James Lawton: Hapless state of Australia's national game puts future of Test cricket in jeopardy

The fans streaming away from the vast ground made a withering statement about thestate of the match and the wretchedness of Australia's performance

Ian Chappell said it, roughly 50,000 Melbournites agreed as they went off early and trance-like to the beach or the barbie, and now anyone who knows anything about the fundamentals of high-level cricket has to conclude that the Australian Test team has ceased, for now and maybe a worryingly foreseeable future, to be fit for purpose.

News of their reinstatement as a serious force at the Waca last week always demanded grave suspicion from anyone who had seen the haplessness of their performances in Brisbane and Adelaide, in the wake of defeats by Pakistan and India and a lurch down to fifth place in the world rankings.

Among the doubters, most notably, were the likes of Chappell, Steve Waugh and Allan Border – men who had done so much to make them what they were for so long and were so manifestly not on the first day of the fourth Test at the MCG.

The fans streaming away from the vast ground made a withering statement about the state of the match and the wretchedness of Australia's performance. It is one that was likely to be repeated in the small hours of this morning, when talk of a record aggregate attendance had shrivelled to mute agreement with Chappell's solemn declaration that all the years of analysing feeble English efforts in the Ashes series had been supplanted by the crisis at home.

Chappell, who from time to time has remonstrated with Sir Ian Botham over the coarseness of his language, could hardly have been less stately in his view on the Australian problems. "Our policy for some time," he declared, "has been shit."

On Boxing Day there was no question it had hit the fan more profoundly than even in the innings defeat in Adelaide – and the moral one in Brisbane. Chappell's main contention is too many Australian cricketers earn far too much money and celebrity for failing to make a serious case for their inclusion in Test cricket, which according to the former captain should always be the dividing line between an opulent living and merely enjoying the privilege of playing first-class cricket for all expenses paid and some modest extra income.

It is maybe the spartan view of a man from another age, but if Chappell doesn't know cricket, and its place in Australian life, it is reasonable to wonder quite who does.

No one is saying, and certainly not Chappell, that England have, with their massed ranks of coaches and fitness gurus and video professors, arrived on some untouchable plane of their own. The Waca provided plenty of evidence that England are far from the finished product, though it has also to be said that if some important parts fell off the machine in Perth, there wasn't some overwhelming sense that their problems were structural rather than episodic.

That, surely, was what drove the great Australian crowd away from the MCG on a day when England had two great advantages – the winning of a valuable toss which gave them the best of the conditions and a scarcely believable display of incompetence at almost every point of the petrified Australian innings of 98. The horror was only compounded when Mike Hussey, the backbone of Australia for three Test matches, fell to one of many superb deliveries by Jimmy Anderson, who was supported magnificently by Chris Tremlett and Tim Bresnan.

It only remained for Mitchell Johnson, the lion of the Waca, to revert to the pathos-filled failure of The Gabba.

This, we were told, was the time when Australian cricket would reassert itself and make nonsense of suggestions that they had entered a period of open-ended decline. It was when some of us had to review the evidence of our own eyes, a challenge which was certainly not made any easier when Andrew Strauss and Alastair Cook made it clear that if they fell it would not be by their own hand, which was the fate of every Australian batsman except Hussey.

There is, surely, no tribal gloating in such a reaction. The forlorn sight of the MCG emptying when it should have been warming and swelling to the prospect of a great Test match could only be welcomed by someone untouched by an understanding that this is the form of cricket on whose success or failure the game will ultimately live or die.

Who wants to see the parody of the game produced by Australia on a first day which, as much as any single one can ever have done, put a Test beyond the reach of one of the teams? This is the very antithesis of Test cricket and the fact that the team surrendering quite abjectly was Australia made it almost inconceivable that they had last lost a series to England on home soil 24 years ago.

There was no pleasure in seeing Johnson wrapping his Waca glory in a sandwich of outright humiliation. There was no kick watching Ricky Ponting, the greatest of Test warriors, inhabiting an ever-deepening nightmare – or Michael Clarke, the captain-elect, ready to snap like a broken violin string.

Who knows? There may have been another convulsion in the small hours this morning, but what we are seeing in this Ashes series is something, surely, that runs deeper than the odd ambush – or implosion by an England team who have displayed three times now their clear superiority.

It is a break in the continuity of an Australian cricket culture that will, as Ian Chappell points out, not be mended by spasmodic eruptions of defiant form. Form comes and goes, quality and technique and, yes, class are something that takes rather longer cultivation. England may never be world-beaters, may never get to the top of the greasy pole, but they have at last created some foundation to such a hope.

Australia are lost and will remain so until they listen to men like Chappell and Border and Waugh and begin to see quite where they have gone wrong. A short drive from the MCG, at least by Australian standards, is where they had the bad picnic at Hanging Rock. Back in town the national game is in similar peril.

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