Saturday, January 10, 2009

The Transmogrification of Graeme Smith

Australia and South Africa have always shared a close but also strained relationship. Both countries have a large number of similarities including a history of migration dogged by ethnic conflict, and strong economies based around mining and agriculture. Australia's colonisation in 1788 occurred just prior to England's move into the Cape in 1795. Politically, Australia's stance on apartheid always seemed somewhat hypocritical in light of the 'White Australia' policy that existed until the mid 1970s. On the sporting field, the two teams have traditionally been strong competitors in both cricket and rugby, with the on-field mutual respect often not matched with off-field friendship. It has been suggested that perhaps the similarly tough approach to how the game is played has prevented the players from really enjoying each other's company.

Since their return to the international cricket family, South African sides have not been popular with the Australian public. Seen as negative and defensive, touring parties have not managed to capture the attention and love of the crowds. In the 2005/06 season, Graeme Smith managed to alienate almost the entire Australian population, at the same time as losing five of the six test matches. Smith was very young at the time, and came across as such. He tried to talk tough and combat Australia with fire, but this approach dramatically backfired. It would not be unfair to describe Smith as one of the most unpopular cricketers in Australia since Richard Hadlee hung up his boots.

However, the 2008/09 season has seen a dramatic turn-around in both public perceptions of Graeme Smith and the South Africa team. Smith has remained calm, and has managed the media particularly well. He has come across as a considered and mature captain, and has never appeared flustered. Smith deserves considerable praise for this change.It is perhaps worthy of note that the entire three Test series did not contain one single incident that even hinted at dissent or abuse.

Just as impressively, South Africa played the three Test matches in an aggressive frame of mind. Previous touring teams have been too defensive and failed to take any opportunities when they presented. Smith captained the side aggressively and with purpose. His spinner bowled an attacking line from around the wicket. His pace bowlers were constantly trying to get wickets. His batsmen were always looking for opportunities to score. And most importantly, the entire team's attitude was universally positive. Even when they looked down and out, they found a way to win.

When he walked out to bat in the second innings of the Third Test in Sydney, Smith received a standing ovation from the entire crowd. It was reminiscent of the footage of Larwood's standing ovation at the same ground during the Bodyline series. It is a popular misconception that the Australian public dislikes players who are successful. Richard Hadlee's lack of popularity in Australia was not to do with his great skill, but rather the public's perception (rightly or wrongly) of his character. Graeme Smith has managed to transmogrify from an almost universally disliked character only a few years ago, to a person who is widely commended across the country. Whilst the public would have applauded Smith's bravery in 2006 if he had come out to bat in similar circumstances, he would not have won their hearts as he so clearly did this year.

Much as it pains me to say this as an Australian, South Africa are clearly the best cricket team in the world at the moment. And Graeme Smith deserves a lot of the credit, both for the team's success and his own maturation in a great leader.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Australian Elite Cricket - A crisis at the top?

In amongst all of the either gloating or lamentations, depending upon whether you live in Australia or not, there is a general consensus that Australia are struggling at the moment. They are not necessarily a bad team, but pretty clearly are also not the world no.1 anymore. Where does the problem lie? There have been numerous theories put forward, most either blaming the batting or the bowling inadequacies, but there seems to be a bigger issue regarding planning at the elite level.

As captain, Ponting doesn't seem to have an idea of what to do on the field. His biggest problem with maintaining a decent over-rate is that he dilly-dallys around at the start of each over simply because he doesn't seem to know what the field placings for each batsman should be. There don't appear to be any clear strategies or plans. Surely this should be discussed prior to going onto the field, but if so, why would Ponting spend two or three minutes changing the field in the second over of the day? What the coaching staff are up to is beyond me. Tim Neilson seems to have escaped any criticism so far, but perhaps his role needs a very careful re-assessment. If he is there to coach and coordinate team tactics, he is either failing badly, or Ponting doesn't agree with what he wants.

To make it worse, our selectors also seem to have no idea or plan for the future. The selection decision to pluck Andrew McDonald from the obscurity of the Victorian middle order is beyond comprehension. The selectors rated him so highly just a few months ago that he wasn't even in the 25 contracted players. Now he is to be the middle order saviour? He is nearly 28, and has not suddenly burst onto the scene with performances that scream out for selection. His top score this summer is 60, not the sort of statistic that will have the South Africans worried. Purely from a Victorian perspective, Brad Hodge, David Hussey and even Cameron White must now assume their international careers are over if McDonald is preferred to them.

The debacle over the spinning position is yet another example of the selectors not knowing what they are trying to achieve. With all due respect to Nathan Hauritz, it is blatantly obvious he is not a match winning spinner, and never will be. Krezja shows some potential (i.e. he actually flights the ball and can spin it), so they tell him to go back to state level and bowl defensively. The lesson from that is for Krezja to follow Hauritz's example and bowl darts at around 90kms that don't spin or take wickets, but also only go for 3 runs an over. That is the sort of message that kills careers.

Other problems in the past years include the dumping of Ashley Noffke from the Australian squad, in spite of him being the standout player of the first class competition last year. The selectors instead picked Peter Siddle, who had played half of one season. Noffke, Bollinger and Hilfenhaus have all performed well over a number of years, however, the selectors somehow pick Siddle on the back of a dozen first class games. In his three tests so far, Siddle has looked completely innocuous except for one spell.

Does Cricket Australia need to have a long hard look at the entire structure of elite cricket in the country, with the selectors, coach and captain all in the sights?

The question arises - what does Cricket Australia do now? Are we content to be a top 4 nation for the foreseeable future, or do we make some hard decisions now and aim to be the world no. 1 again sooner rather than later. Do we rebuild, which involves jettisoning more than one player now even though they still have a year of potentially good contribution left in them, or simply replace a few as they fall over.

If Australia wants to regain the no. 1 tag by 2010-2012, there will be some pain in the short term. I would be happy if the selectors say that we are rebuilding, and that we need to give some of the younger guys (i.e. Krezja, Siddle, Hilfenhaus, Bollinger, Hughes, or whoever) a decent run. However, this approach would also mean getting rid of some of the older players immediately (Hayden, Symonds and Lee for example) so that the newer players could be introduced and have time to mature into a great side. This would mean that we would undoubtedly struggle to be competitive with the likes of South Africa and India, but we are also almost at the end of the cycle of playing them. Perhaps now is the time to blood the next group of younger stars so that they are ready for the challenge of regaining the world no. 1 mantle in a few years time.