Homework-gate Confidential – #01 – caught in a spin

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Glenn Maxwell – will he return in India?

I’ve decided that in the lead up to India, which is still a full two months and a bit away, I would devote some posts to the forthcoming tour in a mini blog series entitled “Homework-gate Confidential”. This test series holds such enormous importance for Australia, not least because of the tumultuous time they had in 2013 and the unhappy returns in the sub-continent during 2016. They’ve beaten Pakistan, to the surprise and excitement of few, and a whitewash is well and truly on the cards. Whether it eventuates is totally dependent on what the wicket is like and where the players heads are at. Is the first test in Pune and the positions up for grabs already beginning to distract them from the task at hand?

Ashton Agar and Steve O’Keefe have been added to the squad for the Sydney test in anticipation of a turning track, but this looks like a move designed to asses their spin options for the sub-continent given the series is already sewn-up. This is where the first “Homework-gate Confidential” ties in nicely to pose the all-encompassing question – who should we take to India in February? This edition will be based on our spin bowlers as who is currently our most skilled and competent is still up in the air. They hold the keys to victory on the spinning tracks in India and how they perform is as important, if not more, than the number of runs the batting unit score. If Kohli is let off the chain to score game winning hundreds in the first innings as he was allowed to against England, Australia can kiss goodbye to their chances of an odds-defying series victory.

England didn’t possess the spin bowling stocks to outclass Ashwin and Jadeja and neither do Australia. But to give themselves a fighting chance of walking away from the four-test series with their reputations intact, the selectors must first choose the right men for the job and conditions. It will be like setting loose a wolf among the cattle if they fail to get this combination right.

England went on tour with five spin bowlers and, such was the chopping and changing of bowlers on a game-by-game basis, only two managed to eclipse the efforts of their fast bowlers which didn’t put them within touching distance of Ashwin (28 wickets) and Jadeja (26 wickets). Rashid was the one glaring exception and was outstanding in a series where the next best spin bowler took just two wickets a game. Australia should take notice and consider the effectiveness and impact a leg-spin bowler – of which their are none currently in the Australian squad – can have with their ability to rip and spin the ball more than the finger spinners they have persisted with for the past six years.

The last specialist leg-spin bowler to be selected in a test match for Australia was the current captain who is now scoring runs for fun at number four. The selectors have not traveled down the wrist-spinning route since due to the effectiveness of Nathan Lyon, and are unlikely to reach into their bag of young leg spin aces at any stage during the series. But the brilliance of Rashid shows that India’s batsmen have a weakness that is waiting to be exploited by a world class wrist-spinner. And this cannot be replicated by the left arm finger spin of Ashton Agar or Steve O’Keefe. Australia’s selectors must take a leap of faith.

Nathan Lyon endured a lean wicket taking patch during 2016 but he will, barring injury, be the first picked and much rides on his ability to match it with India’s all-conquering spin twins and bowl Australia to victory on the final two days where the wickets will be at their most volatile. Two weeks ago his position was under threat but a spell in Melbourne under immense pressure has repayed the selectors faith. He underachieved in Sri Lanka snagging just sixteen wickets at 31.93 when Australia needed him most and hasn’t been the wicket taking weapon that we’ve come to expect lately. There’s no doubt that he is Australia’s most accomplished off-spin bowler and it’s high time he puts his name up in lights with a career defining tour.

There is no greater stage for a spin bowler. India may break the resilience Lyon has shown to keep his spot amidst growing uncertainty around his position. But by the same token, it may be the scene of his resurrection and put him back on the map as someone to be weary of at home as well as abroad.

The test career of Glenn Maxwell, which unraveled in just three short test matches in the sub-continent, should be given a chance to blossom once again. Moeen Ali was a vital cog in the English wheel during their recent tour and it is this role that Maxwell should seek to undertake. Putting a full-time batsman or a seam up all-rounder at number six on a tour to India would be a monumental mistake. The more spin bowlers Australia have at their disposal, the greater chance they have of bowling India out for a total that is attainable with their current crop of inexperienced middle order batsmen. Kohli, Pujara and Vijay know their own games better than the back of their hands and in Jadeja and Jayant they have a lower order capable of taking the game away from Australia in one innings.

England, with Jake Ball and Chris Woakes alongside stalwarts Anderson and Broad, were unable to blunt the effectiveness of India’s batsmen and were the human equivalent of a bowling machine when the ball lost its shine and the batsman were set. Throwing soon to be test newcomer Cartwright into the deep end under these circumstances and asking him to bowl a side out on the final day when the wickets aren’t conducive to swing or seam movement is destined to yield unfavorable results.

Maxwell is more than capable of batting in the number six position with his sub-continent wrists and abundant knowledge of local conditions having toured once before and through his yearly participation in the IPL. But it is his spin bowling that will prove to be his most valuable asset if he is given an unlikely call-up to the scene of his career stunting crimes with bat and ball four years ago.

Australia have a conundrum but the answers to their queries are hiding in plain sight. A great deal rides on how the selectors use the players they have at their disposal.

The next installments of “Homework-gate Confidential” will be posted periodically in the lead up to the tour. Not all will be as long as this and some posts will be there purely for your comments.

Happy New Year!

 

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.