Sunday, September 7, 2008

De-Mystifying Australia

De-Mystifying Australia

Having just witnessed the recently concluded First Test Match between India and Australia, which Australia won quite convincingly, Australia have clearly stamped their authority and have shown that they are keen to win every match in this series. They are clearly on a roll having won 15 in a row now. They would need no reminding that the last time they were on such a winning spree, 16 matches in a row, it was, they were halted in their tracks by India. The Australians at present have that aura of invincibility as they have had for quite some time now.
Having closely followed this Australian team just out of sheer interest and curiosity as to how they manage to play so well and win so many games, here I am attempting to demystify this great team......
It would be difficult to compare the West Indies team of yesteryears that dominated everyone, and this Australian team. Although West Indies have lost that status, it remains to be seen what happens with this Australian team and I suspect that it will keep on going for some years at least. Australia has always been a good team over the years. You can just check their performances in all the World Cups; having won the most number of World Cup titles and even of reaching the Finals. But it has only been in the last decade or so that they have gone a few notches above the rest. They have done well in all conditions and in every country. They really are a complete team in every sense. With legends like Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne along with Justin Langer and others retiring, it was expected that Australia would surely miss them and wouldn’t be as strong a team. Sure enough, you can’t replace these legends but Australia seems to have done well even without them. Brett Lee stepped up and took on the role as the spearhead gleefully and Stuart Clark already branded as the next McGrath has shown the ability to fill his shoes, as has Phil Jaques, in the role of Justin Langer. After Ian Healy, it was difficult to imagine someone taking his place but Adam Gilchrist has not only done that but taken it to the next level. You can imagine the kind of players Australia must have in their reserves when Michael Hussey comes in so late into the Australian team and Brad Hogg now 37, has just been in the Test team. Strangely this Senior -Junior controversy that India faces does not seem to bother Australia whose players go on playing well above 35!

So what is it with this team that makes it special? Do they have better players? No. India has equally or perhaps more talented players. Do they have some winning formula? Do they use technology better? Do they use battle of words to gain advantage? Do they just try and intimidate opponents to put them off?
Strangely, the answer according to me would be no. Having read the autobiography of the Great Steve Waugh, it gave me some insights into the team but no solid conclusions. This team does not have any secret or any short-cut. Believe it or not, it is just plain hard work. The kind of situations they go through in their domestic level are such that only those who are really good enough to excel in the International level make it. And by the time they are in the team, they are really well prepared for it. Compare this with sub-continent teams when players as young as 15 and 16 come into the team only to later find out that they were not quite ready. Sachin Tendulkar has been one rare exception and he has proved that his entry was at the right time. But of course such players are just once in a generation.

Ours is a fixation with individuals. Whenever someone does well, we shower accolades on him and term him a superstar only to later demand his head after a few failures. With such short-sightedness, wanting everything instant, no wonder we seem to do well in Twenty-Twenty!

The Australians are meticulous in their preparation, place equal importance on fielding and fitness which we always seem to neglect. They have their plans and strategies in place and they love to play their game aggressively as that is the way they have done and as is the way at their domestic level. They play with pride and enjoy playing well. There was a time when after having won the series, they would lose the last matches; the ones you call dead-rubber. But they have addressed that and are keen on improving all the time. Being complacent is something they consciously avoid because otherwise, they would have already slipped by now. Despite having won almost every match they play, defeat still hurts them and every win is special and not just a routine. Steve Waugh enforced in the minds of everyone that the baggy green cap is something special and has to be earned. This team enjoys playing in each other’s company and celebrates the success of everyone. Technology has no greater part in their success than it has in other teams. Gilchrist using the ball in his gloves while batting just shows that they have people who can give them effective advice and not just technical advice which every player at this level already possesses. They don’t believe in shortcuts which might not seem significant or a new fact but is very important to emphasize. The war of words is not necessarily planned but it comes naturally to them because that is the aggressive brand of Cricket that they play.

You just have to listen to their players being interviewed and I have always been amazed listening to the players. They are nowhere near arrogant as is the general perception. It is just pride misinterpreted. They are honest players which is why they are better. They might have the better of some good player, still if they get him out; it is a matter of celebration. It is not taken for granted. Recently I heard Michael Clarke saying that he got a call and was told that he would be the vice-captain and his first thought at receiving the call was that he might have been dropped from the team! They don’t take their places for granted in the team either, no matter who they are.
Subcontinent teams have star players and some others have better ‘teams’ who play well as a team but Australia have both. Each player is well known and feared but they play great as a team too and that is where their strength lies. They believe in themselves which again comes from the confidence they have got coming from their highly competitive domestic level and that is precisely the reason why they seem to win all the close games even from difficult situations (Remember the Semi-Final against SA and many more) when other teams are more nervous, they in fact seem to raise their level when needed.
They do not even have a planned strategy in the sense that each player has the freedom to play as he feels right because they know that each player has team interest ahead of himself. Just take the recent case where Australia had said that they will not allow Murlitharan to overtake Warne in Australia. This was not arrogance but perhaps giving responsibility to their players as if to do something for their former great player, like giving him something back for serving Australian Cricket so well. And they did it! Imagine the joy they would have got out of it and even Warne was thankful to them. Such things only strengthen the team spirit further. And they had said that each batsman tackled Murlitharan in his own way. Each individual made his own plans and that’s the way they play. Each individual does his homework.

But having said all this, Australia isn’t invincible. Still it can lose against Bangladesh and India can defeat it in Twenty-Twenty too. Nor are all their players always at the top of their game, their batsman too get out for ducks and sometimes even their bowlers are clobbered but it’s the overall big picture that counts where they get the things right. They might lose some battles but they win the final war; which is what counts.
Interesting Fact- Steve Waugh is known amongst friends as "Tugga" (as in tug of war), and amongst the public as "Iceman" for his ability to remain calm and cool in high-pressure situations throughout his career
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