Decline of Aussies in Test status

Matthew Hayden of Australia announced his retirement from international cricket in January.-AP

Australia did call the shots, in Test matches, against the visiting West Indies during the end of 2009. But largely it remained a year in which Ricky Ponting’s men were weighed down by expectations and an imposing legacy constructed over two decades. By K. C. Vijaya Kumar.

An empire seems to be ebbing away. Not since the West Indies dominated cricket in the 1970s and the 80s, has a team bulldozed opposition like the way the Australians did. And as 2009 drew to a close, Australia’s Test balance sheet includes a 2-1 series victory over the Proteas in South Africa that was subsequently marred by an Ashes defeat in England.

Australia did call the shots against the visiting West Indies during the end of 2009, but largely it remained a year in which Ricky Ponting’s men were weighed down by expectations and an imposing legacy constructed over two decades.

The year began with a cliché — the battle was won but the war was lost. Australia defeated South Africa by 103 runs in Sydney while Ponting’s counterpart Graeme Smith batted with a broken left arm and gamely tried to delay the inevitable loss. However, Australia’s victory failed to dent the South Africans’ enthusiasm to uncork the champagne as the visitors had already won the series 2-1.

Smarting under the home series loss, Ponting’s men flew to South Africa in February and scored a 2-1 triumph.

However, the Ashes though proved to be a sterner test.

Having learnt the perils of excessive euphoria after its triumph in 2005, England, ably led by Andrew Strauss, remained guarded but played the critical moments better to wrest the urn with a 2-1 scoreline.

England, buoyed by a bustling Andrew Flintoff’s final phase in Tests, won at Lord’s, lost at Leeds but came back strongly to win at The Oval though the celebration was largely muted as Michael Atherton pointed out in his column.

However, it was a moment that proved that the cracks in the Aussie edifice were real and not just a mirage.

In the initial months, Australia had to come to terms with Matthew Hayden’s retirement and as the year wore on, Brett Lee’s recurrent injuries unsettled a bowling attack that has never coped with the retirement of Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne.

Mitchell Johnson was not consistent, while Peter Siddle looked the part. The spin attack, led by Nathan Hauritz, was busy finding its loop and drift. The batting, despite Hayden’s final bow and the ‘Law of Averages’ catching up with Michael Hussey, managed to hold on as Michael Clarke, Philip Hughes, Marcus North, Simon Katich and Brad Haddin had their moments of consistency.

Ironically for the Australians, it also proved to be a roller-coaster 12 months as far as one-dayers were concerned. The team, despite losing two series to the South Africans and failing in the ICC Twenty20 World Cup, won the ICC Champions Trophy in South Africa and with almost an ‘A’ side, plagued by injuries, defeated India 4-2.

Obviously the Aussies’ relative slump in quality was exposed in the Tests but in the shorter format, the glitches were ironed out with a mix of enthusiasm and a never-say-die spirit.

It was a moment of ecstasy for Pakistan as it won the ICC World Twenty20 at Lord’s on July 21. It defeated Sri Lanka in the final. Captain Younis Khan found able allies in Shahid Afridi and Abdul Razzaq and in a team that briefly forgot its internal wrangles.

Another moment of David quelling Goliath happened when the visiting Bangladeshis won their Test series against the West Indies 2-0. It helped though that the West Indies team was a pale shadow of itself as the regulars were benched following the payment crisis. Prior to losing against Bangladesh, the West Indians had begun the year well, defeating England 1-0 in Tests but with the subsequent salary-tussle, the Caribbeans lost their way, losing their away series against England.

Among the rest, Sri Lanka, despite losing the Test series against India 0-2 in December, coped with a ghastly terror strike in Lahore, won a large percentage of its matches, handled the captaincy transition, from Mahela Jayawardene to Kumar Sangakkara, well and lived on its batting muscle spearheaded by Tillakaratne Dilshan though Muttiah Muralitharan’s slow walk towards the sunset, caused some concern.

Meanwhile, New Zealand had a forgettable year, losing to India and Sri Lanka in the Tests and managing to hold on to a 1-1 verdict against the visiting Pakistanis. And as Dhoni and company gained the number one Test slot before Christmas, the baton of dominance had slipped away from the Aussies’ grasp.