x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Odd link Bailey is connecting the dots in the Australian captain puzzle

Generally Australia selects its eleven best players and then makes one captain. Bailey is an out and out kink in the chain.

Having been made captain on debut, the onus is on Bailey to fit into a group of established players.
Having been made captain on debut, the onus is on Bailey to fit into a group of established players.

If you look hard enough at George Bailey, maybe as he addresses a press conference, you might begin to think he is the perpetrator of a grand prank upon us all, one which he now stands on the brink of revealing.

Any second, a mouth poised on the fringes of a smirk will break out in open taunting: 'Hah! Can't believe you all fell for it!'

In the politest possible way, that is what seeing him as Australian captain can initially feel like. Is it just being a little fanciful? I mean, Bailey is straight, like good-schoolboy straight isn't he?

The problem in believing that George Bailey of Launceston, Tasmania (an eerie little town on an eerie little island at the eerie end of the world) is Twenty20 captain is not with George Bailey at all.

It is in believing that Australia would have made such an appointment. Australian captains and how they are chosen have acquired an old world romanticism.

Generally Australia selects its eleven best players and then makes one captain.

That man is many things; gnarled, cowboyish, tough as a tank, tactically astute, a larrikin once (lovely Australianism for rogue) a statesman now, and always a man who has paid his dues.

There is no typical Australian captain - or Australian - of course, but in all modern profiles there are well-recognised outlines.

Bailey is an out and out kink in the chain. For starters he had never played for Australia until becoming captain (the first man since the very first Australian captain ever in 1877, Dave Gregory, to captain and debut together), so subverting the very basis by which Australia picks captains.

So radical was it that it felt like some residue from the former coach John Buchanan's Laboratory of Left-Field Experiments.

Ian Chappell was not impressed, which is important because any conversation about the definitive Australian captain must feature Chappell.

It devalued the captaincy according to him.

"He is nearly 30 ... and wasn't able to force his way into an Australian side until he was appointed captain.

"Bailey isn't in Australia's best T20 team and with the World Cup being held in September, now is not the time to blood a captain who shouldn't make that squad."

A few days ago, just before Australia played the West Indies at the World T20, he dug in again: Bailey's presence was keeping out David Hussey, a far more valuable (in Chappell's opinion) player.

Bailey is also an outlier because he is the least intimidating Australian captain in generations.

You would have to go back to Kim Hughes' tearful resignation in November 1984 to find a moment - that too, only a moment - in which an Australian captain did not fill an entire room like Bailey does not.

Take this admission on becoming captain, for example: "I was probably a bit surprised as well but it's been an opportunity I embraced, a challenge that I've really enjoyed." Surprised? Which Australian captain would admit to surprise at his ascension?

Then, on walking into the Australian dressing room for the first time: "It was pretty intense and being asked to lead, it was pretty intimidating. But it was a really warm atmosphere.

"Once the game started it was pretty normal, decisions on-field, bowling changes and those things happen naturally, the advantage being that hopefully at this level the resources are high quality. The captaincy was nice because I didn't have time to worry about debuts or any of that, I just had a job to do."

Intimidating?

¿¿¿

Watching Australia try to get with Twenty20 has been a bit like when Radiohead went all electronic on us: both were driven by faddish impulses. Australia have not been bad at it.

They have won more Twenty20s than they have lost and have made the last four of one World T20 and the final of another. They are bossing the Super Eights here and looking as good as anybody. But like Radiohead with guitars, they are so, so much better old-fashioned.

Bailey is the head of a new approach, the boldest indication yet that Australia are taking the format as more than just a fad.

"I don't think Australian cricket has committed to Twenty20," Bailey begins, frankly.

"We've adapted. You look at the IPL, the Champions League, other tournaments, Australian players are playing those and playing very well there. There's no doubt they've adapted but the next step is the commitment from Cricket Australia to be serious about the team and the roles we give to players.

"I think it's been seen as a format to debut players but actually it's a structured format where you need to know your game pretty well, you need to know the role you play."

Certainly Australia look more committed, like they know exactly what is going on.

They have power-hitters, strike rotators and finishers, handy all-rounders and the kind of pure, young pace attack that will get wickets in any format. Sure they need to be savvier playing spin - and deploying it - but they are changing.

"We've made some good changes and we're getting to a time where we're treating Twenty20 with as much respect as ODI cricket in terms of the thought we put into the team and the individual roles," Bailey says.

"That's probably the thing I've tried to focus on, just to be consistent with who we pick, where we play them."

The biggest problem has been the fleeting, disparate nature of the format. Internationally there just are not enough games a year for 11 players to become a team and forge an identity. Players play a lot of Twenty20 but rarely together for the national side.

"You get thrown together for a week, play a couple of games and then everyone disperses," Bailey says. "Around the world other countries are faced with similar situations and they don't get a chance to get their Twenty20 teams together for that long.

"That is one of the advantages of coming straight from the UAE and spending a couple of weeks together because hopefully, by the time it's done and dusted, we'll have spent five or six weeks together. That's going to be just as important as the cricket side of things in determining how we go."

¿¿¿

Debutante or inexperienced captains every day face up to a unique and unforgiving self-examination.

Not only are they expected to lead a group of elite men, they must also prove themselves to be fit and capable to be in that elite group, and furthermore they must prove it to themselves, as if from one remove.

If Australia's side is slowly taking shape, what of Bailey's place within it? He has now played 10 T20s of middling performances. That is Chappell's beef, that in the middle order over 20 overs, Bailey's contribution will hardly be all that visible.

That is not to say he is incapable. He is said to possess a hefty power game (three sixes in eight innings doesn't really back that up) though on limited evidence, his 42 against Pakistan in the second T20 in Dubai was a more natural expression of his gifts.

That evening he rescued Australia with waves of pragmatic game-sense, not a big tide of boundary-hitting.

Ideally he does not want his side to be in need of the constant rescue he himself might be good at bringing. This Catch-22 feels appropriate.

"The most pleasing thing was that George was there at the end," Michael Clarke said about a Bailey innings in the UAE.

"These days, a lot is spoken about your strike-rate. Playing in these conditions, you've got to forget about strike-rate and do your best to have wickets left at the end. George summed that up very well."

The problem is Clarke was assessing an ODI innings. There is something there because Bailey's role looks clearer in that format.

This seems like the appropriate moment to remind readers that Bailey has just one T20 fifty in three seasons.

And also that he harbours serious Test ambitions. Asked whether a Test cap would be a bigger deal than a Twenty20 career, without so much as skipping a beat he replies: "Yup, without a doubt." He does not want to be - or think that he is - boxed in as a limited overs specialist.

It ends with a reminder of what a break from the lineage he is. I ask whether he feels more comfortable as captain now.

After an inordinately long pause: "I feel more comfortable in the group but I don't think I'll ever feel comfortable playing international cricket.

"The competition [for places] is so intense I can never think of getting too comfortable."

osamiuddin@thenational.ae

twitter Follow us @SprtNationalUAE