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England captain Alastair Cook (left) with Australian captain Michael Clarke. Photo: Philip Brown/Reuters
England captain Alastair Cook (left) with Australian captain Michael Clarke. Photo: Philip Brown/Reuters

Cricket | Turned to Ashes

A fragmented Australia have been thoroughly beaten by England and it has set back their process of rebuilding

There should be some sympathy for Australia in the ongoing Ashes series for sure, but only some. They got the worse end of the decision review system (DRS) and other umpiring issues, and occasionally luck too deserted them. But all told, England were deserving winners in the fourth Test (and the series) that ended on Tuesday.

That good players and teams perform best under pressure is a sports truism that brooks few challenges. Every time there was a crisis, England fought back with skill, courage and not a little bravado; in similar situations, Australia’s fragility came through tellingly.

In batting, bowling and surprisingly even in fielding, Australia were overwhelmed. Where England found vital contributions from almost every player (Alastair Cook was surprisingly the weakest link), Australia’s performances were fragmented rather than cohesive.

Ryan Harris has been superb and Chris Rogers, at 35, has been the find of the tour—but importantly, neither was an automatic selection. Steve Smith had a couple of good knocks, Ed Cowan and Phil Hughes some forgettable ones. Young pace hopes Mitchell Starc and James Pattinson lost rhythm or fitness or both to always leave the team a strike bowler short.

Australia’s troubles began with David Warner, who could have been a game-changer, having to be sent to Africa on a punishment assignment after being involved in an unseemly scrape with Joe Root before the Test series began. That set the tenor for unremitting mistakes and mishaps.

Michael Clarke, rated the best captain in the world, was a victim of circumstances and—it must be said—his own poor assessment of who to play in which Test. His understanding of how to deploy DRS was also hollow and cost his team dear. A magnificent century in the third Test confirmed Clarke’s status as arguably the best batsman in the world, but otherwise, this is a series he would like to forget in a hurry.

The one-sidedness of the contest (3-0 with one Test to be played still) reveals the disparity between the two sides: England are looking good to vie strongly for the No.1 ranking once again, Australia’s rebuilding process is going to take longer, and accompanied by much heartburn, I reckon.

This brings me to India’s recovery this year, which contrasts dramatically with Australia’s. After the defeat to England in the Test series at home late last year, there was a clamour for a change in the leadership, what with M.S. Dhoni having lost 0-4 and 0-4 to England and Australia, respectively, in the two preceding overseas tours. Several players were under fire, some lost their places, the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) was beset with its usual quota of controversies: Indian cricket seemed to be in the dumps.

But then came the unexpected whitewash of Australia, followed by a string of victories in One Day International (ODI) series—at home and overseas—that not only resurrected Dhoni’s captaincy, but has also thrown up several new stars and brought India to the top of the rankings in ODIs and almost there in Tests.

What’s caused this big turnaround? A strong and decisive selection policy has been the biggest factor though it is also true that the country is flush with exciting young talent. The new committee under Sandeep Patil has sensibly put a premium on fitness, current form and strong domestic performances rather than on past reputation.

It could not have been easy to drop players like Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir, Zaheer Khan, Yuvraj Singh and Harbhajan Singh. Neither were they dropped summarily, as part of some coup. They were kept in the mix, given opportunities, but importantly, there was no dilly-dallying when the results were not forthcoming.

The success of players like Shikhar Dhawan, Ravindra Jadeja, Cheteshwar Pujara, Rohit Sharma and Bhuvneshwar Kumar—in one format or both—has not only vindicated the selection policy, but also given the team fresh wings to fly with. The younger lot has shown zeal, ambition and purpose.

Dhoni, who retained his captaincy by a whisker, too has had to step up his performances in the face of competition emerging from the youngsters. A non-performing captain is unacceptable whatever his tactical acumen and Dhoni was smart enough to realize this in time.

The blazing current form of the Indian team, however, must not obscure the fact that the next 12 months are going to be tough, with overseas tours to South Africa, New Zealand and England. With the focus as much on Tests as on limited overs cricket, there is obviously still enormous scope for improvement.

The bowling, especially in the pace department, needs to be bolstered. Dhoni would love to see a fit Khan leading the attack. Moreover, experience can be of great value on overseas tours, as Harris and Rogers showed (even if in vain) for Australia in the Ashes, which means that the Indian seniors currently sidelined have an incentive to work on their fitness and form.

These are happy times for Indian cricket. But as Dhoni well knows, this can vanish in the matter of weeks if smugness creeps in and there is inadequate preparation for the challenges ahead.

Ayaz Memon is a senior columnist who writes on sports and other matters.

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