Australia v South Africa, 2nd Test, Hobart, 3rd day November 14, 2016

Australia in the crucible, past and present

Australian cricket finds itself at a critical juncture, not unlike a few instances in the past, and the results of the next two days in Hobart could have far-reaching effects on the system and players
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Can Steven Smith find a way to turn his captaincy tenure around like how many Australian captains have done in the past? © Cricket Australia/Getty Images

Australian cricket's story is littered with crucible moments; times when the national team has either stood up or flaked out. In the moment, these instances may not seem that important, only gaining resonance through what happens afterwards. Other moments stand out like beacons almost from the second they take place. Whatever is decided at levels above, whatever reviews or appointments take place, the fate rests ultimately with the players.

The third dull, wintry day in Hobart felt like one such day and the next two to follow are no less important. Australia are so far behind South Africa they have only slim hope of getting out of Bellerive without a match and series defeat, but it is vital that they show evidence of improvement. The jobs of many, from the chief executive James Sutherland down to the debutant Callum Ferguson, are on the line.

How much hinges on all this? Remember the words of the coach Darren Lehmann after Australia were bundled out for 85 on day one. Asked about the future, he did not want to think about the consequences of a hiding. "I'll probably tell you in a few days," he said. "Hopefully we fight back really well and the future is bright. We know we've got to get better in a lot of areas, we've always said that. Even four Tests ago when we were No.1. Now we're way away from that."

Each of the past five Australian captains have met moments of similar weight - of both the winning and losing varieties. For Allan Border, perhaps the most resonant was day one of the 1989 Ashes series at Headingley, when he came out to bat after a pair of early wickets on an overcast day and played an innings so brazen it included one six cut hard over backward point - back in the day when that shot was almost unheard of. Sixteen years of Ashes dominance were forged that morning.

Border experienced the other side towards the end of his career, when he and his team were unable to take a chance to defeat West Indies in a series for the first time in 17 years. A chase of 186 to win in Adelaide was left too much in the hands of the tail, leaving Australia one run short of victory, and Border to hurl his "worry ball" so hard into the dressing room floor that it rebounded to strike the ceiling.

For Mark Taylor, a personal turning point did not dovetail with team success, but foreshadowed it. By the time of the second innings of the first Ashes Test in 1997, he had gone 19 innings without passing 50, and a previously happy and dominant team were feeling the strain. Rolled by Darren Gough and Andy Caddick, then clattered to all parts of Edgbaston by Graham Thorpe and Nasser Hussain, Australia started their second innings 360 runs behind.

Without a hundred, Taylor's captaincy would have been at an end, and in the early overs the tension was close to unbearable. But in the company of Matthew Elliott and Greg Blewett, he carved out an "ugly" hundred, adding respectability to the scoreboard and allowing the team enough breathing space to regroup and ultimately win the series. Taylor led the team for another two years.

Again in England, Steve Waugh's captaincy came under enormous pressure during the 1999 World Cup, following on from a surprising 2-2 Test series draw against West Indies in the Caribbean. The team was not happy, Waugh and Shane Warne butting heads, and losses to New Zealand and Pakistan left the team needing to win each of their last seven matches of the tournament or face elimination at every stage. Waugh's response, most pointedly in a pair of nail-biters over South Africa, was to make critical runs. Warne, by now toying with retirement, overcame doubts about a shoulder still regaining strength after surgery to rip the ball in his former fashion. The World Cup was won, and Waugh stayed on as leader until 2004.

Michael Clarke's leadership tale turned triumphant when Mitchell Johnson was given the ball before lunch on the second day of the Gabba Test in 2013-14 © Getty Images

Despite a winning record overall, Ricky Ponting's leadership is remembered most for a pair of Ashes defeats. The first in 2005 was said to have swung on Glenn McGrath's injured ankle, but Ponting's call to send England in even after he knew he would be without his best pace bowler proved much the more fateful juncture, leading ultimately to the loss of the urn for the first time since Border's 1989 redemption.

Move ahead to 2010-11, and a home Ashes series now viewed as one sided may actually have pivoted on the loss of two wickets either side of the first drinks on Boxing Day. Phillip Hughes and Ponting were prospering well enough in front of a mighty crowd when the former skewed Tim Bresnan to point, before next over the captain snicked Chris Tremlett into the slips. The former coach Tim Nielsen still gnashes his teeth about that one and all the ignominy to follow - it proved to be Ponting's last Test as captain.

Michael Clarke's leadership tale always teetered between triumph and disaster with little in between. The pivotal point leading to the former came when Mitchell Johnson took the ball just before lunch on day two of the first 2013-14 Ashes Test at the Gabba, worrying out Jonathan Trott as per team plans and sending momentum flooding to Australia. The latter, perhaps harder to isolate, was arguably the second afternoon of the Cardiff Test in 2015, when a series of squandered starts sentenced Australia to an opening defeat in a series they would never lead. Clarke, fighting his own inner battles, was en route to retirement from that moment.

So it is that Steven Smith's men find themselves in the crucible at Bellerive. They enjoyed a far better day on Monday than Saturday, even if Quinton de Kock's impersonation of Adam Gilchrist gathered impressive depth. The batting spine shown by Smith and Usman Khawaja, in particular, demonstrated a level of self-knowledge about where this team now stands after four consecutive losses and the distinct prospect of a fifth. The heaviness of expectation was not lost on Josh Hazlewood.

"Extremely important I think," he said. "Everyone knows we need to improve and improve quickly. We talk amongst ourselves and everyone knows we need to improve. So I think it's about everyone individually doing what they can on or off the field, and important to do it as a group as well. Hopefully it happens on the field. We're obviously a pretty tight group, we play a lot of cricket together and we're on the road together a lot. Everyone gets along fantastically on and off the field, but now's an important time to stick together and even be tighter."

Australian cricket has never been richer or better resourced. The national team's players have never been better paid nor looked after. There are problems with scheduling, and issues of coaching philosophy as it relates to the business of batting. But Australia's Test team is ultimately in the hands of the players who shape it, through their own skill and presence of mind. The next two days will, once again, tell that tale.

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • vj_gooner on November 17, 2016, 11:58 GMT

    The team needs a couple of bad boys. The current is actually suffering because of lot early retirements/drop-outs because of different reasons.

  • Jono_M on November 15, 2016, 10:54 GMT

    @Gwill1990, That is a fair call. really, guys like Burns and Khawaja made their debuts at a youngish age but haven't been good enough to hold down positions. Pointing to England is fair enough but of the top sides they are the exception right now, their younger batsmen are also not yet established, Root and Cook aside, their top five is far from complete, they may be youthful but they still need to develop into performing players, guys like Ballance, Robson and Buttler have come and gone. Bavuma is the only specialist batsman in the SA line up with a long future in front of him, if anything they are in a worse position than Australia in that regards. India have a similar age profile to Australia too, their middle order of Pujara, Rahane and Kohli is going to be a force for a long time to come. Pakistan looks good as long as they can replace Misbah and Younis, otherwise they could take a slide down the rankings. It's a mixed field!

  •   Oswald Jayatunge on November 15, 2016, 3:29 GMT

    Pride went before this fall! Good lesson for AUS. Better keep the mouth shut during the success time knowing that this fall can happen anytime.

  • izzidole on November 15, 2016, 3:16 GMT

    Australian cricket has never suffered such humiliation in cricket history as witnessed in the last five months. Since the 3-0 test series whitewash in Sri Lanka followed by the 5-0 whitewash in the ODI's a team packed with debutants to South Africa. Followed by the current 2-0 series defeat to South Africa at home. The only consolation being the victories in the limited overs series against Sri Lanka winning 4-1 in the ODI's and 2-0 in the T20's. Australian cricket has plummeted from being ranked number 1 in test cricket in June to number 3 and expected to go down the ICC cricket rankings even further and end up almost at the bottom by March next year. Poor team selection has hampered Australian cricket since the beginning of the year despite several warnings and it hasn't taken that long to realize the damage done to the game by selector Rod Marsh. The fascination by CEO Sutherland for T20 BBL at the expense of shield cricket has also contributed to the downfall.

  •   Stephen Phillip on November 15, 2016, 3:10 GMT

    1. Warner 2. Khawaja 3. Smith 4. Patterson 5. Handscomb 6. Lehmann 7. Wade 8. O'Keefe 9. Starc 10. Hazlewood 11 Sayers. We need a spinner that threatens the stumps, and a genuine swing bowler. I don't know which of Patterson, Handscomb or Lehmann will turn out to be test class, but there's only one way to find out. We might have to rotate through a few more batsmen before we settle: Bancroft, Maxwell, Renshaw, Heazlett, S Marsh again when fit, or M Marsh, Henriques, Faulkner, Cartwright if they can score hundreds and offer a wicket-taking option. It's not pretty, but the team needs a shake-up. Oh - and in the team above, Wade can be the fourth seamer while Handscomb keeps :)

  • afterhours on November 15, 2016, 3:09 GMT

    All these talk about two tier system big joke boy am sure the Aussies wish they could play WI or Zimbabwe to beat up on now to take some shame and distraction from their pathetic display.

  • johnnycash on November 15, 2016, 3:08 GMT

    Daniel, that Ashes test at the Gabba in 2013-14 turned on Nathan Lyon coming on before lunch and bowling 3 maidens in a row, drying the runs up, and allowing Mitchell Johnson to pick up the wicket of J.Trott at the other end. I know, I was there watching it.

  • KingofRedLions on November 15, 2016, 3:08 GMT

    It may never have been bettered resourced in terms of $$$, but its human resources seem to have dried up. A lost decade+ of development of young players.

  • Bishop on November 15, 2016, 2:42 GMT

    @R_U_4_real_nick "It's not that long ago that the likes of Voges were brandishing Bradmanesque averages against decent oppositions."

    Voges' Bradmanesque average was largely built on 6 Tests against the WI, and 5 against NZ. Both of them bottom tier sides. Add to that the fact that last year Australia produced total roads, and he was on the happy side of a couple of wierd umpiring decisions, and it is not surprising his numbers looked so good. He looked decidedly unBradmanesque in England, and in SL and against South Africa so far he has been worse than ordinary.

  • DanielCricFan1977 on November 15, 2016, 2:01 GMT

    The number of batting collapses since last year in England is astounding. Smashed against seam and swing in England, against spin in India & Sri Lanka, pace in WACA, and swing in Hobart. Did I miss anything? Our bowlers are average, batting shameless. is it not time for the players to play stints in County Cricket to learn to adapt? It is quite clear that Aus have become dependent on gifted players from last generation, there is no proper process for improvement / coaching. Wholesale changes are required - what do we have to lose? Certainly couldn't fare any worse that getting smashed every match.

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