Is there something Australia doesn't do well?


AUSTRALIA is a team without a conspicuous flaw. They buzz around like a congregation of Energizer bunnies and bat with the abandon of a visiting whirlwind. Much like a Schwarzenegger film, there is no respite, action is endless and body bags are not uncommon. Predictably, they score faster than any team ever has at 58.64 runs per 100 balls and recently an electric Ponting said for a while they were motoring on at six-runs-per-over in Perth. Dear God!

Their bowling has pace (Lee), precision (McGrath) and poetry (Warne), their foreheads furrow over missed 1/12 chances let alone half-chances, and there is no indulgence in selection. Andy Bichel did well for two Tests but Perth's wicket was fast and so he was out and Lee was in and that was that. In India, a parliamentary inquiry might be ordered.

Yet, ask Australian coach John Buchanan what has particularly pleased him about his team and it is none of the above. And in his answer lies Australia's strength but also possibly its weakness.

Buchanan talks about a day in Colombo two months ago, the neutral site of the first Test against Pakistan. "We didn't know some of their youngsters," Buchanan explained. They were young fellows, with fine temperament and a fair courage and it showed.

(That Test oscillated wildly, first Australia scored heavily, then its tail collapsed, then Pakistan folded to 116/5 before Faisal Iqbal took on the Australian bowling; then Shoaib ripped them apart for 127, only for the Aussies to bowl them out for a riveting finale.)

But there was a period(s) when Australia couldn't subdue Pakistan, they were allowing their concentration to slip, and with it the match, and abruptly their game began to be coloured more by "emotion than by skill".

Great players, like those in the Australian team, are used to dominating, secure in the knowledge their skill will prevail. McGrath, for instance, believes if he lands the ball in the right spot a wicket is inevitable. But, says Buchanan, when such an individual is not allowed to dominate it becomes an affront to his ego. And they then address that situation with their ego and forget skill.

What he is saying is that great players sometimes get rattled when rival players stand up to them; that they are so accustomed to winning battles that they are flummoxed when it does not happen. It is something they are not used to, something that occurs so rarely, simply because they are so good. The response is often irritation, or wounded pride, a reaction both emotional and unpractical, when, in fact, says Buchanan you should be focussing on what allowed you to succeed in the first place - skill.

At lunch-time that day, says Buchanan, the issue was addressed and while he was pleased with the end result, he adds: "I will be disappointed to see it happen again."

Buchanan, of course, has seen this moment before, when Laxman-Dravid denied Australia the victory they craved most in Kolkata. But mostly, this tiny flaw goes unpunished. If anything, Australia is more alive to their own faults than other teams are. Their weakness anyway is meaningless unless rival teams have the strength to exploit it.

Mostly they do not because cricket is turning alarmingly lopsided. If you compare the rest to Australia (and you have to judge teams by the best in their sport) then India looks just-about-competent, West Indies ragged, New Zealand inconsistent, Pakistan eccentric, South Africa insipid, Sri Lanka flashy, Zimbabwe lightweight, Bangladesh woeful and England is just getting up off the ground.

To make a mockery of Bill Woodfull's words, "There are 10 teams out there, and one is playing cricket and the others are not." People will talk about cycles except that is nonsense. No cycle has nine teams collapsing and one team thriving.

Once we complained Test matches stretched on endlessly; now, on the day the Perth Test began, Ian Chappell mentioned on TV that his wife has ironed him only four shirts. She was being optimistic, it was over in three. Most of them are: Waugh has won 32 of 43 Tests he has captained, and 21 have arrived with more than a day to spare.

You'd think, of course, Australia might be pleased by this absurd state of affairs, except that's like asking Manchester United if they'd be satisfied beating Tollygunge Agragami?

There is no joy in one-sided sport.

After the third Test, Buchanan sounded so wistful about England's woeful form when this writer spoke to him that it was amusing. He seemed almost desperate for the English to revive. No one wishes the best of their opponents, but no true warrior finds any glory in dismembering an already leg-less, tooth-less rival.

''We all feel we want to be tested, there is a certain hollowness to the victories," said Buchanan. It was an echo of his captain's words and it was an unusual admission. Teams rarely use the word "easy" to describe victories for it is impolite and arrogant and cheapens their own sweat. Moreover, most captains have tasted defeat and do not like the taste and to rub it in when winning is unseemly.

So they settle for cliches like "it was harder than it appeared" and "we got lucky", but Waugh can no longer hide behind them. His team has such all-round depth, such presence and persistence, that the wins do not merely look easy any more, they are.

Problem is, Australia is like Borg might have been without McEnroe, Connors and Gerulaitis and it irks them. Their greatness defies an accurate calculation, for unless they are pushed consistently and tested regularly, they, and we, cannot tell how individually gifted they are or how collectively powerful they can be.

Things have got so bad that journalists stuck on this island, tired of flagellating the English (everyone's thesaurus and imagination expired after the second Test), have invented a new pastime. Think up a World XI, pit them against Australia, would they win? No.

Just for fun, do it yourself. If you selected Vaughan, Kirsten, Dravid, Tendulkar, Kallis, Boucher, Cairns, Shoaib, Pollock, Murali, Harbhajan, and gave them a ticket to Perth, would they go? And if they went, would they return intact? Furthermore, as someone pointedly asked, should they wear nappies?

Is Australia that good? Probably not, but so it seems.

Here's some worse news: Twelve months from now guess which team the Aussies hope to be doing their version of a live autopsy on? Us. And if Waugh has his way he'll still be captain, for you suspect that even with arthritis and a cane to lean on he'd want to beat Ganguly once.

Of course, maybe the Aussies will have passed their peak by then. Maybe because they have an average age of 31.8 it's all downhill from here (though Waugh seems OK for a man kissing 40). Maybe in 12 months, McGrath will have lost his line and Warne his length (though that is much like expecting a Swiss watch to suddenly wheeze and shut down); maybe in a year Hayden, who makes the sign of the cross after each hundred, will join the priesthood and decide to "bat for God" and Lee whose nostrils flare at the sight of blood, will defect to a contact sport.

Of course, maybe India will also produce three quality fast bowlers, in the same era, before we die, but I wouldn't bet on it.