Reasons for Australia to be cheerful despite the Ashes gloom

It's easy to forget that at just 24 years of age Steve Smith is in his fourth year of Test cricket.

1) Steve Smith is developing into a serious Test cricketer

It's far less difficult to recall the general sense of derision that has often followed his selection. That's not only premature but unfair on an energetic and thoughtful cricketer. Not even selected in the original touring party, Smith has provided enough to suggest that he could be a serious Test cricketer. Coming into the side at such an odd-shaped period of Australian cricket, it also wouldn't be outrageous to suggest that he finds himself a potential Test captain in waiting. Look at the age, form and leadership credentials of those around him and honestly, you'd struggle to totally disagree.

Smith was unlucky to be run out for 19 in the second innings at Old Trafford, and his first innings 89 in combination with his captain was an honest reflection of the work that he has put into his batting over the past two seasons. At times his strokeplay is streaky and skittish, but it's difficult to think of an Australian batsman who has actually improved to such a degree as Smith in the past two years. Smith's straight-driven six off Tim Bresnan in the second innings at Manchester was the most audacious and arresting stroke of the day and spoke of the confidence that he's building. So far this series, as in India at times, it is Smith's application and attitude that endears at a time when other, more talented, contenders are either treading water or going backwards.

2) Peter Siddle is being Peter Siddle and that is reassuring

So many times in this series, Siddle has managed to extract spiteful bounce and movement from pitches that have otherwise looked lifeless and unhelpful to his craft. That is no mere fluke and it's not just about "heart". Australians tend to ascribe Siddle's successes to the cardiac rather than the cunning. He's no mere grunt bowler and in an age in which Australian cricketers are often said to be self-absorbed and flakey, his willingness to be slotted into the action wherever and whenever Clarke sees fit makes him a formidable weapon. He now leads an attack that has often had the better of England's top order.

Like the man himself, Siddle's action is muscular, unfussy and unerringly consistent. Only in hindsight does a nastily veering delivery seem to have come from any more effort than the ball that preceded it. He'll then merely grimace, turn on his heels, briskly trot back and do it again until he gets the result he's after. Doubts over his selection for the first Test seem even more laughable now than at the time. Sixteen wickets at 21.68 so far tell only a fraction of his importance to Australia.

Siddle bowled third change in both innings at Old Trafford, a tactical point at which the English batsmen could be expected to look for some leniency. Instead they were harried by Siddle's front-on barrage. It's a delivery stride that seems almost tactical rather than only practical; turning side on would probably give the batsman some respite from his constant snarl. Nothing Siddle does comes from luck either; it's a precision born out of nothing other than meticulous preparation. It's now 12 Tests and 15 months since Australia's Mr Dependable bowled a wide. He's always at you and for all his individual victories against England, Siddle's successes are lightly worn. There's something to be said for that.

3) The tail that wags

The eccentric Gloucestershire off-spinner Bryan 'Bomber' Wells once remarked of his batting: "If I hit the ball it went a long way and the crowd and I were happy. If I missed it, well, I was that much nearer bowling." Times have changed and this Australian side has one of the best lower orders in cricket. No doubt to the chagrin of Michael Clarke and coach Darren Lehmann, Australia's tail have again shown up their top order at points in this series. It's a rare field in which the Australians have actually improved over the past five years.

At Trent Bridge it was Ashton Agar who made Australia's top order look wasteful. At Lord's, James Pattinson appeared Australia's most technically correct and confident batsman. In Manchester, Mitchell Starc added a breezy 66 not out to his three first innings wickets. Starc's innings resonated because it presented Australia with something to ponder; if this clean hitting served as dessert and not the main course, would Australia be able to post impose totals like this more often? Freed of the need to do the heavy lifting, who knows the damage that this late-order clout could inflict?

4) England's batting looks fallible

Here are some statistics to warm the heart of Australian fans: Alastair Cook has so far scored only 145 runs at an average of 24.16. Jonathan Trott, the man who has often come in at the early fall of Cook's wicket has fared even worse, with 122 at 20.33. There of course remains the likelihood that the Australians are not able to keep good men down for long, but it's a start. Andy Flower's brow most be furrowed even further by the batting travails of Matt Prior. As ever, he shaped as a thorn in Australia's side in the lead-up this series but in five innings he's managed only 69 runs at the paltry average of 17.25. At times Prior has been culpable, but that is also a tactical win to Australia.

Aside from Joe Root's magnificent 180 at Lord's, much of the slack has been taken up by Ian Bell and in the instance of the third Test, the mercurial Kevin Pietersen. Otherwise, Australia's fast bowling attack has been in the ascendency.

The Australian game is currently beset by an endless series of 'what-ifs'. What if Clarke had the back of a supple gymnast? What if Shane Watson stopped torching DRS reviews with reckless abandon? And just what if Ryan Harris was always fit to take the new ball in Tests? Australia must be tempted to rest Harris now that this series is lost and possibly even force him into a hyperbaric chamber until November. In his two Tests so far he has managed 11 wickets at a series-leading average of 18.00.

If Harris is rested at Durham, Jackson Bird shapes as a more than adequate replacement. Bird's powers of precision and movement make him the ideal bowler for English conditions and it's one of the great shames of the tour that he has yet to see Test action. Australia's injury history suggests he'll have some kind of role to play in this double-headed series. That is cause for muted excitement.

5) Michael Clarke is a warrior

It's been said so many times and with such dwindling merit that it barely begs regurgitation, but the Australian Test captaincy is apparently the nation's second most important job. On the surface that might sound like a cynical aside, but raw numbers would suggest that the lucky country now reserves a higher level of respect for MasterChef judges, to be perfectly honest.

Where does Clarke fit in here? Characterised as a brash and excessively preened show-pony for much of his early career, it is now more accurate to say that Clarke is not only leader but backbone of this Australian team. The physical manifestations of his commitment are becoming more obvious by the year; he rarely looks untroubled by a degenerative back injury but refuses to allow it to stem his impact as a batsman. Do Australians underrate just how tough their skipper is? His brave and stoic 187 at Old Trafford provides an arresting counterweight to the failure of his team-mates to "go on with it" at any point in the past 12 months. When Australia bat, Clarke's level of fight is often Australia's level of fight.

When Clarke departs cheaply or plays badly, the fortunes of his team normally nose-dive with him. He should be celebrated for his sublime batting and stamina in the face of overwhelming physical odds, but more often than not he's poked, prodded and turned over for examination and scrutiny. It's hard to say how much longer he'll hang in for but you get the sense that he needs to be enjoyed while he lasts. Upon appointment Clarke seemed to be the captain that no-one in Australia genuinely wanted, but not since the Border era has an Australian leader been so needed by his team.

Powered by article was written by Russell Jackson, for on Tuesday 6th August 2013 03.05 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010


image: © doggiesrule04