The band of the best

Australia captain Ricky Ponting with star-performers Glenn McGrath and Adam Gilchrist.-AP

The World Cup could not have gone to any other team but Australia, the untouchable, the unbeatable, the unplayable, the unbelievable, which has emasculated its rivals and exhausted the vocabulary. Rohit Brijnath pays tribute.

In the end, forget the squash ball in his glove to lock his grip, forget his average through the tournament, how many were surprised that Adam Gilchrist discovered himself in the final, produced a heroic, hectic, hell-raising century from the brilliant archives of his memory?

Surprised? Not his team-mates. Because Gilchrist said they’d been encouraging him, pushing him, massaging his self-belief, telling him that in this team, where the only standard is “excellence”, he still belonged.

Surprised? Not us, the public. Because we know, for a decade almost it’s been branded into our minds and record books, that this is what this Australia dynasty does. What do its players do? They lift, elevate, rise, accelerate when the moment calls, they salivate at the mere mention of challenge. These players want the stage, they crave the pressure, it’s like they have some internal team competition over who is going to shine brightest in the final.

Always, always, always Australia is competing, it’s hardwired into their DNA. There was only one World Cup trophy on offer, but there were many competitions Australia was simultaneously involved in the Caribbean. They were competing with the opposition from other nations. Tick. They were competing with history, with the West Indies one-day teams of 1975 and 1979. Tick.

But their hardiest rivals, their sternest battles, seemed to be with Australian teams of the past, and with themselves. The 2003 team had not lost a match, so, well, the only way to best that achievement was to demolish other teams this time, to make victory more convincing, to thrust the stake further into the belly of the opposing beast.

So Scotland was beaten by 203 runs, Netherlands 229 runs, South Africa 83 runs, West Indies 103 runs, Bangladesh 10 wickets, England 7 wickets, Ireland 9 wickets, Sri Lanka 7 wickets, New Zealand 215 runs, South Africa (semis) 7 wickets, Sri Lanka (final) 53 runs. Eleven matches, each one a synonym for rout.

And every rout stabbed home harder a message. As Ricky Ponting, as direct and unapologetic and quick with his words as he is with bat, said: “We’ve dominated this tournament probably like no other cricket World Cup has been dominated. It’s a great achievement that shouldn’t be overlooked, the way we’ve played and the way we have made some of these other teams look.”

But there was yet another competition under way. One of lifting standards, game after game after game. If you sifted though the Australians’ words before the final, what was evident was not merely that they desired victory (of course they did), but that they wanted to produce their finest performance of the tournament in the final. They wanted to leave the Caribbean looking their very best.

If people are occasionally bored by the Australians, the Australians are certainly never bored by winning. This is harder than it looks, especially when no outside force (i.e. competitive opposing team) pushes you. There is a monkish element to the Australians, something pure and rigorous and almost sacred to their search to ascend to some higher cricketing plane.

Some of this has to be credited to John Buchanan, who rattled even Steve Waugh by putting up a sign in the locker room in his early days as coach: “Today is the first Test of our journey to the ‘Invincibles’”, daring his team to rival Bradman’s 1948 side. And it is Buchanan who defined his team most cogently after this cup when he said: “Each individual in the team tries to be perfect and so from a coaching point of view that is the perfect team. A perfect team is one who wants to keep getting better day in and day out.”

Unquestionably, the two losses to England and three to New Zealand, prior to the World Cup, benefited the Australians, like taunts that got their attention. Stories of their demise would have been read, scowled at and turned into fuel. As it is these fellows probably eat two crocodile steaks and three challenges for breakfast every morning.

The Australians like to be dared, and they like to dare. McGrath was dismissed as a pensioner, bowling in slow motion, yet rebounded to own the tournament with 26 wickets. Matthew Hayden had been dropped from the one-day team and has returned to bat like a Stone Age hero with a club out on a hunt. Brad Hogg had gone five wicket-less matches before the World Cup yet was all unreadable trickery once it began. Put these fellows on cricket’s Broadway and instinctively they are drawn to put on a show.

If the Australians grew under pressure and scrutiny, others shrank, stammering out their lines like unsure actors. An Australian friend said he thought Ponting’s teasing of the South Africans, challenging them to take on McGrath, labelling Kallis slow and selfish, was tiresome. Till he figured the teasing actually worked on brittle opposition. South Africa committed hara-kiri in an immature bid to demonstrate it could dominate, and Kallis was tragically comical as he ignored his strengths and attempted to wildly prove a point.

McGrath, who knows his action as if he’s assembled it from Lego pieces, said something profound during the event. He insisted he was surprised when Australia doesn’t win. Because it has done everything necessary. Like the preparation, the planning, the sweating, equipping itself for almost every eventuality. After the Cup, Gilchrist referred to Australia’s “self-belief”, so did McGrath, and it arrives because so little is left to chance.

It is a team humming with talent and purpose, till it almost sounds like a machine. But of course it isn’t. These are men, flesh, blood, nerves, frailties, who are nurtured in an environment that allows them to bring out the best in themselves and each other. You wonder, players from other nations, putting aside for a moment their patriotism, do they ever wonder how much better a player they might have been if they played for Australia.

Sri Lanka, so unaffected, so joyous, so necessary a reminder that sport is essentially fun, was outclassed in the final, not disgraced. You felt for the team from the time the rain floated in and the toss was lost, for less overs in the final suited the incendiary Australians. Then Gilly went berserk, the pitch refused to bounce, the ball was reluctant to swing, catches wouldn’t stick, run outs wouldn’t hit, till the Lankans might have thought there was some conspiracy against them. There wasn’t, it’s just that teams feel that way when they play Australia. Nothing seems to go right and there is nowhere to go.

The Cup could not have gone to any other team but this one, the untouchable, the unbeatable, the unplayable, the unbelievable, which has emasculated its rivals and exhausted the vocabulary. The world has been issued a challenge again and, after a decade of being absurdly coy, the world needs to accept it.

The Australians will not care what the world does. They will celebrate, drink, pop a few aspirin and they will start again. They will digest their achievement and then note Brett Lee was missing, Watson not fully fit, Hussey didn’t fire. They will agree they were brilliant and then insist they can be better still.

Where it will take us this adventuring, staggering team, who knows? What we do know is this one-day team, or more precisely this Australian one-day dynasty, has transcended cricket. In a way, its redefining of domination demands comparisons with other sports. With four successive World Cup finals and three wins, the Waugh-Ponting sides belong with the greatest teams to have ever adorned this planet. With Alfred de Stefano and Ferenc Puskas’ Real Madrid side which won five consecutive European Cups between 1955-56 and 1959-60; with Brazil’s footballing artists who took home the World Cup in 1958, 1962, 1970; with Michael Jordan and Phil Jackson’s Chicago Bulls which won six NBA titles from 1991-93 and 1996-98.

With these celebrated bands of men, the Australians belong.

(This article was published in The Sportstar, dated May 5, 2007)