Much has been said and written about the recent Ashes series, where Australia got beaten in their own backyard for the first time since Mike Gatting was at the helm for England. While the situation facing Australian cricket is not terminal, it does face some challenges which may prevent Australia from experiencing another extended dominant run. Ricky Ponting, a great batsman and good captain has received a lot of the blame for the loss but it is not all his fault, there are many factors which caused this result.
The first point is the obvious one, which has been brought up ad nauseum since the last Ashes series: the retirement of several great cricketers at once. Similar to what happened in the early 80s when Rod Marsh, Greg Chappell, and Dennis Lillee all retired at once, the loss of so many great cricketers in one hit can cause an extended slump in any team. The loss of Martyn and Langer wasn’t as crucial as there were batsmen waiting to replace them, but the loss of probably the best spin/pace combo (in any conditions) ever in Warne/McGrath was devastating, which brings me to my next point.
Many pitches these days are “flat” i.e. ideal for batting but tough work for bowlers. In Australia at least, many pitches still retain some of the distinguishing characteristics of years gone by, but by and large most Tests in Oz turn into bat-a-thons. Some of this is due to the increased use of drop in wickets (which tend to wear less), and also due to conservative groundsmen trying to get a full 5 days out of a Test to ensure maximum ticket revenue. The Australian attack of these days is competitive at times, but they can lack the consistency and discipline required to penetrate in these conditions.
Whilst Australia has declined over the last few years, other teams have also improved greatly. England and South Africa have defeated Australia in recent years at home, something that had not been done in nearly 20 years. Add to this the powerhouse of Indian cricket and the always competitive Australia v New Zealand series’ (where the Kiwis seem to grow an extra leg), there is no such thing as an easy series victory for Australia these days.
Another issue facing Australian cricket is the ability to attract career cricketers in an ever-increasing competitive marketplace for athletes. A few decades ago, the Australian way was to play footy (rugby or Aussie rules) in the winter and cricket in the summer. There’s no doubt many potential Australian Test cricketers have been lost to other sports, mainly AFL. Many great junior cricketers have pursued AFL careers ahead of cricket, possibly due to the amount of jobs available and the secure financial rewards associated with such an option. Whilst names such as Alex Keath and Mitchell Marsh have turned their back on a lucrative AFL career recently, this could be more attributed to the rise and rise of T20 cricket as opposed to the lure of the baggy green cap.
Australian cricket will recover from this seemingly dire position, that is almost certain. But how much it recovers remains to be seen, whether it can regain the world No. 1 ranking again or whether it will just be in the top handful of Test playing nations.