Australia Left Only With Questions

Though the weather briefly attempted to emulate dreary Australian spirits, it couldn’t prevent the final rites being enacted on this Ashes series. Steve Smith and Peter Siddle did their best to delay the party, but as English players and fans swung into full celebration mode, it was left to a humbled Australian cricket scene to survey the wreckage of what was originally a highly anticipated summer.

These five tests have produced all too many ways to measure the depth of Australia’s shortcomings. It is damming enough that Australia has been defeated by an innings on three occasions, for the first time in its entire test history. It is chastening to consider England passed 500 (twice beyond 600) in four out of five tests, whilst Australia’s 481 in Brisbane remained its only score beyond 309.

But for mine, the most telling statistic over five tests is that individual Australian batsmen lasted 100 deliveries or beyond in an innings on only eleven occasions. 100 lousy deliveries. Bear in mind that Alistair Cook faced 1438 deliveries on his own in seven innings. This is it in a nutshell. England played proper hard-nosed test cricket, whilst Australia could only reply with a mediocre approximation of one-day frolics. In terms of patience, persistence and skill execution, Australia have been completely outmatched.

Like all the best disasters, this one has been long in the making. There has been a steady accumulation of worrying signs about the state of our test team since the end of the Warne/McGrath era, but precious few people in a position of authority who’ve been willing to acknowledge or act on them. Ricky Ponting’s team  increasingly struggled when opponents had the skill and will to contest the issue during the last couple of years. Despite a patchy record, essentially the same team that lost the Ashes in England in 2009 was ear-marked to regain them this summer. That strategy now lies in ruins.

The way Australia have played this summer, it is possible to conclude that many seeds of today’s troubles were sown in that very same golden era we enjoyed until the passing of a great generation of players. With a vastly superior side, it became an unchallengeable mantra that aggression was the best response for any given situation. Even when the team was at its greatest this occasionally led to a shock defeat, but such was their dominance it rarely mattered, though England’s reverse swing success in 2005 now seems a warning unheeded.

It often seemed that the current side was trapped in this mentality, without the ability to back it up. Too often, Australian batsmen knew no other method or mindset than to lunge forward with hard hands and try to hit through the line of the ball, no matter the situation or conditions. Against an England bowling line-up who consistently swung the ball and kept immaculate lines and lengths, the limitations of this approach have been painfully revealed. Even as Steve Smith carved his way to an unbeaten 54 this morning, it was easy to admire his defiance without thinking for a moment that you were watching a technique built to withstand the rigours of test cricket. Until Australian batting line-ups can again learn to fight through challenging conditions we’ll struggle to beat good teams.

Similarly, our bowlers have been unable to muster the control and patience required to meet the challenge of an English top order determined to play strictly on its own terms. Time and again our bowlers lost the battle of wills and lost their way as England piled on the runs. Only the singular exception of Perth bounce, breezes and a Johnson purple patch interrupted a pattern that prevailed from day 4 of the series.

So all credit must go to England, who learnt from the bitter defeats of the past and treated their victory in 2009 as a launch pad to bigger things rather than laurels to rest on. They picked a well balanced squad with due consideration to Australian conditions, allowed ample preparation, and thoroughly outplayed their hosts in almost all conditions. They were better captained, better coached and a much better team. They deserve to enjoy the celebrations.

As the refrains of the Barmy Army echoed through the stands, Australian cricket need only consider the questions this series has raised to appreciate the challenge it faces.

Was this truly the best side we could put on the field? Despite Andrew Hilditch’s unshakeable faith in the performance of his selection committee, most would beg to demur. There may not have been the players available who could have bested England this summer, but at the least we should expect a balanced team, and that players who consistently failed to perform were replaced.

One obvious conclusion from recent decisions is that both selectors and the Australian dressing room have largely lost faith in Shield form as a true benchmark for judgement. Is this justified? Having long been acclaimed the best domestic competition in the world, has the Shield really fallen so far? Or have the decision makers become too beholden to the notion of anointing chosen ones, to be given preference ahead of those with weight of first class performance?

Do we have any confidence in who should lead the team into the future? Once again the idea of anointing chosen ones seems to have back-fired. Ricky Ponting was flagged to replace Steve Waugh long before we had any real idea of his captaincy abilities. Likewise, Michael Clarke was made heir apparent without ever captaining his state. The Australian tradition had always been to pick the best eleven at the time and find a leader from within it. It would seem an opportune time to return to that tradition.

Tim Nielsen was reappointed for three years before this series began. On what criteria was that decision made? Has the team notably improved under his tutelage? Do we execute basic skills and attention to detail as we should? Do our tactics seem to stack up? We’ve heard an endless stream of sports management cliché and psychobabble from the Australian dressing room in recent years. Has any of it proven a substitute for cricket smarts? Or execution of cricket skills under pressure?

The biggest question of all is will anyone be held to account for the failure to offer our best available efforts? To lose to a superior opponent is no shame, but you doubt even the English would think themselves so far superior as this summer’s results would suggest. Anyone hoping the scale of this defeat would provide the required jolt of reality could be in for disappointment, if initial public pronouncements count for anything. As we did after 2009, it seems Australia’s hierarchy is inclined to declare the patient dead but no one responsible. If we can’t face facts, it will be a very long path to recovery.

We got used to ruling the roost for a long time. It is in the nature of things that others should eventually usurp us. Witch hunts rarely serve any constructive purpose, but this should be a time to honestly reassess and plan our future path.

About John Butler

John Butler has fled the World's Most Liveable Car Park and now breathes the rarefied air of the Ballarat Plateau. For his sins, he has been a Carlton member for more than 30 years.

Comments

  1. What do you call an Australian cricketer with a bottle of champagne in his hand? Waiter
    What do you call an Australian cricketer with 100 runs to his name? A bowler

    It’s started already.

  2. JB,
    Hopefully some good will come of this disastrous performance.
    Interesting to note that there have been a number of commentators, including both Roebuck and Stuart Clark this morning, calling for an AFL-style independent commission to be installed to run cricket in Australia.
    What is most worrying to me is that the fall has been so sudden, and mirrors the West Indies experience of the 90’s. The difference, of course, is that Australia has more wealth and resources, and should be able to climb the summit once again. If the problems are addressed!

  3. Dips,
    I think the other one is
    What would Jimmy Anderson be if he was Australian? An all-rounder.

  4. John Butler says:

    Dips, I feel like you’ve been doing it hard this summer. Gallows humour can be a friend in dark times.

    Smokie, Cricket Australia has enough resources that a Windies-type situation shouldn’t be in question. But if everyone protects their own arse at the expense of doing what is required, then nothing is impossible. I don’t like the early signs. It may take a serious backlash to prompt some action.

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