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The Road Out of Hell

12 February 2009.

The signs are that Australia may have put the worst behind them.

Australia has suffered its worst cricketing summer since the community was rent asunder by rebel tours, retirements and other upheavals in the early 1980s. In those days antipodean cricket was down in the dumps. Defeats piled up at the hands of the mighty West Indians, and even England was too strong for a broken team. It had been a long time coming.

The great team of the 1970s had been immensely popular and impressively strong. They were an independent-minded collection, whose rise reflected the changing mood as a nation belatedly prepared to assert itself. As Doug Walters cut loose on the field, so playwrights found a distinctively Australian voice. As Ian Chappell wore his collar cockily high, so Gough Whitlam dared his country to be confident and contemporary. As Dennis Lillee threw back his mop of hair, so novelists and actors stepped into a wider world as themselves and not as pale imitations of English peers.

Of course a generation of youngsters rejoiced in Dungog Doug and Thommo, familiar characters with their cards and cigarettes and lack of fuss. Even now baby boomers talk about days spent on the Hill watching this team, their team – a truly, defiantly Australian outfit. Otherwise the Packer rebellion could not have succeeded. Chappell and company took the people with them, isolating the old order; but though they inspired affection and admiration, they did not revolutionise the entire community. Indeed State players were left behind and even internationals felt the work had not been completed. Packer and Channel 9 won the battle for rights but the cricket community remained stubbornly unaffected. That battle lay ahead.

Phil Hughes

Phil Hughes in the nets
Photo © YellowMonkey, CC BY-SA 3.0

Eventually the era ended and disarray followed, as underpaid, and some might suggest unprincipled, players were lured to South Africa by the promise of fat contracts. Already weakened, Australia’s playing resources were stretched beyond the limit. During the Packer years all sorts of modest performers represented their country. For different reasons the same happened in the mid-1980s. England comfortably held the Ashes in 1986-87. Unable to find any bowlers to back Craig McDermott, and lacking penetrating spin and reliable batting, the Aussies were down and almost out.

Australia did not so much bounce back from its predicament as claw its way up rung by rung, run by run. Allan Border led the way – a gritty, tough, tenacious player superbly suited to the times. Border has long counted amongst the finest and most underestimated of cricketers. For several years he resembled the boy on the burning deck. But steadfast he remained and around him the community rallied. An academy was opened and Bob Simpson was appointed coach. The former drove the most gifted youths towards excellence, the latter instilled the basics of the game in the top players. Before long Australia was bowling straight, running smartly between wickets, and taking slip catches. Australia did not discover anything startling in this period of revival, a new brand of cricket or suchlike. Good habits were restored and the rest took care of itself.

Presently West Indies fell into decline and the long Australian domination began. It did so by design not accident. Nowadays people assume that Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne were brilliant youngsters waiting to be discovered. They think that the beanpole jumped out of his paddock in Narromine and arrived in Sydney as the finished product, and that the Brighton beach boy could land a leggie on a beer mat from the outset. It is all nonsense. Both were products of a system that worked; one founded on knowledge and best practice. Australian cricket knew itself, understood that the climate, pitches and native aggression demanded fast footwork, wrist-spin, pace and victory. Understood that it mattered and that second place was not good enough.

Under various captains the Australians delivered on every count. Ambition never wavered. The community could accept defeat but not a lowly status. And so it continued for 15 years: intense, ruthless, sharp, varied, aggressive, Australian. Although not always popular, the Aussies were the team to beat. Now and then opponents roused themselves. Brian Lara‘s West Indies in the 1990s, Sourav Ganguly‘s India in 2001 and 2003-04, Michael Vaughan’s England in 2005. Occasionally the flag was lowered overseas. At home the Australians were almost invincible. Then came the southern season of 2008-09, the summer of our discontent.

In some respects the downturn was expected. After all, the retirements of several great players echoed the experiences of a quarter of a century before. Few cricket communities could afford to lose McGrath, Warne, Justin Langer, Damien Martyn, Adam Gilchrist, Jason Gillespie and Stuart MacGill in almost one fell swoop. That is an awful lot of wickets, runs, will to win and wisdom to replace. On the other hand several great players remained and the domestic competition was strong. The Australians fought hard in their first home campaign post-Warne, so hard in fact that the series with India will be remembered as the most bitter staged since Bodyline. Thanks to a contentious victory in Sydney, Australia took the spoils, but the cost was high. An outcry ensued about a team prepared to go to any length to succeed. Respected leaders and past players said the national team had gone too far. Shaken, the hosts became muted. Thereafter they were torn between anxiety about their reputation and desperation to win. By and large the older hands advocated the flat-out approach whilst the newcomers wanted to please the public. The captain was pulled both ways.

Accordingly the Australians began this season without a clear idea about themselves. To make matters worse the team suffered a rash of injuries. Matthew Hayden was hurt and never did recover his rhythm. Phil Jaques was also among the wounded. MacGill pulled up stumps in the Caribbean. Worse still, Bryce McGain, the only remaining spinner, was forced to return home from the spring tour to India, nursing a shoulder requiring sugary. Brett Lee was barely fit after things went awry in his personal life. Indeed he was so strained that his captain suggested leaving him behind. Instead he was sent to India as the squad’s only senior bowler and was unable to summon his usual pace. Andrew Symonds was also missing after he let his mates down in the Northern Territory. He had become a substantial and influential figure in the team. Perhaps that was the problem.

Australia did not react well to these setbacks. Common sense went out of the window. A batsman was listed at 8 in the Test team and asked to send down legbreaks. Bizarre tactics were pursued in Nagpur. Even the back-slappers were appalled. For a variety of reasons, different teams were chosen for 15 successive Tests.

One horrified newspaper announced that Australia had become “the new England”. In local opinion it was the lowest point of the year.

Luckily England choose this very moment to sack captain and coach, which somewhat lightened the mood. Later the Poms were obligingly skittled for 51, just as Ricky Ponting and company were wondering how the heck they were supposed to subdue a spirited Kiwi outfit. No matter how badly the Aussies were going, there was always a chance the Poms were going worse. The next Ashes series will be won by the side that best puts itself back together. Right now England resembles Humpty Dumpty.

Australia had not lost a home series for 15 or so years, a record that did not survive the summer. South Africa achieved the greatest victory in its history in Perth, and promptly beat it at the MCG. Graeme Smith handled his hosts superbly and hereafter ought to have no difficulty with the female of the species. Dale Steyn bowled fast and often, and the younger batsmen, AB de Villiers, and especially Jean-Paul Duminy, were brilliant. And so the Australians were beaten.

Further losses in the ODIs suggested that the rot had set in. A long fallow period was widely forecast. But in this hour of struggle the first signs of a fightback began. Peter Siddle, the find of the summer, recovered from his foot injury; McGain started bowling again and taking enough wickets to secure a place in the party to tour South Africa; and a fine young batsman appeared in the form of Phil Hughes, a run-hungry rural son of a banana farmer with an Italian wife. To add to it, Hayden’s retirement simplified matters, while Lee, Stuart Clark and Shane Watson remained out of contention. Meanwhile Symonds went into rehab. At least the Australians knew the score. Sometimes a strength becomes a weakness without giving any obvious indication of change.

And so, surprisingly, Australia ends the season in better shape than it began. The way forwards has been charted. An ageing, angry team has been broken up. Ricky Ponting had a poor summer and might have lost his job, but now knows his task. He must rebuild his side, and quickly. Whereas the cupboard was almost bare in Border’s time, now it is merely depleted. Australia might not be as gifted as India or South Africa but they still have some fine players, and now a renewed sense of purpose. Australia might slip a long way down the rankings. But do not count on it.

This article was written for ESPN cricinfo.
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