Continuity is the Key for Australia’s Batting, Like it or Not

In one of his first acts as Australia’s new cricket coach Darren Lehmann was applauded for returning Shane Watson to the top of the batting lineup. In doing so he ended months of speculation about Watson’s role in the team. He will open the batting alongside Chris Rogers and bowl a bit. Despite the fact that his front pad seemingly has a target painted on it for Jimmy Anderson and co, this was a moment of clarity from Lehman which needs to be pursued. A technical flaw should not warrant one of Australia’s most talented batsmen being dropped. It needs to be ironed out by the coaching staff.

More importantly there is also a distinct lack of a better option coming through Sheffield Shield state-level cricket in Australia. This is the fundamental problem in Australia’s test team at the moment and it is well documented. There simply is not a pool of test-quality talent, particularly in the batting department, coming through to national level. Pat Howard, Australia’s national team performance manager, has acknowledged as much today by mooting the concept of five-day first-class matches in the Sheffield Shield in a bid to replicate test conditions.

However recent failures are not reason enough to change the batting lineup with every test. The team that was put out at Lord’s was the best Australia have got. Lehmann and the selectors need to have the courage to stick with it, despite Ian Chappell’s assessment that this may well be the “worst batting side to leave Australia’s shores”. When you have a collection of young men who are evidently the best performers at first-class level but struggle at test level you are between the team rankings abyss and a hard place. There is no short-term fix. Until the Sheffield Shield is restructured and Australia’s domestic pitches provide a more balanced proving ground for young batsmen to ply their trade, the current crop are “it”. Consistency of selection will at least give these players time to adjust to and improve their performances within test level, the toughest form of the game. It will also give the coaching staff time to try and instil some patience, mongrel and concentration in the batting, all of which seem painfully absent at times for Australia. The trap of searching for instant gratification and quick results, all too symptomatic of modern life and the ever expanding commercial twenty-20 tournaments, will only prolong Australia’s current nadir.

Shane Watson, Usman Khawaja, Phil Hughes and Steven Smith all average above 40 at first class level. Of the pool of young batsmen, Khawaja looks the only player capable of settling into the much vaunted number three position. Smith is improving, has a great technique against spin and slots into the middle order nicely. Phil Hughes batted well at six and expressed his frustration with being moved up the batting order at Lord’s where he struggled. Warner may have slammed 193 in South Africa recently but his performance did not teach us anything. On benign wickets he can be dynamite and against bowlers of Anderson’s ilk in tricky conditions he looks as vulnerable as anyone. Warner also furthered his reputation for volatility by involving himself in some extracurriculars with the South Africa A wicket keeper Thami Tsolekile yesterday. The “kick up the bum” seems to be a recurring requirement for Warner despite his own admission that it was needed.

Khawaja needs to fulfil his potential at number three for Australia in Manchester next week

Smith and Hughes both scored valuable runs in Hove, though the latter’s runs were scratchy, and Khawaja’s 50 in the last test should earn him a recall. Michael Clarke is a class act, Brad Haddin averages only 34.69 in tests but brings a mature ferocity to the squad and Chris Rogers averages over 50 in first-class cricket. Rogers also looks well versed in batting in English conditions and should remain for the series even if only as a horses for courses selection. Australia should stick with their current top seven for the remainder of the series and see where the land lies before they fly home and prepare for the return series.

Like it or not, this is the best collection of batsmen Australia have and they need to be encouraged to stand tall with consistency of selection. Australia’s bowling poses far fewer questions. Despite a distinctly average performance in Hove Nathan Lyon should make his return as a more experienced spinner that the 19-year-old Ashton Agar. Jackson Bird looks the most capable of filling James Pattinson’s boots for the next test and his nagging line and length approach should ask plenty of questions of England. Siddle and Harris both bowled well at Lord’s and if they remain fit should be automatic selections for Manchester. It is difficult to see Australia winning a test right now but chopping and changing the starting lineup from one match to the next is hardly likely to help matters.

James Rowland

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

Ricky Ponting: A Hero Without a Comic, A Script Without a Film

“Ironically, this is where it all started for me, I think 17 years ago, this [Perth] is where it all started, and that’s where it’s going to finish.”

This is not a cheesy tagline to a shallow film. It is the sentiment of a man who has written his own script. He has done so by harnessing his undeniable talent with the all important pillars of success; discipline and dedication. His hero status was never more clear than when the WACA crowd leapt to their feet for his penultimate innings last night, only to discover Nathan Lyon was covering for the champion for that evening. The roar when he does appear may yet be as memorable as his career. He is still my hero. He is Australia’s champion. He is Batman… I mean Ricky Ponting.

When Ricky Ponting came into my life I still kept a Batman figurine under my pillow. I was eleven. The year was 1999. Ponting, though clear of his superhero phase and well into the beginning of a preposterously commanding career as a batsman, was still tinged by shades of boyhood. After a drunken punch-up outside a bar in Kings Cross, Sydney, Ponting was forced to explain his actions to the press conference with a black eye. I had just been publicly reprimanded in a school assembly for vandalising the new toilet block at Drummoyne Primary, Sydney. I admitted my fault, as did the younger Ricky Ponting, though mine was sheer recklessness rather than alcohol abuse. These were watershed moments.

Meanwhile thirteen years later. Many runs, test wins, catches, facial hairs, shoe sizes, school grades and cricket articles later, you could hardly recognise either of us. Ponting is in the twilight of his career and has exchanged his devilish inner Tasmanian for visible vulnerability. The former Australian captain’s emotional retirement announcement in the sweaty basement of the WACA, preceded by a two year erosion of form, is disturbing on several fronts. I’ve lost a hero, I am now a ‘man’ and I may have to resort to fictional role models again.

I traded in Batman for batsman. A work of fiction for a man. Cape and cowl for bat and ball. Thankfully Ricky Ponting’s inescapably menacing batting powers meant I was so rarely disappointed. This was quite a feat. If in nothing else growing up can be measured by idolising the incredible but possible, in actual people. Although my batting average of 2.3 and right-arm slow-medium outswingers did little justice to my love of cricket, the trade-off marked a shift in maturity. Ponting has done cricket a great deal of justice, playing with the sinewy solidarity of the old school, playing aggressively, playing all formats and above all, always teeming with a fierce level of integrity on and off the field.

Having my youth tied so intrinsically to the career of my idol has backfired now he is on the way out. If Ponting is 37 that means I am 24. His right of passage from youthful champion to a slow Hollywood walk into the Perth sunset (with Brett Lee playing the score) has coincided with my youth, from that first pimple to the current Movember moustache. Scarily enough this makes me a man. I am out of boyish excuses. The right of passage is passed. I felt aggrieved to the point of mourning, much like Michael Clarke, at having lost the comfort of the constant in Ponting. Though, I was spared the tears of the current Australian captain. He had lost his mentor. I have after all, only met Ricky Ponting once and have only seen him bat live once.

I spent an afternoon at Sussex County Cricket Ground in 2009 watching Australia warm up for their Ashes series in England. Ponting stroked a classy 71 at nearly a run-a-ball and pulled a six just wide of where the old man and I were sitting. That same day I collected my history degree result and caught AC/DC live at Wembley Stadium. It was a whirlwind but I still remember the sweet sound of Ponting cracking his infamous straight drive down the ground in Hove. Three days prior to this I ran into the Tasmanian talisman in a corner shop in nearby Brighton. I waited for his chewing gum transaction to cease, wished him luck, firmly shook his hand, caught a dose of steely, gum craving fuelled squint and a ‘thanks mate’, then departed.

People say you shouldn’t meet your heroes. People are wrong. Although it felt odd looking down at a man who I’ve come to regard as a giant, being in direct contact with the human and the alter-ego behind the champion only breeds greater respect for their achievements. Besides I have never tried to pretend I wouldn’t like to drive the bat mobile.

Heroes of any sort normally cannot retire. They usually perish in the face of a nemesis or become old and bitter because of their inability to fight the good fight any longer. Ponting will do neither, nor will he be reinvented by Christopher Nolan, or Sam Mendes for that matter. Harbhajan Singh, Ponting’s cricketing nemesis, has made his peace. Ponting has given us everything. Along with Ian Chapple my favourite innings of his was the 156 against England in 2005, pulling a test match from the flaming furnaces of farce for Australia. That effort was Ponting through and through. Uncompromising, classy, adaptive and counter-attacking. He has left behind a capable apprentice who bleeds willow sap in Michael Clarke, as well as a completely new era for Australian cricket. He is the last of the old breed, and has, including himself, played under four captains across three decades. A fine vintage of cricketer.

Ricky Ponting can now spend all the time in the world with his family. We can safely say he has earned it after all these years of being a truly remarkable asset to the game.

James Rowland

High Noon at Perth: Australia and South Africa Drawing Red Leather at 22 Yards

Dry your palm sweat in the pitch dust. Sharpen your gaze. Keep out the beating hot sun. Stiffen the sinews. Straighten your back. Hold your breath deep. It will take everything you have to break your opponent. Draw fast, hard and aim gun-barrel straight. Repeat for five days. Repeat for five days and get nowhere.

Until this series Australia and South Africa were not in the habit of drawing their duels. Their previous eight meetings yielded eight results leaving the two cricketing superpowers in a state of stalemate at four victories each. Despite two intensely fought matches at Brisbane and Adelaide there is still nothing to chose between the sides.

It is not called test cricket for nothing. It is the toughest and most unforgiving format of them all. If you ever needed confirmation of this fact just look Peter Siddle in the eye when he is on his haunches, if you can face down that fiery squint evocative of outlaw Ned Kelly.

Death stare from Ned Kelly: Nothing on Peter Siddle

The latest instalment from Australia and South Africa was one of the hardest cricketing fights you are likely to see. Unbridled aggression from both sides turned to bitter trench warfare at Adelaide. It was a bruising encounter with injuries to Jacques Kallis and James Pattinson, Peter Siddle bowling 63.5 bloodthirsty overs on an insipid pitch to no avail and a dogged debut century from Faf du Plessis. The Australian quest for test number one status comes down to a decider at Perth. Although both teams probably aren’t relishing the prospect of 22 yards of pace, bounce and 40 degrees of heat for five days, it is hard to say who will fare better at the WACA.

Michael Clarke will feel more aggrieved than his opposite number in Graeme Smith. While sheer hope and ambition drove Australia to the brink at the Gabba, they will feel as if they have been Steve McQueened by the Proteas this time around. Courtesy of a magnificent and dogged rearguard escape by South Africa’s batsmen Clarke’s bowlers were left bereft and exhausted. He will also feel personal frustration after his greatest achievements with the bat, back-to-back double hundreds, came in draws.

Despite South Africa being the happier of the two teams today, it is an inescapable reality  that they have been staring down the barrel of defeat all summer so far. No matter how exhausted the Australians must feel, especially the bowlers, they should take heart from that. They should also feel comfortable with the calibre of backup bowlers in Mitchell Johnson, Josh Hazlewood and Mitchell Starc who are all coming to Perth.

It will be a winner-takes-all match in more ways than one. The victor will emerge as the number one test team in the world and simultaneously break the deadlock that has existed between Australia and South Africa for nearly four years. The conditions at the WACA are normally blissfully conducive to fast bowling, which should mean a certain result as well as an exciting dual between some of the quickest bowlers around. This time Dale Steyn and Peter Siddle will have a little help from the pitch, hopefully inducing more venom from the red leather and squints saddled with a conviction that feeds on circumstance.

James Rowland