Rolling out of bed the other morning after a leisurely Saturday lie in, I turned on the TV expecting to see a good couple of hours of cricket. Instead, BT Sport was screening a documentary about Pele. Checking the internet to see what had happened, I was shocked to find Australia had already been bowled out for 91 to lose the first Test to India by an innings and then some.
Leaving aside for a moment the arguments about doctored pitches and favourable home conditions, this is a shocking defeat for a side that a few weeks ago were being hailed as statistically the best side in Australian history.
The problem is that Pat Cummins’ Australia team have never truly been tested. Yes, they have an outstanding record of P14 W9 D4 L1 before this series but take a look at who they have played in that time. Pretty much any Australian side in history could have beaten England’ sorry tourists in 2021/22. A 1-0 series win in Pakistan sounds impressive, and Cummins’ men do deserve credit for their performances on that tour, but it fades when one considers that Pakistan have not won a single Test match at home since opposition sides started visiting the country again last year. Ben Stokes’ England achieved a 3-0 whitewash a few months after Australia’s visit as well.
A drawn series in Sri Lanka showed some of the frailties against spin that Ravi Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja so ruthlessly exposed again last week. As for the home Australian summer, surely the West Indian and South African tourists that the home side encountered must be the poorest ever to be sent down under by those two proud cricketing nations. Australia’s batsmen and bowlers have grown greedy on easy pickings, bloating their statistics against, at times, embarrassingly weak opposition.
The problem with this is that when they then come up against truly world-class opposition in hostile and challenging conditions they are simply unprepared for the battle. No tour in cricket at the moment is harder than a trip to India, with their array of world class players and, shall we say, “creative” pitch preparation. Australia will have to improve fast if they are to compete in a series that Steve Smith labelled bigger than the Ashes.
For Cummins’ men the problems extend beyond the pitch as well. This current Australian team have an image problem as well. For whatever reason the crowds are simply staying away. Even the T20 World Cup saw swathes of empty seats for the home team’s matches, while the recent Test summer has been played out, in part, to near empty stadiums.
The Australian media has put forward several reasons for this, the most significant one being the player power coup that ousted hugely popular head coach Justin Langer back in 2021. Langer had worked hard to restore the team’s reputation after Sandpapergate and yet was shocked not to be offered a long term extension to his contract after several players allegedly went behind his back to Cricket Australia to complain about his “intense” methods. For a figure widely beloved by the Australian public since his playing days to be treated in this way has left a sour taste in the mouth of many fans and, rightly or wrongly, has created an image of this current team as a thin skinned group who can’t take criticism.
There is also the feeling amongst many that the true story of Sandpapergate itself has yet to be revealed. Fast bowlers cherish the ball like a new-born baby, even an extra speck of dust on it would draw their attention. It seems almost inconceivable that a group of bowlers as experienced as Australia’s attack on that fateful day in Cape Town would have been completely unaware of what was being done to the ball. The idea that certain members of the team may have been sacrificed to the media to protect the rest of the group is so very un-Australian. It flies in the face of the Aussie ideal of sticking up for your mates no matter what.
Cummins himself is not universally popular either, which is a surprise considering in cricketing terms at least, he is one of Australia’s finest ever bowlers. He is perceived to have had the leading role in the ousting of Langer and, as part of the fast bowling group, is still sullied by the memory of Cape Town. He has also used his platform as Australian captain to campaign regularly about climate change, which sounds harmless enough but the public’s tolerance for political statements from sports people has certainly gone down in recent years. In Cummins case, it is also not helped by accusations of hypocrisy around his use of private jets and a gas-guzzling SUV. He has even been christened “Captain Carbon” and “Captain Woke” in some corners.
All of this has created a perfect storm in which much of the Australian public has not only fallen out of love with their men’s cricket team but also, and this is worse, lost interest in them. It is a shame that this incredibly talented group of Australian cricketers is not appreciated by their fans but perhaps they simply need to prove themselves on the field against the best and then the other issues will be forgotten.
A comeback victory in India looks improbable but it is worth remembering that India were bowled out for 36 in the first Test of their last tour of Australia and still came back to win the series so anything is possible. There is also still the chance of an all-time classic Ashes series this summer. Winning in England for the first time in 22 years might just be enough for Pat Cummins’ men to be considered a truly great Australian side rather than one which was just lucky enough to play against a lot of very poor opponents.