Tuesday, 20 August 2013

In, out, shake it all about

"If he gets a good run at it, that's what you want. If he can get that run and he doesn't have that fear of getting dropped straight away, he'll do well" - Darren Lehmann on Usman Khawaja, 1st January 2013

A quick footnote to the last blog I wrote - after asking for some consistency in Australian team selection, it's all change once again, as Khawaja is dropped, Watson moved up the order, and Starc continuing his Ashes hokey-cokey to replace Jackson Bird after one test. So to confirm, in the last three tests, Watson will have opened, batted at 6, batted at 4, and will now bat at 3. And Starc's series has read played, dropped, played, dropped, played.

In five tests under Darren Lehmann, Australia will have used 17 players. If England pick Finn for the fifth test, they'll have used 12. England are 3-0 up, and it's easy to see why. A settled side with a clear and obvious set of selections, England have planned this series meticulously. Australia sacked their coach two weeks before the first test, and have approached this series with the subtlety of David Warner in a china shop. Who knows how many of the current squad will survive for the first test at Brisbane?

John Inverarity, Darren Lehmann, anyone in the Australian set-up who may be reading this (unlikely)... come on? Really?

(Though as an English fan, continue the good work chaps)

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Why the Aussies should stick, not twist

So, Australia have lost the Ashes, and it was hardly a shock. Long before Stuart Broad's quadrennial Ashes winning spell, fingers had been pointed, post mortems had been written and the inquests had begun. Selectors, coaches, the media, fans, twenty20, the Sheffield Shield, state cricket, grade cricket and even Sam Robson have all been blamed for the urn not being #returned, and all kinds of crazy theories have been spouted by those in the know (and those who really aren't) about how the Aussies can get back to their former glories.

One way forward, as mooted by coach Darren Lehmann, is to cut the whole lot of them, and start again. Speaking in his post-match press conference, Lehmann said that Chris Rogers and captain Michael Clarke were the only certainties to play, and that everyone else is playing at the Oval for their test careers.

While clearly being used as a motivational tool for his underperforming charges, if Lehmann is serious about dropping the entire side, this could be the worst thing to happen to Australian cricket for a long time - even considering the considerable list of bad things to happen to Australian cricket recently. The fifth Ashes test is a great chance for the Aussies to finally play freely and without pressure - while they have nothing to play for in terms of the urn, they can go and play positively, score runs and shift some momentum their way before the score resets at nil-nil in Brisbane. Attention and focus should be taken off these by-and-large inexperienced players, but instead, Lehmann has pushed it heavily back onto them.

On a cricket level, cutting his losses and moving on from this team would also be a pretty poor idea - mainly because somehow or another Australia have stumbled across a pretty decent side. More by luck than judgement, they've found two openers who complement each other well - one counter-attacking and adventurous; the other gritty and determined, both of whom will fight to the death for Australia. Moving Clarke up to 4 has been long overdue, as has dropping Watson to 6, and they give a much better balance to the batting card. Questions still remain over Khawaja and Steve Smith at test level, but they've both shown glimpses of their ability, and should be backed to come good. This is a side that were the equal of - if not outplayed England for the entire third test, and most of the fourth, but came unstuck against some high class bowlers who got their tails up. Ripping this team apart just as they've come together would be a disaster.

Shaking the team up wouldn't be a bad idea if Australia had ready-made replacements - but they don't. Unless Lehmann's found a time-machine, there really aren't many options, with most of the names (Maddinson, Doolan) touted as potential newbies having only played a handful of first-class games, let alone tests. Contrast that to the near-enough conveyor belt of potential English replacements, and it's clear where Australian problems lie.

Lehmann would do well to contrast the English sides he played against of the 90s; where players came and went with alarming regularity, there was no settled side and no idea over who the strongest eleven was, to the England side he faces as a coach in this series; where a regular set of players are given the confidence of the selectors to perform, and consistent selections are made. Nick Compton and Steven Finn could argue otherwise, but they are the exception rather than the rule, and the exceptional success of recent years compared to the overwhelming failures of earlier owe a lot to consistent selections. Australia have not had a settled side since, well, the wonder team of Warne, McGrath, Hayden and Gilchrist - with new faces appearing, disappearing, then reappearing a few years later hardly conducive to success, and woeful Australian results in the past three years bearing this out.

If Australian cricket is to return to anywhere near the glory years (though I imagine they'd take just being competitive in two consecutive games), an element of consistency has to come in. While they have been good in spells this series, those spells have been few and far between. And what surely can't help it is the constant tinkering with the side, and player's roles throughout. First Watson's an opener who won't bowl, then he's a number six expected to bowl a lot of maidens. The spinner was meant to be Lyon, but it suddenly was Agar, but then it was Lyon again. Clarke wasn't going to bat anywhere else but 5, then suddenly he had to bat 4. Mitchell Starc was playing, then he wasn't playing, then he was, then he wasn't again. Warner got in a fight so had to go to Zimbabwe, then he got parachuted in to bat at six, then suddenly he was an opener. Australia had a really long tail, then they picked three bunnies. How does Lehmann expect these players to perform if even they don't know what he expects of them?

For me, somehow or other, Australia have stumbled across a half decent formula that doesn't suck nearly as much as the team that they started the series with. Lehmann could keep throwing names up in the air and hoping a winning team magically forms, but his best bet is to stick with what he's got, and get them to grow as a unit. Lord's aside Australia have given England a much bigger contest then they thought they were going to get, and throwing this lot away for untried and untested newbies is a gamble that could spectacularly backfire. Lehmann may argue that it's a gamble worth taking as he doesn't have much to lose, but going into the fifth test, these Aussies need backing, not sacking.

Thursday, 1 August 2013

DRS-ting times

The debate about using technology in cricket is not a new one, and on the face of it, should be pretty simple. Unlike sports like football, where a referee's view of an incident is purely subjective, cricket is more like tennis, where technology tells the umpire whether the ball was in, or out. Technology was first used to help umpires on run-outs and stumpings - issues of black or white, in or out, whether the batsman had got behind the line or not. There was no 'benefit of the doubt', margin for error or umpire's call. It was a pretty simple system, and it worked.

However, the Pandora's Box of technology was opened, and we've now arrived at a crossroads in cricket. The DRS system is in place in most international matches (you can take a seat for this bit, India) and was introduced in order to 'eliminate the howler', and to try and get every single decision correct. No longer could a player claim he was robbed by a poor umpire's decision, as he'd be able to make the T, go upstairs and have the decision overruled on irrefutable evidence. Sadly, that is not the case. If a bowler is sure he's made the batsman edge, he can go to the third umpire only to find that it's one of the up to 10% of hotspot decisions that don't show an edge. Or a batsman can be given out for a shady LBW that could have been missing, purely because the umpire put his finger up.

The weighting of the 'umpire's call' is totally wrong. The whole point of technology is to take the possibly wrong decision of the umpire out of the equation, and find if a batsman is out, or not out. We saw a situation today at Old Trafford where Steve Smith was given not out to an LBW from Swann, which when reviewed was shown to be hitting 49.999999% of leg stump. As the umpire had decided to not give it, his decision was upheld, but had Tony Hill put his finger up to the exact same ball, Smith would have been on his way. If cricket is a game of in, or out, how can the exact same ball be given two wildly different outcomes based on a fallible human decision which technology was designed to eradicate?

Saying that had been their final review, and the next ball the umpire missed another plumb leg before call, with replays showing middle stump being knocked out the ground, even though the correct decision would have been out, the batsman would have survived. How is that getting a larger proportion of decisions right? A lot was spoken after the first test that the main reason England won the tight game is because Alastair Cook used the review system a lot better than Michael Clarke. Surely that shows the balance is completely wrong, where using the system is more important than playing good cricket? Technology shouldn't be used to find which captain has the best restraint, or is the better gambler - it should be used to find if a batsman is in, or out.

Too much of the DRS is based on not hurting the umpire's feelings - far too much weight is put on not overturning their onfield decisions rather than making the simple call of in, or out. While opponents of the DRS claim that ignoring the umpire's decision on referrals reduces the men in the middle to bean counters whose jobs it is to solely count to six, if technology is going to be bought in, it should be all or nothing. Captains should be able to review every single ball if they so wish, with the third umpire's decision being the only one that matters and not influenced by whether the latest scapegoat in the middle put their finger up. Every ball should be scrutinised for to see if the bowler overstepped, rather than just wicket-taking ones - a system which is ludicrously unfair and in the batsman's favour. Or, nothing goes upstairs.

The only way the DRS can ever work successfully is if it is given total control of cricket, firing laser beams from the stands towards unfortunate batsmen and giving people out or not out in the post-apocalyptic world that cricket would become. Or, cricket could go back to how it was played for years before, where instead of blaming a bloke watching on telly for making a bad call, they'd blame a bloke standing in the middle holding the bowler's hat. I'm in favour of modernising cricket and making sure decisions are correct, but there can't be a halfway house with technology. In a cricketing all or nothing, I'm voting all. And let me be the first to say, I for one welcome our new technological overlords, and like to remind them that as a trusted cricket blogger I can be helpful in rounding up others to toil in their underground hotspot labs.