Ashes awesome but bigger tests await Australian cricket

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Australia’s thumping 5-0 victory in the Ashes is a tremendous achievement, but the team has a long way to go before they can say they are real champions, writes managing editor David Donovan.

Ashes crowd applaud Michael Clarke's century in the first test of the last Ashes series at the Gabba, November 2013. (Image DG Donovan)

IT MAY SURPRISE SOME PEOPLE, given IA seldom features sport on its pages, but I am something of a sports nut. I love most sports ‒ especially football, rugby, league, golf ‒ but there is no sport I love more than the most beautiful game of all — test cricket.

My cricket mania was inevitable, I suppose, with a cricket-mad Dad, whose bookshelves bulged with Wisdens, cricket books and biographies ‒ most of which I read ‒ and who could recite statistics like a cricketing Rain Man. So gripped was Dad ‒ Gordon ‒ by cricket, even gave me the initials of his idol — DG Bradman — “the Don”. Gordon coached me and my brothers nearly every day on our backyard concrete nets. And, like Donald George, I also practiced hitting a golf ball with a stump against a concrete wall for hours upon hours, though perhaps with not quite the same effect.

A very technically correct opening batsman, I made lots of runs at various levels of the game over the years. In my early days, I always dreamed of playing for Queensland — though never Australia, funnily enough. Maybe subconsciously, I realised I didn’t quite have that little spark a person needs to reach the very pinnacle. And I can live with that, with just a little regret.

Of course, my story is not dissimilar from that of a multitude of other cricket-mad Australians.

So of course, I have been in heaven for the past few months, watching the Ashes battle ‒ away and at home ‒ and in seventh heaven about Australia’s win. I’m also a little sad now it is all over until 2015 — when England get a chance to take back the tiny urn on their home soil, where I also lived for many years.

Some people say they’re shocked by the final scoreline — but I can honestly say I’m not.

In October, I was privileged to give a lecture to journalism students at Sydney University with my colleagues Peter Wicks and Ross Jones. Afterwards, before flying back to the Gold Coast in the evening, I caught up for a lager with Paul, an English mate of mine who emigrated to Australia in recent years and now lives in Sydney. He asked me how I thought the series would go. He thought I was joking, or engaging in typical Aussie bravado, when I told him I thought Australia would ultimately win 4-0.

I told him that the 3-0 scoreline in the English summer flattered England immensely. They had received the rub of the green on numerous occasions and that a 3-2 scoreline would have been a far more accurate reflection of the difference between the two teams. Moreover, Australia was a team on the rise, while England looked like a team on the decline. He said nonsense, it would be close. I said that on home turf, with crowds baying for English blood, I didn’t think so.

As it turned out, I was right — just slightly too conservative.

I was there for the first ball of this series at Gabba ‒ as I almost always am ‒ and watched Australia struggle on the first day of this series. Struggle, that is, until Mitchell Johnson joined Brad Haddin in the centre and they nervelessly rebuilt the innings, until Australia reached a credible total of 291. Previously the whipping boy of the Barmy Army, how much confidence deserved man-of-the-series Mitchell Johnson received from that brilliant knock, we’ll probably never know — but when he came out to bowl the next day, he ripped the heart out of the English top-order in a ferocious spell and they became tin men for the rest of the series.

In the final analysis, the gulf between the two teams became a vast chasm.

Apart from some fleeting moments when they had Australia’s top-order on the ropes, England were simply never in the hunt. The value of the brilliant “old man” of the team, Brad Haddin, has been almost incalculable, along with the steep price the lower order of the Australian team have placed on their wickets. But the whole team ‒ unchanged for the whole series, surely a first ‒ have all excelled at various times.

It was the sort of never say die Australian performance about which Aussies can be very proud.

Indeed, it is the sort that Australians have been used to from their top sporting teams over the years, but that maybe we haven’t seen for a while.

Moreover, it was a performance about which the Australian players can each be personally proud. It is quite evident that each player had given every ounce of their talent and toil for the team; that there was true pride in the Australian baggy green. Of course, they were brilliantly led by an inspired captain, Michael Clarke, and guided by a coach, Darren Lehmann, who knew what to do to lift his men. It was a team that was far more like the hard-nosed teams of Ian Chappell and Allan Border, rather than the limp “rotational” model of Mickey Arthur, the South African experiment.

This team had mongrel in it and Australians ‒ mostly mongrels themselves ‒ want their teams to have that spice. Cricket is a hard game and sometimes hard words are said. Lehmann and Clarke put the missing spine back in the Australia team. Now, suddenly, everyone loves cricket again.

Which is great and we should all enjoy the victory — but we shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves.

If there is one enemy of this resurgent Australian cricket team, it is hubris.

This is not a champion Australian cricket team — not yet, at least.

We need to remember a few salient points. Before this remarkable series, Australia was the fifth ranked test cricket team in the world, just below Pakistan. We have jumped up to third now, above England, but we are still some way behind India and world champions South Africa.

And it should also be remembered that, before this series, Australia had not won a single test in their previous eight and had lost seven of their previous nine — a dismal statistic.

Australia were good in this series ‒ sometimes even inspired ‒ but there are still question marks about just how good they are against the best opposition.

There was quite clearly something seriously wrong with the England touring party — something very amiss in the management and leadership structure. Yes, key batsman Jonathan Trott may have been suffering from an anxiety disorder, forcing him to leave the team early in the tour, but it is still very unusual. And then there was spinner Graeme Swann, boasting before the home series about getting a knighthood, and then retiring from the game half way through the series.

I suspect the truth about England’s shambolic tour will leak out in England’s brutal and unforgiving tabloid press in coming months and it won’t be pretty. It was clear to all from body language on the field that this was not a happy ‒ nor a confident ‒ group. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that before the next series England play, England’s Zimbabwean coach, Andy Flower, will have disappeared from the set-up, probably after being sacked. I suspect current captain Alistair Cook may also have lost his position, though he is such a brilliant batsman, he may remain under new management — it really depends on whether he can pick himself up after this humiliation. Kim Hughes couldn’t in somewhat similar circumstances.

In short, Australia was made to look like superstars by an off-key England in this most recent series. But an undeniably brittle Aussie top order, which failed during this series on numerous occasions, just to be saved by a brave lower order led by keeper Brad Haddin, has become an area of significant concern. A better team than England might have put the bunnies in the pot and boiled nicely.

As fate would have it, Australia is coming up against a better team almost immediately.

Australia play the world’s number one team, South Africa, away in its next series starting just next month. South Africa’s far more penetrating bowling attack may well expose Australia’s brittle top order and its batting should not be quite so dazzled by Johnson’s pace. They have just beaten number two team India in a series at home last week.

Australia and the Australian players ‒ Australia’s new heroes ‒ should enjoy the Ashes win ‒ it was sensational ‒ but they must also remember that one swallow does not make a summer.

It is a long climb back up the mountain and, so far, they are only in the foothills.

Expect more sports reports from IA during 2014. Follow David Donovan on Twitter @davrosz.

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