Category Archives: 2015 NZ in Aus

Post-NZ Tweaking

Demote M Marsh, Promote Nevill

Mitchell Marsh is not a No. 6 Test batsman. This was made abundantly clear during the 2015 Ashes series, when he looked all at sea. He lacks technique, and has yet to prove he can graft an innings on anything other than a hard Aussie pitch. You need a proper batsman at No. 6. Mitchell Marsh is not that; he’s a reasonably talented slugger. It was well worth giving him a try as the batting all-rounder and I can’t fault the selectors for that, but after three Tests against New Zealand, it’s time to face facts. Although Marsh barely had a chance to bat in the first two games, he again struggled in the 3rd Test against the moving ball. His defenders might say he wasn’t the only one to struggle but it’s more about how he looks at the crease when under pressure; uncomfortable and short on technique.

Darren Lehmann has once again raised the possibility of promoting Peter Nevill to No. 6. This is a very good idea. Although regarding himself as a batting all-rounder, Mitchell Marsh is only justifying his selection at present as a zippy first-change medium-fast bowler. Dropping him to No. 7 would take some of the pressure off him and might help lead to an improvement in his batting average. Moreover, the numbers make sense; Mitchell Marsh’s first-class batting average of 31.00 (55 matches) doesn’t measure up to Nevill’s 41.01 (65 matches). Nevill should bat higher.

Sids on Borrowed Time

In the 3rd Test against NZ, Peter Siddle reminded the selectors why they had overlooked him for much of the previous year. The Adelaide Oval was supposed to be the place where Siddle would shine, taking wickets on a flattish pitch with his accurate line and length. It didn’t happen. This is not necessarily Siddle’s fault; after all, the pitch did not resemble Adelaide pitches of the past due to the introduction of the pink ball and the decision to leave more grass on it than usual. But Siddle looked very average to me. The selectors left him out for months due to their preference for faster bowlers, and sure enough, with his pace below 130 kph much of the time, Siddle simply did not look threatening. He was fortunate to achieve his (richly deserved) 200-wicket milestone in NZ’s first innings but did not look like taking a wicket in the second innings (and indeed did not).

With James Pattinson coming into the team to replace the injured Mitchell Starc for the West Indies series, Siddle looks likely to hold his place for a while, but it’s due more to good fortune than form. After his prolonged injury problems, Jackson Bird is back in form with 18 wickets from his first four Sheffield Shield matches this season, and will surely attract some attention from selectors. Even the evergreen Dougie Bollinger is taking wickets for NSW (12 of them in his first two Shield games), but at 34 he faces an uphill battle for Test selection.

If Pattinson performs and remains injury-free (two big ‘ifs’ there), I would expect to see Siddle dropped when Starc returns from injury.

Shaun Marsh Shouldn’t Stay

Shaun Marsh’s innings of 49 in the second innings in Adelaide, which helped Australia defeat New Zealand, probably won’t help him keep his place in the team. Although assisted by two benign pitches, Usman Khajawa batted superbly in the first two Tests against New Zealand and should slot back in when he returns from injury. I remain a big Shaun Marsh skeptic. If one more commentator tells me Marsh is ‘very talented’, my head will explode. The stats just don’t back it up. Marsh’s first-class average of 38.35 after 114 matches is mediocre. Moreover, it is Marsh’s repeated failure of nerve that should be cause for concern. True, his second innings performance in Adelaide probably rescued his team, but he is renowned for failing in pressure situations. The amateurish way in which he ran himself out for 2 in the first innings in Adelaide suggests nothing much has changed. This guy has been playing first-class cricket for fifteen years – if he hasn’t discovered a way to manage his nerves and get through tough scrapes, he is hardly likely to do so now.


Where Have the Good Test Wickets Gone?

We have our problems in Australia lately with ridiculously flat pitches that flatter the batsmen’s averages and literally force fast bowlers into retirement (see ‘Flat Pitch Emergency’), but in India the reverse is happening. India struggle to win overseas and are desperate to win at home, so they cook up pitches that turn square from the first day. They open the bowling with Ashwin and Jadeja and don’t even need a first change bowler! South Africa bowled out today for 79 – the lowest ever Test total against India. What a complete and utter waste of time. Sure, all host teams probably nudge their home wickets in their own favour, but honestly, is it really that difficult to prepare a proper Test wicket that at least gives a sniff to the visitors or to the team that loses the toss? This is getting out of hand. It’s going to kill the game. Not happy. Not happy at all.

Flat Pitch Emergency

Is it over yet? Geez, the 2nd Test against New Zealand was the dullest Test I’ve watched in years.

John Townsend of the West Australian notes “it is the first time in 45 years of WACA Tests that each wicket has cost more than 60 runs. And only twice before in Test history have opposing batsmen managed to reach 250 in the same game.”

Surely something must be done about the dead flat wickets we’re seeing in Australia.

Here’s a question for you: In the past six Test matches Australia’s cricketers have played on home soil, how many times do you think they have racked up 500 runs or more in the first innings?

The answer is….six. Every time. On average, during the first innings of those six Tests, Australia has scored 540 runs. The opposition hasn’t been too shabby either: in the four Tests against India and two to date against New Zealand, Australia’s opponents have scored an average of 456 in the first innings.

Here’s another one: in those six Tests at home, how many times has Australia been bowled out twice in the match?

Answer: none. On average Australia has lost eight wickets in the first innings and six in the second.

And the results from those six Tests? Three wins for Australia and three draws. In the decade prior to 2014, only six Tests out of 56 played at home (11% of the total) ended in draws. In other words, in the past year alone, we’ve had half as many draws as in the previous ten years combined.

The implications are alarming. For a start, the cricket is really dull. Crowds at the recent WACA Test against New Zealand were at one point chanting ‘booooring’ and they were right. There was no contest whatsoever between bat and ball in Perth. For Pete’s sake, no less than six centuries were scored in that game, with two scores of 250 or more! The bowlers didn’t stand a chance.

Moreover, the flat wickets are killing our fast bowlers. Nobody is suggesting every pitch must be a raging seamer, but without a sensible balance offering opportunities for both bowlers and batsmen, the bowlers will inevitably suffer both physically and emotionally.

As the man himself noted, Mitchell Johnson’s retirement was largely a natural function of age and burnout, but he also conceded that he felt like a bowling machine out there at the WACA. It was just too hard, and at his age the prospect of slogging it out for no return was just not enticing. He said he wasn’t enjoying it and who can blame him? Ryan Harris was more direct in his assessment, saying “I am sure that was part of his decision making. I am sure there are probably a few other bowlers around thinking the same thing.” He added “I think the wickets are ridiculously flat, especially when you are playing a home series.”

Some in the media are suggesting both Peter Siddle and Pattinson will play in the 3rd Test in Adelaide because Josh Hazlewood is worn out after bowling 79 overs in the space of a week on flat unresponsive wickets.  Similarly, Mitchell Starc bowled 79.5 overs in the first two Tests, and he has bone spurs in his ankle that will require surgery at some point! It doesn’t sound like a sensible way to prolong Australia’s fast bowling potency.

Now we have Victoria’s coach David Saker warning that if recalled paceman James Pattinson is asked to bowl long spells on flat pitches, he is likely to break down again. Presumably the same could be said of any bowler.

One theory suggests Australia’s flat pitches are the result of a directive from Cricket Australia a couple of years ago, who wanted to give batsmen more opportunities to improve their games and compete more effectively at Test level. “Green tops were denying batsmen the chance to develop their techniques, went the CA theory.” This makes no sense to me at all. Won’t you merely end up with a bunch of batsmen lacking the skills to perform on seaming or spinning wickets? The poor performance of Australia’s batsmen in recent years in the UAE, India and England might lead one to conclude this is already happening.

Or is the problem of flat pitches all a function of viewer ratings and money?  One can’t help but wonder if something changed after the 2013-14 Ashes series in Australia. Assisted by a freakish performance from Mitchell Johnson, Australia prevailed 5-0. The problem, however, for promoters, advertisers, broadcasters and stadium proprietors was that only two of the five Ashes Tests saw play last until the fifth day. The final Test ended in three days, the First and Fourth in less than four days. Was a demand for flat wickets issued to Australia’s groundsmen by those who revenues are only maximized when Test matches last five days? If so, was such a directive endorsed (either tacitly or overtly) by Cricket Australia?

And so we are left with boring Test matches, batsmen racking up centuries with unnatural frequency and bowlers so fed up they are breaking down or quitting all together.

When the West Indies arrives for three Tests soon, how much higher will David Warner and Steve Smith push their batting averages? And will we have any fast bowlers left at the end of it all?


Concerns Over Burns & Khawaja

The Australian selectors have picked Joe Burns and Usman Khawaja for the First Test squad to face New Zealand on 5 November. Shaun Marsh and Cameron Bancroft missed out.

In relative terms, these are sensible selections; i.e. picking Burns and Khawaja makes more sense than picking Marsh and Bancroft. Shaun Marsh has provided ample evidence after 15 Tests that he is simply not up to the job, and at 32 years of age should be cast aside permanently. Bancroft, who will turn 23 next month, is promising but has only played 24 first-class matches. He is looking good but ideally the selectors would like to see more. A good domestic season in 2015-16 would propel him to the front of the queue of those awaiting Test selection.

In absolute terms, however, there is reason to be concerned about the selection of Burns and Khawaja. The latter, in particular, can count himself lucky to be included given the lack of red ball cricket he has had lately.

There’s a ton of pressure on both players.

Burns performed reasonably well in his two Tests against India last summer, especially with scores of 58 and 66 in the Sydney Test. He missed out on the Ashes tour (barely) but was clearly earmarked by the selectors to take Chris Rogers’ place upon the latter’s retirement. Burns posted 493 runs at 44.82 in the 2013-14 Sheffield Shield, and followed that up with 793 runs at 52.86 runs in the 2014-15 Shield competition, thereby earning his Test call-up last summer.

However, Burns’ form since the Sydney Test of January 2015 has been inconsistent. He played 7 games (11 innings) for Middlesex in the 2015 County Championship but posted only 320 runs at 29.09 with three half-centuries  and a top score of 87. He made only 8 for Australia A against India A in a 4-day match in Chennai in July 2015 (but didn’t bat in the 2nd innings as Australia A won by ten wickets), and had an unspectacular 2015 Matador Cup, scoring three half-centuries while averaging only 35.33.

He did make 154 in August for Australia A against India A in a 50-over game in Chennai, and did himself no harm with a century (102) in a (non-first-class) tour match against New Zealand a week ago when playing for the Cricket Australia XI. However, conditions for the latter match at Manuka Oval in Canberra were so conducive to batting that only four wickets out of 20 actually fell (two on each side) because most batsmen retired early to give their teammates a hit.

Having recently turned 26, Burns – who has 60 first-class matches [average 40.93] under his belt – offers the selectors a good mix of youth and experience. But he’s going to have to crank that average up into the mid-40s if he wants to hang on to the Test opener’s spot.

Usman Khawaja, meanwhile, has played so little red ball cricket in recent months it is impossible to know what sort of form he is really in. 

Khawaja, who will turn 29 in December, is at risk of joining that procession of batsmen who have failed to reproduce their good first-class form at the Test level (e.g. Rob Quiney, Alex Doolan, Shaun Marsh etc). Khawaja has played 9 Tests and in his 17 innings made only 377 runs at 25.13 and made more than 50 only twice. He is often lauded for his good technique but just never cut the mustard when playing with the big boys.

In 89 first-class matches he has 5,558 runs at 39.98. It’s not a bad record but if he’s to bat in the Australian Test team’s top order, it needs to be better than that. What’s slightly troubling is that injury sidelined Khawaja for much of the 2014-15 season, so there’s a bit of a hole in his recent track record. He made 531 runs at 53.10 in the 2013-14 Sheffield, but missed all but two games of the following season. He made 523 runs at 74.71 in the 2014 Matador Cup but played only three games in the recent 2015 competition, making 90 runs at an average of 30.00.

Khawaja, UInningsRunsAverage100s50s
2013-14 Sheffield Shield1455150.0913
2014 County Championship1341331.7613
2014-15 Sheffield Shield35527.5000
2015 Aus A vs India A411137.0000
2014 Matador Cup752374.7121
2015 Aus A vs India A / SAf A426766.7512
2015 Matador Cup3903001

In CY 2015, Khawaja has played only two first-class matches. In both he represented Australia A against India A in July, making scores of 25, 12, 33 and 41 not out (111 runs at 37.00). He did rather better in the four 50-over games played by Australia A against India A and South Africa A in August, making scores of 73, 100, 18 and 76 (267 runs at 66.75). Like Burns, he made a century (111 not out) in the tour match against NZ in October, but as mentioned above, few of the batsmen on either side were genuinely tested in that game.

To put it another way, in the past year and a half, Khawaja has strode to the wicket in a first-class game on 20 occasions (and 13 of those were for Lancashire). In those 20 innings, he has made 579 runs at 32.16 and reached a century only once. It’s not easy to see why this recent record demands Test selection.

Perhaps the selectors are looking more at Khawaja’s recent 50-over record, which is considerably better. But players who succeed against the white ball do not always translate that success to the Test arena (remember George Bailey?).

Khawaja is not a bad cricketer. At times he has excelled. But his statistics suggest he has been picked on potential rather than performance. It is the second time he has been in this position. He is 29 now – the first time he was given a chance he was only 24. The pressure is on him to deliver this time. One would think he’s unlikely to get a third bite at the cherry.