Skill, brain AND GUTS

It is no surprise that Australia keeps winning. No other side has such a mix of the technical and the mental attributes. It is also the side with great end-game skills, writes S. Dinakar.

A combination of flair and efficiency transforms Australia into a formidable cricketing force. The side's mental attributes make it a winner. To win, and to do so consistently, calls for more than just cricketing skills. Looking at it differently, not all technically accomplished batsmen necessarily make runs at the highest level, not all gifted bowlers end up with a tally of wickets matching their ability.

To put it simply, Australia handles pressure better than most. Adversity only stokes its competitive instinct. Mentally, the side is very hard to break.

Steve Waugh often spoke of destroying the adversary physically and psychologically. Waugh was a past master in mind games. He relished the sniff of a battle; he was at his fighting best when the chips were down.

It was no coincidence that Steve Waugh orchestrated an astonishing revival when Australia faced elimination and defeat against South Africa at Headingley in the 1999 World Cup. South Africa let the moment fly away. Australia and Waugh seized it.

Australia went on to triumph in Old Blighty. It, subsequently, retained the title in the 2003 edition in South Africa, and is the favourite for the 2007 World Cup in the Caribbean. When Ricky Ponting's men celebrated in Mumbai on a night of wind and rain, they had broken Australia's ICC Champions Trophy jinx. It was another one of those games, where Australia's famous resilience came to the fore.

Since August 31, 1999, when it lost to the host Sri Lanka in the summit clash of the Aiwa Cup, Australia has a rather remarkable record in tournament or series finals. The side has won 18 of the 21 subsequent finals. One of these matches did not produce a result, another was tied, while Australia went down to Sri Lanka in the first final of the VB Series in 2006. It eventually triumphed 2-1. Yes, it has clinched the Big Ones.

The Aussies are used to the big stage, they lift their game in the summit clashes. They do the simple things much better than the rest; scoring runs at a good clip and at the crunch, bowling to a plan and latching on to the catches.

In coach John Buchanan, the side has a clever strategist, and in skipper Ponting, a captain in control. The Aussies, invariably, have a potent `Plan B', just in case the opposition manages to surprise them.

The team opened the bowling with Brett Lee and Nathan Bracken in the Champions Trophy final, holding back Glenn McGrath.

Lee and Bracken were a right-left combination of contrasting pace, so the angle of attack and the speed, in the air and off the wicket, would be different. Under the circumstances, the Aussie think-tank preferred a swing bowler like Bracken to McGrath, the seamer.

Given the nature of the pitch, swing rather than seam was likely to consume Gayle in full flow. The belligerent Caribbean opener eventually succumbed to a delivery that moved in the air and straightened off the wicket. Bracken had delivered.

Crucially, the Aussies had Glenn McGrath operating in the middle overs to maintain pressure on the batsmen. McGrath has invariably bowled well against the influential Brian Lara. And he scalped the West Indian skipper early.

Introducing Bracken ahead of McGrath was a tough call for the team management but then the Australians have, traditionally, not shied away from hard decisions. And the selectors have, often, been ruthless. Steve Waugh, during a time when he was still an outstanding captain and batsman in Tests, was kept away from the one-day arena with Ponting taking over the reins. The two-captain formula had its critics but Ponting was being groomed to take over from Waugh. Ponting, subsequently, slipped into the role of skipper in both forms of the game effortlessly.

Not too many sides in world cricket would keep a powerful and dominant batsman such as Matthew Hayden out of the one-day team. The Aussies have rather courageously done so, and have been proved right, at least till this point.

Indeed, Australia is fuel-driven by a commitment to excellence. Cricket Australia has a tested talent spotting system and there are fine finishing schools. Emerging cricketers are exposed to different conditions in their formative years. Budding cricketers have been sent by Cricket Australia to India for learning how to survive and win on the sub-continent pitches. Hayden volunteered to travel with one of the teams in the late 1990s and this, really, was the genesis of his fabulous batting in India during the memorable and dramatic tour of 2001.

Domestic cricket in Australia is played on sporting pitches and in a highly competitive environment. This, apart from keeping established cricketers on their toes, builds bench strength. No side in world cricket has the kind of reserve talent that Australia has. Replacements are ready.

Australia has rare depth and options and can, when it desires to, rotate the cricketers to its advantage. Cricketers are carefully nursed and developed. When Michael Bevan departed, Michael Hussey stepped in.

Mitchell Johnson is a pace bowler with possibilities and he has been handled with care and foresight. Today, the left-armer of lively and often deceptive pace, swing and cut, is poised for a big leap.

It's no coincidence that Australia is a wonderful fielding side. Alex Kountouri, who has trained the side, revealed that the Aussies do not have to be told to run the extra mile on the field during sessions. These men take enormous pride in stretching every sinew. There is a line of thinking, not without reason, that mental toughness is an offshoot of physical ability. A cricketer is more likely to back himself if he believes he can last the distance.

Remember, the Aussies play attacking cricket in Test matches as well. In fact, one of the major turnaround in the Australian fortunes happened when Buchanan decided, with support from the think-tank, that the Australians needed to score at a healthy clip in Test cricket too.

The Aussie target for a day was anything between 330 and 360 runs and the concept revolutionised Test cricket. Australia had the batting might and the cricketing nous to pull it off when the bar was raised. This also meant that the Australians consistently looked for singles in Tests and invariably ran the extra run.

The Australian batsmen are wonderful judges of a run, can cover ground fast and are quick on the turn. They do the same in one-day cricket, which gives them an enormous advantage even during times when the adversary is able to restrict the boundaries. The Australian running between the wickets also disrupts the rhythm of the bowlers.

Discipline in bowling — this means operating to the field — plucking catches out of thin air and hitting the stumps with unwavering accuracy are all an extension of Australia's play in Test cricket. They just keep doing the right things, reflecting countless hours of practice.

When someone strays from the path, he is quickly pulled up, irrespective of his stature. Here, players are picked on performances, not reputations. When Brett Lee sacrificed accuracy for speed, he was made to realise his folly. The experienced Michael Kasprowicz was inducted into the XI, while Lee, the star, often carried drinks into the arena. For most part of the 2004-05 season, Kasprowicz was preferred to Lee.

The fast bowler learnt his lesson. He returned to the XI, but as a bowler with more control over his line and length. He still possessed speed, but used it judiciously. Now, Lee is the spearhead. It's quite remarkable that Australia was, before the advent of Shane Watson, a force in both forms of the game, without an established all-rounder. Although the mercurial Adam Gilchrist saves a place in the side as an explosive batsman and a competent wicketkeeper, Australia still did not have an all-rounder in the conventional sense.

Watson promises to fill that slot. He can swing and seam the ball at a good pace and is more than just a hard-hitting batsman. The Australian ploy to send Watson as an opener in the Champions Trophy enabled the side to include an additional bowler. On their part, the Australian selectors did not lose faith in Watson, whose career has been dotted by injuries. This is another Aussie cricketing attribute — the selectors persist with players they have faith in. Left-arm fast bowler Nathan Bracken is one more example. He too has been given a run by the wise men.

Australia is a side with match-winners. There are so many of them — Gilchrist, Ponting, Martyn, Hussey, Symonds, Clarke, Lee and McGrath. For the adversary, it is an intimidating line-up. There is an amalgam of heavy hitters and smooth stroke players in batting and great variety in bowling. And Ponting has been a strong captain. His field-placements indicate his attacking instincts. Even during those rare occasions, when he is forced to go on the defensive, he invariably, keeps an option of offence open.

His over-management skills have improved, so has his reading of the game. The International Cricket Council's Player of the Year and the Test Player of the Year, has been an inspiration to his men. He is a tough, no-nonsense captain, who stands by his cricketers. His batting has moved to another level.

Ponting and his men can adapt to the needs of the situation and the demands of the pitch and the conditions. This again is Australia's area of strength; it is a formidable force away from home, has conquered India in India. There have, however, been occasions when the Aussie aggression on the field of play has boiled over. Cricket Australia, in a welcome manner, has come up with measures to improve on-field behaviour.

It is no surprise that Australia keeps winning. No other side has such a mix of the technical and the mental attributes. It is also a side with great end-game skills.

*** AUSTRALIA'S ROLL OF HONOUR

When Australia comprehensively defeated the West Indies by eight wickets in the final to lift the Champions Trophy for the first time, it was the nation's 31st title in ODIs. It was also Australia's 10th title under Ricky Ponting.

1980-81: B&H World Series Cup (in Australia) — Captain: Greg Chappell 1982-83: B&H World Series Cup (Australia) — Kim Hughes 1985-86: B&H World Series Cup (Australia) — Allan Border 1987: World Cup (India/Pakistan) — Allan Border 1987-88: B&H World Series Cup (Australia) — Allan Border 1989-90: B&H World Series (Australia) — Allan Border 1989-90: Rothmans Cup (New Zealand) — Allan Border 1990-91: B&H World Series (Australia) — Geoff Marsh 1991-92: B&H World Series (Australia) — Allan Border 1993-94: B&H World Series (Australia) — Allan Border 1994-95: Wills Triangular (Pakistan) — Mark Taylor 1994-95: B&H World Series (Australia) — Mark Taylor 1994-95: Bank of NZ Centenary (New Zealand) — Mark Taylor 1995-96: B&H World Series (Australia) — Mark Taylor 1997-98: Carlton & United Series (Australia) — Steve Waugh 1997-98: Pepsi Cup (India) — Steve Waugh 1998-99: Carlton & United Series (Australia) — Shane Warne 1999: World Cup (England) — Steve Waugh 1999-00: Carlton & United Series (Australia) — Steve Waugh 2000-01: Carlton Series (Australia) — Steve Waugh 2001: Natwest Trophy (England) — Steve Waugh

2002: PSO Trophy (Kenya), shared with Pakistan

— Ricky Ponting 2002-03: VB Series (Australia) — Ricky Ponting 2003: World Cup (SA) — Ricky Ponting 2003: TVS Cup (India) — Ricky Ponting 2003-04: VB Series (Australia) — Ricky Ponting 2004: Videocon Cup (Holland) — Ricky Ponting 2004-05: VB Series (Australia) — Ricky Ponting 2005-06: VB Series (Australia) — Ricky Ponting 2006: DLF Cup (Malaysia) — Picky Ponting 2006: Champions Trophy (India) — Ricky Ponting — Compiled by S. Pervez Qaiser