NEXT week, the Australian international cricket season kicks off with the first Test against New Zealand. The Kiwis will play two Tests and then India will play four more, beginning in December. Next year, Australia, India and Sri Lanka will play a triangular limited overs tournament.
Australia is in the midst of a transition but it remains to be seen to what extent the new set of selectors are prepared to experiment. Ricky Ponting and Michael Hussey are both well into their 30s and not exactly setting the Nullarbor on fire when they go out to bat. Mitchell Johnson has been erratic to put it mildly, with more downsides than upsides. And Brad Haddin has shown an inclination to throw his wicket away at the worst of times. His keeping is pretty poor too.
There are adequate replacement waiting in the wings. One of the very first fast-bowling options tried out, Patrick Cummins, has shown that he can serve as the fulcrum of a good pace attack. There are others like James Pattinson who can be blooded.
The two Tests against New Zealand could well be used to try out some of the aspiring players. The Kiwis are not that strong an outfit and Australia can be reasonably confident of winning both Tests, even if they blood a few new players.
Ponting is not the best batsman in the side any more; Clarke is clearly much better. Usman Khawaja needs to get more time out in the middle if he is to become a regular member of the team and Shane Watson needs to move down the order. The selectors should not be afraid to tap Ponting and Hussey on their shoulders and tell them it is time to go.
Whenever talk of Ponting retiring comes up, he always points to Sachin Tendulkar and says he can do something similar; the Indian has shown no dropoff in scoring, even though he is a year older than Ponting. But Ponting has been going through a drought for the last 18 months and it shows no sign of going away.
With the bowlers, too, there needs to be some firm talk from the selectors. Johnson should be dropped and others tried out. One of the revelations about Cummins is that he seems to have a great deal of intelligence and uses it when bowling; he just does not go out and bang it down the wicket. Peter Siddle does not use his brains when he bowls – at best, he is an honest trier. One should look to the example of Dennis Lillee and the late Malcolm Marshall, who always bowled well within themselves but always got results. Both used their brains when they were out in the middle.
Back in 1999, the West Indies were bowled out for 51 in a Test against Australia in the Caribbean. But the next two Tests were a remarkable turnaround, engineered in the main by one Brian Lara. That was taken by the Windies to mean that change was not needed and that the existing team was good enough to keep soldiering on. Twelve years on, the West Indies are still to win a Test series against decent opposition.
Australia can allow itself to be lulled into a similar state of complacency. The team was bowled out for 47 in South Africa recently but won the next Test with a strong showing. The latter result should not be taken to indicate that the 47 all out was a minor aberration; on the contrary, it was a warning that there is something wrong with the team that needs to be fixed, and fast.
There are good times to make changes in cricket teams, and bad times too. If the selectors are bold enough to make changes for the Tests against New Zealand, it will serve Australia well in the long run. If they opt to wait until desperate times arrive to make changes, then Australia’s goal of trying to climb up the ladder of international cricket will remain just that: a goal.