Australia v South Africa – Third Test Preview – Trials And Tribulations

As is so often the case in the midst of a crisis, the Australian selectors have hit the panic button and opted to take the quickest route out of the ostensible deep dark hole they find themselves in. The changes they’ve made in the wake of the debacles reflect a selection panel short on ideas and pragmatism, but not on audacity. It exemplifies their burning desire to disentangle themselves from the rut Australian cricket has found itself in these past months. Perhaps, and I say this tentatively, it is an interim selector looking to make a bold statement in the knowledge that he cannot be shot down. At the very least, the mind boggling and unwarranted culling of five incumbents shows that Australian cricket is backed into a corner with nowhere else to turn. But is this really the case?

There can be no questioning the significance of the third test match in Adelaide; despite its status as a dead rubber. South Africa will be seeking to replicate similar feats to those achieved by the great West Indian touring sides of the 1980’s. They have the chance to white-wash Australia on home soil; an opportunity not to be passed up. On the other side of the ledger, Australia will be trying all they can to recapture the form they held on home soil last year, while also attempting to manufacture a winning culture among the newest owners of the Baggy Green – in just one game. This is typical of the selection panel’s mindset of late. There is great value placed on immediate results, which is compromising the time afforded to a debutant to find their feet in an increasingly cut throat environment. The patience and faith the selectors once had in a player struggling to find his niche at test level was rewarded when he eventually cracked the code. Today, the side is result driven and looking for a one hit wonder who, it is hoped, will steady the ship and immediately curtail the influx of negative conjecture. They didn’t find that in Callum Ferguson, and they certainly couldn’t pin their hopes on Joe Mennie to fulfill this duty. So, it appears they too can now be added to the growing list of players in the one-test graveyard. But this trigger happy approach and lack of consideration for circumstance is where Australia’s problems originate. And they certainly haven’t done themselves any favours in anointing Trevor Hohns as a front to contrive a fresh start. Australian cricket is a shambles at the moment. It requires a long-term solution and for selectors, players and administration alike to be held liable for their missteps. Change was inevitable. But the magnitude of the changes and the swiftness with which they were made, along with the constant reshuffling of the line up, will not allow the side to settle on a winning formula.

Matthew Renshaw’s selection is perhaps the boldest of them all. He’s played a total of 12 matches at first-class level for an average in the forties, but is purportedly cut from the same cloth as Matthew Hayden; at least as far as technique is concerned. He’s an enormous gamble- particularly given he didn’t play the opening two games of the Sheffield Shield season – but one selectors are confident has the ability to cope with Rabada, Philander and Abbott. What’s most concerning, though, is his lack of exposure to world-class swing bowling. It appears the selection committee have shifted their thinking with the long sought after change in chairman. They prefer the exuberance and untapped talents of youth over the trialed and tested techniques of the ageing Shield population. But this is more a case of selectors taking the path less traveled. Experience hasn’t payed off lately, and a shift to picking youngsters, while no doubt a last resort, was most likely a forced decision rather than one made voluntarily. Either way, there can be only one outcome, and given the selectors track record in this area, Renshaw must make a good first impression or risk being shunned from the side for a good chunk of his career. He faces a tough initiation. Players tend to be placed under greater scrutiny when the team is under performing and has its back to the wall.

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Matt Renshaw on duty in the Sheffield Shield

A less surprising selection, but an equally confusing one, was that of Matthew Wade. Personally, Peter Nevill has shown his glove-work to be far superior to Wade’s at both international and state level. But it wasn’t his keeping prowess that saw him axed from the side, it was his lack of runs, which is the most despicable disregard for the art of wicket-keeping since T20 cricket revolutionised the traditional technique. If you look at Nevill’s previous ten innings in isolation, you’ll also notice that he was required to bat during a period following top order failures and was therefore handed a mandate to score a flurry of late order runs. What this selection ploy indicates is that the Australian team currently desire a keeper who bats, rather than one whose role is to keep wickets as a first priority – as was the case in the Rod Marsh and Ian Healy days. This has stemmed from Australia’s trouble at the top, and will no doubt change when the top order is settled and back scoring plenty of runs. But in the meantime, selectors must decide which is more valuable. Late order runs, or a keeper with a penchant for saving them and taking every opportunity that presents itself. Given Wade’s notoriously hard hand’s and crude one -day methods, it’s difficult to see the latter being achieved.

More frustrating, though, are the Chinese whispers which suggest that Wade’s ‘mongrel’ was a factor in his selection over Nevill. If this is the case, and I dearly hope it’s not, the selection panel have lost all dignity and credibility in my books. Sledging is an age old tactic designed to put off batsman by troubling their mental fortitude. But how adept one has become at using it should not be considered grounds for selection. I’ve got a feeling this is nothing more than a cheap joke, but the fact we are bringing up such delusional lines of thinking indicates they needed an extra factor to make Wade’s selection appear incontestable. Most of all, it shows that Australia’s selectors really are struggling to establish what makes a test player.

I do hope the selectors are yet to put a nail in the Voges coffin. His Shield stats alone across the previous five seasons earns him a spot almost automatically, while the records of those that are about to usurp him (Maddinson 37.65, Peter Handscomb 40.56), as well as those that are on CA’s radar (Patterson 42.01), pale in comparison. Voges is a victim of a struggling side, there’s no doubt. When the chips are down, as they were in Sri Lanka and now against South Africa, he averages just 14.8; most probably because the bowlers weren’t blunted by Warner and Smith on these occasions. While when the going is good, as it was against the West Indies and New Zealand at home and away, he averages a monumental 162.28. Figures which make him indispensable. A run of ten innings in which he greatly underachieved means we’ve probably seen the back of Voges, though. It’s a shame that from a guy who promised so much at state level, and for a brief period on the international scene, we’ve received so little.

I won’t touch on the Day/Night element of this third test, mainly because I think the game will play out in a similar fashion to last year. The wicket will have some grass left on it, Rabada and Starc – the bowling king pins – will have a field day and the test will be over inside just three days. The result will be different when we reach Brisbane for the third edition of the day/ night phenomenon (in Australia), but we haven’t yet, and we’ve got a tough task ahead of us to avoid humiliation for a third straight game.

Australia v South Africa, Day Four – A Bloggers Lament

I think we can now place Australia in the mediocre category alongside New Zealand, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. In fact, we’re about as mediocre as it gets. We struggle our way to defeat in England, bully the minnow nations, get trounced in the sub-continent before erasing those scars with a comfortable series win at home. Except, this time round, there’s been nothing remotely comfortable about the first two test matches, and when you view the batting performances in isolation, you uncover the true extent of the damage.

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Take a good look, England. It won’t happen too often.

I’m not here to dish the dirt on the Australian batsman. For the most part, their embarrassing performances can be put down to some highly unconventional decision making at the top. They’ve been thrust into this position through the board’s inability to establish a regime that prioritises the needs of test cricket, as I made mention to over the first two days of this test match. The dismissal’s of Adam Voges and Callum Ferguson showed just how little progress the Sheffield Shield is making in creating ready made, adaptable cricketers. Both players forged very respectable careers at first class level prior to their selection for Australia, and both had no answer when the South African bowlers hit their straps. We need changes, as I mentioned a few days ago. Whether or not CA are awake to these deficiencies and are willing to forego a chunk of their t20 broadcast rights to squeeze in extra Shield and second XI matches, as required, is yet to be seen. We travel to India in February. At this stage, given the lack of scheduled preparation, Australian cricket could assume the mantle as international cricket’s new whipping boys.

But not all of Australia’s issues can be pinned on the management’s lack of awareness. The tenacious cricketer tag that for so long followed the Australia cricket side around seems to have gone missing. The dogged determination at the crease and a debonair approach to batting introduced by forefathers Waugh, Border and Bradman – players that embodied each and every value synonymous with the Baggy Green – have also been shunned in a similar fashion by the playing group.

If Sri Lanka was Australia’s graveyard during August, this is surely a manifestation of hell. Both Australian innings were riddled with technical flaws. The top and middle order looked as adept at keeping out the swinging ball as Lyon and Hazlewood down below. The South African bowlers have great skill, but the Australian capitulation made them look far better than they are. Let us not forget that Steyn was injured and replaced by what you could essentially call a second string option. What they did so brilliantly was bowl to a plan. They didn’t try anything particularly adventurous and managed to put the ball on a consistent length that the Australian batsman had neither the patience, nor the temperament, to endure. Sure, there were some unplayable deliveries mixed in among an abundance of wickets that fell to poor strokes. But for the most part they were patient, resilient and had a captain that would persist with them if they erred in line for an over or two, or cut them from the attack if the batsman were at any stage settled enough to play them with ease. You couldn’t fault Faf for any of his decisions as captain thus far, and you might as well say the same thing about the team as a whole. They are thoroughly deserving victors of this series and a team that will cause some sides great trouble over the coming years. When you look down their team list, it’s difficult to spot a weak link.

Changes are imminent in the Australian top order, this we know for certain. If they’re not made in time for the Adelaide test, they will be by the time Pakistan reaches our shores. There are four players in the Australian side who are currently immune to an axing on account of either their current form, or the fact they hold an authority position. The remaining positions are open slather.

Burns, Voges and M. Marsh are all one poor innings away from playing their last test in Australian colours, if they haven’t already, while S. Marsh, Nevil, Hazlewood, Lyon and Siddle aren’t yet dead in the water, but are firmly fixed to the selectors hit-list. Whether or not the players in waiting will stem the bleeding is a separate argument and one I don’t wish to have right now. There’s plenty of talent there, but again, if they haven’t been given adequate preparation, talent is just that, talent.

 

 

Australia v South Africa, Day Three – Will the stars align in Hobart?

You wouldn’t be scoffed at for suggesting that Australia have close to no chance of winning this game. Stating that they are still in the hunt also wouldn’t be far off the mark. A win looks highly unlikely at this point given Australia’s propensity to loose wickets in clumps and the strength South Africa posses in their batting ranks. Any lead over two-hundred, which is still an unrealistic expectation, seems almost a bridge too far at this point for the Australian batsmen and is total that may be easily attainable based on South Africa’s red hot form. But the wicket is starting to play tricks and the Hobart weather has proven more unpredictable than the Australian batting line up. Is there a twist still left in this tale?

Australia haven’t made it easy for themselves though. Some erratic bowling early in the days play from Hazlewood, Starc and debutant Mennie gave Bavuma and de Kock far too many opportunities to score, and that they did. De Kock showed us all just how talented a batsman he is, and how valuable a competent wicket-keeper batsman can be. His innings oozed class. The runs he compiled alongside Bavuma were of crucial importance and enabled South Africa to reach a target that might yet ensure South Africa bat just once. But de Kock’s innings was constructed around capitalising on the loose delivery, rather than a display of patience and elegance. He mistimed drives that would usually cause a batsman great frustration on a seaming wicket. But these lapses in concentration were immediately relieved by a boundary which was hit, more often than not, off an over pitched delivery. All of Australia’s bowlers were to blame, not one can be excused. We own a very talented group of fast bowlers, and these errors in line and length are to be expected at stages when you consider that this one of our most inexperienced attacks in recent years. There’s no Harris, no Johnson and no Siddle. Communication between Smith and his bowlers also seemed to be restricted to the intervals in play. If there is no guiding, mature, level-headed influence, Australia’s young attack won’t recognise their faults. And they certainly won’t attempt to make the necessary adjustments, nor perfect their field placings.

Smith and Khawaja remain at the crease. Burns and Warner are back in the shed. This Australian order has plenty to offer yet but even more to prove to both the public and themselves. Conjuring up a total over 500 to put themselves in with a chance of pulling victory from the thralls of defeat would restore their lost dignity and repay the selectors faith. There’s a long way to go to reach that point yet, and many hundreds to be made if they hope to get near it. A lot will depend on how they approach batting on day four and whether or not mother nature has a say, as it has so far. The innings of 85 in the first dig showed us that Australia are approaching batting with great trepidation. They realise there’s a problem, whether it originated in Sri Lanka or not is irrelevant, and they are batting in a way to ensure these circumstances never rear their ugly head again. Many of the first innings dismissals were representative of their inclination to never overcommit to a stroke. This is the cause of their problems, not the solution.

There’s great pressure on certain players in the middle order and it’s hard to see them making a large contribution to the run tally. A lot rests on the shoulders of Smith and Khawaja to pick up the slack and wear out the bowlers in order to make it easier on the players under pressure. If Australia can press for a lead of 250+, a draw might be a possibility. But the stars must align for this to occur.

Australia’s first aim must be to bat the entire day. Maybe then we will bare witness to a highly unlikely Australian comeback.

Comments on Day Four shortly

Australia v South Africa, Day One and Two – All isn’t as it seems

Let us forget, for a moment, the usual discourses surrounding the performances of the Australian cricket team and instead dig a little deeper. Much of the blame has been placed on the shoulders of Steve Smith, which is to be expected. The captain takes the flak in the midst of a crisis, even if there are circumstances beyond his control that are partly to blame for on field performances. These issues often arise at a management or administrative level. The paper pushers, who are parked out of sight and out of mind when the axe is right for the swinging, are more to blame for Australia’s declining form than they might seem. Consider for a moment the scheduling. This is left up to those in positions of power, who devise a plan that will maximise profit. It’s in the hands of those who barely seem to consider the repercussions of their decision making. The players have no input in this process, nor any of the others that have an influence on performance. If they did, their pleas would have been answered, and this South African series would have begun at the GABBA, before moving onto Adelaide and then to either the WACA or Hobart (no great advantage at these last two venues, it seems). But there is more money to be made when these fixtures are manipulated based on a criteria that prioritises crowd numbers over sustained success.

Then, of course, there’s the selection committee who, in my mind, stand at the forefront of this whole dilemma. Let’s consider for a moment the players they’ve brought in over the course of the last three years, a period which hasn’t been as productive in the test arena as one might have hoped. Since the i’ll-fated tour of India some three years ago, Australia have have had 15 test debutants. Seven of those have played less than five games. The issue isn’t so much a lack of faith from selectors though, as these figures might suggest. It is instead the age at which the players have begun their careers, a problem which has been brought about by the selectors themselves, and will be left up to them to rectify. The average debut age, 27 (rounded up), is concerning, not because they haven’t managed to extend their careers beyond a few games – this has been occurring for decades, and is an issue based on ability, not age. The concern here is that their career longevity is reduced with every passing season. Their physical fitness will begin to falter while the natural deterioration of vision will eventually catch up with them, compromising their ability to perform at the level required. There are, of course, some exceptions – Steve Waugh springs to mind – but retiring at age 35 means that a career which began at 27 will last just eight years. And that’s notwithstanding the negative effects a form slump can have in cutting it short, especially when they are approaching an age where greater scrutiny is put on each and every performance. That’s without even considering the young players knocking the door down in the Sheffield Shield, and the pressure they put on the selectors to drop the ageing incumbent.

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George Bailey – Five tests – Age of Debut: 31
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Adam Voges – 19 tests – Age of Debut: 35
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Callum Ferguson – 1* test – Age of Debut: 31

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is the trend the selectors appear to have adopted for reasons unbeknownst to many, perhaps even to them. But in doing so, they shoot themselves in the foot, over correcting the misdoings of older players by blooding youth at an age where success is often dependent on whether they are prepared mentally for the rigours of international cricket. So often, they are not yet finely tuned to the degree required, and a string of failures can result in an axing from the side, perhaps never to return to the international game (Ashton Agar played two tests aged 19 and hasn’t been on the radar since).

The selectors have made some rash and perhaps unwarranted selections this tour and they’re paying for them through the backlash found in the morning’s papers. I’m not devaluing the worth of a few of these selections, but suggesting that these players (Voges and Ferguson for example) should have been given an opportunity a few years earlier during their pomp. They’ve all got plenty to offer the national team, but their age is a major factor which the selectors will act on swiftly when the public grows weary of their ineptitude.

The Australian selection panel are yet to discover the perfect formula. What age is too young? Is it worth selecting ageing players? How they can get the most out of a player of any age lies in how they are trained and nurtured. Our current Sheffield Shield competition isn’t doing enough to facilitate success, let alone prepare our future Ponting’s, McGrath’s and Warne’s. It has been led astray, multilated and used as an arena to experiment and tamper with different features that will benefit CA’s self interests – the balls, day/ night games etc – at times when its aim should have been to enable ‘first-class’ contests. Its standards have slipped, but not to the point where we are unable to discover talented needles in a generously sized haystack. But how capable is that haystack in comparison to others around the world. The administrators aren’t heading the warnings given off by the Australian test side currently. They continue to treat the players like guinea pigs and the national team are suffering the effects.

There was plenty of time from the end of the tour of Sri Lanka to the beginning of the summer to ensure there were enough shield games scheduled to allow the Australian players time in the middle. But it was once again decided in the halls of power that only the single round was required. It simply wasn’t worth overdoing it in the early stages of the season, primarily because there was a great deal of cricket to be played this year across all forms. We should have suspected that in an era where the lure of t20 cricket is such that much of the summer revolves around it, we wouldn’t see a great deal of time afforded to the staging of shield games.

Steve Smith is expected to take the blame for things which are beyond his control, as are the playing group. But the criticism which has befallen the side should be allocated elsewhere. The administrative big wigs are failing to uphold the systems that benefited the Australian test team during its glory days. It’s impossible to clone the superstars of yesteryear when the Sheffield Shield has witnessed an appreciable fall in interest from those who hold the key to fulfilling this very cause. Please, CA, keep throwing money at this competition, it’s the beating heart of domestic cricket and an essential test player production line that will serve its purpose if treated correctly. It’s essential that changes be made before we’re left to lament the rotting carcass of a competition that once churned out superstar after superstar with greater than reasonable success.

Hughes inquest an unnecessary dredging of melancholy-filled past

Whatever your take on the events of last week’s coronial inquest into the tragic death of Phillip Hughes, three questions must be posed. Why, knowing the inherent dangers associated with the game, did we require a week-long investigation to establish the causes of a freak accident? Why was the apparent aim of the inquest to unveil the perpetrator of an ostensible crime? Why must the ‘nature of play’ and the negative stigma associated with cricket’s culture be attributed, or even considered as reason for Phil’s death? The inquest spent a week digging where it needn’t have. It accepted sledging as due cause and the precursor to the fatal blow when safety protocols and methods of prevention should have been the focal point of unremitting examination. Why for instance did it take two triple-0 calls and the ambulance fifteen minutes to reach the ground?

An inquest was inevitable. Indeed, it was necessary. That is if it had been conducted in the right manner. But for all the counterproductive discourses of blame that took place a piece of intelligible evidence, that could have changed our thinking towards safety, went by the wayside. Evidence that would have allowed something substantial to be taken away from the inquest without it looking like a meaningless witch hunt. The general consensus, considering all that’s been written across various media channels, is that the probing questions asked of the several cricketers served no other purpose than to allocate blame and appoint a scapegoat. This is the point at which the inquest ceased making a contribution towards a balanced conversation on preventative measures and began searching for villains, re-traumatising both the players and the Hughes family in the interim.

First came claims that the spiteful atmosphere, the sledging and the incessant use of the short ball all had a role to play in the delivery that felled Hughes. Whether words to the extent of those purportedly uttered by Doug Bollinger were spoken or not is largely irrelevant and had no bearing on the events that followed. They were contemptiple and border on reportable, but in no way did his spoken words carry their intended meaning. Sledging is a part of the game of cricket and has been for some time now. It’s a component of the game which should be placed under heavy scrutiny and have its morals questioned, particularly when these circumstances arise. But it didn’t contribute to the bowling of the bouncer that struck Phil on the neck. Sledging or no sledging, the outcome would have remained the same.

Hughes had a known weakness to the short ball. Logic tells us that a barrage of bouncers was the best way to counter his fluent run scoring. NSW made note of this and went about exploiting this frailty in a way that would bring about his dismissal. The intention behind a bouncer is not to injure, but to intimidate. It’s a tactic used in conjunction with a yorker to throw a batsmen’s footwork off kilter and bring about a false shot. Devastatingly, this ploy had fatal repurcussions in the case of Phil Hughes. A fatal blow wasn’t planned, it wasn’t an organised scheme, but it has reignited conversation around intimidatory bowling, which in itself has thrown up whole new can of worms. The bouncer rule will not, and should not change as a result of what’s happened. It’s a legitimate tactic, albeit an inherently dangerous one.

The nature of play was in many ways the crux of the issue, and the basis for which much of the inquest was founded. What is, and what isn’t within the ethical boundaries of the game in regards to sledging and behavior in general is even harder to grasp now than ever. The inquest provided no clarity on the matter, even if it attempted to make inroads at different stages. Mike-Graham Smith and Ash Burrow, the officiating umpires during the Shield game in question, were satisfied that the nature of play was not in breach of any laws of the game. Yet we spent a week arguing this point. Perhaps, had there been more trasparency around what constitutes foul-play in the game of cricket, less time would have been spent interrogating players on the sanctity of righteous play and more would have been spent addressing safety concerns. A universal set of safety standards would have better served the game than gossip around cricket’s professed cultural deficiencies. It’s the ambiguity around certain rules that led us to this line of discussion rather than to that of safety. Were some of the questioned players out of line? Under the current interpretation of the rules, it’s difficult to see how. Was the incessant use of the short ball and sledges in breach of any law? Absolutely not, but they might well have appeared so given the current understanding, or lackthereof, of the rules in place by certain sectors of the cricketing public.

The death of Phillip Hughes nye on two years ago affected me in ways too difficult to describe. It was heartbreaking, and made me question aspects of the game of cricket in ways I never had before. His death struck a nerve. Perhaps because his strength and tenacity at the crease is something i’ve always admired and hoped to replicate. There wasn’t a dry eye in my household when the funeral came on the television. Emotions were running high as Phil’s father carried his own son’s casket to its place of burial. That image will forever be lodged in my mind, as will the eerie feeling around cricket grounds in the weeks immediately following. My heart still bleeds for the Hughes family and friends. I wish there was something that could ease their pain. Unfortunately, the inquest didn’t come close to achieving this, even if its finding were never going to provide even the slightest consolation.

Phil was a victim of inadequate safety within the game of cricket, not of foul play. Preventative measures should have been the focus of the inquest. Instead, we were caught up in finding an explanation where there were none.

Vale Phillip Hughes, forever 63 Not Out.