February 18, 2010

Aura Australialis

Reports of Australia's descent into mortality have been greatly exaggerated

"Aura and mystique. Appearing nightly." So boasted a banner hoisted by a New York Yankees fan during the 2001 World Series against the Arizona Diamondbacks. Curt Schilling, Arizona's cocksure pitcher, was quick to scoff. "Aura" and "mystique", he declaimed, were merely a couple of nightclub strippers. Nonetheless, on each of the next two nights, the Yankees snatched the baseball equivalent of a one-wicket victory, lifting a city, however fleetingly, from the depths of despair engendered, just a few weeks earlier, by the attack on the Twin Towers.

For half a decade, the Yankees had dominated baseball in a manner unseen since they themselves had ruled the diamond with tyrannical relish throughout the 1950s. True, with the priceless aid of hindsight those two indelible triumphs may now be regarded as the final roars of a fading lion - the Diamondbacks took the Series when it returned to the desert for its riveting climax - but it didn't seem like it at the time. The sheer improbability of those wins appeared to confirm everything we suspected: the Yankees had that impenetrable ring of boundless confidence, that denial of vulnerability, which only the very best possess.

The A-word cropped up again during last year's Ashes series. "I don't think this Australia side has an aura about them," said England's captain, Andrew Strauss, on the eve of the third Test at Edgbaston. "The aura came from guys like [Shane] Warne, [Glenn] McGrath, [Matthew] Hayden and [Adam] Gilchrist. A lot of their players are just starting their Test careers and it feels like you are playing against any other Test team." At Headingley one match later, Ricky Ponting's mob won by an innings and plenty.

The Oval denouement may have vindicated Strauss, but now? Just look at what Australia, notwithstanding their endless changes of personnel and purported descent into mortality, have accomplished in recent months.

Twice in consecutive matches during the Worrell Trophy series against West Indies, in Adelaide and then Perth, Ponting and company flirted seriously with defeat yet clung on for a draw and then chiselled out a narrow win. Then came Sydney, where Pakistan, chasing 176, were 77 for 3 but still fell well short, unnerved and undone by an attack that had entered the Test averaging 15 caps per head. Then came that Twenty20 bout at the MCG, where Pakistan, requiring 30 off half a dozen overs with six wickets intact and Kamran Akmal doing much as he pleased, still contrived to lose. Think, too, of the way Australia rebounded against South Africa last March, shrugging off their first loss in a home Test series for the best part of two decades to beat their hosts in the return rubber when nobody gave them a prayer.

It would be facile to lay such failures solely at the door of erratic opponents as long on talent as they are short on confidence. It goes deeper than that, far deeper. Australia's aura, of self-belief if not invincibility, is as durable as it gets - a national custom, even obligation. In sporting terms, indeed, it is hard to find a comparable example.

Roger Federer has that aura. So did Edwin Moses, the greatest of all 400-metre hurdlers, who won 122 finals on the trot in the 1970s and 1980s. So did Martina Navratilova and Rocky Marciano. Tiger Woods had so much of it he strayed into hubris. In transforming our understanding of what is possible on an athletics track, Usain Bolt is the latest to acquire it. These, though, are all individuals, indomitability unhampered by the shortcomings of inferior colleagues.

Team sports are trickier. Over a significant, if relatively brief, period - a decade, say - it is hard to imagine that any side, in any sport, can match the West Indies of the 1980s, who won nearly five-and-a-half times as many Tests as they lost; the only other Test team to exceed a 3:1 ratio have been Australia in the 2000s (4.38) and England in the 1910s (3.50). No wonder Sports Illustrated nominated Clive, Vivi and company as one of the teams of that particular 10-year span - quite an accolade given that cricket is about as prominent on American radars as underwater volleyball.

But what about serious, serial consistency? The Yankees have won more than twice as many World Series as any rival, but they've never competed in a tournament truly worthy of such a name. New Zealand's All Blacks have won nearly 75% of their 458 internationals but just a solitary rugby World Cup. Brazil's footballers have won an unprecedented five World Cups and, overall, almost four times as many internationals as they have lost, but they have only played Italy and Germany, Europe's finest, 14 and 20 times respectively: a combined 4% of their total fixtures. Yes, they have tackled Argentina 89 times, but that's still barely 10%. Australia, who have succeeded where Brazil have come up short by landing a hat-trick of World Cups, have locked horns with England 422 times in Tests and ODIs (29%), West Indies 229 (16%), India 179 (12%) and South Africa 160 (11%). None of the aforementioned luminaries from other sports, moreover, have been maintaining standards for 130-plus years.

Consider, too, the following table, covering all Tests and ODIs up to and including February 8:

Teams' win-loss percentage (Tests and ODIs)
Team Won Lost W/L ratio
Australia 791 433 1.83
South Africa 388 269 1.44
Pakistan 486 407 1.19
West Indies 481 417 1.15
India 460 479 0.96
Sri Lanka 377 364 0.93
New Zealand 319 434 0.74

Boil that little lot down and those baggy-green cappers have a success ratio more than 26% superior to that of their closest pursuers. Over the course of nearly 1500 games, that is some feat.

THE SOURCE is not, on the face of it, a mystery. Australian social history, according to Professor Tony Bennett, formerly director of the Australian Key Centre for Cultural and Media Policy, has been reconstructed by defining "an essential Australianness as the subordinated, the repressed, and the true resistant". Sporting success is the traditional means by which subordination and repression are resisted, and never more palpably than when Donald Bradman was in his Depression-defying, nation-inspiring pomp. Yet as Steve Waugh proved time and time again, talent alone is insufficient.

What you need, as the time-honoured phrase goes, is a bit of mongrel. Googling "a bit of mongrel" and "Australia" yielded 121,000 results. Definitions are a tad more elusive. Mixed parentage is a major factor. Having to live down the reputation of the nation's ne'er-do-well founders has assuredly been a spur. The other key ingredients? A persistent bite, a religious refusal to be cowed, and a loathing of leashes. Waugh embodied these qualities better than anyone.

And never more so than in the third Test at Old Trafford in 1997, when, defying forbiddingly seamer-friendly conditions, forlorn form and a severe hand injury, he became the first Australian right-hander to score twin centuries in an Ashes encounter, scoring well over twice as many runs in the match as anybody else, and turning the series. In the final hour of the opening day, with only the tail for company, he turned down no fewer than three offers of bad light. Even when all five scoreboard lights were peeking through the evening gloom there was no retreat. "Once he's in," his young team-mate Matthew Elliott assured me at the time, "he doesn't give an inch." The awe was … well, awesome.

A persistent bite, a religious refusal to be cowed, and a loathing of leashes. Waugh embodied these qualities better than anyone

The latest example of such devout and devoted mongrelling came at the SCG in January; the man doing the yapping, Peter Siddle. The sight of the No. 10 coming in with Australia 51 ahead and Pakistan within touching distance of a series-levelling win was scarcely designed to imbue team or crowd with a surfeit of optimism. Never before had he endured for more than 65 minutes on his country's behalf, yet now he held fast for more than three and a half hours, compiling a first-class career-best of 38, adding 123 with Mike Hussey and giving himself and his fellow bowlers something to bowl at. More than enough, as it transpired.

Yet there's something else, something more than a dog whose bite is a good deal worse than its bark. Watch an Australian XI take the field. Shoulders never slouch; chins are always up. Backs always seem straighter, visages prouder, the sense of togetherness more acute. What other nation could have initiated the practice of turning the award of a new cap into a ceremony? What other nation could have been first to inscribe a player's shirt with a number denoting the order in which he was selected, his place in the noble line?

Watch them take the field again. Even at this time of retrenchment and beatability, each member projects a sunny certainty in his capabilities, in his right to be there, in the importance, literal and symbolic, of the cause. West Indies wore that look under Lloyd and Richards; Muttiah Muralitharan and his fellow Sri Lankans wore it in the aftermath of the tsunami; the Haiti football team might wear it for the next year or two. Australia's cricketing representatives almost always wear it. And they wear it well, damned well, insufferably well. Call it an aura, underpinned by mystique. Appearing daily and nightly.

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • abinanthan on February 21, 2010, 21:00 GMT

    Aussies lost against 3 of the top 4 opponents, where from the pride comes?!! The pride taken from beating opponents who are in the last rung of ranking ladder itself shows what kind of aura this team do have! Whatever the chin up, straight back things it has, they are all leftovers of the previous generation. Lets wait until most of the touring teams start beating Aussies, and then see how bent the back will be.

  • Bryn on February 21, 2010, 14:45 GMT

    absolutely brilliant article the best ive ever read on this website. spot on with all the points and the main thing for people to realise after reading this article is australia will ALWAYS have the aura and when legends retire new lads come and make their own eras of aura. its the australian way and it will live on. you dont play for australia if you cant project the aussie "mystique" and "aura" "daily and nightly" haha therefore im sorry we will always be the benchmark

  • spirit on February 20, 2010, 21:36 GMT

    @Trapper439..australia indeed has shown time and again that they r a very bad loser,when other country's starts to give u back and stands upto u & ur team cant handle it and call it arrogance and dats not fare..australia has started to win again but forgetting da fact dat they just lost in england and r yet to tour india as well as Sri Lanka and all their recent wins were against pakistan & WI and not against top sides..

  • sunny on February 20, 2010, 8:44 GMT

    @trapper:since you have taken me as an example to drive home your point let me clarify a lil bit here.As a cricket fan i have great respect for australia as a cricket nation and for their unparalled achievements.I wud rather watch a match happening in australia than anywhere else.However what i abhor is the haughtiness and arrogance shown towards players from other nations(esp india and to an extent srilanka).if u feel thts sportsmanship than sorry we are not in the same plane.When someone tows your line hes gud but if he shows the temerity to confront u and reply u in ur way he becomes unsporting.thts not fair.as a matter of fact india too have been quite consistent(more often than not) in their performance in the last few years.why then others(esp aussies)fail to acknowledge tht and try and belittle india.

  • Travis on February 20, 2010, 2:00 GMT

    @AlokJoshi: You obviously don't know much about football if you think Brazil shows perfect sportsmanship. What about Rivaldo falling to the ground clutching his face when the ball had hit him in the knee at the 2002 World Cup in order to get a Turkish player sent off? That's worse than anything Ponting's side has ever done and there are many more examples. Also, a quick look on Youtube will show you that all cricket teams have had unsporting moments (eg Dhoni claiming a catch when the ball bounced a foot in front of his gloves). Australia just gets singled out as "unsporting" by self-righteous hypocrites who can't bear the fact that they were soundly beaten by Australia fair and square repeatedly for well over a decade. Look, for example, at shaantanu's post below where he quite proudly declares his "utter dislike" and "hatred" towards Aussie cricket. Yes, we're not as good as we were, but the opposing fans (mostly Indian) go to ridiculous lengths to belittle Australia's achievements.

  • Joe on February 19, 2010, 23:49 GMT

    Australia is not as menacing as it was 5-10 years ago. But the sheer level of pleasure teams take in beating Australia at the moment shows that they still rate Australia very highly. SAF's victory over AUS took two extraordinary performances in Perth (chasing 400+), and Melbourne (170 for the 9th wicket). And it took mighty individual performances from Strauss, Freddie, Broad and Trott to overcome Australia in the London test matches. It still takes a great deal of mental strength and unlikely individual brilliance to topple AUS across a series. That is why I agree with Steen's article - Australia still has its aura in plain sight of other teams. The only exception was India 2008. India was at the peak of its powers and Australia at the trough of theirs. Months before that series started, I thought Australia would get trounced, and that is what happened. I seriously doubt that India will have it so good next time.

  • Uma on February 19, 2010, 19:00 GMT

    Has anyone checked the Sri Lankan W/L ratio? It should be above India according the table.

  • Rishi on February 19, 2010, 13:44 GMT

    I don't think this is so much the 'aura' stage for Australian cricket, so much as the post-aura stage or the hangover of the aura stage. This is clearly evident from the fact that whereas earlier, most games featuring Australia from the start were absolute no-contests, matches between Australia and quality teams (India, SA, Sri Lanka) and not (WI & sadly Pakistan) are much closer and hard fought. And this holds true even when the games are played on Australian soil. In the recently concluded series against the WI & Pakistan, there were several moments when the touring sides could have, with a little tenacity and skill, wrested the initiative and delivered the knockout punch. In the times of Warne, Gilly, McGrath and Hayden, touring teams never even came close to winning a single session, let alone a Test match. But the Australian doggedness is indeed noteworthy.

  • Alok on February 19, 2010, 12:43 GMT

    Brazilian footballing aura is more relevant and perceptible. In a team sport played by hundreds of nations including Australia, Brazil's quest to win with fair play is commendable. There can be no sporting aura, or an intangible quality of distinctive greatness or invincibility, unless accompanied by fair play; and australian cricket and fair play are not synonymous. In that sense, Rob has written a wonderfully exaggerated one dimensional article. He has also conveniently forgotten that Australia is neither #1 test match nor #1 T20 team. Aussies were lucky to escape at Perth and Sydney recently. Beating a depleted WI and a rudderless Pakistan side is no big deal. Strauss had correctly assessed irrelevance of Aussie aura - the Oval test match result and T20 world cup debacle are fair manifestation of aura having gone kaput.

  • Terry on February 19, 2010, 11:36 GMT

    Aust dont have their invinsible status in tests (maybe ODI's again), but Aust lost 6-8 players over 2 yr period (4 in 2 months) that was the essense of Aust cricket. Test cricket takes too long to have any sort of meaningful test ranking, however, over past 6 years: * Aust won ALL home except SA & only lost against Eng & India away (7 home, 6 away). * SA won ALL Home except Aust & SRL & away except for 2 or 3 teams (6.5 home & 6 away). * India won ALL Home except SA draw, but lost against 4 away (7.5 home & 4 away). THUS, If all teams played Home & Away over 4 years with 3 pts series win, 1 pt series draw, result would be (something like): AUST: 38 (21+18) SA: 36 (19 + 17) INDIA: 33 (22 + 11)

    If you look at Home & Away games (av 3 games home, 3 away against each team): * AUST: Home 75% win, Away 75% win * SA: Home 75% win, Away 50% win * INDIA: Home 50% win, Away 25% win

    Australia wins nearly all Home & Away, whereas India tend to win long series by 1-0 or 2-1 results with MANY draws

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