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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Baldy on November 14, 2008, 1:44 GMT

    To juliandsouza, I believe you have gone away from the core issue as said. Are India the world champions? No. Have Australia declined? Yes If Brazil are defeated by New Zealand in the Soccer World Cup are they suddenly the world champs? No .ICC rankings work a similar way. Well done India again, you are the form side at the moment. And as for Australian sore loser comments, you have to be kidding. Ponting can lack diplomacy and humility at times and that has been a big issue over here and there are a lot of mixed feelings amongst our own. But dont brand the lot of us. We certainly didnt threaten to pack up and come home when one of our players was racially taunted in India yet India threatened that out here last summer over a match result. As for CA, I agree, they are totally spineless. The unfortunate consequence of them bowing to the BCCI is Symonds. He is no saint but my guess is that time will show that he didnt want to go to India as opposed to being dropped.

  • Aravind on November 13, 2008, 5:28 GMT

    One other major factor: Missing out on Roy....Oz selectors share a part of the defeat as well. Cricket has been a one sided game so far...80's belonged to the Windies, 90's to Aussies...and the good thing going forward is, the start of the millennium removes this history and no single team can own a decade anymore with all other teams stepping at its best! wow....I cant wait to see the competition going ahead....Zim, WI, Pak, NZ....bring on more worries..administrative and political issues don't last for long...come WC, lets see a level playing field..go cricket!!!!!!!!!!

  • Rajaram on November 13, 2008, 1:09 GMT

    "One swallow doth not a summer make".All you scribes predicted the decline of Australia after the Steve Waugh's India'a series 2000 -01,after the Ashes 2005,after the retirements of Damien Martyn,Justin Langer,Shane Warne,Glenn McGrath in early 2007. We are now nearing the end of 2008, and Australia are still at the top.Typical of you scribes to sentsationalise and come to wrong judgements - forgetting that winning in India is no yardstick for supremacy. After Bill Lawry's Team won in 1958 -59,it took 35 years for Adam Gilchrist's Team)to win a series in India.Yet during those 35 years, Australia won Series, both home and away,for 16 consecutive times,not once, but twice.Once under Steve Waugh, the second under Ricky Ponting.The REAL World Championship of Test cricket and ODI is coming soon-Australia vs.South Africa, both home and away. Wait till you make silly judgements. And wait to see how India fares AWAY in 2009 - you'll be eating your words and drop Dhoni like a hot potato.

  • hayden on November 12, 2008, 23:11 GMT

    metal_militia what are you on about india came to australia and conquered????? no mate they lost! if they conquered that would mean they won the test series in aus? which is something they have never done! yes they won the ODI series but then aus beat india in india in their last ODI series over there but you dont hear stupid comments like yours coming from aussies "we came to india and conquered!!" because no ones stupid enough to go mouthing off over something which isnt the truth!!! the last team to come to aus and "conquered" was the west indies in 92! if india can go 16 odd years with out series defeat at home then we'll see! and aus are still ranked number 1 both in test and ODI and hold the last 3 world cups!!! last time i checked india werent even ranked 2nd in either format! and as flat as aus looked in india, india looked far worse in sri lanka when they toured their earlier in the year!

  • Jagadish on November 12, 2008, 21:48 GMT

    "The series lacked the drama, the tension, the twists, and the contests these two teams have provided in the last eight years."

    The pitches were a significant contributor. They were all nice batting tracks, on the slower side and didn't really have too much of bounce. In a sense, India got lucky that Australia pressed the self-destruct button often, since the pitches didn't really crumble until very late in the Mohali and Nagpur tests.

  • SRINI on November 12, 2008, 19:00 GMT

    Australia was weak as it is in a state of transition. India had an emerging set of capable and hungry pacemen, competent spinners; strong openers and a middle order that clicked together (one last time?); a captain who was imaginative and aggressive. Neither side needs to over react. Australia needs to rebuild. India has to recognize they did not beat the Aussies at their best. And also plan for a middle order batting transition - sooner or later. The road ahead for both teams is one of nurture and consolidation.

  • K on November 12, 2008, 16:03 GMT

    Oh almost forgot to respond to Andrew_s, the mightly srilankan team which you would like to praise so much have never won a test match in India or australia. Have you checked how many series victory Australia have notched up against Sri Lanka in SL, you might be surprised. Sri Lankans are at best hoemground bullies and the series is being blown too much out of context. To be honest we lost that series due to our bowling on the third morning of the third test. It could have gone either way at that point. And don't even get me started on murali - seven hundred odd run outs and counting.

  • K on November 12, 2008, 15:58 GMT

    Contd prev post, Ind and Aus have played 26 test matches since 1996, India have won 10, Australia have won 10 and ther have been 6 draws. There is no other country which has a similar win-loss record in the same period. Just go to statsguru and do a search to know. I don't understand the reaction to this test series when this is exactly what we expect from an India Vs Australia contest. A seesaw of victory and defeat stretching back to 1996. The fact is the two teams play at their best against eachother and neither team wants to lose. This is the fact to be enjoyed and celebrated about this rivalry between Ind and Aus. The next 3 yrs before the next series in australia (Ind VS AUS) will be the building phase for the top 6 teams and decide who will be the topdog. If both teams lose to the others before then we know the answer otherwise that in my opinion will be the world test championship. So let us not get ahead of ourselves based on this series which is only a reflection of the past.

  • K on November 12, 2008, 15:51 GMT

    I continue to be surprised by the tone of articles written after this series by the Australian, Indian media and also Cricinfo. Firstly there is no reshuffling of the world order nor is it the end of an era for australia. They have been very good since 1877 and that is a fact. Secondly, India has not won this series by any unfair means whether in the form of pitches or umpiring or any other measure. Australia were beaten and well beaten. To describe the series as a "Lowering of the bar" etc is annoying and stretching the truth further it is insulting to the Indian team. The greatest of victories is when you muddle your opponent enough to throw him off from his natural game any one who has knowledge or has take part in sports such as boxing, chess etc would know. This is exactly what happened in India. Finally, Australia has won only one test series in India in 40 years as many aussies have correctly pointed out and that too because the chennai test was washed out on the last day. (Ctd)

  • Aabhas on November 12, 2008, 13:16 GMT

    For lippy04 - you say it is impossible for sides batting second to win matches on batting piches? I dont think so - think Eden Gardens 2001 and Adelaide 2003 - both India v Australia. There are many such instances. However, I do feel that while India played fantastic cricket in this series, the win was also because Australia were mediocre to say the least. They came proclaiming that they were the underdogs but they were still overconfident. They have been brought down to earth. India on the other hand are still a long way from being world champions. In the last 4 years, we have drawn a series each in South Africa and Australia and lost once in Australia. If we start winning consistently in SA and Aus - we know we are on to something.

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