Perhaps it was more than coincidence that on the same day the Conclave elected a new Pope – Jorge Mario Bergoglio, or Francisco to his mates; perhaps the only man capable of knocking Messi off the front pages here in Buenos Aires – the Australian cricket team benefited from a little bit of divine intervention. The heavens opened in Mohali to wash out Day One of the Third Test of Australia’s ill-fated Indian odyssey, helping the Baggy Greens to their most competitive day on the tour so far, and taking some sting out of a tumultuous few days for the visitors. While porteños were cartwheeling down the streets for El Papa Argentino, I felt like joining them to celebrate a day of Test cricket without a seismic Australian collapse.
Australia’s performance in the Second Test was abject and deserved the criticism it received. More controversial was the treatment of the ‘Bart Simpson Four’: the delinquents who failed to hand in their homework to coach Mickey Arthur on time, their sins met with suspension from the Mohali match. I’m not sure grown men should be asked to do homework, especially when that time would be better spent either sharpening one’s game in the nets, or alternatively, recharging one’s batteries on a golf course or masseuse’s table. But when you get paid seven figures to play cricket for a living, when a Test match spot is up for grabs, I would expect Usman Khawaja – a lay down misere to replace the hapless Phil Hughes if he had the good sense to do what the coach asked of him – or Shane Watson – who as vice-captain should have shown more leadership – to be able to spare five minutes on an email to the coach, no matter how juvenile his expectations.
Maybe it’s a storm we need to have. A circuit breaker. Within two Tests – to borrow a phrase from Dennis Cometti – not only have the wheels fallen off the Aussie selectors, but the axle too. Nathan Lyon is clearly the No.1 spinner in the country but he was dropped in favour of two limited overs specialists who fared no better. Choosing only three specialist bowlers was meant to add starch to the batting lineup but a lack of application from the top order undermined that plan. Now, Steve Smith – the likeable all-rounder who doesn’t bowl – will bat at No.5 in a Test Match, Brad Haddin comes in to confuse the wicketkeeping position and Steve O’Keefe – the Shield’s leading spinner who can also handle the bat – can’t get a look-in because of perceived personality issues. The top order can’t score runs and there’s no one knocking at the door. When things can’t get much worse, maybe it’s not a bad thing to violently shake things up.
The disappointing aspect is that Australia was in decent nick before this tour. The Baggy Greens were competitive against South Africa – unequivocally the best side in the world – and dealt with Sri Lanka professionally. The bowling stocks looked strong if physically fragile, and the batting – held together by Michael Clarke, in a patch of form as purple as any in recent history – was improving. More importantly, the makeup of the side looked stable. We seemed to know, roughly, who our best XI was. If Australia had hopped on a plane to England the day after the Sri Lankan series ended – besides the fact it would be too cold to play cricket in the Northern Hemisphere – they would have stood a good chance against the Old Enemy.
Instead, after this torturous trip to the Subcontinent, Hughes’ position in the team is untenable, Clarke has been shuffled higher up the order and there’s debate over the glovemen. Good fast bowlers are being ground into the dirt, Lyon’s confidence must be eroded and the correct balance of all-rounders is yet to be struck, especially when Watson’s workload is so volatile. This is a tour Australia just didn’t need to have. It’s a terrible piece of scheduling.
The obvious comparison has been drawn between Michael Clarke’s current mob and Allan Border’s team of the mid-’80s, when the indomitable Captain Grumpy was the brave rearguard standing between Australia and defeat, although I’m not sure the parallel is entirely accurate. In 1996, hardly a year after Mark Taylor’s side had beaten Lara, Ambrose and Walsh in the Caribbean to arrest Test match supremacy from the West Indies after a 20-year mortgage, they were humbled in India to lose the first instalment of the Border-Gavaskar Trophy. 18 months later they fared little better with an attack featuring Gavin Robertson, Paul Wilson and Adam Dale, putting the strength of the current bowling stocks into perspective. More recently, when Australian cricket was still making oodles of hay when the sun shone very brightly, visits to the Subcontinent gave Baggy Greens to the likes of Peter George, Jason Krejza, Cameron White, Dan Cullen, Trent Copeland and Brad Williams. With the willow, woes against spin were common; Mark Waugh earned the cruel nickname of ‘Audi’ after four consecutive ducks in Sri Lanka in 1992, while Ricky Ponting managed only 17 runs on the 2001 visit to India. If even the greats struggle on the Asian dustbowls, maybe we should give Phil Hughes and Ed Cowan some leeway.
Australians have struggled on the Subcontinent since Bradman played for the Bowral under-6s, and two bad Tests – as diabolical as they were – does not constitute “rock bottom”. It’s unfortunate that Michael Clarke has had to take his side to conditions that are totally irrelevant to the 10 Ashes Tests that are the far more significant item on Australia’s 2013 agenda. This ill-timed fixture has put a developing team under more pressure than they ought to have been placed under, when they were slowly but surely building for an assault on England. But if the selectors can keep their heads and persist with a constant XI, if the players can abide by Arthur’s expectations and Arthur himself can treat them like the professionals they are, if the pace battery can get themselves fit and raring on green English tracks, if Michael Clarke can maintain his Midas touch, and if his fellow batsmen could chip in with the occasional run or two, then Australia will be competitive in England. Their form in India is a very poor guide for the Ashes – as Aussie trips to the Subcontinent usually are – and if the scars from this tour don’t cut too deep, there is cause for optimism.