New Australia portray same old swagger

In what was being heralded as a new beginning for Australian cricket, the home side portrayed similar qualities of old to dominate the visiting New Zealanders during a 208-run victory at the Gabba.

Khawaja Cricket Australia-Getty Images
Usman Khawaja looks to have finally nailed down his spot at number three. Image Credit: CA/Getty Images.

What was all the fuss about Eh?

This was supposed to be a new summer, a new beginning, and a new era in Australian cricket. The five post-Ashes retirements wouldn’t be easily replaced overnight and the Blackcaps genuinely had their best chance to end a 30-year wait without a series win over their Tasman rivals. But in the end it was the “same old” for Australia as they clinically demoralised yet another visitor at the “Gabbatoir”.

Their record at the Gabba is unrivalled by any nation, at any venue. Not since the great West Indies side triumphed there by nine-wickets in 1988, have the home side been defeated in Brisbane. That was 27 years ago. The stats make for profound reading: 27 matches, 20 wins, seven draws and zero defeats.

This was a textbook Gabba performance from the Australians too – the batting in particular. Win the toss – check. Bat first – check. Solid opening foundation – check. Accelerate – check. Grind the opposition into the dirt – check. And then declare 550-600 runs to the good – check.

The bowling held up well too. If it weren’t for the exceptional Kane Williamson (140 & 59) then it could well have been far worse for the visitors. Especially in the first innings where he looked to be playing on a different wicket to his compatriots, regularly repelling the Australian quicks as often as the wickets tumbled around him.

So far ahead was Australia after three days that even the inclement Brisbane weather – which wiped out big chunks of the fourth day – couldn’t hold them back. In the end a 208-run victory, achieved around lunchtime on the fifth day, was a fair reflection of the gulf between the two sides in this Test match.

New Zealand captain Brendon McCullum will rue the failure to make inroads with the new ball on the opening morning as paramount to his side’s failings in the match. He certainly wasn’t helped with injuries to both spearhead Tim Southee and allrounder James Neesham along the way, while not many would have forecasted such inept bowling displays from both Trent Boult and Doug Bracewell.

But a large portion of credit must go to Joe Burns, David Warner and Usman Khawaja at the top of the Australian order. The first day’s play really set the tone for further dominance across the course of the remaining four. Never has Australia had a better first day’s batting at the Gabba than the 2-389 they racked up here.

Khawaja was without doubt the biggest positive to emerge from the Gabba success. The 28-year-old, beginning his third stint in the side after failed launches in both 2011 and 2013, began this summer very much at the crossroads of a career that has regularly promised much but seldom produced enough.

It’s a well known fact that Australia has gone almost five years without an established number three. Since Khawaja debuted in January 2011, thirteen players (excluding nightwatchman) have tried and subsequently failed to hold down the position. But while Steven Smith could have carried on in the role after batting there with reasonable success during the winter tours of the West Indies and England, promoting Khawaja, instead, was justified with verve against the Kiwi’s. The languid left-hander’s style and class made him perfectly suited to the number three berth; although his real test will come when he has to walk out at 1-0 and not the untroubled 1-161 and 1-237 he was duly provided with here.

The victory, in its entirety, has acted as a huge fillip for Rod Marsh and his selection panel. Marginal calls were made to bolt for Burns and Khawaja, as opener and number three, ahead of Western Australian pair Cameron Bancroft and Shaun Marsh. Hindsight is of course a wonderful thing, but these judgements are now looking particularly vindicated, as is the call to keep faith with Adam Voges at number five after much clamour was made to jettison him in favour of fellow veteran Michael Klinger.

As the aforementioned trio were “getting their feet under the Test cricket table,” over in Adelaide, Bancroft (111) and Marsh (92) were putting on 172 for Western Australia in the Sheffield Shield. South Australian captain Travis Head, profoundly built up by both Darren Lehmann and Ricky Ponting prior to the summer, won that match with his maiden first-class hundred and he too remains firmly on the periphery of national honours. Maybe there is more batting depth than many of us had originally considered.

Australia pic Getty
Photo Credit: Getty Images

The bowling too reaffirmed the Australian swagger of old. A key quandary going into the first Test of the summer was the debate over whether both Mitchell’s could line up in the same bowling attack. While both Johnson and Starc possessed moments of brilliance during the Ashes, they at times, also leaked runs at an alarming rate. Even though Johnson went at over five-runs-an-over in the first innings here, he did snare the vital wickets of McCullum, Ross Taylor and BJ Watling with his usual emblematic aggression.

Quite how long Johnson, 34, continues in the Test side is a question for another day. With inconsistency still often following Starc and Josh Hazelwood and injuries still blighting the young careers of James Pattinson and Pat Cummins, Australia and Smith very much need their spearhead to continue a little longer yet.

Starc’s six wickets were a match high and moreover his economy rate of 3.32 was an improvement on the 3.85 he averaged across five Ashes Tests earlier in the year. As mentioned on these pages before, this could very much be a breakout summer in Test cricket for the quick.

Often an afterthought in the Australian side, Nathan Lyon continued to quietly do his thing in Brisbane. He’s come a long way since bowling his country to success against India in Adelaide last summer. His new found fourth-innings confidence was there for all to see as he removed the obdurate Martin Guptill, the enterprising Williamson and the regularly dependable Watling. Outside of perhaps Ravichandran Ashwin, it’s difficult to reason of a finer current offspinner in the world game.

Lyon is becoming a reliable and instrumental figure in this new Australia set up. He’s now not just a senior in the side, only Johnson (72) and Peter Siddle (57) among the current setup have more Test caps than his 47, but also a senior member of the leadership group governed by Smith and Warner.

While this Australian side is by no means the finished article, they have made significant strides over the first Test of the summer to suggest that the old swagger isn’t far away, on their own turf anyhow.

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