There seems a conventional view that the Australian Test team is on the brink of leading the world again. That a new positivity forged under Darren Lehmann has engendered a kind of cricket capable of winning at home and away. But it is worth cautioning such optimism- Australia has yet to solve its major problem: movement.
Wind the clock back to the bad times.
This time last year, Australia was returning from England having not won a test(1). In fact they hadn’t won a test since the New Year’s test against Sri Lanka. In between they had undergone what can only be described as a kidney stone of a tour in India, followed by sacking the coach, and still losing the ashes in England without really threatening to win a test.
Four tests were lost in India because our batsmen couldn’t play spin. Australian batsmen scored one century for the series, and only Steve Smith and Michael Clarke averaged over 40 for the tour(2). Australia had three partnerships across the test series of greater than 100 and two of them involved Michael Clarke. We capitulated when faced with good, not great, spin.
Three tests were lost in England because our batsmen couldn’t play swing. Three batsmen averaged over 40, and the side managed four centuries across the five tests – two of which came in the dead-rubber fifth test. In the three losses the first innings scores were 280, 128 and 270 (and even that first 280 is aided by the 98 on debut of one Ashton Agar). We were destroyed by a good, but not great, test bowling outfit that swung the ball.
Then we returned home.
With a new
narrative spirit fostered by the confident and carefree coaching of Darren Lehmann, Australia enacted a cathartic dismantling of an England team petrified of a shockingly quick Mitchell Johnson, a brilliant and eternally underrated Ryan Harris and a batting line up far happier at home. On the more predictable Australian pitches five batsmen averaged over 40, and they scored ten centuries over the five tests. Australia only used its full twenty wickets in the fifth and final test. The wins came through the efforts of Johnson and Harris but our batsmen scored far more freely in the familiar and unswerving environments of home.
This was followed by a series in South Africa – where, in predictable fashion, when Australia’s batsmen flourished (the first and third tests) victories were recorded. When they struggled – as they did at Port Elizabeth, losing 9 for 61 in the second innings as the world’s best fast bowler ripped out their heart – Australia lost.
Australia now faces reckoning in the United Arab Emirates. If they are to challenge to be the ‘best test team’ in the world they will have to win where the batting conditions are less than friendly.
Early signs have not been good. The warm up match saw Australia bundled out for 185 in the second innings in the face of some good, but not great spin, and some useful reverse swing. Is this team capable of being the leading test team in the world? It will be determined by the ability of its batsmen to handle movement.
1. Technically a bunch were still in India. But, as you’ll learn if you read this page, one day cricket doesn’t count if it’s not a world cup
2. Including first class games; and Steve Smith didn’t play the full quota of tests