July 24, 2013

A tale of two depths

Despite the regular despair of the 1980s, there was honour in watching Australia's struggles back then

One of the hardest parts of watching an Ashes tour from Australia is the decision of when to go to bed. During the second Test the choice was easy. "I'll just wait till Phil Hughes gets out," I replied to my wife on Sunday night after watching his first prods at Graeme Swann. We both knew sleep wouldn't be long - and it wasn't.

Australian spectators are not enjoying this unflattering stage of the cycle, with its spin from brilliantly baggy to disastrously saggy. Of course, many younger fans who grew up in the fairest of weather weren't alive to recall the lows that set the base for all those memorable highs. In hindsight, the early 1980s were an awful time to start a cricket-watching career, although it didn't always feel so bad. Not when the mighty West Indians were crushing Australia in what felt like every summer. Or even when Tim Robinson, Chris Broad or Graham Dilley were made to look like Ashes Goliaths.

Those Australian teams always seemed like they were trying, even when they might not have been. Tales of off-field infighting, which occurred through a series of terrible Ashes trips around this time, didn't emerge through court documents. They seeped out, often after the tour was over. Still, nobody pretended the side was just one victory from the return of the glory days. They were players with some perspective too.

On the field the team was always sweating, clothes were dirty from diving, and together they were committed to dismantling the opposition, even if that only happened once or twice a series. When Craig McDermott, then 19, huffed and puffed eight wickets in the fourth Test of the 1985 Ashes, it felt like watching the start of a long success story, not a one-off tale. If any current bowler matches his 30 wickets from that campaign, he must be Australia's Player of the Series.

Back in the 1980s, when the players came out from lunch or tea, they didn't have their hair freshly spiked, or their moustaches manicured. Nobody commented on the way they walked through the hotel or how perfect their preparation had been. When the days were bad, and there were many, the repetitive one-word post-mortem rhymed with "suck". Homework was completed over hours in the nets and on the outfield.

Despite the regular despair, there was honour in watching Australia's struggles back then. A trio of greats had retired and the South African rebel tours had shredded the support group. This team of battlers kept battling. The "I'll-just-wait-till-Allan-Border-gets-out-before-going-to-bed" excuse never worked with my mum. Firstly, he never seemed to get out. Not overtly pretty, always just beard-bristling effective. (Which is a little mean, since he retired as Test cricket's leading run scorer.) Secondly, when he was dismissed, it was best if the children were in bed. His stares and bad moods were fierce, even to friendly fire.

Always remember how bad things were, then enjoy the good times. It was a popular refrain as Australia stepped towards world domination under Taylor and Waugh

During an Ashes tour game in 1993, Border yelled and swore at McDermott just because he answered back at the end of an over. If the attitude of one of the world's finest fast men didn't change he'd be swinging straight home. No QC hearings or appeals processes. No evidence by sanitised press release. Just brutal summary. And that was during the great days. Yep, we loved watching AB. Now even he's embarrassed by Australia's top order.

By the Border-McDermott spray, Australia had escaped the 1980s depression and avoided any fall back into recession. In Border's leadership shadow stepped Geoff Marsh, Mark Taylor and the Waughs, as well as McDermott, Ian Healy, David Boon and Merv Hughes. There was a World Cup win in 1987 and the 1989 Ashes triumph, which was sealed with raised arms on the Old Trafford* balcony and bright eyes across drowsy towns throughout Australia. Towards the end of Border's reign came Shane Warne, who still raves about his first Test captain. All these men were of their own creation, but ones who carried the spirit of AB.

Always remember how bad things were, then enjoy the good times. It was a popular refrain as Australia stepped towards world domination under Taylor and Waugh. It wasn't as much a secret code as an earned one, passed to Ricky Ponting, Glenn McGrath, Adam Gilchrist, Jason Gillespie, Justin Langer and Co. The ones who had watched the horror days but hadn't been ruined by them. One thing was clear: they definitely didn't want to go back there. Neither did the spectators.

For more than a decade, the attitude drove Australia so far above their opponents that second in the world was a satisfying position. The team was so strong that formidable domestic players could not earn a regular place. It's what makes watching Chris Rogers so fraught. For all the glory years, Rogers was ready to break through but received only a one-match chance. Now the gate has finally opened, he lines up, aged 35, in an outfit resembling New Zealand at their floppiest. In this warped universe it's no wonder that full tosses and straight balls are so potent.

Towards the end of the line of fabled cricket whisperers were Michael Clarke and Michael Hussey. Now that Hussey is gone, Clarke carries the combination, but it seems the ears of others are blocked.

During the Lord's Test, Steve Waugh and McGrath rang the bell at the start of the day. If you were searching for symbolic insight, it did not feel like the obvious tolling for Australia. It was more about these past greats clanging the current crop of players around the head. The T20 twentysomethings have it so easy thanks to men like Waugh and McGrath, who worked so hard. The ones who started off by attempting to win games over five days, not in 40 overs. Men who gained respect by batting through a day for a century, or who bowled through niggles in their hips, calves or hamstrings. Tough cricketers in step with the nation's sporting priorities.

When they were playing there wasn't trepidation if you woke after drifting off past midnight. Switch on the radio and discover who had done what. Checking the phone in the morning after Lord's in the past week was more for a report of the wounded than about rising with any expectation.

The 1980s nadir has now been replaced by a series of Ashes stains. First it was 2005, then 2009, 2010-11 and 2013. There's still 2013-14 to come. At least during Lord's there was the chance to switch over to watch Richie Porte in the Tour de France or Adam Scott at Muirfield. There are still three Tests to go and an entire summer left in Australia. There won't be cycling or golf or rugby or knitting on every week.

So Australia's supporters will have to watch quite a lot of this. It won't be fun, it might be character building. These things do go in cycles, don't they?

*07:30:38 GMT, July 24, 2013: The article originally said Trent Bridge

Peter English is a writer based in Brisbane, and the former Australasia editor of ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Jurie on July 27, 2013, 15:58 GMT

    Yip, switch over and watch Scott make 4 bogeys in a row, and watch a Pom win Le Tour! Nice alternatives!

  • Wayne on July 25, 2013, 6:32 GMT

    Although it's frustrating and hard to watch, I can honestly say that the Oz cricket team has given me a lot more joy over the years than my beloved underachieving football side, the mighty Fremantle Dockers. When you are Dockers supporter it is a lot easier to accept mediocrity. Average players like Kepler Bradley are revered and celebrated by Freo fans. As a life long cricket tragic it is lot harder to accept mediocrity from the Australian cricket team. Of course I remember what it was like when Murray Bennett was our spinner, but hey that was nearly 30 years ago. The truth is we all got spoilt. We loved seeing our opponents get chewed up and spat out. The shoe is now on the other foot. I hope we can all suck it up and enjoy the journey. It will make the good times even more sweeter. My advice to Peter English is to turn down the volume, watch the pictures and make sure their are no objects lying around that can be thrown at the TV.

  • Dummy4 on July 25, 2013, 1:45 GMT

    You journos make me laugh......thanks captain obvious for your in depth analysis....what would have made this article good is if it was written 3 years ago. Its only now you jump up and down on the grave when you can back it up with losses to fortify your argument. I was saying all this years ago when it wasnt popular to vilify the new breed of peaheart cricketers we now have the disgust of watching play. Ryan Harris is the ONLY cricketer playing for Australia who can say he is actually an 'australian' player. The rest are pathetic including those not even in the team but doing a "contrived" purgatory in SA.

  • Syed Ammar on July 24, 2013, 22:32 GMT

    I believe the demise of the Australian team started with T20 cricket. Before T20 came along, the aussies would just clean sweep everything whether test or ODI and they had good players coming one after the other. Even there great team was not able to cope with the requirements of winning T20 and thats when the experimentation with the team started.

    I believe Australia never recovered from that, an evil genius conspiracy ;).

  • Senthil on July 24, 2013, 20:48 GMT

    What Australia need is inspiration from one player in each department. One batsman that can look comfortable against Anderson and Swann. One bowler who can trouble all batsmen through 5 days. Clarke and Siddle are not doing a Border and McDermott. I remember the 2001 Border Gavaskar Trophy. Laxman was still not established then and Harbhajan Singh was still young. But they were the inspiration for the amazing turn around of Indian cricket.

  • Dummy4 on July 24, 2013, 19:38 GMT

    @Cranky I have a feeling the cricketer may be David Warner or am I not seeing the whole picture. I thought the punch showed more than the batting lineup has showed over the first two tests.

  • Balaji on July 24, 2013, 16:44 GMT

    CrankyofCroydon, who will that be? Chappell and Border were players who were good enough to be an automatic selection in those teams. I can't see a single player in this bunch, who will be an automatic selection. Most of these guys are in the team, not because of their performance, but because they are the best of a mediocre lot, whereas Chappell and Border were already established players. As of now, the only established batsman is Clarke. One more guy who gets marks for effort is Siddle. Ryan Harris is a fine bowler, but he is fragile. 2 out of 11 is a pretty dismal place to start. You need at least 2 more guys to start off with.

  • Gopalakrishna on July 24, 2013, 15:02 GMT

    There is nothing to worry, Everything has a life cycle. So is a cricket team's greatness. Australian cricket team has to learn from itself, All they need is dodginess that would defy the odds. Like Shane Watson has to play long innings.One thing is for sure unless they show that charecter they will not win against even Bangladesh. As of this series is concerned Australia fieled less players compared to England. England has more experience and better players, why don't we agree to that. The current crop of players from Australia are in-experienced and young. They have to prove their greatness and players like Warne, Waughs and Ponting, Gilchrest, Mc Grath are once in a life time players. You don't expect them come up every now and then.In my openion Ausies themselves have never produed such dominnet team ever with such players.

  • Dummy4 on July 24, 2013, 14:41 GMT

    @Geoffrey Anthony: Well said. Ricky Ponting's captaincy statistics flatter him immensely. The team succeeded by and large because of the quality of his players, not through Ponting's tactical nous. When the team was required to rebuild, he was shown to lack several basic captaincy essentials. He was reactive and followed the ball. As you say, this left a rotten legacy for Australia as they didn't really know where to go.

    Stephen Fleming, Michael Vaughan, Graeme Smith, Sourav Ganguly, Darren Sammy, Misbah-ul-Haq and Mahela Jayawardene are all vastly superior captains to Ponting.

  • Tom on July 24, 2013, 14:39 GMT

    Great article. I think it's worth casting an eye over the team in the other dressing room, too. These are players who, like the great Australians, endured over a decade of rubbishness, some of whom were involved in the humiliation of 2006-7 and knew they could do better. It looks rather like it's come full circle again, and England are exacting revenge for the dark years of Aussie dominance. 1985 has been thrown around a lot in relation to this series; the question is whether this series can be a "1985 moment" for Australia, when they turn around their flagging fortunes and begin a process of rebuilding, or whether it's a "1995 moment" and they collapse into nothing like the West Indies, with only sporadic ODI and T20 success to keep them alive. There's a worry that the key skills needed to pull off a resurgence have been eroded, but it's not clear how true that is, yet. What is clear is that, as well as Clarke and Lehmann and Howard, somebody at the CA has to notice and do something.

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