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A tale of two depths

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

Peter English

July 24, 2013

Comments: 24 | Text size: A | A

Allan Border watches the match against Worcestershire, Australia tour of England, May 1989
Australia now have a top order that can embarrass even a hardy, seen-it-all campaigner like Border Adrian Murrell / © Getty Images
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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

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Posted by Kirstenfan 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!

Posted by LoungeChairCritic 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.

Posted by   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.

Posted by AmmarZ84 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 ;).

Posted by lihtness 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.

Posted by   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.

Posted by balajik1968 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.

Posted by chitti_cricket 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.

Posted by   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.

Posted by Deuce03 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.

Posted by   on (July 24, 2013, 12:50 GMT)

Great article! I actually think the rot started to set in when Ponting took over as captain. Tactically and tactfully inept, he left no legacy for the younger Aussie players to emulate. If Gilchrist or Warne had been made captain instead of him, Aussie cricket would still be pre-eminent.

Posted by Tom_Bowler on (July 24, 2013, 10:08 GMT)

I see nameless of facebook is seeking solace and prospecting for nuggets hope in the old canard that England are a one man attack. In itself this is a pretty spectacular volte face as many Aussie fans used to proclaim Jimmy a one trick pony who would never succeed outside of England, now his excellence is universally accepted they suggest that he alone does the job with the ball. Jimmy is clearly the main man but at Lords Swann, Broad and Bresnan all outbowled him despite his customary high standards being maintained. Broad's figures were particularly poor reward for his graft although I suspect Pup's paddle off Root had something to do with his brain being scrambled by the vicious working over he got from the Earl of the Outside Edge. You can see why some Aussie fans like to argue England are a one man team, even when it flies in the face of the evidence, that aside they've got precious little to hope for.

Posted by RG2008 on (July 24, 2013, 9:14 GMT)

Great article. I still remember watching some of those historic wins over that marauding Windies team of the 80s at the SCG. Very rarely did I get the impression that the team wasn't trying or lacked ticker. Obviously the current team are not nearly as talented (compared to the more recent past) and I can accept losing if you feel like the team has given its all - with a few exceptions (Siddle springs to mind) I don't feel that way about the current side. Most of the cricket loving public would give their right arm to play for Australia - would Shane Watson?

Posted by YorkshirePudding on (July 24, 2013, 9:02 GMT)

@TATTUs, acutally they have a good spinner but they havent played him as they thought a Left-handed spinner would be better against Right handers.

but when you look at Lyons stats around 80% of his wickets have been right handers, 58 from 76. I have to say Lehmann Screwed up in a big way including Agar for the first two tests, unless Lyon has an injury we dont know about.

Posted by TATTUs on (July 24, 2013, 8:41 GMT)

It seems everyone outside the CA is trying to get either a Border or 'those' set of players and 'that' character because its a trough and are of the feeling that they have grasped the reality. With Lehmann in charge they just got more expectant of 'that' character. While the CA is trying to get another Warne while they can out of every bowler and they seem to have not much of an option of finding even a Langer[!]. They are also trying to get an Flintoff. The fact is nobody is quite sure of what is the best for the current lot or what these guys are capable of. Aussies apparently have a pretty good bowling line up minus a spinner. They also have a pretty good keeper. The batting, well the less said about it the better. It seems Aussies somehow need to find a batting unit that can BAT TIME stress on batting time and SURVIVING out there for a few 100 balls. Best they can do is to forget everything else and just bat time. Try and bat for 5 days even if it means boring and a draw.

Posted by   on (July 24, 2013, 7:54 GMT)

I think this is not the rock-bottom as McGrath will have us believe, there will be more disasters before the light is seen at the horizon. Thankfully the pace bowling unit is functional else it would have been difficult to beat the top Associate nations with this line up. The saddest thing is as Ponting said the other day this is the best that we have contrary to what some people may say and we must stick with them cause when your best is not good enough there isn't much that you can do.

Posted by ToneMalone on (July 24, 2013, 7:45 GMT)

Very interesting insight by @CrankyofCroydon, who also flagged Australia's slump circa 1970: "If the cycle is true, the captain that gets us out of this wont be Clarke. Like Lawry and Hughes, the best bat in the side will be replaced by a less talented cricketer, with a tougher character."

Could well be proven true - I just hope that tougher character comes through before Clarke goes! Chappelli and AB both had a solid technique as well as inner steel. The current lot seem to have maybe one of those attributes - but not both.

Posted by Chris_Howard on (July 24, 2013, 7:19 GMT)

@CrankyofCroydon Very insightful on the next captain. My worry is there's no one playing for Australia at the moment who is "less talented cricketer, with a tougher character"

At least Border and Chappell were already there and ready. I can't see any "Captain Grumpy" in our current lineup.

The other concern is, in the old days, the captain could be tough ass. Now he has to be namby-pamby touchy-feely don't-hurt-anyones-feelings. Otherwise they'll run screaming to twitter and get plenty of sympathy.

Posted by Thegimp on (July 24, 2013, 6:53 GMT)

.....Also coupling with the fact that this generation of cricketers are a group of privileged princes, brought up through the ranks of underage representative teams, wrapped in platitudes and touted for fame and success. I don't think our system allows for Brawlers like Border, Waugh and Punter, non of them with the determination and baseline character to throw a punch at the oposit...........Oh no....... wait......there is one!!! LOL

Posted by jackdaw on (July 24, 2013, 5:26 GMT)

The pain of this Ashes tour culminating so far with Lords is at least producing some fine thinking with articles like yours Peter. Australian fans like I come from an era where this piece stems from, when AB dug in, growled "enough is enough" and eventually stopped the rot that was Australian cricket post Packer. I see similarities to now which WSC only deferred back then. A new era of players, new forms of cricket introduced but dilution of the character necessary to lead, dominate and ultimately win Tests with both bat and ball. This announcement by CA of an extended BBL season just sums it all up right now. Australia need tough men that are preapared to bat maturely through fractured fingers and bruises and help our bowlers maintain their passion. Because if they don't and if Clarke cannot inspire and elevate them as a group, we may as well call it a day here in the UK. England and their many followers whilst triumphant are truly shocked at how inept we are and thin our options seem

Posted by 4test90 on (July 24, 2013, 5:23 GMT)

Sorry Peter but your memory fails - the '89 Ashes triumph was not on the Trent Bridge balcony - it was in fact at Old Trafford.

Posted by CrankyofCroydon on (July 24, 2013, 4:55 GMT)

Been through the cycle twice, commenced watching cricket in 1972.

You are right, the grim determination to scrap through adversity. Chappelli and Border both inherited disasters and through work built world champion teams.

If they cycle is true, the captain that gets us out of this wont be Clarke. Like Lawry and Hughes, the best bat in the side will be replaced by a less talented cricketer, with a tougher character.

Posted by   on (July 24, 2013, 4:35 GMT)

This is a great article and I grew up with those bad old days, of repeated floggings at the hands of NZ, England and West Indies. It seems every ex England cricketer is lining up to laud their team and damn the Australians. Botham, Vaughan, Smith etc. What''s been quickly forgotten is England were a wicket from a series loss in NZ and Australia a rainy day and a wicket from beating the world number 1 6 months ago. England are a James Anderson back stress fracture from draws v Australia and maybe a tough series down under. The England chest beating suits me now, because they're too reliant on too few at the moment.

Posted by Thegimp on (July 24, 2013, 4:31 GMT)

I think we are in for a decade of pain Peter, like the West Indies had a number of "Once in a Generation" cricketers in Richards, Lloyd, Holding, Greenich, Haynes, Gomes, Marshall & Roberts with a fine support cast of above average cricketers, Australia have had Warne, Waughs, Ponting, Gilchrist, McGrath & Hayden also with a fine group of support cast in Langer, Martin, Gillespie and co. These guys we currently have in England are the best we have at the moment and probably for a few years to come and like the English players of the 90s they are likely to carry the scars that will be inflicted upon them for a decade to come.

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