Ashes Status Update: Any Bright Ideas?

In the wake of a nightmarish Adelaide test, local hopes for a tightly contested summer are appearing decidedly on the optimistic side. A 1-0 series score line wouldn’t normally prompt such widespread despair, but in this instance the trend line is hard to ignore. Featherbed wickets aside, it’s hard to put a positive spin on England’s combined 6-1137 in their last two innings. Yes, that’s right, 6-1137. At the moment, Australia would kill for a bowler who could impart any sort of spin.

Whilst the gulf between the sides has been surprising- possibly because underestimating English cricketers has been a safe bet for a long time now- it would seem obvious that many Australian chickens are returning to roost. The corporate inspired fluff that emanates freely from modern Australian cricket circles won’t rationalise away the fact that the team’s performance, tactics and resolve have been inadequate to the current challenge.

Theories of cricketing cycles have gained sudden currency, but this merely serves to again deflect from shortcomings that have been increasingly obvious since the last Ashes series. Since that time, the Australian dressing room has appeared to operate more as a cosy cabal than a ruthless professional sporting unit. The coach keeps getting new contracts despite his main demonstrable contribution being an ability to get along with the skipper. The skipper’s tactical blind spots have long gone unaddressed. Rather than rebuilding the side with an eye to longer term success, the selectors have opted to retain ageing personnel in the hope of sneaking over the line this summer. Now that hope is receding fast. There is no shame in losing, if the opposition is superior, but it is hard to believe that Australia has made best use of the cricketing resources at its disposal.

But hindsight and recriminations can best wait for season’s end, if the series is lost. The crucial question of the moment is how to win two of the remaining three tests. Having struggled to capture 16 wickets thus far, the rate of improvement required is formidable. Morale demands an abrupt turnaround in Perth. On the presumption that Strauss’s side haven’t suddenly transformed into supermen, Australia should still believe the situation can be retrieved.

So what is to be done? Here’s my five cents worth.

Most obviously, the current impotence in the field needs rectifying. Nothing is more debilitating to a team’s psyche than loss of belief that the opposition can be bowled out. All else is irrelevant if victory can’t be envisaged.

Who to select? Having already turned over the entire bowling attack in the space of the last three test matches, direction isn’t only lacking on the field.

The most pressing question here is what has gone wrong with Mitchell Johnson? Whilst always inclined to spray the odd delivery, prior to England 2009 he had not conceded more than an average 3.31 runs per over in seven series. We all know what’s happened since. What ails the cricketer who looked set to dominate the world in March 2009? Is it a question of technique? Or does the problem lie between his ears? Theories abound. That this decline has continued for so long unabated does little to recommend the coaching prowess of those charged with fixing it.

The fact remains that Johnson is the only reasonable facsimile of a bowling spearhead that we currently possess. Maybe only his shrink could tell, but those who claim know him best need to make the call- if there’s a hope he could rebound he needs to be picked. At least he has prior history of taking wickets in Perth. Tell him to get stuck in and make it fly. Leave the line and length stuff to the others. The coming Shield game in Brisbane will be intensely scrutinised.

Rather than indicating bowling depth, the fact that Siddle, Hilfenhaus, Bollinger, Harris and co have been so freely swapped has really betrayed the fact none of them stand out from each other. They seem genuinely interchangeable- not in a good sense- despite all of them being whole-hearted triers.

Sadly, potential new tyros such as Starc, Hazelwood and J. Pattinson are injured. Others such as McKay, Cameron and George would seem to lack a required yard of pace. This leaves us with the established options.

Bollinger dined out last summer on feeble opponents, but his Adelaide efforts suggest little can be lost replacing him with Johnson. On the basis that it swings in Perth, Hilfy gets a guernsey as the only genuine swing bowler we have. You can toss a coin over Siddle and Harris.

Barring an unexpected green-top, a spinner will need to be picked. Having long been groomed for this series, Nathan Hauritz was suddenly dispensed with. Sceptics would suggest this had as much to do with his openly disagreeing with the skipper as any radical loss of form. Sadly, Xavier Doherty has looked all too much like a chap who’s first class bowling average resides around 50. I remain unconvinced that Steve Smith can be considered a test bowling option yet, so it looks like a case of welcome back Nathan, all is forgiven. On the positive side, he has a recent bag of 5-39 in Perth, which must be worth some confidence.

Including Johnson and Hauritz has the by-product of strengthening the tail. Hauritz’s Shield ton at least shows a determination to push his claims, and as we witnessed in Adelaide, it’s doubtful we can afford to have Ryan Harris batting at eight too often.

The line-up of Johnson, Hilfenhaus, Siddle/Harris and Hauritz admittedly has a certain Night of the Living Dead aspect to it, but it’s hard to see a better immediate alternative. I submit it more in hope than expectation.

To bolster these questionable stocks, I would add one more familiar name in an altered role. The loss of Katich is unfortunate, as the openers have been one of the few reliable components of the batting in recent times. But as a change is forced, I propose an entirely new pair, with Watson moving down to North’s spot. Watson owed his premature selection for Australia to the eternal quest for an all-rounder. Ironically, now that he’s finally established, he’s batting in the position that most curtails his use as a bowling option. Put him at six and use him for 15-20 overs in his new guise as a medium pace swing bowler. At least he moves the ball. This makes it easier to use Johnson in short, hopefully fiery bursts.

As for the new opening batting pair, Hughes seems an obvious pick. I think Hughes’ recent travails are a classic example of how inclined we still are to distrust unconventional gifts. The tyranny of the coaching manual preaches the orthodox path to success, even though history suggests other ways are viable. The fact is Hughes still averages better than 50 in tests, and has succeeded at every level of his career. Now is the time to give him the rest of the summer to prove his technique. If he comes off he’ll get runs quickly, and we’re likely to need the extra time for taking wickets.

As partner to Hughes I would select Usman Khawaja. Of the touted up-and-comers, he’s the one allegedly most suited to the opening role. Although he hasn’t opened for NSW, this shouldn’t preclude him, as neither Watson or Katich began as openers. He will at least be familiar to Hughes.

So my team would read:

Hughes

Khawaja

Ponting

Clarke

Hussey

Watson

Haddin

Johnson

Hauritz

Siddle/Harris

Hilfenhaus

Hardly revolutionary, but we appear to be out of magic bullets at present. There’s a risk with the opening bats, but at least they should avoid running each other out.

With this change in personnel, you would sincerely hope a fresh tactical approach would also be adopted. Coach Nielsen claimed to have analysed the Englishmen in depth for this series. What he and the skipper have come up with appears to be a belief that good things come in threes. Hence, we’ve variously had three on the hook, three short mid-wickets, three on the cut and three short covers. Strangely, we’ve rarely seen three slips. This has all seemed too clever by half, and the results would support this conclusion.

When in doubt, try hitting the top of off stump. Unoriginal I know, but tried and tested. I don’t think we have the bowling to get too fancy. We need to stop the English bats from coaxing us into bowling where they want it.

The change I suspect we most desperately need to make is precisely the one you can’t see happening. I believe we are at a similar point to the last days of the Border incumbency, where for the side to move on, the captaincy must be changed. Ponting has been a truly great player, but even his most fervent fans wouldn’t rate him a great tactician. It’s not his fault the side isn’t as good as it was, but it’s getting harder to see progress in many areas while he’s still in charge. Relieving him of the burden may also help some runs to flow.

Clarke has been heavily scrutinised and doubted as heir apparent. Many of these criticisms have had no more substance than some not liking his choice of tatts or girlfriend; others have been more relevant. There’s little point anointing an heir if he never gets to lead: the cricket world doesn’t need a Prince Charles. Though it won’t happen, a change would bring fresh ideas. It will come soon enough if the Ashes are lost.

If Johnson is deemed a lost cause, then your guess is as good as mine regarding bowling options. No guarantees are offered with any of this, but something must be tried.

England’s attitude may help make or break our chances. Strauss is hardly the most daring captain; will he be tempted to sit on the lead? You doubt Andy Flower would sit idle if a choke was in prospect, but desperate times prompt desperate dreams.

Should Perth or Melbourne (and the series) be lost, then Australia needs to look immediately to the future. Some harsh judgements would seem due off-field as well. Enough time has been wasted already. There seems much promise in the developing generation of cricketers, but it’s premature for most of them just yet.

I’m sure many of you have your own thoughts on the current state of affairs. We really could use a bolt of inspiration.

About John Butler

John Butler has fled the World's Most Liveable Car Park and now breathes the rarefied air of the Ballarat Plateau. For his sins, he has been a Carlton member for more than 30 years.

Comments

  1. Steve Fahey says:

    Most interesting thoughts John

    It would indeed be fascinating if they picked Khlawaja as an opener given (1) that he hasn’t opened for NSW and (2) NSW already have Katich, Watson, Jaques and Hughes who have all opened for Australia.

    I agree that it would be ideal for Watson to move down the order. Katich’s injury is most untimely in that regard, as I’m sure that they will be relucant to change both openers , at least until/if the series has gone. If they were to replace both openers I’d definitely pick Shaun Marsh ahead of Khalwaja, whose time will come at three. The biggest change required to the batting order is for the 36 year-old skipper to drop down the order, a la Tendulkar, but there is no-one knocking the door down to bat at three, and therefore it is unlikely to happen now. Additionally, like Kevin Rudd, the Pont’s ego might get in the way of the best decision. Although he should be dropped permanently, my hunch is that the selectors might retain North on the basis that both the match is in Perth and they don’t want to make four changes. Hodge must be shaking his head. I’d pick White for no.6 – although he isn’t knocking the door down he has plenty of international experience in the shorter form, is a great slip fielder and has tactical nous which is one of North’s assets. It’s now or never for him.

    I agree that Johnson has to play in place of Bollinger – he is the best bowler in Australia, or at least was, and is potentially the only matchwinner with the ball. If he has another shocker, the first thing that needs to happen is a remake of the Powerade ad, so that he now says “20 overs, that’s 130 times when you take into account the ten wides I throw in.” Hauritz comes in for Doherty – I’m no rap for him, but it was always ridiculous to drop a spinner on the basis of getting slapped around by the Indians in India, notwithstanding that the Ritz has priors, especially Cardiff. As great a player as the Pont has been, he’s a rubbish captain to spin bowlers, not having hepled any of those discarded. I also agree wholeheartedly with your comments about field placings and bowling strategies thus far – too cute and time to get back to basics such as bowling the McGrath line for the right-arm bowlers, none of these ridiculous 7-2 field placings and building pressure by restricting runs. Patience is especially important when you are behind in the series, as the only ball is the next ball.

    That leaves the time I’d pick as :

    Watson
    Hughes
    Ponting
    Clarke
    Hussey
    White (although I think they will pick North)
    Haddin
    Johnson
    Hauritz
    Harris
    Siddle (who has none for a million since the hat-trick) or Hilfenhaus depending on conditions

  2. JB – I’d leave Watson opening in Katich’s absence. Perhaps bring Marsh in to open with him. Marsh has some experience and is a pretty tough character. I wouldn’t play Hughes. If he has another bad trot it could ruin him. He should only be selected when he’s earned it and is ready, not simply when injuries open the door.

  3. John Butler says:

    Interesting thoughts gents.

    One thing that stands out is so many different options seem viable. Which probably tells us they’re all much of a muchness.

    I think they’ll probably keep Watson opening (boldness hasn’t been a recent selection trait). But I think the bowling attack needs bolstering, and Watson has looked as effective as anyone, except he can’t be bowled too close to batting time.

    Marsh definitely has claims. I don’t agree with protecting Hughes. You don’t get to pick and choose your time in test cricket. When opportunity calls, take it or not.

    Whatever they decide to do will reveal their current state of mind.

  4. Phil Jaques to come in for Katich? Or is he too old or injured again?

  5. Dave Nadel says:

    I agree with Steve that Watson will have to be left as an opener and I would choose Hughes as his partner. White must replace North, because the problems with Clarke as a future Captain are not just stupid comments about his tatts and his (ex)girlfriend. He seems to play when injured an awful lot and I suspect this is may be partly because he minimizes his injuries when talking to team doctors and physios. (obviously I am guessing here but I cannot think of any other explanation for the amount of time Clarke seems injured at the crease)

    I think White deserves a place as a batsman and fielder (not as a bowler) and he needs to be considered as an alternative skipper when Ponting retires.

    Going back to Hauritz in place of Doherty is no solution to Australia’s spinning problems. It is possible there is no short term solution although I would be inclined to try Jason Krezja again. He is very expensive but at least he has taken a bag full of wickets
    in a test. No other Australian spinner has, since McGill and Warne retired.

    My team is
    Watson
    Hughes
    Ponting
    Clarke
    Hussey
    White
    Haddin
    Johnson
    Krezja
    Siddle
    Hilfenhaus

  6. Peter Flynn says:

    Great article JB and comments from others.

    Not many of the current Australian squad seem to be cricket-smart. The coach isn’t cricket-smart.

    The captain has very little clue about sticking to plans. It’s hard to bowl when there are 3 plans being hatched per over.

    Simple, cricket-smart tactics are required. Ponting has little clue how to captain spinners.

    Ponting doesn’t rate the third slip.

    The spinners we are picking aren’t much chop. However I reckon the Hilditch, the 2-point Charlies and Ponting are burning them.

  7. Peter Flynn says:

    I’m coming around to a view that I thought I would never hold.

    I wouldn’t pick a spinner unless he was a good leg spinner.

    Certain pitches will dictate that spinners be selected. I recognise that.

    However, there’s no point picking a left-arm orthodox spinner unless they are Bedi or Underwood. There’s almost no point picking an offie.

    Sad.

  8. Swann dismissed every Aussie leftie at least once…introduce Hughes and Khuwaja at your peril. Certainly Ferguson in for North or Clarke (he can’t possibly play 3 Tests in consecutive weeks). If Clarke skips, play D. Hussey. White still worries me technically.Klinger might be a radical opening choice.
    Shield standard, perhaps, is a bit low this year which could explain the extraordinary all-rounder feats…led by Christian and McDonald, but including Butterworth and Smith. Smith is not a Test bowler.
    On a brighter note, look ahead at the U19 championships. Recent years’ players are already rising. Hazelwood and Starc are injured. Mitch Marsh will get a 1 day game soonish. Junior McDermott looked good last night.

  9. Steve Fahey says:

    Interesting thoughts from all, and agree that there are NO standout selections.
    Simply can’t believe that Johnson is not playing the shield game – surely if he bowls a lot of overs in the first innings they pull him out of the game or rest him in the second innings. This is at least the third bizarre thing that has occurred in shield cricket this season – Hauritz bowling one over in a game a week before the first Test and Cameron, the best bowler for Australia A in the Hobart game, being named as 12th man for NSW last week.

    On a brighter note, IFFFFF (and it is a very large if !!!) the Aussies can somehow or other win in Perth, the Boxing Day Test will be massive. On the other hand, if the Poms win in Perth, it could be an anti-climax. It seems to me that, without Broad, the Poms would have similar trouble to the Aussies scrubbing up twenty wickets if either Anderson or Swann were to get injured.

  10. As always, JB, some interesting thoughts to ponder.
    I think Steve (#9) has touched on a point which is most relevant, that relating to Shield cricket.
    I fear that the states are now more interested in trophy-hunting and looking to the riches of the IPL
    than producing players ready to play for Australia. This is a real bug-bear of mine and I could write
    an entire piece on it, but anyway….
    We are constantly being told that the Sheffield Shield is the best first-class competition in the world.
    Is it really? If it is, where are all the hardened young players, and old pros, banging down the Test
    selection door? there are plenty of problems at state level which are filtering up to the national team.
    Here are some random observations:
    # I think I saw a stat relating to Mark Cameron being one of the quickest to get to 50
    first-class wickets for NSW. Steve is correct: why was he 12th man for NSW after being Aust A’s best bowler?
    # It is difficult and tricky, but Cricket Australia must flex more muscle when it comes to state team selections.
    In NSW’s defence, at least they back their young players and give them a crack (e.g. Hazelwood, Starc, Cameron,
    Khawaja, Maddinson, Hughes, Enriques, S Smith, S O’Keefe are all 25 or younger). Look at some of the bowlers
    the Vics have used this season: Wright, Nannes, Harwood (all 34-plus). Where are Vic’s youngsters?
    # Victoria constantly bleat about not having players selected for Australia, yet when players get selected
    the Vics complain about the holes left in their team.
    # There is plenty wrong with the Shield fixturing in relation to Tests: giving out-of-form Test players the
    chance to regain form between matches, and prospects the chance to be picked whilst in-form.
    # As for the Test team, it must be picked on form…guys like D Hussey and S Marsh are in good form, whereas
    Ferguson and S Smith have not made a cracker. Pick the guys in form. If Test players lose form, drop them !!!
    # If Marcus North makes 400 for WA this week it still should not matter.
    # Sadly, Brad Hodge may have pulled the pin on his first-class career a little early. Were he still playing
    and carving up state attacks, he would be a monty for Perth (where he recrded a memorable double-ton).

  11. Smokie,
    Ferguson’s ton this week was overdue. Until then I’d worried about his return from injury. Whilst i still think shield cricket is great, I mentioned before that the dramatic impact of all-rounders this year may indicate that the top batsmen and bowlers are not elite. Aggers apparently said he thought the Aust “A” side the weakest he’d seen – was Howard a much better selector than Julia or was this a keen “trackwatch” for the series ahead? Someone else remarked a couple of months back that we had great fast bowling depth, to which I replied they were even but not necessarily top notch. I am yet to see Cameron prove anything for me and the Blues still push for Lee and Clark (and Bert Cockley!). Hazelwood and Stark (and Maroon McDermott) must be encouraged. The Vics are an interesting bunch.I go to shield games and was disappointed that Wright was the pick of them – D. Patto unimpressive; Hastings and Ronnie Mc good containers. All the buzz better be right about young James Pattinson. Clint Mackay is first-class but not Test. Siddle a stalwart. I have no opinion yet on Redback George but he looks to fragile just now. Hussey is the best bat here. Klinger is now or never (maybe the latter). Fergie has been stamped, so frank it. Pick batsmen who can bat, bowlers who can bowl and a keeper who can keep. Hopefully this produces a good fielding balance too. First Test saw Siddle in the covers!

  12. John Butler says:

    Excellent observations one and all.

    Indicates the eveness, but not excellence available.

    The fact that the best players don’t play much Shield cricket anymore must affect the standard. Nevertheless, Shield form has been too readily ignored by the test selectors for too long. They’ve attempted to talentspot/cherry pick, leading to the inconsistencies noted by all.

    Just cannot believe Johnson isn’t playing the sheild game. How will anyone know how he’s going? This decision (and many like it) indicate the problems definitely reside off field first.

  13. John Butler says:

    Apparently Johnson wanted to play in the Shield game, but was told to work in the nets with Cooley.

    It obviously means he’s likely for Perth. But the question this raises is how much he could have improved in the last week? If one week in the nets makes such a difference, why has it taken 18 months for it to happen?

    So many aspects of the current dressing room don’t seem to ring true.

  14. Steve Fahey says:

    Back to basics for the Aussies with squad just announced with Beer in and Bollinger out !!!!!

    The most remarkable selection since Peter Taylor.

  15. Play them at soccer for the Ashes! Is that idea bright enough?

  16. Warne apparently said a couple of days ago, “Pick a local. Choose Beer!”. What a crock. Beer has barely played at the WACA…less then Doherty or Hauritz. A St Kilda clubmate of Warnie.
    “Homer” Hilditch, watching from his couch, fears a Warne backlash and uttered “Mmmmm. Beer”!

  17. Excellent, Crio. Just love it !!!

    Are they joking? What in God’s name is going on?
    I know the Victorian selectors have not exactly distinguished themselves recently,
    but to suggest they had a Test spinner in the Premier Cricket ranks for the past
    6 seasons (whom they ignored) is ludicrous. Jon Holland is twice the bowler that
    Beer is…only 4 first class games…we are desperate.

  18. Personally, I would’ve gone for this XI:

    Hughes
    Hill
    Hodge (c)
    Hussey, M
    Hussey, J
    Hopes
    Haddin+
    Hastings
    Harris
    Hauritz
    Hilfenhaus

  19. Not Hopes. Hopeless.
    Smokie..Holland was not very impressive this arvo, getting Cook out to a lazy shot. Mind you, he was at least the equal of Monty, who, once tonked, reverted to darts.
    I still reckon the Vics should have aimed to bat for 3 days.

  20. Steve Fahey says:

    I saw bits of the Vic/WA game and if Holland is twice the bowler that Beer is we are in more trouble than I thought !!!!

    Agree with Crio re Vics trying to bat for three days, or at least as long as possible. Possibly would have if they were in better form and not so desperately seeking a morale-boosting win.

  21. Pamela Sherpa says:

    Hi John, I don’t understand the intracies of cricket but my bright idea would be to deck the Australian team out in green and gold – the colours that out national teams usually wear. I find it rather odd that in every bit of off field footage, the test team is wearing blue and orange. Players talking about the honour of wearing the baggy green without actually wearing it is rather perplexing.

  22. John Butler says:

    Pamela

    I suppose we have to put that down to the power of sponsorship. One of the many non-cricket agendas that seem to crowd proceedings.

  23. Do you mean “Hussey, D”, Gigs?

    Personally, I think we should just bite the bullet and field an AAAV team – Almost All Victorian, with two exceptions: Adam Crosthwaite, from NSW’s 2nd or 3rd XI, and Mikey Hussey.

    As the fb group says, it’s:

    “Ashes 2010/11: England vs Mike Hussey.”

  24. Sorry, one too many ‘A’s there …

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