Clarke, Lehmann face huge challenge as Australia strive to regain lost pride as Ashes underdogs

Michael Clarke (left) and Darren Lehmann © Getty Images

By Parth Pandya

Excess of anything often leads to the undesired path — success being no exception. Beyond a point, where success becomes a pattern than an accomplishment, efforts are pretty much rendered redundant and a downspin of sorts seems inevitable. Australian cricket has undergone this phenomenon perhaps over the last five years. The complete overhaul of the squad is still recent enough as Ricky Ponting and Mike Hussey, the last warriors of their greatest generation, had hung up their boots before the turn of the year.

But Australia’s crepuscular slide has not been so recent. One might argue that the hints of challenging their supremacy were evident as early as in 2005 where their perennial bunnies ceased to be submissive and emerged out of their shadows after a hiatus that had lasted a little too long.

Albeit that loss in the Ashes did not trigger a sudden downfall of what was an empire very strongly founded under Mark Taylor, consolidated under Steve Waugh and which had scaled nearly dizzying heights under Ponting. In fact, Australia completed a 5-0 rout of England in the corresponding Ashes the next year, produced a second string of 16 successive Test wins, strengthened their position at the summit winning the third straight World Cup title apart from coming out on top in two successive ICC Champions Trophies.

However, the three-year period after that unforgettable epic of 2005, the Australian side had certainly started to give in to the rigours and the demands of the sport. Players began leaving and the successors were anything but natural. The team was still good enough to be competent at the highest level but then came the summer of 2008 when a Graeme Smith led his reinvigorated South African side Down Under that managed to put the Aussies on the back foot in their own yard. With good reason, one might say, Australia have never been the same side since being defeated in that Test series on their home soil.

Although the revenge of this loss was categorically exacted in a matter of months as Australia gunned down the Proteas away from home with the same margin of victory, the eternal ruthlessness that was so distinctly recognisable in the Australian game had certainly gone missing from the year 2009. The performance curve of the team has since been quite alarmingly sinusoidal. And barring a complete drubbing of the two touring subcontinent sides in two years, Australia have failed to achieve anything of note in the purest form of the game — if the drubbing of touring subcontinent sides is indeed anything of note, that is. While the defeats in the last two Ashes are the major precipitants for the team’s declension in stature, this entire process of going downhill culminated into the most humiliating of thwarting that the team received in India earlier this year. In playing competitive cricket for over a century, Australia haven’t stooped to lower levels and this certainly has to be the point from where they cannot afford things to go any worse.

In the world of sport, when any athlete — or even a team for that matter — finds himself at potential crossroads, where choosing one particular direction over another is of paramount importance, there’s nothing like starting it by facing your fiercest of rivals. That’s exactly where Australia are standing, with the first of the two editions of the Ashes in this calendar year getting under way on Wednesday.

That England start the Ashes as downright favourites and only the margin of their victory is being discussed as the series builds up is not something fans are exactly familiar with. In fact, the build-ups used to be of an entirely contrasting nature to the current one but the sooner Australia come to terms with what’s at hand, the better they are off. England are visibly a superior side by all accounts and Australia will no doubt realise their primary mission on this tour is to control the damage to the greatest possible extent. Whatever they earn beyond, it is purely bonus. The very archetypal Australian arrogance may stop them from admitting their very evident inferiority and that’s where the most crucial aspect of Darren Lehmann’s job lies, since the man himself must be salvaging a considerable pride for having played, though briefly, for the finest side the country ever produced.

There has been a big hue and cry in the media regarding this sudden change of guard ahead of what’s going to be a very long season. And to mean business straightaway is the only way Lehmann can put the doubters and critics to good rest. 

Michael Clarke is entering the most critical and undoubtedly the difficult phase of tenure as Australia captain and has to remain focused despite all the off-field developments that could potentially unsettle the morale of a side that is largely unsettled anyway. Clarke has been an integral part of the side for nearly 10 years and now comes his moment of reckoning. But the fact he is the only world class, proven batsman in this format from the squad has to be dealt with very tactfully by the entire team.

They have to bat around him. And while he does the major share of scoring, the others must set a reasonably high price for their wicket. Australians are traditionally known for the explosive starts to the innings provided by their openers, but no longer do the Langers and the Haydens of the world bat at the top of the order. The message has to be very clearly sent across the inexperienced, fragile and technically inept top order of not trying to do anything fancy only to further the burden on Clarke’s shoulders. They will be facing numerous testing spells from what is arguably the world’s most balanced attack in Test cricket at the moment and surviving sessions is not going to be easy with all the rotations that Alastair Cook is going to apply. No pride is lost in ducking against a bouncer or two from Stuart Broad or for that matter in leaving everything from James Anderson that misses the off, at least under the heavy cloud where ball moves defying every law ever known to physics.

There’s no element of ignominy in giving your opposition the respect they command and in over the next month and a half, you may suspect Australia will have to do more than just that. Spreading out the field while Kevin Pietersen is at his rampaging best is not the worst of the ideas — something which used to be under Steve Waugh or Ricky Ponting. 

Similarly, not going after anything above 300 in the fourth innings is hardly cowardly with Brad Haddin as No 6. Fortunately none of these players was part of ‘the team’ that wen after  the  384  put up by India at Kolkata in 2001 and ended up being bundled out in a matter of a day. So there’s little chance of anyone deriving an iota of inspiration from there.

Of course, the idea does not seem entirely pleasing and is in a way discouraging too, but it is the most realistic and pragmatic way forward too, nonetheless — at least for the time being. 

Australian cricket’s re-emergence from these testing times might happen sooner than the fans expect, but in order to turn the tables, the very first measure to be taken is to ensure they aren’t turned any further against them from here. Should Australia be able to give England a run for their money in these five Test matches, it will be a moment that may not be recognised to its complete importance immediately, but will have a significant impact on the road cricket takes in the country in years to come. The sun may rise again in Australian cricket that shines ever so brightly, much like it did all these years. But for now that characteristic pride and emblematic aggression need to be shelved. Lehmann might win more critics than fans from these unpopular and rather safeguarding methods, but a few right strokes from his left-handed stance might go a long way in restoring the Australian order in world cricket.
 
(Parth Pandya believes writing makes up for not being good enough to play sports at the top level. He is the editor of The Hard Tackle, India’s fastest growing football website)