ICC World Cup 2019: Is the new-look Australian side fully equipped to fight for glory again?
The month of March in the year 2018 marked the beginning of a phase of uncertainty, struggle, failure and criticism for the Australian Test side. Steve Smith, David Warner and Cameron Bancroft's varying levels of involvement in the ‘sandpaper gate' scandal transformed the national side's image from a formidable world-class unit to a group of men resorting to tactics that are unbecoming of professional athletes.
The suspension of Smith and Warner from international cricket for a period of 12 months pushed the team into one catastrophe after another. The newly appointed captain Tim Paine was roped in midway through the third Test against South Africa and had a huge mountain to climb, trying to fit in Smith's shoes. It was no surprise that Australia struggled to put up convincing performances for a long while.
When the teary-eyed Smith faced up to journalists and expressed his heartfelt contrition, every cricket fanatic was caught in a moral dilemma between advocacy of fair-play and support of the accused.
The Australian team has transitioned over the period of one year since the scandal, and the period can be thought of as a tale of two halves.
A phase in the wilderness
After losing the third Test by a whopping 322 runs, the subsequent loss in the fourth Test not only sealed the trophy for the South Africans but also seemingly crushed their opponents' morale beyond repair. How often does one associate a 492-run loss with the Australian team?
In their next away Test series against Pakistan, Australia lost the two-match series 1-0. They were subjected to an almighty drubbing in the second Test, which culminated in a 373-run victory for the home side.
To add insult to injury (misery in this case), the Indian team managed to capture the fortress in the Aussie backyard by defeating them 2-1 in the Border Gavaskar Trophy 2018-19. Pat Cummins was the only Australian player with a performance worth remembering.
In the limited overs format too, the Aussies just couldn't catch a breather after the scandal. England walked all over their collective bowling and batting efforts, resulting in an unprecedented clean sweep. The English batsmen made the Australian bowlers toil particularly hard in the third ODI, which saw the home side scoring the highest ever team total in the ODI format of the game.
But the losses to India and South Africa possibly gave the Australian team some positives to build on, and fathom about a new lease on life. They were now in the nascent stages of finding their feet, and more importantly the perfect team balance.
A resurgent Australian team shows sparks of collective brilliance
The year 2019 might just be the year of the Aussies. A string of good individual performances in the Wane-Muralitharan Test series at home against Sri Lanka gave them a bit of confidence.
Things got better after that, as they won the ODI series in India 3-2. Winning three consecutive matches on the trot and scripting a remarkable comeback against the Virat Kohli led side is not so commonplace, is it?
If that victory against the Men in Blue left some of us unconvinced, the 5-0 thumping of Pakistan in UAE would have definitely sent the bells tolling.
Players like Usman Khwaja, Peter Handscomb, Ashton Turner and Aaron Finch, in the company of the young brigade of fast bowlers like Jhye Richardson and Jason Behrendorff, now seem ready to give the other competing sides at the World Cup 2019 a run for their money.
How many people out there still believe that they would have to go out on a limb to repose their faith in the rejuvenated Australian squad? The signs are pretty clear now.