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Substance slipping away from world champions

Australia's identity crisis

Peter English

March 5, 2008

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If Ricky Ponting and Andrew Symonds had completed merely average returns things could have been different for Australia © Getty Images
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At the start of the season Australia were intent on retaining their world-beating status and by the end were just trying to limit damage. With much hindrance from a committed opponent, they failed with both aims. The No. 1 one-day ranking will be lost to South Africa if they beat Bangladesh 3-0 this month and the drop would be another dent for a team that has struggled with its identity since the fractious Sydney Test.

In the first week of the New Year Ricky Ponting won a world-record equalling 16th Test in a row and was preparing to head to Perth for what should have been the easiest contest of the series with India. Instead it became the most difficult due to a mix of public reaction to Sydney, a flat surface and a touring team that had been galvanised during their threats to take all bats, balls and briefcases home. Australia lost at the WACA and over the next two months were mostly unrecognisable from the all-conquering outfit of 2007.

How much Australians turned against their national team is hard to gauge exactly, but the players were shocked when large sections criticised their overall performance at the SCG. The Test ended in the most remarkable result but was instantly over-shadowed by a rash of controversies. Following team discussions covering behaviour and attitude, the side retained its spirit-of-cricket pledge and vowed to be "hard but fair" - the same way they believed they had always performed.

Australian players in the Perth contest said it was the quietest Test they had ever been part of due to the fear of offending. Australia lost in four days, the streak was over and the aura slowly diminished. Having shed a quartet of outstanding competitors the previous summer, Australia had actually done well to keep things together for so long. Adam Gilchrist's departure, which he revealed during the draw in Adelaide, will make things much harder as they try to recover ground and mojo.

While the Test series was a success despite the swing in the final two games, Australia's CB Series stumbled towards disaster even when they were winning. Four bonus points were collected by the home team, but the fringe benefits flattered an outfit that was struggling with fatigue, a range of issues that never seemed to disappear, a wobbling batting order and an underperforming captain and key allrounder. A more vibrant Indian side was not brought down by the various controversies, which seemed to act as spurs instead of weights.

If Ponting and Andrew Symonds had completed merely average returns things could have been different. Instead the pair, which was heavily involved in the Indian Premier League developments, combined for only 365 runs in ten matches and the bowlers could not sustain their miracle escapes in the two matches that mattered most. Nathan Bracken, who is now a one-day specialist, was incredible in capturing 21 wickets and the Man-of-the-Series award, while Brett Lee was inspirational until the finals, when he looked as tired as a new parent.

In a three-team tournament Australia needed more from than their batsmen than finishing fifth (Gilchrist), sixth (Michael Clarke), seventh (Matthew Hayden) and eighth (Michael Hussey) on the run list. It was the lack of output that resulted in the absence of the series trophy for the second year in a row. A 2-0 defeat was an appropriate outcome and something the players accepted.

India irritate Australia's senior men in a way no other team can manage and the uneasy relationship adds to the home side's confusion. Australia knew they should have been better than their eclectic opponents, but they were unable to remember the valid reasons why.

The age-old talk became nasty by modern standards and India's new breed had not been kicked around in previous series. Big-name reputations didn't matter and Australia's substance went missing. The future will be fascinating as the players wrestle with their outlooks while battling opposition sides that will now give themselves a serious chance of winning.

Peter English is the Australasia editor of Cricinfo

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© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

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Tournament Results
Australia v India at Brisbane - Mar 4, 2008
India won by 9 runs
Australia v India at Sydney - Mar 2, 2008
India won by 6 wickets (with 25 balls remaining)
Australia v Sri Lanka at Melbourne - Feb 29, 2008
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India won by 7 wickets (with 106 balls remaining)
Australia v India at Sydney - Feb 24, 2008
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