Brisbane, Australia, Nov 29: Michael Clarke's beleaguered group has only played one match since it was condemned as the worst Australian test lineup in decades.
To the relief of millions of armchair selectors—for cricket is the national summer sport—that one game was a gritty comeback win to level the series in South Africa.
Yet in the latest sign of how the once mighty has fallen, only a week or so later Clarke's injury-plagued squad is considered little better than an even-money chance heading into the opening game of a two-test series against New Zealand, which hasn't won a test in Australia since 1985.
Those Black Caps victories, inspired by Richard Hadlee, came at a time when Allan Border was rebuilding the team in the wake of the World Series Cricket schism of the late 1970s, the retirements of Dennis Lillee, Rod Marsh and Greg Chappell and the further fractures caused by the rebel tours to South Africa.
Border's teams went 14 tests without a win before gaining traction, winning the 1987 World Cup and then dominating the 1989 Ashes. That ushered in a long period of success for Australia which rendered the dark days of the mid-1980s to the deep recesses of memory.
Some memories were sharply revived earlier this month when Clarke's team was dismissed for 47 and lost the first test by eight wickets to South Africa at Cape Town.
Respected cricket analyst Malcom Conn, noting the insipid innings and a record of two wins in 12 tests, declared them “the worst Australian side in a quarter of a century.”
“Not since Allan Border single-handedly held the team together in the mid-1980s has the test side played so poorly,” he said.
Such sentiments were echoed in mainstream and social media, and in conversations in pubs and cafes across the island continent.
That cloud of pessimism was temporarily lifted in the next test, thanks largely to the efforts of 18-year-old fast bowler Pat Cummins, who snared six wickets in the second innings and hit the winning runs on debut in a thrilling two-wicket victory at Johannesburg.
Things seemed to be on the up for Australia until Cummins and four other front-line players were ruled out of the opening test against New Zealand due to injury.
Making matters worse, the three young quicks who were added to the test squad made little impact in a tour match against New Zealand last weekend. Even New Zealand coach John Wright, who played in the ‘85 win, courteously thanked the Australian selectors for giving his batsmen a look at the young bowlers.
After flaying the Australia A attack for 175, including 16 sixes over the white picket boundaries at Allan Border Field, Jesse Ryder could barely conceal a smirk as he spoke with a quiet assuredness about New Zealand's prospects.
“We got what we needed out of it,” Ryder said of the four-day tour match. “Going into the first test, everybody's confidence is pretty high.”
Ryder concedes that from what he's heard, the Australians “seem a little bit down at the moment.”
A victory “would mean the world to the (New Zealand) cricket public,” Ryder said. “It would mean the world to us, too.”
Australia started the last southern summer in reasonable shape. It was no longer No. 1 in the test rankings and still rebuilding following the retirements of some of the greatest players in generations—including Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath and Adam Gilchrist—but still considered good enough to win back the Ashes on home soil. By the end of the series against England, Cricket Australia was in crisis after an unprecedented run of innings defeats.
Amid the uproar from fans unaccustomed to such defeats, ex-test captains Border, Mark Taylor and Steve Waugh—who guided Australia through its most sustained period of Ashes domination of eight consecutive series wins from 1989-2002/03 -- were recruited to help in a broad review that led to an overhaul of the whole structure around the national team.
Now, Australia has a new captain, a new coach and a new selection panel that is all overseen by a newly created general manager of performance—a role filled by Pat Howard, a former rugby union international, pharmacist and businessman.
Clarke has replaced Ricky Ponting as captain and is part of a five-man selection panel that also includes coach Mickey Arthur and is headed by John Inverarity. Arthur, who guided South Africa to the top of the test rankings during his five years in charge of the Proteas, was last week unveiled as Australia's first foreign coach.
With Mitchell Johnson, Shane Watson, Ryan Harris, Cummins and batsman Shaun Marsh out of the first test against New Zealand, Arthur will have for his first game in charge an attack featuring two of the three uncapped pacemen—Ben Cutting, James Pattinson or left-armer Mitchell Starc—and led by Peter Siddle, who has played just 25 test matches himself.
David Warner, a success in the shorter formats, will make his test debut as opener alongside Phil Hughes, who hasn't even cemented his spot in the team.
Arthur has the excuse of being new to the scene. Clarke, asked to lead the least experienced lineup of any Australian captain in decades, will find it tough.
Clarke doesn't possess the obstinate character traits of Border—a legendary figure in Australia after galvanizing a team of mediocre talents into a winning combination across the decade after Kim Hughes' tearful exit in 1984 -- or Taylor or Waugh, but he does have their backing, and the support of the team.
“What I did take out of South Africa was the character and courage of the blokes in this team. The way we won that last test is very exciting for all of us,” said the 30-year-old Clarke, who averages 46 in 74 test matches. “We know we've got a lot of work to get back to be the No. 1 test team in the world, but in my opinion we've started that.”
Clarke has two wins, two losses and two draws as Australia captain going into his first home summer as the skipper and is coming off two centuries in his past three tests.
“We've had some great success in Sri Lanka. We won the one-day series in South Africa and leveled the test series against the No. 2 test team in the world in their own back yard, so I certainly see a lot more positives than negatives in this team at the moment,” Clarke said.
The Australians have inched up one spot from an all-time low No. 5 test ranking so far this year.
Bob Simpson, the former test captain who was hired as the first full-time coach of the Australia team in the Border era, recently told a crowd at a Hall of Fame induction that current state of Australian cricket reminded him of when he was hired in 1986.
“What we did then was pick players who you think are going to make it and give them as much encouragement as possible,” he said.
“You've got to be very careful that you don't expect everyone to be like the past greats. It's vitally important to let a player develop in his own way and fit him into the structure.”
Arthur says he has a similar ethos, so it's likely talented players will get an opportunity, while selectors must also make concessions to the more crowded calendar than existed in the 80s by using a rotational policy to develop a broader squad and reduce injuries.
He's confident that building a “sustainable” squad, will help Australia get back to the heights.
“We've got to be realistic. We've got to take it tour by tour, but ultimately if we keep chipping away and getting the success we want, in a year or two down the line I firmly believe Australian cricket can be back at the top of the tree,” Arthur said.
He's been given no clear deadline to achieve a No. 1 test ranking, but expects he can achieve it before his contract expires after the 2015 World Cup.
“It'll be two Ashes series and a Twenty20 World Cup and a 50-over World Cup. By that time we'll have a really good indication of where we're at and I'm confident that with the personnel we'll have available we'll be able to get ourselves back to the top.”
Greg Chappell, who spent time as coach of India before returning to a talent identification role in Australia, said there were more good players emerging now than there was a few years ago.
“I'm excited about the prospects for Australian cricket. The next couple of years will be very exciting,” Chappell said. “We do have some really good young cricketers around the place.”
Asked what he'd advice he'd give to a public concerned about the state of its national team, Arthur suggested: “Have a bit of patience with the team, but also embrace the excitement with it. There's a lot of really exciting talent there—young talent needs time.”