History wars: it’s not all about ‘Boof’
It has become almost a truism of Australian cricket that the appointment of Darren Lehmann as national coach was the catalyst for the team’s transformation from easy beats to giant killers.
The problem with that version of events is that it plays neatly into the hands of the Clarke-sceptics, those who would happily airbrush from history the influence of the man who should rightly take the lion’s share of the credit for the Ashes clean sweep.
Proponents of this narrative tend to have a nostalgic, 1970s-centric view of the game, in which raw aggression, mustachioed quicks and beer-soaked camaraderie dominated the pitch and dressing room. ‘Boof’, with his knockabout reputation, suits this narrative perfectly.
Certainly the success under Lehmann represents a welcome interruption to what seemed an eternal sporting continuum towards more (and more and more) coaching, dieting, psychology, rotations, systems, jargon and downright bullshit. This is the mentality that led to the nadir of homework-gate during the 2013 India tour.
Conventional wisdom has it that Lehmann would have solved any problems in the side by taking the boys out for a couple of Kingfishers at the local bar. As Brad Haddin said only minutes after securing the 5-0 scoreline on Sunday, Lehmann has “taken all the anxiety out of the change room”. And no one is enjoying their cricket at present more than Haddin, for whom it all seems a bit of a lark.
Yet it is also worth remembering that, during the 4-0 drubbing in India — and this was the low point, not the England tour — it was Clarke who was topping both the runs and the averages in the most trying conditions and despite a back injury that restricted him to only three Tests.
It is also worth remembering that Clarke was the most attacking captain in world cricket before Lehmann was appointed. He was using his bowlers in short, inventive spells before Lehmann, setting ‘funky’ fields before Lehmann and making enterprising declarations before Lehmann.
What he did not have was a consistently fit Ryan Harris, a rejuvinated Mitchell Johnson and a gradually improving Nathan Lyon with — finally — the backing of the selectors. He did have Peter Siddle, and therein lies the key. Siddle was the leader of the attack, but is now its third stringer, and a fine one at that. All this has enabled Johnson to be unleashed in the manner for which he was designed.
So forget the dressing room dynamics, it’s the bowlers wot done it.
Along the way, Clarke’s captaincy has been superb, particularly the use of his attack. The deployment of unconventional fielding positions that so discombobulated Pietersen earlier in the series continued in Sydney, where Carberry was picked up at leg slip and Bell at a shortish gully.
Clarke’s ruthlessless should also never be questioned. At times, his fields resembled Bodyline. Even as James Anderson walked out to face the music for the final time in Sydney, a leg gully and a short leg were introduced to finish him off, as merciless as anything seen in the Colosseum.
There was nothing metrosexual about the way he crushed England in a record 21 days. So, when it comes to recording the history of the 2013-14 triumph, Michael Clarke should not be short-changed, Boof or no Boof.
Australia went into the series with four bona fide Test cricketers (Clarke, Haddin, Harris and Siddle), another five who needed to perform to consolidate their spots (Warner, Rogers, Smith, Johnson and Lyon) and a product of wishful thinking (Bailey).
Of the second group, Warner performed as expected from these quarters, dropping away only with his concentration later in the series. His mental battles will be his greatest challenge.
Rogers was a revelation, showing that he has made the mental adjustment to Test cricket. His centuries were positively sparkling and of the highest class.
Smith made two magnificent centuries, both when it counted, to defy those who had doubts about his technique. (My hand is up, although I still believe he is a natural No.6).
Johnson needs no further examination, other than to point out that his record in South Africa is extremely good.
Lyon did everything asked of him and has finally buried the curse of Shane Warne who, of course, was always going to be irreplaceable.
Patently, the Bailey experiment failed. Other than at short leg, he looked at home only when in one-day mode in Perth. It was almost reassuring — although not for Bailey — to be reminded that Test cricket is an examination of technique unlike any other in the game.
And then, of course, there is Watto. One suspects that arguments over where Watto belongs — opening, No.3, No. 6, the IPL, the chiropractor? — will continue for as long as he is plonking that big front leg in front of the stumps and looking downcast at another LBW shout. The man is a cricketing hieroglyphic.
Beware South Africa
By rights, the South Africa tour should create as much anticipation as an Ashes series. England — Broad and Stokes apart — were so insipid that Australia’s form line has been distorted. This will be heavy duty cricket, even without Jacques Kallis.
Disgraceful throughout. The lunatics are running the asylum and making a mockery of the game, officials and the public. See previous rants.
A big loss
Jokes aside, Kerry O’Keeffe is a big loss to Australian cricket. In a sport that tends to appeal to a limited demographic, his unique combination of humour, cricketing smarts and light-hearted parochialism is a godsend. I’ll never forget my better half paying attention to the game — just briefly, admittedly — when hearing a slips catcher described as having hands “quicker than Winona Ryder’s”. He will be missed.