Monday, 10 November 2008

Australia - defeated and now a little vulnerable

As many had predicted, Australia did indeed lose their series in India. In the final analysis, they were twice thrashed and shaded one of the two draws: it was a humbling series, leading many to question whether they are the best side in the world any longer. India were disappointing in their recent series with Sri Lanka and South Africa – so, if the latter can gain a draw and a win from their two up-and-coming series, they could justifiably call themselves the world’s best.

Amidst all the gloom, there were three significant positives to emerge for Australia. Off-spinner Jason Krezja made a spectacular debut in the final game, claiming twelve scalps – although his economy rate of almost five illustrates that he received plenty of stick. But a wicket-taking spinner, even one who needs to improve his control, is something Australia needed and may just have found.

Shane Watson, batting at number six, mirrored Andrew Flintoff’s role in the England side. And there were signs the enigma can replicate his limited-overs form in Tests. He found batting hard, but hinted that he is capable of Test hundreds. And his reverse-swing and control evoked Flintoff: he was Australia’s best seamer. That was not saying too much, however, as Brett Lee had a torrid time, Stuart Clark proved toothless and Mitchell Johnson struggled after a fine start. From this vantage point, England will hope to have the better pace attack come next summer.

Finally, the unobtrusive Simon Katich had a fine series, averaging nearly 50. Unlike England with Mark Ramprakash, Australia have ignored age and past Test failings to reward first-class brilliance: Katich, with three hundreds in seven Tests since his recall, is fully vindicating them. His minimalist technique and eschewing of risk, save for the very occasional injudicious shot, made him invaluable at the top, while he even displayed the ability to dominate the bowling. Just as Justin Langer transformed himself from tenacious scrapper to top-order dominator, so could Katich.

But, save for Michael Hussey, the other batting was disappointing. Matthew Hayden fought hard but appears in decline: Australia’s selectors must be tempted to select Shaun Marsh soon. Ricky Ponting faded badly after beginning with a century, ensuring his record in India remains grim.

In the absence of Andrew Symonds and a spinner in whom they could trust, Australia’s team selection and on-field tactics were more confused than for years. Cameron White, a spinner who barely bowled, batted at eight, leaving Australia with only three bona fida bowlers. And Ponting resorted to a part-timer, in Michael Clarke, too much – he bowled only eight overs fewer than White – even though Katich looked the far more threatening spinner. His over-reliance on spin on the fourth afternoon of the final Test led Allan Border to criticise him for putting pocket before country. Had he bowled his seamers instead of part-timers, the over-rate would have suffered more, as would Ponting’s pocket – but Harbhajan and Dhoni may not have been able to share a crucial hundred partnership.

Amidst all the talk of empires ending, it is worth recalling that Australia were beaten in India in 2001 too. But that series was won by Herculean, career-defining efforts from Harbhajan Singh and VVS Laxman; man-for-man, no one thought Australia the inferior side. On this occasion, they have simply been worn down by a side superior in top- and middle-order batting, wicket-keeping, spinners and even, almost incredibly, pace. That is something altogether more worrying.


Nick Gammons said...

Incisive and accurate analysis, Tim. It is not so much that Australia were beaten in this series, but the gulf that was clear between the two sides. At no point did Australia look like they could win a match, even when they dominated the early stages of the first Test.

I'm sure they will fare better at home, but South Africa will prove a stern Test even in fortress Australia.

It will be interesting to see how many casualties there are from this current side by the time the Aussies reach England next summer.

It is also worth noting that for much of the series Australia's run rate was way below their norm, illustrating the point that they were unwilling to take any risks. Katich's selection and batting typified this approach - slow and steady rather than domination.

mick's said...

Some comments on the cricket played by Australia in the final Test and whole tour in response to the article and Nick Gammons comments: The final paragraph of the article is worth paying attention to. I think there are a number of things Australia need to pay attention to and they will.

The toss was vitally important in this series and that made a big difference. Brett Lee bowled well in the final Test only. Stuey Clark had injury worries and was never himself. Johnson is a strange bird. If only he could swing the ball back into the right hander.

I think the commonly held opinion that the Aussies were risk averse echoed in Nick Gammons' point about the Aussie run rate ignores the Indians' tactic of bowling a yard outside off stump with an 8-1 packed field. And before there are the bleating replies about McGrath's 7-2 field settings: McGrath attacked the off stump. There was only one team being negative in this series and it was the Indians. I'd have loved the Aussies to have fought well and lost but they didn't. The captaincy of Ricky Ponting must be now under scrutiny. Nothing will happen as there are no real alternatives. My hope is that he gets good advice from Chappell and Taylor two of the best captains of the past. (I remain one of the few who think that Steve Waugh was a wonderful man manager but a lousy captain. He had no idea about strategy but a wonderful team that did its thing and ran over all other teams. So I'd not listen to him on strategy.)

On the spin problem: Cameron White is a work in progress and to my eye looks to have promise. He got Sachin out a number of times and would have had more important wickets had umpires been willing to refer stumping chances to the 3rd umpire. Jason K actually spins the ball, gets it to dip and beat many of the best players of spin with guile and drift. He was very expensive but he gets wickets.

Things will happen. There are many very impressive players in the State teams. Watch and see what happens. Siddle was actually pretty impressive it seems to me. I am sorry he only got one test. Bollinger is also impressive.

The batting is strong. I am not convinced by Watson, he'd be snapped up by any team, but I remain unconvinced he's worth a slot and if it were a choice between him and Roy, I'd choose Roy.

Hayden had a number of bad umpiring decisions but was not himself. He did well in the final innings but needed to do even better to convince me that he will be a part of the team that plays the Ashes.

Katich is not really my cup of tea. He may well be successful, who can argue with 3 tons in 6 Tests, but he does not strike me as someone who is comfortable in his role in the team. He attacks in a frantic unconvincing manner. He is much better biding his time, playing his beautiful clean shots and not trying to emulate Hayden.

The keeper has not impressed with the gloves or bat. He may still be injured. He has been reluctant to relinquish the gloves and get well. There is no reason to panic on this score however. Haddin will have more time and there are backups of real quality such as Ronchi should changes need to made.

Tim said...

Interesting comments.

The point about run rates is a very valid one, and highlights the fact this Aussie side simply lacks the supreme self-confidence of previous outfits.

Australia still have real batting depth, but there bowling does look a little short. Krezja had an extraordinay game but his economy rate suggests he will not be reliable, even if he continues to take wickets.

Mick - I'm not quite sure what you mean about Katich. His attacking style seems somewhat uncharacteristic at times, yes, but it's been very successful. An average and strike-rate of 49 this series suggests he got the balance pretty good.

Richard Lake said...

Some interesting points Tim, although the bizarre comparison between Katich and Ramprakash does not stack up in any way.

It's interesting that Aus have felt the need to go with a steay opener like Katich rather than the rather more free-scoring Phil Jacques. It does take away somewhat their ability to change the game at the top of the order.

Krejka didn't impress me at all. Buying wickets when the opposition are accelarating is not what is needed from a test spinner. He looks to me like a poor man's Ian Salisbury.

As for Punter, I guess he's seeing now that good captaincy is as much about having the right players in place. Having Warne or McGrath to throw the ball to makes life very simple. The bowling attack just doesn't have that menace any more.

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