Time to beat the Aussies
24 Oct 2008
Ten years ago, when the Australian team was at its most dominant, it became fashionable for the rest of us to believe that the Australian way was the route to take for those who wanted a share of their hegemony.
We cast envious looks at their layers of club cricket, where boys were exposed to men and club cricketers to seasoned Test veterans. Their abbreviated first class structure of just six teams was the touchstone to produce toe-to-toe cricket of an intensity that honed great players.
We saw that their state and national academies had managed to turn rough talent into a succession of jewels. Thus other countries needed to acquire their own academies in order to polish their own gems. Hell, the Poms even established their academy in Australia under the direction of Rod Marsh, the archetypal Aussie.
Australian coaches popped up in charge of all the subcontinent Test teams, of the West Indies, Zimbabwe and even New Zealand. England employed an Aussie bowling coach in their successful quest of the 2005 Ashes. Even the Australian administrators were looked upon as more than mere coathangers. If the ICC wanted a new chief executive, its directors looked no further than the bloke who ran the ACB and airlifted him into Lord’s.
All this was based on the belief that the Australians had found a way to keep the production lines of talent rolling constantly. After all, did not Mr Cricket himself, the amazing Michael Hussey, he of two triple hundreds, have to wait until past his 30th birthday before someone gave him his baggy green. Even the great Gilchrist was kept waiting until perilously close to his big 30.
The message the world received was that you had to be something special to make the Australian team, so rich was the country in its deep seam of talent. Yet this was not the story coming from the Aussies themselves. For some years, they have been warning that their cupboard, while not resembling Ma Hubbard’s, was running out of quality stock.
The flock of spinners that were supposed to have been inspired by Shane Warne have found his example too tough to emulate. Genius may be the child of imitation, but comprises more perspiration than inspiration in order to accomplish the mastery of variation and consistency achieved by Warne. The tubby leg-spinner may have been a larrikin, but the work he put into his art is beyond the reach and determination of all but the most singular of characters.
The truth is that serious talent cannot be prescribed. It was Australia’s fortune that a huge crop of gifted cricketers came along at the same time, just as it did in the West Indies in the 1980s and in South Africa in the 1960s and ’70s. Such bounty is uncommon, but does seem to happen from time to time in countries where the flowering of talent is assisted, not hindered.
The coming together of a bunch of gifted players at the same time is a phenomenon that is not easily explained. The Welsh rugby team of the 1970s is another example of an absurd collection of precocious talent that provoked many to believe that Wales would rule rugby for all eternity only to find that, once age had withered those great players, the Welsh became no more than ordinary.
It is always a mistake to assume that a great team is evidence of a structure that can perpetuate success. A good structure such as that in Australian cricket will, however, ensure that barren periods are relatively short. Those who have been waiting for years to beat them will have to make sure that they do not fluff the opportunity that is now so manifest. Unlike the West Indies, where structures are close to collapse, the Aussies will not hang around waiting for something to turn up.
The Indians will not surrender their lead in the current series. The present Australian team simply does not have the firepower to win a series on Indian pitches. The fast bowlers do not have the skill to run through the Indian batting on the abrasive surfaces that favour reverse swing and the spinners look unlikely to trouble tailenders, let alone India’s “fab five”.
The Australians will return home after this tour with little time to fix their bus.
Andrew Symonds will make a difference when he returns for the South African series and the bowlers will be more effective on their own pitches. The fact remains that this will be our best chance to defeat the Aussies in Australia for the first time. In four or five years, when the next chance comes, the compositions of both teams will be substantially different and only a fool would now bet against the Aussies then.
For example, this will be Jacques Kallis’s last tour to Australia as a world-class all-rounder. He may return just as a batsman, but his bowling days are drawing to a close. When he is bowling, Kallis lends the team the balance it needs to compete with the Aussies. As we know, cricketers of his quality do not come round with the regularity of a London bus, but we need him to be at his very best. Let us hope that Duncan Fletcher has stitched up his batting.
•Ray White is a former UCB president.