A team of fighters does not allow itself to be defined by the odd failure

AFTER a token appearance in the middle, they were in such a hurry to return to the comfort of the air-conditioned dressing room, heads bowed, tails tucked between their legs, that you wondered if they harboured some dystopian vision of the playing track, something that none of us were aware of. It appeared that they believed the pitch was a landmine-strewn area they should run away from.

Or, perhaps the Australian cricketers were hell bent on tarnishing their hard-earned reputation, too bloody keen on taking a road never taken before, and towards their own doom.

Iconic image dented

Whatever it was, the Australians’ performance in the first two Tests, and particularly in the second one in Hyderabad, did greater damage to the iconic image of the Aussie battler — something that Steve Waugh carried to its apotheosis — than anything in recent memory.

This is why the most surprising — shocking even — thing about Michael Clarke’s Australian team is not simply that many of its members lack genuine world-class talent (the captain apart). While this may be partly true, what might be of greater concern — perhaps even a major cause of worry — to Australian cricket fans and administrators is this: the team lacks fighters.

To paraphrase Descartes, on the sports field, the Aussies fought, therefore they were. The nation that produced some of the greatest Test players of all time — including the greatest of them all, Don Bradman — has always been known to put men on the field who could find the inner mongrel in themselves when pushed to a corner.

“It is not how many times you get knocked down; it’s how many times you get up.” These words, originally attributed to Col. George Custer, were adapted by the famous American football coach Vince Lombardi.

And Australian sport was almost always about getting up and getting your act together. Men such as the Chappell brothers (Ian and Greg), Allan Border, Mark Taylor and most of all, Steve Waugh, drew from a deep pool of willpower and were ready for down-and-dirty mud-fights when their A game deserted them.

It was not as if it was only the other day that the Australian vulnerability to genuine spin on turning tracks was exposed. It is just that greater men than the ones now doing business donning the Baggy Green found a way to solve the riddle.

But there is not a bit of the famous Waugh spirit in this side. Steve was a great foot soldier, officer and General rolled into one. While such a package doesn’t become available in each passing generation, Clarke’s men seem to have landed here from another continent — certainly not from Australia.

Where has the Aussie battler gone? Where are all the tough, combative street fighters, the fist-pumping, high-intensity competitors who revelled in crises?

It is one thing to display limitations in technique on an alien surface, quite another to be seen lacking in courage in the cauldron. There is no shame in the former, but it is time for introspection when the failure is caused by the latter flaw.

As skilfully as India has played under the inspirational leadership of M.S. Dhoni, taking full advantage of home conditions, the Australian capitulation has been so meek that we may have to go beyond simple matters of technique to find an explanation.

Maybe it does go beyond cricket and points to how Australia has evolved as a society, from a nation of battlers to one of plentiful riches, where bloody-mindedness is now deemed a vice in life and in sport.

A team of fighters does not allow itself to be defined by the odd failure; it somehow finds the resources to turn things around, at least to save face. Clarke’s men, as demoralised as they are, can do this at Mohali and New Delhi in the remaining two Tests but the odds are stacked against them.

“If he loves one thing, it is the fight,

When the game is poised and the bowling tight,

And the bowling attack is sensing blood,

If they get his wicket, there will be a flood.”

This is from the poem The Skipper, written by a former Australian team manager, Steve Bernard. He is reputed to have read this out to his players at breakfast each morning on an English tour.

Going down and under

Of course, there is a flood now and the Aussies are drowning. It will be a tough clutch at the last straw at Mohali on a track that might favour the spinners a lot less than the ones at Chennai and Hyderabad did.

“Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place,” wrote Lewis Carroll in Through the Looking Glass.

This is very much true for Clarke and his men if they are keen to hang on to the Border-Gavaskar trophy.