At the final training session ahead of Australia’s first full international on Zimbabwean soil in more than a decade, a rarely seen ritual was played out on the northern edge of the Harare Sports Club’s centre wicket block.
One by one, in full battle gear, the power hitters who populate Australia’s top seven batting spots took up their stance and, as team performance analyst Dene Hills gently hurled balls from just over half a pitch length away, they did their level best to belt all of them into the neighbouring Presidential Residence.
Onlookers who thought they were watching an elaborate means of distributing worn white cricket balls to folks strolling obliviously past the stadium’s perimeter fence on a Sunday afternoon perambulation were mistaken.
Those who felt it was some kind of macho battle of strength staged by a group of overly-competitive young men were partially correct.
But those who guessed it was a glimpse into the next evolution of one-day cricket, as it continues to resemble more closely the 20-over novelty it spawned rather than the Test game from which it was derived, were closest to the money.
And the strategy that underpinned this entertaining if expensive exercise was put into practice with devastating effect by the Australians in last night’s tri-series opener against Zimbabwe.
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It is also certain to stand as a central plank of coach Darren Lehmann and his team’s planning to wrest back the ICC World Cup when the quadrennial tournament is played in Australia and New Zealand in February and March.
Just as bowlers who can regularly generate speeds above 140kph are Lehmann’s favoured weapon with the ball, so too is a batting line-up stacked with hitters who can clear the boundary at a whim essential to his blueprint.
The fact that a bulk of those – Mitchell Marsh, Glenn Maxwell, Steve Smith, James Faulkner, Ben Cutting, Mitchell Johnson and Shane Watson who remains absent through injury – can also be called upon to bowl suggests flexibility will stand alongside velocity and brutality as the three pillars of the Cup campaign.
“I certainly think we’re always looking to take the game on, to drive it forward and every batter is going to be different how they do that,” said stand-in captain George Bailey about the big-hitting tactics and the manner in which they were rehearsed on Sunday.
“For some it’s about who can hit it as far as they can, but for a lot it’s just about their shape.
“And when you haven’t been somewhere before it’s about discovering how hard you need to swing, particularly places like here (Harare on Zimbabwe’s Highveld Plateau) where the ball travels a little bit further, and see how strong the breeze is.
“It’s a great exercise to find out, I reckon.
“For example, I discovered that if the wind is as it was (into batsmen’s faces when at the Pavilion End) I won’t have a crack much going (into it), whereas with some of those other boys it doesn’t make any difference.
“So it’s a really good exercise done in moderation.
“And it’s not every ground that the groundsman gives you a chance to do it.”
The confidence the drill gave the members of Australia’s top order when they came up against an honest but under-gunned Zimbabwe attack yesterday was obvious through a series of glaring examples.
Maxwell’s audacious reverse slog-sweep that cleared the midwicket rope.
And the stinging line drives that Marsh unleashed as he raised himself to his full height and dismissed anything remotely short as if he was engaging in a game of beach cricket and flogging soggy tennis balls back into the surf for fun.
In total, the Australians managed 15 sixes in their innings of 6-350, with the normally hefty-hitting Bailey, Smith and Faulkner the only batters not to clear the rope although that was more through lack of opportunity than absence of will.
It’s a statistic that’s symptomatic of the one-day game’s development which – in conjunction with roped-off boundaries and frightening bat technology – has seen two-thirds of the ODI game’s 350-plus totals scored since the format was born in 1970 posted in the past eight years.
Bailey points out that the introduction of tighter field restrictions that allow just four men beyond the perimeter circle in the latter overs as well as the introduction of new white balls at either end during an innings has made power hitting in the final 10 or so overs more productive.
The 147 that the Australians plundered from Zimbabwe’s bowlers during their final 10 yesterday certainly underscored that assessment.
But another factor is the rise of the Amazonian batsman, typified by the imposing figure of Marsh, who is being groomed to not only take over the all-round role currently filled by Watson when he’s fit but to be the Andrew Flintoff-style allrounder that every cricket nation covets.
Marsh was told by skipper Michael Clarke prior to the touring party leaving Australia last week that he would slot into the pivotal No.3 batting berth despite, at age 22, having played less than a handful of ODIs.
His charter, which he delivered with such panache yesterday that he was named man of the match in Australia’s 198-run win, is to pace his innings to bat ‘deep’ (into the final 10 overs) and then launch his own brutal assault or perish in the process, thereby allowing others of his ilk to follow.
“I’ve always been a top-order batsman but going through the ranks you just bat wherever you’re put and are happy to be there,” Marsh said in the wake of his prize-winning double of 89 from 83 balls and 1-15 captured from five overs of tidy fast-medium bowling.
“I think I’ve got my body to the stage now where it’s going to be able to handle the rigours of international cricket.”
And while Marsh keeping his once fragile body “on the park” remains a primary ambition, he will relish every chance that he and his new Australian team-mates receive to hit balls out of it.
“A lot of the time guys do practice that because it’s the only way you get better at it,” he said of the novel fence clearing drill.
“And any time you can get out in the middle and have a centre wicket to practice hitting sixes, I think that’s great.”
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