October 15, 2010

Australia find the boot on the other foot

In this series a once all-conquering side found themselves being presented with questions they had often asked of others in the past

I feel like I've been invited to dinner, been offered a drink and starter, and then been thanked in the doorway by the host for coming. Two-Test series are neither here nor there, especially between two quality teams. They create a sense of anticipation and suddenly they are gone. This series was a wonderful opportunity to study teams and attitudes; it was like a laboratory that is rarely accessible. And now we must wait.

Australia found things happening to them in this series that they regularly dished out to opponents when they were playing such wonderful cricket; they were being asked questions that they used to interrogate others with, and I was waiting to see what answers they had.

Australia's strength has always been their attitude. They are admirable fighters, but with things stacked against them, with the aura diminishing, that would have been tested. Even a third Test would have told me if Australia had it in them to bounce back, to see if someone put his hand up and supported Ponting, who was both admirable and gracious.

Australia's strength in their prime was that they won the big moments, always found a player to chip in at the right time. Inevitably on a long tour of Australia (haven't you ever wondered why the Aussies have never done a two-month tour of India like other teams do in the Australian summer?), the opposition will find itself a bowler short, be reduced to a couple of key batsmen, even find a critical game-changing decision go against them. This is not to insinuate anything; champions inevitably seem to get the fifty-fifty decisions in their favour.

Here in India, in a two-Test series, they fell short at the big moments. They were a strike bowler short when it mattered on the last day in Mohali; short also after a good opening partnership on the fourth day in Bangalore, when they needed someone to build on the lead, and on the last morning, when they needed runs and time in equal measure. A poor decision, which if it were right could have won them a game, came along too.

Teams playing Australia when they were in their prime often discovered that they could compete for 80% of the time and lose overwhelmingly. It is something Roger Federer's or Tiger Woods' opponents could have claimed as well. Australia did better than 80% here and were still down 0-2. A third Test would have tested their resilience. We would have known if they bleed like others, who are used to having to enter a game with hopelessness as their shadow.

Australia's great players won them matches, the aura they generated won them many more. Now they are shorn of both, though still possessed of a fighting spirit

Or else, of course, we would have discovered whether they had it in them to come storming back and bring the series down to 2-1. And - and this is equally important - we would have learnt if India could play like a No. 1 side, able to crush an opponent when down, to take away hope, to inflict wounds that take long to heal.

Australia's aura is gone. It was inevitable after the loss of one of the greatest collection of cricketers to play the game. Outside of the big five, Matthew Hayden, Ponting, Adam Gilchrist, Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath, and Steve Waugh before them, Australia possessed players of extraordinary ability: Justin Langer, Damien Martyn, Brett Lee, Stuart MacGill, Jason Gillespie. Now leave out Ponting and they have none. Michael Hussey is a fine personality but seems in decline, and Michael Clarke hasn't yet become a Ponting. The bowling is inexperienced and spinners rare to find. The great players won them matches, the aura they generated won them many more. Now Australia are shorn of both, though still possessed of a fighting spirit.

India, 11 points clear at No. 1 now, showed the power of positive thinking. With 478 before them in Bangalore, they played for a win; with 92 to get in Mohali and No. 10 in, they trusted the tailender; and on the last day the captain sent a rookie out to go and find his place in the world. So often it is the thoughts that determine action. India thought positively and hence they played positively.

Their batting looks good in home conditions but the bowling has no bench strength. New Zealand in these conditions and with this mindset shouldn't pose a huge challenge but South Africa away will.

The Ashes, to see if Australia can arrest their decline, and the tour of South Africa to see if India can conquer a peak: December and January should be great months for cricket lovers. And neither of those is a drinks-and-starters kind of dinner invitation.

Harsha Bhogle is a commentator, television presenter and writer. His Twitter feed is here