The mysteries of consistent performance, ratings 16th November
Russell Degnan

2nd TestAustraliavSouth Africa
Expected MarginAustralia by 71 runs
Actual MarginSouth Africa by an innings and 80 runs

Not much needs to be said about the details of Australia's latest capitulation. When a side gets bowled out twice in 93 overs they won't win matches. When only three of the top four batsmen are worth their place (one barely) then they aren't going to score enough runs. When their bowling consistently splutters to a halt after the first or second burst then they'll continue to leak runs against the lower order - particularly India and England's lower orders. When the continual drubbings get to a side such that the fielding falls apart and the collapse becomes a clockwork inevitability, then you get where Australia are now.

South Africa, incidentally, are playing good cricket. They like Australian pitches (particularly green Hobart pitches) and Abbott and Philander made appropriate hay. But they aren't a dominant world beating side. The problems of Australia really are the problems of Australia.

Which brings us to the autopsy. With one exception, the problems most people identify with Australian cricket have always existed. Selectors picking players on the back of a run of good form, ignoring their extended record, not accounting for their record as teenagers, getting hung-up over all-rounders because the bowling was failing, looking for upside instead of good records or X-factor over competency, or plumping for young players with almost no experience has happened throughout the past three decades. Examples abound, and except those few years when they picked no new players the selectors have always been hit and miss. The only thing you should ask of the selectors is that an argument can be made that it is the best available, and that they back their decisions. If the process is correct then the side shouldn't change, though the results depend on the quality in the side, and sometimes it just isn't there.

The Sheffield Shield has never offered either enough practice for players, nor opportunities for fringe/younger players (particularly spinners), nor enough data for selectors to make decisions from. It is an amateur structure in a professional era, but the best players never needed it. Certainly not the best bowlers, who often played less than a full season before making their Test debut. This, incidentally, is wrong. Players should play Shield cricket earlier in their career to ensure they keep progressing, they should have several seasons behind them on debut, and plenty of matches in different conditions to draw on. They haven't, they generally learn in the Test team, or float between the two until they are ready, at which point they feature in stories talking about their journey to success. But it was ever thus.

The schedule is no worse now than it was a decade ago, or two decades ago. To the extent Australia plays more tours in October now then that is their obligation to international cricket. The price of a consistent home summer. The players used to jump from ODI to Test matches in the middle of Test series. And before that they'd go to work or play grade cricket. Injuries occur roughly as often, though we tend to keep injured players in the system longer (courtesy of central contracts).

As for cultural explanations, perhaps, perhaps not. Sometimes the players coming through aren't as good. Sometimes you need to wait for the next decent lot of cricketers.

The only significant change over the past two decades, and it has likely been damaging, has been the influx of pathways and coaching, and the push for younger and more professional setups in Shield and grade cricket (and especially second XI sides). The downside to this is that Australia is not England. They've never had a large base of coaches because players always learnt from senior cricketers. The absence of senior cricketers (particularly in representative sides) means they don't learn the hard way, and the weakness in coaching (and to a degree playing opportunity) means some may not have learnt as quickly or at all. But this is still likely to be marginal. They are professional players with all the resources a very rich organisation can throw at them, and has thrown at them for a decade. Yet they play defensive shots like school-kids who've never seen a swinging or seaming ball.

Conditions weren't easy in Hobart, and a few players got decent balls, or played terrible shots. But ultimately the point of being a top-flight batsman is the ability to survive the former and excise the latter. They all have records that show an ability to do that (at least in Australia, against domestic bowling). For a side that was number one only a few months ago to produce several of the worst performances in Australian cricket history is actually quite baffling. Whatever is rotten, it is well hidden in the back of the fridge.

1st TestIndiavEngland
Expected MarginIndia by 97 runs
Actual MarginMatch Drawn

There are two perspectives one might take on the English performance in the first Test, a performance that far out-stripped expectations. If it is a performance on the outside of variability, then they will surely regress to the mean, the four hundreds scored will become one, or none; their inability to bowl India out in 210 overs (only slightly less than half of those available) will mean they find themselves on the losing side. If so, then their inability to force a victory - largely, it should be noted, because India batted well, and kept them at bay, rather than because England lack for something - will be seen as an opportunity missed.

The alternative option is that this performance typifies what we can expect from England in this series: a dogged Cook supported by a fluent Hameed, runs through the middle order, and a consistent attacking threat (if not an economical one) from Rashid, Ansari and Moeen Ali, with incisive support from Broad, Stokes and presumably Anderson. In this case, England will likely win the series, on the basis that they will out-score India, and that even here, only Kohli stood between them and a chance at the tail. Given how close they got, the 30 overs the last two first innings wickets faced for 72 runs, and the unused resources in the second innings probably cost them 10 overs. The declaration was well timed, but given they were always likely to need a declaration, England might have began hurrying earlier.

By comparative ratings, by recent efforts in Bangladesh, by the sub-par performance of Ashwin and Jadeja, and the likely pitches to come, the first of these perspectives is more likely. Despite having the worse of the pitch, playing poorly over much of the last two days, and being behind the entire match, India still took a credible draw. Perhaps the pitch made a draw all but inevitable. It seems unlikely however, that England will find pitches that better suit them as the series progresses.

2nd TestZimbabwevSri Lanka
Expected MarginSri Lanka by 184 runs
Actual MarginSri Lanka by 257 runs
Series rating517.0999.0

Despite suffering two significant losses there were plenty of moments to suggest that Zimbabwe is not hopelessly behind the Sri Lankan side. In the first test they were within a couple of hours of a draw. In the second, they too easily slipped from positions where other sides, better sides, would have pressed the advantage. In this test, Sri Lanka were 4/112 in the first innings, but Tharanga (79), de Silva (127) and Gunaratne (116) pulled them to 504. In response, Zimbabwe was 3/173 when Chari (80) was dismissed, but stuttered then collapsed, losing 5/19 to end up at 252. There is no shame in keeping Sri Lanka to 8/258 while they set up the declaration, nor being bowled out by Herath (8/63) for 233. It was inevitable when the earlier chances had been squandered.

Sri Lanka gain little from big wins against a side with barely any weight in their ranking, but they did climb back over 1000. With their young batsmen finding their feet, the future looks substantially brighter than six months ago. Though how they'll replace Herath when the time comes remains to be seen.

Rankings at 16th November 2016
2.South Africa1151.9
6.New Zealand1009.2
7.Sri Lanka1000.6
8.West Indies831.6

16.Papua New Guinea249.9
18.Hong Kong217.0

Shaded teams have played fewer than 2 games per season. Non-test team ratings are not comparable to test ratings as they don`t play each other.

Idle Summers 17th November, 2016 00:23:36   [#]