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Ashes Game 3 & 4: The End of an Era

Following a humiliating defeat at Trent Bridge, captain Clarke farewells the game and Australia is forced to take stock.

Sitting here within the comfy walls of retrospect, where the windows always seem much clearer, you could see it coming.

Just like England had done in their famous white wash series loss on Australian soil just 18 months earlier, Australia, high on confidence from a victorious One Day World Cup campaign, took an ageing team of players in the twilight of their career for one last hurrah trip to the other side of the world.

And much like the England team of 18 months previous, they were heavily punished for it. “Embarrassing” seems to be the only term suitable to describe the Australians’ devastating capitulations in the Edgbaston and Trent Bridge games, as a squad that only months earlier had been hailed as champions of the world, were being jeered by their own countrymen in pubs and lounge rooms everywhere, mocking the fact that they had managed to make it to 20, 30, 40, 50 without wicket. It was a sad moment to witness, as collectively a proud cricketing nation threw its hands up, devastated by yet another batting collapse at the hands of Stuart Broad, who although will be credited with one of the greatest spells in history, in reality took the majority of his wickets with the exact same, very playable delivery, as arrogant or lazy shot selection did the hard work for him. Not to take anything away from England. Their performance in this series, bar the Lords test, was first class. They played aggressively, bowled to team plans, batted to suit the conditions, and were captained strongly by Alistair Cook, who despite having modest success with the bat, proved to be the bolder of the two team leaders.

But it’s impossible to acknowledge that this is anything but the end of an era for Australian cricket. The captain, Michael Clarke, has tended his resignation / retirement, deflated after what must have been one of the most hellish periods in his life and his career. Although he’ll leave on a low note, he will forever be held in esteem for a dazzling playing style, his aggressive attitude to captaincy, and for guiding Australian cricket with grace and poise through its darkest days following the death of Phillip Hughes.

It’s also most likely the end for a number of other key players’ careers from this generation. Brad Haddin is unlikely to return to the test team, after being left out of succeeding games in favour of incumbent Peter Nevill. Many will see his exit as a moment of disrespect from selectors, after he was originally omitted for compassionate leave due to the ill health of his daughter. Objectively, however, he was another ageing star out of form with a big question mark over his head when he made the trip, and surely was considering this campaign as being his last.

Ryan Harris sadly had to pull the plug without ever having the chance to bowl a ball. His absence in the series was obvious, and the loss of his consistency as arguably the best bowler in the world of the last two years, will be a noticeable loss for years to come.

Adam Voges, Shane Watson and Peter Siddle (who is yet to play a game) should never have been picked. This was major error in judgement on behalf of the selectors, wasting the opportunity to blood three younger players in favour of the conservative rout of siding with maturity.

Even Mitchell Johnson must be questioning his future. Aside from one searing session of pace at Lords, he’s again fallen short of huge expectation and reputation for being the most feared paceman on the planet. At 33 there are only a couple of years remaining in his innings, and another English tour is unlikely.

And at the head of it all Darren Lehmann too must be feeling like he’s under the microscope. In the past his “one of the boys” approach has served him well, and was the right style of coaching to lead Australia to the 2013 white wash. But that same approach has seemingly left him without the leadership necessary to drive the team out of turmoil in this series, and he alongside Clarke has suffered the brunt of the backlash of the defeat – particularly on social media.

It’s also the end of the superhero period of Steve Smith’s batting career. After playing like he was invincible for 12 months, he failed to reach double figures in the four innings following his Lords triumph, as England became the first team in a long time to contain the master blaster. Considering he is assured the captain’s badge now must be somewhat of a concern with his current lack of form. The two weights will be a heavy load on his shoulders and it will be interesting to see how he handles the next stage of his career.

So now, with one dead rubber remaining, the country is looking to the future. And the horizon does look bright. After all while the senior squad was buckling at the knees under overcast English skies, a world away a diverse cast of talent was pulling off a remarkable achievement.

Led by Usman Khawaja, the Australia A team triumphed over their Indian counterparts in their recent, two-game series. After a draw in the first game, they obliterated their opposition by 10 wickets in the second to take the series 1-0 – no mean feat on subcontinent soil. Pat Cummins, Joe Burns, Ashton Agar, Khawaja the captain, all players with limited test experience, all stood strong in trying Indian conditions. It feels like time that these players on the fringes deserve their opportunity in the spotlight. But with the fresh smell of starch still in their Baggy Greens, they’ll require time and patience to find their place in the top squad.

However, the most fascinating element of the Australian victory at the MA Chidambaram Stadium in Chennai was the significant contribution of Gurinder Sandhu. The 22 year old New South Wales paceman took three wickets in 10 balls to tear through the opposition tail during their second innings at Chennai, taking a total of 4-76. What made this haul so interesting, however, is that he achieved it bowling off spin, not pace. Although he has acted with modesty about the feat, suggesting he will stick more with pace in the future, and no-one is suggesting he is a rival to the excellent Nathan Lyon, his example shines as a beacon of the future of Australian cricket.

The ingenuity of his bowling approach signifies a generational change of player that is willing to take more of a risk on the field. Attitudes towards batting have gradually loosened in the last decade, as purists tied to tradition have been forced to acknowledge the role of reverse sweeps and cross bat shots as a legitimate tool in a player’s arsenal. Steve Smith is the perfect example of that – his ability to unleash unconventional shots seemingly as natural as his ability to drive and cut, significant to his rise to the top of the world batting ranks. But diversification of bowling actions and style has been a slower evolution, and performances like Sandhu’s could signify the next great revolution in cricket. The game’s closest sporting counterpart, baseball, has seen players utilise their ambidextrous abilities and complicated knuckleball techniques for decades in the pursuit of outsmarting their opposition. One day we may see cricketers bowling with both arms, or trading in pace for spin to match the pitch and conditions. It’s an exciting prospect and one many would hopefully support in adding a string to the game’s entertainment bow.

But before that day comes, there’s still the immediate future, and that one last pesky dead rubber at The Oval. It will be Michael Clarke’s swan song, as well as the final stand for a number of others. It will also be the final chapter in a significant and controversial era for the Australian team, and the prologue to one of the most unpredictable periods in its history.

Previously: Game 2 – Tides Will Turn