Warning blips on the Australian radar

AUSTRALIA'S robust, pathbreaking thought processes which have defined world cricket for five years now, and have prompted a lot of similar thinking in lesser prepared countries, took their first little blow when their much loved rotation policy was forced to take a break. It must have bothered Steve Waugh a bit because he likes to be loyal to his theories and he can be quite stubborn about them. But defeat tends to bring differences to the fore and three in a row was probably too many for the selectors who are a pretty tough bunch of guys themselves.

To be honest though, the re-thinking on rotation doesn't come as a major surprise; just as it will not raise too many eyebrows if they go back to it at some time. Wonderful as this Australian team has been, it has been apparent for a while that they are better at Test cricket than at one-day cricket. In the shorter form of the game, differences between teams tend to get shortened. In Test cricket, they get underlined.

Rotation is a luxury the rich can bear. With the exception of South Africa, no country has done well consistently enough to be able to rest key players. No country has as wide a pool of players to pick from either and those two, success and choice, are the pillars of rotation. It is an admirable theory because at its heart, it seeks to remove the aura of indispensability around each player and provides a larger core of ready players. There is also the inevitable sense of competition that comes with giving players the opportunity to perform.

The second rung teams in one-day cricket, India, West Indies, New Zealand, couldn't really afford to move players around. Far too often, these teams find themselves in must-win situations and there is always the temptation, at such times, to pull the 12th man into a corner and tell him why he must carry the drinks one more time. Unlike New Zealand which has never really had a star culture, India and West Indies have also suffered from wide differences in ability between the top few players and the others. When you have only a small pool to pick from, you cannot cast your net wide.

I just wonder though if Australia's temporary rejection of the rotation policy has something to do with the fact that the replacements aren't being seen to be good enough. Certainly Australia have had a huge problem with all-rounders with neither Shane Lee nor the currently favoured Andrew Symonds able to convince people that they can play at this level consistently. Damien Martyn will probably never be a force with the ball and with the bowling skills of the Waughs declining quite quickly, Australia do not any more have the wide range of options they seemed to have. Without the great skills of Adam Gilchrist, the situation might have been even more pronounced.

Indeed, Australia have a few hard decisions coming up in the next 12 months. The Waughs are 36, will soon be 37, and key players like Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne are already into their thirties. They are playing great cricket at the moment but the laps they have done are more than those that lie ahead. Their three best cricketers in the last two years, Gilchrist, Matthew Hayden and Damien Martyn aren't the youngest in the game and even the perennially young Ricky Ponting is showing signs of thinning hair. Australia are a great, but ageing side. Their best young player is Simon Katich and he is 27.

It would suggest that Australia have some tough years ahead and history would point in that direction as well. A great team is invariably followed by a few lean years because while the stars can act as torch-bearers for another generation, they also tend to block the way long enough to lose the next one. It happened with the West Indies after a great run and the Australians know a thing or two about it as well having lived through the post Chappell-Lillee-Marsh era.

Steve Waugh says he wants to keep going till the next tour of India. That is three years away and it tells you how determined he is to conquer the one last kingdom that has stayed independent. Waugh's mind will be up to it, look how he willed himself to play the last Ashes Test a few months ago, but his body will ask tougher questions than it currently is. The mind can push the body but a rebellion is inevitable and you just get the feeling that the World Cup of 2003, Waugh's fifth, could be a turning point. His fitness will hold the key. And I won't be surprised if he, like Mark Taylor in his later years, leads Australia only in Test cricket leaving the one-day job for someone younger.

That World Cup is 12 months away but already there are a couple of signs that two dark horses are emerging, both led, coincidentally, by intelligent, competitive men. I have been bullish on England for a while and after speaking to Nasser Hussain on my show on Star Sports, I am even more convinced.

He carries no false images of his side's abilities and, unlike England teams of the past, is willing to put his nose to the wheel. He is well-read, thinks deeply about the game and is putting together a bunch of tough cricketers. We have always formed our image of English cricket by what their media says. Maybe it is time to change that.

And for my money, the team to watch is New Zealand. They have been the only team in recent times to give Australia a run for their money at home and like England are led by a man who doesn't speak much but who plays hard. They really only have one star in Chris Cairns but they are such a disciplined side and tend to contribute collectively rather than individually. On the other hand, teams from the sub-continent rely on individuals.

Yet, it is Australia who will corner everybody's attention over the next 12 months. How they phase this great team out will be one of the most fascinating sporting stories.