Australians in a spin again

Common jest among Australian supporters in England earlier this year was resemblance of the Ashes of 2006/07 to "the war" in Fawlty Towers: it was an event not to be mentioned, lest it disturb the warming afterglow, and constant highlights packages, of the Ashes of 2005.

The same might now be said of the Ashes of 2009, at least in Australia, where a discrete veil has been drawn over the Oval upheaval of August, during which not only did Ricky Ponting's team surrender the trophy but also their long-term status as cricket's ne plus ultra. 2-1? Not so loud. Ashes? Hey, we'll have them back before anyone realises they're gone-. Maybe; maybe not. Officially, Australia are now third on the ICC Test match rankings, Sri Lanka slipping behind them thanks to their travails in India, having been fourth immediately after the Oval Test - the lowest they have been in Ponting's storied career, and a great many cricket fans' lives.

There is the consolation that Australia remain atop the ICC's limited-overs ladder. And some days, especially during their recent one-day series in England and in India, the Australians show the vitality of a team in renewal. Other days, mainly in Test cricket, they look surprisingly callow and even lacklustre. In the recent second Test against West Indies in Adelaide, as against South Africa last summer, they seemed a team waiting for things to happen rather than confident they would. An Australian appeal used to resound with the authority of a town crier's proclamation; now it is more like the knock of a dogged travelling salesman, determined because it has to be.

Perhaps most mysteriously, in the meantime, despite the success of individual Australians in the Indian Premier League and Champions League, a Twenty20 formula has so far eluded them. Frustrations are percolating, like those expressed by Shane Warne last month: "You have to say the Australian side have been in a transition phase. But there has to be a line - when does that transition phase stop?" It was Warne who began that transition phase three years ago when he called time on his storied career. With the ensuing attrition, everyone expected Australia to come back to the field: where to find replacements for not just Glenn McGrath, Adam Gilchrist, Matthew Hayden, Justin Langer and Damien Martyn, but also Stuart MacGill, Michael Kasprowicz, Jason Gillespie, Jimmy Maher, Martin Love and Brad Hogg?

Yet the succession has not been orderly, and the result a scenario not unlike the last time Australia were other than first or second in the world, now a generation ago. After a decade and more in which the Australian XI were as hard to enter as Yale's Skull and Bones fraternity, it has become more like a roomy youth hostel with plenty of bunks and comfy couches. Back in the day, Australia appointed the legendary, leathery Bob Simpson as coach, who detected an air of panic. "When I first took over as Australia's coach in 1986," he reminisces in his memoirs, "there were 44 players running around in Sheffield Shield who had played in some form of international cricket. A joke. There has never been a period in history when Australia had 44 players good enough to play for their country."

This same "joke" must have tickled Australia's current selection panel: in the past two years, Australia have been represented by no fewer than 45 players - a remarkable statistic in a country still with only six first-class teams. Some accomplished cricketers have been unearthed by this nationwide talent search, including the phlegmatic West Australian Marcus North; there have been worthwhile second and third chances for the hard-working Brad Haddin and Simon Katich, and promising initial glimpses of the 25-year-old batsmen Callum Ferguson and Tim Paine. Yet for all the experimental zeal, Australia seem as far from filling some key vacancies as ever.

The most gaping is the one where the greatest hole was left. In the past five years, a dozen players have auditioned to bowl slow for Australia, and thereby to succeed Warne. Nathan Hauritz, the man in possession, has yet to dispel the sensation that he is simply the last man standing. Twenty-eight-year-old Hauritz is an admirably dedicated cricketer who uses his every last microgramme of talent, and has lately widened his repertoire to include a doosra. But it is more than 100 years since Australia regularly won matches with off-spin, and Hauritz is not a bowler to change the course of history.

A sign of Australia's hankering for a breakthrough wrist spinner is the attention lavished, by Warne inter alia, on New South Wales's 20-year-old Steve Smith, whose 11 wickets in eight first-class games have cost 61 runs each. A sign of parochial impatience with Hauritz is the internet group Concerned Tasmanians for Jason Krejza, who last month called for 12 minutes' silence on the anniversary of off-spinner Krejza's debut 12-358 at Nagpur, a feat that earned him only one further Test cap.

Australia have arrived at a more workable pace configuration, with Ben Hilfenhaus to swing it, Peter Siddle to bounce it, and Mitchell Johnson to do both, either or neither depending on his various humours. The consensus is now that Johnson was pushed too far too fast ahead of his Lord's pratfalls; relieved of the new ball, he has made a lower-profile, higher-armed contribution since. The trouble is that when Hilfenhaus is absent and Siddle impaired as at Adelaide, or one bowler has a blow-out as at Lord's, 20 wickets can seem like 40, what with the lack of penetrative slow bowling or effective reverse swing.

Australia are better stocked with young pace bowlers than for several years. Victorian Clint McKay is fit and strong; Novacastrian Burt Cockley hits the deck hard, and has a name that savours of a race caller or a big band leader. Hilfenhaus's stand-in at Adelaide, Doug Bollinger, did enough to make an impression on Chris Gayle, who before the Test had not known his name, with a durable and repeatable left-arm action and less repeatable repartee. Ten years younger, Craig McDermott's son Alister is generating notices similar to Mitchell Johnson at a comparable stage in his career. Chances are that they will all have their opportunity, given the wear and tear on young bodies of modern cricket's non-stop tour to nowhere.

To fill the absences atop the order left by Hayden and Langer, meanwhile, the Australians have press-ganged two middle-order batsmen, Simon Katich and Shane Watson. A case can be made for such promotions, given the scarcity of bowlers of express pace, and they have been effective enough, adding 174 for the first-wicket at Adelaide Oval. Three openers in Phil Hughes, Phil Jaques and Chris Rogers, however, must puzzle at the indifference to their discipline of three former specialist openers turned selectors in Andrew Hilditch, David Boon and Jamie Cox. And Ponting himself is publicly a Hughes fan, convinced that Watson would be better placed in Australia's middle-order "playing a true all-rounder's role"; to further spice such openings, he has also argued that he should be a selector.

Here, in fact, lie the most intriguing questions surrounding the Australian team: their future leadership. Ponting is very much in harness, perhaps slightly past his peak as a batsman, but coming into his own as a captain, a mellowing individual and an unflagging enthusiast, at least according to his most recent tour diary: "I've got no intention of retiring, and I'll keep playing whether I've got a 'c' next to my name or not, but at the moment I feel I'm the best person to take the team forward."

And such straight talking on matters of choice and policy do suggest a man in tune with his task. Michael Clarke occupies an uneasier niche: now officially Ponting's heir, but also "Australia's most overrated cricketer", according to a well-publicised poll dreamed up by News Ltd sports editors to enliven a slow-news summer. For although Clarke has been consistency itself with the bat, showing his cool head again on the last day in Adelaide as West Indies unexpectedly pressed for victory, something about his media-minded metrosexuality still sticks in the craw of conservative fans.

Nor has his anointing been unproblematic. With Ponting's retirement from the format, Clarke will commence fleshing out his long-term leadership claims in Twenty20 - a cricket genre on which he has left little trace hitherto, averaging less than 20 and scoring at a slow-coach run a ball while also eschewing IPL. Questions also surround the lingering bad back that kept him from Australia's most recent one-day series against India. If Ponting continues nurturing his fantasy of leading Australia to the Ashes of 2013, Clarke faces a long apprenticeship; he might actually need it.

The weightiest issues concerning Australian cricket, however, transcend the fortunes of the national team, or even the rekindling of the Ashes next summer; they relate, rather, to the evolving shape of the international game. Australia's dominance was of a more orderly and stable sport. Over the past couple of years, objectives in global cricket have blurred; it is as if world football supremacy was to be determined by a combination of fully fledged 90-minute games, golden goals, penalty shootouts and seven-a-side with mixed teams and jumpers for goalposts. Cricket today is a wider world, a deeper market, one it is harder to rule unilaterally, as Australia have been accustomed to doing, and in which it is arguable that the Australian team have fewer fans than the Chennai Super Kings.

Australians have an attachment to Test cricket, springing partly from consistent long-term success at it. Just lately, they have noticed not everyone shares their sense of priorities; in a country that likes its rituals, with its Melbourne Test on Boxing Day and its Sydney Test at New Year, there is also a sense of confusion and dismay about ever-changing, ever-tightening international schedules. For in a 2009 of generally hard cricket labour for all concerned, Ponting's team were the sport's Stakhanovites. Australian players are also, of course, the world's best paid, but their year's ration of 40 one-day internationals and 13 Tests represented a solid gold treadmill. The Australians also face a busy 2010 even before the Ashes, with five ODIs now scheduled against England in June, preparatory to Twenty20 internationals at Edgbaston and Tests at Lord's and Headingley against Pakistan.

Injuries have exacted an unsurprising toll, with Brett Lee, Stuart Clark, Callum Ferguson and James Hopes all hors de combat for lengthy periods. Nor has every motivation stood the distance: the likes of Andrew Symonds, Shaun Tait and Brad Hodge have already opted to concentrate on the game's briefer variations, and others will surely follow - a further reflection of cricket's evolution. As in England, the embrace of Twenty20 has been more ardent at domestic than national level, access to India's lucrative Champions League having turned the interstate KFC Big Bash competition into Australia's biggest cricket prize. Indeed, while it seems like only yesterday that Australian cricketers were bleeding green and gold, the Australian Cricketers Association found in their latest membership survey that less than half the country's first-class cricketers thought representing their country would be the game's ultimate accolade in a decade's time.

These are for Australian cricket, "interesting times" of the Chinese curse variety. All of which makes the "don't-mention-the-Ashes" expedient ever-so-slightly perverse. For by failing to make the trophy a public priority, Australia may be bringing closer the day it is not.

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