Given its pending 100 year anniversary, it seems a propitious time to recall one of the most famous quotes of the First World War, Ferdinand Foch’s remark during the Battle of the Marne: “My center is yielding. My right is retreating. Situation excellent. I am attacking.” George S. Patton put it somewhat less eloquently during the next World War: “Nobody ever defended anything successfully, there is only attack and attack and attack some more.” These quotes come to mind because they are, we imagine, just the sort of wisdom that Darren Lehmann imparts to his charges before the beginning of each session. For the Australian Test team there is no defense. It doesn’t matter what the circumstances are, you are always trying to win. There are no other options.
It is, in itself, a rather limited philosophy to pursue. There are of course times when its prudent to defend, as both Foch and Patton could attest. But as a general guiding motivation it is what has compelled the Australian Test team from one that was having its sorry arse kicked by anyone and everyone just a few months ago to one that has swept England aside with consummate ease and is now going hammer and tong with the world’s best Test outfit in its own backyard. Which is a pretty decent turnaround all told.
Almost every aspect of Australian cricket is geared towards the offensive. Batsmen like Nic Maddinson and Aaron Finch are the norm, not the exception. Crease occupiers are so out of fashion that their emergence is an ever-increasingly rare event; Jordan Silk is probably the only young batsmen who could be said to truly fit the mould these days. The same goes for the fast bowlers, where the quicker the better is usually the case. Someone like Jackson Bird is something of an exception in a field dominated by the likes of James Pattinson, Mitchell Starc, Nathan Coulter-Nile, etc etc. James Faulkner in particular has made his name by the manner in which he has gone after opponents, in particular kicking bowlers like Ishant Sharma and Tim Bresnan while they are down.
None of this is terribly new; Australian cricket has always been pretty much like this. Nobody identified Ricky Ponting as a future star based on his sound forward defence stroke, they did so because even as a teenager he was standing up and hooking fast bowlers many years his senior at the Australian Cricket Academy. But it’s hard to remember when the philosophy of aggressive, attacking cricket, has dominated the thinking of the Test team to the extent it does now. Not even Adam Gilchrist, during his brief tenure, captained Australia as aggressively as Michael Clarke has done under Darren Lehmann’s tutelage. Shane Warne might have done, but none of the Australian selectors at the time were brave (or drunk) enough to risk ever finding out. Probably quite wisely too.
Attack at all costs has taken the Australian Test team a hell of a long way in an amazingly short time. The question, though, is how much further can it take it. We have already seen in the second Test against South Africa the inherent limitations of the approach. When the circumstances are not conducive to a headlong charge at the enemy ranks, complications can arise. Complications like being 128/6 on a slow but otherwise docile batting pitch when pursuing a target of 428. As for the second innings, well, the most likely consequence of that disaster will be Alex Doolan making way for Shane Watson in the third Test. Because even though Shaun Marsh bagged a pair in the match, Doolan’s becoming becalmed in the second innings will be seen as the greater failure. It stalled Australia’s progression completely. And when Aussie batsmen aren’t scoring runs freely, they can’t bat to save their lives.
If Australia want to make the jump from being merely a good Test team to a great one, they will probably need to mix some pragmatism with their aggression. Counter-attacking is fine, but it needs to be timed precisely. Brad Haddin trying to smash Dale Steyn out of the park a mere over after Wayne Parnell limped off the field was an example of when not to counter-attack. An hour later it might have been a very different story. It would be remiss of us, of course, to not mention one Steven Peter Devereux Smith, whose success over the past few months has been largely because he has chosen the moment to counter with impeccable timing. He may well have carried the Australian team to a challenging first innings total in this Test as well, if not for an unfortunate umpiring decision. Or non-decision. Or whatever.
As the Australian Test team evolves over the next few months or years, with the probable retirements of players like Ryan Harris and Chris Rogers, the question of moderating the team’s approach will become an ever more pressing one. These players’ replacements (most likely Pattinson and Phil Hughes) will be even more aggressive than the ones they replaced. If Australia want to improve and really become the number one Test team, they need to find a more balanced approach, or at the very least a second gear. They can’t keep relying on Devereux to save them all the time.
Well, they probably can’t anyway.