Australia and India: Two cricketing journeys

ROHIT BRIJNATH

SPORT is a succession of journeys. Literal journeys to foreign lands, metaphorical journeys to excellence. The quest for form in cricket is a singular voyage as it is a collective one; in effect, one means little without the other.

Indian cricket has travelled extensively but lacked direction. Our expeditions are more solitary ones (we worship individual success), and mostly we have never understood our destination (we play endlessly, but for what purpose). Mostly, we have walked in circles.

But journeys have corners, turning points, there is always an opportunity to map a new beginning. It is a sense of this, of a sharper direction, a more unified tilt at greatness, a more attuned idea of mission, that emanates from the present Indian team. Promises are being kept.

Through the past few years, Australia has embraced performance and India has been left muttering about bad karma. But post-Champions Trophy, Indian cynics are retreating into their armchairs while Australian skeptics are springing forth. One journey has smoothened out, the other has momentarily stuttered.

India was the best team on show in Sri Lanka, and Australia failed to show its best. But how do we know that a few wins are not a fluke, or that loss not an aberration?

India is no fluke. We can talk about the opposition we have beaten recently, but then again India has usually been undone more by itself than another team. We have been an edifice waiting to crumble. But now the signposts tell us this team's compass is working, that it has scented its destination (the World Cup) and has a fair understanding of what it takes to get there.

The signposts are more easily recognised in comparison to four years ago.

1. THEN we could barely hold a conversation, now we hold catches that are minor classics.

2. THEN it was suggested the batting never translated off paper, NOW it no longer deflates like a punctured doll once you-know-who gets out.

3. THEN the coach was the well-meaning Anshuman Gaekwad, part of a merry-go-round wherein the BCCI thought OK, NOW which former player hasn't coached the team YET. NOW John Wright smells of a quiet, ordered, steely resolve (Bob Simpson may have worked, too).

4. THEN professionalism was limited to Dr. Ravinder Chaddha telling Andrew Kokinos that he, not Kokinos, would run on to the field if a player was injured, NOW some semblance of back-ups are in place.

5. THEN when it came to a fight, we often backed off, NOW Kaif and Yuveraj aren't shy to tear off their shirts (Ganguly does that literally) and show you their heart for a fight.

6. THEN hunger was looking for the closest Indian restaurant, NOW it is chanted like an ambitious mantra.

OK, fine, the fast bowling doesn't quite force opposing teams to wear Kevlar, and the tail still has more hiccups than a greedy child. We can also get overwhelmed and kill off these young, growing golden geese (Sehwag, Yuveraj, Kaif, Mongia) by playing them into the ground, travelling so far and so often that their spirit is dulled.

Still, India is making progress and Australia is possibly over-reacting. One loss to Lanka has warranted almost an inquest; another one and they will be having a minute's silence in parliament.

But then, Australia is accustomed to winning, even in one-day cricket; losing is never passed off lazily as a bad day. It requires introspection, and greatness is built on such ambition. It is also a reminder to Ricky Ponting that captaincy is not a fundamental right: it is an honour, and it can be taken away.

Ponting can be artful, and publicly assault his bowlers for being wayward (in Nairobi recently) saying if McGrath and Gillespie can't bowl clinically at the death, well then, he will look elsewhere.

He can also be artless, and complain about Lanka's slow wicket, having forgotten visiting teams find their teeth cleaned by McGrath the moment they land in Perth. In one-day cricket, a blatantly batting game, where the art of spin is warped, captains should be advocating, not criticising, a variety of wickets. A batsman's completeness, and a team's worth, is determined only in the adversity of disparate conditions.

Though Ponting has matured, the weight of Steve Waugh's legacy threatens to stunt his growth. The 1999 World Cup, for some, is seen as a feat he cannot best but only replicate. It is a twisted interpretation of sport. In truth, the only thing more spectacular than winning a title is doing it again.

It doesn't help that Waugh himself is constantly unyielding, like some chipped-away Roman pillar that refuses to fall. He will not go away. He says, pointedly, that Sampras won the US Open, and the inference is obvious: his dream, of next year's World Cup, is not impossible either.

Waugh wants Australia's one-day team to do well, but the better they do the less his chances. The more accomplished Ponting is the less Waugh's opportunity to lead again. As a soap opera it is magnificent. Already, the odd critic is murmuring, were we too hasty with Steve?

But teams do not grow by looking back, except to note their steps of progress. From the past are drawn lessons, rarely performers. Srinath is not India's answer, perhaps nor is Waugh for Australia. It is said, as Australia's batting imploded against Lanka, that it was a situation made for a resolute, one-day Waugh-ish innings. But which one? The Waugh of memory, or of the present, and who is to say he is the same man.

Waugh's pointed remark on spin, that Australians are uneducated in its subtleties, that their batsmen lack the measured, classical response of Indians who stretch forward or push back and play, is relevant and it is not. In one sense it matters, for Australia's conquest of the cricketing world is only blemished by its subcontinental surrender.

A former Australian great, when questioned by this writer on Waugh's remarks, said: "I'm glad it's been admitted, finally". He too sees a flaw on coaching, explaining: "Bad coaches don't understand how to use the feet properly. They say don't play the hook shot, it's too risky, and don't come out of your crease against spin because it cuts down the risk of getting stumped."

He says young kids should be taught to play every shot in the book, and then decide for themselves, in time, what to play and what to cut out. In essence, owning the repertoire and then choosing the shot to fit the situation. But shot selection, he insists, must be part of a wider plan, for to play spinners and only react to what they deliver is self-defeating.

In the short term, on the quicker South African pitches during the World Cup, spin will be of less significance. For Ponting, there is enough to think of anyway. Australia is still supreme, their collapse unusual, but, as his journey continues, Ponting will know other teams will have taken heart from their momentary mortality.

Fellow travellers, like India for instance, will be marching with a more confident step.