Monday, March 25, 2013

Ashes to Ashes - Where to From Here

Cricket of the modern age continues to show that the very best teams can win at home and away, while the middle of the road teams will most likely, under most circumstances, be infinitely superior in their own backyard, but are unable to penetrate when playing away from home.
South Africa battled at every turn in Australia, batted for the last day and half to salvage a draw in Adelaide against the odds before winning in Perth to claim a series victory. They have since wiped the floor with New Zealand and Pakistan at home, and are firmly ensconced as the best Test team in the world.
England had a magnificent series victory in India before Xmas, based on an excellently balanced bowling attack, and the tenaciousness and determination of their batting lineup to show both patience and attack at the correct moments. One can only wonder if they have taken New Zealand a bit easy given recent results on their tour to the shaky isles. While not facing anywhere near the same calamity as Australia did on their tour of India, there is no doubt that the New Zealand tour will be a real wake up for the Poms leading into their next eight months of cricket, the majority of which is in battle to retain the Ashes.
New Zealand showed their own fight. Having been humiliated in the Test series in South Africa, they fought long and hard on their return home to almost snatch an unlikely series victory in the final Test of their series with England.
Australia, though losing to South Africa at home, was able to win three consecutive Tests against Sri Lanka, though the weakened Sri Lankan team did put up a fight to some degree. This series win tended to paint the Australian team in a better light than they perhaps deserved, and one that maybe gave the folly of hope for their tour of India.

Is this a veiled effort on my part to suggest that Australian cricket is not as badly off as a 4-0 whitewash in India would appear to prove? Yes and no. Since Bill Lawry's team won in India in 1969, only one Australian team has won a series in India. One. That was the tour in 2004, with a bowling line up of McGrath, Gillespie, Kasprowicz and Warne provided the impetus, and the batting including Hayden, Langer, Martyn, Lehmann, Katich, Gilchrist and a debuting Michael Clarke - all of whom were magnificent players of spin bowling - tamed the locals on their own pitches. It is a team that Australia may never be able to field again in those conditions. Is it any wonder we were defeated so convincingly on this tour, given the state of the current Test team?
I mentioned in my previous blog post that, in the first two Tests, the differences between the two teams was perhaps in just two partnerships. In some ways, the same could be said for the final two Tests. The 3rd Test was mired in the Homework Affair, which probably cruelled any chance Australia had of getting into the series. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the whole affair are from whatever side you want to take, the point was that it deprived the Australian team of its most effective bowler in James Pattinson, and the chance for Usman Khawaja to come in and make an impact on the series. No matter that Steve Smith made a good impression with the bat, as did Mitch Starc with his 99. The point was that Australia's best team for that moment in time could not be, and was not, chosen, and the loss of that Test with just three overs remaining showed that it could possibly have been a contest with the right team chosen. Further points could be made of the chosen 4th Test team, and the path that Test took. However, the loss of Clarke and Starc for that match left gaping holes that could not be covered, and the whitewash was completed.
Indian cricket would believe that they are on the rise again, just a few months after being beaten by England on their own pitches. They may have some point. Laxman, Dravid and Sehwag have gone, with a lacklustre Tendulkar surely not far behind them. They have found in Vijay, Pujara, Kohli, Rahane and Dhawan a young batting lineup that has shown that it certainly has talent. The test (no pun intended) for this team now is to see if it can perform and compete outside of Indian conditions. Then we will know just how much India has to look forward to in the future.

For Australia, its future in Test cricket now lies in back-to-back Ashes series, something that has been poorly planned by the administrators but must now be attacked with fervour. Will the debacle of India prove to be the start of a "new era", or the capitulation of the unhappily administered remnants of the Argus Report? There was winners and losers both on the Indian tour, and for those that did not tour, and both sides are likely to see the outcome of this.
Usman Khawaja probably thinks that he may as well go and take out New Zealand citizenship, because he was obviously unwanted by the current hierarchy in Australian cricket. He was the only person on tour who failed to crack it for a Test (apart from Jackson Bird, who was sent home with back trouble), he has played only two first class innings in four months, both in the one lead-up game before the 1st Test in India. If nothing else can come of it, his batting reputation has not been tarnished in India, as he was not given the chance to show it.
Steve Smith proved me wrong (not such a tough ask) by playing excellently in his two Tests, averaging 40 and making great use of his feet against the Indians spinners. Though to me his technique looks like it could be torn apart by the English seamers in their conditions, it would be very unfair not to at least give him a crack at the old enemy, given he was the only batsman apart from Clarke who looked at ease against the Indian attack.
The tactics of picking allrounders instead of specialists failed dismally, long before the final Test, when it continued to be used. Australia managed to get away with it in Sydney against a depleted Sri Lankan team, but never looked a chance of doing so against India. Moises Henriques batted superbly on debut, but was unable to capitalise on this in his next two Tests. His bowling was steady but unthreatening on Indian wickets. Glenn Maxwell did nothing to disprove the idea that he is anything but a slogger with the bat, and while he picked up seven wickets with the ball he hasn't shown that he can be a frontline spinner at this point either.
The fast bowlers were completely taken out of the reckoning by the pitches put up, which was not a surprise. At times Pattinson, Siddle and Starc bowled with some venom, but overall they were made to look pedestrian on flat dusty wickets, at times through their own ineffectiveness to bowl line and length, or to reverse swing the ball.

The Test squad for the Ashes will be announced shortly, and faces a number of major problems. The major one is this - there are simply no batsmen in Australia who demand selection in front of those already chosen in the Test team. That is, apart from Victoria's Chris Rogers, who will be 36 years old when the Ashes begins, and five years after his only Test for Australia.
Only eleven batsman averaged over 40 in the Sheffield Shield this season. Of those, Andrew McDonald played two games before losing the season to injury (and given the 'search' for allrounders, he must be kicking himself), Jason Krezja averaged 80 but could only manage four games as a spinner, two were wicket-keepers (Matthew Wade and Brad Haddin), and two were end of season debutants (Daniel Hughes and Jordan Silk). The other were Henriques, Ricky Ponting, Phil Hughes, Alex Doolan and Chris Rogers.

Calling for the reinstatement of Ponting and Hussey is a backwards step that would solve nothing. Ponting was dismantled by the South African attack this summer, and he was smart enough to see that his time had come. Hundreds against Shield attacks doesn't disguise the failing eyes and shallow footwork. Hussey was still in good touch, but his heart is obviously not in the whole '100% required' any more, which would only damage his reputation. his was also a smart exit. Australia needs to make forward steps with the next generation, and though it might be a painful birth, if the right players can be found, nurtured and given as many chances as Shane Watson has had, then maybe we will be in good hands.

The next generation of batsman obviously still need another 12 months, because even though scoring runs on Shield wickets this season was obviously tough, someone needed to put their hand up if they wanted a crack at the Test team. Rob Quiney got two Tests against South Africa, but only averaged 26 in seven Shield games this season.  Alex Doolan averaged 42 in the Shield this season, but his career 1st class average of a tick under 38 with only five centuries is not the figures that should be making selectors excited yet. Joe Burns averaged 32 this season, and though his career average of 41 is lower than what they would like, he is more likely to be spoken of in selection decisions.
Chris Rogers averaged 49.46 in the Sheffield Shield this season, with over 700 runs. He has an excellent record in County cricket over a number of seasons. He has 18,962 First Class runs at an average of 49.90, with 58 centuries and 86 half centuries. Given the problems Australia still has at the top of its order, and his good record in both English and Australian conditions, and the fact that he really is the only batsmen in Australian cricket who is putting his foot forward with consistent runs, surely he deserves a chance again, especially with so few options available. He can't do any less well than anyone else in the current team.

Matthew Wade has had twelve months in the Test team, and although his batting has been handy, his glovework has been poor. And that is being kind to him. How many more chances have to be missed before he is relieved? Nathan Lyon is the one who is suffering the most from this, at a time that he can hardly have that happen. Brad Haddin has been his deputy, and showed in the 3rd Test when he played how much better his glovework is than Wade's. There is little doubt that both of these players will go to England, because the selectors have already deemed that to be the way it is. But anyone who watched the Shield final could not have helped but be impressed with the keeping and batting displays of Queensland's Chris Hartley and Tasmania's Tim Paine. Both can bat, and both have great hands. In my mind, these are the two I would take to England. They are both young and keen, and whoever got the spot in the Test team would not let their country down. Both have captaincy experience as well, which would be a benefit in this team. But - it won't happen.

The bowling looks to be more straight forward, though there will be a lot of hard luck stories. Siddle, Pattinson and Starc (if fit) will tour. Doubts still remain over Siddle's real effectiveness and ability to move the ball off the straight, but he is a workhorse and has never let the team down and will tour. Pattinson returned from injury brilliantly in India, and will no doubt enjoy the seaming conditions of England. Starc will too, if he can ever stop bowling around the wicket. Someone must put a stop to that.
Jackson Bird will hopefully return, as he appears to be a great fit for English conditions. There is little doubt Ryan Harris will be one of the first chosen for the tour, and if he can stay fit he will be a huge handful for the English batsmen.
The final seam bowling place should go to James Faulkner, who had a sterling summer. He took 39 Shield wickets at an average of 20.33, and has shown he can be very handy in seam friendly conditions as well as flat track conditions. He goes as a genuine bowler, who just for interest sake also scored 444 runs at 34.15 in Shield cricket this season. He gets his spot in front of the eternally unlucky Luke Butterworth, who took 45 wickets at 20.80 again this season as well as scoring 320 runs at 26.66. Chadd Sayers 48 wickets for South Australia also had some good judges suggesting he is another one to look at in the future.

Nathan Lyon will hold his place as Australia's spinner, but despite his nine wicket match in the 4th Test in India he still has some work to do to hold his position. Xavier Doherty will not tour, nor will likely be looked at again for Test cricket. Glenn Maxwell is highly regarded by the selectors, almost to the point that one wonders what hold he has over them. No doubt he will be the second spinner chosen for the tour, but he should not be.
There is a lot of talk for the Pakistan asylum seeker Fawad Ahmed. The 31 year old leg-spinner has made an excellent start to his Australian and Victorian career, and many are pushing for his statuts to be fast tracked so that he can make the Ashes tour. Though I enjoy watching him bowl, I don't think he should be taken to England even if he is available. I would much rather see him have a big off-season, and then hopefully be ready to be picked in the Tests in Australia next summer, on our wickets, where he will be much more effective than any in England.
I would take the youngster Ashton Agar as the back-up spinner. He looks to have a good head on his shoulders, appears calm under pressure, bowls a good orthodox spinner as well as a good arm ball, and holds the bat well enough to average almost 30. Given that we won't be playing two spinners in England, his presence will be there for him to learn and pick up everything he can - and play a part if it comes to that.

The team I would take to England (with who I think the slectors will pick in brackets) would be:

Ed Cowan
David Warner
Chris Rogers (Shane Watson)
Phil Hughes
Usman Khawaja
Steve Smith
Michael Clarke (c)

Tim Paine (Matthew Wade)
Chris Hartley (Brad Haddin)

Peter Siddle
James Pattinson
Mitchell Starc
Jackson Bird
Ryan Harris
James Faulkner

Nathan Lyon
Ashton Agar (Glenn Maxwell)

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