Aussies smart under SA hiding

Humiliated, embarrassed, hurting. This was how a despondent Steve Smith described his emotions in the aftermath of Australia’s disastrous second Test defeat against South Africa in Hobart on the back of a staggering loss in Perth.

South Africa skipper Faf du Plessis and his team-mates in a celebratory huddle after defeating Australia in the second Test in Hobart. The victory enabled South Africa to take a winning 2-0 lead in the three-Test series.   -  REUTERS

These dejected words do not usually spew from an Australian captain at home. But that was how a despondent Steve Smith described his emotions in the aftermath of Australia’s disastrous second Test defeat against South Africa in Hobart on the back of a staggering loss in Perth.

Australians have some pathos when their team isn’t particularly good or when they lose in difficult terrain in far-flung locales, but being eviscerated on home terrain is unforgivable. An entire generation, those aged under 40, have never seen Australia so publicly shamed on home soil.

Not since the dark days of the mid-1980s, when Kim Hughes tearfully resigned as captain, had Australian cricket felt in a worst state. During their prolonged successful reign since, only in 2010-11 — where they lost three Ashes Tests by an innings — have Australia been so humiliated at home.

Predictably, ramifications ensued with Rod Marsh, chairman of selectors, falling on his sword and immediately the new-look selection team ruthlessly wielded the axe on the underperforming side. The turnaround was instant with Australia enjoying a convincing victory over South Africa in the third Test in Adelaide.

 

It was a momentary breather from a period of utter turmoil in Australian cricket. The emergence of batting debutants Matt Renshaw and Peter Handscomb suggested Australia’s renewal may be imminent; particularly if you conveniently overlook South Africa’s sluggishness in Adelaide after two momentous victories and an emotionally draining ball tampering saga. Plus, South African players had very little precious experience with the pink ball compared to their Australian counterparts.

Still, Australia suddenly has a chance to build momentum against an out-of-form Pakistan, who have not won a Test in Australia for 20 years. It is entirely possible that by early January, after the Australian summer’s Test finale at the Sydney Cricket Ground, Australia will be riding a four-Test winning streak and heralding a successful transition.

However, being the ultimate party pooper, an important question needs to be asked: Is this fool’s gold? It seems slightly simplistic to believe merely wielding the axe and discarding a few creaky batsmen was all that was required to resurrect Australia’s fortunes.

Once the home stretch concludes, a daunting tour of India looms, where there is likelihood that Australia will suffer another whitewash in a country filled with haunting apparitions for them. If that does indeed ensue, fingers again will be pointed, followed by blank stares from those looking for answers. To scratch the surface a little deeper, perhaps we need to look beyond the national team and probe the mishmash of a domestic setup.

In the aftermath of Australia’s debacle in Hobart, I spoke to Kim Hughes, which seemed apt considering the dire circumstances unfolding, bringing back nightmarish apparitions for the West Australian, who lost five straight Tests as captain in 1984 to the might of the West Indies.

A clearly infuriated Hughes told me that he believed at the core of Australia's problems were a lack of preparation ahead of the series against South Africa. Before the first Test in Perth, there was just one Sheffield Shield round and those matches were played under lights with the first two weeks of the Australian cricket season dominated by the Matador Cup, the 50-over tournament played in a frenetic two-week format.

Hughes said Australia’s woes could be attributed to the Shield being “demeaned”. Further to Hughes’ point, the Shield has essentially become a science lab for Cricket Australia to test its gimmickry. In a prime example, this season, three types of balls will be used: the Kookaburra pink to prepare players for day-night Tests; the traditional red, and the English Dukes ball which will be used after Christmas in a bid to help players prepare better for an Ashes tour that isn’t scheduled until 2019.

The first round of the Shield was bizarrely played with the pink ball under lights, and essentially served as a tryout for national selection. Australian Test pace bowlers had restrictions on the number of overs they could bowl, fuelling the rising belief that the Shield is losing sanctity.

Due to the rise of the Big Bash League (BBL), which occupies the peak of the Australian summer from December to January, the Shield season is a jumble with half of the season held before the Twenty20 tournament and the remaining matches resuming in February. With scatterbrain fixtures, it is little wonder Australia has played such schizophrenic cricket and batsmen — particularly in Hobart — were being dismissed by bewildering strokes. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised by all of this considering the hodgepodge of formats being tossed around so hastily.

Undoubtedly, the Shield season has become badly disrupted by the BBL, although few probably care; the bigwigs of Australian cricket are milking their cash cow, while many Australian cricket fans — particularly newcomers — are increasingly gravitating towards the sleeker Big Bash.

There appears to be some instability simmering in the backdrop too. Several initiatives implemented after the 2011 Argus Report review — initiated after Australia’s Ashes thrashing at home in 2010-11 — have been criticised, including most notably the role of Pat Howard, Cricket Australia’s High Performance boss, whose contract runs out next year. Whispers persist that he is unlikely to continue in the role, but whether he leaves willingly or is pushed, remains the great unknown.

Howard, who is from a rugby background, has met with resistance from the cricket establishment since his appointment and his keenness to promote sports science — particularly to manage fast bowlers — has been met with howls of derision from a section of pundits.

Howard isn’t the only one in the hot seat, with chief executive James Sutherland, coach Darren Lehmann and Australia’s incumbent selectors all facing increasing pressure. Lehmann has the security blanket of being contracted until 2019, but his tenure could be in jeopardy if results don’t significantly improve.

The main sticking point has been that Lehmann wields too much power within the team. In a contradiction to the Argus Report, a recommendation to make the captain a selector was abandoned when Lehmann signed on as coach in 2013, which clearly frustrated then captain Michael Clarke and you feel it is starting to aggravate Smith. At his press conference after the Hobart Test, Smith was coy whether he was satisfied with the selection of the team, but, reading between the lines, his deflection of the response was revealing in itself.

And it feels Sutherland, who has been chief executive for 15 years, is getting long in the tooth and the board could be forced to make a difficult decision on his future at some point. With Rod Marsh gone as chief selector, an authoritative and revered figure, such as former captains Steve Waugh or Ricky Ponting, might be the ideal choice to steer Australia into a renewal it clearly desperately needs off-field.

During this ugly stretch, there has been continual talk of Australia’s on-field woes, particularly their sordid state of batting, but you sense harder decisions will first need to be made on the men in suits running Australian cricket.

Time will tell if we will look back at this disastrous start to the season as a line in the sand moment or merely just pointless posturing from Australian cricket’s top brass.