After a series as bleak as their host’s weather, Australia are heading home with their tails between their legs.
They were outplayed in all aspects across the series, harried and harassed by a superior England side. They arrived confident and left dismayed. Where did it all go wrong?
Middle over malaise
Normally the middle overs of an ODI are a period in which everyone has a metaphorical cup of tea; a polite part of the match where both teams are happy to sit back and let the game drift along gently. Not so in this series. England embellished the middle overs with regular wickets, making decisive progress in each match and handicapping the Australians push towards the end of their innings.
Australia were restricted to just 3.5 runs per over in overs 16-35 in the series (excluding the fifth, rain affected match), over half a run less than their rivals. Moreover, they managed just over 23 runs per wicket in this period, whilst England averaged a shade over 41. Whilst Australia seemed happy to let the game meander with the ball, England were much more effective in this period, setting constricting ring fields and building pressure through dot balls.
A big difference in this period was the spin bowling. Xavier Doherty’s nom de guerre “The X-Man” might suggest otherworldly abilities, his bowling is more superfluous than super-hero. He continues to bowl without flight – admittedly an affliction affecting many limited overs spinners nowadays – and is content to be economical rather than penetrative. It may be unfair to compare him to Graeme Swann, but the differences between the two were striking and Australia continue to cry out for an attacking spinner of Swann’s ilk.
Bullies become the bullied
Australia for so long were the bullies of world cricket, exhibiting a mental as well as technical supremacy over their opposition. Teams buckled under their relentless pressure and they were able to win matches by force of personality as much as with skill. Their aggression may have at times straddled the line of sportsmanship and even now, they are still able to get under certain individuals skin, like Virat Kohli during the recent series against India.
So to hear coach Mickey Arthur’s assertion that they had been bullied in this ODI series came as some surprise. But Arthur was spot on. Whilst England may not have outwardly intimidated the Australians, they certainly commanded the series by being much more aggressive in all disciplines. Their bowling and fielding (save some of the catching) was hostile and their batting was combative. Throughout the series Australia were guilty of trying to mimic English efficiency instead of playing their own game. Arthur said he gave an impassioned team talk after the fourth match but the batsmen seemed to confuse aggression for recklessness in the series finale. Australia needs to regain some mongrel and some measure.
First drop fuss
Whilst the importance of first drop isn’t as pronounced as in the longer format, most international teams have a specialist in this position in ODIs. Since Ricky Ponting’s axing in Feburary, Australia have tried four different men at number three, with little success.
Peter Forrest is the latest to have been thrust into the position, which is a bit like handing over the keys to a Ferrari to someone who has just passed their driving test. Forrest appears so terribly meek at the crease, like a frightened owlet. A few years ago, Australian batsmen had to prove themselves in domestic cricket over many years, becoming grizzled and hardened, before even getting a look in for the national team. Not so now, and Forrest’s struggles are reflective of Australia’s current selection quandaries.
It might be time for Michael Clarke to take responsibility at first drop. He’s Australia’s premier limited overs batsman and he could also conceivably take over in the longer format once Ponting retires. Clarke doesn’t seem to fancy batting there though and you can’t argue with his record elsewhere in the order. Shaun Marsh is another option although he seems to have fallen out of favour. The sooner the selectors make a decision, the better.
What does this mean for the Ashes?
It goes without saying Australia are in a worse place than England at the present. Their roles have been reversed from the past two decades, when Australia were settled and England’s attempts to bridge the gap were futile. Aussies used to relax seeing journeymen like Craig White donning the whites and took delight at watching bowlers like Steve Harmison lose control. But now, England look at the Australian team sheet without fear and their fans are humoured by our weaknesses. The guffaws in the Old Trafford media centre when Ravi Bopara and James Tredwell (of all people) were terrorising Australia confirmed this; everyone is clearly delighted by the rather dramatic turn of fortunes that has occurred.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. This series and also the Australia A tour that follows will give players a taste of the conditions they will experience in next year’s Ashes. Youngsters like Patrick Cummins and James Pattinson will benefit from the exposure, however brief. A whole swath of batsman like Forrest, Marsh, Ed Cowan, Usman Khawaja and Phillip Hughes will have spent part of the winter over here also, whether part of the Australian setup or in County cricket, which should stand them in good stead were they to be required next year.
Australia have much improving to do and this series has shown just far they need to advance themselves to be competitive next year. Complacency and preparation won’t be excuses. England are hard to beat on their own patch, but when it comes to battling for that tiny urn, past performances will hopefully count for little.
The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Cricket Australia