Once upon a time there was an international cricket team that was rated among the greatest of all time. They had an array of stroke playing batsmen, fearsome pace bowlers, arguably the greatest spin bowler of all time, acrobatic fieldsmen and a swagger in their attitude that could intimidate their opponents.
Yes, from the time they dethroned the West Indies in 1995, the Australians dominated for over a decade, running roughshod over every team, winning matches with uncanny ease, finishing them with a day or two to spare, quite often emerging victorious by an innings and plenty.
They set all sorts of world records the most notable being 16 successive Test victories twice and notching up 5-0 demolitions of England and West Indies. They also underscored their overwhelming superiority in limited overs cricket by winning the World Cup three times in a row in 1999, 2003 and 2007.
Under the leadership of first Mark Taylor and then Steve Waugh, the Aussies coined a new phrase – mental disintegration. Opponents were beaten even before they took the field thanks to a series of mind games in which the Australians became experts. The reserve strength was so good that even as the older players retired the replacements were just as effective, brilliant or dynamic and the reign at the top seemed to have no end.
But then just as it happened in the case of the once mighty West Indies who ruled international cricket from 1980 to 1995 the impregnable wall finally crashed. The first warning shot was fired by England who regained the Ashes in 2005 after 18 years. The Australians had won eight successive Ashes series leading one to believe that the mythical urn had migrated permanently.
The Aussies hit back hard by thrashing England 5-0 in 2006-07 – the first time in 86 years that England had suffered a clean sweep in an Ashes contest – but by now it was clear that with the retirement of several stalwarts following that series and the one against India the following season the Aussies would never again be the same unconquerable squad.
South Africa were rising fast, India took over the No 1 slot for a short phase and England dealt them two successive Ashes setbacks in 2009 and 2010-11. The latter was particularly hurting as it was at home and all the victories notched up by England in their 3-1 triumph were by an innings – something that had never happened in a series Down Under.
These days we can only savour the memories of those golden days. The Australians might not have endeared themselves to the cricket going public by their behavior but none could deny the professionalism and single mindedness in their approach. They set new standards when it came to attacking batsmanship, a balanced bowling line-up, ground fielding and catching and in matters of strategy and tactics.
Most important they provided some of the game’s greatest moments thanks to the outstanding personnel which manned the squad for a decade and more. We appreciated the strokeplay of Matthew Hayden, Justin Langer, Mark Taylor, Michael Slater, Mark Waugh, Steve Waugh, Damien Martyn and Ricky Ponting, the pace and hostility of Glenn McGrath, Jason Gillespie and Brett Le, the mesmerizing ways of Shane Warne, the prodigious turn that Stuart MacGill could achieve and the wicket keeping of Ian Healy and Adam Gilchrist, both of whom could also contribute handily with the bat with the latter laying a claim to being the greatest wicket keeper batsman of all time.
Match after match, series after series, year after year, the Australians simply mowed down all opposition and things were becoming predictable, even monotonous. They even achieved their final frontier of winning a Test series in India in 2004 and added the Champions Trophy to their bulging bag of limited overs trophies two years later.
But if their rise and the manner in which they stayed at the top for so long were truly spectacular what has happened in the last few years has been really pathetic. Initially the downfall was steady but over the last couple of years the slide has been marked.
At least in the transitional phase they had greats like Mike Hussey and Michael Clarke to steer them through a crisis while Ponting was still around even though he was clearly past his best. But the bowling standards nosedived and the nadir of Australian cricket came about when they were bowled out for 47 by South Africa in 2011.
These days there are no real greats around except for Clarke who has succeeded Ponting unfortunately at a time when Aussie cricket is at a new low. The batting can just about hold its own with players of the calibre of Shane Watson and David Warner around but there is little to enthuse over the bowling.
The 4-0 rout in India earlier this year confirmed this and Mitchell Johnson despite his occasional lion hearted efforts has not lived up to the "once in a generation bowler" tag which Dennis Lillee conferred on him. And if any further proof was needed of the sharp decline in Aussie cricketing standards, the ongoing Champions Trophy has provided it. The Aussies are clearly confronted with 'Mission Impossible' in their bid to regain the Ashes in England this summer.