Australians in terminal decline

Ricky Ponting was - not without reason - expected to be the link between generations, his own and the next. Today he is between generations, as the old order is changing and the new is found wanting.-K.R. DEEPAK

In their best phase, the odds were always on the Australians in a pressure situation because they had the bowling, the fielding, and above all the attitude that pulled teams out of trouble. That has been missing for some time, writes Suresh Menon.

Everybody has a precise moment for when the Australian renaissance began in world cricket. For some it began with the tied Test in Chennai in 1986; for others — and this is the most popular choice — it did with the World Cup triumph in 1987. Steve Waugh's Ashes win in 1989, seen through a-historical eyes, has sometimes been mentioned as the starting point.

The moment of decline is rather more difficult to pinpoint. Did it start with the retirement of Mark Waugh, or later, with the farewells to the bowling greats Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath and the wicketkeeper Adam Gilchrist? Australia have been a team in decline for a while now. This despite what their record tells us. Of the 43 Tests since the retirement of Warne and McGrath, Australia have won 21 and lost 14; of the 106 one-dayers since McGrath said goodbye, they have won 68 and lost only 31.

So where's the catch? Australia have lost half the Tests they played against both India and England; and have an inferior record against South Africa in the one-dayers. In the recent past, they have not played the big games well or taken on the big teams with the same air of confidence. In their best phase, the odds were always on them in a pressure situation because they had the bowling, the fielding, and above all the attitude that pulled teams out of trouble. That has been missing for some time.

Greg Chappell thinks an important reason for the decline is the homogenous nature of Australian wickets; this lack of variety means players struggle on anything they are not familiar with. Javed Miandad thinks it is the IPL and the temptation of big money which is the culprit.

Michael Holding feels the decline is similar to that of the West Indies and attributed it to a “lost generation of players” who did not get a chance due to the presence of the stalwarts a few years ago. “There is a lost generation of Australian players in their late 20s, players who should have been learning their trade during the 2006-07 Ashes, but couldn't find a spot because there were so many exceptional 30 somethings in the team,” Holding said recently.

Long before they lost both Tests in a series in India last year, and the Ashes for the third successive time more recently at home, Australia had already begun to attract pity and malicious glee in about equal measure. Great teams which have been at the peak for a long time and are clearly moving down the other side of the hill often have to put up with this. It happened with the West Indies in the late 80s. On the evidence of the World Cup, Australia are in terminal decline; a state that doesn't seem to worry either the administrators or the players to any great degree.

Australia are different. The World Cup was the final confirmation — if such was necessary — that they have to shift the focus from consolidating to rebuilding. The best teams go through crests and troughs, and it is now Australia's turn to see how the other half lives and plays.

The secret of successful teams lies in balance. The West Indies might have dominated the scene in the 70s and 80s with their battery of fast bowlers and without even a token nod to a spinner, but that has to be the exception. In Ahmedabad, against India in the quarterfinal, Australia had four bowlers capable of bowling at over 140 kmph, but it was like watching an old movie in slow motion. Whatever Jason Krejza's qualities, they do not include the consistency of line and length. Michael Clarke was the reverse of the perfect all-rounder, contributing neither as batsman or bowler. And given a chance to replace a fast bowler with a spinner when Doug Bollinger returned home, Australia chose to fly out batsman Michael Hussey.

It was said of the spin-heavy Indian teams of the 1970s that till the country produced a fast bowler, they would have no chance of dining at the high table in international cricket. There is delicious irony in the latest twist to that theory: till Australia find a top-class spinner, they cannot hope to dominate again.

Such is Australia's plight that they might break with tradition and do one of two things, neither of which would have been an option in the past. They might be forced to retain Ricky Ponting as captain (this is being written before all the crucial meetings) because of the TINA factor — ‘There Is No Alternative' — made famous by Indian politicians. Or, they might keep him on as a player still at the top of his game and hand over the captaincy to a younger man.

The Australian hard-nosed, unsentimental reaction would have been to sack Ponting both as captain and player, clean the slate and start afresh. Steve Waugh was politely asked to go, Bill Lawry and Kim Hughes less politely. Ponting is a reminder of both a glorious past and a shabby present, which will not make the decision any easier.

There is something fascinating about watching a dynasty come to an end; it's rather like watching a documentary of a predator swallowing its prey. On reflection, there might be sadness and sympathy, but while it's happening the action is riveting. The ICC rankings were introduced only in 2003, but had they existed since 1995 — the year Ponting made his debut — Australia would have been at the top all the time barring eight months.

Ponting was — not without reason — expected to be the link between generations, his own and the next. Today he is between generations, as the old order is changing and the new is found wanting. From being a coordinator in the days of the star players, he was expected to be a moulder of the younger players, a role he is uncomfortable with.

Now he is up against the oldest and most unfair rating in the game — when teams win, it is due to teamwork, team spirit and all those wonderful things, but when teams lose, it is the captain's fault. Yet captains can raise a team's play only so much. In the end, the cliche holds (that is why they are cliches): a captain is only as good as his team.

Australia are currently fifth in the Test ratings, and at the time of writing, No. 1 in the one-day list. Not surprisingly, the international teams divide themselves neatly into the top and bottom teams. Neatly, because the same five teams are the best in either form of the game, only the order is different. When your game is in distress, it affects all formats.

The champion Australian teams have been known as much for their attitude as for their players. After the ‘mental disintegration' they imposed on other teams, the time has come for a ‘mental re-integration' of their own.