The Winning Machine


Irrespective of how old a side Australia put out, one thing is dead certain. You won't see them leaving anything behind in the dressing room. The depths of skill, resource, and courage will be plumbed before they fall back on plain old cussedness, writes S. RAM MAHESH.

The squad of 18 Australian cricketers — coach, assistant coach, physio, trainer, masseuse in tow — that descended on the Kinrara Oval for six days, till three were sent back, closely resembled a travelling circus. The spectacle of athletes of dazzling skill in near neon green and gold catching under lights, bantering with each other yet driven to perfection, was a sight for jaded eyes. But, the Australian team — a pastiche if ever a side of eleven can be called a pastiche — that scrapped its way into the final wasn't the all-powerful winning machine assembled from ruthless cogs and professional chains the cricketing world was used to.

Coming off a long break, having last played in April, captain Ricky Ponting announced his team wasn't expecting to set the world on fire; it would win enough matches to make the final. Australia would instead concentrate on experimenting with its squad, preparing for bigger tournaments — nudge, nudge, Champions Trophy, Ashes, World Cup, wink, wink — ahead. The world champions scraped through their first game on the back of a shocking West Indies collapse, stuttered in their second when batting before unleashing Mitchell Johnson, lost their third despite stand-in captain Michael Hussey's first ODI hundred, edged past India in their fourth on belief and nerve, and demolished the Caribbean islanders in the final after battling through the first half.

Along the way, Australia test-drove Glenn McGrath — returning after choosing in January to spend time with his wife diagnosed with cancer — and found him not quite in mint condition. The team found its reserve 'keeper had made impressive strides: Brad Haddin's glove work was on occasion superior to Adam Gilchrist's; his ability to clear the ground at will wasn't too far behind the incumbent's either. Shane Watson the bowler — a strong bustling paceman who can hit the deck at speeds in excess of 140kmph — was revealed, as was Shane Watson the opening batsman. The most exciting unveiling of all was the left-arm pace of Johnson, who has a fast bowler's snarl and hunger for big scalps.

"We tried to do the best we could with the squads here, tried to give some guys exposure to international cricket," said Ponting of the Play-Doh mix and match approach. "All in all there have been positives to come out from the experiments. We've seen Mitchell Johnson was a fine force, Shane Watson at the top of the order could be one more thing that could happen at some stage down the track. It's good to get a look at guys in different positions, otherwise you bring your squad of 13 or 14 guys and don't look at the younger guys. When the World Cup comes around, who knows with a few injuries you'd be going into the tournament with inexperienced players."

Indian captain Rahul Dravid, when asked what struck him most about Australian cricket, took his time, and said: "Their depth of squad." He made the point that newcomers seemed to belong at the international level, making the transition from domestic to world-class with ease. This, Dravid said, was because of the high quality of competition in domestic tournaments.

It's a compelling point for Matthew Hayden said the evolution of Johnson as a born-again fast bowler after injury was because of the set-up and the attitude in Queensland. Ponting said Haddin assuming a leadership role at New South Wales helped further his cricket. Shane Watson said his move back to Queensland helped his development. Adam Gilchrist himself made it after years of honing his keeping at Western Australia after moving from New South Wales, which couldn't fit him in.

The case of Hayden's one-day career is just as compelling: it's a microcosm of how cricket is played and run in Australia. "We didn't have room to take another batsmen actually," said Ponting of the left-hander's omission from the DLF Cup final. Hayden also isn't part of the Champions Trophy squad. His scores in the two innings he played during the Malayasia tri-series: 49 and 54. The fact isn't lost on Hayden: "I've always had to fight hard for my position, and that's the great strength of this wonderful side, the fact that everyone puts themselves in a position every day to be the best cricketer they can be."

But, just how good is the current Australian team? Will it win the Champions Trophy and defend its World Cup title? "Champions Trophy is one that we would love to win," said Ponting. "It is the second biggest one-day tournament that we play and it has eluded Australia. I think we have been knocked out in the semi-finals the last two times. I think we have the squad and the players to challenge seriously this time. We have played some good cricket in Indian conditions before. We can go there now with a bit of confidence going into it."

A bowling attack that reads McGrath, Lee, Johnson first up with back-up from Watson is the best one-day pace attack in the world. It has the diversity Australian bowling coach Troy Cooley — who formerly whipped the English bowling attack into shape — craves. The loopy wrist spun deliveries of left-armer Brad Hogg are tricky blighters on most surfaces. Andrew Symonds can, depending on the track, bowl muscly medium pace or off-spin. It was Australia's bowling backed by devilish fielding that kept the side in the tri-series tournament.

The pivotal batsmen are Ponting and Hussey. The latter has refined his game to an extent that Michael Bevan's reputation as the best finisher of all time is under serious threat. Gilchrist at the top is the game breaker; Ponting is able to assume different batting roles, all of which are predicated on attack. Symonds is a big-game player, a man his skipper trusts and backs, and his presence at five is at once reassuring and intimidating. Michael Clarke, who averages over 44, is the quintessential old-school Australian middle-order man: a hard runner. That he is an attractive stroke-maker is merely a bonus.

Two issues that might cause trouble, one more immediate than the other, are old failings. The only time Australia has really looked vulnerable, out-of-its-depths vulnerable, has been on slow, low turners against finger spin.

The tracks in the Caribbean more so than those in India, where one-day tracks tend to be flat batting beauties, will pose challenges for the batsmen. The other failing — one that has been whispered for some time now — is that Australia is an ageing side. No youngster has broken through.

The new faces barring off-spinner Dan Cullen aren't exactly pimply-faced teenagers. Johnson is 24, the highly-rated Phil Jaques 27, Mark Cosgrove 22.

But, irrespective of how old a side Australia put out, one thing is dead certain. You won't see them leaving anything behind in the dressing room. The depths of skill, resource, and courage will be plumbed before they fall back on plain old cussedness.

As Ponting chillingly said after the win over India, "It was a good tight tussle right to the end, and Australia generally wins most of those kind of contests."