Many might have thought Indian prime minister Narendra Modi popping up on screen at a Coldplay concert would be the most surprising event of the weekend. Australia’s selectors, however, decided to fix that by naming four debutants in their squad for the third Test against South Africa. After a run of five straight defeats, these picks will optimistically be seen as a breath of fresh air by some supporters. Others will regard the squad as so green, it photosynthesises.
On Saturday night, Modi decided to channel Bob Dylan in his video address, borrowing lines from “The Times They Are A-Changin’ to argue in defence of his controversial demonetisation policy. On Sunday, the Sydney Morning Herald media were to be found quoting a line found in another Dylan song, comforting themselves that “the darkest hour is right before the dawn”. Inevitably, fans in England have been amused by the situation, but for those of more advancing years, the schadenfreude will be tempered by the knowledge that things could actually be far more dismal for their oldest foe.
There’s plenty of competition for the gloomiest nadir of English Test cricket, from the four captain summer of 1988 to the defeat at The Oval to New Zealand in 1999 which sent them plummeting to bottom of the world rankings. There’s the loss of eight consecutive Ashes series, the 46 all out in Port of Spain in 1994, and the bubble-bursting one-off home walloping at the hands of Sri Lanka immediately following an uplifting series victory against South Africa in 1998. Australian fans should remember they have only lost five matches. For the ten years comprising the 1990s, their England counterparts were repeatedly driven to lose their minds, and all against a backdrop of administrative chaos and player picks which veered wildly between the nostalgic, bizarre, optimistic and, at times, inexplicable.
Last week Rod Marsh, Australia’s chairman of selectors, decided it was time to drop himself. His choices have been nowhere near as scattergun as England’s in the nineties, but successor Trevor Hohns’s are certainly out of the ECB playbook for the time. English cricket (unlike its football) has grown wary of quick fixes and the blame game. Callum Ferguson and Peter Nevill, and to some extent Marsh himself, can certainly feel they have – to misquote the famous malapropism of David Warner’s brother – been made scapegoats.
There are other Anglo-Aussie parallels. Back in 1994-5, seamer Martin McCague was memorably termed “the rat that joined the sinking ship” for being Australia-raised yet choosing to play against them for a floundering England. He is often seen as the totem of English desperation at the time, but he is not without his distinguished fans. That the wheel has now turned and an English-born player in Matt Renshaw has been picked for a floundering Australia has, of course, not gone unnoted.
As with Usman Khawaja, who was born in Pakistan, he will become not only a member of Australia’s side, but indicative of a changing Australia itself (though the eagle-eyed will note there is already a fairly long history of English migration to those shores.) Unlike McCague, Renshaw will for now be spared the barbs of his former countrymen, but it will be surprising if the South Africans, especially with Faf du Plessis in such feisty verbal form, fail to jibe at him as a “useless pom” or similar. The mint-and-lollipop ball-tampering tutting presently directed at the Proteas captain is also another copy of English despair, reminiscent of the Wasim and Waqar tour of 1992, when a haughty tutting at how so much reverse swing transpired distracted from the real problems of the home side.
Players’ supposed obsession with T20 has inevitably been blamed for Australia’s demise, a claim which started during the hapless tour of Sri Lanka. We tried that in England too, but as the cause of team disunity, a stick with which to beat Kevin Pietersen when he warned English cricket was falling behind – in all formats – by ironically failing to embrace it. Now, the Big Bash, the big, brash franchise tournament England themselves are so keen to copy, is being accused of causing a decline in batting technique.
This allegation is, however, a mere handy fig leaf, given Test players across the globe participate in numerous such events and still do well in the longest form. Individual batsmen, such as Ben Duckett, have technical flaws which can be exploited. Badly performing batting units, such as Australia’s in Sri Lanka and England’s in Bangladesh, collectively have strategic ones. England may have collapsed in the second Test against India in Vizag, but the improvement in their batting between Bangladesh and Rajkot, had nothing to do with franchises and everything to do with an improvement in application and tactics. In this respect, with regard to Australia's stream of failures, coach Darren Lehmann seems to have got off very lightly in the various media autopsies. It possibly helps to be seen as a tough, typical Aussie bloke when your team is itself being criticised for being “mollycoddled”.
There will also be a fierce focus on Steve Smith, the man many once rashly thought so ungainly, he shouldn’t be allowed to hold a bat let alone lead his country. Comparisons have been drawn to Kim Hughes, the captain who tearfully resigned after defeat to the West Indies in 1984-5. It’s unlikely Smith, though apparently far more Michael Clarke than Steve Waugh in terms of sensibilities, will go out in such a fashion. Also worth remembering is the fact that after Hughes left, Australia then failed to win their next six Test series (seven including the one he left in the middle of.) The man who took over from him, the great, gristly Allan Border still took time to turn things round, regardless of his eventual triumphs. Machismo facial hair, even in Australia, is no guarantee of immediate success. And whatever pressures the clean-shaven Smith is feeling, he can again look to England for solace. Alastair Cook may well yet decide to stand down at the end of this India series, but the fact he is there captaining at all is testament to his resoluteness after some tough times – albeit occasionally of his own making – in the last few years.
Australia have plumped for youth and, who knows, it may well pay off in Adelaide and in their next series against Pakistan. It always sounds better when teams can talk about “looking to the future”, but in doing so so dramatically Australia is in fact repeating the dubious past mistakes of its archrival. Such upheaval can often be a recipe only for further disappointments and could at worst leave England fans, the heartless ones, sniggering at an Antepodean repeat of their own decade of disaster.