Two of Test cricket’s most anticipated and much awaited series are over and it has redefined the equations in the cricketing world. England retained the Ashes with a thumping 3-1 win over the Australians and in doing so have thrown Australian cricket in a state of uncertainty. That win puts them on course to be the number one team in the world but of course the main stumbling block is India, who by virtue of drawing the series in South Africa retain their number one ranking in Test cricket.
India tour England in July and that series will be eagerly followed by cricket lovers to see which team comes out on top. India drew a series in South Africa for the first time and in doing so shut up a lot of their critics who have been saying that they don’t win abroad often enough. Now of course abroad here means outside the Indian subcontinent and while that has been true in the past, in the last few tours India have shown that they can win series abroad too. They have beaten England in England, they have defeated the West Indies in the Caribbean isles and they have beaten New Zealand too though that is not saying much. What they haven’t done so far is beat Australia and South Africa in their countries and that has been a big hurdle for the Indian teams for quite sometime now. The 1980 and 1985 teams to Australia drew the series which was followed by the 2003 team and later this year India will get another crack at the Australians and see if they can win over there. The time of course is ideal for Australia are in a phase of rebuilding and are at their most vulnerable now.
Mind you there is almost a year to go for that tour and who knows what state Indian cricket will be in by that time. For all you know some of the great servants of Indian cricket may well have gone by then and India too will be in a rebuilding stage at that time which will not make it easy for the tourists. Experience is the key against the Australians and we have seen how England used that to defeat Australia quite comprehensively in the just concluded series. England hardly had any new players in their team and with players like Alistair Cook being in their mid-twenties and yet having three or four years of Test cricket under their belts it was a very good blend of experience and youth. Cook who just about retained his place in the team showed how much he profited from the presence of his County skipper and batting great Graham Gooch who was the batting coach of the team, by scoring over 750 runs with an average of over 120 to almost singlehandedly sustain England’s batting and give his team the start and stability needed in a Test match. If he hadn’t got the century against Pakistan in the last Test in England last year he may well have been left out of the squad to Australia but it was there that his turnaround started and he was the man of the series for England.
Of course to win a Test you need to get twenty wickets and England were well served in this by their bowling attack which, though not fearsome in pace, used the new ball superbly. James Anderson was the pick of the bowlers and he was well supported by Tremlett, Finn and then Bresnan. Greame Swann also got wickets at crucial times and they never eased the pressure on the Australians and with Australia struggling to find a partner for Watson after the injury to Simon Katich, they never got off to the start that they were used to when Hayden and Langer opened the batting. Then their most prolific batsman and skipper Ricky Ponting went through a horror batting patch and was not able to make the centuries that he used to reel off earlier and that put enormous strain on the batsmen down the order. Only Michael Hussey stood like a rock and got over 550 runs in the series and to think of it, there were some pundits in the media who wanted him out of the team before the series started…
What this defeat shows is all that talk about Australian domestic cricket being the best is a lot of exaggeration. Quite simply there is a cycle where teams have some outstanding players and thus get on top and then when they lose those great players they slide down and that has nothing to do with domestic cricket. Australia lost Warne, McGrath and Gilchrist who were game changers and they also missed Hayden. Those who took their places were good but not the match winners that these players were and so Australia are where they are today. The same happened to the West Indies after 1995 and the same will happen to India when Tendulkar, Dravid and Laxman call it a day. Already Anil Kumble’s absence is felt when India struggle to bowl out the lower order for the leggie not only got the top order but also simply didn’t allow the tail to wag.
What is important is that for domestic players to be really tested and put through the fire and be ready for international cricket, the international players must play in the home competitions. It does not happen anywhere with the kind of schedule that is there so not only Indian but also English and Australian players hardly play in their domestic events. That makes it hard to judge how good the performers are in the competitions since they are quite clearly not batting or bowling against the best in the land.
This is where the problem is and those Boards that take care to schedule international commitments in a way where their international players play in the domestic competitions will be the ones who will likely be able to maintain their standards. That is the challenge before the Boards and that requires long term vision and not just short term gains.