Australia's chances of retaining the World Cup have shrunk. Their aura of invincibility has been broken. It was a precious asset. The five defeats suffered in the last fortnight have been caused by a combination of poor thinking and slipshod cricket. On this form Ricky Ponting's side will be lucky to reach the final. Certainly the recent losses have been welcomed by every opponent. Phone lines from New Zealand and India have been running hot. Suddenly the Australians look vulnerable. Rival teams have been waiting a long time for this day to dawn. They will not miss their chance.
And the Australians have only themselves to blame. Although injuries have hardly helped, and Andrew Symonds loss was a body blow, the local think tank has also lost the plot. Not so long ago England was chastised for treating the Champions Trophy as a plaything. Apart from the insult to other teams, it was an error of judgement that made defeat in the Ashes almost inevitable. Winning is a habit, and the same applies to losing. England did not recover or even select approximately its strongest side till the Ashes had long since lost. Once it has taken hold, poverty of thought is as difficult to remove a merlot stain.
Alas the Australians have made the same mistake as the Poms. Far from concentrating on matters in hand, such as the Tri-series and the Chappell-Hadlee Trophy, they have focused on preparing for the World Cup. John Buchanan publicly stated that training has been organised with the Caribbean in mind. Again the result has been predictable. Ponting's distracted outfit was walloped in the finals of the triangular event it was hosting and a weakened side has been trounced in New Zealand. Australia has had its comeuppance.
It was avoidable.The first bad sign was Buchanan's complaint about the feebleness of the opposition. It is seldom wise to tempt fate. Likewise the resting of senior players was botched. Giving players a smoko before a long World Cup campaign was not a bad idea. Ricky Ponting and Adam Gilchrist had been working hard, and the faster bowlers had been toiling away for months. Anyone playing regularly in both forms of the game was entitled to feel jaded. Moreover long unbeaten runs create a tension of their own.
But even the most intelligent action can be ruined by poor timing. Having reached the finals of the triangular with several matches left to play, the Australians had a wonderful chance to send important players away. They could have returned as fresh as mint and ready to play in the matches before the finals, and afterwards go to New Zealand to represent the country. But the opening was missed, and the reason was simple. Australia dared not rest established cricketers from contests played at home for fear of the outcry. Last year Ricky Ponting was given a brief break whereupon shutterbugs were sent to record his every step. When Gilchrist missed a match in Adelaide the more pitiful locals were in uproar.
Instead the withdrawals were delayed. As a result, Australia stumbled into the finals, England arrived in high spirits and deservedly took the title. Next the Australians sent a weak team to defend the Chappell-Hadlee Trophy thereby insulting an ally and respected opponent. It is unacceptable to send anything except the strongest possible side on an overseas tour. Representing the country on foreign soil counts amongst the game's greatest honours. Nor is it right to take any international tournament lightly.
Unsurprisingly Australia has played poorly in New Zealand. Certainly the Kiwis have played exceptionally well ( its not altogether an upset because they looked the strongest team in the triseries but kept running out of puff). Admittedly, Brad Hodge, Brad Haddin, Cameron White and especially Michael Hussey impressed in Auckland, whilst Glenn McGrath and Shane Watson bowled admirably. But the rest has been ropey. The fielding has been leaden. Phil Jaques is inept, Nathan Bracken and Shaun Tait cannot throw, White is a slowcoach and McGrath's bones creak. The bowling has been erratic. Bracken lacks hostility, Tait sends down too much leg-side rubbish, Brad Hogg has hardly beaten the bat in five outings and was lucky to secure a place in the World Cup squad and White is bowling pies. Hussey's field placements have been dubious but inaccurate bowling can make even an experienced tactician look foolish.
Worse, the side has lacked urgency. Changes can hardly be avoided. When Ponting and Michael Clarke return, Australia must consider promoting Hussey, playing Haddin as a batsman and dropping the specialist spinner. It might not make much difference. World Cups are usually won by sides on the rise.