A post mortem of Australia’s cursed Champions Trophy campaign

Australia's Aaron Finch and Steve Smith (right) look dejected
Finch and Smith in the cordon – Photo: Indian Express

Losing to the Poms is always a bitter pill for Australian’s to swallow, but it is made far worse when it occurs in a must-win game at fortress Edgbaston and results in the elimination from a tournament you’re expected to get within touching distance of winning.

Sure, we can blame the rain for ending a game we should’ve won. Bangladesh will go through to the finals but they were totally outplayed by Australia and should consider themselves more than lucky.

They finish on three points having beaten New Zealand at Cardiff, and more thrilled for them I could not be. However, something must be done about the DLS system, because Australia have been robbed of the chance to show their wares beyond a sudden death group stage match-up that for only a fleeting moment they looked capable of winning.

Bangladesh have not played better cricket than Australia. Yet they are the one’s progressing to the finals.

At the Oval on Tuesday, Australia were within four overs of sending the Bangladeshis packing when rain intervened and both sides were gifted a point, much to the delight of their captain Mashrafe Mortaza, who said in no uncertain terms that Australia totally outplayed Bangadesh and were on a collision course for victory.

That’s it. Four overs was the difference between qualification and a plane ticket home. How can this be justified?

Call me a whinging Australian with a God complex, but that Australia, the better of the two sides, cannot progress beyond the group stage despite demonstrating their dominance over the very opponents that will, means there is something seriously wrong with the current system that decides upon a victor in the event of rain.

There are no two ways about it, Australia played poor cricket against England and deserved to be beaten. In fact, nothing about the brand of cricket they played across the entire tournament said they were entitled to a finals berth.

In the games against New Zealand and England, the bowlers lost their radar and were unable to take wickets at regular intervals nor stem the flow of runs when batsmen were set; so inconsistent was their line and length. King of the ODI castle Mitchell Starc was Reduced to a mere peasant, rarely able to hone in on a yorker length as he did so routinely back in the 2015 World Cup. Cummins, for all his star power and raw pace, was more expensive than a three course meal at a Turkish restaurant; the quicker he delivered the ball, the quicker it found the rope.

Only Hazlewood and Zampa can be commended for their performances with ball in hand. The former will return to Australia having bagged nine wickets in just three, rain affected matches, while the latter, often neglected by his captain at crucial stages of the innings, can depart knowing he has made a difference in this tournament.

While he couldn’t match the feats of Adil Rashid, who himself has battled through periods without the full backing of selectors, his craft is slowly developing and he is now apart of the fabric of Australia’s ODI team. Why Smith elected to bowl part time slow-bowler Travis Head before him, a specialist leg-spinner, beggars belief and was a tactic that failed to produce enough wicket taking opportunities for it to remain a viable option. Hopefully Australia have learnt their lesson and will stray from this line of thinking in the future.

It was a strange tournament for the batsmen. We can make all the excuses in the world about the weather preventing them from getting any semblance of match practice under their belts, but they are professionals and we need to see more in the way of adaptability.

Finch, a man who is no stranger to English conditions, looked out of touch in the first two games but returned in the last with a typically defiant innings filled with strokes born of power and aggression. His opening partner was just as fluent, but was dismissed after a promising start which saw him crunch a few boundaries in quick succession to kick-start Australia’s innings. If Australia were to win, he too needed to join Finch in reaching a half century at the very least. A start of 21 was never going to suffice.

Other notable performances came from captain Steve Smith, who continues to tick milestones off his list, and Travis Head, whose late order hitting edged Australia towards a respectable total. The rest were, without sugar coating it, extremely poor.

It was rather stupefying not to see Chris Lynn force his way into the Australian side for their clash with England. Moises Henriques was again given the nod ahead of him and provided nothing after a strong start from the top three, eventually falling to a poor stroke which saw Smith hammer the turf with his bat in frustration, perhaps acknowledging he had made the wrong decision.

There is no doubt Chris Lynn was the perfect man for the situation Henriques found himself in. Finch, Warner and Smith had set a platform and Australia were looking at a total of 300+ which, given England’s track record post the 2015 WC, was a requirement if they were to win and progress to the finals.

Lynn’s free-flowing stroke-play and absence of fear could have seen him capitalise on what was, at the time, some wayward bowling from Plunkett and Stokes. But Smith persisted with Henriques, perhaps hoping that his potential and raw skill would transform into an X-factor that could influence the game and help set a challenging total for England’s batsmen. As it stands, he leaves the Champions Trophy with a lowly average of 9 and his career hanging by a thread.

Speaking of outlandish selections, why was Pattinson, and Hastings for that matter, consigned to the carrying of drinks? For those who are unaware, Pattinson has been playing county cricket for Nottinghamshire and performing admirably in the Royal London one-day cup. Of all the Australian’s, he would’ve no doubt understood the conditions more than his other fast bowling counterparts who have been lapping up the dusty wickets in the IPL, yet he was never given the opportunity.

There is a pecking order in Australian cricket and Cummins, quite clearly, through pace and perhaps a smidgen of extra experience, is currently ahead of the Victorian spearhead.

So where do Australia stand now in ODI cricket? Like I said in my last article, they are far from the side that took the field against New Zeland in the World Cup final of 2015; lacking as they are both in experience and genuine match winners capable of matching it with the Stokes, de Villiers and Kohli’s of the world.

Clarke and Johnson, two of Australia’s finest warriors, have left a hole in the ODI side bigger than those at Gina Rinehart’s mining sites. For this reason, and many others that are within the players’ control but don’t appear any closer to a solution, Australia are now well below the powerhouses of the international game – India, England and, err, South Africa – and languishing somewhere around the middle of the field which is currently occupied by New Zealand and Pakistan. They are powerful at their best and woefully inconsistent at their worst.

Sure, some of the stars of the game reside in Australia’s side, but if we can take one thing away from this Champions Trophy it is that you need substance beyond your top order. New Zealand didn’t have it; neither did Australia. But England sure do, and India, with Dhoni and Yuvraj at the helm, have it in spades. That is why we are set for a repeat of the final of four years ago once again this time around. Bat is dominant over ball in this era and a strong order can atone for the sins of the bowlers.

Buckle your seat belts, folks. We are in for a wild ride!

Australia v New Zealand Second ODI – Redemption complete

That’s it, redemption complete. Australia have erased the scars inflicted on them by South Africa in both the ODI and test match formats with two wins over the boys from across the ditch. It’s remarkable how quickly the negative rhetoric that was sprawled across the internet two weeks ago can be extinguished by back-to-back wins in a meaningless series attended by just over 30,000 people. But Australia are deserving of every accolade that is thrown there way no matter the source from which they may originate.

We have been treated to some entertaining one-day cricket, which is difficult to say considering that two weeks ago I was apart of the camp who were strong advocates for a series boycotting due to its lack of context. My thinking was that a lull in the middle of the summer, following a monumental test series against South Africa, wasn’t the best way to capture an audience, nor the best course of action to ensure they are invested in the three match test series against Pakistan; a far more important contest given Australia’s recent test match struggles. It seemed a logical choice, although a less profitable one for CA, that the Australian players be given time over this period to return to Shield cricket where they could play against the pink ball and prepare in an environment similar to what they will be faced with in a week’s time. After all, what good could come from a three match ODI series after a two-one drubbing in the test series. It’s certainly not the format you want to be experimenting with six days out from the first test. How does CA expect its players to be prepared in such a short space of time?

The two one-day fixtures played out at the SCG and Canberra – while not decade defining matches – have caused a total reversal in my thinking and has allowed Australia to sustain the winning feeling they established in Adelaide after six long and unprosperous months at home and abroad. It’s also a breath of fresh air for the fans, and players no doubt, who have had to endure a mentally demanding test series that appeared to take three months, rather than three weeks, to complete. If that’s not enough, there’s the added benefit of batsman, such as Mitchell Marsh, playing themselves into white-ball form. While this is not directly translatable into the test match arena, the freedom of both technique and mind that one is given the license to play with during a one-day match enables batsmen to take stock of their game and express themselves in the longer form. A few of our batsmen were in desperate need of this following the negative press they received in the aftermath of the massacre in Hobart. What this means for the mindset of the players going forward remains to be seen. It’s not the first time a one-day series has been shoved into the middle of a team-defining summer of cricket, and it won’t be the last. It’s as much a refresher as it is the cause of career crippling burn-out. The mental willpower of the players will decide which comes to fruition.

Now, onto the second ODI. Australia can gleefully add yet another Chappell-Hadlee trophy to their tally and laugh in the face of the kiwis who, despite giving it a red hot crack, couldn’t hold on to win in either game after a dominant display of top order batting. There is an enormous gulf between the standard of middle to late order hitting in the Australian and New Zealand batting orders and this, so far, has been the difference between the two sides. As soon as Australia surpassed 300 in both encounters, NZ’s hopes were as good as dead and buried. They are a side who have positioned all their guns (Guptill, Williamson and Nesham) at the top. So far, nobody below them has been able to stick around in support to see them through to a big hundred. This is essential in a chase. You’re not going to track down a close to record breaking target without a lower order that is capable of chipping in with at least 100 runs. In both games, the two shining lights for New Zealand – Guptil (game one) and Williamson (game two) – have been dismissed playing a stroke with the intention of clearing the boundary. They were well aware that they were drifting behind the required rate and the batsmen that were to come didn’t posses the striking ability to play catch up. The set batsmen had to stay in and battle. They didn’t. The lower order needed to produce a counter-attacking flurry of runs. They couldn’t manage that either.

Australia have done just about everything right so far. They’ve batted sensibly and have put the foot on the accelerator at the correct time in both innings to see themselves past the psychological milestone of 300. They have Warner and Smith to thank for this. Both batsmen have set the foundations nicely for a late over assault on the tiring New Zealand bowlers and have enabled the Australian side to go into the final 15 overs with wickets in hand – an underrated luxury in the modern game. They are outsmarting New Zealand in every facet of the game at the moment. They haven’t shown enough re-activeness, nor creativeness, in the field to prevent big first innings scores on batting friendly pitches, and they certainly haven’t attacked Australia’s top order inside the first ten overs with the new ball in a way that exploits their recent difficulties. When they’ve batted, they have let Australia dictate terms to them and have left it too little to late to attack with a fragile and unestablished middle and lower order.

Having said that, they’ve shown glimpses of what they’re capable of achieving in the one-day format, particularly with the likes of Guptill and Williamson steering the ship. New Zealand’s other top and middle order weapons, for which they rely on to score the majority of the runs, haven’t fired yet. Latham hasn’t got a significant score in a number of innings while Neesham and Munro are producing starts without going on to achieve a game changing milestone. They are being outfoxed by a team who know their own game back to front on home soil, as New Zealand did twelve to eighteen months ago. The changing of the guard from the 2015 CWC has been particularly damaging to their batting and it appears as if they are a work in progress yet to figure out the ideal balance between attack and defence.

Martin Guptill Card.jpg
Martin Guptill at the top of his game, will he produce the same heroics at the MCG……

In more bad news for the touring side, Australia’s bowlers haven’t been at their clinical best yet. In fact, they’ve been picked off far too easily by the likes of Guptill, who is striking at near breakneck speeds, and Williamson, who has been allowed to rotate the strike in a fashion that suits him. The percentage of boundaries hit square of the wicket would be alarming for the Australian bowling cartel and a sign that they have erred in length far too often. Take a look at the wagon wheels for both Guptill and Williamson, couple them with their strike rates, and the shortness with which the Australian’s have bowled becomes apparent.

You can view them on ESPNcricinfo: http://www.espncricinfo.com/australia-v-new-zealand-2016-17/engine/match/1001373.html?view=wagonwheel

Cummins was the biggest culprit in the opening game, while Starc was guilty of the very same thing during the opening overs in Canberra. Bowling short with the new hard ball to two batsmen who strike powerfully square of the wicket is the quickest and easiest way for the scoreboard to get out of hand and for the fielders to be pushed back into defensive sweeping positions that dramatically reduce the chance of a wicket taking delivery outside of a miss-hit – which is almost an exact description of the fashion in which Guptill and Williamson were sent packing in game one and two respectively.

If the Australian bowling line-up looks a little underdone, than what tag can we give to the New Zealand attack who have already conceded 702 runs in two innings and taken just 13 wickets to go along with it. There is a perceived lack of depth in the New Zealand ranks and the Australian batsmen have picked up on it. They’ve played Henry and Boult with due caution and attacked the change bowlers to spread the field, allowing them to pick up singles and keep the score chugging along during periods where the opposition would normally be looking to stymie the rate. Travis Head is a perfect example of this approach. Promoted up the order to protect the lower order hitters and keep the run-rate ticking over through the middle overs, he manipulated the field, picking off singles before eventually going after de Grandhomme and Southee to settle for a run a ball 57. It was he and captain Steve Smith who allowed Marsh to come out swinging and propel Australia to their eventual total. The New Zealand bowlers looked a defeated unit when the seventh Marsh six went sailing into the stands, and from that moment forward the ball was in Australia’s court. This is an area that New Zealand must improve if their method is going to last on batting friendly pitches against an opposition who has a well constructed plan. If their bowling is incapable of adaption, and they revert quickly to defensive field placings, they will find themselves on the receiving end of 350+ scores all too often.

So, onto Melbourne then for the final game in this brief Chappell-Hadlee series. You would be forgiven for looking past this dead-rubber and towards the first test against Pakistan at the GABBA next Thursday, but I implore you to stay tuned. This might well be the game we see a record breaking score from one of the Australian batsmen. I’m not writing off New Zealand, I just think that they are a defeated team who are showing signs of weakness in a number of different areas. Perhaps they already have one eye firmly fixed on their upcoming home series against Bangladesh which is an intriguing contest in itself. How will Bangladesh fare on the green seamers dished up in New Zealand? They haven’t been exposed to anything like what they are about to experience for, well, years. Given their lack of swing bowlers, it’s difficult to see them winning a single game on tour. But that’s an argument for another day.