Plotting against the world's best team
Behind the scenes with Scotland as they undergo a player-by-player analysis of Australia ahead of their World Cup clash
The sanctum within which Scotland convened for their biggest challenge of a daunting World Cup campaign was much like any other team room on the international cricket circuit.
A reclaimed four-star hotel function suite denuded of furniture save for a couple of dozen visitor chairs, a fridge stocked with tournament-sponsor drinks, a clutch of putters and as many new golf balls.
The only clue this was a sporting team’s away-from-venue dressing room rather than host of a corporate conference plenary session was the kitbags piled against a back wall spilling match day shirts.
And the lone massage table set up in front of windows that gave floor-to-ceiling panoramas of bobbing masts and billowing clouds scudding over a blustery Friday morning at Hobart’s lively waterfront.
Even though the homesick Scots, on the final leg of a success-starved tour, might have yearned to cast a wistful eye to a view that could have been the Firth of Forth looking out to North Sea as readily as the Derwent River emptying into Storm Bay, they sat as one with their backs to the vista.
Scotland’s inaugural outing in a one-day international came at Worcester 16 years earlier when they ran into Steve Waugh’s Australians who were on their way to the 1999 World Cup, and in 78 subsequent ODIs they had not posted a limited-overs win over a Test-playing nation.
But as they once again looked to lock horns with the most successful nation across 40 years of the ICC’s quadrennial tournament, there was nothing perfunctory about Scotland’s preparation.
The 14 remaining members of their touring party along with New Zealand-born coach Grant Bradburn, Performance Development Manager Craig Wright and ex-England captain Paul Collingwood (a specialist coaching consultant) took their places in a crowded cordon to work through their strategies.
Toby Bailey, formerly a wicketkeeper-batsman with English county Northamptonshire and now Cricket Scotland’s National Performance Analyst as well as Fielding Coach, called the informal meeting to order by introducing the video he was about to roll.
In essence, it’s the same sort of scouting material that every professional team on the global cricket circuit studies ahead of a match.
Video analysis of where the opposition players they will be battling on-field the following day do and don’t like the ball to be when batting; do and don’t want the ball to go when bowling.
Cricket Scotland’s National Performance Analyst Toby Bailey
Teams like Australia with almost limitless resources collect their own footage, pair it with computer analysis further that is supplemented by the vast international experience of their playing group and coaching staff.
England, for better or worse a team that relies heavily on the collection and deployment of data, has its performance analyst who resides among sports science academics at Loughborough University.
As an associate nation within the International Cricket Council that has been involved in less one-day internationals (80) than Cameron White (88), Scotland has Bailey, a handful of grabs he has stitched together of each Australian foe they are likely to face and some “honking” overlay music that one of the squad accuses him of having lifted from the hotel’s restaurant.
Dissecting the ‘Yellow Team’
To assist his eager students in focusing on the skills their opponents possess rather than the daunting reputation so many of them carry, Bailey’s video presentation was entitled simply ‘Yellow Team’.
But as the playing group tuned into the short film made up of a dozen or so vignettes of every ‘Yellow Team’ batsman playing and missing, losing their wickets, scoring boundaries or just patting balls back down the pitch, there was no concealing who they were up against.
Despite Bailey’s initial plea for the session to be highly interactive, there was little feedback other than some shifting in seats and the regular bursts of coughing that signalled a team fatigued by a relentless travel roster when the footage stopped and was replaced by a page of dot point notes on Australia opener Aaron Finch.
“He’s going to go hard isn’t he?” Bailey offered into the silence, sounding almost school-masterly as he attempted to shake loose some input from players who knew intimately the strengths and weaknesses of rivals from Afghanistan and Ireland but whose experience against the ‘Yellow Team’ was fleeting.
“We know that. Big hard hands. He might hit a few shots but he’s going to give us a chance.”
But as soon became customary throughout the session, Collingwood – who led England to its only global limited-overs trophy in the ICC World T20 final against the ‘Yellow Team’ in 2010 – waited until the players completed their collective say before offering his eagle-eyed observations.
Ex-England star and specialist coaching consultant Paul Collingwood
His encyclopaedic recall of opponents, teammates and subjects of dressing room discussions gleaned across a 15-year, 250-game first-class career was shared without a hint of bombast and the knowing silence with which it was greeted underscored the gravitas with which it was absorbed.
“If he gets going, and he gets away with boundaries and stuff, John Hastings always talks about bowling him the hip ball to get him off strike,” Collingwood instructed, citing intelligence gleaned from Finch’s fellow Victorian who has served as overseas professional with Collingwood’s native Durham.
“He doesn’t like being cramped up. He’ll knock it to square leg, we used that tactic quite a bit in T20s when he was obviously trying to swing hard.”
Becoming familiar faces
And so the 30-minute examination of all 15 Australian batters continued, with Bailey attempting to further demystify the aura of the ‘Yellow Team’ and provide the Scots with more familiar reference points by ascribing to each Australian the name of a comparable player from the Associate nations.
David Warner became Holland’s South African-born opener Stephan Myburgh.
Michael Clarke’s doppleganger was England’s Ashes-winning ‘keeper Geraint Jones, now lending leadership and batsmanship to Papua New Guinea.
The players dissolved into incredulous giggles when Bailey announced Shane Watson as Gerrie Snyman, the Namibian allrounder who belted 93 from 53 balls in a T20 against Scotland in 2011 but who clearly drew less recognition from the current group than the Australian he was purported to resemble.
The meeting chair’s ‘separated at birth’ routine might have drawn as many quizzical looks as it did nods of recognition, but it also helped broker a heightened sense of relaxation and the contributions from throughout the previously self-conscious members of the squad began to flow.
“I think a yorker first up is a really good option,” opening bowler Ian Wardlaw suggested as the plan for danger player Warner (Myburgh) took shape.
“He doesn’t want to move his feet, he just wants to throw his hands through the ball so I think if we can nail the yorker first up then we’ve got a chance.
“I know it’s a bit of a risk but I think we need to take a risk early on to him.”
Scotland fast bowler Ian Wardlaw
When Bailey posed the question as to the best wicket-taking ball for Watson (Snyman), a succession of voices echoed back: “lbw, lbw.”
“He’s got that big front leg,” someone appended.
Collingwood, seizing on the shot that brought about Watson’s demise in Australia’s loss to New Zealand and which was integral to his omission from the XI in the next match, tied off the discussion with an appraisal that could only have been more canny if he was a Scot.
“Midwicket can go a bit deeper than in normal play, even when he comes in he tries to pull off a length and hits through that area quite hard but always in the air, so he can give you a chance,” the former England expert said.
“And if he gets going he’s not one for paddles and all this kind of stuff so you can use two men behind square on the leg side as your in-fielders.”
Collingwood’s prescience – Watson was dismissed looping a simple catch to keeper Matt Cross from an awkward ‘paddle’ sweep’ the next day – was mitigated only by the fact the Australian was chasing quick runs at the time as rain closed in.
The alias that Bailey plucked for Steve Smith was so obscure it drew blank stares from most in the meeting, but the Australian’s unorthodox technique prompted some equally innovative thoughts from the ensemble cast.
“If we get him in early … have a deep point or something squarish and then you can bowl a fourth-stump line, a good length and then he’ll release (run ball to third man) and then we put a slip in and we might get him there early,” Wardlaw proffered.
Scotland’s South African-born captain Preston Mommsen then added: “I think it could be worth having a catching square leg and a deep square (leg), pretty unorthodox but … even if we are bowling fifth-stump (line) he can find a way (to work the ball behind square, so) at least try that.”
Scotland skipper Preston Mommsen
Short and sweet
Later in the session, once the batting analysis had been completed and the discussion was thrown open to general observations, Collingwood endorsed the tactics aired by the combative quicks.
“I think with many of the batsmen test them out with an early short ball – (Mitchell Marsh), (Michael) Clarke, (Brad) Haddin.
“No matter what pace you bowl I’d test them out with an early short ball and get it up there (throat region).
“Even if it goes for a wide, just put it in their minds.”
New-ball bowler Alistair Evans chipped in with: “I don’t think many of these guys will be expecting a huge amount of short stuff from us … so I don’t see why not … try a couple of bouncers?”
It was the rationale that underpinned the bouncer Wardlaw aimed at Michael Clarke at the very start of Scotland’s bowling effort when the Australia captain elevated himself to number one in the batting order the following day.
The Scotland players focus on Bailey's analysis
And while it did not yield a breakthrough and Clarke went on to top score with 47 off as many deliveries, it reflected the ever-improving Scots’ capacity to translate their planning on to the pitch and illustrated, from ball one, their refusal to take a backward step regardless of their opponent.
Mommsen also had some clear ideas when it came to welcoming batting virtuoso Glenn Maxwell to the crease.
“I think he does go (from) ball one, and especially against us I think he’ll go ball one,” the skipper suggested, pre-empting that Maxwell would likely be unable to resist taking the game to the underdogs from the moment he arrived at the crease.
“Personally, I’d like it if in the first three balls we just try to bounce him and accept that if he gets hold of it he gets hold of it.
“But there’s a very good chance he’ll go for it and bring our boundary riders into play the first three balls.”
Unfortunately, as events turned for the Scots neither Smith nor Maxwell nor Haddin were required to have a hit as the ‘Yellow Team’ romped to a seven-wicket win with the best part of 35 overs up their sleeves in what turned out to be Scotland’s most disappointing outing of the tournament.
No backward steps
Not that the batting implosion that saw them bowled out for 130 from barely half of their allotted 50 overs was a by-product of poor planning.
If anything, the Scotland batsmen might have taken too much to heart the theme that emerged when the specialist bowlers departed the meeting and were replaced by the top-order batsmen to fine tune their strategies against the Australia attack.
Stand up to them.
Use their pace to your advantage.
You’ve faced bowlers like these before and handled them.
Express yourselves, it’s a great opportunity.
Unfortunately for Scotland, after Mommsen lost the toss and was granted Scotland’s preferred option by being asked to bat first, those occasions of self-expression too regularly resembled acts of self-destruction.
In-form opener Kyle Coetzer went without scoring wen his attempted counter-punch to a back-of-a-length ball from Mitchell Starc, with feet planted and his weight on the back foot, and the outside edge flew head-high to Smith.
Collingwood had earlier warned of the two-card trick that Starc might play, but this dismissal was manufactured from the middle ground between the pair of them.
“Out of the Aussie boys he’s actually quite relaxed and I think he’ll set you up that he’s going to bowl short to you and, surprisingly, he actually bowls at the sticks,” Collingwood advised.
“So he may bring his square leg further (around) as if you’re going to whip one around there, but he generally goes at the stumps and tries to get you lb(w) and hit the stumps.
“His danger ball is actually the full ball and not the short stuff.”
Though it was another one pitched just short of a good length that did for opener Calum McLeod who was unable to cover Starc’s extra bounce and slapped a cut shot to point.
The short ball did for Mommsen, top-edging a pull shot from Watson that ensured the captain ended what might be Scotland’s last World Cup for a while (given the ICC’s moves to reduce the number of Associate nations involved in future) with an unlucky second-ball duck.
And with the words of Paul Collingwood doubtless rattling in his ears as he returned to a dressing room by now in a state of growing agitation at 3-37 in the eighth over.
“He will bowl the odd bouncer … and the bouncer will be a bit quicker,” he had forewarned of Australia’s veteran allrounder.
The same sense might have accompanied Freddie Coleman back to the sheds, the top scorer from Scotland’s previous outing against Sri Lanka emulating his skipper’s score when he pushed hard at Mitchell Johnson and edged to second slip.
The bowler that Bailey had likened to Afghanistan’s rampaging left-arm quick Shapoor Zadran.
“He goes across the right hander, but I found it only really swung when it was (pitched) quite full,” No.3 bat and Scotland’s top scorer on the day Matt Machan informed the group having faced Johnson briefly in an ODI in Edinburgh a year or so earlier.
Scotland's top scorer against Australia, Matt Machan
Best-laid plans …
And the plan to target the ‘Yellow Team’s’ slow-bowling option as a potential scoring source fell at the first hurdle when Richie Berrington’s eyes lit up at the wafting, wide initial offering from Maxwell and promptly sliced it at Warner in the covers.
“If you get him, he’ll probably resort to bowling slower,” Collingwood had encouraged the batting group when the discussion turned to Maxwell’s off-spin lest the pre-game conversation dwell too heavily on Australia’s brute pace.
“He’s one of those bowlers who will gamble.
“He’s the ‘Big Show’ isn’t he? He’s not going to start being defensive.”
Machan eventually fell to the pace of Pat Cummins, flicking off his body to long leg, perhaps caught off guard by the fact Cummins generated significantly more speed and bounce than his alter-ego Raymond Haoda (or Honda as Bailey labelled him) who takes the new ball for Papua New Guinea.
Cummins then motored through Scotland’s lower middle-order with three wickets for a solitary run in a decisive 13-ball burst to which the Scots, by this time sensing that every ball was a potential hand grenade and hell-bent on pocketing as many runs as they could before they detonated, had no answers despite their intensive scouting.
As any team knows, preparation can be too easily jettisoned when match circumstances cloud judgements and cause individuals to feel an alternative way might suddenly be needed.
It was a mindset that Bradburn, a former Black Caps international with significant coaching success with Northern Districts in New Zealand, had noted during the Sri Lanka game just days earlier and had warned about heading into Scotland’s final fixture.
“If the execution doesn’t follow the plan, don’t blame the plan,” Bradburn had said, adding he had seen a tendency against Sri Lanka for players to vacillate in the face of onslaughts from far more experienced, highly-credentialed opponents.
A common theme among Associate teams used to being competitive against sides of relatively similar ability but then stuck for answers when those same strategies yield few inroads against the big boys.
Taking on the heavyweights
And then there was the on-field intimidation factor, an element that experienced hard-head Collingwood tried to outline without vilifying the ‘Yellow Team’ or intimidating his own lads.
“They will verbally come at you hard so just remember to take that little bit of extra time and get that concentration level back to 100 per cent,” Collingwood said as the meeting wrapped up and the players headed off for putting practice, a rub down or coffee at the waterfront.
“Stay really focused on what you do.
“It’s up to you individually – if you want to go back (verbally), go back but they generally … don’t like people standing up to them.”
In all, Scotland stood up to the ‘Yellow Team’ for 41 overs of a scheduled 100-over game.
If not for the rain delays, it would have been done in a tick over three hours of playing time.
Essentially, it was a T20 fixture in ODI clothing.
But Scotland learned more about their game, about their players, about their opponents, about what’s needed to push further into cricket’s top tier, and more about the strengths and shortcomings in their scouting than from any number of hit-outs against teams of a lesser hue.
And as their captain told them during that meeting that lasted roughly the same amount of time as Australia’s run chase: “There has to be an acceptance that these are quality players that we are playing against.
“We want to try and get them early of course but if we don’t we hang on and we hang on.”
World cricket needs Scotland and their ilk to keep hanging in there.