Darren Lehmann has seemingly transformed the atmosphere in the squad from one which was bordering on disdain to a happy, vibrant bunch. Mickey Arthur’s management style was very formulaic and, perhaps, un-Australian like. Wicket-keeper Brad Haddin (who lost his place under Arthur) said: “I think with Darren coming in, the message he’s got across, the brand of cricket that we want to play, and I think you guys understand the brand that Australian cricket wanted to play and what we have forever and a day, I think that got lost in the period that Mickey had a hold of us”. Star batsman Michael Hussey wrote in his autobiography, Underneath the Southern Cross, that when he joined the side in the West Indies in 2012, he thought the players all appeared to be playing for themselves. This was a view that he discussed with Arthur, although he did not believe the coach took it in. The tension which Hussey described was seen as a factor in his shock retirement at the end of the 2012/13 series against Sri Lanka, thus depriving Australia of one of their key players for 10 Ashes Tests. Haddin agreed with Hussey’s assessment of the dressing room. He said on joining the squad in Mohali this year he saw “guys jumping at shadows.” That is a situation which has now changed. Lehmann is seen as very much an old-school coach, keen for a beer at the end of the day’s play where the team can discuss the action which has just taken place on the field. This is a slightly false view of Lehmann, who is big on discipline and sport science, but after the Arthur reign his approach looks to be appreciated by his players. There is a good anecdote from Adam Gilchrist in his ESPNCricinfo column about Lehmann’s first day in charge of the Deccan Chargers. With some players showing signs of resistance to the merits of taking an ice bath, the new coach ran naked through the changing room and did a massive bomb into the bath, saying “one in all in”. It was a successful way to break down the barriers, or to put it another way, break the ice. Deccan had come bottom in the previous IPL with two wins from 14. In Lehmann’s first season they won the tournament. Add in two seasons at Queensland where they won all the domestic honours and you can see why Michael Vaughan was afraid of his fellow former Yorkshire-player. During his time in Brisbane Lehmann coached fast bowler Ryan Harris, who said of his coaching style: “You’re never not good enough, your ability is good enough to play the way you want to play. I never thought he’d be Australian coach and I never thought I’d be under him playing for Australia, but it is a great feeling”. That feel-good factor now seems to be manifesting itself in performances on the field.
As a player who averaged over 57 with the bat in first-class cricket and a smidgen under 45 in Tests, Lehmann would have walked into this current Australian side. He has brought together a batting line-up which is far prosperous and stable than the one which he took over. This process has been a combination of judgement and luck. Players who are seen as fragile and easy to get on top of have been discarded quickly. Ed Cowan lasted one Test, Phil Hughes two – despite an unbeaten 81, and Usman Khawaja was brought in for three Tests then taken out again. In their place, Lehmann re-integrated the aggressive David Warner and partnered him with Chris Rogers at the top of the order. He immediately trusted Steve Smith, who was not in the original Ashes touring squad. Both are quick scorers who take on the bowlers. As an added benefit, Shane Watson has stumbled into the pivotal number three spot after scoring 176 at The Oval. Add in the world-class Clarke at number four, one-day captain George Bailey at six and the counter-attacking Haddin at seven and you have a reasonable line-up who, in contrast to England’s recent go-slow approach, put the opposition under pressure with their quick scoring. Although still susceptible to a collapse under pressure (see Durham second innings), this is a stiffer line-up than the one which began the last series at Trent Bridge. And crucially, it is now packed with right-handers who play Graeme Swann well.
In a similar vein, a bowling line-up which Arthur labelled the best in the world is now beginning to look the part. Again, there is an element of luck involved, particularly in the availability of the injury-prone Ryan Harris, who incredibly has only played 17 Tests at the age of 34 but averages 21.81. That total includes the last five Australia have played. When you add Mitchell Johnson’s re-emergence as a quality fast bowler and the consistency of Peter Siddle, you have a fast-bowling trio of pace, aggression and control. Moreover, off-spinner Nathan Lyon is now an important part of this team having been doubted by the management in the past. And with Watson as a fifth seamer who can keep things tight, there is a good balance to the side.
Having seen their promising fast-bowling stock riddled by injury, Australia will have to hope that the current crop can remain fit for the next four Tests.
The cricketers Lehmann has at his disposal are aggressive not just with bat and ball, but also verbally. The coach has led the rhetoric and it seems the players are following his example, using every chance in the press and on the field to tell England’s players what they think of them. This is no 2005 when Ricky Ponting’s team were criticised for being too pally. Players are now picked as much for their mind as skill. Bailey and all-rounder James Faulkner are seen as stronger characters than Khawaja and Hughes, who has suffered in the three series he has faced England. Led by the innovative captaincy of Clarke, this team will come at you hard for five days. And as shown at Brisbane, when they get it right the results can be quite staggering.
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BIOGRAPHY: Ethan Hazard
BIOGRAPHY: Daniel Sturridge