C’arn Mr Roebuck!
I was at a barbecue gathering last night with some folks at Puncher And Wattman and the subject inevitably turned to cricket. It prompted a quick discussion on what people thought of this column by Peter Roebuck.
On the form shown at the SCG against Pakistan, Ricky Ponting and his team will be hard-pressed to recapture the Ashes. At present, they ought to be cast as outsiders. England have a long batting list and are managing to retain a narrow lead over a reviving South African outfit.
Admittedly, the Poms have frailties of their own: they lack a fast bowler, and need Kevin Pietersen to recapture his former powers, but they will not wilt in the heat or be cowed by Australia’s victories this season.
On paper, it looks good: four wins in five attempts and every reason to expect a clean sweep against shattered opponents in Hobart. But the tally is misleading. Australia ought not to read too much into their dramatic triumph at the SCG.
For most of the contest, Ricky Ponting and company were outplayed by the world’s sixth-ranked side. Certainly it was an extraordinary victory, but sober reflection removes it from the list of great wins likely to remain in the memory. Australia’s performance was too flawed to carry the weight assigned to it.
We just couldn’t agree with Mr. Roebuck’s position on the lesson to be drawn form the test. The way I saw it was that the pitch was diabolical, but Australia can still bat down to the tail. The Pakistanis were tentative and inexperienced and susceptible to the inevitable pressure. Ricky Ponting himself assessed that given how difficult the pitch was, he thought what the Australians were likely to do on the first day with the bat was going to be better than what the Pakistanis were likely to do on the last day. As events panned out, Ricky Ponting was right.
You’d be hard pushed to argue the toss with a result that worked out just as planned, even if the process looked ugly. Given that part of the thinking was that the process would be ugly, it’s a bit much to argue that the ugliness of the process proves the side is deeply flawed.
But then Mr. Roebuck goes on to argue this point:
Certainly, Australia recovered from a much weaker position but even that tells a tale. Historically, turnarounds on that scale can only be achieved by incredible partnerships (Dravid and Laxman in Kolkata, Steyn and Duminy at the MCG) or momentous innings (Lara in the West Indies, Botham at Leeds) or stunning interventions with the ball. No such inspiring efforts were produced at the SCG.
None of the bowlers surpassed themselves, and Peter Siddle was downright ordinary. Nathan Hauritz invited batsmen to plunge into folly, and they obliged. The pitch did not break up, Pakistan did. Australia did take two commendable catches. Had Kamran Akmal had even a moderate match, though, the hosts would have been crushed. It was that close to calamity. Pakistan were the better side but did not believe it.
We just couldn’t come at how this was even a point. The way I see it, it’s a very well balanced side that can churn out runs with an even spread. They don’t come along very often. Ditto with the bowling. At most, it says the Australian team is not built on the ‘Stars & Scrubs’ model.
I remember those sides in the mid to late 1980s, back when the batting was Allan Border, David Boon and waiting on the potential of the Waugh twins to blossom, plus some serious scrubs. Even with Border mounting many a rescue, those sides lost a lot until the side got more balanced with the addition of the likes of Healy and Tubby Taylor, and then the Waugh twins finally did blossom.
Conversely, I wouldn’t want to count on single big partnerships and momentous innings all the time for a come back. If anything, the way the Australians did it shows the side is quite good and without an obvious weak link. But Mr. Roebuck argues this:
Nathan Hauritz’s contribution was almost as hard to pin down as Hussey’s. Clearly he has improved but he’s not suddenly Jim Laker reincarnate. Rather he is a fine cricketer and a game bowler. But batsmen won’t keep slogging catches to deep fieldsmen. All told, Pakistan lost eight wickets to skied hits.
Suddenly, Hauritz has taken five wickets in consecutive Test matches, results indicating the welcome and unexpected restoration of finger spin and flight. Yet he is no demon. He was never as bad as he seemed, and is not now as good as recent returns indicate.
The same applies to Australia. Alongside the misfiring Marcus North, the top performers seen at the SCG had been regarded as the team’s weakest links. Apart from Brad Haddin’s catch, the highlight of the match was Ponting’s decision to persist with Hauritz after lunch despite his previous over costing 12 runs. Otherwise it was a mixed bag. Did everything change? Or nothing?
Wouldn’t this suggest that the degrees to which the weakest links are considered weak, are a little over-stated? That, maybe the people they’ve selected are good at some aspects of the game enough to warrant their selection? The joke this summer has been that Hauritz has been the replacement level player, and anybody can get a 5 wicket haul once in a while, but the guy’s done it several times in quick succession lately, I think it’s possible he’s getting the hang of playing at the Test level.
Anyway, we all agreed the column was a real headscratcher from a writer we all respected, and wondered if he’s welcome in the Aussie clubhouse at all.
And One More Thing
Here’s another Roebuck column where he suggests Ponting is in decline. Judging from his age, it’s not surprising if he was, but then Allan Border and Steve Waugh played well, well into their late 30s, so I wouldn’t dismiss Ponting just yet.
Anyway, the thing I’ve noticed is the media vitriol against Ponting has been more snarky than when Kim Hughes was Captain and his side kept losing. A lot of it is criticism about his personal style, which I can live with because I don’t care if he’s a bit dismissive to journalists as long as he can play. But this business has been going on some time now and the guys at Puncher And Wattman thought it was because Ponting lost the Ashes in England twice.
It’s kind of weird to be singling out the winningest Test Captain on record and slamming him for the loss ledger. It’s like the practice of American sports journalists where they single out the best player of a team and blame them for a losing season, as if to say they should have been a super-duper star to bail out a bad team from itself all the time – which is the similar kind of analysis to Mr. Roebuck’s above. It’s just absurd.
The proper understanding should be that the Australian side is in a rebuild and it’s going to take some time to shake out the guys who are going to be there for the long haul. The task is harder all the more because Hayden, Langer and Martyn over-stayed their welcome and McGrath and Warne departing in quick succession has meant the side is starting from scratch. The Australian side hasn’t been this young since the Kim Hughes days or the 1980s Border sides before the ’89 Ashes tour. And you have to admit, Ponting has won a bit more than those guys in that era.