Team review January 5, 2012

Rollercoaster riders

Australia were compulsively watchable in 2011 - soaring one moment, plumbing the depths the next

For Australian cricket, 2011 will always be remembered as the year of the Argus review. The year of change. A new captain. A new coach. A new selection panel. A new bowling coach and a new fielding coach. For the first time, a senior administrator was appointed to oversee team performance. For the first time, there was somewhere for the buck to officially stop.

On the field it was a period of transition as well. Ten debutants were handed baggy-green caps, the most in a calendar year since the days of the World Series cricket walkouts. Not surprisingly, Australia's performances were mixed, although often this was due to the failure of senior batsmen rather than the new boys. A graph of their results would look something like Bart Simpson's haircut, so sudden were their ups and downs.

It was a year that featured the completion of an Ashes failure, the end of a 12-year era of World Cup dominance, a Test loss at home to New Zealand for the first time in 26 years, and Australia's lowest Test total in 109 years. It also included a series win in Sri Lanka, a memorable two-wicket victory in Johannesburg, and a strong Boxing Day victory over India.

By the end of December, there were plenty of causes for hope in the side under the new captain, Michael Clarke. Most encouragingly, two young fast bowlers of great promise had emerged. They were also men who were ready for Test cricket now.

Pat Cummins, 18, became Australia's second-youngest Test debutant of all time when he was given his chance at the Wanderers. He bowled with speed, swing and enthusiasm, and was Man of the Match on debut, but a foot injury meant it was the last time he was likely to be seen in the national team for the summer.

The prospect of Cummins bowling in tandem with James Pattinson in the coming years is tantalising. Pattinson won his debut because of the injury to Cummins, and he too was Man of the Match in his first Test, and also picked up the award in his third, the Boxing Day victory over India. Pattinson's pace, outswing and confident attitude make him the kind of man around whom the attack could be built. At the start of the year, Australia still viewed the inconsistent Mitchell Johnson as their spearhead. By the end of the year, it was a case of Mitchell who?

There was promise in the batting line-up as well. Shaun Marsh scored a century on his Test debut in Sri Lanka and followed it with 81 in his second match, and added stability to the top order. David Warner emerged as a Test opener, and in his second match in the baggy green made a hundred that nearly won Australia the match in Hobart.

Not that it was a good year for Australian batting. Excluding Warner, Marsh and Steven Smith, none of whom played even half the side's Tests in 2011, the only Australian to average over 40 was Michael Hussey. The team's nadir was their 47 all out in Cape Town, where they were lucky to escape recording the all-time lowest Test total, although being bowled out for 136 in Hobart was another low point for the batsmen.

Again, their problem was facing the swinging and seaming ball. It is not an issue that will go away, and will be one of the key challenges for the new coach, Mickey Arthur, to handle. The first non-Australian to be put in charge of the national side, Arthur was one of a number of new faces who joined the Australian set-up after the Argus review.

John Inverarity, 67, was named national selector and was joined by Rod Marsh and Andy Bichel on the panel. The Argus review also recommended the addition of the captain and coach to round out a five-man selection group. It meant the end of Andrew Hilditch's reign, a move that few Australian fans would bemoan.

Late in the year, Marsh was also handed the Argus-based remit of overseeing the national coaching approach and co-ordinating throughout the states, to ensure consistency of coaching methods. The national set-up also gained a general manager, team performance: Pat Howard, a former rugby union international, to whom the captain and coach would report.

A graph of Australia's results would look something like Bart Simpson's haircut, so sudden were their ups and downs

Before the Argus review was completed, the coaching staff gained Craig McDermott as bowling mentor, and his mantra to bowl full and swing the ball appeared to reap benefits for the attack. Steve Rixon was brought in as fielding coach. Troy Cooley moved to the Centre of Excellence and made way for McDermott, and Mike Young's fielding drills are now seen in South Africa rather than Australia.

Young was the first to go, after the World Cup. That was a disappointing tournament for Australia, who had been unbeaten in World Cup matches since losing to Pakistan early in the 1999 tournament. This year it was Pakistan who ended that streak, and India who ended Australia's campaign with a five-wicket win in Ahmedabad, where Ricky Ponting scored a fighting century in defeat.

Five days later Ponting stepped down as captain. He chose to buck the trend among Australian leaders, though, by playing on under the new skipper, Clarke. The first task was a one-day series in Bangladesh, which was won, and success also came during the ODIs and Tests in Sri Lanka four months later.

It had been a turbulent four months. The release of the Cricket Australia contract list in June featured one notable omission, the opener Simon Katich, who had been a stabilising presence at the top of the order since 2008. Without saying as much, Hilditch's out-going panel decided that three men aged 35-plus - Katich, Ponting and Hussey - could not be maintained in a side that needed to rebuild.

Katich was livid. In a press conference of breathtaking candour, he slammed the selectors for their inconsistent policies over the past few years, and Cricket Australia for allowing it to happen. A few months later, he expressed his belief that he would not return to the Australian team while Clarke, the man he grabbed by the throat in the dressing room after a Test win in 2009, was captain.

And Clarke proved himself a fine captain. He was adventurous in his bowling changes, developing Hussey's gentle medium-pace into a partnership-breaking weapon, and taking a sympathetic approach to Nathan Lyon's offspin. He tried unusual things in the field, often employing a leg slip - rarely seen in recent years. And by the end of 2011, he had still not lost a Test or ODI series as leader.

Australia's success in Sri Lanka was followed by the humiliation of Cape Town, victories in Johannesburg and Brisbane, and the devastating loss in Hobart. Boxing Day ensured a positive end to a tumultuous 2011, a year that began with an innings defeat at the SCG, where England secured a 3-1 Ashes victory and indirectly encouraged Australia to commission the Argus review. That had been Clarke's first Test in charge, as he was filling in for the injured Ponting.

He wasn't the only new captain Australia had this year. Cameron White took charge of the Twenty20 side after Clarke quit the short format in January. Under White, Australia won two T20s and lost four.

The year was all about change, off the field and on it. Australia used 21 players in nine Tests. By the end of 2011, a core group was being developed, and there were reasons for hope among Australian supporters.

Their schedule for 2012 features the conclusion of the India series, which has started well, a Test tour of West Indies, and home Tests against South Africa and Sri Lanka next summer. It has the potential to be a good year for Clarke and Co.

New kid on the block
There were a number of strong candidates this year: Pattinson, Cummins, Warner and Marsh among them, while Test debuts were also handed to Michael Beer, Usman Khawaja, Trent Copeland, Mitchell Starc and Ed Cowan. But for sheer unexpectedness, the title goes to Lyon, the groundsman-turned-Test offspinner, who has taken his rapid rise in his stride. Exactly a year ago, Lyon, a member of the Adelaide Oval groundstaff, walked out onto the field to make his state debut in a Twenty20 match for South Australia. He finished 2011 as a man who had played eight Tests, taking 23 wickets at 27.47 - his first ball in Test cricket was a wonderful offbreak that caught Kumar Sangakkara's outside edge - and was trusted by the selectors as the spinner of the future. Lyon gave hope to every club cricketer in the country who has dreamed of a sudden rise to the baggy green.

Fading star
While Ponting's struggles throughout the year made headlines, another veteran had a very disappointing 2011. It is said that the wicketkeeper is the barometer of the side, and Brad Haddin was this year for Australia, with the bat as much as with the gloves. In their two disastrous batting displays, in Cape Town and Hobart, his dismissals were the epitome of the problem, as he threw his wicket away with loose, irresponsible strokes when patience was required. He averaged 20.93 in Test cricket. At 34, Haddin was fortunate his immediate back-up Tim Paine spent much of the second half of the year injured.

High point
Within ten days of the embarrassment in Cape Town, Australia, set 310 to win in Johannesburg, reached their target late on the fifth day with two wickets in hand. The 18-year-old Cummins, who had already taken seven wickets, hit the winning runs and became a national sporting hero.

Low point
Together Johannesburg and Cape Town encapsulated Australia's up-and-down year. At 9 for 21, they seemed destined to rewrite history. Australia's batsmen gave up their wickets with grim inevitability, as if they were lemmings jumping off the nearby Table Mountain. The lowest total in Test cricket, New Zealand's 26, was in danger of being outdone, before the last pair pushed Australia to 47. Fortunately, things could only improve - the loss to New Zealand a few weeks later notwithstanding - and the year ended on a much more positive note.

Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo