November 16, 2016

Australia can find a way out of the darkness

The key is for them to see an opportunity in the chaos that engulfs them
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The South Africans are a shining example to Australia in how they have overcome adversity to win © Getty Images

There is no doubt as to the severity of this beating. Australia came to Hobart believing they were the cricketing equal of South Africa, and have had that belief crushed. Steve Smith was quite beside himself at the television post-match interview; the blood drained from his face, the answers to questions coming in a gentle voice from a mind reeling in shock. The world had closed in on him and there was only darkness. In the dressing room, young men were silent while older sweats went about their efforts at consolation.

Along the corridor, Faf du Plessis sat calm, satisfied but not yet sated: he wants 3-0 on Australian soil. He truly thought these results possible because the once mighty Australian aura has so clearly gone. The recent one-day series confirmed that in his mind. Momentum in sport is overrated, some say; Faf thinks it is the grail. On their own turf the South Africans won five 50-over matches in a row against the reigning world champions and most of them in style and with space to spare. But to win three consecutive Tests down under would be something else. If it happens, the selectors would be tempted to give the job to the stand-in captain job full time.

The gulf between the sides is best represented by the fresher, brighter South African faces and their levels of technique and concentration. Each moment of the two matches in Perth and Hobart has appeared as an opportunity for - in no particular order - Quinton de Kock, Temba Bavuma, Kagiso Rabada, Keshav Maharaj, Stephen Cook and Kyle Abbott. Contrast these players with Joe Burns, Adam Voges, Callum Ferguson and Nathan Lyon, to name but four, who look down at heel. There can be no excuses and neither did Smith suggest any. The hosts have been completely out-thought and outgunned by the visitors. The fallout is spectacular. Nothing like it has been seen since West Indies caused all manner of chaos in the 1980s.

Graeme Smith was in Sydney last week and got stuck in. The Aussies have lost a bit of ticker and are plagued by self-doubt, he said. The Sheffield Shield has lost its clout, he added, and the rotation of players does neither the team, nor the game at large, any good. Nothing like kicking a carcass. Smith was in town to be honoured by the Bradman Foundation, a recognition only afforded four other cricketers from overseas - Sunil Gavaskar, Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and Sir Richard Hadlee. Set deep into the memory of all Australians is the sight of Smith, with a broken hand, gladiatorially emerging from the Sydney Cricket Ground pavilion in an attempt to deny Australia a last-gasp victory in a Test series his South African team had already won. It is that sort of ticker he refers to. He nearly pulled it off too.

The self-doubt thing is a product of defeat, there is no avoiding it. Lose enough times and you begin to wonder about your place in the order of things. The surprise is that the Australian selectors have not invested in youth. Older blokes know too much and fear failure; younger blokes embrace it and have a go. The selectors might say that the youth out there has not justified a go, but the options are limited, so they may just as well take a look.

The decision-making around the Australian team has lost its envied clarity. The questions must be: what have we long stood for, where are we now and what do we want to be going forward?

The Sheffield Shield was an easy target for Graeme Smith because of the way in which it has been used as the gallops. Most strikingly, Mitchell Starc bowled 19 overs in the first innings of a Shield match against Queensland and was removed from proceedings thereafter. This sends a bad message across the land, diminishes the country's long-established premier competition, and leads the player to think of himself as someone out of the ordinary. Doug Bollinger, fresh as a daisy, replaced Starc to take four wickets and bowl New South Wales to victory. The Australian Smith may have been glad of Starc's carefully managed workload; the South African Smith could not get his head around such a thing.

As for the rotation of players, well, the Bradman honouree is very clear. The famed cap, romanticised by the modern Australian cricketer - dreamt of by the young and cosied by the old - is handed out too freely. Rotate players and you compromise the dream.

The key for Australian cricket right now is to see an opportunity for itself. Young players ought to replace old and be backed for the summer. There is a return in the failure of the young but only shadows in the failure of the old. As an example, Mitchell Marsh is a terrific young bowler who bats powerfully on his day, but he is not a Test match allrounder - not yet anyway. Let him be free as a fast bowler without reference to his figures with the bat. Marsh M at No. 7 or 8 can be a bolter, ready to terrify any wilting attack.

There is talent sprinkled all around Australian cricket. The trick is to identify desire. It's no good wanting to play sport for your country, you have to need to play sport for your country. It is an achievement born of desperation. The captain should be allowed to take ownership, to be both responsible and accountable. His view of the players around him must be acknowledged and acted upon. He has to be able to feel this need around him, for, more than anyone, he personifies it.

These things are rarely as bad as they seem. In Test cricket diaries, it is only five days since South Africa had been bundled out for 242 in Perth and Australia were 158 for no wicket in response. The right collection of Australian players can win in Adelaide, but their own stars must be aligned. The decision-making around the team has lost its envied clarity. The questions must be: what have we long stood for, where are we now and what do we want to be going forward? Identify the answers and there will be a way out of the darkness soon enough.

Meanwhile, South Africa are basking in the lights. Does the game have any more dazzling a young star than either de Kock or Rabada? Does anyone attract great respect than Hashim Amla, Vernon Philander or Kyle Abbott? In the wake of government-instructed quotas, a destabilised first-class competition and injuries to World XI players, the South Africans are the best possible motivation for the Australians. In essence, the message is this: if you think you can or you think you can't, you are probably right. Faf du Plessis' fine men are proof of that.

Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel Nine in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • hamoro7788956 on November 23, 2016, 21:44 GMT

    Australia is indecline long time the talent in batting is not evident. The idea of rank aggression is misplaced

  • Ramana on November 19, 2016, 12:48 GMT

    I think Mark has struck just the right balance, there is no need for gloom and despair. It is not the end of the world for Australia. I am sure there is enough talent in the country, they just need an opportunity; and of course better motivation, the gumption, the resilience. And if the opponent, South Africa can provide the inspiration, well, why not ?? Aus shud come charging out with intent at Adelaide.

  • sanjoy on November 19, 2016, 2:22 GMT

    1.Stop permission to play IPL for 2 seasons. 2.Tell the players to play for the country not for money 3.Stop the muscle building exercise in clubs and gyms 4.Not to be aggressive but cool and perform. 5.Select correct horses for correct courses 6.Just watch how a new bowler can play havoc(Grandhomme) 7.maximum two test to perform or perish 8.smith should play as a batsman not a captain.

  • Stewart on November 17, 2016, 23:18 GMT

    Thanks to @Drew12 for clarification that Test players rarely play for their states. This is why 'the system' in Australia, as in England, is failing. It is essential for Sheffield Shield matches and County Championship matches to include current Test players, for three reasons: a) it provides an elite v elite competition that raises standards; b) it requires Test players to prove to selectors that they deserve to be Test players; and c) it gives the chance to non-Test hopefuls to make a point to national selectors. Hence both countries need to declutter their home summer fixture programmes and get rid of any international/domestic fixture clashes.

  • Drew on November 17, 2016, 13:18 GMT

    I must add though that it is highly unusual for the Australian test side to be in action in November. Usually the first test of the summer would be December. In that case the players would have a few opportunities to play in domestic cricket and demonstrate form. This year (and last) there was no such opportunity. This year there were tests in SL, quickly followed by a meaningless ODI series in SA, then quickly followed by the test series against SA in Australia. This has all occurred during the non-cricket season in Australia really which is pretty ridiculous because players can only be picked from form a year ago basically. No wonder the selectors look like they have no idea I suppose.

  • Drew on November 17, 2016, 13:11 GMT

    @CRICFAN47438104 Historically, or for as long as I have regularly followed cricket, test players are never regular members of their shield side. This is simply because international cricket is being played at the same time as domestic cricket so it is difficult to be in two places at once. This is not new at all.

  • Cricinfouser on November 17, 2016, 11:37 GMT

    Graeme Smith's words coming true

  • Sriram on November 17, 2016, 10:24 GMT

    England took a punt in Haseeb Hameed, but can Australia do so? I read on CA website that although a Travis Dean or Peter Handscomb have 100s in the last 2 seasons they are too young to be pushed to war! As long as that attitude exists Aussies will keep going back to 30+ players

  • Greg on November 17, 2016, 5:23 GMT

    Ok, Joe Burns didn't make any runs. He got an umpire's call lbw in the first innings and feathered one down leg in the second. At no stage did he look as bad as Warner in the first innings, Ferguson in the second or Voges in both. Voges has looked all season as if he's not seeing them -- perhaps he's not. He's just been hit in the head in Perth, so that's it then. 61.87 is a pretty fair figure to finish on, but has anyone ever come down from 100 so quickly?

  • Cameron on November 17, 2016, 5:14 GMT

    Someone earlier mentioned how good it would be to have Warner and Maxwell possibly putting on 200 in a session, which is not what Australia needs in test cricket and is symptomatic of what is wrong. T20 is great fun and all but, with regard to the Sheffield Shield, its a bit about generic pitches but more about the attacking mentality where you rarely see 1st innings totals above 350 these days as they all get a wriggle on and losing their wicket is no longer the catastrophe it used to be.

    Techniques are not what they were and the best yardstick of how far they have declined is a comparison prior to the introduction of helmets. Before helmets no one got hit in the head (or very rarely) as you learnt how not to. These days, with albeit a slightly bigger target, batsmen get pinged relatively often because the repercussions are not as serious (with apologies to the hughes family).

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