Pay disputes and Ashes glory

Australian cricket review 2017

Australia showed plenty of grit and resolve in Test series against India, Bangladesh and England, but their limited-overs performances took a nose-drive as off field issues clouded much of the year.

 

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The Australian bowling attack celebrate Ashes glory in Perth. (Photo Credit: Getty Images).

 

In the midst of another successful home Ashes campaign it’s easy to assume that everything in 2017 was rosy Down Under. However, just a few months ago Australian cricket found itself draped in a deep power struggle with potentially lasting consequences.

A contract pay dispute between Cricket Australia (CA) and the Australian Cricketers Association (ACA) had become so serious that mediation was called for and government influence was on standby should the dispute not be resolved before the Ashes.

Whether the Ashes would have ever become compromised is up for debate. However, that it ever got to that stage was a major concern for all involved.

With the CA board wanting to break up the previous revenue sharing model – which had effectively been in place since 1998 – and the ACA wanting to keep the same memorandum of understanding (MoU) in place there was bound to be a conflict of interests – but the way it played out in public didn’t reflect well on either party.

With 230 of the 300 contracted Australian cricketers essentially unemployed throughout July, it raised concerns that some players would turn their backs on CA altogether and instead join the T20 circuits around the world.

After months of public squabbling between CA and the ACA it took the rational intervention of long-time CA CEO James Sutherland to finally bring the two parties together and a new MoU was eventually agreed on August 3rd. The players would keep their revenue sharing model with a few compromises and CA would ensure no more cricket was lost with tours of Bangladesh and India looming on the horizon.

 

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CA CEO James Sutherland and his ACA counterpart Alastair Nicholson address the media. (Photo Credit: Getty Images).

 

On the field the Test side, marshalled by the increasingly influential Steve Smith, enjoyed relative success. In all, they finished the year with six wins, two draws and three defeats spread across four series. In January they romped to 220-run win over Pakistan in Sydney to seal a 3-0 whitewash over the visitors before heading to India in February.

Despite a spectacular 333-run victory in the first Test in Pune, Australia went onto lose the four-Test series 2-1 with defeats in Bengaluru and Dharamsala sandwiched between a draw in Ranchi. Despite another series defeat on the subcontinent – this felt like a watershed moment.

Led by the excellent Smith, who scored three centuries in the series on his way to 499 runs at 71.28, Australia competed well in each of the matches and were unlucky to come out second best against a fine Indian side.

For Smith it was just the beginning in another extraordinary year in Test cricket. He’d go onto finish the year as the leading run-maker with 1305 runs at 76.76 – the fourth successive year he’s passed the 1000+ run mark. Not satisfied with only three centuries in India he also scored another three in the first four Ashes Tests later in the year. Match winning efforts in Brisbane and Perth were joined by a match-saving vigil in Melbourne.

Like Smith, Nathan Lyon also finished the year on top of the world. His 63 wickets at 23.55 were more than any other bowler and his evolution as a world-class spinner played a major part in Australia’s Test fortunes.

 

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Steve Smith enjoyed another fruitful year of run-making. (Photo Credit: Getty Images).

 

Lyon certainly played a huge role in Australia’s two match tour of Bangladesh in August. His 22 wickets at 14.31 included three five-wicket hauls in just four innings as the visitors fought back from a 20-run defeat in Mirpur to level the series with a seven-wicket victory in Chittagong. The series also witnessed the return to form of David Warner who scored back-to-back centuries after struggling in similar conditions in India.

The return of Pat Cummins to the Test side was also a major boost. A spate of injuries had meant that 1946 days had elapsed between his debut in December 2011 and his return to the side in March. His return meant that Australia could finally field their pace attack of choice, for an Ashes series no less, with Cummins joining Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood.

The Ashes were regained with the minimum amount of fuss. Despite many, this author included, predicting a tighter series it took just 15 days and three Tests for the Urn to return Down Under.

Led by the runs of Smith and the shared wickets of Cummins, Hazlewood, Lyon and Starc they blow England away whenever the visitors appeared to be in the contest. While it wasn’t as brutal as the Mitchell Johnson-led effort of four years previous, the short-pitched bowling was enough to regularly dislodge a weak England batting line-up.

Don’t be mistaken though, this still isn’t a great Australian Test side. They are, though, an improving side who should still have their best years ahead of them. In fact, of the current side only Tim Paine and Shaun Marsh are entering their latter years.

The selectors deserve a great deal of credit for their sensible and brave selection calls ahead of the series with veteran’s Paine and Marsh recalled to the side ahead of underperforming duo Matthew Wade and Glenn Maxwell. Likewise, Cameron Bancroft and Mitchell Marsh both made vital contributions when called upon to replace the out-of-touch Matthew Renshaw and Peter Handscomb.

In the limited overs formats, it was a poor year. They started the year with a 4-1 series victory at home to Pakistan but struggled to replicate that form away from home. A 2-0 series defeat in New Zealand was followed by a disappointing Champions Trophy campaign.

Not helped by the wet English weather they saw their opening two matches both abandoned before they were knocked out of the tournament by hosts England. Although news has recently broken that shows them somewhat unfortunate to have exited the tournament so early, their displays against New Zealand and England were sub-par.

They were then defeated 4-1 in India to round out a disappointing year in ODI cricket. Finding the right balance remains a key issue going forward for a side looking to defend their World Cup crown in 2019.

In T20 cricket they won just two of the six matches they played. Despite the growing success of the Big Bash, it remains a format which the national side has yet to master. Although they weren’t helped earlier in the year when a scheduling farce forced them to pick a weakened side for a three-match home series with Sri Lanka.

With the Test side over in India preparing for their series opener in Pune – a T20I match was being played at the Adelaide Oval just 15hrs and 50mins beforehand.

 

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Steve O’Keefe celebrates a wicket during Australia Test victory in Pune. (Photo Credit: Indranil Mukherjee/AFP).

 

High Point: Victory in Pune.

Despite winning the Ashes back on the final day of Test cricket at Perth’s famous WACA ground, Australia’s best moment of the year came in Pune in late February.

Going into the series against India as huge underdogs – owing mainly to their terrible recent record on the subcontinent – Australia turned the tables (quite literally!!) to beat a fancied Indian side and go one-nil up in the series.

For the Aussies it was their first Test victory on Indian soil since an Adam Gilchrist-led side won 2-1 there in 2004.

Led by the 12 wickets of left-arm spinner Steve O’Keefe and a fine second-innings hundred by Smith they bowled out the Indians for just 105 and 107 on a raging turner to win by a gigantic 333 runs.

Although they still went onto lose the Border-Gavaskar Trophy 2-1, it showed that they could achieve success in subcontinental conditions.

 

Low Point: Public pay disputes.

While their 20-run defeat to Bangladesh in Mirpur in August – their first ever Test loss to the Asian nation – was the low point on the field, the significance of the pay dispute and its effect on the perception of cricket in Australia was particularly damning.

As the whole episode played out in a public slanging match, the way Australian cricket was being ran – often the envy of other cricket boards across the world – had been severely tarnished.

 

New Kid on the Block: Cameron Bancroft

Despite not being a kid anymore at 25, Bancroft made his first serious foray into the international game when he was drafted in to open the batting for the Ashes.

Set to make his Test debut in Bangladesh in 2015 before the tour was postponed on security grounds, he was finally rewarded with a place in the side at the expense of an out-of-form Renshaw.

When others were failing to make an impression, Bancroft hit 442 runs at 110.50 for Western Australia in the early rounds of the Sheffield Shield. His 76no and 86 against a full strength New South Wales attack was a particularly significant factor in his callup.

After a superb unbeaten second-innings 82 on Test debut in Brisbane his form has thus far been patchy with 179 runs at just 29.84, although he’s sure to be granted a prolonged run in the side.

 

Fading Star: Peter Siddle

There was a time – after he endured a mixed tour of India and subsequently lost his CA contract – that Shaun Marsh looked like becoming the 2017 fading star of Australian cricket.

However, a fine Ashes series has seen the 34-year-old batsman remain a pivotal part of Smith’s side – instead its Peter Siddle who has seen his eight-year international career drift towards its conclusion.

The 33-year-old Siddle last played a Test for his country against South Africa in Perth last November before succumbing to a back injury which ruled him out of action until October. After a slump in form for Victoria – He’s taken just five first-class wickets at 75.20 in four matches this summer – he was dropped for the most recent Shield match against Western Australia.

Barring a huge turnaround in form and a spate of injuries to the current Australian quicks, it’s likely that Siddle’s played the last of his 62 Tests. An accurate seamer bowler in his prime, “Sidds” has taken 211 wickets at 29.92 since making his debut in India in 2008.

 

Farewell to: Bob Holland

A late bloomer into the Test world after making his debut at 38, legspinner Bob Holland was a much-loved cricketer right the way through the Newcastle grade scene to the Test level.

After being diagnosed with brain cancer in March he passed away at Newcastle hospital in September – he was aged just 70.

Nicknamed “Dutchy”, Holland played 11 Tests between 1984 and 1986 taking 34 wickets at 39.76 in the process.

Making his debut against Clive Lloyd’s all-conquering West Indies side of 1984, he enjoyed a huge amount of success in his second Test at the Sydney Cricket Ground taking a ten-wicket match haul.

His first innings 6-54 included the scalps of Lloyd, Viv Richards, Desmond Haynes and Larry Gomes before he claimed a further 4-90 as the visitors were forced to follow on.

 

What 2018 holds?

A post-Ashes ODI series with England is followed by a four-match Test tour of South Africa beginning in March.

After winning the Ashes with comfortable ease, a tour of South Africa will act as a true benchmark as to where the Test side – currently ranked fifth in the world – is at.

The attention will then turn back to limited overs cricket with an ODI series in England in June which will be viewed as fine preparation for the 2019 World Cup also held in the UK.

The year ends with India heading Down Under for, what is likely, to be a four-match Test series.

Small margins could decide tight Ashes tussle

Although Australia start as favourites, expect a tight Ashes series as both teams line up with obvious flaws in their armouries. 

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And so, the Ashes are again upon us. Four years have flown by since Mitchell Johnson ripped through the visiting Englishmen like a knife through butter as the hosts recorded their second 5-0 whitewash in three home Ashes encounters.

This time around Johnson will be watching on his couch at home – two years into International retirement – However, for England other threats remain. None more so that Johnson’s predecessor, Mitchell Starc.

Starc has started the Sheffield Shield season in red hot form. His figures – 2-46, 8-73, 4-56, 3-41 – suggest that he’s at the top of his game and with two hat-tricks in his previous match against Western Australia, there could be plenty of sleepless nights in the England camp.

With that being said, this could be a much closer Ashes tussle than most had previously expected. For there are obvious weaknesses in each side heading into the series opener in Brisbane on Thursday.

Australia, although boasting a fine and well balanced bowling unit, have deep concerns over their middle-order batting composition. Despite the heroics of Johnson four years ago, it was the continuous late-order bailing out by wicketkeeper Brad Haddin which helped Australia regain the urn. Haddin’s 493 runs were second only to David Warner in the series as he regularly dispirited the English when they’d often broken the back of the Aussie batting.

This time around it’s the contentious recalling of 32-year-old gloveman Tim Paine that has led to several questions being asked down under. Paine, who last played Test cricket over seven years ago, has kept wicket for Tasmania only three times in the past two years after a serious finger injury and hasn’t made a first-class century since 2006. Averaging just 20.40 in his last two years of first-class cricket, his recall has come hugely out of the blue despite the continuing failures of previous incumbents Peter Nevill and Matthew Wade.

At number six, Shaun Marsh’s inclusion had led to more contention. Marsh has been chosen ahead of Glenn Maxwell due to his recent form and experience according to head selector Trevor Hohns. His inclusion at number six means that Australia will go into the first Test with just four bowlers in Starc, Pat Cummins, Josh Hazlewood and Nathan Lyon.

Instead of including an allrounder at number six they’ll be banking on by selecting inform batsmen Marsh and Cameron Bancroft to compliment Warner, Steven Smith, Usman Khawaja and Peter Handscomb they’ll score enough runs to allow the three quicks plenty of time to rest.

And the three quicks will certainly need enough rest. Starc has played only two first-class matches since being diagnosed with a foot stress injury in March, while Hazlewood injured a side during the most recent Test series in Bangladesh and has played just once since. Cummins, meanwhile, has a studied history of breakdowns since making his debut six years ago.

Keeping the trio fit and firing for five successive Tests remains key to Australia’s chances, especially as immediate backup options James Pattinson and Nathan Coulter-Nile have already been ruled out of contention leaving Jackson Bird and Chadd Sayers as the next in line.

England have could have worries in the bowling department too. Their over reliance on James Anderson and Stuart Broad is undeniable. If either man or Chris Woakes were to succumb to injury early in the series then it could leave them ruthlessly exposed.

Without the all round qualities of Ben Stokes, and also missing the unfit trio Mark Wood, Steven Finn and Toby Roland-Jones, they are left to decide between the undercooked Jake Ball or the untried Craig Overton for the fourth seamers role. Beyond that the reserves are even more raw with George Garton and Tom Curren providing the initial backup options.

This Ashes campaign could well be decided by the fitness of either side’s main quick bowlers and the effectiveness of their reserves.

While the Australian’s have experienced recent batting woes in the middle order, the English have struggled to find the right formula at the top of theirs. Their over reliance on Alastair Cook and Joe Root has been well documented in recent years and they still find themselves unsettled at positions two, three and five.

Both opener Mark Stoneman and number five Dawid Malan found form with centuries in the final warm-up fixture in Townsville – albeit against weak opposition bowlers and on a flat wicket. Stoneman, with plenty of experience playing Grade cricket, should fair well as his game is well suited to the fast Australian wickets. Malan, like number three James Vince, could well be a lottery.

For England to have any chance in the series they must look to post gigantic first-innings totals much like they did when they won down under in 2010/11. On that occasion they had massive contributions from Cook, Ian Bell, Jonathan Trott and Kevin Pietersen, while Andrew Strauss and Matt Prior also chipped in with valuable contributions.

Ashes campaigns can often end and define careers. The 2013/14 Ashes whitewash effectively saw the end of a generation of successful England players. Longtime stalwarts Pietersen, Prior, Graeme Swann, Tim Bresnan, Monty Panesar and Jonathan Trott either retired or were faded out after the series.

Likewise, Australia’s 3-2 series defeat in England in 2015 saw the back of Haddin, Shane Watson, Ryan Harris, Chris Rogers and captain Michael Clarke.

But with departures also comes new beginnings. Both current skippers Smith and Root had career lightbulb moments during the series four years ago. Smith regularly claims his hundred in Perth was the catalyst to his successful upturn in form that saw him captain the side just twelve months later and eventually become the best Test batsman in the world.

For Root, it was his dropping for the Sydney Test that held him in good stead when he later forced his way back into the side. His return against Sri Lanka in 2014 was the beginning of a run that has seen him become England’s premier batsman and now captain marvel.

How the pair cope with the bat and in the field will be crucial to how the series unfolds later this week.

Look out for:

Moeen Ali – England

After missing the first two warm-up matches with a side injury, Moeen is now deemed to be fit and ready to go after getting through 48 overs unscathed in Townsville last week.

With Stokes still unavailable due to an ongoing Police investigation, Moeen’s importance to the side has never been higher. It’s likely that he will move up a place to number seven in the batting lineup in Stokes’ absence and his late order hitting will be key to England’s chances of posting big totals.

His bowling will be equally important to the cause. With Australia readily renowned as a graveyard for offspinners over the years, Moeen will need to offer his captain control at important junctures of the match as Root will look to rotate his quicks.

If he can pray on the mind’s of Australia’s attacking batsmen – who regularly underestimated him during the 2015 Ashes – then he can again enjoy success.

Pat Cummins – Australia

Cummins could be forgiven for believing he may never play a home Test match let alone an Ashes series.

Yet, he’s now nailed on to join his New South Wales bowling teammates at the Gabba on Thursday morning as a key component in Australia’s plan to regain the little urn.

Still only 24-years-old, injuries have ravaged his young career to date. Since making his debut at the tender age of 18 six years ago, Cummins has succumbed to a series of stress injuries to the back and has, until this year, been unable to string together any meaningful cricket.

At his best he’s capable of bowling 90mph plus and swinging the ball both ways, however after such a checkered injury history will his fitness hold up to the rigours of a five-Test Ashes campaign?