November 10, 2010

Australia? Don't make me laugh

Decisive man-by-man proof that the hosts will be toast in this year’s Ashes

As the cricket match-fixing scandal pinballs around between annoying, disappointing depressing and alarmingly sinister, this blog will ignore for now the murky morass that threatens to swamp the international game, forget about the potential implications of Zulqarnain’s unscheduled London jaunt, and distract itself from the grim realities of reality with an altogether chirpier topic (from a pre-Ashes England supporter’s point of view) – Australia being not very good anymore. Not bad – just not very good.

I have outlined in previous blogs the reasons why England are unbeatable and heading for a thrashing, and why Australia are in prime position to administer that thrashing, like a grumpy 19th-century headmaster who has been doing strength and conditioning work on his caning arm in readiness for the arrival of a particularly objectionable and naughty boy. Here, to conclude this decisive proof that England or Australia will win or lose the Ashes, is unarguable, laboratory-tested, player-by-player evidence that Australia are definitely going to lose.

Simon Katich Bums-off-seats left-hander has scored just 134 runs at an average of 22 in his last three Tests, and red-facedly owns up to a 1980s-Australia-throwback Ashes average of just 33 in 11 Tests. Furthermore, he has scored fewer Ashes runs in Australia than Monty Panesar.

Katich is also reported to be suffering from an existential crisis of confidence after accidentally seeing video footage of himself batting (Cricket Australia had successfully protected him from seeing himself for years, using a series of increasingly convoluted distractions, including puppet shows. Katich loves puppet shows. Can’t get enough of them. He owns DVD box sets of all TV puppet shows. And if that is not true, let him sue me.) “Oh my god, no,” he said, dumbfounded, after watching himself ungainlily nudge a leg-side boundary. “I thought I played like David Gower.”

Shane Watson Like most of his team-mates, Watson is on the slide. Admittedly he has not slid as far, fast or slidily down that slide as some, but after averaging 65 in 2009, he has posted a figure of only 38 so far in 2010. This clearly does not bode well for the New Year Test in Sydney, and the less said about Watson’s 2012, when he looks set to average 16, the better.

He averages only 30 when Australia lose the toss (compared with 47 when they win it), suggesting that Ponting’s coinflipwork and Strauss’s head-or-tail preferences could be crucial to Watson’s success or failure. He also has the third worst conversion rate of any Australian top-six batsman with 10 or more Test fifties – he has turned just two of his 14 scores of 50-plus into centuries.

Rumours that he is an allrounder may prove unfounded. As a bowler, he has never taken more than two wickets in a Test innings in Australia, and has no Ashes wickets under his belt. He bowled just eight overs of purest garbage in 2009, so will have some persuading to do to convince England that he is not rubbish. Mind you, Glenn McGrath was in a similarly unconvincing position after his wicketless Ashes debut in 1994-95. If only Australia had done the decent thing and permanently jettisoned McGrath after that match, as England sportingly disposed of the obviously superior Martin McCague (two wickets in the at Brisbane Test)... if only England had stuck with Gloucestershire left-armer Mike Smith after his wicketless Ashes bow in 1997... if only, if only...

Ricky Ponting Anyone telling you that Ricky Ponting has not declined over the last few years is either talking about a different Ricky Ponting, or has been poisoned with a mind-altering potion, or has seriously misheard the question, or is Ricky Ponting, or is trying to wilfully engage you in an unwinnable argument whilst their accomplice steals your electrical goods and/or priceless collection of David Boon memorabilia.

Australia’s “Best Since Bradman” has, for the last four years, been approximately Australia’s 27th-best since Bradman – he has averaged 43 in his 41 Tests since the pivotal Adelaide Test of 2006-07, with six centuries (stats eerily similar to Ian Bell’s over the same period, a time in which Ponting proudly boasts the 43rd best Test batting average in world cricket, behind, amongst others, willow-wielders extraordinaire Darryl Tuffey and Brad Hogg, and current table-topper Kane Williamson).

The self-styled “Tasmanian Ian Bell” has averaged over 50 in just three of his last 12 series, having done so in nine of the previous 10, and has scored only one Test century in 16 Tests since the Ashes opener of 2009 − a double against Pakistan after Mohammad Amir dropped a possibly-with-hindsight-although-equally-plausibly-perfectly-above-board-but-still-suspiciously-easy sitter when the Australian captain was on 0.

And if the series gets tight, Australia might as well drop their captain for the final two Tests – over the last four Ashes series, he has averaged under 30 in Tests 4 and 5.

No Australian captain has ever lost three Ashes series. Ten years ago the prospect of Australia losing three Ashes series in the rest of eternity seemed remote. But then again, they said man would never walk on the moon. Ponting is all set to become Australia’s Neil Armstrong.

Michael Clarke Beset by media and public grumblings, largely due to insufficient runs and insufficient Aussieness, Clarke has averaged just 21 in his last four Tests, including only one score above 15 in his last seven Test innings. After a golden period from 2006-07 up to Headingley 2009, in which he averaged 62, he has averaged only a middling 42 since the Oval Test.

Michael Hussey Hussey’s almost unprecedented career rocket has altered its course from heading to a place amongst the all-time great, towards crash landing amongst international cricket’s plodding journeymen in three anti-climactic years. Has averaged 25 in his last seven Tests, and just 34 in his last 34, with a pitiful three centuries and a strike rate of 43 (compare this with his first 20 Tests – an average of 84, eight hundreds, and a strike rate of 53). He was once within touching distance of Bradman. Now he rubs statistical shoulders with Wavell Hinds, Manoj Prabhakar, and Chris Tavaré. Could still bump his average back up into the 80s this Ashes, but only if he scores 2500 undefeated runs in the series. This seems unlikely. Hussey has averaged 35 or less in seven of his last nine series, and 25 or less in five of his last 11.

Marcus North After smiting three centuries in his first six Tests, North has averaged 29 in his last 13 matches. Traditionally in Australia, this leads to impeachment by Parliament and disappearance to the Dirk Wellham Memorial Gulag, 150 miles outside Darwin. North has been out for 10 or less in more than half of his 32 Test innings, and his five ducks make him the most regular duck scorer in the Australian top six since the 19th century. To where some Australian supporters seem to want him to emigrate.

Brad Haddin The new Adam Gilchrist – in that his most recent performances have not been particularly impressive. Haddin averages 20 in his last five Tests, and 31 in his last 10 since being injured during the 2009 Ashes. In stark contrast to Watson, Haddin averages 33 when Australia win the toss, and 48 when they lose it. The selectors must be bold, and speculatively drop one or the other. Or both, to be on the safe side.

Mitchell Johnson Eleven wickets at 43 in his last four Tests, has failed to take more than one wicket in 10 of his last 14 innings - Johnson is becoming the Australian Steve Harmison. If Harmison bowled one of the great series-losing balls in Ashes history in Brisbane four years ago, Johnson bravely attempted to steal his thunder with one of the immortal series-losing spells in Ashes history with his geometry-expanding effort at Lord’s. Having come to England with a reputation as a bowler who could bowl unplayable balls, he proved that reputation well deserved - albeit that the balls were only unplayable due to their being unreachable.

Increasingly expensive, Johnson conceded more than 3.5 runs per over in none of his first seven series, but has done so in four of his last six.

Since apparently breaking through as a top-class allrounder against South Africa in 2008-09 (400 runs and 33 wickets in six Tests), not only has Johnson explored all regions of inconsistency with the ball, he has averaged just 13 with the bat – further evidence of him stepping snugly into the Harmison mantle.

Nathan Hauritz Since filling his boots against the staggeringly, persistently inept West Indies and Pakistan last Australian summer, Hauritz has taken 10 wickets at 65 in his last four Tests. Statistics can, and often do, lie, but if Hauritz is a genuine match-winning Test-class spinner, then his first-class bowling average of 43 must be in line for Porkie Of The Year. Successor to Shane Warne. In the same way that Graeme Smith is the successor to Rudolf Nureyev. He is OK.

Peter Siddle Since helping skittle England in their tactically masterful fourth Test complacency-inducing megacapitulation in Leeds, Siddle, who skipped away from Headingley thinking he had cracked Test cricket, has taken just 15 wickets at 41 in six Tests. He averages almost 35 in Australia. He has been injured for a while. He is not as frightening as McGrath, McDermott, Merv Hughes, Lillee or Thomson. Or as good. He is OK.

Doug Bollinger Has never dismissed an Englishman in a Test. Largely through lack of opportunity, admittedly. Has also been injured, and might not play in the first Test, extending his lifelong habit of not dismissing Englishmen in Tests. Startlingly inept batsman. Possibly hair-replacement-themed teasing victim.

Ben Hilfenhaus Has never taken five wickets in a Test innings, nor six wickets in a match. Has only played one Test in Australia, and is an English-style bowler who averages 38.7 outside England. He is OK. If Australia pick him and Bollinger, they will lose. The last time they picked two seam bowlers with tri-syllabic surnames – Gillespie and Kasprowicz in 2005 – they lost.

So there it is. It is or isn’t looking good for Australia.

On previous Ashes tours, England’s positive statements in advance of their inevitable first-Test mincing sounded not so much like men clutching at straws as men pointing their fingers nervously at what they thought might be a straw, and mumbling something about being confident that it was probably a straw, and that they were definitely planning to try to think about clutching it. This time their public confidence is well founded. England are quite a good team. As are Australia. It will be a draw. A glorious draw.

Andy Zaltzman is a stand-up comedian, a regular on the BBC Radio 4, and a writer