Cricket: The Summer of Cricket. Or was it the Season of Watto?

By John Butler

Whilst lowering the curtain on the slow death that was the Hobart Test, Exalted Supremo of the Almanac, Paul Daffey, declared it had been a strange summer. Amen to that! The date was 18 January. It seems a very long time ago.

As the Australian team returned from an ill-fated Ashes campaign, the local media seemed to be approaching the international summer with the heightened anticipation that normally precedes a K. Rudd treatise on “programmatic specificity”. Admittedly, the Windies and Pakistan didn’t have much recent form to point to, but still and all, it seemed a little discourteous to the visitors.

This was a reflection of the developing stratification of world cricket. According to this perspective, series against England, India and South Africa are the Main Events, and everything else is reduced to a poor under-card. If this attitude goes unchecked, then big problems lie ahead for the general welfare of the game. Mind you, this summer’s visitors didn’t provide compelling evidence to balance matters.

Whatever the opposition, the fact that Australia has gone through an international summer unbeaten is a notable achievement, as well as a considerable surprise, given the preceding months. That this occurred in spite of an injury plague besetting our front-line pace bowlers makes it even more commendable. But as the memory of limited-over floggings fades, there may be lingering suspicion about the quality of fare, a yearning for something more substantial.

The Test summer fell into the category of almost, but not quite. With the West Indies denying themselves a decent preparation, and having key personnel missing or hampered, the Brisbane Test seemed to confirm everyone’s worst expectations.

Thereafter, a modest opposition pushed Australia all the way until series’ end. Chris Gayle roused himself from the languid slumber that seems one of his default settings, and kept the Aussie bowlers nervous. Rookie paceman Kemar Roach left Ricky Ponting both shaken and stirred, and beanpole tweaker Sulieman Benn nagged in more ways than just consistent length. Dwayne Bravo chipped in with some telling all-round contributions.

Australia’s second innings collapse in Perth, which turned the match into a revived, terse struggle, reminded all home supporters of recent frailties. As such, the final 2-0 result seemed in need of some qualification.

Given their diminished recent opportunities, Pakistan arrived unheralded and largely unknown.  Despite succumbing in the Boxing Day Test, in the face of Australia’s most concerted and effective bowling of the summer, they revealed considerable precocious talent. Mohammad Aamer and Umar Akmal should entertain for many years to come. But sadly, it became apparent that their on and off field leadership would serve to undermine the cause.

Mohammad Yousuf remained a thorough gentleman all summer, but he revealed himself to be to cricket strategy what Gilligan’s Skipper was to navigation. His calamitous tactics on the final day in Sydney fed into his team’s collective loss of nerve, and allowed imminent victory to become disastrous defeat.

Just as crucially, the burden of leadership seemed to inhibit his batting. Given the Pakistani Board had seen to it that the team’s other batsman of international note, Younis Kahn, was unavailable, this was a fatal blow to a fragile batting line-up.

After the Sydney debacle, they never seemed likely to recover, and so it transpired. From the moment Ponting was dropped on the first morning, the Hobart game had the atmosphere of a funeral, and the one-day series only exacerbated matters. By tour’s end, it seemed they couldn’t get home quick enough. Stand-in captain Afridi’s bizarre ball-munching effort, and subsequent suspension, was the icing on a forgettable cake. Pakistan remain an enigma to themselves, as they do to others.

And so to the all-conquering Australians. Individually, it was a summer where expectations were widely turned on their head; where anticipated weaknesses became strengths, and presumed foundations developed cracks.

So it was that the Almanac’s favourite whipping boy, Shane Watson, laughed loudest and longest by season’s end. When he padded up in Brisbane, departing LBW yet again, the sound of sharpening knives could be heard across the land. Thereafter, all Watto’s Christmases came at once.

The Almanac’s other Exalted Supremo, the eminent JT Harms, has referred throughout the summer to the “process-driven” nature of modern Australian cricket. He possibly had Watto at the forefront of his thinking. Even now, the phrase “elegant stylist” appears unlikely to ever feature in descriptions of his play. But to Watto’s credit, his balance at the batting crease improved, and confidence can be a wonderful enabler. He quickly developed into a fair impersonator of Matthew Hayden’s belligerent method of yore.

The decision to drop his pace and experiment with varieties of swing also transformed him into a much more significant bowling factor. Even his misadventures in the 90s added to the summer’s drama.

So why are we at the Almanac so grudging to give credit? I suspect Damien Fleming was close to the mark, when he described Watto as the first manscaper to win the Border Medal. Could it be that Almanackers are inclined to an old fashioned, hirsute ideal of virile manliness? That many of us had Dennis Lillee posters on our walls? And that metrosexual, highly strung, Gen Y types like Watto just rub the wrong way?

Leaving these important questions to the philosophically inclined, we move on to the other sceptic-magnet in the Aussie team. Not only were many observers dubious that Nathan Hauritz was really a front-line Test spinner, but he appeared to harbour doubts about himself at crucial moments. The Windies series did little to alter perceptions.

But suddenly, he developed mystical powers to coax Pakistani batsmen into lemming-like submission. Cynics might suggest that Aunt Sally may well have produced similar results, given some of the Pakistani batting, but she wasn’t picked. Whatever the judgement, Hauritz at least enters future contests feeling more settled and secure in the scheme of things.

Staying in the spirit of summer perversity, the Australian skipper endured the most pronounced batting slump of a glorious career. Cricket’s fickle nature was never better underlined than in assessments of Captain Punter. If Mohammad Aamer pockets a Hobart outfield dolly, Ponting probably endures an off season of headlines proclaiming his demise. But as things stand, double-centuries tend to buy you some breathing space (unless you’re Brad Hodge). Suspicions will persist nonetheless.

Of the others, Clarke and Katich continued to be two of the more stable components of the batting line-up. Had Katich chosen not to compete with Watto in a series of 90s suicides, he would have posted four Test centuries in a summer — stellar achievement by any standards.

Mike Hussey was under scrutiny as November began. He continued to scratch for his runs, with only reasonable results, until a Kamran Akmal-gifted ton relieved the pressure. Marcus North added to the trend of reversed fortunes, regressing from well entrenched to barely clinging on. For a bloke who supposedly can’t keep, Brad Haddin gloved a lot of fine catches.

Bowling-wise, it was the triumph of the battlers. Michael Slater’s concerted efforts to turn “Ruggie” Bollinger into a cult hero seemed to bear some fruit, and the unfashionable Ryan Harris gave his career a significant boost. Whether they form the basis of a new, cutting- edge attack will await assessment against sterner opposition.

Mitchell Johnson remained the Test bowling spearhead by retaining his wicket-taking ability, although you still can’t cash him at the bank on any given day. Peter Siddle battled for consistency, before ingeniously developing the first recorded case of a stress fracture that had absolutely nothing to do with workload. Another summer oddity, this was but one of a continuous stream of pacemen visiting the medical room.

The depth of Australia’s bowling stood up this season, but with names like Tate, Nannes and Lee already lost to first-class cricket, the injury blight must surely bite if it doesn’t abate.

After the aforementioned 18 January,  ennui increasingly blanketed proceedings. Anyone who went home before the closing credits didn’t miss much.

Following Pakistan’s collapse, the West Indies kindly returned with no apparent plan or method as to how tackle an impressive Australian one-day outfit. Fittingly, the one time they had a chance to win, the summer’s only washout ensued. Then the final T20’s provided sound and fury, but not a real contest.

This resounding anti-climax fed a deluge of predictions that the 50-over format was doomed. In fairness, a sense of genuine contest is required for any format. But the balance of general interest and excitement glaringly favoured the new T20 game. Yet the future fixture sticks doggedly with the longer form. Official sources voiced confidence that the arrival of the Poms would restore matters.

They would want to be right. Football encroaches ever further into summer. March seems already lost. If authorities continue to insist on cramming Test series into the early season, too many repeats of the recent one-day snoozefest may cede February as well.

Corporate culture thoroughly infiltrated the Australian dressing room some time ago. Many elements of modern coaching method ape boardroom behaviour and thought. So the balance sheet for this summer no doubt already proclaims success. Certainly the team still reflects the hardnosed professionalism of its captain.

The Australian system reliably produces a depth of solid, experienced talent. The money on offer doesn’t hurt either. But no amount of “process” makes up for the spark of genius or inspiration recently retired. Many would doubt this summer took Australia much closer to replacing it.

As the England captain refreshes in tranquil Buninyong, he’ll fancy his lads a decent chance next summer.

And no amount of short form heroics will really compensate Australian fans if the Ashes are lost again.

Meanwhile, the off season will no doubt find many reconsidering the merits of waxing and plucking.

In cricket, times sure are a changin’.

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. pauldaffey says:

    Great summary of a summer and the issues that bubbled along, John.

    Did they keep playing after the Test in Hobart?

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