The Australian Perspective: Cricket disaster for Oz ‘Old Boys’ Club’

2008-12-28 00:00

Nothing in 40 years of watching cricket prepared me for the events that unfolded at the MCG yesterday.

Nothing in the recent patchy performances of the Australian national team prepared an incredulous crowd for the calamity they witnessed. Put it this way. In the first five hours of play, the cream of the country’s cricketers managed to take a single wicket, and that caught near the boundary.

In two staggering sessions the solitary breakthrough was made by a duffer whose offerings were not given their due. Along the way the Australians dropped several catches, one of them embarrassingly, conceded more fives than a leaky Reds’ defence, pursued tame tactics, and so utterly failed to impress supporters that even the most loyal watched in stunned silence. Others were not so tolerant.

For Australia it was not merely a bad day, it was a cricketing disaster. And it started before a ball had been bowled with the news that Brett Lee had a sore hoof serious enough to require a trip to the hospital. Lee had been a shadow of his former self and cannot expect to hold his place.

To make matters worse, Andrew Symonds was not fit to bowl, or so it seemed until he was suddenly introduced 10 minutes before tea, whereupon he produced a long stint of gentle off-breaks. Meanwhile, Shane Watson roamed the outfield. Bear in mind that Symonds is an all-rounder. Athletic fielding and outswingers are part of his attraction. His inclusion was an insult to other contenders and a blunder that ought to cause the chairman of selectors to consider his position. Australia must decide whether it wants a vibrant cricket team or an Old Boys’ Club.

Notwithstanding these handicaps, Australia’s approach was inexplicable. Far from going for the jugular in the opening hour, Ricky Ponting gave his fast men a few overs each and then withdrew them and tried his spinners and occasionals. At the start of the day the second ball was 17 overs away, but the Australians were willing to wait for it. Supposedly inept tail-enders were at the crease. It was time to strike, a time for hostility and aggressive fields. Mitchell Johnson is fit and Peter Siddle can charge in all day. Australia had dominated the match, but were behind in the series. It was a time for action.

Having set off on the wrong foot, the Australians never recovered their stride. As usual, Ponting pushed his field back at the earliest opportunity. It’s hard to convince a batsman that his end is nigh when four men have been dispatched to protect the boundary. It’s difficult to persuade a bowler that he is unplayable when a defensive field has been set. Australia lacks fury. Far from moving in for the kill, they waited for the patient to die.

Nor did Ponting show much sign of imagination in his field placements or bowling changes. He did not try his wrist-spinner or move his bowlers around in search of a wicket. His team began without the required urgency and before long looked nonplussed. The outlook infected the fieldsmen, and could be sensed by an increasingly agitated crowd.

And so, incredibly, insufficiently challenged, the visiting batsmen whittled away at Australia’s apparently impregnable position. At the start the visitors seemed doomed, 196 adrift with three wickets in hand. Gradually the gap was reduced to 170, 150, and every step of the way spectators assumed a wicket was imminent. After all the record books insisted it could not last.

Paul Harris departed at 251, caught at a retreating mid-on. The hosts were still a mile in front, but the mood had changed.

Next came the partnership that shocked one cricket nation and stirred another. Already JP Duminy’s skills had been recognised and his temperament tested. Even so his contribution was astonishing for its maturity, resilience and patience. He rallied his side not with daredevilry, but with intent and technique. Startling of conception, calm of manner and precise in its execution, his innings was a revelation. He showed faith in his partners, trusting them to keep up their end.

It was a monumental hand.

Dale Steyn also surpassed himself. Stout-hearted and defiant, it was the innings of a lifetime.

• KZN midlands-based international correspondent Peter Roebuck is covering the series for The

Witness.

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