The 2019-2020 Test Summer: Poor preparation leads to piss-poor performance

“The Cricketer”
by Kate Birrell

 

Considering the abject state that the Australian men’s’ test side found itself in just twelve months ago, Cricket Australia must be scarcely able to believe their luck as they bask  in a summer of absolute dominance in the test arena. Though neither Pakistan or New Zealand had much recent record of success on these shores, the Kiwis at least came with a reputation and ranking earned through several years of solid performance. It mattered for naught. Both visiting teams were flogged.

 

This summer has reinforced an obvious lesson for touring teams – if you intend to succeed in Australia you need to arrive well prepared and at full strength. Only four countries have won on Australian pitches in over thirty years. None of them did so by accident. In their own differing ways, both Pakistan and New Zealand arrived on these shores both under-strength and ill prepared. They suffered the consequences.

 

With a new coach, a new captain, and a couple of experienced pace bowlers declared unavailable for test duties, Pakistan gambled on the youngest bowling line up seen on these shores in many a decade. It backfired badly. Though Shaheen Shah Afridi, Naseem Shah and Muhammad Musa all showed signs of promise for the future, they were given an early brutal lesson on the realities of test cricket on flat pitches. For the second successive Australian tour, Pakistan’s bowling was butchered. Under immense scoreboard pressure, and mainly thanks to Babar Azam, their batting held up slightly better. In Mohammad Rizwan they look to have uncovered a talented keeper/batsman. But none of their efforts were sufficient to prevent a brace of innings defeats.

 

In the nature of the modern international cricket carousel, and in the mercurial way of Pakistan cricket itself, they have already moved on. Their first home test series in a decade saw them defeat Sri Lanka in another two match series. Pakistan cricket has survived bigger disasters than a poor Australian tour.

 

Given Australia’s long history of cricketing condescension to its near neighbour, you might have expected New Zealand to regard this series as a big opportunity. Their first Boxing Day Test in three decades, coming at a time when they were ranked number 2 in the ICC rankings: everything seemed set for a tough contest. Instead, they never really got out of the gate.

 

As so often occurs these days, the crowded schedule played its part. Rather than preparing on Australian wickets, New Zealand’s lead-in to this series was two tests on their own wickets against England. Though that victory bolstered their ranking, it served as poor practice for the realities of a Perth wicket under lights. Swept away in that initial encounter, a campaign dogged by injury and illness simply went from bad to worse.

 

The controlling Boards of both countries need to sign off on a tour schedule, so it is worth pondering what might have persuaded the New Zealand authorities to agree to such an obvious stitch-up. No doubt the financial inducement of large Melbourne and Sydney crowds played a role. For a Kiwi cricket setup much less flush with funds than its neighbour, this is no small consideration. Let us also not ignore the fact that the schedule of this Australian summer is itself an accommodation to India’s instance we visit them mid-January, to play three one-day games. The commercial reality of those games far exceeds their inconsequentiality in cricket terms. Cricket has never seen so much money, but the wealthy nations seem little inclined to spread the largesse.

 

None of the above absolves the Black Caps from their surprising lack of fight as events turned against them. Few lived up to their reputations. The one who stands absolved from such an accusation was a cricketer not much seen previously on these shores. Neil Wagner proved that you don’t have to bowl much above 130 kph to be hostile. With tireless effort, indomitable attitude, and no small amount of skill, Wagner set an example too few of his team mates followed.

 

These tales of visiting woe just serve to reinforce that the Australian test summer was really all about us. Which, if we’re being honest, is how we generally like it. There’s no denying that Australia comprehensively overwhelmed their opponents in pretty much every aspect. And it didn’t even require much input from Steve Smith.

 

The usual foundation of Australian home dominance is a pace attack that overwhelms visiting batsmen. As we saw in the last Ashes tour, the long awaited circumstance of having Cummins, Starc, Hazlewood and Pattinson all fit and ready at the same time presents Australian cricket with a rare opportunity. The compressed scheduling of most test series turns them into battles against attrition for fast bowlers. The ability to interchange frontline quicks with little drop in quality gives Australia a distinct advantage. We saw this in the last two New Zealand matches, with Pattinson sliding in seamlessly to cover for Hazlewood.

 

Whomever was on the field, the Fab Four more than lived up to their billing. As important as the pace they can muster, it is their collective ability to sustain that pace through long days in the field that makes this group so formidable. The pressure never really lets up for opposing batsmen. Once again, Cummins set the standard in this regard. Having fallen out of favour during the Ashes, Mitch Starc worked on aspects of his run-up and came charging back as a test cricket force, leading all wicket takers across the five matches. He has had his detractors, but his efforts served to remind that left-armers who can bowl around 150 clicks and swing the ball with intent don’t exactly fall out of the trees.

 

After all this praise of pace, mention should be made of the other essential component of Australia’s attack. Nathan Lyon is now approaching 400 test wickets. That’s something else that doesn’t happen by accident. In home conditions that haven’t historically favoured off-spin, it is a testament both to his skill and his ability to absorb lessons and improve along the journey. Lyon’s enduring reliability is crucial to Australia’s preferred team balance of four specialist bowlers.

 

For all the strides made during a successful Ashes defence, Australia entered the summer with huge question marks over its top order batting. The herculean batting feats of Marnus Labuschagne and David Warner have pushed those questions aside, for the moment.

 

No matter your opposition, when you’re accumulating run tallies that rank you amongst the likes of Bradman and Hammond, you are in rarefied air. After an impressively consistent Ashes effort, our Marnus rose to another level entirely, making the number 3 position his for the foreseeable future. Four centuries in five tests will tend to do that. As impressive as his runs is his obvious taste for a contest. It bodes well for a sustainable future.

 

Having spent a 12 month stint as many peoples Public Enemy Number One, then following that with a personally disastrous Ashes campaign, David Warner was carrying plenty of baggage into this summer. He answered in the only way he really could, with an avalanche of runs. Pakistan’s neophyte quicks were probably just what the doctor ordered, and he had his share of early fortune, but you can only play the opponents presented. An unbeaten 335 is a substantial answer by any reckoning. On Australian decks, Warner remains one of the most dangerous batsmen going.

 

After the wonder that was his Ashes series, Steve Smith was deservedly the name on most lips entering the summer. He proceeded to have his quietest home stint in years. It is a measure of Australia’s comfort that this didn’t matter. In truth, Smith was solid enough when there was any real threat to Australia’s position, which was hardly ever. He batted often this summer with the air of a man awaiting greater challenges.

 

The rest of the batting order remained settled, but seldom compelling. All of Burns, Wade and Head did enough to confirm their places in the next test match, but none did enough to confirm themselves much beyond that. How Australia will bat in future foreign conditions remains the team’s great question mark.

 

That it seems so very long ago that Australia’s test team was in disgrace must owe something to the men who took up the team’s leadership after The Fall. Tim Paine seems to enter every series reading stories about his potential replacements. His contribution deserves rather more than that. Let’s just state once more for the record – of all Australian keepers, Paine has a batting average only bettered by Gilchrist and Haddin. This summer, he remained an impeccable presence behind the stumps, and he maintained a humorous and humane persona in all his media responsibilities. By the standards of modern Australian leadership, his legacy will stand better than most.

 

Likewise, coach Justin Langer deserves credit. Thumpingly successful summers such as this one are good for everyone’s employment prospects, but Langer strikes as one unlikely to be seduced by easy kills. Old opening batsmen know there’s always one out there with your name on it. The trick is to prosper sufficiently before it arrives. He will already be looking to the challenges ahead.

 

It is very much the current pattern of test cricket for home teams to be dominant. In the predictability of this pattern lies one of test cricket’s future challenges. Predictability never helps sport.  There remains a feeling that commercial considerations didn’t help the cricket contest fulfill its potential this summer. But test cricket has to exist in a commercial environment. The ongoing challenge for all custodians of the game is seek a proper balance.

 

 

Our writers are independent contributors. The opinions expressed in their articles are their own. They are not the views, nor do they reflect the views, of Malarkey Publications.

 

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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 passed his 40th year as a Carlton member.

Comments

  1. Thanks John. I’ve been banging on FOR YEARS about the need for visiting sides (especially England) to come here and play a proper series, where they have a few minor games against state sides etc before playing a Test. Similarly, Australia needs to do exactly the same when visiting India or England – the expectation that teams can lob into a country a couple of days before the first Test and make a game of it is a joke.

  2. John Butler says

    The money or the contest?

    It’s all about priorities, RD.

  3. John
    My abiding sentiment over the course of the two Test series was “so what?” To that end, your final paragraph is telling. Test cricket is already in a vulnerable state without being further compromised by ill-conceived series involving ill-prepared visiting teams. No matter that so many of cricket’s truths are told through statistics, I think we can take very little from the numbers resulting from this summer’s matches. I’ll reserve judgement about the state of the Australian Test team until they’ve played another “real” series on the sub-continent or South Africa.
    Great summary and analysis as always.

  4. John Butler says

    Stainless, too much of a good thing is in danger of becoming too much of a mediocre thing.

    I still think that applies much more to white ball cricket than test cricket.

    But try telling that to an administrator.

  5. There has been much hanging-wringing in recent years over the performances of visiting teams all over the world. Similarly, huge is the number of visiting teams who leave Australia with their tails between their legs vowing that their preparation will be better next time.
    What was the point of New Zealand playing a 2-day hit and giggle match at Wesley College? Until visiting teams play some meaningful warm-up cricket, these results will continue. I realise the fixtures are log-jammed nowadays, but there are still opportunities.

    Next, when Test matches are reduced to 4-day fixtures, we will be forced to endure the critics bemoaning the number of drawn matches that we see.

  6. John Butler says

    Yep, Smoke. Just yep.

  7. Luke Reynolds says

    A Test summer very well summed up JB.

    New Zealand are and can be a far better team than they showed. The lack of lead-in and in series tour games is killing Test cricket. But these type of game run at a huge loss. But wouldn’t better Test cricket generate more coin?

    Tim Paine has been magnificent in the leadership role. I still shudder to think who would have been captain had Paine not been recalled for the 2017/18 Ashes. Thrilled Langer has backed him in until the Test Championship final. For all the croweaters wanting Carey to replace Paine, how about Carey instead of Wade at 5/6 until Paine bows out?

  8. John Butler says

    Luke, money isn’t a problem for countries like Australia, India and England. If the wealth was shared around a little better, it wouldn’t need to be a problem for any country any more.

    But its all about the priorities of those who run the game. And despite their proclamations to the contrary, it would seem they care less about test cricket than the players.

    Matty Wade didn’t have a terrible summer, but I doubt that the way he played Wagner did him any long term favours. You may be right – that might be Carey’s way in.

    Much doubt remains about our batting away from home.

    Cheers

  9. Great analysis, thanks for taking the time to put in up on the blog

  10. JB outstanding you completely nailed it while I believe,Carey is special and adds to our side another dimension can’t knock,Paines input.The rest of the article I agree with every letter let alone every word
    ( Luke Yep agree in that regard ) JB your article is being complimented on face book every where I have posted it thank you

  11. John Butler says

    Thanks, 6%. Kind of you.

    Cheers, Rulebook. There’s no doubting Carey’s got talent. I just think Paine’s leadership is important at the moment. To the extent that we’ve followed through with any of the promised ‘cultural change’, I reckon it’s largely due to him.

    Thanks for putting the word around.

  12. Agree that Carey should play for Wade. An eye to the future.

    I really rated the Kiwis before this series. And probably still do. But it highlighted their lack of bowling penetration. It all looked a bit one-dimensional.

    The cricket season is over for me now. I’m not a baseball fan.

  13. John Butler says

    Dips, the Kiwis needed Ferguson. He’s their only bowler of real pace. I was really surprised they didn’t give him a test before he came here. It looked like they were more focused on beating England than the Oz tour.

    If you have Ferguson, a fit Boult, and Southee as the attack for all 3 tests, they would have been better off. Probably not have been enough to win, but better. It sure didn’t help that Santner had a shocker.

    Like you, I’m finding it really difficult to work up much interest in the BBL. And nothing else will be free-to-air now. Thanks, Cricket Australia. Hope those few extra dollars are worth it.

  14. My suggestion for the India Tour is that we take out Virat Kohli by drone strike if he looks threatening. @realpeterbaulderstone #makecricketgreatagain

  15. John Butler says

    PB, considering the age we now live in, do you ever feel like you missed your true calling? :)

  16. JB – My only wish is to not live long enough to see reaped what we have sowed. Nero and the last days of Empire come to mind.

  17. DBalassone says

    Well said JB. Some summary observations:

    With that bowling attack, I reckon we can challenge anyone. (Hazlewood to come in for Patto). You’re right about Lyon – he’s on track to become one of the top 10 wicketakers of all time. He just keeps keeping on.

    Ideally, I would bring in Maxwell for Wade and Carey for Paine. I just can’t believe Maxy isn’t in there. He would tear it up. But Wade’s two tons in England will keep him there for a bit longer. No disrespect to Paine, but Carey has to be in that team asap for mine. Paine’s a bit like ScoMo – ended up with the top job by accident (without seeking it), so has been given a bit of slack – but we all know what happens when things go pear-shaped.

  18. Daryl Schramm says

    Hi John. What a magnificent and thoughtful summary of the home season you have produced. So apt on many fronts.
    Once Carey gets many more red ball runs in the shield he will pick himself. I think Head is more vulnerable than Wade at the moment. Also don’t like attending day night tests. Was OK for Perth when the match started after the golf finished.
    Regards

  19. John Butler says

    DB, I think Maxy’s cards are marked. I have no idea why.

    A lot of Carey love around the place. I can understand it, but I don’t see who leads the team in place of Paine. I think Steve Smith was a mediocre captain at best. Then what went on in Durban was a complete failure of leadership.

    Thanks Daryl. It will only take a few poor performances and batting spots aplenty will open up. Only 3 really look nailed down. If Carey has been making runs he’ll get his chance.

    If Day/Night tests help test cricket stay in the spotlight, I can live with them. Given the mania for T-something stuff, tests will need to reach out to everyone it can. India’s attitude will be the most important factor here.

    Cheers all.

  20. Good analysis, JB. My favourite stat of the summer is that the worst position Smith came into across the five Tests was 2/61. In the Ashes the best position he came into was 2/60. As you well say, he simply was not needed this summer and on the occasions where there was work to be done he averaged over 60. NZ’s bowling attack resembled a pop gun at times and the moment they were on the back foot they reverted to the most negative bowling tactics we have seen in Australia for many years. I can’t see the home deck advantage balancing out any time soon.

  21. John Butler says

    Dave, the Kiwis play their own conditions well. I wouldn’t underestimate them.

    But they put in a shocker out here. It was almost like it was a secondary consideration for them.

    In hindsight, similar could be said of Pakistan. Perhaps they were more worried about the return of home test matches?

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