Australia’s downfall: The signs are clear

In essence, Australia isn’t the best side in the world any longer, but — if a spinner is unearthed, the injury situation eased, and the Hayden issue sorted — not too far behind the current pace-setters. By Karthik Krishnaswamy.

A great story is made memorable by one defining image. Equally, that one defining image can overstate the story’s central premise.

On the third day of the Boxing Day Test between Australia and South Africa at the MCG, Dale Steyn attempted to slog Nathan Hauritz, mistimed, and noted resignedly that mid on was Michael Hussey, and would therefore catch the ball, now falling from abo ut three storeys high, without any fuss.

But no; not only did Hussey not take the catch, he didn’t even get close. Blinded by the sun, he lost sight of the ball. And here’s the ironic bit; save for the turban and the wide-eyed bemusement, it was Monty Panesar comically ducking under an M. S. Dhoni mishit at Mumbai, 2006, all over again.

Plain embarrassment an Aussie can stomach, but not re-enactment of an Englishman’s embarrassment. If Australia is in terminal decline, this is the image that encapsulates it.

But is the decline of Test cricket’s number one team really terminal?

Australia’s Daily Telegraph certainly believes so, on the evidence of a mock obituary — a spin-off of what The Sporting Times famously published in 1882 — it carried in the aftermath of the Melbourne defeat. It reads:

“RIP, Australian Cricket, slaughtered by South Africa, December 30 at the MCG, aided and abetted by incompetent selectors, inept batting, impotent bowling, dreadful catching, poor captaincy.”

Others suggest that a return to the pack was inevitable given the concurrent retirements of some of the greatest wearers of the baggy green ever.

Without Glenn McGrath or Shane Warne around to throw the ball to anytime a wicket was required — some have uncharitably attributed all of Ricky Ponting’s initial success as captain to merely doing that — unease and insecurity has set in now. Evidence? Tail-waggery of the most sardonic sort: India at Sydney, Bangalore and Nagpur, South Africa at Melbourne.

Another symptom of this unease and insecurity: bad days in the field. The Melbourne Test truly was a terrible time for Australia’s fielders: overthrows, fumbles, and three missed chances including Hussey’s Monty moment, which allowed Dale Steyn to remain at the wicket with J. P. Duminy and take South Africa out of the rut. The Australians aren’t bad fielders, but they’re fielding badly.

Apart from Matthew Hayden’s terrible recent form, Australia’s batting has not dipped alarmingly. Hayden’s woes have meant that the once-inevitable humongous opening partnerships, so often the foundation of first innings monuments, haven’t happened enough. Understandably, the ‘bat once, bat big’ approach hasn’t been possible. And therefore, either Hayden must return to form in a hurry, or a younger, in-form opener — 20-year-old Philip Hughes’s name is being whispered excitedly — must be given his chance. Crucial to the recent success of India and South Africa has been heavy scoring from their opening pairs.

The rest of the batsmen have done okay. Three Australians — Ponting, Michael Clarke and Simon Katich — are among the 12 batsmen to go past 1000 runs in 2008, of whom four are South Africans, and four Indians. Michael Hussey’s average has gone from 80-plus to under 60; few would have expected him to continue scoring in a near-Bradmanesque manner. No one would suggest he’s no longer a very good batsman.

Despite all his off-field problems, Andrew Symonds scored over 700 runs at an average of over 50 in 2008. Brad Haddin made enough runs, and did so with enough panache, to fill Adam Gilchrist’s shoes without requiring too much padding with crumpled tissue.

The bowling, however, has slipped considerably.

From the turn of the century till the retirements of Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath, Australia had bowled opponents out twice in 70.59 per cent of its Tests. This includes matches the duo missed through injury or, in the case of Warne, suspension.

Since the final Test of the 2006-07 Ashes, McGrath’s and Warne’s last appearance, the percentage of twenty-wicket Tests drops to 58.82. And since the Sydney Test against India this January, the last of Australia’s 16-win sequence, it goes down further, to 46.15.

Admittedly, any team would struggle to replace two genuine all time greats.

In the 17 Tests the Aussies have played since the two walked into the sunset — Warne into a musical — Australia has had just three reliable wicket-takers: Brett Lee, Mitchell Johnson and Stuart Clark, with 79, 74 and 43 wickets (the fourth-highest on the list is Jason Krejza with 13 in two Tests). Of the three, Clark has missed the home series against South Africa thanks to a flaring-up of the elbow problem that kept him out of the majority of the India tour, and he is unlikely to make it for the return tour to South Africa.

He hasn’t been the only Aussie bowler troubled by injuries or off-field problems. Shaun Tait hasn’t played a Test since taking an indefinite break, citing physical and emotional exhaustion, after going wicket-less at Perth against India. Brett Lee (ankle), as well as all-rounders Andrew Symonds (knee) and Shane Watson (stress fracture of the back), will miss the rest of the summer.

On the surface, Australia’s new crop of seam bowling back-up seems reasonable. Twenty-four-year-old Peter Siddle showed promise in India without getting too many wickets, and, against the Proteas, came back from an ineffective display at Perth with first innings wickets in Melbourne, not an atypical growth curve for a young seamer. Of the other new faces in Australia’s squad, Ben Hilfenhaus and left-armer Doug Bollinger have had successful recent Pura Cup/Sheffield Shield seasons, and fast-medium all rounder Andrew McDonald’s first class record suggests he could fill in adequately for Symonds and Watson.

The spin scenario, however, isn’t encouraging.

Of the young tweakers touted as Warne replacements, Beau Casson, Dan Cullen, Cullen Bailey, Jason Krejza and Nathan Hauritz average over 40 in first class cricket, and Cameron White a fraction under. Not numbers that suggest international class. The 36-year-old leggie Bryce McGain, who would have played against India had injury not intervened, has given away 33 runs per first class wicket.

After Cameron White — more a batsman than a leggie in truth — was tried and discarded after three unproductive Tests, spin duties have alternated between offies Krejza and Hauritz. On the evidence of their showing so far, the former spins it big but concedes runs, and the latter offers control with little threat of running through sides. How the selectors would love a hybrid. While that isn’t feasible, sticking with one — Hauritz? — and allowing him to evolve and become part of the team, is. And that is the only way to proceed, even if it does not yield immediate results. The long-term approach the selectors adopted during the doldrums of the mid-80s must be emulated.

Stuart Macgill, who must surely have been thought of as the short-to-medium-term answer to fill the Warne-shaped gap, took just 10 wickets in his four post-Warne Tests, was diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome, and retired. Chinaman bowler Brad Hogg, a one-day regular till then, retired after playing three middling Tests against India.

And that, it can be argued, gives the selectors, whom The Daily Telegraph termed incompetent, some length of rope.

In essence, Australia isn’t the best side in the world any longer, but — if a spinner is unearthed, the injury situation eased, and the Hayden issue sorted — not too far behind the current pace-setters.