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The end of a cricketing era

Nick Bryant | 06:45 UK time, Wednesday, 22 October 2008

It is hard to go anywhere these days without seeing an Australian cricketer in his underwear.

The fast bowler Brett Lee has just launched his own range of designer knickers, while the batsman Michael Clarke has begun modelling for a well-known name in the Aussie undergarment trade.

indiansgetty226.jpgThe all-rounder Andrew Symonds can regularly be seen on television clad only in a towel, a bare-bellied move designed to boost the sales of fizzy lemonade, although his torso looks more like a six-pack.

Might this semi-naked trio have inadvertently provided a fitting visual metaphor as we enter this new era of Australian cricket: that of a threadbare national outfit.

Is it a case of advertising imitating sporting life, as Australia relinquishes its cricketing superpower status?

Ricky Ponting's men have just suffered Australia's most crushing defeat of the 21st Century - or put slightly less melodramatically, their worst result in nine years. They were thrashed by a bold and exciting Indian team by a lopsided margin of 320, and were outplayed from start to finish.

Before we start sounding the death knell of Australian cricket, it is worth remembering that this is only Australia's second test defeat since the 2005 Ashes, and that they are still the world champions in the 50-over variant of the game.

Earlier this year, the team also equalled the world record for the number of consecutive test victories - 16.

But it was the manner of the defeat that has the Aussie cricket cognoscenti worried, because it laid bare the weaknesses and gaps in the once-feared team.

"Is it a day of national mourning in Oz?" writes an old mate from India. "I don't remember Australia being so thrashed so badly in a long time and that, too, on a sporting wicket like Mohali!" Quite.

I woke up this morning looking forward to reading Malcolm Conn, the always punchy cricket writer of The Australian, and he has delivered. "The colossus which strode world cricket largely unchallenged for more than a decade is no longer. Australia is now finding that India is treating it in the same way that it confronted the West Indies to claim the world crown in 1995." The piece is headlined: "Australia's Reign Nearing End."

Superannuation, of course, is part of the problem; the recent retirement of the legends, Glenn McGrath, Justin Langer and my personal favourite Adam Gilchrist.

rickypontingafp226.jpgNo longer the scourge of English batsmen, the great blonde one, Shane Warne, is about to become the subject of a new musical ("What an SMS I'm in," is apparently one of the songs). His natural replacement and long-time stand-in, the spinner Stuart McGill, has retired from international cricket to continue in his quest to find the perfect Pinot Noir.

The squad has also been depleted by problems of the body and the mind. The metronomic paceman Stuart Clark is on the injured list, while Andrew Symonds is taking a well-publicised break from the national team after missing a team meeting to go fishing.

Matthew Hayden is a week shy of his 37th birthday, and has been struggling with his fitness and form - though he's the sort of bloke to go out in the next innings and get a speedy double century. Brett Lee is dreadfully out of sorts, and had an on-field bust-up with his captain in Mohali.

Since Justin Langer's retirement, Australia have not settled on a dominant opening pair who can score their runs at the hurtling pace which was the hallmark of Steve Waugh's captaincy.

In the first innings of the second test in Mohali, Australia scored 22 runs in 13 overs, the most sluggish of run-rates. The charismatic Indian captain, Mahendra Singh Dhoni, was shocked. "I said to Rahul Dravid, 'look at the board, we won't see that again.'"

Without Warne and McGrath, the bowling combination that made Australia a cricketing superpower, the attack looks fairly listless. For the time-being, they appear to have lost the ability to bowl out sides on the final day, as the drawn first test match in Bangalore served to show. Where are the young spinners who were supposed to have been inspired by Warnie?

Once again in India, Australian batsmen have been shown to be vulnerable against top-class reverse swing bowling, their biggest problem (along with the freak injury to Glenn McGrath), during the 2005 Ashes. After the 5-0 whitewash, next year's series in England now looks very interesting.

Early in the Mohali test match, as the Aussies toiled in the hot sun, the former Indian player Ravi Shastri came up with the comment which neatly encapsulated the near future of Australian cricket. "They are going to be spending a lot more time fielding."

PS All this talk of semi-naked sporting underwear models reminds me of the time I bumped into the tennis star and all-round good egg Pat Rafter. We were chit-chatting away about Tim Henman's failure ever to win the Wimbledon crown, and I said that it was particularly sad in 2001 because all he had to do was beat Goran Ivanisevic in the semis and he would have faced a complete no-hoper in the final. Then I asked Pat is he had ever won Wimbledon.

"No," he said. "I lost to Goran Ivanisevic, in 2001."


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