The Australian Test team is like one of those nearly completed apartment blocks that lacks the finishing touches because the financial backers have all buggered off to some remote island to avoid paying property tax. It’s stuck in a seemingly perpetual state of construction, never quite the finished product. Over the past 18 months or so the team has essentially rebuilt itself under the captaincy of Michael Clarke, and yet still issues remain. Not small issues either, like who will sing the team song, but massive glaring issues that are obvious to anyone who isn’t employed by Channel Nine.
In the past few months the team has seen two of its best batsmen of the recent past, in Ricky Ponting and Michael Hussey, depart. And yet, strangely enough, replacing them is in fact the least of their problems. Despite a fair amount of hand wringing, enough decent talent (i.e. players who aren’t Rob Quiney) exists to cover over those voids and ensure the team is still competitive against pretty much any opposition. The real issues that need to be solved are more deep seated than that, and easy solutions are not readily available. Let’s have a look at some of the most prominent concerns that have emerged over the course of the Australian summer.
Matt Wade is quite possibly the worst wicket-keeper in world cricket right now. Yes, he may be a decent batsman, although he’s certainly not as good as some would have us believe. He’s worryingly prone to ill-conceived swipes across the line that decent bowlers (i.e. non Sri Lankan ones) ought to be able to prey upon. The airhead blondes on Channel Nine may coo about how heavy his hitting might be, but few others are deceived.
But the real problem is elsewhere, and that is that Australia would be better off sticking a brick wall behind the stumps than rely on Wade. The wall would probably catch more and certainly fluff fewer stumping opportunities. Suffice to say Wade is a liability, and no more so than when required to stand up to the stumps. In India this has the potential for all sorts of hilarious consequences, and it’s an issue Australia have to confront. Bringing Brad Haddin back into the squad, as looks likely, is not a long term solution. Wade needs to improve or be shipped out, runs or no runs.
Cowan opened the summer with a century against the best bowling attack in the world. In his next nine innings he passed 50 only twice, with a high score of 56. But lack of runs is only part of Cowan’s problem. His best asset is his ability to hold up one end. That’s all well and good, even if it’s not a role that Australian cricket has employed in the recent past, but as good as he may be at knowing where his off-stump is, Cowan’s worst attribute is turning over the strike. And it’s creating big problems.
As one wag in the 51allout bunker noted during his knock in the fourth innings of the Sydney Test, Cowan is the sort of batsman who makes collapses happen. Sticking around isn’t any good if it’s at the expense of the guy up the other end getting frustrated and throwing his wicket away. The Australian line-up simply cannot accommodate a Nick Compton like figure, let alone a much less handsome one. The worry is that if Cowan doesn’t alter his approach, one of his batting partners may take matters into their own hands, walk down the pitch and bludgeon him into the turf with their bat for hogging all the strike. Cowan’s patience may well be an asset in English conditions, but he needs to adjust his approach and, at nearly 31, that may well be beyond him.
The problem here is simple: wickets. The statistics say that Lyon has made a decent start to his Test career, taking 61 wickets at an average of a little over 32. Some have pointed out that he’s done better than Richie Benaud had at the same point of his career. That might make for nice reading, but it’s also clearly rubbish. As has been pointed out before on this site, Lyon takes nearly all his wickets when bowling to the tail, and that’s hardly about to change as Clarke rarely trusts him to bowl at anyone else.
Lyon himself is rather upbeat about his role, claiming he doesn’t care how many wickets he takes as long as the team wins. But on pitches where spin will be vital, such as every pitch Australia will face in India, it creates a problem. Bowling tight is not an end in itself. At some point Lyon has to become accountable for his role as the team’s frontline spinner, whether it is in India, at Cardiff or elsewhere. He has been given a wealth of time to improve, and it’s just not happening. With no other real competition in sight, that’s a massive concern.
Recognising that Shane Watson is an issue is the easy bit. Knowing what to do about it is another thing altogether. A player who was kept out of the Tests against South Africa because of his inability to bowl, now seems destined to finish his career as a specialist batsman. The problem is that Watson isn’t good enough to get into even this Australian batting line-up on the strength of his batting alone. Which leaves him in a very precarious position.
Australia would love to have a fit Watson to call upon, there’s no doubt about that. But an unfit Watson is no use at all. With the team bounding ahead without him at the moment, we may have reached the point where Watson needs to call time on his Test career. Of course that wouldn’t be the ideal scenario, but what other options does he really have? If so it would be a sad day for Test cricket, if only because we would miss moments like these:
Jackson Bird is clearly pretty awesome. He has an awesome name, an awesome haircut and, after two Tests, an awesome bowling average of 16.18. He’s perhaps not quite fitting of the label that some in the media have given him, of the new Glenn McGrath (we would never stoop to such hyperbole here), but he is otherwise clearly the most exciting fast bowler in the universe (see?). But his dramatic rise does create a wee bit of a problem as to where he fits into the Australian attack, because, to be honest, they’re hardly lacking in fast bowlers these days.
Bird’s rise has come at the expense of Ben Hilfenhaus (remember him? Nope, us neither), but also the absence of genuinely decent bowlers like Ryan Harris, James Pattinson and Patrick Cummins. In the unlikely event that all are fit at once, the selectors will have an interesting time picking who to play alongside Peter Siddle. The situation is further complicated if they want to pick at least one left arm quick, either Mitch Starc or Mitch Johnson. That leaves four quicks fighting over potentially one spot. Best of luck sorting that out.