Rather than looking at the upcoming Oval Test as the fifth of a series already lost, perhaps we should look at it as the first of a series that can be won.
Despite the 3-0 scoreline England’s way, Australia has done a lot right in the completed Tests so far. Admittedly, this can be as much a cause for concern as a beacon of hope.
Chris Rogers has been a stellar performer, the best batsman in a top six whose struggles have been well documented. While skipper Michael Clarke has scored slightly more runs at a greater average, his impact has largely been contained to one innings.
Rogers has done the tough work from the outset, opening the batting in a bowler’s series. In fact, he’s been the second best batsmen when combining both teams, behind only the peerless Ian Bell. Now that he knows he belongs, the runs will surely continue to flow at home.
David Warner showed what he was capable of at Chester-le-Street, with his most mature innings since his oft-referred to but never repeated 123 not out against New Zealand in his second Test.
Test cricket is about surviving the good balls and punishing the bad, and Warner showed that he could defend stoutly and, because of his natural talent, turn decent balls into bad with timing and placement. Shot selection will always be the key to his game, both good and bad.
Michael Clarke hasn’t had the best series with the bat despite averaging 49, most of his runs coming from his 187 at Old Trafford. A chancey player not particularly suited to the moving ball, he rides his luck and punishes the opposition when it’s going his way.
He can be expected to contribute more in the Australian summer.
Steve Smith, Phil Hughes and Usman Khawaja have done what we largely expected of them at this stage of their careers. That is, the odd quality innings indicative of their skill and application punctuated by underwhelming performances.
As is ever the case for such players in struggling sides, luck has often not been in their favour. But when they have played an innings of substance, we can recognise the tools to work with in the future hope of them becoming fully-fledged Test cricketers.
This has all been done with sections of the public savaging them on forums such as this, and with the ever-present threat of the axe hovering over them. Hopefully they can apply the lessons learned on such a tough tour in the early Shield games, build their form and confidence, and be all the stronger in Australian conditions.
Shane Watson is, as he always has been, a work in progress. The problem is that we all expect the finished package, although many have now accepted that he may never fulfill that particular obligation.
His batting is frustratingly stylish and inadequate, while with the ball he’s been critical in many ways beyond the obvious. If his bowling can remain at the same high standard and he can reach previous heights with the bat, this team will become that much stronger. The signs were there in the fourth Test.
Brad Haddin, like Matthew Wade before him, has had his moments, both good and bad, with bat and gloves. He hasn’t performed to the standard he’d have set for himself with either, but should be particularly disappointed with his lack of leadership in front of the stumps since performing so grandly at Trent Bridge.
Six scores of 13 or less in eight stints at the crease has been far from good enough for a seasoned veteran coming off a strong summer, especially in a line-up crying out for runs and stability in dire situations.
Hopefully Wade has used this tour to sharpen his glovework, putting in hour after hour behind the scenes, and is ready to assume the position as keeper, and in the process strengthening the team as a whole.
The form of Ryan Harris has been simultaneously stunning and not at all surprising. What was a shock was how many didn’t have him in their first Test line-up, but there has never been any question in my mind since his Test debut that he was in the premier three fast bowlers in the country.
He should be in the heads of the English batsmen by now, which can be exploited back home as well.
James Pattinson wasn’t at his best in the two Tests he played, subsequently found to be suffering from stress fractures. He is a superior talent, and the Poms won’t know what hit them if he is at his best in Brisbane. What a bonus it is to have him holding up a brittle batting order too.
Peter Siddle has been a lion-heart, and we know what we get from him by now. Not quite the all-conqueror that some Victorians believe, he certainly has a role to play, and is a key part of Australia’s bowling strength and depth that offers hope in the next series.
Mitch Starc and Jackson Bird are also a part of this depth, and will be better for further exposure at the highest level. Like the inexperienced batsmen, it’s now up to them to apply themselves in the early Shield matches and keep pressure on those ranked around or ahead of them.
Nathan Lyon continues to edge the doubters slowly towards his corner, and has bowled impressively since his return. It’s worth remembering that he is yet to reach his ceiling. Could this summer be the one that he stamps himself as unquestionably the best spinner in the country?
Ashton Agar, like Starc and Bird, can only be benefited from his exposure to Ashes cricket, and it’s exciting to have a young talent like him in the wings in case Lyon loses form and confidence. When youth is on your side, a quantum leap in performance is never out of the question.
With these bowling stocks, plus the importance of Watson, burn-out won’t be the factor that it might be for the English likes of Anderson, Broad and Swann.
The batting is a work in progress and can only improve from a very low base. Clarke’s captaincy is astute, and the culture around the team, as well as planning and preparation, has shown signs of improvement under Lehmann’s command.
Hope exists. We just need to see some confirmation of it at The Oval. If we do, we can approach the upcoming summer with optimism.