The loss of the Ashes over the winter of 2015 came as a surprise to pundits on either end of the planet.
It surprised both the Australian and English players; the result was not meant to happen in such an emphatic or bizarre fashion.
Emphatic in that each English win was by a considerable margin, and bizarre in that the Australian victories were just as widely defined. This was a close series that wasn’t close.
Injuries and retirements were not planned and it is impossible for selectors and coaching staff to predict such human frailty.
What is largely predictable, though, is the state of the pitches and the behaviour of the ball that is being used. The team that is then assembled should be suited, as much as possible, for those conditions.
This is where the culpability of the national selection panel can be pinpointed. They went for batsmen who had been successful hitting with hard, aggressive hands through the line on true Antipodean pitches. They could not see the higher value for patient technicians who played late with the swing or seam and defended their wicket as though their careers depended on it.
Chris Rogers knew how. An argument that suggests Australian domestic cricket should then be played with British Duke balls is farcical given the CA cricket operations demanding bland pitches and a Kookaburra ball with non-existent seams so that batsmen can make more runs.
The blade wavers certainly have been churning out the scores in Australian cricket, but more runs doesn’t equate to better batsmen, it just equates to easier batting conditions.
The corollary to easier batting is that bowlers don’t learn how to swing the ball or gain experience on pitches that aid seam movement. Sheer pace alone has never done the job in an away Ashes series, skilful, clever users of the seam predominate – see Fred Spofforth, Charlie Turner, Bob Massie, Terry Alderman and Ryan Harris.
The first episode of the Chappell-Hadlee trophy didn’t quite live up to the pre-season hype – the Black Caps promised brimstone and delivered half volleys.
New Zealand threatened to be threatening and never quite got there. Since the Kiwis went back across the ditch in early December the threat level in Australia shrank even further but, given their clean sweep of Sri Lanka on home pitches, the Kiwis are going to be a great deal tougher.
With England continuing their rise under Trevor Bayliss with an unexpected series win (like the Ashes?) over South Africa, Australia find themselves in a position to take the No.1 world ranking just five months after the inglorious urn capitulation.
It would be the most remarkable of rung elevations given the absence of the two quick southpaws and retirements of the chief all-rounder and veteran ‘keeper if Steve Smith stood on the steps of Christchurch’s Hagley Oval on February 24 brandishing the sceptre of world domination.
Enter Jackson Bird and Chadd Sayers for the New Zealand series.
Bird has returned from injury to keep afloat an ailing Tasmanian shield team. His 22 wickets in the first half of the competition leads the competition.
The movement and bounce that characterised his initial elevation into Test cricket have returned. A few more clicks on the radar will follow with the self belief that a hardened, injury-free body brings, but control and tactics will be paramount in the land of the long white cloud rather than outright speed.
The prophets have decided on the age-old “horses for courses” philosophy which is as appropriate as that other hackneyed phrase, “a no-brainer” – don’t you always pick an extra spinner for dusty pitches, seamers for grassy ones and fast bowlers for bouncing strips?
Why would you pick a team or a squad that wasn’t appropriate for the conditions in which you were going to play? So Sayers, the medium pace swing and seam bowler bred and educated on the batsmen’s paradise (pink ball matches excluded) in North Adelaide has also been given a saddle.
Sayers reminds me of Mike Hendrick or Chris Old – seminal English seamers who sent them down in the mid-130km/hs and could land the ball on a sixpence, time after time. It was a more than useful skill on helpful home pitches but lacked the zip and bounce to be match winners on hard Australian-style surfaces. Between them they played 76 Tests for 230 wickets – handy numbers.
Sayers is making a late run towards Test cricket at 31 but attracted the attention of the selectors during a dry run with Australia A a couple of years ago. For a man who has had to ply his trade at Adelaide Oval, his numbers are excellent – 129 wickets at the very healthy average of 24.69.
He has only played 34 first-class games since his debut in 2011-12, so he certainly isn’t worn out. Batsmen who face him tend to underrate the danger because he isn’t overly quick, but he swings the ball both ways and bowls that Hendrick/Old nagging line and length.
You don’t get much to put away without raising the risk level.
If he gets a game in New Zealand and proves fruitful then he may find his way into the next Ashes series in England as there may not be much in between when Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood, and James Pattinson are back as a new-ball triumvirate.
Remember Andrew Fekete – a Test career foiled by political unrest in Bangladesh? You don’t?
Neither do the national selectors. Sayers couldn’t be going to a more peaceful nation on the planet.
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