Friday January 7th, 2011 is a date which will hold unwanted significance in the mind of the Australian cricket fan for a very long time. Shortly after midday, Michael Beer’s leg stump was sent flying by Chris Tremlett to give England their first Ashes win Down Under for 24 years, handing Australia a 3–1 defeat to retain the urn which they recaptured in 2009. Amidst the carnage of the England victory huddle, and next to Graeme Swann’s exuberant “sprinkler” dance routine, it would have been a wonder if anyone noticed the bails falling to the earth. If they had, they might have seen something far more symbolic than just tumbling stumps. They would have witnessed the crumbling of a cricketing empire.
Casual observers may point out that something of the sort was bound to happen when the likes of Warne, McGrath, Langer, Gilchrist and Hayden began to retire, but the emphatic nature of Australia’s defeat, having lost three times by an innings, caught everyone by surprise. Having been ripped apart by the flashing blades of Cook, Trott and company, and hunted down by England’s pack of resurgent fast bowlers, the team would no doubt have been expecting a furious backlash, both from the media and from the national governing body. They were not disappointed. The Sydney Morning Herald led the media charge, branding them “the worst Australian team ever fielded for an Ashes series”, whilst Cricket Australia called for an immediate review of all forms of cricket in the country, to overhaul the existing structure and ensure that such a humiliation would never happen again.
Fast forward to just over a year after that fateful Sydney afternoon, to January 28th, 2012, however, and a very different picture emerges. Within an hour of play resuming on the fifth day of the fourth Test between Australia and India, Umesh Yadav edged behind, to give the home side a 298-run victory in the match, and a 4–0 whitewash in the series. Post-Ashes 2011, it seemed as if Michael Clarke was simply not cut out for captaincy, as if Ricky Ponting had lost his touch entirely, as if the fast bowling attack could not buy a wicket, as if there was no burgeoning talent coming through the domestic system. At the conclusion of the Indian series, however, Australia’s young talent had slotted neatly into winning ways, the fast bowlers had routinely routed the much-vaunted Indian batting line-up, Ponting had emerged, victorious, from a slump in form to enjoy one of the best series of his life, and Clarke stood above them all, uniting them under his impressive leadership. All of which beg the simple question: however did this happen?
Changes were swift in coming after the ashes series, both on and off the field. Following the World Cup defeat, Ponting stepped down as captain of the Test and ODI sides, and Michael Clarke, heir apparent to Ponting’s throne for the previous few years, was installed in both roles. Tim Nielsen, who for years had overseen the team’s progress as coach, was told that his position had been rebuked under the Argus review, and chose not to reapply for his job under the new setup. Meanwhile, the national selection panel – sorely criticised for their selection policy before and during the Ashes (why they ever thought Steve Smith was good enough to be a no.6 batsman is beyond all rational thought) and for the harsh dropping of both Nathan Hauritz and Simon Katich – was disbanded. No-one escaped criticism; even Cricket Australia came under fire for their governance. So, with no coach, an interim selection committee, an embattled governing body, and under a general miasma of uncertainty, Clarke led his team to Sri Lanka, and then on to South Africa, before home series against New Zealand and India beckoned.
The blend of youth and experience has injected the Test side with a new lease of life. Experienced batsman Mike Hussey was the first to take up the responsibility on the field, with a Man of the Series performance in Sri Lanka. Clarke’s batting form has also been key to team stability – by the end of the India series, he had managed a century in every series he had captained, culminating in a double and a triple century at home against the touring Indians. Ponting’s influence with the bat appeared to be waning by the time the team reached South Africa – though all involved noted his influence behind the scenes – but a string of fifties against the Proteas and the Kiwis led to a battling hundred against India, and a majestic double in the final Test at Adelaide. In the bowling department, Ryan Harris led the attack admirably in Sri Lanka, before Peter Siddle and Ben Hilfenhaus, vastly improved after they were torn apart by England. In what was also the “year of the debutant”, Nathan Lyon, Patrick Cummins and James Pattinson took five-wicket hauls on debut and formed key parts of the new look bowling attack, whilst Shaun Marsh, David Warner and Ed Cowan have all managed the step up from state cricket, supplementing the experienced core of the team with fresh faces. Behind the scenes, the appointment of former South Africa coach Mickey Arthur as head coach has been a shrewd one, as Cricket Australia broke from the tradition of having an Australian in the top job to find a candidate with international experience and recent success. John Inverarity’s appointment as chief selector is also a useful one, but perhaps the key to the recent turnaround has been the inclusion of both Clarke and Arthur on the selection committee, which allows captain and coach to have a greater say in who gets picked, and improve communication between the players and the executives.
The road to success has not been without its potholes, however. The Test defeats at Cape Town, where Australia were humbled for 47 all out (which was, in truth, more of a crevasse than a pothole), and Hobart, when they lost at home to New Zealand for the first time in 26 years, have been setbacks – but such defeats have also kept alive the fire and passion to keep winning, something which was arguably lacking during the Ashes. Despite victory over India concerns still remain, such as with the new look opening pair. Warner and Cowan complement each other nicely, but both have issues to address – Warner, though explosive, needs to develop some consistency, whilst the stoic Cowan is yet to demonstrate that he can craft a big innings at Test level. Marsh looked out of his depth at no.3, against all types of bowling, and will probably not keep his spot for the upcoming West Indies tour barring a surge in his domestic form. There is also the ever-present worry about what will happen when the next wave of Australian greats retire, but, for the time being, it seems as if the pieces of the jigsaw are falling together, and that the team are moving on from their Ashes humbling. By the time the next Ashes series arrives in 2013, Clarke’s resurgent Australian side may have the chance to build an empire of their own.