The cricketing world looked on in amazement at England cricket’s spectacular implosion in the first week of 2009, but the year ahead promises enough fireworks to outshine this bonfire of the vanities.
Already a young Australian batsman has shown that the waning world leaders’ talent vault is not empty yet with a stunning fifty off 19 balls, while ahead of their summer clash, Ashes rivals England and Australia are eyeing each other uncertainly.
From a global perspective, the next few months will show just how much the balance of cricketing power may have shifted, as Australia travel to South Africa intent on avenging their first home series loss for 18 years.
Only if the visitors fail to win a Test will the dominant side of the last two decades lose their ICC rankings crown, but in reality they must now beat the Proteas away or Graeme Smith’s side will have every right to consider themselves the best team in the world.
Even at the height of their powers, Steve Waugh’s "Invincibles" suffered in India, as Ponting and his men did recently, but an impregnable home record has always demanded respect. England surprised them in 2005 but were demolished and demoralised on the return leg. However, South Africa’s raid at last translated into results the obvious decline of a great team that has lost a series of legends since that Ashes whitewash in 2006-07.
In 2009 we shall see how far the current crop have been living on that old aura, for only Hayden and Ponting stand between them and ordinariness. The state of Australian cricket is epitomised by a conversation I heard last week in which a man steadfastly maintained that Brett Lee was a young man with his best years ahead of him: not on a cricket pitch, mate. He, like Michael Clarke and Mike Hussey, like the current Australian team, must be tarred with the brush of merely ‘very good’.
An Aussie friend tells me concernedly that he thinks it might take them as much as a year to regain their former hegemony; in fact he may well have to wait at least a decade for anything close to the era of Taylor, Waugh and Ponting. Australia’s occupation’s gone.
The event of the year as far as English fans are concerned is the Ashes, and the last six weeks have set things simmering nicely on both sides. Should England take heart from the baggy green’s back-to-back series defeats, including a morale-sapping home defeat against South Africa, or will they face a ferocious backlash from the serial champions?
Similarly, the press Down Under have been revelling in the news: "If Australian cricket fans thought Ricky Ponting and his men had pre-Ashes problems, they needed only to watch England’s leadership saga descend into farce on Wednesday to feel things may be looking up," proclaimed the Canberra Times. "Australians could be forgiven for laughing out loud as their traditional foes shot themselves in the foot."
It was left to former captain Steve Waugh to sound a note of caution: "If anything, it may have the ability to make the team a bit stronger." Neither side has the bullish confidence that characterized the build up to the last two series, and the stage is well set for a tight contest.
This was supposed to be a top ten for the coming twelve months, but to me this year is all about Australia—as a cricket lover and an England fan. Will Punter be kissing that urn again come August, or kissing an era goodbye? Here’s to a 2009 that quite overshadows a certain—let us call it a misunderstanding—among the England hierarchy.