Australia v South Africa, 2nd Test, Melbourne, 5th day December 30, 2008

It's not funny anymore

Australia's rebuild has turned into a major unplanned renovation after the series defeat to South Africa

Tell me when it's safe to look: Ricky Ponting's time in charge has become increasingly upsetting © PA Photos

Until the final day at the MCG it was fun watching Australia flop about, letting South Africa recover from positions that only the teams of Steve Waugh and Mark Taylor could escape from regularly. It was satisfying to see the cockiness drain from the experienced Australian players, the ones who have been claiming for weeks they are still the best in the world despite not seeing the bushfire surrounding them. And it was pleasing that the series defeat would lead to more of the younger players, the famed depth that everyone with an Australian cap repeats as often as "execute plans", being on show in the dead rubber in Sydney.

But when Shane Watson was on TV before South Africa wrapped up the series, saying he wouldn't be bowling for up to six months, it started to hurt. At that point what was about to happen at the MCG, and what will continue to happen as Australia's rebuild turns into a major unplanned renovation, registered as a massive change of lifestyle. No Brett Lee, no Stuart Clark, no Watson, no Andrew Symonds, no decent spinner, an unfamiliar Matthew Hayden, no wins and, soon, hardly any trophies. The fall since the tour of India has been more slippery than any single-day drop on the stock exchange. For 16 years Australia had been impregnable at home; in 14 days they folded to South Africa.

Since Watson's announcement I have stopped smirking along with the rest of the world and may start to sulk. Not for this team. Not for the players who didn't see what was wrong, or the selectors who thought they could pick anyone and see them succeed, or the room full of coaches who need to execute - as in kill - plans that eliminate instinct and individual thought. But for what went before through Border and Taylor and Waugh, and under Ponting with McGrath and Warne and Gilchrist. The teams that made Australia envied instead of mocked.

In the commentary box Ian Healy and Shane Warne spent the past two days imagining, with degrees of seriousness, how Australia could win. The hope and cheerleading became embarrassing. "If this last pair can hang around and get a partnership of around 200, it will make it hard for the South Africans." It wasn't quite that bad but it was close, with Warne recommending Michael Clarke match his best figures of 6 for 9 and recalling the Sri Lanka Test of 1992, when Australia defended 181.

That was the match when Warne showed what he could do with 3 for 11 to steal the game. Like the senior men on the field, the relatively recent retirees with the microphones expected the superheroes to arrive. All the Australian capes have disappeared along with Telstra phoneboxes.

The problem with the past- and present-player dreams is that Australia not only miss a Warne or a McGrath, but they don't even have a Gillespie or a MacGill, or a Reiffel or a May. At the moment they own a Ponting, a Clarke and a Johnson. Ponting is the most magnificent batsman but an un-inspirational captain whose pockets must crinkle with schedules to follow. How he ignored Mitchell Johnson on the fourth and fifth days while a hobbling Brett Lee bowled brave medium pace is as crazy as blaming luck for Dale Steyn's match-changing 76 from No. 10.

Underneath Ponting there is Clarke and Johnson, who have had excellent years and deserve to help mould the next teams. Who will join them is a guess. Hayden is lucky to be in Sydney and Symonds, who is having knee surgery, has been as loose as his pre-2003 World Cup days. Michael Hussey's first extended international slump shows how much he has been ground down by the long absences from his family. After Lee's past four months it would be dangerous to expect him to return at his best.

This side of one current great, a few very goods, a muscular opener on the way out and a collection of mights and might nots has lost Australia's first home series since 1992-93

This side of one current great, a few very goods, a muscular opener on the way out and a collection of mights and might nots has lost Australia's first home series since 1992-93. Over the past year they have given up the final tri-series prize, the Border-Gavaskar Trophy and now the South Africa silverware. Over the next year the side may have to watch videos of West Indies and New Zealand to remember what it's like to win.

The team may only be No. 1 on the rankings for another week, but even those spruikers inside the Australian dressing room can no longer believe they deserve it. That rating came over consistently outstanding performances at home and away, and was inflated by players who will remain revered long after this slump has been corrected. Australia can always remember the deeds, but those involved in the game can no longer hope for repeats. The current squad is an average one, in comparison with its predecessors, and has carried a previously unrealistic view of itself.

In 1992-93 Australia almost beat West Indies at home, giving up a 1-0 lead with a one-run loss in Adelaide before, exhausted and overwhelmed, they succumbed in Perth. Those players were fighters - Taylor, Boon, Steve Waugh, Healy, Warne et al - and their toughness allowed the next breed to turn into aggressive believers in any situation.

In 1995 they were responsible for beating West Indies and earning the world champion crown that has slipped so suddenly from Ponting's forehead. To erase the hurt of this defeat, for players and Australian followers, a more steely approach will be required. No more batting like millionaires, which most are, no more bowling like domestic representatives, and no more prayers for match-winning miracles.

Peter English is the Australasia editor of Cricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Michael Ponnudurai on January 6, 2009, 8:55 GMT

    Well, it is news when a 13-15 year Champion team is faltering. Loss of top match winners through retirements over the last 2 years - almost 8 of them, has led todays situation. No other team has undergone such a transition in recent times. Let us all realise and digest this fact. Australia may not be able win as much as they were, but they can still continue in the race and heat up the competition. I do not foresee West Indies like decline. Rather we can expect well contested Tests and one day matches among atleast 4 teams -SA, Aus, India and England with SL pitching in too. Instead of one team dominating the scene we may see 4-5 teams moving up and down the rankings all the time. Good for cricket and for fans.

  • Stuart on January 2, 2009, 9:35 GMT

    Well said BSimon. Personally I am also getting tired of hearing how losing 2 matches to an excellent South African team means the end of the world for Australian cricket. There are even Cricinfo journalists now attempting to suggest that Matthew Hayden was only ever a flat-track bully. This is extremely unwarranted.

    I do agree with Peter English's references to uninspired team management and leadership. However, he makes little mention of injuries to Stuart Clark and Brett Lee other than to use them to criticise the rest of the players.

    SAf have batted well, but may not have got out of the tight batting situations that they have been in against Stuart Clark and a fit Brett Lee. Frequent injuries to fast bowlers, IMO are more to do with the international cricket schedule being far too busy to allow them to recover.

  • max on January 2, 2009, 3:23 GMT

    Even George Bush knows you need someone to hate to consolidate your power. The rest of the World loves to hate Australia. Fair enough. Personally, I never get sick of winning and we're so far ahead of all the whinging Poms, Subcontinentals and displaced Dutchmen from the Transvaal, that we can rest on our laurels awhile. By the way, be careful what you wish for, a strong Australia is vital to World cricket. When the West Indian empire crumbled, everyone thought.."great..time for someone else". Did we really expect the basket case they are now? Let's hope all those potential Australian cricketers of the future don't just turn on their x-boxes instead of Wide World of Cricket over the next few years.

  • Simon on January 2, 2009, 3:11 GMT

    I find the terms of use for posting replies to opinion writers and so-called journalists to be self serving in the extreme. Why is it that a writer can criticise a player(s) or team and be published to elicit response, but the public has to agree not to 'attack' or criticise the opinion writer? This form of journalism is all too prevalent in mainstream media. I think you devalue your integrity by allowing articles as ridiculous as 'It's not funny anymore', whereby a writer can call for the end of a professional players career, based on failure of a small percentage of his tenure, however respondents can't do the same to the writer based on public dissatisfaction of the said writer having a similarly measurable failure in his career. So if Hayden should voluntarily curtail his career if he has three poor innings, should not a journalist fall on his sword for three poor articles. They're both in the public domain. Why is one fair game and one a protected species?

  • gerard on January 1, 2009, 18:58 GMT

    Australia to use a boxing analogy were staggering around the ring like a punch drunk boxer. Eight hard fought tests against India had taken their toll. Injuries retiraments and poor form all contributed to a jaded team playing well below par. India softened Australia to the point SA had only to apply the coup de grace. In the long term Australia will still be formidable opponents in any form of the game.As for SA I think they are a good team but a long way behind the West Indies of the 80s and 90s or the Australians of the last fifteen years.As of now four teams Australia, England, India and South Africa can be considered equals.

  • Rajaram on January 1, 2009, 12:36 GMT

    I compare Australia with Roger Federer. No one could come close - until Rafael Nadal did,and beat him,like South Africa beat Australia. But Roger Federer bounced back at the US open, and Australia will bounce back in the return series against South Africa.

    The good news is the Australian System is so strong, that - unlike Federer whio is an individual,will grow old and retire, the Australian Cricket team will constantly evolve like a tree with a strong trunk,continuing to bear fruits.

    Mark my words - in one year's time, Ricky Ponting will be hailed as the next Allan Border - the saviour of Australian Cricket - Australia will rule again - and will stamp the Australian dominance in the cricketing world as convincingly as the 5 nil whitewash of England.

  • Ganesh on January 1, 2009, 8:14 GMT

    I agree with a lot of people mentioning that the dominant Aussies of the past 15 years were not liked because of the arrogance. Compare that with the dominant Windies who in general were universally liked and nobody said that their dominance was detrimental to world cricket. That was because they had character but didn't sledge!

  • Lawton on January 1, 2009, 6:58 GMT

    Comparing the champion WI teams of Clyde LLoyd and Viv Richards to the Australian teams of the last thirteen years is akin to comparing the great Mohamed Ali to Mike Tyson respectively.The former all grace and charm and the latter an ugly and the most disliked champion.

  • Aashish on January 1, 2009, 5:27 GMT

    It's really very Pleasant to see the Aussies being thrashed , may be in near future bangladesh will eye a whitewash

  • Sam on December 31, 2008, 23:43 GMT

    Having the mantle of best cricket team in the world gives the Australian team a lot to talk about in the field and puts pressure on touring sides in particular. Having a psychological advantage is a significant component in dominating an opposing side and Australia have always been good at applying pressure and instilling uncertainty in lesser sides. Now that the dominance is over, probably for some time, Australia seem to have lost the ability to inspire fear in their opposition. Losing so many greats was not supposed to be a problem and my Aussie mates would always tell me that there was a stable of greats waiting in the wings. The fact is that great players are rare and Australia has benefited from having a handful in every team for the last ten to fifteen years. I fear that the loss of the greats has exposed what so many have thought for some time, Ponting just isn't that good a captain.

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