In his typically full frontal style of press conference Australia’s coach Darren Lehmann has made no secret of the fact that Australia’s batsmen are playing for their careers from tomorrow at the Oval. Their destinies could not be more in their own hands. The fight for runs comes first…
“They’ll never give up, it’s the nature of the beast. Get eleven blokes off Bondi Beach and they’ll give you a run for your money.” Given Australia’s disturbingly impotent performances with the bat this Ashes series Geoffrey Boycott was probably onto something. A new selection policy if things don’t shift at the Oval over the next week for Australia.
It was no secret leading into this summer that Australia’s ability to compete would largely be decided by their batsmen being able to score some runs. The touring team’s bowling unit, especially with the mercurial efforts of Ryan Harris who has 20 wickets from three matches at an average of only 19.25, has proven more than capable of tackling the English batsmen. Their disciplined efforts with the ball as well as with the bat have almost single-handedly kept Australia in the competition in three out of the four tests so far. Peter Siddle, Mitchell Starc, Ryan Harris and Nathan Lyon have played 11 tests this series between them and taken 53 wickets at a collective average of 23.56. They should feel a burning injustice at being on the losing side. It is rare that a team’s attack will perform this well and lose a series 3-0. A chilling comparison for Australians everywhere is that their batsmen’s collective average is not too much higher at 27.45. Aside from the third test at Manchester’s Old Trafford where Australia were stalled in their seemingly irresistible victory charge by the rain, the batsmen have all but totally failed to back up the bowlers, the notable exceptions to the rule being Michael Clarke and Chris Rogers. While statistics are often analytical banana peels when it comes to assessing the true story of a series, the fact that paceman James Pattinson is third on the Australian batting averages list with an ordinary 36.00 after four innings reveals a travesty within their top six.
Darren Lehmann has already said that careers are on the line during the fifth and final test match at the Oval in south London this week. One for the old-school scrap, the Australian coach will probably be the most disappointed at his batsmen’s lack of fight. All of the Australian top six average above 40 at first-class level so they are not as ill-equipped in technique as the Australian tabloids would have us believe. What seems the most conspicuous in its absence is the ability to really battle out an innings against a high quality attack. Usman Khawaja looks classy but seems to have the staying power of a commitment phobe, Dave Warner seems to sacrifice a little too much in favour of “playing the way he plays”, Shane Watson looks unable to build on a start and Steven Smith, though improved, can’t help but flirt with the forbidden fruit outside his off stump.
It is possible to be too harsh given that the only batting lineup in world cricket that has managed to dominate England’s attack on home soil in recent memory is South Africa’s which, being studded with experience and world class players, is hardly surprising. Though England’s top order have also struggled this series the difference is they have been prized out of their wickets through relentlessly patient bowling. Siddle and co have hunted as a pack, the legacy of their former team bowling coach Craig McDermott shining through.
The batsmen seem incapable of approaching run scoring in the same predatory way. The former team coach Mickey Arthur, who was controversially sacked a few weeks before the series began for his perceived role in an increasingly toxic team culture, has commented on the problem this week. He related the team’s issues, which seem to be almost exclusively in the batting department, to the players earning “millions of dollars” and arriving on the scene with “big egos”. A lack of work ethic could certainly be explained by Cricket Australia paying large cheques to young players who seem incapable of cashing in with test runs. Over paying the under achieving is hardly a good building block for promoting hard work. Ricky Ponting came out in support of the besieged squad, arguing, “I think the boys have probably played a little better than the scoreline suggests as they have been in with a chance of winning three tests.” This is not a biased man’s fabrication. Trent Bridge ultimately came down the toss of a coin but an honest supporter would have to admit England played the better cricket. Lord’s was a televised English training session, Old Trafford was all Australia and but for a desperately dramatic collapse the tourists had every reason to believe they were going to win with 131 to win and eight batsmen in the hutch at Durham.
For better or worse the team that lost at Chester-le-Street is the best Australia have got, but for the ongoing debate between Khawaja and or Phillip Hughes batting at number three. They all have the ability to make runs. Lehmann has to excel himself at instilling a little brutality into the team’s mindset. The willingness to be all substance and no style, graft and no glory and a little less beach cricket and more professional at the batting crease. At least that seems to be the well-trodden path back to the top for grievously bruised, underachieving egos in Hollywood movies. For how easily their mental frailties have been exposed so far this summer it would be a much needed Australian Hollywood miracle if they come out of the Oval with a win, and something to build on for the next summer. Any debate about whether Australia should risk Ryan Harris or other members of the tired front liners in the bowling unit should be put to bed with the reality that they need their best from their best players if they are to even dream of a last gasp success. Australia also need their first choice players for the next Ashes test at the Gabba (something which seems unlikely to change too much between now and then) in Brisbane to feel as though they have a chance to win. Giving themselves the best chance of a victory at the Oval is the first step to them winning the home series beginning in 92 days.