Mere hours after Australia took their warm-up series against South Africa 2-1, Dan McGrath provides a more pessimistic assessment of their chances in the World T20.
Eden Park is packed. Ricky Ponting has smashed it all over the place, near-unstoppable as he takes Australia to a dominating total. Only Brendon McCullum and Scott Styris show any real fight for the hosts, as Australia coast to a comfortable win. Glenn McGrath has 1/48 as he lines up to deliver the last ball.
But he hasn’t bowled 9.5 overs. Rather, he’s bowled 3.5. He lines up the final ball, but there’s no run up. He walks to the crease and threatens an underarm. Billy Bowden pulls out a red card. The crowd boos; the players laugh. McGrath delivers properly. Kyle Mills, clad in beige, holes out to long on. Australia win by 44 runs.
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Australia have never planned well for Twenty20 cricket; they’ve never taken it seriously, never transcended the pure entertainment that was the 2005 game. They’ve never known their ideal combination, never devised adequate game plans or tactics, never bothered to appreciate the different demands Twenty20 cricket places on cricketers and their skills.
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Vikram Solanki walks to the middle of the Rose Bowl. He’s batting at eight, one place below the just-dismissed Andrew Strauss. There are ten balls remaining in the innings; he faces half of them in five minutes at the crease, scrambling nine runs before smacking McGrath directly to Michael Hussey. At the end of the innings, the scorecard reads 179. Sixty-four minutes later (give or take an innings break), they’ve won by 100 runs. Jon Lewis takes 4-fer.
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Australia have never lacked talent in their World Twenty20 squads. In 2007, they were overflowing with experience, and they’d just won the ODI World Cup. By 2009, the T20 generation was beginning — David Warner had become a superstar. In 2010 they had pace, rocking some combination of Lee/Johnson/Tait/Nannes. In 2012 it was the Shane Watson show, and the 2014 team looked near-unstoppable on paper.
Yet every single tournament, Australia’s brilliant individuals combine, forming a team significantly less than the sum of their parts. It is truly remarkable how a team filled with so much talent consistently finds bizarre ways to underperform so badly.
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Gilchrist. Hayden. Ponting. Symonds. Hussey. Hodge. Haddin. Lee. Johnson. Bracken. Clark. Not a weak link amongst them; an XI that has everything — experience, explosiveness, raw talent, maturity, and an overly egocentric Victorian batsman. Less than six months prior, they went unbeaten in the ODI World Cup in the West Indies — extending an unbeaten run that began way back in 1999.
After four overs, they’ve lost the first three names. There are 19 runs on the board. Chigumbura and Brent are the destroyers. Symonds and Hodge eke them to respectability — a total of 138. The rest is history. Brendon Taylor, the everyman of Zimbabwean cricket, single-handedly chases it down with a ball to spare.
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Leading into a World Twenty20 tournament, Australia are always a difficult team to analyse. Every time, you expect them to turn the corner — for everything to finally fall into place, for those mistakes of tournaments past to finally be addressed. As usual, there’s no shortage of talent. But it feels like the same old shit. Another game to be lost when it should have been won. Another mercurial prodigy to fail to deliver on their promise when it matters most.
The planning in the lead-up to this tournament has been shambolic. They trialled 19 players in their thumping 0-3 loss to India that concluded the home summer. Only nine of them will get on the plane. They could not bat, they could not bowl, and their fielding was not up to scratch. The only bright point was Shane Watson, who slammed 124 in Sydney while acting as captain, and provided a consistent seam bowling option throughout the series.
And it’s entirely possible that Watson will not bat in his best position — opening the innings. Of the batting selections, there are four openers — Warner, Khawaja, Finch and Watson — with Steve Smith best at #3 and Maxwell performing better higher up the order. There is no balance; someone will be forced to bat out of position, and the team will once more be less than the sum of its parts. Even now, the selectors have toyed with the idea of moving David Warner to #4 and outright dropping Aaron Finch — the established opening partnership destroyed mere weeks before the beginning of the tournament.
The man best suited to batting at #5 is George Bailey. He will not be making the trip to India, despite his fantastic BBL form and consistent ODI output. He can consider himself thoroughly unlucky.
On the bowling front, Josh Hazlewood will lead the bowling attack. Prior to the South Africa warm-up series, he had not played Twenty20 cricket in over two years. Nathan Coulter-Nile, who has battled injuries in his right shoulder for the past year, was picked without having played a competitive game since his most recent injury — and the selectors are indicating he’s a certain starter, on the back of two days of Sheffield Shield cricket. James Faulkner is woefully out of touch with both bat and ball, though is clearly worth persisting with given his match winning abilities. John Hastings oscillates between being abjectly pedestrian and a competent death bowler, seemingly at random. Of course, the team has been rocked by injuries and retirements — Mitchell Starc is comfortably the best white-ball bowler in the world, while Mitchell Johnson’s combination of fiery pace and slingy, grippy cutters makes him a high quality T20 bowler. Alongside the perennially-injured Pat Cummins, Australia has essentially lost their entire first-choice pace attack.
The selection of Andrew Tye is, however, positive, even if his results against India were far from good — a solitary wicket while conceding nearly 10 runs per over. His form in the BBL, in addition to his variations that are brilliantly suited to death bowling on marginally slower, lower Indian pitches, are hints that he’s worthwhile investing in. And more importantly, the recognition of Tye is indicative that the Australian selectors are taking the idea of T20 specialists far more seriously. For this tournament, it may be too little, too late.
And as for the spin department, well, Ashton Agar and Adam Zampa didn’t have a single T20i behind them when the squad was named. Cameron Boyce has been inexplicably dropped despite being the only passable specialist bowler against India — the selectors have obviously not heard the maxim that if it’s not broken, there’s little reason to fix it.
Twenty20 cricket is Mitchell Marsh’s weakest format — his natural length is easier to get after, and, while he hits the ball long and clean, he takes time to get settled with the bat. It is difficult to see how he would fit into the team’s balance, especially when the side is so desperately lacking a middle order ‘closer’ or ‘finisher’ with the bat.
The decision to drop Matthew Wade, however, is a good one. He’s another batsman unsuited to the role he’d be asked to play — a Twenty20 #6 or #7 Wade is not — and his glovework is far from international standard. With a top order filled with big names, no shortage of all-rounders, and fast bowlers who can all hit a long cricket ball, the decision to channel the early 1900s with a non-batting wicketkeeper is a genuinely good decision. Peter Nevill would likely be the first to admit that he’s an atrocious Twenty20 lower order batsman — his strength has always laid in crease occupation and accumulation, not slogging DLF maximums from the first ball he faces. But he is comfortably the best wicketkeeper in the country, by far. In the long term, the place should be used to blood Sam Whiteman, introducing him into international cricket while Nevill focuses on his red-ball strengths. But for a one-off selection in a major tournament, one held in the subcontinent where glovework will be vital, Nevill is a fantastic choice — though he should be batting at #10, not #7.
When Australia makes it to India, they will not be facing teams clad in retro uniforms, with fake afros, dodgy sweatbands and terry-towelling hats. They will be facing highly settled, professional cricketing outfits filled with players who have clear roles, and the skills to carry out those roles. Twenty20 is not a game won on pure talent, despite its hit-and-giggle facade. It is technically and tactically complex, a game which, to use that oft-repeated cliche, rewards champion teams, not teams of champions.
So don’t be surprised if Australia can’t get out of their group.