The New Australia
At the end of a long summer of international cricket that began in Bangalore and finished in Sydney, one could be forgiven for thinking that it’s all doom and gloom for the average Australian cricket fan. Beaten comfortably by a resurgent India, ambushed in their own backyard by the resilient South Africans and then mugged by the Kiwi’s, it hasn’t been the sort of summer that we’ve been used to since … well since ... the early days of Border’s captaincy in the 1980s.
Despite that, I get the feeling that this summer brought with it a genuine sense of enjoyment, perhaps brought upon by the realisation that each and every match was a genuine 50/50 contest. Speaking to members of my local cricket club, knowledgeable without necessarily being experts, patriotic without necessarily being one-eyed, disappointed at the losses without necessarily being distraught, it strikes me that many Aussies are philosophical about the see-sawing fortunes of the national team.
There is almost an inevitability about their acceptance of the current state of affairs, almost as if it is only fair that we too must now learn the art of occasionally losing games of cricket with equanimity and grace. No great gnashing of teeth or looking for excuses – most of the people I spoke to were prepared to accept that winning can no longer be taken for granted. What’s more, there was even a grudging acceptance that it might actually be the best thing for the game.
I must confess to being a tad surprised by this relatively sanguine attitude until I realised that even the cricketers themselves might have sensed, deep in their souls, that the great era of dominance was soon to be no more. Watching their on-field behaviour this summer, there was none of the snarling and boorishness that characterised previous teams. They played it hard, they played it fair and they accepted the triumphs and disappointments with good grace. The series in India was perhaps a bit testy (both teams were guilty at times) but both South Africa and New Zealand played the game in the sort of spirit that made it easy for all three teams to play uncompromising cricket without crossing that invisible line.
There seems to be a general acceptance that the much vaunted depth in Australian domestic cricket proved to be somewhat of a false promise. For many years, Australian cricket prided itself on the belief that it could turn out two or three XI's that would beat most other countries. The performance of the new kids on the block this summer has laid that theory to rest. Our depth is solid without being spectacular, certainly no hint of a genuine world-class cricketer in the Warne, McGrath, Gilchrist mould. That realisation has been sobering but it hasn’t been depressing. It’s almost as if we’ve been relieved of that burden.
The middle part of Australia’s game, in both Tests and ODI’s remain the biggest area of concern amongst the average cricket follower. They point to an unconvincing middle order and the lack of a genuine spin bowler as the main reasons for some tame performances midway through an innings, batting or bowling. In ODI cricket especially, Australia looked very vulnerable in that 20-40 over stage of the match. When you compare David Hussey and Michael Clarke’s bowling to the likes of Vettori, Botha, Harbajhan, Muralidaran and Mendis, it is easy to see why we miss the class of Warne and Hogg in the middle part of our bowling innings. With the bat, the current middle order is a far cry from the Martyn, Waugh, Lehman, Bevan, Symonds heyday. Admittedly, without Gilchrist and Hayden to set the innings alight, everything else that follows must work with less credit in the bank. The credit crunch has hit Australia hard!
Credit where credit’s due though – there’s great admiration for some classy opposition players too. Gambhir, Laxman and Zaheer Khan were outstanding in India. Duminy, De Villiers, Steyn, Smith and Kallis were given due credit for their talents whilst Vettori commands enormous respect for his craft. This summer, Australians really appreciated the skill of the opposition teams instead of merely looking for someone to blame. Many people merely said "we were outplayed".
The confusion and angst lies with the selectors – most Aussie fans confess to being a bit bemused by the logic of some selections. Who is the best spin bowler in the country? How does someone who has never played a first-class game get an Australian cap (Warner)? Why are the two form (best?) batsmen, Brad Hodge and Lee Carseldine, ignored by the selectors? If Cameron White is not going to get a bowl, is he amongst the top 5 pure batsmen in the country? Our selection panel are discovering that it’s not quite a bed of roses when you haven’t got ‘all-time greats’ in the mix. Those teams virtually picked themselves.
Don’t get me wrong. This is not a lament for the dead, nor is it a denial of the bleeding obvious. It’s not panic stations and it's not hiding from the truth either. Most people accept that we’re a pretty good team playing against other very good teams who have the weaponry to put us away if we have a bad day. No shame in being competitive, no shame in occasionally coming second in a tight contest. In fact, this summer of cricket has actually brought a lot of people back to the game. It just goes to show that winning isn’t everything – a genuine contest, played hard and fair, without any of the 'silly stuff' has everyone buzzing about cricket again.
Can’t wait for the South African series. And the Ashes…
Michael Jeh is an Oxford Blue who played first-class cricket, and a Playing Member of the MCC. He lives in Brisbane