Sunday, July 08, 2012

Its Not Ambition, Its Selection And Bowling Mr. Arthur

Mickey Arthur thinks Australia have been "bullied" by England in the first four matches of their 5 match series so far. Australia have already lost the series (3 defeats and 1 washout). Arthur said:
"I think our Test team is really good, it's really settled, it's got that hard edge. The Twenty20 team, we haven't really had that much time together, but the one-day team there's just that something missing," Arthur said. "I've said it all through our home summer, there's just something missing. I'm not sure what it is. Is it character, is it ambition? I'm not sure - there's just something clearly missing. I've challenged the players, I'll always be honest and I'll say it how it is. I'm really looking for a response.
"I want to see a bit of mongrel come Tuesday, I really do. I think we've been a bit submissive this whole series. We've allowed [ourselves] to be bullied, and we're better than that. I don't think we've had a presence this series. I'm talking absolute presence when batters are out there, like the presence our Test team had against India - when we walked on that field there was body language, we were strong, we were decisive, there was that presence.
"But we haven't had that presence in our one-day side. We didn't really get that presence in our one-day side through the international summer at home as well, and that's something we've been fiddling with, trying to get. We just don't seem to have the answers at the moment."
Basically, Brett Lee has been off color and Xavier Doherty is not a serious specialist spinner in ODI cricket. Other than Clint McKay, Australia don't have a settled ODI bowler, and they seem reluctant to stick with their best bowlers like England do. England's Test team and ODI team are nearly indistinguishable, much like Australia's Test and ODI sides were indistinguishable in their heyday under Waugh and Ponting.

What missing for Australia is that they no longer have the core batting and bowling strength that they have had for the past 10-15 years.

Brett Lee, their best ODI fast bowler in the past 15 years along with Bracken and McGrath is no longer the bowler he was. Whats more, he hasn't been bowling very much in recent months. Lee played his last first class game in 2009, and since then, he's bowled exclusively in ODI and T20 games. He's also 35 years old, and is not the bowler he was even 12-18 months ago. Lee has averaged over 30 in his last 2 seasons in ODI cricket, and has conceded five and a half per over in these 16 games.

Pat Cummins and James Pattinson, Australia's two exciting fast bowling prospects played only one of the four games each, this, despite the fact that Pattinson has had more match practice in recent months than any other Australian bowlers, while Cummins played in an U-19 tournament in April.

Still, Cummins and Pattinson are men for the future. They shouldn't be expected to lead the attack.

Mitchell Johnson, the other fast bowler who got a game, hasn't played a first class game since the Johannesburg Test of November 2011. The Oval ODI was only his 2nd match of any kind in the past 8 months.

Ben Hilfenhaus, a man in form, and with matches under his belt, also got just one game.

Given that Australia don't have a spinner to compete with Swann, it is all the more crucial that they get their other bowling slots filled reliably. In this series, they persisted with an ageing fast bowler who has for long showed signs of decline, declined to persist with their young bowlers, while trying out Mitchell Johnson, who doesn't currently make Australia's Test team and who hasn't played a lot of cricket.

Mickey Arthur can blame the Australian players for lacking whatever it is he thinks they lack. His overtly sexual metaphor about the Australians being "submissive" may have been calculated to light a fire under the Aussies and get them to at least behave badly, if it doesn't get them to bowl better. But that should not draw attention away from the fact that Australia have selected their XIs badly in this series.

Under the Australian view of things, neither Cook nor Trott would play in the ODI side. Under the English view of things, they play precisely because they are reliable batsmen. When the wickets are not entirely pancake flat, it helps to have someone score steadily in the first 25 overs or so - keep wickets in hand, as ODI captains since Imran Khan have been prescribing. The English view of things is time tested especially in English conditions (the top order batsman who did better than anyone else in the 1999 World Cup was Rahul Dravid). Reliable batsmen are batsmen who don't take chances. Batsmen who play in England regularly are used to getting beaten quite often, especially against the new ball. They also help themselves by not trying anything expansive, the way a David Warner might a bit too often.

Warner's approach may work on flat batting tracks, or against erratic bowling attacks like India's, but its unlikely to work against the more disciplined ones like England's, especially if the attack is bloody minded enough to retain its discipline in the face of a couple of successful blows by the batsman.

ODI Cricket does not allow a contest between bat and ball that is as even and finely balanced as in the case of Test Cricket. But it does allow a contest such that on a wicket which is not entirely flat, the side with the better fast bowling, and steadier top order batting more often than not, wins. On the terribly flat wickets, even the ODI game becomes a slug fest, and then, the main dilemma becomes, as it was for India during the 2011 World Cup, whether to play the wildly explosive, but unreliable Yusuf Pathan or the slightly less explosive, but slightly more reliable Suresh Raina.

But the core basics of an ODI side still remain. A side needs a top 4 that can survive the first 30 overs of an ODI innings with aplomb, bowlers who can deliver at least 40 of the 50 overs reliably (if not all 50), and a couple of big hitters in the lower middle order. This combined with decent fielding makes a winning ODI side. Champion sides need genius.

Later in the interview, Mickey Arthur says that Australia's batsmen are "world class". This is delusional. Which Australian batsmen other than Michael Clarke is "world class"? David Hussey? Shane Watson? Peter Forrest? George Bailey? David Warner? Most of these have hardly played, and the ones that have, are strictly journeymen by any international standard.

England on the other hand, are playing at home. Their players are in mid-season form. Their bowlers have bowled plenty of overs this year, and they have a team that better balanced than most teams in the world right now. Whats more, they're making selections conservatively. They have now played 14 consecutive ODI matches in England without a defeat against India, West Indies and Australia.

In English conditions, England are a terrific ODI side.

Australia have not been bullied - they've been outclassed. Mickey Arthur's bluster shouldn't hide that fact. It also shouldn't hide the fact that Australia have selected poorly for this series. Losing Michael Hussey for personal reasons was a blow to Australia's chances.

It is not the "mongrel" as Arthur puts it (adding an disturbingly racial metaphor to his earlier sexual one), who is going to win games for Australia on a regular basis. Consistent bowling and steady batting. In the absence of this, Arthur's talk is all just noise. Perhaps this noise will help him keep his job, but it will achieve little else.

England are not a brilliant ODI team, let alone a truly great one. Australia have lost to a steady team which doesn't make too many mistakes, and there in lies the rub.

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