May 5, 2014

Australia's rise and the climb ahead

Under Michael Clarke, they have had a fantastic summer. But can they continue to keep the competition at bay in Tests, and win the World Cup?

Michael Clarke and Mitchell Johnson have shaped Australia's path to No. 1, but the team will need a stronger middle order if it is to hold on to the position © Getty Images

Australia's rapid ascent to the throne is a success story written in many parts but also painted on a single canvas. Barely six months ago, many cricket pundits, including myself, would not have predicted Australia's rise to No. 1 in Test cricket and ODIs. At the time there appeared to be too many cracks and not enough glue. What we have seen since has been a triumph that started with backs to the wall but soon became a snowball that gathered momentum, sweeping aside England and South Africa.

Two key factors stand out for me. Mitchell Johnson's enduring hostility was not something that could possibly have been predicted after the Ashes in England. He showed glimpses of it in India, during the high-scoring ODI series, but who amongst us would have predicted the chaos he caused in eight consecutive Tests? AB de Villiers was probably the only batsman who handled him with aplomb. No one else from England or South Africa was ever really set against him, and that may even have led to them falling victim to the excellent back-up crew of Ryan Harris, Peter Siddle and Nathan Lyon.

The other surprise was Michael Clarke. Not his batting, which has been sublime now since he took over the reins, but if you had asked me if his dodgy back would have survived a long season without missing a single Test, I would have put the house on it. And I'd be now sleeping in a tent! His stability in the middle order allowed Australia to have hot and cold periods from the rest of the batsmen. David Warner was more hot than cold, scoring at a pace that often batted the opposition out of the game in the second innings after Johnson had rattled their cages. Chris Rogers and Steven Smith were regular contributors. Brad Haddin's Ashes heroics were seen by many as a sign of the weakness of the top order but his lean run in South Africa belied the theory that Nos. 1-6 were not up to the task. When it mattered, they responded. It wasn't always pretty but someone (almost) always found a way to give the bowlers enough to work with.

Harris deserves special mention for his tireless work. Some of the peaches he bowled were game-changers. Siddle neutralised Kevin Pietersen to the point where it eventually led to his exclusion from the England set-up. Not many have tamed KP to that extent. Lyon, that gutsy, underrated tweaker, did enough to show us why he is a much-loved member of the Test team. Don't forget, the first Test in Brisbane changed when he tore through the England middle order on that second afternoon, allowing Johnson to then apply the blowtorch that never ran out of gas.

The catching, over a sustained period, was deserving of the best team in the world. They made difficult catches look routine and pulled off a few stunners that had no right to be caught. It was the sort of excellence we came to expect from the Mark Taylor/Steve Waugh era, when our own benchmarks, as spectators, were raised by the consistency of their brilliance. These standards slipped for a few days in Bangladesh in the World T20 and it cost Australia dearly. England's abysmal fielding underscored this point in reverse - it was consistently poor in every format, culminating in embarrassing fashion in Bangladesh recently.

Rankings can sometimes be deceptive. I'm hesitant to endorse an extended period of domination because a single summer does not a legend create. They will need to keep winning Test matches to keep the Proteas at bay. The ODI ranking means nothing until this time next year, when the World Cup has been decided. Australia will surely start as hot favourites if their squad can remain injury-free. Only then will ODI rankings really mean something. Being No. 1 will feel hollow without the cup in the trophy cabinet.

Clarke's tactical acumen has been noteworthy, aided no doubt by the much-vaunted contribution of Darren Lehmann. Some of his field placings suggested a man totally secure in the job, prepared to back a hunch, knowing that his bowlers could execute the plan. I'm not yet convinced that "great leadership" will yet be his enduring legacy, because it is my personal belief that winning alone does not make a great leader. It is easy enough to say "we understand there's a line you can't cross" but to cross that line twice in four months suggests that merely knowing that a line exists is hardly the same thing as not crossing it.

Clarke was slapped with an insignificant fine in Brisbane and despite admitting he was wrong in Cape Town, the umpires chose not to report him. Is it that easy to avoid censure - commit the crime and then hastily apologise?

Some will argue that it is this aggression that has transformed this team from pussycats to tigers; I beg to differ. I think their success has been down to some unbelievably good cricket, much of it orchestrated by Clarke's genius. If it was that easy to simply turn on the "mongrel" and win matches, why didn't that strategy work in the World T20? Ultimately it still comes down to how you execute skills under pressure, and in that sense, their recent record in Tests and ODIs cannot be faulted. The unease that many feel about their perceived gracelessness just shows that they still have some areas that they can improve in. If that is important to them, of course; they may be perfectly happy to keep winning at any cost, irrespective of image damage in some quarters.

However, this piece is about acknowledging the hard-fought success and dissecting possible areas of weakness. Injury to key personnel like Clarke, Johnson and Harris might leave Australia exposed. The bowling may have a bit more depth (in Australian conditions) but I'm still unconvinced that the middle-order reserves are capable of filling the mighty shoes of the captain. Usman Khawaja looks the classiest of the lot, Shaun Marsh has proved capable of succeeding at this level when his mind (and body) are fit, and Phil Hughes is entitled to believe that he will be dealt a fair hand soon. George Bailey's Test prospects appear dim but he looks assured enough in the shorter format.

The great unknown could well be Glenn Maxwell. If recent form in T20 cricket is anything to go by, this kid could be anything. As unconvinced as I was about him a year ago, I cannot help but feel foolish now. Yes, it is cavalier, hit-and-miss cricket but he doesn't seem to miss all that often. Clearly Maxwell is gifted. What's to stop him batting like this and succeeding in the longer formats? With his handy tweakers, he may well provide that extra balance even in Tests, especially in the subcontinent. With Shane Watson in the top six, you can even bat Maxwell at eight, followed by two quicks and Lyon. That still gives you three quicks and two spinners plus a bit of bowling variety with Smith. That's a batting order that can change a game even after a significant collapse.

No one's pretending that this is the finished article yet. It may never be the dynasty that Australia enjoyed from 1989 through to the middle of Ricky Ponting's reign. The rest of the world has narrowed the gap and Australia doesn't have the luxury of a domestic system that can carry reserve players of the calibre of Stuart Law, Martin Love, Michael Kasprowicz, Jamie Siddons, Jamie Cox and Wade Seccombe. I've left out as many names as I've included - in that era, Australia could arguably have put out a 2nd XI that would have beaten most countries (at home anyway). We're not operating in that rarefied atmosphere right now but to have come so far from the 4-0 drubbing in India and the Ashes loss in England speaks volumes for their character and resolve.

This relatively young Australian team, unaccustomed as it is (yet) to being the alpha male, will now have to learn to defend a crown. There was less pressure when no one gave you much chance of winning it. Now you're the hunted. Lehmann's playing experience during the halcyon days will be needed. You need good balance to keep running forward whilst glancing over your shoulder. Balance - on and off the field - that may be Boof's secret for the winning formula.

Michael Jeh is an Oxford Blue who played first-class cricket, and is a Playing Member of the MCC. He lives in Brisbane

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