May 6, 2012

A year of reckoning awaits Australia

Series against South Africa, India and England will severely test their inconsistent batting line-up

After a dramatic slide in the rankings following two Ashes beatings and a lost series in India, Australia are once again on the rise. But while satisfying overseas wins against Sri Lanka and West Indies aren't ironclad proof that a revitalised Australian side has improved dramatically, the definitive answer about the extent of improvement will be known soon enough.

Australia have tough series looming against South Africa, India and England. What will give them hope in this daunting schedule is the emergence of a promising pace attack under the aggressive captaincy of Michael Clarke. Despite this vital ingredient to victory being in place, the key to Australia winning consistently will be the performance of the batsmen.

The challenges of playing India and England on their home turf are testing for the best batting sides. But before that, Australia's inconsistent batting line-up will be pitted against a strong South African pace attack on the bouncy Gabba and WACA pitches. Christmas could come early for Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and the thriving Vernon Philander when the series is concluded in Perth on December 4.

To ensure the batting examination is thorough, in February-March, Australia will face the torture test by spin in India. That will be followed by perhaps the most demanding scrutiny of all, against an England attack that is the most complete in world cricket in their home conditions. Jimmy Anderson and a raft of fellow pacemen are a handful in England, especially if the ball is swinging, and Australia will also be probed and prodded by the best spinner in the game, Graeme Swann.

Even if the offspin-challenged Australian line-up survives South Africa and India, Swann, who has a history of devouring left-hand batsmen, will face four of those in the top seven. In a series where the Australians have to win to regain the Ashes, the customary cricketer's farewell of "good luck" to a batsman departing the dressing room will have extra emphasis.

If the Australians take the positive outlook, and they generally do, they'll be thinking: "When we've overcome the Indian spinners we'll be perfectly prepared for anything Swann can deliver." Not necessarily true, as Swann is far better than any current Indian offspinner, but a worthy sentiment nonetheless.

The inference from India - though not from their players - following the 4-0 drubbing in Australia was that the Australians will be confronted by pitches that assist spinners. While I despise the sentiment that pitch preparation should be dictated by anyone other than ground staff, the Australian batsmen can't say they weren't warned.

The Australians shouldn't be too fearful of what they'll face in India because Harbhajan Singh is not at his peak and his successors are yet to strike fear into the heart of a player proficient against spin. However, the fact that part-time offspinner Narsingh Deonarine had success in the Caribbean should give the Australians cause for some concern.

There's no doubt that a fully stocked Australian pace attack should keep their team in the game against South Africa and England. Whether they can be effective under Indian conditions is a question still to be answered.

However, the failure to produce young batting talent has meant the line-up is still heavily reliant on ageing stars Ricky Ponting and Michael Hussey. Ponting is already at the point where, although he can still make runs in Test cricket, consistency and dominance are a thing of the past. Hussey has been a remarkable contributor, which suggests his entry into the international arena was delayed too long, but he's now entering the age bracket where decline can imitate an avalanche.

Australian cricket has shown over the years it has a remarkable ability to regenerate quickly. This attribute will be fully tested in the next 12 months as the batsmen will face a thorough examination and in all likelihood readymade replacements will be required.

Former Australia captain Ian Chappell is now a cricket commentator and columnist