James Lawton: Australia lacerated after shift in power
Nowhere fills up with ghosts faster than an old sports ground which has just seen high drama and a shift of power which might just be historic.
It was like that in the Sarria stadium in Barcelona 28 years ago when a Brazilian team that had promised to be great was knocked out of the World Cup by Italy. Then the mourning was for the 'little gods in yellow.' Here yesterday it was for the men in the baggy green caps.
There was a terrible but inevitable sense of great days that had gone and might just never return. Have Australian cricketers come to earn their money and their celebrity too cheaply? Are they saddled with a tradition that is simply too heavy, too filled with qualities they plainly now lack and which maybe have been bred out of them?
This isn't to devalue the scale of England's triumph in the exquisite Oval ground that was as silent as a mausoleum the morning after the most crushing of defeats.
It was rather to feel the weight and see the reasons for Aussie angst over a dismal landmark which many here are saying may, short of some major revolution in thinking and purpose, have marked the end, for several generations of one of sport's greatest traditions.
The Australians haven't had too much practice, not for a few decades anyway, in running autopsies on national sporting disasters. In England we are, of course, dab hands at the business.
English football dies another thousands deaths on a warm Sunday afternoon in Bloemfontein. Hey ho. We have more difficulty, of course, in absorbing the meaning of the kind of victory scored by Andrew Strauss's team here this week.
With the prompting of Kevin Pietersen, of all starry individuals, we have been told to see the value of a team ethos — and note the hunger and the extraordinary unity of effort which brought a precise and glorious counterpart to the humiliation suffered on the same ground four years earlier.
Certainly some Australians have acknowledged Pietersen's point as they display skills in sports pathology which, given all those years they lay fallow, show impressive beginner's promise.
Here for example an eye-catching headline in the Sydney Morning Herald - The Ashes? Forget it — this side would be lucky to beat Bangladesh.
The author of the onslaught, Richard Hinds, offered no quarter, saying, “Xavier Doherty (Shane Warne's latest and profoundly mediocre successor) managed something that was just two weeks ago on the daft side of implausible — he forced a nation to turn its lonely eyes back to Nathan Hauritz.
“(This) is a bit like a chainsaw killer making you fondly reminisce about the home intruder who merely beat you on the head with a tyre lever rather than dicing up your spleen.”
There will doubtless be plenty more of this in the next few days as the Australian selectors consider still another re-vamping of their outgunned team — and captain Ricky Ponting battles to both re-animate his bedraggled team-mates and his own batting skills which, under all the pressure, seem to be eroding at a startling rate.
One of the deepest of the Australian problems, apart from an alarming break in the talent flow that each days seems to make Warne and Glenn McGrath and Adam Gilchrist and Matthew Hayden ever more remote figures from a lost and fabled past, is that no-one around seems even vaguely qualified to pick up the baton from 35-year-old Ponting.
Ponting continues to acknowledge that his team, however it is re-constituted, not only have to sharpen their performance but also their thought patterns. He is saying, astonishingly if slightly obliquely, that they have to learn something from the English and be ready to fight for their professional lives.
Australia needs a distinguished old pro coach like Andy Flower who can take hold of what is left of its cricket. Until he arrives, and, who knows, possibly from beyond these borders, you have to believe that only the ghosts will be at serious play.