James Lawton: Australia's death rattle in Adelaide sounded just like a shift in power
Second Test defeat for Ponting's outclassed side has provoked the sort of countrywide soul-searching usually reserved for the English.
Thursday 09 December 2010
Nowhere fills up with ghosts faster than an old sports ground which has just seen high drama and a shift of power which might just be historic.
It was like that in the Estadi de Sarria in Barcelona 28 years ago when a Brazil team that had promised to be great was knocked out of the World Cup by Italy. Then the mourning was for the "little gods in yellow". Here this week it was for the men in the baggy green caps.
There was a terrible but inevitable sense of great days that had gone and might just never return.
As the seagulls rolled listlessly in the wind, the questions were relentless. Have Australian cricketers come to earn their money and their celebrity too cheaply? Are they saddled with a tradition that is simply too heavy, too filled with qualities they plainly now lack and which maybe have been bred out of them? When the great Aussie players galloped off down the highway of history, did they really leave behind only their dust?
This is not to devalue the scale of England's triumph in the exquisite Oval ground that was as silent as a mausoleum the morning after the most crushing of defeats, one that has provoked a burst of countrywide introspection so deep it might even be linked to a loss of national identity.
It was rather to feel the weight and see the reasons for Australian angst over a dismal landmark which many here are saying may, short of some major revolution in thinking and purpose, have marked the end, for several generations at the very least, of one of sport's greatest traditions.
The Australians have not had too much practice, not for a few decades anyway, in running autopsies on national sporting disasters. In England we are, of course, dab hands at the business.
English football dies another thousands deaths on a warm Sunday afternoon in Bloemfontein. Hey ho. We have more difficulty, of course, in absorbing the meaning of the kind of victory scored by Andrew Strauss's team here this week.
With the prompting of Kevin Pietersen, of all starry individuals, we have been told to see the value of a team ethos – and note the hunger and the extraordinary unity of effort which here on Tuesday brought a precise and glorious counterpart to the humiliation suffered on the same ground four years earlier.
Certainly some Australians have acknowledged Pietersen's point as they display skills in sports pathology which, given all those years they lay fallow, show impressive beginner's promise. Here, for example, is an eye-catching headline in the Sydney Morning Herald: "The Ashes? Forget it – this side would be lucky to beat Bangladesh".
The author of the onslaught, Richard Hinds, offered no quarter, saying, "Xavier Doherty [Shane Warne's latest and profoundly mediocre successor] managed something that was just two weeks ago on the daft side of implausible – he forced a nation to turn its lonely eyes back to Nathan Hauritz. [This] is a bit like a chainsaw killer making you fondly reminisce about the home intruder who merely beat you on the head with a tyre lever rather than dicing up your spleen."
There will doubtless be plenty more of this in the next few days as the Australian selectors consider yet another revamping of their outgunned team – and captain Ricky Ponting battles to both reanimate his bedraggled team-mates and his own batting skills which, under all the pressure, seem to be eroding at a startling rate.
One of the deepest of the Australian problems, apart from an alarming break in the talent flow that each day seems to make Warne and Glenn McGrath, Adam Gilchrist and Matthew Hayden ever more remote figures from a lost and fabled past, is that no one around seems even vaguely qualified to pick up the baton from the 35-year-old Ponting.
Michael Clarke has long been ear-marked for the role but here, despite a second-innings 80 which reminded the nation of his natural talent, he dissolved into the kind of self-doubt and navel-gazing which mocked the memory of men like Allan Border and Steve Waugh, and, when the wind was in his sails and his eyes glowed with a natural-born pugnacity, Ponting himself.
The Tasmanian, it has to be said, retains heroic potential but the odds against him seem to mount a little more each day.
For some Australians the force of England's performance – four years after the competitive meltdown of the 2006-07 series – carries a haunting echo of the way Border dragged his team back from the nadir of home defeat by Mike Gatting's side 23 years ago.
One specific memory was of Border dressing down the batsman Dean Jones when he was heard gloating over a big century in a dead Test after England had claimed the Ashes. Jones was told to save the self-congratulation for a century when the great prize was still at stake.
Ponting continues to acknowledge that his team, however it is reconstituted, not only have to sharpen their performance but also their thought patterns. He is saying, astonishingly if slightly obliquely, that they have to learn something from the English.
They have to say what Border said all those years ago – and what Strauss remembered to say in the moment of his triumph this week. They have to say they cannot be easy on themselves, cannot be lazy. They have to say that they are ready to fight for their professional lives.
This is the ultimate achievement of Strauss's team over the last two weeks. They have not only established what looks like an unbreakable bridgehead, they have shown what can be done under the guidance of a tough and distinguished old pro coach like Andy Flower. As a Zimbabwe batsman of dedication and hard nerve at a time when his country was heading for a new stone age, Flower was ready to confront problems that came on both sides of the boundary.
Australia, as never before, needs such a man to take hold of what is left of its cricket. Until he arrives, and, who knows, possibly from beyond these borders, you have to believe that only the ghosts will be at serious play.
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