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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Andrew on January 7, 2010, 1:39 GMT

    not been the best year for Australia when compared to previous years but it is still a year which i think many non-australian teams would be happy. I am not so gloomy about our chances. I think what Australia has been going through the last couple of years is going to happen with India (sachin, VVS, dravid can't keep batting forever) so that and also when added to the amount of tests they are playing because of the T20 and ODI hungy board will mean a short lived number one for them. I think it has also been show that on any given day Australia can't beat and beat well any other team. We don't smash them like we used to but we are by no means any worse than them. Australia has got some good foundations that as the younger guys get more experience they will become a great test side again i feel. Fitness (touch wood) permitting Johnson, Bollinger, Siddle, Hilfy, Hughes, Ferguson will become stars, in Steven Smith i think we have a future great leg spinning all rounder coming through also

  • William on January 6, 2010, 21:11 GMT

    I must add my criticism of the article here. Many assessments of Australia come out of the shadow of the Mcgrath Warne Langer Hayden batch. I will readily admit that Australia are not what they once were. and i wouldn't say they are the best in test cricket anymore, but the story isnt as gloomy as the writer suggests. They would still be stiff opposition for India or South Africa(clearly the two world leaders). hey, i hate Australia as much as the next guy, but i thought a little objectivity and honesty were required.

  • Sreejith on January 6, 2010, 16:14 GMT

    edygriff21, 1.Australia's rebuilding sides rely so heavily on Ponting's batting - Australia has won their last four tests without any remarkable contribution from Ponting's Bat.This has never happened with Sachin and India .Just imagine the pressure on him carrying the team on their shoulders for most of theircareer (90s).2.he'll still pass Tendulkars records unless India just keep playing Bangledesh.-India is Playing a Test against Bangaladesh after 3 years.If you think that Sachin only scores heavily against minnows, Just see his average against the world conquering Australia in the last 2 decades.Has not Ponting played against Banglades and Zimbabwe? 3.If you beleive that Sachin scores heavily on flat indian wickets where it is easy to bat, what is ponting's average in India?4.Tendulkar averaged less than 50, 4 out of the last 7 years-But dont forget he played 20 years and still averages 54+ which after steadily climbing down from 58 at his peak.what was ponting's avareage in 90s

  • Leonard on January 6, 2010, 8:09 GMT

    It maybe true that the Aussies went through a rough patch in 2009, but they were by far the best team in the world, both as a team and man for man! The only team that did better than Australia of 2009 is pre-2009 Australia. Ricky's record as a batsman and captain speaks for itself, so does Johnson's record for 2009. If anything 2009 showed that they're not invincible, but they're the only team in the world with class and the ability to sustain it over long periods of time. The whole world may not like it, but it is the reality and it is only a matter of time before they're back to where they belong. India is just keeping it warm (plus few tests in 2010) and SA..well ask Swann!!

  • Ian on January 6, 2010, 7:29 GMT

    Hey Peter, test cricket isn't always a case of world beaters or losers! Australia has chipped away over the years, and fortunately been able to develop psychological, skill and experience advantages over most teams until more recently when they lost a number of skilled and experienced players. Some of the less experienced and less skilled players now playing will become long term champions and others will simply do their best while they are selected - all anyone can ask. Defeating South Africa (a much more experienced and talented team at present) was a wonderful achievement, and demonstrated the psychological strength of the Australians. The current Aussies will lose a few more series over the next few years, but remember the so called champion Aussies lost in England and usually lost in India. As for Ponting - I hope he now starts to bat at 4 or 5, and can anyone name a better number 5 in world test cricket?

  • Gajan on January 6, 2010, 7:29 GMT

    Great read Peter! Not the best of times as a 14 year old Aussie supporter, but there have been so many positives from the year, in young players such as Phillip Hughes, Callum Ferguson and Peter Siddle. I still reckon Ponting's got the skill and temperament to lead us for a few more years, and return to his run scoring best.

  • Warden on January 6, 2010, 7:18 GMT

    Re: Starjay. What have you been smoking???? India will be decimated in the next 2/3 years with the retirements of their greats. With Indian cricket so focused on T20, their ODI and Test form will suffer as well. Sri Lanka will sorely miss Murili and Jayasria. Aussies and England are well into rebuilding and the SA are similarly placed. As for Ponting, he just needs to do what Greg Chappell did and move down to 5 or 6 to prolong his career. Right off Ponting at your own peril!!!

  • Gav on January 5, 2010, 17:44 GMT

    Ponting still has plenty left in his tank, in my view (barring the current injury becoming chronic). But the last 3 years (not having world greats to take the pressure off and his struggles against Harbhajan, Ishant and Roach) have shown why he isn't a Lara or Tendulkar. For Australia, this was definitely a mixed year ...but it could have been decent had they just managed to win at Cardiff!

  • Rishi on January 5, 2010, 12:16 GMT

    Ricky is a great batsman. The availability of great bowlers like McGrath and Warne ensured that the opposition was always under pressure. So when he went out to bat, he could bat freely and with utmost confidence. But the situation has changed now. His mind is pre-occupied on how to get 20 opposition wickets with a inexperienced bowling line up - and that is affecting his batting performance. He is therefore past his prime and inteliigent opposition bowlers will surely make out how to get him out cheap.

  • Rohan on January 5, 2010, 11:43 GMT

    Can't help but feel Australia is suffering a little by comparing its team now to what it was when it had India, South Africa and of course the Poms for breakfast regularly. There is no need to belittle their achievements in 2009 by adding unnecessary addendums such as losing by an innings in Cape Town. Beating South Africa at home when no one gave them a hope, especially journalists, was a massive effort. By Cape Town the job was done, who cares what happened? Does South Africa care they lost in SYdney? Do you Mr. English mention that when talking about their great achievement in winning in Australia? No. Finishing 2009 as best one day side is amazing, what does it matter whether there is doubt over the future of 50 over cricket? Everyone is still playing it now, India would still love to have beaten the Aussies to be able to gloat just that little bit more. For all the bluster, the Ashes should have ended 2-all but for the Cardiff escape. Suddenly 2009 doesn't look half bad does it?!!

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