The economic depression is going to last a lot longer than the downturn in Australian cricket
Although results have been patchy, Australia has begun 2009 with a sense of purpose.
A meeting held by the players on the first day of the year helped to clear the air. Not that the team can any longer grind down the opponents; the bowling lacks penetration and the batting is experienced. Ricky Ponting has played more Tests than the rest put together. But the Australians are starting to look more like a team.
Beyond argument, 2008 was the most calamitous year Australia has suffered for a quarter of a century. It began with the wretched performance in Sydney as an ageing, angry side tried to hang on to past glories. Afterwards astonished senior players were called to account by the more enlightened selections of the community.
Thereafter the Australians lost in Perth Test and the One-Day series. A productive trip to the Caribbean said more about the feebleness of their opponents than any sudden revival. The Indian tour painted a more realistic picture of the state of a team that Andrew Symonds, Brett Lee and Matthew Hayden were liabilities. The centre could not hold. It was time to move on.
Nagpur was the lowpoint. Even now the reasoning that persuaded the Australians to withdraw at the critical hour remains incomprehensible. To make matters worse, the touring captain seemed to be amazed by the reaction. Suffice it to say he deserved every brickbat. Australia lost the series, trounced a lacklustre Kiwi outfit and then lost to South African outfit as elusive as the Scarlet Pimpernel.
Australia had lost its ruthless streak. Far from providing the dynamic leadership the team needed, Rick Ponting dithered. The shadows of the past, and its remaining senior players, hung heavy over him.
Finally, a nonplussed community woke up. Hayden retired, Lee and Symonds were forced to the sidelines, possibly never to return. Fresh faces were sought. Mistakes were made but the sentiment was correct. Ponting began to relax. Everyone noticed the change, including television interviewers required to ask questions at the toss. Australia took the dead rubber in Sydney. It was a sporting match, too. A stricken Graeme Smith valiantly tried to save the match and Ponting did not order his pacemen to pound him.
Of course, it was not all beer and roses. Later that night Simon Katich and Michael Clarke fell out. A lot of piffle has been written about a minor episode that had its origins in a Shield match in which Katich ran out his comrade and then himself batted for two days. Clarke did not field in the second innings. Cricketers have longer memories than elephants. At least, though the boil was lanced. Katich is an old style player, Clarke has the energy and ambitions of the new brigade.
South Africa mauled their hosts in the one-day series and only rain prevented the Kiwis prevailing. But that was fifty over cricket. Anyhow it was by no means all doom and gloom. Callum Ferguson added his name to the list of emerging players. Next the right squad was sent to Africa. And the team fought back hard on the opening day of the Joburg Test, with Ponting and his deputy batting superbly whereupon Marcus North confirmed that he was comfortable in this company. It boded well.
It is not that the Australians are suddenly going to overpower the opponents. South Africa and India have more talent at their disposal. But the baggy greeners have come to terms with their changed circumstances, and that is half the battle. The economic depression is going to last a lot longer than the downturn in Australian cricket.