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.

 

India Australia Cricket
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.

The stuttering career of ‘Lil’ Bravo

Once heralded as the future of West Indian batting, Darren Bravo has instead found himself stuck inside the shadow of his hero Brian Lara. 

Darren Bravo disappointed
Photo Credit: Getty Images.

One of the most fascinating aspects of cricket is defining its different contrasts throughout various eras and generations.

Whether its hours spend down the local pub discussing the great teams and individual players with friends or colleagues, or time spent self analysing various matches and stats – trying to determine the benchmark between very good and great.

Defining players throughout eras is a complex and usually unfulfilling task – after all Test cricket has changed tremendously throughout the past century. From timeless matches, to covered pitches, bigger bats and now day/night matches – it’s almost impossible to compare a player from, say…the 1960’s to one in the present day.

It does though become easier defining greatness among contemporises. By this logic we can assume that the likes of Ponting, Sachin Tendulkar, Brian Lara and Jacques Kallis were a cut above the rest during the 1990’s and 2000’s. Messrs AB de Villiers and Kumar Sangakkara, have since continued this batting excellence into the present.

What about the future batting greats?

Martin Crowe, the former New Zealand batsman, was the first to mute the idea of “Test cricket’s young Fab Four”. In an article published on ESPNcricinfo in August 2014, Crowe suggested that Test cricket’s next four batting superstars would be: Virat Kohli (India), Joe Root (England), Steven Smith (Australia) and Kane Williamson (New Zealand).

Even back then it was hard to argue against the four choices given, except – I believed there was one name missing – Darren Bravo of the West Indies.

If Kohli was the new Tendulkar, Root the heir apparent to Michael Vaughan, Smith the next Steve Waugh and Williamson, of course, the next Martin Crowe, then surely wasn’t Bravo the new Lara?

At the time of the publication, (August 29th 2014) Bravo was very much holding his own as a Test batsman. In fact his record was better than those of Kohli, Smith and Williamson.

Test batting stats before August 29th 2014

Bravo – 2196 runs at 43.92 (30 matches)

Root – 1732 runs at 50.94 (22 matches)

Kohli – 1855 runs at 39.46 (29 matches)

Williamson – 2377 runs at 40.28 (34 matches)

Smith – 1361 runs at 40.02 (20 matches)

Test batting stats since August 29th 2014

Bravo – 545 runs at 32.05 (9 matches)

Root – 1288 runs at 61.33 (13 matches)

Kohli – 1139 runs at 54.23 (12 matches)

Williamson – 1250 runs at 78.12 (10 matches)

Smith – 2015 runs at 74.62 (16 matches)

However, as time passes it’s becoming much more difficult to argue against his non-inclusion in Crowe’s thoughts. On the other hand, the wisdom shown to pick out Kohli, Root, Smith and Williamson is becoming extremely well vindicated.

While the four mentioned by Crowe have all since taken their batting to the next level, Bravo has been left trailing in their wake. His batting has regressed alarmingly, so much so that across seven Tests this calendar year he’s averaging just 30.71 – with no hundreds. A far cry from the player once regarded as a future great by no finer judges than Lara and Steve Waugh.

So what has happened to the once promising career of Darren Bravo?

After a solid start to his Test career – which peaked with career high average of 52.50 after 13 Tests –his average has now plummeted to an ordinary 40.91 after 39 Tests.

“Darren Bravo from the West Indies. He is identical to Brian Lara in every way. He is world cricket’s next superstar, no doubt.” – Steve Waugh (February 2012)

When at his best, the Lara comparisons are never far away. As a youngster he used to hone his game solely on his first cousin. Only watching cricket on television because of Lara, as soon as ‘The Prince’ was dismissed, Bravo would switch off the TV and head outdoors to bat himself.

Such was the obsession, he would also skip school just to go and admire Lara at practice. Born in the same north Trinidadian village of Santa Cruz, the pair has grown close over the years. Bravo has, on more than one occasion, crediting Lara with helping him correct both technical and mental deficiencies.

But the similarities run much deeper than that – at times their mannerisms at the crease are so alike it’s almost freaky. The high back-lift, the flowing cover drive and the excellence against subcontinental spin bowling are all traits shared by the two men. However, the freakiest resemblance between the pair was their identical batting records after 12 Tests – both men had scored 941 runs at 47.05.

While Lara continued his path towards greatness during a 131-Test match career, Bravo has so far struggled to maintain the consistency required to differentiate between being a good and a great batsman.

Going into their three-match Test tour of Australia, the West Indies need their elegant left-hander to fire more than ever. Besides Marlon Samuels, Bravo, 26, is the most experienced batsman in a side shorn of the onetime experience of Chris Gayle, Ramnaresh Sarwan, Shivnarine Chanderpaul, and Darren’s older half-brother Dwayne.

While the younger Bravo made three starts (50, 31 & 61) in four innings during the recent two-Test tour of Sri Lanka, his average has continued a steady decline throughout the past few years. After averaging 37 in 2012, 2013 and 2014, he’s barely touched 30 in 2015. In a nutshell – not good enough for a man of his obvious talents.

Darren Bravo Dunedin

Bravo during his maiden Test double-hundred in Dunedin. Photo Credit: Getty Images.

Personal issues – which have forced him out of away series in New Zealand and South Africa during the past two years – could well be to blame. As could the added expectations and responsibilities placed on his shoulders following the exile of many experienced teammates.

Despite a brief flirtation with IPL side Deccan Chargers in 2012, Bravo has remained soundly loyal to the West Indies cause throughout the tough times. Times that have seen the Test side striped of their prize assists by the riches of various worldwide T20 franchises.

While it’s certainly admirable that Bravo still regards Test cricket as ‘the ultimate’, it’s certainly not a view currently shared by many across the Caribbean. Onetime Test players Gayle, Dwayne Bravo, Darren Sammy, Lendl Simmons, Sunil Narine and Andre Russell now all exclusively play just limited overs internationals, while others such as Kieron Pollard, Samuel Badree and Kevon Cooper have too made their names almost solely in T20 cricket.

Despite the emergence of a new group of young Test batsman – headlined by Jermaine Blackwood and Kraigg Brathwaite – the region is struggling to cope without the capabilities and international know-how of the aforementioned nine.

With the fluctuating career of Samuels showing signs of reaching its conclusion, Bravo must be on hand to recapture the form he showcased in late 2011. This purple patch saw him register a maiden Test hundred in Bangladesh (195 in Dhaka) before following it up with successive hundreds (136 in Kolkata & 166 in Mumbai) in India just weeks later.

Without a hundred in his first nine matches, three followed in just four matches; Bravo had arrived on the international stage. Perhaps it was a late summer stint with County side Nottinghamshire that led to his upturn in fortunes, either way it was another year until he scored his fourth Test hundred – again in Bangladesh (127 in Khulna).

A further year passed before he scored his fifth hundred, this time a career best 218 against New Zealand in Dunedin. After several stints away from the Test side, he has scored just one further century since, 109 on his home ground Queen’s Park Oval, way back in June 2014.

Sadly Bravo isn’t the only recent young West Indian batsman to make a strong introduction to Test cricket, before fading away. Fellow Trinidadian Adrian Barath made a superb counterattacking hundred on debut at the Gabba six years ago; he’s since drifted away – not just from the international scene, but from regional cricket too.

Like Barath, fellow opener Kieran Powell has also suffered a similarly disheartening fate. A product of Somerset’s illustrious Millfield School, Powell played his last Test against New Zealand in June 2014 before being dropped in favour of the uncapped Leon Johnson.

He’s endured a tough time since the international breakthrough that saw him register a maiden Test hundred against New Zealand in 2012. An innings that was backed up with twin centuries in Bangladesh later that year.

Like Bravo, the Nevis-born Powell has suffered from personal issues in the latter half of his international career – now just 25; he was last seen playing first-class cricket for Tamil Union in the Sri Lankan Premier League tournament in March.

Unlike Barath and Powell, Bravo is still very much central to the West Indies future plans. Building a team around him along with the likes of Brathwaite, Blackwood and Captain Jason Holder remains vital – especially if the West Indies still harbour any hopes of touching past glories.

Despite a couple of lean years, Bravo’s career shouldn’t yet be viewed as a failure. Only seven months ago he showcased the best of his batting when contributing a match-winning 82 against an English attack that included both James Anderson and Stuart Broad.

Turning the frequent starts into regular hundreds should be a future goal that Bravo sets himself. Upcoming visits to Hobart, Melbourne and Sydney (where Lara once made a majestic 277) would be good places to begin.

For ‘Lil’ Bravo – it’s time to step out of Brian Lara’s shadow.