October 17, 2008

Almighty who?

Ponting's team clearly isn't the force Waugh's or Taylor's were. They don't bat, bowl or field as competently



Australia 2008 vintage is a reasonable copy of the old, all-powerful Australia, but hardly the same thing © Getty Images

Unobtrusive, patient, pragmatic, businesslike, grinding, gritty, tight and cohesive were words used to paint Australia's cricketers during their dominant first three days in Bangalore. And in the end the surprise was not that a team so lacking in poetry failed to win the Test. The surprising thing was that so many people expected they would win. To see India's captain amble in from his post on the sixth ball of overs and ponder some microscopic shuffle of his field, to witness their batsmen's polite non-interest in a gettable last-day run chase, was to watch a grand old game being played on tiptoes. To then hear all India's satisfaction at escaping a drubbing by the almighty Australians was to realise something else: that the message has still not sunk in.

Almighty? They were once, and not long ago. But what the critics and Australia's rivals do not seem to grasp is that the Border-Taylor-Waugh era is over. Thrilling while it lasted, but gone. Kaput. And there will not, it turns out, we can finally assert with some certainty, be a Border-Taylor-Waugh-Ponting era. No.

It is too soon to guess how far Australia's cricketers might fall. It is not easy to pinpoint the exact moment they peaked. But it seems reasonable to suppose they fielded no better team than the one they put on the park in 1997. That team had aces in most bowling departments, nigh-on infallible catchers, and just the right pinches of batting polish and grit. Underpinning all that was a keeper in Ian Healy who could pluck dragonflies with his tongue, and a fair and clever leader in Mark Taylor. Of the triumphant XI who guzzled champagne on the players' balcony in Nottingham, only Ricky Ponting survives. Who else among the current lot might jag a spot on Tubby's team? Mike Hussey would, coming in for graceful Greg Blewett, and Brett Lee would tip out trusty Paul Reiffel. No others.

To know that an almighty dynasty is over we need not trawl back 11 years. Try two years. Gone from the 2006-07 side that flogged a highly floggable England 5-0 are five men, all biggies: Glenn McGrath, Shane Warne, Justin Langer, Adam Gilchrist and Andrew Symonds.

Two years is time enough for a whole sport, let alone a team, to change out of sight. In the new world of biff and run, Bangalore last week looked like some other planet. Five twisting days of not much happening for long periods felt like some kind of paradise. In the dust and quiet, five replacements for five big cricketers did what they could to fill five giant pairs of boots.

Mitchell Johnson's McGrath impersonation was the most convincing. Not so hard-hearted an interrogator as the old McGrath, he bears a certain happy resemblance to the young McGrath. Johnson aims at cracks in pitches and batsmen's psyches. He relies on means less conventional than speed or swing. He is turning, also like McGrath, into a slow but sure Test bloomer. The in-floater that hung on the breeze and messed up Gautam Gambhir's stumps was Johnson's 39th wicket in ten matches. McGrath at the same juncture had 33.

Cameron White, Warne's fill-in, got several balls to spit and whizzed down admirably few loose ones. One fundamental flaw - that Warne's mystery ball, the straight one, is White's stock ball - remains problematic. Simon Katich went in first and for hour after hour was seldom troubled. But where Langer would bend his game to fit the situation, Katich tended to go too slowly when too few runs were happening at the other end, until eventually it was all ebb, not much flow, and the initiative was lost. Brad Haddin batted and kept wicket gamely but leaks 18 byes a Test; Gilchrist used to average 6.35 byes. Shane Watson chipped in at important times. His cricket, all the while, had as much in common with Symonds as his haircut. An almighty Australian team this is not.

Opponents are easily enough spooked, though. Australia still, it is clear, radiate some of that old Border-Taylor-Waugh aura. They look the same, sort of: a row of sun-pinked cheekbones under 11 green caps, glowing in the harsh light. They sound roughly the same - any batsman who lingers long enough to irritate them still cops an earful. No doubt they will continue to dote on the Bradman legend. They will write and read aloud to each other excruciatingly awful poetry in the name of team spirit. They will leave no World War Two battlefield untrampled, until the package tour operators cry "no more". And they won't take those green caps off, unless it is to call for a helmet. Three subtle but telling characteristics nonetheless mark out this Australian team as different: they do not bat, bowl or field as competently.

Still they have not lost a series since England in 2005. And so we see an unhealthy Test scene in which a weakened Australia remain world-beaters. Timid opponents squib tricky run-chases and dawdle in the field, as if maximising their overs at a no-longer-almighty nation would be impertinent. It's not good for cricket, and it doesn't much help Australia either. For the result is that Australia are content with rehashing yesterday's glories. There is no talk of renewal, of regeneration, of chucking out the old in the hope of unearthing new McGraths, Warnes, Gilchrists.

 
 
Of Mark Taylor's triumphant XI who guzzled champagne on the players' balcony in Nottingham in 1997, only Ponting survives. Who else among the current lot might jag a spot on Tubby's team? Mike Hussey would, coming in for graceful Greg Blewett, and Brett Lee would tip out trusty Paul Reiffel. No others
 

Sometimes the drawing board is the best place to be. Trial and error transformed Australia from a battling team into a frightening one in the early seventies. In the space of four years Australia tossed the new ball to Graham McKenzie, Froggy Thomson, Alan Connolly, Ross Duncan, Tony Dell, Dave Colley, Bob Massie, Max Walker, Bomber Hammond, Geoff Dymock, Gus Gilmour and Alan Hurst, before eventually hitting on Jeff Thomson as Dennis Lillee's fellow hellraiser, at which point they instantly became the world's greatest team.

Later, in the mid-eighties, struggling once more, they picked and chopped nine opening batsmen in 20 months - Steve Smith, Kepler Wessels, Wayne Phillips, Graeme Wood, Greg Ritchie, Greg Matthews, John Dyson, Andrew Hilditch, Robbie Kerr - before lucking out with the reassuring duo of David Boon and Geoff Marsh. And luck, to be sure, had everything to do with it. Boon and Marsh were merely names in the newspaper small print, hinting faintly at something special, just as McGrath and Warne and Gilchrist were later, just as Pomersbach, Ronchi, Hilfenhaus, Voges, Hughes and Henriques are now. There is only one way to find out, and nothing to fear.

In the summer ahead, Symonds will probably return. Matthew Hayden and his metre-wide Gray-Nic will front up for more. Other tried and familiar faces will make up the numbers. It is worth remembering that there is another way. Remember, too, that the Ponting era is a fresh era. South African brimstone, Kiwi cheek and English line and length can all bother Australia. So can a well-balanced team consisting of young and old, fast and slow bowlers, enchanting shot-makers, a bit like the one India are fielding in Mohali today. To unobtrusive, patient, pragmatic et al, we might soon add three more words: over the hill.

Christian Ryan is a writer based in Melbourne

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