Vince selection continues batting merry-go-round

England’s latest Ashes squad represents further muddled thinking from the selectors who appear to have run out of batting ideas.

 

James Vince Getty
Is James Vince the man to solve England’s number three woes? (Photo Credit: Getty Images).

 

In the backdrop of the Ben Stokes brawling scandal, England’s Ashes squad announcement has played second fiddle in the public interest despite several curious and underwhelming choices from the selectors.

 
The inclusion of Hampshire batsman James Vince has raised the most eyebrows with the right-hander being recalled to the Test side in place of the jettisoned Tom Westley, despite averaging just 32.94 in this summer’s recently concluded County Championship. There’s also a return for Yorkshire batsman Gary Ballance and first Ashes call-ups for Surrey’s Ben Foakes, Hampshire’s Mason Crane and Craig Overton of Somerset.

 
Vince, who played seven Test matches against Sri Lanka and Pakistan last summer, now looks likely to become England’s new number three after Westley became the latest England batsman to be thrown on the scrapheap following a disappointing five-match spell in the side. Having tried and disregarded a host of options in recent years including the likes of Sam Robson, Adam Lyth, Keaton Jennings, Alex Hales, Haseeb Hameed, Ben Duckett, Jos Buttler and Nick Compton – the England hierarchy have simply found themselves nowhere left to turn other than to recall the previously overwhelmed pair of Ballance and Vince.

 
The return of Vince, despite no recent County form to speak of and an unpleasant Test record that reads: 7 Tests, 11 innings, 212 runs at 19.27 and a highest score of 42, is another instance of muddled thinking from James Whitaker and his fellow selectors. Vince, although a talented batsman with a dreamy cover drive, was shown to be heavily suspect outside his off stump during his brief Test exposure last summer. His willingness to chase at wide deliveries he should be leaving alone could come back to haunt the England hierarchy if, as expected, he is the man chosen to bat at number three come the first Test on November 23rd.

 
While Ballance enjoyed a fine start to the summer with Yorkshire – eventually finishing with 951 runs at 67.92 – he has struggled for runs since breaking his finger against South Africa in July. This latest opportunity represents the third time he has returned to the Test set-up after been dropped during the 2015 Ashes and again in Bangladesh last winter. Ballance, a tough and resilient character, will look upon the opportunity as “Third time lucky”, although the cynics might suggest it’s more a case of “Last chance saloon” as his Test career reaches a major crossroads after averaging just 19 in his previous 12 matches.

 
Like Vince, Ballance has shown technical vulnerabilities throughout his international career. Whereas the Hampshire-man’s downfall is his love for the drive, Ballance has refused to change a technique that sees him shuffle back into the crease rather than getting onto the front foot. Despite both men’s flaws, it’s difficult to imagine who the selectors could have possibly turned to instead.

 
Hameed has struggled to make runs for Lancashire after returning from a thumb injury at the beginning of the summer, likewise Jennings has failed to pass 20 in the twelve innings he’s played for Durham since his Test axing in August. Hales and Buttler don’t play enough first-class cricket to form any valuable consistency in the format and the likes of Compton (season average – 26.23) Duckett (42.05) Lyth (25.22) and Robson (39.25) just haven’t pulled up enough trees this summer.

 
In a way you simply have to feel sorry for the selectors. Who else REALLY can they pick? They just can’t find the correct batting formula to compliment Alastair Cook and Joe Root. Since Root debuted in late 2012 there’s been thirteen batting debutants with only Hameed and Root himself managing to average over 40. Perhaps further down the line youngsters such as Joe Clarke of Worcestershire and Essex’s Daniel Lawrence should be given an opportunity but an Ashes tour is no place to blood adolescents.

 

Mason Crane Getty
Mason Crane in action for New South Wales earlier this year. (Photo Credit: Getty Images).

 

Elsewhere, Somerset’s Craig Overton was included ahead of the unfit Mark Wood and injured Toby Roland-Jones. The call-up of Overton is England’s Ashes bolter and could well be an inspired one. Although he lacks the pace of his, currently injured, twin brother Jamie, Craig Overton is a fine cricketer who uses his tall frame to generate speed in the high 80’s as well being a more than capable batsman and sharp fielder. Many will suggest that he’s fortunate his brother is currently laid low, like Roland-Jones, with an early stage stress fracture of the back or he, instead, may have come under consideration. However, 46 County Championship wickets at 22.39 cannot be sniffed at and he’ll look to use the early tour matches as an opportunity to stake a claim alongside Jake Ball.

 
The decision to pick Mason Crane as the backup spinner is a risky one. It was certainly a decision based on two factors; Potential and recent exposure down under. Unquestionably, Crane has great potential as a young legspinner, however, he’s played second fiddle to the steady left-arm offerings of Liam Dawson at Hampshire this summer. Playing in just half of his side’s Championship fixtures, he’s mustered the unflattering returns of 16 wickets at 44.68. The big appeal for the selectors lies with his recent experience in Australian conditions after he spent winter playing Sydney Grade cricket with Gordon – a move that saw him rewarded with a Sheffield Shield debut for New South Wales.

 
Many have called it the weakest England squad to tour Australia in recent memory but with world-class batsmen in Cook and Root, a middle order packed with quality allrounders and the pace pair of James Anderson and Stuart Broad, it’s far too early to be calling 5-0 to the Aussies.

 
And yet, for England this could all pale into insignificance if Ben Stokes is an Ashes absentee.

 
Ashes squad: Alastair Cook, Mark Stoneman, James Vince, Gary Ballance, Joe Root ©, Dawid Malan, Ben Stokes, Jonny Bairstow, Ben Foakes, Moeen Ali, Chris Woakes, James Anderson, Stuart Broad, Jake Ball, Craig Overton, Mason Crane.

 

Progress but ultimately not enough

Despite a 2-1 series defeat, Steven Smith and his men can return home to Australia with their heads held high after a topsy-turvy four Test matches in India

 

Steven Smith
Despite three centuries in four Tests, Steven Smith was unable to lead Australia to a series victory. (Photo Credit: Associated Press)

 

What a series! It was tight, tense and at times fractious, but in the end the hosts India prevailed with, what eventually turned out to be, a comfortable eight-wicket victory in Dharamsala.

That Australia even made it to Dharamsala with the series still in the balance at 1-1 speaks volumes of the improvements they have made to playing cricket in the subcontinent. Eventually, though, old habits sneaked in during the final Test – most noticeably a third-day batting collapse that all but handed the series to India.

Captain Steven Smith will look back on the series with an equal amount of pride and regret. His team went into the four Test series as huge underdogs – having lost their previous nine Tests on Asian soil – so to compete strongly until the penultimate day of the series will have pleased him immensely. On the other hand, his side will be disappointed that they eventually lost the series after going one-nil up in Pune. Moreover, they will regret not having seized control of the key opportunities that came their way in the prevailing three matches.

For India, it meant a successful end to a fine season of home cricket. After losing in Pune – their first defeat at home in 20 Tests – they showed tremendous character and skill to fight their way back into the series after such a packed international schedule that included 13 Tests in six months.

Even so, Australia have made major progress in the way they have approached the challenges of facing quality opposition in alien conditions. Taking away the two second innings collapses that ultimately cost them the series (112 in Bengaluru and 137 in Dharamsala) the batting has held reasonably firm. The most noticeable aspect was the willingness to grind out an innings and bat time rather than just playing the attack at all costs “Australian way of cricket” that has come unstuck on previous visits to India.

 

India Australia Cricket
Nathan Lyon made huge improvements to his bowling on the subcontinent. (Photo Credit: Associated Press)

 

Smith has of course led the way, scoring three centuries on his way to 499 runs at 71.28. Such is Smith’s genius that he’s now averaging 61.05 after 54 Test matches. When you consider that he’s yet to turn 28-years-old, you’d have to imagine he’ll at least double the 5000+ Tests runs and 20 centuries he already has in the locker.

Other batters have enhanced their reputations too. Matt Renshaw scored important first-innings fifties in both the first two Tests before gradually fading as the series wore on. In doing so he became the first Australian to score 500+ Test runs before the age of 21. Often looking cool and composed at the crease, it’s easy to forget that he was playing his maiden series anywhere outside of Australia. The whole experience, on and off the field, is certain to hold him in good stead going into a high-pressured Ashes campaign later in the year.

The enigma that is Glenn Maxwell was finally unlocked as a Test batsman too. Brought into the side to replace the injured, and repeatedly misfiring Mitchell Marsh, Maxwell played two mature knocks (104 in Ranchi and 45 in Dharamsala) to stake a claim for a regular batting spot at number six. Despite a breakout series with the bat, Maxwell’s bowling remained underused and perhaps under trusted by Smith, (he bowled just 6 overs in three innings) and with Darren Lehmann largely preferring a fast-bowling allrounder at number six it remains to be seen if he’ll keep his place for future home assignments.

If the likes of Smith, Renshaw and Maxwell can walk away from India pleased with their batting efforts, the same can’t be said for David Warner. The combative left-hander struggled to stamp his authority on the series. Despite making starts in many his innings, he made just one fifty plus score in eight innings. Warner’s struggles against the spin of R Ashwin continued a longer theme for him away from the home comforts of Australia.

Without an away Test hundred in nearly three years, his away average now stands at just 36.61 compared to his overall average of 47.42. In India that average drops even further to 24.25. Although there’s no thoughts of the vice-captain losing his place in the side, a lack of overseas success is bound to tarnish his reputation as a great batsman.

 

Pat Cummins
After a 1946 day absence, Pat Cummins made an impressive return to Test cricket. (Photo Credit: Associated Press)

 

The middle order duo of Shaun Marsh and Peter Handscomb had their moments with the bat, but both will feel that they left runs out on the field. Putting aside their match saving 124-run partnership – that spanned 62 final-day overs – in Ranchi, the pair struggled to put together the numbers required to earn their side success on the subcontinent.

Besides his unbeaten 72 in Ranchi, Handscomb’s seven other scores ranged between 8 and 24. Marsh on the other hand, is a notoriously bad starter at the crease and despite looking comfortable against the spin bowlers when set (he made 66 in Bengaluru and 53 in Ranchi) he also recorded five single figure scores in his eight innings. With Usman Khawaja set to come back into the side, it’s quite conceivable that Marsh, at 33, could well have played his final match for Australia.

Wicketkeeper Matthew Wade belatedly found form in Dharamsala with unbeaten innings of 57 and 25, but it was a case of perhaps to-little-to-late for Australia as they needed more runs from their number seven. His form with the gloves was tidy enough throughout with the only real blemish being a dropped catch off the batting of Wriddhiman Saha – who went onto record a crucial century in Ranchi.

Another gain from the series was the general form and consistency of spinners Nathan Lyon and Steve O’Keefe. Lyon entered the series with plenty of question marks (and a hefty bowling average of 42.57) during his previous bowling in Asian conditions, however, he managed to snare 19 wickets at 25.26 across the series. Unfortunately for Lyon, both his 8-50 in Bengaluru and 5-92 in Dharamsala came in losing causes. O’Keefe, meanwhile, had a greater impact on Australia’s first Test victory on Indian soil in 13 years.

He benefitted from an, at times unplayable, Pune wicket to capture 6-35 in both innings and earn himself a place in Australian cricketing history. Although his effectiveness faded as the series worn on – he claimed just seven wickets thereafter – he still managed to dry up an end as the quicks bowled in short spells. He eventually matched Lyon’s haul of 19 wickets at a slightly better average of 23.26.

When Mitchell Starc pulled up lame upon the conclusion of the second Test, the return of Pat Cummins was one of the defining stories of the series. It had been a staggering 1946 days between Cummins’ Test debut in 2011 and his second Test in Ranchi. Regardless of the impact he had in his two Tests in India, the fact that he backed up again in Dharamsala after bowling 39 overs in Ranchi was heartening for all to see.

And he certainly made an impression. In many ways, he was the perfect replacement for Starc. Bowling in short sharp spells, his pace reaped more from the slow pitches than anyone else from either side and he regularly clocked over 145kph. Although it’s important to remember that it’s still the beginning of his comeback to the longer format, the prospect of him one day bowling in tandem with Starc, Josh Hazlewood and James Pattinson is a tantalising one.

Going forward, Australia must learn from both the positives and negatives from their latest Asian trip – for there was progress, even though it was ultimately not enough.

Can Australia learn from past Asian mistakes?

After recent failings in Asia, Steven Smith’s men understandably start their four-Test series in India as underdogs, but can they learn from past misdemeanours and spring a surprise or two on the hosts?

cricket-ground-at-dharamshala-india
The picturesque Himachal Pradesh Stadium in Dharamsala is to host the fourth Test match.

It’s hard to believe that nearly four years have passed since Australia last visited India for a Test series. Although a great deal of water has passed under the bridge since then with multiple personnel having come and gone – somethings, however, remain unchanged – the Australian cricket team’s struggle with subcontinental conditions.

On Thursday, captain Steven Smith will lead out his men in Pune in the first of a four-Test series that will also include trips to Bangalore and the outpost cities of Ranchi and Dharamsala. Three of the four venues will be hosting Test cricket for the first time, but don’t be fooled the advantages are all very much India’s.

Under the stewardship of Michael Clarke, (and later, for one Test, Shane Watson), the 2013 touring party included the likes of Phillip Hughes, Brad Haddin, Ed Cowan, Mitchell Johnson, Xavier Doherty, Moises Henriques and Peter Siddle as well as 2017 returnees Smith, David Warner, Matthew Wade, Mitchell Starc, Usman Khawaja, Glenn Maxwell and Nathan Lyon.

Little did they know at the time, but that 4-0 whitewash was the beginning of four years of Australian torment on the subcontinent. Including the four defeats in India, they have played nine Tests, lost nine Tests since 2013. Their record in India is even uglier still. Since their final frontier 2-1 series victory in 2004 (Australia’s only series win in India throughout the past 48 years), they are yet to claim a Test victory in the country – in fact they haven’t even shared a Test there since 2010 when a Ricky Ponting-led side lost a three-Test rubber 2-0.

The 2013 tour will not only be remembered for embarrassment on the field and the infamous ‘Homeworkgate’ fiasco off it, but also for the reincarnation of Smith – the Test cricketer.

Originally taken as a spare batsman, Smith was unlikely to get a look in until both Watson and Khawaja were suspended for not adhering to team policy. Regardless, he took his opportunity with both hands when he compiled an assured first-innings 92 during the third Test in Mohali. With that he ensured a place on the Ashes tour of England later that year.

Smith is now the number one Test batsman in the world, but his task in leading the side in India certainly gets no easier than it was for his predecessor Clarke four years ago. The hosts are currently undefeated in twenty Tests on home soil with thirteen of those coming under the impressive leadership of Virat Kohli. Their recent form speaks volumes too. An improving England side were dispatched 4-0 with relative ease before Christmas, while Bangladesh were brushed aside by 208 runs earlier this month.

Against a formidable batting lineup unable to even accommodate Karun Nair – who scored an unbeaten 303 in his previous Test against England – Australia’s bowling arsenal will certainly have their work cut out both trying to dismiss and contain the likes of Kohli, Murali Vijay, KL Rahul, Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane throughout the next six weeks.

With the selectors set to include three seamers in Starc, Josh Hazlewood and allrounder Mitchell Marsh, the spin responsibilities will fall on the shoulders of Lyon and Steve O’Keefe.

1st Test - Australia v South Africa: Day 4
With a bowling average of 42.57 in Asia, Australia will need a major improvement from Nathan Lyon if they are to succeed in India. (Photo Credit: Getty Images).

It will be up to Lyon and O’Keefe to tie down the home batsmen in the first innings and then create opportunities in the second when the notoriously dry Indian pitches will be expected to turn square. Early signs during Australia’s only warmup fixture in Mumbai last week were not ideal for the visitors. Despite the spinners sharing seven wickets between them they also received plenty of punishment from Indian A batsman Shreyas Iyer conceding economy rates of 4.20 and 5.61 in the process.

Both Lyon and O’Keefe still have considerable lingering doubts hanging over them. In Asian, Lyon has taken his 42 wickets at a costly 42.57 compared to his overall average of 34.07. In a part of the world where spinners are expected to take the bulk of the 20 wickets required to win a Test match, Lyon’s offspin has largely proven ineffective. Certainly when related to the success he’s accomplished when generating sharp bounce and overspin on the harder surfaces at home.

Meanwhile, O’Keefe’s skiddy left-arm bowling technique has the potential to thrive in Indian conditions providing he bowls with sufficient pace and accuracy. His history of untimely injuries could well count against him though, especially as he’s likely to be required to bowl lengthy spells in draining conditions.

If Australia are to achieve any success throughout the series, then it’s likely to arise from the success of the fast bowlers and Starc in particular. The left-armer wreaked havoc in the last Test series he played in Asia taking 24 Sri Lankan wickets at a cost of just 15.16. India will be different of course, they have a stronger batting order than the Sri Lankans and the SG ball used in India will behave differently to the Kookaburra used further south. However, should Starc and to a lesser extent Hazlewood and Mitchell Marsh get the ball to swing both early doors and later in the innings then perhaps they could restrict the Indian totals to something more manageable.

In the wake of last year’s failed Sri Lanka series, a “horses for Asian courses” selection policy was muted with a major view on this Indian tour for its inauguration. In other words, batsmen and bowlers who have had international success in Australia and other parts of the world won’t necessary be selected for a subcontinental tour.

The first casualty of this new thinking could well be Khawaja. Despite piling up 581 runs at 58.10 during the home summer, the elegant left-hander has previously struggled in Asia scoring just 115 runs at 19.16 during four Tests in Sri Lanka. Last year, his ineptness against the Sri Lankan spinners saw him dropped for the final Test alongside Joe Burns.

shaun-marsh
The form of Shaun Marsh could be vital to Australia’s chances in India. (Photo Credit: Associated Press.)

With Shaun Marsh reinstated to the middle order following injury, Khawaja will battle it out with rookie Matt Renshaw for the right to open with Warner. Last week’s tour match in Mumbai was in fact Renshaw’s only first-class match anywhere in Asia so his meagre returns of 11 and 10 will leave Trevor Hohns and Darren Lehmann slightly uneasy. Either opening option can be viewed as a risk but a middle order of Smith, Marsh and Peter Handscomb looks to be as equipped against the turning ball as any combination the Australians could have thrown together.

Marsh has successive hundreds in his two most recent Tests in Asia (albeit both occurred in Sri Lanka), while Handscomb has impressed observers with his ability to play spin bowling off both front and back foot in domestic cricket.

The spotlight will also be on wicketkeeper Wade. The visitors can ill afford for the Tasmanian to have a poor series behind the stumps. Creating chances against a powerful Indian batting line up is difficult enough without squandering them too. Four years ago, Wade was the incumbent keeper entering the series but a string of dropped catches and poor scores saw him replaced by the experienced Haddin. Although he’s worked hard on his keeping with Victoria over the past few years, is he really a better glovesman than the recently disregarded Peter Nevill?

For India, chief tormentors Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja will again carry the most threat, much as they did four years ago, when they combined for 53 wickets against the Australians. The duo will likely be joined by fellow spinner Jayant Yadav – who debuted against England late last year – and seamers Ishant Sharma and Umesh Yadav.

With a poor recent away Test record, especially in Asia, Australia will certainly be up against it. Many are predicting another 4-0 whitewash and history suggests that could be a real possibility.

Yet, with matchwinners Warner, Smith and Starc in the side there remains just a glimmer of hope that the visitors can pull off what would be regarded as one of modern-day cricket’s greatest upsets.

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.

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.

steve-smith
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.

 

adam-voges-career
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.

Sheffield Shield - QLD v SA: Day 1
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?

 

Batting woes leave Mitchell Marsh skating on thin ice

Lack of quality alternatives have led to a certain leeway with the selectors, however, going forward the allrounder’s form with the bat remains a serious concern.

2nd Test - Australia v India: Day 3
Photo Credit: Getty Images.

 

Last Friday when asked about the batting form of Test allrounder Mitchell Marsh, Australian chairman of selectors Rod Marsh went out of his way to make a clear ultimatum towards the Western Australian’s Test summer. It went along the lines of: He needs to get a Test hundred I reckon.”

Fast forward a week to the second day’s play of the first Commonwealth Test match at The WACA. The scenario reads: Australia coasting towards South Africa’s paltry first innings total of 242. David Warner and Shaun Marsh are sailing along smoothly at 0-158 before a dramatic (all-too-familiar) batting collapse sees the Aussie’s lose four wickets for just 23 runs. Enter Mitchell Marsh replacing his brother Shaun at the crease and seemingly set for a “Silencing the doubter’s innings”.

A firm and quick WACA deck, a loving home Perth crowd – including father Geoff, and against a Dale Steyn-less South African attack – surely today would be the day to quieten the concerns of both selectors and supporters alike. A maiden Test hundred at The WACA awaited surely…

Except this is sport and not a hometown fairy tale for Marsh. Vernon Philander found some decent movement with a fifty-over old kookaburra cherry and slide one into the front pad, Marsh’s Puma bat wasn’t even in the picture. Dismissed for an eighth-ball duck was certainly not part of the grand plan.

While Marsh brings plenty of other strings to his bow – most noticeably his gun fielding in the gully region and a more than handy first-change seam bowling action – it’s been made clear by Rod Marsh that his role in the side is predominantly as a number six batsman. On that front an average of just 23.07 across 30 Test innings doesn’t read all too easy on the eye.

The potential is of course there. It always has been. A maiden ODI hundred against India in January suggested at a breakout period, so did the match-winning 69 not out in Wellington just two weeks later. But although he was “Batting as well as anyone” during the disastrous tour of Sri Lanka recently, he only managed scores of 31, 25, 27, 18, 53 and 9 – middling scores suggesting he’s first got himself in, and then found ways to get dismissed when something more substantial looked on the cards. Parallels can certainly be made with his predecessor Shane Watson – easy on the eye but lacking the match defining contributions required at Test level.

The problem for the Australian selectors is the lack of international-standard competition in the seam bowling allrounders role. Should the selectors finally lose patience with their project player – And they have invested a lot into the development of Marsh – then New South Wales’ Moises Henriques would represent the obvious replacement.

Returning to Henriques would bring with it a different set of question marks though. While he has dominated with the bat in recent Sheffield Shield campaigns, his bowling is vastly inferior to anything offered by Marsh. Besides he looked very much out of his depth whilst facing the turning ball during his one Test in Colombo recently. With a Test tour of India looming in the new year, his inclusion looks unlikely.

Other options would be to include Victorian Marcus Stoinis, who – despite being a serial ‘A’ team squad member – hasn’t, at 27, kicked on as much as Cricket Australia would have once hoped. Likewise, James Faulkner has suffered from injuries whilst being mainly pigeonholed as a limited overs specialist lately.

Fellow seam-bowling allrounders such as Western Australia’s Hilton Cartwright, (aged 24) and Jack Wildermuth (23) of Queensland also spring to mind as future options, however both currently lack enough experience at first-class level to be considered as viable inclusions.

Another option would be to call up Travis Head. A batsman the selectors are seriously keen on after he has shown impressive batting and leadership qualities in the past year. After being called up to train with the Test squad during the final Test against Sri Lanka in August, it remains only a matter of time before the South Australian captain is given a chance at Test level, although it seems he may be viewed as a long-term replacement for the veteran Adam Voges at number five. With both Mitchell Starc and Peter Siddle working their way back to full fitness after injuries it remains likely that the policy of three quicks, Nathan Lyon and a seam-bowling allrounder will not change anytime soon.

With Marsh struggling with live up to expectations with the bat, it doesn’t help that the man behind him in the order is also fighting his own demons with the willow. Peter Nevill’s position in the side is too being debated with the wicketkeeper averaging just 20.88 since dispensing Brad Haddin during last year’s away Ashes campaign. While Nevill has been nothing short of excellent with the gloves, his Test average is 17.00 down on his first-class record.

Although he was unlucky to be dismissed caught at first slip in the first innings at The WACA when he didn’t hit the ball (and his side were out of reviews after both Steven Smith and Shaun Marsh used them to no avail earlier in the day) with the batting carrying an over-reliance on both Smith and Warner the pressure will be on the likes of Marsh and Nevill to start making the contributions their team requires.

For Marsh it looks like that maiden Test hundred will have to wait another day.

 

Australia fail to arrest spin deficiencies

It’s beginning to sound like a broken record. But once again when faced with quality spin bowling on a surface offering some assistance, Australia’s batsman have finished second best.

CRICKET-SRI-AUS
Usman Khawaja falls LBW to Dilruwan Perera as Australia’s struggles on turning pitches continued in Kandy. (Photo credit: LAKRUWAN WANNIARACHCHI/AFP/Getty Images)

In the end not even the predicted rain could save them in Kandy. Despite being favorites for the Warne-Muralitharan Trophy before the first Test match, Australia instead find themselves 1-0 down with just two Tests to play. The 106-run defeat at the Pallekele International Stadium adds another chapter to Australian cricket’s recent catalogue of struggles on the subcontinent.

Despite staunch resistance from Peter Nevill and the injured Steven O’Keefe, who added a painstaking stand of 4 runs from 178 deliveries, it wasn’t enough as the hosts wrapped up victory before tea on the fifth day. For Australia it was a seventh consecutive Test match loss in Asia.

Their shortcomings against the spin offerings provided by the Sri Lankan trio of Rangana Herath, Lakshan Sandakan and Dilruwan Perera are certainly no aberration. Such deficiencies have been going on for decades and they currently look no closer to being arrested than they were after the disastrous tour of India three years ago.

After dismissing the hosts for 117 on the first day of the Test, the Australians could only muster a first-innings lead of 86. Eventually set 268 to win after a masterful third innings 176 by rookie Kusal Mendis, they folded for 161 on day five with Herath and Sandakan sharing 16 wickets in the match.

On dry turning wickets, the Australians have struggled against all varieties of slow bowling. Be it the legspin of Yasir Shah and Devendra Bishoo, the left-arm orthodox of Herath and Ravindra Jadeja, the left-arm chinaman of Sandakan and Tabraiz Shamsi, or the offspinning showings of Ravichandran Ashwin and Sunil Narine. Against Australia no spin bowler is ever discriminated against.

It’s been almost five years since Australia last celebrated a Test or series victory on Asian shores. In fact it was on their last tour of Sri Lanka, where they claimed a 1-0 series victory, thanks largely to the excellent batting of a certain Mike Hussey. Since then they have struggled desperately, often faced with scoreboard pressure and several men hovering around the bat.

Since that 2011 series win there has been nothing but heartbreak in Asia. The early 2013 tour of India – which will forever be known as the homeworkgate series – was the beginning of a disastrous spell from the Australians. The likes of Ashwin, Jadeja, Harbhajan Singh and Pragyan Ojha turned Australia ragged on that occasion during a 4-0 Indian whitewash. Further strife was endured during a 2-0 Pakistan series victory in the UAE in October 2014 where this time the legspin of Shah and the canny left-arm spin of Zulfiqar Babar proved to be the visitor’s downfall.

nevill
Peter Nevill is finally dismissed after holding Sri Lanka at bay for 115 deliveries. Photo Credit: Getty Images.

Other shortcomings against spin have also occurred outside of Asia too. A 2014 ODI loss to Zimbabwe was compounded by an inability to score off a quartet of modest spinners, while the likes of Bishoo and Narine have troubled the Australians on recent visits to the Caribbean.

Perhaps overconfidence or a lack of patience is often to blame for their careless batting. This was best epitomized in the first innings dismissal of Steve Smith. The Australian captain – who’s commonly renowned as the country’s best player of spin since his predecessor Michael Clarke – was well set on 30 before an ugly heave against Herath resulted in his departure at a crucial part of the match. Australia should have shut Sri Lanka out of the match thereafter, instead they only claimed a first innings lead of 86 when something over 200 would have made life extremely difficult for the hosts.

Despite being well aware of their struggles against spin bowling, what more can Australia do to conquer their fears over the turning ball?

By going to Sri Lanka two weeks prior to their current series, they gave themselves every chance to acclimatize to the humid weather and dry surfaces faced with on the island. While back home work is constantly being done to improve the way the Australians play on turning wickets. Last year a hybrid spin pitch was installed at the Bupa National Cricket Centre in Brisbane. The hope is that the next generation of young Australian batsmen will be able to spend plenty of time honing their skills on the subcontinent-like surface.

Technique wise, going forward they must find a pragmatic but purposeful way of playing the turning ball. A tendency to attack their way out of tough situations may be the Australian way but it’s rarely proved to be the correct way.

Currently faced with two must-win Tests in the coming weeks and then a four-Test series due to commence in India in February, there’s going to be no hiding places for the Australian batsmen. Right now they must find a quick fix before another series on the subcontinent is lost. Seven defeats and counting…

 

 

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.  

Jason Sangha
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.

Australian Asians Credit - Jono Searle
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.

Arjun Nair
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.

IMG_1624
 

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.

IMG_1652

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.

 

Can Mitchell Marsh emulate the successes of Ben Stokes?

While both hard-hitting allrounders are of a similar age – Stokes’ international career has taken off spectacularly in recent times. Marsh meanwhile remains, for now, a project player.

image
Mitchell Marsh celebrates his maiden international hundred against India last month.

Mitchell Marsh will struggle to remember a better day than Saturday 6th February 2016. It began with news of a gigantic cheque arriving from the IPL, involved a tidy bowling spell of 2-30, and concluded with an unbeaten series-levelling knock of 69.

Whilst Marsh watched on at the non-strikers end as big John Hastings hit the winning runs in Wellington, I instead found myself 5,258 kms away observing another game of cricket. A far simpler encounter between two WACA: 1st Grade sides at the picturesque Stevens Reserve ground in South Fremantle, Western Australia.

The first day skirmish between Fremantle District CC and Perth CC, played under the unrelenting WA sun, seemed a world away from the Chappell-Hadlee duel at the ‘Cake Tin’, even if it did include a pair of highly impressive youngsters in Tom Abell and Jhye Richardson.

So what’s the link you may ask?

Well, Fremantle is where it had all began for the Perth-born Marsh. The international recognition and IPL paycheque (Marsh was bought by new franchise Pune Rising Supergiants in Saturday’s auction IPL for INR 4 crores – around $1 million AUD) are both just rewards for an upbringing that began, like many Australian cricketers before him, in Grade cricket.

While a busy international schedule has contrived to restrict Marsh to just two Grade appearances for Freo this summer (the last of which was in early December) and accumulated in him contributing just eight runs, he remains a player still highly regarded among his contemporaries at the club.

After making his First Grade bow in 2006/07, Marsh lived up to his enormous potential two summers later when, as a 17-year-old, he made 208 from 171-deliveries when batting at number five against Gosnells. A week later he became the youngest Australian to play in the country’s domestic one-day competition, debuting for Western Australia against South Australia at Bunbury.

Such lofty heights were followed with more success in the U19’s – where he captained the side to World Cup success in New Zealand in 2010. Among his compatriots in that side were current limited-overs teammates Josh Hazlewood, Kane Richardson and Adam Zampa.

Whilst Marsh was ascending through the ranks in Australian cricket, at the other end of the planet Ashes rivals England were unearthing a promising allrounder of their own.

Like Marsh, Ben Stokes also played in the 2010 U19 World Cup – impressing with a century against India in the process. The similarities run much deeper than that too. Both men were initially introduced into the international game via the limited overs route, with Stokes’ ODI debut preceding that of Marsh’s by just two months in August 2011.

They also both made their Test bows in trying circumstances. Stokes in the Ashes whitewash of 2013/14 and Marsh a year later as Australia were demolished 2-0 by Pakistan in the UAE.

While they share several comparisons, what currently sets them apart is the impact that Stokes has already had in Test cricket. With 23 Tests to his name, the Englishman has contributed three centuries (including a double), Marsh, on the other hand has just one fifty across his 13 matches – an 87 in his second Test at Abu Dhabi.

Up until securing his maiden century in his 44th international appearance (an unbeaten 102 off 84 deliveries against India at the SCG), Marsh had encountered a difficult summer with the bat.

Unable to pass fifty before that joyous occasion at the SCG, he spent most of the summer in the dressing room nursing pad-rash after the top five all scored a glut of runs in series against New Zealand and the West Indies. His 88 runs across five Tests owed as much to a lack of opportunity than to any particularly poor form.

Even so he’s spent the summer keeping the wolves at bay as both the tabloids and social media alike took turns to jump on his back – something which Shane Watson had himself once become accustomed to.

So desperate to get his premier allrounder some time in the middle, captain Steve Smith contrived to promote Marsh up the order in both the rain affected new year Test in Sydney and the fourth ODI against India in Canberra.

Twice promoted to bat at number three, he endured relatively subdued knocks of 21 off 63 (against the West Indies) and a 42-ball 33 (against India), stalling the earlier progress of the openers on both occasions. Only later in the ODI series did Smith’s plan come to fruition when Marsh ended his four-year wait for an international ton.

Were it not for his bowling – once seen as his weaker suit – he could well have found himself out of the side. After initial doubts over his ability to hold up an end, his bowling has come on leaps and bounds in both control and pace. This has allowed Smith to use both Mitchell’s (Johnson and Starc), along with James Pattinson, to attack in short bursts.

With both Johnson and Starc absent for the duration of the West Indies series, Marsh eventually found himself as the side’s enforcer. Regularly clocking up speeds in excess of 140kph during the Boxing Day Test at the MCG, he finished the match with career-best figures of 4-61.

After initially taking four matches and seven innings to take his first Test wicket, Marsh’s record of 21 wickets at 31.61 are a solid return for essentially a fourth seamer. That 12 of those wickets have come in his six matches this summer shows of the hard work he’s put in with bowling coach Craig McDermott.

Marsh’s upturn in fortunes have occurred at a time when Stokes is rightfully being showered in appraisals. Coming off the back of a breakthrough series in South Africa, Stokes’ stock has never been higher. Australians across the land must be left wondering if their own 24-year-old allrounder can develop into such an attacking match winner.

The Man-of-the-series performance against the formerly number-one ranked South African’s bookended a year in which Stokes has played an enterprising part in a new beginning for English cricket.

He finished the series second to only Hashim Amla on the run scoring charts with 411 runs at 58.71 and fourth on the wickets tally with 12 victims at 29.16. His thunderous innings of 258 at Cape Town was brutality and insouciance at its very best.

Despite Stokes taking a little while to find his feet at the international level (he made three successive ducks against India in his second series in 2014) his Test performances in the past year have been highly impressive. Sitting alongside the Cape Town 258 are the 92 & 101 he made against New Zealand at Lords and the second innings 6-36 against Australia at Trent Bridge – both in the past twelve months.

On the surface combined Test batting (33.73) and bowling (38.07) averages hardly suggest a pathway to greatness for Stokes. But similar to both Ian Botham and Andrew Flintoff before him, it’s his ability to stand up and be counted that marks the redhead out as a dangerous customer in all forms of the game.

His inclusion adds much needed balance to an England side, not only ensuring Alastair Cook can play five bowlers, but also allowing Moeen Ali (a man with 14 first-class hundreds to his name) to bat at number eight. Rod Marsh and his selection committee will hope Marsh can soon fulfil a similar role for Australia.

While Marsh has a poor batting average of 24.64 throughout the 21 times he’s walked to the middle in Test cricket, it must be noted that at times, he’s been asked to perform a selfless act when batting with a declaration looming.

Despite his often infuriating ability to throw his wicket away when well set, Australia must resist the urge to drop Marsh down to number seven and bat keeper Peter Nevill ahead of him. Such theories were muted at the conclusion of November’s day/night Test in Adelaide – where Nevill scored an accomplished first-innings 66 in trying conditions. Thankfully for Marsh’s development those ideas were soon quickly forgotten.

After started out as a number six, Stokes was briefly shifted down to number seven during England’s tour of the Caribbean last spring. The move, aided by a strong desire to promote Moeen up the order, only truly resulted in Stokes adopting a reckless attitude to batting.

“If you pick someone to bat in a certain place they’ll bat that way” – words of former Durham teammate Stephen Harmison on describing Stokes’ demotion in the order last year.

Fortunately for Stokes’ development as a batsman, the dismissal of coach Peter Moores – following that disastrous series in the West Indies – abetted his return up the order. The decision to reinstate him at six – made by then interim-coach Paul Farbrace – has since being vindicated with the Left-hander excelling under on the added responsibility.

For Marsh the forthcoming two-Test series in New Zealand looms as a potentially defining one. With the ball expected to swing and seam as it did in England last winter, Trent Boult and co are sure to demand a thorough test of his defensive technique. A technique previously found wanting in such conditions.

With the ball, he also has a huge role to play for skipper Smith. With Starc still out injured and doubts over the short term fitness of both Pattinson and Peter Siddle, expect Marsh to bowl his fair share of tough overs.
There’s certainly a lot to admire about both Stokes and Marsh. In an era when allrounders in Test cricket are often portrayed as something that closely resembles gold dust, having one equipped to bat in a positive manner at number six, whilst also being able to bowl 140kph-plus as a fourth-change seamer, is invaluable.

Could next year’s Ashes campaign be a battle of the allrounders?