Cricket: Australia in South Africa 2014, Second Test Preview

The second test between South Africa and Australia kicks off tomorrow night at St George’s Park in Port Elizabeth. Off the back Australia’s thrashing of South Africa at Centurion Park by 281 runs all of the pressure is on the home team to break Australia’s streak of wins at six without Jacques Kallis whilst also rebuffing Mitchell Johnson’s willing attack.

Aside from the performance of AB de Villiers with the willow in both innings there is not a player in their line who did not underperform in the first test match. With the ball the “best bowling attack in the world” was put to the sword by Australia’s inexperienced top order. In particular spinner Robin Peterson was outclassed and seemed bereft of ideas. With the willow Mitchell Johnson had his opponents on the back foot right from the start. In the field: things fell swiftly apart for the Proteas, so much so that dropped catches became the norm. Simply put: they have much to improve on in this game.

For the Australians, the first test match was a repeat of many of the performances of the Ashes series. They were in trouble in the first innings until a big partnership saved the innings. The bowlers dominated the opponent’s batters and benefited from some loose shots. Then in the second innings they benefited from a David Warner century. As bizarre as it is say it (considering I am talking about a team that has won six test matches in a row): there is still room for improvement to be made in Australia’s performances particularly in the top order batting.

The biggest battle in this game though presents as the battle between the captains and the back room tacticians. Michael Clarke bested Graeme Smith in the captaincy by some distance in the first test match. Indeed from the moment Smith won the toss and bowled Clarke was ahead of him in the captaincy battle. Further though Australia seemed to be much better prepared and had more refined plans for what they intend to do for each of the batters and bowlers they would face. South Africa conversely seemed bereft of ideas and without a plan B once their usual processes failed.

Australia will select the same team for this fixture, injuries permitting, which is the benefit of winning by such a margin. South Africa though have decisions to make at the top of the order and in the spinner ranks as well finding a replacement for Ryan McLaren who has been ruled out with concussion. With St George’s Park likely to play more like the Adelaide Oval than any other Australian ground the role of the spinner will be vital in this second test.

Sitting over all of this is the spectre of whether South Africa has adjusted to the loss of Jacques Kallis. Simply put: he is irreplaceable but the hole he has left is one that an attempt at least needs to be worked on in this post Kallis era.

I predicted a South African series win at the start of this series in part because I thought there was a question mark over the form line of the Australians coming out of the issues. Australia’s performance in the first test match, albeit still with room for improvement, has shown that they can beat the South Africans but it must be admitted that this was a South African team that was operating significantly below their usual par. I expect the South Africans to improve but whether they have enough improvement in them to best the on a role Australians is questionable. Given the likely pitch conditions I am tipping a draw in this game which will go a long way to, ultimately, an Australian series victory.

Play commences at 6:30pm Brisbane time. Umpires for this fixture will be Richard Illingworth and Ian Gould with Aleem Dar in the TV chair.

Australia in South Africa 2014: 1st Test ponderings

Let’s get this out of the way at the outset: this win by the Australian cricket team was their best performance in at least the last 24 months.  Yes, Australia defeated England but this was a win against the best team in the world.  A team that had not been bested in 19 test matches was just destroyed by the Australian team.

Mitchell Johnson bowled better than at any time during the Ashes series and that is saying much.  He bowled with pace and hostility but also, when the pitch changed, he threw in some excellent variations.  The ball of the game that showed Australia’s out and out domination of this game was in the last innings: Hashim Amla, one of the best batters of the last 5 years, was struck by a Johnson thunderbolt on the grill of the helmet.  This was a ball that Amla did not appear to see it and was rocked on his heals which is exactly what the Australians did to South Africans all game.

Another example of Australia’s dominance of this game and, indeed, an indication of just how well Australia played is that this test is the first in this current winning streak in wish Brad Haddin was NOT needed to play a significant role with the willow.

For the South Africans, Graeme Smith will be rueing his decision at the toss which will go down in history as a akin to Nasser Hussian’s toss imbroglio at Brisbane in 2002.  He will also be rueing lapses in the field that are so unlike the South African team that one suspects that they have to be an aberration at best. There is much to work on and much improvement in this camp: they must come up with a plan for dealing with Mitchell Johnson and they must find a way to get Dale Steyn fit for the first morning of the next test match.  They also must seek to reverse the trend of Australia coming back from adverse circumstances which has been the cornerstone of their wins in the last 6 test matches.

This is a golden 6 months for Australian cricket: every strategy that Michael Clarke seems to put in place, at least since the first day at the Gabba in November, has come off.  The batters that are being plucked from Sheffield Shield cricket without semblance of form are performing at the top flight. I can not remember the last time an Australian team played the same four bowlers for 6 test matches in a row.

There is a short turnaround between this test match and the next: the second test commences on 20 February.  As I wrote yesterday, Australia will select the same  team for the second test regardless of the fitness of Shane Watson.  South Africa have to look at their spin bowler selection and also have to look at what they do at the top of the order.  I expect both Petersons to be missing from the next test perhaps with Amla to open.

This result, more than any of the last six wins, has the feel about it that Australia has defeated a team of, at least, equals rather than a team in decline.  If the same result arises in the test match though then questions will be asked about whether this is a South African team in decline too.  It certainly will be interesting to see how the second test evolves right from the toss of the coin.

Cricket: Is this the end for Shane Watson?

As often happens in sport, Shane Watson has sat on the side lines injured during the present test being played at Centurion in South Africa and has seen his replacement, Shaun Marsh, and the new number 3 batsman picked to replace George Bailey, Alex Doolan, both score runs against the bowling attack touted as the best in the world. 

These runs for Doolan and Marsh have come despite both players seemingly being out of sorts in the domestic long form of the game in Australia and whilst Watson has succumbed to a calf injury for the, at least, 4th time in recent memory.

The question for the Australian selectors must now be: what do we do with Shane? I know it is only one test match and I know that I am most regularly at the front of the queue when it comes to defending my fellow Ipswichian: but off the back of another injury and limited productivity with the bat over the course of hit career the question must be asked.

For me it actually comes down to what happens when Australia bowl for the win at some point today.  Australia only have 4 front line bowlers to share the burden of getting the South Africans out.  If they struggle to do so (Adelaide 2012 comes to mind) and start to tire then we will all be looking around for the 5th bowler who can churn through some overs: which is the other string to Watson’s bow.  If the quartet of Harris, Johnson, Siddle and Lyon do what they did to England during the summer almost gone in Australia then we may well be asking: Shane who?

For me the balance of any cricket team (forgetting my position firmly as a fan of Shane Watson) is always at its best when it contains 4 front line bowlers with an all rounder who can trundle down some overs when needed.  So to me Australia needs to find a place for an all rounder and the best in the country at the moment is Shane Watson. 

Unfortunately, that would mean one of the new men in the line up would have to drop out which would be a shame given their form.  If that does not happen and the selectors remain keen to select S Watson then I have a real fear the man to go could be the oldest man in the team , Chris Rogers.  This would not just be a travesty it, it would be a monumental slap in the face for one of the most popular cricket men in the country.  That said, in terms of longevity he would have to be the one in doubt.

Of course this is a good problem to, suddenly it feels, have for Australian cricket administrators and fans: a clamour for seats on the test match bus that has seemed to arrive from nowhere.

Then again though, I may be getting a bit ahead of myself … afterall: we have not won this test yet. 

OMJ: Johnson does it again! The resurrection continues

I have previously noted on this blog that I was mildly concerned that the form line of Mitchell Johnson coming out of the Ashes might have been slightly inflated by the bad form of the English. If I needed any convincing that I was wrong in that view all it took was two balls to Graeme Smith last night.

Johnson’s resurrection as a force with the red ball has its genesis in one concept: speed. I would never suggest that a test match standard batsman would ever be scared of a bowler but each of the South Africa batters, to a man, looked rushed and without answers to Johnson’s searing pace. You will wait some time to see a better fast bowler’s wicket than that which removed Faf du Plessis: he was just beaten for pace plain and simple.

I have been one of a number who have been on the fringes of the hyperbole surrounding Johnson’s performances. I have heard Mark Nicholas et al wax lyrical about his performances and whilst I am not a bandwagoner I am prepared to now admit that he is presently at the top of the tree when it comes to fast bowlers the world around. Sitting next to him is Dale Steyn, albeit if Johnson’s performances continue on the trajectory they are on now (after all he has now destroyed the batting order of the best team in the world) he will hold that position at the top on his own.

Batters the world over will have to find a way to match or combat Johnson’s pace. If they do not do so then this continuing carousel of wickets falling when Johnson bowls will not be ending any time in the future.

Cricket: An Open Letter to Shaun Marsh fans

Dear Shaun Marsh Fans,

What else can I say but I got it wrong. I am variously on the record as decrying the originally selection of Marsh in the squad for the South African tour, being dismayed at the resurrection of Marsh’a tour, suggesting that he was batting at number 4 because of some “goat” photos and noting that I would rather clean old paint brushes than watch him bat.

I repeat though: I got it wrong and Shaun Marsh delivered up 122 reasons as why I was. I only watched until Marsh hit into the 90s and then promptly fell asleep on my lounge but until that point Marsh constructed an innings that reminded me of his hundred on debut. Assured and confident whilst eschewing the “big shots”, this was an innings that Australian fans have been looking for from the “new blood” in the top 4.

I remain a staunch critic of not selecting players based on solid first class form. That was my principal objection to Marsh’s selection. Begrudgingly though I also have to concede that Inverarity and his merry band of consorts pulled the right reign with Shaun Marsh in this test match.

I am now looking forward to tonight’s play at Centurion to see just how far Marsh can push on in this innings.

Yours humbly and apologetically,

Shumpty

PS: it has been pointed out to me that I am oft negative about players I “don’t like” but positive about those that I “like”. I reject the premise outright: it has nothing to do with “liking” a player. How can I like or dislike someone that I do not know? The nature of debate is that there will always be a proponent and an opponent and whilst I may fall on the opponent side often my argument is only about an issue which vexes me: nothing more nor less.

Australia in South Africa: talking points

Whilst Australia remains in the heart of a short form cricket series against the England, I was reminded yesterday that we are only 2 weeks away from the start of Australian tour to South Africa. I have been involved in much water cooler talk, twitter discussion and pub ranting about the selection of Australia’s squad for this tour and have spent much time pondering how this tour might go for the Australians and it is clear to me that this tour has piqued an equal, if not greater, level of interest to any overseas tour by the Australian as I can remember of late.

Here are some talking points that have come to the front of mind when thinking about this tour:

1. Does Australia have a chance?

This tour is, afterall, a tour slated as a heavyweight bought between the current number 1 team, South Africa, and the, suddenly, new incumbent challenger for the heavy weight cricket crown, Australia. I wonder though if that incumbency has arisen under a false pretence? Yes Australia played well to defeat England in the Ashes but the more I re-watch the highlights of each test I am left with the nagging suspicion that Australia was flattered by just how bad the English were in Australia. Australia will not be able to draw on, for example, so many opposition wickets to bad shots and bad balls because the South African line up is just too disciplined for that. Don’t get me wrong: in any contest between two rivals both combatants always have a chance of victory so the answer to the question raised above is somewhat rhetorical BUT I suspect Australia’s chances are slimmer than many expect.

2. Who will bat 3 for Australia?

In the Ashes series Shane Watson held down the number slot with George Bailey batting at number 6. Bailey’s replacements in the squad, Doolan and Marsh (assuming he returns to fitness), are both top order batters who have spent the bulk of their careers (if not all) batting at no lower than number 4 in the order. One would have to think that one of Doolan or Marsh (if selected) would bat at number 3 and Watson would shuffle down the order to number 6 and play a true all rounder role. Why else would Inverarity have picked two top order replacements?

3. How will Australia react once there is "chum" in the water?

South Africa have made a mockery of many batting lineups in the last 2 years and have an imposing record of having bowled out opponents for less than 50 three times in that span. Metaphorically speaking, once the "chum" of early wickets floats in front of the sharks that are Steyn, Philander and Morkel, often batting line ups can find no way to get out of the chum trail and find themselves back in the field shortly thereafter. There is a frailty at the top of Australia’s batting line up that tells me that at some point they will face this scenario and if they react poorly a test could be taken away from them in a blink of an eye.

4. Warner v Steyn

I have been watching a lot of highlights of D Steyn’s bowling on YouTube of late. The biggest impression gained from this perusal is that Steyn bowls out left handed batters with weak defensive techniques for sport. He will go around the wicket to David Warner and will probe around his off stump at 145kms moving the ball both ways. Warner has shown a renewed application and focus on his craft against England in Australia however facing Dale Steyn is, in young people speak,"next level" and any weakness in his defence will be exposed.

5. No Kallis: no worries?

The South African hierarchy must have been planning for the retirement of J Kallis for some time but now that that time is here there will be a sharp focus on whomever replaces Kallis in the lineup. It is not possible to replace a player of Kallis’ stature (better than Tendulkar in my view) and thus how South Africa seeks to cover the hole left by this icon of the game’s absence will be both intriguing and, potentially, integral to the ultimate outcome of the series.

I have been asked by many to posit what the outcome of this series will be and I am sad to say that I am tipping, as much as it hurts my heart to do so, a South African series victory. I hope I am wrong but I remain worried about items such as the selection of out of form players by Australia, injuries to bowlers and the form line generally coming from the Ashes. Equally, it will be an enthralling series filled with moments of much drama and, possibly, the defining of some careers. Bring on the late nights night and banter!