The cricket world waits on a strong Australia. In dark times for the masses, hope is required and, for the first time since 2009, Australians wait expectantly on youth. At that time, that promise rested on Peter Siddle, Mitchell Johnson and the slightly rounded shoulders and plate-sized eyes of Phil Hughes. Now, two years hence, w are intrigued by Michael Beer and happy about Usman Khawaja's Test debut. His bright 30 at the Sydney Test wasn't outstanding, but a fillip for youth development in the country.
In the days since Khawaja hobbited to the crease in early January, Shaun Marsh scored a ton in his first Test innings, Nathan Lyon has suggested that being unknown is no barrier to quality and Trent Copeland's promising Test debut has been followed quickly by the prospect of him bowling in tandem with Australia's youngest debutant since Ian Craig, Patrick Cummins.
Despite an awful second innings at Cape Town, the future is much less bleak than twelve months ago when Marcus North, Brad Haddin, Ben Hilfenhaus and Xavier Doherty appeared to be key ingredients to the national team. Haddin is inconsistent with the gloves and willow and is now relegated to being little more than a placekeeper. Hilfenhaus is back bowling well at Shield level and Doherty has been properly stamped as a destitute man's Peter Taylor. There are forty-seven reasons to suggest the future isn't bleak, but is hardly bright. What can be expected of Australia as they push forward into 2012 and beyond?
The current Test squad, though regenerating, hasn't done so by bringing in pure "green" talent. At a little under 30, the average age of the team that played at Cape Town is only half a year younger than the team dismantled by England in the Ashes of 2010-11. This means that the current squad are unlikely to evolve much and are, as a group, close to a finished product. So what can we expect from the current future prospects given Cricket Australia contracts?
The prospects aren't as glossy as one would hope. Batting wise, Cricket Australia has given central contrats to players with First-Class batting averages in the mid-thirties like Callum Ferguson and Marsh. These aren't even the best of a bad lot, as their averages are exceeded by such startling talents as Ben Rohrer, Mark Cosgrove and (sigh) Simon Katich. 'Keepers acknowledged as being great batsmen also flatter to deceive. Tim Paine, toued for years the next coming attraction, only averages 31.6 at State level, significantly below rival Matthew Wade at 39.2. Once again Australia has apparently confused the need for redoubtable batsmanship with an ability to free the shoulders in the short formats.
How do these stats stack up against the best? The table below shows the cumulative First-Class averages for the each of the popularly acknowledged "Super Six" nations, taken from the lineups they fielded for their last Test innings. It includes all players whose primary responsibility is as a batsman or wicket-keeper.
- CountryCumulative First Class AvgEngland44.01South Africa50.11India46.79Australia47.03Sri Lanka44.5Pakistan40.96World average45.59
When compared against the five other strongest sides in world cricket, the Australians have the second-highest cumulative First Class average. This logically precludes efforts such as their paltry 47 in the second innings at Cape Town, but using the words "logic" and "Brad Haddin" in the same sentence is banned by international law. Pakistani and Sri Lankan averages are brought down by wicketkeepers unable to distiguish a bat from a four-by-two. The world's top forty-two batsmen by position collectively average a little over 45.5
Simply replacing ageing stars with their ostensible successors paints a grim picture. Replacing Ponting and Hussey with the two batsmen most highly thought of - Khawaja and Ferguson - brings that average down, as we can see below.
- CountryCumulative First Class Avg(Players 35+yo replaced)England44.01India46.91South Africa45.97Australia43.17Sri Lanka43.32Pakistan39.47World average43.81
While the cricket world will mourn the loss of Tendulkar, Dravid, Laxman, Ponting, Hussey and (perhaps) Kallis for aesthetic reasons, their replacements will struggle also to match their productivity as the world average will decrease by 1.8 runs per batsman per innings.
Suddenly, the gap in quality between Australia's best and their impending replacements becomes stark and actually downright scary. With Khawaja and Ferguson, the average drops 8.2% and rates as the fifth-most effective batting lineup. We should note that both England and Sri Lanka benefit from this including only those players aged 35 and above as Strauss, Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene all do not yet qualify for replacement.
Of all the batsmen studied about 20% had Test averages greater than their First-Class numbers, or just under one per team. The great majority of those players had appeared in only a few Tests, so it is unrealistic to expect those with poor First-Class stats to exceed expectations on ascension to being a Test regular.
If pictures tell a thousand words, numbers (in context) do much the same. Khawaja - average 46.5 - looks to have the goods to succeed as a Test player. The same can't be said of Marsh and Ferguson, who by world standards are below par. Perhaps one could supersede their State numbers in the Test arena, but those are only hopes.
When it comes to bowling, Cricket Australia has spread themselves thin in very curious fashion. Ever chasing the goose with the golden eggs, Shaun Tait and Brett Lee are centrally contracted but appear only in T20 matches. CA has also invested heavily in the future by ponying up for Pat Cummins and James Pattinson. How do Australia's next best bowlers fare in comparison to the world?
The following table lists the cumulative First-Class bowling averages for each of the strongest six teams in world cricket.
Country Cumulative First Class Avg England 29.7 India 27.88 South Africa 24.25 Australia 32.73 Sri Lanka 27.24 Pakistan 27.98 World average28.29
Australia's average is inflated by the presence of Nathan Lyon, the off-spinner plucked from Peter Taylor-like obscurity to be our number one tweaker. (That's two references to Peter Taylor this article, if you're counting) He averages 44.8 per First-Class wicket, but the last four spinners to play for Australia fare little better - Krezja, Doherty, Beer and Hauritz have a combined First Class average of 44.5. So elegantly proven in Cape Town once again, Australia suffers from bouts of toothlessness which only increases those averages.
There is a greater turnover in bowling ranks than batting - at least, there should be. We can't work on a WaRP system here because bowling groups are much more fluid than batting counterparts, occasionally submitting to horses-for-courses selection and the vagaries of form. Inexperienced bowlers tend to exhibit inaccurate due to youth, pitches and even luck: bowling averages stabilize with time and repetition. However, it is encouraging that four of Australia's next five pace cabs off the ranks (Nathan Coulter-Nile, Peter George, James Pattinson and Trent Copeland) all take First-Class wickets at near or below the world average.
Finally, the most telling fact is this: batsmen rarely get "hot" in the same way that bowlers do. Occasionally, batsmen get the measure of only one foreign attack - but usually if a batsman is hot, it doesn't matter who they play, they will score runs. The same can't be said for bowlers. Bowlers can revel in match-winning performances thirty months gone. This - and the paceman's bugbear of injury - means for fluid bowling units and the need for depth. Bowlers allow a team to attack; and nearly every World Champ, no matter what the sport, builds from defence.
In short, unless the bowling develops to be almost 1980s-West-Indian calibre, it's highly unlikely Australia has the depth of batting to become anything more than a slightly above-average side. The lure of Twenty20 has not affected bowling at near the same level as batting - indeed, it may have strengthened the flingers in the longer formats. Australia can regain cricket prominence but needs one of their youthful batsmen to step up.
Originally published on The Sight Screen.
Originally published on The Sight Screen.