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Saturday, December 11, 2010

My views on Australian bowling attack


                          Can Australia find another Merv Hughes?

Since Australia's debacle at Adelaide, I have kept reading Sky commentators like Hussain, Atherton and co. or even other experts stressing on the fact that as Australia don't have McGrath and Warne in their ranks, they are now a second rate side. Having watched Australia's domination for the past two decades, I wonder whether that statement is true? Throughout the late 80's and early 90's when they were a good side, or during the later part of the 90's and in the last decade when Aus were a great side, I always believed that strength of Australian bowling attack was whenever the main bowlers like McDermott, McGrath, Warne  and co. got injured, or were slightly out of form, the back up bowlers would step up-to the plate and lead the bowling attack. In-fact, Australia always seem to have a rich tradition of producing bowlers, who may not be talented, but always have a big heart which in turn helped them to perform well even when Australia fielded a depleted side and they were forced to lead the attack.

During the last two decades, Australia have continued the rich tradition of producing bowlers, who seemed to be ready to even bang their heads to a concrete wall for the sake of their team. Seamers like Hughes, Kasper, Fleming, Reiffel and Bichel were nowhere in the class of McGrath, or not even in the class of Dizzy, Reid, McDermott and Lee, but no one can point a finger at them for lack of effort. All the above mentioned bowlers had big hearts who could do the donkey's work of bowling with a older ball and if needed, could easily lead the attack in the absence of main bowlers.

In this article, I would look at a few lion-hearted bowlers Australia has produced during the last two decades and how can the Aussies again have a bowling attack that can take twenty wickets.


Merv Hughes- When the Victorian fast bowler first came onto the scene during the 86/87 Ashes series most experts reckoned that it would be his first and last Ashes series as he was rubbish. Big Merv though, just kept proving his critics wrong and ended up with more than 200 wickets to his name. Actually, if I think about his run-up, his action, or the way he behaved, he came across as a bull in a China shop, but Oh! god, he was mighty effective as a bowler. He forged a great partnership with the Queenslander McDermott during the late 80's and early 90's. If McDermott was around, Hughes would act as the back-up seamer, but as soon Billy the Kid got injured, he easily took up the mantle of being the attack leader.

In 88/89 against the all conquering West Indies side, the big Merv suddenly had to lead the attack as there was no McDermott. Worse was to follow as Lawson got struck on his jaw by a lifting delivery from the giant Ambrose and had to be carried out of the ground on a stretcher. Our man Hughes though, didn't let the team down as he bowled 73.1 overs in that match and took 13 wickets for 217 runs! He seemed to thrive when he was confronted with a challenge as he was pitted against the all conquering West Indies side and in the second innings, Aussies were left with just three bowlers because of the injury to Lawson. Hughes rose to the occasion like a Trojan by doing well in adverse circumstances as he improved upon his first innings performance by taking 8 for 87 in the second innings. The proverb when the going gets tough, the tough gets going can be aptly used to describe the big Merv.

In-fact, his 13 wicket haul against the great West Indies side also included a hat-trick though no one seemed to have noticed it as couple of his wickets came in the first innings and his third wicket came during the first ball of the second innings. Anyway, his efforts didn't help Australia from crashing to another defeat against the Windies side, but Hughes proved to everyone that he could be relied upon to raise his game even against the best. In 1990/91, he again raised his game against the marauding Windies team by taking 19 wickets. In that series, none other than Hughes and McDermott took more than 10 wickets. The next best were part-timers like Mark Waugh and Allan Border. Even during the 93 Ashes series, it wasn't just Warne  who did the damage, but in the absence of the injured McDermott, Hughes led the seam attack by taking 30 odd wickets. Hughes was never a purists delight, but he was a man with a big heart.

Kasprowicz- When I first saw the Queenslander in 96/97, I thought he wasn't test standard and would soon fade away from scene. I was though completely wrong as the same Kasper went onto play seventeen of his tests on the barren tracks of the subcontinent and took his wickets at under 30 on those flat tracks.

Kasper first showed his class at Edgbaston against England in 97. On the face of it, the Aussies had a star studded bowling attack as the likes of McGrath, Warne and Dizzy were playing, but in reality none of them were at their best during that test match. It is strange but true that for once McGrath and Warne bowled like mere mortals. On the other hand, Dizzy was troubled by a shoulder injury and could only bowl ten overs. In-fact, that was the only match in which I saw the slightly underrated McGrath looking lost for ideas.  It didn't stop our man Kasper from trying hard though, as in-spite of Australian attack suddenly looking like a one man attack, Kasper toiled hard by bowling 40 overs and took four wickets at an economy rate of under three. It didn't stop England from cruising to a fantastic ten wicket win, but thanks to Kasper and brave fightback by the batsmen in the second innings, Australia weren't humiliated like we saw at Adelaide.

Kasper's best spells perhaps came in India in 98. With McGrath and Dizzy out of the side due to injuries and Tendulkar's  brutal assault on Warne made sure that the inexperienced Kasper suddenly became the number one bowler. On unresponsive tracks of the subcontinent, Tendulkar took a heavy toll on Kapser as well. Poor Kapser, as especially during Tendulkar's epic knock at Chennai, it seemed like every-time Kapser bowled to SRT, the ball would just disappear into stands, but Kasper kept running in and maintained decent pace throughout the series. Finally, he was rewarded for his hard-wrok as Kasper took a five wicket haul at Bangalore. His ability to bowl at consistent pace and the reverse swing he extracted from that surface helped him to get a five wicket haul. Kasper's average during that series  just won't tell the true story, as leaving a few decent spells by the novice off-spinner Robertson, it was a one man attack. Poor Kasper is said to have lost six kilos during that series.

Kasper's efforts in that series though, unfortunately made the selectors to think of him as a subcontinental specialist as he went onto play seventeen of his 38 tests in the subcontinent. Kasper didn't lose heart as later on  in his career, he played a key role in Australia's three nil thrashing of Lanka in 03/04. McGrath was injured and they needed someone to open the bowling with Dizzy and in Kasper they found the right man as he took twelve wickets at just 25. Fans talk about how good Warne was in that series, but the series result could have been different if Kasper hadn't led the seam attack by not just taking twelve wickets, but by also restricting the batsmen from scoring runs on unresponsive tracks for the seamers.

In 2004/05, when Australia won a historic series in India, both Dizzy and McGrath rightly were showered with praises for their superlative bowling in the subcontinent. The fact though is, without Kasper's ability to bowl with the older ball, Australia may not have won the series. In a sense, he did all the donkey's work by bowling with a soft ball in the middle overs. His strike rate of over 70 during that series was nothing to write home about, but his bowling average of 28.33 and  his E/R  of just 2.35 tells us that without him, Australia may have struggled as it is one helluva task to bowl with the older ball under severe heat in the subcontinent. At Adelaide, Punter may have even given one of his eyes and a teeth, if someone had just whispered in his ears that in Sheffield Shield there is a bowler whose E/R is 2.35 and can also take wickets on flat pitches.

Paul Reiffel- When Reiffel or popularly known as Pistol first came onto the scene, he was thought of as a one-day bowler, but with time, he became a fine test match bowler as well. In 94/95 during the epic Frank Worrell trophy, he showed his worth by taking 15 wickets at just 17.53. The tour started on a bad note for Australia, as Australia got thrashed in the one-day series, their spearhead McDermott got injured and Warne was rendered ineffective thanks to big hitting by Hooper and Lara. Going into the test series, West Indies were expected to retain the Frank Worrell trophy,  but a young seam attack and of course the famous partnership between Waugh twins made sure that Taylor would lift the prestigious Frank Worrell trophy.

When the epic series held in 95 comes up for discussion, everyone talks about McGrath, as that was the series in which McGrath showed to the cricketing world that Australia may have unearthed another great fast bowler, but in my opinion it was Reiffel who led the attack. Every-time there was a partnership between couple of Windies batsmen, Reiffel seemed to raise to the occasion and get the vital wicket. I still remember the last test at Jamaica, when Australia looked for quick wickets in the second innings, it was Reiffel who came to the party by knocking over top-order batsmen at the fag end of the fourth day's play. It was like a final nail in the coffin as with both Richardson and Lara back in the pavilion, the game was as good as over.

In 96/97, Australia again squared up against the men from the Caribbean. This time around though, Australia were comfortably the better side and they wrapped up the series even before the final match at Perth. In the match at Perth, Aussies seemed to be a bit off colour which was expected as they had already lost the series. Even the greats McGrath and Warne weren't at their best, but Reiffel  rose to the occasion and led the attack beautifully by taking a five wicket haul. Pistol couldn't save Australia from being defeated by a detemrined Windies side, but he again showed that Australia wasn't just about McGrath and Warne.

Reiffel continued to do yeoman service for Australia. In 97/98, against the Saffers, OZ again missed the services of both Dizzy and McGrath, but Reiffel led the seam attack in the last couple of tests and averaged 23.6 for his wickets. Pistol was also good in English conditions as he consistently did well in England. Just like bowlers from the previous generations, he was yet another Aussie seamer who had a big heart and never gave up.

I can remember a few more bowlers like Bichel and Fleming who were successful. I always thought that Fleming was a talented cricketer as he could swing the ball like a banana. In his chequered test career Fleming was able to support McGrath as a back up bowler and at the same-time, he led the pace attack a few times. Bichel too did well for Australia during the late 90's and early noughties. I do remember him bowling some great spells during the 03 WC. Australia had yet again lost the injury prone Dizzy,  but in his absence Bichel did very well. It just shows that Australia has always produced an assembly line of seamers, who could  get into the team as back up bowlers, but if needed, they could easily lead the attack as well. They were men with a big heart.

I can say the same about the spinners as bowlers like Tim May and even Colin funky Miller were reasonably successful as off-spinners. I would even say that mediocre leg  spinners like Sleep, Holland and McIntyre, or chinaman bowlers like Hogg and Beven may do a better job than the left arm spinners, who are getting selected for Australia now. None of the spinners were anywhere near the class of Warne, or even Macgill, but I would back Tim May or Miller to do a better job than few of present day left arm spinners Australia are keen on selecting.

Now, let us look at Australia's current bowling attack


Seamers


Siddle-Everyone in the media showered praises on Siddle for his six wicket haul on the first day at Gabba, but the reality was, it came on a pitch which had a bit of life in it on the first day and against a batting line-up which was slightly off colour. It maybe attributed to first day jitters of a Ashes series as after the first day's play,  England's batsmen have been unstoppable.

Actually, when he first burst onto the scene in 08/09, I thought Australia have found another Hughes as he bowled a few decent spells on the barren tracks in India. He was even more impressive in South Africa albeit in bowler friendly conditions. Since then though, he has been disappointing as every-time I have watched him bowl, he seems to believe that the only way to get wickets on flat tracks is by bowling harmless bouncers. If he continues to bowl short in the ongoing Ashes series, I don't expect him to ever again get the wicket of KP as he swatted all those short deliveries like flies at Adelaide. I still think Australian selectors should show faith in him, but Siddle has to stop bowling so many harmless bouncers.

Hilfenhaus- In the present bowling line-up, he is perhaps the only bowler who can bowl line and length. There is a lot to like about him as he has a nice and easy action, can generate decent pace and can bowl a fine outswinger, but is that enough to succeed in test cricket?

The problem with Hilfy is, a good batsman can work him out rather easily as he mainly bowls the outswinger with the new ball and brings it back into a right-handed batsman  with the older ball. It would help Hilfy, if he follows in the footsteps of Hoggy by adding an effective inswinger and even off-cutter. Hoggy too struggled early in his career on flat pitches in Australia, but with time, he added more weapons to his armoury and became a fine swing bowler. Just look at Hilfy's record against better batting line-ups like South Africa, India and England which in turn shows that Hilfy has to improve his wicket-taking ability.

It was unfortunate that Aussie selectors dropped him after just one bad game at Brisbane. It was a classic case of revolving door policy that England followed in the 90's and even Australia themselves followed in the 80's. Australian selectors should back him as with time, I see him doing well.

Mitchell Johnson- Mitch looked every bit the strike bowler that Australian selectors were looking for after the retirement of both McGrath and Warne against South Africa at home and against the same team in South Africa. Mitch frightened every Saffer batsmen with awkward bounce and pace, but to be called a strike bowler, he has to do well for a considerable period of time. Unfortunately for Australia, he hasn't been able to replicate his performance against the Saffers. In-fact, ever since the series in South Africa, he hasn't even remotely looked like a strike bowler as most of the times, he has bowled rubbish. Mitch continues to bowl first change which isn't the sign of a strike bowler and even bowls with a scrambled seam. The biggest worry is,  he doesn't come across as a mentally tough cricketer.

If Mitch gets back his wicket-taking ability, he may find a place in the Australian team in the years to come, but I somehow don't see him as a long-term investment.

Ryan Harris-He was the best of a bad bunch at Adelaide which more than anything else says how bad other seamers were. Yes, he can bowl at decent pace and get a bit of seam movement, but the fact is, he is already 31 and won't be a long-term investment. Australia have also used Bollinger in recent times. The NSW left armer is Australia's answer to Sidebottom as he ripped through weak batting line-ups like Pakistan and New Zealand as they couldn't play the left armer's angle and his ability to generate decent pace. Against a better team like England though, he wasn't test standard at Adelaide. I was even more surprised by his inability to generate decent pace against England.

I have also seen a few fans discussing about test discard Stuart Clark. If Clark has to comeback into the side, then Australia must be in big trouble as he looked like a spent force when he bowled against India and in England. I do remember him trying lots of slower deliveries at both Headingley and Oval which in itself tells you that Clark can't comeback into the test team. Australia can look towards youth by introducing  a few youngsters like Hazelwood, Copeland, George, or maybe even Strac.

Spinners


It is crystal clear that since the retirement of Warne, Australia have been struggling to find even a decent spinner. The cupboard is bare as the selectors are nowadays selecting ordinary left arm spinners. If someone had told me in the 90's that Australian selectors will select mediocre left arm spinners in the future, I  would have laughed it off as a joke, but that is the reality now as the Aussies seem to be obsessed with selecting left arm spinners.

In the last two decades, the only left arm spinner I can think of having a bowling average of less than 40 even after playing 10 tests in Australia is Vettori and he too averaged just under 40. The likes of Monty, Benn, or Muscles(Raju) were just about ok, but they only played two or three tests in Australia.  Even the immensely talented Murali Kartik took just one wicket in Australia. Here is a bowler, who can flight the ball, get turn and bowl a well disguised arm ball, but when he too can't succeed in Australia, there isn't even a hope in hell for the likes of Doherty and Beer.

I have already made my views clear about Doherty not being a test standard spinner and it looks like the same can be said about Beer. As per a few knowledgeable Aussie fans, Beer is said to be a floaty type non-turning conventional left arm spinner. It is unbelievable that Aussies are so intent on having left arm spinners as before Doherty, I have to go as far back as early 80's, when they selected couple of left arm spinners in Ray Bright and Murray Bennett. It just shows that Australian selectors are desperate and are trying too many options.

Australia also have a couple more spinners in  Hauritz and Smith. I have never rated Hauritz as a test match spinner. Yes, he did well in 09, but I do believe it was due to him bowling against weak teams like West Indies and Pakistan. Pakistan's batsmen were crazy in the series they played against Australia, as they seemed to be intent on slogging every-time Hauritz bowled which resulted in them gifting wickets to Hauritz. Fans argue that Hauritz struggled only against India, who are rated as the best players of spin, but let me point out that even the Kiwi batsmen smashed him all over the park in the Kiwiland and they don't have good players of spin.

More than Hauritz, I do like the young Smith's temperament. At present, he can't play in the line-up just as a spinner, but I would still have him in the side as a allrounder. Recently at Hobart against England, he showed that he has a good temperament as with a bat in hand, he scored a fifty in bowler friendly conditions. I liked the way he constructed that innings as he respected the conditions and tried to play late. Rest of the batsmen including the highly rated Ferguson and Khawaja couldn't handle the conditions, but Smith was able to get a fifty. The innings at Hobart was a complete contrast to how he played against Pakistan in England as in that knock, he tried to smash the cover off the ball. It just shows that Smith can adapt to different situations as against Pakistan, Australia needed quick runs, but at Hobart, Australia A needed someone to handle the tough conditions. Experts may point out flaws in his technique, but cricket is also about having a good temperament. I also do believe with time, Smith would improve as a leg-spinner.

What next?


The Aussies would struggle to replace the likes of McGrath, Warne, or even other talented  bowlers like Macgill, Dizzy and company,  but I am sure there must be a Kasper or a Hughes somewhere in Australia. So, to find a bowling attack that can take twenty wickets, Australian selectors can either look at continuing with their revolving door policy, or they have to go for a youth based policy. On one hand, I just see Australia going down the same path that England followed during the dark days of English cricket in the 90's, but if they back youngsters to the hilt, there is a chance of Australia finding a decent attack .

If they have any sense, Aussie selectors should look at backing youngsters like Copeland, Smith, George, Hazelwood along with bowlers like Hilfy and Siddle. In-fact, it isn't just the bowling attack, but the time has come for Aussie selectors to perhaps look at the entire team and pick a core group of young players and back them. Maybe they can think of Hughes, Khawaja, Smith, Hazelwood with few older heads in the mix like Hussey, Clarke and perhaps White as the captain of side.

Australia have usually been a major force in cricket and for the sake of cricket, I hope that they can comeback. World cricket has already seen the once mighty West Indies side crumble and nowadays even  Pakistan team is more of a rabble. Cricket can ill afford to have another major cricketing nation to lose their way.

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