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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Damien on October 19, 2008, 18:41 GMT

    Stunning article. Beautifully written and accurately researched. Like most Aussie supporters I've relished the last 15 or so years of cricketing domination. But, I've sorely missed the contest. Why is it that the 94/5 West Indies, 01 India and 05 Ashes series are regarded as so special? Because of the magnificent sporting contests! As a youngster I loved it when we'd beat the West Indies for once. The test series in the late 90s between Australia and South Africa were brilliant. The 99 World cup- this is what all lovers of cricket want to see. So Australia have lost their old guard, and the new breed need some experience. If having to lose 3-0 in India is what it takes to force the Aussies to face facts- then so be it. All the more reason to follow your team's fortunes, and take pleasure from every challenging victory! Keep up the great work, Ryan.

  • Keith on October 18, 2008, 22:21 GMT

    Valvolux wrote: "Similarly to Nassar Hussien who during his rein with England was considered yet another failure as captain." ?!? Um... considered by whom?

  • Liam on October 18, 2008, 19:54 GMT

    The major assertions of this article are simply false and bear no resemblance to reality.I feel no obligation to go into great detail just as I feel no sense of obligation to prove that the sky is blue. However, I would suggest to the relevant powers, that to allow this writer to continue to provide articles to Cricinfo would only compromise the credibility of this sight. Why would Christian Ryan so willingly dismiss the achievements of the Australian captain? Perhaps the the qualities that Ponting possesses are unfamiliar to Mr Ryan and therefore hard to recognise. Undoubtedly Australia is not the team it once was and as much has been admitted by Ponting himself, but I have supported this team through good and bad my entire life. The Australian cricket team has given me a great deal of pleasure and joy over the years and it continues to have my support and respect.

  • Krishnan on October 18, 2008, 14:22 GMT

    No, they peaked in 2000/2001, not 1997. The 2001 team that retained the Ashes in England had McGrath, Warne and the Waugh's at their peaks plus....Adam Gilchrest (who is a greater wicket-keeper batsman than Healy). Taylor may have been a very god captain, but there is not doubt that Waugh took the Aussies to another level. Under Taylor, they were not deciminating teams - under Waugh they started to do that.

  • Arijit_in_TO on October 18, 2008, 11:54 GMT

    Like the writer, I remain a huge fan of Mark Taylor's captaincy. Unlike the writer, I think that criticism of Ponting and this current incarnation of the Baggy Green soldiers is unduly harsh.

    Also, expect a different game from what was witnessed at Bangalore with two sides going at it in Mohali since a hobbled Anil Kumble has made was for M.S. Dhoni. Dhoni is the New School Indian: he likes results and wants his men to play fearlessly. The remainder of the series will show how Ponting's blokes measure up.

  • Jason on October 18, 2008, 11:42 GMT

    EPIC FAIL Christian!I am left feeling shocked and dismayed from this article. Flagrant disregard for the efforts of the Ponting era! Ricky's era of world cricket domination has been something of a fairytale barr the Ashes series in '05. And it took stresscothic's sneaky lolly spit to take the series! To say there will never be a Border-Taylor-Waugh-Ponting era is well beyond stupid... since Waughs retirement Australia have still dominated dispite losing legends of the game at regular intervals. This article smacks of the disgraceful attitude towards the Australian team after their win over India at the SCG in last years series. If we are winning than we are "too good and the game is boring"... if we lose or draw... whoa look out "the Aussies are losing their aura". Any Australian out there worth their salt would be disgusted by the hype after that match. Turning on a side that has been so successful for so long because they were excited to win for their country... un-Australian.

  • Niral on October 18, 2008, 9:22 GMT

    Horrible article. How can one expect a team losing Pigeon, Warnie, Gilly, Langer, Martyn, Gillespie, add to that abrupt retirements of experienced campaigners like Hogg, Macgil, and now Roy, to be an invincible team. Plus, all these players went in a period of 2 years. Take out 4-5 best players from other teams, and the current Aussie side will become invincible again. Still to Punter's credit, despite losing all the big names, he and his team is still giving other teams a run for their money. Yes now contests will not be one sided. Team is through the transition phase and what they are doing now is great. I consider Aussies still clear favorites for 2011 WC.

  • Peter on October 18, 2008, 3:42 GMT

    More indignation and umbrage from cricinfo readers. What a surprise. Anyhow, I'd much prefer the '97 slips cordon to our own.

  • Onkar on October 18, 2008, 1:09 GMT

    A fairly one dimensional view of the situation. Even I am a big fan of Taylor's era rather than the Steve Waugh/ Ponting era. But because they felt mortal then, not that they were the best. Taylor's men were moody gamblers who played awesome cricket. But the best team Australia fielded was the one under Steve Waugh. They were virtually invincible. The team that played under Ponting in the aftermath of the Ashes loss were a very close second. The current Aussie team is beatable, yet the best team in the world. It's very tough to beat them, because their batting is still in great shape. However they are not the most difficult to save tests against. That's a testimony to losses such as McGrath, Gillespie and in particular Warne.

    Regarding the Bangalore target, I am sure a more daring Tendulkar would have gone for it and Dhoni would ask his men to chase it in such situations 2 years from now. But then the Indians aren't a force of 2004 or the force they will be in 2010.

  • gary on October 18, 2008, 0:54 GMT

    Terrible article. It's true that this team is in transition and does not have as many established legends as previous Australian test teams over the past 10 years....but.....Pontings record speaks for itself, Australia hasn't been beaten in years and even if they were to lose this series they should not be considered any less mighty. If Ponting continues to churn out amazing results having lost so many 'great' players then his captaincy and the greatness of Australian cricket should only be enhanced further.

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