Vantage point

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Towards a Cricketing Oligopoly?

India's 2-0 win over Australia has set tongues wagging about Australia's decline. There were similar murmurs after the 2005 Ashes defeat, but the Aussies bounced back and shut everyone out for the next 2 years. While these murmurs might be exaggerated, there is an element of truth in them.

There is no doubt that the 1999-2007 era of comprehensive Australian dominance is probably behind us. Too much has been made of Waugh and Ponting's captaincy as well as the Aussies' relentless "professionalism" in that era. As important as they were, the real clinchers in ensuring that decade long invincibility was the co-existence of not one or two, but three once-in-a-century geniuses - Shane Warne, Glenn Mcgrath and Adam Gilchrist. Warne and Mcgrath were all-surface superstars who, supported by able bowlers like Lee and Gillespie, could run through teams anywhere on most days. When you have three geniuses like that, it is more than likely that at least one (if not two) of them will fire during a series. With them in the side, supported b a decent cast, even the their bus driver could probably have captained and got similar results. Remember, that even in the famous 2005 Ashes, Australia lost in two matches that Mcgrath missed because of a freak injury. In fact the only series Australia lost when all three were in the team, was the 2001 series in India. And that too went right down to the wire, and was lost only thanks to once-in-a-lifetime performances by Laxman and Harbhajan.

There was also another relatively un-heralded factor contributing to the Aussie dominance - consistent and successful openers in the form of Justin Langer and Matthew Hayden. More often than not, they clicked, making the life of their middle order easier. Ever since Langer retired, and age caught up with Hayden, Australia just hasn't had good opening partnerships with the same frequency any more. It is also probably not just a coincidence that a dip in Ponting's bradman-esque performance has occurred after the decline in opening fortunes. The sooner he comes to the crease and the newer the ball is, the less likely he is to make big scores all the time.

But the Australian team now, although weaker than before, is still pretty good. I expect them to go back to a phase like they had in the mid-to-late 1990s. When they were clearly one of the top two teams in the world, and in terms of winning percentages, were still #1. They just weren't invincible and were bound to lose the occasional test match here, and the odd series there, when the opposition stepped up.

To see the full extent of how small or big Australia's decline really is, we should wait until the spring of 2009. They have two back-to-back series against South Africa, first at home and then away. For probably the first time since 1970, South Africa have a pace attack that is clearly superior to Australia's. There is no Shane Warne, who was SA's biggest undoing most of the times. And although Australia holds an edge in the batting department, the gulf is not as wide as it was in the early 2000s. Here's my outcome look-up chart

Australia wins both - Aussie dominance continues
SA win both - SA dominance begins!
Australia wins at home, South Africa at home - Cricketing Oligopoly, like the 90s