Australia: how much longer at the top?

There have been signs — like a rain cloud no bigger than a man's hand and hovering on the horizon — that the good days Down Under may not last forever. Remember, there was a time when the West Indies seemed likely to rule cricket as long as a man could predict and their reign came to a sudden end, writes TED CORBETT.

THE most important moment of 2003 came with the announcement of the end of world Waugh two.

After the exit of Steve Waugh in less than a fortnight, Australia will have massive reconstruction job on hand. — Pic. DANIEL BEREHULAK/GETTY IMAGES-

When Steve Waugh decided to follow his twin brother Mark into retirement, to give up the Test captaincy of Australia that he had fought so hard to keep, it was a sign that the leading cricket country had a serious reconstruction to undertake and that any nation with ambitions to take over the crown had a tiny window of opportunity.

Not that it will be easy although Australia also have injury concerns for their older bowlers and have had to draw on a much larger pool than they expected as they maintained their lead at the top.

Self-confidence, the spirit of Waugh as he called on the power of the baggy green cap as if it had the properties of a genie that could be called from its bottle at will and the strength of their second-string players — inspired by the success of the seniors and the second successive World Cup victory — meant they hardly faltered.

They finished off England at the start of the year; downed West Indies in the Caribbean after the World Cup was put back in their trophy room and Bangladesh in the middle.

But now they have come a cropper against India in Adelaide.

There are still two Test matches for the Aussies to make amends, but then this defeat has come as a huge shock.

There have been signs — like a rain cloud no bigger than a man's hand and hovering on the horizon — that the good days Down Under may not last forever. Remember, there was a time when the West Indies seemed likely to rule cricket as long as a man could predict and their reign came to a sudden end.

The Aussie sporting public will remember that England's star team stopped them in their tracks in the World Rugby Cup final and the superstitious will wonder if it is an indication of the fate of the Ashes. Don't ask the Aussies if that is their feeling; you may receive a very rude answer.

Graeme Smith, the South African captain, is still na�ve and needs to be toughened in the furnace of Test cricket. — Pic. GETTY IMAGES-Graeme Smith, the South African captain, is still na�ve and needs to be toughened in the furnace of Test cricket. — Pic. GETTY IMAGES

That is the Aussie way. But for how much longer?

Glenn McGrath's verbal assault on Ramnaresh Sarwan during the West Indies series so offended cricket's dignitaries that there was an immediate call for an end to the nefarious business of foul sledging.

McGrath, who claimed he was sensitive because his wife was ill, apologised; and that does not happen every day of the week. James Sutherland, the chief executive of Cricket Australia, announced an attempt to clean up the language of the game onfield. He actually rang Steve Waugh to protest and that does not happen on a daily basis either.

It will not help the Australian cause for verbal intimidation has been part of their technique and, to be fair about a dubious practice, they have mastered the art.

Some of it was funny and there is no harm in that whether you are working in an air-cooled office or battling for your Test life in the middle of the Melbourne Cricket Ground. From W. G. Grace — "they came to see me bat, not watch you umpire", when he was out in a testimonial match — to Fred Trueman — "that ball were too good for thee," after he had comprehensively bowled a young student — it has been part of the game.

Some of it is as destructive as a bouncer on the helmet.

Steve Waugh probably ensured victory in the 1999 World Cup semi-final when he told Herschelle Gibbs of South Africa, "you've just dropped the World Cup, son" after Gibbs celebrated a catch too soon and let the ball slip out of his fingers.

But the foul language that has been part of the Australian sledging method does nothing to turn the game into a great public spectacle and few will be sorry to see it end. It has been aped by children, spread into the lesser leagues — which threatened to become a by-word for violence in England a few years ago — and left the newspapers with columns full of asterisks in order to avoid revealing to just what depths the Australian cricketers had descended.

How will they fare without their mouths to do the talking?

Let us not be fooled. Any Australian team will be powerful because cricket is regarded as the national game in a country, which is one of the most sports orientated in the world. I like the story of John Crawley, the England batsman, visiting a school and not too impressed with the behaviour of the pupils.

"They obviously don't teach you lot manners," snapped Crawley. "What do they teach you?"

"How to beat you lot at cricket!"

It was an answer which might be considered impertinent in many countries but it shows the Australian habit of calling a spade a shovel and just where they learn their sledging; never mind how young. Whether it is nice, whether people in the best society admire the idea, whether the Queen would choose to join in such a conversation is beside the point.

You take on an Aussie in a verbal battle at your peril and you may come a bad second unless your wits are very sharp indeed.

The same applies to cricket, which is why, if there are changes in the world rankings, they will not come quickly.

For one reason. Shane Warne, who left a lot of batsmen sleeping more easily because he missed almost all this year after being banned for a drugs offence, will be back early in 2004.

Will he be as good? Will the flipper, the slider, the zooter and the googly still be as effective? Will he dare to walk to the crease with the menace that used to announce the arrival of the most extraordinary collection of perfectly-pitched, beautifully-flighted, exquisitely-paced deliveries in the history of slow bowling?

We will leave that answer to the review of 2004 and look instead at the contenders for the world crown.

South Africa, a tough bunch, still lead the race but they are disappointing. Not only does the most charismatic captain in their history turn out to be a cheat but their stars have feet of clay, save for the brave Gary Kirsten, still going strong as he heads for 40, still the batsman most sides would like to have in their middle order.

Since Hansie Cronje, South Africa have had two tactically naive captains in Shaun Pollock — who was too busy bowling his impressive line and length for the subtle bits of the art of captaincy — and young Graeme Smith, who has a touch of luck to help him on his way but who needs to be toughened in the furnace of Test cricket over a number of years before he leads South Africa to the top.

(Incidentally, I take no notice of the daft league table that gave them precedence over Australia. It was the table that needed adjustment not the position of the two teams.)

Yet South Africa have the basis for a great team: Kirsten, Smith, Pollock, Makhaya Ntini, the wicket-keeper Mark Boucher and the great Jacques Kallis need nothing much in the way of support to improve their results out of all recognition.

Jacques Rudolph was the best of the young batsmen on show during their recent drawn series in England; and Andrew Hall has many admirers for his spirit if not for the straightness of his bowling arm.

But somehow greatness appears to elude South Africa and it is difficult to understand why.

England, also challengers for the top spot if Australia falter, have been unable to shake off the effects of injury and this year they also took a large step backwards when their captain Nasser Hussain suddenly decided it was time to step down.

His successor Michael Vaughan was hardly in the running for the job a year ago but Marcus Trescothick made mistakes in Australia and during the World Cup and when a decision had to be made quickly Vaughan was shunted into the job without warning.

Given that unfortunate haste he has handled the job well and there are signs that his partnership with Duncan Fletcher will be as profitable as Hussain's.

Brian Lara has set out on a mission to revive West Indian cricket. -- Pic. AP-

Fletcher, now a permanent member of the England and Wales Cricket Board staff, a unique development in the employment of the previously expendable coaches, is beginning to have his effect. He has taught the bowlers to find the right spot on the pitch, the tail-enders to put together small, but vital quantities of runs and the batsmen to improve their skills against spin.

So he now has the best win-loss ratio of the five men who have coached England — Mickey Stewart, Keith Fletcher, Ray Illingworth and David Lloyd are the others since 1986 — and but for injuries his men would be firmly in second place to Australia.

Instead he has to contemplate the results of an injury list that would do credit to the television show Casualty: Andrew Caddick, Darren Gough, Simon Jones, Craig White are the permanently damaged and from time to time Fletcher has also had to choose a side without Richard Johnson, Matthew Hoggard, Andrew Flintoff, and the newest and most promising of them all, James Anderson.

West Indies are awaking again after a long sleep and, strange to relate, it is Brian Lara, back as captain, who can set the agenda for revival.

A strong West Indies side is good for world cricket and if that means another squad of fast bowlers or a new Ramadhin and Valentine combination there will be colour and drama and good cricket for us all.

India, with the strongest batting line-up, and the mercurial Pakistan might also spring into contention should a great player emerge; Sri Lanka and New Zealand shrink against the best while Zimbabwe and Bangladesh need sympathy and patience and maybe even a little outside help as they try to make a place for themselves in a tough world.

It will continue to be tough too whoever rules; probably Australia in the near future but watch out for England, India and New Zealand to climb towards the top.