Saturday, January 28, 2012

Out of the entrails

Having previously commented that a 4-0 result in a four Test series is the only result that mightn't have comments being pencilled in under Things that should have been better, overnight news Pakistan had rolled England for a rather measly 72 was something to note with interest. They'd needed 145 to level the series, and the defeat mightn't be enough to remove England from #1, but it's certainly going to have Pakistan moving upwards.

That result is a timely reminder that Australia still has a way to go before we're guaranteed a spot in any Test cricket championship series.

Restating an earlier point, if and when this Test championship series kicks in, it'll only involve the Top Four, so hat's where you want to be, isn't it?

Actually, if you're not sitting pretty in the #1 spot you want to be #2 or #3 so you're not looking over your shoulder at a threatening #5. Pakistan are currently edging ahead of Sri Lanka) but in a system that determines your ranking by dividing points scored by the number of games you've played things could change rapidly if you're not playing while your rivals are. 

I must admit I hadn't been watching things too closely over the past year and a bit, so saying news that Pakistan are unbeaten in seven series since the spot betting scandal during the 2010 English tour came as a bit of a surprise is a considerable understatement.

There's nothing involving Pakistan on Australia's horizon at the moment, and we'd be looking at a home series rather than a visit to the Emirates when we do, but you can bet your bottom dollar that when we do face them if David Warner's in the side he'll be coming under close scrutiny from off spinner Saeed Ajmal or whoever takes his place in the Pakistan XI. As Ashley Mallett has pointed out, Warner struggled against Ashwin, and Ashwin ain't no Harbajan Singh.

Fair enough, it's England's first series defeat since the West Indies in 2009, but that's where we're headed next, and we've got series against South Africa, India and England in the offing, so that move up the rankings will have to be done by winning series against sides ranked above us on their home turf (England, India) or under home conditions that'll suit the South African pace attack early next summer. 

There's a series at home against Sri Lanka there as well, but, significantly, 4-0 against India wasn't enough to lift us out of fourth place. The Future Tours program has India hosting Pakistan and New Zealand with an away series against Sri Lanka that may or may not take place before the World T20s and a home series against England that coincides with the Australia-South Africa series, so that climb out of fourth spot might not be as easy as you'd think.

A cynic, of course, would suggest that if India looked like slipping too far they can just snap their fingers and arrange a little series at home against Sri Lanka (who need the money), New Zealand, Bangla Desh or Zimbabwe and they'd be back on the ascent again.

No, from here our fate is in our own hands and you can't go living in hope that events elsewhere are going to work out in ways that'd suit Australia.

So what have we got out of this summer?

Well, as far as the bowling goes, things are rosy, aren't they? 

While the formalities were being wound up in Adelaide yesterday the ABC Radio commentary had Geoff Lawson picking an eleven to take on South Africa in November, and gave him the additional task of pencilling in covers for the members of that side in the event of injury or loss of form. Given the state of the fast bowling stocks at the moment his third XI would still have had a formidable lineup.

Take three or four quicks out of Siddle, Hilfenhaus, Harris, Pattinson, Cummins, Starc and Cutting and throw in Mitchell Johnson looking on from the sidelines and Watson and Christian as potential all-rounders, and things are looking much better than they were twelve months ago.

The batting, of course, is more problematic. Shaun Marsh is in for the T20s but probably needs to go out and score runs in the Shield competition if he wants to be in contention for the West Indies tour and the South African summer, and his current run of poor form is a timely reminder that it mightn't be a good idea to bring injured players straight back into the Test side.

Warner and Cowan have looked OK up to this point, though neither of them have cemented a place at the top of the order, and one suspects Ponting an Hussey will stay in calculations because we're likely to need them. Again, I'd be inclined to give them the winter off, give the likes of Khawaja, Christian and maybe Smith (they're not the only candidates, but they'll do for the purposes of the current discussion) a run against the West Indies.

Why those three? 

Well, we've looked at Khawaja at Three and discarded him for non-performance while Hughes was opening and getting out cheaply. On that basis he might deserve a second chance. 

Christian and Smith, on the other hand, could bat Six and throw in a bowling option against India at home on flat decks that aren't going to suit the pace battery. You'd question whether Christian's medium pace or Smith's leggies are up to it on subcontinental surfaces, but you're looking at an eleven that might have three quicks and a spinner at Eight, Nine, Ten and Eleven with Watson somewhere in the first six so it's another string to the bow rather than an important strike weapon.

West Indian decks will be closer to subcontinent conditions than anything in these parts, so I'd be inclined to give them the run and see how they look.

In that scenario you could possibly have a confident, form behind him Khawaja, Christian or Smith (note deliberate ranking of pecking order) coming into the early rounds of the Sheffield Shield against Ponting, Watson, Clarke and Hussey for those four slots between Two and Seven.

The other significant development has been the lift in the Australian fielding and fielding coach Steve Rixon has, apparently, brought an old-time thoroughness and enjoyment to the fielding and catching drills as expected. It was one of the factors that had Clarke endorsing him for the top job, though Mickey Arthur looks to have been the right appointment there in one of those win-win situations, a trait Clarke recalled from his early days with New South Wales when he sought Rixon's addition to the coaching staff. 

Looking over at the Indian camp, I was going to leave things alone, apart from noting Harsha Bhogle's explanation of why there's unlikely to be an Indian equivalent of the Argus Report, but couldn't let this quotation pass without comment.

Now is the time we need the support from fans and everybody. They should back their own team. Which [is what] every media did. Even England media or Australia media or South Africa media, they back their teams. They criticise in such a manner that the player will not go down. They criticise their performances but they don't criticise in such a manner that the team will go down when they read the articles and see the television.

Now, if you're going to say that, you've obviously never seen the tabloid headlines pillorying the English side during home Ashes series before 2005. Part of the fun of watching Australia demolish the Poms off the field used to be watching their home press sledge them in ways Australian players would probably regard as a little over the top.

I also noticed the big time playing down of retirement rumours, which combines with the previous quote to suggest a mind set that's not inclined towards upsetting the apple cart, which is fine with me.

After all, they've got Pakistan, New Zealand and Sri Lanka before England, so maybe they can afford to take it easy. 

Like I said, that's fine. It might just make them a little easier to roll in their home conditions...

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