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 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.

Guptill must be allowed to play his ‘natural game’ if NZ are to derive the most from his unique talents

The techniques of David Warner and Martin Guptill shared one startling similarity in the recently completed ODI series between the two old foes: they both strike the ball with immense force that is only rivaled by the world’s finest. Of course, to this day, one has gone on to establish himself as a respected, level-headed and widely lauded test batsman while the other has always been a thereabouts test cricketer and an indelible flame with a penchant for delivering whirlwind performances in the shorter formats. The latter settles into his innings by playing with a textbook straight bat to deliveries pitched on a good length. His large stride ensures he makes contact with the ball under his eyes allowing him to time the ball and pierce the gaps with surgeon-like precision. He is a picture of balance and concentration, both in his stance and when executing a shot, that should serve as an unblemished template for the younger cricketers who are looking to replicate a flawless technique. You read this and expect Guptill to be the ideal test match opener for New Zealand and a giant of the modern game, but he averages a miserly 29.38 in more games than you can poke a stick at and has recently been dethroned by a younger, more conservative batsman who has shown plenty of signs in the early stages of his career that he won’t be giving up his position without a say.

David Warner was once the gung-ho merchant who wouldn’t make the grade as a test match batsman due to his reckless temperament and flawed defence. Since then, he has gone on to become one of Australia’s finest test openers and has held his position at the head of the Australian batting order for five years. Every adversity and roadblock that has been thrown in his direction to put the brakes on a steadily growing career – from the infamous bar punch thrown at England’s Joe Root to homework gate on the Indian tour of 2013 – has allowed him to blossom into the 57 match test player that we see today making hundred after hundred with a technique pulled from the heavens. Despite popular belief, his defence is paramount to his game and is what keeps that average of 48.08 continuing in an upward trend. His expansive stroke play, which earns him all the plaudits, is there to compliment his resolute defence and push along the rate when the game situation requires it. He has acquired the perfect balance between aggression and conservatism which has laid the foundation for his transition to test cricket and his subsequent success.

Warner and Guptill, while differing in terms of personal idiosyncrasies that set their techniques apart, both posses the unique ability to hit the ball like a tracer bullet to the boundary with scant regard for where it may have pitched. One has been able to convert the form they found in the white ball formats as a fresh faced Big Bash sensation into sustained success at test level, while the other has barely been able to keep their head above water. Sure, Guptill has played most of his test match career on green seaming wickets at the Basin Reserve and Seddon Park – two venues that aren’t regularly associated with the word’s ‘batsmen’s paradise’ – but excuses needn’t be made when you see the damage he can inflict on an opposition with the coloured clothing on his back. Remember the 2015 World Cup, that score of 237 at the Cake Tin and the brutal manner in which he went about dispatching the Windies to all parts of the ground (and out of it) with an apparent disregard for losing his wicket? The cleanness with which he hit those boundaries was the coup de grace that ended the West Indies campaign and was very much on show in every innings he played during the Chappel Hadlee series. But, like a werewolf at midnight, the sight of the red ball transforms Guptill into a form that is almost unidentifiable against the standards he sets in one-day and t20 cricket.

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The celebration following ‘that’ knock against the WI in 2015. Photo: The Telegraph.

The idea that slips into one’s mind when they witness the differences between the Guptill playing the shorter form and the less popular Martin who plays test cricket, is that he seeks to conform to the mindset held by traditional opening batsmen. Bat the entire first session, edge a couple that evade the slips but garner a boundary, and get through the new ball to give your middle order batsmen the greatest opportunity to mount a significant total. The cliches go on, but this is simply not the criteria New Zealand cricket should use to assess Guptill, and it is certainly not the ideas he should be fed as gospel if they wish to get the most out of his boundary hitting ability. When Warner came to the conclusion that his role within the side was to play his strokes from the outset, without fear for the outcomes this may produce and the judgement he may receive from time to time, there were marked improvements in his game. Untill New Zealand adopt a similar mantra for Martin Guptill, he will remain an underutalised quantity who has little impact on the game. He must be given a license to play with the freedom Australia afforded David Warner after they realised the traditional ‘knicker and nudger’ role, exemplified best by messrs Rogers and Cook, wasn’t suited to his enigmatic style of play. New Zealand has an experienced middle order that can cope with the loss of an early wicket and are capable of building an innings around the more conservative and pure stroke makers like Kane Williamson and Ross Taylor. It’s a risk they must take if they are to utalise the unteachable talent they have at their disposal in the form of Marin Guptill. He’s a game-breaker worth far more to a national team than any highfalutin IPL contract might hope to put a price on.