Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Family Spat - The Tasman Tango.

Boult and Southee
The Battle of the Dutch resumes in Brisbane tomorrow. Big brother v Little Brother. Baggy Greens v The Black Caps ... and it promises to be one of the most interesting in many years.

Its twenty six years since the Kiwis have beaten Australia in a Test series, so to say they are long overdue is somewhat an understatement of the same ilk as Tony Abbott was unpopular. They came close last time when, after being thrashed in Brisbane by Michael Clarke (139) and James Pattinson (5-28), they pulled off one of the most compelling victories by either nation, in far-flung Hobart. That was four years ago but a lot has happened since.

Are Brendon McCullum's team real contenders in Australia? The common theme of discussions seems to go along the line that they can't cope with the bounce of Australian pitches; that their nice guy persona will easily fall foul and fold under the relentless Australian verbal barrage; that McCullum, in particular, can be got at in that time honoured way we start against touring sides every October - singling out the opposing Captain and setting loose the attack dogs. David Warner has been growling all week.

"to say they are long overdue is somewhat an understatement of the same ilk as Tony Abbott was unpopular"

In the last three years, the Kiwis have lost only one series (England 2013). If beating the West Indies at home (twice) doesn't impress you, then wins over India and Sri Lanka should. At the height of England's powers, three years ago, the Poms couldn't beat them in any of three Tests in the Shaky Isles. Many would say so what? Okay, if you aren't impressed by that, then consider a drawn series in Bangladesh (at least they went there), a win in the West Indies (admittedly, everyone does that these days), but in the last twelve months they drew in the UAE and England*. If it hadn't been for a batting collapse on the last day at Lords, they would have beaten England and no one has won a series against Pakistan in their new home. That's no one. The only time Australia went to the UAE, they lost both Tests comfortably.

*Note: this was the same England who only two moths later had taken the Ashes from Michael Clarke.

What about the World Cup? The Kiwis, unbeatable at home, lost the final in Melbourne after their batting had more brain farts than a room full of pensioners. Good point but not relevant.

Kane Williamson making 132 at Lords
Let's look at personnel. Their batting can still be panicked. Lords last May for example, but its a good line up and ICC rankings back that up. Steve Smith (2nd) is the outstanding batsmen of these two sides but Kane Williamson (7th) , a kid when he toured four years ago, is now a high quality Test batsman who rates above David Warner (9th). After that, Ross Taylor (14), Brendon McCullum (16), BJ Wattling (24), Tom Latham (38) all out rank Australia's next best, Adam Voges (52). Chris Rogers and Shane Watson don't count because they have taken their bat and ball etc.

Most reasonable, close watchers of the game would judge their new ball attack to be among the best in the world and in Australian conditions, especially in Brisbane, the ability of Tim Southee (10) and Trent Boult (5) to hoop the ball about will trouble the Australians, none of which like the ball moving through the air or off the deck. Bounce the Australians and they'll have no problem. Swing and cut is another story. Australia's best in the rankings are a fading Mitch Johnson (6) but its in the bowling that Australia has more depth. If the Kiwis don't get bags of wickets from their new ball bowlers, they will struggle because Matt Henry, Doug Bracewell and Mark Craig have precious little to concern the Australians. By comparison, the form bowler in the few weeks of this new Australian season, Mitch Starc,  will raise plenty of concerns and either of Josh Hazlewood or Peter Siddle, backed by Nathan Lyon, give the Australian's the better rounded attack. They will have to bowl a great deal better than they did in England but home conditions will help.

"If the Kiwis don't get bags of wickets from their new ball bowlers, they will struggle"

One side's strength is the other's weakness, for although the Kiwis lack depth in their bowling, the Australian batting line up is new, even if recycled. Smith and Warner were brilliant in England, with Warner more consistent than his skipper. Smith is a brilliant innovator but coupled with his arrogance, it can be his undoing. After batting superbly at Lords, he threw his wicket away, snicking off cheaply against a moving ball at Trent Bridge and Edgbaston - a deficiency which played the largest part in deciding the series. He had adjusted by The Oval but the series was already gone. Boult and Southee will target that spot again. Warner, by comparison, played two rash shots trying to break the shackles but got better and better against two formidable opponents - Anderson and Broad - playing in their favourite conditions.

Usman Khawaja has done his
homework this time.
Beyond that, lie problems. Joe Burns and Usman Khawaja are on the rebound, neither given a fair go in the past. Burns was dropped after doing almost all he could have and his new Queensland captain is having his fourth or fifth go, having been treated abysmally across a stop/start Test career. Adam Voges was out too often to balls he could have left in England and will be better for playing at home but again, he likes bounce in the pitch not the moving ball. Mitch Marsh has talent, but his bowling is keeping him in the side to date, not a great credential for your #6.

The Australian bowling in England was poor. Johnson seemed to be constantly in third gear and on the few occasions he lifted to his threatening best, he seemed to quickly retreat and opt for line and length. It was like watching a Ferrari on the school pick up run. Hazlewood was like your first girlfriend - lots of promise but no results. He lost his way and in the end, Root, Cook and Bell neutralised him and he didn't know what length to bowl and where to aim. Siddle was by far the best bowler and he didn't get to play until it was all over, red rover. One wonders if the selectors will be prepared to make the same mistake in this series. Media talk has mentioned his age but he's three years younger than Johnson! Lyon did his job in the Old Dart and will do it again here but let's not rely on him routing the Kiwis on the last day of a Test.

"Johnson in England was like watching a Ferrari on the school pick up run"

It hurts to say it but Starc is the trump. In 22 Tests, his best return in an innings was six for a lot and in a match, eight for a lot more, when he picked up cheap tricks at the end of the innings. There is no doubt he is the best white ball bowler in the world and recently, decent with the pink - an asset in Adelaide - but its the red ball that counts and until now, the longer the event, the less likely he seems to be able to sustain a performance. For Australia to get on top of this Kiwi batting line up, he will need to fire. There can be no off days, because they will rip 350 off 90 overs while he tries to get his head around how he is feeling on the day.

A lot rests on Starc
The Australian selectors, deservedly criticised  for several gaffs in losing the Ashes, have done a reasonable job for the first two Tests. Cameron Bancroft aside, this is probably the best batting line up available, not withstanding reservations over Mitch Marsh. With a much easier series to follow against a disjointed West Indies side that loves to tour Australia - not especially for the cricket - players like Voges, Burns and Marsh will need to score well or others will replace them. Khawaja may be given all summer to turn style into substance, perhaps because he hasn't been afforded that previously.

Its a shame more bowlers weren't pressing the incumbents. With Johnson aging and losing his sting, Starc unreliable, Hazlewood still new and uncertain and Siddle unwanted, this is the poorest bowling attack the men under the Southern Cross have consistently HAD to assemble in many years. The likely lads have all fallen by the wayside to injury and the cupboard is now more empty than bare.

Brisbane and Perth will be fast and dangerous, which will suit the home team, so the series maybe decided, as was the Ashes, by curators and the whim of the toss. Adelaide, the ultimate gamble, hopefully won't count, for the conditions and circumstances there are truly an experiment and one driven by money more than sporting innovation.

"the Australians are happy to assert their brand and are in your face"

The last gasp is to highlight the significance of this particular Battle of the Dutch. The Kiwis have embraced the spirit of cricket warmly to their chest. It has been a direct and implicit direction in which Brendon McCullum has taken his side. They play bright, attacking cricket but they don't see the need to do anything more than beat their opponent on the field. Off it, its a beer after the game and rejoicing in their luck at being the current custodians of the greatest game of all. The Australians are happy to assert their brand and are in your face, even before the first ball has been bowled. Smith epitomises the modern game; its aggression, its bold new approach to batting and its win at all costs. Both styles are okay but only one is sustainable. Smith's army are more than Baggy Green, they are just plain green - either fresh or moldy - and all but the captain and his deputy are playing for their Test careers. New Zealand, on the other hand, are a settled, resilient, well organised team.

Despite all of this, the outcome could still well be a lottery. Any cricketragic who has earned the title should be salivating.