Blog by: Divyajeevan
“This is the worst side to leave the Australian shores for an Ashes series.”
Not for the first time, and certainly not for the last time, the English media seemed dismissive of the touring Australian side even before the series had begun.
Before Michael Clarke’s men, few other Australian Ashes teams have also been subjected to this ignominious distinction.
Bob Simpson in 1964, Ian Chappell in 1972 and Allan Border in 1989 have previously led young sides into an Ashes series, which were touted to face heavy defeats but each of those teams punched above their weight to shock their opponents.
While the unfancied Australian team in ’64 played with a lot of grit and courage to force four draws and eke out one win, in ’72 Chappell and his inexperienced side competed with flair and valour against a strong English side in an exciting series, which ended in a 2-2 verdict. Border’s men went one step further and caused a major Ashes upset to register a thumping 4-0 win.
The current squad, though, couldn’t conjure up any such magic and, as had been widely predicted, came second best in the series. They showed major improvement, especially in the last three Tests, and were lauded for their whole-hearted and enterprising cricket, but despite all their efforts they ended with a 0-3 verdict against them. Their inexperience also came to the fore as despite running England close on several occasions, they lost the battle at decisive junctures.
So what does the autopsy report say?
On the scale of talent, the Australian batting unit is definitely below England; a major factor that significantly hampered the campaign was the constant chopping and changing they carried out. On several occasions, their thought process looked muddled and certain selections were made with a hope that things will work out.
In fact, in no two consecutive Tests did Australia employ the same set of batsmen in the same order and ended up using as many as 17 different players in the series. The story was no different in the recent whitewash against India, where 16 different men were tried out in the four match series.
Often successful teams are built around players who play together for a long period of time and forge a sense of trust among themselves. Such inconsistency in selection was bound to breed instability and affect the team adversely.
On the other hand, the victorious English side stuck to the same set of six batsmen for four Tests and, at least officially, Johnny Bairstow was dropped in the fifth Test only to accommodate a third seaming option.
Ed Cowan, who did relatively well as an opener in India, was forced down to the number three slot and was dropped after facing failure in just one Test. Phillip Hughes scored a half century against all odds at number six in the first Test but was pushed up to number four in the line-up for the second Test before being dropped from the playing XI.
Shane Watson was desperately moved around in the batting order and was tried at four different slots during the series. His century in the final Test has ensured that he will be persisted with at the number three slot for some time now, but there is no guarantee that his position won’t be shuffled again.
Even though Ashton Agar played the most memorable innings of this series, his selection ahead of the experienced Nathan Lyon defied logic. In the fifth Test, the team management could think of no cricketing reasons to justify James Faulkner’s inclusion in the final Test and it was attributed to his ‘mental strength’.
Amidst the ensuing uncertainties, coach Darren Lehmann’s statement after the fourth Test – that careers will be on the line – would have caused further disillusions. At more than one instance Lehmann, whose appointment as the head coach was hailed as a step in the positive direction by many former Australian cricketers, seemed to run out of patience and betrayed a lack of confidence in the team he had inherited.
There were, however, some individuals who received proper backing from the selectors on the tour and quite unsurprisingly, they turned out to be the positives that Australia could take from this series.
Chris Rogers’ second coming as a Test cricketer, Steve Smith’s constant improvement with the bat and the form and fitness shown by Ryan Harris were the few bright spots for the visitors, and the common factor about the three of them was that the team management showed tremendous amount of faith in them and gave them a consistent run in the series.
The batting unit was short on experience and first class veteran Rogers was recalled from near obscurity to address the issue. Though he failed to put up a substantial score in the first two Tests, Australia persisted with the 35-year-old and he returned the favour with knocks of 84 and 110 at Old Trafford and Chester-le-Street respectively.
Smith, despite a few blips, survived the axe and thus, was spared of the mayhem that surrounded him in the middle-order. Throughout the series his place in the middle-order seemed certain and it culminated in him registering his maiden Test century at The Oval. Harris was sidelined for the first Test at Trent Bridge but was a regular feature since and finished as the highest wicket taker in the series for Australia.
On the face of it the 0-3 score line is chastening. This, after all, is the first time since 1977 that Australia have failed to secure even a single win in an Ashes series. But Clarke and his men would know that with a stable batting order and a bit of luck they could have pulled an upset. The back-to-back Ashes series can be taxing on the bodies but it will be welcomed by the Australians as it provides them a shot at redemption in their own backyard in three months’ time.
Former coach Mickey Arthur spoke of how he had planned to use the series in England as an intelligence gathering tour, and in the home summer, the onus will be on Australia to put the theory into practice. By the time the two teams resume their battle at the Gabba in Brisbane, the Australian unit, with sufficient knowledge about themselves in the series loss, would be a much more settled unit and should be in a position to provide a bigger challenge to the visiting English team.