Tuesday, December 7, 2010

What's gone right for Australia?

These are dark times for the Rebel Alliance. After the attack on the Death Star... No, hang on, that's The Empire Strikes Back.

The reference may be valid anyway. One team has dominated the other so far this Ashes series and since Australia's crushing defeat at Hoth - sorry, Adelaide - and Simon Katich being frozen in carbonite - err, pulling up lame with achilles trouble - it appears as dark a time as can be remembered for the Australians. (I'm not suggesting England are actually evil, just dominant like the Empire were in the real Star Wars trilogy).

So without hint of jingoism it's time to examine after two Tests - one lamentably poor, the other suffering from one poor innings - what the Australians have done well through the start of this Ashes campaign. Obviously with Australian down 1 - 0 and with strife consuming the Baggy Green camp, the positives may be harder to find than negatives. To use Ricky Ponting's words - There are positives. To say what Ponting does not forces one to is to add - Australia is simply the inferior team this year. Although there are the following seven positives, it's unfortunate they come from a talent-deprived team and are overshadowed by negatives.

Nevertheless, on the plus side for the Australians are:

Mike Hussey's return to form

"Mr. Cricket" has been a millstone around Aussie necks for nigh-upon two years now, sprinkling poor performances with rigid batsmanship and an occasional impressive One-Day innings. He only made it into the First Test team by way of Khawaja and Ferguson failing to impress, yet has responded brilliantly: he's stroke-played, rather than ground out his scores. And best of all: he's the likeable Mike Hussey that Australia rallies around.

The Return of the Peter Siddle we all know and love

Peter Siddle's first innings hat-trick in Brisbane generated more hype than The Oprah Winfrey Show, yet in two subsequent innings he's been unable to reproduce the same bite and venom. That's not particularly surprising given his history of taking only a few wickets interspersed with occasional Michelles at Test level. What he does offer is abrasiveness, consistency - you know what you're going to get - and an optimism currently lacking in Mitchell Johnson's cricket.

Mitchell Johnson's omission from the Second Test

Harsh? No, not really. Because where we are as a cricket-playing nation is dependent on the whims and fragile confidence of Jess Bratich's boyfriend. When firing, Johnson is on a level with Dale Steyn as the best, most hostile fast men around. He was dropped for lack of form, but not discarded as having played out his usefulness like Jason Gillespie five years ago. His not playing in Adelaide hopefully will provide enough spark for him to rediscover his best form, but statements like "I need to get my head right" aren't inspiring - frankness regarding one's headspace just show how low confidence is, and how far one has to come to get back to full mental fitness.

Shane Watson's leadership

Hussey and Shane Watson, more than Ricky Ponting and much more than Michael Clarke have said what his team and the cricketing public of Australia have needed to hear: Australia have been second-best throughout this series. This comes from a man who two years ago I would have bet had played nearly his last Test for the Aussies and had less leadership ability than lettuce. Now an automatic selection, perhaps his nascent leadership ability could be used in the national setup.

Marcus North's failures at no. 6

Although affable, elegant and good captaincy material, Marcus North simply doesn't have what it takes to be a World Class number six batsman. Oh, for the days of Martin Love! Change is now inevitable at this position, and with North's career. That he has failed three times in three innings when Australia has needed him to fire means that he's now had enough chances. Only Simon Katich's injury - meaning Australia would perhaps take two "newbies" into the Third Test - may have saved his spot. An alternative: given Phil Hughes' shaky start to the Sheffield Shield season and North's past-life as an opener, it may be time to move him up the order to start the innings alongside Watson.

Brad Haddin

Personal opinion in cricketing circles vacillates between maintaining Haddin as 'keeper or going back to Tim Paine. Paine's injury obviously now precludes this, but so to does the form of the New South Welshman. Only two months ago he was a fading light but his application with the bat has earned him new respect.

The selectors' willingness to experiment

Xavier Doherty and Ryan Harris, two players who only three years ago were middle-of-the-road Sheffield Shield players are now Australian representatives, conjuring up memories of Simon Cook, Scott Muller and Matt Nicholson. But let's not forget that England have gotten their current attack to this quality by trying and discarding Sajid Mahmood, (Australia's) Darren Pattison, James Tredwell, Amjad Khan, Jon Lewis, Liam Plunkett, Shaun Udal and Ian Blackwell. In five years. Greg Chappell upset the Indian applecart by attempting to usher through new blood and it would seem he's intent on the same course as an Australian selector. All is not lost, Australia.

The battle is not yet half over. Given the disparity in consistent quality between the bowling attacks, Adelaide may well have always been the Test they were most likely to lose: it was where, should the bats fail, the bowlers would have the greatest difficulty getting them out of a mess.

But as a hopeful Return of the Jedi moment approaches for Australia as they move towards Perth, Melbourne and Sydney. It may be that Michael Clarke steps up to play Luke Skywalker (the one who's ostensibly the hero but still everyone thinks is a prat). Shane Watson could slide easily into that role also. The men in the Baggy Green would do well to focus on what they are doing well, rather than looking pessimistically at what they aren't doing.

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