2016 Christmas Review – Australia’s roller-coaster year and other musings on the game

It’s that time of year once again where we must take stock of the past 12 months and look forward with renewed optimism to 2017 and the challenges that lie ahead.

Australia have had a relatively unsuccessful year across all three formats and next season – which includes a home Ashes series, a tour to India and a Champions Trophy in England – doesn’t look like giving them any respite whatsoever. Smith, Warner and Khawaja have been at their usual best while the rest of the side is almost unrecognisable when compared to the XI from this time last year. As I’ve written about extensively in these pages over the past 12 months, Australia is in the middle of a transitionary phase and we must embrace every change no matter how mind boggling and unjustified they may seem at first. It had to happen eventually, and 2016 will forever be remembered as the year it did, which isn’t so bad when you consider that it occurred at the end of a three-match test series against South Africa, and not three games into an Ashes series played in England. The outpouring of grief would have been far worse and the series far longer had they occurred in these circumstances, I’m sure.

We’ve seen two players come out of this changing of the guard who are more than capable of forging long and prosperous careers at test level and another who couldn’t find it within him to convert his first-class form into a glimmer of hope at test level, but will almost certainly find his way back into the Baggy Green in future. That being said, the real test will lie in India where they’ve probably not toured before and will be unsure of what to expect. Ashwin is the gift that keeps on giving and the form he’s shown this year verges on superhuman. Australia don’t have the batting depth nor the experience to score match winning/saving totals when Ashwin is let loose on the bunsen burners that will be requested by the Indian side. Let’s not pretend that we do. When half the side hasn’t yet played a test match in the sub-continent, expecting Australia to win is like backing a group four horse against Black Caviar during her pomp. A victory is nigh on an impossibility.

Sri Lanka hurt Australia’s hopes of returning to where they were and what they achieved for a brief period under Ricky Ponting’s guidance in the sub-continent a few years back and the players that are left from the last tour to India four years ago – and there are very few – wouldn’t have the fondest memories, nor a burning desire to return to the scene of their mauling on similar terms.

England showed fight in India, at times, but they have a more established and settled side than Australia and still couldn’t put together a complete, match-winning performance. This is a danger sign that must be heeded. What state Australia will be in at the conclusion of a four-test series that could feel like a 10 kilometer marathon for the players is anyone’s guess. But the pessimist in me says more reshuffling is on the horizon.

This has gone away from the point a little, though, and I’m probably looking too far ahead given there is still two crucial games to play in the test series against Pakistan and a mountain of one-day cricket, at home and away, to get through before India should even be considered.

It would be remiss of me not to mention the trend-setting BBL as it is without a doubt, as my piece yesterday confirmed, the cricketing equivalent of the Mardi Gras festivities and has major implications for the future of cricket, and sport at large, in this country. From the five games I’ve seen so far, the Renegades and Hurricanes look to be the front runners while the Heat, with their strong top order bolstered by NZ’s Brendon McCullum, are the quiet achievers that will sneak up on the marquee clubs and challenge for the crown.

The Renegades didn’t win a single game at their home ground last year and it was this statistic that probably cost them a spot in the finals. They romped to victory over the Thunder at Etihad two nights ago to break this hoodoo and start the ball rolling. How they manage when they lose Aaron Finch and his other henchmen to the Australian ODI side will dictate how deep they go in this tournament.

Hobart haven’t experienced great success across the five years of this competition to date but looked like genuine contenders yesterday afternoon at the SCG. Hobart’s top order – Paine, Short, Sangakkara and Bailey – are the key’s to their success and will make the final if they can bat in the very same fashion as last night. Paine and Short sparked the fire at the top and it was continued by starts from each of the remaining batsman, allowing them to pass 200 – a score that is barely chaseable in the shortest form unless the opposition gets off to a flier in the powerplay. In Tait they have an experienced and wily fast-bowler with a knack for taking wickets at regular intervals. He is more important to this Hurricanes side than many would have you think.

It is such a difficult tournament to predict, the BBL, because the very nature of t20 cricket can swing momentum against a side that is seemingly ahead in the game, while the margin between a sides best and worst performances are generally world’s apart from one day to the next because of these small, yet influential, moments. Test and One-Day cricket cannot be decided by an over or a single wicket. But t20 most certainly can. We’ve already seen evidence of this in the opening round of the BBL. Hobart are a side without too many Australian representatives and will hence go without interruptions for the entire season. But again, a lot rides on ‘the Wild Thing’ Tait and their experienced batting line-up to chip in each game.

There are also a number of rule changes set to make their mark in 2017 and it will be interesting to see what differences, if any, they make to the ever-evolving shape of cricket. The monitoring and policing of bat width, size and depth is a major change from the MCC who have remained steadfast in their approach to the farcical bat size debate for some time. I doubt it will make much difference if these restrictions do come into effect, however, as the reduction of width to 35mm will still allow players to clear the ropes as often and as far as has become the norm. But could we see the miss-hits, that so often sail for six, be caught by the boundary sweepers? It would make the death overs in the shorter forms a far more interesting phenomenon.

We wouldn’t see, however, the kind of unrestrained late innings assaults from the likes of AB De Villiers and MS Dhoni that have given one-day and t20 cricket a significant fan base. The game deserves a form of balance between bat and ball, there is no question. But we must tread carefully if we wish to see a continuation of the current shots that bring about big sixes and scores of over 200 in the shorter formats. These are, after all, what brings the fans to the ticket booths. If players start to question their ability to clear the fielders patrolling the fence and cease playing these strokes out of fear for loosing their wicket, there will be a worldwide change in mindset and a major shift in how to approach an innings. T20 cricket would be but a shadow of its former self and interest would follow suit as a direct result. The shorter forms are designed to accommodate big hitting and the excitement. Let the bats remain as they are now.

Without further ado, here is the best Australian XI for 2016. Players have been selected from all three formats (I feel like this shakes things up a bit more) based on the following criteria:

  • Performance (Runs, wickets, catches). Game situation has been considered.
  • Consistency (how often has the player made a contribution in a winning side).
  1. David Warner (ODI, Test, T20). Had another outstanding year with the bat in all formats and is quickly becoming one of Australia’s finest opening batsmen. Much rides on whether he sets the tone during the opening test matches of the bigger series against India and England. Has a big role to play in developing his young partner Matt Renshaw who he must guide through the minefield that is the Indian tour and Ashes.
  2. Aaron Finch (ODI, T20). Comes in at the top of the order due to the axing of the inconsistent Joe Burns and injury to Shaun Marsh. Is well down on form in the ODI format and hasn’t produced the fireworks that we’ve come to expect in the t20 arena which has seen him without a game since the beginning of the WT20. Still, due to a lack of options, he earns his spot atop the batting order in Australia’s best XI for 2016.
  3. Usman Khawaja (Test, T20, ODI). Struggled in Sri Lanka and has a big job on his hands in India where he was dropped by then coach Mickey Arthur for misbehavior. Is achieving Bradman-esque feats on home soil and was a match winner in the series against the West Indies (January 2016) and New Zealand (February/ March 2016). Might stake his claim for re-selection in the ODI squad later this summer if his Test form continues.
  4. Steven Smith (Test, ODI, T20). Is under a bit of pressure to perform as captain following a close call in Brisbane but has shown that he is Australia’s most indispensable man with the bat. The fact he couldn’t lead his side to gain the all-elusive WT20 crown, and his recklessness at times during the Sri Lankan tour, are the only marks that can go against his name. His one-day form is crucial going into a year that includes the Champions Trophy.

The final seven will be posted in the days leading up to the new year. The crick-eter of the year award will be unveiled during this time as well. For now though, Merry Christmas. I wish you all many happy returns in 2017.

Here are some of the photos I took during 2016. I’ve no doubt you would have seen some of these before, but they are here again for your viewing pleasure with slight variations to the filters.

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Ok, this one is from 2015, but I thought it was the ideal photo to begin the gallery. Australia v New Zealand 2015 – first test. 
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This one is also from 2015. Australia v New Zealand – first test – Brisbane.
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Queensland in the nets ahead of their Day/ Night shield clash with NSW in round one 2016.
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Fans outside the nets watch on as the players prepare for day two. Australia v Pakistan.
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A panorama of the Gabba during the evening session of the test match between Australia and Pakistan.
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A grainy photo of Starc delivering to one of the Pakistan openers on Day two at the Gabba.
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The Gabba at tea on day two – Australia v Pakistan
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Night descends on the Gabba for the first time in the history of test cricket at the ground. Australia v Pakistan.

 

 

 

Feel free to post your team of the year in the comments section below.

 

How the BBL’s unprecedented rise is endangering the popularity and relevance of test cricket in Australia

Andre Russell’s black painted bat, which he brandished during the Sydney Smash three nights ago, is another blatant example of cricket’s bold journey into uncharted territory.

The t20 format’s brief history is rife with groundbreaking innovations that have made the game a more attractive product that appeals to a wider range of audiences and Dre Russ’ colourful blade, when the chinks are worked out, will undoubtedly continue this legacy.

Zing Bails, boundary-side dancers, music played after each delivery, flamethrowers and rocket men are just some of the features that have made the shortest form as unique and flashy as many of America’s major sporting codes. And these are the components of cricket that will become commonplace amongst each and every format of the game when Australia’s next generation – who will be totally unaware of how the Big Bash rose to prominence after its humble beginnings on pay TV as a state based competition – are introduced to the game.

Channel Ten’s advertising campaign sprouts the idea that the beginning of the Big Bash season marks the true start of summer, just as the Boxing Day test once put a punctuation mark on the festive season. And they might just be on the money with this assumption.

It’s no longer test cricket that steals the limelight at this time of year and any matches played prior to the beginning of the t20 season are in danger of loosing their relevance in the not to distant future. After all, most concertgoers skip the front bands in favour of the local pub because they are only really interested in the main event.

Can you name the fights that preceded the Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather bout in 2015? No? That’s because they held far less importance in the context of the event as a whole.

The Australian reported recently that BBL player payments will increase under CA’s new payment scheme in a move that is likely to have major ramifications for the Sheffield Shield and Matdor BBQ’s ODC competitions.

When the BBL television rights are once again put up for sale next year, the $20 million price tag Channel Ten snapped them up for last time they were on the open market is tipped to increase astronomically.

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Cricket’s bold journey into a new and uncertain decade. Getty Images

A raise in BBL player payments, to a level that well and truly supersedes the average retainer for a state cricketer, will force players to question which career route is the most viable for them and what benefits the can derive from participating in all three formats. A decision that may be affected by a number of variables.

The short life span of fast bowlers in the longer forms of the game is likely to sway their thinking while living arrangements and age are two other factors that will influence a players career move.

Expanding the competition into other Australian regions and increasing the number of fixtures played across the summer is the ideal way to grow the competition, expand its geographical reach and give more players the opportunity to compete at a professional level. But cricket is a case unto itself. Other popular sports around the world don’t have multiple formats and are incapable of cutting off their noses despite their face in a way that cricket can by giving the most profitable format all the resources and attention it needs to outperform the others. And this is exactly what CA are risking by increasing the number of games in a season and by giving its players greater incentive to pursue a lucrative career in the shorter form of the game, which is over in just three hours and provides as many opportunities as a long career in the Baggy Green, less the injuries.

The West Indies is home to a swathe of specialist franchise players and the national side, in all formats outside of t20 cricket, has seen sharp declines in performance as a result of the unavailability of their star players, who have been lost to the world’s biggest tournaments.

Gayle, Bravo and Russel, some of the West Indies most gifted cricketers, have spent their careers traveling from country-to-country like cricketing gypsies to take part in the various franchise competitions and have made as much, if not more, than their test-playing counterparts in doing so. In this case though, it was the board’s failure to pay its players an adequate wage that set them on the rebel path to franchise stardom, it wasn’t a matter of the governing body putting all their eggs in one basket and leaving its other formats to die off without anyone raising an eyebrow – although there are multiple parallels that can be drawn between the irresponsibility of the two cases.

Australia does not want to experience a mass exodus on a West Indian like scale.

CA has created a popular product and deserves to lap up their new found fortunes but could make minced meat of test cricket’s popularity in this country and its major breeding ground (Sheffield Shield) if the Big Bash continues to grow without restraint.

Television and t20 cricket are a more dynamic pairing than Starsky and Hutch and this partnership doesn’t look like taking a dive anytime soon. The NRL and AFL received in excess of $1 billion following their last broadcast rights deal and by the time the Big Bash manages to eclipse these numbers the cricketing landscape will have experienced dramatic rearrangements and scheduling changes that benefit both the broadcaster and CA, who require the revenue generated by the Big Bash to subsidise their investments in the Shield and domestic one day competitions – the running of which provides CA with little financial gain.

The BBL has become far more popular than test match cricket in Australia and this is a truth the traditionalists must accept.

Its move to FTA television three years ago has given it the legs to overtake the traditional form in terms of TV viewership and crowd figures. But we risk diluting the pool of talent at state level and test cricket’s importance if BBL games are let to spread across the summer like a super virus.

CA’s new found admiration for the shortest format is obvious but it must allow all formats to coexist if we are to maintain interest across the board. And that starts with keeping the schedule as it is – so not to disrupt the Sheffield Shield any more than is currently the case – and keeping player wages equal across all formats to disparage specialisation.

T20 innovations have made an imprint on test cricket and are the precursor to a entirely different cricketing landscape that is already beginning to take shape.

New chapter set to be written in Australia’s long search for an all-rounder

Western Australian ace Hilton Cartwright is set to become the latest member of a long and esteemed list of Australian all-rounders when the boxing day test begins next week.

Australia have cast their net far and wide in search of an all-rounder capable of consistently producing runs in the number six position, but have come up short in recent years, forcing them to settle on a full-time batsman who adds stability in times of crisis – as Nick Maddinson’s selection showed. It was an overly protective decision and one which shows how close Australia are to being exposed for the second time in just two short months.

The selectors are still on the defensive and won’t be willing to make any rash decisions during a major series until the wounds inflicted by South Africa and Sri Lanka begin to heal.

The revolving door of all-rounder selections, which has seen Glenn Maxwell, Mitchell Marsh, Moses Henriques and James Faulkner (to name a few) pass through without making themselves household names, continues to swing violently with each entry and exit of another potential applicant, showing the spectrum of Australia’s long and unsuccessful search.

The Hobart test, which saw Australia bundled out for 85 in just over two sessions, changed the selectors mindset towards the all-round role and saw them opt in favour of a batsman rather than an extra bowling option. A move totally against the grain of what has worked so well for Australian sides in the past with the likes of Miller and Waugh, who forged long and successful careers as Australia’s designated all-rounder. But the near miss at the Gabba, coupled with Nathan Lyon’s hot and cold form and the need to prioritise the wellbeing of Australia’s fast bowlers in the lead-up to the Indian tour, has made them reconsider the value an extra seamer could have in the remaining two test matches.

Cartwright is a legitimate all-round option with a bright future whose Shield credentials place him in the top echelon of young talent. But his shock selection is less an unprecedented call up and more a carefully considered plan when you consider how he will be used.

Australian selectors have one eye firmly fixed on India already and are well aware that sub-par performances in the sub-continent will compound the issues lying just below the surface. They’re also aware that they won’t be able to thwart the effectiveness of spin-twins Ashwin and Jadeja, nor take the wicket of batting colossus Virat Kohli, without anything other than their first string side.

Cartwright can be seen then as the guardian of Australia’s fast bowling brigade in Melbourne and Sydney – a workhorse to take a load off the shoulders of Starc, Hazlewood and Bird – and could be made the scapegoat who unsettled the side if Pakistan take out the series. A no-win situation in a side who have long stuck with a batsman at number six.

But he will remain on the Australian radar even if these circumstances do eventuate, and will become a regular fixture when the Australian selectors decide to come out of hiding and regain full confidence in their players and the systems that groom them.

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Hilton Cartwright drives through cover while on duty for WA. Image: Sporting News

Their fear of reliving the Hobart disaster is inhibiting them from making rational decisions and it’s the kind of uncertainty that can derail a tour to India where losses are inevitable.

There is a school of thought in the cricketing world at the moment that all-rounders add the balance and versatility required to avoid regular failure. They are also the glue that binds a well-oiled machine who are unlikely to ever replicate Australia’s performance in Hobart because they bat right the way down.

England are a side packed from top to bottom with all-rounders. They’ve hit a roadblock of late but have shown how valuable a second line of defence can be in saving the sides bacon in the event of a top order collapse. A quality Australia could use going into a challenging year with an inexperienced side.

The logic behind taking the all-round route is obvious: the more competent batsmen you have, the more likely you are to rack up big totals. This doesn’t necessarily have to mean that specialist batsmen and bowlers are condemned, it means you have more players skilled in both arts at key positions in the order. Moeen Ali is ranked fifth on the 2016 run scorers chart and is valued as much for his bowling as he is for his batting – even if some will contest this statement.

Since the mid 2000’s, Australia’s all-rounders have been more prolific in one suite than the other, or poor altogether and are yet to achieve the perfect balance between bat and ball.

Watson was a flash in the pan that lasted ten years while Marsh showed glimpses but was ultimately underwhelming. Could Cartwright buck the trend to become the first all-rounder since the enigmatic Andrew Symonds to average above 40? It’s a sad indictment of Australian cricket and its systems that this average still stands. But then again, you can count the number of all-rounders who have been in the Australian side since Symonds’ departure on one hand.

Cartwright looks to be a once in a generation cricketer who made a blip on the Australian radar through sheer weight of numbers in the first-class arena where he averages 44.50 with the bat and 41.93 with the ball – albeit in just 16 matches.

Australia have been crying out for an all-rounder for years and its been one of their weak points on tours away for the last decade. Not since the unearthing of Steve Waugh have they struck pure gold in this department.

Youth has proven to be a successful policy for the Australian side this summer and it may continue if Cartwright is given his chance. But without the selectors backing and support, it’s likely he’ll end up like the mistreated Mitchell Marsh and the selection musical chairs will continue.

Pakistan depart Gabba with ascendancy despite loss

Australia have plenty to ponder over their Christmas lunches having fought back from the brink of defeat in what was almost one of the great test match robberies.

Pakistan’s efforts on day one and two left many, including myself, wondering what they would be able to take away from this series, and in how many days Australia would romp to victory. But the resilience they showed with the bat in a remarkable turnaround that stunned the punters has given them all the momentum they need to take out the Melbourne and Sydney test matches.

Before they reached our shores, Pakistan where notorious for their dogged determination, willingness to win the scrap and ability to steal back the ascendancy like thieves in the night. They lived up to those expectations with a performance that showed the world why they are the sleeping giants not to be taken lightly, even if they haven’t played a test on their home patch for seven years.

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The Gabba at night on Day One

They’ve left Australia to walk away with a win that is barely palatable and will have them thinking about the pre-planed tactics they employed and their relative ineffectiveness in bringing about false shots on a regular basis. If anything, Pakistan have taken more away from this test match than the Australian’s who waltzed into the Gabba like a pack of hungry lions expecting to rip their pray to shreds without a fight. At the completion of the first innings, they were well within their rights to assume that the game would pan out in such a manner, but their complacency gave Pakistan’s underrated batsmen a glimpse of the light at the end of the tunnel that they fell agonisingly short of making a tangible reality. 39 runs short in fact.

Opponents should beware. If you give Pakistan an inch, they will take a mile. How the game was allowed to shift from a forgone conclusion to a nail-biting game for the ages is a concern in itself and shows how vulnerable an outfit Australia are at the moment, and how 2017 could quickly become their worst year in over a decade. A bumpy road awaits filled with multiple twists, turns and speed humps that could result in unfavourable results that eclipse the humiliation of their thrashing in Hobart and the fallout that followed. The vastly improved Bangladesh shapes as a danger-filled series, while the Ashes at the beginning of next summer will be the ideal yardstick to judge Australia’s positioning amongst the world’s elite.

Starc, Hazlewood and Bird are world class fast bowlers who posses unrivalled qualities, while Lyon is a long-underapreciated spinner who still has plenty to offer the Australian side at home and in the sub-continent. But their inability to bowl sides out in the final innings of a game is a reoccurring theme that will not only put more pressure on the batsmen to amass a large first innings score, but also force them to bowl injury inducing excess overs. Australia’s fresh faced batting line-up relies greatly upon its bowlers to keep the opposition’s totals to a minimum in order to make their job a great deal easier. And this will only be accentuated when they reach India in February.

Their first innings performance against Pakistan was the equivalent of a cricketing symphony. But they lacked potency in the second dig and bowled far too many deliveries that enabled Pakistan’s seasoned batsmen to fill their boots. When Starc wasn’t busy delivering a barrage of bouncers, which worked on the odd occasion but yielded few wickets when compared to the number of deliveries bowled short, Hazlewood was over-pitching and allowing Pakistan to play to their strengths. The UAE is home to some of the slowest and lowest wickets in the world and batsmen local to these regions are natural born drivers. Anything pitched on a half volley length is money for jam.

Jackson Bird delivered the timely knock out blows that rendered Pakistan’s run chase moot, and his presence provides the calming influence that frustrates opposition batsmen into rash strokes making him the perfect foil for Starc and Hazlewood.

His unerring ability to put the ball on a troubling length and make it seam is an indispensable value that will be required when Australia visit South Africa and England. But the career clock is ticking and he has a host of younger bowlers like Pat Cummins, Jason Behrendorff and current squad member Chadd Sayers breathing down his neck. Will he still be around beyond the end of this series? Or will his time be up by the Sydney test.

Late wickets sink final nail in Pakistan coffin

Pakistan fought valiantly to push the game into a fifth day, but the loss of crucial wickets at important junctions has all but written off their late dash to the finish line.

Asad Shafiq’s hundred and the belligerence of tail-end batsmen Amir and Wahab have put Pakistan in with a fighting chance of defying the historical odds stacked heavily against them. Yet the probability of breaking the age-old record to crack Australia’s 490 is slim, and will require a one up on the heroics they displayed this evening.

Pakistan’s elder statesmen needed to be the one’s to guide the ship home, but they were both dismissed in a fashion that would have had coach Mickey Arthur pulling at his hair. Younis, with his wealth of experience totalling 110 matches, was able to keep Australia at bay for a session with a typically defiant innings, before playing a stroke born of frustration to become Lyon’s second victim. His brain fade, that came in the form of a reverse sweep, was labelled “ridiculous” by former Pakistan quick Waqar Younis in the Channel Nine commentary box. But it was more of a crime than an act of stupidity and may have been the catalyst that caused the pins to start tumbling late in the day.

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The grounds crew prepare the wicket at tea on Day One.

Younis Khan has the great ability to frustrate sides and opposition captains to the edge of insanity. He did it against England earlier this year at the Oval – a game Pakistan managed to win thanks to his score of 218. You could see Starc and Hazlewood’s frustration flowing from their ears. The short pitched bowling that followed was a byproduct of the pain that Younis and Azhar had managed to heap on in a matter of just two short sessions. But his reverse sweep, which came during a period of the innings that required patience and unfailing concentration, was unbefitting of a man with more combined test match experience than half the Pakistan side combined.

Misbah-ul-haq was guilty of similar crimes. The stroke that brought about his demise might not have been as extravagant as Younis, but the risk factor was practically identical. He pushed at a good length ball from Jackson Bird with all the might and flamboyance of an invincible and battle hardened cricketer but with the footwork of a newly born calf. It was a carbon copy of his dismissal in the first innings. A danger sign for the Pakistan stalwart who must find a way to play on Australian wickets again before his flaws reach a stage where they are beyond repair.

Australian captain Steve Smith will be sleeping uneasily tonight with the thought of ‘what if’ a reoccurring theme in his dreams. His own drops, including what would have been the prized scalp of centurion Asad Shafiq, have kept Pakistan in the contest and might yet prove to be bigger slip up’s than those that allowed former Olympic speed skater Steve Bradbury to take out the gold medal at the 2002 winter Olympic Games.

Pakistan are the underdogs who couldn’t put a foot right on the opening two days of a series defining test match. Australia are the grinning cheshire cats who shifted into cruise control this morning having set Pakistan a seemingly unassailable total. There have been some terrific tales of the little man overcoming the unbreakable giants: David v Goliath; England v Ireland (and the Netherlands); Leicester City v 5000/1 odds. But none would be greater than this if Shafiq can combine with Pakistan’s last remaining warriors to make up the remaining 107 run deficit.

Australia v Pakistan, first test, day three – Pakistan falter…again

If Pakistan still held aspirations of winning this test match at the beggining of the third days play, they needed to avoid making the same mistakes as the first innings. That they did, at least for brief periods in a checkerboard pattern that barely resembled an improvement at all. There were glimpses of what Pakistan are capable of, but some old habits reappeared and they were there for all to see once again on what was likely the test’s penultimate day.

Sarfraz Ahmed made a bright and breezy start to the day alongside the sport-fixer turned actor Mohammad Amir, but even his shot selection was questionable at times and it looked as if he was just a streaky shot away from losing his wicket for much of his innings. “That’s the way he plays” the commentators quipped, but there is a distinct difference between busy and reckless, and many of shots that evaded the fielders by a finger-nails length could certainly be seen as an exemplar of the latter.

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The Gabba, from deep in the Stanley Street end stand, during day two.

When it came time for Pakistan to bat again, just hours after being dismissed in their first innings, there were signs that they had failed to change their ways and others that suggested they awoke to an epiphany. Sami Aslam looked circumspect after starting with the flair and intent of a man who was given direct orders to play positively or risk having the blame heaped upon him for Pakistan’s middle and lower order failures. There were noticeable improvements early on, but he resorted to scoring at a snails-pace thereafter before eventually snicking one into the unfailing hands of Matt Renshaw at first slip. There’ll be no prizes for guessing the shot that brought about his demise. It was a prime example of Pakistan’s ongoing failure to adapt. The problem that must be keeping coach Mickey Arthur awake at night knowing that he holds the formula to mastering these conditions having served Australia in the same role for three long and unsatisfying years.

Even earlier though, shortly after Pakistan had snared the crucial wickets of openers Renshaw and Warner to put themselves back in with a chance of restoring an iota of respectability and loosening Australia’s grip, Misbah-ul-haq brought his smiling assassin into the attack in a move that mirrored a tactic that worked oh so poorly in the first-innings. Worse still, he had three men set back on the leg side and Yasir, as he did in the first innings, bowling into the pads of the Australian batsmen. Shane Warne was in disbelief when he saw the spin and bounce that was on offer for the leg-spinner to exploit, but wasn’t utilising, and left many more wondering why one of the world’s leading names had suddenly changed his tact after months of sustained success.

It’s no secret that spinners enjoy bowling at the Gabba, Nathan Lyon made this point well known before the test match began. But Yasir Shah must be viewing it as a spin-bowling graveyard having taken just three wickets across two innings in close to 60 overs for 174 runs. Spinners should be having a far greater say in game’s at the Gabba than what Yasir has been allowed to have. They are the game breakers. But they can also be the game makers. Australia have selected Shah as the bowler to go after and have structured their batting around the runs they have been practically gifted off his bowling.

Australia have a few problems of their own, though, that will likely underpin the struggles or success they have in a new year that promises to paint a clearer picture of where Australia are positioned in world cricket. We may have seen Nic Maddinson’s last test innings, last and only boundary and last glimpse of a spritely and uninhibited half century – that never eventuated – filled with shots played under the guise of youthful exuberance. Australia made three changes following the Hobart test and two have cemented themselves in the side as first-rate options to lead Australia into its next major spring cleaning. An admirable strike rate given the pressure cooker environment the young players were immediately subjected to upon their arrival to test match cricket. If they can handle two day/night test match’s under inauspicious circumstances without copping a sucker punch, it suggests that they are made of the right stuff. Shaun Marsh is predicted to be fit and firing by the time the Boxing-Day test rolls around in a week’s time. He will slot straight into the number six position forcing Maddinson to return to First-Class cricket low on confidence but in the knowledge that he is a class above his opposition. A thought that will hold him in good stead to raise his mediocre average above 45, allowing him to stake his claim once again as a candidate for test selection.

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The Gabba under clear skies at night on Day two.

In more promising news for the host’s, Khawaja showed us once again with an innings stabilising 74 why he deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Smith and Warner. He is now a member of Australia’s elite three and is as valuable a player as either of his aforementioned counterparts. At the beginning of the season he was on the outer and treading water following an unproductive tour to Sri Lanka where he was dropped from the side for what felt like the millionth time in a career that has had more bruising bumps in its five year journey than most players, who have surpassed 20 tests, have experienced. He was involved in the homeworkgate saga instigated by Pakistan coach Mickey Arthur which threatened to turn his career on its head. It has played snakes and ladders ever since but the rich vein of form he found in Adelaide and continued at the Gabba has reaffirmed that the talent and ability he has was once hiding under the covers required a simple combination of time, patience and faith to appear as indispensable to the selectors.

Nathan Lyon is another exceeding expectations following a quiet start to the Australian summer. The Brisbane Lions AFL side have made the Gabba their fortress since their three-peat premiership success in the early 2000’s, but for the last three days it has been Australia’s cult hero Nathan Lyon ruling the den. The fans chant an almighty “Gary, Gary, Gary” in unison whenever he fields the ball or his name appears on one of the two big screens at the ground to announce his arrival to the bowling crease. His light-heartedness and availability has made him a man of the people and, as Ian Chappell quite rightly pointed out on commentary today, one of the first off-spin bowlers to have his name celebrated with unadulterated joy. He’s taken just the sole wicket in this test but appears to have regained the confidence he lost a month ago following a series where he was taken to the cleaners. He’s a key ingredient in Australia’s four test tour to India. Confidence and a reassurance of his position in the side are vital if he is to have the kind of impact Ravi Ashwin has had in a record breaking year.

Day four will in all likelihood be the last taste of test cricket for Brisbane locals until the Ashes begins in November next year. Pakistan have shown the fight that was vacant in their first innings to reach 70 for the loss of two wickets at stumps, but the lead of 419 that Australia still hold boarders on an impossible task. Younis is still at the crease while Misbah is eagerly awaiting a second chance in this test after a first-innings failure. There is hope for Pakistan, but it is slim.

Pakistan continue the trend of touring side woe under the Gabba lights

Pakistan made a resurgence early on day two but it was Australia who took the honours on an entertaining second day thanks to an inspired session of bowling from Hazlewood, Statc and Bird under the Gabba lights. The day began promisingly for Pakistan when they took the wicket of Steve Smith, averting any further damage that the previous day’s centurion showed signs of inflicting early on. But Handscomb, the man who played second fiddle to his captain for much of the first day, made sure that Pakistan wouldn’t be let off the hook, bringing up his maiden test century and pushing the Australian first innings total beyond 350. His technique is a little unorthodox, both in the way he sets up and the point at which he strikes the ball, and his fluency may have been stymied by a better bowling attack with greater variation. The all left-arm attack of Pakistan played right into Handscomb’s hands, with the angle across his body allowing him to run the ball off the face of the bat from deep in his crease down to third man. An area that proved to be particularly productive for him despite the protection Misbah had in place when he quckly became aware of Handscomb’s strengths. One must wonder how this technique will cope in countries like England where the ball swings a great deal more and the bounce is not nearly as high as what he will have experienced on the grounds he knows so well here in Australia. What was most pleasing about his innings was the patience and level-headedness he showed when wickets were tumbling at the other end. Lesser players would have looked to push the rate and reach their hundred before the well of tail end batsmen ran dry. But there was Handscomb, defending resolutely when the ball was pitched in a good area and attacking when the opportunity eventually presented itself. At no stage did he look to shelter his partner at the other end by rotating the strike to ensure he faced the majority of the deliveries at the back end of the innings.

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Fans, including myself, gather outside the Gabba nets to watch the players prepare for day two.

Everything about Handscomb, his temperament, mindset and willingness to take on the bowlers screams experienced test cricketer. But he is just 29 and hasn’t yet become a fully fledged member of this Australian side. The future is bright.

The success Pakistan experienced in the morning session was quickly extinguished when they took to the batting crease under cloudy skies with the lights on the cusp of taking full effect at a venue that has shown its night session to produce more wicket taking deliveries than the previous two day/ night venues. There were so many flash points throughout the day’s play that to cover them all would take up a great deal more than the usual 1000 words.

First came the continuation of the first day’s unusual field settings and inconsistent bowling lengths, before Wahab and Amir combined to clean up the Australian tail for an insurmountable total of 429. But that wasn’t without a terrific rearguard action from Bird and Lyon who provided the knockout blow that might yet ensure Australia bat just once in this game.

Then came Pakistan’s astonishing and unforeseen capitulation. What would be most disappointing for them upon reflection of each dismissal would surely be the way in which they were caught in the slips pushing at deliveries that in Australian conditions quite simply should not have been played at. This is part of the learning curve touring sides face when they reach our shores and they must be awake to these glaring deficiencies if they wish to return from this series in a state that isn’t far from where they left off in England. The entire top order, including experienced campaigners Misbah and Younis, were all dismissed in a similar fashion to deliveries pitched in a zone that forced them to play with hard hands when they should have been shouldering arm’s. Particularly during the early stages of their innings.

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The Channel Nine television camera’s in operation at the Stanley Street end mid-afternoon

Australia’s fast bowling cartel showed once again why the Gabba has become a fortress that touring sides despise. The bounce of the wicket caught Pakistan off guard and the procession of wickets that followed were all a product of their inability to adjust to the foreign conditions. Australia face a similar proposition when they tour India early next year. They must compensate for the low bounce and turn of the sub-continent wickets in order to avoid leaving with their tales fixed firmly between their legs. A feeling Australia know all too well of late. The steps are already in place for them to achieve, now it is simply a matter of the players executing their skills and repaying the selectors faith. There is no room for passengers in series’ such as these that could go awry and expose technical flaws no sooner than the players have stepped off the aircraft. Pakistan have shown a total unwillingness to battle and scrap like so many Australian side’s have on the road in the past, and have looked as adept at countering what the Australian’s have thrown at them as Nic Maddinson has looked a man who knows his place in the test arena. They are a team full of weak links that are on the brink of being the umpteenth touring side to get chewed up and spat out by the alien conditions. Sides from the sub-continent have tried and tried in Australia to find a method that garners a favourable result, but the result is often as frivolous as the attempt. Particularly at the Gabba, where Australia have remained unbeaten since 1988. Pakistan, from what they’ve shown us across the opening two days, look as if they are destined to suffer the same fate as many that have gone before them but without showing the same fight and perseverence under adversity that we have become accustomed to seeing from recent Asian touring sides India and Sri Lanka. It’s difficult to see where Pakistan’s runs will come from given the impatience that has made an epidemic like spread through their batting line up since the first test in New Zealand.