Ins and outs

The second test against India is shortly to start in Hyderabad. The first test in Chennai was a comfortable win to the home team. All 20 Australian wickets were taken by Indian spinners on a dusty red pitch that was likened more to Roland Garros than what we expect of a cricket wicket. The Indians have come under some criticism for the blatant doctoring of pitches to suit their side, but who really expects anything else? Until there are safeguards preventing it then it’s just the way it is, and get on with it.

The Australian selectors were criticised also for the make-up of the first test team. It’s always easy in hindsight, but perhaps a thorough examination of the Chennai pitch might have made it clear that pacemen would struggle. And so it proved. Still, the selectors problems start with the squad picked.

The word is that the Hyderabad pitch will be more sporting, and the rumour is that Australia will go in with an unchanged side. That doesn’t surprise me altogether – selectors are innately conservative, and loathe to admit they got it wrong – but would disappoint me.

I’d have had Maxwell in the first test team on the strength of his spin bowling, but that would have been in place of Henriques, whio had an outstanding debut and was one of the few to do himself credit. I’d still be inclined to play Maxwell in this match, but in place od Starc, who was a big disappointment (though still a major talent). Siddle was pretty ordinary too, but you get the feeling that Siddle is a favourite who will have to do a lot wrong to be dropped. I’m an admirer too, and for the same reasons – he’s got a massive heart. On skill though he’s behind the leading pack, and I expect will be on the outer edges of the team within 18 months as Pattinson, Starc, Bird, Cummins and Hazlewood fully emerge.

Back to this game. I’d have Maxwell in ahead of Starc, but if they’re determined to go the three pacemen then I’d elevate Johnson for Starc. Johnson has experience of Indian conditions and taken good wickets. Plus he can bowl all day – and is capable of the mercurial, with either bat or ball.

There’s talk of Doherty coming into the team, but I don’t even understand why he’s in the squad, He’s a canny and competitive limited overs player, but that’s his limit. He’s well behind Lyon, and Lyon is no more than mediocre. I don’t see the point of picking a player just because he can spin the ball unless he does it well. Lyon went the journey, so will Doherty if picked. The mistake the selectors made was in not including Beer in the squad. I know he was injured, but he’s just about right now, but with his height, his accuracy, his temperament, and his style of bowling he’d be ideal for Indian conditions. Instead they picked Doherty and, outrageously, Steve Smith. If they’re serious about winning they ought to get Beer on a plane now.

I expect the batting line-up to be unchanged, though I have serious doubts about it both short and long term. It’s clear that Watson should open, and given that Cowan is a battler there’s a spot to be had. I have to admit I can’t take to Cowan as a person, no matter how intelligent or well spoken. I think he’s a prig. As a cricketer he has clear limits. He’s a plodder of a batsman, which is fine if you have the superior technique of a Lawry or a Boycott, but he hasn’t. I don’t think he’s a long term proposition, and he doesn’t have to be with watson in the wings. Warner picks himself.

I support Hughes getting another go, and clearly he does have talent. I really doubt he has the goods against quality spin bowling in India, however. He’ll be retained, but I don’t see him making a lot of runs.

Clarke should be batting next at 4. He’s the best batsman in the team, and probably in the world, but he comes in too late. In my world with Cowan out I’d be batting Khawaja at 5. He’s got great technique, and great potential. I think he might be coming into his own in the next few years, and I think his technique would hold up a lot better than others in the team.

I’d have Maxwell in next (in place of a quickie). Great fieldsman, mercurial batsman, and a handy bowler on the improve. He bolsters our batting and gives us another spin option. Long term I think he has the capability to be a regular player, my only query on him is the dodgy judgement and mind explosions he’s prone to batting. On his day though, a big match-winner.

Henriques is in then, a more than handy batsman, and a handy bowler good at reverse swing. He’s the third pace option. You could swap him with Maxwell in the order.

The wicket-keeper is Wade, a player I don’t rate even if he is a Victorian. He’s an average keeper prone to bad mistakes. He can be a devastating batsman, but can be all at sea also, particularly against spin. I think he’s got away with a lot thus far, but will be found over time and against better teams.

If I’m agin Wade I’m very much an advocate for Tim Paine. He’s probably the best pure wicket-keeper in the country, and much more nuanced as a batsman than Wade. He can hit a hard ball, but equally he can shut up shop when the situation demands it. He has technique, great temperament, and a good cricket brain. And he’s done it before for Australia until injury intervened. I think, given the opportunity, he’s an Australian captain in the making

I dream – he’s not in the squad either, though with reports that Wade is injured he might be a light replacement (though tend to think the selectors will go for Haddin).

I could be completely off kilter, but that’s my take on things. For the record, if there is a change, I think they’ll bring in Doherty for Starc. Which will do little for our chances I think, but what do I know? I’m just one of the thousands of Aussies who have an opinion on the team, a national pastime.

Sometimes down, never out

A graph showing India's Test match results aga...

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As I lay prone yesterday recovering from a big night out I watched as Australia once more dismantled India to win the third test within 3 days. My condition was apt, but at least an improvement on India’s. They were prostrate too, and helpless, and the last rites for this series – if not this team – may well have been read as the last 4 Indian wickets feel in the space of 10 minutes after lunch.

Though disappointing as a contest the beating India took yesterday, and has been taking all series, has pleased me no end. It’s premature to announce that Australia has returned to its preeminence, but the journey has begun. This has been an extremely impressive performance by a resurgent Australian team, and highlights once again just how resilient Australian cricket is. I made comment about a month ago when prompted about the apparent decline of Australian cricket. I was sanguine. Don’t write them off I said, they’ll come good before you know it. And so it has come to be, sooner perhaps than I even thought.

It’s the fast bowling attack that has led the way. The guy I labelled a pie-chucker not long ago – Peter Siddle – has been outstanding ever since. Always a willing and untiring competitor, he has added large dollops of skill and science to his game. Ben Hilfenhaus has come back into the team and been outstanding – quick, accurate, and occasionally unplayable. Add to them the emergence of Cummins in South Africa, and James Pattinson here and you have the two young quicks who will lead the Australian attack for the next 10 years. Add in Mitchell Starc, Ryan Harris, and even Mitchell Johnson, and there is a battery of skilled fast bowlers to call upon. Looking ahead I’d also suggest that Josh Hazlewood and Nathan Coulter-Nile will get a go some time soon. While we have been fortunate in the emergence of so many talented players at once, much credit must go to Craig McDermott. I’d suggest that he more than anyone has been responsible for the turn-around in our bowling – from seeming unable to take 20 wickets in 5 days to do it with ease within 3. His guidance and advice has been instrumental in Australia regaining that potent edge.

The batting is not quite so advanced as the bowling, but I think Warner is a big player for many years to come. I love watching him play, and I also greatly admire his attitude and determination. His is a story of persistence and belief, and now he’s opening the batting for Australia in all forms of the game and, after Saturday, is the man with the 4th quickest test century in history (on the way to 180 off 159 balls). He might be about 8 inches shorter than Matty Hayden, but he plays with the same intimidating belligerence and power. His runs will count for much over the years to come, but no more than the way he makes them. He is a match-winning cricketer who can turn a match in the space of an hour. Cowan has been steady by his side, Clarke has made a triple century, and both Ponting and Hussey have made hundreds in defiance of their critics. The only disappointments have been Marsh (but he’ll come good), and Haddin (who won’t, and should be first out).

There’s a lot to like about the summer of cricket, but what warms me most is the style of game we’re playing – attacking, aggressive, adventurous and entertaining. It’s ever the Australian way, and fuck it’s good to see our team playing once more with the ruthless edge we’ve been so renowned for. We’re a way to go, but we”ll get there sooner than what I thought. If any confirmation is needed of that it’s been the nervous chirping by the likes of Vaughan, Collingwood and Flintoff talking Australia down. I always know they’re worried when they start talking about us again, especially when they’re English. They’re a fragile sporting race the English, and have long memories of Australian dominance.

It’s also good to see India lose. They might seem a bit rude, but there are good reasons for that. Foremost is that I think the BCCI are a blight on the game. They have used their wealth to co-erce and to threaten other member countries. They are arrogant and insular, as well as being incompetent. Anytthing that reduces Indian hegemony is a good thing as far as I’m concerned, and with a test team in rapid decline hopefully we will see change.

The other reason is the fans. Indians individually are a gentle, friendly, hospitable race of people. I know when I travelled there the news that I was an Australian was big news and subject to much delighted discussion on cricket. Unfortunately in recent years that’s less the case in the collective, where some of the nationalism has become strident and ugly.

I think that’s often the case with emerging cultures, particularly when they are coming out of colonial history. Support can become over-enthusiastic and cross over into abuse. The rise of the Indian cricket team has given voice to a billion, but the downside of that is – as we see with the BCCI – that it can become chauvinistic and narrowly self-serving. The Indian team is on the verge of losing a generation of superstars, and some adjusting will be required. It may not be a bad thing, and I expect in the wash-up some healthy cultural reflection would not be amiss.

India is a cricketing giant, and will come again, but let’s not forget it’s a sport we’re playing, not war. As for Australia – never count us out.

The important stuff

A lot of talk lately given their erratic performances about changes to the Australian test team. For the last few years now I’ve been pushing the need to elevate some youngsters into the team and to call time on some of the declining veterans. The dip in performance we’ve seen in the last two years from stellar to mediocre is reflective not just of waning skill, but of the failure to properly manage the transition from one era to the next. The selectors in general failed to promote the up and comers when they should have, and clung too long to the host of stalwarts that have served so long. Ideally the transition should have been gradual, introducing the rookies into a stable environment where they might benefit from the experience around them. Over time one team would have been replaced with another. Instead the lack of an over-arching strategy has meant that the transition has been bumpy and controversial, with the team losing clumps of players between series, and sometimes within them.

We are now faced with a similar situation, with widespread calls for Ponting to be given his marching orders ahead of the Boxing Day test, with perhaps Hussey also, as well as the misfiring Hughes. I find I’m in a different state of mind to most.

I’m wary of losing such great experience all at once. Sentiment has little place in sports management, which is as it should be, but I think Ponting especially should be allowed a graceful exit from the game. He’s probably our best batsman since Bradman, captained the team for years, and has been a tough and inspiring example to those around him. His batting is not what it was, but nor is it as bad some are making out – he’s certainly outbatted a few in the team in recent times. He also remains one of the very best fieldsmen in the world.

Hussey is a different case. He too has served Australian cricket with great honour, and besides being a terrific batsman Mr Cricket is a bit of a cult figure. Strangely enough he’s possibly the second best fielder in the side after Ponting. His form over the last 18 months has dipped and soared and dipped again. Fantastic in Sri Lanka he was woeful against both South Africa and New Zealand. Time is certainly catching up with him, and he hasn’t got the credits Ponting has. If I were to drop a veteran for the Boxing Day test it would be him.

Hughes, a relative youngster, should go, which is a pity in a way because he has talent, but bleedingly obvious in another because it is badly flawed talent. My inclination as a test selector would be to tell him to go away and fix those technical deficiencies and don’t come back until you do. I’m not sure if he can, or if he can if he’ll be the same player. Fact is his technique is not up to test standard where you get found out very quickly. I think he has a couple of seasons hard work ahead of him before he can be considered for a baggy green cap again.

Usman Khawaja has also had question marks raised over him. Unlike Hughes Khawaja has a great technique. He’s still very much a work in progress, but I think he’s a keeper. He might go in and out of the team, but I seem him steadily improving as his confidence increases. One thing he needs to do is increase the tempo of his scoring. He has it in him – he’s a brisk scorer at state level, and a good one day cricketer for NSW. Right now he’s too ponderous for a number 3 batsman, and for the style of cricket Australia has always played and always aspired to: aggressive and attacking. I’d keep him.

Not so sure about Haddin. He seems the safest of this lot, but I’ve definitely got his card marked. He has talent, is a great striker of the ball and a reasonable wicket-keeper, but he is prone to do stupid things with the bat in his hand. Vice captain against New Zealand I hold him responsible for the loss against them. His shot to get out was evidence of deplorable judgement after he had been dropped the ball before. He had only to bat sensibly for Australia to win with ease. He didn’t and we lost.

Haddin is lucky that his obvious heir apparent Tim Paine has been injured for so long. A fit and firing Paine would be pressing his claims hard right now. I think Paine is a terrific cricketer and possesses the clarity that Haddin lacks. Paine I think is a future Australian captain.

So, generally I’d be resisting the panicky calls for change if I were an Australian selector. It might be different if there were players demanding selection, but the sad reality with all the injuries we’ve had that there are none missing out. On that basis I’d be making minimal changes. Hughes out obviously, for Watson. That’s a big step forward. Very impressed with Warner, think he’ll be an Australian test player for 10 years. Khawaja and Ponting stay, as does Hussey, by the skin of his teeth. Haddin too, very fortunately. I’d then replace Starc with Harris, if fit. Inclined to fit a bowling all-rounder into the team given that Watson can’t bowl, but that would mean dropping a batsman. Christian is waiting in the wings, but I see him as more of a 20/20 and 50 over specialist, Faulkner would be my pick – young, and talented with both bat and ball. Maybe not this time though.

Looking ahead changes will have to be made. Come the end of the season either one or both of Ponting and Hussey will have to be moved on. The series against India will determine which. I’d be making a call on Haddin too, times up mate. I’m very happy that my nominations from last year have come good – James Pattinson is a star, Cummins too (though injured), and even Starc, who is raw still, looks the goods. Add in the likes of Hazlewood and Cutting and the bowling looks good. Just need to find some young batters.

In 12 months time my Australian test squad of 15 say might look something like this:













It’s strong on bowling, in fact in a few years time will be the best bowling attack in the world. Batting needs some work. Some smokies: Mitch Marsh, Chris Lynn, Callum Ferguson, Nathan Coulter-Nile. And a couple to look out for in the future: Tom Triffitt (another Tassie wicketkeeper), Nic Maddinson, Kurtis Patterson (could be real big), and Peter Handscomb.