Putting the monkey back

Another subject I've been avoided this summer is the cricket.

For near enough to 20 years the Australian team has been the dominant force in world cricket. During that period we've been fortunate to witness the careers of cricketers who have come into the team and over the course of time been revealed as all time greats: Warne, McGrath, Ponting, Gilchrist, Hayden, Steve Waugh. They have played a dashing brand of cricket that has enlivened the test arena. Always competitive, this team has been ruthless at times, resilient, and never beaten. They have done great things, and achieved a level of dominance over an extended period like no other team has in history.

All things come to an end though. Nature itself is all about cycles, and so to is sport. The higher you rise the more difficult it is to maintain. And the great players we've been blessed with do not normally emerge so regularly.

Over the last 20 years there have been the occasional optimistic and inevitably premature intimations of doom, normally by the English media. Each time any vulnerability has been shown though it has been quickly quashed, and the team come back better than ever. There has been a lot pride in performance, and belief in self and others – a confidence that has been shared by the Australian sporting public.

Over that time there have been occasional challengers. Early days we surmounted the Windies to end their era and to begin ours. The South African's were rivals through the nineties, but always found a way to lose – and Australia always a way to win, often famously.

England, long under the Australian heel, found a way to defeat an unusually subdued Australian side 2-1 in the epic 2005 Ashes series. That stung. While England celebrated as if they'd won the world cup Australia re-grouped and coldly plotted revenge. And the inevitable happened. In the return bout Australia whitewashed the feeble Poms 5-0. Game over.

In recent years India has been our biggest rival. For years talented but passive, they have emerged in recent years with a more ambitious and aggressive spirit. Like many teams they have tried to take a leaf from the Australians playbook, and this has led to some hard fought and occasionally contentious test series. These contests have been epic in scale.

Throughout all this Australia has stoutly resisted. It is a proud record that neither the Australian team or public will give up without a fight. Time is no respector of reputation though. Gradually the great and near great players have bowed out of the game. There is no replacement for the likes of Warne and McGrath, first and second on the list of Australia's test wicket takers, or Gilchrist, quite possibly the most destructive batsman of all time. There are all the others too, and the slow decline of others great still in the team.

Some of the inevitable decline has been mitigated by the young and promising players coming into the team. Inevitably though the bell has now begun to toll.

The recent series in India resulted in an Australian defeat. Back in Australia we are now taking on a resurgent South African team eager to take top spot from us. They have always been big talkers, but rarely measured up to their brave words. Doubtless they are tough competitors, but I think Australia and Australians have always felt as if we had their measure.

It's an interesting relationship. In sheer competitive zeal they are probably our closest rivals. Where we have parted ways is in national temperament. It makes for an interesting sociological study. Superficially there are similarities – both the product of white colonisation, both rugged terrains, tough lands, and both find themselves then and now as caucasian enclaves surrounded by other races. These facts have led directly to the national mythology.

The big difference, I think, is that in large part we in Australia are a secular society borne on the back of a convict past followed up by gold rushes and world wars. A national identity has emerged from all that which we are both familiar and comfortable with. We know who we are, what we have done, and what to expect of ourselves. We mark hard, we expect much, but by and large we are a relaxed and affable society. They are attributes that reveal themselves on all sporting arenas Australian's play on.

I'm no expert on South African society, but from afar and in witnessing their performances on the cricket field they have always appeared a very intense people. By and large that has been my experience with them socially as well, often humourless, sometimes casually bigoted, and perhaps with the need to prove themselves. This comes from a difficult history, from years of isolation I think, and from a hard driving religious conservatism.

On the cricket field they are tough competitors, like Australia, self-reliant and competitive. I doubt their desire to win is any greater than Australia's, but where it sits easily with the Australians it has crippled the South Africans at crucial moments. They have frozen when victory has been in sight, as if overwhelmed by the enormity of what they are about to achieve and afraid of mucking it up. While they freeze Australia surges. And so on just about everything occasion when it has been up for grabs it has been Australia who has won. A whole generation of their cricketers and the country behind them must have nightmares about Australia.

We have been their nemesis, and as a result, their obsession. Come the time though Australia has always been more ruthless, and the lightness in our spirit better suited to the intensity of battle. Australia knows how to win, South Africa has been afraid of it.

That too is changing though. As I sit here writing this the South Africans lead Australia 2-0 in our home series. In both test matches their were periods were Australia seemed more likely, but, much as it pains me to admit, it is South Africa who has prevailed.

A lot of credit must go to their captain I think. He is a strong leader who has stuck his head out and had it hammered in series past. Yet he sticks it out again, determined to keep putting himself on the line.

Coupled with this I wonder if on the cricket field we are witnessing a transition which mirrors that of South African society. That's an hypotheses only, but it appears this team is more relaxed than teams of the past. It helps when you're winning, and now they have the monkey of their back they're entitled to celebrate. But they have achieved things in this series they would not have been capable of before. This to me seems a reflection of an easier spirit than in the past. We have seen the Indians of this generation surmount their more passive self of generations past; are the South Africans becoming more flexible with the times, and easier with their place in the world?

And so we come to this series proper. Australia has lost it even as the final test is in progress. Not surprisingly perhaps the news has been greeted happily around the world, with Poms particularly gleefully sinking the slipper (typical of them, pretty weak). The toppling of the Australian cricket team off its lofty perch is probably a good thing for cricket. You can't argue that, but as an Australian it sticks in the craw, it burns.

Many now predict a tumble down the rankings. I am more confident than that. South Afria is a good team but not a great team. We have slipped as much as they have gained. This series is lost and yet we have been competitive throughout, and might have reversed the scoreline altogether had we been able to capitalise on the crucial moments. That we didn't is credit to the South Africans, but also evidence of inexperience on our part and the lack of a cutting edge when we needed it most.

The great players retired are gone forever, but we have been crippled on top of that by injuries to front-line players – Clark, Jacques, Lee, Symonds, Watson, and I'll add McGain to that list. On top of that a loss of form in key players has been costly
. Hussey will recover his. For Hayden and perhaps Lee the writing is on the wall. Too much has been left to too few – Ponting, Clarke, Johnson, perhaps Katich. Partnerships have been few and far between, and momentum has been hard won and too soon extinguished.

For all of that we have been in it as we were in England 2005, outplayed there we still fought to a 2-1 loss when it should have been more. Innate Australian competitiveness will take us a long way, and I have faith that the next generation will step up to the plate. In the meantime we hang tough, and we'll win more than we lose on spirit alone.

It's time for a change though. That's the message to the Australian selectors: time to be bold. There remain great Australian players to build a team around.

In the meantime I think we'll win this test match. Despite the injuries and inexperience I think there is too much pride in the baggy green cap for this state of affairs to continue. And in the return bout in South Africa in a couple of months, form restored and some of the injured players back, I think we'll win 1-0. Lock it in, and to all you South African supporters out there, don't get too comfortable. Aussies don't beat that easy.

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