Australia make for compelling viewing
Michael Clarke's team is not a great one. But it is great to watch. At a time when the Big Bash League is trying to lure new followers to cricket in Australia, the long format is providing some of the most absorbing action it has in years. Just about everything Australia have done in their past five Tests has made for compelling viewing. Whether good or bad, it has been impossible to look away.
Who could move from their seat as wicket after wicket tumbled in Cape Town last month? Who could fail to be mesmerised by the sight of 18-year-old Pat Cummins leading Australia to victory with bat and ball in Johannesburg a week later? How could one not be impressed by James Pattinson's pace and swing in his match-winning debut in Brisbane against New Zealand? And who could deny that the following Test in Hobart, with David Warner carrying his bat for a century in a seven-run defeat to Ross Taylor's underdogs, was a fantastic contest?
Australia's 122-run victory over India in Melbourne was another example. Clarke would love to win every Test as emphatically. It is good for the spectacle of the game that his side has not. The 189,347 spectators who turned out over four days to watch the Boxing Day Test - a record for Australia-India matches in Melbourne - were treated to a battle that twisted one way and then the other, and was at times as unpredictable as Ian Healy on a segway.
Not insignificantly for the Australian fans, they saw a side that is, for the most part, likeable. Since the retirement of Shane Warne, Adam Gilchrist et al, Australia have won more Tests than they have lost. But there has been a certain blandness about the squad. At last, that is changing. Young men like Pattinson and Warner provide raw energy, as Cummins did in South Africa. They also bring immense talent and promise.
A 21-year-old Melbourne lad who grew up with the tradition of family trips to the Boxing Day Test, Pattinson had the MCG crowd behind him as a bounded in, over after indefatigable over. He swung the ball. He bounced some of the best batsmen of the modern era, bringing roars from Bay 13. He was aggressive without overstepping the line. For the Melbourne fans, he might as well have been Merv Hughes.
He finished the Test with six wickets, including 4 for 53 in the second innings as he rattled the stumps of Rahul Dravid and also accounted for VVS Laxman and MS Dhoni. In his third Test, he won his second Man-of-the-Match award. Pattinson also has a personality, and is willing to show it off the field. Unusually for young players, he says what he thinks. Occasionally he resorts to cliché, but only occasionally.
Before the Test, he spoke bullishly of his plans to intimidate India's batsmen and lead the attack. Then he went out and did it. Some might call it cocky, but it's refreshing to hear a young fast bowler show such genuine self-belief. It's a trait possessed by most great fast bowlers. Some men, Mitchell Johnson for example, have the pace but not the confidence. Pattinson has both.
He appears to boost the energy and belief of those around him. Peter Siddle bounces off his Dandenong club-mate effectively, his aggression and passion evident at the MCG. Ben Hilfenhaus and Nathan Lyon are men of few words, but they complete a four-man attack that fans can relate to: a bricklayer (Hilfenhaus), a groundsman (Lyon), a woodchopper (Siddle) and a would-be roof tiler (Pattinson). All of the fast men performed over the past four days, and the way they worked together on day four was outstanding.
It is also hard not to be impressed by the debutant, Ed Cowan, who speaks with confidence and views the sport with a more discerning eye than most cricketers. At 29, Cowan knows his game. He has written about the trials of the Sheffield Shield cricketer, the mental and physical strains that accompany that lifestyle. Those who have read his book, In the Firing Line, will feel that they know him. They would have appreciated his grit in making 68 in the first innings, and shared his despair at leaving a ball that trapped him lbw in the second.
His opening partner, Warner, has also won over fans who thought he was a Twenty20 basher. He did not show his Test credentials in Melbourne, but his hundred against New Zealand showed his willingness to knuckle down. When Warner walks out to bat at the top of a Test order, it is best not to look away. Like Pattinson, he supplies the side with energy in the field, throwing himself around to save runs and take catches. His leaping AFL-style mark in front of Bay 13, on the long-on rope, to finish the Test brought roars from the crowd.
The struggle of the veterans, Ricky Ponting and Michael Hussey, has also been gripping. That they were the two men who rescued Australia when another collapse appeared imminent in the second innings was appreciated by the spectators. To watch them fight, every ball demanding their utmost concentration, was a sight to behold.
Bringing it all together is a captain, Clarke, who is willing to try different things. His plans don't always work, but seeing Hussey amble in and nearly draw a false stroke from Sachin Tendulkar with his medium pace was, again, fascinating.
The challenge for Clarke is to elicit consistency from his men. Since the start of the South Africa tour they have had a devastating loss in Cape Town, a memorable win in Johannesburg, a strong victory at the Gabba, another gutting defeat in Hobart, and now a fine win over a good team in Melbourne. Australia are not a great side, but with consistency they can become a very good one. For the time being, let's enjoy the compelling Test cricket they keep dishing up.
Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo