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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • James on February 28, 2009, 16:06 GMT

    Storm in a teacup. I'm sure there have always been members of the Australian team who didn't get on - and plenty of incidents similar to this. The only diference is that this was leaked to the press.

  • Peter on February 28, 2009, 8:07 GMT

    Gee what a surprise, another Christian Ryan piece bashing the current Australian team, longing for the good old days. I'm beginning to think that Christian Ryan is just a pen name used by Cricinfo to disguise that prolific modern day Aussie basher Neil Harvey.

  • Sundararajan on February 27, 2009, 21:47 GMT

    @ dmudge : Very important point, Why does everybody love aussie bashing when they are losing?? Wonder how many have thought about it. Thhe reason is the arrogance of the aussies when they were winning, the fact that they disrespected everyone else when they were the top team. Compare the aussies with the old west indian team. They ruled world cricket for such a long ttime,. but when they started losing, no one did Windies bashing. Instead people were sad that they were losing and wanted them to do well. They even say WI are the second favourite of every cricket fan. Every wonder why?? coz they respected others when they were champions. They did not abuse and sledge theeor way to winning matches. The best batsment of the time will testify that the scary fast bowlers never said a word. Just a stare and off they went to their bowling marks. That is why.. If only the aussie team had leant somoething from the old WI team.

  • Ryann on February 27, 2009, 6:32 GMT

    I also agree it was an excellent article, providing a rare glimpse into the inner sanctum of a world given an increasingly "mystical" air during the days of Steve Waugh and John Buchanan which, though fascinating, seemed to lift the position of the Australian Cricket Team (which I adore) into a position a little too exalted for my liking. Comparing the 2001 Ashes team with the young innocents sent as cannon fodder to Gallipoli? Going a bit too far for mine, just like the Cult of the Baggy Green. I loved Mr. Ryan's refreshing, no-nonsesnse approach to the dressing room culture and history. More of that, please!

  • SaneMan on February 27, 2009, 4:32 GMT

    Excellent article. It is not too clear to me why the Oz readers do not like this. It seems like quite an accurate and level-headed observation-piece. We have a saying in India - The Idol is only a means to the One. It helps, but it is not IT! So, Don't get attached to the Idol! If it does not take you to the One, then even adopt any other manner that will. Christian is only asking the Oz team to just not get attached to an act - in the name of Oz tradition, etc.! But rather let acts to spring up as spontaneous results of passion. This Oz team is searching for its passion of the recent old. When they are at the brink of getting back that passion, I am sure they will enjoy this article. Or, probably vice-versa! Good one Christian.

  • Paul on February 27, 2009, 0:46 GMT

    Gotta love journalists who write detailed (and long!) articles about events they've never witnessed.... hey, that's what's getting under your skin, isn't it Christian? How dare a group of individuals exclude you from a private moment! Were you once caught trying to sneak a peek and evicted with appropriate vigour? I bet you were. Is this a tradition? If the cricketers who embrace it want to call it one, then it is. And it's none of your business, anyway. Or mine, come to think of it.

  • Paul on February 26, 2009, 23:59 GMT

    The bad news for all the fans gloating that Australia's dominance is over is that this may be as bad (or good from your point of view) as it gets. Whilst they have been beaten in two recent test series, they have been competitive, and as of the start of the current test have 3 debutants, McDonald (2 tests), Siddle (5), Haddin (13)and Johnson (19). This team can only improve with experience. India are still yet to lose their big four!

  • MIke on February 26, 2009, 23:23 GMT

    The only bulldust is the content of this article, what an absolute beat up about nothing. It disgusts me how much the press (and I mean the Australian press) have been sticking the boot into the Australian team this last 12 months as results have slipped. It's just another classic case of the "tall poppy" syndrome that prevails in this country. For 15 years while we dominated world cricket the Aussie press contingent could only use their poison pens on individuals (Warne, Ponting, S Waugh, etc) rather than the team as whole, the culture etc. Now when we are finally going through the re-building phase we always had to experience it seems it's given the press boys are finally getting to vent their spleens and stick the boot in to make up for 15 years of having to write mainly positive articles. This particular article is pointless and what happened between Clarke & Katich is SO trivial that it barely deserves all the exposure it's had...get over it and get on with the game at hand!

  • Sree on February 26, 2009, 21:04 GMT

    Thanks CR for the article. I agree with how some spontaneous - heartfelt celebrations were forced upon later bunch under big words like tradition, team spirit..blah blah. I challenge anyone to question Clarke's spirit to win a game for Australia just because he did not meet somebody else's expectations. Additionally, I don't know why some people on crying against Cricinfo......WTF, just grow-up you fools.

  • luke on February 26, 2009, 19:09 GMT

    There was an 'opinion' article two days ago slagging off the Indian team and highlighting potential problems of the BCCI. Go back a year or so and SA could not be mentioned without "choker/quota" smattered somewhere. Go to Murali's page and look at the articles' archives; many defend the calling of his action, and until it was proven outright that the laws were changed, not to accomodate him but to accomodate fast bowlers, there were many anti-murali articles (ignore the fact that his picture was one of the very few of a bowler 'close up and in the middle of their action' - it was the picture widely used to show his "bad" action and it was up for like..ever - why not just put his face profile like everyone elses?). Perspective perhaps!? A little mulling over the losses or setbacks OZ have had to endure is fun (for millions at cricinfo - not just Indians). Remember "the best two teams are Aus and Aus A"? I do...and though i hope the bashing doesn't last (it can't & won't), for now...LOL

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