The art of magic relies on a single trick.
The only way the magician can make a person disappear from a cage or guess that your card is the King of Spades is to have their audience focus elsewhere while it is all happening. Illusion is nothing more than you looking in the wrong place at the right time.
The Australian Test team are currently the David Copperfield of cricket. While you looked left, Australian cricket was collapsing over to the right. Last September, by the time you realised what was happening, Pakistan had leapfrogged everyone to become number one in the world. Meanwhile, Australia was returning from Sri Lanka with the public somewhat confused.
Not only had the misdirection technique caught out their fans, it had caught out themselves.
One of the quirks of Australian cricket culture is that unless it is The Ashes, the general public take little notice of the team’s overseas performances. Even an Indian series fails to capture the imagination. The reasons are quite simple to explain. Firstly, most away series happen during the Australian winter. At this time, football codes such as Australian Rules and Rugby League dominate free to air television. They own the sports pages of the newspapers and the hearts of the nation.
Secondly, away cricket series usually only appear behind the paywall of subscription TV, and almost never can be heard on the radio. Less than 35% of Australia have pay TV and it would be unreasonable to suggest that all of them have it to watch Australia play cricket.
So when the world’s number one Test team landed in Colombo in late July this year, the 3-0 scoreline we inherited was diametrically opposed to the one we all expected. But hardly anyone in Australia saw it or even knew that it happened.
They missed the weird battle for number 6 between Mitch Marsh and Moises Henriques. The one that guaranteed a bowling all rounder is a concept that is now dead for a long long time. They missed the struggles of the batsmen against debut off spinners and cagey old left arm spinners. They missed the fact that Australia had bowled out Sri Lanka for 117 in the first innings of the series and all was right in the world. They missed the batting collapses. They missed the bizarre debut of Jon Holland. A bloke who had played two first class games in two years prior to that point.
Only two Australian batsmen averaged over 28 in that series. Only two Australian bowlers averaged under 30. These are not the statistics of success.
The pitches were not raging turners, nor did the ball consistently stay low. Rather, Australia had no idea that the slow straight ball could be so dangerous. They kept getting out to them. They didn’t bowl enough of them.
But most importantly, they missed the usually stoic Australian team culture beginning to crack. Usman Khawaja and Joe Burns were dropped for the third Test. Khawaja publicly challenged the selectors by saying he was a “scapegoat”. Murmours suggested that the relationship between skipper Smith and the selectors was touchy. He wasn’t getting the players he wanted or the support he needed.
The squad would leave Sri Lanka for a five match ODI series in South Africa. Starc was injured and Hazlewood was rested. Australia sent a second rate squad including a bloke named Worrell who was once convicted of engraving a penis into a pitch.
The kick off match was a single ODI against Ireland. Khawaja topped scored. He was then subsequently dropped for the whole five match South Africa series. The same five match series where Australia was whitewashed. Never before had they lost an ODI series 5-0. Apart from stalwarts Smith and Warner, no one averaged over 30 with the bat over the matches. Not one bowler averaged under 30. Some guy named Tremain recorded the worst ever Australian debut bowling figures. Some guy named Mennie recorded the second worst. They did it in the same game.
This result resonated back home. The football season had finished and the papers needed sports stories.
Australian Chairman of Selectors Rod Marsh’s response was to nominate a retirement date of June 2017. He wouldn’t last that long. Australian cricket wouldn’t accept being held to ransom by an old, out of touch yesterday’s man.
Meanwhile, the South African tour bus pulled into Perth. It was without AB de Villiers. At 4/32 in their first innings, normality was restored. Say what you like about Australia overseas. But when at home, they are an unstoppable freight train.
The Proteas etched out 242 and then lost Dale Steyn to a broken shoulder after only his 12th over.
No AB. No Dale. Playing away. This would get ugly. And it did. But not as it was meant to.
Australia went from 0/158 to 10/244. A monumental, yet typical batting collapse that we have seen all too often. They lost 10/86.
When Duminy and Elgar helped South Africa put on 540 for the second innings, the violation was complete.
Rod Marsh said that the team would not change for the second Test. The Australian public went into meltdown. Rod Marsh relented.
The Mitch Marsh experiment ended with Callum Ferguson replacing him at number 6. Squad member Jackson Bird was overlooked for debutante Joe Mennie, based on what Rod Marsh would claim was his “better batting at number 11”.
Australian cricket selections had officially gone completely Pakistani. They made no sense.
Jackson Bird then went and played a Shield game, making 20 odd not out. His First Class batting average for the year to date is higher than Joe Burns, Ferguson, Moises, Neville and Joe Mennie.
The circus travelled to Hobart with these new faces. Proving that losing 10/86 in Perth was no fluke, Australia lost 10/85 at Bellerive. Debutant Ferguson ran himself out. It was if he wanted no part of this comedy act. The other debuntant Mennie took only one wicket and looked toothless.
2-0 down and a team in crisis.
Rod Marsh resigned. This was the trigger that Australia needed to reset itself. But it didn’t quite get it right. Replacing the former old man was another old man. Greg Chappell walked into the selection committee. Mark Waugh was now the youngest man in that group. He is 51 years of age.
Five changes were made for the Adelaide Test. A new opener with only 10 Shield matches to his name was plucked to replace Joe Burns. A reserve wicket keeper would bat 5. The existing wicket keeper would be dropped for Matthew Wade. Apparently, being more vocal behind the stumps is more important than being able to catch a ball.
For some reason, a white ball hard hitting slugger named Maddinson would bat 6. Jackson Bird’s Shield batting heroics didn’t go unnoticed. He would play also.
Although not a perfect effort, this new side won the third Test. Some of the changes worked. Some didn’t. But a win is a win.
Meanwhile in New Zealand, Pakistan was preparing to deliver a result against a struggling New Zealand side.
But just as Australia, the country who produced the world’s best spinner struggles with spin, Pakistan capitulated to a seaming ball despite being the breeding ground for the world’s best quicks.
The First Test. While Younis Khan commenced his journey towards his lowest ever 4 innings aggregate, Wagner reached 100 Test wickets faster than any other Kiwi apart from Sir Richard Hadlee.
The Second Test. Boult doesn’t play due to injury. It doesn’t matter. Southee takes a 6-fer. Pakistan bat like a baby giraffe taking its first steps. Pakistan have lost their mojo.
Perhaps Pakistan in New Zealand is their version of Australia in Sri Lanka? The push ups have gone. The swagger is now a limp. Every strike Kiwi bowler averages under 20 for the series. In return, Amir averages 28. Wahab averages 55. Yasir doesn’t even take a wicket.
Where Australia couldn’t bat, Pakistan couldn’t bowl, catch or bat. What would it look like if Babar doesn’t exist.
Next up is Australia versus Pakistan. In 2016, both teams held the world’s number one Test ranking. In 2016, both were made to look second rate by relative minnows.
Australia responded by ripping its side in two. Their oldest player is now 30 year old David Warner. That’s almost a minimum age requirement for Pakistan. But how will the green shirts respond? Is this Kiwi result just a blip or is it their David Copperfield moment. While the world was watching Mint Gate, was Pakistani cricket casually starting its slide?
The Test matches about to be played should suit Pakistan. The Brisbane pink ball Test is made for Amir and Yasir. The pitch usually provides spin and bounce, and the humid night time conditions are made for quicks who move it.
Melbourne follows next and will provide a true surface for the Pakistani blade masters to construct big scores. Sydney completes the tour. Yasir Shah could well break some records.
But this is all theory. The reality is New Zealand has shown us a Test team not quite on its game can be dismantled by almost anyone. So have Sri Lanka. So have South Africa.
This is Pakistan’s best chance to defeat Australia at home. The hosts have a new side. They don’t know what their best team is. Their confidence is low. They lack leaders, but have backed youth. However, youth is an investment for tomorrow. Experience is for today. Misbah. Younis. Wahab. These are the warriors of now. Australia don’t have hardened men like these right at this point in time. It’s a major flaw.
So close your eyes and dream. Pakistan. Conquerors of Australia in Australia. It could happen. It probably should happen. But will it happen?
Originally printed in Dawn
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