Australia won the ODI series in Sri Lanka and South Africa © Getty Images
Australia won the ODI series in Sri Lanka and South Africa © Getty Images

 

By Madan Mohan

 

Whispers about Australia’s painful transition had touched a deafening crescendo by the time Australia lost the Ashes and exit at the quarter-final stage of the World Cup 2011. It was feared that Australia had managed to return to the nadir of the dreadful ’80s in spite of concerted efforts to avoid a repeat of just that. A review headed by influential businessman Don Argus was commissioned and Michael Clarke was made the new Australian captain.  India, South Africa and England’s dreams of world domination meanwhile seemed closer to reality.

 

But something has changed in the last few months.  Australia have begun to quietly deliver better than they were expected to. They conquered a weakened Sri Lankan outfit in both the ODI and Test series. They also beat South Africa 2-1 in the recently concluded ODI series in South Africa.

 

Meanwhile, the challengers have taken some tentative steps and stumbled along the way. South Africa had looked the most likely to take over the mantle from Australia when they beat them in a Test series in Australia in 2008-09. However, they went on to lose the home rubber, square series against England and India that they should have won and kept up their infamous choking tradition in the World Cup.  In this last ODI series, they continued to be bullied by Australia.

 

England had a wonderful summer at home, crushing India comprehensively. But their ODI debacle in India raises questions over their weakness against spin and whether their pace bowling attack has the skills to deliver in such conditions. They would also be disappointed that they could only beat Sri Lanka 1-0 considering the latter have gone on to lose to depleted Pakistan.
India have been haunted by concerns over their own imminent transition as the young cubs did not give the best account of themselves in England. They have also had their hands full managing injuries to their scarce pace bowling resources. A great spinner to carry on from where Anil Kumble left continues to elude India’s selectors.

 

Having been the first to trip after their long perch at the top, Australia have also been the first to act. And they have begun to act decisively and gone through with unpopular decisions like dropping Simon Katich. It would be premature to judge whether apprehensions over Michael Clarke’s capabilities as a leader were unfounded but he hasn’t given a bad account of himself so far. The team is executing well again and closing out victories from positions of strength, which they seemed to struggle with in the last two years. Should they win the Test rubber at South Africa, Australia may well be officially ‘back’.

 

That, though, wouldn’t allay concerns over their dry reserves of talent. Australia’s bowling resources haven’t looked so uninspiring in a very long time. Shane Watson appears to be the most bankable bowler, currently, overachieving and covering up the lack of bite from the rest of the attack. He is overburdened as he has a job to do as batsman and is not a great bowler at any rate. The likes of Ben Hilfenhaus, Peter Siddle and Doug Bollinger aren’t very different; it is tough for them to win matches on their own steam. Mitchell Johnson continues to struggle to live up to early promise. I also got to see Pat Cummins in the ODI series against South Africa and he is still a work in progress.

 

Most appalling is their dearth of spin bowling options. The days of choosing between Xavier Doherty and Steve Smith are a far cry from the time when Stuart McGill was denied a permanent place in the side by a certain Shane Warne. Australia’s batting has held things together. It is no more as intimidating as it was when they won the 2007 World Cup or the 2006 Ashes but it is still solid, reliable and has its fair share of flair. But this team doesn’t yet have the makings of an incredible, world-beating unit like the great Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting led teams of the past.

 

The question is: Would it be necessary? As long as their challengers don’t seize the initiative or do the things they need to keep up their spot at the top, Australia will remain a force to reckon with. Myopic administration and poorly-planned grooming of new batsmen looks set to hurt India. England will answer questions over its spin bugbear through the course of this winter and the answers may not be very edifying. South Africa seems to lack the killer instinct that the Australia of old had and continue to under achieve. They may well watch their great chance pass them by.

 

And by then, Australia may well find their future Warnes and McGraths and wrest back the throne that they once laid undisputed claim to. The challengers have not followed the maxim of hitting the enemy harder when it’s down and Australia are back on their feet, ready once more for battle. Underestimate them at your own peril.

 

(Madan Mohan, a 25-year old CA from Mumbai, is passionate about writing, music and cricket. Writing on cricket is like the icing on the cake)