Boxing Day is, and has annually been since 1980, the biggest day of the calender year for many cricket fans all around the World, in particular in Victoria, Australia. It’s an opportunity to venture to the home of Australian cricket and watch eleven Australian’s fight against the summer’s touring side, giving their best for their nation of adoring fans. This year, as it is every four years, the British were in town, fighting for Cricket’s holy grail, The Ashes.
The Ashes, fiercely fought between Australia and England since 1882, is the pinnacle of Test Cricket and a series which has grown in stature since England’s revival in 2005. It’s a series when players’ reputations are both made and broken, where careers are defined, and individual acts of brilliance can change a series in just a few overs. It is, undoubtedly, cricket’s finest series, and a series which compels viewers all around the globe in a true celebration of the amazing game that is cricket.
Unfortunately though, there wasn’t much to celebrate today as Australia sunk to, arguably, an all-time low after being bowled out for just 98. In addition to this, they allowed England to muster up 0/157, a 59 run lead with 10 wickets in hand heading into day 2.
To put things into perspective, Australia have never, in over 133 years of Test Cricket, been behind at stumps on Day 1, with the opposition still having 10 wickets in hand. Today, history was created at the MCG, for all the wrong reasons, and as Australia head into the 5th (dead rubber) Test Match in Sydney next week, things need to change.
A fantastic display in Perth last week in the 3rd Test Match covered up numerous cracks in the Australian line-up, cracks which showed again today as the Aussies were simply smashed in all departments.
Phillip Hughes is a fantastic young batsman who burst onto the international scene against South Africa in February 2009, scoring 350 runs in his first 2 Test Matches. However, since then he has made just 295 runs at a paltry average of just 26.81. In addition to this, Hughes has managed just 231 runs at 19.25 this summer, clearly highlighting his lack of form. There is no doubt that Hughes is a fantastic young player who has a limitless amount of talent, the question remains though, is his talent suited for the opening batsman position? I fear not.
Hughes is a flashy young batsman, eager to play his shots and score at a rapid rate. His debut century against South Africa was scored at a strike-rate of 76.15, which despite sounding attractive at the time, is almost impossible to maintain over a prolonged period of time. This is simply due to having technique flaws discovered by opposing bowlers and captains.
Hughes really never should have been selected for the 3rd and 4th Tests, not only because his form didn’t warrant it, but also due to the fact that his technique needs tightening before being thrown out to open the batting in the game’s most important series.
The second weakness in the Australian side is the lack of runs from the captain and vice-captain, Ricky Ponting and Michael Clarke. Ponting, who has averaged just 15.50 in his 7 innings this series, is in serious danger of losing his spot in the starting eleven, with questions continually being raised about his ability to pick-up the ball early in his innings. His foot-work, despite never being amazing at the start of an innings, has deteriorated rapidly over the past 12 months, which is making him vulnerable early on in his innings. This vulnerability is highlighted by his 14 scores below 15, in 25 innings since December 2009.
Clarke on the other hand is suffering from a sever lack of form, which is largely due to his extremely low-level of confidence whilst batting. Clarke, despite his experience, is similar to Hughes in that he is extremely flashy and at times, possesses a very loose technique, especially for a number 4 batsman. When Clarke is confident in his own ability and plays his shots with assertiveness and conviction, his flashy style produces countless runs. However, when his confidence is low, he seems nervous, tentative and plays his shots half-heartedly, which is proving to be his downfall as he has managed just 262 runs in his last 13 innings. A match or two in the Baggy Blue of New South Wales could be just what Clarke needs to rediscover his mojo.
The batting isn’t the only concern for the Australians, with Peter Siddle and Ben Hilfenhaus the main culprits of a struggling Australian attack. Since Siddle’s devastating spell of 6/54 in Brisbane three weeks ago, he has produced figures of 1/257 and despite bowling well at times, the figures don’t lie, highlighting a severe lack of wicket-taking ability. Hilfenhaus, without a 6-fa to hang his hat on this series, has produced figures of 1/237 since taking the wicket of Andrew Strauss with the third ball of his series in Adelaide. Similar to Siddle, despite bowling well at times, the ability to strike when needed most seems beyond him and serious doubts are lingering over his head for the upcoming Sydney Test Match in early 2011.
Steven Smith is the sixth concern for the Australian team and despite the youthful enthusiasm he brings to the team, the fact remains that he has yet to take a wicket in the series and has managed just 49 runs from his 3 innings. Marcus North, despite his poor run of form, managed exactly the same amount of runs from 3 innings however he also contributed with a wicket. With young batsmen like Usman Khawaja waiting in the wings, Smith needs to fire in the second innings in order to keep his spot because at the end of the day, when one asks himself who the best number six batsman in Australia is, the answer is unlikely to be Steve Smith.
The remaining five players, despite a poor day, are in relatively good form and have shown numerous moments of brilliance this summer. Watson, Hussey and Haddin are leading the batting attack, whilst Mitchell Johnson and Ryan Harris both found some much-needed form with the ball in Perth.
With the urn likely to remain in England’s possession for another few years, Sydney provides an opportunity for the ultra-conservative Australian selectors to blood some youth in what appears likely to be a dead-rubber. Ponting, given his captaincy, is likely to keep his spot, however the match is a perfect opportunity to omit Hughes, Clarke, Siddle and Hilfenhaus, and bring in youngsters such as Sean Marsh (414 runs at 59.14 this summer), Khawaja (611 runs at 61.10), Trent Copeland (25 wickets at 21.40), James Faulkner (19 wickets at 11.94) or Steve O’Keefe (16 wickets at 16.93).
Now, more than ever before, is the time where the Australian selectors need to pick young Australian cricketers based solely on age and Domestic form, not just reputation. There is simply no better experience for these youngsters to debut and perform in front of a sold-out Sydney crowd… I just hope the selectors don’t miss this opportunity.