Just a couple of years ago, Australia and India were the teams to beat in cricket. Indeed, India was until last summer the number one ranked team in test match cricket – the five day edition of the game that many still consider to be the “true” version.
As Sanjay noted last week, last year ended with both teams locking horns in Melbourne, the traditional five day showdown that always starts on Boxing Day at the iconic Melbourne Cricket Ground. Thanks to a late collapse from India, Australia won the game in some comfort.
Both teams have had mixed years. They were both thrashed by England over the past 12 months – something that as an Englishman I feel obliged to point out after the years of beatings and humiliation the English team has suffered.
England went to Australia a year ago to outplay the hosts and win a five-match series 3-1, their first win down under since the eighties. They then returned home in the summer to face India and won all four tests by a wide margin. England then became the top-ranked test nation. Still, with its comfortable win against India, it’s Australia who have moved into 2012 with more optimism.
Australia’s slide from its years at the top is mainly down to old Father Time, with a number of genuinely world class players all retiring from the game in fairly rapid succession. The likes of Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath, Adam Gilchrist and others inflicted pain on teams from around the world, but they haven’t yet been replaced by players of anything like the same quality. For the Aussies, then, now is about rebuilding.
India did win the World Cup earlier in 2011, though that competition is a version of the one day game. Also, although its team hasn’t yet had to deal with the retirement of some its batting legends, Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar and VS Laxman are all much closer to 40 than 30.
Yet even with those legends still in place, as Sanjay argued, the team is struggling on its travels. It has lost three of the last four opening tests overseas, and in cricket such a setback is hard to recover from. Indeed, in 16 innings away from home in 2011, the team only once surpassed 300 runs. Such low scoring, especially from a team whose strength is supposed to be batting, puts pressure on the bowlers to perform miracles. When they can’t, defeat is almost inevitable.
Some have questioned the captaincy of MS Dhoni, but he was staying upbeat after the Aussie loss.
“It was a good year for us as a team,” Dhoni said. “At the same time there were phases we didn’t do really well, the England series being one of the patches where we didn't win a single game. The World Cup, being one of the most treasured things, gave us immense pleasure to win it, but we weren’t as consistent as were last year.”
Australia, missing some of its usual starting bowlers, still performed well in that department helped by some lax Indian batting. The team still has a long way to go, but there are signs that Australia are at least doing the simple things well. It may be a shadow of former sides, but it’s still far from a pushover.
India now has to pick itself up for the second test which starts in Sydney tomorrow. It will need to turn in a much better performance if it’s to have any chance of getting on the road back to regaining that number one spot.