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A tactical masterpiece underappreciated

New Zealand's planning and execution on the 4th day in Hobart was first class, and deserved more focus from the Australian media.

Ross Taylor’s captaincy on the fourth day in Hobart was supreme; his situational field placements were first class, and the awareness he displayed in recognising what was working, and what was not, assured that his decision making played a significant role in the New Zealand victory.

Just before lunch on the final day Warner and Ponting had seen Australia close to within 81 runs of the target in accumulating a 37 run partnership and if the home side went to lunch only three down then the situation would have been very difficult for the New Zealanders. However the screws had begun to be applied by Taylor and his bowlers; Ponting’s runs had dried up thanks to an immaculate line and length and he had edged through slips and survived a very close l.b.w decision in the overs leading up to his dismissal. So with overcast conditions assisting movement through the air Taylor threw the ball to Doug Bracewell, who dragged a shot out of Ponting that made him look like he was an old man participating in a young man’s sport. A strange back foot drive to a ball on a length, he managed to only spoon the ball to cover and New Zealand knew that they were in with a sniff thanks to the brittle middle order batting that the Australians are capable of these days. Bracewell’s next over saw him persisting with what is becoming de rigueur for opponents against the Australians, middle and off line with movement away, Clarke obliged by going hard at the ball early in his innings and by the end of the over Hussey had departed as well. Haddin was the next to perish via the extravagant drive, having survived an edge through slips the ball before, the Australian keeper edged to slip off Southee and the Black Caps had only to get through the tail. A quick aside on the wicketkeepers dismissal; all the focus has been on Phil Hughes and the regularity in which he finds himself nicking the ball into the cordon but criticism must be also levelled at Haddin who‘s is failing to adapt his technique and method of scoring to the situation at hand. His inability to put away the big flashy off drive has seen the New South Welshman regularly caught behind the wicket and for me is a massive concern for a side that needs runs out of the late middle order/tailenders more than ever. Bracewell and Southee persisted with getting the ball into a corridor in which late order batsman seemed to find their bats mystically drawn towards the ball;  Siddle and Pattinson came and went quickly with the bats dangling meekly away from their bodies and provided the vacuum like slips cordon with two more catches for the match. Doug Bracewell then sealed the victory by bowling both Mitchell Starc and Nathn Lyon; New Zealand achieving their first victory on Australian soil since 1993.

All the plaudits after the game revolved around Bracewell’s effort with the ball and Warners performance in carrying his bat for 122 not out. However Taylor’s manipulation of his bowling attack and the subtle situational field placements cannot be underestimated; Warners wagon wheel is notable for the amount of singles from point through to cover as Taylor recognised that the opener was not going to flash outside off,  his bowlers then  dragged their length back two or three feet and moved the line so the ball started on off stump. Warner was happy to play the short arm jab out to the sweeper regularly (almost half his runs came in this area) but this only served to bring batsman on strike that were more likely to go hard at the full ball outside off. It is perhaps the biggest indicator that opposition sides no longer fear Ricky Ponting when during their partnership the New Zealanders were happy to give Warner the easy single then tighten the field and line to the former captain; the tactic worked, Ponting found runs hard to come by leading up to his departure and in the end his strange dismissal was a product of a declining skill set, fantastic bowling and a captain demonstrating a superb situational cricketing brain. Praise of course must also be given to the Black Caps attack that were able to compliment Taylor’s excellent positioning of the field by getting the ball into the correct areas thus allowing the batsmen to rarely play shots to a vacant area of the ground. Bracewell was the star of the show taking six wickets but Chris Martin also did a job, picking up Phil Hughes and only going for 2.75 runs an over in the second innings. Also the catching form of the slips fielders cannot be underestimated, Ross Taylors catch off Usman Khwaje, with Guptil diving in front of him, was the standout but the New Zealanders did not miss a chance and must be commended for not letting the batting side get off lightly for their aggressive strokeplay.

So credit where credit is due; yes the Australians definitely have problems against the moving ball, yes the conditions in Hobart were not unlike those you would find in New Zealand and were perfectly suited to the four seam attack that the Black Caps selected. But on the last day I saw a team that went out to execute a plan and they executed perfectly; they had obviously studied the Australian bats and implemented a plan that nullified the batting order. Taylor also was flexible in his tactics and adjusted them when he realised that Warner was unlikely to throw his wicket away. It was beautiful to watch and Ross Taylor and his team should be receiving a greater amount of praise for their performance.


Attempting to kick the habit: the story of Phil Hughes and addiction

Phil Hughes demonstrates how not to play off the back foot against England last year.

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,

George Santayana, The Life of Reason, Volume 1, 1905
US (Spanish-born) philosopher (1863 – 1952)

 

I wonder if Santayana had struggling Australian top order cricketers in mind when he first came up with this quote in 1905. This line does wrap quite nicely around the Phil Hughes narrative that is currently evolving; a career arc that has struggled to maintain the breakneck momentum witnessed at the start of his career in South Africa two years ago. His technical deficiencies were initially uncovered by the likes of Steve Harmison and Andrew Flintoff through the last Ashes series in England as he was exposed by short pitched bowling in at the body, eventually being dropped from the side before the 3rd test of that series. However Simon Katichs’ injury, and subsequent demotion from the side, towards the end of 2010 created an avenue for Hughes back into the squad; his recall was seen by many as a sign that the selectors still had the 23 year old New South Welshman playing a big part in the Australian side’s future. Repeat struggles against England, this time on home soil, led to the familiar cries for a different answer at the opening spot, and the critics were out in full force until he slightly solidified his position in the team with 122 (on a very flat pitch) in the 3rd test against Sri Lanka earlier this year. There was further evidence of his potential when he feasted on some wayward South African bowling in Johannesburg with a cavalier 88, but massive questions marks remain over his spot in the side; his double failure in the 1st test against New Zealand had an exclamation point added to it via the farcical nature of his dismissal in the second inning as he was dropped once then the very next ball, out, attempting exactly the same shot, even rats learn after a time that it is not wise to continually try to eat the electrified piece of cheese (poor analogy but you get what I mean).

Baseball scouts, when evaluating prospects, talk about high ceiling guys, or guys you can dream on. They might have gone to a game and witnessed a pitcher flash a 95mph fastball or seen a guy hit 450ft home runs; now these players may not be consistent but scouts recognise the skill set is there it just needs to be developed and time needs to be given for players to adjust as they move up through the different levels of competition. This is Phil Hughes in a nutshell; high ceiling guy, who could potentially put up massive numbers. He possesses an unbelievable eye and the speed in which he gets his hands through the ball when executing his security blanket shot, the cut, is almost Steve Waugh like. Statistically he boasts exceptional numbers, 17 first class centuries at the age of 23 cannot be achieved without inherent talent, he is the youngest player to score two centuries in a game at test level and the youngest to score a century in a Shield final; proving that mentally he is capable of competing in pressure situations and always willing to trust in his technique (which is also a weakness, more later)

These same high ceiling guys also have a floor and Hughes’s floor is low……. really low. Technically he is far from orthodox, his back foot (left) frequently steps towards the leg side; as he looks to give himself room to thrash the ball square through the offside. Steve Thomlinson, who coached Hughes when he was a part of the NSW schoolboy’s side in 2005, recognised even at an early stage that the young opener needed to work on his footwork in order for him to achieve at a higher level.  Unfortunately this method of stepping away removes what is normally a left handers bread and butter shot; working a straight ball off the pads through the on- side. It also means his head is often far from the ball which causes unsatisfactory balance and balls played in the air. This leads me to write about the elephant in the room, the edges, and the frequency in which Hughes gets caught behind the wicket; 19 of his 29 dismissals in tests, including each of the past 6, have been caught between wicketkeeper and gully. Black Caps bowler Chris Martin has exposed the technical flaw perfectly and Hughes will get no respite when facing Ishant Sharma later in the summer as he pushes the ball across left handers and can get awkward bounce on Australian pitches. Now Hughes is not the first left hander to struggle with the ball angled across them but the time has come to address this imperfection when executing a test innings.

I hate nothing more than players, when going through a lean patch, uttering the phrase, “I’ll just keep playing my natural game,” if your natural game was working then you would be succeeding right? Sachin Tendulkar’s longevity in the sport has been due to the evolving nature of his technique and his ability to alter the method in which he goes about constructing an innings. Steve Waugh was another who at an even younger age evolved from a flashy, attack driven player into a batsman that rarely played the hook shot, as he was able to highlight areas of his game that could go by the wayside as he sought to make the most out of the abilities he was born with. Hughes must begin to do the same, bowlers know how to bowl to him, the proof is in the statistics, you cannot deny the hard evidence, great players adapt their games in order to combat the adjustments made by bowlers. Look at Hughes first two test hundreds in South Africa, Steyn, Kallis and Morkel were short but gave the opener a lot of width to work with. Fast forward to the Ashes in England and we see Flintoff and Harmison short, but at the body. It is all about learning from the past and applying those lessons to the present.

But what can be done with Hughes, personally I would love to see him stick in the side and make the adjustments. This will involve Mitchell Johnson like patience on the selectors behalf as attempting to overhaul your game at test level will be a struggle. I think he has shown that at Shield level he can dominate; it is this domination at the lower level that also leads me to think that time in the domestic competition helps to encourage Hughes’s attacking instincts. The preoccupation of bowlers at state level to be happy with short of a length bowling feeds right into the New South Welshman’s wheelhouse; inconsistent lines means that he will quite often get the ball outside off and is able to live off the cut all day long. At the higher level the quality of bowling will ensure he very rarely get the room to successfully execute the cut; instead clumsily attempting the shot with a delivery too close to the body. So it’s time for rehab for our opener, like methadone replaces heroin for a junkie, Hughes needs to find a method in which to kick the addiction, leaving the ball outside off is the cold turkey approach and is a tough way to go; it may ultimately be the only way to succeed in the near future. He needs to find another area to score in, particularly on the on-side. If Hughes can make the adjustments to his technique then he will fill another part of the puzzle that has begun to be completed by the surprise form of Nathan Lyon and inexperienced paceman. Phil Hughes in form is a beautiful sight and I hope that he is able to find a level of consistency required from a test opener and begins to be a force in international cricket.


Bowl,Edge,Catch…… Repeat

Pattinson picks up McCullum late on Day Three. The young Australian quick ended the innings with 5/27.

Australia wrapped up a convincing win at the Gabba today with an impressive nine wicket victory over a very poor New Zealand outfit. It was an old fashioned hiding as the Black Caps were made to look very ordinary with both bat and ball and I am hoping they lift for Hobart so that cricket fans get to witness at least something resembling a contest throughout the series.

Technique wise the New Zealand bats were extremely poor; McCullum and Ryder fell to woeful cut shots as they failed to transfer weight through the ball and ended up spooning regulation catches to Warner at point. Captain Ross Taylor decided that you do not need to move your feet as he dangled the bat outside off and only managed to drag the ball back on to his off stump. Kane Williamson looked all at sea against some very good off spin bowling from Nathan Lyon; his shuffle, shuffle routine inevitably ended with the New Zealander popping a catch up to forward short leg. These guys had a great chance to perform and back up the big talk leading into the series, but the execution was just not up to test standard. I do not think the Australian pace bowlers really bowled particularly well on the first day, they tended to be either very full or short and lacked genuine consistency in line and length.

In the second inning we saw some test match quality swing bowling from debutant James Pattinson and the New Zealanders were unable to handle it. The footwork from New Zealands top order was unbelievably poor; you only need to see how far the bats were away from the player’s body to realise that these guys were not ready for a test match. McCullum got a good nut from Pattinson, late on day three, that would have brought many batsmen undone, but the procession that unfolded on day four was a mixture of decent bowling and truly inept test match batting. Ross Taylor as captain deserves the greatest amount of criticism as he failed to learn from the first inning and once again failed to get any lateral foot movement happening and dangled the bat outside off resulting in a catch though to Haddin. It was schoolboy stuff and very disappointing from a team that was full of big talk leading into the series. That’s not to take away anything from Pattinson’s spell in the morning; I just wonder if the Indians will be so generous in the next series?

A quick aside; although Pattinson will get all the credit and deservedly so, for his 5/27 in the second inning, I have to say I’m very impressed with Nathan Lyon. He was extremely unfortunate not to pick up five wickets in the first innings and extracted a ton of bounce and spin on the first day as he seems to be a very attacking finger spinner. Lyon frequently gets the ball above the eye level of the batsmen and seems unfazed if he goes for a few runs. It will be interesting to see how he fairs against the Indians later in the summer, but for now it looks like the South Australian has locked down the spinners position.

Hopefully cricket fans get an improved effort out of the Black Caps down in Tasmania, and the young Aussie bowlers are made to toil a bit harder so they can be prepared for the likes of Dravid, Laxman and Tendulker later in the season.