Less than a month ago the Australian Cricket Team took possession of the ICC’s Test Cricket Mace in a private function in Kandy. The Mace was presented in recognition of the team’s standing as the number one ranked team in the game. The low key coronation almost a perfect precursor to the meek manner in which the Aussies surrendered possession of the mace in the test series that followed.
The team was expected to make light work of Sri Lanka, arriving in Kandy on the back of 10 victories from their last 12 tests and only having tasted defeat in 1 of 26 previous contests with their hosts. They were literally and figuratively on top of the world.
The result however was nothing short of embarrassing for them. Apart from the very first day of the series when they skittled the hosts for 117, the Australians were never in the fight. Bamboozled, out-enthused and outplayed, it continued a sorry record for the team in Asia. The last years have yielded just one win from eighteen tests, the last nine bringing the bitter taste of defeat.
How far the Australian team fell in 3 short tests can be seen in the selection decisions for the last test. Two of the best performed bats of the last 12 months, Usman Khawaja and Joe Burns, were replaced by two batsmen with first class batting averages less than 40.
For the victors, Rangana Herath was simply unplayable. The portly left-armer bewitched the Australian batsmen with his delicate loop and subtle deception. Time and time again he left the Australian batting line up in tatters on his way to 28 wickets at a tick under 13. He wasn’t a lone hand, as the Sri Lankans had many heroes in this series, but he was without question the player of the series.
The lone bright spot in a tale of woe was the form of returning spearhead Mitchell Starc. The quick wreaked havoc on the Sri Lankan top order claiming 24 wickets, the most by an Australian in a three test series and the most by a visiting bowler in a three test series in Sri Lanka. How a player could have such a stunning series and his side still be so soundly beaten is almost hard to believe.
After the series, Sri Lankan officials described the Australians as bad losers and whingers. It is hard to disagree with the sentiment. Australia are a long way from the teams led by Steve Waugh who lived by the mantra of anybody, anywhere, anytime. This team complains about practise pitches, pitches that break up too much, pitches that don’t break up enough and pretty much anything that doesn’t play exactly to our preference.
This is borne out in the performances. This team plays one way, whatever the conditions, whatever the state of the match. While it could be argued that this is following the legacy of the teams Waugh led it is, in fact, pure folly. Waugh’s teams continued to attack games the same way because it produced the results they wanted; this team seems to do so despite the results it produces.
Alongside the ineptitude in Asia, Australia have only four wins to show for the last Ashes Tests away from home. While you cannot control your conditions, preparations may not go to plan or you may not have the talent you once had, you can control your efforts and this team’s efforts are too often lacking.
Last day performances like that in the Third Test where Australia lost 9 for 60 in 18 overs after a promising start, to surrender both the match and the world number one ranking, have become disappointingly common.
It begins with selection. At times the team selected appears to be simply a collection of eleven cricketers rather than one picked with any kind of short term or long term strategy in mind. The third test team is a case in point.
The Australian selectors seem determined to keep picking the classy Western Australian, Shaun Marsh, until he makes it or he retires, whichever comes first. This might sound silly after his third Test century, but his form at first class level and his many attempts at Test Cricket, suggest that this is form that won’t continue. At 33 years of age and after a career of feast and famine returns, is he the man we should be turning to?
The other change, Henriques in, Khawaja out, made little sense when it appeared that the New South Welshman was chosen to be another bowling option. It made pretty much zero sense when he bowled two overs and it was explained he was chosen as a sub-continent specialist batsman. Moises Henriques is a good honest cricketer but should he be selected to follow in the footsteps of Damien Martyn, Steve Waugh and bat five for Australia?
By picking Henriques at five, it presented the necessity of a rear guard action, at four down, being led by Henriques and Mitch Marsh. I don’t think there would be too many opponents unhappy with that situation. In a series where Australia was pretty much five out all out, ‘strengthening’ your batting line up with a man who averages 31 at first class level is almost the definition of lunacy.
The injury to Steven O’Keefe in the first test caused the only other change the Australian selectors made in the series. The man they turned to was Jon Holland, a promising spinner whose career has been stunted by injuries and the fact that his state selectors in Victoria consider Fawad Ahmed a better spinner. Yes Victoria, the back-to-back reigning Sheffield Shield champs, regularly choose another spinner instead of Jon Holland. A man who in turn was overlooked by the Australian selectors to choose Holland.
I think this is an interesting illustration of the contempt the selectors have for Sheffield Shield performances. Further evident when you consider Holland was the only Victorian selected for the tour despite winning the last two Sheffield Shields. I think this is a key reason for the seemingly illogical decisions. When you refuse to accept the performances at lower levels as a selection criteria, you are stuck selecting players purely on opinion. This is how you end up picking a touring squad with two reserve batsmen who both average less than 40 at first class level.
While selection is a game of chance, who would have predicted both Khawaja and Burns failing so badly on this tour, there needs to be more system and planning put into selection strategies. For the aborted Bangladesh tour, Cameron Bancroft was selected and would have made his Test Match debut. A 150 in an ‘A’ Test against India in India, and an 800 run Shield season later, and he is no longer in the frame. Whatever logic the selectors applied in their Marsh and Henriques choices, at least equally apply to Bancroft, and at 23 isn’t he the sort of player we should be turning to?
Pakistan and South Africa await the team in the Australian summer, neither will be easy beats but we should expect to see a better performance from the Australians. More comfortable in familiar surroundings, the batsman should fill their boots ahead of a return to Asia in February to face the new World Number 1, India.
Without a serious change in approach, they are setting themselves up to add to the ever growing list of Asian failures. Without a serious change of approach, they will continue to be giants at home and minnows away.