February 26, 2009

Whatever happened to team spirit?

Australia's dressing-room celebrations used to be about spontaneity and mateship. Not anymore, it would seem

A tinnie (or a few dozen) with the boys: Australia celebrate their win in Nagpur, 2004 © Getty Images

Twenty-five years ago feminism was not only up and running but had struck the odd blow or two in most areas of human endeavour. Twenty-five years ago Graham Yallop was fielding on the MCG fence in front of 72,000 eyewitnesses while Viv Richards and Clive Lloyd batted. One ball - a catching chance - bounced out of Yallop's hands and trickled away for four. Minutes later a second ball snuck through the fingers of a falling-down Yallop, his feet nestled in the concrete gutter, and went for another four. Then a third ball came hurtling at Yallop, less a fielder than a filter. It nipped between his legs. Four more. "It wouldn't be unfair," decreed Bill Lawry in the commentary box, "to say he's fielded like a girl today."

A girl, Lara Bingle, was recently whispered to be responsible for a boy, Michael Clarke, wishing to get the team song sung in a hurry so he could skip out of the dressing room. And it felt like irresistible, slow-coming proof of a softening, a mellowing, in Australian cricket's culture of hairy-chestedness. The whisper turned out to be wonky. Actually, Clarke had made an 11pm restaurant booking for the players and was anxious that they sing up and head out. The girl had nothing to do with it.

The song in question has been a source of rich, shared delight for winning Australian cricketers since the night Rodney Marsh leapt on a dressing-room table and roared four lines he'd picked up from Ian Chappell:

Under the Southern Cross I stand,
A sprig of wattle in my hand,
A native of my native land,
Australia, you f****** beauty.

Marsh did this at the end of the 1972 Oval Test or the 1974 Gabba Test. Memories vary. But the tradition seems to have been bedded down soon after, in Sydney, where a 171-run victory over John Edrich's Englishmen secured for the Australians their long-lost Ashes.

"One of those nights which linger in your memory," Marsh recalled in a subsequent book of his. "There was a lot of singing, whooping, yahooing and carrying on… Most of the side stayed in the rooms until eleven o'clock. [Then] five of us went to a restaurant."

Let us hear that again, to make sure we understand Marsh aright. They celebrated in the dressing room. Then they left. At about 11pm. To go to a restaurant.

The line between Michael Clarke upholding a proud Australian tradition and Michael Clarke committing a disgusting act of treachery is a fine one.

And what of Simon Katich? In planting a hand round Clarke's windpipe and squeezing, was Katich being a brave defender of a tight team unit's values? Or was he misguidedly protecting a tradition that is not really a tradition - a phantom tradition, a tradition that appears anachronistic in modern cricket's controlled and sanitised bubble-world yet one that bears little actual resemblance to Marsh's original outburst of passion?

A sprig of bulldust tends to get spoken when Australian cricketers invoke tradition. Tradition used to be that the song was a secret shared among 11 men. Now photos of their singalongs are stuffed into the players' flaccid tour diaries. The lyrics - minus the naughty word - are on Cricket Australia's website. A few years ago, on lunchtime TV, David Boon stood on some milk crates, tinnie in hand, and at host Kerri-Anne Kennerley's urging he warbled the words "Under the Southern Cross I stand… ", before stopping himself from going any further. Boon had a book - called Under the Southern Cross - to flog.

Drinking beer after beer for hour upon hour before finally singing the song is not traditional. There is no tradition that states the sprig of wattle in one hand should be accompanied by your 14th can of VB in the other hand. In the old days the song got sung five to 10 minutes after the Test was won. At Old Trafford, scene of Australia's drought-busting 1989 Ashes victory, the players thought it odd that they waited a full hour before singing because captain Allan Border was busy consoling the vanquished David Gower. Later that evening, while Border, Terry Alderman and Geoff Lawson lay in the bath, a showered and fully dressed Boon scaled a four-foot tiled wall and led the team into a second rendition. "I have never," said Lawson, "been involved in such a spontaneous celebration."

Spontaneity - that used to be part of the magic. There is nothing very spontaneous about Clarke having had his fill of celebrating after five uninterrupted hours and being held by the throat so that he could not leave.

On occasion - spontaneously - the song was not sung at all. "Forget it," said Boon. "We made an executive decision." That was after the series-winning Adelaide Test against India of 1991-92, when the selectors dropped Geoff Marsh, and Marsh's ropeable buddy Border declined to board the team aeroplane. When Australia, trailing England 0-1 in 1997, batted first on a zigzagging pitch and won, Mark Taylor commented: "The celebrations were very real, not forced." What Taylor did not say was the revealing part - the implication that sometimes the team's post-victory hijinks did feel forced.

Traditionally, the player who leads Australia in song has possessed the one trait that is routinely prized as intrinsically Australian: courage in adversity. Border, in bequeathing songleading duties to Boon, admired "the bulldog in him". Boon, in handing the honour to Ian Healy, respected Healy as "a fighter".

The triumphant Australian XIs of Rod Marsh's vintage were like a gang, with their own customs and credos. The present Australian XI is more like a box of spare parts. Soon they will work out how they all fit together and how to win, and out of winning will emerge new, more relevant, more appropriate traditions of their own

But hear what former coach John Buchanan says of a more recent songleader, Justin Langer: "He leads our team song not because he is one of the few people who can stand on the table and not bump his head on the many low dressing-room ceilings, but because he doesn't set a ceiling to his game."

Gobbledegook. It starts to sound less like a tradition, more like a cult.

And hear Langer's own interpretation of the song's true meaning: "Singing the team song… is symbolic of the great Australian spirit that has developed through our relatively short history as a nation."

Strewth. That's a galaxy or two away from what the inventor of the tradition had in mind. For Rodney Marsh, singing the song was about singing with your mates. It was about enjoying the win and the friendships.

The triumphant Australian XIs of Marsh's vintage were like a gang, with their own customs and credos. The present Australian XI is more like a box of spare parts. Soon they will work out how they all fit together and how to win, and out of winning will emerge new, more relevant, more appropriate traditions of their own. In Clarke they have a batsman growing in substance with every mid-innings crisis that confronts him, and a man seemingly able to discern sense from dollars.

Marsh once expressed the hope that some day - "maybe in my seventies" - he might be invited to mount a dressing-room table and roar those four fabled lines one last time. When Marsh turns 70, Clarke will be 36, and conceivably captain. By then the tradition of singing the team song might once again resemble the tradition that Marsh inaugurated. It might be something you do in secret, five or 10 minutes after a game. It might be something you do because you want to, not because you have to.

After labelling Graham Yallop a girl, Bill Lawry went on to elaborate: "He's really got in a dither out there… It's been all slides and through the legs and knockings and fumbles."

Bill Lawry has adapted to the changing world around him in the 25 years since then. If Michael Clarke thinks the Australian cricket team can, too, he probably has a point.

Christian Ryan is a writer based in Melbourne. He is the author of Golden Boy: Kim Hughes and the Bad Old Days of Australian Cricket, published in March 2009