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.
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.
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.
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