Learn to play the Australian way

Published : Sep 15, 2001 00:00 IST

SOMETHING quite extraordinary happened last month and I suspect it happened to more people than just me. India were playing a Test series, one that was particularly attractive because a lot of young players were trying to establish themselves, and yet I found myself increasingly drawn towards the telecast of the Ashes series. There was something enticing about the quality of that cricket. It drew you towards it, it was almost seductive and, like a young man in the flush of newly acquired hormones, I would often find myself completely entrapped.

Sport does that to you when it breaks free of the typical and the accepted. I could see that Australia were venturing, in the way they approached the game and the way they actually played it, into completely uncharted territory. There wasn't too much television around in India when the West Indies were similarly exploring new frontiers, but if that was as good as this then I would happily volunteer to go back in time.

Over the last two years Australia have told the world that the way everyone else is playing the game is defunct. Interestingly, they haven't played South Africa in this period for they alone, among the rest of the teams, have a similar work ethic. Pioneers often do that by showing you a different way of looking at life; and in doing so, they make everyone else look jaded and tacky. Maruti and Hero Honda did that to cars and motor cycles, A. R. Rahman did that with the way music is composed for films, Viswanathan Anand did that with the way he played chess. Suddenly the other people don't matter and we have to accept that Australia are doing that with modern cricket.

Interestingly, unlike all the other great sides of the past, they are doing it not with their bowling but with their batting. I cannot remember a time when I saw such aggressive, such frenetic batting. And yet, they don't hoick the ball, they don't pick it up from outside off stump and deposit it into the stands at mid-wicket, they just play very clean cricket. In doing so, they intimidate the opposition but they do it as a team, they play aggressive cricket collectively. Vivian Richards was like that, so apparently was Graeme Pollock. But I am not sure there has been another instance in the modern history of the game where a side, as a unit, batted at the rate at which this side does.

By playing as fast as they do they take the game away from the opposition very quickly. Steve Waugh had said a couple of years ago that 300 runs in a day was the target they set themselves but they have easily surpassed that over the last couple of months. When a team grinds the opposition out, it gives it the opportunity to think and evolve an alternate plan. Australia currently do not give their opponents time to change plans mid-stream and by playing at the pace they do, they are forcing other teams to play at this pace as well. That is what all great performers do, they force other people to play to their rules and in doing so, they end up playing from a position of strength.

Moreover, by batting at this pace, they give their bowlers enough time to work at the opposition batting. That is what bowlers like Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne love to do. With time no longer a factor, McGrath and Warne can play to their strength, which is patience. With the amount of one-day cricket, that is a quality that is fast going out of the modern game and that suits these two great players perfectly. They play an amazing percentage game where they achieve a very high proportion of good balls. Batsmen are then forced to innovate and there are very few in world cricket at the moment who can do it consistently against a third enemy as well. By fielding the way they do, Australia present a third force, a very strong defensive force, that a batsman must counter.

These are the pillars around which they have built up a virtually unbeatable side. Aggressive batting, disciplined bowling and high quality fielding. Contrary to the image they occasionally present, I don't think Australia bowl aggressively all the time. McGrath took 32 wickets in the series and he is a very disciplined bowler. So too is Warne who took 31.

The most fascinating thing about watching Australia play though is to see the effect of their upbringing on good tracks. It is a widely accepted fact of life, in all places except in the BCCI, that good tracks produce good cricket and therefore, more complete cricketers. Australia's batsmen play the shots they do because they get into position beautifully and early and you can only do that on good, hard surfaces. That is why the only places they will be vulnerable are those that do not encourage strokeplay, where the ball does unpredictable things off the surface. Their only other Achilles' heel at the moment is, ironically, their own arrogance. By attacking the way they do, they will sometimes leave their flanks open. They really have only one player capable of playing a long back-to-the-wall innings and that is Steve Waugh. That is why they need to bat deep and that is why Adam Gilchrist is in many ways their key player. Don't forget too that at various times in the series, there were small, important contributions from one of the fast bowlers and in that respect, this Australian team is very similar to the West Indies team of the early 80s.

I also think we are seeing the effect of a domestic cricket system that throws up players who are ready to play international cricket. I have rarely seen a more complete player than Damien Martyn break into world cricket. For his correctness, and for a very understated aggression, he is an amazingly attractive player to watch. Steve Waugh thinks he is the best Australian batsman at the moment and by following the old principle of not including yourself, he is probably right. Any player who can make Mark Waugh look incomplete has to be special and Martyn did that with a fairly stunning frequency.

There is a huge lesson there for our young players. When the organisation they represent does little to raise the bar, they must do it themselves. The biggest sadness from the tour to Sri Lanka is that the younger players did not raise their hand high enough. India had the opportunity of showing that they could play without Sachin Tendulkar. The younger players threw it away for they did not seem ready.

There are a lot of lessons Australia are giving to the rest of the world every time they play. I sometimes think we are exercising our prerogative of not accepting them.

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