Australia have arrived in Adelaide, the city of churches, where it is traditionally written that an Ashes tour travels back in time.
Only this time the difference travelled is more extreme. Australia, facing a huge crisis of confidence, are debating whether they are going back to the 60s or the 80s. Either option, should it come to pass, would leave them lost in despair.
In Australia, the mid-60s conjure up memories of a game suffocated by dead pitches producing so many draws that it was in danger of dying on its feet. Memories of Australia's decline in the mid-80s are even worse: "Barren and wretched", according to Greg Baum in the Melbourne Age. "Fortunately beyond the memory of half the population and carefully forgotten by the rest."
By batting for more than 10 hours in England's second innings at The Gabba, Alastair Cook has supposedly sent back Australian cricket between 25 and 45 years, depending on who you believe. This display of pessimism might be wholly overdone, but it is not a bad reward for a previously underrated player who woke up to headlines yesterday after his unbeaten double century proclaiming: "Weak-link Cook beats The Don."
Thanks to "Weak-link Cook", Australia have suddenly awoken to the fact that their fall from first to fifth in the world rankings might not be a statistical absurdity after all. This realisation is deeply shocking, especially for the Channel 9 commentary team, largely a quorum of players from the halcyon years, whose every utterance is an ultimate display of confidence in Australia's superior know-how.
In England's eyes, they have merely secured a draw at The Gabba that proved their resilience after they were under the cosh for the first half of the game. Andrew Strauss' reminder to his squad that it is not the time to "strut around" the hotel lobby was well timed.
But Australia's response is much more extreme. For England to bat with such disdain, threatening record after record, challenges Australia's perception of itself. As Peter Roebuck, a former Somerset captain, wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald: "Not so long ago Australian bowlers intimidated Pommy batsmen. Now they scare only their captain."
Mitchell Johnson, the tattoed man, has become the symbol of Australia's decline. He made much play before the Brisbane Test of targeting England's batsmen as he returned to first principles, bowling with uncomplicated pace and hostility. Long before the end, he was resisted so comfortably that he made one wonder whether his Japanese good-luck designs were actually another version of the infamous Maldives wedding ceremony, where newly weds believed they were being blessed but were actually were being outrageously sent-up. Cricket Australia should call for a translator immediately.
Australia began in typically triumphalist style: a Peter Siddle hat-trick, a triple-century stand by Mike Hussey and Brad Haddin, both of whom scored hundreds, and a first-innings lead in excess of 200. Cook and co, aided by a flat Gabba pitch, turned such optimism to despair. Malcolm Conn, scourge of England cricket teams, wrote in The Australian: "The figures tell us that not since Allan Border desperately tried to hold together a rabble gutted by South African rebel tours in the mid-80s has Australian cricket performed so poorly."
If Australia is not condemning its team, it is condemning its entire outlook. An extremely wet Brisbane spring probably had most to do with the state of the pitch, turned from a bowler-friendly monster to a docile puppy, but there is also the suspicion that Cricket Australia, needing all the cricket is can get, wants five-day matches to maximise revenue.
Roebuck seemed to suspect as much when he warned against "a game digging its own grave … A collection of figures leading nowhere."
This is merely one draw, a draw that was not secured until deep into the final morning, and one that was secured with a herculean batting recovery. It is not the old-hat cricket of the second half of the 60s when Tests in Australia became not events to behold but marathons to withstand.
The Adelaide Oval could increase Australian fears of a stalemate. A new groundsman, Damian Hough, has taken over after the 32-year-reign of Les Burdett, who persistently produced the flattest pitches in Australia. Hough has vowed to produce "a traditional Adelaide wicket", and even though temperatures have been down here, as in most parts in Australia, nobody doubts his ability to do just that.
It could be 0-0 after two Tests, making Perth a pivotal Test of the series. If Andrew Strauss wins the toss again and England rack up a large first-innings total, against an Australia attack possessing at least one of their call-ups, Ryan Harris or Doug Bollinger, the cries of "crisis" would sound even louder.
To an English eye, all of this seems overreaction. But then England are used to being middle of the road, Australia are not. Perhaps it is Australia's refusal to accept second best that will hasten their recovery. Perhaps their premature panic is, in many ways, a virtue.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
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