World Cup ecstasy to Ashes agony

Australian cricket review 2015

The highs of March’s World Cup glory were replaced by the lows of August’s Ashes failure, amid a year that witnessed a spate of returns and farewells.

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It was a year of farewells and new beginnings in Australian cricket. Triumph, heartbreak, legacy, retirement and groundbreaking – were all key words used during another rollercoaster year in Australia’s favourite summer sport.

Figures alone suggest that Australia has had a good 2015. They lost just three of their 13 Tests and three of their 19 ODIs, but of course figures only tell half of the tale.

On the surface the year concluded as it had begun – with captain marvel Steve Smith scoring a customary Test hundred whilst leading Australia to yet another dominate home series victory. However, scratch a little deeper and you’ll find that 2015 was a year in which the landscape changed across Australian cricket.

A new captain, vice-captain, wicketkeeper, spearhead quick, opening batsman, allrounder and chairman were just a few changes to occur over the past twelve months.

November saw Cricket Australia break new ground when the Adelaide Oval played host to cricket’s first ever day/night Test match. The three-wicket victory over New Zealand was by most accounts a resounding success with a grand total of 123,736 people attending the first three days of play.

On the field, deputising for the injured incumbent Test captain Michael Clarke, Smith had begun the year making 117 and 71 against India at the Sydney Cricket Ground – He concluded it with scores of 134* and 70* against the West Indies at the MCG – this time as permanent chief in commander.

Clarke’s demise conspired to be painful and rapid; Smith’s rise conspicuous and fruitful. Much like when Ricky Ponting reached the end of the road as captain in 2011, the changing of the guard was evident as it played out amongst the public spotlight of an Ashes campaign.

Unlike Ponting, Clarke wasn’t about to continue any further in the side. He would go on to announce his retirement from international cricket in an interview with old ally Shane Warne during the third morning of the fourth Ashes Test at Trent Bridge.

The timing of the decision came as no surprise. Amid a huge slump in form – in which his six 2015 Tests had brought just 196 runs at 21.77, and coupled with the strain of multiple injuries and the ongoing raw emotions over the death of Phillip Hughes last November, Clarke no longer had anything left to give.

His retirement would headline a host of farewells throughout the year. Ryan Harris, Chris Rogers, Brad Haddin and Mitchell Johnson all walked away from the international game, while Shane Watson chose to step aside from the Test arena.

Going into 2015, Australia had their eyes solely on two main prizes. A home World Cup victory and an away Ashes triumph. The first of which they had never achieved, the second hadn’t been ticked off for fourteen unthinkable years.

With the World Cup secured after an exhilarating seven-wicket victory over co-hosts New Zealand at the MCG in late March, perhaps also expecting Ashes success was too greedy.

The World Cup success was systematically built around a strong pace bowling unit, of which Mitchell Starc was the ultimate ringleader. The left-armer claimed a joint tournament-high 22 wickets at just 10.18. Alongside Johnson, Josh Hazlewood and Pat Cummins, he combined to obliterate all fellow challengers.

While the side that claimed the ODI silverware were a well drilled and balanced outfit in home conditions, the squad that arrived as favourites on English soil in June were overconfident, creaky and long in the tooth.

Once again found out by the seaming and swinging ball, a problem that has handicapped touring Australian sides for some years now, their brittle top and middle order were frequently lambs to the slaughter. Entering the green-top-abattoirs of Edgbaston and Trent Bridge, the tourists simply had no answers when confronted with James Anderson, Stuart Broad and co. wielding shiny new Dukes balls in helpful conditions.

Truth be told, much like the English side that travelled down under in 2013-14, this was an Ashes series too far for an ageing Australian squad with ten players over the age of 30 – four of whom were 35 or older.

Australia 60ao getty
The Trent Bridge scoreboard says it all. Photo Credit: Getty Images.

Given the pre-series nickname Dad’s Army, Clarke and his men played down the concerns of age, instead deciding to focus on the experience they had in their ranks. But once the series got underway it became clear many wouldn’t make it beyond its conclusion in late August.

After Harris pulled up lame during a pre-Ashes tour match at Chelmsford, it began a procession of untimely blows for the tourists. Selection blunders, personal issues and significant loss of form all contributed as the problems mounted, eventually reaching their summit on that frightful first morning in Nottingham.

The casualties provided by a failed Ashes campaign, led to more selection dilemmas. But only after a proposed two-Test tour of Bangladesh was cancelled on security grounds in October, did we begin to see the makeup of the new Test side – now under the fulltime stewardship of Smith.

Joe Burns, selected ahead of the younger Cameron Bancroft, has averaged 47.88 with two hundreds since being named as Rogers’ successor in early November. While Usman Khawaja shrugged off nine months of knee ligament rehabilitation to finally nail down the number three berth. Either side of a hamstring injury, the left-hander scored 504 runs at 126.00, including three consecutive hundreds.

Although there’s no denying that much greater challenges (than home series against New Zealand and the West Indies) await next year, the batting order already has a more balanced feel to it. That Shaun Marsh was dropped for the Boxing Day Test despite scoring 182 in his previous innings at Hobart shows that competition for places is strong.

The fast bowling stocks remain a slight concern. Despite the retirements of Harris and Johnson, the depth is still relatively broad; keeping men on the park is the real concern. Cummins, Starc and Nathan Coulter-Nile are all currently sidelined for the foreseeable future.

Alongside the flourishing comebacks of Burns and Khawaja, the return of James Pattinson – absent from the World Cup and Ashes campaigns with various back injuries – is a significant positive heading into 2016.

Away from the field, David Peever, a former managing director at mining giant Rio Tinto, took over as Cricket Australia chairman following Wally Edwards departure from the role in October. After four years in the position Edwards’ legacy will no doubt be his role in the so-called ‘Big Three’, he leaves CA in a sound financial predicament.

September saw substantial news regarding the future of international cricket in Perth. From 2018 onwards all limited overs cricket and Test matches against England, India and South Africa will be moved from the WACA to a new 60,000-seater stadium in Burswood. The move saw plenty of opposition with former Test great Dennis Lillee among the masses in stating his displeasure at the move.

Adelaide Oval day-night Test
A lit up Adelaide Oval plays host to the inaugural day/night Test match in November. Photo Credit: Getty Images.

High point: World Cup glory

When over 93,000 people packed into the MCG to witness a showdown between the tournaments two hosts, they expected a close game.

After a thrilling group stage match in Auckland a month earlier New Zealand, led by the effervescent Brendon McCullum, went into their first World Cup final on the crest of a wave. But Starc soon changed all that when he dismissed McCullum in the first over.

New Zealand could only limp to 183. Solid top order contributions from David Warner, Smith and Clarke saw Australia ease home in the 34th over to claim an unprecedented fifth World Cup crown.

Low point: 60 all out at Trent Bridge.

Going into that treacherous first morning at Trent Bridge, the Ashes were still on the precipice. Just 18.3 overs later and the English were essentially clutching the urn.

The insouciant way in which the Australian’s went about batting against Stuart Broad was simply dumbfounding. Sure, every edge went to hand and Ben Stokes, in particular, pulled off a world class grab in the slips, but Australia’s porous defence against the moving ball led to plenty of questions being asked.

An innings and 78-run defeat followed. The Ashes were handed over and with them Clarke handed over his resignation.

New kid on the block: Josh Hazlewood.

Since making his debut last December, Hazlewood has been an almost ever present (he missed just the fifth Ashes Test) in the Test side, taking 60 wickets at 24.13.

Despite struggling to control the amount of swing and seam on offer in English conditions, the 24-year-old impressed in both the West Indies and in home conditions.

With Johnson retired and Starc injured, Hazlewood stood up to be counted during the day/night Test in Adelaide last month. His match figures 9-136 were his career best and led to man-of-the-match honours.

Like with all young fast bowlers, its important he’s given adequate rest after playing a key role in recent series wins over New Zealand and the West Indies.

Fading Star: Michael Clarke

While six ageing players have retired this year, the decline of Michael Clarke is perhaps the greatest. He started the year not only still mourning the loss of Hughes, but also battling back and hamstring complaints and never fully recovered to find either his best form, or enthusiasm for the game.

The World Cup Final knock of 74 was his only innings of note before poor tours of the Caribbean and United Kingdom led to his inevitable retirement.

He left the game with 17,112 international runs spread across 115 Tests, 245 ODIs and 34 T20Is.

Richie Benaud getty
2015 saw Richie Benaud sign off for one last time. Photo Credit: Getty Images.

Farewell to: Richie Benaud & Arthur Morris

Benaud passed away in April at his Coogee home after a short battle with skin cancer. He was 84. A pioneer of cricket broadcasting later in life, Richie will also be fondly remembered as a deep thinking captain and superb legbreak bowler.

He played 63 Tests between 1952-1964 and finished his career with three centuries and 248 wickets.

Australian summers will not be the same without his distinctive voice being heard in the Channel Nine commentary box. Richie touched the lives of many – this author included.

Morris, a fellow Australian Cricket Hall of Famer, died in August aged 93. He made his name as a tremendous left-handed opening batsman, starting out at the conclusion of the Second World War.

He shot to fame as part of Don Bradman’s famous invinclibles Ashes tour of 1948 – where he topped the run scoring charts with 696 runs at 87.00. One of the last living players from that tour (Only Neil Harvey remains) he finished his career in 1955 having played 46 Tests in the Baggy Green.

What 2016 holds?

Like with any year, Australia’s progress will be judged on their away success. More to the point their ability to play the swinging and spinning ball in alien conditions.

A two-Test tour of New Zealand in February should be a measure of how much they have learnt from their mistakes against the moving ball in England, while a series in Sri Lanka later in the year will gauge where they are at regarding the spinning ball, a fundamental problem during recent tours on the subcontinent.

The ICC World Twenty20, set to be hosted by India in March, will offer further insight into whether Aaron Finch’s side can click as a unit after previous disappointment in the only format Australia has yet to win a global tournament in.

The home summer concludes the year when both South Africa and Pakistan head down under, with discussions already underway to stage at least one day/night Test.

 

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