Apparently the days of being able to write positive pieces on the state of Australian cricket are once again behind us. After a short resurgence some 18 months ago, it seems that players have decided as a collective to take one or five steps back towards the humiliation of the 2010/2011 Ashes series.
Lets put aside the fact that Australia don’t currently hold the Ashes and haven’t won a series against England since 2007. We can also forget that England haven’t lost an Ashes series on home soil since 2001 – and even that was against XI of the greatest players to ever take a cricket field, let alone arguably the greatest side ever assembled. For arguments sake, lets even assume that Australia weren’t humbled by India earlier this year and aren’t looking out of their depth in the ICC Champions Trophy. Even when you decide to willfully blind yourself to the relatively depressing state of Australian cricket, Michael Clarke’s men need a minor miracle to remain in one piece over the coming months, let alone win back Ashes urn. Without part-taking in an Australia’s favourite past time and unabashedly slamming everything possessing even a remote association with Chairman of Selectors John Inverarity, there are three deeply entrenched yet addressable issues concerning Cricket Australia address before they can consider themselves a chance at being competitive come the 1st Test at Trent Bridge begins on July 10.
Michael Clarke’s Back Injury
Very few teams in the history of sport, let alone cricket, have been able to overcome the loss of their best player. The injury cloud that has loomed over the Australian captain for much of his career and threatens to prematurely end it is has once again become a major talking point just 4 weeks out from the 1st Ashes Test. Should Clarke be deemed unfit, Australia’s highest averaging Test batsman would be David Warner at 39.46 followed by Shane Watson and Brad Haddin who have been mediocre at best over the extent of their careers, averaging just shy of 36 with the bat.
With Australia’s batting depth already horribly exposed, the loss of Clarke would mean not only an inferior batsman would enter the fray, but an inexperienced one with little or no experience either internationally or in England. With no other current Australian player having actually been involved in a winning Ashes campaign and most of the test batting line-up horribly vulnerable to the moving ball, Swann and Anderson could terrorize an hapless Australia without Clarke there to somehow muster competitive totals.
Captaincy would also become a primary concern with Brad Haddin’s appointment as vice-captain for the Tour of England creating as many questions as it solved. In Clarke’s absence, it is almost certain that the veteran keeper would be selected as a specialist batsman, leaving Matthew Wade with the gloves and only 5 specialist batting positions available. Assuming Hughes, Cowan, Watson and Warner comprise the top order and 4 specialist bowlers are selected, Australia is left with a concerning inflexibility.
In all likelihood, Clarke will play regardless of whether he is at 100% or even 80% fitness. The doubt regarding whether the man who has single-handedly salvaged national pride from the hands of several opposition over the past two years is undoubtedly a concern for Australian players and management; an issue not made better by the evident lack of leadership and quality within the sides Champions Trophy campaign thus far.
The sense of entitlement that appears endemic within the Australian camp has to go. It is one thing to know when you’re good and to flaunt it, but it is a whole different story when your performances fail to back up your inflated ego. From Shane Watson and ‘homework-gate’ in India to David Warner’s twitter rant and now his altercation with Englishman Joe Root during the Champions Trophy, Australia’s international representatives, and most importantly the senior members amongst them, need to get their act together.
Jonathan Agnew rightly tweeted yesterday that no professional cricketer should be in a bar at 2am during a major tournament, a point that has somehow been overlooked by most Australian commentators. In a week where Ian Botham stated that England could whitewash Australia in consecutive Ashes series – that’s right, a prediction that Australia will lose 10 straight Test matches – surely the squad would have united in the face of adversity and attempted to demonstrate some semblance of maturity. Instead, one of the most dynamic players decides to get himself internally suspended, all-but dooming Australia to what is shaping up to be a disappointing Champions Trophy.
It is hard to deprive the English of an opportunity to gloat following years in the Ashes wilderness. You would have thought though that the current crop of players – none of whom have won an Ashes series aside from Clarke – would take pride in not fueling the fire. If the precedent set by a drunken Andrew Symonds in 2005 was still in effect, Warner would find his Cricket Australia contract in jeopardy. Instead, the slap on the wrist he received on Thursday night ($11,500 fine and suspension from a relatively meaningless ODI tournament) in his second hearing in recent weeks is indicative of the lower standards Australia’s international players are held to in an era of little depth.
Taking a swing at Joe Root isn’t a massive deal in isolation. In fact, an Australian cricketer in a brawl seems almost iconic. But when a team is constantly criticised for a lack of focus and determination, essentially a lack of effort when trying to make up for technical deficiencies, the little mistakes add up.
The Best XI
Playing well in England is notoriously a vastly different prospect to achieving success ‘Down Under’. As such, it would be unrealistic to expect many break-out performances by Australia’s batsmen in the upcoming Ashes series, with potential victories most likely to come from an established and incredibly impressive bowling attack. Theoretically led by Peter Siddle but realistically spear-headed by James Pattinson, Australia need every fast bowler to have an average of under 30 if they are a chance at reclaiming the Ashes in England. The four candidates most likely to do this are Pattinson, Jackson Bird (injury concern), Ryan Harris (durability concern) and Mitchell Starc, but with Siddle guaranteed selection, only two spots will be made available in any particular XI. As such, Australia has the depth to create lethal attacks to suit all conditions and should do so, exploiting their depth as to give themselves the greatest possible chance of taking as close as possible to the 100 wickets available over 5 Tests.
On the batting front, the story is entirely different with susceptibility to the moving ball and a lack of depth posing serious issues. How many times did impatience and the attitude of entitlement we’ll most likely be speaking about all year cost a batsman their wicket in the recent tour of India? (If Matthew Wade gets out playing an aggressive sweep-shot one more time…). What is worse is that selectors find themselves in a catch-22, with the most talented Australian batsmen the most impatient and as such, the most technically deficient in this area. Ed Cowan’s name won’t go down in history and I still feel his presence within the Test XI is largely questionable, however his attitude and stubbornness at the crease saw him score the second-most runs – behind Clarke – of any Australian in India, even if it was at an insipid strike rate of 37.
Either way, the XI players who deserve to take the field on July 10 will be discussed more between Nick Francis and myself closer to the series proper. What needs to be established now though, is that the order from 1-7 needs to be set as Australia simply don’t have the depth to rotate players based on poor performance in individual Tests. The best 6 batsman should be selected alongside Matthew Wade – an issue in itself – and they should be given the entire series to prove their worth. Consistency is the key and Cricket Australia must realize this if their Test side is to have any confidence come the 2013/2014 Ashes series at home and their most realistic chance of taking back the prized urn.
All potential selections on the bowling front know that they’re world class and should in turn tolerate rotation on a conditions basis. On the batting front however, only Michael Clarke can honestly believe that they’re a world-class player, meaning that a side needs to be picked and faith needs to be instilled in it for there to be any chance of building a squad capable of winning a series against quality opposition in the near future.
For one fruitful summer back in 2011/2012, it seemed that the ‘rebuilding phase’ Australian fans had talked up as the greatest challenge to face Australian cricket since the 1980s was over in under two years. Instead, that 4-0 sweep of India lulled the population into a false sense of security as once again, Australia finds itself a victim of its previous success. The expectation that nothing short of victory is respectable is engrained into the national mentality and without Hussey and Ponting to help this time, a little tolerance of defeat may have to be introduced into the Australian psyche for the next couple of months at least.