AT THE risk of belittling the efforts of Leslie Balfour Melville in the century before last, the most relevant yardsticks for today’s Scotland-Australia match are the encounters that took place here in Edinburgh in 2009 and two years previously in Basseterre, on the tiny island of St Kitts.
The cricketing equivalent of identical twins, in that brace of one-day internationals Australia, batting first each time, amassed an aggregate of 679 runs, before yielding only 287 in reply. To state that the Australians have the edge in this head-to-head is as plainly factual as reporting that Marmite has a clear edge in the flavour and spreadability stakes over Vegemite. But then, everything is arguable.
When Scotland lose mismatches by landslide margins, we scurry to identify sources of consolation. There seems little to be gained from analysing what kind of stone flattened the road runner. For instance, it was a boost to Gordon Goudie’s confidence that he survived the worst of David Hussey’s onslaught to take five wickets in 2009. In the Caribbean, big Colin Smith fought the inevitable poetically with his face-saving 50.
But what Majid Haq has done, and the feat is worthy of far more than an afterthought, is establish himself over a period of ten years as the man most likely to save Scotland from embarrassment on these gala occasions, when victory over an elite nation is about as realistic a notion as world peace.
The qualified accountant from Paisley is no fool, and he sought yesterday to confront the aforementioned annihilations – he took a rare hammering from David Hussey last time out, conceding 75 from his ten overs – rather than run from them, in the hope that a lesson learned might help to prevent a repetition.
Haq’s record gives him the right to dispute our assertion that nothing of use can be prised from cricketing rubble. “The most important thing is to stay in the game and not be taken out of it in the first couple of hours. If you stay in the game against teams that are obviously perceived as bigger than you, they can start getting a bit nervous and twitchy,” said the 30-year-old off spinner.
“The last two times we have played Australia they have scored close to 350 and, being realistic, as I am, at half-time you know that’s far too many runs. If we keep them to 250, 275, fielding first, then I think we’ve got a great chance. We kept Pakistan to 230 in May, and that was a wonderful chance. Unfortunately, we didn’t capitalise on it.”
Australia have axed David Warner, in the hope the dynamic dilettante will quickly prove in domestic cricket that he should never be dropped again, and injured duo Steve Smith and Mitchell Starc kept him company on the flight home. All eyes now turn to Aaron Finch, who hit a world-record score against England in a format permitting less than half the overs he will start with if he plays today.
It is worth remembering, however, that Warner arrived here with a similar star rating in 2009, and perished for a duck. Far more likely to impose their superiority on the Scots today is Shane Watson, with coach Darren Lehmann adamant yesterday that he would deal his cards from a full deck.
Australia, ranked fifth in the world in this format, are only here to win and Clarke and Lehmann will channel this mentality. It is fair to speculate that George Bailey, who played with distinction for Grange and the Saltires for two seasons, will be the only Australian player with the slightest interest in the shape of Scottish cricket when reflections are being aired on the clubhouse steps afterwards.
Haq, however, is determined to convince us that this time might be different. The faces have changed around him with the influx of so many non-Scots natives since the eligibility laws were tweaked, and the newcomer who has made the deepest impression is Matt Machan.
Still just 22, the Sussex all-rounder already has an ODI century – against Kenya – from five appearances and inspires optimism that Scotland may have unearthed an aggressive successor to Ryan “Rhino” Watson. Machan even has the angry animal nickname to go with the shots and the off spin.
“Machan’s got a lot of class about him and he’s a bit of a fighter,” said Haq. “We nickname him The Pitbull, the way his attitude is. He’s always up for a fight. You need these tough characters when you’re up against a good side: get in their face and don’t back down.”
With the jewel in the batting crown, Kyle Coetzer, absent, Scotland look set to play Rob Taylor as well as stand-in captain Preston Mommsen even though neither is fit to bowl. Gordon Drummond could be a shrewd selection ahead of the quicker but less reliable Safyaan Sharif.
Probable teams Scotland: H Gardiner, C MacLeod, M Machan, R Taylor, R Berrington, P Mommsen (c), D Murphy, M Haq, G Goudie, I Wardlaw, G Drummond.
Australia: S Watson, A Finch, S Marsh, M Clarke (c), G Bailey, A Voges, M Wade, J Faulkner, M Johnson, F Ahmed, C McKay.