Australia: the end of a cricketing empire

Now the Aussies are having to engage in another sport that Britain gave to the world: national self-flagellation.

Rob Lyons
Columnist

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This week, the Liverpool takeover saga passed from farce through some existential wormhole to a new level of ridiculousness in a different universe. The England football team achieved a bore draw against the mighty Montenegro, while Scotland went from playing 4-6-0 against the Czech Republic to resuming normal service by being plucky losers to world champions Spain. With such thin pickings at home, spiked’s sports column must turn to the dramatic events in India. No, not the Commonwealth Games, stoopid – it’s Australia’s cricketers losing again!

Australia spent most of the past decade or so as the Evil Empire of world cricket. They were in a different league to every other team. From October 1999 to February 2001, and again from December 2005 to January 2008, the Aussies set the world record for consecutive test match victories: 16 each time. From October 2005 to June 2008, the team won nine consecutive test match series. They were untouchable.

And the reasons aren’t hard to find: they had a fantastic team. Glenn McGrath was an all-time great frontline pace bowler. He may not have been as quick as some, but he was very tall and very accurate. He made the lives of many batsmen, particularly former England captain Mike Atherton, absolutely miserable, and took more test wickets – 563 – than any other fast bowler.

But if anything, McGrath was outshone by Shane Warne, the leg spinner and accident-waiting-to-happen, who took even more wickets and was voted one of the five ‘Cricketers of the Century’ in 2000 despite being a bit of a plonker off the field. Combined with a decent rota of other bowlers who all had their moments if not really great careers – like Lee, Gillespie and Kasprowicz – and the Aussies could rely on skittling the opposition out cheaply.

In turn, there was a stellar line-up of batsmen, including the Waugh brothers, Steve and Mark, and then Ricky Ponting, one of the three great batters of his generation along with Sachin Tendulkar and Brian Lara. Add to this top-class support from the prolific Matthew Hayden, the grinding Justin Langer and the belligerent wicketkeeper-batsman Adam Gilchrist. You couldn’t just get out the ‘key men’ in that Aussie team – they were all, pretty much, in the top rank of test match batting at the time.

So after England regained the Ashes after 20 years in that titanic series in 2005, what did the Aussies do? Battered us 5-0 in the return in 2006. After the open-top bus tour, the trip to the Palace, the biographies and book signings, the Poms were proper spanked Down Under.

Thankfully, for everyone else, the golden generation got old and retired. There’s just Ponting (36 this year) left to rage against the dying of the light. Now the rest of the world is getting its own back. And thanks to this week’s defeat to India in Bangalore – marked by a double century from Tendulkar – Australia are now ranked fifth in the world. Defeat in Bangalore was the first time for 22 years that the Aussies had lost three games on the trot. They’re even below England in the rankings, for pity’s sake. Now India rules the roost.

Which is kind of embarrassing because there is now a proposal on the table for a test cricket championship in England in 2013 featuring the top four nations. On current form, the unthinkable would happen: Australia wouldn’t be there.

Now it’s Australia’s turn to engage in another sport that Britain gave to the world: national self-flagellation. After the winning mentality of the previous generation, has the country gone soft? The Wallabies have lost to England in the past two rugby world cups – including that dramatic England victory in 2003 in Sydney. Australia barely has a tennis player of note any more. The football team hasn’t made the strides expected when the likes of Harry Kewell and Mark Viduka came through.

But like all tales of national decline, a pinch of salt is required. Australia comfortably topped the medals table at the Commonwealth Games, winning 74 gold medals to India’s 38 and England’s 37. The India cricket team has always been extremely difficult to beat at home, so there’s no great shame in losing there. Australia’s relative decline may be more to do with other countries copying the recipe for sporting success created Down Under, with sporting academies and a more scientific approach to training. And there’s also just the good ol’ law of averages which says that every golden generation must come to an end at some point. Even fitness-mad Aussies can’t keep churning out historically great cricketers forever.

And you just know that there is every chance that the Aussies will bounce back this winter and regain the Ashes. Is this an Australian team in decline or simply one in transition? Maybe Australia is finally ‘going soft’, but there’s no particular reason why Australia’s sport stars should be any more vulnerable to the modern world’s therapy-culture trends than anyone else. In sporting terms, it’s still a level playing field (or psychiatrist’s couch, perhaps).

So we Brits had better take advantage of this Australian dip while it lasts. All together now: ‘You’re shit, and you know you are…’

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked

Duleep Allirajah is away.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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