Thursday, 18 October 2007

Welcome back to the cricket

September rolls by so fast these days. Footy fever hits the sports mad country that is Australia, with two sides shedding their choking tags in two different codes. And as September finishes, October begins. It is a predictable transition, sure. But with the usual changing of the months, comes a different phenomenon. Whilst all year, Melbourne fans pretend to not care about the Storm, and Sydney fans protest no interest in the happenings of their Swans, it all changes in October. Gone is the local rivalries, the sport rivalry of Rugby and Football, and in is the national sport, the one that never stops, and the one that unites its nation behind one mighty force.

You can scarcely miss the taking down of goal posts, and the uncovering of cricket pitches. It’s tough not to see the big barriers, the regular ground maintenance, and the putting up of sight screens. Some groan, some moan, and some sniff at the sweet smell of leather, willow, and fresh grass.

That’s right, cricket is back down under. The mighty world champions return home from India victorious once again (what’s new?) to gear up for ‘the biggest summer yet’ (a tired cliché, but it’s hard not to agree, who isn’t excited after all?). An entrée of Sri Lanka, a big meaty dish of India, a touch of New Zealand, and the tri series with the first two that always seems to fill you up more than you want it to. It’s all on offer this summer, and it’s not all either. There’s the state cricket, the youngsters and has-beens, all in the most competitive domestic competition in the world. And of course, there’s that familiar sound of willow hitting leather as the nets start to fill up, as young and old gear up for another season playing for their club, and that pain in the shoulder as bowlers start tossing them down for the first time since January.

Of course, the world champions, Australia, are gearing up for their attempts at staying the dominant force that they have been for so long, with the challenge of stopping Muthaiah Muralidaran from breaking Shane Warne’s world record on Shane’s home soil, and of course trying to keep their perfect unbeaten record, stretching back to the 2005 Ashes Series.

It won’t be easy though, with legends Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath, Justin Langer and Damien Martyn all gone, and injury niggles to Shaun Tait, Shane Watson and Nathan Bracken marring their ODI tour of India. So who is stepping in, and can the Aussies keep their amazing test form up?

Matthew Hayden’s new batting opener, and Langer’s replacement, seems to be a two horse race at the moment, with a few outsiders pressing claims as well. Phil Jaques, the long awaiting apprentice, and Chris Rogers, the new challenger but long time performer, are the two top contenders, and the only specialist openers challenging at the moment. Jaques has long been the obvious choice, but a stunning 2006/07 season from Rogers made selectors think twice about this tough dilemma. Jaques had an outstanding Australia A tour, Rogers too was solid, and ultimately it appears to be down to the two Pura Cup matches they will have to impress selectors before the big first test at Brisbane against the Lankans begins. The first match saw the points go to Jaques, one year Rogers’ junior, with Rogers failing in both innings, and Jaques chalking up a well timed century and a half in the second innings making up for just 13 in the first. Of course, there is always Victoria’s best Brad Hodge, looking for a creative way back into the test side after his controversial (and oh-so anti-Victorian) dropping just two tests after a double century, or even all-rounder Shane Watson, who, like Hodge, is without First Class opening experience, but, also like Hodge, has done so in One Day cricket, and is talented with the bat, but Watson is also very injury prone.

With the batting order looking fairly settled, it appears that the next headache for Australia will be who to select in the place of the great Glenn McGrath. The new ball seems certain to be thrown to the Stuart Clark-Brett Lee pair, with the third paceman set to cause a real dilemma for selectors. Mitchell Johnson has been hard to ignore after his annihilation of the Indian batsmen in the ODI series, whilst Shaun Tait’s world cup and late Pura Cup form are also impressive. There’s the more experienced Nathan Bracken, without a test match in a while, and the young swing bowler Ben Hilfenhaus, all staking a claim as well. Stay tuned to the domestic skies is what I say, because there seems to be a cut throat round coming up for those players et al.

Then there’s perhaps the toughest choice of all: The new spinner. Shane Warne is irreplaceable, no doubt about it. Even at the ripe old age of 37, he was still spinning his way past batsmen on a regular basis, and remains the greatest spinner, if not bowler, of all time in many people’s books (including my own) and there are no very obvious replacements at this stage. Youngsters in the frame include Dan Cullen, whose disastrous last Pura Cup season should keep him out for the moment, Cullen Bailey, quite the opposite, from zero to hero last year, and of course there are is the old but gold Stuart MacGill Warne’s long time second, but still one of the best spinners in the world. There is even speculation that one day specialist Brad Hogg could be a good choice, but his lack of results on the FC field for WA makes it an unlikely one.

So many decisions, so much excitement and enjoyment to be had! Ah yes, cricket is back.


Tim said...

Great to have your Aussie view back Dean!

My Aussie team would be:

MacGill, one of my favourite players, has to play in my view: he is the only candidate with a proven first-class record. With Australia's glut of Tests in the next few months, I imagine he'll retire with at least 250 Test wickets.

Stuart said...

Can't disagree with your lineup at all Tim.

Dean did a good summary - Jaques surely has to be given a go. The concern is that the selectors appear to have a massive blindspot when it comes to Watson, and seem desperate to include him no matter what. He is talented with the bat, but whether he deserves a test place on that basis alone - hmmmm.

Richard Lake said...

The inclusion of Jacques is interesting. He had a pretty ordinary summer for Worcestershire last summer (even before the rains came down), averaging only around 30 and being comprehensively out-scored by Graeme Hick.

Strange, and I'm sure this will come back to haunt me, but without McGrath and Warne, that team doesn't look anything like as threatening anymore.

Dean said...

I was a huge Rogers fan but now that he has appendicitis it appears that Jaques is a certainty to open.

My lineup would be the same as yours Tim right now, although I am also a big Shaun Tait fan, so we'll have to wait and see.

Soulberry said...

Even without McGrath and Warne, Australia are a very strong team. from an evenly balanced state perhaps they are slightly tilted towrds batting strength now, but the overall effect doesn't change much.

I'll be following Mitchell Johnson closely - he impressed me since Malaysia. Haven't seen him play longer games though. For me he was the pick of the players (alongwith Symo) on their just concluded ODI tour of India.