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Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Australia tumble from top, cricket rises from ashe

The jury is still out on whether England's superb Ashes victory will help revive Test cricket in the time of Twenty20, but Australia's tumble from the number one spot arguably heralds the most exciting phase in the history of the game.

Not since the 1960s when England, Australia, West Indies and South Africa looked to be on equal terms has the sport seemed as profuse in talent -- only now, it is far more competitive and infinitely richer in terms of money and texture of play. Better financial rewards have shaped a new, market-driven aggressive attitude that has facilitated greater expression of skill and ensured more results than draws.

A visibly chastened Ricky Ponting, while chomping on humble pie on Sunday, acknowledged that Australia's stranglehold over the game was virtually over and the field was now wide open. Australia have been acknowledged as world champions since 1993-94 and have held the number one position from the inception of the ICC rankings in 2003. The Oval defeat saw them fall to number 4, behind South Africa, Sri Lanka and India.

Yet, only six points separate the top side from the number four suggesting an exciting race for supremacy in the next 12 months. Of these four, India have the opportunity to take the number 1 position if they win a home series 2-0 against Sri Lanka this October. But to retain this position for some length of time, they must win the away series against South Africa late next year - and almost everything else in between - which should be great incentive for MS Dhoni and his team.

This entails maintaining superb form playing overseas and consistency overall. While Indian cricketers had traditionally been poor tourists, there is reason for optimism. The trend was bucked when Sourav Ganguly's team drew against Steve Waugh's side in 2003-4 and though the 2008 series was lost, the Indians succeeded in dismantling the aura of invincibility around the Australians. Since then, they have beaten Ponting's team at home and defeated New Zealand in New Zealand emphatically too.

In that context, Australia's fall from the top has been has not been such a surprise. In the last two years, out of 23 Tests, Ponting has won nine but also lost eight. In this period, he has also lost the services of four or five supremely gifted players. Compare this with 30 victories and just three defeats from the previous 38 Tests he captained, and the unhappy Aussie captain's plight is evident.

Happily for him, though, Ponting has the support of his board and selectors and retains his job, despite being only the second captain to lose two Ashes series. Australia's cricket ethos rarely allows a captain to remain in the team if he loses his job, so if he was sacked, Ponting would have probably retired. That would have meant losing one of the game's best batsmen still.

In the dilemma, the Australian administrators hope, also lies the redemption.

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