The importance of playing for the flag


The Cup-winning Aussies in 1999-N. SRIDHARAN

AFTER 45 days tramping through England during the 1999 World Cup, the memory that is engraved deepest is not of an eloquent innings or a catch of athletic inspiration. It is actually of a few words, seemingly inconsequential, spoken on the final day.

The match was done, the trophy hoisted, the spectators gone, the empty plastic glasses shuffling in the gutters. In a packed interview room, Steve Waugh sat, almost as if on a throne, looking as relieved as he was pleased. Questions and answers danced across the room, from how the opposition (Pakistan) played to the captain's respect for his "11 players". But then, 15 minutes or more into the press conference, Waugh, in the middle of a reply, abruptly changed tack. "I apologise, I want to correct myself, I meant 15 men not 11.''

It was a sweet moment and a very Australian one. No country appreciates as powerfully the idea of TEAM or embraces as tightly the notion that individuals, however striking their performances, are by themselves useless. Every man counts, from the spirit of the 12th man as he ferries water, to the continually dropped bowler who masks his dejection by sweating keenly at the nets, to the daily commitment the fitness trainer brings to his craft. They are the nation of the clenched fist.

The Australians, eventually, did most things well in 1999; they batted with disdain, took catches other men would not reach and bowled with the desperation of men on death row. But always, the Australians were interesting for what they did beyond cricket. Always they searched for an edge, for a way to heighten their sense of kinship and motivate each other. For these cliched men of action, oddly enough, some of this would come through words. Poetry, to be exact.

The Cup-winning Aussies in 1987-ALL SPORT

It had started off with a "thought of the day", perhaps an inspiring quote from Churchill, which was recited to the players before a game. Subsequently, that idea had grown. Waugh was keen his players write something, even an inspirational couplet, anything that might bind them together more tightly. Fittingly, on final day in 1999, it was he who awoke before the dawn and wrote the poem to be read to his team before play began.

It read as follows:

"Well, here we are at the home of W.G. Grace It's taken something special for us to arrive at this place We've watched swampy Marsh tick off his tattered road to Lord's It's our destiny, make no mistake Unlike his spelling on the blackboards The path has been littered with courage and character It's now time to kick some ass starting with Shoaib Akhtar So let's make a pact to fight as only we can And show the ANZAC spirit where it all began It will be a time we'll never forget And one where we can all say I've got no regret I can't wait to get the goose bumps from head to hand As Punter (Ponting) shouts, "Underneath the Southern Cross I stand."

Shane Warne's four for 33 scuttled Pakistan in the 1999 final.-V.V. KRISHNAN

While not quite West Indian, Australia's domination of one-day cricket is mirrored in its performances over the past four World Cups: winner in 1987, finalist in 1996, champion again in 1999. Ironically, or perhaps expectedly, only at home in 1992, would they fail in some style.

Their wins were similar and they were different. In 1987, Allan Border, whose skin reminded one of sandpaper, was gradually building a stellar side, his victory surprising in a tournament the sub-continent was expected to own.

Steve Waugh's team, though we were yet to know it, was poised in 1999 to embark on the greatest winning run in Test cricketing history. And even in the more uncertain world of one-day cricket, their versatility of craft and keenness of mind made them favourites. Pakistan, the other contender, looked, as always, artists teetering on the edge.

What was common to their teams was a classical Australian characteristic: sheer bloody-mindedness. Australians like losing as much as they do a session on the rack. It is no surprise that they have an honourable reputation in soldiering, and there is a persistence, pride, courage and commitment to teams from down under.

This importance of playing for the flag, this powerful patriotism defines their sport. John Newcombe once said that: "I always tell young players what Roy Emerson told me when I first played Davis Cup. `If you're playing for Australia, and you're going to lose, you better come out with blood all over you'."

This competitiveness, this desperation to win, was evident at the 1987 and 1999 World Cups. In the former, Australia beat India in their first match by a historic 1 run, squeaked past New Zealand by 3 runs, and finally ruined Pakistani digestion by winning their semi-final in Lahore. These men could hold their nerve.

In 1999, it was personified by their two matches against South Africa. In the first, Australia's captain led a chase that looked improbable, in the second they tied a match they had no right to. Always, the Australians were reminding us that skill without spirit, talent without tenacity, was useless.

In 1987, Australia were quietly consistent, winning five of their group matches, losing only their second round-robin match to India. In 1999, things were a trifle more ticklish and Australia, looking strangely out of sorts, lost early to New Zealand and Pakistan.

Nothing to be concerned about, they were merely stretching their legs. Thereafter they were untouchable, going seven matches without a loss, beating, in succession, Bangladesh, West Indies, India, Zimbabwe, South Africa and Pakistan, and tieing with South Africa in the famous semi-final.

There was cultured play and there was controversy, the latter accompanying their win against the West Indies. Agonisingly slow batting by the Australians, which aimed to ensure that the Windies and not New Zealand (who had beaten Australia and would carry over those points into the next stage) qualified for the Super Six stage, broke no rules but bruised the game's spirit. Or perhaps it was merely an absurd points system being acceptably manipulated.

Kiwi captain Stephen Fleming defused the tension insisting he might well have done the same thing, and Waugh, in typical style, expressed little remorse. "I don't know about morals, I'm here to win the World Cup. They make the rules, we have to do as we see fit."

All was soon forgotten as the Indians were quietly and cleanly decapitated by Glenn McGrath, with some assistance from Fleming (Ganguly 8, Tendulkar 0, Dravid 2, Azharuddin 3, all gone before the 7th over was finished, while chasing 282). And then, madness against South Africa.

Always there has been boldness to the Australians and brittleness to the Proteas, and it showed. Chasing 271 in the Super Six encounter, Australia were 3-48, but could not be put away. Steve Waugh has played Horatius on the bridge so many times that there is almost a predictability to his stubborn courage; still, it is always breathtaking.

Waugh constructed a violent 120 from 110 balls with 10 fours and two sixes; of course, the legend was further embellished when Herschelle Gibbs dropped him on 56 (or rather caught him and then dropped him while set to hurl the ball into the skies in celebration), to which Waugh's remarkable response was: "Son, you've just dropped the World Cup".

Steve Waugh made a name as a crafty bowler in the 1987 World Cup.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

The second match with South Africa, the semi-final, ended with a memorable image: Hansie Cronje, sitting in the dressing room, with the thousand-yard glare of a battlefield soldier who has seen too much.

After Australia struggled to 213 (Bevan 65, Steve Waugh 56), South Africa stumbled to within one run of victory, till Allan Donald and Lance Klusener made the most laughable error in cup history since Mike Gatting felt the overpowering urge to reverse sweep.

The 1999 final had the smell of a no-contest to it, but to suggest it was a fix, as some did, was absurd. If anything, it seemed that if Pakistan, who were struggling with a match-fixing inquiry back home, had won, everything would have been forgiven. You do not persecute heroes.

Wasim Akram boldly proclaimed that "My team is the toughest in the world mentally" (a bit like Imran Khan at the 1992 World Cup saying Inzamam-ul-Haq was a superior batsman to Sachin Tendulkar), but Waugh predictably shrugged it off saying, "That's a laugh".

Bowled out for 132 (extras top scored with 25), it was this sub-continental team's ineptness against Warne, who finished with 4/33, that raised eyebrows. Pakistan had effectively reduced the final to an anti-climax, and the only entertainment available was another episode of The Adam Gilchrist Show (54 from 36 balls).

Twelve years earlier, Pakistan came closer. Chasing Australia's 267 in the 1987 semi-final, Pakistan fell apart at 3/38, till old faithfuls Imran Khan (58) and Javed Miandad (70) appeared to glue them together. But once Imran was out at 150, the pressure of a baying public and the heat of Craig McDermott (5/44) got too much. Much like India's errors against England in Bombay in the other semi-final, the sub-continent choked when it mattered most.

Only in India, and perhaps only in Eden Gardens, would a substantial crowd appear to cheer an England-Australia final. It was a quiet final, enlivened by one moment of idiocy and one of defiance.

Chasing Australia's 253, built around David Boon's 75 and Mike Veletta's improvised 45 (31 balls), England appeared in complete control: once 1/1 they reached 2/135. And then Gatting was struck by a moment of sporting madness. He met Allan Border's gentle, first delivery with a reverse sweep, was caught easily, and walked off a tragic, stocky figure. The moment had passed for England.

Australia, always the predator, smelt blood and in the face of defeat only Phil de Freitas, 17 off 10 balls, found the courage to respond. Yet, as England closed in on the target, a young bowler with a fresh face but an assassin's unblinking stare, removed De Freitas and bowled the 49th over for the loss of just two runs. It was a nerveless exhibition from a man who would make a living producing them: inevitably, Steve Waugh would be named The Iceman.

Waugh, in fact, was the only surviving member of the 1987 final team to play in the 1999 final, and would become since the great West Indians, the first man to win two World Cup finals. Few men have deserved it more.

Australian Team:

1987 Final: David Boon, Geoff Marsh, Dean Jones, Craig McDermott, Allan Border, Mike Veletta, Steve Waugh, Simon O'Donnell, Greg Dyer, Tim May and Bruce Reid.

1999 Final: Mark Waugh, Adam Gilchrist, Ricky Ponting, Darren Lehmann, Steve Waugh, Michael Bevan, Tom Moody, Shane Warne, Paul Reiffel, Damien Fleming and Glenn McGrath.