Australian batting goes 19th century
Another Test, another scintillating finish. Test matches are supposed to provide greater variety and texture than the limited-over game, but recently all they have given us is a monotonous riot of thrilling dramas, a tediously predictable sequence of wildly fluctuating nail-biters. Yawn. No wonder the crowds have been so small. What Test cricket needs is more high-scoring draws.
The Hobart Test* was a historic one for New Zealand, who overcame both their Antipodean rivals and their own batting indisciplines, to record a landmark victory so exciting that even the dolphins in the Tasman sea reportedly bunked off from fish-eating duties and listened in to the radio commentary on their in-built sonar.
(A conversation between two bottlenose dolphins intercepted by an ESPN submarine and translated by Cricinfo’s in-house marine biologist proceeded as follows: “Hey, Maureen, that was worth missing out on that shoal of herring for, eh?” “Damn right, Gerald. What a game. Most of the batting was pretty rubbish, but that was sporting theatre of the highest order.” “Sure was, Maureen. I never thought I’d live to see the day that New Zealand won in Australia.” “More fool you, Gerald. This Australian batting unit has been an accident waiting to happen for ages. And an accident actually happening several times during those ages.” “Fair point, Maureen. But I thought that brilliant win in Johannesburg would have given them some good old baggy-green confidence.” “No, Gerald, it camouflaged the same old failings. As soon as the ball starts moving around, they’re in trouble.” “I’m the same with fish, Maureen. If they’re going in a straight line, no problem, snap, gulp, yum. But a bit of swing either way, I’m going hungry.” “That’s because you go at the fish too hard, Gerald. If the fish is moving, you’ve got to wait for it, try to play it late, with a soft snout. Your problem is that you’ve had too long eating fish that don’t move about, and now the sea has become more conducive to swing again, you don’t have the technique to cope with it. Or the patience. Or the discipline. Which I find both strange and disappointing in an experienced dolphin like you.” “All right, Maureen, you’ve made your point. And let’s give some credit to the fish, they were the better sea creature on the day.” “That’s true, Gerald, but you made it very easy for them. The fact is, you’re only still in this school because the young dolphins coming through aren’t up to scratch yet.” “Shut up, Maureen, shut up. I’ve still got it. I know I’ll come good some day soon. I’ll catch some mackerel or something. Honest. I’m too good not to. Look at my career record.” “Yadda yadda yadda, Gerald. Cripes, we’d better move it. That sounds like a Japanese fishing vessel. We’d better shift or we’re going to end up on the wrong side of a bit of wasabi.”)
I digress. Hobart showcased the continuing crisis in Australian batsmanship, which, if not quite as severe or globally momentous as the Eurozone crisis, has nevertheless lasted far longer than it should have done. And the baffling nature of that crisis was highlighted by the fact that the most technically sound Australian batsman in the game was playing for New Zealand. Dean Brownlie played like the seasoned international veteran that he isn’t, a man not considered good enough even for first-class cricket in Australia, who outshone the stalwarts of his former country’s Test team.
For just the second time since the 1880s, Australia’s top 7 between them returned 13 scores of under 25 in a Test match. (The previous occasion was in Karachi in 1988-89, when the fact that Pakistan selected a grand total of zero seam bowlers hinted that they were trying to catch Australia on a turning wicket.) Only David Warner’s brilliant, pigeonhole-defying century, in which a supposed limited-over biffer with minimal first-class experience batted with restraint and selectivity whilst 30-something veterans pushed at and chased the swinging ball, saved them from one of the greatest statistical ignominies in 120 years of Baggy-Green batsmanship.
In Cape Town, just a month ago, the Australian top 7 had posted 12 scores of less than 25 – it was only the fourth time that had happened since the First World War.
Most concerningly for Australia, the experienced players have led the way, unable to find a way to halt the collapses, repeating the same hard-handed errors. In the two recent two-Test mini-series, Clarke has scored a dazzling century in each, one of which was an early candidate for innings of the decade, but has also been out for 22 or fewer in his other five innings. Hussey passed 20 just once in seven innings, and Ponting, whose long-term struggles are statistically irrefutable, only twice. Haddin made important half-centuries in Johannesburg and Brisbane, but has not scored more than 35 in his other 12 innings this year. Watson, after hitting 16 fifty-plus scores in his first 18 Tests as an opener up to the end of 2010, has added just one more half-century in six Tests in 2011.
For many years, Australian youngsters early in their careers would watch and learn from their seniors. It appears they are still doing so. Hughes has reached 40 in two innings out of 15; Khawaja has batted for at least 45 minutes in all but one of his 11 Test innings since making his debut in the Sydney Test in January, but he has passed 40 only once.
The year 2010 was bad for Australian batting, culminating in their Boxing Day Ashes debacle, a performance so inept that the ghost of Bill Ponsford reportedly chained himself to the railings outside the MCG in protest, waving a placard reading: “Knuckle down, for heaven’s sake.”
The year 2011 has been even worse. In eight Tests, Australia’s top 7 batsmen have collectively averaged 33.5, their lowest since 1988, a year in which the Australians were more than a little inconvenienced by having to face Ambrose, Marshall, Walsh and Patterson in three Tests out of eight.
Only the first Test against India offers the hope of redemption for a year in which 60% of the Australian top 7’s innings have ended with a slow trudge back to the pavilion, head bowed, baggy green that little bit baggier, after being out for less than 25. That is the highest failure rate by the Australian top 7 in any year since 1984. That was also a year in which they were more than a little inconvenienced, this time by having to face Marshall, Garner and Holding in consecutive five-Test series, a task which, for a batting line-up, must have been as appealing as being a human guinea pig in an experiment to calculate the effect on the digestive system of being repeatedly smashed in the stomach with a baseball bat.
*1330GMT, December 16: Corrected to change the scorecard link which was previously directing to the Brisbane Test
Andy Zaltzman is a stand-up comedian, a regular on the BBC Radio 4, and a writer