Australia’s bowlers turn the tables around

Around this time a year ago, Australia were reeling after their second Ashes defeat in a span of three years and their first at home since 1986. A team which was once the world champions and by far the most feared in Test cricket had suddenly become puppets for almost any top opposition.

Ben Hilfenhaus
Ben Hilfenhaus

Leadership-wise, the innings defeat at the Melbourne Cricket Ground was the last for Ricky Ponting, who was so embattled that he had to sit out for the next Test at Sydney handing Michael Clarke his captaincy debut and the young New South Wales batsman, Usman Khawaja a Test cap. Batting-wise, Australia were just not good enough except Michael Hussey as the seniors failed to fire against a fired-up England pace attack.

But it was the bowling which was the main reason of their defeat as there were so many expectations from them. Ben Hilfenhaus picked a wicket in the first over of the Ashes, that of the England captain Andrew Strauss while Peter Siddle got a hat-trick in the first innings at The Gabba. But both of them including Mitchell Johnson, the then-Australian bowling spearhead went woefully out of form, except for a mini revival at Perth where they won the only Test in the 5-match series. In terms of the spin department, they shockingly left out Nathan Hauritz to try the likes of left-armer Xavier Doherty and Michael Beer who were just not competitive at the international level. England took due advantage of their archrival’s bowling conundrum and achieved three innings victories in the series, and that was due to scores above 500. Not to mention the 519/1 in the second innings at Brisbane, where Alastair Cook scored an unbeaten double ton while Trott scored an unbeaten ton to not only save England the Test match, but give them a huge boost when it came to their batting especially.

The World Cup followed and the wounds of the Ashes were still fresh in the players. It was evident with their quarterfinal exit from the tournament and this had to bring about some change in Australian cricket, if nothing else. Ponting promptly resigned as captain from all formats of the game, which if now looked at was a correctly timed decision while Clarke was handed over the captaincy on a permanent basis, his first assignment being a 3-match ODI series in Bangladesh. And perhaps that was the time Australia’s quest to turn things around began to take shape.

The Bangladesh series was won comfortably but it was in Sri Lanka that Australia were impressive, after winning the ODI series 3-2 and the Tests 1-0. Not many would have thought that this Australian side would have beaten the World Cup finalists at home, but it was reality. At the same time, there was the Argus report which primarily mentioned that Australia needs a foreign coach to bring about new idea and work processes in the team, and soon after it was the ex-South African coach Mickey Arthur who was selected as coach succeeding Tim Nielsen.

One year later, and this Australian team seems to be getting back where they actually belong in the world of cricket and a lot more relaxed and settled outfit. The team did have goose bumps in Cape Town and Hobart due to stunning batting collapses, but 2011 was beneficial in the birth of players and bowlers in particular who could be Australia’s future.

On the tour of Sri Lanka, Trent Copeland and Nathan Lyon made their Test debuts. Lyon impressed with a five-wicket haul in his very first spell in Test cricket while Copeland was also decent in his line, length and pace altogether, being able to trouble the Sri Lankan batsmen time and again. Since then, Lyon has been the numero uno spinner in the side having toured South Africa and played all the Test matches in the home summer so far. He has the potential to become the spinner Australia needed to complete the bowling attack and is more wholesome in his bowling than his spin colleagues such as Nathan Hauritz or Xavier Doherty. And looking at Clarke’s leadership and the selection panel, it is likely that Lyon will be persisted with for a long period of time.

While Copeland is not even in contention to make it into the playing XI any time soon, but he has the capacity to bowl at international level and would be handy in case some of the premier quicks get injured. Medium pace with some swing can be effective in the Indian subcontinent especially when Australia will tour India in February 2013 or for that matter play the World T-20 in Sri Lanka in September 2012. If he gets more opportunities, he could be the trump card for Clarke when Australia play the Ashes in England in mid-2013.

Moving on to the tour of South Africa in 2011, it was the young 18-year old Patrick Cummins who made his T-20 and ODI debuts in the absence of Brett Lee while in Tests, he was forced into the team in Johannesburg with an injury to the then declared best bowler in the Test side, Ryan Harris who reveled in Sri Lanka big time. And Cummins grabbed this opportunity to the fullest, especially in Tests where he caught the eyeballs of the cricketing world. His first Test wicket was of the ‘South African Wall’ Hashim Amla and in the second innings, he went on to pick 6 wickets with the wicket of Jacques Kallis being a joy to watch as he set him up beautifully with his pace, which touched close to 150 km/hr on several occasions, and accuracy. And as if that was not enough, it was Cummins who hit the winning runs in a chase of 310, contributing 13 vital runs with a struggling Mitchell Johnson at the other end. What a Test debut to have indeed!

Cummins unfortunately is injured and will be targeting the tour of West Indies to play international cricket again. He has a tremendously bright future ahead of him, with Australia’s fans waiting to see Pat Cummins and James Pattinson open the bowling attack for the team some day. The only question that remains, is that how will Cricket Australia manage to keep him injury-free with a hectic international calendar and let’s not forget, the lure of the IPL which Cummins has shown desire to play in if he gets an opportunity, this year itself.

Talking about Mitchell Johnson, he has struggled in the last three years with his bowling form as his woes began in the 2009 Ashes series in England. Being the prime strike bowler of the side, it was disappointing to see him fail on the big stage twice, counting the home Ashes series as well. The pace has dropped and his line and length seem more wayward than before, which actually is as good as playing for the opposition. He is not the same bowler as he was in the tour of South Africa in 2009, as he was venomous in his pace and he demoralized the South African batsmen so much that rookie bowlers then such as Siddle and Hilfenhaus benefitted too, and consequently Australia won that series 2-1.

Johnson despite reaching the age of 30 can never be ruled out though, of contention of making a comeback into international strength as he adds immense value to Australia’s bench strength, especially because he can bat as well and not just bowl. He should look to play in the IPL this year to make a statement and if he is selected in the World T-20 squad, we could see the rebirth of Johnson and these would be healthy signs for Australia.

But now it is fair to say, ‘No Johnson, no problem’. It is because of the arrival of James Pattinson who burst onto the international scene in the very first Test of the Australian summer, and what better than to pick a five-wicket haul in the second innings against archrivals New Zealand. Pattinson had already made his ODI debut in Bangladesh but his true potential has been spotted in the last two months with his vicious pace and swing, capable of troubling any batsman in the world. And to prove that his successful Test debut was no fluke, he picked 11 wickets in 2 Tests against a much powerful Indian batting line-up, picking the wickets of all the top six batsmen at least once.

Pattinson like Cummins is also injured now but is likely to make a return soon. He is considered to be the fittest bowlers in Australian cricket these days. However, he is even more vulnerable to play the IPL as he already possesses a contract with the Kolkata Knight Riders to play for the next two years, as he was auctioned in 2011 but did not play a single match. Australia now only have to decide whether how many ODIs and T-20s should Pattinson and Cummins play as their aim is certainly to improve their Test rankings which has fallen drastically since 2008 and to ensure that these two turn out in Australian colours on a frequent basis.

While the discussion about Australia’s young bowlers will continue as long as India wilt further in the Test series, Mitchell Starc has also made headlines in the last few months. Just as Cummins, he too was first spotted in the cricketing world in the Champions League 2011 and he drew instant comparisons with Mitchell Johnson with their bowling actions and to an extent physiques being almost identical. The left-armer though, made his ODI debut in Vishakapatnam against India in 2010 but did not draw much attention because of the Ashes which was coming up.

However, he was noticed on his Test debut at Brisbane against the Kiwis with the key wickets of the explosive duo of Brendon McCullum and Jesse Ryder in the first innings even though the two wicket-taking balls were not the best Starc can bowl. He picked two more wickets in his next Test but Australia have a dearth of bowling resources that he was not selected for the Boxing Day Test against India. He missed out in Sydney as well but fate was on his side when Pattinson got injured and Starc came in as the fourth bowler to play at the WACA in Perth, as Michael Clarke opted for an all-pace attack. So far, he has picked four wickets in the match and more are likely to come with his awkward angle, swing and bounce making it hard for Indian batsmen to fight it out. Gautam Gambhir and Sachin Tendulkar notably were his victims today.

Starc may not make it into the Test playing XI regularly, with Siddle, Pattinson, Cummins and Lyon likely to be Australia’s settled bowling attack once all of them are 100% fit. But he has a chance to make it into the shorter formats of the game as he has this knack of picking up wickets if he is at his menacing best, much like Johnson. And forget Clarke, any captain for that matter would love to have a wicket-taking bowler in his side, especially in ODIS and T-20s. He should aim to cement a place in the team and is likely to, with Brett Lee’s future unpredictable as his fitness and bowling form remain questionable.

This was about the young, inexperienced brigade of bowlers. But when it comes to being a little older and experienced, there are bowlers to mentor the youngsters and lead from the front. Peter Siddle is one of them. The Victorian is a fiercely aggressive competitor and in the current Australian Test side, he is the highest wicket-taker of all bowlers. The ongoing Perth Test is the 30th Test of his career, and has 106 wickets to his name at the end of today’s play. He made his Test debut in 2008 in Mohali on the tour of India, and had the prized scalp of Sachin Tendulkar as his first Test victim. Since then, he has picked the maestro’s wicket several times and memorably, twice in the recent Sydney Test match.

It shows that he has the attitude to excel especially in the longest format of the game, if he just stays injury-free. Siddle has had a bumpy ride in his international career so far with a forgetful Ashes 12 months ago, despite his Gabba hat-trick, his exclusion from the World Cup squad in 2011 and an average tour of South Africa a few months ago. Yet, he has made a strong comeback against India with 15 wickets in the series so far, producing consistent performances even if those have not grabbed the limelight. He is likely to continue his demolition job to other batsmen in the world since Ryan Harris is prone to injury while the youngsters are nascent to international cricket.

Although he relies more on swing to pick wickets, he is no mut when it comes to pace and if he works on that element slightly, he could be dangerous on any turf which would make even more wholesome as a bowler. He is 27 only, and still has years ahead of him to be a Glenn McGrath which Australia needs so badly.

The eighth bowler on this list has to be Ryan Harris. Harris is 32 years old and burly, but can steam in when he is coming to bowl and relies on seam movement, which is bad news for a batsman who is about to face his bowling. Harris has had his moments in international cricket so far, with his six-wicket haul against England at Perth in the Ashes last year and being the highest wicket-taker on the tour of Sri Lanka last year. But he has only appeared in eight Test matches and seventeen one-day internationals due to his terrible fitness levels, and that is the reason Australia is mulling to make him an ‘only-Test player’.

He plays in the IPL for the Kings XI Punjab and that is a sign of concern and perhaps the reason why Harris has not appeared for Australia in more matches than he should have. With age not on his side and money being prioritized, it will be one of the saddest stories of Australian cricket if Harris is not guided well by Cricket Australia for he could be a big weapon for Australia in the next 3-4 years, until he decides to quit the game.

And last not but the least is the man who has made the most ‘glorious return’ this summer. It is none other than Ben HIlfenhaus, who was out of contention from the team after a poor Ashes last year and his form prior to that as well. He was a part of the side for approximately two years but was not the threatening bowler that we are seeing now. ‘Hilfy’, as he is affectionately called did not lose hope and instead went back to domestic cricket to work hard to eradicate his shortcomings and emerged as a much potent bowler. This season, he has done extremely well for Tasmania and his rise alongside Ed Cowan’s is the reason why the team is winning often in the Sheffield Shield. But coming back to Hilfenhaus, his consistent performances rewarded with almost a straight entry into the Australian side for the Melbourne Test against India, even as the team management pondered on the defeat to New Zealand prior to the Test and if they should have retained Mitchell Starc or not.

And he did not disappoint one bit. Fans at the MCG had their money’s worth to see an inspired spell of bowling from him on the morning of the third day, with Hilfenhaus rattling ‘The Wall’ Rahul Dravid’s off-stump with a terrific outswinger, followed by scalps of Virat Kohli, MS Dhoni and Ishant Sharma and he had picked the wicket of Gautam Gambhir on the second day, This made it a 5-wicket haul for him in his first Test for Australia in almost a year and this is no small achievement. Following that, he has bowled his heart out as the pace and swing have returned, forming a deadly combination and especially for the Indian batsmen to face. He already has 20 wickets in the series, making him the highest wicket-taker so far and he is expected to pick more as he is in red-hot form with the new ball.

He has picked 70 wickets in 19 Tests he has played so far, and being just 28 he has the capacity to have many more with a long career ahead of him. He is lanky and he could look to work on bowling more short-pitched deliveries to be more threatening. Yet, credit cannot be taken away from him for coming back stronger and sharper a cricketer and he is almost impossible to be counted out of the Test team again, and he compounds Australia’s dilemma of picking usually three pacers for a Test match which is actually a good dilemma!

All these nine bowlers also can bat if required. Lyon top-scored in the second innings at Cape Town when Australia were at a disastrous 21 for 9 and somehow took them to 47. Copeland batted a bit in Sri Lanka but has proved it in domestic cricket that he can be a bowling all-rounder in the future. Cummins’ batting abilities were seen in South Africa, although still it is way too early to judge him.

Johnson as we all know has hit a couple of fifties and hundreds in both Tests and ODIs, and can be the ideal No.8 for Australia if he realizes that his team needs him as a bowling all-rounder and not a batting all-rounder. Pattinson showed brilliant technique in the second innings of the Melbourne Test where he scored 37 runs, despite the fact that he was helped by Dhoni’s defensive captaincy to a certain extent. Starc hit 15 runs in the ongoing Perth Test in the first innings off just 27 balls and remained not out till the end, which included three fours.

Peter Siddle has improved his batting in recent times and he has been able to occupy one end of the crease, if not score runs and that is also vital in Test cricket. Harris is also a powerful striker of the ball and he uses his physique well to do so, having a highest first-class score of 94. While Hilfenhaus has scored a 56 against Pakistan at Lords in 2010 and is an unpredictable No.11 to have sometimes.

Well, well we can see that Australia may not be the champions as of now, but they could return to where belonged over the years as bowlers eventually prove to be the difference between two teams and they could finally learn to live without the likes of Glenn McGrath, Jason Gillespie, Shane Warne and Brett Lee (in Tests). This makes Clarke’s life as captain much easier and finally the team can be a well-settled one and out of the transition phase which has lasted for five years now.


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