by Ben Roberts
I may have been reading too many Tom Clancy military/espionage thrillers but it struck me as I was walking Zoe the dog on an overcast yet humid Melbourne Sunday morning. I was grappling with an over active mind desperately trying to come to terms with the collapse of the Australian team in Cape Town. My focus has been limited in its direction of anger. Tired of simply shaking my head at the immature Phillip Hughes' selection, my anger more justifiably has been directed at the elder Brad Haddin, who is having more and more 'seniors moments', breaking only momentarily to lament the 'man crush' Australian cricket seems to have with the hopelessly inconsistent Mitchell Johnson.
But then as I waited patiently for Zoe to investigate for the 75th time in five minutes that potentially another dog exists in this universe I realised how hopelessly misdirected the Australian cricket team has been in its focus for too long. Sun Tzu in 'The Art of War' teaches that as part of a successful campaign you must 'know your enemy', I submit that for at least 40 years (maybe more) Australian cricket has not, and thus stands little chance of ever winning its war with the cricketing world.
Two fallacies seem to intertwine here. Firstly we continue to focus our attention on the cyclical Ashes campaigns that pit our warriors against the 'Old Enemy' in England. Nothing is more important we tell ourselves than beating our old colonial masters at their own game. Secondly we live in the 'knowledge' that South Africans are 'chokers' and will never land the final punch. But in reality I believe England are not the enemy, and more often than not a nation labelled as 'chokers' has landed the punches that have weakened Australian cricket most, albeit surreptitiously.
Australia exited Sri Lanka in hope. A new captain, a new support regime coming, and a number of players with smiles on their faces just happy to be playing cricket. This continued at least for a day into the test at Cape Town, but as we know came crashing down in even more embarrassing fashion.
Of course the rubber finally hit the road for Australian cricket when they lost in such embarrassing circumstances to the English at home last summer. This was it, the lowest we could fall, but in reality was it the English or South Africans in disguise? It was no secret that Messrs Strauss, Trott, Prior, and Pieterson with a host of non-first team selections were born (and in some instances reach adulthood) in the nation of the rainbow flag. Australia's media tried in vain to create a flap about it, but in these days of the dollar being mightier than loyalty, and that it has been going on for years, there was little justification. But regardless of the legitimacy of playing rights, these men all emanated from South Africa, and drank the water over there.
Take yourself back then to early 1994 when the Australian team visited the post-apartheid nation for the first time in 35 years. We knew that our latest superstar was a bit of a lout and taken to streaks of arrogance, but we only for the first time realised that he was capable of such abuse towards a harmless opponent. Daryll Cullinan had (and still has) a mouth on him, but Andrew Hudson was as quiet as a church mouse as a player, yet somehow Warne decided that both players needed the rough side of his tongue. Our lionhearted gentle giant in Mervyn Hughes was taken to acts of abuse on the field toward opponents, yet at the Wanderers ground his anger spilled over into the player's race. A visit to South Africa brought out the worst of these two cricketers.
Only a few months previously at the Sydney Cricket Ground had South Africa so easily taken the career of Damien Martyn away. Despite the failings of the entire batting lineup it was he who took the blame and had his career stamped with being impetuous, almost leading to its death.
In 1992 Australia hosted the World Cup as incumbent champions. In 1987 they had been the upstarts who had toppled the best in the world and created momentum that saw them rise to competitiveness again in world cricket. This World Cup would be where Australia continued that progression, in front of its own adoring fans, but it was not to be. South Africa was one of the obstacles that Australia failed to clear in its demise, losing by nine wickets and having their own former import in Kepler Wessels take man of the match over the nation for which began his international career.
The last time Australian cricket was close to being as bad as it is now was of course the mid 1980s. Allan Border was grumpy, Dean Jones and Steve Waugh inconsistent, and Kim Hughes was bawling his eyes out. While not laden with anywhere near the talent to defeat the mighty West Indian teams they should not have been that bad. Why were they? Well Dr Ali Bachar and his open cheque book for rebellious play in the sporting pariah state probably has more than its fair share of blame. Heart and spine ripped out of the nations playing stocks the Australians lost in a test series to New Zealand; need description go further?
Prior to the period of outcasting from all international sport that South Africa went through they were able to take the bragging rights from Australia with one of the most dominant performances in test cricket history. Completely exhausted from proceedings in India the Australians flew into South Africa to receive one hell of a battering at the hands of Graeme Pollock, Peter Pollock, Barry Richards, and Michael Proctor, all cricketers whom, in one of the games greatest tragedies, had only limited international exposure. To lose all four tests comprehensively pushed Australia to the brink of sacking its captain Bill Lawry; the next series against Illingworth's England only needed to nudge for them to be over.
Sibling rivalry exists between Australia and South Africa. Both former colonial conquest trying to shake off the stamp of their former masters with one officially having shaken it with much bloodshed, the other remaining loyal and protected. Both nations with a history darker than one would desire but only one having felt the collective and polarised wrath of the wider world. South Africa as a proud nation has much to gain through success over Australia on the sporting field. While we fiddle with our clashes with England, the true 'Rome' will continue to burn.