Thursday, 22 February 2007

Enough competition yet, John?

A few weeks ago, John Buchanan was bemoaning the lack of competition being provided by England and New Zealand. Two humbling series defeats later and the outgoing coach is having to make assurances all is well in the Aussie camp. But complacency, injuries and hitherto hidden weaknesses mean that is not the case.

Australia’s primary aim this winter was regaining the Ashes: that they achieved in spectacular fashion. Having beaten England in the arena they were notionally superior in, they inevitably thought they would be similarly subservient in the CB Series. That they were – but, after losing five games out of six, the tourists, helped by some uncharacteristically poor Australian fielding, finally awoke. Momentum finally theirs, they proceeded to upset their hosts in the finals – despite missing at least three first-choice players. A makeshift Australian squad then travelled to New Zealand for the Chapell-Hadlee series – only to suffer their first ever 10-wicket defeat and twice have seemingly impregnable scores overhauled en route to a 3-0 humiliation.

While the return of Ricky Ponting and Adam Gilchrist (albeit only for the Super Eight games) will help, Australia’s aura – and number one ranking – has been eroded in time to give hope to the other seven challengers. Andrew Symonds, Brett Lee and now Matthew Hayden, three pillars of their ODI side, will not be fit for the start of the tournament, and will each almost certainly miss the crunch game against South Africa.

Until they are fit enough to play or are withdrawn from the squad, they will occupy places that could be filled with fit replacements; and, given that squads only comprise 15 men, it would be ludicrous for Australia to keep both the injured trio and Gilchrist in the squad, hence leaving them down to 11 names for the start of the tournament. For Buchanan, it seems that nemesis is following hubris.

Areas of Australian concern:

Adam Gilchrist and the revitalised Matthew Hayden are a partnership to fear – but both will miss the game against South Africa, while Hayden must be considered a major doubt for the latter stages. Brad Haddin can be explosive but currently only averages 25, while Hayden’s probable replacement, Phil Jaques, has long proved himself as a phenomenal first-class player but has only played 6 ODIs.

Middle-order batting
At the ICC Champions Trophy, which Australia won in such imperious fashion, their middle-order was perhaps the finest in the history of the limited-overs game. Damien Martyn, a wonderful one-day accumulator, was brilliant at number four; he was followed by the adaptable Michael Clarke, the explosive Andrew Symonds and the consummate finisher Michael Hussey.

Martyn, despite his success in that tournament, retired from all cricket in December. If Symonds is out too, their middle-order will suddenly look less convincing. Their best option is probably to play Clarke at four, Hussey at five, Brad Hodge – who has twice scored unbeaten 90s against New Zealand of late but can be susceptible to the short-ball – at six and Shane Watson at seven. It’s still formidable, but lacks the experience and sheer class of four months ago.

The fifth bowler
Shane Watson is primarily a batsman; though the same could be said of Symonds, he is a highly-adaptable and experienced ODI bowler very well-suited to the Caribbean pitches. Watson, though he has much potential, may be expensive in the West Indies.

Brad Hogg
Possibly Australia’s biggest concern. Many countries will play two spinners in the West Indies; Australia may be forced to play none (save for the occasional bowling of Michael Clarke). Hogg is 37 and his idiosyncratic style appears to have been worked out by batsmen of late – he has gone for 5.9 an over in his last five games. Especially without Symonds, Australia would like a front-line spinner – but can they risk getting 20 overs from Hogg, Watson and Clarke?

Brett Lee is clearly Australia’s finest ODI bowler, a masterful exponent of the yorker with a superb temperament. He is also a sufficiently feisty batsman to play at eight, should Hogg not be in the side. Without him, Australia will have to rely on Glenn McGrath – a liability in the field of late -, the proven ODI swing of Nathan Bracken and either the much-vaunted but slightly inconsistent Mitchell Johnson or the explosive, volatile gifts of Shaun Tait. Of those, the first two could be exposed if the ball doesn’t swing or seam, while the latter two are both unproven and, as shown in recent games, potentially very expensive. Meanwhile, the probable first-choice replacement, Stuart Clark, lacks variety and control of the white ball – he has gone for five an over his ODI career.

If two from Lee, Symonds and Hayden are ruled out Australia’s World Cup side will look eminently beatable. While the batting remains excellent, serious doubts remain over the bowling attack, particularly bowling second; indeed New Zealand have already scored in excess of 330 batting last against Australia twice this year.

Would this side be good enough to retain the World Cup?

Gilchrist (Haddin for group games)
Two from Hogg, Tait & Johnson



Nick Gammons said...

Outstanding analysis, Tim. The Aussies are still strong, but beatable, which should make for a more open, and potentially exciting, World Cup. Just a shame the format drags on, with the 'Super 8s' being the real start of the action.

Richard Lake said...

As fine a one-day bowler as he is, an injury to Lee may work in Austrailia's favour as it would allow them to bring Stuart Clark into the team.

Clark may be going at 5 an over during his career, but I would suggest that it is much less than that over the past few months, and his omission could be crucial.

I'm not sure that Aus would want to play Lee and Tait together and if Mcgrath also got injured, then the control in the bowling looks very thin

Tim said...

Cheers Nick.

Clark is actually going for 6.4 an over over his last 10 games (including 87 in 7 overs in Malaysia against the West Indies). I think him, McGrath and Bracken in the same side may be a little 'samey'.

Richard Lake said...

In which case, I stand corrected Tim! Good piece, BTW.

Tim said...

Clark's just been called up - it'll be interesting to see if he gets a chance.