A champion team or a team of champions?

With retirement and injury having made substantial inroads into the strength of the Australian team, a big question mark has now been placed against the ability of Ricky Ponting's men to maintain their vice-like grip on the Anglo-Australian game, writes Frank Tyson.

Good cricket coaching places the interests of the team above those of the individual. It trumpets the time-honoured, winning aphorism that a champion team will always beat a team of champions.

Over the past couple of years, world champions Australia under Ricky Ponting have been blessed with both advantages — a champion team and a team of individual stellar proportions in the names of players such as Glenn McGrath, Shane Warne, Justin Langer and Damien Martyn. A happy band united under the guidance of an outstanding coaching staff led by a surprisingly junior first-class performer, John Buchanan.

Currently Australia bestrides the cricket world like a colossus, having earned itself the title of a second generation "Invincibles", inferior only, if at all, to the side that Bradman led to England in 1948. Moreover, on the evidence of its 5-0 `whitewash' of Andrew Flintoff's touring England team to Australia in 2006-07 it is also at least as good as Warwick Armstrong's team which performed the same feat in 1920-21.

But with retirement and injury having made substantial inroads into the strength of the Australian team of the former year, a big question mark has now been placed against the ability of Ponting's men to maintain their vice-like grip on the Anglo-Australian game. On the eve of the 2007 World Cup, the world cricketing community is left wondering whether, with the retirement of Martyn, McGrath already having handed in his notice, and Symonds and Lee incapacitated, Ponting's side has enough synergy left in its tank to retain its hold on one of cricket's most coveted trophies.

England, in the recent CB triangular series finals, and New Zealand, in the trans-Tasman Chappell-Hadlee series, have proved that Flintoff and Fleming had the manpower in their locker to blow the blas� Australia team away. True, their tasks were made easier by injury to fast-bowler Lee's ankle and Symonds' ruptured bicep.

In all justice however, it must truthfully be stated that, whereas England were plagued by a succession of injuries in their previous Ashes series, Australia had been fortunate in their avoidance of player damage. For their part, England and New Zealand learned from their Aussie experiences and carried out the basics of the one-day game conscientiously as a team when it mattered. However, the Aussie selectors acknowledged the approach of the end of the careers of their stars, Warne, Martyn, Langer and McGrath and made preparations against the evil day by casting around for their replacements.

The policy of rotating established players was based not merely on giving key men a deserved rest, but also on blooding the international players of the future on whom the Aussie side will be based. Players like Stuart Clark, who took more than 20 wickets for the Aussie side in 2006-07, spinner Brad Hogg, `leftie' paceman Nathan Bracken, the very fast slinger Shaun Tait, all-rounders Cameron White, Shane Watson and Michael Clarke and batsmen Brad Hodge and Phil Jaques. It will be a factual observation to say that Australia could field two sides of international standard to play in the World Cup.

I know that Australia has a great depth of cricket talent; but in spite of this fact, for me, the magic of last year's Ashes-winning side has partially evaporated, largely as a consequence of Shane Warne's absence. The selectors have failed in their quest for a replacement for this multi-faceted spinner. It seems unlikely that they will ever discover a slow bowler who can bowl equally as well in attacking and defensive modes like Warne.

`Roy' Symonds will be missed for the golden moments he provided the spectators, both from his power-packed straight driving and those wonderful athletic fielding bursts in the covers which nine times out of 10 ended with direct hits on the target of a single stump.

Nor was there the same air of infallibility about the slip catching of Warne, Ponting and Hayden — the backbone of what was one of the finest Australian fielding sides I have ever witnessed.

The success rate of the Aussie catching throughout the recently concluded Ashes series must have topped the 75% mark. I doubt whether Ponting's men will ever exceed this ratio again; and although the departure from their previous standards of excellence may prove minimal, it may also prove to be the difference between winning and losing the World Cup.

Ponting's responsibilities are immense. The departure of Martyn and Langer means that he cannot now afford to be less than consistent with the bat than he currently, and fortunately, is. He will be looking for increased support from Hayden, and his vice-captain, Gilchrist, who may be asked to shoulder a heavier load of batting and leadership responsibilities.

Also in the frame is Mike Hussey, who, on occasions of late, has also been asked to substitute as captain. Is this, I wonder, a straw in the wind as to what may happen five years down the track? And importantly, can Hussey motivate the side, as does Ponting, driving them on to greater efforts and higher goals?

News from the Australian front voices the concern of Tim May, the CEO of the International Players' Union, that agreement has been reached between India and Australia to augment the number of International games played between the two countries by 21, debasing the coinage of one-dayers and cheapening the skills of the game. The diluting effect of this trend reminds me forcibly of the situation in post WW2 English county cricket — an era when 18 county teams played each other twice in the course of the season.

Consequently players played six days of the week, for six months of the year, with batsmen going to the crease as frequently as 40 times per season. Batsmen did not prize their wickets enough, consoled by the knowledge that if they did not succeed today, they would be offered another opportunity to shine in the near future.

We seem to have come a long way from Doctor Johnson's definition in his diary: "Cricket — a game wherein a ball is driven with a club." To me it appears to have become more of a job!