Australian cricket’s rebuilding phase must begin all over again

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Michael Clarke trudges back to the pavillion

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A couple of years back, as the last of Australia’s golden Test generation drifted towards the giant commentary box in the sky, we told ourselves good-naturedly that there would need to be a period of rebuilding.

We would have to be patient. New replacements for Warne, McGrath, Langer, Hayden, Gilchrist and MacGill would not be found easily. We all nodded in satisfaction at just how humble and realistic we were.

Fast forward to the present, and we’re about ready to spork that humble sentiment in the eye. Losing sucks. It was possible to do it graciously for a little while, but when you’ve got the English trampling all over you, not on a mouldy Headingly dish-sponge but the MC bloody G, it’s just a little too much to bear.

Those are my five days, England. My five days to sit in the sunshine and eat sandwiches and pretend that wearing a shirt with a collar means I’m classy enough not to have smuggled in this bottle of vodka in my pants.

If you run into me at the MCG in those days, England, you’ll normally find a very happy man. So how dare you turn my five glorious summer days into three crap ones? The only thing worse than robbing us of half our Test match is forcing us to look at Kevin Pietersen being happy. It’s like having to eat the cold grease out of a fish-shop chipper.

AFL fans understand the rebuilding thing. The salary cap and the ordering of drafts (which incredibly haven’t yet been denounced by Tony Abbott as part of the evils of socialism) mean that team fortunes go in cycles. Teams dominate, age, fall away, rebuild, rise again.

So it just needs patience, right? Well, in this crazy world of sporting achievement, it’s not quite that simple. Some are at their peak, some in decline, some on the rise, and some are the Richmond Football Club.

By which I mean, they rebuild, they have patience, they put together a team, and then they look around a few years later and realise it still isn’t very good.

The not-very-good team ages, and disintegrates, and suddenly the club finds itself having to start all over again, without ever having enjoyed their shot at the top. Richmond have been rebuilding since about 1984.

Alas, in recent weeks, I’ve come to realise that our national cricket team is in much the same way.

Wind back a few years, and the post-legend era looked promising. We had MacGill to bridge the gap post-Warne. We had Stuart Clark giving a pretty good impression of McGrath.

Phil Jacques had made centuries as an opener. Marcus North notched one in his first match, Phillip Hughes two in his second. Good batsmen abounded, or so it seemed.

Mitchell Johnson was sporadically dangerous with the ball, and sometimes the bat. Peter Siddle announced himself by firing bouncers off an Indian deck at Tendulkar’s helmet.

But the rebuilding phase hasn’t worked. Senior players were supposed to guide the up-and-comers to a new period of strength. Instead the seniors have grown weaker, and the new generation haven’t come on.

Of the recent representatives, Simon Katich has already been dumped, one 36-year-old too many in a team featuring three of them. Ricky Ponting was preferred, but given his form, looks set to join his contemporary sooner rather than later.

Brad Haddin, too, is surely finished: he is 34, has younger rivals who are both better batsmen and ‘keepers, and apparently wouldn’t recognise a Test match if it hit him in the head with a sock full of sand.

“Play your natural game” is the Australian mantra, backed by positive-thinking adherents like batting coach Langer. But if your natural game entails trying to play like Adam Gilchrist, you kind of need to be as good as Adam Gilchrist. Haddin’s mail goes to a different suburb.

No-one is settled at No. 6, after North was dumped and Stephen Smith deemed a failed experiment. Hughes, too, has a touch of the Norths: good at saving his career with a big score, then putting together a string of failures. The response to him could best be described as ‘unconvinced’.

At the bowling end, Johnson’s erratic form has dragged on so long that people in Ecuador chat quietly about it. (El Zurdo Tatuado, they call him.) The raw young talent never had his predicted flowering, and having just gone 30, pollen season is over. Another two years will see him awfully close to the fast-bowlers’ compost heap.

He could contribute until then, as he’s done of late, but he could also give that couple of years to bowlers who’ll be around in a decade’s time. Like a clever dog at a barbeque, he surely can’t be far from the chop.

Nathan Lyon looks a decent competitor, but asking him to learn on the job sufficiently to challenge India’s Three Tonners is a mighty request. The end of summer may see him collecting the damp shreds of his confidence to take home in Zip-Lock bags.

As for Peter Siddle, he could not have been better summed up than by my colleague Ben Pobjie: “a mighty trier who you’d love to have in your team, but would despair if he ends up being your best bowler.”

And it’s not just form, but health. Ryan Harris, generally Australia’s most dangerous flinger when he plays, can’t back up physically for the next contest. The bones in his knee grate on each other like an old married couple.

Six days to recover after Newlands, and he flew home with a hip problem. An admirable player, but it’s time to admit that Harris is done.

Shaun Marsh has been strong in a three-Test career, starting with a dream century, but back problems mean he can’t reliably make it through a match. Clarke has battled similar issues.

Shane Watson’s body, meanwhile, has more question marks hovering over it than the landscape in Super Mario World.

Watson is Australia’s most important player by a distance. Despite his failure to convert centuries, he has been dominant for over two years in an opening position at which most said he was doomed to fail.

We laughed, too, when he made the Honours board at Lord’s for his five wickets against Pakistan, but the fastest five-for in Test history against South Africa at home proved it was no anomaly. Watson’s bowling has become a weapon.

It’s just that, as with a guitar string pulled too tight, there is the feeling that something could twang at any minute, leaving the team having to desperately transpose their chords mid-song in order to avoid being bottled from the stage.

Mike Hussey is the only true reliable: his series against Sri Lanka read 95, 15, 142, 118, and 93; his Ashes included 195, 93, 52, 61 and 116.

But at 36, we can’t expect him to last more than another couple of years. It will not take more than a few failures before the pressure starts to build, self-inflicted or otherwise. Three poor scores in South Africa, and the get-in-early types are already starting to mutter.

Pending a few bad matches, the list of recent discards could soon read Katich, Hughes, Ponting, Smith, North, Haddin, Johnson, Harris, Siddle, and Lyon. Add an injury for Watson and Marsh, and the team taking the park will be fresher than that watermelon I put all the vodka in.

The likes of Khawaja, Pat Cummins, Trent Copeland, James Pattinson, Matthew Wade, Nick Maddinson and so on need to get their opportunities now. They need to be allowed to fail at Test level so they can learn how to succeed.

It’s time to come to terms with the fact that the team being groomed for the past couple of years has not worked out.

This doesn’t mean burn everything to the ground. But it does mean that it’s time to get games into the cricketers who will be representing us in five or ten years’ time. It’s time, like Richmond, to suck it up and start another rebuild.

It may not be appealing. But that way, there’s a chance that in another couple of years I’ll get to start enjoying my trips to the MCG again. That way, summer might come back to me. That way, it means maybe that won’t be a bottle of vodka in my pocket. Maybe I’ll just be happy to see you.

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