Once overlooked but spotlight turns to Di Venuto

Finally on an Ashes tour … as batting coach: Michael Di Venuto. Photo: Steve ChristoNorthampton: Australia’s golden generation of batsmen stood in the way of Michael Di Venuto playing Test cricket for his country despite a first-class runs tally that ended up exceeding 25,000. The Waughs, Hayden, Ponting, Langer, Martyn, Lehmann and others were all ahead of him on the conveyor belt, and even when a vacancy arose it was filled by a Love or a Jaques instead. The production line was that prolific.
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A year after his retirement as a player, the 39-year-old finally finds himself on an Ashes tour, with Australia’s batting stocks far more bleak. It has been said more than once since he joined the national set-up as batting coach this year that the Tasmanian would have played 30, 40, 50 or more Tests if he had been around in this era. The same applies for others. Pick a name: Cox, Law, Hodge, all were unlucky in the timing of their birth even if they had a brief taste. Even Michael Hussey had to wait until he was 30.

Di Venuto did play nine one-day internationals in 1997, but once that window shut it did not open again. ”I had an opportunity and didn’t quite grab it, and in those days you couldn’t afford to do that because there was a queue behind,” he said. ”I never got another opportunity from then on because you had to be in the right form at the right time. That’s just the way it was throughout our era. If you didn’t average 50-plus or 60, if your season wasn’t exceptional you didn’t play for your country.”

It would be easy to finger Di Venuto for Australia’s troubles with the bat – the collapse at Durham that handed an Ashes series victory to England on Monday being the most recent glaring example – in the same way that a football club’s defensive coach might be blamed for a team’s missed tackles.

But that ignores what he and Lehmann, the head coach, are working with: talented young batsmen who have the core skills but are not yet the full package. That is why it frustrates Di Venuto to hear calls for the likes of Usman Khawaja and Steve Smith or previously Phil Hughes, to be moved on for others to get a go.

”We need to be patient,” he said. ”Imagine if we weren’t patient with Steve Waugh early in his career. We would have lost one of the legends of the game, if they’d given him six or seven Tests and then said, ‘Oh no, he’s no good, spit him back out’. That’s what a lot of people are saying about the current crop.

”These kids are learning on the big stage, in an Ashes series in England. They haven’t got a lot behind them to fall back on, they haven’t got a lot of Test experience or domestic experience to fall back on. Chris Rogers, even though he hasn’t got a lot of Test experience, he’s got years of playing first-class cricket, so he’s been in similar situations where the ball is darting around like that (in Durham) and he can draw on his experiences that he’s lived and learnt.

Di Venuto finished his 20-year career with a stint with Durham that ended last year so, knowing the Riverside and its quirks and behavioural patterns, he was not entirely shocked at what he witnessed after tea on Monday.

”When wickets fall they fall in clumps,” he said of the ground when overhead conditions conspire to help the bowlers, but added, ”… maybe not nine.” The advice being handed out by Di Venuto, Lehmann and Michael Clarke, the last remaining member of the generation champions just gone, in the wake of that capitulation in the fourth Test varies from batsmen to batsmen. But it has a straightforward, and for good measure even rhyming, theme.

”Our message is pretty basic: play the ball late, play it straight,” Di Venuto said. ”Wait for the ball to come into your area and pick it off, especially when you’re playing on wickets that are darting around or getting through a spell from a good fast bowler.

”Their skills are outstanding. But their games have got to adapt to Test cricket and situations that demand their game does adapt.

”You don’t learn in a classroom – you learn by playing and making mistakes. In this game you don’t make one mistake and that’s the last time you do it. You make the same mistakes over and over. It’s about getting into match situations knowing what they can and can’t do and getting through good spells of bowling … making the bowlers come back for their fourth and fifth spells.”

Di Venuto is a realist and understands that with Australia light years from the days of winning 16 Tests in a row – they have not won since January, and lost seven of their past eight matches – heads will inevitably roll if the trend continues.

Yet with the door not having been knocked down lately by others in the Sheffield Shield he argues stability, with a return Ashes series on the horizon, is key.

”That’s the frustrating thing, especially for the public,” he said.

”They’re used to the Australian team being the dominant side over the last 20 years, and all of a sudden we’re not the dominant side any more. When we’re good we’re good, but when we’re bad we’re bad.

”We’ve got to find that middle ground where we’re not quite at our best but we can still guts our way through situations and scratch out a win. We can’t continue to play the way we’re playing. But ideally you’d like to stick with a pretty similar group to what we’ve got. We have to be patient.”

In a country whose high expectations are coloured by the enormous success of the recent past, the question is how long Australia is prepared to wait.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.

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