The Ashes: Second Test musings

The second test between Australia and England has ended with Australia securing its second dominant victory in as many games. With the third test only three days away, players, pundits and fans have little time to draw breath and rest in advance of hostilities resuming. That said, here are some of my musing arising from this test match just completed worth considering in advance of play commencing in Perth.

Catches win matches: the maxim holds true

Australia won the toss and batted and closed the first day on 5/273 which many considered to be a victory for the English. It could have been so much better though for them had they caught all of the catching opportunities presented to them. Both of Australia’s centurions, Clarke and Haddin, presented catching opportunities on Day 1 that should have been taken. Haddin’s chance being dropped in last over of the first day was particularly damning given that he added a further 111 runs after it. The Australians, on the other hand, looked more lively in the field and more engaged in the game and it showed in their catching particularly in the outfield.

Leg side wickets: plans working or bad batting?

Of the top seven batters for England, all but one was out once (Carberry twice with Stokes the exception) hitting the ball in the air to the leg side. There is a school of thought that the Australians should be lauded for their plans coming together so well that the English batters fell into the traps set. I respectfully can not agree: none of the wickets taken with leg side catches were the result of anything other than bad batting. Bell hitting a full toss from a part time leg spinner to mid on is a perfect example of this as was Cook’s failed hook shot at the start of Day 4. I concede that Australia’s plans have aided the mental disintegration of the Englishmen but bad batting has played a bigger role.

Harden up England, he is only one bowler!

Much has been made of the bowling of Mitchell Johnson and, I concede, he has bowled very swiftly and has executed the plans set for him for various batsman. The way the English batters are playing him though you would think that they were playing a combination of Larwood and Ambrose. The dismissals of Broad and Anderson in the first innings of this test match are perfect cases in point. Both batters failed to get in line with the ball bowled and, there is no other word for it, capitulated. You would almost think these guys had not seen a bowler bowl at around 145kph before.

The niggle continues: this is starting to get unseemly now

I wrote after the first test that sledging is a part of the game and must be accepted as such by the fans and those who bemoan its presence. I continue to posit that view however I have to say the confrontations in this test match just completed went past what I consider to be appropriate. The players having stand up “discussions” in the middle of the wicket, at the end of overs and as they walk off the field is taking it too far and is going past what I believe to be appropriate sledging. The players need to have a long think about what they are doing because surely they must realise that the host broadcaster is watching their every move and broadcasting same without a filter. It is not a good look and is getting out of hand.

The Ashes are returning to Australia already … or are they?

With the short turn around now to the Perth test match, it defies belief that by this time next week Australia could have won back the Ashes however that is the very real scenario that now presents itself. Absent a significant change of fortune and form for the English, is anyone prepared to suggest an alternate result? Certainly the pundits from the UK are now doing what they do best and sinking the boot into their team and the fans have gone from cockahoop smugness to resignation about the result seemingly in the blink of the eye. I, for one, can not believe for a second that the Englishmen will not fight hard in the coming test match to seek to defy Australia. That, combined with the fact that we should not be too quick to write off a team that has dominated us as shortly ago as August, means the level of optimism for Australia fans should be no higher than cautious optimism because things can change quickly in cricket.

All in all this was another excellent effort by Australia to best their arch rivals. Here’s hoping they can do it all again come Thursday in Perth!

The Siddle Conundrum: what should the team for the 2nd test look like?

The second test match between India and Australia starts in Deccan on Saturday. Two things are abundantly clear in the aftermath of the Australia’s abysmal showing in the first test: first that the pitch for the second test will no doubt mirror the first and second that Australia must select two spin bowlers if it is to be competitive in this fixture.

These two factors raise two selection conundrums that are polar opposites: the need to lengthen the batting order against the need for more bowling. There will be immediate calls from some factions of Australian supporters to immediately call into the team one of Glenn Maxwell or Steve Smith who, as all rounders, will have the effect of killing two birds with one stone however the answer to Australia’s bowling ills will not be solved by taking that step in my view. The answer to that question actually rests in the position of Peter Siddle in the team.

Before we get to Siddle it is important examine the “candidates” for the role as second spinner in the Australian team for the second test:

1. Xavier Doherty: An excellent one day bowler, Doherty has been brought on tour as an alternate or second spinning option to Nathan Lyon. Off the bat (pardon the pun) it needs to be acknowledged that his test career to date has been less than stellar as a bowling average after two tests of 102.00 at an economy rate of 4.00 attests. Still he is the second spinner on tour and thus the search for reasons why this selection decision came to pass must also be examined. It can not be based on his first class record: a bowling average of 44.56 does not make for pleasant reading even taking into account the seaming home track he plays on. In the interests of fairness it is also necessary to look at his ODI and List A records and whilst the bowling average there is better an economy rate of around 4.50 is still a worry. A blocker at best with the bat he will do little to strengthen the batting lineup.

2. Glenn Maxwell: Seemingly the anointed next big thing in Australian cricket is a batting all rounder who bowls off spin much in the same style as Nathan Lyon. The interests of variety alone mean the selection chances of Maxwell must, on their face, be slim at best. Selecting another off spinner after your main spinner who is also an offspinner has gone for 200 runs in less than 50 overs is not palatable at best and suicidal at worst in my opinion. Still, in the interest of fairness, an examination of Maxwell’s first class record needs also to be considered in this context. 27 wickets in 24 innings at an average of 34 is not the worst record that one has ever seen before a selection for a test. The problem as I see it is that in those 24 innings, Maxwell has only bowled 1808 balls, or roughly 300 overs. To ask a bowler who averages less than 14 overs an innings at first class level to face the best players of spin in world cricket in a test match could only be detrimental to his development and simply should not happen.

3. Steve Smith:Once the golden boy of Australian cricket, Smith has returned to favour in recent times of the back of some solid performances with the willow. The problem with selecting Smith as a second spinner, and to state the bleeding obvious, is that he barely bowls for his state in first class cricket at, of all places, the best wicket for spin bowling in the country. He bowls for his state even less than Glenn Maxwell and a first class bowling average of over 50 again does not make for confidence inspiring reading. I can not see how Smith could be selected as the second spinner for the next test match or in the future.

The foregoing brief consideration of the possible inclusions into the team as second spinner reveals the yawning chasm in Australia’s spin bowling stocks. Nonetheless given the squad that is in India it is fairly clear that Xavier Doherty needs to be selected as the second spinner in the next test match.

That then leads to the conundrum as to who should be left out of the team. Henriques has done the job he was asked to do in this test match and was impressive batting with captain with the pressure was on. In order to avoid lengthening the tail of Australia’s batting order even further Henriques must remain in the team in my view. Which fast bowler needs then to be dropped (or rotated out) for the second test? The choice is down to two players (assuming Pattinson is fit for the second test) between Mitchell Starc and Peter Siddle. Both failed to take a wicket in the only innings of note (the first) of India in the first test and both performances were concerning.

It is unfortunate but the only conclusion I can reach is that Peter Siddle is the player who must miss out. Coming only 3 matches after he took 9 wickets against Sri Lanka (albeit on a seaming wicket) and given his full hearted performances over recent years this feels like a very hard call however Siddle’s propensity to look innocuous against quality batting on wickets not offering any assistance counts against him here. Mitchell Starc offers greater variety than that offered by Siddle particularly bowling left arm and will have learned some tough lessons after his performance in the first test match.

Despite Australia’s crushing loss in the first test I am only suggesting one change to the team: Siddle out and Doherty in. Whilst the batting order did not perform all that well (the captain aside), with P Hughes looking particularly out of depth against the spin bowling of India, making changes to that lineup would be a reactionary move at this stage.

India have to be short priced favourites for the second test but it was not that long ago that England found themselves in the same situation and they came back to win the series. Here is hoping that X Doherty can do the same for the Australian team as M Panesar did for England in that series. If he can not one fears that this is going to be a very very long and difficult series for the Australian team.

Australia v South Africa, 2nd test, Day 2: the 5 keys

Yesterday I wrote about the 5 keys to winning the test match at the Adelaide Oval: in amongst those points were two that this morning stick out. They were:

1. Will Kallis be a full 5th bowler? and
2. Who will win the heavyweight batting championship of the world between Clarke and Amla?

It is pretty obvious that Kallis’ bowling was going to be vital in this game and his spell of five overs was up there with some of the best he has bowled for some years. Then he got hurt and did not bowl the rest of the day. This leaves a massive hole in the bowling attack for the Proteas: the bowling figures of Tahir alone reveal this.

How many superlatives can one use to describe the batting of Captain Clarke? A scan of the papers this morning has a common denominator through it: the inclusion of the word “Don” headlines reporting the feats of the Captain. Enough said really.

So onto today: what are the keys to success today at the Adelaide Oval?

1. The Clarke Supremacy

Captain Clarke has the look of a man possessed at the moment in the form of his life. His destruction of Morne Morkel over one over shows just how well he is batting. It seems to me that he can bat for as long as he wants and it is not out of the realm of possibility for Lara’s record to be in jeopardy. It will really just come down to how long he wants to bat.

2. Can Tahir recover from the onslaught?

Much was made in commentary of the journey man nature of Imran Tahir’s career and he will need to rely on every ounce of experienced gained over that career today. 0-159 off 21 overs is not flattering reading by anyone’s standards and he presents as a key bowling option today for Smith in the absence of Kallis and with a question mark over his main seamer Steyn.

3. Steyn’s hamstring

With Kallis already off the field, the sight of Dale Steyn hobbling off the field for treatment must have shaken the will of Smith to the very core. He returned to the field and finally got the ball back late in the day. When he finally did bowl he got the wicket of a very well set Hussey. If Steyn’s hamstring is ok his overs will be vital today if the Proteas are to restrain Australia’s scoring and get back in this game.

4. How many runs are enough?

Yesterday was fantastic for Australia and Australian cricket, of that there can be no doubt. However, it is simply to early for fans to start crowing and thinking thoughts only of victory. There are 4 days to go in this test match and the memories of teams scoring 500+ in their first innings and being bested in the Adelaide sun are still fresh. Only Captain Clarke knows how long he wants to bat but one suspects the number of runs he has in mind to bat the Proteas out of the game is around 650.

5. How long with Australia’s tail wag?

Linked to items 1 and 4 above is how the Australian tail will perform with the willow. The lower order, Wade included, needs to stay with the Captain as long as they can today because being 5 out and then all out within the first hour will rest some momentum away from Australia. If that scenario does play out then there is so much time left that there might still be the prospect of the Proteas making a game of it.

Another very interesting day beckons at the Adelaide Oval. Surely it can not be as exciting as yesterday? Or can it?