Australia the beautiful, and the ugly

ROHIT BRIJNATH

HISTORY remembers and it can be a curse. Redemption in theological terms mean deliverance from sins, but those sins are absolved, not forgotten. George Foreman became a genial preacher but his epitaph will remember him too as a surly, bragging fighter. Jimmy Connors, 50 this year, and mellowed, will be forever scarred by the truth that as a player he disregarded every convention.

And, perhaps, this Australian cricket team, tempered by time, will reflect too that they could have done it better. Their cricket will be remembered as overflowing with thrill but laced often with an unseemly machismo. They have desecrated their own masterpiece, like some tattooed version of Michelangelo's David.

In the first Test against Pakistan in Colombo, their cricket stirred, and repelled, the senses. Newspapers in Australia applauded their achievement but derided their lack of polish. The word most associated with them is "tough" but it is followed by "bullies". They are heroes without refinement. They have mastered the game but not its graces. Conquerors, of course, have never had time for manners.

In Queensland, recently, a group of elite schools introduced a yellow-card system in cricket to send off sledgers. The group's chairman said the Australian Cricket Board is not setting the necessary example, and that the boys were imitating their heroes. No one seems to care too much however: winning apparently is supposed to forgive everything. More and more we ask less and less of our champions when it comes to conduct.

Waugh's team have exported a stunning brand of cricket across the seas, but have often misplaced spirit among their lost luggage. It does not seem to bother them. In India, Slater pouted; in South Africa, Graeme Smith said he was subjected to a torrent of abuse and it was passed off as whingeing; in Sri Lanka, they are not likely to earn many free dinners. Now against Pakistan it has happened again.

For the first few days, Waugh's men, efficient and unsmiling, got about their business. Except Shoaib Akhtar produced a spell of bewildering beauty, steamed out the Australians for 127, the Pakistani batsmen settled in to chase victory, and almost on cue behaviour began to break down. The ugliness was fleeting, but inevitably it was there.

Throws were hurled to Gilchrist, hissing past the batsman, calibrated to annoy. One day someone will get hit and fists will fly. Imran Nazir is of a young generation of subcontinental players, who are not easily pushed around. So when Warne snaked in a throw to the 'keeper that shaved him, Nazir swung his bat as if to slap it away. Most actions inevitably have an equal and opposite reaction. It will happen again, too.

Ironically, this infuriated Gilchrist, perhaps awake to the fact that had Nazir got an edge he would back in the dressing room suturing a split eyebrow or re-moulding a broken nose. Of course, Gilly might have done well to have words with Warne, who created the problem, but of course he had them with Nazir.

Enter Brett Lee, portrait of a gifted fast bowler who has momentarily lost his way. Fuelled by adrenaline, he felled Nazir with a bouncer, and the fault was the batsman's who took his eye off the ball. There was no need either for Lee to offer his condolences, or to cradle his head tenderly, for this was not a Choir Boys Sunday School tournament.

For Lee to return to his bowling mark was acceptable; to have first taken a step towards Nazir and snarled an epithet was unseemly. A quick delivery had sent Nazir the necessary message, Lee had won this minute test of skill. To add insult to injury was a silly indulgence.

Undoubtedly, this is all part of Waugh's grand design of "mental disintegration." It is a tactic induced to unsettle, though who draws the line deciding where gamesmanship crosses into unsportsmanship is uncertain. Of course, the better the opposition plays the further Australia extend that line.

In a way, it is like John McEnroe admitting that his tantrums were not always instinctive but premeditated to unbalance the opposition. It is one thing to legitimately test a batsman's resolve; it is quite another to believe, under stress, that anything is fair game.

These occasional lapses in good taste were heightened by Akhtar's grace. When he was denied a hat-trick on a close lbw shout, he smiled. When he slung a full toss into Lee's hip, he raised his hand in apology, and later said: "I've never in my whole life tried to hurt anybody. I'm more happy sending them out of the ground than getting them out". Cricket has a place for aggression as it does for charm.

It is unfortunate because it dulled the gloss of one of the great Test victories. The Australians are unusual bullies; they do not lack in conviction and courage. They held this Test in their hand, lost the advantage, but only they, of all teams, had the nerve and personnel to regain the initiative.

On the last day Pakistan had 137 to get and seven wickets in hand; if it was only 80 runs one might still have favoured Australia. As much as their scowls set under pressure, their resolve hardens and skill sharpens. They are pillaging knights who are best when confronted with adversity. Warne was as steady as the sun, and if he is not the spinner he once was it scarcely matters; there is enough left. Waugh scents victory like a hound dog and his focus is unshakeable even when captaining with a guillotine kissing his neck. He reigned in Warne after the spinner had done his job, took the new ball and let slip McGrath and Gillespie, his dogs of war.

Australia hiccups, but their balance of resources remains unique. They have the most gifted opening pair in Hayden/Langer, the world's two finest fast bowlers, and possibly the most artful spinner. It is quicker to wait for Haley's comet to come around than expect them to misfire together.

If they lose, it is usually because they have demanded the very best of the opposition. They pressure teams until they respond with freakish replies (Laxman in Kolkata; Mark Butcher's 173 not out, fourth Test, Leeds, 2001) or crack like the parched earth.

Teams will draw some hope from this performance, but also carry a certain resignation. What more, they might ask, must we do to win? Australia fielded abysmally, as if having absent-mindedly rubbed oil into their hands instead of superglue; their tail collapsed in the first innings; in the second innings they all did for 127. Still they won!

Most Test teams, India among them, require every bit of its machinery to be oiled and operating at full efficiency to win. But like the Brazilian soccer team, the Los Angeles Lakers, these Australians have mastered the art of winning even when some cogs are malfunctioning. It is the signature of greatness.

Cricket had demanded their best and they had found it. This was Australian cricket at its most beautiful. But the memory of an accompanying, and fleeting, ugliness, remains.