On the eve of the final test at Sydney, all there is left to play for Australia is pride. While there will be plenty of talking points as to the sharp decline in performance of a once champion side, Cricket Australia (CA) need to look critically at the few key factors that are of deep concern. What is not needed right now is paralysis by analysis but clarity in thought and action. Australia need to take care of the basics to stem this rot.
Punt Punter: It’s time to call curtains on Ricky Ponting’s impressive career. He might still believe that he has a lot to offer as a leader but CA need to consider the cost of this indulgence. While his record as captain might be beyond reproach, his value as a mentor for a rebuilding team does not stand scrutiny. Close to 30 players have debuted under Ricky yet not even a handful have developed to a level expected by CA. Worse the list of players mismanaged is long with Nathan Hauritz just the latest victim. Ricky’s immense experience as the leading bat has been for nought given the extended form slumps of Michael Clarke, Mike Hussey and Marcus North, never mind the stunted development of Phillip Hughes. His shepherding of bowlers has been abysmal. Defensive fields, chopping and changing plans, and public spats have been his legacy with Brett Lee, Hauritz and Mitchell Johnson. It’s hardly a surprise that his bowlers have reflected his scrambled mind and lack of discipline out on the field. His continued insistence for the top job is not so much misguided optimism but a self-serving yearning for a last hurrah. Ricky Ponting might be in denial but CA need to recognize that he is long past his sell-by date.
Coaching: Shane Warne might have once chirped that all coaches were good for was hotel transfers but he had the luxury of playing with once in a generation cricketers at the peak of their careers. A rebuilding team with a nucleus of young guns needs a hands-on coach who can identify any glaring issues and outline remedial work. His secondary task is to assemble a team of consultants who can develop on the natural talent of the individual players or introduce specific skills. Tim Nielsen has sadly failed on both accounts. The biggest gulf between the sides this summer has been Australia’s lack of a game plan and Nielsen has to take responsibility for this oversight. The team’s lack of preparation has been brutally exposed. Not only have they been poor with the bat and the ball but also have been out-fielded by a supremely trained English side. While the coaching team will be eager to take credit for Mitch’s return to form in Perth, it can be best explained as a temporary glitch or some fluke alignment of planets and the Freemantle Doctor. The fact that Nielsen remains oblivious to the team’s slide and is satisfied with the status quo, should be a concern. CA promptly need to reconsider his contract extension and seek someone who is at a minimum grounded to reality.
Random Selections: Won’t it be easier if teams just chose themselves? Identifying and nurturing talent is no mean task but that should not mean the free ride Australia’s selectors have enjoyed since the departure of Warne and Co. Newer players have been quickly introduced and even quickly abandoned. Cam White, Jason Krezja and Andrew McDonald must all be pondering what went wrong while no one would begrudge Brad Hodge and Hauritz to question their pink-slips. Meanwhile, stop gap measures have been adopted as long term solutions. Shane Watson’s continuation at the top of the order on the back of moderate success beggars belief. The fact that he has failed to cash in on several fine starts and his opening role has terminally affected his bowling does not seem to faze the selectors. Steve Smith’s installation at number 6 ahead of Brad Haddin is yet another doozy better left unexplained. Watson’s skills as an all-rounder at number 7 will be pivotal. It provides the necessary balance with three frontline quicks and buys time for Smith to develop. And it’s not like there is a dearth of top-order talent in Shield cricket. The likes of David Hussey, Sean Marsh, Callum Ferguson, George Bailey, and Eddie Cowan will have to resort to the dark arts to get noticed. Measured picks and patience and not fanciful speculation, is the need of the hour.
On The Road: By sheer luck, the post World Cup period provides a blank canvas for CA to organize much needed competitive cricket for a budding team. The full tour of Sri Lanka should be confirmed and the Bangladesh sojourn expanded without delay. An opportunity to send a young squad on tour to get comfortable in international cricket does not present itself every day. Even a Murali-less Lanka will be a character building challenge for a new captain while a brace of tests against a plucky Bangladesh would provide an ideal tryout for the newest members of the side. The team should return home in time for a few Shield games prior to the all important visit by India as it can ill afford to go into another home series without adequate preparation. A new captain deserves every chance to build a team in his image and a long tour would prove an ideal foil. Steve Waugh in his tour diary for the 1989 Ashes raved about the camaraderie and strong bonds that formed over weeks of constantly living and breathing cricket in foreign conditions. Such mateship can only help the team in the long run.
Since the 2005 Ashes loss, there has been ample time for CA to instigate much needed changes in the current setup. That they have shirked their responsibilities is grossly negligent but their continued indifference would be truly tragic for Australian cricket. How CA handles the current debacle will prove whether it still considers test cricket as a priority or is just paying lip service.
Guest Post by Sunny Mishra
Sunny is a keen Sehwagologist and even keener test cricket enthusiast. While he is not fixing the odd backyard game or learning the vagaries of LBW law, he is often found pointing fingers on Twitter.