July 28, 2013

Australia are now Pakistan

They have the hopeless batting order, the talented but mentorless quicks, the perpetually disappointing allrounder and the much criticised system to show

Hey, they even have an Australian coach now! © Getty Images

A generation of Pakistanis grew up fearing Australia. There was little admiration or ability to relate, just fear. Even more than Hansie Cronje's South Africa, it was Steve Waugh's team who became tormentors of Pakistan's great champions. At Lord's in 1999 they killed the idealism of a generation. Six months later, in Hobart, they prepared coffins for the most talented group of Pakistani cricketers there ever will be. These Australian teams saw the holes in Pakistan's armour and bluster and drove a spear through them.

Pakistan failed to win a Test match against Australia for 15 years. Pakistan went to face an average Australian team in 2009-10 and came back winless. Pakistani players continued to call the Australians their role models, and continued to talk about them in revered tones even after the Aussies became vincible.

Imran Khan, the purveyor of all that is true, spent two decades telling us how everything in our system was wrong, and how the Australian way was perfect. For Pakistani fans, these Australians were an alien race brought to this world to torment our heroes while providing a different, more successful (if not aesthetically better) way of doing things. People you could follow and fear.

And now they are being embarrassed by England! Possibly a worse England team than the one Pakistan clean-swept 18 months ago. If all goes to plan, Pakistan will enter the "home" series against South Africa ranked fourth in the world. Leapfrogging Australia in the rankings would once have been cause for celebration; now there's sympathy, for no one understands what the Aussies are going through better than Pakistan.

In fact, it wouldn't be a stretch to say they are becoming Pakistan.

The bowling unit continues to keep the team in the game and puts its heart and body on the line every time, even as the batsmen fail to give them the slightest bit of solace. The sacking of a coach mere weeks before a major event added to the belief that the presence and knowhow of past greats would somehow make the current lot better.

Pointing fingers in every direction without understanding any of the problems. Finding a vision to follow (the Argus report) and then abandoning it as soon as there are problems. Decrying the state of the system as ill-equipped to produce Test cricketers. These are all more Pakistani than hating India.

Even the composition of Australia's team has Pakistani aspects to it. They went through a few years (2007-11) when a decline in their bowling and their team overall was counteracted by a still formidable middle order - much like Pakistan had been under Bob Woolmer and Inzamam-ul-Haq. This was followed by the emergence of young quicks, but the retirement/removal of much of that formidable middle order (for Ponting and Hussey, read Inzi, Yousuf and Younis; the latter for 14 months). Of course, in Pakistan both the decline and the removals were a little extreme; but everything is extreme in Pakistan.

The current teams have their similarities too. Their captains are forced to play at No. 4, though they would prefer to play at No. 5, crippled by the burden of knowing that when they fall, the castle falls. Each has an allrounder who has spent years being an unfulfilled promise, and has only had success in the shorter formats, but continues to believe he is a Test opener despite all evidence to the contrary. Both have a bunch of young talented pacers and no one to guide them.

And then there's Ashton Agar. We were told that Australia did not allow their seniors to retire in a bunch; there was only one retirement per season, that's how a culture was bred and sustained. We were told that the Australians had an endless supply of top-quality batsmen that the Shield continued to produce. But more than everything else, we were told Australia would never throw in a young kid who wasn't ready.

Australian cricketers made their debuts when their faces looked like a day-five Nagpur pitch (see: Haddin, Brad). They made their debuts only when they had earned it twice over. Now we have Agar: selected as a spinner, he has a record-breaking (and surprising) innings in his first outing and suddenly becomes the marketing man's dream, despite the fact that he is not particularly good at his day job, yet. Now all we have to see is whether he pretends to be 25 a decade from now and we will know that he really is the second coming of Shahid Afridi.

Agar's selection, a reward for promise than of achievement at lower levels, screamed of Pakistan more than a fast bowler being naughty.

Talking of that, Shoaib Akhtar was sent home for hitting Mohammad Asif with a bat; Warner threw a missed punch at an opposition player - that just shows how far Australia still are from emulating Pakistan.

And all of this matters. We know that Australia won't be ordinary for long. That's one of cricket's truths. Since Warwick Armstrong popularised what has become the stereotype of Australia beyond its borders, Australia have never been a bad team for a sustained period. They will recover from this; I'm sure they'll find a way.

So the attention must shift to the Pakistan board and the West Indies board, and to a lesser extent to Sri Lanka Cricket - boards that have allowed their teams to embrace a culture of mediocrity and be satisfied with it. The question is, are these boards watching, taking notes, learning? For when the Australians rise from the ashes, these boards could do worse than mimic them, allow their teams and systems to become imitation phoenixes, and actually succeed in their jobs, for once. Or is that too much to ask for?

Hassan Cheema is a sports journalist, writer and commentator, and co-hosts the online cricket show Pace is Pace Yaar. He tweets here