So, Australia have lost the Ashes, and it was hardly a shock. Long before Stuart Broad‘s quadrennial Ashes winning spell, fingers had been pointed, post mortems had been written and the inquests had begun. Selectors, coaches, the media, fans, Twenty20, the Sheffield Shield, state cricket, grade cricket and even Sam Robson have all been blamed for the urn not being returned, and all kinds of crazy theories have been spouted by those in the know (and those who really aren’t) about how the Aussies can get back to their former glories.
While clearly being used as a motivational tool for his underperforming charges, if Lehmann is serious about dropping the entire side, this could be the worst thing to happen to Australian cricket for a long time — even considering the considerable list of bad things to happen to Australian cricket recently. The fifth Ashes Test is a great chance for the Aussies to finally play freely and without pressure — while they have nothing to play for in terms of the urn, they can go and play positively, score runs and shift some momentum their way before the score resets at nil-nil in Brisbane. Attention and focus should be taken off these by-and-large inexperienced players, but instead, Lehmann has pushed it heavily back onto them.
On a cricket level, cutting his losses and moving on from this team would also be a pretty poor idea — mainly because somehow or another Australia have stumbled across a pretty decent side. More by luck than judgment, they’ve found two openers who complement each other well — David Warner and Rogers — one counter-attacking and adventurous; the other gritty and determined, both of whom will fight to the death for Australia. Moving Clarke up to No 4 has been long overdue, as has dropping Shane Watson to No 6, and they give a much better balance to the batting card. Questions still remain over Usman Khawaja and Steven Smith at Test level, but they’ve both shown glimpses of their ability, and should be backed to come good. This is a side that was the equal of — if not outplayed England for the entire third Test, and most of the Fourth, but came unstuck against some high class bowlers who got their tails up. Ripping this team apart just as they’ve come together would be a disaster.
Shaking the team up wouldn’t be a bad idea if Australia had ready-made replacements — but they don’t. Unless Lehmann’s found a time-machine, there really aren’t many options, with most of the names (Nic Maddinson, Alex Doolan) touted as potential newbies having only played a handful of First-Class games, let alone Tests. Contrast that to the near-enough conveyor belt of potential English replacements, and its clear where Australian problems lie.
Lehmann would do well to contrast the English sides he played against of the 1990s; where players came and went with alarming regularity, there was no settled side and no idea over which was the strongest eleven, to the England side he faces as a coach in this series; where a regular set of players are given the confidence of the selectors to perform, and consistent selections are made. Nick Compton and Steven Finn could argue otherwise, but they are the exception rather than the rule, and the exceptional success of recent years compared to the overwhelming failures of earlier owe a lot to consistent selections. Australia have not had a settled side since, well, the wonder team of Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath, Matthew Hayden and Adam Gilchrist — with new faces appearing, disappearing, then reappearing a few years later hardly conducive to success, and woeful Australian results in the past three years bearing this out.
If Australian cricket is to return to anywhere near the glory years (though I imagine they’d take just being competitive in two consecutive games), an element of consistency has to come in. While they have been good in spells this series, those spells have been few and far between. And what surely can’t help it is the constant tinkering with the side, and player’s roles throughout. First Watson’s an opener who won’t bowl, then he’s a number six expected to bowl a lot of maidens. The spinner was meant to be Nathan Lyon, but it suddenly was Ashton Agar, but then it was Lyon again. Clarke wasn’t going to bat anywhere else but at No 5, then suddenly he had to bat at No 4. Mitchell Starc was playing, then he wasn’t playing, then he was, then he wasn’t again. Warner got in a fight so had to go to Zimbabwe, then he got parachuted in to bat at six, then suddenly he was an opener. Australia had a really long tail, then they picked three bunnies. How does Lehmann expect these players to perform if even they don’t know what he expects of them?
For me, somehow or other, Australia have stumbled across a half decent formula that doesn’t suck nearly as much as the team that they started the series with. Lehmann could keep throwing names up in the air and hoping a winning team magically forms, but his best bet is to stick with what he’s got, and get them to grow as a unit. Lord’s aside Australia have given England a much bigger contest than they thought they were going to get, and throwing this lot away for untried and untested newbies is a gamble that could spectacularly backfire. Lehmann may argue that it’s a gamble worth taking as he doesn’t have much to lose, but going into the fifth Test at The Oval, these Aussies need backing, not sacking.
(Will Atkins is a cricket writer and blogger for The Short Midwicket – the shortmidwicket.blogspot.com. When he isn’t watching, writing or podcasting about cricket, he dresses up as a panther for Middlesex County Cricket Club)