Australian cricket’s summer of content

Date: March 7, 2014 / Posted by Glenn Mitchell

Late on the fifth day of the Cape Town Test no doubt many Australian fans feared a repeat of Cardiff 2009 and Adelaide 2012.

From a position of power heading into the final day, as the hours and overs ebbed by the heartbreaking realization that all the hard work could still end in a draw would have been looming in the thoughts of Michael Clarke and his side.

In the end, a wounded and limping Ryan Harris wrapped up a famous victory by bowling both Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel in the fifth last over of the match to gift Australia a 245-run victory.

A draw would have been an unfair result for Australia as it dominated the match from the time it won the toss.

For the first time in five years, the Proteas lost a series.

Australia’s 2-1 triumph reprising the score line from the 2009 tour of the Republic, the last stime South Africa emerged on the losing side.

It has been a remarkable five months for Australian cricket.

Coming off successive away losses to India (4-0) and England (3-0) not even the most ardent Australian fan could have contemplated a 5-nil whitewash of England and an away series win against the world number one South Africans.

The criticism that was borne by the National Selection Panel last year now seems a distant memory.

Accolades must go to the captain and coach.

Clarke was a leader under pressure after the win drought in India and England.

He even said himself ahead of the home Ashes series that his tenure as skipper would not be guaranteed should his team fail to fire.

He bookended the eight-Test southern summer with superb centuries and he certainly rose to the fore when the outcome of this current series was in the balance in Cape Town with a superb 161 in his team’s first innings.

The ferocious spell that he weathered from Morne Morkel will become the stuff of legend and it sent a telling message to his team about the need to wear a few in the quest for the ultimate prize.

He continues to grow as a skipper and his ability to try the unexpected often reaps rewards.

The decision to sack Mickey Arthur just a few weeks out from last winter’s Ashes resulted in a chorus of discontent from many fans.

The issue was not so much Arthur’s removal but the fact that it occurred on the cusp of an Ashes campaign.

Whilst it did not result in an immediate turnaround in on-field performance there is no doubting that the appointment of Darren Lehmann as coach has had an immeasurable effect on the team.

From the outside it appears that the squad is a far happier one and Lehmann must take much of the credit for that.

He can be stern and forthright when needed but he also has the ability to lighten the mood when required as well.

The two driving forces in the middle during the twin series this summer have clearly been Mitchell Johnson and David Warner.

Johnson has been nothing short of superb.

He has remodelled himself into a ferociously effective strike bowler.

His intimidatory manner got inside the heads of both opponents this summer.

His eight-Test haul of 59 wickets at 15.2 was a period of sustained brilliance few in the history of the sport have emulated.

His new found control allowed Clarke to go to him with confidence no matter the situation.

Warner was a man on the outer at the start of last winter’s Ashes campaign with his exile totally of his own making.

To his credit he came back a stronger man mentally and an infinitely better batsman.

He capped his summer with twin hundreds in the deciding Test at Newland, securing him both man-of-the match and series honours with 543 runs at 90.5 allied to an opponent-demoralising strike rate of 87.

With the Ashes thrown in his summer produced five centuries, four half centuries and 1066 runs at 71.1.

He has gone from a hit-and-miss player to one who has learned to successfully meld defence and attack which he couples in such a way that opposing captains are on the back foot early in every innings.

Another player to emerge as a genuine long-term prospect is Steve Smith, who at 24, whose eight Tests this summer netted three centuries and 596 runs at 49.7.

Johnson’s principal partner in crime, Ryan Harris may have started the South Africa series slowly but when it truly mattered he once again pushed his body through the pain threshold to produce match figures of 46.3-24-95-7.

His ability to play through considerable discomfort has surely provided a valuable and informative lesson to the likes of James Pattinson and Jackson Bird who got to witness it firsthand.

Harris goes under the knife on Tuesday in an effort to rectify the ongoing problem with his right knee.

Rising 35, it can only be hoped that he has at least one more summer left him for he and Australian cricket both deserve it given his injury-riddled 24-Test career has produced 103 wickets at 22.6.

Australia has had a stellar summer and the upward trend in performance has been steep and sustained.

The world number one ranking, which seemed a pipedream just five months ago, now has a far more realistic look to it.

There are still, however, issues to be resolved.

While the depth in the pace bowling stocks augur well there are still batting positions that need bedding down, namely at three and six.

And as solid as he has been through his last 13 Tests at the top of the order, the sunset is rapidly approaching for the doughty Chris Rogers.

Once again the last day at Cape Town underlined the lack of a quality wrist-spinner.

It is reasonable to expect that the fast-tracking of 20-year-old James Muirhead may be even further expedited.

But all those issues are for the future.

For now, let’s bask in a job incredibly well done.

The phoenix has risen from the ashes.

Time will tell now just how high it will soar.

First published on The Roar – theroar.com.au – on 6 March 2014