Lost in space – one step forward, four steps back for Pakistan

If the test series between Australia and Pakistan was a smiling contest, the tourists would have won it in a canter.

But smile as they did, only the herculean efforts of a few individuals across the course of a nightmare series left them bearing their pearly whites on the final day of the Sydney test.

There was more to grimace about than anything else when Josh Hazlewood took the final wicket to dismiss Pakistan in the very same disappointing fashion as the second innings in Melbourne and Hamilton.

The three game changing collapses they suffered across the tour cost them in the long run and will have left them with their heads spinning like a carousel. One of the leading side-effects to touring Australia.

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Australian opener David Warner celebrating a hundred during the first innings of the Sydney test. Picture – Deccan Chronicle.

The momentum they carried over from a successful tour of England – in one of their toughest road trips since they set up home base in the UAE – came to a grinding halt in New Zealand where their batting failed to cope with the unpredictability of the local wickets.

But the fire that was lit against the poms by their ageing warriors has been extinguished by father time and the Australian doldrums which have tripped up many an ageing batsman in the past.

Misbah’s fearless leadership during the most turbid and uncertain of times for Pakistan cricket makes him a gladiator of the modern game and one of the finest to ever pull on the green and yellow threads.

He drowned out the ever present distractions – spot-fixing scandals and the ineptitude of a corrupt board – through an iron will to show the world that Pakistan are far from the fallen giants they are often made out to be. All the while, staying true to himself and his roots.

Both with bat and in front of the press he exuded a calmness that would have made the most nervous debutante stand to attention.

But the man who is responsible for returning Pakistan to number one in the world would be lucky to get picked out at a set of traffic lights in Lahore by a passing motorist, such is the state of cricket in Pakistan and the fact that home is no longer where the heart is.

And he must now make a call on whether the time is right for him to pass the baton onto the next in line or maintain the legacy that has seen Pakistan make an unprecedented resurgence.

A whitewash never reflects well on the captain, no matter how much success he’s had in the past or whether he still has the backing of the dressing room.

Ricky Ponting’s leadership was rarely questioned, but when the bullets began flying from all angles he eventually surrendered and recognised that the captaincy had passed him by.

This series loss would be as difficult to stomach as any for Misbah, just as that 2010/11 Ashes series was for Ponting. Not because of the fashion in which it was lost, but for the heavy lifting that now must be had to prevent the Pakistan test side from sliding back down the world rankings.

And the lifting process is almost certain to leave a few with aching backs and put the odd nose out of joint.

There were flashpoints – the near historic win at the Gabba and Azhar Ali’s unbeaten double century on the biggest stage of all. But for all the positives Pakistan can take with them there are three negatives to cancel them out.

Yasir Shah, Pakistan’s key weapon, was used as poorly as an old dishrag and the fields that were set never allowed for him to prosper, let alone create pressure to bore the Australian batsmen out.

He’s the finest leg-spin bowler in the world but a tradesman is only as good as his tools.

Pakistan’s fast bowlers are some of the most highly qualified in the game but tacticians they are not.

Peter Handscomb had a field day against the all left-arm seam attack at the Gabba, and followed it up in Melbourne and Sydney to finish with a Bradman-esque average.

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The smiling assassin Yasir Shah. Or is that Lionel Messi?

Mohammad Amir may have taken out the award for most dramatic fielding effort when his knee plugged in the Gabba outfield, but the collective sighs of astonishment from Pakistan’s fielders as Handscomb carved yet another back foot punch behind point for four comes in at a close second.

Take one look at Handscomb’s wagon wheel’s and you can see that the region from backward point to third man was favoured heavily.

But Pakistan’s bowlers never adjusted, never came around the wicket to change the angle or plug up gaps to begin executing a plan B. Or maybe they did but it was too little too late by the time they came to their senses.

Any bowling side that allows an opposition player to chalk up a chance-less hundred inside a session must have their tactical nous questioned. Even if Warner’s brilliance on the day was enough to dismantle any attack the world over.

They were as helpless and similarly nonreactive in the face of a loss as any side to tour Australia in the recent past.

India made excuses for their performance until there was nothing left to complain about. New Zealand challenged but fell well short last year. And the West Indies failed to compete.

Only the South Africans have been able to leave Australia in a state of flux on home soil.

Where Pakistan ranks among these most recent visitors is difficult to tell because it was a series filled with so many contrasting emotions and performances.

One day people were questioning whether they had sent their A team. The next they looked more skillful and proficient than the Harlem Globetrotters.

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.

 

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.