Garry the goat

Nathan Lyon heads into his fourth Ashes campaign full of confidence after a career defining 2017 has seen him reach the top of his game.

 

gaz
(Photo Credit: AFP).

 

“Nice, Garry!”

It’s Boxing Day 2016 and 63,478 people are packed inside the Melbourne Cricket Ground eagerly anticipating the spell of a certain Australian bowler. No, it’s not the fearsome pace of Mitchell Starc or the unerring accuracy of Josh Hazlewood they’re after, it’s the offspin of Nathan Lyon.

They were there to witness a phenomenon. The “Nice, Garry!” phenomenon. It had begun weeks earlier during a day/night Test match at the Adelaide Oval when wicketkeeper Matthew Wade, recently recalled to the side for his chirpiness behind the stumps, devised the rallying cry in a throwback similar to Ian Healy’s famous “Bowling Shane!” tagline witnessed throughout the 1990’s.

Wade’s catchphrase quickly went viral and soon escalated into a nationwide Nathan Lyon-love fest, so much so that it now had its own Facebook page. Heading into the Melbourne Test over 22,000 Facebook users signed a petition campaigning for the MCG crowd to collectively yell the, now famous, slogan whenever Lyon delivered the third ball of his opening spell.

Lo and behold, Lyon’s cult following grew to further heights when, right on cue, he sent the festive crowd into a frenzy by having Pakistani opener Sami Aslam caught at slip halfway through his opening over.

The once unheralded Lyon had now become a fully-fledged Australian cult hero. However, things could easily have turned out much different…

 

                                                                                     ****

 

Just weeks earlier, Lyon’s 2016 was heading towards an uncertain end. He was on the verge of being dropped from the Test side after a disastrous defeat to South Africa in Hobart coincided with his own slump in form and confidence. At one point he’d failed to take a single wicket in 660 first-class deliveries split between the Sheffield Shield and Test cricket.

If not for an untimely calf niggle suffered by New South Wales teammate Steve O’Keefe then Lyon would certainly have swapped places with his fellow spinner, thus finishing the year in domestic cricket.

Despite the memorable dismissal of Sami Aslam, his place in the side was once again in jeopardy heading into the final day of the Boxing Day fixture. The fanfare of that first-innings dismissal masked over his poor returns of 1-115 in the first dig. Then came the turning point. Faced with a straight forward looking final day survival act on a flat wicket, Pakistan collapsed in a heap to lose the match by an innings and 18 runs. Lyon’s contributions were massive. It was his scalps of Younis Khan, Misbah-ul-Haq and Asad Shafiq that broke the back of a strong Pakistani middle order.

For Lyon, things had started to fall back into place – his roar was back!

Despite an up-and-down year with the ball – in which the nadir came when he was largely held accountable for a 3-0 series reverse in Sri Lanka – he still managed to conclude 2016 with a respectable 41 Test wickets at 36.34.

 

                                                                                    ****

 

After a difficult 2016, Lyon entered this year with plenty to prove, not least to himself. His biggest challenge was always likely to be how he performed on the spin friendly subcontinental wickets of India and Bangladesh. He has since dispelled all the doubts surrounding his place in the side and propelled himself into the elite bracket of spin bowlers across world cricket.

Heading into Australia’s four-Test tour of India in February, Lyon held an unflattering bowling record in Asia. Spread across 11 Tests his 42 wickets had cost him 42.57 apiece. Since then his six matches have yielded a further 41 wickets at just 19.39.

After playing second fiddle to O’Keefe during Australia’s opening Test victory in Pune, he burst into life in Bengaluru taking first innings returns of 8-50 before following up with 5-92 in the final Test in Dharamsala. Despite finishing the series on the losing side, Lyon (with 19 wickets at 25.26) had finally conquered his final frontier with success on Asian soil.

Further success was enjoyed throughout Lyon’s first tour of Bangladesh where he claimed 9-161 during a losing cause in Dhaka before bowling Australia to a series-levelling victory in Chittagong with excellent match figures of 13-154.

His superb form across 2017 has seen him rewarded with a place in the ICC’s top ten bowling rankings for the first time in his Test career.

 

                                                                                    ****

 

And so, ten years after his retirement, Australia finally appear to have a worthy spin successor to Shane Warne. He might not carry the same – on and off field – swagger as Warne, but six years after his Test debut, Nathan Michael Lyon is now enjoying a purple patch that is rapidly elevating him into Australian cricketing folklore.

For years his Test career often slipped under the radar. It easy to forget he was handed his Baggy Green as far back as 2011 and equally surprising that he’ll play his 70th Test match at the Gabba against England in two weeks’ time. And yet his numbers stack up against the very best in the modern era – (to date his 69 Tests have yielded 269 Test wickets at a highly respectable average of 31.83).

An unassuming character and very much a ‘team first’ man, he hasn’t got the X-factor of a David Warner, Mitchell Starc or Pat Cummins. Instead he’s his own man. Nathan Lyon is just… Well…Nathan Lyon – or perhaps Lyono, Garry, Gaz or the Goat if you’d prefer.

He earned his latest nickname The Goat after passing Hugh Trumble’s tally of 141 Test wickets in 2015 to become Australia’s greatest offspinner of all time. Before that he was more commonly known as Garry after the legendary AFL player Garry Lyon. Either way, he now stands behind only the great man Warne as Australian’s leading Test spin bowler.

A former Adelaide Oval groundskeeper turned Aussie team song leader, he’s been through more ups and downs in his 69-Test career than most. In 2013, he was dropped from the side twice in the space of three matches. For the Australian selectors it seemed there was always a sexier spin bowling option around the corner, except it turned out there wasn’t.

Until recently, Lyon’s relationship with the Australian public hasn’t always been all that smooth. There were times they forgot he was playing. There were times they wished he wasn’t playing. There were times they wished he was playing. There were times they wished he was Warnie, then the times they were just pleased he wasn’t just another Beau Casson or Jason Krejza. There were times they hated on him, times they loved him, and then the bizarre times they simply worshiped him.

Yet Lyon doesn’t get too high or low, he simply gets on with the task in hand. Bowling offspin in Australia is hard enough art without worrying about the uncontrollable. In fact, for a bowler with no particular mystery to talk of, his numbers on home soil (118 wickets at 34.55) compare admirably against his away record (151 wickets at 29.71).

Earlier in his career, his inability to dismiss Faf du Plessis and his South African colleagues on a fifth day wicket at the Adelaide Oval in 2012 carried a heavy weight on his slender shoulders. It took two years before he was remotely forgiven for this misdemeanour. His breakout performance came at an incredibly sad juncture in Australian cricket, when in the wake of the tragic death of Phillip Hughes’, Lyon took 12 wickets to bowl the Aussies to a last-gasp victory against India in Adelaide.

Since then he’s been a fixture in the side without ever feeling truly safe over his place until earlier this year.

So, what does the future hold for Lyon?

Only due to turn 30 three days before the Ashes begin, there appears plenty of bowling left in Lyon yet. It could be said that Warne enjoyed the best years of his Test career after turning 30. In fact, he took 386 of his 708 Test wickets after hitting the big 3-0 as he continued to add nous and guile to his already impressive repertoire of skills.

While Lyon has established himself as an excellent Test bowler, he’ll be eager to revive his stop-start limited overs career with a view to being involved in Australia’s World Cup defence in 2019. Despite making his ODI debut in March 2012, he’s earned just 13 caps and a solitary T20I appearance as others such as legspinner Adam Zampa have been preferred.

However, right now the ODI renaissance can wait for another day, there’s an Ashes series to be won.

Can Maddinson fulfil undoubted potential?

Despite his obvious talent, the timing of Nic Maddinson’s maiden Test call-up, ahead of NSW teammate Kurtis Patterson, comes as somewhat of a surprise.

523373983CH040_QLD_v_NSW_Sh
Nic Maddinson (Photo Credit: Getty Images)

 

On October 10th 2010, Nic Maddinson made history at the Adelaide Oval. At 18 years and 294 days, he became the youngest New South Wales batsman to score a century on first-class debut.

During that day, he put on a quick-fire partnership of 153 with former Blue’s teammate Usman Khawaja. On Thursday, the two men will once again be reunited in Adelaide – this time as Test cricketers.

On November 27th 2011, Kurtis Patterson broke Maddinson’s record. At 18 years and 206 days, Patterson also eclipsed former Australian Test batsman Barry Shepherd’s 1955-56 record as the youngest debutant century maker in Sheffield Shield history.

After his astonishing introduction to first-class cricket, injuries and other circumstances meant Patterson had to wait a further two years to play another match. Maddinson, on the other hand, was granted freedom to establish himself as a permanent, albeit moveable, fixture in the New South Wales first XI.

On November 20th 2016, Maddinson was selected to earn a Baggy Green ahead of Patterson. The timing of his maiden Test call-up, alongside Peter Handscomb and Matt Renshaw, comes as somewhat of a surprise. That Maddinson has the potential has never been in doubt. But does his recent first-class performances warrant selection ahead of his in-form NSW colleague Kurtis Patterson?

During the 2015/16 Shield campaign, Maddinson averaged just 30.50 compared to Patterson’s 52.64. So far this summer he’s scored only 155 runs to Patterson’s 278, albeit having played a match less. Perhaps it was Maddinson’s greater experience (59 first-class matches to Patterson’s 33) that edged him ahead during selection meetings this week.

Or perhaps it was his accomplished 116 – scored against Western Australia on a recent turning SCG wicket – something that wouldn’t have gone unnoticed with a tour of India coming up early next year. Whatever it was, Pattinson finds himself unfortunate to miss out.

It has been confirmed that Maddinson will make his Test debut as a number six. With power hitting a strong part of his game – he’s previously represented his nation in two T20 internationals, its hoped he will thrive on the opportunity to play his natural game – something the former incumbent Mitchell Marsh hitherto failed to achieve.

It’s something his new skipper Steven Smith is excited about; “The selectors have given him an opportunity to come in and play at number six and sum up the conditions and play with a bit of freedom at the same time.

“On his day he can tear any attack apart.” Smith told reporters in Adelaide.

Despite starting out his state career as an opening batsman, Maddinson’s critics suggest he lacks the required patience to success at Test level. Some have even gone as far as suggesting he gets bored during spells at the crease. Regardless, he was entrusted with the honour of captaining New South Wales six times last summer with Moises Henriques out injured and Smith absent on national duty.

Despite showing endless potential for several years following his record-breaking debut, the 24-year-old lefthander hasn’t yet found a regular consistency in his game. Irrespective of this it seems the selection panel – now chaired by Trevor Hohns following the resignation of Rod Marsh last week – have grown so restless of waiting for him to find a greater level of consistency in his batting, that they have decided to take a punt on him anyway.

Having impressed in the junior ranks, Maddinson looked to have made the giant leap to the next level during an A tour of England prior to the 2013 Ashes. Opening the batting against Gloucestershire at Bristol, he made a powerful 181 off just 143 deliveries – still his highest first-class score to date. However, after a breakout first-innings, in the second dig – emblematic of his career to date – he was caught behind for a golden duck.

The batting line up for that three-day tour fixture included the likes of Khawaja, Smith, Jordan Silk, Phillip Hughes and Matthew Wade. Three of those men will represent Australia later this week. Baring tragedy and misfortune, there was perhaps a time when all five would have looked likely starters to join Maddinson at the Adelaide Oval.

Although Maddinson’s insouciant style has previously drawn comparisons with former New South Wales and Australian batsman Mark Waugh, it has also regularly got him into trouble when faced with quality bowling. If he’s to succeed at Test level, he must cut out the mental errors that have his plagued his game for the best part of six years.

Having said that, he must be given a fare crack at the number six position unlike his predecessor Callum Ferguson, who wasn’t given just one Test before being disregarded after the side’s insipid display in Hobart.

 

Vital questions to be answered as Australia hit rock bottom

A fifth straight Test loss, coupled with a recent 5-0 ODI whitewash in South Africa has left Australian cricket in a state of desolation. But what can be done to stop the rot with key series against Pakistan and India on the horizon?

I look at five important questions Australian cricket needs to answer moving forward.

steve-smith
Steven Smiths fights a lone battle as wickets tumble around him in Hobart. (Photo Credit: Cricket Australia/Getty Images.)

 

Why is there such a lack of fight with the bat?

“We are not resilient enough, we are not digging in enough, we are not having the pride in our wicket, we’re just not being resilient enough and something has got to change.” – those are the words of captain Steven Smith after his side were humiliated to the tune of an-innings and 80-run defeat against South Africa in Hobart.

Lately when the going gets tough, the batting simply folds. Three alarming batting collapses of 10 for 86 in Perth as well as 10 for 85 and 8 for 31 in Hobart have all occurred across just four innings in the current series. This isn’t just a recent issue either. In Colombo, just a couple of months back, they lost 10 for 86. Last year they were bowled out for 60 at Trent Bridge.

While the technical deficiencies against both swing and spin have been mentioned many times before, the recent lack of fight with the bat is astonishing. Be it a confidence or mental issue, it appears to be rapidly spiralling out of control. When the going gets tough you’d always expect an Australian side to fight for the collective cause, to fight for the baggy green with a certain level of passion and pride. But recently there has been a worrying trend to simply throw the towel in when victory appears out of reach.

These issues certainly haven’t been lost on the selectors either. They were so worried about the batting that they included South Australian quick Joe Mennie at the expense of the more experienced Jackson Bird, because he had a better first-class batting average. Likewise, allrounder Mitchell Marsh was jettisoned in Hobart in favour of a sixth batman in Callum Ferguson – ultimately it had the adverse effect with Australia getting shot out for 85 in just 32.5 overs. Coincidently the last time they entered a Test match with six batsmen and no allrounder was the 60 all out at Trent Bridge.

While the batsman talk a good game, with suggestions of playing the “Australian Way” – an aggressive front foot approach to dominating all types of bowling regardless of the match situation or conditions – they don’t appear to be driven enough to knuckle down and absorb pressure when the opposition bowlers are on top. Although the shear number of limited overs cricket has led to an increase in the run rate of Test matches, there is still a place in the game for batting time and putting a hefty price on one’s wicket. Apparently, someone forgot to mention this to the Australians.

  

Is there a cultural shift in Australian cricket?

There was talk after a failed Olympic games campaign earlier this year that Australian athletes are “Going Soft”. It was also suggested that each medal won by the Olympic team had cost the taxpayers around $20M. Back then the nation’s public were demanding answers. While the failures of their cricketing counterparts are not costing anywhere near that amount, do they also have a right to question whether their cricket team has, in fact also, gone soft?

As the mind wanders back to the Australian cricket teams of yesteryear, it instantly thinks of eleven tough men. Mates, willing to do all they can to achieve collective a success. Sledging and on field nastiness were bred into them during years of Grade cricket and sustained into the international arena.

There was a time when Australian cricketers were just blokey blokes. During the seventies Jeff Thomson kept fit by hunting pigs in his spare time, in the late eighties David Boon once drank 52 cans of beer on a pre-Ashes flight from Sydney to London and in the nineties Glenn McGrath regularly mocked the opposition as much as his bowling castled them.

How things change. In the present, there wasn’t even any pre-series gloating before the South Africans had arrived down under. Not from the Aussies anyway. Instead It was the visitors who did the talking and ultimately backed up their words with strong actions on the field.

It is just a severe of lack confidence that has quietened Smith’s men or it is a shift in the culture of this team?

It appears there is currently a significant lack of leaders and characters in the home dressing room. With the amount of backroom staff now around, perhaps the lack of having to think for one’s self is diluting the leadership qualities of the modern-day player.

Australia has always had a loud authoritative figure at its helm, right from the days of Ian Chappell through to Ricky Ponting and Michael Clarke. Unfortunately, Smith – as good a batsman as he is – just isn’t cut from the same cloth. Aside from David Warner (who has mellowed quite considerably in recent times) it appears to be a dressing room full of quiet voices.

While Smith’s captaincy is currently in no doubt after he showed plenty of fighting qualities in his two “leading from the front” knocks in Hobart, he needs stronger voices and opinions around him both on and off the field.

Moving forward, one option would be to bring back Matthew Wade to keep wicket instead of the underperforming Peter Nevill. Wade is a fighter. Not only would he add more with the bat, but as a state captain for Victoria he would also act as another strong sounding board for his Smith to bounce ideas off.

 

adam-voges-career
After a brief and fruitful Test career, Adam Voges looks to have played his final match. (Photo Credit: Getty Images).

 

Why are so many fast bowlers injured, and what can be done to counter this?

Pat Cummins, James Pattinson, Nathan Coulter-Nile, Joel Paris and Peter Siddle are all currently unavailable for international selection. Taking away those kinds of options from any international side would hurt. For Australia, these days’ such injury predicaments are common place.

Despite the CA hierarchy often insisting on a rest and rotation policy for fast bowlers despite them often being fit to play, the bowling stocks across the nation appear to be as depleted as ever.

Cummins, still only 23 years of age, has not represented Australia in Test cricket his making his debut in South Africa almost five years ago. Meanwhile, persistent back and muscle injuries have also restricted Pattinson to just 17 sporadic appearances in the half-a-decade since he made his Test bow against New Zealand.

Elsewhere, despite being included in previous squads, a combination of hamstring, shoulder and back injuries have prevented Coulter-Nile from yet making his Test debut. He’s currently ruled out for the foreseeable future after picking up a lumbar bone stress issue whilst touring Sri Lanka earlier this year.

Siddle, on the other hand, is a recent victim of the system. Initially diagnosed with an early-stage stress fracture of the back during a Test series in New Zealand in February, he only returned to bowling during the recent Matador Cup. But with other options unavailable for the start of the summer, he was unwisely rushed back into action for the recent Perth Test – despite having bowled in just one first-class match beforehand. He was left out of the Hobart Test after complaining of lower back soreness after the defeat at the WACA.

These are familiar stories.

This time last year I wrote a piece on the perceived depth of quick bowlers in Australia. My drawn-up list included the likes of Pattinson, Cummins, Coulter-Nile, James Faulkner, Jackson Bird and Jason Behrendorff. However, because of the demanding current international schedule and the injuries that coincide with it, these guys are now not necessary the next in line.

One year ago, names such as Scott Boland, Chris Tremain, Joe Mennie and David Worrall were virtually unknowns. Twelve months later and circumstances have meant that they are now legitimate fast bowling options for their country.

So, what can be done to combat these injury issues? With the rest and rotation policy clearing not working as well as CA medical staff would have liked, perhaps it’s time to go back to the old-school approach of allowing fast bowlers to play as much Sheffield Shield and Grade cricket as possible. If the “overs under the belt” approach used to work for players like Thomson and Lillee, then perhaps it’s worth a go for Cummins and co.

Sheffield Shield - QLD v SA: Day 1
Could Queensland’s English-born opener Matt Renshaw be the answer to Australia’s batting woes? (Photo Credit: Cricket Australia/Getty Images.

 

Is it time to head back to the drawing board and give youth a go?

Despite a spectacular Bradman-esque start to his international career, old father time is finally catching up with Adam Voges – who is averaged just 14.8 across his past ten Test innings.

Although the veteran right-hander isn’t the only one under considerable pressure to keep his place for the upcoming third Test at the Adelaide Oval, at 37 he appears the most likely to make way as the selectors look to freshen up the batting line-up with younger talent.

Like Voges, father time has also caught up with Cricket Australia’s recent policy of picking experienced batsman such as Callum Ferguson and Chris Rogers. While the system has brought some success – most notably with Rogers – it was only ever seen as a short-term measure as no younger options were demanding outright selection.

With next year bringing a tour to India as well as a home Ashes campaign, now’s the time for the next generation of Australian batsmen to stand up. Recent success stories such as England’s Haseeb Hameed and Kusal Mendis of Sri Lanka, should provide the selectors with some hope that by taking a punt on a promising young player they could gain both short and long-term rewards.

So, who are next in line? Despite no one knocking the door down with a mountain of Shield runs, the early front runners appear to be; South Australian pair Travis Head and Jake Lehmann, New South Wales’ Kurtis Pattinson, Victorian Peter Handscomb and Cameron Bancroft of Western Australia. If the selectors chose to go even younger then Queensland pair Matt Renshaw (20) and Sam Heazlett (21) would represent their best current options.

With Smith, Warner and Usman Khawaja seemingly locked in for the foreseeable, as many as three batting berths look to be up for debate heading in the next Test match. The squad is due to be announced on Sunday after the latest round of Shield matches.

 

Has there been too much resting on laurels in the top hierarchy of Australian cricket?

In short, Yes.

Before Rod Marsh resigned from his position as chairman of selectors on Wednesday, things had been running along cosily for quite some time at Cricket Australia’s Melbourne headquarters.

In fact, not since Mickey Arthur was fired before the 2013 Ashes series has there been any significant upheaval in the CA ranks. While the appointment of coach Darren Lehmann has brought some extreme highs including a 5-0 Ashes whitewash and a World Cup victory on home soil, it has also brought huge lows such as the away series defeats in the UAE, England and Sri Lanka.

There is a thought that those highs have led to a certain complacency among the hierarchy with each of James Sutherland, Pat Howard and Lehmann judged to be sitting with their feet too comfortable under the Cricket Australia table.

Chief executive Sutherland has been his post for since 2001, while Howard was appointed in awake of the 2011’s Argus review. Lehmann – who was brought in to replace Arthur in 2013 – has meanwhile, recently given a contract extension that will take him through until the conclusion of the 2019 World Cup and Ashes campaigns in England.

If further changes are to accompany the exit of Marsh in the wake of recent performances, then it would seem most likely that Howard’s head would be first onto the chopping board. It’s often hard to comprehend what Howard’s current role even consists of… From the outside looking in, he appears to be the high-performance chief of a hugely underperforming side. His present contract is due to run out in the middle of next year. Will he be allowed to see his term out or will he follow Marsh out of the door before his current deal expires?

 

Batting woes leave Mitchell Marsh skating on thin ice

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Bowral – A step into Bradman country

A trip to the Bradman Museum in Bowral isn’t just about cricket; it’s about Australian sporting history, traditional and culture.

IMG_1624
 

It’s Easter Saturday and a beauty in Sydney. Replacing the dank and drizzle that plagued my Good Friday walk in the Eastern Suburb’s is a bright sky that closely resembles the blue of the nearby Pacific Ocean.

My destination for the day is the Bradman Museum and International Cricket Hall of Fame. Located in the small New South Wales country town of Bowral, the museum is situated almost half-way between the state’s two main cities of Sydney and Canberra.

A lot has happened in Australian cricket in the two years since I last stepped foot in Sydney. Richie and Phillip have sadly left us, a home World Cup crown was secured, an away Ashes series squandered and farewells were aplenty with Pup, Ryano, Bucky, Hadds, Mitch and Watto all leaving the international scene. One thing guaranteed to always remain around these parts though, is the legacy of Sir Donald Bradman.

As I make my two-hour train descent towards Bradman’s final resting place of Bowral, the big city slowly drifts by into a flurry of suburbs and small villages and then, beyond Campbelltown, the beautiful Southern Highlands. One can’t help but to be impressed at the amount of sporting facilities that lie adjacent to the train line. No suburb goes empty handed without AFL, soccer, tennis, cricket and rugby facilities. Many small rural towns even have their own horse racing circuits and golf courses.

Yes, Australia has the good weather and the space to facilitate such sporting resources, but they also have an unrivalled love for sport and the great outdoors. It’s just in their blood. And Bradman is an integral part of that.

Weaving through the Southern Highlands is a joy to behold. Cattle, sheep and horses litter the landscape of rolling hills and tree-laden meadows. Country NSW has never looked so glorious.

As the train enters its final stretch through Mittagong and towards Bradmanland, the excitement becomes intangible. Unrivalled since the morning I wondered down towards Yarra Park for my first visit to the MCG, for such a cricket lover visiting the hometown of the game’s finest player is right up there with other fine memories of the sport.

Having finally arrived at Bowral the walk through the town centre is a pleasant one. A thriving cafe scene enriches the area as the locals gather to discuss the various different footy codes being played over the Easter period. As local children play in the town’s many park areas, you can almost imagine a young Bradman doing likewise some 100 years previously.

Part of The Bradman Walk meanders towards Glebe Park. The recently fallen leaves throw you into an autumnal way of feeling. If it not for the warm easterly breeze, it could well be a late September morning anywhere in England. Instead the profound cries of a nearby swarm of cockatoos reiterates the fact that this is very much Antipodean land.

And then suddenly out of nowhere, I’d arrived at the picturesque Bradman Oval. Encircled by Camden Woollybutt gumtree’s and a smartly painted white picket fence, this again leads me back to a great feeling of Englishness. Indeed, the traditional pavilion puts the cherry atop the English cake.

In a way the Bradman Oval is the closest thing to resembling English cricket across Australia. Sure the WACA ground retains some English-style characteristics in the design of its stands – but how long will it continue to host international cricket once the new Perth Stadium is built? While the Gabba, MCG, SCG and the Adelaide Oval are all now essentially large footy grounds with, occasional, cricketing tenants.

IMG_1652

The museum itself is charming. Throughout the Bradman Gallery the early years of The Don are told aplenty and described in fascinating ways with in-depth accounts of both his adolescent life in Cootamundra and Bowral, and his early cricketing memories. A whole installment is in fact dedicated to his infamous cricket-schooling – involving a stump, a golf ball and a water tank.

Another of the museum’s absorbing features is a segment on Bradman’s Invincibles side of 1948. While we commonly hear of the successes of men like Neil Harvey, Arthur Morris, Ray Lindwall and Keith Miller on that tour, learning more about lesser-known names such as Bill Johnston and Colin McCool was an equally enlightening experience.

The section Cricket through the Eras, which pays particular attention to both the Bodyline series of the 1930’s and Kerry Packers’ World Series Cricket in the 1970’s, is another worthwhile affair mixing both visual and audile recollections of hugely important periods in Australian cricket.

In a day and age when many cricketers live a predominately freelance existence, it’s equally compelling and surprising to discover the sheer volume of contrasting teams Bradman either represented or encountered. From the inter-village 234 made against Wingello to a knock of 153 against a HD Leveson Gower’s XI at Scarborough – an informative plaque lists every score The Don ever made over 150.

Other interesting features include subjects on The Baggy Green, The Origins, The Greats of the Game, The World of Cricket, The Game and a vertual Kids Backyard section.

A trip to the Bradman Museum is an education in not just cricket; but sporting history, tradition and culture too. For over a century, cricket down under has captured the very essence of Australian life. And Bradman was at its very forefront.

 

Overwhelmed Cricket Australia XI not helping anyone

In theory the idea to include a Cricket Australia XI for the ongoing Matador Cup was a great concept, but in hindsight the blueprint was all wrong.

James Pattinson claims another wicket as the CA XI were bowled out for just 79 against Victoria. (Photo credit: Getty Images)
James Pattinson claims another wicket as the CA XI were bowled out for just 79 against Victoria. (Photo credit: Getty Images)

Yes, justifiably, we’re only two matches into the existence of the new CA XI – a two-year trial project side – but still, it’s already difficult to vindicate what good can to be gained from record thrashings at the hands of international-laden New South Wales and Victorian sides.

Sure, exposure to international-quality opposition isn’t a bad thing for this group of youngsters, but will they really benefit from being overwhelmed by the superior qualities of Mitchell Starc and James Pattinson on a regular basis?

While no one was expecting the CA XI to pull up any trees in their first couple of outings, to be bowled out for just 59 and 79 in their two innings just goes to show the vast bridge in quality and more importantly experience between themselves and the rest of the field.

The team that took to the paddock for Monday’s fixture with New South Wales consisted of an average age of just 21. Five of those men were making their List-A debuts with Ryan Lees also debuting against Victoria in the second fixture. While the CA XI boasted just 67 List-A appearances between them, the Victorian’s collective count was 884, in fact six members of their side had individually played more matches than the entire CA XI playing eleven.

Furthermore, Victoria included ten players with international experience with a further two in Peter Siddle and Clint McKay who couldn’t make the side. Fawad Ahmed, an Ashes tourist just two months ago, wasn’t even included in the squad.

Although the postponement of Australia’s Test tour to Bangladesh has strengthened the overall standard of the Matador Cup, it has also heavily disrupted the preparations of the teams with players selected for that tour. This left many players unsure of whom they were going to represent up until a few days before the competition began on Monday.

For the CA XI squad; Will Bosisto, Marcus Harris and Lees were not part of the original squad, while Jimmy Peirson was sent back to Queensland for injury cover before returning when Joe Burns was declared available.

One also wonders if the squad selected was anything near as strong as what Cricket Australia National Talent Manager Greg Chappell had envisaged before its original make up. He practically said as much upon the squad’s announcement last month:

“There are probably three or four players that we thought we might have in the CA XI side who have gone on and been selected by their states and would expect to play prominent roles in their state squad.

“So maybe we have frightened some of the states into thinking they needed to pick some of their young players and, if that’s the case, that’s terrific.”

But while captain Bosisto was adamant that his side would improve in their final four fixtures, it’s hard not to foresee further mismatches if the squad remains the same.

“We’ve got the talent, we just haven’t performed to the best of our ability,” said Bosisto after top-scoring with 21 against Victoria.

“I’ve heard people say ‘do you need an experienced player in your line-up?’ and I guess that would be one approach.

“But I think the whole idea of having a Cricket Australia XI in the tournament is to give 11 young guys exposure and the opportunity to see what it’s like at the next level and what we need to do to be able to perform at this level.”

It’s abundantly clear the CA XI could benefit from further guidance in their side – starting with the inclusion of a few more experienced faces along the way – something in which Cricket Australia will inevitably look into at the conclusion of this year’s tournament.

Surely more could have been done to include the likes of veteran legspinner Fawad Ahmed and batsman Mark Cosgrove who were both omitted from their respective State squads.

Cosgrove, who has just returned from the UK after captaining Leicestershire in the County Championship, could certainly have offered plenty of support and guidance to the young CA XI squad. Likewise, could names such as David Hussey or Chris Rogers – still active players – have been sort out by Cricket Australia to play a role in the development of a youthful and inexperienced CA XI outfit?

Another route Cricket Australia could go down is to follow a concept derived by the ECB. The model was based under the name ‘Unicorns,’ and was a team made up of the best Minor Counties players along with promising youngsters and un-contracted County pros. By including Minor Counties players, the most of whom have at some point played County cricket, the team at least had some experience and knowhow to guide them through the difficult times that often occur against stronger opposition.

While the Unicorns no longer participate in the English one-day cup tournament – they instead exist in the County second XI competition – they are a model in which Cricket Australia could at the very least acknowledge going forward.

In the meanwhile it is hoped that the current CA XI will start to show greater signs of improvement as the tournament progresses into its second week – although it won’t get any easier as they face a Tasmanian side, containing three World Cup winners in their ranks, next.

Improvement is needed, if only just for the creditability of the tournament or else the CA XI’s name could one day become a trivia question like that of the Canberra Comets.