It takes more than great players to make a team


Even with stars such as Brian Lara, Steven Harmison and Andrew Flintoff in its ranks, the World XI failed miserably in the ICC Super Test against Australia.-AP

IN the end the captains spoke, and the coaches, and the ICC boss, and there were press conferences replete with "umms" and "aahs", and pauses and deliberations, and numerous "let's see what happens" and frequent claims of "too early to tell", which was just a polite way of saying the Super Series as an idea was ready for a grave.

Much has been written of Malcolm Speed's backfoot play, the ICC first suggesting the Series would be held every four years and later its CEO insisting that was scarcely the case. For sure it was a concept that didn't work, but it was certainly a concept worth trying.

Much chatter went on about lack of time to adjust to conditions, to Melbourne's changing weather and Australia's pitches. It was argued that the South Africans and Pakistanis had no cricket immediately behind them, that the Indians had only played Zimbabwe and thus had not been recently tested, and that the Englishmen were still nursing hangovers.

It was mentioned that the selection, especially in the one-dayers was possibly awry, men picked more for runs scored than positions played. Chaminda Vaas's absence was a point of interest, Shoaib Akhtar's presence became a laugh, and Shaun Pollock's ascension to one-day team captain had even South African observers bemused.

But a glance at the scoreline, 3-0 in the one-dayers and a comprehensive 210-run defeat in the Test, suggests a player here or there, or another man as captain, would have made little difference. Selectors were not at fault, and alas, neither were the players. This was if anything a match with only one team and it meant the idea had no chance.

When twice the World's finest batsmen are bowled out for under 200, it suggests not quite a lack of effort, but that a gathering of brilliant players is not quite the same as a brilliant gathering of players. Sometimes we forget, too, that a team, however gifted, is nothing without a mission.

If nothing else, it took the failure of cricket's best to reinforce the idea of team, to remind us that talent aside, men's hearts must collectively beat as one to find success. Wearing the same coloured shirt does not automatically bring harmony, that elusive accord between men that propels them towards grand feats.

Paying men hefty monies to play and appealing to their egos is an inadequate inducement. Eventually teams must own a common cause, whether for country or club, it is where commitment arrives from. Playing for the World is an honour but as a cause ambiguous. Even that under-15 local club near your house has more to play for.

What it tells us is beyond cricket and applicable to all sport. Team passion cannot be manufactured in a boardroom and great players in isolation cannot create victory. In his earlier years, Michael Jordan's individual genius stood out but the Bulls did not, and Jordan, convinced to share the ball, driven finally to make not merely himself but the players around him better, would say: "Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence wins championships."

Teams rarely win, of course, without great players, for mere unity among average players can sometimes only take you so far. But it also takes more than great players. Soccer teams often own hard men assigned particular, and undervalued, roles; or labourers absent of any aura but owners of outsized lungs, who will run and tackle all day, not luminous talents but valuable cogs to the machine.

Coaches understand the value of the extravagant artist, able to alter a match in a single flick of the boot, but they prize, too, the dependable workman, whose ego does not become an obstruction. In his book, The Coach, Richard Charlesworth quotes a short rhyme compiled by John Wooden, the legendary US college basketball coach:

"Too many boys just want to start If not they don't want any part And then at times some have a flair That makes one wonder if they care."

What made the exceptional 1970 Brazil World Cup team even more lethal was a tangible willingness to play for each other. To see film of that cup is to be delighted by the cool unselfishness of Pele, who constantly manufactured goals for his team-mates. Argentina in 1986 may have seemingly ridden to cup glory on the shoulders of a solitary genius, but as Jorge Valdano said in a documentary on Maradona, that genius was a team-man.

Teams desire great players, but they are not a guarantee of greatness. As baseball coaching legend Casey Stengel said: "Gettin' good players is easy. Gettin' 'em to play together is the hard part." Holland, for all its fine talents yet a history of fractiousness, is a fine example, while US basketball Dream Teams in recent Olympics have been less orchestras and more a group of disconnected soloists.

Budgets matter, but they are not everything. The New York Yankees have fallen this year, and Real Madrid has hiccuped. Of course, Chelsea's money allows them to own superior players in many positions, but it discounts the lessons Jose Mourinho must be teaching within the dressing room. Somehow he is able to solder these men together, discover an elusive alchemy.

Teams comprise elements far more subtle than mere hand-to-eye coordination. Men must learn to play together and like an intricate jigsaw it is a gradual process. Egos must sometimes be subdued as players take on seemingly lesser but necessary roles; new positions must be adjusted to; communication must be found; personalities must meld. Players then sense on court, or on a field, intuitively, which team-mate requires an encouraging pat while another is best not disturbed.

Coaches will take players away into the wilderness for bonding camps; one cricket captain wrote to his players asking that they be godparents to each other's children; in the Australian women's hockey team once, the coach more or less appointed 16 captains, or what he called a Leaderful Team, so that everyone believed their voice mattered. Still, sometimes it is not enough.

Cricket's Super Series may arrive in another form, but mostly it will not matter. Playing the Northern Hemisphere verus the South, one idea tossed around, suffers from the same issues of teamwork. Playing a winner-take-all Test between the No.1 and No.2 Test teams will bring patriotism into the equation, but one-off Tests are incomplete feasts.

In hindsight, no harm, nor no foul has been done to cricket, an idea was tried, it failed and we move on. Australia remains the best team on the planet and time is best spent finding ways to overthrow them at home.