Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Will Bungling in India Be Reversed or Reverted?

The wash up from two demoralising defeats in the first two Tests between Australia and India has been extreme - warranted in many respects perhaps, though possibly an overreaction in some ways. In wading through the destruction caused by an 8 wicket loss in the 1st Test (with an innings defeat only avoided by a 66 run partnership for the final wicket) and a crushing innings defeat in the 2nd Test, easy targets have been vilified, and any sense of reasoning has been set aside.

The selection of the squad for the series raised eyebrows at the time it was announced, and by its very nature locked the tour selectors into a dangerous game of picking unqualified "all rounders" and spinners with little or no success (as I have detailed in this post).

In fact, the team chosen for the 1st Test was almost the best they could do given what they had to pick from.
They chose Moises Henriques as a bowling all rounder in preference to the batting of Usman Khawaja, and chose returning paceman James Pattinson in front of Mitch Johnson, who had had his best summer for a number of years. Both of those selections worked - Henriques bowled accurately and scored two fifties on debut, and Pattinson was dangerous in taking six wickets for the match. Michael Clarke had some luck with the lack of the DRS in India to make a wonderful century, which drove Australia to a respectable first innings total of 380. In reply, around tea on the third day, India was 7/372 when Ashwin fell, and with only three tailenders and MS Dhoni remaining, a small deficit was what Australia was looking at. At this point, the Test was still dead even.
So what happened in the next 49 overs? Dhoni went ballistic, the tail hung around, and 200 runs were added for the final three wickets. What was to blame for this? Poor bowling plans? In some respects, yes. Dhoni took Nathan Lyon, who had bowled steadily again without being dangerous, out of the game. Peter Siddle bowled straight and on a length, but produced nothing to trouble the batsmen. Mitchell Starc once again reverted to bowling around the wicket, taking away every advantage he has by being a left arm quick. Mystifying. The bowlers and fieldsmen showed an inability to get a good crack at the tailend batsmen.
In the long run, it was Dhoni's amazing 224 from 265 balls that changed the match, and sometimes there is just nothing you can do to stop it. Australia applauded Adam Gilchrist's ability to do this, and it won Australia many Tests in the decade when he played for our national team. Sometimes players have a day out, and they are unstoppable. This is what happened in these 49 overs, and while things could have been done better in a bowing and fielding capacity by the Australian team during this period, it most likely would not have changed the result too much.
What hurt was Australia's response. The top six could put together only 6/131 between them, though Phil Hughes and Michael Clarke received unplayable balls aided by the deteriorating wicket. Henriques and Lyon showed that it could be tamed with a last wicket 66 where both patience and attack was rewarded. India lost two wickets in making the required 50 runs for victory, but Lyon made the ball do some tricks in the short time available, as well as having two chances missed. If India had been chasing 200 for victory instead of 50, it could have been a completely different result. A case could be made that Australia wasn't as far behind in the 1st Test as the experts and the scorecard may have suggested.

Why then did we see the team that walked out for the 2nd Test chosen? A case could be made for a second spinner to be chosen, and Xavier Doherty was quite rightly (of the spinners chosen in the tour squad) named as that second spinner. But then we have Lyon being dropped, and Glenn Maxwell, who would probably not even play for Victoria as solely a batsman or solely a bowler, being chosen as a front line bowler in his place. Lyon's figures in the 1st Test were not appealing (3/215 and 1/29), and while for the most part he showed nothing more than he has in his previous 18 Test matches, on that final afternoon he was able to produce some deliveries that kicked and spat off the dying wicket, which (to me at least) boded well for what he may be able to do in a similar situation in the next Test. He would have to deal with Indian batsmen treating him with contempt, but perhaps he would be better prepared for that the next time.
Instead, he was given the flick, and a part-timer (at best) was drafted in to do his job. And it had been coming for awhile. For some reason, the selectors, or at the very least the Chairman, John Inverarity, has had a huge man-crush on Maxwell for 12 months, and has taken any opportunity to push forward the case that he is the next big thing, that he is too talented not to be in any Australian team. His results at first class level do nothing to help prove this, but the National Selection Panel (NSP) almost shoe-horned him into the eleven for the 3rd Test against Sri Lanka at Sydney in January at Lyon's expense, and now they found a way to finally do it here. It really just appeared to be a very selfish move to get a guy into the team that the NSP wanted in at any cost. And the cost? Well, two scores of 13 and 8 batting at number eight, and he appeared all at sea, and unwilling to play himself in, whereas Lyon had faced 78 deliveries in his innings in the 1st Test. The Indian pair Vijay and Pujera took a liking to his bowling, and though he did bowl better when he decided to go around the wicket finishing with 4/127, he didn't look threatening until he was bowling at the tail and they were trying to take advantage of him. This was no fault of his own, it was a situation that he had been thrust into when he was palpably not ready for it.

Overall again though, one partnership gave India the advantage. The 370 runs that Vijay and Pujera put on together was two runs more than Australia could score in both innings combined. India lost their last 9 wickets for 116 runs, which again showed that, apart from one outstanding moment of batting, the Australians were not too far off the mark. Again, during this partnership, the Indians had the running, with a number of balls flying just wide or high of fieldsmen. This happens, and you need to be able to put those behind you. Siddle was again economical but mostly not threatening. Henriques again held up an end without looking like taking a wicket, but really that is as much his job as the fifth bowling option. Pattinson again was the best of the bowlers.
Doherty was innocuous throughout the second day, but looked more likely on the third day. Without a real quicker slider that both Stephen O'Keefe and Michael Beer have as a change up into the right handers, Doherty will not be as dangerous to the Indian batsmen as he could be. It's a tough ask for the bowlers, and given the runs they have had to defend so far, it is an impossible one.

The bowlers have had some excuses. Our spinners in these conditions are just not in the same universe as the Indians, though it has been Ashwin who has been the real handful. Our batsmen are not picking him at all, which is amazing given they faced him in Australia only 12 months ago. Australia's spinning crop at the moment are plodders. 3 or 4 for 100-odd from them in unfamiliar conditions is not an unfair return.
But we need more aggression from our pace battery. When Mitch Johnson was out of the game for 12 months, I never expected him to return. But return he did, and in the process probably had his best summer in four to five years. He has had success in India before through his aggression, which Indian batsmen do not like. It is therefore another mystery why he has yet to play in this series. He is exactly the guy we need bowling on these wickets. Again, I never thought I'd say this, but Johnson should have been the first bowler picked. Pattinson has been a revelation, and we can only hope he doesn't break down again. Siddle has been ineffective in these conditions and should be 'rotated'. And the coaches should all be telling Starc to stay over the wicket and bowl with some fire and pace, not try and bully batsmen from around the wicket on dead pitches. If he can do that, he should be in the team. If he can't, then he shouldn't.

Australia will not compete in India again until our batsmen score the runs required to do so. In the first two Tests they have also gone in a batsman short in order to pick an "all rounder".
It's been a tough ask. Two of Australia's greatest ever batsman retired within three Tests of each other, leaving a massive hole in the batting line-up. There was never going to be an easy fix to this situation, and some patience was going to have to be exerted. For the moment, Michael Hussey's position has been taken by the all rounder Henriques, while Ricky Ponting has been replaced by the returning Shane Watson. Hardly a straight swap.
The batting order is a dog's breakfast. The opening pair of Cowan and Warner has never appeared settled. One is a blocker who is unable to rotate the strike enough to keep his innings moving in a forward direction. The other is a slogger who loves to be a flat track bully, but when faced with a wicket that is something else is incapable of deciding how he should play. Neither has looked comfortable, and their dismissals have been ugly. In two of the four innings they have put together a fifty opening partnership, which is all you can ask of your openers - take the shine off the ball. If Cowan could find a way to get more singles to break the spell of the Indian spinners, and Warner could better choose which balls to play aggressively, then they may still salvage something from this series. If they can't then not only will Australia lose this series, but they may also lose their places in the team.
I don't mind admitting that I have a soft spot for Phil Hughes, and the obvious trouble he is having against spin has probably marked his card once again in the short term. He copped an unplayable delivery in the 1st Test, but his three other dismissals have been troubling. He has been no less disappointing than the others in the top six, but you can almost guarantee in the current selection environment that he will be the only one sacrificed in order to make it look as though they are being pro-active. It will be another unfortunate episode if this is the case. In his last Test in Sydney, he scored 87 and 34. In his last first class game before leaving on tour, he scored 120 and 35. His is the best current form of any player apart from Clarke in this squad. Surely, if someone is to go, that needs to be remembered and recognised.
Unlike Hughes, I have no soft spot for Shane Watson, just general disbelief that he continues to be exempt from any discussion that he should lose his spot in the team. Another four innings without reaching 30, and now not able to fall back on his bowling. If it was any other player in the team (and they all are) they would be concerned as to whether they will be in the next Test team. Just how many failures will it take until he is 'rotated'? This continued selection ignorance is endemic of the problems our batting line up faces.
Why is the skipper still batting at number five? Is he hiding? Is he scared? I don't know the answer, but it surely must end. He needs to lead from the front, and take on the Indian spinners and knock them off their game. He needs to make a stand and change up what has been happening with the batting. The scary thing is that it is plainly obvious that a dry spell is coming for Australia's captain, because no one keeps scoring the number of runs that he has been without experiencing a dip sometime. That day is coming, and if it coincides with him moving up the batting order, then we may never hear the end of it.

Can Australia get back into this series? Most would say no, but it is not out of the question. What the selectors decide to do with the team for the 3rd Test will be important.
To my way of thinking, there needs to be some varied thinking on the matter.
Usman Khawaja has been around this team for most of the last four months, but has barely hit a ball in anger. He will play the 3rd Test, and will do so with almost no cricket behind him. What a way to set him up to fail! We can only hope he can stand up and deliver. He should bat at number three, the position he has been groomed to take up for the past two years.
Despite all of my misgivings about him, Watson should be retained and asked to open the batting again. If this appears to be contradictory, given my comments above about both Watson and Hughes, then so be it. Hughes hasn't got the time in this series to turn around his obvious deficiencies against spin, while Watson has at least looked solid before his inevitable dismissal once he is set. Also, this will bring together a left/right hand combination which will hopefully play with the Indian bowlers lines and lengths.
Clarke must bat at four, and with Watson and Khawaja above him, I think this gives us a more solid looking top four than we have had for some time.
Now - what I would do, but will never happen - I would leave Cowan opening the batting, and move Warner down to number 5. At five he can play his natural game, and like a good number five can move the game for the batting team in the right direction. Cowan and Hughes are both unsuited to the position, which leaves Warner to be the man to do the job.
I would prefer to have another batsman to play at six, moving Wade back to number seven and choosing just four attacking bowlers. However, the only other batsman in the squad is Steve Smith, and as Henriques has already proven he is a better bat than Smith, I would reluctantly retain Wade at 6 and Henriques at 7.
I would also revert back to the three pacemen and one spinner option of the 1st Test. Doherty perhaps now deserves another chance, and as he spins the ball away from the right hander it may be an advantage. I would also rotate Siddle out, and choose Pattinson, Starc and Johnson as our pace bowlers, all attacking. It may well cost us some runs through undisciplined line and length, but I'm not sure we can leak any more runs than we already have, and we have to take 20 wickets in the match to win it.
With the squad we have, my team would be: Watson, Cowan, Khawaja, Clarke, Warner, Wade, Henriques, Johnson, Starc, Pattinson, Doherty.

My guess is that the NSP will go with Warner, Cowan, Watson, Khawaja, Clarke, Wade, Henriques, Maxwell, Johnson, Pattinson, Doherty.

It is not beyond the realms of possibility that Australia can compete better for the remaining two Tests of this tour. It will require the bowling attack to be more aggressive and clever, and the batting line-up to be both patient against the good balls, and aggressive against the bad balls. If noting else, our selected team must be prepared to recover the dignity and honour lost in the first two Tests, and be able to stand toe to toe with an opponent that may think it has the better of this Australian team, and may not know what to do if they are called on it.

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