When England squared up to Australia in the last Ashes series I, like many, thought the visitors would retain the urn during the five match series. It was always going to a tougher battle than the summer showdown but victory was expected.
Player for player England were just too strong, weren’t they? At the time, with the standout exception of middle-order maestro Michael Clarke, a combined XI of the two sides would have been dominated by the three lions. Other than skipper Clarke who would have made the combined side? Perhaps David Warner for Michael Carberry? A fit Ryan Harris in for either Chris Tremlett or Tim Bresnan? Certainly the former, probably the latter. A place for Shane Watson? Maybe – but who would he replace? On the face of it, however, England certainly appeared the stronger outfit.
Fast forward a few weeks and the view from the boundary is somewhat different. Australia annihilated and humiliated England in every discipline, outplaying them in every area and keeping their foot on the accelerator throughout the series and into the one day capers. Now forever confined to the history books from that initial starting XI thanks to Australia’s dominance are Kevin Pietersen (harshly), probably Jonathan Trott (due to other factors for which Australia merely provided the coup de grâce) and Graeme Swann. England are not going to replace their 13,000 combined runs and Swann’s 250 odd wickets overnight and Australia will no longer have to face any of them when they next lock horns. They didn’t just win an important series they won the psychological battle as well – England were left emotionally scarred and will take time to rebuild and recapture past glories.
Even after the thrashing of England, however, I still thought the performance of the green baggied outfit was a mere flash in the pan. Surely the thrashing was simply down to a tired England side who had only just finished one Ashes series and couldn’t quite motivate themselves for another scrap? Combine that with a few key players out of form or sorts and you have a mere aberration, don’t you?
Well the recent events at the SuperSport Park in Centurion in the first test of South Africa v Australia would make it seem I have to eat yet another rather large slice of humble pie. Again, before this match, few of the Aussie starting XI would have made it into a combined South Africa / Australia side. The Proteas have been at the top of the world rankings for a while now – and with good reason – they have class running through the entire spine of the side. Graeme Smith sets the standards for others at the top of the order – and Hashim Amla and AB de Villiers follow in style. Jacques Kallis may have departed but talent still remains. They are backed up by a ferocious pace battery. So as good a series as the Aussie top order (Brad Haddin included) had against England and as well as the bowlers bowled they all lack the consistency of the greats mentioned above, don’t they? Well Australia have simply picked up from where they left off in devastating England. One test in and the great South African side, top of the world rankings, lay in tatters. Of course they could yet turn it around – and if they do then massive credit to them. But the Aussies are in that cocksure position of old. Their tails are up and their confidence there for all to see. They have humiliated their prey and ground it to dust.
Where has this come from? On paper Australia lack many world class players – gone are the Warnes, McGraths and Waughs of this world. But that appears not to matter. After a largely quiet few years Australia, it would appear, are roaring back to the top.
They have managed to find a team spirit, unity and bond that appeared somewhat lacking during the nonsense that was ‘homework gate’ and still in short supply during their Ashes battle in the English summer. They play way above the sum of their combined parts. If the combined averages of England (at the start of the Ashes), Australia and South Africa (the start of this series) are compared then there is little to choose between them. England average 358, Australia 374.06 (although this is skewed by debutant Alex Noonan averaging 58 from this one test. If Shane Watson had been playing in his place then the combined average is 352.39). South Africa’s recent dominance is shown by a slightly higher average of 376.39. But in reality there is little to separate the three.
This upturn in form seems to have coincided with coach Darren Lehmann taking control. He has clearly worked wonders on the team – his long stint as an adopted Yorkshireman has clearly done him the power of good. Team ethic is the most important part of the setup. The players are performing to the absolute maximum of their ability and when it matters. Good on them. Questions remain about the age of the side and the youngsters waiting in the wings. But you can only beat what is put in front of you and Australia are most certainly doing that.
Whoever replaces Andy Flower as England supremo should look no further than Lehmann’s example.
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