Australia in India 2008-09 November 11, 2008

Lowering the bar

Australia¹s failure in India, and their undeniable decline, mark a new level playing field in cricket

Ricky Ponting was left with plenty to do as Australia underperformed, and leaves the series under a cloud © Getty Images

These two teams have fought some epic battles in their time, but this time it was different. A sense of inevitability permeated the series and it grew stronger with each match, each innings. Australia haven't been so outplayed since their dominance began, yet to many Indian fans, drawing the series in Australia in 2003-04, or even winning the Perth Test earlier this year, felt much more special. The truth is that, barring the morning session on the third day of the first Test, Australia never looked like winning.

The series lacked the drama, the tension, the twists, and the contests these two teams have provided in the last eight years. Australia came promising new-age cricket, but by the time the series ended, they looked confused, diffident, even soft. Not only did they lack bite, they were hardly able to bare their teeth. There is a sense that England are likely to be far tougher opponents for India, and that is the measure of the one-sidedness of the series just past.

Ricky Ponting, who still has a win-loss ratio of 33-6, among the highest for captains in the game's history, leaves the series under a cloud, accused of compromising the interests of the team in favour of upholding his own. Ponting is not blameless, but if anything, the series underlined one of the fundamental truths of cricket: a captain is only good as his team.

A quick look at the series stats tells the story. Seven Indian batsmen, and that includes Harbhajan Singh, who made two match-altering contributions, averaged more than their career figures, while among the Australians all barring Simon Katich averaged way below theirs. Only one Australian, Michael Hussey, featured in the top five run-getters in the series (he was at number three), and while India had three bowlers who averaged under 30, the most successful Australian bowler, Mitchell Johnson with 14 wickets, averaged 40. Cricket is not about numbers alone, but it is always about the sum of the numbers; and for Australia, they just didn't add up. India fell behind on only one count: they dropped more catches, without which the margin of victory would possibly have been larger.

Not since Kim Hughes brought a Packer-depleted Australian team to India in 1979 has an Australian bowling attack looked so feeble. It was certainly not meant to be. Brett Lee came as the foremost fast bowler in the world, Stuart Clark as a decent impersonation of Glenn McGrath, and Johnson as a bowler of consistent pace and unflagging stamina. This was the attack that had helped Australia beat India 2-1 in Australia earlier this year. Lee's malfunctioning was a mystery; not only did he fail to take wickets, he also failed to provide control. Only he can tell if he was affected by personal problems or defeated by the pitches. India is a challenge for fast bowlers, but the exceptional ones have always found a way.

It is the second time in recent history that Ponting's men have come off second-best in the matter of reverse swing. And this time they were more prepared than had been during the 2005 Ashes. In Troy Cooley they had the bowling coach who had masterminded England's campaign then. But both Zaheer Khan and Ishant Sharma turned out to be cannier, more skilful, and far more consistent than their Australian counterparts. Quietly and undemonstratively Venkatesh Prasad, who in his day had the swing but never the pace, has emerged as an invaluable asset for India. Most of India's recent Test success overseas has been due to their fast bowlers, and there was nothing freakish about their success in this series.

Australia have the soundest cricket system in the world, designed to produce international quality cricketers, but like India's now-departing batting quartet, they were blessed with a few once-in-a-generation cricketers in the same era

It was Zaheer and Ishant, who made Mahendra Singh Dhoni's off-side choke­, ugly as it looked, ­ work so efficiently on the third morning in Nagpur. The Australians could hardly complain because it is a strategy they had employed, though not to such an extent ­ all series and failed. It also exposed some of the limitations of the Australian batting: would Steve Waugh's team or Ponting's a couple of years ago, have allowed themselves to be becalmed so?

Therein lies a big problem for Australia. On paper their batting still looks mighty, but without Adam Gilchrist and Andrew Symonds in this series they lacked the edge that made them so dangerous. Currently they are too reliant on Matthew Hayden to provide both force and thrust, and when teams neutralise Hayden, as India did for a large part of the series, Australia look vulnerable, despite Hussey¹s clinical accumulation at No. 4. Hayden is 37 and his loss will punch a hole in the side that could lead to the fabric coming apart.

Australia have the soundest cricket system in the world, designed to produce international quality cricketers, but like India¹s now-departing batting quartet, they were blessed with a few once-in-a-generation cricketers in the same era. And though a West Indies-style freefall is unlikely, Australian cricket is now officially in recession.

For years the rest of the world tried and failed to catch up with Australia. That era has now ended and now it is a more level playing field in Test cricket. That is not necessarily good news, for the bar has been lowered.

Sambit Bal is the editor of Cricinfo