Australia have been the side to beat in recent times © Getty Images
By R Vishal
July 2013, Australia had just been inflicted with a humiliating 347-run loss by the old enemy England at Lords to go 0-2 down in the Ashes. After slipping to their sixth consecutive Test loss, the once impregnable winning machine looked like cannon fodder.
When skipper Michael Clarke was quizzed in the post match presentation about his team’s chances in the Ashes, a defiant Clarke said he was confident his team could overturn the deficit to win the Ashes 3-2. Sarcastic cheers and laughter went around the home of cricket at Clarke’s audacity and what was perceived as delusion from the gleeful Poms. England went onto win their third consecutive Ashes, finishing with a 3-0 score-line and pundits had written of Australia’s chances down under too. Some of them even predicted a whitewash.
Bereft of answers and victories, the curtains came down on the tumultuous Mickey Arthur reign and the former hard-hitting middle order batsman Darren Lehmann was asked to take over the reins, before the Ashes series held in England. Suddenly from nowhere during Ashes 2013-14 played in Australia, Mitchell Johnson’s furious slingshots left England in a daze at The Gabba, Brisbane and they never recovered. The old enemy was pounded into submission and Australia raced to an extraordinary 5-0 triumph.
Fortunes did swing overnight for Aussies and there was hardly a change in the playing XI from the ignominy at Lords Test to completion of the home Ashes whitewash. Clarke’s approach hadn’t changed — the ‘Pup’ has always had a penchant for out-of-the box field placements with a single-minded determination to win at all costs. Even when wins deserted him, Clarke never compromised on his instincts as epitomized by a puzzling declaration with Australia being 237 for nine towards the end of the first day’s play at Hyderabad or challenging England to go for a run chase at the Oval despite the series being lost.
With Lehmann at the helm, there was a return to the Australia, the world loved to hate. The ugly, boorish, cut-throat but ruthlessly effective unit was back and so was the winning momentum. Looking out of character and confined in Arthur’s tenure, the swashbuckling ways had made its way back and so were Australia’s long history with moustaches. From being a mock-figure to England’s globetrotting fans, Barmy Army, Johnson came back with a mean handlebar moustache that would change his career graph.
This scintillating display did not stop there as Australia clinched yet another series win on South African soil, beating an outstanding team 2-1 in what was an equally intense and dominating display of cricket. So, what transformed Australia’s fortunes from lying at a lowly fifth in the rankings after the shambolic 0-4 loss in India to leapfrog to the No 1 spot? Stability and greater understanding of their strengths and patching up ways to cover up for their weaknesses.
With the batting order undergoing plenty of chopping and changing in the preceding tours, roles were laid out and demarcated and the players performed with aplomb. Australia won all their five Tests against England with an unchanged line-up and players were no longer cowing under the fear of being axed after a few bad displays. Spin was another area, where Australia had innumerable dress rehearsals in pursuit of finding Shane Warne’s successor. Lehmann stepped in and backed Nathan Lyon as his first choice tweaker and the off-spinner rewarded the team management’s faith by proving his mettle despite the pacers walking away with all the glory. Johnson’s unpredictability while on a long spell was masked wisely by Clarke using the left-armer’s thunderbolts in short 4-5 over bursts.
With Lehmann himself being a man cut from the all-conquering Australian cloth, his winning mentality ought to have had a telling say from being nearly men in the England-leg of the Ashes to comfortably getting across the finishing line at home in England and against South Africa.
Finally, every winning team gives birth to a set of heroes and at every point Australia had men who stood up and made it count. David Warner’s incredible run, Steven Smith’s coming-of-age as a Test batsman, Brad Haddin’s Adam Gilchrist-like counter-attacks when the chips were down all contributed to cause. No amount of praise will be too much for the heart and unwavering line of Ryan Harris. Harris’s stubborn determination in the final session of the third Test against South Africa won Australia the match and the series.
With a minuscule gap between the top Test teams, Australia would know that stiffer challenges lie ahead but for now they can look back at an incredible turnaround and wear the baggygreen with pride after reaching the summit of the ICC Test rankings.
(R Vishal is a journalist and alumni of Asian College of Journalism. He can be followed on Twitter @vishhell)