THE WEEK THAT WAS: AUSTRALIA’S new cricket captain couldn’t have been handed a much tougher assignment – but all’s well that ends well, writes RON REED:
IN A TEST match that neither Pakistan nor Australia won, there were still plenty of individual winners on both sides. For Australia, the official man of the match Usman Khawaja, who batted for nearly 13 hours for 85 and 141, was the most obvious one and is deservedly getting the lion’s share of the credit. But there might have been an even more satisfied, relieved and proud performer at the end of this epic contest.
That would be the captain, Tim Paine, whose unbeaten 61 off 194 balls in nerve-wracking circumstances was also crucial to the great escape. Paine inherited the biggest leadership role in Australian sport in unfortunate circumstances, and partly because there were no other obvious candidates, and while he has not been put under any undue public or official pressure to justify it this early in his tenure, there is no denying that there has been a substantial level of scepticism about whether he is good enough with the bat, or to a much lesser extent as a wicketkeeper, to even be in the team, let alone in charge of it. It’s only a year ago when he was not in the team and was widely-regarded – even by himself as he contemplated premature retirement – as having little or no chance of ever wearing the baggy green again.
Leaving aside the troubled tail-end of the disastrous misadventures in South Africa, this assignment is his first chance to prove he is the right man for the job. He could scarcely have been presented with a more formidable challenge. It is not only away from the comfort zone of home, it’s in Asia where Australian teams nearly always under-perform, he has a team containing three debutants and an ageing, recycled fast bowler perceived to be on his last legs, a vice-captain with little more experience or selection solidity than himself, and three of Australia’s best cricketers unavailable because of suspension or injury. Shane Warne has said it is the worst batting line-up he has ever seen Australia field — he was speaking after the 10/60 collapse in the first innings, so he was on solid ground at that stage — and plenty of other people thought the team as a whole has seldom been weaker. Warne was also one of those on Payne’s case in particular, saying before the match that he wasn’t making enough runs.
And then Paine lost the toss, which is more important than usual in that part of the world, or so I was told on Thursday night when I ran into former captain Mark Taylor at a function. In other words, all the odds were stacked heavily against the affable Tasmanian.
But here he is – a hero. He and his team had the worst of the game, yes, but they did not surrender and survived, more or less unscathed, to fight another day. That was a form of victory, no doubt about it.
It was achieved because the leader led. He went a long way towards putting to bed the scepticism about his batting. His glovework was close to faultless – much better than his opposite number, Sarfraz Ahmed, who is also captain and wicketkeeper – with that good judge of such matters Darren Berry tweeting: “Thought he was outstanding,” after Pakistan’s long first innings.
Paine’s confidence and self-belief will have been given an invaluable shot of adrenalin for the remainder of this series and the same might, perhaps, apply to the confidence and belief his team-mates have in him, not to mention the wider family of cricket fans and administrators. It is still very much a work in progress but there is now the opportunity to win the series, with the second and final match starting in Abu Dhabi on Thursday and such a result would be an absolutely priceless triumph for the rookie captain as he contemplates the certainty of a very difficult summer against India followed by the World Cup and the Ashes in England. Certainly, it’s a case of first things first – but Thursday was a most encouraging start.
THE option of making a team follow on when they trail by 200 or more seems to have become almost obsolete in Test cricket. Captains almost always opt to bat again which usually results in the other team being set an impossible fourth-innings run chase or an unlikely challenge to bat for three, four or more sessions for a draw, which was what happened when Pakistan’s Sarfraz Ahmed asked Tim Paine’s team to “chase” 461 or survive for nearly five sessions. The hosts still failed – narrowly – to take the required 10 wickets and had about 100 runs up their sleeves, which makes you wonder whether going for the jugular with the follow on, and leaving themselves with a likely modest chase, would have been the better option. But, of course, nobody likes small chases because they can come embarrassingly unstuck, so they always play safe by batting again and it often results in a predictable and boring anti-climax. Fortunately, this was an exception to that rule, which was good for Test cricket’s unstable image – but you do wonder if the same situation arises in the next match, will Sarfraz be tempted to go the other way? What will Paine’s attitude be if he ever gets the chance?
When I wondered about this on Twitter after the match, Mark Waugh – whose commentary is pretty astute, I reckon – replied: “I think the plan was fine to give their bowlers a little rest, but Pakistan batted too slow and too long. Batted for 50 overs and scored at three runs per over. Should have been 30 overs at five per over.” Actually it was 58 overs for 181, which doesn’t make Junior’s point any less valid – Pakistan’s slow batting was boring in the first innings and became a fatal flaw in the second. They have only themselves to blame for not winning.
IT’S been a pretty good week for Victorian cricket. Three of the boys in blue – they are no longer officially labelled the Bushrangers, thankfully — played their part in the Test, with Aaron Finch getting more than 100 runs across two innings on his belated but well-earned debut, paceman Peter Siddle earning his keep with three economic wickets after an unexpected recall from the wilderness and spinner John Holland proving as effective as Nathan Lyon with four for the match. Meanwhile, the rest of the Victorians destroyed Tasmania in the final of the domestic one-day competition, despite being extremely lucky to get that far at all after losing two early matches and sneaking in ahead of NSW by a whisker of a run-rate when their final preliminary match was washed out. If there was a downside, it was that Australia’s most controversial Test non-selection, Glen Maxwell, didn’t get the runs he needed to put himself back in the frame – but there will be few more interesting and scrutinised scenarios than his performances when the Sheffield Shield starts shortly. If a Test spot does become available, he may well be fighting his captain, the in-form Peter Hanscomb, for it.
THE ONE-DAY final was played at the nicely-refurbished Junction Oval, which opened for business late last season and is already proving to be a popular venue for a comfortable, relaxed day at the cricket – and would be even more so if you could get a park within a bull’s roar of it. Despite that, four of Victoria’s Shield matches will be played as usual at the MCG, the exception being when Queensland visit in February. That is a more palatable arrangement now that the MCG wicket – which produced draws in all five first class matches played there last summer, including a very tedious Ashes Test – is being tweaked to give bowlers a bit more to work with. The ICC bagged the track after only 24 wickets fell across the five days against England, and rightly so, and maybe they should be rattling a few other cages. A case in point would be this week’s lifeless road rolled out for the Dubai Test, in which neither second innings was completed. “The complaints about the MCG were spot on, but this one (Dubai) is just as bad and it’s not good for the game,” I was told by former Test captain and Cricket Australia board member Mark Taylor the other night. Spot on, Tubby! Here’s hoping the G gets it right from now on.
Author: Ron Reed
RON REED has spent more than 50 years as a sportswriter or sports editor, mainly at The Herald and Herald Sun. He has covered just about every sport at local, national and international level, including multiple assignments at the Olympic and Commonwealth games, cricket tours, the Tour de France, America’s Cup yachting, tennis and golf majors and world title fights.