Chaos in cream clothes

2011-01-08 00:00

DESPAIR has descended upon Australian cricket. Embarrassment has become an acquaintance. Humiliation has introduced itself. Calamity has piled upon calamity.

For the first time in its august history, Australia suffered three innings defeats in a series. And their opponents? England!

Australia have been given a cricketing education. In the fifth and final Test of the series England appeared to be playing a different game on a different pitch. When they batted the track was as placid as celery. Between innings the curator moved the poles and the pitch had more kick than a cranky colt. Even the outfield seemed to slow down. Not that the Aussies reached it all that often.

Everyone in Australia has been watching the contest between South Africa and India and admiring the outstanding play of the great champions on both sides – Sachin Tendulkar, the batting giant of the era, Jacques Kallis, surely the most underrated player the game has known, Dale Steyn the supreme speedster and Harbhajan Singh, a fighter to the core. Contrastingly the cricket down under has been one-sided. Of the two teams out there, only one is playing Test cricket.

Over the years the Aussies have given the basics of the game their due. Certainly locals like to play an aggressive game but it’s always been from a strong base. It has been an empire built on stone. Now the sands shift under the team and the house falls down.

Over the years batsmen incapable of moving their feet quickly into position have been discarded. Other nations might look at the head or shoulders or hands but Aussies examine the pegs.

Now the visitors move their pedals with an alacrity and precision missing in the home camp. It has been a slaughter of the guilty.

Over the years bowlers unable to keep a tidy length have been ditched. S.F. Barnes said that there were three qualities a bowler needed — “length, length and length.” No-one needed to tell the Australians. Now the Poms hit the spot as well as a beer on a cold afternoon whilst the local flingers pitch short and are cut and pulled.

Australians have long been regarded as the fittest Test team. Now the visitors have been altogether sharper. Traditionally Australians have been superior between the wickets. Now Shane Watson leaves more people stranded than a dodgy airline. Steve Smith, too, was almost run out. Disintegration of the mind was complete. It was chaos in cream clothes.

Australia’s younger players were given a particularly harsh lesson. The contests between Phil Hughes and Tim Bresnan and then Usman Khawaja and Graeme Swann were excruciating struggles between predator and prey. In the years ahead these tyros ought to remember these tough times. Steve Waugh never forgot them.

Hughes was expertly worked over by a bluff Yorkshireman. Like his comrades, Bresnan is well aware of the team plans and carries them out with cheerful hostility. Not that the strategies are complex. As far as the lefty is concerned they involve cramping his stroke play by aiming at his body. Above all they mean permitting him no respite, making him sweat on his next run, getting inside his brain, convincing him that he is not good enough.

Bresnan was unrelenting. Hughes dug in. He resembles a house whose renovations are incomplete. Midway between an instinctive player with a homespun technique and a polished product, he is caught in the worst of both worlds. That does not mean he is wrong to seek improvement. More likely it was a mistake to promote him before the work was complete.

Bresnan probed away, ball after ball, asking questions, giving nothing. Hughes fidgeted and fought and fretted and survived by the skin of his teeth. For several overs neither combatant blinked. But the seamer sensed that pressure was building. He sent down another ball angled in across and the lefty poked at it, touched it and departed with head bowed. It was proper five day cricket, a test of skill not a bashing of the ball.

Khawaja looked poised and polished but he was worked over by Swann. Determined to avoid his first innings mistake, the newcomer concentrated on defence. His foe was patient and crafty. Swann did not toss anything up or deliver anything loose. He is a fly trap whose sweetness is not to be trusted. Now and then he turned a ball past the bat and once his zipper almost sneaked through.

Khawaja did not look much like breaking out. Older players tried but their execution was poor. As it happened Khawaja fell to swing not spin. Anderson’s second spell was superb as he bent the ball either way at will, drawing errors from bemused batsman.

Khawaja counted amongst his victims as he hung his bat out to dry. If he ever doubted it, he knew now that Test cricket can be a tough game. Experience is a hard master but it teaches well.

• Peter Roebuck is an international cricket correspondent who is based in Pietermaritzburg, and currently covering the Ashes series in Australia.

Everyone in Australia has been watching the contest between South Africa and India and admiring the outstanding play of the great champions on both sides.

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