Birds of a feather flock together

JOHN BUCHANAN cannot be blamed if he were just exhibiting a desire to live in the past. After all, as noted historian Eric Hobsbawn wrote a few years ago, communities and nations that once enjoyed absolute power show an alarming level of reluctance to do a reality check. Hobsbawn was then referring about Britain's colonial past, but even the great historian of our age would have been short of words if Tony Blair had gone to the British Museum to dig up Winston Churchill's diaries, instead of being on the hotline to George Bush and the White House, to know more about "world domination".

The sporting equivalent of which was recently done by Australia's techno savvy, excellence driven, training obsessed coach: he was desperate for an appointment with Manchester United Manager Sir Alex Ferguson (which he got) when Chelsea Manager Jose Mourinho was always around. By seeking advice from the captain of a once awesome ship, which has now started to wobble, Buchanan has symbolically acknowledged the psychological mauling taken over the course of the last two months by the Australian set-up, which was used to giving `the treatment' to others, especially England, over the last decade.

In the wake of these telling blows, delivered with great deal of consistency by Flintoff and Co., no longer is coherent thinking, which leads to an accurate grasp of reality, possible. Life, for Australia, has become brinksmanship, a series of desperate measures taken to achieve the short-term goal of survival. By seeking to learn from Manchester United's high-performance system at a time when uncertainty is staring at the club and its high-profile, long serving manager and another second place finish in the Premiership is looming large before the club's first team, Buchanan has shown that he, and Australia, have lost the plot somewhere during an Ashes series they set out to dominate yet again.

Buchanan would have redeemed himself in the eyes of the sporting world if he had just explained the meeting with Ferguson as a brainstorming session for finding solutions together to get over the problems both face. And, the problems are not entirely different too. Arrogance, complacency, team spirit and of course, the natural process of ageing are the main components that have almost led to the end of the Manchester United/Australia era of the 1990s and the first few years of the present decade.

Gideon Haigh wrote recently in The Guardian that it is more than ten years since reverse swing was adopted as a weapon in international cricket, and yet the Australians were caught napping in their technique against Simon Jones and Andrew Flintoff and what is more crying themselves hoarse as if they were done in by something hitherto unseen in world cricket. The no-ball problem haunting their fast bowlers in England also reflects apathy towards tightening up their skills.

Similarly, Ferguson (like his bete noire Arsene Wenger) has been ranting against Mourinho and Chelsea's tight defensive game in his inimitable manner. The great man would do well to remember that the Continental technique has been in vogue in Italy and Spain for a long time, and if his team has not learnt to adapt to it when things were going extremely well for them in the Premiership it only reflects his club's reluctance to learn, which in turn, is the result of complacency and blind confidence bordering on arrogance.

In early 2001, flying the flag of discipline and team spirit, Ferguson axed David Beckham in a Premiership match against Leeds United because the England captain had missed training to be by the side of his ailing son Brooklyn. Beckham, incidentally, was missing training for the first time in nine years. Yet, Ferguson justified his decision in his autobiography as one made for the sake of team spirit ("What will Nicky Butt, Paul Scholes and Phil Neville think if I play David?"). At a time when the manager's relationship with defender Jaap Stam was already in the doldrums, his `civilising mission' against Beckham created more bad blood in the team dressing room. It only started the never-to-heal bad blood between the manager and the superstar midfielder, which, it is alleged, created factions in the camp. Now, the ghost has returned to haunt Ferguson, as it is rumoured that his relationship with captain Roy Keane is fast deteriorating, just as it is speculated that Aussie skipper Ricky Ponting is not seeing eye to eye with star leg spinner Shane Warne.

Perhaps, the most worrying thing for Australia, as it is for Ferguson, is that there have been very few talented youngsters coming through the youth systems when the first teams were strutting the world as conquerors. Ferguson, of course, can buy young talent like Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo. But, he will be the first to admit that his youth academy has not produced explosive talent since the likes of Scholes, Giggs and Beckham came through it. Hayden, Langer, McGrath, Gilchrist, Kasprowicz, Warne, Giggs, Scholes and Keane, after all, have not drunk the magic potion to prolong youth indefinitely.