Australia v Slow Bowling

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Australia v Slow Bowling Empty Australia v Slow Bowling

Post by Lee on Thu Oct 30, 2014 3:27 pm

The slow ball has our Test team in a spin

The Drum
By Adam Collins

As Australia prepares to atone for its poor first Test, it will need to overcome its issues with spin bowling. This extends to ball as well as bat, writes Adam Collins.

When professional cricketers reach a certain level of proficiency, what happens between their ears is more a determinant of their fate than almost any other factor.

Careful preparation and powers of concentration underpin the solid decision-making common to the sort of player that makes each moment count. The flighty or feeble are prone to the rash, a mindset that seldom lasts long in the pressure cooker environment of international cricket.

For Australia to redeem itself in the second and final Test against Pakistan in Abu Dhabi, starting today, they will need to overcome a now well-established mental hurdle: slow bowling in conditions most conducive to it. This extends to ball as well as bat.

In doing so, they will also need to conquer another length of terrain; the vital couple of feet between knee-roll and bootstrap. There are few more useful measures in grasping the depth of this particular weakness of Australia's than analysis of the team's recent wrestling with the Leg Before Wicket mode of dismissal in comparable conditions.

In Dubai, Australia lost five wickets in this manner, all to spin, including three in a chaotic cluster before the close of the fourth day that forced Australia into survival mode. This was accompanied by a flurry of other half-chances and DRS reviews throughout the course of the Test. It belied the fact that Pakistan's specialist spin duo boasted two caps between them, after their most prolific tweaker was sidelined due to a suspect bowling action.

But they hit the Australians' pads. Time and again. In doing so, they repeatedly asked questions that forced hurried Australian answers. In the case of journeyman 35-year-old Zulfiqar Babar, his success was a product of old-fashioned guile and consistency. Indeed, it spoke volumes that after the match he confessed that his most lethal weapon is the ball that bobbles down without turning much at all.

Therein lies the art of quality spin bowling: making batsmen think, and then question those thoughts. With the additional time afforded to batsmen before the ball reaches their end, footwork and shot selection is less instinctive than when up against the quicks. A confident spinner can inflate ostensibly simple questions into complex posers, the whys and wherefores of each slight movement or variation raising yet more questions.

By contrast, Nathan Lyon and Stephen O'Keefe looked no more quizmasters than Merv Hughes does a jockey. In the case of Lyon, his second innings bowling seems perennially under the spotlight. It is anomalous for a spinner that their stats would not be markedly better second time up than in first knock, but that is the case for Lyon after 34 Tests, particularly so when looking at fourth innings performances alone.

Going back 18 months to the disastrous tour of India, no Australian spinner of the three used (Lyon, Xavier Doherty and Glenn Maxwell) picked up a leg-before decision until the second innings of the third Test. While India had 20 Australians succumb this way through the series, Australia collected just half that, the majority in the final Test when Lyon had a day out in Delhi.

It was much the same in Dubai last week, with O'Keefe's the solitary LBW dismissal earned by the visitors' spin pair.

Lyon's three-and-a-half years as Australia's first-choice spinner have been without question the most productive of any slow bowler in the post-Warne era, and it would be madness to suggest he should not be a near-permanent feature for the foreseeable future. But one way or another, he needs to complement his natural turn and grip with sufficient variation to hit the pads more often, not least when conditions are slated to suit him best. Or risk that someone else will.

On the other side of the ledger, it has been widely documented how the Australian specialist batsmen looked ill at ease against the unlikely Pakistani spin twins. All bar Chris Rogers fell to spin at some stage during the match; notably, captain Michael Clarke twice, whose renowned footwork seemed missing in his brief visits to the crease. While Dave Warner and Steve Smith looked comfortable enough, the same could not be said for Alex Doolan and Brad Haddin, who would both be dismayed when reviewing the tape.

Australia's batting more broadly, especially against top-flight spin, was flagged as something needing redress some time ago. Cricket Australia's on-field performance tsar Pat Howard commissioned a change in the preparation of Sheffield Shield pitches in the previous offseason that, CA boasted, translated to 17 per cent more runs last season. In turn, with four-day games more often going the distance, spinners (led by O'Keefe) topped the domestic wicket tallies for the first time in a generation.

That edict has been added to, with the new Shield season bringing with it a two-year trial of a new points system as well. These modifications, among other things, will remove first innings points while adding a point for a draw. Authorities have expressly said this is to better condition domestic players to Test-like conditions, which too stands to reason. These changes won't wash through to Test performances immediately, but to their credit it is illustrative of CA acknowledging a shortcoming rather than papering over it.

Of course, it is fair to be conservative when criticising sporting teams that have achieved greatness. And make no mistake, last summer the Australian team's performances was by any yardstick precisely that. It was as close to winning a football Grand Final as you can get in cricket's longest form as they returned to the top of the world with a bullet. As individuals, they have more than a few credits in the bank.

However, if this Australian team is to consistently rank towards the peak of the Test rankings, it will be essential that they can win ample Tests in conditions that are less familiar and less advantageous to its natural combative style. Australian cricket was no stronger than in 2004 when it triumphed in both Sri Lanka and India, which should be the gold-standard as far as future planning is concerned.

The next five days are an opportunity to bounce back and take the very first and important step towards achieving that benchmark. A step they'll want taken without ball crashing into pad.

Adam Collins was a senior adviser to the former federal government, and worked for the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games organising committee. He tweets at @collinsadam.

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