x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Australia must aim to become No 1 in Test cricket

Michael Clarke's men have deservedly taken the Ashes back from England but their next challenge will be to beat mighty South Africa at home.

Michael Clarke’s men were able to figure England’s batsmen out in Australia. Mark Kolbe / Getty Images
Michael Clarke’s men were able to figure England’s batsmen out in Australia. Mark Kolbe / Getty Images

Cast your minds back, if you will, to a dark evening at Chester-le-Street in Durham on August 12 last year.

Australian cricket appeared at its lowest ebb, on paper at least, as Peter Siddle popped up a catch to James Anderson off Stuart Broad to complete a miserable batting collapse to ensure they lost their third successive Ashes series with defeat in the fourth Test.

They had lost their last nine wickets for only 77 runs as they snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in a match in which they had been the better side for the first three days.

The series ended 3-0 to England as Darren Lehmann’s reign as the Australia coach got off to a losing start.

Wind forward just 146 days to Sunday and the change in fortunes could not be more pronounced as Michael Clarke’s men celebrated a 5-0 whitewash against England in Sydney to claim their first Ashes series since 2006/07.

It has been a remarkable transformation, especially as it has not been down to a spectacular change in personnel.

Of the 11 who lost in Durham in August only Mitchell Johnson and George Bailey, who were ever present in this series, did not feature in that Test.

So, how have a team who lost 3-0 in the summer turned it around so emphatically that they won every Test in the winter?

The simple answer is, Australia raised their level from the summer, particularly with the ball, while England, whether it was overconfidence or ill-preparation, or both, were not up to the challenge and the 5-0 scoreline is in no way unjust.

Andy Flower, the England team director, acknowledged that England’s batting had been misfiring for some time but, unlike in the summer, Australia were able to exploit it this time.

Ryan Harris, just as he was in England, was excellent with the new ball. He took 24 wickets in four matches in the summer, yet ended up on the losing side.

He took 22 in five this time but the pressure to take wickets did not fall solely on him in this latest series thanks to the renaissance of Johnson.

Treated as a joke by England’s supporters three years ago for his wayward efforts with the ball, the pace bowler deservedly was man of the series for his 37 wickets as he terrorised the England batsmen with raw pace.

In England, the Australians had often had the better of their opponents early in the innings but lacked the firepower to finish them, often allowing England to escape to defendable scores, which then proved too much for their own brittle batting.

But not this time. Johnson and Harris led the way, but they were ably supported by Peter Siddle and the spin of Nathan Lyon.

Shane Watson’s role with the ball should not be forgotten, either. While he only took four wickets in 47.4 overs, he conceded only 122 runs as he kept things tight, allowing Clarke to always have control of England’s batsmen.

That was not something that could be said of Alastair Cook, the England captain, who too often was powerless to prevent Australia’s batsmen taking the game away from him once they had seen off Stuart Broad and James Anderson.

The danger for Australia is that they are blinded by this result and do not continue to progress, the crime of which England are undoubtedly guilty.

While the Ashes are important to Australians, going back to world No 1 has to be the main objective, and we are going to see very quickly how Clarke’s men shape up against the holders of that ranking when they play a three-Test series in South Africa, starting next month. Australia played a lot of good cricket against England but they were not perfect by any means, particularly with the bat.

The heroics of wicketkeeper Brad Haddin, who hit one century and five 50s, covered up the cracks of the top order, who too often failed in the first innings.

In Brisbane they were 132 for six, at Adelaide they were 174 for four, in Perth they were 143 for five, at Melbourne they were bowled out for 204, and they were 97 for five in Sydney before recovering.

Australia batsmen scored 10 centuries in the series, but only four of them came in the first innings, and two came in Adelaide.

The narrative of the series was often that Australia struggled initially but, inspired by Haddin, would escape to a decent score. Then their bowlers would rout England and Australia’s batsmen would make hay in the second innings against a demoralised and tired bowling attack.

But they will not be able to get away with that against the Proteas.

In the form they are in, Johnson and Harris will be a formidable test for Graeme Smith’s side. But, despite the loss of Jacques Kallis to retirement, South Africa will not be represented by the sort of brittle batting offered up by England.

Plus their pace trio of Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and Vernon Philander will put considerable pressure on the Australia top order.

Watson has yet to truly convince as a No 3 for Australia, his best efforts in the winter coming in the second innings, though his unbeaten 83 in Melbourne was one of his most fluent knocks in the Test arena.

George Bailey is the man who should be most worried as he has failed to impress at No 6.

Yes, he took 28 off an Anderson over in Perth but a highest score of 53 and an average of 26.14 was below-par. He was fortunate to have an in-form Haddin coming in after him.

England have demonstrated the consequences of standing still and staying loyal to out-of-form players. Now Lehmann and Clarke have to ensure that Australia do not make the same mistake, starting next month.

gcaygill@thenational.ae