Australia v England, 5th Test, Sydney, 5th day January 7, 2011

Australia in crisis, but also in denial

Michael Clarke does not think Australian cricket is in crisis, but there can be no other description after what has happened over the past seven weeks. The elite game in the country has collapsed on and off the field during a record Ashes thrashing, from coaching and selection to more mundane matters like batting and bowling.

Despite all of this James Sutherland, the chief executive, is happy with the head coach, the selectors and the players - just not the result. Andrew Hilditch, the chairman of selectors, is not resigning and is pleased with the form of the four decision makers. "I think we've done a very good job as a selection panel, but the reality is we were totally out-played," he said. He was being serious.

Tim Nielsen, the coach, was reasonable enough to avoid praising himself and settled on saying that he had tried his best. Nobody has been accused of not trying, just of not being very good, or doing the right things. Yet nobody is resigning and nobody is being sacked.

All the onwards-and-upwards generals are talking about moving forward, but they have to hope Australia have hit the bottom first. Hilditch said the team's next two Test tours, against Sri Lanka and South Africa later in the year, would be even tougher than this one. His contract is up after the World Cup and it would be a sensible time to resign.

The three innings defeats have given Australia their worst thrashing of any series. Twenty-four years ago, when England last raised the urn here, the hosts were also in crisis. On that occasion it was due to the aftermath of the Lillee-Marsh-Chappell retirements and the exits of the rebels to South Africa. Everybody knew it was the worst of times.

This time the Test team was at full-strength and the result was even worse. Australia started the series as favourites but when the end came at the SCG, in front of a bouncing Barmy Army, England finished with a 3-1 victory. The innings-and-83-run triumph reverberated as much as the singing of the tourists.

For the Australians in the middle, it was a time to look at the ground. The pose has been a familiar one over the past two years, starting with a home defeat to South Africa and continuing with losses to England, India, a draw with Pakistan, and now this.

"I don't think there's a crisis in Australian cricket at all," Clarke said firmly. He was in a difficult position as the stand-in captain following his first Test in charge. The Ashes were gone before he had stepped into Ricky Ponting's shoes and his men did no better or worse than in the two other defeats.

"We need a lot of improvement in our game in all areas," Clarke said. "But I do believe we have the talent and potential in that change room to do it. We've seen through this series that guys have stood up at different times, but we're way too inconsistent to win a big series."

Like "disappointed", "improvement" is another word that drops off the tongues of beaten Aussies. Nielsen, in particular, uses it a lot, especially over the past year. When asked, given the number of poor series since the 2009 Ashes loss, which of his players had improved over the past six months he took a long pause.

"It depends on how you measure improvement," he said. "If we sit back and look at the series results it would be easy to say none of us have." After outlining the team's trouble with "adjusting to game situations", he nominated Michael Hussey, Shane Watson and Peter Siddle as ones who had improved.

Seventeen players were used in this series and only three of the Australians were worthy of mention. Ryan Harris, who is now injured, was the only other one who deserved to be included in that tiny group. It is not a glowing endorsement of the players or the coaching staff.

So what should happen at the end of a non-crisis? Cricket Australia is planning a review, which it does annually anyway, and Sutherland said nothing should be discounted, even though he has faith in all the major departments. Unlike an Australian batting collapse, the post-mortem won't happen quickly. A structure has to be determined and it has to be ratified by the board.

"I'm firmly of the view that you can't expect to get back on top by doing the same things and just simply plugging away," Sutherland said. "You have to look at where you're up to, how things are delivered and your approach, and that will certainly be part of a review that will happen in the coming weeks."

Clarke said the team was "as close to rock bottom as it gets", but if he is asked to contribute to the review he will counsel against mass changes. "We've got to become better players, we've got to become a better team." The answer nobody could give was how it would happen.

Before all that there is the World Cup, in which Australia are defending champions. Ponting will be back from his broken finger to aim for a fourth consecutive trophy. However, Hilditch wouldn't endorse him as the Test leader for their next series against Sri Lanka in August. "I wouldn't be blaming the captain [for the Ashes result]," Hilditch said. "They played better than us. Unfortunately people have to accept that's just what happened."

Hilditch answered casually when asked how much of the result was his fault. "I take responsibility for doing the best job I can possible for Australian cricket," he said. "It's what I've always done, I have a great passion for it and still want to do it. I'm sure we'll get through this stage."

Despite admitting they were out-bowled, out-batted and out-thought, Cricket Australia's top employees can't bring themselves to say they are in a crisis. Or apportion any blame for a summer filled with disasters. It would be funny if it wasn't so serious.

Peter English is the Australasia editor of Cricinfo

Comments