Still red in tooth and claw
During what will no doubt come to be known as La Grande Terreur of international cricket, frightened adversaries went on the run and prayed nightly in their beds that the ruthless revolutionaries of the Southern Cross would one day grow weary of the serial slaughter, from Lord's to the Gabba, in Sydney and Mumbai, Durban and Lahore.
For desperate members of the old aristocracy that day might have been presaged last month when the executioner-in-chief, Citizen Gilchrist, announced he was putting away his axe for good. Au revoir, mon brave! But no. They have not done with us yet, these revolutionaries from Terror Australis. It would be as well to expect the worst for another couple of years at least.
Ricky Ponting joked (I think) that, as he trailed the retiring Gilchrist from the field at Adelaide after the fourth Test against India, he turned to Matthew Hayden and said: "There's not many of us left now."
True, they have lost Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath and now Gilchrist - three certainties for any all-time Greats XI - over the past 18 months. Hayden's partner in pain, the estimable Justin Langer, has gone too, as has the enigmatic Damien Martyn. Their replacements are not bedded in yet. Warne is irreplaceable, so too McGrath and Gilchrist.
And, on the face of it, this gradual break-up of one of the game's most brutally efficient teams might suggest disintegration only slightly less dramatic than that signalled by the triple retirement of Dennis Lillee, Greg Chappell and Rod Marsh in 1984. After their departure Australia went into relative decline and confusion for at least five years.
Yet look at the evidence of recent times. When Steve Waugh followed his twin Mark into retirement after the previous India tour to Australia in 2003-04, Australia soon enough got on with battering the opposition. They found a pretty good McGrath clone in Stuart Clark, and have faith in his near namesake Michael. They can still score quick runs, take wickets through sustained quality pressure, and hang on to the toughest of catches. Ponting is not exactly Nelson Mandela, but his wicket remains the most prized in Test cricket. Mike Hussey is witheringly efficient. Andrew Symonds might be reaching a delayed peak as a Test player. Australia's hunger has not diminished. They are still the best team in the world.
So when will the hegemony crack? Prediction is a precarious business. I thought after the 2005 summer of madness that the Australians might be too old, incapable of the intensity needed, to win the Ashes back at home. How wrong can you get? But more eminent voices have had a stab at it too.
In December 2006, Rod Marsh, writing in The Observer, made some typically bold forecasts about who would play a prominent part in the Ashes series of 2009, and who would be long gone. Tom Moody, he reckoned, would be one of the coaches, though he was not sure for which side. Other strong coaching candidates, Marsh said, were two wicketkeepers who never made it to Test level, Peter Moores and Tim Nielsen. He predicted Andrew Strauss would be England's captain, while Michael Vaughan, Steve Harmison, Matthew Hoggard and Paul Collingwood would all have moved on. Ed Joyce, Owais Shah and Liam Plunkett would be in the team, and Andrew Flintoff would bat at No. 7.
For Australia the Tasmanian Tim Paine would open the batting with Phil Jaques, the spinner would be South Australia's leggie Cullen Bailey, and Brad Haddin would have the responsibility of replacing Gilchrist.
So how is Nostradamus doing? Moores and Nielsen made it, Jaques is in There, and after Gilchrist's retirement from all international cricket at the end of the CB Series against India and Sri Lanka, Haddin will have to cock it up gloriously to be relieved of the gloves. Bailey? Maybe not. Not sure about Paine - or Chris Rogers, for that matter; Hayden is going to be hard to replace and may be hard to shift, given his late-career form and determination to bat on for as long as he is wanted.
|There is no avoiding the reality of modern Test cricket: it depends on the Australians. They deserve to be pre-eminent because they have worked so hard for it.|
As for England, Vaughan has been written off so many times it is impossible to put a date on his exit; his calm and relaxed demeanour belies his grit. I think he will hang on. Collingwood too. Nobody can be sure if Freddie will make it through this summer, let alone to 2009. I suspect Hoggard and Harmison will be desperate for one more Ashes fight, as will Strauss, although he cannot have many more blips. There is not enough evidence yet to be confident in Shah or Joyce.
But however good a side England - or anyone else - can put out there is no avoiding the reality of modern Test cricket: it depends on the Australians. They deserve to be pre-eminent because they have worked so hard for it. Their arrogance may yet undo them again - and Ponting will hardly have noticed his own swagger with his back-handed compliment of India that they are rightly the second-best team in the world. But clinging to the notion that these things are cyclical appears more like wishful thinking as the years pass and records tumble.
Australia have established a culture of excellence in cricket every bit as convincing as that of New Zealand in rugby union. And none of the teams they continue to terrorise can say they have no incentive to rise up and overthrow these wonderful tyrants.
Kevin Mitchell is chief sports writer of The Observer. This article was first published in the March 2008 issue of The Wisden Cricketer. Subscribe here