Australia captain Tim Paine believes the return of Steven Smith and David Warner to Test cricket down under will give the hosts the horsepower they need to mount a genuine challenge for the World Test Championship title. Paine said that the series against Pakistan would give them a chance to reel in some of India’s enormous lead at the top of the table.
Under the idiosyncrasies of the inaugural Test championship, a two-Test series offers the possibility of collecting 120 points for a 2-0 sweep, a result that would vault Australia from fifth to second position on the WTC table behind Virat Kohli’s side.
“Hopefully a huge one with runs,” Paine said of the impact he was looking for from Smith and Warner. “We’ve enjoyed having them back last winter and certainly Steve has added a hell of a lot of runs, a hell of a lot of know-how and experience and Dave is the same. I touched on it a lot last summer, it’s really critical that our young players spend a lot of time with those guys, learn from them as much as we can and try and emulate the things they’ve been doing.
“We would like to support Steve a lot more this summer, Davey is certainly one of those guys who is really keen to get amongst the runs and just watching him the last few days in the nets, he looks as good as I’ve seen him for a long time, which is a great sign for us.”
Warner gave a strong sign that he would rebound from a horrific Ashes series by sculpting a high-quality century for NSW against Queensland at the Gabba early in the season, and Paine said he had seen further evidence to back that up this week.
“He hasn’t lost any of his appetite to score runs, he’s still working as hard as I’ve ever seen him work,” Paine said. “Just watching him in the last few days, he just looks like he is back to his best, the ball is making a different sound off his bat again, he looks like he is in great positions most of the time when he’s batting in the nets.
“You can’t afford to be playing a Test match at the end of a Test series as a dead rubber, there’s no such thing, and our team has got our eyes set firmly on that Test final in June 2021. That’s one of our team’s goals”
“But the best and most pleasing thing about Davey was during the whole Ashes when he was probably in the worst form of his career, he didn’t change one bit. A lot of players would. He has got unbelievable self-belief, which is his main strength. Obviously, he didn’t put the runs on the board he would like, but I still know he believes and we believe he is a world-class opener, he has played nearly 80 Tests and averages 45, so I’d be expecting that to be back up over 50 by the end of this series.”
Coach Justin Langer has noted the boom-and-bust tendencies of the Test team under Paine’s leadership, only once – against Sri Lanka last summer – putting two successive wins together in the same series. It will be essential for Australia to do so to contend for the championship.
“That’s the key to being a good Test team, being able to do it consistently,” Paine said. “We touched on it this week as well with the importance of the Test championship. You can’t afford to be playing a Test match at the end of a Test series as a dead rubber, there’s no such thing, and our team has got our eyes set firmly on that Test final in June 2021. That’s one of our team’s goals.
“It just adds to the importance of every Test match, every Test series, so for us to be playing consistent cricket both home and away and in all types of conditions, is something we’re certainly striving for. I think through that difficult period last year what we did was get some guys some exposure to Test cricket that probably wouldn’t have got it beforehand. So we’ve started to build some real depth around our squad. With depth, I think that’s when you start to get that consistency because guys know they have to perform to keep their spot.
“We’ve had some really good players in this series that have been left out of the Australian Test squad, which is disappointing for them, but really good for our side in the fact we’re building that depth and with the depth, we’re hoping we’ll get that consistency of performance.”
As for Labuschagne and Burns, Paine reckoned their Queensland experience would provide a useful head start to the top order. “At the moment, in the near future, the No. 3 spot is his to nail down,” Paine said of Labuschagne. “I thought he did a wonderful job in England, and he is someone we think can certainly fill that hole at No. 3. He’s had a terrific start to his Test career, he has got good technique, good character, good temperament, and a good No. 3 needs all those. We’re certainly excited by what he can do in that role.
“We know what we’re going to get from Burnsy, he is a hardened first-class opening batter and he bats at the Gabba a lot where it’s hard to score runs, particularly at the top of the order. He knows his game really well, he is really confident in it, and I think he has been picked now when he has come into the prime of his career and he is playing as well as he ever had. Similar to a Matthew Wade, we’ve just picked those guys now at the right time and they’ll make the most of this opportunity.”
Virat Kohli and…? Sourav Ganguly picks five current Indian Test players to play under him
Sourav Ganguly has worn many hats over the years, the latest being that of the president of the BCCI, but it’s Sourav Ganguly the India captain that people still remember with the most fondness. Chatting with Ganguly a couple of days before his 48th birthday, on the board’s official website, Mayank Agarwal got him to reminisce about his playing days, and also act as India’s Test captain, if only for a while. Excerpts from the interaction.
Five players from the current lot he would have wanted in his Test team
It’s a very tough question, Mayank, because I feel every generation the players are different, players face challenges differently in different generations, pitches, quality of opposition, even the change of the cricket ball – Kookaburra during my era and your era has completely been changed, maybe because of the leather, because the lacquer on the ball has changed. But on a humorous note, on a lighter note – and I hope nobody feels this generation is better than the other or that generation is weaker than the other because we unnecessarily get into such debates and for me, that has no meaning. From your current team, I would have loved to have Virat Kohli in the side, Rohit Sharma in the side… I will not pick you at the moment because I had Virender Sehwag at the other end, you’re my third opener. I will go for [Jasprit] Bumrah because I had Zaheer [Khan] at the other end, who I thought was exceptional. I would also go for Mohammed Shami after Javagal Srinath retired, because I think Mohammed Shami is a fantastic bowler. So I’ve got Rohit, I’ve got Virat, I’ve got Bumrah, I’ve got Shami, so I’ve got four. I had Harbhajan [Singh] and Anil Kumble in my side, so [R] Ashwin would be my third spinner. I would be very tempted to have Ravindra Jadeja also.
He made Steve Waugh wait at the toss during the 2001 series – fact or fiction?
It was an accident actually. In the first Test match, I left my blazer back in the dressing room. They were such a good side, and I was very nervous in that series because it was my first big series as captain and up against a fantastic cricket team. In the last 25-30 years, I haven’t seen a cricket team as good as Australia in that generation. So initially it was [just that] I forgot my blazer in that first Test, but then I realised that he [Waugh] reacted to it. He reacted, and then he was not taking it very seriously, and it was working on them, working on the team, the way they play, the way they go about their… they were a bit grumpy with all that. And it worked for us, we won the series 2-1. But having said that, Steve Waugh is a dear friend, he has always been a friend, and I have tremendous respect for him as a cricketer, and it was all in good humour.
“The best players in the shorter format have the ability to hit boundaries at will. You look over a period of time, in the history of one-day cricket, the best players can find the fence under pressure consistently. And MS Dhoni was one of them, and that’s why he was special”
Did Sachin Tendulkar force him to take strike when they opened together in ODIs?
Always, always he did. He had an answer to that. I used to tell him, “Yaar, sometimes you also face the first ball, I am always facing the first ball.” He said he had two answers to it. One, he believed when his form was good it should continue, that he should remain at the non-striker’s end, and then when his form wasn’t good, he said, “I should remain at the non-striker’s end because it takes the pressure off me.” So he had an answer for both, good form and bad form. Until and unless you walked past him and stood at the non-striker’s end, and he was already on TV and he would be forced to be at the striker’s end. And that has happened one or two times, I have just walked past him and stood at the non-striker’s end.
On pushing for MS Dhoni‘s inclusion in the side during his captaincy days
Yes, that’s true, but that’s my job, isn’t it? That’s every captain’s job, to pick the best and make the best team possible. You go by your instincts, you go by faith on that player, that he will deliver for you, and I am happy that Indian cricket got a Mahendra Singh Dhoni, because he is unbelievable. One of the great players in world cricket, I would say, not just finisher. I think everyone talks about how he finishes lower down the order, [but] he batted at No. 3 when I was captain and he got 140  against Pakistan in Vizag, I think. The old stadium. It was fantastic. So I always believed that he should bat up the order because he is so destructive. The best players in the shorter format have the ability to hit boundaries at will. You look over a period of time, in the history of one-day cricket, the best players can find the fence under pressure consistently. And MS Dhoni was one of them, and that’s why he was special.
Jason Holder on Ben Stokes battle: ‘Maybe I don’t get as much credit as I deserve’
While Holder has been top of the ICC rankings for Test allrounders for the past 18 months, he acknowleges that it is the No. 2-ranked Stokes who dominates conversation on the world’s premier allrounders. And he is not entirely sure why.
“I don’t really like to get into these personal accolades or ICC rankings,” Holder said ahead of Wednesday’s first Test between the sides at the Ageas Bowl. “Ben has always been talked up and quite rightfully so, he’s a really good cricketer, but the ICC rankings say that I’m the No. 1 ranked allrounder and maybe don’t get as much credit as probably I deserve, who knows?
“I don’t get caught up with it to be honest. Journalists are there to write their stories, I am merely here to play cricket. It’s always a good battle on the field when you face competitors like Stokesy, face competitors around the world.”
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While both players have impressive records in their careers to date, it was Holder who starred last time these sides faced off. While Stokes performed well in defeat, averaging 37.20 with the bat and 22.80 with the ball, Holder made a defining contribution, thanks to his maiden Test double hundred in the first Test at Bridgetown. That innings set up a 381-run win in the match and a 2-1 victory in the series, meaning it was Holder who got his hands on the Wisden Trophy.
And while it is a significantly different looking England side to the one defeated in the Caribbean last year that Stokes will captain this week in the absence of Joe Root, who is on paternity leave, Holder was not about to offer any advice to his opposite number about leadership.
“I’ll give my advice to Stokesy after the series,” Holder said. “England are in capable hands: he’s an excellent cricketer, a great competitor and I’m sure the guys in his dressing room look up to him. He’ll have experienced campaigners in his dressing room to help him along, I’m sure, so I wish him all the best in this one game as captain.”
Perhaps in further evidence that he sees the key battle as being against Stokes the allrounder rather than Stokes the captain, Holder highlighted the importance of performing on the field himself. Nursing an ankle injury, Holder faced fewer than 30 deliveries for just seven runs across three innings in West Indies’ two intra-squad warm-up matches. He also bowled only five overs in that time.
ALSO READ: Holder’s lean run continues in warm-up
But Holder was confident of being ready for the first Test where, having passed 100 Test wickets against India in Jamaica last year, he needs 102 runs to reach 2000 in Test cricket. It is a feat that only Sir Garfield Sobers and Carl Hooper have previously achieved for West Indies, and Holder has often sought Sobers’ advice throughout his career.
“Before captaincy I’m a player and my performances must stand out: I must perform my role for the team,” Holder said. “With bat in hand I’ve got to make runs, with ball in hand I’ve got to take wickets and in the field I’ve got to help the guys hold on to chances.
“Leadership will come into effect after that and when I do perform well with the bat it sends added confidence throughout the dressing room.
“I’ve had tonnes of conversations with Sir Garry. I always look up to Sir Garry – he’s one of the most positive individuals I’ve ever spoken to. He just sees things from a different light and I guess that’s why he was so great. He’s never shy of giving information or advice and he’s one of those guys that would put his arm around you and nurture the next generation.”
It was not just Holder who was short of runs during the warm-up matches, with a likely top five of Kraigg Brathwaite, John Campbell, Shamarh Brooks, Shai Hope and Roston Chase managing just 29 runs between them in their rain-affected second intra-squad game. Brathwaite, Hope and Brooks did reach fifties in the first tour game, as did Shane Dowrich, who missed the second with a side strain.
On the prospect of either himself or Dowrich moving up the order, Holder said he would leave it until match morning to finalise his team, but he did not rule out moving to No. 6 at some stage.
“It’s on the radar for me,” Holder said. “I’ve had success and been consistent where I’ve been batting but no doubt at some stage I will definitely come up the order, it’s just a matter of when.
“The beauty about the lower half contributing so heavily in the last couple of years is that we’ve got stability and depth… you go back to the series against England, Roston Chase got a century in that series as well as myself and Shane. There were still very significant contributions from the top order so generally I think we’ve got to bring it together as a squad.
“I know a lot has been said about the lower half contributing the bulk of the runs in the recent past but if you look at the calibre of players we’ve got. Kraigg Brathwaite has had success here in England, Shai Hope has had success here in England, Shamarh Brooks has had success in youth team cricket in England and that’s just to name a few. I’m more than confident that these guys will do well here in this series.
“It doesn’t only have to come from the top order. We’re putting a lot of emphasis on the top order. Yes, they probably haven’t lived up to the expectation but it’s still a team sport and we’ve just got to put runs on the board. However we get them, personally I don’t care, it’s just a matter for us to put the runs on the board and give our bowlers something to work with.”
ECB embrace ‘uncomfortable truths’ in bid to improve cricket’s diversity
The ECB has announced a new range of measures designed to open cricket up to more diverse communities, after Tom Harrison, the chief executive, admitted that the Black Lives Matter movement had revealed some “uncomfortable truths” about the sport’s relevance to black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) players.
Speaking on the eve of the first Test against West Indies at the Ageas Bowl, where the England team will make a gesture of solidarity towards BLM, Harrison acknowledged recent criticism of the ECB’s efforts at inclusion, including from Michael Carberry, the former England opener, who argued that black people are “not important to the structure of English cricket” and the former Derbyshire opener Chesney Hughes, who was left out of contract in 2017 despite averaging more than 50 the previous season.
In 2019, there were just two state-educated British-born black players playing professionally for any of the 18 first-class counties, one of whom featured in a solitary match. Last month, Vikram Solanki, the former England batsman, was appointed as Surrey’s head coach, making him the first British Asian to be recruited for such a role.
“Alongside most of society, we have had to confront some uncomfortable truths in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement,” said Harrison. “We have listened and will continue to listen carefully to the experiences of black people in cricket and society, and we thank those who worked tirelessly and spoke bravely to open up conversations about the change our sport needs to create.
“We have made strong strides in many areas to become a more inclusive and diverse sport, but we realise there is a great deal more to do.”
The measures announced by the ECB include increased representation in leadership roles, a game-wide anti-discrimination charter and a bursary scheme for young black coaches, with a focus on “leadership, education and opportunity”. There will also be a further drive to reintroduce cricket in primary schools, with a focus on ethnically diverse areas.
In addition, Harrison said that there would be further pressure on the first-class counties and county boards to adopt the Rooney Rule, which requires at least one BAME applicant to be interviewed for any job opening, and he challenged the sport to reach representation targets that reflect each county’s local population by 2022.
“When it comes to governance reform, there is a certain process that you must go through,” Harrison said, “but that doesn’t mean that we can’t inject some real adrenaline into that process to enable us to get to a better place quicker.”
Although the ECB board currently meets the Sport England code of 30% gender diversity, Harrison acknowledged that the sport continued to fall short on ethnic representation, in spite of the adoption of programmes such as the South Asian Action Plan in 2018, and added that the ECB’s recent AGM – held virtually due to the Covid outbreak – had further highlighted the organisation’s “predominantly white elderly male demographic”.
“That doesn’t reflect the playing base of our game in this country – nor where we really want to be in the future if we’re going to continue to grow and continue to be relevant,” said Harrison. “When everything’s going well in your sport, it’s very easy to think all is well beneath the surface. We’ve got a warning here from the black community now, saying: ‘Guys, you’re not relevant to us right now.'”
Harrison acknowledged there were alarming parallels between the experience of the Windrush generation of black British cricketers, whose children were not given the opportunities to embrace cricket in this country, and the younger generation of Asian immigrants, who find themselves similarly excluded from English cricket’s mainstream.
“I think the reality is that we’ve never cracked this challenge as a game in this country,” said Harrison. “In the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, Britain was handed a generation of black cricketing fans, people who had a connection with the game through a family connection in the Caribbean. Those communities subsequently found life extremely difficult when coming to Britain and cricket was one of the ways in which they were able to connect and feel part of their community.
“What we have to understand now is that it’s not just black communities, but a huge swathe of urban communities and diverse communities that don’t feel cricket is making a real connection with them at the moment. That’s work that we absolutely need to do. “The danger is that in a generation’s time, if we don’t get this right, we will suffer the same fate with respect to the South Asian community. In both of these situations, we’re finding that there is a pattern here that we absolutely have to address – to change that scenario, to change that sense of disenfranchisement, to get under the skin of it and move forward together.”
“In 15 or 20 years’ time, if we’ve got that same problem with the South Asian communities, then you’ve just lost 35% of your participation just like that. It takes authentic effort, proper understanding of the issues and then a long and committed drive to reverse it. It will take a long time but it absolutely has to happen.”
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