Wednesday, 22 January 2014

South Africa, Doing No 3's & Belinda Clark

It's a dangerous thing to go to South Africa confident. 

45 years ago, Bill Lawry had annihilated the West Indies at home and just wiped the floor with India in third rate hotels and with substandard food and arrived in a Capetown with a tired team, sick of being on the road and treated like slaves. Despite this, he announced to the South African media that Ian Chappell was the best batsman in the world: more an act of innocence than bravado and one which haunted him all series, as Chappell recorded his worst Test series. Lawry, himself, repeated his poor form from an earlier tour there and Ali Bacher and his outstanding combination of experience and startling new blood trounced the Austrnalians 4-0.

Lawry's letter of complaint's  which was written to the Australian Cricket Board on behalf of the players is well recognised as the beginning of his end ...

... but the flogging by South Africa started it.

In the 41 years since, Australia has never lost there, helped by two things. For 24 years, South Africa were banned and Ausralia have never gone there speaking confidently like The Phantom appeared to be.

With Alastair Cook's men bagged and stuffed and hanging in the trophy room, there is a great danger that Australia might buck that trend ... but for the quiet canniness of Darren Lehmann and the determination of Michael Clarke to do it right. For while the summer progressed and England turned hyena and turned on themselves, Clarke was looking beyond and noticing developments in South Africa. 

This summer, the media and the public have thought England was the prize, but don't be fooled. To road to No 1 has been the only obsessive and repetitive goal Michael Clarke has repeated at press conferences since Lehmann simplified the programs and outlooks of the players. It was mentioned in their first press conference together before the Ashes double header ever got underway. Think back. Clarke keeps saying, to get to No 1, you have to beat No1 and today, that's South Africa. 

It won't happen even if Australia beat them to nil but it will dent Graeme Smith's team and it will put the fear of Clarke into opposition for the next eighteen months.

The team chosen to tour is a good one and reflects that the current selection panel is watching cricket matches, not just having a look at scores in the paper. George Bailey, a key player in the moment that won the Ashes as early as Brisbane - the Clarke sledge at Jimmy Anderson - not only failed to get enough runs but exposed a flaw in his technique that the puff and blow of batting friendly one day wickets doesn't offer fast bowlers the chance to pursue. He had to go and best now. As John Inverarity rightly pointed out, conditions would be considerably worse for him in South Africa.

Alex Doolan is ready to debut. His understudy role towards the end of the Ashes series is a guide to the thinking of the selectors. Ponting has anointed him. His form has been reasonable this season but his luck poor. It's what they see that is attracting the selectors. Much the same can be said for the recall of Shaun Marsh. He has has changed little of his technique but a lot between the ears and following the resurgence of Mitchell Johnson we may have entered a new era in Australian Cricket when players mental health is attended to in a manner beyond punishment but with a view to helping rehabilitation so that these freakishly talent performers are no longer hamstrung by their dark shadows.

Of course, both are specialists in the position Shane Watson holds. With some bullets already bitten, perhaps Australia will start at Centurion, in the middle of February, with Watson at six and a new number three. It would certainly be asking a lot of either of the new boys to bat at three against South Africa's trio of top ten rated fast bowlers. Marsh has done it before. Whoever is picked, it will make no sense leaving Watson at three and bringing either specialist top order bat into the side at six. This was emphasised by Inverarity saying Phil Hughes was unlucky not to be selected ... another No 3.

The return of James Pattinson and Jackson Bird are good moves. With Johnson and Ryan Harris so rampant and effective against England, Australia will need Siddle is currently providing. Pattinson is just the man for the job. He has pace, is aggressive, which will fit the outlook and will respond to Lehmann's direction. 

Last time, the series was drawn. It was the occasion of the dramatic collapse by both sides which saw them compete an innings each in the one day. Less remembered is that Australia chased down 310 in the fourth innings of the second match to square the two Test series. Clarke, Brad Haddin and Johnson all made runs and a man forgotten for his inconsistency last winter, Usman Khawaja, top scored.

We shall see.

Yesterday, the major Australian cricket awards were presented, Hollywood style, at the Allan Border medal. It always chuffs me to see all the glitz and glamour associated with a presentation ceremony named after one of the most plain, circumspect and down to earth blokes to ever pull on the Baggy Green. Never the less, midst all the pizzazz, Mitch Johnson was awarded the main medal and rightly so. In fact, there could be no argument with any of the winners and most followers of the game would proffer no surprise at any of the verdicts ... bar two.

Belinda Clarke and Mark Waugh were inducted into the Cricket Australia Hall of Fame.

Firstly, fame must be a strange term to define, because thecricketragics, whilst recognising that Waugh was a fine player and one of the best fieldsmen Australia has had in any position, he's not up to the company he will be keeping. Perhaps his fine and long playing record in ODI's got him there. After all, he did help win Australia a World Cup. Each of the players before him had more than talent. They had killer instinct and they went on to big scores which removed their opponent from the contest. Waugh hardly ever had either.

Secondly: why has it taken Belinda Clark so long to be elevated to this status. She was good enough to be awarded an Order of Australia and and be selected for the Australian Sports Hall of Fame, but Cricket Australia has been tardy to put her in their own version of sporting immortals. The best they could do was name the female cricketer of the year award after her. Clark was Australia's best cricketer for all the national teams she was chosen for. If she was the same age today as then, she still would be. She was an outstanding leader. Her killer instinct spawned a generation of fearless cricketers which followed and her legacy has been Australian dominance, only now under threat from the touring English. In the argument over the best female cricketers of all time, only Charlotte Edwards, Karen Rolton and Clark are ever mentioned when discussion becomes serious and those arguing against Clark are facing a stiff test to prove their case. Ellyse Perry may complicate these talks in the years to come.

Cricket Australia has improved in the status they afford the women's game but remains a boys club. The long snub of Clark is just another example of that.