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.

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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.

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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.

 

The stuttering career of ‘Lil’ Bravo

Once heralded as the future of West Indian batting, Darren Bravo has instead found himself stuck inside the shadow of his hero Brian Lara. 

Darren Bravo disappointed
Photo Credit: Getty Images.

One of the most fascinating aspects of cricket is defining its different contrasts throughout various eras and generations.

Whether its hours spend down the local pub discussing the great teams and individual players with friends or colleagues, or time spent self analysing various matches and stats – trying to determine the benchmark between very good and great.

Defining players throughout eras is a complex and usually unfulfilling task – after all Test cricket has changed tremendously throughout the past century. From timeless matches, to covered pitches, bigger bats and now day/night matches – it’s almost impossible to compare a player from, say…the 1960’s to one in the present day.

It does though become easier defining greatness among contemporises. By this logic we can assume that the likes of Ponting, Sachin Tendulkar, Brian Lara and Jacques Kallis were a cut above the rest during the 1990’s and 2000’s. Messrs AB de Villiers and Kumar Sangakkara, have since continued this batting excellence into the present.

What about the future batting greats?

Martin Crowe, the former New Zealand batsman, was the first to mute the idea of “Test cricket’s young Fab Four”. In an article published on ESPNcricinfo in August 2014, Crowe suggested that Test cricket’s next four batting superstars would be: Virat Kohli (India), Joe Root (England), Steven Smith (Australia) and Kane Williamson (New Zealand).

Even back then it was hard to argue against the four choices given, except – I believed there was one name missing – Darren Bravo of the West Indies.

If Kohli was the new Tendulkar, Root the heir apparent to Michael Vaughan, Smith the next Steve Waugh and Williamson, of course, the next Martin Crowe, then surely wasn’t Bravo the new Lara?

At the time of the publication, (August 29th 2014) Bravo was very much holding his own as a Test batsman. In fact his record was better than those of Kohli, Smith and Williamson.

Test batting stats before August 29th 2014

Bravo – 2196 runs at 43.92 (30 matches)

Root – 1732 runs at 50.94 (22 matches)

Kohli – 1855 runs at 39.46 (29 matches)

Williamson – 2377 runs at 40.28 (34 matches)

Smith – 1361 runs at 40.02 (20 matches)

Test batting stats since August 29th 2014

Bravo – 545 runs at 32.05 (9 matches)

Root – 1288 runs at 61.33 (13 matches)

Kohli – 1139 runs at 54.23 (12 matches)

Williamson – 1250 runs at 78.12 (10 matches)

Smith – 2015 runs at 74.62 (16 matches)

However, as time passes it’s becoming much more difficult to argue against his non-inclusion in Crowe’s thoughts. On the other hand, the wisdom shown to pick out Kohli, Root, Smith and Williamson is becoming extremely well vindicated.

While the four mentioned by Crowe have all since taken their batting to the next level, Bravo has been left trailing in their wake. His batting has regressed alarmingly, so much so that across seven Tests this calendar year he’s averaging just 30.71 – with no hundreds. A far cry from the player once regarded as a future great by no finer judges than Lara and Steve Waugh.

So what has happened to the once promising career of Darren Bravo?

After a solid start to his Test career – which peaked with career high average of 52.50 after 13 Tests –his average has now plummeted to an ordinary 40.91 after 39 Tests.

“Darren Bravo from the West Indies. He is identical to Brian Lara in every way. He is world cricket’s next superstar, no doubt.” – Steve Waugh (February 2012)

When at his best, the Lara comparisons are never far away. As a youngster he used to hone his game solely on his first cousin. Only watching cricket on television because of Lara, as soon as ‘The Prince’ was dismissed, Bravo would switch off the TV and head outdoors to bat himself.

Such was the obsession, he would also skip school just to go and admire Lara at practice. Born in the same north Trinidadian village of Santa Cruz, the pair has grown close over the years. Bravo has, on more than one occasion, crediting Lara with helping him correct both technical and mental deficiencies.

But the similarities run much deeper than that – at times their mannerisms at the crease are so alike it’s almost freaky. The high back-lift, the flowing cover drive and the excellence against subcontinental spin bowling are all traits shared by the two men. However, the freakiest resemblance between the pair was their identical batting records after 12 Tests – both men had scored 941 runs at 47.05.

While Lara continued his path towards greatness during a 131-Test match career, Bravo has so far struggled to maintain the consistency required to differentiate between being a good and a great batsman.

Going into their three-match Test tour of Australia, the West Indies need their elegant left-hander to fire more than ever. Besides Marlon Samuels, Bravo, 26, is the most experienced batsman in a side shorn of the onetime experience of Chris Gayle, Ramnaresh Sarwan, Shivnarine Chanderpaul, and Darren’s older half-brother Dwayne.

While the younger Bravo made three starts (50, 31 & 61) in four innings during the recent two-Test tour of Sri Lanka, his average has continued a steady decline throughout the past few years. After averaging 37 in 2012, 2013 and 2014, he’s barely touched 30 in 2015. In a nutshell – not good enough for a man of his obvious talents.

Darren Bravo Dunedin

Bravo during his maiden Test double-hundred in Dunedin. Photo Credit: Getty Images.

Personal issues – which have forced him out of away series in New Zealand and South Africa during the past two years – could well be to blame. As could the added expectations and responsibilities placed on his shoulders following the exile of many experienced teammates.

Despite a brief flirtation with IPL side Deccan Chargers in 2012, Bravo has remained soundly loyal to the West Indies cause throughout the tough times. Times that have seen the Test side striped of their prize assists by the riches of various worldwide T20 franchises.

While it’s certainly admirable that Bravo still regards Test cricket as ‘the ultimate’, it’s certainly not a view currently shared by many across the Caribbean. Onetime Test players Gayle, Dwayne Bravo, Darren Sammy, Lendl Simmons, Sunil Narine and Andre Russell now all exclusively play just limited overs internationals, while others such as Kieron Pollard, Samuel Badree and Kevon Cooper have too made their names almost solely in T20 cricket.

Despite the emergence of a new group of young Test batsman – headlined by Jermaine Blackwood and Kraigg Brathwaite – the region is struggling to cope without the capabilities and international know-how of the aforementioned nine.

With the fluctuating career of Samuels showing signs of reaching its conclusion, Bravo must be on hand to recapture the form he showcased in late 2011. This purple patch saw him register a maiden Test hundred in Bangladesh (195 in Dhaka) before following it up with successive hundreds (136 in Kolkata & 166 in Mumbai) in India just weeks later.

Without a hundred in his first nine matches, three followed in just four matches; Bravo had arrived on the international stage. Perhaps it was a late summer stint with County side Nottinghamshire that led to his upturn in fortunes, either way it was another year until he scored his fourth Test hundred – again in Bangladesh (127 in Khulna).

A further year passed before he scored his fifth hundred, this time a career best 218 against New Zealand in Dunedin. After several stints away from the Test side, he has scored just one further century since, 109 on his home ground Queen’s Park Oval, way back in June 2014.

Sadly Bravo isn’t the only recent young West Indian batsman to make a strong introduction to Test cricket, before fading away. Fellow Trinidadian Adrian Barath made a superb counterattacking hundred on debut at the Gabba six years ago; he’s since drifted away – not just from the international scene, but from regional cricket too.

Like Barath, fellow opener Kieran Powell has also suffered a similarly disheartening fate. A product of Somerset’s illustrious Millfield School, Powell played his last Test against New Zealand in June 2014 before being dropped in favour of the uncapped Leon Johnson.

He’s endured a tough time since the international breakthrough that saw him register a maiden Test hundred against New Zealand in 2012. An innings that was backed up with twin centuries in Bangladesh later that year.

Like Bravo, the Nevis-born Powell has suffered from personal issues in the latter half of his international career – now just 25; he was last seen playing first-class cricket for Tamil Union in the Sri Lankan Premier League tournament in March.

Unlike Barath and Powell, Bravo is still very much central to the West Indies future plans. Building a team around him along with the likes of Brathwaite, Blackwood and Captain Jason Holder remains vital – especially if the West Indies still harbour any hopes of touching past glories.

Despite a couple of lean years, Bravo’s career shouldn’t yet be viewed as a failure. Only seven months ago he showcased the best of his batting when contributing a match-winning 82 against an English attack that included both James Anderson and Stuart Broad.

Turning the frequent starts into regular hundreds should be a future goal that Bravo sets himself. Upcoming visits to Hobart, Melbourne and Sydney (where Lara once made a majestic 277) would be good places to begin.

For ‘Lil’ Bravo – it’s time to step out of Brian Lara’s shadow.