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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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 Queeimmediately 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.
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.
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?
A trip to the Bradman Museum in Bowral isn’t just about cricket; it’s about Australian sporting history, traditional and culture.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
Steady decline and fading desire lead to 34-year-old’s retirement; he departs the game with 313 Test and 239 ODI wickets.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
Tour cancelled due to security concerns, leaving the newcomers to wait a little longer for an opportunity.
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.
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.