New dawn follows disaster
"It's never as good or as bad as you think it is" is a phrase beloved of Cricket Australia's team performance manager Pat Howard. Though he is widely expected to exit stage left when his contract expires in June, Howard's phrase rings very true for Australia's cricketers in 2016.
Off the back of a meritorious display on the Test tour of New Zealand, they ascended to No. 1 in the world. The garland was proved premature by abject defeat in Sri Lanka, then laughable by a worse display in home conditions against South Africa. Yet the introspection caused by those defeats had some useful effects: selectors were forced to rethink, coaches to refocus and players to recalibrate.
As captain, Steven Smith emerged as a passionate voice crying out in the wilderness of Bellerive Oval. Three Test victories followed, the last a remarkable triumph at the MCG. But having lived through the tribulations of preceding weeks, which included open questioning of both their jobs, neither Smith nor the coach, Darren Lehmann, are under any illusions about where they now stand. A looming tour of India is another reason to stay sober.
"We're really proud of all the players. Steve's been fantastic with copping a lot outside the game to be honest," Lehmann said of Smith.
"We've learned our skills are very good in patches and not good enough in patches. So as a young side we've got to get better at playing the seaming ball, the swinging ball, the spinning ball, and make sure we're driving the games like we did [in Melbourne]. It's all right when it's in this form of the game at the MCG where the wicket was flat..."
The wickets in New Zealand weren't actually all that flat in February, and a home side trying to farewell their talisman Brendon McCullum was well motivated. But Smith was fortunate in winning a key toss at the Basin Reserve, and well served by his pace bowlers to set up a victory that meant, even after McCullum detonated on day one in Christchurch, that Australia could still dictate terms.
Two key players in that series were Usman Khawaja and Joe Burns, each making fine top-order hundreds to buttress Australia's first innings in the two Tests. Burns' century in particular, after McCullum's effort, seemed testament to a young player finding his feet at Test level, mentally and technically. More broadly, the Australians utilised numerous lessons from the 2015 Ashes tour to be better equipped against the moving ball.
But all those pointers proved to lead nowhere in particular from the moment Smith's side batted for the first time in Sri Lanka. At the time, Angelo Mathews' young side looked to be a pushover, rolled cheaply on day one of the Pallekele Test and without any sort of recent winning record behind them. But so poorly did the visitors play Sri Lanka's spin triad, and so well did Kusal Mendis respond with a match-shaping century, that an ostensibly well prepared touring side was thrown utterly off its axis.
A hamstring injury to Steve O'Keefe, promising in his first appearance, did not help either, and defeats of still greater magnitude in Galle and Colombo followed that on the outskirts of Kandy. Publicly, Smith and Lehmann pointed the finger at Nathan Lyon and O'Keefe's replacement, Jon Holland, for not matching the feats of Rangana Herath, but the truth of the matter was that ignoble batting lay at the heart of the unprecedented clean sweep. Certainly no one could blame Mitchell Starc, who proved his evolution into a Test match bowler of quality by dominating an Asian series like few fast bowlers ever have.
Pre-series expectations can be summed up by the fact that Sri Lanka asked for the presentation of the ICC Test Championship mace to Australia to be kept a private affair so as not to demoralise the hosts; by contrast, the final afternoon of the series at the SSC had all the hallmarks of a public execution. A bounteous crowd saluted their hero Herath as the Australians folded like napkins in the SLC president Thilanga Sumathipala's hospitality suite.
In the gap between away and home series, a pair of limited-overs engagements highlighted scheduling troubles and mixed priorities: while in Sri Lanka, Glenn Maxwell sought a move from Victoria to New South Wales that more or less blew up in his face and left him very much on the outer of the national XI by year's end. For the ODIs in South Africa that followed, the resting of Starc and Josh Hazlewood left Smith and his deputy David Warner nursing an inadequate bowling line-up to a 5-0 hiding. South Africa gained useful tactical and mental insights from this sojourn, and arrived down under in a far more confident mood than the absence of AB de Villiers should have allowed.
Smith had hoped that home climes would help his men regain their bearings, but the shift of the opening Test from familiar Brisbane to distant Perth rather detracted from that aim. South Africa have never lost a Test at the WACA, and despite losing Dale Steyn at an inopportune moment on the second day, put together a display that left the Australians gasping. Kagiso Rabada bowled with rare skill and Vernon Philander with impressive stamina, inflicting a fourth successive defeat on a team now deep in a pit of self-doubt.
Band-aid selections were made for Hobart, including debuts for Callum Ferguson and Joe Mennie. But Smith found himself on the wrong end of the coin toss, much as McCullum had done earlier in the year, and a day of batting chaos duly followed. South Africa's response, buttressed by Quinton de Kock's hugely damaging presence at No. 7, threw harsh light onto Australia's own malfunctioning middle order, and when Khawaja swished unwisely after building a platform the previous evening, the match ended about as brutally as Hillary Clinton's presidential prospects.
The selection chairman, Rod Marsh, called an emergency meeting mid-match to chart a more youthful direction, and then chose to resign his commission - an honourable decision that also served to deflect pressure from the likes of Lehmann, Howard, and the chief executive, James Sutherland. Interim chairman Trevor Hohns duly unveiled a team for Adelaide that featured Matt Renshaw, Peter Handscomb and Nic Maddinson, plus a recalled Matthew Wade; Burns, Adam Voges, Mitchell Marsh and Peter Nevill were the four major casualties of five successive defeats.
Dead-rubber Tests can often feel like false dawns, but Adelaide Oval's sunset proved a tonic for Smith and his refreshed team. Renshaw and Handscomb provided major improvements to the batting order, by each showing rare self-knowledge and poise for batsmen so young, while Wade's yapping was allied to a winning habit he brought with him from Victoria's Sheffield Shield side. A restorative victory allowed for the team to remain unchanged for the first time all year; stability is too strong a word, but the boat had at least slowed in its rocking.
Smith's captaincy is still a work in progress, particularly when directing his bowlers in the field. A more natural tactician might not have allowed Pakistan to get so close at the Gabba, Asad Shafiq notwithstanding. But Smith's leadership with the bat cannot be sniffed at, nor the desire of his players to fall in behind him. All that came together on a sun-kissed afternoon in Melbourne, when Smith, Starc, Lyon and Hazlewood fashioned a victory that could only have been achieved by a team with direction and belief. Whether they can do similar away from home is the next question on everyone's lips.
To finish as Australia did in Melbourne, after so many swings and roundabouts beforehand, provided all concerned with reason for optimism. After a quiet year, Warner finally put together a Test innings of which he could be proud, allowing Smith, Khawaja and Starc to follow suit. The final day's bowling effort was likewise a triumph of invention and positive thinking, on a surface that offered next to nothing for pace or spin.
Lachlan Ferguson flew in from London on the morning of the Hobart Test to watch his brother Callum debut, and exploded in rage and confusion when it culminated in a shambolic run-out amid Australia's first-innings humiliation. His huff epitomised the anger around Australia at that moment: the national team had not been at a similarly grim ebb since the loss of three Ashes Tests by an innings in 2010-11.
New kid on the block
Handscomb does not do things by the book, at least not by a book that isn't his as-yet-unpublished autobiography. But his marriage of crease-bound defence against pace and fleet feet against spin showcase a high degree of thought about his game and what suits him best. Runs on debut against South Africa were assured; a Gabba century against Pakistan was better still. India will be his test, but he looks set for a long career.
Due to a blow to the helmet in the Sheffield Shield that ruled him out with concussion, Voges was not strictly dropped after Hobart. But the sea change in Australian selection and a deflating run of outs that began in Sri Lanka meant that he was never likely to be recalled when fit again. Voges' record now stands as something of an anomaly - the highest career average of any Test batsman to have played more than 20 innings other than Sir Donald Bradman - and also a marker of the fact that 2015-16 had inflated Australia's standing rather more than was merited.
What 2017 holds
India is the most vexing challenge for any team right now, and it is Australia's next assignment. The ODI Champions Trophy will also occupy minds, before a tour of Bangladesh and then the small matter of a home Ashes series. Currently stalled pay negotiations between the players and CA will also require close attention over at least the next six months.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig