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Team talk puts reverse on the agenda

Ahead of fifth Magellan Ashes Test, Australians discuss the art of reverse swing bowling following lifeless MCG Test

Shortly after gathering for their first formal Test training session of the new year at the SCG on Tuesday, Australia's squad of 13 (minus keeper Tim Paine, who was absent for personal reasons) fractured into two distinct groups.


The largest was a collective of nine that comprised four fast bowlers, allrounder Mitchell Marsh, spinners Nathan Lyon and Ashton Agar along with skipper Steve Smith and his deputy David Warner, all of whom took in an impassioned address from assistant coach David Saker.

The rest, top-order batters, stood about and chatted among themselves, seemingly as oblivious as the many onlookers to the nature of the very public meeting held on the edge of a lush SCG wicket block that has barely hosted any sporting traffic since the end of football season last September.

The nature of the discussion, as revealed by frontline quick Pat Cummins at the conclusion of the team’s individual training session a couple of hours later, centred on an element of the game that was demonstrably absent throughout a bulk of last week’s drawn Test in Melbourne.

That being the ability of Australia’s bowling group – indeed, bowlers from both teams – to get the ball to deviate from the straight and create a challenge for batters on the moribund Melbourne surface, other than fatigue.

The SCG hasn't hosted first-class cricket since last summer // Getty
The SCG hasn't hosted first-class cricket since last summer // Getty

Following the slog at the MCG, during which just 24 wickets fell across five days before the rival captains agreed they could progress no further, the group’s spirit might have been lifted by the sight of an SCG strip sporting bright green grass.

But by day’s end much of that had been shaved back to reveal a more traditional straw-coloured surface, which means the vexed art of reverse swing might become the Australia bowlers' most potent weapon as they seek to close out their successful Ashes campaign with a win.

And it was that topic – specifically the need to carefully handle the ball to preserve those essential properties that bring about old-ball swing – that was the sole agenda meeting at today's quorum.

"We were actually just talking about swinging the ball," Cummins told reporters at the SCG today when asked what Bupa Support Team assistant coach Saker had to say.

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"It was more about getting our messages the same, mainly which side (of the ball) to shine.

"Sometimes it’s the decision of when do we start shining one side more to try and get it reversing and things like.

"So it was just a bit of a chat about that, trying to get all of us on the same page."

The need to convene a working group two days before play is scheduled to start in the summer’s final Test underscores the concern within the Australia camp that they were unable to generate any discernible reverse swing in Melbourne as England stacked on 491 from more than 144 overs.

Of which just over 100 were delivered by seamers who gleaned no assistance whatsoever, either in the air or off the benign pitch.

It’s that clear absence of 'tricks' from the bowlers’ arsenal that was examined and explained at today’s meeting.

Who should handle the ball to ensure it remains bone dry, when it is in the optimum condition to potentially demonstrate reverse swing properties, and what will be the regimen for polishing and maintaining the ball when that moment arrives.

If it all sounds a bit prescriptive it’s because the Melbourne Test – which yielded wickets at an individual cost of more than 50 runs apiece – provided a painful example to players and spectators alike of the consequences that flow from leaving it to chance.

It also ensured that both teams felt compelled to manufacture means by which they could alter the state of the ball to try and induce some sort of movement, which saw opposing skippers Smith and Joe Root warned by officiating umpires about players unnecessarily hurling the ball into the turf.

A practice that, if done cannily to ensure one side of the ball repeatedly lands on the dry, abrasive surface of the pitch and its immediate surrounds, can alter the exterior to the stage where it starts to swing reverse.

The sight of Australia and England fielders regularly throwing the ball into the ground rather than tossing it back to the keeper or bowler on the full (as they do to preserve the sheen on a new ball) prompted some to question why the tactic is outlawed by the ICC.

Particularly when the lack of assistance from prevailing conditions reduces bowlers to little other than fodder.

But Australia’s most successful Test seamer Glenn McGrath is not convinced that allowing teams to willingly change the state of the ball by scuffing it on the hard, dry ground would be good for the game.

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"You try to look after the ball and get it swinging on pitches like in (Melbourne) where there's nothing happening, and sometimes in India where the pitches are quite flat," McGrath said at the SCG.

"But I think conditions in India are a little more abrasive anyway.

"I'm not sure how I feel about that.

"If it happens naturally then fair enough, but if it's intentionally throwing it in the deck any chance they get I think there is a bit of a line there."

Having addressed a set of ground rules to govern how the ball is kept and handled once it's showing signs of achieving reverse swing, the challenge for Australia in the field might be finding sufficient abrasive surfaces on the SCG to rough up one side.

That’s because so little cricket has been played at the ground since the playing surface was re-laid at the end of winter – with the venue hosting just two KFC Big Bash League fixtures so far this summer – the centre wicket block sports a healthy coverage of grass.

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And the surface of the pitch for the upcoming Test remains an ever greater mystery than the science behind reverse swing, given the paucity of game time the SCG has seen in recent months.

"I think they’re going to cut it in the next couple of days, so it might change between now and then," Cummins said when asked what he expected from the pitch at his home ground where he’s yet to play a Test match.

"It’s good so to see an even coverage (of grass) but we haven’t played much cricket here, so I’m not sure what to expect.

"It doesn’t look as bare as sometimes you see it here."

2017-18 International Fixtures

Magellan Ashes Series

Australia Test squad: Steve Smith (c), David Warner (vc), Ashton Agar, Cameron Bancroft, Usman Khawaja, Peter Handscomb, Shaun Marsh, Mitchell Marsh, Tim Paine (wk), Mitchell Starc, Pat Cummins, Nathan Lyon, Josh Hazlewood, Jackson Bird.

England Test squad: Joe Root (c), James Anderson (vc), Moeen Ali, Jonny Bairstow, Jake Ball, Gary Ballance, Stuart Broad, Alastair Cook, Mason Crane, Tom Curran, Ben Foakes, Dawid Malan, Craig Overton, Ben Stokes, Mark Stoneman, James Vince, Chris Woakes.

First Test Australia won by 10 wickets. Scorecard

Second Test Australia won by 120 runs (Day-Night). Scorecard

Third Test Australia won by an innings and 41 runs. Scorecard

Fourth Test Match drawn. Tickets

Fifth Test SCG, January 4-8 (Pink Test). Scorecard

Gillette ODI Series v England

First ODI MCG, January 14. Tickets

Second ODI Gabba, January 19. Tickets

Third ODI SCG, January 21. Tickets

Fourth ODI Adelaide Oval, January 26. Tickets

Fifth ODI Perth Stadium, January 28. Tickets

Prime Minister's XI

PM's XI v England Manuka Oval, February 2. Tickets

Gillette T20 trans-Tasman Tri-Series

First T20I Australia v NZ, SCG, February 3. Tickets

Second T20I – Australia v England, Blundstone Arena, February 7. Tickets

Third T20I – Australia v England, MCG, February 10. Tickets

Fourth T20I – NZ v England, Wellington, February 14

Fifth T20I – NZ v Australia, Eden Park, February 16

Sixth T20I – NZ v England, Seddon Park, February 18

Final – TBC, Eden Park, February 21