Thursday, July 18, 2013

Lehmann proves he's no lemon as a coach

Darren Lehmann's selections for the first Test at Trent Bridge were brave and successful without exception. Now we will see if the changes he has made for the second Test starting Thursday prove equally effective.

He pulled 19-year-old left arm spinner Ashton Agar out of the hat and threw him in, something that none of the pundits of Australian cricket had seen coming, as far as I know. And Agar looked more than ready for the big league, with both bat and ball. When he scored an astonishing 98 at number eleven, there were cheers but also murmurs that he was really in the side as a bowler. When he scalped the England captain Alastair Cook, all doubts were dismissed.

The selection of Steve Smith, as well as his slotting at number five, were criticised because many find his technique awkward. Smith's tendency to be squared up, rather than side-on, to the away-going ball may yet prove his undoing. But in the first Test, he also showed his value to the team as a clean striker of the ball who can take the battle to the opposition, especially off-spinner Graeme Swann.

Middle-aged Chris Rogers, who had only played a solitary Test without success nearly six years back, was the most inspired selection of all. His classic style of batting with soft hands is just what Australia needed at the top of the order, even more so in England where the openers play such a vital role in minimising the damage from a swinging new ball. Rogers, in fact, looked the most secure of Australia's batsmen in the first innings, until he was undone by James Anderson when he cleverly took the pace off the ball.

Brad Haddin, the replacement wicket-keeper for Mathew Wade, almost won the match for Australia in the end, falling just 15 runs short after a 65-run last wicket stand with James Pattinson. His glove work admittedly is far from perfect, but neither was Wade's.

Lehmann is obviously not one to die wondering what he might have tried next. Ed Cowan's dismissal in both innings of the first Test driving at balls pitched wide outside off-stump was enough for the coach to turn to Usman Khawaja for the number three slot in the second Test starting on Thursday at Lord's. Khawaja, like Cowan, is a defender, and so it's a straight swap between them. I would have given Cowan one more chance, because he has proved in India that he can be hard to prise out once he is in, but I look forward to seeing how the Pakistan-born Khawaja will fare.

The other change is Ryan Harris for Mitchell Starc. This too is justified by Starc's poor showing with the new ball in the first Test. Harris, though, hasn't been the same bowler after picking up one injury after another. On the other hand, the conditions at Lord's should suit his outswingers, and so it was a punt well worth taking.

Whatever happens, there seems to be both logic and courage in the way Lehmann is going about his business. This is a far cry from the bumbling of Mickey Arthur, who appeared clueless with both selection and strategy on the India tour as well as the Champions Trophy. That he is no longer the coach of Australia augurs well for them, and who do they have to thank for that? None other than David Warner, whose misguided punch thrown at England's Joe Root in a bar, was apparently the last straw that sent Mickey packing. The glorious uncertainties of cricket, as they say.

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