Friday, 15 October 2010

Australia in Decline

On 5th December 2006, England walked out to bat at Adelaide one wicket down, 97 ahead of their hosts in the third innings of the test. With just 90 overs left to be bowled, the second test was headed for a predictable tame draw.

But something extraordinary happened over the next few hours. In the face of a magic spell by Shane Warne, England froze in panic and spectacularly imploded. By the end of the day, Australia had pulled of a sensational heist and gone up 2-0 en route a historic Ashes whitewash. The champions had shown just why they had dominated the game so completely for so long.

The end of the series saw the departures of Shane Warne and Glen McGrath- two legendary bowlers, more responsible than anyone else for Australia's climb to such dizzying heights. With them went Justin Langer. Within the next two years Adam Gilchrist, Damien Martyn, Matthew Hayden, Stuart MacGill and Brad Hogg were gone, soon followed by Brett Lee. As if in a flash, a golden generation had vanished.

There was nothing unexpected in it. Any discerning person could see that the Australian team of early/mid 2000s vintage was made up by men who were either already around a generation ago or were in contention back then- in other words, the young men who had turned up since the late 90s were simply not as good as their seniors. I had myself written a piece on this topic a couple of years ago (you can find it in the blog titled 'Inbox' on Cricinfo, the article appeared in August 2008), when Australia were still comfortable seated on top with no apparent signs of decline.

But the cracks, even then, were already apparent. Even the most cock eyed supporter would agree that the Australians were incredibly lucky with the umpiring in the second test at Sydney in January 2008, where they only just managed to get the better of the Indians (ten more minutes, and it would have been a draw). In the game that followed, the Indians, armed with a very inexperienced attack smashed the Kangaroos in Perth- the Australian equivalent of 80s Barbados. Australia losing at Perth to a sub-continental side was unthinkable up until then. The hosts eventually took the series 2-1, but it was far from being the walkover that nearly every series had been over the last decade or so.

If the cracks were concealed then, they were torn wide open over the next couple of years. Since that 2007-08 series against India, the only series Australia won against a quality opponent was against South Africa in early 2009. There have been disappointments on either side of that win: a 0-2 reverse against India in 2008-09 in a series where Australia seldom threatened to win and an even more galling 1-2 defeat at home to South Africa- the first series defeat at home since the all conquering West Indians beat them back in the early 90s. An Ashes defeat to a strictly average England side in 2009 and a 0-2 loss earlier this week in a series where Australia won both tosses, got the best of the conditions and faced an attack that is at best a touch above average, are indicators of a side in deep decline.

What has been commendable is the manner in which Australia continue to approach their game. Despite the setbacks and the loss of several legends, the Australians still look to give their best. The ruthlessness with which they have demolished weaker opponents speak of a side that may no longer be the undisputed champion, but one that is not relinquishing that crown so easily all the same. Having seen the once great West Indies side go into freefall, its a relief to see the tenacity with which the Australians continue playing their cricket.

Nevertheless, the bigger concern they face now is not the decline- that has long since been accepted and realised- but the very real danger that they might slip further. The current Australian side has memories of two series defeats to India, two Ashes losses in four years, a home series defeat against the Proteas and a test loss to a brittle Pakistani side. While Australia have ruthlessly bludgeoned weaker sides into submission, a less than convincing record against stronger sides could well cause the shadow of self-doubt to creep in everytime there is a 50-50 situation. In Ponting they have a man who played right through the golden era and as such, would find it easier to overcome self-doubt when confronted by a crisis, but would a successor who will have not such golden memories be able to do so?

That is going to be the greatest challenge that Australian cricket might have to confront over the coming years.

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