x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Australia v India series no longer a clash of the titans

Neither team is at its peak with England being cricket's big daddies in recent times.

The lustre has gone we must accept this first. Such is the state of Australia at the moment that this series with India can no longer be about the best teams in the world.

Australia aren't that, win or lose, and India won't be if they win though they can at least claim some history in doing so. Had this been Australia of 2007 and the India of 2010, both pre-deflation, then we'd be talking. But England are the new daddies now.

Even accounting for the thinness of India's bowling, enslaved to the fitness of Zaheer Khan and Ishant Sharma, Australia begin the team likelier to finish second. They are not genuine underdogs despite winning only two of their last five series at home, but that is only because it's difficult to know with this side.

Optimists will contend that they are in transition, but to the realist they're neither on the way up or on the way down. They've flattened out.

It has been entertaining at least, particularly over the last two years where every now and again, amidst their fall, they've woken up with a sudden start, remembered they are Australia, and done something Australian.

Most recently it happened when they were bowled out for 47, only to successfully chase down 310 ten days later. They've become the vulnerable kid in the corner, not the bully and so they've become easier to root for.

The willow-work is the real problem, collapsing quicker than a European economy at the first sight of a swinging ball. Eight times since they lost the Ashes in 2009 they've been bowled out for less than 200 and three times for less than three figures.

A defeat to New Zealand in Hobart – that is how much they have fallen – has reduced them to the kind of simple fix-it measures subcontinent boards adopt: organising a camp to play swing bowling better. It is that bad.

More might come from the bowling, though not as much as the hype generated around James Pattinson, Pat Cummins and Mitchell Starc – five Tests between them – would sell you.

Cummins may not be seen in the series but Pattinson and Starc are going to come up against batsmen of a quality they will not have ever come across. Nathan Lyon's backstory is lovely and he's had success, but India? Such tales rarely have happy endings for an off-spinner.

As secondary fallout, the cover's been blown off the fantasy that their domestic system was a pre-reunification East German sports academy, plucking champion after champion off an assembly line. It just looked that way because every new player who succeeded was coming into an already successful side.

They probably still produce better-rounded players than some countries, but they also throw up enough who never make it. Phil Hughes may end up the latter, a victim of the reputation of the system that produced him.

This series could well be the last flicker of a contest that lit up the 2000s. It is one of those intense cyclical rivalries that sport throws up for no other reason than it brings together two top, competitive sides; in many ways, it was this generation's Pakistan-West Indies clashes of the 80s, though with added off-field colour and zing.

It never had the extras of an Ashes or Pakistan-India to carry it through.

It might no longer have the financial lure either. In the next Future Tours Programme (FTP), until 2020, is apparent a shift, slight but perceptible. India play a fifth of their 102 Tests in that time not against Australia, but England, including two five-Test series in 2014 and 2018 (no series other than the Ashes is of five Tests).

They play Australia often enough still, but a new game is in town.