Zimbabwe v Australia, Tri-series, Harare August 31, 2014

Australia reminded they are mortal

Australia thought victory over Zimbabwe was a sure thing but they were courting trouble by underestimating their opponents

There was no other reason to have left Mitchell Johnson out of the side © AFP

In the early hours of a Tuesday morning in 1983, Australia's prime minister Bob Hawke famously told the country that "any boss who sacks anyone for not turning up today is a bum". Australia II had just won the America's Cup. It was one of the nation's most defining moments of the 1980s, the end of New York Yacht Club's 132-year hold on the trophy.

If that seems a lifetime ago - or more - consider that it was also in 1983 that Zimbabwe last beat Australia in a one-day international. Until today. Any boss who sacks anyone for not turning up to work in Australia today will have other reasons. They might not even believe Australia were currently playing a series, such is the dominance of other sports at this time of year.

Michael Clarke and his men won't mind a bit if this loss, and their subsequent plummet from No.1 in the ODI world to No.4, is buried under the weight of AFL and NRL news in the sports pages. But for the players, coaches and selectors it will serve as a timely reminder that you can be too clever for your own good. It is courting trouble to underestimate your opponents. Better to be reminded of that now than in a World Cup.

Trevor Hohns, the selector on duty, looked a lonely figure as Australia slid towards defeat, sitting in an empty bank of chairs in front of the change rooms. He quit as Australia's chairman of selectors in April 2006, after the team had just won a Test series in South Africa 3-0. Now, on his first tour having been reinstated to the selection panel, he has picked a team that lost to Zimbabwe.

Australia thought victory over Zimbabwe was a sure thing. They won't admit that. But there is no other reason to have left Mitchell Johnson out of the side. There are occasions when fast bowlers need a break, but two matches into a one-day series after a long winter's break is not one of them. They wanted to see other options. Now they've seen them, don't expect Johnson to rest again any time soon.

Not that Mitchell Starc, Mitchell Marsh, Ben Cutting and James Faulkner had much to work with on a Harare pitch that held the ball up more than a clay tennis court. Johnson has shown at venues like Adelaide that he can still make batsmen hop on slow surfaces, and Zimbabwe's batsmen must have breathed easier when they discovered he wasn't playing. There was nothing there for the rest of the seamers.

This loss will teach Australia some lessons but will ultimately cost them little. For Zimbabwe, it will make heroes of men like Elton Chigumbura and Prosper Utseya, and will boost the team and their fans immeasurably

All the more reason, you would think, to have chosen Steven Smith. That Australia resorted to two gentle overs from Aaron Finch shows how much they missed an extra spinner. Nathan Lyon couldn't do it all, though he nearly did enough. Just as importantly, Smith is Australia's best player of spin besides Clarke. This match proved again that spin-heavy attacks on spin-friendly surfaces will always trouble Australia. Always.

A Clarke-less Australia on spinning pitches doesn't bear thinking about, hence the decision to send him home after the Zimbabwe loss to be assessed after re-injuring the hamstring that kept him out of the first two games. Australia's next engagements, including two Tests, are against Pakistan in the UAE in October. Getting right for that series must be his only focus.

No doubt Clarke was extremely disappointed to lead Australia to their first ODI loss to Zimbabwe in 31 years. But by the end of the summer, or the end of the World Cup, or the end of next year's Ashes tour of England, he will view it with more perspective. It might be the loss that reminds his men, until today the No.1-ranked ODI side and until recently No.1 in Tests, that they are mortal. That's no bad thing.

Maybe he will even recognise that Australia's loss was good for cricket. In fact it was great for cricket. There are only ten ICC full members and two have been floundering for years. A win like this for Zimbabwe, in front of loyal and passionate home fans, can only strengthen cricket in Zimbabwe, and that in turn can only be a positive for world cricket.

To see the looks of joyous disbelief from the fans at the ground in Harare was to witness that greatest of sporting stories, the broken drought. This loss will teach Australia some lessons but, unless Clarke aggravated his hamstring even more by returning to the field late in the game, will ultimately cost them little. For Zimbabwe, it will make heroes of men like Elton Chigumbura and Prosper Utseya, and will boost the team and their fans immeasurably.

No doubt they celebrated like it was 1983. Any boss who sacks anyone for not turning up to work in Zimbabwe on Monday is a bum.

Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @brydoncoverdale

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