Australia are embarking on a momentous 12 months which culminates in next summer's Ashes. As the countdown to their clash with England begins, Tristan Holme flew out to India to check out how Ricky Ponting and co are looking ahead of the 2009 series
Last Updated: 14/10/08 10:46am
Shane Watson: Made vital breakthroughs
Listening to Zaheer Khan after the drawn first first Test in Bangalore you'd have thought that India, and not Australia, had held the upper hand for the majority of the match.
"They are the ones on the back foot now because they couldn't take 20 wickets," he said cheekily. "They couldn't even get me and Harbhajan (Singh) out."
Zaheer was in a bullish mood after claiming the man-of-the-match award for his six wickets and unbeaten 57 in India's first innings, but while Australia will be disappointed not to have claimed first blood in the four-Test series, it was the placidity of the pitch on the final day which was most to blame.
As Australia embark on their most testing year of cricket since the season that included their Ashes defeat in 2005, they do so without half of the players who formed a side that was compared to Sir Donald Bradman's 'Invincibles' of the late 1940s.
Damien Martyn, Justin Langer, Glenn McGrath, Shane Warne and Adam Gilchrist have all called it a day since the 5-0 drubbing of England Down Under and as the run-in to next year's Ashes begins, question marks hover over their ability to replace some of the game's finest players.
So far the rebuilding phase has begun with positive, but not overwhelming, results.
Shane Watson was the biggest plus here, earning match figures of 3-53 and scoring a handy 41 as he played his first Test since November 2005. Most impressive was his ability to make breakthroughs when his side needed them most and the all-rounder was a bag of grins in the press conference at the end of day four.
Yet Watson is the 'new' man whom Australia need the least as the role he is occupying is generally filled by one of the world's best cricketers, Andrew Symonds, who will presumably return after proving his 'commitment' to Cricket Australia.
More important to the redevelopment of the Australian side are Brad Haddin, who has taken the gloves in the wake of Gilchrist's retirement, opening batsman Simon Katich, fast bowlers Mitchell Johnson and Stuart Clark and, biggest of all, leg-spinner Cameron White.
Just how long-term White's involvement will be is highly questionable, included as he was after the uncapped Bryce McGain's withdrawal from the tour through injury, but his first appearance in Test cricket was a nervous one.
While he did claim the scalp of India's most revered batsman in Sachin Tendulkar, that was his only wicket in the match and he failed to trouble the Indian batsmen on a fifth-day wicket which did hold some encouragement.
Most interesting was Ricky Ponting's assessment of White's showing, defending his man but then going on to say that a "quality spinner" would have made the final day much more interesting as India held on for a comfortable draw.
There was no denying that White left much to be desired and so Australia's lack of a top-class spinner remains their greatest weakness.
Meanwhile Katich, Clark and Johnson all impressed at various stages of the clash but while Haddin showed himself to be an excellent player of spin he also endured a torrid time behind the stumps, leaking 39 byes in the match.
Ponting's assertion that it was a difficult wicket to keep on was correct, but Haddin's opposite number Mahendra Singh Dhoni conceded just 13 byes despite spending longer in the field.
The next eight months in the lead-up to the Ashes will be most telling, as Australia follow this tour with a two-Test series against New Zealand and a tough home-and-away series against South Africa. By the time they arrive in England, the world will know if they are still the team to beat. Best they start off by silencing Zaheer in the second Test, starting in Mohali on Friday.