Comparing Australia Today to That Infamous Side of 86

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Matthew Wood is the brains behind Balanced Sports.

That Australia’s current Test line-up and the team from the infamous 1986 tour to India are being likened to one another is rubbish.  The current crop aren’t nearly as promising as their counterparts from that era and the numbers show those involved in the Tied Test series had to deal with an almost crippling inexperience when compared to this tour party.  While it is true Australia now fields a lineup with less experience than at any time over the last twenty years, comparing this time of relative talent-poverty to those darkest times is hyperbole of the most first order.

Just examining the relative experience levels makes any comparison become yet more mystifying.  Simpson and Border’s 1986 squad included two players who’d been in the national set-up for over four years: journeyman off-break merchant Ray Bright and Border.  The Australians this term field six: Katich, Watson, Ponting, Clarke, Hussey and Hauritz.  Border’s squad – famously green and with such combustible youth as Tim Zoehrer, Craig McDermott and Dean Jones – had an average age of 25, raised only by Border and Bright at 31 and 32.  Replace Bright (who never played for Australia again after returning) with 1986-87 stand-in Dave Gilbert, age 25, and the average age drops again to 24 ½.  No matter what their Test experience, Ponting and Nielsen’s mob will field a team with an average age of 29, lowered only by Steve Smith at 21.  In fact, Smith’s presence in the twelve drops that figure by an entire year.

Ricky Ponting is still probably the key for Australia and their talisman – if Ponting fires, so does Australia’s batting.  The same couldn’t be said for Border.  During the mid-80s as he was often left alone to fight the good fight as less capable batsmen spoon-fed catches to attacks around the world.  1986 saw a side with a combined experience of 147 Test matches of which 81 were Border’s.  That same Aussie icon accounted for 55% of all Australian Test experience, 75% of all their Not Outs and a staggering 63.4% of all the runs that Australian Test side had scored before the first Test in Chennai.  Ponting – who’s own body of work is hardly insubstantial – contributes only 42% of the Test experience and 44.8% of this side’s Test Runs.  That’s still a remarkable amount, but the near-20% gap between them shows how reliant the Australians of the mid-1980s were on Allan Robert Border.

Perhaps it’s in the bowling where there’s a little more to the comparison.  There’s no doubt that Australia now fields a relatively inexperienced bowling line-up – hardly surprising after the days of McGrath, Warne, Gillespie.  But even Ben Hilfenhaus, Doug Bollinger and Nathan Hauritz with a combined 36 Test matches have a much greater experience base than McDermott (14 matches), Bruce Reid (6 matches) and fellow tourist Simon Davis (who only played One Test).  See the chart below:

Although three of the 1986 tour party (McDermott, Reid & Waugh) ended their careers being afforded the highest respect, they were then in the embryonic stages of their careers and weight of numbers hadn’t had time to work for them.  Even now, given Bollinger’s steady start to his Test career and “Zoolander” Johnson’s 2009 South Africa tour, the current side’s averages are far superior to those of their predecessors.  If we remove the most experienced player, the difference is far more easily seen.

Makes for more interesting reading, doesn’t it?  Even with Test experience levels pretty much at a par, the current crop are firstly much more potent with the ball – with strike rates and averages much superior to the 1986 Aussies – and secondly, have shouldered the load more in their Test appearances, bowling 17% more overs as a group.  The only advantage the ’86ers have is in their economy rates, which in turn is both marginal and swayed by relative workhorse McDermott’s high economy rate.

The difference here is that this year’s Australians are fully versed in first class cricket and are refining, rather than learning their craft.  On his Test debut, Bollinger was 27 and had been on the First Class scene for the best part of a decade;  Hilfenhaus had been the Next Big Thing since 2005.

Nathan Hauritz will be the senior Aussie spin bowler in the first Test in Mohali, yet won’t be expected to carry the brunt of the wicket-taking load.  In 1986, that role was Ray Bright’s.  He actually bowls quite similarly to Ray Bright – not generating much turn, blocks up an end and occasionally takes a “Michelle”.  But the greatest difference lies in Hauritz’s strike rate, which is nearly half that of Bright, while the Queenslander has taken 30% more wickets in only 2/3 the overs.  In fact, the only way in which “Candles” oustrips the current straight-breaker is in Economy rate, a tribute more to the era in which he played rather than to that being a particular strength.  The difference is shown right here:

With the batting lineups, it’s quite possible that you couldn’t find more disparate levels of Test experience between two groups of batsmen in the modern era.  Five of the top seven in the 1986 batting order hadn’t cracked 1000 Test runs.  Of the current group, only Marcus “Feast or Famine” North is yet to reach that plateau.  Even he is only 19 runs short.

Since the turn of the 20th Century, you’d be hard pressed to find an Australian team as inexperienced as the one that fatefully toured India in 1986.  Before the tour, the great majority of both Waugh and Jones’ Test runs had come from one innings.  At the end of that series, however, their growth had allowed Simpson and Border to go some way towards making Australia tough to beat.  Of the top eight in the batting order, five toured England during the 1989 Ashes series and all except Greg Ritchie were still playing for their country in the 1990s.  They’d selected a team purely for the future and Jones’ outstanding 210 was the first repayment of that faith.  At the end of the tour, Boon had raised his average by five runs and Jones was averaging 54.50.  The brains-trust knew they could rely upon pacemen Reid & McDermott who had toiled under conditions for which they were ill-suited.  It was even possible they had a superstar in the making in Greg Matthews, though we now know it didn’t work out that way.

While Australia’s touring party includes some Test-inexperienced players they have markedly more experience in First Class cricket simply by virtue of age.  Of the Australians who played against the President’s XI on the weekend, each has played on average 100 First-Class matches.  In India in 1986, you could count the number of first-class games Bruce Reid had played on the fingers of two hands.  The excitement that comes with ushering in the next generation will only come if front-line bowlers Bollinger, Hilfenhaus and Hauritz fail.

After a gruelling tour which famously resulted in Jones’ near-death experience, the youth of Australia bonded well and the side improved, taking occasional wins from England, Pakistan and the West Indies until everything finally clicked with the magical 1989 Ashes Tour.  That tour guided in the Glory Years of the 1990s and early 2000s.  Only by the old guard moving on can this become a new dawn for Australian cricket.  With Ponting’s loyalty to his lieutenants, it’s highly likely that any youthful revolution won’t come for a year or two yet.

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