Hoping for the best

Peter Siddle... immensely talented.-PTI

The Australian side to tour South Africa is not the most frightening one the nation has sent overseas but it has unity and spirit and suggests that better days may lie ahead, writes Peter Roebuck.

Australia has chosen an adventurous team to tour South Africa. Broadly speaking, it is also the right team. It has been an unsettling period for Australian cricket as the fate of the side fell into the hands of senior players unable or unwilling to bear the burden. Instead they allowed themselves to get distracted by events at the SCG Test and spent the ensuing months crying over spilt milk. A rash of injuries made matters worse, with Brett Lee and Stuart Clark missing for long spells and Bryce McGain hurting a shoulder and thereby leaving the spinning cupboard almost bare.

Caught unawares, the selectors and captain started acting in haste and repenting at leisure. Common sense was ignored. Indian supporters will recall the unbalanced sides fielded on the recent tour, with batsmen called upon to bowl spin and so forth. Tactics also went awry, with Rick Ponting failing to press home the advance his side had unexpectedly secured at tea on the fourth day in Nagpur. Australia’s failure to attack at the critical moment was untypical. Better than anything else it revealed a loss of judgement.

Nothing much improved during the summer, with defeats suffered against a rising South African team, further injuries, confirmation that Andrew Symonds was mentally and physically fragile and so forth. Losing to a weak Kiwi outfit in Perth merely reinforced the impression that the hosts were in disarray. Even the response to Brad Haddin’s blunder told a tale. Far from expressing regret the nationalists grizzled about Daniel Vettori’s comments and demanded an apology! The arrogance was mind boggling. Meanwhile a beleaguered captain advocated the selection of seasoned campaigners. Ponting and his deputy were promoted as young boys yet he wanted to delay the next generation.

Just as disgruntlement was turning into despair Australia recovered its wits. The party to tour Africa contains a fine young batsman in Phil Hughes, recovered leggie in Bryce McGain and the find of the year in Peter Siddle.

Admittedly these names will not send shivers down any spines but their inclusion means that Australia has swept aside the debris of a difficult year.

Hughes, 20, is a small, punchy left-handed opener averaging 84 in Shield cricket this season. A country boy whose dad grows bananas, he learnt the game by hitting cricket balls put in a sock dangling from a string. At night he practised his strokes in front of a mirror. He is tough and hungry.

McGain is an accurate wrist-spinner reliant on variety as opposed to fierce spin. At 36 he’s been waiting a long time for this opportunity. Siddle’s ungrudging spirit impressed the Indians in Mohali. All of them have been sustained by love of the game.

Amongst the rest, Marcus North is a robust batsman and a handy off-spinner whilst Ben Hilfenhaus and Doug Bollinger can swing the ball. Australia’s inability to move the ball has allowed batsmen to score comfortably against them. It is not the most frightening side Australia has sent overseas but it has unity and spirit and suggests that better days may lie ahead.

Back in the ranch Andrew Symonds will attempt to confront his demons whilst Lee, Clarke, Phil Jaques and others will try to prove their fitness for the Ashes trip. Meanwhile Callum Ferguson, a talented lad, will play his first ODIs and Clarke has turned down IPL to concentrate on his international commitments. The Australians may still be beaten. By the look of things, though, they have stopped beating themselves.