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Australia without Warne

Getting my sleep patterns into sync with UK daylight is for me, now, a constant struggle, especially now, when there is very little in the way of daylight in my part of the globe, and especially when there are such good international cricket matches going on elsewhere in the world, together with, now, the means to follow them, ball by ball. The latest such disruption to my daily clock took the form of a terrific game between Australia and South Africa in Melbourne.

I found day three especially hard to ignore. At the beginning of it, South Africa looked odds on to lose the 1-0 advantage they had gained with their amazing fourth innings run chase in the first test at Perth. With only three first innings wickets left, they were looking at a massive first innings deficit, but they ended with their noses actually in front, an advantage they pressed home the next morning by taking three quick second innings wickets before the Aussies had even got their noses back in front. I was still checking the score on that third day at tea time, which was at about 4 a.m. my time. JP Duminy got a big first test century in only his second test, having also done well at the end of the Perth run chase, and fast bowler Dale Steyn, who also took ten wickets in the match, gave Duminy massive support with the bat.

In its way, this third day was a bit of cricket history, because it marked the moment of Australia’s definite, absolute, unarguable fall from grace as the definitely best international cricket team in the world. They recently lost to India in India, but that can happen to anyone. But then to go back home and immediately to lose to South Africa in Australia, well, that was something else again. The difference is Shane Warne, the greatest leg spinner and very possibly the greatest bowler in the entire history of cricket. Australia with Warne to back up the font line quicks would never have allowed Duminy and his helpers to get from 184-7 to 431-8. Australia’s bowlers are still pretty good. But there is pretty good, and there is Shane Warne.

The point about Warne is that he was so very, very accurate. He could send down ball after ball that did exactly what he wanted. The average good leg break bowler bowls away, hoping that he will hit the jackpot with the occasional beauty, but resigned to serving up rather more frequent full tosses or long hops, which for the benefit of any Americans still with me, means bad balls that the batsman can score off heavily. But not only could Warne do those beauties more frequently than the best of the rest, but equally importantly, for over after over, there would absolutely no rubbish. He could bowl eight or ten or a dozen or more deliveries exactly as he wanted to, setting up expectations and reinforcing them, but then delivering the coup de grace, the words “he set him up” being one that constantlly recurred in the mouths of those commenting on Warne’s numerous triumphs. The result was a level of pressure that was outside the experience of the opposing batsmen in any other games they played, and what is more often at a stage in the innings when batsmen usually expect a degree of relaxation and easy run-getting. Then, in the event that Shane Warne hadn’t actually wrapped up the entire innings, back would come the Australian front line quicks, well rested, with the second new ball. Making big scores against all this was hugely difficult, and it speaks volumes for England’s quality as a side at the time that they contrived to win the Ashes in 2005 against Australia, Warne and all. That a weaker England then got smashed in Australia was no big surprise, even if the margin (5-0) was rather crushing.

Afficionados will want to add the name of Glenn McGrath to the above mix. Indeed. Another very great bowler, who was also amazingly accurate. But would McGrath have been quite so good, or have lasted quite so long, without Warne? Events since Warne’s retirement suggest not. Without Warne to share such a big part of the bowling load, the Australian quick bowlers now look vulnerable to overwork, with their most experienced quick, Brett Lee, being but a hobbling shadow of his recent best. And now, deprived of that confidence they used to have that they could win any game from just about any apparently losing position, the Australian batting is starting to look less formidable too. Gilchrist, the best wicketkeeper batsman ever, is no more, and Hayden is nearly done also. The Aussies are just not the force that, for a decade and a half, they were. Before them, the West Indies were dominant. Who might dominate next? South Africa? India? If India could make weight of numbers count at the top level they would be unbeatable, but cricket fans have been saying that for years.

England have a bit to do before challenging for the top spot, for they remain the dodgy outfit they have been ever since the 2005 Ashes side started falling to bits. Flintoff is getting back to his formidable best after yet another injury. Pietersen looks a good captain, possessing as he does an undentable ego. But England are short at least one good batsman (personally I think his name is Owais Shah). And the bowling still depends far too heavily on the notoriously undependable Harmison. But because of Australia’s decline England still have a decent shot at getting the Ashes back next summer.

Test cricket in general has been doing well just lately. Despite initial hesitations after the Mumbai killings, England did play more cricket in India, and the first of the two tests they played was a cracker, won by India but only after three days on the back foot against a very good England effort, the great Sachin Tendulkar reaching another hundred and winning the match with the one shot. And only today came news of another fine game, between Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. The difference between losing heavily and abjectly, and losing bravely and more narrowly, is huge. Winning alone is not everything in sport. Losing in a manner that suggests that your team could have a winning future also counts for a lot. Bangladesh were chasing a seemingly impossible five hundred in the last innings to win, but got past four hundred before the last four wickets fell cheaply. Sri Lanka got a huge scare before winning. Given that Bangladesh have tended to lose heavily and abjectly of late, this was an important game for them, and by extension for the entire game of cricket.

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2 comments to Australia without Warne

  • For several years the Australian team have struck me as a group of players who were being paid a great deal of money, who had started believing their own press releases, who were surrounded by a court of hangers on who lacked the ability to say anything hard as this might threaten their own places on the gravy train – in short, as a team who were headed for a fall. The West Indian side looked the same way in 1989. Ponting as a captain has been a tactical ignoramus (but people in the cricket media have until recently shied from saying this, as doing so might threaten their places on the gravy train) and has done a poor job of inspiring his team. Ponting was preceded by three great captains in Border, Taylor, and Waugh, and is obviously inferior to any of them as a leader. I had thought that Australia’s decline (when it happened) would not be as bad as that of the 1990s West Indies due to better management and attitudes in Australia, but I am now no longer so sure. I was perhaps deluded (in perhaps the same way you were deluded when you believed that this Labour government wouldn’t trash the nation’s finances in the traditional way) because the symptoms look the same.

    Part of the issue is of course that Steve Waugh was the last man in the Australian side to have played in the dreadfully unsuccessful Australian teams of the mid 1980s and who knew how hard it had been to reach the top in the first place. While he was still there, the burning desire not to lose and to try to avenge the humiliations of 1981 to 1985 drove the Australian team. When he was gone, the spirit of the team was gone. (The extent to which all Australia’s victories of the last 20 years were ultimately about trying to avenge that horrible day at Headingley in 1981 should not be understated).

    Or perhaps I am talking crap and it is in fact all about Shane Warne. Certainly Australia would have just won both of the recent matches with trivial ease if Warne was playing. But there is a lot more to the decline of Australian cricket than that.

  • Ray

    I agree that Waugh was a true colossus, but I think you are just a bit harsh on Ponting. Let’s not forget that Warne, McGrath, Gilchrist, Gillespie and Langer all departed the scene at pretty much the same time. The latter two were very good test players; Gilchrist was at the very least a remarkable cricketer, while Warne and McGrath were among the finest players ever to have graced the game. How can life after that lot result in anything other than a significant decline in standards? (I maintain, by the way, that England would not have won the Ashes in 2005 had McGrath stayed fit … but that’s another story).