A gritty test match is happening in Zimbabwe as I type this. Two teams are scrapping for every inch, a veritable Battle of Verdun - where both sides are defending stoutly, and generally resisting the opposition advances. It is likely to end in a tame draw, but this does not give credit to the commitment and courage that some of the batsmen (and tired bowlers) have shown in the 3 days where the score has advanced by 780 runs in 270 overs. In only his third test, Tino Mawoyo took 453 deliveries for his 163 runs, Azhar Ali took 193 deliveries for 75, and Younis Khan (who normally scores at a reasonable rate) took 265 deliveries to score 88. All of them had a strike rate under 39.
Then along came captain slow. Misbah-ul-Haq. Possibly the slowest batsman since Mark Richardson - one of the few recent players to have a higher average than strike-rate (along with the likes of Chanderpaul, Dravid, and Richardson.) Only 6 times in his career before this game has he scored at a strike rate higher than 50 (and one of those was 12 off 23 and only included 4 scoring shots). So the conditions were perfect for a stodgy defensive innings. What was less expected was 66 off 110 - at a strike rate of 60. While 60 would be positively slow for the likes of Sehwag or Dilshan, it is 50% more than he normally scores at. This would be the same as Sehwag scoring at 122.4. In a game where his usual pace would have seemed reasonable, he chose to attack, and did it well.
The second interesting thing from the past week, was the Australian demolition of Sri Lanka. Earlier in the week, over on Poshins World I commented on the dominance that Sri Lanka have had over their opponents at home over the last 5 years, and in particular their batsman not finding anyone too difficult. The only exception was medium paced bowlers and spinners that don't really spin the ball much. And it seemed to be the same again when Watson picked up 3 wickets, and Lyon picked up 5 in the first innings (4 wickets from Lyon were balls that didn't spin, only the Sangakkara wicket turned appreciably).
The difference here was two fold. Watson was bowling quickly. He used to bowl mid to high 120's, but he seems to have been doing a lot of work in the nets, and is falling over a bit in his action, but has increased his speed appreciably, now bowling high 130's. Secondly, Lyon got the wickets with the ones that didn't spin, because he had put the batsman into survival mode with great spin bowling leading up to that, and crucially with great fielding. I am more convinced than ever after that game that the number one thing that defines how well Australia go is their fielding. I was only keeping a rough count, but as far as I remember every single ashes match in the last 4 series that has had a result has been won by the team that has dropped the least catches. There might be one or two exceptions as it was more from gut feel observation than statistical analysis, but the principle remains - when Australia field well, they win matches.