World Cup ecstasy to Ashes agony

Australian cricket review 2015

The highs of March’s World Cup glory were replaced by the lows of August’s Ashes failure, amid a year that witnessed a spate of returns and farewells.

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It was a year of farewells and new beginnings in Australian cricket. Triumph, heartbreak, legacy, retirement and groundbreaking – were all key words used during another rollercoaster year in Australia’s favourite summer sport.

Figures alone suggest that Australia has had a good 2015. They lost just three of their 13 Tests and three of their 19 ODIs, but of course figures only tell half of the tale.

On the surface the year concluded as it had begun – with captain marvel Steve Smith scoring a customary Test hundred whilst leading Australia to yet another dominate home series victory. However, scratch a little deeper and you’ll find that 2015 was a year in which the landscape changed across Australian cricket.

A new captain, vice-captain, wicketkeeper, spearhead quick, opening batsman, allrounder and chairman were just a few changes to occur over the past twelve months.

November saw Cricket Australia break new ground when the Adelaide Oval played host to cricket’s first ever day/night Test match. The three-wicket victory over New Zealand was by most accounts a resounding success with a grand total of 123,736 people attending the first three days of play.

On the field, deputising for the injured incumbent Test captain Michael Clarke, Smith had begun the year making 117 and 71 against India at the Sydney Cricket Ground – He concluded it with scores of 134* and 70* against the West Indies at the MCG – this time as permanent chief in commander.

Clarke’s demise conspired to be painful and rapid; Smith’s rise conspicuous and fruitful. Much like when Ricky Ponting reached the end of the road as captain in 2011, the changing of the guard was evident as it played out amongst the public spotlight of an Ashes campaign.

Unlike Ponting, Clarke wasn’t about to continue any further in the side. He would go on to announce his retirement from international cricket in an interview with old ally Shane Warne during the third morning of the fourth Ashes Test at Trent Bridge.

The timing of the decision came as no surprise. Amid a huge slump in form – in which his six 2015 Tests had brought just 196 runs at 21.77, and coupled with the strain of multiple injuries and the ongoing raw emotions over the death of Phillip Hughes last November, Clarke no longer had anything left to give.

His retirement would headline a host of farewells throughout the year. Ryan Harris, Chris Rogers, Brad Haddin and Mitchell Johnson all walked away from the international game, while Shane Watson chose to step aside from the Test arena.

Going into 2015, Australia had their eyes solely on two main prizes. A home World Cup victory and an away Ashes triumph. The first of which they had never achieved, the second hadn’t been ticked off for fourteen unthinkable years.

With the World Cup secured after an exhilarating seven-wicket victory over co-hosts New Zealand at the MCG in late March, perhaps also expecting Ashes success was too greedy.

The World Cup success was systematically built around a strong pace bowling unit, of which Mitchell Starc was the ultimate ringleader. The left-armer claimed a joint tournament-high 22 wickets at just 10.18. Alongside Johnson, Josh Hazlewood and Pat Cummins, he combined to obliterate all fellow challengers.

While the side that claimed the ODI silverware were a well drilled and balanced outfit in home conditions, the squad that arrived as favourites on English soil in June were overconfident, creaky and long in the tooth.

Once again found out by the seaming and swinging ball, a problem that has handicapped touring Australian sides for some years now, their brittle top and middle order were frequently lambs to the slaughter. Entering the green-top-abattoirs of Edgbaston and Trent Bridge, the tourists simply had no answers when confronted with James Anderson, Stuart Broad and co. wielding shiny new Dukes balls in helpful conditions.

Truth be told, much like the English side that travelled down under in 2013-14, this was an Ashes series too far for an ageing Australian squad with ten players over the age of 30 – four of whom were 35 or older.

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The Trent Bridge scoreboard says it all. Photo Credit: Getty Images.

Given the pre-series nickname Dad’s Army, Clarke and his men played down the concerns of age, instead deciding to focus on the experience they had in their ranks. But once the series got underway it became clear many wouldn’t make it beyond its conclusion in late August.

After Harris pulled up lame during a pre-Ashes tour match at Chelmsford, it began a procession of untimely blows for the tourists. Selection blunders, personal issues and significant loss of form all contributed as the problems mounted, eventually reaching their summit on that frightful first morning in Nottingham.

The casualties provided by a failed Ashes campaign, led to more selection dilemmas. But only after a proposed two-Test tour of Bangladesh was cancelled on security grounds in October, did we begin to see the makeup of the new Test side – now under the fulltime stewardship of Smith.

Joe Burns, selected ahead of the younger Cameron Bancroft, has averaged 47.88 with two hundreds since being named as Rogers’ successor in early November. While Usman Khawaja shrugged off nine months of knee ligament rehabilitation to finally nail down the number three berth. Either side of a hamstring injury, the left-hander scored 504 runs at 126.00, including three consecutive hundreds.

Although there’s no denying that much greater challenges (than home series against New Zealand and the West Indies) await next year, the batting order already has a more balanced feel to it. That Shaun Marsh was dropped for the Boxing Day Test despite scoring 182 in his previous innings at Hobart shows that competition for places is strong.

The fast bowling stocks remain a slight concern. Despite the retirements of Harris and Johnson, the depth is still relatively broad; keeping men on the park is the real concern. Cummins, Starc and Nathan Coulter-Nile are all currently sidelined for the foreseeable future.

Alongside the flourishing comebacks of Burns and Khawaja, the return of James Pattinson – absent from the World Cup and Ashes campaigns with various back injuries – is a significant positive heading into 2016.

Away from the field, David Peever, a former managing director at mining giant Rio Tinto, took over as Cricket Australia chairman following Wally Edwards departure from the role in October. After four years in the position Edwards’ legacy will no doubt be his role in the so-called ‘Big Three’, he leaves CA in a sound financial predicament.

September saw substantial news regarding the future of international cricket in Perth. From 2018 onwards all limited overs cricket and Test matches against England, India and South Africa will be moved from the WACA to a new 60,000-seater stadium in Burswood. The move saw plenty of opposition with former Test great Dennis Lillee among the masses in stating his displeasure at the move.

Adelaide Oval day-night Test
A lit up Adelaide Oval plays host to the inaugural day/night Test match in November. Photo Credit: Getty Images.

High point: World Cup glory

When over 93,000 people packed into the MCG to witness a showdown between the tournaments two hosts, they expected a close game.

After a thrilling group stage match in Auckland a month earlier New Zealand, led by the effervescent Brendon McCullum, went into their first World Cup final on the crest of a wave. But Starc soon changed all that when he dismissed McCullum in the first over.

New Zealand could only limp to 183. Solid top order contributions from David Warner, Smith and Clarke saw Australia ease home in the 34th over to claim an unprecedented fifth World Cup crown.

Low point: 60 all out at Trent Bridge.

Going into that treacherous first morning at Trent Bridge, the Ashes were still on the precipice. Just 18.3 overs later and the English were essentially clutching the urn.

The insouciant way in which the Australian’s went about batting against Stuart Broad was simply dumbfounding. Sure, every edge went to hand and Ben Stokes, in particular, pulled off a world class grab in the slips, but Australia’s porous defence against the moving ball led to plenty of questions being asked.

An innings and 78-run defeat followed. The Ashes were handed over and with them Clarke handed over his resignation.

New kid on the block: Josh Hazlewood.

Since making his debut last December, Hazlewood has been an almost ever present (he missed just the fifth Ashes Test) in the Test side, taking 60 wickets at 24.13.

Despite struggling to control the amount of swing and seam on offer in English conditions, the 24-year-old impressed in both the West Indies and in home conditions.

With Johnson retired and Starc injured, Hazlewood stood up to be counted during the day/night Test in Adelaide last month. His match figures 9-136 were his career best and led to man-of-the-match honours.

Like with all young fast bowlers, its important he’s given adequate rest after playing a key role in recent series wins over New Zealand and the West Indies.

Fading Star: Michael Clarke

While six ageing players have retired this year, the decline of Michael Clarke is perhaps the greatest. He started the year not only still mourning the loss of Hughes, but also battling back and hamstring complaints and never fully recovered to find either his best form, or enthusiasm for the game.

The World Cup Final knock of 74 was his only innings of note before poor tours of the Caribbean and United Kingdom led to his inevitable retirement.

He left the game with 17,112 international runs spread across 115 Tests, 245 ODIs and 34 T20Is.

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2015 saw Richie Benaud sign off for one last time. Photo Credit: Getty Images.

Farewell to: Richie Benaud & Arthur Morris

Benaud passed away in April at his Coogee home after a short battle with skin cancer. He was 84. A pioneer of cricket broadcasting later in life, Richie will also be fondly remembered as a deep thinking captain and superb legbreak bowler.

He played 63 Tests between 1952-1964 and finished his career with three centuries and 248 wickets.

Australian summers will not be the same without his distinctive voice being heard in the Channel Nine commentary box. Richie touched the lives of many – this author included.

Morris, a fellow Australian Cricket Hall of Famer, died in August aged 93. He made his name as a tremendous left-handed opening batsman, starting out at the conclusion of the Second World War.

He shot to fame as part of Don Bradman’s famous invinclibles Ashes tour of 1948 – where he topped the run scoring charts with 696 runs at 87.00. One of the last living players from that tour (Only Neil Harvey remains) he finished his career in 1955 having played 46 Tests in the Baggy Green.

What 2016 holds?

Like with any year, Australia’s progress will be judged on their away success. More to the point their ability to play the swinging and spinning ball in alien conditions.

A two-Test tour of New Zealand in February should be a measure of how much they have learnt from their mistakes against the moving ball in England, while a series in Sri Lanka later in the year will gauge where they are at regarding the spinning ball, a fundamental problem during recent tours on the subcontinent.

The ICC World Twenty20, set to be hosted by India in March, will offer further insight into whether Aaron Finch’s side can click as a unit after previous disappointment in the only format Australia has yet to win a global tournament in.

The home summer concludes the year when both South Africa and Pakistan head down under, with discussions already underway to stage at least one day/night Test.

 

The stuttering career of ‘Lil’ Bravo

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

Darren Bravo disappointed
Photo Credit: Getty Images.

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

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

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

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

What about the future batting greats?

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

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

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

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

Test batting stats before August 29th 2014

Bravo – 2196 runs at 43.92 (30 matches)

Root – 1732 runs at 50.94 (22 matches)

Kohli – 1855 runs at 39.46 (29 matches)

Williamson – 2377 runs at 40.28 (34 matches)

Smith – 1361 runs at 40.02 (20 matches)

Test batting stats since August 29th 2014

Bravo – 545 runs at 32.05 (9 matches)

Root – 1288 runs at 61.33 (13 matches)

Kohli – 1139 runs at 54.23 (12 matches)

Williamson – 1250 runs at 78.12 (10 matches)

Smith – 2015 runs at 74.62 (16 matches)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Darren Bravo Dunedin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How deep are Australia’s fast bowling stocks?

The retirement of Mitchell Johnson and foot injury sustained to Mitchell Starc has again led to the question, how deep is Australia’s fast bowling depth?

Fast bowling cartel - Cricket Australia
Photo Credit: Cricket Australia/Getty Images.

We keep getting told how much fast bowling depth there is in Australia. We’re told that they could field as many as twenty different seamers and still remain competitive in international cricket – but are the fast bowling stocks quite as strong as they once were?

This year’s retirements to former spearhead’s Ryan Harris and Mitchell Johnson has taken away not just experience (100 Tests) and quality (426 wickets), but it’s also significantly weakened the depth in fast bowling across the country. Throw in the metatarsal injury sustained by Mitchell Starc during the recent Test against New Zealand, along with a host of injuries currently facing other potential candidates, and it begins to become a cause for concern.

The injury picked up by Starc during the first innings in Adelaide is as much, if not more, frustrating for the selectors than the timing of Johnson’s retirement following the previous Test in Perth. Starc had this summer, started to become the Test bowler his rich promise has previously suggested he was capable of becoming. In outbowling fellow left-armer Johnson during his, at times, rapid spells at the Gabba and the WACA, he had taken over as the bowling attack’s spearhead and was bowling better than ever before injury prematurely ended his home summer with 13 wickets at 23.23.

Starc, 25, is now targeting the tour of New Zealand in February as a realistic return date. The prolonged rest should, at least, allow him to freshen up after a tough year battling a recurring ankle problem.

All the signs currently point towards James Pattinson replacing Starc for next week’s first Test against the West Indies in Hobart. But, while, on the surface the bowling depth looks exciting and plentiful, scratch a little deeper and the cracks begin to appear.

Quite literally, you could find cracks or fractures or strains, as it appears more young Australian quick bowlers are currently gracing the treatment table instead of the firing on the field.

Producing the fast bowlers has been the easy part for Australia, keeping them injury-free hasn’t. In the past few years most of their young quicks have become even more susceptible to injury than an Arsenal footballer.

With the squad for next week’s first Test due to be announced on Tuesday morning, it will be interesting to see who stands where in the fast-bowling cartel. Certainly plenty of mulling over awaits Rod Marsh and his fellow selectors Darren Lehmann, Mark Waugh and Trevor Hohns.

If there’s one thing that we already know it’s that Josh Hazlewood and Peter Siddle will be taking up two, of the expected three, fast bowling berths set to be available alongside Nathan Lyon and allrounder Mitchell Marsh.

Hazlewood, 24, produced the goods when it mattered most for Australia at the Adelaide Oval. His innings (6-70) and match (9-136) figures were both career best’s, but it was the way in which he took over as the leader of the attack in the absence of Johnson and Starc that really highlighted his value to the current setup. However, on the downside, his workload (He bowled 119 overs during the series) is already being questioned just three Tests into the summer, this follows on from a hectic year since he debuted against India last December.

Unable to get into the Australian side just a few months ago (not forgetting the Victoria side during the Matador Cup), Siddle, 31, is fast becoming a valuable commodity among the bowling stocks. His ability to retain pressure is a quality not withstanding many of his counterparts and Hazlewood could do well to buy his mate a beer after he contributed heavily in earning the New South Welshman many of his nine wickets.

Despite complaining of a slightly sore back during the match, in which he claimed his 200th Test victim, Siddle should be deemed fit enough to face the Hobart Test. But alongside the aforementioned duo and a fit again Starc, how far does the bowling depth stretch in Australia? Here’s a look at the likely next in line.

 

James Pattinson (Age 25) Tests: 13 (51 wickets at 27.07)

His Test record is solid, his injury record less so. Since playing his last Test match in South Africa back in March 2014, a host of injuries have limited him to just four first-class matches for Victoria.

Among those setbacks were two serious back injuries sustained within the space of 10 months following the 2013 Ashes in England. Deterred by back complains and determined to correct his action, from front to side-on, he in turn injured his hamstring.

But injuries are nothing new for Pattinson. In November 2012, a year after making his Test debut, he suffered a rib injury so severe that, for a while, he was unable to breathe properly.

Despite all of this, he has fought his way back this summer, with the new action in tow. He has Impressed enough in both the Matador Cup and Sheffield Shield, to receive another opportunity in the wake of Johnson’s retirement.

 

Nathan Coulter-Nile (28)

Coulter-Nile could soon become just the second “double-barrelled” name to represent Australia in Test cricket since Chuck Fleetwood-Smith was handed Baggy Green number 153 in 1935.

Despite averaging a solid 28.97 with the ball across his 35 first-class fixtures, he’s only been used as a limited overs specialist for his country thus far, impressing in a smattering of ODI appearances. However, like most before him, he has suffered his fair share of injuries.

Plagued mainly by hamstring injures over the past couple of years, it’s in fact a shoulder injury which has kept him out of any Shield cricket so far this summer. He has also recently suffered the raff of the match referee – missing Western Australia’s latest fixture for his troubles – this indiscipline could cost him a place in the squad for Hobart next week.

 

Jackson Bird (28) Tests: 3 (13 wickets at 23.30)

Despite playing his last Test during the 2013 Ashes tour of England, Bird, unsurprisingly another man who has regularly struggled with injuries, could be set to benefit from the misfortune of others and gain a place in next week’s squad.

Rumours are suggesting that Bird’s previous Test experience and solid recent form could give him the nod ahead of Coulter-Nile as he seeks to revive his fledgling international career.

This summer tally of 18 wickets at 24.77, including a timely 5-69 against South Australia this week, his first five-wicket haul in 18 months, have certainly reminded the selectors of his worth as a third seamer. Recent English experience, where he took 19 wickets at 39.73 during an injury-marred spell for Hampshire this winter, could also count in his favour.

Jackson Bird Getty images
Jackson Bird in Sheffield Shield action for Tasmania. Photo Credit: ESPNcricinfo/Getty Images

Pat Cummins (22) Tests: 1 (7 wickets at 16.71)  

It’s easy to forget that Cummins is still only 22-years-old. Four years after taking 7-117 during a man-of-the-match winning debut in Johannesburg, he’s yet to play another Test.

That his crooked body has allowed him to play just eight first-class matches in his near five-year long career tells its own story. Currently back in rehabilitation with an early stage lumbar bone stress fracture sustained during a rare period on the park in England, he is expected to miss the entire summer.

But like Pattinson, who incidentally debuted a Test later, missing a home summer is nothing new for the youngster. He hasn’t played a Sheffield Shield match since suffering a stress fracture in the final back in March 2011.

Since then the injuries have stacked up. Soon after his Test debut, he suffered a stress fracture of the foot, before another back stress fracture put pay to his 2012 summer. After initially recovering from that injury, it again flared up during an A tour of South Africa in August 2013.

However, after contributing to the World Cup success in March, it seemed he had finally turned a corner, before the back finally gave in once more. He may well have to follow Pattinson’s suit and change his action before it all becomes too late.

 

James Faulkner (25) Tests: 1 (6 wickets at 16.33)

A limited-overs regular, Faulkner was called into the squad to tour Bangladesh after the injury to Cummins, but with that tour postponed he hasn’t yet had chance to add to his one Test appearance, earned more than two years ago. A none-too-serious toe injury, relating to a knee complaint, kept him out of Tasmania’s recent Shield fixture but a quick return is expected.

An allrounder in many senses, he has impressive first-class bowling (179 wickets at 23.97) and batting (2202 runs at 31.01) figures. Like Bird, he also gained valuable overseas experience with Lancashire over the winter.

Should Mitchell Marsh continue to blow hot and cold as the Test allrounder then expect him to challenge Moises Henriques for the a place in the side. Without Johnson and Starc, his left arm option could add variety to the current predominantly right-armed attack.

 

Jason Behrendorff (25)

Like Coulter-Nile, left-armer Behrendorff is another member of the strong current Western Australia fast-bowling cartel. But like his state teammate he has also struggled with injuries so far this summer, restricting his Shield appearances to just two.

A contributor across all formats, he currently averages 25.22 with the ball in first-class cricket, and has recently gained the backing of former Australian players Dirk Nannes and Michael Slater – who both believe he is a serious contender for one of the vacant Test berths.

After a strong start to last summer, his bowling was brought to an abrupt and premature end when he was diagnosed with a stress fracture in the right side of his lower back, whilst playing for the Perth Scorchers in the Big Bash in early February.

When back to full-fitness he will certainly remain on the periphery of national honours as shown by his selections for both the Prime Minister’s and Cricket Australia XI’s recently.

With Starc out injured, expect a limited over call up once India arrive in January – at the very least.

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Jason Behrendorff has erned high praise in recent months. Photo Credit: ESPNcricinfo/Getty Images.

Andrew Fekete (30)

The 30-year-old was called up from the relatively unknown for October’s subsequently postponed tour of Bangladesh, leading to many newspapers running the headline: “Who the Fek is he?”

Good question. His call up for that tour was on the back of a stellar Sheffield Shield season for Tasmania last summer – where he finished with 34 wickets at 24. He followed this up with an impressive showing during the A tour of India over the winter.

After the disappointment of not boarding a plane to Bangladesh, his form has tailed away dramatically. Despite a steady Matador Cup, his early season Shield form has underwhelmed massively. Dropped after two poor performances, he was lucky to earn a recallafter Faulkner went down injured last week. Unfortunatly he again underperformed, going at well over five-an-over during his 4-151 in South Australia’s massive 7-600d.

Although picked for the Bangladesh tour as a subcontinent specialist, he was never a realist contender for a Test berth in home conditions. With younger and quicker men seemingly ahead of him, it appears his dreams of a Baggy Green could well be fading into obscurity.

Also worthy of a mention: Gurinder Sandhu (New South Wales), Chadd Sayers (South Australia), Scott Boland (Victoria). 

Day/Night Test cricket – A step into the unknown

After three years of trails, tribulations, debates and suspicion, the inaugural Day/Night Test match is now just a matter of hours away from taking place at the Adelaide Oval.

In this piece I look at the five burning questions facing the match.

Bracewell - pink ball
Image Credit: Getty Images

 

Will the pink ball hold up for 80 overs?

After a “Cricket Australia and Kookaburra nightmare” occurred during last month’s Prime Minister’s XI fixture at Canberra’s Manuka Oval, the longevity of the pink ball appeared a serious cause for concern.

Many doubts were raised during that 50-over fixture, none more so than when the pink ball appeared to lose its lacquer and colour very quickly – turning it from pink to a greenish colour – long before the end of the allotted 50-overs.

Such deterioration was largely blamed on the abrasive Manuka Oval wicket and outfield, which took large pieces of lacquer off the ball when it was either bowled into the pitch or thrown into the wicketkeeper on the bounce. Measures to counter such issues have since been put into place.

To compensate for this Damian Hough, the Adelaide Oval’s chief curator, is working closely with the Cricket Australia hierarchy to maintain that the wicket for Friday’s fixture is set to include an extra couple of millimetres of grass than what would usually be prescribed for a Test match at the venue.

Hough’s will also be creating a smaller square than usual too – with just two wickets either side of the main strip. This, further coupled with a lush green outfield, should ensure that the ball keeps its shape and colour throughout the innings, albeit nullifying any possible reverse swing in the same instance.

This concept was trailed and found largely successful during the recent Adelaide Oval day/night Sheffield Shield fixture between South Australia and New South Wales, allying many of the fears first raised in Canberra a month ago.

Likewise, ball manufacturers Kookaburra have spent the best part of three years researching and developing the pink ball to ensure it resembles the similar mannerisms of its red counterpart.

 

Will the pink ball make for good cricket?

Victorian seamer John Hastings didn’t seem to think so after his side’s recent day/night Shield fixture with Queensland at the MCG.

The former Australian bowler dismissed the pink ball as being conclusive to a “boring brand of cricket”, with his main concerns being over the lack of hardness, movement or swing once the ball had reached the 15-over mark.

Hastings, no neophyte to the pink ball format, has suggested that changing the ball after 50-55 overs instead of the mandatory 80-over mark, which is currently in place in Test cricket, would allow captains to engage in more attacking field placings instead of asking their bowlers to bowl to straight fields.

With a lack of conventional swing available after the ball starts to soften during the 15-20 over mark, it’s difficult to imagine a way in which the quick bowlers will succeed during the afternoon session at least. With the lack of reverse-swing also a factor once the ball softens, it could lead to a period of attritional cricket – where both run scoring and wicket taking becomes predominantly difficult.

However, curator Hough has this week allied those fears by suggesting the added grass on the wicket will allow for an entertaining battle between bat and ball – something that can’t be said for the wickets on offer at the Gabba and the WACA in recent weeks.

Worn out pink ball
How will the Pink Ball hold up to the rigures of Test cricket? (Image Credit: Getty Images)

 

Do the twilight and evening periods give the bowlers an unfair advantage?

Like ODI cricket with the white ball, its pink equivalent has been known to swing more under the lights.

As well as swinging more once the daylight subsides and the floodlights take over – the pink ball, notably a discoloured pink ball, can also be difficult to pick up for both batsmen and fieldsmen once the sun begins to set.

This has raised debate over whether the ball will favour the quick bowlers much more in the second and third sessions, than it would do in the afternoon session. Early suggestions are that it almost certainly will – especially judging by the recent round of day/night Shield matches.

This issue was raised at the Adelaide Oval earlier this month. When Australian captain Steven Smith, at the time skippering NSW, made an interesting declaration on the first evening, he perhaps set a precedent for future captains in this new format.

Once Smith and David Warner were dismissed after a century-stand for the second wicket, it began a collapse as NSW lost eight wickets for 90 runs during the twilight and evening period. With just one wicket remaining Smith had seen enough and declared with the chance to have a bowl at South Australia, in the few remaining overs of the day, simply too good to refuse.

Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazelwood duly delivered for their captain, leaving the home side precariously placed overnight at 3-3.

Faced with a similar situation, expect other captains to follow suit in the search for late evening wickets. It could well give a whole new meaning to the term “nightwatchman”.

 

Will the pink ball favour spin too?

It was once perceived that the pink ball would hinder spin bowling during a Test match, but recent statistics have suggested to the contrary.

NSW left-arm spinner Steve O’Keefe has excelled during his three day/night Shield matches at the Adelaide Oval – so much so that he has been added to the squad for the inaugural Test.

In three matches at the venue O’Keefe has taken 18 wickets, including 5-89 and 6-70 in his first day/night fixture there two years ago. And although Australia are likely to favour Nathan Lyon and three seamers, his inclusion at least gives the selectors further options heading into the unknown on a wicket that Hough believes will take “some spin” due to its “coarse and thatchy grass covering”.

Another area which can benefit the spin bowlers is the green seam-stitching on the pink ball. On the surface it seems irrelevant what colour the stitching is, but the issue was this week raised by Smith who insisted that he had particular difficulty in picking up the green seam on the spinning ball whilst facing South Australian part-timer Travis Head during a recent Shield match.

Sheffield Shield - Redbacks v Blues: Day 1
The Adelaide Oval is set to host it’s fourth and most important Day/Night match. (Image Credit: Daniel Kalisz/Getty Images)

 

Will it attract more fans to the ground and on television?

The early indications are that ticket sales have been good and a crowd of around 40,000 is expected for the first couple of days. If as expected a crowd of around 40,000 does indeed turn up, then it would surpass the first day totals for the two most recent Ashes matches at the ground in both 2010 and 2013.

The match is not just attracting the locals either, around 60% of the non-member ticket sales have been to fans from interstate or overseas – leading to global interest and intrigue over the new concept.

Certainly the introduction of “After work” or “Twilight” tickets have added another dimension to the fan’s cricket experience in the local area. The tickets to be priced at $20 for adults and $10 for children – will allow access into the ground from 4pm onwards, meaning that fans can attend play for the final two sessions of the day at a discounted rate.

Such concepts are sure to engage the public interest with both workers and school children being offered the chance to still see their hero’s after a busy day elsewhere.

For television and more specifically Channel 9, the plan to host the match in Adelaide works perfectly as the network hope to capture primetime viewers in the highly populated Eastern states, similar to the way a Perth Test match would do so.

Pace, perseverance and pantomime villain: the tale of Mitchell Johnson

Steady decline and fading desire lead to 34-year-old’s retirement; he departs the game with 313 Test and 239 ODI wickets.

Mitchell Johnson retires 3

The end is upon us. Batsmen around the world can breath a sigh of relief. Mitchell Johnson has hung up his spikes for the 73rd and final time.

In the end his retirement had become public knowledge long before his announcement ahead of the final day’s play at the WACA. The whispers had grown louder; the desire had grown no longer and the career of a great enigma had reached its conclusion.

Ahead of this week’s WACA Test, Johnson had mooted the possibility that it could be his last. When he was blazed around the park by Kane Williamson and Ross Taylor on a scorching third day, he knew it was a wrap. First innings figures of 1-157 from 28 overs (the most expensive by an Australian bowler at the venue) certainly didn’t advocate for pretty viewing or a fairytale finish. However, as often symbolic with Johnson, his perseverance eventually came to the fore. In one final hurrah both Tom Latham and Martin Guptill were bumped out in emblematic fashion.

Once the doubts over retirement had set in during the six weeks preceding the failed Ashes retention, it appeared only a matter of time before the cricketing spark would fizzle away in favour of an easier life spent at home with both wife and daughter.

After deep discussions with wife Jessica and his mentor Dennis Lillee had taken place, it was decided that the opportunity to go past his idol Brett Lee’s haul of 310 Test wickets, would prove too enticing to walk directly away from.

Evidently, after passing Lee’s mark during his treacherous bowling display on Monday, the lack of desire to re-approach his bowling style – that has seen him only ever bowl fast and intimidating – came over in waves. He decided to pull the curtains on a career that had spanned 73 Tests and seen him take an impressive 313 Test wickets at 28.40.

Fittingly it would all end at the WACA. Over the years Perth and its famous old cricket ground have become a home from home for Johnson. His record there is outstanding too. After relocating to Western Australia from Queensland in 2007, his seven Tests at the venue have fetched him 45 wickets at just 22.77.

But the flatness of the wicket during this November match with New Zealand, along with the emergence of Mitchell Starc as the team’s new go-to-man, had both conspired to leave the Townsville-native somewhat underwhelmed.

It’s been difficult times for Johnson of late. His 1-157 at the WACA was the sixth time in the past cricketing year and the second time in just three innings that he had conceded more than 100 runs. In fact since his heroic efforts against both England and South Africa – now 20 months and 14 Tests ago – his average, strike rate and economy rate have all risen sharply in a sure sign his star was on the wane.

Sure, there have been glimpses of that magical time since, but only glimpses. During this year’s Ashes, the fourth afternoon at Lord’s springs to mind, as do the consecutive ripsnorters to fell Ben Stokes and Jonny Bairstow at Edgbaston. Likewise in more recent times the deliveries to dismiss Taylor, BJ Watling and James Neesham at the Gabba also stood out for their intimidating qualities.

This past year, though, has taken a huge emotional toll on Johnson. His aggression and general demeanour were both understandably down after the death of teammate Phillip Hughes last summer, while he also admitted to considering retirement after lifting the World Cup in early April.

Nevertheless he carried on alongside a corpse of aging teammates, with the shared burning desire to retain the Ashes on British soil – something which hadn’t been achieved by his fellow countrymen since 2001.

Mitchell Johnson Portrait Session
Mitchell Johnson poses during a portrait session at Newlands Stadium, South Africa (Photo Credit: Morne de Klerk/Getty Images)

But despite glimmers of light along the way, he never did quite conquer England or the English crowds. For a tearaway bowler – who relies on aggression, pace and bounce – the slow seaming conditions conjured up in the motherland were never truly to his taste.

In the eyes of the English supporters Johnson was most commonly renowned as the ultimate pantomime villain. At times the Barmy Army stood in awe, at others they derided, heckled, abused and mocked him until his confidence and bowling action were shot to the ground.

And when the action fell away, things rapidly spiralled out of control. If the chips were down, his natural slingy low-arm action would creep even further off and the radar would disappear completely. The once threat of wicket taking deliveries would simply turn into an incomprehensive haemorrhaging of runs.

His bowling against England certainly fluctuated from the sublime to the ridiculous. Regardless, his overall numbers certainly speak volumes among modern day Ashes contemporaries: In 19 Tests he captured 87 wickets at 25.21.

But those numbers only tell half of the story. For three out of the four Ashes campaigns he was bordering ordinary, for the other, he was quite simply breathtaking.

Johnson’s Ashes series

2009 in England. (5 Tests, 20 wickets at 32.55)

2010/11 in Australia. (4 Tests, 15 wickets at 36.93)

2013/14 in Australia. (5 Tests, 37 wickets at 13.97)

2015 in England. (5 Tests, 15 wickets at 34.93)

With Johnson, nostalgia will always harp back to the 5-0 whitewash series of 2013/14. The fear inside the eyes of the English can still clearly be pictured to this day. The left-armer simply couldn’t put a foot wrong. Bone-shattering accuracy was mixed with a fierce determination to right previous Ashes wrongs and of course pace, serious pace.

With a throwback-handlebar-moustache – drawing back to the good old days of Lillee and Merv Hughes, Johnson terrorised the England batsmen – neither top order nor tailender were spared his jaw dropping velocity.

Johnson, with some help from Brad Haddin along the way, fired Australia to their second Ashes whitewash in three home campaigns. He would later be awarded both the Allan Border Medal and the ICC International player of the year accolades for his achievements.

Showing this new found confidence was no fluke, he destroyed the South Africans in their own backyard just months later. Spread across the aforementioned eight Tests, he had hustled 59 wickets at an average of just 15.23 including five 5-wicket hauls.

This sudden resurgence was all the more remarkable given that he faced five months out enduring a lengthy rehabilitation following toe surgery in 2011. During which at times he even questioned whether he had the ability or desire to return to international cricket.

While he would never again scale such heights as he did in those few months against England and South Africa, Johnson had done enough to ensure he would go down in Australian fast-bowling folklore alongside the likes of Lillee and Jeff Thomson.

***

Although it’s been a tremendous journey, it certainly hasn’t been an easy one.  His perseverance shown during the times of adversity should serve as inspiration to any young fast bowler out there.

Growing up in the northeast Queensland coastal town of Townsville, for a while as a teenager, he had aspirations of becoming a professional tennis player. Bourne out of his admiration for American Pete Sampras, he would regularly put tennis ahead of cricket in the sporting ranks. Aged 14 he was offered a tennis scholarship in Brisbane, eventually turning it down to concentrate on becoming a scary fast bowler – Oh how many batsmen, the world over, would have wished he’d chosen the racket avenue?

At 17, he was spotted by Lillee at a fast bowling camp in Brisbane. The former Australian quick was so impressed that he immediately arranged for Johnson to spend time with Rod Marsh at the Australian cricket academy in Adelaide, from there he progressed to the U19’s before injury struck.

He went on to suffer four separate back stress fractures – symptomatic with fast bowlers in the modern era – either side of making his first-class debut for Queensland during the 2001/02 summer. Although Queensland knew they had a talent on their hands, he was still raw and very much injury plagued so it was no real surprise when he was released from his playing contract in 2004.

Never one to quit, Johnson persevered; driving a plumbing van whilst often playing as a specialist batsman in the Brisbane Grade scenes, all the while getting himself fit and firing before re-entering state cricket with Queensland.

The hard yakka and resilience paid off in late 2005 when he made his ODI debut against New Zealand at Christchurch. His first introduction to Test cricket was during the 5-0 Whitewash Ashes campaign of 2006/07. Although, intitally, he couldn’t force his way into the side ahead alumni’s such as Glenn McGrath, Stuart Clark and Lee, he did eventually made his debut against Sri Lanka at the Gabba in November 2007.

Aside from the devastating spells produced in 2013/14, he will also look back with fondness at other memorable bowling displays such as the 11-159 against South Africa at Perth in 2008 and the 8-137 against the same opponents in Johannesburg, just months later.

Johnson can certainly sit down with wife Jessica and daughter Rubika and be proud of his career. He’s been a mercurial force, an enigma, a thoroughbred, a champion, at times a lost soul, at others a throwback moustache-wielding destroyer.

And he leaves the game trailing only Shane Warne (708), McGrath (563) and Lillee (355) as the most prolific Test wicket-taker in the history of Australian cricket.

Farewell Mitch.

 

New Australia portray same old swagger

In what was being heralded as a new beginning for Australian cricket, the home side portrayed similar qualities of old to dominate the visiting New Zealanders during a 208-run victory at the Gabba.

Khawaja Cricket Australia-Getty Images
Usman Khawaja looks to have finally nailed down his spot at number three. Image Credit: CA/Getty Images.

What was all the fuss about Eh?

This was supposed to be a new summer, a new beginning, and a new era in Australian cricket. The five post-Ashes retirements wouldn’t be easily replaced overnight and the Blackcaps genuinely had their best chance to end a 30-year wait without a series win over their Tasman rivals. But in the end it was the “same old” for Australia as they clinically demoralised yet another visitor at the “Gabbatoir”.

Their record at the Gabba is unrivalled by any nation, at any venue. Not since the great West Indies side triumphed there by nine-wickets in 1988, have the home side been defeated in Brisbane. That was 27 years ago. The stats make for profound reading: 27 matches, 20 wins, seven draws and zero defeats.

This was a textbook Gabba performance from the Australians too – the batting in particular. Win the toss – check. Bat first – check. Solid opening foundation – check. Accelerate – check. Grind the opposition into the dirt – check. And then declare 550-600 runs to the good – check.

The bowling held up well too. If it weren’t for the exceptional Kane Williamson (140 & 59) then it could well have been far worse for the visitors. Especially in the first innings where he looked to be playing on a different wicket to his compatriots, regularly repelling the Australian quicks as often as the wickets tumbled around him.

So far ahead was Australia after three days that even the inclement Brisbane weather – which wiped out big chunks of the fourth day – couldn’t hold them back. In the end a 208-run victory, achieved around lunchtime on the fifth day, was a fair reflection of the gulf between the two sides in this Test match.

New Zealand captain Brendon McCullum will rue the failure to make inroads with the new ball on the opening morning as paramount to his side’s failings in the match. He certainly wasn’t helped with injuries to both spearhead Tim Southee and allrounder James Neesham along the way, while not many would have forecasted such inept bowling displays from both Trent Boult and Doug Bracewell.

But a large portion of credit must go to Joe Burns, David Warner and Usman Khawaja at the top of the Australian order. The first day’s play really set the tone for further dominance across the course of the remaining four. Never has Australia had a better first day’s batting at the Gabba than the 2-389 they racked up here.

Khawaja was without doubt the biggest positive to emerge from the Gabba success. The 28-year-old, beginning his third stint in the side after failed launches in both 2011 and 2013, began this summer very much at the crossroads of a career that has regularly promised much but seldom produced enough.

It’s a well known fact that Australia has gone almost five years without an established number three. Since Khawaja debuted in January 2011, thirteen players (excluding nightwatchman) have tried and subsequently failed to hold down the position. But while Steven Smith could have carried on in the role after batting there with reasonable success during the winter tours of the West Indies and England, promoting Khawaja, instead, was justified with verve against the Kiwi’s. The languid left-hander’s style and class made him perfectly suited to the number three berth; although his real test will come when he has to walk out at 1-0 and not the untroubled 1-161 and 1-237 he was duly provided with here.

The victory, in its entirety, has acted as a huge fillip for Rod Marsh and his selection panel. Marginal calls were made to bolt for Burns and Khawaja, as opener and number three, ahead of Western Australian pair Cameron Bancroft and Shaun Marsh. Hindsight is of course a wonderful thing, but these judgements are now looking particularly vindicated, as is the call to keep faith with Adam Voges at number five after much clamour was made to jettison him in favour of fellow veteran Michael Klinger.

As the aforementioned trio were “getting their feet under the Test cricket table,” over in Adelaide, Bancroft (111) and Marsh (92) were putting on 172 for Western Australia in the Sheffield Shield. South Australian captain Travis Head, profoundly built up by both Darren Lehmann and Ricky Ponting prior to the summer, won that match with his maiden first-class hundred and he too remains firmly on the periphery of national honours. Maybe there is more batting depth than many of us had originally considered.

Australia pic Getty
Photo Credit: Getty Images

The bowling too reaffirmed the Australian swagger of old. A key quandary going into the first Test of the summer was the debate over whether both Mitchell’s could line up in the same bowling attack. While both Johnson and Starc possessed moments of brilliance during the Ashes, they at times, also leaked runs at an alarming rate. Even though Johnson went at over five-runs-an-over in the first innings here, he did snare the vital wickets of McCullum, Ross Taylor and BJ Watling with his usual emblematic aggression.

Quite how long Johnson, 34, continues in the Test side is a question for another day. With inconsistency still often following Starc and Josh Hazelwood and injuries still blighting the young careers of James Pattinson and Pat Cummins, Australia and Smith very much need their spearhead to continue a little longer yet.

Starc’s six wickets were a match high and moreover his economy rate of 3.32 was an improvement on the 3.85 he averaged across five Ashes Tests earlier in the year. As mentioned on these pages before, this could very much be a breakout summer in Test cricket for the quick.

Often an afterthought in the Australian side, Nathan Lyon continued to quietly do his thing in Brisbane. He’s come a long way since bowling his country to success against India in Adelaide last summer. His new found fourth-innings confidence was there for all to see as he removed the obdurate Martin Guptill, the enterprising Williamson and the regularly dependable Watling. Outside of perhaps Ravichandran Ashwin, it’s difficult to reason of a finer current offspinner in the world game.

Lyon is becoming a reliable and instrumental figure in this new Australia set up. He’s now not just a senior in the side, only Johnson (72) and Peter Siddle (57) among the current setup have more Test caps than his 47, but also a senior member of the leadership group governed by Smith and Warner.

While this Australian side is by no means the finished article, they have made significant strides over the first Test of the summer to suggest that the old swagger isn’t far away, on their own turf anyhow.

Boult and Starc set to come full circle

Almost four years since they made their Test debuts, the left-arm duo finally get another chance to faceoff – this time as vital ingredients in their respective nation’s chances of success.

Boult vs Starc

It’s been 1,424 days since Trent Boult and Mitchell Starc last faced off in a Test match. Tomorrow they will go full circle as they prepare to draw battle once more, this time at The Gabba.

The previous and only time the two have met in Test cricket was during a humdinger in Hobart, as long ago as December 2011. Coincidently that match also marked the debut of Boult and just the second Test for Starc. New Zealand would eventually come out on top, claiming a nail biting 14-run victory to level the series at 1-1.

That match remains the last Test meeting between the Trans-Tasman rivals and things will be much different this time around. In Brisbane on Thursday, New Zealand will field seven of the same line-up from that Hobart encounter; Australia will retain just four of theirs.

As Australia begins their home summer a side very much in transition, their little neighbours from across the pond remain a settled unit under the sound tutorage of Brendon McCullum.

Many are making the Kiwi’s favourites for the three-Test series, but for them to overcome the barrier – which has seen them not win a series against the old enemy for 30 years – they must get into the inexperienced Australian middle order with early strikes.

For the home side, who have already made the decision to omit Peter Siddle from their line-up, it’s imperative that they regain the control in their bowling which was largely missing when they surrendered the Ashes during the winter.

With two of the three Tests being played on the fast and bouncy wickets of The Gabba and the WACA – this is set to be a series for the quicks. Moreover the tantalising battle between the left-arm speedsters Boult and Starc is set to be at the forefront of the excitement.

Both men have been in scintillating form this year. And four years out from their debut series, they rightfully come into this campaign with high expectations on their shoulders.

The bar was set exceedingly high earlier in the year. Although it was in white ball format, the two World Cup duels between Boult and Starc at both Eden Park and the MCG – were not for the fainthearted.

Witnessing that low scorer at Eden Park firsthand will live long in the memory. Australia looked dead-and-buried after Boult blew them away during his 5-27. But Starc, not to be outdone, almost singlehandedly hauled his country out of a huge crater with a combination of successful bumpers and inswinging yorkers. His 6-28 eventually wasn’t to be enough that night, but he would gain his revenge in the final a month later.

Another perfect Starc yorker accounted for McCullum in the first over at the MCG and his side never recovered. Despite dismissing Aaron Finch for a duck in the second over of the reply, defending just 183 never really looked plausable for Boult and his fellow Black Caps.

It was a World Cup to savour for both men. Starc was named man-of-the-tournament for his outlandish achievements; 22 wickets at 10.18 in all. Boult spent the six weeks hanging onto the Australian’s coattails, eventually matching him wicket for wicket, his 22 victims coming at a modest 16.86 apiece.

But while both men have enjoyed sustained success in limited overs cricket (Starc sits #1 and Boult #3 in the latest ICC ODI bowler rankings), they have endured contrasting Test careers thus far.

Boult’s 123 Test wickets at 27.12 – represent an excellent return for a fast bowler in this era. He’s been a near-everpresent alongside fellow new-ball partner Tim Southee and the pair have benefitted from and thrived under the imaginative captaincy of McCullum.

Starc on the other hand has often flattered to deceive with the red ball in tow. His career has at times resembled more the Hokey Cokey than Sir Paul McCartney’s Ever Present Past. At one stage he had failed to play any back-to-back matches since the two he played after debuting in late 2011.

Injuries, a perceived lack of consistency and the Mitchell Johnson factor, have all played there part in Starc’s lack of continuity in the Test side since. Despite debuting before Boult, he has played ten fewer matches. His 78 wickets at 31.80 are by no means terrible in today’s game, but the general consensus is, that he could be a much better bowler than those figures suggest.

It’s also worth pointing out the opposing economy rates between both Boult and Starc as a way of calibrating one man’s success and another’s lack of continuity. Boult gives away, on average, a stingy 2.86 runs per over, while Starc goes for significantly more at 3.42. This highlights Boult’s ability to do a containing job when required by his captain – something Starc, up until now, hasn’t been able to offer either Michael Clarke or Steven Smith.

The pair have encountered contrasting build ups to this series. Boult has been relatively held back after recovering from a stress injury of the back – sustained during the ODI leg of the Black Caps tour of England in June. He missed the subsequent tour of Africa to focus on getting himself 100% right for this series and has participated in just one first-class match since; albeit taking 5-97 for Northern Districts in a Plunkett Shield fixture against Wellington.

Starc, meanwhile, has been in breathtaking form – crushing through any batsman put in front of him. He shrugged off the postponed tour of Bangladesh with alarming ease – claiming a record 26 wickets at the scarcely believable average of 8.11 in the recently concluded Matador one-day Cup.

If that wasn’t enough he then picked up eight wickets in his one and only Sheffield Shield appearance, swinging the pink ball considerably throughout that match as he warmed up for a return to the Adelaide Oval in a little over three weeks time.

Away from the game, it’s fair to say the two men share plenty of similarities. Boult is Starc’s senior by just six months and one senses both men are relatively quiet characters when compared to their often more exuberant teammates.

Boult has gone on record saying this series is to be the highlight of his career. He will again be expected to spearhead the Black Caps pace attack, whilst offering McCullum both control and penetration in equal abundance.

Since his debut against the Australians, the Rotorua-born seamer has taken more Test wickets (123) than any other left-arm quick in the game, even Mitchell Johnson (116) trails in his wake. More of the same and Smith’s men could be in real trouble.

For Starc this summer offers a chance to finally make his mark and dominate a Test series after a stellar year in domestic and ODI cricket. He showed glimpses of his potential during the Ashes, but more often than not, he has proved much too expensive in a side already affording the added luxury of Johnson.

It’s not unreasonable to suggest that Starc has the correct tools to dominate Test cricket much like his teammate Johnson has done for the past two years. However whether he can finally make the evolution from white to red ball, remains to be seen.

Still, one thing’s for certain. Come The Gabba on Thursday morning we’re sure to expect some left-arm fireworks.

I, for one, can’t wait.

Damned if they do, damned if they don’t

Ridiculed by many, the Australian selectors find themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place as they try to find the right balance in their batting lineup.

Photo Credit: Getty Images
Photo Credit: Getty Images

At a time when Michael Cheika and the Wallabies’ coaching staff face potential life changing selection dramas ahead of their World Cup final showdown with the All Blacks, back home their compatriots of the cricketing kind are faced with their own selection issues as they try to regenerate a team with the present and future in mind.

Chairman of selectors Rod Marsh and his four-man committee comprising of himself, Mark Waugh, Trevor Hohns and coach Darren Lehmann were faced with difficult selection decisions to make ahead of their three-match Test series with Tasman rivals New Zealand.

While they were never likely to please everybody with their 12-man squad for the first two Tests of the series, one has to symphonize with the panel after they came in for criticism over their decisions to omit Western Australian duo Cameron Bancroft and Michael Klinger in favour of Queenslanders Joe Burns and Usman Khawaja.

It’s been a tough year for Marsh and his panel. The former Test wicketkeeper admitted to making some fundamental selection blunders during the catastrophic Ashes campaign earlier this year. Now he and his fellow selectors must make sure they make the correct calls during a vital period for Test cricket in the country.

But while Marsh must now “live and die” by his selection decisions made in the wake of a huge transitional period in Australian cricket, you can’t help but have some symphony towards him and his fellow selectors. Especially at a time when all and sundry have had their say on who should replace the five retiring mainstays of Australia’s recent past.

While the four quicks somewhat pick themselves for the first two Tests after solid recent domestic form. Getting just three from the four of Siddle, Josh Hazelwood, Mitchell Johnson and Mitchell Starc, won’t be such a no brainer.

This decision was of course made easier due to injuries sustained to Pat Cummins and Nathan Coulter-Nile, as well as the continuous workload concerns surrounding James Pattinson. Although where Andrew Fekete now stands in the pecking order, is anybody’s guess.

On the other hand, selecting the batting order is, and has been of much greater concern in recent years.

The batting has for long been a contentious source for debate ever since Chris Rogers, Michael Clarke, Shane Watson and Brad Haddin decided to call it a day at the conclusion of the recent Ashes disappointment.

In fact, it most probably goes back much further to a time when Australia could call upon many batsmen regularly churning out 1,000 run Sheffield Shield seasons. Men like Stuart Law, Jamie Siddons and Brad Hodge would undoubtedly all have been mainstays of this current Australian batting outfit.

Sadly for Marsh and co the current domestic system is not in such rude heath. The selectors have in recent times found themselves stuck between and a rock and a hard place.

On one hand, they wish to have an eye to the future. On the other, they need in-form batsmen who can perform in the present. Bancroft and Klinger are two batsmen at different ends of this spectrum.

On the third hand, there is Burns and Khawaja. Where Shaun Marsh now fits into this way of thinking is perhaps still unclear. I’d have a guess at somewhere between the veteran’s Klinger and Adam Voges and the mid-twenty something’s Burns and Khawaja.

There is almost a good argument for each category of batsmen.

Bancroft is a solid opener in the mould of his mentor Justin Langer. At just 22-years-of-age, he has the potential to open the batting for Australia for over a decade – What’s not to like about that? On the flipside, has he done enough to warrant instant selection? (An average of just 36.25 across 25 first-class matches, suggests perhaps not).

Joe Burns
Joe Burns has won the race to partner David Warner at the top of the Australian order. Photo Credit: Getty Images

There is definitely evidence of something promising there though. You don’t score a first-class double hundred against New South Wales or a 150 in India, without having something about you as a batsman.

Bancroft’s time will come. It would have come earlier than expected had the Test tour of Bangladesh not been postponed, but with David Warner now fully recovered from a thumb injury and Burns getting the nod to be his opening partner; instead Bancroft will have to head back to Shield cricket to improve on his game. Perhaps it’s not such a bad move.

Klinger’s case is an interesting one. If selection was based purely on runs and hundreds scored across the past year, then he would be a shoo-in. But there’s the age factor to take into account.

He was clearly in the discussion – Rod Marsh said as much. His sheer volume of recent runs across all formats demanded it would be impossible not to discuss him. Only Steven Smith and Kumar Sangakkara have scored more runs in the past twelve months.

Despite these highly impressive feats, you can understand why the selectors would be weary of picking another veteran in the top five.

With Voges, 36, already cemented in at five for the time being at least, justifying a place for Klinger in the top order would have been problematic for the selectors. If both men were to be selected and then fail, it would place the selectors in a difficult position. After all, when in bad form, older players are spared much less leeway.

Picking older players has worked for Australia in the recent past, most noticeably with Rogers and to an extent Voges, but now is the perfect opportunity to introduce the mid-twenty something’s – otherwise Australia will constantly find themselves in a phase of transition.

And Marsh was adamant he and his selection committee had chosen the right options in selecting Burns and Khawaja, whilst looking beyond Klinger:

“Of course we’ve looked at Michael Klinger,” Marsh said. “He’s got to keep making runs.

“Have you looked at Michael Klinger’s batting average in first-class cricket? It’s not as good as the other boys.

“Part of our selection policy is if you’ve got two blokes that are absolutely equal, you go for the younger bloke and I think that’s very fair.

“If one bloke is noticeably better and is more likely to influence the outcome of a game, then you pick the old bloke.

“But if they’re not noticeably better and they’re not likely to influence the outcome of a game, then you must always go with your youth.

“That’s our policy and whether you agree with it or not, it’s irrelevant.”

In many ways, it’s certainly hard to argue against such a policy. But what now for Burns and Khawaja?

Both are solid and relatively unsurprising selections. Burns was unfortunate to be overlooked (in favour of Voges) for the winter touring parties to the West Indies and England after scoring back-to-back fifties in his second Test against India last summer.

After starting out as a middle-order batsman for Queensland, it’s at the top of the order in which Burns has impressed in recent times. Opening for the Bulls he averages 46.58 compared to his overall first-class average of 40.40.

Furthermore the 26-year-old has already gained two-years of experience in English conditions after county stints with Leicestershire and Middlesex – A deed that won’t have been overlooked by the selectors.

Khawaja, 28, on the other hand is a relative veteran of Test cricket. Having debuted against England almost five years ago, the classy left-hander has long been earmarked as a potential star, but he never quite being able to reach the heights many have expected of him, playing his last Test during the 2013 Ashes campaign in England.

After fighting his way back from a serious knee injury, sustained last summer, Khawaja has impressed the selectors with his run scoring and leadership qualities and will now primed to add to his nine Tests – with the potential to finally make the number three position his own this summer.

While there will still be those who criticise the selectors for their decisions to look beyond Klinger, arguably the country’s most in-form batsman after Smith, and the younger and rawer Bancroft – the expectations have to be realistic. Young batsmen are no longer growing on the Sheffield Shield trees they once were 15 years ago.

Since Rogers played his first Test in early 2008 – then as a 30-year-old, a total of 13 specialist batsmen have debuted for Australia with an average age of over 27.

Between them Burns and Khawaja have an average age of 27. While in an ideal world the selectors would love to pick batsmen in their early twenties, circumstances deem they can’t.

Marsh and his men seem damned if they do, and damned if they don’t.

Disappointment for fringe players as Bangladesh tour postponed

Tour cancelled due to security concerns, leaving the newcomers to wait a little longer for an opportunity.  

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It was being billed as the start of a new era in Australian cricket. The Ashes were gone, but not all was lost as new skipper Steven Smith was given an almost-blank canvas in which to begin his reign. However, in the end safety concerns put pay to the tour of Bangladesh, with the questions still far outweighing the answers.

The wait for a new beginning in the Australian Test setup will have to wait a little longer. Their next fixture isn’t until the start of November – when they host the first of three Tests against a strong-looking New Zealand outfit at the Gabba in Brisbane. Nevertheless a lot can happen in cricket in the space of a month – Could there be mass changes when the squad for that series is announced in a couple of weeks?

Other questions remain too. Where do people like Cameron Bancroft and Andrew Fekete now stand within the setup with the likes of David Warner, Josh Hazelwood and Mitchell Johnson due back into the side against the Kiwi’s?

Bancroft, it seemed, was vying for an opening berth alongside the more experienced pair of Shaun Marsh and Joe Burns. While Warner’s broken thumb was to rule him out of contention for the Bangladesh tour – meaning two new openers were to be found to fill the void left by Warner and the newly-retired Chris Rogers. Now when Warner, if as expected, regains full heath for the New Zealand series – only one other opening spot will be vacant.

While it’s hard to guess which of the three mentioned above is ahead in the selector’s mind, one suspects that Joe Burns could be given first refusal after he was chosen to open the batting in the recent ODI series in England. Burns performed admirably in his two Tests against India last summer and was unfortunate to be excluded from the winter tours to the Caribbean and the United Kingdom, and now could be his chance to solidify his place in the side. A lot could now also depend on how each batsman performs in the upcoming Matador Cup.

The selection of Melbourne-born Fekete for the Bangladesh series surprised many. The 30-year-old has only played two summers of first-class cricket in his short career with Tasmania and his subcontinental inclusion somewhat echoes that of the horses-for-courses selection of New South Wales’ seamer Trent Copeland for Michael Clarke’s first tour in charge in Sri Lanka four years ago. Copeland played three matches on that tour and was never seen in a Baggy Green again.

Will Andrew Fekete get another opportunity to make his Test debut?
Will Andrew Fekete get another opportunity to make his Test debut?

Fekete isn’t a bad bowler of course. He was the leading quick in last season’s Sheffield Shield campaign where he took 34 wickets at 24, and his versatility and ability to find reverse-swing on dry pitches impressed the selectors during the recent A tour of India enough to warrant his inclusion for Bangladesh. That all being said, it seems unlikely, with other younger and faster options available, that he will be in the squad for the first Test of the summer at the Gabba.

The postponement of the tour is also disappointing for the likes of batsman Adam Voges and wicketkeeper Peter Nevill. With Warner out injured, Voges was appointed vice-captain for the tour, and due to turn 36 in the next few days, he will know that his opportunities to lay stake to a regular berth in Australia’s middle order aren’t going to last forever.

Nevill’s case is different, unlike Voges he has more time on his side. The 29-year-old made a solid if not spectacular start to his international career after replacing Brad Haddin one match into the Ashes series and would therefore have looked at the Bangladesh series as one where he could really nail down his spot in the side with Matthew Wade hot upon his heels after an impressive showing in the ODI series that preceded the Ashes.

On a whole the series would have been a great opportunity for a young and regenerating Australian side to test themselves against a fast improving Bangladeshi outfit in difficult conditions, but in the end common sense had to prevail with the safety of players and support staff taking precedence.

The wait will have to continue a little longer.

Strong Yorkshire, Strong Australia?

The folk from Yorkshire and Australia have shared cricketing links for over a century.

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Watching England play Australia in the recent ODI at Headingley really got me thinking. Why as an Englishman do I have such a soft spot for the Australian’s and their never say die attitude?

As Glenn Maxwell pulled off two miraculous catches – one a full length grab at point to get rid of the dangerous Eoin Morgan, the other a seemingly impossible piece of work in front of the Western Terrace boundary to take down Liam Plunkett – It finally came to me.  We’re pretty alike us Yorkshiremen and those Australians.

Even though some from “God’s Own County” might be too proud or stubborn to admit it, there are plenty of similarities between themselves and their compatriots from Down Under. Maybe it’s the shared shear bloody-mindedness to win at any cost, or perhaps the nature of the personalities. Both are assumed to be brash and uncomplicated people at times – certainly on the cricket field. But make no mistake about it, win or lose, there will always remain a sense of pride and respect between them.

Many of the same values are shared between t’Yorkshire folk and those ‘Stralian’s, and not just on the cricket field. Rugby League has shared strong links between Yorkshire and Australia for generations with players and coaches regularly moving between the Super League (of which six teams are based in Yorkshire) and Australia’s NRL. Furthermore in football, Australian-born pair Harry Kewell and Mark Viduka were paramount to Leeds United’s success at the turn of the century.

Australian's Harry Kewell and Mark Viduka both enjoyed stints at Yorkshire club Leeds United.
Australian’s Harry Kewell and Mark Viduka both enjoyed stints at Yorkshire club Leeds United.

The association with Yorkshire and Australian cricket goes back afar. Look through the Wisden archives and you will find many a tough battle between an unshakable and assured Yorkshireman and his Aussie counterpart. Think Hedley Verity against Sir Donald Bradman or Ray Illingworth against Ian Chappell or even Geoffrey Boycott verses Dennis Lillee – there is a world of history between England’s biggest county and the former British colony and to this day the pair continue to have strong links.

Certainly for this Yorkshireman, many of my early cricketing memories are intertwined with my first vague cognizance of the land Down Under. Be it the soothing and easily recognisable voice of Richie Benaud or stories from my grandmother – who watched on as Bradman led his invincibles side against an HDG Leveson-Gower’s XI at Scarborough in 1948.

Bradman of course had his own special connection with Yorkshire. It was at Headingley, in which he scored his highest Test score of 334 on the Ashes tour of 1930. Three hundred and nine of those runs were made on the opening day as t’Yorkshiremen flocked in from all around to witness the beginning of the greatest career of them all. The Don would go on to average 192 at the famous Leeds ground.

When Yorkshire CCC announced in 1991 that they were to abandon their unwritten policy of only allowing those born within the borders of the county to represent them, they originally turned to an Australian.

Before Sachin Tendulkar, then just 18, famously became the first non-Yorkshireman to play for the county, Australian seamer Craig McDermott was initially lined up for the role, however when injury ruled him out Yorkshire instead went down a different route.

McDermott would have become the first of a long list of Australians to represent the White Rose but instead that mantle went to Michael Bevan. The Pyjama Picasso signed in 1995 and played for two summers. Whilst he scored nine centuries and averaged 58 in his first-class assignments, typically with Bevan, it was the limited overs stuff in which he really excelled. In fact no Yorkshire cricketer – who has appeared in at least ten List-A matches, has bettered his average of 61.82.

Once Bevan was selected for Australia’s 1997 Ashes campaign, opener Michael Slater was originally intended as an overseas replacement, but when he was surprisingly involved on that same tour, Yorkshire were led to the services of a 27-year-old South Australian going by the name of Darren Lehmann. The rest, as they say is history.

For seven summers between 1997 and 2006, ‘Boof’ dominated the shires, scoring over 14,000 runs across his 88 first-class matches in the process. Yorkshiremen don’t easily accept outsiders but boy did they respected this one. Lehmann’s first-class average of 68.76 is higher than anyone else with at least 500 runs for the Tykes.

Darren Lehmann sweeps fellow countryman Shane Warne during a county match for Yorkshire.
Darren Lehmann sweeps his fellow countryman Shane Warne during a county match for Yorkshire.

His 1,416 Championship runs in 2001 marshalled Yorkshire towards their first title in 33 painfully barren years. For this inspiring deed, Lehmann’s name will be forever sketched into Yorkshire folklore. The ideal overseas player, he was also the original Australian flag bearer for Yorkshire cricket. He famously went on to sign off with an innings of 339 against Durham at Headingley in 2006, helping his adopted county save face and starve off relegation in the process.

Of the 30 overseas players employed by the county since 1992, 14 have been Australians. After the early successes of Bevan and Lehmann the county had a substantial pulling power when it came to attracting the Aussies and prominent names arrived in the following summers: Greg Blewett (1999), Matthew Elliott and Simon Katich (2002), Damien Martyn (2003), Phil Jaques (2004-05/2012-13), Ian Harvey (2004-05), Mark Cleary (2005), Jason Gillespie (2006-08), Clint McKay (2010), Mitchell Starc (2012), Aaron Finch (2014-15) and Glenn Maxwell (2015) have all served Yorkies cricket with varying degrees of success since.

For Gillespie, a late career flourish was never really in the offering as his two summer’s mustered just 59 wickets at 34; howbeit his appointment as first team coach in 2012 has led the county to new highs not seen in these pastures since the late 1960’s. It appears no coincidence that the three and only times Yorkshire have won the County Championship since the teams of Brian Close five decades ago, they have been under the keen watch of an Australian. Wayne Clark led the way in 2001, before Gillespie emerged with consecutive honours in 2014-15 to reinstate Yorkshire as the powerhouse of old.

After being overlooked for the England coaching position earlier in the summer, it’s not out of the question that Gillespie will one day follow Lehmann into leading his country – Is it too early to suggest that Yorkshire is now a breeding ground for Australian cricket?

Maxwell has certainly benefitted from his short stint at Headingley this summer, originally just signed for the NatWest Blast; ensuing injuries sustained to compatriot Finch opened the door for his involvement in red ball cricket and a solid showing has subsequently led to a Test recall for next month’s tour of Bangladesh.

Maybe the old saying should now read “A strong Yorkshire, strong Australia.”

After all, we’re pretty alike us Yorkshiremen and those Australians.