Sunday, 31 July 2016

If It Ain't Straight, Can't Fix It

Answers? What was the question?
It may be an early call but perhaps the gloss is starting to lose its lustre on the phenomenon that is Steve Smith. The next few weeks will tell as his Test captaincy faces its first genuine Test in Sri Lanka. Its one thing to win at home on tracks you are used to with fans adoring even your false moves but sitting down in the sheds after being thumped a long way from home is an entirely different and more daunting proposition, especially when you are the bloke who has to fix things.

Ask Alastair Cook.

The loss in the first Test against Sri Lanka at Pallekele was marked as much by poor performances from the number one side in the world, as it was by good ones by the far away number seven. Smith went into the series having never lost a Test as skipper, although the pedigree of his opponents and the friendliness of the venues have aided his lack of failure. Only one of the four series he has tossed the coined in has been played overseas and that was just across the ditch earlier this year.

He is a player who engages in mortal combat with his opponent and that aggression has ramped up since he let the white ants loose in his predecessors kit bag and became King Cricket. His opponent in Sri Lanka, Angelo Mathews, plays the game hard but leads from within the group, rather than charging along in front and checking over his shoulder. Its a crucial difference, as is the fact that despite continued failures in England, Smith took the reigns of a successful side. Mathews took over with ratings on the slide and mostly newbees as team mates. It will be interesting to see which group of players is prepared to follow closely and how much that reflects on them or their skipper.

That said, this was a poor performance by the Australians and underlines again their growing reputation as tourists without the skills or often the temperament for a fight. Taken away from the true turf of home, the batting techniques of their top six fail too often to cope with the ball which deviates. Steeple the bounce and the Baggy Green boys lick their lips but make it move sideways through the air or off the pitch and they have jelly knee replacements. Smith used the press conference to offer the same platitudes as Michael Clarke had in similar circumstances - "we have to do better; we let ourselves down; I misjudged my shot". We've heard it all before.

Smith stumped in the first innings
When will Australia's elite cricketers be specifically trained to counter the swinging ball in England and the turning ball in Asia? The question needs to be asked. Australia's only significant series victories on tour in the last twelve years have been their continued hoodoo over South Africa. No surprise there, as the conditions are just like home but elsewhere, in England and Asia, we have only won one series in that time, against Sri Lanka. Its not good enough to hand out hidings to visitors under the blazing sun at home and then play like plonkers overseas.

At Pallekele, a near unbeatable position after day one was turned into a likely defeat just two days later. At Test level, you don't roll your opponents for 117 on the first day and lose the game. You just don't. Ever. The batting from the Australians was poor. Warner and Khwaja threw their innings away, twice; Smith had a brain snap in the first innings when set and then lost concentration in the second; Voges, Marsh and Burns don't have the skills required under these condition. As for the rest, well as much fuss as you want to make over batting for thirty overs and scoring 4 runs in search of saving the game, aren't they the skills you need in sides opting for second, less desirable options and in the end, why was the Australia lower order placed in that position?

In between the Australian innings, Kausal Mendis played a spankingly good innings. In his seven Tests as one of the replacements being tried after Sangakkara and Jayawardene retired, he had shown some promise but not converted it to scores that would change the course of Test matches. He fixed that here. Like the best Test batsmen, he played shots and he defended - all according to need and situation. The Australians kept bowling at his strengths and he kept taking advantage. It wasn't quite as sweet as the 192 Sangakkara took from the Australians nine years ago in Hobart as he blazed away in defeat ... but it was close.

Mendis made a stunning 176
While Mendis, Chandimal and a willing tail batted Sri Lanka into a winning position, the Australian bowlers and their Captain offered little. Starc and Hazlewood, who had bowled so well will the new ball in both innings, had no other variations or tricks. O'Keefe's hamstring didn't want to play and Marsh, despite manfully trying to pull some rabbits from the crease, wasn't able to conjure the miracle Smith kept expecting with ever over. This was harking back to the worst of Michael Clarke's captaincy. Clarke would sometimes experiment too much and things could go astray but they weren't his bad moments. His bad moments came when he lost the willingness to experiment. Smith did on the third day and it was fatal. Perhaps it was fear of attacks from the press but it was a sign that perhaps the gladiator's shield isn't all shine and has a few dents after all.

Lyon deserves special mention. He's a courageous, engaging cricketer. No one has been a harder trier in the last fifty years of Australia cricket. Australia's leading wicket taking off spinner. He has turned himself into a super fielder. That's it. Drop him. He's there to take wickets in the clutch moments and yet, across his career, he so rarely has. For three years now he has bowled the wrong line and has been milked by international batsmen like Farmer Browns cows. You cannot bowl at middle stump as an off spinner because even minnows and beginners - it was proved again here - will keep turning the ball behind square for the single, rotating the strike and easing the pressure. Bowling around the wicket only makes it worse, because lbw drops out of the equation. Look at the statistics. Are first slip fieldsmen grabbing bags full of catches from the ball coming straight on around the wicket? A bowler who bowls the wrong line, averages nearly 33 after fifty five Tests and only takes a wicket every 10 overs should not still be featured as one of the four picked as Australia's best chance to take the twenty wickets needed to win a Test match.

Too many questions and not many answers in sight. Warner will get better - he always does. Khawja plays spin well and will again but his game has never been about his technical skill but always about his attitude. He has enough success as a Test player to want more. Smith isn't silky and class but he's a fighter and he's one player in the team who will hurt and start swinging. It's a matter of how smart he is in those reprisals. Burns, Voges and Marsh - nothing changes. Not up to it in these conditions. Holland for O'Keefe looks the natural progression. Holland is just a steady trundler at first class level but despite their success at Pallekele, the Sri Lankans aren't world class. The quicks were impressive and will still do early damage but Lyon is the key. Is it to late to take him to a locksmith and have new cuts placed on him?

If so, my shout.