All summer pundits have been making comparisons between the Australian Test team and the great sides of their past. None have been very favourable.
Once Australia’s batting was so mind-bogglingly formidable the likes of Michael Di Venuto, Stuart Law, Michael Bevan, Mike Hussey and Darren Lehmann had to make do with annihilating county attacks on a weekly basis while even better players made runs for the Test team.
Not any more.
Captain Michael Clarke is the one world-class batsman of the current generation, the only Australian with an Ashes century this series. Yet batting coach Di Venuto maintains the present bunch are more skilful than their predecessors. The problem is, more skilful does not necessarily mean better.
“The skill levels of these guys is incredible, they’re much more skilful than the players of the past because of Twenty20 cricket and a lot more one-day cricket,” he says. “The stuff they can do is amazing.”
The challenge for former Durham opener Di Venuto is turning that talent into something more tangible.
On the July morning he called it a day as a professional cricketer last year no one on the planet had scored more First-Class runs, though it was a record only bequeathed to him by Mark Ramprakash’s own retirement days earlier.
The left-hander was not just devastatingly attacking, he was a voracious accumulator too. The first time he picked up a bat for Durham in 2007, he made 155 of them. In all he scored 6,547 for them in First-Class cricket. Only Dale Benkenstein, Jon Lewis and Paul Collingwood have more, all from far more innings.
The batting unit Di Venuto inherited have his same eye for runs, but not the hunger. Former Australian players have been queuing up to label them “Big Bash” merchants, capable of flashy Twenty20 innings, not of the patient vigil that wins Test matches.
“When you play the longer form of the game it’s all about adjusting to five or four-day cricket and being able to bat for time and score lots of runs,” explains Di Venuto, whose nine Australia caps came in 50-over cricket. “There’s no good going out, facing 30 balls and getting 60, which they’re all very capable of on any given day.
“Test cricket goes for a long time so it’s a matter of building the innings, waiting for the balls coming into your scoring areas and scoring from there.”
There were signs in the last Test, which only came to a soggy end four days ago, that Di Venuto was getting through to the batsmen humiliated at Lord’s.
“It was a real good turnout for the batters,” Di Venuto says of the Old Trafford Test. “Michael Clarke came away with a fantastic hundred and Chris Rogers and Steve Smith probably should have had hundreds as well. It was disappointing they just missed out but it was an excellent response (to Lord’s).
“I guess the disappointing thing is we’ve had good starts and not gone on to the big scores. In the last Test we had a big hundred-maker and a couple get pretty close so if we can do something similar here we’re well on the way to getting a good total on the board.
“A lot of them have got quite good domestic records, so it’s not as though they haven’t scored runs. But these are young kids learning on the bigger stage. Sometimes you make mistakes and that’s part and parcel of playing cricket. You make mistakes nearly every time you play, it’s about learning from them and getting better.
“We’re improving. We’re still going to have bad days, don’t worry about that, but hopefully there are a few more good days as well.”
Australia picked a squad designed to cope with English conditions, and no ground is more quintessential in that respect than its most northerly, The truth is, though, the pitches in this series have been very un-English.
“The wickets have been very dry and the wicket up here looks very dry as well, which is a little bit unusual for this neck of the woods,” notes Di Venuto.
“I think we showed at Old Trafford where the wicket had a little bit more pace and bounce in it the key to games here is if you can get first-innings runs.
“We’ve got a good bowling attack suited to here and our batters showed some good form in the last Test. Hopefully we can just continue improving.
“I guess it’s no secret where you bowl here. Everyone knows you attack the off stump. If you’re there or thereabouts, you’re in the game. And as a batter your defence is going to be tested. It’s about getting through those periods, and when you get scoring opportunities, score.
“There are always results here. There’s only draws when it’s rain-affected. If we’ve got four or five good days of weather there’s going to be a result.
“Everywhere you play there are different conditions to adjust to, whether it’s the high bounce in Australia, the low bounce in England or the turn of India. There has to be a certain amount of adjustment to your technique to find a way to score runs.”
If Australia can do that it will make for a more even Test match than looked on the cards a few weeks ago. After five-and-a-half seasons at Durham, Di Venuto appreciates the significance of the occasion.
“It’s very exciting for the public, isn’t it?” he says. “The ground looks magnificent and hopefully a lot of people turn up and support it because it should be a pretty good match. Hopefully we can continue playing well and put on a good display for the people of the North East.
“It’s great for the North East to have an Ashes Test. It doesn’t get any bigger than that as far as Test cricket is concerned.”