Australia v South Africa – Third Test Preview – Trials And Tribulations

As is so often the case in the midst of a crisis, the Australian selectors have hit the panic button and opted to take the quickest route out of the ostensible deep dark hole they find themselves in. The changes they’ve made in the wake of the debacles reflect a selection panel short on ideas and pragmatism, but not on audacity. It exemplifies their burning desire to disentangle themselves from the rut Australian cricket has found itself in these past months. Perhaps, and I say this tentatively, it is an interim selector looking to make a bold statement in the knowledge that he cannot be shot down. At the very least, the mind boggling and unwarranted culling of five incumbents shows that Australian cricket is backed into a corner with nowhere else to turn. But is this really the case?

There can be no questioning the significance of the third test match in Adelaide; despite its status as a dead rubber. South Africa will be seeking to replicate similar feats to those achieved by the great West Indian touring sides of the 1980’s. They have the chance to white-wash Australia on home soil; an opportunity not to be passed up. On the other side of the ledger, Australia will be trying all they can to recapture the form they held on home soil last year, while also attempting to manufacture a winning culture among the newest owners of the Baggy Green – in just one game. This is typical of the selection panel’s mindset of late. There is great value placed on immediate results, which is compromising the time afforded to a debutant to find their feet in an increasingly cut throat environment. The patience and faith the selectors once had in a player struggling to find his niche at test level was rewarded when he eventually cracked the code. Today, the side is result driven and looking for a one hit wonder who, it is hoped, will steady the ship and immediately curtail the influx of negative conjecture. They didn’t find that in Callum Ferguson, and they certainly couldn’t pin their hopes on Joe Mennie to fulfill this duty. So, it appears they too can now be added to the growing list of players in the one-test graveyard. But this trigger happy approach and lack of consideration for circumstance is where Australia’s problems originate. And they certainly haven’t done themselves any favours in anointing Trevor Hohns as a front to contrive a fresh start. Australian cricket is a shambles at the moment. It requires a long-term solution and for selectors, players and administration alike to be held liable for their missteps. Change was inevitable. But the magnitude of the changes and the swiftness with which they were made, along with the constant reshuffling of the line up, will not allow the side to settle on a winning formula.

Matthew Renshaw’s selection is perhaps the boldest of them all. He’s played a total of 12 matches at first-class level for an average in the forties, but is purportedly cut from the same cloth as Matthew Hayden; at least as far as technique is concerned. He’s an enormous gamble- particularly given he didn’t play the opening two games of the Sheffield Shield season – but one selectors are confident has the ability to cope with Rabada, Philander and Abbott. What’s most concerning, though, is his lack of exposure to world-class swing bowling. It appears the selection committee have shifted their thinking with the long sought after change in chairman. They prefer the exuberance and untapped talents of youth over the trialed and tested techniques of the ageing Shield population. But this is more a case of selectors taking the path less traveled. Experience hasn’t payed off lately, and a shift to picking youngsters, while no doubt a last resort, was most likely a forced decision rather than one made voluntarily. Either way, there can be only one outcome, and given the selectors track record in this area, Renshaw must make a good first impression or risk being shunned from the side for a good chunk of his career. He faces a tough initiation. Players tend to be placed under greater scrutiny when the team is under performing and has its back to the wall.

Matthew+Renshaw Update.jpg
Matt Renshaw on duty in the Sheffield Shield

A less surprising selection, but an equally confusing one, was that of Matthew Wade. Personally, Peter Nevill has shown his glove-work to be far superior to Wade’s at both international and state level. But it wasn’t his keeping prowess that saw him axed from the side, it was his lack of runs, which is the most despicable disregard for the art of wicket-keeping since T20 cricket revolutionised the traditional technique. If you look at Nevill’s previous ten innings in isolation, you’ll also notice that he was required to bat during a period following top order failures and was therefore handed a mandate to score a flurry of late order runs. What this selection ploy indicates is that the Australian team currently desire a keeper who bats, rather than one whose role is to keep wickets as a first priority – as was the case in the Rod Marsh and Ian Healy days. This has stemmed from Australia’s trouble at the top, and will no doubt change when the top order is settled and back scoring plenty of runs. But in the meantime, selectors must decide which is more valuable. Late order runs, or a keeper with a penchant for saving them and taking every opportunity that presents itself. Given Wade’s notoriously hard hand’s and crude one -day methods, it’s difficult to see the latter being achieved.

More frustrating, though, are the Chinese whispers which suggest that Wade’s ‘mongrel’ was a factor in his selection over Nevill. If this is the case, and I dearly hope it’s not, the selection panel have lost all dignity and credibility in my books. Sledging is an age old tactic designed to put off batsman by troubling their mental fortitude. But how adept one has become at using it should not be considered grounds for selection. I’ve got a feeling this is nothing more than a cheap joke, but the fact we are bringing up such delusional lines of thinking indicates they needed an extra factor to make Wade’s selection appear incontestable. Most of all, it shows that Australia’s selectors really are struggling to establish what makes a test player.

I do hope the selectors are yet to put a nail in the Voges coffin. His Shield stats alone across the previous five seasons earns him a spot almost automatically, while the records of those that are about to usurp him (Maddinson 37.65, Peter Handscomb 40.56), as well as those that are on CA’s radar (Patterson 42.01), pale in comparison. Voges is a victim of a struggling side, there’s no doubt. When the chips are down, as they were in Sri Lanka and now against South Africa, he averages just 14.8; most probably because the bowlers weren’t blunted by Warner and Smith on these occasions. While when the going is good, as it was against the West Indies and New Zealand at home and away, he averages a monumental 162.28. Figures which make him indispensable. A run of ten innings in which he greatly underachieved means we’ve probably seen the back of Voges, though. It’s a shame that from a guy who promised so much at state level, and for a brief period on the international scene, we’ve received so little.

I won’t touch on the Day/Night element of this third test, mainly because I think the game will play out in a similar fashion to last year. The wicket will have some grass left on it, Rabada and Starc – the bowling king pins – will have a field day and the test will be over inside just three days. The result will be different when we reach Brisbane for the third edition of the day/ night phenomenon (in Australia), but we haven’t yet, and we’ve got a tough task ahead of us to avoid humiliation for a third straight game.

Australia v South Africa, Day Four – A Bloggers Lament

I think we can now place Australia in the mediocre category alongside New Zealand, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. In fact, we’re about as mediocre as it gets. We struggle our way to defeat in England, bully the minnow nations, get trounced in the sub-continent before erasing those scars with a comfortable series win at home. Except, this time round, there’s been nothing remotely comfortable about the first two test matches, and when you view the batting performances in isolation, you uncover the true extent of the damage.

australia-v-south-africa-scorecard-second-test-2016
Take a good look, England. It won’t happen too often.

I’m not here to dish the dirt on the Australian batsman. For the most part, their embarrassing performances can be put down to some highly unconventional decision making at the top. They’ve been thrust into this position through the board’s inability to establish a regime that prioritises the needs of test cricket, as I made mention to over the first two days of this test match. The dismissal’s of Adam Voges and Callum Ferguson showed just how little progress the Sheffield Shield is making in creating ready made, adaptable cricketers. Both players forged very respectable careers at first class level prior to their selection for Australia, and both had no answer when the South African bowlers hit their straps. We need changes, as I mentioned a few days ago. Whether or not CA are awake to these deficiencies and are willing to forego a chunk of their t20 broadcast rights to squeeze in extra Shield and second XI matches, as required, is yet to be seen. We travel to India in February. At this stage, given the lack of scheduled preparation, Australian cricket could assume the mantle as international cricket’s new whipping boys.

But not all of Australia’s issues can be pinned on the management’s lack of awareness. The tenacious cricketer tag that for so long followed the Australia cricket side around seems to have gone missing. The dogged determination at the crease and a debonair approach to batting introduced by forefathers Waugh, Border and Bradman – players that embodied each and every value synonymous with the Baggy Green – have also been shunned in a similar fashion by the playing group.

If Sri Lanka was Australia’s graveyard during August, this is surely a manifestation of hell. Both Australian innings were riddled with technical flaws. The top and middle order looked as adept at keeping out the swinging ball as Lyon and Hazlewood down below. The South African bowlers have great skill, but the Australian capitulation made them look far better than they are. Let us not forget that Steyn was injured and replaced by what you could essentially call a second string option. What they did so brilliantly was bowl to a plan. They didn’t try anything particularly adventurous and managed to put the ball on a consistent length that the Australian batsman had neither the patience, nor the temperament, to endure. Sure, there were some unplayable deliveries mixed in among an abundance of wickets that fell to poor strokes. But for the most part they were patient, resilient and had a captain that would persist with them if they erred in line for an over or two, or cut them from the attack if the batsman were at any stage settled enough to play them with ease. You couldn’t fault Faf for any of his decisions as captain thus far, and you might as well say the same thing about the team as a whole. They are thoroughly deserving victors of this series and a team that will cause some sides great trouble over the coming years. When you look down their team list, it’s difficult to spot a weak link.

Changes are imminent in the Australian top order, this we know for certain. If they’re not made in time for the Adelaide test, they will be by the time Pakistan reaches our shores. There are four players in the Australian side who are currently immune to an axing on account of either their current form, or the fact they hold an authority position. The remaining positions are open slather.

Burns, Voges and M. Marsh are all one poor innings away from playing their last test in Australian colours, if they haven’t already, while S. Marsh, Nevil, Hazlewood, Lyon and Siddle aren’t yet dead in the water, but are firmly fixed to the selectors hit-list. Whether or not the players in waiting will stem the bleeding is a separate argument and one I don’t wish to have right now. There’s plenty of talent there, but again, if they haven’t been given adequate preparation, talent is just that, talent.

 

 

Australia v South Africa, Day Three – Will the stars align in Hobart?

You wouldn’t be scoffed at for suggesting that Australia have close to no chance of winning this game. Stating that they are still in the hunt also wouldn’t be far off the mark. A win looks highly unlikely at this point given Australia’s propensity to loose wickets in clumps and the strength South Africa posses in their batting ranks. Any lead over two-hundred, which is still an unrealistic expectation, seems almost a bridge too far at this point for the Australian batsmen and is total that may be easily attainable based on South Africa’s red hot form. But the wicket is starting to play tricks and the Hobart weather has proven more unpredictable than the Australian batting line up. Is there a twist still left in this tale?

Australia haven’t made it easy for themselves though. Some erratic bowling early in the days play from Hazlewood, Starc and debutant Mennie gave Bavuma and de Kock far too many opportunities to score, and that they did. De Kock showed us all just how talented a batsman he is, and how valuable a competent wicket-keeper batsman can be. His innings oozed class. The runs he compiled alongside Bavuma were of crucial importance and enabled South Africa to reach a target that might yet ensure South Africa bat just once. But de Kock’s innings was constructed around capitalising on the loose delivery, rather than a display of patience and elegance. He mistimed drives that would usually cause a batsman great frustration on a seaming wicket. But these lapses in concentration were immediately relieved by a boundary which was hit, more often than not, off an over pitched delivery. All of Australia’s bowlers were to blame, not one can be excused. We own a very talented group of fast bowlers, and these errors in line and length are to be expected at stages when you consider that this one of our most inexperienced attacks in recent years. There’s no Harris, no Johnson and no Siddle. Communication between Smith and his bowlers also seemed to be restricted to the intervals in play. If there is no guiding, mature, level-headed influence, Australia’s young attack won’t recognise their faults. And they certainly won’t attempt to make the necessary adjustments, nor perfect their field placings.

Smith and Khawaja remain at the crease. Burns and Warner are back in the shed. This Australian order has plenty to offer yet but even more to prove to both the public and themselves. Conjuring up a total over 500 to put themselves in with a chance of pulling victory from the thralls of defeat would restore their lost dignity and repay the selectors faith. There’s a long way to go to reach that point yet, and many hundreds to be made if they hope to get near it. A lot will depend on how they approach batting on day four and whether or not mother nature has a say, as it has so far. The innings of 85 in the first dig showed us that Australia are approaching batting with great trepidation. They realise there’s a problem, whether it originated in Sri Lanka or not is irrelevant, and they are batting in a way to ensure these circumstances never rear their ugly head again. Many of the first innings dismissals were representative of their inclination to never overcommit to a stroke. This is the cause of their problems, not the solution.

There’s great pressure on certain players in the middle order and it’s hard to see them making a large contribution to the run tally. A lot rests on the shoulders of Smith and Khawaja to pick up the slack and wear out the bowlers in order to make it easier on the players under pressure. If Australia can press for a lead of 250+, a draw might be a possibility. But the stars must align for this to occur.

Australia’s first aim must be to bat the entire day. Maybe then we will bare witness to a highly unlikely Australian comeback.

Comments on Day Four shortly

Australia v South Africa, Day One and Two – All isn’t as it seems

Let us forget, for a moment, the usual discourses surrounding the performances of the Australian cricket team and instead dig a little deeper. Much of the blame has been placed on the shoulders of Steve Smith, which is to be expected. The captain takes the flak in the midst of a crisis, even if there are circumstances beyond his control that are partly to blame for on field performances. These issues often arise at a management or administrative level. The paper pushers, who are parked out of sight and out of mind when the axe is right for the swinging, are more to blame for Australia’s declining form than they might seem. Consider for a moment the scheduling. This is left up to those in positions of power, who devise a plan that will maximise profit. It’s in the hands of those who barely seem to consider the repercussions of their decision making. The players have no input in this process, nor any of the others that have an influence on performance. If they did, their pleas would have been answered, and this South African series would have begun at the GABBA, before moving onto Adelaide and then to either the WACA or Hobart (no great advantage at these last two venues, it seems). But there is more money to be made when these fixtures are manipulated based on a criteria that prioritises crowd numbers over sustained success.

Then, of course, there’s the selection committee who, in my mind, stand at the forefront of this whole dilemma. Let’s consider for a moment the players they’ve brought in over the course of the last three years, a period which hasn’t been as productive in the test arena as one might have hoped. Since the i’ll-fated tour of India some three years ago, Australia have have had 15 test debutants. Seven of those have played less than five games. The issue isn’t so much a lack of faith from selectors though, as these figures might suggest. It is instead the age at which the players have begun their careers, a problem which has been brought about by the selectors themselves, and will be left up to them to rectify. The average debut age, 27 (rounded up), is concerning, not because they haven’t managed to extend their careers beyond a few games – this has been occurring for decades, and is an issue based on ability, not age. The concern here is that their career longevity is reduced with every passing season. Their physical fitness will begin to falter while the natural deterioration of vision will eventually catch up with them, compromising their ability to perform at the level required. There are, of course, some exceptions – Steve Waugh springs to mind – but retiring at age 35 means that a career which began at 27 will last just eight years. And that’s notwithstanding the negative effects a form slump can have in cutting it short, especially when they are approaching an age where greater scrutiny is put on each and every performance. That’s without even considering the young players knocking the door down in the Sheffield Shield, and the pressure they put on the selectors to drop the ageing incumbent.

IMG_1461.jpg
George Bailey – Five tests – Age of Debut: 31
IMG_1463.JPG
Adam Voges – 19 tests – Age of Debut: 35
IMG_1466.JPG
Callum Ferguson – 1* test – Age of Debut: 31

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is the trend the selectors appear to have adopted for reasons unbeknownst to many, perhaps even to them. But in doing so, they shoot themselves in the foot, over correcting the misdoings of older players by blooding youth at an age where success is often dependent on whether they are prepared mentally for the rigours of international cricket. So often, they are not yet finely tuned to the degree required, and a string of failures can result in an axing from the side, perhaps never to return to the international game (Ashton Agar played two tests aged 19 and hasn’t been on the radar since).

The selectors have made some rash and perhaps unwarranted selections this tour and they’re paying for them through the backlash found in the morning’s papers. I’m not devaluing the worth of a few of these selections, but suggesting that these players (Voges and Ferguson for example) should have been given an opportunity a few years earlier during their pomp. They’ve all got plenty to offer the national team, but their age is a major factor which the selectors will act on swiftly when the public grows weary of their ineptitude.

The Australian selection panel are yet to discover the perfect formula. What age is too young? Is it worth selecting ageing players? How they can get the most out of a player of any age lies in how they are trained and nurtured. Our current Sheffield Shield competition isn’t doing enough to facilitate success, let alone prepare our future Ponting’s, McGrath’s and Warne’s. It has been led astray, multilated and used as an arena to experiment and tamper with different features that will benefit CA’s self interests – the balls, day/ night games etc – at times when its aim should have been to enable ‘first-class’ contests. Its standards have slipped, but not to the point where we are unable to discover talented needles in a generously sized haystack. But how capable is that haystack in comparison to others around the world. The administrators aren’t heading the warnings given off by the Australian test side currently. They continue to treat the players like guinea pigs and the national team are suffering the effects.

There was plenty of time from the end of the tour of Sri Lanka to the beginning of the summer to ensure there were enough shield games scheduled to allow the Australian players time in the middle. But it was once again decided in the halls of power that only the single round was required. It simply wasn’t worth overdoing it in the early stages of the season, primarily because there was a great deal of cricket to be played this year across all forms. We should have suspected that in an era where the lure of t20 cricket is such that much of the summer revolves around it, we wouldn’t see a great deal of time afforded to the staging of shield games.

Steve Smith is expected to take the blame for things which are beyond his control, as are the playing group. But the criticism which has befallen the side should be allocated elsewhere. The administrative big wigs are failing to uphold the systems that benefited the Australian test team during its glory days. It’s impossible to clone the superstars of yesteryear when the Sheffield Shield has witnessed an appreciable fall in interest from those who hold the key to fulfilling this very cause. Please, CA, keep throwing money at this competition, it’s the beating heart of domestic cricket and an essential test player production line that will serve its purpose if treated correctly. It’s essential that changes be made before we’re left to lament the rotting carcass of a competition that once churned out superstar after superstar with greater than reasonable success.

India v England, Day Two Preview

You won’t be receiving a great deal of analysis from me on the second day’s play. Exam time is upon us and that can only mean one thing – this blog takes a reluctant backseat, and my time spent watching cricket is sadly reduced.

However, I will leave you with a brief comment. England will be more than satisfied with the position they have managed to get themselves into, and even more pleased with the fact that they have set the tone for the entire series by taking the upper hand in this game. It is so crucial that a touring side gets off to a good start on the opening day, particualrly in India. There was a stat discussed on air yesterday that no team had surpassed three hundred on the first day of a test match in India for over 20 games. I doubt a team has lost just four wickets on the opening day for some time either. The media, even if their eyes were firmly fixed on the political happenings in the United States, will cease berating the English side for their Mirpur ‘disaster’ and begin lauding what was a productive start to this test match, and tour. We’ll wait an see if this is simply a fleeting moment of praise, or whether England are capable of bucking the touring side ‘curse’ and sustain the strangle hold it currently holds on day one of twenty-five.

Two of England’s premier batsman have played themselves into form. England have been looking for Moeen Ali to take up permanent residency at number five and the early signs are that he won’t be shifting from that position anytime soon. A hundred, of which he is just a miserly single away from attaining, will boost his bowling confidence as well. For my thoughts on Joe Root’s knock, it’s probably best that you peruse my tea time update from yesterday.

In the other camp, India must be wondering what on earth the groundsmen were thinking when they prepared this Rajkot wicket. There’s no spin, very little rough and plenty of live grass. Ravi Ashwin was the pick of the bowlers with his two wickets, but didn’t look particularly threatening at any stage outside of his opening spell. Mishra, on the other hand, offered up ten unimpressive overs of first class standard. At his best he extracted turn that troubled the batsmen. At his worst, particularly late in the day, his bowling was pedestrian. I can’t see him playing a major role on this wicket and England might go after him when a declaration is imminent. If it gets to that point.

So, onto day two then. Feel free to post your comments below. As I said, I will be attending to other things throughout the day so won’t have the opportunity to write up a match report.

India v England First Test, Day One – Live Blog and Preview

Read the preview and follow the action live. To comment during play with other fans, make your way to the comments section of this post. In order to view blog updates, refresh this page at regular intervals. 

England arrived in Bangladesh full of hope following what was a relatively successful home summer. They were touted as a side capable of regaining the number one test ranking despite an unsettled top order prone to collapse and a fast bowling cartel short of form but not of experience. They move on to India now as rank outsiders following an ego bruising tour of Bangladesh that has seen the cricketing world turn its back on them. A similar fate suffered by the Australian side after they were handed a rollocking at the hands of Sri Lanka following a dominant display on home soil just five months prior.

England’s batting has been shaky to say the very least while their bowling away from home, particularly in the subcontinent, has lacked a genuine wicket taker. England are not short of talent in the spin bowling department, county cricket has provided a host of young spin bowlers capable of forcing their way into the England side. Zafar Ansari is testament to this, and Gareth Batty has shown that persistence trumps age, while Adil Rashid continues to knock patiently at the selectors door. The problem is, they simply cannot match the guile or the control of India’s Ravi Ashiwn and Ravindra Jadeja. Not away from home, and most certainly not on dust bowls prepared to aid and abed spin bowling; which holds an almost inconceivable wicket taking record in India.

England is home to seaming green wickets where fast bowlers are nurtured and churned out for international duty at a rate only matched by Australia. By the same token, their batsmen are designed to survive when the Duke ball is swinging and seaming and the ball is bouncing no greater than ankle height. English cricket share a similar problem to Australia and New Zealand, their players simply haven’t been brought up in an environment that aims, never mind hopes, to produce good players of spin bowling at first class level. Unless a few county cricket fixtures are moved off shore and played in the sub continent, England’s players aren’t going to learn how to cope with the spinning ball. Not until they’ve racked up their frequent flyer miles with the national team on tours to India and the UAE. Looking for a quick fix by shoving a player into an alien environment only fabricated during a net session, as was done in Bangladesh with Duckett and as is about to be the case with Hameed, will never lead to a favoruable outcome. Let us not forget that there were no practice games scheduled due to the limited time available following England’s brief stop off in Bangladesh.

England won their last tour to India in emphatic fashion. Cook, Pietersen, Swann and Panesar were the chief performers during that tour. Only one of those four remain, and he hasn’t looked particularly threatening outside of the last innings of the second test against Bangladesh. His captaincy, and the way he uses and treats his main spinner Moeen Ali, should form the basis on which he is judged, and will likely serve to be a telling factor in whether his legacy will live on beyond this series.

Further comments to come.

Lunchtime update:

The loss of Duckett on the stroke of lunch might well be the beginning of an England middle order collapse, as has been the case so often this year.

India will be ruing the fact they dropped three relatively simple chances inside the first half hour, but will be satisfied with their efforts since, particularly from spin twins Jadeja and Ashwin.

It was pleasing to see the way debutant Hameed went about his work. His patience, a virtue not often associated with Cook’s opening partner, should hold him in good stead for the entireity of this series and beyond.

So, honours even after the first session. India’s spinners have done well to take three English wickets given the uncharacteristic lack of turn, but it’s the seamers who have looked the most damaging. The two paced nature of the wicket and the variable bounce that caused Cook and now Root to get stuck on the crease will only worsen as the game progresses, a pleasing sight for England who will be bowling last.

Teatime Update: (England 222/3 68) Root 100*, Ali 57*

This series couldn’t have gotten off to a more promising start for England. Moeen Ali is relishing his permanent position as a middle order batsman. Joe Root has found the form that alluded him in Bangladesh, and has moved well within site of another test match hundred despite an LBW referral prior to tea. While debutante Hameed showed brief signs of brilliance during his 31.

India haven’t been poor by any stretch of the imagination. There bowling has been tight in patches while their spinners have taken wickets just as the England top order began to look settled. The loss of Shami is a telling blow, but not one which will prevent India from competing in this game. They should look no further than South Africa’s efforts against Australia for inspiration. They were without the services of premier fast bowler Dale Steyn, who was withdrawn from the field mid game due to injury, but managed to stay in the hunt thanks to KG Rabada, who stood up in the absence of his fast bowling mentor to claim five second innings wickets. The spin trio of India will be relied upon to achieve a similar feat.

The game at this stage is still very much in the balance, but if India can’t find it within them to break the Ali/ Root partnership which currently sits at 113, England may be headed towards an unassailable first innings lead. On this wicket, which is likely to deteriorate as the game progresses, anything over 500 may be difficult to track down. Particularly when England unleash their three pronged spin attack on the final two days.

 

‘House Of Cards’ – Australia v South Africa First Test Preview

Yet another summer of cricket is almost upon us and much like the lead-up to last year’s series against New Zealand, which also started in early November, the majority of the cricketing fraternity couldn’t be less fazed. They’ve grown disillusioned with a team whose players have become ‘increasingly harder to like’, and incensed by the state of the batting friendly wickets around the country that continually produce ‘monotonous contests’. After all, wickets across Australia have been far from result inducing for the best part of half a decade now. CA must be concerned about this. Not just the state of the wickets, but the gradual decline in interest and the subdued build-up that comes along with it. The support for the national team in the test arena is slipping annually and the selectors, broadcasters and administrators are all part of the problem.

Cricket diehards like myself wait with great anticipation for the summer cricket. But our patience with the establishment is also thinning. This is mainly due to the current selection protocols. The excessive staging of meaningless T20 internationals that clog up and prolong an already jumbled and unorganised season of cricket. The inexplicable rest/ rotation policy and the fact that the administrators no longer seem to care enough to promote test cricket. Especially not to the levels we have seen afforded to the BBL in recent years. Oh, and the day/ night tests. There are countless other things I wish to admonish that I’m sure i’ll find reason to voice at some point during the summer. I didn’t even touch on the comments made by Rod Marsh in justifying Joe Mennie’s selection. Nor what I see to be CA’s biggest problem – their communication with the playing group.

But these issues are all a distraction at this stage. They’re the subjects that make up a contrived backdrop which frames and adds intrigue to an under appreciated and under anticipated series. If the results on the field begin to go south, the concerns will immediately resurface and the public will go searching for a scapegoat to take the fall. If the results go Australia’s way, you won’t hear a peep out of anybody. Not the media, not the fans and most certainly not in the forum’s and by the bloggers who are more concerned with tangible evidence in the form of statistics. It will be brushed under the carpet until the next time Australia lose their way. But as we all know, and as has been the case in the past, if the off field house isn’t in order, the performances on the field tend to suffer. And suffer they might well do this season.

 

1370316452_house-of-cards
Do Australia have their house in order? Or is it one lusty blow from collapse?

We’re a day away from taking on South Africa. The same side that just caused us great humiliation in a five-match one day series away from home. Sure, its hardly grounds to judge form on, but they look primed. They have an established batting order, a seasoned bowling cartel and a captain that has previous experience on Australian soil. In truth though, their test match form over the past few seasons bears an uncanny symmetry to that of Australia’s. They haven’t been far off the mark away from home. While on fast, seaming wickets in South Africa, they’ve maintained relative dominance over the touring side.

Much like Australia, there are still a few unsettled positions in their line-up. Mark Taylor touched on the fact that Australia might be negotiating their way through a transitionary period. If this is the case (although you can hardly cite it as being a transitionary period given that the ‘questionable’ selections have been in and out of the side) South Africa are in the same boat. They have their stalwarts, their reliable old heads in Amla, Duminy, Steyn, Elgar and du Plessis. You know, the one’s who claim their prerogative is to ‘cut off the head of the snake’. But they also have their weaker links, if you can call them that, who have limited experience in our conditions beyond the odd ‘A’ tour. Australia posses a very similar mix of youth, experience, untapped talent and players yet to prove themselves as indispensable options.

You get the feeling that Australia’s bowlers are a tad underdone. Going into a six match test summer means that there’s breathing room, maybe a couple of innings worth, to recapture the form and rhythm that’s been temporarily lost through their time spent ‘resting’ at the request of CA. Our test bowlers haven’t played since the Sri Lankan tour of August, and the early November start means limited preparation was had in the Sheffield Shield. No bowler has bowled with a red ball in a competitive fixture for close to four months. An administrative oversight, or rather, an intentional reconfiguring of fixtures that stems from the rush to have the ODC out of sight and out of mind as early as the season’s and television broadcasters allow. Yet another example that revenue trumps the performance of the national team in this age of crippling wealth. But I shan’t harp on this point any longer. If you’re interested in reading more on this topic, and aren’t fed up with hearing about the board’s agendas, the post can be found here.

There comes a point where we must return to the selectors decisions to truly identify the sources of weakness in the Australian line-up. You might be forgiven for believing Rod Marsh has lost the plot when you run your eyes over the squad. You might even consider that he is taking liberties now that his time is almost up as head selector. Keeping in with the house of cards theme, cynics will tell you that Marsh is of the Mad Hatter ilk, and that the selection meeting was had in a setting akin to a tea party where he uttered the words ‘I haven’t the slightest idea’, at which point he resorted to pulling names out of his hat to fill in the remaining places. But I won’t be a party to this line of thinking or partake in any further wise cracks at Marsh’s expense. In fact, I don’t believe Joe Mennie’s selection was as illogical and unwarranted as it has been made out to be. Not when you consider his form in the Sheffield Shield and the impact he can have at the WACA. Last year’s test series against New Zealand showed us that the highway’s dished up at Australian venues are the most batting friendly the world over. Their tame. They lack any great seam movement and as soon as a batsman is set, bowlers are nothing more than cannon fodder. We’re forgetting though that the WACA is still the WACA. A ground touring sides resent. A ground the poms have a horrible record at. A ground that Australia’s fast bowling brigade of yesteryear loved for the assistance it provided to bowlers with a large frame and high release point. Joe Mennie is of similar height to Lee, McGrath and Johnson, who all made great use of the WACA surface. The high arm action allows a great deal of bounce to be extracted from the wicket, causing unaccustomed touring batsman to take great discomfort and dificulty in scoring runs on the front foot.

62f8031db4f86e9d754fe4ab0fd6d3b2.jpg
A mad tea-party or a selection meeting?

As for the reasoning used by Marsh to justify his selection, perhaps we can put it down to a faux pas. The day bowlers edge out other bowlers based on their batting ability is the day all faith is lost in the Australian top order. This isn’t one day cricket. The fourth seamer shouldn’t be relied upon to score bulk runs. That’s up to the top six, and, to a lesser extent, the wicket-keeper at seven who, I might add, should be picked first on keeping ability then on whether or not his batting holds merit. When Marsh made this statement, he made us acutely aware of the fact that certain members of the top six aren’t performing, and so, a bowler who can score late order runs has been drafted into the side to compensate for the top order’s failures. It also helps save the hides of the selectors who will be put into the spotlight if who they’ve selected under perform. Well no. If a batsman isn’t scoring the required runs, he needs to be dropped. We shouldn’t be sacrificing bowling quality to ensure there’s a lower order buffer that will prevent us from being bundled out for under 200 if things go awry at the top. More accountability needs to be placed on the Khawaja’s and the Marsh’s of the world because our batting, pure and simple, is the key to our winning this series.

Without De Villiers, South Africa’s bowling looks marginally stronger than their batting. That’s not to say their batting won’t feature. With the likes of Amla and du Plessis bolstering their top four, they are bound to churn out a number of runs across the three match series.

Warner and Smith are Australia’s key men. From what we saw in Sri Lanka, to what was witnessed in the Shield last week, these two have in tow the entire batting line-up. If our middle order is exposed to Steyn and Rabada early, the innings could fall in a heap and the pressure transferred immediately to the Australian quicks who will be made to bowl from behind. Starc, Hazlewood and Siddle are all confidence bowlers. They are at ease and are more attacking when they’ve got a significant lead to bowl to. When the game begins to slip, they become impatient and go looking for wickets in clumps. This only gives the South African batsman more run scoring opportunities in the form of half-volleys and long hops dished up through pure frustration, and South Africa have plenty of men who can frustrate. Players who don’t become flustered if their rate of scoring drops below fifty or if they’re struggling to rotate the strike. Like we’ve seen in recent seasons, things could get seriously out of hand for Australia if batsmen get set on docile wickets. You can see now why their batting holds such great importance in this series.

david_warner_celebrating_his_century_in_the_fifth_odi_against_india_at_the_sydney_cricket_ground_2016
How many runs will we witness this man score this summer?

 

Which leads me to Australia’s big ‘non-selection’ Joe Burns. I said before the teams were released that he needed to be there. Many disagreed with me. Others were on the same wave length. I’m honestly searching for reasons why Marsh was given the nod ahead of Burns, other than the obvious explanations; home ground advantage yada yada. Clearly they see Burns as an opener and nothing else. But I don’t think he should be pigeonholed as such because if he is, and Marsh finds his niche at the top, it doesn’t matter how many Shield runs he plunders, there will always be others ahead of him vying for the same role. We saw in the first test last summer that he has an expansive game, particularly against spin, to compliment what he offers in the way of accumulation. The issue is that our middle order consists of Smith, Voges and Marsh. Two who have hardly put a foot wrong in a home series and the latter who has a second string to his bow. If Khawaja and Marsh fail in consecutive innings, he will be whisked back into the side. If not, and they perform consistently, we might see Joe Burns usurped by batting prodigies Bancroft and Peter Handscomb as soon as the next Ashes series.

I won’t try to predict the series victor at this point. You simply cannot judge a teams performance, or an individuals for that matter, until at least one test match has been completed. I tried it with England’s tour to South Africa last year to differing degree’s of success and don’t plan on doing it again. So until then, enjoy nine’s coverage of the cricket. Summer is finally here

.

361166-shane-warne.jpg
Warney’s celebrating…..The summer of cricket, it’s finally here!