Season Roundup: Retirements and Revolutions Overshadow Successful Summer for Australia

Condensation made its way down the glass and onto the varnished oak bar. Whilst I was considering the next beer a tall, sinewy blonde wandered in and sat two stools away. The barman’s attention dissolved into disinterest instantaneously as he stealthily hovered over to the new customer. The blonde ordered a cranberry juice with ice and fresh lime, noteworthy because on a warm day in Sydney beer seems to free-flow almost medicinally. Readjusting my gaze down the bar revealed an interesting picture. My new cranberry-sipping, slight, blonde neighbour was none other than the 99 mile-an-hour-man.

I was bound for Heathrow in three days. I decided to get his autograph while the opportunity beckoned. Our transaction came to an end, he shook my hand with his angular, rock-solid, coarse excuses for fingers and I made my exit. These weren’t the hands of a politician, revolutionary or Bollywood-come-Baz-Luhrmann musician, despite his affinity for the music, cricketing politics and, this summer, hostile takeovers. These were the sculpted spades of a man who has plied his trade by hurling red leather at other men’s important spots at breakneck speed. The blonde who signed my bar tab was Brett Lee.

Numerous pillars and impressions of Australian cricket have been irrevocably deracinated this summer. Among the former, Ponting and Hussey have moved on to the green pastures of family and commentary life as Clarke leads a talented-come-teenage outfit into the future with great aplomb. However it is soap opera-esque sub-plots that have commanded the attention of the recent season’s followers, shifting our perceptions and leaving behind an ominous and pervasive sense of cynicism towards the game’s characters and administrators alike. Lee is included here, despite possessing the handshake of fire and brimstone incarnate and the clean-cut grin of an American orthodontist.

Deep breath. We have seen John Invarity’s testy version of selection rotation – ‘informed player management’ – a phrase with more spin than Muralitharan’s off-breaks, the latest ‘dossier’ for success composed largely of the blindingly obvious and unhelpful, the commercially conflicted pie throwing over George Bailey’s supposed ‘b-side’, Marlon Samuals feeding Warne a new diet of hardened willow at 22 yards, Warne flushing the BBL rule book down a public toilet and Brett Lee’s Leninist purges at the top of New South Wales Cricket. Sigh.

Tempers flared between Warne and Samuals during the BBL

Tempers flared between Warne and Samuals during the BBL

However, administrators and politicians were born to wage wars of the aggressively inconsequential. Warne was born to be larger than life, hair-plugged, orange and irritatingly loveable. Leaked dossiers were written hilariously useless in order to be tabloid-worthy. The media-bullied Bailey was driven to acidic public retribution when the worth of his profession and leadership were brought into question by Channel Nine. Brett Lee however is a man who’s feelings for opponents would drift from wilful decapitation to tender loving care in a second. He combined fire with the kind of honourable concern of old, always checking on batsmen after clouting them. Alas this caring post-script has now vanished. This development is perhaps the most distracting of the summer.

Lee’s shiny grin has been adulterated with fool’s gold teeth despite his limited appearances on the pitch of late. His contribution to the Ramsay Street-esque-capades of his piers has acted as the musical score to this summer-long soap. Right or wrong Lee called for the chop of Dave Gilbert, the chief executive for Cricket New South Wales, critical of his part in the sacking of NSW coach Anthony Stewart. However having walked into a meeting at the CNSW offices facing a disciplinary whipping post, he walked out with a new job. Lee now holds a role at the table of a board sub-committee devised to address problems in the game in the state. 

The former Australia fast bowler had a summer of discontent

Gilbert was eventually purged and more recently, in the post-revolutionary cannibalistic banquet, NSW chairman Dr Harry Harinath has too been sent to the guillotine. Oh the drama of the reversal, the revolutionary zeal and theatrical fortitude to begin a new career from a what promised to be an afternoon thrashing! Too rough for a career shuffling paper and giving golden handshakes in archaic, impenetrable corridors of cricketing power, they may not be the hands of a politician. Though in Lee’s case, alongside the turbulence at NSW and Cricket Australia, they’re betrayed by his evident taste for public dissent and wholesale administrational progression.

Always entertaining, though not for the best reasons, the intriguing Brett Lee saga is an apt metaphor for the Australian summer on and off the pitch. Though thankfully it has been a more wholesome if equally changeable period of Australian cricket on the field. Awash with youth, aggression and the seemingly interminable run parade of Michael Clarke the team have performed hardily against South Africa and sensationally against Sri Lanka. The only threat of real drama arrived with Australia’s bitter adversary, the swinging ball. So often the culprit of collapses in world cricket these days, it nearly derailed Clarke’s otherwise healthy summer during the ODIs with Sri Lanka. Australia nonetheless earned a 2-2 draw. It seems the 5-0 pounding of the West Indians to cap off the season is the only remnant of predictability to survive. Their brand of calypso cricket, scintillating in patches and howlingly poor in others, is still not good enough to secure a one-day victory in Australia.

The links between and remaining integrity of the on-pitch and political worlds have been held together beautifully by Michael Clarke. The Australia captain is the fighting general, a man with the rare combination of gifts both ministerial and soldierly. He has kept the roller coaster on the tracks, just. It could have been a better summer in results and far calmer in the sport’s periphery, but Clarke can afford to be happy with the lead into one of his side’s most gruelling years. 2013 will see Australia in India twice, two Ashes series and the ICC Champions Trophy. The off season in Australia will probably prove quieter from the power brokers as the team tour the subcontinent and England. The quieter the better if it means the parliamentarian sparring ceases and fewer character suicides and assassinations prevail. 

By James Rowland

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Paying it Forward: Wounded or not Australia’s Army of Fast-Bowlers Owe All to Injuries

“We make a living by what we get, we make a life by what we give.”

-Sir Winston Churchill

Even Australia’s dressing room scholar Ed Cowan could not have put it better. The ever expanding Australian fast-bowling squad owes its collective experience and strength, not to the apparently Potter-esque wizardry at Cricket Australia’s Centre of Excellence, but to the fragility of youth. With every injury comes a new opportunity, followed by injury and further opportunity. If the baggy-green is a favour, then Australian quicks are paying it forward many times over.

Without injuries, Clarke and Mickey Arthur would have had little opportunity to blood so many talented individuals in the international game. The result of first team players breaking down (albeit frighteningly consistently) is that Australia have a depth of fast- bowling that could be the envy of the world should they begin to stay fit. Australia now have an extended group of eleven seamers, each with adequate experience to call on. Ironically, once the growing pains pass, this powerful group of young men currently defined by their physical inadequacies could be the key to the Captain’s quest to lead Australia back to number one in the world, potentially mimicking the West Indian formula for success in the 70s and 80s.

When combined with the much chastised rotation policy (designed to curb the injury trend), the sheer numbers of players vying for limited positions in the squad and team could create a Darwinian vacuum of talent where only the very best in form, consistency and fitness survive. For Clarke, this can only be a good thing. Though it failed against the South Africans, the potential to completely rotate the bowling attack with in form and experienced bowlers from match to match is an appealing phenomenon quite unique to Australian cricket.

Jackson Bird, the man of the match in Sydney, is symptomatic of the situation.  Whilst his selection was warranted after two exceptional Sheffield Shield seasons for Tasmania, it is hard to see how he would have won a place without injuries to Hilfenhaus, Pattinson, Cummins, Harris and Johnson with exhaustion also ever threatening Peter the ‘heart and soul’ Siddle. Yet he took eleven wickets at an average of 16.18 in his first two tests during this series and never looked out of his depth. Unlike his younger piers his body is also more mature at 26 and his pace is a maintainable fast-medium as opposed to a raucous and injury-prone rapid. Bird would be unlucky not to be on the plane to India and England this year.

The variables present within the bowling unit not only compliment the changeable nature of pitches over five days, international playing conditions and the rigours of the international schedule, but they create extra work for the opposition’s team video analysers and batsmen alike. On the fringe of the test group are players capable of inexhaustible control such as Trent Copeland and Clint McKay. Mitchell Johnson is awkward, rapid and back to his bone-breaking best. Starc’s height encourages steepled bounce, Pattinson’s classical action is prone to producing hair-trigger pace and Cummins put in a man of the match performance with speed, swing and bounce in his first and, thus far, only test.

Australia's towering left-armer has produced some devastating spells since his debut

Mitchell Starc: Australia’s towering left-armer has produced some devastating spells since his debut in the test side

Unfortunately for Clarke and Arthur the same level of options are not present in the batting line-up. The Sheffield Shield is hardly brimming with options to build a middle order around after the gaping chasm left behind by the retirements of Ricky Ponting and Michael Hussey. Hughes and Khawaja have both made sizeable contributions to their state teams and deserve prolonged spells for Australia, however beyond them batting reserves are somewhat thin compared to the bowling department. Maybe batsmen are fitter, better at retaining their spots or just plain greedy with the changing room lockers. In any event their queue is somewhat shorter.

Australian Test Bowling Squad:

Peter Siddle, Ben Hilfenhaus, Ryan Harris, Mitchell Johnson, Mitchell Starc, James Pattinson, Pat Cummins, John Hastings, Jackson Bird, Clint McKay, Trent Copeland.

James Rowland

Bird Set to Belatedly Fly the Coop, Older and Stronger than his Piers

With the Boxing Day test match looming, the biggest event of the Australian home summer, Michael Clarke and the rest of the selectors have an important decision pending. After Peter Siddle’s nine-wicket match haul and Mitchell Starc’s five wickets during Sri Lanka’s second innings in Hobart, the two seamers and the off-spinner Nathan Lyon are the three bowlers sure to play in Melbourne.

After falling off the fitness wagon with a side strain Ben Hilfenhaus will be forced to watch from the dressing room as his team mates attempt to claim the series from the tourists 2-0. The 26-year-old Tasmanian fast bowler Jackson Bird has been included in the test squad for the MCG as cover alongside the seasoned and skiddy left-armer Mitchell Johnson.

From his cramped Sheffield Shield playing pen into the top flight, Bird should be suited to his new surroundings, whether he makes the starting eleven against Sri Lanka remains to be seen however. Under the painstakingly obvious and logically arduous confines of the Argus Review selection policy, consistent performers at state level in Australia will be rewarded with their first baggy green shaped Holy Grail. Bird has certainly earned his.

In 17 first-class appearances he has collected 87 wickets at an average of 19.72. He was last season’s leading wicket taker in his debut Sheffield Shield campaign and currently resides at the top of the table again, not so much warranting attention as screaming out for it with a gramophone.

Mitchell Johnson was the obvious selection for Australia’s final test against South Africa at the WACA. The left-armer has a stunning record at the ground, both in general and against the Proteas. He filled the position of senior bowler exceptionally well for Australia, given the circumstances and the fact he hadn’t played a test match in a year, out bowling both John Hastings and Mitchell Starc.

Regardless the Australian selectors dropped Johnson for the first match against Sri Lanka in Hobart, opting for youth over enigma in the tall left-arm quick Starc. Though Johnson could count himself a little unlucky to be the acting plug for disaster rather than first choice, Starc earned his position, helping seal Australia’s first test win of the summer against a stubborn batting lineup in the final hour.

The situation in Melbourne is complicated. Johnson’s experience may yet win him another recall. Given Starc’s occasional growing pains and inconsistencies, asking Peter Siddle, the ‘heart and soul’ of Australia’s attack, to lead two youngsters may prove a bridge too far.

On paper Johnson is the obvious choice. Difficulties arise when you consider Bird’s record of 14 wickets in two games at 12.07 at the ground. Blooding another debut seamer may seem less than appealing given the plague of injuries that led to this selection problem in the first place, though, where Bird differs from the ever expanding list of injured Australian quicks, is in his age, consistency and fitness.

The young Tasmanian is significantly older than the likes of James Pattinson and Patrick Cummins, whose bodies seemingly cannot hold up the rigours of test match fast-bowling yet. Bird has also honed his craft in the four day game and wouldn’t be bounding into a test match fresh from a T-20 tournament. His pace may not be up with some of his piers, but the coveted line and length approach from the Tasmanian could compliment Siddle’s pace and Starc’s bounce nicely.

If Bird does win his baggy green, it will be interesting to see if his simplistic yet effective approach will cause international batsmen the same problems as his Australian piers. If the premature gosling quickies from the national academy continue to fall out of the injury tree hitting every branch along the way, Jackson Bird will remain in the top flight for some time.

James Rowland

Cook’s Date With Destiny Arrives Courtesy of Trott and Bell

Captain Delivers England’s First Series Victory in India for 27 Years, for the Home Team the Loss is Nothing Less than an Intervention 

When Alastair Cook was born on December 25th 1984 David Gower’s England were on the verge of a famous victory in India, eventually winning the series 2-1 on January 18th 1985. Cook was only 24 days old. Until today it was the last time an England side had seen a test victory on the subcontinent. Battling centuries from Ian Bell and Jonathan Trott on the fifth afternoon at Nagpur provided the decisive blows to a frustrated Indian side and secured the series for England 2-1. This series win is Cook’s first as full-time captain. It appears his Christmas and birthday presents have been delivered early this year.

“Everyone in the squad can be very proud, especially after Ahmedabad and that heavy defeat. The guys who played a couple of games all made a difference and the amount of effort the guys have put in for me, I can’t ask any more.” Alastair Cook talking after the match

England’s seemingly interminable desire and professionalism under the guidance of a dynamic, calm and authoritative captain in Alastair Cook was simply too much for India. Although they were late to the party in this series, Trott and Bell produced two innings that were indicative of the mongrel in this England team, both in timing and substance. Though out of form, they both found a way to deliver when Cook needed them most, albeit doggedly and unattractively. India were ground out of the contest which teetered on the edge of interesting when England were 100-3 on day four.

MS Dhoni’s side had to produce a win in this match to draw the series at 2-2 and avoid India’s first home defeat in tests since Australia toured Steve Waugh’s “final frontier” in 2004-2005. With this in mind, prior to the match the Indian captain contributed to the ongoing melee of rhetoric surrounding pitch conditions in this series, requesting a track that would guarantee a result either way to help India’s chances of rolling England over. The wicket at Nagpur ultimately became slow and progressively tame as the match went on, subsequently aiding the tourists’ mission to simply avoid defeat.

During the live commentary on the fifth afternoon at Nagpur former England captain and stalwart Geoffrey Boycott, never usually at a loss for words, said, “I’d like a bat on this [wicket].” While this is arguably his favourite turn of phrase when England’s batsmen succeed or fail there cannot be too many fifth day wickets in India that even a wily 72-year-old would fancy themselves on. Test matches would become extinct if all wickets around the world were this dull.

When England batted in the first innings they fought their way to a competitive score of 330 in what were arguably the worst of the conditions. The Indian bowlers extracted schizophrenic bounce, occasional seam movement and unpredictable amounts of turn from the pitch. Kevin Pietersen claimed the wicket was the hardest he had ever batted on, a worthy assessment given the enigmatic number four’s unusually low strike rate during his first innings 73. Batting conditions then gradually slipped into the realm of the lifeless and the stodgy. On occasion the run rate from both team’s batsmen was truly coma inspiring, enabling England to secure a series in which they have come back hard after a heavy defeat and defied the odds, the conditions and the partisan home crowds.

Since the first test in Ahmedabad there has been a vast difference in quality between England and India. The hosts let themselves down by lacking intensity in the field and professionalism with the bat. Above all however India’s seemingly unstoppable downfall of late has risen from a profound lack of adaptability and honesty. Ironically, while the subcontinental conditions have helped create a fortress of India, the profound over reliance on them has led to India’s slide.

During and after embarrassingly one-sided exchanges in England and then Australia Indian players, namely Virat Kohli and Gautam Gambhir, demanded “rank turners” for touring teams and claimed that green-top wickets were created specifically to curb India’s powerful batsmen when they played abroad. It is now clear that defiant petulance has failed to cover up the fact that defeat at home was coming sooner rather than later. Indian teams of yore, particularly in the fifteen years between 1995-2010, rarely produced results in foreign series but they would always compete with vigour. They drew against Steve Waugh’s Australians in Australia and registered a 1-0 in England in that time. The turn in fortunes of late has been remarkable.

No team could harbour the hope that their home conditions were so irreconcilably different to those abroad, that simply playing in them would be enough to bridge the cavernous 4-0 void that existed in England’s favour prior to this series. India did and it showed.

When denial can no longer cover up your own inescapable inadequacies, eventually, failure will rear its ugly head and bring you plummeting down to earth with truly biblical force. England have a habit of late of performing interventions for previously untouchable sides whilst touring the world. They did it to Australia. The convincing thrashing of the hosts 3-1 (which could easily have been 4-0 but for Mitchell Johnson’s heroics in Perth) triggered Cricket Australia’s purge of staff, ineffective policies and players alike. This was better known as The Argus Review. India will now have time for a media led feeding frenzy to settle in and will undoubtedly be forced into a state of self-reflection.

England meanwhile can reflect comfortably on their achievements. They battled with chutzpah and team spirit to overcome India after being humiliated in Ahmedabad and going 1-0 down in the series. To overstate India’s demise is not to take anything away from Alastair Cook’s team, who, if anything on this tour, have adapted to adversity with more zeal than a chameleon trapped in front of a painter’s colour chart.

From left: Anderson, Swann and Cook, courtesy of Getty Images and BBC

From left: Anderson, Swann and Cook, courtesy of Getty Images and BBC

James Rowland

An Ancient Battle of Two Teams is Already Heating Up Courtesy of Cook and Clarke

With back-to-back Ashes series looming in 2013 it is the beginning of a new era for both England and Australia. We are waiting and the world is watching Alastair Cook and Michael Clarke. The race is on to see which captain can assemble their best team and persist with their own superlative form.

In truth it has been difficult to look at any cricket in 2012 and not watch Clarke or Cook. Both have spent more time in the middle than any other batsmen in world cricket of late. They are the leading run scorers this calendar year, they have recently been tasked with the leadership of their teams and both hail from entirely different thought processes.

In the white shorts, from the northern hemisphere home of cricket in England, Cook spent years as an apprentice in the school of Strauss. Reserved, traditional and charming on and off the field, Andrew Strauss was a great spokesman for the gentlemenly approach in the sport. Cook has taken this a step forward in his ice-cool presence with or without the bat, a hint of testosterone fuelled positivity and a freakish inability to sweat.

England's new captain Alastair Cook

In the yellow shorts, from the land down under, Clarke spent years in a joint  honours scholarship of Shane Warne and Ricky Ponting. The former preaching aggression, dynamism and an entrepreneurial instinct for victory and the latter, a working man’s rigidity, toughness, resolve and conservatism. Clarke has evolved into a dangerous fusion of the two. The Australian captain harnesses a singleminded will to win via aggression and experimentation alongside a fiercely pig-headed approach to scoring runs.

Australia's captain Michael Clarke

Alastair Cook and Michael Clarke, despite their heritage, do share some attributes. They both seem to buy the ‘daddy hundred’ theory of kicking on past three figures, they share a fresh optimism and more importantly they have both improved beyond the realms of expectation once awarded the captaincy.

Leadership can have an adverse affect on cricketers. Some players are born to excel within the ranks and others to thrive on the responsibility of inspiring their teams from the front. Flintoff’s maverick skill-set suffered immeasurably under the spotlight of the captaincy for England while Ricky Ponting’s game went from strength to strength, albeit before Australia’s dominance began to crumble. Cook and Clarke have both performed extremely well as captains.

Alastair Cook’s stats as England captain: 5 tests, 5 hundreds, 889 runs at an average of 127 with a high score of 190.

Michael Clarke’s stats as Australia captain: 18 tests, 7 hundreds, 1976 runs at an average of 68.14 as well as four double-hundreds and a high score of 329*.

Having just become the youngest player in the history of the game to score 7000 test runs Alastair Cook was hardly struggling prior to the captaincy. The greater improvement has come with Michael Clarke. Where he was a classy middle-order contributor he is now Australia’s lynchpin as Ricky Ponting or Steve Waugh before him. He is also the top run-scorer in test cricket so far this year with 1358 runs in 9 matches at an average of 104.46. Cook is close behind him however, and if the Englishman’s form continues in this series with India he could conceivably finish 2012 on top.

As far as their achievements are helping the two teams, Cook is ahead of Clarke. Scoring so many runs at the top of the order has an undeniably confidence building effect on the rest of the batting order. Whereas Clarke’s runs have come when the top order has often failed. You could argue this only makes his runs more valuable, however setting the tone is a more secure and responsible approach rather than mounting a rescue operation. Clarke should probably promote himself to number three and back himself to protect the younger men.

In any case, if Michael Clarke and Alastair Cook maintain their career and captaincy form into next year, the Ashes series will carry a fascinating sub-plot. The captains will be battling for team and individual supremacy. It will be the season of run scoring, outfoxing each other in the field and out classing each other in the press conferences.

James Rowland

Monty’s Menacing New Approach has India and Graeme Swann in Danger

England ahead on day one as India close on 273-7 in Kolkata and the ever eccentric Monty Panesar proves he is a man for all occasions.

His ear-to-ear grin used to portray nothing more than a man who fielded the cricket ball like a child chasing a lollipop on a string, and his jovial celebrations at taking a wicket always felt debutant-esque, however Monty Panesar now seems a changed man. His grin carries a whiff of menace rather than cheerful sincerity these days. Maybe his determination has grown alongside his maturity during the long absence from the team.

After his whirlwind eleven wicket haul in Mumbai Monty Panesar was finally a certain selection for Alastair Cook’s attack. Although the conditions offered up none of the steep turn and bounce of the last test, the smiling Sikh from Luton showed guile, control and determination to claim 2-74 from 35 overs at only 2.11 runs an over. Panesar’s renewed verve with the ball was a great asset to the rest of the England attack who benefitted from the pressure he exercised over the Indians. James Anderson particularly thrived in otherwise innocuous circumstances for seamers, claiming 3-68 from his 21 overs.

On a docile pitch at Eden Gardens MS Dhoni could have been forgiven for licking his lips at the beginning of the day’s play when he won the toss and elected to bat. In India’s previous three matches on the same ground they have plundered over 600 runs in each of their first innings.

After the pre-match conjecture over the pitch conditions for this match, complaints of Dhoni’s ‘immorality’ and England’s team speculation, the 22 yard strip at Eden Gardens offered very little spark. It simply looked dry, rock hard and flat. Hardly revolutionary conditions for this ground or Indian grounds in general. However following the groundsman, Prabir Mukherjee, claiming the track would reward good cricket the England attack bowled exceptionally well as a group. They stuck to their plans well and fought the benign offering with attritional lines and lengths. While you could argue several of the Indians’ dismissals were a little soft, it was just reward for England’s unrelenting approach.

Monty Panesar is creating a wide-spread problem for the Indians and the English selectors alike. His display today showed he could greatly benefit England on tracks that don’t necessarily have to be disintegrating by the delivery. Not only did he out bowl Graeme Swann, he was rewarded for his testing bowling by being given 35 overs from his captain to Swann’s meagre 14. This may only be representative of the fact that India’s batting lineup is full of right handers, but Panesar’s panache for penetrative and containing bowling clearly caught Cook’s eye.

More important than a little favouritism from the captain though are Monty’s statistics so far this series. In three innings Monty has 13 wickets from 104 overs with only 284 runs conceded. In five innings Swann has 15 wickets from 124.5 overs with 349 runs conceded. Monty’s average and economy rate are both superior to Graeme Swann’s. It is not entirely straight forward given that Swann had to bowl in the first test without the support of another spinner. It would be foolish to believe Panesar’s 11 wickets at Mumbai weren’t aided by the presence of Swann at the other end, especially in India’s second innings.

The rest of this test will be an important watershed for both bowlers. If Panesar continues to outfox Swann, regardless of the conditions, England cricket might be presented with a desirable dilemma between their spinners looking forward.

Monty has surprised everyone on this tour of India. Dhoni declared his left-arm spin ‘the difference’ in Mumbai and he has been a revelation thus far given his status of late as England’s plan B spinner. Whether he still fields like a drunken uncle fondling the gravy ladle on Christmas Day remains to be seen, but his much improved bowling might be enough to force a surprise comeback as England’s number-one spinner. Panesar can also take heart from the fact that his wily eccentricity and ability to scythe through the home batting lineup has fans here in India. His grandparents live in Ludhiana, albeit 1850km away from Kolkata, and are swapping partisan national pride for family support. Panesar’s 85-year-old grandfather Hari Singh, said, “It was heartening to see him get the wicket of Sachin Tendulkar.”

What doesn’t Monty have going for him on this tour?

James Rowland

Perth’s Split Personality to Have Final Say

When you turn a shark on its back in water it enters a state of suspended animation and becomes as harmless and senile as a goldfish in a bowl.

Despite the wily efforts of Michael Clarke and Peter Siddle in Adelaide, thus far, this series has been a story of neutered bowlers, long batting innings and a scoreline every bit as tame as the pitches the cricket has been played on. The past three days at Perth have seen the series come alive with what feels like an interminable highlights package from two very aggressive sides, Australia and South Africa.

Inside the first five sessions twenty wickets fell. The pitch held its light covering of grass and both teams were rewarded for bowling a fuller length than the bounce at the WACA would ordinarily encourage. The ball never performed circus stunts however. The relentless collapse of wickets seemed as much a product of the conditions as the featherbeds the batsmen have been gifted previously in this series. The increased bite of the bowlers shook batting from its state of comatose.

With an appropriately respectful approach Faf du Plessis, yet again, showed runs could be accumulated. His unbeaten 78 rescued South Africa’s innings from the edge of a precipice to a competitive 225. The Australian lineup, all except Matthew Wade, failed to show the same application and were consequently skittled for 163. However useful South Africa’s lead of 62 may have seemed the game was not out of Australia’s reach.

Unfortunately for the hosts as the wicket began to bake in the Western Australian sun, the indifferent work rate from their batsmen simultaneously seemed to  filter down to the bowlers. From the slip cordon Michael Clarke witnessed both the conditions and his attack undergo an apparent lobotomy. The South Africans were happy to take advantage and began to feed on a series of rank half-trackers. It was not so much a case of cat amongst pigeons, as bull sharks in a trout farm.

The Proteas amassed 569 runs at 5.08 runs an over, courtesy of a fluent 196 from Hashim Amla and a symptomatically bruising 169 from AB de Villiers. It was a remarkable change of pace for the match and the series, given that Australia began the final innings of the test on the evening of the third day.

Clarke and co are chasing 632 runs for victory. There are six sessions left in this match. However unlikely it is that Australia get any kind of result, the conditions are unmistakably more conducive to batting. Although they beat the bat more often than their Australian counterparts, the South African bowling seemed significantly less edgy in Australia’s second innings. They should be made to work hard for victory against Clarke’s men.

Finally and fittingly, in this match that was touted as a ‘grand final’ for the series and for the number one world ranking, a result seems certain. We have a pitch that has drifted from faux pas to featherbed to thank. It yielded some life force for five sessions and then found a docile alter-ego, alongside a South African masterclass of measured mongrel with the bat.

With the added context of Ricky Ponting’s final test match innings pending the test retains its flavour and should continue to draw strong crowds. With more hot weather due tomorrow conditions should be ideal for batting and the home fans could well be rewarded with a real show of steel from Australia’s lineup and its former captain. If the tourists have their way and Australia crumble it would be an unfitting end to a tough, tight series.

James Rowland