John Benaud: Only Warne genius is irreplaceable

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Well, Australian cricket's past 17 years have been satisfying, an era to celebrate. Allan Border's team won back the Ashes 4-0 in 1989 and now Ricky Ponting's team have gone one better, but in home conditions.

When another of Ponting's troopers, Justin Langer, foreshadowed his retirement, his reflections on the team's talent hinted at immortality. Those who retired in the Seventies noted they were lucky to have played with Ian and Greg Chappell, Dennis Lillee, Doug Walters and Rod Marsh. How great were they?

Some say Ponting is the best since Bradman and this team are the best ever. Head to head, this is how Border's 1989 team match Ponting's:

M Taylor and G Marsh vs M Hayden and J Langer.

D Boon vs R Ponting.

A Border, D Jones and S Waugh vs M Hussey, M Clarke and A Symonds.

I Healy vs A Gilchrist.

T Hohns vs S Warne.

T Alderman, G Lawson and M Hughes vs G McGrath, B Lee and S Clark.

Today, if choosing a best-of team from all those players you might easily discount the evolving talent of 1989. They were stylish, or "rough" with attitude, or had a toe on the threshold of greatness.

The ultimate selection test remains this "if" scenario: on a tough, hot, humid day in the cauldron of Sabina Park, Jamaica, there is an ugly moment when the greatest West Indian fast bowler, Malcolm Marshall, announces to a gritty Australian batsman: "I'm going to come around the wicket and kill you." Who do you think might arrive alive, Langer or David Boon?

Current euphoria tends to blur the fine detail of an era. Arguably the greatest period of world cricket was from the mid-Seventies to mid-late Eighties. Take some names at random, and enjoy the memories: Ian Botham, Richard Hadlee, Imran Khan, Kapil Dev, David Gower, Viv Richards, Sunil Gavaskar, Gordon Greenidge, Desmond Haynes, Clive Lloyd, Michael Holding, Andy Roberts and Marshall, Greg Chappell and Lillee.

What bowling talent. As a yardstick it helps rate some big Australian moments: Dean Jones made 210 against India in hot Madras in 1986; Mark Taylor made 334 not out against Pakistan in rough Peshawar in 1998; Matthew Hayden made 380 against Zimbabwe in perfect Perth in 2003.

In any dream team there would be two certainties: Shane Warne is in and Andrew Symonds is out. Symonds is in the current team because the selectors want a bowling all-rounder batting at No 6. He made a hundred under pressure in the Fourth Test, but the real test is yet to come. The key to Symonds' future must be not his runs but his wickets when the team, minus Warne and McGrath, are under bowling pressure.

This brings Ashes 2009 into play, and the likely match-ups, which is just a fragile guess when you remember that a year and a bit after England won the Ashes they had to defend them without their captain, Michael Vaughan, their trump bowler, Simon Jones, and their most experienced opening batsman, Marcus Trescothick. Imagine this Australia minus Warne, Hayden and Ponting.

We know Warne, McGrath and Langer will be gone in 2009, possibly Hayden and Gilchrist too, and in the next 30 months there will be any number of local heroes putting their hands up. Enjoying next-in-line status is easy when the incumbents are still busy slogging hundreds. But it's a far more serious challenge when the vacancy is no longer just a dream. Still, one name for 2009 is Brad Haddin, a wicketkeeper in waiting and a sweet, clean hitter.

Australians are dreaming if they think they can replace Warne the magician. Names such as Cullen Bailey, Dan Cullen and Cameron White will be touted, but all are orthodox. On the other hand McGrath, though great, is replaceable. He is more your tradesman, strolling to work in blue overalls and cloth cap, tuckerbox in hand. A predecessor, the great Lillee, was more your Liberace, star-spangled, a crowd-puller like Warne. And, Test cricket needs some pizzazz to save it from the falseness of one-day extravaganzas.

Kevin Pietersen is a Test superstar in prospect. "I will never forget the hurt of this series," he said. As a 12-year-old, I heard my brother Richie express a similar sentiment on his return after Jim Laker's 19 wickets at Old Trafford in 1956 had settled Australia's third successive Ashes loss in as many years.

Pietersen added: "... and it will provide a huge motivation when 2009 comes around." Two years after Laker, Australia - captained by Richie - won back the Ashes, 4-0. They lost them next in 1970.

We might be in for a similar turnover if England can create pressure with better bowling lines and a bit of steel in the lower batting order. If this great Australian era is over, is it the start of one for England?


Ben Hilfenhaus Tasmania, 23

Having begun last summer as a bricklayer, the right-arm pace bowler built a reputation by taking 39 wickets in his debut season. He has been chosen for the Twenty20 and World Cup preliminary squads.

Andrew Tong