Playing tough and winning

VIJAY LOKAPALLY

Mike Veletta cracked 45 off just 31 deliveries in the 1987 final. Allan Border's squad was full of men like Veletta - players who knew their limitations and performed to the best of their ability.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

IN his introduction to A History of Australian Cricket, a masterpiece by Chris Harte, the legendary Richie Benaud puts it succinctly in his opening sentence, "Australian cricket is different." It indeed is. It is about being tough and also about winning. Pride is the most significant component in an Australian cricketer's grooming process, whichever era he plays in.

Benaud tells of how he played Test matches on dirt pitches in a paddock and on concrete pitches, sometimes with matting on it, in open parks. The rough facilities created tough players and this toughness is what signifies Australia's glorious chapter in international cricket. Barring a brief spell in the 80s, Australia has remained a formidable force in international cricket — dominating Test cricket and adapting to the shorter version from its inception in 1971.

Australia was a strong favourite to win the World Cup in 1975. If it did not the credit lay with the gloriously gifted West Indians. In 1979, Australia did not have the potential to trouble most oppositions and it was hardly surprising when it did not even make the semifinals. It was no different in 1983 even though it found itself in a better group. This time India stopped Australia in its tracks on an eventful day at Chelmsford. Once again, Australia had not made it to the semifinals.

In 1987, few backed Australia to win the Cup. In contrast, it was strongly tipped to win the title in 1999. It surprised none when it whipped Pakistan in a one-sided final at Lord's. Twelve years before that moment when Steve Waugh held the trophy aloft, Allan Border and his unsung English hearts with a great win at the Eden Gardens in Calcutta.

If Waugh commanded a team of performers, Border had men who had strong limitations but knew how to raise their game in times of distress. We all remember Adam Gilchrist as the dashing wicketkeeper of 1999. But who was Australia's gloveman in 1987? Tough, isn't it? Greg Dyer kept wickets for Australia in its first triumph at the World Cup. He played just 11 more matches for Australia after the big event.

Tom Moody figured in both the cup-winning teams, an honour which he shares with Steve Waugh.-N. SRIDHARAN

The 1987 team also had a seamer who could bat, and he played just two matches for Australia — Andris Karlis Zesers. Then there was Mike Veletta, who failed to keep the promise he showed at the World Cup and gradually faded away. The point is that Border did not have glamorous men, but had the combination to upset the strongest oppositions. Among those who silently made his contributions and made notes for the future battles was a young man named Steve Waugh, who went on to captain the World Cup team of 1999. What a pity this great cricketer, in pursuit of his fifth World Cup, was shown the door by the demanding National selectors.

Going back to Border's team, it lacked the flair of the West Indies, the determination of South Africa, the doggedness of Pakistan, and the unpredictable nature of the Indians. But it had one basic quality that stood out. It had the will to back itself against any team. Just as Waugh and his team did in 1999. the Australians are known to be tenacious and this was best illustrated in their two World Cup wins — one scripted by the determined Border and the other by a ferociously competitive Waugh.

Australia charted a bumpy course in 1987. In its first match of the Cup, just one run separated India and Australia at Madras when the latter won, giving early glimpses of its strong character to fight. As Border wrote in his autobiography, this was one game which changed his cricketing fortunes. Border termed it a miracle, a "good game" and later wrote, "the best memory of the 1987 World Cup wasn't only being chaired, trophy held aloft. It was the party after the first game against India as well."

In another close finish, Australia overcame New Zealand by three runs in a rain-ruined match at Indore. By now Australia had got into a match-winning rhythm and was already being talked of as the team to watch. When Australia met New Zealand in the return match, it led to a close finish and once again Border and his men proved superior.

When Australia travelled to Lahore for the semifinal, it was treated as a team which had reached the end of its journey even before a ball had been bowled at the Gaddafi Stadium. Pakistan, no doubt, was the stronger side on paper and Imran Khan had raised a feared combination. At home, Pakistan was going to be the toughest of oppositions that one could imagine.

Mike Gatting departs after his disastrous reverse sweep against Allan Border in the '87 final. This ill-advised shot handed the World Cup on a platter to Australia.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

But Border did not believe so. The Aussie skipper may not have contributed much with the bat and the ball, but he led strongly to stun the home team into submission. Once again Australia had won in a close finish with Craig McDermott playing the hero's part to perfection. Border and his men now looked ahead with pride, leaving Pakistan in a shattered state, its cricketing dreams destroyed by a bunch of determined cricketers, who, four days later, were crowned world champions at Calcutta, winning by seven runs, once again showing their character to come good in a close finish. "Australian cricket," said Border "was in a deep trough" before the Cup. At the end of the Cup, it was so different, and he had a telling contribution to make in the final. As Mike Gatting threatened to take the match away from Australia, Border got him with his first-ball, the Englishman playing a disastrous reverse-sweep, a shot that continues to haunt him!

Border gave a lot of credit to "The Iceman" — Steve Waugh — for Australia's wonderful show in 1987. the Iceman, bowling tight overs in critical stages, had learnt a lot from watching Border and from a tactically sound coach in Bob Simpson. Waugh, now as captain, prospered once again and took the Cup home in 1999, Australia becoming only the second team after the West Indies to have won the Cup twice.

After a poor show in the 1992 World Cup at home, when it failed to make the semifinals, Australia, against odds, made it to the final in 1996, but went down tamely to Sri Lanka. So, when it arrived in England in 1999, it was considered the best equipped side to win the cup, what with an attack that comprised two of the meanest men in the business — Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne. Waugh and his men did not disappoint their supporters even though they had to fight their way past a couple of crippling hurdles. The famous Aussie grit had played its role in helping the team place itself at the top.

For Waugh and Tom Moody, the honour of being part of a World Cup winning team came twice. None grudged Australia winning the final at Lord's in 1999. As Waugh wrote in his diary, the campaign had been named the `Road to Lord's' and as he informed it was renamed `No Regrets Tour'. It remained so.

Waugh played a great knock at Leeds. He wrote in his diary, "When I was around 50 not out, I found myself thinking about all of those who had written us off. That gave me some inspiration." Waugh described his feelings as "unique and wonderful" and one could well understand why. He had reached the pinnacle of his captaincy.

Australian cricket had achieved what it deserved and the main ingredient of that victory was mental toughness, which happens to be an Aussie domain in international cricket.

Australia has remained a consistent and a rare outfit that can be termed complete in every aspect of the game, capable of winning from losing situations, and capable of bringing out its best at any stage of a match.

And what better statesman than Waugh to command such a fantastic bunch of cricketers.

Sadly, this great soldier will be missing from the line-up when the Australian team recharges its ammunition in South Africa in defence of its status as the best team in the world. A win at the Cup could be a fitting tribute to the experience gained under the captaincy of Steve Waugh and a win would also befit the "Australian cricket is different" description by Richie Benaud. Australian cricket indeed is different — it is all about playing tough and winning, and winning consistently, a quality that separates it from the rest of the cricketing world.