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Wither Australia? Not Likely!

Wither Australia? Not Likely!

If you think a string of recent retirements means Australia will automatically lose top spot in the world of cricket, guess again.

Despite no longer being able to call on modern greats like Glenn McGrath, Shane Warne and Adam Gilchrist, no country is better able to minimise the effect of these departures than Australia.

While the world champions may not immediately turn up players of the retirees’ calibre, the talent identification systems and comprehensive coaching regimes in place since the 1980s ensure Australia will get the best out of its available talent.

When Ricky Ponting recently opined that his side had come back to the field, the well known punter may not have checked his form guide as to the other runners in the race. It’s fair to ask, if Australia is about to be toppled form its perch, who will do the toppling?

A strong Indian side pushed Australia to the limit last home summer, when the rawness of third seamer Mitchell Johnson and the absence of a top class spinner were exposed. Nevertheless, India’s formidable batting line up is largely of the same generation as its Australian counterpart. Should India trump Australia and assume the mantle as number one Test side, there’s no guarantee the likes of Rahul Dravid, VVS Laxman, Sachin Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly will be there to share the spoils. The same might be said for Anil Kumble. The task is far more likely to fall to the talented but largely untested youngsters on display in the International T20 last year, and the ODI series in Australia last summer. Put simply, despite its current depth in seam bowling, there are as many question-marks over India’s next generation of Test players as there are over Australia’s. There must be – both are largely untried at the highest level.

England famously triumphed over Australia in 2005, but has been treading water ever since. Injuries to key performers such as Andrew Flintoff, Simon Jones and Michael Vaughan, combined with a prolonged loss in form by Andrew Strauss and the apparent plateauing of Kevin Pietersen, Alistair Cook and Ian Bell, mean no small measure of the promise of 2005 has yet to materialise. Despite the impressive return of Ryan Sidebottom, without Flintoff and Jones the bowling looks less likely to consistently rip through top class international line ups.

For Sri Lanka, Chaminda Vaas and Murali are closer to the end than the beginning, and the best regarded replacements look as likely to fill their shoes as, well Johnson and Beau Casson do of filling McGrath and Warne’s. It’s not that the young seamers coming through and Ajantha Mendis don’t have talent. Rather, none of them immediately appear to be in the class of their soon-to-be predecessors.

A Sri Lanka attack without its two champions is unlikely to trouble the best Test nations, while Pakistan, largely through no fault of its own, plays so little Test cricket lately it’s nigh impossible to draw a line through their form. Add lack of cricket to the travails of Shoaib Akthar and Mohammad Asif and one wonders how well Pakistan can compete in the medium term, despite the excellence of Mohammad Yousuf, the experience of Younis Khan and the development of left arm paceman Sohail Tanvir.

The unavailability of Shane Bond has left a gaping hole in New Zealand’s fortunes. They continue to be a consistent threat at ODI level, however, which developing leather flingers are going to dismiss a Test team twice?

West Indies pushed Australia at times in the recent Test series; however, they rely too heavily on the masterful Shivnarine Chanderpaul and the (recently) injury-prone Chris Gayle. Daren Powell remains consistently inconsistent, but Fidel Edwards and Jerome Taylor look the real deal when the ball swings around. The problem for the Windies, with Marlon Samuels serving a suspension for involvement with a book maker, remains its latest crop of young batsmen. Xavier Marshall is an exciting prospect, but his contemporaries in the top and middle order are yet to produce at a consistent level.

This brings us to South Africa. With Shaun Pollock gone, Dale Steyn has exploded on the international scene, delivering consistent outswing at over 90 miles per hour. He has good back up in the pace bowling department from Makhaya Ntini, Andre Nel and the exciting Morkel brothers, but the spinning cupboard is as bare as Australia’s. Graeme Smith and Jacques Kallis are proven performers, and Hashim Amla has improved markedly in recent times. They, along with India, seem the team most likely in the medium to long-term, but their record against Australia since returning to international cricket is diabolical. Do they have what it takes to snatch the crown?

So far, Australia has negotiated the difficult period which follows the departure of so many fine players. If you took players like the three greats mentioned at the outset, together with Langer, Martyn, MacGill and one-day specialist Hogg from any other international team, how would they perform? Take the two best bowlers from any side and it will struggle to bowl teams out twice. Remove a stalwart opener, a great ‘keeper-batsman, worthy spinners and a middle order stroke player par excellence as well, and most teams couldn’t climb off the mat for many a long day.

Sure, question-marks hang over the immediate future of the Australian side. The medium-to-long-term batting options with Phil Jaques, Shaun Marsh, Phil Hughes, Michael Clarke, Andrew Symonds, the Husseys, Shane Watson and Simon Katich look more than just good, but the third seamer position which Johnson currently occupies, far more than the spinning role, is both the crucial and vulnerable one.

Brett Lee and Stuart Clark are as good as any seamers in the world at the moment, but a lack of adequate support told on their performances in the West Indies. Johnson looks tired, his action ragged. Fortunately, a strong domestic competition has thrown up contenders such as Doug Bollinger and Ashley Noffke who seem capable of stepping up. Whether they, Johnson or any other up-an-coming quicks are up to the long-term challenge remains to be seen. From the team’s perspective it is vital one or all of them prove capable of bowling long, tight spells to maintain pressure on opposing batsmen while Lee and Clark are resting.

Long gaps between quality spin bowlers are not unusual in Australian cricket. Whilst names such as Mallet, O’Keeffe, P Taylor, Hohns and Matthews provided reasonable service to the cause, there was no great spinner in Australia between Richie Benaud and Warne. Despite this being the case, Australia was able to dominate in the mid-1970s, owing largely to the strength of its middle order and primarily its fast bowling ranks. The danger for up and coming spinners in this country is they will be compared with Warne for a decade or more. Such comparisons will always be unflattering.

Test cricket always has and always will be about bowling the other mob out twice. For Australia to continue to dominate world cricket, they must find a third seamer of Test class, and a serviceable international spinner. It’s not rocket science, but if they do, the rest will look after itself.

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