Category Archives: 2016-17 S Africa in Aus

Yes, But Can They Score Tons?

Half the Test team spots are up for grabs. And why not? Although he made some poor selections, I do think Rod Marsh got the rough end of the pineapple from the media even though he did make a few poor selections (yes, Mitchell Marsh, Moises Henriques, Glenn Maxwell, among others). I mean, Adam Voges made 1,358 Sheffield Shield runs in 2014-15 – that’s the third highest Shield run tally in history! Why wouldn’t you have picked him? It’s not Swampy’s fault that Voges has gone off a cliff. Peter Nevill was averaging over 40 with the bat and was a better ‘keeper when he was picked over Brad Haddin in England. It was the right call. It just didn’t work out.

But now replacements must be found. Mark Waugh has more or less said that anybody with runs under their belt who scores big in the third round of the Sheffield Shield is going to get a baggy green. Peter Handscomb has, you would think, nailed the audition with 215 today against NSW.

Whoever they pick, I have just one request: make sure they have a track record of scoring red ball centuries.

Too often the selectors have picked players to bat in the top six when those players have no history of making centuries on any sort of regular basis. Shane Watson was the best – I mean worst – example of this. Watson made 4 Test tons in 109 Test innings. He was never good enough to bat in the top six in a Test match. Mitchell Marsh has made only 4 first-class centuries in 110 innings, and reached 50 only twice in 31 Test innings. Again, not good enough.

But they are gone now.

Is Callum Ferguson really the right pick? Sure, he has 15 first-class centuries in 187 innings (sort of decent but not stunning), but he only played five Shield matches in 2015-16, scoring a mere 478 runs and made just the one century. Sure, in 2014-15 he scored four centuries, but that’s two years ago now. In Voges’ fabulous year of 2014-15, he made six centuries. Chris Rogers made five centuries in 2008-9 when he scored 1,195 runs. Ferguson made a ton in the first Shield match of 2016-17 but followed that with 0, 3, 1 and 4 in his next four red ball innings (the middle two of which were in his Test debut in Hobart). I hope he works out but I’m not very optimistic.

Handscomb looks like a logical replacement for Voges. He was third on the list of highest run-scorers in the 2015-16 Shield with 784 runs at 43.56 with 3 centuries and 4 fifties. Prior to his double ton against NSW, he had scores of 78, 10 and 60. That double century was his ninth century in his 100th first-class inning. Twice as good as Mitchell Marsh, I guess. Fingers crossed.

If you look at the entire 2015-16 Shield season PLUS the first two and half games of the 2016-17 season, you have Travis Dean and Jake Lehmann with four centuries each and Matt Renshaw and Kurtis Patterson with three each.

For my money, these are the sort of names one should be looking at. They won’t all work out but unless they can score Shield tons, they won’t score Test tons.


Looking for Rock Bottom

Most professional sporting teams experience fluctuations in form. A team doing badly will more often than not improve at some point. A strong team will eventually do less well. Rankings go up and rankings go down. After Australia was bowled out for 85 on the first day of the Second Test against South Africa in Hobart (after losing 10-86 in the first innings of the First Test in Perth), one might legitimately ask if the team is nearing rock bottom; i.e. approaching a nadir after which positive change might occur, even if it is by accident.

Not likely. I suspect rock bottom will not be found until after the tour of India next February. Until then, it’s going to be very ugly.

One of the worst Australian Test teams of recent memory has managed to lose the series against South Africa within the first hour in Hobart, losing 5-17.

Next, the world’s No. 1 Test team – Pakistan – will visit Australia for three Tests. Pakistan has good pace bowlers, good spinners and good batsmen (which, er, is why they are No. 1). It seems unlikely an Australian team this lacking in heart and skill will be any match for them. Then, unfortunately, India in February 2017 is simply a bridge too far. Beating India in India is like climbing Everest in a bikini and even a strong Australian team – which we do not have – would struggle. A result other than 4-0 to India seems inconceivable.

So there is a real chance that Australia’s string of consecutive Test losses – which will reach 5 when it loses the Second Test  against the Proteas in Hobart – could extend to as many as 13 (!) if Australia also loses the Third Test against South Africa (which seems likely) and plays a similar quality of cricket against Pakistan.

Only then can we start to talk about the team hitting rock bottom.

Only three players really can justify their positions in the team at present: Warner, Smith and Starc (four if you want to add Hazlewood). As for the rest, if you replaced any or all of them with peers currently playing Shield cricket (Kurtis Patterson or Peter Handscomb  are candidates for the middle order, but there are others), you could not do any worse. Trouble is, the selectors could not replace so many players in one go as if would be a sign of panic. As it is, only the fans are panicking.

Joe Burns and Usman Khawaja, for example, are both out of their depth. When they have made runs in the past, it has usually been against average (NZ) or weak (West Indies) teams or on flat pitches where the ball comes straight on to the bat. Neither has displayed any competence against the swinging or spinning ball. Same goes for Adam Voges, whose first-ball duck in Hobart helps to confirm suspicions that age is catching up with him. The selectors have (correctly) dumped Mitchell Marsh and might be persuaded to get rid of Voges, but having only just reinstated Burns and Khawaja, are unlikely to axe them again so soon. We are, therefore, probably stuck with both of them even if Voges is dropped.

As we and others have said, the Aussies can hit but they can’t bat (see Hitting vs Batting, and the Invisible Man). The Australians’ complete and utter absence of skill against the swinging, seaming or spinning ball over the past five years or so suggests there is no quick fix. The coaching must be called into question. The turnaround will take a long time.

Darren Lehmann’s blokey she’ll-be-right attitude is wearing thin, and his insistence on ‘playing our natural game’ betrays an alarming lack of awareness of the problem. The Australians’ ‘natural game’ does not work in the Test arena and unless Lehmann acknowledges this, nothing will change. It is only five years since Australia was all out for 47 against South Africa in Cape Town, just over a year since it was dismissed for 60 by England in Nottingham, only three months since it folded for 106 against Sri Lanka in Galle, and only a week or so since it lost 10-86 against South Africa in Perth. Now today it has been bowled out for 85. Lessons are not being learned. Basic Test batting skills are not being acquired. Lehmann’s honeymoon has been over for a while and he desperately needs to turn things around. However, the more time goes on, the worse the batting seems to get. Will he be sacked after the series loss to Pakistan or will Cricket Australia wait until the India series is lost?

It is ironic that Lehmann’s team may well face Pakistan after six successive Test losses (assuming they lose the Third Test to South Africa). Lehmann’s predecessor, Mickey Arthur, was sacked by Cricket Australia in 2013 after four consecutive Test losses, and guess who Arthur coaches now? Yup, Pakistan.

Soft in the Middle


As just about everybody except the selectors agrees, Mitchell Marsh does not deserve his place in the Test team, and now Adam Voges is struggling for runs. I don’t know if Father Time has finally caught up with Adam Voges or whether he’s about to make a big score, but one way or another, it seems likely that one or possibly two middle order batting slots will soon be opening up.

Selector Mark Waugh has indicated new squad member Callum Ferguson of South Australia may play in the Second Test against South Africa in Hobart. Either selectors have changed their mind about guaranteeing the dismal M Marsh a last chance, or they know something about Voges’ hamstring that we don’t. Either way, the middle order has been so poor for so long that long-suffering Aussie fans would be happy to see a new face in there just on the slim chance he might make a few runs.

The table below summarizes the first-class careers of a few promising contenders. (Cameron Bancroft is included not because he’s a middle order player but because he’s a contender for Joe Burns’ spot as opener if Burns blows his latest chance. )

First class stats
Bailey, G121215779139.751939
Bancroft, C4479279237.2279
Ferguson, C101185672040.231535
Handscomb, P6099363938.71824
Maddinson, N58102361438.04817
Patterson, K3256217142.56513
White, C152256916740.562045

Given the lack of middle order runs lately, Ferguson’s call-up is not illogical. Despite his career average of 40.23, he averaged 52.25 across 19 innings in 2014-15, and 53.11 in an injury-shortened 2015-16 season of 10 innings. In the first two games of 2016-17, he made 101 against WA followed by a third-ball duck against Tasmania, so make of that what you will. I have always been a little suspicious of Ferguson, wondering if his average is flattered by playing so often on the bowling green of the Adelaide Oval. But given the alternatives, he is frankly as good a choice as any.

Sheffield ShieldMatInnsRunsAve
Bailey, G91776147.56
Bancroft, C101773245.75
Ferguson, C51047853.11
Handscomb, P111978443.56
Maddinson, N101748830.5
Patterson, K91773752.64
White, C5933842.25
Bailey, G2425986.33
Bancroft, C246516.25
Ferguson, C2210150.5
Handscomb, P2314849.33
Maddinson, N1211658
Patterson, K2422255.5
White, C2317487

*Only two games played so far in 2016-17

George Bailey (34) and Cameron White (33) have made careers out of performing well when no Test spots were available and poorly when the selectors were on the hunt. Bailey eventually managed to play five Tests but was about the only player who underperformed in a 5-0 whitewash of England, and was dropped. White has never managed to be in the right place at the right time. Both men are getting too old to interest the selectors.

Of the younger players, Nic Maddinson (25 next month) has been touted as a future Test player since his first class debut six years ago, but has never managed to string together enough good scores. He had a mediocre season last year but has this year with 116 and 0 against WA. Still not battering down the selectors’ door.

Peter Handscomb (25) is under close scrutiny but needs a big year in the 2016-17 Shield. He is going to be fighting off Kurtis Patterson (23), who debuted back in 2011 but is only recently starting to make some big runs. Patterson, who bats at No. 4 for NSW, averaged 52.64 in 2015-16 and has shot out of the blocks this year with scores of 111, 38, 60 and 13.

If Ferguson plays and either Mitchell Marsh or Voges disappears before the end of the summer, and if the selectors abandon their foolish insistence on an all-rounder and decide to play six batsmen instead, my money would be on Kurtis Patterson. Test selection is all about being in the right place at the right time.

Hitting vs Batting, and the Invisible Man

Who would be a selector? If a player does well, he gets lauded but are the selectors thanked for picking him? Hell, no. If the team does poorly, the selectors strap on their body armour because they know the baseball bats are coming out. All of us armchair selectors could reel off the names of players who should not be in the Test team, but to my mind the bigger problem lies elsewhere.

Australian cricketers can hit, but they can’t bat. The two are very different.

It’s time for the blowtorch to be applied to the feet of the coaching staff, and the batting coaches in particular. They are the invisible men who seem to escape scrutiny when Australia’s batsmen collapse with depressing regularity. The person under the most pressure now should be batting coach Graeme Hick, who was appointed in September 2016 for a four-year term.

Test match batting is not just about hitting the ball. For too many years now, Aussie coaches and players have declared they will ‘play their natural game’, by which they mean they will throw their hands at the ball and try to smash the crap out of it at every opportunity. They will not or cannot master the Art of the Leave, as if batting conservatively somehow reflects badly on their masculinity. They will not or cannot master the art of turning over the strike when the bowling is tight, of getting through a tough session. Unless a boundary is scored each and every over, it seems, they feel they are not doing the job. David Warner is a fine player in excellent form, but few people can bat like him and the fact that he gets held up as a role model is a bit of a problem.

This ‘play your natural game’ approach hasn’t worked and is not likely to. Australia has been losing in much the same manner for years, apparently unable to learn from their opponents. More disturbingly, the Aussies say they acknowledge the need to play differently and yet seem utterly unable to do so.

Back in November 2012 in Adelaide, AB de Villiers faced 246 balls to make 33 while Faf du Plessis faced 466 balls (that’s 78 overs!) to make 110 not out and salvage an epic draw that left scars on the Australians that still linger today. Facing 148 overs, South Africa’s run rate was 1.67 runs per over. More importantly, South Africa kept the series scoreline at 0-0, then then won the Third Test and the series 1-0.

When Murali Vijay and Chuteshwar Pujara put on 370 for the second wicket in Hyderabad in March 2013, they dropped anchor and scored at a snail’s pace for a session before ramping up the scoring rate later in the day when the bowlers were tired. It was textbook Test match batting. The Australians watched but learned nothing.

And now Dean Elgar and JP Duminy have again shown the Aussies how to do it with their match-winning 250-run stand in Perth.

Oh, and let’s not point to the 2015-16 home summer and pretend the problem is being addressed. Yes, Warner and Khawaja put on 302 for the second wicket in Perth against NZ but that was on one of the flattest wickets ever seen in a Test match (and was promptly replicated by Kane Williamson and Ross Taylor with a 265-run partnership). Similarly, the 449-run stand between Adam Voges and Shaun Marsh against the West Indies in Hobart was not achieved against one of the world’s best bowling attacks.

All teams lose occasionally, but to see Australia batsmen collapse consistently over a period of years for the same reasons is frustrating.

In September 2016, Graeme Hick “stressed the need for patience from Australia’s young batsmen, instead of expecting that they could score at limited-overs speed in first-class cricket.”

He is quoted as saying “If one of our top order get in, batting a couple of sessions maybe is not enough. You’ve got to look to post a big first-innings score and take that responsibility if you get in. That may require a little bit more patience than maybe some of the players would normally play at.”

We’ve been hearing these sentiments for a long time. Why are the players not listening?

Perhaps Hick needs to start offering chocolates to the batsmen who last 20 overs or more and display the lowest strike rate.

Waugh’s Comments Alarming

It was astonishing to hear selector Mark Waugh declare that Mitchell Marsh has been guaranteed a spot in the starting eleven for the Second Test against South Africa in Hobart.

Rod Marsh has been getting a lot of stick for allegedly poor selections, but reading Waugh’s comments, one can’t help but feel it is he (i.e. Waugh) who has pressed hardest for Mitchell Marsh’s selection.

Waugh is quoted as saying “As a selector, you pick these guys because you think they are the best players.” Honestly, Mark, on what basis was this assessment made? One of the best players? Mitchell Marsh bats at No. 6 in the Australian Test team, but has a first-class batting average of only 29.83. How does this make him ‘one of the best’?

In 108 first-class innings, he has scored 4 centuries. Waugh said “I think he is capable of getting a hundred.” Again, Mark, what is the basis for your faith? The numbers simply don’t support your assessment, and never have.

Waugh went on to say “he is capable of getting five wickets. He is what I would call a genuine allrounder.” Mitchell Marsh has taken a five-wicket haul only once in 87 first-class innings. For Waugh to make statements like this, he needs to produce evidence, and there is none.

Waugh clearly adores Mitchell Marsh, but his reasons for including him in the Test team border on the delusional. I don’t blame Marsh at all – after all, if you’re offered a Test berth you are going to take it, aren’t you? But I do blame selectors whose stated reasons for their picks are simply untrue and cannot be backed up. Waugh & Co need to stop pretending Marsh will suddenly bloom into the Test-class all-rounder they would like him to be, and concede that he is nowhere close to meeting the high standards they set for him.

Only three, possibly four, members of the current Test team are playing well enough to justify their inclusion so Mitchell Marsh should by no means be considered the sole source of the team’s problems. He is, however, the weakest player in the team by a considerable margin and must be replaced by a genuine batsman immediately. The only selection that would make the current situation worse would be to replace him with the utterly inadequate Moises Henriques.


If Not Mitchell…?

Okay, a few minutes after my last post in which I lambasted the selectors’ inattention to Mitchell Marsh’s failings, Rod Marsh has said the 25-year old all-rounder is on notice.

The public acknowledgement of Mitchell Marsh’s poor performances is a big step forward. It’s difficult to know how much patience the selectors will continue to show Marsh, but reading between the lines, one would think if he doesn’t make a big score in the three Tests against South Africa, he may be left out of the side to play Pakistan.

So who – if anybody – would be considered for the all-rounder slot?

The trouble is the selectors have for years insisted on picking an all-rounder even if no suitable player was available. A Test all-rounder should be competitive at international level as either a batsman or bowler (preferably both, of course, but players who excel at both are like hen’s teeth). The players selected for Australia in recent years have not been particularly outstanding in either discipline. And really, this was obvious before they were picked.

Australia is full of solid, handy all-rounders who represent their states with some success and for long periods of time, but who are not good enough for Test cricket (Dan Christian is a good example). Shane Watson may have justified selection early in his career, but not for the last two or three years of it. The selectors tried the likes of John Hastings (1 Test), Moises Henriques (4), Glenn Maxwell (3), Ashton Agar (2), James Faulkner (1), Steven O’Keefe (3) and Jon Holland (2), but none have nailed the spot.

There is not a single player capable of batting in the top 6 in the Test team while also bowling well enough to be the fourth or fifth bowler. Watson was not good enough, neither are Mitchell Marsh or Henriques.

For me, the most sensible option on pitches in Australia and outside the sub-continent would be to pick James Faulkner (182 first-class wickets at 24.36 and 2,397 runs at 31.96) and have him bat at No. 8. The selectors have tended to consider Faulkner only for the short form of the game, but he spends so much time travelling with the ODI and T20 teams that he has little chance to play red ball cricket. Of all the all-rounders tried so far, he is the most promising and deserves more opportunity.

On the sub-continent, beginning with the Australian tour of India next February, it would make sense to play (at least) two spinners. In this case, the first choice should be Steven O’Keefe (207 wickets at 23.84 and 1,844 runs at 29.74). O’Keefe was sent home from Sri Lanka recently with a hamstring injury and has since missed the Matador Cup with a broken finger but I would think his selection for India is a lock. Breathing down O’Keefe’s neck is the promising Adam Zampa.

The obvious result of all this is that the selectors would still need to find a batsman to bat at No. 6.

The Doughnut

Mitchell Marsh and Peter Nevill are responsible for the Australian Test team’s doughnut: together they have cooked up a big hole in the middle of the batting order.

Neither batsman is performing to an acceptable standard. This is becoming an increasingly serious problem that neither the selectors nor the media seem to be talking enough about.

This year, we have two good teams coming to play: South Africa and Pakistan. Facing New Zealand (a good team) and the West Indies (um, not such a good team) last summer, Australia was able to stagger through carrying Marsh and Nevill, but against better teams it is unlikely to be so easy.

For a start, it’s time to acknowledge that the attempt to install Mitchell Marsh as Australia’s Test all-rounder has failed.

When he made his Test debut two years at the age of 23, Marsh was considered a batting all-rounder. He has now played 18 Tests, but in 29 Test innings has averaged only 24.00 and scored over 50 only twice. For a guy batting at No. 6, this is woeful. More to the point, when he bats he just doesn’t look like getting runs.

I am all for giving promising young players a chance to develop, but this experiment is not working. Marsh is more of a bash-&-crash merchant; he lacks the technique for Test cricket, and like his predecessor Shane Watson is better suited for the short form of the game (Marsh averages 37.45 in ODIs and 29.21 in Twenty20 cricket).

Marsh has, however, proven more useful with the ball than the selectors probably expected. His 27 wickets in 18 Tests at 36.33 is far from earth-shattering but there’s no denying he has a knack for picking up the odd useful wicket when coming on as first or second change. But his skills with the ball would only be pertinent if he batted at No. 8 and was considered a bowling all-rounder. If he remains in the Test team at all, that’s where he should play.

Marsh’s poor form with bat is even more worrying now that Peter Nevill’s form with the bat has deteriorated beyond recognition. When he made his Test debut, Nevill was averaging over 40 in first-class cricket and looked like the perfect replacement for Brad Haddin. Since then, he has averaged a measly 20.88 in 19 Test innings. Frankly, he looks utterly lost when facing Test-quality bowling attacks.

As Nevill is the better ‘keeper, it seems unlikely the Test selectors will revert to Matthew Wade again anytime soon, but it’s worth remembering that Wade averaged 34.61 with the bat in his 12 Tests. If Nevill can’t make some runs this summer, one wonders when the selectors will consider comprising on wicketkeeping prowess in order to get a few more runs on the board. And no single young ‘keeper-batsman is currently bashing down their door, although if players like 24-year old Sam Whiteman from WA (first-class average of 35.98) have a good 2016-17 Sheffield Shield, who knows?

Currently, if the Australian top order underperforms, the team does not have batsmen at No. 6 and No. 7 who are good enough to display the temperament and technique to help the team post a competitive score.

The selectors are happy to chop and change opening batsmen every two or three Tests, but Marsh and Nevill seem to get picked automatically despite prolonged inadequate returns. It’s an inconsistency that deserves closer scrutiny.

Who should they pick instead? That’s a topic for another post.