With six tests split between New Zealand and India, this summer promises to be a chance for Australian cricket to climb the test ladder and hopefully regain some of the prestige that was left battered and bruised following last season’s Ashes defeat. New Zealand, ranked only above Bangladesh in the Test rankings, will provide the Aussies with little more than a warm up to the main event of the season with a four Test series against a flagging Indian side the main drawcard. If Australia are to re-assert their position in the upper echelons of test cricket then series like this, at home, must be won. New boys Nathan Lyon, Trent Copeland and Shaun Marsh all contributed to the series win away to Sri Lanka; the latter with a fine century on debut in Rick Ponting’s absence. However a new coat of paint does little to improve cracked foundations and question marks still persist over Australia’s ability to compete with the top nations around the world.
1. Which Mitchell Johnson Will We See
Mitchell Johnson has failed to fire in 2011 and was poor in Sri Lanka, just 6 wickets in the test series, at an average of 52.19 is not good enough for a bowler who has the bowling attack built around him. A two match series in South Africa will see Johnson back at Kingsmead, the ground in which he produced one of the nastier spells of bowling I’ve seen, and will hopefully give him some impetus going into the Australian summer. Five wickets in a recent Sheffield Shield game, picking up centurion George Bailey and taking vital wickets with Tasmania chasing a big total, provided a much needed confidence boost before South Africa. If Johnson has the radar working and the ball swinging then he can be virtually unplayable, if not, then class batsmen can work with the angle, driving confidently through the covers if he over pitches then work him off the pads when he inevitably over corrects. Johnson must begin to execute and find ways to adjust when conditions are not ideal, for if he can take wickets Australia has a chance of rolling through any lineup; which leads into my next question.
2. Can Australia Take Twenty Wickets
Ryan Harris has been the most consistent bowler in the attack, mixing an immaculate line and length with that ¼ bat movement off the deck and through the air that enables bowlers to extract wickets via catches behind the bat. Unfortunately his knees and body have regularly let him down and are not capable of enduring the stress needed to shoulder the responsibility of a heavy workload; placing question marks over his ability to play back to back tests on short rest. Trent Copeland provides the side with a metronome like figure, able to hold up an end by employing the age old method of attempting to hit the top of off stump with every delivery, unfortunately this tactic will not bring large hauls and is only useful if a spearhead is getting among the batsmen at the other end. Nathan Lyon provided the selectors with a ray of light in regards to the revolving door that is Australia’s spin attack; picking up five wickets on debut. However he is a work in progress, the five wicket haul coming on a dust bowl in Galle and he only took 3 more wickets for the series. Finding ways to take wickets and bowl Australia to victory, especially in second innings efforts, are a must if he is to cement a place in the side. Victorian paceman, Peter Siddle, for all his aggression and effort, remains an honest toiler at best ;a test match average of 31.26 is far from what is needed out of a frontline paceman. If he gets accommodating pitches to bowl on then Siddle could trouble the Indians and New Zealanders with shorter pitched deliveries, but he must not rely solely on aggression and intimidation, when was the last time that worked on someone like Tendulker! The big question of the summer is if selectors decide to take a punt and give New South Wales quick Pat Cummins a Test cap; early reports are that the 18 year old is capable of genuine pace and can move the ball both ways, it will be interesting to see if selectors decide to go with a safe pick in Siddle or go for the high risk, high ceiling option in Cummins. Shane Watson will also be a factor in this equation, having shouldered an increased workload in Sri Lanka and providing valuable wickets, injury is always a concern with the all rounder; as the responsibility of bowling long spells and opening the batting is a difficult proposition for any player.
3. Will Watson Continue As Opener.
It cannot be denied that the Queenslanders promotion to the opening spot has been a mildly successful experiment as he has provided the side with a consistent run scorer at the top of the order. However if Australia are to get the full benefit out of Watson “the all-rounder” then a shuffling of the batting order must occur; nineteen times past fifty, in Test cricket, has only seen a return of two centuries, this is not the conversion rate of an out and out opener and Watsons talent and fluid stroke play would be better harnessed at number six. Shaun Marsh’s technique and mentality seem to me a perfect fit for the position; he possesses the ability to occupy the crease for extended periods, has shots all around the ground and would be a perfect foil to Phil Hughes’s extravagance at the other end. This option would also free Watson up to bowl more overs, providing captain Michael Clarke with a backup plan if the likes of Johnson and company fail, he has shown an ability to consistently move the ball through the air, being the one Australian bowler to constantly reverse the ball and his value on pitches with slight variance in bounce is not to be dismissed as he is able to maintain line and length by bowling stump to stump picking up many of his wickets via L.B.W and bowled.
4. How Long Can Ponting Retain His Position
Ricky Ponting has been Australia’s greatest batsmen since Don Bradman, but the last two years has seen a significant drop in the prolific run scorer’s contributions; two hundreds and a batting average of just 35.57 in the last three years is a meagre return for any test number three and a significant drop in the Tasmanian’s previous output. Usman Khawaja looked solid, without setting the world on fire when called upon last summer and would be the obvious choice as Ponting’s replacement. If the former captain fails to make big scores against New Zealand then pressure will be right on the selectors to ring changes and continue a policy of injecting youth into the side. With captaincy now a non issue Ponting should be free to focus purely on his batting; but if the runs do not come then Australians may be seeing the last of one of the all time greats of the game.