Australia v Sri Lanka, 2nd Test, Melbourne, 3rd day December 28, 2012

SL Tests offer Australia clues to tackling future challenges

So far this series has taught Australia several lessons - some useful, some less relevant - which they will do well to remember when the challenges of the India tour and the Ashes roll around
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Australia have retained the Warne-Muralitharan Trophy. Was it ever going to be any other way? In Hobart, Sri Lanka showed enough fight to drag Michael Clarke's men into the final session of day five. At the MCG they barely reached the halfway point of the Test. In the stands, spectators were surprised at the rapidity of the finish. Some were only there because they feared the match would not reach day four, when they had intended to come. It was a wise change of plans.

Such a one-sided victory might give Australia's fans reason to celebrate, but what does it really mean for an Australian outfit that next year flies to India for four Tests and then faces the prospect of back-to-back Ashes battles? In that context, the victories themselves mean little. In 2009-10, Australia won seven of eight Tests at home and in New Zealand, but that was irrelevant when they lost in India later that year and were then obliterated by England.

Still, over the past two Tests, Australia have learnt some useful lessons. Some are new - that Jackson Bird is good enough for Test cricket, for example. Others - including that Shane Watson's body cannot handle significant bowling loads - were timely reminders of past realisations. The challenge for John Inverarity and his selection panel, and for Clarke and Mickey Arthur in their management of the side, is to sift through the lessons to find those with significance for the coming year.

The emergence of Bird is unquestionably one that is relevant to the Ashes. A tall, accurate bowler who works with both seam and swing, moving the ball both ways, Bird might not be the next Glenn McGrath but Australia will be happy if he is the next Stuart Clark. He was unfazed by the big Boxing Day crowd and his building of pressure was critical. It was a Ben Hilfenhaus role, and he did it better than Hilfenhaus has this summer. He should be strongly considered for the tour of England.

So should Mitchell Starc. The way he bowled on the final day against Sri Lanka in Hobart would have troubled any batsmen from any Test side. His yorkers were dangerous, he moved the ball in the air, he attacked the stumps and he bowled Australia to victory. Not that Australia are short of quality fast bowlers. Hilfenhaus, Peter Siddle, James Pattinson, Pat Cummins and Ryan Harris will all be jostling for Ashes roles.

As will Mitchell Johnson. How relevant was his Man-of-the-Match performance at the MCG? Moderately. He was fast, aggressive, awkward and impressively accurate. But few batting line-ups would handle such an assault as poorly as Sri Lanka's batsmen did in this game. Kevin Pietersen and Alastair Cook will be a vastly different challenge.

Johnson works as part of Australia's rotation system. Bring him in, set him loose, rest him. And the rotation system works when the bowling depth is there, and against weaker opposition. It is hard to imagine Australia resting fit fast bowlers during an Ashes tour. How would this more mature Johnson handle the pressure of being part of Australia's first-choice attack throughout an Ashes series? That remains to be seen, and no piles of wickets against Sri Lanka can tell us.

It is significant that the Australians have included Glenn Maxwell in the squad for the Sydney Test. If Nathan Lyon continues to bowl a flatter, containing trajectory, and if Maxwell shows he can do the same job, Lyon will be under pressure. Who would you rather have in an Ashes series - a containing offspinner with a first-class batting average of 11.96, or one averaging 42?

Australia have also learnt that Watson can still not be relied upon to bowl a significant number of overs. In Hobart, he sent down 47.4 overs, easily his biggest workload in a Test. Surprise, surprise, he broke down in Melbourne. Just what to do with Watson remains one of Australia's biggest quandaries. He is good enough for Test cricket. He is the vice-captain. But is he good enough if he doesn't bowl? He would need to lift his output of runs. If he does bowl, he provides a useful wicket-taking option, but also forces batting reshuffles every time he is injured. There is no easy answer. Most likely, Clarke will use his medium-pace more sparingly than ever.

Clarke also needs to think about what he asks of Nathan Lyon. At the MCG, Lyon was almost irrelevant, bowling 7.4 overs and only removing tailenders. In Hobart, his final-day bowling was too fast, lacked guile, and allowed Sri Lanka's batsmen to defend with ease. He bowled the same way in Adelaide against South Africa. Before Boxing Day, he said he was in constant dialogue with Clarke about his speed. The captain needs to encourage Lyon back to the flight he displayed earlier in his Test career. Unlike the fast men, his big challenges will come in India more than England, and against quality players of spin. Lyon has some work to do.

It is significant that the Australians have included Glenn Maxwell in the squad for the Sydney Test. If Lyon continues to bowl a flatter, containing trajectory, and if Maxwell shows he can do the same job, Lyon will be under pressure. Who would you rather have in an Ashes series - a containing offspinner with a first-class batting average of 11.96, or one averaging 42? That's why Lyon must regain his wicket-taking style. He is the best spinner in the country, he just needs to remind everyone of it. Maxwell's challenge next week is to show that he can be more than a Steve Smith type bits-and-pieces player.

On the batting front, the Sri Lanka series has so far taught Australia little. Clarke has continued to show why he is the No. 1 batsman in the world, but he will be judged on whether he can maintain that form away from home next year. Phillip Hughes has had insufficient opportunities to prove himself in his third incarnation as a Test batsman. Ed Cowan and David Warner have continued to develop and Michael Hussey remains in outstanding form. But runs against a struggling Sri Lanka attack have little relevance to the upcoming challenges.

At the SCG, Australia's management needs to have one eye on the India and England battles. That is not disrespectful to Sri Lanka. This series is decided. It has offered some useful lessons, and some irrelevant ones. And over five days in Sydney next week, Australia have one last chance to learn.

Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Camberwellcarrot1979 on December 30, 2012, 21:55 GMT

    The Aussies should bring back Doherty

  • gogoldengreens on December 30, 2012, 5:36 GMT

    With the selectors rotation policy - why wasn't Watson rested after his big bowling effort at Hobart along with his history of injury?? That would make sense of rotation policy not leaving out someone who has only bowled in a couple of innings for the year... Good to see Birds effort he looks like a lot better bowler than Hilfenhaus who pitches to short when he is a swing bowler... Hope it is bye bye Ben

  • Buckers410 on December 29, 2012, 22:46 GMT

    you are absolutely right @Dismayed. All those players are awesome player but Maxwell can be thrown in there somewhere. Hneriques could do the job at 6 and Smith is a batsman who is in Sheffield shield form. Christian needs to be tighter but they are all quality players who should be given chances at the top asspecially Steve Smith and Steve O'Keefe

  • Shaggy076 on December 29, 2012, 12:04 GMT

    After reading a very disappointing article claiming that Lyon could be dropped for Maxwell (considdering a recent shield game where White himself bowled 18 overs and gave Maxwell 3) I have read many educated comments on the value of Lyon in the Australian team. All his supporters are not claiming he is a gun but he is the best we have and fulfills his role week in week out. Yet in spinning terms he is still young and will improve with time. For those that mock Lyon do some research on how spnners such as Swann, Panesar, Vettori, Ajmal, Muralitharan, Ashwin, H Singh, now Herath, Paul Harris have performed in Australian conditions. Not one of these bowlers average under 40 or have bowled out the opposition side on a day 5 pitch. Stick with Lyon and he will be a very good player.

  • dummy4fb on December 29, 2012, 11:46 GMT

    Australia's bowling attack is there or thereabouts in the pace bowling department. There is now some depth which adds some pressure to perform. Byrd looks a good addition and should be effective in English conditions if paired with more attacking/faster bowlers. I would lump Byrd, Siddle and Hilfy in a group, only one of which should play, and then select two from Starc, Pattinson, Cummings and possibly Harris if he is ever fit enough. Lyon is a safe bet at the moment, he just needs more time to develop. How many years of developing did Tim May have before he made the test team? While the bowling is competitive, the batting remains a real concern. It doesn't matter how good the bowling is, so long as the habit of having a major collapse once every two or three tests continues, Oz will not beat the likes of SAf or England. The selectors need to work overtime to identify talent. Too many of the current team have the habit of getting a score just when they need it to stay in the team.

  • hhillbumper on December 29, 2012, 11:42 GMT

    I think Lyon is world class as are the rest of the Aussie team.We look forward to you demolishing us 10-0 in the Ashes series and reclaiming your rightful place as world masters.

    Sorry about that just had an attack of the Randy's

  • dummy4fb on December 29, 2012, 5:07 GMT

    I think if Watson changes to a specialist batsman, his place would be in doubt (unfortunately). With a batting average of 34, there are plenty of better options in Shield cricket. Hopefully he can find a way to better look after his body, as his medium pace option is very beneficial to the team. Batting alone is not enough at his average.

  • Dismayed on December 29, 2012, 3:30 GMT

    Cowan is not up to test standard, if Watson is not going to bowl he will have to open so he slots in for Cowan, Hughes stays at 3 for now. Steve Smith should be selected before Maxwell, along with S O'keefe, Henriques, Dan Christian, and a couple of others. D.Hussey would be more a worthy not too mention deserved selection. The selection lottery continues in Australia.

  • mikey76 on December 29, 2012, 3:04 GMT

    Australia have good depth in pace bowling but the batting looks terribly thin. At least in England we have a decent crop of quicks, 3-4 promising young spinners and half a dozen batsmen jostling for places. It's also got to be said that Bird and Johnson picking up wickets against SL doesn't really say a lot. India will be a far better marker of where Australia are, particularly in the spin dept.

  • rohanbala on December 29, 2012, 2:33 GMT

    Maxwell might provide an additional batting option for the team, but I don't think he would be a good enough replacement to Nathan Lyon as a spinner. If Lyon is dropped for the sydney test, it would be the most unwise move by the selectors. In a test dominated by pacemen, it would be foolish to think of spinners chipping in with more than 2 or 3 wickets with the limited number of overs given to them. In the MCG test, Herath bowled 39 overs for no wicket, while Lyon bowled 7.4 overs for a total of 3 wickets.