July 26, 2013

Bring the angst

For Australia, it's a time of bitter introspection about what has gone wrong

England good? Now there's a bone that'll stick in an Aussie throat © Getty Images

There was a time in recent memory when Australia's cricket team was so strong that people became bored. Sure, we roared for the achievements of Warne, Gilchrist, McGrath, the Waughs, and all the rest, as they plundered cricket nation states like rapacious Vikings insatiably hungry for Christian gold. Sure, we did that.

But we didn't really roar when they won. It was expected. It wasn't news. There was no wow factor. It was just what the Australian cricket team did.

Which is why those two series against India in 2001 and England in 2005 were so brilliant, and memorable. Australia lost but the host nations played inspired Test cricket to beat us. And Test cricket ruled the world. (And when they came to Australia, we flogged them like so many horse thieves.)

The first Test of this Ashes series was a bit like that. What a game! The Poms scored 300-odd, Pete Siddle took five-fer, Ashton Agar nearly ripped off the most improbable Test ton of all time. Then the Poms batted well again, the Aussies stuffed up the DRS, and Brad Haddin and James Pattinson put on lots for the last wicket, only to lose by 14 measly runs and James Anderson's offcutter. What a game.

Yet that first Test made Australia's deficiencies less glaring because of Agar's, Pattinson's and Haddin's superb rearguard batsmanship. We didn't win but we thought, well, what a game. And how we fought! Like tigers. We can be proud of tigers.

But the second Test? Not so much. Indeed to lose by 347 runs… and maybe we have short memories but now it's like, how much can a koala bear? We wanted to see competition but these Poms are much too competitive. We still don't want them to win. We can't accept that the Poms are better. Truly, we can't. It's quite hard. But we're gonna have to. Because they are, and by some margin. It's arguable Australia's lust for winning is what kept Australia on top so long. But everyone wants to win. Australia just had an incredibly good team. Today England wants to win, a lot. And so do India. And so do Sri Lanka, New Zealand, Pakistan, South Africa, Ireland.

Australia has had two major lulls in the 35 years I've been addicted to the blessed game. In 1978-79, Kerry Packer took off with the cream of the crop and the Poms beat Graham Yallop's boys 5-1. Then in 1984, Greg Chappell, Dennis Lillee and Rod Marsh all retired at the same time Ali Bacher's krugerrand enticed 20 of the country's best players to pariah nation South Africa. And we lost to England a couple of times and even to New Zealand. New Zealand! It's like losing to Tasmania. Or Nauru. Or Guam.

Our excuse today? Dunno, really. Maybe T20. There are those arguing, and with some justification, that the Big Bash League and the Indian Premier League mean players are earning millions of dollars swinging like maniacs and tossing down crazy-pies, when they should be playing long-form first-class cricket against each other.

Why this Test squad won't go back to Australia and play three or four hard-fought Sheffield Shield games as a warm-up/rehearsal/audition for the next Test series, I don't know.

Well, I do. The Big Bash League is on, right in the middle of the Shield season, and running concurrently with the Ashes Test series. Understand there's a commercial imperative - that light's on and burning for the kids. But everyone's getting more money and the Test batsmen are getting worse. There's been a direct parallel. Sure blokes have retired. But since the Big Three of '84, we have succession now.

I dunno. I might be getting old. But I am growing to hate T20 cricket. Actually scrub that - I do hate it. It's fireworks - it excites children. It has no context. It has no point. It is another column.

That said, Indian players play more short-form bash cricket than anybody and they beat Australia 4-0 in the recent Test series. Mind you, they lost at home to England. If that happens in Australia we'll be hurting like we've been stabbed with forks. Perhaps it is moot. Perhaps Australia simply does not have good enough batsmen.

Actually scrub "perhaps". We do not. And for Australian cricket fans it's a time of angst and self-critique. How can we be so bad? And so we gaze achingly into our navels, our very souls, and pick everything to bits, never quite daring to believe the notion that we are just not very good. And that is not very good.

Matt Cleary writes for several Australian sports and travel magazines. He tweets here