Monday, 17 June 2013

Australia: new but not improved

Australia aren't very good.

That's the truth. Yes, they're not that bad, but they're not that good either. For years, Australian cricket was on a pedestal that the rest of the world could barely reach. Matches against England were usually worth watching for the self-deprecating humour on show rather than the cricket. And then after 2005, when we saw that Australia weren't completely infallible, things began to change.

Australia's successful history has become a rod with which to beat the back of the current team. There is no Glenn McGrath, no Shane Warne, no Justin Langer; with the possible exception of Michael Clarke, there is no name in the Australian line-up who one looks at and thinks "they could single-handedly change the course of this game." Australian cricket falls into two categories. The first are the young up and comers. Invariably pace bowlers, they are raw, quick and will pose a real threat on English wickets. The second group are the veterans. Years of experience in English and Australian conditions behind them, they are there to bring stability to a fractious batting line-up. On paper, these two elements should come together nicely. In reality, they aren't.

It's not just a question of form. James Faulkner, the latest cab from the pace bowling ranks, bowled well in the Champions Trophy, and Mitchell Johnson's resurgence of form will raise Australian spirits. In terms of the batsmen, George Bailey and Adam Voges stood head and shoulders above the rest. Bailey proved too to be a good substitute for Clarke, shrewd in the field and honest to the point of awkward in his dealings with the media.

Australia's problem in the Champions Trophy were the same as in 2005, 2009 and 2010. Starts were made, but very few went on. There was an inability to deal with the swinging ball; while no bowling attack has had the ball hooping around corners, England have achieved more movement than most, and Australia didn't know what to do. The technique wasn't good enough, just as it wasn't in 2005 when Simon Jones and Andrew Flintoff exploited reverse swing to devastating effect. The bowling attack is still searching for that elusive key component, a quality spinner who can hold up an end and take wickets when needed. Xavier Doherty bowled well but there was the sense that he was never really trusted to take the lead, with defensive fields set at times when Australia should have attacked.

The technical flaws are worrying enough but the off-field incidents do nothing to strengthen Australia's claims of team unity. Homework-gate was universally mocked at the start of the year, and now David Warner's one-man crusade to make a complete fool of himself and the team management has brought ridicule back to the forefront of Australian cricket. These incidents hardly scream of respect for those in charge, be it captain or coach.  No matter how tiresome a cliché it has become, a united team is the best team. Australia are not united. Clarke's injury has left the team rudderless. While Bailey has been more than impressive as a replacement, he does not have the history or the experience of Clarke. As one of the veterans of the team, players look up to Clarke; he has played in four Ashes series, is by far and away Australia's best batsman and will constantly try new things in the field. Without him, Australia look not only a weaker playing side but a weaker group of individuals. Australia began the Champions Trophy as the title holders - they have exited without winning a game. This was the perfect opportunity for Australia to land the first Ashes blow in a packed summer of cricket, and they failed miserably.