Among the numerous interviews and press conferences with Australian players and staff in the aftermath of their Ashes sealing win in Manchester, few gave better insight into Australia’s success than captain Tim Paine.
Asked how much he put the win down to learning the ‘craft’ of cricket in English conditions, Paine’s answer revealed just how far this Australia side had come since the last UK tour of 2015.
“I think we’ve known for a while that England play differently to the way we do over here,” Paine began.
“And I think this team’s made a real effort to put their ego aside and roll up their sleeves to do the job that’s required, rather than worry about how it looks, or the ‘style’ or the ‘brand’ of cricket we want to play. The brand of cricket this team wants to play is winning cricket. We need to adapt to the conditions and situations that allow us to do that and I think this group has done that superbly.”
The answer reflected perhaps the biggest shift in Australian cricket’s tactical philosophy in years. Paine referenced the need to imitate the way England played in their own conditions. A simple, seemingly straightforward tactic from the outside. But one that has been stubbornly ignored for several tours.
The most fundamental reason behind the shift, however, lays at the feet of coach Justin Langer. While previous coaches refused to relent on the ‘Australian way’, Langer has fastidiously employed a work-smarter-not-harder approach, particularly with the bowlers. Reflecting on the win at Old Trafford, he said playing abroad was about constant adjustments to a skillset.
“The best players adapt, it’s as simple as that. If you don’t, you lose,” he said.
“And you’ve also got to live what you talk about. There’s no point us talking about playing with humility and being professional and being honest with each other and not doing it.”
Since a shock loss in 2005, Australia’s need for a more nuanced, patient approach to Test cricket in England had become more apparent each losing series. In 2015, Australia tried and failed to replicate the tactics that delivered them a whitewash victory at home in 2013-14.
Mitchell Starc, Mitchell Johnson and Josh Hazlewood went at an expensive 3.76 an over. Hazlewood would later conceded that he tried to bowl the ‘miracle ball’ too often. It was reflective of an impatient, stubborn approach. One that believed success in Australia would duly translate abroad.
This time, however, the penny has dropped. Hazlewood, Starc, Pat Cummins, James Pattinson and Peter Siddle have combined for an economy rate of 2.63.
The sharp improvement is profound, and reflects Langer’s insistence on ‘doing, not talking’ (click here for fellow Roar cricket writer Ronan O’Connell’s piece on Australia ditching the pace obsession). The relentless accuracy of the bowlers takes not only skill, but also mental application.
They’ve rolled up the sleeves in more ways than one.
For close followers of the Australian team, perhaps the most pleasing aspect of the result is to see an approach many have been crying out for so meticulously enacted and executed. It’s a credit to Langer’s newly instilled philosophy, and to Paine’s ability to convey and reiterate the message in the middle.
There’s little reason to think Australia won’t walk away from The Oval as 3-1 victors this series. The side’s confidence is visibly apparent and complacency – as they’ve reminded us exhaustively this week – hasn’t crept in. Beyond that, they simply possess a stronger line-up than the hosts who, by contrast, will struggle for motivation after a long summer.
Ever the perfectionist, Langer conceded in the lead up to the fifth Test that while he was pleased with the side’s game plan, it ‘hasn’t been perfect’.
“We still haven’t played our best game yet,” he said.
“Hopefully that happens here.”