Subcontinent woes

During the week Australia lost the Sri Lanka test series in a clean sweep to the hosts 3-0. We were outclassed and often out of our depth, and that can happen, but there was much inexcusable. Any way you look at it it was a debacle, and I have to comment.

There are serious questions about technique against spin bowlers and playing on slow tracks, and it will take some time, and perhaps a shift in perspective, to rectify that. What can be fixed now, and should never have been allowed in the first place, is the selection policies.

To start with I thought it was a strange test squad selected. All the incumbents got picked, and fair enough, but then the protracted NSW bias saw O’Keefe and Henriques added to the squad. O’Keefe was actually reasonable before he got injured, but the argument for Henriques eludes me altogether.

Henriques is a handy cricketer capable of special moments at domestic level. He’s played for a Australia a few times previously, but without distinction. He’s been around a while and in fact finished the summer badly injured. On the back of that he gets selected ahead of better credentialed options, and in a role – of all-rounder – where we don’t need back-up with Mitch Marsh a better player.

I’ve got nothing against Henriques, I just don’t think he deserved to be in the squad. I’d have had someone like Maxwell – an excellent and aggressive player of spin, and handy part-time spinner himself – ahead of him. Or half a dozen others, depending on whether you wanted to go batting or bowling (and if it had to be an all-rounder then why not an up and comer like Stoinis?).

So we lost the first test playing most of the regulars, but with two spinners, one of whom, O’Keefe, got injured halfway through. Without a back-up option in the squad they had to fly one in from Oz. Much conjecture over who that might be, but in the end they opted for John Holland, an experienced, but journeyman leg-spinner.

This was another opportunity missed. Again, nothing against Holland, but he’s not a long-term prospect and he’s never been more than a capable bowler. He’ll never play for Australia again, but he got his opportunity when the selectors might have made a bolder choice.

Me, I’d have selected Adam Zampa. He’s young, he’s aggressive and confident, and he has an excellent temperament. His Sheffield Shield record is modest, but he’s shown a lot in the short form domestically, and for Australia, and that he is very clever and an occasional match-winner. He’ll almost certainly play for Australia at some point, and this would have been a great opportunity to blood him. But not to be.

Incidentally, regarding spinners, I just have to say this after bottling it up for so long – is Nathan Lyon must be one of the most overrated players ever to pull on a baggy green. I hear people describe him as Australia’s best ever offie (statistically, he has the most wickets), but in my time he wouldn’t get within a bull’s roar of someone like Tim May, and Ashley Mallett was a far superior bowler. When it counts Lyon has been shown up again and again, and it’s telling that while his Sri Lankan counterparts were breaking records Lyon was barely threatening.

So we lose the second test too, and now there are rumbles about changing the team, which they do. Joe Burns is dropped. It’s a reasonable call because he was all over the shop. Marsh is brought in to replace him, which is reasonable too. Marsh was unlucky to lose his place in the first place, and had scored a century against Sri Lanka previously – and did again this match. That’s a tick.

Then they drop Usman Khawaja. He’d been better than Burns, but not great, but few had been. So okay, drop him if there’s a better option you can bring in. Except there isn’t a better option in the squad, and so they bring in Henriques, an all-rounder. It doesn’t make a lot of sense. Really, what we need is another specialist batsman, but there isn’t one in the squad (selection…), and they won’t bring one in from outside. So Henriques it is.

If it was me I’d have re-shuffled the batting order. Drop Khawaja to 4 or 5 – he still has about 5 times the class of Henriques, and capable of winning a match off his own bat. Or else fuck it, fly someone in – why not Handscombe, another protegé, and excellent player of spin? But again, not to be.

The pace attack is led by Starc and Hazlewood. Starc was monumental. He must be close to the best bowler in the world right now, and almost single-handedly took it up to the Lankans. Hazlewood had been disappointing, economical, but ineffectual. On flat tracks he lacks penetration, and in his short career shown a propensity to trail off as a series progresses – and a tour to Sri Lanka is one of the toughest going around. He’d been reduced to a plodder, and I’d have replaced him with the other quick in the squad, Bird. That didn’t happen either.

In the last test Oz put up a fight before ultimately folding. Marsh got a hundred, but Henriques didn’t score 10 runs for the match, and hardly bowled. Hazlewood did nothing, and Holland, as in the previous test, picked up a couple of wickets for persistence and not guile. Australia outclassed.

So that’s the selectors. Now to the captaincy.

I should preface this by admitting I’ve never warmed to Steve Smith. He’s a prodigious talent, but there’s something about him that unsettles me. And his alleged leadership and captaincy skills are way overrated.

He scored a hundred in the third test too, and was the best of our batsmen over the series, but poor by his standards. There’s no shame in that necessarily, but some of the decisions he made batting showed very poor leadership. As an on field tactician I see little evidence of the astute cricketing brain he was lauded for. Some of that is cricketing philosophy – we think differently about the game. But otherwise I find some decisions baffling.

Probably the thing that surprised me most over the series is the under-use of Mitch Marsh as a bowler. He can be hit and miss, but can also be very handy, and has a habit of picking up wickets.  With a flat deck and exhausting days in the field I’d have thought that Marsh would be an integral member of the bowling attack. Except he wasn’t. Then in the last test, and despite this, we double on the all-rounders with Henriques coming in, and he too barely gets a bowl.

Look, I hope this result shakes things up. I’m of the view that Australian batting has drifted away from the attacking principles of yesteryear when it comes to facing spin bowling. We used to be known for using our feet, but seemingly that’s gone out of fashion, with rare exceptions. I think that should be a focus of training the young batsmen coming through – dance down the pitch and get to the pitch of the ball. Not many spin bowlers enjoy that.

I think selection should be on a horses for courses approach. The fact is that some batsmen are hopeless playing spin. Why play them against spin bowlers then? Until you get better at it you’re out.

Which is the last point really. Many of our problems in recent years have stemmed from the homogenous, flat pitches prepared around the country. They lack personality and they favour the batsmen. Unfortunately our domestic batsmen don’t get the chance to play on genuinely seam friendly pitches, or spin, or seam. They’re not really challenged and they don’t really learn, and score cheap runs that is shown up when they’re forced to play in authentically tough conditions. They haven’t had the practice.

Anyway, that’s my rant.

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