netball World Cup was always likely to be dominated by the top-seeded teams (the hosts and holders Australia, New Zealand, England and Jamaica); but there are teams lower down the rankings that are producing some outstanding performances and results. One of those teams is Scotland.
Placed in a preliminary group with England and Jamaica’s “Sunshine Girls”, progress was never a realistic goal. What was achievable though was to compete well against these two sides and beat the other team in the group – Samoa.
The 47-36 victory over a Samoan side ranked 13th, two places below the Thistles, was a crucial result. It allowed the Scotland team to take their place in a qualification group with Fiji (ranked 5th), Barbados (9th) and Sri Lanka, who currently lie just outside the world’s top twenty.
For a developing squad, the main goal in such a prestigious competition must be to finish above their ranking or seeding, and that effectively means going out onto the court and beating sides that are considered, on paper at least, to be better or stronger.
The first Pool H clash paired Scotland with Barbados, and the Thistles made a wonderful entrance as Goal Shooter Gemma Sole piped the squad onto the court. I am now desperately trying to find my old recorder so that I can offer to do something similar at Grangetown’s opening home fixture next month....
Scotland edged the first two quarters, but the “Bajan Gems” rallied strongly and clawed back four goals to leave the Thistles with a solitary goal advantage with fifteen minutes remaining. The scoreboard read 31-31 five minutes into the last period, but in a reportedly physical encounter, the Scottish girls edged back in front and were able to hold on to record a 37-34 victory.
It is a brilliant result for Gail Parata and her rapidly improving squad, and the Thistles now face Sri Lanka with a great chance of securing another win and really putting some pressure on a very useful Fiji side.
Scotland may well go into the Sri Lanka game as the favourites based on the rankings and their recent performances; mentally this might present a slightly different challenge, but this is a talented, dedicated and committed young Scottish squad that will prepare thoroughly and certainly not underestimate the Sri Lankans.
I’m sending my best wishes to “our” Scotland players: Gemma, Jo and Hayley, and to the rest of the Scotland squad. Congratulations on a great win over Barbados... show the same level of passion and skill tomorrow and I’m sure you’ll be celebrating again.
Hands up all those who thought the fate of the Ashes would be sealed before the teams headed to the Oval?
And keep your hands raised if you thought it would be England celebrating winning the cherished urn?
Not many then....
There have been some enthralling series between England and Australia over the past decade. England’s victory in 2005 galvanised the whole nation, and ended a period of Australian domination stretching back to the late 1980s. England also had the upper hand in three of the five subsequent series, although Australia’s successes (including the last meeting in 2013/14) had come courtesy of 5-0 whitewashes.
Popular opinion, backed up by on-field form and results suggested the tourists were strong favourites to retain the Ashes, and even after England’s impressive 169 run victory at Cardiff, few would have confidently predicted what was to follow...
In fairness, the Australian response at Lord’s was not wholly unexpected, but the reversal in fortune from the opening test was extraordinary; and the tourists’ massive winning margin of 405 runs and England’s woeful capitulation in their second innings was more than enough ammunition for journalists to effectively write off the hosts chances.
But sport has an uncanny habit of proving many a so-called expert wrong, and Jimmy Anderson’s first innings haul of 6-47 paved the way for a comfortable success at Edgbaston, before Stuart Broad’s performance on that incredible Thursday morning at Trent Bridge effectively sealed the Australians’ fate.
The sheer scale of the on-field fluctuations was typified by the statistic that Alastair Cook had become captain of the most consistently inconsistent (or vice versa) side in the history of test cricket. The bare facts are that all four games have been one-sided, yet the action has been totally compelling from the outset. That Australia made 566 for the loss of just eight wickets in the first innings at Lord’s is impressive, but not unduly remarkable. That they then compiled 714 runs in losing forty wickets at Birmingham and Nottingham is most certainly remarkable in comparison.
Ignore the discussions surround pitch preparation; no country in the world would do anything other than create conditions that would favour their own players. The best cricketers can compete on any surface and the Australian’s simply underperformed as a unit.
The loss of the Ashes prompted Aussie skipper Michael Clarke to announce his impending retirement from international cricket. He has had a desperate time with the bat, but I hope his legacy will not be defined by his most recent performances because Clarke is one of the finest batsmen of modern times and his record stands up to the closest scrutiny. He comes across as a thoroughly decent bloke as well; and in amongst the euphoria of such a notable triumph, it is only right to acknowledge Michael Clarke’s outstanding contribution to the game.
For his counterpart Alastair Cook, the series has been a personal triumph. Pilloried in the press for his batting and captaincy, Cook deserves a huge amount of credit for the way he has conducted himself on and off the field. He has made some valuable runs throughout the summer and, whilst I am still not totally convinced about some elements of his captaincy, he clearly has the total support of the dressing room, and an ability to galvanise his team to produce telling contributions at crucial moments.
There have been two stand out performers: Joe Root (443 runs at 73.8) and Stuart Broad (21 wickets at 18.1), and whilst the remaining figures don’t appear all that impressive at first glance, there are six batsmen averaging between 30 and 40 and three other bowlers apart from Broad have claimed five wicket hauls. Some of the fielding has been brilliant (with Ben Stokes responsible for two particularly memorable catches) and England’s more positive and exciting brand of cricket has ultimately been rewarded with the sport’s most coveted prize.
There are still areas of concern: we definitely need a top-class spinner; Adam Lyth and Ian Bell have not produced the expected volume of runs, and Jos Buttler has had a string of poor scores. The lower-middle order of Stokes, Buttler and Ali is a potentially match-changing combination, but such attacking style of play can always be the recipe for the kind of rout that was witnessed at Lord’s. Providing that is the exception rather than the rule, then this side does seem to have the ability and mentality to win games and become a real force in the test arena.
I’m saving the last word for Jonny Bairstow, recalled to the England side after a brilliant sequence of scores that have seen him average 108 in the county Championship. Jonny is an old boy of St Peter’s, York – as am I. He is a former school 1st XI captain – as am I. And he is an outstanding cricketer – oh well; two out of three and all that.
Jonny was also the recipient of the final six deliveries I will ever bowl (back in May last year) and it is fantastic to see such a talented, yet grounded and likeable young man getting another opportunity to perform at the highest level....
The final test gets underway at the Oval on 20th August. Given the events of the past couple of months, I don’t believe anyone can confidently forecast the outcome... but I do think it’s reasonable to suppose that those who have purchased tickets for the fifth day probably won’t see much cricket!