The Ashes began promisingly for Australia, and for fast bowler Peter Siddle in particular. After all the build-up, Australia won the first day decisively, bowling England out for 260, thanks largely to Siddle’s career-best haul of 6-54, which included a hat-trick that gutted the tourists’ dangerous lower-middle order. The momentum of that opening day swung sharply, though, England cruising to thumping victories in three of the five Tests to secure their first series win Down Under in 24 years. It was a result, combined with a disappointing showing in the World Cup, which confirmed Australian cricket’s lowest ebb since the mid-Eighties.
On Wednesday, the three-match series between Australia and Sri Lanka begins in Galle. And, according to Siddle, lessons have been learned from the Ashes drubbing.
“I think the biggest thing that came out of that series, and it’s been reinforced by watching England since, is that we lacked the basics,” Siddle says. “We need to build those bowling partnerships, to be bowling in groups. And it’s the same with the batting. Guys need to take their time getting in and spend more time in the middle. I think we’ve been able to take a few steps back and really work on those things. We’re not starting from scratch but we need to get back to focusing on those areas.”
And, as the trauma of Ashes defeat subsides, the doom and gloom has been replaced by optimism about the hard work that awaits an Australian side intent on restoring its standing as one of Test cricket’s top dogs.
The axing of veteran opener Simon Katich aside, the handover of captaincy from Ricky Ponting to Michael Clarke is the only major change wrought since the Ashes. And, given that, in the past, Australian captains have relinquished the post only at the end of their careers, there is plenty of intrigue in how Ponting and Clarke will fare in circumstances that are, by Australian standards, unconventional.
“It’ll be interesting to see how they go, how much Punter can stand back,” Siddle says. “But I think Pup’s played a lot of cricket under Punter – his entire Test career – so I don’t think their approaches or their tactics will be too dissimilar.
“It’s definitely a fresh start. It’s been a while since our last Test and we’ve obviously got the new captain – Pup’s got the full-time job rather than being the fill-in and there are a few new players in the squad.”
Ponting, though, is unlikely to be sidelined completely. He will presumably remain ensconced at the pivotal number three spot in the order and is determined to add to his 152 Tests, aiming to tour England one last time in 2013. But, for all his grim forcefulness and his glorious record notwithstanding, Ponting, 36, must now be a series-by-series proposition. Siddle for his part, is confident the veteran has what it takes to bat on.
“Growing up, skippers moved on and retired,” Siddle says. “But Punter’s a great batsman and there’s still a lot of runs left in him. I think no longer being the captain takes a bit of pressure off him, allows him to be a bit more relaxed in the field and just concentrate on his batting.”
At the other end of the spectrum, Australia’s 15-man squad includes four uncapped players – Shaun Marsh, Trent Copeland, Nathan Lyon and James Pattinson – and two others who have played just one Test – Usman Khawaja and Michael Beer. It is a necessary, overdue concession to renewing the Test side, even if 30-somethings like Ponting, Mike Hussey and Brad Haddin remain first-choice.
“It gives these younger guys a real opportunity to come away on tour with some of the more experienced guys and they’re all quality players,” Siddle says. “They’ve all peformed well for Australia A or at state level and I think the selectors have all their bases covered with the players they’ve picked.”
Marsh and Khawaja will battle it out for the final batting position, while Lyon and Beer are vying for the spinner’s berth, but the picture is less clear when it comes to the pace attack. Along with Siddle, Mitchell Johnson and Ryan Harris survived from the Ashes. Ben Hilfenhaus and Doug Bollinger, though, have been overlooked for Pattinson, Siddle’s 21-year-old Victorian teammate, and Copeland, who offers the kind of control Australia have lacked since Stuart Clark was discarded two years ago.
“Hopefully, from my perspective they wait a bit longer to make their debut,” Siddle says good-naturedly. “But yeah, I’ve spent a lot of time with James – I’ve known him since he was a little kid. He’s big and strong and bowls fast and swings it. And Trent Copeland, I’ve been impressed by his patience and consistency, his ability to bowl line and length.”
Siddle expects Sri Lanka will be a very different prospect on their own turf than they were in England this summer.
“It’s always tough going to another country and playing in their conditions but I think the boys who have been over for the ODIs have shown that you can get stuck in and still do well,” Siddle says.
“Mostly the wickets can be pretty flat to begin with and then break up a bit. But, watching the ODIs, the wickets have been a bit green and have had a bit in them early. We can’t hope for too much, though – I’m sure the grass will disappear a bit and the wickets will dry out by the first Test.”
But, as Siddle can attest and as the Ashes proved, the way a series begins isn’t as important as the way it ends.