January 6, 2014

Australia's success a testament to immense will

The 5-0 scoreline speaks of a desperation so strong that players might have imploded had success not been achieved

Darren Lehmann and Michael Clarke began to orchestrate their home Ashes campaign even as they were losing the previous series © Getty Images

It was appropriate that when the final catch was taken, the ball settled in Michael Clarke's hands. The best teams play in the image of their captain and Australia found a compelling blend of adventure and aggression to wipe the floors of their proud land with a bunch of forlorn England cricketers. Never can five matches between two teams backed at even money when the series began have become so one-sided. The margins of defeat bear repetition - 281 runs, 8 wickets, 150 runs, 218 runs, and 381 runs. They are devastating. Numb in defeat, Alastair Cook issued an apology to the many fans who had made the pilgrimage of support.

Clarke's achievement lists him with Warwick Armstrong and Ricky Ponting as the only captains to lead five-nil whitewashes in Ashes history. Cook said it was the best bowling attack he had faced. Clarke called it the best in the world, which will fire up some South Africans on February 12th, when the teams meet in Pretoria. Australia's captain also explained the way in which Darren Lehmann had improved the dressing room. Their relationship, and the contrasting strengths at its core, is close to ideal for the development of a cricket team. It is not unlike the one forged by Michael Vaughan and Duncan Fletcher. In 2005, England played a brand of cricket that surprised Australia in a fine, and at times excruciatingly tense, series that led to the recovery of the Ashes after 16 years. This time it was England who were surprised, or should we say shocked, and who suffered a memorable defeat. Australia had to wait a mere four years for redemption. If only it had been excruciatingly tense.

In the weeks leading up to the first Test in Brisbane, Clarke was under near-unbearable pressure. Ponting had criticised his commitment to the team ethic in his book, while Michael Hussey, in a volume of his own, had insinuated not all was well in "the rooms". The public were sick of losing Test matches and of the back chat. The team was accused of a soft underbelly. Clarke's captaincy was mistrusted, mainly because Australia prefers its sporting heroes a little rougher around the edges. In a startling interview, that captain promised the return of the Ashes but few, if any, believed the fulfilling of such wild ambition to be possible.

From 132 for 6 on the first day at the Gabba, Australia recovered to 295. Not riches, but runs to play with at least. Clarke had been bounced out by Stuart Broad, the worst possible dismissal for a high-class batsman and/or captain because it encourages the opponent to gloat. It was the last English gloat of the summer, for the tables were to turn with indecent haste and to stunning effect. Two hundred and ninety-five proved more than enough as Mitchell Johnson and the rest of Australia's scavenging pack tore Cook's over-confident team to shreds. England managed 136 between them on a blameless pitch. With that substantial first-innings advantage, David Warner went out to play. Reformed, if not quite bible belt yet, this strong and compact streetfighter licked his lips as England licked their wounds. Warner's bullying strokeplay was every bit a barometer of Australian joy as Johnson's searing pace and snarling confrontation.

At the other end Clarke was easing the ball into wide Gabba spaces with one small change to his technique - the movement a little back and across as a trigger to his otherwise exemplary method - and one big change to his approach. From that back foot he took on the short ball, and by the time England worked out they had been duped, the Australian captain had bolted. If England thought they were in a contest, they were wrong. From there on, the contest was over. Johnson's opening salvo became an ongoing assault. The tide had turned irrevocably.

Of all modern captains, only Vaughan and Mark Taylor could match Clarke's imagination and attention to forensic detail. Barely a trick was missed during a campaign in which smart field settings matched intelligent bowling and brilliant catching. Never once did Australia get ahead of themselves, preferring to attend to the needs of the moment with a level head and some old-fashioned common sense. Clarke spoke well to, and about, his team, admitting imperfections and applauding excellence.

Now England will need to find the same commitment. It must come from within and must first be the responsibility of every England cricketer to examine his own part in the failing and his path to ensure he is never so exposed again

Apparently Lehmann has insisted that everyone enjoy their cricket, which is hardly rocket science. But in an age of intense scrutiny, unparalleled platforms of public opinion and an ever voracious media, the soul can go out of the game pretty damn quick. Lehmann appears to have the happy knack of retaining that soul through simple tricks of social interaction and conversation, de-structuring and delegation. The essence of cricket pours out of this uncomplicated man and when it floods the minds of eager cricketers and endorses an exceptional captain, the seeds of success are sown.

Neither Lehmann nor Clarke have even begun to think that this Australian team is the finished article, far from it. What they know is that they have released much of the best play possible from those to hand. Glenn McGrath reckoned he had not seen any Australian attack bowl so well collectively. Ian Healy thought that Chris Rogers' performances best illustrated how a team can become greater than the sum of its parts.

It is now clear that the Australians had an immense will - something so strong, so desperate probably, that some of them might have imploded had success not been achieved. The preparation began while matches were lost at Lord's and the Riverside in Durham during the last English summer. At The Oval in the last Test, Clarke declared the Australian second innings earlier than he would otherwise have done because he wanted to challenge the players in his own team: to see how far he could push them, to see what winning and losing meant to them, man by man. Observations about character, technique and mental strength were noted and applied to the master plan for this series, and how.

Those same observations were made about the England players - Lehmann could be seen on dressing-room balconies furiously writing notes about both teams - and used to determine the most effective way to confront each England player head to head. When Clarke made his promise he knew more than we did. Moreover, he knew more than England could have believed. It was a heist of monumental proportions.

Now England will need to find the same commitment. It must come from within and must first be the responsibility of every England cricketer to examine his own part in the failing and his path to ensure he is never so exposed again. Cook is right to insist that he is the man to oversee the rehabilitation and launch the next era of type, style and performance. He will need those around him to be equally motivated, for the task is daunting. As he said afterwards - "from rock-bottom, the only way is up". Let us hope so. Clarke and Lehmann have shown him the way.

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Patrick on January 9, 2014, 0:46 GMT

    @Natural Outswing, seeing KP at fine leg, failing even to join the group for a DRS referral (ambitious & failed but even still) was truly disappointing. He was even getting agitated with the Members over a playful jibe on his initials - clearly he doesn't either know or respect Kerry Packers role in making modern cricketers rich, he tried to have the Members ejected! Warne had a huge ego and Waugh is still his sworn enemy to this day it seems but they still collaborated well on field for many years and all bar conceiled their mutual dislike to the benefit of the team, it can be done.

  • John on January 8, 2014, 8:31 GMT

    As a result of the capitulation of England , all those involved will carry the mental scars similar to the ones carried by the English teams of the 90s, conversely the Australian team will hold the mental edge over their opponents as in the tradition of S Waugh ,Warne & Co . That England lost the series , and life can go on , the respect that was lost , will be much harder to retrieve.

  • Graham on January 8, 2014, 3:55 GMT

    Ozizim - Carberry dropped Haddin at Adelaide not Brisbane. At that stage we were well past 200 and had more than enough as that game and the rest of the series showed. Perhaps if he was caught Australia could have used an extra wicket that they had available in the second innings to still set 500 for victory.

  • Android on January 7, 2014, 23:39 GMT

    I've always been a strong critic of Clarke's as I believed he cared too much about image and less about being a leader. Never have I been happier to eat humble pie. His captaincy has been exemplary. He never takes his boot off the opponent's throat and shows his bowlers his confidence in them with his declarations and field placements. Granted some of his batsmen need to lift their game, but bring on the Saffers I say. Should be a cracking series.

  • Dummy4 on January 7, 2014, 10:48 GMT

    So INDCRAB - an Indian fan thinks the Indians will win 3-1 in Australia next summer. Well allow me to retort: It's never happened in 140 years of cricket. India have never won in Australia. Not with Kapil Dev, or Gavaskar, or Tendulkar - not with any of those alleged greats. Secondly - if you can't defend 450 you are (to use your words) 'a poor club level team'. India have no great bowlers - never have really. And they don't now. If Ashwin thinks he'll get assistance from Australian pitches he might want to think again. They will be greener than a Martian dipped in ink. But this is the 21st Century, and india believe falsely they are a world power in cricket based on the amount of money they generate. However historically India have held the number one spot for a grand total of 10 months in those 140 years of Test Cricket. I think that alone says it all.

  • rob on January 7, 2014, 10:14 GMT

    @ Samdanh: For your plan to work, SA would have to have some quality spin. I'm not so sure that's the case. South Africa's strength is also with their fast bowling and they probably still have the sharpest attack, despite what Siddle said. Preparing slow dry pitches wouldn't particularly help their bowling but would maybe help Australia's batting. .. Or you could be dead right. Cheers.

  • Ragavendran on January 7, 2014, 10:11 GMT

    @dunger.bob: Very well put. Anxiety and insecurity can be found in most of the posts stating that Australia are going to be thrashed in SA. Most of the people hoped/believed Aussies would get thrashed in England if one goes by comments before Ashes. Most of them made by SA fans who dare not delve deep into their poor home record for the past many years and they went many series without ever winning 2 consecutive Tests.

  • Michael Ponnudurai on January 7, 2014, 9:05 GMT

    Australia batting needs to be more strong in performance in overseas tours. SA can be expected to lay out dry pitches to negate the Aus pace attack and crush the Aus batting which cannot play quality spin (except perhaps Clarke and Smith to some extent) Australia needs to rest not just Siddle and Harris but also Johnson from ODIs. There are plenty of fast bowlers who could be roped in to play the ODIs with England. Also, for overseas tours it is important they take one more spinner to be used when pitches are doctored. Further, a back up quality spinner should always be with the team to be able to play if Lyon gets injured or a second spinner is required. It is very key for Aus to use some foresight in squad composition

  • Damien on January 7, 2014, 8:43 GMT

    South Africa will be the ultimate challenge. Let's just hope that the Australian side puts in the preparation required for a Test series in the Rainbow Republic. If they prepare as well for the Saffas as they did against England, it should be an awesome series. Just hope I can get coverage in France!

  • rob on January 7, 2014, 8:31 GMT

    I love the way everybody is getting a bit nervous about us. They're on our case so that must mean they're worried. We've currently got Saffer, Indian and even a few Pak. fans are out there busily dreaming up ways of proving to us we're crap. The trouble is boys, it's coming across as though your worst nightmare is starting to rumble back into life and you're trying to ward it off with a few unconvincing words. .. Maybe that's true, maybe not. We'll know in a years time.