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Musings from Beyond the Boundary – 22 January

I’ve just spent an interesting few days in Melbourne, working in an office with a number of keen cricket followers and former club players – interesting because of their views of the changes in media coverage and spectator habits across the Tasman.

This is the first season since the ‘settlement’ between the Australian Cricket Board and Kerry Packer’s organisation that Channel Nine has not been broadcasting international cricket in Australia. Instead the broadcasting package is shared between free-to-air Channel Seven and Foxtel, a subscriber service like Sky in New Zealand.

As a result, last week while Australia and India were engaged in a close and exciting three-match ODI Series, Channel Seven was broadcasting Big Bash T20 matches while the national side was only to be seen on pay TV. Possibly as a consequence, both awareness and interest in the ODIs was limited. In my case I probably had more than thirty television channels available in my hotel room – I could watch Big Bash, but not the mid-week ODI from Adelaide.

At the same time I was told, attendance, even at Big Bash matches, is apparently well down year-on-year. There are all sorts of potential reasons for this: the poor results of the Australian side and a growing satiation with the diet of T20 cricket may be a couple of contributory factors. Odd scheduling might be another. Last Friday night Australia played India in an ODI at the MCG, while on Saturday night the two local Melbourne sides met across town in a Big Bash local derby. Cricket supporters are being pushed into decisions how they allocate their time and money.

Amongst my colleagues in Melbourne there was general regret with the decision to change broadcaster and a strong feeling that the quality of the Channel Nine coverage made for better viewing than its replacement. The on-going feast of T20 was another issue for them. While accepting the appeal of the game to the younger market there was apprehension about the reduced crowd numbers this summer, and in the face of an Australian team struggling to bat long periods, a concern about how to convert a generation brought up on T20 into longer-form players.

Having listened through the week to a lot of fretting about cricket’s future in Australia it was a treat to be one of more than 53,000 spectators at the Melbourne Cricket Ground on Friday evening for a very absorbing final ODI against India. Having been at Eden Park the previous Friday evening, it was an interesting reminder how the dimensions of the ground make such a difference to all facets of the game. A slow, sometimes two-paced pitch and a sluggish outfield didn’t make for a high-scoring spectacle but the match itself proved a salutary reminder that a tight, comparatively low-scoring, contest can be as tense and exciting as any boundary-filled extravaganza.

The Australian batting seemed to encapsulate their entire season, with plenty of players getting a start and being unable to capitalise, with the exception of Peter Handscomb. He played an accomplished hand, marshalling the lower order and batting with considerable composure as the last five Australian wickets added 107. Handscomb’s 58 came from 63 balls and included just two boundaries, a measure of the finesse he brought to his innings as he worked the wide open spaces offered by this Ground.

With the ball it was a real treat to watch the diminutive wrist-spinner Yuzvendra Chahal in action as he equalled compatriot Ajit Agarkar’s feat in capturing 6/42, the best ODI bowling return in the 622 ODIs played in Australia. His variation of flight and his willingness to toss the ball up and invite the batsman to take him on made for entertaining viewing and he will be worth watching when India begin their matches here this week.

India impressed with an aggressive performance in the field too, and some of the catching was superb, in contrast to the luckless Australians. With India 59/2 in the seventeenth over, Glenn Maxwell dropped new batsman MS Dhoni just behind point off the first ball he faced. Dhoni went on to reach 87 not out when the game was won. 230 never seemed like enough for Australia to defend, but the conditions didn’t make it easy for India. However as tight as it became, it always felt as though the visitors were always just in control of things.

It was a remarkable innings by Dhoni, who at times looked horribly out of sorts with his timing and footwork and at other times was inventive and dismissive. Here was a man who, with 53 still required, was happy to block Adam Zampa’s last over, securing just a single off the last ball to retain the strike. His confidence, his composure, and his speed were a treat to behold. He, Kohli and the impressive Jadhav were all superb between the wickets, another great example of using the open space in the outfield to maximum benefit.

For Australia Jhye Richardson was a revelation. I’d only seen snippets of him on television but he looked a genuine athlete, quick, accurate and difficult to get away. Small in stature and still just 22, he was comfortably the most threatening of the Australian bowlers on the night and a player who looks to have a big future. No surprise to hear of his call-up to the Test side in place of the injured Josh Hazelwood.

I was lucky enough to be back in Auckland for Sunday’s double-header at Eden Park and what a good day that turned out to be. First up the Aces took on the Volts, the home team welcoming new overseas player Daniel Bell-Drummond, from Kent.

Bell-Drummond has quite a pedigree – according to ESPNCricinfo he was noticed by Kent as a seven-year-old and later that season scored a century for the Kent Under-10s. He went on to represent England at Under-15, Under 17 and Under-19 levels before more recently representing the England Lions. In 2016, playing for the Lions, he and Ben Duckett enjoyed an unbeaten partnership of 367 against Sri Lanka A in a 50-over match, the equal second-highest partnership in List A history.

Earlier that season he and Tom Latham enjoyed twin opening partnerships of 131 and an unbroken 187 as Kent beat Glamorgan by ten wickets in a County Championship match. Then in 2017 he and Kent team-mate Joe Denly shared the world record T20 opening partnership, adding 207 together.

He wasn’t quite that prolific on Sunday, but with Glenn Phillips he got the Auckland innings off to a very fluent start. His 21-ball 30 included five boundaries and he looked every inch a class act. His fielding was equally impressive and he had a turn at the crease as well. His two overs of medium-pacers doubled his T20 career bowling experience! He looks an exciting addition to the Aces.

After the openers were gone, Mark Chapman and Robbie O’Donnell supported Craig Cachopa as the skipper scored what was ultimately a match-winning 73 from just 38 balls, a very impressive hand as he struck five boundaries and five sixes.

The Otago Volts always looked just behind the game, but a flurry of stroke-making by Ben Raine, their import from Durham (via Leicestershire), put them in a position to steal the game from under the Aces’ noses. A nerve-wracking last couple of overs saw the Auckland side come through by just four runs, and with plenty of frazzled nerves on both sides of the boundary.

It was the perfect curtain-raiser before the main event and a large crowd remained to watch what turned into an even-more thrilling encounter in the Women’s Burger King Super Smash Final between the Wellington Blaze and the Canterbury Magicians.

The Magicians were put in by Wellington skipper Liz Perry and after both openers were dismissed we were treated to a polished display of batting from Erin Bermingham and Kate Ebrahim, Bermingham remaining 61 not out when the innings closed at 130/3.

As Otago had always looked just on the negative side of the equation in the first game, Wellington seemed to have the positive edge through the bulk of their innings, not least when Sophie Devine, back from the Big Bash, struck three of the day’s biggest sixes in just one over. At the other end the powerful Rebecca Burns had four boundaries in her 41, but the Magicians would have thought they were in with a chance when these two were both dismissed in the space of ten runs, with more than 40 still required.

Perry joined Amelia Kerr, who batted inventively and looked in good touch. These two appeared to have matters under control until mid-way through the penultimate over when Kerr was run out. Two balls later, and still nine shy of victory, Perry was bowled by Kate Ebrahim, and then, with four runs required half way through the final over, Thamsyn Newton became a third run-out victim.

Two weeks ago, Jess Kerr, Amelia’s older sister, had scored a cool and calm unbeaten 20 off 10 balls to see her side home against the same opposition with two balls to spare. Now she spotted the gap behind point and was able to engineer the stroke which found the space and she and Suzie McDonald sprinted for three to tie things up. McDonald who had been at the other end in that earlier narrow win over the Magicians, conjured up the single and the Blaze had won back-to-back T20 titles from the last ball of a thrilling game.

The Blaze and the Aces may have taken the honours on the field, but there were plenty of winners on the other side of the rope as well, the Eden Park crowd having been treated to two superb games of T20 cricket, both of which show-cased some outstanding talent as well as final ball finishes. We were thoroughly spoiled.

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