The good, the bad and the recovery

Australian cricket review 2016.

The past year was a mixed bag for Australian cricket. After topping the Test rankings in February, they contrived to lose their next five Test matches, this led to an upheaval not seen Down Under since the Argus review in 2011.  

Australia v South Africa - 2nd Test: Day 1
Despite passing 1000 Test runs for the third consecutive year, Steven Smith had plenty to ponder in 2016. (Photo Credit: Cricket Australia/Getty Images).

 

Australian cricket’s 2016 could be categorized into three segments. The Good, The Bad and The Recovery.

The stats would suggest a middle of the road year for the Australians. 17 victories in 28 ODI’s is a decent return but it also included a 5-0 whitewash in South Africa. Five Test wins out of eleven matches isn’t great, but three of those victories have come at the end of the year – suggesting a brighter future.

Steven Smith’s men started the year on the front foot, continuing the progress they had made in late 2015. An 4-1 ODI series victory against a powerful Indian side in January was followed up a month later when they regaining both the Test Mace and the Trans-Tasman Trophy with a dominant 2-0 series win in New Zealand. From there on things started to go pear shaped.

Defeats to both New Zealand and India in the World T20, meant that Australia were eliminated at the Super 10 group stage in another disappointing showcase edition of the game’s shortest format. It continues to remain the only global international tournament they are yet to win.

After a brief renaissance in the Caribbean – where Australia beat both the hosts West Indies and South Africa to capture the ODI tri-series – They headed to their least favourite part of the world…The Subcontinent.

Some made the Australians favourites against an inexperienced and transitional Sri Lanka outfit still yet to replace the once in a generation batsmen Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene. But others looked at their recent Test failures in Asia (Played six, lost six since 2013) and knew there would be pain ahead. And so it transpired. Despite being well placed in each of the three Tests, Australia lost them all.

Old failings came home to roost. Batsmen were stuck in two minds whether the ball was going to spin big or just skid on, while Nathan Lyon and Jon Holland looked out of their depth when matched up against Rangana Herath and co. Played six, lost six soon became played nine lost nine. With a four-Test series in India lined up for late February, what chances do Australia have of avoiding; played thirteen, lost thirteen?

They would go onto suffer in ODI cricket too. A weakened pace attack, minus Josh Hazlewood and Mitchell Starc, was taught a lesson in South Africa – where despite David Warner scoring two centuries in the series, the hosts secured a 5-0 whitewash against the world’s number one ranked side.

The confidence of such an achievement clearly rubbed off on the Proteas as they brushed aside a struggling Australian side in the opening two Tests of the summer. In Perth, they capitalised on a dramatic batting collapse to open with a 177-run victory, and they then secured the series with a comprehensive innings and 80-run drubbing in Hobart.

It was at this point where Australia had reached its nadir. Changes had to be made and chairman of selectors Rod Marsh was the first to go ahead of his scheduled May 2017 departure. Marsh’s time was certainly up, the decision to hand Test debuts to South Australia duo Callum Ferguson and Joe Mennie rose many an eyebrow and he was replaced by fellow selector Trevor Hohns on an interim basis.

warner-and-smith
The Australian batting had an over reliance on the runs of captain and vice-captain, Smith and Warner.

 

Following Ferguson and Mennie out of the side after the Hobart calamity were previous incumbents Joe Burns, Adam Voges, Mitchell Marsh and Peter Nevill. The quartet had started the year as key components of a side looking for quick fixes following a host retirements throughout 2015, but a severe lack of late order runs from the likes of Marsh and Nevill meant they were replaced by Nic Maddinson and Matthew Wade, whereas Matt Renshaw and Peter Handscomb replaced Burns and Voges as the selectors started another rebuilding of the batting order. Lyon could also find himself somewhat fortunate to have stayed in the side too. Barring an injury to Steve O’Keefe he would have been dropped, instead he earned himself ‘cult hero’ status among the Australian fans.

The freshening up of the side had instant rewards as they won the dead rubber against South Africa before finishing the year with last day victories against Pakistan in both Brisbane and Melbourne. Both Handscomb and Renshaw made impressive contributions to the three victories, although the jury remains out on Maddinson and Wade following a string of low scores.

In both Test and ODI cricket the batting suffered an overreliance on both Smith and Warner. The senior pair coped well enough with Smith passing 1000 Test runs for the third straight year and Warner scoring seven centuries among his 1388 ODI runs at 63.09. But it was a strange year for Warner, ODI cricket was once seen as his weakest format but it was by far his strongest in 2016. His Test form suffered for the most part despite bookending the year with scores of 122no and 144 he scored just 748 runs at 41.55 – his worse returns since his debut year of 2011.

Australian pair Adam Zampa and Travis Head made the leap from domestic cricket to the limited overs sides with a fair degree of success. Zampa, who claimed 30 wickets at 27.80, was preferred to Lyon as the number one spinner and Head, 416 runs at 29.71, was often chosen ahead of the enigmatic Glenn Maxwell.

Day/Night cricket took another step toward becoming the future of the Test calendar, so much so that an Ashes fixture has been pencilled in for the Adelaide Oval next summer. This summer’s two day/night Test crowds were again successful mirroring the 123,736 that turned up for the inaugural pink-ball fixture last summer. The Adelaide Oval invited in 125,993 punters across four days of the Test against South Africa, while Brisbane saw 78,085 people flock to it’s Test match against Pakistan at The Gabba.

the-gabba-pool-associated-press
Many Queenslander’s enjoyed the cricket during The Gabba’s inaugural Day/Night Test match earlier this month. (Photo Credit: Associated Press).

 

Elsewhere, the KFC Big Bash continued its march towards overtaking the international game in audience figures and public interest. On January 2nd, the Melbourne derby between the Stars and the Renegades attracted a BBL attendance record of 80,883 at the MCG.

 

High Point: Top of the Test world.

After beating Tasman neighbours New Zealand 2-0 in their own backyard in February, the Aussies moved above India in the Test rankings and received the Test mace for the first time in two years.

At the time, it felt like a new bright beginning was occurring in Australian cricket. Captain Smith had yet to lose a Test match and his side included a new settled batting line up blooded earlier in the summer. The likes of Khawaja, Burns, Voges, Nevill and Mitchell Marsh were seemingly finding their way in international cricket with relative ease. During some stage of five Test defeats in succession each man would be dropped.

Little did they known about what was to happen next! Despite only receiving the Test mace in an underwhelming ceremony on arrival in Sri Lanka. A 3-0 whitewash to the hosts saw them slide below both India and Pakistan into third position in the rankings.

 

Low Point: 87 all out in Hobart.

Despite losing five Test matches in a row for the first time since 2013, they hit rock bottom during the first morning of their second Test against South Africa in Hobart.

Much like the 60 all out at Trent Bridge last year, it’s impossible to look beyond 2016’s own addition of the great Australian batting horror show. For Hobart 2016 read Headingley 2010 or Newlands 2011, or perhaps Lords 2013.

Put into bat on a green and juicy looking Tasmanian wicket, the hosts ran into an inspired Proteas attack including Kyle Abbott, Vernon Philander and Kagiso Rabada. The rest was an ugly nightmare for anyone of Australian persuasion.

Both openers were back in the sheds before the second over was complete and the middle order fared no better as Smith was left stranded on 48 as he watched his troops collapse around him. Besides Smith, only debutant fast bowler Mennie made it into double figures as the innings lasted just 32.5 overs.

Unfortunately for Smith and his men this was no aberration either. In the four previous matches leading up to Hobart, Australia had contrived to lose 10-86 in Perth, 10-83 at Colombo, 9-52 at Galle and 6-22 at Pallekele.

matt-renshaw-associated-press
Matt Renshaw made a bright start to his Test career after replacing Joe Burns at the top of the order. (Photo Credit: Associated Press).

 

New Kid on the block: Matt Renshaw

The significance of Matt Renshaw’s arrival onto the Test scene cannot be underestimated. While he only scored 10 and 34no on debut, it was the way in which he scored his runs that will remembered in Australian cricketing folklore for years to come.

Coming off the back of five consecutive Test defeats – which included countless batting collapses of gigantic proportions – Australia needed some fight at the top of the order. Despite having just 12 first-class matches under his belt, 20-year-old Renshaw was just the man for the job.

Taking guard against the pink ball during the notoriously difficult evening session Renshaw – batting alongside regular number three Khawaja – showed composure and determination beyond his years to keep out a pumped up South African attack as the opening day lay on a knife edge. Despite frequently playing and missing he managed to blunt the new ball for 46 deliveries. This did not go unnoticed by a raucous Adelaide crowd – who cheered every time the ball beat the left-hander’s bat.

His unbeaten 137-ball 34 ensured Australia comfortably chased down their victory target of 127 in the fourth innings. After five defeats on the trot, a new-look side has stopped the rot and Renshaw was at the forefront of a new beginning.

After earning plaudits for his steely qualities on debut, in his next Test he showed a greater expansion to his batting with an accomplished first innings 71 in front of his home crowd in Brisbane. While greater challenges await away from home, Renshaw has shown he may well have the technique and character to meet them head on.

 

Fading Star: Adam Voges

After a brief period of doing his best Sir Donald Bradman’s impression, Voges, as an underperforming veteran of the side, quietly bore the brunt of five successive Test defeats.

At 37-years-old, any sustained period of bad form was always likely to result in him being put out to pasture. And when that bad form happened to coincide with such a disastrous run for the team, any leeway reserved for Voges quickly evaporated.

With the selector’s already keen to freshen up the batting with some younger faces, Voges’ contribution to five Test defeats (148 runs at 14.8) was simply not sustainable. In Sri Lanka, he was found out by the turning (and non-turning) ball. However, the pace and movement of South Africa’s new-ball attack was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

His final ten Test innings were indeed much inferior to the previous 21. After first donning the baggy green in June 2015, he plundered 1337 runs at a Bradman-esque 95.50 before running into the Sri Lankans in July.

Regardless of his decline, he still leaves the international scene with a batting average of 61.87 across 20 Tests. Expect him to continue to serve both Western Australia and the Perth Scorchers with renewed success for the years to come.

 

Farewell to: Max Walker and John Gleeson.

Affectionally known as ‘Tangles’ due to his wrong-footed bowling action, Max Walker was not just a successful fast bowler, but also a highly skilled AFL footballer, writer and commentator too.

His death to cancer in September, aged just 68, was felt keenly across the world as many rushed to tell their stories of past meetings with the popular Tasmanian.

He played all of his international cricket during the 1970’s, amassing 34 Test matches during a successful era of Australian cricket under the Chappell brothers. His 138 wickets at 27.47 were taken alongside the likes of Dennis Lillee, Jeff Thomson and Bob Massie.

John Gleeson had already played his final Test match by the time Walker made his debut in December 1972, but his influence on Australian cricket was equally important.

Known as a ‘mystery’ spinner at a time when orthodox ruled, Gleeson only took to first-class cricket for New South Wales at the relatively old age of 27. But after impressing then Australian captain Richie Benaud as a net bowler he was handed a Test debut in 1967, he went on to play 29 Tests for his country claiming 93 wickets at 36.20. He sadly passed away in Tamworth in October, aged 78.

 

What 2017 holds:

For the Australians, two major Test series highlight the 2017 international schedule. Firstly, they travel to India for a four-match Border-Gavaskar Trophy series in February, then later in the year they host England in a home Ashes campaign.

Tours to India and Ashes campaigns are where reputations are forged and legacies are written. History would suggest that given their continuous struggles against the turning ball and India’s impeccable recent home record, it’s hard to see Smith’s men gaining many positives from that series.

The 2017/18 Ashes campaign could be an intriguing one. Both teams are, at the time of writing, equally skilful and highly flawed.

Other fixtures to take place in early 2017 include; ODI series against Pakistan and New Zealand and a T20 series against Sri Lanka before the team heads off to India at the end of February.

June brings another version of the Champions Trophy to be held in England. Australia are drawn in a group alongside the hosts, Bangladesh and New Zealand.

A rescheduled two-Test tour of Bangladesh has been muted to take place in August – providing the required security concerns are adhered to.

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