From the publishers of THE HINDU
VOL.32 :: NO.07 :: Feb. 14, 2009
Less than two years ago, Australia's cricket was the sole high point amid the administrative and cricketing failures at the World Cup in the Caribbean. Back then, the future of the team, and the level of its dominance post high-profile retirements were perceived as too distant to merit urgency. The Australian system, it was said back then, was too strong for the international side to experience a serious slump.
The retirements of Glenn McGrath and Adam Gilchrist have coincided with repeated injuries to Shane Watson and Stuart Clark and disciplinary issues with Andrew Symonds. Matthew Hayden underperformed and quit. Thus Australia's 1-4 defeat to South Africa in the ODI series will be seen as a definite sign of a slump.
The South Africans should be credited for efficiently dismantling whatever illusions were harboured. Australia's Test series loss didn't impact its rankings, but the one-day series loss cost it the No.1 spot, which numerically puts the slump in perspective.
Ricky Ponting broguht it down to an experimental phase that was required to build a side for the 2011 World Cup. Ponting compared this series loss to what Australia went through before the 2007 World Cup when he and Adam Gilchrist missed the Chappell-Hadlee series.
"Even now we are working toward the 2011 World Cup, blooding players, testing tactics and finding out who performs under pressure. Australia has not lost a game at the past two World Cups and that didn't happen by accident, but I wonder if x anybody remembers the 2007 one-day series against New Zealand over there...We lost 3-0 and it was right on the eve of the World Cup. I remember the criticism of the team and the speculation about whether Gilly and I should have been rested, but it was part of a plan to ensure our better players, or more experienced players, were ready for the big tournament," he wrote in The Australian.
Captains refer to World Cup preparation and project losses as crucial components of the bigger picture. Ponting's words might have more meaning, and might go down as prophetic if Australia manages an unbeaten run in the sub-continent in 2011; but defeats such as these don't yet point to a side that's building.
In contrast, the South Africans were confident - as one saw with Johan Botha's captaincy and Jean-Paul Duminy and Albie Morkel's aggressive, nerveless batting - and uncompromising. The overwhelming Test series win on Australian soil could've seen tapered down ambitions for the one-day series, but Botha saw to it that the approach was no different from the Test matches.
The batting and bowling displays revealed a side in complete control. Botha's use of the batting powerplay in the first ODI, when South Africa needed 51 runs from 36 balls with three wickets in hand, proved the right call as Albie Morkel did the damage. The batting powerplays were a problem for both captains, but the South African batsmen dealt with their captain's decision with more confidence. The Australian batting lacked beef and the bowling was a shadow of its former self, after injuries to Brett Lee and Stuart Clark.
"For years, Australia has always won the big moments in any match and they've very rarely been forced to play under pressure. They are a little brittle and lacking confidence at the moment," said South Africa's coach Mickey Arthur.
Possibly the most telling index of the side's current form has been its fielding. Ponting had remarked after Australia's loss to the visitors at Adelaide, that the fielding had lacked spark. Batting and bowling woes are often reflected in a side's energy on the field. In the past, Australia's healthy sense of self was often paraded in its fielding in the circle.
Arthur has also been quick to issue notice to the Australians that his team will not allow complacency to hinder its chances against them at home this month.
"The vibe since we returned home has been overwhelming. I want to leave nothing to chance ahead of the series because traditionally we've started poorly in the first Test of a home series.
"I don't want to be accused of complacency, which is why the guys are coming in for a five-day camp. We'll be getting together before the start of the Test in Johannesburg, so we're going in thoroughly prepared."
While there's been some rejoicing at Australia's slip in rankings, it opens up interesting possibilities, which could end up increasing the relevance of one-day cricket. The successes of South Africa and India were initially seen more as the lowering of standards than a more distributed increase in the quality; but the manner in which the Indians and the South Africans have been notching up wins could signal the beginning of a much-needed three-way battle in both forms of the game.
Fifth ODI, Perth, Jan. 30.
South Africa 288 for six in 50 overs (H. Amla 97, A. B. de Villiers 60, J. Duminy 60 not out, J. Hopes three for 44) bt Australia 249 in 49 overs (. M. Hussey 78, D. Hussey 32, B. Haddin 63, L. Tsotsobe four for 50).
Fourth ODI, Adelaide, Jan. 26.
Australia 222 in 48 overs (R. Ponting 63, M. Hussey 28, C. White 30, J. Hopes 42, D. Steyn three for 49, M. Ntini three for 52) lost to South Africa 223 for two in 38.1 overs (Amla 80 not out, H. Gibbs 38, De Villiers 82 not out).
Third ODI, Sydney, Jan. 23.
Australia 269 in 49.2 overs (S. Marsh 43, D. Warner 69, Ponting 29, D. Hussey 36, Hopes 33, J. Botha three for 32) lost to South Africa 270 for seven in 46.3 overs (Gibbs 64, J. Kallis 60, N. McKenzie 27, M. Boucher 31 not out, A. Morkel 40).
Second ODI, Hobart, Jan. 18.
Australia 249 for nine in 50 overs (Marsh 78, Ponting 64, M. Hussey 28, Ntini three for 39) bt South Africa 244 for six in 50 overs (Kallis 72, De Villiers 44, Duminy 35, Boucher 37 not out).
First ODI, Melbourne, Jan. 16.
Australia 271 for eight in 50 overs (Marsh 79, Ponting 46, D. Hussey 52) lost to South Africa 272 for seven in 49.3 overs (Kallis 41, Duminy 71, McKenzie 63, A. Morkel 40 not out.)
A Special Correspondent
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