Lehmann mulls changes ahead of decider
Australia have two urgent, but not insurmountable issues to address if they are to secure their first away-from-home series win in almost two years at Cape Town from next Saturday.
The first is one that has lingered for years and, rather like a bout of gout, slips conveniently to back of mind until it is painfully re-awakened.
That being the inability of top-order batsmen to counter the swinging ball.
The other is essentially the tail end of the same coin – how to get their bowlers to swing it like their opponents seem able to do with the same brand of ball, on the same pitch operating under the same climactic conditions.
The former problem is the one that will be most difficult to turn around in the five-day hiatus between South Africa’s thumping win in the second Test at Port Elizabeth and the final game of the series getting underway at Newlands.
As Michael Clarke so pointedly observed in his post-match media conference, the learned folk who study cricket’s entrails and therefore understand its mysteries knew that the challenge in surviving more than 160 overs in pursuit of a fanciful victory target of 448 yesterday would not come in the first hour or two.
It would be decided by the ability of batsmen freshly arrived at the crease later in the day to negotiate a way through the bowling of Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander and Morne Morkel when they had the ball reverse swinging.
Clearly, comprehending the game’s idiosyncrasies and mustering the firepower to overcome them are two totally separate skills.
The answer that looms largest heading to Cape Town is the re-inclusion of Shane Watson provided he is fully recovered from a calf injury and able to make a meaningful contribution as a bowler.
“As long as he’s bowling overs and he’s fit, we would love to have that extra bowler,” coach Darren Lehmann said today
“He seems all right - batting doesn’t seem an issue and he’s bowling (today in Port Elizabeth) weather permitting.
“It’s a selectors’ conundrum – at the end of the day, if we have to fit Shane Watson in and someone misses out it will be really unlucky.”
Quick Single: Watch Watson bowling in Port Elizabeth
That someone would likely be Shaun Marsh, whose rollercoaster career has been graphically encapsulated in the space of two Tests he’s played since being recalled from years on the periphery.
A classy century in difficult batting conditions at Centurion followed by a pair of ducks in his next outing must have unleashed some of those self-doubts that so tormented him during his exile.
Alex Doolan looked dreadfully out of sorts during his tortured innings of more than an hour that yielded five runs and, eventually, the outside edge that was so clearly on the cards that South Africa’s behind-the-wicket fielders were in danger of developing an anxiety disorder while he was at the crease.
But it seems Doolan has been assured he will retain the number three berth for the entirety of this series, which means Watson would likely bat at six if recalled and another batting order shuffle – with Clarke heading back to four in the search of sorely-overdue runs – a possibility.
Clarke acknowledged his own current batting woes when asked about the likelihood of Watson returning to bolster the batting – notwithstanding the all-rounder’s historic problems against the swinging ball – for the final Test.
“If he’s fit and he’s healthy then that’s a real positive sign – his batting and bowling is important for the team,” Clarke said.
“So I’m sure the selectors will assess that and if they bring Watto back in, I’m not sure who that will be for.
“If it goes on form, it might be me.”
The compounding factor in this thinking is that the pitch at Newlands, while not expected to yield the same level of reverse swing as St George’s Park, is known to favour bowlers who can generate conventional swing as well as movement off the seam.
Hence, the most successful bowler in the venue’s long history is Steyn with a total of 57 Test wickets at the daunting average of 21.14.
The bowler with the most productive strike rate there – 30 wickets at an even more remarkable average of 12 and a wicket on average every 28 balls – is Philander.
Certainly Graeme Smith wasn’t giving away too many clues as to the sort of surface they’ve placed on order for the upcoming Test, though it would seem that request might contain the words ‘same as the one on which Australia were humiliated for 47 back in November, 2011’.
“Our domestic grounds don't have as much cricket on them as they used to - there's a lot of (secondary) grounds being used in our four-day competition - so when we arrive at Newlands it's always difficult to know,” Smith said today.
"End of the season, (so) the square's going to be quite worn you would think maybe reverse-swing was going to be a factor but when we get to Newlands now it could be looking immaculate.
"In the four-day game there last week the ball went around a little bit.
"There'll be new challenges moving to Newlands.
“It's a ground that we have a lot of confidence at, have performed well for a very long time - and we know how to win there, which is exciting."
The question as to why the Australian bowlers, with the occasional exception of Mitchell Johnson, were unable to find and exploit that reverse swing at Port Elizabeth is one that has been posed many times over recent years.
One answer is that it’s a weapon most effectively and efficiently employed by bowlers who are able to operate at speeds above 140km/h.
Think Waqar Younis, Shoaib Akhtar, Andrew Flintoff, Brett Lee, Steyn and Johnson.
They can get the ball to tail in much later and at a velocity that’s harder to counter, particularly for a batsman who’s still in the process of getting set having recently arrived at the crease.
Just ask Brad Haddin who’s been in career-best batting form over recent months but had his middle stump twice flattened by Steyn’s in-dippers at Port Elizabeth.
For that reason the selectors might need to look at reshuffling the bowling attack that has performed so well and remained unchanged since the start of the Ashes summer in Australia, but was comprehensively outbowled at St George’s Park.
With Ryan Harris and Peter Siddle both operating in the 133-138km/h bracket depending on rhythm and workload, thought might be given to bringing in a fresh, aggressive quick such as James Pattinson even though he’s played very little cricket since breaking down with a back injury during the 2013 Ashes series in England.
“We'll have a look at it - velocity's a big thing for us,” Lehmann said when asked if Pattinson might be in the mix for Cape Town.
“You certainly need pace, we've seen that with Johnson, Harris and Siddle when he's up and running he's bowling 135km/h plus.
“So we'll have a look at that over the next few days, we'll see how they pull up.”
The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Cricket Australia
First Posted 24 February, 2014 6:31PM AEST