The scenes in the Australia dressing room at Hyderabad’s Rajiv Gandhi Stadium are still vivid. Seats near the sightscreen provide a clear view of the front portion in the glass enclosure and the men inside were in utter despondency.
The second Test of the 2013 series was in its closing stages. Australia were being ground to dust by India’s spinners. David Warner, out for 6 and 26, stared blankly at the middle, fixed to his seat, like a zombie. Having returned from the crease after being bowled neck-and-crop by Ravindra Jadeja, a wide-eyed Michael Clarke, the colour drained from his face, was locked in a one-way discussion with his coach.
As for the rest, no one moved or spoke after taking part in the procession to the wicket to be all out for 131, a year ago on March 5. Australia were routed in the match and series, losing all four Tests.
Twelve months ago, no one thought Australia would find a way to win games again, let alone dominate. They have achieved just that. Officially, South Africa hold the No 1 ranking in Tests. On form, though, Australia can lay strong claim to being the best side.
It’s not mere results, impressive has been the way they have gone about inflicting deep mental scars while dismantling England and South Africa.
Largely, it’s been an era of mediocrity with one-dimensional teams like India and average sides like England and South Africa holding the No 1 ranking. Clarke’s men have now captured the imagination of the cricket world by playing in majestic style in their last two series.
Australia’s season is being compared with their best in 1994-95 when Mark Taylor’s men won the Ashes and ended the domination of West Indies.
Like champion performers are expected to, they have dominated and intimidated. The transformation of Australia has to do with their ability to unleash a fast bowling battery spearheaded by Mitchell Johnson that has tested technique as well as courage. Starting with the opening Ashes Test at Brisbane, the Aussies have left a trail of destruction in the course of their wins.
First, a rattled Jonathan Trott packed and flew home and then Graeme Swann, Kevin Pietersen and Andy Flower were all consumed by England’s whitewash.
Their biggest victim, however, has been Graeme Smith. Apart from his resolute batting, the South Africa captain was known as the toughest of characters. He had been contemplating retirement for some time, not entirely for cricketing reasons. The treatment from the Australia bowlers only hastened his end.
It brings up the question, how good is this Australia side? Do they have the X-factor like the team of the 2000s? One yardstick will be whether they have made the transition and found replacements for the Haydens, Waughs, Gilchrists, Pontings, Warnes and McGraths.
Despite the recent results, not everyone is convinced. In Johnson, they have rediscovered a genuine spearhead. Like McGrath had Jason Gillespie, Ryan Harris has provided support to Johnson. Gilchrist’s heir, Brad Haddin, was a hit in the Ashes. The issue is Johnson is 32, Harris and Haddin are 36, and Harris has wobbly knees. Opener Chris Rogers is 36. Australia is an ageing team.
In batting, only David Warner and Michael Clarke ooze class. “Australia’s current domination is because of their bowlers. The batsmen can get runs but to win, a team needs bowlers who can get the opposition out twice, and in Johnson and Co, Australia have them,” says Dilip Vengsarkar, who has first-hand experience of the most intimidating team in world cricket — West Indies of the 80s.
For Vengsarkar, Clarke’s men do not measure up to the highest standards. “They don’t have the batsmen or bowlers of that (1980s) West Indies and (2000s) Australia calibre. “Most probably, they will struggle in India, in subcontinent conditions where the wicket doesn’t have pace. Remember, they lost 4-0 in India.”
In terms of transition, India has done better with youngsters Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane showing they are worthy heirs to the spots vacated by Tendulkar, Dravid and Laxman. But it’s about all-round balance and India have been poor in that as the results show. It only points out that the cricket world is likely to live in a mediocre age for some more time.