There are three constants in the modern Australian sporting landscape: Shane Warne trying to blame the media for all his problems, pissed up footballers trying to have sex with dogs and Australia getting thrashed in T20 cricket. The first two defy easy explanation. We might, though, be able to have a go at explaining the third.
Firstly it should be noted that Australians are, individually, not so bad at this T20 stuff. They have two batsmen in the top five highest run scorers in the format (Brad Hodge and David Hussey), and one in the top five wicket takers (Dirk Nannes). Admittedly the Big Bash, for all its success, is not the highest standard tournament out there, as we have argued before; for every Chris Lynn there is a Marcus Harris, for every Jason Behrendorff a Trent Lawford. But Aussies are ubiquitous around the world, from the IPL to the Natwest T20 Blast, so its not as if they can’t play the format.
So why is their international team so crap? The view that they don’t take the format seriously enough actually falls apart under scrutiny: the opposite is true. They take it too seriously. Australia may prioritise Test cricket over the T20 stuff, but that’s surely just common sense. Of any team Australia was the first to have the T20 format’s relevance rammed home, when they were thrashed in it ahead of the 2005 Ashes. That loss setup the series that was to follow.
The problem, as we see it, is that they have tried to translate what has historically worked so well for them in ODI cricket over to the shortest format. Australia have been by far the best team in this format for a long time, and are currently way out front in the rankings. They have managed this largely by being brutally competitive whatever the conditions or circumstances. They grind teams down, both in the field and with the bat, by doing all the little things right, which means that they rarely give up any advantage and are perfectly placed to pounce on any sign of weakness from the opposition.
This emphasis on perfection and competitiveness, of never giving up on a game till it’s truly lost, doesn’t really work in the T20 format. T20 cricket warrants some finesse, but mostly it’s about batshit mental batting, throwing the bat at anything and everything and damning the consequence. In the second T20 in Melbourne, India’s openers played and missed constantly against a swinging ball. But rather than double down and trying to conserve wickets till things quietened down, they just upped the attack. It was high risk stuff, but it worked. Australia don’t like playing high risk cricket, because it’s hard to be consistent whilst doing so.
Way back in the mists of time (i.e. 2013) we wrote an article on the Sydney Sixers, which just goes to show that we were into the Big Bash well before it was cool. Although our prediction of the imminent demise of ODI cricket didn’t quite come to pass, our analysis of why the Sixers had failed in that season’s tournament, in which they came second last despite having arguably its strongest squad, still relates to Australia’s approach to T20 Internationals today. The Sixers that season, probably because of the strength of their team, were far too conservative. They reacted to wickets falling by trying to rebuild, which instantly put them behind. Batsmen like Steven Peter Devereux Smith and Brad Haddin valued their wickets too highly. The expectation that, given the strength of their squad, they should be winning every game, only seemed to stifle their creativity and flexibility.
This is the problem Australia have in T20 cricket. Chris Lynn annihilates attacks in the Big Bash, but when the stakes are upped in the international game, he has gone to pieces. People like Finch are so worried about giving their wicket away cheaply, they’d rather slow the scoring rate down than play a rash shot. Batsmen generally over-analyse how they should be playing spin, get caught up over whether they should be smashing or milking it, and often end up doing neither. And bowlers who are consistently able to hit their lengths in domestic cricket, for some reason keep falling apart on the big stage.
This highlights Australia’s other problem with the format: they don’t play enough of it. Every game is essentially an audition, and the price of failure is huge. Even Finch, the team’s captain, doesn’t feel sure of his position. Because they play so few games, Australia essentially have the same problem England traditionally has in ODI cricket – they are always in a rebuilding phase and therefore putting too much pressure on the players. There is no way now that Australia will know what its best squad for the T20 World Cup will be till after the tournament is over. Hindsight is a bitch that way.
There is no easy answer to the problem Australia have. Scheduling more T20I games is one solution, but frankly not a very good one. Test cricket is more important, and honestly, T20 Internationals are dull the vast majority of the time, and nowhere near as much fun as the Big Bash, or even the Masters Champions League, which may be the greatest sporting innovation of all time. At least since flashing bails were invented anyway.
Australia doesn’t have a chance in hell of winning the World Cup since, in addition to everything else, they don’t have a wicket taking spinner to call upon. Even Nathan Lyon looks completely lost in the format. With Starc missing too, they’ll struggle to take wickets (Shaun Tait, lol), and as such their best, and perhaps only, chance of making a mark on the tournament is to take the England 2010 route and just pick the most explosive batsmen they can find and tell them to go nuts. It might work, it equally likely might not. But that’s T20 cricket really.