Cricket: Hands rubbed with glee as empire looks crumbly

By Dylan Cleaver

Right about now, Ricky Ponting is learning to spell schadenfreude. If that remains beyond him, he should at least get used to the term.

The cricket world is taking perverse pleasure in the apparent crumbling of a cricket empire _ everybody loves seeing the playground bully's glass jaw exposed.

The reason is simply this: where once there was grudging, yet tremendous admiration for the Australian juggernaut, now there is contempt.

Where Australia was bold and innovative under Mark Taylor and, to a lesser extent, Steve Waugh, they're now crass and stubborn. Take the level head of Michael Hussey out of this team and they're close to unlovable.

They play the game on the edge of reason, a place they could occupy with comfort when they had the transcendent brilliance of Shane Warne and Adam Gilchrist, plus the clinical excellence of Glenn McGrath, in their line-up.

Now they behave the same way but when it's the distinctly average talents of Shane Watson and Mitchell Johnson doing the sledging and snarling, it looks like ridiculous puffery. Johnson's

attempts to verbal the always classy VVS Laxman would have qualified for Comedy Series of the Year if it wasn't so sad.

What India have done so cruelly is to make it okay to hate this side because they no longer have the juvenile `you're-just-jealous' defence.

Sure, New Zealand might still be a sprat alongside their hammered-heads but the rest of the cricket world no longer has anything to fear, particularly when Brett Lee, their one remaining world-class bowler, is as off-colour as he was in the subcontinent.

You suspect they will still be too good for a New Zealand batting line-up that can count six test centuries in its lineup _ three of them against either Bangladesh or Zimbabwe _ but there is no avoiding the fact Australia is a declining force with the ball.

But that is not all. If you are to believe everything you have heard from astute, and not so astute, commentators over the past month, you would conclude that:

Australia are old; Australia do not have a spinner; Australia is led by a man who is losing his grip on the team; Australia is in such bad shape they've rushed back a reprobate who'd rather be baiting hooks than baiting the opposition; Australia's spearhead is washed up and the rest of the attack isn't much good.

Throw an overweight Queensland right-hander into their middle order and this is like Australia of the mid-'80s.

The amazing thing is most of those theories come from their own press and former players. Without the protection of Channel Nine, who long ago eschewed

serious analysis for cheerleading everything baggy green, Ponting's underbelly was exposed.

There's something almost cannibalistic about the way Ponting has been turned upon by his `own'. It is a blood sport, a shark hunt and it's other sharks who are doing the hunting.

"The first question you've got to ask is: how the hell can he keep making the same mistake? He has been in that position previously in this series; he has been fined and he has been warned about the slow overs but here we are again," said former captain Ian Chappell after the over-rate debacle saw Ponting bowl part-timer Hussey and fail to press home an advantage in the fourth afternoon of the final test in India.

Another former captain, Allan Border, damned Ponting by what he didn't say.

"I don't know what to make of all this. They go into the tea break on a high and come out worrying about over-rates... I am glad Ricky can't read my mind right now because he is not going to like it."

Steve Waugh had a comparatively minor pop over the same

issue but Jeff Thomson was in less charitable mood, sending down the umpteenth bouncer of his career.

"I always thought he was an ordinary captain and this proves it. His captaincy calculator isn't that brilliant, is it?"

Ponting, to his credit, fronted his detractors on his return.

"To tell you the truth, I'm a

little bit disappointed with some of the criticism, particularly from former Australian captains and CA [Cricket Australia] board members," he said, offering explanations that, while not hollow, were not fully convincing.

It is into this maelstrom that Daniel Vettori and his men walk.

They have a difficult but unique opportunity.

If they can somehow sneak a victory, given the opprobrium that has already been heaped on the Tasmanian, they will almost certainly be able to say they brought down an Australian captain.

- Herald on Sunday

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