There has not been much talk about ‘aura’ in Australia lately. Instead, Ricky Ponting awoke to the headline ‘clueless’ in Brisbane’s daily rag the morning after the first Test match. And for those of us who saw Doug Bollinger play for Worcestershire some years ago, the next day’s headline, ‘Unleash Bollinger’, was one that we never thought we would come to see. Send in the pooch!
Slowly, year by year, Test by Test, session by session, selection by selection, the accretions of myth built up over a long period of time by the Australia cricket team, and their sycophantic admirers in the local media, are being washed away. If the second half of the Test in Brisbane was the less interesting in some ways, as bat totally dominated ball, it was also the most revealing. As England’s top three ground on remorselessly, Australia’s bowling and catching revealed them to be, well, just like anybody else.
When Ponting caught Alastair Cook at short mid-wicket on 209, observers doubted the veracity of the catch because of his subdued celebrations. The Australia captain knew he had caught the ball, even if the third umpire didn’t, but his downbeat reaction was not because of his uncertainty but because the scoreboard said 457 for one. No matter who you are, no matter who you play for, it is hard to celebrate maniacally when the scoreboard reads like that. West Indies under Viv Richards possessed the most powerful ‘aura’ of any team I knew. It was based upon fear, pure fear. A generation of England cricketers had grown up under West Indian cricketing domination and nightmarish stories of their fast bowlers were handed down from year to year. Michael Holding bowling to Brian Close and John Edrich at Old Trafford in 1976; Mike Gatting having his nose smashed by Malcolm Marshall in the Caribbean in 1986; Andy Lloyd’s one and only Test match ending with permanent eye damage two years earlier. These images were real, not imagined.
Their effect was twofold. They diminished the opposition and gave what educationalists would call ‘value-added’ to everything West Indies did. Suddenly, West Indies’ warm-ups looked more dedicated and more professional than anyone else’s and when they hugged and high-fived at the end of them, the opposition saw a side who were utterly united, an impression strengthened by a captain who played with hatred – especially against England – in his eyes.
Australia’s aura was based not upon fear but upon a myth. The myth of the baggy green cap that adorned the head of generations of Australian cricketers, but one that, until Steve Waugh became Australia’s captain, had not been so venerated. Recognising the importance of mythology and ritual, Waugh elevated the cap into something that previous generations did not recognise. It coincided with the period of Australia’s greatest domination and most observers, encouraged by Waugh and his lieutenants, put two and two together.
Justin Langer, one of Waugh’s closest acolytes, said that bringing the baggy green back to life was his captain’s greatest legacy. Waugh described the power of this mythology: ‘As far as the Australian team is concerned, the traditions that we uphold are an important element used to develop pride, camaraderie and morale that will hopefully give us a mental toughness when we are challenged,’ he said.
When Australia walk out for the first session of a Test match in their caps, think of it as the equivalent of the haka for the All Blacks.
Everybody needs props in professional sport to help them cope, but when members of the Australia team went to Wimbledon to watch Pat Rafter in their baggy greens, the suspicion was that they were indulging in something that smelled suspiciously not of myth but of bullshit.
Certainly, Ian Chappell, another former Australia captain, thought as much. ‘It’s a five-dollar piece of cloth,’ he said of the baggy green. ‘There is too much made of it. It is a cap, a nice cap, but it has only become more than that since Steve Waugh started to jump up and down about it. I don’t need to look at a cap to remind me of what I did.’ Chappell does not have one to this day.
But mythology can be a powerful thing in sport and as Australia enjoyed a period of dominance that coincided with it, so the cap, rather than the cricketer underneath it, began to take on special significance. Everyone seemed to buy into it: the cricketers, the public, the media and, at times, even the opposition. Over the years the myth was repeated so often that the non-believers were scornfully dismissed and it came to be accepted as historical fact by mere repetition, as these things often are.
The most significant thing about the latter half of the Brisbane match was to blow these myths away once and for all. If the doubts were not already there, they are now.
This week it was the turn of Michael Clarke to undergo a forensic examination of his technique by England’s bowlers and then, in the days building up to the Adelaide game, as his one-on-one practice session with his captain took on extra significance, by the media. Whereas young Australian batsmen were once held up to be role models of technical purity, now Clarke was forced to talk about the adjustments he is making, about trying to stand tall at the crease to help him cope with England’s short-ball ploy.
This loss of aura spreads, so that the decisions made by selectors, for example, start to be queried, even the selectors themselves. At the moment they have certainly got themselves into a bit of a hole of their own making. Since Shane Warne retired they have used nine spinners of varying degrees of effectiveness but have not yet settled on his long-term replacement. Only the most optimistic observer, or perhaps a member of the Doherty family, would consider the latest spinning incarnation to be the answer.
There is a reason why, alone among Test-playing nations, Australia has produced generation after generation of wrist spinners. It is because the conditions here do not really favour finger spin, unless that finger spinner is exceptional. It remains to be seen how Graeme Swann’s tour pans out but the early signs from the Gabba were that even he may find things tough. What chance, then, Xavier Doherty?
Having witnessed Ian Bell maul Steven Smith in the match against Australia A in Hobart, nobody in their right minds would say that Smith is a ready-made replacement for Warne or anywhere near the finished article. And yet surely there is more upside, more long-term potential in Smith?
Smith looks like the type of player that Australia needs right now: young, optimistic and energetic with an occasional fizzing leg spinner and an unorthodox style that could well irritate England before the series is done. Yet he is not even in Australia’s squad for Adelaide, a squad that is full of seam options now that Ryan Harris and Bollinger have been added.
Australia have a good team and some outstanding players and will still be tough to beat, but the period of dominance coincided with a fortuitous moment in time when a handful of great players came together all at once. England’s players know that now, and it helps to know that you are playing 11 cricketers, and occasionally flannelled fools, rather than gods in baggy greens. The baggy green? It’s just like religion. The Times, 2 December 2010