Until the final day at the MCG it was fun watching Australia flop about, letting South Africa recover from positions that only the teams of Steve Waugh and Mark Taylor could escape from regularly. It was satisfying to see the cockiness drain from the experienced Australian players, the ones who have been claiming for weeks they are still the best in the world despite not seeing the bushfire surrounding them. And it was pleasing that the series defeat would lead to more of the younger players, the famed depth that everyone with an Australian cap repeats as often as "execute plans", being on show in the dead rubber in Sydney.
But when Shane Watson was on TV before South Africa wrapped up the series, saying he wouldn't be bowling for up to six months, it started to hurt. At that point what was about to happen at the MCG, and what will continue to happen as Australia's rebuild turns into a major unplanned renovation, registered as a massive change of lifestyle. No Brett Lee, no Stuart Clark, no Watson, no Andrew Symonds, no decent spinner, an unfamiliar Matthew Hayden, no wins and, soon, hardly any trophies. The fall since the tour of India has been more slippery than any single-day drop on the stock exchange. For 16 years Australia had been impregnable at home; in 14 days they folded to South Africa.
Since Watson's announcement I have stopped smirking along with the rest of the world and may start to sulk. Not for this team. Not for the players who didn't see what was wrong, or the selectors who thought they could pick anyone and see them succeed, or the room full of coaches who need to execute - as in kill - plans that eliminate instinct and individual thought. But for what went before through Border and Taylor and Waugh, and under Ponting with McGrath and Warne and Gilchrist. The teams that made Australia envied instead of mocked.
In the commentary box Ian Healy and Shane Warne spent the past two days imagining, with degrees of seriousness, how Australia could win. The hope and cheerleading became embarrassing. "If this last pair can hang around and get a partnership of around 200, it will make it hard for the South Africans." It wasn't quite that bad but it was close, with Warne recommending Michael Clarke match his best figures of 6 for 9 and recalling the Sri Lanka Test of 1992, when Australia defended 181.
That was the match when Warne showed what he could do with 3 for 11 to steal the game. Like the senior men on the field, the relatively recent retirees with the microphones expected the superheroes to arrive. All the Australian capes have disappeared along with Telstra phoneboxes.
The problem with the past- and present-player dreams is that Australia not only miss a Warne or a McGrath, but they don't even have a Gillespie or a MacGill, or a Reiffel or a May. At the moment they own a Ponting, a Clarke and a Johnson. Ponting is the most magnificent batsman but an un-inspirational captain whose pockets must crinkle with schedules to follow. How he ignored Mitchell Johnson on the fourth and fifth days while a hobbling Brett Lee bowled brave medium pace is as crazy as blaming luck for Dale Steyn's match-changing 76 from No. 10.
Underneath Ponting there is Clarke and Johnson, who have had excellent years and deserve to help mould the next teams. Who will join them is a guess. Hayden is lucky to be in Sydney and Symonds, who is having knee surgery, has been as loose as his pre-2003 World Cup days. Michael Hussey's first extended international slump shows how much he has been ground down by the long absences from his family. After Lee's past four months it would be dangerous to expect him to return at his best.
|This side of one current great, a few very goods, a muscular opener on the way out and a collection of mights and might nots has lost Australia's first home series since 1992-93|
This side of one current great, a few very goods, a muscular opener on the way out and a collection of mights and might nots has lost Australia's first home series since 1992-93. Over the past year they have given up the final tri-series prize, the Border-Gavaskar Trophy and now the South Africa silverware. Over the next year the side may have to watch videos of West Indies and New Zealand to remember what it's like to win.
The team may only be No. 1 on the rankings for another week, but even those spruikers inside the Australian dressing room can no longer believe they deserve it. That rating came over consistently outstanding performances at home and away, and was inflated by players who will remain revered long after this slump has been corrected. Australia can always remember the deeds, but those involved in the game can no longer hope for repeats. The current squad is an average one, in comparison with its predecessors, and has carried a previously unrealistic view of itself.
In 1992-93 Australia almost beat West Indies at home, giving up a 1-0 lead with a one-run loss in Adelaide before, exhausted and overwhelmed, they succumbed in Perth. Those players were fighters - Taylor, Boon, Steve Waugh, Healy, Warne et al - and their toughness allowed the next breed to turn into aggressive believers in any situation.
In 1995 they were responsible for beating West Indies and earning the world champion crown that has slipped so suddenly from Ponting's forehead. To erase the hurt of this defeat, for players and Australian followers, a more steely approach will be required. No more batting like millionaires, which most are, no more bowling like domestic representatives, and no more prayers for match-winning miracles.
Australia vs South Africa
South Africa tour of Australia
Peter English is the Australasia editor of Cricinfo