Vital questions to be answered as Australia hit rock bottom

A fifth straight Test loss, coupled with a recent 5-0 ODI whitewash in South Africa has left Australian cricket in a state of desolation. But what can be done to stop the rot with key series against Pakistan and India on the horizon?

I look at five important questions Australian cricket needs to answer moving forward.

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Steven Smiths fights a lone battle as wickets tumble around him in Hobart. (Photo Credit: Cricket Australia/Getty Images.)

 

Why is there such a lack of fight with the bat?

“We are not resilient enough, we are not digging in enough, we are not having the pride in our wicket, we’re just not being resilient enough and something has got to change.” – those are the words of captain Steven Smith after his side were humiliated to the tune of an-innings and 80-run defeat against South Africa in Hobart.

Lately when the going gets tough, the batting simply folds. Three alarming batting collapses of 10 for 86 in Perth as well as 10 for 85 and 8 for 31 in Hobart have all occurred across just four innings in the current series. This isn’t just a recent issue either. In Colombo, just a couple of months back, they lost 10 for 86. Last year they were bowled out for 60 at Trent Bridge.

While the technical deficiencies against both swing and spin have been mentioned many times before, the recent lack of fight with the bat is astonishing. Be it a confidence or mental issue, it appears to be rapidly spiralling out of control. When the going gets tough you’d always expect an Australian side to fight for the collective cause, to fight for the baggy green with a certain level of passion and pride. But recently there has been a worrying trend to simply throw the towel in when victory appears out of reach.

These issues certainly haven’t been lost on the selectors either. They were so worried about the batting that they included South Australian quick Joe Mennie at the expense of the more experienced Jackson Bird, because he had a better first-class batting average. Likewise, allrounder Mitchell Marsh was jettisoned in Hobart in favour of a sixth batman in Callum Ferguson – ultimately it had the adverse effect with Australia getting shot out for 85 in just 32.5 overs. Coincidently the last time they entered a Test match with six batsmen and no allrounder was the 60 all out at Trent Bridge.

While the batsman talk a good game, with suggestions of playing the “Australian Way” – an aggressive front foot approach to dominating all types of bowling regardless of the match situation or conditions – they don’t appear to be driven enough to knuckle down and absorb pressure when the opposition bowlers are on top. Although the shear number of limited overs cricket has led to an increase in the run rate of Test matches, there is still a place in the game for batting time and putting a hefty price on one’s wicket. Apparently, someone forgot to mention this to the Australians.

  

Is there a cultural shift in Australian cricket?

There was talk after a failed Olympic games campaign earlier this year that Australian athletes are “Going Soft”. It was also suggested that each medal won by the Olympic team had cost the taxpayers around $20M. Back then the nation’s public were demanding answers. While the failures of their cricketing counterparts are not costing anywhere near that amount, do they also have a right to question whether their cricket team has, in fact also, gone soft?

As the mind wanders back to the Australian cricket teams of yesteryear, it instantly thinks of eleven tough men. Mates, willing to do all they can to achieve collective a success. Sledging and on field nastiness were bred into them during years of Grade cricket and sustained into the international arena.

There was a time when Australian cricketers were just blokey blokes. During the seventies Jeff Thomson kept fit by hunting pigs in his spare time, in the late eighties David Boon once drank 52 cans of beer on a pre-Ashes flight from Sydney to London and in the nineties Glenn McGrath regularly mocked the opposition as much as his bowling castled them.

How things change. In the present, there wasn’t even any pre-series gloating before the South Africans had arrived down under. Not from the Aussies anyway. Instead It was the visitors who did the talking and ultimately backed up their words with strong actions on the field.

It is just a severe of lack confidence that has quietened Smith’s men or it is a shift in the culture of this team?

It appears there is currently a significant lack of leaders and characters in the home dressing room. With the amount of backroom staff now around, perhaps the lack of having to think for one’s self is diluting the leadership qualities of the modern-day player.

Australia has always had a loud authoritative figure at its helm, right from the days of Ian Chappell through to Ricky Ponting and Michael Clarke. Unfortunately, Smith – as good a batsman as he is – just isn’t cut from the same cloth. Aside from David Warner (who has mellowed quite considerably in recent times) it appears to be a dressing room full of quiet voices.

While Smith’s captaincy is currently in no doubt after he showed plenty of fighting qualities in his two “leading from the front” knocks in Hobart, he needs stronger voices and opinions around him both on and off the field.

Moving forward, one option would be to bring back Matthew Wade to keep wicket instead of the underperforming Peter Nevill. Wade is a fighter. Not only would he add more with the bat, but as a state captain for Victoria he would also act as another strong sounding board for his Smith to bounce ideas off.

 

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After a brief and fruitful Test career, Adam Voges looks to have played his final match. (Photo Credit: Getty Images).

 

Why are so many fast bowlers injured, and what can be done to counter this?

Pat Cummins, James Pattinson, Nathan Coulter-Nile, Joel Paris and Peter Siddle are all currently unavailable for international selection. Taking away those kinds of options from any international side would hurt. For Australia, these days’ such injury predicaments are common place.

Despite the CA hierarchy often insisting on a rest and rotation policy for fast bowlers despite them often being fit to play, the bowling stocks across the nation appear to be as depleted as ever.

Cummins, still only 23 years of age, has not represented Australia in Test cricket his making his debut in South Africa almost five years ago. Meanwhile, persistent back and muscle injuries have also restricted Pattinson to just 17 sporadic appearances in the half-a-decade since he made his Test bow against New Zealand.

Elsewhere, despite being included in previous squads, a combination of hamstring, shoulder and back injuries have prevented Coulter-Nile from yet making his Test debut. He’s currently ruled out for the foreseeable future after picking up a lumbar bone stress issue whilst touring Sri Lanka earlier this year.

Siddle, on the other hand, is a recent victim of the system. Initially diagnosed with an early-stage stress fracture of the back during a Test series in New Zealand in February, he only returned to bowling during the recent Matador Cup. But with other options unavailable for the start of the summer, he was unwisely rushed back into action for the recent Perth Test – despite having bowled in just one first-class match beforehand. He was left out of the Hobart Test after complaining of lower back soreness after the defeat at the WACA.

These are familiar stories.

This time last year I wrote a piece on the perceived depth of quick bowlers in Australia. My drawn-up list included the likes of Pattinson, Cummins, Coulter-Nile, James Faulkner, Jackson Bird and Jason Behrendorff. However, because of the demanding current international schedule and the injuries that coincide with it, these guys are now not necessary the next in line.

One year ago, names such as Scott Boland, Chris Tremain, Joe Mennie and David Worrall were virtually unknowns. Twelve months later and circumstances have meant that they are now legitimate fast bowling options for their country.

So, what can be done to combat these injury issues? With the rest and rotation policy clearing not working as well as CA medical staff would have liked, perhaps it’s time to go back to the old-school approach of allowing fast bowlers to play as much Sheffield Shield and Grade cricket as possible. If the “overs under the belt” approach used to work for players like Thomson and Lillee, then perhaps it’s worth a go for Cummins and co.

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Could Queensland’s English-born opener Matt Renshaw be the answer to Australia’s batting woes? (Photo Credit: Cricket Australia/Getty Images.

 

Is it time to head back to the drawing board and give youth a go?

Despite a spectacular Bradman-esque start to his international career, old father time is finally catching up with Adam Voges – who is averaged just 14.8 across his past ten Test innings.

Although the veteran right-hander isn’t the only one under considerable pressure to keep his place for the upcoming third Test at the Adelaide Oval, at 37 he appears the most likely to make way as the selectors look to freshen up the batting line-up with younger talent.

Like Voges, father time has also caught up with Cricket Australia’s recent policy of picking experienced batsman such as Callum Ferguson and Chris Rogers. While the system has brought some success – most notably with Rogers – it was only ever seen as a short-term measure as no younger options were demanding outright selection.

With next year bringing a tour to India as well as a home Ashes campaign, now’s the time for the next generation of Australian batsmen to stand up. Recent success stories such as England’s Haseeb Hameed and Kusal Mendis of Sri Lanka, should provide the selectors with some hope that by taking a punt on a promising young player they could gain both short and long-term rewards.

So, who are next in line? Despite no one knocking the door down with a mountain of Shield runs, the early front runners appear to be; South Australian pair Travis Head and Jake Lehmann, New South Wales’ Kurtis Pattinson, Victorian Peter Handscomb and Cameron Bancroft of Western Australia. If the selectors chose to go even younger then Queensland pair Matt Renshaw (20) and Sam Heazlett (21) would represent their best current options.

With Smith, Warner and Usman Khawaja seemingly locked in for the foreseeable, as many as three batting berths look to be up for debate heading in the next Test match. The squad is due to be announced on Sunday after the latest round of Shield matches.

 

Has there been too much resting on laurels in the top hierarchy of Australian cricket?

In short, Yes.

Before Rod Marsh resigned from his position as chairman of selectors on Wednesday, things had been running along cosily for quite some time at Cricket Australia’s Melbourne headquarters.

In fact, not since Mickey Arthur was fired before the 2013 Ashes series has there been any significant upheaval in the CA ranks. While the appointment of coach Darren Lehmann has brought some extreme highs including a 5-0 Ashes whitewash and a World Cup victory on home soil, it has also brought huge lows such as the away series defeats in the UAE, England and Sri Lanka.

There is a thought that those highs have led to a certain complacency among the hierarchy with each of James Sutherland, Pat Howard and Lehmann judged to be sitting with their feet too comfortable under the Cricket Australia table.

Chief executive Sutherland has been his post for since 2001, while Howard was appointed in awake of the 2011’s Argus review. Lehmann – who was brought in to replace Arthur in 2013 – has meanwhile, recently given a contract extension that will take him through until the conclusion of the 2019 World Cup and Ashes campaigns in England.

If further changes are to accompany the exit of Marsh in the wake of recent performances, then it would seem most likely that Howard’s head would be first onto the chopping board. It’s often hard to comprehend what Howard’s current role even consists of… From the outside looking in, he appears to be the high-performance chief of a hugely underperforming side. His present contract is due to run out in the middle of next year. Will he be allowed to see his term out or will he follow Marsh out of the door before his current deal expires?

 

Australia’s next generation of Asian talent.

When the New South Wales contracts for next summer were recently released, two names immediately stood out. Arjun Nair and Jason Sangha not only stood out for their undoubted youthful talent, but also because of their ethnicity.  

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With his elegent style at number three, could Jason Sangha become Australia’s next Usman Khawaja? Photo Credit: Getty Images.

The times are rapidly changing down under. As the country becomes ever more multicultural, gone are the days when cricket was exclusively a white only sport. Indeed now, State’s such as New South Wales are looking to fill their rookie contracts with the next generation of Asian-originated talent.

Arjun Nair and Jason Sangha aren’t just there to make up the numbers either. These are two of the most exciting talents to come through the New South Wales system in recent memory. Stylish right-handed batsman Sangha is at 16-years-of-age, the youngest player ever to receive a NSW rookie contract. His fellow youngster Nair, an 18-year-old offspinner, has been rewarded with a full State contract after a sensational year – which saw him rise through the Sydney Grade ranks to become a Sheffield Shield cricketer.

In January the pair made history when they became the first duo of Indian-origin to represent Australia in the same match. Also playing in that fixture against the Pakistan U19 side was another player of Asian-descent. The 19-year-old Wes Agar (younger brother of Ashton), who himself has just landed a rookie contract with South Australia.

With the cricketing landscape finally beginning to catch up with a new diverse Australia, cricketers of Asian-origin are beginning to emerge from pathways previously unlocked in a sport not widely known for its cultural diversity. Past research has shown that the cost of, and time consumed whilst playing cricket has previously alienated Asian youngsters from participating in the game.

Despite a strong “traditionally white” culture still being in place in some parts of the country, major cities such as Sydney and Melbourne have seen an increase in the participation of players with Asian backgrounds. In 2012 Cricket Australia developed a three-year diversity and inclusion strategy aimed at taking the sport to newer diverse communities, through both schools and grass-roots recreational clubs.

And that strategy has recently started to show some signs of fruition. Although there have been players of Asian-descent throughout Australian cricket in the past – Hunter Poon, Dav Whatmore and Richard Chee Quee immediately come to mind – the immergence of new talent such as Nair and Sangha, coupled with the recent success stories of men like Ashton Agar (a Sri Lankan mother), Usman Khawaja (born in Pakistan), Fawad Ahmed (a former Pakistani refugee) and Gurinder Sandhu (whose parents hail from the Punjabi region of India) can only be celebrated as a triumph.

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Usman Khawaja, Fawad Ahmed and Gurinder Sandhu are the forbearers to a new generation of Asian-Australian cricketers. Photo Credit: Jono Searle.

Indeed, is there currently a better cricketing role model in Australia than Khawaja? Since returning to the national setup almost a year after suffering a severe knee injury, the nonchalant left-hander has piled up the small matter of 1,006 runs across the three separate formats.

In Australia, such hero’s are vital for the next generation of Asian youngsters. One such youngster is Sangha. Born in the Eastern suburbs of Randwick – but raised further north in Newcastle, the rookie number three is very much a product of Indian-heritage. His languid stroke-play is of subcontiental design and still just 16, he’s beginning to acuminate a hugely impressive CV for a man of such tender age.

If making ones Newcastle first grade bow, for the Wallsend District CC, at just 13-years-old wasn’t enough evidence of his huge potential, then a glowing report from former Australian batting great Greg Chappell should carry enough weight to suggest Sangha’s promise.

 “An elegant stroke-maker with a touch of class that is the hallmark of the very best players.” – Greg Chappell on Jason Sangha’s potential talent.

The high praise from Chappell is evident in his recent performances. Despite only entering last December’s Under-19 National Championship once he had dominated both the School Sports Australia Under-15 tournament and the Under-17 National Championships, Sangha more than held his own by striking 316 runs across his eight innings at an average of 39.50.

And there was even more to come during Sangha’s miraculous rise through the ranks. In January he became the youngest man to score a hundred on debut for the Australian U-19 side during a tri-series victory over Pakistan in the UAE.

Just a month after his exploits of the Australian U-19 side, he was back in New South Wales breaking more records. Firstly, he made his Sydney first grade debut for Randwick Petersham CC, before becoming the youngest player to play Second XI cricket for New South Wales in 91 years whilst playing against the Australian Capital Territory in Canberra.

Sangha certainly hasn’t been the only young player of Asian-descent to make waves in NSW this year. Nair – who was born in Canberra to a migrant couple that originally arrived from Kerala in southern India some twenty years ago – has since continued his cricket development in the western Sydney suburb of Girraween.

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Arjun Nair made two Sheffield Shield appearences for New South Wales last season. Photo Credit: Getty Images.

Like Sangha, the offspinner has also honed his skills down under with a distinctive Asian flavour. In a recent interview with ESPNcricinfo’s Daniel Brettig, Nair credited his ability to bowl as many as five different deliveries to watching countless YouTube videos of so-called IPL mystery spinners Sunil Narine and Ravichandran Ashwin.

The way such skills are now learnt may signal a new beginning in how young players self-teach using video footage but, like a history of Australian cricketers previously, it’s Grade Cricket where the wheat is separated from the chaff. Similarly to Sangha, Nair made the step-up to senior Grade Cricket whilst just a schoolboy.

At just 15, he became the eighth youngest player ever to play in the Sydney first grade competition when he represented Hawkesbury CC during the 2013-14 summer. He’s since gone from strength-to-strength going from Under-19 state selection to playing Sheffield Shield cricket inside three months.

With regular NSW spinners Nathan Lyon and Steve O’Keefe both absent, Nair was granted a First-Class debut after impressing with match-figures of 9-70 in a Future Leagues clash preceding the match against South Australia in Coffs Harbour.

Such exposure accompanied by a Big Bash League stint with eventual champions Sydney Thunder – where he was rewarded with a Community Rookie spot – can only be beneficial for the development of a player whose batting talents might yet one day exceed his offbreak bowling. This was emphasized no more so than when, in his maiden first-class innings, he scored a backs-to-the-wall 37 from 93-delivieries during a pivotal partnership with Ryan Carters.

With both men now firmly in the grips of New South Wales for the foreseeable future, the future looks bright for the pair, who will looking for more Future Leagues action with the Blues this summer.

And they could yet be joined down under by a 22-year-old Pakistani legspinner. Usman Qadir, the son of former Pakistan legend Abdul Qadir, is currently mulling over a decision whether to return to play cricket in Australia after a lack of playing opportunities in his homeland. After spending time playing Second XI and club cricket (Adelaide CC) in South Australia in 2013, Qadir would have to serve a four-year qualifying period if he harboured any serious hopes of one day representing the Australians.

Although still unconfirmed, Qadir’s story would, to an extent, rival that of fellow Pakistani legspinner Fawad Ahmed. Could this represent a zenith moment for the future of Australian cricket?

Bowral – A step into Bradman country

A trip to the Bradman Museum in Bowral isn’t just about cricket; it’s about Australian sporting history, traditional and culture.

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It’s Easter Saturday and a beauty in Sydney. Replacing the dank and drizzle that plagued my Good Friday walk in the Eastern Suburb’s is a bright sky that closely resembles the blue of the nearby Pacific Ocean.

My destination for the day is the Bradman Museum and International Cricket Hall of Fame. Located in the small New South Wales country town of Bowral, the museum is situated almost half-way between the state’s two main cities of Sydney and Canberra.

A lot has happened in Australian cricket in the two years since I last stepped foot in Sydney. Richie and Phillip have sadly left us, a home World Cup crown was secured, an away Ashes series squandered and farewells were aplenty with Pup, Ryano, Bucky, Hadds, Mitch and Watto all leaving the international scene. One thing guaranteed to always remain around these parts though, is the legacy of Sir Donald Bradman.

As I make my two-hour train descent towards Bradman’s final resting place of Bowral, the big city slowly drifts by into a flurry of suburbs and small villages and then, beyond Campbelltown, the beautiful Southern Highlands. One can’t help but to be impressed at the amount of sporting facilities that lie adjacent to the train line. No suburb goes empty handed without AFL, soccer, tennis, cricket and rugby facilities. Many small rural towns even have their own horse racing circuits and golf courses.

Yes, Australia has the good weather and the space to facilitate such sporting resources, but they also have an unrivalled love for sport and the great outdoors. It’s just in their blood. And Bradman is an integral part of that.

Weaving through the Southern Highlands is a joy to behold. Cattle, sheep and horses litter the landscape of rolling hills and tree-laden meadows. Country NSW has never looked so glorious.

As the train enters its final stretch through Mittagong and towards Bradmanland, the excitement becomes intangible. Unrivalled since the morning I wondered down towards Yarra Park for my first visit to the MCG, for such a cricket lover visiting the hometown of the game’s finest player is right up there with other fine memories of the sport.

Having finally arrived at Bowral the walk through the town centre is a pleasant one. A thriving cafe scene enriches the area as the locals gather to discuss the various different footy codes being played over the Easter period. As local children play in the town’s many park areas, you can almost imagine a young Bradman doing likewise some 100 years previously.

Part of The Bradman Walk meanders towards Glebe Park. The recently fallen leaves throw you into an autumnal way of feeling. If it not for the warm easterly breeze, it could well be a late September morning anywhere in England. Instead the profound cries of a nearby swarm of cockatoos reiterates the fact that this is very much Antipodean land.

And then suddenly out of nowhere, I’d arrived at the picturesque Bradman Oval. Encircled by Camden Woollybutt gumtree’s and a smartly painted white picket fence, this again leads me back to a great feeling of Englishness. Indeed, the traditional pavilion puts the cherry atop the English cake.

In a way the Bradman Oval is the closest thing to resembling English cricket across Australia. Sure the WACA ground retains some English-style characteristics in the design of its stands – but how long will it continue to host international cricket once the new Perth Stadium is built? While the Gabba, MCG, SCG and the Adelaide Oval are all now essentially large footy grounds with, occasional, cricketing tenants.

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The museum itself is charming. Throughout the Bradman Gallery the early years of The Don are told aplenty and described in fascinating ways with in-depth accounts of both his adolescent life in Cootamundra and Bowral, and his early cricketing memories. A whole installment is in fact dedicated to his infamous cricket-schooling – involving a stump, a golf ball and a water tank.

Another of the museum’s absorbing features is a segment on Bradman’s Invincibles side of 1948. While we commonly hear of the successes of men like Neil Harvey, Arthur Morris, Ray Lindwall and Keith Miller on that tour, learning more about lesser-known names such as Bill Johnston and Colin McCool was an equally enlightening experience.

The section Cricket through the Eras, which pays particular attention to both the Bodyline series of the 1930’s and Kerry Packers’ World Series Cricket in the 1970’s, is another worthwhile affair mixing both visual and audile recollections of hugely important periods in Australian cricket.

In a day and age when many cricketers live a predominately freelance existence, it’s equally compelling and surprising to discover the sheer volume of contrasting teams Bradman either represented or encountered. From the inter-village 234 made against Wingello to a knock of 153 against a HD Leveson Gower’s XI at Scarborough – an informative plaque lists every score The Don ever made over 150.

Other interesting features include subjects on The Baggy Green, The Origins, The Greats of the Game, The World of Cricket, The Game and a vertual Kids Backyard section.

A trip to the Bradman Museum is an education in not just cricket; but sporting history, tradition and culture too. For over a century, cricket down under has captured the very essence of Australian life. And Bradman was at its very forefront.