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

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