Progress but ultimately not enough

Despite a 2-1 series defeat, Steven Smith and his men can return home to Australia with their heads held high after a topsy-turvy four Test matches in India

 

Steven Smith
Despite three centuries in four Tests, Steven Smith was unable to lead Australia to a series victory. (Photo Credit: Associated Press)

 

What a series! It was tight, tense and at times fractious, but in the end the hosts India prevailed with, what eventually turned out to be, a comfortable eight-wicket victory in Dharamsala.

That Australia even made it to Dharamsala with the series still in the balance at 1-1 speaks volumes of the improvements they have made to playing cricket in the subcontinent. Eventually, though, old habits sneaked in during the final Test – most noticeably a third-day batting collapse that all but handed the series to India.

Captain Steven Smith will look back on the series with an equal amount of pride and regret. His team went into the four Test series as huge underdogs – having lost their previous nine Tests on Asian soil – so to compete strongly until the penultimate day of the series will have pleased him immensely. On the other hand, his side will be disappointed that they eventually lost the series after going one-nil up in Pune. Moreover, they will regret not having seized control of the key opportunities that came their way in the prevailing three matches.

For India, it meant a successful end to a fine season of home cricket. After losing in Pune – their first defeat at home in 20 Tests – they showed tremendous character and skill to fight their way back into the series after such a packed international schedule that included 13 Tests in six months.

Even so, Australia have made major progress in the way they have approached the challenges of facing quality opposition in alien conditions. Taking away the two second innings collapses that ultimately cost them the series (112 in Bengaluru and 137 in Dharamsala) the batting has held reasonably firm. The most noticeable aspect was the willingness to grind out an innings and bat time rather than just playing the attack at all costs “Australian way of cricket” that has come unstuck on previous visits to India.

 

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Nathan Lyon made huge improvements to his bowling on the subcontinent. (Photo Credit: Associated Press)

 

Smith has of course led the way, scoring three centuries on his way to 499 runs at 71.28. Such is Smith’s genius that he’s now averaging 61.05 after 54 Test matches. When you consider that he’s yet to turn 28-years-old, you’d have to imagine he’ll at least double the 5000+ Tests runs and 20 centuries he already has in the locker.

Other batters have enhanced their reputations too. Matt Renshaw scored important first-innings fifties in both the first two Tests before gradually fading as the series wore on. In doing so he became the first Australian to score 500+ Test runs before the age of 21. Often looking cool and composed at the crease, it’s easy to forget that he was playing his maiden series anywhere outside of Australia. The whole experience, on and off the field, is certain to hold him in good stead going into a high-pressured Ashes campaign later in the year.

The enigma that is Glenn Maxwell was finally unlocked as a Test batsman too. Brought into the side to replace the injured, and repeatedly misfiring Mitchell Marsh, Maxwell played two mature knocks (104 in Ranchi and 45 in Dharamsala) to stake a claim for a regular batting spot at number six. Despite a breakout series with the bat, Maxwell’s bowling remained underused and perhaps under trusted by Smith, (he bowled just 6 overs in three innings) and with Darren Lehmann largely preferring a fast-bowling allrounder at number six it remains to be seen if he’ll keep his place for future home assignments.

If the likes of Smith, Renshaw and Maxwell can walk away from India pleased with their batting efforts, the same can’t be said for David Warner. The combative left-hander struggled to stamp his authority on the series. Despite making starts in many his innings, he made just one fifty plus score in eight innings. Warner’s struggles against the spin of R Ashwin continued a longer theme for him away from the home comforts of Australia.

Without an away Test hundred in nearly three years, his away average now stands at just 36.61 compared to his overall average of 47.42. In India that average drops even further to 24.25. Although there’s no thoughts of the vice-captain losing his place in the side, a lack of overseas success is bound to tarnish his reputation as a great batsman.

 

Pat Cummins
After a 1946 day absence, Pat Cummins made an impressive return to Test cricket. (Photo Credit: Associated Press)

 

The middle order duo of Shaun Marsh and Peter Handscomb had their moments with the bat, but both will feel that they left runs out on the field. Putting aside their match saving 124-run partnership – that spanned 62 final-day overs – in Ranchi, the pair struggled to put together the numbers required to earn their side success on the subcontinent.

Besides his unbeaten 72 in Ranchi, Handscomb’s seven other scores ranged between 8 and 24. Marsh on the other hand, is a notoriously bad starter at the crease and despite looking comfortable against the spin bowlers when set (he made 66 in Bengaluru and 53 in Ranchi) he also recorded five single figure scores in his eight innings. With Usman Khawaja set to come back into the side, it’s quite conceivable that Marsh, at 33, could well have played his final match for Australia.

Wicketkeeper Matthew Wade belatedly found form in Dharamsala with unbeaten innings of 57 and 25, but it was a case of perhaps to-little-to-late for Australia as they needed more runs from their number seven. His form with the gloves was tidy enough throughout with the only real blemish being a dropped catch off the batting of Wriddhiman Saha – who went onto record a crucial century in Ranchi.

Another gain from the series was the general form and consistency of spinners Nathan Lyon and Steve O’Keefe. Lyon entered the series with plenty of question marks (and a hefty bowling average of 42.57) during his previous bowling in Asian conditions, however, he managed to snare 19 wickets at 25.26 across the series. Unfortunately for Lyon, both his 8-50 in Bengaluru and 5-92 in Dharamsala came in losing causes. O’Keefe, meanwhile, had a greater impact on Australia’s first Test victory on Indian soil in 13 years.

He benefitted from an, at times unplayable, Pune wicket to capture 6-35 in both innings and earn himself a place in Australian cricketing history. Although his effectiveness faded as the series worn on – he claimed just seven wickets thereafter – he still managed to dry up an end as the quicks bowled in short spells. He eventually matched Lyon’s haul of 19 wickets at a slightly better average of 23.26.

When Mitchell Starc pulled up lame upon the conclusion of the second Test, the return of Pat Cummins was one of the defining stories of the series. It had been a staggering 1946 days between Cummins’ Test debut in 2011 and his second Test in Ranchi. Regardless of the impact he had in his two Tests in India, the fact that he backed up again in Dharamsala after bowling 39 overs in Ranchi was heartening for all to see.

And he certainly made an impression. In many ways, he was the perfect replacement for Starc. Bowling in short sharp spells, his pace reaped more from the slow pitches than anyone else from either side and he regularly clocked over 145kph. Although it’s important to remember that it’s still the beginning of his comeback to the longer format, the prospect of him one day bowling in tandem with Starc, Josh Hazlewood and James Pattinson is a tantalising one.

Going forward, Australia must learn from both the positives and negatives from their latest Asian trip – for there was progress, even though it was ultimately not enough.

Can Australia learn from past Asian mistakes?

After recent failings in Asia, Steven Smith’s men understandably start their four-Test series in India as underdogs, but can they learn from past misdemeanours and spring a surprise or two on the hosts?

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The picturesque Himachal Pradesh Stadium in Dharamsala is to host the fourth Test match.

It’s hard to believe that nearly four years have passed since Australia last visited India for a Test series. Although a great deal of water has passed under the bridge since then with multiple personnel having come and gone – somethings, however, remain unchanged – the Australian cricket team’s struggle with subcontinental conditions.

On Thursday, captain Steven Smith will lead out his men in Pune in the first of a four-Test series that will also include trips to Bangalore and the outpost cities of Ranchi and Dharamsala. Three of the four venues will be hosting Test cricket for the first time, but don’t be fooled the advantages are all very much India’s.

Under the stewardship of Michael Clarke, (and later, for one Test, Shane Watson), the 2013 touring party included the likes of Phillip Hughes, Brad Haddin, Ed Cowan, Mitchell Johnson, Xavier Doherty, Moises Henriques and Peter Siddle as well as 2017 returnees Smith, David Warner, Matthew Wade, Mitchell Starc, Usman Khawaja, Glenn Maxwell and Nathan Lyon.

Little did they know at the time, but that 4-0 whitewash was the beginning of four years of Australian torment on the subcontinent. Including the four defeats in India, they have played nine Tests, lost nine Tests since 2013. Their record in India is even uglier still. Since their final frontier 2-1 series victory in 2004 (Australia’s only series win in India throughout the past 48 years), they are yet to claim a Test victory in the country – in fact they haven’t even shared a Test there since 2010 when a Ricky Ponting-led side lost a three-Test rubber 2-0.

The 2013 tour will not only be remembered for embarrassment on the field and the infamous ‘Homeworkgate’ fiasco off it, but also for the reincarnation of Smith – the Test cricketer.

Originally taken as a spare batsman, Smith was unlikely to get a look in until both Watson and Khawaja were suspended for not adhering to team policy. Regardless, he took his opportunity with both hands when he compiled an assured first-innings 92 during the third Test in Mohali. With that he ensured a place on the Ashes tour of England later that year.

Smith is now the number one Test batsman in the world, but his task in leading the side in India certainly gets no easier than it was for his predecessor Clarke four years ago. The hosts are currently undefeated in twenty Tests on home soil with thirteen of those coming under the impressive leadership of Virat Kohli. Their recent form speaks volumes too. An improving England side were dispatched 4-0 with relative ease before Christmas, while Bangladesh were brushed aside by 208 runs earlier this month.

Against a formidable batting lineup unable to even accommodate Karun Nair – who scored an unbeaten 303 in his previous Test against England – Australia’s bowling arsenal will certainly have their work cut out both trying to dismiss and contain the likes of Kohli, Murali Vijay, KL Rahul, Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane throughout the next six weeks.

With the selectors set to include three seamers in Starc, Josh Hazlewood and allrounder Mitchell Marsh, the spin responsibilities will fall on the shoulders of Lyon and Steve O’Keefe.

1st Test - Australia v South Africa: Day 4
With a bowling average of 42.57 in Asia, Australia will need a major improvement from Nathan Lyon if they are to succeed in India. (Photo Credit: Getty Images).

It will be up to Lyon and O’Keefe to tie down the home batsmen in the first innings and then create opportunities in the second when the notoriously dry Indian pitches will be expected to turn square. Early signs during Australia’s only warmup fixture in Mumbai last week were not ideal for the visitors. Despite the spinners sharing seven wickets between them they also received plenty of punishment from Indian A batsman Shreyas Iyer conceding economy rates of 4.20 and 5.61 in the process.

Both Lyon and O’Keefe still have considerable lingering doubts hanging over them. In Asian, Lyon has taken his 42 wickets at a costly 42.57 compared to his overall average of 34.07. In a part of the world where spinners are expected to take the bulk of the 20 wickets required to win a Test match, Lyon’s offspin has largely proven ineffective. Certainly when related to the success he’s accomplished when generating sharp bounce and overspin on the harder surfaces at home.

Meanwhile, O’Keefe’s skiddy left-arm bowling technique has the potential to thrive in Indian conditions providing he bowls with sufficient pace and accuracy. His history of untimely injuries could well count against him though, especially as he’s likely to be required to bowl lengthy spells in draining conditions.

If Australia are to achieve any success throughout the series, then it’s likely to arise from the success of the fast bowlers and Starc in particular. The left-armer wreaked havoc in the last Test series he played in Asia taking 24 Sri Lankan wickets at a cost of just 15.16. India will be different of course, they have a stronger batting order than the Sri Lankans and the SG ball used in India will behave differently to the Kookaburra used further south. However, should Starc and to a lesser extent Hazlewood and Mitchell Marsh get the ball to swing both early doors and later in the innings then perhaps they could restrict the Indian totals to something more manageable.

In the wake of last year’s failed Sri Lanka series, a “horses for Asian courses” selection policy was muted with a major view on this Indian tour for its inauguration. In other words, batsmen and bowlers who have had international success in Australia and other parts of the world won’t necessary be selected for a subcontinental tour.

The first casualty of this new thinking could well be Khawaja. Despite piling up 581 runs at 58.10 during the home summer, the elegant left-hander has previously struggled in Asia scoring just 115 runs at 19.16 during four Tests in Sri Lanka. Last year, his ineptness against the Sri Lankan spinners saw him dropped for the final Test alongside Joe Burns.

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The form of Shaun Marsh could be vital to Australia’s chances in India. (Photo Credit: Associated Press.)

With Shaun Marsh reinstated to the middle order following injury, Khawaja will battle it out with rookie Matt Renshaw for the right to open with Warner. Last week’s tour match in Mumbai was in fact Renshaw’s only first-class match anywhere in Asia so his meagre returns of 11 and 10 will leave Trevor Hohns and Darren Lehmann slightly uneasy. Either opening option can be viewed as a risk but a middle order of Smith, Marsh and Peter Handscomb looks to be as equipped against the turning ball as any combination the Australians could have thrown together.

Marsh has successive hundreds in his two most recent Tests in Asia (albeit both occurred in Sri Lanka), while Handscomb has impressed observers with his ability to play spin bowling off both front and back foot in domestic cricket.

The spotlight will also be on wicketkeeper Wade. The visitors can ill afford for the Tasmanian to have a poor series behind the stumps. Creating chances against a powerful Indian batting line up is difficult enough without squandering them too. Four years ago, Wade was the incumbent keeper entering the series but a string of dropped catches and poor scores saw him replaced by the experienced Haddin. Although he’s worked hard on his keeping with Victoria over the past few years, is he really a better glovesman than the recently disregarded Peter Nevill?

For India, chief tormentors Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja will again carry the most threat, much as they did four years ago, when they combined for 53 wickets against the Australians. The duo will likely be joined by fellow spinner Jayant Yadav – who debuted against England late last year – and seamers Ishant Sharma and Umesh Yadav.

With a poor recent away Test record, especially in Asia, Australia will certainly be up against it. Many are predicting another 4-0 whitewash and history suggests that could be a real possibility.

Yet, with matchwinners Warner, Smith and Starc in the side there remains just a glimmer of hope that the visitors can pull off what would be regarded as one of modern-day cricket’s greatest upsets.

The good, the bad and the recovery

Australian cricket review 2016.

The past year was a mixed bag for Australian cricket. After topping the Test rankings in February, they contrived to lose their next five Test matches, this led to an upheaval not seen Down Under since the Argus review in 2011.  

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Despite passing 1000 Test runs for the third consecutive year, Steven Smith had plenty to ponder in 2016. (Photo Credit: Cricket Australia/Getty Images).

 

Australian cricket’s 2016 could be categorized into three segments. The Good, The Bad and The Recovery.

The stats would suggest a middle of the road year for the Australians. 17 victories in 28 ODI’s is a decent return but it also included a 5-0 whitewash in South Africa. Five Test wins out of eleven matches isn’t great, but three of those victories have come at the end of the year – suggesting a brighter future.

Steven Smith’s men started the year on the front foot, continuing the progress they had made in late 2015. An 4-1 ODI series victory against a powerful Indian side in January was followed up a month later when they regaining both the Test Mace and the Trans-Tasman Trophy with a dominant 2-0 series win in New Zealand. From there on things started to go pear shaped.

Defeats to both New Zealand and India in the World T20, meant that Australia were eliminated at the Super 10 group stage in another disappointing showcase edition of the game’s shortest format. It continues to remain the only global international tournament they are yet to win.

After a brief renaissance in the Caribbean – where Australia beat both the hosts West Indies and South Africa to capture the ODI tri-series – They headed to their least favourite part of the world…The Subcontinent.

Some made the Australians favourites against an inexperienced and transitional Sri Lanka outfit still yet to replace the once in a generation batsmen Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene. But others looked at their recent Test failures in Asia (Played six, lost six since 2013) and knew there would be pain ahead. And so it transpired. Despite being well placed in each of the three Tests, Australia lost them all.

Old failings came home to roost. Batsmen were stuck in two minds whether the ball was going to spin big or just skid on, while Nathan Lyon and Jon Holland looked out of their depth when matched up against Rangana Herath and co. Played six, lost six soon became played nine lost nine. With a four-Test series in India lined up for late February, what chances do Australia have of avoiding; played thirteen, lost thirteen?

They would go onto suffer in ODI cricket too. A weakened pace attack, minus Josh Hazlewood and Mitchell Starc, was taught a lesson in South Africa – where despite David Warner scoring two centuries in the series, the hosts secured a 5-0 whitewash against the world’s number one ranked side.

The confidence of such an achievement clearly rubbed off on the Proteas as they brushed aside a struggling Australian side in the opening two Tests of the summer. In Perth, they capitalised on a dramatic batting collapse to open with a 177-run victory, and they then secured the series with a comprehensive innings and 80-run drubbing in Hobart.

It was at this point where Australia had reached its nadir. Changes had to be made and chairman of selectors Rod Marsh was the first to go ahead of his scheduled May 2017 departure. Marsh’s time was certainly up, the decision to hand Test debuts to South Australia duo Callum Ferguson and Joe Mennie rose many an eyebrow and he was replaced by fellow selector Trevor Hohns on an interim basis.

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The Australian batting had an over reliance on the runs of captain and vice-captain, Smith and Warner.

 

Following Ferguson and Mennie out of the side after the Hobart calamity were previous incumbents Joe Burns, Adam Voges, Mitchell Marsh and Peter Nevill. The quartet had started the year as key components of a side looking for quick fixes following a host retirements throughout 2015, but a severe lack of late order runs from the likes of Marsh and Nevill meant they were replaced by Nic Maddinson and Matthew Wade, whereas Matt Renshaw and Peter Handscomb replaced Burns and Voges as the selectors started another rebuilding of the batting order. Lyon could also find himself somewhat fortunate to have stayed in the side too. Barring an injury to Steve O’Keefe he would have been dropped, instead he earned himself ‘cult hero’ status among the Australian fans.

The freshening up of the side had instant rewards as they won the dead rubber against South Africa before finishing the year with last day victories against Pakistan in both Brisbane and Melbourne. Both Handscomb and Renshaw made impressive contributions to the three victories, although the jury remains out on Maddinson and Wade following a string of low scores.

In both Test and ODI cricket the batting suffered an overreliance on both Smith and Warner. The senior pair coped well enough with Smith passing 1000 Test runs for the third straight year and Warner scoring seven centuries among his 1388 ODI runs at 63.09. But it was a strange year for Warner, ODI cricket was once seen as his weakest format but it was by far his strongest in 2016. His Test form suffered for the most part despite bookending the year with scores of 122no and 144 he scored just 748 runs at 41.55 – his worse returns since his debut year of 2011.

Australian pair Adam Zampa and Travis Head made the leap from domestic cricket to the limited overs sides with a fair degree of success. Zampa, who claimed 30 wickets at 27.80, was preferred to Lyon as the number one spinner and Head, 416 runs at 29.71, was often chosen ahead of the enigmatic Glenn Maxwell.

Day/Night cricket took another step toward becoming the future of the Test calendar, so much so that an Ashes fixture has been pencilled in for the Adelaide Oval next summer. This summer’s two day/night Test crowds were again successful mirroring the 123,736 that turned up for the inaugural pink-ball fixture last summer. The Adelaide Oval invited in 125,993 punters across four days of the Test against South Africa, while Brisbane saw 78,085 people flock to it’s Test match against Pakistan at The Gabba.

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Many Queenslander’s enjoyed the cricket during The Gabba’s inaugural Day/Night Test match earlier this month. (Photo Credit: Associated Press).

 

Elsewhere, the KFC Big Bash continued its march towards overtaking the international game in audience figures and public interest. On January 2nd, the Melbourne derby between the Stars and the Renegades attracted a BBL attendance record of 80,883 at the MCG.

 

High Point: Top of the Test world.

After beating Tasman neighbours New Zealand 2-0 in their own backyard in February, the Aussies moved above India in the Test rankings and received the Test mace for the first time in two years.

At the time, it felt like a new bright beginning was occurring in Australian cricket. Captain Smith had yet to lose a Test match and his side included a new settled batting line up blooded earlier in the summer. The likes of Khawaja, Burns, Voges, Nevill and Mitchell Marsh were seemingly finding their way in international cricket with relative ease. During some stage of five Test defeats in succession each man would be dropped.

Little did they known about what was to happen next! Despite only receiving the Test mace in an underwhelming ceremony on arrival in Sri Lanka. A 3-0 whitewash to the hosts saw them slide below both India and Pakistan into third position in the rankings.

 

Low Point: 87 all out in Hobart.

Despite losing five Test matches in a row for the first time since 2013, they hit rock bottom during the first morning of their second Test against South Africa in Hobart.

Much like the 60 all out at Trent Bridge last year, it’s impossible to look beyond 2016’s own addition of the great Australian batting horror show. For Hobart 2016 read Headingley 2010 or Newlands 2011, or perhaps Lords 2013.

Put into bat on a green and juicy looking Tasmanian wicket, the hosts ran into an inspired Proteas attack including Kyle Abbott, Vernon Philander and Kagiso Rabada. The rest was an ugly nightmare for anyone of Australian persuasion.

Both openers were back in the sheds before the second over was complete and the middle order fared no better as Smith was left stranded on 48 as he watched his troops collapse around him. Besides Smith, only debutant fast bowler Mennie made it into double figures as the innings lasted just 32.5 overs.

Unfortunately for Smith and his men this was no aberration either. In the four previous matches leading up to Hobart, Australia had contrived to lose 10-86 in Perth, 10-83 at Colombo, 9-52 at Galle and 6-22 at Pallekele.

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Matt Renshaw made a bright start to his Test career after replacing Joe Burns at the top of the order. (Photo Credit: Associated Press).

 

New Kid on the block: Matt Renshaw

The significance of Matt Renshaw’s arrival onto the Test scene cannot be underestimated. While he only scored 10 and 34no on debut, it was the way in which he scored his runs that will remembered in Australian cricketing folklore for years to come.

Coming off the back of five consecutive Test defeats – which included countless batting collapses of gigantic proportions – Australia needed some fight at the top of the order. Despite having just 12 first-class matches under his belt, 20-year-old Renshaw was just the man for the job.

Taking guard against the pink ball during the notoriously difficult evening session Renshaw – batting alongside regular number three Khawaja – showed composure and determination beyond his years to keep out a pumped up South African attack as the opening day lay on a knife edge. Despite frequently playing and missing he managed to blunt the new ball for 46 deliveries. This did not go unnoticed by a raucous Adelaide crowd – who cheered every time the ball beat the left-hander’s bat.

His unbeaten 137-ball 34 ensured Australia comfortably chased down their victory target of 127 in the fourth innings. After five defeats on the trot, a new-look side has stopped the rot and Renshaw was at the forefront of a new beginning.

After earning plaudits for his steely qualities on debut, in his next Test he showed a greater expansion to his batting with an accomplished first innings 71 in front of his home crowd in Brisbane. While greater challenges await away from home, Renshaw has shown he may well have the technique and character to meet them head on.

 

Fading Star: Adam Voges

After a brief period of doing his best Sir Donald Bradman’s impression, Voges, as an underperforming veteran of the side, quietly bore the brunt of five successive Test defeats.

At 37-years-old, any sustained period of bad form was always likely to result in him being put out to pasture. And when that bad form happened to coincide with such a disastrous run for the team, any leeway reserved for Voges quickly evaporated.

With the selector’s already keen to freshen up the batting with some younger faces, Voges’ contribution to five Test defeats (148 runs at 14.8) was simply not sustainable. In Sri Lanka, he was found out by the turning (and non-turning) ball. However, the pace and movement of South Africa’s new-ball attack was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

His final ten Test innings were indeed much inferior to the previous 21. After first donning the baggy green in June 2015, he plundered 1337 runs at a Bradman-esque 95.50 before running into the Sri Lankans in July.

Regardless of his decline, he still leaves the international scene with a batting average of 61.87 across 20 Tests. Expect him to continue to serve both Western Australia and the Perth Scorchers with renewed success for the years to come.

 

Farewell to: Max Walker and John Gleeson.

Affectionally known as ‘Tangles’ due to his wrong-footed bowling action, Max Walker was not just a successful fast bowler, but also a highly skilled AFL footballer, writer and commentator too.

His death to cancer in September, aged just 68, was felt keenly across the world as many rushed to tell their stories of past meetings with the popular Tasmanian.

He played all of his international cricket during the 1970’s, amassing 34 Test matches during a successful era of Australian cricket under the Chappell brothers. His 138 wickets at 27.47 were taken alongside the likes of Dennis Lillee, Jeff Thomson and Bob Massie.

John Gleeson had already played his final Test match by the time Walker made his debut in December 1972, but his influence on Australian cricket was equally important.

Known as a ‘mystery’ spinner at a time when orthodox ruled, Gleeson only took to first-class cricket for New South Wales at the relatively old age of 27. But after impressing then Australian captain Richie Benaud as a net bowler he was handed a Test debut in 1967, he went on to play 29 Tests for his country claiming 93 wickets at 36.20. He sadly passed away in Tamworth in October, aged 78.

 

What 2017 holds:

For the Australians, two major Test series highlight the 2017 international schedule. Firstly, they travel to India for a four-match Border-Gavaskar Trophy series in February, then later in the year they host England in a home Ashes campaign.

Tours to India and Ashes campaigns are where reputations are forged and legacies are written. History would suggest that given their continuous struggles against the turning ball and India’s impeccable recent home record, it’s hard to see Smith’s men gaining many positives from that series.

The 2017/18 Ashes campaign could be an intriguing one. Both teams are, at the time of writing, equally skilful and highly flawed.

Other fixtures to take place in early 2017 include; ODI series against Pakistan and New Zealand and a T20 series against Sri Lanka before the team heads off to India at the end of February.

June brings another version of the Champions Trophy to be held in England. Australia are drawn in a group alongside the hosts, Bangladesh and New Zealand.

A rescheduled two-Test tour of Bangladesh has been muted to take place in August – providing the required security concerns are adhered to.

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.

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

 

Bowling allrounder’s lead Northants title push

Northants_Cricket_BadgeWith a 25-point lead at the top of the LV County Championship Division Two table, onlookers could be forgiven for thinking that by September promotion for Northamptonshire will be a foregone conclusion – but things in the County Championship are rarely foregone conclusions.

Just ask the Northants fans – who in 2011 – found themselves in a similar position to what they are in now. That was until they entered the final match of the season against Gloucestershire needing to better Surrey’s points total in their match with Derbyshire.

For Northants it ended in heartbreak. Despite beating Gloucestershire and gaining 22 points, they could do nothing about Surrey result against Derbyshire. As it turned out – Surrey not only won, but they gained 24 points in doing so and pipped Northants to the second promotion spot by just a single point – such margins can be the difference between agony and ecstasy in County Cricket.

This time round Northants will hope that the lead they have built up over their first six matches of the season can help them avoid another final game shoot-out with their nearest challengers.

The fact that they are in such a lofty position is mainly down to their array of fast-bowling allrounders.  The quartet of Trent Copeland, Steven Crook, Andrew Hall and David Willey have not only provided the majority of their wickets but have also scored the bulk of their runs – masking the lack of runs from further up the order.

Perhaps the best of the lot has been overseas signing Copeland. The 27-year-old Australian seamer has exceeded all expectations with excellent performances with both leather and willow in hand. Figures of 116 runs at 55.33 and 27 wickets at 18.25 – suggest true allrounder status.

Copeland is not a glamorous name when compared with Northants’ overseas signings of the past (Bishan Bedi, Kapil Dev, Curtly Ambrose, Matthew Hayden and Mike Hussey to name just a few) but he is the ideal modern day County signing – A line and length bowler who can contribute with the bat down the order.

Indeed his batting has surprised many this season but he did come with a reputation as a lower order hitter from his time with New South Wales. It was only as recent as February that he scored his maiden first-class hundred and he finished the Sheffield Shield campaign with a batting average of 34.72 across his eight appearances.

Copeland is not the only Australian-born bowler who has reaped early season rewards in both disciplines for Northants. Journeyman Crook has been a revelation since re-joining the club from Middlesex over the winter.

Crook hasn’t always found the going so well, since making his first-class debut for Lancashire over ten years ago he has managed just 57 first-class appearances. Since first signing for Northants in 2005, he found the going tough and after a spate of injuries at Wantage Road he stepped away from the game in 2009 before signing for Middlesex in 2011 and returning to the form his potential suggested.

Northampton-born David Willey is leading the way for his home county.
Northampton-born David Willey is leading the way for his home county.

This season, Crook’s form has been a revelation for all to see in Northampton, not only has he taken the wickets many knew he was capable of (24 wickets at 19.54) – he has also excelled with the bat – regularly digging his side out of a hole with late order hitting of the highest class. 249 runs across five innings at 62.25 suggest more than just a lower order slogger.

The case of Willey is a much simpler and local story. The 23-year-old is the son of former Northants and England allrounder David and has progressed through the counties’ youth programmes; making his debut in 2009 he led the club’s bowling charts last year with 43 first-class victims.

The left-armer has lived up to last season’s hype with 24 wickets at 24.33 as well scoring 193 runs at 27.57 with the bat and he is now a vital clog in the Northants wheel of success.

Experienced former South African allrounder Hall, 37, has been vital to the balance of the side with both runs from number five and important wickets as a second change bowler. Since relinquishing the captaincy after the side’s poor 2012 campaign (where they finished second bottom) Hall has topped the batting charts with 362 runs at 60.33 along with claiming 15 victims at 23.20.

As well as improving the form of Hall, the change of captaincy as done wonders for Northants as Stephen Peters has taken over the role like a duck to water. The veteran opener has not only been astute with his on field skipper duties but he has also contributed 311 runs at 51.83 before a broken thumb ruled him out for six weeks.

Whether Northants can keep up the pace at the top of the table is a different matter all together. Copeland will return back to Australia when his time as overseas player comes to an end at the conclusion of this week’s fixture against Worcestershire and his presence will be highly missed not just on the field but in the dressing room too.

A lack of a quality spin bowler could also affect the side later in the summer as the pitches will likely change from the seamer-friendly surfaces Northants’ attack are geared towards to more dryer spin-orientated affairs.

A lack of such slower bowlers has yet to affect Northants as off-spinner James Middlebrook has be only been required to bowl a handful of overs – largely to keep the quicker men fresh.

Although Middlebrook is an experienced campaigner, he is unlikely to run through sides the way former Steelbacks’ Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar once did.

Elsewhere across the spinning cupboard, Con de Lange has disappointed since arriving on English shores last season. He managed just three first-class wickets in 2012 and will find himself further down the pecking order upon the arrival of former left-arm spinner Graeme White – who will rejoin the side next week on a one month loan deal from Nottinghamshire.

Waiting in the wings...England U19 players Ben Duckett and Olly Stone as pushing for more first team opportunities.
Waiting in the wings…England U19 players Ben Duckett and Olly Stone are pushing for more first team opportunities.

Despite a relative lack of quality spin options, the club do have depth elsewhere. The recent draw with Leicestershire brought up the potential of England U19 wicketkeeper Ben Duckett – who scored a maiden fifty on his first-class debut covering for regular keeper David Murphy – who was away with the Scotland set-up.

Another England U19 player, Olly Stone, has also been gifted limited opportunities in the side this season due to the form of the incumbent seamers and with Copeland soon to depart – chances are the 19-year-old will be given a chance to stake his place as a regular in the coming weeks.

Other options in the bowling department include Pakistani Azharullah, who recently took 3-59 against Hampshire as well as Lee Daggett – who has impressed in recent second XI fixtures.

To have such options in the bowling department despite the departure of Jack Brooks to Yorkshire over the winter, is decrement to the system Northants have. They have in recent years been criticised for fielding too many Kolpak players, but the county are now moving themselves away from that avenue towards a more home grown approach.

The top order batting remains a concern. Despite runs from Peters at the top of the order and the quartet mentioned above, only Rob Newton with 251 runs at 41.83 can say he has done justice to his talent with the bat so far this season.

Keeper Murphy along with Alex Wakely, David Sales and Kyle Coetzer have all averaged between 17-21 and the report card would read – must do better!

The questions remain for Northants and with matches against Worcestershire, Leicestershire and Lancashire to come in the next month – many of answers could arrive before June is out – will it be the ecstasy of 2003 or the agony of 2011?