Australia start a pathetically short Test series in South Africa with more hope than foreboding. A year ago the Poms arrived in Perth and were astonished to be informed by locals that they were likely to retain the Ashes. A generation had not thought such sentiments could ever emerge from an Australian mouth. Bemused Englishmen assumed the plane had landed at the wrong airport, a response confirming that misunderstandings can easily arise between a nation reliant on understatement and another prone to plain talking. In fact the assessment was as accurate as were previous warnings of whitewashes.
Accordingly, the wary optimism detected in the visiting camp for the series in South Africa ought not to be dismissed. It is founded upon a belief that the worst has already passed and the cricket community is back on track. As has been pointed out, the darkest night often comes right before the dawn.
Outsiders were startled by the fury of the Australian reaction to the Ashes defeat. Some thought it too harsh, not least because Australia remained World ODI champions and had dominated for so long. But it was not the fact of losing the series that caused the outrage but the lame manner of the defeat. Had the hosts played valiantly, and a sensible side been chosen, the loss might have been absorbed. After all, the pitch at the MCG was a disgrace and the toss in that match was critical.
Instead, the hosts resembled a rabble. Nor could any sign of improvement be detected to salve the wound. Accordingly the wrath of the masses descended upon the beaten. Far from closing ranks and resenting criticism, the authorities responded to the crisis by setting up a wide range of inquiries, even into themselves. As a result heads have rolled, players have been ditched, new coaches and selectors have been appointed, and a new captain has been put in charge.
From a distance these changes might seem a drastic reaction to a bad spell. But the rage told of a refusal to accept second-best. If anything, too, Australia had dithered for too long. Locals also refused to accept the arguments put forward by those convinced that it is all part of an inevitable cycle. Manchester United stay strong because the club stays strong. The German economy works because the nation works. Australian cricket is back in business because it takes tough decisions in the critical hour. To a considerable extent every party is master of its own fate. The system was crook and in need of correction.
Not that Australia are by any means ready to topple England from their perch. Still, it was encouraging to find the current England team already described in some quarters as the finest the country has produced (insofar as it has produced it), and one of the five best ever seen. In these statements can be found the first seeds of decline. Balanced critics regard England as a very good side who might or might not attain greatness.
Australia are still not even a good Test side but they are starting to regain their competitive edge. Much can be gleaned from their work in the field. After floundering in the Ashes, the attack appears more aggressive and focused. Encouraged by Craig McDermott
, and learning from their English counterparts, the pacemen keep a fuller length and maintain the intensity missing last season. They seek edges and are given a slip cordon eager to snap them up. Cricket has not changed half as much as supposed. It's still mostly about late movement and outside edges.
Not that Ryan Harris, Mitchell Johnson and Peter Siddle are suddenly world-beaters. Harris' main asset is that he takes wickets with the new ball, long a strength and recently a weakness. Built along the lines favoured by bulls, he aims at the sticks and moves the ball at the last moment. In short, he is a handful. His failing is that his body is not as durable as his spirit. Johnson remains fragile. Doubtless it is partly psychological, but these analyses can be overdone. His main problem is that slingy actions do not permit precise repetition. The banana-bender clips the umpire's ear. Johnson needs everything to fall into place, including feet and fingers; it's a lot to ask. He is, too, more athlete than cricketer, and so lacks an intuitive understanding of the way his action works.
Manchester United stay strong because the club stays strong. The German economy works because the nation works. Australian cricket is back in business because it takes tough decisions in the critical hour. To a considerable extent every party is master of its own fate
Siddle is the same committed speedster seen last summer, but like his comrades is under much more pressure than previously, mostly from a younger brigade seeking opportunity. Patrick Cummins leads the charge, but he has only taken nine first-class wickets and has thrived mostly in white-ball cricket. However, he has the gift of pace, and he is not alone.
Australia, though, need to beware lest they fall into the trap of rushing gifted players into the team. Desperate times may call for desperate measures but they are not necessarily improved by them. Ambitious selectors and captains understandably seek players of high potential to replace time-servers, but cricket is also a game of skill, stamina and experience, and it takes time to learn its lessons.
As far as the batting is concerned, Ricky Ponting's predicament is the immediate concern. If he is in terminal decline, as critics fear and figures indicate, then the slide has several unusual aspects. He remains as fit as a greyhound, looks sharp in the nets, catches brilliantly, and shows little sign of technical weakness. His mistakes have been mostly mental - misjudging length and suffering inexplicable rushes of blood. Every batsman regularly hears little voices suggesting that he try something risky but the alert brain ignores them.
In a recent essay on the struggles faced by great batsmen, including Greg Chappell and Sachin Tendulkar, Dr Rudi Webster talked about the sort of "combat fatigue" encountered by soldiers and sportsmen put under constant pressure. Ponting has been in the frontline for a long time and it's possible his batteries cannot be properly recharged. By the look of things his technique and body remain intact, and only weariness of the mind can bring him down.
Australia's other veterans, Mike Hussey and Simon Katich, have endured different fates. Not so long ago Hussey's position was in peril. But he is a top-class player and clearly had more runs in him. Typically he kept working on his game, not least by learning to use his feet to spinners. He is an exceptionally adaptable cricketer and worth his weight in gold, notwithstanding the metal's current price.
Katich was not even offered a contract this year, whereupon a hullaballoo broke out. One hysterical radio ranter described the selectors as dictators, which did seem a little like the pot calling the kettle black. A redoubtable batsman, Katich commands respect, much as Allan Border did, with grit and reliability. Of course his ejection was unfair, but selectors are not called upon to be fair but rather to be right. Nor are they supposed to think only about the present. Katich has belatedly resumed bowling for New South Wales and has been taking wickets.
Plain and simple, Australia could not continue to play three ageing batsmen in a losing side. Whether the right player was dropped at the right time is a legitimate topic of debate. Katich may not have deserved the chop. Nor, though, did he make himself indispensable.
It remains to be seen how Phil Hughes fares against Dale Steyn and company, assuming Steyn is not unduly rusty. No matter how scratchy he may look and how many faults may be found in his game, Hughes has an imposing record at every level and that needs to be taken into account.
In every aspect except wicketkeeping, the Australian team looks stronger than it did a year ago. And though the board and administrative changes have not yet been undertaken, because the relevant report has not been produced, the cricket community is also stronger off the field. That does not mean South Africa will be subdued. Merely that the Australians will play with the purpose missing last season, and that the period in the doldrums will be shorter than seemed likely in January.
Peter Roebuck is a former captain of Somerset and the author, most recently, of In It to Win It