Gideon Haigh, in The Australian, 31 Decmeber 2011, where it had the title: “Year-long evolution of a tail”
EARLY on the final morning at the MCG on Thursday, a half-volley was stylishly despatched by a tall left-hander to the extra-cover boundary. A handsome stroke: long stride, full flow of the bat, flourishing follow-through. “Shot, Huss!” was one’s reflex response from a distance. Except that on a second look the cover drive’s author was not Mike Hussey but James Pattinson.
In the aftermath of victory here, Australia’s arrived-at pace triumvirate of Pattinson, Peter Siddle and Ben Hilfenhaus have basked in deserved praise. But the game also involved the continuation of a decidedly useful trend, a year in the making, of the Australian tail selling itself dearly.
The last day of the Melbourne Test a year ago, on which Australia forfeited its last vestigial claim to the Ashes, was not one many locals would care to remember. But at the end of a home batting shambles, Brad Haddin and Peter Siddle added 86 for the eighth wicket in 70 rollicking minutes.
While the partnership did little more than narrow the margin of defeat, the Test in hindsight was something of a turning point for Siddle, who not only bagged 6-75 after a barren spell with the ball but commenced a transformation from a nondescript No 10 to a defensible No 8.
In the past 12 months, wickets seven, eight, nine and 10 have been the most consistent constituents of Australia’s batting, critical to victories at Galle, Johannesburg and now Melbourne, in addition, rather more embarrassingly, to preventing our worst Test score at Cape Town. Only in the second innings at Hobart did it disappoint, although even there Nathan Lyon kept the faith with David Warner while 34 were added for the last wicket.
At the MCG, as M.S. Dhoni observed afterwards, Australia’s lower echelons undermined all the work done earlier by India’s bowlers.
“It’s something we need to keep an eye on,” said Dhoni, in his rather deadpan fashion, when his “Captain Cool” persona blurs into “Sergeant Sedated”. “We need to come up with ways to get the tailenders out.” The contrast was with his own tail, whose slogs and cowerings gave away India’s chance of a first-innings lead, Dhoni himself setting a poor example with two inept strokes.
Reviewing how Australia’s tail has turned its game around in the past year involves a short contemplation of the evolution of lower-order batting in general. In semi-amateur days, practice meant specialist bowlers bowling to specialist batsmen. There was less opportunity and less inclination to instil basics and coach complexities in those batting nine, 10 and jack, and their own perception of cricket’s division of labour disinclined them to overstay at the crease anyway.
The trend to longer survival of unfittest began in the early 1980s with the advent of professionalism and the availability of improved protective gear, including helmets. One-day cricket, better bats and shorter boundaries encouraged tailenders to learn at least to slog; full-time coaches were able to instil the rudiments of defence.
Duncan Fletcher’s precept in coaching tailenders, for example, has been to hone one existing half-decent shot: a drive, a flick or a glance. Even a solitary run-scoring option, he argues, improves a No 11’s confidence.
As a result, there are today few Chris Martins around – one of the reasons he’s rather cherished. They have been turned into Glenn McGraths, capable after vast investment of time and effort of a Test half-century; James Andersons and Monty Panesars, sufficiently competent to hold Australia agonisingly at bay 30 months ago.
No cricket trend being wholly one way, the development of reverse swing at high speed, making batting against the old ball a sterner challenge, was a countervailing influence from the mid-1990s. Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis used to truncate innings like kangaroo hunters lopping the tails off boomers.
But this has been a poorer year for reverse swing than the conventional kind – James Anderson, Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander, Praveeen Kumar – making for greater stress perhaps on top orders than those lower down. Certainly the counterpunching power of Matt Prior, Stuart Broad, Tim Bresnan and Graeme Swann has been integral to England’s surge.
If Australia cannot boast of players of quite the same quality, it can claim to have been counter- punching above its weight this last little while.
Siddle plays straight, defends capably and handles pace bowling well: Dhoni missed a trick in confronting him with fewer than four overs of spin in Melbourne. Siddle’s Dandenong mucker Pattinson, meanwhile, looks like an all-rounder in the making if he can strengthen his defence to complement the strokes he already has. The short-armed pull he executed off Umesh Yadav on the final morning was as good a shot as was played in the game, and for a bowler with bravado to spare he exhibits no extravagance or impetuosity at the crease: he is the cheeky schoolboy who can also put his head over his homework.
Ben Hilfenhaus can hit, Nathan Lyon can defend, and in Mickey Arthur, Australia has a coach with a strong belief in the potential of tailend batting to disrupt, derail and even win games. Three years ago at the MCG, it was the stickability of South Africa’s Dale Steyn and Paul Harris that enabled J.P. Duminy to construct his match- and series-winning innings. Arthur also knows how frustrating low-order obstinacy can be, the survival of England’s last pair at Centurion and Cape Town in 2009-10 contributing materially to his ousting as South Africa’s coach last year.
Part of Arthur’s doctrine of accountability with the Proteas was to commit his top six to the compilation of 300 runs, and the rest to a further 100. It is early days yet, but in the latter case Australia is near to hitting the target. What’s missing so far is Brad Haddin, who apart from playing bravely under great pressure at Johannesburg and smoothly under little pressure at Brisbane, has had his poorest year with the bat since succeeding Adam Gilchrist, and who looked in Melbourne like he had left his compass behind at batting camp, collecting one inadvertent boundary in more than two hours’ at the crease.
Ideally Haddin should be providing those below him with inspiration. As it is, he might need to draw some from them.