‘Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone, prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone; silence the pianos and with muffled drum, bring out the coffin, this Ashes is done.’
W.H. Auden’s famed poem ‘Funeral Blues’ seems an apt way to bring to a close one of the most engrossing, thrilling, and boorish men’s Ashes series ever.
Now that I can finally think clearly, having been deprived of sleep and reason across six pulsating weeks of glorious cricket and tribalist nonsense, I can also attempt to answer a question that was raised before the first ball was bowled.
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In the lead in to the Ashes, there was much talk of this being an ‘era defining’ tour, in which an experienced Australian men’s team hoped to enshrine its legacy forever.
The core of this team, picked consistently as a unit since 2016, features Steve Smith, David Warner, Usman Khawaja, Marnus Labuschagne, Nathan Lyon, Josh Hazlewood, Mitchell Starc and Pat Cummins.
There have also been peripheral yet important contributions from Tim Paine, Alex Carey, Matthew Renshaw, Peter Handscomb, Cameron Bancroft, Marcus Harris, Mitchell Marsh, Travis Head, Cam Green, and Scott Boland.
While there has been no mass exodus of retirements just yet, there is no doubt with an average age pushing well into the mid-30s, the time is closing on this team’s long summer.
So, will the 2016-2023 Australian side go down as an all-time great?
Their Test record is certainly nothing to sniffle at. Since the summer of 2015/16, the team has won 43 Tests, lost 23 and drawn 16, equating to a winning percentage of 52%. Highlights include two Ashes wins, an away win in Pakistan, a World Test Championship, and countless thumpings at home (not to mention a T20 World Cup win in 2021).
And yet, Ian Higgins’ labelling of them as an ‘almost team’ feels fair. There has been no definable series win it can hang its hat on. It twice lost gallantly in India, but was far less impressive in losing twice more to them at home. The 2019 and 2023 Ashes series in England were drawn after giving up winning positions. Indeed, outside the Pakistan victory, one cannot overlook its poor away record. It suffered a devastating 3-1 loss to South Africa in 2017, a 3-0 drubbing at the hands of Sri Lanka in 2016, and a drawn 1-1 series against Bangladesh in 2017.
The team’s legacy has also suffered from an image problem. Sandpapergate, the exiting of Justin Langer as coach, campaigning on a range of progressive social and political issues, pragmatic approaches to training and playing, unconventionally defensive tactics, and a generally affable relationship with the opposition has led to accusations of the team being ‘soft’, ‘entitled’ and ‘un-Australian’.
Such barbs hurt all the more when they came from ex-players, many of whom were the childhood heroes of the current team. Joining a chorus of attacks from Steve Waugh, Adam Gilchrist, Damien Martyn, Shane Warne, and Matthew Hayden, Mitchell Johnson called Cummins and the team ‘gutless’ for failing to support Langer’s retention as coach.
Former wicketkeeper Ian Healy, meanwhile, blamed low one-day international crowds not on poor scheduling or promotion but on the team not winning ‘hard enough.’ Huh?
The ridiculousness of such statements reveals that perhaps the team’s contested legacy has as much to do with us, as it does with the team itself.
Cricketing pundits, me included, continue to assess its on field record in the long shadows of their fathers and sisters. Having followed the 15-year reign of the men’s ‘golden generation’ and played alongside the current women’s ‘golden generation’, Australians have been conditioned to think that winning every Test match is a reasonable expectation.
The Smith-Paine-Cummins era, however, is a comparatively successful one. Their combined 52% winning record is below Ricky Ponting’s 62% and Steve Waugh’s 72%, but equal with Mark Taylor’s 52% and above Michael Clarke’s 51%, Allan Border’s 34%, and Ian Chappell’s 50%. The reality is that international cricket is highly competitive, and winning a difficult prospect, especially away from home.
The team’s image problem as ‘soft’ is also misplaced. Outside Warner, the traditionally ‘hard’ Australian playing philosophy, which essentially translates to ‘be an obnoxious prick to your opposition’, simply does not align with the temperament of the current team. While highly competitive, the documentary The Test, which delves into the behind-the-scenes life of the team, reveals many of the players to be irreverent, polite, professional and thoughtful by nature.
One could make the argument their earlier attempts to play with the ‘headbutting the line’ style of their predecessors ended in them rubbing sandpaper on the ball when they realised they did not have the same depth of talent to back up their forced snarls.
The current team can take solace that the golden generation’s dismissiveness is less about their own failures and more about the cyclical pattern of authoritarian parenting that has existed in Australian cricket since time immemorial.
Few recall that Waugh’s now celebrated team was regularly lashed by their own forefathers: “Sam Loxton, Ian Meckiff, Lindsay Kline and Alan Davidson all indicated they were disgusted with the way this team carries on”, Neil Harvey said in 2001, “They are a good team but they’re not the greatest ever. They haven’t beaten much.”
Cricket Australia may have some form of inter-generational trauma born out of consistently asking the young: ‘think you’re better than your old man, do yah?’
When this band of current players breaks apart, they will not ascend to the top tier of Australian cricketing glory. Their achievements will be acknowledged, without being preserved in amber gold.
But they are a team who has played with skill, grace (since Sandpapergate) and dare I say loyalty to the Baggy Green when far greater riches may have understandably tempted them elsewhere. If nothing else, they have become true to themselves, to their own nature and values, and for that they deserve our respect.