Australia played superbly against England in Ashes 2013-14 © Getty Images
As Graeme Smith’s South Africa get ready to host Australia in a three-match Test series starting off in Centurion from February 12, everyone may do well to remember that the South Africans have not won a series at home against Australia since 1969-70, when their impressive line-up consisting of Barry Richards, Mike Proctor, Eddie Barlow and Graeme Pollock combined together to hand out the visitors a 4-0 shellacking. Though a similar result looks rather unlikely given the form the Australians are in currently. Vineet Varma charts Australia’s performance in the last few years since they drew the series 1-1 against South Africa in 2011.
Come the first Test match at Centurion and apart from the toss, it will both be a battle of nerves and temperament between Graeme Smith’s South Africa and the Michael Clarke-led Australia. Both teams are coming off series wins against India and England respectively, with the Australians literally ripping England apart 5-0 in the Ashes series Down Under, whereas the South Africans are on a high after they edged out India 1-0 at home in a two-match Test series.
If we chart Australia’s progress since 2011 then the first series that comes to mind is the 3-1 defeat to England at home which probably started the slide for Clarke’s men in the Test arena. Despite Michael Hussey topping the batting charts with 570 runs and the Australian pace bowling trio of Mitchell Johnson, Peter Siddle and Ryan Harris finishing with a combined total of 40 wickets, it was not enough for Australia to halt the English charge. Apart from the 267-run win at Perth, the performances of Australia in the rest of the matches were less than satisfactory which led to them being humbled by England in their own backyard.
Next up for Australia was the Warne-Muralitharan Trophy which was to be played against Sri Lanka in their own den and Clarke’s men did not disappoint fans when they clinched the three-match series 1-0, thanks to a 125-run win in the first Test at Galle. Australia were spearheaded by Hussey who scored 463 runs in the series, whereas Ryan Harris impressed with his 11 wickets in the bowling department.
It was followed by the tour to South Africa, the very same year where the Australians salvaged some pride and managed to draw the two-Test series 1-1, thanks to Clarke’s gritty performance throughout, as he amassed 166 runs which also included a magnificent 151 in the first Test at Cape Town. Pat Cummins picked up seven wickets and was the most successful Australian bowler in the series which also saw Australia suffering the ignominy of being bowled out for a paltry 47 in their second innings at Cape Town, thus gifting South Africa an easy 8-wicket win in the process. Though Clarke and his men did manage to win a thriller of a game in the second Test at Johannesburg, hunting down a competitive total of 310 in a tense encounter, still the cracks were evident in their batting line-up which was exposed by South Africa’s bowling, spearheaded, the fiery Dale Steyn.
New Zealand came calling in the Trans–Tasman Trophy next, and though Australia strolled to a 9-wicket win in the first Test at Brisbane, they never expected New Zealand to hit them hard at Hobart. However, Ross Taylor’s men brought to light the frailties in the home side’s batting once again, as they eked out a thrilling win and levelled the series 1-1. Clarke was Australia’s leading run-scorer with his 161 runs which included a superb 139 at Brisbane, whereas James Pattinson picked up 14 wickets and there was an inkling that he could establish himself as a first team regular in the Australian squad.
But the Australians later hit back with a vengeance as they put their batting woes aside and produced what was probably their best performance in recent years, thumping India 4-0 in the Border-Gavaskar Trophy at home and staking a claim for the No. 1 spot in the ICC Test Rankings. Each of the four wins was convincing enough for the critics of the Australian team to eat their words, as they literally toyed with India throughout the series and set the tone for the future matches to come. Clarke had a whale of a time in the series as he top-scored for the home side with his 626 runs, which also included a fabulous 329 not-out in the second Test at Sydney. He was ably assisted by Ricky Ponting, who had a purple patch of his own, as he was the second highest run-scorer with 544 runs, which included a 221 in the fourth Test at Adelaide.
That series entirely belonged to the Australian batsmen dominating the Indian bowling which also sidetracked the achievements of the home teams bowlers, most notably Ben Hilfenhaus and Peter Siddle. They finished with 27 and 23 wickets respectively. The more than convincing win over the Indians firmly established Australia as one of the sides to beat in world cricket, despite their batting failures in previous series. It also helped them to carry on the momentum in the next series which was to be played against the West Indies.
Australia predictably ran out easy winners in the Frank Worrell Trophy, as they never gave West indies a chance to reassert themselves and comfortably beat them 2-0 in the three-Test match series. Hussey top-scored with 219 runs for Australia, whereas Nathan Lyon proved to be a revelation as he ably assisted the Australian pacers and bagged 13 wickets, the highest for his side in the series and announced his entry as a top-class spin bowler for Australia.
South Africa next toured Australia in a three-match series and extended their winning run over Australia, as they edged out Clarke’s side 1-0 and that was mainly due to a massive 309-run win in the third Test at Perth. It once again raised questions over the Australians ability to survive in the face of some top quality pace bowling. South Africa had the trio of Steyn, Vernon Philander and Morne Morkel in their ranks. It was their batting which collapsed in Perth, as none of their batsmen could survive the South African onslaught and tumbled like a pack of cards. Suddenly, Australia never looked like a side challenging for the No 1 spot in Test cricket after the humiliation at home and had some serious work to do at least in terms of their batting.
Beating Sri Lanka at home turned out to be a cakewalk, as Australia won all three Test matches of the Warne-Muralitharan Trophy. It helped them to put aside the ghosts of their loss to South Africa with Clarke scoring 316 runs and staking a claim to be one of Australia’s finest ever batsman. Siddle led the charge in the bowling department with his 15 wickets. Though Sri Lanka did not possess the pace-battery of the likes of say a South Africa, still the win was enough for Clarke’s side to regroup in terms of strategy and put their act together for the upcoming matches.
But the Aussies never knew what was in store in the upcoming Border-Gavaskar Trophy in India, when they were literally outclassed in all departments, and were handed a 4-0 humbling by MS Dhoni’s side. It was a sweet revenge for the Indian side. The tour turned out to be an absolute disaster for Australia which also saw some controversies. For instance, there was the infamous ‘Homework gate’ incident, and the lack of unity amongst the team members. Clarke (286 runs) and Lyon (15 wickets) were once again the positives for Australia amongst the ruins of the tour, as they proved that they can adapt to alien conditions like the ones in India very well. Apart from the two, the performance of the rest of the team was poor to say the least. The disastrous tour to India had definitely raised questions about the current Australian team’s ability to play against more fancied opponents. The general opinion was that of the team being the worst ever in Australia’s illustrious cricket history.
Due to the drubbing Australia received in India, it was not an ideal preparation to face England in their own den. The team’s confidence was at an all time low. And true to form Australia crumbled once again in the face of some superb bowling by James Anderson, Stuart Broad, Tim Bresnan and Graeme Swann throughout the series and crashed to a 3-0 defeat.
The lowest point for Australia came in the second Test at Lords when they were taken to the cleaners by England and their batsmen collapsed in both innings rather meekly to hand England a massive 347-run win. During rest of the matches’, it once again proved to be the same old story of Australian line-up flopping miserably and them losing the series. It meant England winning the Ashes for the third successive occasion. Cricketing obituaries followed and fans started saying there was a need for a complete overhaul, if Australia ever were to regain its glory days of yore.
But what transpired next could not be fathomed by even the staunchest of Australian cricket critics, as their team brushed aside their lean patch and hammered England with both bat and ball in the 2013-14 Ashes at home. Australia literally took England apart, ball by ball and match by match, as they rolled back the years and produced a performance which was a regularity during the good old days of the Steve Waugh era. Their main man in series win was Johnson, who with his missile-like deliveries single-handedly ripped apart England batting line-up and finished with 37 wickets in the five matches. Amongst the Australian batsmen, it was David Warner (523 runs) and rescue man Brad Haddin (493 runs) who shone for Australia, whereas apart from Johnson, Ryan Harris (22 wickets) gave the former ample company in troubling the English, which meant that the urn was safely back in Australia’s grasp.
So, after chronicling Australia’s progress since the 2011 season which has seen them suffering many highs and lows as well, this writer feels that Australia look in top form after their dismantling of England. They surely look like giving South Africa a tough time in their own backyard. Now, only time will tell whether Clarke’s men can rise up to the South African challenge or will they just produce another performance which can at best be labelled as mediocre in the Rainbow Nation.
(Vineet Varma is a writer at Cricket Country. He can be followed @Vinfire19).