Jan 8, 2009

Sport - Cricket;Ailing Australia still have firepower for Ashes

Problems abound for the Australia cricket team after their worst year since the dark days of 1985.

The question at the start of an Ashes year is whether the current malaise is a temporary and reversible decline or if it heralds the fall of one of the great sporting dynasties.

During 2008 Australia lost five tests and succumbed in consecutive series away to India and at home to South Africa. The South Africa defeat was their first series loss at home for 16 years.

South Africa now host a return series after which Australia take part in the Twenty20 World Cup before defending the Ashes in England.

A 103-run victory in the third test in Sydney over South Africa, albeit in a dead rubber, demonstrated how dangerous Australia remain. Their supporters will also cite a lengthy injury list and point out that only a year ago the side completed 16 test wins in a row for the second time.

Still the aura of invincibility built up steadily since Allan Border's side trounced an initially over-confident and ultimately demoralised England side 20 years ago has dimmed. The task for captain Ricky Ponting and his team mates is to restore the fortunes of the finest international sporting side during the opening decade of the 21st century.

Border, one of Australia's most courageous and prolific batsmen, had not wanted the job of captain and came close to resigning after his team lost series home and away to New Zealand.


He stayed on, fought through the tough times, and surrounded himself with men of talent and character including Mark Taylor and Steve Waugh who were to succeed him as national skipper.

Taylor finally achieved the series win over West Indies which had eluded Border, and Waugh inherited a team of supreme skills who went on to bring one-day scoring rates to test cricket.

Unlike some other countries, Australia do not over-complicate the job of selecting their leader.

Border was the team's best batsman. So too was Waugh and Ponting at his peak is better than either. As his country's leader, though, his reputation has suffered since he was out-thought by Michael Vaughan in the wonderful 2005 Ashes series.

Two crucial passages decided the first two tests against South Africa in the visitors' favour. In Perth, South Africa scored 414 for four to win the match, the second highest winning total in a test. In Melbourne, Jean-Paul Duminy and Dale Steyn added 180 for the ninth wicket in South Africa's first innings.

Both times Ponting and his team looked increasingly clueless and suddenly it was South Africa, who had never previously won a series in Australia, who were setting the pace.

In Ponting's defence, captaincy was an altogether different job before Glenn McGrath, Shane Warne and Adam Gilchrist retired in quick succession.

Pace bowler McGrath was both enforcer and container, Warne is acknowledged as the most accomplished leg-spinner test match cricket has ever seen and wicketkeeper Gilchrist was a uniquely destructive batsman.


Two other integral members of the team have lost form and fitness respectively. The runs have dried up for opener Matthew Hayden and fast bowler Brett Lee is now injured after struggling to make an impact against either India or Australia.

Six months is a long time in the frenzied world of international cricket and Australia can still assemble a team easily good enough to start as Ashes favourites.

Simon Katich has re-established himself at the top of the order, Ponting is still a wonderful batsman and Michael Clarke has added consistency to his talent in the middle order.

Andrew Symonds, troubled by disciplinary and fitness problems, is crucial to the balance of the side with his batting, fielding and bowling in two styles. The expected return of Stuart Clark after injury will bring a master of line and length back to the pace attack.

Throw in the rapidly improving fast left-armer Mitchell Johnson, who has the potential to become a genuine all-rounder, and the blossoming batting skills of wicketkeeper Brad Haddin and Australia's plight does not look so desperate after all.

"The thing we can take out of the last few weeks is that when we've played our best cricket it's been very good," Ponting told reporters before the Sydney test against South Africa.

"But our worst cricket side has been awful so we've got to find a gap in the middle there."

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