December 4, 2008

Downsides of the warm-up

Australia's low-key series win over New Zealand did not deliver all the solutions ahead of the South Africa title fight

Time in the nets and practice games have value, but real runs are essential for Matthew Hayden after his struggles against New Zealand © Getty Images

Touring teams no longer rate performances in warm-up games highly and the same standard should apply to Australia's two-week clean sweep of New Zealand. Net training and practice games have their value, but it is the six Tests against South Africa over the next four months that will determine how far Australia have tumbled since the 2006-07 peak.

Fortunately they have been realistic about their trans-Tasman success. After the second Test in Adelaide Ponting was asked by someone - one of the few people to have been moved by the overall performance - how he rated the 2-0 victory among the highlights of his career. Instead of laughing, Ponting sat silently for a few seconds before saying the Kiwis weren't one of the strongest teams around. Except when the wicket was moist in Brisbane, New Zealand held no danger. South Africa carry it throughout their order.

After the loss in India it will be exciting to see Australia's measurements at home. The pre-series talk has begun, with the two coaches pretending they are players, and this time it is fascinating because the contest is real and the winner unknown. First versus second in the world no longer feels like No. 1 v No. 5. Working out which team is favoured is difficult because South Africa brushed off Bangladesh as comfortably as Australia did New Zealand.

However, the South Africans seem to have fewer concerns than the home team, which still has batting worries at the top and No. 6, and with spin. In tour games the players want to get used to the conditions and polish themselves for the tougher contests ahead. While that happened for many of the Australians, there was no breakthrough for Matthew Hayden or Andrew Symonds against the most modest of opponents, and the slow-bowling situation remains as accidental as it was when Jason Krejza arrived to capture 12 wickets in Nagpur.

When it comes to spin the selectors seem as muddled as if the chairman, Andrew Hilditch, had asked his underlings, David Boon, Merv Hughes and Jamie Cox, to understand the legal documents in his briefcase. Clear and intelligent minds are necessary for charting the next passage in Australian cricket without ruining a bunch of fringe players as they are shuffled in and out on whims.

Nothing has been learned from the rapid elevations of Dan Cullen and Cullen Bailey, who were given Cricket Australia contracts in 2007-08 but now sit on the fringes at South Australia. A love-me-now, ditch-me-quick method is threatening to waste another rung of hopefuls, with Nathan Hauritz surely due to join Beau Casson and Cameron White on the we'll-call-you list. When there isn't much to work with, even the maybes have to be loved.

Andrew Symonds has looked wayward, reflecting some of his recent off-field decisions, and the runs-based faith that he has developed over the past 18 months must have evaporated over the past fortnight

Some of the choices have been as strange as the journeys of those affected. Symonds, who got a bad decision in Adelaide, has looked wayward, reflecting some of his recent off-field decisions, and the runs-based faith that he has developed over the past 18 months must have evaporated over the past fortnight. Playing the world's second-best team is not a time to be betting on fragile figures with loosening reputations. Certainty is required with Symonds and Hayden. If there are doubts over whether they can make it through the next six Tests then other options are necessary.

Shane Watson is growing with every injury-free month and is starting to turn into a high-class allrounder. He is young, enthusiastic, talented and has shown a willingness to do anything - give up drinking and the gym, remodel his action and running style - to get into the side. Players of this sort are the ones Australia need during the bumps ahead, but after being rated the best fast bowler in India, Watson was dropped after the Brisbane Test. By responding with a double of seven wickets and 81 on the same day for Queensland in the Sheffield Shield, he proved he could be a long-term international option.

What the warm-up fixtures helped confirm was that Brad Haddin, Brett Lee and Mitchell Johnson have regained form and fitness, although even their displays require footnotes. New Zealand's batsmen were as fragile as some of the Australians in India and the bowling, apart from Daniel Vettori, was a long way from world class. The South Africans are genuine threats and the home side's line-up will need to be at its best to compete.

Peter English is the Australasia editor of Cricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Mani on December 5, 2008, 21:27 GMT

    Popcorn - I agree with everything you stated except "They beat India convincingly in Australia." Come on..that is stretching it. India were thouroughly outplayed in Melbourne. No complaints. They, in turn gave Australia some good old ass-whupping in Perth (their fortress). But you seem to have forgotten the Sydney game sandwiched in between, which was the most contentious test played in recent history. Yes, on paper, Aus won but we all know how. Looking forward to these home and away series and go Proteas!

  • jim on December 5, 2008, 14:13 GMT

    Will SA actually win in AUS? The way to beat Australia is to get Mr cricket, Haydos and Punter out cheaply and the rest will crumble. Those are the 3 key players. Morkel will be key in getting out the left handers with his round the wicket method which worked incredibly well against England I can see this also working against the Aussies. If steyn can get his outswingers working effectively the right handers will struggle.

    SA will be worried about Kallis and his lack of form. You need your best batsman to be in top form to beat the aussies. One other thing that worries me about SA is that their batting line up is also weak against swing bowling. I still think Aus have a decent seam attack. I like Lee, Clark and Johnson these guys will trouble SA.

    SA have not been bulldozing teams. They did beat WI 2-1 ENG 2-1 IND 2-1 (AT HOME) 2-1 PAK (AT HOME). I still think Australia will beat SA in AUS. However in SA if Imran Tahir becomes an SA citizen he could make the difference

  • Ed on December 5, 2008, 13:40 GMT

    C'mon, you're talking up the biggest chokers and flat track bullies in world cricket. You want to beat Australia, even with a developing side, you need to score at a strike rate better than mid 40's. Top 5 out of 10 scorers in 2008???? They've played Bangladesh in 4 of those tests!!! Kallis, there're best batsmen? what crap. 28.8 at a strike rate of 44 with one decent score in 12 months. You must be joking!!! Let's see how Steyn goes when he faces some quality batsmen. Punter, Huss and Roy will score big against a pace attack with no variety. Coin tosses won't affect the outcomes here. Class will.

  • Manie on December 5, 2008, 10:49 GMT

    Australia will need to step up in a big way if they want to retain their No 1 status. Success is easily achievable against NZ and the like through moments of quality by star players like Lee, Clarke etc, but it will require much more collectively to dismantle the South African batting line up. They've got 5 out the top 10 runs scorers for 2008, with the best batsman (JK) being the only one of the 6 batters not to feature. If Steyn (leading wicket taker 2008), Ntini and especially Morkel click then the going will be a lot tougher than anything the indifferent aussie line up has faced all year. My money is on a 1-1 drawn series in Aus with SA taking the spoils 2-0 at home in 2009 and ending at least 1 or 2 noteworthy aussie careers in the process.

  • Roger on December 5, 2008, 9:46 GMT

    Sure, Hayden is in his late 30s but don't so much complain about who's going to fill his void or Katich's, Australia has plenty of YOUNG options to fil 1 and 2, Everyone talks about Roy and Watson, What about Henriques, We have plenty of All-Rounders, Bowling, 5-6 fast bowlers waiting in the wings, Poor Casson has been dealt a bad blow, He should be given a try with Krejza, We have the best doemstic cricket competition in the world, Yes we are rebuilding but we won't fall in a heap like the West Indies, And India was at full strength against the Aussies too, Wait till they lose the like of Tendulkar, Laxman and Sehwag who are'nt getting any younger either, South Africa have thier best side comin over here since the late 90s, Yes it will show us were were at, But a few of the SA bats are'nt getting any younger either, England, Well thier filling the void with "top-up" players that aren't test material, I wanna see were the Aussies are at, And i predict in the top 2 for sure.

  • John on December 5, 2008, 3:56 GMT

    I think the series will be close as the sides are matched well. Both lack spinners and both batting orders have chinks. It may come down to how the fast bowlers do.

    But the above is typical of journalism nowadays. Look only on one side, take sides so that people of both sides of the article will read it for vested reasons.

  • Damien on December 4, 2008, 21:44 GMT

    For once I'm starting to see some merit in England's experience with all rounders. I agree that they go overboard with them, but the English also recognise that an all rounder takes longer to pay-off. This isn't surprising given that they have two disciplines to master. The selectors took their time picking Roy, but now he's got currency. Watson should get the same benefit. They're different types of allrounders, and can both be matchwinners. Watson hasn't done it in a baggygreen yet, but his bowling improvements in India were impressive. My main worry is that South Africa's weakness in spin, and we don't really have the armoury to exploit it. With Steyn, Morkel and Ntini in their line-up, the likes of Lee, Johnson and Clark aren't going to bother them. So, we have to play Krejza, no matter what. He'll keep throwing them up, and encourage the batsmen to take him on. With SA, it's just a matter of time before he gets one through. Remember the ball that got Laxman. I'd like to see more.

  • StJohn on December 4, 2008, 19:26 GMT

    "I take it you didn't see [England] get smashed by SA at home recently" - I saw it, but I wouldn't say England were smashed. SA are better than England, but not by so much: but for a couple of bad calls off Monty's bowling to Smith late in the 3rd Test of that series, it could well've finished 2-1 to England. From what I saw of Steyn, Morkel and Ntini, I think Australia still has a big edge whatever the contents of the Aussie spin cupboard. Sure, there's no stand-out megastar spinner at the moment, but Krejza deserves a go after 12 wkts on debut. You've also got Casson, Hauritz & McGain too. I'd say the spin options look pretty good - one or two of them now just need an extended run to develop & prove themselves. I'd expect Hayden & Symonds to come good (Hayden played pretty well in the last 2 Tests in India). The Aussie batting looks pretty good too. By contrast, SA are very solid, but McKenzie, Prince etc could bore a corpse with the way they bat. I reckon 2-1 to Oz in both series!

  • Steven on December 4, 2008, 17:36 GMT

    @ Duchy "Does anyone really think Watson is one of the four best bowlers in the country? Better than Noffke, Bollinger, Siddle, Hilfenhaus, etc?"

    Thank the lord I'm not alone in thinking Watson is a waste of time and space as a test cricketer. I have been saying it for years, he brings nothing to the team as he weakens any spot he is put in ( as Duchy pointed out )

    Don't try and invent an all rounder, if you have a Keith Miller or Jaques Kallis that's excellent, but trying to create one out of nothing is a recipe for failure.

  • Daniel on December 4, 2008, 16:15 GMT

    First and foremost, I think South Africa have been the sleeping giant over the past 24 months or so. There has been much made about the Indian's rise to the top of world cricket but lets not forget South Africa's recently drawn series over there and their previous 8 series wins. When touring Australia for the first time, Graeme Smith was brimming with confidence and failed in his endeavours... however let us not forget that this time around much has changed. Langer, Martyn, Gilchrist, Warne and McGrath have all gone and what remains is a building team. Australia won't suffer as the West Indies did after its long stay at the top, it has the internal structure at the roots of cricket to maintain and develop a new, successful team. The biggest issue facing Australia is the possibility of losing for the first time on home soil since 1991... and trying to curb their tall poppy syndrome that has plagued cricket in this country for way too long.

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