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After over a decade of unstinting dominance, Australia were finally brought down to earth
January 5, 2009
Those who think Australia's up-and-coming players will always prefer a baggy green to an IPL contract may need to reconsider if the downward trend of the national side continues like it has over the past 12 months. For decades the first-class performers have dreamed of being elevated to the all-conquering outfit, but when a group of spots became available in 2008 the new recruits experienced the horror of the side's most unsuccessful calendar year since 1985.
For all but the most committed, an annual six-figure bank transfer from India could soon become much more enticing than time in the trenches digging the once mighty team from murky situations. Successful fightbacks became too hard for the current line-up in the final stages of the year. Stability, consistency and high quality, three benchmarks for modern Australian teams, were lost along with the unofficial No. 1 ranking - although they cling to the ICC's version.
Twenty-three players were used in Tests by Australia in 2008, in a mixture of evolution, confusion, injuries and poor form. By the end of the year seven of the 25 contracted players were out with various ailments, the first home series defeat in 16 years had occurred, and the team was unrecognisable, in performance, from the previous versions. In December it really was the worst of times as South Africa chased 414 for a demoralising result in Perth and then turned the MCG match in a fashion familiar for Australian teams, but not their opponents.
Not since the start of Allan Border's reign had Australia lost five matches in a year, and that run came when the side had trouble competing with New Zealand. Fortunately for Ricky Ponting, New Zealand were one of three teams Australia beat, joined by West Indies in the Caribbean and India at the SCG. At the time the series wins were celebrated, but by the end of the year there was no cheer in having overcome the world's No. 7 and 8 while struggling so badly against two and three. It was not a good sign with such a big year to come, with trips to South Africa and England for the Ashes.
Followers of Australia have learned they need to lower their expectations. Ponting experienced a year of 1182 runs at 47.28 in 14 games, which was an excellent return, but because of his previously high standards was considered lean. Once again Ponting the batsman was great outside India, while his captaincy was questioned. The heat began with his over-rate bungle in Nagpur and was followed by his grumpy poses as the team headed to defeat in Perth, and a sloppy attitude in the field that let South Africa revive in Melbourne.
Ponting repeatedly maintains he is enjoying the challenge of rebuilding the team. So far he has been unable to lift them when they are down, a trait that isn't surprising considering his overall career pattern. Unfortunately for Ponting, he looks like being Australia's version of Richie Richardson. Richardson followed the Clive Lloyd and Viv Richards eras and was unable to save West Indies. Australia's slide will not match the never-ending drop in the Caribbean, mainly because of the strong structure below the international level. However, Ponting is now in a position where he will hope for better, rather than know he can build successfully on the Border-Taylor-Waugh years.
While form, injury, strange spin selections, Andrew Symonds and heated contests with India were the major issues, there were also pleasing developments with a couple of key players. Michael Clarke showed his maturity, playing tough innings as well as bright ones, to prove there was stability and flair in the middle order. The wicketkeeper Brad Haddin ended his first year in the team strongly after an uncertain beginning and Mitchell Johnson became an international force with the ball, highlighted by his 11 wickets against South Africa at the WACA. Brett Lee struggled after the West Indies tour, taking 57 wickets for the year but ending it with a diminished reputation and an appointment with his surgeon. For Australia, it was a time that the senior players will want to forget, and a period that might have younger ones starting to reconsider their futures.
New man on the block
Simon Katich was a familiar figure around the Australian side until 2005, when he was cut as part of the post-Ashes changes. However, he received a chance in the West Indies when Matthew Hayden was injured, scored four centuries in seven matches and finished with 1021 runs, the third-most by an Australian in 2008. As the year ended Katich was the banker as opener, while Hayden was under severe pressure.
Hayden, Brett Lee and Michael Hussey all have strong claims. Statistically, Hussey's batting average drop from 80.58 on January 1 to 59.04 on December 31 was the most significant, but Hayden's collapse from dominator to easy wicket caused the greatest loss of lustre. How he held on for the Sydney Test, only Andrew Hilditch and his fellow selectors will know.
It came in the first week of the year, with Michael Clarke taking three wickets in what was meant to be the second-last over of the SCG Test against India. The Australians celebrated like they had stolen the World Cup, but by the time they left the field the dramatic slip towards the pack had begun.
There is an unusually high number to choose from. A defeat to India away; the first home series loss since 1992-93; giving up the second-biggest fourth-innings chase in history; letting South Africa escape in Melbourne. The Perth defeat was bad, but watching the fall continue at the MCG was worse, especially as the injury curse claimed Shane Watson with another case of back stress fractures.