SREELATA S.YELLAMRAZU | 29 JANUARY, 2020
Australia’s Stop-Start Revival of Fortunes
After nearly a year in incubation, results started to fill up the well
The consensus by a mile is that despite England’s winning the ICC Cricket World Cup 2019 and New Zealand winning hearts over an inexplicable rule that denied them the trophy, India were the overwhelming winners on the cricket field last year. However, Australia too walked away from the field of play with a spring in their step.
Australia began 2019 on a rather ignominious note. With a sense of the inevitable, India had carried out their promise and come together to pull off an extraordinary feat – beating Australia on their own turf for the first time in over seven decades. The hosts had to concede they had been thoroughly outplayed.
The defeat to India though had its seeds in that disastrous tour of South Africa when Cameron Bancroft was caught unsuccessfully trying to hide sandpaper in his trousers. That and the suspicious signals from the dressing room, and Steve Smith caving under pressure at the press conference in the course of the Newlands Test of 2018, was the final straw that broke the camel’s back. Australia’s cricketing system was self-destructing under pressure.
A slew of quick bans issued from Cricket Australia in their darkest hour polarised the cricketing world and plunged the sport into ignominy.
With a new coach appointed in Justin Langer and a stand-in captain, Tim Paine, for the rest of the series and for the Test format for the foreseeable future thereafter, the writing was on the wall. Australia needed to put their nose to the grindstone and put in the hard yards to turn this around.
It did not help that on the cricket field, it wasn’t just the ball they were tampering with – Australia had appeared to have lost their resilience and the quality of their skill set, throwing doubts on their domestic cricket structure and the delicate balancing act with the Big Bash League that had Indian Premier League style cash cow enticements written all over it.
It seemed the team’s ship had capsized with its two dubious marshalls – Steve Smith and David Warner – ruled out with one year bans respectively for their part in the disreputable deeds. Nothing further was said about who else may have been involved.
Hope began to float as Australia managed to draw with Pakistan overseas. Although their fortunes fluctuated as did the team’s composition, a cause for consternation about their selection policy, it wasn’t until the ODI tour of India earlier this year that Australia began to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
After nearly a year in incubation, results started to fill up the well.
That stupendous and unexpected series victory in India revitalised the team just as it broke up for the IPL only to huddle up once more as Smith and Warner prepared themselves for re-entry into the game around the time of the World Cup in England.
Some called it fortunate and some called it too much of a coincidence not to have been planned by Cricket Australia. Either way, the turnaround was almost immediate. Australia started to act like a cohesive whole again, almost as if the events of the year past had had no impact whatever on the team.
David Warner was irreprehensible through the course of the World Cup. Rampant and devastating, true to form, Warner led the charge. The numbers were proof enough, even as the English crowd reminded Australia that it wouldn’t be quite so easy to wipe off the stains.
Australia nearly pulled off a sixth trophy win before they were halted in their tracks by the eventual winners, England, in the semifinal. But it would only put a pause to what would end up being a spectacular year for Warner and team. Still only one run behind the tournament’s highest run scorer, Warner notched up the runs at will, reminding the world why Australia needed their perennial bad boy back in business, all misdeeds unequivocally forgiven.
Even Australia could not script this kind of fortune.
Where Warner’s form deserted him briefly, Smith took off like he hadn’t missed a year in his prolific phase before the ban. Back-to-back centuries in the first Ashes Test in Birmingham signalled that England had a challenge on their hands.
Even when Smith was sidelined after being hit by a Jofra Archer delivery in the second Test at Lord’s, the cricket gods were smiling on the team from down under.
Marnus Labuschagne became the first concussion substitute under the newly devised rules and went on to score 59 priceless runs in a vital partnership with Travis Head. It would be instrumental in Australia’s earning a draw and denying England an edge.
Scuttled by the pugnaciousness of Jack Leach who partnered England’s man of the moment, Ben Stokes, in a defiant last wicket partnership for a nail biting draw that give Australia the jittered at Headingley, Australia roared back with a win once Smith picked up his bat after his concussion break and carried on like nothing had happened.
Only one question remained after Australia retained the urn in England for the first time since 2001 at Old Trafford: Could Australia could sustain this momentum and hunger? They lost at the Oval and the question remained.
Back home, the home crowds were eagerly looking forward to bright days of cricket after a year of controversy, humiliation and a disconcerting loss to India. They would not be disappointed.
Warner plugged away at Pakistan, putting to rest questions about his Test form. If Adelaide signalled his hunger with a century, Brisbane became his holy grail as debate raged over whether he should have been given time to push from what looked like Australia’s top score to scoring an individual innings of 400 runs.
But even as the record breakers roared for Paine to let Warner bat on, once Warner had crossed the epic 334 run mark to overtake Donald Bradman and Mark Taylor, the Australian captain, despite criticism, did the right thing by declaring and giving his team enough time to pull off a victory against the visitors.
For too long, Australia have struggled to replace their dominant team of the 1990s. By the mid 2000s their senior group were making their exits and they found their coffers empty in terms of worthy candidates to take their place.
Selection issues abounded as they tried various players in leadership positions only to find that their vice-captains – five of them to date – were unable to cement their place in the team. Two vice captains, a bowling vice captain, nothing seemed to work.
The names of potential cricketers have floated in and out of the team: Joe Burns, Usman Khawaja, Mitchell Marsh, Travis Head, Marcus Harris, Matthew Wade to name a few, with seemingly no set direction in which to take Australia forward.
It was evident that the team can still be unnerved despite sighting victory, as in the first Test when Neil Wagner asked some disconcerting questions, particularly of Wade, whose cumbersome batting prompted Paine to insinuate bodyline tactics against their Trans Tasmanian rivals.
But by the end of the year, before Smith could add another century to his year’s tally in the Boxing Day Test at Melbourne against New Zealand, Labuschagne had overtaken the senior, prolific batsman by the stretch of his neck. With back-to-back centuries against Pakistan, Labuschagne became Australia’s biggest hope outside of the duo, rewarded with a one-day international berth in the tour of India.
This was a much needed ray of hope for Australia have been criticised for a want of sound foundational selection policies. They have now roped in current player George Bailey, a former Twenty20 and ODI captain, to serve as the third selector, Trevor Horns and Langer being the other two, in yet another controversial move as Bailey serves out his Big Bash contract with the Hobart Hurricanes.
Given the dearth of players eager to cement their places in the team, leave alone raise their hand to take on the leadership role, the conspiracy theory of Tim Paine warming the bench while Smith served out his two-year ban from the captaincy took on a new role, when former Australian captain Ian Chappell accused Smith of white-anting the Australian captain by resetting the field, going over the captain’s head, on the fourth day of the second Test against Pakistan.
In the midst of mental health concerns about two of their Test hopefuls, and the recent name of Glenn Maxwell thrown into the mix, Australia have had to address the uncertainty precipitated by the mushrooming Twenty20 leagues around the world, and by the lack of consistency in their own selection policy.
Criticised for looking to Peter Siddle to fill in the gaps in their bowling availability, it could be argued that England squared the Ashes series in Australia because by the time Australia got their bowlers in the right order – minus the rotation argument – England had found their toehold.
With the 1-2 loss to India in the just concluded ODI series, questions abound on the lack of quality spinners to warm the bench, and the batting line up, including the opening slot to complement Warner.
If Australia can settle into some kind of consistency about their playing lineup and come up with worthy leaders on the field and in the selection room, and plug those chinks in their armour, they will have a 2020 season just as successful as their last.
The defeat to India in the subcontinent shouldn’t dishearten them too much: India themselves have seen a tremendous rise in their fortunes after implementing deliberate plans to rebuild.