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Monday, August 8, 2016

Australian Cricket's Rendition of 'Eyes Wide Shut'

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Last week I wrote of the 'catastrophic' Test loss by Australia against Sri Lanka in the 1st Test of the series in Sri Lanka. There was even left open for the possibility that it couldn't get that bad again. What we discovered in the past three days was that I probably used the word 'catastrophic' a little soon, because worse was indeed to come, and it was dreadfully, terribly painful. But only if you were an Australian.

This Test was won and lost in the last moment of Day 1 and the first 70 minutes of Day 2. David Warner's dismissal in the last over of the day was atrocious given the circumstances. Real opening batsmen would have seen out stumps - Cook, Vijay, Amla, Latham. There was nothing gain from continuing to attack in the final overs of the day, and the only thing Sri Lanka needed was his wicket, and he gave it to them. Thoughtless. This then was exacerbated by the ridiculous shots from Khawaja and Smith on Day 2, both playing back and almost giving their wickets away. The rest folded quickly, with Rangana Herath producing a hat-trick through the middle order of Voges, Nevill and Starc. The fact that technology awarded the final wicket of Starc, who was adjudged LBW by the video after the on field umpire had given him the benefit of the doubt after getting in a long stride forward and playing a shot to the ball, seemed to indicate it was not to be Australia's day. Being bowled out for 106, having restricted Sri Lanka to 281, meant the Test was decided in that short period of time on Day 2. Bowling the Sri Lankans out for 237 in their second innings in 60 overs was another terrific achievement by our pace bowlers, until Burns and Khawaja again failed miserably, leaving Australia at 3/25 at stumps on Day 2. It was all over before tea on Day 3, Sri Lanka taking the Test by a massive 229 runs, and sealing only their second series victory over Australia.

Entering into this series so confident of victory, Australia's top order has been made to look a shambles. Have a look at our batsmen floundering against the four pronged spin attack Sri Lanka has thrown at them. They are all lost at sea. Even our best player of spin Steve Smith has been made to look a goose at times. David Warner has decided that the way to go is to get as many runs as possible as quickly as possible before the inevitable boom is lowered. We can safely assume that boom comes at about 40, which is what he scored in both innings of the 2nd Test. The problem is that it doesn't build a lot of confidence in those coming in behind him. Adam Voges reverted to the reverse sweep to combat the bowling. Peter Nevill swept at everything. Mitch Marsh stood tall and drove. Usman Khawaja played everything off the back foot. Joe Burns looked to get forward to everything possible. Each variation of batsmen was quickly cut down by an attack who now believed it was only a matter of time before the next wicket fell, and they were right.

Then take a look at Australia's spinners. Completely one dimensional. No change of flight of speed of delivery. No attempt to change the turn or bounce. Each ball followed the next, much like a robot or ball machine. The occasional beaten bat or false stroke only hardened the view that this was the way to bowl. For a man lauded by his teammates and having taken over 200 Test wickets, Nathan Lyon is again proving to be easy meat on the sub continent. In Australia his method of nagging away on the same line and length for over after over has produced wickets by forcing the batsmen to play poor shots. On Australia's flatbed wickets with predictable turn and bounce it has worked for him. His opponents have shown him how he must bowl for success on these wickets - variety and change, not robotic ball after ball. Jon Holland did his best given the nature of his call up, but again there was no variation. Surely Fawad Ahmed, with his over the wrist leggies, top spinners and wrong 'uns, had to have been the better option to tour. Australia are now stuck with the same two spinners for the final Test.

On the other hand, the seamers were magnificent. Josh Hazelwood seems somewhat maligned, but in conditions that didn't suit him at all, he stuck to his task, made it hard to score, and picked up a wicket in each innings. Mitch Marsh, though not utilised as much, also beat the bat again and did his job of plugging up an end. Mitch Starc produced a Test that may be the one he recalls in later years as his turning point. After his petulant and thoughtless bowling in the 1st Test, here he was at his pinnacle. Fast, threatening, accurate, and punishing. he bowled longer spells than usual because he was the only bowler who looked like getting wickets. he beat the bat time and again but was able to retain his composure. He bowled full lengths, and he ripped out the tail through excellent bowling and not trying to knock their heads off. It was a wonderful display of fast bowling on an unresponsive track. What a shame that it was in the same Test where our batsmen failed to show the same application.

It would appear that everyone in Australia can see where the problem lies, but are afraid there is no way of fixing it. Up until ten years ago, Australia had the most diverse conditions in regards to prepared wickets for first class cricket anywhere in the world. If you played Sheffield Shield cricket, then you would face seam and swing in Brisbane, pave and bounce in Perth, a flat and true surface in Adelaide, slow, low and variable in Melbourne, and spin friendly conditions in Sydney. In essence, first class cricketers in Australia had the most well-rounded cricket education in the world, because you had to learn to bat and bowl on almost every possible surface. In meant that, while it didn't guarantee victories overseas, it gave our cricketers a much better chance to have played in the conditions that they faced.
This is no longer the case. Drop in pitches have replaced most year-long wickets areas on Australia's major arenas, as they become not only more multi-purpose stadiums, but require surfaces of a more benign nature. Of Australia's major cricket venues, only the W.A.C.A has been saved from this predicament. Each of the other four venues host AFL in the winter, and their wicket squares only go in once that season has been completed. It means that there is little time to prepare wickets for international cricket to the same standards. The drop in wickets, because they are no doubt grown in the same environments, also become like blocks of concrete, thus Australia has lost that diversity of wickets to play on. They all now play like roads, often becoming flatter and truer as a match wears on, rather than deteriorating and allowing for different styles to come into the game. It might be great for the T20 revolution of the Big Bash, but it is doing nothing for the growth and development of our longer-form cricketers.

As to the final Test here, what can be achieved, and what options do the selectors have? Those in the eleven will be desperate to keep their place, if not to prove they belong at this level, but to ensure their names are still there when they return to the safety and comfort of Australia's flat tracks where they will feel they are better suited to succeed. Given the lack of spinning substitutes, it would appear the bowling line will remain the same. It is likely that perennial one-Test fill in Shaun Marsh will get another crack at that title for either Burns or Khawaja. It would not be the worst decision to give Moises Henriques his chance either, given his ability against spin bowling. It appears unlikely this will occur, but slotting him in at number five in a dead rubber Test would at least give the selectors the chance to see him in these conditions and be able to rate his future accordingly.

No one would disagree that it is good for world cricket for Sri Lanka to have performed well and won this series against a good opponent, especially after the problems they themselves faced on their recent tour of England. It also now gives the Australian hierarchy an exact opinion on their team's abilities in sub-continent conditions. having lost 4-0 on their last tour of India in 2013, it gives the team only six months to find the answers to these problems before their next Test tour of India, where the opponent will likely be even less forgiving than the fighting men from Sri Lanka have been.

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