Thursday, 2 February 2012

A Weak Makes A Year Long

Now that the froth and bubble boys have stopped swinging their bats and the grandpas of Australian cricket have managed to stagger through twenty overs a week dressed like randy psychedelic gay pandas without damaging their potential or pension cheques ... the time has come to examine the health of Australian Test cricket. True, its only February in what is traditionally a September to March season, but if Jack Ryan was walking into an Australian cricket marketing meeting he might be warned if Marko Ramius was the High Performance Manager "be careful Ryan, most things in here don't react well to tradition."

Besides, in a moment the Australian team will be donning the panda suits and playing the less appealing version of T20 ... hence the scheduling later in the season. Cricket Australia knows their stuff. The Big Bash has already opened up the new opportunities it promised. First it gave Australian Test players the perfect format to retreat to and find form and now it has unearthed talent for the Aussie T20 side ... hence Brad Hogg's selection. Don't get me wrong. I'm all for selection being based on form and there is no doubting the Hoggster's work in the Big Bash League. It's just that ... well, isn't Nancy pissed off?

I just jest, mainly because I still can't take twenty over cricket seriously but then I haven't invested any money in it. To treat BBL as a serious selection trial for the Australian T20 team is like saying cows should run in the Melbourne Cup because they graze in the same paddock. If we were teenagers again, BBL would be to Test cricket like your best mates big sister is to marriage: every one tries it once or twice, gets all sweaty and excited but you wouldn't want to live with it for the rest of your life.

In reality, of course, T20 is here to stay and will replace 50 over cricket at international and the equivalent first class level and any talk of a danger to Test cricket belongs to Hanrahan and his fellow church yard pontificators.

Captain Clarke
Twelve months ago, our ICC Test rating was in tatters, with our 5th ranking the worst place Australia had ever occupied. It had been ten months since we had won a series and only Mike Hussey, Shane Watson and Brad Haddin averaged over 40. Only Mitchell Johnson and Ben Hilfenhaus had taken more than 20 wickets and Ryan Harris was the only bowler averaging less than 30. Australia had only won two of nine Tests. Ricky Ponting averaged 29, Michael Clarke 21 and new boys Marcus North 20 and Phil Hughes 16. If the writing was on the wall when Australia was all out in 34 overs against Pakistan at Headingley, then the 0-2 result in India - yes, yes I remember the umpiring decision - and the 1-3 drubbing by England certainly spread the writing onto the adjoining walls and out into the corridor.

Ponting resigned the captaincy after the World Cup but it took a four month enquiry to get rid of Andrew Hilditch and his selectors, Tim Neilsen and to set Greg Chappell back into his box.

So, Australia was gifted through panic a completely new structure from top to bottom - even the cleaning lady was restructured into a High Performance Sanitiser, the only job in Australian cricket Geoff Lawson hasn't applied for. Since thecricketragics previewed the 11 Tests programmed from that point until this, it seems circumspect to now review.

Of those four series, Australia won two and drew two, in the process winning seven of the eleven Tests, drawing two and losing only two (South Africa at Newlands and New Zealand at Hobart) and both through batting collapses. In fact, but for 45 overs, their 11 Tests might have been perfect.

The batting in that period is as follows:

M J Clarke18115 *329116768.65200
D A Warner10202 18041952.3890
R T Ponting17152 22183752.31150
M E K Hussey18133 *15083949.35140
E J M Cowan6020 7420634.3380
J L Pattinson5200 *378829.3300
U T Khawaja9210 6520529.2930
P J Hughes13011 12636027.6930
S E Marsh11011 14130127.3640
M A Starc4200 *325125.5010
B J Haddin17220 8035223.47421
S R Watson9010 8818220.2230
M G Johnson9200 *4013519.2930
R J Harris7200 *358517.0010
P J Cummins2100 *131515.0010
P M Siddle13100 4117714.7510
B W Hilfenhaus3000 193913.0010
T A Copeland4100 *233913.0020
N M Lyon12500 14557.8640
Clarke has led from the front with five centuries, with at least one in each series and made at a decisive time. Ponting may not be back to his best but how could we expect him to do what no one else has done before him. It's not what was required. All Australia needs of him is the be only 60% of the man he was and his contributions would be more than enough. His is the biggest resurgence and the least expected by thecricketragics. Like Clarke, his catching has been superb at slip. Hussey has been no less effective and was man of the series in Sri Lanka. Warner and Cowan are plusses with the decline of Phil Hughes and Shane Watson. What needs to be remembered was Watson's poor form before injury. Clearly, the number three spot, looking so secure after Sri Lanka, is still there for the taking.

The bowlers for the period:

P J Cummins4481177106/7916.7137.712.66
S R Watson93.53221813105/1716.7743.312.33
B W Hilfenhaus1684446527205/7517.2237.332.77
J L Pattinson135.53145325205/2718.1232.603.34
R J Harris168.35143921105/6220.9048.142.61
P M Siddle295.27793440105/4923.3544.303.16
M E K Hussey4651104001/027.5069.002.39
N M Lyon269.24183229105/3428.6955.723.09
M J Clarke323943002/631.3364.002.94
M A Starc80.2182708002/3033.7560.253.37
T A Copeland108342276002/2437.83108.002.10
M G Johnson163.5275689002/4863.11109.223.47
R T Ponting6031000   5.16
D A Warner3013000   4.33
Eight faster men have bowled in anger, nine if we count Watson as a bowler not just an allrounder, whilst Nathan Lyon was the only full time spinner. Only Siddle bowled more overs. In the previous twelve months Australia used three spinners (Nathan Hauritz, Xavier Doherty and Michael Beer) and four part time spinners, who bowled enough to be taken seriously (Clarke, North, Steve Smith and Katich). Of the top six, any would make a handy attack but Siddle has been the constant and has bowled well on every ground. The startling stats are the economy rates and in particular the strike rates. For the previous period, the best strike rate was 45 balls per wicket and only three were under 60. Of the "real bowlers", only three are over 60 this year and then Starc only by a fraction. By comparison, look at the follow chart of the all time best strike rates in Test cricket:

Bowlers with Best Strike Rate (Min 50 Wickets)
Lohmann, G AEngland1886-189618801.0364120511210.769/2834.12
Ferris, J JEngland1887-18929533.32517756112.707/3737.74
Bond, S ENew Zealand2001-200918562.011319228722.096/5138.76
Steyn, D W *South Africa2004-511755.3333601426322.877/5140.05
Finn, S T *England2010-12345.47413465026.926/12541.48
Barnes, S FEngland1901-1914271312.1356310618916.439/10341.66
Vogler, A E ESouth Africa1906-191115460.49614556422.737/9443.19
Waqar YounisPakistan1989-2003872704.0516878837323.567/7643.50
Blythe, CEngland1901-191019739.4231186310018.638/5944.38
Spofforth, F RAustralia1877-1887181046.141617319418.417/4444.52
The Demon is the only Aussie on the list but you'd have to think that James Pattinson has made a good start for inclusion! What the Australian chart points out remarkably, is that despite injuries meaning the Test side has used about the same number of bowlers this last year, they have been so much more effective. he catching in the slips cordon is more secure, perhaps because they are getting more match practice. Our quicks have created more nicks because they have bowled a fuller line and made the ball swing. Forgetting dismissals not attributed to bowlers, the bowling group this year took 177 wickets compared to 123 last.

Its always seems to be forgotten that its batting we remember but bowlers who win Tests. For the first time since Shane Warne and Glen McGrath left (and a host of other support staff like Gillespie and Lee), Australia has a bowling group capable of regularly taking the 20 wickets needed before you can sing about your birthright under the southern stars and its not just confined to one or two players but an ensemble.

Its 44 years since I watched Dougie do the double and in all the ensuing years this last year has been the strongest and quickest recovery I have ever seen in Australian cricket and for it to be made under the duress of an administration fire sale, Clark's shaky relationship with the cricket public, doubts about the contribution older players could still make, recurring injuries to the spearheads of our attack, a change of selectors halfway through and a hostile media makes it all the more difficult to believe it has been achieved. Importantly, the skipper isn't happy yet. There is more work to be done, he says, if Australia is to be No 1 again.

Yes there is but I'm a fan as well as a critic and I applaud the start that's been made. Its an old fashioned word and therefore more surprising when its applied to a new age bloke but it dawned on me in Sydney when Clarke declared, probably forgoing Lara's Test highest score and told the media that night a simple message ... what's point of scoring a hundred if we don't win? The word was integrity. I think his kit bag's full of it. That's a bit of a surprise for most of us.

Maybe we're the ones who have been shallow?