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

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

Brydon Coverdale at the MCG

December 28, 2012

Comments: 34 | Text size: A | A

Jackson Bird celebrates after bowling Mahela Jayawardene, Australia v Sri Lanka, 2nd Test, Melbourne, 3rd day, December 28, 2012
Jackson Bird has shown that he is good enough for Test cricket © Getty Images

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

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© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

Posted by Jaffa79 on (December 30, 2012, 21:55 GMT)

The Aussies should bring back Doherty

Posted by 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

Posted by 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

Posted by 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.

Posted by   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.

Posted by 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

Posted by   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.

Posted by 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.

Posted by 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.

Posted by 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.

Posted by EdwardTLogan on (December 29, 2012, 1:13 GMT)

We need to pick the best 11 to suit the circumstances of each match. In India that would ideally include an off-spinner and a spinner who turns the ball away from the right handers. In England and Australia, the best 11 may well include four seamers and no spinners. No point playing a spinner if a) he's not going to bowl a significant number of overs or b) he is not going to be effecvtive.

Posted by hycIass on (December 29, 2012, 0:21 GMT)

The simple fact is that we can't have 4 openers in the top order. Khawaja is a natrual number 3 or 4 and will do very well in the swining conditions in UK. Last year he lead Derbyhsire to their division title, the first in over a decade, he is a must for the ashes. Bird is also a a must, loved his length and line yesterday.

Posted by VivGilchrist on (December 28, 2012, 23:52 GMT)

My choice for Sydney with an eye on the Indian tour would have been to bring in OKeefe at 7 and have him bowling in tandem with Lyon. They spin the ball in opposite directions to eachother. OKeefe is a front line spinner that can bat, MJ at 8, would have given us a real insight on how the XI could look for India. That opportunity is now lost....

Posted by   on (December 28, 2012, 22:39 GMT)

Lyon has done nothing wrong this year - interesting to compare his output with Herath during this series. I am surprised that the article suggested Maxwell would be considered as a replacement for Lyon - a very defensive "English" selection option!

Posted by Chris_P on (December 28, 2012, 22:33 GMT)

The overs Watson bowled in Hobart led to the recurring injury role. The simple result of this is that Watson should only ever be used as an occasional bowler, not a stock bowler. He is still good enough to bowl short spells & take wickets. Any more then the risk of injury rises. I understand he had to bowl extra due to Hilfy's breakdown, but we have to plan selections to cover all options. We still need to consolidate the top 4 spots long term, that is probably our biggest challenge.

Posted by Edwards_Anderson on (December 28, 2012, 22:32 GMT)

I agree with handyandy, aside from the current 11 i would get Khawaja in, against the moving ball he is a very good batsman as seen from his 100 in hobart when Tasmania got 90. Selectors need to reward the young man and show fairness in their selection policy. For the bowlers Bird can be a hanful from what i saw and Cutting will be worth giving a go as well.

Posted by pat_one_back on (December 28, 2012, 21:37 GMT)

Would have occured to me as pretty rare that an all rounder would be asked to deliver so many overs however with the rate at which bowlers are breaking down this summer it may be the way of the future. Though our best efforts against better opposition, Aust were too short on options without Watson at the GABA and Adelaide, heavy reliance on part timer overs is tacticaly poor selection. Moises Henriques can play Watson's role if it's lowered to 6, Mitchell Johnson if Wade is lifted to 6. Aust must have a 4th seamer, it's our strength in any conditions. If we have a genuine second frontline spin option then the seam up allrounder becomes all the more important!

Posted by warneneverchuck on (December 28, 2012, 18:16 GMT)

Test didn't last even 3 days that shows how good. Mahela Sanga and company is. Great players like Sachin Lara had always scored tons of runs against mighty AUS but Sanga and company can't handle siddle and company then how these SL players r great

Posted by hris on (December 28, 2012, 17:23 GMT)

Maxwell is a replacement for Watson and not for Lyon. At no point did Clarke or the selectors mention anything about him replacing Lyon.

Lyon is still the number one Oz spinner. And even though i dont think he is great or anything, people need to understand is that Australia is probably the most difficult place for a spinner. Even Herath has been decent but nothing more. You could look at the Saf spinners or how Ashwin, Swann or even Murali did here. So no need to talk of dropping Lyon, he is doing a descent enough job.

Posted by KingofRedLions on (December 28, 2012, 14:22 GMT)

Brydon, there is absolutely no chance the selectors would pick Maxwell as the only spinner.

Posted by   on (December 28, 2012, 13:55 GMT)

I can't believe Shane Watson is being criticised because he can't cope with a high bowling workload. Why can't players be accepted for what they are instead of constantly being expected to be something else? Watson is an outstanding batsman, far better than either Ed Cowan or Phil Hughes (IMHO). He will never be able to perform the workload of Jacques Kallis, which is what seems unrealistically to be expected of him. Kallis is a once in a lifetime cricketer, just as Ian Botham and Shane Warne were. Players like that can't be replaced or copied and years of bad and inconsistent selections are wasted trying to find them so just accept Watson for what he is. Having said which, hasn't Adam Zampa looked good at times in the Big Bash......

Posted by jb633 on (December 28, 2012, 13:36 GMT)

If we are going to fast forward to the next Ashes series I think the problem with the Aussie batting order as it is, remains that three left handers is too many. Having watched a lot of all 3 players I think it is fair to say they prefer the ball coming on. If England are wise they might try and bring on Swann early as he loves bowling against average left handers. I think Oz should open up iwth Watto and stick with him. Watson is a brutal player of off spin bowling and I know he would possibily remove the idea of giving Swann an early burst. If we have the weather next summer, and it is a huge if, I would not be suprised to see a track that offers a bit of turn early as England would back themselves against 4 of the top 7 to dominate with spin. I think England will keep more than half an eye on Australia's tour of India. If they struggle with spin then we may possibly get some very different tracks come July time. Still rate this Oz bowling attack though. Much improved since 10/11.

Posted by RoJayao on (December 28, 2012, 13:26 GMT)

More crap for Lyon. It's almost like journalists and all the everyday yobs believe spinning a cricket ball is a mugs game, that anyone can do it. They can't. And Maxwell cannot do what Lyon does either. As for the silly "bowling too fast" theory, begun by a tv commentator, who was NOT a spinner, and propagated by all and sundry, Warney once said he thought he wasn't able to bowl quick enough to be more successful in India like Kumble! Another thing, Lyon's lack of success in Adelaide especially was more to do with his wide of off stump line and not attacking the stumps more on an uneven pitch.

Posted by HatsforBats on (December 28, 2012, 12:36 GMT)

@ Moppa, I think even more tellingly was one of Lyons dismissals in the first innings with a sweep lobbing to leg gully. It showed that the captain and spinner are in communication. His pace does remain a worry as he has clearly lost some of the flight & dip which earmarked his early promise. I don't think Maxwell is a potential replacement for Lyon, I think he's there as a replacement for Watson.

Posted by inefekt on (December 28, 2012, 12:32 GMT)

Watson needs to cut down on his bowling duties, he's best served as an occasional bowler perhaps sending down 5 to 10 overs an innings at the most. He then needs to be slotted back into an opening role as a batsman, he's been most successful in that position averaging 43 or thereabouts. Cowan is simply not test class and doesn't deserve a place in the team. Australia's best XI, given that every player is available, should be: Warner, Watson, Hughes, Khawaja, Clarke, Hussey, Wade, Johnson/Starc, Harris/Pattinson/Bird, Siddle, Lyon Pattinson should be used sparingly while Cummins needs at least 3 more years of first class cricket before being considered again, he's simply too young and fragile at this point in his career. I would also not forget about the likes of Copeland and Bollinger while Sheffield Shield quicks such as Cutting and Coulter-Nile should eventually be given a chance.

Posted by Wefinishthis on (December 28, 2012, 12:28 GMT)

None of this is surprising. I've been saying since losing 2 ashes series in a row that Hilfenhaus is useless and that we've lacked a quality, accurate seamer since McGrath and Clark retired (I'm excited about Bird's potential though). I've said for a long time that Siddle is a good support bowler like Morkel, but not a spearhead like Steyn or Philander. I've said the whole time that Lyon is a good spinner who has potential, but is not a great one and that SOK was the best choice 2 years ago (but that ship may have sailed now). We've all known for a long time that Watson isn't amongst the best 6 batsmen in the country. None of this is news for anyone who understands and follows the game. The bowlers who MUST tour if available are Bird, Pattinson, Harris, Cummins, Siddle and Johnson. I still don't rate Starc. For the spinners, Lyon is an obvious choice, SOK and Zampa are really the only other options. Our part-timers like Clarke and Warner are better tha n the rest.

Posted by Paul_Rampley on (December 28, 2012, 11:50 GMT)

@Hyclass i think you are right, our top order is the real concern. We have 3 openers in the top order and we added another one in Hughes. Khawaja would have been the ideal number 3 or 4 and with Watto injured what better time to try him in that position. Another batsman to watch out for is Scott Henry, 200 against the Chariman's X1, he will develop into a good batsman over the coming season but for now Khawaja is a must for me in the team. Our bowling attack looks good with Siddle, Starc, Pattinson, Johnson and Bird.

Posted by   on (December 28, 2012, 11:43 GMT)

Has Glenn Maxwell got incriminating photographs of several cricket writers? I've seen absolutely nothing to suggest that he's a Test quality spinner and everything to say he's the new Steve Smith. Containing off spin does work in the Ashes: that's exactly the role Graeme Swann took on last time in Australia. Had Ponting and co used Nathan Hauritz more effectively and, crucially, not left him out at the Oval in 2009, then Australia might not have lost that series. Lyon is inexperienced but he has not bowled that badly at all. Go and check out his stats for the series compared to the much vaunted Herath. Bringing in Maxwell would be a continuation of the addled spin policy that saw the like of Krejza, Beer, Casson et al come in and float out without any overall plan in action.

Posted by Essex_Man on (December 28, 2012, 11:29 GMT)

Very interesting article. The Aussies seem to have a number of pace bowling options but the batting still looks fragile and the spin bowling department non-existent. I don't know much about Maxwell but I don't agree with the concept of playing an average spinner just because he can bat a bit; you need a Test-quality spinner. What happened to Hauritz? I thought he was by far the most promising spinner tried out by Australia post-Warne.

Posted by hycIass on (December 28, 2012, 11:28 GMT)

I like what i saw from Bird, our issue against the English bowling attack will be our top order.Khawaja must be given a chance so he can show what he can do. He is the most consistantly good batsmen in the Shield this season along with Hughes. His 138 against Tasmania and 100 against NSW was on tough decks where he outscored the other teams total against quality bowling attacks batting at 3. Doolan is interesting, he has had a taste of Intertnational cricket with the Tour match, IMO rather he be kept in the Shield this year & maybe asked to tour India or England. Ferguson is another i would keep my eye on.

Posted by Wozza-CY on (December 28, 2012, 11:08 GMT)

I reckon Mr.Coverdale has just about hit the nail on the head with this article. Although the top 3 was somewhat 'glossed' over by saying they are developing. With the doubts over Watson, you could say Oz top 4 is 'developing'. Hughes dismissal in this test was school-boy-ish and quite discomforting. Will he ever replicate his domestic form in tests? Cowan & Warner are worth persisting with, hopefully they are learning from their mistakes. Lyon always looks like he has a wedding to go to when he is bowling. Even Dilshan was taking longer between deliveries! With so many advisors around the Oz team why doesn't someone grab a hold of the fellow & say 'mate..take your time, get into the head of this batsman & use your varieties!'

Posted by Moppa on (December 28, 2012, 10:11 GMT)

A good article, which places this series in the right context. The only thing I disagree with is the idea that you could directly replace Lyon with Maxwell, even though the point that Lyon needs to stick to a more flighted trajectory is valid. Although it was only a tailender, I like that Lyon threw up a third ball to Prasad after the consecutive sixes - shows a brave attitude that is essential to make it as a spinner. For this reason alone I'm quite confident that Lyon is worth sticking with through India and the Ashes.

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Brydon CoverdaleClose
Brydon Coverdale Assistant Editor Possibly the only person to win a headline-writing award for a title with the word "heifers" in it, Brydon decided agricultural journalism wasn't for him when he took up his position with ESPNcricinfo in Melbourne. His cricketing career peaked with an unbeaten 85 in the seconds for a small team in rural Victoria on a day when they could not scrounge up 11 players and Brydon, tragically, ran out of partners to help him reach his century. He is also a compulsive TV game-show contestant and has appeared on half a dozen shows in Australia.
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