July 24, 2013

An Australian tragicomedy

There's politicking, buffoonery, strange plot twists, and little heed to the big picture

Pat Howard: knows just which horse to back when © Getty Images

One of the great advantages about being an opinion-piece writer is that you invariably have the luxury of a few days to digest events, read the commentary pieces, match reports, press conferences, post-mortems and sage observations before cobbling those odd fellows together in an attempt at a polarising article that may drive contrary opinions.

The recent Lord's Test has provided plenty of grist for the mill. Jarrod Kimber's piece was so dry it parched my throat on the way down, while Brydon Coverdale put the icing on that cake with a perspective that was so plain-speaking that I had to do more research to ascertain whether it was superb satire or the saddest truth of all. Brilliant writers though they may be, they have been unintentionally sidelined by Cricket Australia's own PR machine and the ubiquitous sibling of David Warner, both of whom deserve special mentions for timing and delivery when it comes to Twitter and twits.

Fresh from those comic episodes was the tearful exit of James Pattinson from the series, a far cry from the bullish statements he made prior to the series opener when he took aim at the way English fans treated his brother Darren when he played a solitary Test for England. Whilst Pattinson junior's actual bowling was less threatening than his demeanour, the tragi-comic irony is that his loss will probably be felt more keenly in the batting department. Likewise Ashton Agar - if he could only take a wicket or two on spinning pitches, the search for that elusive allrounder may be over. Throw in Mickey Arthur's legal challenges, Ricky Ponting's bemusement at Cricket Australia's timing, and Pat Howard's repeated assurances that all is well in the trenches and it's hard to know which angle to focus on.

Let's take Howard for starters. Admirable loyalty in the face of adversity. The same bloke who defended Arthur's handling of the Mohali incident and was less than flattering in his assessment of Shane Watson at the time is smart enough to realise now that he may have backed the wrong horse and is now clearly in the "nothing to see here, morale is fine, we just need to find someone who can score 347 not out and we'll be competitive again" camp.

If resilience and adaptability are key ingredients, Howard provides the perfect role model. Decisiveness and long-term thinking may not necessarily be his strong points, but politics has always been thus. The ability to read the winds of change and swap camps before you get thrown out with the bathwater is something Australians have been witness to recently; clearly Howard is a clever chap who has watched Robbie Deans (rugby coach) and Julia Gillard (ex-PM) and come to the pragmatic conclusion that the best careers are to be enjoyed whilst still employed!

For Watson, surely a long bat in a proper game of cricket has to be worth more than a million throwdowns? But maybe they're worried that if he gets out lbw again, that will further dent his confidence, and we can't be having any of that for a player who simply cannot be dropped, regardless of numbers

Let's look at the two honeymooners then, Agar and Darren Lehmann. With three unconvincing bowling performances out of four to his name, Agar risks being remembered for all the wrong reasons, if his true vocation is to be selected as a slow left-arm tweaker. He was gifted two dry, spinning surfaces and yet has looked most likely to win a game with bat in hand, batting at 11 and 8 respectively. Delightful young chap though he is, sentiment comes a distant second to results. Arthur will attest to that. Agar will need to show more with the ball, unless Australia are prepared to persist with him purely for the value of his runs at No. 8 - which would be a curious tactic indeed.

Now to Lehmann; what is clear is that the spirit he brings to the team is no magic bullet, no antidote to the fairly old-fashioned notion that it is runs and wickets that win cricket matches. No amount of bonhomie, team spirit or positive vibes in the dressing room can mask the abject failure of the basics of batting and bowling. That is hardly Lehmann's fault, and whilst no blame should be attributed to him (and for that matter to poor old Arthur either), we should moderate any gushing platitudes that may flow to Lehmann if there is a startling reversal of fortunes. He is neither a miracle worker nor a fake - he's a mere cricket coach, one cog in a massive wheel that owes as much to luck as it does to hard work. If Lehmann wasn't actually playing at the time, he may have been lucky enough to have coached the team in the Steve Waugh era, and that would not have necessarily made him any more of a genius. It's down to the cattle in the paddock and no amount of beer and good cheer can fix that.

One must feel sorry for the Warner family, though. It's a classic case of being able to choose your friends but not your family. A few weeks ago when young Dave was trying to "uproot" the English opener, the family may well have blushed (perhaps not, coming to think of it) but this week, following brother Steve's Twitter outbursts, Dave was now busy distancing himself from family ties. You don't need family getting in the way of your possible opening batting partner (Watson) do you?

Not that Watson will be opening the batting in Hove this week. In a move that says everything we now know about the way modern cricketers prepare, Watson has chosen (or been instructed) to work on his technical faults in the nets in London rather than in a first-class match against Sussex. He may well prove me wrong by peeling off big hundreds henceforth but I find that a staggering move. Harking back to a previous piece from a few weeks ago, you almost have to wonder why they schedule tour matches anymore. If the key batsman whose form is most under scrutiny thinks that a series of net sessions is of more value than a fair-dinkum hit out in the middle, then just scrap tour matches altogether, why don't we?

Even if Watson played in Sussex and got cleaned up early, does that preclude him from using the nets at Hove? Surely a long bat in a proper game of cricket has to be worth more than a million throwdowns? But maybe they're worried that if he gets out lbw again, that will further dent his confidence, and we can't be having any of that for a player who simply cannot be dropped, regardless of numbers. What must the Stuart Laws, Martin Loves, Michael Slaters and Simon Katiches of the world be thinking when they see someone with Watson's average reassured by Pat Howard (of all people) that his place in the side was secure? Sometimes it's about being born lucky.

There are positives too emanating from the cinders of Lord's. Usman Khawaja looked classy in the second innings, Ryan Harris looked threatening most of the time, and Australia are bound to win a toss or two, the value of which should not be underestimated when analysing the last two Tests.

The short-term future is one thing but it is the big picture that is most worrying. Australia's preoccupation with the shorter forms of the game is having a lasting impact on the next generation of young batsmen coming through the system. Even in grade cricket, the tempo has changed markedly. Scoring rates are up, outright victories in two-day club matches are more common, and batting time is seen to be a major flaw in a young cricketer's make up. Ask anyone in club cricket and they'll tell you the same story. It makes for more exciting cricket in some senses but when it comes to winning Test matches, we need batsmen prepared to build long, deep foundations. Put bluntly, Australia needs more Roots.

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