I wonder if any of the players felt it. They probably wouldn’t have. Understandably swept up in the euphoria of winning the Ashes, their minds will have been focused on the immediate: their glory, their fame, their popularity. But as the Australian team, accompanied by the urn, looked upon several hundred starstruck Australians in the heart of Sydney Harbour, perhaps the more shrewd amongst them may just have sensed the fragility of their success.
It was of course, just months ago that Australian cricket, riddled by structural problems, plagued by a toxic culture and scarred by a money-grabbing board, was proclaimed as being all but dead. Its domestic cricket was but a shadow of its former self, its players distracted by the lure of the T20 dollar and its decline was seen as so severe it appeared terminal.
So just over 150 days, five Ashes Tests and five resounding victories after Michael Clarke’s team came within 21 runs of a 4-0 series defeat under the bright lights of The Oval, have the deep infrastructural problems with Australian cricket simply disappeared?
Has Mitchell Johnson’s inswinging yorker solved the problems with the state system? Has David Warner’s aggression realigned a board obsessed with money and distracted by commercial goals? Has Steven Smith’s success corrected Usman Khawaja’s technique? Has Chris Rogers application solved Phil Hughes’ lack thereof? Has Brad Haddin’s brilliance unearthed a handful of talented young batsmen? Has Peter Siddle’s consistency fused Pat Cummin’s troublesome spine? Has Ryan Harris’ fitness fixed those whose bodies were broken?
Has a team with an average age of above 30 demonstrated the strength in depth of Australian cricket? Has it shown that the future is bright?
Australia were admittedly outstanding. They out-played England with bat, with ball, in the field and tactically. Warner was supreme. Rogers became immovable. Clarke led supremely and scored crucial runs. Smith was a revelation. Haddin a saviour. Johnson a shadow of greatness. The bowling attack a batsman-crunching machine.
But this Australian team is not young, and they aren't without fault.
Smith, Haddin and Johnson rescued a brittle top order on numerous occasions. Shane Watson remains an enigma with the bat and injury-prone with the ball. George Bailey stands on the precipice of being dropped at number six and will likely be replaced by a debutant. The bowling attack of Johnson, Harris, Siddle and Nathan Lyon, although perhaps the best and most well-rounded bowling attack in the world, remains dangerously delicate, and it will take Johnson more than five Tests to shake off worries for his volatility.
Australia were awesome. But they were far from perfect. Warner and Smith are the only two batsmen in the top seven that are younger than 30.
There was, perhaps, as England’s forlorn, dejected players looked on while Australia were showered in green and gold confetti, a strange sense of a parallel in time. It was victories that had made England complacent, their success had thrown a veil of flattering deceit over their admittedly less severe but still existing problems.
While of course Australia’s issues have already been harshly exposed, there is now a danger that from behind the rose-tinted glasses of victory they are too hastily forgotten, marked as irrelevant in the aftermath of a triumph that has proven success, at least right now, is still attainable.
Indeed, the victories may continue to flow for Australia, although a series against South Africa in February may add some realisation to proceedings. But even if it doesn’t, even if Australia do keep on winning for three months, six months or twelve months, it won’t solve problems below the surface that will, when the nucleus of this team is dismantled, rear their ugly heads.
Admittedly, changes have already been made. This season is the first season in which Sheffield Shield pitches have been produced to make bowlers bowl for longer and batsmen bat for longer, while the much maligned Second XI tournament has thankfully seen formal restrictions regarding the number of under-23 players required to be selected removed.
These alterations may fix some of the problems; they may not. But even if they do, it may already be too late. A generation of young Australian players have been scarred, perhaps irreversibly, by the changes to the Second XI game and, indeed, state pitches that have kept bowlers unfit and batsmen unprepared.
The Big Bash League, seen as crucial to regenerating flailing support for cricket in Australia, is booming in popularity. Crowds are huge, and TV audiences, now able to watch on free-to-air TV, are massive. But the tournament remains cumbersomely placed slap-bang in the middle of the season; its glamour, glitz and perceived importance is still viewed as a diversion for promising young players, especially batsmen. The distraction of the Indian Premier League too, a tournament in which Australians seem more popular amongst franchises than most, is also a continuing concern.
The worry remains too that the new Australian Cricket fan, the Big Bash League Cricket fan, is not one who will turn to Test cricket. The worry is that young kids from inner-city Melbourne will not want to be Chris Rogers but instead be Glenn Maxwell; not Michael Clarke but instead Aaron Finch.
Yet as much as there is a great deal to be worry about, there's a great deal to be optimistic about, too. Warner, Clarke, Smith and the entire bowling attack is a core of this current team that should be around for a considerable time yet. The foundations for further success are there, the basis of a consistently good team exists, but Australia must remember that in seeking their goal of reaching the top of Test rankings once again, the mistakes of the past and the problems of the present must not be forgotten.
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