Australia has dominated world cricket since the mid to late 90s. They have captured consecutive world cups in 1999 and 2003 and until recently, seemed to be on the verge of capturing the next one (March-April 2007) as well. They have been able to crush all opposition, home, or away. With one of the most feared batting lineups led by Ricky Ponting - a skipper who leads from the front, and an accurate and hungry bowling attack to back them up, they seemed indomitable. Until now, that is...
They have fallen from the top spot - the number one ranking in one-day international cricket now belongs to South Africa. This is the first time in five years that the top spot is held by a team other than Australia! Australia have lost the last four games they have played and have lost a total of five of the last six games they have played - both unimaginable until a year ago or so ago.
So why is it a big deal that just slipping from the number one spot portends doom for the Australians ? If there exist competing teams, then one would expect this sort of situation to arise time and again, right ?
Well, for one, they have held the top spot since the rankings were introduced five years ago. Second, the current Australian team seems far less confident than the one that won the world cup four years ago. They are able to post large totals but their bowling department has become very weak and other teams are able to score and make up the runs required to achieve a victory. A case in point being the massive 437 that South Africa chased down last year and the 336 that New Zealand just chased successfully. Also, this is the second consecutive loss to New Zealand - the previous match they lost in the current series was a loss by 10 wickets! This was the first time that Australia lost a match by 10 wickets!
They also lost to the minnows of international cricket, Bangladesh, a while ago, and this was a full-strength Australian team!
There is, of course, the argument being proffered that they are not playing their complete team with Ricky Ponting and Shane Warne missing. But time and again, Australia have shown that they have depth in batting and it was not uncommon to hear the following sentiment...
"if Australia were to field two teams in the world cup, they would both meet in the finals!"
This much-vaunted depth seems to be lacking these days and even when the team plays with full strength, they are being overtaken by others.
In my opinion, it was the bowling that used to set them apart - while the batsmen were more than capable of posting large totals or even chasing them down with ease, the bowling attack would render opposition attempts useless. And the person most responsible was Glenn McGrath.
McGrath in top form would tie down and ultimately decimate some of the best batting attacks from around the world. His tactic of bowling a niggling line outside the off-stump would frustrate most players and then his beautiful outswingers used to hypnotize them into fishing outside the off-stump, leading to their downfall.
He was well supported by Jason Gillespie and Brett Lee, who though wayward, could tear apart the lower order of a batting line up with ease. Led by McGrath, this trio of bowlers could strike fear into the heart of opponents. Now consider the added pressure when their batsmen have posted huge totals which an opposing team must chase...
There is of course, Shane Warne - many consider him to be the best spinner of his generation! He has been effective against teams that are not from the subcontinent, but as I wrote earlier, he does not really deserve the title of the best. But he is a force to contend with, at least for some of the test-playing nations.
Glenn McGrath is still playing, but has announced his retirement, post World Cup. Shane Warne has already retired. Also, their much-vaunted batting lineup seems to be dissolving as well. Justin Langer and Damien Martyn have retired. With age creeping up on Mathew Hayden and Adam Gilchrist, it is only a matter of time before they put up their pads, which would leave the top order, barring Ricky Ponting, completely devoid of experience.
I predict that the Australian team will not be the dominant force that they once were by the end of this year. In fact, I have predicted for a while now that it was an in-form Glenn McGrath who has been the difference between a good team and a great one. With McGrath's prowess waning and with his announcement of retirement will make the Australians easier to beat and level the playing field for the rest of the world.
Well, knowing their fighting spirit, one has to wait and see if they are able to kick into gear and do well in the world cup, but somehow (I'm sticking my neck out a bit here) I don't see them qualifying for the finals...and this is great news for teams like India, who are finding a bit of good form. We shall have to wait and watch though, for when on a song, the Australians are a treat to watch.