Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Michael Clarke swap tales on Tuesday. Photo: Reuters
AS AUSTRALIA'S national leader met the Prime Minister at Kirribilli House, they might have been forgiven for dwelling more on the year gone by than the one ahead.
Michael Clarke and Julia Gillard overcame a number of personal and team challenges in 2012: a low inflation rate and an implemented carbon tax, a triple century, three doubles and seven Test wins.
Yet the reward for achievement, in both cases, is a 2013 starting in disorder and threatening annihilation.
These are strange days for the Australian cricket team, because disarray is usually an outcome of defeat on the field. This time it's not.
In 2012, Australia defeated India, the West Indies and Sri Lanka, and pulled the rug out from under the world champion, South Africa, before losing the series 1-0. Clarke was the leading Australian run-scorer not only for the year but for any year since Test cricket began in 1877, and a production line of fast bowlers kept spitting out high achievers. All this success should have provided a springboard to India, where Clarke will try to be the second Australian captain to win in 42 years, and England, where Australia has not won since 2001.
Instead, Australia's team for the first Test of 2013 is a bubble-and-squeak of the untried, the halt and lame, novices and one talisman taking his lap of honour. As a preparation for two major tours, it could only be worse if it was brought about by defeat.
There have been 17 players used in five Tests this summer. At the height of Australian cricket dominance, 12 were used for the 5-0 Ashes drubbing of England in 2006-07.
There is no systematic explanation for why Australia lacks a settled Test team. Ricky Ponting left because he stopped scoring runs; Michael Hussey is leaving because he is scoring enough to go out on top. Shane Watson's breakdown is not an incident but a way of life. The half-dozen unavailable fast bowlers have each found their own soft spots. Whether they have bowled too little or too much, been too young or too old, too unorthodox in their actions or the opposite, they have kept a department of sports scientists, physios and doctors in business.
The Boxing Day-New Year period used to be a simple celebration of cricket and sunshine. Now, amid the confusion of the Test scene, there is the nightly visit of the Big Bash League, which, like a possum in the roof, attracts attention without growing more popular. In the mixed-up season that our summers have become, the Sydney Test will be a dead rubber played between patched-up visitors and a home team of players out of their normal positions and new faces who have earned a Test cap despite not having played a first-class game in weeks.
The nocturnal hit-and-giggle will continue throughout, cannibalising the season without thriving at its expense. Next week we enter the coloured clothing internationals with a mystery new Australian captain. Strange days, Prime Minister, most peculiar, momma.
The focus of the coming week will be a farewell to Hussey, a true cricketer who, by not courting leadership, has never risked unpopularity. He is the everyman champion, who is so free of delusion that he can weigh the relative benefits of spending the year with his wife and four children against that of chasing cricket balls around the globe. Hussey will receive a deserved finale, full of love, an odd counterpoint to the end of Ponting's Test career last month.
Ponting, who grew up in Launceston, received a muted farewell from a sparse crowd in Hobart. The most prolific Test batsman on the SCG, now a resident of Sydney, Ponting merits a hero's lap of the SCG, but will instead be representing the Hobart Hurricanes in the Big Bash, where he has been, in a bizarre twist, the most exciting batsman in the country in recent weeks.
So perhaps it would be right for the Prime Minister to leave the cricket chat to her sports-loving partner. Who but an enthusiast could make sense of this cricket season? Better stick to politics, where everybody's running and no one makes a move. And better for the cricket captain to stick to his game, where the hallmark of the Australian team, no matter what talent is put on the field, is its honest effort.