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.

 

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