Sometime during Australia’s tour of the Emirates, a former player-turned-commentator asked Justin Langer: “Hi Justin, who’s up to the team song? You or Nathan?” He was referring to Australia’s mythicised team song “Under the Southern Cross”, which Langer used to render in his playing days and now passed onto Nathan Lyon. The former player then bantered: “Anyway, it only matters when we are winning.” Langer, without losing cool, gave an acerbic reply: “Have you ever sung that in your life? We have and we will.”
The incident perfectly captured the choppy waters Australia were then wading through as well as the sense of togetherness that had bound the team after the tragedy. There was a sense of heightened despondency.
Four months later and five minutes after the first drinks break of the fifth morning, the song thundered in the spacious Optus Stadium. The song as well as the sights and sound that unravelled symbolised what the victory — their first in a Test in 10 months, the first since the sandpaper-gate scandal — meant for them. The crowd began singing the anthem.
After handshakes and hugs, the Australians were huddled near the edge of the boundary ropes. The inscrutably calm Langer was trying in vain to douse the inflammable celebrations of his charges. A few seconds ago, Mitchell Starc, a stump in hand, was sprinting around the ground, tailed by a portly man of the broadcast crew, pleading him to remove the mic entangled with the stumps.
Marcus Harris flung his jersey into the crowd, who were furiously waving their hands at them from the fence of the stands. Josh Hazlewood and a few support staff members were taking turns to lift Nathan Lyon, who was fluttering an Australian flag that he had just borrowed from a spectator.
Most of them, in Baggy Green, had tasted Tests and Tests-series wins several times in their career, some of them like Starc and Lyon have won everything a cricketer possibly could, but there was no holding them back as they basked under the balmy Perth Sun.
‘A long time coming’
Still being tailed by the poor broadcaster crew, Starc said during the presentation: “It’s a long time coming and it shows the hard work of the last 10 months. We said when we got back from the UAE that the tables would turn eventually and the hard work would pay off and this shows the hard work and desire of the team and hopefully we have made a lot of Australians proud this week.”
It was an outpour of their pride that was dented post the scandal. It was also the cathartic release of emotions that had been accumulating and stewing over the past few months.
Never had Australia’s image-at-large plummeted to such depths, and never had there been so many debates over their gamesmanship, so much so that they could have easily crumbled into a state of disrepair.
The frenzy in the commentary box was no different. Ricky Pointing, who Langer had called for a pep-talk a day before the Test, pumped his fists in the air, Michael Slater almost leapt when Pat Cummins ushered in the victory. Even the mildly expressive Allan Border couldn’t resist hugging some of his co-commentators.
The bemused Englishman Michael Vaughan commented: “It’s like they’ve won the Ashes”. Fellow commentator Adam Gilchrist corrected: “Maybe, even bigger.”
Darren Lehmann, the former Australia coach under whom the whole sandpaper-gate scandal unfurled, breathed a relieved sigh. So must have a lot of Australian players, former players and support staff.
So felt Paine, too. “At the moment, it’s nothing but relief for me.”
No one would feel it as much as Paine would. Just 13 months ago, Paine, then deliberating his retirement, was asked to dust up his old Baggy Green, which he had last worn seven years ago. The decision was widely criticised, recalling an injury-battered 32 year-old for an Ashes Test. Then, three months into his comeback, he was thrust the captain’s arm-band in as dubious a circumstance as it could be, without arguably two of Australia’s finest players of this generation. Never did he show he was uneasy in wearing the crown, but he was under more scrutiny than even the much-reviled Australian prime minister Scott Olivier.
They came in cahoots and questioned his stature, his mettle, his leadership qualities, and wondered where he could take his team to. One of the former players even asked: “Forget his batting, can he even hold onto the team as a wicketkeeper? I think Australia is going backwards and this is probably our worst-ever team.”
Whether it was their weakest team is arguable, but it surely was the most unproven side in three decades, so vulnerable that they were prophesied to lose 4-0 against India, who have never won a Test series on these shores.
Paine, or for that matter any of the players or coaches, never responded emotionally to them. It’s one of Paine’s favourite lines, “not to think with the emotions.” It was his promise to the nation when he took over captaincy: “We know our best cricket is played when we put emotions aside, or most of it, and just concentrate on skill. That’s how we will look to rebuild this team.”
In that sense, it was a victory that mirrored the skipper’s vision, of togetherness and collectivism, a gritty than grand effort. They are far from a perfect team, but Paine is stitching the ends up and trying to forge a side that could at least keep their home superiority intact. “You have to stick up for your mates and I think we are finding a really good balance in that sense. I’m really happy with the way we are going about it. It’s my role as captain to make sure we are staying on track. We know what works for this team, for me it is about making sure we keep going down that path. We have slowly been building in to our style.”
While the style he professes is not always attractive, it’s going a long way in assuring that though they can be destroyed they can’t defeated. It has kept the series in a tantalising balance, before heading to the Christmas break. And it has given more opportunities for Langer to retune the old lyrics and for Lyon to keep singing.