18 December 2013

The Baggy Green team that regained the urn

I wrote many times that we would win the Ashes. I noted that if our batting clicked into place we would win as it would give our bowlers consistent opportunities to defend totals of competitive substance, rather than defend totals in desperate attempts to stay in the game. Consistency was a key, as was self-belief, balancing experience and upcoming players. Fortunately, this time around it occurred and it proved the theory, finally.

However, having stated this I will also be honest that I did go into this Ashes series with few expectations, reserving this execution of a winning recipe to be handled by our team day by day. No expectations creates a better platform for a team with a new coach reigniting the concept of pride and fun for the players and supporters. I kept this in mind and now in hindsight I am glad I took this approach with my writing in the build up to this series.

Here is my article looking at the team that has led us to an Ashes victory in 2013. More discussion via the Facebook page.

I had zero objections with this side heading into the Ashes. I wanted an unchanged unit because, as the word "unit" intends, unity comes from consistent selection policies. This was followed and as a result this team is the most united Australian team in many years. Even before we took that final wicket to bring the urn back (although not officially form Lord's) there was a strong sense of unity amongst the team. It's so uplifting.

Mitchell Johnson (23 wickets at 15.47, BBI 7-40, BBM 9-103/ 147 runs at 49.00, HS 64) has been praised for his performances. It seems as if he is the only man in this team though. I think this is both unfair and hypocritical on the media's behalf. Mitch has been treated like trash from the media in particular in the past. The way it's being portrayed by them (the media) one would think his efforts, while absolutely remarkable and rare to witness (Brisbane & Adelaide), were the only occurrence of excellence this Ashes series.

I am so proud of Mitch. I cannot emphasise this enough. There is no shame on my part that a few years back I wrote an article that the gap between his best (match winning) and worst was too great for the harsh nature of Test cricket. He is a confidence player and in a team environment with constant change and high expectation on him to show up like the star player, game in game out, was unfair and harsh upon his character. It was not enough to develop him. Limited overs cricket was a much better platform for him to rebuild his confidence for two reasons.

Firstly, it is a form of the game that is not as harsh a reality as Test cricket, allowing shorter bursts and erratic bowling spells to still produce erratic results. This came to light during Mitchell's IPL stints then his tour to India a few months ago.

Secondly, it would give him chance to still be a member of the Australian Cricket team and also allow him time to balance limited overs duty with State duty to rebuild his confidence across a variety of formats and realign both his focus and objectives. This was to return as a Test cricketer with performances to back his return and of course win an Ashes series to put away all that criticism and degrading he had to endure.

The time away from the game at the elite level was the best thing for him and now we see Mitchell Johnson, confident, refreshed, focused, settled, but most importantly backed by both a united team and bowling attack. The leadership is strong and Mitch is thriving. The environment is better able to accommodate his bowling nature. The results say it all. Welcome back mighty Mitch!

Despite this return, Mitch was backed by a consistent bowling unit consisting of Ryan Harris, Peter Siddle, Shane Watson and Nathan Lyon. Their input made Mitchell's performances possible and they all played a massive role in the result that sees us 3-0 up. That is why I find it unfair to put it all on Mitch, which also creates unfair expectation on him - a reason that led to his initial fall from great (media) heights. Time for people to get some perspective on what is a team sport and what was a bloody special team effort it has been!

Ryan Harris (12 wickets at 23.58/ 76 runs at 38.00, HS 55*) suffers through grueling body aches and the fear he could break down at any point. He still continues to take his catches, dive in the field, save boundaries, train hard, and above all do his primary job which is to charge in and bowl a ball around 140 - 145 km/h with swing. He hasn't been red hot but he's contributed, notably removing Alastair Cook for a golden duck at the WACA in England's 2nd innings. Cook was coming off a well fought half-century in the 1st innings and Ryano ensured the most beautiful delivery ended his contribution for the Test. It was massive.

Peter Siddle (11 wickets at 22.09) gets criticised, at times justifiably, for his lack of variation. Where he makes up for the tricks of the trade, is a burning ambition to succeed and unrivaled passion to play for the Baggy Greens.

When a track is dead, he finds something out of nothing on many decks and is able to bowl a line that probes and attacks a batsman whether they decide to defend or attack. He keeps coming at you and in times when the opportunities look slim he can pull out enough energy to pick the troops back up.

There is evidence that in times when desperately needed he hasn't been able to put in significant performances, but for Siddle to succeed you need bowlers around him with good pace, natural variation and a strong understanding of their duties. This is why he may appear the leader of the pack with a younger bowling unit, but they lack the experience and understanding Mitchell and Ryano have. With these factors he can play with greater significance. A few years back the combination with Ryano and Ben Hilfenhaus against India further proved this theory of mine.

He is a work horse and teams need those men. We have Siddle and this man was able to work over Kevin Pietersen - England's danger man - to the point where we have contained KP and the English critics want him gone. He has also rattled Matt Prior and these bunnies essentially add to the psychological demolition of the opposition. Personal battles but successful to come back to the concept of synergy. Sids is a big player and it's hard to not select him on this basis.

Nathan Lyon (10 wickets at 31.40) was only ever going to succeed through consistent selection. The more he bowls the better he gets, the more pitches he plays on, the more it forces him to look at his abilities (or enhance them). He initiated the collapse of England's batsmen yesterday and as a result we won the Ashes quicker than anticipated heading into the lunch break. It was a passage of play that may have defined him, just as Steve Smith's century in the 1st innings was a coming of age, the innings that has ultimately become his career defining moment.

Nathan took a 5fer on debut. He has struggled too, don't get me wrong. Many felt he didn't deliver when needed, but he has always been the right man for the job and until you've played as a spinner in multiple conditions against the best of the best, along with a winning team, it is a bloody tough initiation. He has come out on top and John Inverarity and his panel deserve the respect for this. We lacked consistency from the awful Hilditch regime and we have had this with the one position we were lost on. The spin bowler.

To add to Nathan's success as a spinner, a solid wicket keeper is needed. Enter Brad Haddin (15 catches, 325 runs at 65.00, HS 118, x1 century & x3 fifties from 5 innings) who, like Mitchell, was facing a high hill to return.

Matt Wade deserved his opportunities for us, I have no doubt about it. He had ticked all the boxes to make the Australian side and entered the mix at a time when Brad was going through a horrible time off the field which brought his game into a state of demise. His standards were low and it was not his time. Every player has a period of pain and this was his - sadly with personal matters as well which he fought through strongly for his family. That was the ultimate victory for Brad. Forget cricket.

Yet, when Matt Wade started to show chinks in his armor and Tim Paine still on the mend after his finger injury, Brad reawakened and raised the benchmark higher than his standards have been in years. The result was a keeper/batsman of an elite standards. Forget Adam Gilchrist, what you have seen here is a performance that most teams would give anything for from their keeper. Brad has delivered and he saw the opportunity for a return and made it count big time.

His keeping to Nathan Lyon's bowling was brilliant, with a technique Ian Healy waxed lyrical about from the outset. This has aided Nathan's output immensely and for this Hads must be added to the reward we have seen from our spinner. It is also a reason why Hads is, at present, my stand out player of the series.

His batting has been Michael Hussey like. He has stepped up when the team was in desperate need of a big innings and he's crushed England's winning edge, which in previous years would have not materialised. He's executed rescue missions and shown belief in our lower order.
A century at the Adelaide Oval, a near miss in Brisbane, performances in every other innings and then his partnership with Steven Smith in the 1st innings of the WACA Test. It all points to invaluable input with the bat from our keeper. England have not had this and it's been another huge difference between the teams.

Brad Haddin has been sensational and enhanced other players performances. Synergy once again.

Our batting has been hit and miss at times (a few small collapses requiring some remedy) but consistent in the fact that every single batsman, including newbie George Bailey, has stepped up as opposed to just Michael Clarke, which has been the case for too long.

David Warner (457 runs at 91.40, x2 centuries, HS 124) has become the top order destroyer we have missed since Matthew Hayden. He will have his blue patches but his cockiness has been most appreciated and his self-belief nothing but extraordinary when consider what this man went through off the field in recent months. It's been a personal relationship off the field that has helped him through this dark passage in his career and now look. It's a great sporting story.

He's been brutal with the bat and has now bagged two centuries, along with some high class fielding standards - another major difference between the two sides. Catches win matches but they also separate teams in terms of standards. Mike Young is back in the mix and his impact has been noticed.

Chris Rogers (156 runs at 26.00, 4 catches) hasn't scored a century but I don't care. I called for his selection in 2009, as I did now in 2013 before the English Ashes series. We needed to stick with him and once again the selectors have done so. He is the ideal partner for David Warner at the crease. He has experience, a well grounded game, and is able to quite likely put the right advice and encouragement into David Warner's mind in the battle zone.

I said I had few expectations heading into this series but right now I do have expectations of Chris to deliver big time in the final two Tests. I see a place for him in this team while Phillip Hughes continues to dominate the State field, and young batsmen like Nic Maddinson, Joe Burns, and Jordan Silk fine tune their craft for a while longer.

Chris, like Ryan Harris and Brad Haddin, realised that this was his final chance to quite likely be a member of a winning Ashes series. Ryano and Hads have endured one too many and now they have it. This was evident in the emotion Ryano displayed during the post-match celebration as his voice cracked and he held back the tears of relief. A raw moment in this harsh but great game.

Michael Clarke (331 runs at 55.16, x2 centuries), well, not much to write on this front as I have blurted it all before. He is our best batsman, recently winning the 2013 ICC Cricketer and Test Player of the Year awards.
He has executed his tactics well, rotated his bowlers on song, and he's used his referrals far better than the previous series with the DRS. Up until the match was won, Clarkey was the only player to have experienced a winning Ashes series. Now he is the leader of a winning Ashes campaign and he can be mighty proud of that coming in his 100th Test match.

Steven Smith (186 runs at 37.20, HS 111, 5 catches) had his coming of age with his century in the 3rd Test. He turned his public profile around in England, improving his reputation as a middle order batsman, specialist fielder and part-time spin bowler, as opposed to the variety of tags given to him upon his early Test appearances which did him more damage than good. He was all over the place as to what role he should play but once again, thanks to the selection panel and some brilliant performances from Steven for New South Wales, his position has been clarified.

He put in the performances at State level, which followed an Ashes campaign where we saw his drastic turnaround in his indentity as an Australian cricketer. It is still a very long road ahead for him and time is well on his side to become a solid Australian batsman. Below is what I had to write regarding his century of 111 runs.

It was about Steven Smith's century though which saw him roar in triumph to see his team through to stumps. A man given his Baggy Green too soon with an undefined role, has stepped back and crafted his own game over time. He is now becoming a Test batsman.

Well done youngster, well done!

The innings, from what I have analysed, was a mature one, seeing him leave many deliveries that needn't be played or were simply too tempting to nudge, and then picking the right ones to blaze away with no complacency. He didn't deliver in a dull moment, he did so when we seriously needed it. His pitch map tells a tale too, how many deliveries on a good length were simply dot balls. Patience folks, patience.

This was a massive moment, alive and fuming, demanding Smith to be the master and control it. He needed to secure it and he did so. This is about winning back the Ashes and in the past these small victories in these passages of play have not been present - or have come too late. This is day 1 against an English team low on confidence. This century could prove to be something very significant.

Then there is George Bailey (136 runs at 34.00, HS 53, 6 catches). Put into the team on the basis of limited overs form in India where he lead the side and dominated with the bat. It was a strange selection basis given his first class stats didn't quite stack up but he does have experience, and a good characteristic is he always has a smile on his face, loves his cricket and tries his best.

He took his catches for us, tried to play aggressive cricket - the brand the team is publicly promoting - and even found himself smashing James Anderson around the WACA to level with Brian Lara's most runs scored off an over in Test cricket - 28 runs.

Then finally there's Shane Watson (200 runs at 33.33, x1 100, x1 50, HS 103, 3 wickets) who found himself under fire for once again making starts and not converting or finding ways to gift away his wicket. Fortunately for Watto's confidence he was delivering maiden overs for us (35% of his overs have been maidens with an economy rate of 2.73) and has found ways to build pressure from his end just taking pace of the ball to keep the batsmen in no mans land, while also scrapping 3 wickets.

His batting came out with the desired result. A century with some big powerful shots. Although we were well ahead of England we still needed something else on the back of David Warner's ton, an innings that would crush England's presence on the field. Watto's innings did so and it was a spectacle to behold.

Shane Watson does have a poor conversion rate, he's never lived up to the potential that he definitely possesses and he knows it. Unfortunately, he has endured injury issues since his teenage years which has affected him but, as Brett Lee did so, he has found ways to reinvent himself and come back time and time again. That takes serious mental toughness. He finally has experienced winning as Ashes series and delivered when the team needed him too. Some may say one occasion too few, but I also say better late than never on the cricket field.

Watto is also one of the most respectful players come the supporters. Always taking time to talk to them, greet them, listen to them and play his role off the field with those who show up to back the team. This has always made me wish him all the success possible for our team. He's shown up in the Ashes and that is what has counted most.

After all I have written above, essential the differences between the sides is easily noticed in short:

- we had a bowling unit with more pace,
- we had a strike bowler high on confidence,
- a bowling unit with enough variation (well mentored by Craig McDermott),
- a wicket keeper showcasing elite standards who helped enhance our spin bowlers output
- our top order found centurions (7 versus England's 1 - Ben Stokes)
- we held our catches and had unbelievable intensity in the field versus England
- and of course this aggressive brand of cricket was backed by home support on home turf. 

We still have two Tests to play, followed by a series against South Africa, in South Africa. This means that even though this is a special feeling to have regained the urn and one to embrace, there is a hell of a lot of hard work ahead for the players and the supporters and we shouldn't get too far ahead. This game can change very quickly.

They (the team) need our support to continue through the highs and the lows. They know the battle goes on and that for now the focus is 5-0 and a continual push for consistency as come the series against South Africa, we may have the urn but they have the number one Test ranking, something we dearly want. More about this come the eve of that series, but for now it is just wonderful to see my team united and playing positive cricket.

When one man has a tough day, another man is fighting his hardest to have a beauty of a day. And best of all is that man who has the tough day is getting the support from his team mates and the coach, Darren Lehman. We, as the supporters, need to back them all and let's just hope that concept of unity continues to grow. It's great to have the winning edge again, embrace it and enjoy it.

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