NRL must bring hammer down on salary cap cheats

Australian sport has been shaken to its very core this week. Much of this is due to the despicable actions of our cricketers in South Africa. As has been reported heavily over the past few days, Australian captain Steve Smith will miss the fourth and final test match of the series after being found guilty of contrary conduct by the ICC.

What is most jarring about this story is that the plan to change the condition of the ball was concocted behind closed doors, and involved the most sacred members of the playing group: its leaders.

During his time as Prime Minister, John Howard quipped that he had the second most important job in Australia. In the last week, this has proven to be the case. The Australian captain, it seems, is expected to uphold the standards and ideals we hold dear as a nation – even more so than those running the country. Fail us in any way and the emotional firestorm that follows will hit you like a ton of bricks.

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The pitchforks have come out for Smith faster than they might have done had Turnbull committed the political equivalent of ball tampering. But is all the hoo-hah warranted? After all, this isn’t the first time a cricketer has used a foreign object to change the condition of the ball. And if you listen to the game’s leading voices, the prevalence of ball tampering across all levels of the sport is higher than first thought. Even South African skipper Faf du Plessis has had a crack at scuffing up the ball to make it reverse swing.

The reason the Australians are being placed under heavy scrutiny from the public is partly because they expect more of their national heroes, and partly because it was a premeditated act.

So why then are we not applying the same heat to those at the Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles, who also engaged in premeditated cheating? Is it because they aren’t held in as high regard as Smith and his brigade of Baggy Green crusaders? Do Howard’s words – that Australian captaincy is the pinnacle of national leadership and those bestowed with this honour are the bearers of an unblemished moral compass – actually hold true?

There are many parallels that can be drawn between the two cases. Both were premeditated acts and both were committed with the intention of gaining an edge over their opposition. Both, quite stupidly I might add, were done under the watchful eye of each code’s respective governing bodies; one in front of the television cameras and the other under the constant surveillance of the integrity unit.

Where the cases begin to differ is on the severity of the punishments handed down and the outpouring of public disgust. Steve Smith has been given a one-match ban by the ICC but may never captain Australia again. Two Manly officials, Neil Bare and Joe Kelly, have received 12-month suspensions, yet the player managers, the players themselves, and the club at large, got off relatively scot-free.

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They are very different cases but at their core lies the same motivation. The Australian cricketers changed the condition of the ball to cheat their way to victory; Manly used undeclared TPA’s to lure players to the club with the aim of assembling a superior roster, therefore allowing them to win more games.

A statement NRL CEO Todd Greenberg made during yesterday’s press conference, where he detailed the findings of a nine-month-long salary cap investigation, sums up this point well: “Manly had a financial advantage in securing the services of players who may otherwise have gone to other clubs”.

Right, so why have competition points not been docked? Why have they only been fined $750,000, $250,000 of which will be suspended if the club makes appropriate governance changes, when the subjects of the two previous salary cap scandals had points stripped?

Sure, they’re currently cap compliant. That’s fine. But, as Greenberg himself acknowledges, other clubs “missed the opportunity to secure players because of Manly’s undisclosed deals”. Nothing can reverse this and a small fine isn’t going to provide any closure for opposition clubs. The Gold Coast certainly aren’t about to forgive them for missing out on signing Daly Cherry-Evans because they are playing with a reduced cap. The biggest backflip in NRL history occurred because Manly used third-party deals to cheat – that is the bottom line.

Clearly, the punishment doesn’t fit the crime. I feel like a broken record writing something like this in a rugby league article because it seems to happen every second week, no matter the topic. Two salary cap scandals in three seasons shows that the NRL needs to take a hard line on those cheating the system.

If Steve Smith – a man many were comparing to Bradman not three months ago – is at risk of losing his spot in the national team over something like ball tampering, a harsher punishment should be handed down to those NRL clubs who choose to dance with the salary cap devil.

Both are blatant acts of cheating. And both should be treated accordingly to prevent future cases.

Ashes Daily – To follow-on or not to follow-on: that is the question.

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England have been behind the eight ball since Joe Root won the toss and decided to bowl four days ago, but if England go on to win tomorrow the question on everybody’s lips will be ‘gee, I wonder if the result would be different had Smith enforced the follow-on’.

At face value Smith’s decision to bat again after dismissing the fragile English batting line-up makes sense.

The seamers had already bowled 76 overs and when you are carrying just three fast bowlers and a sole spinner through a five-match test series it is wise to give them a rest when the opportunity presents itself.

But consider the message enforcing the follow-on would’ve sent to England, who were bowled out for just 227 after seeing Australia pile on double that in a day and a half.

Had they been sent straight back in while the memories of the first innings carnage were fresh in the mind, England’s batsmen would’ve been low on confidence rather than buoyed by the possibility of a history-defying win for the ages stemming from impeccable swing and seam bowling.

No batsmen at any level enjoys batting after a failure in the first innings because the pressure is on to avoid back-to-back low scores.

Fall cheaply twice in a test match and all of a sudden your career hangs by a thread.

You begin to question facets of your game and technique that were once completed without question while rumours swirl in the press of a likely replacement for the next match.

Four of England’s top 5 failed to go past 20 in England’s first innings; three of those are finding their way in test cricket and, had they been put back in on the evening of day three and dismissed cheaply once again, it might have set the tone for the remainder of the series.

Where is our next run coming from? How can we score over 300 against these bowlers?

Our next game is at the WACA – we could get rolled for 100.

Australia’s bowlers would’ve looked more like the formidable West Indian attack of the nineties and the mind games that are so important in the Ashes would’ve set a cat amongst the pigeons in the English camp, potentially leading to further Overton-esque changes.

By electing to bat again, Smith has inadvertently given up Australia’s stranglehold on both the test match and the series.

All of a sudden the English don’t fear the Australian quicks, while the batsmen, who were previously infallible in their home conditions, are as human as the rest of us after all.

Cracks begin to form in the Australian batting ranks and before you know it the pressure is right back on them to avoid a loss to the old enemy on home soil.

If you need evidence of this, look no further than Peter Handscomb who could find himself out of the side if Australia goes down tomorrow.

Had Smith enforced the follow-on, Handscomb walks away with a score of 36 – assuming, of course, that Australia weren’t required to bat again – and is automatically retained for the third test at the WACA.

A loss under such circumstances, however, shines a spotlight on technical deficiencies that are swept under the rug when a side goes through a series unbeaten.

Smith’s decision has further ramifications that can’t necessarily be quantified. England have gained confidence in their ability to dismiss the Australians, and, if they complete the job tomorrow, their batting is capable of what can only be described as a statistical impossibility.

A stat was flashed up on Channel Nine’s telecast today. It detailed the highest run chases in test history at the Adelaide Oval.

The last side to chase down a score over 300 was way back in the early 1900’s when wickets were uncovered and every delivery sent down by the opposition quicks was a  potential landmine.

If a side can do it in these conditions, it can’t be difficult to replicate such a feat on an artificially concocted drop-in wicket.

Even if the visitors fail, they have been given a huge leg up by a decision that could well decide the path this series takes.

More than money – the dark underbelly of Australian Cricket’s pay dispute.

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Image Source: Cricket Country.

We have been told by those in the know that at some point over the next few days the pay dispute engulfing Australian cricket is set to be rectified. This is fantastic news on a number of fronts but the damage, it seems, has already been done. Not to those who are the poster boys of the Players’ Association – who have been unemployed for the better part of a month – but to those on the fringes of breaking into the Australian cricket team.

When news first broke that a settlement between the Players’ Association and CA had not been reached by the June 30 deadline, my mind immediately thought of the upcoming test tour of Bangladesh. Last time Australia were due to travel to the region, back in 2015, they pulled out due to security risks. This made sense because many other teams were doing the same and using the very same tired old excuses. All they had to do was go along with it and they got off touring scot-free.

This time around, however, the ‘security risk’ excuse doesn’t hold up thanks largely to England, and others, who have toured the region without consequence over the last year. So for CA to announce that their cricketers would not be touring again in 2017 due to the dangers posed by the countries citizens simply wouldn’t make an iota of sense. ‘England can do it but not you?’ – ‘Why?’

So Cricket Australia, looking for an out, decided that if the pay dispute was to extend beyond the tour of Bangladesh in August, it wouldn’t have to, let alone be able to, send its players to a faraway land where the chance of losing to a perceived second-rate team before the Ashes is high and the generation of revenue is the poorest of all the test series’ held across the globe.

Part of this conspiracy theory was the idea that the players had already signed an agreement with CA long before the deadline, and were keeping it under wraps until the day of the first test in Bangladesh rolled around.

Why my mind immediately thought of this as a plausible reason for the pay dispute that continues to ravage Australian cricket with every passing day goes to show just how money orientated I believe CA are. It made sense. Sign an under the table deal with the players long before the deadline but keep it hidden from the public until such a time as the tour of Bangladesh can be abandoned. That way the national team can avoid any undue scrutiny before the Ashes, the side will not undergo any reshuffling, and CA aren’t required to splash the cash on a tour that is unattractive to television broadcasters and hence will not fetch top dollar.

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Smith and Warner walking off the Gabba – Image Source: Perth Now.

Every angle you look at this pay dispute, you can tie it back to money. The players want more because they feel they are the ones that have grown the popularity of cricket and are therefore entitled to a greater slice of the pie that CA are currently keeping for themselves. They argue that without the product, the store cannot operate, let alone make a profit. So what would they sell to keep themselves afloat? A sponsor-less BBL featuring club cricketers?

From this stance it seems the players have all the bargaining power in this dispute. Think about it – if the players are still unemployed come a fortnight out from the first Ashes test in Brisbane, CA would lose sponsors, be forced to remunerate the fans the full price of their tickets, face an unwinnable court case with the ECB who will claim that both they and their players have lost hundreds of thousands of dollars (imagine that, a united front – players and administrators standing together for a common cause), and face the television broadcasters both here and abroad that will have also lost millions of dollars. Then there are the travelling supporters that would also be out of pocket. Court cases would pop up left, right and centre and CA would soon go bankrupt. So no, they will not let it get to this stage. Which makes you think, is this all just one big conspiracy?

For a sceptic like me it certainly appears this way. But there is more to this dispute than money. Players’ reputations, their futures in the game, are at stake. And I’m not talking about your Steve Smith’s and David Warner’s, I’m talking about your state cricketers who are next in line to crack the glass ceiling and make their debuts in the Baggy Green.

Most of them are still being payed to this point due to the fact the contracts they have with their individual states were signed long before the dispute began. But they are the ones that are going to suffer the most if it continues to drag out beyond the end of this month. In fact, as I said in the opening paragraph, they have suffered enough already.

Australia A were set to tour South Africa last month but due to the pay dispute, players followed through on their threats and opted against travelling in the interest of their quest for increased salaries. You might argue that, given it was the players choice to call the tour off, they have dug their own graves and now must lie in them if they fail to score runs over the coming season and miss out on ever playing for Australia, or make another A team. This A tour might have been a breakthrough series for some members of the squad. The kind of series that suddenly puts you on the selector’s radar. Whatever the case, the bottom line is you chose not to tour and must suffer the consequences.

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James Sutherland Addressing the media. Image source: Cricket Country.

There are a few reasons why this shouldn’t be how we look at it. Firstly, like workers from the local milk factory on strike, you stand as one. Every member of the factory must fight for the same cause or its messages will be far less potent. Say Bill, Eric and 10 others decide not to stand arm in arm with their fellow colleagues on the main road outside the factory while the other 50 workers are waving pickets and hoisting flags, and opt instead to continue operating the cap sealing machine because they are trying to pay off their respective mortgages. What is the employer likely to do? If it was financially viable, they would either sack those outside picketing on the spot and replace them with fresh workers, or give them an ultimatum – return to work now on the same income or face unemployment. For some workers, just like those state cricketers looking to crack international cricket, they cannot afford to spend their days browsing the want ads. Therefore, standing as one becomes their only option.

So I pose the same question as I did before: can you really blame the players for pulling out of a tour when their peers are pressurising them into doing so?

Imagine you’re a young cricketer who has been selected for Australia A after just a few seasons of first class cricket. This is your opportunity to shine. An opportunity to show the selectors that when Warner and Smith are too old or losing form a few years down the track, you are the man for the job. But the senior players of the A squad are discussing the dispute and that, no matter what happens, we must stand together or miss out on a pay rise that we are more than entitled to. Of course, you’re going to conform. Stray from the group and there is the risk you will be offside with the future captain of Australia, maybe even your future opening partner. As a young player you have no choice.

But opting to accept the views of the group in the interest of remaining loyal to your fellow players is just as damaging to your reputation as not going on that tour at all. The selectors won’t see you. It might be the one and only opportunity you had to make an impression. Injury might strike a season later, slowing down the speed you once possessed with the ball in hand or ruining your timing with the bat.

How can a player possibly push their case if they aren’t playing any cricket under the very structures that have been created to identify cricketers of the future? The members of the Australian A squad are, after all, the heirs to the Baggy Green throne.

This is why the pay dispute is cutting scars deeper than first thought. We can all form conspiracies around why money is the driver of both parties, but this would be to miss the point completely.

The dispute is damaging more than just the players’ hip pockets – it is damaging careers.

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!

Late wickets sink final nail in Pakistan coffin

Pakistan fought valiantly to push the game into a fifth day, but the loss of crucial wickets at important junctions has all but written off their late dash to the finish line.

Asad Shafiq’s hundred and the belligerence of tail-end batsmen Amir and Wahab have put Pakistan in with a fighting chance of defying the historical odds stacked heavily against them. Yet the probability of breaking the age-old record to crack Australia’s 490 is slim, and will require a one up on the heroics they displayed this evening.

Pakistan’s elder statesmen needed to be the one’s to guide the ship home, but they were both dismissed in a fashion that would have had coach Mickey Arthur pulling at his hair. Younis, with his wealth of experience totalling 110 matches, was able to keep Australia at bay for a session with a typically defiant innings, before playing a stroke born of frustration to become Lyon’s second victim. His brain fade, that came in the form of a reverse sweep, was labelled “ridiculous” by former Pakistan quick Waqar Younis in the Channel Nine commentary box. But it was more of a crime than an act of stupidity and may have been the catalyst that caused the pins to start tumbling late in the day.

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The grounds crew prepare the wicket at tea on Day One.

Younis Khan has the great ability to frustrate sides and opposition captains to the edge of insanity. He did it against England earlier this year at the Oval – a game Pakistan managed to win thanks to his score of 218. You could see Starc and Hazlewood’s frustration flowing from their ears. The short pitched bowling that followed was a byproduct of the pain that Younis and Azhar had managed to heap on in a matter of just two short sessions. But his reverse sweep, which came during a period of the innings that required patience and unfailing concentration, was unbefitting of a man with more combined test match experience than half the Pakistan side combined.

Misbah-ul-haq was guilty of similar crimes. The stroke that brought about his demise might not have been as extravagant as Younis, but the risk factor was practically identical. He pushed at a good length ball from Jackson Bird with all the might and flamboyance of an invincible and battle hardened cricketer but with the footwork of a newly born calf. It was a carbon copy of his dismissal in the first innings. A danger sign for the Pakistan stalwart who must find a way to play on Australian wickets again before his flaws reach a stage where they are beyond repair.

Australian captain Steve Smith will be sleeping uneasily tonight with the thought of ‘what if’ a reoccurring theme in his dreams. His own drops, including what would have been the prized scalp of centurion Asad Shafiq, have kept Pakistan in the contest and might yet prove to be bigger slip up’s than those that allowed former Olympic speed skater Steve Bradbury to take out the gold medal at the 2002 winter Olympic Games.

Pakistan are the underdogs who couldn’t put a foot right on the opening two days of a series defining test match. Australia are the grinning cheshire cats who shifted into cruise control this morning having set Pakistan a seemingly unassailable total. There have been some terrific tales of the little man overcoming the unbreakable giants: David v Goliath; England v Ireland (and the Netherlands); Leicester City v 5000/1 odds. But none would be greater than this if Shafiq can combine with Pakistan’s last remaining warriors to make up the remaining 107 run deficit.

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.

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.

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