What, exactly, is going on? Strange days they are in the cricketing world when New Zealand can hold the threat of a series defeat to England’s head. This is New Zealand, a country it’s almost impossible to refer to without first adding the adjective “plucky” to its name, a genial cricket middle power historically peopled with doughty, low-scoring all-rounders, defensive spinners and specialist non-batsmen keepers — a side where even the top order bats as if it’s part of a very long tail end. But this was New Zealand this week, coming painfully close to victory over England, vaunted, India-beating England, while India themselves undid some of the painful memory of that recent loss, at home, to the English — not to mention the whitewash 12 months ago in Australia — by completing a series sweep over the Australians with victory in the fourth test in Delhi.
When Australia dropped off its 13-year perch as uncontested world champions, some time around 2008, many pointed to India as the side most likely to assume its place. But now, five years later, we have a situation where virtually every major cricket power, even South Africa, shows extreme inconsistency in its performances. Australia thrashes India 4-0 in Australia, then goes to India and loses by the same margin; England beats India in India, then goes to New Zealand and almost gets done over by the Shaky Isles’ ragtag mob of hobbit medium-pacers and one-stroke middle order journeymen. This, truly, is cricket’s multi-polar moment, an uncertain period of jockeying between semi-equals of limited ability that has emerged in the wake of the eclipse of the one-time hegemon (Richard Haass, take a bow: your work will never be quoted in the context of cricket again). It’s the Treaty of Westphalia, it’s Europe before the Franco-Prussian war, it’s a series of spurious historical analogies that should probably stop now. (Hang on, isn’t this the season for extended poli sci metaphors?)
How will the Great Game play out? India did much over the course of its series with Australia to suggest it may have finally discovered the mix of youth and experience to establish a side at least equal in quality to the premier cru Dravid-Ganguly-Laxman-Tendulkar vintage of the early 2000s. Murali Vijay, Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli, Shikhar Dhawan and Ravindra Jadeja all announced themselves as major talents — even though their performances, in the eyes of many pundits, still sport the vaguely snobbish asterisk of having been “good, but good only in India.” (This is the same asterisk that has, of course, been the qualification on everything to do with the subcontinental game since cricketing time began.) New Zealand, meanwhile, will remain as plucky as ever. South Africa is still South Africa. And England will be better once they return to England and stop having to send their seamers out to bowl on wickets in countries where the sun shines.
So we come, inevitably, to Australia. Australia’s bowlers emerged from the Indian debacle with credit. But their batsmen, with the notable (and self-evident) exception of Michael Clarke, bombed hard. Ed Cowan scratched around for most of the series, head down, ferret-esque, like a man in permanent search of the mark he’d made for center stump. Phillip Hughes demonstrated not only that his sole talent is to play square of the wicket, but that he’s only able to do so if the wicket is located roughly between the latitudes of 11 and 45 degrees south on an island continent otherwise known as “Australia.” And Matthew Wade made Australians pine for Brad Haddin — a rare achievement indeed.
Then there is Shane Watson: that specimen of all-Australian brawn, anointed in his country’s frantic post-2005 rush to find an all-rounder to rival Freddie Flintoff, nurtured through multiple back spasms and false convalescences, and now finally, many years later, fully emergent as a nude calendar talent who’s not very good at cricket. Watson went to India with hopes of cementing his spot as a specialist batsman and a respected member of the team’s so-called “leadership group.” He returns to Australia as little more than a finely toned pair of buttocks with a kit bag. Before, the question used to be: where will Watson slot in in the batting order? Now it is: what is the point of Shane Watson? His back won’t let him bowl, the runs have evaporated, and as stand-in captain, in Delhi, he showed all the tactical nous of a wombat stranded in a Nathan Hauritz lookalike competition.
Watson’s decline was capped by the most absurd moment of the tour: “Homeworkgate”, the standing down of four players by Australian team management for not filling out a questionnaire. This bureaucratic, process-driven approach typifies everything that’s wrong with the Australian game. Most sensible observers agree that the focus for Australia needs to be on finding people who are good at cricket, then coaching them in a way that will make them better. The Australian cricketing authorities seem to think the focus should be on convening committees, producing reports, and issuing recommendations. The message seems to be: “Players don’t win cricket matches; PowerPoint slides do.” It won’t be long before Australia gives up on cricket altogether and just takes up management consulting as the national sport. Faced with a player like Shane Watson, down on form with his batting, it’s not hard to picture the authorities saying: “Hey man, about that batting thing… instead of practising in the nets, maybe you could run some numbers through Excel and use them as the basis for an emailed action plan? Just a thought.” The future of Australian cricket is here, and on the evidence so far, it mainly involves sitting down in front of a laptop.
Or, to put it another way: The fault lines of the multi-polar, post-Warne/McGrath cricket world have emerged, and they don’t look good for Australia.