It wasn’t long ago that Australians used to patronise the English cricket team as a joke, during a dominant run of eight Ashes series victories when winning became habitual.
They’re not laughing now.
Australian cricket is in the pits, amidst accusatory finger-pointing, and as England savour a golden era, the once pre-eminent Aussies wallow in a black hole of their own making.
Australia capitulated to a crushing 347-run defeat at Lord’s on Sunday with more than a day left to hand Alastair Cook’s team a 2-0 series lead with three Tests to play.
That was their sixth consecutive Test defeat, coming on the back of a 4-0 series loss in India — their worst performance in 29 years, and just one loss away from the record of seven straight reverses from 1884-87.
When skipper Michael Clarke, in his post-match interview, refused to accept that Australia’s hopes of retrieving the Ashes were finished, he was openly mocked by sections of the Lord’s crowd.
This Australian side has been denigrated as the worst ever to tour England and recriminations in Australia are rife. Former greats have not held back in their condemnation of the team.
Allan Border, who as captain rebuilt a similarly enfeebled Australian team in the mid-1980s, laying the foundations for a long period of dominance, said the top batting order should be embarrassed. Fast bowling great Glenn McGrath declared the team had hit rock-bottom.
Blame for Australia’s demise has been dumped not only on the current players but also on Cricket Australia (CA) for its focus on the Twenty20 Big Bash League, which has taken scheduling precedence over the traditional four-day Sheffield Shield, the nursery of future Test stars.
Former captain Ricky Ponting, who has fended off calls to come out of retirement to rescue his country, chided CA for its preoccupation with the glitzy Big Bash at the expense of the national team.
“Cricket Australia is a business and they have invested a lot of time in the Big Bash, while cuts have been made in first-class cricket… but we must remember that the strength of this business will be measured by the success of the national team,” Ponting wrote in the Daily Mail.
CA has also come in for some flak over its controversial sacking of coach Mickey Arthur, just weeks before the start of the Ashes series, and replacing him with Darren Lehmann.
Arthur’s sacking has led to a damaging lawsuit, which exploded just before the Lord’s Test. But Australia team performance chief Pat Howard insists his organisation did not err in changing coaches so close to the Ashes.
“You make decisions not just for one week or two weeks but you make them for a period and who’s going to best galvanise the side,” Howard said this week.
“I don’t want to go into that particularly, but who was going to get the best out of this group, that was a simple decision.”
Discipline has been a factor, with opener Shane Watson among four players sent home from India for not submitting written feedback requested by Arthur, in what was dubbed the “homework” incident.
And in England, batsman David Warner was banned for punching England’s Joe Root in a bar following a Champions Trophy defeat, and was then sent to Africa for match practice with Australia A.
The Australian newspaper’s cricket writer Gideon Haigh believes Australia is now beset by the same quandary as England through much of the 1990s.
“It can’t achieve stability without success; but it can’t achieve success without stability,” Haigh said.
“Australians examined English teams in the 1990s with some perplexity. They were often composed of good cricketers yet somehow punched below their weight. Why? Because they always seemed to be fixing last week’s problem, and in doing so causing next week’s.
“Australians now see this phenomenon replicated in their own ranks.”
But there are voices calling for patience in resurrecting the moribund Test team.
“There is no fun, fast, stroke-of-magic out of Australia’s predicament,” The Melbourne Age‘s Greg Baum said this week.
“The problems manifest now are the result of mistakes made long ago. Doubtlessly, more mistakes are being made now that will only become apparent down the track.
“Decline, a downhill process, happens quickly. Rising takes much longer, is fraught with missteps, and is painful. Expect more pain in this series.”
Former captain Greg Chappell believes it may take two years for Australian cricket to get out of the mire.
Chappell, who has seen the recent decline as Cricket Australia’s national talent manager, said Australia had been slow to react as the game changed. He warned there were no quick fixes, comparing the current situation to the mid-1980s.
“It took us a couple of years in the mid-’80s and I think we’re looking at a similar sort of process here,” Chappell said.