It was the day before the 2009 Ashes Test at Edgbaston that Andrew Strauss, in his then role was asked this question: “Has the Australian aura we’re used to disappeared?”
Strauss was in no mood to be all coy and diplomatic. “I don’t think this Australian side has got an aura about it, to be honest with you,” he replied as though half-expecting the question. “You’ve got players at the start of their Test careers and by very definition they don’t have an aura about them. That’s encouraging.”
How quickly things had changed. Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath, perhaps the two best bowlers Australia have ever possessed, had retired simultaneously at the end of the 2006-07 whitewash over England. Come 2009, Matthew Hayden and Adam Gilchrist, two of the most awe-inspiring batsmen, had departed the scene too.
Little wonder that English journalists, as well as the team captain, felt confident enough to goad Australia about this lost “aura”. But that was then and this is now. And while players of the calibre of McGrath, Warne, Hayden and Gilchrist don’t grow on trees, Australia are pretty close to winning back universal respect as a very strong cricket side. They have regained the World Cup, are joint second in the Twenty20 rankings (if anyone follows such things), and are second to South Africa in the Test rankings ahead of the home series against West Indies starting 10 December. And frankly, that should be a bit of a penalty kick.
There has been quite a dramatic turnaround since the dark days of 2013. Between February and August of that year, under the captaincy of Michael Clarke, Australia lost seven Tests in nine, and could only draw the other two. But they refused to panic unduly with team selection and promptly banged out seven wins in eight after that, with series wins at home to England and away to South Africa bringing about a most impressive renaissance.
It’s been more up and down since then, and the recent 2-0 home series win over New Zealand sounds better than it was. They batted poorly in the recent Adelaide Test, and if New Zealand had themselves taken a little bit more care with their batting Steven Smith’s men might easily have come away with a defeat and a 1-1 draw.
Batting will clearly be the issue with Australia going forward, because bowling stocks look good at the moment with a clutch of generally fast youngsters, the experienced Peter Siddle and the hugely improved spinner Nathan Lyon all contributing to a pretty powerful unit in that department.
But the batting hangs firmly on the shoulders of two men, Smith and David Warner, and that needs to change. In the calendar year 2014, Smith struck 1,146 runs at 81.85 while Warner contributed 1,136 at 63.11. The next best Australian contributor was the now retired Chris Rogers, a fairly modest 665 at 36.94 from him.
Little has changed in 2015: Smith again infuriating bowling attacks worldwide with 1,260 runs at 66.31, Warner following suit with 1,213 at 57.76. This year, the third-placed man has not been quite so far adrift (Adam Voges hitting 653 at 54.41) but – and partly because the batting unit changed a fair bit during and after the Ashes – nobody else has reached even 400.
Thus the most important thing for Australia’s forward progression in Test matches is for batsmen like Voges, Joe Burns, and (once he returns to fitness) Usman Khawaja to kick on against West Indies and beyond. Mitchell Marsh, the most obvious successor to the all-rounder role filled with a fair amount of success by Shane Watson previously, is not scoring nearly enough runs for a number six at present. Peter Nevill’s 66 at Adelaide could prove a vitally important confidence-booster as he looks to secure the wicketkeeping role, as this will have to include more than just the occasional momentum-seizing innings.
What Smith and Warner have shown is that effective Test match batting is not about style. It’s about having an effective game plan that forces bowlers to abandon orthodox plans, especially when there is no overdue assistance from the surface.
CricViz data tells us that Warner, in his 224-ball 163 in the Brisbane Test against New Zealand, was able to score rapidly without being unduly aggressive. He either defended or left a total of 98 balls. In the second innings, he played to the situation with Australia looking for a declaration. His 116 from 113 balls featured just 21 deliveries that he chose not to attack.
In both innings, Warner’s driving proved particularly profitable, contributing 48 runs in the first innings and 33 in the second. This was partly because New Zealand gave him far more good-length deliveries than short ones – they know that like the best Australian batsmen Warner is a particularly good puller and hooker.
Smith’s 114-ball 53 in the first innings at Adelaide (the next best score by anyone in Australia’s top six was 14) was a very important innings in the context of the series. Acutely conscious that runs were at a premium compared to the luxuries of Brisbane and Perth, Smith’s strike rate was significantly below his average in Tests. He left or defended more than half the balls he received and scored twice as many runs working the ball into gaps or flicking behind square on the leg side (18) as he did through cuts, hooks and pulls combined (nine).
Warner and Smith are very difficult batsmen to bowl too. Warner, with his tree-trunk lump of willow, gets maximum value from his shots and is every bit as intimidating an opponent as Hayden was in his pomp. Smith’s unique selling point is his ability to regularly hit balls in the channel well outside off stump into gaps on the on-side. Both these men are highly unorthodox but supremely good at doing their job. What the team needs is more batsmen as effective as those two – and they don’t necessarily need to be unconventional players – and then they might recover the “aura” that underlined an earlier generation of exceptional Australian cricketers.