January 5, 2011

Falling to earth

Their aura has been fading over the last couple of years, but in 2010 the harsh reality of their decline hit Australia hard

The SCG is usually a place for Australia to raise a trophy and wave to their supporters, signing off the year in style. This time they are playing there after experiencing 12 months to write off. The once mighty outfit has fallen so far that for the first time in 24 years England will leave with the Ashes. Not since the mid-1980s, a period in which Australia were beaten home and away by New Zealand, have the cricket followers in this country felt so bad.

And now to the most depressing aspect of the tumble from the top of the world: there is no quick fix. For years Australia have been pushing for a Test championship play-off as a way of adding prestige to the No. 1 spot. If the concept had been introduced in 2010, Australia may have failed to reach the tournament between the four top-ranked teams. The squad currently sits in the final qualifying spot, but spent time at No. 5.

Australia's senior players, such as Ricky Ponting, Michael Clarke and Michael Hussey, didn't think the outfit was as bad as the number suggested. They were. A year that began with a suspicious series success over Pakistan and a clean sweep of an under-strength New Zealand, unravelled swiftly when the better teams or swinging conditions had to be conquered.

From May, Australia lost the final of the World Twenty20 to England, another vital step in the old enemy's demystification process, and then drew a series with Pakistan. The rubber was played in England, with the conditions suiting Pakistan's swing and seam bowlers, but it was the first embarrassing result of the second half of a year filled with them. Australia were dismissed for 88 in Leeds after winning the toss, a score only slightly worse than the 98 at the MCG, which ultimately did for their chances of regaining the Ashes.

The loss at Headingley began a sequence of seven defeats in all competitions. Not since the late 1880s had Australia failed so badly for so long. Yet still the players felt the next corner would be the one that started the turnaround. As the year ended, the only international victories after the slump were an ODI against Sri Lanka, who had already won their first series here, and the Ashes Test in Perth. They were more like the flickers of a fire trying desperately to stay lit.

At the start of the Ashes, the most important contest for an Australian, so many mistakes were made that the hosts were acting like the England of the 1990s. Nasser Hussain, a victim here twice, said it best before the series started: "You've nicked Vodafone as a sponsor, you've picked 17 players in a squad and you lose games. You keep your batsmen [too long], and you rotate your bowlers - we used to do that for a while."

It was funny at the time but there was no laughing from the locals after England took a 1-0 lead after dominating the opening two Tests. Having planned since the 2009 Ashes defeat at The Oval to retain most of the same faces, Australia's selectors panicked. Instead of grooming players like Steven Smith, Phillip Hughes and a new spinner in preparation for this campaign, the panel lobbed them into the side at vital points. Marcus North and Nathan Hauritz were discarded, Mitchell Johnson was given a break, and Simon Katich suffered a serious heel injury.

The case of Hauritz was the strangest. One unheralded slow bowler, Xavier Doherty, and another unheard-of spinner, Michael Beer, were used instead. Meanwhile Hauritz collected domestic wickets for New South Wales and scored two centuries.

At the start of the Ashes, the most important contest for an Australian, so many mistakes were made that the hosts were acting like the England of the 1990s

By the fifth Test the side's average age was in the mid-20s instead of the low 30s, which shows some promising signs for the future. Ponting, who had struggled with the bat, had been forced out of the final Test with a broken finger, having possibly played his final Test the previous week in Melbourne. As he handed over to Michael Clarke for the SCG encounter, Australia were chasing new beginnings on many fronts.

New kid on the block
Ryan Harris was the pick of the 2010 batch of debutants, but his hardworking swing-bowling performances soon lost out to his body. After five Tests and 20 wickets his ankle became too stressed in the first innings at the MCG and the crack put him out of the World Cup. That was a great shame for the side because he had also been excellent in the one-day outfit, and had fought to recover from a career-threatening knee problem.

Fading star
Sadly the man who lost most was Ricky Ponting. He started the second Test of the year with a double-century against Pakistan in Hobart, having been dropped at fine leg from his first ball. His good fortune then ran out. With the bat he averaged 37 for the Test year, but only 113 runs came in four games against England. He says he doesn't want to retire, but the World Cup seems the most appropriate stage to depart.

High point
For two days at the WACA, Australia felt like a team on top of the world again. Mitchell Johnson's amazing spells of swing bowling recovered the hosts from their first-day 268, and as England were falling to a 267-run defeat the swagger and sledging returned. "We're back", they said with renewed confidence, but the revival lasted for only one match. Johnson followed his nine wickets with another below-par display at the MCG.

Low point
So many to choose from. Even though they lost seven in a row, the result against England was the worst. Not finishing a home Ashes series with the urn is the worst thing that can happen to a modern Australian team. There are cricket supporters in their early 20s who have never experienced this feeling. Ouch.

Peter English is the Australasia editor of Cricinfo