Corey Taylor | 9:31am gmt 22 Mar 2009
2008 was a rough year for the Australian cricket team. Having held on at home to beat India, they were hammered in India 0-2 and recently lost their first home series since 1992 to a professional South African outfit. The list of players lost in the last 3 years is comprised of some of Australia`s all-time greats; Warne, McGrath, Gilchrist, Hayden, Langer, Martyn. Many other fantastic players have come and gone, the pool of talent down to the dregs. A downturn in performance was inevitable but certain hit-and-hope selectorial blunders didn`t help matters. The search for a spinner was (and still is) on in earnest, anyone with a tweak in their fingers was tried. This problem has yet to be ameliorated but progress has been made on other fronts. The current Australian side has just beaten South Africa in an away series and the win has been built on several factors; the injection of new players into the side, a more positive approach and the possible emergence as a world-class bowling all-rounder, something Australia has not possessed for many years. They are a real chance to clean-sweep the Test series.
Not all selections of new players have worked but this was largely a function of what they were asked to do in the context of the Test team. Cameron White failed in India because he was asked to be the front-line spinner and lower-order hitter when, for Victoria, he has been neither for quite some time. Jason Krejza was picked as the front-line spinner after him and, with 12 wickets in a match against India with his big turn, it appeared the post-Warne spinner position had been filled. Unfortunately in the return series against South Africa, Krejza`s spin was ineffective because not only was he not getting the turn he needs, the cost of deliveries between the good ones was too high. He was picked as a stock weapon and wasn`t up to it. The continued selection of Symonds at home proved to be folly and with Australia carrying out-of-form players such as Hayden and Hussey and injured bowling spear-head, the team looked tired. The side was scoring well but not well enough to put pressure on a South African line-up feasting on non-penetrative bowlers.
The current side is a product of selectors taking a bit of a punt. Ben Hilfenhous, despite some indifferent bowling in the one-dayers in Australia, was included, Mitchell Johnson assumed the status of bowling spearhead, Peter Siddle the enforcer and Andrew McDonald the bowler to keep things tight. Australia now has a bowling attack with variety, aggression and discipline. Even when not taking wickets, they`re making it awfully difficult for the South Africans to score runs. The success of the side has been built on this discipline in doing the basics well, the result taking care of itself rather than worrying about the possibility of losing. The addition of the unorthodox but supremely talented Phillip Hughes as well as the highly-credentialled Marcus North has given the batting back its swagger (and a handy bowling option) but the batting overall hasn`t been the big problem for Australia, taking 20 wickets has. Selecting aggressive bowlers has been a positive move.
As was seen in both of the first two Tests, the Australians followed up a good first innings total with crushing consistency and relentless attack with the ball. Peter Siddle and Mitchell Johnson have taken wickets with aggressive bowling allied with highly attacking field settings, nary a deep mid-wicket in sight as Ponting has stacked the slips. The conditions have been more bowler-friendly than in Australia but that Australia has taken wickets whereas, in the same conditions, South Africa have conceded large first-innings totals tells its own story. The South African batsmen had nowhere to go, no bowler to go after and whilst able to hold on sometimes, their batting lacked leadership, failing to take the game by the scruff of the neck. The South African cricket team`s tactics since re-admission have largely revolved around setting up the opposition, waiting as the opposition tries to make its own running and flailing before applying the light tap to the nose to finally lay them on the canvass.. This has made them vulnerable to front-running teams, such as Australia. The loss of their captain, a genuine front-runner and batting leader, cannot be under-estimated. Without him, the batting has lacked tactical nous. There have been some good individual contributions but little partnership-building, the rest of the line-up trying to hang on for as long as it can whilst batting around the one in form.
Conversely, Ponting`s on-field leadership during this period deserves recognition. He appears more relaxed about the direction of the team, his field settings and bowling changes have reflected this. His own batting, whilst no centuries have been made, has appeared breezy, the usual professionalism fading from display. He looked to genuinely be having fun batting with Phil Hughes in the second innings at Durban. Ponting appears to be enjoying watching the new players emerge and do well, not least of all because it has likely taken the pressure off his own game.
All that said, every team needs a `gun` and Mitchell Johnson provides fast becoming the side`s Swiss Army rifle. In him they have a rapidly-improving lower-order (perhaps not for much longer) batsman who can hold up an end and launch balls into the crowds. More importantly, they have a leader of the bowling attack who bowls at a lightning pace, can do it all day (Johnson has bowled more overs in the last year than any other fast bowler in the world) and is quickly adding to his available weapons including the addition of a lethal in-swinger, resulting in the wickets of a couple of very surprised batsmen in Durban. Johnson is the sharp edge of the attack and his bettering consistency has risen concomitant with the rise of consistently threatening, `there or there abouts` bowlers such as Peter Siddle and Andrew McDonald. The South Africans have simply folded against this relentless aggression. The only piece of the puzzle missing is a wicket-taking spinner in conditions that suit which may be tested in England.
Aside from South Africa`s batting woes, their bowlers have been disappointing. Their bowlers have taken a comparable number of wickets to the Australians but at a higher cost and economy rate. There are claims they have come into the series under-worked and it`s shown as they`ve shown a lack of innovation in countering the unorthodoxy of Phillip Hughes and at key moments, have allowed other Australian batsmen to bat unthreatened. Morne Morkel`s penchant for regularly releasing the pressure against Phillip Hughes and others would have had Graeme Smith`s fingers breaking from the sheer force of his frustration if they hadn`t already been broken by Johnson. The concession of large first-innings totals has been the result with aforementioned pressure on the batsmen.
The pressure has been telling; JP Duminy, having played with freedom in Australia despite an obvious weakness against the short ball, has looked a little more hesitant in general and less likely to penetrate the field with the silken strokeplay he`s capable of. Neil MacKenzie could barely hit the ball off the cut portion and although threatening, Jacques Kallis has been tied-down then forced into attacking shots to deliveries which weren`t quite in the right areas and has paid the price. The form of AB De Villiers has been a rare positive from this series for South Africa.
The current side has all the raw ingredients to win in England but most importantly, the positive feeling, which runs like a rapid through successful sides, has returned. It has been in short supply for many months now and even though there will be more fluctuations in the fortunes of the team, the self-belief and team balance should mean there will be more ups than downs for this combination.
Dare it be said; Australia are back?