Just a week earlier, Darren Lehmann had expressed his desire to steer Australia back to the sport’s pinnacle in all three formats. Delivered with a matter-of-fact honesty, Lehmann set the ceiling as high as possible.
Clarke’s comments were, of course, the sort you’d expect publicly from any international captain ahead of a series. Lehmann’s were, well, different. The country’s Ashes demolition noted, it remained easy to perceive the coach’s declaration as both idealistic and naive, given that his team had been in a state of despair just a handful of months prior. Weren’t we inclined to think that Australia’s throwback leader was getting ahead of himself? That one series win doesn’t automatically translate into global dominance?
Yet, our inclination wavered. Lehmann’s tendency to dispose of blanket and neutral answers gave the statement a distinctly different edge. In the aftermath of a brutal annihilation of England, there was a conviction to Lehmann’s words that – mirrored by Clarke only days later – signalled dire news for Australia’s rivals: This wasn’t a goal. It was an expectation.
So incensed by their own mediocrity for much of 2013, Australia’s recapture of the bloody-mindedness that had powered them so famously a decade ago had been suddenly born out of the team’s desire to seek retribution on their own previous malaise as much as any damage inflicted by the likes of India and England.
Much in the way former coach John Buchanan had challenged the Australian side to uncap its potential in 1999, Lehmann and Clarke had instilled a new mantra in their side that, formed out of vengeance, would not allow for compromise on any level or in any format.
The results have been profound. Australia have won 16 of their last 18 matches in all formats, claiming five consecutive series victories in the process. England were flattened and then spat on. South Africa mustered more resistance but suffered the same fate. Scarily, of those 16 triumphs, 12 have been by five or more wickets, or 100-plus runs.
Make no mistake, this is an outfit currently set on bulldozer mode.
Thus, the nation’s impending ICC World Twenty20 campaign bookmarks the beginning of Australia’s charge towards limited-overs dominance, with the 2015 World Cup on home soil representing a potential crowning point for Lehmann’s team.
There’s also an ominous template being followed by this Australian outfit. An unbridled aggression has been rediscovered; the batsmen are again cavalier, the side owns a brutality in the field once more. If ever there’s a definitive indication of the Australian cricket team hitting its stride, it’s the regular airing of complaints from opposing players regarding the side’s on-field demeanour and intimidatory tactics. And we’re currently hearing plenty.
Australia are again the bullies of world cricket. Michael Clarke’s threatening of James Anderson in Brisbane signalled the return of that intent. Mitchell Johnson’s savage dismemberment of the England team thereafter – including an array of fiery send-offs – further ingrained that approach. When Brad Haddin led the team in “woofing” at Faf du Plessis on the final day in Cape Town, it was as if we were looking at an Australian team of yesteryear.
Of course, that’s not to argue that Australia’s approach is a savoury one. But the moral and ethical arguments regarding the team’s persona are better served for another column. Here, it’s impossible to refute the effectiveness of Australia’s recaptured cricketing identity.
From a purely performance level, there are also further menacing warnings for Australia’s rivals. While names such Warne, McGrath, Ponting, Gilchrist, Waugh and Hayden were the symbols of the country’s all-conquering dominance at the turn of the century, the defining trait of the nation’s success was the depth in talent that laid behind those men. Australia simply had more to call upon than their rivals.
Brett Lee emerged to destroy India on debut. Damien Martyn overcame a six-year exile to shine on tours to the subcontinent. Andrew Symonds, Andy Bichel and Brad Hogg shone in 2003 World Cup when injuries and Warne’s suspension threatened to derail Australia’s charge. Michael Hussey, Brad Hodge and Lehmann himself, all averaged 45 or more in their stunted Test careers after years of excelling on the domestic scene.
That sense of an infinite resource pool isn’t completely back – but it’s getting close. Shaun Marsh and Alex Doolan stepped in from obscurity to power Australia to a commanding victory at Centurion. When Peter Siddle showed signs of slowing down in Port Elizabeth, he was replaced by a hostile James Pattinson who claimed four wickets.
In the limited-overs arena, Aaron Finch has shrugged aside misconceptions of his game to become a thunderous figure at the top of the team’s order. Twenty-three-year-old James Faulkner is now one of the world’s leading all-rounders. No one hits their runs faster than Glenn Maxwell. The unfortunate news of Johnson’s injury will be tempered by the return of Mitchell Starc – the owner of a sublime limited-overs record. Even the T20 captain George Bailey was once considered a journeyman of Australian cricket, yet now stands as one of the best one-day batsmen in the world.
Australia’s opponents will be acutely aware of the proposition this team currently poses. The ingredients that made the nation a powerhouse are again being blended.
So while there are a handful of other potential storylines at the World T20, such as Sri Lanka finally overcoming the last hurdle to grab their first title, or MS Dhoni and India sticking it up their recent critics, or South Africa finally shaking the “choker” tag, or Pakistan finally harnessing their potential, know that it’s all irrelevant if Australia continue on their current trajectory. This is a team ready to crush everything in its path. No other storyline really matters.
A quick look at the side’s batting stocks will send tremors through the competition. Finch, Warner, Watson, White, Bailey, Hodge, Maxwell, Haddin and Faulkner combine to form the most explosive order in the tournament. While Australia’s critics will point to a lack of spinning options, the same problem did little to halt the nation’s assault on the 2003 and 2007 World Cups.
More importantly, the attitude and swagger that once unnerved even the finest of the world’s players is back in abundance. The intangible qualities that have separated Australia from others in previous eras are being ominously exuded.
It all points to an emphatic performance being prepared. Suddenly, the intent behind Lehmann’s words in January is profoundly clear. The vision he set out, the expectations that were outlined, are being embodied by his relentless outfit.
Having risen to the forefront of the game in recent months, Australia are ready to go even further, ready to take all before them.