The pup who became top dog

Facing the axe, Clarke bows out on own terms.

In the end it had all become inevitable. Each scratchy innings bringing the end ever closer, and with those at home baying for blood and demanding casualties after a disastrous Australian Ashes campaign – there appeared nowhere else to go. All the signs pointed towards the end of the illustrious career of Michael Clarke.

pup farewellIt’s been a roller coaster year for the Australian captain. The highs of leading his country to World Cup glory on home soil were hugely overshadowed by huge lows. Lows that saw him blighted by chronic hamstring and back injuries alongside the pain of losing his great mate Phillip Hughes in tragic circumstances at the Sydney Cricket Ground last November.

Like many great players that have gone before, the end had slowly crept upon him. His form hadn’t been ideal for some time now but somehow you expected him to get through it, get those feet moving again and turn the shape of a match with one of his signature hundreds – one which he used to be capable of producing. But in the end sport waits for no man, with the Ashes now handed over this will be no fairytale ending for Clarke.

With each innings that passed it had become clear that he was no longer the player he once was and that it was time to hand over the leadership duties to Steve Smith as Australian cricket seeks to revive a beaten, embarrassed and ageing side with future assignments to follow shortly.

After scoring a superb 151 on Test debut at Bangalore in 2004, Clarke or ‘Pup’ to his teammates remained the last surviving link to the great Australian Test sides of the late 90’s and early 2000’s. His debut was made alongside the likes of McGrath, Warne, Gilchrist, Hayden and Langer as this great Australian side finally conquered their final frontier by winning an away Test series in India for the first time in 35 years.

But unlike many of his predecessors from that great era of Australian dominance, Clarke’s career has perhaps not been given the high plaudits it deserves. There have always been the whispers. Over the years there have been murmurs that he rubbed up people the wrong way earlier in his career. There was the ‘Katich incident”, and the time when he responded to been asked to field at short leg by suggesting he’d rather hand his baggy green back instead of fielding under the helmet, or maybe the time he left a tour of New Zealand midway through to return to Australia and split up with his then glamour model fiancée Lara Bingle.

Even in the days following the announcement of his retirement at Trent Bridge on Saturday, Clarke has continued to receive criticism out of his home country. Former teammates Matthew Hayden and Andrew Symonds have both weighed in with their opinions in recent days. Hayden suggested that Clarke “ruffled feathers” during his time in the Australian side while Symonds’ questioned his captaincy qualities with a view that he was not a “natural leader” in the mould of other previous Australian Test captains. And they weren’t the only ones to have their say, with former national coach John Buchanan also chipping in by saying he felt Clarke may not have wanted to adopt the “baggy green culture” and that there were times when he felt Clarke didn’t understand or want to understand what it meant to represent his country.

For Clarke this must all feel like “water off a ducks back.” Not many players have divided public opinion throughout their careers quite like he has. He was booed by both home and away supporters at the MCG during his catastrophic Ashes campaign of 2010/11 – before becoming Australia’s 43rd Test captain in the following match at the SCG. With Ricky Ponting’s tenure of captaincy coming towards its end, a public poll was conducted by a Sydney newspaper to gauge who the majority believed should be the new Test leader – although Clarke was the current vice-captain and Ponting’s natural heir apparent he got less than 15% of the public favour to succeed the Tasmanian.

It seemed the Australian public didn’t like a working class boy from Sydney’s western suburbs, he who thought he had made it before his time. The love of fast cars, flashy threads and the glamour model girlfriend wasn’t the Australian way. It wasn’t what Allan Border did or Steve Waugh or Ponting either – this was a new breed of Australian cricketer with diamond earring and bleached blond hair to boot. What the public didn’t see was the hard work Clarke put in off the field.

It had all started so much brighter for Clarke. He was the young pup amongst a field of legends. The debut hundred in India was followed by another against New Zealand in his first Test on home soil and just fifth overall. The good times were rolling, but they weren’t to last. It would be two more years and nineteen more matches before he would score another Test century. In this time he was dropped twice from the Test side.

His return coincided with the famous Ashes whitewash series of 2006/07, where he finally cemented his place in the side with hundreds in both Adelaide and Perth. The series marked the retirement of his good mate and mentor Warne along with both McGrath and Langer. It would be the beginning of the end for Australia’s decade of dominance.

After playing a hand in his country’s second successive World Cup final victory in the Caribbean in 2007, he was also instrumental in the Test side’s record-equalling sixteen victories in a row which was achieved with a late win against India at the SCG in January 2008 – Clarke himself claiming the final rites with three wickets in an over to secure the match. Later that month he would take time away from the game to be with fiancée Bingle with her father battling terminal cancer, whilst his own father, Les, also battled Hodgkin’s disease. Despite family always coming first, many in Australia believed his shouldn’t be missing Test matches. But like he would do after splitting from Bingle during the New Zealand tour two years later, he returned with a century – this time in a victory over the West Indies in Antigua. Fighting adversity would become hallmark of his character throughout his Test career.

In 2009 Clarke suffered his second away Ashes series defeat in four years, but fared better with the bat than he had done in 2005, as he scored back-to-back centuries at Lords and Edgbaston to cement himself as one of the world’s premier batsmen. His next Ashes campaign would be his last as lieutenant as the English swarmed down under and wiped the floor with Ponting and his men. Not only was it a terrible series for Ponting, but for Clarke too. His 193 runs at an average of 21 were only marginally better than the 113 runs at 16 scored by the man he would soon replace at the helm just months later. His popularity with the public was at an all time low.

Why was this hugely talented batsman still so unloved by his public? By now he had split from Bingle and started a relationship with his childhood sweetheart Kylie Boldy, and he was about to be charged with bringing back the glory days to a nation that expects success from its cricket side.

His first full series as captain was a successful one. Scoring a hundred in the third and final Test he led his side to a 1-0 series victory in Sri Lanka. Then for the hundred he calls his finest. A magnificent 151 in Cape Town whilst batting against the South African trio of Morne Morkel, Dale Steyn and Vernon Philander on a difficult wicket in which others struggled to adapt. Sadly for Clarke all of the attention surrounding the match came in his sides second innings. 47 all out – Australia’s lowest total in over a hundred years. The jury was still out on Clarke and his leadership credentials.

Then came the breakthrough. The year that Pup became the top dog, and the year in which the Australian public started to warm to the man from Liverpool in Sydney’s west – this was 2012 and it was Clarke’s year. He started it off with a hometown hundred for the ages. 329 not out to be precise. Batting against India at the SCG he was given a standing ovation by the Sydney faithful as he declared with his score just five runs shy of the record held by Sir Donald Bradman and Mark Taylor for the second highest score by an Australian batsman in Test cricket. This is what he had dreamed of, his own people standing as one to cheer their local hero at SCG. You can’t always win over everyone but for Clarke this was as good as it got.

The triple hundred in Sydney was just the beginning as he became the only man in history to score four scores of over 200 in a calendar year. The second came just two Tests after that memorable effort in Sydney, again against India, this time in Adelaide, a ground that would become his most prolific in term of runs made (1414 runs at a touch over 94), on this occasion it was in unison with his former skipper Ponting as the pair each recorded double hundreds in a partnership worth 387.

When South Africa toured later in the year Clarke was at it again. An unbeaten 259 at The Gabba in Brisbane was followed with 210 again at the Adelaide Oval. These were heights that had never been reached before by an Australian. His magical year was rounded off with a boxing day hundred against Sri Lanka at the ‘G’. It was 2012 that moved Clarke from a good cricketer to a potential modern day great. Only three men in the history of Test cricket had scored more runs in a calendar year than Clarke’s 1595 in 2012 and none of them were Australian.

The accolades were forthcoming as he picked up his fourth Allan Border Medal in early 2013 to go alongside both ICC awards for cricketer and Test cricketer of the year. But the heights scaled by Clarke in 2012 were never quite repeated, yes there were the occasional pieces of brilliance and innings that showed his determination and skill but not the ultimate consistency. His chronic back issues were beginning to cause him real strife and he lost long term middle order rocks Ponting and Michael Hussey to retirement.

The start of 2013 was a difficult one for Clarke and his troops. A 4-0 reverse in India highlighted the difficulties this current side faced in adapting to foreign conditions – especially on the subcontinent. Cracks had started to appear in the camp, and when the “homeworkgate” episode exploded out of India, Clarke and his coach Mickey Arthur has some serious questions to answer. The tour ended with Clarke missing his first Test match in five years as back issues continued to plague him. Shane Watson, one of those suspended for not doing his homework just weeks earlier, took over the captaincy amongst ciaos in the camp. Arthur would later claim that Clarke suggested Watson was “a cancer on the team.”

With his close ally Arthur dismissed before the Ashes campaign got underway in England, there was more upheaval for Clarke to deal with. It didn’t help that David Warner went around throwing drunken punches at England cricketers in Birmingham nightclubs, but big management changes were just around the corner and Darren Lehmann, an old school Aussie larrikin, was brought in to shake the place up.

It has always been difficult to judge the relationship between Clarke and Lehmann. On the surface they appear completely different characters, but by and large the two years they have served together have been successful ones. Defeat in England was overlooked by an astounding whitewash of the poms back home just months later. Clarke led the fight, warning James Anderson to “get ready for a broken f**king arm,” as Mitchell Johnson terrorised England into submission.

A series victory in South Africa in early 2014 was perhaps the highlight of Clarke’s captaincy career. His 161, achieved with a broken shoulder in the series decider at Cape Town was as courageous as they come. After being repeatedly peppered by Morkel short balls, he gutsed it out to lead his side back to number one in the Test rankings.

For Clarke and Australia the year ended in heartbreak. In late November the unthinkable happened. The death of Philip Hughes from head injuries sustained through a bouncer at the SCG rocked Clarke more than most. Hughes was his “little bother.” A teammate, who the often reluctant captain was particularly close with, was taken whilst playing cricket.

Perhaps Clarke’s greatest legacy with be the way in which he spoke for the country during the loss of his great mate. He stayed bedside with Hughes in a Sydney hospital before acting as a spokesperson for the family of the fallen batsman. The 128 he scored in Adelaide just weeks after will forever be his best knock. The way in which Pup conducted himself during this devastating time will forever be his legacy more than any flash cars or snazzy threads could ever be.

As a batsman, like Ponting before him, Clarke was a once in a generation player. As a captain he was fresh, imaginative and always ahead of the game – for that he must rank up there alongside Mark Taylor as one of Australia’s greatest captains in the modern era.

Like many of his predecessors he looks set to follow a familiar path trodden by ex-Australian Test captains. A career in the Channel Nine commentary box awaits.

But before that there’s one more Test match to win next week.

Australia capitulates to swing and seam, again.

The Investec Ashes 2015

If spin won’t get them then swing and seam surely will.

The Australian total of 136 all out on the first day of the third Ashes Test reads all too familiar for this side on their travels in the recent past. Make no mistake about it, this is no aberration for Australia, they have been notoriously bad tourists for a long time now.

voges goes
Adam Voges is caught behind trying to leave a James Anderson delivery as Australia’s recent woes against swing and seam bowling continued at Edgbaston.

Too many times their top order batting has collapsed in the face of decent spin or swing bowling – on many occasions they have been bailed out by their lower order, but not on this occasion as even though their final three batsmen all made double figures (the same total the top eight managed) they look sure to surrender the advantage they gained in the series with a thumping victory at Lords ten days previous.

If it not for Chris Rogers, who just a few days ago looked uncertain to even play in this match, then they would have struggled to have even past three figures – all on a pitch that had Michael Clarke grinning with glee upon winning the toss at 10:30 this morning.

It was hardly a surprise that Rogers was the most accustomed batsman in trying but not treacherous conditions as James Anderson and co made use of the overcast conditions to send the Australians back to the shed almost quicker than their teammates could open their kit bags.

Rogers, almost certainly due to retire at the conclusion of this series, is the only Australian batsman who looks comfortable when the ball is seaming and swinging like it did in Birmingham today. Part of this is of course because he has enjoyed over a decade of service in County cricket, where he has represented Derbyshire, Northants, Leicestershire and Middlesex – scoring over 15,000 first-class runs in due course. But another way in which Rogers has succeeded is that he has been particularly strong at waiting for the ball to come to him as much as possible and playing it as late as he can – many of his teammates should take notice.

David Warner received a good one first up from Anderson, a ball that nipped back to trap him in front before Steven Smith, fresh off a double hundred at Lords, played too aggressively at one from the returning Steven Finn that left him a touch to be caught in the slips. One soon became two for Finn as he yorked the horribly out of form Clarke with a delivery that he seemed slow to pick up.

As the rain came and went, Australia post-lunch batting was a precession of ordinary shot play on a pitch that was no minefield. Adam Voges nicked off after trying to leave a ball from Anderson and the same man soon picked up Mitchell Marsh, playing an expansive drive to one he should have left to be out for nought.

Peter Nevill, chosen ahead of the more experienced Brad Haddin for this encounter, left one he should have played only to see his off stump knocked back and Anderson was soon celebrating his five-for with the wicket of Mitchell Johnson, who was caught low down in the gully. Anderson’s 6-47 were his best figures against Australia.

When Stuart Broad returned to finally nail Rogers for 52 with a straight one that he seemed to completely miss, the damage was well and truly done, Australia will have their work cut out to not find themselves 2-1 down with two to play.

Much was made of England’s inability to leave the ball well while they were being rolled over for just 103 in their second innings at Lords, and much of the same can be directed towards their Australian counterparts. England lasted just 37 overs in that innings. Here Australia lasted two balls less than that.

It’s not the first time the Australian batting has collapsed away from home to either quality pace or spin. Times such as the 47 all out at Cape Town in 2011 spring to mind as does the 128 they managed against England at Lords in 2013 from which they never recovered from in the series as they lost their third successive away Ashes campaign. The same could be said of their capitulation here – a potential series turner perhaps.

In the grand scheme of things this latest setback should not be a surprise to those who follow Australian cricket closely. Since they won a two-Test series in New Zealand in early 2010, they have only won back-to-back Test matches once on the road, and that once came in the West Indies last month against a poor side ranked eighth in the world.

Since, they have struggled against the wobbling ball in England and South Africa and against the spinning ball on their two previous tours to the subcontinent, in India 2013 and the UAE last year.

This is not a great batting outfit when taken out of their own conditions. Rogers has struggled hugely in spinning conditions, whilst the likes of Warner, Smith and Shane Watson have all previously struggled against the swinging ball, when you also throw in that Voges, Mitchell Marsh and Nevill are fresh to Test cricket and Clarke is ridiculously out of form then it doesn’t read for pretty reading. If Clarke continues to struggle in this series, it’s not inconceivable that it could be his last – certainly as captain and maybe even as player.

Anderson claimed his best figures against Australia as the tourists were routed for just 136.
Anderson claims his best figures against Australia as the tourists were routed for just 136.

But it’s hard to find alternatives at this stage. Shaun Marsh has also previously struggled against the new swinging ball and is next in line among the batsman on this tour whilst Joe Burns, another who has debuted in Test cricket recently, has just finished a stint with Middlesex, in English conditions without a whole heap of success. The end line of it is that there just isn’t enough quality young batsmen knocking on the door in Australia who are accustomed at playing the swinging ball – hence the reason that 37-year-old Rogers and 35-year-old Voges are still donning the baggy green this series.

For England, they finally got the pitch they have been crying out for since the series began in Cardiff – one with something in it for their fast bowlers. This pitch had both more grass and pace in it than the previous two offerings at Cardiff and Lords. In a nutshell it was tailor made for Anderson.

After their 169-run defeat at Cardiff, Australian coach Darren Lehmann was suggesting if not moaning about the lack of pace in the wicket produced in south Wales, at Lords a similar wicket was rolled out with the Australian’s coaxing far more out of it than their English counterparts.

On that occasion Johnson, Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazelwood, (all generally quicker bowlers than any of the English), used the conditions far better to their advantage and suggestions in the England camp were that they needed to make better use of their home comforts and start producing English wickets to aid the likes of Anderson and Broad.

Low and behold it was an English wicket and standard English cloud cover at Edgbaston, to their detriment the Australian’s played it the way they have been playing on seamer-friendly wickets far too often on their recent travels – very badly. Advantage England.

One series too many for Australia’s dad’s army?

The Investec Ashes 2015

Just one Test in and three senior players are already out of the side.

While it’s far too early to suggest the wheels have fallen off – Australia’s start to the Ashes has been less than ideal.

Much was made of Jason Gillespie’s “Dad’s army” comments made in the build up to the Ashes. While the comments were taken with a pinch of salt by the Australian camp, much more was made of them in the British media and perhaps in retrospect, quite rightly so.

With the Ashes campaign just four days of cricket old, the visitors find themselves heading to Lords tomorrow without three of their veteran players in the starting line up.

One LBW too many...Shane Watson has been dropped for the second Test of the Ashes series.
One LBW too many…Shane Watson has been dropped for the second Test of the Ashes series.

While there is inevitably casualties in any Ashes series, Australia wouldn’t have imagined they would be going into the second Test of the series 1-0 down and without arguably their number one bowler, all-rounder and wicketkeeper. But with Ryan Harris having to announce his retirement ten days ago and Shane Watson facing the drop alongside the unavailability of Brad Haddin for personal reasons that remains the case.

Things started to go wrong before the series had even began when Harris pulled up before the final tour match at Chelmsford. Although not a likely starter for the first Test in Cardiff, Harris’ type of accurate bowling was missed dearly during his side’s 169-run reversal and with doubts surrounding the fitness of Mitchell Starc ahead of the second Test, Harris’ name would surely have come into serious contention with the selectors.

After another couple of starts, 30 and 19 to be exact, Watson’s luck has finally appeared to run out. There has been for a long time, endless running jokes both on social media and in also in the media itself about Watson’s ability to consistently fail to contribute significant match-defining performances for his country, while at the same time seemingly being un-droppable.

This time Watson’s place in the side became untenable. His continuous ability to get out LBW (29 times in 109 Test innings) after making yet another start in the middle order appears to have reached its point of no return in the eyes of both chief selector Rod Marsh and coach Darren Lehmann.

For too long Watson has been chosen on what he might be capable of doing on the field rather than what he really delivers on the field. For all of his beautiful off drives and fierce pull shots he has continued to frustrate with innings of no great substance – pretty 20’s or 30’s and not match winning contributions.

Watson will be replaced by 23-year-old Mitchell Marsh and it is hoped that he can provide some youth and enthusiasm in the side after they looked old and ragged in the field at Cardiff. For Watson in Test cricket the end looks nigh. Marsh, being Watson’s junior by over ten years, should now be given a fair run in the all-rounders role with an eye on both the present and the future.

The future of Brad Haddin remains far more unclear. The 37-year-old is missing the second Test at Lords due to a personal family matter and is widely expected to call it a day from Test cricket at the conclusion of the Ashes in August. Although his batting and keeping has reclined in the past eighteen months, he remains a vital part of the dressing room for his vast experience in the game. While his place for Lords will be taken by his long time New South Wales understudy Peter Nevill – It remains to be seen if Haddin will play any further part in the series or in a baggy green for that matter.

While Australia are only one-nil down after one of five Tests, it was the way in which England grabbed the momentum from the moment Haddin dropped Joe Root on nought mid-way through the first session that defied the entire match and could have follow on effects as the series unwinds. Yes England had some luck along the way but the way they played Australia at their own game and came out comfortably on top will worry the visitors.

England was far better at batting, bowling and fielding and at times they looked a much younger and fitter side in the field. That’s probably because they were. The average age of the Australian side in the match was just under 31 while the England side was just above 27. That same English side still included plenty of experience though with James Anderson, Alastair Cook and Ian Bell having all played over 100 Tests and Stuart Broad 80.

Compare this to the Australian side which includes both Chris Rogers and Adam Voges who have a combined 74 years but just 24 Test caps between them and it says a lot about the current situation this aging Australian side faces.

The careers of Australian and English players, rightly or wrongly are usually defined by the Ashes and each campaign brings with it an end to a certain player cycle. England’s five-nil whitewash eighteen months ago more or less brought with it an end to the careers of six men. Graeme Swann retired after just three Tests, Kevin Pietersen, Michael Carberry and Chris Tremlett haven’t been selected since, while it was effectively the end for Matt Prior, who was dropped before the fourth Test and played just four more matches last summer, and Jonathan Trott who went home after one Test and played just three more since before retiring from international cricket.

Although Australia expected the retirements of Haddin, Harris and Rogers at the conclusion of the Ashes series, they would not have expected to be entering the Lords Test without Watson and two of their key components from that Ashes whitewash less than two years ago.

Aggression key in Ashes duel – Preview

The Investec Ashes 2015

The fates of David Warner and Jos Buttler vital to either side

Hurrah, the build up is finally over! The sledging, the predictable interviews and all the nonsense that goes with an Ashes series build up is almost complete – It’s time to bring on the cricket!!

The form of the aggressive Jos Buttler and David Warner are key to the Ashes.
The form of the aggressive duo Jos Buttler and David Warner is key to the Ashes.

Australia will start as slight favourites, due to their superior fast bowling depth, but only slight favourites. A tight series waits between two sides that are not by all means finished articles. England is still a side in transition while Australia still has a few worries with their batting and the age of their squad.

Like the beginning of most Ashes campaigns there remain plenty of questions to be answered for both sides.

Will England walk the talk and play with the aggression and freedom they have promised and that they showed in their recent ODI series with New Zealand?

They certainly have the players in their side to go with this new philosophy brought about by a combination of a new coaching set up, some new blood and a mimicking of a Brendan McCullum-led New Zealand. If they are to go with this new theory then they will need huge contributions from their attack-minded middle order of Joe Root, Ben Stokes and Jos Buttler.

Buttler could well be the key player for England. If you look at the way in which Brad Haddin outperformed Matt Prior in the 5-0 whitewash eighteen months ago, you could say after destruction caused by Mitchell Johnson, the way that Haddin rescued the Australians with counterattacking innings was the defining moment of the series. Buttler could well be that man for England.

Despite playing just eight Tests since being fast tracked into the side to replace the injured Matt Prior, Buttler has made a promising start to his career with the bat in particular. He has the ability to play not just the swashbuckling innings that he is renowned for in one day cricket but to get his head down in times of need and pace a ‘proper’ Test innings. This was evident during his most recent Test innings where he scored a rearguard 147-ball knock of 73, as others around him simply threw their wickets away.

But of course with his exploits in ODI cricket in the past year, the hundreds against Sri Lanka and New Zealand of course stand out; he has the ability and talent to take the game away from the opposition in Test cricket too, much in the way that Adam Gilchrist used to for Australia. Another bonus for Buttler is that he has Moeen Ali behind him in the batting order at number eight. This should allow Buttler even more freedom, knowing that he has a batsman who has made his living in county cricket as a number three, below him in the order.

Like England, questions still remain for Australia. How will Steve Smith react to batting at number three in English conditions is a question that has been flying around in the media for the past few weeks, but equally important is how David Warner will go about his business conquering both James Anderson and Stuart Broad with the new cherry in their hands.

Warner is certainly coming into the series a more compact and mature cricketer than the one who arrived on English shores two years ago and made the headlines first by having a twitter row with two Australian journalists and then by punching Joe Root after a Champions Trophy defeat in Birmingham.

Warner’s game has improved massively to the point that it’s hard to look past him, alongside an inform Alastair Cook and India’s Murali Vijay as the world’s top opening batsman. But while he remains a superb player on the fast and bouncy wickets found in Australia and South Africa, opening the batting in overcast English conditions remains a different kettle of fish.

Warner must find the correct balance between his batting with gay abandon approach and the caution required to succeed in England. If he is to do this, then forget Smith, Warner – with his ability to take the game away from the opposition in just a session, could well be Australia’s key batsman in the series.

Another key battle that could go some way to deciding the winner of the Ashes is the fates of the veteran pair Michael Clarke and Ian Bell. After both making their Test debuts in 2004 the pair now aged 33 and 34 respectfully are the only survivors from what was perhaps the greatest Ashes series of them all ten years ago and it’s not inconceivable that it could be their final campaigns against their old foes.

Ian Bell and Michael Clarke are the sole survivors from the 2005 Ashes series.
Ian Bell and Michael Clarke are the sole survivors from the 2005 Ashes series.

They have both played 110 Test matches and between them they have scored almost sixteen thousand Test runs to go with fifty Test hundreds and unlike many current batsman on either side, they have the experience of having performed in previous Ashes campaigns.

Clarke has seven Ashes hundreds to his name, while Bell has four – including three in the series between the sides two years ago, a campaign in which he went on to become the player of the series.

But while both men remain vital to their sides, their current form remains a concern. Clarke has averaged just 30 in the last year and has had serious back and hamstring injuries which have affected his ability to play long innings in the middle, he has been replaced by Smith as the sides best batsman and one wonders how long it will be until he is replaced by the younger man as the teams captain. He did spend vital time in the middle against Essex in the last warm up fixture at Chelmsford, where he scored 71 and will be confident he can return to lead his side with the crucial runs he has scored in the past.

For Bell it’s a similar story. Despite scoring a hundred in the first innings of the first Test during his side’s tour of the West Indies in April and May, it has been a lean time with the willow in hand. His recent Test scores read: 11, 1, 0, 0, 1, 29, 12 and 1. Like Clarke with Smith, he too has been replaced as his Country’s premier batsman by the emergence of Joe Root. Bell though still has plenty to offer this England side which includes plenty of youth and not a whole lot of experience. Alongside his captain, Bell has to step up as a senior batsman especially as the side step away from the era which included Kevin Pietersen and Jonathon Trott in the middle order.

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There was talk of England including Adil Rashid in their side as an extra spin option alongside Moeen Ali, but with recent weather in Cardiff keeping the pitch wet and damp that idea will now be put on the backburner. It remains likely that they will go in with the same side that played the two Test matches against New Zealand earlier in the summer with Mark Wood getting the final seamers spot ahead of the recalled Steven Finn.

For Australia, the retirement of Ryan Harris means that its likely they will go in with the same bowling line up that they used in Jamaica last month, meaning Josh Hazelwood and Mitchell Starc with start alongside England’s tormentor of eighteen months ago Mitchell Johnson. With the current grass on the wicket, there has been talk that Clarke will go into the match with four seamers but it seems unlikely that Peter Siddle with get the nod ahead of spinner Nathan Lyon.

Elsewhere, Shane Watson looks to have won the all-rounder’s spot ahead of the younger Mitchell Marsh. Watson’s bowling is seen as the stronger between the two especially in English conditions and he will be given at least the first Test as the current incumbent in the side.

Likely line-ups:

England: 1. Cook, 2. Lyth, 3. Ballance, 4. Bell, 5. Root, 6. Stokes, 7. Buttler, 8. Moeen Ali, 9. Broad, 10. Wood, 11. Anderson.

Australia: 1. Rogers, 2. Warner, 3. Smith, 4. Clarke, 5. Voges, 6. Watson, 7. Haddin, 8. Johnson, 9. Starc, 10. Hazelwood, 11. Lyon.

Helping the old enemy too much?

The Investec Ashes 2015

Has English cricket got the balance right between upholding the standards of the County Championship or allowing their Ashes rivals too much an upper hand in local conditions?

The silly season is upon us – But with the Ashes not yet underway, many Aussies are already dominating across our land.

As the Australian Ashes squad gets settled into life in England for the next two months, it will already feel like home for a few, that’s because for a few members of the tour party, for a few months of the year it is their home.

Both Peter Siddle and Adam Voges have already had success on these shores this summer, and they are not alone – there is as many as twenty Australian qualified players participating across formats in this summer’s county game.

It was just a few weeks ago that Voges scored a match defying debut hundred in Dominica, and one wonders how much his early season stint with Middlesex helped him keep in the form he showed for Western Australia during their recent Sheffield Shield campaign.

Although there is little doubt that his call up to the Test side was earned through a blockbuster Shield season, in which he scored 1358 runs at 104, there is also a claim that his county stints – spread across eight years at Hampshire, Nottinghamshire and Middlesex – have helped him hone his skills into a Test quality batsman.

Adam Voges on his way to a debut hundred in Dominica.
Adam Voges on his way to a debut hundred in Dominica.

Voges, of course, is not the first Australian batsman to have trodden a familiar path from the shires to international cricket.

The likes of Michael Hussey, Marcus North and Chris Rogers have all received their Baggy Green’s after many winters of toil in county cricket and like Voges they have all managed early success.

North scored a debut hundred against South Africa in 2009, while it took Hussey just two Tests, and Rogers five to register their first three figure scores.

Despite constant suggestions from the Australians that the Sheffield Shield is a tougher competition, and in many regards there is a lot of truth in that argument, the English county system has continued to act as a finishing school from domestic to international cricket for many Australians.

Alongside giving the Australians more first-class experience, the fact that so many Australians are currently plying their trade in county cricket and not sitting idle back home in Australia, could have major impacts on the forthcoming Ashes campaign.

Should injuries strike upon the Australians – not uncommon in a five-Test Ashes battle – then the visitors will have many back up fringe players around who have already played in England this summer.

When Siddle joined Nottinghamshire last season, he had just been dropped from the Test side during their victorious tour of South Africa, by the season’s end he was reinstated to the team for a tough away date with Pakistan in the UAE – all after a fruitful summer at Trent Bridge. When he was dropped by the green and gold for a second time in less than a year he turned to Lancashire and again strong county form has led to a national recall.

While the early season spring conditions have helped both Voges and Siddle gain more exposure to red ball cricket in England ahead of the Ashes – Perhaps the greatest benefit to Australian cricket could come in the form of a trio of their key limited overs players, who have been given the chance to play more first-class cricket.

Due to limited over commitments – including ODI series against South Africa and India as well as a home World Cup – three of Australians most talented cricketers managed just seven Sheffield Shield matches between last season.

James Faulkner (3, Appearances), Aaron Finch (2) and Glenn Maxwell (2) have all spoken of their desire to play Test cricket, but with Australia’s home ODI commitments running alongside the Sheffield Shield campaign, their opportunities to play more red-ball cricket have been few and far between – Until the counties stepped in that is.

Yorkshire coach and former Australian quick Jason Gillespie has handed opportunities to both Finch and Maxwell this season as his side look to defend their Championship crown without a host of batsmen plucked away by England.

Finch was originally signed last summer as a limited overs bet, but his attitude and willingness to play the longer form left an impression on his coach – who was then rewarded when the Victorian helped lead the White Rose towards their first title in thirteen attempts.

Finch was rewarded with a second season as Yorkshire’s overseas, but a hamstring injury sustained in the IPL led to a delay in his arrival, in his place was Maxwell, who like Finch last year, was originally signed as a t20 Blast prospect but ended up, much to his delight, being awarded an unlikely first-class opportunity.

Faulkner, who incidentally replaced Siddle at Lancashire, has proven an instant hit at Old Trafford. A valuable hundred and a hat trick in his first handful of Championship appearances have made a huge impression on those in Manchester and for Faulkner himself the opportunity could not have come at a better time.

Although the Australians have arrived in England with their most exciting quick bowling line up in recent memory – five match Ashes series with back-to-back Tests involved have a habit of testing the fitness of even the most durable of fast bowler. An injury or two and with Faulkner already in the country then perhaps another Ashes opportunity could arise.

Like Faulkner, Jackson Bird last made a Test appearance on English soil almost two years ago. Since that defeat at Chester-le-Street, a spate of serious injuries has threatened to put his international career on the backburner – this is where Hampshire has stepped in.

Bird was signed by the newly promoted south coast outfit after missing some of the Australian summer with various injuries and like his Tasmanian teammate Faulkner, the left-armer will hope that a potential opportunity could arise as the summer unfolds.

Like those mentioned before him, Ben Hilfenhaus’ mid-season stint with Nottinghamshire is looked upon as a good opportunity to get back into the national selectors minds should an opening arise – Despite last playing for his country in 2012 – he was last called up just last October as an injury replacement for Shane Watson against Pakistan.

Joe Burns, who last played county cricket for Leicestershire two years ago and who made his Test debut against India in December, was a surprise exclusion from the Test squads for the tours of the Caribbean and the United Kingdom. His place in that squad was taken by Voges, but after one window was closed another one was opened and he managed to secure another spell in the County game as Voges’ replacement at Middlesex. With another former Middlesex player in Chris Rogers retiring from Test cricket after the Ashes, runs on the board for Burns will likely quicken his return to the national set-up.

While young batsman Peter Handscomb, fresh off a breakthrough Shield-winning season with Victoria, has had an early season stint with Gloucestershire filling in for regular captain and Western Australian Michael Klinger. Handscomb like Burns and Maxwell will soon join up with the Australia A squad on their tour of India due to start later this month.

Can it have a negative effect for some Australians?

Despite the fact that many Australians (Who can’t get an IPL contract of course!) would jump at the chance to play some pre-Ashes cricket in the County Championship, it doesn’t always lead to success in the main showpiece later in the summer as two examples from previous Ashes campaigns can relate to.

Much was made of Nottinghamshire’s decision to sign Australian Test opener Ed Cowan ahead of England’s previous home Ashes campaign in 2013 but in the end it didn’t seem to matter as the previous incumbent opener was dropped after the first Test, in which he scored just a total of 14 runs, to date his final Test appearance.

Four years previous it was Phillip Hughes who’s five innings for Middlesex in early 2009 included three hundreds and two fifties – all this coming after he scored back-to-back hundreds in just his second Test match in South Africa – A fine start to Test cricket indeed.

When Hughes arrived to England he was an unknown quantity – An aggressive young opener who liked nothing more than width outside off stump so that he could free his arms into his favourite square cuts and drives. Unfortunately when the Ashes arrived he ran into a fired up Andrew Flintoff. Fred, much like he had done to Adam Gilchrist in 2005, found a weakness in Hughes’ technique outside off stump and Hughes lasted just two Tests before he was dropped from the side in favour of Watson.

Does it benefit the County game?

While it appears to benefit most Australians in getting more first-class exposure in English conditions – how does it benefit English cricket?

For starters having the calibre of international standard players is sure to strengthen the competition. A competition that has been criticized in recent years for a tightening on the rule of overseas and Kolpak players – leading to a dilution of the talent spread across the eighteen counties.

Another reason that the counties chose to sign Australian players is that they usually more available than players from other countries during the summer months. Many Australians look towards the UK to play county or club cricket in their winter before returning for pre-season ahead of their state season back home.

With the IPL running between April and June and the CPL between June and August, many international players who used to consider county cricket as a summer option are now taking their talent elsewhere for a shorter stint and a heavier pay packet.

There are exceptions of course and a host of Australians are now part of the furniture in the county game. The likes of Jim Allenby, John Hastings and Michael Hogan, Michael Klinger and Steve Magoffin have strengthened the county circuit in recent years much as the likes of Hussey, Rogers and North have in the past.

While all have had success in their own right across many years in county cricket, it’s the stability that they provide their counties that makes them such valuable players. The fairytale stories of the likes of Rogers and Voges also provide hope to these players that sustained success in the county game can lead to unexpected national call ups.

Leicestershire are a perfect example of a club who have looked towards the Australian winning mentality to resurrect their fortunes that had seen them not win a single Championship match since 2012. Andrew McDonald was appointed head coach with Mark Cosgrove captain, while seamer Clint McKay was brought in to spearhead the bowling.

Do English cricketers benefit in return?

With so many Australians rightly or wrongly allowed to progress their careers in the English game, does the game in Australia return the favour to English cricketers?

With just six state sides involved in the Sheffield Shield, it has in recent times become very rare to see any overseas involvement – with only Johan Botha of South Africa appearing in the competition in the last few years.

With very little chance of any English players being involved in first-class cricket in Australia, it’s another form of the game that has enticed many Englishmen down under in recent years.

This year’s Big Bash competition included nine Englishman. While it’s highly unlikely that Michael Carberry, Andrew Flintoff, Michael Lumb or Kevin Pietersen will appear for England again, the benefits that the likes of Tim Bresnan, Alex Hales, Eoin Morgan, Luke Wright and Ben Stokes will have gained from the competition could prove invaluable.

Stokes especially benefitted enormously. After a year in which he fell from grace as an English cricketer, he turned to the Big Bash and the Melbourne Renegades after a poor ODI series in Sri Lanka, although it wasn’t enough to secure him a place in the England World Cup squad, a 37-ball 77 against the Hobart Hurricanes in January seemed like the catalyst for a resurgence in the confidence and freedom missing from Stokes’ game after his dismal 2014.

While the competition in the Big Bash is currently higher than that of England’s NatWest Blast equivalent, another area that the Australians have long mastered is the high standard and competitiveness of their grade and club cricket competitions.

Each winter hundreds of English cricketers, of various degrees of age and talent, escape the cold of home and head down under to participate in grade or club cricket in Australia. For many years this has been viewed upon as a vital learning experience for young English cricketers.

Essex's Daniel Lawrence is one of a number of players to have benefited from club cricket down under.
Essex’s Daniel Lawrence is one of a number of players to have benefited from club cricket down under.

This past Southern Hemisphere summer saw two of English cricket’s most promising young batsmen follow this route down under as they looked to gain valuable cricket and life experience that will later benefit English cricket.

One of those batsman was Surrey’s Dominic Sibley, who hit the headlines in late 2013 when, aged just 18, he became the youngest ever double centurion in the history of the County Championship when he blasted his way to 242 against Yorkshire. Sibley spent his winter playing for Midland-Guildford CC in the WADCC First Grade competition in Perth. This season has seen Sibley become a regular in the Surrey side.

Another player who has benefitted from his winter spent in Australia is Daniel Lawrence of Essex. Lawrence left the comfort of home for Geelong and more specifically Newtown and Chilwell CC – where he was the club’s top run scorer with 556 at 42.77. In just his second first-class match upon arriving back in the UK he became the third youngest century maker in the history of the county game when he defied his tender years of 17 and 190 days to score 161 against Surrey in April.

Sibley and Lawrence are just an example of two amongst many English cricketers who have benefitted from a stint in Kangaroo country. While of course the County Championship is littered with Australians – it’s too simplistic to suggest that the English game is helping the old enemy without any favours in return. The beauty of cricket is that we will perhaps never know the true worth of the player development each country benefits from their Ashes rival.

The Finishers

ICC CRICKET WORLD CUP 2015

The wait is almost over.

With just a week to go until world cricket’s major limited overs tournament kicks off in Christchurch, I take a look at a vital role in the ODI game – The role of “The Finisher.”

The pressures that come with the World Cup bring together hero’s and villains alike. Batsmen and bowlers who keep their nerve to guide their respective sides to glory or the polar opposite and guys who wilt in the heat of the moment and fail under the expectations.

The term finisher originates from the man many believe was the finest finisher of them all – Australian Michael Bevan. Bevan was part of the 1999 and 2003 Australian World Cup winning sides and scored 6912 runs from 232 ODIs at 53.58. When it came to an ODI chase, the burly left-hander came into his element. In successful run chases his 45 innings brought him 25 not outs and 1725 runs at 86.25 – which also included three hundreds and twelve fifties.

The importance of being a good finisher is keeping calm, often when batting with the tail, with the run rate increasing and regular wickets falling at the other end. Many batsmen panic and fall to the big shot in these situations while others simply keep calm and back their abilities to see the job through using calculated risks whilst also making sure they often rotate the strike and shepherd the tail.

With history showing the role of the finisher to be an important factor between glory and failure I have picked five key finishers to look out for during the upcoming global tournament.

……

James Faulkner – Australia

imageDespite the fact that he’s set to miss the first week of the tournament due to a side strain, the all-round abilities of Faulkner remain a vital part of a strong looking Australian outfit.

Although he is primarily seen as a left arm medium fast bowler, it’s his late order hitting and composure with the bat that has seen him talked up as Australia’s latest finisher – following in the footsteps of the greats in Bevan and Michael Hussey before him.

With the all round depth that Australia currents possesses in their ODI side, the Tasmanian is not usually scheduled to come in until number eight and often doesn’t get a bat. But when he is required to strap the pads on he is often the man for a crisis and a high pressure run chase.

In twelve ODI second innings he averages 109.50 with eight not outs and a strike rate of 131.53 – A record better than any other player going to the World Cup.

The 24-year-old currently averages 48 in ODI’s and first truly showcased his lower order hitting prowess in a 2013 ODI series in India – where he scored an impressive 230 runs across just four innings at an average of 115 including a career best 116 and a stunning unbeaten 64 off 29 balls to lead his side home in Mohali.

Best finisher innings: 69no v England (at Brisbane – Jan 14′)

Coming in at number nine with his side staring down the barrel at 7-206 chasing a further 95 to win with 15.1 overs remaining, Faulkner pulled off a remarkable heist and led his side home with three balls to spare.

After seeing two wickets fall at the other end he was joined by number 11 Clint McKay with 57 runs still required but kept his cool and launched three 4’s and five 6’s in a 47-ball 69. His partnership with McKay was the second largest ten-wicket stand to win a match and Faulkner duly knocked off the final 25 runs needed in just seven deliveries.

…….

Luke Ronchi – New Zealand

imageThe wicketkeeper-batsman returned to the country of his birth in 2012 after initially representing Australia in four ODI’s back in 2008 and by 2013 he was a fixture in the Blackcaps limited overs sides.

By picking him in their ODI side the Kiwi’s have allowed skipper Brendon McCullum the freedom to focus on the captaincy and his aggressive batting without worrying about keeping wicket.

But Ronchi isn’t just here to keep the balance of the side intact. Coming in at number seven he has started to put his own mark on the side and compliment their strong middle order with his late hitting and finishing skills.

In a recent ODI against Sri Lanka at Dunedin he blasted the highest ever ODI score by a number seven when hitting a brutal 170 not out off just 99 deliveries. His century came of just 74 balls as he, alongside Grant Elliott put on a world record unbeaten 267 for the sixth wicket, having come to the crease at 4-82 they left the visitors with a chase of 361.

Best finisher innings: 32no v Sri Lanka (at Nelson – Jan 15′)

Despite his record breaking hundred getting all the plaudits he also helped the Blackcaps chase down Sri Lanka’s 276 in Nelson with an unbeaten 32 from just 15 deliveries. With centurion Kane Williamson having just been dismissed, Ronchi walked to the crease with 47 runs still needed from the remaining 36 deliveries, when Corey Anderson was then run out, Ronchi had seen enough and quickly made light of the chase by taking 24 runs off one Thisara Perera over to all but finish the game off.

Two other performances of note came in a pair of matches against South Africa in Mount Maunganui last year where he made 99 and 79 in losing causes.

……..

Mahendra Singh Dhoni – India

imageWhat more needs to be said about Mr Calm.

A veteran of 254 ODIs and 90 Test matches, India’s most successful leader is approaching his third World Cup after an appearance in 2007 and a winners medal in 2011. The man known as ‘Mahi’ is undoubtably ranked up their with the finest limited overs players of all time.

Time and time again the cultured right-hander has snatched his side victory from the jaws of defeat with powerful and calculated hitting toward the end of the innings and he is regarded alongside Bevan as the greatest finisher in the history of one day cricket.

Only Sachin Tendulkar can claim to be adored by the billions of India public more than Dhoni – Especially after the latter led his side to their first World Cup title since 1983 four years ago with a breathtaking finishing act to the scale of 91 unbeaten runs on home soil.

An ODI average of 52.29 is almost unrivalled in the modern day, but for a player who plays the risky and entertaining brand of cricket that Dhoni does – it strikes of greatness.

After giving up Test cricket recently, the 33-year-old has decided to stake more of his time in ODI and T20I cricket alongside his commitments for IPL side Chennai Super Kings and India will hope there are a few more years left yet in his hugely successful limited overs career.

Best finisher innings: 91no v Sri Lanka (at Mumbai – April 11′)

The world’s premier finisher of course had to show off his skills under pressure on the world’s biggest stage, the World Cup final.

Leading into the final, Dhoni had had a quiet time of things during the World Cup with teammate and national icon Tendulkar taking centre stage, but his captain wasn’t to be out done – cometh of the hour cometh the man.

Chasing 275 to win, India lost openers Tendulkar and Virender Sehwag inside the first seven overs and when Virat Kohli also fell with more than half the target still required, Dhoni decided to promote himself ahead of the in-form Yuvraj Singh.

Alongside Gautam Gambhir he took the Sri Lanka’s on for a tournament winning undefeated 91 from 79 balls adding a 109-run partnership in the process and eventually sealing the victory with a huge six into the grandstands to send over a billion Indians into party mood. Well played sir, well played.

…….

AB de Villiers – South Africa

imageThe man of the moment! de Villiers recently stopped the world in its tracks after blasting the world’s fastest ever ODI hundred against the hapless West Indians in Johannesburg.

Although he only came to the crease just eight deliveries before the 40th over, the brilliant right-hander somehow managed a brutal 31-ball hundred and still didn’t bat out the innings after falling for 149 in the 50th over chasing yet another six. He hit sixteen in total to go alongside his nine fours.

Despite this magnificent achievement, it perhaps didn’t shock that many people. That’s AB de Villiers for you, there’s not many things that he can’t do on a cricket field!

Although it seems he has been around forever (he made his ODI debut almost exactly a decade ago) he will only turn 31 during the tournament and could have at least another 5-10 years of cricket left in him.

If South Africa are to win their first World Cup and finally rid themselves of the chokers tag that has followed them for years, then they need their captain and talisman to perform the Lance Klusener like finishing skills of the late 90’s.

Test and ODI averages of over 52 confirm de Villiers as the best batsman in the world at present and with 19 ODI hundreds at a strike rate of 97.16 few would bet against him leading his side to next months World Cup final in Melbourne.

Best finisher innings: 136no v Australia (at Harare – Aug 14′)

Faced with a steep target of 328 against a good Australian bowling attack, the Proteas made light work of the chase thanks to hundreds and a 206-run partnership from de Villiers and Faf du Plessis. They eventually chased the total down with 20 deliveries spare.

De Villiers’ unbeaten 136 was made off just 106 balls and was at the time the second highest score by a South African captain in one day cricket.

The innings was typically clinical de Villiers – including both power and finesse on equal measures and helped with eleven fours and two sixes at a high strike rate of 128.30.

If there’s one man who knows how to pace an ODI innings, it’s the Proteas captain.

……..

Darren Sammy – West Indies

imageSt. Lucia’s first international cricketer has had a turbulent past 12 months in international cricket and his previous visit to New Zealand ended with him resigning from the Test captaincy and retiring from the format altogether.

Since then he has also been involved in contract disputes and was originally left out of the squad for the recently concluded 4-1 ODI series defeat in South Africa before been reinstated.

Once a captain across all formats for the Windies, Sammy is now just leader of the T20I side and has come back into the ranks as an ODI player with the side now skippered by youngster Jason Holder.

But despite of this he still remains an important part of the side in the forthcoming World Cup not least due to the absence of fellow hard hitting all rounders Dwayne Bravo and Kieron Pollard.

Despite his lack of an ODI hundred, Sammy has a high strike rate of over 100 and previous history of finishing off run chases – A skill he has transferred over from his past experiences in T20 cricket. His remarkable finish’s in T20I’s in the past year include: 30* off 9 (v England), 34* off 13 (v Australia) and 20* off 7 (v South Africa).

Best finisher innings: 63no v India (at Visakhapatnam – Nov 13′)

Up against a powerful Indian side on home soil and facing a stiff chase of 289, the West Indians got home with three balls and two wickets to spare, mainly thanks to Sammy’s unbeaten 45-ball 63.

The chase was set up by fifties to Kieren Powell, Darren Bravo and Lendl Simmons, but wickets kept falling and the asking rate climbing. Walking in at 5-185 with over a hundred still required, Sammy took it upon himself to seek boundaries with four 4’s and as many sixes been blasted from the bat of the tall right-hander.

His innings was reached at a strike rate of 140.00 despite him playing out a maiden when he first came to the crease.

With the current disarray in West Indies cricket, they will need a few more Sammy specials to brighten the spirits of their long suffering fans.

With the Ashes over, teams must now look to the future

Australia must aim for higher feats, whilst for England the postmortem begins…

As the famous line by Norwegian football commentator Bjorge Lillelien goes;

“Lord Nelson! Lord Beaverbrook! Sir Winston Churchill! Sir Anthony Eden! Clement Attlee! Henry Cooper! Lady Diana! Maggie Thatcher – can you hear me, Maggie Thatcher! Your boys took one hell of a beating! Your boys took one hell of a beating!” – Perhaps similar words could have been used by a member of the Channel 9 commentary team to describe the way Alastair Cook and his men fell from grace in their recent Ashes campaign.

papersAs the dust begins to settle on one of the most one sided Ashes encounters in recent memory, its time to catch breath and digest what victory means for Australia and defeat means for England.

Looking at the Australians to begin: First and foremost despite a series of hugely impressive performances across the five Test matches they must not get ahead of themselves.

Despite their undoubted success, they must note that their top order batting collapsed in four out of the five first innings during the series with Brad Haddin and the lower order often rescuing the situation – to which their bowlers could take full control of the match.

Walking to the crease at the fall of the fifth wicket, Haddin was faced with totals of 100, 257, 143, 112 and 97 – hardly promising starts by the countries five best batsmen.

Thanks to the amazing consistency of Haddin the team were able to eventually post first innings totals of 295, 570, 385, 204 and 326 – enough to outscore the feeble English batting on this occasion but harder challenges await…

Looking forward to next months three Test tour of South Africa, it is very unlikely the Proteas fast bowling trio of Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and Vernon Philander will be so forgiving in their own conditions as the jaded Englishmen were Down Under.

Doubts certainly remain over the top and middle order batting and the selectors have taken the decision to drop George Bailey from the number six position and instead include both the uncapped Tasmanian Alex Doolan and the returning number three Shaun Marsh. Bailey has failed to push on and make the spot his own despite being given the full Ashes series to do so. After making starts in a lot of his innings and blitzing James Anderson for a joint Test record of 28-runs in an over at the WACA, his series stats of 183 runs at 16.14 across eight innings hardly jumped out as being Test match quality.

Doolan was named in the squad for the final Test as cover for Shane Watson and he has remained the “next cab off

A surprise inclusion... Shaun Marsh is named in recent Test squad to tour South Africa.
A surprise inclusion… Shaun Marsh is recalled to the Test squad for the tour of South Africa.

the rank” in term of selection for the imminent South African tour. The selection of Marsh is a much stranger inclusion. The 30-year-old has had an ordinary Sheffield Shield season for Western Australia thus far with just 275 runs at 34.37 and has had past opportunities to claim a long term spot in the national side.

Despite a hugely impressive 141 on debut in Pallekele two-and-a-half years ago, Marsh struggled to do his undisputed talent justice thereafter and the final straw came when his scored just 17 runs in six innings at an average of just 2.83. His seven Tests to date have yielded just 301 runs at 27.36 and there is a sense that the selectors are arriving back at his avenue due to his impressive recent ODI form (back-to-back scores of 55 and 71no against England) – Wait…wasn’t that the problem with selecting Bailey in the first place? – a great run in the ODI format, no recent first-class form to speak of and a weakness outside off stump against quality quick bowling – it all sounds very familiar from the Aussie selectors. The questions remain.

One player who can count himself unlucky to miss the trip to South Africa is Phillip Hughes. Hughes remains the best domestic batsman outside of the Australian Test side and he must be wondering when his next opportunity to win nationals honours will arrive. His 549 13/14 Shield runs at 61.00 include a double and two hundreds for South Australia and at just 25, his time will no doubt come again.

Shane Watson must also be counting his lucky stars that he was able to finish the series with a couple of big knocks as his place in the side was being questioned for his lack of “tough runs” at number three, were he not to continue operating as a fifth bowling option then his place could well again be up for debate.

Both David Warner and Chris Rogers had success at the top of the order during different stages of the series (Warner at the start and Rogers towards the conclusion), while Michael Clarke started the series with back-to-back hundreds in Brisbane and Adelaide – perhaps the most significant aspect of this was his team’s ability to still score runs without any huge contribution from their captain after the first two matches – something that has not happened since the retirement of Michael Hussey twelve months ago.

The biggest plus to come out of the past ten Ashes Tests must be the ongoing improvement and maturity of Steve Smith. The 24-year-old was reintroduced into the Test set-up during the disastrous tour of India last March and has since become a solid and reliable Test match batsman. This was most underlined with his first innings centuries in both Perth and Melbourne – both scored with his side in a precarious position.

The fast bowling quartet of Peter Siddle, Ryan Harris, Mitchell Johnson and Watson performed better than even their biggest supporters would have imagined. Across the series they took 79 of the 100 English wickets to fall and collectively they averaged just 15.45 in the first innings and 22.00 in the second.

The important thing for the Aussies is that they have tremendous depth in their fast bowling stocks. At 34 and 32 respectively Harris and Johnson are not going to last forever, especially considering that Harris played half of the Ashes campaign on one leg! The fact that he played all five matches of the series is a huge plus for his side – and that he has now played nine consecutive matches this year is something what would have been deemed impossible just six months ago.

James Pattinson and Jackson Bird both return for the South African tour party after they proved their fitness in the ongoing Big Bash campaign. Meanwhile Mitchell Starc, Pat Cummins and Nathan Coulter-Nile will all look to return to the Test setup during the next twelve months and if the young trio of Cummins, Pattinson and Starc can all remain injury-free for a prolonged period of time then the transitional phase from the Harris and Johnson era should eventually be a smooth one.

The three match tour of South Africa is a hugely significant one for Australia as they will return to number one side in the the ICC Test rankings if they were to beat the hosts. Only a few months ago this side was losing 3-0 in England and a shot at the number one spot looked a world away. The tour also marks the only Test cricket the side will play until they visit the UAE to take on Pakistan in October – a series which has already been downgraded to just two Tests after a one day series was squeezed into the schedule by the PCA.

That tour will certainly put their ability to play quality spin bowling under the microscope. Facing the likes of Saeed Ajmal and Abdur Rehman on pitches likely to be doctored to turn from the off is likely to be a huge challenge for a batting line up that performed so abysmally during their tour of India last year.

………………………………………………………………………….

For England a 5-0 Ashes whitewash marks the end of a hugely successful era of English cricket. Despite the team not losing a Test series before this one since they were defeated at home by South Africa almost 18 months ago, the cracks have started to appear for a while and the writing on the wall has not far been around the corner for this generation of players.

Big questions remain for England. Does Andy Flower keep his job? Does Alistair Cook keep the captaincy? and how do the selectors go about freshening up a side in need of a makeover?

The relationship between Andy Flower and Kevin Pietersen remains a question for England.
The relationship between Andy Flower and Kevin Pietersen remains in question for England.

Firstly, Andy Flower looks set to stay on as team director after he reiterated his decision to guide his side through their transitional phase. The 45-year-old has had a hugely successful stint as England’s main man, his relationship with captains Andrew Strauss and Cook has been a particular key to England’s consistency across all three formats in recent years, but the way that the team performed in the Ashes has raised questions over Flower’s tough leadership skills in comparisons to the laissez faire approach offered by his counterpart Darren Lehmann, which has seen the Australian’s play a more fun and exciting brand of cricket.

Flower can perhaps think himself lucky to still be in a job, but his past successes over his five years in charge have earned him the right to stay and overhaul the next generation of English cricket moving forward. Likewise Cook will continue as Test captain and perhaps just relinquish the ODI role after the ongoing ODI series in Australia. The lack of genuine leadership contenders leaves Cook in a position where he is still the best man for the job as other options such as Stuart Broad, Ian Bell and Kevin Pietersen all have their own current issues going on. One bad series doesn’t make Cook a terrible captain , but what it did show was that tactically he is along way behind where he needs to be at this stage of his captaincy.

England next Test examination isn’t until they host Sri Lanka in June and before then they must make some tough calls on the way they want to go about trying to rejuvenate this stagnated side. There is no doubt that the side needs freshening up with new blood after the host of recent departures has left gapping holes in their line-up. These decisions must of course be made with careful consideration as in some instances careers could well be on the line.

One such instance is the future surrounding Pietersen. The 33-year-old batsmen has recently suggested that he wants to continue playing Test cricket until at least the 2015 home Ashes campaign, but reports of a recent falling out between himself and Flower seem to have put that quest in jeopardy. Some reports were even going far as to say that the South African-born star could well have played his final Test match and that he will continue playing cricket in a T20 freelance role. England must do all they can to keep Pietersen in the side alongside the likes of Bell and Cook as they look to nurture the next generation of batsmen.

Since their last tour down under in 10/11 this side has steadily started to lose its spine, and by the end of this tour the wheels had well and truly fallen off. Since England won their first away Ashes series in 23 years during that 10/11 series, a number of key players have walked away from this hugely successful English cricket side.

First Paul Collingwood retired from the side at the conclusion of that triumphant tour, leaving them without a solid number six since. Eoin Morgan, Ravi Bopara, James Taylor, Jonny Bairstow, Samit Patel and Chris Woakes have all been tried and disregarded since and only now with the emergence of Ben Stokes do the side look like having a long term solution.

The emergence of Stokes is hugely significant for England, not since the days of Andrew Flintoff have they had a

Shining Light...Ben Stokes is England's one bright spot from the Ashes tour.
Shining Light…Ben Stokes is England’s one bright spark from the Ashes tour.

player at number six who can both bowl in the high 80’s and also be aggressive with the bat. Stokes still has a long way to go with both bat and ball to emulate the successes of Flintoff, but his opening few Tests have shown that with the right management and guidance he has to talent and temperament to succeed at Test level – Stokes must now be given a long and fair run at number six.

Another area which England have failed to find an adequate replacement for is the second opening slot alongside Cook. Since Andrew Strauss retired 18 months ago, three men have been given a chance and yet still England don’t have a clue who their best opening combination is. First Nick Compton was tried for the successful tour of India last winter and since the likes of Joe Root and Michael Carberry have also been given the chance to make the spot their own without much success.

Compton was harshly treated by being dropped after England’s home series with New Zealand last summer, despite scoring unnecessary slow at times, he was a solid Test opener who didn’t let any one down in his nine Test matches. After scoring two hundreds in his final five Tests he was pushed aside to allow Root to open alongside his captain. Root at the time was enjoying a purple spell batting in the middle order and in hindsight it was a huge mistake by the ECB to push him to the top of the order before he was fully acclimatised to dealing with the moving ball that comes as a Test opener.

Realising their error, Root was again pushed down the order for the away leg of the Ashes and Carberry brought into the side. Although he performed better than most at times during the series, Carberry didn’t kick on to make that elusive three figures and at 33, the feel is that he will be made a scapegoat for the shambles Down Under and never seen again in an England Test jersey.

Its seemingly possible that England will again turn to Root to open the batting in their next Test series as he is the man they have earmarked to make the spot his own for the next decade or so. Another option for the future opening spot includes Middlesex’s Sam Robson who has impressed in the past two first-class seasons – although he has yet to truly declare his alliance to either England or Australia.

If England didn’t have enough spots to replace in their side, things soon got much worse with their incumbent number three and leading spin bowler both departing during the series. Jonathan Trott left after just one Test match due to a stress related illness and it remains unlikely he will ever represent his adopted country again. Trott’s departure leaves a huge hole in the England top order that was so solid under the Cook, Strauss and Trott era. Ian Bell was eventually moved up the order for the Melbourne Test after an experiment that saw Root fail to adapt to the role in two matches there. With Bell being the side’s best stroke player he must remain there, form and fitness permitting, for the rest of his career.

Replacing a quality spin bowler like Graeme Swann will be a much harder task. Since debuting in Test cricket in late 2008, Swann has taken more wickets (255) than any other spin bowler across the globe and despite not being at his best for the start of the tour, he will be hugely missed in the side for his ability to either hold up an end for the quick bowlers or spin his side to success when the conditions were in his favour.

Graeme Swann called it quit's just three Tests into the Ashes series.
Graeme Swann called it quit’s just three Tests into the Ashes series.

The English spin bowling cupboard is as bare as it has been in recent memory. Monty Panesar has been the longtime backup ever since he lost his place as the side’s sole spinner when Swann debuted five years ago and although he remains a steady left-arm-orthodox bowler he is not the bowler he was of years gone by and his recent off field antics have not helped his cause either. At 31 though he still has time to get back to somewhere near his best and with 50 Tests behind him he has far superior experience at the highest level compared to his rivals for the role.

Those rivals have included both Simon Kerrigan and Scott Borthwick in recent months and although both are promising spin bowlers in their own right – neither man is yet ready for more Test action. Kerrigan had a unfortunate case of the bowling yips on debut at the Oval in August and has not been included since, while Borthwick was in the right place at the right time when he was called up to make his debut in Sydney at the start of the month. Kerrigan is County cricket’s most consistent bowler of the past few years and his chance will come again once he recovers his confidence for Lancashire this season. Borthwick, a hugely impressive character has the added incentive of being able to bat in the middle-to-lower order but his legspin is still a work in progress and he must find a way of bowling more overs for his county Durham if he is to be considered England’s sole Test spinner.

The fast bowling is also of concern. The main concern being that the two quality fast men that England possess are being run into the ground through a combination of poor management and meaningless scheduling by ECB. Both Stuart Board and James Anderson have looked tired and jaded in recent times and the situation surrounding Steven Finn is also a huge concern. Finn was someone England had picked to be the future of their pace attack for years to come. He ended the tour early and returned to England to clear his mind of the game, no he must go back to Middlesex and start to enjoy his cricket again before returning to the national setup.

Elsewhere Graham Onions, wrongly not selected for the Ashes tour, should be given a further chance to progress his Test career during the Sri Lanka series are he still remains a player with a lot to offer this England setup in the short to medium term. Somerset’s Jamie Overton and Tymal Mills of Essex have both recently been discussed as possible candidates for the England number three bowling slot, but both currently remain raw works in progress and could very well do with at least another year of continuous County action, the same could also be said of Mills’ Essex teammate Reece Topley – who has also shown rich promise in his young career.

At the other end of the age spectrum, both Chris Tremlett and Boyd Rankin could well have played their last Tests for England. The pair both failed to impress in their single appearances over the series and England must now move away from the pair who alongside Finn were seen as the “tall trio to regain the Ashes Down Under.” The fact that Finn didn’t play any of the Tests, Tremlett played the first and was disregarded thereafter and Rankin wasn’t trusted until the Ashes were lost – suggests that the experiment was a complete failure.

Another key area which England must try and find a solution to is that of wicketkeeper. It’s hugely important for Matt Prior to regain the form that made him one of the world’s best wicketkeeper-batsmen just a year ago. He is not just highly influential for his batting and keeping but also for his important influence to the side and to captain Cook. He must go back to Sussex and regain his confidence with bat and gloves in the early County season as his nearest challengers for a long term place in the side, Jos Buttler and Jonny Bairstow are not nearly good enough wicketkeepers for Test cricket at the present.

Eoin Morgan’s impressive recent ODI form will have people mentioning his name again for the England number five spot, but his reluctance, due to his continued involvement in the IPL, to play any first-class cricket at the start of the County Championship each year should count against him, leaving Gary Ballance as the man in possession unless somebody else scores heavily in the early rounds of the Championship to force a claim.

The future for this England side is not entirely as bleak as the media have been portraying it in recent times, but it certainly needs tweaking in certain areas. With young players like Stokes and Root coming into the side in recent times, its important England put faith in them and give them opportunity to develop alongside the experience of Cook, Bell and Pietersen.

England may well have taken one hell of a beating, but in cricket, time and clever management is certainly a healer.