It was somewhere around December 2008 that there was a gradual realization within sections of the Australian media that their national Test side was on the wane, that an empire had crumbled - an empire that in its heyday rewrote the rules by which Test cricket was, and still is, played; an empire whose core values of aggression and intimidation as the template for Test success have been adopted by most Test-playing nations today.
India's part in the story of that decline is well known and extensively documented. And then there was Graeme Smith and his men, who outthought and outperformed their traditional nemesis and exposed Australia's post-2006 transition plans as a pipe dream, and thus helped push Australian cricket into an acute identity crisis, which was exacerbated by Andrew Strauss and his England side which regained the Ashes in the most convincing fashion later in 2009.
Add to this the more recent whitewash of Ricky Ponting and his men at India's hands in a truncated Test series just ahead of the next edition of the Ashes, and the story of Australian cricket today is the story of a side going through a slow, careful and long process of transition while the rest of the world thumbs its nose at the once mighty side. Schadenfreude is understandable in context of the once arrogant Aussies, but a cautionary note is equally appropriate -- to write off Australia's quest to return to the top would be premature in the extreme.
In a way, the defeat at India's hands in Bangalore confirmed what Andrew Strauss, one of the most articulate captains in the game today, said during Ashes 2009. "I don't think this Australia side has an aura about them. An aura only comes with a consistent level of performance over a long period of time. Australia had that, but I don't feel that's where they are now, and that's encouraging. It doesn't mean you're more likely to beat them, but it does feel like you are playing against any other Test team."
At the time Strauss said that, the statement was taken as 'needle' of the kind traditionally indulged in by rival skippers ahead of an Ashes encounter, but a year later Strauss has proved to be a prophet. The Aussies have clearly lost the winning touch and with it, their aura of invincibility - an aura they wore for an incredibly long time, given I wasn't even born when they last lost three Tests in a row. Given that Australian cricket prides itself on its self-raised bar of excellence, recent displays against Pakistan and India must have come as a rude shock.
As happens when empires fall, there is a larger narrative behind the story of these defeats -- a brewing leadership crisis supplemented by the parachute-type selection of nondescript and inexperienced players where, in some cases, a season of first-class cricket is enough to earn a Baggy Green cap; a radical shift from classic policy that believed in keeping the door open for a 38-year old bowler/batsman in form.
From the leadership perspective, Ricky Ponting has, in my opinion, crossed his use-by date. He is nowhere near being done as a player, but during the recent series against Pakistan and then India, we saw a leader clueless about his troops and unsure about strategy and tactics; a man part of a once proud unit, but now no longer certain about where the next win is coming from.
In Ponting - a man who at one time wore the aura of champion with a swagger - the decline, and consequent listlessness, is noticeable. It is even more starting coming from someone who, in his earlier heyday, was always ahead of the game tactically, and who has won games for Australia with his captaincy. Today's Ponting is a man battling for his personal future even as he seeks to revive a side in seemingly terminal decline; a man, both literally and metaphorically, unsure where his off stump is.
Take that as a given - and it is interesting to note that the Australian media, so strident in support of its own, pilloried Ponting on his return from India, thus adding needless pressure on the eve of the Ashes series. The question is, if not Ponting then who - and I frankly see no viable answer to that question. Michael Clarke, long groomed as the heir in waiting to Ponting's mantle, has a CV with wafer-thin leadership experience [with New South Wales, primarily]; it is also worth noting that Clarke, undoubtedly a good talent, is yet to use that talent to string together successive dominant, even match-winning, knocks as Ponting had done in his prime. Top it off with the fact that Clarke, thanks to his tabloid-fodder relationship with a supermodel, has acquired the sort of celebrity image not usually associated with Australian capaincy, and you make a cumulative case for the argument that ‘Pup' is unlikely to grow into Australia's top dog.
Who, then? My personal pick would be someone like Cameron White, who has proved a fine leader of men with Victoria, and has been instrumental in leading the state side to victory in his debut season (2003-'04), and going on to win back to back titles for the side in 2008-'09 and 2009-'10.
Unlike Clarke, White comes across as a natural leader, one who has prior experience in what by consensus is considered the best cricketing system in the world. Another interesting candidate could well be Simon Katich who, like White, has often led New South Wales with considerable success. Most importantly, Katich and White have been instrumental in overseeing the development of quality young talent and moving it to the fringes of national selection - a mentoring ability that is often ignored when discussing captaincy claims.
Secondly, there seems to be a generational shift in Australian cricket today, which is reflected in some of the recent selections. The system, as we know it in Australia, is doing its bit to prop up some newer names, players who force themselves into the side in their early twenties on the back of some 20 first class matches - a reversal from the previous policy of picking seasoned players and persisting with them, valuing systemic experience over youthful talent.
Personally, I like this youth-first policy, but where this might go wrong is when these youngsters fail to make the step up to top-grade cricket. The storyline is becoming distressingly familiar - young talent gets the Baggy Green to the accompaniment of much hype; he flops; that flop is followed by another and then another - rinse, repeat. The result is a team where too many players are trying too hard to cement their own slots, a situation that does not lead to quality team effort. During its zenith, Australia had a string of players who were certain of their place, and this gave a sheltering, nurturing atmosphere to young players who entered the ranks. That is no longer true. A Marcus North for example has experience and runs in both English and Australian first class cricket, but finds himself playing for his slot every fifth innings - an unfortunate situation opponents have been quick to exploit. For Australia to rediscover their past, the priority has to be to get a settled look to the team. For the record, Australia has, since the likes of Warne and McGrath called it a day in the wake of the Ashes 2006 series, handed out as many as 19 Baggy Greens.
I'd compare Australia's recent plight to the similar one faced by Manchester United in the wake of Chelsea's sudden emergence -- they faced an identity crisis as a club that was not just used to winning titles, but dominating English football; a position unrivalled until Jose Mourinho walked in and pushed MUFC into a corner. The team's collective ego, the fuel of dominance, was hurt - but Sir Alex Ferguson, with the 12th side he built (in this case, re-built), re-wrote the discourse of English football for the next three seasons as he pushed MUFC back to the top.
I feel this is how Australia can, and should, re-emerge as the dominant force they once were. Transitions are not just difficult; they are periods of intense soul-searching, of hard questions being asked internally. It is in how the system responds to such questions, in the answers it finds, that success or failure is decided. Australian cricket needs its own Sir Alex - a patriarch-type personality who can oversee the metamorphosis from what Strauss described as being "like any other side in the world" to the one that was once known as the "best ever team to play Test cricket".
The challenges for Australia are there for all to see. The Ashes is around the corner, and regaining it will be top priority. Speaking for myself, I am not as interested in the results as in how Australia approaches this series, which features a sharp role reversal among the traditional rivals. It is England that is more ‘Australia-like', if you will, these days, while Australia - like England not so long ago - is facing a severe crisis of identity and confidence. A convincing win could be the beginning of Australian resurgence; anything less could accelerate the slide the one-time champions seem to be on, and precipitate it towards terminal decline.