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    Australia cricket at the crossroads

    The seven-run defeat to New Zealand was Australia’s 16th since 2008.

    The seven-run defeat to New Zealand was Australia’s 16th since 2008. (Getty Images)

    New Delhi: "Statistics are like bikinis. What they reveal is suggestive, but what they conceal is vital." This oft-used quote by an American professor in the 1960s has been bandied about by sports hacks an uncountable amount of times. If there are any defenders of the Australian cricket team, either in the media or public, who believe that their team’s disgraceful performance in Hobart is not cause for alarm, then here’s a damning statistic.

    The seven-run defeat to New Zealand - on the fourth day, mind you - was Australia’s 16th since 2008, meaning that only perennial minnows Bangladesh and a hopeless West Indies lost more during that period. Those 16 defeats have come in a span of 47 Tests, which is significant enough, but consider that the previous 16 spanned 118 Tests and you don’t need a flashlight to focus on the bigger picture.

    Opening blues

    Since axing Simon Katich, Australia have failed to find a suitable replacement as opening partner to Shane Watson. David Warner’s spectacular unbeaten 123 means he will almost certainly play against India on Boxing Day, but the form of the men in whom time had been invested is worrying.

    The career of Phillip Hughes, the man who had 17 first-class centuries before his 23rd birthday, looks to be derailed after he fell four times to Chris Martin in as many innings, each time caught behind or in the slips to take to 20 the number of times he has been caught by the wicketkeeper, slips or gully in 30 career dismissals. That he has been found out by New Zealand, ranked eighth in the ICC’s Test ratings, is even more damning.

    Hughes has been thrown a lifeline to keep his spot after being named in the squad to face India in a warm-up match from December 19-21, but the presence of in-form Tasmanian opener Ed Cowan puts more pressure on an out-of-form Hughes.

    Absence of solidity at No.3

    One spot below Hughes, Usman Khawaja is not Australia’s biggest problem but he is still a problem. In eight innings at No. 3, Khawaja has just one score in excess of 50, and his failure to score substantial, match-winning or even match-turning innings is doing his team harm. In Hobart, the fact that he batted 78 minutes for seven runs during the second innings was a clear indication of the pressure Khawaja is under. With Shaun Marsh expected to return from injury, the time has come for Australia’s management to look for another spot for Khawaja.

    Muddle in the middle

    Surely Ricky Ponting and Michael Hussey are on their last legs. In September, Hussey was the main man as Australia won a Test series in Sri Lanka, amassing 463 runs in five innings, with two centuries and two fifties while apparently batting on a different planet than the other 21 players. Then came the Tests in South Africa, and scores of 1, 0, 20 and 29. In the defeat in Cape Town he was bowled through a bat-bad gap before, with Australia 13 for 3, playing a truly awful drive to gully first ball. In Johannesburg, Hussey was twice caught in two minds - first, bowled by a peach from Dale Steyn and then rapped on the pads by Vernon Philander.

    Not reason to worry, you say? In Brisbane, Hussey made 15 and in Hobart, 8 and 0. In the first innings he feathered a catch just as he attempted to shoulder arms and in the second he was gone first ball, lbw to Doug Bracewell as Australia lost their third wicket with the score 159. Hussey has bounced back from poor form before - most spectacularly since the Gabba Test against England last year - but at 36 his time is ticking.

    As for Ponting, whose last Test century was 29 innings ago, scores of 78, 5 and 16 still present a poor image of a modern-era legend. The modes of dismissals - lunging forward, falling over, poking and prodding - refuse to subside and Ponting, like Hussey, has failed to convince.

    Then there is Brad Haddin, the third senior player to let his team down. Having come into the two-Test series against New Zealand under a serious form cloud, Haddin scored 80 in the first match and 15 and 15 in the second. The final two digits came as Haddin threw his bat at the moving ball - a hallmark of his recent dismissals - and that can only spell bad news for him as the selectors sit to chalk out the best men to face India. Scrutiny has been intense on Haddin, with Ian Healy recently terming his ‘keeping substandard, and with Victoria’s Matthew Wade averaging 63 in the ongoing Sheffield Shield to go with nine dismissals, Haddin too is living on borrowed time.

    Of the seniors, Michael Clarke has remained largely unscathed through the recent past, with three centuries in his last five Tests in three countries, but his loose drive outside off stump in the second innings in Hobart at a decisive time was blameworthy.

    Absence of a viable third pace bowler

    Former Australia legspinner Stuart MacGill made a pertinent point in a recent column. “Probably the biggest danger for the Australian team and spectators alike is that we might have misinterpreted the success of our young bowlers in the last couple of series,” he wrote. “James Pattinson, Mitchell Starc and Nathan Lyon have all started their Test careers in exciting fashion and there's no doubt they'll have plenty more opportunities ahead. Bowling to Sachin [Tendulkar] and his mates at the SCG, MCG, Adelaide Oval and the WACA will be a completely different experience for them compared to New Zealand on a green-top [at Hobart]."

    MacGill has a point. Pattinson, in his first series, enhanced his reputation with consecutive five-wicket hauls while Peter Siddle - the oldest of the bowlers - toiled manfully. However, the inability of a reliable third seamer left Clarke with little to work with. Starc was largely unimpressive against New Zealand, while Lyon’s success will only truly be gauged against India, traditionally a side that feast on offspinners. Pace sensation Pat Cummins has been ruled out until mid-January, while Ryan Harris and Mitchell Johnson are also in a race to prove their fitness before Boxing Day. Considering Watson’s role as allrounder also remains in doubt, Australia have a major bowling headache before December 26.

    Selection issues

    Australia’s selection panel is also at fault. For too long they have put faith in defective players - Hughes and Haddin, namely - and while losing is an accepted part of sport, the men who matter do not seem to be able to stop the same mistakes repeating themselves. Injuries have no doubt played their part in selection, but if the selectors have not put the issue of fitness management at the top of their agenda, then it’s about time they should. Also, the role of former opener Justin Langer, now serving as Australia’s batting coach, needs to be looked at.

    There’s another adage about statistics: that they can be made to prove anything - even the truth. Even a cursory glance at the statistics involving Australia proves that the truth is out there. And that’s that Australia have plenty to do to compete with India.