March 12, 2009

Unpredictable is watchable

Australia have had to strain every sinew for the win against South Africa. It makes for a nice change

The harder they come: for 40-odd years Australia haven't been stretched like they have been recently © AFP

Lately when he bats, Mike Hussey's hands squeeze his bat handle so tight you expect to see toothpaste spurting out the top. In the great lake of sweat on his forehead you can almost make out the bowler's reflection. Watching Hussey concentrate - concentrate so hard that sometimes he forgets to blink - is one of the many little fascinations of witnessing Australia's cricketers right now. They are all having to concentrate. It has been this way not long, five months according to the calendar, but in modern cricketing parlance that's an age. A golden age.

Golden ages were proclaimed loudly and often during the Taylor-Waugh-Ponting years of conquest. Really that was a green-and-golden age. The fun lay in Australia smashing all comers to smithereens, then watching those same wretched opponents bend over to pick up the pieces and get kicked in the head again. And fun it was when Adam Gilchrist was swinging or Shane Warne fizzing. But fun and fulfilment are two different things. To feel truly fulfilled by all those three-day obliterations of the other team's dignity, you had to be a bronzed loyalist if you were Australian or a masochist if you came from elsewhere. All the rest of us wanted was a contest.

Annihilation is never as good as exhilaration, the feeling that comes from watching a cricket match bend and zigzag for the best part of a week until the team that is least knackered staggers to glory on the fifth afternoon. Australian cricket followers have known the feeling for five months and 11 consecutive Tests now. They have seen their team outwitted in India and stretched by New Zealand. Against South Africa they have bounced between despair and redemption. They have lost unforeseeably and triumphed unexpectedly. Matches have been conducted at rollercoaster and snail's pace, and sometimes both. Leave your TV set and you risk missing another twist. For ten and a half Tests - for in truth the Kiwis were lunchmeat once the ball ceased swinging in Adelaide - it has been like this.

Ten and a half Tests do not sound like much to Australians brought up on titanic tussles with Englishmen, West Indians, Indians. But invariably these have been bookended by waterlogged trans-Tasman stalemates, or yet another Pommy blowout. To find ten and a half in a row you probably have to hark back to 1959, '60 and '61: to a last-day tightrope walk in Calcutta, five thrill-a-minute crackerjacks against Frank Worrell's men, an Ashes trip full of nowt-happening-here days interrupted by series-swinging half hours.

After ten and a half Tests in the furnace, Hussey is not the only one to have found the going sweaty. Matthew Hayden loped into not entirely happy retirement. Bing went bung. Ricky Ponting's trademark hard hands and early-innings shakiness have looked harder and shakier than ever. He flounders or he flourishes, but seldom is there any satisfactory middle ground; only six times in his past 20 outings has Ponting scored between 10 and 79. The absence of grinding certainty renders him all the more watchable.

Ponting flounders or he flourishes, but seldom is there any satisfactory middle ground; only six times in 20 outings has he scored between 10 and 79. The absence of grinding certainty renders him all the more watchable

Others - newish faces, especially - have made their opponents sweat. Commonly fast bowlers explode on the scene and then the smoke clears, as rival batsmen decipher their tricks and the bowler trails off in search of new ones. Mitchell Johnson is an exception. Overnight he has learnt, as if by magic, how to swing the red ball whatever its age, and how to whistle up 150kph zingers whenever required. The Durban Test was Johnson's 20th, and between Tests 11 and 20 he has prised out 51 wickets - more than Ray Lindwall, Dennis Lillee or Glenn McGrath, more than any Australian quick in all Test history.

It was possible to confuse the new era with the old era this past fortnight, as an almost starless Australia managed somehow to shine. On the fourth evening in Durban, with victory far from assured, excitable ABC radio commentators implored listeners to send in text messages predicting how many hundred runs Australia might win by. It felt a little like 2003, when an Australia missing Warne, two Waughs and Jason Gillespie swanned undefeated through an entire World Cup. It felt a lot like 1995, and the world championship bout, when an attack spearheaded by Paul Reiffel and Brendon Julian toppled the Caribbean's fabled batting kings.

The difference is that those Australian sides radiated an aura of unbeatability. Part of the attraction of watching this Australian side is that it is eminently beatable - yet for ten and a half Tests it has won as often as it has lost.

For Australia's four selectors, the job they applied for - count to 11 and hand in your expenses claim - must seem unrecognisable from the job they find themselves lumbered with. They have mucked plenty up. Bryce McGain might be a great-grandfather by the time they pick a proper spinner. But they have also blooded a bowler who constantly varies his length and bounce, who is canny enough to have produced a pitched-up, wicket-taking outswinger with his second ball in Test cricket. Another newcomer - soft hands, fast feet, an eye like a highway vulture's - is brazen enough to have hoisted his maiden Test hundred with successive leg-side sixes.

Any English cricket followers who saw Ben Hilfenhaus and Phillip Hughes might rightly be feeling a twinge of pre-Ashes collywobbles. Hilfenhaus and Hughes, sources of considerable Australian exhilaration, could soon prove the causes of England's annihilation. Mark that down as yet another of cricket's little fascinations.

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