South Africa have thrashed Australia by an innings and 80 runs in the Second Test in Hobart to seal an emphatic series victory. It is an outstanding result for the tourists who, without AB De Villiers and Dale Steyn, deserve all the plaudits they get. Having slipped to fifth in the rankings, a third straight series win in Australia seemed an unlikely outcome just a few weeks ago. However, the tourists won both Tests convincingly and will head to Adelaide with the series in the bag.
Australia have hit a 30 year low with a fifth straight Test match loss, many of which have come by big margins. Steve Smith was left to front the media in Hobart clearly asking for players to "show some pride in the baggy green". The nature of the defeat has already cued a media backlash about everything that is supposedly rotten in Australian cricket. From Pat Howard, to the Selectors, to the coach and the senior players. All the past players will weigh in which adds to the pressure on the current group.
Now some of that criticism, commentary and backlash is both expected and justified given sport at the highest level is about results. When you have a recent history as storied as Australian cricket, clearly there are things that need to be reviewed and some introspection required if not some changes in the Test set up. Australia have made some selection blunders and had some under performers during this series, of that there is no doubt.
However, I just wanted to look at cricket and how fickle a "team sport" it can be compared to others. How, despite Australia being bludgeoned in both Tests, it can be a game of fine margins and individual displays that determine an overall outcome and storyline. In cricket, just a few individual performances can win you a series and make everything seem hunky dory. Cricket is a team sport, however each ball is an individual contest. In many respects it is an individual game based on confidence, belief, a strong mentality and slices of luck.
Lets start with the toss of the coin. Flimsy excuse you might say? Maybe, however it has played its part in the margin of some of Australia's demise. Australia lost all three tosses in Sri Lanka. Sure they were belted in all three Tests, however, with all the pitches clearly deteriorating from Day 2 onwards, it is a significant advantage to bat first. Here in Hobart, Australia were sent in to bat with rain in the air and under lights at a murky Bellerive Oval. When South Africa resumed batting on Day 3, skies were clearer and the pitch played far more straightforwardly. Not for a second am I suggesting Australia are losing because of bad luck, however, when you're down and out, it's uncanny how these sorts of things go against you.
South Africa won this series emphatically because a few individuals stepped up and had stellar series. South Africa's top order was equally as vulnerable as Australia's, being reduced to 5/81 in Perth and 5/132 in Hobart. However precocious talent Quinton De Kock averaged over 80 from Number 7, rescuing both the tourists' 1st innings.You won't hear much about the fact that Hashim Amla came here as the Number 1 batsman in the world, however managed just 48 runs at 16. Or how captain Faf Du Plessis came here saying Australia had a few mental scars, yet averaged just 76 runs at 25. Opener Steven Cook might be singing the team song heartily and smiling on the outside, however deep down he will be thinking "I made 34 runs at 11 - I probably only have one more Test before I am dropped."
South Africa also had two bowlers in Vernon Philander and Kagiso Rabada who bowled at a truly world class standard. A couple of Rabada's spells in Perth and Hobart were so impressive and hostile I think we might just be about to witness the next great fast bowler around the world. So, despite a few of South Africa's key players having quiet series, they will be hailed for "a great team effort" and having a "strong culture". Does that mean Australia have totally the opposite? It might be portrayed that way, but I highly doubt it.
On the other side of the coin Australian top order players David Warner and Usman Khawaja averaged over 40 in these two Tests. Not bad against an attack that bowled outstandingly well throughout the series. Captain Steve Smith has plenty on his plate however managed to play two fighting innings in Hobart on a tough wicket to average in the high 30's for the series. Not great again, but better than his opposite number in Du Plessis. Yet tonight Smith probably can't sleep whilst Du Plessis probably plans on getting very little.
Often the players trying the hardest in cricket are the ones that are struggling the most. Adam Voges looks mentally frazzled and like he doesn't know where his next run is coming from. Yet he averages 67 from 16 Test matches. That's what cricket can do to you. One series you could bat with a door snake, the next you're seeing them like a golf ball. Joe Burns might have done 1000 thrown downs in the three days leading up to this Test. Yet he gets strangled down the leg side and is walking off knowing his head is on the chopping block.
I have coached players that train their butts off, but might be mentally shot ducks by the time they get out there on Saturday. Sometimes, the more you think about it or the harder you try the worse it gets. Batting is a confidence game and a mental game, and it is also a game where luck plays a significant role. I have seen players get dropped early in their innings or caught off a no ball. They go on to make a century and everyone is saying "what a great innings" or "he showed great ticker" when the storyline could easily have been very different. Similarly you watch guys middle every ball and look a million dollars for 15 runs, and then make one mistake, and in the sheds the Coach or Captain will be saying "we need to show more fight" or "our batting was soft"
I have been in dressing room thats have won 5 games on the bounce yet there will be a be guys in there that will be in the depths of despair. " Someone will tell you "how great the culture is in the locker room" when the fact is one or two guys might by performing exceedingly well and making the side win Half the side might not get on but your winning because a few guys are playing out of their skin. Similarly I have been in losing dressing rooms where the majority of the team get on like a house on fire. Your going around the dressing room searching for answers. Phrases like "Soft" or "we didn't turn up" might be bandied about. Someone might think the team "lacks ticker or fight". However some of those guys that are struggling might be the ones training the hardest .
Cricket is not like Rugby League or Soccer or Aussie Rules which are "team sports" in a much truer sense. In those combative sports you probably need that dressing room "team spirit" more given the fact you have to put more bodies on the line. Often these sports you can pinpoint where the strugglingteam got their tactics wrong. Their set plays might look clunky and break down. Often it is easier to criticise the "Team" for being thrashed because effort is much easier to gauge in these sports. Things like putting your body on the line, how hard you pressure the ball, how hard you chase a kick, how good your line speed is in defence, how many "contested possessions" your team won compared to the oppositions. When teams are not doing this it's easier to see, that stats sometimes say as much. Often a Coach in Rugby League might fire up his troops with a good old fashioned half-time spray and it might prove just the tonic.
However a cricket Coach going off half cocked about "pride in the baggy green" and the "team not showing any fight" is likely to be less effective. My point is that in a cricket dressing room you often have 11 individuals in a totally different head space due to their individual performance. The ones trying the hardest might be the ones with the worst results. The ones that are carefree and relaxed might be the ones flourishing. There are no hiding from your stats in cricket. If your not getting wickets or runs everyone knows about it. A struggling football in a losing side can hide a bit better, their stats are not the be all and end all. In cricket, they are are and there is no hiding.
Without doubt Australia need to perform a lot better, that much is obvious. However finding the magic answer might not be through "showing more pride" or "working harder". What Australia have to find right now are players that truly believe in themselves at this tough moment. Players that display the same character traits whether they are in a rut or in the form of their careers. I used to admire players I played with that were exactly the same person whether they scored 100 or a duck. Usman Khawaja was one of those and thats why part of why I would classify him as a mentally tough character. Cricket is a game where you need a lot of self belief because mentally it will test you out. Whilst the fallout is both expected and deserved, to an extent this game is a game of fine margins. A cricket coach or captain ranting and raving at their side is unlikely to turn things around, however self belief, good character and, one or two good performances and a little bit of luck might.