Australia January 3, 2017

New dawn follows disaster

Five consecutive Test defeats derailed a good start to 2016, but Australia finished strongly to inspire hope for the year ahead

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Australia player of the year - Steven Smith

"It's never as good or as bad as you think it is" is a phrase beloved of Cricket Australia's team performance manager Pat Howard. Though he is widely expected to exit stage left when his contract expires in June, Howard's phrase rings very true for Australia's cricketers in 2016.

Off the back of a meritorious display on the Test tour of New Zealand, they ascended to No. 1 in the world. The garland was proved premature by abject defeat in Sri Lanka, then laughable by a worse display in home conditions against South Africa. Yet the introspection caused by those defeats had some useful effects: selectors were forced to rethink, coaches to refocus and players to recalibrate.

As captain, Steven Smith emerged as a passionate voice crying out in the wilderness of Bellerive Oval. Three Test victories followed, the last a remarkable triumph at the MCG. But having lived through the tribulations of preceding weeks, which included open questioning of both their jobs, neither Smith nor the coach, Darren Lehmann, are under any illusions about where they now stand. A looming tour of India is another reason to stay sober.

The Boxing Day Test win gave Australia a feel-good finish to 2016 © Cricket Australia/Getty Images

"We're really proud of all the players. Steve's been fantastic with copping a lot outside the game to be honest," Lehmann said of Smith.

"We've learned our skills are very good in patches and not good enough in patches. So as a young side we've got to get better at playing the seaming ball, the swinging ball, the spinning ball, and make sure we're driving the games like we did [in Melbourne]. It's all right when it's in this form of the game at the MCG where the wicket was flat..."

The wickets in New Zealand weren't actually all that flat in February, and a home side trying to farewell their talisman Brendon McCullum was well motivated. But Smith was fortunate in winning a key toss at the Basin Reserve, and well served by his pace bowlers to set up a victory that meant, even after McCullum detonated on day one in Christchurch, that Australia could still dictate terms.

Two key players in that series were Usman Khawaja and Joe Burns, each making fine top-order hundreds to buttress Australia's first innings in the two Tests. Burns' century in particular, after McCullum's effort, seemed testament to a young player finding his feet at Test level, mentally and technically. More broadly, the Australians utilised numerous lessons from the 2015 Ashes tour to be better equipped against the moving ball.

In an up-and-down year, Steven Smith was Australia's shining light with the bat © Getty Images

But all those pointers proved to lead nowhere in particular from the moment Smith's side batted for the first time in Sri Lanka. At the time, Angelo Mathews' young side looked to be a pushover, rolled cheaply on day one of the Pallekele Test and without any sort of recent winning record behind them. But so poorly did the visitors play Sri Lanka's spin triad, and so well did Kusal Mendis respond with a match-shaping century, that an ostensibly well prepared touring side was thrown utterly off its axis.

A hamstring injury to Steve O'Keefe, promising in his first appearance, did not help either, and defeats of still greater magnitude in Galle and Colombo followed that on the outskirts of Kandy. Publicly, Smith and Lehmann pointed the finger at Nathan Lyon and O'Keefe's replacement, Jon Holland, for not matching the feats of Rangana Herath, but the truth of the matter was that ignoble batting lay at the heart of the unprecedented clean sweep. Certainly no one could blame Mitchell Starc, who proved his evolution into a Test match bowler of quality by dominating an Asian series like few fast bowlers ever have.

Pre-series expectations can be summed up by the fact that Sri Lanka asked for the presentation of the ICC Test Championship mace to Australia to be kept a private affair so as not to demoralise the hosts; by contrast, the final afternoon of the series at the SSC had all the hallmarks of a public execution. A bounteous crowd saluted their hero Herath as the Australians folded like napkins in the SLC president Thilanga Sumathipala's hospitality suite.

The Test series win in New Zealand early in the year ticked a number of boxes © Getty Images

In the gap between away and home series, a pair of limited-overs engagements highlighted scheduling troubles and mixed priorities: while in Sri Lanka, Glenn Maxwell sought a move from Victoria to New South Wales that more or less blew up in his face and left him very much on the outer of the national XI by year's end. For the ODIs in South Africa that followed, the resting of Starc and Josh Hazlewood left Smith and his deputy David Warner nursing an inadequate bowling line-up to a 5-0 hiding. South Africa gained useful tactical and mental insights from this sojourn, and arrived down under in a far more confident mood than the absence of AB de Villiers should have allowed.

Smith had hoped that home climes would help his men regain their bearings, but the shift of the opening Test from familiar Brisbane to distant Perth rather detracted from that aim. South Africa have never lost a Test at the WACA, and despite losing Dale Steyn at an inopportune moment on the second day, put together a display that left the Australians gasping. Kagiso Rabada bowled with rare skill and Vernon Philander with impressive stamina, inflicting a fourth successive defeat on a team now deep in a pit of self-doubt.

Band-aid selections were made for Hobart, including debuts for Callum Ferguson and Joe Mennie. But Smith found himself on the wrong end of the coin toss, much as McCullum had done earlier in the year, and a day of batting chaos duly followed. South Africa's response, buttressed by Quinton de Kock's hugely damaging presence at No. 7, threw harsh light onto Australia's own malfunctioning middle order, and when Khawaja swished unwisely after building a platform the previous evening, the match ended about as brutally as Hillary Clinton's presidential prospects.

Disaster in Sri Lanka: Australia slumped to a 3-0 loss against an opposition that had only defeated them in a series once before in Test history © Associated Press

The selection chairman, Rod Marsh, called an emergency meeting mid-match to chart a more youthful direction, and then chose to resign his commission - an honourable decision that also served to deflect pressure from the likes of Lehmann, Howard, and the chief executive, James Sutherland. Interim chairman Trevor Hohns duly unveiled a team for Adelaide that featured Matt Renshaw, Peter Handscomb and Nic Maddinson, plus a recalled Matthew Wade; Burns, Adam Voges, Mitchell Marsh and Peter Nevill were the four major casualties of five successive defeats.

Dead-rubber Tests can often feel like false dawns, but Adelaide Oval's sunset proved a tonic for Smith and his refreshed team. Renshaw and Handscomb provided major improvements to the batting order, by each showing rare self-knowledge and poise for batsmen so young, while Wade's yapping was allied to a winning habit he brought with him from Victoria's Sheffield Shield side. A restorative victory allowed for the team to remain unchanged for the first time all year; stability is too strong a word, but the boat had at least slowed in its rocking.

Smith's captaincy is still a work in progress, particularly when directing his bowlers in the field. A more natural tactician might not have allowed Pakistan to get so close at the Gabba, Asad Shafiq notwithstanding. But Smith's leadership with the bat cannot be sniffed at, nor the desire of his players to fall in behind him. All that came together on a sun-kissed afternoon in Melbourne, when Smith, Starc, Lyon and Hazlewood fashioned a victory that could only have been achieved by a team with direction and belief. Whether they can do similar away from home is the next question on everyone's lips.

Nic Maddinson, Matt Renshaw and Peter Handscomb made debuts in the Adelaide Test against South Africa © Getty Images

High point
To finish as Australia did in Melbourne, after so many swings and roundabouts beforehand, provided all concerned with reason for optimism. After a quiet year, Warner finally put together a Test innings of which he could be proud, allowing Smith, Khawaja and Starc to follow suit. The final day's bowling effort was likewise a triumph of invention and positive thinking, on a surface that offered next to nothing for pace or spin.

Low point
Lachlan Ferguson flew in from London on the morning of the Hobart Test to watch his brother Callum debut, and exploded in rage and confusion when it culminated in a shambolic run-out amid Australia's first-innings humiliation. His huff epitomised the anger around Australia at that moment: the national team had not been at a similarly grim ebb since the loss of three Ashes Tests by an innings in 2010-11.

New kid on the block
Handscomb does not do things by the book, at least not by a book that isn't his as-yet-unpublished autobiography. But his marriage of crease-bound defence against pace and fleet feet against spin showcase a high degree of thought about his game and what suits him best. Runs on debut against South Africa were assured; a Gabba century against Pakistan was better still. India will be his test, but he looks set for a long career.

Callum Ferguson was dejected after his run-out, and his brother Lachlan was not too impressed either © Getty Images

Fading star
Due to a blow to the helmet in the Sheffield Shield that ruled him out with concussion, Voges was not strictly dropped after Hobart. But the sea change in Australian selection and a deflating run of outs that began in Sri Lanka meant that he was never likely to be recalled when fit again. Voges' record now stands as something of an anomaly - the highest career average of any Test batsman to have played more than 20 innings other than Sir Donald Bradman - and also a marker of the fact that 2015-16 had inflated Australia's standing rather more than was merited.

What 2017 holds
India is the most vexing challenge for any team right now, and it is Australia's next assignment. The ODI Champions Trophy will also occupy minds, before a tour of Bangladesh and then the small matter of a home Ashes series. Currently stalled pay negotiations between the players and CA will also require close attention over at least the next six months.

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • John on January 10, 2017, 9:09 GMT

    I'd go with Renshaw, Warner, S. Marsh, Smith, Handscomb, Maxwell, M.Marsh, ( Wicketkeeper..fill in the blank), O'Keefe, Starc, Hazelwood for the opening test in India. Khawaja can't play spin at all ( so S.Marsh in for him), M.Marsh can be the 3rd seamer as he can reverse it plus he can bat at 7 or 8. Maxwell will bowl as effectively as Lyon plus he can bat against spin. Wicketkeeper is probably hardest spot to pick, I'd probably go with Nevill or Hartley as the batting aspect is better covered with Maxwell, Marsh and O'Keefe all can chip in 20-30 runs each on average.

  • David on January 5, 2017, 3:04 GMT

    While we have to wait to see how he goes in future, I don't accept the comparisons between Handscomb and Ballance. The only similarity is that they play deep in the crease; however, Handscomb is a tall upright player whose head is always still and above the line of the ball, while Ballance seems to play with very bent knees and frequently with his head inside the line. To me, they're not the same at all. Then you'll probably get a good look next season while they're piling on the runs for Yorkshire.

  •   Randy Bridgeman on January 5, 2017, 0:04 GMT

    The Aussie newcomers look the part. Let's remember though that they haven't been tested in a variety of conditions or against tougher opposition. When adversity comes, how will they handle it? Will they become nervous and hark back to puppy status or will they employ a steely reserve? Time will tell. Their bowling is very good in the pace department. Not sure about Lyons. I think Wade is overrated as a batsman and his keeping is nothing to write home about. Safe to say that the final Aussie squad named for the tour will be severely tested by the Indians who are just waiting to inflict some deep wounds on their opponents.

  • Mashuq on January 4, 2017, 19:17 GMT

    @SAMROY ON JANUARY 4, 2017, 8:09 GMT "The best pure wicket-keeper in Australia as keeper to India" so happens to average 50+ with the bat this season! OK it is skewed by 5 not outs but 250 runs from 5 completed Shield innings plus a career average in the 30s is nothing to be sneezed at. Chris Hartley is my pick for India even though he's 34! Whiteman is still too inconsistent with the bat, but he could go along as reserve. Wade is a disaster-in-the-making behind the stumps. As for the spinner to supplement Lyon and ~SOK, I would take Fawad Ahmed (also 34!) ahead of Agar and Holland. Until the young and promising leg-spinners justify their selection via decent averages in Shield, Ahmed with his acceptable average, economy and strike rate can fill in on the S/C tours. Just because the selectors are picking young batsmen, all-rounders and quicks is no reason not to consider ageing stopgaps as keeper and spinner until their understudies mature!

  • beastp5882989 on January 4, 2017, 12:49 GMT

    The important thing right now for Australia is settling the side. Handscomb and Renshaw are settling in nicely. Shaun Marsh should be playing regardless. He is a top player. Lyon needs to do what England spinners never did; Mix it up! When Mo Ali mixed up his bowling, he got wickets as did Ad Rashid. Smith could also practice his bowling just in case.

    Warner Renshaw Khawaja Smith Handscomb S.Marsh/Cartwright Wade Starc Hazlewood Bird/spinner Lyon

  • Rohan on January 4, 2017, 12:05 GMT

    Yeah that SL tour was a shocker, pretty much everything that could go wrong for Australia did, and likewise everything went right for SL. How many runs has Mendis made since? Negligible. How's Herath going in SA? Not great. Ah well, it's history. Will SL even still be playing test cricket when Australia are due to tour again?

  • sam on January 4, 2017, 8:09 GMT

    Australia have a better team now then they had in 2015 and most of 2016. A proper opening partner for Warner and a good middle order player in Handscomb. Get Shaun Marsh at 6 and you have a good batting lineup IMO. With Warner, Renshaw, Khawaja, Smith and Handscomb batting is looking pretty good and with Starc, Hazelwood, Bird and Lyon bowling is looking pretty good as well. Voges was always going to be flat pitch/bad bowling bully and Mitch Marsh was well below test standard batsman. He was more of a Test No. 8 than a No. 6. Yes, there are a lot of weaknesses like playing and bowling spin on turning pitches and playing swing under swinging conditions but those problems have been with Australian Team for the last 10 years; nothing new. Now get the best pure wicket-keeper in Australia as keeper to India if you want to compete. Never mind if he averages 0 with bat.

  • Russell on January 4, 2017, 7:37 GMT

    It just goes to show how important selection is. After kissing a few frogs, in Renshaw and Handscomb they've found a couple of promising players who could be around for a long time. I guess Greg Chappell is responsible for those selections, maybe the Aussie fans can confirm that. The tour of India will be really tough because India are so strong at home, they give you absolutely nothing and then when it starts to turn big Ashwin becomes unplayable. It's on the road that the Aussies still have a lot to prove, but then that's true of most sides in Test cricket these days. The Ashes next year will be a close contest and I can see a few late nights on the cards!!

  • Rajaram on January 3, 2017, 23:29 GMT

    The Final Frontier beckons again - India. I am confident this will be a repeat of 2004 when the Ricky Ponting / Adam Gilchrist / Damien Martyn Team conquered India and won the series.

  • rob on January 3, 2017, 21:33 GMT

    Yes, I'm interested to know why we don't need 'people like him'.

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