From the Blog
Australia’s batting stocks are in crisis
Date: April 04, 2018 / Posted by control
When South Africa steamrolled Australia in the fourth Test yesterday it ended the first series since 2009-10 that Australia has completed a series without a batsman making a century. In that summer however, against the West Indies, Australia won the three-Test series 2-nil. The team scored in excess of 430 three times. Prior to that, the last time Australia failed to have a century maker in a four Test series, was coincidentally in South Africa in 1969-70, when the tourists were hammered 4-nil. In this current series, South African batsmen scored five centuries and their batsmen compiled nine of the ten highest scores across the four Tests. Going forward, with Steve Smith and David Warner sidelined for 12 months, the batting stocks look very bare. Over the past five years, Australian batsmen have scored 71 Test centuries with Smith (22) and Warner (19) accounting for 41 of them. Filling the void is going to be an extremely difficult task, especially given the parlous performance in South Africa. While they were there, Smith (142 runs at 23.7) and Warner (217 runs at 36.2) both had lean series. Cam Bancroft led the aggregate tally with 223 at 37.2. He will be unavailable for selection until the New Year. Tim Paine (215 runs at 43.0) was the only batsman to average north of 40. The fact that he was made captain is no doubt two fold. The selectors certainly respect his leadership abilities, but he is also perhaps the only guaranteed selection in the current top-seven in the medium term. Traditionally, wicket-keepers have been chosen as vice-captains with the likes of Rod Marsh, Ian Healy and Adam Gilchrist all filling that role admirably in recent decades. Given the ‘keeper is charged with traditionally being the team’s ‘voice’ with respect to setting the tone and keeping things upbeat as well as constantly the man looked upon to set the angles in the field, adding the full onus of captaincy on top of that will be a heavy burden. Hopefully, it will not dilute his performances with the gloves and willow. After outstanding Ashes series, the Marsh brothers regressed to the ‘bad old days’ – Shaun (147 at 18.4) and Mitch (176 at 22.0). For Shaun, it was sadly a return to a familiar pattern, one where consistency escaped him. While it was hoped his Ashes showing would herald a new era of consistent performance, this series has allayed that hope. Once again, he was regularly dismissed by balls well wide of off-stump that he parried at with minimal footwork, only to nick to the ‘keeper and slips cordon. Through 32 Tests he averages 37.6. His inconsistency is best highlighted by his six centuries and nine ducks. Turning 35 in July, it is difficult seeing him all of a sudden becoming a reliable rock in the middle order. Brother Mitch, is also at the crossroads once again. He has played 28 Tests for an average of 27.8. Given the frailties of those above him, that sort of output is a concern. Through the four Tests where Australia chased considerable leather, he sent down just 42 overs – 5.7 per cent of the total the side bowled - for four wickets at 42.2. Usman Khawaja again failed to flatter, finishing with 165 runs at 20.6, despite innings of 75 and 53. It was a case of once again floundering away from home where he now averages 25.2 against an average of 59.4 on home soil. Having said that, his home Ashes series over the summer was saved by his 171 in the final Test at the SCG, providing more than half his five-Test output. Peter Handscomb sat on the sidelines as the reserve batsman for the first three Tests before the tour imploded on the back of the ball tampering scandal at Cape Town. He was out first ball to Vernon Philander in the first innings with a late attempt to leave producing an inside edge back onto the stumps. He dragged Philander on again in the second innings while again trying to leave a ball wide of off-stump, falling for 24. It was a tough call on the replacement openers – Matt Renshaw and Joe Burns – arriving in Johannesburg less than 48 hours before the final Test. Burns made four and looked sound for his 42 in the second innings. Renshaw made scores of eight and five, leaving him with a return of 150 runs at 13.7 from his past 11 Test innings. Renshaw led the runs aggregate in the recently completed Sheffield Shield season with 804 runs at 44.6. That is the lowest total to top the aggregate since 1982-83. And therein lies the extended issue for Australia’s selectors. Long gone are the days where the likes of Matthew Hayden, Justin Langer, Damien Martyn, Darren Lehmann, Stuart Law, Martin Love et al kept churning out big runs season after season. Yesterday in TV commentary, Shane Warne floated Marcus Stoinis as a potential saviour in the middle order. He is a classic example of picking a player for Test level in hope rather than expectation. This Shield season he played six matches, batted 11 times and averaged 17.3. At the age of 28, he has a first-class average of 32.8. And yet he is seen as one of the answers in the middle order. The issue facing the selection panel is the dearth of quality batsmen outside the current squad. Very few are putting legitimate pressure on those who are underperforming in the current Test team. And that all adds up to an extremely worrying time ahead. First published on theroar.com.au on 4 April 2018Read More →
Where to now in the ball tampering saga?
Date: April 01, 2018 / Posted by control
We heard the words ‘apologise’ and ‘sorry’ numerous times from David Warner yesterday. But, apart from emphasising his contrition, we learned little more. In fact, if anything, we ended up with the situation being even more muddied. From Warner’s opening statement through to the questions he fielded he wanted to make clear that he takes personal responsibility for what occurred on day three of the Newlands Test. Personal responsibility, that is, for HIS part, something he repeatedly stressed. Beyond that, specifics were thin on the ground, if not non-existent. For Cricket Australia, two questions in particular will be causing concern. Firstly, when asked to say “hand on heart” that it was only himself, Steve Smith and Cameron Bancroft who aware of what was unfolding that day at Newlands he refused to answer. It gives the impression that he believes the sphere of knowledge extends beyond that circle. Both Smith and CA CEO, James Sutherland – through the investigation conducted in South Africa by CA’s integrity officer – adamantly deny anyone else having knowledge prior to, and during, the event. Secondly, when asked if he had been a part of any other ball tampering plots, Warner again refused to directly respond to the question. Two days earlier, Smith vehemently denied that any other ball tampering had occurred under his leadership. Warner’s answers suggest a man who is keeping his powder dry for another time and that time may play out in two ways - through an appeal on the severity of his suspension or a highly paid media ‘tell-all’ interview. It may end up being both. Bancroft has already signalled that he will challenge the length of his ban. Warner has until Thursday to decide whether he will take the same path. Warner was certainly under no obligation to speak openly and candidly at his media conference. On the contrary, he was likely advised by legal counsel to evade any open responses. There have been lies told already in this saga – none more so than the fact that the yellow tape became sandpaper under further scrutiny. If, in future, Warner provides answers to the above questions with a candour that exposes further lies it will be another dagger to the heart of the sport. Warner spoke several times about the Australian cricket team being “my family”. That family is currently highly dysfunctional. Aside from likely appeals, CA will be conducting its internal review which will be charged with the task of investigating the culture of the Australian team. While the reputation of the sport received a massive backhander in Cape Town, it came in the wake of a steady decline in standards in regard to the way the team goes about its cricket. The boorish on-field behaviour increasingly attracted both negative headlines and feedback on social media. Much of the gleeful reaction from the rest of the cricketing world to the plight Australia now faces is predicated on what many see as an arrogant and anti-social team getting its comeuppance. Twenty-four hours after denying he would step down as coach, Darren Lehmann backflipped and did just that. It came, in part, as a reaction to seeing the despair and desperation on the faces of Smith and Bancroft when they faced the music back in Australia. Lehmann admitted that Australia has to change its ways, a point no one would dispute. Why it took this final ignominy to ram home the message is another matter. Another coach will be charged with the responsibility of reshaping how the team goes about its cricket but just who will that coach be answerable to? Sutherland has been in the CEO’s chair at CA’s Jolimont headquarters for 17 years. Excepting organizations - like News Limited – where the boss is also the owner, such tenures are extremely rare. While the financial standing of CA has improved – although it is headed for a hit – under Sutherland’s stewardship, the erosion of standards within the ranks that culminated in the Newlands fiasco is a massive black mark. It is time that fresh eyes were brought to bear. If Sutherland is in situ post-review it will do little to assuage the currently disenchanted fans. The same can be said for high performance manager, Pat Howard. An alienating figure from the time of his appointment, the team’s efforts of late smack on anything but high performance. He must be held responsible, in part, for the current parlous state. Warner mentioned during his media conference that he held a “tiny ray of hope” that he may one day make it back into international cricket. If he ever does – and it seems extremely remote – the team he rejoins will need to be a vastly different one to that which has plummeted back to earth in the past week. There is much water still flow under the bridge for all concerned. And, currently, that water is a very muddied brown. First published on The Roar - theroar.com.au - on 1 April 2018, soliciting 48 commentsRead More →
Australia’s on-field leaders have been banished, but this is just the beginning
Date: March 28, 2018 / Posted by control
Australian cricket has begun its slow journey to redemption. And for the moment, we are all on a drip feed, awaiting the full extent of the sanctions that will be meted out to those who guilty of shaming the game over the weekend. But one thing we know for certain, the Australian Test team is currently a cancerous environment. The on field leadership of the side has been eviscerated, underlining the seriousness of their actions in the eyes of Cricket Australia. The governing body had no option following the pre-meditated cheating at Cape Town that left many Australians – even those who are not rusted on cricket fans – feeling as flat as a week old glass of lemonade. CA had to cauterize the wound before it turned septic and when you hear some of the claims being made this week by those in the know there is an air of toxicity within the changeroom, which has been steadily manifesting over time. Skipper Steve Smith, his deputy, David Warner and the man who actually executed the deed, Cameron Bancroft are all heading home ahead of Friday’s final Test at Johannesburg. Wicket-keeper, Tim Paine will officially become Australia’s 46th captain when he leads the side onto the Wanderers. It will be fascinating to know if the three returning players all sit together on the flight given the stories in the last two days of acrimony and factional infighting within the squad. The returning threesome will learn the full extent of their bans in the next 24 hours. As they head east, Matt Renshaw, Joe Burns and Glenn Maxwell will fly west to join the squad – a trio who have all felt the selectors axe in the past. CA CEO, James Sutherland confirmed the final sanctions will “reflect the gravity of the situation”. Smith and Warner relinquished their leadership duties heading into day four of the third Test but Smith was the only player who was already ineligible for the last match following the ICC’s investigation, having been hit with a one-Test ban. It is impossible to think that either Smith or Warner will ever hold an official leadership role again. Speculation continues that the pair may be sidelined for 12 months. We will soon know. Sutherland was eager to maintain that the trio of players were the only ones in the tour party to have been aware of the ruse but, despite pressuring for the media, refused to use the word “cheats”. Coach Darren Lehmann has been cleared of any wrongdoing. Given the way events played out on that now infamous third day at Cape Town and the vision that we have all seen, Lehmann’s greenlight will no doubt cause much discussion. Just what he said into the walkie talkie to 12th man, Peter Handscomb immediately following the airing by the host broadcaster of vision that raised eyebrows about Bancroft’s actions we do not know. It did however, result in Handscomb going onto the field to speak to Bancroft minutes ahead of the yellow tape he was using on the ball disappearing into his trousers. Sutherland did not say who carried the offending item onto the ground, merely saying, “I suspect some of that will come out in due course”. The Australian team is now looking to move forward from the largest reputational scandal in its history. It will do so under the glare of the most intense scrutiny it has ever endured, akin to the unblinking stare of a stuffed animal firmly affixed on each and every player. Every move in the short term will be analysed for impropriety. And it is for that very reason that the Australian cricket team must change the way it operates. Ahead of South Africa’s last tour of Australia in 2016-17, Nathan Lyon outlined his side’s tactics, saying, “We know where the line is. We headbutt it, but we don’t go over it”. There was open talk pre-series of targeting Rabada verbally in an endeavour to push his demerit points to the point of earning him a suspension. Is that really where the team focus should lay? The mystical ‘line’ was again spoken of publicly early in the series. In the end, Australia crossed the Rubicon – after deliberation among members of the leadership group in the change room – with what it did on the third day at Cape Town. At that moment – which will live in infamy within the sport – the team went from headbutting the line to leaping over it like Bob Beamon in his prime. Worse still it was done with a calculated, premeditated, devil may care attitude. Even prior to that collective brain explosion, cricket fans and pundits were asking where this ‘line’ actually is anyway and why is it that Australia seems to believe it is the arbiter as to where it is drawn. Over time, the behaviour of the Australian team has become increasingly boorish, alienating fans of all persuasions in the process. Steve Waugh’s well publicized tactic of ‘mental disintegration’ has been expanded over time and in the process it has sullied the reputation of the national side. It was made very clear to me many times during my travels to cover overseas series that many of the Australian players were respected for their playing talent but not for their behaviour, some to the point of being reviled. Likewise, teams from other parts of the cricketing world have also pushed the envelope with respect to on field verbal abuse, but it is fair to say that on balance Australia has remained the ‘market leader’. Quinton de Kock’s shaming of Warner’s wife at Durban was indefensible but it came as a result of the verbal haranguing he was receiving from Warner and others on the ground. Had the latter not occurred, the former would likely not have either. While the authorities – namely the umpires – must take a level of responsibility for the way verbal attacks have escalated in recent times, in the end, it is a team’s leadership that governs what level it attains. With seemingly no self-regulation in place, the Australian team has continued to push the ‘line’, and over time, significantly shifted where it sits. They have been allowed to do so because of the lack of intervention from umpires, but again, there has never been an attempt from within the ranks to dial it back. That has to change. Now. This current side has been pious at times in its damnation of other teams and their fans. Warner’s comments – trotted out again in the media in recent days – after Faf du Plessis’ ball tampering conviction on South Africa’s last tour of Australia have shown a complete and utter double standard. That type of evangelical moralising now looks patently ridiculous as Australia has transgressed in a fashion far worse than the likes of South Africa and other recent examples of ball tampering. The holier than thou mindset that Australia has spruiked in the face of other teams’ misdemeanours is now shown to be totally disingenuous and fanciful. Nobody can rightly expect the Australian team to suddenly display the Corinthian values of good sportsmanship for the nature of 21st century sport is well past that. But they need to tone it down significantly to be able to distance themselves from this latest fiasco. Every on field incident where umpires are forced to intervene and each subsequent visit to the match referee’s room will produce a chorus of “there you go, the cheats are at it again” from opposing fans. And it will likely also draw a similar response from many a fan in Australia. There has seemingly been more fall-out from this episode than there was with the Manhattan Project. From the Prime Minister to the man in the street, the response has been damning. Of equal concern for CA has been the comments made by some of the sport’s major corporate sponsors. There are some people questioning whether any of the players should cop lengthy bans although they are very much in the minority. They use the punishments – primarily fines – that have been handed out to players from other nations who have been found guilty of ball tampering as a way of saying CA has overreacted. This case is very different. This time it was a captain instructing and condoning another player’s actions with the direct knowledge of other members of the squad. There is an age old adage with respect to leadership – never ask anyone to do something you wouldn’t. Unlike du Plessis and earlier, Mike Atherton, Smith chose someone else to do the deed after a period of deliberation and consultation. In the end, it is actually refreshing to see CA hold those involved to a higher standard than other nations have. The escalation in things that Australia has done in the endeavour to win indicates major cultural issues within the team. For now, Smith, Warner and Bancroft are gone – for how long we will soon know. The game will march on in their absence. How it does from an Australian perspective, however, will depend on the character displayed by this new look team. That will be driven by Paine and the remaining senior players. And also Lehmann, who in most people’s eyes, bears a lot of responsibility for the slide in player behaviour in recent times. Now is the time for authoritative and decisive leadership. The sport and the fans are demanding it. It has been sadly lacking and it cannot continue to be the case. First published on The Roar - theroar.com.au - on 28 March 2018, soliciting 215 commentsRead More →
Steve Smith must be sacked as captain
Date: March 25, 2018 / Posted by control
This current crisis is a massive test for Cricket Australia. And, if it wants to do the right thing by the fans it needs to sack its captain. After what has come to light since I penned my previous column here on The Roar, it is evident that extremely strong action has to be taken by CA, over and above whatever the ICC deems suitable. Every professional sport survives on the back of its fans and, as such, Australian cricket fans deserve the sport’s governing body in this country to take firm and decisive action. Some have spun the well-worn, ‘everybody does it’ defence.That may be the case, but it is mere speculation until such time as concrete evidence is presented. In this case, the evidence is secondary to the fact that the Australian captain has admitted to orchestrated cheating under his stewardship. All of us speed and if we get caught have to accept the consequences. If you flagrantly and recklessly break the speed limit you can lose your licence. Likewise, Smith deserves to lose the captaincy and a CA imposed playing ban as well for pushing the envelope well past breaking point. CA has said it will follow due process before making a final decision on what penalties it will levy. We await those decisions with interest. In the meantime, Australian cricket will be hammered by all those who follow the sport around the world, and rightly so. Less than a year ago, Australia’s cricketers were effectively holding their employer to ransom when they were demanding a greater cut of the financial pie. One of the central planks of their stance was the argument that they were the most important commodity in the sport’s structure. That, of course, is true. However, the highest profile members of that group have now brought great shame to the sport in this country, and by extension, globally. In terms of the ongoing reputation of Australian cricket this latest fiasco is perhaps the most significant since the underarm incident in New Zealand in 1981. It still gets constant airings nearly four decades hence. Yet, the two actions bear little resemblance. What Greg Chappell ordered brother, Trevor to do was against the spirit of the game. It was not cheating as such as the action was legal within the laws of the sport as they existed at that time. Ball tampering is outright cheating and has always been viewed in that light by the game’s legislators. In recent times there have been other high profile cases of ball tampering – most notably Mike Atherton and the sand in pocket at Lord’s in 1994 and Faf du Plessis’ mint in mouth at Hobart in 2016. Again, there is a glaring difference between those two incidents and what unfolded at Cape Town. Both those men were captain of their team at the time. They chose to do what they did themselves, although other parties were no doubt aware of it. What Smith did was order the newest player to the Australian team to carry out the deed. There is an age old adage about leadership – never ask others to do what you would not do yourself. Smith opted not to take the risk himself but delegate it to the new boy. He does not deserve to hold the captaincy as a result. Bancroft also deserves whatever penalties are thrown his way. He may have been ordered to do what he did but if you are handed a gun and told to use it you still have an option. So did Bancroft and he chose to be part of the ruse. Smith said at his post-play media conference that it was a plan hatched by the leadership group. Who exactly makes up that leadership group has not been expanded on. It doubtless includes vice-captain, David Warner and perhaps the team’s most senior player, Nathan Lyon or the likes of Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood given the issue centres around the benefits that were to be derived by the fast bowlers. Each of those involved needs to be heavily penalised. Smith was at pains to say that coach, Darren Lehmann had no knowledge of the plan That simply beggars belief. It is hard to comprehend that neither he nor fast bowling coach, David Saker were aware of the scheme. If indeed they were not, they should have been Bancroft’s first port of call when he was asked to be a party to the scam. If Lehmann and Saker are found to be even remotely involved in this farce they too need to be removed from their posts. There is no way for CA to spin this. Guilt has been established by confession. Australia has spoken voluminously in this series about the ‘line in the sand’. On this occasion they have bounded over it with flagrant disregard for both the spirit and laws of the game. The resultant stain on the sport in this country will last for a long time. CA has to ask strongly and decisively. The fans and all those who underpin the sport in this country deserve it. First published on The Roar - theroar.com.au - on 25 March 2018, soliciting 229 commentsRead More →
The integrity of Australian cricket is in tatters
Date: March 25, 2018 / Posted by control
The evidence is damning. And the repercussions should be severe. What Cameron Bancroft appeared to do while looking to condition the ball on day three at Newlands is damning. Equally so is the way there appeared to be an orchestrated cover up after the offending vision was seen in the player’s viewing area. The vision as it played out on the television coverage alluded to the 12th man, Peter Handscomb being instructed by walkie-talkie to go onto the field and speak to Bancroft, who shortly after took a suspicious item from his pocket and placed it down the front of his creams. If that is indeed the case, it points to a premeditated act and not merely the actions of one man. The Australian cricket team has always pushed the envelope with regard to its on field verbal barbs – and at times have been proved to go beyond what is viewed as being acceptable banter – but, equally, they have always held themselves up as still playing the game within its intended spirit. That premise has long been questioned with respect to the verbal attacks on opponents. The actions of Bancroft goes well beyond any verbal sparring. It smacks of outright cheating and the prima facie evidence is damning. It will cast a black cloud over Australian cricket and it deserves to be the case. How the ICC deals with this episode will be fascinating. Ball tampering, under the code of behaviour, is deemed to be a level two offence which carries with it four demerit points – which if accumulated in a 24-month period equates to a one Test suspension – and up to a 100% match fee fine. One can imagine there will be a significant outcry if that is the resultant penalty. What is more challenging for the ICC is how it will react to what seems to be a plan that was sanctioned by team management. What action should be taken against the Australian captain and coach? The way things played out it would appear that there needs to be some penalty that goes beyond Bancroft alone. It was interesting to see skipper, Steve Smith leave the ground for a period of time in the final session. It may well have been a ploy to try and get a uniform response in place prior to facing the media after the day’s play. This event will certainly have an impact on the way the fans view this Australian team. It is no secret that in places like the sub-continent the Australian team is respected for its ability but vilified for its behaviour. This series has further enhanced the open hostility that has often been present in Australia-South Africa series. But, for Cricket Australia, the bigger issue is how their own fans will react to this episode. Many have become disenfranchised with the side’s on field verbal barrages. Many voiced that opinion on social media after the opening Test of the series. The action involving Bancroft will likely have a far bigger affect than any verbal slinging match has as far as fan perception goes. The question that many will be asking is just how long such practices having been going on for. Fans rejoiced at the devastating reverse swing bowling of Mitchell Starc that catapulted Australia to a one-nil lead after the Durban Test. Now, many will be questioning if all was as it appeared. Already, social media has included many posts stating that “all teams do it”. Sorry, but that is simply speculation. Like all things in life, people can only be penalised when there is solid evidence. With respect to what happened in the middle session at Cape Town, the evidence is there for all to see. And the Australian cricket team will have to face the consequences as a result. And many will not be disappointed at that prospect. First published on The Roar - theroar.com.au - on 25 March 2018, soliciting 425 commentsRead More →
Finally, we can just talk about the cricket
Date: March 22, 2018 / Posted by control
In the space of one Test, Australia’s fortunes have swung dramatically. After a convincing win in the opening Test at Durban, the tourists entered the second encounter at Port Elizabeth on a roll. That confidence was soon pricked by some explosive fast bowling from Kagiso Rabada and a brilliant century from A B de Villiers. It is now the Proteas who are riding a wave into Newlands, especially on the overturning of Rabada’s series ending ban. Since readmission to international cricket in 1993, Cape Town has proved a happy hunting ground for South Africa – four losses in 31 Tests. However, each of those four losses have come at the hands of Australia – 1994, 2002, 2006 and the last series in 2014. Australia has lost just twice at Newlands in the post-Apartheid era – 2009 and 2011 – with the most recent of those a monumental embarrassment. After Michael Clarke made a magnificent 151 in Australia’s first innings total of 284, South Africa was shot out for 96. The tourists then slumped to a staggering 9-21 in their second innings and looked destined to break New Zealand’s record 26 for the lowest score in Test history before Peter Siddle and Nathan Lyon got them to a total of 47. South Africa ran down the target of 236 with the loss of just two wickets thanks to centuries from Graeme Smith and Hashim Amla. That Test marked the debut of Vernon Philander, whose second innings 5-15 earned him man-of-the-match. Philander was again to the fore in his side’s most recent Test at Newlands, winning another man-of-the-match accolade on the back of 3-33 and a career-best 6-42. That match against India, just two months ago, was played on a pitch that provided plenty for the pace bowlers with the game finishing on the fourth day despite day three being lost to rain – one of the few times of late the arid city has copped a drenching. The match scores were 286, 209, 130 and 135 with South Africa winning by 72 runs. The final day saw 18 wickets fall in just 64 overs. Much was made of the pitches that were rolled out for that series with the hosts aiming to craft surfaces that would suit their quicks, an area where they believed they held a distinct advantage over India. Wary of Australia’s pace armoury, the methodology has changed this series with the first two Tests played on pitches that did not offer a lot early on. Much of the damage thus far has been wrought with the old ball – Mitchell Starc at Durban and Rabada at PE. If reports coming out of Cape Town are to be believed, the pitch for the Third Test will be green-tinged and provide seam movement for the quicks early on. A verdant pitch block is likely to limit the ability to scuff up the ball and potentially lessen the impact of reverse swing. The conditions, however, are unlikely to be as batsman unfriendly as the one rolled out for the India series. At the halfway point of the series no Australian batsman has made a century – Shaun Marsh’s 96 at Durban being the highest score. Conversely, Aiden Markram (143) and de Villiers (126no) have both posted centuries and, had he not run out of partners at Durban, de Villiers could well have scored two. David Warner has posted half-centuries in each of the first two Tests and looked particularly sound on the opening day at Port Elizabeth. Last time at Cape Town he reeled off innings of 135 and 145. In concert with Cam Bancroft, the pair will be crucial to Australia’s prospects if they end up batting on the first day. The duo kicked off the Port Elizabeth Test with a partnership of 98 before being broken in the last over before lunch. Disappointingly, the tourists ended up posting a modest 243, a score South Africa countered with 382. So much of Australia’s recent successes have been built around Steve Smith who, in this series, has been unable to convert starts into significant totals. He has reached 25 in three of his four innings to date but not bettered 56. His fallibility to left-arm spin has continued to be an issue. Three of his four dismissals have come that way – twice to Keshav Maharaj (who has him three times in four Tests) and Dean Elgar, whose dismissal of Smith in the first Test was just his 14th wicket in 47 matches. While Smith’s record against spin does not match the travails that Usman Khawaja has been renowned for it is an area that opposing captains will likely to continue to exploit. He averages 37.2 against left-arm finger-spin while against other varieties of bowling he averages 49 or over. If South Africa can continue to keep him under wraps. Australia’s chances are greatly diminished. Conversely, de Villiers has proven to be a massive stumbling block – 225 runs at 112.5. It appeared Australia’s bowlers lacked a genuine game plan against him during his match-defining unbeaten century at Port Elizabeth. In that Test, he was greatly aided by the dogged stand between Elgar (57 off 197 balls) and Hashim Amla (56 off 145). While they added only 43 in the middle session on the second day it blunted the Australian attack from overs 40 to 66 when the ball was reversing. Australia’s batsmen need to produce similar stands in the back half of the series when the conditions are favourable to Rabada, in particular. There will be a close watch on Mitchell Starc who comes into the match under nursing a calf complaint. After a man-of-the-match performance in the opening Test he returned figures of 1-125 at Port Elizabeth. His precision with the old ball at Durban was one of the keys in Australia going 1-nil up. Mitch Marsh is recovering from a groin strain. Whilst he gets limited time at the bowling crease he has struck a couple of crucial blows in this series. All in all, the third Test looms as another fascinating encounter. Whichever way it goes the series will still be live when the teams step out at Johannesburg for the final match of the series. Let us just hope that the major talking points in the last half of the series centre on on-field performances with both bat and ball. It would make a pleasant change. First published on The Roar - theroar.com.au - on 22 March 2018, soliciting 60 commentsRead More →
Get your money on Mitch Starc for man of the series
Date: March 06, 2018 / Posted by control
We may be only a quarter of the way through this series but Mitchell Starc is already shaping as the gamebreaker. His 9-109 and rapid-fire 35 in Australia’s first innings earned him the man-of-the-match award. With conditions conducive to reverse swing he proved insurmountable to the Proteas’ tail. It is one thing to be able to produce old ball swing but it is quite another to unleash it in the mid-140km/h range. In South Africa’s first innings he claimed three of the last five wickets as they slid from 5-150 to all out 162. It was a case of déjà vu in the second innings when Starc removed Vernon Philander, Keshav Maharaj and Kagiso Rabada in the space of five deliveries on his way to a triple wicket maiden over. Of the six tail-end wickets he captured, three were clean bowled by searing, full late swinging deliveries. Across both innings, South Africa’s lost its last five wickets for a meagre 27 runs in total. Contrast that with Australia, which put on 114 for its last five wickets in the first innings and 52 in its second. It is an area where the tourists are likely to hold an advantage through the remainder of the series. Starc has become the best exponent currently in the game of old ball swing given the pace at which he delivers it. He will be aided by the fact that the next two venues – Port Elizabeth and Cape Town – are likely to be slow and abrasive surfaces. His ability to run through the tail provides a luxury for his skipper. But, Starc is far more than a mere destroyer of the lower order. To date, 63 per cent of his wickets have been batsmen in the top-six, many also brought undone with an older ball. Steve Smith largely uses Starc in a formulaic fashion – a short opening salvo and then used intermittently thereafter until the ball starts reversing. When it does, Starc really comes into his own when bowling around the wicket to the right-handers. With his back foot almost touching the return crease and his hand almost releasing the ball from the same position he has the ability to spear the ball in full at the stumps and have it jag away late in the air and off the seam. In many ways, his natural wrist position at the release point with a slightly lower bowling arm is more conducive than it is with a higher arm action with the new ball. There was a period through the early to mid-part of his career where he struggled with accuracy. He was still claiming wickets but did so while leaking runs. One of the biggest changes to his game has been his ability to harness accuracy without necessarily diminishing his speed. Over his past 17 Tests – spanning back to November 2015 – he has reduced his average from 31.3 to a current career-best 26.9. Unlike a lot of express bowlers, he does not need a traditional green top to do his best work. That was certainly evident in Sri Lanka in mid-2016 where he used the old ball to great effect, claiming 24 wickets across three Tests at just 15.2. Allied to Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood, he forms one of the best all-surface pace attacks in the contemporary game. But, it is not just his bowling that makes Starc a handful. He has also swung the tide of matches with his lusty lower order batting. He strode to the crease in Australia’s first innings at Durban when Cummins was dismissed for three off 38 balls. At the time, both he and Mitch Marsh were struggling to tick the board over as a result of some disciplined bowling. Starc immediately changed that, racing to 35 at a strike rate of 140 with four fours and two sixes. Whilst he has recently surrendered the number eight spot to Cummins, he remains a valuable strike force late in the innings. A little like Mitchell Johnson before him, with a little more tempered approach at times, he could push to be classified as an all-rounder, having scored nine fifties in his 41-match career – the best being a 99 in India – at an average of 23.1. However, he is seldom going to be a steady as she goes, build an innings type batsman, as his career strike rate of 69.7 attests. It is with the ball that he is most valued and presently he is at the peak of his powers. And that is likely to cause continued pain for South Africa’s batsmen through the remainder of this series. First published on The Roar - theroar.com.au - on 6 March 2018, soliciting 11 commentsRead More →
The South Africa vs Australia series should be a cracker
Date: February 27, 2018 / Posted by control
Over the next month, the Australian Test team will be looking to continue an amazing modern-day run. Since the Proteas were readmitted to Test ranks in the early-1990s, Australia has toured South Africa seven times and has never lost a series, with five wins and two drawn outcomes. In reverse, South Africa has also had its share of success against Australia in Australia with wins in its past three series. The home-and-away form line against one another is like no other in modern times, flying in the face of the trend where away teams so often struggle. Australia will again like its chances this time around. The highlight this time around will be two high octane fast bowling attacks both duelling for series honours. Even with veteran Dale Steyn to miss at least the first two Tests with injury, the hosts still boast a dynamic attack. Steyn’s heir apparent, Kagiso Rabada is the most exciting young quick currently in the game. At 22 years of age, he already has 120 wickets at 22.0. His strike rate of 39.7 is bettered by only three men to have bowled more than 2000 balls in Test cricket. Able to operate regularly in the 140-150km range he will certainly hurry up Australia’s batsmen. At the other end of the pace scale is Vernon Philander who has thrown off recent injury concerns to re-establish himself as one of the current elite. He was a late-comer to Test ranks but has built a formidable career - 188 wickets at 21.8 – having debuted against Australia at Cape Town in 2011 where his 5-15 contributed to the tourist’s second innings total of 47. His nagging accuracy and subtle movement through the air and off the pitch will provide a constant examination of the batsmen’s technique. The tall, rangy Morne Morkel will complete the host’s pace attack. A veteran of 83 Tests, he is coming off the best 12 months of his career with 52 wickets at 22.3 in his past dozen matches. Given that, his announcement yesterday that he will end his international career at the end of this series came as a surprise. Four years ago he bowled one of the game’s most memorable spells when he duelled with Michael Clarke at Cape Town, breaking the Australian skipper’s shoulder in the process. South Africa also 21-year-old fast bowler, Lungi Ngidi in its squad. He made his debut in the recent home series against India, claiming nine wickets at 17.2 in the final two Tests. Australia will counter in the pace stakes with Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazelwood and Pat Cummins In a modern day rarity, the trio played the entire five Ashes Tests earlier this summer with each claiming over 20 wickets. It was a seminal series for Cummins, whose career was stalled for so long with injury after his debut as a teenager at Johannesburg in late-2011, where his second innings 6-79 saw him accorded the man-of-the-match. The triumvirate showed they are primed for the first Test at Durban on Thursday with solid performances in the solitary warm-up fixture against South Africa A at Benoni – Starc 5-83, Hazelwood 4-68 and Cummins 4-74. Waiting in the wings is the uncapped duo of Chadd Sayers and Jhye Richardson. The spin bowling head-to-head looms as a fascinating one with Nathan Lyon looking to counter Keshav Maharaj. Lyon’s recent form has been stellar with 62 wickets at 22.7 across his past 11 Tests. He enters the series requiring ten wickets to become the sixth Australian bowler to claim 300 Test scalps. Maharaj has made a seamless transition into Test ranks since debuting at Perth in November 2016. His left-arm orthodox spinners have snared 57 wickets at 26.8. He has shown he is capable of bowling long, tight spells which will enable skipper Faf du Plessis to rotate his pace attack at the other end. The South African batting will be built around Dean Elgar, Hashim Amla and AB de Villiers. Elgar’s performance throughout 2017 had him in most expert’s international team of the year with five centuries in 12 Tests and an average of 53.8. Dogged by nature, he will look to grind down the Australian attack. He will open with the more attacking Aiden Markram, whose six Tests to date have produced 520 runs at 52.0. Amla is not the force he once was with his last 20 Tests producing an average of 39.3 but his resolve and patience can still make him a threat. Du Plessis, who was public enemy number one on his last tour of Australia, grabbed headlines on debut at the Adelaide Oval in 2012 with a second innings match saving, 466-minute 110 not out. In eight Tests against Australia he averages 59.4 and has the capability a significant thorn in the tourists’ side. One of the big question marks heading into the series is what de Villiers can produce. He spent more than a year out of Test ranks due to injury prior to his return against Zimbabwe on Boxing Day. Since then, he has played seven innings for 264 runs at 37.7. He is capable of scoring to all parts of the ground which makes him a constant threat. If Australia can contain his naturally free-flowing game it will go a long way to securing a series win. Wicket-keeper Quinton de Kock, like Adam Gilchrist before him, can be destructive at number seven, but he has been in a form trough for quite some time with his last four series producing a meagre average of 18.2. The Proteas need him to find form in a hurry otherwise they may be forced to look at the uncapped Heinrich Klaasen. Like South Africa, Australia’s batsmen also face a mountainous task. One man who will enter the series with confidence is David Warner. While he has struggled in the main overseas, South Africa has been an Elysian Field for the nuggety left-hander. In his only series in the republic, in early-2014, he scored 543 runs at 90.5, highlighted by twin centuries in the final Test at Cape Town. The normally hard and pacy pitches perfectly suit his attacking approach. His partner, Cam Bancroft, enters the series under the blowtorch. The eight innings in his debut series against England produced just 179 runs with 82 of them coming in the second innings at Brisbane. The selectors have maintained their faith in him and he needs to repay it. He has held his place ahead of Joe Burns and Matt Renshaw, who has posted back-to-back Sheffield Shield centuries since the squad was selected. Usman Khawaja played one Test on the 2011 tour of South Africa for 77 runs. Away from home his 11 Tests have produced an average of 27.2 against a home record of 59.4. This is a series where he needs to prove himself on foreign soil after some fraught experiences on the sub-continent. Captain Steve Smith is now seen by many as the next best batsman to Bradman given his incredible performances in recent years. If he continues his rich vein of form South Africa’s fieldsmen will be chasing leather. Australia, however, must become less reliant on him and have the other specialist batsmen share the load across the series. The Marsh brothers, at five and six will be looking to build on an outstanding Ashes series where Shaun averaged 74.2 and Mitch 106.7. Both will be pivotal if the Proteas can make early inroads with the new ball. As will Tim Paine at number seven. The most left-field selection at the start of the summer, he did not put a foot wrong against England, averaging 48.0 with the bat and looking assured and confident with the gloves. With both teams boasting high quality pace attacks it will be interesting to see what sort of pitches are rolled out for this series. In recent times, South Africa has had no qualms in preparing extremely pace friendly pitches in the belief that their high calibre quicks would limit opponents to scores their batsmen could chase. That backfired spectacularly for them in the last Test of the India series at The Wanderers. That, and the fact that Australia’s fast bowlers are a step up on India’s, may see less spiteful pitches for this series. It will be an intense and hard fought series, as each of them have been between these two nations. For mine, I lean narrowly to South Africa winning its first post-Apartheid home series against Australia but I do so with little confidence. Regardless of the final result it should be series to savour. First published on The Roar - theroar.com.au - on 27 February 2018, soliciting 32 commentsRead More →
In the media
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