Searching for an Identity

On the front cover of Christian Ryan's book Australia: Story of a Cricket Country there is a photograph taken by Patrick Eagar at Edgbaston in 1975. It shows the Australian side after the dismissal of one of the England batsmen in a match which Australia won easily. Both the Chappell brothers are there, as are Lillee, Walker, Mallett and Edwards. Thomson and Marsh are out of shot but the implicit message is clear. We are Australia, we hunt as a pack and we mean business. Most of us may be smiling but we don't mess around. We are as one, and, if you're Mike Denness's England, we will crush you into the ground as quickly as we will look at you.

Almost thirty-eight years later Cricinfo carries a photo of the Australian fielders during their recent match against India A. The effect isn't quite so intimidating. Cowan is there, and Watson, and Lyon and Wade, but they don't look as hard. Like their 1975 forebears they are happy, as they have just claimed a wicket, but they also look younger and more fragile. Partly this is because we know what the 1975 side was capable of, but it is also because it is a realistic appraisal of where the Australian team is at this moment in time.

It is a side in transition and it is searching for an identity. And their current opponents, India, are doing just the same.

These are similarities, but there are also differences. The Australian team identity tends towards the collective: there are stars, whether they be the Chappells, or Lillee, or Thomson, or Warne, or Ponting, or Gilchrist, but the team is the thing. Get above yourself and you will quickly be dragged back into the pack.

This works. No team in Test history has won as many Test matches as Australia. At times - and those of us who've followed international cricket over the last fifteen years remember the best of these - Australian teams have strode the world like a colossus.

For a range of reasons, India has never done this, and the best Indian sides have relied far more on the brilliance of a few individuals than collective competence and iron competitive will puctuated with excellence.

In Chennai, India's victory was founded on the rediscovery of Tendulkar's equlibrium, the savage elegance of Kohli and the dominant brilliance of Dhoni, while Ashwin issued a reminder that he can bowl as well as bat like a clone of another man of the Indian south who preferred to be known by his initials alone.

Australia still have the same collective desire and competitive edge they always had - indeed it is hard-wired into their players' DNA - but they lack the experience of the particular challenges which sub-continental Test cricket presents, and they lack real era-defining quality of the type which India have in spades, even if the eras being defined have, in at least two cases, passed. Clarke is a very, very good - possibly great - batsman. If he can overcome his fitness problems there is every chance that James Pattinson could become a great fast bowler. Mitchell Starc, too, will have plenty of days in the sun if he sticks around. David Warner, you suspect, has a few more surprises up his sleeve. Perhaps Philip Hughes does too. But the majority of the side will finish their career as footnotes in their country's rich cricket lineage in a way that Tendulkar, and Dhoni, and Sehwag, and almost certainly Kohli and Pujara (though their greatest days lie ahead), simply won't.

However, there is no blueprint for success in Test cricket. In some matches and circumstances collective endeavour will triumph over sporadic brilliance. At other times the reverse will be true. This series is fascinating for many reasons; prior to its start the perception was that the sides were quite evenly matched and this idea shouldn't be abandoned completely.

India, playing at home and one up, appear to hold all the cards. However, people said that after the first Test of their last home series just three short months ago, and look what happened then.


How Does It Feel?

How does it feel to be Sachin Tendulkar this week?

How does it feel to stand on the threshold of a series which will surely, one way or another, decide your future?

How does it feel to know, deep down, that your powers are fading and that what was once (to you, if no-one else) commonplace may now be beyond you?

How does it feel to be aware that bowlers who you used to dismiss from your presence can now get you out in ways they could once only have dreamt about?

You're in the autumn of your career. They know it, you know it, and they know you know it, even if, with your unshakeable determination, and pride, and refusal to be beaten, you're doing your best to deny it.

Professional sport is a harsh, unforgiving mistress. And professional cricket, where, ultimately, numbers are all, is tougher than most. As someone once said, time waits for no man, and this - fighting against the dying of the light - is what it usually comes down to. Some players have to face the reality that it is over in their third Test, or their fifth, or their fiftieth. No man has ever had to think about it in his 195th. We are all in uncharted territory.

There was a time when Australia set the standards for the whole world. Few could live with them, but you always could. In those innings at Sydney and Perth when you were 18. Those innings when McDermott, and Hughes, and Whitney, were, in Ian Healy's words, gunning for you. Or when you made 300 runs in the game back at the SCG to cloud Steve Waugh's final Test. Or when you made 155* to set up the win in Chennai and for once rendered Warne impotent.

You could do all these things and more. It seems increasingly unlikely that you will ever go there again, but the next few weeks will tell all.

As always, in times of stress and high moment, people have theories. Martin Crowe, no stranger to the ravages which time and physical decline can inflict on a pure technique, has advanced the view that it isn't your eyes that have gone, it's your legs. And someone else felt that you're hanging on simply because cricket is all you've known since you were a child on Shivaji Park and you can't conceive of a life without it.

I think there's something in that.

In any sport it is an awkward and uneasy thing for a great player to accept that his powers are in decline. Your old foe Ponting has recently done so, and it will be to his lasting credit that he got the timing of his decision so emphatically right. But it is hard. Whatever your outward modesty, you don't get to be recognized as the greatest batsman of your generation without an unshakeable sense of your own worth.

For you, though it is harder still. You have put more than twenty-three years of your near forty on earth into this. You are emblematic of what modern India holds itself to be - talented, positive, optimistic and immune to decline - and the end of your career will transcend the game in a way that no player's leaving ever could in the nations of the old cricket world.

No-one yet knows what the next few weeks will bring. But, if the worst comes to the worst, it is to be hoped that the decision will be yours alone.

For if it is taken out of your hands it will be the saddest and most inappropriate end to one of greatest careers the game has ever seen.


Louder than Figures

Over the years many people have said many things about Jacques Kallis. People have said that he is selfish, that he plays for his average, that he lacks the capacity or the inclination to raise the tempo of his innings when the situation demands it.

It has also regularly been said, especially over recent years, that he doesn't like bowling. Such comments, whether they are accurate or not, create an impression. An impression which Kallis, with his low media profile, has done little to dispel. Kallis has always been a man who has done his talking with his pads on or with the ball in his hand.

If, in your 38th year, with 159 Tests behind you, you can produce the type of delivery which dismissed Azhar Ali at the Wanderers yesterday, and then, later in the day, get off the mark with an off-drive of priceless quality, you have no need to bother about what anyone says.

Of course the statistics say it, but actions always speak louder than mere figures. This is a great, great cricketer.

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