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2 test wins have Australia growing in confidence

December 9, 2013

ADELAIDE, Australia (AP) — The Australian team was the butt of jokes in world cricket only eight months ago in India, when players were suspended for not fulfilling off-field assignments in the now infamous “homework gate.”

They were ridiculed as a rabble after being swept 4-0 in that series in India, and were subjected to further scorn after a failed Champions Trophy defense in June — and that was before Mickey Arthur was fired as coach only weeks before the last Ashes series in England.

Darren Lehmann was rushed into the coaching job but couldn’t conjure an immediate remedy to the break the drought as reports of disharmony in the squad swirled around during a 3-0 series loss to England, a third consecutive Ashes series defeat.

No wins in nine tests had critics comparing Michael Clarke’s squad of 2013 with the beleaguered team of the mid-1980s, which is widely considered the darkest era of Australian cricket.

But back-to-back test wins in the return Ashes contest suddenly have the Australians on the cusp of a series win that few people anticipated when England landed Down Under aiming to win the old urn four consecutive times for the first time since the 1800s.

“This hasn’t just been a five-second turnaround,” Australia captain Michael Clarke said Monday, after a 218-run win in Adelaide. “It has been hard work from every single player in our squad over a long period of time that is giving us the results we rightly deserve at the moment.”

Australia selectors retained the squad that won by 381 runs in Brisbane for the second test in Adelaide, the first time Clarke had been handed an unchanged lineup for back-to-back tests in a year. After another win, they’ve stuck with the same group again for Perth, although James Faulkner might come into calculations after being 12th man in the first two tests.

England has been ranked No. 1 in recent seasons and is still in the top three, while Australia has slumped from the summit of the last decade to No. 5. Cook’s squad hadn’t lost a test in a year before the first test in Brisbane, and won a series in India this time last year after rebounding from a defeat.

Clarke was cautious on Monday about getting swept up in predictions of an Ashes whitewash.

“The reality is we have won two test matches now in the past 12 months and that is not acceptable as an Australian test team,” he said. “So our feet are certainly well and truly cemented on the ground and we are very realistic about where we want to go as a team. We have started this series very well, but there is a lot of work still to do.”

The main difference between this Ashes series has been the impact of Mitchell Johnson, who wasn’t selected for the tour to England but already has 17 wickets in two tests. He has been voted the player-of-the-match for the tests in Brisbane and Adelaide and could very well back that up in Perth, where he produced his career-best eight-wicket haul against South Africa and where he helped Australia to its only win over England in the 2010-11 Ashes series.

Johnson has improved his rhythm and consistency. After only playing four tests in two years due to a foot injury and form, he’s being used in short, sharp bursts to complement the line-and-length from Ryan Harris and Peter Siddle, the tight medium pace of Shane Watson and longer spells from spinner Nathan Lyon.

Clarke said Johnson has been able to unsettle the England batsman with his speed and bouncers because of the pressure applied at the other end. Johnson took nine wickets in Brisbane and 7-40 in the first innings in Adelaide, including a spell of 5-12 in three overs. Siddle (4-57) and Harris (3-54), who was the pick of the Australian bowlers in the last series in England, did the damage in the second innings in Adelaide.

Clarke and Lehmann both say the turnaround started in England, where the 3-0 series result didn’t really reflect the close nature of the series. Lehmann describes the team now “as a more driven bunch,” while Clarke said they’re more focused and cohesive.

“Mitch has done an amazing job. But it hasn’t just been Mitchell Johnson who has turned this team around,” Clarke said. “We’ve prioritized and been very realistic with where we sit as a team, and don’t accept being ranked fifth in test cricket.”

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