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By Partab Ramchand
Even in the midst of all the hype associated with the IPL Australia’s resurgence in Test cricket has not exactly been overlooked. The clean sweep in the two-Test series in New Zealand was the perfect way to end a near-perfect summer in which Australia won seven out of eight Tests. They started off with a 2-0 victory over West Indies and then followed a 3-0 whitewash of Pakistan. A series in New Zealand is almost always a tough proposition but a supremely confident Aussie side against expectations won both the Tests to round off a glorious summer.
While all this has not seen Australia move even from third place to second in the ICC rankings they have closed the gap with South Africa to just one point (119 to 120). And the manner in which they are performing it surely is only a matter of time before they overtake South Africa and pose a serious challenge to India which is perched on top five points ahead. Indeed one would not be surprised if they regain the No 1 spot they held for so long following the two-match series against Pakistan in England and the Ashes battle `Down Under’ towards the end of the year.
The Aussies have always taken pride in their bench strength and it is this factor that is chiefly responsible for their resurgence. It could not have been easy to recover from the almost simultaneous retirements of Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath, Adam Gilchrist, Stuart MacGill, Damien Martyn, Justin Langer and Matthew Hayden. They did go through a lean period losing the Ashes to England in 2009 and going down to India and South Africa. Yet like the kangaroo hopping back the Aussies won the return series in South Africa last year and thereafter they have displayed superb all round form. Make no mistake - they are on their way back to the top.
While the bench strength has been evident right down the line it has been at its most effective in the pace bowling department. Stuart Clarke who seemed to be the front runner in the post- McGrath era is nowhere in the picture. Mitchell Johnson is the undisputed spearhead and is already Australia’s finest all rounder since Alan Davidson retired nearly half a century ago. Not too long ago Johnson had Peter Siddle and Ben Hilfenhaus for support. Now they are no longer regulars in the side thanks to the emergence of Doug Bollinger and Ryan Harris. Bollinger in fact came into the side when there were a couple of injuries on the tour of India last year and hasn’t looked back since. And if Siddle and Hilfenhaus recover from their injuries there is going to be an embarrassment of riches for the selectors. The admirable work done by the pace trio is arguably the main reason behind the Aussie resurgence
Not that the batting has lagged far behind. The squad features no passengers and such is the depth that if everyone is fit the challenge will be deciding who to leave out. Ricky Ponting is confident that his team can regain the Ashes. According to him the Aussies have done just about everything they would have liked to achieve during the summer. Whenever there has been a crisis the players have stepped in and got the job done. The most famous example would be Mike Hussey’s hundred against Pakistan at Sydney which was instrumental in Australia winning the match from a hopeless position.
Hussey in fact came good during the summer after a slump in his fortunes that led to critics calling for his axing. And in Simon Katich the Australians had a solid opening batsman who grew in stature every time he went to the crease. The rest of the batting in the hands of Ponting, Michael Clarke, Marcus North, Shane Watson and Brad Haddin had the quality and the experience to score runs aplenty – and at a good pace – against the best of bowlers. So well did they perform that the highly promising Phil Hughes could only get in a look-in when one of the players was injured. And Nathan Hauritz who made giant strides during the season was capable enough of handling the spin department virtually on his own.
There were question marks over their showing in Test cricket before the summer started what with the loss of the Ashes in England. But the Aussies quickly regrouped under Ponting’s inspiring leadership. At 35 and very much the elder statesman of Australian cricket he is really proud of what his players have been able to achieve. If anything at the end of a glorious summer they have emerged stronger as a group and one can safely predict that the upward graph will continue. Brushing aside theories that the ODI side that has won three World Cups in a row is cracking the Aussies continue to be No 1 comfortably ahead of second placed India. One would not be surprised if the Test squad regains the top spot ere long.