Cricket a different game away from home

The Australian players celebrate the wicket of Tillakaratne Dilshan of Sri Lanka after he was caught by Ed Cowan off the bowling of Mitchell JohnsoN. Picture: GETTY IMAGES
The Australian players celebrate the wicket of Tillakaratne Dilshan of Sri Lanka after he was caught by Ed Cowan off the bowling of Mitchell JohnsoN. Picture: GETTY IMAGES

Any comment about Sri Lanka's performance in Melbourne would, it seems, be bringing the game of cricket into disrepute.

On this stage, after a 17-year absence, in front of their home-away-from-home crowd, their batting was unprintable. Michael Hussey's children made a better fist of it on the MCG in a hit-out yesterday afternoon, and nobody got hurt that time around.

Day three at the MCG was a kids-get-in-free occasion. Even then, they had a right to feel short-changed. One child in the Olympic Stand asked, after the match had ended before its halfway point, ''Aren't Australia going to go for the outright?'' Sri Lanka's second innings felt incomplete in every respect: not enough runs, not enough overs, not even enough wickets to fall.

The Sri Lankan capitulation, after their brave five-day defiance in Hobart, says something about Test cricketers' capacity to bounce back from disappointment. The same reversal happened to Australia in Perth, after their near-achievement in the long match in Adelaide. Teams that had given everything and fallen just short were unable to regain the initiative. Conversely, the best preparation for a new Test was momentum at the end of the previous one.

For Australia's development, the Boxing Day Test was not so much overwhelming as irrelevant. For all the hand-wringing about the rotation of fast bowlers, it's a policy that is only being used because Australia have so many of them to rotate. If cricket teams could be made up of 10 fast bowlers and a wicketkeeper, Australia would have no rivals. Mitchell Johnson showed his best form since the lead-up to the last Ashes tour. Jackson Bird's dismissal of Mahela Jayawardene was the delivery of the season, a fast ball that swung away, prompting the Sri Lankan captain to leave it, before jagging back off the pitch, prompting him to twitch down. This was Australia's 10th-choice opening bowler, in his first Test, against a champion who has scored 10,674 runs in 137 Tests.

No wonder Jayawardene began inspecting the wicket, the edge of his bat, the wicket again, and his bat again, before heading to the sheds to watch it on replay.

It was a revelatory piece of bowling, but how much will it count for in the coming months? Test cricket is now firmly divided into two divisions. The dominance of Australia, at the bottom of the top group, over Sri Lanka, at the top of the bottom, emphasises the gap. But unless the SCG can travel back in time and produce one of the raging turners of yesteryear, next week's encounter won't tell us anything we don't already know, which is that these teams are mismatched on true, bouncy Australian wickets.

The pitches won't be like this in India and England, where the focus will fall again on Australia's frailties in batting and spin bowling. In the recent series, India and England fielded up to seven spinners per Test. Only the highest-quality batting prospered, while the rest suffered misery. England's spin attack proved, ultimately, to be more potent against India's batsmen. With the Australians coming, neither country will let a drop of water touch their wickets.

Australia's surfeit of fast bowlers will mean nothing when only one or two are picked for a Test. The rotation policy will seem a luxury of the past.

After five matches this summer, Nathan Lyon inspires neither more nor less confidence than before. His personal triumph on Friday was to wave off a batsman of the calibre of Dhammika Prasad after foiling his plan to hit three successive sixes. That's about the size of it for Lyon. Richie Benaud very kindly said Lyon's Test bowling record was as good as his at the same stage.

Benaud's economy with words saved him from adding the long list of caveats: he bowled leg-spin, he had a particularly slow start to his Test career, and he ended up being one of the best all-rounders to play the game. To these, another may be added: statistics lie.

Lyon has a respectable output of 59 wickets at 30.96 in 18 Tests. Yet 31 of those wickets have been No.8 or below. The better comparison is not with Benaud but with an off-spinner of the era, Ian Johnson, nicknamed ''Myxomatosis'' because his first captain, Don Bradman, allowed him to boost his average by eradicating bunnies. This is not to dispute Lyon's position as Australia's best spin bowler. At the moment, that's akin to being Australia's top ski-jumper before a trip to Finland. While the short-term impulse is to celebrate the gushing well of fast-bowling talent, select the four best bowlers and do away with a spinner altogether, in the next nine months Australia are going to need two world-class spinners when at the moment they have none. They're going to need six world-class players of spin bowling when at the moment they have two. A celebration is due for winning this series, but, as the Sri Lankans can tell them, cricket is a completely different game away from home.


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