December 24, 2006

Unchallenged champions

Warne and McGrath have succeeded partly due to their own skills and partly their opponents' inability to put up any fight

Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath: happily hunting together © Getty Images

Is this the news the rest of the cricket world has been waiting for - the retirement of Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath? If it is then the other teams are as weak as England's lower-order batting.

Australia, the world's number one side since mid-1995, will be a diminished side without the exciting and exacting skills of Warne and McGrath. However, it won't be anything like the same achievement to beat Australia minus the two super stars.

Australia have lost only four series when Warne and McGrath have played together; take a bow Pakistan [1994-95], Sri Lanka [1999-00], India [2000-01] and England [2005]. Before anyone gets too carried away with those achievements, that is four series out of thirty seven and not one of them, not even a miserly, scrambling, lucky-to-scrape through triumph occurred in Australia with Warne and McGrath playing together. While this is a fitting tribute to two champion bowlers, it is also an indictment on the rest of the cricket world.

If decent batsmen play against champion bowlers for a while they should learn something about their modus operandi. Both Warne and McGrath have a better strike rate in the second half of their career than in the first half. Once again this is a tribute to the bowlers' mental strength, their adaptability and their desire to continue evolving as cricketers but it is also a black mark on the powers of observation of opposing batsmen.

Batsmen aren't "any closer to solving the Warne riddle now than when they first encountered his subtle variations" © Getty Images

As a batsman it is imperative you understand how a bowler is trying to dismiss you, especially one as clever as Warne. Knowing his intentions doesn't guarantee success against a bowler as good as Warne but it certainly gives you a far greater chance than if you haven't got a clue. I'm not sure some batsmen are any closer to solving the Warne riddle now than when they first encountered his subtle variations.

During the West Indies' long period of domination the rest of the cricket world was guilty of stupidity; teams like India ran around like a chook with it's head chopped off trying to unearth four fast bowlers to take on the Caribbean champions. Not only was this "Mission Impossible", it didn't make sense because fast bowling (unless it was exceptional) wasn't the best way to unsettle the strong West Indies batting line-up.

During Australia's period of domination most teams have been naïve in appearing to believe that just by playing regularly against Warne and McGrath the riddle would solve itself. A dozen years on, only Indian batsmen and Brian Lara of the longer serving players have combated Warne with any certainty. There have been some slow learners among the rest of the batsmen and particularly those from England, South Africa, New Zealand and Pakistan.

The worst part has been the air of resignation when teams came up against Australia, particularly when Warne and McGrath were playing at home. Take a look at the number of opposing players who have said prior to a series; "Australia is the best side of all time." This has become a ready-made excuse in case the inevitable happened. It doesn't make sense to say your opposition is the best team of all time (even if they are) before you start a series.

Recent Australian teams have been very good sides with two champion bowlers. Nevertheless, a Test cricketer should expect to be confronted by very good sides on a regular basis otherwise what is the point of playing at the highest level?

Glenn McGrath is actually smiling ... oh yeah, he's got the Ashes back © Getty Images
Lately, the ICC has done more than its fair share to dilute the standard of world cricket. However, the players must share some of the blame for two strong teams being allowed to dominate the last 30 years of Test cricket without a sufficient struggle from their opponents.

During the West Indies reign Imran Khan was the sole opposing captain who looked at the confrontation as a challenge to be accepted if his side was to be recognised as a good team. I've seen very little sign, especially in Australia, that opposing teams saw the confrontation as a challenge to be accepted in order to further their own reputation.

If Australia become more beatable in the post Warne-McGrath era it will be confirmation that the team has been diminished by their retirements. However, it will also be an indictment of those teams who didn't rise to the challenge when the Australian side included two champion bowlers.