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An Australian Examination

• Posted in Australia / Cricket • By JoeBaker

If you’re a fan of cricket, you’ll doubtless be aware that the biggest Test series in the game, the Ashes, is underway again. And if you watched the first Test, won comfortably by Australia by 10 wickets, or listened or read any of the pre-series build up, you will also have heard a great deal about the importance of the Gabba pitch. This famous old ground in Brisbane is one of the most intimidating in the game for visiting international sides, not just for the raucous atmosphere but the playing conditions that batsmen must cope with and that bowlers are so eager to exploit.

Why do you think Australia always look to begin an Ashes series there? It is to give opposing batsmen a taster for what they can expect for the rest of a series – a traditional Australian cricketing environment that is so difficult to adapt to and overcome. It was why winning a series in Australia is such a tremendous feat, and why now is an ideal time to discuss what makes playing cricket in the country such a challenge for players all of all ages and experiences.

Once you’ve got yourself in, batting in Australia on flatter pitches can be really rewarding. Getting to that point however is another thing altogether. The hard, faster and bouncier pitches are like nothing you will have played on before in England, testing your technique in several ways. For example, normally in traditional conditions a batsman would play the ball at somewhere between knee-roll and waist height. In Australia, it’s more often than not between hip and shoulder. Just look at the way the Australian quicks targeted England’s batsmen with the shorter stuff, bringing back nightmares for many of the field day Mitchell Johnson had during the last series Down Under. It can reveal flaws in any players game, including England’s all-time leading run scorer Alistair Cook, who was drawn so easily into Mitchell Starc’s short-ball trap in Brisbane.

The margin for error will be no different for Joe Root’s men during the rest of the series as we move to Adelaide, Perth, Melbourne and Sydney. Make a mistake early into an innings and it is likely to cost you dearly as the ball will easily carry off any edges through to the wicketkeeper and a waiting slip cordon. For that reason, any batter who doesn’t have a good idea of where their off-stump is will struggle. Players are taught to try and keep their hands and bat close to the body and avoid any needless wafting at deliveries. This is hard when balls are arriving that bit quicker and more aggressively, leading to an instinctive desire to move earlier than necessary. It requires an admirable amount of patience and judgement to know when to leave and when to step forward to hit through the off-side. It also necessitates a good back-foot game, with an ability to play hooks, cuts and pulls vital.

And what about the bowlers? What if the batsmen do get in and those asked to pull off the destruction are faced with prolonged spells in searing heat, on a wicket less prone to swing bowling?

Firstly, it requires excellent captaincy. In these types of conditions, the leader of the team has to be constantly switched on in order to effectively rotate his bowling attack and use individuals at the right time. Short, explosive spells are needed in Australia. Already we have seen Root cautious to allow his two crown bowling jewels, Stuart Broad and Jimmy Anderson, to bowl more than four or five overs at a time. Furthermore, bowlers simply need to be backed up by their fielders, be it taking catches or preventing quick singles. Imagine running in again and again with no reward, if to finally force a mistake but see a half-engaged fielder reacting slowly and putting the chance down?

In English Test match conditions, at the start of an innings a bowler may be more likely to be patient, looking for a steady line and length and use any available swing to draw an mistake. In Australia, you must be far more aggressive, applying the pressure straight from the start before a new batsman can get settled and when the Kookaburra ball is at its hardest. Tactical intelligence is also key. During the series you will likely see the likes of Starc and Cummins in particular for Australia bowling largely shorter deliveries before pulling out a Yorker or straighter delivery angled into the pads. It’s why Broad and Anderson have been so successful in Ashes tours away from home with their ability to change things up -  be it the angle of delivery or shape of the seam. It’s especially important that a bowling attack is able to work as a unit, with one often needing to hold an end and keep things tight whilst the other bowls in a more risky manner in order to make a breakthrough. You simply cannot afford to give away cheap runs in Australia.

An Ashes series in Australia can be the making or breaking of an international cricketer. For those who acclimatise and learn, it can result in a far more developed and technically astute cricketer. At any level, playing cricket in the country is both a challenge and an exciting opportunity. It’s why any young, budding cricketers looking to take their game to the next level should head Down Under to play as soon as they can.

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