Playing to win

Midway through the second test with India in Perth and Australia have their nose just ahead, after losing narrowly in Adelaide.

This has been a great series so far, though only early days. A couple of more than usual sporting pitches has added a lot to the contest. India is striving, hungry, competitive, have some great players and are ranked the number one test team in the world (incorrectly imo). They are searching for their first series win in Australia, which would be a historic achievement. With Kohli in charge, you can bet they’ll go at it hammer and tongs.

It’s been a tough year for Australian cricket. The disgrace of early in the year left the team much weakened after the banning of some of their best players. The batting was gutted and what followed was a succession of performances that ranged from feeble to brave, but hovered around the mediocre. It’s an unfamiliar place for the Australian cricket team to be. We’re used to bossing it on the field, often dominating, but always competitive.

Added to that is a new code of conduct that many ex-players believed would make Australia toothless on the field. They argued that aggressive, combative cricket is what gave Australia it’s the edge. It was innate to our nature and to repress that was both unnatural and self-defeating. ‘Nice’ Australia, they reckoned, could never win.

I agree that aggressive cricket is in our blood. It’s what has made us great. By nature and upbringing, we’ve always been competitive. I don’t believe we should subvert our natural selves, but likewise, I don’t believe it means we must be obnoxious and disagreeable. They don’t equate to me.

This is only an opinion but born of my own experience. In many ways, I think my character epitomises the traditional Australian approach to competitive sport. I hate to lose. I’ll bleed trying to win. I’ll go hard, I’ll be aggressive and unyielding, I’ll be overtly defiant. I might even say a word or two, though hopefully, it will contain as much wit as hostility.

It doesn’t condone cheating though. Nor is it personal. A lot of the so-called banter is ridiculous to the point of pointless in my book. Striving to be belligerent is not a good look, and is rarely effective.

Above all, I think we should never cease to respect our opponents, and indeed the sporting public, which is where we’ve gone wrong in the past. We got carried away over a period of years and lost perspective. You play hard, you play to win, but in the end, it’s just a game, and your opponent another human being. It’s not personal, nor should it be, and at the end of the day, you should be able to share a beer and a laugh no matter how hotly contested it’s been on the field.

That’s what I think. I certainly don’t believe being respectful and decent is incompatible with being hard and competitive. I’ll go so far as to suggest that was the greatness of Australian sport once upon a time.

I support the Australian team’s quest to redeem their character, though I think they’ve yet to find the right balance. In Tim Paine, I think they have the perfect leader – strong, capable, calm, decent.

So this is the context for the series. For the first time ever India came in favourites playing against an Australian team at home. India is a formidable team and led by the best batsman in the world, against a once mighty Australia toppled by its own flaws, weakened in personnel, uncertain of its purpose, undecided in composition. But playing at home.

It makes for a fascinating series, and it has been. In Adelaide, an enthralling contest saw a brave Australian team fall short by 31 runs.

In Perth, they stuck it out on a troublesome pitch to make an above-par score in the first innings and, despite a Kohli century, secure a 43 run lead on the first innings. Batting again, a batsman down and wickets falling regularly the lead had been stretched to 175 at stumps last night.

It was a day full of drama and conflict, as has much of the series so far. Four down at stumps if Australia can stretch the lead to 250 they’ll start to feel safe, and at 300 they should be secure. Finch is injured though, the pitch is playing tricks, and Bumrah, particularly, is a very good bowler. You’d put Australia just ahead right now, but that can change quick. Should make for a great days cricket.

While I’m here it’d be remiss of me not to make some comment about selection. With the players missing it’s a tough gig – put Smith and Warner in this team and they’d have won the first test in a romp, and would be clearly ahead here. But they’re missing so you have to make do. That’s tough when there’s no-one who really puts his hand up. They’ve made some odd calls recently, but now they’re faced with a decision leading into the Boxing Day test. Handscomb is struggling big time and while normally I’d back him for another chance (which is what I think the selectors will do), the problem is not really that he’s just not making many runs, it’s that his ugly technique means he’ll always be vulnerable. I’d go so far as to say I wouldn’t pick him for Australia until he changes his technique. Until then play someone else in his place – if an all-rounder than either Marsh or Stoinis, and I think Maxwell deserves another chance.

That can wait though. Let’s win this match first.

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