Australia’s fortunes at Champions Trophy 2017 resembled their 2013 campaign. Only this time around, Joe Root survived the night after England’s victory without a nasty black eye.
On a damp, downcast day in Birmingham, Australia suffered yet another early exit at ICC’s secondary tournament at the hands of the old enemy. They were completely overwhelmed by a resurgent England with a sublime century from Ben Stokes and a calculated assault from captain Eoin Morgan.
After their first two matches were washed out, Australia faced an uphill must-win battle against the surefooted hosts high on confidence and ready to rain on the world champions’ parade. But it never rains until it pours and all of Australia’s weakness came to the forefront after their defeat.
Australia were and continue to be vulnerable away from home. Since their triumphant World Cup campaign at home in 2015, the team has lost only two out of 13 ODIs at home but 15 out of 29 completed ODIs in away/neutral venues. Their win percentage comes down from an impressive 85 percent to a middling 48 percent.
An important reason for this variance could be Steve Smith: the captain, not the batsman. After a long season at home, Smith has virtually been on the road since February with Australia’s tour of India. Soon after the tests, he captained his IPL team Rising Pune Supergiant to the final. Australia began their Champions Trophy campaign within a week after the T20 tournament.
Though he may seem herculean when batting, fatigue is bound to affect even the best sportsmen. Even Hercules must have been completely washed-out after his 12 labours. The Australian selectors have their heads in the clouds if they think Smith will be able to continue managing the side in all three formats. David Warner captained the side admirably in Smith’s absence after the latter was withdrawn to rest ahead of their ODI tour to South Africa (we all know how that went!). He would make for an adept successor.
Warner, unlike Smith and many other Australian captains before him, showed his faith in a leg-spinner whose name did not begin with Shane and end with Warne. Adam Zampa repaid it and proved to be the essential weapon in Australia’s dominant series victory over Sri Lanka in conditions that clearly favoured the subcontinental side.
Yet, each time the game seems to be drifting away from Australia and there’s opportunity to invite Zampa into the attack, Smith takes a rain check and brings on Travis Head or Glenn Maxwell instead. Head and Maxwell may be competent enough all-rounders but they are certainly not wicket-taking frontline spinners, who are oh-so-essential in modern ODIs in the middle overs.
Australia’s quest for the ideal all-rounder have seen them try many options; Moises Henriques, Ben Cutting, Marcus Stoinis and Sean Abbott have all come in and out of the side while James Faulkner and Mitch Marsh impressed occasionally. So, expect more ODI caps in the near future.
Australia is highly dependent on the wicket-taking prowess of their left-arm seamer Mitchell Starc and it shows. Since 2015 World Cup, the team has won 18 out of 24 games (75 win percent) in which Starc has played. Though Josh Hazlewood continues to take wickets and contain commendably, Zampa needs to be used more cleverly in the middle overs for a more effective ODI bowling attack.
The bitter feud between Cricket Australia (CA) and the Australian Cricketers' Association (ACA) is not helping either. In an era where cricketers are making it rain with cash-rich T20 leagues, it’s astounding to think there’s a pay dispute. As the 30 June deadline of the current Memorandum of Understanding draws near, there is a possibility that Australians might need to update their Naukri.com profiles if a new deal isn't struck soon.
On one hand, threatening your players with unemployment is rather distasteful and CA and ACA must come to terms and peacefully resolve the pay dispute before it further perturbs the team’s performances. However, if Australia continue to play like they did at Edgbaston, they will have to charge it to the dust and let the rain settle it.
Last but not the least, expectedly, it was raining cats and dogs in England. While Australia escaped potential defeat at the hands of the Black Caps, the washout against Bangladesh surely would have hurt. Now, the Trans-Tasmans go back home to reflect on their respective campaigns just like they did four years ago in 2013.
The emerging Bangladesh, meanwhile, stole the Aussies' thunder and their fans are on cloud nine as the team make it to the semi-finals of an ICC tournament for the first time. If Smith insists that there are no excuses this time around, what's troubling this Australian team? Or is it just storm in a teacup? They suffered a similar fate in the two recent editions of a tournament they can claim is much inferior in stature to the World Cup they hold. They lost their match, billed as an Ashes warmup, against England in 2013 and 2017 while the other two matches were curtailed by rain. Warner was undone in similar fashion on both occasions by a little bit of movement.
It was all eerily similar.
Only this time around, there was no big scandal in an Australian-themed pub called the Walkabout. Root, in all likelihood, did not wear a fake beard in a self-deprecating manner. His England teammates did not take a dig at the baby-faced batsman for a lack of facial hair. Warner did not misconstrue the events and throw a punch.
That was a ridiculous shot by @benstokes38 off Cummins. One of the best shots I've seen for a while!👌
— Virat Kohli (@imVkohli) June 10, 2017
Now, the flamboyant Australian opener is 30 years old and married with two kids. In his own words, the incident in Birmingham four years ago was “a learning curve” and key to him becoming the person he is today. Like they say, every cloud has a silver lining and Australia must learn from their early exit from Champions Trophy that England probably won’t surrender to their short-ball barrage like Ashes 2013-14 (partly because there’s no Mitchell Johnson to give them paralysing nightmares).
Australia's next tour begins in Bangladesh in September and the Tigers have beaten teams like India and South Africa at home. Aussies are often guilty of hubris and must surely be wary or they may suffer the dreaded Bangla-wash.
A smell of thunder hangs in the air.