Australia: From rock bottom to rediscovering championship form
The last time Australia strung together four consecutive T20I victories, the word Covid-19 was yet to be coined. Between the 2016 T20 World Cup final and the start of this T20 World Cup, Australia had played 58 T20Is, winning 29 and losing 27. Every bilateral series this year—against New Zealand, West Indies and Bangladesh—resulted in a trouncing. Nothing was going in Australia’s favour. It wasn’t only about the purge after the ball tampering scandal that involved several bans and heads rolling at important positions. Many key individuals, from coach to player, had to commit wholeheartedly to the sweeping changes to fit in. And the defeats only made the transition harder. The once mighty Aussies were, without a doubt, in a terrible rut.
There were reports of unease in the dressing room after the team manager had allegedly confronted a Cricket Australia (CA) digital journalist for posting Bangladesh’s celebrations and Justin Langer taking his side. Later, in a tell-all to Sydney Morning Herald, a former CA media manager wrote on Langer’s mood swings, how players were “worn down by the volatile, high-stress environment he inhabits as coach, and his folksy, clichéd motivational homilies.” He further writes: “Some players didn’t like walking past Langer’s seat on the team bus lest they prompted a negative response. If things weren’t going well, the odd player would ask, ‘How’s the grumpy coach?’”
Australian cricket had hit rock bottom. So, with barely seven weeks to go for the T20 World Cup, Nick Hockley—the CA’s CEO—issued a statement of support for Langer while holding meetings with Test captain Tim Paine, white-ball captain Aaron Finch and Pat Cummins, the vice-captain. Later, Langer spoke one-on-one with a number of players during the team's hotel quarantine in Adelaide.
“We all got a lot off our chests,” Langer was quoted as saying after that. “I think we are all in a better place now.”
Say hello to the newest avatar of Australian cricket. Decades of arrogant and boorish management that bred a toxic win-at-all-costs mentality that culminated in a scandal so cascading that it forced a long-awaited makeover. And while the long-term effect of this renovation is still awaited, we definitely now have a bunch of well-behaved Australians who are getting back to winning World Cups. The most important step towards that change was to accept their flaws. When Finch was asked about tension within the team in the aftermath of the reports on Langer, he didn’t make any effort to hide it. “There’s always tension when results don't go your way in all sports,” Finch had said on SEN radio. “Wins and losses are what count. I think anytime that doesn’t happen, all that gets amplified. It’s just one of those things. It’s disappointing that things are coming to the front the way that they are, that’s never ideal.”
Australia have traditionally preferred a top-down approach towards running a tight ship. But after some colossal gaffes—Mickey Arthur’s “Homework Gate” in 2012-13 is a haunting reminder—Australians opted for a quiet shift of power, keeping Finch at the front, centre and back of almost all key decisions. Already on the backfoot after Australia were beaten 2-1 by an injury-ravaged India in the Test series at home, Langer—whose contract runs till mid-2022—was quick to accept the changes. “He (Langer) has probably taken a big back seat and let a lot of other staff play their roles,” Josh Hazlewood was quoted as saying by 7news after the final. “Everything has really been player driven.” That meant spending more time discussing strategy with the rung of coaches under Langer: Andrew McDonald, Michael Di Venuto and Jeff Vaughan.
The selection was still dodgy. Marcus Stoinis and Josh Hazlewood were the two biggest names missing from the squad that won against Sri Lanka and Pakistan at home in the 2019 summer before notching an away series win in South Africa. Langer’s inclination towards having five specialist bowlers often stuffed up combinations, leaving Australia almost always one batter short even though Glen Maxwell or Stoinis was perfectly capable of bowling out individual quotas. Only once—in possibly a panic move—did Australia revert to five bowlers in the T20 World Cup when they dropped Mitchell Marsh for spinner Ashton Agar against England. But a heavy loss quickly restored sanity. Keeping a spot for a 35-year-old David Warner—who was dropped by Sunrisers Hyderabad during this IPL—wasn’t easy too when he missed all the action in the run-up to the World Cup. But Finch took that difficult call as well.
The planning might seem knee-jerk at times, especially when you consider Marsh’s trajectory—batting at No 7 at the start of the year before being promoted to No 3, and then holding on to it ahead of Steve Smith who till then had 515 runs at No 3 at a strike rate of 139.94. But there was method in that madness. That series in the West Indies, Marsh scored 51, 54, 9, 75 and 30. “It was something we chatted about and then after (his good series) it just reassured us,” said Finch. “Smithy was so open to (moving down the order). He’ll do anything that the team needs. The way we wanted to structure up was to be more aggressive in the Powerplay. Smudger’s ability to play spin through the middle added that extra layer of confidence in our group, with Stoinis and Matty Wade behind him as well. It turned out to be a nice move.”
Smith didn’t have to bat in three out of Australia’s last four wins, including the final. And that’s fairly unthinkable for a batter who in 2019 had amassed 774 runs in four Ashes Tests in England. What Australia successfully introduced was more talent to replace the already abundant talent at every position, for every role. So even if Glenn Maxwell was largely misfiring, it didn’t prove too costly because Stoinis and Matthew Wade took turns at finishing matches. Mitchell Starc, one of the best exponents of the yorker, averaged 15 runs every over in the final but Hazlewood and Cummins limited the damage. And then there was Adam Zampa, introducing continuity with his stump-to-stump lines and leg-breaks while the pacers worked around him.
Preparing for a T20 World Cup is difficult. Australia were all over the place to begin with, arriving in the UAE losing in the West Indies and Bangladesh. But they had the personnel. All they needed was a little time together and some luck. This T20 World Cup was almost mechanical in conforming to the trend of teams winning more batting second. Winning his sixth toss out of seven in the World Cup, Finch didn’t deny the hand it had played. “It did play a big factor, to be honest,” he said. “I tried to play it down as much as I could because I thought, ‘at some point in the tournament, I’m going to lose a toss and we’ll have to bat first’. But it did play a big part. You saw out there at the end there was the dew factor: the slower balls weren’t holding in the wicket as much. I don’t know how I did it—maybe it was just fate.”
A bit of fate, a bit of belief, a dash of camaraderie and Australia are back doing what they've done for very long: look invincible on the big stage.