The weirdest Ashes series in recent history whimpered to an end earlier this week like a fat kid finishing a jog. And while Australia walked away losers of the Ashes, it was their performance in the final test that should prove instructive for future touring Australian teams. At the Oval Australia showed they had learnt important lessons over the preceding disasters and Edgbaston and Trent Bridge: patience is a virtue in test cricket. Whether they can instil this lesson in future overseas ventures will be the test of coach Darren Lehmann, as well as the new captain and batting extraordinaire Steve Smith.
Australia’s plan since Darren Lehman became coach mid 2013 has been to treat cricket like the equivalent of fight club – hit harder, be crazier, win the test. You’ve heard all the manifestations of this logic spout out of team-members mouths over this time. Positive intent is a favourite at the Sportress; playing an ‘aggressive brand’ of cricket was another. Australia was the equivalent of a cricketing ‘Duffman’, thrusting their pelvis in the general direction of the opposition.
This worked wonders in Australia in that time. After thumping England 5-0 in the return Ashes in 2013-14, Australia then beat India 2-0 in a test series that India weren’t ever in after Nathan Lyon destroyed them on the last day in Adelaide. It translated across to One Day cricket, manifesting in a World Cup team that won with brute force. All the time, the batsmen used power, the bowlers used pace. Australia became so enamoured with this that is eschewed accumulators in the batting line-up, and relied pretty much exclusively on raw pace in the bowling line up. The best spinner in the country barely played one day cricket in that time.
There is definitely an argument that ‘positive’ cricket has been a hallmark of all Australian teams. And to be sure it was in the recent past, especially under the captaincy of Steve Waugh, in which the captain used the fact he had 3 of the best bowlers in history – McGrath, Warne, Gillespie – as well as a batting line-up that included probably 3 of the best batsmen in history – Hayden, Ponting, Gilchrist – to become the cricketing equivalent of a nuclear bomb. Like many things in life, correlation between Australia’s aggression and winning was interpreted as causation, instead of being laid at the feet of a unique talent grouping. Waugh didn’t require patient batsmen because a side that was 5-126 could still chase 369 on a day 5 wicket. He didn’t require someone to bowl a consistent line and length because all his bowlers did so.
And so while the team has overtly adopted this approach under Darren Lehmann, it has yet to translate to overseas success. Sure they won in South Africa where conditions are about as familiar as exist outside Australia. That series required a superhuman effort from Ryan Harris, a rare bowler that could combine pace and accuracy. But apart from that they were destroyed by Pakistan in the United Arab Emirates, defeated an inexperienced awful West Indies side before being comprehensively destroyed in England in 3 of the 5 tests. Over the next 9 months they travel to Bangladesh and New Zealand
Overseas conditions have largely confounded Australians in all too familiar way – both the bowlers and the batsmen have found an inability to display the appropriate patience. Batsmen have sought to dominate, gifting their wicket away en masse in difficult patches. The bowlers have leaked runs at an alarming rate due to the selection of multiple strike bowlers relying on extreme pace to force wickets, rather than careful plans building pressure.
At the Oval Australia suddenly discovered a couple of old truisms of Cricket – that you need to be patient at the beginning of the innings and in difficult patches, and the wickets require a plan to be followed. After 14 overs Australia was only 19 runs, but unlike Trent Bridge, they had lost zero wickets, instead of nine. By lunch they With Siddle and Mitchell Marsh bowling substantially more overs (62) than Mitchells Johnson and Starc (48) across the test, Australia’s attack also built more pressure and required batsmen to take risks to score runs. With the second new ball in the second innings Clarke opted for Siddle and Marsh because they were able to bowl at the top of off, force the batsmen to play instead of relying on the ‘wicket ball’ approach that can plague Johnson and Starc.
Seeing off the new ball or knuckling down after a couple of wickets are hardly new lessons in cricket. Choosing a balanced attack and building pressure through tight lines and testing lengths won’t excite anyone or fit into some concept of a ‘brand’ of cricket.
But it might help them win some tests. So it would be best if they heed these lessons.