Monday, March 24, 2014

Darren Lehmann, and the decisions he faced

Australia’s cricketing revival has been both stunning and comprehensive. A 3-0 defeat in the Ashes during the Northern Summer was turned into a 5-0 retribution at home; this was quickly followed by a 2-1 win against the no. 1-ranked South Africans on their soil, the first Australian Test series win overseas since 2012 and a team featuring new-age linchpins Matthew Wade, Ed Cowan and Ben Hilfenhaus.

All three players have been cast to the winds in the past twelve months as Cricket Australia chose to replace incumbent visionary Micky Arthur seventeen days before the Ashes and replace him with throwback-in-residence, Darren Lehmann.

Even as far back as Lehmann’s first Test helmed in July, changes were evident. Ed Cowan was repositioned at first drop, David Warner was sent to mend his ways in South Africa – with mixed results – and Ashton Agar’s name appeared when the Australian hierarchy ran their random-spinner-generator. Since that rather eclectic group took the field at Trent Bridge, much has turned around at the top of Australian cricket as 

Lehmann has displayed an almost-prescient ability to make key decisions.
In his eight-month spell at the top, Lehmann has faced seven major decisions with regards the Australian Test cricket team. Which of those has he swatted to the boundary, and which has he edged to the keeper?

Decision 1: The Spin quandary

There’s every chance that the first two days of Ashton Agar’s Test career will be its apex. In those first shining hours – before he was quickly deciphered by the local batsmen – Agar managed seven overs at a reasonable economy rate and had counterpunched his way to 99 to give the tourists a not-insignificant first-innings lead. The following three innings produced 2/224 and the teenager was shelved for Australia’s best post-Warne tweaker, Nathan Lyon.

When new management takes over an underperforming team, there is an almost irresistible urge to stamp one’s authority over their new domain; to usher in new blood that matches their new outlook. Lehmann was not immune here and whether you choose to give Lehmann credit for correcting this early mistake is up to you: he realized at the same time as the rest of the world thatwhile Agar has a bright future he was patently unsuited and too staid for Test cricket.

Lyon will never be a consistent matchwinner unless the pitch suits him, but how many offies are? Lehmann, and his non-rotation policy (see below), have finally happened upon the hidden-in-plain-sight code to success: teams need consistency and at this point in Australia’s cricket history, Nathan Lyon is as consistent and reliable as the nation is liable to find. Since his reinstatement, “Garry” has managed 36 wickets in eleven Tests at an average of 32.6. He’s also tossed down a couple of five-fors.

If for no other reason than that darling nervous-ninety debut, Australian fans should be happy for Ashton Agar’s brief (to this point) Test career, because it provided enough information for Lehmann to realize simply what he already had; no root-and-branch reforms of players were necessary, just a dressing-shed detox.

Decision 2: What to do with Watto?

The decision to select Chris Rogers wasn’t Lehmann’s, as his predecessor searched vainly for an opening partner who might be able to provide the same support to Shane Watson as during his “heyday” of the ill-begotten 2010-11 Ashes.
That said, Watson-as-opener wasn’t able to replicate that form of a few years back. His performances since that time haven’t been able to justify a position as a batsman – in the fifteen Tests he played between the Ashes of 2010-11 and 2013, Watson’s averaged plummeted to replacement-level; however, his bowling improved and now is a pillar on which (health-permitting) the Australians can rely.
Despite occasional protests from the man himself, Shane Watson is Australia’s best all-rounder. He’s better than Glenn Maxwell, he’s ahead of James Hopes and Moises Henriques … well, let’s just say that Watson is as advertised. With a powerful front foot, experience opening the innings and a happy knack of being in the right place at the right time at the bowling crease, Watson is what he has always been – a luxury player; the only difference is now that Australia are in position where they can afford such an extravagance.

After initially empowering Watson as a crucial peg in team success, Lehmann adapted quickly and to such a point where if Australia’s unpopular Adonis isn’t bowling, he isn’t playing. As with Agar, Lehmann’s early folly was learned from and has made Australia more aware of their identity as a unit.

Decision 3: No, Phil Hughes, no!

While during the Nielsen and Arthur years Australia were always able to take wickets, if more infrequently on pitches with less bounce and pace. However, their ability to score runs was not always a given. Upon arriving in England, Australia knew that Clarke could (and would) bat well, and that David Warner was as adept at swinging the first punch in a shoving match. All else were Whovian question marks – Chris Rogers had First Class runs aplenty, the next Australian to trust Shane Watson will be the first and Steve Smith’s previous Test innings hardly marked his technique as infallible.
After only one match, Ed Cowan was, for all intents and purposes, summarily retired. Another saw Phil Hughes banished to the long expanses of the Adelaide Oval.
The summer saw first George Bailey and then both Shaun Marsh and Alex Doolan invited to try out for a gig. Players without the right “headspace” have been axed and replaced by players who trust their own games – hence the success of Warner, Smith and Brad Haddin. While Australia still looks thin on for quality batsmen, the cultivation of Smith and Warner into players of real quality under the tutelage of overseer Lehmann and personal coach Trent Woodhill may very well not have happened under Arthur.
No stranger to being dropped himself, it remains on the cards that Lehmann selects Phil Hughes again, possibly as soon as Australia’s matches against Pakistan in October.

Decision 4: Rotation

Mickey Arthur espoused strategic player management, and lost the dressing room very quickly indeed. Special mind could be paid to needlessly “resting” Mitch Starc only days after the paceman delivered a win at Bellerive against Sri Lanka.

Arthur’s attempts to build a larger, interchangeable squad created only the flexibility of artifice.

The components he relied on just weren’t of a standard sufficient enough to justify their inclusion in a supposedly elite squad. While the idea of constantly operating near – but not at – 100% with players in reserve has some appeal, it destroyed team harmony and saw no decrease in the injuries the strategy was supposed to prevent. Until his match-winning spell at Cape Town, Ryan Harris played had played in every match since taking 7/103 at Lord’s in Lehmann’s second match. The likelihood of this occurring under Arthur was minimal and his contributions (56 wickets at 21.67) would have reduced.

Part of creating a winning culture is making your players feel respected as men, rather than the engendering the sensation they are viewed solely as numbers. Mickey Arthur failed hideously at this, and his career in Australia will be remembered for two incidents – “homeworkgate”, and for being so bad at his job that he was fired just over two weeks before the first of ten consecutive Tests in spite of this leaving Australia with an ill-selected squad and practically zero preparation.

Lehmann could – to quote a vending machine repairman with a Napoleon complex – ask his men to crawl a mile over broken glass with their flies unzipped, and they would do it; if not happily, then at least understanding the reasons behind it.

Decision 5: The attack

The single biggest winner Darren Lehmann has hit upon has been adding a powerhouse fast bowler to the attack.

Mitchell Johnson just found some self-belief and re-made himself as the single most dangerous weapon on the planet. Practically dead to Arthur after several wanton seasons and his role in the homework fiasco in India, Johnson found form in the IPL and was reinstated for the first Ashes Test in Brisbane. A coach with less cache than Lehmann wouldn’t – couldn’t – have recalled the paceman; using Australia’s former speed pariah in short spells was strategic player management 101.

Playing Ryan Harris in ten straight matches was a calculated gamble and paid off in the largest way possible at the climax of the Southern Summer. Only three months previously, Peter Siddle was the fulcrum of the Australian attack, yet gave way in the South African decider to re-accommodate the future.

Choosing firmly not to rotate whiffs slightly of brittle thinking, but is in fact anything but. When change has been called for, Lehmann has moulded his team to the circumstances rather than viewing the deck and selecting underprepared hopefuls – the flexibility hasn’t been in creating a larger squad, but by utilizing those players he trusts more broadly.

Decision 6: Shaun Marsh
Shaun Marsh is not good enough to be a consistent run-scorer at Test level. He never will be. However, he makes a hell of a debut, as he proved again at Newlands; Lehmann somehow made the right call – don’t ask how, considering the information available – and Marsh played the innings of his life to give the Australian attack a target at which to bowl.

Dropping him upon the return of a healthy Shane Watson was also patently the right call. Alex Doolan, the other candidate for demotion, is younger and boasts a better technique even if he suffers from Khawaja’s disease*.

In fact, Shaun Marsh looks the flyer that Ashton Agar was only eight months’ ago. Any Australian top order looks better for Doolan or Hughes embedded within, rather than the ephemeral SOS. We can only hope that Lehmann has noticed this also. Given his history of correcting earlier mistakes, we can assume that Marsh's renaissance will be short-lived.

*Symptoms of which include a startling propensity to score many beautiful 20s and 30s before getting dismissed rather softly just after playing oneself in. If symptoms persist, please see your local psychotherapist.

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