The value of intimidation


OF all the talking points of a Test summer, and there were predictably enough, one man's packed suitcase stirs strongest in the memory.

Lance Klusener is a man to have by your side on a walk down a dim alley. With his lumberjack wrists and the shoulders of a fellow who wrestles bulls in his off time, there is something of primitive man to him - his club posing as a bat merely enhances the analogy. Simply put, menace becomes him.

Or so we thought.

For when Lance Klusener packed his bags, admitted he was of no use to his team and scampered back to South Africa, cricket had found its equivalent of boxing's throwing in the towel. It was Roberto Duran putting up his hands against Sugar Ray Leonard and mumbling "No mas, no mas" (no more, no more).

Batsmen have done balletic leaps into the square leg umpire's arms at the sight of Thomson and Lillee, suddenly discovered an injury at the sight of a fearsome pitch, made hasty visits to Moss Bros. (they sell armour) in London before walking out against the simmering West Indians. But asking for a ticket home is quite something altogether.

But this tale tells us less about Klusener (acceptably his form was already in disarray, his wife expecting and he might well revert to his Schwarznegger-impersonations in the one-dayers) and more of the intimidation the Australian team carries with it.

Mentally disfiguring a rival is standard sporting practice: runners walk in each other's lanes prior to a race commencing; swimmers edge closer and closer to a nervy opponent sitting on a dressing room bench; boxers eye-ball and exchange unpleasantries, and arrive at opponent's houses at the dead of night (Ali and Liston); tennis players kick each other's shoes across the room (happened to Leander Paes prior to his Wimbledon junior semi-final in 1990).

Australia these days wears this intimidation like a musk, wearing halos constructed of barbed wire. Their captain is tight-lipped, a cerebral warrior of sorts, who said of Klusener's departure: "we must be doing something right."

How about everything?

A misstep, like a dancer's momentary loss of rhythm, against New Zealand in the Tests led to exaggeration: they're too old, lost their edge, the peak has passed. Yes, and I have seen airborne elephants too.

It was an overreaction South Africa inadvertently paid for. Their series against Australia does not summon up pithy words like defeat. More like humiliation, destruction, carnage, mauling. It bore a passing resemblance to the Polish horse cavalry that charged German panzers in World War II.

South Africa had been in apparent ascension over the past few years, and against India racked up scores of 563, 362, 566 (the 5-day tour match included). In Australia they got past 300 twice in six innings, otherwise being bowled out for 128, 277, 219 and 154. Shaun Pollock collected 16 wickets in two Tests against the Indians; the Australians let him have eight in three Tests.

An Indian player, astonished, told me recently: "On top of the table is Australia, then about three or four rungs further down is South Africa, then about three rungs below that everyone else".

And the gap is not narrowing.

Australia has some great players, but too many good ones. Not 11. Try all 14.

How many players from around the world could get into this team? Sachin Tendulkar, unquestionably, for anyone (but let's say Ricky Ponting). Who else? Muralitharan for Lee. Who else? Jacques Kallis possibly for Mark Waugh. Brian Lara has the skill but this is a man who once walked out on his team. They have no place for such men in Australia. Think: only two players, possibly three, from around the world would fit their jigsaw.

Here's why. Langer-Hayden are the best opening pair in the world (four Tests, four double century stands!); McGrath-Lee-Gillespie the best three fast bowlers in the world; Shane Warne the best leg-spinner; Ricky Ponting the best fielder; Mark Waugh the best slip catcher; Adam Gilchrist the best all-rounder/wicketkeeper; Steve Waugh the best captain....this is all getting very tiresome.

As the Indian player told me: "Every one in their team is a potential match winner". In a way he's wrong. Potential suggests they have it in them to win matches single-handedly. The record shows most of them already have.

Oh, I forgot, the best tail too: Warne knocked a 70, 99, 41 and 37 this summer; Lee contributed 61, 41, 32, 29. Gillespie was injured but he's no mug either.

None of this is because God wears a green and gold shirt and sings Advance Australia Fair on Sundays. It's a work ethic, a philosophy. Resting on their laurels is a worthy cliche: only champions avoid it. After every successive victory, Steve Waugh doesn't sigh and say look what we did; he says look what we're going to do. This team makes Javier Sotomayor seem grounded: they keep setting the bar higher and then they clear it.

Take the tail again. Waugh's captaincy appears absurd, as if he enjoys turning his once-broken nose at convention: he will not protect them. If there's a single off the first ball, with eight wickets down, he takes the run. His message is typically unsubtle: learn to bat or take a vacation. They learn to bat.

The men in this team understand they must be players of many parts; if Johann Cryuff's team brought us total football, then this is a version of total cricket. This is not six batsmen, one keeper, four bowlers; this is 11 cricketers, as wide as the definition can be stretched. Bowlers cannot, like in some countries, India too, take comfort from five wickets and then rest in armchairs and look to the batsmen; pride ensures they contribute with the bat too. And everyone is a wannabe Jonty Rhodes: so often this summer a ball has been destined for the boundary, only to be arrested in mid-flight by an Australian hand. If all this does not encompass the idea of team, then what does?

In some ways it has been a dismal Test summer, but also a beautiful one. There has been no evenness to the teams, a confrontation bereft of the smoking coal of competitiveness; but in isolation Australia have been compelling. It revives memories from an altogether different sport: John McEnroe's 1984 dismissal of Jimmy Connors at Wimbledon, 6-1, 6-1, 6-2. There was no battle, but it was still poetry. Sport as an art form.

The more completely they dominate, the more incredible seems that distant miracle, that 281 from Mr Very, Very, Special Laxman, as VVS is dubbed here. Perhaps it was ordained, for there is no such thing as perfection in sport and it remains a small scratch, a flaw, in the Australian diamond. That said, possibly we will debate forever, not how accomplished this team is, but how skilled they really could be, for no current Test team has the capacity to push them. It is not Steve Waugh's fault there is no competition, but you sense he would enjoy some.

Still, for the downcast and dominated, there is good news: sport works in cycles and it suggests there is only way Australia can go. Down.

Though, even in the unpredictable one-dayers, I wouldn't bet my house on it.