The Ascension of Pup

 

The test summer has concluded in unanticipated rout. Australian success has spawned a thousand post-Argus paternity claims, whereas Indian failure is truly an orphan. Indeed, it seems India’s initial inclination is to pretend the summer never happened at all.

But as we bask in the afterglow, Australian fans might still harbour a nagging doubt. Was it Us? Or was it Them?

The international cricket treadmill renders the notion of a ‘cricket season’ meaningless to those with cable TV. Administrators patch together blocks of activity in an attempt to approximate a coherent whole, but the rhythm of an Australian test summer has long since fractured. Did this season begin in Brisbane? Or was it Cape Town? Or even Galle? For that matter, does it end with the voice of Mark Nicholas, or with Michael Holding in the West Indies?

The blur of activity shouldn’t distract from the significant shift of events.  If you need convincing of that shift, just remember this summer’s Vodafone campaign – the one they prepared earlier. Bollinger. Johnson. Talk about seeing dead people.

Consider the situation just prior to Brisbane. A youngster called Cummings was the new saviour of the hour. Peter Siddle clung precariously to his spot, a predicament Ricky Ponting similarly shared. Ben Hilfenhaus was yesterday’s man. Michael Clarke’s highest test score was 166, and Julia Gillard may still have been a more popular pick for test captain. If Mitchell Johnson and Shane Watson had been fit for Brisbane, we might not have sighted James Pattinson and David Warner until the Big Bash.

The Argus report was used as a vehicle for change, but the report itself was as much an exercise in crisis management as it was a long term blueprint. And one man’s crisis will always be another’s opportunity. Just ask Phil Hughes or Ed Cowan.

Australian cricket showed its usual regard for our neighbours across the Tasman, which is to say very little regard at all. A country we only deigned to officially meet once in  test cricket prior to 1973, New Zealand is well accustomed to  being treated as a spare part to Australian summers – only called upon when needed. As Cricket Australia braced itself for the bigger Big Bash, New Zealand snuck into town for two tests*.  They lived down to modest expectations in Brisbane.

Then came that Hobart green top. Given CA’s priorities,  it seemed almost to plan that the best test match this summer would be played in front of the smallest crowds. Not that the Kiwis would have worried. Australia’s second innings collapse triggered its only loss. After the 9-21 score line of Cape Town it appeared confirmation of endemic brittleness.

It only needed the arrival of the Indians for that brittleness to be surpassed. Thereafter Australian fortunes soared whilst Indian reputations were trashed.

The difficulty in measuring Australian improvement lies in the truly insipid nature of the opposition. The average porn star would have defended her virtue with more vigour (and more convincingly) than India’s cricketers did theirs. Their shame lay not in the losing, but in its disinterested manner.

The Indian team’s cricket reflected who they now are as men: a bunch of feted millionaires who can disregard what doesn’t suit them. Their lauded batsmen couldn’t even drag themselves to a press conference, let alone resist Australia’s fast bowlers. Their captain seemed distracted by higher concerns, at least to judge from his propensity to let games drift. Only the younger members of the party apparently cared enough to get angry, but even then anger not backed by performance just ended up looking impotent.

This was India’s woe, though if this attitude to test cricket prevails it may become the larger Game’s as well. It’s hard to see such embarrassment sitting well with India’s new self-image. But with 14 of their next 17 tests scheduled at home, the temptation to ignore unpleasant realities may prove strong. Indian administrators have certainly shown themselves capable of such inaction. Perhaps the current dispute with their major sponsor will provide more of a wakeup call. Perhaps.

Whatever else you might say of them, Australia’s administrators haven’t been inactive, though it took an Ashes debacle for a sense of urgency to emerge. Argus finally gave official sanction to what many already knew. Soon a new captain, coach and selectors were in place, as well as new lines of accountability.

In assessing accountability, the impact of coaches on cricket teams remains no less an ephemeral judgement than it was before. Nevertheless, it can certainly be said of Mickey Arthur’s reign that no harm has been done. No more can yet be said of the new selectors, whose major decisions to date have been forced by injury or undeniable form disintegration.

If we’re handing out cigars, Australia’s captain should be first daddy in line. This summer saw a more robust Michael Clarke in all respects. No more talk of crook backs. Almost as little of girl friends (despite Channel Nine’s efforts). The man for whom an attractive century formerly sufficed now played innings that ground opponents into the dust. Instead of batting for hours he now often dealt in days. That represents a significant mental and physical transformation. The position appears to have made the cricketing man. The Pup has grown teeth.

The openness of Clarke’s personality not only helps the team’s tactical approach, it must also have played a role in the blending of old and new guards. Whilst fresh faces will always attract the headlines, the bedrock of Australian improvement lay with many who were party to last summer’s embarrassment.

The most dramatically transformed component was the pace attack. Last season’s Gang Who Couldn’t Bowl Straight now hunted in malevolent packs. Opponents were constricted until they succumbed. New bowling coach Craig McDermott  was widely acclaimed for the ingenious advice to pitch the ball up. It can’t have been that simple, lest thousands of suburban coaches slap their foreheads, wondering why they didn’t apply for the job. That this hoariest of cricket maxims should be hailed some tactical breakthrough probably reflects more on the previous regime. And the credulous nature of some cricket reporting.

The more likely catalyst was that nothing concentrates the mind like a whiff of mortality. The demonstrated capabilities of Pattinson, Cummings and Starc left Siddle, Hilfenhaus and Harris in no doubt about their situation: perform or perish. It is to Peter Sidle’s credit that he rose to the challenge. The dogged journeyman of before became a genuine go-to man. Ben Hilfenhaus’s rehabilitation occurred once released from the previous Australian coaching environment. He did it the unfashionably old fashioned way, by taking wickets in the Shield and forcing his way back. Ryan Harris’s only flaw remains an unreliable body. A fast bowling pantry that seemed bare not so long ago is now overflowing.

No one stared mortality more directly in the face than Australia’s cricketing elder statesman. No player of Ricky Ponting’s class has endured dismissals more embarrassing than he did in Hobart. Many might have decided to retire at that moment, preferring not to risk reputation further. His subsequent run avalanche is testimony to a tireless work ethic, unshakable self belief and unyielding competitive spirit. Its example further embarrasses India’s veterans. That Ponting is not the batsman he was is still evident. It is also irrelevant so long as he continues to score so many runs.

He also deserves acknowledgement for that blending of old and new. It is no simple matter for any former skipper to remain in the team. That it has appeared seamless is to the huge credit of both incumbent and predecessor.

It is impossible to not mention David Warner. The name has been everywhere. His unbeaten 123 on that Hobart bowler’s delight is my nomination for innings of the summer, even allowing the epic and historic dimensions of Clarke’s Sydney triple century. Warner’s Perth ton was an undoubted pyrotechnic wonder, but it was scored against an Indian bowling effort that afternoon which would have struggled to bother a club side.

Warner’s talents are obvious. His potential threat will doubtless focus opposition minds the way Adam Gilchrist did. But if we shovel aside the hype that surrounds him, the fact remains that Warner has only really come off in 2 out of 10 test innings to date. Phil Hughes started with a better strike rate. While some are already anointing him future captain, he remains a promise not yet kept. This highlights Australia’s batting top order, the team’s most obvious weak point.

As attention inevitably turns to England in 2013, it is that weakness which must be addressed. The return of Shane Watson offers potential but not guaranteed reinforcement. Other alternatives provide little surety. Even from this distance the Ashes looms as a battle between two imposing pace attacks. Australia cannot afford to regularly be three-down-for-not-much, as they were this summer. Let us not forget, Mike Hussey will be 38 come that Ashes series. Rickey Ponting will be pushing 39. If the ball swings, is anyone happy to bet the house on Australia’s batting just yet?

England’s recent demise on Middle East turners reminds that they are no Super Team, but has little relevance to likely Ashes conditions. Even if a dustbowl should eventuate, the hosts can still look to Swann and Panesar. We will have Nathan Lyon…and not much else. Matched man for man, England still looks more settled, despite recent results.

That is probably too pessimistic a note on which to conclude a summer of undoubted Australian recovery. If we’ve learnt anything in the last few months, it should be not to get too far ahead in our predictions. Time remains to fix problems, and for new ones to emerge. It is in the nature of cricket that new challenges will present.

Speculations aside, Australia can be confident of having an attack that will worry any opponent, and a captain who knows how to marshal them. Any cricket team that can say that will always be a chance.

So we leave behind batting camps, grassy wickets and agonising over the DRS (or lack thereof). We can  rest assured Australian crowds still love a winner, consign the latest update on Watto’s calf/hamstring/whatever to the bin. and wish Mitch  bona fortuna with his underwear modelling career. Never fear, if Warnie’s latest Tweet isn’t enough to get you through the night, the footy starts in just over a week.

 

*Writer’s note: I refuse to entertain the delusion that two tests is a ‘series’

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. Nice review John. I’m not so worried about what constitutes a season (or a series for that matter) – the test match schedule is, and will remain, something of a moveable feast. Of greater concern – looking at the schedule – is why, for instance, is Australia playing a series of ODIs in England mid-year…?

    Anyway, also worth mentioning that Sth Africa will be visiting in November/December. Still a long way to go, but it shapes as a rather important contest for Australia’s batsmen, assuming SA have their best pace attack available and in-form. Could be a challenge that sets them up nicely; could just highlight more problems. Can’t wait to find out.

  2. John Butler says:

    Dave, the answer to any and all inexplicable irregularities on the international cricket schedule is MONEY.

    My concern with modern scheduling is that it tries to be all things to all men, a point Sam Steele touched upon here on Monday. I think this has the effect of diminishing what it attempts to sell.

    What a sad reflection it is that few of us are expecting the Windies to be much of a challenge.

    Cheers

  3. Skip of Skipton says:

    John, I saw an interview of Steve Waugh in the paper the other day, and he reckoned the Windies would not be a pushover, and that Darren Bravo is the next superstar!?

  4. John Butler says:

    Skip, I hope he’s right. World cricket needs the Windies back in business.

    But Bravo aside, not many of them have shown much recently.

    However, it is an away series. Not many countries have shown much form away from home.

  5. In total agreement JB.

    Reminds me of some of the organisational change initiatives companies I’ve worked for have undergone. They generally bring in consultants who develop the blueprint for change. The interesting thing is that implementation of those blueprints always begins with “low hanging fruit.” In otehr words, they hand pick an area of the organisation that they know will embrace the change and make it work. That area then becomes the poster department with results used to justify that the initiative should be rolled out to the wider organisation.

    In my experience, such initiatives have been unsuccessful and ineffective on most occasions. Why? Because in the initial implementation, they met little resistance. They were totally unprepared for the challenges they met in the broader rollout.

    It would appear to me that playing India in Australia is “low hanging fruit”. I’m looking forward to the first real test.

    In any case, as you have so eloquently stated, Clarke’s star has certainly risen and he should commended highly.

  6. Mark Doyle says:

    John, this has been a good cricket summer in Australia. The highlights have been: great team performances in the tests against India and a comprehensive 4:0 win, Michael Clarke’s captaincy, excellent batting form of experienced players, Clarke, Ponting and Hussey, excellent bowling form of the experienced Hilfenhaus and Siddle plus emerging young fast bowlers Cummins, Pattinson and Starc, a competitive first class Sheffield Shield competition and two successful limited overs competitions.
    The only negatives are a poor performance from the Indian test team and the Australian media coverage. I believe the Indians performed poorly because of a poor preparation, which was limited to two mickey mouse games in Canberra. The Australian print and electronic media continue to cover cricket and other sports as trivial and celebrity nonsense; most Australian sports journalists can only appreciate sport by reference to meaningless and irrelevant statistics and most of the sports writing and radio/TV comment is ill-informed, subjective and meaningless opinion. Cricket has also had good summers in South Africa and Dubai with a competitive test and 50 over series between South Africa and Sri Lanka and an excellent 3 test perfomance by Pakistan against England.
    With respect to your question about the cricket ‘seaon’, there are two points – (1) the season for professional cricket players is twelve months each year in several southern and northern hemisphere countries and includes test cricket and the two limited overs games; and (2) the season for non-professional club cricketers in each country is the summer months; October to March in the southern hemisphere and April to September in the northern hemisphere.

  7. John Butler says:

    Pete, I reckon the Argus exercise had a big appetite for ‘low hanging fruit’, even within the limited scope of the review. You didn’t need a review to figure out how the previous coach or selectors were going.

    Mark, agreed that it was a good season for the test team. Not so sure the Shield has been done a lot of favours. The Big Bash? Certainly pulled good good TV figures (from a low base). Crowds were about in line with the state-based comp it replaced. Given the amount CA has spent on it, I don’t think it was quite as rosy as they will paint it. But they have no choice now, with the money they’ve invested they have to pursue it.

    The point of the ‘season’ issue is really that divergence between international cricket and the local club scene, as you point out. It didn’t used to be so big. Then again, neither was the game in money terms.

  8. John

    Great piece. I agree that any printing of “We’re Number 1” posters is premature but the post Argus (and Hilditch) era is off to a good start. England’s troubles away from home put the Sri Lankan series win and theshared spoils in Sth Africa into some positive context and I think Hobart was the kick in the pants they had to have.

    Agree also that the arrogant approach of the Indian stars (and Coach, how is he still in the job!) mean we need to take some of the 4-0 with a grain of salt, but confidence is a wonderful thing and wins often create more wins.

    Interesting what happens when you stop rotating spiners every 2nd test, bowl line and length in fast bowling pairs, and get rid of the hype around Johnson’s underpants and Clarke’s love life. Who’d have thought that pitching it up, bowling short balls to ill quipped tailenders and enthusiastic feilding could work?

    Excellent summary of the positives and honest assessment of the areas to work on, agree with all.

    Sean

  9. John Butler says:

    Thanks Sean.

    The only senior Indian I might except would be Dravid. I think he just experienced that sudden decline that happens to old cricketers. When it goes, it usually goes very quickly. But I’ve always thought Dravid was the conscience of the team. Sachin gets so much attention I think he’s withdrawn into himself, much like Bradman did in an earlier time.

    What happened to Dravid is the only caveat on the resurgence of Punter and Huss. It’s a long way to the Ashes for batsmen of that age.

  10. Excellent, JB.

    Agree wholeheartedly with the majority of your points.

    But I reckon Australia will unearth another spinner prior to the Ashes tour.
    And I am not talking B Hogg, S C G Magill, or S K Warne.

  11. John Butler says:

    Smokie, I’m not sure he’ll be needed if he’s discovered. With both teams strengths in fast bowling, I’d be betting on plenty of grassy wickets.

    Although, as we discovered at the Oval in ’09, you need to cover your bases.

  12. Smokie – John Holland seems to be going OK. A promising leggie.

  13. Dips, I have always rated J Holland highly. As a promising youngster,
    his progress was stymied by the Vic selectors’ penchant for choosing
    B McGain ahead of him. Now he is being given a clear run, it will be
    interesting to watch his progress. Disappointing that he did not get much
    a go with the Stars in the BBL.

    JB, I do not care how green the wickets are, you must always play a
    spinner! (unless you are the West Indies circa 1984). Part of India’s
    problem was that they did not have a quality spinner who troubled the
    Australian bats. The exclusion of Harbhagan Singh was very interesting.

  14. Balanced piece as always, JB. Looking forward to the Patto Cummo Combo.

    Dips – you’re thinking of that other Dutchman. John Holland aint no leggie.

    I smell footy.

  15. MOC – he bowled leggies last time I saw him roll his arm over!

  16. John Butler says:

    Actually Dips, he’s one of those left-handed offie types.

    And I think it’s Jon, not John.

    Some of us John’s notice such things. :)

  17. Peter Flynn says:

    Tough gig bowling left arm orthodox on Australian pitches.

    Who’s Australia’s leading left arm orthodox Test wicket taker (all-time) and how many wickets?

  18. John Butler says:

    Bert Ironmonger? If you class him as a slow bowler.

    Otherwise I can only think of Ray Bright.

    Neither got to a hundred wickets.

  19. I stand corrected gentlemen.

    Dipsss

  20. John Butler says:

    I’d prefer to stand at the bar. (boom tish)

  21. John Butler says:

    OK. Your groans are taken as implicit.

  22. Steve Fahey says:

    Great write-up of the summer John.

    Agree re two tests not being a series, this is poor administration.

    Interested to see you list Hobart as the best Test of the summer – it was an excellent Test on a very lively track, but I thought that the Boxing Day Test was the best we’ve seen here for many years, with three very competitive days before the Aussies steamrolled them on Day Four on the back of some excellent tailend batting allowing the Aussies to take a psychological edge. A better test than Hobart because of better teams involved.

    It also should be mentioned that the improvement in the pace bowling coincided not only with the arrival of Craig McDermott but also the forced absence of Mitchell Johnson. For the first time since the South Africa tour in 2009, our bowlers worked as genuine team and were able to exert sustained pressure on the opposition. I agree that Mitch will be looking for other careers, maybe follow the Tait/Nannes direction and make a squillion playing the very short game.

  23. John Butler says:

    Thanks Steve,

    Our expectations kept Melbourne interesting longer than India’s play demanded once they collapsed on the 3rd morning. Whereas our expectations of NZ were almost non-existent until it was too late in Hobart. I reckon Hobart wins because it went all the way to the line.

    No Mitch = better attack. It became the unavoidable equation of the summer.

  24. Good coverage JB. You were maybe a bit soft on our visiting cousins from Mumbai & Chennai. Buying petrol or groceries from the convenience store was full of banter before the first ball was bowled. The enthusiasm died as quickly as the spirit in the Indian dressing room. Which, while sad, put the Baggy back in The Saggy Green headgear. Just gotta carry that momentum through to The Ashes. And plug the holes in the upper order, eh?

    And as for the Big Yawn – I notice you ignore it. So did just about everyone else. If we’re going to groom our National Team we need a full and continuous season of Shield Cricket. Ditch the Bash. Our cricket team took International Sportsman of the Year back when Warnie & McGrath were skittling them. A T20 is never going to do that.

  25. Ross Slater says:

    I agree with above comments that the most fortuitous thing to happen this summer was Mitchell Johnson getting injured. And I don’t see much hope for him returning to the test team any time soon. He may well still have a position in the Australian ODI & perhaps the T20 team. It will be interesting to see how he goes in the IPL as those teams are generally ruthless with underperforming international players.

    And whether you like it or not the Big Bash is here to stay: in its current format and across the school holiday period of mid Dec – Jan. Whilst I don’t buy into the CA hyperbole about interest levels and I can make my own judgements on crowd figures, I would deem the tournament a success. CA would be wise to not rush into expanding the competition (ala A-league) and I wait with interest to see how they will fixture the Tests and ODIs for next summer.

  26. John Butler says:

    Ross, I think CA can claim it a success, within the limits of the definition of ‘success’ they have chosen.

    But I worry whether that definition will end up helping or hindering in resolving some of cricket’s broader problems.

    A question worth pursuing I think. As I hope to do soon.

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