Thursday, September 15, 2005

Where is the Australia we know ?

Where is the Australia we know? To deem that the way Australia have played during this Ashes to be purely a result of being up against a better team, would be gross injustice to the efforts of Allan Border, Mark Taylor and Steve Waugh in building a clinical and ruthlessly efficient winning machine. They nurtured a team that was tough, relentless and competitive to the point of being called unsporting. In fact, they secretly considered being disliked a compliment.

Australia have had a succession of brilliant captains and after the tough-as-nails Steve Waugh the mantle fell on Ricky Ponting’s shoulders. Perhaps the administrators choice was swayed by Ponting’s rough and tough demeanour. A ruthless and accomplished batsmen, Ponting had a reputation of being a tough bloke and it’s entirely conceivable that the men who mattered thought his maverick attitude would extend to his leadership as well. Whether John Buchanan’s methodic and scientific approach has curbed Ponting’s natural instincts or whether Ponting was never a leader of men, one thing is certain; this Australian team lacked the tenacity needed when it mattered most; an Australian trademark in previous years. Let this not take away anything from the character that Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath have shown through out this England summer. They are champions and have proved themselves again. But cricket is a team game and with McGrath injured, it was beyond Warne to win it single-handedly for Australia. Though he did come close.

Ponting inherited a winning team from Steve Waugh and continued in the same vein for several years. He led successful campaigns in several countries and even claimed a World Cup triumph. But there was one crucial difference; Taylor and Waugh were raw when Australia underwent a transformation under Border; a mediocre team became one that could hold their own. They witnessed the change and knew how and why it had come about; they were still young when the term ‘mental disintegration’ came to be. They were richer for the experience and used it to take Australia to dizzying heights. Ponting was new to the experience of losing a series as captain, let alone the Ashes.

Leadership is best tested in adversity and this is where Ricky Ponting’s captaincy was severely exposed. His vent of frustration as Gary Pratt, the 12th man, ran him out told the world that England’s tactics has got under his skin; something Steve Waugh would have hidden even if it had had the same effect on him. And certainly one would never have dreamt of Waugh, for that matter any mature captain, saying that it was not his fault alone if the Ashes were lost, as Ponting did with one Test left to play. It was an astonishing admission of defeat and lack of faith in the team. Not to mention a dearth of self belief.

Perhaps the most significant difference between Ricky Ponting’s Australia and Steve Waugh’s Australia is the dulling of the killer instinct that Australia had honed to perfection under Waugh. Even though England were by far the better side, Australia had more than a couple of chances to commit day-light robbery and under Steve Waugh they just might have pulled it off. To question the fighting spirit of Warne, McGrath and Lee would be a terrible injustice but one cannot help but think that the Australia of the Taylor-Waugh era would have batted on in the fading light at The Oval instead of going off; fully aware that time was of the essence. That was the tough Australia, the Australia that produced the impossible when the impossible was called for. John Buchanan’s scientific and methodical strategies and plans can only do so much. To win when faced with the insurmountable, calls for special performances – extraordinary Human performances - in unfavourable and hopeless conditions and not procrastinations until the next day.

Waugh’s men may have lost at The Oval too, but his entire team, and not just a few individuals would have put their bodies on the line. And I would like to believe that when staring down the barrel of an inevitable defeat, Waugh would have urged his openers to stay out in the bad light and brave those final seven overs rather than accept defeat in the dressing room. It would have been gracious to give England their victory on the field and to go down with heads held high. Warne and McGrath shared Steve Waugh’s mindset of champions. And they certainly deserved better. One may argue that Ponting’s team is getting on in years. But McGrath started with buckets of wicket at Lord’s and Warne finished with 40 in the series. They are the oldest and most tired men in the side, but they were easily the best performers in the series. Perhaps Warne and McGrath refused to let Steve Waugh’s influence on them fade. By and large Ponting’s team is the same as Waugh’s. What has changed is the ethic.

But Ponting could not have hoped to continue winning forever. A defeat had to come sometime. And what this defeat has done is expose flaws that the past victories hid. These Ashes should not end Ponting's captaincy. It should provide the oppurtunity to correct the errors and come back stronger then ever.