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

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