On 30th December, 2008 a mighty 'empire' fell at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. As Hashim Amla and Neil McKenzie scored those winning runs to take South Africa to glory in becoming the first team in 16 years to trounce Australia at home, they had definitely struck at the foundations of an age-old structure, which many of us were 'led' to believe, wouldn't crash for time immemorial. When an Empire falls, there is a deafening noise; noise of a mighty fall that resounds for many ages. It may well be a hyperbole, but end of dominance always brings in the picture of the crumbled edifice. Australia, the once mighty and fearful force in world cricket is crumbling. Their ship has been wrecked more than once in the recent past. However, as the champions are quickly being unseated from their exalted positions, there is surprisingly no noise being heard of this mighty fall.
Sports have always been an extension of human endeavour, wherein the predicaments and aspirations have their own importance. Cricket is no different. The human emotions and physical exertions are well reflected in the playing arena. "Playing Cricket Differently"--that's what the world was reminded of Australia. That difference was between the victor and vanquished; the essential being to be a mile ahead of the rest of the caravan. "The Aussies used to maraude and trample"........those were the words used to describe every Australian victory. After the fall of the Windies' pace in the early 1990s, the Australians came to take their crown. A team built under the astute leadership of Allan Border, it was further nurtured by Mark Taylor. However, it was the mercurial thinking and commanding ability of the 'Iceman' Steven Rodger Waugh, that moulded Australia, into the fearsome unit. He made 'Australia' the force we know in world cricket. I belong to a generation whose prime age in adolescence passed watching Steve Waugh wear the tattered Baggy Green and lead his men to crush all opponents, thus adding new feathers to his crown-even though the 'Final Frontier' still remained unrealized!! This legacy was then taken over by Ponting with pride and moved on. For years, I believed Australia can never be 'defeated' consistently!! There may be an odd failure here and there, but that massive structure would have no cracks.
For people like me, Australia was always a fascination.........a dream that was being realized!! Their team in the history was also called the "Invincibles" in the 1920s; a team that included the legendary Sir Don Bradman. It was a belief that the team could never be made to bite dust.... that they could never lose. May be it was because they always found a champion on any given day to perform for them. The Cricketing world learnt many things from the Aussies-techniques, coloured clothing, white balls, floodlights and night games (from the Packer revolution). They kept on winning.......some stupendous performances, some truly magical. It was practically difficult to imagine any other team winning continuously without long breaks. One needn't had to watch the TV continuously to watch their progress; every morning a prophecy was made that they 'will' win and this turned true every evening.......Only the margin of victory was asked and the rest was understood. Patriotic fervours and biases were raising their heads only if the opposing team was India. But even then, the Aussies used to continue rolling their juggernaut. They won in different lands......on the soggy surfaces in Sri Lanka, in the greenish tops in New Zealand and South Africa, places favouring swing and seam in England, those 'Dead as a Dodo' wickets in the Carribean and even conquered the Final Frontier!! Their pace attack was lethal and armed with precision....McGrath, Gillespie, Lee, and Kasprowicz; they had true magician in those 'fingers' of Warne....along with the solid batting of the Waugh twins, Ponting, Clarke, Hayden, Langer, Slater.....the wizard in Gilchrist who not only rewrote the skills of keeping, but also effected the 'slam bang' in batting at the top order.........then they had the allrounders in Symonds, Bevan and Watson.....all these was stocked with accuracy and clinical precision in fielding. The Aussies were a complete unit in all ways; their team management was also a lesson for other teams to emulate....Simpson, Marsh and Buchanan were not only impressive, but also armed with the expertise. Their man-management skills were tactful and deceptive....Their dominance in the field showed in their verbal volleys too. Intimidating the batsmen, bad mouthing them and playing the 'Mind Games' to dismantle the opposition in all possible ways. They won every trophy on which their hands were laid....be it the World Cup thrice, the Champions Trophy and innumerable test matches.
So, when the historic turn-around started in 2001 under the leadership of Sourav Ganguly's Team India from that once-in-a-generation Test match at Eden Gardens, the sight was astounding....Reflecting upon the 'inability' to fully crush the opposition, Ponting said that their win in the Caribbean in 2008 to retain the Frank Worrell Trophy was the beginning of a period when the team had to switch back the usual method of 'Grinding' to win. This essentially meant that the days of test matches getting over within 3-4 days had virtually ended. The usual image of Australia only batting once to score more than 400 and then bowling teams out twice was not the visual that people could watch again with increasing frequency. But that 'grinding' is also coming to a halt; India in 2008 showed that in Perth in January and then again in the four remarkable tests in September-October 2008. The Proteas completed the formalities and showed the signs of shift in the balance of power.
Various reasons are being attributed to the decline of the Aussie aura. The retirements of senior blokes like Warne, McGrath and Gilchrist in quick succession along with Martyn, and Langer seemed to have left behind a big void that was never easy to fill. Plus dogged by arrogance and injuries, the seniors also were not firing when needed. Those magical times-when in need, hands would have 'lifted' automatically taking the onus on themselves-is a thing of the past. Captain Ponting is firing; but that is not causing any major breakthroughs. As they say, the captain is only as best as his team. The captaincy is also becoming a heavy burden for Ponting...tactics and plans are failing. There have been times when the team really lacked an alternative plan, if the original failed. Suddenly the giant scoring skills of Hayden and the pace of Lee seemed to have deserted them. Compounding all this is the fact that their second line is not that great. As Ponting himself says, it would be difficult to imagine that the youngsters like Johnson, Siddle, Hauritz, Kreiza, White, Bollinger, Hilfenhaus, McGain and others to perfect the role of the former senior pros. The rebuilding of the team that had to start earlier, well in time has been in fact 'well delayed'. Persisting with an unfiring old guard also do not help matters. It is in fact appalling that the Aussie playing XI for any test match that would have been announced a day earlier in the past, is no more a sureity. There are conflicts on the role of the spinner. The Australian team has played with four different spinners in the last 8 test matches they have played. This 'revolving door' policy, once which was the bane for Pakistan, is now turning its hood on Australia. To complicate matters further, there are even murmurs of breaking down of communication between players at times. This was amply seen between Ponting and Lee, during the second test against India at Mohali. Later, the Vice-Captain Michael Clarke expressed his inability and asked the media to turn their questions towards Ponting on the question of not asking Symonds to bowl against the Proteas in the Boxing day test in Melbourne. There are also notions that young blood is not given the right opportunities, which could also be said to mean a lack of will to invest in them. Thus, neglecting their potential and stick to 'experience' as the only factor.
The crown is slipping with each passing day and the contours of the game are being redrawn...game watchers are even stating that the rivalry between India and Australia that had been gripping the enthusiasts is now shifting in favour of the same between the Indians and the South Africans. That they say, is the series to be watched out. The descent has begun. A childhood illusion is also breaking.....that 'wins' are not always guaranteed; Defeats are also not just a rare possibility. Consistency in defeats are also not in the surreal world, but in real world. The collapse of empires and dominant regimes may not be loud and bombastic, but they certainly leave behind rubble. Gathering those rubbles to rebuild the splendid castles and citadels with stronger concrete is also a sight to be watched amidst this collapse. The child in me may have passed over to become the more mature adult in understanding the human aspect of Sport, whereby we realize that the men and women involved in this endeavour are also prone to wear and tear; that they are not 'Invincibles'. But somewhere at the bottom of the heart, one still longs for the report in the next day's sports pages that 'only the winning margin matters', for the 'rest' would always be................
Post Script: It is not often that one gets to write some additional lines, when the victors have vanquished the adversaries. However, the overhead piece was written some days before the New Year test at Sydney. Suddenly, you find the 'dead' rising. When pushed to the corner, the Aussies came up with a spirited show and manage to win the test match with minutes to go before stumps on the final day. The win was guided by a resilient hundred by Michael Clarke( scoring 138 off 250 balls and a fighting 64 by Mitchell Johnson). Peter Siddle joined in the efforts by taking 5/59 in the first innings of the Proteas and finishing the match with figures of 8/113. Aiding the home side was a crumbling SCG track, with enough cracks to make the South African chase in the 4th innings difficult. But the hero of the test match was definitely visiting captain Graeme Smith, who came out to bat as No.11 to try and save the test from the Aussie jaws. Already suffering a muscle tear-that ruled him out of contention in the later part of the tour comprising the LOIs and T20 games-he broke his little finger after a delivery from Mitchell Johnson reared up from a crack in the pitch. Despite having his hand in cast, Smith fought bravely to do the impossible: save the match for his team. His bravery reminds one of the bandaged Anil Kumble coming out to bowl in the Caribbean in the 4th test at Antigua, in spite of a broken jaw by a Mervin Dillon delivery earlier. This however is forgotten in the given list of brave acts on the field. However, the win for the Aussies doesn't camouflage their impending problems, which continue to linger. Hayden failed again, Ponting shined only in the 2nd innings with a fifty. This win has come on the backs of the youngsters......Clarke, Johnson, Siddle, McDonald, Haurtiz and Bollinger. The win does show that 'the castles and citadels can be rebuilt'........; the future for Australia rests on these young faces. Though the Aussies maintain their lead as No.1 Test side, the gap has been reduced. With the return series coming up in South Africa in four weeks, the crown on the Aussie heads is slowly slipping away.