March 12, 2009

Unpredictable is watchable

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

The harder they come: for 40-odd years Australia haven't been stretched like they have been recently © AFP

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Rahul 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.

  • Liam 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.

  • roh 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.

  • Saptarshi 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.

  • roh 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.

  • Benjamin 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.

  • andrews 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.

  • david 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.

  • Paul 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.

  • david 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.

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