David Warner didn’t move his feet. Not for the first time. Chris Rogers was unlucky. At the wrong age to do that. Michael Clarke fended at the moving ball. Easier to do at No. 4 than No. 5. Shane Watson planted the target on the front pad. England found it for the first time this series. George Bailey was dangling outside off. People already murmuring about him there.
Brad Haddin flies in. Situation sorted. Again. Again. Again. Again.
Beneath the Big Bash big talk, away from the CA Twitter account’s split personality and far from ads for summer’s biggest dress up party, Cricket Australia still take cricket seriously. It may not always seem that way as the ‘Ashes pashes’ are on the big screen but Cricket Australia has been pretty consistent on one thing, it wants the team to be No. 1. It actually want to be No. 1, No. 1 and No. 1. In all formats, the best team on earth. A cynic may suggest that it’ll make for better marketing copy, but it’s still a worthy, if hard to attain, ambition.
Clarke used his newspaper column to reiterate that this team wanted to be No. 1 straight after Perth. That’s when captains speak, after the game, when the result dictates the conversation. Had Clarke been asked to speak when Australia’s fifth first-innings wicket fell, No. 1 would have been a sizable distance from his mind. The Australia top order have consistently been awful in the first innings. Only in Adelaide were they anything near passable. In every other innings they’ve been poor.
Then Haddin comes in. Technically Haddin has batted at No. 7. But in real terms he’s batted one, two, three, four, five, six and seven. Add a cape and a moustache and Mitchell Johnson may not win Man of the Series.
Haddin as the permanent saviour was enough to win the Ashes. And it may be enough to win 5-0. But to be No. 1, you are probably going to need a top order. And Australia’s next series is against a bowling attack of Morne Morkel, Vernon Philander and Dale Steyn.
Beating England, while that team is in emotional freefall, at home is just a step in the right direction, not anything more. Australia were naked in a gutter a few months back, and they haven’t won three consecutive Test series in a row since the infamous summer of kidding themselves against West Indies, Pakistan and New Zealand. This summer there are far more good signs than back in 2009-10. That’s all they are. This isn’t some finished product that has honed its game around the world and is ready to tussle at the top, it’s an old team with a good bowling attack that’s in great form.
Form is, as many cricketers have told us, temporary.
“Australia have the best bowling attack in the world.” It’s something you may have heard more than once. Lazy commentators say it, showing that they don’t follow the cricket outside of Australia. Coaches have said it, despite the fact it is their job to know how good other countries are. It’s not the best bowling attack in the world (unless South Africa has been voted off the planet). But it’s really good.
Peter Siddle has improved virtually every part of his bowling. He is a leader and a worker, who never gives up. Nathan Lyon was the boy no one wanted. Considering the menagerie of misfits used as spinners before (and during) his time, surely only a mad scientist selector would change him now. If Johnson keeps bowling the way he is, he may actually explode, as will most batsmen who face him. He could also lose form and confidence and end up sitting on the bench for an IPL franchise. It’s all possible. Ryan Harris may not be long for this game. Then again, who really thought he’d play nine straight Test matches against England.
Harris is the only one for who age is a concern. Australia also have James Pattinson (Test average of 26), Pat Cummins (pace like fire, body like paper) and Nathan Coulter-Nile (pace – tick, swing – tick) hanging around.
So it may not be the best on earth, but it’s a pretty damn scary attack to bump into on a dark night. With Johnson in this form, it’s nuclear.
India and South Africa are the No.1 and No. 2-ranked sides in the world. Even if India had won in South Africa, their first overseas series since they were in Australia two years ago, they were too many points behind to go top.
India look good right now, but may be a bowler short away from home. R Ashwin is averaging more than five wickets a Test and was just dropped against South Africa. Pakistan were ranked fourth before this series. In recent times they drew with South Africa, and before that they drew with Zimbabwe. Essentially they play in the same manner Saeed Ajmal does press conferences.
England are so bad right now, the hashtag #pomnishambles has been invented.
So, that only leaves South Africa. They are the best team on earth. They have beaten or drawn all their series since losing, to the then-No. 1 side, Australia in ’09. In their last seven series, they have won six and drawn once. After Gary Kirsten took over, they became the team that they flirted with being at most times since readmission.
To beat them, you have to shove Graeme Smith aside. Confuse Hashim Amla. Hope AB de Villiers is tired. Then survive the bowling attack. And do it all quickly in a shortened series.
If Australia do win 5-0, in the history of cricket it will probably be the worst batting line-up to have ever swept such a long series.
Coming into Melbourne, Chris Rogers was a 36-year-old with a Test average of 31.88 – pretty much the same average that Ed Cowan had when he lost his place. Then England dropped Rogers at the MCG and he made his second hundred and cemented his place for South Africa. He’s obviously not rubbish, but at his age, he doesn’t need balls bouncing back through his legs on to the stumps. Chances are, no matter how good his career goes, at his age, he’ll be a batting coach or commentator by the next time Australia are No. 1 in Tests.
David Warner’s form has been amazing, in the second innings when Australia have been smashing the ball everywhere against a Mitch Johnson-ed England. His first innings have shown promise, but he’s never gone through. He still has no overseas Test hundreds and in the one second innings when the pressure was on, he failed. After being dropped. His footwork is always going to get negative feedback but he’s never going to fix it. In South Africa it will be tested every day.
Shane Watson is batting at No. 3 for Australia, with a Test average of 36.56, and you can see why Darren Lehmann may not have backed him completely as a batsman. It still makes more sense for Watson to bat at No. 5 or No. 6, but then Australia would have no one to bat at three. In the first innings of this series, he has been woeful, but he made a happy slap hundred in Perth, and guided Australia home at Melbourne. Still important, still frustrating, and still a massive lbw candidate.
Michael Clarke has a bad back, and a sensational home record. If he can recreate that away from home, and his back stays good, he’ll be a good player to ride to No. 1.
Steven Smith is one of three Trent Woodhill (a see ball, hit ball batting coach) disciples who have made hundreds this series. He made another in England, and gave another way. In India, as his team-mates cried into their cornflakes, he came in and showed guts and feet. Here was another hundred that proved how tough he is. But he’s still only averaging 37.41 in Test cricket. It’s because Smith either makes runs, or fails. There is no in between. His bowling, and fielding are both useful but, at No. 5, he needs to make it as a batsman. He is probably a six, and maybe so is Watson, and it looks like Bailey might be as well.
George Bailey may not even make it to South Africa. Or Clarke could retire and he becomes captain. One is more likely than the other.
There was no shock as Australia lost early wickets. It was green, Australia had been put in, and throughout this Ashes (and the entire mega Ashes) Australia have struggled to score in the first innings. There was no shock that Haddin saved them either. It may have been moving around, and in his bad times he would have nicked off playing a shocking shot, but that wouldn’t have felt natural in this series. It all happened exactly as it has for five Tests.
Australia failed, England failed harder. Haddin prevailed.
Australia are old, have a frail batting line up and are relying on a 36-year-old wicketkeeper more than any team should. They shouldn’t get to No. 1, but then they shouldn’t have won this series without a fully functioning top six. Even with a fully functioning Brad Haddin behind it.
In another timeline, Alastair Cook just pushed a single to get Jonathan Trott on strike. Then Trott tickled a leg-side ball from Jon Holland around the corner, taking another one, as England won the series 3-1. Michael Clarke looks lost. Shane Watson is not there.
On this timeline, Watson burped a ball to deep square from Monty Panesar to move Australia ever closer to 5-0. Watson and Clarke embrace like brothers. Cook looks lost. Trott is not there.
It might seem completely inconceivable right now that Australia could have ever lost this series but, considering how much has gone right for them this series, it is not exactly science fiction.
Things have consistently not gone wrong for Australia.
For instance, they might not have picked Mitchell Johnson. Despite good white-ball form, and even with Kevin Pietersen and Trott flinching in the UK, Johnson might not have played had Mitchell Starc or James Pattinson been fit. Johnson was suspended on the Test tour of India earlier in the year, didn’t fit Australia’s plan of pressure through subtle movement. His batting is handy, but Australia’s tail did okay without him. So, had there been other options, or if Australia decided to move on, Johnson wouldn’t have played at the Gabba.
Without Johnson, Australia would not be 4-0.
Brad Haddin also could have been dropped. While he kept well in the UK, he also averaged 22. He is 36, it was his first real series back in the team, and he struggled to make an impact. The major reason he was brought back was to calm relations in the team but Darren Lehmann handled that quite well himself. Australia could have looked at it and decided that, with Wade averaging roughly the same and a better conversion rate for hundreds, it was time to bring him back in and let him take more of a leadership role.
Without Haddin, Australia would not be 4-0.
David Warner has made a lot of runs in second-innings knocks with little pressure. Peter Siddle and Ryan Harris have been good but have not really been tested in fifth and sixth spells. Nathan Lyon has been serviceable, but that’s easier to do with Johnson decapitating people at the other end. Watson has only passed 22 once in the first innings. George Bailey has barely played a proper Test innings yet and Chris Rogers would have been in far more pressure coming into this Test had it not been for the scoreline.
And none of that even takes into account the possibility of an injury befalling Harris, or Watson, or even Clarke.
Instead Trott went home. Graeme Swann retired. Matt Prior was dropped. And Cook looks under pressure.
James Anderson looks tired and beaten. Stuart Broad hasn’t bowled another great spell since the Gabba. Ian Bell has lost the magic he had in the home Ashes. Pietersen can’t seem to please anyone. Michael Carberry hasn’t gone on to make any real impact on the series despite looking okay most of the time. Joe Root’s constant travels around the batting order and his propensity to waft have had him in trouble. Tim Bresnan is not the same bowler he was three years ago.
And whether real or imagined, it seemed like every single decision that Alastair Cook made in this Test went against him. Whereas Michael Clarke probably made a mistake at the toss, ended up with a 51-run deficit, and still won by eight wickets.
In another timeline Prior takes the first catch, Cook takes the second and England win comfortably. But that never ever looked possible today. Just like all series, if something could go right for England, they made a mistake to ensure it didn’t.
And Australia have ridden the many gift horses into the sunset.
Making Paris Stilton.
England’s bestest day.