Problems aplenty for listless Australia


England’s six-wicket victory over Australia at Emirates Riverside in Chester-le-Street consigned the men from Down Under to a ninth defeat from the last ten meetings between these two teams. Australia have now lost 15 of their last 17 completed ODI matches and are, at four-nil down with one to play, overwhelming favourites to be whitewashed on Sunday in Manchester. The series has been a complete mismatch.

However, amidst all the English triumphalism, it should be remembered that this Australian team is shorn of six of its first-choice players. Steve Smith and David Warner, their best two batsmen, are suspended, all-rounder Mitchell Marsh, the player who balances the side, is injured and so are Pat Cummins, Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazelwood, three bowlers who would get in most ODI teams around the world. They are significant losses.

But even so, just what was Australia’s plan for this tour?

Was it, as captain Tim Paine said following the hammering in Trent Bridge, to experiment ahead of the 2019 World Cup? Or was it to get players used to their roles ahead of next year’s tournament? It hasn’t been clear and either way, there have been some strange calls in both the selection and tactics.

Scattergun batting order

Australia’s batting has been so poor that they have failed to bat out their 50 overs in three of the four matches, but aside from the batsmen’s lack of form, it has felt at times like they have been trying to fit square pegs into round holes.

They started the series with Aaron Finch opening but then moved him into the middle order for the second and third matches before moving him back to open in Durham. Glenn Maxwell has batted at six which has looked one spot too low given he has scored most of his runs for Australia at number five and has a better strike-rate and average there than one position below.

Meanwhile, Marcus Stonis has batted at four, despite averaging 47 at number six; his only ODI hundred has come from number seven. D’Arcy Short, an explosive T20 player, was given an ODI debut at Cardiff at the top of the order, played two matches and then was discarded for Alex Carey, the spare wicket-keeper, at Chester-le-Street. Carey then came in below bowler-who-can-bat Ashton Agar. It has all felt a bit as if Australia have been making it up on the hoof.

Defensive tactics

Although constrained by the players at their disposal, Australia’s tactics have been found wanting on this tour in a number of areas. In particular, they have been too timid with the bat against the new ball in three out of the four matches – Trent Bridge was the exception – which has meant England’s bowlers have hardly been under any pressure.

Today was a case in point. They scored 61 without loss off the first 10 overs while England amassed 76 runs in their first batting powerplay. The intent throughout was markedly different – Joe Root bowled 10 overs for 44 for goodness sake – and while Australia’s 310 may look a decent score, it was well below par on a flat pitch and with a quick outfield.

That timidity has been the way of things in many areas. The crazy decision to bowl first at Trent Bridge after winning the toss was a defensive move. Billy Stanlake was used as a wicket-taking weapon at times, notably in the first match at the Oval, but on few other occasions did Australia use their bowlers in an attacking fashion. Placing Finch and Maxwell in the middle order, opening the bowling today with the gentle Michael Neser rather than the pace of Jhye Richardson, not picking a leg-spinner (see below), all of these things have been conservative.

The brains trust may point to the absences of Smith and Warner, and Hazelwood, Starc and Cummins, and say that it’s a lot easier to play aggressive cricket with better batsmen and bowlers. With a large number of players also feeling their way into international cricket, it’s probably tough for them to come in and play with wanton abandon straight away. That’s fair enough but it has been a surprise to see an Australian side be so defensive tactically. They cannot play this way next year and win the Wolrd Cup.

Where’s the wrist-spinner?

Remarkably, Australia didn’t go for a wrist-spinner for this tour, despite the selectors saying they want to pick one for next year’s World Cup. If that is the case, it might have made sense to select a leggie for this trip. Adam Zampa, Mitchell Swepson or Cameron Boyce were options, although admittedly none of them have been pulling up trees of late. Swepson is joining the party for the one-off T20I.

The decision is all the more strange given the important role that wrist-spinners, who can turn the ball both ways, now play in the modern game with the ability to take wickets a priority over run saving. Four of the top five wicket-takers in the past 12 months in ODI cricket are wrist-spinners and, according to statistical group CricViz, finger spin in the last year averages 37.87 while wrist spin averages 27.77. Leg-spinner Adil Rashid has been England’s most incisive bowler since the last World Cup with 103 wickets in 64 matches.

England have shown a recent vulnerability against leg-spin too. New Zealander Ish Sodhi took ten wickets in four ODIs against them earlier this year and they will have a big test against Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal in the upcoming series against India. With the English batsmen in such good form, the orthodox left-arm finger spin of Ashton Agar and off-spin of Nathan Lyon has been ineffectual – taking just four wickets in the series, three of which came today in Durham. How Australia could do with a leggie.

No variety in the fast-bowling department

As well as the lack of a wrist-spinner, Australia’s pace attack has offered little variety, littered as it is with right-arm medium fast bowlers. Only Billy Stanlake, at 6ft 8in and capable of bowling seriously quick, offers a real point of difference. Andrew Tye, Jhye Richardson, Kane Richardson, Michael Neser – all decent bowlers but much of a muchness.

Without Starc, the tourists don’t have a left-arm seamer either and his importance to this team cannot be overstated. He has taken 58 wickets at 24.68 in his last 31 matches for Australia. Although CricViz stats show that averages and strike rates for left-arm and right-arm seamers have been broadly similar in the past 12 months in all ODI cricket, Australia’s bowlers perform markedly worse without a left-arm bowler in their attack.

In the past two years when they haven’t selected a left-arm pacer, they have conceded more than six runs an over 57% of the time. When they have picked one in the same period, that figure is reduced to 23% although that is skewed slightly by the brilliance of Starc who has played most of those games. Nevertheless, the difference is marked and England recognise the value of a left-arm option, too. Their faith in David Willey, despite his recent relative lack of wickets, is in part because of the variety of angle and swing he challenges the batsmen with.

Australia do have a left-arm seamer currently in England but James Faulkner – Man of the Match in the 2015 World Cup final – is preparing for his upcoming T20 stint with Lancashire. He has not played for Australia since last year’s tour to India and although his form had tailed off somewhat since 2015, he still averaged 31.75 with an economy rate of less than six in 2017. In Starc’s absence, he might have been worth a call-up.

Captaincy Conundrum

Australia’s chairman of selectors Trevor Hohns made it clear when announcing this squad that Paine’s appointment as ODI captain was for this tour only and would be reviewed following the series. Paine saw it as a chance to resurrect a one-day career that had stalled since his last appearance in the green and gold back in 2011.

Paine is here, however, mainly because he’s a safe pair of hands both behind the stumps and in terms of leadership. He has spoken well about cleaning up Australia’s act after the ball-tampering episode in Cape Town and Australia have ruffled few feathers on this trip. There’s no doubt that he’s a stand-up bloke and a very good player but Paine is probably not even Australia’s best limited overs keeper on this tour.

South Australia’s Alex Carey who played in Durham is a better one-day batsman than Paine and probably Australia’s long-term white ball keeper. Carey has only played two ODIs to date but he scores at a strike-rate of 137 in T20 cricket and was the second leading run scorer in last season’s Big Bash. Paine, meanwhile, has scores of 12, 15, 5 and 3 in the series and is quite obviously a less explosive batsman than Carey.

With next year’s World Cup in mind, it would have made sense for Carey to have played the whole of this series to get experience of English conditions with Finch being named as captain. As it is, Australia have put their short-term needs for stability and recovery after Cape Town ahead of their long-term World Cup planning.

Bright spots?

The batting of Shaun Marsh, with two centuries to his name, after returning to the side has been a positive and Finch’s century at the top of the order in Durham was a reminder of his strengths against the new ball. In the bowling department, Stanlake and Jhye Richardson have had their moments but they have been fleeting. Apart from that, there’s not been much else positive to come out of this tour. It’s rather been a wasted opportunity.

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