Cricket: No need to panic; Australians just need to take block and start again

In an age in which media inquisitions are compulsory and reflexive, the loss of the Ashes will inevitably prompt a torrent of opinion on the source of failure, closely aligned with a rousing chorus of “What is to be done?”
In this environment I am (perhaps unwisely) tempted to add some thoughts to the hubbub.
There is much that has been puzzling about this Ashes campaign, which pretty much reflects the schizophrenic nature of Australian cricket’s approach to the post-Warne/McGrath/Gilchrist era.
Accompanying the on-field curiosities there has been a welter of comment and prediction from normally sober observers which strained credulity.  For two sides of such obvious fragility, it was hard to find a basis in fact for the many definitive prognostications which spewed forth from those who should know better. At various times, according to the commentary of many, Australia were going to dominate, then were a rabble, then had the series in the bag before a ball was bowled at the Oval.  Surely part of cricket’s charm is its very unpredictability. This seemed lost in the desire to “make a big statement”. Perhaps this is simply what contemporary media demands.
When things go awry, Mr Hindsight is usually first cab off the rank. In this situation there would seem to be some justification for his presence, as there were warning signs aplenty leading up to this series. The Australian side was obviously grappling with the retirement of several champions and other experienced pros. No surprise there. Nor that results should have varied in the preceding twelve months. Nevertheless, victory in South Africa was seen to be a turning of the corner; not without some justification. This makes the loss to a modest England side all the more disappointing.
So what went wrong? An obvious and widely held starting point is the composition of the touring squad. The balance of the party seemed seriously compromised by conflicting desires: to include a number of favoured sons of indeterminate fitness, as well as to reward the successful South African tourists. Lee, Clark and Watson were all selected despite long injury lay-offs. Obviously nervous about further injury, extra cover was deemed to be needed in the pace department, along with an additional all-rounder.
Watson and McDonald always seemed an either/or proposition. McDonald’s permanent status as drinks waiter would seem to confirm this. The argument that Watson was the reserve batsman must leave many better-credentialed candidates back in Australia scratching their heads.
Five quicks plus two medium pace all-rounders, and just one spinner?  All right, maybe, if the spinner’s name is S.K. Warne (although we never tried to tour England with one tweaker even in Warnie’s time). This is not a criticism of Hauritz — just the bleeding obvious observation that it was a lot of eggs to place in a fairly fragile basket. One would hope that it occurred to someone that this might also be an open invitation to the home team to prepare some dry, dusty turners when needed.  Some of the batsmen bowl spin you say? Has that been seen as good enough in the past?
The overriding problem with the squad was that it handcuffed Australia’s options. We may have got away with this a few years ago when we were dominant, but this is obviously not the case now. When your numbers 2 and 6 are veterans of all of three Tests, and when your number 4 has struggled for the last twelve months, do you really need a spare ‘keeper in preference to an extra batsman? No room in the squad for one more? If not, then do you really need 5 quicks? Yes if you think one of them will break down (again). The thinking behind this squad seems utterly confused.
Despite all of this, the team still looked capable of besting England — even in conditions they controlled. Even more so had it been known that Pietersen would soon be on the surgeon’s table and Flintoff largely hobbled. What transpired on the field we now know all too well.
It seems to me the on-field campaign suffered three main problems that bear relevance to future proceedings. None of these will be a mystery.
1)    A susceptibility to batting collapse in conditions where the ball is moving. This was the big problem in 2005 and obviously wasn’t sufficiently addressed. The pampered conditions most modern batsmen are accustomed to, combined with the Australian emphasis on assertive batting, seems to render us particularly vulnerable. Techniques must be assessed for future tours. Here’s another old fashioned idea: schedule sufficient lead-up games to allow acclimatisation to English conditions and then take them seriously. We know schedules are crowded and player work loads are heavy, but are these really sufficient excuses?
2)    The collapse of Mitchell Johnson’s form and confidence. As the spearhead of the attack, he was obviously crucial to plans. His general inability to muster a reasonable line and length hobbled Ponting’s ability to control events in the field. How did this arise? Several theories have been advanced. If we are to take them seriously it doesn’t speak well of Australia’s coaches or organisation. He was unused to the Duke ball? It was beyond Cricket Australia’s ability to get hold of a box of them beforehand? His action was damaged in attempting to develop an in-swinger. Troy Cooley was a coaching genius in England in 2005; he couldn’t avoid such an obvious pitfall now? Whatever the cause, Johnson’s action, seam position and, subsequently, confidence looked shot from day one. That this situation couldn’t be rectified is worrying.
3)    The strengths and weakness of Ponting as captain. It has become apparent that his approach to leadership contains some real strengths. As the senior pro, he leads by example with the bat and he is our only remaining true champion. He is also prepared to back players who have earned his trust. This helped in South Africa, but in England was probably to the team’s cost in the case of Hussey and Johnson (not that the squad gave him much choice). Tactically he has always seemed a strange mix. When the side is on top, his captaincy often seems imaginative and pro-active. When the team struggles, as it increasingly does, he seems over-reliant on the tried and true methods of triumphs past. If in doubt, bowl the quicks. His insistence on sticking with a struggling Johnson in the last session at Cardiff is an example. Under pressure, his captaincy in the field seems prone to losing its imagination. He goes back into his shell. His brittle confidence in almost every spinner post-Warne has surely contributed to the struggle to settle on a spin option. More broadly, there seems to exist inner and outer circles in the dressing room. Some players seem to warrant more reprieve than others. This dates back to the Golden Age and seemed more justifiable then than now.
Where to from here? Hopefully there will be an honest assessment amongst the upper echelons as to what went wrong. It would be possible to go through the figures of the series and conclude that Australia had the leading scorers and wicket takers and therefore shouldn’t have lost. That would be akin to a corporate management review that finds all actions good and proper, despite the company going broke. From one perspective, one more wicket at Cardiff would have saved the Ashes. From another, we lost to a side with one reliable batsman and bowlers who only threatened in specific conditions.
Is the selection panel clear on what it seeks to achieve? Is it at cross-purposes with the skipper? Or too influenced by him? Are they paying sufficient notice to Sheffield Shield form? They would seem to have a shaky case to be retained intact.
Is the coach effective in his role? Is attention to detail being given proper weight? Does he provide sufficient balance to the captain’s voice? Is he part of a too-cosy club? The hasty re-signing of Nielsen’s contract last summer shouldn’t prevent these questions being asked.
For mine, Ponting should remain skipper if he wants the job. He will presumably be driven for retribution and he remains our best player. He has generally handled the transition in team personnel positively. He deserves no more a share of the blame than is his due, and his strengths still outweigh his weaknesses. However, there would seem to be a requirement for some stronger questioning voices in the dressing room and a more flexible approach. Someone who can set a decent field for a spinner wouldn’t hurt either.
There is some soft Test cricket to be had nowadays, and the West Indies are likely to provide some of it next summer. This should not be taken as a chance to avoid hard questions. The Australian team is still competitive, but it is hard to argue it is maximising its resources at present.

About John Butler

John Butler has fled the World's Most Livable 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. Dave Goodwin says:

    Thanks John. Great piece. I’ve had a few goes at trying to diagnose the problems with Ricky’s captaincy – see my Almanac entries – a couple of them fairly shallow. I think you’ve nailed it very well. To your points about his tendency to overly back those who have earned his trust, and your example of the over-use of Johnson at Cardiff – we can add the chronic Gillespie example from the 2005 Ashes. He’s often too slow to diagnose “this bloke’s off his game” or “he ain’t gonna do it” and sticks with them way beyond what the ordinary punter in the crowd finds acceptable. I think somewhere in his psyche is a feeling that it’s a breach of faith to pull a bowler off a spell too early; something that never troubled someone like Mark Taylor, who was prone to making tactical bowling switches at unanticipated times, often to great effect (and with an understanding of “no hard feelings” from the bowlers). Ricky’s orchestration is too patterned. When we field it would be nice to feel a bit more of the “expect it when you least expect it” like you get watching NFL tacticians at work.

  2. John Butler says:

    Thanks for the kind comments Dave.

    I have to say the inital comments from James Sutherland and Andrew Hilditch haven’t exactly filled me with optimism. This quote from Hilditch in particular- ”We had six of the top seven batsmen, 10 centuries, eight of them Australian, the three leading bowlers in the series were all Australian. Everything indicates that we dominated the Test series.”

    Maybe they are going to declare the the operation a success despite the patient dying!

    We shall wait and see.

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