March 28, 2003

The Australian way, the X-factor, and more

As an inflammable mixture of naked ambition, aggression, determination and a never-say-die attitude, the Australian way is the most talked-about approach in recent cricketing history - yet you can't quite define it or confine it in descriptive terms. "It really has more to do with the persona of an Australian rather than his approach to sports," says Bennett King, head coach at the Commonwealth Bank Cricket Academy, as he watches his side beat an XI comprising promising Indian cricketers under a blazing Chennai sun at the MRF Grounds in Pachaiyappas College.

"There's much more to the Australian way than just an approach to sport. It's got a lot to do with the things we've grown up with - the two major wars, the ANZAC tradition, things like that," says King.

And you have to believe him; the Academy side did not lose a single game during their stint in Chennai, a sojourn that was designed to prepare players for the challenges of playing on the subcontinent comes to a close and one that lets several players walk away much wiser. Mike Hussey, who routinely takes tons of runs off English county bowlers in his spare time, led the side, having a good time with the bat by taking the time to play himself in. Damien Wright, who made the Australia A side earlier this year, also made runs and picked up wickets, but the player to catch most eyes was young Tasmanian left-arm spinner Xavier Doherty.

Picking wickets in every game, admittedly on tracks helpful to spin, the man they call "X" is slowly but surely climbing the pecking order in Australian cricket. Although he's played only five first-class matches and eight List-A one-dayers, Doherty can be sure that plenty of cricket lies ahead. "This is the third time I've been to India, and each time I've tried to improve a bit. On previous trips I wasn't nearly as successful because I was bowling the same way I would have back home," he explained.

"This time around, I've tried to find a way that works for me, and that's helped a great deal," says Doherty. "Instead of trying too hard to go after wickets, I've concentrated on putting the ball in the right place, and this has paid off." Doherty can take heart from the fact that Bishan Singh Bedi, arguably the greatest left-arm spinner India has produced, has stated time and again that a spinner is tested most on wickets that turn considerably, for that is when control and an ability to bowl within oneself come to the fore.

Whether he does that or not, Doherty is the kind of cricketer Australia will need in the years to come. His friends say he's the chirpy sort, and he certainly enjoys his time out in the middle, whether batting or bowling. "With the wickets much harder back home, you tend to get a few balls dug in short by the quick men. It's obviously different here," says Doherty, who smacked a perfect straight drive for four to end the last game that the Academy XI played on this trip to India.

With Shane Warne out of cricket for a year and Stuart MacGill at 32 not getting any younger, Doherty is one of the spin options that the Australian selectors will look at closely sooner rather than later. "I'm still establishing myself in the Tasmanian side, but there are plenty of opportunities coming up for spinners in Australia," he says.

Those opportunities, for Doherty and for others, have only gotten brighter with their experience in India. "I really don't think there's a way to completely replicate the experience of coming to India while still in Australia," said King, visibly pleased with the way the short tour had gone. "While we can make wickets that are dry and break up, it's very hard to get wickets that are slow, dusty and turn a lot back home in Australia. Also, the way spinners approach bowling here is completely different. They like to give it a big rip and bowl attacking spells with fields that support them. Importantly, the captains use their spinners to attack all the time here, and you don't see much of that in Australia."

While he has not played cricket at the first-class level himself, King is not unique in this. "People who haven't played at the highest level watch the game at a different level. They tend to be deeper in their approach and work much harder on the processes that go into the game. Personally, I've paid a lot of attention to integrating sport with science and technology," said King.

Having played rugby league at the national level for the erstwhile Gold Coast Seagulls, King is in a position to bring a wider range of tools into his coaching. "Playing other sports certainly gives you a broader sense of the skills you use. In Australia, youth are encouraged to play as many different games as possible, and this can only help. For example, in sports like football, you're far more likely to use your left and right sides equally. A background in other sports may also give you an edge when it comes to anticipation and anything that involves peripheral vision," says King.

That is all, of course, logical, you begin to think, but King pre-empts you, revealing a more intuitive understanding of sport. "If you watch other games like basketball and football, players have a very good relationship with the equipment they use. Twirling a ball on a finger and tricks like that tell you how close players are to their equipment. Imagine how much better cricketers would be if the bat or ball was just a natural extension of themselves," he says, with eyes that you're sure are gleaming behind the dark glasses.

No, thank you, Mr King. Most of the world does not want to imagine Australian cricketers being any better than they are at the moment.