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Last Updated: Wednesday, 14 September 2005, 06:58 GMT 07:58 UK
What now for Australia?
By Scott Heinrich

Australia travelled to England not just as the top-ranked cricket team in the world, but with an air of invincibility.

It had preyed on English minds for the best part of two decades, becoming as much imagined as real as Australia's Ashes domination wore on.

Captain Ricky Ponting (left) and coach John Buchanan (right)
Ricky Ponting (left) and John Buchanan (right) will face most of the criticism

They still leave as the number one team, according to the International Cricket Council rankings, but with their bubble of indestructibility burst open.

This was a series in which Australia failed to get many things right, but stayed in it until the very final day because of their fighting spirit.

If this is not the end of an era, it is the beginning of the end.

Australia are an old team, but it would do an injustice to England to say that the sands of time cost Australia a ninth successive series win.

Australia did not embark on their Ashes defence in declining form. This was not a case of old-timers surrendering the urn, more it was ripped from their grasp by an England team for whom destiny beckoned.

It is hard to say what the future holds for Australia, except that a West Indies-style capitulation will not happen. The game there is run far too professionally.

Australia's reaction ahead of October's Super Series will be interesting, though we are unlikely to see an overhaul of personnel.

Trevor Hohns and his fellow selectors were criticised in England for being slow and reactive, for not spotting the distress signs of Jason Gillespie earlier or of others at all.

In fairness, Australia haven't got to where they are by being fickle.

Senior players like Gillespie, Matthew Hayden, Damien Martyn and Adam Gilchrist have been critical to their team's success over the years, but also responsible for their demise on this tour.

Jason Gillespie
Jason Gillespie's poor form weakened Australia's bowling attack

The problem Australia have is that most players next in line - bowlers, batsmen and wicket-keeper - are nearing, or over, 30 and have little or no international experience.

The unlocking of Gilchrist, primarily by Andrew Flintoff bowling around the wicket, was a major breakthrough for England.

Gilchrist's ability over the years has been to kick teams when they are down or rescue his own from peril with explosive batting.

His failure with the bat highlighted, damningly for Australia, how crucial he is to the team as their wicket-keeping all-rounder.

Australia will look back to the first morning of the second Test, when they led the series 1-0, and nominate Glenn McGrath's freak ankle injury as the turning point of the series.

They might also view Ricky Ponting's bewildering decision to put England in to bat as another moment when their grip on the Ashes started to loosen. It was the last toss Ponting would win.

The two Tests McGrath missed were the ones Australia lost, and one can only wonder what their fate would have been were it not for the astonishing contribution of Shane Warne.

Warne and McGrath accounted for 63% of wickets taken by Australia bowlers this series, and Australia will always be an excellent team as long as they remain.

Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne
McGrath and Warne showed they are still at the top of their game

They traditionally field just four bowlers because of the pair's combined excellence, but this could all be about to change with both in the twilight of their careers.

Australia attracted the reputation of a bully in their years of unchallenged supremacy. They played their cricket like a lion hunting the wildebeest, but after Lord's were given liberal doses of their own medicine.

England batted first in each of the last four Tests, and when it mattered put Australia under heavy pressure by registering big totals.

Ponting noted after the fourth Test that Australia were continually chasing the game instead of directing it, and many fingers were pointed in his direction for this.

It was felt Ponting was too negative at times with his field placings, allowing England's batsmen to find their stride, while his match-saving century at Old Trafford seemed the exception, rather than the rule, of true leadership.

Ponting does not want the blame for Australia's Ashes defeat, yet some of it will come his way. Still, he is barely 18 months into the job and will not lose it.

Coach John Buchanan is a different story.

His failure to devise plans to combat reverse swing and to arrest Australia's descending fielding standards will be in Cricket Australia's thinking when Buchanan's contract is up for renewal in October.

This Test series bore resemblance, in terms of excitement and quality of play, to Australia's 2001 tour to India, which the Aussies lost 2-1 having won the first Test and enforced the follow-on in the second.

Australia were overshadowed that year on the subcontinent just as they have been in England four years on. And, like then, Australia are sent home with a lot to think about.

But that is where the comparisons end.

There was no suggestion back then that India had dethroned the king, and Australia went on to cement their position in history as one of the great teams, steamrollering teams who got in their way.

Now, however, there is a new team in town and Australia must face up to the uncomfortable reality that their days at the top are numbered.





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