By SB Tang
For most of the past 136 years, Australia has stood at the very apex of world cricket. In no other sport has one nation exerted a global dominance so prolonged and consistent across the centuries. For the most successful cricketing nation on earth, the loss of six Test matches in a row — the most recent two against the old enemy — is something of a national crisis. Indeed, the predominantly self-induced dismissals of seven Australian Test batsmen for a little over 100 runs in the space of a single sunny afternoon on a well-baked second day pitch at Lord’s was only marginally less shocking than the dismissal of a democratically-elected federal government by an unelected representative of the Queen. As Mr Mackey, the perennially timid school counsellor at South Park Elementary is fond of saying: “this is bad, mmmkay.”
All crises, particularly those of a national nature, breed anger, recrimination and blame. That is natural and understandable. But the only way that a crisis can be solved is through patience, calm and reason. That is how Australian cricket dragged itself out of its last major trough nearly 20 years ago. Now is the time to heed the lessons learned from that successful recovery.
Many fine cricketers played a part in that recovery and their names are familiar to cricket fans across the globe: Border, Waugh, Boon, Marsh, Jones, Hughes, Taylor, McDermott and Healy. However, perhaps the most vital part in that recovery was played not by a world famous cricketer, but a kindly old Western Australian schoolteacher who’d enjoyed a moderate first-class career as an opening batsman. His name was Lawrie Sawle. One of his first acts upon his appointment as Chairman of Selectors in 1984 was to identify a core group of 16 cricketers whom the selectors would, by and large, stick with. Sawle’s selection panel stayed true to that principle, even in the face of fierce public clamour for change.
Then, as now, the batting was the problem, being disproportionately reliant on the runs produced by one person — the captain. At Eden Park in March 1986, Australia scored just 103 in their second innings on their way to a humiliating eight wicket defeat which sealed their second Test series loss to New Zealand in the space of four months. A 20-year-old by the name of Steve Waugh scored 1 and 0 in that match. It would have been tempting and easy then to apply a scorched earth policy to the malfunctioning Australian batting line-up. Instead, Sawle and his fellow selectors stayed the course and were amply rewarded as their chosen few eventually delivered an age as golden as any in Australia’s history.
That age dawned bright and clear at Headingley in June 1989 when Australia crushed England by 210 runs with a batting line-up which featured four batsmen — Marsh, Boon, Border and Waugh — who participated in the Eden Park debacle. It was there that the 24-year-old Steve Waugh finally scored his maiden Test century — more than 3 years and 26 Tests after his debut. The first person he thanked was not his captain, coach, or future wife, but Sawle, telling him in person at the very next break in play: “Thanks for sticking by me and giving me the chances.” Waugh was, as ever, right to do so for he knew that many men lacking Sawle’s patience and wisdom would have long ago terminated the career of a young all-rounder whose Test batting average didn’t touch 30 until his 23rd Test.
Sawle would later afford the same patience to Waugh’s twin brother Mark throughout the first half of the ’90s. His equally successful successor as Chairman of Australia’s selectors, Trevor Hohns, did likewise throughout the second half of the ’90s with respect to a young Tasmanian prodigy named Ricky Ponting.
Nowadays, the entire cricketing world is familiar with the famous precept issued to Australia’s cricketers throughout the Green and Golden Age: back yourself. But that precept applies equally to the selectors entrusted with the grave responsibility of handpicking those cricketers. If the selectors don’t back their own judgement, then the cricketers, shorn of job continuity and security, are unable to back their natural ability.
Now, in the midst of another dark time for Australian cricket, the responsibility of handpicking the cricketers to restore Australia’s fortunes falls to another kindly old Western Australian schoolteacher who enjoyed a moderate first-class career: John Inverarity.
Despite what the tabloids are saying, the puzzle which now confronts Inverarity is substantially less thorny than that which confronted Sawle two decades ago. In the three year period between the Eden Park debacle and the 1989 Headingley Ashes Test, Allan Border’s Australian team won just two of the seven Test series that they played — a home series against New Zealand and a home series against then minnows Sri Lanka. By contrast, in the two-and-a-half year period between the 2010–11 Ashes defeat and the current Ashes series, Michael Clarke’s Australian team have won four, drawn two and lost two of the eight Test series that they have played. Their two series defeats were a narrow 1-0 loss to South Africa, the number one ranked Test team in the world, and a 4-0 whitewash to India in India, a country where Australia has won a grand total of two Test series in the past 43 years.
Whereas the mid-’80s Australian team was truly consistently mediocre, the current Australian team is merely consistently inconsistent. They were crushed 3-1 at home by England, but then won their very next Test series in Sri Lanka, a feat that proved beyond that very same England side. They were dismissed for 47 in their second innings at Newlands, but less than a week later, at the Wanderers, they chased down 310 in the final innings to win the Test and draw the series. In the last home summer, they outplayed South Africa for the better part of two Tests, and would have won the second Test at the Adelaide Oval had James Pattinson not broken down during the match or Matthew Wade accepted the catch offered by Faf du Plessis on 94, yet they then proceeded to implode to be all out for 163 in their first innings at the WACA to lose the Test and the series.
The ever present element in their poor performances is schoolboy quantum innings totals with the bat — 47 in Newlands, 136 in Bellerive, 163 at the WACA and 128 at Lord’s. This problem was evident even when Ricky Ponting and Mike Hussey were still in the side, as they were at Newlands, Bellerive and the WACA.
The problem is understandable — not since the mid-’80s has a group of young Australian batsmen been forced to find their way at Test level together without the luxury of being eased, one by one, into a well-oiled, Test-hardened batting unit. Steve Waugh’s early career in the mid-to-late ’80s offers an apposite comparison with the recent travails of Phil Hughes, Steve Smith and Usman Khawaja. After his 26th Test, the 23-year-old Waugh still only averaged 30.52 — and that was with the luxury of having never been dropped. The 24-year-old Phil Hughes has just played his 26th Test and averages 32.65 despite having been dropped twice. The 24-year-old Smith and the 26-year-old Khawaja average 29 and 30.09 respectively from a single digit number of Test matches and have already been dropped once each in their brief Test careers. In other words, Smith, Hughes and Khawaja are all performing at approximately the same level that Steve Waugh was at approximately the same stage of his career in similarly difficult circumstances.
Test batsmen take time to mature. Australia’s modern history proves that. Even in the 90s, when Australia had the comfort of a well-functioning batting line-up into which they could inject their new batting talent, batsmen of the calibre of Mark Waugh and Ricky Ponting took years to produce consistently at Test level. Even after their 26th Test, both of them still only averaged in the high-30s. But the selectors trusted in their Shield records, practised the virtue of patience and were richly rewarded in the long-term.
Hughes, Khawaja and Smith are our three best-performed young batsmen. They have compiled their impressive first-class records in an era of bowler-friendly pitches in Australia. They have fought back from being harshly dropped from the Test XI at a young age. They will never be able to reproduce their first-class form at Test level if they are forced to live in constant fear of being dropped.
The brutal, pragmatic reality is this: Australia’s got no-one else. Most of the other batsmen mentioned as potential saviours are members of a “twirtysomething” generation of Australian batsmen with first-class averages mired in the 30s and a single-digit number of first-class hundreds: Rob Quiney, Callum Ferguson, Alex Doolan and Shaun Marsh. Marsh and George Bailey averaged in the teens in the last Australian first-class season.
The Argus Report stated in August 2011: “Players must earn their positions in the time-honoured way of making runs, taking wickets and showing that they are ready to play at the next level”. Hughes, Khawaja and Smith have done that. Now, they must be backed if they are to have any chance of succeeding at Test level. Ricky Ponting hinted as much at the press conference following his last Test match when, after thanking the media for covering his career and the game of cricket, he said: “Some of the young guys now just might need a little bit of patting on the back every now and then … and give ’em a bit of a push along, because it’s a pretty hard thing that we do.”
We could do that. Or, we could embrace short-termism and continue to campaign for the promotion of 30-year-old batsmen with career first-class averages in the mid-30s and a single digit number of first-class hundreds to the Test XI. But then history provides us with a clear and frightening precedent for the end result of such unenlightened policies — England in the 90s.