Dark days for Australian cricket fans
These are dark days for Australian cricket fans, facing the prospect of back-to-back Ashes series going up in smoke.
Timing is everything in cricket, so the confluence of events on Tuesday certainly didn't help the national mood.
Ahead of an Australia squad that returns from India in the wake of its first 4-0 series loss in more than four decades, coach Mickey Arthur arrived home suggesting that the embarrassing defeat had somehow "galvanized" the team.
Not long after that, Cricket Australia announced that skipper Michael Clarke, the only genuinely in-form batsman, will need to rest for up to 10 weeks to rehabilitate a back problem which forced him home early from India.
And later in the afternoon, old foe England held on for a draw against New Zealand to ensure their three-test series finished at 0-0. After starting the day with six wickets in hand and chasing an impossible target, old-school tailender Monty Panesar helped century-maker Matt Prior navigate the last three overs in a last-wicket partnership that denied the No 8-ranked New Zealanders a historic win.
It was precisely the kind of defiant, resolute batting that has been lacking from the Australia top order.
The accolades flowed for the Aussies while they ruled the cricket world in the late 1990s and early 2000s, winning three consecutive World Cups and twice completing a record sequence of 16 consecutive test wins.
Now the critics are heaping scorn on an inexperienced squad, with many complaining that the players are overpaid and under-performing.
News Ltd. newspapers highlighted the fact that up to eight members of the squad that toured India "are set for pay rises as Australian cricket ushers in a generation of mediocre millionaires."
Courier-Mail columnist Robert Craddock said one of the reasons for Australia's slide in the test rankings "is that many players are paid like princes but perform like paupers."
Australia hasn't had a lot of success in the past in India, where the spin and pitches confound batsmen more familiar with bouncy pitches, so some pundits are writing the tour off as part of the learning curve.
But veteran Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio commentator Jim Maxwell, who has earned civic honours for his coverage of cricket, is among those saying a heavy Ashes defeat will force another wholesale cleanout in Australia.
"Everyone is accountable. If Australia has two bad Ashes series this year, I'd have thought there'll be a lot of positions up for review," Maxwell told ABC television. "The coach, the high-performance manager, the chairman of selectors, the CEO. The chairman of the board. They're all in positions which could be reviewed if Australia does not perform."
Australia hasn't produced a world-class spin bowler since Shane Warne retired in 2007. The constant rotation of pacemen has caused some alarm in the interim, but recently has increased the depth in that department. The batting line-up lost its two most experienced players when ex-skipper Ricky Ponting and Mike Hussey retired in December and January, and none of the replacements has yet to cement spots.
Hussey, who has rejected calls to return for another series, hasn't given up on Australia's prospects in the Ashes.
"I'm trying to stay positive," he said. "I'm an Aussie cricket fan and I want us to win. The tour of India has been a real tough one, but I think it's going to be a great education for those guys."
An Ashes defeat on home soil in 2010-11 forced a major shakeup in the Australian setup, with South African Arthur hired as the national team's first foreign coach. A high-performance manager was appointed, the role going to former Australia rugby union international Pat Howard. The formation of the selection panel was changed dramatically.
The new regime seemed to be working in December, when the Australians went close to beating top-ranked South Africa in Adelaide before losing the series-decider in Perth.
Now it's seemingly in disarray. Arthur's decision to ban four players, including vice-captain Shane Watson, for the third test against India because they failed to deliver self-assessments to him by deadline, was widely ridiculed by former test players.
Arthur said the suspensions were the last straw after the squad had plenty of warnings about poor discipline.
"If we had our time again, we would do exactly the same thing," Arthur, who had to shut down his Twitter account due to a torrent of abuse from disgruntled fans, told a news conference on Tuesday. "It was a line-in-the-sand moment and it's galvanized the team.
"We want to get ourselves to No 1 in the world. ... We've put some stuff in place that we think can get that team there over the next 24 months."
Watson left the tour and returned to Australia after the ban was announced for the birth of his first child, then returned to India for the fourth test and took over the captaincy when Clarke was ruled out. The appointment came only days after his future in the line-up was being called into question and was widely debated.
Arthur is contracted until the 2015 World Cup, but knows he'll be judged by the outcome of the 10 consecutive Ashes tests against England, the series which Australians generally consider the pinnacle of test cricket.
"I'm under no illusions. We need to deliver and we need to deliver in the next year to really have said we've made a proper go at this job," Arthur said. "It's actually the best time to be a coach in these tough times when you've got a young team.
"Because if you believe in those players, you'll see those players develop in front of you."
Arthur said his squad was "firmly on track for the Ashes - there's no doubt about that."
"I was always really worried about the conditions in India, especially with a group of young players. With the Ashes, the conditions are a lot closer to what we're comfortable with.
"Our pace bowlers will be a real factor in England, and that's a real strength of ours."