Redemption stories for Smith and Warner as Langer’s Australia take encouraging steps forward

Australian cricket review 2019

Focus now turns to next year’s home T20 World Cup after a chaotic but somewhat rewarding 2019 – that climaxed with the Ashes retention in England.

Warner Getty and CA
David Warner celebrates scoring his maiden triple hundred at the Adelaide Oval. (Photo Credit: Getty Images/Cricket Australia)

When Australian cricket began the decade under the helm of Ricky Ponting, very few would have envisioned that it would end under the leadership of his fellow Tasmanian Tim Paine.

But such is the case. And while Paine’s personal numbers don’t stack up as impressively as the great Ponting’s did, he has however, done a notable job of rebuilding a broken Test side after picking amongst the wreckage brought about by last year’s ball-tampering scandal in Cape Town.

After a tough 2018 concluded with a first home Test series defeat to rivals India, 2019 brought about new beginnings and forgiveness. All three men involved in the sandpaper debacle returned to the side at various stages of the nation’s four-month long stay in the British Isles.

Having finished their 12-month suspensions in late March, Steve Smith and David Warner returned to Australian colours during the World Cup. Although Smith had a steady tournament with the bat, Warner – if not fully at his fluent best – was back scoring plenty of runs throughout his side’s run to the semi-finals. He would eventually trail only India’s Rohit Sharma with 647 runs at 71.88 including hundreds against Pakistan, Bangladesh and South Africa.

That they made it as far as the semi-finals of the ICC showpiece event was a credit to the work done by coach Justin Langer and ODI skipper Aaron Finch. Entering 2019, they’d won just two of their previous thirteen ODI matches whilst simultaneously playing outdated and unsuccessful cricket.

Such a period of failure drew with it changes in personal and mindset. Several fringe players were replaced with specialists who in turn brought more clarity to the side and the results immediately started improving with series wins in India and against Pakistan in the UAE.

They took that form into the World Cup – winning seven of their nine group stage matches before bowing out with a disappointing eight-wicket defeat to eventual champions England at Edgbaston.

After a year in the wilderness spent shared between New York, various T20 leagues and grade cricket, Smith saved his redemption story for the biggest stage of them all, an Ashes opener. Returning to the venue of their recent World Cup exit and faced with a rampant Stuart Broad, Australia slumped to 8-122 before Smith got to work with the tail.

when he was last man out for a majestic 144, his side had amassed 284 vital runs. After he backed it up with a match-winning 142 in the second innings – the cricketing world knew that greatness had returned to its ranks.

Despite missing a Test and a half with concussion – sustained during an epic battle with Jofra Archer at Lords – Smith finished the series with a remarkable 774 runs at 110 with his first innings 211 at Old Trafford helping Australia to retain the Ashes on English soil for the first time in eighteen years.

After such emotions of joy and relief after having retained the urn in Manchester – especially following an unthinkable loss to a Ben Stokes-led miracle at Leeds – they ended the series with a flat performance and eventual defeat at The Oval.

Although Warner endured a miserable return to Test cricket in England – where he averaged just 9.5 in ten innings and repeatably struggled against Broad’s around-the-wicket tactics, he returned to plunder runs aplenty down under. After scoring 287 runs for once out in six T20I’s against Sri Lanka and Pakistan he scored back-to-back Test hundreds against the latter.

Like Smith’s Ashes hundreds, Warner’s were statement making and match-winning. His 154 at Brisbane was his first Test innings on home soil since January 2018 and he backed it up with an unbeaten 335 at the Adelaide Oval a week later. Only Matthew Hayden (380 against Zimbabwe in 2003) has achieved a higher Test score for Australia. After a gruelling period away from the international game, two thirds of the Sandpapergate trio were darlings of the nation once again.

With Smith and Warner firmly back in the Test ranks, Australia’s batting stocks have improved considerably. Despite some issues finding an opening partner for Warner – with Cameron Bancroft, Marcus Harris and now Joe Burns all given opportunities – the top six appears settled for the foreseeable future.

In fact, eight different players scored Test hundreds during the calendar year with two – Usman Khawaja and Kurtis Patterson now seemingly out of the selection picture. Five of those players (Marnus Labuschagne 1104 runs at 64.94, Smith 965 runs at 74.23, Travis Head 742 runs at 49.46, Warner 725 runs at 48.33 and Matthew Wade 532 runs at 38) also scored over 500 runs.

While the batting appears reinvigorated, the bowling unit has looked as formidable as ever. Pat Cummins was the world’s leading Test bowler with 59 victims at 20.13. After coming back into the Test setup in early 2017, following a series of back injuries, the 26-year-old has risen from a promising young quick to a truly world-class proposition.

He was aptly supported throughout the year by his fellow New South Welshmen Mitchell Starc (42 wickets at 20.17), Nathan Lyon (45 at 33.26) and Josh Hazlewood (33 at 23.09) who also combined with Victorians James Pattinson and Peter Siddle to form an impressive pace battery.

With comfortable home series wins against Sri Lanka, Pakistan and New Zealand and a drawn Ashes campaign, Langer’s tenure has brought plenty of improvements to the Test side – however next year’s home series with India will be true barometer of their standing.

Heading into next summer’s home T20 World Cup, Finch’s T20 side were unbeaten in 2019 with seven wins and a no-result suggesting they’ll enter the tournament as a strong contender.

Although not as disruptive as the 2018 off field shake up, there’s been plenty of movement in both the front office and coaching staff. The highly-rated Victorian coach Andrew McDonald slotted into David Sakar’s shoes as both bowling and assistant coach to Langer. While Ben Oliver (Manager of National Teams) and Drew Ginn (Manager of High Performance) have effectively replaced the departed Pat Howard.

Long-time selector Greg Chappell also stepped down from cricketing duties after over 50 years of service and he was replaced by the current Tasmanian player George Bailey who will combine the two roles before retiring at the conclusion of the ongoing Big Bash campaign.

Elsewhere, 2019 brought about a worrying tread of Australian players suffering from mental health issues. With increased media scrutiny and ever-growing playing schedules leading to player burnout; fringe national team players and current Victoria squad members Glenn Maxwell, Nic Maddinson and Will Pucovski all spent time away from the game at various stages of the year.

England v Australia - 4th Specsavers Ashes Test: Day Five
Australia celebrate as Josh Hazlewood claims the final English wicket at Old Trafford. (Photo Credit: Getty Images)

High Point: Retaining the Ashes at Old Trafford

After what happened to them in Leeds (more of that next), Paine’s men showed a great strength of character to beat England by 185 runs at Old Trafford – thus retaining the Ashes with a match to spare.

After setting England 383 to win on the fourth afternoon, the visitors eventually bowled them out for 197 in the final session of day five when Hazlewood struck the pad of Craig Overton.

Despite a resigned review from Overton, Hazelwood’s LBW decision was upheld by DRS – sparking jubilation amongst the Australians who partied long into the Manchester evening.

Low Point: Being Ben Stoked at Headingley

In a climax that will give the eleven Australians involved nightmares for the rest of their days, Ben Stokes and number 11 Jack Leach pulled off a once-in-a-lifetime miracle in front of a packed Sunday afternoon crowd that had, at many junctions, appeared impossible.

After bowling England out for 67 on the second day, and setting them 359 to win late on the third, the visitors were in the driving seat to take a 2-0 series lead.

An Australian win seemed a mere formality when Leach joined Stokes at the crease with 73 still required for victory. However, the rest is history as Stokes began to strike boundaries at will whilst still managing to farm the strike and protect Leach.

When catches were dropped, runouts were fumbled and a desperate final review was burned, the momentum began to shift the way of England and Stokes and he duly finished the job off by striking Cummins through the offside to finish 135 not out and spark wild celebrations across the nation.

New kid on the block: Marnus Labuschagne

While no kid at 25, Labuschagne’s Test career was only a couple of matches old heading into 2019. His selection – picked with a first-class average hovering in the early thirties – was a subject for great debate when he was chosen to bat at number three against India in January.

Despite a mediocre start to his Australia career, his early season form for Glamorgan in county cricket earned him a place in the Ashes squad and he famously entered the series as Test cricket’s first concussion substitute at Lords – where his second innings 59 was pivotal in helping his side escape with a draw.

He ended the year as the world’s highest run-scorer and backed up his maiden Test hundred against Pakistan with two more in consecutive innings.

Fading Star: Usman Khawaja

Khawaja was dropped from both the ODI and Test setups during the year. After a successful 2018 and a century against Sri Lanka in January, he paid the price during the Ashes when his 122 runs from six innings cost him his place for the final two Tests.

After a slow start to the Sheffield Shield season in which he copped a couple of dubious umpiring decisions, the selectors decided to move on from the veteran left-hander.

Having just turned 33, Khawaja’s time could come again, but for now he must go back to domestic cricket and score heavily with the Australian top six currently set in stone.

To cap off a difficult year, he was then dropped from ODI touring party for next month’s visit to India despite being the team’s second highest run-scorer in 2019 and also scoring 398 runs at 79.60 for Queensland in the recent Marsh Cup campaign.

Farewell to: Bruce Yardley

A former Australian off-spinner, Bruce Yardley died in Kununurra in March – aged 71 after a long battle with cancer.

Having originally started out as a medium-pace bowler, the Western Australian played 33 Tests between 1978-1983 taking 126 wickets at 31.63 in a time when the Australians were divided by World Series Cricket.

He also made a famous 74 with the bat against the West Indies trio of Andy Roberts, Joel Garner and Colin Croft in Barbados in 1978 with his first 50 runs coming off just 29 deliveries.

In later life he also coached the Sri Lankan team between 1996-98 where he acted as an early mentor to Muttiah Muralitharan.

What 2020 holds?

A three-match ODI series in India follows the conclusion of the ongoing Test series with New Zealand. Before the summer is rounded out with a limited overs tour of South Africa in February and a home ODI series against New Zealand in March.

With no Test series until a tour of Bangladesh in June, many players have signed up to play in the IPL, county cricket or in the inaugural Hundred competition in England in preparation for a limited overs series in the UK in early July.

A home T20 World Cup then begins next October and November, a tournament the hosts have never won before despite reaching the final in 2010.

The year is then rounded out when India head down under for a four-Test series which could well act as an appetizer for the World Test Championship final to be held at Lords in June 2021.

 

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