Australia in 2009 January 4, 2010

Ashes anguish and one-day joys

The fall to No. 4, injuries to key bowlers, Ponting's return to mortality: Australia's 2009 was mostly filled with gloom

So this is how the rest of the world feels most of the time. For as long as under-25 Australian fans can remember, their team has been the best in the globe at the end of the year, but as the new decade began, Ricky Ponting's Test and Twenty20 outfits were in the also-ran category, having been overrun by countries with more A-list quality. Only in the one-day rankings do Australia lead, but there is not much kudos in that, as it is the format with the smallest pay cheques and the most doubts over its lifespan.

It wasn't all gloom in 2009, but it was the year when the empire was flattened so badly that when the Ashes were handed over at The Oval, Australia were rated No. 4. As if losing to England wasn't bad enough, the world champions were sitting in mid-table mediocrity, beaten by a side that had a half-fit Andrew Flintoff and was often missing Kevin Pietersen. Ponting's young team, the one that had wooed the selectors during a 2-1 win over the mighty South Africa at home, had flapped limply in England. Players, administrators and selectors looked at the series statistics and felt they were hard done by, believing it was the mistakes during the big moments that had let them down. It was a cringe-worthy post-mortem from an outfit that had forgotten how to win.

Ponting rightfully kept his job - it's too soon for Michael Clarke, Simon Katich or Marcus North to jostle for the post in the medium term - but was under extreme pressure after becoming the first man since Billy Murdoch to lose two series in England, and the first to do it back to back. Ponting is a fading force as an elite batsman - this was his third season in a row when he averaged less than 50 - but he remains an essential part of the reconstruction. That he still wants to lead a group of unsure, reasonably talented and enthusiastic players is fabulous for Australian cricket. He should have the role for as long as his body allows, although that won't be long if he repeats his awkward duck to West Indies' Kemar Roach, which left him with a bruised elbow in Perth and forced the first retired-hurt of his career.

As if pretending the Ashes had never happened, Australia returned to world-beating status in the one-day arena, taking care of Scotland before beating England 6-1, picking up the Champions Trophy in South Africa and then toppling India 4-2 away. It was an old-fashioned streak from Ponting's team and it inflated confidence, which was soon dented by the No. 8-ranked West Indies in the opening Test series of the summer. Australia won 2-0, but after the Brisbane Test, which they collected in three days, life was much tougher as the bowlers struggled to get the 20 wickets that had been a certainty for so long under Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath.

Ponting's young team had flapped limply in England. Players, administrators and selectors looked at the series statistics and felt they were hard done by, believing it was the mistakes during the big moments that had let them down. It was a cringe-worthy post-mortem from an outfit that had forgotten how to win

Mitchell Johnson was the nominal attack leader, but the ease at which the side operated depended on which Johnson turned up. In South Africa he had been immense, breaking Graeme Smith's bones, just as he had in the opening Test of the year in Sydney. When he scored a Test century as well there were comparisons with Ian Botham, but his bowling was soon being likened to drains in England. He feared he was going to be dropped as his form suffered, while his mother was telling papers back home about his family life. For Johnson, soon to be named the ICC Cricketer of the Year, England was a write-off (Peter Siddle was also hit-and-miss, while Ben Hilfenhaus was the most impressive). Johnson recovered to lead the global wicket list for 2009 with 63 at 27.42, a huge number for an inconsistent performer.

Hilfenhaus ended the year with a knee injury, which came during his Man-of-the-Match performance against West Indies at the Gabba. It was a horrible conclusion for the bowlers, with Brett Lee (elbow), Stuart Clark (back) and Nathan Bracken (knee) unavailable, while Siddle and Hauritz were also struggling under the weight of games. Ponting knew he needed more time to dismiss opposition sides and more patience with his new men, and his early declaration in the first innings against Pakistan at the MCG paid off when the win was secured early in the second session of the final day.

The batting was more solid against the minor teams towards the end of the year, but had failed at crucial times during the Ashes. Simon Katich led the run list with 1111 and Michael Clarke (1042, with three hundreds) was the most valuable performer, stepping up at important times, while Shane Watson surged once he replaced Phillip Hughes. After a comedy run of mishaps between 50 and 100, Watson finally got to three figures in Australia's final batting innings of the year, via a dropped catch and a single from the misfield. It was that sort of period for Australia, who did well in patches, folded spectacularly at others, and finished in the unfamiliar position of looking up at the best teams in the Test world.

New kid on the block
The partners of Katich were the freshest faces. First it was Phillip Hughes, who stunned and starred in South Africa, scoring twin centuries in his second Test. However, after a couple of Ashes games he was dropped due to his problems with the short ball and Flintoff. Watson came in for the Birmingham game and finished the year as the in-form batsman, scoring six fifties and a century in seven games.

Fading star
Brett Lee started the year having ankle and foot surgery, recovering in time to be picked for England, where he suffered a side injury the week before the opening Test. That problem ruled him out of the first three Tests and he wasn't considered for the final two. After a strong campaign in the following limited-overs affairs, he was looking forward to a big home summer, but he sustained a sore elbow in India that led to more doubt and, eventually, more surgery. He may still have a role in green and gold, but his Test career is probably over after 76 matches and 310 wickets.

High point
The tour to South Africa was the summer romance for Australia, whose young bowlers roughed up some of the best batsmen in the world on the way to a 2-1 victory. It was such an impressive performance that they forgot the innings loss in the third game. The instant revival didn't last, but this team will always have Johannesburg and Durban.

Low point
Two trips to London provided the troughs. At Lord's, Australia lost their first Test at cricket's home since 1934 and a month later at The Oval they handed over the urn for the second time in a row. Upset by Stuart Broad, and without Nathan Hauritz on a subcontinental surface, they were ground down by England and then drowned in a sea of celebratory bunting.

Peter English is the Australasia editor of Cricinfo

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