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Australia vs India: The rotten roots of Aussie batting crisis

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Cricketers will tell you they live in the moment and never look too far back or too far ahead.

But when providing a stern critique of the current Australian XI, history reveals a concerning pattern that has snowballed out of control since last year’s 4-0 Ashes triumph.

Since the Sydney Test against England 50 weeks ago, Australia has played eight-and-a-half Tests. Through a period of unprecedented upheaval, only one century has been scored, while eight have been piled up against the Aussies.

But glance around the domestic scene and ask yourself, why would anyone expect any better than what the Australian top six dished up on day three at the MCG? If a batsman averages 35 at Shield level, chances are he will not be a world beater on the dog-eat-dog international stage.

Before this Test, Aaron Finch and Marcus Harris had first-class batting averages a whisker above 35. They were responsible for seeing off a new ball on a mischievous wicket against the finest pace attack India has ever produced. The odds were always against them. The numbers show it.

At three was Usman Khawaja, who is the most established Australian batsman available for selection. He has a first-class average of 43.87. It’s solid, but still six runs less than any of the seven specialist batsmen that played for Australia in the 2002/03 Ashes.

That was a different generation and granted it was golden, but the fact a country of 20 million people can produce a dozen or more prolific Shield batsmen in a decade – some of whom don’t even play a Test – and then struggle to harness more than two or three from 2010 onwards is a stain on the high performance system.

Steve Smith and David Warner would help, but it takes more than two batsman averaging 45-plus to win Tests consistently.

By chance, design or otherwise, the evaporation of big run-scorers on the Australian first-class scene has almost directly coincided with the rise of T20 cricket.

At number four was Shaun Marsh, who regularly receives criticism largely because the gap between his best and worst is so vast. Everyone has seen what he can produce in all conditions against spin and pace, but his first-class average of 41 and Test average of 34 suggest he’s grossly underachieved. Like an elderly man who insists on an English Breakfast tea post-dinner, Marsh is what he is and the selectors must now decide whether to accept that or look to the future.

At number five, Travis Head played perhaps the worst of all Australian shots on day three. He looks promising, but would he have earned a baggy green as recently as 2008 with a first-class average of 36?

Mitch Marsh is the all-rounder at six. Like Head, he attempted to play through mid-wicket when he should have presented the full face of the bat. The error proved fatal.

The younger Marsh’ first-class average is a tick shy of 32, while his most recent five Tests have seen him average just 10 with the blade.

The top six aforementioned players are not totally to blame, of course. They are products of the times, just as a portion of responsibility was redistributed to Cricket Australia months after sandpaper-gate.

Aside from the older Marsh, they have all learned the craft of facing a red ball in a white ball era. If Head was not playing this series, he would have 72 days between Sheffield Shield appearances thanks to the beast that is the Big Bash, which is now a 59-match tournament played in all capital cities plus Alice Springs and Moe in country Victoria.

“The Aussie batting top six is full of boundary-hitters,” former Australian leg-spinner Kerry O’Keeffe opined in his enlightening foxsports.com.au blog at lunch on day three.

“Very few of them have a rhythm to their innings. Position bowlers know that if they can keep them quiet for a certain amount of time, they will play the getaway shot, which often results in a wicket.

“Pujara has rhythm to all of his innings. He’s the perfect No.3. Aussie batsmen in that top order have to find that sort of rhythm.”

Indeed finding “rhythm” in Australian cricket for a batsmen trying to become a successful Test player has never been more difficult. Kookaburra balls are used pre-Christmas, while Duke balls are preferred after the break. Last summer there were pink ball rounds too.

There is an argument all of this chopping and changing makes players more adaptable, but when there is a 72-day break between leaves outside off stump, it is no wonder there is a dearth of long-form talent at state level.

There have been calls for Matthew Wade, Jake Lehmann, Callum Ferguson etc to be given an opportunity. But how many of these can you be confident would succeed as we were with Justin Langer, Matthew Hayden and Damien Martyn in the late 1990s before they returned to the national setup? There is an undeniable chasm on the first-class scene.

Statistically, Australia’s batsmen have averaged 26.08 runs per dismissal in 2018. It’s the lowest mark since 1978.

The carnage that engulfed a small but boisterous MCG crowd from the beginning of play to tea on day three was just a snapshot of that.

Ultimately the powerful figures that run the game need to determine whether money generated from T20 cricket solves all issues, or just some of them.

 

 

Published by Tom Morris, 29th December 2018 on foxsports.com.au

 

 

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