Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Pitching it up: The SCG

Perhaps the rot set in for Ricky Ponting's captaincy 12 months ago when against Pakistan at the SCG he elected to bat first in overcast conditions and on a damp seaming pitch. Despite Australia's astonishing victory in the match, Ponting's decision still condemned Australia to be all out for 127 on the first day. Now seemingly more infamous than otherwise, Mohammad Asif was the main wicket taker for Pakistan in that innings with 6. With the Ashes emphatically retained by England in Melbourne, and eastern Australian meteorologists going on stress leave due to the eccentricities of the weather, should Ponting make it to and win the toss in Sydney, the pressure on his decision will be immense.

The SCG is famed for being favourable to spinners but this has not always been its only attraction. The SCG was home to one of Australia's post war great fast bowlers, Alan Davidson, in the 1950s and 1960s. Davidson took 27 wickets in 6 tests at Sydney at an average of 20.70. The pitch developed its reputation as a slow turner throughout the 1980s as Australia sought to combat the barrage of express pace coming primarily from the West Indian team. Annually Sydney managed to be a refuge for weary Australian teams, and a chance for lesser known cricketers to perform.

From 1980 until their breakthrough in the 1989 Ashes series, Australia did not lose a test match at the SCG, despite the weaker nature of many of the teams. Post the retirement of Greg Chappell, Rod Marsh and Dennis Lillee in early 1984, Australia lost series to England, New Zealand and the West Indies (twice). However on all occasions they won the Sydney test thanks to little known slow bowlers. The well aged Bob Holland (10 wickets against both the West Indies in 1984 and New Zealand in 1985), the very part time Allan Border (11 wickets against the West Indies in 1989), and the randomly selected Peter Taylor coupled with the usually innocuous Peter Sleep (7 and 5 wickets respectively against England in 1987) are not legendary names in spin bowling .

Surprisingly, Shane Warne's SCG record is weaker when compared to his phenomenal overall record. 4.57 wickets per test at 28.12 with a strike rate of 63.4 is laudable; but despite the SCG's reputation these statistics are poorer than his career record (4.88 at 25.41, strike rate of 57.4). The eternally second string spinner of the Warne era, Stuart MacGill, can probably only be adequately compared against Warne based upon their respective SCG records. In MacGill's 8 tests at the ground (5 with Warne in the XI also) he collected a remarkable 6.63 wickets per test at an average of 24.47 with a strike rate of 47.3. MacGill will be recorded by history as a very talented, yet more so a desperately unlucky cricketer.

There is symmetry between the current struggles of the Australian team and that of the teams that were humiliated regularly during the 1980s. Unfortunately there is no symmetry between the SCG pitch of that era and of today. While it won't be unplayable, expect to see the ball moving off the seam, complementing the expected overcast conditions that will allow for swing. The pitch will still ultimately break up and take spin on days four and five of the test.

England has no real need to make changes, but the 'team first' attitude of both Andy Flower and Andrew Strauss may still mean changes occur. Should no changes be made, Ajmal Shazad and Monty Panesar will be victims of the strong team performances by the English and will continue to sit out alongside Steve Finn, the leading wicket taker in the first three tests. The English, if faced with conditions and a pitch showing the slightest inference of assisting the pacemen, will most probably elect to bowl first at the struggling Australian batsmen.

Australia will no doubt replace the injured Ryan Harris with a spinner. Based upon the recent spin bowling policy of the Australian selectors, speculation on who will fill this position is futile. The Australians, trying desperately to regain some morsel of respect and level the series, are caught between a rock and a hard place should they win the toss. Should they bat first they risk being humbled in similar fashion to the test against Pakistan 12 months ago and the recent MCG test. Electing to bowl first may give the pacemen a chance in conducive conditions however will require that they face up to Graeme Swann in the fourth innings on days four and five.

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