Monday, August 24, 2009

Australia must face harsh reality

Ricky Ponting is faced with the challenge of lifting his Australian side back to the top of the Test rankings.

T-I-M-B-E-R. That loudly cracking gum tree at The Oval on Sunday was Australia crashing towards earth as they tumbled from first on the ICC rankings to a record low of fourth. Michael Hussey, the last man out, might not have reached the dressing room by the time the official email arrived, confirming what had been coming since Australia were so outplayed in India late last year. Ricky Ponting's world champion tag now lies in history next to the exploits of those from the Beijing Olympics.

That it was England who sent them through the trapdoor adds to the pain. After the game, Ponting was hurt and disappointed, but dignified and composed. The planning to move back up the ladder has already begun, and will be helped by playing Pakistan and West Indies at home over the summer. However, an era of severe inconsistency has followed the decade of dominance that began under Mark Taylor, continued through the Steve Waugh period and started to waver when a series of greats left Ponting stranded with an unrecognisable outfit.

Despite the defeat, their third to a major nation in less than a year, the influential figures in Australian cricket remain happy with the progress. James Sutherland, Cricket Australia's chief executive, and Andrew Hilditch, the often under-attack chairman of selectors, have expressed their disappointment in the result without pointing any fingers. A review will occur - of course it will - but the pair remained committed to this regenerating outfit.

"I'm comfortable with where we are at," Ponting said as he wondered why things had turned so bad at The Oval. "We've been rebuilding for 12 to 18 months, with guys who have a few Tests under their belts who are still learning about the game. There couldn't be a better example for the young guys than the last couple of months. They all should be a lot better off for being part of this series."

That might work for the newer faces, who become toughened and gnarled in defeat, but it's unlikely to help the older players, particular Ponting, Simon Katich and Michael Clarke, who have now lost twice in England. They had their chance for revenge and failed against a far inferior outfit than the 2005 vintage. Only Clarke stood out consistently, but then he flopped in the final Test, first the victim of a rash drive and then to an unfortunate pin-ball run-out. A home series win in 2010-11 can't exorcise their England issues over the past four years.

What has been hardest to understand is the regular yo-yo of performance, something for which the inflated coaching staff must accept some of the responsibility. How can the coterie of hangers-on and strategic planners not see problems unfolding when they spend so much time with the squad? All drills at the daily training sessions are designed for peak performance under searing pressure, but the tracksuits were blinded by optimism following each strong Test before re-discovering reality the next week.

The fright arrives when the team loses so badly in two Tests after saying how well everybody is going, how great the "preparation" has been, how strong the belief is in the group. By manufacturing this in-public spirit, lying about team developments and hiding struggling figures until they gain a high-paying tell-all media deal, the followers and players feel nothing is wrong. None of the professionals sensed the threat of the crash.

"Excitement" was Ponting's buzzword in the lead-up to The Oval. He didn't want to talk about the pressure on his men because he didn't want his young players tensing up. It wasn't just the fresh ones who couldn't deal with the strain of a winner-takes-all game, but the experienced campaigners as well, particularly in the first innings when they were flattened for 160. Modern-age team psychology and management babble masks truth. If players are told they are going well all the time how can they cope when things, suddenly or slowly, turn bad? They need to learn how to deal with fact.

To move on this unit must start by forgetting the high of South Africa, the one-off steamy holiday romance earlier this year, and focus on what happened in England. The day-to-day problems, the failure to turn hours of talk into action and recognising the ability and limits of those in the squad, particularly the fast bowlers. This is an outfit that can't transform any situation into a win, especially under extreme conditions.

When it mattered most, they failed. It happened at Lord's, where they expected to take a 1-0 lead at their overseas fortress, and was repeated at The Oval in the most important contest. In between they hung on for a draw at Edgbaston and had the best of the conditions in Leeds. Ponting regularly said Australians play their best when their backs are to the wall. It's not true with this side, which is why it currently sits in fourth behind South Africa, Sri Lanka and India. Mighty England remain fifth.

Despite it all, Ponting feels hurt but sees sunshine. "We're definitely heading in the right direction," he said. "I'm really proud of the guys." A tour that began with a first-round exit in the World Twenty20 has been followed by a second consecutive Ashes defeat in England. That's more like a dead end.