Wednesday, January 11, 2012

In the lead up to Perth

Blog preview of WACA Test is the first item on Hughesy's ToDo list today, but a glance at Cricinfo reveals headlines like Australia will adapt faster to the WACA, Ponting expects quick pitch, and Reports of rift in team are 'rubbish' - Sehwag, while over at The Australian Monkey was on our backs, says Ricky Ponting, MCC committee calls for India to be brought into line and Coy Dravid puts up the brick wall.

Not what you'd call a lot of opportunities to get away from recurring themes that have already been done to death in that lot, is there?

So you need to dig back into the memory banks, which is what I did on the section of the morning walk that precedes the rendezvous with Jimbo somewhere around the Front Beach and Starboard Drive.

That initial headline about the WACA track had me thinking back, and I was scratching my head (figuratively, at least) trying to remember details of recent Perth Tests, one of which was Shaun Tait's last run in the baggy green, which I thought might have been against India

The middle of the morning walk doesn't allow ready access to reference material, but I could recall, back when The Little House of Concrete had pay TV, Allan Border, Mark Waugh and Brendon Julian discussing Tait's recall to the Test side and the accompanying question of whether he'd make the final Eleven.

The suggestion at the time was that he lacked accuracy, a rather remarkable allegation when subsequent research revealed the presence of Mitchell Johnson in the side. AB's take on the matter was along the lines of pick him, give him the new ball and let the Wild Thing loose. In hindsight I'm not sure about the new ball, but let the Wild Thing loose is the exact terminology used.

That subsequent research reveals the opposition was India, and we're talking the sequel to the Monkeygate allegations coming out of the Sydney Test in 2008, with Turbanator Harbajan suspended, the Australian side distracted by the kerfuffle and India coming back to win in conditions where they weren't supposed to be competitive.

Perth, given its reputation as the fastest track in the world would, you'd have thought, have been a natural fit for Tait, but a glance at the score card has him bowling second change behind Lee, Johnson and Stuart Clark. Hmmm.

It also reveals Tait bowled a total of 21 wicketless overs for 92. Lee got 44.4 (6-125), Johnson 38.4 (5-144), Clark 36 (6-106) and Andrew Symonds 20 (3-72). Michael Clark even got 17 across the two innings.

If you're wondering about that last bit, Australia fined for slow over-rate may have had something to do with the Clarke/Symonds bit, but there was also an error of judgement when it came to the actual pitch on offer.

With hindsight, apparently, we'd have played Brad Hogg on his home track.

It does, however, bring us back to this pitch, this time around and the makeup of Australia's attack. The smart money seems to be on four seamers, and the allegation is that Pattinson would have been rested for this one even if he hadn't come down with the injury.

Four quicks seems a reasonable approach given the pre-match publicity, and it'll be interesting to see how the new definitions of a good length stack up on a faster, bouncier track.

Given a track with pace and bounce there's a natural temptation to go short or back of a length and have the batsmen ducking and weaving, which might give bowlers and spectators a bit of a thrill but doesn't always bring results in the Wickets column of the score book.

Pitch it up, on the other hand, and have the extra bounce come into play around the upper body

I also can't help noting the names of the other three members of the four man pace pack four years ago, and the paths they followed on their way into the Australian side.

Stuart Clark, as far as I can recall, emerged on the scene out of an unremarkable background, rising through the ranks in the regular manner.

Brett Lee and Mitchell Johnson came onto Hughesy's radar around the same time as kids on the way up. Johnson was playing A Grade in Townsville as a teenager along with three members of my 1993 NQ Primary Schools side. Knowing how good those three were, I was ready to be impressed, but I wasn't watching club games in Townsville, so I didn't actually sight him until he was wearing Australian colours. I'd read the huge wraps from the likes of Dennis Lillee, and, to be honest, what I saw at the start wasn't all that impressive.

Brett Lee, on the other hand was mentioned in despatches some time around the 1995 Australian tour of the West Indies, where a new Australian attack was taking shape without Craig McDermott. Resources looked rather limited, but my informant, the then-Queensland Cricket Development Officer for the area alerted me to the presence of Shane Lee's younger brother, who'd been bowling in the nets to Alan Border, who'd been impressed by the teenager's speed.

Johnson mightn't have had the same background but he came endorsed by people with significant influence.

And Tait?

I suspect he'd spent years on the way up with labels like fast but erratic attached to his file, often by people who were looking for excuses not to pick him in some side or other.

I may be wrong about that, but I know what would have happened if I'd had him in my side at a trial where someone else had a favoured candidate for the same role. Hell, I know what I'd have said if he'd been in contention for a spot I'd earmarked for a kid I was coaching.

So we get to a supposed green-top, select him in the side, then bowl him second change when you'd have thought the recipe involved the new ball, short sharp bursts to get the Indian batsmen on the back foot and much up the hill into the Fremantle Doctor work from Stuart Clark.

That's the sort of scenario you see emerging when you've got a team that's got an established pecking order, possible factions and personality issues and a newish kid on the block whose presence is keeping someone more favoured out of the side.

You don't read about that sort of factionalism along the way until the team gets into difficulty, which is why that Dravid media conference referenced before is an exercise in managing perceptions rather than reflecting reality.

While there's no way that anyone outside the Indian dressing room can be too clear on details, you'd have to believe there's something lurking there under the surface. Given the nature of the beast, a touring party drawn from a range of cultural, religious, regional linguistic and socio-economic backgrounds it would be remarkable if there wasn't.

Dravid or whoever's rostered to front today's media conference can't, of course, come out and admit that these things exist. Once he does, there's going to be the predictable so are they a problem?

Which, obviously requires a denial, that in turn prompts further questions from a room full of people who need to find something to fill column inches.

That factional bit (and I'm not having a go at India here, you'll find it in any international team, though things won't work the same way if you're Australia, Pakistan, New Zealand or South Africa) doesn't matter until it starts to influence team performance, does it?

I've just spent a good half hour looking for the article I sighted recently that suggested a reason for the apparent non-arrival of The Niggle in a series that seemed set for it. In a passing reference to alleged regional and IPL based factions in the Indian camp the article slipped in a comment about the Mumbai group, predictably centred around The Little Master, with a comment along the lines of Tendulkar can make the bullets, but he doesn't have to fire them.

And, when you look at it, he wouldn't be firing them, even if they were his own creation. But you could drop the odd comment while someone with a demonstrated ability to get right under Australian skin, couldn't you?

No, I remarked to Jimbo on the last leg of the morning walk, Harbajan's recent form with the ball mightn't have been crash hot, but he's got definite long term and ongoing form as far as The Niggle is concerned.

So if we fail to see the predicted outbursts over the next two Tests, there's a possible explanation...

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