x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

How the tide has turned for hapless Australia cricket team

Before this week's Oval Ashes Test, the Baggy Greens find themselves where England were 12 years ago, writes Dileep Premachandran.

Barring Ryan Harris, who has been the best bowler in the Ashes series, Australia have been largely in poor shape. Philip Brown / Reuters
Barring Ryan Harris, who has been the best bowler in the Ashes series, Australia have been largely in poor shape. Philip Brown / Reuters

Coffee and Cigarettes is the title of a 2003 Jim Jarmusch film, 11 short clips that have the two stimulants as a common thread.

As far as Ashes cricket is concerned, coffee and cigarettes summon up memories of the day Mark Butcher struck 173 not out to lead England to a remarkable victory at Headingley. Tuesday marks the 12th anniversary of that innings, a day when England chased down 315 to win against one of the most formidable teams the game has seen.

Coffee and cigarettes were what Butcher had for lunch that afternoon. It was not an innings that changed a series or an era, as Ian Botham had done at the same venue 20 years earlier. It served only as a consolation, in another summer of English Ashes misery. A few days later, at The Oval, Australia would triumph by an innings to re-emphasise their dominance and seal a 4-1 result.

With the passage of time, it is hard to recall the optimism with which England went into the series. The previous winter, they had won in Pakistan, in near darkness, in Karachi. Then they went to Sri Lanka and beat their hosts 2-1 to become the first touring side in 40 years to win back-to-back series on the subcontinent. To put that achievement into context, only one other side, Ricky Ponting's Australians (2004), won in Sri Lanka between 1993 and 2011.

The events of that winter, coupled with Australia's dramatic defeat in India, created unrealistic expectations for the English summer. David Kerr, the sports editor at Channel 4, set the tone. "The Ashes will have the best England team in years against the best team in the world in the greatest event in cricket," he said. "It's set up beautifully to be the sporting event of the summer."

Instead, but for Butcher's moment in the sun, it was a washout, confirmation that Steve Waugh's side were still streets ahead of the pretenders. For England, after the gains of the previous season, it was time to rebuild. Michael Atherton retired after The Oval Test. Uzman Afzaal, for reasons of weight and attitude more than ability, was not picked again. Mark Ramprakash would play the last of 52 largely unfulfilled Tests less than a year later.

Heading into this week's Oval Test, the wheel has turned to such an extent that Australia find themselves where England were 12 years ago, searching for scraps of dignity from a summer of extreme mediocrity. Barring the utterly magnificent Ryan Harris – the best bowler on either side – not one Australian tourist will go home from this series with head held high. To varying degrees, they have all flattered to deceive.

Just as the summer of 2001 ended the Nasser Hussain-Duncan Fletcher honeymoon, 2013 has pricked Michael Clarke's captaincy bubble. The promise shown during a drawn series in South Africa and a home evisceration of India were followed by a 1-0 home loss to South Africa and a 3-0 thrashing of Sri Lanka. The South Africa loss could be considered unfortunate, with the defeat in Perth coming after Australia had been the better side in both Brisbane and Adelaide.

Since then, they have lost seven of eight Tests. Routed in four straight games in India, they were unfortunate to be denied by rain in the Ashes Test at Old Trafford. And after controlling much of the Durham Test, they succumbed to the sort of collapse that has become worrisome and common in recent seasons.

England eventually rebuilt under the captaincy of Michael Vaughan, winning the Ashes back in 2005. They have lost it just once since. Vaughan was a fine example of enlightened selection. An average performer on the first-class circuit – he retired with an average of 36.95 – he saved his best for the big stage and the grand occasion, making three centuries on another ill-fated Ashes tour in 2002/03. In many ways, he was the antithesis of Ramprakash, a pillager of county attacks who could never find his metier in the international game.

Australia's desperate pursuit of Sam Robson – currently topping the county scoring charts – illustrates just how few options they have. The young players in the current squad also will not get much confidence from how they have been handled. Usman Khawaja was a convenient whipping boy for the Durham defeat, while Phillip Hughes was dropped a game after he had compiled a game-changing 81 at Trent Bridge. He was also never allowed to settle in one position.

A few years ago, everyone looked to Australia for cricketing wisdom. These days, they are in the unenviable position of looking to England for what to do. Witness England's treatment of Ian Bell. Mocked by Shane Warne as the "Shermanator" in the 2005 Ashes series, Bell was dropped, in the Caribbean in 2009, but told what he needed to do to reclaim a spot. Since returning, he has been an integral part of England's surge up the Test rankings.

For now, it is not coffee and cigarettes that Australia need. It is a shot of common sense, and plenty of patience.


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