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.


live baseball said...

Well the reason for the described scenario in the Australian team is quite obvious and that is because the Australians are not working quite as a group.There are some ongoing problems in the Aussie team and as they say "United we stand,Divided we fall".So in order to succeed in the field the Aussie Captain have to sort out their internal issues first.

Brian Carpenter said...

Well, yes.

However, I'm with Steve Waugh. If Pattinson and Starc stay fit, Australia will take plenty of wickets this summer. Scoring runs will be harder, but the series could be closer than a lot of people think.

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