They are competitive even among one another

TED CORBETT

TO unearth the secret of Australian cricket success, particularly against England but in holding both the World Championship and the World Cup, we must travel back 200 years.

The jubilant Australian team after retaining the Ashes.-REUTERS

We also have to consider the laws of the survival of the fittest and make a comparison with the West Indies, another team who dominated world cricket as the Australians are at this moment.

Australia was born as a prison cell, a dumping ground for criminals and political upstarts left a harsh environment when the First Fleet sailed into Botany Bay in 1788. It was a rubbish heap for tough, rebellious men and their warders; and women who were prepared to defy the conventions and fight for their equality.

What better start could there be for a country that was eventually to hold sporting prowess as its greatest achievement.

There is a similarity with the West Indies, manned for hundreds of years by slave men and women who had been force-marched across the African continent before being shipped across the Atlantic. The strongest lasted the distance and, when their descendants were freed, grew into tall, handsome and fearsome competitors with a little hate in their hearts for the men who had made them suffer such indignities. So it was in Australia.

Once their prison sentences were done, once they could strike out on their own, the freemen discovered a new aspect to this land. It was warmed by the sun and there was plenty of room to play cricket, to swim and, eventually, to add the anarchic Aussie Rules and the more delicate tennis.

Right from the start, when English teams began to tour Australia, there was always a battle, even when an England XI played XXII of Victoria.

It was partly because the descendants of those sent to Australia saw their chance of revenge, partly because cricket is such a wonderful betting medium - and these Aussie men were all gamblers - and partly because it was such fun to make fun of the British, who they began to call The Poms.

Whether that derives from Prisoner of Her Majesty, as some believe, or because the sun made Englishmen take on the colour of pomegranates no-one seems able to decide. But the more it irritated the Poms, the more the Aussies loved the idea and so Pom-baiting became a national pastime, particularly on the cricket pitch, where sledging, another Aussie art goes back as far as cricket itself.

As they practised, as they were joined by professional cricketers come to Australia to earn their living and as their contempt for things British grew, so the sons of convicts, soldiers, immigrants and carpet baggers found that their natural strength and hardy life made them ideally suited to cricket.

Besides if you bowled fast on a rough pitch you could make the Poms twitch - and that has been good fun right from the days of "Demon" Spofforth until Brett Lee clouted Alex Tudor over the eye at the WACA recently.

Eventually, in 1877, the historic match between the touring side headed by James Lillywhite and "A Grand Combined Melbourne and Sydney XI" was reinvented as the first Test and a great tradition born. Defeat for England at the Oval in 1881 brought the announcement that England's ashes had been taken to Australia.

The following autumn the girl friend of the England captain the Hon. Ivo Bligh created her own ashes from two bails, stuck them in a tiny wooden vase and gave the Aussies yet another reason to plot vengeance against the dastardly Poms.

Australians are competitive even among one another. Watch their children at school, watch mates in the pub, watch a man who has backed a horse yell it home even though it may be running a 1,000 miles away and you will see why Australians bred Steve Waugh, Cathy Freeman and Rod Laver; Ian Thorpe, Pat Cash and Greg Norman.

They have all been world leaders in sport and to the Aussie audience living gods. They are all worshipped in Australia as Sachin Tendulkar is in India.

The Aussies soon outplayed the languid Poms. Since the 1877 Test the two sides have played 304 games. England have won 94, Australia 124 and there have been 86 draws. The West Indies held sway throughout the 1980s and most of the 1990s and briefly the South Africans proved as hardy as the Aussies.

Now these new Australians are unbeatable, having crushed the South African challengers, brushed aside West Indies, hammered Pakistan and nailed England to the floor. England have won only six matches since they lost their grip on the Ashes in 1989 and they appear to be about to lose a series in Australia 5-0 for the first time since 1920-1.

This time they don't even have a recent war as an excuse although the bombing in Bali gives Waugh's men some of their inspiration. They are not just a great side - and how it hurts an Englishman to have to admit this - but Australian patriotism is more fervent than ever which accounts for the large crowds who have gathered for Test matches in which the result has been clear from the start.

So how shall we name these wonderful Australian cricketers; how shall we define their greatness in a phrase. Waugh's Wonders? The Untouchables? The Indestructible Aussies?

The 1948 team led by Don Bradman, 4-0 winners in England, robbed of a 5-0 whitewash by Manchester rain, have gone into Australian folklore as The Invincibles since they went through an England tour unbeaten. Now there is a belief Down Under that this latest bunch of fine cricketers make an even greater team.

The game has changed too much, the times have altered too significantly, our sense of values is so different for us to put forward a genuine comparison but there is no doubt that, as World champions and World Cup holders this 21st century team is among the finest of all time.

They can afford to terminate the career of Mark Waugh, a sublime batsman with more than 8,000 Test runs and the fielding agility of a circus acrobat, and still win. They dropped Brett Lee, their fastest bowler, and inspired him so that when he returned - after they had won two Tests by wide margins - they achieved victory just as comfortably.

In two successive Test series against England they have retained the Ashes - which have been theirs since 1989 - in only 11 days. They have been threatened by South Africa, probably the second best team in the world, and beaten them 5-1.

They have shown their mettle everywhere save India and there is no question about the rightful place of their star in the firmament.

Aggressive, supremely confident, highly motivated and skilful. They attack from the moment there are seven men from Adam Gilchrist the wicket-keeper through to point; alternatively they are as prepared to hit the first ball of the match into the crowd, if that is what it merits, or to defend if a bowler earns their respect.

Like true sportsmen they can be chivalrous - it was their physio Errol Alcott who reached Alex Tudor first when he was struck a sickening blow by Lee in the third Test; but they give no quarter and will not be quiet, either in sledging mode on the field nor in their newspaper columns when they go into propaganda mood between matches.

Here are intelligent, sports-savvy, modern men, aware of their value, their needs and their place in a society that ranks sporting achievement above all else. Only the best-coached, best-led, lucky and well-managed team will stop the blitzkrieg.

They are all passionately in love with their game, desperate not only to put the Poms in their place but to supersede their mates at the same time, and naively keen to win a place in the hall of fame, even if that is just a moment on Channel Nine to describe just how they were chosen as man of the match.

"Why was it that when the Poms were given a choice about practising, only two or three turned up?" a friend asked as the third Test slipped Australia's way. "All the Aussies would have turned up."

So they would. They know that just down the road are half a dozen cricketers ready to take their place; just as the selectors know that when they see the first sign that Waugh has grown old they can find a replacement.

Charles Darwin understood the survival of the fittest and as long as the Australians continue to practise its principles so will their team dominate the world.