In Brett Lee's absence, winter cricket fails

ROHIT BRIJNATH

NO verdict is as telling as the empty seat. Quiet stadiums are a sporting sin, unsold tickets the excess baggage of failure. It is what indoor cricket, cricket in June, winter cricket, whatever you prefer to call it, has been confronted with. One presumes more people have been shown up to ogle David Beckham when he goes for a walk in Japan than have attended the Australia-Pakistan matches.

It's winter here, and cricketers are well, either supposed to be invisible, or in England, which is perhaps precisely why cricket is being held.

The ACB has reached deep to reward its cricketers, some contracted to $425,000 a season (in the 2004-2005 that top retainer is presumed to extend to $750,000). To watch them then skip off to England, and then return in Australia's cricketing summer perhaps depleted, injured or a trifle worn, is not the return they expect on their investment. Better, the ACB might think, to make them sweat a little at home for their money. It is, if anything, a subtle exercise in control.

But the public are a trifle bewildered. Every sport here knows its place and owns its season; cricket in the cold is like Wimbledon in January, they know not what to make of it. Footy is on, the World Cup a further distraction, and somehow Shoaib versus Brett doesn't tickle the senses.

Experiments must be given their time, not abandoned in excitable haste. Yet it is a tricky situation. Cricket has seen too many meaningless one-day encounters which breed nonchalance and loosen the determination and India knows too well about that. Australia has rightly criticised such tournaments, now they must be wary of embracing the same.

Still, cricket is never without buzz, or a story. Brett Lee's bowling has been dissected, Australia's on-field behaviour scrutinised, Steve Waugh's return quietly discussed and captain Ricky Ponting's captaincy viewed with a mixture of approval and suspicion.

Lee, once the blonde-haired patron saint of pace, a smiling assassin of some attraction, is getting a taste of a disillusioned media. The only place romances last are in Bollywood films, reality is discernibly less charming. Ironically, his triumphant skill (speed) is now his most discussed flaw.

His runs conceded per over has got everyone in a nervous flutter. A tearaway has been told to be disciplined and somehow those two words do not sit comfortably with each other. Steve Waugh apparently asked him to bowl fast, Ponting demands he bowl straight, and if that is not bewildering enough, having a precise McGrath, who was surely a blindfolded knife thrower in a past life, in the same team makes him look even worse.

To see an aggressive side make a virtue out of economy rate is incongruous. If it demonstrates their flexibility of approach and an elastic mindset, it also goes against conventional wisdom. Fast bowlers have their utility, not merely in wicket-taking but in the intimidating message they deliver. Sub-continental teams will be having a giggle; somehow Andy Bichel does not quite have the menace of Lee. To say a Lee-less Australia is their best eleven takes some swallowing.

Yet Lee's caution from his captain is proof no player is indispensable, and suggests a certain anxiety to Australia's World Cup preparations. For all its top placing at the now-flawed World Championships of Test cricket (India won't tour Pakistan and vice versa, Australia failed to tour Zimbabwe and almost certainly will not visit Pakistan, all of which mocks the home and away points system), the Australians are aware that the one-day World Cup stands as the only visible, established barometer of cricketing greatness. The price of supremacy is that anything less than a win will be considered failure. To quote Brazilian soccer coach Phil Scolari, "Second is the first position of last places."

While players jostle for a place, one man, not even in the reckoning, has not let his dream subside. Steve Waugh (how cruel sport is that so quickly do men fade from the memory) had, what seemed, a routine operation on his foot, yet beyond correcting an old problem it was his admission that it would allow him to resume bowling that suggests the depth of his desire.

Waugh's problem, as a senior member of Australia's cricketing establishment told me, "is that where does he fit in"? The captaincy is unavailable, and thus, as a pure batsman, he must dislodge either Damien Martyn, Michael Bevan or Darrell Lehmann, itself an improbable task. Should he, of course, turn himself into an all-rounder it raises a more delicate issue. Once overburdened with riches in that area -Ian Harvey, Shane Lee, Andrew Symons and now Shane Watson - indifferent form from most has left that position relatively open.

Waugh, though, faces a classical enemy. Time. At best, Australia has a few one dayers against Pakistan (wherever that tour is held) and the Carlton and United tri-series later in the year. But there is something of Horatius to this cricketer, a refusal to bow to the inevitable, and it promises an interesting summer.

The captaincy debate, of course, is finally over, especially as Ponting, soon to be married, has been sounding remarkably grown-up. All things it seems are possible for all men. Ponting's quiet censure of Lee has been bold, but it is his pointed remarks about the Australians on-field behaviour that have raised eyebrows and well, to be honest, even a smirk.

South African Graeme Smith's detailed description of sledging by the Australians has not been digested well here, and we are not merely talking about professors of English, who must be alarmed at their limited vocabulary. Glenn McGrath recently suggested that "Smith should have kept quiet, as if telling-all broke some primitive macho code." There is a suggestion that the Australians were hardly over the top but the question is who defines that?

No one wants the Australians to be blowing kisses at batsmen or handing out roses before the match, but they are not adept at taking their own medicine. It is no good vilifying Sourav Ganguly, as was repeatedly done, and then retreating behind some honour code which says what goes on, on the field, should stay there. People have said that Ganguly's indiscretions happened off the field when the Australians travelled to India, but I am not completely convinced by that distinction.

Ponting, after first indicating he had not heard what happened on the field in South Africa (strange since McGrath was apparently mouthing off from third man or some such place of isolation), has come down hard. "Intemperate behaviour", he says, "will not be tolerated."

That it should come from Ponting is like Michael Schumacher setting down gentlemanly rules for overtaking. If the captain is not worth such cynicism, then first he must pass the test. In a World Cup quarter-final, when Australia is reeling, luck gone home, and the opposition in their face, it is then we shall see if he is merely wearing a cloak of maturity or truly embraced it.