For spoilt Australian fans so used to their team hoarding silverware, it’s been somewhat jarring seeing Australia limping towards the World Cup.
They have utterly owned ODI cricket’s showpiece event by winning four of the last five titles and anything short of a triumph is basically viewed as a failure Down Under.
There is always a lot of expectation on Australia, but they thrive under the spotlight and perform best during the World Cup’s bright lights. Sure, they have had a deep reservoir of talent but meticulous preparation has been a key plank of Australia’s domination over the years.
Think back to 18 months before their memorable 1999 title when the agonising decision to dump captain Mark Taylor and his deputy Ian Healy was made in a major overhaul of the slumping ODI team.
Australia stuttered initially before Steve Waugh’s team found their best when it mattered most. Waugh proved inspirational as skipper and Adam Gilchrist, who controversially replaced the beloved Healy, was a revelation as the dynamic wicketkeeper/batsman.
A few years later, something similar unfolded when the Waugh brothers were unceremoniously discarded and Ricky Ponting assumed the reins. Quite coldly, they were told of their demise just moments before the 2002 Allan Border Medal – Australian cricket’s glamorous awards night.
The strategising behind the scenes might have been ruthless but, once again, it proved the right call as Ponting spearheaded Australia’s unbeaten 2003 World Cup triumph in South Africa. It has been a successful formula for Australian selectors to start shaping their World Cup team 12-18 months ahead of time and then let the momentum organically build from there.
With the looming World Cup just over three months away, Australia have been forced to shelve their best laid plans due to the ball-tampering fiasco. Even before the disastrous tour of South Africa, a full-strength Australia had been struggling for some time in 50-over cricket and were notably thrashed at home by England 4-1 post Ashes.
There wasn’t much panicking until Cameron Bancroft was caught putting sandpaper down his pants and everything went haywire. Without suspended duo Steve Smith and David Warner, it’s been a slog for a mishmash Australian side and a tough initiation for new coach Justin Langer after being shoehorned into the role in the wake of Darren Lehmann’s resignation following the Newlands nightmare.
Langer’s innate passion has been admirable, but his inexperience has shone through mixed messaging on head-scratching selection issues – particularly his contradictory public statements over Glenn Maxwell’s strange exile from Test cricket.
Langer’s meant well, but being thrust into the cauldron of the national spotlight is far different than coaching a State team and he has had some unfortunate mis-steps. Even during his successful reign at Western Australia, Langer raised eyebrows in the local cricket fraternity through his methods – notably his unwavering pledge of loyalty from WA-contracted players who sought opportunities elsewhere in the BBL – but rarely had to endure much widespread scrutiny.
Langer’s shaky early tenure was further tested through a reported frosty relation with right-hand man David Saker, who recently resigned from the post after almost three years in the role.
It all leaves Australia uncharacter-istically in chaos with most pundits ruling them out of World Cup contention and falling well behind favourites England and India.
Quite clearly, Australia need a tonic and perhaps the recent appointment of Ponting as assistant coach for the World Cup fits the bill. The Langer era has not started smoothly leaving a feeling of apprehension on Australia’s direction.
Ponting should be able to offer some much-needed composure and help ease the pressure on his former long-time teammate. The three-time World Cup winner obviously brings considerable gravitas to the role.
Most notably, Ponting is an idol for a generation of young Australian players testament to his almost decade reign as simultaneously the team’s captain and best batsman. You can rest assured they will take heed of his sharp observations.
In a recent cricket.com.au video, several Australian players were asked who they thought was the best modern captain out of Border, Taylor, Waugh and Ponting. It was rather instructive that Ponting came out on top and spoke of the reverence he commands from the current playing group – a generation older felt something similar for Waugh.
Even though there has been some revisionist history over his captaincy – he wasn’t close to Taylor or his successor Michael Clarke as a tactician – Ponting represents Australia’s golden era perhaps better than anyone. In retirement,
Ponting has successfully reinvented as a television commentator, where – rather ironically – he has been able to break down tactics astutely.
Like his authoritative batting, Ponting has never been short on confidence but he doesn’t seem contrived like Clarke.
After being announced in his new role, Ponting displayed that unwavering conviction when he boldly declared Australia’s out-of-form ODI side “looks as strong as any”.
His resounding words should at least instill some bravado into a team who have won four of their last 26 ODIs.
Ponting’s much-hyped appointment continues an uptick for Australia after their thrashing of Sri Lanka, albeit in Test cricket. The impending returns of Warner and Smith will also surely fuel the goodwill and the shaky batting order looks far more formidable with them back.
There is some hope to build around but it still feels very much like Australia’s title defence is doomed after such a tumultuous period.
TRISTAN LAVALETTE | GETTY IMAGES