With Aaron Finch already locked into one opening batting berth, the selectors have David Warner and Usman Khajawa to pick from as the skipper’s partner.
South Africa toured Australia in 1952-53. The squad of 15 had six players who had never played Test cricket.
They played five Tests against a side captained by Lindsay Hassett that included players like Neil Harvey, Keith Miller, Ray Lindwall, Colin McDonald and Ritchie Benaud. The tourists managed to score only one Test hundred. Only three of their batsmen averaged more than 40 across the series – and one of these guys played one Test and batted twice for 50 runs and once not out – and none of their bowlers averaged less than 27 runs per wicket.
Yet this team managed to draw a series 2-2 with a team comprising a number of players from the 1948 Invincibles side.
One of the lessons Ritchie Benaud took from this series was how hard the South Africans trained on their fielding. The story goes that Jack Chetham, the South African captain, set a target of having zero dropped catches across the entire series. They ended up dropping two, which were apparently very difficult at best.
The side also worked extremely hard on it’s ground fielding, with the reasoning that the fewer runs they had to chase, the more chance they had of setting up a victory.
Australia has prided itself over many years on the quality of its ground fielding and especially its catching, but I think the standards have slipped significantly in recent times. Gone are the days when batsmen would think twice about going for a run simply because a Mark Waugh, Ricky Ponting or Michael Clarke were within ten yards of the ball.
I also recall our bowlers, especially Glenn McGrath, getting an edge and simply running with their hands up because they knew the catch would be taken. I don’t think our bowlers are quite so trusting of the slips cordon at the moment.
The series against India was not a great one for catching by Australia, but there were signs of improvement in the Sri Lanka series, with Joe Burns and Kurtis Patterson in particular taking some excellent grabs. This was offset, however, by some pretty simple dropped chances, often by Usman Khawaja.
The Australian bowlers probably form one of the best, if not the best, outfielding units in world cricket. All are athletic, all get to the ball quickly and all have strong arms. That leaves Tim Paine, who was very good but not great as a keeper in the Indian series. Long days in the field can’t have helped his concentration, but this needs to improve for the upcoming tours.
I know you see the Aussies out every day during a game going through a series of fielding drills, but this is only warming up. The few snippets I’ve seen of the guys actually training don’t show much intensity – rather the mere maintenance of current skills instead of a honing of those skills. How often do they have nothing but intensive fielding drills as opposed to a bit of fielding in between batting and bowling in the nets?
Most pundits agree the Ashes series is likely to be dominated by the bowling attacks, so the Tests are likely to be low-scoring affairs. Surely this makes it imperative we outplay England in the field.
Australia needs to decide it’s going to out-field England, and Justin Langer needs to map out a fielding training strategy that is high intensity so that the guys carry this onto the field in a game. He and Paine need to work on likely fielding positions for each player so they can specifically work on the requirements for those positions.
Dave Warner and Steve Smith returning to the team will help improve the fielding for sure, but we need to have all 11 guys mentally ready to field at a high level for a full Test series.
We need to show huge amounts of energy and enthusiasm so that England are overwhelmed by the pressure being brought to bear. We need a total commitment from the entire Ashes squad to fielding so that we don’t let England into games through a silly dropped catch or a careless piece of fielding.
It seems to me Australia and England are fairly evenly matched in terms of batting and bowling attacks. If Langer and the team can improve our fielding so that we are significantly superior to England, this has to help our chances of bringing home the Ashes.