Christian Ryan
Writer based in Melbourne. Author of Golden Boy: Kim Hughes and the Bad Old Days of Australian Cricket

Unpredictable is watchable

Australia have had to strain every sinew for the win against South Africa. It makes for a nice change

Christian Ryan

March 12, 2009

Comments: 25 | Text size: A | A


The harder they come: for 40-odd years Australia haven't been stretched like they have been recently © AFP
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Lately when he bats, Mike Hussey's hands squeeze his bat handle so tight you expect to see toothpaste spurting out the top. In the great lake of sweat on his forehead you can almost make out the bowler's reflection. Watching Hussey concentrate - concentrate so hard that sometimes he forgets to blink - is one of the many little fascinations of witnessing Australia's cricketers right now. They are all having to concentrate. It has been this way not long, five months according to the calendar, but in modern cricketing parlance that's an age. A golden age.

Golden ages were proclaimed loudly and often during the Taylor-Waugh-Ponting years of conquest. Really that was a green-and-golden age. The fun lay in Australia smashing all comers to smithereens, then watching those same wretched opponents bend over to pick up the pieces and get kicked in the head again. And fun it was when Adam Gilchrist was swinging or Shane Warne fizzing. But fun and fulfilment are two different things. To feel truly fulfilled by all those three-day obliterations of the other team's dignity, you had to be a bronzed loyalist if you were Australian or a masochist if you came from elsewhere. All the rest of us wanted was a contest.

Annihilation is never as good as exhilaration, the feeling that comes from watching a cricket match bend and zigzag for the best part of a week until the team that is least knackered staggers to glory on the fifth afternoon. Australian cricket followers have known the feeling for five months and 11 consecutive Tests now. They have seen their team outwitted in India and stretched by New Zealand. Against South Africa they have bounced between despair and redemption. They have lost unforeseeably and triumphed unexpectedly. Matches have been conducted at rollercoaster and snail's pace, and sometimes both. Leave your TV set and you risk missing another twist. For ten and a half Tests - for in truth the Kiwis were lunchmeat once the ball ceased swinging in Adelaide - it has been like this.

Ten and a half Tests do not sound like much to Australians brought up on titanic tussles with Englishmen, West Indians, Indians. But invariably these have been bookended by waterlogged trans-Tasman stalemates, or yet another Pommy blowout. To find ten and a half in a row you probably have to hark back to 1959, '60 and '61: to a last-day tightrope walk in Calcutta, five thrill-a-minute crackerjacks against Frank Worrell's men, an Ashes trip full of nowt-happening-here days interrupted by series-swinging half hours.

After ten and a half Tests in the furnace, Hussey is not the only one to have found the going sweaty. Matthew Hayden loped into not entirely happy retirement. Bing went bung. Ricky Ponting's trademark hard hands and early-innings shakiness have looked harder and shakier than ever. He flounders or he flourishes, but seldom is there any satisfactory middle ground; only six times in his past 20 outings has Ponting scored between 10 and 79. The absence of grinding certainty renders him all the more watchable.

 
 
Ponting flounders or he flourishes, but seldom is there any satisfactory middle ground; only six times in 20 outings has he scored between 10 and 79. The absence of grinding certainty renders him all the more watchable
 

Others - newish faces, especially - have made their opponents sweat. Commonly fast bowlers explode on the scene and then the smoke clears, as rival batsmen decipher their tricks and the bowler trails off in search of new ones. Mitchell Johnson is an exception. Overnight he has learnt, as if by magic, how to swing the red ball whatever its age, and how to whistle up 150kph zingers whenever required. The Durban Test was Johnson's 20th, and between Tests 11 and 20 he has prised out 51 wickets - more than Ray Lindwall, Dennis Lillee or Glenn McGrath, more than any Australian quick in all Test history.

It was possible to confuse the new era with the old era this past fortnight, as an almost starless Australia managed somehow to shine. On the fourth evening in Durban, with victory far from assured, excitable ABC radio commentators implored listeners to send in text messages predicting how many hundred runs Australia might win by. It felt a little like 2003, when an Australia missing Warne, two Waughs and Jason Gillespie swanned undefeated through an entire World Cup. It felt a lot like 1995, and the world championship bout, when an attack spearheaded by Paul Reiffel and Brendon Julian toppled the Caribbean's fabled batting kings.

The difference is that those Australian sides radiated an aura of unbeatability. Part of the attraction of watching this Australian side is that it is eminently beatable - yet for ten and a half Tests it has won as often as it has lost.

For Australia's four selectors, the job they applied for - count to 11 and hand in your expenses claim - must seem unrecognisable from the job they find themselves lumbered with. They have mucked plenty up. Bryce McGain might be a great-grandfather by the time they pick a proper spinner. But they have also blooded a bowler who constantly varies his length and bounce, who is canny enough to have produced a pitched-up, wicket-taking outswinger with his second ball in Test cricket. Another newcomer - soft hands, fast feet, an eye like a highway vulture's - is brazen enough to have hoisted his maiden Test hundred with successive leg-side sixes.

Any English cricket followers who saw Ben Hilfenhaus and Phillip Hughes might rightly be feeling a twinge of pre-Ashes collywobbles. Hilfenhaus and Hughes, sources of considerable Australian exhilaration, could soon prove the causes of England's annihilation. Mark that down as yet another of cricket's little fascinations.

Christian Ryan is a writer based in Melbourne. He is the author of Golden Boy: Kim Hughes and the Bad Old Days of Australian Cricket, published in March 2009

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Posted by feral on (March 14, 2009, 8:31 GMT)

I think one of the main reasons the Aussies started loosing the plot was by getting involved in a media circus that happened during late 07 (In India) and early part of 08 (In Australia). Never before were the Aussies targetted as rudely by any one apart from the Indian Media contingent. And somehow that started playing into their mind. Instead of concentrating on Cricket - which they are good at - they tried to be media spoken person - which they are bad at. I guess the loss against SA at home was the nadir and they are bouncing back - thanks also to the fact that the centre character to that media circus - Symonds is no longer around. Ponting now has a team which has no bloated egos, no players fighting any deamons and no players playing beyond their age. This young team has the capability to beat any other team in the world and that belief is also being shared by the players too. This win in SA will start a new winning streak for the Aussies.

Posted by Limelite on (March 13, 2009, 7:56 GMT)

I live in SA but have been an Aussie supporter my whole life. It's good to see them on the winning trail again. They have had a off year in 2008, but things are starting to look good again.

Posted by rinspin on (March 13, 2009, 7:25 GMT)

If I am not wrong Dale Steyn has not dismissed Ricky Ponting yet in a test match. Dale Steyn is a quality strike bowler who packs a punch with his pace,swing and skiddy bounce and has the stats to show why he is one of the worlds leading wicket takers but he doesnt trouble ponting like a sharma or a fully fit and in the right frame of mind harmison or morkel. This is because he generates skiddy bounce like Brett Lee and not steepling bounce like sharma/morkel/harmison. However Steyn troubled hayden,hussey and rest of Australias batsmen with his combination of swing and seam of a good line and length. I dont know much about Phil Hughes but in time his strengths and weaknesses will be worked out.

Posted by sap1979 on (March 13, 2009, 7:18 GMT)

India has recently beaten ENgland in England, WI in WI and for all certainty beat NZ in NZ. So their record may not be as woeful as it was few years back. They are certainly a team to watch out for.

Posted by rinspin on (March 13, 2009, 6:54 GMT)

Australia have a very good domestic competitiion at first class level called the sheffield shield. This competition enables quality players to emerge it a tough,competitive test cricket like environment in a variety of conditions. However cricket is alot more dynamic and unpredictable than a couple of years ago. However in recent years South Africa has not been as dominant at home as they should be. SA will win the series but will win 2-1 and not 3-0. Against India and Pakistan in 2006/07 they lost the first test and then won the last two matches to win 2-1. The same happened against the West Indies in 2007/08 where SA won 2-1. The opposition pace attacks decimated the SA batting line ups in bowler friendly conditions. Also South Africa have recently won tests in India(draw), Pakistan and Bangladesh. Their batsmen are use to batsmen-friendly conditions where the pitches are flat or are turners. The pitches were flat in Australia except for Sydney where it broke up on day 3.

Posted by CustomKid on (March 13, 2009, 6:01 GMT)

Aussies will always fight regardless of their ability, and watching some of these young players battle it out has been simply awesome.

Kudos to the South African grounds men too. There has been something for everyone in these last two games. Australia's groundsmen need to go back to the early 90's where each Aussie venue offered something different. Gabba swing and seam, WACE pace, Melbounre everything, Syndey spin, Adelaide a road. These drop in pitches are a total fail and are about as exciting as the subcontinent rubbish we see week in week out. If pitches like Durban and Joburg were common place how good would test cricket really be???

As for England I think they'll go ok in the Ashes but they are a one trick poney that lacks depth. If Flintoff doesn't fire forget it. If Johnson, Siddle, and S.Clarke stay fit they'll rip the Englishmen a new one. Sidebottom, Harmey, Anderson, and montey are ordinary at best and pose little threat. Weather permitting 2-1 Australia.

Posted by andrew-schulz on (March 13, 2009, 4:48 GMT)

This time it's the caption on the picture which is stupid, and that probably has nothing to do with Mr. Ryan. But let's not naively write off the fascinating struggle the Aussies have faced, mainly away but also at home in this period. How could you have felt the home series against SA in 05/06 was not riveting? Or all 3 Tests in Sri Lanka in 2004, when Sri Lanka led on first innings in each? In fact the vast majority of away Tests have required a major struggle. Agreed on McGain. He should be playing. And Ranadurjay, the big difference between Pakistan in the 80's and India now is that Pakistan, aside from drawing 3 series in a row against WI, were clearly the second best side in the world in terms of performance against all opposition. India clearly are not, and retain a woeful away record.

Posted by david_robbo on (March 13, 2009, 2:52 GMT)

RossA, We have seen how little dammage Anderson has done in the past to the Aussies and there is nobody in the english team who is close to Steyn or Ntini right now yet we have handled them. KP can bat but other than him and Strauss I don't think the Aussies will be to concerned especially with the likes of Ponting, Hussey, Clarke and Katich in our side. And while we are asking other sides what they think perhaps the Windies should be consulted. 5 tests showed the true effectiveness of Englands bowling "attack". It sounds like you have forgotten the most anticipated Ashes in years. Expected to be the clash of the titans, ended in only the second 5-0 result in the history of the contest.

Posted by __PK on (March 13, 2009, 2:40 GMT)

"Bryce McGain might be a great-grandfather by the time they pick a proper spinner." That's because Bryce McGain might be a great-grandfather by the time Australia has a proper spinner to pick. The selectors have come under fire for trying to manufacture an all-rounder where isn't one of test quality, why criticise them for not trying to manufacture a spinner when there isn't one of test quality? Pick the best 11 and you'll be the best you possibly can.

Posted by david_robbo on (March 13, 2009, 1:56 GMT)

How is it that we treat Australias coming back to the pack as they have as a positive. The truth is that with a very young side with very little experience and the best of their quicks out injured they still beat India at home although they lost away and this summer against the no. 2 team in the world are basically 3-2 up in 5 matches. I point this out because for years people looked at the Warnes and McGraths and just accepted that the Aussies would win, few ever looked at them with the determination to get to their level. As players like Siddle Johnson and Hughes improve and gain experience the Aussies will become a better side and when that happens we will end up just where we were unless other teams find ways to improve. The problem with cricket for 30 years now has not been that the Aussie and before them the Windies were to good, but that the rest were not good enough. I would rather see close games between good sides like India 2001, not close games between average teams.

Posted by Sri_Iyer on (March 12, 2009, 22:40 GMT)

Whenever you watched the Aussies over the last 10 years or so, you couldn't decide if you admired them for their supreme dominance, or hated them for the same reason. So while their own fans gloated over their results, the rest of the world couldn't wait for another team - any other team - to trip up the Aussie juggernaut. But those moments were special, because you knew a great team was beaten by an even greater performance by a lesser team. Which is what made the 2005 Ashes spectacular. Now that the Aussies have lost their air of invincibility, it just doesn't feel the same when another team beats them. So, although the last two tests against S.Africa were more watchable than most other recently played tests, they were definitely not in the same class as any of the few tests the Aussies lost over the last decade. What made these matches watchable was the anticipation of record breaking run chases in the last innings in each of these tests by the South Africans.

Posted by JGuru on (March 12, 2009, 17:59 GMT)

Australia's invincibility made other teams look so ordinary that many other teams during Australia's dominant age was eyeing for nothing more than a distant second spot. Well though the age has changed and aura to an extent is fading, it is still side which fights and never succumbs. Australia's strength has always been their self-belief and this series win would not have come at a better time. This side would continue to improve, may not have the same trouncing abilities that was so synonymous but the killer instinct is there to stay. This young breed of Oz has all credentials to become indomitable in no lesser than no time.

Posted by DeepPoint on (March 12, 2009, 17:48 GMT)

Watching has Australia has always been great - either they play terrific cricket or it takes terrific cricket to beat them. Rarely have they allowed themselves to be mediocre and beaten. Lara, Laxman, Duminy - all these were extra-ordinary performances. The message from the Aussies is this - you have to play out of your skins to beat us. I remember a one-day final in Kolkatta where Andy Bichel was getting hammered by Tendulkar and others. Yet he never let his head drop and produced a corker of a delivery. India went on to lose, broken down by the indomitable Aussie will. Ponting may end up with a greater legacy than Waugh, who just had the McGrath-Warne two trick pony to turn to whenever in crisis. I also think the Australians miss Gilchrist and McGrath the most. The number of times Gilly has come to their rescue - and more importantly, the manner of batting - has deflated many an opponent. And McGrath, who has taken wickets everywhere, targetting (and dismissed) the opponent star bat!

Posted by PeterSuchWasQuiteGood on (March 12, 2009, 16:24 GMT)

Mr Ranadurjay needs to read more carefully... I think the point of highlighting the '59-'61 period is that it was a sequence of closely fought test matches, rather than it was particularly a period in which Aus struggled. The clue is in the 'and a half'. Results don't normalyl come in halves.

Posted by popcorn on (March 12, 2009, 14:09 GMT)

The most fascinating characteristic of the Aussies is their self belief. That no side is unbeatable. and THAT is what makes them the Champion side they are, and will always be.I have been a die-hard fan of the Aussies for several years.Not many observed that the Australia - South Africa series in Australia was very closely fought, but haters of Aussie guts were quick to signal the decline of the Aussies. Not many gave credit to the inexperienced attack trouncing South Africa at the SCG. That was the beginning, and it's three wins in a row so far.The Aussies are human, so they might lose an occasional Test. But 16 Test wins, not once, but twice, are marks of greatness.Add to that three consecutive World Cups in the 50 over format,and you have Legends.Allan Border,Mark Waugh, Steve Waugh have retired,but the human Aussies just go on and on. As Role Models to emulate, they have no equal.

Posted by Ranadurjay on (March 12, 2009, 12:55 GMT)

Mr. Ryan needs to get his facts right. In '59,'60 and '61, Aussies were stretched, yes, but didn't go anywhere close to playing ten and a half Tests without a win. Their worst period in the post-war era (in the pre-war era, they have been mauled by Eng in several editions of the Ashes)was in 1985-86, a period when the team was being rebuilt around Allan Border. They went through 14 Tests without a victory (4 each against NZ and Eng, and 6 against India), 8 of them being home Tests.And none of those Tests were against the mighty WI, mind you. Even during the Packer era, their performances between 76 to 78 was quite abysmal. After their phenomenal triumph against WI at home in 75-76, they went through a rough phase, but not as bad as the one in 85-86. And Mr. Marcio, why is is so difficult so accept losing to India? Throughout Australia's brilliant dominance of world cricket, India has been their most consistent adversary, a lot like the Pakistanis were during the WI reign in the 80s.

Posted by D.V.C. on (March 12, 2009, 11:29 GMT)

"Bryce McGain might be a great-grandfather by the time they pick a proper spinner." Agreed! It was obvious after that last Test that the three pace men were struggling with the work-load they have. While McDonald has done well with the ball, his batting has failed and he isn't going to bowl long spells to take some of the work away from the quicks. I'm sure the only reason Ponting finally relented and bowled Katich for an extended period was because he didn't want to risk further injury to the pace men. We have the Ashes coming up, not to mention a World Cup to be hosted in the sub continent, and the selectors show no sign of giving our only decent spinner any international experience! McGain is clearly the best spinner available to us, a casual glance at the ODD and 1st Class figures of the contenders shows that McGain is 25% better than his nearest rival (in fact he's an even better limited overs option). The selectors seem determined to waste him!

Posted by Pegasus82 on (March 12, 2009, 11:28 GMT)

Excellent article which I agree with completely. I have started watching cricket again after 3-4 years of only checking the scores at the end of the day to read about how Australia annihilated another opponent. Winning too often does breed boredom in the viewers, and arrogance and/or complacency in the players and selectors/coaching staff. To me it feels like the late-1980s all over again, when Australia surprised the world by rising from a (admittedly much longer and deeper) period of despair by winning the World Cup and winning back the Ashes in England. Test cricket is thrilling again.

Posted by RossA on (March 12, 2009, 11:00 GMT)

Haha..Hughes and Hilfenhaus the new Hayden and McGrath hey? after two tests?? lets wait and see how they get on on an overcast morning at Headingley with 6ft5/16st Flintoff pounding in at 90mph and Anderson swinging it round corners and KP smashing the Aussie attack all over the park...then we can talk about them 'annihilating' England. This Ashes series will be a classic, the Aussies are ranked no.1 England no.6 but just ask India who were the tougher Test side to play against recently...

Posted by I.Beecken on (March 12, 2009, 10:17 GMT)

Its not a bad article but I have to disagree with parts of it. I was & am a great fan of watching the Aussie's destroy all comers. For me the only downside when we decimated a side was having to wait an extra day or 2 for the next match. I never once got bored or sick of watching it. I guess if that makes me a bronzed loyalist well so be it. That being said I still really enjoyed the last couple of tests, even the last test there was no certainty that Australia would win. I thought the pitch was good too, It wasnt a batsmans paradise. I think the team is getting closer to being one to stay with too. Although im not sure who to leave out once Stu Clarke returns, possibly it will have to be McDonald. The "Golden Age" is over but providing the selectors dont go messing around to much with a decent young team the Aussies may start heading back to being a formidable force once again.

Posted by riteshjsr on (March 12, 2009, 9:32 GMT)

Australia looked unbeatable between 1999 and 2007. They towered over other international teams, dominated them, and in the process also won the World Cup thrice. Yes there were a few bumps on the road (India 2001, Ashes 2005) but they had an aura of invincibility around them. Blessed with one in a generation players (Hayden, Waugh, Ponting, Warne McGrath, Gillespie, Langer, Martyn, Gilchrist) playing in the same era, they did to every other team during this period what West Indies did in the 70s and 80s. However, with the retirement of Waugh, Warne and McGrath, they lost their sheen, but the real blow was the loss of Gilchrist. How do you replace the best wk batsman to have ever played the game? Much of their recent struggles can be attributed to the absence of Gilchrist. Yes Australia looks eminently beatable now, but to do that you still have to play very well. You really have to give your best. Barring SA and India, other teams will still struggle big time against them.

Posted by sabina2009 on (March 12, 2009, 8:46 GMT)

It is a good article. I really liked it. The writer correctly mentions: "Any English cricket followers who saw Ben Hilfenhaus and Phillip Hughes might rightly be feeling a twinge of pre-Ashes collywobbles." England, be prepared!

Posted by Hodge008 on (March 12, 2009, 6:20 GMT)

Totally agree - although I would have to say that it was fairly safe to say Australia would win by the fourth evening...

Posted by MrKricket on (March 12, 2009, 5:49 GMT)

Australia has had a habit of the past 28 years of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory with so many close losses since Melbourne 1981 vs India and Headingly of course. Only at the height of the Steve Waugh years did they seem invulnerable and that ended with Laxman and Dravid in 2001! With more than 400 chased down against them twice there are no dead certs these days. Even the last Test with 300 required and two set batsmen there was still a chance of SA winning. It's always exciting I agree. The margins in these Test don't reflect the closeness though. I'd rather watch these contests than the yawnfests going on in the rest of the world lately.

Posted by Marcio on (March 12, 2009, 5:35 GMT)

As an Aussie, it is more interesting to watch. The best test series in recent years have been the ones Australia has lost - England '05, SA in Australia '08-'09, even the recent one dayers vs NZ were really good (drawn 2-2). The loss in India was dogged (as usual) by flat pitches which rendered the games almost 100% predictable - the team that won the toss batted first every time, posted a big score every time, forced the other team to play catch up every time, dictated the match every time, and won or drew the test every time. After the toss it was like, let's get some sleep. The lively pitches in SA have really made a difference. Batsmen really have to earn their runs.

It's also good to watch some new guys whose limits we don't know, and they don't really know those limits themselves. Phillip Huges in particular is very unorthodox, and you never know whether he is going to hit a six, get a nick, or get hit.

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Christian Ryan Christian Ryan lives in Melbourne, writes and edits, was once the editor of The Monthly magazine and Wisden Australia, and now bowls low-grade, high-bouncing legbreaks with renewed zeal in recognition of Stuart MacGill's retirement and the selection opportunities this presents. He is the author of Golden Boy: Kim Hughes and the Bad Old Days of Australian Cricket and Australia: Story of a Cricket Country
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