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Friday, February 1, 2013

The Glorious Controversy of Cricket

It's been a busy and somewhat heated couple of weeks in Australian cricket, what with rotation policies and rain-affected games and blow-ups on and off the field, and Shane Warne re-writing the entire set up of Australian cricket, as well as the naming of the Test squad to tour India at the end of February. In all instances, everything seems to have been blown right out of proportion. In the long run, the only thing that can stop all of this nonsense is Australia winning cricket matches and turning the talk away from these distractions.

The so-called 'rotation policy' argument was and is all just a storm in a teacup. When Australia' squad for the first two ODI's against Sri Lanka was named, it was 'controversial' because the retiring Mike Hussey was not chosen despite being 'available' until the end of the season, Michael Clarke was 'rested' due to his dodgy hamstring (which certainly would not have held up under the scrutiny of ODI games without much needed rest), while Matthew Wade and David Warner were 'rested' in preparation for the long hard slog that both players have ahead of them.
Suddenly, the media felt it right to attack the selections. How dare they not pick Hussey while he was available? How dare they not give the public (read "media" here) the opportunity to see Warner in action? How can they rest our captain and put an 'unknown' in charge of the national team? Despite Australia winning the first game handsomely, then blowing the second game terribly, the accusations remained. The selectors did not help their cause by giving both Usman Khawaja and Steve Smith only one game each before sending them back to their state squads.
However, when, for the final three games, the 'best' team available was selected, they were then summarily thumped in Brisbane before being in an awkward position when the fourth match was abandoned. What did the media say to that? Drop them? Replace them with who? The guys they had just spent columns telling us were not worthy of a place in the team?

It was not the rotation policy that meant that Australia could only draw the ODI series against Sri Lanka 2-2. It was an inability to score runs, and poor bowling in testing conditions. In two matches, Phil Hughes scored centuries, and Australia won both games. In two other games, Mitchell Starc top scored from number nine. Warner and Bailey made one score each. the rest of the batting was basically a shambles, and that had NOTHING to do with a rotation policy. The bowling was generally wayward and too short. Once again in the testing overs, Australia's plan of attack was slow, short deliveries. It is a terrible plan that seems to go wrong far more often than it goes right. In only one game did a bowler try to bowl full sharp yorkers in the final overs, and it was Moises Henriques who showed the full worth of the tactic, taking 3/15 and helping to win the final ODI to square the series. It was the only time it was tried. The bowling plans were poorly thought out and executed, and that had NOTHING to do with the rotation policy.

With the retirements of Ricky Ponting and Mike Hussey, the constant injury concerns to Michael Clarke and Shane Watson, and the advanced age of the now-spurned David Hussey, it was inevitable that a large changing of the guard would have to occur in the ODI team especially. It's a pity that the media and the public critics of this season's selections have not taken that into consideration. From my point of view, the tactics have been much more in question than the players selected.

More ammunition was aimed at the selectors over the choosing of the T20 team for two matches against Sri Lanka. On the whole, the team selected carried the best-performed players from the recently completed Big Bash. Those players included Aaron Finch, Shaun Marsh, Adam Voges, James Faulkner and Ben Laughlin, all of them at the top of their categories for that tournament. However, the second that any of them failed to live up to that form, they were crucified. Poor old Ben Laughlin failed twice in the final over of both games, faltering under the extreme pressure and probable faulty tactics, and was mercilessly lambasted by all and sundry. And fair enough - it's the national stage, and he was unable to deliver as he would have hoped, but the selectors were rounded on too, despite what appeared on the surface to be a fair enough call in selecting him. Selectors have a habit of being called out for perceived bad decisions, but rarely get the credit for all those selections that work out, for example Phil Hughes in the ODI team this season.
Too much is still made of T20 cricket. It is still hit and miss as to what works. Good cricket is generally rewarded with being caught by a screamer or being smashed over the fence, while poor slogs get edges for six, or half trackers get smashed straight into someone's hands. Twenty20 does not promote technically good cricket, and most games are now being won with just 130 runs in an innings, whereas the promise had been that teams would consistently score over 200. The final word comes from the fact that no one remembers who won a T20 game 24 hours after the match has concluded. If you don't care enough to remember, it can't be good, enthralling cricket.

What the hell is Shane Warne up to? He seems to have lost the plot again, and none of it seems to make a lot of sense.
Firstly he went completely overboard in his confrontation with Marlon Samuels in the Big Bash game between the two Melbourne franchises. You can't grab someone's shirt and pull it (though Samuels did just that to start the whole fracas) and you can't deliberately throw the ball at a player (which Warne denies, but really... it was pretty obvious). For this he was suspended for a game and received a fine. This was probably extreme given similar events in other games around the world, but this is Shane Warne.
Then, in an obvious attempt to stop any chance of he being suspended for the Final of the Big Bash if his team made it (he was on one warning already for slow over rates, and if he received another he, as captain of the team, would miss the following match), James Faulkner was 'named' as captain and went out for the toss. This was obvious, because there was no doubt at all as to who was running the show on the field for the Melbourne Stars, and it wasn't the 'captain' Faulkner. For this he was fined again. This again was probably unfair, as he is just an individual in the team, not the team itself. He again could feel a little hard done by, but the actions themselves should never have taken place.
Then he decided to weigh into the aforementioned 'rotation policy' that has been at the forefront of the news in recent weeks. The media of course would have asked him the question, hoping for just the reply he gave, which then fed their frenzy even longer.

Topping this off, Warne has now decided that Australian Cricket is, for lack of a better term, "up to shit", and that he had the plan that would fix it all, which he began by publishing on his own website.
Where is Australian Cricket At? Part 1
To be fair, Warne was only stating his opinion, and also made reference that "So, to my dream team, I could be completely wrong and barking up the wrong tree", and that these were the people "who I would put in charge of cricket if available and willing". The fact that everything he wrote in regards to selections is just common sense, and no doubt is exactly what the current panel are doing, and that all those people who he named in the other positions are solidly involved in other fields, means that it comes across as nothing more than a publicity stunt. Again, this may not be completely fair, as he obviously has some strong opinions on the way Australian cricket should progress (as we all do). It just seems as though there was not a lot of thought put into this to start with - but that seems to be a common thread throughout Warne's career.

Indian Tour Squad

David Warner
Ed Cowan
Phillip Hughes
Shane Watson
Michael Clarke (capt)
Usman Khawaja
Steven Smith
Matthew Wade (wk)
Glenn Maxwell
Moises Henriques
Mitchell Johnson
James Pattinson
Mitchell Starc
Peter Siddle
Jackson Bird
Xavier Doherty
Nathan Lyon

The naming of the squad for the Test tour of India was preceded by a number of 'leaks', in essence to try and buffer the content when it was finally released in full. To be honest, I was of the opinion that the selectors would take 14 players on tour if they named just one keeper, or 15 if they decided to take a back up for Matthew Wade. The fact that they are in fact taking 17 players for a four Test tour with basically no tour games is extraordinary and unprecedented. It does feel that, in order to justify taking the players that they want to 'develop' for future years, they had to take as many players as they actually have on Australian contracts.
It is a little difficult to comprehend where they will go with this team. My stated disapproval of the continued selection of Shane Watson in his current form and player development is on public record. The selectors will point to Australia's last ill-fated tour of India, when in four innings Watson scored a century, two fiftes and a 30 in his four innings. They will no doubt suggest he is the man to take on the Indian bowlers in their conditions. What the selectors will ignore is two long injury lay-offs in the past two years since then, and a Test batting average under 30 in that time. If the Watson of 2010 was here he would be one of the first chosen. The Watson of 2013 is unfit, has no form and spends more time in the media explaining what he wants to do than he does actually doing it. He will replace Hussey in the team, and on the selectors' heads be it.
With Watson not bowling, this then justifies the selectors decision to find an alternative for the all-rounder's position. They have spent the past month pushing the values of Glenn Maxwell, a player who cannot justify selection as either a batsman or a bowler, but finds himself there as an all-rounder. They desperately want him to develop as a spin bowling batsman, and perhaps in the fullness of time that may occur. But if he is chosen in a Test match with his current statistics, it would be by crystal ball methods only. Moises Henriques is also a bolter, but one who at least has better current statistics with both bat and ball. It would still be a gamble to choose him at 6 or 7 in the Test line-up, but surely less so than that of Maxwell. Steve Smith is the third man in this category, though it is difficult to label him an all-rounder when he has barely bowled in 18 months after choosing to make it as a batsman only (Shane Watson's influence?). His selection is perhaps the most baffling, though as it was leaked to the media a week ago it has obviously been in the selectors minds for some time.
More important for the team was to have two spin bowlers in the squad. England outplayed India just a couple of months ago, thanks mainly to excellent pace bowling from Jimmy Anderson, and the wonderful spin bowling of right arm orthodox Graham Swann and left arm orthodox Monty Panesar. In essence, Australia need the same attack.
Nathan Lyon is the custodian, and is going with little cricket and zero wickets under his belt. The Indian tour will be a real test for him. He has four Tests in spin friendly conditions against batsmen who LIKE those conditions to make a bold statement about his career. In 2010 Nathan Hauritz failed to make any impression through innocuous bowling and strange field placements. In 2008 Jason Krejza took 12 wickets on debut but went the journey in runs conceded. Through a combination of a lack of candidates knocking down the door with bagfuls of wickets in Shield cricket, and a perceived view that he has been the victim of some poor fielding when bowling, Lyon has had an extended run in Test cricket without ever looking like winning a Test through his own bowling. he will go to India, and he will be the number one choice, but he needs to produce something sooner rather than later if he is to retain that position.
The two 'all-rounders' Maxwell and Smith will come into contention if the selectors decide to go with three specialist seam bowlers, as seems likely. However, a second specialist spin bowler was needed on tour, and it had to be a left arm orthodox for Indian conditions. The selectors decided on Xavier Doherty, two 1st class wickets at over 80 runs each in 2012/13, as opposed to Steve O'Keefe, who has 17 wickets at 24 thi season, more than double of any other spinner. I have no brief for O'Keefe over Doherty, and have seen neither bowl in first class cricket this season. But surely statistics don't lie. Doherty has been average in the white ball game this summer, with a couple of break out performances, but nothing spectacular. The dearth of spin rewards in Australia at the moment means there are four spin bowlers in the touring party for India, none of which would be considered a first choice in any other Test team. Troubling times indeed.

The most trouabling part of this for me is what this holds for the tour. By the team chosen, Australia will choose five batsman, a keeper at six who is still struggling to find his best, and five bowlers with a minimium of batting pedigree about them. Scoring 300 in an innings and bowling India out twice looks on the surface to be a very difficult proposition. Maybe we'll all be pleasantly surprised.

Finally - and perhaps most importantly - when will the Channel 9 network rotate James Brayshaw and Michael Slater out of the commentary box? These two are the most painful and annoying pair of commentators currently in operation in the game. They pander, they carry on, they piss in people's pockets, and they show very little understanding for the game for two guys who played at the higher levels.
These two in particular must go. They won't of course, just like Shane Watson is destined to haunt me until he retires (probably to the bloody Channel 9 commentary box). At least for the Indian tour we'll only have Ravi Shastri, Sunil Gavaskar, Laxman Shivaramakrishnan, Saurav Ganguly... oh bloody hell...
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