On the changing of the guard
Russell Degnan

I don't really mind losing so much. South Africa are a good side and they played well, taking important wickets to keep themselves in the game, and taking advantage of our extended lapses. They are not a great side though, their batting can be flaky and their bowling same-ish. We could have, nay should have won both games.

What annoys me, is that having ceded the initiative to the South Africans, we then served up the lamest, most defeatist, performances by an Australian side I have ever seen. South Africa had no Waugh brothers heroics, or tense finishes to overcome. They overcame a side that rolled over when confronted with a mere 65 run deficit and best use of the pitch. A side that gifted hundreds of runs to them with defensive fields in the midst of last innings chases. A side with talent, albeit some of it under-performing, but which, right now, I genuinely can't see winning any test against anything above the most mediocre side.

Ponting is a winning player, who plays his most inspiring innings in the direst situations. But he has proven completely unable to lift his side. And yet, I see noone better. Neither Katich nor Hussey are young, and they need to focus on their batting. Clarke is the only other member of the side sure of his place, and yet he has been more culpable than anyone in gifting the South Africans his wicket, and ultimately the series. A player with more batting talent in his right hand than Steyn has in his entire body, was comprehensively outshone by the inferior player, by the mere act of grafting much needed runs.

But it is the selections that are really annoying me. 1970 was a notable demographic milestone. It was the peak year for births in Australia, which until recently, have declined ever since. It was also the peak year for cricket talent in Australia (this is purely a coincidence). It has been obvious for a decade that we had a once in a hundred year confluence of talent born within a year or two, that was going to rise and fall together. Turning over that side was always going to be a challenge, but like a cancerous growth, it was only going to be worse the longer it was left. But by favouring stability in the short term, and always playing the best possible cricketers, instead of building up reserves while the best players could still play, has resulted in a team that still needs to be rejuvenated, but is also in terminal decline, and deeply unstable because of it.

The bleating of Ponting and the selectors that they've been "unlucky" with injuries, is idiotic. Injuries happen, particularly to older players. Five to ten years ago we regularly rotated Martyn, Clarke, Bichel, Kasprowicz and MacGill through the side as players went down. Now we are blooding debutants with other debutants because of short-sided selectorial policy.

And still Hayden plays on. A player that was genuinely great five and more years ago, but has since tempered his bullish home form with consistent mediocrity on his travels, is being pushed to play through two hard tours, even as his presence unsettles those batting below him. A rare chance to sweep away the detritus after a massive loss, to test young talent in a dead test against a good side, is to be squandered in hope. It is deeply telling that the selectors justify this by pointing to Hayden's keenness and training regime, as if his potential replacements are lounging on the beach indifferent to their future prospects.

In his wake the top order is a shambles. This is hidden by the deepest Australian tail since the 1950s, but the first five wickets against South Africa have fallen for 166, 148, 223 and 145. All batsmen fail more than they succeed. It is the way of things, and averages are the result of hundreds, not the scores in between. But the big hundreds, the game changing hundreds, have dried up. Barely a score over 150 has been registered in four years. Katich, Clarke and Symonds have, over the past year, been in career best form, yet their recent averages are in the mid-50s and below. Their lapses while in form, have been more telling than Ponting and Hussey's when struggling. You need a lot of lucky batsmen to win games with pretty fifties.

It is those top order failings, along with those of the bowling that has plunged us into the English dilemma. Our bowling cannot bowl sides out, so we need a fifth bowler to "help" the attack. Yet, our best five batsmen are also insufficient. The persistent use of neither here nor there all-rounders lies in this quandary. With Symonds, Watson and (apparently) Noffke all injured, McDonald is perhaps deserving of his chance. However, all-rounders of this type are a sign of weakness and panic. It is no coincidence that the end of the careers of Dodemaide and Matthews, and the end of the bowling career of Steve Waugh, coincide with the emergence of Shane Warne. Nor that the perceived need for an all-rounder coincides with his (and McGrath's) retirement.

I have faith in the bowling though. Their captain is not helping. But we have fielded worse bowling line-ups, though injury, in the past decade than this one. We shouldn't expect anything more from Lee and Clark. The former has had one decent year in ten, has lost pace and swing and never had guile. The latter could prove useful in England. When fit, both should be sent to county cricket to prepare. The idea that adequate preparation could emerge from bowling four over stints in the IPL is ludicrous. If the conservatism of the current selectors sees both arrive on English shores with neither form nor fitness, then we may as well pass the trophy over now.

In Johnson, Siddle, Krejza and even Hauritz (who may not be Shane Warne, but could do a passable impression of Tim May) there is some hope. Well used they could be effective. Not win every game anywhere, anytime, effective. But they are good enough to beat England, and haven't been without success against South Africa. Outside them there are certainly options; young options who need games behind them. In its own way this is an exciting period in Australian cricket. As the early 90s side of Border was nervously rolled over through the mid-90s, so might the new crop turn out to be champions. They may never be as good as the side of the past decade, but there is no reason to think they couldn't beat all-comers.

It is just that, at the moment, we don't know, and won't know, because neither the selectors, nor the captain, seem to believe they can win. And if you don't believe you can win, you won't.

Idle Summers 1st January, 2009 10:53:17   [#] 

Comments

On the changing of the guard
Excellent assessment Russ. You've expressed everything I have felt about the current situation precisely.

Especially pertinent are your comments on Pup. His reliance on luck and failure to go on and score big is currently being clouded by his seemingly good average. These are his best of times yet he has failed to grasp them firmly.

Bravo
pat  6th January, 2009 23:23:31  

On the changing of the guard
thanks Pat. Clarke is getting better, I hope. We'll need him to be. I also really liked the way the team played in Sydney, because it was the young players who ultimately won us the game. There is something liberating about watching a side find its feet.
Russ  12th January, 2009 09:48:30