January 3, 2013

First the glory, then the uncertainty

The form of their captain buoyed Australia in 2012, but the retirements of their middle-order stalwarts have left them unsteady in an Ashes year

Taking in the reception from the SCG for Michael Clarke's 300 against a supine India in the first week of 2012, the Australian captain and his team had to wonder if their cricketing life could get any better. Twelve months on and the conclusion that must be reached on Australia's year is that while plenty of useful progress was made, it never quite did.

Though the team's results were strong enough - no side won more than Australia's seven of 11 Tests - a sense of uncertainty about the future pervaded ever more with each month. Arguably the heaviest blows Australia suffered in 2012 took place in their final two series. Not on the field either, but at a press conference before the Perth Test against South Africa, and in a sports bulletin the day after the Boxing Day match against Sri Lanka: when the world discovered Ricky Ponting and Michael Hussey had retired.

Both were well advanced in years and Ponting's form had ebbed away, but Australian cricket has found no one to replace them as batsmen, fielders and exemplars of team before self. Certainly thoughts of what may be possible in 2013 have been dimmed by their departures. Clarke, the coach, Mickey Arthur, and the selectors had budgeted to lose one of Ponting or Hussey before the tours of India and England, but not both.

In January, the recently appointed selection panel, headed by John Inverarity, seemed to have found a largely happy mix of old and new, pace and spin, dashers and nudgers. David Warner and Ed Cowan made a promising start as an opening pair, Ponting enjoyed an Indian summer in every sense, Clarke reigned supreme at No. 5 despite what detractors said about the need for him to promote himself, and Hussey fashioned the runs the others failed to provide. Their collective was strong enough to mean an inept series for Shaun Marsh was merely an unfortunate diversion.

The bowling attack, guided by then bowling coach Craig McDermott, hit rare heights of consistency and menace. Peter Siddle learned to be far more than a battering ram, James Pattinson had away swing to back up his swagger, and Ben Hilfenhaus' right arm was as high as his confidence. Nathan Lyon's fledgling spin was permitted a smooth apprenticeship behind the fast bowlers, and all benefited from Clarke's intuitive captaincy. They went on from Sydney 2-0 up, and with Ryan Harris and Mitchell Starc slotting in for the injured Pattinson, the series was wrapped up 4-0, and celebrations at the end of Adelaide's fourth Test were both raucous and prolonged.

Some bumps followed in the triangular ODI series, the first being Ponting's loss of limited-overs touch and omission from the team, the second a pair of hamstring strains for Clarke that would delay his departure for the Caribbean. Shane Watson returned to the national squad after hamstring and calf problems of his own and led the team ably enough in the finals while Clarke convalesced.

Watson found the going harder in the West Indies, where the touring team struggled initially to adjust to some of the slowest, lowest and most spin-oriented surfaces they had ever seen, sharing the ODI and T20 series. Brad Haddin did not even make it as far as the first game, rushing home upon hearing of his daughter Mia's cancer diagnosis. The loss of Haddin was difficult for the team, the circumstances making it even more so, but Matthew Wade was to claim and retain the Test gloves with all the determination of one who had fought cancer himself as a teenager.

Wade began the Caribbean tour struggling to find a run on pitches with which he was completely unfamiliar, but by the end he had made the series-clinching century in Dominica and professed to enjoy keeping on low, turning tracks. His improvement so impressed the selector Rod Marsh that Haddin was to be the reserve gloveman by year's end, and his former understudy the first choice in every format.

With Wade behind the stumps, the first Test in Barbados pressed Australia on a considerable question of resilience and, aided by Clarke's unstinting belief the match could be won, they answered it grandly. The series lead was maintained by a rain-affected draw in Trinidad, where Lyon excelled, and doubled conclusively by Wade's heroics in Dominica. Significantly, Harris was Man of the Match in Barbados then rested in Trinidad. It was to be a harbinger of Australia's newfound micro-management of fast bowlers.

Having left a considerable mark in only a year as bowling coach, McDermott departed his role at the end of the tour for personal reasons, leaving the former Tasmania bowling mentor Ali de Winter to replace him. De Winter's first assignment would be the ODI tour of England that quickly descended into a ruinous sequence of results, of the kind best forgotten by those tourists who return this year for the Ashes. Brett Lee made his final international bow in the midst of the 4-0 hiding, limping from the field in Durham, and of the rest only Clint McKay and George Bailey could be said to have enhanced their reputations. Hussey, on parental leave, and Ponting were conspicuous by their absence.

The encroachment of the BBL made it near impossible for the selectors to know who was best among the next tier

Chastened by that result, Clarke and Arthur reconvened the team at a Darwin training camp before setting off to the UAE and then Sri Lanka for the World Twenty20. The results against Pakistan were mixed; Glenn Maxwell turned heads with his hitting prowess and brio, while Mitchell Starc swung the ball at pace. In Sri Lanka the purpose-built team led by Bailey - the first Australian captain since the very first Test in 1877 to debut as leader - made a fearsome start thanks to Watson's pyrotechnics before slipping away to West Indies in the semi-finals.

Now the juggle of formats began to take an effect on the year. The Sheffield Shield made its earliest-ever start to leave room for the Champions League Twenty20, but the World Twenty20 meant that Test-match components like Watson and Starc played no first-class fixtures until the week before the South Africa series. Pat Cummins played none; he injured his side in England, and returned for the UAE and Sri Lanka trip only to suffer another back stress fracture at the CLT20. He's still 19, but the Ashes may arrive too soon for him.

Clarke spoke boldly of besting Graeme Smith's team when the home summer was launched, and also broached the concept of ushering former greats back into the dressing room for Tests. Allan Border was in the rooms for the first Test at the Gabba, and he was able to empathise with the way the series slipped from Australia's grasp.

They shaded Brisbane and had the running of Adelaide, as Cowan, and Warner pinged a hundred apiece, while Clarke soared to a pair of imperious double-centuries in the company of an equally compelling if not quite so prolific Hussey. But the pivotal loss of Pattinson to a rib injury left Clarke with only three bowlers for the 150 overs he set South Africa to survive, and Faf du Plessis defied them all.

The draw left Australia's bowlers broiled and the visitors baleful for the decider, in Perth. Ponting's exit reduced Clarke to tears before a miscalculated home bowling attack slipped up slightly on the first day and badly on the second, either side of the batsmen's one utter failure in a Test match for the year. That it came in the most pivotal contest did not bode well for 2013, but Clarke and Arthur preferred to hope that this misstep would provide lessons to learn from.

Sri Lanka's arrival carried the whiff of the support act arriving to play only after the headliners had left Australia with the ICC's World Championship mace, and they duly fluffed their lines in Hobart and Melbourne, as Australia experimented with the inclusions of Phillip Hughes, Jackson Bird, and the revival of Mitchell Johnson. In other areas the status quo prevailed - Clarke was prolific, setting a new calendar-year mark for an Australian, Warner and Cowan showed signs of subtle growth, and Watson stayed a day-to-day proposition. Lyon remained sure of his place, though striking a fourth-innings hiccup that will require greater guile to overcome.

Elsewhere the encroachment of the BBL made it near impossible for the selectors to know who was best among the next tier, an issue compounded by Hussey's decision to shed the anxiety he had carried through seven years of remarkable composure across all three formats. Hussey had made his mind up months before that India and England would be two bridges too far. There is now plenty of doubt about whether Clarke's men can reach and hold them.

New kid on the block
There were plenty of fresh faces on the bowling front, bedevilled though they were by injury, but Matthew Wade's emergence was perhaps the most notable. A scrapper by nature, Wade did not do everything right, but he showed a capacity to learn and a fierce desire to win. His run and dive to catch Kumar Sangakkara on Boxing Day was emblematic of the ground he had made and the ultimate success he enjoyed.

Fading star
Ponting will remember 2012 as the year he began with a century in Sydney and a double in Adelaide, before seeing his international career unravel in the space of nine months. Losing his ODI spot hurt less, but he fought back tears after leaving a Test-match ground for the final time. Hussey retired too, of course, but he could hardly be said to have faded.

High point
India's subsequent travails put the results in some perspective, but the satisfaction of sweeping the game's financial giant in four Tests will stay with Clarke's generation the same way the 5-0 hiding of England in 2006-07 remains vivid in Hussey's memory.

Low point
The England ODI defeat was bad, but a four-day defeat to South Africa after making so much of the running in the duel for the top spot was truly galling. Many felt an Australian ascension to No. 1 in the world at that point would have been premature, but try telling that to Ponting.

What 2013 holds
For now, trepidation. India's challenges are many, despite the national team's struggles, and the Ashes look a distant goal unless the top six batsmen can settle near enough to instantly. Clarke and his team-mates have so far preached excitement about the challenges ahead, and that is the right attitude. They can at least feel confident of their pace bowling.

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here