Search for a legacy

AUSTRALIA'S cricketers last week were looking a bit like a bunch of truant schoolboys appearing before a headmaster, making all sorts of muttered promises about future good behaviour. It was all rather amusing.

ROHIT BRIJNATH

AUSTRALIA'S cricketers last week were looking a bit like a bunch of truant schoolboys appearing before a headmaster, making all sorts of muttered promises about future good behaviour. It was all rather amusing.

The introduction of a strict code of conduct by Cricket Australia was followed by pronouncements from the Australian Test captain Steve Waugh (right) and Ricky Ponting, the ODI skipper, that they will be more decorous on the field. -- Pic. HAMISH BLAIR/GETTY IMAGES-

The introduction of a strict code of conduct by Cricket Australia was followed by pronouncements from Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting that they will be more decorous on the field. The game has changed, admitted Waugh. Once drinking 50 beers on a flight to England was a badge of honour; now it brings charges of alcoholism.

Australia is a proud nation, who play their sport on the premise of "hard but fair," and neither officials nor sponsors nor the public has been too pleased that the "hard" is seen to outweigh the "fair." Waugh, who has been less inclined to restrain his team than Mark Taylor, is, however, a man who understands the nature of legacies. His team's greatness has been tarnished, and he will not have enjoyed that.

Perhaps the label of boorishness that his side wears cannot be washed off, but it is all not a lost cause. An Australian official told me that behaviour among young cricketers, in clubs and elsewhere, is less than splendid, and throwing of bats is hardly unheard of. Waugh's team has not always sent the right message, but this is an opportunity to alter that.

Of course, despite what you may have been led to believe, the Australians have not suddenly acquired easy-to-assemble halos. They will not be sending visiting teams bouquets, neither will Brett Lee embrace batsmen who belt him for four. They are scarcely going to arrive on the field with stitched lips either, but insist whatever is said will be banter and not a personal attack. Whether visiting teams will be able to make that distinction is to be seen.

Whatever, it promises to be an engaging summer. Australia play six Tests (two vs Zimbabwe, four versus India) and being fellows with a one-track mind they will be satisfied, weather permitting, with no less than a 6-0 verdict. Waugh indicated that this will be his last playing summer in Australia, and being a man of some style (remember the defiant hundred against England in Sydney), he will want an impressive send-off.

For men of my age, 40 that is, it is hard to imagine a cricketing world without this most complex of characters, a man defined in his later years as much by his ruthlessness on the field as his humanity off it. One day he embraces children in Kolkata, next day he prepares to slay their icon (Ganguly). The cautious batsman of years past has also burnt his cloak of stoicism: the new Waugh throws his bat at everything, as if he is running out of time to play all the strokes he remembers.

Waugh's ambition, so clear it appears tattooed on his forehead, is victory in India. The closeness of defeat in 2001 was devastating but also a spur; then he got one foot over the final frontier, and while he was turned back it was enough evidence that a full crossing is viable.

Glenn McGrath's use-by date has not arrived, but his injured ankle is a small suggestion of the havoc time and continuous cricket can wreak on an athletes' body. -- Pic. HAMISH BLAIR/GETTY IMAGES-

First, though, he must administer a lesson at home, and the Australians are aware, as coach John Buchanan said, that this is an altered India. When the Indians toured in 1999-2000, Tendulkar did not dominate in the style he does elsewhere, Laxman shone but only when the series was dead, Dravid failed to impose himself, and Ganguly was not yet captain. Much has changed since, and they expect a sterner India, an India that Buchanan says "is a stronger unit, leadership is strong, and they adapt better to different conditions." How far that improvement has come is what the Australians are keen to gauge, and the homework will commence during Australia's brief one-day visit to India.

That Buchanan should in conversation mention the absence of Glenn McGrath is telling. The fast bowler may have resembled a mechanical monster, one too oiled and reliable to ever break down, but even machines require rest. McGrath's use-by date has not arrived, but his injured ankle is a small suggestion of the havoc time and continuous cricket can wreak on an athletes' body. He still may be fit for half the Indians' visit, maybe even earlier, but it is an interesting test for the Australians. Knowing Waugh's team, crisis will be turned into opportunity, and Buchanan cites Warne's absence from the World Cup as compelling evidence.

Still, it is an advantage for India, for no man exploits weakness, or challenges temperament, or is as relentlessly nagging as McGrath. Australia may throw up another quickie of ferocity and focus, but he will not carry the intimidation, and reputation, of his gangly peer. Mentally, batsmen will be a touch freer, psychologically less wounded, and it is these small gifts the Indians must gleefully take.

But for the Australians, the issue in the long term surpasses the matter of just one individual. In a way, an aging team is under threat, for incredibly, in the next two years they will play 36 Tests and about 90 one-day matches, which is in the region of 270 days of cricket. Sustaining excellence over such a hectic period will prove a tiresome task, especially for those involved in both forms of the game, and it is almost predictable injury will make the job even harder

With Martin Love, Jimmy Maher, Michael Clarke and a few others waiting in the wings, their batting stocks are somewhat impressive. But their bowling reserves are a different proposition. Warne will return but he will return older, and barring MacGill, who is hardly flushed with youth, no spinner has yet to assert himself. Among the fast bowlers, the gifted Jason Gillespie always appears held together with scotch tape and safety pins, Brett Lee's back will have to bear an enormous burden, and Andy Bichel is already in his 30s. Young tyros Brad Williams and Nathan Bracken (who has already suffered injury) are ambitious, but whether their talent matches their appetite is yet to be confirmed.

In the short-term, Australia appears unstoppable. But maintaining their greatness over time promises to be their finest challenge.