Shane Watson

Carry on, reform or radicalise: where to for Australia’s batting line-up at Trent Bridge?

To win in England for the first time in 14 years, Australia must now win two Tests in a row. Radical action and all selection options must be considered. Including Shane Watson.

Sure, Australia can win one and draw one and retain the Ashes. To some that is the primary goal, but the longer the streak without a series win in England continues the bigger the monkey grows. Fourteen years is long enough.

I think Australia must shed any hint of conservatism and go hard at winning both Tests. Well that’s stating the obvious I suppose, but to achieve that objective radical thinking is required. Michael Jeh over at ESPN Cric Info has kicked off the radical ideas by suggesting Australia should consider picking Steve Magoffin.

The 35-year-old Magoffin is currently kicking about with Sussex and has finished in the top two wicket takers in Division One County Cricket in the last two seasons. Jeh cites the successful example of Chris Rogers; a sage old character who knows the conditions. Magoffin has played 131 First Class matches and averages 23 with the ball. But it won’t happen. If anyone’s going to get a go, it will be Peter Siddle.

Although it could improve, the bowling isn’t really the problem anyway. Mitchell Johnson is right when he says that Australia has not bowled in partnerships. They did at Lords but not in Birmingham, where too many pressure release deliveries were offered. Case in point: Hazlewood traps Adam Lyth LBW in England’s 4th innings chase of 120-odd and then bowls a wide, half-tracker to England’s best batsman who smashes a four the next ball. In fairness though, Australia’s bowlers weren’t given a chance by the Aussie batsmen.

People have been saying that if you win the toss and bat then you win the Test, but that’s nonsense and Birmingham proved that. Perhaps Clarke should have bowled, hindsight-ologists will say. But perhaps he was spooked by Ponting’s decision to do so in 2005. Who knows, but citing ‘conditions’ every time the batsmen fail is a cop out.

The fact is Australia’s batting seems like a one trick pony; they can bully and dominate opposition attacks when the match momentum is in their favour, they look great setting a declaration total. But at 3/50 they’re increasingly less able than past sides to fight their way back to ascendency. Temperament, mentality, psychology, technique, whatever you like. When the crowd is behind England and it gets a bit hard out there, jenga time.

It happened in 2005, 2009, 2013 and it’s happened in four of the six innings Australia has batted in 2015.

Trent Bridge will not be any easier. Like Edgbaston, the crowd will be rowdy and right into Australia and they need to harden up. Johnson’s response to the crowd at Edgbaston was fantastic and his management of the pressure is the template.

Selection musings

The next time Australia tours England will be 2019 and the prospect of 18 years without a series win should be enough to motivate armchair sports frothers to ponder what can be done to win at Trent Bridge. Obviously we can’t play the game, but we can speculate about the team.

The conservative amble

Simple. Stick with the same XI and tell ’em to execute better.

The responsive centrist

Adam Voges hasn’t done enough. Time for a rest sunshine. Shaun Marsh gets the nod here.

The reformist agenda

Voges still goes and Shaun Marsh still comes, but slots in at four and Michael Clarke heads down to hide at 5. The bowling needs to be reignited too, so either Starc or Hazlewood makes way for Siddle.

The radical approach

Go make a cuppa tea, take a deep breath and sit down before reading this.

Rogers, Warner, Smith, S Marsh, Clarke, M Marsh, Nevill, Watson, Johnson, Hazlewood/Starc, Lyon.

Yep that’s right. Either Starc or Hazlewood sits out for Watson and he bats at eight and bowls his heart out after Johnson and Starc/Hazlewood take the new cherry. Mitch Marsh offers further back-up with Lyon. The batting has been a nightmare and Watson was a part of that in Cardiff, but this radical idea may just stiffen Australia’s batting without losing too much from the bowling. Watson’s Test batting average is better than Andy Flintoff’s and his bowling average is almost identical and many consider Flintoff to be one of the greatest all-rounders in modern cricket. Just saying…

England has benefited immensely from the runs of Moeen Ali at 8 and he isn’t scoring them through luck. He’s a genuine batsman who bowls some handy spin. His 77 at Cardiff and 59 at Birmingham were game changers.

Ok, calm down. Have another cuppa, stats aren’t everything and Watson’s Test career is probably over and the centrists or reformists will probably win. However, if Voges keeps his spot perhaps Shaun Marsh comes in for one of the bowlers and Mitch Marsh goes to 8?

England

They were superb at Edgbaston. Steve Finn was brilliant and they’ll take some serious stopping now that Ian Bell is in form alongside Joe Root. They have lost James Anderson though. The impact of his absence cannot be overstated. It has been somewhat glossed over in the aftermath of Finn’s contribution but it does weaken England’s bowling, which strengthens the centrist and reformist agendas in Australia’s selection debate.

A friend of mine in England suggested that Adam Lyth should be dropped for Adil Rashid who will slot in at 8 while Moeen Ali will be promoted to open with Cook. He argues that Ali would compliment Cook’s style and that Rashid provides an extra spin option and is a capable middle-order batsman. Johnson’s short-ball dismissal of Ali at Lords could stymie this option though, but it certainly has merit.

Whoever is picked I’m predicting… in fact I’m not predicting anything. This series is too hard to figure out.

Moving Day: Shane Watson versus England (and the Australian public)

England is on top at Sophia Gardens and the stage is set for Shane Watson to silence his critics and keep his side in the Test. The first two days have been difficult for Australia and England has proven resilient and disciplined with bat and ball.

Coming in, Australia’s bowling was its strength and England was primarily concerned with how to manage that threat. Flat and deadened pitches were expected and Cardiff has delivered. But from a position of strength in bowling, Australia now looks slightly uncertain with the ball.

The series started terribly for Australia with the loss of their main strike bowler and pack leader Ryan Harris. England feared Mitchell Johnson after he murdered them in 2013-14, but will feel slightly less threatened after he finished with 0/111 from 25 overs. Johnson received a huge, stadium-wide standing ovation after ‘scoring a ton’ and the taunting will get louder in the second innings if wickets elude. Johnson bowled far better than the stats demonstrate and remains a potent weapon.

England’s resilience was proven after they moved from 3/43 to 430. They stole 87 runs for their last 3 wickets at the start of Day 2 and pushed the Aussies off the field looking flat. England were led by the superstar Joe Root (134) – who was dropped by Haddin on 0 – and an excellent lower order dig by Moeen Ali (77), who is probably the most overqualified number 8 to play Ashes cricket. Ian Bell’s failings are papered over for now. He has 11, 1, 0, 0, 1, 29, 12 and 1 from his last 8 Test inns.

The Aussies navigated a tricky 45 minutes before the lunch break. Broad and Anderson hovered and their superior knowledge of the conditions was demonstrated by their fuller length. England plundered runs square of the wicket, proving that Australia’s bowlers banged it in too short, too often. Broad and Anderson were at the stumps and at the pads, full and swinging both ways and were rewarded when Warner snicked up for 17.

England’s discipline persisted and their well-executed plans rewarded them with a position of ascendency. They have removed Australia’s top five batsmen and although each of their bowlers contributed to Cook’s plans of building pressure, the Australians will be smarting at the nature of their dismissals; five questionable shots and five catches.

Thousands of Australians have joined a growing chorus of ridicule directed at Shane Watson and were outraged when he retained his place in the side of ahead of Mitch Marsh. But as soon as Harris went down, Watson became a certainty. He is a better bowler than Marsh and provides stiffer support to Starc, Johnson, Hazlewood and Lyon, but his batting is most maligned and now it is what Australia needs most to stay in the match.

Watson is 29 not out and Australia trail by 166. Nightwatchman Nathan Lyon joined him in the fading light yesterday and only Brad Haddin remains in the shed for Australia. Starc and Johnson can bat a bit but Watson must deliver if Australia is to get back at England. Day three – moving day – awaits.

Ashes Series Selection Dilemma: Fitting 14 into 11

Australian selectors have one heck of a job picking 11 blokes to face England at Sophia Gardens. Contention rages over the middle order and the bowling attack but unlike 2009 or 2013 these are good problems; at least 14 guys make a good case for the Cardiff Test.

An almost leisurely two nil victory in the Caribbean confirmed two theories and uncovered another; Steve Smith is becoming one of the best batsman Australia has produced in over a decade, Australia’s fast bowling is lethal and Adam Voges is a capable dark horse. Perhaps a fourth note should be added, Shane Watson continues to pour on the match-winning 25s.

The Aussies begin with two four day tour matches and the first starts on 25 June at Kent followed by Essex at Chelmsford. This gives the players and selectors an opportunity to perform and assess.

Here’s a wrap of the Aussie touring party.

Certainty at the top

Chris Rogers missed two Tests in the Caribbean due to concussion but he surely returns to partner David Warner.

Steve Smith is Australia’s tenth number 3 since 2011 and – at 26 with an average of 56 and scores of 97, 162*, 52*, 133, 28, 192, 14, 117, 71, 25, 5*, 199 & 54* in his last 13 innings – could be the last number 3 Australia will need until about 2025.

Michael Clarke is determined to be the first captain to win in England since Steve Waugh in 2001.

The middle candidates

Shaun Marsh scored a ton on debut in 2011. Couldn’t get off the mark in several subsequent innings and was dropped. Came back in 2014 and has scores of 32, 17, 32, 99, 73 & 1 at number 5 against India and 19, 13*, 11 & 69 against West Indies filling at opener.

Adam Voges plundered a ton on debut against the West Indies. Voges’ selection baffled punters who’d prefer a younger talent but at 35 and with 11000 First Class runs at 46, Voges adds steel to Australia’s squad. After 14 years without a win in England this is not a series about blooding talent.

Mitchell Marsh was promising with the bat in the Tests he played against Pakistan and India and is unspectacular, although talented, with the ball.

Shane Watson… um. There’s still a strong chance he’ll play a key role in this series. He’s a great slips fielder. Every team needs one!

Wicket-keepers

Cricket Froth was convinced Brad Haddin would retire at the end of the summer. But at 37 Hads is keen as mustard to win a series in England. His presence is a huge asset for Australia. Opponents hate him; he brings the needle to this Aussie team (along with Watson from behind the stumps) and won’t be moved an inch by a combative English media or parochial home crowds. Peter Neville is Haddin’s capable back-up.

The bowlers

There’s only one thing as certain as the force of gravity on planet earth; Ryan Harris will play every single Test match in England if he is fit.

Splitting the rest is probably the most difficult task for selectors. Mitch Johnson murdered England last time and is in solid form. Mitch Starc swung the Duke a mile in the Caribbean and was lethal in the world cup and Josh Hazlewood has looked the part since hitting the Test scene. All these blokes bowl between 140-150kph and then there’s Peter Siddle, a proven workhorse who’s dropped to 5 in the pecking order.

In one sense the ECB could be expected to kill the local pitches to negate this ferocious attack, but England does not have a frontline spinner. Whatever is done to tame pitches for Australia’s fast bowlers will have equal effect on the hosts.

Nathan Lyon will be needed as Australia seems reluctant to play four fast bowlers. Victorian leg spinner Fawad Ahmed is the 17th man on tour and could be a trump card if a real turning pitch shows up.

In a strange video coming out of Dominica in the West Indies the Aussies revealed that pickle juice is used widely by players as a highly regarded cure for muscle cramps. See the Cricket Australia video here: http://www.cricket.com.au/video/chris-rogers-video-blog-pickle-juice-dehydration-west-indies-test-series-bupa/2015-06-19

Only Australia sledges the opposition…

New Zealand are a graceful team full of innocent, softly spoken men of praise, whereas Australia are arrogant, silver spooners who are both rude and unnecessarily aggressive.

If you’ve only been around the game of cricket for about five minutes or you are susceptible to sensationalised misrepresentations, then you probably hold this view.

Sections of New Zealand’s media have suggested that Australia “bullied” New Zealand in the World Cup final.

The idea is outright nonsense. The aggressive Brad Haddin, in particular, has come under fire for his banter with Grant Eliot and his ‘sending off’ of Martin Guptill. From these initial sensationalist print media grabs, the usual suspects have suggested that everybody hates Australia because they play the game with no ‘grace or humility’.

New Zealand’s players do not share this view. Neither do the ICC. Brendan McCullum says the final was played in great spirit and the ICC has not issued any fines or warnings for on-field conduct.

Australia has admitted an aggressive approach. They believe New Zealand got the better of them mentally and verbally in the group stage thriller in Auckland.

Australia target certain players believed to be susceptible to a loss of concentration at the behest of verbal banter. But they are not the only team who do this. When the situation demands most teams dish it out.

When Wahab Riaz unleashed one of the most aggressive spells of fast bowling ever seen in ODI cricket at Shane Watson, complemented by some excellent verbal barrage and body language from Riaz and the Pakistani team, the Australian response was nothing but praise and embrace for Riaz and Pakistan.

It was a spectacular quarter final contest. Watson got roughed up and Riaz was dead unlucky not to get him out (his team mate dropped a sitter). Almost everybody supported Riaz and thoroughly admired his desire to lift Pakistan. Many Australian commentators and punters expressed outrage when Riaz was charged by the ICC for his actions and they were right. The ICC made a colossal mistake.

That is cricket. It is a deeply psychological game. After training all week in the nets, batting out in the middle is up to 75% mental warfare with yourself, your technique and your own flaws and insecurities, all of which can be cracked open and exposed by good bowling, a glare or a smile from the bowler or a few comments from the slips.

Some are good at banter, most are not. Some take it too far and they are reprimanded by match officials, who also occasionally get it wrong. The day that verbal banter and aggressive bowling are removed from cricket is the day the game dies. The day when it is only Australia who attempts these tactics is the day when everybody else has stopped playing the game.

Your true character is revealed by your ability to compete hard, without degenerating to immature or offensive behaviour, and then share a beer and mutual respect after the game.

Australia and New Zealand teams mix with another, the media and officials after the World Cup final.

Australia and New Zealand teams mix with another after the World Cup final. Photo by Adam Johnson.

Two great left handed bowlers and friends share a moment after the World Cup final.

Two great left handed bowlers and friends share a moment after the World Cup final. Photo: Trent Boult’s twitter feed.

England Destroyed; Australia emphatically hammers Ashes cricket foe

Australia have hammered English cricket.

It has been destroyed by the grandeur of Australia’s incredible performance and a vicious disintegration of a once-great team’s continuity. Australia won the 5th Test by 281 runs. Cook won the toss, sent Australia in to bat and lost the Test match inside 3 days. Believe me, this is momentous and as retiring ABC Grandstand legend Kerry O’Keefe stated, “heads will roll”.

It’s not just the falling apart of this team, the 5-0 defeat will elicit an intense review of coaching, captaincy, leadership, culture and selection policy.

All sorts of cracks appeared early on the tour, and the way in which England keeled over and died on the third day of the fifth Test in Sydney confirmed the cracks had become deep cavernous ravines. The style of England’s cricket, their tactics, and the dressing room culture require change.

The writing was on the wall in England when they won the Ashes 3-0 at home. The 3-0 scoreline flattered England. Other than Lords, Australia fought closely in two defeats – a 14 run loss in Nottingham and a fourth innings collapse and 74 run loss in Durham. Everyone remembers how poorly Australia batted, but Australian batsmen made up 5 of the top 6 run scorers of that series. Only Ian Bell scored significant runs for England and many others failed averaging 30 or less. England’s bowling attack creaked, just slightly, papered over by the sheer overall quality of Anderson, Broad and Swann.

That trio is now finished. Swann has retired. James Anderson still has a lot to offer, but is 31 and Stuart Broad has been one of England’s better performers on the tour, but they need more depth. They’ll find it if they look in the right places and correctly blood and develop their next generation, but it will take effort and time.

22 year old New Zealand born Ben Stokes has been an epic revelation. Stokes is a handy cricketer with an aggressive attitude and a willingness to fight for his country. England is at a crossroad: either they fully commit to a considered process of renewal, or they enter a protracted decline that risks a 90s-style wilderness sabbatical.

Australia’s crossroad is more positive, but arguably equally as challenging. Captain Michael Clarke has stated that the squad’s ambition is to become the number 1 Test team in the world. The next 12 months presents that opportunity. In four weeks Australia tour South Africa. The 3 Test Matches against the number 1 Springboks will be absolute war, with two fiercely combative fast-bowling units attempting to strangulate two pugnacious batting line ups. Later this year Australia plays Pakistan in the UAE, which will present another intense examination. India visit for four Tests in the summer.

Can older players such as Mitchell Johnson, Brad Haddin and Ryan Harris continue to deliver? Will Steve Smith and David Warner develop further and become rock solid, world-class batsmen? Despite 6 of the top 7 getting centuries during this series there are still significant question marks about Australia’s batting.

The 5-0 victory is massive given the sporadic success of Australian national sports teams in recent years. The Australians have a right to celebrate hard. England did just that in 2010-11 when they took a 2-1 lead at the MCG. Back then 25,000 English surrounded the Barmy Army in the Southern Stand and, along with the English players and support staff, did the “sprinkler dance” in front of the world’s cricket media. I doubt we’ll see such a display here, but there will be plenty of banter and there damn well should be. Long live Test Match cricket.

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Australia cruise to a 4 nil lead as England capitulate, again

A short time has passed since I last doused this blog with fresh words analysing the Ashes Series. Christmas commitments, holidays and playing host to international guests squeezed my time and robbed me of the personal creative introspection I need to write anything worth glancing at.

Despite being time poor in the festive season, as I’m sure all of you were too, I still managed to absorb the ultimate cricket exchanges. I’ve spent much of the last couple of days at the Melbourne Cricket Ground watching the action live in human eye definition.

I spent time with the “Aussie Army”, had a few beers at the Cricketer’s Arms on Punt Road and stood among the Barmy Army. Good friends are always an asset in life and especially when they’re members of the Melbourne Cricket Club, an elite and privileged crew with an average 25 year waiting list. My MCC member friends allowed me, as a guest, to enjoy Day 4 in the comfortable surrounds of the members section. An amazing experience complemented by padded seats, good food and generous wine portions.

What a day; a Chris Rogers century, 8000 Test runs for Michael Clarke (Alistair Cook reached this milestone on Day 3), an unbeaten and entertaining Shane Watson 81 and a fourth consecutive resounding victory for Australia. The ease with which Australia finally took England’s scalp in this Test defies or inaccurately portrays how close England came to setting up a win.

England had Australia in a submissive position on Day 3 of the fourth Test at Melbourne when they began their second innings with a lead of around 50. At 0/65 after the luncheon England looked to be erecting the relevant foundation to build a solid lead. At 4/87 the foundation was still there, but the scaffold required to support the lead had begun to fall away. I think that had England established a lead of over 300, Australia would have capitulated, but when England lost 5 wickets for 6 runs near the close of Day 3 and Australia’s openers finished on 0/30, the hosts needed only 201 to win with 2 days of play remaining. England threw it away with devastating style, in part due to relentless high quality bowling from Australia, but also in part due to whatever cancer is eating away at England’s dressing room morale and attitude.

This has been a disastrous series for the tourists. It seems that internal conflicts exist, perhaps factions and cliques are at play and I’m sure that we will here more about these in future as players’ and coaches’ tongues are inevitably freed from the restrictions of international cricket. The leadership of coach Andy Flower and captain Alistair Cook will be questioned. I think that, at least, Ashley Giles will replace Flower in the near future.

The early-series departure of Jonathon Trott – a fine player – and the mid-series retirement of Graeme Swann – possibly England’s greatest spinner – added to the turbulent and unsettled disposition of the England squad. Something or many things have gone awry, but this shouldn’t detract from the super performance by Australia. Four Tests have been played and the same 11 players have provided Australia four victories. Five of Australia’s top 6 batsmen have scored centuries, as has wicket-keeper Brad Haddin, and all four bowlers have taken wickets. Mitchell Johnson has taken over 30 for the series, an enormous return for a man previously condemned by many opposition and Australian cricket fans.

Onwards to Sydney where the fifth Test begins on 3 January. Can England resurrect some of the high quality we know exists in the squad? Or will Australia execute the clean sweep?

Paying Homage

I must make special mention of one of the world’s finest cricketers, Jaques Kallis, who at 38 announced his retirement from Test cricket earlier this week. Kallis just scored a century against India and has 45 Test centuries in his career, second only to Sachin Tendulkar. The South African will bow out having scored over 13,000 runs at an average in excess of 55, at least 292 wickets at a bowling average of 32 and over 200 catches. What a wonderful player.

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The Oval – A bit of Aussie fight and some typical English weather

A couple of days into the final Test and some once familiar dynamics of Ashes Series in England, frame this match. Australia has shown some decent resolve in their batting and gloomy, wet skies have penetrated the momentum of play.

Opening the batting

On Day One Australia won their second toss of the series, batted first and made a decent fist of it. On a slow and fairly dry surface the approach demanded initial graft and patience and required batsmen to play late. David Warner wasn’t able to comply and played a loose, booming shot, devoid of footwork. A thick edge sailed to 1st slip. I’ve stated my feelings on Warner’s ability to safely open the batting, and this type of dismissal strengthens my belief that this isn’t his best position, yet.

Chris Rogers only made 23, but soaked up 100 balls. He consumed the best of the opening bowlers, softened the seam and wore the lacquer off the Duke. He protected the middle order and put on a century partnership with new number 3, Shane Watson. For me, that’s what opening in a Test Match is about.

England’s selection

England’s decision to play a second spinner is interesting, and hasn’t worked so far. But, this might, in part, be due to picking the wrong spinner. They’ve overlooked Monty Panesar, a proven left arm spinner, in favour of Simon Kerrigan, who was belted to all parts by Shane Watson. England were required to bowl 128 overs to Australia, Captain Cook felt Kerrigan was only worth 8 and he went for 6.6 per over. It’s early days and the kid might turn it around yet.

Day Two

I didn’t see a ball bowled on Day Two. I hung out last night for as long as possible, but after a solid day’s work, a gym session, a short run and 90minutes at cricket training I was pretty beat. Frustrated by the rain and poor light, I declared at about 2300. Unfortunately I missed a gallant knock by Steve Smith.

Smith was in the side a few years ago, picked in confusing circumstances as a bowling all-rounder – a leg spinner. It didn’t work for him. He went into exile and strengthened his batting in the Sheffield Shield and returned during the Border-Gavaskar trophy. He’s a fidgety customer, could be accused of having a bout of hyperbulia, but looks capable and recorded his maiden Test century overnight with a 138 not-out. Added to his two 50s this series, for me he’s done enough to be one of four certainties in Australia’s top order for the First Test in Australia.

Shane Watson

Shane Watson was on the edge of oblivion going into this Test Match. A walking LBW candidate, Watson managed to avoid his typical dismissal and made an excellent 176, saving his career, for now.

Stuart Broad

Stuart Broad’s spell in the second session on Day One included fiercely aggressive, short-pitched bowling of a high standard. Few people in the world would enjoy facing what Broad served up. Michael Clarke was forced to shut his eyes twice and put his bat out in front of his face for protection, hoping for the best as his splice and handle were struck by sharp lifters. Clarke survived Broad, but was rattled and Anderson bowled him. It was Broad who set it up. Broad also struck Watson in another nasty riser. It was a painful blow catching Watson on the underside of the helmet on the ear lobe.

I think Broad is a rhythm bowler, up and down and not much chop when he’s off colour, but fierce, accurate, challenging and versatile when he’s on the money.

The Australian series

I can’t wait for the return series in Australia, faster, bouncier and more lively pitches and good diversity should be on show from greenish Brisbane to dusty Adelaide, to the quickest pitch in the world at Perth, the all-round drop in at Melbourne and the traditional spinner at Sydney. Both bowling attacks will fancy the pitch buffet on offer.

But, we still have three days in London.

Australia declared at 9/492 and England’s openers got through 17overs for 32 runs. The forecast looks ordinary so this one could be headed for a draw. I hope there’s a twist or two to go.

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