The Limits of Aggression

 

Australian cricket has long worn aggression as a badge of honour. In our modern period of domination  that badge was often brandished with zealous fervour.  It gave our cricket with an uncompromising edge. Sometimes it seemed we courted controversy for its own sake, even when it was superfluous to the requirements of victory.

In truth, the teams that Taylor, Waugh and then Ponting led won so often because they were more talented than their opposition. Any tactical philosophy would probably have sufficed. Playing to win is a commendable ethos which has had lasting influence on the way our national team goes about its business. The problem is that the team now struggles to live up to the ethos.

Australian batsmanship still bears the marks of glory days. Memories of Matthew Hayden, a giant stride down the pitch destroying the bowler’s length, hitting fearlessly through the line, still play large in the minds of our coaches and batsmen. This approach was often devastating, provided the pitch was benign, the ball not moving, and the bowler lacking sting. It has been recently further encouraged by the proliferation of short form games.

The trouble now is that a less talented batting line up largely knows only to plant the feet early and go hard at the ball. ‘Playing your own game’ now seems more like code for being one-dimensional. Few really know how to graft any more.

A decade of drought in Australia has been broken by these last two La Nina summers. The Kookaburra is swinging conventionally once more, and curators are now providing wickets that give bowlers a chance; in the case of this test, a very good chance. These are conditions that no longer suit the Australian method.

Watching David Warner and Usman Khawaja try to play themselves in on Day 2 against the swing and seam of the Kiwi attack was like watching two men trying to decipher an unknown language. Warner has been groomed in a format of the game where going hard at the ball is the only viable option. A nick seemed only a matter of time, like his opening partner the day before. Khawaja at least appreciated that survival might see his side through to better conditions, but he lacked the batting vocabulary to deal with conditions strange to his upbringing.

If the arrival of veteran Ponting brought hope of consolidation, those hopes were quickly dashed. Realising that a decision to leave a ball was disastrously wrong, Ponting belatedly tried to bring his bat down almost perpendicular to the path of that Southee delivery. As ball crashed into pad, the batsmen walked before the umpire’s finger could be raised for LBW. It was likely a reaction of embarrassment; few players of his quality have suffered such undignified dismissal.

Thereafter only skipper Clarke seemed likely to trouble a persistent, but hardly intimidating attack. Khawaja finally got an edge to one. Hussey played one decisive pull before indecision to the next ball saw his attempted leave touch it to the keeper. Haddin ‘played his own game’, which in this case involved drilling a catch straight to mid-off.

When Clarke’s promising 22 ended with another disastrous leave that saw the ball flush off stump, Australia was reduced to 7/75. At least it was more than Cape Town.

As on Day 1, the sun emerged after lunch and batting seemed easier. As had also occurred the previous day with New Zealand, Australia had insufficient batting left to take full advantage. Siddle and Pattinson showed some Dandenong grit in adding 56 for the 8th wicket, Siddle batting sensibly within his limitations, Pattinson revealing a couple of fine drives amongst solid defence. For a moment the New Zealand attack seemed to be frustrated.

Then Bracewell removed Siddle for an innings high 36, and debutant left-armer Boult accounted for the last two wickets with a minimum of fuss. Australia was all out 136, a deficit of 14.

37 year-old Chris Martin led his team’s attack intelligently, and was well supported by new colts Bracewell and Boult. They bowled with control and movement in conditions that much favoured them, but which were hardly impossible.

Pattinson and Siddle couldn’t muster the same control, nor draw the same response from the wicket as the previous day. Starc remained unable to sustain a plan. Guptill and McCullum gave their team the semblance of a start before departing together. Kiwi skipper Ross Taylor was lucky to survive his first few deliveries, then lucky again as Phil Hughes spilled a gully chance.

Jesse Ryder continued for a while in his lugubrious, Inzaman-like manner before a Hussey leg side delivery saw Haddin execute a superb stumping. That Hussey was being employed reminded that Clarke was likely mourning the absence of Watson’s bowling presence. Kane Williamson then joined Taylor and batted industriously as they added 66 unbeaten runs by stumps.

At 3/139, New Zealand find themselves 153 runs to the good. The wicket will probably improve from here on, weather permitting, and a target of 250 or better is likely required by the visitors. One good session of Kiwi batting on Day 3 will leave Australia perilously placed.

That Australia’s batting line up collapsed in testing conditions was no surprise. What was surprising were the many newspaper headlines declaring the hosts dominant after Day 1, as if all the recent collapses were forgotten. Australian batting has been susceptible to a moving ball for years – a much better line up found English reverse swing a mystery in 2005.  Some endeavoured to amend their approach today, but techniques remain insufficiently adapted to adverse conditions.

A lively pitch has produced a tight contest to this point. Bowlers have dominated, but if the sun returns it is possible batsmen may yet have a bigger say. Australia will have another opportunity to show some new strings to their batting bow. Do they have any?

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, Your point about the drought and its impact on cricket is well-made. And I agree that the Ponting dismissal was sad. Interesting to see what happens for the First Test v India. I think the result of this Test match will have an impact, as it should. I don’t share Peter Siddle’s loyal statement that his batsmen can chase any total.

  2. Peter Flynn says:

    Khawaja’s front foot plant is disturbing (although not as disturbing at Watson’s).

    He too has technical issues requiring an urgent fix.

    Most of these batting problems stem from ordinary footwork.

  3. John Butler says:

    JTH, the trouble is who do you pick? They’ve all been brought up in a similar school.

    The batting line up seems very much up in the air.

    PJF, Clarke is looking more and more our best bat simply because his footwork is adaptable.

    The worrying thing was I really think they had the mindset to try and wait out the conditions yesterday, which they haven’t always had, yet their techniques just weren’t up to the demands of the conditions.

  4. There was a point well made in this morning’s Age – the Australian batsmen just aren’t good enough. Their application was good but they were beaten by superior bowling talent. I can cop that, so long as the improvement comes.

    Khawaja is a talent, so is Dave Warner I believe. Get Watson and Marsh and Cummins and Wade and Cowan into the side and we have the makings of a steady team. Like all young sides they’ll have their bad days and be beaten, But so long as the improvement comes it will make for an interesting ride.

  5. This test in Hobart has been has been a good contest between two evenly matched teams. The most pleasing thing has been a wicket that provides assistance to accurate and disciplined swing and seam bowling. Bowlers have bowled with aggression and fielders have fielded with aggression.
    Batsman have struggled because of their poor footwork. Michael Clarke is the only Australian batsman with decent footwork. Ricky Ponting may not survive too much longer because of his poor footwork. Sachin Tendulkar is surviving because of his better footwork. Irrespective of his poor footwork I believe that Ponting may survive because he is better than most of the current first class batsmen.
    In the past decade, Australian batsman such as Ponting, Hayden, Langer, Gilchrist and Hussey were successful because of both the preparation of batsman friendly grassless wickets and the poor quality of international bowlers after the retirements of blokes such as Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis, Curtley Ambrose, Courtney Walsh and Allan Donald. They were flat track bullies whose techniques were to hit through the line of the ball off the front foot. They were rarely exposed to quality swing and seam bowling on a full length. I suspect that coaching in past 10-20 years has not focused on footwork.
    In my time of following test cricket since the mid 1960’s, the two Australian batsmen with the best footwork were Ian Chappell and Doug Walters. Other blokes with good footwork were Greg Chappell, Ian Redpath, Mark Taylor and Mark Waugh. Most current day batsmen do not have good footwork and they prefer to play from the crease.

  6. Dips – would you keep Jimmy Higgs in the side? He’s getting on a bit. He was accurate enough yesterday, but didn’t seem to turn it much. Captain seems reluctant to give him too many overs.

  7. John Butler says:

    PB, I don’t think even Jimmy would have wanted to own Punter’s shot yesterday.

  8. Hussey’s transformation into a bowling all-rounder is not without precedent. Wilfred Rhodes debuted for England as a left arm spin bowler in 1899 (WG Grace’s last test – I remember it well). By 1911-12 when he toured Australia he opened the batting and scored 1,098 first class runs on the tour at 54.90, but did not take a wicket. After the First World War he resumed bowling more and eventually was recalled for the Final Test against Australia at the Oval in 1926 (he was nearly 49) after the first four tests were drawn. He took 2-35 and 4-44 and made 28 batting at 7 in the England first innings. He was pivotal in England winning the game and the Ashes. He played his final Test in the West Indies in 1930 at 52 years of age. His eyesight failed in the late 30’s due to glaucoma and by the early 50’s he was completely blind. He died aged 95 in 1973.
    What a life. What a career.
    There is hope yet for Mr Cricket and ‘Jimmy Higgs’. Roll out the wheelchairs.

  9. What a beautiful line JB, eloquent and sums up the situation so vividly : …”he lacked the batting vocabulary to deal with conditions strange to his upbringing.”

    Poetry and unfortunately so accurate. Haigh-esque I’d venture

    Whilst Khawaja was trying hard to builld and innings and be patient, he needed to play shots when they were there. The opposite is said of Haddin and Warner, who cannot resist the big shot. Why have someone playing their ”natural game’ in the side, if their natural game is not suited to the game they are actually playing in!

    In truth we have a dangerously inexperienced and technically poor top 3, a clearly fading number 4, a resilient 5 and ageing yet proud 6, before we fall away. Siddle’s knock was a one off, Pattinson and Starc will hold their own for a valuable 15-20 each it seems and Lyon is no Chris Martin, They need a patient Haddin to hang around with though and make partnerships. Hussey cann’t be asked to put on 150 with the tail all the time a la S Waugh or Gilchrist.

    The tests v India look a grave concern.

  10. John Butler says:

    Very kind of you Sean.

    Amazing what a difference a day can make. It seems NZ tightened up and the Aussies took advantage.

    Still, not over yet.

  11. At 4.00pm in northern western Tasmania people were collapsing from heat stroke and 10+ uv exposure. Rained out in Hobart again.

  12. Phantom – good to see that your dislike of Collingwood and these new fangled Western and Northern teams is exceeded only by deeper hatred of the South.
    I heard a female comedian today talking about the younger female fashion for ‘deforesting the map of Tasmania’. She warned that this could lead to infection in the Greater Hobart area and the pollution of the River Derwent.
    Doubtless something that you battle against on a regular basis in the sunlit uplands and verdant pastures of the North West.

  13. Sort of like the relationship between Freo (white hats) and Weagles (black hats) only about a Brazillian times worse, Peter.

    That covers the context of your comment, I think.

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