In cricket, as in music, the right tempo can be hard to find. Martin Hannett, the iconoclastic Manchester record producer, is depicted in the film 24 Hour Party People telling the Joy Division drummer, Steven Morris, to play “faster, but slower”. In assessing the way the 2017-18 Ashes series was played, many have noted that it was the slowest in terms of scoring rate since 1994-95.
Twenty-three years ago, Mark Taylor started his Australian captaincy with a goal to score more rapidly and play more proactively, the better to utilise the burgeoning talents of his team to win Test matches after the relative conservatism of the Allan Border/Bob Simpson years. Taylor wanted his teams to accelerate so as to make around 300 runs a day against quality bowling attacks and, in subsequently becoming the best Test side in the world, they largely did so.
For Smith and Lehmann, the challenge has been to do the opposite, throttling back from the frenetic speeds at which Australia have become used to scoring runs in Tests, to find a less risky and more sustainable way of running up the totals that an excellent and now versatile bowling attack can defend. In summing up the way Australia had approached this Ashes series, won 4-0 after a final innings victory in Sydney, Lehmann said it had been critical to bat for long periods, even if not at the optimum rate. Similar maxims will apply for future, overseas assignments in South Africa, the UAE and England again in 2019: boom and bust is out, steady accumulation is in.
“Long periods of time with their two senior bowlers in [Stuart] Broad and [James] Anderson we wanted them to bowl a lot of overs,” Lehmann said. “That was certainly a plan in the first innings of every game to make sure we’re batting big in the first innings, and achieved that in all bar Melbourne basically. So for us making sure those older guys were coming back day in, day out to bowl, was important, if we did that we gave our bowlers enough rest and away we go from there.
“We’re planning that far ahead, it’s not funny. For us, it’s making sure you’re changing the way you play wherever you play. South Africa you would think very similar to Australian conditions so it’s not so bad. Pakistan is totally different, we’ll have to prepare differently as we did for India. I thought that Test series in India was unbelievable and if we got over the line there it would’ve been an amazing achievement, but you’ve got to chop and change between where you play and who you play.
“That’s planning, Under-19s already underway, planning where we’re going to play, how we’re going to prepare, so they’re the things you do well ahead of the game.”
“We’re planning that far ahead, it’s not funny. For us, it’s making sure you’re changing the way you play wherever you play.”
Nothing epitomised the Australian tempo more than the fact Smith scored his runs at 48.51 runs per hundred balls, Shaun Marsh at 45.97, Usman Khawaja at 43.35 and even the hyper-aggressive David Warner at 52.37. Mitchell Marsh, while scoring at a more slippery 57.04, was notably more patient, and only the technical travails of Cameron Bancroft gave cause for concern. The principle underpinning all this crease-occupation was patience, and Lehmann spoke happily of watching Warner happily knock singles into the gaps offered to him by Joe Root as a way of restricting the usual flow of boundaries.
“Certainly a bit different for the way they planned, they had deep cover, deep point and two back the whole time,” Lehmann said. “Normally those balls from Davey would go for four, so that was a plan from them to restrict his scoring, but I thought he handled it really well, showed a bit of maturity from Davey, which was great. For him to bat a long period of time is good for him, he knows he can go both ways.”
It will be imperative to show defensive and attacking skills at the right times in South Africa, particularly given the way South Africa’s pacemen dismantled India in the opening Test of their current series in Cape Town. Lehmann admitted that the schedule of limited-overs matches between now and March would make the process of adaptation challenging, albeit in conditions not totally dissimilar to those on which Australian batsmen are raised.
“We don’t have as much time, that’s the problem with the changeover. We have a [Sheffield] Shield round and a [practice] game in Benoni,” Lehmann said. “They’ll leave early, the Test squad, depending on the T20 squad which is playing at the same time, so we’ll have to work that as best we possibly can. Scheduling we can’t do anything about, but we’ll try and give them the best preparation we can in that regard. They’ve got some quality bowlers South Africa, no doubt about that, they’ll swing it around. It’s been quite dry there so it’ll be interesting to see what sort of wickets we get there, only time will tell.
“Preparation is the key for whatever series. You’ve got to get there as early as we can. Broad and Anderson have got 900 Test wickets. And South Africa have got a really good attack. Shaun Marsh made a great hundred last time we were there at Centurion. I expect those guys to be a challenge, as it always is. South Africa are a tough opponent. We’ll have to play well, there’s no doubt about that. We’ll have to bat really well.”
Much as Taylor knew that the right tempo for run-making would complement the fact that he had Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath and initially Craig McDermott in harness to bowl opponents out, Lehmann and Smith have realised that, provided they stay fit, Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood, Pat Cummins and Nathan Lyon will be able to confound most opponents so long as there are no batting catastrophes to rob them of adequate runs to defend. Lehmann will not yet put the current quartet above Mitchell Johnson, Ryan Harris, Peter Siddle and Lyon from 2013-14, but they are getting close.
“They certainly have the potential to be. Harris, Siddle, Johnson and Lyon were pretty good four years ago, but these guys are younger, they’ve got the appetite to be great,” Lehmann said. “Twenty-five days of cricket as well, every day they fronted up for us at crunch times. From a bowling point of view, very pleased we were able to get 80 wickets to win 4-0 and the way they’ve done it.
“The last two wickets were a little bit slow and low as such, but Sydney took turn. The first three had some pace and bounce in them, but they adapted to those conditions really well, so, pleased you’ve got those guys playing together all at once.”
Lehmann, of course, has flagged for some time that the 2019 Ashes tour will be the end of his time as Australian coach. The 2017-18 Ashes may yet be seen as the pivot point from Australian cavalier to Test-match roundhead, with Cromwellian consequences for the rest of world cricket.