Michael Jeh May 20, 2009

Thunder from Down Under

The sight of people marooned up creeks without paddles, confined to an indefinite period of loneliness is probably something that Andrew Symonds can relate to

For the first time in as long as I can remember, the announcement of the Ashes touring squad has been completely overshadowed in Brisbane by torrential rain, the likes of which the folk in Old Blighty are probably more accustomed to than us tropical folk. The sight of people marooned up creeks without paddles, confined to an indefinite period of loneliness is probably something that Andrew Symonds can relate to. His exclusion owes nothing to Mother Nature but it is still a sobering thought that his Test career may be over. One can only hope that ‘sober’ is a word that is now part of his lifestyle because his talent, though waning with age, is still worth the entrance money.

My initial gut feeling was that this was a squad without any major surprises. Australia have usually sent away at least one ‘bolter’ on most Ashes tours, a young tyro who has been identified as having potential and is picked on instinct rather than numbers. Wayne Holdsworth, Greg Campbell and Dirk Welham rank amongst the under-achievers. Terry Alderman and Michael Slater spring to mind as success stories. I’m not sure if Andrew McDonald really qualifies in that “young tyro” category but his selection might have been one of the more contentious ones in an otherwise predictable squad.

Phillip Hughes would indeed have been on the tour even if he hadn’t already played Test cricket but his instant stardom has ensured there was never any surprise about his passport being stamped. Perhaps Graham Manou might be considered lucky – he is not the youngest wicketkeeper going around Shield cricket but one cannot quibble with it either. Chris Hartley from Queensland staked a late claim with end-of-season runs and Tim Paine was highly regarded but they’ve gone with Manou and fair enough too.

The bowling attack is fascinating. Mitchell Johnson and Peter Siddle picked themselves, Brett Lee was always going to be given every chance to recover and Stuart Clark has always been perceived as an England specialist if he recovered in time. Ben Hilfenhaus is the player I’m excited about. If the conditions are anything like we’ve seen in the recent Tests against the Windies, he will be a handful, swinging the ball at +140 kph. The question is: will he make the first XI?

Watson’s ability to bowl will be a crucial aspect to the balance of the attack. If he can bat in the top 6 and bowl at full pace, that’s akin to having a Kallis-type player in your team (I’m not suggesting he is close to matching Kallis’ fantastic career stats but there are similarities). That will mean Haddin can bat at 7 and four specialist bowlers can sit behind him, making up a pretty useful seam attack if you can also get some overs out of Marcus North (if he plays). Watson’s bowling will crucially allow Australia to always play a spinner (Hauritz or North) and still have the luxury of 4 seamers. Throw McDonald into the mix and the batting becomes very long indeed with Johnson’s lusty hitting too. McDonald’s Derek Pringle style bowling may be quite a bonus in England you know.

The batting order virtually picks itself doesn’t it? The big assumption of course is that they will all fire at various stages throughout the series. No one in that top order is seriously under threat for the first few Tests you wouldn’t imagine. Australia has the usual plethora of left-handers which may nullify some of Anderson’s outswing but he showed that the inswinger can also be a dangerous weapon against the lefties. Gayle and Chanderpaul are not insignificant scalps.

Overall, a balanced squad without any major omissions or surprise inclusions. Doug Bollinger may feel a tad disappointed but who would you leave out? He’s already had enough of sitting on the sidelines so perhaps he is better off playing some cricket or having a break and waiting for his next opportunity. And one cannot help but wonder what more Brad Hodge has to do? Emigrate perhaps?

Watson is probably the only player for whom this is a make or break tour. Another significant injury and he may well cook his own goose. The Australian public recognise his talent but they are almost expecting him to break down. Michael Clarke’s back injury is probably the other major long-term concern but he may get away with not having to do much bowling.

Well, if Australia are expecting to do much pre-tour work at the Centre of Excellence in Brisbane, they may be better leaving for England immediately. Who would have thought it’d be drier over there? They’ll be practicing on slightly damp pitches over here for a few weeks yet!

Michael Jeh is an Oxford Blue who played first-class cricket, and a Playing Member of the MCC. He lives in Brisbane