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.


  1. Will, interesting Blog, Interesting comments, as usual. The fact that you know some of the protagonists from the inside, but are no longer on the inside (so to speak) allows you a certain independence of thought.

    I would agree with you completely on most things. It is the sort of situation that Duncan Fletcher found. His first move was to identify a player pool and to stick with it, making small changes to cut out dead wood or try someone knew, never large massacres. In contrast, I suspect that Darren Lehmann is going to bow to the pressure and make a slate of changes for The Oval, quite likely using the last two unused players from the 18 (Wade for Haddin, Faulkner for Bird) and bring back Agar (possibly for Lyon), Hughes and Starc, maybe even Cowan for Khawaja too. It will not help things.

    Thinking about this last night the starting point is going to be a new captain. Michael Clarke is probably not going to be able to take the team much further. Identify someone in the Nasser Hussain mould who can implement a long-term vision with the new coach and will be able to see it through over 2-3 years minimum.

    I was writing in 2008 that England were one or two players away from having a really good side. They were and events demonstrated it. Australia are the same right now. It's finding the player and being able to resist the pressures to change if things don't work out immediately. You know how tough that is because you have lived with a side going through that kind of upheaval. Can Darren Lehmann resist the pressures and manage the sort of turnaround that Gus Fraser did? It is an almighty challenge.

  2. Will, there were my own thoughts on the matter. Barring a last couple of lines extracted from my above, written after some reflection, written mostly yesterday morning:


  3. Here's another thought. Australia have just changed the rules on qualification for Shield and Big Bash cricket. Without saying it in so many words, it seems to be basically a ploy to get Sam Robson into the Australian set-up again.

    I gather that he says, privately, that he knows which side he wants to play for, but if he has said which to anyway, they are not letting on.

    Is it possible that we are in a Andrew Symonds situation and that he was not picked for the Lions against Australia because he had indicated privately that he would decline such an invitation until the Australia situation became clearer?

    I am just wondering (part of today's Blog http://spanishturn.blogspot.com.es/2013/08/two-dual-nationals-await-their-chance.html) if England may be about to lose him unless they make a quick counter-offer. It is not impossible that he may appear in both the England Lions squad for Australia this winter and the Australian squad for the Ashes, in which case he really will have to make up his mind.

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