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Recipe for success? Just add spice

Jonathan Howcroft

Jonathan Howcroft

Written on Thursday, 11 August 2011 15:47

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If Australia is serious about regaining the top spot in world cricket, a reasonable place to start would be in its own back yard. Favourable home playing conditions have accelerated the rise up the rankings of India and now England - and it's time Australia did the same by preparing some hostile, bouncy wickets in time for this summer's main event.

In December, the side currently ranked number one in the world, India, visits our shores, and to quote Dad's Army's Lance-Corporal Jones, "They don't like it up ‘em!"

One of the most revered batting orders in history is right now crumbling against a tall, disciplined English bowling attack, extracting enough bounce to trouble some of the game's finest. It's not that India has been bounced out, a la sides eviscerated by the disco-era West Indies, but that the occasional heart-seeking missile has so unsettled India's batsmen that the fuller, wicket-taking deliveries, have caught them flatfooted, tentative and indecisive.

There are other reasons why India has failed to pass 288 in five innings on English soil in Tests this series - poor preparation chief amongst them - but that cannot hide the technical failings of, in particular, Suresh Raina and Yuvraj Singh.

Former Indian Test batsman, Sanjay Manjrekar, spoke at length of India's difficulties with short-pitched bowling on Cricinfo this week. He suggested that his countrymen's susceptibility to bouncers is not just costing them in wickets it is also hurting their morale.

"When you have two or three batsmen in one team getting out to bouncers, there is a certain amount of humiliation there for a batsman. It's slightly embarrassing," Manjrekar said. "It's like a boxer hitting someone who just fends it off and they get pummelled into submission."

If the memo to Australia's curators needed any further prompting, one needs only look at Australia's solitary highlight of last summer - the third Test in Perth. On a bouncy WACA wicket Ryan Harris and Mitchell Johnson were near unplayable. The difference between that match and the other four is so distinct it is almost like comparing fixtures from different eras. In Perth, Harris and Johnson were Lillee and Thomson incarnate. Elsewhere, the baggy green attack was dispatched to all parts with disdain.

The combination of playing to the strengths of the home side and the weakness of the visitors is surely irresistible.

Of the four Tests, Melbourne, on Boxing Day, should set the tone. The MCG drop-in deck should resemble bitumen by mid-summer, with Johnson, Harris and home favourite, Peter Siddle wrestling the ball out of each other's hands to expose India's soft underbelly. The method should be repeated in Sydney, ramped up further in Perth and followed through as best as possible in Adelaide.

The second Test in Sydney could be the real litmus test of Australia's planning and intentions. The usual propensity to encourage spin should be resisted at all costs. There was a moment in the first innings of the second Test between England and India where Yuvraj looked like a forlorn Wile E Coyote trying to catch the speedy Road Runner, so befuddled was he by the velocity and bounce of the crimson Duke. Faced with Graeme Swann, international cricket's form spinner, and Yuvraj's ACME antics were replaced by a regal swagger as he sashayed down the bowler's home wicket like Fred Astaire.

Such conditions should also provide Australia with another natural advantage.

Australian batsmen, by and large, are the best equipped in world cricket to cope with lifting tracks as they tend to be comfortable back foot players. Look no further than Mike Hussey, who delivered a clinic in Perth last summer. Or Ricky Ponting, who, freed from the pressures of captaincy, can return to being the most savage hooker and puller in the game. Star turn, Shane Watson, is also at his muscular best cutting either side of point.

With a summer of lifters to prepare for, Australia can also avoid the ongoing embarrassment of selecting a sub-standard spinner out of necessity. Sure, if Nathan Lyon, Michael Beer or whoever, proves themselves capable they should be called up. The balance of any attack is improved with a bowler capable of taking pace off the ball. But, who is likely to take more Indian wickets: a bowler considered by Victoria to be its third best spinner at the beginning of last summer, or one of the increasing supply of tall, young, tyros eager to stake their claims? Swann has bowled a total of just 60 overs in five innings in the ongoing series, for figures of 2/233, and if last summer proved anything it's that there is no spinner in Australia close to his class.

While there is a paucity of spin options, there is a surfeit of pace. Johnson, Harris and Siddle lead the pack but Trent Copeland, James Pattinson, Mitchell Starc, Patrick Cummins, Doug Bollinger, Josh Hazlewood and Mark Cameron would not be fanciful picks.

Australia's inability to take 20 wickets against top opposition has been documented ad nauseum in this column. This summer provides an ideal opportunity for Cricket Australia to show some strategic thought, play to its strengths and prove the gap between the best and wherever Australia is, is not as wide as currently feared.

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