Stench of fear rains on Aussie’s big parade

Some years ago I was asked to help select a Rest of the World XI. The task was approached diligently, although some would say with little skill because the World XI were mauled by Australia, who themselves had just been beaten by a mid-ranked England team.

I learnt one important lesson, though. The matches took place a matter of weeks after the famous Ashes series in 2005. At least I was sure the Ashes series had just taken place, because I had commentated on it, written about it, even presented the urn to the England captain at The Oval. I knew I had not imagined it, yet there was no evidence in Australia that the series had happened.

For sure, there was no reason to gloat or to engage in the kind of triumphalism that gripped the England team. Australia had lost, after all. But they were not wallowing in self-pity, either. There was no Schofield Report and no hand-wringing or soul-searching. They simply got on with things. They picked the same team, went about things the same way and duly delivered a spanking to the World XI.

Australians do not usually do introspection. Certainly, their players have the same doubts, the same nerves as everyone else, but once a thing is done, it is best forgotten and the future faced with a certain confidence, bravado, even. In cricket, maybe this is borne out of deep faith in a system that, by and large, has served them better than any other nation. Anyhow, it is a country that looks forward optimistically; not that there is much history to look back on.

How strange, then, to have landed in Australia this week and to sense in the air real doubt, gloom and English-style angst. There is the smell of fear, even. The French have already nipped off with the Melbourne Cup and the rugby has gone badly. Worst of all, the Poms are here to give us a stuffing. Greetings are extended with a shake of the head and an apologetic air as if the series is a foregone conclusion. A seasoned observer likened the early weeks to touring New Zealand, such has been its tameness.

The local press has already turned its guns inward; even Malcolm Conn, the legendary Pom-baiter from the Australian newspaper, managed only a half-hearted whinge about the multinational make-up of the England team. No one else I have spoken to here thinks the home team a goer. The mood is grim and it is catching: Leonard Cohen, the morbid crooner, has been performing in Hobart. It is said around these parts that he’s the voice of optimism.

The glass, usually half-full, is definitely half-empty. The selectors have been pilloried for picking a 17-man squad. Utter confusion, people say. Never mind that this can easily be read as a quiet, two-fingered salute from the selectors to Cricket Australia’s absurd marketing department, which wanted a glitzy affair at Circular Quay in Sydney and got a deserved damp squib instead.

There was plenty to be gleaned from this nonsense, but it was not that Australia’s selectors are clueless, or indeed that they have no idea what is their best team, rather that Cricket Australia has begun to get its priorities mangled. It used to be cricket before money; now it is the other way round, as Mike Hussey found out when he wanted to jump ship from the Champions League to join his Australia team-mates for Test preparation in India, but was told to stay put.

Suddenly, it is the flaws that are highlighted, never mind that Australia still has some good players to choose from: Mitchell Johnson’s 11 wides in a one-day match for his club side, Wanneroo; injuries to speedsters such as Mitchell Starc, Steve Magoffin and Josh Hazlewood; the continued mauling of Nathan Hauritz and Steven Smith at the hands of state players and the lack of spinning alternatives; Michael Clarke’s dodgy back; Hussey’s age and lack of form, and Marcus North’s very presence. Not so much baggy greens as saggy greens.

Critics have noticed a Pommification of local cricket, not that this is regarded as a good thing. A full-time selector, Greg Chappell, has been appointed, the first in Australia’s history. Like high-profile former England captains who became selectors – Raymond Illingworth and Ted Dexter spring to mind – the media are attracted to him rather than the low-key, low-profile lawyer-cum-convenor of selectors, Andrew Hilditch. Chappell has plenty to say and is quoted as saying that Australia will play a spinner at the Gabba. What if it is a green top? Chappell was a great player, but his lack of success in management has been noted.

Like the Poms, Cricket Australia has turned to management-speak. Whereas Steve Waugh took his team to Gallipolli, Cricket Australia now employs a corporate team-building company called Afterburner. They use ridiculous phrases such as ‘pre-missions’, ‘debriefing’, ‘task distractions’ and ‘flawless execution’. At great expense, it encourages Ricky Ponting’s men to sit around and speak openly at the end of a day’s play to each other without recriminations. Straight talking from Australians used to be a given.

A cricket writer of long standing here, Robert Craddock, wrote a piece recently dissecting Australia’s cricketing ills. The players are too soft; they are paid too much; young players are too mollycoddled, too much too soon; the selectors are too conservative; the game is losing popularity among the young. The system is broken. It could have been written by any English cricket writer of the past 20 years.

This lack of confidence is catching: a local politician recently called iconic areas of Sydney, Darling Harbour and the Olympic Park, ‘urban failures’ and ‘dead and lifeless’. Australia used to be no country for old men; it is growing old and pessimistic before our eyes.

It was left to Peter Roebuck, the former Somerset captain and the pre-eminent daily cricket writer here, to sound some sort of a rallying cry. ‘For twenty years Australia has been the teacher,’ he wrote. ‘No shame lies in becoming student again. At present, England is a step ahead, but the locals have a wonderful opportunity to learn things from them. Of course, it is possible to beat them at the same time.’ Not Churchillian, I grant you, but at least he’s not waving the white flag. The irony is not lost, of course, that he is a Pom.

Maybe the mood in the Australia dressing-room is different. Let us hope so. In any case, the first Test is still a week away. There is time yet for the locals to lift the mood and approach the series with their usual optimism and confidence. It is the contest that counts. Come on, Australia, it’s still 0-0, the game is on, there is a series to win. It is a fair dinkum Australia we want to beat, not Australia in English clothes. Next thing, Dame Edna will stop cracking jokes and start delivering sermons. The Times, 18 November 2010