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Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Oh Australia, whatever happened to you?

The lackadaisical openers, the iffy middle order, the vulnerable lower order and the tail that hasn’t wagged – who are these men in Australian whites?

Written by Sriram Veera | Mumbai |
Updated: January 19, 2021 7:39:57 am
The new-found Australian elite honesty mask cracked in Sydney when captain Tim Paine let out a “d***head” slur from behind the stumps. (Source: AP)

Ahead of the 1987 World Cup in India, Boost ran a contest. It was simple, all one needed to do was tear out the packaging, find the entry form, and answer the question: Who will be the World Champions?

A cousin sister chose ‘Australia’, and most of the extended clan in the same age group sniggered. One chose Pakistan, most chose India as it wasn’t just a nationalistic choice, but that team was pretty good. The prize was a shiny train model set.

Back then, Australia were the underdogs. It was the mournful aftermath of the Kim Hughes era, and a sulking Allan Border was rebuilding with newbies like Steve Waugh, Simon O Donnell, and Dean Jones.

That was the era when Australia didn’t have an aura, it wasn’t the land of ferocious Kangaroos’ tales. They were a bunch of mustachioed mates, under a particularly grumpy man, who kept waving his index finger here and there on the field. They evoked a kind of loving sympathy.

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The point of the beverage-advertisement led memory is to state that it was the only time an Australian cricket team has stirred such gentler emotions. Before and after the 1987 World Cup, there was a dramatic resurgence; the kind that made mid 80’s feel like a figment of imagination. They became world champions, ruled world cricket and also conquered the final frontier in India.

They occasionally behaved like bullies, their coaches raved, their cricketing system was admired, and even their swear words aped. The F-word for our generation didn’t come in from American movies but from watching zinc-creamed Aussies.

The clock began to turn a few years back. It seemed like back to the 80’s. Just like Kim Hughes had cried in a press conference then, another captain would break down. Still, this was Australia, a bloody good team that knew how to seize a moment. Until this series.

They now have a chance to redeem it, somewhat still. If they can bat, declare, and bowl like the old Aussies, they can still soak their baggy greens with beer even though it will feel flat, considering the fight is against an India team that is swaggering with broken bodies.

And if they don’t win but end up drawing or worse going down at their Gabbatoir, then one has to reach out for the lovely line that the journalist Robert Craddock wrote 20 years back about Indians who had sleepwalked that summer. “Come on India, Get angry, Get aggressive, shake a leg, fight back, for goodness sake, do something.”

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Even if you had a pathological hatred for the Australian cricket team, you couldn’t have envisioned a day where you would think those lines could be said about Australia in a Test series at their home. You might have wished such a day, but you couldn’t have imagined it possible.

The lackadaisical openers, the iffy middle order, the vulnerable lower order and the tail that hasn’t wagged – who are these men in Australian whites? It can be a matter of form and good bowling but how can they lose the intangibles that were collectively hailed as Australianism around the cricketing world?

The game awareness that would sniff out little big moments, the imperious ability to own those moments has gone missing. Just before the historic Indian collapse, they were trailing in Adelaide. How they roused themselves that morning – ball after ball, they charged in to dismantle India. That was what the world knew.

First, the batsmen slipped. Barring a couple, mediocrity has pervaded. Travis Head picks the oddest shots, Joe Burns shows his bat’s edge more than its brand and Matthew Wade’s lips talk more than his bat. Even Steve Smith, barring that hundred on a slow track, has been sorted out by R Ashwin. So much so that they had to rush David Warner from the rehabilitation centre to play on one leg at Sydney.

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They have slipped up in the moments when you would expect them to step up. In the first innings, Smith tamely tapped Washington Sundar to short mid-wicket. India had a plan but this was Smith, not Head. Like in the first two Tests, this was another Smith soft dismissal. There’s more. Marnus Labuschagne and Wade also fell to ill-timed pull shots that had Australia stumbling from a strong position. The bowlers too have been stunned by India’s historic fight back.

On the field, they have looked desperate and defeated. During the Sydney Test when Ashwin and Vihari had almost achieved the impossible, the much-hyped new-found Australian elite-honesty mask cracked. That’s when Tim Paine would let out a “****head” slur from behind the stumps, followed by some juvenile mock-coughing from close-in men. Wade would seem amused when Ashwin would get hit and calling for the physiotherapist. They were losing it, the ugliness was slowly rearing its head. Paine, by his own admission, would say that he lost his cool.

The Australian slide was becoming a spectacle for the world. Mazher Arshad, a cricket statistician from Pakistan, couldn’t help but put out a “just saying” post that went: “Australia at home have won just 1 out of 8 last red-ball Tests against India”. Almost immediately, South Africa’s Indian performance-analyst Prasanna Agoram tweeted: “Same applies to South Africa. They have beaten SA only once in their last 8 red-ball Tests with their last win in 2009.” To add salt to the wounds, he added that the venue where South Africa lost was Sydney. The takeaway was that Australia needed a spin pitch at Sydney to beat the pace-strong South Africa at home.

The cousin didn’t win the Boost lottery, and to this day it’s not known how many other Indian kids really thought Australia would win that World Cup. Just as it’s not known how many Australian kids thought their team would struggle to beat a second-string Indian team at home now. Don’t mail in your answers, please. We don’t have a shiny train set to give.

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