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Opinion

Test-mortem: Jury's out on ‘treacherous’ Optus as Perth’s best venue, Warner robbed, Marnus slump no big deal … yet

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Expert
17th December, 2023
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The jury is still out on Optus Stadium as a Test venue and the pitch is still very much a work in progress with conditions becoming dangerous for batters as the match wore on.

Uneven bounce not only led to a few dismissals with the ball keeping low but it also caused a lot of bumps and bruises with quick deliveries rearing up off a length.

Former Test batter Mark Waugh called the pitch “treacherous” on Fox Cricket as batters were struck 18 times over the course of the four days.

Marnus Labuschagne was cleared of a broken finger after being hit, while Usman Khawaja, Steve Smith and Mitchell Marsh were also struck by short-pitched deliveries and needed treatment. 

(Photo by Paul Kane/Getty Images)

“I’m not going to call it dangerous, I’m going to call it treacherous,” Waugh said. 

“You don’t want to see balls flying off a length and going over batsmen’s heads which Babar (Azam) actually got before he got out.

“It’s a different style of pitch. You wouldn’t want to see it get any worse. The cracks were starting to appear – once they get really big and they get firm, that’s when it gets really up and down and batsmen, the one thing they don’t like is uneven bounce.”

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Despite a marketing blitz and rebadging the match as the “West Test”, the cavernous stadium was not even close to half full for any of the four days.

They even constructed a synthetic hill to get fans through the turnstiles. The WACA has real grassed areas.

There were around 17,000 fans for each of the first three days and only around 6000 for day four although many more will claim they were there the day Nathan Lyon took his 500th wicket.

The WACA Ground is a better option for non-marquee Tests, as in those that don’t feature England or India.

However, outgoing WACA chief executive Christina Matthews on ABC Radio said that the facilities at Optus Stadium were far better than Perth’s traditional home of Test cricket.

She said she feared for the WA capital losing matches to eastern states or sliding further down the pecking order if they took matches back to the WACA which is in the midst of a $75m reconstruction to reduce capacity to 10,000.

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PERTH, AUSTRALIA - DECEMBER 17: Fans watch the final session during day four of the Men's First Test match between Australia and Pakistan at Optus Stadium on December 17, 2023 in Perth, Australia (Photo by Paul Kane/Getty Images)

Fans watch the final session during day four of the First Test at Optus Stadium. (Photo by Paul Kane/Getty Images)

Warner should have got nod ahead of Marsh

Mitchell Marsh was tremendous on home turf in Perth but David Warner should have been awarded player of the match honours.

Marsh was given the nod for his superb knocks of 90 and 63 not out, as well as the crucial wicket of Babar Azam in the first innings.

He was strong and he deserves to keep the all-rounder spot for the foreseeable future ahead of Cameron Green but Warner’s brilliant 164 on day one was the most impactful performance of the Test.

Even though he got a duck in the second dig, the much-maligned 37-year-old opener was unlucky not to get the individual award. 

Lyon roars over all rivals

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How good is Nathan Lyon? Very.

When compared to Australia’s other off-spinners? Well, he’s the G.O.A.T, everyone knows that.

And how do you put that in numbers?

Well consider this – if you combine the tallies of the best four off-spinners that Australia has produced in Test cricket over the past nearly 150 years, you get 508.

That’s just seven more than Lyon has now that he’s breached the magical 500 milestone in the closing stages of Australia’s First Test win at Optus Stadium. 

Hugh Trumble (141), Ashley Mallett (132), Bruce Yardley (126) and Ian Johnson (109) were the best at this unfashionable skill which is not suited to Australian conditions until the selectors took a gamble on Lyon more than a decade ago after a handful of first-class matches.

Nathan Lyon celebrates taking his 500th Test wicket.

Nathan Lyon celebrates taking his 500th Test wicket. (Photo by Paul Kane/Getty Images)

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Marnus slump no big deal, yet

It seemed to catch a lot of people by surprise when Marnus Labuschagne’s 2023 form slump was laid bare after his second low score in this Test on Saturday.

The former ICC No.1 Test batter has slid to fifth and will likely drop further after a modest calendar year which has featured just one ton, albeit a crucial one in Manchester which saved Australia’s bacon in what turned out to be the decisive match of the Ashes series. 

He’s averaging 33.3 from his past 14 Tests and has only made it past 50 on four occasions in 26 trips to the crease.

There is no need to even consider panicking at this stage and Labuschagne showed more than enough over the previous four years for selectors to be satisfied that this is just an inevitable downturn which even the best batters experience over the course of their career.

Would Australia be better off if Labuschagne becomes a Test specialist? He’s only been a peripheral player in the ODI side despite playing his part in the World Cup win in India last month. 

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There is nothing to suggest that his technique or temperament has changed from playing more ODIs in the past year but he’s so important to the Test side that Australia can’t afford for him to go off the boil for an extended period, particularly with the top order about to be rejigged next month following Warner’s red-ball retirement.

His struggles make talk of moving him to opener even more far-fetched than they already sound.

He will come good soon enough and with two more Tests against a Pakistan coming off a first-up hiding, followed by a couple against the West Indies, the 29-year-old Queensland has some golden opportunities to recapture peak form. 

Labuschagne averaged a lazy 167.33 against the Windies last summer after hitting three tons in four innings, including 204 in Perth.

Pakistan not terrible, merely outclassed

It’s not often you can say that a team that lost by 360 runs was not terrible but that was the case with Pakistan.

The bowlers toiled hard and made the Australians work for their runs, for the most part, while the batting unit in the first innings showed application before collapsing under the cumulative weight of three-plus days of the team being outclassed.

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They are going into this series with Shaheen Shah Afridi their only experienced fast bowler at Test level after Haris Rauf claimed he was not fit enough for international duty (but OK to pick up a BBL contract) and Naseem Shah and Mohammad Hasnain were ruled out with injuries.

As is often the case with Pakistan, they’ve unearthed a couple of likely lads in the seam department with Aamer Jamal bagging 6-111 in his debut and fellow rookie Khurram Shahzad unsettling a few batters in taking five wickets for the match.

The tourists need to improve on their fielding with a few sitters going down in each innings.  

New skipper Shan Masood was guilty of fumbling an easy chance at mid-off on day four as his side unravelled. 

He also produced a poor shot when his team needed him to dig in for a captain’s knock. After wafting outside the off stump to Josh Hazlewood on the previous delivery, he again played at a delivery that was by no means wide but could have been left alone and succeeded only in nicking off to Alex Carey. 

Pakistan did well to put away Sri Lanka 2-0 on tour in July and are probably the most likely threat to the big three Test nations if they can ever harness their talent free of in-fighting but there is little hope for them ending their 28-year drought in Australia next week in Melbourne or in Sydney’s series finale.

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