It’s amazing what a bit of confidence does. This time 6 months ago the Australian cricket team was in bits, having lost the Ashes 3-0 against an England team that largely underperformed. Since then, they have exacted ruthless revenge on the Poms, obliterating them 5-0 at home in the Test series, and have now beaten the best side in the world (South Africa) in an extremely exciting series. Is this the revival that was foretold?
The turnaround in fortunes for the Aussies has been extremely sudden. After losing their third consecutive Ashes last summer they did record an ODI series victory against England before heading out to India for an unnecessarily long 50-over tour. Across the seven games their batsmen performed wonderfully, scoring over 300 in five of the games, but the bowlers were woeful. Having seen this, England arrived on Australia’s shores confident that their batsmen would be able to improve on their relatively poor summer and negate the Aussie quicks on fast, bouncy pitches.
Although the bowlers were less than impressive, England’s batsmen looked good in the various warm-up games. However, they were up against relatively weak bowling attacks, something that was overlooked until it was too late. Even as Alastair Cook and Michael Carberry went out to bat for the first time in the series, England were still confident that they could do the business after bowling out the Aussies for 295, a seemingly below-par total. A few hours later all that self-belief had evaporated. Ryan Harris carried on in the same impressive vein that he had shown on English shores just a handful of weeks before but it was Mitchell Johnson who really took the batsmen by surprise.
After bursting onto the international scene in 2007 and being rated the best bowler in the world in late 2008/early 2009, the left-arm quick had seemingly been forgotten by the selectors. His performances against England in 2009 and 2010/11 were, on the whole, absolutely dismal and many English fans thought he was the most overhyped cricketer of the modern era. Ask them whether they still think this now though and they’ll tell you something different. After being left out of the Test side, Johnson featured in both the ODI and T20 series against England last summer. Here we saw the first signs that he was recovering back to his old self – throughout the series he was fast and hostile, if not a little inconsistent. However, his performances in India suggested that this was just a phase – going into the Ashes, the Barmy Army were all ready to sing their now infamous song:
‘He bowls to the left, he bowls to the riiiiiight
Mitchell Johnson, his bowling is s***e!’
It’s fair to say this wasn’t heard much throughout the series. He absolutely destroyed the English batsmen, most of whom looked like tortoises who wanted to retreat into their shells and hibernate until the danger had past. He was rapid, consistently bowling at 90+mph, brutal, unrelenting and downright brilliant. His new ball partnership with Harris had Cook and Carberry very worried and, after winning the first Test by 381, the writing was on the wall!
Many, however, dismissed the series as a one-off – more than Australia being recognised as brilliant, the British media instead turned their focus on how bad the England team were. Whilst this is true, many of the journalists and so-called experts seemed to forget that England weren’t much better when they beat Australia just half a year earlier. Whilst England had got worse, Australia got significantly better.
South Africa have been regarded as the best Test playing nation for the last five or six years. Even with the loss of one of the greatest players of all time (Jacques Kallis), the side still boasted their great captain Graeme Smith; the run machine Hashim Amla; AB de Villiers, who hadn’t posted lower than 50 in a Test since late 2012, and a fearsome pace attack of Dale Steyn (the best bowler in the world), Morne Morkel and Vernon Philander. Many predicted the Aussies had no chance. Yet again, they were proved completely wrong.
After posting an impressive 397 in their first innings of the series, with Shaun Marsh and Steve Smith both hitting hundreds, Johnson (7-68) ripped through arguably the most talented batting line-up in the world in a devastating spell of fast bowling. Only de Villiers (91) provided any form of resistance as the South Africans surrendered a first innings deficit of 191 runs. David Warner and Alex Doolan then hit the pace bowlers to all parts, setting the Wallabies 482 to win. If anyone was going to make that target then it would be the ‘Saffers.’ But they never even came close, with Johnson picking up five more wickets to leave him with match figures of 12-127 and Australia with a 281 run victory.
The second Test was the reversal, as South Africa’s batsmen took charge and their pacemen carved their way through the Aussies. However, this respite in Australian dominance wasn’t to last long as they won the final game to wrap up a series victory in the most dramatic of fashions. Brave final day rearguards from Faf du Plessis, JP Duminy and Philander looked to have secured South Africa the most astonishing of draws but Harris picked up the final two wickets to win the game and series with just 4.3 overs left on the final day. An exciting way to end an enthralling series.
So, the main question is this – have Australia rediscovered their ‘aura’? For the moment it seems they have and it looks set to continue – Chris Rogers and Warner have formed a solid opening partnership, with the latter in imperious form, whilst they have arguably the best batsman in the world in Michael Clarke. Shane Watson is a brutal middle-order player and more-than-useful seam bowler whilst Steve Smith finally looks at home on the international stage. Brad Haddin, despite being 36, is ‘keeping better than he has done before and his batting is still vicious. Johnson and Harris are the two most in-form seamers in the world currently, with Peter Siddle providing superb back-up. Finally, Nathan Lyon has become a massively improved cricketer since being re-introduced into the side last summer and has made many top batsmen look foolish.
I suppose one of the main concerns the Aussies have is that their squad is ageing. Rogers, Clarke, Watson, Haddin, Johnson and Harris are all in their 30s and, with the lack of first class domestic Australian cricket, if they all retire within a small space of time this could leave Australia looking very inexperienced. However, with Doolan performing well in his first series and the plethera of quick bowlers they seem to have at their disposal (James Pattinson, Pat Cummins, Mitchell Starc et al.), it seems as though Australian cricket is in a healthy place at the moment.
Are they as good as the invincibles of the late ‘90s/early ‘00s? Nope, but they could be. With the World T20 championship later this month and then the World Cup being played on their home turf next year, it isn’t inconceivable that the Aussies could hold all of the most important trophies in cricket this time next year. The stage is set for another decade of pain and suffering for all the cricketing world, especially England if they don’t get their act together!