Ever since the Australian cricket team lost its captain Steve Smith, vice-captain David Warner and opener Cameron Bancroft to suspension for ball-tampering, the organisation running the game, Cricket Australia, has been fighting to make the spectre of losses disappear.
The three players were found to have been the prime movers behind the use of sandpaper to change the surface of the ball during a series in South Africa in March 2018; Bancroft, the actual person caught on TV while stuffing a piece of sandpaper down the front of his pants, was suspended for nine months, while Smith and Warner were banned for a year. Warner, in addition, will never be able to hold a leadership position in the team.
After these shocks to the system, Australia has been losing one series after the other, no matter whether it be Tests or the shorter forms of the game. Thus the arrival of the Sri Lankan team to play two Tests has come as a great relief. Sri Lanka is without its skipper Angelo Matthews, a talented all-rounder, who often rescues the team when it is in trouble.
It is also without the experienced paceman Nuwan Pradeep. And after the first Test, it has lost two more pacemen, Dushmantha Chameera and Lahiru Kumara. Given that, the second and final Test is likely to be even more lopsided; the first ended in an innings victory for Australia inside three days, with Sri Lanka able to muster only 144 and 139 in response to an Australian total of 323.
Cricket Australia has been desperate for people to stop talking about the losses and the suspensions; Smith and Warner were the major contributors with the bat and their absence has made the scoreboard look leaner. Plus, being caught red-handed appears to have deflated the confidence of the team no end.
So it is not surprising that the selectors have leapt to effect any and every change that has appeared likely to be a panacea. They named a squad for the first Test but when an uncapped youngster, Kurtis Patterson, made twin centuries in a tour match against the Sri Lankans, he was quickly roped in and gained a place in the team. This, despite the fact that these tour matches are essentially organised to give visiting teams a feel of the conditions; in days gone by, when the global Test cricket schedule was much more relaxed, a touring team had three or four matches, against opposition of varying strengths, prior to the first Test, but these days that is impossible given the packed itinerary.
The media, by and large, did not criticise what was essentially the act of a drowning man in grabbing for a rope. Nobody pointed out that had another youngster, Will Pucovski, been in the team, he would have had the chance to get ready for the forthcoming tour of England — the main game for the Test team this year — as he has already obtained a contract to play county cricket in England before the Ashes.
The fact that Australia defeated Sri Lanka inside three days has now become the main story. Paceman Pat Cummins got 10 wickets in the match – but then Cummins was the best of the bowlers against India too, during the four Tests that preceded the Sri Lanka tour. The problem is that the weak Sri Lankan attack — they have no decent spinner and injuries hit them during the first Test to the extent that when they took the new ball in Australia’s innings, they had one paceman and a spinner operating — posed little challenge and may make someone with questionable skills look much better.
Despite the insipid Sri Lankan attack, no Australian batsmen set themselves to play a long innings. Australia started batting on the very first day so there was no lack of time to fashion an innings over the next two or even three days. But the highest score made was 84, by Marnus Labuschagne, who lasted 150 balls. The drought of centuries continued. Test cricket is a time game; the man at one end can go for his strokes provided the individual at the other end is willing to play the role of sheet anchor. But that air of impatience was once again evident and many of the Australian batsmen crafted their own dismissals.
The dominance of ex-cricketers in the commentators’ ranks on TV and other media has been a hurdle to the selectors in more ways than one. Each of these worthies has his preferred candidate to push — neither of the women in the picture, Allison Mitchell or Isa Guha, has got into this business as yet — and each has his own reasons for doing so. Shane Warne, for instance, still has a chip on his shoulders over never being able to captain Australia and wades into the selectors whenever he can, pushing this candidate or that, many of them from his own state, Victoria, for national selection. His latest choice, Marcus Stoinis, has now been included in the Test squad.
Given the selectors’ knee-jerk reactions in picking players for the national team, it is difficult to know if they are planning for the future or the present. They seem to have one mantra for salvation: the return of Smith and Warner to the ranks after March 29.