Success is what matters to the Aussies

Perhaps the most authoritative measure of how good Australia really is can be found in its unity of purpose. No other cricket side so fully commits itself to winning, writes S. Ram Mahesh.

The debate gaining currency in Australian cricket these days has its roots in what at first glance is a concerted act of publicity. Australia is the most humble team in world cricket, said the headline in a local newspaper on the first day of the Melbourne Test — it was a story drawn from broadcaster Harsha Bhogle’s view on Ricky Ponting’s band of men. Typical, was one response: here’s another Indian trying to win Australian approval, sucking up to the mighty. The considered opinion among several Australians was: “Humble? Who us?”

What Bhogle had actually said, and it became apparent when one saw beyond the headline, was that this Australian team expressed its humility in the dedication to its craft. Never satisfied with the level they are at, the Australians constantly strive to get better. The idea has merit, not least because it uses shades in meaning to strike at the heart of the easy assumption; of greater use, however, are the questions it leads to.

For one, how do you rate this Australian side? Nearly every great sports entity — whether individual or team — has had a counterpoint, a sort of resistance that allows for measurement. Sir Donald Bradman, the greatest phenomenon the game has seen, had Harold Larwood and Bodyline. If it weren’t for Larwood (the possessor of an action that conveyed entirely the menace of a steel fist in a velvet glove) and Douglas Jardine, Bradman would have averaged over 100 in Test cricket — an outrageous success beyond outrageous successes, for a century an innings is the high watermark of batting.

This Australian team, bereft of opposition, is increasingly being measured against its predecessors. For instance: Steve Waugh’s side had 16 straight wins, Ponting’s has 15 and counting — who’ll be the better team if the record is broken? Or not? It’s a futile line to take. In this case, even more so, for the sides have shared personnel.

But, comparisons across eras are futile for a broader reason. Nothing evolves in vacuum — the quality, philosophy, and style of cricket Ricky Ponting’s side play can’t be removed from the era it’s sprung from. And when men such as Ian Chappell and Bob Simpson — men who have an intuitive feel for the game and a thorough knowledge of its history — say the standards of world cricket have seen better times, the ground for comparison erodes further.

What is more readily perceptible is how hard Australia pushes itself despite the lack of opposition. If there is a fear, it’s complacency — an attitude of vigilance stemming from the hard slog through the 1980s and the early 1990s after the retirements of Chappell, Lillee and Marsh plunged the nation into cricketing purgatory. But, here we hit a roadblock and encounter another of the questions Bhogle’s idea seeded: just how high can Australia lift its game — what’s the limit of physical skill? John Buchanan appeared to address this with his vision of ambidextrous cricketers, thus increasing range, but in a game as dynamic as cricket, the height of skill often gives right of way to its adaptability under pressure.

Skill seems integral to our perception of the Australian team. The imagery used in describing the side is either from surgery (clinical, incisive, scalpel, tourniquets) or war mechanics (well-oiled, clockwork), the implication being the side makes up with athleticism, repeatability and sheer will what they lack in skill and artistry, the kind cricketers of the sub-continent are endowed with. Australia’s two failures since 2000 — against spin in India and swing in England — were held up as proof that the regimented will inevitably fall to the creative. The assumption was lazy, and while there is truth in the observation that Australia’s batsmen don’t play swing well, it isn’t in variance with the trend in world cricket, with the dearth of quality swing bowling breeding poorer players of it.

Perhaps the most authoritative measure of how good Australia really is can be found in its unity of purpose. No other cricket side so fully commits itself to winning. Some sides can get caught up in the enhancement of skill, but to Australia, everything is directed at winning. The passing of Steve Waugh, Mark Waugh, Ian Healy, Justin Langer, and Glenn McGrath hasn’t compromised the side’s success. The system ensures no one but the best makes it to the first class level; it also ensures the cricketers face every conceivable challenge before taking the next step. Michael Hussey, Phil Jaques and Stuart Clark have been forced not just to repeatedly prove themselves, but to understand what success entails.

Occasionally, the world will be let in on dissenting voices; but on the field there are no agendas save winning. Mitchell Johnson and Shaun Tait duelled each other for a spot in the first Test, but Tait, who was not picked, didn’t plant stories in the media suggesting Johnson had Ponting’s ear.

Ian Chappell said Australia traditionally plays an aggressive brand of cricket, scoring quickly and attacking with the ball. When the talent is in place, the side usually wins.

The Australian sides of the 2000s (both under Waugh and Ponting, but primarily Waugh) deserve credit for redefining the game twice: Adam Gilchrist revolutionised the role of the wicketkeeper-batsman; and Waugh instituted a rate of scoring, made possible by the batsmen at his disposal and the quality of opposition bowling, that all but took the draw out of the game. Ominously for cricket teams the world over, Ponting’s men have managed to strike a balance between Buchanan and Chappell, between scholarly attention to detail and intuitive intelligence.

Compiled by V.V.Rajasekhara Rao.-