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Baggy Green on the Veld

I was dismayed this morning to find that the back page of the paper carried Rugby League stories.  It’s not even the end of January.  Cricket season is not over.  Let me remind people that Australia will soon be touring South Africa for a very important Test series.  I have stolen the title for my post from a 1950s book, Silver Fern on the Veld.  It is classic detailing the 1953-54 New Zealand tour of South Africa.  But Australia has probably had more classic tours of South Africa than New Zealand and this one is shaping up no differently.

Since South Africa was re-admitted to the world cricketing fold in the early nineties, Australia has toured six times and not lost a series.  This is quite a turnaround to the years leading up to South Africa’s expulsion and most of the series have been fiercely contested, close affairs.  Many of these series were the second of back-to-back, three match series.  South Africa and Australia would play three Tests in Australia, closely followed by three in South Africa.

The first series, 1993-94 (Border’s last series) ended in a 1-1 draw.  In 1996-97, Tubby Taylor’s men clinched the series by winning the first two Tests before the series ended 2-1.  The second Test was a thrilling match:  Australia won by just two wickets after trailing by 101 on the first innings when Healy hit the winning runs with a six.

In 2002, Steve Waugh’s Australian team won 2-1, once again, on the back of a rampant Gilchrist.  And in 2006, Australia, still smarting from the 2005 Ashes, achieved a 3-0 whitewash.

The two most recent series are worth closer scrutiny.  In 2009, Australia arrived in South Africa having lost their home series 2-1.  South Africa was favoured to win at home and secure the number 1 Test ranking.  South Africa were shocked by an Australian team that suddenly gelled (the 1st Test had three debutants) and sported a rampant Mitchell Johnson.  Australia won the first two Tests before being thumped in the third Test, providing a familiar 2-1 series scoreline.  South Africa has no real reason to fear Australia as England currently does but it is worth noting that in 2009, South Africa saw Johnson at his very best, for an extended period, with bat and ball and his form at the end of 2013 may well have stirred some unpleasant memories.  And like I said in a previous post, Hughes and North killed them and I don’t know why at least one of them is not in the touring party.

In 2011, South Africa scheduled an out-of-program, two match series.  That series could only be described as manic and when the dust settled, the teams were locked at 1-1, wondering what it all meant.  I don’t think anyone could understand the folly of a two match series.  In this series, Australian batting set some precedents that still hold.  Clarke held the first innings together with a magnificent 150 while all others failed.  And having dispatched South Africa for under one hundred, the batting line-up displayed a fragility that has never truly been remedied.  Australia was dismissed for 47 and squandered a 188 run first innings lead.  Australia then sensationally squared the series with a stunning performance from Pat Cummins, playing his first, and hopefully not last, Test match.  And the batsmen somehow managed to put together 310 runs for victory.  Just.

In six home series against Australia since 1992, South Africa has not won more than one Test in any given series.  That is something they will look to change in 2014.

Australia has swept aside England in a sea of euphoria.  The bowlers and Haddin conquered all and covered a multitude of batting sins.  On current form, Johnson and Harris are arguably the equal of Steyn and Philander.  But can Mitch keep is mojo?  And can Rhino’s knees hold out?  As for the rest, it is easy to foresee Steyn, Philander and Morkel repeatedly carving through the Australian batting card.  And it is hard to see the tail wagging as it has done so often in the past couple of years.  The selectors have resisted common sense and have not chosen in-form shield players,  players that have positive history against South Africa.  Apparently, they have also chosen to leave Watson exposed at first drop.  If Watson struggled against England in Australia this summer, one wonders how he will fare against a superior attack, in conducive conditions.  Add to that the fact that the Test players have lost a lot of momentum with having to play mind-numbing amounts of Big Bash T20 cricket, or 2nd XI state matches.

I will be surprised if Australia wins the series.  But I will be surprised if it is not a good series with a few surprised thrown in.  The 1st Test commences on 12 February.

Mike Whitney Launches Cricket in Cyberspace

The SCG Test was big for Australian cricket in many ways.  Of course, it resulted in an Ashes series clean sweep for only the third time in history.  And day one saw the official launch of my book: Cricket in Cyberspace.

The book arrived just a few days before Christmas and Mike Whitney was kind enough to launch at 9am in the members area on 3 Jan 2014.

The book is available now and is a collection of the best of this blog between 2002 and 2009.  It also includes 22 original drawings by my friend, Ric Burrell.  For more info on the book and a peek at some of the caricatures, and to buy it, please go to the home page of the dongles site and follow the links.

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It’s not the first five we worry about

Sitting in the Members on day 1 of the 5th Test in Sydney, as Australia slumped to the familiar position of 5/97, the Englishmen sitting next to us explained that it is not the first five that they worry about.  How true it is and how true it proved.

This is not a new angle and has been explored for a year or more as the Australian tail has regularly outscored the batsmen, sometimes by embarrassing margins.  The trend has continued this series but with superhuman efforts of Brad Haddin and the bowlers, Australia has prevailed with joyful ease.  However, looking towards February, a few things need not to be glossed over.

Just to quantify, I have listed the Australian first innings efforts.  On the whole the second innings has been much better but I think that we all agree that in Test cricket, first innings runs are gold.

1st Test – Brisbane: Batting first: 5/100 ( and then 6/132).  Final score: 295 (Haddin 94; Johnson 64;  Bailey 3)

2nd Test – Adelaide: Batting first: 5/257 Final score: 570 (Haddin 118; Bailey 53)

3rd test – Perth: Batting first: 5/143 Final score: 385 (Haddin 55; Smith 111; Bailey 7)

4th Test – Melbourne: Batting second: 5/122 Final score: 204 (Haddin 65; Bailey 0)

5th Test – Sydney: Batting first 5/97 Final score: 326 (Haddin 75; Smith 115)

In all of the above, except Melbourne, when there was no real recovery, Australia more than doubled its score with the last five wickets.  Australia has a major problem with its batting.

The bowling is suddenly great again and from the unexpected source of Mitchell Johnson and from finally getting Ryan Harris consistently on the field.  When he played the 4th Test of the “Northern Ashes” that was the first time he had played three Tests in a row.  He has now played nine Tests in a row.  And make no mistake: Ryan Harris is one hell of a bowler.  In his 21 Tests he has taken 93 wickets at an average of 21.56.  And what more is there to say about Johnson?  It finally looks like his best or close to, is going to be the norm.

A lot of credit has gone to Darren Lehmann for turning this team around.  He is a great guy and is clearly doing a great job.  But I want to make sure that Craig McDermott’s contribution is not overlooked.  Remember the summer of 2011-12?  The bowling was fantastic.  It seemingly happened overnight and McDermott was heralded a hero.  He then inexplicably left the team and the bowling went backwards.  Now he is back and the same thing has happened.  Overnight (or so it seems) it all clicked into place, even more spectacularly than against India.  I think there is more to Johnson than simply McDermott but as the bowling is the reason Australia has prevailed, McDermott deserves a medal or bonus or something.

Australia needs not to make the same mistakes than England has made.  England won the Ashes 3-0 –  what could be wrong?   They overlooked the fact that they had not scored 400 in an innings for 20 Test matches (make the 25 now).  They overlooked the fact that one batsman (Bell) held the batting together.   They overlooked that they would have lost the two drawn matches if not for rain.  And that they could have easily lost the first Test.  It does not take too much imagination to turn 3-0 in 2-3.

And now Australia has thumped England in every Test.  The narrowest margin was 150 runs.  However, if Haddin and Johnson has not saved the innings in Brisbane and given Australia something to bowl at, spectacular as the bowling was, who knows what would have happened?  Brisbane shaped the entire series.  It is the selectors who now need to think carefully before choosing the squad for South Africa.  The Australian attack, very good as it is, will not fire out South Africa easily.  And the lower order and tail will not always recover against Steyn, Morkel and Philander on home turf.  The routing of 47 a couple of years ago should serve as a painful reminder of that.

The Australian camp seems conscious of the need for some changes.  It was discussed before the 5th Test.  When asked if Australia would keep the same 11, Clarke said that it would be romantic.  In the end, they did it, they won and I’m glad they did.  Australia played the same XI for all five Tests.  For the first time in history, a team took 100 wickets in a five test series and it was the same 11 players.  For many reasons, it was a special series win.  But now it is time to look ahead.

The squad needs not to include George Bailey.  I’m not a Bailey hater. He seems a great guy and I’m glad he has had the experience of this series.  But we need to look at facts.  He passed 10 runs in just one first innings during this series – he made 53 in Adelaide coming in with the score at 4-174.  He averaged 18 in the Shield last year and averages 37.63 in all First Class cricket with a top score of 160*.  He’s not the man.

I’m a big Steve Smith fan but the jury is still out.  He has scored two centuries in this series and with Haddin, rescued Australia on both of those occasions.  But aside from those innings, the cupboard is bare.  Failure occasionally needs to be 20 – 40 runs, not single figures.

There was talk of moving Watson to six and bringing in Alex Doolan at three.  I fully support moving Watson to six.  Australia simply cannot have a number three who averages 35 in Tests and has a technique that is inadequate against a moving red ball. Watson continues to plonk his front foot down the pitch to almost every single ball.  He has no back foot defensive game and he shows no signs of changing.

What I am wondering is why Alex Doolan?  I saw him bat against NSW late last year when Tasmania made a successful fourth innings chase.  Doolan scored a century and looked fantastic.  But let me clear something up.  Doolan is not new – he is only newly noticed by the masses.  He is 29 years old and has played 53 First class matches.  And this is where it gets spooky.  He averages 37.92 with a top score of 161*.  Compare that to George Bailey’s stats above.  Why is Doolan considered the man?

The selectors could be forgiven for going with Bailey at the start of the summer – they had little Shield form to go on and Bailey had been outstanding in ODIs.  However, that is not the case now.  Let’s have a look at the top Shield performers.  Stats are not everything but Alex Doolan is 25th in the list of averages.  Surely there are better options.  Is the problem that the top performers have “had their turn”?  Top of the averages is Marcus North with 98.93.  He has played 8 innings and has two not-outs and has made three centuries.  Ignoring guys already in the team, here are some more names: Ferguson, Voges, Hughes and Forrest.

I concede there is a case for overlooking perennial Shield stars if they have been tried at the top level and found to be wanting.  Players of the past in this category include Love, Law, Hodge, Bevan (and Rogers, or so we thought).  These guys were selected for Tests, were dropped but scored thousands of runs in the Shield thereafter.

Here is another name: Phil Hughes.  He has scored 549 runs in nine innings.  He has scored three centuries and is averaging 61 with no not-outs.  He has been harshly dealt with in the past, particularly in England in 2013.  Hughes has become somewhat of a maligned player, probably because of his unorthodox approach.  However, he has immense ability and unlike Watson, he continues to modify his game.  In addition, Hughes is still young.  This Australian team has been revived by senior players.  The team that was “in transition” for so long has not transitioned.  It has transformed but it is not well placed for the long term.   As well as they are playing now, Harris, Haddin and Rogers are all close to the end of their careers unless a Peter Pan potion is found.  Australia still needs some new blood.

As the tour of the South Africa looms, Australia urgently needs to address its batting.  It is ironic that two of the players most deserving reselection for this tour were instrumental in Australia’s outrageous success in 2009.  North and Hughes were both debutants in 2009 in South Africa and both made decisive runs in the first two, victorious Tests.  I suggest that at least one of them should be going in 2014.  Shoot me if you like but I’m voting for Hughes.

The Three Aitches

I think that the last time Australia unexpectedly won a Test series was in early 2009, in South Africa.  At that time the team was literally brimming with aitches – Hughes, Hussey, Haddin and Hilfenhaus.  While the team’s current Ashes victory was not totally unexpected – Australia is always hard to beat at home and the 2013 Ashes was closer that the 3-0 scoreline suggested – the emphatic nature of the victory has been unexpected.  And all with just two aitches in the side.  Very important ones, I admit in Haddin and Harris.  But that is not what I want to discuss.  The three aitches are ‘honest, humble and hungry’.

We have been hiring at work recently and were discussing what we were looking for in the “new hire”.  My manager said he had heard that we should be looking for the three aitches in our candidates – honest, humble and hungry.  I find this a thought provoking combination.  I will set aside ‘honest’ for now, firstly because how do you work out if a person is honest in a 60 minute job interview?  And secondly, because honest is agnostic to the other two attributes – humble and hungry.  These are the two that I find interesting.  I suggested to my manager that you don’t often find ‘humble’ complimenting ‘hungry’.

To illustrate the point, I had to look no further than the Australian cricket team.  To be holistic, I will get ‘honest’ out of the way.  Just like a job interview, it’s very hard to tell if a cricketer is being honest.  Take the homework scandal of last year, for example.  Watson, Arthur and Clarke said a lot of things but who knows what the truth was in that saga?  And then again, I get the feeling that some of those guys can be a little too honest when they have a microphone stuck in front of them, or crank of the Twitter account.  The candor at times causes me to blush.

The Australian cricket team of this summer is clearly hungry.  Ravenous.  They have overwhelmed England with aggression, skill and determination and all of this stems from an insatiable desire to win back the Ashes.  And not just that, to win back some pride.  Australia had gone nine matches without a win and had a horror 2013.  All of that culminated in a desperation to win.

You would have to say that the behavior of the team has not been humble.  Shy and retiring they have not been.  I’m not necessarily criticising that – I’m just making the point that hunger and humility are not often seen together.  After England’s first innings of the series, when Clarke told Anderson to “face up and have is f*#@ arm broken”, I heard some discussion on whether it was possible for the Australians to win graciously – that they only seemed to be able to ‘win ugly’.  One of the responses was that winning ugly was more becoming that losing ugly.

Whether the Australians can win graciously is an interesting question to which we are unlikely to find an answer because I doubt they will attempt it.  The late Peter Roebuck detested this aspect of Australian cricket and his loathing reached a pinnacle in an article he wrote following the MonkeyGate Test (when Australia won in Sydney, with Clarke taking the three remaining Indian wickets in the second last scheduled over of the match).  A lot of people don’t like this aspect of Australian cricket.

At any rate, I don’t expect that the Australian cricket team, nor many Australians, will care.

And for the record, in case anyone pays any attention to the ICC Test Rankings, I have done some research.  Some people may have been aware that despite David Warner’s hopes and aspirations following the successful 2011-12 Indian summer, of regaining the number one spot by the time the Ashes were played, Australia had, in fact, slipped to fifth place in the rankings behind Pakistan!  Using the ICC predictor I can advise that with this series result, Australia has climbed back into fourth place and if England do not win the 5th Test in Sydney, Australia will displace them in third place.  England is utterly shell shocked and it is hard to see them wining in Sydney.  At the halfway point in Melbourne, they were set up to win, but ultimately Australia won easily.

Happy New Year!