One of the lasting aphorisms of sport and, indeed, life is that you learn more from your losses than your victories. The 2018-19 season has been brim full of lessons for many within Australian cricket, from players to administrators.
A number of each have not survived the summer; another legion will replace them sooner rather than later.
There is little currency left in the discussion of the absence of Steve Smith and David Warner. Yes, their unavailability made the national team weaker in all formats. Yes, their reinstatement will be strengthening and welcome. But their time in Coventry only served to highlight the shallowness of
the talent pool and the deficiencies created by the administrators who chose youth over experience
and potential over performance.
They are only two of an 11; important but not vital.
Both are recovering from surgery, the timely recovery from which is expected but not guaranteed, so a plan for the World Cup and then the Ashes should include a contingency for their replacements.
The Ashes don’t commence until August 1, which gives them six months to be ready for Test cricket,
physically at least. Finding form is another matter altogether, as Australia’s victory against an under-strength and terribly underwhelming Sri Lankan outfit was the final Test before the Ashes.
The challenge of having two massively important competitions back-to-back would be difficult in any winter, but to have them fall when your team is redefining itself in terms of style of play, personnel and culture thickens the web.
There will be white-ball tours of India and UAE leading up to the World Cup and an Australia A caravan through the UK, which concludes with some red-ball games.
The conundrum is almost insoluble. Does the board of Cricket Australia have a preference for winning a World Cup or The Ashes? Have they instructed the executive and, hence, the selectors and staff of a bias? The time for leadership is now with new board members making a contribution with their cricket knowledge – or not.
A new head of high performance is desperately needed. The promise of appointing a vastly experienced senior cricket person to the post is a good one. Someone who can rationalise selectors and selections and coaching appointments would be widely welcomed by the states and the time to do that is now, before the World Cup.
The Test summer started with Usman Khawaja as the batting banker and finished with him urgently needing a score to stay in contention for August. A Test hundred is not to be sneezed at, but this was an open-book exam on last semester’s curriculum.
Marcus Harris began with diligence against India and finished with recklessness against Sri Lanka. At times he looked most of the inches of a Test opening batsmen and at others a tad short. The jury is out on Harris and with Warner probably back and Joe Burns doing enough on brief showings, Harris has learnt quickly that consistency and hundreds are the way to keep the contenders at bay.
The fact that there actually are contenders is one of the positives from the season.
The jury did hand down a verdict on Aaron Finch, who has been an outstanding white ball competitor, but couldn’t find a defensive technique to hold out canny red-ball opening bowlers.
Marnus Labuschagne was extraordinarily lucky to have made his debut against Pakistan and continued to impress those who are easily impressed. His first class average of 33 is not deceptive and his progress on some fine batting pitches has been turgid. His time may come, but he needs to make runs on receptive surfaces and get that average closer to 50.
Sean Marsh, at 36, is making white-ball runs, but his Test place has been taken permanently by younger men in the Test team.
Apart from the continued inexplicable omissions of Matthew Wade from any Australian top six, the batting order has just about shaken itself out – almost by accident.
Why was Mitchell Marsh brought back for one Test when Marcus Stoinis was in better form with bat and ball? The time had come for a new face and the selectors had neither knowledge nor courage.
Travis Head has held his own. At times his footwork against Mohammed Shami, Ishant Sharma and Jasprit Bumrah was lazy – straight down the pitch rather than across to the line of the delivery – his reactions against the short ball encouraging to those who bowl short, but he occupied the crease and fought hard, holstering his instinctive cut shot at times when it was a risky default. He will benefit from the coming tours and the English experience.
Stoinis will be the white-ball all-rounder and may well get his opportunities as the back-up seam bowling batsmen in late-summer England as well as in the World Cup.
Kurtis Patterson has had just two innings in the baggy green but looks the part, even though he came in at No.6 when No.3 is his most effective spot. That may change in England as the disruptions of the home season dissolve. The drives, the pulls and the new-found security around and outside off stump combined with a soothing temperament, the understated reactions to milestones, sound
hands in the gully and slip point to a skillful and mature character that the team can rely on.
Apart from the continued inexplicable omissions of Matthew Wade from any Australian top six, the batting order has just about shaken itself out – almost by accident. With the addition of Warner and Smith there is now some competition for spots.
The big three of Mitchell Starc, Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood were supplemented by the bustling Jhye Richardson, whose skidding, swinging deliveries may well be effective on English pitches. The attacks on Starc were myopic and statistically minded. He finished the six Tests with 25 wickets at an average of 25 and sending the seed down regularly at about 150km/h, good numbers by anyone’s standards, even the short-sighted.
There has never been a worry about the depth of back-up seam bowling with Peter Siddle, Jason Behrendorff, James Pattinson (on the high road back from his injuries), Chris Tremain, Nathan Coulter-Nile et al. Nathan Lyon was very GOATish. The trick is to find an appropriate back-up, given the second best spinner in Australia, Stephen O’Keefe, is not in Trevor Hohns’ address book. The effectiveness of left-arm spin in England calls for O’Keefe or Jon Holland.
Which leaves the wicketkeeper and captain. Tim Paine was selected from his office job to lead a nation in a time of embarrassed panic. His glovework has been excellent, his batting modest, but his leadership outstanding. He really is seen as a “bridge” player waiting for a full-time captain to emerge from the shadows of Newlands or Bunnings.
That captain may be a fast bowler or an all-rounder or Cummins but, in the interim, Paine leads on towards the World Cup, towards the Ashes and, who knows, maybe towards enduring fame if he can bring home just one of those trophies.