Filling the shoes of legends January 5, 2007

Australia's future not all doom and gloom

Rod Marsh, Greg Chappell and Dennis Lillee retired together and it took years for Australian cricket to recover © Getty Images

Twenty-two years ago when the last great player exodus occurred Australia began five years of despair. Not until the 1989 Ashes could Australia prove they had left behind the suffering that followed the retirements of Greg Chappell, Dennis Lillee and Rod Marsh, who left a 253-Test gap when they exited the SCG on January 6, 1984.

Two months later in Guyana Greg Ritchie's bulky frame slotted into the top order, Wayne Phillips was mistakenly turned into a makeshift wicketkeeper and Terry Alderman tried to fill Lillee's space. By the fifth Test Queensland's John Maguire had replaced Alderman and Australia were on the way to using 24 players in 46 matches until the 1989 tour, when stability and success was finally found. It took a further eight years and 77 games to introduce the same number of new personnel and by then Australia were world champions.

The Test crown has retained the same shine ever since and Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne were two of its most significant polishers. Justin Langer also had a large part in the success and the trio leaves from the same gate as the previous triumvirate. Australia now enter another period of uncertainty, but the prospects of the trough being as deep as last time are remote.

Allan Border was a reluctant successor to Kim Hughes, who resigned in tears against West Indies in 1984, and he won only three of his first 25 Tests in charge. The low points were home-and-away series losses to New Zealand in 1985-86 and giving up the Ashes a season later to an England team dubbed the worst ever to tour. The recovery was slow, painful and, ultimately, massively rewarding.

Ricky Ponting does not have instant replacements for the big three, but he is fortunate to have a string of contenders who are capable of plugging holes. Australia's ranking as world No. 1 may be in jeopardy over the next couple of years but the superpower status will remain. The planning through the Academy should stop a repeat of the 1980s horror.

Stuart MacGill is a proven performer at Test level but permanently filling the shoes of a legend could be a different story © Getty Images

In the past two years the focus of the Centre of Excellence in Brisbane has altered from developing emerging players for the first-class arena to preparing contenders for international action. A core group of bowlers including Ben Hilfenhaus, the Tasmania swing bowler, and Brett Dorey, the tall Western Australia fast man, was compiled as the Australian selectors prepared for life without McGrath. Shaun Tait also spent time in the set-up and with Mitchell Johnson's re-emergence and the rapid development of Stuart Clark a batch of next-generation bowlers is on call.

The opening spot created by Langer's decision can be filled confidently by either Phil Jaques, who stepped into the Test side twice in 2006, or Chris Rogers, who has learned under Langer at Western Australia. A return to the top of the order for Michael Hussey, another batsman raised in Perth, should not be ruled out as it is his preferred position.

While the batting and fast-bowling back-up is solid, the spin ranks are Australia's major worry. In 15 years of trying no Australian has been able to emulate Warne - only Stuart MacGill has got close - and Daniel Cullen, Cullen Bailey, Beau Casson and Nathan Hauritz have the toughest assignments of all.

Cullen and MacGill are the frontrunners to step in for Warne but Australia's expectations of what a slow man should achieve must quickly be lowered. The 1980s showed that attempting to fill the shoes of legends takes decades rather than days.

Peter English is the Australasian editor of Cricinfo