Qualified Joy in Kiwi Clobbering

 

Two seasons ago Australia were undefeated in six test matches against the mediocre opposition put up by the West Indies and Pakistan. All that success served to achieve was to mask the deficiencies of an ordinary team, and set Australia up for last summer’s Ashes debacle.  So an easy win over a New Zealand team that only manages to sit above Bangladesh and Zimbabwe in the rankings needs to be kept in perspective.

Having said that, there was much in the way Australia played to offer promise of good things to come.

To win cricket matches you have to bowl the opposition out. Since McGrath and Warne departed the scene this has been increasingly difficult for Australia against any opposition willing to seriously contest the issue. The sudden emergence of messrs  Cummins, Pattinson and Starc offers the prospect of a pace attack with some real teeth.

However, there needs to be a proviso. All have only been on the first class scene for a comparative blink of an eye. We are yet to establish if any of them have developed the physical and technical durability to survive in long form cricket.

But if Pattinson and Cummins can continue to swing the ball with pace and control the Australian attack takes on a whole new look. And consequently, so do the prospects of the whole side.

Starc struggled to follow up a promising first day’s play, and he may not be picked for Hobart, but he made for a telling comparison with the now injured Mitch Johnson. Everything that looked laboured and constructed in Johnson seems natural for Starc; the run-up, the high arm and wrist position, the consequent ability to swing the ball in regularly. The contrast between the two says a lot about what can be coached and what must come naturally.

The difference a change of captain has made to the Australian team needs to be noted. Many of the knocks on Michael Clarke were, and remain, wholly superficial and largely trivial – don’t like his hair/tatts/girlfriends/cars. The criticisms that held some weight were the cricket-relevant ones; will he score runs when the going is tough, and would he be a divisive figure in the change room.

Nothing establishes the authority of a batting captain better than scoring centuries, and thus far Clarke’s strike rate in this has only gone up since he took charge. It is a good sign that he is happy in the position. His Brisbane ton certainly contained more than a share of good fortune, but also served to remind that, when in form, he remains Australia’s most aesthetically pleasing batsman.

Tactically he has appeared ahead of the game, trying to make something happen when stasis threatens. This was a quality regularly lacking in Ricky Ponting’s captaincy. Nathan Lyon shows much promise as the new incumbent spinner. The best thing he has going for him is that, unlike his long line of post-Warne predecessors, he plays under a captain who can envisage using a spinner in a role other than that of defensive end-plugger.

In a side that’s rebuilding, the place of the veterans will remain open to question. That question should be kept simple. They either perform or they’re gone. Allowances for past great service should cease henceforth. Australia needs to be looking forward.

Ponting and Haddin made runs against a modest pace attack and have likely secured themselves in the short term. Even in his prime Ricky Ponting was often prone to falling across the crease early in his innings. However, once set, that tendency would disappear. It doesn’t disappear now. As a great batsman now past his prime he will likely remain in a constant battle to stop the head falling to the offside.

If past his best, it doesn’t follow that Ponting doesn’t deserve his spot. If he makes sufficient runs, it falls to a younger pretender to displace him through sheer weight of performance. In the meantime, his presence lends gravitas to a young team. As well, the fact that he and Clarke seem to happily coexist is a credit to both men.

Brad Haddin has never been the best wicketkeeper in the country, but he’s been the best keeper-batsman option available since Gilchrist retired. He needs to keep making runs to ward off challengers. At least in this match he was willing to dig in early and wait for runs to flow later. Perhaps his survival instincts are sharper than some of his play in South Africa indicated.

The obvious problem for Australia remains at the top of the batting order. As an opening pair, Hughes and Warner hardly reassure like Woodfull and Ponsford or Simpson and Lawry. If they ever get going in harness it will be spectacular to watch, but how often can we count on that occurring?

Warner has little pedigree in the first class game. The period he has scored well in the Shield is brief. He has some obvious talent, but despite commentator hype he remains an entirely speculative proposition as a test opener.

The case of Phillip Hughes says much about the nature of modern cricket. He is a player of unorthodox method trying to survive in an era where the coaching manual is wielded more like a tyranny than the mere reference point it should remain. Having scored heavily in every lower level, and having initially flourished in test cricket, a brief period of failure saw him dropped, his papers stamped by many as unsound. Since then he’s no doubt been assailed with advice from all directions. Nothing could be more certain to cloud the mind, particularly of one who played on instinct.

Having now had his technique poked and prodded, with Justin Langer as a constant coaching companion, Hughes has developed a method that seems neither fish nor fowl. As mandated, his back foot now moves across to the off, but this only causes him to be squared up horribly when playing back, a sitting duck for any ball that moves away.

The notion that a player good enough to be picked at test level should then have to radically overhaul his technique could only be born in an era when the role of the coach has become so massively overrated. Coaches have a role, but at international level that doesn’t include major reconstructive surgery. Nips and tucks should suffice. Otherwise, the selection was a mistake to begin with.

At this stage, Hughes’s best option is probably to tell all the well meaning advisers to back off. He should resolve to live or die by his natural inclinations.

And while we’re discussing modern cricket, the last week in Ben Cutting’s life bears some examination. Called into the Brisbane squad, he, Starc and Pattinson were apparently put through a searching bowl-off in the nets to prove their credentials. Quite why this was needed is mysterious. If coaches and selectors weren’t already appraised of their credentials, why were they picked in the first place?

Cutting missed out on the eleven and pulled up sore in the process. Having come so close to a test cap, the young man was naturally desperate to further press his claims by flying straight to the Shield game in Melbourne. Queensland coach Daren Lehman was aware of this soreness but, no doubt swayed by Cutting’s eagerness, chanced to play him. Cutting got through nine overs before injury himself properly. He will now miss a month of cricket at the peak of the season.

There may be an element of bad luck here, but incidents like this make the expensively professional Australian system look like the worst kind of bush-league amateur rubbish. Under the full view of all allegedly in charge, Cutting’s welfare has been badly mishandled.

The Australian team has never been surrounded by more fitness ‘gurus’, and we have never had more top level players unfit to take the park. One would expect Pat Howard is asking some searching questions of the fitness staff he now employs.

Despite some negatives, the general tone after Brisbane should be up-beat. The new pace attack awaits a more searching examination against the Indians, but the rejuvenation under Clarke seems to have some real substance. Whereas the cupboard looked bare last summer, suddenly new prospects seem plentiful.

That we can say this only two tests after enduring a 9-21 score line suggests we Australian cricket fans remain incurable optimists.

Roll on Hobart, and then Sachin and co.

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. JB – nice summary. Don’t entirely agree that criticisms of Clarke’s hair, cars, girlfriends etc are completely superficial and trivial. Surely he must realise that being a senior player (and now captain) of the Australian team carries with it certain responsibilities. That might sound pompous and old fashioned but I still believe it to be the case. He needed to be made aware of what was expected of him. Flashy hair, cars and girlfriends do nothing to establish a grounded culture in the team. If you don’t ever want to be captain ignore the conventions.

    Warney copped the same stick and was never captain.

    Hopefully becoming captain is the making of the man and the cricketer. (that sounds very Roebuckian doesn’t it).

    Like the look of Pattinson – looked to me to be a cross between a young Glenn McGrath and Craig McDermott.

    I saw enough that Mitchell Johnson should now be sent mercifully to the knackery (and I’m not talking about one of our lunches).

  2. John Butler says:

    Dips, I think we oldies may be a little out of the fashion step. :)

    I’ll settle for Clarke making runs, winning games and keeping the team united.

    Mitch’s injury may have provided a graceful exit for all. If he’d been fit he’d have played in Brisbane. Maybe the selectors got lucky.

  3. Andrew Starkie says:

    Good stuff, John. Totally agree with comments about Cutting. Leading Shield wicket taker and a Queenslaner, he should have played in Brisbane. Would he have been injured if he had? If, if, if.

    This brings up an issue that has been bugging me for some time: the role of Shield cricket in the minds of Test selectors. Shield form doesn’t seem to be a criteria for Test selection. Selectors are choosing ‘targeted’ or ‘identified’ players as opposed to those who are performing at First Class level. Current examples include Warner and Christian. Or am I imagining this? Chris Rogers has averaged over 50 in 100plus matches as opener for Vic and WA. And here we are wondering wh ywe don’t have a reliable opening pair.

  4. Andrew Starkie says:

    And you’re spot on about the number of injuries. The ratio of sports injuiries to sports science experts is 2:1 by the look of it.

    I think there’s some truth in what KB said once about not knowing he had a groin until Richmond employed their first fitness expert who told him to stretch it. He did and tore it.

  5. John Butler says:

    Thanks Andrew,

    Take notice of Shield performance? There’s a novel suggestion.

    Or so it seems.

    Sport, like many things, seems to suffer from a surfeit of ‘experts’.

    You would hope that all the experts cricket now employs have been exercising their minds about the injury rate and its causes. As yet, no answers seem in evidence.

  6. Damo Balassone says:

    Good point re the diminishing importance of the Shield – once touted as the best breeding ground in the world for test cricketers. Rogers has been cruelled and D. Hussey could have played 50 odd tests for Australia

    I’m still trying to pick a full-strength NSW shield side. Who out of the following 15 players would be picked in the best NSW XI?

    Hughes, Watson, Jacques, Katich, Warner, Khawaja, Clarke, Haddin, Smith, Copeland, Cummings, Hauritz, Starc, Bollinger, Hazlewood

    Who would open the batting? Who would be the spinner? Which fast bowler would miss out? Wasn’t Copeland heralded as a “find” in Sri Lanka only 3 months ago? Is it possible that players that aren’t in the NSW best XI are being touted as test players already? Sign of the times, I know, but is this healthy?

  7. Phil Hughes’ First Class batting stats: 5452 runs @ 48.67 with 17 100’s and 28 50’s.
    Those stats are not too shabby, and stack up favourably against most on the
    domestic scene.

    It also looks as if Andrew McDonald’s papers have been stamped along with
    those of Katich. A consistent First Class performer, he acquitted himself very
    well when given a Test opportunity.

    Damo, you missed Nic Maddinson, who played in the Australia A game.

  8. Peter Flynn says:

    Watch for a kid called Kurtis Patterson.

    Just might be able to bat a bit.

  9. John Butler says:

    Damo, it’s an interesting point re the NSW team. It’s not healthy that the rest of the country is producing fewer test players, though some might argue selection preferences account for some of this.

    It certainly complicates selection for NSW, trying to match up state and national interests.

    Smokie, my point exactly. Unlike Warner, Hughes’ record was worthy of test selection. Then, after 3 successful matches and 2 unsuccessful ones he was dropped. A more conventional looking player would have got more latitude.

    It may be that Hughes’s original technique wouldn’t have stood up to sustained test exposure, but now he looks lost. Some players just need to do what they do. The worst thing you can do to them is make them think (Mitch Johnson anyone?).

  10. John Butler says:

    PJF, they’re all coming out of the woodwork.

    And last season seemed so bereft of options.

    Nothing really proven by most of the young ‘uns yet, but an exciting time.

  11. I accept my criticism of Clarke is superficial and somewhat trivial and I have no problem with Clarke’s off field persona other than every single aspect of it.

    I don’t expect a great deal from the Australian captain off the field, but I do expect him not to be a cockdonkey.

  12. John Butler says:

    Litza, your descriptive range continues to astound and entertain. :)

  13. Damo Balassone says:

    It’s funny but no one disputes Clarke should be in side, but the man, for whatever reason, is just not likeable.

    Whereas someone like Warner, who we all know has not earned his test spot, is, for some reason, likeable.

  14. Tony Roberts says:

    John
    Yes, Clarke has led well from the front batting, most notably in Cape Town. Yes, he is more imaginative than Ponting in the field (and so far, less prone to Muscateering the umps). But…

    Having a combination of Beckham and Warne as the Australian captain regularly fronting the press when he is now also a team selector illustrates powerfully why this dubious practice from the 80s (as I recall) should never have been resurrected. Clarke should not have been drawn into commenting on Hughes’ place in the team, let alone publicly backing his party-boy NSW mate. (God, three prejudices in one sentence!)

    Some of the earlier comments were quite persuasive that (the natural, uncoached) Hughes was worth a longer look in Test cricket. I thought that way myself in 2009. In the here and now, though, we have a situation where at least one Australian opener is a walking wicket, and any credible replacement (Cowan, Rogers etc.) must wonder how sincerely they’d be welcomed into the dressing room by the Australian captain.

  15. JB – totally in your camp on Clarke. He looked the goods from Test number one, and has looked the goods ever since. He was one premature NSW promotion that I WAS prepared to live with, and he his early days in the captaincy have been close to faultless. Plain and simple, he’s our best batsmen and is first picked – and so far seems to lead pretty well.
    I also don’t have a problem with his press appearances. They have been refreshingly disarming and honest. And how different is his off-field promotional activity to Mark Taylor selling air-conditioners.
    PS. Warne would have been a bloody good captain.

  16. Mark Doyle says:

    Most of these comments about our national cricket team are ignorant and demonstrate a lack of knowledge. Comments about Michael Clarke’s lifestyle are stupid and ridiculous. People must understand that the Cricket Australia selectors have a better knowledge and understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of all first class cricketers than anybody.
    It is laughable that Victorian cricket supporters continually whinge that Victorian blokes don’t get a fair go. Blokes such as Brad Hodge, Cameron White, Andrew McDonald, David Hussey and Aaron Finch are not good enough to play Test cricket.
    If you blokes did a bit of research, you would realise that the main reason that NSW have produced more international cricketers for most of the last 50 years is better wickets for the Sydney grade competition. Cricket NSW C.E.O. David Gilbert also implemented a policy to develop Test cricketers a few years back. There is also a much stronger cricket culture in NSW which has been enhanced by the active involement of retired Test players as mentors such as Neil Harvey, Brian Booth, Bob Simpson, Doug Walters, Geoff Lawson, Kerry O’Keeffe and many others. In Victoria only Bill Lawry and Keith Stackpole have made a valuable contribution. Media buffoons and former test players such as Damien Fleming and Dean Jones have done nothing.

  17. John Butler says:

    Thanks for the comments gentlemen.

    Tony, I agree with you re Clarke as a selector. Can’t really understand why the ex-captains on the Argus committee reversed their stance on that one.

    MOC, I rate a big tick for Clarke that he decided not to take IPL money and focused on test cricket.

    Mark, might be time to get a new opening line. :)

    But your obviously NSW slant on matters has a point here. Hopefully Australian cricket generally has been paying attention to why that state has been producing so many players. There must be something going right. Good quality district wickets is never a bad start.

    On selection, however, some NSW players have been given the benefit of the doubt that some others weren’t afforded. The whole Steve Smith experiment last summer for one…

    As for past players remaining involved, it’s a fair point. One that Cricket Victoria should perhaps ponder. I might investigate that issue a little further myself.

    Cheers all.

  18. pamela sherpa says:

    There was an interesting theory in the Age last week about why NSW produces more test players than Vic- The dominant sport in Victoria is Aussie Rules whereas in NSW it is rugby- but the bodies that play cricket are not suited to rugby whereas they are to Aussie rules hence the pool of cricketers to choose from is bigger in NSW. So, imagine if Victoria had only one AFL team and think about all the players that could have pursued cricket.

  19. Yes, I did read that, Pamela.
    It is interesting…one does not hear too often about youngsters having
    to make the choice between R L and cricket.

  20. Damo Balassone says:

    Mark,
    I have no problem admitting that NSW produces the best cricketers, but I think you are a tad hard on Hodge and D. Hussey (who is West Australian). I reckon those 2 could have played 5 or 6 years of test cricket with averages of 45+. Hodge’s brief test career was far from a failure if you recall. Some have discussed their technique at the top level, but don’t all great players have flaws? Border got bowled through the gate often. Ponting leans to the off-side. Hayden, particularly in the 90s got caught behind a lot. Also, I think it’s way too early to write Finch off and just reminding you that A. McDonald didn’t do much wrong in those 4 tests he played vs. Sth Africa in early 2009.

    Re Fleming’s contribution, hasn’t he mentored young bowlers? If not, maybe he is still bitter at missing the entire 2001 Ashes series while watching Lee take all of 9 wickets in 5 tests.

  21. John Butler says:

    Pamela, there’s no doubt many young players are lost in the AFL states.

    Will GWS have an effect on NSW? Purely speculative at the moment.

    Damo, when Hodge first played tests the selectors made the call that Damien Martyn was the better player. That was probably fair enough. But once the team was weaker his continued non-selection smacked of something other than form and ability being considered. I wonder who he didn’t get along with?

    McDonald went OK in those tests he played. But they were always going to pick Watto in preference, once available. Watto has been a chosen one from way back.

  22. Nik Stace says:

    My theory on Hodge never having a decent test career was that it was his attitude. I’ll never forget him being interviewed just before his test debut and he said, with some cockiness that he thought that he deserved to be selected. Certainlky rubbed me up the wrong way and I’m sure it woudl have a few in teh cricket establishment as well. If he’d shown a bit more humility and respect he might have gotten somewhere.

  23. Re Hodge:
    I once at a social function where a then-current (now former) selector was
    asked about Hodge. “He’s no good on dodgy tracks” was the response.

    I can’t really recall too many dodgy Test tracks being prepared in recent
    times.

  24. Dave Nadel says:

    Good piece JB. I have no problem with Clarke as captain. I suspect most of those who object to his personal style are showing their age (although most of those who are objecting are actually younger than I am). His behaviour has been trendy rather than oafish. It is not fair to compare him with Warne. Warne actually has been guilty of oafish (not to mention sexist) behaviour on multiple occasions. On the field MOC is right Warne would have made a fine Captain. Off the field Warne was always in danger of being a national embarrassment as a Captain. Regardless of what Dips and Tony think, Clarke has not been an embarrassment as Captain I don’t believe that he will be.

    Pamela, The Age piece about the comparative skills of Aussie Rules compared to Rugby League players and its influence on cricket development is interesting bit the disproportianate selection of NSW players is so unbalanced that that cannot be the only factor.

  25. pamela sherpa says:

    Yes Dave, there must be other factors as well but it was an interesting perspective I thought- the main point is – is the seemingly skewed selection of NSW players a major issue for CA ?

  26. Dave Nadel says:

    Pamela, my guess is that it isn’t but it should be.

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