South Africa v Australia – talking points from day one in Durban

Before rejoining the Australian team during the third test match of the recently completed Ashes series, Mitchell Marsh struggled with the responsibility of batting in the middle order. If Australia found themselves in a hole, as they did yesterday when Mitch’s brother Shaun fell with the score on 177, the middle order could hardly be relied upon to turn the innings around. Often it was Mitchell Marsh that was held responsible for sparking a collapse. A common gripe among the cricketing fraternity was his inability to dig in when the team required it and contribute with a score of note. His temperament was questioned, and his technique scrutinised, until his weaknesses were laid bare. Australia was, at the time, struggling to score enough first innings runs. Much of this was down to the failings of a fledgeling middle order. The pressure from fans to pursue another option at six soon took hold and Mitch Marsh found himself on the outer with the national team.

On the first day of the first test in this all-important tour, the hit and miss gung-ho merchant of old was nowhere to be seen. Marsh has come to realise there is a far more important quality than bludgeoning the ball to the boundary: patience. With patience comes the ability for a batsman to pick the right ball and minimise risk; a skill that will undoubtedly come in handy against Philander’s guile as the series progresses.

His innings of 32 will not win Australia a test match; he must convert it into triple figures if it is to have any impact. However, we must admire the way in which he kept out Philander, remained confident in his own technique after getting away with a close LBW shout off the bowling of Rabada, and formed a partnership with Paine to see Australia through to the close.

This morning’s first session will decide how many Australia get in their first innings. It will test how much Mitchell Marsh has grown. It will shine a spotlight on what this tour holds in store for Paine. More importantly, it will set the tone for the entire series.

What now for Bancroft?

There comes a time in the career of every opener where they must examine their own technique and identify the flaws. For Bancroft there are many. And the time for reflection is now. England quickly identified a weakness following the first Ashes test at Brisbane. That flaw was exploited during the four test matches that followed and, as is the case in test cricket, other nations have picked up on it.

South Africa went hard at the pads of Bancroft with the new ball as England did throughout the Ashes. The theory is his falling head, perhaps the by-product of his front foot movement, leaves him vulnerable on middle and leg. His bat comes down on a 45-degree angle, as if he is looking to hit the ball through mid-off as soon as it is straight enough, bringing in LBW and bowled as the main modes of dismissal.

Now it is up to Bancroft to address these technical deficiencies – no easy task given they are based in muscle memory – before the selectors swing their axe. You feel that, because Australia has opted not to bring another opening batsmen on tour, he will be given a few tests to find his feet. If not, Renshaw – who has returned to form with hundreds in Shield cricket against Victoria and South Australia – will be first in line to take his place.

Admiring Philander

There is a lot to be said about the great swing bowlers of the modern era. I wonder whether Philander will ever figure in this conversation. As it stands he has 188 test wickets at 21. Hardly the stuff of legends.

There is a lot of catching up to do to join the likes of Anderson, McGrath and others at the top of the wicket-takers tree. In many ways, though, Philander has a bigger role to play than many of those who have taken over 300 test wickets bowling at just over 130 kilometres.

When Kyle Abbott, another superb swing bowler in his own right, parted ways with South Africa to join Hampshire on a Kolpak deal, South Africa were left with a gaping hole in their bowling stocks that was also missing an injured Dale Steyn. At this point, Philander’s importance in the future of the South African side grew significantly. Not until the last year and a bit, though, has he truly come into his own. Last time South Africa toured Australia all the talk was about Rabada and his lightning-fast arm action; Philander barely rated a mention. That was until he visited Hobart, swing bowling paradise, and tore through the Australians. Since then he has been the main focus of every touring side.

Last night, when bowling to David Warner during the first session of play, he honed in on a length with military precision, consistently hitting the stickers of Warner’s blade. This wasn’t a pitch ideal for someone of Philander’s pace. Yet he made it work, eventually grabbing Warner’s wicket on the stroke of lunch. What was most impressive was not the delivery that found Warner’s edge – an eye-catching moment in its own right, mind you – but the set-up. This is one of Philander’s greatest qualities and why he will soon be given the credit he is due.

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.

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