August 30, 2013

Australia's Ashes report card

Who failed, who passed, and who will make it to the squad for the home Ashes

James Faulkner: could do with a lick of pace, what? © Getty Images

Ryan Harris Top of the class, our Rhino. He ran in hard and bent it about, and bowled quickly at the stumps - a thing that works. Didn't play in the first Test match because they worried about his wonky old body. And they were right to; the Rhino's been a crock. But fit and firing and running in, Harris is testing material. And if Australia has him and Pete Siddle and James Pattinson flinging leather at the Poms, it will be a scorching good summer of cricket.

Peter Siddle A lion-hearted wicket-taker who can play a few different roles for his captain. Let's hope curators juice up the wickets in Australia some and get five different but super-sporting decks for these guys and the Poms to give us Top Action. Pete Siddle? You are a ripper. Carry on.

James Pattinson A super and super-fast bowler. At just 23, has several seasons of skull-frightening ahead of him. Cricket Australia should now ban him from doing anything but getting fit and bowling in the nets and then in first-class matches. If he plays the one-dayers in India in October and breaks down, I will storm Cricket Australia headquarters and wave flaming pitchforks about, and yell things at them, quite loudly. See if I don't.

Mitchell Starc Complained he wasn't getting more than one Test in a row. May have a case. At his best with an old ball, he's a reverse-swinging dervish. But does he break into the best three quicks in the land? Sometimes he does. Most often he does not. Prefer others. But he's very good, just the same.

Jackson Bird Like Starc but different, Bird is a horses-for-courses paceman. Get him on a green top or a low-slow dullard and Bird can hone in on those "good areas" they talk about in today's cricketspeak. He can do a little off the wicket and in the air and take Test wickets. On wickets not assisting, he may struggle, like everyone. Prefer others. But he's very much in the top half-dozen, and good luck to him.

James Faulkner Can hurl the cherry and fling the bat and is very much a modern-day cricketer in that he can do it across the three forms. Perhaps that's what T20 needs - an age group. Make it an Under-23 competition. Actually don't do that. It would be bad. Faulkner? Top cricketer. And if he can develop a lick more pace and bowl 85mph consistently, he could be the Sobers-esque allrounder Shane Watson threatened to be.

Ed Cowan Got the chop after two failures and one Test. This is how the coffee-infused Tim Tam crumbles on occasion. Hopefully what Ed does now is return to Australia and play first-class cricket and plunder runs like a Viking looting a particularly meek Christian's gold. A bunch of big hundreds in long-form cricket, batting across several hours, this is what Australia need in the top order. Cowan must make himself irresistible. He knows this, for he's a smart fellow who has written books.

Shane Watson Rid himself of a backpacking gorilla with a super 176 in a "dead" fifth Test match that finished more exciting than Evil Dead II. Does this open the floodgates now? Cynics would say, in the Australian vernacular, "Yeah, nah." Watto's threatened to turn into Barry Richards a time or two, only to plonk that big fat pad down the line of the ball and tuck his bat in behind it, and get fired out after a review showing the pill bisecting middle and leg. But he's talented, fit and hits the ball as hard as anyone in Test cricket outside Crazy Kevin Pietersen. Like KP, I like watching him bat. Every ball could be four or out.

Chris Rogers Made a hundred batting at the top of the order - that's all anyone could, and did, ask of him. Nuggety and defensively sound, Rogers takes runs where he can get them, waiting for bad balls to clip and chip and drive through cover. The Poms had to work for Rogers' wicket, except for Graeme Swann, who bowled a full toss at his groin and got him leg before wicket, yet another "cricket thing" that would confuse Americans, I would warrant.

If Pattinson plays the one-dayers in India in October and breaks down, I will storm Cricket Australia headquarters and wave flaming pitchforks about, and yell things at them, quite loudly. See if I don't

David Warner Clocked Joe Root early on. Scored nothing with the bat from then on - an important characteristic of a batsman. Davey? I dunno. He has blazed a trail for all-tonking top-order men. Michael Slater, Matthew Hayden and Justin Langer all went gang-busters early, or at least relatively gang-busters; what Virender Sehwag calls "batting". But those four guys, they know about the "leave". Our Dave, like his mate Phil Hughes, fishes outside off stump. And clever quicks like Broad, Anderson and Bresnan angle the ball into him and across him. In T20 he can edge through the slip cordon. In Test cricket he is out like a busted light. He's not in my Test top order.

Phil Hughes Been a work in progress for several years, and is a long way from the full pergola and outdoor entertaining deck. Like Dashing Dave and Unhappy Usman, he's susceptible to the pill going into him and across him. And the Poms know it. And have the bowlers to exploit it. He is also not in my Test top order. This won't keep him awake at night.

Michael Clarke Australia's only top-ten top-order batsman, let's hope all this losing doesn't stop him batting freely and well, because when he does he's irrepressible. Will enjoy being home. Let's hope he makes No. 4 his own.

Usman Khawaja Ah, Usman. A classic case of looks like Tarzan, plays like Jane. Or perhaps looks like Michelangelo, paints like Jack Russell on the drink - something like it. But he had a wretched enough Ashes series, despite - or perhaps because of, we may never know - this journo pumping his tyres and marvelling at his classical, languid, almost Goweresque batting technique. Unlike Gower, however, Usman struggled to score any "runs" because he did not often enough hit the ball with the "bat". He'll have to work on that if he wants to be a batsman, at least one who plays somewhere in the top order for Australia. To that end I think Clarke should bat No .3, Watson No. 4 - or swap them about - and Usman should come in at No. 6, like Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting did when they were pups. This is probably just me. Because chances are he's run out of chances.

Steve Smith A revelation for many people, this hack most of all. But he's shown he can score runs and concentrate over long periods, and aged just 24 - a thing we forget in these fellows: their salad years are ahead - SPD Smith looks grouse. I like him. And if he could go into spin-bowling camp with SK Warne and rip some leggies, he could be the greatest allrounder since Garry Sobers. Probably won't be, though. But he could be really quite good.

Brad Haddin Dropped a couple early, but as the Tests rolled on, kept wicket very well and kept Matt Wade mixing the orange cordial. Haddin remains first-choice wicketkeeper (setting the new world record for dismissals in a Test series probably helps) and will revel on his home tracks. Remains a fine striker of the ball.

Matthew Wade Didn't get a gig all summer outside of county games, and remains second string to Haddin for the foreseeable. Top player called Tim Paine waits in the wings with a busted wing. Hopefully these three glovemen will get extended runs in Sheffield Shield cricket and audition for the Ashes.

That Australia's playing a month of one-dayers in India to prepare for said series is next week's column.

Matt Cleary writes for several Australian sports and travel magazines. He tweets here