Old not-so-reliables will have to fly the Ashes flag

For those who may have erased the moment from their memory, it has been 431 days, or nigh on 62 weeks, since Graeme Swann dismissed Mike Hussey at The Oval, and England claimed the Ashes with a 2-1 series victory. As we sit 28 days out from the next Ashes test, it seems opportune to assess how productively Australia has used the intervening period, and how well placed we are for the oncoming battle.

To judge by their public pronouncements, the brains trust of Australian cricket seemed inclined to regard the loss of the 2009 series as an anomaly. In the aftermath of the loss, there were statements suggesting that, because we had most of the leading run scorers and wicket takers in series, it was some sort of strange misfortune that had us losing the series. Full support was given to the captain, coach and virtually everyone else it seemed.

For the record, the eleven who lost at The Oval read as follows (in batting order):

Watson

Katich

Ponting

Hussey

M. Clarke

North

Haddin

Johnson

Siddle

S. Clark

Hilfenhaus
If we look at the side which just lost the Bangalore test, you will notice a striking similarity:

Watson

Katich

Ponting

Clarke

Hussey

North

Paine

Johnson

Hauritz

Hilfenhaus

George
If we take selectors’ public indications at face value, the injury-recovered Haddin will replace Paine for the Brisbane test. With George owing his spot to injury, and Siddle possibly returning, it is entirely possible that the only line up change from The Oval to Brisbane could be Hauritz in, S. Clark out.

So it seems the selectors were to be taken at their word in the aftermath of the Ashes 2009 series. They certainly couldn’t be accused of unsettling the team by ringing the changes. It also suggests that talk of a rebuild since the retirement of Warne, McGrath, Gilchrist, etc. has been greatly overstated.

With no time left for experimentation, the selectors have essentially decided that the side which lost in England will be able to do the job at home. This implies either an improvement in our existing players, a decline in England’s form, or a hope that home conditions will prove the difference.

Given that any expectation of English decline would be purely speculative, we need to assess the Australian team for individual progress. Bearing in mind that 10 of Australia’s 12 tests since the Ashes have been against Pakistan, the West Indies and New Zealand- none of them cricketing powerhouses at present- it would seem hard to share the selectors’ confidence.

The major factor in the last Ashes loss was a number of ill-timed batting collapses, yet we appear likely to present with the same batting line up as before. Ironically, the much-maligned Shane Watson would appear to be the only one who could claim to have significantly enhanced his stature since August 2009. Then seemingly a make-shift opener, he has been one of the more reliable performers in the period since, averaging around 51 since that series.

After a fine 2009 series, Simon Katich has maintained his position as a bedrock of Australia’s batting during the intervening period, with his average of 55 heading performances. Though never a great stylist, his hard-nosed role in partnership with Watson’s aggression has seen them average 56 as an opening pair. News of Katich struggling with a broken thumb in the series lead up hardly encourages optimism.

Of the rest, only Michael Clarke could reasonably claim to have maintained his batting performance. Having averaged 64 in the last Ashes series, he’s averaged 47 since, despite a poor recent tour to India.

From here on, recent performances look decidedly less promising. Fast approaching his 36th birthday, Australia’s skipper, Ricky Ponting, has managed to average 43 over the last 12 tests. However, this includes a 209 on a placid Hobart deck, against a now dubious Pakistani effort which saw him dropped on nought. This score remains his only test century since the opening Cardiff game of the Ashes 2009 series. As the skip himself has admitted, his best is behind him. We can only hope for one last Indian summer (ala Sachin).

Mike Hussey redeemed a poor 2009 Ashes series with a rear-guard 121 when all was lost at The Oval. During that series, he scratched for his runs in the manner of a man whose form was deserting him. Since that time, he hasn’t done a lot to dissuade that perception in test cricket. His average of 40 has been bolstered by 3 not outs, one of which was the 134* against Pakistan, where he was the beneficiary of at least 4 chances under circumstances that are now doubtful to say the least. Like his skipper, this is his only century since The Oval.

Marcus North seemed one of the few clear gains at the end of Ashes 2009, having averaged 52 after a promising debut in South Africa. Since then, he’s done his best to lose his spot, averaging just 31 in tests. This includes scores of 112* and a recent 128, indicating many a desert between oasis’s where he’s concerned.

Based on recent performance, it is hard to make a case that the batting is better off than 2009. The worrying frequency of batting collapses certainly hasn’t abated.

The wicket-keeping spot would seem to be an obvious opportunity for new blood, with 33 year old incumbent Brad Haddin having missed the last two series through injury. Eight years Haddin’s junior, replacement Tim Paine’s batting average of near 36 matches the older man’s recent efforts, and he certainly loses nothing in glove work. But to judge by head selector Andrew Hilditch’s comments, Haddin’s more explosive batting potential will likely see him return.

The relative bowling stocks are harder to assess because of the injury plague that has befallen the quicks since 2009. Hilfenhaus and Siddle have experienced long injury absences, Lee and Tate are retired from test cricket and Stuart Clark apparently discounted from consideration. At various stages, Bollinger and Harris have performed creditably against largely modest opposition.

The one reliable attendee in the fast bowling department has been Mitchell Johnson. Sadly, his bowling has lacked the consistency of his fitness. After the South African tour of early 2009, Johnson loomed as a dominant cricketer with all-rounder potential. His subsequent erratic performance on the Ashes tour was one of Ponting’s major tactical headaches, and contributed significantly to plans going awry.

Since then, Johnson has claimed 52 wickets in 12 tests. Whilst his strike rate remains impressive, his variable performance during and between games gives Ponting continuing reason to tear at his newly replenished follicles. Nevertheless, many hopes will hang on Johnson in the coming series. Whether the bowling coaches are helping or hindering his cause remains an open question.

The spin department has consisted almost solely of the extremely maligned Nathan Hauritz. Sadly, he enters this summer no more assured of his spot than when he was crucially left out of the Oval test. His return of 39 wickets in 10 tests doesn’t look bad on paper, but it is boosted by 18 wickets in 3 games against a Pakistani team that seemed hell-bent on committing suicide against him.

More worryingly, the recent India tests seemed to signal a significant breakdown of communication and major tactical disagreements between Hauritz and his skipper. I have some sympathy for the bowler here, as I’m now firmly of the opinion that Australia’s prolonged search for an established spin bowler won’t be resolved until there’s a captain with a better feel for the craft. Evidence suggests that won’t ever be Ricky Ponting.

Despite misgivings about Hauritz, it’s hard to see an alternative, simply because no other options have been adequately prepared. Smith seems the heir apparent, but his bowling record means this would be an enormous leap of faith, as would be the lately fashionable Doherty.

Overall, this hardly adds up to a compelling case that Australia are better placed now than they were at the Oval. Which begs the question, just what have the selectors, coach and captain been seeking to achieve in the last 62 weeks?

People have spoken of rebuilding, yet it’s a strange sort of rebuild which leaves you almost exactly as you were. Nor could the age profile of the team be said to have improved in the last 15 months. Champions needed to be replaced 2-3 seasons ago, yet Hussey, North, Haddin, Bollinger and Harris could hardly be referred to as new blood. Last summer’s weaker opposition provided opportunities for adventurous selection  that were ignored.

The sense of an Australian dressing room as a closed shop was more understandable (and defendable) in times when we were unquestionably top of the tree. That time is now considerably past. Despite repeated assurances to the contrary from those in the camp, objective evidence suggests we’ve fallen off the pace. And it’s not as if the quality of Test cricket has improved in recent times. If anything, it’s generally declined.

Having by-passed the chance for fresh blood, both selectors and team leadership seem resolved to enter the Brisbane test with a largely familiar crew. That line-up will be under severe pressure to get the job done.

England shouldn’t be unbeatable, especially in our conditions. But they won’t be approaching this series with the trepidation they had in the past. They’ve also given themselves a lengthy preparation by modern standards. You sense they smell an opportunity.

Australia will need to find something more than they’ve shown lately.

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. Peter Flynn says:

    Thanks JB,

    Enjoyed the critique.

    Until Greg Chappell wields his influence, they’ll go with the old farts.

    Hilditch has not served the game well as a lawyer and part-time selector.

    I heard this morning how Hussey draws inspiration from S Waugh etc (batsman playing on successfully until their late 30’s).

    He’s deluded.

    Take out the 100 he made in the rigged Test and he’s averaging about 30 over a two-year period. Not good enough.

    Persist with North and middle-order batting collapses will continue. Duck or hundred men should only get picked if their hundreds dramatically change the rhythm of Test matches.

    I heard Gideon Haigh say the other day that ~66 cricketers have been selected to play for Australia in the three forms of the game over a two-year period.

    Bizarre and incompetent selection.

    Batsman seem to need about 10,000 first class runs to play Test cricket.
    Bowlers seem to need only 50-100 wickets.

  2. John Butler says:

    Arma,

    I hope you note I saw your much-maligned, and raised it with an exceptionally maligned. :)

  3. John Butler says:

    PF

    You would hope Chappell views recent proceedings dimly.

    But there seems to be a strong in-house consensus at work. We’ll see.

  4. Pamela Sherpa says:

    I had to laugh when I heard Mike Hussey talking about himself and Tendulkar in the same sentence when talking about age and selection.

  5. Excellent stuff, JB.
    Just proves the old adage that it is harder to get INTO the Test team than get OUT of it.

    Let me just say that when I saw a Vic/Tas 20/20 match dominated by a certain T Paine, I said to my sons “That guy is the future of Australian cricket”. Why Haddin can just walk back into the team (in all forms of the game!) when Paine has performed so well defies logic.

    I would imagine that Shane Watson gets down on his knees each night and thanks the Lord for Mitchell Johnson’s poor performance in the last Ashes series. Remember, it was a gamble at the time for the selectors to drop Hughes and replace him with Watson. And it all came down to the fact that Johnson was bowling so poorly that, rather than drop MJ, they went for back-up. Cue Watson’s medium-pacers and the guillotine for young-gun Hughes (whose Test stats make interseting reading).

  6. JB – great summary. The selectors seem to be adopting that well known definition of insanity – keep doing the same thing but expecting a different result.

    Changes should have been made a year ago, though a few injuries to some young blokes hasn’t helped along the way.

    If Mitchell Johnson plays the Ashes are lost. He’s about the worst bowler I’ve ever seen under pressure – and that’s the true measure of sporting performance.

    Also agree with PF’s summary of North – #1

  7. #1 Flynny, we could do worse than make Gideon chairman of selectors, but unfortunately he is an English supporter!
    #6 Dips, then I fear the Ashes are lost. The establishment loves Johnson. Ever since DK Lillee proclaimed him “a once in a generation bowler” when he was about 17 years old.

  8. Pamela Sherpa says:

    #5 Smokie I was also impressed by Paine at that match- that is two of us -surely enough to change the selectors minds.
    Brad Hodge was absoluetely stunning in the same match- An absolute treat to watch.

    What I really want to know is the reason for the perceived anti Vic /pro NSW selection of Test players over the yeárs. I’m wondering if one of Bill Lawry’s pigeons shat on an important NSW person or what. I am intrigued by the alleged bias.

Leave a Comment

*