Justin Langer has brought with him a different approach to Australian cricket. (Reuters: Paul Childs)
Australian cricket has often tended to stubbornness. Ideas get set in stone. Your best batsman bats at three, your best batsman is captain, you play a keeper at seven and four bowlers below, most of your XI is locked for years at a time.
But as the current coach’s regime has taken shape, we’ve seen some movement. Justin Langer must have studied martial arts enough to know that a reed bends with the wind but does not break. First in the World Cup, then the Ashes, there has been a willingness to adapt.
Darren Lehmann as coach had one way of thinking. Everyone had to bowl fast. Not fast meant not good. Never mind the prolific work of Vernon Philander or Jimmy Anderson, Bhuvneshwar Kumar or Mohammad Abbas. Obviously, all of their Test wickets were burgled because they arrived at closer to 120 kilometres per hour than 150.
It also meant that you got your quicks and stuck with them. You blasted the English out. And to be fair, it worked in Australia. Across 10 home Ashes Tests Lehmann coached nine wins. The first series had an unchanged attack of Mitchell Johnson, Ryan Harris and Peter Siddle. The second, Mitchell Starc, Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood, and the only draw came when Starc was injured.
This foursome won all four of the Tests they played together in the last Ashes series. (AAP: Dean Lewins)
It was Mitchell Johnson’s redlining success in 2013-14 that hardened Lehmann’s pace-only outlook. By the 2015 tour to England, Siddle’s speed had diminished along with Lehmann’s tolerance. Siddle was included in the squad as a grudging nod to restraint, a bit like tossing a head of broccoli into your shopping trolley alongside fourteen bags of M&Ms and a kilo of marinated chicken wings.
In much the same way, Siddle was the last item to be used. In the fifth Test of a lost series he promptly took six wickets at 11 and conceded 1.77 runs per over. The all-pace trio of Starc, Johnson and Hazlewood had been ineffective and expensive three times out of four.
So it was such a pleasant surprise this year when the first Test team was announced in Birmingham. Previously, there would have been one way: your stud attack was Starc, Cummins, Hazlewood — the three who won the 2017-18 Ashes back home. Changing that would have been deemed a personal insult and a violation of the natural order.
Langer’s approach was that James Pattinson had been bowling beautifully in county cricket and was used to the conditions, and that he is so rarely free of injury that the chance to play him had to be taken. Siddle was coming off two fine county seasons and would make best use of the conditions, while offering control to support the others. Only Cummins was unmissable, ranked the number-one fast bowler in the world and able to shift modes at will between tracks that offer assistance and those that offer only toil.
That didn’t mean those three were locked in past the first Test. The six fast bowlers in the squad had all been briefed that they were to work as one unit, with changes from match to match.
Starc and Hazlewood stayed warm with a tour match in Worcester, then Pattinson was rested with a bit of soreness to hasten the decision. Starc might have been the obvious choice for Lord’s, with his left-arm swing coming into right-handed batsmen down the slope from the Pavilion End, but Hazlewood was picked instead to bowl outswing to right-handers downhill from the Nursery End.
Langer wanted him for his consistency at a ground where the fastest bowlers have often struggled. The move worked a treat. Hazlewood got that movement to draw an edge from Jason Roy, got a ball to hold against the slope to trap Joe Root, then swung it away again to take Joe Denly’s edge.
Josh Hazlewood was back in the wickets immediately after returning to the Test arena. (Reuters: Paul Childs)
He had the first three wickets to fall, including one after a troubling 66-run partnership. The Denly dismissal also showed the value of bowling partnerships, with the hitherto calm batsman entirely ruffled after being hit by a Cummins bouncer.
Cummins continued his short-ball attack at times through the day, bouncing out Rory Burns, Chris Woakes and Jofra Archer. Starc wasn’t needed for high pace and aggression because Cummins was able to provide it, balancing out Hazlewood’s work closer to the stumps, while Siddle continued the tight line that won him two dropped catches and the well-deserved wicket of Jos Buttler.
This was Australia making the pieces work. It was Langer shuffling his tiles to find the best possible combination, and knowing that all of his combinations have their strengths.
There will likely be another shuffle for the third Test. If Pattinson is fresh to go then he could come back. If Siddle or Cummins need a break then they can rest. If Hazlewood is on a high then he can carry on.
Australia could end up with another all-express attack, with Pattinson, Hazlewood and Starc. Setting this apart from 2015 is that this time it would be deliberate, not default. Every decision in this series has been considered, every success planned. Moving with the breeze this time, everything feels much more free.