Cricket in crisis: can Australia rise to claim the Ashes?

Australian cricket: down but not out?
Australian cricket: down but not out?

The Australian cricket team, 3-0 down against India, is facing its first Test series whitewash for more than 30 years as the fourth Test in Delhi gets underway this week. Worse than that, without a turnaround in form and fortune, experts fear the record could be 0-9 after the Ashes in the English summer. mojo reports.

By LIAM SHARP

The Australian cricket team left the Australian summer motivated and ready to take on the subcontinent. They had challenged the number-one-ranked South Africans and convincingly defeated the Sri Lankans. But in the space of a few weeks, a combination of factors – the ‘homework’ controversy and zero wins on the board to name two – has thrown the Australian team’s backs against the wall. And with the Ashes in England to follow the Indian series, a break to refocus is not on the cards.

Expert Dr Tom Heenan, from the National Centre for Australian Studies, told mojo it could spell trouble, if the Australian team does not lift.

“They’re going to play two of the best sides in the world in the next year. And you can honestly see this side going down 0-9 at present [following the Ashes in England],” he said. “They just aren’t playing well.

“But India have nullified their strength: the pace attack. And [Australian coach] Mickey Arthur’s nullified it even further by saying [James] Pattinson can’t play, in the astonishing ‘homework’ decision.”

Pattinson was dropped from the side with Mitchell Johnson, Usman Khawaja and the now reinstated vice captain Shane Watson for failing to provide their thoughts on how Australia might improve. ‘Homework-gate’ attracted the scorn of many well-placed commentators, piling pressure on an already struggling side.

Even without the off-field drama, cricket writer and author Gideon Haigh said the Indian tour was one of the most difficult. But, he said, this was “not a top class Indian team”.

“Ashwin is its only bowler of consequence. Tendulkar and Sehwag are being carried. We should be better than in Hyderabad.”

Dr Heenan agrees with Haigh, specifically focusing on the importance of batting in India. “You’ve got to bat longer. You have to occupy the crease, so you can either push for victory or save the game.

“If you’re not making 350 and you bat first in India, you’ve let go the toss. And to bat last in India, you’re in for a hiding. So you have to make the most of your first innings. Australia just hasn’t made enough runs to push for victory or even save the game.

“The first test was played in Chennai, and that wicket broke up in two days. By the last day, it was like an ant hill.”

Dr Heenan said there were “no real soft hands on a spinning wicket” in Chennai, prompting commentators to criticise the Australian batsmen for pushing at the ball.

The stats don’t lie for the Australian top order, with Ed Cowan (39.00) and David Warner (37.00) both averaging only in the high 30s for the series so far, Shane Watson averaging just below 20 (19.25) and Phil Hughes batting no better (5.40). Australian skipper Michael Clarke has been the only strong bat for the side, averaging 53.60.

Haigh said that while this is the best side Australia can offer, when Clarke fails, the problems are obvious.

“These are, I think, with a few marginal exceptions, the best players in Australian cricket. Arguably, they’ve done better than they are, thanks to Clarke’s overpowering excellence. But reality is now hitting home.”

Dr Heenan agrees with this, rating Clarke very highly.

“Clarke is a tremendous captain, just look at the way he moves with the game. He could be one of the greats, he just hasn’t got the team,” he said.

Many would remember Clarke as the “Pup” amongst a team of experienced players last time the Australian team toured India, losing the series to the home side 0-2. This was around the time Australia lost its number one test ranking, sinking to as low as 5th in the years since before rising up to 3rd at the start of 2012.

Dr Heenan believes the retirement of players from the ‘golden age’ has left big shoes to fill for the younger players.

“There’s batting depth in India. And you’ve got an Australian side, that you’ve had really two stages of generational change. You’ve lost the Warnes, the Gilchrists, the Langers, McGrath. And then on top of that the people you’ve got coming through, the Hussey’s and so forth, you’ve lost that group now. So Hussey, Katich have gone as well,” Dr Heenan said.

“So it’s thrown a lot on people like Warner, who begins cricket as a t20 player, and has tremendous potential; but in terms of learning the Test game Warner is getting away on sheer talent at this stage. But he could be anything as a Test player.”

Haigh says the key to Indian and Ashes victories lies in filling the gaps left by the great leg spinners.

“Spin, the playing and bowling thereof. Get Fawad Ahmed a passport,” he said.

Australia has already lost the Border-Gavaskar trophy series, and will play for pride in Delhi. That, and the hope that a confident win will prepare the side for the Ashes tour.