Can Australia’s dominance continue

Mark Taylor, Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting are three Australian captains that have led their respective sides to unprecedented success, and together have made Australia into a nation that has dominated cricket since around 1995.

With the recent retirements of legendary leg spinner Shane Warne, one of the greatest seam bowlers of all time in Glenn Mcgrath, the gritty yet highly effective opener Justin Langer, and the elegant strokeplayer that is Damien Martyn, the burning question now is, can Australia’s superiority, in both forms of the game, continue ?

Another point of interest one must consider when assessing what is in store for this undoubtedly talented group of players, is what bearing will the resignation of coach John Buchanan have ? Buchanan signed off in emphatic style, ensuring his squad was widely recognised as the world’s best. In case anyone was unsure, Australia won the ICC Champions Trophy, followed by the whitewash of England in the Ashes, and topped it off with a World Cup victory, all in the space of six months.

The new man with the task of continuing the excellent work is the former Head Coach at the Centre of Excellence, Tim Nielsen. To the outside cricket world it resembles a low profile appointment, but as is the case with Australia, they like to promote from within, and Nielsen had previously worked with Buchanan, who he sees as a mentor, in the national set up for three years.

There is no doubt Australia currently stand alone in the ICC rankings, especially in the Test match format, where barring the odd irrevocable blip, have produced cricket consistently of the highest standard for a number of years. In the one-day game, Australia have dropped off top spot only briefly when South Africa overhauled them in March 2007. It was the first time since the rankings began back in October 2002, that Australia had been off top place. Good sides recover from indiscretions, and this side in the past has not only recovered, but exacted the most severe brand of revenge. Ask England.

The one-day side is not expected to suffer from too much disruption. Warne and Langer were not recent members of the limited overs side, and the loss of Mcgrath simply offers a chance to an exciting youngster, and prepare them for the rigours of international cricket, and lead them inevitably on the right road to Test cricket.

They have a tough and hectic schedule ahead of them, and Nielsen along with his selection committee of Andrew Hilditch, David Boon, Merv Hughes and Jamie Cox, will be keen to find the appropriate replacements for the retired quartet, and potential imminent departures in Matthew Hayden and Adam Gilchrist will add further food for thought.

In 1984, Australia suffered a similar triple blow when Dennis Lillee, Greg Chappell, and Rod Marsh all retired at the conclusion of a Sydney Test against Pakistan, where Lillee had taken eight wickets, Chappell had scored 182 runs and Marsh had sneered six victims. This, combined with the loss a year later of Graham Yallop, Kim Hughes, Terry Alderman , Rodney Hogg and Kepler Wessels to a rebel South African tour, resulted in Australia slipping from one of the world’s finest outfits to a side that won only one of its next 11 series (a series constituting three Tests or more).

The Australians have had an uncanny knack of producing players that immediately take to international cricket. Some of the most recent debutants in Mike Hussey, Brad Hodge, and Stuart Clark, have all had a good grounding in the highly competitive state cricket, and have stepped up to the next level with a near seamless transition. Australia’s trend of introducing seasoned campaigners has been fruitful, and even their inclusion of a number of young players has added a vibrancy to the side and the neceesity of a fight for places. There is no better situation to introduce youth, than into a side with a positive atmosphere, a winning feeling, and naturally, a side bursting at the seams with such highly skilled performers while offering the inexperienced players a relaxed environment to gain the experience to grow into high quality players (eg. Michael Clarke).

With the calibre of options available in the opening batsman department, it is almost expected that Phil Jaques adjusts to Test cricket immediately and nullifies the absence of Langer. Jaques’ form since Langer announced his retirement has been in tune with his previous six and half years in first-class cricket, where he has amassed an incredible 10,491 runs at 56.10. He has two Tests to his name so far, but if he attains the consistency he has found in first-class cricket, you can be sure he will be eyeing a much longer stay in Australia’s team this time around.

If Jaques fails to come to terms with the demands of Test cricket, you can be sure there will be batsmen knocking rather loudly on the door. Western Australia’s gritty left-hander Chris Rogers appeared as Jaques’ closest rival for the coveted spot. Last season he was awarded the State Player of the Year and Pura Cup Player of the Series for his return of 1202 runs at an average of 70.70. Fringe players like Brad Hodge and Shane Watson hopefully threw their name into the vacant position, but to overlook two natural openers that between them have made in excess of 18,000 first-class runs would surely be beyond unthinkable.

Clark’s timely arrival on the Test scene has eased fears following the departure of Glenn McGrath. Both are bowlers whose main strength is to keep complete control of where they want the cricket ball to land, to maintain patience, create pressure, and force batsmen into something they are not entirely comfortable with. It sounds such a simple mantra, but there are very few bowlers capable of doing it.

The pace bowling department, in general, appears to be in a healthy state. If it is taken for granted that Brett Lee and Clark will be constant fixtures in the Test side, then Mitchell Johnson, Ben Hilfenhaus, Nathan Bracken, Shaun Tait all bring alternative strengths to the side. If more pace is required, then Tait and Johnson will await the call, if it is swing, then Bracken will not be too far off a call, or someone to hit the deck hard and attain some away movement, then Tasmania’s Hilfenhaus is perfectly placed.

A man like Shane Warne is wholly irreplaceable, and Australia will more than likely look to the man that has been deprived of so many internationals because of him, in Stuart Macgill, but at 36 he will only be a short term option. His Test record is impressive, in his 40 Tests to date he has claimed just under 200 victims at an outstanding average of 27.20 (his statistics against Bangladesh and in the farcical Test against the ICC World XI do flatter his figures a touch, yet he still averages 30.67 against all other nations). The fact remains, that if he was born in any other Test playing nation, that number of Test matches and dismissals would have been appreciably higher.

Pushing him for the spinners berth will be a duo that both represent South Australia, and the wily so-called one-day specialist Brad Hogg. All are currently in possession of Australian contracts. Dan Cullen is an off spinner, while his team-mate Cullen Bailey is of the Warne and Macgill school. The qualities of Brad Hogg are well documented, however, his ability to be equally as effective in the longer form of the game remains a matter of opinion.

Hogg has appeared in four Test matches, and has yet to make a vital contribution that would assure him as a front-running contender. He may be seen as a safe option with his knowledge of the game and his experience, and he has demonstrated his ability to bamboozle even the finest players of spin with his left-arm chinamen in the 50 over format. Doubts do remain over his wicket-taking potential in five-day cricket (exemplified by his mediocre figures in first-class cricket), and because of that Hogg may have to remain content with his selection in the one-day side.

Dan Cullen has already made his Test debut, when Australia travelled to Chittagong to play a series against Bangladesh, the game which has become famous for Jason Gillespie’s double century. That was back in April 2006, and it was very much a spin strong side, as both Shane Warne and Stuart Macgill were present in the side. He has recently slipped out of immediate contention, due to a drop in form and his continual battle for a place in South Australia’s Pura Cup side with Bailey. Cullen gets plenty of revolutions on the ball, and if the track suits, can acquire an excessive degree of spin, which along with his doosra, makes him a dangerous bowler if batsmen are looking to advance down the wicket.

The worry with Bailey is that he has only 18 first-class games to his name, and possible early promotion to the Australian side may result in a complete loss of confidence if he is not ready to make that step up. More suited to the longer version of the game, Bailey’s potential is not in doubt, his readiness for Test cricket most certainly is.

It is moderately safe to suggest this will not be a repeat of the 1984 situation, with the quality of players to come into the side at a much more advanced stage in skill and high class exposure, instilling confidence to believe that they should manage to keep the winning momentum and mentality going.

It is impossible for Australia not to be weakened by this transition, and they will surely edge closer back to the chasing pack, but I doubt there is another nation out there with the consistency and ability to overhaul Australia just yet.

There are three teams from the sub-continent that all contain world class operators, but the days where they exemplify such excellence, are invariably followed by equally apportioned disappointments, especially when they are playing away from Asia.

England have suffered numerous injuries since the Ashes victory in 2005. Andrew Flintoff, Simon Jones, Marcus Trescothick, Steve Harmison, Ashley Giles, Michael Vaughan, and even Matthew Hoggard, have all been missing from series’, which has admittedly offered vacancies for potentially top drawer youngsters, but has hindered immediate results with their absence. Confidence and a winning habit has visibly disappeared for now, and they find themselves some way off the level of Australia.

South Africa are a difficult proposition at home, and have only ever been beaten by England and Australia in all the series that have taken place there. Their main weakness recently has been in the spin department, and while numerous have been tried, none have gone on to be consistent match-winners. The latest man to be given his chance is Paul Harris, and he helped spin his side to a series win in Pakistan in October 2007. The signs are good for Harris, he is a tall left arm orthodox spinner, who seems equally competent of bowling from round or over the wicket without disrupting his rhythm. However, South Africa have had many false dawns in the past with spin bowlers, and will be only too aware not to pin a nations hopes on Harris.

With no side apparently equipped to wrestle the baton from Australia, the Antipodean show simply has to carry on, for now. They may be weakened, but like wounded animals, that makes Australia a very dangerous opponent.

Leave a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until they have been approved

More articles by Paul Wood