May 2, 2013

Don't write off Australia just yet

Dynasties are frequently built from the depths of humiliation. A nip here, a tuck there, and Australia could pose a serious threat

The Australian cricket team of the late 1990s and early 2000s, the West Indian cricket team of the 1980s, Liverpool FC around the same time, and the Welsh rugby team from the '70s: what do these exceptional sporting dynasties have in common? A dramatic fall from grace, of course, a collapso so dramatico that the journey back, the summit once so easily conquered, must appear only as an apparition.

The creation of a dynasty is one thing, its maintenance quite another (ask JR Ewing), but to sustain one, well that's a different, and often impossible, trick. West Indian cricket had no infrastructure. Out of disparate territories abounding with natural flair came a fluke. As Sir Frank Worrell had done some years earlier, Clive Lloyd seized the moment with a collection of dazzling fast bowlers and proud batsmen all born within a tick of one another, eager to speak to the world. The cricketers who followed were lazy, or to put it more kindly, laissez-faire. Being that good is difficult and the next generation - less talented by definition - didn't like difficult. So they went back to the beach.

Liverpool's slide is less easily explained, Neither has it truly been a "collapso". But it does bear scrutiny. The club's general ordinariness since Bill Shankly and Bob Paisley - Hughes, Hansen, Thompson, Dalglish and Rush - can only be down to management, in both boardroom and bootroom. The age of commerce confused a culture born in that bootroom. More players were bought and fewer developed, so the inherent standards and sense of unity that had driven performance were diminished. Oh for my Keegan and Callaghan of long ago…

The Welsh? Well, let's go with the fluke theory. They washed us with pleasure, and led those of us growing up at the time to believe that rugby was a thing of beauty. We couldn't see inside the Pontypool front row but we heard Max Boyce sing about it. We couldn't feel the power of Mervyn Davies but we heard South Africans talk in awe. Yet with our own eyes we bore witness to the speed and genius of Gareth Edwards, Barry John and Phil Bennett, of JJ and JPR Williams, Gerald Davies and John Dawes. They made us dream though rugby is not for dreamers. These fine men retired and reality set in. The gene pool was exhausted. Those who followed had no chance.

The real conundrum though is Australian cricket. What on earth happened? Immigrants and the AFL, perhaps: fewer Warners and Clarkes, more Katiches and Henriqueses. Once upon a time the fleets brought new Aussies from England - "the daftest thing you blokes ever did was sending us here and keeping that place for yourself". Fair call. Now the talk is about immigrants from Italy, Greece, Lebanon, the Middle East, China, Japan, and the Pacific Islands. Not much cricket anywhere there. It's a slow drip but has started. Maybe Indians will save the day.

Aussie Rules football and Rugby League pay well. Maybe the best athletes are attracted to them. Odd as it might sound, and obvious exceptions are excluded, the present Australian side has neither especially good catchers or ground fielders. It is a worry. So is the lost art of batsmanship. And so is the lack of bowlers who spin the ball.

Much of man's strength is derived from situations that appear hopeless. Desire, desperation, hunger - all the clichéd words that apply to warriors and sportsmen are clichéd for a reason. Stuff happens

The T20 Big Bash is an obsession. Last summer Warney and Hoggy, both 40-plus, wheeled away. The Sheffield Shield is shrinking from public perception. A living is available from the short form but it is a living, not a love. And the injuries! And the uncertainty over selection. And Michael Hussey's unexpected retirement - how that hurt his captain - and a suggestion that Ricky Ponting might be called back, and so on and so forth. Oh, and Shane Watson and "the homework four". Logic, or good old-fashioned common sense, has gone AWOL. And yet the bookies make it no more extreme than 3-1 against winning back the Ashes. There's no chance. Probably.

Let's think. Australia do have a good captain, which is a start. And they do have fast bowlers, though the odds of the best set staying on the park for longer than the time it takes Jonathan Trott to mark his guard are not good. Michael Clarke's herculean form must continue but the smile better disappear. Remember Allan Border in England in 1989? All grumpy and no one's mate, when he was actually everyone's mate but would not allow it to be so.

That team of 1989 was the worst on paper to have left Australian shores, they said. That's until this one leaves. Rather like 1958, when Peter May's England arrived in Australia with the best side ever, yes ever! So the Aussies were no-hopers on each occasion. The results? 4-0 to Australia both times. You don't play on paper. Clarke better stop being nice to people and get dirty. Either that or he must find Richie Benaud's Midas touch.

Imagine England with Kevin Pietersen's knee in a post-operative brace, and Graeme Swann's elbow in a sling. In other words imagine the England who were in New Zealand. Imagine a niggling muscle strain that haunts James Anderson, and see a canvas without Alastair Cook at his unforgiving best. It's sounding a bit different now, huh. Imagine Clarke winning a couple of crucial tosses, David Warner coming off, and Brad Haddin clinging to everything. Imagine everyone imagining the unimaginable. See the mood change. Assume nothing, assumption is the mother.

Dynasties are frequently built from the depths of humiliation. Much of man's strength is derived from situations that appear hopeless. Desire, desperation, hunger - all the clichéd words that apply to warriors and sportsmen are clichéd for a reason. Stuff happens.

Rather than a rebuilding, Australian cricket needs a renovation. No, do not write off Australia just yet. South Africa made that mistake in Brisbane and Adelaide late last year. First the rain, then injury to James Pattinson and then Faf du Plessis' most amazing hour, nay day, denied Clarke his moment. What has significantly changed since? Only the retirement of Michael Hussey. Ponting was shot anyway. The tour of India is a red herring when compared to a tour of England.

So that's it Pup. Plug the Hussey hole and sell the value of the baggy green like you have never sold it before. Australians have cricket in their soul. The present lot just need to find it, to understand that it won't come easy, and it won't come with money or celebrity. Once they do, Australia won't be as far off the pace as the lip-licking critics suggest.

Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel 9 in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK