As Australia prepare to take on India in the first of three ODIs on Saturday, Patrick Noone looks at how the World Champions have stalled since their 2015 triumph.
When Steve Smith worked a ball off a good length from Matt Henry to the square leg boundary, the MCG erupted and Australia were crowned World Champions for the fifth time in their history. At that moment, the host nation were ahead of the curve in the 50-over format; despite the subsequent retirements of Brad Haddin, Mitchell Johnson and Michael Clarke, it felt as though they were leaving behind a young, vibrant side that had plenty of success ahead of them.
They had the big-hitting batsmen at the top of the order in Aaron Finch and David Warner – only losing finalists New Zealand recorded a faster run rate in the first ten overs in that tournament. The middle order engine room of Smith, Clarke, and Shane Watson kept things ticking over ahead of the mercurial all-round talents of Glenn Maxwell and James Faulkner. In Mitchell Starc, they possessed the best death bowler in the world while the future looked bright with the young talents of Mitchell Marsh and Pat Cummins, fringe players who nonetheless played their part on the way to the final, seemingly ready to step in to replace the outgoing old guard.
On the eve of the ODI series against India, things have not quite worked out the way they should have done. Australia have slipped to sixth in the ICC rankings, their lowest position at the start of a calendar year since 1984. Coincidentally, that was one of only four years since rankings were first recorded in 1981 that India started the year ahead of their opponents in the rankings.
It is a somewhat crude measure, with the ICC rankings far from a perfect indicator of a team’s performance, but it is one that illustrates Australia’s sharp decline in the 50-over format. And while Australia have stagnated since that triumphant night in Melbourne, other teams, including India, have overtaken them. The gap between the two sides in terms of ranking positions has never been more heavily in India’s favour at the start of a year and Virat Kohli’s side will be smelling blood ahead of the upcoming series.
Australia’s fall from grace in ODI cricket has been stark and brutal. In the 18 months up to and including the 2015 World Cup, Australia won 29 matches in the format; in nearly four years since winning the tournament, they’ve won 28. Of course, retirements to some key players did not help, but Australia’s efforts to replace them have too often been misjudged, ill-advised and polluted by a lack of clear thinking as to what the team should look like.
Faulkner, the man of the match in the World Cup final has fallen out of favour and not played an ODI for over a year. Maxwell, the batsman surely most suited to playing ODI cricket in the manner required to succeed in 2019, has been in and out of the side for reasons seldom relating to form and ability. Batsmen who have made their name in the Big Bash League such as D’Arcy Short, Chris Lynn and Travis Head have come into the side with mixed results, none able to truly nail down a spot in the starting XI for one reason or another.
Australia have played 63 matches since the World Cup, using 42 different players in that time. Four teams have fielded more players in that time – West Indies, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka – but all of those teams have played more matches than Australia, besides West Indies. And when you find yourself jostling for position with West Indies in the inconsistency stakes, it’s probably a sign that something isn’t quite right.
Ironically, despite all the changes in personnel, one of the fundamental problems for Australia’s batting has arguably been that they haven’t changed enough in terms of approach. That they have been left behind in the fast-moving world of limited overs cricket, persisting with a ‘brand’ of cricket that delivered positive results in 2015 but is no longer fit for purpose at the elite level in 2019.
Their approach to batting in the first ten overs is one that other teams have simply been able to replicate and carry off with greater success. In the span between the 2011 and 2015 World Cups, Australia attacked 34% of the balls they faced during that phase of the innings, while the average for all other teams was 31%. Since the 2015 World Cup, Australia have upped that figure slightly to 37%, but the difference now is that that matches the global average. The rest of the world has caught up and, as a result, Australia no longer retain the edge they once had.
Intent is one thing, but what has been more of a worry for Australia from a batting perspective is the frequency at which they’ve scored hundreds. While their overall run tallies have been reasonable – the average first innings winning score since the World Cup is 289; Australia have averaged 282 in the first innings in that time – their rate of individual centuries has plateaued while other countries’ has increased dramatically.
While Australia still rank in a healthy position in terms of their century rate since 2015, a feature of their batting that used to set them apart from many is no longer applicable. Between 2011 and 2015, only five sides including themselves could boast a century rate between 10 and 20 innings. Since then, five teams have increased their century rate to a greater degree than Australia and, as a result, they find themselves in a cluster of teams capable of scoring hundreds with similar regularity. It is not that Australia have become a bad team overnight, merely that they have been treading water while the chasing pack are leaving them in their wake.
While Australia rightly go into the India series as rank outsiders, they will welcome back the rested fast-bowling trio of Starc, Josh Hazlewood and Pat Cummins ahead of this year’s World Cup. There is also the small matter of the returns of Steve Smith and David Warner before that tournament. On the face of it, adding those five players will surely improve things but the post-World Cup malaise began while each of them were featuring regularly. It might have got worse in their absence, but the point is that their return does not represent a magic bullet that Australia can rely upon to guarantee success.
How much longer will the peculiar feeling of stasis around the team go on for? How heavily will they have to lose against India before someone recognises that a change of approach is required? It was an issue that England experienced after their miserable 2015 World Cup campaign; an insistence on playing the way they always had, falling behind as other teams blazed a trail past them. They have since reinvented themselves and become the leading lights in ODI cricket while Australia have found themselves sleepwalking towards similar World Cup ignominy. Only time will tell if they are capable of rousing themselves between now and next May.
Patrick Noone is an analyst at CricViz.