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Cricket sides are creatures with personalities. If the World Cup is cricket’s greatest stage, the teams are its characters. And if we’re going to work our way through the cast, it’s appropriate to begin with the hero of the last Cup and the one before that: Australia.
Australia is a protection racket gone legit. You can see glimpses of the lawlessness in Ricky Ponting’s early delinquency, in Shane Warne and Mark Waugh’s brush with bookies, in Glenn McGrath’s snarling unloveliness, in the constant sledging, the occasional racial slur (Darren Lehmann’s ‘black c__ts’ for example), in the pleasure the Australians take in their rep as bully boys. When I watch Ponting spit into the palms of his hands and rub them together, some shabby-genteel part of me cringes, and a stereotype is reinforced. With the exception of Adam Gilchrist (whose popularity shows you that with a sprinkling of good humour, the Aussies could have been liked, not just admired) they feel like political operators with knuckle-dusters, conducting a dirty but legal election campaign.
But like any good political machine that operates on the margins of the straight-and-narrow, the Australians have the rhetoric of respectability pat. A year or so ago, Ponting began to make pious noises about Australians setting standards of good behaviour on the field. A kinder, gentler Australian team is about as likely as the Godfather giving himself up to the olive oil trade, but Ponting knows that in these politically correct times it’s important to talk the talk. At its best the Australian team is a mafia with flair: watching Warne, McGrath and Gilchrist hoodwink, harry and hammer the opposition over the last decade has been the great spectacle of contemporary cricket.
But with McGrath in decline, and without Warne and Brett Lee, the Australians seem duller, their bowling seems efficient rather than devastating, almost South African in its sameness. Mike Hussey is a batting phenomenon: his runs, his average put him in the highest company, but there is an ordinariness, an anonymity to his presence at the crease which makes his record even more remarkable than it is. Matthew Hayden, Hussey and Ponting are fine batsmen by any measure but where Gilchrist’s genial aggression makes me grin even when it’s India that’s suffering, these three come across as bouncers working you over, not debonair bandits pulling off a heist. If the Australians were to be cast in a movie, they’d be Al Capone’s gang in The Untouchables, and I’d be rooting for Costner to bust them.
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Mukul Kesavan teaches social history for a living and writes fiction when he can - he is the author of a novel, Looking Through Glass. He's keen on the game but in a non-playing way. With a top score of 14 in neighbourhood cricket and a lively distaste for fast bowling, his credentials for writing about the game are founded on a spectatorial axiom: distance brings perspective. Kesavan's book of cricket - Men in Whitewas published in 2007.