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Calamity in Cape Town

My oh my. Australians all over the country are still sitting there, wondering what in the world happened in the First Test against South Africa. Even more so, they are wondering who is to blame in all this. Is it the selectors for not stopping the rot earlier and cleaning out the whole line-up rather than simply the only batsman scoring runs? Is it the players themselves for simply throwing in the towel and not even attempting to counter the swinging ball? Or was it simply that the South African bowling attack had their big moment, and were too good for the Australians?

These are ultimately questions that will haunt Michael Clarke for the next few days until the Second Test gets underway in Johannesburg on Thursday. But is this the watershed moment that Australian cricket really needs, or just something they will continue to brush off, much like the Ashes failure last season seems to be. While Clarke has attempted to frame a strong front in response to the second innings effort, it won’t be until they have to make decisions for the Second Test, and then the home series against the Kiwis that we really see what the new structure is made of, and in particular, what Clarke is made of as a Test captain.

But to really break all this down, I’ll start with the top order, and work through the whole team. Shane Watson and Phil Hughes have come under very heavy criticism following this Test for their failure to create a solid base for the Australians to work off. I said in the series preview that if Watson struggles here, he could well be dropped down the order and allowed to take on a heavier responsibility with the ball. After what happened at Newlands, I think this time has definitely come. His performance with the ball was spectacular (I’ll get to this later), but he still has big problems countering the new ball, and his tendency to play behind his front pad puts him at a massive risk of LBW. Hughes, on the other hand, has been absolutely smashed from pillar to post by every commentator around. He scored nine in both innings, and on both occasions received good balls that moved away from him off the pitch. While some technical deficiencies may be able to counteract this, he was far from the worst batsman in the Test. In fact, his second innings score was more than the rest of the top six put together, and while this is hardly an achievement, it should be acknowledged that he isn’t going as bad as it seems. It also seems to be forgotten that his last innings previous to this was a match saving century in Sri Lanka, something that another three players in that top six have failed to do since November 2010. At 22, Hughes has plenty of Test cricket ahead of him, and I get the feeling that he could become the scapegoat for the rest of the team’s poor form with the bat. If the team was winning consistently, there is no way that Hughes would be dropped, so I don’t feel he should have to take the fall now.

So who should go? There isn’t much that can be changed for the Second Test, and with Shaun Marsh likely to miss the game through the back injury that crippled him on Day Two, Usman Khawaja will come in at number three. But beyond that, there aren’t going to be any changes to the batting. Therefore, as is being said throughout the press, the New Zealand series becomes a major turning point for Australian cricket, but after some reflection, this will probably happen after the home summer. As I said above, Hughes shouldn’t become the scapegoat for this, but changes are needed. I would push Watson down to number six, with Clarke coming into four and Hussey (who did win three man of the match awards from three in Sri Lanka) into five. Ricky Ponting is far from his best, and unfortunately needs to be moved on in my opinion. However I don’t believe a straight sacking is showing enough respect to the batsman who many believe is out greatest since Bradman (if not the best, he is certainly our most prolific). He could bat at number three for the remainder of the summer, in a final farewell of sorts, finishing his spectacular career on his terms (well, at least publicly this way) following the Fourth Test against the Indians in Adelaide. This would mean having Shaun Marsh and Phil Hughes open the batting. and leaving Khawaja out of the picture for the time being. While Simon Katich is the best opening batsman in Australia, I don’t think his inclusion was likely, even before his latest comment about Clarke.

This brings me to the wicket-keeping position. Brad Haddin has been a ‘solid’ player in an Australian team which has struggled. The job of replacing Adam Gilchrist was always going to be a hard one, and many, myself included, thought Haddin to be the perfect person to do it. His work with the gloves wasn’t as good as previous keepers, but it was more than good enough, and his batting was up to the challenge. That was until ‘that’ shot. Brad Haddin’s dismissal in the second innings typified that innings, and in and of itself, should see him immediately dropped. It showed disrespect to his teammates and to the baggy green cap which so many people in this country work their entire lives to earn. There is no doubt that Haddin is an extremely talented batsman and wicket-keeper, and his 36 Test career so far has shown that he was more than worthy of selection on each occasion, but when you represent your country, you represent each and every one of the 21 million or so people that live in this country. It is an extremely hard responsibility, but these people are payed good money to do it, and to throw your wicket away in such a dire situation displays the complete opposite qualities that Australians expect from the people who represent them. It isn’t the best timing since Tim Paine is still injured, but Matthew Wade has been in good form with the bat, and is a great gloveman, so he should be given his debut in Brisbane against the Kiwis.

Now to the bowlers. This may not have been Australia’s problem in the Second Test, but it is still something very worrying. Mitchell Johnson for one, showed all the signs of a bowler out of form and out of confidence. While his decent bowling in Sri Lanka went unrewarded, and as a result his figures didn’t tell the whole story, this was a different story. Johnson seemed to be going through the motions for the whole game, taking just one wicket (that coming in the final 15 minutes of the game). He has taken just seven wickets in the last four Tests, and continues to struggle with the new ball. Unfortunately, Johnson has become too inconsistent for the Australian attack to carry, and even if he does perform in the Second Test, I believe he needs to be dropped to return to consistent form. The other two bowlers, Ryan Harris and Peter Siddle, seem to be one in the same. As I mentioned in my preview, the Australian attack needed Trent Copeland for the proper balance, and this came true in the second innings where the South African batsman had no trouble disposing of the same bowling over again. The role Shane Watson performed in the first innings was one Copeland could do at any time, putting the ball on the spot and swinging it late. As for the spinner, Nathan Lyon, the First Test would have you think he is in the team as a batsman, bowling just three overs in the whole game. While the Australians only bowled 24.3 overs in the first innings, there was no excuse for not using him more in the second innings, where it was clear the other options were not working. You need 20 wickets to win a Test Match, and it is naive to think that you can do this with just fast bowlers (particularly when two of them bowl the same).

Looking forward, I think that an all NSW pace attack could be the way of the future. Ryan Harris should remain in the side for as long as possible, but leading into the next Ashes series, I don’t think his body will hold up that long. Having the combination of Patrick Cummins, Doug Bollinger and Trent Copeland with Nathan Lyon or Nathan Hauritz could be a balanced and successful attack for Australia. Add to that players like Siddle, James Pattinson, Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazelwood, and we have plenty to look forward to. All we need is some forward thinking, and some faith, to pick the attack they want for the next few years, and stay with them. I would even be in favour of playing different bowlers in different conditions (such as Johnson at his favoured WACA pitch), but as long as the foundations are there.

So, after all that, I have two different teams in mind – one for this summer starting with NZ, and one to start from the Caribbean tour this winter.

Team for 2011/2012 Summer

1. Hughes
2. Marsh
3. Ponting
4. Clarke (c)
5. Hussey
6. Watson
7. Wade/Paine (when fit)
8. Harris
9. Copeland
10. Lyon
11. Bollinger

Team for 2012 tour of Caribbean & beyond

1. Hughes
2. Warner
3. Marsh
4. Clarke (c)
5. Hussey (Khawaja to replace when Hussey retires soon)
6. Watson
7. Paine
8. Harris (Cummins when Harris’ body gives in)
9. Copeland
10. Lyon/Hauritz
11. Bollinger

On another point, I feel it necessary to comment on the coverage of the current Australian cricket crisis. Just before sitting down to write this, I heard of the death of former player and journalist Peter Roebuck. While his passing is a massive loss to cricket and sports journalism, it also points to a major problem I see in coverage of cricket in Australia at the moment.

In my opinion, cricket is one of the few sports left in Australia where genuine analysis of the game happens in both the broadsheet and tabloid papers. The three major daily papers in Sydney each have cricket writers who provide expert comment and analysis into the inner workings of the game, rather than simply gossip or puff pieces about the players’ personal lives. Unfortunately, the current issues in Australian cricket have seen other journalists feel the need to provide their own opinions on the sport, the majority of which are unhelpful. I point to an article from Saturday, where one journalist (who has no particular sport they focus on) made a number of ‘observations’ about the First Test. Firstly, they declared that the Newlands pitch was “a turner”, one far from unplayable. Any person who has the slightest knowledge about cricket would know that it was anything but. It was in fact a green-top, a pitch that seams around and has variable bounce due to the extra moisture in the pitch – a far cry from the dust-bowls in India and Pakistan that are actually ‘turners’. Then there was the claim that Phillip Hughes is the classic case of not being able to adapt from limited overs cricket to Test cricket on the tour. They obviously missed the fact that Hughes didn’t take any part in the Australian limited overs games prior to the Test series, and that Hughes was actually coming off a four day tour match and a Sheffield Shield encounter. In the past six months, Hughes has only played one limited overs game, where he batted as sensibly as he has in some time for 96 off 129 balls – hardly playing “ridiculously, swashbuckling shots” as was the idea given. At the same time (and please don’t see this as simply defending Hughes to the death), there was comment of his negligible run-scoring ability, a comment I see as fascinating. From my point of view, Phillip Hughes technical problem isn’t to do with his inability to score runs, rather not being able to reign in attacking shots, or leave a good ball alone. Too often now, we are getting strong (supposedly expert) comment from people with little analytic knowledge of the game, and it is something that frustrates me to no end. Leave the expert comments to the experts.

At the same time, much comment has surrounded the increasing prevalence of limited overs cricket, and its impact on Test batsman. Many people seem to immediately make the link between limited overs batting and the inability to play the moving ball.  To this, I simply can’t agree. It is clear that Australian batsman can’t play the moving ball, but I believe that this is more to do with the fact that Australian pitches are simply too batsman friendly, and that they are rarely challenged at Shield level.

What I do agree with though, is the inability to grind out an innings. This has plauged Australian cricket for some time, but should it really be a problem? Shane Watson isn’t an opening batsman, and hence he won’t ever play that role. Similarly Phillip Hughes isn’t one to regularly grind out runs, but he has shown he can do it in Sri Lanka. I’m happy to reserve judgement on Shaun Marsh until he has played more cricket for Australia, but he does have a brilliant technique, something that is key to Test cricket. Michael Clarke has shown he can do this, as has Michael Hussey. Brad Haddin’s shot shows anything but this. But I feel the problem lies in their attitude towards grinding out these runs. The forgotten heroes of domestic cricket in Australia seem to have an abundence of the qualities that the current Australian team lacks. Simon Katich would never have thrown his wicket away like Haddin. Neither would Brad Hodge. You can probably put Martin Love, Darren Lehmann, Chris Rogers and Phil Jaques in this category. These players would have died for that baggy green cap, and I get the feeling that not enough of the current Australian line-up fit into this category.

Let me know your thoughts by leaving a comment below, or sending a Tweet (@trods2906 or @whosplayingwho).

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