Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Australia - lacking an identity

Despite two consecutive series wins in vastly different circumstances, the Australian cricket team still tricks the eye. In one Test, Ed Cowan resembles a doughty old-school opener, capable of withstanding the best attacks in world cricket; the following, he disappears into the sheds at 1/11. During one match, Shane Watson fights indomitably for a hard-earned 80; the next, he plays over and around a nothing-ball and departs meekly. In any one series Australia is likely to employ seven different bowlers.

With victories against India and the West Indies under his belt and a reasonable layoff before their next Test, it's time Michael Clarke examined his team. They aren't super talented, abounding with youthful promise or even stocked with journeymen. The Australian team, or even the thirty-man CA contract list, has no defining single characteristic which unifies them. And it shows.

Ed Cowan - (c) Balanced Sports
Australia are a team without an identity. Without that unifying factor and devoid of knowledge of who they are as a team, the country's Test players will continue to play inconsistent cricket.

The greatest teams in world cricket history have rocked an identity which was the personification of their most dominant collective character traits. The Australians of the first half of the last decade epitomised arrogance. The West Indians they replaced as ostensible World Champs exuded a fearsome, calculating vibe. For years, Pakistan has been content with being unknowable. Flower's England has committed to twin attitudes of professionalism and preparation. Look back at every great team in history and adjectives spring quickly to mind.

With the current Aussies, those adjectives are less defining and more descriptive. Inconsistent. Journeyman. They (mostly) try hard.
A sense of personal and collective identity matters. Every sport has its own tales of team identities: the underdog, the supertalented high-octane team, the fine wine year, the gnarled veterans. Stereotypes, cliches and archetypes all, but it does follow the tenet that an athlete's perception becomes their reality: in fact, this platform underlies how players can so easily gain and lose form. Once a self-identity is perceived, belief follows. Labels beget certainty and self-actualisation, no matter if those tags are correct or badly misplaced.

Moving on from amateur psychology hour, there simply isn't a objective, defining characteristic that denominates an Australian Test cricketer. It's begins at the top, with the key players and standard-bearers – ie. those with Class A contracts. To wit, Watson, Clarke, David Warner, Brad Haddin and Ricky Ponting.

This handful represents starkly disparate elements of this incarnation of Australia. While all want Australia to succeed, two are seriously concerned with retaining their positions, one seems incapable of scores over 60 and another still learns the First Class game. All the while, Clarke marshals his men, who seem confused as to which to rally behind. Aggressor? Confident?

Although (some of) these five represent Australia's most important – and marketable – cricketers, financially rewarding these team leaders means Cricket Australia has subconsciously divided its resources. The CA executive want success in Tests, ODIs and T20s without needing to focus on one format in particular. Like an out-of-form batsman, they half-heartedly offer shots, afraid to fail – when a shot (or management decision) requires commitment.

The creation of consistent excellence requires a shared an ideal. Winning creates hype, which creates interest which then grows the sport. Of course, dividing their resources is a practice at which CA excels.

The simple question is how could the current team have an identity? Australia has fielded the same XI in consecutive Tests only three times in the fourteen Tests since Clarke was installed as captain. Bowlers have been constantly injured, while batsmen have been (justly) dropped when form has waned. This capriciousness is only magnified by Australia entering an epoch where there isn't the same level of talent as it has enjoyed for the past thirty years.

This lack of top-tier players has bred a horses-for-courses selection policy and consequently a transitory Test team. To borrow a well-used cliché, teams need time playing together to cement relationships and trust. With so many passing fancies, a team can't begin to build an identity. Alarmingly, the more consistent team elements – Hussey, Ponting and Haddin – will likely drift into the sunset sooner rather than later.

Beholding to this tit-for-tat policy, Australian selectors have plumbed interstate cricket to select the most talented players available in a parody of an IPL-style fantasy draft. This is best demonstrated in the recently-announced squad to tour Ireland and England, and the return of Mitchell Johnson, Steve Smith and wonderboy Pat Cummins.

Cummins, rebuilt after an injury, probably deserved to tour but Johnson now has nothing on which to hang his hat but natural talent. By resurrecting a wayward fast man whose best days are three years ago leaves observers wondering how Australian leadership sees itself: the ultimate destination for the übertalented, or a team comprised of twelve interconnected, moving parts.

Often, it is not the most talented players who build teams and distinctiveness but so-called “glue guys”. Ashley Giles, Geoff Marsh and Gus Logie were integral to their relative sides for their ability to do a job, rather than being selected because they could or would dominate. Australia, for so long blessed with a gene pool where every second child became a international-quality batsman, expects to maintain the luxury of playing stars also able to double as role-players.

While speaking about his time in basketball, former Phoenix Suns GM Steve Kerr recently stated that “All champion teams have role players”. It's possible that he has uncovered not only a basketball truth, but a universal one: the selection of Michael Beer and Ed Cowan – a man known worldwide after only seven Tests for one non-shot – suggests the Australian selectors are coming to the same conclusion. Pity the role player whose situation remains undefined: when a squad lacks an overwhelming identity, individual players suffer for not knowing their own.

Inspiration and decision must come from Clarke, in collusion with coach Mickey Arthur and the Australian selectors. The captain has obviously modelled his batsmanship on Australia's most talismanic leader since World Series Cricket, Allan Border. Border first offered the country's best and most gritty batting, and then authored the country's prevailing cricketing attitude of hard-nosed, uncompromising competitiveness. That stance has defined the past two decades, but is now either outdated or ignored.

True and effective leadership replenishes itself, creating new leaders rather than demanding slavish obedience to a style. Clarke has proved himself the right man for the captaincy, a man to shepherd Australia into a new era as Border did a quarter of a century ago. However, for him to do so he must consciously elect to impart a new identity on his charges.

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